It started, as many revelations often do, with the simplest thing.
A single door that should have been ajar, wasn’t.
Gnomes were often creatures of habit, and Cornie Fizzlesprocket was no different. She woke up at precisely 6:41 AM every morning. She then rolled around in bed until 7:01 AM before getting up. Her morning routine of getting dressed, doing her hair up and eating breakfast was over and done with by 7:24, and she opened up her shop at exactly 7:30.
She spent the majority of an average day tinkering away at some project or another. On the rare occasion that a customer visited, she would yell out at them that she would be ‘just a minute’ and exactly 60 seconds later would emerge from the back room to do business. At 12:45 PM she temporarily closed up shop for lunch until 1:24 PM and resumed her business hours until 7:44 PM. She spent the next 30 minutes cleaning up the store and organizing her workshop, before having dinner at 8:50 PM. She was in bed by 9:15 and fell asleep by 10:43 PM.
That last bit of her routine was a rather recent addition, however. Normally she’d be able asleep by 8:54 after a long day of hard work, but she no longer had anyone to help out with chores. That and she spent nearly an hour and a half gently weeping and sobbing in grief over the very recent loss of her father and brother - her only remaining family. Alone in the dark with only her thoughts and memories for company, she cried herself to sleep nearly every night for the past 12 days.
People say these wounds heal with time, but how much more time would she need to feel such pain? Weeks? Months? Years? She wanted specifics, an exact date and time when it would finally stop hurting, but nobody could give her a clear answer. ‘It’s not a set amount of time’ they would say. ‘It just happens’ they would shrug. A clearly unscientific approach that endlessly infuriated Fizzy. If she had a clear goal, then she could grin and bear it while silently counting away the seconds to that release inside her head.
As an Artificer, Cornie was in possession of the Tick Counter Skill. It was an invaluable ability that allowed her to precisely measure the passage of time inside a corner of her mind. Using this Skill also allowed her to accurately gauge the interval between two events. It was precise enough to let Fizzy tell the difference between 2 seconds and 2.05 seconds if she put her mind to it. This was an invaluable Skill for building machines that had many moving parts that had to work together.
It also had the side effect of allowing her to tell what the time was without having to look at a clock. Granted, it wasn’t flawless, but it was still accurate to within 10 seconds of the actual time - quite enough for one’s day-to-day needs. So imagine her surprise when one day she realized her internal clock was 9 minutes slow. The gnome deduced it was probably caused by all the distress she had been through lately. It was a Skill that relied heavily on one’s mental state, so things like that could happen. Therefore, Fizzy simply calibrated it to match the clock in her bedroom and thought nothing more of it.
But then, 3 days later she realized this internal clock of hers was 5 minutes slow. She corrected it again, but the very next day it was behind once again, this time by 6 minutes. Her father always used to say that ‘once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, third time’s a pattern.’ So after the fourth time it happened she became considerably worried. Was she going mad? Was the Skill on the fritz? Or perhaps every clock in her house was afflicted by some strange, identical defect?
The first one was a frightening possibility. The second was impossible and the fact she even considered that third scenario only made the first seem more likely. So she thought back on the days where she had been, for lack of a better term, missing time. And a pattern did indeed emerge.
It was all on days she was visited by her mysterious new pupil, a gigantic man that went by the slightly odd name of Boxxy. But it wasn’t every single visit, either. Was that man really responsible? Cornie didn’t want to believe it, she refused to accept that a person who was thoroughly amazed by something simple and innocent like a wind up toy would harbor any sort of malicious intent.
But then again, the door that should have been ajar, wasn’t.
Fizzy remembered that on the third and fourth times she noticed a ‘time skip,’ the door that connected her storefront and the workshop in the back had been firmly closed. She never shut that door. Ever. Not only did it block the sound of the entry bell, but it was much too big for her. It was designed for humans, after all. A gnome like Fizzy had to reach up and even tip-toe a bit to grab the door handle. It was inconvenient, awkward and annoying to close and open that damned door. So she never did. The fact it had been closed on those days and those days only was her physical evidence that something or someone was messing with her.
And, of course, the only present in the shop during those times was Boxxy.
She was deeply conflicted. On one hand, she had grown rather fond of this amazing pupil who eagerly soaked up all her teachings. It was even to the point where she chased off a rat who came asking questions. The innocent gnome did not want to believe that her only ray of happiness, that awkward yet brilliant stranger, was somehow scheming something behind her back. But how? She thought long and hard on those days, but just could not remember anything else out of place.
That’s when a creeping thought wormed its way into her head. It’s not that she couldn’t remember, but that she was not allowed to remember. That her mind was being influenced somehow. And, of course, this immensely disturbing thought reared its head when she was rolling around in bed. She obsessed over it until well past midnight before sleep overtook her.
And that is when she had a nightmare. Of Boxxy unraveling into a collection of wood, tentacles and teeth that held her down, tied her up and dragged her off. That’s when a woman appeared, a simple village girl that had a plain appearance. She shared a few words with the monstrous creature and then placed a hand on the gnome’s head.
That’s when Fizzy woke up screaming, drenched in sweat and out of breath. After calming down and realizing it was still the middle of the night, she tried to dismiss it as just her mind playing tricks on her. But then she had another nightmare. One where a Bladeblossom was set off accidentally and her student was injured without uttering a peep, despite being stabbed in the face and leaking sickly-looking yellow blood. It then leapt over the counter and once again bound, gagged and dragged her off. A woman appeared again, but this one was completely unlike the village girl in every way. She was a nun, with an entirely different voice and face, but she behaved in much the same way, right up until she put a hand on the gnome’s head.
Fizzy woke up screaming once more. This wasn’t her imagination running wild. It was way too real, way too detailed and much more terrifying than any nightmare she’d ever had. Dawn had come now. She immediately got up and ran off into the street to find a guard.
Then she remembered she was still in her sleepwear, so she sheepishly ran back inside, got dressed, and started having second thoughts. What if this was her imagination after all? What if she blamed an innocent man and was even more ostracized by the human community? Her mind remembered that ‘guard’ that dropped in asking about Boxxy, and she went and threatened him with a Lightning Thrower. Gnomes already had a bad reputation for being nutty, what if there was some inkling of truth to that stereotype? What if she was the crazy one after all?
But, there was a way to find out. A way to prove to the world, and to herself, that she was not insane. She ran into her workshop and started throwing together an orb that would discharge electricity when a button is pressed. A small, carefully calibrated charge that wouldn’t do much to a human besides zapping them, maybe cause some numbness at most. There was no danger of Boxxy dying from this. He was bound to be a strong adventurer, considering the amount of money that suspicious individual spent on Artificer supplies while maintaining the image of a pauper.
That was, of course, assuming she was wrong and he was not what her nightmares said he was. If the true identity of Boxxy T. Morningwood was indeed that of a shapeshifting mimic, then the jolt would be far more devastating. Cornie was knowledgeable about electricity due to her Job, and she knew full well that it would make a shapeshifter’s body go haywire. She completed her Stun Orb (tentative name) in just under 2 hours, then stared into its shiny golden surface.
What would she do after she presented it to that man? In the off chance she was wrong and he came out unfazed, then she could play her ‘gift’ off as a malfunction and offer a discount for the trouble. The real problem was what would happen if her nightmares were indeed reality and her only pupil turned out to be a monster? Would she be able to actually… kill it? Would she be able to bring herself to do that sort of thing?
She shook her head to chase away those dangerous thoughts. Monsters were cruel, heartless and thought nothing of others. This was the simple, harsh truth of this world. And although one could argue that is simply their instinct, it is also true that intelligent monsters exist out there. Beings who knew full well what they were doing, yet continued to act in much the same way. They chose to hurt others.
There were, of course, rare rumors of oddball monsters that chose a different path. They told of creatures that did not harm innocents and secluded themselves away from the so-called ‘enlightened’ races such as dwarves, humans and elves. Individuals who peacefully led their lives away from conflict and civilization.
However, not a single documented case of such a ‘hermit’ existed. Such things were widely believed to be nothing more than a myth. A ludicrous story that made no sense along the lines of saying that the moons were made out of cheese or claiming that purple was not a color, but a state of mind.
So what was Fizzy to do? She may be Level 56, but she was not a fighter. Sure she had high DEX, INT, WIS and PER thanks to her Job and Skills, but she knew no Spells, had no idea how to swing a sword and her END was truly pitiful. If a fight really broke out, then she would surely be eaten. And just how powerful could that alleged monster truly be?
That’s when she remembered her father’s security measure, the ‘Insta-Cage’ hidden beneath the floorboards. It had always been there, but it never got used on account of nobody being stupid enough to stir up trouble in the middle of the city. Especially not inside a poor-looking Artificer shop like this one.
But it was still there. And knowing her old man, it would probably still work. The only problem was she had serious doubts simple steel would hold back that monster. So she closed up the shop and started modifying the trap. The gnome worked away frantically throughout that entire day and most of the night, but still wasn’t finished. Her work continued undisturbed on the second day, and then, at noon of the third day after her revelation, she was finally finished electrifying the cage. She was in the middle of double-checking all the connections and preparing herself mentally for the encounter when the door swung open.
Gnomes were creatures of habit, even in seemingly stressful conditions. And Fizzy had a habit of unlocking the front door every morning, and locking it only when the sun started setting. Which is why Boxxy was able to easily enter the place as if nothing was wrong.
It was honestly a miracle the target of her suspicions didn’t visit during those two-and-a-half days she was busy, otherwise her confrontation would have ended very differently. And considering the events that followed, many people would argue that would have been preferable.