Boxxy was steadily climbing the mountain to the north of the once bustling city of Dragunov, atop which the Palace of the Crystal Maiden was said to reside. Although it had been a full day since the Regulator fell, the treacherous storm’s remnants had only just begun to clear up. As such there was still a frigid wind blowing that carried a heavy amount of sleet with it, but it was nowhere near as bad as it used to be before. Assuming that Xera and Kora’s estimations were accurate, of course. After all, it wasn’t Boxxy that had personally risked life and limb to traverse the icy tempest while it was in full swing, and now that it was out here it was glad it didn’t even attempt to do so.
Even if it was winding down, the weather was still cold enough to numb the Sandman’s limbs, though the fact it was wading through waist-deep snow was hardly helping. Boxxy was only mildly inconvenienced by this, as it had spent the better part of yesterday preparing for its assault on the freezing dungeon. It mostly did this by imitating the dwarven Lieutenant it killed in a fit of anger and infiltrating the various refugee camps. Then, it used the dwarf’s status to procure as much information and supplies it could get its tentacles on.
The info it had gathered was rather pitiable, however, since many of the city’s veteran adventurers had lost their lives in their futile efforts to break through the storm. That being the case, it was still able to learn precisely three things, which was rather impressive considering the situation. The first tidbit was that the dungeon was under the domain of Goroth, the God of Earth and patron deity of artisans and artists. The second piece of information stated that traps were almost as common as monsters, so one needed to be wary of their surroundings at all times.
The third and probably most useful tip it had managed to hear related to the Crystal Maiden herself. Apparently she took an active role in confusing, taunting, disturbing and generally messing with any would be invaders. Even though she didn’t attack them directly, the combination of her interference and the dungeon’s many traps worked together grind their progress to a halt at every opportunity. These stalling tactics would then allow the frigid environment and extremely durable enemies to steadily wear them down both physically and mentally.
In short, challenging that dungeon boiled down to a war of attrition that could last days or even weeks. Overall it was the sort of place that would be impossible to challenge without the right preparation and supplies. Which was why Boxxy had spent the time ‘securing’ a crate full of alchemical elixirs that would help stave off the cold, as well as copious amounts of drinking water from melted snow. It didn’t necessarily need to bring any food along since its Hylt Metabolism would convert the dungeon’s ambient mana into nutrients anyway.
The other thing of note Boxxy had gotten its tentacles on were a trio of shield-shaped golden badges, each of which had a bright yellow gemstone faceted into them. These were all instances of a somewhat uncommon magic item called a Sun’s Crest, which also doubled as a religious icon of Solus. Exactly why or how a place like this had symbols of the Sun God’s faith remained something of a mystery to Boxxy, but it didn’t really care too much about such trivia.
After all, the Mimic had liberated these medallions from the confines of a ‘secure’ storage room for reasons other than their religious symbolism.
Pinning one of these to someone’s chest would cause the circular gemstone to glow like a miniature sun, providing both light and warmth to the wearer. The downside was that the enchantment consumed MP at a steady pace in order to remain active, though that was hardly a problem for Boxxy once its Hylt Metabolism kicked in. All things considered, it was an extremely useful adventuring tool that would prove instrumental when challenging the Palace of the Crystal Maiden. Which was precisely why the local guilds had a ready stockpile of these in the first place, and also the reason why the shapeshifter sought them out.
Boxxy definitely didn’t steal these things just because they were excessively shiny, okay?
The Mimic stopped pondering its questionable business practices when it came across a rather anomalous patch of terrain. From a distance it looked as if someone had used a colossal spoon to gouge out a part of the mountainside, which was then covered in a thick layer of ice and snow. It thought back on what that dwarven Lieutenant had said the day before, and realized this must have been the site where the Vault Beneath the Mountain used to reside. More importantly, it was also the last place where Fizzy had been seen alive and well.
The creature immediately darted towards the crater and began sifting through the frozen rubble. Even if that soldier had claimed the golem’s faceplate was the only thing they could find, Boxxy was skeptical as to how much they had actually searched. It began scanning over the area while using its trusty MLG, and just as expected discovered something of interest hidden 6 meters beneath the surface. This sort of thing was precisely why it had opted to personally make the trek up to the summit rather than rely on its familiars for transportation.
Even if they were proficient in several fields of violence, none of its contractees were particularly observant. On the upside, they had gotten rather experienced at excavation lately, so it had them help out with unearthing its find. Xera’s fire first melted through the layer of ice. Kora’s brute strength and many arms were then utilized to dig through the pieces of stone and metal, while Drea’s webbing was used to make sure the rubble didn’t shift while the fiend did her thing.
Under Boxxy’s guidance, the demonic trio quickly and efficiently unearthed the thing that had caught their master’s interest. It was a small mithril plate that was about the size of a business card. However, the Mimic couldn’t help but be somewhat puzzled by it, as it had many questionable aspects. The metal had an absurd degree of purity and a somehow nostalgic feel to it. Boxxy would almost swear it was another piece of Fizzy’s hide, but hesitated to do so since it was nowhere near as warped or malformed as her detached face.
It then decided that worrying about her was pointless. Hikari had given her word that its shiniest of shinies was still very much alive, and it was inclined to believe her. Although the Goddess of Dice Rolls was hardly the aspect of truth, she had no reason to deceive her chosen Hero on this. If anything that excuse he used about sparing the citizens because Mortimer would complain was far more questionable, but the real reason behind that act wasn’t all that important.
What truly mattered to Boxxy was what it would get from that deal.
With that in mind, the Mimic and its followers stopped moping around and resumed climbing the mountain towards its original destination. It had some trouble navigating since visibility was limited to a few dozen meters at best, but this wasn’t much of an issue since it just needed to go ‘up,’ towards the summit. Its simplistic approach had proven to be the right one, as it wound up on the dungeon’s borders within the hour.
And indeed, a ‘border’ was the only way to describe it. The waning snowstorm it had endured for the last while had come to an abrupt halt, but an entirely different phenomenon awaited further ahead. It was a surreal scene where sleet and wind continued to rage on behind it while an impenetrable fog of white loomed overhead in front, yet there was a three meter gap between them where the weather was impossibly calm. It was even relatively warm, most likely due to the sliver of sunlight was somehow fell on this strip of land alone.
However, perhaps the most vital part of this calm zone was its soil. Unlike the rest of the region, the ground here seemed like it was capable of supporting plant life, which was something the Mimic had been looking for a while. It even dug one of its legs into it and sprouted a root, confirming the soil underfoot was indeed fertile. Admittedly it was at the rate where all but the hardiest of plants would struggle to survive, but it was still the best place to plant a seed on this strangely dead mountain.
Which was precisely what Boxxy wanted to do. It opened up its Storage and retrieved what appeared to be a large pine cone, but something was clearly ‘off’ about it. The way its scales opened and closed in a rhythmical, cascading manner made it look like it was actively breathing. Which, all things considered, was not a trait one commonly associated with pine cones. The Mimic then took its root-foot out of the ground, gouging out a good chunk of the soil in the process. It then buried the squirming seed inside the newly formed hole and poured out a large bottle of holy water it had gotten from a temple of Nyrie before leaving Azurvale.
A patch of lush green grass then abruptly sprouted from the soggy soil, followed immediately by a series of green vines. They climbed resolutely upwards, twisting and coiling around each other while growing thicker and longer at a rapid pace. The growth spurt began to slow considerably once the plant reached a height of about 80 centimeters, at which point its surface began to harden into a layer of rough brown bark. Most peculiar of all, however, was its shape, as it looked eerily similar to a woman that had been buried waist-deep in the ground and had her arms crossed in front of her chest.
Which was pretty much the case, as demonstrated by how her hollow eye sockets opened up. Her arms peeled away from her torso and her hands pressed against the ground. The petite-looking feminine plant then lifted her lower half out of the ground, showing that her roots had formed into a pair of slender legs. Once she had completely removed herself from the soil and was able to stand up properly, the newly-born monster looked dumbly at the cloaked figure of the Sandman. She then began to shake violently while a shimmering green light steadily began to emerge within her vacant eyes. Her mysterious seizure stopped a few seconds later, at which point she bowed politely in front of the Mimic with a grace entirely unbefitting of a newborn monster.
“Greetings, milord,” she spoke with Ambrosia’s voice. “It brings me great joy to see thou hath decided to use this child after all.”
The pine cone Boxxy had been given was the manifestation of the dryad’s Ultimate Skill, called Vessel Sapling. When planted and fed blessed water, it would sprout into a spriggan, a type of plant monster related to treants. They normally only appeared in deep, lush woods with a high concentration of mana and were deceptively intelligent. They also fancied themselves as forest guardians that did not hesitate to use their wind, water and soil magic to fight off anything they saw as a threat to their habitat. Which, under normal circumstances, meant pretty much any non-plant lifeform they laid their eyes on.
This one was anything but normal, of course. It was nothing more than an empty shell which had been grown with the express purpose of serving as a host for Ambrosia’s consciousness. That was why, even if it lacked the generous proportions and hair-like vines of the dryad, it still had a beautiful face and antler-like branches identical to hers. The ancient tree would be able to remotely control her and experience the world through her body, though it only lasted for about a week before it fell apart. This meant that she had to rely on a courier to actually transport and plant the magic seed, otherwise she would not get very far from Azurvale.
Suffice it to say, there really had not been too many opportunities to do so in the past.
“How are you feeling?” asked Boxxy.
“… Malnourished,” answered the tree-woman with a slight pout. “The soil here, ‘tis quite poor.”
“I know, but believe me, it’s the best I could find around these parts.”
“I can see that,” came the annoyed answer as she looked around. “I must say, milord, I hath never once imagined I would be callout to a place nestled between two storms. Or that it even existed. ‘Tis a phenomenon most bizarre.”
“Tell me about it,” said Boxxy while rolling its eyes. “This entire trip has been one weird thing after the other, not to mention a colossal waste of time.”
“Mmm. So why is it that milord hath called me out at this time?”
“Ah, we’re about to invade a dungeon. It’s supposed to be quite challenging so I will likely need your help.”
“Oh! How wondrous!” exclaimed Ambrosia while clapping her hands. “Entering dungeon means there will be a lot of mana for me to feast on, yes?!”
“You sure seem excited by that prospect.”
“Well, eating the same thing for millennia can get quite dull. That is why I am eager to sample new things, even if they are not necessarily, as milord would put it, tastier.”
“I can respect that,” said the Mimic with a nod. “But if you were really that bored with Azurvale’s mana, then why didn’t you ask me to bring you out with me sooner?”
The spriggan shot Boxxy a rather sharp glare.
“Need I remind milord it was thou who chained mine mind to a dungeon?!”
Even if she were technically capable of ‘leaving’ the city - and indeed the dungeon - through her Vessel Sapling ability, the influence from the dungeon core had kept her from even considering that option. And since she never mentioned the Skill, nor did Boxxy think to ask her about such things, this part of her arsenal had simply laid forgotten until her recent liberation and subsequent reunion with the Hylt Creeper.
“Oh, right. Please forgive me, Ambrosia. I’ve said something insensitive.”
Ambrosia’s copy let out a small sigh and relaxed her stance.
“‘Tis alright, milord. I did not intend to lash out at thee, but I get ill-tempered when I am hungry since I’m used to being a lot more well fed.”
“Oh great, another glutton to deal with,” chimed in Xera from the side.
“Hey! Don’t roll your eyes at me!” complained Drea, who was hiding behind Kora for some reason.
“Fuck,” cursed the fiend under her breath. “I was hoping to stay away from that spiteful bitch for a while longer.”
It would appear that Ambrosia’s punishment for her promiscuous behavior had left Kora with some mental scarring. Or at least that was what her body language suggested, especially the way she was unwittingly covering her crotch with her lowest pair of arms. Luckily for her and the others, their complaints were reserved for the telepathic channel between them, well out of the dryad’s earshot.
“What would thou expect of me during this endeavor, milord?” asked Ambrosia.
“You can use support-type magic, right?”
“Indeed. This body knows several Spells that can cure wounds or shield allies. I am a bit out of practice, however, so mine chanting may be a bit slow.”
“That’s fine, just focus on supporting us and keeping as many of us alive as possible. My survival is top priority, of course, followed in order by yourself, then Snack, then Claws, then Arms.”
Even if they were immortal beings, a demon would be of little to no use if their bodies were to expire. Should that happen, though, they could be re-summoned after or even during the battle, unlike Ambrosia’s Vessel Sapling. Her Ultimate Skill was limited to producing only one seed at a time, so if that spriggan were to fall then replacing it would be impossible without returning to Azurvale.
As for the demons, even though the Soul Link Skill would distribute damage equally between them, Xera was doubtlessly the most fragile of the three. She was the one most likely to get hit since she couldn’t block or dodge attacks like the others, and also the one who would die first since her maximum HP was the lowest. On the other hand, she also boasted the strongest destructive power, so prioritizing her safety somewhat was only a logical course of action.
“As thou commands, milord,” said the spriggan with another bow. “However, I have a request of my own I wish to impose upon thee.”
“Oh? What would that be?”
“Should this body fall, and if the situation permits it, please try to secure its head and return it to my main self. It will… ease the pain of the separation.”
“Alright, I’ll keep that in mind. But in order to make sure that doesn’t happen, you should probably have one of these.”
Boxxy walked up to the strangely excitable spriggan and wedged a Sun’s Crest between her rigid cleavage. The round yellow gemstone embedded in its center immediately began to shine with a gentle, soothing light.
“Just feed mana into this if you feel cold,” it explained as it pinned a second one onto the left side of its chest. “The more you channel into it, the more intense it will get. Just don’t overdo it, its liable to break if you overload it.”
“I am grateful for thy consideration, milord. Will thou other servants be getting one of these as well?”
“No. Arms is an idiot that sucks at anything to do with magic, Snack can conjure flames at will, and Claws wouldn’t be much of an assassin if she shone like the sun. Entrusting one of these to any of them would be pointless.”
The Stalker was definitely getting the short end of the stick here, though. Kora would be more or less fine in the cold since her species were naturally hardy and resilient, but someone like Drea had to endure it as best she could. It wasn’t all that bad though, as Xera had been fed an Elixir of Greater Cold Resistance while the group waited for the spriggan to grow. And thanks to Boxxy’s Soul Link Skill, it meant that all three of its demonic familiars got the same 20% increase to cold resistance for the next 2 hours.
“Everyone form up!” commanded Boxxy after preparations were complete. “We’re going in!”
The party of monsters took a basic formation, with Kora at the front, Drea at the back, Boxxy in the middle, and Ambrosia and Xera on either side of it. The Stalker would later move ahead of the group to serve as the scout, but it was better to have the toughest one of them take the lead until they had some idea what it was they were dealing with. With their preparations out of the way, the group then crossed through the freezing fog wall that served as the dungeon’s threshold.
You have entered the Palace of the Crystal Maiden.
Flight is now restricted.
Spatial travel is now restricted.
Your body is no longer bathed in sunlight. Automatic HP and MP recovery reduced by 80%.
Your body begins to feed off the ambient mana. Automatic HP and MP recovery increased by 200%.
Almost immediately the Hylt Creeper felt like it was being assaulted by the air itself. The lingering mystical energies around here were so thick that moving its limbs around almost seemed like it was wading through soup. A tasty, rich, abundant soup that its body wanted to slurp up on the spot, but the onset of it had been so sudden and borderline hostile that the creature had instinctively wanted to reject it.
“Mmmmmm… So good!”
Ambrosia, on the other hand, had no such reservations. She had her hands up in the air above her head and moaned in an almost sensual manner while she eagerly slurped it all up. The very air around her seemed to twist and bend as her body pulled in as much mana as it could into itself. Her appetite was so voracious that the white fog surrounding the group began to visibly thin out as it drifted into the gaps between her bark, never to be seen again.
The spriggan’s body then reacted to the sudden influx of energy by plumping up considerably, giving her slender figure the sort of exaggerated motherly curves all dryads seemed to have. Admittedly she was still smaller than her original voluptuous self when it came to the hip, thigh, and chest areas, but that didn’t seem to bother her too much. In fact, if the flowers blooming from her antlers were any indication, she seemed to be quite content with this situation.
Following her lead, Boxxy decided it too would sample the surrounding miasma, and took in a huge lungful of the mana-enriched air.
“Hmm, not bad,” it remarked, “not bad at all. The sheer volume is quite satisfying, though the flavor leaves something to be desired. Overall, I’d say Ambrosia’s is still tastier.”
“Oh, milord! Thou need not flatter me so!”
“What are you talking about? I am simply stating the facts.”
The Mimic’s straightforward answer made the spriggan feel even more flattered, as she realized this creature never minced its words when it came to its food. The fact that this was its honest opinion only made its words seem all the sweeter. In fact, it was one of the nicest things it had ever said to her, which made her cup her cheeks as if she was trying to hide her blushing face. Not that her current species was even capable of such a feat, though.
“Let’s not get too distracted here, though,” called out Boxxy. “This is enemy territory, be ready for anything!”
The others responded in the affirmative, after which the group began to make their way inwards with Kora at the front. The Hylt Creeper and the spriggan both siphoned off the mystic fog as best they could, but it didn’t seem to improve their visibility. They didn’t have to worry about that for long, though, as the party soon broke through it and entered what seemed to be the Palace’s gardens. It was a wide open area filled with various trees, flowers and hedges that had been frozen solid to the point where they looked like ice sculptures.
The Palace of the Crystal Maiden itself was visible far off in the distance, looming over everything from its perch atop the mountain’s highest point a few kilometers away. As one would expect, it too seemed to have been sculpted out of ice, which made it sparkle beautifully in what little sunlight it managed to catch. That was the only place where natural light was actually allowed to enter this place, as the rest of the sky had been blocked off by thick, gray clouds. Not only that, but the cliff it was resting on was shrouded in a thick mist that made it impossible to tell how one would actually approach that ethereal place.
However, Boxxy and company had more pressing matters to consider rather than some fancy far-off frozen architecture.
“Well, well, well! What have we here?!”
A female voice echoed around them, accompanied by a sudden gust of wind. The small tornado-like air current lifted snowflakes out of the air and ground, pulling them together into the figure of a human woman in the blink of an eye. She had pale pink skin, a youthful face on the cusp of adulthood and a body to match. Her black hair had been done up in an obscenely long ponytail that hung down to her waist while her eyes shone with a brilliant white light that made it impossible to see her irises. She also had a pair of cute glass-like horns poking out of her forehead, denoting her demonic lineage.
Her modest breasts were bound by an azure tube top with a golden rim, and she had a similarly colored scarf covering her neck, shoulders and collarbone. The ensemble as a whole seemed to be designed to emphasize her cleavage, but it was failing miserably since there was very little for the outfit to work with. Her long poofy pants and pointy shoes seemed to be made of the same stuff as her top and completely hid her lower body in cloth.
She also seemed to have a rather obscene amount of jewelry. Her fingers all had rings, jewel-encrusted golden bangles and bracelets adorned her biceps and wrists, and a brilliant sapphire amulet hung off her neck and nestled between her breasts. She also seemed to have a pair of silver hair pins keeping her ponytail in place, and her ears, lip, brow, and nose were all pierced with yet more golden decorations.
“Greetings, travelers. I welcome you to-”
Her introduction was suddenly cut short when Drea attempted to cut her face open. It had taken merely a split second for her to throw a piece of her thread to Kora, who had used it to swing her around like a flail at this pompous stranger. The surprise attack had worked and the stalker’s scythes found their mark, but ultimately proved to be a futile effort. The thing in front of them turned out to be just an illusion of some sort, so the only thing the Stalker’s blades did was slightly disturb her face as if it were but a puff of smoke.
“Hey! Watch it!” she complained while her distorted visage reassembled itself. “I got a job to do here, shit-for-brains!”
This display, combined with her exotic appearance and prideful attitude, led Boxxy to a single conclusion. Their opponent - most likely the Crystal Maiden for which this place was named after - was actually a djinn like Snack. Well, not exactly like her. The Mimic doubted this one used to be a succubus before her Rank Up, considering how lacking in sex appeal her body was.
“Are you the dungeon master of this place?” it called out to her.
“Hmm? Oh me, oh my! You are rather sharp for a brainless oaf too ugly to show his face, aren’t you? I guess you must be the leader of this circus troupe. Are you sure you’re in the right place, though? No offense, but I doubt you and your traveling whorehouse of a carnival actually intended to be here. Or were you so lost in your adolescent fantasies that you actually thought yourself capable of challenging a dungeon?”
Rather than respond to her blatant attempts at provocation, the Mimic simply ignored her and continued on its way. The djinn continued her verbal harassment as she tried to get a rise out of it and its entourage. To her credit, even if her insults were puerile and superfluous, her high-pitched voice and the cocky way she spoke as if she were better than everyone were objectively annoying. However, she didn’t manage to get any sort of satisfactory reaction out of them. The demons were ordered not to respond to her taunts, while Boxxy and Ambrosia were both quite good at ignoring pests.
And yet she still didn’t stop trying to belittle her guests. Which was the right move, as persistence was key if one hoped to get under someone else’s skin. Boxxy was actually learning a good amount from her on the subject of annoying others, though how useful such a skill would be was questionable at best.
“You must think yourself so clever just because you’re a Warlock,” she continued in a spiteful tone. “Fucking slave drivers, the lot of you. Can’t wait to hear you scream when your ‘pets’ finally turn on you! Surely you understand they’re plotting your demise even now, you tiny-dicked loser!”
It became evident at this point that this djinn had never seen any of Jorge’s broadcasts of the Boxxy show, as she clearly had no idea who it was she was talking to. Otherwise she’d know she was just wasting her breath. Her ignorance as to the Sandman’s identity as the Hero of Chaos was likely due to her spending an obscene amount of time in the physical realm. Which, considering that she was the caretaker of a centuries-old dungeon, really wasn’t all that surprising.
In consideration of that, the Mimic decided to give her a bit of her own medicine. Pissing others off was something it was pretty good at as well, so it rescinded its previous order and instructed all of its familiars to give her pitying looks. Which they did flawlessly and genuinely, for they truly thought her attempts to get their monstrous master riled up were laughable at best. It was a small gesture, but one that seemed to have the intended effect, as her cocky smirk disappeared almost instantly.
“D-Don’t look down on me!” she lashed out. “You think you bitches are hot shit just because your tits are big or something?! And what the hell’s the deal with that walking tree anyway?! You people should all just drop dead and become imps!”
Boxxy personally continued ignoring her as best it could as the group approached to be an open gatehouse in the middle of a castle-like wall. When it and the others stepped in front of it, however, the djinn’s face suddenly warped into a twisted grin.
You have been caught in a teleportation trap.
A rectangular section of the mossy ground suddenly lit up, and the five invaders disappeared from their spots in a bright flash of light before any of them could react.