The earth began to shake and the loose snow began to swirl upwards into the air as one of Azurvale’s Forest Gates powered up. The line of departees was assembled as per usual, aside from the excessive amount of shivering going on due to the biting cold wind that swept over the plaza. Even if the Hylt tree canopy absorbed much of the otherwise heavy snowfall, the massive trees could do nothing to stymie the breath of the harsh northern winter.
None of that could keep the enormous portal from opening up and it being used as per usual, though. Hooded and cloaked individuals began ferrying carts and wagons through one end of it while a nearly identical mass of travelers poured out of the other. The various tarps and fabrics that protected the goods from the weather blended together with the heavily clothed people. Looking at it from afar, it was like a river of brown, beige and gray that seemed to filter through the gate’s enchanted archway. Under such circumstances one could be forgiven for failing to spot a face in the crowd.
And yet people’s eyesight still seemed to linger on one individual in particular. A relatively small frame in a heavy fur coat with a poofy hood that covered all but the lower half of her face. But even that was enough for most citizens of Azurvale to recognize who this was, for there were very few well-tanned individuals that could be seen around here, especially during this season. Cross-reference that handful with the boundlessly cheerful smile, and the list of possible suspects boiled down to one.
“It’s good to be back!” shouted Keira excitedly as she threw her arms up.
“Miss Morgana, where do you want me to drop off these?”
The catgirl looked over her shoulder towards the dwarf that just called out to her. He was part of a delivery company that she had hired to help transport a cartload of goods from the dwarven border all the way to the capital. The wagon, which was being pulled along by a stone golem, held the various spoils of her latest adventure. All of which were officially hers since she had declared them at the border crossing and paid all taxes and fees involved.
“Ah, that’s a good question,” said Keira thoughtfully. “I can’t leave this stuff at home… Oh, I know! You know where the Central Consortium is?”
“Sure do. Should I head there?”
“Please do. Leave them care of the Hidden Arrow guild, I’ll sort ‘em out later. Oh, there’s also a crate marked ‘volatile’ with a note attached. Tell the receptionist to send that to miss Hilda. She’ll know the one.”
The package in question was the Firebrand whiskey that the female Berserker had requested of Keira to pick up on her behalf. Maintaining good relations with such a powerful fighter was pretty high on the priority list for the monster that lay behind that smile, so it was more than happy to oblige. Sure, it spent a small fortune on this stuff, but it would be worth it in the long run.
“Understood, ma’am,” said the dwarf with a nod. “Will you not be coming with?”
“No, I got some, uh, urgent stuff I gotta do first.”
“What about my fee, then?”
“Just ask the guild to cover the bill on my behalf, they know I’m good for it.”
And with that, the delivery dwarf and the company golem under his care set off to finish their job. As for Keira, she limbered up with a few good stretches and then went down on all fours with her butt sticking up in the air. Having recognized her ‘take off’ position, the crowd in front of her almost instinctively made way as she darted off through the streets at top speeds. She dashed between people, over stalls and under carriages, much as she always did.
However, rather than being peeved off at her, the pedestrians and peddlers were genuinely glad to see their resident Hero return after a long absence. She was a local celebrity, so they didn’t even need to see her crimson hair and pointy ears to know it was her. They still did, though, as her hood had slipped off during the quadruped sprint. Purely by accident, of course.
The random cheers and greetings she received steadily became more familiar and casual as she approached the house of one Rowana Slyth.
“Welcome back, miss Morgana!” shouted a kebab vendor.
“Yaaay! Big sis Keira is back!” called out a boy playing in the snow.
“Watch the ice, kiddo!” yelled a beefy-looking adventurer as he passed by.
“Never thought I’d miss someone vaulting over my fence until now…” grumbled an innkeeper.
This was the catgirl’s home neighborhood, so it was only natural she’d be the most popular around here. Keira looked up at the tree towards her house excitedly, and as such failed to notice a freshly frozen puddle on the ground. Her bare hand slipped on it, making her fall on and flip over her shoulder before crashing magnificently into a nearby wall, leaving her upside-down with her feet and tail in the air.
After picking herself up and dusting herself off, the red-faced beastkin continued on her way at a brisk walk while onlookers were trying to hold in their laughter. Seeing a young girl have an adorably clumsy yet ultimately harmless tumble was definitely a crowd pleaser. It was worth noting, however, that this wasn’t an act, but had been a genuine accident. This was Boxxy’s first taste of real winter as Keira, so it had underestimated the slipperiness of hard-packed snow that had turned to ice. It had managed to play it off, but the Mimic groaned inwardly that it could really do without any more surprises for a while.
The shapeshifter had its ‘game face’ on by the time it reached Rowana’s home and stood in front of the door. In typical Keira fashion, it flung the door open with a light kick while loudly declaring-
“Honey! I’m hooooome!”
However, it would appear Boxxy’s wish had failed to come true, as a surprise was waiting for it inside. Rather than seeing a familiar silver-haired elven beauty, it instead saw a strange grey-haired beastkin boy. One with a pair of extremely furry canine ears poking out of his scalp and a bushy tail dangling behind him. He had been sitting at Rowana’s desk pouring over a thick tome of some sort when the catgirl barged in, and the two of them were now staring right into each other’s eyes. Keira lunged at the stranger in the next instant, dropping the rucksack she was carrying while pulling out a mithril dagger from the belt underneath her coat.
The boy let out a startled yelp at the sudden motion, but the mid-Level Ranger was too quick for him. She tackled him off his chair before he could make any sort of meaningful reaction. Keira pinned him to the floor and put her shiny knife to his throat, causing the poor lad to squeal in fear with tears welling up in his bright blue eyes.
“Who are you?!” she growled while looming over him. “Where’s Rowie?!”
However, the intruder could only muster gasps and fragmented sounds, as he was unsure how to deal with this sudden outburst of violence. Some unseen force interpreted his awkward flailing and stammering as a form of resistance, which caused a series of very informative notifications to appear in both their minds.
Clash of Fate has been invoked!
The Hero of Chaos will now face the Hero of Magic on the field of battle!
May destiny smile upon the victor!
HP and MP have fully recovered.
Skill and Spell cooldowns have been refreshed.
None can interfere in the Clash of Fate until it is resolved.
The two beastkin stared at each other in total silence as the revelation began to sink in. In the heat of the moment, Keira ended up pressing her dagger against the other Hero’s throat hard enough to draw blood. Boxxy wasn’t sure what was going on, but the monster’s ‘kill or be killed’ mentality had come out to the forefront and was influencing the actions of its Facade. With HP that pitiably low, he would die with a single sharp slash, allowing the greedy creature to claim another Hero-exclusive Skill.
Keira then felt her leg was pressing against something warm and damp. She looked down, only to realize the stranger had wet himself out of fear. That oddity snapped the shapeshifter out of its murderous intent, allowing it to realize this was a horrible idea in the long run. Keira should really not be seen killing other Heroes in cold blood. And that Clash of Fate announcement? It would have been broadcast to everyone in the city.
The catgirl rose to her feet, dragging the mumbling buffoon she was accosting up along with her, then slammed him face-first against the wall while still holding him at knifepoint.
“I’m going to ask you only one more time. Where. Is. Rowana?!”
“Sh-sh-sh-sh-she’s out shopping!” he managed to yell out. “Something about a special lunch! She insisted!”
“And what about you? What are you doing here?!”
“I’m a guest! A guest! Honest! Look, my bag is over there! You’ll find a letter from lady Imiryl in it! She’s one of my teachers and the one who invited me here!”
The catgirl let go of the man and slowly went towards the bag he mentioned while keeping her blade pointed at him. She reached in and pulled out a fancy-looking parchment. She unrolled it with one hand and gave it a skim. It definitely bore Imiryl’s personal seal, and was addressed to Nao Shoki - which her Eyes of the Dead God confirmed was this beastkin boy - to the Republic.
“Okay, say I believe you,” she said while putting down the document. “Then how do we undo this Clash thing? I’m still new to the Hero business so I have no idea.”
“Just lower your weapon and cease hostilities! It should go away if we wait long enough!”
Keira warily did as instructed, and the two beastkin stared at each other tensely for about a minute before the man’s words were proven to be true.
|Clash of Fate has been rescinded!
The Hero of Chaos has made peace with the Hero of Magic!
“Oh thank Lunar,” he exclaimed as he slumped down to the ground.
“Yeah… Uh… I guess I should apologize for that…”
“N-n-no, it’s fine. You were only protecting your home against a suspicious individual. I can hardly blame you for being on edge, especially after what you went through.”
“… What is it you know about me?!” she said coldly while baring her blade once more.
“Woah, woah, woah!” exclaimed the lad, throwing his hands up. “Look, I mean you no harm. I’m here to help, actually! After I came here at lady Imiryl’s request, I was told by a very kind Paladin named Lichter that you’ve had some… troubles recently.”
“Define ‘troubles,’” she snarled, murderous intent rising once more.
“Uhm! I swear I don’t know much!” he answered quickly in a panic. “I was just told you were kidnapped and woke up with a weird thing in your back! I know a lot about stuff, so they asked me to take a look at it! Strictly confidential, of course!”
“Ah… Oh… Oh my god!” exclaimed Keira as what she had done finally sank in. “You’re to help me and I pulled a knife on you! Oh, shit! I cut you! You’re bleeding! Are you okay?!”
“I’m- I’m fine! Just a scratch. Barely lost any HP.”
The catgirl then glanced around the house, specifically at the blood and urine stains on the floor.
“Quick, we need to clean this up before-”
The sound of an angry Rowana came in through the still open door, with the elf herself following soon after.
“Nyrie damnit, Keira!” she shouted when she saw the collective mess. “I’ve been waiting for you to come back for what felt like an eternity, and when you finally show up, you try to assault our guest! Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“… Honey, I’m home?” said the catgirl with an awkward smile.
“Wha-?! That’s not-! You can’t just-! Why did-?!”
The elf’s shoulders dropped, followed by her giving off a long, tired sigh. Once she calmed herself down a bit, she walked over to her girlfriend and gave her a rather forceful hug.
“Welcome back, sweetie,” she whispered softly.
After a bit of cleaning up, a change of clothes, a good deal of apologizing, and a pleasant chat with some heavily armed guards that had arrived at the scene of a disturbance, the three of them finally managed to clear up all misunderstandings. They then sat around the dining table for a civil conversation over a nice cup of Rowana’s special blend of calming tea.
“Again, I’m really sorry for what I did,” repeated the catgirl for the upteempth time. “I just, I didn’t see Rowie, and there was a stranger, and-”
“It’s alright, miss Morgana. Like I said, I completely understand. Though I must say, your timing was rather exquisite.”
Apparently, even though he had been in town for a few days now, the Hero of Magic known as Nao Shoki had only arrived at Rowana’s abode shortly before Keira did. After introducing himself to the mistress of the house and explaining his purpose, she asked him to come in. She then insisted she prepare a special meal to welcome him, which was why she left him to watch the house while she procured ingredients.
Long story short, if the catgirl who had been gone for over a month had returned fifteen minutes earlier or later than she did, none of this would’ve happened.
“Ugh, yeah. It’s a Hero of Chaos thing,” groaned Keira. “I always end up in freaky situations. It’s kinda my thing.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said Rowana with a bit of a forced smile.
“You get used to it, though,” claimed the catgirl with a dismissive hand wave. “Mostly…”
“That being said, please don’t grab me like that again, okay?” pleaded the visitor. “I’m… not very good at dealing with women. Especially violent ones…”
“Is that why you freaked out like that?” asked Keira, and she got a sheepish nod in response. “Wow, okay. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t look like a Hero at all.”
Upon closer inspection, Nao’s short and spiky hair was not uniform in color, but was made up of both light and dark streaks of grey. The odd coloration could also seen in the bushy tail and the pointy ears. This, combined with those unnaturally bright blue eyes of his, gave off the impression of a timber wolf one would meet in the mountains. Or at least it would have, were it not for his incredibly attractive yet gentle-looking face and overall meek demeanor. He was more like a pup than a predator.
The rest of him was also quite non-threatening and distinctly un-manly. He was only a few centimeters taller than Keira, though it was hard to tell since he was hunched over all the time. His attire consisted of a dark blue robe with a bright yellow trim that wrapped snugly around his slim arms and torso, with a slit in the back to let his tail dangle freely. The clearly high-class garment’s lower end obscured his legs aside from the leather sandals he wore on his feet, which exposed his bare, clawed toes to the open air. He also had, for whatever reason, three whole belts hanging off his waist, each studded with a series of tiny precious stones.
“Hahaha, I get that a lot,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “You on the other hand are just as terrifying as I thought you would be.”
“Terrifying?!” she exclaimed while leaning forwards. “What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Keira. You’re upsetting our guest,” said Rowana in a strict voice.
“S-sorry, Rowie, but he just called me terrifying! I’m not all that scary! … Am I?”
“F-f-forgive me, miss Morgana,” stammered Nao, “but I just heard a rather… colorful collection of nicknames on my way to Azurvale. They may have influenced my, uh, preconceptions…”
“Colorful? Like what?” inquired the catgirl.
“Promise you won’t get mad?”
“Hero Killer. The Mad Cat. The Blood-soaked Jester. Herald of Armageddon. And those are the more, erm, flattering ones.”
“Egads!” exclaimed Rowana. “My dear Keira is the gentlest person I know! Who would dare spread such vile filth?!”
“The shitheads over in the Empire I would imagine,” said the ‘gentle person’ with a scowl. “Bunch of sore losers can’t cope with the fact their poster-child was bad at his job.”
“W-well, you can’t put all the blame on propaganda,” muttered Nao. “You were super intense when you, uh… Ahem! ‘Greeted’ me earlier.”
“Look, I’ve been through a lot, okay,” she argued. “Everyone gets twitchy when they’re stressed out. And my trip was pretty damn stressful.”
This statement rang far truer than the standard deluge of dishonesty that normally spilled out of Keira’s mouth. Even if Boxxy enjoyed certain parts of its latest adventure and obtained certain profits and benefits, it had been a mentally and physically draining endeavor. The fact that it couldn’t ‘seal the deal’ at the end was especially bothersome. Then there was also the fact that it failed to capture any dungeon cores, though not for a lack of trying. The places it visited had ‘hearts’ that were inaccessible or outright missing because a certain Spymaster’s lackeys had beaten it to the punch. It therefore had to take the ‘long’ way home, where the Foundation was no doubt waiting for it.
All things said and done, the shapeshifter was looking forward to laying low and relaxing itself for the foreseeable future, at least until this soulstone business was resolved.
“I can only imagine,” said Rowana as she placed her hand on Keira’s. “Did you even manage to find your friend?”
“Sort of. Fizzy’s busy doing Julian’s work so it’ll be a while before she can come back. I would’ve honestly come back sooner, but- Oh! Right! Rowie, I have some great news!”
The catgirl suddenly perked up, taking both of the elf’s hands in her own.
“What? What is it?”
“The thing in my back - we don’t need to worry about it! We just need to be patient and wait for it to go away on its own!”
“Really? You’re certain?!”
“Yes! One hundred million percent sure!”
An exaggeration to be sure, but the Mimic had confirmed the information Reggie had given it the last time they met while it was busy dismantling the Order of the Black Wand.
“Oh, thank the Gods!”
The two of them shared another long hug as tears of happiness began to stream out of Rowana’s emerald green eyes. She tried to be strong for her girlfriend’s sake, but there was no woman alive who wouldn’t worry about her lover if she suddenly came home with a tumorous jewel in her back.
“Uhm… S-sorry to interrupt your moment,” butted in Nao, “but do you mind if I take a look at that anyway? It’s the main reason I’m here to begin with…”
The two lovebirds broke up their embrace and Keira gave Rowana an apprehensive look.
“It’s fine, isn’t it? Who best to make sure absolutely sure you’ll be fine than your fellow Hero.”
“No offense, Rowie, but the last ‘fellow Hero’ I met tried to kill me.”
“Come now, don’t be like that. This sweet boy wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“I am not a boy!” shouted Nao in his first show of genuine anger. “I am twenty-fucking-five years old!”
He then realized what he had just said, and shrank back into his seat with a red face.
“S-s-sorry… I just… I really hate being called ‘boy.’ Or ‘darling.’ Or ‘cutie.’ Or ‘brat.’ Or anything of the like. It’s hard enough to get people to take me seriously without that sort of thing…”
It was a bit ironic, as those were exactly the sort of words one would use to describe the man upon seeing him. The complete and total absence of facial hair was especially troublesome in that respect, though his biggest problem was without a doubt his personality. The ‘shy but cute bookworm’ thing probably invited all manner of teasing from carnivorous older women.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Keira. “Are you sure you’ll be fine, though? I don’t mind taking off my clothes for an examination, but you said you had a fear of women, didn’t you?”
“S-something like that, but I’ll be fine with you, miss Morgana. You’re more like a monster than a woman anyway,” he said with a light smile.
“Haha… hah… haaah... ”
The catgirl splayed herself out across the table with a dry, humorless laugh.
“That’s right. I’m just a Herald of Armageddon, after all,” she mumbled in a dull monotone with vacant eyes. “Just a bad omen that destroys lives with its very presence, turning everything it touches to ash and cinders. The world would be better off if I crawled into a hole and disappeared forever…”
“Nao!” squealed Rowana. “You shouldn’t say things like that! Do you have any idea how much Keira struggles with self-doubt every single day?!”
“I’m sorry! It was a bad joke! I didn’t mean it!”
After a bit more of hamming it up under the pretense of ‘too much has been going on recently,’ Keira finally took off her coat and shirt, showing her back to the Hero of Magic. The crimson soulstone had already shrunk to a fraction of its original size, and was currently no bigger than a palm print. Nao reached for his bag and started pulling out a number of magic tools, such as a pair of enchanted rimless spectacles, a mithril needle, and an enchanted magnifying glass.
He then began inspecting the soulstone, being careful not to chip or scratch it with his various instruments. Boxxy was also keeping a close eye on his movements, making sure he didn’t do anything weird that might endanger the soulstone’s integrity. Its life was still tethered to this thing, so it needed to protect it at all costs, though it didn’t seem like he had anything particularly dangerous in that bag of his. On the upside this was an opportunity to see if the Hero of Magic was indeed as smart as he claimed, so there was something to be gained by humoring him like this.
Thankfully its vigilance proved to be unnecessary, as the young-looking beastkin concluded his examination after only a few minutes.
“Well, the bad news is I can’t say I know exactly what this is,” he said calmly, “but I can tell an alchemically created stone when I see one. The good news is that miss Morgana-”
“Call me Keira.”
“Right. The good news is that Keira’s information was correct. Whatever this thing is, it’s mostly inert by now. It should be absorbed into her body and then, uh, ‘expelled’ from it without further complications.”
“Wait, ‘expelled?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
Boxxy had asked out of genuine concern, as neither Reggie nor the intelligence from the Order mentioned anything about that part.
“Ah, w-w-well, it’s when you, uh…”
“He means poop, sweetie,” said Rowana bluntly.
“Oh. Right. Yeah, that makes sense.”
It might also prove to be a bit of a problem, as doppelgangers did not, in fact, poop. Not usually, anyway. They could produce excrement if they wanted to, they just didn’t need to. Their bodies, much like those of mimics, were capable of completely breaking down anything they put into their mouths if given enough time. Bone, meat, fruit, leather, glass, pebbles, wood - anything other than forged metal and large stones was fair game, really. And should something truly indigestible find itself into their system, it would just be, for the lack of a better word, ‘spit out.’
Boxxy therefore decided to do like the city of Erosa and scheduled a forceful evacuation of its own.
“You can put your shirt back on, miss Mor- uh, Keira.”
“Thanks,” replied the catgirl as she got dressed. “I gotta say though, it feels like you were asked to come all this way for nothing.”
“Haha. Yes, well, Azurvale it is a long way from the Pearly Dunes, but I got to see real snow for the first time ever, so it’s not a total loss. However, I must admit I did have an ulterior motive in coming here. You see, I heard tales of a Warlock that could command a demonic Overlord. One that you’re supposedly quite close to, Keira.”
When Nao heard the nickname ‘Herald of Armageddon’ during his travels, he naturally followed up by asking what such an ominous monicker could mean. That was how he found out about the events of Armageddon Day, which practically ended the Cataclysm Conflict between the Lodrak Empire and Ishigar Republic. The chosen of Teresa being taken down by a newly revealed Hero was big news, so it was only natural it would spread to the far corners of the continent. What Lunar’s studious disciple wanted to know, however, was what happened before that encounter.
“… I see. You want to meet Mr S, do you?” said the catgirl in an accusatory manner.
“If you’re referring to this ‘Sandman’ character, then yes, I would like to trade words with him.”
“Well, sorry to disappoint, but I can’t make that happen. He gets in contact with me, not the other way around. Besides, he’s not exactly the, uh, sharing type. I haven’t even seen his face, so I doubt he’d be revealing his trade secrets to some random guy. Uh, no offense.”
“Oh… That’s a shame. I was hoping to borrow his insight regarding demonic beings for a project I’m working on.”
“Project? What project?”
“In all honesty, it’s not something that I expect would yield anything of value,” admitted Nao while scratching his cheek. “It’s just that, every now and then you hear tales of people being turned into demons, or vice-versa. Sure, those are just outlandish myths and legends, but I want to separate the fiction from the facts. If there are any to be found, of course.”
“Why would you even look into something shady like that?”
“I just want to know, that’s all,” he said with a pure smile. “It is my mission in life to seek out and unearth the truth behind all those old tales, to unlock the secrets of magic lost to time. The Goddess of Magic and Learning saw that I had the potential to learn and comprehend a great deal, so she chose to support my goals. Whether I will actually put my discoveries to use, well, I’ll leave that for my older, wiser self to decide.”
“Huh. You’re way less of a loose cannon than I thought,” commented Keira. “I thought you’d be looking for the ultimate way to flatten mountains or something.”
“Same here,” agreed Rowana with a nod.
“What?! Why would you ever think that?!”
“You are Imiryl’s student, right?” pointed out the catgirl.
“Yeah, the one that zapped a waiter because her crumpets were dry?” chimed in the elf.
“I’m her student as an Enchanter!” he protested. “I want to ward off disease, avert disaster and prolong lifespans. My ultimate goal is to make life better, not end it faster!”
“Same thing,” countered Keira. “The world isn’t the kind of warm and fuzzy place that would spare someone just because they have a warm bed. We live with monsters that cannot be reasoned with and will not stop their destructive ways unless someone puts them down. If that’s not making lives better, then what is?”
“Look, I’m not an idiot. I will not belittle the adventurers and soldiers that keep people like me safe. I’m not going to argue that magic is a weapon. The thing is, so are swords, axes, catapults and bows! We live in an age where the average Level of both adventurers and their armaments are higher than they’ve ever been. However, the mystic arts can do so much more than slaughter beasts in some dank cave somewhere!”
“Like making entire cities disappear in a puff of flame and smoke? You’re right, there’s no way I’d be able to do that with just a bow and arrow.”
“That’s not what I mean!” argued Nao. “If harnessed and used right, the energy we call mana has the potential to uplift our civilization as a whole! Yet we’re too busy flinging it at people’s faces to fully explore that possibility! Any idiot can blow up a mountain, but how many can piece it back together?!”
“Don’t you dare talk to me about putting things back together!” snapped back Keira. “I’ve seen things! I know what becomes of those who do things ‘for the good of the people.’ The only thing your idiotic ambitions will accomplish is give some monster the means through which to harm others!”
“Oh, yes! I’m sure a troll will be able to do all sorts of damage with a bracelet that can, say, halt the advance of the otherwise incurable Paralyzing Rotflesh disease!?”
“No, you misunderstand. The monsters I’m referring to don’t live in the woods and bash things with clubs. I’m talking about the vile creatures that pat each other on the back as they send fathers, sons and brothers to die for their own selfish goals! The kind that will take your noble intentions, twist them into a knot, and then shove them so far up your-!”
“That’s enough! Both of you calm down!” butted in Rowana in an authoritative tone. “Keira, sweetie, you’re tired and my sensitive nose does not appreciate the faint smell of urine on you. Our guest has had a rather eventful day himself. So let’s avoid getting political so we can all get some rest, and we can get you into a nice, hot bath.”
“R-right. Sorry Nao, I shouldn’t have said all that stuff. I got carried away again.”
“Yeah, you tend to do that a lot, I’ve noticed. Then if you’ll excuse me…”
Just as the still upset wolfkin was getting up to leave, Boxxy had a flash of brilliance.
“Wait, hold on. You said you wanted to unlock the secrets behind old, strange magic, right?”
“Uh,yeah? What of it?”
“Then, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but I think I have something you would want to look at.”
She stood up and walked over to the rucksack she brought with her. She reached in and, after discreetly accessing Storage, pulled out a certain pink square of a gem. She walked back to Nao and handed it to him.
“Oh? What’s this, now?” he asked curiously while flipping it over.
“That’s what I want to know,” said Keira. “It’s something that was entrusted to me, but I have no idea what it is, where it came from, or what it does. Or even why it was given to me in the first place.”
“I suppose it’s certainly mysterious, isn’t it? Might as well take a look-see. Identify, Appraise Item, Detect Enchant!”
Boxxy immediately reclassified Nao Shoki inside its mind, bumping his threat level up from ‘Probably Harmless’ to ‘Potentially Catastrophic.’ What he had just used now was a trio of Scribe Skills. Meaning that the Mimic would need to make sure Keira avoided getting Appraised by him under any circumstances. The Essence Concealment Skill common among Heroes was unable to hide one’s true Status from ‘divine eyes.’ It was unclear whether being chosen by the Gods classified Nao’s peepers as such, but it was probably a safe bet to assume it was so.
“How strange,” said the wolf-boy-looking-man while looking over the jewel in his hand. “I’m not getting anything at all. It’s like I’m trying to appraise a random rock I picked up off the ground.”
“Yeah, everybody I took it to said the same,” claimed Keira. “Except Mr S. He said it seemed to soak up mana or something.”
“An absorption property, eh? Hmm… Something like that could potentially prevent a Scribe’s magic from analyzing an item, but the absorption rate would need to be something ridiculous.”
Considering it took an estimated 50,000 MP to fully charge this thing, then ‘ridiculous’ was definitely an apt statement.
“Do you mind if I borrow this for a few days so I can study it?” asked the wolfkin. “I’m afraid I don’t have the proper equipment on hand.”
“Well, okay. Just make sure to bring it back safely when you’re done. It’s the only memento I have left of my teacher, and I’m only entrusting it to you because you’re a Hero. If you think I was violent before, you wouldn’t want to see what I’d do if something happens to that. So don’t do anything that both of us would regret!”
The reasoning behind this threat may have been just lip service, but the underlying message of ‘it’s your funeral if you don’t give it back’ had been transmitted loud and clear.
“I, uh, I shall make extra sure to treat it with utmost care, then.”
That was a satisfactory response. Boxxy wanted to avoid having an actual Clash of Fate if at all possible since that would, in all likelihood, make Keira’s reputation take a nosedive. The time with Bernard was fine since it was during a war, but society normally looked down upon Hero Killers - repeat offenders especially. However, if it was for the sake of that exquisite shiny, then the negative publicity would probably be worth it.
Perhaps it would be best to send Claws to track the guy just to make sure nothing weird happened?
“Wait, is that the thing Faehorn left for you?” asked Rowana while squinting at the shiny thing. “Looks a lot… pinker from what I remember.”
Ah, crap, thought Boxxy. It had forgotten that it showed the elf a plain old ruby back then since it wanted to avoid any unwelcome reactions since the relationship between them was still somewhat fresh. Things were different now, though, giving the shapeshifter an easy out. There was only one thing one girlfriend could say to another after a lie had been exposed like that to smooth things over.
“Yeah, I might have… shown you a different one back then.”
Which was to admit to it, then beg for forgiveness.
“You what? Why?! Didn’t you tell me there’d be no more secrets?!”
“I forgot, okay?! Back then I didn’t want to upset you by bringing in suspicious magical gems that may or may not blow up!”
“That thing can explode?!”
“I said I don’t know! There’s a non-zero chance, okay?! I just didn’t want to worry you, but I couldn’t throw away mister Faehorn’s last gift!”
“You-! … We’ll talk about this later. In private.”
Rowana looked like she was about to go into full bitchiness mode, but managed to catch herself when she remembered they still had a guest. The same one seemed to be chuckling to himself as he watched the two quarrel. It seemed innocent enough, but something about his attitude ticked off the elf even further.
“What? Does our relationship amuse you?” she said in a thoroughly un-amused tone.
“No, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought you two seemed like an old married couple for a second there.”
Nao didn’t know it yet, but he had stepped on a landmine. Hearing the ‘M-word’ did little to abate Rowana’s bad mood. Just the opposite, in fact. Frankly speaking, she’d had enough of her own mother harping on about it without having some random furball butting his head into it to. To be more precise, it was the fact that she couldn’t get married to her lover that really ticked her off. She knew she shouldn’t be taking it out on a Hero, especially one who came here to help them, so she did her best not to fly off the handle at him.
“… I think you should leave now,” whispered Keira while Rowana was visibly seething.
Realizing he had overstayed his welcome, Nao immediately turned to leave. As he was walking out the front door, however, there was a rather violent gust of wind that knocked him over, making him drop the gem in his hand as he fell backwards. It drew a wonderful arc through the air, landing softly on Keira’s crimson hair.
“Ah… terribly sorry about that,” he said as he picked himself up. “I’ll just put that in my enchanted bag for safe keeping.”
With the item once more securely in his possession, he finally left the house. Rowana walked into the bathroom in the cellar and started drawing a bath while Keira finished off her tea. She then went over to the bed and began undressing to get ready for that bath while the quiet sound of running water could be heard coming from beneath the floorboards. Boxxy wondered, was this place always this silent? It then realized that something was missing from this humble abode. Something small, hyperactive, incredibly lucky, and enviably square-shaped.
“Rowie!?” shouted Keira. “Where’s Minic!?”
“Damn! I forgot to feed it this morning!” responded the elf from down below. “Must have gone out to find lunch! Now it’ll come back all filthy and covered in sewage again!”
No sooner were those words uttered that the House Mimic burst through the tiny flap in the front door. It ran up to Keira’s feet and bounced around excitedly going ‘Yip! Yip!’ The catgirl bent over, picked it up and put it on her naked lap. She smiled sweetly, then proceeded to stroke its polished surface. Especially the bright red gem that stood in the middle of its lid. Boxxy wasn’t surprised to see its older-yet-smaller ‘sibling’ was alive and well, but it was still oddly glad to see its pet again.
Rowana walked up from the basement at that point, feeling her heart melt a bit at the sweet scene.
“C’mon, love. Water’s ready,” she called out after a few moments.
“I can take Minic with me, right?”
“I don’t know. It might get in the way with both of us in there.”
“You’re coming in with me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” asked the elf while crossing her arms.
“Aren’t you still mad about the gem thing?”
“Quite a bit, yes. And you’re going to make it up to me by letting me wash you, cuddling up with me, then doing that thing you do with your tongue until I’m satisfied.”
“Well! When you put it like that then perhaps I should get you mad more often!”
Keira was barely able to finish her sentence when Minic suddenly started coughing and spurting, choking on something lodged in its throat. It managed to get the foreign object free a few moments later and spat it out into the catgirl’s cleavage, revealing it to be an unmistakable square-cut pink gem.
“Uh, Keira? Is that what I think it is?”
“But how did-”
“Wait for it.”
*BAM BAM BAM BAM*
“Excuse me in there! It’s urgent!”
There was a panicked banging at the door, followed by Nao’s voice.
“What is it?” asked Rowana as she poked her head out the door.
“I’m terribly sorry about this, but I lost the heirloom miss Morgana gave me!” he explained, his words firing off faster than a lightning elemental. “I know you just gave it to me five minutes ago, but it fell out of my bag when I slipped on some ice! A weird box-creature then snatched it off the ground before I could pick it up and disappeared into a snowbank! Again, I’m really sorry, but I need miss Morgana and her Ranger Skills to help me track it down!”
The elf looked back in at her lover, and the two shared a quick laugh. The catgirl covered herself, then the two introduced Minic to Nao and explained not to worry, though the animate box seemed to dislike the wolfkin for some reason. Rowana then returned the item back to the flabbergasted scholar while he apologized a dozen times over. Nao then somewhat reluctantly placed the bizarre stone in his Item Box, a Skill that was like a lesser version of Boxxy’s Storage. He didn’t want to do this initially because, in his own words, ‘you never know when these mystery trinkets will react badly to spatial magic.’ But, after a solid amount of Keira’s urging and Rowana’s bitching, he finally agreed to it and went on his way.
Once the bumbling Hero was gone for good, the two women were finally able to share a romantic and extremely passionate bath. They spent the rest of the afternoon indoors as Boxxy regaled its Doppelganger XP source with made up adventure stories while they snuggled on the bed with Minic. They then went out for a brief walk, had a nice dinner at a restaurant, followed by another round of make-up sex back at home before falling asleep in each other’s arms.
Boxxy had already slept in the Dryad’s Domain prior to organizing Keira’s official return to Azurvale, but it still felt drained from all the needless effort it put into Mortimer’s Quest. Using enormous amounts of magic was quite taxing on the body, and the hundreds of Transfamiliar hops it performed were no exception. Admittedly sharing a bed with a piece of convenient meat and a purring mini-box wasn’t its ideal sleeping arrangement, but it still found itself dozing off in the familiar atmosphere.
And then, when it woke up the next morning, it found something waiting for it on top of the old night stand on its side of the bed.
It was an impossibly familiar pink gem, which showed absolutely no sign of how it got there.