A pack of gnolls were busy digging into a trio of deer carcases, the result of a particularly successful hunt. The camp they were having their lunch in was shoddy at best, as they had only cleared up enough space to lay their heads and make a firepit. They hadn’t put up any huts or tents, so the only thing that would separate their sleeping space from the rest of the forest was the trampled down grass and the faint scent of urine they had used to mark their territory.
However, it wasn’t like their lack of shelter was due to their relatively low intelligence. Although not quite on the level of humans or other enlightened races, gnolls were at the very least still smarter than goblins. Of course they knew full well how to protect themselves from the elements. Otherwise their species would have long ago been wiped out by the harsh winters that plagued the lands of the elven-dominated Ishigar Republic. Although many monsters and animals hibernated during the frigid winter, gnolls were different. They survived the numerous snowstorms and freezing temperatures by huddling up in small villages that consisted of burrows and wooden huts while surviving on smoked meat and dried fruit.
Which was why anyone that knew enough about the beasts would be wondering as to this particular pack’s actions. Gnolls were not particularly big eaters, so the game they had caught was more than enough to sate the hunger of these 23 monsters. Normally they would eat only as much as necessary and then preserve the leftovers.
Yet these near-two-dozen ate frantically, showing no signs of stopping as meat, guts and bones were crunched and swallowed without any hesitation or thoughts as to their long-term survival. Although reading their snouted, hyena-like faces was impossible for a person, one would still get the distinct impression that these things were eating like there was no tomorrow. And this hypothetical observer would be right, because in all likelihood these individuals would not see another dawn.
An arrow flew silently out of the treeline, boring straight through one of the creatures’ skulls and pinning his corpse to his comrade’s shoulder. The injured gnoll let out a yelp in pain and shock as three more projectiles flew in after the first, reducing the total number of gnolls from 23 to 19 in an instant. The biggest and burliest of them, who also had the best gear of the lot, let out a howl and rallied the others. They all reached for their rusty spears, dulled swords and crude clubs and huddled together in a tight circle while facing outward. They took long, deep breaths as they patiently waited for Death to come and claim them, much like it did the rest of their tribe.
Originally, these gnolls were part of a village. Theirs was one of the bigger settlements in vicinity of Fort Yimin, although that was mostly because it was a long distance from it. The gnolls had long ago learned not to tread near it, and had instead expanded their territory in the opposite direction. As a result of their chief’s unnaturally wise decision, the tribe flourished, and their numbers swelled to about 200 adults and 30 pups.
That was 2 days ago. Before she came. A sole female adventurer had attacked their village head-on for seemingly no reason. Of course, they didn’t fault her for that, as gnolls would often attack everything outside their own tribe on sight. They had thought they would just crush the solitary intruder and turn her into jerky, but they had no idea as to the sheer terror that lie dormant in that small frame.
She had killed over half of them within the first 30 minutes or so. Fighters, farmers, children - it didn’t matter who or what, all were sliced up and devoured on the spot. Then, for one reason or another, she disappeared into thin air as if she were a bad dream, right as she was skewering one of them on her sword. The surviving gnolls all gathered up and made a decision - they would abandon the town and move further north. That creature would definitely return. Not one of them believed otherwise. They took what food and weapons they could carry and ran off into the wilderness without a second thought.
It was the right decision, but their effort was lacking. No less than 6 hours later she was already hot on their trail. The remaining 90 or so gnolls desperately fought back as they ran for their lives. They split up, set crude traps, even resorted to poisoning their young and feeding them to her, but none of it slowed her down in the slightest. Little by little, bit by bit, they were all hunted down and slain. These 19 were likely the last survivors, and that would not last long. None of them doubted the identity of their attacker. After all, the 4 that died were their only remaining Druids and Shamans, and that thing that looked like a girl always made a point of taking out the rare magic users first.
And just as expected, she strode confidently out of the woods, and all the gnolls silently stared at the approaching horror.
Crimson hair like the fires of hell. Piercing yellow eyes that were barely registering them as living things. A pearly-white, crescent-like grin plastered on her face. A naked, slender body unburdened by foolish things like clothes or armor. A furry red tail that swished playfully behind her.
She was a young, human-like girl however one looked at her, but the horrific gap between her appearance and her strength only made her that more terrifying. Those tiny arms that literally punched down the walls of their village. Those small teeth that crunched up their comrades’ skulls and bones without any resistance. Those frail-looking legs that carried her with a speed too fast for any of them to follow. That soft skin that no blade, arrow or Spell could leave a lasting injury on.
It was an opponent all of them had seen just enough of to know they were no match. They knew she’d be coming, that their comrades’ diversions were pointless and merely delayed the inevitable. Their fight-or-flight instincts had long ago given up, as neither option would save them. That’s why they put all their strength into enjoying what was undoubtedly their last meal.
The girl drew a long, white blade seemingly out of thin air. She gripped it in her right hand and assumed a sideways stance with her left hand behind her back and her right shoulder forward.
“Adagio Variation,” she mumbled, and her muscles tensed up. She then kicked the ground, crossing the distance between her and her prey in an instant. Her rapier pierced clean through the skull of the biggest one, who seemed to be in charge. The others swung their weapons at her in desperation, but she avoided every single one of them as if they were standing still. Well, it would have been pointless even if they lopped her head off, but there did not exist a single monster on this world that would go down without putting up a fight when cornered.
The girl struck out with her left hand, her clawed fingers digging into the nape of a gnoll’s neck as if they were pins inserted into a cushion. She withdrew them a moment later, and did the same to two more. The three gnolls howled in rage, and then swung out at their own comrades, cutting them down in cold blood as the catgirl’s mithril rapier pierced skull after skull.
At her second utterance, that shining blade stained with blood gave off an eerie blue light, and the surrounding temperature started dropping in the next instant. She swung it about in grand, slashing arcs, encasing everything she hit in a thick layer of ice and turning her prey into gnollcicles, one after the other. Even the ones that had turned on their own kin were slaughtered indiscriminately. All said and done, it took but a minute to turn all the remaining gnolls into naught but shards of ice.
Well, except for the first one that Boxxy hit with its newly-acquired Blade Dancer Skill. That one had quite literally exploded into gold coins. And the reason for that was clearly visible in the string of lingering messages inside the Mimic’s mind.
Proficiency level increased. Hornet Style is now Level 4. STR +2. AGI +2.
Proficiency level increased. Puppet Parasite is now Level 4. INT+2. CHR +2.
Proficiency level increased. Adagio Variation is now Level 3. DEX +2. AGI+2.
Chaotic energies swirl around you. The next thing you kill will explode into a shower of gold.
Proficiency level increased. Winterlich Waltz is now Level 2. AGI +2. INT +2.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 16 Blade Dancer! DEX +2. END +2. STR +1. AGI +1.
Proficiency level increased. Winterlich Waltz is now Level 3. AGI +2. INT +2.
The catgirl let out a laugh of one drunk on power. Its newly-acquired Job and related Skills were growing at a pace that boggled the mind. How long had it been since Boxxy had experienced rapid growth like this?! It was so delicious that it almost forgot itself.
“Ahahah! Ahah…. Ahem.”
The shapeshifting monster reigned in its enthusiasm. It had to be careful not to be found out, even if there was a million-to-one chance someone in the fort might see it like this. Well, getting 16 Levels of a new Job within 4 days would probably turn quite a few heads, but it’s next routine Full Appraisal wasn’t for another 2 months so it would be a long time before it was at any real danger of being found out. Even if Essence Concealment had a way of toning down the apparent Level of General Skills, Jobs were far more binary. They and their related Skills could be either shown or hidden, and that was that. It was an odd distinction, but it was enough. At the very least it wouldn’t have to explain how it obtained such a high Level of Sword Mastery in so little time. Honestly speaking though, being able to completely hide the fact it was a Doppelganger was more than enough in and of itself.
But as expected, having a proper Job to support its swordplay really did make a huge amount of difference. The Hornet Style Skill it learned as a Level 5 Blade Dancer gave it the ability to use the same bizarre-yet-effective one-handed fighting style it saw Jessie use in her spar. Adagio Variation, on the other hand, was less like a stance as Hilda had described it, and more of a physical boost that assisted Keira’s movements. And last but not least, the Winterlich Waltz. It was an odd Skill that was halfway between a Spell and a Martial Art, as it evoked magic through motion rather than chanting. Unlike Jessie, however, Keira had enough INT to make even a Level 80 magic user jealous, which resulted in a truly devastating attack.
Of course, it didn’t neglect its Doppelganger Skills, either, although using Puppet Parasite in humanoid form was a bit tricky. Still, it was something the monster forced itself to do, since it had to get used to fighting as a Blade Dancer in Keira’s body. The Job actually seemed highly incompatible with Boxxy’s favorite spider-legged, chesty form, as Winterlich Waltz was impossible to use unless one had exactly two feet and two arms. Even Hornet Style was tricky to use properly with tentacles, but the passive boost it gave to sword damage was quite tasty all the same.
Almost as tasty as having its Chaotic Disposition actually produce a favorable result for once. Well, it half-expected the gold coins scattered around to fade away with time. It wasn’t like the gnoll turned into gold, but more like the coins burst out of its skull as if they had always been there. Meaning they were likely conjured out of thin air and would disappear into nothingness with time. It still collected them, of course, merely because there was perhaps a chance this money would stick around.
On second thought, classifying them as money would be difficult. They were different from any other coins the creature had seen, mostly because both sides of them were completely blank. There were no crests or old, dead guys carved onto them, making them closer to tiny discs than actual coins. Their weight was was also something out of the norm, as it would put them somewhere in the 17 or 18 GP range. It was a denomination that did not exist in either the Empire or the Republic. Even if the looks were different, a 50 GP pieced still weighed the same, regardless of where it was minted. In some ways, however, having them being unsuitable as money was a good thing, as their smooth sides only seemed to make them that much shinier.
Well, even if they weren’t permanent, this would still be a much tastier Chaotic Disposition than the one that triggered during its first assault on the gnolls. Being transported 20 meters in a random direction was something it experienced a few times before, but being teleported 20 kilometers in a random direction caught it completely off-guard. It almost cursed out at Jebadiah, the Goddess of Chaos, but the quite literal jackpot it hit just now was shiny enough to ease its frustrations with the Skill. Even if it was fleeting, it was still a very pleasant feeling.
Having finished collecting the temporary boon to its ever-growing hoard, Boxxy then reverted to its favorite chest-bound shape, and proceeded to eat up the gnoll’s remnants. Unlike before, it could leisurely savor their taste, so it was in no rush to scarf them down. Their flesh was a bit stringy, but definitely on the tasty side. The frozen ones were even better than normal, as their iced-over flesh and bone was really crunchy and fun to chew on.
Stuffing so many icy bits into its maw so quickly proved to be a bad decision, however, as it suddenly felt a shooting pain run up the back of its throat and spread across the top of its lid. It was immediately worried whether it ate a poisoned gnoll again, but a quick consultation with Snack revealed the thing it just experienced was not due to poison, but something called a ‘brain freeze.’ The Mimic very nearly lost its shit in a panic, but its familiar was quick to assure her Master that the term was very much metaphorical.
Having calmed down, Boxxy thought on its next course of action.
Now then, I should probably head back.
This was pretty much the last pack of gnolls in the area, and Keira’s solo hunting trips were starting to push the boundaries of what was acceptable within the Republic’s armed forces. Pretty soon she would get almost no free time, which was partly why Boxxy was so adamant about getting as many Levels as it could as rapidly as it could. At the very least its educated guess was spot on, and the vast majority of the XP it got from killing things with swords went towards its Blade Dancer Job.
However, this would definitely need to be the very last one it picked up in the foreseeable future. A man who had 1 Job at Level 100 was infinitely more terrifying than someone who had 10 at Level 10, and Boxxy was already worrying whether it was splitting its focus up too much. It was already a Warlock while Spell-slinging, an Artificer while tinkering, a Blade Dancer while swinging a sword around, a Ranger while shooting at things with a bow or tracking prey, and a Doppelganger in all the moments in between.
Oh right, its Ranger Job had hit Level 30 along the way, didn’t it? Boxxy was so enthralled with killing things it almost forgot about it. And now that it was free from Faehorn’s nagging, it could freely pick the Skills that it wanted, and it almost immediately chose one it had heard much about.
Proficiency level increased. Hunter’s Mark is now Level 1. INT +2. WIS +2. PER +2.
Description: A good hunter never loses sight of their quarry.
Requirements: Level 30 Ranger, 200 PER
Activation Time: Instant
Cost: 130 MP
Range: 200 Meters
Effects: Tracks the target’s location for the next 30 minutes.
Targets afflicted with Hunter’s Mark take additional damage from projectile-based weaponry equal to 2% per Level of this Skill.
Increases the range and duration of this Skill by 20% per Level of this Skill.
It was a Skill that could be called the natural enemy of Rogues, Spies and any other Job that might rely on Stealth or use Invisibility. They could get ‘tagged’ at a distance without even realizing it, at which point the Ranger would be able to tell their exact location regardless of how sneaky they were. Even if they realized they’d been afflicted by the tracking magic’s subtle effects, they’d need a Wizard’s De-spell or a Paladin or Priest to Cleanse them of the harmful effects. Boxxy in particular was planning to use this to keep tabs on high-value individuals in the upcoming siege. It was expected that at least 6 humans over Level 100 would be present, and it wanted to avoid as many of them as possible.
It wasn’t just because Keira would never stand a chance, but because Boxxy itself doubted it would be able to defeat them even if it went all out. Each person that achieved Level 100 had a unique and extremely powerful Ultimate Skill. Faehorn’s was something called Turret Stance that allowed him to fire arrows with a truly unbelievable rate of fire so long as he stood still. Hilda’s was Tempest of Wrath, one that allowed her seemingly endless rage to increase the damage output of those around her. It didn’t know the exact effects and conditions of either Skill, but that was more or less the natural order of things.
Adventurers normally kept the details about their trump cards a secret. The only reason the Mimic knew about Faehorn’s was because it had personally witnessed them in action, and Hilda’s was something she herself told Keira about after the catgirl presented her with a bottle of high-quality elven wine as a thank you gift (bribe). It wasn’t far-fetched to say that the tide of a battle between two armies could be easily swayed depending on how Ultimate Skills were used and how they clashed with one another. So in a situation where the Empire was fielding 6 such people while the Republic only had 3, the latter would almost always lose, even if they had large advantage in troop strength. Which they didn’t.
In short, the Republic’s defeat was more or less a certainty. Even knowing that, simply giving up Fort Yimin and the surrounding region without a fight was even worse, so they would have to make a stand regardless. Well, the plan ‘Mister Sandman’ had presented the elven leaders with over the last few days would hopefully be enough to sway the tide in their favor, and Boxxy would reap a tremendous profit from it. In fact, it was just about time to collect its down payment, so it decided it was time to return to base.
The Mimic used Transfamiliar to swap places with Claws, transporting it a good 60 kilometers away from its old position. This distance was more or less the limit of Boxxy’s MP, as Transfamiliar was a Spell that rose in cost directly proportional to the distance traveled. This again was different from standard Spatial magic which had a fixed cost, but also a fixed range. In other words, as long as Boxxy’s MP grew, so would the distance it could cover in a single cast.
Right now, however, it was still several kilometers away from Fort Yimin, inside a secluded cave that was covered in Claws’ webs. It quickly assumed Keira’s form once again, and took her gear out of Storage. It could have worn it during the gnoll hunt, but doing so would have left some very conspicuous stains and holes in her outfit. Coming back in that state after ‘a light hunt’ was sure to raise quite a few eyebrows.
Once Keira was properly dressed, she strode out of the cave and ran on all fours back to the fort. She arrived back at base in the early afternoon, and was almost immediately sent out once again with the same escort of 50 or so soldiers, one of whom was carrying a heavy chest. A gnomish Wizard - one of Imiryl’s disciples - handled the Transfer Gate that transported group from the outskirts of the fort and into the vicinity of the tree that was home to Cyrilla.
This time, however, the armed soldiers let Keira carry the heavy chest to the dryad’s resting spot all by herself. Although the embarrassment this particular platoon suffered at her hands was not made public, none of them were keen to repeat it. Of course, Imiryl’s treatment was far worse, and nobody present was surprised to hear she refused to even get near that tree again. There was also the matter that news of her spanking had somehow spread throughout the fort, and many had come to believe the outlandish tale as fact. The infamously haughty High Elf had been showing far too much modesty and reservation ever since that day for that scandalous rumor to not be true.
As for the beastkin’s escort, they were more or less reduced to decoration at this point. Since the Sandman had proven trustworthy, their mission was to mostly make sure a 3rd party doesn’t show up and ruin the transaction. Which was why the Rangers in the platoon kept a close eye on the catgirl as she carried the 5,000 GP payment off to the tree. She wobbled unsteadily for the latter half of the short walk due to the sheer weight of the gold in that chest, but she made it to the base of the ancient tree without incident.
Just like before, a cloaked figure they could only assume was the Sandman dropped down from above. He checked on the contents of the chest, and then handed something small to Keira, which she immediately stowed in a pouch on her belt. She then took out the beautiful mithril rapier on her waist, gave it a few demonstrative swishes and bowed to the Sandman, presumably in thanks. Leaving the chest behind, she walked back to the rest of the platoon, at which point the Wizard took them all back to base. All things said and done, the whole transaction had taken 10, maybe 15 minutes at most.
Once they were back at the fort, Keira immediately reported to Underwood’s stuffy office, as the man had more or less become her direct superior as of late. Technically he was her boss’s boss, but Faehorn was still away on some assignment or another, which meant he was the one in charge.
“Ah, Decanus,” he said when she entered his office. “You’re back early. I trust things went smoothly?”
“Yes, sir! No incidents whatsoever!”
“That’s good. So, do you have the item.”
“Yeah! Er, should I take it out here?”
“Indeed! Let’s see it!”
The beastkin reached into the pouch on her belt and brought out a small orb that was 7, maybe 8 centimeters in diameter. It was made of deep, orange amber with a high degree of transparency and a flawlessly smooth surface. A single flower with 7 large petals was trapped inside the resin as if it were suspended in time, and one could barely tell its color was originally a bright pink.
“Oh my…. It’s… quite something, isn’t it?” stated the elf in admiration.
If this was truly what the Sandman had promised during their earlier communications, then the Republic’s victory in the upcoming siege would be pretty much assured. If not, then they got duped out of 5,000 GP. Something he and his superiors judged was a worthwhile risk, despite the fact that the idea the masked man presented them with sounded outlandish and ludicrous at best. It made the intelligence officer feel like they were grasping at straws. No, that was pretty much the case, wasn’t it? Still, if this was indeed the ancient treasure it was supposed to be, then it was reassuring to know it at least looked the part.
“Yes, sir! It’s really pretty!” said Keira with a blooming smile that seemed determined to outshine the item in her hands. And if Underwood was a betting man, he’d put his money on the catgirl’s beautiful face.
Why the hell am I comparing the two?!
The elf let a small frown float onto his lips as he silently chastised himself. This was no time to be admiring his subordinate’s natural charm. Besides, it was a pointless action. Pursuing a relationship with her was a bad idea for so many reasons that he’d probably need a 3rd hand to count them all.
“And how exactly do we use it?” he asked after that brief moment of self-reflection.
“Ah! That’s easy! Mister Sandman told me you just need hold onto it and say ‘Mater est opus vobis’ in a clear and commanding-”
“Wait, didn’t you just-”
The orb in the catgirl’s hands flashed with an intense yellow light before Underwood could stop her.
It shone so bright, that it temporarily blinded the elf and caused the catgirl to scream in a high-pitched wail. It took about 20 seconds before Underwood began to regain the use of his eyes. His vision was still blurry and full of spots, but he could still clearly hear Keira’s screams. It sounded like the girl had fallen out of her seat and was rolling around on the floor in agony. As expected, a flash that bright was extra hard on someone like her that had excellent eyesight.
“Sir, are you alright?!”
A couple of soldiers barged into the room after seeing and hearing the commotion.
“I’ll be fine!” blurted out Underwood while rubbing his eyes. “Quickly take the girl to the infirmary!”
“... Sir, I believe that would be a very bad idea.”
“What are you talking about?! Quickly now, before- Before… Oh…”
As his eyes slowly readjusted themselves, he was able to make out Keira’s figure. As expected, she was curled up on the floor and holding onto her face with both hands. However, his previously impaired vision prevented him from noticing when, where or how, but it would appear the two of them had gotten some unexpected company.
Underwood beheld the form of a small girl. She had green skin, grass-like hair, and was completely nude if not for the leaves covering her groin and barely bulging chest. She seemed to be about 10 or 11 years old, but his reason told him she must have been far older than himself, for this was unquestionably a dryad. The guards in question were part of the platoon that had been sent out to accompany her twice before, so they knew full well not to even think about even getting close to one of those.
And right now, in this office, there were 5 of them - one for each of the Hylt trees that were a part of Fort Yimin’s defenses. They were huddled around the writhing catgirl, crouching down next to her while staring at her suffering in silence. Their faces were completely identical, and they all sported the same curious expression. When the catgirl finally opened her eyes and beheld what was basically a group of quintuplets staring down at her, she was understandably more than a little puzzled. Seemingly not know what to do, she forced a weak smile and spoke in a quiet, quivering voice.
The quintet of juvenile dryads smiled in response, and spoke up in a single, unified voice.