Boxxy woke up the next morning in a foul mood. It wasn’t until after it had finished reprimanding Fizzy over matters of ‘acceptable risk’ last night that it realized it was left feeling quite exhausted, probably a side-effect of that whole astral projection business. It was already well after dark by that point, so it decided to get some actual sleep and recover its strength.
It was by no means a restful sleep, however, as it woke up several times throughout the night. That Underwood woman’s sudden anti-shapeshifter test made it impossible for the shapeshifter to let its guard down, so it awoke every time it sensed a disturbance in its MLG range. The disturbances in question turned out to be nothing more than Legion guard patrols passing a bit too-close to the house, but that was it.
As such, the Mimic did not get nearly as much sleep as it needed. Unfortunately, it had a Facade to maintain and it had already been 3 hours since Keira’s usual wake-up time. Therefore it somewhat begrudgingly got up, got dressed in a heavy military-style coat, made its way out of the room, went down the stairs and left the house.
It would appear that yesterday’s predominantly cloudy weather had returned with a vengeance. The depressingly gray sky was looking like it might unleash an ocean’s worth of rain at any given moment, but it wasn’t doing so right now. Which was good, because Boxxy didn’t like the rain. Having so many droplets of water pass through its magical perception field was, for lack of a better term, too noisy for its liking. Not to mention that the thunder and lightning that typically accompanied such weather was not exactly pleasant.
Scary things were still scary, regardless of whether it had the means to defend itself against them.
As Keira walked down the slightly foggy streets, however, she started drawing the attention of people around her. This wasn’t something particularly new in and of itself since Keira’s appearance was designed to stand out in the first place, but the nature of said attention was unexpected.
“Looking good, Ma’am!”
“Great work out there!”
“Don’t let the muffin man get ya! Hah-hahaha!”
“You go, girl!”
“Way to show those Imperials how it’s done!”
“Can you sign my shield?!”
“Hang in there, shorty!”
“Mor-gah-nah! Mor-gah-nah! Mor-gah-nah!”
Rather than passing looks of mild curiosity, Keira was instead greeted by cheers and well-wishes. Total strangers were congratulating her on her victory, asking to shake her hand or saluting her with utmost respect and adoration. There were, of course, those who seemed unable to work up the nerve to approach the catgirl and stuck to cheering and/or waving at her from a distance, but they were in the minority.
By this point it was painfully obvious that Keira’s identity as a Hero had already spread among the rank and file. Whether this was because someone in her unit spilled the beans or due to the higher-ups spreading the news on purpose was unclear, nor did it matter at that point. The problem was that those people almost seemed too happy to see her. It was a given that Heroes would be popular and draw a crowd, but this was a bit too much too soon, wasn’t it? There was clearly something else going on, but Keira had been left out of the loop since she overslept. To make matters worse, being swarmed by all those ‘fans’ made it difficult for the flabbergasted catgirl to get any answers.
Just as she was wondering how to deal with all of this, Keira suddenly locked eyes with a familiar face in the crowd. A female elf about 20 years of age, with long green hair tied up in a stylish ponytail, piercing emerald eyes and fair skin as white as snow. She was a splendid Ranger in her own right and one of Keira’s former classmates - one of the last class of adventurers to receive Milo Faehorn’s teachings.
“Oh! Liaaaa!” exclaimed the catgirl with an excited wave of her hand.
The elf in question let out a small squeal as countless eyes suddenly settled on her. Not knowing how to react, she stiffly about-faced and started walking away at a brisk pace.
“Hey! Lia! Wait up! It’s me - Keira!”
However, rather than turn around and greet her properly, the young woman quickened her pace.
The catgirl’s pleasantly smiling face turned to one of bewilderment, replaced immediately by an annoyed, toothy scowl. She dropped down on all fours and raised her hips up slightly with her glare locked onto the retreating elf’s head. That sudden action caused the soldiers directly in front of her to immediately clear the way, while the others were gripped by a sudden silence.
Noticing the change in atmosphere, Lia glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Keira assume her signature ‘take-off’ position.
“I said wait for me, damn it!”
Upon uttering those words, the catgirl sprang forward like an arrow launched from a bow, both her hands and feet digging out small holes in the cold moist dirt underneath as she dashed madly at Lia.
The elf let off a shriek and started running away with all her might. She sprinted haphazardly through the crowd with tears forming on the corner of her eyes. Displaying the agility and speed befitting of a mid-Level Ranger, she was able to run around obstacles, people and corners with ease while maintaining her dangerous speed. A quick glance over her shoulders revealed that Keira was very much on her trail and was steadily catching up. Startled out of her wits, Lia turned around a corner, went into a ruined house, hopped up to the half-collapsed roof and leapt towards another building across the alley. She landed on the mostly intact, flat roof with a single roll and kept running towards the opposite edge-
-only to have the catgirl suddenly leap up in front of her.
Lia let out a weird noise as she failed to kill her momentum and collided with Keira. The beastkin wrapped her arms and legs around the elf, knocking her off her feet and pinning her against the roof’s hard flat surface. The two of them panted lightly as Keira held the lightly struggling Lia down by her shoulders while straddling her stomach.
“Why did you run?!” asked the catgirl in-between gasps.
“You yelled at me and then started chasing me! What was I supposed to do?!”
“You could’ve greeted me instead of ignoring me!”
“And how was I supposed to do that?! You’re a Hero!”
“So?! I’m also your friend, aren’t I?!”
“Well- Yes! I mean, no! I mean- It’s not- You’re a Hero!”
A few silent moments passed as the two ladies stared into each other’s eyes.
“... I’m glad you’re alive,” muttered Keira, then lowered herself down on top of Lia.
The elf was momentarily flustered as some rather impure thoughts flashed through her head. Just the fact that she was aware of Keira’s sexuality somehow made her believe she was about to have her first kiss stolen from her by force. Such absurd thoughts were immediately put to rest, however, when the catgirl in question merely wrapped her arms around the elf’s neck and pressed her face into her shoulder.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!” she repeated in a muffled voice that sounded like she was on the verge of tears.
After finally calming down enough to realize how silly she had been, Lia placed a hand on Keira’s crimson head while a soft smile naturally floated onto her face.
“I’m happy to see you too,” she said in a quiet voice.
The catgirl took a minute or two to calm down enough to release Lia from the rather inappropriate embrace. After both of them sufficiently cooled off, they silently agreed to remain on that roof for a while longer and sat cross legged next to each other.
“Why’d you try to ignore me like that?” asked Keira with a pout. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you since Fort Yimin, yet you tried to walk away like I wasn’t there!”
“Look, I’m really sorry about that,” she apologized. “I just- I’m not very good with crowds so I freaked out when you put me on the spot like that.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. I wasn’t sure what was going on either so I called out to you without thinking…”
“What, you weren’t sure what to do? I thought you basically lived for that sort of attention!”
“I do not!”
“Uh-huh. So the reason you’re so damn flashy and do every little thing with flair isn’t because you want others to notice you?”
“Of course not! … Okay, maybe I like to show off every now and then, but who doesn’t? It’s not like I want people to stare at me all the time, you know!”
“Hehehehe, I know, I know. I’m just teasing you a little. I was honestly surprised to see you so flustered back there, usually you’re pretty good with people.”
“One or two at a time, maybe, but they all came at me so suddenly! I mean, seriously, what was that about?!”
“Mmm, you can’t really blame them for wanting to cheer on their resident Hero, right? Thanks for telling me about that, by the way,” she added with an accusatory tone and a wry grin.
“Well, technically you never asked. Besides, being a Hero of Chaos is hardly anything to brag about.”
“You never wanted the title, right?”
Keira went wide-eyed at that statement
“How did you know about that?”
“I dropped by to check on you a few times while you were knocked out,” said Lia with a sad smile. “I rushed right over when I heard you’d woken up and ended up overhearing your complaints about the whole Hero of Chaos thing.”
“You were spying on me?!”
“No, I said overheard you. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on you, and neither did the 30 or so people gathered around your house. You’re really loud when you’re upset, you know.”
“... Oh. I, uh, wasn’t aware of that.”
It would seem that the main culprit behind confirming the identity of the Hero of Chaos was none other than Keira herself. Boxxy had apparently been a bit too vocal with its anti-Gargamel protests and its little improvised act had turned out to be significantly more public than initially anticipated. Well, the information was bound to spread anyway, but at least it knew where and how the rumor started.
“I gotta say though,” continued Lia, “you got quite the mouth on you. You’re honestly the last person I expected to scream things like ‘crazy cunt-waffle’ off of the top of their lungs.”
“Th-that was entirely her own fault!” declared Keira with a rapidly reddening face. “She thought I was the Sandman in disguise!”
“She what?! How does that make any sense?! I mean - look at you!”
“That’s what I said, too! But apparently she thought I was a shapeshifter and electrocuted me! While I was still in bed!”
“Oh, wow!” exclaimed Lia with eyes wide. “Okay, I take it back. ‘Crazy cunt-waffle’ might have been too good for her! Who does that to a person?! Especially to the girl who stopped the war!”
“I know, right?! … Wait, what?”
“What do you mean ‘stopped the war?!’”
“Oh, you, uh, didn’t hear?”
“An Imperial envoy dropped by just before dawn to officially surrender. Talks are still ongoing but it seems they’ve completely lost the will to fight us ever since you won against their Hero.”
“Don’t look so surprised, Keira! When you defeated that guy, you didn’t just eliminate a VIP - you crushed a symbol that represented everything the Empire stood for!”
“I see… I didn’t really think about it that way.”
It made a certain amount of sense, now that Boxxy thought about it. If that guy was a poster boy for the Empire’s ‘righteousness’ in this war, then having him fall was bound to cause some severe backlash regarding troop morale. Especially considering the destruction wrought by Punchy’s flashy magic show mere minutes before that. And if this news about the enemy surrendering was already widespread, then it was no wonder all those soldiers were cheering for Keira so vehemently.
“What was it like?” asked Lia. “Fighting a Hero, I mean?”
“… Honestly? It was terrifying. He had those scary Skills that would’ve taken me out in one blow if he hit me with them. It was also a bit sad. The guy was a broken mess, a shell of a man. I know it sounds crazy, but I could swear I felt the rage and pain in his heart, see it in his eyes. Ending him almost felt like a mercy.”
“I had no idea… I just assumed- I mean, I never would’ve thought that’s what he was like. Makes me feel sorry for him, really…”
“Well, don’t. Hero or not, he was still the one that came straight at us with the intent to kill. He left me and my subordinates with no choice but to fight back, which is exactly what we did. I know it sounds mean, but he got what was coming to him. I just can’t bring myself to care about a jerk like that, regardless of what he’s been through.”
The catgirl hugged her legs and buried her face in her knees.
“Besides. He’s not the only Hero that has had to suffer…”
The suddenly heavy atmosphere caused the conversation to grind to a halt, as Lia was once again keenly reminded of her friend’s difficult past, and could only imagine the hardships she hadn’t shared. However, even though Keira spoke with a solemn face and tone, the monster inside was still licking its lips at the spoils of that particular conquest.
Description: One who has felled a chosen of the Gods.
Requirements: Directly contribute to a Hero’s death.
The Hero Killer Perk wasn’t part of that quiet celebration, though. It seemed like nothing more but a mark on one’s status, a sort of proof that the individual helped murder a Hero. Whether it would be interpreted as a badge of honor or the mark of a villain depended entirely on one’s perspective. Keira wasn’t the only one who had gotten this, either, as Fizzy revealed that everyone at the scene had also been awarded with it, herself included. Practically speaking, however, the fact this Perk had no effects whatsoever was more than a little annoying. It might turn out to have hidden side-effects such as the Butcher of Humanity Perk later on, but for the moment Boxxy had officially declared it an un-tasty waste of space.
Something that could not be said of the other Perk it acquired yesterday.
Usurper of Justice
Description: A Hero who has proven themselves superior to their peer and has claimed their divine power as their own.
Requirements: Defeat the Hero of the Hammer in a Clash of Fate.
Effects: Grants the Vengeance Skill.
Description: Those who dare lay their hands on the champion of justice shall feel the fury of the Goddess herself.
Activation Time: Instant
Cost: 5% of max MP
Effects: Imbues the next non-Martial Art melee attack with divine power.
Increases the damage dealt by this Skill by 10% for every 5% of maximum HP lost over the last 10 seconds.
Damage dealt by this Skill bypasses 50% of enemy defenses.
This Skill may not be activated more than once every 10 seconds.
As expected, Vengeance was a broken and completely unfair Skill. Even with the limitations on its usage, it allowed the user to turn things around in a single move. To put it another way, it was like having a ‘get out of stupid free’ card. If that Hero had been relying on this Skill as a crutch to get him through hard fights, then it was no wonder why his basic abilities were so poor. This was exactly the kind of flaw that Faehorn repeatedly warned all his students about, and it was one of said students that took advantage of it in a fight. The fact that those teachings, which were meant to help people survive monster encounters, were used by a monster to more effectively murder its prey made the irony of the situation almost too delicious.
However, Boxxy had gotten something far more valuable than a potent Skill from that encounter - it had acquired knowledge. Namely the confirmation that other Heroes were also granted three Skills by their patron deity - a major one, a minor one and a common one. That, and that apparently it was possible to steal one of those Skills for itself. Granted, these conclusions were based on a very limited sample size, but the Mimic felt confident it’s Three-Skill-Theory held merit.
The ‘major’ Skills were abilities that would become the defining characteristics of the Hero in question. Bernard’s Justice From Above, for example, was the ultimate weapon against evil, while Boxxy’s own Agent of Chaos could vastly derail the fate of others. And it was honestly quite difficult to tell which one was more powerful. While the former was unquestionably more useful in combat and was a very obvious demonstration of the Goddess’s power, the latter had the potential to topple entire nations from within. The two Skills were quite honestly incomparable, but the overall impact they had on the world was unquestionably significant.
The ‘minor’ tier Skills would then be likes of Chaotic Disposition and Vengeance. Ones that were still aligned with the patron deity’s values, but were far less powerful than the ‘major’ ones. The differences between the two tiers was made all the more apparent due to the fact that the Usurper of Justice Perk only awarded Boxxy with the Vengeance Skill. It just made sense in its own way. After all, stolen divine power or not, it would only be natural that only the true Hero of the Hammer would be able to wield an iconic move like Judgment From Above.
Besides, even if the Mimic had gained said Skill, it doubted whether it could actually make use of it. According to the Republic’s Foreign Intelligence Bureau, it was supposedly a Skill that would vary greatly in power depending on the user’s own perceptions of what was ‘just’ and what was ‘evil.’ However, an amoral monster like Boxxy would not be able to do much with a biased Skill like that, because it did not see the world in terms of justice or evil. That wasn’t to say it didn’t understand the concepts, but rather that it ignored them on purpose.
After all, from the Mimic’s point of view, everything in this world could be categorized as either ‘tasty’ or ‘not tasty,’ and bothersome things like morals definitely belonged in the latter category.
As for the third and final Skill available to Heroes, it was definitely Essence Concealment. While knowledge of its effects was not exactly common knowledge among the populace, it wasn’t particularly obscure either. It was without question the most well-known Hero Skill out there, which more or less confirmed it was something shared by all Heroes.
The problem now was that Keira would most assuredly be asked to undergo another Full Appraisal while revealing her real Status. The examiners would probably be expecting her to be hiding something more than just her Hero-related Skills and Perks, as the catgirl had more than once displayed abilities beyond what Essence Concealment claimed.
There was no way Boxxy would truly show all of its mind-boggling Jobs and Skills, but it had to give them something. Perhaps showing off the true extent of its General Skills would be a good start? Keira would also need a good explanation as to how, why and when she managed to train those Masteries up so high, but the Mimic was confident in its ability to bullshit others. It just needed the right story to-
“... How long?”
Lia’s sudden question drew the shapeshifter out of its diabolical ruminations.
“How long have you been a Hero?” reiterated the elf.
Thinking this a good opportunity to weave a convincing story, Boxxy decided it would oblige her.
“... About a year now, I guess.”
“And… is it really as horrible as you say?”
“… Imagine yourself starving, penniless and homeless. You’re holed up in an uncaring city, forced to feast on rats and other vermin just to live another day. Then, in a moment of weakness, you try to steal some fruit from an elderly street vendor. He catches you and scolds you for it, but doesn’t get mad and doesn’t beat you for what you’ve done. Instead, he takes pity on you and offers you a bag of old, misshapen fruit he was going to throw away anyway. You greedily snatch the bag out of his hands and instantly start eating a weirdly elongated apple. It’s so incredibly delicious that tears start streaming out of your face. The kindly man smiles widely when he sees you and reaches out to pat you on the head.”
Keira took a brief pause and hugged her knees even tighter against her body.
“But you’re not used to receiving kindness from strangers. You unthinkingly lash out like a beast protecting its bounty from an intruder, and slash at that wrinkled hand with your only weapon - your claws. By the time you realize what you’ve done, he’s already doubled over in pain and bleeding everywhere, and you have no idea what to do. So you panic. You run. You hide. You cry. You’re so busy calling yourself a monster that you pay no attention to the words in your head, informing you that your actions have altered the flows of chaos.”
“Is… Is that from one of the divine Skills you were given?”
“It wasn’t given,” growled the catgirl. “It was forced on me.”
“But yes. That was the first time I had seen the Agent of Chaos Skill activate.”
Keira lowered her gaze towards the ground and continued her ‘hypothetical’ scenario.
“You hide yourself away out of shame, eating the bittersweet fruits you were given out of kindness, yet paid for with violence. Eventually you run out and start to grow hungry once again, but your guilt keeps you from coming near that market again. One morning, you suddenly get notified that the flows of chaos have returned to normal. Not knowing what that means, you suddenly remember the strange message from a few days ago. Realizing it can’t be coincidence, you somehow work up the courage to visit that kindly old fruit vendor once again. You want to see if he’s alright. You want to apologize and make amends for your actions. But when you reach the market, you realize neither the man nor his stall are there. So you ask around the neighboring stores and shops.”
The catgirl looked up from her knees and stared Lia directly in the eye.
“Finally, you find out the kindly old vendor had contracted Paralyzing Rotflesh because a filthy street urchin had scratched his hands up three days ago. You then learn that he died in writhing agony earlier that very morning. You then spend the next year or so alone, unwilling to let anyone get too close to you for fear that your very presence might hurt them. But it doesn’t help. The Skill keeps activating regardless of your intentions or actions. And yet you stubbornly refuse to form any meaningful bonds with another person.”
Keira turned her gaze towards the ground once more, but this time she had a nostalgic smile on her face.
“At least until you meet the most wonderful, most beautiful girl you’ve ever laid your eyes on. A girl with radiant, silver hair and a laugh that somehow makes you forget all of your sorrows. Someone so incredibly warm and kind that she opens up both her heart and her home to you and invites you inside both of them. And you don’t resist - you oblige her, despite yourself. You let her remind you what it’s like to be loved, what it’s like to live. And you repay all that she’s done for you by selfishly clinging to her in return, knowing full well your smallest action might one day lead to her demise.”
Keira finished her story by wiping away the corners of her eyes.
“I… I’m so sorry… I had no idea…”
The elf was made very aware of just how taxing, how mentally scarring something like that must have been. To be honest, the fact that this poor girl still managed to smile and laugh despite all she had been through was nothing short of a miracle. Sure, she definitely had a few screws loose, but that was hardly a reason to turn one’s back on her.
“Will you be okay, Keira?”
“I’ll be fine. *Sniffle* You don’t need to trouble yourself too much over that stuff. I’ve… I’ve learned to deal with it. For the- *Sniffle* For the most part.”
“I see. Want another hug, anyway?”
Keira leaned hard against Lia, who threw her arm over the girl’s trembling shoulder and firmly rubbed her upper arm, trying to comfort her as best she could. But surely she could do more, right? This tortured soul just poured out her heart and soul, so there was no way she could just sit there and listen. No, perhaps having someone around to listen and share in her burden was precisely what Keira needed.
“So… what determines whether this Agent of Chaos thing kicks in?
“No idea. It just happens from time to time. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, and I have no idea what’ll happen when it comes. That’s what scares me so much.”
“Is the outcome always a bad thing?”
“... Not necessarily. There was this one boy who gave me his last gold coin when he saw me begging on a street corner. Long story short, he, uh, ended up finding a buried gem and used the money from pawning it off to buy medicine for his sick father.”
“Hmm, it really does work in mysterious ways, huh?”
Just then, a rather worrying thought crossed through her mind. The type of thought that was probably the reason why Keira was so hesitant to reveal her divine ‘gifts.’
“And, uh, you haven’t ‘altered my flows of chaos’ or whatever, right?”
The beastkin stiffened a bit for a moment, but she seemed to have expected that question and relaxed immediately afterwards.
“No. Not yet, at least.”
“You will let me know when the time comes, won’t you?”
“… I will if you insist, but I don’t see what good that will do.”
“Are you kidding me? Shit happens all the time anyway, right? At least with you I’d know in advance if a potential disaster was about to come, which means I could make preparations and take precautions! Heck, I might even be able to prevent it from happening altogether!”
That wasn’t actually something the Mimic had considered. Even if Churchill’s Skill caused things to get out of hand at a rapid pace, that didn’t mean it couldn’t at least try to steer it towards a favorable outcome. The unpredictable nature of the Skill was sure to make this difficult, but it was certainly worth a shot. After all, that guy kept insisting Boxxy’s free will and unpredictability were the main reasons it made it into the Hero of Chaos in the first place.
Then again, it was possible that trying to prevent some imagined disaster might just invite a bigger catastrophe. Still, it was something worth considering.
“Yeah… Thanks, Lia. For being here for me.”
“It’s alright. What are friends for, right? Besides, I still owe you one for what happened back at the Fort!”
“Can you, uh, please not mention that?”
“... Right, my bad. What about Rowana, though?”
“It hasn’t triggered around her, either.”
“Not that! I mean, does she know? About your, uh, heroic disposition?”
“... No. Guess I’ll need to tell her. Think she’ll be mad when she find out I kept it from her?”
“Oh, most definitely, and you can be sure she won’t be the only one. But she’ll forgive you. I mean the whole reason you didn’t tell her was because she’d just worry about it pointlessly, right?”
“Maybe? Maybe I was just afraid she’d throw me away if she knew the two of us would never be able to live a peaceful life.”
“I’m sure you two will manage. After all, that girl has a very dependable special someone to protect her! Isn’t looking out for her the whole reason you’re out here to begin with?!”
“You got that right! I won’t let anything bad happen to Rowie! If I can stop a war, then I can teach that divine bastard a thing or two about messing with Keira Morgana!”
“That’s the spirit! Just because you’ll have a more exciting life than others doesn’t meant the world will come to an end!”
“… It won’t, right?”
“Keira?! Please tell me you’re not going to bring about the end of the world!”
However, no matter how much Lia shook her friend or how insistently she asked, she did not get an answer.
Because neither Boxxy, Keira nor Juan could say with absolute certainty that a non-zero chance of that happening didn’t exist.