Jones Alexis woke up like usual that day. Which was to say well past noon, inside his tiny house of a hideout, and surrounded on all sides by numerous magical wards and traps. He groggily rose from his bed while cursing the chronic stabbing pain in his left shoulder - a memento of the first and last time he allowed a Doppelganger to betray him, some 20-odd years ago. According to Reginald’s dossier on the guy, he had lost much that day, including three of his comrades, the entirety of his arm, part of his thigh, a lung and half his face - all on the left side.
Even though his life was saved through a combination of magic and Alchemy, his injuries were far too severe to be completely healed by the adventurers that found him. That was why his face and much of his torso was covered in horrible scarring, which he mostly hid under his clothes. And while all of his missing body parts had been regenerated to let him live a relatively normal life, none of them had worked quite right since that day.
The wizened Wizard got out of his cot and immediately began disarming the glyphs that protected him while he slept. He didn’t need to dress himself since he always slept with his gear on, just in case someone - or something - came after his life while he was resting. The old set of well-worn and thoroughly cracked leather armor he wore had a self-cleaning enchantment on it that kept both itself and its wearer grime-free, so he didn’t need to wash it or take showers, either.
It would surely come in handy if one needed to stake out or tail a potential Doppelganger suspect for days on end.
After disarming all the traps, Jones lifted a long brown trench coat off the floor and draped it over his dark red gear. He reached into the coat’s inner pocket and pulled out a black eyepatch, which he promptly placed over his left eye. The defective sensory organ was far too sensitive to light, so walking out during the daytime even when it was overcast was both annoying and distracting. Not to mention it made him especially susceptible to attacks meant to temporarily blind an opponent with a bright flash. Even if it was only one eye, it was still bad enough to completely overwhelm his sight.
On the flip-side, that left eye also let him see a lot better in low-light conditions such as sewers or in the dead of the night, so it wasn’t all bad.
The phantom pain in his left shoulder seemed to have subsided after he started moving around. Either that or he was so used to it that he paid it no mind. Whatever the case, he went about his morning routine of eating some jerky he had personally gathered and then prepared for himself, stuffed the remains in his backpack and then set out into the slums of the city. Before he could open the front door, however, he suffered a short but rather violent coughing fit, during which he sprayed his gloved hand with a few droplets of blood. He watched those droplets for a few seconds, during which they rapidly dried up and flaked off the enchanted red leather, leaving no stain behind. Afterwards he opened the front door and left in a brisk pace as if nothing had happened.
“Master, the target has left the premises,” reported Drea. “He’s currently walking due south, it’s the same route he took yesterday.”
“Is he behaving in some peculiar way?” asked the Mimic.
“Not really. He keeps looking over his shoulder every now and then, just like the report we got.”
“What, that’s it? No muttering or scanning over the crowd?”
“Er, no, not that I can see…”
“Not good enough!” it mentally shouted. “Watch him carefully. Forget everything we learned from Reggie and look for anything out of place, no matter how minute!”
“Something bothering you, Master?” butted in Snack, who was currently on her way back from her meeting with Reggie.
“Yeah, he doesn’t seem right. He’s supposed to be this paranoid veteran on a one-man crusade who’s already hunted down and killed dozens of shapeshifters, yet he’s far too naive.”
The wooden cot, which was more akin to a slightly oversized coffee table than an actual bed, suddenly began creaking and shaking. The mattress - a linen bag stuffed with bedstraw - fell to the ground in a disorganized heap as the surface it had been resting on until then casually stood up while shrinking in size. The short legs grew longer and bendier as the piece of furniture steadily adopted a more humanoid shape, all while its material shifted from near-rotting timber to flesh.
After about 4 seconds, the shapeshifter pretending to be the resting place of Jones Alexis had transformed itself into a stocky, skin-headed thug of a human, otherwise known as Slums Hoodlum B.
“I mean he didn’t even think to check his own bed!” mind-shouted Boxxy in disbelief.
The Mimic opened up its Storage and retrieved some filthy, ragged clothes to complete its disguise. It put them on quickly, then pulled the actual cot it had replaced earlier that morning out of its pocket dimension. The crappy almost-bed was placed back in its spot and the room was then rearranged to erase any trace of the Mimic’s interference. However, the monster was beginning to seriously doubt whether all this bother was actually necessary as it began rummaging through the room’s scant drawers and cupboards.
“There are far too many things that don’t add up,” it started complaining to Snack. “His injuries, for one thing. He could easily be cured of his complaints of his if he put the time and effort to visit an apothecary. Yet he didn’t do such a thing, despite supposedly spending several years in the Honeydew capital of the world!”
Through its interactions with Rowana as Keira, Boxxy had learned much of the medical applications of Alchemy. Part of that knowledge concerned the superbly shiny substance known as Honeydew, which was apparently made by using Hylt sap as its base. The Lodrak Empire had outlawed it because Honeydew was a dangerously addictive hallucinogenic that filled people with a lasting sense of euphoria. Prolonged use of it would lead to complications such as frequent spasms, outright seizures, rapid tooth decay and/or a crippling case of muscle degeneration - the same symptoms brought on by chronic potion poisoning. Honeydew withdrawal was not pretty either, as it involved going through nasty psychological side effects such as insomnia and a deep depression that often drove people to suicide.
It was worth pointing out that those extreme effects would only show themselves if the one consuming the Honeydew was not an elf. The favored of Nyrie had a high tolerance towards the stuff, to the point where they would need to eat two whole jars of it to achieve the same high that a human or a dwarf would attain from a single spoonful. This was one of the reasons why the Ishigar Republic allowed the production, sale, and use of Honeydew. It was only natural considering only a small fraction of their citizens were vulnerable to the stuff, although that small fraction was why they also heavily regulated all aspect of the Honeydew trade.
The main reason why the government maintained its stance on the matter, however, was because the substance was never intended to be used as a dangerous drug, but as a near-universal alchemical additive. Adding the right amount of Honeydew to a potion or elixir during the brewing process would not only grant the resulting concoction significantly extended shelf life, but would also marginally improve both its effects and flavor. Distilling it in such a way would also nullify the stuff’s narcotic properties, rendering the resulting alchemical product completely harmless for consumption.
It was also a key ingredient when creating the ultimate curative concoction - Rejuvenation Potions. The Republic more or less had a monopoly on producing the stuff, and they made good use of that fact by selling it at a high price to other nations. This, in turn, meant that this precious pink liquid was almost prohibitively expensive in the neighboring Lodrak Empire and the Horkensaft Kingdom, yet was nearly twice as cheap in the Republic itself.
Rejuvenation Potions were still more or less a luxury good, but even someone living in poverty could get their hands on a vial of the stuff if they took advantage of the government’s health care benefits. Clinics like Rowana’s had the ability to provide Rejuvenation Potion treatments to crippled citizens free of charge by letting the Republic foot the bill on their behalf. There were certain restrictions, inspections and vetting to prevent fraud, of course, but someone with legitimate complaints like Jones Alexis would have easily gotten past all that. That was assuming, of course, his financial backing did not allow him to afford the 750 GP necessary to buy one directly from the shop and skip all the check-ups.
And yet he didn’t do any of that.
“He has the option to permanently cure all of his lasting ailments, but blatantly chooses not to,” continued Boxxy. “That’s just weird.”
“Maybe he’s worried about someone giving him a poisoned bottle?” offered Drea.
Poisoning someone’s food or drink was a classic method of assassination, something the Stalker had done on behalf of her past masters quite a few times. Admittedly she had very little knowledge of Alchemy itself and had no idea if a potion could be poisoned in the first place, but she was pretty sure it could happen. And if it were any other situation, she would have been right.
“You can’t do that with Rejuvenation Potions,” explained the Mimic. “They’re extremely delicate concoctions. Even the smallest added impurity would ruin it and make it lose its trademark pink color.”
As far as potions went, that particular one was notoriously unstable. It had to be brewed perfectly from start to finish using very specific ingredients in precisely measured amounts, all while stirring it in just the right way. The difficulty involved in actually making and bottling the stuff was so high, that only Magichem Alchemists of a sufficient Level could produce Rejuvenation Potions on a regular basis. After all, if someone were to make even the smallest mistake, then they would end up with a useless slop that wouldn’t do anything outside of giving someone a tummy ache. In fact, even opening up a vial of the stuff and leaving it exposed to the air for a few minutes would be enough for it to start losing its potency.
“Someone could always make a vial of poison that looks like the potion, though,” insisted Claws.
“Perhaps,” consented Boxxy, “but even then there are ways and means to test the potion. And it’s definitely worth the risk. Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before that cough of his accidentally ruins a covert operation.”
The Mimic was speaking from experience, as the unpredictable side effects of its Chaotic Disposition had very nearly blown Keira’s cover several times in the past. In fact, just yesterday she was left completely weightless for 30 whole seconds when she dropped by her guild on some official business. If word hadn’t gotten out beforehand that she was the Hero of Chaos, then it surely would’ve raised quite a few questions. Covering it up would’ve been quite impossible, too, as hundreds of people in the street bore witness to the red-haired catgirl floating away in the breeze while flailing her limbs around.
“I think he’s using the discomfort to motivate himself, Master.”
“What do you mean, Snack?”
“I’ve seen his kind before. He’s the sort of brooding self-righteous asshole that would say stupid lines like ‘the pain in my arm serves as a reminder of my dark past.’ He probably thinks he’d forget what he’s fighting for if he cures himself.”
“That’s idiotic. How big of a moron do you have to be to forget or forgive anyone who wronged you?”
“Humans are all weak-willed creatures with fragile minds, Master. Not all of them can be as perfectly ruthless and ruthlessly perfect as yourself.”
“… I suppose. Even then, it doesn’t address the problem at hand - he’s far too naive.”
“What is it, Claws?”
“How come our target being an idiot is a problem? Shouldn’t it be a good thing that you can easily deceive him?”
“It’s way too easy,” it replied. “If he could truly be fooled with so little effort, then surely Reggie’s lot would’ve handled him already.”
Boxxy gave up on searching the hovel, as there were no personal effects whatsoever in this building. No clothes, no money, no notes, no supplies, no weapons - nothing. It even manually searched the place instead of overtly relying on its Mana Locator Gland, but failed to find anything that suggested a person actually lived there. It was possible that Mr Alexis was storing his belongings in an Item Box, as it was a Skill that several Jobs besides Merchant had access to. It made sense in some ways, as Boxxy had spent the majority of its life bringing its worldly possessions along wherever it went.
However, the Mimic was a monster, while Jones Alexis was a human. And humans had the inescapable habit of leaving garbage in their wake. True, this one was supposed to be a paranoid looney, so it made sense he would not leave anything behind that might be used to track him down. But if that were truly the case, then why did he come back to this house specifically? If he seriously feared for his life, then surely changing locations on a regular basis would be necessary. And yet he had not changed hideouts even once according to Reggie’s information. It just didn’t add up.
“Claws, have you noticed anything about our target?”
“I think so, Master. Remember when I said he looks over his shoulder every now and then? He actually does it every 29 steps, and always over his left one.”
“Yeah. He’s done this five- make that six times since I started counting. Also the look on his face, I think it’s weird. Or rather, it’s not weird at all. He just looks like some uncle walking down the street without a care in the world.”
“Except that he looks over his left shoulder every 29 paces?”
“Yeah, aside from that.”
“I see… Snack, continue covering for Keira. I’m going to take a more direct approach with this guy.”
“As you say, my Master,” instantly replied the succubus.
After making sure to put all the upturned and rummaged furniture back in its proper place, Boxxy quickly left the hovel and joined in the crowd as it moved towards its target. It also made a note of how this Jones Alexis fellow did not even bother to lock the front door. Even if there was nothing of value for anyone to steal, it still meant anyone could walk in and lay a trap for the guy, just as Boxxy had. Admittedly, said door did not have anything like a lock on it in the first place, but that only made this particular location all the more odd. If that man was truly as paranoid as he was, then he’d surely at least look for a lair that had a more secure entrance than an oversized slab of wood.
The possibility that all this was some sort of trap or elaborate bait did not escape the Mimic’s consideration, but even then it was sure it could handle anything some human Wizard could throw at it. Strictly speaking, it actually hoped there would be some sort of trap or ambush in store. That would, in theory, serve as validation for Jones’s paranoid fears, and allow the shapeshifter to interact with and get closer to him. Not as a friend or ally, but as a nemesis. It had to agree the human anecdote that stated ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ held some merit, although it took a while for the monster to realize it was meant to be taken figuratively rather than literally.
Either way, for Boxxy to engage with Mr Alexis, a confrontation was needed. And if it wasn’t going to happen on the Wizard’s terms, then it would happen on the Mimic’s. That was part of the reason why it took on the guise of Slums Hoodlum B. Ah, but before it did any of that, it needed to check in on a certain someone.
|Boxxy: Ambrosia, do we have room in the dungeon’s prison for one more? Or do I have to expand it?
Ambrosia: We actually have plenty of space, milord. Especially since one of thy ingredients expired earlier this morning and I had to get rid of it.
Boxxy: It wasn’t that blonde girl with the excessively large butt, was it?!
Ambrosia: No, it was the dwarf I used for that generous serving of bone chips yesterday.
Boxxy: Oh, okay. That’s good. That human’s butt is exceptionally juicy and chewy. Probably the tastiest I’ve ever had.
Finding quality ingredients among the city’s downtrodden was always a challenge, so the Mimic was relieved to hear its latest prize was still fit for consumption.
|Ambrosia: Does milord wish to dine on rump steak this evening, perchance?
Boxxy: Yeah. And make it extra thick.
Ambrosia: Then I shall make sure to prepare thy meal with utmost care and sincerity.
Boxxy: You do that.
Boxxy: Oh, right, I almost forgot. I’ll probably be bringing you a new prisoner, but this one is different since I want what’s inside his head.
Ambrosia: That is most excellent! I hath been waiting for milord to find an ingredient worthy of my new brain soup recipe!
Boxxy: That’s not what I meant! I want his information, not to eat him!
Ambrosia: Art thou certain, milord? I plan to serve thy soup inside the skull of thy victim for maximum flavor!
Boxxy: Okay, maybe later. For now I just need you to be ready to receive and subdue the guy.
Ambrosia: Thou need not worry milord. For I am always prepared to service thou at a moment’s notice.
The Mimic made a mental note to ban Snack from teaching Ambrosia about innuendos, then sped up. It dodged and weaved past the foot traffic, moving along a street parallel to the one Jones Alexis was on. Using Drea as its eyes, it overtook and circled around the Wizard so the two of them would end up walking past each other.
As Mr Alexis was walking down the street in a thoroughly casual manner, he continued to look over his shoulder every 29 paces, just as Claws had said. Now that Boxxy had seen this much for itself, it was convinced it was not paranoia that made him do so. It looked more like a nervous tick, or a conditioned reflex. Either way, it planned to make full use of it. If that human was going to act in such a thoroughly predictable manner, then it would be rude not to take advantage of it.
Which meant letting a heavyset, bald-headed hoodlum with a mean look in his eye bump violently into a 50-year old veteran Wizard, knocking him off his feet and down to the ground.
“Watch where you’re going, you geezer!” complained Boxxy.
It had timed its own steps and strides so that the two of them would collide immediately after the former had turned his head to the left. That way the man wouldn’t be sure if this collision had happened on purpose or by accident.
“Oh, I am dreadfully sorry, my good lad,” answered the old man with a rather eloquent tone of voice. “I’m afraid I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Hmpf, whatever,” scoffed the hoodlum before continuing on his way.
“Excuse me, young man,” called out the Wizard while rising to his feet. “But could I trouble you for a moment?”
“What? You got a problem?!” answered Boxxy while turning around as if it were a stereotypical thug.
”I do indeed. I would very much appreciate it if you would return my coin purse to me.”
Oh-hoh! exclaimed the Mimic inwardly. So he was paying attention!
The monster had snatched the man’s money during the collision, more to test him than to actually gain a profit.
“What, you calling me a thief?!” it answered indignantly. “Just ‘cuz I don’t have fancy clothes don’t make me no stinkin’ thief!”
“Then please, do tell me why the gold coins that used to be on my belt are no longer there.”
“I dunno. Maybe you dropped them somewhere. Did you think about that, mister fancy-pants? Nooooo! You just consider yourself superior right away!”
Their loud voices had caused the surrounding pedestrians to give them a wide berth. Some of them quickly went on their way while others formed in a wide circle to watch the spectacle. Others still probably ran off to fetch the guards, but they’d be too late to stop an altercation already in motion since the law didn’t patrol this part of town nearly as much as it should. Whatever their reasons, none of the surrounding people felt like being involved in this.
“I am your superior, youngling,” insisted the Wizard, finally showing signs of some backbone.
He lifted up his right hand and conjured a small ball of blue-tinged lightning, which hovered over his open palm. It sparked and crackled ominously, with small arcs of electricity licking the man’s gloved fingertips.
“Now return what is rightfully mine. Or else!”
Boxxy had to give him credit, it was a forceful threat that would make the average street rat shake in their booties. However, that wasn’t going to happen with Slums Hoodlum B. He was a bruiser with a tough body and nimble fingers, who had a bad habit of underestimating his opponent. He cracked his neck, loudly hunched over slightly to meet the Wizard’s eye level, and then spoke in a defiant tone.
“Or else… what?”
The Wizard’s glare sharpened and he completely looked like he was about to unleash his magic on the ruffian. Boxxy wasn’t particularly worried, of course, as it had already protected itself with a subdermal layer of Bouncewood. It was confident it could take whatever this guy could throw at it, and even if it found itself disabled, then Claws would immediately leap out and gut him open.
However, the Wizard didn’t attack, he kept staring resentfully at the thug, as if trying to size him up. Just then, a change occurred within the old Wizard. In his chest cavity, more specifically directly under his heart, there appeared a growth. One with a peculiar hourglass shape that appeared to be two 7-centimeter wide balls connected by a slim stretch of flesh. The bulbous parts of it actually seemed to be made up of dozens of layers of membranes upon muscles upon membranes upon muscles, all the way down to the dense nerve cluster at their center.
And in the very next instant, the newly-formed Mana Locator Gland started beating and vibrating-
Your actions have altered the flows of chaos.
-allowing both Boxxy and Jones to confirm that the other party had the sensory organ of a Greater Mimic beating within them.