It hadn’t even started yet, and people were already calling it the trial of the century. Officially, the legal proceeding had a very lifeless and dull designation marked with serial numbers, abbreviations, and jargon. Unofficially, it was to be the sentencing of the worst criminal and terrorist to ever set foot on Republic soil. An exaggeration to be sure, given how an individual responsible for wiping out entire settlements was right in their midst, but it certainly felt true to the people. Which, in the end, was all that mattered as far as the government was concerned.
Indeed, this entire ‘trial’ was ultimately nothing more than a farce, a show that was being put on to appease the angry populace. The defendant, a human spy called Whittaker, didn’t even have legal counsel. However, that was mostly because literally nobody wanted to represent him. Even the Imperial embassy that had been established in the aftermath of the war didn’t want to be associated with him. This was an open-and-shut case no matter how one looked at it.
And yet the courtroom was filled to the brim, to the point where only select people were allowed to enter. That didn’t stop the commoners from gathering outside the courthouse, chanting angry slogans as they voiced their pain and outrage at the villain inside. The more cynical among the citizens even noted that the Republic government could’ve made a fortune if they sold tickets for the proceeding to the highest bidder. A few even believed that was precisely what had happened, given the social status of those inside.
Business tycoons, guild leaders, government officials, military commanders, foreign dignitaries and influential VIPs were the only ones allowed to bear witness to the mock trial. They all glared at the defendant at the front of the room, who was chained up and under heavy guard. Whittaker himself seemed entirely unfazed by the bloodlust hammering at the back of his head, mostly because he was nothing but a meat-puppet dancing to the tune of a couple of shapeshifters.
“So that’s the piece of filth who murdered my father, huh?” a voice grumbled amidst the general murmur. “I wish I could have just five minutes alone with him and a crowbar.”
“Easy now, Elias,” Doris attempted to calm her son. “He’ll get what’s coming to him.”
What was left of the Slyth family was naturally present in their entirety, including its eldest son. Elias had only returned from Velos a week ago after word of the Collapse and his father’s death had called him back, so anger and grief were still very much at the forefront of his mind. The same could be said of everyone in the room though, as all of them had lost loved ones in that catastrophe.
“I hope they don’t just execute him,” Keira whispered menacingly. “Death’s too good for the likes of scum like that.”
The Hero of Chaos was also present to nobody’s surprise. Not only had she been the one to officially bring the culprit in, but she would also be called upon as a witness during the hearing. The Sandman also had a presence in the room, though it was limited to Xera acting as the mercenary’s representative. She was sitting cross legged at the end of the row with a stunning red and silver dress wrapped tightly around her demonic form. The djinn’s lips were twisted into a malicious grin as she waited eagerly to see this farce of a trial unfold.
“All rise for the honorable judge Underwood!”
The murmur ground to a screeching halt as an elf with dull red hair and a dignified beard on his square jaw entered the chamber. He wasn’t an Underwood that Boxxy was familiar with, but that was hardly surprising considering how widespread they were. There must have been at least six of them among the eighty or so attendees. This included Cecilia, the FIB analyst and agent that spearheaded the Collapse investigation. Though she personally felt she had done a very poor job of it, she had still gotten commended for having the foresight to involve and cooperate with the Hero of Chaos.
The judge tried his best to progress the trial in an orderly and civil manner as much as possible. Cases were stated and evidence was presented. The method used to cause the Collapse was also brought up, though the specifics were not revealed due to concerns of national security. Relevant witnesses were called up next. Keira performed her part in incriminating the suspect admirably, as did Boxxy’s scapegoat.
He went into strongly-worded tirades about how the ‘twigs’ were all ‘subhuman trash’ and that this trial was a ‘perverse mockery of justice.’ And as if that hadn’t been enough to make him appear like the worst kind of scum, he even added that he’d ‘do it all over again a hundred times’ if he could. Boxxy was momentarily worried that Stain might have been overdoing her part. Whittaker was supposed to appear unrepentant and bigoted, not megalomaniacal.
However, the doppelganger had slightly underestimated the queen slime. She had ready access to the brains and memories of the worst criminals in Republic history, which allowed her to put on a uniquely convincing act. It was so well received that the guards had to physically restrain a few attendees from assaulting the defendant right then and there. Surprisingly enough, the slime herself was right here in the courtroom. It was a bit unexpected, but not at all unwelcome since it made the whole thing more convenient for the co-conspirators. As for why ‘Warden Stain’ was making a public appearance, that became apparent when the predetermined sentence was given out.
“In light of overwhelming evidence, I hereby find Jeremy Whittaker guilty of crimes against the Ishigar Republic and its people,” the judge loudly declared. “He is to be imprisoned within Bitterhold, where he will perform hard labor for the rest of his natural life. State sanctioned Necromancers will then oversee that his body and soul continue to work the mines until his debt to society has been repaid. Which, considering the immeasurable weight of his crimes, would be in seven hundred and eighty six years.”
Murmurs and nods of approval rose up from the audience as Judge Underwood passed down the harshest punishment within his legal authority. Everyone here shared Keira’s sentiment that death was too good for this unrepentant mass-murderer, which was not something to be stated lightly. It meant that the mortals believed the criminal’s sins were far too severe to allow Mortimer to just absolve them. No, the guilty party had to suffer as the victims, even if it meant going against the death god’s decrees and passing out a sentence that, in all likelihood, would outlive the Republic itself.
Warden Stain personally oversaw that her ‘prisoner’ be transported to the pit of despair and hopelessness known as Bitterhold. The way the elf-shaped blob of goo kept licking her lips while making slurping noises made her seem extra creepy, like she had just gotten a new toy to play with. But that sort of borderline sadistic attitude was only to be expected of a warden with a flawless track record. Her disturbing behavior reassured those attending the trial that Whittaker would be in ‘good hands’ from now on.
A government official then announced the outcome of the trial to the crowds still gathered outside the building. It was a controversial ruling handed out to a controversial individual, so it was only natural that they responded with loud and angry yelling. Unlike the individuals inside the courtroom, the populace called for blood since many did not grasp just how damning the sentence was. Crowd mentality took over and it seemed as though a riot might break out, but then a certain someone exited the building. With crimson hair like fire, brown skin like chocolate and pointy ears of the feline kind, even those in the back were instantly able to recognize the Hero of Chaos.
Keira’s appearance alone was enough to make the shouts of outrage and disapproval rapidly grow silent. Nobody cheered or yelled or anything of the sort, they just stared and murmured. This was not the sort of reaction Boxxy was used to, so it didn’t know how to respond other than humbly retreat from the scene alongside the Slyth family. At least the crowd parted ways to give them safe passage, though the overbearing silence and staring made the shapeshifter feel as though it was attending a funeral procession.
Still, the redhead and her soon-to-be extended family left the scene without much incident and made their way through the busy streets.
“Glad that’s finally over,” Keira sighed. “That was exhausting.”
“You alright, love?” Rowana asked with worry in her voice. “It felt like you were up on that stand for hours.”
“One hour, forty three minutes and thirty five seconds, to be precise.”
“Heh. That’s an Artificer’s punctuality for you,” she chuckled. “Seriously though, you sure you wouldn’t rather go home and rest?”
“No, I’m fine. It’s not like house-hunting is that stressful anyway.”
“You’d be surprised how heated it can get,” Elias chimed in, “especially in the current market. Prices for ground-level real estate has shot up threefold since I last checked. Hardly surprising, considering people don’t feel safe on the branches after everything that’s happened. It’s unfortunate, but understandable. I might not have been here to see the Collapse, but just imagining it is… terrifying.”
It was also the main reason he was looking to rebuild his family’s mansion on solid ground rather than up in the air.
“Frankly speaking, I have no idea how you two can feel comfortable up there after everything that’s happened,” he added.
“I just don’t like giving into fear,” the catgirl responded. “You’ll go crazy if you worry about every little thing that might happen.”
“And when I’m with Keira, I feel as though I have nothing to worry about in the slightest,” Rowana happily hugged her future wife’s arm.
“Seriously though, are you sure it’s wise putting that much money into real estate?” the redhead continued. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait until the prices dropped a bit?”
“Maybe, but… Uh…” the big brother scratched his nose. “That would take months, maybe even years, and, well….”
“He doesn’t want to intrude on you two for that long,” Doris added from the back, “and neither do I. Though it was very kind of you to let me stay with you during these troubled times, intruding on my daughter’s life is not something I want to do. Besides, it’s really awkward to see Rowana walk around in that questionable underwear all the time.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Elias added. “Family or not, I can’t bear to look at my baby sister in such immodest clothing, even for a second.”
“Oh… Sorry,” the girl in question apologized. “I’ll, uh, try to be more mindful.”
“That aside, money isn’t really an issue for us,” he stated confidently. “We’ve always had considerable means, and we got a sizeable sum from father’s death insurance policy, so we can afford to spend a small fortune on land.”
“Death insurance policy?” the redhead raised a dubious eyebrow. “That sounds… ominous.”
“It’s this practice run by an Alliance-based nosferatu guild. They let you purchase a special timed contract that entitles your family to significant monetary compensation in the unlikely event of your death. Father bought a five-year one just when that war was about to break out and… payment for it should be arriving any day now. His final contribution to the Slyth household…”
The conversation had taken an unexpectedly dark turn, prompting Doris to comfort her only son by hugging him across the shoulder while Rowana tightened her grip on Keira’s arm. The group continued walking for several moments of relative silence before Elias forcefully changed the topic to a less depressing one.
“Anyway, thanks to that, even these horrendously increased prices are not an issue at all. I’d say availability is a more pressing concern. Ground space is quite limited, so we need to claim a suitable plot of land before the other wealthy families buy them all up. That’s the main reason why prices are so ludicrous right now.”
“I see…” Keira answered thoughtfully. “Sounds like a really tough spot.”
“Yeah. Though to be fair, the prices aren’t as bad as I thought they’d be,” Elias cupped his chin. “Like, have any of you noticed how cheap everything seems?”
“That so? I haven’t noticed it at all,” Keira shrugged.
“Hmm, now that you mention it,” Rowana crossed her arms in thought, “it does feel like I’m spending less on alchemical reagents than I used to be.”
“I do believe my dear Samulus said something about that earlier in the year,” Doris chimed in. “Something about deflation?”
“Mhm,” Elias nodded. “I met up with some people I know, and they confirmed that the average cost of living in Azurvale is now twelve percent lower than it used to be five years ago, and six to ten percent lower elsewhere in the country.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” his sister asked.
“No, it isn’t. The only reason goods and services cost less is because the value of Gold Pieces has gone up. I won’t bore you with the details, but this could be very bad if it continues.”
“Wait, what do you mean the value of GP has gone up?” Keira asked rather demandingly. “How does that even happen?”
“It happens when there’s a decrease in the overall number of coins currently in circulation.”
“Oh. But can’t the government just mint more coins? It’s not like gold is all that rare a metal.”
“Well yeah, they can, and I imagine that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Elias speculated. “However, that’s just a temporary fix that merely addresses the symptoms of this sudden deflation. It doesn’t address the root cause.”
“That’s the worrisome part. Nobody seems to know. It’s like millions of gold coins disappeared off of the face of the planet over the last few years. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think we were paying tribute to an elder dragon or something.”
A statement that, while humorous in its intent, was frighteningly accurate considering a certain individual’s demon-inspiring greed and dragon-like hoarding habits.
“Keira, wait up a minute!” a woman yelled from behind. “I wanted a word with you!”
The catgirl turned around to see Cecilia Underwood rushing to catch up. The FIB investigator no doubt wanted to discuss some kind of sensitive matter, so Keira told Rowana and her family to go on ahead. It seemed to have been the right decision, as Cecilia pulled the redhead into a slightly secluded alleyway for a more private chat.
“What is it this time?” Keira asked, sounding cross. “Did Tol-Saroth rise from his grave and is now threatening to conquer the Republic?”
“… What?” she asked with genuine concern.
“I’m joking, Cecilia,” the redhead sighed. “It’s just that every time we meet there seems to be some crisis going on.”
“Oh. Right. Of course,” the elf smiled awkwardly. “It’s just that you’re, uh… you, and… Actually, nevermind.”
“So what’s this about?”
“I have something for you.”
The elf recollected herself, pulled a rather thick envelope from her uniform’s inner pocket and handed it to Keira.
“This is a little something from all of us down at the Bureau. We wanted to show just how much we appreciate all that you’ve done for us, this city, and this nation as a whole. It’s not some governmental award or medal, just a little something-something from those of us fighting the good fight.”
The catgirl raised an eyebrow and broke the seal, revealing that there were half a dozen folded pieces of papers crammed inside. Most of them were covered in scribbled messages expressing a mix of gratitude, encouragement and admiration, with more than a few wishing that Keira could join the FIB officially. The deluge of well-wishes would’ve been incredibly endearing and touching if they were aimed at an actual person. But, since Boxxy was Boxxy, the only thing it felt was a slight annoyance that they wasted its time with this sappy crap.
At least until it got to the last slip of paper, which described the location of a hidden cache of potions, gear, and valuables that the field agents had ‘acquired’ especially for Keira.
“Oh, and I also arranged for a special gift from yours truly to be delivered to your house,” the elf added. “It should already be there, waiting for you.”
“I… I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t need to say anything, just accept it,” Cecilia smiled. “Anyway, I’d like to chat some more, but I really gotta run. Hopefully next time we meet under happier circumstances, yeah?”
Well, wasn’t this a nice surprise? Boxxy doubted whether any of this would be up to its advanced standards regarding shinies, but it wasn’t about to turn down free stuff. It also made a mental note to be prepared for an ambush when it went to retrieve the FIB’s care package, just in case this was some elaborate ruse. As for right now, it merely bid Cecilia goodbye and hurried to get back to the house, curious as to what her ‘special gift’ could be. The Slyths would likely be busy for the rest of the afternoon, meaning it wouldn’t have to worry about them getting their hands on its stuff before it could.
Except that when Boxxy arrived at the house, what it saw waiting for it on the front porch didn’t seem to be a shiny treasure or relic of great power. It was an old yet elegant hard leather briefcase with a pale brown coloration. That was odd enough on its own, but it was also locked in a steel cage that was designed to keep small monsters locked up, not deter thieves. Was someone expecting the item within to spring to life and run away? It was probably a very valid concern, now that the ex-mimic thought about it.
“She didn’t…” it mumbled. “Right?”
Yet the note in the envelope attached to the cage confirmed its gut feeling to be, as per usual, painfully accurate.
So, you probably don’t remember, but when we first met during the war, I mentioned some of my underwear was mysteriously disappearing. Well, that kept happening ever since, and it honestly drove me absolutely looney. The good news is that I finally managed to apprehend the culprit last week. The bad news is that I don’t really know how to deal with it. Then I remembered you had that little yipping box, so I figured you’d know what to do with this thing. Thanks for taking this off my hands, you’re a lifesaver!
All the best,
P.S. Oh, this whole Collapse case somehow got me a promotion! I’ll probably already be out of town and on my way to my next deployment by the time you read this. Wish me luck!
It was a good thing nobody was around to see that outburst, because randomly screaming profanities and tearing up an innocent piece of paper was hardly fitting behavior for a Hero. Boxxy couldn’t help itself, though. It had only just managed to get rid of those infuriating triplets and that conniving woman not only had the gall to selfishly dump her responsibilities on it, but even called this thing a ‘special gift?’ Her supposedly leaving Azurvale so suddenly was no coincidence either, this was all planned and premeditated.
Under the circumstances, it was only natural Boxxy would be upset enough to want to punt the offending piece of luggage into the damn sun, but it managed to resist the urge. Cecilia’s cheekiness aside, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. After calming itself down a bit, it brought the caged briefcase inside and briskly removed it from its confines using the key that came with the elf’s letter. The catgirl-shaped monster set the object down on the ground, squatted next to it, and then just stared at it with all the murderous intent it could muster.
As expected, the living briefcase couldn’t help but respond to this terrifying hostility. It suddenly sprouted six familiarly arachnid legs and dashed down the hallway as if running for its life, only to have the heavier-than-she-looks beastkin sit on it, pinning it to the floor. In what was probably a misguided attempt to free itself, the thing suddenly expanded into a much larger travel trunk that was at least ten times its previous volume. The only thing it managed to accomplish was to lift the shapeshifter mounting it half a meter higher. Seeing it was trapped with no way out, the creature let out a pathetic, muffled whine that made it sound like an injured dog despite the fact that it hadn’t received a single point of damage.
Well, not yet, at least.
“Snek!” Keira shouted at the top of her lungs. “Get your shiny ass down here!”
The sentient serpentine bracelet arrived moments later, though it didn’t do so alone.
“Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip!”
Snek had, at some point, gotten into the habit of riding on top of Minic as if the latter was the former’s steed. The energetic jewelry box didn’t seem to mind, as it saw this whole thing like a game of sorts. That, and it was genuinely happy to spend time reconnecting with its estranged sibling. Snek mirrored that sentiment, though it also had a more selfish reason for acting this way. It had realized its cubic companion had become a singularity of good fortune, and that resting on its lid was the safest place to be whenever the master of the house was out.
But said master was now not only back, but also seemed to have brought an old friend with it.
“Snek?! Sneeekekekeke! Sneeek!”
The animate bracelet leapt off of Minic and lightly bumped its golden snout against Boxxy’s unwilling seating partner.
“Arf?! Ruff, ruff, ruff!”
The trunk seemed to recognize Snek, as it answered in some deep, rapid barks.
This made Minic run circles around it in a highly confused manner, turning the formerly quiet house into a headache-inducing cacophony. Still, Boxxy adamantly maintained its position while Snek spoke with the newcomer on its behalf. As expected, the sentient luggage container turned out to be one of Tol-Saroth’s original house mimics, unsurprisingly named Trunks. Apparently it used to be responsible for keeping the elven sage’s clothes warm, clean and secure during long trips. That was why it came equipped with the very Storage Skill that had served Boxxy so well throughout its lifetime.
Over the subsequent centuries, however, the house mimic had lost sight of its original purpose and developed an obsession for underwear and undergarments. Especially those belonging to successful women, as they had a predisposition towards lacy bras and panties that had a feeling of class and elegance to them. It seemed like a bit of a ridiculous quirk to have, but the doppelganger had no doubt it was real. Boxxy liked shinies, Minic liked softies and Snek liked wrists. Therefore, it would be far more nonsensical if this newcomer didn’t have some sort of compulsive predisposition towards a particular type of object. Trunks just happened to like collecting women’s panties, and Cecilia Underwood had merely been the latest in its long list of ‘victims.’
As for how it had managed to stalk her for so long, that was apparently because it had developed a penchant for sneaking around. This acquired talent allowed it to develop the Sneak and Lockpicking Skills, which were also how it managed to avoid death for almost four centuries despite being a pacifist. It could also alter its dimensions a lot more freely than other mimics, allowing it to squeeze into all manner of tight places. Boxxy also had Snek ask about those spider legs it saw earlier, which Trunks claimed had been copied from arachnids it observed throughout the years. It certainly explained why they were so eerily similar to the ones Boxxy still used on occasion, so the shapeshifter decided to accept that answer at face value.
Otherwise it would have to speculate whether Jeronimo had been manipulating events behind the scenes, and that line of thinking was both unproductive and slightly terrifying.
“Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do.”
With the history lesson out of the way, Boxxy freed Trunks from its rump and started establishing some ground rules. Trunks would be allowed to live in the house, giving it a safe place to sleep and plenty of food just like the other two mimics. However, it had to respect and abide by the pecking order around here, which had Keira at the top, followed by Snek and then Rowana. It would also not be forgiven if it dared to raid the lesbian couple’s underwear drawers, as there were quite a few pieces of unreasonably expensive demon silk lingerie in there. Trunks would probably attempt to steal those anyway, but Boxxy was confident it would learn its lesson after a few rounds of disciplinary action.
The next problem was that it had to convince Rowana to look after yet another sentient object in its absence. That alone probably wouldn’t be an issue, though. Trunks seemed intelligent enough to respond to both its name and certain verbal commands, even if it didn’t fully comprehend the language. And if not, then Snek would be on hand to act as an intermediary. Food-wise the luggage seemed to be a herbivore with a preference for hylt fruit, which was mostly in line with the other two’s diets and would therefore also be a non-issue.
The real challenge was getting that elf to look after not only Snek, Minic and Trunks, but also any other house mimics that Boxxy ran across.
Which, considering its immediate intentions, would likely be quite a few.