“So, let me get this straight,” Boxxy said dubiously. “You went out to stretch your wings.”
“Yes,” Jen confirmed.
“Just flying around, minding your own business?”
“At least until you decided to get some ‘work’ done.”
“Which led you to come across a battlefield.”
“But since the Inquisition was there, you instead focused on the toxic Blight cloud nearby.”
“The one that was so thick that you couldn’t even see through it.”
“So you decided that, ‘Hmm, this seems like something I want to poke my nose into.’”
“Which you naturally proceeded to do by diving headfirst into it from a high altitude.”
“Feet-first, technically,” Jen corrected it.
“Uh-huh. And you somehow ended up killing the big bad undead lord that’s been terrorizing the continent.”
“Completely by accident.”
“While revealing yourself to three Heroes in the process.”
“Three Heroes and a Hilda,” she pointed out.
“Right. But one of them was Sigmund Law.”
“Whom I explicitly stated you are to never even approach, let alone confront?”
Boxxy took a deep breath. This sort of thing was bound to happen eventually, as Jen had never been the most subtle of Edward’s former subordinates, even before her monsterfication. The only reason she had managed to hide away for so long was because, prior to the Inquisition’s arrival, nobody on Velos actually knew her face. But with the Hero of the Hammer personally leading the charge against Aliwhatshisface, it was only expected that he and Jen would meet eventually. The harpy was instinctively drawn to battlefields, especially ones with particularly powerful individuals.
So, all things considered, Boxxy would be lying if it stated it was disappointed in her.
“I am disappointed in you.”
Jen cast her eyes down and twiddled her claws in shame.
“But,” the shapeshifter added, “I am going to overlook this failure since you fulfilled your objective.”
Landing the killing blow on Aleister had given the harpy the last chunk of XP she needed to get her monster Jobs to Level 25 and Rank Up into a Harpy (Royal Griffin). Something she had already done prior to requesting this meeting through ‘Hookenstein.’ The outward physical changes were relatively minor, though. Jen was a tiny bit taller, her wings were slightly larger with a different set of plumage, and some feathers were poking out of her hair, which had turned from black to snow-white.
The only thing that seemed to make a practical difference was that her muscles had become lighter, leaner, and more compact. Physical strength hadn’t been negatively affected, or at least not in any noticeable capacity, but her speed and agility had improved as a result of her slightly reduced body weight. She also claimed that her new wings made flying easier, though that could have been because the minor Rank Up stabilized her overall physical condition. Her initial transformation had been both abnormal and traumatic, so it wasn’t hard to imagine that some unseen complications might have occurred. Fizzy, for instance, hadn’t fully ‘settled in’ as a golem until after her Level 25 Rank Up.
Mentally Jen seemed to be the same as always, complete with the enthusiastic tackle-hug she gave Boxxy when it dropped in to check on her. It was almost too enthusiastic, considering she managed to break a bone or two in the process. The shapeshifter couldn’t get mad at her though, even if it was painful. Reacting negatively to her childlike show of affection might alienate her, and it didn’t want that. At the very least not until after the Dragon Festival was over and done with.
“I am confused,” Jen reported. “Wasn’t maintaining my new form a secret vital to your plans?”
“I would say ‘vital’ is too strong a word. ‘Convenient’ is far more apt,” it reassured her.
The Grand Inquisitor would no doubt spread word that the wanted war criminal called Jennifer Jackson was not only alive, but had also forsaken her humanity. The Empire would likely put out a huge bounty on a foe that dangerous. This could potentially prove detrimental as elite bounty hunters could try to chase her down if the money was good enough, even across the ocean. Not to mention that adventurers attending the Dragon Festival might come prepared in case the rogue griffin-harpy showed up. As for Sigmund, he would almost certainly show up on Keira’s doorstep with questions since Fizzy’s monsterfication was public knowledge.
Boxxy then realized something.
“Actually, did any of them even recognize you?”
It hadn’t gotten the full details of the encounter just yet, only the main points that it questioned Jen about at the start of this conversation.
“Hilda did,” she confirmed.
“And they just let you go?”
“They didn’t have a choice. They were exhausted from the battle and their allies had their hands full dealing with the undead legion.”
“But you didn’t attack them?”
It wasn’t as if Jen’s secret was worth pissing off multiple deities by executing their representatives, but it also wasn’t like her to pass up a challenge like that.
“Because I… misjudged how fast I was falling and seriously injured my leg when I landed,” she admitted her embarrassing failure. “I determined fighting them in my condition was too risky, so I withdrew before they could react.”
“Interesting,” Boxxy mused thoughtfully. “I think I can work with this.”
There was no doubt that Sigmund’s group would have been thoroughly confused by the whole ordeal. However, regardless of her motivations, it was an undeniable fact that Jen had both saved their lives and helped put an end to the undead threat. It was possible to claim that the former angel simply wanted to do what was right as a form of penance for her crimes. Religious nutjobs like Sigmund liked to believe in silly things like redemption, so it was possible to use this confusing event to put forth the idea that Jen could be an ally to the Inquisition if they let her.
Admittedly it was highly unlikely that such an extreme long shot of a story would work, but if anyone could pull it off, it was the Hero of Chaos.
“Then… I did a good job?” Jen asked flatly.
“Yes. You did a good job.”
Boxxy reached up and gave her whitened mane a congratulatory pat, which caused the harpy to smile wider than it had ever seen her smile in addition to her cheeks flushing red. It was a good thing she was weak to praise, as it meant fostering her loyalty was relatively simple. Well, those weird griffin instincts of hers and the pledge she had made in Brandi’s name probably helped, but Boxxy made sure that she was personally invested in its wellbeing. After all, it planned to keep using Jen for a long time, even after the Dragon Festival had come and gone, so indoctrinating her thoroughly was a necessity.
“Ah. I almost forgot about the corpse,” Jen suddenly realized.
“Corpse? What corpse?”
“The undead’s. I brought it with me, but that was all that was left of it by the time I made it back here.”
The harpy pointed at a particular spot on the wall that her impressive trophy collection hung from. There, on a pedestal near the bottom, was the apple-sized bundle of brown-green brambles that served as Aleister’s ‘heart.’ The rest of his body had practically melted away shortly after his re-death, or so Jen claimed. The organ itself seemed to ooze Blight even now, though the dungeon was keeping the disease from spreading. There was, however, one other aspect of it that worried Boxxy.
“Is… is it supposed to be pulsing like that?”
The ‘heart’ seemed to be ‘beating,’ its thorny carapace undulating slowly yet rhythmically.
“No, it wasn’t doing that a few hours ago,” Jen replied.
“Stain? Do you know something about this?”
The slime-infested body of Hook had been sitting silently in the corner this entire time, either sleeping or meditating. It lifted its ooze-dripping face in response to Boxxy’s question and looked at the profane object in question.
“Hmm… no idea,” Hookenstein shrugged. “I’d appreciate it if you could get it out of here though. The smell is quite distracting.”
Jen didn’t want to part with her prize, but she had to agree that it was perhaps not smart to leave the thing as it was, especially since it was showing signs of unlife.
“I’ll bring this with me for now. I might have a use for it.”
Boxxy stepped forward, intending to put the thing in its Storage. However, the thing reacted the instant the hylt creeper approached, hopping into the shapeshifter’s outstretched palm. The monster reflexively pulled away, but some brambled vines shot out of the heart and wrapped around its wrist. In the next moment, the reanimated lump was trying to bury itself deep into Boxxy’s flesh like a tick with a bone fetish. Or at least it tried to, but the shapeshifter’s hide proved to be far tougher than the thing assailing it. It couldn’t even break the skin.
The shapeshifter nevertheless detached its arm, wary of what this bizarre parasite might do should it manage to invade its body. The limb fell on the floor, whereupon Jen flattened it with her Ki-empowered staff. The Blight Lord’s heart let out a high-pitched screech as the divine energy purified it into inert brown sludge. Not the worst outcome, all things considered.
“Next time you want to bring back a body part from an incomprehensible undead being of terrible power… don’t.”
The shapeshifter parted ways with the harpy shortly afterwards, telling her to keep testing the limits of her body and Skills. It also warned her that it would be relocating her to Attica in due time. Now that she had Ranked Up, Boxxy was going to have her stop chasing Levels and focus on teamwork and strategy. An endeavor that was going to require that Jen, Snack, Arms, Claws, Fizzy, and their leader fight it out in different scenarios and team compositions within the confines of its main dungeon. Boxxy would probably need to occasionally bring her back to Velos to let her ‘stretch her wings,’ but she would otherwise be spending her time indoors for the most part.
However, that was an issue for later, as the shapeshifter had a more pressing project to pursue at present.
Back when Snek first joined Boxxy’s troupe, it had requested of its new owner that it find, gather and shelter its wayward siblings. The selfish monster initially refused, stating that the endeavor would be ‘a massive waste of time and energy.’ The sly bracelet then claimed that its fellow house mimics could lead it to one of Tol-Saroth’s secret laboratories. The elven sage had been known to be as reclusive as he was brilliant, so it stood to reason that much of his legacy remained buried and forgotten.
Boxxy was naturally intrigued by this, as it was the type of thing that smelled of powerful items, valuable secrets and exotic shinies. Unfortunately, Snek’s claims were rather dubious to say the least, so it had initially disregarded them with a noncommittal response. Then it got busy with the aftermath of the Collapse and those god-born triplets, leading to it completely forgetting about that conversation. At least until Cecilia delivered Trunks onto its doorstep, at which point it realized something.
Tol-Saroth’s original house mimics were created through a fusion of doppelganger flesh and demonic essence. Which, in a manner of speaking, was also Boxxy’s biggest problem right now. Its attempts to uncover some kind of treatment for the demonic corruption plaguing its psyche had proven quite fruitless. Though it learned of several promising rituals, mixtures and ceremonies that might cure it of its affliction, none of them had worked. Mostly because they had been developed for use on enlightened beings whose bodies and minds worked in fundamentally different ways from that of a doppelganger.
In short, Tol-Saroth’s mimic research seemed like Boxxy’s last remaining chance for a cure. Well, other than Russel’s IOU, but the monster refused to waste that ace in the hole until it had exhausted every other possible option. And as skeptical as it felt regarding this house mimic angle, it couldn’t just dismiss it outright. It was also rather unfortunate that none of the critters it already had access to were useful. Thus, once the shapeshifter returned from its transcontinental jaunt, it immediately began its search for Tol-Saroth’s surviving creations.
The first thing Boxxy did was to question the ones it already had access to, which proved to be a waste of time. Minic was a moron, Trunks only cared about underwear, and Snek seemed either unwilling or unable to divulge any sensitive information, so Boxxy had to gather as many of their kin as it could. Tol-Saroth had created hundreds of the things to serve as companions and assistants across multiple residences, so there was no telling which ones might have the information the shapeshifter sought.
The monster’s next step was to visit a certain Monster Tamer called Jeremy Rizzlecrank. The gnome in question was the expert that Keira had consulted when she first acquired Minic. Not only was he likely to have potentially valuable information, but he also had a house mimic of his own. It was a ceramic cookie jar called Crusty that walked around like a crab and made rapid chirping noises. It also understood both spoken and written language and could communicate by creating pictures on its smooth ceramic shell. It seemed to fall within the idiot spectrum though, as the only thing it ever ‘talked’ about was preparing and consuming baked sugary treats.
Thankfully Jeremy didn’t take much convincing to let Keira take custody of Crusty, at least temporarily. Apparently he was too busy preparing for the Dragon Festival to give the little bugger the attention it deserved, so he was comfortable with letting the catgirl care for it for the next few months. He also shared what data he had gathered regarding house mimics, including both confirmed and unconfirmed sightings.
Which was quite fortunate, as the only secret Crusty knew was Tol-Saroth’s favorite cookie recipe.
Using the newly acquired information, Boxxy tracked down a silver hair clip styled after a colorful butterfly. Jeremy’s notes said it had been in the possession of the Republic’s Minister of Public Safety, who had ironically died in the Collapse. What was left of her belongings had been claimed by the state until they could either find someone to inherit them or, failing that, auction them off to the public. Keira was able to pull some strings with the FIB to check out the warehouse where those items were being kept. This was were she found Teenie, possibly the smallest house mimic in existence. The simple insect-like creature instantly fell in love with the catgirl’s luscious red hair and started trying to style it into something more presentable than a wild mane with its comb-like legs.
Unfortunately the thing was barely sentient, so it was unable to offer any insight in regards to its creator.
Up next was an oil-fueled table lamp named Lumi, which had been locked away in some wealthy merchant’s treasury. The idiot had caged it up and not fed it in years, but it was able to survive by hibernating. Something all mimics did a lot of, now that Boxxy thought about it. In any event, its negligent owner was more than willing to part with Lumi and the rest of his collection once his head was removed from the rest of him. Freeing the starving creature and then feeding it some dried fruit seemed to earn the lamp’s trust, as it happily expressed its gratitude through some creative shadow puppetry. It then used the same medium to convey it would be most grateful if its new owner could provide it with some high-quality whale oil in the future.
This one proved to be about as useless as the others in terms of new information, but its golden base and crystalline shade made it just shiny enough to alleviate Boxxy’s frustration.
The next few leads proved to be dead ends, but the shapeshifter coincidentally happened across a sentient mannequin posing in a storefront window, deep in Empire territory. The shapeshifter wouldn’t have thought to look for humanoid-shaped mimics, but its Eyes of the Dead God clearly showed the name ‘Manny’ floating above the life-sized wooden doll. Upon further inspection, the faceless creature was also shown to have an MLG inside its head, confirming that it was indeed one of Tol-Saroth’s creations.
The problem was that Manny’s MLG sensed Boxxy’s MLG and realized that it had been discovered. It then proved to be quite intelligent for a mimic by using teleportation magic to run away. It didn’t get far though, as its pursuer managed to tag it with Hunter’s Mark at the last moment and tracked it down within minutes. Being smarter than the average dummy, it was naturally suspicious of the shapeshifter’s motives. Thankfully Boxxy was able to win it over with some help from Snek and a peace offering in the shape of an especially fancy hat.
Manny then revealed that it did know of one of Tol-Saroth’s properties, a cottage somewhere within the Republic’s wilderness. It couldn’t speak, but possessed sufficient manual dexterity to both write and draw, so it was able to easily convey the relevant information. The place had apparently been a vacation home of sorts, which meant its location had likely been public knowledge and there was unlikely to be anything of value left. Still, Boxxy theorized that it might find nostalgia-driven house mimics lurking around the area, so it decided to check it out anyway.
Incidentally, while Snek accompanied Boxxy to the site, Crusty, Teenie, Lumi and now Manny had been left in Rowana’s care alongside Minic and Trunks. The elf honestly found herself at a bit of a loss, as she wasn’t sure how to deal with so many of the weird things her wife-to-be had dragged home. While she had agreed to look after the creatures Keira gathered as part of her alleged Lawrence-issued Quest, she didn’t expect to have four of them dumped on her within the span of two weeks. Still, she couldn’t complain too much since the mimics’ company helped fill that nagging void left behind by her father’s sudden death and her lover’s sporadic absence.
When Boxxy arrived at the location Manny had given it, it was met with an empty clearing deep in the woods.
“Well, this is promising,” Fizzy grumbled sarcastically. “What do you wanna do, Keira?”
The golem had joined ‘Keira’ on her ‘Quest’ after the latter had dropped by Azurvale to drop off Manny. Though she was mostly here to keep Boxxy company and monitor its addiction, Fizzy nevertheless took the search for mimics quite seriously. That demonic taint had been the cause of one major screw up already, and the last thing either of them needed was for it to happen again. It was only natural that she be motivated to track down a potential cure. Well, that and she still wanted to regain the shapeshifter’s trust after unwittingly providing the spark for that incident.
Except that the golem hadn’t yet realized that Boxxy, being the master of deflection that it was, had already forgiven her by pinning all of the blame for that disaster squarely on Mimi.
“Hmm, maybe that mannequin’s mental map is out of date?” the catgirl-shaped monster theorized.
“Snek? Snek, snek. Sssnekek,” the serpentine bracelet on its wrist argued.
“Well, it has been hundreds of years since it had last been here,” the redhead retorted. “Plenty of time for the terrain to change.”
“Could be we have the right place but the wrong time,” Fizzy chimed in. “I mean, this flat and empty clearing seems like a good place to build a house. Maybe it was torn down and now nothing’s left of it?”
“Snek,” Snek nodded.
“Maybe, but we’re already here so we might as well search the area thoroughly.”
And by ‘we’ Boxxy naturally meant ‘Snack and Claws.’ The djinn-stalker duo were promptly summoned and told to search the area for anything that might give off a magic signature. A dwelling built this deep in the wilderness would surely have been enchanted, their master reasoned. And sure enough, such a place was indeed found some twenty kilometers south of the clearing. The monster transported itself and its companion to the site with a Gate Spell while telling Xera and Drea to maintain a perimeter and watch for any intruders.
Boxxy now found itself standing in front of an old yet surprisingly intact two-story cottage built out of hylt lumber, which was at odds with the surrounding pine and birch forest. Upon closer inspection, the walls and roof seemed to all be one solid piece of wood underneath the peeling paint and cracked tiles, suggesting the house had been carved out of a gigantic block of wood. It was also giving off a faint magical signature, no doubt a lingering enchantment woven into the lumber to increase its longevity. The interior looked much worse than the exterior, however, as the place had been thoroughly vandalized and stripped of everything except the floorboards. Even the stairs to the upper floor had been torn down, though that wasn’t enough to deter two highly resourceful monsters from exploring it.
“Nope, nothing in here either,” Fizzy reported as she exited one of the rooms. “Just a big, empty, wooden shell.”
“Well, this was to be expected,” Keira grumbled. “There’s a limit to how lucky I can get.”
Strictly speaking, stumbling upon Manny had been nothing short of a miracle. Boxxy hadn’t even been looking for house mimics at the time, but hunting down an Artifact owner it happened to catch wind of. Locating its target was why it had been using the Eyes of the Dead God Skill in the first place, and though it failed to find the person in question, Manny the mannequin had proven to be a suitable consolation prize.
“Hmmm… Let me take another look around.”
Realizing that it should’ve done this at the start, Boxxy searched the house yet again with the aid of the aforementioned stolen Hero Skill. Though there was no furniture for a mimic to impersonate, it still seemed possible that one might be hiding somewhere. Unfortunately no random floating names appeared in the monster’s field of vision, forcing it to give up.
“What about underground?” Fizzy suggested. “Might be something buried under the floorboards.”
“There really isn’t, I’ve already checked,” Keira sighed. “Nothing down there but wood, dirt and stone.”
“What, with your MLG?”
“You need to stop relying on that thing so much,” the golem insisted. “There are things that can confuse it, right?”
“That is… a good point, actually.”
Boxxy had almost forgotten it, but the MLG it was using was something that had presumably been modeled after a beholder’s by Tol-Saroth himself. If the man understood the organ well enough to replicate it, what was to say he couldn’t come up with some kind of illusion specifically designed to trick that supernatural sense. Yes, it was unlikely that such fine-tuned magic would persist for four hundred years, but this place’s very existence was a testament that it was, at the very least, a possibility.
“Alright, let’s see if Tol-Saroth was fond of sneaky basements.”
The hylt creeper flexed its Phytokinesis Skill with a wave of its hand. The wooden floor creaked and groaned, yet refused to bend to its will.
“Huh… sturdier than it looks,” it grumbled. “Let me try again, harder this time.”
And so it did. Repeatedly. However, the only thing it accomplished was making a lot of noise and giving itself a mild brain ache.
“Damn, this thing’s tougher than some fortress walls I’ve seen,” it remarked while rubbing its sore upper back.
“Want me to do the honors?” Fizzy grinned, brandishing her Novaspike hammer.
“Sure, go for it.”
“Alright. Might wanna stand back a bit, though!”
The radiant construct spent a few moments charging up the DILDO in her hammer before slamming it into the stubborn floor with all her might. The lightning-assisted brute force approach proved to be effective, as the boards splintered apart with a bright flash, a loud crack, and a gush of… yellow… blood?
You have caused minor blunt force trauma. Target HP -340.
You have electrocuted your target. Target HP -914.
A loud whale-like cry flooded the forest as the building began to lurch, warp, and shake. Fizzy and Boxxy instantly leapt through a window and a door respectively, landing on the quivering soil ready to defend themselves against whatever enemy had appeared. Then they instantly realized they weren’t being attacked or anything like that. If anything, they had been the aggressors, their victim being the massive creature they had just roused from hibernation. The behemoth stood up slowly and painfully, its six massive legs raising it up from its burrow to stand several meters above the forest floor. It then did the only thing a pacifist could do when confronted with violence.
It ran through the forest at full speed, tearing down dozens if not hundreds of trees in the process.
“So…” Fizzy was the first to speak. “Was it me… or was that…”
“Aaayuuuup,” Boxxy slowly nodded its head.
“Ssssnek…” the stupefied serpent agreed.
In retrospect this sort of thing was bound to happen eventually, but still.
What sort of madman would think to create an actual house mimic?