The musty old warehouse’s front doors creaked open as Sandman walked into the barn-like building. Though definitely not in its prime, this run-down place was still being used as a storage space, as evidenced by the stacks upon stacks of wooden boxes, kegs and crates lining the walls. Those were not the towering mercenary’s objectives though, those were placed in the otherwise empty center of the warehouse.
Namely a total of six identical cubic aquariums about a meter and a half on each side. Each of them contained the same type of sea monster that seemed like a cross between a frog and an anglerfish. Called mawlocs, these adult specimens varied between 80 and 110 centimeters in length. Their four webbed limbs were much too short for walking on land, but were powerful enough to rapidly change direction when swimming. Their massively wide mouths were lined with needle-like teeth, giving the species its namesake, and they each had a stalk tipped with a glowing bulb poking out of their four-eyed faces.
A man wearing a long dark green sea captain’s coat walked out from around a nearby corner without even trying to hide his presence. His face was rough and wrinkled, with greying hair and beard - the stereotypical ‘sea dog’ if Boxxy ever saw one. Not surprising, considering the fish-faced haul he had prepared for his client.
“Mister S,” the man said with a nod.
“Mister F,” the masked vigilante replied.
“I trust you are in good health?”
“Mostly. What about yourself? Any problems with this latest batch?”
“Hmm, a few. That one over there, the orange one with the black spots?” He pointed towards one of the smaller ones, which was sleeping in its tank. “Turned into a lion mawloc instead of the standard variant when she Ranked Up.”
“Anything I need to be wary off?”
“Those barbs growing out of her back are venomous, and she’s exceptionally lazy. I still trained her up just the way you wanted though, so no worries there. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the one in the corner.”
“The tank marked with the red circle?”
“Aye, that’s the one. It’s an exceptionally willful one so I’m afraid I wasn’t able to mold its Status up to the same standard as the others.”
“Hmm, I’ll manage I suppose. You will, of course, give me a discount on that one, yes?”
“Well now, that wasn’t what we agreed upon,” Mister F said defensively. “You do realize how hard it was to get these things all the way from the Shimmering Ocean, right? I had to cross the entire bloody Empire, and with that Inquisition in full swing this smuggling thing is getting harder by the day.”
The Gilded Hand had been seemingly crushed and dismantled and Teresa herself had revealed that the one that caused the Calamity of Monotal had paid for their sins with their life. These two facts had emboldened the Inquisition and allowed them to focus their efforts solely on the Empire’s internal affairs. Their latest Grand Inquisitor already had a widespread reputation for using forceful and borderline treasonous methods, such as forcing people to defend themselves while under Teresa’s Oath. It was an act that was considered illegal in most nations, Empire included, but that did not bother Sigmund Law.
His literal Goddess-given mission was to smash through the red tape and bureaucratic nonsense to once again make ‘the law’ and ‘justice’ synonymous. The heavy handed approach was often met with resistance, be it violent or otherwise, but in the end all would yield before the divine authority carried by the Hero of the Hammer one way or another. This had allowed the Inquisition to crack down on major crime rings and corruption schemes with frightening efficiency and zeal. Unfortunately they were a bit unprepared to deal with the ensuing power vacuum, but they still made it quite difficult for people like Mister F to do what they did.
Of course, one could argue that a Monster Tamer transporting monsters was no big deal, but it was the intent to sell them to an outlaw and a non-tamer that was the illegal part.
“So if you want to keep availing yourself of my services,” the sailor continued, “I’m going to need you to not only pay me in full, but will also have to raise my prices to match my heightened expenses. I really should be asking for additional payment, but then I’d become known as a scumbag who backs out of a deal at the last second. And that is a reputation neither of us want, isn’t that right Mister S?”
“I suppose that’s a good point.” The Sandman reached under his cloak and brought out a heavy steel lockbox full of gold. “Reputation is everything, after all.”
He then abruptly spun around with his hand stretched out, bashing the cloaked assassin that had been sneaking up on him across the head. The blunt object did a magnificent job of rearranging his facial structure, but it wasn’t nearly enough to actually kill him. Leaving the bloodied box behind, Boxxy reached out its other hand and grabbed the dazed man by the neck. He then flung him towards his companion on the overhead walkway and rolled out of the way of the magical projectiles that rained down on him from elsewhere, ducking behind some shadowy crates for cover.
“Damn you, you psychotic bastard!” one of the men holding a bow shouted. “You’ll pay for what you did to my brothers!”
A pair of blades then slid between the gaps on his ribs, puncturing both of his lungs.
“Do you accept gold?” a smooth voice whispered in his ears. “Or would an ‘I.O.U.’ suffice?”
The man may or may not have tried to answer, but he only managed a bunch of wordless mouth movements and a few gurgles before a metal spike through the skull finished him off. Sandman then disappeared on the spot, vanishing seemingly into thin air before the other would-be vengeance seekers even realized they’d lost one of their own. The shapeshifter then proceeded to silently clear out the rest of them in a similar fashion over the next minute or so before returning to the ground floor. It went over to Mister F, who was currently idly whispering while counting his payment in a corner of the warehouse.
“Ah, all done are we?” he said when he saw Sandman approach. “That was faster than usual.”
This was hardly the first time a transaction between these two had been disturbed in such a manner, nor was it going to be the last. This ‘ambush’ had indeed been arranged by ‘Mister F’ as one might expect, except that it was the humans that were being set up to die. It would seem there were a plethora of people seeking vengeance upon the Sandman, either because of his involvement in some massive battle or because he single-handedly crushed their criminal organization. It didn’t matter much to Boxxy since all these idiots were going to accomplish was deliver themselves into its belly. All Mister F was doing was helping expedite the process, which was something of a bonus.
“Is that their leader?” the crusty old sailor asked, jerking his head towards the corpse draped over Sandman’s shoulder.
“Probably. He was definitely the loudest one.”
“Fair enough. Give him here.”
The body was thrown unceremoniously onto the ground and the sailor crouched over it. A series of fleshy tendrils shot out from under his cloak, wrapping themselves around the body and pulling it into his chest, whereupon it was absorbed almost instantly. When Mister F stood up, his face and body had completely become like that of Boxxy’s victim. He scratched the stubble on his new chin as he filtered through the dead man’s memories.
“Ah, I see. Seems he had some more allies in reserve. Guess I’ll go pay them a visit, see if I can’t make some use of them. Want to come with?”
“No thanks, I’m already full. You go do what you do, I’ll send word if I need another batch.”
“Whatever you say, Mister S. Pleasure doing business with you as always.”
The two doppelgangers shook hands, after which Mister F left the scene to let Boxxy deal with those six mawlocs. It would appear they were all rather agitated by the sudden commotion. One of the aquarium tanks was even destroyed in that magical barrage, its occupant currently flopping in one place in a pathetic attempt to get back to water. The ex-mimic didn’t waste any more time and swiftly put the creature out of its misery by stomping on it. It then drank it up with Cadaver Absorption to literally no effect.
That was fine though. That was why Boxxy had ordered six of these things delivered in the first place. It took a while to find a reliable supplier of aquatic monsters until Stain’s subordinate called Slimeface gave it a line on someone named Marcus Filch. As it turned out, the man was actually Mister F, one of Reggie’s agents. Though the ‘ganger capo himself was still missing, Boxxy was quite delighted it would be dealing with another shapeshifter rather than an enlightened.
A notion that was shared by the other party, as doppelgangers knew better than to ask questions of their own kind. Mister F honestly did not care why his client wanted those mawlocs, he just needed the gold to secure his own way of life. He could even charge a premium price for them as well, as mawlocs only lived in the oceanic depths between the continents. It was exceptionally difficult for an enlightened Monster Tamer to capture them, even if he or she relied on magical means of breathing underwater.
Unless of course said enlightened was one of the krymer, an aquatic race of people that had an entire kingdom at the bottom of the Shimmering Ocean. They were still no competition to Mister F though. Even if one of them were to tame a bunch of mawlocs, bringing them up on dry land and transporting them halfway across the continent was out of the question. Which wasn’t to say krymer could not survive outside of the water. They were technically amphibious and could breathe air, but it made their eyes sting, their skin dry out and their bodies shrivel up. All of those complaints could be alleviated through alchemy or magic, but neither of those were feasible long-term solutions. Not to mention they did nothing to help make walking on webbed feet and with dangling tails any less awkward or slow.
None of that was a problem for Mister F. Not only was he a doppelganger that could make gills on a whim, but growing up among the krymer allowed him to Rank Up into an aquatic variant known as a slitherer. This made him exceptionally proficient at underwater exploration and gave him a keen insight into the minds and abilities of his fellow sea monsters. That was how he was able to deliver a small school of mawlocs grown to Boxxy specifications every six weeks. His plant-based counterpart didn’t have any standard to compare that schedule to, but it seemed impressive nonetheless.
Your Cadaver Absorption was a moderate success!
30% of the target’s highest Skill Proficiency has been added to your own.
Proficiency level increased. Đisrupting Wave is now Level 3. INT +9. WIS +6.
And it was upon absorbing the fifth mawloc in this latest delivery that all the money Boxxy poured into this endeavor had finally paid off.
Activation Time: Instant
C0st: 100+10 MP
Range: 1 mete#
Effects: Resheaths a wave of p̸u̡͘d̢d̸̶i͡n̢҉̧g̨͠ ̶that removes mag1c effects from all targεts within range.
Powerful mag1c may require multiple Й̛͜о́͠Д̸̡ра̨͝% to be affected.
Increases the potency of the p̸u̡͘d̢d̸̶i͡n̢҉̧g̨͠ released by this $kill by 10% per Level of this $kill.
This $kill may not be activated more than once every 0.08333 minutes.
Granted, the Skill window itself was being a little rebellious, but the shapeshifter already knew what this did. It was a way it could cleanse itself of negative magical effects should the need arise, one of the more troublesome abilities that adult mawloc possessed. And it now belonged to Boxxy. Acquiring it was a lengthy and expensive project, but earning gold to pay Mister F to catch and train these things was significantly easier than scouring the ocean hoping it got lucky.
With this matter settled, Boxxy finished off and absorbed the final mawloc for good measure and left the warehouse. Mister F would see to the cleanup as part of their arrangement, leaving the Sandman-shaped monster to ponder what its next Skill acquisition target would be. Or rather, maybe it would be better if it considered what Job it would get next. First things first though, it had a call to make.
*Beep ... Beep ... Beep*
“Hello. You have reached- Oh, sorry Boxxy. Force of habit,” apologized Carl. “What can I do for you today?”
“It’s about that Quest reward from Tamba the Samba Mamba. I’m ready to accept the reward now.”
“Well that’s just super. Hold on, I’ll transfer you right away.”
About a minute of hold music and a loud ‘Boop!’ later-
“Yo! Having fun, Boxxy?” Nigel’s cheerful voice echoed inside the monster’s head.
“Could say that. I assume you know why I’m calling, yes?”
“Is it because you want the secret to the world’s tastiest fried shrimp?”
“What? No, you know I hate crayfish.”
“And I hate it when people make assumptions about me, so we’re even.”
“Anyway, I’m calling about Mortimer’s Quest reward. I’m ready for it now.”
The task titled ‘Train the next Hero of Death’ had been accomplished about two weeks ago, when Kaede officially became Mortimer’s new Hero. Apparently the God of Death and Commerce was quite pleased with Boxxy’s work, though not to the point where he offered it any extra rewards. That was only a minor complaint though, as the Quest’s primary compensation had been more than enough to motivate the shapeshifter. And now was a good time as any to cash in on it.
“Alrighty then. Let me just flex my godly muscles for a sec and…”
Proficiency level decreased. Feline Agility is no longer available. AGI -30.
Your Cat Job has been removed. AGI -5. DEX -5. LCK -5.
“There, all done,” Grimsby stated. “And with that, I can officially close the book on that whole Mortimer team-up chapter. I suppose that means you can now focus on bringing up my great-great-great-grandchildren.”
“Oh. Right. Those.”
Frankly speaking Boxxy was getting a little tired of picking up after the gods’ messes. So what if its bound archfiend familiar somehow had babies with a literal deity? It’s not like it ordered Arms to do that stuff with Teresa. However, it did allow those ‘booty calls’ to continue, and a Warlock was responsible for its familiars. Not to mention it played a hand in setting up that entire situation by kicking off Teresa’s rehabilitation, so it was impossible to say it was uninvolved.
Thankfully those three brats weren’t its problem right now. The Goddess of Truth and Justice had forced them onto her own Hero for the moment, but they would become Keira’s burden when they eventually grew up. And judging by the monstrous rate at which those girls were developing despite being enlightened, that ‘eventually’ seemed like it would come within a few years rather than decades. Supposedly it was only the first few generations that would grow that fast, but that wasn’t much of a consolation to Boxxy.
“You know, I seem to recall you said you’d never force anything on me when we started this partnership,” it complained.
“And I have kept my word. You know full well you can still ignore your part in bringing the nephilim race into existence.”
Except that if Boxxy did that, Shaquisha would take away its title as Hero of Chaos and all the tasty Skills that came along with it, including Eyes of the Dead God and Vengeance.
“That’s hardly what I would call a fair choice,” the monster argued.
“Maybe not, but it’s yours to make.”
The Goddess of Happenstance had a point. Teaching a few people how to survive in this harsh world long enough to leave progeny was preferable to having to spend life as a doppelganger without the safety net of Essence Concealment. Annoying and time consuming, but preferable nonetheless.
“Fine. I’ll figure something out when the time comes.”
“There’s a good sport. Off you go now.”
Boxxy’s focus gradually drifted back to its earlier line of thought as it walked through the night. It rapidly decided the new Skill it would aim for would be something to replace the loss of Feline Agility. Though the Cat Job associated with it was a waste of space, the Skill itself was quite handy since it amplified the effects of Boxxy’s AGI whenever it was airborne by 20%. It did also reduce damage taken from falling, but that was not all that useful to a shapeshifter. In any event, a feline monster would surely have a similar if not outright superior agility-enhancing Skill. One that would most likely be much easier to find than the magic-nullifying trick of a freaky anglerfish.
Having made up its mind, Boxxy began considering how to occupy its now vacant Job slot. Another Monster Job seemed like an obvious choice, but it wouldn’t be able to get it past Level 25. And it really didn’t need any more combat-oriented Jobs, the Mimic, Ranger, Blade Dancer, Wizard and Warlock Jobs were already more than enough for its needs. Anything more than that would just become a wad of Attributes that would only contribute to its power creep problem. Even if growing older had allowed its body to safely handle more power, it was always just on the brink of its limits. Another Artisan Job might be interesting, but the monster would need to pour considerable time and resources into it.
The shapeshifter kept mulling over all its options over the next few hours as it made its way back to the elven capital of Azurvale. It could have just used Transfamiliar to cover the distance, but it was in no particular rush and walking helped it think. By the time it had slipped inside its dungeon it had already decided on the new vocation it would occupy itself with. Right now, however, it wanted to focus on testing out its newest Skill.
“Like, hi boss!”
A buxom plant-woman appeared in front of the monster out of nowhere to greet it. However, her appearance, voice and way of speaking made it abundantly clear she was most definitely not Ambrosia.
“Hey Lavender,” the shapeshifter responded. “Anything to report?”
“Same old, same old,” the alraune grumbled. “Oh right, Kora was feeling bored so she went for another round in the Atlas thingie.”
“I’m aware of that. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Uhm… Oh! I broke my record for how much of her dicks I could take inside me! Boss-lady got, like, super mad when she saw us practicing though. I wonder why?”
Boxxy already knew the answer to that. It was because Ambrosia had grown rather fond of this alraune. Though the dryad was technically a monster, the divinity within her caused her to exhibit enlightened behavior such as getting emotionally attached to certain individuals. The shapeshifter wasn’t going to complain since it was one of those, though the feelings Ambrosia had towards Lavender were distinctly more romantic in nature. Well, either that or it was her natural need to mate and procreate that was flaring up. That particular instinct was something the Mimic learned of firsthand about a month ago when it passed a pregnant woman on the street, though it resisted its doppelganger body’s urge to reproduce with zero difficulty.
Boxxy T. Morningwood was many things, but ‘breeder’ wasn’t one of them.
“Figure it out on your own,” it told the alraune. “If you can’t do that much, then you’d be a failure as a dungeon master.”
“Wow! That’s like, so deep! Alright! I’ll go find out right away!”
The ridiculously proportioned flower-woman and her massive purple petals disappeared on the spot via Nexus Access, likely off to find Ambrosia and have a little talk. Strictly speaking though, Boxxy didn’t need its caretaker to know about reading people’s emotions. Her position as a dungeon master was simply a way to ensure the dryad’s ‘pet’ was loyal to it, making it mostly a decorative position befitting a mostly decorative existence. She did technically facilitate the long-distance line of communication between Boxxy and Ambrosia, but her dimwittedness made that a rather frustrating task at times. At least she wasn’t clingy, so getting her to leave her ‘boss’ alone was painfully easy.
And now that it was alone, Boxxy summoned Drea to its side.
“H-hello, Master,” the spider-girl answered sheepishly. “Wuh-what do you ask of me?”
“I need you to help me with an experiment.”
“M-me? Why not the others?”
“Process of elimination.”
“Oh…” she said dejectedly.
Arms was in the middle of instant-dungeon-diving and Snack was busy making sure Rowana stayed blissfully asleep, so Claws was the only disposable test subject left. Luckily, she would still be more than adequate, though the demon herself did not think ‘lucky’ was the right word.
“You recently got that magic-blocking thing, right?”
“Do you mean my Draining String Skill?”
The webstalker ability in question allowed her to produce webs with MP-draining properties similar to those of the enchanted shackles used by law enforcement. She could even use it to shore up her own MP reserves, assuming the sticky strings were still connected to her body. It was something she gained as a direct result of Boxxy’s steadily growing INT, but didn’t have much of an opportunity to use.
“Yes, that. Wrap me up with it.”
“… As you command, Master.”
The spider-demon did as instructed and covered the Sandman’s body head to toe in fresh webbing from her hands until the towering mercenary resembled a cocoon. The white strands immediately began glowing red as they sapped away its MP at a rather alarming rate. Boxxy then activated Disruptive Wave, which took the shape of a transparent spherical pulse that distorted the air around it as it radiated outwards. Nothing more seemed to happen though, as a single use seemed insufficient to overcome the enchanted webbing.
Then, five seconds later, a second pulse poured out of the mass of tangled webs. The magically conjured spider silk lost its consistency and began falling off and unraveling as if the thing it was sticking to had vanished. Which was more or less what had happened from Drea’s perspective. She couldn’t detect not a single flicker of her master’s existence, even though she knew for sure it was here somewhere. She just didn’t know exactly where it went.
At least not until she felt a slight poke at the back of her head, causing her to leap forward and look over her shoulder, though she still failed to detect Boxxy.
“You would’ve been dead then and there if I was being serious. Work on that,” it chastised her.
“That is so not fair, Master!” she complained. “You know there’s no way I can track you if you use that combination!”
“If I can do it, so can the enemy!”
“Even you’d be unable to see them coming if that were the case! Please worry about yourself first.”
Drea also wanted to add that she was still happy her master worried about her, but her embarrassment levels were too high to allow that sort of line to escape her lips.
“… That’s a good point actually.”
Boxxy was currently hiding its body with a Prismatic Cloak and was greatly reducing the sound of its movements through Stealth. However, if it was just that, then Drea’s magic-sensitive sight would have seen it just fine, as would have any creature with a Mana Locator Gland. However, there were ways and means to circumvent such things and Boxxy had one of those at its disposal in the shape of a Skill. Unlike Disruptive Wave, however, this was an ability derived from its core species as a doppelganger.
Description: The doppelganger’s proficiency at subterfuge allows it to temporarily evade magical means of detection.
Requirements: Level 40 Doppelganger Job, Level 10 Stealth, INT 300
Type: Toggled (ON)
Activation Time: N/A
Effects: Delays detection by magic-based senses and sensors for up to 10 seconds.
The duration of this Skill’s active effect will be lessened based on the observer’s PER Attribute.
Maintaining this Skill’s active effect requires 30 MP/sec.
Increases the duration of this Skill by 20% per Level of this Skill.
This Skill will not affect the same target more than once every 20 seconds.
It was an ability that was close in function to the high-Level Rogue equivalent known as Obfuscate. However, the main difference between the two Skills was that the enlightened version either did or did not work, depending on who it was being used against. The shapeshifter’s Mystic Camouflage, on the other hand, always hid its presence from ‘magical means of detection,’ regardless of how powerful the observer was. Another benefit it had was that it notified the user whenever it was being watched. The downside was that the grace period it had before being spotted had a time limit. Compared to that, Obfuscate had the potential to continuously fool anyone so long as the user had enough Levels and Attributes.
“Actually I just remembered something,” Boxxy continued as it took off its concealing equipment. “I had a rather interesting idea earlier. Stand still so I can try it out.”
Drea did as instructed while her master reverted back to its base Hylt creeper form. It grabbed its left wrist with its right hand and grew a third arm from its upper back, shaping it into a bladed appendage similar to the stalker’s own. It took a few moments to prepare itself, then decisively sliced through its left shoulder and threw the severed appendage at the heavily clawed demon.
The limb slapped her in the face, then wrapped itself around her neck as if it had a mind of its own. It even shapeshifted into a snake-like form, its powerful muscles choking the life out of the webstalker. A demon’s body still needed to breathe maintain its form, so Drea reflexively opened her mouth to try to gasp for air. The moment she did so, the snake-arm took advantage of that reflex to force its head-hand into the wide-open orifice, depositing a deluge of conjured acid down her gullet, courtesy of Acid Spray.
Drea naturally did not respond well to this highly unpleasant surprise and began to thrash about. Boxxy’s Acid Spray didn’t do enough damage to kill her, but the pain of having her insides burn through her was excruciating to the point where her bladed limbs moved of their own volition. They tried to peel off the offending limb, but it leaped out of the way at the last second, resulting in the arachnid girl unintentionally decapitating herself. Then again that may have actually been her intention, given her track record.
Either way, Boxxy had gotten some rather good results from this trial run. It walked over to Drea’s evaporating corpse and picked up the now lifeless limb. It reattached it to its stump, allowing the appendage to reconnect with its central nervous system and spring back to life. It felt stiff for a few moments until Mend Flesh did its thing and healed all the wounds. It didn’t necessarily need to do retreive that arm, but Boxxy needed to determine the limits of its newest shapeshifting ability at every opportunity.
Description: The psionic potential of a doppelganger can be harnessed to stabilize its otherwise volatile flesh.
Requirements: Level 45 Doppelganger Job, Mend Flesh, END 500, MNT 250
Activation Time: N/A
Effects: Detached body parts will maintain their form for 24 hours after being severed.
Detached body parts can be remotely controlled for 10 seconds after being severed.
Reduces HP damage suffered due to loss of body mass by 3% per Level of this Skill.
Increases the healing rate of Mend Flesh Skill by 10% per Level of this Skill.
Increases the duration of all shapeshifting-based Skills by 5% per Level of this Skill.
It was the final regular Skill the Doppelganger Job would grant it, so it was therefore fitting it would be this incredibly tasty. With this, the shapeshifter no longer had to worry about its Facades being exposed because it accidentally lost a part of its body and had it melt into obviously monstrous sludge. That would still happen eventually, but Boxxy now had a generous window to salvage the situation.
Or better yet - take advantage of it. Controlling severed limbs with the power of its mind had a lot of potential for trickery and deception, especially when combined with other Skills. There were so many possibilities that Boxxy was already making plans to willingly lop off parts of itself to use as surprise attacks. Unfortunately there was no sensory feedback from the orphaned limbs, so controlling them accurately without line of sight was a bit tricky. But it would get there eventually. Frankly speaking, this remote control ability was already ridiculously powerful on its own, to the point where it didn’t need all those extras regarding its other shapeshifting Skills.
Not that it was complaining, of course. Mend Flesh, Mirror Image, Broken Reflection, Puppet Parasite, Metal Mimicry and Adaptive Defense would all benefit from Corporeal Stability to varying degrees. The defensive bonus was nothing to scoff at either, as Boxxy often lost body mass when fighting particularly troublesome opponents. It also made notions such as intentional self-decapitation slightly less suicidal.
If the monster had any complaints about this Skill, it was how long it took to obtain it. It had taken over half a year to get the Doppelganger Job from Level 40 to Level 45. In fact, it had only been thanks to its second Aurora Eve party a few weeks ago that it got it past the Level 44 mark. Which, looking at it objectively, was still astronomical growth when considering a doppelganger didn’t usually get that far until it was at least thirty years old, yet Boxxy was not even two yet. Its primary Facade being lauded as the Republic’s favorite redhead certainly had its perks, to say the least.
Which wasn’t to say the shapeshifter would rest on its laurels and simply wait for that Doppelganger XP to trickle in. While that was certainly an option, Boxxy was a monster that had been focused on accumulating strength and power since its birth. Granted, it was going at a much more leisurely pace ever since that Edward situation was put to rest, but it was still progressing steadily towards its next Rank Up.
That was why it decided to put Keira in a certain position that would allow her to earn the trust of more people. Being adored by the masses was one thing, but it was that personal connection that was truly important. Not to mention her new day job would be excellent practice for when Arms and Teresa’s brats came knocking. So when dawn rolled around, the monster readily swapped places with Xera and got ready to start Keira Morgana’s big day.
“Mmmm, morning Rowie…” the catgirl let out as she began to stir.
“Hey, sweetie,” the elf responded mid-yawn. “Had a nice sleep? I know I did.”
“Good for you, but I was too nervous. Must’ve kept myself awake until well past midnight.”
“And yet you still look even perkier and lovelier than the day we met. Especially these parts.”
The elf scooted over and playfully groped Keira’s breasts, fully enjoying the benefits of the catgirl’s growth spurt.
“You know, I dreamt of you in that Aurora Eve party dress last night,” she whispered seductively. “It got me so hot and bothered I think I might’ve wet the bed.”
“Sorry Rowie, I’d love to have some fun but I’m already tired and I need to preserve my energy. Besides, I had something important to ask you about. Two things, actually.”
“Oh? What’s on your mind, sweetie?”
Sensing it was something of a serious topic, Rowana stopped being so handsy and devoted her attention to hearing her girlfriend out.
“I want us to move to a bigger house. Hopefully one that isn’t falling apart and is more easily accessible.”
“But then we wouldn’t be able to snuggle to share body warmth!”
“I’m serious. It feels awkward not being able to invite anyone over because the place is too small. And I really need my own room for adventurer stuff. Guest rooms are a must and I would love to have my own library, or at least a study. I know that sounds like a lot but we’ve been doing really well for ourselves recently so I think we can afford a place like that with a small loan.”
“… Honestly, I kinda like living so far away from other people with just the two of us. As romantic as it is, it is rather impractical.”
“Also, technically, there’s three of us,” Keira pointed out.
“Ah, you’re right. Come to think of it, having more room for Minic to play around in might keep it from running off all the damn time.”
“Yip? Yip, yip, yip!”
Having heard its name, the miniature box-shaped house mimic leapt onto the bed and began to bounce around excitedly.
“Hehe, I think it likes the idea,” Keira giggled while petting it. “Who knows? Maybe the new furniture will turn out to be its playmates!”
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
“No, pretty sure its just hungry,” Rowana interjected.
“What do you say though, new place?”
“Yeah, I suppose we can at least look around for a suitably sized house. What sort of ‘adventurer stuff’ did you need space for, though?”
“Mmm, like an armory or something so I can keep my extra gear on hand rather than leaving it at the guild. Also an Artificer workshop and an alchemy lab so I can spend more time at home.”
“I guess that’s pretty reasonable. Except the lab. Having one would be nice, but I don’t think we necessarily need it.”
“Not right now, but I’m going to. That’s actually the second thing I wanted to talk to you about. I want to try being an Alchemist, and I want you to teach me the basics.”
“Really? I mean, of course I’d be happy to, but where did this come from?”
“You know how Fizzy had to go learn smithing from the dwarves so she can better practice her Artificer Job? I figure I might need to do something like that eventually, so I want to get a head start on it.”
Also filling in that recently unlocked Job Slot would allow Boxxy to absorb any number of corpses without picking up something weird again.
“Shouldn’t you be looking to become a Blacksmith, then?” Rowana replied with a tilt of her head.
“Well, no. I plan on taking a different specialization from Fizzy, one that needs alchemical goods more than fine metals.”
“Oh? Which one is that? Is that the one that makes all those mechanical dolls?”
“Uh no, that’s Automata. What I want to become is a Flamespitter Artificer.”
Rowana’s eyes suddenly narrowed suspiciously, as she had a pretty good idea where her lover was going with this. Granted, she didn’t know much on the subject of machines and such, but she knew Keira better than anyone.
“And what is it that Flamespitter Artificers do, exactly?”
“They focus on the, uh, practical application of thermodynamics?”
“You want me to teach you alchemy so you can make bigger bombs, don’t you?”
Technically speaking that particular specialization also made flamethrowers, rockets and various types of combustion engines, but ‘bigger bombs’ were definitely the main focal point.
“You do realize that, as your girlfriend, this makes me very uneasy.”
“Pleeease, Rowie! I swear I’ll be really careful! Besides, I’m really looking forward to having you teach me stuff!”
“I don’t know… Volatile concoctions aren’t really my thing…”
“I’ll find a proper teacher for the advanced stuff, but I want you to help me master the basics. Those will serve as the foundation for how I handle things in the future, and I wouldn’t trust anyone with my future but you, Rowie.”
The elf put up a stern front for a while, but both parties understood she could not resist Keira’s full-force pleading.
“Ugh, how am I supposed to say ‘no’ to that face. It’s so completely unfair… Alright, fine. Just don’t come complaining to me when people start calling you ‘Merry Popper’ again.”
“Yay! Thanks, Rowie! You’re the best!”
Keira hugged her girlfriend and gave her a big wet kiss on the cheek to show her appreciation. Rowana would have preferred it be on the lips, more specifically the lower ones, but Minic kept yipping that it was hungry and ruined the mood. Having little other choice, the capital’s oddest couple got out of bed and began going about their respective morning routines.
Meanwhile, inside one of the Central Consortium’s indoor training facilities, a total of thirty three adventurers were buzzing with anticipation and excitement, though five of them were being particularly noisy.
“I heard she got captured by the Empire and almost got raped, but she got free by picking the lock on her cage with a twig and tearing off the bastard’s crotch! That’s the sort of ferocity and resourcefulness that gets you out of a jam!”
“That’s nothing, I ran across her handiwork at New Whitehall. She had left behind three Imperial soldiers, all of them struck by what seemed to be a single Power Shot. Can you imagine the type of focus and marksmanship it would take to pull off a triple headshot in a war zone?”
“My cousin was part of her unit on Armageddon Day. The way he tells it, it was her calm judgement and magnificent skill with the blade was what won the day.”
“Say what you want, I was there at Fort Yimin. The only reason I’m still alive is because of her kind and caring nature moved the hearts of those dryads.”
“‘Kind and caring’ my arse, that place was a massacre that probably gave her nightmares. But she still went through with it because it was necessary. I doubt even the Consortium’s big shots have that sort of unflinching resolve.”
It was a surprisingly heated argument, with each man or woman convinced their opinion was the right one. They might have been too green to be called veterans, but these adventurers still had enough experience to not be considered rookies. Their varied convictions and methods were what had kept them alive thus far, so they were all rather insistent theirs was ‘the right way.’ Being somewhat confident in themselves was also why they were a bit loud, so it was inevitable they would be overheard.
“Excuse me, gents! May I ask what it is you are so vehemently discussing?”
All five adventurers groaned at once when they heard that cocky voice. The elf who had so rudely interrupted their friendly argument was a male in his early twenties. His scalp was hairless to the point of being shiny, and his face was so flat it was like he ate shovels to the nose for breakfast. They could tolerate his odd looks though, all adventurers eventually came down with certain scars or deformities. It was this guy’s attitude and personality that were the real problem.
“Go away, Jared. This doesn’t concern you.”
“Yeah, why don’t you go tend to that ridiculous flock of yours?”
“Or maybe fall down a well and fail to get out of it for a week. Again.”
“Why are you even here, you idiot? This is no place for a hack like you!”
“I think the average INT in the room plummeted by about fifty points when you walked in.”
All five of them took turns ridiculing the man, but he brushed their comments away like they were nothing.
“Hahaha! No need to sing praises of my exploits!” he declared magnanimously. “Even someone as great as I sometimes wishes to communicate freely with my fellow adventurers!”
The group groaned once again. The reason they were saying those things wasn’t to ‘pick on the new guy’ or even just to be mean. It was because the elf called Jared was indeed as famous as he believed, but only because he was the worst adventurer to ever be admitted into a guild. His combat awareness was terrible and he couldn’t aim worth a damn despite being a Level 41 Ranger. He was also a Monster Tamer, but the pathetically weak critters he dragged around were so useless they weren’t even good at being fodder. Worst of all, he was loud, prideful and borderline delusional. It was like he saw and heard the world through a filter that made it seem like he was king of the world.
In reality the only outstanding thing about him was that he was somehow still both alive and an adventurer despite his offensive ineptitude.
“Come now, enough banter,” he insisted. “Do tell, what insightful topic was being discussed?”
“If you must know,” one of them spoke up, “we’re discussing what it is that makes Keira Morgana so exceptional.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Jared declared proudly. “Her biggest asset is that she’s good at marketing.”
“… You focken what, mate?” the dwarf in the group blurted out. “Have you been hitting the enchanted liquors too hard?”
“Or not hard enough,” the black-haired woman argued while cringing.
“I’m probably going to regret this, but let’s hear it,” said the hooded elven rogue with the dagger on his hip. “Go on then Jared, explain why ‘marketing’ is the best part of the Hero of Chaos.”
“Why it is simple, my dear Robert!”
“My name’s Dale, not Ro-”
“The evidence is right here in front of you!” Jared continued, unabashedly talking over Dale’s words. “You all sit in a circle and talk of this person’s great exploits, but have you ever actually seen any of those deeds take place with your own two eyes? No? Of course not, because they never happened. She’s just taking credit for the actions of her better, and is nothing but a fraud and a phony. The fact that you plebeians think otherwise just shows how good she is at spinning rumors.”
The five adventurers stared at him for a few seconds, processing the deluge of nonsense that he just so confidently let fall out of his mouth. They then unanimously and silently agreed to ignore him and resumed their earlier discussion.
“So like I was saying, it’s that soft and warm heart of hers that’s what truly makes her a Hero. She has the power to inspire even legendary beings to take interest in our plights.”
“No, no, no. You can’t always count on some higher power. She knows that. That’s why she trains herself in both melee and ranged combat.”
“Come to think of it, I hear she’s something of a regular customer at the Consortium’s library. Maybe it’s just a matter of being always prepared.”
“Being self reliant is good, but reliable companions are nice too. Remember how she teamed up with the Rustblood Juggernaut and that Demon Tamer bloke to challenge the Palace of the Crystal Maiden last year? That’s not a place one can survive on their own.”
“Oh yeah, I heard about that! She got some sort of incredible ice-spewing bow out of it, didn’t she? Wonder if she’ll let us catch a glimpse of it in action.”
Jared walked away from the group shaking his head with a wry smile.
“Ah, poor delusional newbies. It’s okay, can’t blame them for being misled by that upstart. They’ll realize the folly of their ways soon enough though! The entire Republic will know that I, Jared Finks, am the true rising star of-!”
“Shut it, ya hopeless retard!”
The ‘rising star’ was then struck in the side of the head by a brick-sized tome. He picked it up while rubbing his bruised scalp, noting that it that was an old monster handbook. He smiled widely, scribbled his name on the cover and then gave his ‘autograph’ to his ‘adoring fan.’ The man had his friend burn the book to a crisp while Jared walked off to make himself a nuisance somewhere else.
It wasn’t until about twenty minutes later that the individual everyone was here to see finally showed up.
“Oh crap!” exclaimed Keira as she poked her head through the door. “I’m not late, am I?”
The adventurers lined up around her immediately to offer their greetings while assuring her that no, she was right on time, it was them that had arrived early. She showed an expression of bemused relief, then clapped her hands once to get their attention and had them line up single file next to the wall. She then stood in front of them and began formally introducing herself.
“My name is Keira Morgana and I will be your instructor for the duration of this Advanced Scouting course. I’m sure many of you have heard various things about me, but please curb your expectations. Rumors have a way of getting out of hand, so you can rest assured I am nowhere as grandiose as you might think.”
Jared sneered. In his head, this was merely an excuse to explain why she was actually extremely mediocre despite her web of lies saying otherwise, but he had seen right through this clever ploy.
“I may be the current Hero of Chaos, but I cannot, for example, breathe fire,” she continued while pacing up and down. “Nor can I hit a fly from three hundred meters away with a slingshot. It is also ludicrous to think my claws can slice through flesh and bone like a knife through butter. They are nevertheless quite sharp, which your hands and face will find out if you try to ‘rub my butt for luck.’ Ridiculous rumors aside, that is still sexual harassment, which I have zero tolerance for regardless of what form it takes.”
The bald elf with the warped perception merely saw this as another smoke screen while some of the others were visibly disappointed to hear Keira was not as outrageous as they had heard.
“However! I am still capable enough for the Central Consortium to deem me worthy of passing my knowledge onto you, which I will begin doing immediately. Unfortunately Mister Blizzard out there won’t stop hounding us so we’ll have to make do with indoor training for now. So, since we’ve all just met, I’m going to have you lot perform a number of exercises so I can gauge your basic ability.”
Or at least that’s what Boxxy’s Mentor Skill told it was the best course of action. The shapeshifter had acquired this ability after mentoring Kaede on the finer points of both stabbing and haggling, and it held a plethora of tips and tricks for aspiring teachers. Granted, it grew in Proficiency excruciatingly slow since passing knowledge onto the next generation was an enlightened concept. That was also precisely why the techniques it bestowed upon Boxxy were important, as becoming a good teacher was vital to this latest Doppelganger XP scheme.
“We’ll begin with a simple hand-to-eye coordination test.” The catgirl pointed towards the stack of boxes in the corner. “In there you will find a number of throwing knives, courtesy of the local Blacksmith apprentices. I want each of you to grab a box and show me what you can do with them. We’ll start at four meters then gradually work our way up to ten. Let’s get moving, people!”
The adventurers did as instructed and began chucking the tiny blades at the targets lining the walls while Keira observed them from behind. There were some mixed results, of course. Her students were primarily Rogues and Rangers, with a few Monster Tamers and Blade Dancers mixed in there, so not all of them were accustomed to throwing weapons. It also didn’t help that these knives were forged by novice smiths, meaning sometimes the balance would be off or the blade would be dull. This meant that even those experienced in this type of weapon found it difficult to hit their targets all the time.
However, they were all adventurers in the 30 to 50 Level range on their main Jobs, so their Skills and/or heightened DEX Attribute helped them adapt to the exercise rather quickly. Keira was also moving from one student to the next, giving them pointers and demonstrating proper throwing technique whenever possible. A few of them messed up on purpose just so they could have the cute instructor give them some attention, but ended up being scolded for not taking the class seriously. It would appear that the rumors regarding the beastkin’s sharp tongue and sharper senses were closer to fact than fiction.
After a solid thirty minutes of practice and tutoring, everyone was starting to get the hang of the relatively basic act of hitting a stationary target with a blade from four meters.
Everyone except Jared.
For what must have been the hundredth time in a row, the boastful elf completely failed to stick a knife in the man-shaped straw-filled dummy he was aiming at. They either hit it hilt-first or didn’t hit it at all. It was almost impressive how royally he was screwing up, despite Keira almost literally holding his hand a lot of the time. And the fact she wasn’t berating him for it was a clear sign to the others that this was just Jared’s incredible talent at sucking that was on display rather than him trying to be cheeky. Even the elf himself was starting to show cracks in his rosy demeanor, to the point where he decided to show up the Hero of Chaos with words rather than actions.
“Ma’am! I don’t get it!” he protested suddenly after missing yet another throw.
“Cease fire everyone!” Keira commanded with a raise of her arm, putting the entire class on hold. “What is it you still don’t understand, Mister Finks?”
“Why are we even bothering with this stuff? I mean, what’s the point of throwing knives when over half of us can already use bows? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the weapon that’s clearly superior in range, power, and accuracy? Ma’am.”
The elf asked while crossing his arms with a cocky ‘gotcha’ expression, probably intending to use this as ‘evidence’ that Keira didn’t know what she was doing.
“Hmm, you have a point there, Mister Finks,” she said with a nod. “There really does not seem to be much use for throwable weapons for a Ranger like yourself. However, I would like for you to consider something. Would you mind putting your hand against that wall?”
She jerked her head towards the wall a few meters behind Jared. The elf stared at the wooden surface in question, wondering what she was on about.
“I said put your hand! On that wall!”
Hearing that cute girl use a forceful voice for the first time ever, even a man as ass-backwards as him ended up following those instructions almost on reflex. He took a few steps back and pressed his left palm against it. Keira then yanked one of the knives from the target dummy she was standing next to and threw it at him clean across the training hall.
It hit the back of his hand, nailing it in place and causing copious amounts of blood to start flowing from the wound. The catgirl calmly strode between her stunned students with her arms behind her back, letting the idiotic elf suffer for daring to question a teacher’s authority. When she eventually reached the whimpering buffoon, she turned around to face the class and raised her hand at the elf as if showing an example.
“You cannot use a bow if the enemy has disabled your hand.”
She then yanked the knife out of Jared’s pinned hand, causing him to drop to the floor with a pained scream. The smiling catgirl then waved towards the robed man that had been sitting silently in the corner this entire time.
A man that all students would get to know over the course of this very special Advanced Scouting class.