Boxxy walked out of the Central Consortium building in an exceedingly bad mood. That absolutely ridiculous personal ‘request’ had caught it completely off guard, causing its accumulated grievances to almost literally explode. The fact that the casualties of this outburst were limited to a piece of paper and a bit of carpet was a small miracle in and of itself. Well, that and the next 30 or so minutes of the Mimic’s life. As a result of her rash actions, Keira had to sit through a pointless lecture regarding the destruction of guild property. At least she avoided having to pay a disciplinary fine and got off with just a warning by blaming her reaction on various circumstances.
Who knew playing the ‘I was raped’ card could be so effective?
As for the piece of paper that caused the whole ‘hand slip incident,’ there was no way it came from Reggie. To begin with, the whole point of making a personal request through the guild was so Keira could have a plausible excuse to be away for a while. However, there was no way that piece of hate mail would be considered something like that.
And ultimately, hate mail was all that it could be. It wasn’t all that strange for pretty female adventurers to attract that sort of harassment, which was why that nosy receptionist had opened it up in the first place. She probably wanted to protect the ‘pure and innocent Keira’ from that sort of filth, even if she risked being reprimanded for her actions. If one considered the timing of it, it would become pretty clear the person responsible was some idiotic elf that got taken in by the Doppelgangers’ bullshit demonstration from two days ago. The catgirl stood out way too much during that incident, so it was natural that she would catch the interest of at least somebody in that crowd. An interest that had manifested itself as an anonymously submitted pile of filth.
As for how such a miscreant could find her in such a short time, it was actually a rather easy thing to do. After all, as far as the Mimic knew, the number of young, cat-eared beastkin girls with crimson red hair in Azurvale was exactly one. Not to mention that Keira’s existence had become something of an urban myth in some areas of the city, growing closer to common knowledge around the places she frequented. This much was only natural considering the catgirl’s exotic appearance inevitably drew the attention of others. Standing out just enough to leave a lasting impression was what Keira was designed to do.
In short, tracking down her wherabouts based on her appearance alone would not be difficult in the slightest. One had to merely ask around for anyone fitting her description and they’d learn the catgirl was an adventurer in the Hidden Arrow guild called ‘Keira’ in a matter of hours. Which meant that if the beastkin’s actions during that verbal confrontation from two days ago caught the attention of a rather unsavory individual, then her receiving that ‘request’ with such timing wouldn’t be strange at all.
… Maybe that’s exactly why Reggie sent it?
An interesting thought popped up in Boxxy’s mind as it was mulling things over. The catgirl-shaped Mimic stopped in her tracks as she entertained that possibility. Guild officials and prying eyes would dismiss it immediately as ‘unfortunately common’ harassment. On the other hand, repeated incidents could cause them to take action, so it wasn’t exactly a re-usable messaging system. Ah, but the form did say something about 50 somethings with ‘a bonus of 25 more.’ It was possible that this was a subtle reference to the favor Boxxy had asked regarding its Warlock Job. The ‘3 days straight’ comment was also suspect, as it had indeed been the 3rd day since making contact with Reggie. Was it all a coincidence after all?
“It’s a coincidence,” stated Reggie.
The elderly Doppelganger had immediately put that question to rest when Boxxy visited him later that afternoon.
“I’m not sure exactly what that request’s contents were,” he continued, “but it’s far too early to have you help us out. After all, the ‘problem’ I need you to take care of isn’t even in the city right now.”
“I more or less expected that,” stated the Keira-shaped monster, “but I wanted to be certain.”
“Indeed. And while erring on the side of caution was not a bad call, I would appreciate it if you stopped climbing in and out of the window every time you stopped by. It puts my Facade at risk, you know.”
Granted, this was only their second meeting, but Reginald could easily see this becoming a troublesome habit.
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“You remember K’s appearance when you first got here?”
The catgirl’s head distorted and wriggled as if it was a piece of clay as it assumed the form of a thoroughly unremarkable male elf.
“You mean this guy?”
Despite his surreal experience from a few days ago, Reginald had still been caught slightly off-guard by the sheer speed and accuracy of this creature’s shapeshifting. Not only did it replicate his subordinate’s visage in what could be described as an instant, but it had done so in an almost excruciating detail. The face, the hair, the voice, even the dead-fish-like look in his eyes and his unmotivated manner of speech - all of it had been recreated perfectly. It was almost at the stage where even Reginald would have trouble telling the two of them apart.
“Yes, him,” he confirmed after a short while. “Just show that face to one of the guards, say you’re here to make a delivery to me and they’ll handle the rest. Oh, and do be extra careful around the secretary outside - she’s not one of us.”
“Alright, I suppose I can do that,” consented Boxxy as it shifted back into Keira and moving onto the other reason it dropped by. “Reggie, I need to speak with you about what happened two days ago.”
“I assume you’re referring to the incident where you encountered one of our ongoing operations?"
“Yeah. What’s the deal with that?”
Reggie suddenly stood up and bowed towards the seated Keira with such intensity that he practically slammed his head into his desk.
“I apologize, mister Morningwood!” he screamed. “It was an honest mistake! An oversight! I just wasn’t able to spread word of our agreement fast enough, and those men were in the middle of-”
“I didn’t come here to hear your worthless apologies or excuses!” growled the catgirl-shaped monster.
“Of course not! I can’t eat words! Besides, I wasn’t going to blame you for it in the first place! Any moron knows that it takes time for information to circulate! You think I’m stupid or something?!”
“No-no-no! I wouldn’t even think of insinuating something like that! It’s just that you asked me that question out of the blue and I just assumed-”
“That I was a gullible idiot who doesn’t know how the world works?!”
Well, that assumption wouldn’t be too far off the mark, and Boxxy understood that full well. Things like running an organization, how the government worked or the dos and don’ts of the criminal world were completely beyond the Mimic’s understanding. For the time being, at least.
“Look, Reggie, let’s just drop the act. We both know you’re not sincere anyway. Just tell me why you’re doing that stuff in the first place and I’ll steer clear of them.”
Reginald stopped his groveling and returned to his seat with a calm look on his face.
“Very well. It’s nothing that complicated, really. It’s mostly a way of helping raise the average Level of my organization’s members.”
Well, that much was obvious. Swaying a crowd with just words gave a significant amount of Doppelganger XP, something Boxxy had confirmed first-hand. In fact, if it wasn’t for that near-riot, then the Doppelganger Job would still be at Level 24.
“It also serves as a distraction, a sort of smokescreen to our actions,” he added.
“Oh? How come?”
“The commoners may try to hide it, but they are feeling the pressure of the ongoing war. It makes them fearful and distrusting, sometimes straight-up paranoid. That’s why we work to redirect those negative, potentially dangerous emotions towards an easy target like homosexuals.”
“Alienating a part of the population seems like it might be harmful in the long run.”
“It really isn’t. Commoners have very little value to us Doppelgangers to begin with, and non-breeders like those are practically worthless to our cause.”
“That’s not entirely true though, is it?” argued Boxxy. “That woman I’m using was so desperate for companionship that I had her eating out of my hand in a manner of hours. These days she’s clinging to me so much that pretty soon she might not even care if I’m outed as a fake.”
The Mimic wasn’t just saying that, either. Although its claim sounded like a mere exaggeration if one thought about it rationally, people burdened by notions such as love and trust were prone to acting irrationally. Rowana had already displayed such behavior when Boxxy attempted to create some distance between them two days ago so that it could act more freely. It showed her an unnaturally violent and merciless facet of Keira that it was sure would alienate the elf, yet she somehow ended up growing even more attached to the catgirl. It was a reaction that was as troublesome as it was unexpected, but one that proved even that extreme example was possible.
“Hmm, I suppose you may have a point,” admitted Reggie as he cupped his chin and fell into thought. “Repressed and sheltered individuals like her do make for easy targets, and infertility in a coupling like that is only to be expected. If a Doppelganger were to enter such a relationship, then ‘adopting’ a juvenile or two would potentially be beneficial…”
“That stuff aside, when can I expect for your ‘problem’ to arrive?” interrupted Boxxy.
“Either tomorrow or the day after.”
“Why not just ambush them on the way here? It’s much easier to kill someone on the road rather than in town.”
“The person in question is arriving via Forest Gate, so I doubt that would work. Also, I never said I wanted him killed.”
Boxxy’s glare immediately sharpened.
“I- I mean killing him is also a way to go about it,” he continued, “but not the best solution. You see, the man in question has been trying to prove our organization’s existence for years now. As far as we know, he has suspicions but no hard evidence. It’s not an official investigation, but he’s still got someone backing him up and providing him with funding. Simply murdering him or having him disappear would be too dangerous, yet we also cannot allow him to do as he pleases. I was hoping someone of your… particular insight would be able to do something about him.”
“I see. That’s unfortunate. I was really looking forward to ripping someone in half. A lot of someones, actually.”
“Well then, I suppose I’ll check the guild again in two days. Bye, Reggie.”
“Until we meet again.”
Keira stood up from the armchair and nonchalantly left through the same window she entered. Even if the Mimic agreed to Reggie’s demands regarding visitation, leaving through the front door was a bad idea considering nobody had been seen entering the Doppelganger’s office. The catgirl proceeded to stealthily make her way back home and spent the rest of the day slacking off with Rowana. Boxxy had decided to keep the existence of that pink gem a secret from her, at least for the moment. There was no way that shiny thing was ‘just a pretty rock,’ as that ignorant elf had claimed, and the Mimic’s intuition regarding shiny things gave it a good idea as to what was so special about it. Which was why it returned to its pet dungeon that very same night.
“Greetings, milord,” said Ambrosia as the box-shaped Doppelganger approached the core. “Does thou wish to sample of mine bosom?”
“... Might as well.”
Boxxy seriously needed something to take the edge off, and the dryad’s heavenly nectar was just the thing to do it.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Ambrosia while clapping her hands.
Something akin to an armchair made out of vines rapidly grew out of the floor, and the dryad seated herself in it. Once she was comfortable, she patted her lap, prompting Boxxy to revert to its base form and climb onto it. It was then presented with a nipple, which it eagerly latched onto and started to suckle on with all its might.
“Oh! I see milord is quite enthusiastic tonight,” she said with a smile while gently stroking its bald head.
After about 30 minutes of greedily draining her bottomless breast, Boxxy detached itself from her nipple with a satisfied sigh. Just as expected, absorbing itself in something both tasty and filling did wonders to alleviate its stress, leaving it with a distinct feeling of contentment and satisfaction. It was just a shame that there wasn’t any meat involved. As tasty as the nectar was, it ultimately lacked something. It took more than mere flavor to make a meal truly tasty, after all, and in this case it was the unique sensation of crushing someone’s bones between its jaws and gorging on their blood. The notion of devouring something that was once alive brought with it a certain degree of enjoyment that couldn’t be found in Ambrosia’s syrupy fluids.
Then again, who said that it couldn’t enjoy both of those things at the same time?
“Claws, where are you right now?” it called out telepathically.
“Uhm… in the dungeon, about 20 meters above you, Master.”
As per usual, the Stalker had been stalking the target of her affections. It’s something she always did whenever she had no other standing orders.
“I need you to go find me a meal,” it ordered. “Not a beggar or vagrant, though. I want someone of superior tastiness.”
“Ohh! You mean the type that’s really fun to chew, right?!”
“I know just the guy! I spotted this construction site that had a bunch of human laborers, and one of them was really tall and well-built! I bet he has a strong, absolutely delicious heart! I think I might’ve fallen in love with him, to be honest!”
“He’s perfect! Do you know where he is?”
“Of course! I followed him back to his house yesterday! He has a wife and kid but they just look sickly and scrawny.”
It would seem that, as per usual, the Stalker had been stalking the target of her affections. Except that this time her feelings were clearly along the lines of ‘I’d love to bite his head off.’
“Okay, then go catch him and bring him to Ambrosia at once. Alive, mind you.”
“At once, Master!”
“So, Ambrosia,” said Boxxy out loud. “Claws will be bringing you some fresh ingredients. Make sure you prepare breakfast for me.”
“It would be mine pleasure, milord,” she answered with a bow.
A gourmet serving of man-flesh with a side order of nectar sounded like the best thing to wake up to after a Rank Up. Well, Boxxy still wasn’t sure if Ambrosia’s cooking would be very good, but even if it was unbelievably nasty, then it could still eat the guy raw. Before any of that could happen though, it had to look into the thing that brought it here in the first place.
The Mimic opened up its Storage and took out the mysterious pink gem it received earlier that day. Just as before, it was completely absent from its MLG’s perception. Trying to sharpen that magical sense and focus it on where the gem actually was merely accentuated a small, square-shaped void. Much like with that Doppelgangers’ non-existent scent, the shiny thing was a blank spot in its ‘vision,’ as if was a space of pure nothingness. Boxxy had partially felt this bizarre sensation when it first laid eyes on it, but having the dungeon’s mana enriched air as a background made the ‘hole’ even more pronounced, and served to confirm the Mimic’s suspicions.
Boxxy’s MLG functioned by constantly releasing weak pulses of mana into its surroundings. These waves would then provide near-instantaneous feedback whenever they bounced off of or passed through something, allowing the organ to detect both physical and magical disturbances within its effective range. However, if something were to instantly devour a portion of said pulse, then the MLG would perceive the absence of feedback as if there were nothing there. This was probably also how the Spymaster that captured Boxxy months ago had managed to evade its perception, as something on his person or in his gear interfered with magical scans.
In other words, it wasn’t that the gem was non-magical, but rather that it was anti-magical. The lingering mystic energy in the air immediately around it seemed to disappear somewhere. More of it naturally flowed in to fill the persistent gap, creating a tiny swirl of mana around it. It was somewhat reminiscent of the dungeon core within this very room, actually. However, the Mimic’s MLG could ‘see’ the brightly glowing yellow ball without any difficulty, even if it was unable to peer inside it. It was, therefore, a reasonable assumption that the square pink jewel worked in a different way.
Since Boxxy’s magical sensory organ was of no use, it tried to examine the gem through its physical ones. Touching the pink gem merely revealed it had a smooth surface that was somewhat cold to the touch. Gripping it or putting it in its mouth displayed no discernable effects on the Mimic’s body, nor did any strange notifications appear in its mind. Then again if this thing’s secrets were that easy to find, then the people that what’s-her-face supposedly brought it to would have noticed something was amiss already. Come to think of it, she said that the result of their magical analysis was ‘inconclusive.’ Most likely this gem’s properties interfered with any and all attempts to examine it through magic, much like it messed with Boxxy’s magical perception. If the shapeshifter hoped to make any progress on unlocking the gem’s true purpose, then it needed to try something that no self-respecting professional would think of doing.
Meaning that if both magical and physical analysis failed, then what would happen if the item was subjected to a bit of prodding? Boxxy didn’t feel like blasting it with a Spell since it might break the fragile-looking shiny thing, but it didn’t exactly need to. It opened its Storage once more and took out the lighter-type wand it had bought recently. A small, steady stream of flame shot out of its tip, and the Mimic carefully subjected the gem to it. It was the magical equivalent of poking something with a stick.
Just as pink was about to meet red, however, the upwards-traveling fire suddenly curved unnaturally towards the jewel. It wrapped around it as if a snake coiling around a rodent before the fire sputtered out and died all on its own a second later. Intrigued, Boxxy did the same thing a few more times and witnessed the same reaction each time. It also noted that the lighter itself was not malfunctioning and that the gem remained perfectly cool to the touch. It then tried subjecting the gem to the non-magical flame of a lit torch and was able to confirm that nothing extraordinary happened.
Next, it spat out a bit of caustic acid through the Acid Spray Skill, forming a little puddle on the bark-covered floor of the dungeon. Hovering the gem over it caused the puke-green liquid to bubble up and evaporate at a rapid pace until every last drop of it disappeared. Some of the trace fumes the liquid let out had wrapped themselves around the pink gem before disappearing, much like the flame from earlier.
On a hunch, the Mimic took out a healing potion, poured into the freshly-melted hole in the floor and dropped the gem inside. The liquid steadily turned from a bright red to a mud-like brown and became slightly thicker in consistency, more like ink than water. Boxxy tentatively gave it a few licks, only to find out its alchemical properties had disappeared and that, oddly enough, it tasted vaguely of rust.
Boxxy continued its extremely unscientific testing by physically rubbing the gem against the lighter wand, but doing so didn’t break, dispel or otherwise interfere with the item’s enchantments. Well, that was to be expected, as magic bound to a physical item was usually nigh-impossible to dissolve without breaking the object itself.
To sum up its findings so far, the gem seemed to forcibly extract mana from its surroundings rather than simply collect the ambient magical energy like a dungeon core would. They appeared similar, but the former had a much stronger pull, even if its effective range was quite low. If one considered how the gem was strong enough to pull the magic out of liquids, then it was quite clear that it would do the same to any magical appraisals aimed at it.
But then, if it could do that, then could it also ‘eat’ Spells targeted directly at it? Admittedly, Boxxy felt like blasting it with offensive magic was a bit dangerous. If its assumptions were somehow wrong, then even a Shadowbolt, which was arguably its weakest Spell, could potentially turn the gem into dust. And that would be a horrible waste of a perfectly shiny shiney.
Ah, but Boxxy had a way to disarm potentially harmful Spells, didn’t it? A few seconds later, it had produced a Spell Crystal with a Mass Panic Spell trapped inside. It placed the 12-sided magical construct on the ground and put the gem on top of it. The two crystalline objects had barely even touched before the Spell Crystal had dissipated and the pink gem fell to the ground with a clatter. Dark Explosion, Massive Rejection, and even Singularity crystals were all sucked up instantly as well, regardless of whether Power Overwhelming was used or not. At some point Boxxy had let go of its concerns regarding the item’s durability and began using every Spell or magic trick it had at its disposal on the thing.
The results? The gem was practically indestructible through magical means. No matter the magnitude or size of the Spell, the pink jewel remained completely unaffected by any and all magic. In fact, the only time it displayed any sort of reaction was when the ground under it was damaged by the remnants of the Spells that weren’t devoured. It even resisted being transported through Transfamiliar, and the flames of both Snack and Smokey had proven to be equally ineffective on it.
Boxxy even tried dropping it in various alchemical liquids such as potions, poisons and elixirs hoping to see an anomalous reaction, but all of its trials ended exactly as the first one and provided no additional information. The Mimic then got the idea of testing the gem out on the golden goblet it had acquired through the Unholy Wealth ritual. It took the item in question out of Storage and set it down on the ground, then dropped the gem into the viscous red fluid in the cup. However, rather than sink into it, the pink jewel bounced off it with an out-of-place ‘boing’ sound and flew high into the air. Whether this was due to the curse inside the liquid rejecting the gem or vice-versa was hard to tell, but it was quite obvious that the two did not mix in the slightest.
It was also worth noting that it was indeed possible to put the mysterious gemstone in and out of Boxxy’s Storage. It was likely that the gem’s tiny, square-shaped mana absorption field was simply far too small to cause the 1-meter-wide portal to collapse. It was the same behavior it exhibited when targeted by large-scale area of effect magic, in which case it simply took a ‘bite’ out of it rather than cause it to dissipate completely. However, while its transfer was successful, it wasn’t entirely without bad side-effects. Putting it into or taking it out of the Mimic’s pocket dimension consumed about 300 to 400 MP, which was quite bizarre considering that items of similar weight and volume should cost only 1, maybe 2 MP at most.
The more the Mimic learned about the gem, however, the more it lost track of what it was actually doing. What was intended to be a pseudo-scientific experiment had devolved into Boxxy simply throwing Spells and potions at the thing just for the heck of it. It was rather fun shooting a Shadowbolt at the gem and watching the magical projectile break apart into fragments that kept flying forward with distorted trajectories. After about 30 minutes or so of goofing around in that manner, Boxxy suddenly realized that two visible changes had occurred. One of them was that the gem had started to glow with a dim inner light, while other was that its coloration had changed to a slightly paler, brighter shade of pink.
This reaction was something Boxxy had seen elsewhere and was actually natural in some ways. All that magical power that the Mimic had been haphazardly throwing at it hadn’t just disappeared into the void. Whatever this thing was, it had been steadily accumulating a magical charge of some kind. Then perhaps something truly noteworthy might happen if it was filled up all the way? The problem was that doing so would probably take quite a bit of time due to how tiny the gem’s effective range was. The jewel could absorb only a fraction of any Spell aimed at it, and there was a limit to how many potions and elixirs Boxxy was willing to ‘feed’ to it.
On second thought, why the hell was Boxxy even bothering with such things? If this was about pumping something full of MP, then it already had the perfect tool for the job.
“Ambrosia,” it called out.
The dryad who had been gleefully watching the Mimic play around since the beginning immediately approached and presented herself in a prim and proper manner.
“You’re good at manipulating mana, right? Can you pump this shiny thing full of it?”
“I am not certain, though ‘tis possible. Does milord wish for me to try?“
“Yeah. Here, take it.”
The dryad’s slender hands reached out towards Boxxy’s outstretched tentacle. Her left fingers grasped the gem, while her right gently wrapped around the wriggling appendage and lingered there for an unnecessarily long time. After pointlessly stroking the tip of it for a few moments, she turned her attention to the precious stone in her palm and began doing as instructed. She stared at it intently for several seconds before the light coming from it became ever-so-slightly brighter.
“‘It would appear that I am capable of infusing this bauble with mine mana, milord,” she declared. “However, ‘tis considerably more difficult than filling a living vessel.”
“But you can do it?”
“Verily,” she answered with a polite nod.
“Very good! Then please fill it up right away!”
“How much power should I infuse it with, milord?”
“Uh… Just keep going until it won’t take anymore, I guess.”
“Understood. Then, I shall begin.”
Ambrosia turned her attention back to the jewel and began pumping it full of mana. Boxxy watched with anticipation as the pink gem steadily grew whiter and brighter. It even seemed to expand a bit in size, though it still remained a blank spot in its magical perception. The Mimic bounced in place excitedly as it waited for the gem to approach full charge. And once that happened, then- … Then…
Then what? Boxxy had gotten so caught up in the charging process that it neglected to question what would happen after that.
“Ambrosia, stop what you’re doing for a moment,” it commanded.
“As you will, milord.”
By this point, the gem was almost completely white, with but the faintest trace of pink remaining. The white light it gave off was already intense enough to make it hard to stare directly at the thing, as well. If one were to take these visual cues into consideration, then it was quite clear that the item was almost close to full charge.
“Exactly how much MP did you put into that?” it asked.
“About 42,000,” came the casual answer.
“... That’s more than twice the dungeon core’s capacity, right?”
“Thou art correct.”
“And yet it’s many times smaller, isn’t it?”
“Also is it me, or is this thing buzzing slightly?”
“... It is indeed giving off such a noise, milord.”
Boxxy had very limited experience regarding shiny things that soaked up mana as if they were a thirsty dwarf floating inside a lake of beer. In fact, it only knew of a single object like that. One that absorbed half a dungeon’s worth of mana, grew in size and then started glowing and giving off a weird buzzing noise. In fact, if one were to ignore the difference in shape, size and coloration, then this was pretty much a repeat of that time.
“Is something the matter, milord?”
“Uhm, yeah… Let’s just forget about the glowy thing, shall we?”
Boxxy took the gem back from Ambrosia, somewhat hesitantly put it inside its Storage and then began making arrangements for its Rank Up.
It really did not feel like recreating the Calamity of Monotal with its dungeon as ground zero.