A cheap carriage rattled along the cobblestone imperial highway. Unlike the fancy, gilded stagecoach that Boxxy saw the day before, this one was a simple unpainted wagon with a piece of stretched canvas covering its contents as an awning. It was being pulled along by two quadruped creatures that looked like oversized, green-furred anteaters. They were easily as big as donkeys and no less capable of hauling ass. These predominantly subterranean creatures were a species known as limeticks, and were mostly used by dwarves and gnomes as beasts of burden.
The one driving this old wagon was a dwarf - a relatively young one whose brown beard was only about 10 centimeters long. He had a full head of bushy hair and small, narrow eyes that made others doubt if he even saw beyond his thick, round nose. His build as a whole could only be described as ‘a bit pudgy’ if one were flattering, or ‘a ball with limbs’ if they weren’t. He lazily turned his head around and shouted towards the inside of the wagon.
“We’re almost at Bootsplit, laddie!”
“Thanks, Moron,” answered the ginger-haired elven lad from inside.
“Oh for the love of- it’s Mornon!” insisted the dwarf.
“Should blame your parents for picking such a stupid name,” pointed out the steel golem that was sitting next to the elf.
“Yeah, I know. I’m thinking of having it changed, but I can’t think of anything good.”
“How about Moron?” suggested the disguised Boxxy. “It fits.”
“Come now, lad, there’s no need for that! Is that any way to talk to someone graciously giving you a ride?”
That’s exactly why it fits, thought Fizzy. What sort of idiot just blindly picks up hitchhikers like this?! Especially considering one of them was a sentient golem! That guy didn’t even bother asking about her situation and just said ‘Hop on!’ with a stupid smile. Why the hell did she work so hard on practicing her cover story if people won’t even ask her about it?!
Granted, judging from the contents of this cart, this dwarf wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. His luggage was strewn about in a haphazard manner with no rhyme or reason. Crates of food, kegs of ale, several bundles of firewood and other useless meatbag accessories all rattled around with the smallest bump in the road. The least this guy could’ve done is tie them down so they don’t clatter about making a racket.
The former gnome wasn’t sure exactly why they bothered to hitch a ride in the first place, though. If it was about getting from point A to point B, then they could’ve easily just kept going on foot. She swore they walked faster than those damned limeticks could pull the cart. But Boxxy had said it wanted to ride the cart, which meant that they were riding the stupid cart.
The actual reason was rather simple. Although it could be called ‘practice at socializing,’ Boxxy just wanted to ride a carriage. Not only was it a new experience, but being inside a giant box with wheels helped alleviate the acute sense of agoraphobia it felt whenever it was outside its chesty shell. As for its familiars, Snack and Arms were following from a safe distance and keeping out of sight. The Mimic didn’t particularly like this arrangement since it was left slightly more vulnerable, but some sacrifices had to be made for the sake of camouflage.
“We’re here, laddie!” called out Mornon. “You two might wanna get off the cart and let the guards sign you in.”
Boxxy and Fizzy did as instructed and stepped out of the back of the wagon. The area around the imperial highway was a hilly, untamed wilderness. Wild shrubs, patches of tall grass and the odd tree dotted the landscape. A few fenced-off farms and ranches were visible in the distance as well. Directly in front of the cart was the entrance to a small town called Bootsplit, a mostly dwarven settlement.
Although it might seem strange to the uneducated, dwarven-dominated towns and villages on the territory of the human-centric Lodrak Empire were not all that rare. Historically speaking, humans had always profited immensely from trade with the dwarven homeland of Horkensaft that lay across the Oculus Sea to the northeast. Good relations with that kingdom had meant that there were quite a few dwarven and gnomish immigrants who came over to the Empire.
The opposite was also true, although humans living abroad rarely established their own communities and usually just mingled with the native people. The only reason dwarf-and-gnome-dominated places like Bootsplit existed was due to cultural differences. These two races placed great importance on one’s family and heritage, often stating that their loyalty was to their clan first and their country second. The two species also seemed to be closely related as the slightly taller and stouter dwarves and the nimbler and more quick-witted gnomes had shared a society since time immemorial.
So, all things considered, a place such as Bootsplit wasn’t really that odd. What was odd, however, was how defenseless it seemed, despite being on the imperial highway. Its perimeter was marked not by a sturdy wall, but a collection of 2-meter-tall wooden stakes that were driven into the ground and tied together. It seemed more like a fence meant to keep out troublesome wild animals rather than a fortification to safeguard the populace against dangerous creatures or bandits.
The reason for these seemingly lackluster defenses was that this much was all the town needed, as both the number and Level of monsters along the imperial highway was typically extremely low. The Empire took efforts to maintain a high level of security around this first-class road, often sending patrols to exterminate monsters and clear out bandits that might pose a threat. In fact, the Empire’s leaders had actually stepped up their efforts in that respect as they had already begun preparations for war with the elves to the north. Securing their supply lines was the most basic of basics when it came to warfare, after all.
Boxxy and Fizzy walked up to the guards - a rather intimidating pair of dwarves clad in extra-thick, pitch-black full plate armor. Their helmets completely concealed their faces, save for the braided beards that flowed out like waterfalls from beneath them. They carried shields that were 140 centimeters tall - almost as much as themselves - and were armed with one-handed war axes attached to their waists.
“Who goes there?” called out the guard on the left with a slightly muffled voice. “Oh, Moro- *Ahem* Mornon, is it?”
“Yeah, I’m back from my trip to the capital. I picked up these folks on the way back.”
The guard looked over the stupidly smiling elf and the frowning gnome-shaped golem, but wasn’t really surprised since neither of them were uncommon sights around here. The elven border was relatively nearby so they often had knife-ears passing through town in both directions. Golems were something that dwarves and gnomes used for heavy lifting, although that was usually restricted to well-off merchants and nobles. The guards assumed this female-shaped golem was one of those since she quietly stood by her owner’s side rather than run around trying to stab people for no reason. Granted, having an elf possess a golem was slightly unusual, but it was hardly unheard of.
“I see, so that’s how it was,” said the guard before turning around. “Hey Lenny!” he yelled. “Get your ass out here you got work to do!”
“Ah, you’re free to go in, Mornon,” said the other armored dwarf, “we’ll take care of your mates here.”
“Thanks lads. I’ll be going ahead then!”
The brown-haired dwarf tugged on the reins, prompting his limeticks to pass through the gap in the fence that was most likely one of the city’s gates.
“Alright then, what’s your story, lad?” asked the first guard while facing Boxxy.
“I’m headed north, past the border,” it answered.
“Ah, finally had enough of this place, eh?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Can’t blame you for wanting some time away from those humans. I can’t stand ‘em myself, that’s why I live out here. The only reason I came to this bloody place was because my family decided to come here for some reason.”
“Same here,” said Fizzy.
“Yeah, I honestly don’t- It can talk?!”
The guard practically shouted the last part, and his colleague seemed equally as surprised.
“Holy fuck! I’ve never seen a golem talk before! This thing must be really high class!”
“I’ll say! Now that I look at it, doesn’t the steel skin seem particularly sturdy? I mean, I’m no Blacksmith, but I know good metal when I see it!”
However, rather than being distressed or suspicious, they actually seemed genuinely impressed.
“Huhuhu. You do well to recognize my greatness!” boasted Fizzy. She rather liked getting this sort of attention, so she let the guards praise her as much as they pleased. The two dwarves made a few more remarks regarding her steel frame and apparent construction when a third dwarf - this one wearing clean commoner clothes - showed up from behind the fence.
“Oy, Lenny! Check this out! A talking golem!” said one of the guards.
“Huh?! Those exist?!” said the old, bald dwarf that just arrived.
“I most certainly do,” stated Fizzy with more than a hint of pride in her voice.
“Fascinating!” he exclaimed while stroking his waist-length white beard. “I must say, the way your facial expressions move around are extremely lifelike! The torso itself seems to be quite natural and well detailed too, almost like a wild golem rather than one produced in a workshop! The design around the belly button and the nipples is particularly excellent!”
Fizzy looked down at herself. As expected, her rather rude right hand had begun stripping her without her realizing it yet again. However, she found herself hesitant to cover herself up. What she felt from the trio’s stares and words wasn’t embarrassment, but a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. The golem genuinely felt like leaving her girls permanently exposed might not be all that bad.
“Ack! No!” she blurted out before hurriedly covering herself back up.
That was dangerous, she almost became a shameless pervert like a certain succubus. Besides, running around naked would be an inconvenience to Boxxy. While unclothed personal golems weren’t exactly illegal in gnomish and dwarven society, they were often frowned upon.
“Say laddie,” said the old dwarf while turning towards the elf. “How do you keep her so shiny? That steel’s luster makes it seem like she’s practically brand new! Do you use some special oil or cleaning fluid?!”
“No,” answered Boxxy. “I just lick her.”
The three dwarves stared in stunned silence while they processed this bit of information and all of its implications.
“You… lick her?” muttered Lenny.
“Like, with your tongue?”
“All of her?!”
“Is it really that strange?” questioned Fizzy. “Using spit to clean stains is a bit crude, but everyone does it every now and then. Especially when access to clean water is limited.”
“Oh yeah. I get covered in bodily fluids almost every day, so it’s best to get them off before it dries up and gets all crusty.”
All three dwarves silently and one-sidedly reached the same conclusion - that this elf was a total deviant. They completely failed to understand that the ‘bodily fluids’ Fizzy was talking about were the brains, blood and bile that splattered all over her whenever she fought something. Having her glorious steel frame covered with such meatbag juices was not something she particularly enjoyed if she could avoid it.
Lenny cleared his throat, clearly intending to get as far away from this topic as quickly as dwarfly possible.
“Now then. I’ll be performing a Basic Appraisal to verify your identity. Any objections.”
“None,” answered Boxxy with a smile.
This sort of thing was common practice when entering a town or city for the first time, so the monster was fully prepared in advance. Still, this was the first real test of the fake Status Screen that it had put up with Essence Concealment Skill, so it couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. Worst case scenario of it being discovered, it would toss Fizzy into its Storage and make a break for it.
“Alright, then hold out your right hand and- Wait, when’s the last time you washed it?”
“Does that matter?”
“Ah… No, I guess not…”
Lenny somewhat hesitantly grasped the elf’s palm as if they were shaking hands. It was obvious that his imagination was running a bit wild.
“Basic Appraisal,” he chanted.
Unlike a Full Appraisal, a Basic Appraisal could be used as many times as the Scribe wished, although the information provided by it would be extremely limited. It was completely unable to gauge Skills, Attributes and Perks, but that data was not something that was necessary in order to perform the mandatory security check.
“His name’s Chester Underwood,” said Lenny while reading off the details of the image that popped into his head. “Male elf, aged 17. Only Job is Warlock at Level 25. No guild affiliation.”
He then pulled out a ledger from the large bag strapped around his shoulder and started leafing through the pages. He first confirmed that ‘Chester Underwood’ was not on the list of wanted criminals, then proceeded to mechanically copy the details still in his head onto the paper. Once he was done, he dismissed the Basic Appraisal results window and turned his attention back to the odd visitor.
“And how long will you be staying in town, mister Underwood?”
“A few days at most.”
“Just passing through on your way to the border?”
Lenny then wrote down the time and date of mister Underwood’s visit as well as the elf’s reason for coming here.
“Alright, mister Underwood,” said Lenny while putting away the ledger. “Everything seems to be in order. Enjoy your stay in Bootsplit.”
“No Appraisal for the golem?” asked Boxxy.
“This is your personal golem, right?”
“Then there’s no problem.”
Personal golems were classified as ‘equipment’ as far as the law was concerned, so unless someone reported it stolen or gone rogue, then there was no reason to bother with it. Lenny was of course curious where this young elf got a fine piece of steel like that, but knew better than to pry about an adventurer’s belongings. It was bound to be some embellished, long-winded story that had unflattering details removed from it, all in order to make the adventurer look good. Lenny had heard his fair share of such stories, so he opted to pass on this one as well.
And the old dwarf’s intuition was spot on, because the story Fizzy had prepared beforehand to explain her origins was nothing less than a steaming pile of bullshit.
“I have another question,” stated Boxxy. “Do you know of any Warlock guilds in town?”
The elderly dwarf blinked a few times in surprise.
“I thought you were headed up north.”
“You know all guilds in town are affiliated with the Empire, right? They don’t have branch offices across the border.”
Someone joining an adventurer guild just before leaving the country seemed like an odd decision to say the least. People very rarely changed their guilds once they chose one, and the few that did were often treated like second-rate adventurers. After all, guilds invested in their members by providing training and support, so having one of them jumping ship like that was considered a betrayal of sorts.
“I just want to advance my Job,” added Boxxy. “I’m not interested in joining full-time since I hate politics.”
This was the response Xera had prepared for her Master beforehand. Freelance adventurers sometimes showed up demanding Job advancement, so the various guilds were more than happy to take their gold. Provided these wanderers subjected themselves to a Full Appraisal, of course.
“Ah, so that’s how it is. Well, the Order of the Black Wand has an office on the west side of town, near the market plaza. Try there.”
“I see. Thanks.”
The young elf walked briskly into town, with his pet golem following immediately behind.
“Hey Lenny,” called out one of the guards. “You said he had no guild affiliation, right?”
“I could’ve sworn that guy’s shoulder patch was the one belonging to a guild called the Brotherhood of the Third Eye.”
He was referring to the eye-shaped insignia on the right shoulder of Boxxy’s robes.
“You’re sure of this?”
“Pretty sure, aye.”
“Maybe he got kicked out or something?” chimed in the other guard. “He did say something about politics, and you know how rowdy some of those disputes can get.”
“I don’t know, it’s strange. That Brotherhood is a relatively small time guild, you know. They don’t have the luxury of just kicking people out over trivialities like those big-timers.”
“You sure know a lot about an obscure organization like that, huh?” said Lenny. “I mean, I’ve never even heard of them until just now.”
“Well, one of my drinking buddies used to be a part of it before he retired. He talks quite a bit about his glory days, so a lot of the details stuck with me.”
“Should I go call that guy back and question him more thoroughly?” asked the other guard.
“Don’t do anything unnecessary,” cautioned Lenny. “It’s not illegal to change guilds, just unusual. Besides, something tells me that lad has had it rough. You don’t become like that unless you’ve been through something terrible.”
The two guards nodded in response. Anyone willing to cover a steel golem with their ‘bodily fluids’ and then lick them off was undoubtedly not right in the head.
“Still, I think I’ll make a note of it, just in case.”
Lenny opened the ledger and went back to the page that he used to log new arrivals. He found the entry for ‘Chester Underwood’ and added ‘Possible member of Brotherhood of 3rd Eye’ in the far right field reserved for comments.
“Oh damn,” said the dwarven Scribe. “I messed up when writing the guy’s details earlier. Guess I was a bit distracted.”
He then crossed out a word in the ledger and wrote something else in the margin above it.
“You’re sure about that?” asked one of the guards. “Shouldn’t you re-do the Appraisal if you messed up?”
“No, it’s fine. Just a slip of the hand I suppose. That’s what I get for doing my job sober.”
He put away the ledger with a chuckle.
“After all, there’s no way the Appraisal actually said he was 17 fish old.”