It had barely been 20 seconds since a certain catgirl-shaped monster and its pet assassin had leaped out of Reginald’s office before it reappeared. Keira's upside-down, fuzzy-eared head popped out from the top of the open window briefly, before she grabbed onto the wooden frame and swung herself inside. She then sat down on the windowsill, allowing her hair and tail to sway gently in the chilly breeze.
“Hey, Reggie, me again,” she said with a wave.
“Welcome back, Boxxy,” he replied in a calm tone that did not betray he was currently reevaluating his entire life. “Did you forget something?”
“Yeah. How long does a Doppelganger take to Rank Up past Level 25?”
“About 12 to 15 years.”
“That’s way too long!”
“Well, I don’t know about your case, but a baby Doppelganger's mind and body still need to develop to a certain degree before it can start accumulating XP and Levels. It’s something our kind shares with enlightened children, you see.”
Come to think of it, when Boxxy Ranked Up the last time, it was more of a prepubescent child rather than a baby. Perhaps that was why it was already getting so close to Level 25 of the Job, despite it being less than half a year since then. As informative as that was, however, it was the answer to the wrong question.
“I meant just the Rank Up process itself. How long does it take?”
“Ah, of course,” answered Reginald while remembering this being’s absurd Job list. “About three, maybe three and a half hours.”
“That’s way too short!”
Boxxy’s first Rank Up lasted for a few days, while the second one took well over a week. It had already been worried how it would explain Keira’s disappearance for a prolonged period of time, and was even considering putting it off until after the war.
“Well, cross-species Rank Ups are always more time consuming. One of my former associates, for example, took a good 15 days to become a Shoggoth Slime.”
“... And why haven’t you Ranked Up?”
Surely Reggie’s position and presumably long life would have gotten him to Level 50 of the Doppelganger Job by now.
“Because, to the best of my knowledge, our kind can only evolve into combat-oriented species. Even if all of them are shapeshifters, the vast majority of them have a lot of trouble ‘fitting in,’ as it were. The individual I mentioned earlier could get by in theory since slimes are relatively excellent shapeshifters, though he chose to abandon civilization as a whole. My options, on the other hand, are especially… unbecoming. I’d much rather live out my life as a successful Doppelganger than become an Abomination or a Wendigo, you see.”
Boxxy knew of those monsters through that shapeshifter’s encyclopedia it read a while back. Abominations were essentially sentient lumps of flesh that, while capable of assuming any form, had no way of passing off as anything but a monster due to their house-like size. Wendigos, on the other hand, lived high in the snow-covered mountain peaks. They were quite similar to werewolves, except that a Wendigo could freely change between their brilliantly white-furred animalistic form and a more human-looking appearance. However, even then their features were quite obviously monstrous, making that form ill-suited for infiltration.
In other words, if Reggie were to Rank Up, he’d have no way of maintaining his place in elven society.
“I see. I completely understand,” nodded Boxxy.
If forced to choose between becoming a more powerful being and giving up on a literal building full of shinies, then the Mimic would most likely choose the latter.
“Thanks for the info, Reggie!”
“Please, it was no trouble. After, all, this is the kind of knowledge I offer to every newcomer that- Oh, it’s gone already, huh?”
Boxxy had abruptly and silently left the office while Reginald was falling into his old, prideful habits. The old ‘ganger shrugged the whole disappearing act off and once again resumed trying to figure out whether today was a bad dream or not.
As for the unbelievable creature in question, it was currently sitting on the bank’s rooftop and was chanting one of its most frequently used Spells.
The Mimic’s world spun and blurred for a fraction of a second before it found itself in a secluded corner of another roof. It had momentarily reverted to its base form, causing Keira’s outfit to to hang loosely from its child-like physique. After it got itself reoriented, it morphed back into the catgirl and re-formed the MLG inside her chest. It silently confirmed nobody was around before gracefully dropping into an alleyway. It then calmly walked around to the front of the building it arrived on and went through the double doors.
The room Keira found herself in was made entirely out of wood. The floorboards were polished and smooth to the point where they were almost shiny, and the walls and ceiling were painted pure white. There was a tall counter separating the place in two parts, with several people forming a queue in front of one of the two clerks dressed in white coats. The women behind the counter immediately noticed the sore thumb of a catgirl that just walked in and stared at her with brazen looks of both disbelief and awe.Their sudden actions caused the customers to also turn their heads and follow their eyesight. As expected, the beastkin just stood out way too much, although those clerks’ stares seemed different somehow.
Not to be disturbed in the slightest, the beastkin confidently walked up to the free clerk while humming some random tune.
“Excuse me,” she said sweetly.
“Uhm, yes? How may I help you?” asked the still shocked elf.
“Is apothecary Slyth here?”
“S-she is but, uhm… you wouldn’t happen to be K-K-Keira, right?”
“Yup! That’s me!”
“Ack! Please lower your voice!” shout-whispered the clerk. “We have patients who need their rest in here!”
“W-well, it’s fine as long as you’re careful. You wanted to visit Rowana, right?”
Keira nodded enthusiastically.
“Her shift is almost over so please wait over there.”
The clerk pointed towards one of the cushioned seats lined up at the corner and the catgirl gleefully went over to sit and wait for her girlfriend to finish work for the day. Rowana was an apothecary at this modest 24-hour clinic and typically worked the day shift from 9 AM until 5 PM. Of course she wasn’t the only apothecary here, and sometimes took the evening or night shifts depending on the circumstances, though today was not one of those days.
As for why Snack was lurking around this place - that was obviously because of Boxxy’s orders. It had told the succubus to keep an eye on Rowana ever since it let itself get captured, just in case someone targeted the elf. After all, that woman was a major contributor towards the shapeshifter’s Doppelganger Levels, so she was convenient to keep around. That and the Mimic really didn’t want to act worried, in grief or generally depressed because those emotions were very much not tasty, even if they were fake. The elf’s safety aside, Boxxy also planned to have her take Keira’s form and make a public appearance. That way the catgirl had an alibi ready just in case things turned violent at the meeting earlier. Keira being tied to the scene of a massacre was quite damning to Boxxy’s Facade after all.
The Mimic had unintentionally started using Reggie’s word for maintaining a fake persona. As much as it disagreed with that Doppelganger’s passive and unshiny methods, it had to admit that particular term just felt right.
“Hey, Keira. What are you doing here?”
The catgirl’s thoughts disappeared somewhere and she lifted her eyes from her knees towards the person who had addressed her. A certain woman dressed in a coat that was almost identical to Keira’s.
Her face practically blossomed into a wide smile while her tail wagged back and forth in excitement. She abruptly stood up and hugged the elf around her chest and under her arms. She then nuzzled her face playfully against Rowana’s collar. However, rather than being embarrassed or flustered, the elf merely smiled in response and patted her girlfriend between the ears.
“Sorry I made you wait. You probably missed me today, huh?”
“Well, you don’t need to worry about that. I got the next 3 days off so we can hang out until you’re satisfied.”
“Hey keep it down you two!” shouted the clerk from earlier. “This is a place of peace and recovery so either shut it or take it outside!”
It would seem she was completely ignoring the fact she was the loudest one in the room, although her words were a bit harsher than one would expect. Rowana gave her an awkward ‘sorry’ before she and Keira left that place. With the catgirl relentlessly clinging to her arm, of course. The old Rowana would probably disallow such behavior in public, but the month-long separation combined with the impending parental visit made her realize there were more important things in life than what others thought of her. Therefore, she wholeheartedly enjoyed the warm and fluffy feeling she got from Keira hugging her left arm against her modest breasts.
As the two were happily walking through the street, the beastkin suddenly looked up at the elf.
“Hm? What is it sweetie?”
“Where’d Minic go? Now that I think about it, I didn’t see it around the house yesterday… or this morning…”
“Ah, a friend’s helping me take care of it. It had gotten quite a bit restless ever since you left, you know.”
“Restless? How come?”
“It kept knocking things over whenever I was away, and when I came back it would yap at the wall for some reason.”
“Aww, it must’ve been lonely without me!” said the catgirl while grinning pleasantly.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. I’m sure it’ll be overjoyed when we go pick it up!”
“I hope we’re not causing trouble for your friend though…”
“Actually my coworker said it’s been surprisingly well behaved, but every time I took it back it started getting unruly again.”
The house sounds like it had been broken into, concluded Boxxy. Probably Reggie’s guys. Must have been someone snooping around. It definitely wasn’t robbery since Minic is the shiniest thing in that house, yet wasn’t taken. I’ll get to the bottom of that next time I go to that bank.
It really wasn’t hard to deduce once the Mimic realized Doppelgangers were snooping around. As per usual, however, the words that came out of its mouth were completely different from its inner thoughts.
“I’m sure it’ll feel better once I give it a big hug!”
“Fufufu, I’m sure the little guy will be overjoyed. Keira’s hugs are the best medicine, after all. You know… if we could put you in a bottle and sell you as a happiness potion we’d make a killing!”
“EEH?! No way! That’s so wrong!”
“Ah hahaha, sorry, sorry. That was a bad joke on my part.”
It was an inside gag between her and the other apothecaries, but thinking on it objectively just the thought of bottling up a live person was more than a little-
“The only one allowed to drink that potion is Rowie!”
“That’s what you have a problem with?!”
“And you don’t?”
“No! I mean yes, I don’t want to share you with anyone, but there’s a far bigger issue before we even get to that point!”
“Ehehe, Rowie’s pretty cute when she’s flustered!” said Keira with a mischievous smile.
“Why, you! You’re doing this on purpose!?”
“Just a little, nyahahaha!”
The two of them continued shamelessly flirting as they walked through the city. Much laughs, giggles and hugs were had, not to mention a few quick and discreet kisses. They met up with Rowana’s acquaintance, a male elf that was one of the resident healers at the clinic and was currently off-shift. Minic leaped out of his house the instant he answered the front door and rubbed its ornate wood frame against Keira’s leg. The catgirl responded by picking it up in a hug and mumbling some nonsensical babying words at it. The older elf watched the adorable scene unfold with a calm smile and let off a comment saying she’d be a good mother, prompting both Rowana and Keira to get somewhat upset with him. After the distinct moment of the man asking himself ‘Was it something I said?’ had passed, the happy couple thanked him for his help and continued on their way home with their pet in hand.
However, it would seem Rowana’s fears regarding the matter of strangers butting their heads in where they didn’t belong were not for naught.
“Well, well, well! What have we here?! A couple of unnatural freaks?!”
A loud and rude voice suddenly came at the carefree couple from the side while they were making their way across a plaza with a small fountain nearby. Its source was a tall, middle-aged male elf with a mean look in his eye. Rowana, having been confronted with reality so suddenly, did the only thing she could think of.
“C’mon, Keira. Let’s ignore the guy and get home.”
She wanted to run away.
Boxxy actually agreed with her on this one. It seriously did not want to get tangled up with something pointless. It already had its fair share of meaningful encounters for the day, so it could seriously do without any more of them. Unfortunately, the couple’s displays of public affection seemed to have gathered quite a bit of attention, as 13 other people suddenly cut them off and surrounded them on all sides.
“Oh no you don’t!” shouted the man from earlier as he made his way into the circle. “You’re not going anywhere, you heretics!”
His surprisingly harsh words combined with that suspiciously well-organized formation ended up drawing the attention of many a passer by. Most of those bystanders ended up hanging around and forming a small crowd with Rowana and Keira at the center. Some had heard that elf’s harsh words and wanted to see what the fuss was about, while other were drawn in by the appearance of that exotic beastkin girl.
“Look at them, my fellow citizens!” continued the instigator of this situation while scanning over the crowd. “These queers have been popping up all around us without our notice! A coupling between two women?! Surely this is abnormal!”
A number of the onlookers started murmuring at those words.
“They ignore the teachings of our beloved Goddess Nyrie- No, even worse! They purposefully act against Her will! Should we just sit idly by and allow such treachery to happen right under our noses?! I say thee nay!”
The buzzing from the crowd steadily grew into shouts directed at the flabbergasted couple.
“Yeah! They forsake our Goddess!”
“They must be spies for that blasted Empire!”
“That’s right! No proud citizen of the Republic would shun Nyrie herself!”
Their voices steadily rose both in volume and aggression, causing Rowana to quiver with fear. She had seen this sort of thing happen before to others, but had severely underestimated how terrifying it was to be the target of such harassment. It was as if one of her worst nightmares had become real.
As for the ones raising their voices at her and her girlfriend, many of them were people who didn’t have much of an opinion on the matter. However, the original 14 people who put this farce into motion were definitely the loudest, and were shamelessly pandering to the crowd’s repressed anger concerning the ongoing war. The current situation was steadily becoming a perfect example of mob mentality at work, and Boxxy was able to pick up on the fact that it was more or less staged. A revelation that helped it immediately decide on a course of action.
“It’s fine, Rowie,” said Keira in a low voice. “I’ll handle this.”
“Of course. I’d never let anything bad happen to you,” she declared with a confident smile.
Those quiet, reassuring words seemed to drown out all the unjustified hate raining down on Rowana from all sides. It was as if the girl staring resolutely into her eyes was a shining beacon chasing away the darkness around her.
“Just follow me and try not to look scared. Focus on me and nothing else, okay?”
The elf nodded once to show she understood, then silently accepted the scared-stiff Minic from Keira while verbal harassment still rained down on her. She hugged the House Mimic tightly against her bosom, bringing an odd sense of peace and tranquility not only to herself, but also to the living jewelry box in her grasp.
Keira then grabbed her by the hand and calmly led her towards the older elf that started all this. When he saw them approach, he showed them an arrogant sneer as if he were looking at goblin dung.
“Oh?! What’s this?! The heretic sluts seem like they want to say something!”
The middle-aged elf’s venomous words egged the crowd even further on.
“She doesn’t have the right!”
“Throw her in the dungeon already!”
The catgirl didn’t even flinch under the shower of insults, although her girlfriend’s knees started to shake once again. The ignorant Minic, on the other hand, remained surprisingly calm. Why wouldn’t it be? The loud noises let out by those angry man-things were scary at first, but it then realized it was being protected by that awe-inspiring existence. It had absolutely nothing to fear as long as its ‘big brother’ was around.
The mob of people steadily grew tense as the trio made their way towards the ‘leader.’ However, contrary to expectations, Keira didn’t confront, attack, adress or even acknowledge the man. Instead, she walked past him with a carefree smile and approached the line of people behind him.
“Hey! Who said you could leave, heathen?!”
She continued to ignore him as she reached the edge of the crowd.
“Excuse me,” she spoke in a calm, sweet voice, “but could you let us pass, please?”
The individual she addressed was a younger elf around Rowana’s age.
“W-well, I… th-that is…”
His eyes swam left and right as he didn’t know how to deal with being suddenly put on the spot.
“You’re not going anywhere!” shouted someone from the side.
“That’s right! You have to pay for your crimes!” chimed in another.
“Crime? Hahaha, what are you even talking about, mister?” asked Keira with a dismissive wave. “I wouldn’t dare think of breaking the law.”
If there was a God of Hypocrisy, he would have undoubtedly wanted to make Boxxy his Hero right then and there.
“The law is just lacking!” roared the ‘leader.’ “That’s why freaks like you are still allowed to roam free!”
“Yeah!” shouted one of the people that had been inciting the crowd since the start. “Your very existence is offensive to the Goddess!”
“Again, what are you talking about, mister? My Goddess has no problems with girls dating, you know.”
Typically speaking, the beastkin tribes predominantly roamed the vast, pure-white desert that resided on the southeast edge of the continent. And one of the reasons their kind thrived in the harsh conditions of the Pearly Dunes was because they worshipped Zephyra, the Goddess of Rain and guardian of explorers and travelers alike. The deity repaid their piety by blessing the rain in that entire region, which only served to reinforce their faith in her to an almost zealous degree. After all, a single mouthful of the desert’s rainwater was enough to satisfy a person’s thirst for three days and three nights.
However, the Goddess Keira spoke of was a completely different deity. Technically speaking, Kimberley was indeed a Goddess. The fact that she was also a God, a breakdancing gecko, a talking lamp, a plate of moldy biscuits and countless other things all at the same time was irrelevant. After all, the catgirl’s words still had the desired effect, as evidenced by how a good number of people began wavering. They were not-so-subtly reminded that the Ishigar Republic, much like most other nations, did not stifle their people’s religious freedom.
Indeed, such a practice was generally considered harmful to the country at large, for there were many deities that transcended borders. For example, it wasn’t uncommon for military personnel to be seen asking Axel, the God of War, to watch over them during their battle. If they survived and fought bravely, then they paid tribute to him. If they died in action, then morticians would offer prayers to Mortimer at their funerals so that the God of Death would guide their souls into the afterlife. Scholars that delved into research - magical or otherwise - gave thanks to the Goddess of Magic and Wisdom for every invention, discovery or breakthrough they managed to achieve.
All of this was common knowledge that the people caught up in the moment had forgotten about until Keira pointed it out. Several of them outright left while hanging their heads in shame. Many others would have followed their example soon after, but one of the crowd’s instigators made another attempt to rile them up.
“So you admit you are in a relationship with that woman!”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? Rowie is the love of my life, you know!”
Rowana’s cheeks flushed red. She always expected Keira to blurt out something like that sooner or later, and actually hearing it was just as embarrassing as she imagined. Having her announce such a thing in a place like this made her both troubled and happy in equal measure.
“... Come to think of it, is that really that big a deal?” murmured someone in the oddly quiet crowd.
“They can’t have kids though!” answered someone next to him.
“So? I mean, no offense gramps, but you don’t stand much of a chance in that regard either.”
“Besides,” came a third voice, “it doesn’t feel right shouting at that adorable face…”
“I’ll say. That smile is so dazzling I might just fall in love with her!”
“Oh, really now?” spoke up one of the few women around. “Something you want to tell me, dear husband?”
“Eh?! No! Uhm, th-th-that wasn’t what I meant at all!” the stranger stammered. “It’s just like, that, you know? As a, uhm, a daughter! Yes, that’s what I meant to say! That I’d love to have an adorable daughter like her! Definitely that!”
Similar scenes started spreading through the rest of the crowd. Pretty soon not only did they begin to disperse, but some of them even stepped forward to apologize to Rowana and Keira for their rude behavior. The dozen or so original instigators found that the situation around them had completely spiraled out of their control. Normally they might have succeeded in spreading that particular brand of prejudice around while making an example out of their victims, but today they had made the error of targeting Boxxy T. Morningwood. No, it was more apt to say that it was Keira that defused the situation.
This was only natural, though. Not only was Keira designed to be adorable and endearing, but her Charisma (CHR) Attribute amplified not only her charm, but also her ability to sway others with her words and actions. Usually the effects of that Attribute were quite subtle, but Boxxy’s abnormally high CHR coupled with the catgirl’s confident-yet-charming demeanor caused the Attribute in question to have a much more pronounced effect on the Mimic’s Facade.
In short, Keira had already become something that could only be accurately described as ‘weaponized cuteness.’ She was the perfect tool to disarm the volatile situation without resorting to violence. Granted, it wasn’t like violence was not an option, nor was the peaceful route going to do anything to address the root cause of the issue. However, such things were far from Boxxy’s mind. The actual reason the Mimic had chosen this particular course of action was because it didn’t want to play along with their game. It had chosen to disperse the crowd peacefully rather than forcefully purely out of spite. And it looked like it was about time to deal the finishing blow.
The elf from earlier who had the loudest voice was currently trying to make a hasty retreat by blending in with the crowd. His dozen-or-so co-conspirators were doing the same thing and spreading out in all directions. They weren’t idiots, after all. Trying to rile up a crowd at that point would only backfire on them. After all, their position on the matter of same-sex couples was completely in the minority, so their position was objectively weaker. The one in charge had probably decided this one was a lost cause and gave some sort of signal for everyone to retreat.
“Listen here, meat.”
However, said ‘leader’ suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Those three ominous words were delivered with a low, guttural voice that most definitely did not belong to a person. He frantically looked over his shoulder towards the direction they had come from, which made him unwittingly lock eyes with the beastkin he had tried to accost less than a minute ago. She moved her mouth slightly and spoke to him directly through Whisper Wind.
“I’m letting you go for now. However, if you or any of your comrades ever approach us again, I guarantee you will all be eaten. By me.”
Keira’s bright yellow eyes turned a bloody red for the briefest of moments as if to drive the point home. It had the right effect, as her target was thoroughly convinced that was not a threat, but a promise. There was no way someone who could overcome that oppressive atmosphere was normal, after all. It only made sense that the girl in question was actually a monster.
Of course, Boxxy wasn’t blatantly revealing its true nature to some random guy on the street. It’s just that it noticed something peculiar about the person in question when it walked past him earlier. Simply put, his scent was off. It wasn’t that his odor was uncharacteristic of elves, but rather that it was literally ‘off.’ Boxxy’s nose - the same one that was capable of picking up traces of Lia’s human heritage - completely failed to detect any sort of smell coming off that man’s body. The Mimic then realized it had encountered that bizarre phenomenon very recently.
In fact, it was less than an hour ago.
“Now go,” it growled, “and make sure you tell Reggie that I am very displeased.”