The Palace of the Crystal Maiden, which shared a name with the dungeon it resided in, was a fortress in its own right. It had been built atop a mountain summit, with only one path leading to it and six separate gatehouses protecting it. The battlements themselves were manned by a small army of golems, which looked to have been made out of enchanted ice.
They only looked the part, though. Actual ice may have been a suitable host for elementals, but made for extremely poor golem material. Therefore, the guardians that protected the Palace were actually crystal golems whose bodies had the appearance of frozen water. They had mostly humanoid forms, but their skin had the aesthetic of polished gemstones, which involved a lot of complex geometric shapes, clearly defined angles and flat surfaces. The way the sunlight was spread about as it passed through and reflected off their faceted bodies cast their surroundings in a beautiful radiance that almost made them too shiny to attack.
‘Almost’ being the operative word there.
“Hmm, seems there’s at least sixty of them up on that wall,” reported the Mimic as it peered over the snowbank it was hiding behind. “Only about a quarter of them seem to be carrying weapons, the rest must be Spell-slingers.”
“Forgive me, milord,” butted in Ambrosia, “but doth golems even know any arcane incantations?”
“Fizzy can use Holy magic, remember?” it pointed out.
“That may be so, but even I realize thy… glistening companion is most anomalous.”
“All crystal golems can use magic, it’s what separates them from the metal and stone variety,” explained Xera. “Well, they also break easier, but the ability to melt faces from afar typically more than makes up for it.”
“And since we’ll have to assault those gates,” chimed in Boxxy, “it means we’ll be on the receiving end of their magic.”
“I see. So it is to be a siege, then?”
“That’s the plan.”
This was the reason why Boxxy, Ambrosia and Xera were currently hiding behind a snowbank about fifty meters away from the first gatehouse protecting the sole pathway to the Palace. The spriggan was able to meet up with the djinn thanks to the former’s pyrotechnics display. The two of them then proceeded towards the palace in accordance to the last order Xera had received from her master, allowing the three of them to reunite at the base of the summit.
“Then are we waiting for the rest of thy servants?” asked Ambrosia curiously.
“Yeah,” confirmed Boxxy. “Ideally we’d want Arms here with us. Her Siegebreaker Skill will be very useful against those stone fortifications.”
“Art thou sure milady Koralenteprix is even coming?”
“She should be. You did see the notification about the library being cleared, right?”
“That is not what I meant, milord. I am merely wondering if someone as mentally challenged as her is capable of anticipating milord’s desires.”
“She raises a good point, Master,” butted in Xera. “That moron probably hasn’t realized she’s supposed to convene here with the rest of us since it wasn’t a direct order.”
“Hmm… Now that you mention it, it has been over twenty minutes since the Eternal Library was conquered.”
One could argue that she might’ve just gotten lost, but the big hulking blue palace that loomed over the area was literally impossible to ignore. Distance also shouldn’t be a problem since, even though this dungeon was literally kilometers wide, someone of that fiend’s stature would easily be able to cross it by now. It wasn’t like she was being held up by monsters or anything either, as neither Boxxy, Ambrosia nor Xera encountered any hostiles after defeating their respective bosses.
Traps were another story, though. Both the Mimic and the djinn-spriggan pair had to get through quite a few of those, but they were able to get through those without much hassle. Boxxy had some of its Mirror Images run ahead of itself and set off any snares or ambushes in its path. It was a brutish method, but more reliable than trying to detect them through all the background ‘noise’ of the dungeon’s ambient mana. Xera and Ambrosia, on the other hand, were able to avoid them by following the djinn’s Guiding Light.
However, Kora had neither disposable body doubles nor access to clairvoyance magic. It wasn’t hard to imagine her being displaced by another teleportation trap even if she did somehow figure out where she was supposed to be headed.
“Let’s give her another hour or so,” declared the Mimic. “It’s not like we’re in a rush or anything.”
“As thy wishes, milord,” said Ambrosia with a polite curtsy. “In that case, I shall make myself comfortable.”
The spriggan then proceeded to burrow into the snow underfoot in search of soil, while Xera’s eyes shone with a rather ravenous glint.
“Master!” she called out in a loud voice. “Since we’re not going anywhere, could you please turn my filthy pussy and vulgar asshole into a sopping mess?!”
Needless to say, the prospect of downtime had gotten her more than a little excited, especially since she was still hot and bothered from that Torture Chamber business. And since her Master was extremely pleased when she presented it with the Prismatic Cloak, it only stood to reason it might be willing to reward her hard work. And if that wasn’t the case, then it would shut her down with a slew of verbal abuse, which would be a fitting consolation prize in and of itself.
However, her beloved Boxxy didn’t answer, and instead stared directly overhead. Xera was caught a bit off guard by this total lack of reaction and followed its eyes with her own. It took her a few moments, but she was suddenly able to tell what had caught the Mimic’s attention. It was a tiny speck shooting across the partially cloudy sky. She squinted her eyes at it, but was barely able to make out anything beyond a mixture of red and green colors. The realization of what she was looking at failed to hit her until she could just barely pick up on a string of distant profanities being carried on the wind.
“Is that… what- who I think it is?” she muttered dumbly.
“Yep,” confirmed Boxxy. “It’s Arms.”
Using the Ranger Job’s Eagle Eye Skill, the Mimic was able to zoom in on and very clearly track the flailing Archfiend as she soared through the air. No, perhaps ‘soar’ was too strong a word. ‘Hurtling uncontrollably’ would probably be a much closer description of her current state.
As for the cause of her airborne aspirations, they likely stemmed from her footwear, which wasn’t her usual set of armored greaves and sabatons. She had replaced them with a pair of plain-looking brown boots that had a pair of white feathery wings on each ankle. Their appearance made it seem like they were supposed to bestow flight upon the user, but that very clearly wasn’t the case.
After all, the dungeon would never allow such a trajectory if this were a controlled flight.
Boxxy didn’t get to ponder the fiend’s situation for long, however, as it realized she was headed right for the palace that rested at the summit. Except that she didn’t actually hit the ground, at least not right away. She collided headfirst into the outer wall of the frozen chateau, resulting in two of her horns being broken off. She then smashed through a balcony of some description, broke a flagpole jutting out of the building and then bounced off of some golem-filled battlements. Her trainwreck of a landing ended outside the Mimic’s field of vision since she crashed into the ground behind some walls, making it unclear whether she survived or not.
The flashes of magic and the sight of glistening crystal body parts being launched into the air put that question to rest almost immediately afterwards.
A deep horn echoed in from the top of the summit. It seemed to be a call for reinforcements, as the crystalline soldiers and mages atop the nearest gatehouse began to vacate the walls and moved towards the palace. They still left some troops to man the gates, but it was a skeleton crew of barely even ten golems. Needless to say, this was a development that suited Boxxy just fine.
“Snack. Hit them.”
“At once, Master!”
Following the Mimic’s order, Xera broke out of cover and approached the first gatehouse while gliding low over the ground. The remaining guards noticed her approach and let loose a barrage of predominantly ice-based magic, but they failed to hit their target. Not because she dodged or anything, but because a Sandman-shaped Mirror Image had appeared in front of her and body-blocked the incoming projectiles. This allowed Xera the precious few moments she needed to finish chanting her own Spell.
A massive ball of flames and molten rock fell towards the gatehouse, prompting the defenders to raise a massive magical barrier. They seemed to be using a Skill similar to Synchronous Chanting to pool their mystical energy, but there were far too few of them to repel the djinn’s magic. The Meteor smashed right through their defenses and landed directly on top of the gatehouse, engulfing the entire thing in crimson flames. The structure itself was left standing and mostly unphased through the dungeon core’s efforts, but the sentries on top of it had been instantly annihilated.
With the paltry defenders dealt with, Boxxy moved up the path in its wheeled treasure chest form while Ambrosia rode side-saddle atop its lid. The road leading to the central Palace was extremely flat and relatively straight, so it was sure it could build up a lot of speed even though it was uphill. Well, wheels weren’t very suitable to scaling walls, but that wasn’t really much of an issue.
“Hang on tight, Ambrosia!”
“As thou wishes, milord!”
The spriggan complied with the Mimic’s request and lied face-down on top of it, hugging it as best she could with her branch-like arms. She also took this opportunity to rub herself against its wooden surface in a rather unnecessary manner, but Boxxy was too focused on the task at hand to notice. The quartet of wheels on its undercarriage suddenly split up into eight spider legs, allowing it to quickly climb over the wall. As for Xera, she had simply used her Mist Form to pass through the closed portcullis without much issue.
Once on the other side of the wall they resumed going up the path at high speed and caught up to the rest of the golem force just as they were passing through the second gatehouse. The Mimic produced another Mirror Image, which had the same half-box-half-cart form as the original. Boxxy then reached into its Storage and pulled out a Spell Crystal containing a Dark Explosion augmented by Power Overwhelming. It tossed the ‘Big Bang Ball’ to its body double, which was easily caught with a fleshy tendril.
It then put all of its efforts into accelerating, pulling ahead of Boxxy, Xera and Ambrosia. The guards at the checkpoint noticed its approach, but the sheer speed at which the thing was moving towards them made it hard for them to react in time. The Mirror Image abruptly changed into a gigantic steel wrecking ball and plowed through their ranks. It reverted to its base Doppelganger form once it lost momentum and tossed the volatile lump of magic squarely in the middle of the open gates. It landed where the enemy was thickest, at which point it cracked open and released its payload.
The ensuing detonation shattered over twenty golems at once, sending shards of ice-colored crystal flying in every direction. The deluge of glittering shrapnel was so severe that it mowed down another dozen or so more of them. Even the ones atop the wall were not left unscathed since the shockwave had penetrated through the stone. The sheer force behind the explosion was strong enough to cause huge cracks in their bodies, leaving them crippled and in pieces.
Boxxy, Ambrosia and Xera slipped through the confusion before the golems could close the door, taking out a few more of them as they passed by. The djinn then dropped another Meteor on them as a parting gift before the trio proceeded towards the next gate. There were probably survivors left in their wake, but the Mimic couldn’t afford to waste time on mopping them up.
It had already found out that its summoning magic was being nullified within the dungeon so it wanted to make sure Arms survived whatever mess she had gotten herself into. She was far too valuable a war asset to lose at this juncture. The same could also be said about Claws, but Boxxy had more pressing concerns than a Stalker whose status and whereabouts were still unknown.
The trio reached the third gatehouse in no time flat and found it in a state similar to the first one, so they went through it in much the same way. They then caught up to a marching golem platoon on their way to the fourth checkpoint and barreled through them without wasting any time. This bunch actually managed to hit the invaders more than a few times with their magic, but it was nothing that Ambrosia’s healing Spells didn’t immediately fix. The next gatehouse was dealt with in a similar way to the last, and the one after that was also caught with its gates open.
Coming up on the sixth and final barrier along the path, Boxxy was finally able to spot Arms. The fiend had fought her way up to the battlements and was currently dealing with a small army of golems. The harsh fall and constant barrage of ranged attacks seemed to have worn her down considerably as her left leg was encased in ice and she was having trouble breaking free of it. Not only that, but two of the arms on her right side hung loosely like a pair of wet socks with broken bones poking out of her red skin.
It was quite obvious she wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer, but she wouldn’t have to now that she was in range of the Soul Link Skill.
“Snack! Come closer!” commanded Boxxy as it came to a sudden stop.
“Yes, Master! Is it punishment time?!”
“No, just shut up and stand still. Ambrosia - start using your healing on Snack and don’t stop until I say so!”
“At once, milord!”
The spriggan began chanting her water-based magic while Boxxy began an incantation of its own.
Xera was then engulfed by the effects of both Spells, which were transferred through the Soul Link to Kora. The intoxicating feeling of having her body being empowered by concentrated darkness flooded the Archfiend’s being. Her broken limbs then snapped back into their proper place as the dryad’s healing magic did its thing. With the numbness in her leg suddenly going away and excessive power overflowing from within, she was finally able to break free of her icy bindings. She began fighting the golems with renewed vigor, with Boxxy and the others joining in soon afterwards.
Any semblance of resistance was then completely and thoroughly wiped out in less than thirty seconds.
“Fuck!” cursed Kora while breathing heavily and leaning on her knees. “I’m so glad you showed up when you did, boss. I almost died to a bunch of glorified ice cubes! I’d have been the laughing stock of-”
“Nevermind that,” interrupted Boxxy. “How did you get up here in the first place?”
“Ah, right, it’s cuz of these things!”
The fiend then gestured towards the tattered remains of the boots that still clung to her ankles.
“I thought they’d let me fly, but they refused to work. So I tried jumping as hard as possible to gain some altitude and they kinda catapulted me in the direction I was aiming at and… I guess I kind of broke them, didn’t I?”
It wasn’t until the end of her explanation that the fiend realized her new footwear did not survive the battle.
“So… uh… whoops?” she added with a cringe.
“Where did you get those whatever they were, exactly?” asked the Mimic in a damning tone that sent a shiver down the fiend’s spine.
“… Out of a treasure chest,” she answered with a clearly guilty expression.
“The one you got for defeating the boss?”
“What material was the chest made out of?”
“Uh, I dunno? I-iron, I think?”
“No, I’m sure! It was iron! It was polished, but definitely iron!”
Hearing that panicked response made Boxxy’s animosity rapidly diminish until it dissipated completely with a tired sigh.
“Well, that’s not too bad then. As long as it wasn’t gold or silver, then I can overlook it.”
“Huh?” asked a very confused Kora. “Gold? What?”
“Snack, fill her in,” it commanded as it walked off towards the palace’s front door.
“Yes, Master,” said Xera with a deep nod. She then turned towards the fiend and began explaining. “It’s like this, dick-for-brains - the rewards in this dungeon seem to be tiered. The fancier the material the chest is made out of, the better the item.”
This was something Boxxy was able to determine after comparing notes with Ambrosia and Xera following their reunion. The golden chest that the Mimic had been presented with contained what seemed to be an Artifact-grade bow, much like the ones in the Spire of the Jade King. It therefore stood to reason that Goroth places his best stuff in golden chests. Xera’s silver chest, on the other hand, had yielded a high-end Masterwork item. It was a good thing in its own way, but obviously nowhere near the level of that immensely shiny bow.
Ambrosia, however, had been presented with a simple wooden container. The set of five rings she got from it were definitely shiny, but did not seem to have any sort of enchantment on them. Boxxy wasn’t quite sure what sort of criteria was set up for distributing loot, but it definitely felt a bit cheated by that particular outcome. Especially since the dryad had somehow ruined the shiny Sun’s Crest it had given her. She was being strangely evasive whenever it asked her about it, so it ended up dropping the matter for the time being.
The last thing it wanted to do right now was piss off a millennia-old tree spirit so soon after it had smoothed things over with her.
“In other words,” continued Xera, “since your items came out of an iron chest, then they were probably trash anyway.”
“Ohhh, I see!” exclaimed the fiend. “So that’s why the boss isn’t all that upset with me! … Hey, wait a minute. Does that mean all the annoying shit I went through was rewarded with garbage?”
“I guess,” said the djinn with a shrug.
“What a fucking scam!”
Xera responded by raising an eyebrow at her co-contractor.
“Why are you so angry?” she asked. “It’s not like you’d get to keep that stuff anyway.”
“That’s not the point! This fucking place disrespected me, and I’m going to punch it in the face for that!”
“Do dungeons even have faces?” chimed in the dryad from the side.
“This one does,” stated Kora while reflexively protecting her nether region. “A short, overconfident, annoying, and extremely punchable one!”
The other two women began nodding in full agreement, as each of them also wanted a piece of that insufferable dungeon master. As for Boxxy, it was currently too busy inspecting the gates of the icy palace to pay attention to its minions and their communal hatred for that djinn. Now that it was able to see the building up close and study its construction, it found out a number of rather peculiar things.
First of all was the realization it wasn’t actually built out of ice, but looked to have been hewn out of the same light blue crystal as those golems. A single titanic piece of it, to be more precise. The walls of it were completely smooth and seamless, making it readily apparent that they were not assembled out of bricks of the borderline gemstone-like stuff as it had initially assumed.
The huge double doors were another curious part of it, as they seemed to have been merely carved into the wall and were entirely decorative. They couldn’t open no more than the statue of a war hero could take off his coat. The various windows and terraces were the same, making it seem like this structure was more of a sculpture than it was a residence. It was also completely solid, so there’d be nothing to go into even if there was a functional entrance.
There was one more thing that seemed to be of particular interest, though it wasn’t actually part of the ‘palace’ itself. There was a chest-high rectangular stone pillar directly in front of the non-entrance, which had a steel plaque of some kind bolted onto it. This metal plate was clearly of some significance, as it appeared to have a row of four etchings in it, each of which glowed with a dim red light.
The leftmost one was a stylized depiction of a lizard’s head that looked eerily like the one Boxxy had annihilated in no time flat in the Glacial Gallows. The one on its right was a clearly feminine figure with a flower-shaped backdrop, while the one after that was a very flattering representation of an orc. The Mimic had already asked Ambrosia and Snack about their respective trials, so it there was no doubt to in its mind as to what these images represented. Following that logic, the one on the end that looked like a massive eyeball must have been the opponent Arms faced in the Eternal Library.
And since there seemed to be space for one more picture on the far right, it stood to reason that they needed to defeat one more area guardian to… unlock the palace, perhaps?
It wasn’t given any time to speculate, however, as the dungeon master suddenly appeared in front it while sporting a thoroughly defeated look. This caused Boxxy’s companions to stop whatever inane conversation they were holding and huddle around it. Well, except for Kora, who rushed over and tried to punch the illusory djinn’s head clean off. Setre’s visage reformed a second later, showing she was thoroughly unphased by the Archfiend’s attitude.
“So. Here you are,” she stated in a low, tired voice.
“Yeah, here I am,” responded Boxxy. “What happens now?”
“I am contractually obligated to inform you that you need to defeat five of the nine area guardians before you earn the right to challenge the Crystal Maiden.”
“There are nine bosses in this place?” asked Kora with a somewhat enthusiastic tone.
“Uh, yeah,” responded the djinn. “Well, five of them aside from the ones you lot already pulverized.”
“Nice! You hear that, boss? More loot!”
“Quiet, you,” hissed the Mimic before turning back to face the dungeon master. Or at least, as best that a wooden chest on arachnid legs could face someone. “Where are the other guardians?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
The snide reply made it abundantly clear that Boxxy would have to find them the hard way. Well, that wasn’t too big a deal. It doubted anything in this dungeon could stand up to it when it had its demons around. Especially since their efforts had allowed its Warlock Job to reach Level 65 just minutes ago, giving it access to one of the most powerful demon-related Skills it knew about. The only downside was that it had the thoroughly disappointing Enslave Demon as a prerequisite. But if the ability was anything like the Mimic’s research suggested, then it would be very much worth it.
The area guardian of the Howling Chasm has been slain.
To the victor go the spoils.
The Howling Chasm can now be accessed freely for the next 24 hours.
Its plans regarding test runs and whatnot were rudely interrupted when Drea’s hard-won victory over the Mirror Wraith was transmitted across the dungeon. It looked back towards the plaque just in time to see the image of a doppelganger-like head appear in the last free spot. All five etchings then shone with an intense red light for a few moments before the rectangular pillar suddenly sank into the ground.
The event was punctuated by the dungeon master herself, who had slapped her palms together in front of her chest as if to get everyone’s attention. The tired and defeated look she had a moment ago had disappeared without a trace. This was not a good sign. Especially considering her mischievous smile that made it abundantly clear she was up to no good.
“Good job!” she said in a mocking tone. “You’ve cleared stage one of the Hero course!”
“… Stage one?” asked Boxxy somewhat hesitantly.
“Yup! Y’see, I’m allowed to change two things about the dungeon once I confirm there’s a Hero in it. The first is that area guardian encounters become mandatory rather than letting adventurers challenge them at their leisure. This includes the big one behind me, by the way.”
The ground began to quiver and quake mere moments after she finished uttering those words. The walls of the massive palace that wasn’t really a palace also began to shake, although this wasn’t caused by the sudden tremors. Just the opposite, in fact. It was the building’s own movements that were making the ground tremble.
The various facades began to split apart and rearrange themselves. Turrets and spires sank while roofs rose up and assumed new shapes. And then, to the collective surprise of everyone but Setre, the palace stood up. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that the thing rising to its feet was the golem disguised as a castle.
It had battlements for shoulders and massive towers for arms. Its torso was lined with fake windows, giving off the impression of a buttoned up vest. It also had two cathedral-like domes stuck to its front in what appeared to be a crude attempt to assign gender to this anthropomorphic chateau. Its blocky face certainly didn’t seem feminine, nor did the turret-like tiara on its head. One of the particularly tall spires had combined with the rectangular section of the palace where the fake front door was to form a ridiculously huge two-handed warhammer.
It was thus that the 20-meter tall walking fortress referred to as the Crystal Maiden finally made its appearance. Numerous human-sized crystal golems began poured out of its insides towards the end of the transformation. They took up defensive positions along the various fortifications that adorned this behemoth, clearly intending to support the last boss with all the magic they could muster.
“Oh, there’s one more thing,” spoke up Setre with a shit-eating grin. “Since you lot have made it this far, it means I finally get to attend to you assholes personally!”
Her projection abruptly vanished, and Boxxy almost instinctively looked up at the crystal titan’s face. Using its Eagle Eye Skill, it clearly picked up on what was presumably the djinn’s real body. She was flying in front of the golem’s forehead, directly in front of an opal shaped head ornament of some description which was a much more vibrant blue than the rest of it.
As if realizing she was being watched, Setre looked down at the Mimic and flashed it a manic grin before placing her hands upon the massive gemstone. It responded to her touch by letting out an intense white glow. When the light subsided, the dungeon master was nowhere to be seen, though what happened next left little doubt as to where she had gone.
“Hah hah hah hah haaa!”
Her absurdly amplified laughter rained down on Boxxy, Ambrosia, Kora and Xera while the Crystal Maiden’s shoulders rose up and down in time with the cackles. It then craned its neck to look down at them while the colossal block of crystal shaped like a hammer was raised above its head with one arm.
“Let’s see you fuckers handle this!”
The djinn-controlled golem then swung the building-sized weapon down onto the invaders.