Xera was currently enjoying a brand new sensation. It really was quite refreshing, being able to experience so many new things so often, especially in such a short amount of time. A trend that started what felt like a lifetime ago, when she was first bonded to the most unlikely of Masters - a mimic. A moronic box of unparalleled stubbornness rivaled only by its blind desire for things of either the ‘tasty’ or ‘shiny’ persuasions, sometimes both. It spent the entire first night of its contract ripping her limb from limb. It subjected her to both the excruciatingly maddening pain of being eaten alive, combined with the humiliation of being treated as a disposable thing with no real value beyond her flavor.
And that horrible villain has since went on to cause calamity after calamity, one disaster after the next. All while lying, cheating and deceiving hundreds of people, using them as it saw fit in its selfish pursuit of satisfying its desires. A pursuit which, according to the rumors she heard from her sisters, somehow led to her Master giving the Goddess of Truth and Justice herself a bloody nose.
Honestly, could she have asked for a more perfect Master?
As a demon born of unrequited desire, jealousy and envy, Xerababadubuth L’okrelaila absolutely adored that devious bastard of a box. Not only did it unlock her capacity to derive pleasure from the most horrible of pain, but it also greatly tickled her wicked, devious side. Conspiracies, fraud and deception were things all succubi loved to partake in, and Boxxy T. Morningwood’s prized Snack was no different. That was why she sometimes found herself struggling to contain her squeals of glee at the web of lies, false bonds and potential for terrible betrayal that she and her beloved Master had forged together.
Indeed, as insane as it sounded, ‘beloved’ was exactly the way she felt towards her Master. Finally, a mortal that not only let her spread her wings, both figuratively and literally, but also completely understood and even encouraged her dastardly designs. Even though she realized this whole ‘love’ thing might just be some delusion brought on by her broken psyche, she could not deny the sense of fulfillment she felt whenever she was near her Master. She had also been able to reconfirm said emotion when her soul link to this wonderfully criminal creature was severed by force roughly half a year ago.
Even now she could recall that dreadful sense of longing and crushing loneliness she felt at the time. Not to mention the enormous relief and joy that washed over her when the summoning contract was reestablished. And yet, said Master had continued to treat her dispassionately, not showing or even hinting at being capable of returning her affections.
But that too, was fine. The more Boxxy mistreated her, the more it shunned her advances and clearly stated it had no intention of regarding her as anything more than ‘a thing,’ the happier she got. Because while her twisted mind turned gut-wrenching torture into sexual pleasure, her demonic soul resonated with the perpetual cold shoulder she was getting. The more she was denied emotional fulfillment, the more her affections grew. With each time her face, dignity and feelings were violently dragged through the mud, she steadily realized what she truly wanted out of life.
What Xera yearned for wasn’t to stand at Boxxy’s side. That wasn’t her place. No, her solemn wish was to forever be under its heel, in every sense of the phrase. And this new play that her Master had put on for her was exquisite. Being forced to serve as the Mimic’s furniture, out in the cold wind, in the middle of a depressingly desolate field of hard glass that dug into her knees and palms. The sheer weight of the creature on her back threatening to snap her in half. And when that happened, she would be mercilessly devoured and-
“We’re clear of the scene. Clean it up.”
Boxxy’s sudden telepathic communication instantly shattered the perverted demon’s fantasies. She didn’t particularly enjoy having her fun ruined, but it couldn’t be helped.
“… Yes, Master.”
Mostly because of the demonic contract, though. Otherwise she would’ve probably kept doing what she wanted, knowing full well it would displease her Master. Which would eventually earn her the punishment she oh so rightly deserved. However, Xera’s twisted fantasies would have to wait, as her Master’s orders could not be denied. If she was still the original Xera, she would’ve probably looked for some way to exploit the open ended instructions to ‘clean it up,’ but that traitorous temptress was long gone.
The succubus slid her body out from under the stiff figure of the ‘Sandman’ resting upon her back, which fell to the jagged ground with a loud clatter. It did so without changing its pose or posture, as if its joints had been locked in place. The demoness stretched sensually for nobody’s benefit and then promptly unleashed her Pyroclasm magic on the cloaked body on the ground. The clothed wooden dummy wonderfully caught fire, the magical flames near-instantaneously turning it into just another pile of ash.
The concept behind the Sandman puppet was something Boxxy had been experimenting with ever since it Ranked Up into a Hylt Creeper. It involved finding a suitably thick tree stump with limb-like branches in the right places and sticking a pair of fake glass eyes in the head bit. Afterwards it was a matter of using the short-ranged plant-controlling Phytokinesis Skill to move its limbs around and use a cheap, basic Comm-crystal lodged in the doll’s jaw to simulate speech.
That last one, however, wasn’t just because the greedy Mimic didn’t want to shell out for a military-grade Comm-crystal, but due to the fact that the shittier model was actually more useful. It was only about a quarter of the size of its ‘big brothers,’ which meant it could easily be hidden without distorting the Sandman’s face. More important than that was the fact that it only transmitted audio. Or rather, it was the lack of visual communication that was important, otherwise there would have been a blue-tinged ghostly representation of Keira poking out of the Sandman’s skull.
For the monster posing as the catgirl was indeed the one holding the other end of that line. It had created a tiny ‘room’ within its chest cavity, which was lined with sponge-like fleshy growths to muffle noises coming from within. Inside that mostly soundproof space rested the other Comm-crystal, accompanied by an internal mouth which was tuned to sound like the Sandman. The voice was then transmitted through the magic items, giving off the impression that it was coming from the puppet’s face rather than from within the catgirl’s bosom.
However, even though Boxxy managed to achieve the desired form and function, the Sandman replica was far from perfect.
To begin with, the voice was a potential problem, as all Comm-crystals distorted the sounds they transmitted. This problem was lessened somewhat by the near-point-blank distance between Keira and the Sandman, but was not completely eliminated. The possibility of the faux-catgirl’s ‘inner voice’ leaking out was also a big concern, which was why the Mimic did everything possible to keep the vigilante’s speech as quiet and calm as possible. Thankfully, none of the people present had ever spoken to the elusive Sandman through Comm-crystal, let alone directly, so any discrepancies with the past would have been non-consequential.
In some ways, it was a good thing Primus Silus Underwood was not there, as he would have surely noticed the discrepancies not only in the Sandman’s voice, but in his movements as well.
While it was possible to move it with Phytokinesis, dead wood was far less flexible than living wood, which made the doll’s movements quite stiff and unnatural. Minute manipulations such as maintaining balance or eye contact were especially tricky, which was one of the main reasons why the Sandman was remarkably inanimate during that whole exchange. There was also the fact that the wooden body did not sway or breathe, and remotely acting out such small movements was beyond Boxxy’s current abilities.
If it wasn’t for the Facade’s baggy, form-concealing clothing coupled with the ‘poisoned by Liusolra’ excuse, then it would’ve been plainly obvious that doll was not a person. Not only that, but the metal shackles rattling and Snack’s perverted panting and moaning helped mask the ever-so-slight creaking of the doll’s movements.
That wasn’t to say that the details surrounding the Overlord’s lingering toxins were fabricated, however. The shapeshifting Warlock was, for once, being quite truthful when it informed Lichter of Imiryl’s condition and how to treat it. It was something Keira had noticed days ago and had merely been waiting for a good opportunity to cash in on it. It was a bit regrettable said information was traded for goodwill rather than shiny things, but some sacrifices had to be made in order to secure larger profit.
There was also the matter of whether the High Elf Wizard would make a full recovery or not. After all, it would be naive to think that having an Overlord’s highly potent demonic poison coursing through one’s body for a full week wouldn’t cause any complications. Not that such concerns fell within the purview of Boxxy’s list of things it gave a fuck about. If anything, the monster was secretly hoping Imiryl would be left magically crippled or something like that since it would mean one less potential threat to its future survival.
On the flip side, her making a full recovery would go a long way towards placating that Lichter guy. Boxxy had been right in following Punchy’s example when dealing with the angelic elf. Once it confirmed he was the type of honest person who would go to any length to protect and defend his friends, it needed only take advantage of that weakness. As Keira, it knew the true source behind his anger, so it was fully prepared to soothe it and turn it to its benefit.
Hilda was another beast altogether. While that Berserker was more or less unpredictable, it was obvious she also put a lot of stock in her allies, albeit in a different fashion from her long-time teammate. Where Lichter was more of a shield, she was more akin to a guillotine. A battle-junkie with a ‘Mess with my friends and I will feed you your own heart!’ mentality. If anyone was going to shut that laughable Legate up, it would definitely be her.
Honestly, why couldn’t that blue-head be more competent like his counterpart in the 3rd Legion?
As for Cecilia Underwood, she had demonstrated an almost unhealthy obsession with the Sandman. She seemed enraptured with the romantic idea of a tall, dark and mysterious vigilante working outside the law. Especially the ‘mysterious’ part, which fed into her tendency to spot patterns. However, that side of her clashed with her somewhat naive view of the world, meaning she often saw things that weren’t there, leading her to spouting some rather… questionable nonsense.
All things said and done, when Legate Ethan came out to try and put the blame for Armageddon Day on the Sandman, he actually had no allies with him. All Boxxy had to do was subtly appeal to Cecilia, Hilda and Lichter’s personalities and it would come out on top. Still, as prepared as it felt, there was far too much improvisation and ad-libbing performed out there. It very nearly lost control of the situation because that Paladin had let his emotions get the better of him, but was somehow able to avoid a physical confrontation. It went without saying that, should the situation have escalated that far, the Sandman being a literal puppet would have been instantly exposed.
Well, even if that worst-case scenario happened it wouldn’t have been a catastrophic failure. The masked vigilante could always claim he was in the right to be suspicious, which was why he avoided going there in person. From then on it was still possible to salvage his contract with the Republic, but it wouldn’t have been easy. Keira’s Facade, on the other hand, would be left completely intact and largely unaffected. Which was why Boxxy had to assume the catgirl’s guise and delegate the potentially lethal part to a wooden dummy instead. Snack was there mostly to make it plainly obvious that the thing sitting on her back was indeed her Master.
Ultimately, the overall result of Operation: Just Give Me My Damn Money was nothing short of a resounding success. When the Legate regained consciousness he found himself pressured not only by Cecilia Underwood, his strategic advisor, but also two VIPs in the form of Keira and Hilda. He looked to Lichter for support, but the Paladin more or less ignored him. While the ‘holy man’ still disapproved of the Sandman’s questionable actions on principle, he had to begrudgingly agree they were necessary given the dire situation. It also helped that he had calmed down significantly once Imiryl’s tainted reserves of MP had been drained by the anti-magic restraints, allowing her condition to more or less stabilize.
As such, whether he liked it or not, Ethan had been forced to honor the agreement made between Silus Underwood and the masked mercenary over a week ago. The late intelligence officer had shown some remarkable foresight and had already made the necessary arrangements even before Boxxy had sent him the invoice. As such, the Sandman had received his payment the very next day, personally delivered by the Hero of Chaos herself as a token of goodwill. His new official point of contact had been established as Cecilia Underwood, although she was clearly not as suited to the job as her predecessor and would likely be a very temporary liaison.
And her being relieved of that duty would probably happen sooner rather than later, if the events of the next day were any indication.
“So, what do you think?” asked Cecilia in an excited manner. “It’s possible, isn’t it?!”
“I will say, miss Underwood, you make a convincing case,” admitted Keira.
“I dunno, still sounds a bit loopy to me,” skeptically said Fizzy.
The elf had invited the catgirl and the golem into her office in order to present another of her wild theories. Normally the other two would have rejected her immediately, but as servants to the God of Misfortune, neither of them could claim the subject matter was unrelated to them and went along with it. Cecilia had spent the last 30 minutes or so presenting all her relevant research and explaining her findings, demonstrating she had been considerably thorough in investigating this particular matter.
“Wouldn’t a God having more than one Hero seriously devalue the point of picking one in the first place?” questioned Fizzy.
“Devalue? What do you mean?” asked the elf with a raised eyebrow.
“A Hero is supposed to represent the God in the physical realm,” explained Fizzy. “Less like a messenger or a spokesperson, but more of an icon and a symbol. That’s why they all act in a certain way to begin with. The Hero of the Sword is always a capable fighter with a strong sense of honor who aims to become the strongest, and is thus in tune with his patron, the God of War Axel. The Hero of the Wind, on the other hand, is always a traveler and explorer as one would expect from the chosen of Zephyra, the Goddess of Rain.”
“Yes, that is most definitely what the history books tell us, but I don’t see how that would devalue the significance of the God’s Hero. Surely having more capable people around to spread the deity’s influence would be good for them, right?”
“I disagree. If a Hero serves as an example or a beacon, then wouldn’t having two or more of them around be confusing? I mean if you had two Legates and they gave you conflicting orders, how would you know which one to follow?”
Cecilia leaned back in her chair and lowered her eyes in thought. She took a long, drawn out sip of her hot tea, then set the half-full teacup back on the circular table she and the others were seated at.
“You have a point,” she consented. “It’s true that even if Heroes are predisposed to act a certain way, they are all their own people with their own beliefs. I did not consider that angle.”
“Uhm, miss Underwood?”
“Yes, oh Hero of Chaos?! Anything I may assist you with?!”
The elf’s overly-enthusiastic response and positively sparkling eyes made Keira shrink back a bit with a strained smile.
“The, err, what about my predecessors? The ones McGregor chose before me?”
That question seemed to instantly subdue Cecilia’s unwarranted excitement, causing her to splay out her upper body upon the table in a rather unbecoming manner.
“I have noooo ideeeaaa!” she groaned. “There are no records, no rumors, no legends - nothing! Much like the rest of my faith, anything regarding those chosen by the Lord of Luck seems to be shrouded in mystery. I had honestly started to think there was no such thing as a Hero of Chaos until you revealed yourself.”
“I see… How did miss Underwood become a Priestess, though?”
“The same way Fizzy became a Paladin I imagine,” she said without lifting her face off the tablecloth.
“Uh, no. I can state with absolute certainty you did not have the same experience as me.”
“Hmm? You mean you didn’t get the Job from being bitten by a pink ladybug as a child?”
“… What?” blurted out the other two.
“What?” echoed Cecilia.
There were many things to question about that statement. However, what most surprised the two girls wasn’t the fact that pink ladybugs were apparently a thing, or that ladybugs could even bite a person.
“You mean you didn’t choose to be an Apostle of Chaos?” asked Fizzy, wide-eyed.
“Nope. I don’t believe I was specifically chosen to be one, either. I mean that could’ve happened to anyone. When it happened to me, me and my parents naturally freaked out about it. We couldn’t afford a Job Removal, so instead I chose to make the best of it. And the more I matured as both a person and a Priestess, the more I came to appreciate and embrace the principles of controlled chaos and the teachings of Murgleklurkerplick. Oh wow, that was a good one! Must be my lucky day!”
The Priestess chuckled lightly at the silly name she just uttered while the golem pondered her words.
“I guess we are similar in that regard, at least,” admitted Fizzy.
“I know, right?” said the elf as she lifted herself off the table and laid back in her seat once again. “I wouldn’t be surprised if every last member of our faith has a story like that. What about you? How did you get your Job?”
The golem reached across her chest and gently stroked the spot where her left arm had been ripped off.
“I’d… rather not say.”
“Right, of course. Sorry for asking that,” apologized Cecilia. “It was bad of me to expect everyone would have a pleasant memory like mine.”
“Well, even if it wasn’t exactly pleasant, I’m glad it happened. Becoming a Paladin of Jubilee not only saved my life, but also gave it purpose. Heh, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. And then a week ago I found out my friend and Artificer disciple was his chosen Hero all along!”
The official story was that neither Keira nor Fizzy knew each other until the latter was asked to help out in a joint exercise with a bunch of apprentice adventurers from different guilds. The two then became fast friends, although the catgirl continued to conceal her Hero status from the golem, even after learning about her religious beliefs.
“I know! I’m so jealous!” said the elf with a pout. “And I greeted her by electrocuting her! I feel so ashamed for doing such a mean thing to her of all people!”
“If you truly feel sorry, then you should repent for your sins by running a few laps around the camp naked,” suggested Keira with a wry smile.
“Really?! Alright! If that’s what it takes, then-!”
“I was joking! I was just kidding, okay!? I didn’t mean it, so please stop stripping!”
“… Maybe I should strip too?”
“Fizzy! Now’s not the time for that!”
After calming down sufficiently amidst a sea of embarrassment, the two flesh-and-blood girls were left with red faces while the golem was displeased she didn’t get to show off her shiny frame.
Cecilia cleared her throat as if to dispel the awkward atmosphere.
“I may have overreacted back there, but please understand you’re officially recognized as a Hero now. You need to be more mindful of your words or things like that might happen again.”
“Duly noted,” responded the catgirl with a tired expression. “I just wish people would go back to treating me like regular old Keira. Just another girl doing her best, you know?”
“Too late for that,” pointed out Fizzy. “They’ll probably calm down with time, though.”
“I know, but it’s still a major pain in my ass.”
“Well, derriere discomfort aside,” said Cecilia with a small cough, “standing out is also part of being a Hero. You’ll get used to it eventually. Besides, popularity has its upsides, too. Or so I’m told.”
“I guess,” consented Keira. “I just wish that… Actually, this is a good chance. I had been meaning to speak with you two about something that’s been bothering me.”
“Oh?! Would you be willing to share your thoughts with me?” asked Cecilia full of expectation.
“You know you can talk to me about anything!” proudly declared Fizzy.
“Well, when I was knocked out - after the Clash, I mean - I had a sort of vision or dream or something. Or maybe it was actually real? Either way, in it, I spoke with Hubert and-”
“Hey! Watch it, meatbag!”
Cecilia spit out her mouthful of tea out of shock, spraying Fizzy with it in the process.
“You met with the Goddess of Randomness?! Personally?!”
Boxxy was instantly regretting this decision.
“I don’t know!” insisted Keira. “I just spoke with him, okay?! It may or may not have been him! Could just have been a delusion or hallucination! I barely remember even half of it!”
“… Yes, of course. Sorry,” apologized the elf. “My curiosity got the better of me. Again. Please, do continue.”
“Ahem! Right! So, like I was saying, I don’t remember much, but I do recall one particular phrase. ‘The Hero shapes the God just as much as the God shapes the Hero.’ Something about that scares me.”
Charlie had offered those words to Teresa and they had been nagging at the back of Boxxy’s mind ever since, as they had some worrying implications. If there was one thing at the top of the Mimic’s hate list, it was the idea that someone or something was influencing its actions. A notion it had despised ever since breaking free of the dungeon during what was essentially its infancy. That wasn’t to say it was against such subtle manipulation on principle, especially given how useful Ambrosia was turning out to be. It just didn’t want to personally be subjected to it ever again.
“Oh, I think I can help you with this one,” said Fizzy. “According to my Holy Scriptures Skill, one of the reasons Gods choose Heroes is so they can better understand the plights of us mortals. You’re basically Gilligan’s main connection to the physical realm, so he’s using you to better comprehend his followers’ wants and needs.”
“So that’s what ‘The Hero shapes the God’ means?” asked Keira.
“I think it’s pretty likely,” stated the golem.
The knowing looks they shared, however, silently confirmed that neither of them believed this was actually the case. While it may have held true for other deities and was likely a part of Rasputin’s intentions too, but his main goal in choosing Boxxy was definitely due to its entertainment value. That was okay, though, as it demanded zero additional effort on the Mimic’s part and it got to enjoy the benefits that came with the job. Besides, both monsters knew that it was the second part of that statement that truly bothered the shapeshifter.
“And I think ‘the God shapes the Hero’ is referring to the way the world reacts to the Hero’s presence,” offered Cecilia. “I mean, I won’t presume to know your past or understand your suffering, but your life is in a pretty decent spot at the moment, right miss Morgana?”
“Of course! You’re practically a war hero, you have the support and trust of many people and even have a lover waiting for you back home!”
Keira’s eyes went as wide as saucer plates.
“You know about Rowana?!”
“From Silus’s notes. I, uh, inherited them.”
“But I never told him about her, either!”
“He, uh, ran a background check on you at some point. A very… thorough one.”
“I know you’re upset, but the FIB has to do questionable things every now and then. Even if it’s unethical, amoral or even heretical, it’s our duty to sully our hands for the sake of our country. Which may or may not involve rooting through a teenage girl’s personal mail correspondences without her knowledge or consent!”
“Miss Underwood. You’re not really helping right now.”
“I think what crazy-eyes was trying to say,” spoke up Fizzy, “was that you wouldn’t be the person you are today if you weren’t a Hero.”
“… No. I suppose not. I guess if it wasn’t for Jamal’s influence, I’d still be a starving beggar without a place to call home. For better or for worse, I am who I am because of that guy.”
That admission was no mere act, but the shapeshifter’s honest feelings on the matter. Sure, it had its ups and downs, but its current life was undeniably tastier than the lowly murderhobo existence it led prior to becoming the Hero of Chaos.
“Yes, exactly!” declared Cecilia. “You can’t expect to be granted divine gifts and then not have them influence your life in some way!”
“I see. I guess I was just overthinking things, huh?”
“No, no, it’s quite natural, miss Morgana. We all get bogged down by questions of faith every now and then!”
“Faith, huh…?” mused the catgirl as she looked down at her own distorted reflection in her cup of tea.
This was a new sensation for Boxxy. Having someone else help alleviate its worries was unexpectedly tasty. There was always that nagging little doubt that all of this was just conjecture and guesswork, but it did make it feel a bit better. Besides, even if Grimwald was somehow subconsciously nudging it to act in one way or another, then there was frankly nothing that the Mimic could do about it. Well, aside from re-acquiring Taboo and invalidating the Hero title, but that was eating the cart before the horse.
*DUM DUM DUM*
There was a sudden banging on the door-
-followed by an agitated scream from the other side.
“Yes?!” called out Cecilia.
The door swung open to reveal a pooped-out guard who had obviously run all the way here. He was so flustered that he nearly forgot to salute when he let himself in.
“Ah, forgive me, ma’am! I didn’t know you had company, but this is huge!”
“What is it? Report immediately!”
“Yes, ma’am! A couple of minutes ago, we got word that-”
A harsh, disgusting sound suddenly filled the room, completely cutting off the man’s words. Cecilia’s face rapidly reddened and her eyes started watering up as it carried on for a few seconds, although whether that latter bit was out of shame or due to the rancid smell was unknown.
The ensuing silence was deafening.
“I… Uh… Shall I come back in a few minutes, ma’am?” asked the soldier.
“Please do,” said Cecilia with a tiny, high-pitched voice.
The Legionnaire respectfully closed the door, doing his best not to humiliate his commanding officer any further. Given how embarrassed she felt, however, that was unlikely to be an issue. It took her a full 30 seconds before she could even look Keira in the eye, only to realize the catgirl was just as upset as she was. Not only were her dusky cheeks several shades darker, but she actively avoided all eye contact. Also, was it just her imagination, or was the beastkin sitting a tiny bit taller than a few minutes ago?
“Did… Uhm, you t-too?” squeaked out the fidgeting catgirl.
Cecilia didn’t respond with words, but just slightly nodded her head. Even that extremely minor act of admission made her want to die from embarrassment.
“Uhm, what just happened?” uttered Fizzy with a puzzled look. “Did you two seriously just-?”
“Nevermind that! We need to change!”
“Alright, alright, settle down Keira! I’ll go get some clean clothes for you, okay?”
“Please… and thanks. And please don’t spread this around!”
“No it’s okay, I understand completely,” said Fizzy with a dismissive wave of her only hand. “Accidents happen, right? Meatbags just can’t seem to contain their own-”
As the golem was about to stand from her seat, however, she heard the noise of something distinctly metal falling on the wooden floorboards. She was then immediately made aware of a strange itching sensation around her metallic buttocks. Standing up in disbelief, she was shocked to see several handfuls of rusty bolts, nuts, screws and nails pour out from inside her baggy work pants, spilling out onto the floor from around her ankles.
Unsure of what to do, none of the ladies could utter a single peep. Thankfully, the culprit responsible for this disturbance revealed himself seconds later.
Whoopsie! I’m terribly sorry, everyone! This whole thing was entirely my bad and completely unintended! This is all on me and has nothing to do with you! I hope the FTH gained from this communication will serve as suitable compensation. I will also make sure to fix the collective mess post-haste.
Again, I apologize for the incontinence. Also the, uh, inconvenience.
You have received a divine revelation from the Goddess of Uncertainty. FTH +10.
“… So uh,” spoke up Fizzy, “looks like Juliet isn’t feeling well?”
“I, uhm, I suppose so?” muttered Cecilia.
“… What do you think he meant by ‘fixing’ it?” asked Keira.
In the next instant, a very specific subset of the world’s population found out that, contrary to common sense, poop could indeed travel both ways.