“Don’t pull on the reins so hard,” Keira spoke softly. “Remember, you’re here to guide the horses, not boss them around.”
“Oh. Uh. Okay,” Robin replied nervously. “Like this?”
The two of them were sitting at the front of a luxurious stagecoach that had four thoroughbred warhorses pulling it along the highway. The catgirl was giving the bulkiest of the nephilim sisters some driving lessons to pass the time. This was the muscular blonde’s first time being entrusted with control of a vehicle, so she was understandably anxious despite describing herself as being ‘good with animals.’ Thankfully, the Inquisition’s steeds were well-trained and did most of the work, so Robin barely even had to do anything. It was a good opportunity to have her get used to it, as the ability to drive a carriage was one of the basic yet essential skills any aspiring adventurer had to have.
Then again, it wasn’t as if Robin was planning to be an adventurer in particular. The main reason she was getting tutored in horse handling was because Keira had quite literally nothing better to do while the group travelled north. Having left Fort Aynor earlier this morning, she, Rowana, Fizzy and the triplets were proceeding along the Imperial highway at a brisk pace. They were not alone, however, as they had an escort of two more carriages - one in front and the other behind - as well as forty elite mounted soldiers.
While this armed force was intended for the nephilim’s protection, Keira argued that it merely made them a bigger target. If she got her way then she would’ve taken the quieter approach of having them travel in a much more pedestrian fashion. After all, only the most confident of bandit groups stalked the Imperial highway, and those people would surely have a crack at this well-guarded prize. It was a situation where discretion was the better part of valor.
Unfortunately, Fort Aynor’s steward and Sigmund’s right-hand man, a bloke that went by the name of Hagendash, would have none of it. He insisted that Teresa’s offspring be under constant guard no matter what, and outright refused to listen to Keira’s perfectly reasonable suggestion. Not only that, but he treated the redhead with so much hostility that it made Boxxy wonder whether these armed escorts were tasked with protecting the triplets from outside harm or from Keira.
Then again, the Hero of Chaos had killed the previous Hero of the Hammer in a Clash just two years prior, so Hagendash’s concerns were not entirely unfounded. He probably would’ve kept the nephilim under lock and key their entire lives if he had his way. For better or for worse, his personal opinions didn’t matter considering that Teresa herself had, through her chosen Hero, declared that Keira would take temporary custody of her daughters. The steward therefore had little choice but to follow his orders, no matter how much he and several other high-ranking officers thought this was a bad idea.
Even Boxxy couldn’t help but agree with the man, but for entirely different reasons. Objectively looking at it, it made zero sense for Teresa to allow her miracle children to be in the custody of a mass-murdering monster. Unless, of course, one considered Herman’s involvement in this matter, especially the way he strong-armed the shapeshifter into this position. It was an unpleasant chore to be sure, but it was the exception rather than the rule. Other than a select few exceptions, Marjorie let Boxxy run wild and do whatever it pleased. Compared to the other Heroes who constantly appeared to be going off on some mission or fulfilling a divine duty, it was practically given free reign.
Teresa’s followers were far less understanding, however, so the shapeshifter was unable to talk Hagendash out of this bothersome armed escort. As far as it understood, its God-given assignment was to take these doe-eyed nephilim and thoroughly educate them on how cruel and unfair the real world was. They could not be coddled by inquisitors or deities forever, and if they were to become self sufficient, then they had to have a solid grasp of reality and needed to understand how fragile life truly was. The best way to do that was to throw them head-first into a mud pile and have them fight tooth and nail for their survival against malicious monsters and bloodthirsty bandits, at least for a few weeks. None of that was going to happen with this ridiculously flashy convoy, so Boxxy had to resort to educating them in a less direct manner.
Which was why Keira had insisted that they pass through a very specific settlement on their way to the northern border.
“Woah, is that the place?” Robin exclaimed when she noticed it on the horizon.
“Yup, that’s it alright,” the catgirl confirmed in a casual tone. “The imperial capital of Oshinas. A tribute to humanity’s greatness. And their arrogance.”
Part of what made Fort Aynor a good headquarters was its close proximity to the heart of the Empire, only half a day away from the capital by carriage. The city itself was as grandiose and extravagant as one would expect from a sprawling metropolis with nearly a million people living in it. Countless tall spires dominated its skylines and it was surrounded by massive stone walls that were so white they practically glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. Two massive rivers flowed in from the Sawblade Mountains to the southwest and flowed into one another before continuing their way north and east towards the Oculus Sea. This gave the capital direct access to a sea trade route in addition to the land-based ones, allowing all manner of goods and people to flow through it.
That was all far off on the horizon though, so at present the most Robin could see from her seat was a spiky white dot. Her immediate surroundings were dominated by fields of golden grain and the odd farmhouse or ranch dotting the surrounding hills without a single soul in sight, or at least at first. Traffic naturally picked up significantly as the convoy got closer and closer to the capital and more and more roads merged with the imperial highway. It wasn’t long before travelers became a common sight, whether they were on foot, mounted, or with vehicles of their own.
And with each stranger that passed them by, Robin began to notice something more and more.
“Uh, Keira? How come everyone is avoiding us so much?”
It wasn’t something understandable like giving the armed procession a wide berth. People straight up pulled off to the sides of the highway and stood perfectly still as the Inquisition procession passed. A few even seemed to take alternate routes or even do a complete one-eighty to avoid crossing paths with them. The road was certainly wide enough to allow them to comfortably pass each other without going to such extremes, yet the delegation was treated as if it was a threat.
“Because they’re afraid,” the catgirl bluntly stated.
“Of what? Is it my horn? Uncle warned people might give us a hard time because of that.”
“It’s not you, it’s the company you keep,” she jerked her head at the mounted knights around them. “The commoners would much rather waste a few minutes bowing their heads rather than risk ruining their lives because they accidentally looked at a noble wrong.”
“We’re not nobles, though. We’re not, right?”
“Maybe not, but we certainly look like we are.”
“What about all the flags and stuff? That’s clearly the Inquisition’s insignia everyone’s carrying!”
“It doesn’t make a difference to the casual observer. They see a fancy carriage flanked by soldiers, they make room for it. It’s practically a reflex. Even if they do recognize the heraldry, I doubt Sigmund’s way of doing things has earned his group any favors.”
“But, uncle’s guys are the good guys! They got rid of all the evil nobles! Surely that’s worth at least a ‘thank you’ from these ingrates!”
“Maybe that’s how you see it, but ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not absolutes, they are perspectives. Sure, eliminating the corrupt leadership may be good for the nation in the long term, but from a commoner’s perspective the Inquisition are nothing more than bullies that took their lords away. Even if they did some bad things, those people have ruled over their lands for generations. They understood the territory’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what their people would and would not tolerate. See that over there?”
Keira pointed towards a massive stone and wood windmill that had fallen into disrepair.
“That mill is a local landmark, a monument of sorts that was still in use a year ago. Even if it’s ancient and not very efficient, it is still a symbol that represents the simple and honest folk that tend to these fields. Yet the freshly-appointed lord of this area wants it torn down and replaced with a less archaic alternative.”
“Isn’t… Isn’t that a good thing? I mean, if it works faster and makes their lives easier, who cares if it doesn’t look the same?”
“How would you feel if I took away all your clothes and replaced them with frilly dresses just because I thought they looked better on you?”
Robin did not respond with words, but a foul grimace that made it seem as if she was standing downwind from a flatulent troll.
“It would suck, wouldn’t it?” Keira asked.
“Same thing, just on a larger scale. People hate changes forced on them by someone or something else. Even if it’s ‘for the best’ from an outsider’s point of view, it may not necessarily be the same from theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective, really.”
This life lesson was something the other two nephilim would’ve picked up on their own after a while, but Boxxy felt this one in particular had to have that point jammed down her throat.
“Hmmm…” Robin strained her brain. “Sorry, but I don’t think I can fully agree with what you’re saying. I get that people like some things and hate others, but all this political and economic stuff just goes way over my head. All I wanna do is punch bad guys, you know?”
“That’s fine, I suppose,” Keira stated as she pulled her hood up. “All I ask is that you make sure the ones you’re hitting are ‘bad’ by your definition. Not someone else’s.”
Boxxy also suspected it didn’t actually matter who it was she was inflicting violence upon, but Sigmund must have taught her to channel that aggression in a more… positive direction.
“Sure, yeah, that I can get behind,” Robin nodded. “Been meaning to ask, by the way, what’s with the outfit?”
The catgirl was currently wearing her full combat gear aside from her blades, which were stored inside her belt instead of hanging from her hip. She also had a thick dark-green cloak that looked more like a raincoat. It concealed her form so completely that it was difficult to guess her gender while the low hood obscured both her racial and personal identity. It was a stark contrast when compared to the nephilim, who was in the same sort of casual clothes when the two of them met yesterday.
“People hate change,” she smirked at Robin, “and Alfred is the deity who adores it the most.”
“Haaaaah,” Keira sighed at the dense woman. “Never mind. Let’s just say it’ll be better for everyone involved if nobody realizes that I’m here.”
Unfortunately that sentiment only lasted until they got to the front gates.
“By the authority of the Imperial Inquisition, I hereby order you to make way for Keira Morgana, the Hero of Chaos, and her retinue!”
Mostly due to the officer in charge of the armed escort being as subtle about the catgirl’s presence as an exploding volcano. Declaring people of importance were being escorted through a major settlement like this was one thing, but he didn’t have to shout Keira’s name and title at the top of his lungs. As if it wasn’t bad enough that these armored clowns already stuck out like a sore thumb, now the entire city guard would know she was here.
And sure enough, the one time Boxxy was trying to draw as little attention as possible to its public Facade somehow turned into something of an improvised parade. As it turned out, What’s-his-face had sent word ahead that Keira would be arriving, thereby forcing her into this ‘guest of honor’ position. It was all a farce, of course. He probably thought the catgirl would have to sit in at official meet-and-greets with various big shots and people of relative importance, thereby allowing his people to keep an eye on her. Part of him probably felt the woman should’ve been thankful for being given the chance to rub shoulders with people of prominence.
He was, however, sorely mistaken, because Boxxy had better things to do right now than play politics with its food.
“Woah! Would you look at this place!” Robin exclaimed as she watched the tall buildings and masses of people on either side of the main road. “Keira, can you believe- Wait, what? Where’d you go?!”
But no matter how much the horned blonde looked around, the beastkin Ranger was nowhere to be seen. It was as if she had just up and vanished in thin air without her or anyone else realizing it, almost as if she was never there to begin with. Robin naturally started to freak out, as she had no idea what was going on. Neither did any of the Inquisition troops, who only realized the Hero’s absence once the nephilim started making a fuss. It was only when the group arrived at the mansion where they would be staying for the night that Rowana and Fizzy reassured the others that it was, in fact, natural for Keira to disappear like that.
As for the shapeshifter, it had slipped out of its ‘responsibilities’ and its primary facade and was already at one of the nodes in its dungeon network, some fifty kilometers away from the capital. It had arrived here via Transfamiliar after it had Snack go on ahead while it was stuck on that carriage. And now that it was finally able to, it used Nexus Access to transport itself across the ocean to the dungeon beneath the Rancid Summit, deep in the Velosian jungle.
The hylt creeper had barely just appeared within the hollowed-out mountain when it suddenly got tackled from behind by a mass of muscle, fur and feathers, nearly knocking it to the ground. After reevaluating the situation in the next moment, it realized that this was not an act of aggression, but an over-enthusiastic hug on Jen’s part. That assertion would certainly explain why she had that miniature smile on her face and how come she was rubbing her cheek against Boxxy’s. She must have missed her ‘parental unit’ quite a bit during the three weeks since they last saw each other, and was no doubt currently soothing her loneliness. It was nothing the shapeshifter couldn’t endure.
That said, it wasn’t until about ten minutes later and a generous amount of head patting that the clingy harpy returned to her usual self. It was truly odd how she could be so childish at one moment yet mature and collected in the next, not to mention inconvenient. At the very least she seemed to have been busy fulfilling her duties, as her dungeon home was decorated with a plethora of trophies from defeated foes. Mostly the bare skulls and battered helmets of monsters and men alike, though there was one piece in particular that caught Boxxy’s attention.
“Is that… a griffin’s beak?”
“Yes,” Jen confirmed.
The shapeshifter’s shoulders drooped in exasperation.
“Didn’t I tell you not to fight the Inquisition?”
“Clarification - I did not fight that one, I merely finished it off.”
“I found the griffin in question on this same mountain, closer to the summit. It was heavily wounded and had crashed after trying to fly despite its injuries. It was so weak that the poisons in the air would have finished it off. I merely ended its suffering.”
“I see. What did you do with the body?”
“Collected the beak, talons, and a few feathers, then kicked it down the slope and into the jungle below. This was ten days ago, and not a trace of the carcass is left by now.”
Jen was no stranger to getting her hands dirty, so she fully understood the importance of evidence disposal when trying to remain hidden.
“That’s good enough, I suppose. What could’ve hurt it that badly, though?”
Even though griffins were not native to Velos they were at least as strong as nine-headed hydras, possibly stronger if one factored in their ability to fly. Not many things would’ve brought down something like that.
“Unknown. However, I did sense a high degree of Blight infection,” Jen reported.
“Hmm, guess those two found a lead on that Aleister fellow already, huh?”
The Heroes of the Hammer and the Sun had remained on Velos for the express purpose of hunting down the rogue Blight Lord that had orchestrated the recent orc uprising. This sort of thing was bound to happen eventually, but Boxxy expected it to be later rather than sooner. Nao had stayed behind for different reasons, but it was possible he had used his LIAR to help track down the devious undead. Regardless of what had happened, Boxxy was not only glad to have missed it, but was looking forward to not getting involved.
It seriously hated fighting undead, mostly because they all tasted horrible.
“You should be more careful,” it warned Jen. “If the Inquisition is making a move they might come to investigate this place since the ambient toxins could be hiding the presence of Blight.”
“… Is such a thing possible?”
“No idea, but they might think it is. My point is you need not worry about defending this place and should retreat should anyone arrive in force. I’ll look for you near that Gauntlet place should it come to that.”
“Good. Now, stand still for a second while I see how your training’s been going.”
Boxxy called up the dungeon management screen and brought its Surveillance Net back online. It normally kept it turned off because it kept giving it alerts every time Jen walked in or out of the place, which were far too annoying to be worth the bother. However, the module in question had to be enabled in order for the Invader Analysis function to become available. Though the information it provided was only at about the level of a Basic Appraisal, it was still enough to see Jen’s Job progress.
And progress had indeed taken place.
The harpy had broken through the limit on her Warrior Job, which was currently sitting at halfway past Level 56 while her Griffin and Harpy Jobs were both on the cusp of Level 16. It seemed quite slow considering she got both of the latter ones to Level 6 within twenty four hours of acquiring them. However, it was important to keep in mind that Job and Skill Levels got exponentially harder to obtain as their numbers rose. Not to mention Jen already had a total Job Level of over 200, which meant finding opponents strong enough to give her significant XP was challenging. Under the circumstances, gaining six Levels in the Warrior Job and a combined twenty-ish in her Monster Jobs was not slow for three weeks’ worth of hunting. Just the opposite, in fact.
“Impressive work, Jen,” the monster remarked. “I knew I was right to have high expectations of you. Keep this up and you’ll get your next Rank Up in no time.”
The harpy blushed lightly and her feline ears twitched in embarrassment, signs that she was still not used to getting complimented so directly.
“However, do try to rely more on your natural weapons,” Boxxy continued. “Your Harpy and Griffin Jobs should get a bigger portion of the XP when you kill stuff with your claws and talons rather than your staff.”
Boxxy was fairly certain it had given her this advice at the start, but it couldn’t hurt to repeat it every now and then. That aside, there was something on this Invader Analysis result that struck it as… odd.
“Another thing. Why did you rename yourself?”
“Because I wanted to. And I could. So I did. Do you not approve of my new name?”
“Not really, no. I get that it’s a sign of fealty, but ‘Boxxy’s Little Birdie’ is just wrong. On so many levels.”
“Should I change it to ‘Boxxy’s Big Bird,’ then?”
“No, see, the ‘little’ isn’t the issue here. I mean, it kind of is, but- Just change it back to what it was before. Or you can just use ‘Jen’ if you’d rather leave your former identity behind.”
Fizzy had something of a hang-up in that regard, so it was possible this harpy might’ve had similar thoughts. Then again, names and families were far more important to dwarves and gnomes than they were to other cultures, so perhaps this renaming was just a whim. In the end it didn’t matter all that much what she called herself. Should she get Appraised, her Ultimate Skill and Job composition would identify her as ‘Jennifer Jackson’ no matter what her name tag said. Still, it was probably a bad idea to have Boxxy’s name on her Status in such a brazen fashion.
“Alright, I’ll take care of it,” Jen conceded. “Oh, by the way, I left some gifts for you in the golden chest in my room.”
Boxxy was already standing over the shiny container in question mere moments after the word ‘gifts’ left the harpy’s lips. It eagerly flipped it open and was delighted to see a small pile of treasure and a few magic items waiting for it, no doubt leftovers of the poor saps that fell victim to Jen’s Level grind. It would appear she had also hit the jackpot, as one of these was an Artifact, which the dungeon core’s Item Allocation module was able to identify with minimal difficulty.
An ancient tome that once belonged to Rhotlisk of clan Occozza, one of the founding members of the Sagescale Tribe of Velos. The memories and experiences of the Master Psionic had been imprinted onto this book’s illegible pages in ways that mere ink cannot convey. Just holding it grants one a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the mind and how to best harness its powers.
The grimoire does not look like much and whatever magic is holding it together is gradually deteriorating, making it a fragile relic that must be handled with care.
Enchantments: Master Intelligence, Greater Wisdom, Greater Mental Fortitude
Ignition Ability: Telekinetic Blast
Estimated Value: 21,500 GP
Well, ‘does not look like much’ was an understatement. The book’s dull brown cover was so worn out it was impossible to tell whether it was actually as valuable as that report claimed it was. Then again, the item clearly had historical significance on top of its high-grade enchantments, so that estimate was probably accurate. Or at the very least far more accurate than the meaningless yet misleading ‘Priceless’ tag that most Scribes put on these things. Still, it was rather impressive the thing survived an encounter with the griffin-harpy, though its previous owner most certainly did not.
Regardless of its history, Boxxy happily pocketed the item and the other miscellaneous shinies and gave Jen a blush-inducing ‘Good job!’ before returning to its home continent. That said, the dungeon it was using as a relay was still charging its MP after having sent the creature across the ocean. It was a while longer before it could return to the Imperial capital’s outskirts, whereupon it called out to check on how its familiar was doing.
“Snack, you still there?”
The two of them had been more than a hundred kilometers apart for only about half an hour, so it was a safe bet her conjured flesh should not have destabilized just yet.
“Oh! Welcome back, Master,” the djinn replied to its telepathic message. “I trust the newest addition to your menagerie is doing okay?”
Xera believed it would be a terrible shame if that woman got herself killed after all that effort her Master put into recruiting her, after all.
“Better than ‘okay!’” it ecstatically responded. “She found me a tasty new Artifact!”
“That is wonderful news indeed,” she gracefully said. “Congratulations on your newest acquisition, Master.”
With this, Boxxy now had a whopping thirty three of these rare and powerful items in its collection, which amounted to roughly 10% of the Artifacts currently in circulation around the world. It had employed a variety of methods to achieve such a tremendous result, which included, but were not limited to, dungeon diving, treasure hunting, thievery, and straight up murder. It had been so proficient in those last two that it had unwittingly spawned rumors of a ‘Relic Hunter,’ which only served to make future heists more difficult.
That said, it wasn’t as if the shapeshifter went after every single Artifact it caught wind of. After all, while gearing up for the upcoming Dragon Festival was important, it mostly sought out these priceless items to satisfy its own greed. There was no point to wasting time and effort chasing a prize if it was neither shiny nor especially useful to its skillset. Well, it was still going to celebrate whenever one of these just fell into its clutches no matter what the item was, but Jen’s generous gift was the only time such a thing had happened so easily.
“I am happy to report I have more good news for you, Master. I have been able to confirm some very tasty rumors while you were away.”
It would appear the demoness had not been idle while her owner was busy checking in on its bird-brained brawler. The rumors in question were something she had picked up from another familiar through the Beyond’s grapevine. She hadn’t mentioned anything since her fellow demons were hardly the most trustworthy source of information. If this news had turned out to be an exaggerated fabrication, all she would’ve accomplished was to make her Master feel annoyed for getting its hopes up for no good reason. Such a thing was clearly not going to put it in the mood for the organ crushing intercourse she so desperately craved.
“Okay, I’m listening. What’ve you learned?”
“There is a secret Artifact auction taking place three weeks from now, right here in the capital.”
It was therefore rather fortunate for her that this particular Beyond-sourced information had held up to scrutiny.
“… Snack, I am going to shove my tentacles so far down your ears they will meet in the middle.”
Because, like all good bosses, Boxxy knew that exceptional results deserved special rewards.
“Looking forward to the mind-fuck, Master!”