“Welcome back, Keira!”
Walking into the Hidden Arrow guild’s lobby, the cat-eared beastkin was enthusiastically greeted by Clara - the only receptionist on duty. The two guards that were here last time had relocated themselves to just outside the room, so they had already exchanged greetings with the ‘Merry Popper.’
“Hey, Clara,” she said with a somewhat awkward wave of her hand. “Uhm… S-sorry again about the other day.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine!” answered the human girl dismissively. “Even if you went a bit overboard, it was still not that big a deal. We all lose our cool from time to time. I personally want to do the same thing to the guys that keep sending such filth! Honestly, being a woman in a man’s world is really frustrating sometimes. Did you know the main reason I was hired in the first place is because of my face?”
The receptionist complained with a tired voice as Keira made her way over to her counter.
“Oh, also because of my race,” she continued. “Apparently the higher-ups are worried we appear too elf-centric, so they hire humans like me at every damned opportunity. All in the name of ‘diversity’ or some such nonsense.”
“Hmm? But would you have gotten the job if they weren’t looking for people like you?”
Truthfully speaking, this brown-haired girl was not the best at keeping her mouth shut and her hands to herself. Her nosy tendencies were quite unsuited for a position that handled other people’s money and sensitive personal information on a regular basis.
“... Okay, you may have a point there… Anyway! What can I help you with today?”
“Uhm… any Quests I can take?” asked the catgirl.
“Pretty much nothing, same as before. You missed an interesting Open Quest yesterday though.”
An Open Quest was a type of commission that multiple adventuring groups could take part in. Quests of that type were predominantly used for large-scale operations that demanded a lot of manpower.
“Oh? What was it about?”
“Mostly dealing with the katun uprising from yesterday.”
“A katun uprising? That’s… unusual,” noted Keira.
Katuns were a species of raccoon-like monsters with goblin-level intelligence. They generally knew how to use weapons and at least 1 in 20 of them were naturally adept at magic, but were rather docile by monster standards. In fact, they tended to shy away from those bigger than themselves, such as adult elves. That didn’t mean they didn’t get violent every now and then, though. They still fought back if backed into a corner and went berserk at the sight of gold, jewels, mirrors or other particularly shiny objects.
“The city’s guard thought so too,” said Clara, “but dozens of them kept crawling out of the sewers in broad daylight and endangering the citizens, so it was hard to call it anything else. I’m kinda surprised you missed all the commotion.”
“Well, my house is rather high up so things happening down on ground level are a bit… Anyway, what was the Quest about?”
“Oh, the city officials wanted to hire any available scouts to help comb the sewers and track down the source of the disturbance. They eventually found the commune they were all coming from and a joint operation suppressed it completely. The whole thing was resolved at around sundown.”
“I see. I’m kind of glad I missed it to be honest.”
“Really, now? I thought you’d be jumping at the chance to get out there.”
“Yeah well… let’s just say my nose does not cooperate with me when it comes to sewers…”
“Right… Well as far as Quests go there really isn’t anything I can give you.”
“Come on, there must be something for me to do!”
“Nope, there really isn’t. At least, not for someone with your circumstances.”
“... There are no personal requests you’re trying to hide from me again, right?”
“Of- Of course not!”
“You’re sure? You lying to me hurt almost as much as that stupid letter you know!”
“I know, and I’m really sorry about that… I already got many-an-earful from my boss about it, so please spare me that look, okay? I’m on thin ice as it is!”
If she denied it to that extent, then it would appear Reggie still hadn’t sent word. Even if she was an idiot, she still had a job to do.
“Well, alright. I’ll forgive you this once since you meant well.”
Just as Boxxy was about to leave in a fit of disappointment, one of the guards standing just outside the door poked his head into the room.
“Hey, kiddo!” he said while waving Keira over. “We were just handed another personal request for you.”
“Ohh! I hope it’s someone nicer this time!”
The catgirl practically bounced over to him without even trying to hide her excitement, and the guardsman handed her a sealed envelope.
“Just, uh… Don’t set anything on fire this time.”
“No promises. Kidding! I’m kidding, okay?! It was a joke so please stop chanting Create Water under your breath!”
After the minor commotion settled down and the guard returned outside, Keira took a seat intended for visitors, unsealed the envelope and looked at the form within.
|Submitter: Jane Willow
Address: Azurvale Commercial District, Elbow Pine Alley, 5th house on the left, opposite the smithy.
Quest Name: Alchemical testing
Description: I have been developing a new blend of shampoos, ointments and soaps with alchemical additives to help boost their hygienic and cosmetic effects. The purpose of this endeavor is entirely commercial. However, I am unsure whether they will have any unforeseen side-effects on non-elves. As such, I request miss Morgana’s assistance in finding out whether my products are compatible with beastkin or not.
Approximate Difficulty: ★
Estimated Completion Time: Indeterminate, 3 to 4 hours a day
Due Date: As soon as it is convenient
Reward: 30 GP per day. Additional compensation and free medical care will be provided should any side-effects arise.
Finally! exclaimed Boxxy. Now this looks like something that guy would send!
It was mundane, reasonable, and just vague enough to leave a good deal of wiggle room. The Mimic would probably consider this a serious offer if it wasn’t expecting to hear from Reggie. Well, there was still a chance it was an actual soap-obsessed egg-head, but it could always give up on the Quest should such a thing happen.
Keira suddenly sprang from her seat and basically ran to the counter.
“Clara! It’s a personal Quest! A real one! Look!”
The catgirl thrust the piece of paper forward, directly into the human’s face, and the girl skimmed it over. Well, technically she wasn’t supposed to read it since it was still a personal message, but it would probably be okay since Keira was showing it to her willingly.
“Oh, so it is! Well, I’m glad it wasn’t some asshole trying to mess with you again.”
“Then, it’s okay if I take this immediately, right?!”
“You sure? I mean, that seems awfully dull…”
“It is my first real personal Quest, and I will do my best to fulfill it!”
“Alright, alright. Sheesh, I almost forgot how you got fired up by even the tiniest things.”
Clara got off her seat and quickly searched through the cabinets behind her and pulled out a thick, envelope-like brown paper bag, which was impossible to open without ripping it apart. Inside that unusual container was Keira’s personnel file. It included official records of all her guild-sanctioned activities, an extremely lifelike picture of her face, Appraisal results, body measurements, current address and other personal or otherwise confidential information. The receptionist set it down at her desk behind the counter, took out a blank form from a nearby stack of paper and started filling it out with startling speed and accuracy. This was essentially an activity log that stated Keira Morgana of the Hidden Arrow guild had accepted a personal Quest on today’s date.
After noting down the necessary details, Clara placed the newly filled out form and the folded up personal request on the counter in front of Keira, then pinned the documents down with a crystal-ball-like Quest Log. Keira placed her hand on top of the familiar magic item and chanted ‘Accept Quest’ to activate the contract magic. Once that was done, Clara put away the Quest Log, took both documents and put them on top of Keira’s still-closed file. The receptionist then grabbed one of the stamps on her desk and applied it to the top-most documents with a soft thud. The pieces of paper didn’t get marked by ink, but instead glowed softly for a few seconds as copies of both documents’ contents were magically transferred inside the file.
This whole process was intentionally designed in such a way that the adventurer would not need to divulge the contents of a personal Quest, but there would still be a record of it. Just in case a legal dispute, investigation or annual audit required that their file be unsealed. It was extremely streamlined as well, as the whole thing had taken under a minute from start to finish.
“All set. Here you go, Keira,” stated Clara while handing back the slightly warm personal Quest form.
“Thanks, Clara. You know, it’s always amazing seeing you guys work so fast.”
“Well, even us low-Level Scribes are good at handling paperwork. I’m actually one of the slow ones,” claimed the receptionist with a shrug. “If it was one of my seniors they’d be at least twice as fast as I am.”
“Ohhhh! Scribes are unexpectedly cool, huh?”
“Nah, not really. It’s so horribly dull that I don’t know why I even bothered picking this Job up in the first place.”
“Isn’t it because you wanted to help people however you could?”
“Yeah, something like that… Anyway, is there anything else you need?”
“Nope! Thanks again Clara! I’ll be off!”
Keira went to leave the lobby while smiling and waving goodbye.
“Just make sure you don’t forget to properly report your income, okay?!” shouted Clara. “You don’t want to be prosecuted for tax evasion, you know!”
Personal Quests were one of the rare occasions where the rewards would be handed to the adventurer directly by the client, so it wasn’t unheard of for people to lie about that on their paperwork.
“I’ll keep it in mind!”
The catgirl left the lobby and, after enduring some joking remarks from the guards outside, exited the CC building. Rowana would be at work all morning, so Boxxy had plenty of time to check out the client’s address.
As it turned out, Elbow Pine Alley wasn’t some dark, dirty alley hidden in the bowels of the city, but was more of a dead-end street just off a wide boulevard. It was quite removed from the Namhel Brothers bank that Reggie owned, but the place was still quite conveniently located as far as going to and from it was concerned. The building itself was a two-story town house built out of brick and mortar rather than wood, much like the rest of the buildings in the Commercial district. The only extraordinary thing about it was the oddly colored blue-green smoke that trickled out of the chimney.
After confirming she’d found the right address, Keira knocked on the door and waited. And waited. And waited.
“Excuse me! Anyone home?!” she shouted after about a minute or so while knocking harder.
This time she heard some rustling and bustling on the other side of the door. There was a loud click or two as a lock was undone and the wooden door finally swung open.
“Yes?! How can I-”
The woman that opened was an elf, who froze the instant she saw the catgirl. Her face was one Boxxy had seen before. It belonged to one of the two Doppelgangers that ‘kidnapped’ Keira - the female-looking one called J. The Mimic’s nose was unable to confirm a scent or lack thereof since she smelled strongly of herbs, so it decided to play along until it knew for certain if she was the same individual.
“H-hello, ma’am. I’m here about the request you posted to my guild. I’m Keira!”
“Oh. Oh, my! You really came!” replied the other party. “Ah, where are my manners. Jane Willow, at your service.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Willow!”
“Likewise. And please, Jane will do. Then, does your being here here mean you’ll be assisting with my research?!”
“Excellent! Then do come in, please!”
She showed the catgirl inside and locked the front door behind her before guiding her into the house.
“I must say, I heard the rumors, but you look much prettier than I expected!”
“Thank you, Jane. You’re looking quite, uh, charming yourself.”
That was clearly a lie by any stretch of the imagination. That woman’s looks, whether she was real or a fake, were plain at best. The heavily stained apron, unruly bedhead and heavy bags under her eyes would make most people on the street give her a wide berth.
“Well, at least you’re polite. Even if not entirely honest.”
And she was obviously well aware of that.
The two of them had gone past what appeared to be some sort of sitting room and were currently climbing the stairs to the second floor.
“I must say, it is a bit surprising you agreed to this,” admitted Jane.
“Well, I just need something to keep me busy, you know?”
“Oh, I understand completely, my dear! Ah, watch your head now.”
They passed through the slightly low door at the top of the stairs and entered what appeared to be an alchemical lab. Jars, urns and bowls full of various ingredients lined the shelf on one side of the room, while a small, black pot - the source of those weird fumes - was bubbling with something over a fire. Opposite the shelf of ingredients was a large wooden table, that had been populated by bunch of vials and flasks filled with various colored liquids, as well as a mortar and pestle off to the side. The sole window on the far wall was so dirty that only a few rays of sunlight managed to break through.
And, almost as expected, all noise from the outside was silenced the instant Jane closed the door behind her. According to Boxxy’s MLG, this room was enveloped by the same sound-blocking magic as Reggie’s office. And judging from how Jane’s slightly stiff smile was replaced by a cold scowl, this was indeed a Doppelganger.
“You’re J, right?” asked Keira without even turning around.
“Don’t look so surprised. We’ve already ‘met’ you know. I know Reggie sent you, and you should already know who I am. Since introductions aren’t necessary-”
The catgirl’s head turned a full 180 degrees like something out of a horror story, yet on her face was the same toothache-inducing smile she had just moments ago. It was an expression completely at odds with her cold, monotone voice.
“-then let’s get down to business.”
“... Haaaa,” sighed J. “You’re way more than ‘a handful,’ aren’t you? That old geezer better up my hazard pay for this… I agree with you though, so let’s get right to it.”
J walked over to her ‘workstation,’ unlocked one of the cabinets underneath with a key and took out several pieces of paper. She cleared away most of the vials and spread the documents out. One was a small map of the city with several locations marked, while the others were various reports.
“The man we’re after is one Jones Alexis,” she explained,” a human Wizard and retired adventurer.”
The girl’s head morphed into that of a man in his early 50s, with short, slightly messy hair, scruffy beard and only one eye - all of them brown in color. His face had a large burn scar on his left side, probably the same wound that made him lose that eye. Judging from the proportions of the face and head, Boxxy assumed his build was rather lanky and shorter than average.
“Estimated Level is in the upper 80s,” she continued, “ and he seems to hold some sort of personal grudge against our kind. He’s also completely convinced we’re very real and has been trying to prove our existence for about 3 years now. We’ve been careful so as to avoid giving him any leads so far, but he’s bound to turn something up sooner or later.”
“How come he’s so sure you guys exist?”
“Best as we could gather, someone dear to him had been killed as a direct result of one or more Doppelgangers’ actions. Based on how he operates, he’s definitely dealt with our kind before.”
“And you guys haven’t been able to get close to him since he’s a Wizard who’s aware of your existence. He’s extremely suspicious when awake and puts up copious amounts of lightning-based glyphs whenever he sleeps, right?”
Glyphs were a type of high-Level magic that placed a Spell upon the environment, almost like a temporary enchantment. The anti-noise barrier in this very room was created by a type of glyph in the first place. The human in question probably used the technique to place magic traps that repelled intruders by releasing an electrical charge.
“Y-yes, that’s right,” stammered J out of surprise. She honestly hadn’t expected this ‘monster among monsters,’ as her boss had described it, to be able to discern the root of their problem so quickly.
However, rather than foresight or deduction, Boxxy was speaking out of insight. Not only did its base nature as a Mimic mean it had a natural affinity for laying traps, but it had also studied up on Wizards and Shamans since they were its natural enemies. And if Boxxy were in that human’s place, it would definitely make plenty of glyphs. Ones powerful enough to seriously injure or outright kill any and all intruders, regardless of whether they were monsters or men.
“What about those backers of his?” asked Keira matter-of-factly.
“We… haven’t been able to identify them, but they most definitely exist. He keeps receiving monetary support from somewhere, otherwise his little crusade against us would have ran out of steam long ago.”
“And he hasn’t gone to the government because… ?”
“Unknown. As far as we can tell, he’s overestimated our abilities and believes we’ve infiltrated the Republic’s cabinet.”
“And you haven’t?”
“... The head is the only one who dabbles in politics among us. At least as far as I’m aware of.”
I see, so he’s not careful or meticulous, just paranoid, concluded Boxxy. I can use that.
More to the point, however, Boxxy was starting to understand Reggie’s conundrum. Just as he’d stated, an outright murder would be a good immediate solution, but that guy’s backers meant it would probably come back to bite him in the ass. After all, a Level 80-something Wizard wouldn’t die in the middle of a safe zone like a city unless he was assassinated. And there would be only one reason for a guy like that to be targeted.
“Understood. Then are you going to assist me with this?” asked Boxxy.
“Those are my orders, yes.”
“That’s good. I’m going to need your help if my plan is going to work. Oh, and just a tip - you really should fix up this flimsy Facade. If you and I are going to have regular contact then this won’t do at all.”
“... What? What’s wrong with my Facade?!” snapped J as if she were offended. “I’ve been living in this house for years and nobody on this street is suspicious of me!”
“Oh really? Then how come your neighbors kept giving me concerned looks while I was standing outside your front door? One of them even tried to warn me away from ‘that crazy weed lady’ when I asked for directions. You probably didn’t notice since they just smile and wave at you whenever you make eye contact. I bet your Doppelganger Job’s been in a rut for a while, right?”
J’s eyes and jaw flew wide open. She was indeed stuck at Level 34 of that Job for the longest time, and the people around here did indeed act that way around her.
“H-how did you know about-”
“It’s painfully obvious if this is how you approach your public persona.”
Boxxy motioned at the room around them with both arms. The same space that practically screamed ‘This is an alchemy lab!’ to anyone who saw it. Or at least it would, if said ‘anyone’ were completely ignorant of how Alchemists actually operated. And as someone who had a professional Alchemist for a girlfriend, Keira was not one of them.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?!”
“All of it.”
Boxxy took a deep breath. If it was going to work with this individual, then she needed to know exactly where she stood.
“To begin with, those ‘ingredients’ lined up on the shelf are unorganized and prone to expiring. You completely failed to follow proper storage procedures for most of them. I bet many of them have lost their potency by now, if any of them were real in the first place.”
The Mimic then pointed at the vials lined up on the side.
“Nobody in their right mind keeps alchemical compounds lying around like that. If the potion’s done, you seal the vial and put it away. If you leave it done half-way like that, you’ve essentially wasted both time and materials. Besides, they all look like colored water no matter how I look at them.”
Next it gestured at the stupefied Doppelganger in the room.
“Your attire is also unacceptable. You stink of herbs and your clothes are filthy. I’m guessing that’s intentional, but that only makes your mistake worse. Sanitation is extremely important to the potion brewing process, you know. That goes double for this dusty room that has no water outlet. Any potion you try to make in a place like this will get contaminated and turn into useless sludge. Not to mention that the lighting in here is woefully insufficient for the precise measurements needed in Alchemy.”
Finally, Boxxy raised its palm at the bubbling pot in the corner of the room, as if it didn’t even want to look at it.
“Don’t even get me started on that. That’s just so ridiculous that I’d have to spend at least an hour if wanted to list all the problems with it. My point is, this idiotic display of yours is doing you more harm than good. I know Reggie tells you guys to lay low, but you’re going about it all wrong. You shouldn’t be pretending to be someone else, you need to become someone else. Like this, see?”
The catgirl’s scowling face instantly melted into a gorgeous smile that practically radiated joy.
“Hi, miss! I’m Keira! Excuse me, but could you tell me the way to the nearest elevator? I’m a bit lost, and my, uh, roommate would get really mad at me if I’m late again…”
It was a flawless performance that gave J a bizarre, surreal feeling similar to the one she experienced at the front door a little while ago. The catgirl she met was so bubbly and innocent-looking that she momentarily doubted whether Reginald was telling the truth about her being a shapeshifter. It wasn’t just the expressions and words, it went deeper than that. It was as if the very air around the girl suddenly changed in an instant.
“I love salmon, by the way! If you know a place that sells it fresh, please let me know, okay?”
Barely discernable facial twitches, tiny fluctuations in her voice, subtle movements of the body - all manner of signals that people involuntarily made and subconsciously read were perfectly mimicked with a singular purpose. The Mimic that was capable of picking up on the tiniest of details had been steadily working on incorporating the subtleties of body language into its act over the past two months. It was already effective to the point where even someone like J, who wasn’t even a person, was unknowingly picking up on them. Hardly surprising, considering a regular Doppelganger would need a high-quality MLG in order to consciously perceive and copy such minute cues.
“Huh? Hobbies?” said the catgirl while acting out some sort of conversation. “Well, I love tinkering with stuff, especially clockwork! The clicky-clacky sounds of gears and springs moving in tandem are quite charming, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I guess… Wait, what?!”
J was caught completely off guard and ended up casually answering that pointless question as if it was the most natural thing to do. And, on some deeper level, that terrified her. The gap between what was on the outside and on the inside was so extreme that it filled her with an odd sense of fear, awe and wonderment, as if petrified by the majesty of an oncoming hurricane. In her eyes, the Doppelganger called Boxxy T. Morningwood had spoken truly. It wasn’t pretending to be Keira Morgana - it was Keira Morgana.
“Alright, you’ve made your point,” she admitted with a defeated sigh. To say she had much to learn would be an understatement.
“I’ll take your… advice into consideration,” she continued,” but in the meantime - you mentioned a plan?”
“That’s right,” answered Boxxy after switching off Keira mode. “I’ve been pondering about it for the last two days, actually. If we can’t take him down ourselves, then we need to make him fall on his own.”
“So… you intend to frame him somehow?”
“No, idiot. I’m not going to put him in a frame. What would be the point of that?!”
“... Framing a person means to incriminate them for some crime they didn’t commit.”
“Oh. Well yeah, something like that. I still have to investigate the target for myself to work out the details, but it should be enough.”
“I do not believe that sort deception will be effective. Like I said earlier, we have no chance of getting close to him, both physically and metaphorically. Magic aside, the guy is inherently suspicious of everything and everyone he encounters. He doesn’t trust anybody, not even the organization that’s backing him.”
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” stated Boxxy in a confident tone. “If there is one thing that humans will always trust in, it is themselves. And where there is trust, there will always be betrayal.”