Daylor Varic was one of the Republic’s first ever investigative journalists. It wasn’t much of a bragging right considering that the Hubris Journal, the publication he worked for, was barely a decade old. It had only started gaining popularity in recent years, mostly because of the printing press developed by and imported from the Horkensaft Kingdom. Now that mass-producing its monthly issues was significantly more cost-effective, the Journal was able to reach hundreds of settlements across the nation. It still wasn’t all that popular with the common folk, as they were largely unconcerned with what was happening in the next village over, let alone on the other end of the country.
The Republic’s inquisitive adventurer community, however, absolutely loved it. The people in charge of the Hubris Journal knew their audience well, hence why their articles were primarily aimed at adventurers. Saucy gossip, VIP interviews, guild rankings, special item offers, and potentially profitable rumors filled its pages. The actual ‘news’ part of this pioneering ‘newspaper’ had been reduced to a few pages of brief recaps. After all, a monthly publication had no chance of keeping up with simple word of mouth. News of huge events spread throughout the Ishigar Republic and its Forest Gate system in a matter of days, sometimes even overnight.
But, for what it was worth, the information the Journal brought to its audience was considered to be accurate and factual. Its reporters also weren’t afraid of going after influential and powerful names, though that list had been cut drastically short in the wake of the Great Collapse. In fact, the Hubris Journal’s own chief editor had lost his life in the catastrophe. And with so few viable candidates to replace him, Daylor saw his chance to move up in the world. He knew for a fact that his former boss was generously compensated by the Journal’s owner, not to mention that the position itself came with a certain amount of prestige and respect.
So, what better way, he figured, to secure that seat for himself than bagging the scoop of the century? The name ‘Keira Morgana’ was once again on the lips of many, and for once it wasn’t just the capital. Sure, she had always been fairly popular with the people of Azurvale ever since the Republic government had put her up on a pedestal two years ago. However, her pivotal involvement in the Great Collapse investigation had made her famous across the nation like never before. The government had even commissioned a giant stone statue of her to be erected in Fort Yimin, of all places.
In short, Keira Morgana made the perfect target to fuel Daylor’s newfound ambition. Uncovering some scandalous secret of hers and publicly outing it in an exclusive article would surely make the Journal sell like never before. And as the man that made it all possible, Daylor Varic would surely reap the rewards he sought. That said, the man wasn’t an idiot. He knew that, even if the redheaded beastkin was considered to be a good person, she was also superbly dangerous. If he ruined her life somehow, then he felt confident she would end his in return, regardless of how well he hid himself.
Therefore, if there truly was some ‘scandalous secret’ to be found, he would need to think very carefully about how to handle it. Ideally, it would be one of the generic faults that most people succumb to, like cheating on her girlfriend, tax evasion, some terrible curse, or taking credit for other people’s accomplishments. These sort of things could probably be safely published without expecting some kind of lethal response. Certainly wouldn’t be any more dangerous than selling government secrets to a foreign power. If what she was hiding was something more nefarious, like her secretly being a psychotic serial killer and cannibal, then he’d leave an anonymous tip with the authorities and publish the story once she’d been dealt with.
Some might argue that there was a chance that Keira Morgana wasn’t hiding anything, but Daylor’s investigative instincts told him otherwise. No adventurer got to be that successful that quickly without getting a few ugly skeletons in their closet along the way, Hero status or not. Such things were bound to be well hidden, and the woman herself was extremely perceptive, so the nosy elf needed to take things slowly and carefully.
Hence why he wound up moving into the house opposite the Morgana residence the very next day after she had returned to town. There were a lot of people who still refused to return to their branch-top homes after the Great Collapse, so the rent was surprisingly cheap. Which was definitely a good thing since Daylor’s income had become a bit strained ever since the Gilded Hand’s fall from grace. It was a nice house, at least. Very cozy and comfortable furnishings, to boot.
More importantly, it allowed him to easily spy on the Morgana household without drawing too much attention. After several days of near-constant surveillance, he gathered that the Hero of Chaos wasn’t all that outgoing. The few times she had left her house on her own she had gone to the Central Consortium building, though her visits didn’t seem to be work-related. Daylor’s mole inside the guild coalition told him she was there to issue Quests, not accept them.
Apparently, Morgana had her hands full arranging for her impending wedding and needed others to gather and deliver various things. Thoroughly mundane things, too, like Artificer parts and components, or various alchemical reagents. The only one that caught the reporter’s eye was a request for information regarding a bunch of obscure monsters. That certainly seemed suspicious, though it could have been related to that weird collection of hers. She did have a bunch of living furniture and a pet house that could walk, after all.
Other than that, Daylor hadn’t been able to gather much data on his primary target. There was only so much passive observation would get him in such a short span of time. He had also chatted with the future Mrs. Morgana on a few occasions under the pretense of a new neighbour making small talk, but she had tactfully evaded all of his subtly probing questions. Many things could be said of Rowana Slyth, but careless she was not. She was most likely used to strangers asking her questions about Keira and knew how to avoid carelessly divulging any personal information.
However, while that bumbling elf was only just scratching the surface of the impenetrable wall of lies that was ‘Keira Morgana,’ the shapeshifter behind it was dealing with a new issue. This problem didn’t have anything to do with its Rank Up, however. Though information regarding its options was undoubtedly difficult to track down, the thing bothering Boxxy at present was its alembic. The item in question was a piece of alchemy equipment consisting of two silver beakers connected by a spiraling silver tube, all of it resting on a portable plate about the size of a serving tray. It could be used to distill various alchemical ingredients into serums necessary for more advanced formulas and was currently sitting in a corner of the alchemy lab in Keira’s basement.
However, it wasn’t supposed to be there. Boxxy usually kept the distilling apparatus on one of the shelves on the wall. It only placed it on that workbench in the corner when it was using the alembic, and it had no recollection of doing that. A being with Legendary Intelligence and Legendary Overachiever, the combination of which gave it a perfect recollection of the last ninety-six hours, couldn’t remember something that had happened a day ago. It remembered seeing the alembic in its usual spot on the wall yesterday at about noon, and yet it wasn’t there the next morning.
The obvious conclusion was that someone else had, for whatever reason, moved it. It couldn’t have been Rowana, though. As the senior Alchemist in the house, that elf knew better than to carelessly move equipment that wasn’t hers without asking first. It could’ve had some kind of volatile or toxic mixture in it, after all. It certainly wasn’t Manny or any of the other house mimics, either, as the door to the basement lab was kept locked at all times - even when someone was using it. The familiars were also exempt, Boxxy hadn’t summoned any of them from the Beyond in the last few days. The only remaining option seemed to be that an outside party was somehow responsible.
Except that moving the alembic wasn’t the only thing Boxxy failed to remember. After rapidly digging through its memories, it deduced that it was, in total, missing thirty out of its ninety six hours of perfect recollection. Sure, that wasn’t entirely unusual since the shapeshifter couldn’t remember things it wasn’t awake for, but sleeping only made up less than half of that time. The worst part was that these gaps weren’t continuous but heavily fragmented into chunks ranging from several minutes to a little over an hour. Literal ‘blank spots’ were littered seemingly at random throughout its last four days.
To say that this realization was worrisome would be an understatement. After all that trouble with the corruption and the addiction, more mental issues was the last thing Boxxy wanted to deal with. Especially when it was on the cusp of a Rank Up, which it now felt even more hesitant about. Sure, this new problem would most likely resolve itself if the shapeshifter was reborn into a more powerful species, but it felt like there was a chance that it could carry over. It could always have Gregory look into this with the divine I.O.U., but, as per usual, Boxxy felt it would be best to at least try to resolve this by itself.
To that end, it double-checked that all of the wards and locks securing Keira’s alchemy lab were in place, then summoned an expert on mental issues.
“Greetings, Master,” Xera bowed with a lascivious grin. “How may I, mmmm, pleasure you today?”
Granted, the demon in question suffered from quite a few ‘eccentricities’ herself, but it was the best Boxxy could manage on such short notice.
“Snack,” it mind-talked to her. “I have gaps in my memory that shouldn’t be there.”
The sultry demon’s smile vanished as she instantly grasped the shapeshifter’s problem.
“Shall I take a look?” she offered.
“Yeah, do that. Just look, though! Don’t touch anything in there!”
Xera felt a bit insulted that her Master still didn’t trust her after everything they’ve been through together, but she understood. Given that what it had said was true, having a healthy amount of paranoia was probably for the best. Nevertheless, Boxxy didn’t resist and allowed its familiar to put it to sleep via magic, then root around its mindscape with her Dreamweaver Skill. The djinn saw nothing out of the ordinary, though.
Upon waking up, the shapeshifter was both relieved and disturbed to hear this news.
“You’re absolutely sure you didn’t see anything weird?” it pressed her.
The djinn suppressed the urge to sigh and conjured an illusory replica of her master’s mindscape. The vast cavern of gray cubes was the same as ever and the ornate chest representing Boxxy’s ego didn’t show any abnormalities that might suggest a foreign influence. That wasn’t to say that there were no abnormalities at all, though.
“That shiny chest with the faces is supposed to be how my brain sees itself, right?” the shapeshifter inquired.
“More or less,” Xera confirmed.
“In that case, wouldn’t my memories leak out of those holes in the side?”
The gaps in question were relatively small, but quite obvious considering how the gaping void inside them contrasted with the rest of the image’s shiny surface.
“I think you misunderstand, Master. What you’re looking at is a visual representation of who you are - your personality and habits. It is shaped by your memories and experiences, but does not contain them.”
“Oh. Then why does it have holes in it?”
“From what I can tell, it’s still healing from the mental shock of having the corruption purged, not to mention that panacea dose. And I must say, it looks a lot better than it did when you last asked me to check on you.”
“… How bad was it?”
“Perhaps it’s best if I show you.”
The demoness dispelled the illusion and reconstructed it using the memory she had of Boxxy’s psyche from a few weeks ago. Compared to the giant missing chunk it had at the time, the dozen or so tiny holes currently in the sculpted mithril chest were, as Xera had put it, looking a lot better. There was something else she said that the ex-mimic found odd, though.
“What’s this about the panacea? What does that have to do with any of this?”
“Apparently it works by removing and then rebuilding what it perceives as ‘injuries,’ and since the nectar affected you both physically and mentally, it likely gutted parts of your mind to purge the addiction.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me any of this before?!” it roared.
“I didn’t know, Master,” she calmly stated. “I only learned about it recently, while I was in the Beyond.”
There was an unspoken rule that what was said in the Beyond stayed in the Beyond, but the demoness valued her beloved master’s happiness and wellbeing far too much to care about it.
“… I see,” Boxxy calmed itself. “I guess it was kind of worth it since I can enjoy the tasty nectar again.”
And it had already done so, rather heavily at that. The shapeshifter had indulged in the fruit of Ambrosia’s bosom on a daily basis ever since its return to Azurvale. The flavor wasn’t quite as euphoric as it used to be since its addiction immunity was no doubt suppressing parts of it, but it was still blissfully tasty. The dryad herself seemed overjoyed as well to have the hylt creeper suckle at her teat with vigor once more. All that considered, Boxxy surmised it would’ve used that panacea even if it knew of its voracious function.
Either that or it was just trying to retroactively justify its decision so as to not regret it, but the fact still stood that the medicine in question was unlikely to be the cause of these blank spots. It felt quite confident it only started experiencing them after it had returned to Azurvale, suggesting that the cause was something - or someone - in the city. Suspecting some kind of meddling or interference, Boxxy also summoned Drea and gave both of its familiars their orders.
The two of them were to remain hidden as they followed the shapeshifter while it went about its day and kept watch for any potential perpetrators. Boxxy also told them to avoid telepathic contact in public. If there was an individual behind its blank spots, then that person would likely be extremely well-versed in mind magic, possibly a Level 100 Psionic or some kind of telepathic monster. Maybe even both. Whatever the case, such a being could possess the ability to intercept mental communications between Boxxy and its familiars. Granted, the shapeshifter didn’t know for sure if such a thing was even possible, but it felt it prudent to assume that it was.
After getting back into character, Keira left her basement laboratory and resumed going about the rest of her day while Boxxy’s familiars sneaked out of the house and began sweeping the area. The beastkin didn’t get to laze about much before Rowana dragged her off to perform a wedding rehearsal. The elf knew full well that her wife-to-be was rather ignorant about elvish marital ceremonies, customs, and traditions, so this ‘practice round’ was mandatory for Keira. It took up most of the afternoon and proved to be rather exhausting.
At least it had been for the elf. There were a lot of motions to go through, and the couple had gone through them repeatedly with almost no rest. And unlike her adventuring lover, Rowana didn’t have a bunch of Attributes and Skills. By the end of the rehearsal she was left completely out of breath. When it was over and the couple got back home, the first thing she did was plop herself onto the sofa in the living room. Keira, who didn’t show any signs of fatigue, sat next to her, allowing the elf to rest her head on the beastkin’s shoulder.
“You alright, honey?” the redhead asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she groaned quietly. “I just forgot how much curtsying there was in an elvish wedding. My thighs, in particular, feel like they’re about to start a revolution and secede from the Republic of Rowana.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Those thighs are quite spectacular, you know. To see them disappear would be a catastrophe.”
The two of them shared a lighthearted chuckle.
“Actually, that reminds me, I was reading this book on the habits of beastkin couples yesterday,” the elf changed the subject.
“I was just curious how your people did wedding ceremonies. It didn’t have much on that, but it did have a bunch of other interesting things. For instance, do you know what a ‘lap pillow’ is?”
“I am aware of the concept, yes.”
And even if that wasn’t the case, the name was quite self-explanatory.
“Well… Can I try out yours?” Rowana asked expectantly.
“Seriously?” Keira cocked an eyebrow.
“Please?” the elf pleaded. “It’s supposed to be quite relaxing, and I could really do with some of that right now.”
A look of guilt flashed across the redhead’s face, followed by a short sigh.
“Oh, alright. Come here.”
“Thanks, sweetie. You’re the best.”
Rowana then put her feet up on the couch and laid her head down in Keira’s lap, which sank ever-so-slightly into the catgirl’s thighs. The redhead stared at the elf with a mix of surprise, confusion, and doubt.
“Rowie. What are you doing?”
“I’m using your lap pillow, obviously,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Are you sure you’re doing it right?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re supposed to lie on it face-up, aren’t you?”
It wasn’t as if having Rowana’s face resting on her thighs was especially unpleasant, but something definitely felt ‘off’ about this.
“I don’t know,” the elf replied in a slightly muffled voice. “The book wasn’t very specific.”
“Mhm. And what about your heavy breathing?” Keira asked doubtfully.
“I just said I’m tired and out of breath.”
“What about your hand rubbing my knee?”
“… It would be a crime not to?”
The catgirl let out a sigh. Rowana had probably been aching to try this weird new form of cuddling and there was no harm in it, so she idly stroked her platinum-blonde hair while the elf lady rubbed her face into her thighs. Except that Rowana’s breathing steadily grew heavier and creepier, which was entirely understandable given her position. For better or for worse, the whole exercise never really went anywhere, as the elf actually fell asleep in Keira’s lap after a few minutes.
And watching all this happen was none other than Daylor Varic. He was using a spyglass to peer through the curtains on the second floor of his newly rented house and into the living room of the Morgana residence through their front window. He had a perfect view of the strangely cute yet lewd moment and was taking notes with his left hand while the right held up the spyglass. He wasn’t at all bothered by this blatant violation of privacy, though he was a bit surprised that Miss Slyth was such a daring woman.
The peeping session ended abruptly when he realized that Morgana’s piercing yellow eyes seemed to be staring right back at him, causing him to jerk away from the window abruptly. Had she noticed the lens of the tiny spyglass peek through his curtains? Or did she have a refined sense of being watched? Both seemed quite likely, and his heart raced at the thought of being found out. After a few minutes, he calmed himself enough to dare take another peek.
To his relief, Keira hadn’t moved from her spot in the slightest. She had reclined back into the sofa with her eyes closed, her hands gently stroking the sleeping elf’s silky hair. It was such a sweet and peaceful scene that Daylor actually felt a bit of guilt for violating their privacy with ill intent. It faded moments later when that sentient table suddenly showed up with a freshly brewed cup of tea, and he was reminded of just how much of a weirdo that beastkin actually was.
The investigative reporter, of course, failed to realize that he had actually been found out, though not by some lovey-dovey couple on the other end of the street.
“What. A. Worm,” Xera hissed under her breath. “Does this pathetic piece of shit think he can actually expose Master with such basic methods?”
“You never know, tktktktktk,” Drea whispered back with a chitter. “Even morons can get lucky.”
The two of them were currently cloaked by their respective magical camouflage Skills and situated a few dozen meters above the Morgana household. The djinn was floating in place while the webstalker was dangling off of a particularly thick vine that hung off of an upper branch of the hylt tree. The two of them had already noticed the reporter’s attempts at espionage from the Beyond’s Boxxy Show broadcasts, so they naturally kept an eye on him now that they were here, in the material realm.
“Think we should, tktktktk, warn Master?” Drea asked.
“Let’s not. I doubt that pathetic loser is responsible for Master’s blank spots.”
“Obviously,” the stalker rolled her eight eyes. “I meant that Master should be told someone is spying on it, tktktktk.”
They had been given explicit orders to maintain telepathic silence unless something truly important came up, but she wasn’t certain whether this qualified.
“Master is already aware,” Xera stated. “It has already deduced that playing along for a week or two is safer than actively doing something about it. Wouldn’t want to have the Facade fall apart when we’re so close to the finish line, after all.”
Granted, it hadn’t actually said that, but the ex-succubus felt confident that this was the case. The fact of the matter was that Boxxy had more important things to worry about than some worm wriggling around in the dirt. Not to mention that this elf wouldn’t be the first one to poke his nose into Keira’s affairs, though he would likely be the last.
“Tktktktk… About that, do you think master will want to maintain that guise even after it Ranks Up?” Drea changed the subject.
“It would certainly try. It has spent most of its life working on it. Just discarding it would be a huge waste, and you know Master hates being wasteful.”
Even if it no longer needed Doppelganger Levels, the personal connections and influence Boxxy enjoyed as Keira were far too shiny to simply ignore. It was only natural it would want to maintain those. Whether it would be able to, that was another question entirely. Doppelgangers were creatures that had evolved specifically to infiltrate enlightened societies, but all of their Rank Up options seemed to be combat-oriented. The same went for the thirteen species Boxxy had at its disposal. Granted, it was still gathering information on those, but it was safe to assume all of them would struggle to blend in as seamlessly as a doppelganger.
“What about the blank spots?” the stalker continued. “Do you think it’s really someone else doing this to Master?”
Xera nearly replied with something along the lines of ‘Do you doubt our Master?!’ She realized, however, that such a response would be an insult to Boxxy. It would be something an ignorant and blindly loyal minion would say, and she knew for a fact her master had no use for such simple-minded creatures. Even if it had learned much since moving to Azurvale, it was still ignorant on a large number of subjects, and it knew that. Hence why it needed free-thinking followers who could look at a problem from a different perspective and could arrive at their own conclusions.
Which was precisely what Xera proceeded to do after her colleague indirectly reminded her of that fact.
“It could be power creep,” she suggested after a few minutes. “If I remember rightly, one of the symptoms of its later stages was memory loss.”
“Tktktktk… That’s a good point, actually,” Drea agreed. “It gained a bunch of Levels recently, but I haven’t seen it do the Attribute reduction rituals in a few months.”
Wouldn’t be the first time Boxxy had succumbed to the condition without realizing it, either. The shapeshifter also kept information regarding its Status to itself as much as possible. It was only natural, given the creature’s way of life. So, after agreeing to bring the matter up with their master the next chance they got, the two demons split up and resumed actively scanning the area. Of course, they still kept watch during that conversation, but couldn’t cover as much ground if they stuck together. They still needed to compare notes every now and then, and the ban on non-vital telepathic chatter didn’t leave them with a lot of options other than talking things out discreetly.
For better or for worse, the demons didn’t spot anything else of note for the rest of the day, or until the next morning came. The following day was just as uneventful, and it wasn’t until the second night after their surveillance began that either of them got a chance to bring the power creep matter up with Boxxy. The shapeshifter agreed that it was probably suffering from the condition’s symptoms, but had doubts whether it was advanced enough to cause memory issues.
Still, it wasn’t going to ignore the possibility. It immediately got busy and transferred four hundred of its physical Attribute points into crystallized Quintessences. It had wanted to hold onto those since the Rank Up was imminent, but the familiars had convinced it that they weren’t worth risking its well-being over. Besides, it would still get a fraction of them back if it consumed those Quintessences. In fact, it had an entire chest full of the things, which it had amassed over the past two years. It intended to take those in once its Rank Up had raised its Attribute tolerance to give itself even more of a power spike.
And since it was messing around with the balance of its Status anyway, Boxxy decided this was a good chance to check something it hadn’t really bothered with before.
Description: A being whose analytical thinking and insight are the stuff of legends.
Requirements: Reach 1,000 Wisdom (WIS).
Effects: Increases all XP and Proficiency gains by 10%.
Spells and Skills refund 10% of their MP cost when used.
Well now, this was a nice surprise. These days Boxxy had so much INT that it almost never ran out of MP, barring extreme circumstances. That and Hylt Metabolism made it so WIS was an unimportant Attribute that had been left neglected. This XP and Proficiency boost was nothing to scoff at, though. Of course, the shapeshifter already had the Anti-Centennial Perk, but that was a 10% boost only to Job Levels, not Skills. That, combined with this Legendary Wisdom and Legendary Overachiever, meant that it was now looking at an overall XP boost of 40%.
Which was, in a word, tasty. Boxxy felt silly for assuming Legendary Wisdom would be useless to it without even knowing its effects, but it didn’t dwell on it. Rather, it was looking forward to abusing it to get Level 100 on its Warlock Job during the upcoming Dragon Festival. Something that, if allowed to happen, would have been achieved in just three and a half years. An unprecedented world record, to say the least.
That wasn’t going to happen until later, though. Right now Boxxy needed to focus on these blank spots it was suffering from. It was rather skeptical whether power creep was actually the cause, but there was no reason not to try. If, in a few days’ time, it was still developing gaps in its perfect recollection, then it would’ve been right. If not, then it would be cured. It was a win either way, in the shapeshifter’s mind. Therefore, all it had to do was sit back, relax, and wait for the results.
Something else happened before that conclusion could be made, however.
The very next morning Keira and Rowana were woken up by a ring from the front door. The elf groaned something dismissive about ‘that bloody doorbell thing’ while the redhead grumpily rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The couple had half a mind to just ignore them and go back to sleep, but this early visitor was a rather insistent one, seeing as how they kept ringing every few seconds.
“Ugh… The one day I try to sleep in, and this happens,” the catgirl grumbled as she rolled out of bed. “This better be important, or someone’s losing an eye.”
She was quite serious, seeing as how she reached for her knife collection before trying to put on clothes.
“Please don’t disfigure anyone,” Rowana lazily said, her face buried in her pillow. “Mrs. Malkovich still won’t shut up about the time you slapped her husband so hard you knocked five of his teeth out.”
“Fiiiine. I’ll try not to cut them where it’ll leave a scar.”
Keira threw on a shirt and some shorts to make herself decent and grabbed one of her favorite knives before heading out of the bedroom. She wasn’t just arming herself out of irritation, though. One never knew what sort of person would show up at the home of a famous adventurer, especially at this early hour, so some basic self-defense precautions were a must. When the beastkin got down to the hall, Manny the housemaid mannequin tipped his snazzy purple hat to her as a form of greeting. He then pointed at the door with one hand while making a jerking motion with the other.
“Don’t worry, I’ll let them know they’re a wanker,” Keira assured him.
Manny gave her a thumbs up and resumed cleaning the floor since someone - most likely Minic - had left tiny square muddy prints all over it during the night. Keira finished the slow trudge to the door and opened it, only to be greeted by an almost blinding glare standing atop a rather sizable shadow. After taking a few moments for her eyes to adjust, she recognized the source of the slightly irritating light. It was the early morning sunlight, which was bouncing off of the smooth and shiny scalp of justice.
For standing in her doorway was none other than Sigmund Law, Teresa’s Hero of Justice and current head of the Imperial Inquisition.