“But- But- But- It huuuuuurts!”
Castelia was desperately clutching the right side of her face and head while she was curled up on the ground with her head in Keira’s lap. The young dryad’s features were charred black and gave off a faint stream of smoke. One could easily see the dull red embers on her cheeks, which ran all the way down to her shoulder.
“Shhhh. I know, sweetie,” whispered the catgirl while stroking her as grass-like hair as gently as possible, “but you have to try and bear it.”
“*Sniff sniff* But it huuurts! Moooommyyyyy!”
What a pain, thought Boxxy. Still, I’m glad we’re not in her tree.
The place Keira and the other dryads had occupied was nestled within the crown of Lilly’s tree, who was on the northwestern end of the front. While it was also on the side facing the enemy, Castelia was the one who ended up shouldering the biggest burden.
“Torenia, be a dear and help Castelia out. Lilly too.”
“Do we have to?” replied the two in unison.
“Your sister is in pain. You would want help if you were in pain, right?”
“Yes… Okay! We’ll help right away, mommy!”
The two of them got closer to their scorched sister and put their hands on her back. Although a seemingly plain action, the fact they could do that so casually was quite extraordinary in and of itself.
It wasn’t just Castelia and Torenia, but all 5 of these Hylt trees were unnaturally close to each other considering their age. Ambrosia had said her kind’s near-infinite vitality was quite demanding when it came to their food, and those needs only grew as the tree aged. As a direct result, they would naturally choke the life out of other trees - including their own kind - in an increasingly larger area around them. That was why typically only simpler and more resilient plants such as weeds, grasses and shrubs could manage to thrive anywhere near a Hylt tree, such as Cyrilla to the south. Even Azurvale’s original 12 were packed relatively densely, despite there being literal kilometers between them. They were an exception, though, as the soil underneath the elven capital was extremely abundant in both nutrients and natural mana, so their roots didn’t need to spread too far to obtain the sustenance they needed.
Of course, none of the dryads’ lording over natural resources was done maliciously or even consciously. Survival of the strongest was just the way nature worked. Plants were not exempt from this rule, and if any plant deserved to be called ‘king,’ it would undoubtedly be the Hylt. Which was why Fort Yimin was so peculiar. Ambrosia had said it wouldn’t be weird if only two, maybe three of them survived under those conditions, yet there were five of them. Not only that, but they were rather underdeveloped for their age.. In the first place, the idea they looked completely identical and were so completely in sync with each other was downright bizarre.
As it turned out, the root cause for all of these oddities was just that - their roots. This grove’s roots had apparently mingled and melded together to the point that they had unified into one gigantic system. Even if they were doing it subconsciously, these dryads had been sharing their food for centuries. This link between them was how they could so casually enter each other’s trunks in the first place. It was more accurate to think of them as a single, five-headed organism rather than completely separate beings.
This was also why Castelia’s ‘wounds’ were healing at an incredibly rapid pace. The young dryad’s charred skin had stopped smoldering, and was gradually being replaced by her natural, healthy green. On the outside, it would probably look like the burning Hylt tree had gone out on its own, and was rapidly regrowing its lost limbs and leaves.
“Not too much now,” cautioned Keira. “Wouldn’t want you girls getting too tired before the big surprise.”
Torenia and Lilly took their hands off their kin at those words. The right half of the burn victim’s face and hair were still somewhat blackened, but at the very least she had stopped whining, so she probably wasn't in pain any longer.
“No buts, Castelia. Your sisters were kind enough to share their food with you, so you be sure to pay them back later.”
“... Okay, mommy.”
“... And uh- Thanks Torenia. Thanks Lilly.”
“You’re welcome, sis!”
Truthfully speaking, Castelia would have probably been fine on her own. However, Boxxy needed these excitable ladies as calm and collected as possible before the time came. Speaking of which, there should still be 6 or 7 more minutes before the effects of that Berserker’s Tempest of Rage would dissipate. The Republic forces were currently causing terrible casualties to the Empire’s troops, but that would only last as long as that dwarf’s Ultimate was giving them an edge and would pull back as soon as it ended. As such, the Mimic very much wanted to get in on that harvest.
“Now then, mommy needs to step out for a while,” said Keira. “I promise I’ll be back in time for the big surprise or if someone hurts you again, so stay put and be good until then, okay?”
The dryads seemed horribly disappointed, but still nodded their heads in affirmation. Keira gave them all a peck on their foreheads to cheer them up a bit, and then set out to get her fair share of human flesh.
Down on the ground, Kora was still fighting the human troops that rushed her after she gave Hilda a lift. However, even if she was a Berserker herself, she was nowhere near that dwarf’s level. Not only were the various Skills and effects of her secondary Job far less pronounced, but her fists’ range was nowhere near as wide as that dwarf’s inhumane axe. As such, they had been constantly accumulating damage on her. She was bleeding all over the place with a body that was covered in gashes and riddled with arrows, half her face was melted off by magic, someone had drilled a hole clean through her chest and she had even lost one of her left arms somewhere along the way. And yet the fact that neither her bloodlust nor her grin diminished despite all that made her quite terrifying in her own right.
The heavily injured fiend reached out with one of her hands and gripped onto a human soldier’s head with enough force to cause both his skull and helmet to creak ominously. He screamed in pain and desperately swung his axe at her arm, but it only bounced helplessly off her gauntlets. Kora then lifted the poor man off his feet and began swinging him about wildly like a ragdoll as she pushed his comrades away with his body. He had gone completely limp by this point, but whether it was because he passed out or passed away was irrelevant, as what was left of him was flung into the path of an oncoming Icy Comet Spell. The two projectiles collided with each other, and the result was something that could only be described as ‘dirty fireworks.’
In the next instant, her torso was pierced from behind by three separate spears that went almost halfway through her. The fiend grit her teeth and bent over forward with all her might while delivering a headbutt to the guy directly in front of her. The soldiers behind her found themselves flung forward while the one in front wound up on the floor with a dent in his helmet.
The fiend’s Martial Art smashed what was left of his head into a pulp, while also cracking the ground around her. The sudden tremors made some of the Empire’s troops lose their footing and stumble. Kora picked one such off-balanced target at random and swung both her rights at him. The man managed to put up his shield just in time, but the impact from the double-handed punch still lifted him off his feet and threw him several meters into the air. He fell back to the ground, reeling from the pain in his entire body. His kite shield had two distinct fist-shaped imprints on them, his arm was definitely broken and he had dropped his weapon during lift-off, but he was most assuredly alive.
Even if the fiend’s ridiculous strength and heavy weight meant she could send people flying with a single punch, that didn’t necessarily mean they were done for. In fact, she had only killed about 30, maybe 35 people in this entire battle. She hated to admit it, but the quality of these guys was noticeably higher from that night raid from a week ago. That, and most of her victims fell back to get treated while their comrades covered for them. The nature of her attacks meant she could keep the enemy at bay, but made it difficult to finish people off if they didn’t die on the first hit.
‘That’s why you shouldn’t send them flying, but bury them into the ground instead.’
Her master’s words of wisdom flashed through her head. She knew that would-be-box was right, but since it was advice rather than order, she didn’t really listen to it. There was just something immensely satisfying about literally blowing people away, even if it wasn’t necessarily fatal. And if there’s one thing Kora valued above all else, it was her own enjoyment. Therefore, she pushed away those thoughts of efficiency and charged at her next victim. She curled her biceps to strike, but her master had quite literally beaten her to the punch.
A gigantic, barrel-chested figure landed suddenly on the man in front of her. Well, it landed on a few of them that were bunched up together, but that was besides the point. After using the Empire’s soldiers to cushion his fall, he stood up at a height that was almost equal to Kora’s. His head was covered by a facewrap that left only his yellow eyes visible, while a heavy cloak concealed his body. His allegiance was obviously not in question. Not only did he blatantly attack and kill Imperial troops, but his clothes were entirely silver in color apart from the large image of a black, swooping eagle on his back.
The Sandman was quite literally draped in the Ishigar Republic’s flag.
His tinny voice rang out in the next instant, and a huge dome of blackness that was a little over 20 meters in diameter covered the field around him. The human soldiers near the edge instinctively retreated out of it. Although True Darkness merely robbed the area around a Warlock of all visible light, that didn’t mean it actually did any damage. However, their decision was definitely the right one, as the shrill screams and unpleasant crunching noises heard from within that world of darkness signified it was not a safe place to be.
And then, after several seconds, the lightless bubble went deathly silent. One of the higher ranking humans around gave an order to brace for attack, and the soldiers rapidly established a shield wall perimeter some 4 or 5 meters around it. The Republic’s troops were still holding the line immediately in front of the breached wall, some 100 meters south of their location. Whoever or whatever that terrifying figure they caught a glimpse of was, it was completely cut off from any hope of reinforcements.
Of course, they didn’t know it yet, but they were the ones about to be begging for backup.
A multitude of figures burst out of the darkness before it had a chance to dissipate. Leading the charge as per usual was Kora, whose wounds and missing arm had fully regenerated thanks to a Rejuvenation Potion Boxxy had ‘borrowed’ from the elves. Well, it wasn’t like it paid for it or anything, and it was better in the short-term than spending over half its MP re-summoning her, so it had no qualms about using it on her.
The fiend stretched her arms out to the side and then swung them forward with all her might.
Her two pairs of closed palms met each other with explosive force, producing a powerful, ear-splitting shock wave that swept over the human forces in front of her. The ones closest to her were knocked down to the ground from the sheer force of it, while those around and behind them keeled over while clutching their ears. As expected of a Berserker’s Martial Art, it was extremely effective on those weaker than the user. The fiend’s unnatural physique only further amplified its power.
The one that leapt out alongside her was a horse-sized, lizard-like creature made of molten rock, that charged head-first into the Empire’s perimeter. Although they might have been able to body-block it under normal conditions, the soldiers were all reeling from Kora’s Thunderclap. The cone-shaped shock wave had either thrown their sense of balance out of whack, or had outright ruptured their eardrums. Since they were like that, the Molten Guardian was able to trample over them, literally blazing a trail through their ranks.
The magical construct’s owner flew out of the wall of blackness a moment after the first two. Xera’s usual fetishistic outfit was transformed into a beautiful silver-colored gown so as to mark her very temporary allegiance. The purely decorative garment was backless, strapless and, as the slit skirt that fluttered teasingly between her legs revealed, also underwearless. The succubus had silently entered the area covered by True Darkness under cover of Invisibility after her beloved Master’s grand entrance, and was already sharing the flames of her passion with the Empire’s troops. Or, to put it another, she cackled like a maniac as she burned people alive with a barrage of Fireballs, Flamethrowers and Inferno Spells.
Normally the humans would be firing Spells right back at her, but the professional, trained soldiers’ hearts had already broken. First, there was that monstrous dwarf. Then there was that winged woman that didn’t care if her own comrades got caught up in her battle. Following that was the appearance of that truly terrifying demon. Then that dome of blackness had appeared before they realized what was even going on. They were barely keeping it together as they made a perimeter around it, only to have that four-armed menace come out fully recovered and accompanied by two more demons of similar strength.
Well, technically speaking, one of them was more like an elemental or golem and was nowhere near as powerful as either of them, but that didn’t matter. Because the True Darkness Spell had dissipated mere seconds after that hellish trio had shown themselves. It revealed a scene where the dozen or so soldiers that should have gotten caught up in it had disappeared. The only traces of them being there were several puddles of fresh blood and an untold number of bloodied, mangled armor pieces scattered about.
But no, that wasn’t the straw that broke the limetick’s back. The people outside the circle had more or less given up on seeing those people come out of that space alive, so not seeing their bodies was not what made them lose it. The culprit for finally making the high-strung men snap was the lone figure that stood in the middle of that slaughterfest.
250 centimeters tall, drenched head-to-toe in fresh blood, cackling maniacally with a truly otherworldly voice and practically exuding the stench of death. The shock of that terrifying sight combined with the effects of both Butcher of Humanity and Despair Aura hit the surrounding humans with full force, causing their already wavering hearts and minds to break in an instant. It was at the level where they beat a disorderly, panicked retreat. They ran with all their might, trampling over their fallen comrades, who were curled up on the ground while discharging various bodily fluids.
The man, no, the monster leapt at their fleeing backs and caught up to them in an instant. It then began mercilessly ripping them limb from limb with its bare hands, and the few people that were brave enough to look back would realize that a good number of those severed limbs disappeared somewhere under that cloak. At some point the incarnation of death chasing them had picked up a greatsword off one of their corpses and began doing its best Hilda impersonation as it mercilessly hacked through them. However, rather than cut people in half like the dwarf’s axe, the mundane weapon simply crushed them into pulp as if it were a simple hunk of steel.
Well, it was still technically a sword, which was more or less exactly what its wielder was after.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 18 Blade Dancer! DEX +2. END +2. STR +1. AGI +1.
The Sandman charged forward alongside its minions, mercilessly mowing down everyone in sight. It was like a gardener clearing the weeds (humans) so that the crops (Levels) may grow. And it reaped quite the bountiful harvest indeed.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 19 Blade Dancer! DEX +2. END +2. STR +1. AGI +1.
It might have encountered more difficulties if those humans turned around and counter-attacked in an organized fashion, but that was unlikely to happen. Panic and fear could spread like a wildfire, and the Mimic was even more of an arsonist than Snack when it came to matters of psychological warfare.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 48 Warlock! INT +2. MNT +2. END +2.
Of course, it wasn’t just the newly-acquired Blade Dancer Job that steadily gained Levels. The fact it had all three familiars out on the field and doing work caused its second-oldest Job to steadily gain Levels as well. And yes, Claws was out here too, although these rank and file soldiers had little chance of detecting her presence. She had gotten so good at hiding herself away, that her streak of assassinations went unnoticed in all the confusion. The most her victims might have perceived would be a black shadow or a blur that skittered past the edge of their sights right before she took their heads. Those standing next to the ones that had been killed had no idea who or what had just murdered their comrades, which did not help their delicate state of mind in the slightest.
One could hardly blame them though. Even Boxxy had trouble tracking her position sometimes - that was just how adept she was at staying out of sight. It was honestly quite pleased with her performance, to the point where it would be hard pressed to choose between her and Arms for the position of its 3rd favorite minion. Well, Snack was still the absolute tastiest, so she was the undisputed champion in that category. The runner-up was naturally Fizzy. The Mimic thoroughly enjoyed caressing and tongue-polishing her shiny mithril frame head-to-toe whenever it had the chance to do so.
Ambrosia was definitely at the bottom of its list, though, as Boxxy still wasn’t quite sure whether that dungeon core could keep her loyalties in check. At least her language lessons were getting better as of late since she steadily learned how to teach others. The dryad had even gotten ahold of the Mentor Skill somewhere along the way and was diligently practicing her Cooking Skill as instructed, both of which were already at Level 3.
Still, as useful as she was, she was still a potential threat that Boxxy had to treat with care. Well, not too much care. Her true nature was that of a monster, so the two of them naturally saw eye-to-eye on most topics, despite the dryad being tainted by the influence of an elf-loving goddess. At the very least, Boxxy was sure its lair would be safe, as its experiments had revealed she would not forgive intruders in her dungeon, regardless of whether they were elves or not.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 20 Blade Dancer! DEX +2. END +2. STR +1. AGI +1.
The Mimic continued slaughtering people as it let its thoughts stray towards useless things. It was already at the stage where the act of murdering helpless, terrified humans was so routine it could probably do so in its sleep. That was why it was able to casually navigate its Status and Skill windows as its limbs mechanically took their lives. And the reason it did so was because it wanted to unlock the next Blade Dancer Skill it had its eye on.
Proficiency level increased. Evasion is now Level 1. AGI +3. END +1.
This one was actually available as early as Level 10 of the Job, and was a common Skill that many Jobs had access to. Its effects were normally quite subtle in that they assisted the user’s movements when it came to dodging and avoiding attacks completely. However, it was a Skill that grew stronger the more Agility (AGI) one had, and both Boxxy and Keira had that in spades. And although the Mimic was quite good at dodging things already, being able to do so without any wasted movements would let it counterattack more easily. There was far more to an efficient dodge than simply ‘moving out out of the way’ after all.
Proficiency level increased. Evasion is now Level 3. AGI +6. END +2.
Like for example that Shadowbolt Spell that it just avoided by ducking under it, letting the mass of darkness pass just over the top of its head. If it had dodged it the way it was used to, then-
Wait, Evasion gained two whole Levels?!
It didn’t have time to think about such things as Sandman’s hulking figure moved with uncanny speed to avoid yet another one of them.
Proficiency level increased. Evasion is now Level 4. AGI +3. END +1.
Just how dangerous were those Spells to give it that much proficiency? The Mimic leapt back from its position and broke off its pursuit of the fleeing Imperial soldiers. A third Shadowbolt came flying at it from well outside the Spell’s standard 30-meter range, but this one was blocked by Claws. The stalker demon had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and used her back-mounted sickle-legs to cut through the incoming projectile well before it reached her master. Arms, Snack and the affectionately-named Smokey also broke off their pursuit and rushed to Boxxy’s side.
As the ever-retreating line of Imperial soldiers drew further away, the Mimic was finally able to identify its attacker. It was, of course, a Warlock. A particularly old one at that. Much like Boxxy, he also had three familiars out on the field.
The first one was obviously a fiend - a towering pile of muscle that was slightly taller than Arms. Unlike her, however, he was humanoid in appearance and had the standard set of limbs, although his arms were probably twice as thick as they needed to be. His skin was a pale, dull color somewhere between blue and purple, and his legs ended in a pair of goat-like hooves. His facial features were obscured by a steel-like helmet, although the horns that protruded from it were very much like the Mimic’s own familiar. His left arm, shoulder, hand and leg were encased in shining, thick-looking armor, while the right half of his body was nothing but bare, chiseled muscle. In his right hand he carried a huge glaive that momentarily reminded Boxxy of Punchy, and a pair of tight short shorts similar to Arms’ hid his groin from view.
The second demon was a hellhound, a massive canine creature that was a size bigger than Smokey. It had two wolf-like heads that let black smoke out of their nostrils with every breath, while hissing, bright yellow drool dripped from its growling mouths. The sharp fangs in its jaws and the long claws poking out of its paws went from a dim red at their base to a bright yellow at their tips, almost as if they were molten steel. Its thick fur was a fitting gray like burnt ash, and its literally flaming eyes made it impossible to tell which way it was looking.
The third demon was a green-skinned beholder that looked a lot like the one the undercover Mimic had seen back in Bootsplit. What was his name again? Thump-it or something? Regardless, it had the same array of 10 tentacle-like eye-stalks coming out of its floating head, all of which were fixed directly onto the Sandman as it levitated over his master’s head.
As for the master in question, he had a marvelous gray beard that went down to his chest. His body was draped in a plain-looking blue robe while a matching wide-brimmed hat was on his head. His gnarled hand carried a thick wooden staff that looked more like a large stick than a magic item. In short, the old man’s equipment made him look just like the Level 30 or so Warlocks that were part of the Empire’s army. However, the fact he was able to stare unflinchingly at the Sandman - a being that should appear as nothing less than terror incarnate to such people - proved he was clearly not one of them.
In fact, his face was one the Mimic had seen before. Even if it sometimes struggled with names, the monster very rarely forgot a face. And it clearly remember seeing this one just after it had become a Doppelganger. It was the same person that had unabashedly stared not at the ginger-haired elf his carriage came across on the imperial highway, but at the two demons behind him. The same one that Boxxy had decided to ‘let go’ as it was on its way to Bootsplit. In retrospect - a very wise decision.
“Greetings, mister Underwood,” said the old man in a thoroughly excited voice. “My name is Arakawa Shinji, and I-”
Boxxy had thrown a poisoned knife at Shinji while he was running his mouth. Unfortunately for the Mimic, the blade bounced off an invisible barrier mere centimeters in front of the startled Warlock’s face and fell harmlessly to the ground.
“... Okay. See here, I don’t-”
Something metal bounced off of the old man’s magical shield once again.
“Gods damn it! Fine, have it-”
In what was becoming a trend, the old man’s words were cut off as the rebounded metal orb that was still in the air split open in the next instant.
The Artificer-made flashbang did just what it said on the tin as it flashed and it banged. One would think a cheap trick like that wouldn’t work, but Boxxy had learned firsthand it was nigh-impossible to overcome certain biological reactions with Status alone. In fact, its own heightened Perception (PER) had worked against it when it accidentally activated the Elder Dryad’s Authority a few days ago. Keira rolling around on the floor while screaming her lungs out was no mere act, but the creature’s honest reaction. It was honestly proud of itself for managing to maintain the facade even despite the unexpected occurrence. Therefore, even if its opponent was one of the Empire’s VIPs, it was inevitable that Shinji and maybe even the demons around him would have been blinded by that, even if for a little while.
And Boxxy used those precious few moments to turn around and run away with all its might.