A certain elven researcher was seated on the cold, metal floor. The way she was hugging her knees and sobbing quietly into them was entirely unbefitting behavior of a woman of her age and stature, but was a clear indicator of her distraught state of mind. And kneeling right next to her was a shapeshifter whose scarfaced Facade would not normally endear him to others.
“It’s okay, Honoka,” he said in a soothing tone while stroking her deep blue hair. “You’re safe. I’m here. We’re all here for you.”
This pathetic scene was a direct result of Specimen 68’s hat trick, which had very nearly given her a heart attack. Her mind had immediately jumped to the conclusion that the monster could not only slip in and out of the Stasis Field at will, but could do so without triggering the alarm. As it turned out, however, it was nothing more than a prank. The headgear the creature was sporting was actually a barely passable imitation it had created out of its body, but the elf had failed to recognize it as such at first glance. The actual top hat that Zilla left behind had been lying on the floor next to the entrance, and as such was not immediately visible upon entering the room. It wasn’t until he calmly pointed it out to Honoka that she realized she had been tricked, bamboozled, hoodwinked, and otherwise flim-flammed.
However, rather than sigh in relief or shout in outrage, the elf ended up breaking down into a fit of tears and sobs.
Much like Malon, she wasn’t a combatant, and her nerve had not been tempered by training or battle. The mere implication that the Stasis Field wasn’t as infallible as she believed it to be was enough to push her over the edge and completely ruin her composure. Though the nature of her work made her somewhat better prepared for dealing with monsters, the overwhelming horror she felt for that brief moment had rocked her to her core.
“Seems like you failed its test too, didn’t you?” said Zilla with a bemused smile.
“You’re not helping!” she wailed. “This is all your fault anyway, you retarded fashionista! *Huck!* You and your careless-! *Huck!* Your careless- *Huck!* Just-! Just go point that stupid face of yours at the wall or some- *Huck!* something, will you?!”
“Alright, alright,” he said while backing away slowly. “If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.”
Seeing Zilla’s retreating back instantly made Honoka feel bad about her outburst. Of course she didn’t mean to say those hurtful things, but her anger had suddenly flared up and caught her off guard. She wasn’t even all that mad at him, not really. In fact, the person she was most upset with was actually herself. After all, the deceived had only themselves to blame, and Honoka had fallen for Boxxy’s ruse hook, line, and sinker.
And, as if crying about it wasn’t pathetic enough, she actually went and lashed out at her only real friend, who was just trying to help.
Honoka kept sobbing quietly for several more minutes, silently chastising herself all the while. Once she had finally calmed down, the elf rose to her feet while trying her best not to succumb to the embarrassment of having broken down like a nervous wreck in front of 15 other people. She was already used to showing her pitiful side to Zilla, but the guards and colleagues currently trying their best to avoid her gaze were another story altogether.
“Uh, Taniphil, was it?” she called out in a quivering voice.
“It’s Tanithil, ma’am,” responded one of her assistants, a tall and lanky elf with greasy black hair. He wore the same standard-issue pure-white lab coat that all Foundation alchemists wore.
“Right, sorry. You brought a SIB, right?”
“Of course, Professor Honoka. Shall I get it for you?”
“Please do. And start unpacking the equipment while you’re at it.”
Several seconds later, Honoka was handed a small jar that appeared to have a tiny storm cloud floating inside it. She opened it right away, releasing its gaseous contents and allowing them to hover in the air directly above her. They rapidly expanded until they became ten times their original volume, then just as abruptly began raining on top of Honoka, complete with a series of tiny lightning strikes.
Roughly 30 seconds later, their magical payload had been completely exhausted, and the one-man storm disappeared without a trace. The elf was left completely drenched in liquid that was far too orange and was evaporating far too quickly to be plain old water. All things said and done it took less than a minute for the Shower In a Bottle to run its course, leaving Honoka’s body and clothes thoroughly cleansed of grime, dirt, tears, and snot alike.
This was yet another invention based on Tol-Saroth’s legacy, more specifically the suit of perma-clean leather armor that Zilla wore pretty much around the clock. Foundation researchers had managed to replicate its weapons-grade cleansing enchantment in liquid form, all through the miracle of Magichem Alchemy. It was an area of expertise that dealt with the creation of many-a-strange potions and elixirs, which usually required a generous application of the Alchemist’s magic power in addition to the actual ingredients.
And although a Shower In a Bottle didn’t seem all that impressive at first glance, most veteran adventurers would disagree. Those men and women would surely pay a small fortune for the ability to almost instantly wash off the sweat, blood, and filth that usually clung to them after a particularly grueling Quest. That went double for melee fighters, as they usually found themselves literally knee deep in monster guts. This product was also convenient for travelling merchants and long-distance peddlers as well, since they sometimes had to go weeks or even months without being able to bathe or wash their clothes. And trying to sell their wares while smelling like wet dog was not considered good business practice.
As for the Foundation, their Alchemists were already in love with it. The Shower In a Bottle had not only proven to be completely safe and have a long shelf life, but it also served as an all-purpose disinfectant. Malon’s overzealousness towards facial hair might have been a bit extreme, but no mixologist in their right mind would risk contaminating their experiments with foreign substances. Honoka as well was particularly fond of it, although that was because she was often way too caught up in her work to bother with baths or laundry.
Granted, this product wasn’t quite as refreshing as the real thing, but it was close enough.
“Hmm? What’s that fruity smell?” she asked while sniffing around lightly. “Is that… Hylt fruit?”
“Good guess, Professor,” said Tanithil with a small smile. “The boys in the R&D department have been experimenting with certain additives. Way I hear, they plan to release it to the general public as a cosmetic product, rather than a strictly hygienic one.”
“Strange, I hadn’t heard anything about it.”
“That’s probably because they came up with this particular batch just this morning,” explained Honoka’s assistant. “They also have a strawberry and herbal essence version in the works, too.”
“I see, so that’s why.”
She had been thoroughly preoccupied preparing for Specimen 68’s treatment, so she hadn’t had a chance to catch up with other departments quite yet.
“So… what do you think?” asked the greasy-haired elf. “I kind of promised the guy I know I’d let him know the, uh, test results.”
“It’s very nice,” responded Honoka while cupping her chin in thought. “The familiar scent of the Hylt fruit had a pleasant, calming effect. It was just what I needed after my little, uh, episode. However, the liquid still feels really slimy and gross against my skin. Tell them they still need to work on that.”
“Will do. Then, if you were to give it a score, what would it be?”
“9/10, would bottle my shower again.”
Now that Honoka had finished recovering from her mental breakdown assisting her colleague with a vital experiment, she turned her attention towards the portable alchemy station and finally got down to business.
Normally one would question whether she truly was in the right frame of mind to handle potentially toxic substances, but neither the guards nor her colleagues said a single word. The former were scared of speaking out of turn, as they were partly to blame that she was so upset in the first place. The image they had of her was that of a strict-yet-fair aunt or older sister that only got mad for their own sake. Sure, she threatened them every now and then, but she still treated them like people rather than samples, which in turn made them want to look out for her as much as they could.
As for the three junior Alchemists, they already knew that absorbing herself in her work was how Honoka dealt with pretty much all her personal issues. Her pale skin, overweight body, heavy bags under her eyes and questionable personal hygiene were all signs of her workaholic tendencies. Indeed, just as expected, the instant she saddled up to the unpacked field lab her eyes immediately became focused, glistening with the same manic spark that only showed itself at times like this. Her hands drifted over the various vials and beakers that were set out atop a foldable table as she quickly took stock of each container’s contents. She then began moving her arms with short, efficient motions while her quiet voice idly leaked out of her plump lips.
“3 grams of powdered ent root… 24 milliliters of minotaur blood… 4 fresh Moonblossom petals… 50 milliliters of manticore venom… 352 grams of mithril shavings…”
A soft clanking and rustling accompanied her disjointed words as she called out not only what ingredient she was adding into the cauldron, but how much of it as well. It was impressive how she was able to take such precise measurements without using any tools. Her trained fingers told her exactly how much the contents of each vial and beaker weighed while her eyes were able to discern the precise volume of the material. Combining that information with her intimate knowledge of each ingredient’s properties, including their density, was what allowed her to pull this off so perfectly. Of course, there were some cases where this trick couldn’t be applied, but she wasn’t beyond using proper measuring tools when the need arose.
Her almost machine-like workflow was a mesmerising sight, and the vast majority of the Foundation grunts couldn’t help but stare at her slack jawed. It was like she was a completely different person. The image they had of her before was steadily being eroded and supplanted by a far more impressive one. Namely that of a maestro of mixtures, a virtuoso of vials, and an artist of alchemy.
In other words, she was really fucking good at her Job, and even brutes like these could tell she had poured thousands of hours into her craft to reach this stage. They honestly started to wonder how come she hadn’t reached Level 100 with that level of skill. Or better yet, why she allowed that jerk Malon to boss her around in the first place. It was truly a mystery to them why that creepy fucker was a director, while Honoka, who supposedly had seniority over him, was still just a department head.
Their silent reverie was interrupted by her chant, as she used one of her Skills on the multi-colored mixture in front of her. The cauldron’s contents let out a soft blue light as they mixed together through the power of an Alchemist’s magic, blending together into a lime-green substance in a matter of seconds. Honoka then grabbed a silver rod and began stirring the liquid with irregular movements while simultaneously adding yet more ingredients to it with her other hand.
At one point she used a mid-Level Shaman Spell to seal off the simmering cauldron’s top with a magical membrane. It kept the bright yellow fumes from escaping out of the top of the silver-plated vessel while allowing her stirring stick and hands to continue augmenting the mixture undisturbed. This incantation was typically used to protect against poison gas or allow the user to breathe underwater for a short time, as it only allowed solid objects to pass through it. At the same time, its properties were perfectly suited to deliver airborne alchemical creations, which was precisely why Honoka had gone out of her way to learn the Spell the hard way, without actually taking up the Shaman Job.
And that was but one of her small repertoire of seemingly random Spells that were useful to her as an Alchemist.
Next, she blasted the silver cauldron a short-ranged burst of electricity. The highly-conductive metal transmitted the charge into the mixture, causing a chemical reaction that resulted in a number of loud, consecutive bangs within the vessel. A gust of thick, purple miasma rose up and pressed against the Air Bubble, mixing in with and subsequently devouring the lingering yellow smoke.
The guards had more or less broken out of their trance-like state by that point, and were currently whispering among themselves, exchanging words of hushed praise and astonishment.
Boxxy’s obnoxiously loud and thoroughly nonsensical profanity penetrated the thick door behind them, causing all of their heads to turn towards it as if they were on a swivel. That prank from earlier had gotten to them too, although none of them had showed quite an extreme reaction as Honoka. Well, to them it was just one more thing they had to add to the growing list of reasons why interacting with Specimen 68 was a bad idea. One by one their gazes turned back towards the female alchemist, who had thoroughly ignored the monster’s obscene words. Which was for the best, really.
Whether Boxxy had shouted that out just to mess with whoever might be listening or because it was demanding a literal plate of diced up teats was not something she would want to wonder about.
“I said it before, but Professor Honoka really is something else, isn’t she?” whispered one of grunts.
“I know. None of the others would let us watch them work,” replied the man to his right in an equally hushed tone. “And I get the impression it’s not just because they don’t want to be disturbed.”
“I know what you mean. I doubt they actually mean anything by it, though. They’re probably just worried we might steal state secrets or something.”
“Yeah, right. As if someone like me has any chance of following along with that.”
The guard jerked his head in the Lifebinder Alchemist’s direction. She was currently holding three separate vials between her left hand’s fingers while relentlessly stirring her concoction in a B-shaped pattern with her right.
“I’ll say,” nodded his comrade in agreement, “but is that stuff she’s making really going to tame that thing?”
“Dunno. Sure seems complicated enough to do the trick, though.”
“Oh, it’ll work,” chimed in the man to their left. “You can bet your life on it.”
“That so?” asked the guy in the middle with a doubtful expression. “And just how are you so sure?”
“If you want the answer to that, you just need to look over yonder.”
The man pointed off to the side with his thumb, right towards where Zilla was standing.
“How else do you think they keep that guy under control?” he added.
“Now that you mention it…”
“I always thought it was because he was her pet,” offered the elf on the far right.
“He’s what?” asked the other two with mild surprise.
“Yeah, he used to be an actual living wardrobe she’d been taking care of before those eggheads pumped him full of monster bits.”
“They can do that?”
“Apparently,” he shrugged. “I mean we’re talking about the same guys who made a sentient sword, so anything’s possible.”
“Right, good point. Why him, though?”
“No idea, mate. And frankly, I don’t think I want to find out.”
“Still, a pet, huh? That doesn’t exactly explain why they’re so chummy and casual with each other. Y’know, all things considered.”
After all, one was a living weapon who had been created to suit the Foundation’s needs, while the other was the person who had been in charge of its transformation. However one looked at it, Zilla should have definitely retained some measure of animosity towards Honoka, but that was very clearly not the case. Even taking into account the fact it had regularly been pumped full of mind-altering chemicals, the sort of devotion, patience, and understanding that abomination showed towards its own creator seemed to suggest there was something more.
“Isn’t that because the two of them are boinking each other?” said the third guard, though his voice had been a bit louder than he intended.
“Number 40151,” called out Honoka.
“Ack!” exclaimed the guard who made that scandalous remark. “Yes, ma’am?”
“I am docking your pay for the next two weeks.”
“What?! But I-!”
“I’ll hear no complaints,” she cut him off. “Also, if I hear you spreading slanderous filth like that again, I won’t hesitate to hand you over to Project Blackgate.”
Those words were profoundly terrifying to the veteran guard. Even though he didn’t know much about that project, he still understood one thing - those assigned to Project Blackgate were never heard from again. That alone was perhaps all he needed to know.
“Are we clear?”
“… Crystal, ma’am.”
“Good. Now be quiet, the lot of you,” she warned them while carrying on with her work.
While Honoka normally tuned out people around her while she was busy, that guy’s attitude was something she could never ignore. The implication that the relationship between herself and Zilla was anything other than platonic was, frankly speaking, an insult to both of them. She would be lying if she said the sickening thought hadn’t crossed her mind, but the only reason she even entertained it was because other people kept mentioning it.
While it was true she thought dearly of the creature, it was definitely not in the sick way that moronic elf had insinuated. Even though her moral compass had been somewhat knocked off-course due to the objectionable and unethical nature of her work, she still considered herself a sensible woman, although not necessarily a good one. She never once deluded herself into thinking that she wasn’t a terrible person with many heavy sins, but at the same time she thoroughly believed her crimes against elfkind were for its own good.
Securing the prosperity of her nation and her people was far more important than any one individual’s life. Even if that meant turning a harmless creature that was like family to her into something it never wanted nor asked to be. Because if a few had to be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the many, then she would not hesitate to play the part of the butcher, lest she find her own head on the chopping block.
Or at least, that’s what she told herself so she could sleep at night.
The bottom line was that Honoka, unlike some of her peers, still understood what was right and what was wrong. And as such the mere thought of having ‘relations’ with a monster - let alone her own childhood pet - was so repulsive that it made her physically ill. She used to literally throw up a little in her mouth every time she heard that sickening rumor, back when it first started making the rounds. But no matter how hard she tried to stamp it out, it just kept rearing its ugly head like some sort of stubborn weed.
Truthfully speaking, the sort of people who perpetuated that lie were only doing because it got a rise out of her. She was just far too exploitable. It was the same reason why those same individuals kept sneaking milk into her tea, which would instantly trigger an explosive response. One particularly entertaining instance had her scream about ‘defiling her noble beverage with bovine ejaculate’ at the top of her lungs at a thoroughly confused lab assistant who had nothing to do with the act.
As far as office pranks went, both of these were perhaps a little harsh, but Honoka wasn’t the only one that needed a distraction from her guilty conscience. She somewhat understood that, which was why she refused to stay mad at these people. Ideally she wouldn’t even give them a reaction to begin with, but the stress she had accumulated over the years had made her somewhat emotionally unstable. Which was probably why the Foundation’s leadership passed her over in favor of Malon when they were choosing a new facility director.
Honoka chased the errant thoughts out of her head and turned her attention back to the simmering substance in the cauldron in front of her. Having judged that the Attitude Adjuster was just about ready, she moved onto the final phase. She always hated this part, as it involved placing her bare hand on the scalding hot silver cauldron. Even though she only had to do it for a few moments, and was sort of used to it, painful things were still painful.
She breathed in, mentally braced herself, and did what she had to do, wincing a bit as the searing heat seeped into her palm.
The liquid inside the cauldron began boiling so violently that it caused its container to quiver and quake. An almost literal geyser of blurple-colored smoke was released into the confines of the elf’s Air Bubble, mixing in with the rest of the smog. Honoka then gestured upwards, prompting the magical sphere to rise out of the cauldron, taking the gaseous cocktail along with it.
“All done here,” she reported. “Now… to administer it.”
The elven alchemist would be lying if she said she wasn’t looking forward to this next part. She commanded the guards to stay put and once again opened and entered Boxxy’s cell with Zilla following close behind. The creature that had reverted back into a faux wood chest began stirring, clearly sensing that the odd purple ball floating behind the elf was not a good thing. Honoka reached into her lab coat’s right pocket and pulled out a small, black cube. It was only about 6 to 7 centimeters on each side and appeared to have been carved out of some sort of reflective stone, with 9 runic symbols carved into one side of it.
The elf acted before the Mimic had a chance to play any more tricks. Thoroughly ignoring the creature, she tapped 7 consecutive times on the item’s sigils in a very specific pattern. After inputting the right sequence, the giant cage of yellow light suddenly turned a bright blue. She gestured forward, prompting the gas-filled Air Bubble to float towards the containment field. It passed through the reconfigured Stasis Field unhindered, much to Specimen 68’s surprise. It seemed to hesitate for a moment, wondering if it should make a move and make a break for it. Ultimately it decided against it since it was clearly wary of Zilla, but even if it did it would have been a futile effort.
For while the blue-shifted Stasis Field happily allowed things to enter it, it would not permit them to leave.
The Air Bubble burst with a snap of Honoka’s fingers, and the compressed blurple smoke inside it instantly filled Boxxy’s new living space. The Mimic instinctively held its breath, but with the smoke having nowhere else to go, it was only a matter of time before it breathed it in. But even if it did theoretically hold its breath until the magical smog disappeared, Honoka’s Attitude Adjuster was not a substance that could be defeated that easily.
Almost as if it had a mind of its own, the cloud of smoke began assaulting the Mimic, seeping into its skin and tinting it a dark purple. Honoka watched with a crooked smile as a small roomful of her concoction was sucked into Specimen 68’s body in a matter of seconds, almost like an explosion in reverse. When it had finally cleared up and she could see her patient once more, it had become a solid bronze box with a distinctly purple tint. The crafty shapeshifter had probably tried to seal itself off by counting on that particular alloy’s magic-repelling properties, but humble bronze was not enough to halt the march of scientific progress.
“Can you hear me in there?” asked Honoka.
“Yes,” came the instant reply.
“Revert back to your base form.”
The Metal Mimicry was undone, and Specimen 68 promptly transformed into a steel-bound cedar chest.
“Your Doppelganger form,” clarified Honoka, and Boxxy immediately complied. “Now cut your own head off and eat it.”
The gray-skinned humanoid did not skip a beat as it unhesitantly ripped its own head off, grew a new one, and eagerly slurped up the goopy pile of flesh that its old one had reverted into.
“Very good,” said the elf with a tiny breath of relief. “Now tell me everything you know about the Calamity of Monotal.”
And thus Boxxy, who had completely fallen under the influence of Attitude Adjuster’s Opulent Obedience, happily began spilling its greatest secrets.