Professor Honoka was on her way to visit Boxxy’s cell. She was accompanied by three of her lab assistants, one of whom was pushing a metallic cart. It was loaded up with vials, jars, boxes, syringes, beakers, smokeless burners and other alchemical appliances, though the one that stood out the most was the silver-plated cauldron. All of this was necessary for the Mimic’s first round of treatment, courtesy of one of Honoka’s personal inventions - the Attitude Adjuster.
This magical concoction, much like the vast majority of this place’s projects, was based on Tol-Saroth’s original research. The ancient elven sage had been so blindingly brilliant, that it had taken the rest of the world over 400 years to catch up to him. In fact, that was the entire purpose of the institution that Honoka belonged to. Known simply as the Foundation, this clandestine, government-funded think-tank had been created almost 20 years ago by the previous Exarch of the Ishigar Republic. Its goal - to study, adapt, and develop Tol-Saroth’s varied works in an effort to grant the Republic an edge against both internal and external threats.
And the Foundation’s eggheads certainly had their work cut out for them in that regard. Even though the Republic’s government had supplied them with an entire library’s worth of Tol-Saroth’s journals and research data notes, much of the information was either fragmented, disjointed, or outright missing. Worse still, it would appear that this wasn’t entirely because parts of the information had simply been lost to the ravages of time, but because of Tol-Saroth himself. While he was certainly an unparalleled genius in many fields, neither documentation nor organization seemed to have been among his strong points. He also had the rather worrisome habit of rapidly moving from one project to the next, leaving many of them in an incomplete state. A number of his ideas had never even made it past a hastily-scribbled note in one of his books, though that was perhaps for the better.
Suffice it to say, the Foundation did not believe the world was ready for amphibian sharks with ‘freakin laser beams on their freakin heads.’
Thankfully, only a small part of what he left behind sounded like the ravings of a madman, and pursuing his more practical albeit morally ambiguous concepts often yielded fascinating results. One such outcome was Honoka’s Attitude Adjuster formula, which had arisen as a byproduct of her work on Project Third Autumn. That endeavor was aimed at replicating and recreating Tol-Saroth’s super-soldier serum, an aggressive body-altering compound that would, in theory, increase a person’s innate strength, speed and agility by up to 200%. What made this a particularly enticing concept was that, if successful, the power boost gained from this pseudo Rank Up would then be amplified even further by the individual’s Attributes.
Unfortunately, reality rarely agreed with theory, especially when it came to Tol-Saroth’s unfinished works. Project Third Autumn was something that Honoka had been struggling with ever since the Foundation’s inception, and she and her bosses have pretty much given up on it at this point. Even though they’ve been able to produce a serum that delivered on the promised body enhancements, it always seemed to come with crippling, sometimes lethal side-effects.
One version of the serum put too much strain on the body’s cardiovascular system, resulting in critical heart failure after three to five days. The next iteration caused permanent paralysis of the right side of the test subject’s body, while the one after that royally screwed with the user’s brain chemistry, sending him into a feral rage akin to that of a rabid animal. And as horrific as they were, these failures were still not as bad as the serums’s earlier iterations. Honoka could swear she could still see the horrific stains her first attempt left on her lab’s walls, despite the fact that every surface in that room had been replaced several times since that incident.
Perhaps the worst part of all this was that Honoka and her crew had no choice but to use their own kind as test subjects, as the serum was specifically tailored to work with elven physiology. At least the Foundation had the common courtesy of subjecting only condemned bandits and unrepentant criminals to such vile experiments whenever possible, but that didn’t exactly help Honoka sleep at night.
At the very least their suffering hadn’t been completely for naught, as Project Third Autumn had given rise to multiple new venues of research, the most notable of which being the Attitude Adjuster. This particular product had been created as a result of Honoka’s work with the iteration of the super-soldier serum that turned people into gibbering lunatics. Studying, isolating, and further refining its mind-altering properties had provided monumental insight into how one might use alchemy to permanently influence an individual’s behavior.
Depending on how it was mixed, Attitude Adjuster could either turn the most vicious of monsters into docile servants, or transform the meekest of herbivores into violent killers. And while its potency was completely assured, it still had two notable flaws. For one thing, the mixture was somewhat unstable, so it had to be used within minutes of being prepared, otherwise it would fail to do anything at all. That was why Honoka and her assistants were bringing their equipment and ingredients along with them, rather than just carrying a ready-made vial of the stuff.
The second caveat was that prolonged exposure to Attitude Adjuster was necessary in order to make its effects permanent. This meant the target had to be subjected to repeated doses at regular intervals, which in turn required a non-insignificant investment of time and resources to actually prepare the necessary amount. Fortunately for Honoka, neither of those things were much of a problem for her. The government footed the bill while her assistants handled the majority of the prep work, so all she had to do was perform the final assembly and administer the treatment.
Not to mention that, by constantly fine-tuning the recipe, she was able to steadily increase the mixture’s effects, drastically reducing the time necessary to achieve the desired effects. What used to take months to accomplish at first could easily be done in as little as a week. However, she suspected this particular case would take longer than expected, in part because that Mimic had woken up much sooner than anticipated. Well before her preparations were complete.
After all, the effects of Attitude Adjuster were technically an attack on one’s psyche, and as such would have a much smaller impact on an individual with high Mental Fortitude (MNT). And the Appraisal of Specimen 68’s corpse had revealed that its MNT was already beyond VIP level. This obstacle was undoubtedly the result of its Demonology-oriented Warlock Job, combined with the blatantly unfair All Attribute bonuses that came standard with shapeshifter Monster Jobs. That being the case, the elf had been planning on subjecting the Mimic to her creation immediately upon its unholy resuscitation. That was when the Resurrection Sickness caused by Malon’s Soulstone would be at its peak, and the initial and arguably most important dose of Attitude Adjuster would need to deal with only half of the creature’s imposing 455 MNT.
Unfortunately, that window had passed, as it had already been a full day since Specimen 68 had woken up. This meant that the Attribute penalty caused by Resurrection Sickness would have lessened from 50% to 40%. It would go down to 32% after one more day, then to 25% the day after that, getting to about 10% after a full week as the forcibly reestablished link between body and soul gradually healed over time. It would still take upwards of about 20 days for it to return to prime condition, but the fact still stood that Honoka’s plan to expedite Boxxy’s ‘rehabilitation’ by taking advantage of its weakened state was met with a significant setback.
However, all that amounted to was that Boxxy’s treatment would take longer. And while that didn’t seem too bad in and of itself, it made Zilla’s concerns regarding the creature all the more worrying. Which in turn made her feel unexpectedly a bit on edge. Almost as if she was chasing a deadline that she couldn’t quite see.
Honoka shook her head to clear away her troublesome thoughts and started mentally preparing for the task at hand. She hated to admit it, but the thought of mixing volatile chemicals anywhere near that creature wasn’t exactly an appealing one. That terrifying show it put on for Malon’s benefit had gotten to her too, though she did a much better job of hiding it. Sentient monsters never failed to take advantage of their adversary’s fear, so she had to be extra careful not to fall for its psychological warfare while performing her duties.
Of course, that wasn’t to say she was going to prepare the Attitude Adjuster in front of Boxxy or anything, as it was far more prudent to do it immediately outside the holding cell. Unfortunately, that creature had a real gift for unnerving others, and judging from yesterday’s reports, it had continued to make strange noises for most of the day and well into the night. Honoka was fully expecting to have to withstand some sort of constant hellish screech while she worked, but she was confident she wouldn’t let it get to her.
Or at least that’s what she thought until she and her three assistants actually arrived at the holding cell. The atmosphere in front of the circular bulkhead was certainly abnormal, though in a completely different way from what she was expecting. For one thing, it was quiet. Too quiet. Not only that, but the quartet of guards stationed outside the door seemed unnaturally tense when they saluted her.
“What’s going on here?” she asked with a hand on each hip.
“N-nothing, ma’am,” replied one of the men with a slight stutter. “Business as usual.”
Honoka eyed him up and down. His blue-tinted guard uniform and calf-high army boots were standard attire for the base’s security personnel, but she couldn’t quite place his face. She was never very good with faces, so she was unsure if the two of them were personally introduced, especially since all these grunts looked pretty much the same to her. On the other hand, the fact she didn’t actually know the man was important in and of itself, as it meant he was most definitely a nobody, much like the other three.
And therein lay the second problem.
“Why are there only four of you?” she asked in a nagging tone. “I told Simmons to triple the guard detail. And last time I checked my math, four times three does not equal four!”
Honoka’s demanding tone of voice made the man even more nervous. If it was Malon or any of the other stuck-up know-it-alls, he would probably just brush it off without a second thought. However, the fact that it was this woman in particular made him feel somewhat awkward. After all, she only got mad at others as a result of their own incompetence, so the fact that she was raising her voice at him almost made her seem like a mother scolding an unruly brat. And judging from the uneasy glances from her assistants, he was definitely not the only one who felt that way.
“Where is he, anyway?!” she asked while raising her hands in the air as if giving up.
“Optio- I mean, Mr Simmons, is currently off duty, ma’am. And, uh, he did actually post twelve of us here, as per your instructions, ma’am.”
“Did he now? And where, pray tell, are the others?!”
“They’re what?!” she shrieked. “Why?!”
“It’s, uh, hard to explain,” he said in a somewhat evasive manner. “Project Legacy should be in there with them, so I doubt the prisoner would act up if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“‘Should be?’ What do you mean ‘should be?!’ No, nevermind, I’ll see for myself!”
She somewhat rudely shoved the guard aside and reached out to touch the security panel. After sampling her blood and confirming her identity, the vault door once more rolled open to the side. Honoka didn’t even wait for it to open all the way before she practically stormed into the room, ready to give everyone an earful. However, the words got stuck in her throat when she saw the scene unfolding before her.
One that was seemingly centered around an excessive large barrel, which was inside a cube of light that had a bunch of ever-shifting arcane sigils crawling all over it. An almost identical barrel was sitting immediately outside said cube of light, while 8 armed guards huddled around a bit off to the side, one of whom was holding a large top hat upside down. The aforementioned hat-holder then presented said piece of fancy headwear to his colleague, who reached inside and pulled out a piece of folded paper, which was promptly unfolded and then read aloud.
Both barrels began transforming at the sound of his voice. Their shape became gradually more conical, darker, and distinctly more rugged. Sure enough, mere seconds later, both containers had transformed into imitations of volcanoes. The guards let out a low murmur, until the one on the left, which was outside the Stasis Field, suddenly let out a jet of flames in a mock eruption.
“Woooah!” cheered the men with a light round of applause.
“Winner!” exclaimed the hat-bearer while pointing at the impromptu firework display. “Alright, next!”
A second guard drew a different piece of paper, and read aloud another word.
Yet again, both monsters began transforming. This time, however, they took on vastly different appearances. The one on the left that, obviously Zilla, rapidly took on a more humanoid shape and ducked inside its own Storage portal halfway through, while Boxxy decided to go with a more classical, rectangular look. It adopted its preferred chesty form, the wooden lid ever-so-slightly ajar to show off a set of irregular jagged teeth one would normally find on a dungeon mimic.
Over on Zilla’s side, he had reappeared in the form of a lovely young girl in an unbearably cute frilly yellow dress and a pair of short booties, allowing the flawless skin of her arms and legs to shine through. She had large, brown eyes and chestnut hair done up in a stylish ponytail, topped off by a wooden diadem decorated with painted carvings of marigolds and daisies. As per usual, Zilla’s fashion sense was top-notch, as evidenced by how this ensemble pretty much radiated purity and innocence.
As for the audience, they seemed to be understandably puzzled by this appearance.
“Uhhh, Zilla?” spoke up the ring-leader. “Are you sure you heard the word correctly?”
“It was ‘trap,’ wasn’t it?” he answered with a thoroughly masculine voice, entirely at odds with his feminine appearance.
“Oh?” exclaimed the guard in a puzzled manner until realization hit him. “Ohhhhhh! Oh.”
He looked around at the others, all of whom were cringing at Zilla’s version of a ‘trap.’ At least Boxxy’s they could understand with but a glance. After all, very few people could resist the allure of a splendid treasure chest, and even experienced adventurers sometimes fell victim to those devious mimics. But the idea of an androgynous young lad cross-dressing just felt outright wrong, hence the twisted expressions on all their faces.
Well, except for Rupert’s, but Rupert was always a bit of a weirdo, so they collectively decided not to engage with him.
“Winner!” shouted the hat-holder while pointing at the cage of light, his declaration accompanied by a much-too-polite round of applause.
All things considered, it would appear that Boxxy had been declared the victor in this round of… whatever this was. It celebrated its win with an affirmative-sounding hissing voice, accompanied by a little spider-leg-assisted jig.
“What the fuck are you people doing?!”
The ongoing festivities ground to a complete halt as Honoka loudly and succinctly enunciated each and every word of her unbelievably valid complaint.
“Oh, hey Honoka!” responded Zilla with a casual wave, still in trap form. “Didn’t see you there!”
The color drained from the eight guards’ faces so fast that the elven researcher found herself momentarily worried if they might faint.
Only momentarily, though.
“Out! All of you!”
The guilty partly rapidly filed out of the holding cell while the violent tempest of a box waved goodbye at them with its large, fleshy tongue, which was holding onto a severed human arm. Whether that appendage was real or one of its tricks was definitely a valid question, but not one Honoka wanted to think about. Whatever the case may have been, she quickly had all the guards line up in a single row outside the chamber.
Honoka stood directly in front of the most obvious culprit, crossed her arms, raised an eyebrow, and began questioning him in front of the others.
“So. Zilla. Care to explain what you were doing in there?”
The former House Mimic had slipped back into his Jones Alexis Facade and was currently standing on the far left side of the rank & file.
“We were just playing a friendly game of shaperades. I was winning 36 to 31, by the way.”
“Shaperades?” she muttered in disbelief.
“Oh, it’s like charades, but for shapeshifters. Boxxy taught it to me.”
“That’s not what I-! Look, you were the one that said we needed to be extra vigilant around that thing, right?”
“In fact, I distinctly remember you warning us repeatedly to be extremely careful around it.”
“That I did.”
“And yet you were in there… playing games with it?”
“Why?! Why would you ever do such a thing?!”
“Because I got bored just standing there, and shaperades is an entertaining way to practice my shapeshifting while keeping an eye on my prisoner. It’s a win-win-win, if you think about it.”
“Did Boxxy talk you into this?!”
“I don’t believe this! You should know it’s just trying to study your weaknesses!”
“Honoka, that’s a Ranked Up Mimic in there. It has command over one of the most advanced Mana Locator Glands in existence, second only to a beholder’s. I should know, I use it too. Believe me, it already knows exactly where to hit me to make it hurt.”
“But what if it tries something while your guard is down!?”
“You of all people should know I never let my guard down. Besides, it won’t dare to try anything when I’m around.”
“How can you be so sure?!”
“Because I know for a fact it’s not stupid, Honoka. Sure, it nearly killed me when we fought topside, but things are different now. I know all of its tricks while I still have a few of my own up my sleeve. Not to mention it doesn’t have the support of its demonic familiars anymore. It stands no chance of winning a rematch under these conditions, and that’s without even factoring in the Resurrection Sickness. And it knows all of that, so there’s no way it would risk forcing my hand.”
“Uh-huh. Sure it won’t. I mean genocidal abominations are always such bastions of logic, reason, and common sense.”
“They are?!” he responded in a genuinely surprised manner. “I never would’ve guessed!”
Honoka let out a heavy sigh, allowing her hands and head to dangle off her torso like wet laundry off a fishing line. She had momentarily forgotten that Zilla never quite got sarcasm.
“No, they’re not. They’re actually quite vicious, and you should never trust any of them. Especially that one.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course. I knew that.”
“Right so, promise me you won’t indulge that thing anymore, okay? Just don’t interact with it if you can help it.”
“Alright, I will.”
“Good,” said Honoka with a nod. She then lifted her hand and pointed towards the edge of the metal tunnel. “Now go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done.”
The dozen guards who had witnessed that entire exchange watched with bemused expressions as the pompously designated Project Legacy was sent into time-out like an unruly child. Times like this made it somewhat difficult to keep in mind that Zilla was without a doubt one of the most lethal beings in the country.
“Now, as for the rest of you.”
The renewed hostility in the female alchemist’s voice made the group of guards jump a little in their boots. Their posting here was not only a well-paying one, but also something of a last chance. After all, given the level of confidentiality that surrounded this place, they imagined that being fired would be a touch more complicated than simply emptying one’s locker. That wasn’t to say they were expecting to be killed in cold blood, but… Well, suffice it to say that the Foundation had a never-ending demand for test subjects.
Thankfully, they had someone to blame for their blatantly unprofessional behavior.
“Don’t even think of using Zilla as an excuse.”
Or at least, that’s what they thought until Honoka brilliantly shot them down.
“You’re trained professional soldiers,” she continued, “so either start acting like it or I’ll find you a post that’s more in line with your talents. Or lack thereof. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am! Sorry, ma’am!” they roared in unison.
“Good, good. Now then-! What is it Zilla?” she said when he raising a hand in the air while still facing the wall. “You’re supposed to be in time out, remember.”
So it really is a time out?! retorted the guards in accidental mental unison.
“I think I forgot my top hat in the cell,” he said calmly. “Could I trouble one of these fine gentlemen to get it for me?”
Honoka left out a another sigh. Of course that needless piece of foreign fashion was his. Who else could it possibly have belonged to?
“… I suppose,” she consented, then pointed at one of the men at random. “You there - go get it. And no dilly-dallying!”
“Right away, ma’am!”
The elf that had been singled out walked over to the blue panel next to the bulkhead and opened it. There were a series of clangs followed by the usual low groan as it opened up, and the man ducked inside to accomplish his mission, such as it was.
“Alright, the rest of you keep quiet. I’ll be handling some dangerous things for the next while so I don’t want any undue-”
“Ma’am?!” yelled the guardsman from the inside.
Honoka took a deep breath to calm herself down a bit before she responded.
“What is it?!”
“I think you better see this! Zilla too!”
Having heard his name, the ex-wardrobe dashed through the door in an instant, with Honoka hot on his heels. The latter was not exactly a fan of the ‘you better see this’ cliche, but this was perhaps the one time where she didn’t mind it. After all, there was no way she would have believed the man if he just flat out told her what the problem was. Heck, she scarcely believed her own eyes.
For Boxxy, who was still locked behind the nigh-impregnable Stasis Field, and had reverted back to its base Hylt Creeper form, was currently sporting a stylish, cylindrical, black hat atop his head-
-which it tipped at her as if it were the most natural thing in the world.