Boxxy, as Keira, continued to lay in bed with Rowana’s hands wrapped around what she foolishly believed to be her lover. It stared so hard at the pink gem on the nightstand that one might think the not-catgirl was trying to fire beams out of her eyes. The fact that said eyes could see the shiny while the monster’s magical sonar could not was the problem though. It proved that the thing on in front of the creature was the very same article as the one it had sent away for study last night. Its authenticity was not in question, but that only exasperated the real matter at hand - how, exactly, did it get here?
Luckily for Boxxy, it knew just who to ask.
“Claws, where’s Nao?” it called out telepathically.
The Mimic had silently sent its pet webstalker to keep a close eye on the Hero of Magic the day before. It initially didn’t want to do that since he might be able to detect the spider-demon somehow, what with her being made up of mana and him being a Hero with unknown Skills. However, the shapeshifter rapidly changed its mind after that Minic incident. It showed that Nao Shoki was not as reliable as he appeared, even if his intentions appeared legitimate. He didn’t seem like the type stupid enough to steal another Hero’s treasure, but his carelessness was a problem.
“Good morning, master,” replied Drea. “He’s currently in the Central Consortium building.”
“What’s he doing right now?”
“What about last night?”
“He spent most of it up and about until he collapsed on his desk about three hours ago. The way he struggled but failed to keep his eyes open was quite adorable.”
“So he’s been there since yesterday?”
“What about you? Where are you right now?”
“I’m hiding on a rooftop with a clear view of the magical laboratory he’s in.”
“So you don’t know exactly what he’s been up to?”
“No, master. I can track his position through the windows, but the place is rigged with surveillance magic so I can’t get closer without risk of raising an alarm.”
“What, can’t you just dispel those enchantments with Counterspell?”
“I can, but someone would notice if I did that. Maybe not right away, but eventually. I would’ve loved to get a closer look at his sleeping face, but doing so would go against your orders.”
When Boxxy gave Claws her instructions, it told her to take every precaution against being spotted - be it by Nao or anyone else. The arachnid demon had centuries’ worth of experience on the Mimic when it came to sneaking about and circumventing security measures. Therefore, if she, in her honest judgement, deemed it too risky to approach the her target, then it had no choice but to accept it.
Still, that did not answer the shapeshifter’s most pressing concern.
“What about the shiny I gave him? Can you see it right now?”
“So you have no idea where it is?”
“That’s not the case. I saw him carry it around and using a bunch of tools, wands and tests on the thing. The last thing he did with it was stick it inside a rune-inscribed cylinder and placing it on his desk. He kept staring at it waiting for something, but the cutie dozed off before the thing was ready.”
“And nothing weird happened after that?”
“Well, I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, but the little guy accidentally knocked the container off his desk while he was asleep.”
“So… you can’t see the thing that should have my shiny?”
“Er, no? But it should still be in there. It had a screw-on lid and the darling pup hasn’t had a single visitor all night, so I don’t see where it could’ve gone.”
Well, so much for that idea. It would appear the best way to figuring this thing out was the direct approach.
“Continue monitoring him and notify me if he tries to leave the room. I’ll be there in a little bit.”
“Ehehe! With pleasure!”
Something about that overtly enthusiastic response struck the Mimic as a bit odd. In fact, thinking back on its conversation, the demon’s attitude towards the one she was stalking was a bit worrisome to say the least.
“Say, Claws? I can’t help but notice your choice of language,” pointed out Boxxy.
“What do you mean, Master?”
“Why do you keep calling the man things like ‘adorable’ or ‘darling?’”
“W-w-well, it just sort of slipped out. He’s so cute that I can’t help but want to eat him right up!”
And of course, with Claws being Claws, this intention was very much literal. Allowing that would be a very bad idea, though. Bound demons were considered extensions of their summoner’s power, so there was no doubt in the shapeshifter’s mind that a Clash of Fate would trigger if Claws were to assault him. Besides, it would be preferable if Keira and Nao could forge a cooperative relationship, as the wolfkin could prove to be a valuable resource in the long run.
“But Master’s w-w-way better!” added the webstalker in a hurry. “There’s no way that brat and his pinchable cheeks could measure up to Keira’s world-class beauty!”
“Who cares about that? Just keep your appetite under control and your jaws away from him,” demanded Boxxy. “The last thing I need is for you to ‘accidentally’ eat him like you did that Bard VIP during the war.”
“… Understood, Master,” said Drea in a disappointed tone.
With that out of the way, Keira reached out and grabbed hold of the shiny she had been staring at the entire time. Feeling her lover shuffle around also roused Rowana from her slumber.
“Morning, sweetie,” she said with a yawn while snuggling against the catgirl. “You’re up earlier than I was hoping.”
“Hey, Rowie. Yeah, we got a little situation.”
The elf blinked the sleep away from her eyes while confusedly staring at the object in Keira’s hand. She jolted awake when she finally recognized it, and the answer her brain came up with to the very obvious question of ‘How did that get here?’ filled her with dread.
“Did-! Did that guy from yesterday sneak in here last night?!”
“Calm down, Rowie. You know full well either me or Minic would’ve notice if someone tried to do that.”
“Then how in the world-?!”
Rowana’s worries came to a grinding halt mid-sentence when she noticed the ‘take a guess’ look on Keira’s face.
“Oh, right. Hero of Chaos,” she exhaled as she buried her face in her hands. “So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go find Nao and demand an explanation.”
“What, right now? It’s not even dawn yet!”
“I need to make sure he’s not messing with me. Better safe than sorry and all that.”
“… Fine. At least let me make you some breakfast before you go.”
“That’s okay, I’m still full from last night,” said Keira as she kissed Rowana’s forehead. “Just get some rest, I’ll try and be back as soon as I can.”
After that tiny bit of persuading, the catgirl got dressed in her winter coat and stepped out of the house. Nao was still fast asleep by the time she made it to the Central Consortium and arrived in front of the double doors to the lab he was in. Unfortunately, there seemed to be something of a bodyguard in front. A wolf-eared male beastkin in an unfamiliar white-colored military uniform to be precise. He had brown skin just like Keira and Nao, though his eyes, tail and braided hair were pitch black. He looked to be quite a bit older than the Hero of Magic and significantly more muscular too, judging from the size of those biceps, shoulders and thighs. He didn’t appear to be armed at first glance, but Boxxy’s MLG revealed he had several bladed weapons of varying lengths beneath his coat.
“Hold it right there, pussy-feet,” he snarled as he stood in Keira’s way. “This area’s off limits, so scram!”
“Excuse me?!” exclaimed the catgirl, and with good reason.
This was probably the first time anyone in Azurvale had taken such an outwardly rude tone with her, even from before she became something of a war hero. Boxxy felt quite confident in Keira’s adorable and approachable appearance, so this sort of unwarranted hostility made it quite a bit pissed.
“What, are those ears just for decoration? I said beat it!”
“Mister, you don’t know who you’re messing with,” snarled Keira in response. “If you did, you’d get out of my way.”
“I don’t give a damn if you the Emperor himself. You ain’t getting in here, ya runt.”
“I’ll put this in a way that you can understand, dog breath. You will let me pass. Whether its voluntarily or by force is up to you.”
“You’re gonna try a lot harder if you wanna intimidate me, ya twerp. And just so you know, you lay a finger on me, and you’re losing that arm.”
The door behind the he-beast then suddenly opened to reveal the one he was supposedly protecting. Nao had woken up from the very vocal arguing and had come out to see what all the fuss was about, which was more or less what his visitor had been aiming for.
“For pity’s sake, Kuro, I said I needed quiet,” grumbled the Hero of Magic while he scratched his scalp out of annoyance. “Oh! Miss Mor- Ahem! Keira! Didn’t expect to see you so soon!”
“Wait, you actually know this cheeky brat, Nao?” asked his bodyguard.
“Yes, I do. She’s… a friend,” he said as he turned back towards the catgirl. “Please, come in so we can talk in private.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” replied Keira as she walked past the much taller wolfkin man-mountain. “Actually, I could really use a cup of hot black tea to wake me up, so could your lackey here get one for me?”
“Lackey?! I’ll have you know-!”
“Kuro,” butted in Nao, interrupting him. “Do as she says, and get one for me too. And for yourself, while you’re at it.”
“This country has some amazing tea. The one I had yesterday was quite delicious. It’ll do you and that temper of yours some good.”
“I dunno. I don’t feel right leaving you alone with a stranger. Not after that psycho Hero of Chaos cut you yesterday.”
“Psycho?!” squealed Keira.
“Oh, I get it!” growled Kuro. “You’re the one, aren’t you?!”
“Guys, guys, guys!” shouted Nao. “It’s way too early for this shit, so let’s dial it down. Keira, Kuro here is my sworn brother. We look out for each other, that’s what we do. And Kuro - I assure you, miss Morgana is no psycho. I already explained that Clash business was a misunderstanding. Like it or not, she’s a Hero like me, so I would appreciate it if you treated her with the same respect you do me.”
“Respect has to be earned.”
“Just get the blasted tea, will you?!” insisted Nao in another uncharacteristic show of anger.
“Fine! Fine. Shove my tail down my ass, won’t you?”
The two shorter beastkin walked into the lab and shut the door behind, though not before the man called Kuro exchanged a few extra spiteful glances with Keira.
“For a guy who hates violence you sure do keep strange company,” stated the catgirl once the two of them were alone. “That one’s a Berserker, isn’t he?”
“Why yes, he is. How could you tell?”
“I’ve just seen that sort of hot-headed intensity before.” The catgirl then leaned in a bit and whispered, “Miss Hilda is way scarier than that old fart.”
“Oh. I, uh, I see… Still, even if he’s a bit of an asshole, Kuro’s heart is in the right place, so please forgive him for any rude behavior.”
“Alright, I’ll let it slide. Even though he started it…” she grumbled.
“Haha, I appreciate your consideration. Come, have a seat.”
The Consortium laboratory was rather messy to say the least. The alchemical mixing stations as well as the enchanting podium were both in complete disarray and there was just as much loose paper on the floor as there was on the nearby desk. One of the walls had a huge blackboard nailed to it, with all sorts of sigils, symbols and equations written on it in absurdly neat handwriting. A bunch of large peculiar devices with globes, rods and pylons sticking out of them could be seen lining the other walls, each of them giving off a sporadic hum or a click to signify they were active.
As for Keira and Nao, they had to sit in a couple of chairs facing each other since there were no tables or anything like that in this space.
“So, what brings you here this early?” asked the wolfkin while stifling a yawn.
“This,” stated the pretend-beastkin as she pulled out the enigmatic object in question. “I woke up to find it next to my bed. Care to explain how that happened?”
Nao blinked at the pink gemstone a few times before he glanced towards the nearby desk. The forearm-sized cylinder that Drea mentioned was on the ground, though its cap had somehow fallen off next to a drain in the ground. One that was probably intended to soak up any questionable alchemical mixtures that spilled on the floor. However, the gaps in its tiny grate were just wide enough to let the relatively slim gem slip through it if it fell just right.
After piecing the likely yet highly improbable chain of events, the wolfkin scholar was able to reach a singular conclusion.
“… Ah, I see. So it was that after all, is it?” he said with a tired grin.
“What’s ‘that,’ exactly?” asked Keira.
“Probability manipulation of the highest order,” stated Nao. “That trinket of yours possesses the uncanny ability to make things happen around it. Seemingly by accident, but always with a singular purpose. Just yesterday there were four instances when it very nearly escaped the lab the instant I took my eyes off it. I tried sticking it in a demanatizing unit to drain any residual magical charge out of it, but that obviously did nothing to keep it in place.”
“Purpose? Escape? You make it sound like this thing’s alive.”
“Is it really that strange?” countered the wolfkin. “If lumps of rock and piles of metal can move around by their own free will, what’s to say the odd mystical artifact can’t do the same? Granted, sentient equipment is… exceedingly rare… and often cursed… But! It does exist. And that little guy? If I were a betting man, I’d wager he hates being separated from you.”
“So, what? It’ll always come back to me?”
“Based on my observations and given the fact that neither of us really knows how it returned to your possession, I’d say that seems like the most likely conclusion.”
“Huh… Can I test it out for myself?”
“Knock yourself out, but don’t blame me if something goes wrong.”
Keira stood up and walked to the window. She opened it up and, after silently ordering Claws to get ready for a catch, tossed the gemstone out into the cold air with all her might. It flew towards the camouflaged webstalker on the nearby rooftop unerringly, at least until things suddenly got weird. It collided in midair with a clump of snow falling from the branches high above - one of the hazards of living under a tree during winter. This knocked the gem downwards and away from Drea’s waiting clutches.
Boxxy’s eyesight tracked the bright pink gem as it bounced off an awning and fell into the street below, landing inside the coat collar of a passing pedestrian. Feeling something cold and hard against his neck, the man panicked and began flailing about. He managed to fling the gemstone at a passing adventurer, who ended up deflecting the thing with his hand on reflex, knocking it upwards. The valuable item then drew a graceful arc as it spun rapidly around its axis until it came to a stop when it landed in Keira’s soft hair, sticking to it almost like glue.
“Wow! That was pretty neat!” she exclaimed.
“‘Neat’ is an understatement, miss Morgana,” stated Nao. “It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen probability manipulation this powerful. Same with the mana absorption rate. It’s so strong that none of the tools here can analyze the thing since it keeps soaking up all their magic. See that silver-plated bucket over there in the corner?”
The catgirl walked to the vessel in question and peered into it to see a clear and odorless liquid.
“It’s full of… water?”
“That used to be mana potion,” revealed the other Hero. “At least until I dunked the gem in there for a few seconds.”
“That just sounds ridiculous. Whoever heard of an item ‘drinking’ a potion?”
“Again, ‘ridiculous’ is an understatement. That thing, it seems to toy with the natural and magical laws of this world on a whim. And, as I’m sure we both know, there’s only one force in existence that is capable of something like that.”
“… It’s the work of the gods?”
“Mm-hmm,” nodded the wolfkin in agreement.
A rather untasty thought then crept into Boxxy’s mind.
“Say, Nao. Is it possible this is a Divine-class item?”
“No. It’s not possible - it’s certain. And given that your patron deity loves toying with predictions, probability and the like, I’d say it’s rather obvious who it belongs to.”
“Argh!” groaned Keira. “I knew it! That bastard was messing with me again! ‘I’ll give you a good reward’ my arse! Lying piece of goblin shit!”
In a fit of rage, Boxxy ended up tossing the jewel in question into the floor only to have it bounce off the ceramic tiles and smack it right in the forehead with more force than it was launched with.
“Ouch! God damnit!”
It was at that point that the doors opened and the half-troll half-wolf all-man known as Kuro returned with a tea platter in one hand.
“Dial it down, flea-brain,” he snarled at the rowdy catgirl. “Before I have to make you.”
After a few minutes and a cup of hot tea, Keira was finally able to simmer down while Kuro glared at her from the corner of the room.
“I take it your patron offered you a Divine item for some Quest, right?” asked Nao.
“Something like that… Actually, how come you seem so nonchalant about this? I was super hyped up when I heard about them, yet you’re treating this like it’s another Tuesday.”
“That’s because yours is the third Divine relic I’ve seen, so I’m afraid my hype regarding them has mostly been spent. And let me tell you, those rumors and legends about them being all-powerful items? They’re wrong, blown way out of proportions. Divine equipment just follows its own set of rules and can be considered miraculous, but they won’t let you rule a country or whatever. Your seems to like to stick with you.”
“Just my luck,” groaned Keira as she slumped into her seat. “I should’ve known something was up when Bob promised he’d tell me about it rather than giving it to me. That guy, he’s always so peculiar about his words, so it’s really my own fault for not realizing he was yanking my chain.”
“Ahah, well, that’s how the deities are. Lunar can also be infuriatingly cryptic at times, but I don’t really mind too much. Unraveling the mystery is all part of the fun for me.”
“Glad at least you’re having fun being a Hero,” she scoffed. “I’ve nearly had my life ruined several times because of Joshua’s bullshit.”
“Really? I find that hard to believe. I mean, I know the God of Chaos is a bit of a duplicitous deity, but he still means well. At least, that’s what Lunar told me.”
“Means well? Yeah right! That guy, he doesn’t give a single shit about what happens to me! He outright told me he’d enjoy watching me die in interesting ways! And that’s not the worst of-! … Look, I’m about to say a lot of shit right now, but I’d prefer it if we kept it between us Heroes.”
Keira looked away from Nao and glared over her shoulder at Kuro. Taking the hint, and after a nod from Nao, the fiend-like beastkin left the room while repeatedly giving the catgirl the ‘I’ve got my eyes on you’ gesture. Once the nuisance was out of the way, Keira began explaining Chaotic Disposition and Agent of Chaos to Nao. The actual effects, not some made up version. It was hardly the first time Boxxy had to talk about them, so it was possible it might contradict its alter ego if it started lying about those Skills now.
Sure, it was willingly giving away information, but it was for a good cause. There was also an upside to this exchange, as the shapeshifter already knew which made up sob stories to use to garner sympathy. The one with the kindly fruit vendor who died of Paralyzing Rotflesh seemed especially effective. Nao had mentioned the disease during yesterday’s argument, hinting that it held some sort of personal significance to him, and Boxxy did not fail to pounce on that verbal slip.
“I don’t know what to say after hearing all that,” sighed Nao after that deluge of disinformation. “I won’t pretend to understand what you’ve went through, or what you’re going through, but I can clearly see being a Hero of Chaos has been hard on you.”
“Yeah. And to make matters worse, I saw the Vengeance and Judgement From Above Skills that Teresa’s Hero used when we… you know. They’re so straightforward and uncomplicated compared to Virgil’s that it made me furious - jealous even. That self-righteous prick probably had a super easy life because of them, whereas I’ve had to fight and claw my way through childhood!”
“I must confess, though I sympathize with your feelings, I can’t really relate to them. I’m also guilty of having purely beneficial Hero Skills.”
“Why? What do yours do?”
“My own divine abilities are Higher Learning and Elemental Shift. The former lets me train magic-related Skills and Jobs quicker while also making it easier to learn Spells by myself. The other lets me attune any magic I use into a different element, though for a bit of an extra cost.”
Boxxy had to work extra hard to contain its wicked smile. The ‘I showed you mine so show me yours’ plan to find out what this Hero was capable of had worked flawlessly. This was vital information, to be sure. Not only in case it ever had to go up against the Hero of Magic, but it was also good to know what sort of ‘prize’ it could expect should the wolfkin somehow find himself in its belly. Higher Learning seemed tasty to be sure, but Elemental Shift was definitely the big one here.
“Tch,” Keira clicked her tongue. “Should’ve known. It’s just me that has it rough.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I hear Axel’s chosen Hero of the Sword has to meet a monthly quota of monster kills, otherwise his title gets revoked. And the Hero of Death, his patron has him running all over the globe doing his dirty work. It’s hard to imagine such people having the time to foster any sort of meaningful relationship.”
“Maybe, but at least they have purpose. Me? I’m like a fish flopping around in a puddle while a bored kid pokes at me with a stick.”
“Good things can come from this chaos stuff as well, right? For all your complaining, you still like where your life ended up, right?”
“Yeah, there’s that, but doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d probably complain a lot less if nice thing happened just a tad more often, you know? Speaking of which, there is something else I was wondering if you’d help me with.”
“Oh? Came across one of those elusive ‘nice things’ recently, did you?”
“S-something like that. Look, it’s hard to talk about, so I need you to promise you’d keep quiet about it.”
“Does it have something to do with the fact that you died?”