The door to Rowana’s humble abode swung open, and Keira walked through it with her trademark carefree grin.
“Honey, I’m home!” she called out in a cheerful voice.
“You don’t need to shout so loud, Keira!” protested the elf sitting at her desk. “I’m right here, you know!”
“Oh come on! Is that any way to greet me!”
“... Haah,” sighed the elf, then forced a tired smile. “Welcome back, sweetie.”
Those three simple words were all Keira wanted to hear. She nodded with a satisfied expression and closed the door behind her, then walked up to where Rowana was sitting at.
“More paperwork?” she asked, pointing at the small stack of parchments next to her girlfriend.
“Yeah. Apparently there was an outbreak of Snake Eye at a nearby restaurant, so we got swamped with patients suffering from tunnel vision. It really strained our supplies at the clinic, so I’m writing up requisition orders.”
The 19 year old elf was an Alchemist who worked as a healer and doctor. Open wounds could easily be patched up with magic by her colleagues, but those persistent problems such as rashes, diseases and toothaches were best dealt with by applying the right poultice or elixir. Her wages were still a bit low since she was relatively inexperienced, but it was still a steady job that involved helping people, which is all she really wanted. She could do with less paperwork, but that was an inevitability of government-provided jobs.
“Hmm… sounds rough,” commented Keira.
“Not as rough as you’ve had it, apparently. You positively reek of sweat.”
“Ugh… don’t remind me… I’m gonna go wash up.”
“Okay,” said Rowana while stretching her tired body. “I’ll get dinner ready while you do that.”
“Steamed salmon, right?!”
“Yup! It’s super fresh, too! I got a good deal for it at the market earlier!”
The catgirl bounced off towards the rear of the house and went down a narrow staircase into the cellar. She hurriedly took off her gear, threw it into a pile in the corner and went into the small bathroom. It appeared to be literally carved into the magical Hylt tree’s bark, much like the rest of the cellar. A small magic lamp dangled from the ceiling to provide ample light while Keira filled the wooden tub with hot water and started washing herself off. Being able to leisurely take a bath in one’s own home, even one as small as this, was a luxury that only those living in the capital could enjoy. The special scented soaps and shampoo that her girlfriend made herself were only icing on the cake.
Keira emerged from the cellar 20 minutes later, wearing a plain, dull red dress, much like the one Rowana had on. She found that, much to her delight, a plate of piping hot, bright-red steam salmon filets were already waiting for her. The elf set out another serving for herself and the two sat down next to each other to have a nice, quiet dinner while sharing how their respective days went.
“-but then he slipped on some bird poop and fell of the branch!”
Or at least, that’s what the elf intended, but Keira’s way of explaining things turned it into a surprisingly boisterous meal. The lively gesturing, random arm flailing and excited tail wagging that accompanied her tales were completely devoid of manners or coherence.
“Oh my! I hope the poor lad didn’t hurt himself!”
Rowana quite enjoyed that unrestrained side of her, though. The beastkin girl’s hyperactive, overtly-animated explanations were always superbly entertaining.
“I thought he was gonna get injured too,” continued Keira, “but mister Faehorn managed to save him with an amazing Power Shot! I didn’t even see the arrow in flight!”
She had the power to make even the dullest, most mundane event seem much more exciting than it actually was.
“One moment it was on his bow and the next thing I knew it had already pierced Jeremy’s collar and had pinned him to the side of the tree!”
“Oh, he’s a good guy after all, isn’t he?”
“I told you he was!”
The catgirl finished her story and ate the piece of salmon that had been on her fork since a few minutes ago. The way she was waving it around sent juices flying everywhere. But even if it was messy and noisy, Rowana much preferred this lively atmosphere rather than the lonely, depressing evenings she had gotten used to.
Keira let out a few squeals of delight as she happily chewed on the delicious fish, then swallowed it with an audible gulp. She then put another piece of meat into her mouth and resumed her story.
“So anyway, that’s when the instructor decided to call it quits for the day since everyone was starting to lose focus. He even let me ride the cart on the way back since I did a good job today! And then- Ah…”
The catgirl suddenly stopped speaking and cast her eyes downward.
“Keira? What’s wrong?”
Rowana didn’t fail to notice her girlfriend’s sudden change in behavior. Usually she ate with great gusto, so her stopping suddenly like this was unusual, especially considering this was her favorite dish. That, combined with the troubled face she was making, made it abundantly clear something was the matter.
There was a short pause before Keira swallowed her mouthful, then brought up the issue that had been brought to her attention earlier that afternoon.
“I wish you would have told me about the Nyrie thing.”
“... You found out about that after all,” answered Rowana with a glum look.
“So it’s true? There are selfish people out there that wouldn’t approve of our relationship?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The elf cast her eyes downward and took a deep sigh.
“I’m sorry, I know I should have told you right away, but you’re just so cheerful and easygoing that I… I was afraid I might scare you off so I couldn’t bring myself to tell you…”
Rowana had wanted to tell her about this the moment they confirmed they had feelings for each other, but the words got stuck in her throat like a lump. She just couldn’t bring herself to bring that heavy topic up.
“Then the real reason you don’t want to go out on dates or even hold hands in public is because of that?”
Of course she understood this was a terrible, selfish decision, but part of her just wanted to pretend like her homophobic countrymen didn’t exist. Not to mention she had no idea how that hyperactive girl might react.
“Oh thank goodness!” exclaimed Keira.
Okay, she may have held some expectations about her reaction. And a relieved ‘thank goodness’ was definitely not among them.
“I thought maybe you were ashamed of being seen with me or something like that, so that’s why you kept making excuses.”
“Th-that’s definitely not it! I’d love nothing more than to show the world how much you mean to me! It’s just that… that…”
“-you’re worried about someone tearing us apart by force.”
Being harassed by strangers was one thing, but Rowana’s parents were a much bigger obstacle. The Slyth household had always been one bogged down by tradition, so there was no chance that her mother and father would approve of her relationship. She hadn’t even told them of her orientation, for fear of what they might do.
“I see, I see!” said the catgirl with a serious look while crossing her arms in front of her flat chest. “Then I must take some rather extreme measures.”
“That’s right! Don’t you worry one bit, for I have come up with a brilliant, foolproof plan to fix this!”
“Ahah. You did, did you?”
The catgirl’s relentlessly cheerful atmosphere was steadily infecting Rowana, drawing out both a smile and a chuckle from her.
“I’ll just become the best damned adventurer there ever was!”
“... And how does that fix anything?”
“If I become famous and strong enough, then nobody would dare get in our way! Those pathetic bigots would be sent running for the hills with just a glare from yours truly!”
It was outlandish, childish and unrealistic reasoning, but the sheer conviction with which she said it almost made Rowana believe she could achieve it. Of course, even if the outrageous ‘best damned adventurer’ title was a thing that existed, she doubted it would be enough to dissuade people.
“And if anyone even dares to lay a finger on you, then I’ll send them flying with a single hit!”
“My, my, is that so?”
However, rather than rain on her parade, she just happily accepted her feelings.
“It is! And then we can be lovey-dovey all we want wherever we want!”
“Is the current level of lovey-dovey not enough for you?”
Rowana leaned in closer to Keira as she spoke in a sultry voice. Their faces were so close to each other that their noses were almost touching.
“I mean, w-well,” stammered the suddenly flustered catgirl. She reflexively leaned back a bit as her eyes darted all over the place. “It’s just that I- Mmmmpf?!”
The elf suddenly threw her arms around Keira’s neck and sealed those thin, quivering lips with her own. The beastkin’s eyes widened in surprise for a brief moment before she eagerly returned both the embrace and the kiss. Both of them moaned quietly as their tongues entwined around each other. Rowana pulled her face away from her lover’s after about a minute, licking and smacking her lips as she did so.
“Lovey-dovey enough for you?” she whispered.
“C-could use a little more…” answered the suddenly bashful Keira.
“Mfufu, then shall we move onto the main event?”
The two of them got up from the table and made their way towards the bed while kissing, caressing and undressing each other. Rowana pushed the smaller girl down and proceeded to thoroughly worship her small body. She toyed with Keira’s tiny, dusky nipples, eagerly lapped at her crotch and thoroughly massaged her sensitive bum. The catgirl moaned and wailed seemingly without end as Rowana mercilessly and aggressively made love to her.
What Lia had said earlier that day regarding her people’s biology was no lie. The knife-eared elves had no trouble conceiving children, it was just that their libido and desire to have offspring were quite subdued, bordering on non-existent. Rowana was pretty much the same, despite her sexual preference. She of course felt attracted to beautiful women, but never outright lusted after them. She also knew that her people’s naturally weak sex drive was often a strain on cross-species couples, so she was worried it would negatively affect her own relationship with the more primal beastkin girl in her arms.
However, such fears were almost immediately shattered, as there was something about Keira that sent Rowana’s passions ablaze like nothing else could. Although the elf didn’t want to openly admit it, the most likely cause for this was her own nose. Her sense of smell had always been strangely acute, which was partly why she became an Alchemist. It was a great asset when creating magical mixtures, as the fumes of a potion-in-progress often gave clues as to how the brewing process was going. This sharp sense of smell was then further amplified by her Perception (PER) Attribute as she gained Job and Skill Levels, and currently rivaled that of high-Leveled Rangers. It also had the side-effect of making her thoroughly aware of Keira’s scent when they first met.
And she smelled good.
It wasn’t like Rowana had a vulgar habit of sniffing others or anything like that, though. It was just that the animalistic musk that the young catgirl gave off drifted into her nostrils all on its own. It was completely unlike anyone or anything else she had ever smelled before, and it had the curious effect of waking up the elf’s wild side. Tonight was no different. In fact, the elf had been ‘in the mood’ pretty much ever since her lover came back stinking of sweat, and was planning on devouring her girlfriend the entire time they were having dinner.
She wasn’t sure whether this strangely arousing scent was due to some trait of the beastkin species, or whether she might secretly be a pervert, or perhaps even a bit of both, but none of that mattered to her at this point. The only thing that did, was that this phenomenon allowed her and girlfriend to share their joy in carnal bliss with enviable frequency. Their compatibility was so good, that the elf almost felt like they were made for each other, as if their meeting a little over a week ago was fated. And although others might call this a naive or childish notion, those people could go suck a lemon for all she cared.
While the two lovebirds were steadily working on staining Rowana’s bedsheets for the upteempth time, another pair of girls were also getting busy in their own way. Roughly 200 meters below the elf and catgirl’s love nest were Xera and Kora, who were still busy searching the old decrepit sewers under Azurvale for a good spot to establish their Master’s lair. And it would appear that they had just made an interesting discovery.
“Master, we’ve found a group of R.O.U.S. down here,” reported the succubus.
This section of the underground maze was much more spacious that the rest of it, much to Kora’s relief. It was shaped like an upside-down half-pipe that was nearly as wide as a street. The middle of it had a shallow trench running through it and was probably once filled with water. Right now, however, it was bone dry.
“What’s an Arr Oh You Ess? Is it tasty?”
“Not particularly tasty, no,” she replied without skipping a beat. “They’re basically horse-sized rats or mice. I think one of them’s a chipmunk, actually.”
It was an unwritten law of this world that a high enough concentration of ambient magical energy would, in time, give birth to the aberrant creatures called monsters. The excess mana would either mutate existing, normally harmless animals, draw in magical beings from afar or bring inanimate objects and substances to life, but the end result was always the appearance of monsters. The large termites that plagued the surrounding Hylt trees were a perfect example of this phenomenon.
In other words, the presence of these Rodents Of Unusual Size was a sure sign that the area around this section of the tunnel was likely dense in ambient mana. Just the thing that Xera and Kora were looking for down here, and also the likely reason why these tunnels were shut down in the first place. A monster infestation took decades, maybe even centuries to set in, but was nigh impossible to completely clear out after that point. The government had likely decided to cut their losses and seal off the vermin while taking the opportunity to renovate the city’s plumbing infrastructure completely.
“How’s the mana density?” asked Boxxy.
“... I can’t sense it.”
Xera was both a demon and a Caster, which made her naturally sensitive to the intangible and normally invisible substance known as mana. However, she lacked her Master’s perceptiveness in that regard, so she couldn’t pick up on magical signatures that were too faint. Which also meant that the mana around this place was not thick enough to serve as nourishment for the Mimic’s dungeon core.
“I see. Keep searching and find the source,” commanded the Mimic.
“So, we’re going in deeper, right?” asked Kora while scraping the rat blood off the soles of her boots.
The 6 R.O.U.S. the pair came across were a total joke in terms of actual strength and were completely splattered with just the lightest kick. It wasn’t enough to sate her thirst for violence, so she was eagerly looking forward to smashing more of the filthy vermin.
“That’s right,” confirmed Xera. “Let’s check out the direction these things came from.”
They dynamic demonic duo kept making their way through the ruined tunnels, clearing out the odd pack of R.O.U.S. that they came across. They couldn’t tell if the mana density in the air was getting weaker or stronger, so they mostly just looked for large concentrations of the overgrown rodents. It took them a few hours, but they eventually made another promising discovery. The tunnel they found themselves in was sealed off completely due to a wall of mossy bark.
“Master,” called out Xera, “I think we’ve found the source of the monsters down here. There’s a gigantic tree root poking through the side of the tunnel, and it has a huge hole in the side of it that’s leaking a good amount mana from inside.”
“Yes, Master. It’s hollowed out and there seems to be a tunnel leading up into the tree’s trunk.”
Boxxy quickly thought back to all the things it had learned from the elves during its stay in the city, especially concerning those trees’ unique biology. It was highly likely that this hole and tunnel were made by a termite colony. If a nest was nearby, then it would be a huge chance for it to obtain the lair it wanted. Well, the place still had to be scouted out, as it wasn’t completely sure whether this was actually the case.
“How wide is the hole?”
The succubus looked at the narrow opening that was barely a meter in diameter. The circular wooden tunnel inside wasn’t much wider.
“Big enough for me or you to squeeze in, but the meat-head will probably get stuck.”
“Go in and investigate it, let me know if you find a termite nest. Arms will stand by outside the entrance in case I need to use Transfamiliar.”
“Haah. Understood, Master.”
Xera sighed in dissatisfaction as she climbed into the tight passage, while Kora grumbled at the fact she was being made to stand around doing nothing again. They would follow their orders, but that didn’t mean they had to like them. Neither of the two demons were keen to stick around these tunnels any longer than they had to, and both of them were quite sure that this task would have been completed a lot sooner if their Master actually helped them out.
However, Boxxy had no intention of personally coming down there unless it was absolutely necessary. This wasn’t because it was being lazy or somehow felt that trudging through ruined sewers was somehow beneath it. It was just busy raising its Doppelganger Job at the moment, and the method it was using didn’t leave it with a lot of opportunities to go skulking about in a sewer. At least, not quite yet.
The thing about Doppelgangers was that they were infiltrators, which was why Boxxy’s actions prior to leaving Bootlick 19 days ago gave it far fewer Levels than it was expecting. Although the monster still thought of itself as a Mimic, which was to say a creature that lived to prey on enlightened beings, this was no longer the case. Even though it still had its old Job and most of its chest-bound instincts remained intact, its species and Main Job were both a Doppelganger. Once it thought about it more deeply, the monster realized that doing the same things it did prior to its Rank Up and expecting the same outcome was a mistake.
The truth of the matter was that not all Jobs Leveled Up through combat. An Alchemist raised their Level by brewing potions. A Farmer would tend his crops and raise livestock. A Bard would sing songs, play instruments and tell stories. So while a Mimic was expected to kill and eat people by ambushing them, a Doppelganger would have to interact and mingle with them. Hunting alongside other apprentice Rangers, conversing with people at the market or just shaking hands with someone it met for the first time - any and all social interactions with the unsuspecting elves contributed towards the monster’s next Doppelganger Level. It was a steady stream of XP that meant it could get stronger as long as it maintained its cover.
Well, that wasn’t to say that it would suddenly become a pacifist. Being a monster meant that Doppelgangers still thrived on bloodshed and carnage somewhat, even if it wasn’t the ‘correct’ way to raise the Job’s Levels. Besides, even if it could sate its hunger by filling up on termites or Hylt fruit all it wanted, the former Mimic still wanted to dine on people. Eating tasty things was still more or less its main goal in life, so it saw no reason to avoid chowing down on people whenever the opportunity presented itself.
However, those opportunities were few and far between, as Boxxy didn’t really have the option to skulk around in the sewers or back alleys looking for dinner. It had to work hard if it was to establish an identity, forge relationships and earn the trust of others. Doing so would allow it to gain Doppelganger Levels much faster than if it simply hid in a dark corner somewhere and only came out in order to buy or sell things. And the more people it fooled, the more XP it would earn.
It was therefore important to stand out just enough that it would leave a favorable or otherwise lasting impression, but not too much so as to raise suspicion as to its true identity. However, walking that fine line was quite challenging and had to be done carefully. Even if Boxxy felt like a wolf hiding among sheep, a lot of those sheep were heavily armed and more than a few of them were considerably stronger than the wolf.
Honestly speaking, the Mimic never thought it would find itself in such a position. If someone had told Boxxy’s past self that it would end up with social obligations, it would have stabbed them in the face and eaten them. Granted, it would’ve probably tried to do that anyway, but it would have done so much more maliciously if they insinuated it would prefer to talk to its dinner rather than eat it. And yet it ended up doing just that for a whole week.
It couldn’t really complain though. It had already gotten up to Level 13 of its Doppelganger Job, despite doing relatively little fighting and/or murdering. And although its schedule was a bit full at the moment, this was bound to change as soon as it graduated from Faehorn’s Ranger class. After that it would have a lot more free time to focus on its Artificer Job or just enjoy its ever-growing collection of shiny things. It was also to that end that it really wanted to establish a lair and use the dungeon core as a sort of security and home management system.
“Master,” called out Xera once again, “I think I’ve found the nest.”
Something which looked like it would happen sooner rather than later.