“It’s a mix of several evolutionary adaptations, actually,” Amona explained. “The main ones are reinforced bone structure, compression-resistant muscles, and the natural oils secreted from our skin. These allow us to withstand water pressure that would be fatal to surfacers, and make it easier to swim.”
“That’s rather fascinating,” Sandman commented. “I thought for sure your outfits were enchanted in some way, like ours.”
“Oh no, they’re more like fashion statements than adventuring gear. Of course, we still have our own range of pressure-regulating enchantments, but that’s only for the rare occasion that we need to surface or in case a visitor’s equipment fails in some way.”
“You seem rather well-prepared to receive surfacers, don’t you?”
“It’s only natural. The city of Nautilin is the closest krymerian settlement to the continent of Atica. Well, the closest one of any significance, anyway. We have relatively frequent contact with adventurers, merchants, and tourists.”
“Nautilin? Didn’t you say it was called Saphrina?”
“No, silly, that’s the name of our country. The Council I mentioned is simply our governing body, and mine and Wyatt’s employer.”
“I see, it seems I misunderstood. Apologies.”
“It’s alright, it happens. Frankly I’m rather surprised at how little you know about our people and culture. Visitors usually already know what’s what so I rarely get asked anything.”
“Sorry about that. Like I said, we stumbled onto the city by accident so we’re a bit unprepared.”
It was the simple truth, and also the reason why Boxxy was asking Amona so many questions regarding the krymer. If it had known one of their cities was within spitting distance of its destination it would have studied up on them. This crash course was hardly ideal, but it was a big help towards understanding their customs, biology, and general frame of mind. After all, the shapeshifter suspected it might become necessary to secretly infiltrate the city, and to do that it needed enough knowledge to successfully impersonate a krymer.
“You don’t need to apologize. I’m actually a bit thankful,” Amona smiled. “I rarely get the chance to talk this much with someone from the surface. Oh, I should mention, very few of our people speak your language here, so feel free to rely on me as an interpreter.”
That would certainly explain why these two had such a weirdly nasal accent, though why these fish-folk had noses at all was another question entirely.
“That’s quite alright, I already have it covered,” Boxxy politely declined. “My familiar’s Versatile Tongue Skill makes her fluent in a number of languages, including Aquarian.”
“Oh… I see…” the krymer replied, her enthusiasm rapidly deflating.
“We would still appreciate you showing us around town, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course!” she perked right back up.
The girl’s attitude made it clear she had some kind of fascination with surfacers, which Boxxy planned to exploit. Having good relations with a native was sure to aid in its investigation. Assuming its group were allowed into the city at all, of course. Realistically speaking, though ‘Hugh Mungus’ would likely have no problems by itself, Jen and Fizzy were another story entirely. Both were clearly monsters. They could arguably pretend that the harpy’s wings were part of the ducky suit or that the golem was just a gnome in a special sealed armor, but neither of those claims would stand up to a Basic Appraisal. Those two were definitely going to be banned from entering the city, which would more than likely extend to Boxxy’s mercenary persona by association.
Hence why the shapeshifter was spending the leisurely swim over to the guardhouse actively inquiring about krymer culture and preparing to enter the city illegally. It couldn’t get much else out of Amona before they reached the city limits, but it had a good feeling it had learned enough to blend in with the local population. The guard post its entourage was taken to was a relatively sizeable and well-fortified building a few hundred meters from the city proper. It was closer to a garrison than a gatehouse or checkpoint, which made sense when considering this underwater environment rendered defensive walls worthless. As Amona explained, this place was a staging ground that could instantly dispatch entire regiments of soldiers should Nautilin come under external threat.
A group of six male krymer exited the garrison and approached the group. They were dressed fin-to-tail in blue and green scale mail armor, and their weapons were a mix of spears, rapiers, daggers, and staves, all of them fashioned from some kind of white bone. The one with the fanciest helmet stood in front of the other soldiers and greeted Amona and Wyatt with a clap of his hands, which the guides returned. They exchanged a few words in their native language, which Xera translated as unimportant small-talk. The outsiders were then escorted into the keep, though not before Boxxy told its companions to avoid killing anyone unless they were attacked first.
Once inside, a Scribe in an outfit similar to Wyatt’s performed a Basic Appraisal on the entire group. Just as the shapeshifter had expected, there seemed to be a bit of an issue when he saw Jen and Fizzy’s Status. However, what the locals took issue with wasn’t the fact that the two were a harpy and a golem, but that they were a Monk and a Paladin. It would appear that they were willing to let the two into the city, but only on the condition that they sat through Wyatt’s special ‘orientation presentation.’ Fizzy and Jen were rather confused by this unexpected development, but it seemed like a small price to pay to enter Nautilin without causing Boxxy any trouble.
Wyatt spent the next half hour explaining in great detail that the krymer nation of Saphrina differed greatly from the other enlightened civilizations in the way they worshipped the gods. Or, to be more precise, the way they didn’t. Though other krymerian countries exalted either Lunar or Zephyra as their chief deities, the reigning ideology around these parts of the ocean was something called ‘apatheism.’ Wyatt went to great lengths to explain it, but it could be crudely summarized as ‘the gods don’t care we exist, and the feeling’s mutual,’ a notion deeply rooted in Saphrina’s history and culture. The people here were taught that mortals could only rely upon themselves and each other, and that any would-be ‘higher powers’ only existed to limit their potential and stifle their freedom.
What this meant in more practical terms was that practically nobody in this society cared about the gods’ rules. Transmutation of valuable metals, refusing to take prisoners of war, necromancy, and the use and development of curses were all widely accepted practices. The government regulated some more strictly than others, of course, but the end result was that one in six of Nautilin’s citizens currently had Levels in Taboo. It wasn’t exactly a mark of pride, but it was nowhere near the social stigma it would be in other civilizations.
Which was why Jen and Fizzy were seen as problematic. The last thing the local authorities wanted to deal with was a couple of overly-religious outsiders who had gone full ‘purge the heretics’ mode on law-abiding citizens. The Paladin and the Monk were made to understand that any public preaching, praying, zealotry, and/or crusading would not be tolerated, and would result in them being arrested. If they couldn’t ‘keep their faith in their pants,’ as Wyatt put it, then they were better off not entering the city at all.
The golem wanted to point out that she didn’t wear pants, but had a more important query in mind.
“So… you don’t care that we’re a couple of monsters?” she asked warily.
“Not especially,” Wyatt shrugged. “If an unenlightened individual proves themself to be rational and intelligent enough to follow our laws and respect our authority, then they will be allowed to work, trade, and in special cases even live in the city. A single look at the high number of well-developed enlightened Jobs on your Appraisal results makes it obvious that you two already know how to behave yourselves in civilized society.”
“Fair enough. Here’s the thing, though. Do you people honestly think you have what it takes to defeat us?”
It wasn’t a thinly veiled threat, but a legitimate question on Fizzy’s part. Wyatt had bluntly stated that his people would not hesitate to subdue the monstrous duo should they step out of line, and this was after he had been informed of their Basic Appraisal results. There surely had to be a good reason for his confidence, and the golem wanted to know what that was.
“Quite so,” he smirked. “Your Bane is cold, and your harpy companion’s is water. And in case you didn’t notice, we’re at the bottom of the ocean. A place where Cryomancers and Hydromancers are at the height of their power. We also have a small cache of Demonbane weapons on hand should that Warlock boss of yours get any stupid ideas.”
Fizzy seriously doubted whether this guy would be so smug if he knew the full extent of Boxxy’s power, but she wasn’t here to cause trouble.
“… Noted. In that case I’ll do my best to avoid brutalizing any meatbags just because they happen to reek of heresy.”
“Confirming that I share that sentiment,” Jen chimed in.
“Good enough. I should also mention that you two will need special unenlightened permits to enter or leave the city on your own. It’s standard procedure, but will still take us about a day to get them ready, so make sure you stick close to myself or Amona until then. Now, your boss should have already gotten his visitor’s visa, so let’s not keep the others waiting.”
Wyatt led Fizzy and Jen out of the room and into a foyer of some description, where Amona, Boxxy, and the three familiars were patiently waiting. The golem couldn’t help but notice that something was different about the female guide, though. The red parts of her fins seemed slightly brighter than before, and her skintight outfit had a few new creases and wrinkles. She also seemed significantly more chipper than she was before. Wyatt also seemed to feel something was off. He raised an eyebrow at his female colleague and she immediately looked away, but neither of them said anything and proceeded to give Boxxy’s group a tour of the city.
The streets of Nautilin didn’t seem to be all that different from any elf, human, or dwarven city. Sure, everything was underwater and traffic was more three-dimensional, but the overall feel of the place beyond that was quite familiar. People moved about with a vague sense of urgency, street vendors touted their wares at passers by, and domesticated animals and monsters hauled heavy cargo around. And, of course, all of them either gawked or stared at the multi-colored group of weirdos flailing their way through the place.
Which wasn’t to say that the ‘weirdos’ didn’t stare back. Though the group had been warned that a high number of Taboo holders would be floating around, actually experiencing it felt surreal. Especially with the way they all seemed to be doing well for themselves, what with those sparkly clothes and armed bodyguards. A few of the locals, both with and without Taboo, seemed keen to come over and introduce themselves, but were steered away by the group’s guides with a few words.
Another sight that made it abundantly clear that Boxxy wasn’t in Azurvale anymore was the ‘unenlightened,’ as Wyatt called them. The first civilized monster it happened to spot was a siren that was screaming profanities at a shopkeeper because he apparently overcharged her for something or other. Guards naturally showed up to defuse the situation and, much to Boxxy’s surprise, determined that the monster was actually in the right. The second unenlightened encounter was with an actual, full-fledged lich that brazenly zoomed by overhead while riding a skeletal shark of some kind. Jen very nearly chased after him like a duck-shaped comet of feathery righteousness, but Boxxy was able to make Arms grab her by the ankle just before she got out of reach.
Amona and Wyatt continued their tour and were guiding the group through some kind of open plaza with a giant seashell in the middle when they were approached by another local. This one looked to be a male krymer slightly younger than Wyatt, wearing a green bodysuit with an equally green and oddly familiar sea captain’s coat on top of it. The guides stopped him from getting too close and politely told him to buzz off, but his response was slightly different from the others.
“I do believe Mister S knows who I am,” he declared in flawless Common.
“Who’s Mister S?” Amona asked.
“That would be me,” Boxxy stepped forward, much to the surprise of its guides. “Fancy meeting you here, Mister F.”
“Likewise,” the young man grinned back.
It had taken the shapeshifter a few moments to realize it, but it was indeed familiar with this stranger. ‘Mister F’ was a slitherer, a doppelganger variant accustomed to living underwater. This particular individual happened to be a Monster Tamer, one that the Sandman had hired multiple times before. Mister F’s job had been to acquire, train, smuggle, and deliver aquatic monsters to the Sandman for the sole purpose of harvesting specific Skills through Cadaver Absorption. The partnership had been quite profitable for both parties, with Boxxy forking over an obscene amount of coin in exchange for gaining the Disrupting Wave, Fire Affinity, and Charged Strikes Skills.
“What brings you here?” the slitherer asked casually.
“Treasure hunting. How about you?”
“Oh, I live here, actually. Noticed you drifting by, thought I’d say hello and see if you’d be interested in grabbing a drink. Y’know, catch up and all that.”
“I’ll have to decline. I am actually on a Quest, so I can’t waste too much of my time. Not to mention it would be rude to my guides.”
“Yes, of course, how inconsiderate of me. Another time, then.”
Mister F nodded and smirked to say goodbye, then swam off and ducked inside a nearby building with a sign on it that, when translated from Aquarian, read ‘Fahrenheit Luxury Imports.’ It was probably his place of business considering the slitherer’s actual name was Fahrenheit, at least according to Boxxy’s Eyes of the Dead God. The place was likely a front for the aquatic shapeshifter’s smuggling operation, though it could also be legitimate. Either way, it was clear Boxxy’s former business partner was someone of importance to the city to be allowed to not only take up residence within it, but also be permitted to own a business.
“Well! That was surprising,” Amona remarked. “I guess it’s true what they say - this really is a small ocean.”
“Indeed,” Boxxy nodded. “Now, Mister Wyatt, I believe you were telling me about this shell statue?”
“Ah, yes, of course. You see…”
The tour continued on with both krymer acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Which was, in fact, the case. From the perspective of the two government employees, they’d just seen a tourist coincidentally run into an acquaintance he’d met on their travels. Beneath the surface, however, the two shapeshifters had managed to exchange a lot more than some idle greetings. Something that wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t understand how the other operated.
For starters, the fact that Fahrenheit openly approached the Sandman made two things clear - that he had a scheme he needed help with, and that said scheme couldn’t wait. Otherwise he would not have bothered. On the other hand, the cloaked mercenary playing nice with the government-appointed watch dogs disguised as ‘guides’ showed he needed something from them, most likely sensitive information. So when the slitherer said ‘another time’ and plainly entered his place of business, he was most likely implying that the two of them could help each other out and invited the mercenary to visit anytime.
Admittedly all this subterfuge was a bit unnecessary, but it was all a game of sorts to Boxxy. That’s why it continued to play along with Wyatt and Amona as they gave it the layout of the city. They eventually led it to the local library as per its request to look up information that might point it to Tol-Saroth’s cache of weapons. There were no books in this flooded library, of course. Paper and ink did not age well when constantly submerged, after all. What it had instead were touch-operated magic stone tablets that displayed the recorded information using holographic letters that crawled across its surface. They were considerably bulkier than books and far more expensive to make, but the librarian boasted they’d last for a thousand years so long as someone didn’t break them.
Boxxy didn’t particularly care about any of that, though. The only issue was that these books were written in Aquarian, so it left Snack and Jen behind to scour the place for any relevant information. It would mostly be the djinn doing the work, though. The Monk didn’t speak the language and her ducky suit made it tricky to use the ‘touch-operated’ slabs, so the only thing she was good for was carrying the heavy slabs around. Leaving her behind was also a great way to get Wyatt off of Boxxy’s back since the man himself had stated that it was necessary he stay with the ‘unregistered unenlightened’ for legal purposes.
As for Amona, she was already in the shapeshifter’s pocket, so to speak. While Fizzy and Jen were getting lectured on why heretic-hunting was frowned upon in these parts, Hugh Mungus had spent that half hour getting to know the female krymer. Which was a polite way of saying that the Sandman banged her brains out in a private conference room after figuring out that she had a straight up fetish for surface dwellers. Using sex as a weapon was one of the first things Boxxy had learned to do, and would be an excellent way of distracting her while Claws went off to secretly meet that slitherer in her master’s stead.
This simple plan was put into action shortly after Hugh Mungus and Fizzy checked into a hotel called The Jeweled Clam. It was a relatively luxurious place specifically catered towards foreigners. The rooms even had a mechanism that allowed the water to be drained out of them via magic, offering surfacer guests a familiar and comfortable atmosphere. Literally. Boxxy kept its room flooded for the moment and offered that Amona help it ‘test out the bed.’ She readily agreed, giving Drea the window she needed to sneak out of the hotel.
And sneaking out was most certainly required, as Boxxy had noticed that a group of krymer had been following it around ever since it first entered into the city. Most likely some kind of government security measure sent to keep an eye on the strange foreigners with the terrifying powers. Entirely understandable, but also quite irritating. Unfortunately for them, the webstalker’s Clear Ice Skill worked even better underwater than it did on the surface, rendering both herself and her enchanted diving equipment completely invisible.
Drea was thus able to secretly get in touch with Fahrenheit, allowing him and her master to communicate with her as a proxy.
Fahrenheit began by explaining that he was being blackmailed by a business rival of his, a local crime boss called Dorval Bluegabber. Apparently he had acquired proof of the slitherer’s illegal smuggling activities and was threatening to release it to the authorities, which would result in Fahrenheit losing his platinum-ranked unenlightened license. The certificate in question came in four ranks - bone, silver, gold, and platinum - with each tier offering more civic privileges than the last. The platinum one was the equivalent of having a full citizenship, and was exceptionally difficult to obtain. Fahrenheit would have never gotten his without the help of the significant cash flow the Sandman’s business had provided him with. Having that license revoked would be a death sentence at worst or a huge setback at best, so it was entirely understandable that he wanted to avoid that happening if at all possible.
Having heard all that, Boxxy asked the obvious question - why did Fahrenheit need the Sandman’s help with this? The answer to which was simple - because he had no other options. Apparently the license itself, which was a rectangular palm-sized plate made from the material corresponding to its rank, magically tracked and recorded his location within city limits at all times. This meant that the slitherer couldn’t personally make a move on Dorval without incriminating himself. Moreover, this blackmailer was also a major player with a lot of influence within the city, so none of Fahrenheit’s contacts would dare lift a finger against him. Well, none of the competent ones, anyway.
They could, however, be persuaded to dig up information regarding this ‘treasure hunt’ the Sandman was on. The kind of information that wasn’t publicly available. All the mercenary had to do was make sure this Bluegabber fellow disappeared along with the evidence he had on Fahrenheit, preferably in a way that wouldn’t be traced back to the slitherer. Boxxy determined this was a reasonable trade and immediately sent Drea to take care of it, though it left the exact method up to her. The webstalker had hundreds of successful assassinations under her belt and was a fan of seafood, so it felt confident she could handle a bunch of stupid fish with legs.
About an hour later, Dorval Bluegabber’s bodyguards entered his office to find bits and pieces of the influential krymer floating around in a cloud of his own blood. There was so little of him left that his remains couldn’t even be used as shark bait. Furthermore, anything even remotely of value had been stolen, all of the furniture had been diced up, and the words ‘REVENGE FOR RAY’ had been carved into a stone wall. In Aquarian, of course, though the ‘handwriting’ was a bit wonky since Drea had to rely on telepathic help from Xera to ‘draw’ the letters.
In any event, it had taken merely eight minutes for news of this gruesome discovery to reach Fahrenheit’s ears.
“Damn. You work fast, huh?” he spoke to a seemingly empty corner of his room.
“Tktktktkt, time is money,” the cloaked demon chittered at him.
“Well said. I have to ask though, who’s this ‘Ray’ fellow in the message?”
“Nobody, tktktktkt, I just heard it was a common krymer name. Tktktktkt, figured quite a few Rays have suffered at the hands of Doorknob Ballgobbler, tktktktkt, or whatever his name was.”
Incidentally, these were Boxxy’s words, not Drea’s. The nervous chittering, though? That was all her. As for the reason behind that message, it was clearly to throw off any investigation into the man’s death.
“Works for me,” Fahrenheit shrugged. “Now, what is it you’re looking for all the way down here?”
“An ancient armoury of some kind, tktktkt, at least four centuries old. Good old Tol-Saroth found it when he visited this region, should be near an active underwater volcano, tktktktktkt, maybe inside one.”
“Hmm… That sounds familiar. Not the Tol-Saroth thing, but I vaguely recall hearing something about a dungeon-like place near a local volcano.”
“What’s, tktktk, ‘dungeon-like’ supposed to mean?”
“It means there’s a whole bunch of feral monsters that seem to pop out from the ground, but there’s no actual dungeon there.”
“It’s a start. Where is it?”
“I need some time to find out which one of the local volcanoes it’s in.”
“What? How many volcanoes could there, tktkt, possibly be?
“Within twenty kilometers of the city? About eighty, give or take a few.”
“Tktktktktktkt… That’s a lot of volcanoes.”
“Mhm. Why do you think the city was built here in the first place?”
Boxxy vaguely remembered Amona saying that it was common for krymer settlements deeper than a thousand meters to be built in or near regions with high volcanic activity. Something to do with having warmer water to live in and ready access to natural resources.
“How much time do you need?”
“To track down the almost-dungeon rumor? A day. Anything more than that, probably a week.”
“Work the rumor angle first, then. Tktktktktkt. I’ll send Claws back to check on you tomorrow, but right now I really need to get her back here.”
By this point ‘Hugh Mungus’ had been ‘distracting’ Amona for over an hour and a half straight, which was already way longer than Boxxy had intended to take.
The woman herself didn’t seem to mind all that much, but this little affair would likely be discovered if she couldn’t swim straight afterwards.