A massive tower stood in the middle of a snow-covered field, some forty kilometers north of Azurvale. A spatial rift suddenly burst open about three hundred meters away from the structure, allowing a group of four people to pass through - one elf and three beastkin. Each of them wore thick coats, hoods and cloaks to shield them from the cold air and heavy snowfall as they made their way towards the tower. The heavy gates that barred entry suddenly swung open when the group approached, welcoming them inside.
“Good morning, Lady Imiryl,” said the robed female attendant that greeted them. “Are these the guests you spoke of?”
“Indeed,” said the black-haired black-eyed high elf as she took off her hood. “These are Keira Morgana, Nao Shoki and Kurosaki Wasari. Everyone, this is Matilda, the caretaker of this outpost. Please inform her should you need anything or have any questions.”
The two sides exchanged greetings and pleasantries rather quickly, after which the caretaker guided the visitors further inside while her boss went off to make some sort of preparations. Rather than leading them up the stairs as one might expect, however, they were instead brought to the second underground level. Along the way they passed a number of other people. Some human, some elf, some gnomish, yet one could not help to notice that the male-to-female ratio was skewed heavily in favor of the latter. In fact, it was almost as if Nao and Kuro were the only men in the entire building aside from the security guards.
The reason for this disparity could be attributed to the statistical evidence that women were more adept at weaving the arcane arts than men. Whether it was in the Empire, the Republic, or the Kingdom, in all cases the fairer sex was slightly superior both in number and average Level when it came to magic-related professions. Yet that was not actually why there were so many of them at this installation. The cause of that was something far simpler, yet also painfully more complicated.
It was just that Imiryl, who was as an executive officer of the Caster-centric Maleficium guild, was clearly biased towards hiring members of the fairer sex as underlings. She was hardly the only one doing so, as there were already far too many so-called boys’ clubs around on the opposite end of the spectrum. Gender politics aside, even the women she hired had some problems with her policies. Devoting oneself to the study and practice of magic in its various forms left little opportunity to pursue a stable relationship. And if they couldn’t do that at the workplace, it lowered their prospects of meeting a life partner even further. This, coupled with the stereotype that all female Casters were crazy, meant that the vast majority of employees the beastkin trio walked by were not only single, but also a little bit desperate.
It was therefore completely understandable that Nao caught their attention. A young bronze-skinned beastkin with a timberwolf-like mane and an attractive, youthful face? There was no way these old maids would fail to notice him. The looks his boyish charms garnered ranged from curious at best to thirsty at worst. In short, it was the sort of work environment the Hero of Magic dreaded the most.
Yet Nao did not quiver and hide behind Kuro as he did for most of the Aurora Eve party a week ago. Well, before it got crashed by the Gilded Hand at least. He greeted the ‘nosy harpies’ in a surprisingly casual manner, easily brushing off their advances and even taking a surprisingly firm stance against the more pesky ones. This happened a total of seven or eight times before Matilda finished guiding him and the other three guests to a small break room, where they were to wait until Imiryl was ready.
“Alright, let’s hear it,” said a certain catgirl in an accusatory tone. “What did you do?”
“Whatever do you mean, Keira?” replied the younger wolfkin.
“You were still a wimp when I last saw you, yet in those mere three days you’ve already gained an absurd amount of confidence. How in Vasily’s left carpet did you manage that?”
“I, uh, I just started listening to what you kept telling me.”
Keira’s expert opinion on why Nao had so many problems with aggressive women was rather simple. He was far too shy and timid, always backing away when others pushed. He kept showing weakness so predatory females kept chasing after him. If he learned to decisively reject their advances without caving in under the pressure, then he would have a much easier time dissuading them with words. It was mostly a theory, but one that he had proven to be quite true.
There was just one problem.
“Yeah, I’m not buying that. Even I wasn’t stupid enough to expect a few pep talks to clear up that trauma of yours.”
According to Nao’s own words, the source his problem with women lied in his childhood. He said he was raised as an orphan, and that the girls at the orphanage bullied and teased him relentlessly for years. He was eventually taken in by a foster family, but the wife devolved into a violent alcoholic soon afterwards. She didn’t beat the little pup, but that was only because the focus of her drunken abuse was her husband. This only aggravated Nao’s phobia to the point where he was already mentally scarred by the time he was old enough to strike out on his own.
It was by no means a peaceful upbringing, but it was still far better than the one Keira claimed to have had, so Nao felt a bit guilty whenever the subject was brought up.
“Did you finally man up to take the crash course I told you about?” asked the catgirl with a raised eyebrow.
“Of course not!” he protested. “I’m frankly still appalled you even considered it!”
“Crash course? What’s that about?” asked Kuro.
“A visit to the local brothel,” stated Keira bluntly. “One night with a trained professional will do wonders for anyone’s confidence.”
“Speaking from personal experience are we?”
“Not at all, just common sense. I’d never be caught dead in one of those establishments.”
“They didn’t have ‘your type,’ did they?” asked the black-haired wolfkin with a toothy grin.
“That’s not the point. Nao’s clearly done something drastic over the past few days, and if it wasn’t spending the night with a lady of ill repute, then I demand to know what it was.”
“How do you know I’ve even done anything?!” protested the younger sworn sibling.
Keira slammed her hands on the metal table between them.
“Nao, I’m a woman, an adventurer, and the Hero of Chaos. That’s three separate intuitions that say you’re guilty of something.”
Technically speaking though, the source of her conviction was just the third of those. The Agent of Chaos Skill had reported to its owner that the flows of chaos have returned to their causal state during the night before yesterday. It even woke the shapeshifter up from its slumber when it did so, so it was quite certain something big had went down since it had seen its fellow Hero.
“Last chance. Are you going to fess up or will I have to play nasty?” she said menacingly.
“I’m telling you, nothing has happened!” insisted Nao.
“Alright, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Kuro, what has this guy’s been up to.”
“He contracted a succubus and had her sleep with him.”
Several seconds of deafening silence followed that near-instantaneous reply. The one to break it was Keira, who spoke in a condescending, pitying tone.
“Ah, I see. So you used a succubus. Good for you.”
“Kuro! How could you!”
“I owe her for warning me about the ambush,” he said with a shrug. “We both do.”
“But-! But-! She hates me now! She’s totally looking at me like I’m a piece of garbage!”
“You kind of are. Even I think the brothel would’ve been a better idea, but you’d never hear it just because your ‘Wizard’s staff’ barely qualifies as Standard class.”
The commotion carried on for several more minutes before they all settled down. Kuro was leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the table while whistling a pleasant tune. Nao had his face in his hands, which was so red even his black-furred ears were being affected. As for Keira, she continued staring daggers at him for doing something that idiotic. Even the monster masquerading as her was deeply disappointed.
The Agent of Chaos Skill had the ability to forever change one’s fate in the most extreme of ways. In the right circumstances, it could either start or end wars. With that sort of wild card in play, Nao could’ve easily created yet another Artifact. Yet he had wasted all that potential on the pointless act of getting laid. Granted he had no idea what was going on in that regard, but Boxxy still felt so disgusted at this outcome that its bad mood easily seeped through its Facade.
The one to dispel this strange atmosphere was Matilda, who had returned to retrieve them once Imiryl was ready for them. She guided the trio through some narrow stone corridors as they went deeper into the underground portion of the facility. Upon reaching their destination, they saw it was a dome-shaped ritual chamber, about four meters tall and twice as wide. Glowing sigils lined the reinforced metal walls and floor, likely fortifying the place in case some experiment went awry. Which was probably a good thing, as field testing Keira’s enigmatic pink gemstone was the reason they were here in the first place. The high elf Wizard was already waiting for them inside, having changed out of her winter cloak into a set of fancy-looking black caster robes embroidered with golden thread.
“Hello again,” said Imiryl. “What’s wrong with you three?”
“Nothing, just a mild difference of opinion,” said Keira. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Very well. Then please hand me the item so I can begin.”
“Sure, just a moment.”
She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the square jewel in question, then gave it to Imiryl.
“Well then, I’ll leave you to it!”
She then turned around and tried to vacate the area, but almost immediately heard the sound of something light bouncing off a stone floor followed by a mild bump to the back of her ankle.
“My apologies, I was sure I had a good grip on it,” stated the elf.
“No, it’s fine,” groaned Keira as she leaned down to pick up the rebellious trinket. “This guy hates being separated from me, after all.”
“Ah, of course. Nao did mention something about probability manipulation, but I did not expect it to be so… blatant.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. It doesn’t seem to mind being left at home under lock and key, but starts acting up the instant someone other than me touches it. I thought it’d be fine if I was just nearby, but that clearly isn’t the case.”
“I see. In that case I must ask you to participate. I won’t be able to charge it if it is constantly trying to ‘escape,’ after all.”
“I mean… if I have to… Just to make sure, it won’t explode or anything, right?”
“In my experience, the likelihood of that happening is extremely small. Magic items that are meant to explode are typically made out of denser materials, like stones or metals. And I seriously doubt your patron would want to blow up their Hero for kicks.”
“No, that guy just might arrange for something like that to happen precisely because it’s unexpected.”
“I am aware, which is why we are in this chamber to begin with. Should a violent discharge of magical energy take place, these dampening wards will activate and suppress the rampant mana before any harm comes to us.”
“But… will they be strong enough? What if it’s some unbelievable blast that would normally wipe out an entire neighborhood?”
“Keira. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have confidence we would all be safe. I know you are largely unfamiliar with the mystic arts, but your mistrust in my abilities is rather insulting.”
“Okay! Okay. Let’s just get this over with.”
The catkin girl held out her palm with the gem resting on top of it as per Imiryl’s instructions. The high elf then sandwiched Keira’s hand between hers, putting one on top and the other underneath. Nao, who was here mostly to observe, and Kuro, who was just acting as Nao’s meat shield, remained near the edge of the chamber. They would’ve normally gotten closer, but something about Keira’s worries had given them pause. Even if they trusted Imiryl, it was impossible to disregard the concerns of the Hero of Chaos.
“Phew, greedy little thing, isn’t it?” let out Imiryl after several seconds. “I just finished pouring just over 6,000 MP into it, but it’s far from satisfied.”
She released Keira’s hand, revealing that the pink gem now had a slight inner glow to it.
“Well, the charge doesn’t seem to be dissipating at least,” she continued after observing it for a bit. “Give me about ten minutes to recuperate and I shall try again.”
“Should I pour my own MP into it?” asked the catgirl. “It’s not much, but it should help.”
“Best not. Not all magic items react favorably to being charged by multiple people.”
After the specified break time, the finely-aged elf tried again. The gem was shining brighter now, but Boxxy already knew it wasn’t even close to fully charged. By its rough estimate, it would take at least 50,000 MP for that to happen. It therefore wasn’t anywhere near as flustered as the elf was getting after nearly an hour and a half of steadily juicing the thing up. It glowed brighter and brighter with each session, and even started vibrating and letting out a high pitched buzz as its charge passed the 40,000 MP mark. All of this the shapeshifter had experienced once before when it had Ambrosia try to charge it, but chickened out because it was worried something horrible would happen.
It still had those worries though. Keira’s remarks at the start of all this were its honest thoughts on the matter, though Imiryl was someone with a hundred times more experience with this sort of stuff than it was. It therefore decided to trust her judgement and challenge the non-zero chance that this entire tower would turn into a smolder crater. Even the high elf seemed to have some second thoughts after hearing that buzzing noise, but she did not waver. It took a ridiculous amount of surety, confidence, and belief in one’s abilities to become an adventurer of her stature, and she had all of those in spades.
And then, during the tenth charging session, the moment of truth arrived. After receiving precisely 55,555 of Imiryl’s MP, both the elf and the beastkin were shoved back by a small but firm wave of force. The mysterious gemstone, which shone like a miniature star by this point, floated in place while air swirled around it. Arcs of pink lightning shot out of it, causing an eruption of sparks whenever they collided with the floor or ceiling.
This lasted for all of ten seconds, after which there was a loud, harsh, cascading noise like a chandelier being smashed over a troll’s head. The very fabric of reality was torn asunder as as a two meter wide circular portal opened up in the center of the chamber. Its muddled and erratic surface rapidly stabilized, allowing everyone present a clear view of the beautiful sandy beach on the other side. Well, except for Imiryl, who only saw a twisting purplish abyss from the ‘rear’ side of the portal.
“So… is that it?” asked Keira in a somewhat disappointed manner. “I mean, unless I’m missing something, opening a portal doesn’t seem all that big a deal.”
“You are indeed ‘missing something,’ Keira,” stated Imiryl as she walked around to get a better look at the dimensional rift. “This facility should have military-grade spatial interference wards, yet this thing punched through them like it was nothing. What do you think, Nao?”
“I think it’s amazing,” he said with a face full of childlike wonderment. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this doesn’t seem like spatial magic at all. It’s similar, but also completely different at the same time.”
“That’s what I was thinking. The way it formed and the patterns the event horizon makes are all… off.”
“Doesn’t look all that special to me…”
“It may seem like an extra-colorful portal to a rookie like yourself,” explained Nao, “but to the trained eye it’s hard to believe this thing is even keeping itself together.”
“Am I the only one who’s bothered by the fact that the sun is freakin’ blue?”
Everyone glanced through the portal at Kuro’s words. Now that he mentioned it, they realized that the sun reflected in the large body of water was not a yellow one. After peering through the rift more carefully, they realized the sky wasn’t quite light blue, as it had an odd purple tinge to it. Light blurple was probably the best way to describe it. The water being just a bit too green and the orangeness of the sand seemed to reinforce the idea that this scenery was not of this world.
Imiryl then suddenly went through the ‘not-portal’ before anyone could even think about stopping her. The instant she stepped through it, her robe transformed into a stylish one-piece swimsuit, causing her extremely pale skin to practically glow in the strong sunlight. It wasn’t the only change to her attire, as her boots had turned into strapped sandals and her black hair was suddenly adorned with a mysterious green flower. The high elf looked down at herself, then inspected her surroundings. After a brief glance at the sun to confirm it was indeed blue, she looked back through the portal, noting the stunned expressions on the beastkin trio’s faces. She then crossed over to their side, her outfit returning to normal as she passed through the threshold.
“Well, that was educational,” she stated casually.
“Lady Imiryl?! What were you thinking?! What if something-!”
“Calm yourself, Nao. When you’ve been an adventurer for as long as I have, you get a feel for these things. In any event, I was able to confirm that Divine item’s function.”
“… It creates portals to other worlds?”
“Not exactly, my dear Keira. It would be more accurate - though not entirely - to say it creates worlds.”
“Come, step through the rift with me, you’ll understand.”
The elf grabbed her by the hand and dragged her towards the rift. Boxxy wasn’t sure whether it wanted to go, but it appeared to be safe, so it allowed itself to be dragged through it. The instant it crossed over it was able to confirm three things. One - that this place was incredibly hot. Two - that Keira’s winter clothes had turned into a rather daring white bikini. And three - that the high elf’s earlier claim was not as outlandish as it initially sounded.
You have entered the Fun In The Sun instant dungeon.
“Instant dungeon?” she muttered. “What’s that supposed to mean? Wait, are you telling me all of this really was created just a few moments ago?!”
“Would certainly appear that way,” confirmed Imiryl.
“But, an entire world?! A freaking new sun?!”
“Look around you, child. Observe the horizon. You’re a Ranger, you should be able to figure it out.”
Boxxy was unsure of what she meant by that, but still did as instructed. And as it peered over the seemingly endless ocean with Eagle Eye, it realized the body of water was far more finite than it appeared. Extremely so, actually. It wasn’t sure what exactly was going on, but it was certain the sea only stretched out for about a kilometer before suddenly ending in a sky-colored wall of nothingness. It then squinted upwards towards the blue sun and confirmed it too was not as it appeared. It really should’ve known something was up when Hylt Metabolism failed to boost its MP recovery, as the Skill did not recognize this warm glow as real sunlight.
In other words, rather than a massive celestial body an impossible distance away, the thing shining down upon the shapeshifter was more like a stupidly bright lamp hanging in the sky. Which, incidentally, was also nowhere near as vast as it made itself out to be. In fact, this whole world was starting to look more and more like an expertly crafted stage. It even had wind, which caused the palm tree forest behind the portal to sway gently and calmingly, though their bright red leaves reinforced the slightly surreal experience.
“Okay, yeah,” said Keira warily. “I think I’m starting to understand. Rather than an entire world, it’s more like a tiny slice of reality. Well, relatively speaking.”
“Exactly,” confirmed Imiryl with a nod. “By my estimate, this is a sealed microcosm, a sort of pocket dimension not too dissimilar to the one maintained by the Item Box Skill. Everything you see here was likely generated by the absurd amount of magical energy that gemstone absorbed.”
“… How long does it last?”
Common sense dictated that nothing created purely through magic was a permanent construct. Even demonic bodies would fade into nothingness once the will holding them together disappeared. Therefore, it was a reasonable enough assumption that this ‘micro-world’ could not last.
“It’s impossible for me to say,” replied Imiryl. “Could be minutes, could be hours, could be days. However, I too have no doubt that it is very much temporary.”
“What about us? Aren’t we in danger if we linger here? Like, won’t we disappear into nothingness when this place goes?”
“I do not think we need to worry about that. We are not part of the Divine item’s design, so it is extremely likely we will simply be ejected out of this space when it begins to fold in on itself.”
“Uh-huh. Well, would you rather be ‘extremely likely’ to survive or ‘absolutely certain’ of it?” asked Keira as she pointed towards the portal over her shoulder.
“… That’s actually a very valid point. Let us get out of here, shall we?”
The two of them briskly returned to their own reality, where Kuro and Nao were still debating whether they should follow them. The guys naturally gave up on that notion when faced with the idea of being cast into the endless void between dimensions. The four of them therefore decided to monitor the situation from the outside, though Keira did spot movement through the portal. She couldn’t get a good look at it, but she definitely saw some sort of aquatic creature momentarily rise to the surface of the water quite a few times.
Well, it was an ‘instant dungeon’ so the presence of ‘‘instant monsters’ was only to be expected, in a way. Only time and repeated uses of the Divine item would tell, but Boxxy felt it was good luck that this dry run had resulted in a tranquil scene like that one.
Then, exactly an hour after being opened, the portal began to unravel and destabilize. Another three minutes later it collapsed completely, leaving nothing in its wake but a square mystical gem. One that had lost its unique pink luster and had gone entirely transparent, making it look more like a plain glass bauble than an item forged by the Gods. Keira picked it up and looked at it with a face full of worry, as the monster inside was momentarily unsure whether the shininess would come back.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” assured her Nao. “Magic items with active functions typically need a cooldown period, and Divine ones are no different. Even my LIAR cannot be accessed more than once a day. I’m sure it’ll be back to normal in no time!”
“Yeah, I guess you have a point. I’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks.”
Nao felt rather proud of himself when he saw the catgirl perk up. He then realized the absurdity of comforting her over an inanimate object as if it were a sick pet. Well, his friend seemed happy so he decided not to sweat the details, especially since he was still on thin ice after having his misdeed revealed.
“Then, uh, can we take a tour of the facility while we’re here?” he suggested in an attempt to change the topic. “It’s not every day you get to visit a place like this, you know.”
“It’s fine by me,” chimed in Imiryl from the side. “Actually, Nao, I’ve been meaning to ask for your opinion on a possible improvement for the Warp Gate prototype, so this is a good chance.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Well, the gist of it is that I managed to get my hands on a good chunk of star metal from a fallen comet, and-”
“Excuse me, but could you please take me home?” butted in Keira. “Like, right now?”
“It is fine by me, but may I ask what is the rush?” inquired the high elf.
“Well, this experiment took longer than I expected, and I have something urgent I gotta do.”
“How urgent?” chimed in Nao.
Boxxy momentarily paused to confirm the notification in its head.
An intruder has entered your dungeon.