“Really? Now?” Keira asked with a cocked eyebrow. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you a little young to be thinking about retirement?”
“I just look damn fine for my age, is all,” Opia replied with a wry smile. “But yeah, I am actually getting on in years so I want to quit while I’m ahead, as it were.”
The elf and the beastkin were currently seated inside the latter’s room in the port town of Oar’s Rest. Opia had popped in out of the blue, requesting she have a chat with Keira. Being the sort of decent person that she was supposed to be, the catgirl naturally offered to hear her out over a cup of tea. Boxxy wasn’t sure why this woman started talking about retirement though, nor why she approached its Facade with this information in the first place. Then again, she did bring that shiny snake mimic with her, so it decided to at least humor her for now.
It then realized that this was as good an opportunity as any to tie up a potential loose end.
“What about your business partner?” Keira asked. “I know it’s been a few days since she and Fizzy left on that Quest, but shouldn’t you check with her first?”
“There’s no need for that. Before she left, Jen told me that we’d never meet again, regardless of whether she succeeded or not,” the elf revealed with a frown. “She’s been telling me she had grown bored of Velos for months now, so I guess she decided to move on after wrapping up whatever it is she’s doing.”
This was actually welcome news to Boxxy. The newest addition to its ranks had not made any demands or put forth any conditions, but she did request that Opia be spared if at all possible. Something about ‘owing her a debt of gratitude’ or some similarly banal excuse. The shapeshifter would have preferred to just gut the elf and be done with her, but that didn’t seem to be necessary. Though Opia and Jen naturally had a bond of some sort, it didn’t seem to be all that strong if a few words was all it took to break it off. Unless they were so close that a few words was all it took, but Boxxy sincerely doubted that weird Monk had the social skills to forge anything resembling a meaningful friendship.
Either way, Opia seemed content not to chase after Jen and vice-versa, which was ultimately for the best. The elf was something of a specialist in the field of toxins and diseases, and such learned people were useful to keep around should their expertise ever become necessary. Not to mention that, even if it was just a little, killing her right after she met with the Hero of Chaos might raise suspicions. Simply put, Boxxy determined that leaving Opia alive would have more benefits than drawbacks.
That did not, however, answer the question of why she was even here to begin with.
“Okay, but why are you telling me all this? We’re not exactly close,” Keira bluntly stated.
“Truth be told, I actually wanted to speak with your betrothed, but I didn’t want to be seen as going around your back. No offense, but I heard from a human merc you had a habit of being, uh, overly protective of her.”
“Human merc? Wait, do you mean that creep who tried to hit on her before we boarded the ships? Black hair, tattooed, shirtless?”
“That’s the one, alright. Can you believe he actually walked up to me with this cocky attitude, thinking he’s the Gods’ gift to women or something? What a jackass. And those tattoos, don’t even get me started! You should’ve seen his face when Spittles showed up and hissed at him from six different angles. I’m pretty sure he shat his pants right then and-”
“Opia. You’re rambling.”
This was an unfortunate side effect of having a high Charisma (CHR) Attribute. Being able to more easily convince others to open up to Keira and coax extra information out of them was definitely handy, but there was such a thing as ‘too much information.’
“Right, sorry. Here’s the thing - though it only lasted two years, my partnership with Jen was superbly profitable. Combined with the savings I already had, I now have enough of a nest egg to give up on adventuring and try my hand at being a business owner.”
“Ah, I think I see where this is going. You’ve decided to go into the potion business and wanted to see if you can maximize your profits by working out some sort of supply contract with the Slyth family.”
“Woah,” Opia exclaimed with eyes wide open. “How’d you guess?”
The elf was in the process of buying out a local potion brewery. She was personally never very good at the whole mixology thing, but she had a good eye for people and a decent number of connections, so she had confidence she’d make a great boss. She had much to learn, of course, which was why she was starting off with a safe investment. Alchemists on Velos were always in high demand, so the only way her new business could go bankrupt was through mismanagement on her own part.
Later on she’d probably start some sort of ranch or reservation where she’d keep various amphibians, serpents and lizards as pets. Not hydras though, she kinda had her hands full keeping Spittles in line as it was. The whole thing would be more of a hobby than a business, but she’d still make some money off of it once she started selling their venom and toxins as alchemical ingredients. The Eight Tribes’ government also seemed to be surprisingly lenient when it came to certain… recreational substances, so she was looking forward to letting the good times roll. Perhaps even getting her employees to mix some extra-special blends.
But for any of that to work, she first needed the financial stability of a profitable business, which was what brought her to Keira’s doorstep this evening.
“You’re not the first one to approach Rowie or myself with this sort of thing in mind,” the feline beastkin said matter-of-factly. “Won’t be the last, either.”
“Oh… Well, now I feel like a scumbag.”
“It’s fine, I completely understand. Here’s the thing though - you’re barking up the wrong tree. Heh, barking,” the redhead chuckled. “Anyway, Rowie’s here in a personal capacity, not a professional one. Truth be told, she doesn’t want to get involved with her parents’ business dealings at all if she can avoid it.”
“Damn. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed things just because I found out she was part of the Slyth household. Sorry about that, hahaha…” Opia added with a nervous laugh.
“You can still visit her big brother Elias, though. He came to Velos with the sole intention of securing long-term trade deals, so I’m sure he’d be happy to hear you out at the very least.”
“That’s great news! So long as I’m not imposing, I mean.”
“Don’t worry about it. Truth be told, I kind of have to send you his way. Otherwise he’d be mad at me for making him miss out on a ‘potentially gainful agreement,’ as he called it.”
That elf’s thirst for profit was quite remarkable, to the point where he would’ve earned Boxxy’s approval if not for his unwillingness to get his hands dirty.
“I’m still thankful for the hookup,” the elf said politely. “So where can I find him?”
“You know that old lighthouse by the docks?”
While the two women continued making conversation at the table, there was another, far more heated discussion taking place atop the queen-sized bed on the other side of the room.
“Snek. Snek snek snek, ssssnekek?”
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
“Snek? Sneksnek, snek.”
The topic of this particular debate was impossible for even Boxxy to decipher since it had no idea what these two were saying, or how they understood each other in the first place. Information was definitely being transmitted, however, as their discussion clearly had a flow and rhythm to it. The gold-plated serpent seemed to arrive at some sort of conclusion after a few more minutes of this and leapt off of the bed and onto the floor. It skillfully slithered over to the table the two women were sitting at and poked at Opia’s leg with its cold metal snout.
“Eeek!” she let out a startled shriek. “Snek! How many times do I have to tell you to warn me when you do that!?”
She sighed, then reached down and let the house mimic transfer itself from her leg to her hand, after which she brought it up to the table where both her and Keira could see it.
“Alright, what is it?”
“Snek. Snek, snek. Snek,” it said firmly.
“What, just like that?”
“Snek. Snek snek, ssssnek.”
“I can’t believe this. Jen I can understand, but you?!”
“You tiny little ingrate. Is this all the thanks I get for looking after your scrawny ass all this time?”
“Snek! Snek, snek! Snek!”
“Get real! What’s this hussy got that I haven’t got?!”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Keira’s objection was completely ignored, however, as Opia and Snek were too caught up in their argument.
“Snek! Snekek! Snnnnek!”
“My wrists are not clammy! It’s just the goddamn heat, it makes people sweat! Even a double-crossing fashion statement like you should know that!”
“And? Is that supposed to impress me?!”
“Don’t you hiss at me, you little shit! Wait, I get it! This entire thing is because of that tiny square retard, isn’t it?!”
A mithril knife was stabbed into the wooden table with enough force to make the cheap tea set on it rattle loudly and spill out a few drops of its contents. This put an abrupt end to Opia and Snek’s heated exchange, drawing their attention back to their clearly peeved host.
“Listen here, lady,” Keira spoke coldly. “I don’t understand what you two are going on about, but if either of you think I’ll sit idly by while you disrespect me and my pet, you have another thing coming. A very sharp, pointy, and painful thing. Do I make myself clear?”
“… Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Now. What’s this all about.”
“Snek here says it wants to abandon me so it can stay with you, completely disregarding my opinion on the matter,” Opia explained.
“Is that how it is?”
Keira stared into the beady ruby eyes of the golden serpent, but it neither flinched away nor cowered. This was because it had decided to ally itself with the strongest being it had ever encountered purely as a means of self preservation. Opia and Jen had been excellent caretakers, but with the latter gone and the former retiring to a life of obscurity, it wanted to reevaluate its options. That was why it spent so long talking with Minic on the subject of how well it was cared for. Granted, even Snek had trouble understanding everything that box-shaped moron said, but it was quite clear that its sibling was living a life of leisure and luxury.
And being the cunning and selfish creature that Snek truly was, it wanted in on that action.
“Haaah,” the beastkin sighed. “Alright, how much?”
“How much what?”
“How much money do I need to give you to leave the mimic behind and get out of my room?”
The elf opened her mouth as if she was about to protest or object, but immediately gave up on wasting a Hero’s time and gave that offer some serious consideration. Though her feelings were hurt when Snek suddenly told her it was going to leave her, it wasn’t as if she could just force it to stay against its will. On the other hand, she’d feel a bit better about the whole thing if she thought of this opportunity as selling off an old piece of gear she no longer needed. Which was more or less the case now that she thought about it. She certainly wasn’t going to complain about adding some extra weight to her retirement fund, either.
“A thousand,” she finally said. “One thousand GP and Snek is yours.”
She gambled a bit and stated a slightly outrageous price by commoner standards, but Keira Morgana was anything but ‘common.’ Opia’s hunch proved to be on the money when the beastkin wordlessly stood up and went over to the strongbox that came with the inn’s room. She opened it and rummaged inside for a bit before tossing a small satchel made out of hard leather at the elf. The big-bottomed woman gingerly caught it with one hand, making the container clack with the familiar sound of gold coins. She opened it and quickly verified the amount before she stood up, thanked Keira for everything, then promptly excused herself and left.
After wrapping things up with the self-proclaimed ‘Venom Dealer,’ Keira took Snek and went to introduce Rowana to the newest member of their household. The elf wasn’t present at the inn because she was busy studying the local alchemical reagents and recipes. She was being tutored by members of the Rockjaw tribe, which had a reputation for being full of skilled artisans. This was all taking place within a small potion shop that specialized in body fortification elixirs made from both local and imported ingredients.
The platinum-blonde elf was understandably a bit cross when she found out that Keira had ‘adopted’ another house mimic without consulting her. Unlike Minic, however, Snek both understood and listened to her words, which quickly made Rowana change her tune. It was bizarre, but she could almost swear she likewise understood the creature’s one syllable sounds. The shiny serpent warmed up to her quite rapidly as well. Not because she could be a fierce protector or anything, but because it enjoyed wrapping itself around her wrist. It could now somewhat understand what its rectangular sibling meant when it kept going on about ‘the white one’s softies.’
After a while Keira gave her wife-to-be some made up excuse about taking her new acquisition for a test run while she wrapped up a nocturnal Quest and left the confines of Oar’s Rest with Snek in tow. She stepped through a Gate Spell the instant she was outside of the walls, putting dozens of kilometers between herself and the settlement in question.
“Alright, here’s the deal,” Boxxy spoke to the serpent once they had left civilization behind. “I own you now. That means you no longer have a choice in where you go or what you do. Do I make myself clear?”
Snek looked up at the monstrous catgirl while partially coiled around her left wrist and nodded firmly. If giving up a bit of freedom was the price it had to pay for security and luxury, then it would gladly take that deal.
“You are also to not even attempt to warn people of my true nature. They wouldn’t believe you anyway.”
That was also something the house mimic had no objections to after thinking back on how their first meeting went. The fact that Opia trusted a total stranger over her companion’s warnings was all the proof it needed that it was hopelessly outmatched when it came to powers of persuasion.
“Good,” Keira declared when she saw Snek’s affirmative head movement. “Now, I think it’s time I showed you a hint of what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
The shapeshifter let a devious smirk float onto its face as it fell into its own Storage portal, dragging Snek along with it. An average-sized Sandman-esque figure emerged moments later, leaving the golden serpent thoroughly confused as to what just happened.
“Long story short, I’m a shapeshifter,” Boxxy stated bluntly in a much deeper, more masculine tone. “This is merely one of the faces I wear.”
The only reason it dared to utter those words out loud was because Claws had already swept the area clean of potential eavesdroppers just before her Master teleported to it.
“Hmm? Say that again?”
“Snek? Snek, snek.”
“Ahhh… Alright, I think I see what’s going on. You have Thought Whisper, don’t you?”
“Snek?! Snek! Snek! Snek!”
Though surprised, the golden serpent rapidly nodded its head in excited confirmation.
“I see. So that’s why people seem to understand you so well.”
House mimics were created by an unknown method that fused doppelganger flesh with demonic essence. This was something Boxxy had already deduced after seeing Minic’s Status years ago. However, there was no guarantee that all of Tol-Saroth’s pets would be innocent idiots whose only asset was reality-warping luck. If some of them could achieve a high enough Level in their Mimic or Doppelganger Job, then they’d surely gain access to a related Skill.
Which was precisely what Snek had done, and one of its chosen abilities was Thought Whisper. It was a Level 5 Doppelganger Skill that made use of the species’ considerable psychic potential. It allowed its wielder to add a subliminal message to their spoken words, like a whisper that would embed itself in the back of the listener’s mind. A skilled doppelganger could use this to convey notions and ideas that were never spoken aloud, making it seem like the other party had come up with them on their own. It was the Skill Boxxy would’ve gotten at Level 10 if it wasn’t for Pheromone Control’s ability to make an entire room more compliant in an instant, which it judged to be of higher importance.
As for Snek, it was currently using Thought Whisper solely to facilitate communication with other beings, be they its current owner or a mentally challenged sibling. It was still unclear to Boxxy how it understood Minic, but now that the doppelganger was aware of Snek’s Skill, it could actually talk to the latest addition to its collection of shinies. The larger monster’s near-legendary MNT had made it subconsciously block off Thought Whisper’s effects, and it wasn’t until it was completely alone with Snek that it realized what was going on. Once it did, it was a simple matter of allowing the living bracelet’s second voice to sink in.
“Indeed. Hylt creeper, technically.”
Boxxy waved its other hand at a nearby shrub, bending its leaves into a super-sized depiction of Snek as if to prove its mastery of Phytokinesis.
“Snek. Snek, snek. Snek, snek snek snek?”
“I refuse. That just seems like a massive waste of my time and energy.”
“Snek. Snek, snek. Sneksnek, sssnek. Snekekekekek.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Snek, snek. Snek.”
“Yes, that does change things. Alright, I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not making any promises.”
“Snek snek snek, snek,” the serpent graciously bowed its head.
“Save your thanks for later. I also trust you’re not suicidal enough to lie about that, yes?”
“Snek! Snek snek snek!” the shiny mimic frantically reassured it.
“Good, now hang on tight, we’re going on a little trip.”
The cloaked figure shifted rapidly, sprouting a pair of massive raven-like wings from the back of its waist, giving Boxxy a wingspan of roughly five meters. A black miasma began seeping out of its feathers, covering its newly grown body parts in a thick cloud of darkness. A powerful flap later and the monster flew off silently and smoothly, like a shadow moving across the dusky sky.
The thing that made this mode of transportation possible was something Boxxy had acquired from a species of nocturnal birds of prey called yogarasu. They had the appearance of horse-sized four-eyed crows with serrated beaks and lived in the desert regions of Atica. Unlike griffins or harpies that relied on wind, a yogarasu augmented its flight by using a mix of the highly compatible dark and gravity elements. One to almost completely eliminate their weight, and the other to propel them forward by using the shadows as a form of thrust.
This innate form of magic manifested itself as the Darkflight Skill, something the shapeshifter had stolen from the yogarasu via Cadaver Absorption along with Darkness Affinity. The magic-assisted flying ability was by no means ideal, however. While it did allow the monster to reach speeds and altitudes surpassing those of the Flight Spell regardless of how heavy it was or what the weather was like, it could not be used during the day. Light was a yogarasu’s Bane, which was probably why their signature Skill could not be used when it was bright out, even if the sun was hidden behind heavy storm clouds.
This limitation was a part of the ability itself, which was why Boxxy had to abide by it even though it most definitely did not have a weakness to light. Still, it personally liked this Skill despite its limitation. Truthfully speaking, it could theoretically manage to fly under its own power, but the sheer amount of effort involved was not to its liking. Not to mention the wingspan necessary to achieve any sort of meaningful altitude without magical assistance was unacceptable. Not impossible - the shapeshifter had enough Biomass to make it work - just impractical since it turned the creature into a massive easy-to-spot target. That was why Boxxy was unwilling to risk using pure shapeshifting to fly unless it was under the cover of night, which was where Darkflight came in. After all, nothing said ‘stealthy night flight’ like a yogarasu.
Incidentally, all of this definitely wasn’t the monster rationalizing its Skill acquisition decision because it didn’t know about its light-based limitations until after the fact.
Environmental conditions aside, using the ability felt great. It required a lot less focus and energy than maintaining the Flight Spell, and Boxxy didn’t even need to flap its wings to maintain altitude. This lack of effort allowed it to fully bask in the unparalleled feeling of freedom that flight offered. Teleportation was faster and arguably more convenient when covering long distances, but was nowhere near as tasty.
The sky had turned completely dark by the time Boxxy reached its destination. Upon entering the dungeon beneath the Rancid Summit, the shapeshifter couldn’t help but notice the place was a mess. Entire chunks of stone were gouged out of the walls, dust and debris littered the ground and there were dozens of scorch marks all over the place. The only part of the central chamber that wasn’t a complete mess was Fizzy’s temporary workshop, with the golem in question hammering away at her ongoing project as per usual.
The radiant Paladin stopped what she was doing and looked towards the shapeshifter with a beaming smile when she realized it was there.
“Hey, Boxxy! Had a nice trip?”
“And you brought someone with you?”
“Indeed. Allow me to introduce Snek, it’ll be joining our little club from now on.”
The cloaked figure lifted its left arm, showing off the golden serpent around its wrist. The house mimic shifted its position up to the doppelganger’s fingertips and greeted the mithril golem with a firm voice.
“Huh, that the thing you were telling me about earlier, right? Whatsherface’s living alarm system?”
Fizzy stepped up to the creature on Boxxy’s hand and stared at it so hard that it made Snek feel strangely uncomfortable.
“Can I take it apart to see how it works?”
“Fizzy, this is a living being, not a machine,” Boxxy calmly explained. “Though it looks shiny on the outside, it’s still a meatbag on the inside.”
“Oh. Nevermind then.”
“Sneeek…” the serpent sighed in relief.
“What about you? Did you manage to shake off the rust?”
Fizzy grimaced a bit when she heard the ‘R-word,’ but there was no other way to describe her current condition.
“Quite a bit, yeah. My head’s not completely back in the game, but I’ll get there,” she stated confidently. “Butting heads with that bird-brain is a good way to get the old current flowing.”
She had spent so much time focusing on her crafting over the past two years that her combat sense had grown quite dull. It wasn’t as if she didn’t engage in battle at all during that time, but her encounters were not exactly challenging. Her being grossly out of practice was why she lost to Jen back in The Gauntlet, and why she forced a rematch between them earlier this afternoon.
That said, it wasn’t as if the excuse she gave Jen at the time was entirely fallacious.
“And your new weapon? How’s that coming along?” Boxxy inquired.
“Better than expected. Jen’s face was a great help in calibrating the DILDO’s trigger sensitivity and electrical output.”
“What do you mean by ‘dildo,’ exactly?”
“It’s an acronym for Direct Impact Lightning Discharge Oscillator. Why does everyone ask me that like it’s a profanity?”
“Because it kind of is? A ‘dildo’ is also a sex toy, typically shaped like the genitalia of enlightened males.”
“… Oh. Did not know that,” Fizzy admitted.
The golem’s ignorance on the matter could be forgiven given her aversion to biological functions. Not to mention the product in question was something of an uncommon luxury, albeit one that Keira and Rowana had gotten very well acquainted with over the past two years.
“I’ll put off renaming it for later,” she brushed it off. “Right now I need to figure out the power balance for the attraction mechanism in the P.O.S.”
“Polarized Omnidirectional Synchronizer. Wait, P.O.S. isn’t another disgusting meatbag thing, is it?”
“No, I just have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The golem lifted her right palm, showing off the mithril band that was fastened across it.
“I’ve been toying around with this idea of a device that will let me fetch something from far away,” she began explaining. “Basically when I feed it enough of an electrical charge, it begins pulling in whatever I attuned it to, like a powerful magnet that only works for specific objects. This particular unit is paired with the receiver in my prototype’s handle.”
“I see, but why would your weapon need such a function?”
“Well, that duel in Axel’s dungeon made me realize I need more long-ranged offensive options, so I figured I’d try to do something with the Hammer Toss Martial Art. It can send my weapon flying far and fast, and even has a bit of a homing effect to it, but I have no way of getting the projectile back once it leaves the range of my Geomagnetic Grip. That’s where the P.O.S. comes in.”
Her hand sparked and crackled as she gave her voltage a spike, but nothing happened other than the device lighting up briefly.
“Unfortunately the mechanism is extremely delicate,” she continued. “It can’t take impacts like the DILDO inside the hammer’s head can, so it broke after the first swing. I theorize I can make it work if I had some adamantite, but that’s nowhere near as good a conductor as mithril or orichalcum. I guess a new alloy might do the job if I had-”
“Fizzy?” Boxxy butted in. “Sorry to interrupt, but can I make a suggestion?”
“Uh, sure. Go ahead.”
“Why not just have someone imbue it with Recall? I’m sure Nao would be more than happy to do it.”
The shapeshifter made an excellent point. The magical enchantment in question would serve Fizzy’s purposes in a much more reliable way than the magnetic reel she had in mind. Normally Artificer devices had too many small individual parts that would break under the stress of a high-grade enchantment like Recall, but Fizzy’s ultimate goal was making a mithril hammer. One that would have a ‘business end’ of solid metal that was more than capable of housing the potent spatial magic with no adverse effects.
“… Sure. Just kill all the fun,” the ex-gnome grumbled. “Put the fun in a sack and drown it in a lake, why don’t you? Next thing you know, you’ll be a Slayer of Fun!”
However, while its suggestion was definitely practical, Boxxy had completely missed the point. What Fizzy was trying to do at this point in time wasn’t to make an awesome weapon. That was her long-term objective, yes, but at present the thing she was most concerned with was solving a challenging issue. Not because she absolutely had to make it work, but because she wanted to.
After all, her Artificer and Blacksmith Jobs would not progress if she didn’t put her technical expertise and metallurgical knowledge to the test every now and then.
“Oh. Sorry if I ruined your motivation,” Boxxy apologized.
“Nah, it’s fine. You’re right, I shouldn’t waste my time on something when there’s a better option available.”
“What about Jen? You didn’t cripple her as part of your ‘calibration,’ right?”
“Of course not.”
Though not for a lack of trying. The golem hated to admit it, but as she was right now, Jen was incomparable to her old self. Not only did her physical prowess increase significantly, but her fighting style had also evolved. Maybe it was the absence of Disciple of War, the influence of her new patron deity or her new instincts influencing her actions, but she was significantly less predictable. Even Fizzy’s Champion of Chaos was having trouble keeping up with those instantaneous arm, leg and wing movements of hers.
Speaking of which-
“Shouldn’t I train her as a Paladin?” the golem suggested. “It may work differently from her old Skill, but Champion of Chaos should help her keep a step ahead of any troublesome opponent. She could use the extra FTH, too.”
“I’d rather not,” Boxxy declined. “She already has four melee-oriented Jobs, a fifth one does not seem like a good idea. Ideally I’d want her to Rank Up before D-Day arrives, and I have no idea how long that’d take if her XP gain gets diluted any further.”
As someone who already had thousands of Attributes and dozens of Skills at her disposal, Jen’s efforts were best spent towards upgrading her body’s basic physical abilities. Just like she did after her monsterfication, her prowess would surely progress by leaps and bounds if she were to advance one step higher on her evolutionary ladder. Something that would be delayed the longer it took her to get to Level 25 of her Griffin and Harpy Jobs. Sure, getting to Level 6 in both in just a day was a good start, but Levels became exponentially harder to raise the higher they went.
“Where is she anyway? Wasn’t she supposed to be waiting for me?”
“Hm? Oh, right. She and the rest of me went into the prison cell to kill some time. Apparently my hammering was ‘too loud’ for them.”
Boxxy thanked Fizzy and strode off towards the sealed door in the far wall with the intent to check on the bird-woman in question.
“Snek snek, snek?”
The house mimic had read the mood and avoided interrupting the conversation until now, but it couldn’t help but ask whether this was the same ‘Jen’ that Opia worked with.
“Yes, and no,” Boxxy replied. “Though she’s unquestionably the same individual, I wouldn’t call her ‘the same’ as she was before.”
“Just be quiet and observe, you’ll get the gist of it. Also, I need to have an important talk with her, so I think it would be for the best if you stayed out of sight for the moment.”
The house mimic agreed and crawled up Boxxy’s sleeve so as to not be a distraction. Once it was hidden, the shapeshifter slid open the door to the chamber where Jennifer Jackson had abandoned her humanity, only to be greeted by a surprisingly intense game of Imperial Poker. Plus, Minus, Null and Jen were seated in a circle and staring each other down while peeking over their cards. The impressive pile of steel chips between them signified the stakes were quite high, which was probably why they were so engrossed in the game.
However, the Monk’s concentration was shattered the instant she caught Boxxy’s visage out of the corner of her eye. She stood up, throwing away her cards and knocking over the pile of not-money as she dashed over to stand in front of Boxxy, giving it an Imperial salute.
“Hey, watch it, bird-brain!”
Fizzy’s alternate egos were obviously none too pleased by this disturbance, especially since her tail smacked Minus in the face. It didn’t hurt anything other than the Parallel entity’s pride, but that was arguably the deepest wound one could inflict on her.
“Reporting for duty and expressing remorse over having missed your earlier arrival, sir!”
“… What’s all this?” Boxxy asked the mithril dolls.
“Oh, we’ve just been handling Jen’s religious training,” Plus helpfully answered. “Playing the hand you’ve been dealt instead of complaining about it, that sort of thing.”
Gambling did seem to make sense as a way to familiarize the Monk with the ins and outs of her new religion, but that wasn’t what Boxxy was asking about.
“I mean this unnatural manner of speaking. Weren’t you supposed to fix that?”
“Hey, don’t blame us, we almost had it,” Minus grumbled. “She was talking more or less like normal until you barged in just now.”
“Addendum - the meatbag possesses questionable instincts that interpret you as a parental unit,” Null offered matter-of-factly. “There is a 78.16% chance these faulty biological directives are impairing her rational judgement.”
“What, the griffin imprint thing? Is that really one of your new traits, Jen?”
It sounded a bit dubious, but it would certainly explain why she was so visibly tense that neither her tail nor her ears could stop twitching. As ridiculous as the notion seemed, the Monk must have missed Boxxy during the twenty four hours they were apart. And now that the shapeshifter had returned, the harpy found herself unsure of how to deal with the awkward relief she was currently experiencing.
“Reporting that I require more time to adapt,” she added.
“Alright, you seriously need to stop speaking like that,” the shapeshifter stated firmly. “As your Hero, I hereby order you to speak casually when addressing me, my minions, Fizzy, or her alter egos. Understood?”
The monster smacked her across the face with enough force to give her a bloody nose, mostly as a way to snap Jen out of her stiff state of mind rather than as a form of corporal punishment.
“Let’s try that again,” it said calmly. “Do we have an understanding?”
“… Yes, Boxxy.”
It may have seemed like a trivial thing to flaunt one’s strength and authority over, but it would appear drastic measures had to be taken in order to break that deeply ingrained habit. Prefacing almost every sentence with ‘reporting,’ ‘questioning’ and such was something that she had picked up after working for Edward for decades. Her old colleagues might have seen it as a sign of her obedience, loyalty or respect, but Boxxy found it to be nothing but a waste of time. It was also slightly irksome, too, as it reminded the creature of all the trouble it had to go through because of that old man and his blasted spy ring.
“Now, come with me,” the shapeshifter beckoned. “We have much to talk about and I don’t want to disturb the girls’ game.”
Which was a nicer way of saying they’d probably butt in constantly.
Boxxy led Jen out of the tiny room and used its authority as the dungeon’s owner to make a second chamber next to it. This one was far more spacious, however. Big enough to fit Rowana’s old house at the very least. It then proceeded to furnish it with a bed, a wardrobe, a desk, some chairs, a carpet, several empty shelves, even added a bathroom and other basic amenities, all via the dungeon core’s features.
“May I ask something?”
It was when Boxxy was busy picking out a suitable treasure chest to conjure that Jen finally decided to pipe up.
“Asking is free,” the shapeshifter casually replied.
“Will I be living here?”
“Yes. I need you to remain here on Velos and train your Monster Jobs and Rank Up as quickly as harpily possible.”
“Remain? Then, you are leaving me behind?”
“I can’t exactly bring you with me back to Azurvale, now, can I?”
Regardless of who or what she had become, Jennifer Jackson was still a wanted war criminal. She was also the one responsible for killing the mentor to Boxxy’s primary Facade. She could change her own name since she was a Scribe, but her face and Ultimate Skill were the same. If she tried to reintegrate into society like Fizzy had, then she would need to be Appraised, which would in turn raise all manner of red flags with the authorities. Especially if those results found their way into the hands of agents of the Imperial Inquisition or the Republic’s Foreign Intelligence Bureau. Those were the two organizations burdened the most by cleaning up after the collapse of the Gilded Hand, so it was only natural they’d have detailed information on the spy ring’s top brass.
That said, Keira could theoretically use her influence to vouch for Jen, but she wasn’t the kind of character that would forgive her teacher’s killer.
“I see… So I will be alone again…”
One didn’t need to be a mind reader with supernatural perception of social cues to sense the sadness in Jen’s voice, though it certainly helped. Hearing it made Boxxy hang its head in exasperation, as this sort of thing was why it was not a fan of parent-child instincts. Sure, they could be used to foster trust where none should exist, but it was not a fan of the worthless mushy stuff that came with said trust. Thankfully there was a simple enough solution to this harpy’s worries.
“You do realize I can drop by and visit any time, yes?”
“Part of why I set a dungeon up on this continent was so that I could travel from Velos to Atica in an instant.”
“… Dungeons can do that?”
“Yes, but we’ll cover that at a later date. Right now I need to put the finishing touch on your room here.”
A solid gold chest materialized out of thin air and landed on the floor with a heavy thud, right in the center of the room.
“There, how do you like it?” Boxxy asked in a jovial manner. “A fine place to store items of great value, is it not?”
“It is certainly… shiny?”
“Well said! Fake, but shiny nonetheless. Which brings me to the matter at hand, and indeed the main reason why I sought to recruit you in the first place. Five months and eight days from now, my public persona’s marriage will take place. It will be a significant event that I expect will allow me to both Rank Up and obtain an Ultimate Skill.”
Though none of this otherwise impressive news had anything to do with Jen at first glance, she couldn’t help but notice the significance of the time frame given.
“Care to take a guess as to what other momentous occasion is expected to take place shortly afterwards?”
“The Dragon Festival.”
Boxxy clapped its gloved hands together once in a congratulatory manner.
“Nailed it like a fiend.”
The Dragon Festival was the slightly ironic name given to an event that took place once every twenty one years and three months. It was during this time that a region known as the Shattered Isles would quite literally pop into reality. These islands had enough landmass between them to form a small continent and could appear anywhere on Terrania, including high above the clouds or deep underwater. Those were edge cases, however, as the Shattered Isles would most likely materialize near the coast of one of the existing continents. Then, precisely thirty two days and nine hours after their initial appearance, the Shattered Isles would disappear without a trace until the next Dragon Festival.
“I do not believe attending the Festival is a wise decision.”
Jen, however, seemed to have some reservations about the idea.
“This is surprising,” the shapeshifter noted. “Wasn’t that the whole reason you approached me in the first place?”
“That was before. As I am now, Dragon Festival attendance is no longer required for me to Rank Up.”
The fact that monsters could grow into more powerful beings without ever having to risk entering that nightmarish realm was one of the things Jen secretly envied about them. It was arguably also one of the many underlying reasons that led to her forsaking her humanity.
“Hmm, I suppose that’s true,” Boxxy conceded. “However, there are many things besides Levels that can be gained at the Shattered Isles.”
The anomalous region was, as the name of the Dragon Festival suggested, where dragons originated from. The Shattered Isles were also widely believed to have come from a realm other than Terrania, implying that this world’s mightiest beasts were not even native to it. Which made a good deal of sense considering their disproportionate strength, power and longevity in relation to other living beings. The Shattered Isles also held a large number of minerals, gems, herbs, gas deposits, and other raw materials that could not be found anywhere else. Though the area’s alien origins had never been definitively proven, those foreign elements made it hard to imagine what other alternative could exist.
It was also these extremely valuable and otherwise unobtainable resources that Boxxy was referring to. While the vast majority of enlightened adventurers would be on the Shattered Isles chasing Job Levels, Ultimate Skills and Rank Ups, the shapeshifter would be lining its Storage with the shiniest of shinies. Raw materials aside, there were also a plethora of magic items that had taken on fantastical new properties after spending decades basking in the volatile mana permeating the Shattered Isles.
Which, incidentally, was also the only known method through which Phantasmal-grade items were created. These legendary objects were supposedly on par with god-forged Divine equipment when it came to their performance and abilities, but obtaining one was no simple task. In fact, it was practically impossible to get one without personally visiting the Shattered Isles, as all Phantasmal items shared a certain trait - they were transient existences.
Once such an object was taken out of the Shattered Isles, it would become a ‘phantom’ that would appear transparent, as if it wasn’t all there. The only one that could use or even grab hold of the priceless relic at that point was the individual that it had been bonded to during the events of the Dragon Festival. Stealing such a thing was practically impossible, as were any other attempts to seize control of the item by force. Even killing the owner was a futile effort, as the item would vanish the instant its bonded individual’s life force had run out. It would then either return to the Shattered Isles or, depending on the nature of the item and the availability of a suitable candidate, be inherited by one of the previous owner’s biological children.
Long story short, the only way Boxxy could hope to obtain these delicious relics was to search for them during the Dragon Festival. Which wasn’t going to be easy considering the hazardous conditions and anomalous weather patterns caused by the wild and uncontrollable magic permeating the Shattered Isles. Blazing blizzards that boiled the blood, acid rain that melted the soul and lightning bolts that peppered the ground like hail were but a few examples of what was considered ‘normal’ over there. Jen had personally seen people literally get liquefied by a seemingly harmless breeze.
Yet the nightmarish environment was the least of her worries.
“Do you believe that the residents of the Shattered Isles will sit idly by while you plunder their nests and lairs?”
As deadly as the incomprehensible climate was, it paled in comparison to the destructive potential of pissing off an entire brood of dragons. Those terrible and prideful beasts laid claim to any object of value on the Isles and hated greedy ‘tourists’ more than anything. Which, considering that Boxxy did not have a single altruistic fiber in its being, was a disaster waiting to happen.
“Not an issue. I’m not aiming for the dragon hoards.”
“… You aren’t?”
“Of course not. I may want shiny things, but I’m not suicidal.”
Thankfully it would seem the shapeshifter was already fully aware of the dangers its avarice could attract and had decided to prioritize its well being over satisfying its desire for treasure.
“Just to be clear,” it continued, “I would not be opposed to finishing off a dragon or stealing their treasure should a tasty enough opportunity present itself. Nor would I complain should a Phantasmal item happen to fall into my possession. However, those are merely optional targets of opportunity. My main goal will be the other sources of shinies and XP that will be present at the Shattered Isles.”
Jen’s eyes momentarily widened in surprise and her lips curled into a barely noticeable smile of delight as realization hit her.
The Dragon Festival was a chaotic event with a staggeringly high mortality rate despite the relatively high power level of its attendees. Anything could happen during those turbulent thirty-odd days. It was not uncommon for VIPs to simply vanish into the Shattered Isles with their entire entourage, never to be heard from again. Not only would very few people question how and why such influential individuals met their ends, but even fewer would be stupid enough to try and recover their bodies. Or their equipment.
In other words, it would appear this year’s Festival participants would have something besides dragons and freaky weather to worry about.