“No, no, it’s not like that at all, Vicky,” Rowana stated confidently. “They’re just allies, comrades.”
“Oh, yeah?” her female coworker crossed her arms. “Then tell me, why is your girlfriend off on some shady trip with her rather than being here, by your side?”
“Because Keira’s a free spirit. I will admit it gets lonely when she’s off on her adventures, but I know she will never fail to come back to me.”
“Uh-huh. That’s just the sort of the thing that Vala used to say about her husband before he abandoned her for that young harlot. Mark my words, you better put a tight leash on that one or she’ll be gone before you know it.”
What had started as an innocent conversation during lunch break had rapidly degraded into Vicky trying to suggest that Keira was somehow having an affair with Fizzy. Though she tried to disguise her venomous words as concern, they were actually born of spite and envy. Vicky had secretly hated Rowana for quite a while now. The platinum-blonde elf’s lineage, wealth, looks, fashion sense, demeanor and skill as an Alchemist were all superior to her own. Not to mention she was both younger and in a stable romantic relationship. With a Hero, no less. The only thing Vicky seemed to have that Rowana didn’t was the ability to get married, but even that was about to change.
The bitter old maid simply couldn’t keep her ugly comments to herself any longer.
“My sweet Keira is not a scumbag like that guy, though. She’s the best, most wonderful and loving partner a girl could ever ask for. I can understand why others might fall for someone that kind, strong and beautiful, but I know deep in my heart that I’m the only one for her, and she’s the only one for me.”
However, the target of Vicky’s malicious envy was completely impervious to her bitter words. Merely mentioning her wife-to-be prompted Rowana to start gushing about her in a way that one would only find in steamy romance novels. It was almost like she was surrounded in a barrier of warm and fuzzy feelings that deflected any and all snide insinuations meant to foster doubt. The elf’s friends - her real friends - took this lovestruck attitude with an awkward smile and were genuinely glad that she’d found such happiness. Spiteful bitches like Vicky, on the other hand, found themselves wanting to violently vomit.
“Excuse me, are you Miss Rowana Slyth?”
The two women’s conversation was interrupted by a man in polished silver-colored armor. A member of the city guard, he had approached the pair’s outdoor table upon spotting the bright white hair that the Slyth family was known for. Granted, it was dyed and not at all natural, but it was still one of their trademarks.
“Yes?”she responded warily. “Can I help you with something?”
“I apologize for disturbing you, but I’m afraid we have a Code M on our hands. Your immediate assistance in this matter would be most appreciated.”
“Oh. Right, of course. Sorry, Vicky, could you take care of the bill? I’ll pay you back later.”
The other woman didn’t even get a chance to respond before Rowana walked off after the guard. The man led her through the streets at a brisk pace, the crowds parting in front of the authority figure to let him pass through. Which was good, because there seemed to be more and more people the closer they got to the edge of the city.
Having been built in the middle of an ancient hylt forest - assuming a group of just twelve trees could be called as such - gave Azurvale a natural defensive barrier of roots. Dozens of meters thick and just as tall, these walls of bark had protected the elven capital for millennia. The only feasible way through these living fortifications was to pass through one of several gaps and passages, which served as easily defendable choke points in the event of a siege. The rest of the time they were merely checkpoints that the authorities used to monitor land traffic in and out of the city. Which there wasn’t much of, considering Forest Gates provided a much safer, faster and cheaper mode of long-distance transport than simple roads.
It was one of these massive gatehouses that the guard was leading Rowana towards. Though the elf woman still wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, she was painfully familiar with what ‘Code M’ stood for. In essence, it meant that a certain someone was being exceptionally stubborn and causing a public disturbance in the process, which the city guards usually responded to by calling in the ‘cavalry.’
And sure enough, upon arriving at the city gates, Rowana instantly spotted the ‘Code M’ arguing with the gate guards amidst a crowd of onlookers.
“But it’s harmless!” Keira insisted. “I personally guarantee it won’t hurt anyone!”
“No, see, that’s not the issue here,” the exasperated official argued. “You need to have the right permits if you want to bring something that big into the city. It’s the law!”
“What am I supposed to do with it, then?!”
“Anything you want. So long as it’s not bringing it into the city or blocking traffic.”
One couldn’t help but feel impressed with the Scribe and how firmly he stood his ground despite having an irate Hero of Chaos breathing down his neck. Not surprising, considering the elf was already used to dealing with business tycoons, politicians and VIPs. He hadn’t budged a single millimeter in front of them and he wasn’t about to start doing it now. At the very least the redhead was upset because she didn’t seem to know about the regulations she was breaking rather than an over-inflated sense of self-worth, so he tried to be understanding.
Or at least as understanding as he could be without putting his continued employment in danger.
“Oh, hey Rowie!”
Thankfully the Scribe’s ordeal was at an end, as the guards had successfully mobilized the Code M ‘deterrent’ and were now escorting her through the crowd.
“Stop harassing the poor man!” the elf shouted as she drew closer. “You’re causing a scene!”
“No buts! How many times has it been this year alone that I had to be called out to talk some sense in you?!”
“… Five,” she sheepishly answered.
“Five! That’s five more than it should have been! Do you have any idea how embarrassing this is for me? For us?!”
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.”
The catgirl turned back to the Scribe and bowed deeply.
“I apologize for the trouble I caused. I got a bit hot-headed and let my temper get the best of me.”
It was a far more truthful claim than the standard fare of deceitful drivel that normally fell out of Boxxy’s mouth. It stubbornly wanted to bring its latest acquisition into town, figuring things would work out somehow. However, it hadn’t considered that it might be violating an actual law in the process. And given the earlier exchange, not even the beloved Hero of Chaos was above the chains of bureaucracy.
“Apology accepted,” the Scribe said with a huff. “Now, could you please move your… whatever that is? It’s blocking the entrance.”
“Entrance?” Rowana asked dumbly.
She glanced towards the gigantic portcullis in the background, which was when she finally noticed what all the fuss was about.
“Is that a house with legs?”
“Yeah! It’s a house, uh, house mimic,” Keira responded with a smile. “Pretty neat, isn’t it?”
“Neat?! There’s no place we could possibly keep anything that huge! What in Nyrie’s stiff nipples were you thinking?!”
“W-well, you did mention you wanted a summer home…”
“Not one with legs!”
“But it’s so cool!”
“Excuse me, ladies?” the Scribe interjected. “I seriously need one of you to move that thing out of the way. It’s blocking traffic.”
“What traffic?” the redhead raised an eyebrow. “There’s nobody else in line but me.”
“There might be if there wasn’t an untamed house-sized monster in the way.”
Keira grabbed Rowana by the hand and rather insistently led her away from the scene and beyond the city’s limits, placing the still flabbergasted elf face-to-porch with the sentient building. Up close it looked to be a massive slab of dirt and rock with a wooden cottage growing out of its top. Its six crab-like legs appeared to be made out of loose stones held together by vine-like roots, each of the limbs as thick as a tree trunk. It didn’t have a nose, eyes, mouth, or anything even remotely resembling a face, though it clearly had a ‘front’ and a ‘rear.’
“Homer!” Keira shouted. “Can you let us on, please?!”
The creature let out a deep bellow, after which it lowered its upper body and willed a wooden staircase to extend down from it, providing easy access to its back.
“Homer? You already named it?” Rowana asked in disbelief.
“Not me. That’s just what it’s called, right Snek?”
“Snek,” the bracelet nodded.
Though this little exchange suggested otherwise, it was Boxxy’s Eyes of the Dead God that revealed what the mobile home’s name was. The shapeshifter hadn’t been able to see it at first because it had been inside its target, which made it impossible to notice the floating text that was directly above it.
“Come on Rowie, I’ll show you around.”
The elf naturally felt a bit apprehensive at this invitation, but she trusted Keira to not put her in any unnecessary danger. She climbed onto the walking platform and was given a brief tour of the place. She had to admit, the cottage had a cozy and welcoming feeling to it despite being filthy and devoid of furniture. Apparently Homer could shift the dimensions of the rooms and the layout of the house at will. It could also shut the place up tight as a security measure in case it sensed any thieves or intruders lurking around.
What surprised Rowana the most, however, was the way Homer walked while it moved away from the gatehouse. It looked really heavy and clumsy from the outside, yet was able to glide effortlessly across the ground. Its stride was so smooth, quiet and gentle that the elf would have no idea she was in motion if she hadn’t been looking out of a window. Granted, the house couldn’t move faster than a dwarf’s walking pace if it wanted to avoid disturbing its passengers, but even this much was enough to leave Rowana speechless.
“Okay, I will admit, Homer is pretty cool,” she said after a while. “I’m starting to see why you like it so much.”
“So can I keep it?” Keira asked expectantly..
“I don’t know… Are we even capable of feeding something this big?”
“Oh, we don’t need to worry about that. Homer here seems to be mostly plant, we just need to find some fertile soil for it to plant itself in and make sure it gets plenty of sunlight and fresh water.”
Boxxy wasn’t certain, but it surmised that hylt creeper flesh was used in this thing’s creation. It would certainly explain why it was so resistant to its Phytokinesis, not to mention how it was able to freely shapeshift its hylt timber. It could also imitate brick and stone to such a degree that even Boxxy’s MLG was unable to tell what lay under the floorboards was a living creature. In short, the thing’s biology and anatomy made about as little sense as any demon or shapeshifter.
However, hylt creeper was a dominant part of its makeup, which proved useful as it helped the smaller shapeshifter calm it down after Fizzy unintentionally gave it a bruise. Homer was still fearful of the golem though, so Boxxy had to send her back to Azurvale first. Which was something it would’ve had to do anyway since someone needed to warn the perimeter guards to avoid opening fire on the six-legged house. Even now Boxxy’s absurdly precise eyesight could see the elves atop the root wall tracking Homer with suspicion.
“Well, I guess that’s to be expected,” Rowana breathed a sigh of relief. “All the others can look after themselves for the most part. I guess their big brother wouldn’t be any different.”
The mimics in question had survived this long for over four centuries, so there was no real reason to worry about any of them from an objective standpoint.
“So those other guys aren’t a bother?” Keira asked.
“Nope. Not really. It took a while for me to get used to them, but I can understand why Tol-Saroth made so many of them. They’re rather handy to have around. I’m especially fond of Teenie.”
The elf swept her silky hair to the side, revealing that the animate butterfly hairpin currently clinging to it was the one responsible for the long loose braid it was currently styled in.
“Wow, that’s kind of amazing.”
“Does it look that good on me?” the elf blushed lightly.
“Anything would look fantastic on you, honey,” the redhead smirked. “Though I personally think straight hair suits you best.”
“Well, when you put it like that… Teenie, would you be so kind?”
The tiny mimic seemed to grasp the wishes of its ‘client’ and instantly began undoing its own hard work. The ornament would only need a few minutes to return Rowana’s hair to its original style. It was honestly rather impressive how something that small could work so quick.
“The problem is I have no qualms about keeping the others in the house,” the elf continued while Teenie worked, “but Homer is the house. Where were you even thinking of keeping it?”
“I was hoping your brother will let me borrow that empty plot of land he bought last week. It has plenty of room and it’s pretty close to our place. He and Doris can even live with Homer while the mansion gets built.”
Indeed, though Elias had managed to purchase property befitting the Slyth family’s legacy, the workers had only just finished clearing it out. It would be another ten to twelve months before the construction was done.
“I figured they’d want a place to call their own rather than have to impose on others or pay gold for hotels,” Keira added. “It should also give me plenty of time to find a more permanent place for Homer to park his foundation.”
Using the vague ‘I did it for your family’ excuse seemed to be enough to convince Rowana to at least give this a try. Her brother and mother agreed to let Homer rest on their newly acquired property, though they seemed understandably apprehensive about taking up residence inside a living creature. Regardless, Keira pulled some strings to get the paperwork she needed to get Homer into the city and escorted it to its new resting place. A house walking through the streets naturally caused a huge ruckus, but there were no incidents or accidents since the residents had been notified that a ‘wide and heavy load’ would be transported through the area during the evening.
Once it arrived at the Slyth’s plot of land, Homer spent most of the night slowly but surely burrowing itself into the soft soil. When it was done it had so completely settled in that one would think the old house had always been there. The workers and engineers Elias had hired were naturally quite confused to find a cottage had appeared out of thin air the next day, but were practically ecstatic when Keira explained that it was a living creature.
Homer soon proved itself to be an asset to them when it helped excavate the area where the mansion’s future wine cellar would be. It could also instantly bring the lead Architect’s designs to life, giving everyone an idea of what the finished building would look like. The construction crew took such an intense liking to Homer that they took time out of their own breaks to give the cottage a fresh coat of paint as a token of gratitude, which the house mimic appreciated deeply.
However, though there seemed to be a lot of benefits to having the living building around, none of these were why Boxxy had brought it here. According to Snek, Homer gave off a sort of psychic homing beacon, beckoning other house mimics towards it. Though the doppelganger couldn’t ‘hear’ the call, it decided to take a chance on it and left Claws behind to monitor Homer around the clock while it took care of other matters.
Barely a day had passed before Minic, Manny and Trunks had each showed up at the construction site of their own volition. The jewelry box and luggage container seemed confused as to why they were even there and left shortly afterwards, but the mannequin was different. It was practically overjoyed to see its old home again and immediately began sweeping its floors and scrubbing its interior walls. Those workers might have given Homer’s exterior a fresh makeover, but the inside had been left as filthy as ever.
Long story short, Boxxy had no choice but to accept that Snek’s claims were true when Rowana mentioned how Crusty seemed to make a beeline for the place when it was taken out for a walk. The shapeshifter momentarily questioned why a cookie jar needed walks in the first place, but that was hardly the strangest thing about its ‘ancestors.’ The important thing was that bringing Homer back was proving to be worth the effort when it started attracting unfamiliar house mimics that had been laying low as plain pieces of furniture.
The first newcomer was Cookers, a sentient stone oven with an unhealthy obsession with fire. It was followed by Tablesworth the fancy hylt wood table and a flower patterned armchair called Sir Seatmeister the Third. Apparently those three were ‘natives’ to Azurvale like Minic, no doubt part of the same residence while Tol-Saroth had been alive. The little jewelry box was so overjoyed to see these familiar ‘faces’ that it kept running in circles around them for almost thirteen hours straight, yipping happily all the while. Rowana was surprisingly accepting of these new additions as well, mostly because she had yet to replace all of the furniture that was lost when Keira’s house was nearly destroyed. Not to mention that the house mimics were proving to be surprisingly handy to have around.
That was all well and good, but none of these mimics seemed to possess any useful information regarding Tol-Saroth’s research. Either that or they were too stupid to properly convey it. Whatever the case, Boxxy was starting to lose its patience with these repeated failures. Massacring that gnomish compound had allowed it to blow off some steam at first, but the violent urges caused by the demonic corruption were starting to return stronger than ever. There was now no doubt that indulging in that maddening anger would only strengthen it, meaning that the need to find a long-term solution to this problem was rapidly becoming a desperate one.
Unfortunately, Boxxy had exhausted all the leads it had once Homer stopped attracting any new mimics. Having little else it could do, the shapeshifter used its Facade to put in a few Quests with the Central Consortium and Mercenary Guild. It offered generous monetary compensation to anyone that either delivered a house mimic or provided relevant information to the location of one. Boxxy hadn’t done so earlier since it didn’t expect much from this lazy and unreliable approach. There was no telling whether this endeavor would yield anything useful, let alone how much time would pass even if it did.
It was therefore rather surprising when Keira got a message from the Mercenary Guild that someone was there to collect on her mimic bounty the very next day after posting it.
“Yo! Miss me?”
Walking into the organization’s trademark restaurant, the redhead was met with none other than Kaede, the Hero of Death. The cheerful nosferata was wearing a light blouse and shorts, her flawless pale skin and beautiful face on full display with a cocky grin on her lips. She had her legs up on the table and hands behind her head as per usual. There was also a hooded black cloak neatly folded on the chair next to hers, which she likely used to shield her delicate skin from getting burned by the late afternoon sun.
“… ‘Miss’ isn’t the word I’d use,” Keira said after a brief pause, “though I am happy to see you’re alright. What’s been going on with you, Kaede?”
“Nothing much, just helping this old geezer out with some fraudulent insurance claims. Not the most exciting of jobs but it pays well.”
“Good for you, I suppose,” the catgirl took a seat. “What’s that got to do with my Quest, though?”
“Funny story that. See, I wasn’t planning on sticking around here for too long, but then I heard a certain someone had been collecting house mimics for whatever reason. So, knowing you, I stuck around just in case you ran out of options and started openly offering coin for information. And let me tell you, it’s a good thing that you did just that.”
Kaede then sat upright and rifled through her cloak for a second before producing a palm-sized silver-plated pocket watch.
“Otherwise I would’ve been holding onto this thing for nothing.”
She tossed it over to Keira, who easily snatched it out of the air. The shapeshifter inspected it thoroughly, instantly noticing that the metal plating was old. Really old. Tarnished, scratched up and with unidentifiable stains here and there, yet surprisingly intact. The engraving on the lid was a peculiar one, showing the image of a large oak tree growing out of the roof of a small house. It refused to open though, at least not without Boxxy ripping its lid clean off.
“Found it skittering around in some old warehouses three weeks ago,” the nosferata added.
“Skittering?” Keira raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me this is a house mimic?”
“Yup. Tap its lid twice and gently trace a finger around its edge.”
The redhead did as instructed, which caused the lid to flip open on its own. Inside was a slightly worn clock face protected by a scratched up glass lens. Six tiny insectoid legs sprouted from its underside, momentarily startling Keira as it climbed up her arm and onto her shoulder like a really fat yet flat beetle. It then made rapid clicking and ticking noises at her like some kind of inebriated grasshopper.
“Cute, isn’t it?” Kaede commented.
“… Again, not the word I’d use.”
Indeed, only a nosferatu would find this creepy-crawly of a timepiece to be ‘cute.’ Well, among the enlightened races, at least. Boxxy personally agreed that it was strangely adorable, though it wouldn’t admit to it out loud.
“Still, this is rather unbelievable,” Keira continued. “As in, I’m having trouble believing this is legitimate. House mimics are supposed to be four centuries old, but clockwork watches are an Artificer product, and those haven’t been around nearly that long.”
Indeed, a cursory glance at this thing’s inner workings with the shapeshifter’s MLG revealed that it was more machine than flesh. Then again, ‘flesh’ was definitely a part of it. Not to mention that one could theoretically create clockwork contraptions even without the Artificer Job, it would just be immensely more difficult. Either way the statement that this was one of Tol-Saroth’s original creations was plausible, but ultimately suspicious.
“I am insulted that you would suggest that I would make an attempt to scam you,” Kaede scowled.
“Did you or did you not just admit to holding onto something valuable knowing I might offer a bounty for it?”
“Well, yes, but that’s just me anticipating demand and preparing beforehand. It’s got nothing to do with how genuine the article is.”
Boxxy actually felt something weirdly approaching pride when it heard that. That line was totally something it would say.
“I get it though, the guy that appraised it for me was pretty confused, too,” the nosferata’s tone turned serious. “Apparently it can show up as both an item and a living thing, depending on the Appraisal method used. Here, I got the results and everything, too.”
The Hero of Death produced some official papers certifying that the pocket watch was a four hundred and thirty year old house mimic named ‘Tick Tockleton.’ At the very least the silly designation seemed to follow the same naming convention as the rest of Tol-Saroth’s creations. Its guild affiliation also stated it belonged to the old sage’s household, leaving Boxxy little choice but to accept Kaede’s dubious claim. Besides, it wasn’t in a position to just turn away another potential lead.
“Alright, I guess this is good enough,” Keira conceded. “Come on, let’s get you sorted out.”
The two of them went over to the receptionist and Kaede was paid in full for her ‘timely service,’ after which she threw on her cloak and disappeared into the streets. Keira reissued the Quest just in case there were other people holding out on her and started walking back home. On the way, she held Tick in her left hand so that Snek, who was wrapped around her wrist, could interview it discreetly. Boxxy was planning on checking what it had learned about this clockwork cockroach, but the golden serpent didn’t seem to be as patient.
“Snek! Snek! Snek!” it called out while squeezing its owner’s wrist.
Keira ducked into an empty alleyway and lifted her left arm so that both Snek and Tick were on her eye level to see what all the fuss was about.
“This better be good.”
The shapeshifter spoke using Whisper Wind, just in case there was someone listening in.
“Snek, sneksnek, snekekenek!”
“Running late? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Snek, ssssnek. Sneknek. Snek snek snek, snek.”
Apparently Tick Tockleton had served as Tol-Saroth’s assistant and organizer, and was upset that its creator was four centuries late for an appointment.
“Yeah, I imagine death would make it challenging to attend certain things. What’s that got to do with me.”
“Snek! Snek snek, snek!”
“An experiment? Like the kind you would perform in a secret lab?”
“Snek,” the serpent firmly nodded.
“And does Tick know how to get there?”
“Snek,” the sentient bracelet turned to its sibling. “Snek, snekek?”
The pocket watch let out a series of ticks that sounded like a code of some sort. Boxxy couldn’t understand it, but Snek seemed to be able to. The shapeshifter got the answer to its question a few moments later when the engraving on Tick’s silver lid began to shift and morph in a manner similar to the paintings on Crusty’s shell. The image of a house-tree was quickly replaced by that of an arrow and a number, indicating both direction and distance.
“Well, now,” a manic grin spread on Keira’s lips. “Isn’t that convenient?”