As the sun set over the Imperial capital of Oshinas, a small procession of vehicles pulled along by various beasts and animals had lined up in front of the Emperor’s royal palace. It was a gathering of nobles, business tycoons and other prominent and powerful individuals, though the vast majority of attendees were known for being peacekeepers, not politicians. Numerous VIPs trickled into the palace grounds, not only from within the Empire but from all over the continent. It was quite the impressive showing to say the least, especially considering the royal family was not on the premises tonight.
The thing that had drawn so many people of political, monetary, martial and magical might to one place was an extremely exclusive event known as the Phantom Auction. Held once every five years, it was a prestigious, high-class bidding war to obtain some of the world’s most powerful magic items. Though Masterworks made up the majority of their inventory, the real hook for the night’s events were the nineteen Artifacts that were on offer.
Of course, it wasn’t as if every Phantom Auction was this remarkable, as it was only at times like these that one could expect to see so many of them. With the Dragon Festival right around the corner and influential people looking to secure every possible edge they could, demand for high-end potentially life-saving equipment shot up to obscene levels. And given the ridiculously limited supply of Artifacts, it was only natural that their prices would soar as well. The lead-up to the Dragon Festival was without a doubt the best time to be pawning off one’s unique treasures, but in some aspects, also the worst time to own one.
“Did you hear?” one of the guests murmured. “Apparently some ‘Relic Hunter’ or something is prowling around. That’s why they’ve added so much security.”
The man who just spoke was an older gentleman, his formal robes exuding an air of extravagance and elegance. Though once an adventurer of some renown, he was now a simple retiree selling off his old equipment through the Auction in order to live out the rest of his years in luxury. Having grown far too old to attend another Dragon Festival, it was without a doubt in his best interest to enjoy the time he had left. Given that decades’ worth of fortunes could be exchanged in this one single night, it was more than reasonable to expect a handsome sum to fall into his lap.
“My dear lord Applebottom, this is the Imperial palace. Of course, it’s going to be heavily guarded no matter what.”
The elderly woman that so casually brushed off the man’s very legitimate concerns was a minor noble of the Empire. She had aged like fine wine, retaining much of her beauty and charm despite the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She was wearing a flowing bright red gown that seemed to change its hue depending on the angle one was looking at it from, clearly a mystical fabric of some kind. Her blonde hair was done up in some bizarre high-class style that could only be adequately described as ‘a braided beehive,’ and she had an obscene number of jewels, rings and necklaces upon her person. To say she looked gaudy was like claiming that rain was, in fact, wet.
“My name’s Applebaum, not Applebottom,” her conversation partner grumbled. “And I don’t know when’s the last time you’ve been to the royal palace, but that isn’t something that’s normally here.”
While being led to the hall where the auction would be held, Applebaum couldn’t help but notice the towering individual standing in front of the entrance. Standing at just over two meters tall, they were clad head to toe in solid adamantite armor decorated with heraldry belonging to both the Empire and Teresa’s Church. In his hands this imposing figure held a massive greatsword that occasionally crackled with electricity and was almost as long as he was tall. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that it was less like a weapon and more like a hunk of metal that someone had stuck a handle on.
“Welcome to the Phantom Auction.”
Applebaum was slightly taken aback by the crisp, clear, and distinctly feminine voice. He had mistakenly assumed this person was a ‘he,’ but one could hardly blame him considering the woman’s stature and attire.
“Oh, me, oh, my! Good evening, darling!” the woman next to him said in a haughty manner. “I certainly did not anticipate seeing you here! What, did you run out of naughty nobles to smite or something?”
The massive knight opposite her sighed deeply, then merely extended a hand.
“You must submit to an identity check.”
“Hmpf. Is that any way to greet your mother, young lady?!”
The sharp yell startled the old woman, prompting her to awkwardly place her slender hand within the guard’s armored gauntlet.
“Basic Appraisal,” the guard chanted, then after a few moments turned to her side. “Baroness Emilia Shinji has arrived.”
It was only then that Applebaum noticed the person sitting at a table on the side. He was a balding bespectacled Scribe with such an insignificant presence that he was practically invisible when compared to that armored juggernaut. More importantly, however, the retired adventurer was able to determine who this stranger was. As the woman in front of him was ushered inside and he stepped up to the security checkpoint, he couldn’t help but speak up.
“Pardon me, ma’am, you are the Saintess Brigette, are you not?”
“What if I am?”
“Then I wish to express my gratitude for all that you’ve done for the sake of the Empire, and for standing by our Emperor during these turbulent times.”
The ‘Saintess’ was a member of the Church of Teresa, a Ranked Up Paladin and one of the few angels that refused to join the Inquisition. Though her stance was seen as a bit radical, she was one of the people that believed the recent war with the Republic was not entirely unjustified. Unlike Sigmund Law and his zealots, she put her devotion to the Empire and its people first, and refused to join any politically charged organization that could potentially destabilize the nation. Which the Inquisition most definitely was, even if they refused to admit it.
There was, of course, also the fact that she had lost her father in the recent conflict with the elves, which only served to make her stance on the war more… complicated. She was unsure whether to blame the Empire for attacking, the Republic for fighting back, or her old man for choosing to take part in it. After much deliberation and meditation, she eventually settled on focusing her vengeance on the individual that had killed Arakawa Shinji in combat - the devious mercenary calling himself the Sandman.
“Your thanks are appreciated, but I must ask you to move along,” she said sternly. “Hand, please.”
“Ah, of course,” Applebaum obliged her.
The man was given a Basic Appraisal and ushered into the specially prepared auction hall behind Brigette. Normally an auditorium where the lords and ladies of the realm would gather to discuss nationwide policies, the amphitheatre-like chamber had taken on a much livelier appearance. Colorful banners and tapestries hung from the walls and ceilings and numerous golden torches and light posts bathed the normally sterile room in a soft fiery glow. A total of eighty nine private booths were spread out evenly across the chamber, each of them specially made to be placed upon the step-like seats the nobles would normally take.
What drew Applebaum’s attention next was the caliber of guests. Though he somewhat expected it, he couldn’t help but gawk at how… diverse the attendants were. Men and women of all races were gathered, many of them clearly not affiliated with the Empire. But, then again, neither was the Phantom Auction. The event’s organizers were an independent bunch that did not align themselves with any political authority. The only reason they were here in the imperial palace was because it was the Empire’s turn to host the Auction this year around. And if the human nation wanted to receive a cut of the night’s proceedings as well as avoid being blacklisted from future Auctions, they had to agree to a number of conditions. Chief among those being that they allow people on the guest list free entry to the venue, no questions asked.
“Excuse me, Lord Applebaum?” a servant called out to the gawking retiree.
“Ah! Ahem! Yes?”
“Please follow me, sir.”
He followed the masked young man as requested, and couldn’t help but notice the rest of the staff were also hiding their faces. All of them wore these peculiar crystal orbs upon their heads that appeared to be one-way mirrors. Or at least he hoped they were, as it would be rather impossible for their owners to see out of them otherwise. Their attire was crisp and formal and their etiquette and manners impeccable, just as one might expect from such a high-profile event.
The polite young man guided Applebaum to his booth, the private space where he would spend most of the evening. It seemed like nothing more than a glorified wooden box to the event’s more jaded attendants, but in his eyes it was at least a luxurious one. The inside had a small table loaded with delicacies and refreshments and several plush and comfortable seats he could choose to park his behind in. A wide one-way mirror dominated the wall facing the chamber’s stone podium, giving him a perfect view of what was going on.
“And this is your bidding terminal, sir.”
The helpful attendant handed Applebaum a polished stone slab that was about twice the width and height of a regular playing card. It had a bunch of numbered buttons on it that made a pleasing ‘click’ when pressed, and the number ‘71’ was engraved on the back. It would appear he could use this to inform the auctioneers of his bids without revealing who he was. Discretion was a big part of the Phantom Auction, and they did everything possible to obfuscate the identities of the night’s winners for their own safety.
After making sure the guest had everything he needed, the servant went off to continue attending his duties. The young man’s identity was, of course, repeatedly screened and thoroughly inspected to ensure security, as was the rest of the staff. The organizers of the Phantom Auction also had a small army of beholders patrolling the area in addition to the heavy guard. Every conceivable security measure, be it physical or magical, had been put into practice tonight.
The only way in or out without raising a dozen alarms was the main entrance, and the woman stationed there was an angelic Scribe. She was something of an outsider and a newcomer, but the organizers had determined she was trustworthy enough. She was an upstanding Paladin of Teresa, after all. They also didn’t have much of a choice, as she was the only person in the country with the ability to ferret out Heroes that might be impersonating one of the guests.
Well, other than the Gilded Hand officer the Auction normally used, but that was before she’d made herself into an enemy of the state and had gone into hiding.
About half an hour later, when the sun had only just set and everyone was accounted for, the auction began in earnest when the head auctioneer took the center stage. He was wearing a crisp suit with black trousers, shoes and jacket with a light blue shirt underneath. White gloves covered his hands and another of those peculiar mirrored helmets obscured his facial features. It was impossible to say for certain what race he was, but he was most likely a human or elf given his body proportions and height. Maybe even a beastkin if the tail was hidden well enough.
“Welcome, one and all, to the ninety-sixth Phantom Auction!” the man said in a booming, magically amplified voice. “My name is Mister Hands, and I will be your host for this evening! We have prepared all sorts of wonderful and mystical treasures for your perusal! So many that we may not have time to go through them all in a single night! But we will surely try, won’t we?!”
His words were filled with energy and confidence, and the hand gestures he made to the room full of mirrored boxes did an excellent job of engaging his audience. There were even spotlights and a quiet yet pleasing musical score accompanying his speech. It was clear he was a skilled performer, most likely a Bard by trade, and did everything possible to distract his guests from the fact that they were about to blow obscene amounts of money on shiny baubles.
“Now, without further ado, allow me to introduce our first item!” Mister Hands declared triumphantly. “A shield fashioned from the living crystal of an inscribed golem!”
A couple of assistants dressed in a similar manner as the presenter walked in, carrying a beautiful crystalline disc about fifty centimeters in diameter. It had a bluish green tint to it, and its smooth surface and curved form made it look like a giant lens. They placed it on a pedestal next to the host’s podium, where all of the attendees could clearly see it.
“I present to you, Kalandra’s Focus! An ancient relic dating back to the Elven Dominion, this Artifact is, of course, self-repairing and completely capable of absorbing physical blows. However, where it truly shines is its Master Magic Resistance, giving the holder a staggering 25% defense against all flavors of mystical harm! It also has the unique ability to absorb projectile-shaped Spells and then launch them back at their source, giving it an outstanding defensive rating of AA+!”
This was normally the part where the audience would break out into a light murmur, but the private booths muffled all of their voices, leaving the chamber oddly silent.
“I know, exciting, isn’t it?!” the presenter joyfully exclaimed. “Starting bid for this magnificent treasure is a mere five thousand gold pieces! Do I have five- Yes, we have five thousand from Number 45! Six-thousand from Number 43! Ohhh! A bold fifteen thousand from 34! Can I get twenty thousand? Yes, I can, from Number 13! But wait, 45 isn’t out of the race yet with a confident bid of thirty!”
This sort of situation was precisely why Scribes refused to give an estimate to an Artifact’s monetary value. Though a price could theoretically be put on them given their performance and special abilities, they were always in high demand. And with the Dragon Festival right around the corner, it was only natural that such a bidding would reach some truly outrageous figures.
“Eighty six!” the presenter yelled. “We have eighty six! Can anyone hope to match this?! No?! Going once! Going twice! Going thrice!”
The man slammed a gavel into the surface of the podium in front of him, officially putting an end to the bidding for this particular item.
“Sold, to Number 45 for eighty six thousand gold pieces!”
Mister Hands’ gloved palms came together in a hearty applause, with the unseen band playing a slightly triumphant tune to celebrate the successful sale. The shield was taken off of the stage and the next item was brought in to replace it. This one was a suit of skin-tight leather armor, consisting of a sleeved tunic, trousers, a pair of thigh-high boots and a set of shoulder pads. The material had a green hue to it and sparkled lightly in the spotlight. It was displayed prominently on a wooden mannequin of a female humanoid with generous proportions. It was strangely obscene, despite the fact that it showed off none of the inanimate model’s ‘skin.’
“This exquisite set of dragonhide armor is composed of four Masterworks and two Artifacts, known collectively as the Stalker’s Guise! The outfit has no special ability, but is virtually invulnerable to slashing attacks and greatly amplifies one’s speed and agility, a great item for any intrepid scout! Outstanding magic resistance is also a given! Buyer, beware, however, as the armor unfortunately lacks the Well-Fitted enchantment, making it unsuitable for anyone whose does not have the right shape!”
All of this information had been made available to the participants through a special pamphlet they received upon arriving at the venue, but Mister Hands felt it necessary to describe each item anyway. Not only would it raise people’s expectations and get them in that wonderful spending mood, but it would also serve to entice those that inevitably failed to read the provided material.
“Bids are now open, starting at ten thousand GP!”
This round of the auction was considerably more subdued than the last one, ending less than a minute later.
“Sold! To Number 45 for a bargain at forty-five thousand!”
As odd as it would seem from a commoner’s perspective, that was indeed a fairly cheap price considering it was a full set of equipment. Sadly for the seller, the unrealistic proportions required to fit into that thing properly had dissuaded many potential buyers. Not to mention it was only the start of the Phantom Auction, so it was important to pace oneself in preparation for the later stages of the event. Many of the guests had already picked out three or four things they really wanted from the itinerary they had been provided with, and were anticipating intense bidding for those items. It was only natural that they wouldn’t want to waste their limited resources on things that were of little to no use to them.
The third item, for instance, was a crossbow imbued with the elemental properties of fire and wind, a high-end Masterwork rather than Artifact. While an excellent weapon in its own right, it was unfortunately ineffective against dragons, the vast majority of whom were resistant if not outright immune to these primal forces. Not only would it be of little use during the upcoming Festival, but the slow loading time of crossbows made them unpopular weapon types to begin with. All things said and done, however, the crossbow named Wyvern Sting was still sold off for a relatively meagre seven and a half thousand GP.
The next few articles were also of a similarly disappointing quality, but the eighth item on the list was one of the ones to look out for. It was a mithril longsword with an eye-like orb embedded in the base of the blade, which moved around literally of its own volition. As the host revealed, the weapon’s name was ‘Vigilance,’ and it was a sentient item that could assist the wielder in a few ways. Its ocular organ functioned as a beholder-grade MLG with a perception range of twelve meters, more than enough to spot potential ambushes or other hidden surprises. It could also slightly alter its own trajectory when swung to assist with both striking and parrying motions.
One would think a blade with its own will might turn rebellious, but that was only true if they were cursed. Untainted ones like Vigilance were known to be extremely cooperative and supportive of whomever it was they recognized as their wielder, regardless of the individual’s actions. They were made to serve, so it was only natural they’d have such a universally supportive attitude. Not to mention they could provide unique insight into certain situations thanks to them having decades, possibly centuries’ worth of combat experience. This particular weapon had been through four separate Dragon Festivals, and though not all of its wielders survived the events, the knowledge the item possessed was undoubtedly invaluable.
Which was why the bidding for it was intense and drawn out, almost a battle in its own right. It heated up to the point where the attendants began shouting profanities in exasperation as the price continued to rise with seemingly no end in sight. Some of them even slammed the walls of their booths in exasperation once they were unable to continue bidding. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say the auction had temporarily devolved into a bunch of people swearing in boxes for a solid twenty minutes.
“Aaaand sold! For an outrageous one hundred and forty eight thousand GP to Number 45! Now, I don’t know about you, dear guests, but I could use a short break after that! Let’s cool ourselves down with a round of refreshments and resume the bidding after a brief fifteen minute intermission!”
Mister Hands left the murmuring big-shots to stew in their various dissatisfactions and ducked into the heavily guarded staff-only section of the venue.
“Alright, what the blast is going on out there?” he sternly said to his assistants. “This Number 45 has won all eight auctions so far. Someone care to enlighten me as to who this person is?”
While the purpose of this event was to exchange magic items for ridiculous amounts of gold, that wouldn’t happen right away. It wouldn’t even happen that night. Once an item was sold, it would be at least a few weeks before it was quietly delivered to its new owner. It was therefore theoretically possible for one smartass with a big mouth to ‘buy’ all of the items without being able to pay up, essentially ruining the auction.
“It’s Baroness Shinji, sir,” one of the host’s masked associates revealed.
“Shinji… Oh, that noble house up north? The one founded by an otherworlder?”
“Those are the ones, yes.”
“Alright then,” the host straightened himself up. “Which one of you dickweeds neglected to inform me she had gone over her limit?”
The Phantom Auction naturally had a countermeasure to prevent the aforementioned disruptive behavior. Every participant was asked to drop off a lump sum of gold, jewels and other valuables, whose total value determined how much they were allowed to spend during the evening. Any leftovers would naturally be returned to them, and though a certain amount of credit would be allowed to them should they go over that amount, that only went so far.
“Because she hasn’t.”
“What do you mean she hasn’t?” Hands asked his subordinate.
“Exactly what I said, sir. Number 45 hasn’t gone over their deposit. Not even close, in fact.”
“You’re kidding me. How much gold could someone in her position even have?!”
Arakawa Shinji was a human Warlock, a VIP who managed to earn himself the title of viscount in the imperial court through merit alone. He was known for being eccentric and having weird ideas about cohabitation with monsters right up until he lost his life to the Sandman during the war two years ago. His estate and all his belongings were inherited by his third wife, Emilia, who had since run the place into the ground. Granted, the old Warlock had never been much of a politician or all that wealthy compared to his peers, but he still did his best to make sure the commoners he was responsible for were safe and happy.
His widow, on the other hand, turned out to be a selfish, arrogant, and an all around insufferable person. Though this behavior was somewhat expected of a noble lady of high birth, she was also aggressively terrible at managing the land that fell into her hands. She heavily taxed the people living in her domain, nearly driving the entire region into poverty just so she could feed her extravagant lifestyle. The Empire had been forced to step in and relieve of her of her post, placing her property and responsibilities in more capable hands. Emilia was also ‘demoted’ to baroness, though even that title was mostly for show. The only reason she was even invited to the Auction was because of her late husband. Well, that and the fact she was an impulsive buyer that might bid for one of the less valuable items on offer.
Long story short, she was not the sort of woman who should’ve been able to afford over two hundred thousand GP worth of Artifacts and Masterworks.
“Uh… twenty million?” the assistant said with a voice of disbelief.
“… I’m sorry, what?” Mister Hands asked for clarification. “Can you repeat that, I think I misheard you.”
“Says here Baroness Emilia Shinji has a deposit of twenty million.”
“TWENTY MIL-!” the host shouted before catching himself and taking a deep breath. “Are you shitting me? I’ve seen world leaders who come with less than that!”
“Even if you say that, the amount has been confirmed several times over,” his assistant replied while triple-checking the report in his hands. “All of the coins, gemstones, precious metals and artwork we received in her name amount to precisely twenty million, one thousand and sixteen GP.”
“Why am I only hearing about this now?!”
“We, uh, we were still tallying it up when the auction started,” one of the operation’s Scribes chimed up. “There were a lot of treasure chests involved.”
“… What about the Saintess? Is she in on this?”
“Our research makes it clear she holds no love for her step-mother,” another staff member reported. “We determined there’d be no conflict of interests. You even signed off on the whole thing when we brought it to your attention.”
“Ah, right. Of course, forgive me.”
Mister Hands couldn’t be expected to keep track of everything, after all. Emilia Shinji was supposed to be a minor player in this year’s auction at best, certainly not worthy of his personal attention if not for her familial relation to the new bouncer. It was only natural he would forget some of the details about her, but couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the situation. Money usually left a trail, and a king’s ransom like twenty million GP was enough to carve out a metaphorical canyon. Yet it had been delivered so discreetly and low-key, that the Phantom Auction’s organizer himself had failed to catch wind of it before now.
“What’s your take on all this?”
The masked man turned towards the shadowy corner on his left, prompting a set of crimson red eyes hidden behind a pearly white skull-mask to emerge from the darkness.
“I see no reason to be so wary,” Kaede confidently stated. “Someone’s willing to throw vast sums of money at you. Why not just take it?”
The Hero of Death was here to serve as a proxy for her patron deity and collect a portion of the evening’s proceedings on Mortimer’s behalf. However, this sum was not a fee securing her services, nor was it some form of tax. It was a tribute offered willingly by the Phantom Auction’s organizers, an offering to the God of Death and Commerce in the hopes that he would oversee and bless the organization’s transactions over the next five years.
Hence why Kaede was here. Her attendance and cooperation was only a matter of course, though Mister Hands couldn’t help but feel uneasy at her attitude. She was a lot more casual than the other Heroes of Death he’d worked with, which when combined with her lack of experience didn’t exactly fill him with confidence.
“Does Mortimer not care if his tribute is covered in blood?”
The dubious origins of Baroness Shinji’s incredible deposit made it abundantly clear those twenty million were not acquired through legal means. The head auctioneer couldn’t help but feel uneasy about offering such ill-gotten gains to the God of Death and Commerce. He has been known to frown upon those using another’s fortune in an attempt to curry favor with him, and displeasing him was something Mister Hands wanted to avoid. After all, businesses blessed by Mortimer showed a marked increase in prosperity, and that margin grew exponentially for a financial endeavour of this scope and scale. Risking that long-term security for a short-term profit was not what Mister Hands considered ‘good business.’
“Mortimer does not discriminate,” Kaede stated coldly. “A king’s coin is as good as a pauper’s, so long as its legal tender. Your worries aren’t completely unsubstantiated, but I assure you, they are misinformed. You are not stealing this money from the vapid noblewoman, she’s giving it to you knowingly and willingly in exchange for goods. If that’s not a legitimate transaction, then I don’t know what is.”
Though the young nosferata’s words sounded wise and knowledgeable, she was actually improvising and grasping at straws. She was far more familiar with the ‘Death’ aspect of her patron deity than the ‘Commerce’ side, but she couldn’t let this old fart catch wind of her ineptitude in that regard. Thankfully the words she pulled out of her butt seemed to have been sufficient, as Mister Hands nodded sagely after a few moments.
“Hmm, well said, young one,” he admitted. “That is certainly food for thought.”
Bluff or not, Kaede’s words had gotten him thinking. It was impossible that the baroness had gotten this money herself, she just wasn’t the type. Most likely it had come from a wealthy sponsor who was somehow not invited to the Phantom Auction and was using her as a proxy to buy up literally everything on the ‘menu.’ It wasn’t as if this was particularly against the event’s rules, though he was still wary of taking advantage of this situation.
After all, even if the Phantom Auction was a secretive and highly exclusive operation, it was a legitimate business with an ironclad reputation attached to it. Mister Hands had been personally nurturing that reputation in the five centuries since the Auction’s inception, which could all come crashing down with a single slip-up. The ridiculous sum of money that woman had dragged into this threatened not only his organization’s standing with Mortimer, but also its relations with the world’s most powerful governments and individuals. He had been worried whether it was perhaps better in the long run to revoke the baroness’s invitation and escort her off the premises to preserve the integrity of the Auction.
On the other hand… twenty million was an amount so mouthwatering that Mister Hands was in danger of drowning in his own drool.
“Send word out to the rest of the staff,” he spoke softly. “Emilia Shinji is to be treated as a guest of honor. You get her anything she wants and make sure she’s happy enough to keep spending her money no matter how high I jack the price up.”
Kaede’s words had helped him realize that it didn’t matter if where those millions had come from. It wasn’t the Phantom Auction’s place to investigate such things, nor would anyone expect them to do so. That particular responsibility belonged to the Imperial government, who would be more than happy to seize any ill-gotten assets Mrs Shinji might have acquired. After they’ve collected their cut of tonight’s profits, of course.
That said, the auctioneer’s intent of artificially raising the asking price on items through imagined bids was something else entirely. Though not technically illegal, it was unethical and scummy enough to seriously injure his precious reputation. However, that was only if he did it in such an obvious manner that people would catch on, and Mister Hands was no stranger to the act of swindling.
After all, one didn’t get to be a Level 100 Merchant and Level 100 Bard without getting their hands dirty a few hundred times.