Reginald’s gangly face distorted back into his previous visage, which had adopted a rather smug look. Normally this would be the the point where newcomers to the city would throw themselves at his feet. They’d lavish him with praise, swear loyalty or otherwise try to get in good with him, but all such claims would be woefully insincere. He didn’t blame them, though. It was a natural reaction when faced with someone who held both their salvation and their destruction in his hands. Of course they’d want to seek the protection of someone as prominent and powerful as he was, and in return he’d have them do certain things to maintain his Facade.
And this ‘girl’ in front of him would surely be no different. The main reason they caught wind of Keira Morgana’s true identity in the first place was because she followed the same self-destructive pattern as other fledgling Doppelgangers.
However, contrary to his expectations, the catgirl in front of him was neither impressed nor relieved, but instead kept shaking in her boots with a slightly pale face.
“Th-th-that! You’re… one of those things?!” she muttered in disbelief.
“You can drop the act now, youngling,” he insisted with a scowl. “We’ve been investigating you for quite a while, so there’s no question-”
Reginald hit Keira with the back of his hand in a motion strong enough to be considered a punch.
“Do not interrupt me, youngling!”
The catgirl whimpered and winced while blood dribbled from her nose and mouth.
“Yes, yes, I get it, you’re good at acting,” he said while rolling his eyes.
“I’m not acting!” she growled through gritted teeth. “Don’t lump me in with you monsters!”
The old Doppelganger gave a long sigh as he realized this youngling was one of ‘those.’ The type that denied everything until the very end. Well, it was hardly a bad habit to have, but there was a time and place for it. There was only one way to get through to these delusional method actors and force them to comply - by forcefully tearing down their Facade. And if they still refused to cooperate, then he’d just have them eliminated.
“Fine. I guess we’ll do this the hard way.”
The elf called K made a move at those words. An extra arm sprouted from his right side, revealing his nature as a shapeshifter. He unsheathed the dagger on his thigh and pressed it against his captive’s cheek.
“Aaaaah! Noooo! Let me goooo!”
Keira started thrashing around and screaming again, but could not break out of his hold on her shoulders and neck.
“No, you idiot!” growled Reginald. “Not that hard way! You’ll get blood all over the carpet again!”
“... Sorry, boss.”
The visibly disappointed K returned the weapon back to its sheath and used the extra arms to pull out some rope from his underneath coat. He wrapped it tightly around the still-yelling catgirl’s torso and arms, then tied her to her seat before finally taking his hands off her. Boxxy semi-seriously struggled against the rope and realized it was much tougher than it initially thought. Well, a binding like this was of little use against a shapeshifter in the first place, but it wanted to see just how far it could take this as Keira as a sort of experiment.
Either way, the Mimic had already decided it wasn’t going to submit to this stuck-up prick. Being under someone else’s thumb was the thing Boxxy T. Morningwood swore to avoid months ago when it first broke out of the dungeon. In a moment of weakness, it had begrudgingly accepted the deal offered by the Goddess of Incomprehensibility and had silently prepared itself to live with the consequences of its decision in the following weeks. Fortunately that whole fiasco had come to an extremely satisfying resolution, so Boxxy had no regrets in that regard.
Reginald was completely different from the lax and casual Charlie, though. He seemed like a total control freak, which was completely unacceptable. Still, that didn’t mean he didn’t have his uses.
The monster-in-charge walked around to his massive desk and opened up one of the drawers while Boxxy was thinking up ways to take advantage of him. He reached inside and brought out a metal baton with an exceptionally thick handle covered in what appeared to be Bouncewood bark. The rest of the iron rod grew slimmer towards the other end, and was tipped off with a small metal sphere that was about 2-3 centimeters in diameter.
“See this?” he asked while waving it around. “A little marvel that I got my hands on a long time ago. It’s called a Stun Stick, you see.”
He pushed a little button at the base of the handle, causing the item in question to emit a low hum.
“Its creator intended to pacify people with it, but couldn’t get it produce enough juice to take down anyone of a significant Level. The most it can do to an elf or human is give them a small jolt. But to us Doppelgangers - well, I’m sure you’re aware what will happen.”
Unbeknownst to him, Keira was already well aware of that product’s specs via Fizzy’s lessons. The fact that he thought it wasn’t enough to incapacitate a person merely showed he didn’t know how to use it. He could be forgiven for that, though. The little switch that regulated the power output had been broken off, and the device appeared to be stuck in the ‘minor annoyance’ setting. Hardly a reason for Boxxy to drop its act.
“Please…. *Hic* Don’t hurt Rowie…”
Keira kept whimpering and crying as she was seemingly at her wit’s end.
“... Quite. Well then, let’s see what you look like underneath all that!”
He pressed the rounded tip of that obviously Artificer-made item into the catgirl’s cheek.
Your target has been electrocuted. Target HP -163.
“Ack!” screamed Keira, more in surprise than pain. “W-what was that for?!”
“... Huh?” said Reginald dumbly.
He looked down at the Stun Stick in his hand and back to the perfectly healthy and un-shifting beastkin. The Stun Stick was doing the extra bit of damage as expected, but his involuntary subject was still sobbing and jibbering without showing any adverse reactions. Not to be disheartened, he zapped her a second time.
Your target has been electrocuted. Target HP -73.
“Ow! What are you trying to do to me?!”
This was incredibly perplexing. Not only did the damage drop down to nearly ‘normal’ levels, but the notification claiming his target had been stunned never showed up. He decided he’d give the thing a third try to be sure.
Your target has been electrocuted. Target HP -88.
Same outcome as before.
Your target has been electrocuted. Target HP -80.
The fourth try didn’t fare much better either.
“The hell?!” he exclaimed
“That’s my line you sick fuck!” shouted the catgirl through teary eyes. “Do you take pleasure in toying with people?!”
The thoroughly confused Reginald went over to where K was standing.
“What?” he asked with a dumb face.
“Just need a… control group.”
Your target has been electrocuted. Target HP -201.
The adult elf recoiled with a yelp of pain while clutching his left shoulder - the same spot that Reginald had applied the Stun Stick to. He muttered obscenities through gritted teeth as his left arm went limp by his side. The hand poking out of his coat’s long sleeve had turned thin, pitch-black and four-fingered. As expected, the jolt was much too weak to completely incapacitate an adult Doppelganger, but still had enough of a kick to partially undo their shapeshifting and reveal their true nature.
“Hmm, seems to be in working order,” mumbled Reginald while ignoring his comrade’s suffering, “so how come it doesn’t do anything to the youngling?”
The older Doppelganger was aware of the possibility that a shapeshifter could be strong enough to shrug off a minor zap without being adversely affected. He was one of them, after all. However, such an individual would not be phased by the non-lethal toxins that K and J were sent out with, especially since K didn’t report any incidents regarding the abduction itself. Especially not a juvenile one like his guest.
“Maybe she’s a new Doppelganger variant?” he mused. “Mutations do happen quite often with our kind…”
In truth, the idea Reginald dismissed offhandedly was actually spot on. Boxxy’s abnormally high END and MNT Attributes allowed it to resist most of the physical and mental side effects of being electrocuted. It still stung like a bitch and made its face feel numb, but it would need to take a much more serious attempt to screw with its body. Especially once Adaptive Defense kicked in and provided it with a delicious 31% resistance to electricity, not to mention the relatively expensive anti-electricity enchantment on its ring.
Not that Reginald needed to know any of that.
“I already told you I’m not one of you assholes!” shouted Keira for the umpteenth time.
“No, no, we both know that can’t be. My investigation makes that clear.”
“Investigation? W-what are you talking about?! You’ve been stalking me?!”
“Of course we’ve been keeping an eye on you. Did you think nobody would look into the simultaneous appearance of a loud-mouthed kitty and this ‘Sandman’ character? Not only was that ‘vigilante’ somehow always around you, but all my sources tell me he used Mirror Image to shake off pursuers more than once. You may have fooled the ignorant, but all signs point to you two being one and the same from my perspective. Only a Doppelganger is capable of shapeshifting to that extent, after all.”
“No… No, that’s crazy!”
“Then there’s the matter of you leaving your damn pheromones all over the places you frequent. They positively reek of a youngling, you know. I even have multiple reports that claim you have a habit of suddenly disappearing in dark alleys, after which a number of homeless people go ‘missing,’ not to mention that disappearing act you pulled last night.”
“Listen to me! Someone is lying to you!”
“That’s not all. There’s also the matter of that vaguely arachnid shape we spotted climbing up and down that tree. Very creative, by the way. Even my people had a tough time making out that form, but the fact it left from your ‘home’ was a dead giveaway. Then there’s the complete and total lack of a background on either-”
“Boss, can’t we just do this thing my way?” interrupted K, who had recovered in the meantime.
“... You know what? Fine. Fine! I’m done playing nice. Go ahead and lop off an ear or two.”
Boxxy finally caught onto what the underling was talking about earlier. All shapeshifter flesh was unstable, and it was a universal truth that separating it from the main body would cause it to lose its shape and degrade into a formless blob of meat. Well, Snack was an exception to that, but she was a demon so her body never made much sense in the first place. The important thing was that the Mimic might have been able to fool the Stun Stick, but this one was beyond its abilities.
Well, being ‘found out’ was an inevitability anyway. The important thing was that this little exercise had already born fruit. Boxxy learned not only why Keira was targeted, but also how it got found out. The latter was probably revealed on purpose, although the Mimic wasn’t quite sure as to why. Probably because that old bag of bones wanted to brag about how great he was. Regardless, Boxxy was relieved to find out it didn’t get caught due to some mistake it had made, but rather because this group of Doppelgangers seemed experienced in tracking down their own kind. They also seemed to have a rather sizable information network, meaning it was most likely not a tiny organization.
And now that the information gathering portion of its visit was more or less over and done with, it was time to focus on the second, much tastier goal of its visit - securing profit.
“What? Why?!” shouted the frightened-but-not-really Keira as K reached for his sheathed blade again.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough!” he said with a menacing tone while grasping one of her fuzzy ears. He then swung his dagger it, intending to slice it clean off. However-
-the weapon bounced off Keira’s steel-covered ear.
“What the-?!” blurted out K while taking a few steps away from Boxxy. Even Reginald was taken aback by this sudden development.
“Hehehehe,” chuckled Keira. “Hahahahaha! HAHAHAHAHA! AH HAH HAH HAH HAH! AH HAH HAH! Hah ha! Aaaaahh!”
A spider-like limb grew out of the catgirl’s open palm. It’s spear-like steel tip easily cut through the ropes binding her to the chair. The mana-sealing shackles and collar let out a small hissing noise accompanied by a trail of fumes. The catgirl stood to her feet, allowing those bindings to fall off her wrists and neck. A cursory glance was enough to reveal they had been melted through by some kind of acid.
K put up his guard and was raring for a fight, but the highly suspicious individual didn’t make a move and just smiled pleasantly and spoke with a casual tone.
“Now then, mister Namhel. Am I correct in assuming you had some misgivings regarding my behavior?”
“‘Misgivings’ is putting it lightly, youngling,” he said with a scowl. “Do you not understand your rash actions put our whole Facade in danger?”
He wasn’t letting it show on the outside, but he was really struggling to keep up his dignified mask. Having his captive casually shrug off those bindings like they were child’s play was more than a little unnerving.
“Really? How’s that?”
“Do I seriously need to spell it out for you?! You’ve nestled yourself so deep into the adventuring community's affairs that you’ll most likely trigger a large-scale Doppelganger sweep when you’re discovered!”
Reginald would probably be fine, but his underground network would be completely dismantled in the process. The books detailing the Silent War of ages past were quite vivid in showing what the enlightened were capable of.
“Ah, but that’s a matter of ‘if’ rather than ‘when,’ is it not?” countered Keira.
“No, it isn’t! You can’t avoid those mandatory appraisals forever!”
“Who said I’m avoiding them?”
“... Come again?”
“Surely someone of your standing has a Scribe or two underhand. Why don’t you have them appraise me? I’m sure you’ll understand then.”
“There’s no need for that. I can do it myself!”
“Oh? Then go right ahead!”
He put his hand on the catgirl’s forehead and used a Full Appraisal. The flood of information that flooded his mind left him at a complete loss for words. Since when did this world have something like a Hero of Chaos? And just where did that Butcher of Humanity Perk come from?! No, more importantly than that - an Artificer, a Warlock, a Ranger, a Rogue and a Blade Dancer all packed into one Doppelganger? And just what was the deal with those absurd Attributes?! And what about the two unknowable Jobs?! Or that absurd Shapeshift and Biomass Skill Level?! Just how long did this thing train to-
“SEVEN MONTHS OLD?!” he screamed despite himself. “You gotta be shitting me! How? Why?! What?!”
His proud veneer of vanity had already been shattered by the incomprehensible Status in front of his eyes. Whatever or whoever this Boxxy T. Morningwood was, it had obtained enough strength to overpower each and every Doppelganger in this building. Well, admittedly a Doppelganger was not as suited to combat as other monsters, but that was besides the point. This thing was probably powerful enough to match an Ultimate user. No, forget that - this thing might just be able to slaughter an entire army all by itself. And all that in under a year? This smiling being before Reginald’s eyes completely destroyed- nay, ignored any and all common sense that Reginald had fostered over his life.
“Do you understand now?”
Reginald replied to Keira’s casual question by falling on his ass and nodding vigorously while doing a poor attempt to crawl away backwards. The shock was so severe that he had momentarily forgotten how to elf.
“Uh, Boss?” asked K. “You okay? What’s this seventh month business?”
Said boss looked up at his subordinate in an almost damning way. No, this one wasn’t to blame. K’s response was only natural considering he just saw his cold and calculating superior open-jawed, wide-eyed and on the ground. However, that simpleton had no idea just how dangerous that thing that looked like a girl truly was. Otherwise he would probably be running away at full speed from his own captive.
“You… You didn’t really get captured, did you?”
“Of course not,” replied Boxxy. “I just had your guy over there show me the way.”
“And now that introductions are over with,” said Boxxy, “I believe we should get down to negotiations.”
“Very well. K, leave us.”
“Huh? But what if she tries to pull something?”
“We’d be already dead if she wanted to kill us. Off you go now.”
K swiftly decided what the big guy did was none of his business, and quietly left the room. Of course, he didn’t particularly care about Reginald. Even if they acted a certain way, Doppelgangers were still monsters. What K was worried about in the first place wasn’t his superior, coworker or fellow shapeshifter, but rather his meal ticket.
“Alright then,” said Reginald while sitting behind his desk. “To begin with, do you have any… questions?”
Boxxy sat opposite him in the same armchair that Keira had been ‘bound’ to.
“First of all, does your little club have a name?”
Those words irked the elder Doppelganger quite a bit. Having his life’s work compared to something as pathetic as a ‘little club’ slightly injured his pride.
“... No, it doesn’t,” he answered after a brief pause. “No need to name something that isn’t supposed to exist.”
“Hmm, I guess. As for the reason you contacted me - do you still have any objections to my methods?”
“Yes, I do. Everything you do goes against the Facade me and my compatriots work to maintain.”
“What’s this Facade you keep talking about? Is it tasty?”
“... Well, the matter of flavor aside, the Facade is essentially my way of life. A set of rules and laws that me and my organization enforce on other Doppelgangers so that all of us can maintain our relatively peaceful lifestyle. However, I realize now that trying to impose such a thing on someone like you would be… suicidal.”
“Yup. A very wise deduction,” said Boxxy with a nod. “Now, do you have any questions?”
“Many, but I’ll limit myself to the essentials. You’re not a natural born Doppelganger, but Ranked Up from something else, right?”
“May I ask from what?”
“... And would you give me an honest answer if I did?”
Well, that was expected. In all his years, Reginald had never even imagined that Ranking Up into a Doppelganger was even possible, so it was unlikely the individual in front of him would simply give out the details. Knowledge was power, after all, and the fact that Boxxy wanted to negotiate rather than use force was a clear sign it was no fool. Still, he was going to quietly look into the matter of Rank Ups now that he knew the possibility existed. Surely this ‘Keira’ was born as a type of shapeshifter, right? After all, the Metal Mimicry Skill it displayed earlier was not something common among shapeshifters. Then again, there were no such monsters that could produce acid out of thin air. Looking at it objectively, anything was possible when this nonsensical monster was involved.
“That’s fine then,” he concluded. “I’ll save my inquiries for another time.”
Boxxy suspected the older shapeshifter might look into its origins, but wasn’t particularly worried about it. Reginald stood no chance of deducing its original species anyway. To begin with, it was extremely rare for one of the idiotic mimics to survive long enough to achieve Rank Up especially since they didn’t exist in the wild but were exclusively dungeon-born. Boxxy would have also died long ago if it hadn’t managed to contract a succubus so early in its lifespan.
Even extensive research into monster lore would be unable to provide an answer. Even if the origins of mimics was recorded in the history books, those mentioned nothing of the biological link between them and Doppelgangers. Boxxy would also have remained ignorant if it didn’t use a monster-controlling dungeon core to appraise Minic’s Status. It doubted any Scribe, enlightened or otherwise, would have enough knowledge to Appraise a House Mimic in the first place.
Speaking of which-
“Actually Reggie. Can I call you Reggie?”
“I’m calling you Reggie. Anyway, I do have one more question. Are you capable of Job Removal?”
The boss himself being a Scribe was unexpected, but not unwelcome. If it was this guy, then there was a chance he might be able to remove Boxxy’s ever-so-useless Cat Job.
“No, I’m not,” came the disappointing answer.
“That’s a Level 60 Skill. My own Scribe Job is capped out at 50 and it’s unlikely it’ll advance beyond it.”
It took a lot of time and effort to secure Level 1 of the Job illegally, and even that was mostly because Reginald had gotten lucky. ‘Acquiring’ a high-Level Scribe trainer was much too risky to even consider, and he wasn’t going to be making a Breakthrough anytime soon. Nor did he need to, as he already had all the necessary Skills to suit his organizational needs, such as Eclectic Memory, Fraud Detection and Language Comprehension. Honestly, the Appraisal-type Skills were just an extra.
“Hmm, that’s too bad,” said Boxxy while hiding its disappointment. It would seem the hurdle of abolishing that Cat Job had just gotten even higher.
“Alright then, Reggie,” it continued, “here’s what’s going to happen. You will not approach me nor any of my associates. In return, I will avoid robbing you blind and/or devouring yourself and everyone else in this bank.”
The Mimic had no idea just how big that organization was, but Reggie’s knowledge regarding Keira, combined with his reaction to that ‘little club’ statement showed it was likely quite sizable. Lopping off the head here and now was likely to create a lot more problems than it would solve. Besides, Boxxy also wanted to avoid alerting Republic authorities that the Doppelgangers had a foothold in their capital by causing a fuss. It also thought of taking over the old guy’s place, but that was unlikely to work out. Even if it did succeed in deceiving an untold number of shapeshifters like itself, it knew nothing about running an organization.
In other words, the best solution would be a non-interference pact. A kind of long-distance partnership.
“... I can agree to that,” said the older Doppelganger after a brief moment of contemplation. “Is it okay if my agents keep an eye on you from a distance?”
“I’d rather you not. The idea of someone spying on me is quite uncomfortable. Well, you’ll probably go ahead and do whatever you like regardless of my opinion, but you should take this as a warning - keep your lot away from the area around my home base. It won’t be my fault if any of them meet with an accident and end up in my belly.”
The catgirl-shaped monster threateningly opened both its Doppelganger and beastkin mouths at the same time with a low hissing noise, as if to prove its point. That plus-shaped maw filled with row upon row of jagged teeth was ominous enough to make even someone like Reginald feel unsettled. His long-dormant instincts as a monster were currently screaming at him that this Boxxy T. Morningwood was completely serious when it spoke of cannibalizing others of its kind, despite that sort of vicious and gluttonous attitude being completely unbefitting of a Doppelganger.
“Are we clear?” asked the horrifically-mouthed catgirl.
No, perhaps thinking of this Ranked Up individual as a Doppelganger was wrong to begin with. After all, a dragon’s temperament would not change just because it shed its scales.
The maw closed up as if it had never existed, allowing Keira’s face to return to her casual smile.
“Good. Lastly, I have an offer for you.”
“An offer, you say?”
“Indeed. I’ll take care of any stubborn problems or troublesome issues you might have, and in return you will make certain things happen.”
“A favor for a favor, hmm? Not a bad deal I suppose. Though I suspect you have something you want, yes?”
“That’s right. I need you to find me a Warlock trainer who can get me past Level 50 and won’t ask too many questions.”
“Really? Then you won’t be breaking through on your own? You do know that doing so will net you a Perk worth 5 free Job Levels, right?”
“I know, but that would be a horrible waste of my time.”
While the idea of getting free Levels on top of any overflowed XP was tempting, actually getting Demonology all the way from Level 8 to Level 10 would take months. Still, that was a hurdle it would have to cross eventually. Level 100 mentors were extremely rare and fittingly expensive, so Boxxy would most likely be forced to work towards a breakthrough at Level 75. Right now, however, it had a very good Edward-shaped reason to get as strong as possible as quickly as possible.
“Very well. In that case, I do have a certain something-something you can assist me with. How should I contact you once I’ve made the necessary arrangements.”
“Have one of your goons send a personal request for me at the guild. That way I’ll have also have an excuse to be away from town for a while and a justification for any spoils I bring home.”
“I see, that’s a good way to handle things, I suppose. Let’s go with that, then. And you know where to find me should you need me.”
“Yup. Just keep in mind I’ll be shipping out in a week or so.”
“Noted. Well then, miss Morgana - or is that Morningwood? On second thought, is it alright if I just call you M?”
This habit of Reginald’s was not strictly to maintain secrecy, but to make it easy for Doppelgangers to identify one another. Faces and names were changed on a weekly basis, so just having them call each other with a single letter was simply a way of avoiding confusion. After all, even the shapeshifters had trouble keeping track of who’s who within their own organization.
“No, it’s not.”
However, the Mimic didn’t feel like being addressed the same way as that guy’s subordinates. It rubbed it the wrong way, not to mention it might give others the impression it was working for him. It was also rather hypocritical considering it systematically and one-sidedly assigned nicknames to those around it.
“Of course. Please accept my apologies.”
“Keep your fake apologies to yourself. It’s not like I can eat them anyway.”
“Anyway, I think we’re done for the day, yes?”
“Indeed. You have given me much to think on.”
“Then I guess I should take my leave. Later, Reggie.”
“Until next time.”
“Say goodbye, Claws.”
“Uhm… G-goodbye, Reggie,” said Drea nervously.
“Madam,” replied Reginald with a nod of his head as his two guests nonchalantly leaped out of an already open window.
The old Doppelganger was surprisingly okay with that exit. After all, he hadn’t even batted an eye when the man-sized, multi-limbed bug-thing suddenly dropped down from the ceiling. Neither did he bother questioning things such as how or when she got in here in the first place.
After today, he would probably not be surprised even if winged pigs suddenly started pouring out of his nose.