Boxxy woke up the next day within the depths of its personal dungeon. It felt the distinct hard ground against its back as well as something soft and pleasantly warm against the back of its head. Strange, it didn’t set out a pillow or anything of the sort when it initiated the Rank Up process last night. Or at the very least it wasn’t part of the Mimic’s preparations for the event.
Snack, for example, had been told to assume Keira’s identity should Boxxy be unconscious for too long. Just a precaution in case something went wrong, though the Mimic did not believe it would be necessary. After all, according to what Reggie had said regarding Doppelgangers, Boxxy should have only been out for three and a half hours at most and would have awoken before dawn. Although Snack seemed a bit suspicious of those words considering their source, her Master had been pretty sure the elderly Doppelganger didn’t lie to it.
For starters, Reggie was probably fully aware what would have happened if he had misled Boxxy regarding this matter. If the ‘real’ Keira vanished without a trace for days or possibly even weeks, then that particular Facade would come under serious jeopardy. Boxxy would probably be able to salvage it somehow even if that were to happen, but it would also make sure to return the favor in full.
It was this unspoken promise of mutually-assured destruction between monsters that Boxxy was counting on to keep the old banker honest. Not only that, but Reggie had very little to gain and plenty to lose if he blatantly deceived his new ‘business partner.’ In other words, he would have been compelled to speak truthfully not because of good will, honor or some sort of personal code, but out of self interest. And that was a motivation that Boxxy could believe in.
So then how come the clock that Boxxy had left out last night was currently telling it that it was now early noon? For what reason was its head resting in Ambrosia’s lap while she looked down at it with a peaceful smile on her face? And why in the world did it feel that bizarre craving for sunshine?
All of those questions were answered in the next instant by the notification that popped up inside the Mimic’s consciousness.
Rank up complete.
Congratulations! Your species has become Creeper (Hylt).
The maximum Level of your Doppelganger Job has been increased to 50.
Proficiency level increased. Phytokinesis is now Level 1. MNT +3. AFF +3.
“... The fuck?” muttered Boxxy.
“Good ‘morrow, milord,” said the dryad when she heard its voice. “Did thou sleep well?”
“The FUCK?!” repeated the Mimic in a loud shout. It scrambled to its feet and scampered away from the seated and startled dryad.
“Milord?! Is something the matter?!”
“Yes, something’s the matter!” it spat back. “Just- Just stay there and let me figure out what’s going on, okay?”
“If thou wishes it...”
Ignoring the sulking plant-lady, Boxxy re-grew its MLG and analyzed its own body. To begin with, the monster had reverted to its base form, which was more or less expected. That form, however, had undergone two key changes.
First of all, it had grown considerably. While its body maintained the same slender proportions, its height was no longer that of a twelve or thirteen-year old human child, and was now closer what one would expect from a fifteen or sixteen year-old. Where before it had to expand its base form to assume Keira’s figure, right now it was slightly taller than the catgirl was supposed to be. Shrinking down in size was possible, but not something Boxxy felt comfortable doing. After all, it was already packing over three times more body mass than a being of its proportions should have, mostly due to the Biomass Skill. Attempting to compress its already dense flesh even further was stifling and uncomfortable, so it hated doing it. Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t need to. Keira was, technically speaking, still a growing girl. Gaining a bit of height every now and then was not only natural, but also expected. Just so long as it was in small, barely noticeable increments.
Matters of height aside, the second and much more noticeable change in its base form concerned its skin. Its pigmentation had become several shades lighter, bringing it close to a dark gray rather than pitch-black. More troubling than that a subtle shift in coloring, however, was that the skin covering the back of its hands, the top of its feet, as well as its elbows, knees and shoulders no longer looked like skin at all. It was hard, brown and uneven, making it both look and feel exactly like a sapling’s bark, yet didn’t seem to limit its movements in the slightest, nor did it feel unnatural or numb as one might expect.
Boxxy was a bit stupefied at first, but instantly realized that it took very little effort to transform the bark-covered parts of its body to match the rest of its pliable, gangly flesh. Technically speaking though, even this tiny change was still a fake, an imitation. Releasing its transformation and allowing its body to revert back to its default shape caused the vegetative parts to reappear as if they had always been there. Meaning that, for better or for worse, they had become a permanent and somewhat unwelcome addition to its body.
Just then, Boxxy had a rather interesting thought. What would happen if it tried ‘pulling’ instead of ‘pushing?’
The newly-awoken shapeshifter brought its right hand up to its non-existent face and stared at its open palm intently. A few breaths later, the greenish brown bark covering its backhand began to spread. It enveloped the palm and fingers, encroached on its wrist and steadily crawled its way up its forearm, past the elbow and all the way up to the shoulder. It wasn’t just a skin-deep transformation either, as Boxxy’s limb had completely turned into a wooden branch, both inside and out. Beautiful flowers, small vines and even smaller branches covered in leaves grew out of it as Boxxy curiously explored this newfound ability. Sure, it could transform to have the appearance of wood before, but this was the first time it had created honest-to-goodness timber out of its flesh. In a flash of inspiration, it partially mimicked the curious structure of Ambrosia’s body, allowing it to freely move its arm and fingers while also maintaining its woody disposition.
“Oh my!” squealed the dryad in question. “Milord can grow thy own flowers?! How wondrous!”
“... You!” growled Boxxy while pointing at Ambrosia with its wooden arm.“You did this, didn’t you?!”
Its moment of wanderlust had passed, causing the shapeshifter to remember that whatever was going on was clearly outside its plans and expectations. If that overgrown twig had somehow forced this on it without its knowledge or consent, then it just might consider detonating that pink mini-core (tentative name) inside her right here and now.
“Whatever does thou mean, milord?”
Not that the suspect involved would readily admit to that, of course.
“It’s your fault I turned out like this, isn’t it?!”
“Like what?” repeated the Mimic in disbelief. “Like! What?! Look at me! I Ranked Up into some bizarre half-plant half-monster hybrid! This was not supposed to happen!”
“I assure you, milord, I had no intention of meddling in thy Rank Up!” she explained frantically. “To begin with, I have no idea what form of creature thou truly are!”
“You still seemed oddly happy about it!”
“Of course I would be happy seeing that milord has grown ever-so-slightly closer to myself!”
“Then why were you holding my head when I woke up?!”
“I just felt like it.”
“You felt like it?”
“I was just standing vigil over milord’s rest, when I suddenly noticed a strangely familiar sensation coming from within thee. I approached thee out of wonder and somehow ended up cradling thy fruit-shaped noggin in mine lap. It just seemed like the most natural thing to do at the time…”
“Uh, huh. Come to think of it, why have you been so touchy-feely with me ever since I came back?!”
It wasn’t like Boxxy minded the extra attention, but it didn’t particularly care for it either.
“I simply wished to selfishly cling onto milord while I had the chance. That is all.”
“What is? What do you mean by ‘while you had the chance?!’”
“... Milord will eventually leave me,” she said with a quiet voice. “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in a month. Maybe decades or even centuries from now, but thou will undoubtedly be separated from me by the passage of time. Thy recent absence had simply reminded me of this inevitability.”
“So what, you missed me and that’s why you’re so clingy?!”
“And how’s that going to solve anything?”
Ambrosia adopted a solemn smile, one that practically oozed with the melancholy and sadness of having to live through literal millennia of solitude.
“I simply wish to forge as many pleasant memories with thee as possible. Thou are unique… special… extraordinary even. Thy companionship, although brief, has filled me with a profound joy and happiness that I have never experienced before. It is… a tasty feeling that I have decided to cling onto for as long as possible.”
She waved her hand towards one of the walls on the edge of the dungeon core platform, causing the countless divine letters and words etched into it to glow with a bright, yellow light.
“‘Tis also why I have endeavored to carve said memories onto mine heartwood. So that I would not allow myself to forget. I am certain that, when the time comes, thy passing will most likely leave a deep wound on mine soul. Forgetting thee would probably help mine future self heal, but mine current self wishes to cherish every single moment I have spent in thy presence. That is the wish of this tree who hath lived too long … the wish of someone who is forever destined to be left behind.”
Ambrosia put one foot slightly in front of the other and bent over with a twirl of her hands. It was a flawlessly elegant bow that even a refined lady of noble birth would have difficulty imitating.
“Therefore,” she continued while staring at the floor with eyes closed, “I beg for thy mercy and forgiveness regarding any transgression I may have committed against thee. I swear upon the Goddess that I truly meant thee no harm nor disrespect, and humbly request that thou allow me to continue serving thee as I have until now.”
“... Whatever,” responded the mentally exhausted Mimic after a few seconds of silence. “Do what you want, just make sure your antics don’t get in my way.”
“Milord is most gracious,” replied Ambrosia while bowing slightly lower.
Boxxy had only dimly listened to that heartfelt speech. Somewhere halfway through her inane babbling, the Mimic had realized that blaming her was a waste of time and energy. It had briefly forgotten just how bad this dryad was at lying and scheming in the first place. She was simply far too honest and naive to even consider such things as sabotage. After calming down and thinking things through clearly, it realized that if it wanted to find the culprit responsible for this anomalous Rank Up, it needed only to look into a mirror.
Reggie, the resident expert on Doppelganger physiology, had stated that their kind were prone to mutation, and implied it wouldn’t be all that odd if a new variant popped up seemingly out of nowhere. Such things were usually brought about as a result of one’s environment. And if there was one truly outstanding thing that Boxxy had done on a regular basis prior to its Rank Up, it was its constant interaction with dryads. It wasn’t mere talking either, as it had even taken to gorging itself on Ambrosia’s potent nectar for the last few days. As such, its evolution into a partially plantlike shapeshifter was a direct result of its own actions.
Besides, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The inborn ability to transform flesh into different kinds of vegetation through shapeshifting was undoubtedly going to be useful. Boxxy just needed to see how far it could take things and what sort of new forms it could assume. Come to think of it, the Rank Up had presented the shapeshifter with a new Skill as well, didn’t it?
Description: The ability to manipulate plant life through the power of one’s mind.
Requirements: Be born as a plant-related species with telekinetic potential
Activation Time: Instant
Range: 5 Meters
Effects: Grants control over targeted vegetation within range.
Consumes MP based on the size and weight of targets under the effects of this Skill.
The strength, speed and range of movement of controlled targets are dependant the combined strength of the MNT and AFF Attributes.
Increases the effectiveness of this Skill by 10% per Level of this Skill.
It would seem that the mental abilities normally present in ‘pure’ adult Doppelgangers had manifested themselves in a rather weird way. Boxxy wasn’t sure whether to be happy about this or not, as it had no frame of reference. It did, however, had a bone to pick with those dubious requirements. While a Creeper was indeed a plant-based subspecies of Doppelganger that retained the telekinetic potential of its main race, this particular individual hadn’t been ‘born’ as one, but had Ranked Up into it instead.
Then again, one could argue that a Rank Up was not far too different from a rebirth, of sorts. Well, truth be told that was simply the most logical explanation that the Mimic could think of. If a Rank Up didn’t count as a ‘birth,’ then how else was a monster supposed to acquire the racial Skills of whatever species it had evolved into? Therefore, rather than obsess pointlessly over a technicality, it wholeheartedly accepted the new Skill on from itself on behalf of itself.
With that matter confidently and completely settled, Boxxy decided to try out this newly-acquired Phytokinesis on its surroundings. It looked around the dungeon for a suitable spot for a while before a flash of brilliance caused it to forget the whole thing and leave it for later. Technically speaking, such a thing as ‘a good spot to practice plant control’ did not exist within Ambrosia’s tree. There was, after all, only a single piece of vegetation in this entire dungeon. One that was pointlessly massive and already had an owner. An idiotic, gullible and absurdly powerful owner that Boxxy stood no chance of overpowering.
Since flexing its mental muscles didn’t seem feasible for the moment, Boxxy decided to check out its physical ones. It began by transporting itself to its treasury through the use of the dungeon core’s Nexus Access. It wasn’t here to play around, though. Granted that did happen to some degree, but the original reason it went there was to test the limits of its physical strength. Before the Rank Up the most it could carry was roughly 270 kilograms of valuables, which was about 60 kilograms more than its own body weight. Any more than that and its muscles and bones would begin screaming and creaking in pain as the massive load threatened to crush it flat. And now, even though it had gained hardly any mass, it was capable of bearing just over 320 kilograms of the stuff before its body began to give out. It was a rough, unscientific measurement, but one that showed a marked increase in muscle power which had occurred quite literally overnight.
The next thing on Boxxy’s agenda was to go for a run inside the dungeon, trying to gauge if it had also gained any speed or stamina. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case. Or rather, if there was a difference, then it was far too minute for Boxxy to discern it. To begin with, the Mimic hadn’t really thought of measuring its speed prior to the Rank Up, so that portion of the post-Rank-Up-warm-up had become an exercise in futility.
Once that was done, the Mimic unequivocally confirmed the vitally-important shapeshifting didn’t suffer any ill side-effects from its new, leafy disposition. Flesh, bone, teeth and metal were molded with the same speed, consistency and accuracy as before. The new plant-based possibilities, however, were much slower in comparison, although that was only natural. Boxxy had never really had a reason to study how trees, shrubs, grasses and vines were put together in the first place and had to work entirely off of its newfound intuition. Ultimately, though, this was still the same-old Shapeshift Skill. If the Mimic wanted to master this ‘plantshifting,’ then it just needed to keep practicing.
And it would definitely do so, for this new ability was going to be quite useful. For one thing, the Mimic was able to instantly confirm that it was capable of producing actual Ironbark with relative ease. The notoriously tough material was almost second nature to it due to its ‘heritage’ as a Hylt Creeper variant. Covering its body in the stuff gave it a natural armor that was almost as tough as steel. Granted, it could already accomplish this through Metal Mimicry, but doing it through Shapeshifting had no MP cost. Not to mention that the material itself was not only lighter, but much, much easier to move around in. After all, just because Boxxy turned its flesh into actual metal meant there was no way said metal could retain its elasticity or flexibility.
However, the material seemed ill-suited to be used as weaponry. For one thing, shaping it into a keen edge was nigh-impossible, as Boxxy found out. Its relatively light weight meant it didn’t have the ‘oomph’ behind it to properly serve as a blunt weapon either. Perhaps, in due time and with plenty of practice, the Mimic might be able to mold it into the same SHUNK-y contraption it came up with on behalf of those dryad quintuplets. For the moment, however, it would need to rely on Metal Mimicry if it wanted to create deadly weapons on a whim.
After that was done, Boxxy then decided to tackle the final oddity that had appeared due to the Rank Up - the odd craving for sunlight. Well, that could easily be tested out by simply going outside the Hylt tree’s interior. And what better place to bask in sunlight than the very top of it? Boxxy teleported to the highest point of the dungeon and climbed out into the vast green canopy of Ambrosia’s uppermost branches. Her ‘hair,’ as she liked to put it.
Drea’s elaborately constructed nest dominated a large part of the Mimic’s immediate surroundings. Sheets upon sheets of lavender-colored Demon Silk webbing stretched out in every possible direction. Boxxy could easily make out floors, ceilings, walls, pillars and other such constructs, almost as if the Stalker had built a literal house up here. She had even woven a bunch of crude yet undeniably soft and fluffy furniture. It had all stood up surprisingly well considering its owner had been away for a long while. Then again, she had plenty of opportunity to fix the place up ever since she had returned to the capital along with her Master.
Boxxy, however, did not particularly care for such things and thoughtlessly ripped through it as it made its way upwards. The thick foliage was still blocking a significant part of the midday sun, so it had to make its way even higher. Eventually it came out to that horizontal branch it had used for the Unholy Wealth ritual, one of the few spots around that had both a stable foothold and also direct line of sight with the sky.
The Mimic stepped out into the sunlight and immediately felt a pleasant, fuzzy feeling wash over it. It opened its arms and unthinkingly sprouted several leaf-filled branches from its back as it tried to catch as much of those rays as possible. After several minutes of this, Boxxy felt an ever so slight influx of energy wash over its body.
This warm, satisfying feeling Boxxy was experiencing was undoubtedly the process of photosynthesis. Granted, the Mimic didn’t exactly understand the underlying principles behind it, nor did it even know what it was called. However, it didn’t really need that information anyway. The common knowledge that sunlight was vital in order for most plants to survive was all it needed to know. That’s why it had anticipated something good would happen if came up here, but the actual sensation was far more pleasant than it expected.
Who knew sunlight could be this tasty?
Hold on… It feels like I’m forgetting something important… Oh, right!
“Snack, ” it called out telepathically.
“Oh, Master! You’re finally awake!” came the enthusiastic reply. “Am I to understand we shall be launching operation ‘Ruin Reggie’s Life’ within the hour?”
Xera never liked the fact that that self-important prick dared to think himself her Master’s superior. His apparent betrayal regarding the vital Rank Up process was, in her completely unbiased eyes, totally unforgivable.
“Nevermind that,” declined Boxxy. “Just give me a status report.”
“As you wish, Master. I assumed Keira’s guise once morning came as per your orders and have been filling in for you since then. I pretended to be feeling down and contemplative due to a ‘terrible dream’ so as to avoid interacting too much contact with Rowana.”
It went without saying that, even if Boxxy and Xera could both pull off the Keira act to near-perfection, there still existed certain personal differences between them. As someone who spent the majority of her time with the catgirl, Rowana was highly likely to notice any tiny, inexplicable changes in her girlfriend’s behavior. Well, it wouldn’t happen straight away, but she would inevitably notice that her girlfriend was not the same person she fell in love with.
And underestimating the mysterious ability called ‘women's intuition’ was not something Boxxy had any intention of doing.
“Where are you two right now?” asked Boxxy.
“We’re in Rowana’s house, Master. The elf is currently sitting at her desk working out some sort of budget. I’m in the room with her and making myself look busy with your Artificer tools.”
“... You’re not trying to make a mechanical dildo again, right?”
“Of- of course not. That one time was just me teasing Fizzy a bit, I wasn’t being serious. After all, the only thing that could truly satisfy my hopelessly perverted body is my one and only Master.”
Boxxy let out an exasperated sigh. It could practically see the succubus winking at it with a demure smile on her face. It was honestly starting to understand Fizzy’s unfavorable stance towards ‘meatbags,’ especially her contempt of their ‘disgustingly inefficient mating rituals.’
“Any abnormalities or noteworthy events happen during my absence?” it asked after that short pause.
“Nothing in particular, Master. Although there was something that caught my attention while I was rooting through the elf’s desk last night. It was a partially filled out requisition order for Honeydew on behalf of her clinic.”
The mention of that particularly shiny liquid instantly caught Boxxy’s interest. Come to think of it, that substance was supposedly banned in the Empire, but was legal here in the Republic, right? It hadn’t been on sale in any of the shops Keira had visited, so it had almost forgotten that little tidbit. It made a mental note to off-handedly inquire Rowana about it while it was still in the city. Surely if anyone knew about it, it would be an Alchemist who apparently worked with it.
“Very good!” it said in an elated mood.
“I am unworthy of such praise, Master. Rather, I believe I should be sternly punished for daring to-!”
“Just shut up and keep the elf busy. Be ready for transfer in an hour or so.”
“... Yes, Master.”
Boxxy then climbed down from its perch and started making its way back to the dungeon core platform. Even if this particular Rank Up didn’t seem to cause it to starve as much as the other ones, that didn’t mean it wasn’t feeling a bit peckish. And what better way to alleviate that than to finally sample the fruits of a certain someone’s training?
|Boxxy: Ambrosia, did you prepare my meal like I requested?
Ambrosia: Ah, forgive me, milord. In all the excitement I almost forgot about it. It is indeed ready, although I will need to reheat it.
Boxxy: Does it necessarily have to be heated?
Ambrosia: Indeed. Most of the dishes I have prepared display superior flavor while they are warm.
Boxxy: Alright. Then do what you have to do and bring it to me ASAP.
Ambrosia: I do not understand. Does milord wish to sample mine sap as well?
Boxxy: No, you idiot. ASAP is short for ‘as soon as possible.’
Ambrosia: Understood. In that case I shall bring thee thy meal with utmost haste.
The Mimic had already found itself back at the heart of the Dryad’s Domain by the time it finished its little chat with Ambrosia. The dryad had thoughtfully prepared a large dining table and a fancy-looking chair, both of which seemed to have been grown out of the ground. Taking the hint, Boxxy seated itself and waited patiently for its meal to arrive. It was the culmination of Ambrosia’s mind-altered devotion and Claws’s excellent eyes for prime meat, so it couldn’t help but look forward to it.
Ambrosia reappeared after about 15 minutes or so. She walked towards Boxxy in a prim and proper manner, with her hands crossed in front of her belly and a welcoming smile on her face. Numerous green vines grew rapidly out of the floor at her passage like a grand wave of greenery. Atop this cascade of vegetation were eight extra-large covered plates that were being smoothly and securely passed from one plant to the next while keeping pace with the dungeon master.
The various dishes were gracefully laid out before Boxxy while Ambrosia stood off to the side. With a flick of her wrists and a twist of her vines, she began presenting each and every one of her specially prepared recipes to the shapeshifter that was practically quivering with anticipation.
First was the appetizer, a large plate of bite-sized bits of raw thigh meat, lovingly wrapped in crispy, slightly charred skin. Boxxy immediately became a fan of those, despite their small size. Next was a blood-soup with lightly boiled facial features such as noses, ears and lips. The third dish was a thick steak carved out of neck muscle that was marinated in a spicy, blood-based sauce. The fourth was a quartet of human hearts with ground liver stuffing, with a hint of sweet-and-sour herb flavoring. Number five was an order of nectar-basted human ribs that were incredibly savory and practically oozing with juices. The sixth was a slow-roasted human torso stuffed with shavings of arm and leg flesh. For dessert, Ambrosia had prepared a snowy-white eyeball-and-nectar pudding that was so delicious it nearly drove Boxxy to tears. The fact it was served in a pearly white skull instead of a bowl or plate only made it all the more enjoyable. The last plate was a serving of deep-fried bone chips. The pleasant crunching sensation and the hint of human fat mixed in with the slightly salty flavor put a very satisfying finish to the lavish meal. And of course, Boxxy had regularly availed itself of fresh nectar directly from the source throughout the entire affair.
“How was it, milord?” asked Ambrosia once the feeding frenzy had concluded.
Boxxy was currently sitting in the chair in its favored chest-bound form. In fact, it was an improvement on the original form. After all, the tightly-bound planks of wood were actual timber, and not merely flesh disguised to look that way.
“Perfect,” came the utterly content reply. “Absolutely perfect.”
The dryad’s somewhat nervous smile turned into a pleasant grin. She pressed her quivering lips together, struggling to keep the enormous joy welling up inside her from leaking out. She began quickly cleaning up, eager to go somewhere private where she can squeal, jump and giggle without disturbing her liege’s tranquility.
And ‘tranquility’ was perhaps the most accurate way to describe Boxxy’s current mental state. It honestly had doubts whether a creature that normally ate nothing but dirt, water and sunlight would honestly come through. However, that wonderfully orchestrated symphony of flavor had shown just how horribly wrong it had been. Each dish had a unique flavor, texture and consistency that made it nearly impossible to compare them, almost as if they were each within their own league of deliciousness. Boxxy could probably spend the next 3 months struggling to pick out its absolute favorite, but even then the results would be inconclusive. If pressed for answers, it would most likely result in a four-way-tie between the bone chips, the stuffed hearts, the juicy ribs and the white pudding.
It wasn’t just the flavor, either. The sheer amount of meat, bone and blood the Mimic was presented with was enough to piece together five, maybe even six people. It was honestly a wonder all of that came from a single human. Or rather, it was outright impossible for someone to cut out so many vital organs and large chunks of flesh without killing the source, even with the Waters of Life.
However, Boxxy completely did not care about any of those culinary mysteries. The veritable orgy of tastiness it just experienced washed away all its stress and grievances, almost as if they were never there to begin with. Confidence and motivation seemed to well up from within, almost as if it had found a new purpose to live. It couldn’t just wallow around in decadence forever, although some part of it certainly wished for it. It honestly felt ready to go out there, grab the world by the balls and bite its head off. It had a lot to look forward to, after all. Granted, Reggie’s ‘problem’ would probably be a bit irksome, but the payoff was well worth it. Then there was the matter of the ongoing war.
“Ah… war…” mumbled the solitary chest.
Boxxy liked war, perhaps even loved it. It had already tasted the sweetness of wanton carnage on a few occasions and was eager to revel in that tasty sensation once again. It wasn’t just this war either, but any sort of large-scale armed conflict that Boxxy was looking forward to. Out of all the pointless concepts thought up by the people of this world, this was undoubtedly the tastiest, one that resonated with the violent, selfish monster on some deeper level.
For war did not determine who was right - only who was left.