Within the depths of the Dryad’s Domain, directly beneath the pulsating dungeon core, there was a flash of light. The gangly figure of a half-plant half-doppelganger appeared out of thin air, its arms wrapped around a female spriggan of very generous proportions. The Hylt Creeper immediately released the tree-woman from the hug, but she continued to cling to it its back while pouting.
“T’was most unkind of you, milord,” complained Ambrosia. “Thou truly art selfish.”
“Yeah, I got a bit carried away,” replied Boxxy. “I shouldn’t have let that happen.”
Getting so excited over a shiny like that, it was rather pathetic in retrospect. Yet despite that, the greedy monster did not regret its actions. Even if it understood that it acted poorly in the grand scheme of things, some part of it had determined that the mithril chest called the Vessel of Dreams was worth the dryad’s ire. Then again, Ambrosia wasn’t anywhere as ticked off as it had expected her to be, despite abandoning her in the middle of a frozen wasteland of a dungeon for almost an entire day.
“Hmm…” let out the spriggan while raising an eyebrow. “Milord is still young, so I suppose indulging thyself every now and then is to be expected. So, with that in mind, I am willing to overlook this lapse in thy judgement.”
“I appreciate your consideration.”
Frankly speaking, she didn’t look mad at all. Sure, she had something akin to a scowl on her face and her tone wasn’t all that pleasant, but Boxxy could tell she was just acting. If anything, her touchy-feely behavior suggested she was actually quite happy that the shapeshifter went back to pick her up at all.
“However! I will only forgive thee if thy performs a favor for me!” added the plant lady.
“A favor, you say?”
Now this was a surprise. It suddenly became clear why Ambrosia was faking being upset. She probably wanted to use the Mimic’s actions as an excuse to make it do something on her behalf. This was the first time the dryad had ever asked for an actual ‘favor,’ which intrigued Boxxy somewhat. There was no way the ever-curious creature wouldn’t want to know what it was that would drive Ambrosia to act this way, so it decided to play along for now. Not to mention that calling her out on her bluff, no matter how transparent it had been, would probably not be a good idea.
“Uh, before we talk about favors or whatever, could you please let go of me?” asked Boxxy. “It’s getting kind of hard to breathe…”
“Ah! Apologies, milord.”
The spriggan let go of the doppelganger, allowing it to move freely once again. It wasn’t like she was actually strangling it though. Truthfully speaking the monster felt like it could turn the spriggan into splinters in an instant if it tried, though she would probably be genuinely upset about that. At the same time, her embrace was getting quite un-tasty, as those bark-covered hands of hers were hardly comfortable. Hence why it just opted to ask nicely with a bit of embellishment.
As for the dryad, she looked around the interior of her own trunk for a bit before speaking up again.
“I suppose I should slip into something more comfortable while I am at it.”
Five large leaves suddenly sprouted out of the wooden floor, forcing Boxxy to take a few steps back. They wrapped themselves around the spriggan, forming a cocoon of vegetation around her. A bright green light poured out of the gaps between them for a few seconds before they retreated back into the ground. The spriggan’s lifeless body then collapsed on the spot and started crumbling while the Hylt tree surrounding the place returned to its usual vibrant appearance. The original all-green Ambrosia then rose out of the floor, arching her back and stretching her arms as if she had just woken up.
“Ahh… ‘Tis much better!” she exclaimed with a relaxed sigh. “Being able to accompany milord was fun and all, but that shape was just way too cramped!”
She then suddenly remembered she was supposed to be upset, so she erased the soothing smile from her lips and adopted a more serious expression.
“Milord. Wilt thou hear mine request?”
“Listening is free,” responded the Mimic.
“Ah… ‘Tis harder to talk about than I thought… Um, doth milord perchance know of what spring means to the Hylt?”
“… I remember reading something about that, actually. It’s where your flowers are supposed to bloom at their fullest, right?”
“Indeed, though there is more to it. It’s the time of the year when pollination is most likely to succeed. That is what I want milord to assist me with.”
A chill ran down Boxxy’s spine, as it suddenly got a very bad feeling about where this ‘favor’ was headed.
“During our outing, I ran across a remarkable specimen.”
“… Specimen?” asked the shapeshifter dumbly.
“Yes, milord. T’was one of the dungeon’s overseers, a Mountain Alraune. She and I were very… compatible. I wish to cross-pollinate with one of her kind, but I know not whence they hail from.”
“So your favor… is to find one of those and bring it to you?”
“Oh, thank all that is shiny!” exclaimed Boxxy with genuine relief in its voice. “For a minute there I thought you were going to tell me to fertilize you or something.”
As ridiculous as it was, the Mimic could see Ambrosia blurting something like that out. It wasn’t dense enough not to realize the dryad had grown fond of it for whatever reason. This was definitely a good thing, as maintaining good relations with what was essentially its home base was of crucial importance. At the same time, however, it was wary of their relationship becoming more intimate. Boxxy already had its hands full pretending to care for Rowana as Keira and entertaining Snack’s urges, so it really didn’t want to waste time and energy on Ambrosia, too.
“… Ah!” exclaimed Ambrosia after a brief moment of silence.
‘Why didn’t I think of that?!’ was written all over her face. Did she seriously not consider that option? If Hylt trees could cross-pollinate with plant monsters, then surely Boxxy would be a viable candidate. Even if it was just a hybrid species.
“No, nevermind,” said the dryad immediately afterwards. “The whole point of cross-pollination is to absorb the traits of other plants in order to strengthen myself. There would be no merit to doing so with another of the Hylt, such as milord.”
“… It is still possible though, if milord wishes it,” she added with a small smile.
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
Boxxy had a sneaking suspicion that the act, whatever it involved, would not be as fruitless as Ambrosia thought. After all, something like a Hero involving themselves with a dryad’s reproduction cycle was just the sort of thing the Agent of Chaos Skill liked to blow way out of proportion.
“So. A Mountain Alraune, huh?” said Boxxy, trying to change the topic. “I’m not familiar with that strain.”
It had heard mention of the flower-like monsters that lived on the southern continent, but its knowledge on the matter was extremely limited. It had no idea they could even be found on this continent since the temperate climate supposedly didn’t allow for it, so it didn’t bother studying them too thoroughly. Then again, Ambrosia said she met one of them in that ice-themed dungeon, so it probably meant this ‘Mountain’ variant was hardy enough to facilitate that.
Speaking of which, wouldn’t waiting around the Palace of the Crystal Maiden for a new guardian to appear and then kidnapping her be the easiest way to fulfil Ambrosia’s request? No, wait, that wouldn’t work. Goroth’s note mentioned something about Boxxy being banned from fighting the bosses in his dungeons. It would appear that, if Boxxy wanted to fulfil Ambrosia’s request, it would need to do so the hard way. And that was a big ‘if.’
“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do,” it declared.
Strictly speaking, there wasn’t much in it for the Mimic personally, so it wanted to avoid wasting its time with this favor if at all possible.
“If thou finds me a suitable mate, then I swear to give thee a fittingly delicious reward.”
However, Ambrosia had a firm grasp on its personality and new just what to say to get its attention. In her eyes, Boxxy was the type of child that responded to rewards much better than it did to threats or punishment. Her hunch was proven correct when the shapeshifter’s attitude made a complete one-eighty at the mere mention of tasty compensation.
“Delicious reward? Like what?” it asked eagerly.
“Should the cross-pollination succeed, I will be able to augment the flavor of mine fruits and nectar. Truthfully speaking, it has been too long since the last time I hath done something like this, so their taste has actually grown a bit stale. However, I am confident that this Mountain Alraune will help them reach new heights.”
“Alright, I’ll do it!”
Boxxy didn’t give a flying damn about the fruits, but a dryad’s nectar was without a doubt one of the tastiest things that had ever crossed its tongue. Not to mention that Ambrosia used it liberally in many of her recipes to great effect. Therefore, the notion of having the fluid that flowed from her bosom to ‘reach new heights’ was something it wanted to make into a reality.
“I just need to find one by spring, right? It’s still the early stages of winter, so that should give me three or four months at the least!”
“It is good to see milord so motivated, but please do not sacrifice thine own health for this.”
“The… profane object lodged in thy back. Did thou not wish to address it?”
“Oh, right. The soulstone.”
Between looking for Fizzy, conquering a new dungeon and getting excited over new flavors, Boxxy had very nearly forgotten about the souvenir left over from its death-defying encounter with the Foundation. The same thing that might yet prove to be an only temporary lease on life. Now wasn’t the time to be sleeping around in shiny chests and seeking out new taste sensations.
“Ambrosia, I’ll be getting busy now. Will probably head out into town soon.”
“Have a safe trip, milord. I shall then take my leave to tend to mine branches, bark and roots. I suspect certain vermin may have wriggled their way in during our absence.”
The dryad sank into the ground, allowing Boxxy to concentrate on its Summon Familiar Skill. The pet demons it left behind in the dungeon had already withered away since they were too far away for the contract to function, so it had to summon them again. It first began with Snack, who appeared in front of it after several seconds of channeling and a flash of light. She had her usual provocative outfit, outrageous proportions and alluring smile. All of which were, in a fit of supreme irony, completely wasted on the one she wanted to entice the most with them.
“Hello, Master,” she said with a respectful bow. “Did you sleep well in your new bed?”
“Incredibly well, yes.”
“I am glad to hear that. Then could I ask you to stuff my ass full of-”
“Later,” it cut her off. “First I need you to visit Reggie and see what he found out about my soulstone.”
The doppelganger capo was supposedly chasing a promising lead before Boxxy left town, so it was good to find out what he had uncovered since then.
“At once, Master.”
The djinn took a bow and then left to fulfil her mission while her master got busy calling out the next familiar. Its MP had already been largely restored thanks to its Hylt Metabolism, so it wasted no time in summoning Claws. It took a moment to appreciate the webstalker’s newer, shinier countenance. Her ice-like carapace glistened enticingly under the yellow light of the dungeon core.
“Tktktktkt… H-h-hello, M-Master…”
The extra attention Drea was getting as Boxxy ogled her only made the arachnid demoness fidget that much more than usual, though her nervous ticks only served to amplify her shininess. Even if they were minute, the spontaneous movements of her body constantly changed up the angle the light hit her multi-faceted carapace at. Between her and the mithril treasure chest known as the Vessel of Dreams, Boxxy felt like it was perhaps a good thing Fizzy wasn’t around right now.
Otherwise it just might have gone comatose from shininess overload.
“Living shinies are the best shinies after all,” it mumbled in a satisfied manner.
Truthfully speaking, it could probably waste hours just staring at her and it wouldn’t regret it a single bit. In fact, it had already done so multiple times with the absent golem. Even if it had grown somewhat jaded and accustomed to the allure of gold, these constantly changing visages held a certain brilliance that no inanimate object could replicate. That was why it was so adamant about reclaiming the former gnome in the first place, as it could never get tired of it. No statue could ever hope to match her radiance for long. Even the luster of that chest it got from Goroth would grow dull and tired if given enough time.
Boxxy shook the errant thoughts away and turned its attention back to Claws. There was a time and place for appreciating shiny things, but right now it needed to focus on the task at hand.
“Claws! Go out and find me someone tasty and deliver them to Ambrosia. I don’t care if it takes all day or how far you have to go, just get me the highest quality meat around!”
It had been far too long since Boxxy had enjoyed the dryad’s cuisine. It was practically salivating at the mouth just thinking about it.
“Alright! I won’t let you down, Master!”
The webstalker responded in high spirits, infected by the sheer fervor with which those orders were delivered. Her body shimmered out of view as she departed the dungeon, leaving Boxxy to consider its next move. There were two more points of interest it wanted to address, both of which were raised by its recent demise.
One was the nature of that mysterious pink mana sponge of a gem. It still vividly remembered when it summoned Arms the first time after its resurrection, and how she coughed up the item in question. This obviously meant it had some link to the Beyond, as there was no other feasible explanation for that bizarre event. The fact that it had somehow absorbed and then released the contents of Boxxy’s Storage was also indicative of some sort of spatial magic at work. It knew from its experiences with the Transfamiliar Spell that those two aspects produced very interesting results when combined. It therefore wanted to know more about this gemstone and whether its bizarre properties could be weaponized in some way.
“Yo, boss! How’s it hanging?”
Which was why it summoned Arms as soon as it could in order to question her. It wasn’t expecting much, but it was a start.
“Arms, what can you tell me about that shiny you coughed up after the contract was reestablished?”
“I’m talking about this, idiot.”
The doppelganger produced the item in question and held it out for Kora to see.
“Oh! That thing! Yeah, I remember now.”
“So? Can you tell me anything about it that might be useful? Anything at all.”
“Now that you mention it, I guess the summoning that time felt a bit different than usual. I just thought it was ‘cus you kinda died, and there weren’t any problems after that, so I didn’t worry about it too much.”
“Well, normally whenever you call me out there’s a ‘Fwooosh!’ that turns into a ‘Eeeeek!’ and then it’s all ‘Khrrrrrr!’ for a short bit, and then there’s a ‘Bam-bam-bam-DON!’ and I’m here. But that time the last bit felt more like a ‘Skrrrrrra!’ and then a ‘Pak-kak-kak-POP!’ Know what I mean?”
“… I think I do, actually.”
Boxxy was, surprisingly enough, indeed able to make sense of the archfiend’s abstract noises, gestures and facial expressions. Maybe it was a side effect of being temporarily fused with her during the Malefic Union, or perhaps it was due to the clarity of mind the Mimic experienced following that extremely satisfying nap. Whatever the case, it was able to attach meaning to what would otherwise be the nonsense of a moron that was literally born to be thick-headed.
What Arms was trying to say was that some external force had interfered in the latter stages of the summoning process. And considering the fact that a certain pink gem had been lodged in her throat when she appeared, the culprit was rather obvious. Did the item somehow hijack the demon’s entry into the physical realm in order to transport itself? That would certainly explain its appearance, though it raised far more questions than it answered.
“… Arms? What’re you doing?”
When Boxxy next turned its attention to the archfiend, it found her staring at the magical shiny thing in its hand. Her attention was so fixated on the thing, that she didn’t even respond to it calling out to her. Intrigued by this odd behavior, the shapeshifter moved the gemstone around. Up, down, left, right - wherever the jewel went, her gaze silently followed. It was strangely entertaining, but it had other things to do.
“Arms!” it called out once more, this time using the thought-link to yell directly into her mind.
“Huh?! Wha?!” responded the shocked archfiend as she shifted her gaze towards Boxxy.
“Why are you suddenly so obsessed with my shiny?”
“Uh, sorry boss. It’s just that, I never realized it before, but that pink thing is kind of pretty, isn’t it?”
‘Kind of pretty’ was certainly one way of putting it. If Boxxy had to be blunt, the item was without a doubt the shiniest gem in its entire collection, which was mostly due to its exotic coloring and exceptional clarity. Arms’s sudden interest in it was quite baffling, though, as it was rather absurd for a demonic entity to bother with material things. Perhaps it was due to whatever demonic magics this thing inhabited? Or maybe a side effect of having this thing interfere with her summoning that one time?
“Damn, the questions just keep increasing don’t they?” it grumbled.
“Master, forgive me for intruding on your conversation,” butted in Xera, “but may I point something out?”
She had been able to listen in on the latter part of Boxxy and Kora’s discussion, as the pair had moved from verbal to telepathic communication without really realizing it. Then again, the Mimic had spent so much time conversing exclusively with thoughts that it found telepathy to be more natural than speaking. Especially when it came to orderings its demons around. All things considered, the fact that it had used its voice at all in the first place was actually kind of weird.
“What is it, Snack?”
“I’m not sure what you were talking about, but I wouldn’t take anything that moron says too seriously. If it’s about that square gemstone you got from whatshisface the Ranger, then the pink color probably just reminded her of a virgin pussy or something.”
“Oh yeah, it kinda does, actually!” exclaimed Kora.
“See what I mean? She’s so thick that it’s a wonder she’s even able to speak.”
“Hey! I may not be as smart as the boss, but I’m not going to be an idiot forever!”
“Yeah, right. Leave the miracles to the gods, sweetie.”
“Laugh all you want, but you’ll see! I actually met a guy that- Oh, shit! Boss, I almost forgot!”
“What is it now?” responded Boxxy in a slightly annoyed tone.
“You still need a dungeon master for your base, right? You could contract a ranker to fill that spot!”
Boxxy had to admit, that wasn’t a terrible idea. If Goroth could have a djinn as his dungeon’s manager, then surely a Hero could do the same. The only reason it hadn’t tried before was that it wasn’t even aware that was a thing that could happen until it saw it with its own eyes.
“Would anyone actually accept that deal, though?” asked Xera. “Even if the Master is exceptional, I don’t think any demon would take on the job of tending to its hoard. No matter how important any of us think it is, it’s still a rather dull undertaking if you think about it.”
Snack raised a very valid point there, actually. Generally speaking, the demons’ interest in the physical realm was purely for entertainment purposes. A dungeon master position, for example, would let them boss around the dungeon’s monsters while also having fun with any intruders. Boxxy’s place, however, would ideally have none of those things. The only thing a dungeon master would have to do in this place was to sit still and maybe talk with the dryad every now and then. They wouldn’t even be able to tune into Gilligan’s broadcasts of Boxxy’s adventures if they weren’t in the Beyond, so there was actually a net loss of fun.
“Actually, I already got a guy who’s willing to do it,” revealed Kora. “His name is Khurpath Sordazzurr, he’s the gazer demon I fought in the dungeon. He said he’s curious about me, my master and our potential and that he’d like to keep a closer eye on us. He’s also super smart, so he can probably teach us things. Maybe he even knows something about this pussy-gem!”
Boxxy carefully considered the fiend’s suggestion, as it was very likely this idea was given to her by the gazer demon in question. It was certainly an attractive proposition, as information was the one thing that the Mimic was currently in need of. Not only about the mysterious arcane gemstone and the soulstone that may or may not be keeping it alive, but also regarding the flower monsters Ambrosia wanted to pollinate with.
At the same time, it was wary of putting its trust in a demon’s words, as it had no idea how strict a dungeon master contract would be compared to a familiar’s. Not to mention it was unclear what sort of agenda this Khurpath guy might have if he was really volunteering for the position. It may have lucked out by contracting a pair of simpletons like Snack and Arms in its infancy, but elder demons needed to be handled with a lot more care.
“I’ll keep the offer in mind,” it declared. “For the time being, I want Arms to remain here and assist Ambrosia with anything she may need. Claws and Snack - you two focus on your orders and report back as soon as you have any news developments.”
Each demon responded with affirmative answers, though Kora was obviously not enthusiastic about her duties. Boxxy ignored her unspoken complaints and got ready to head out into the city of Azurvale. It wanted to see if it could find out more about Mountain Alraune at any of the adventuring guilds of the Central Consortium. It wanted to avoid turning to unknown demonic entities for answers until it had exhausted all other options.
However, since Keira was still supposed to be out on her private mission with the Sandman as her escort, it had to adopt an entirely new identity. This was a good opportunity, so it decided to infiltrate a new adventurer organization as a rookie member. And since it was already a Warlock, then the Maleficium was the most obvious choice. Alternatively it could try to enroll in Broken Mirror, which dealt with more reputable Caster Jobs, but that would mean starting from scratch as a Level 1 Wizard or a Pyromancer. It had an open Job slot, but that wasn’t the issue here.
It was about its cover. Rather than a throwaway identity, it wanted to set up a low-key Facade that could be used repeatedly without drawing any attention. A total newbie going through the building’s archives and records looking for a very specific monster was sure to raise some eyebrows. It was therefore better to act as someone who was relatively new, but not completely green. Such people could be seen all the time in the Consortium’s library, so such a front would be far less suspicious. Not to mention that said library was on the same floor as the Maleficium’s offices, so this setup was rather convenient to say the least.
The doppelganger therefore began forging its third Facade. Unlike Keira or the Sandman, this one would need to be far more boring and mundane, so doing so was rather easy. The monster shapeshifted into a lanky-looking male elf in his early twenties. He wore a thick, black robe intended to shield him from the winter cold rather than amplify his magic. His green hair was oily and unkempt, he was perpetually hunched over and his personality would be that of a reserved, quiet bloke who wasn’t very good at socializing. A completely stereotypical bookworm, no matter how one looked at him.
As for the identity of this new dramatis personae, Boxxy would play the part of one Bate Enswich, an elf born and raised within the Empire. He faced a certain amount of prejudice during his upbringing, so he was never quite comfortable over there. He finally made up his mind to move to the Republic following the whole war business, though it took him some time to organize the funds to do so. A completely reasonable and, more importantly, believable turn of events given the current political climate.
Having established a baseline for the new Facade’s background, Boxxy began to consider what to put on its Status via Essence Concealment. A Level 20-something Warlock and member of the Empire’s Order of the Black Wand was a good place to start as any. The young mister Enswich would also have the Demonology Skill, which solidified his thirst for knowledge and-
Nope, that wouldn’t do at all, actually. Boxxy had almost forgotten, but Essence Concealment was unable to lower the apparent Level of a Job, meaning it would have to show up as a fully fledged demon-wielding Warlock. Not only that, but adventurers that had familiars, pets or other minions under their control were required by law to register any and all magical creatures they commanded with their guild. That way the records could be used to easily identify the culprit should said subordinate be used to commit a crime via proxy, so it was by no means an unreasonable requirement.
The problem was that the registration process involved a Basic Appraisal check to note the bound creatures’ names and species. And since Boxxy’s Essence Concealment didn’t extend to its servants, it wouldn’t be able to mask its subordinates’ identities. It would therefore show up as a high-Level Warlock with one or more Ranked Up demons under his control. Such a thing was sure to set off all kinds of alarms, meaning that the Facade of ‘Bate Enswich’ would fail completely in its duty of not drawing any attention.
It would appear the monster would need to use a different means of infiltrating the Maleficium.
“Snack, where are you right now?”
“I am still en route to Reggie’s bank, Master. I should arrive shortly.”
“Good. I need your advice on something before you enter the building. I want to get inside the Central Consortium’s library to check a few things out, but I can’t think of a good cover to use.”
“Ah. I see. It’s still too early for Keira to be back from her trip, and masquerading as a new adventurer would be troublesome.”
As expected of Snack, her head may be filled with nothing but lewd thoughts, but her knack for infiltration and deception was still as sharp as ever. She immediately understood Boxxy’s dilemma without it having to say anything. She probably even knew about the bureaucracy involved as well, as the practice of cataloguing familiars was the standard across the continent.
“Pardon my ignorance, Master, but why not just visit the library as a civilian?”
“The Consortium’s library is still open to the general public, right? All Keira’s membership does is make it free and let her see some more sensitive materials. And if that doesn’t work, you can always get a consultation or put in a Quest.”
“Oh… Oh! Right! Yes! Of course!”
Boxxy was so caught up in its own bullshittery that it failed to grasp this painfully obvious solution. Doing things under the guise of a random citizen was much simpler and faster than crafting a full-fledged Facade. The monster had been so used to thinking up complicated schemes and elaborate stories that it didn’t even consider there was a normal, proper way to go about things. And if it ever needed sensitive information that badly in the future, then nobody in their right mind would think to deny or question Keira.
“Good work, Snack.”
“You are most welcome, Master. In fact, I can swing by on the way back from Reggie’s place and look up whatever it is you want to know. I’ll even make that old fart hand over some gold. That way it won’t even cost you anything and you can just keep taking it easy.”
Boxxy had to admit, that was a very tasty proposition. It just went to show how useful a servant could be once properly motivated. Speaking of which, it would probably be a good idea if it took care of Snack’s needs sometime soon. She had done an exemplary job during the raid on the Palace of the Crystal Maiden, and even managed to present it with a Prismatic Cloak. It was just the kind of helpful attitude it wanted to reinforce.
“Alright, let’s do that then,” it consented.
“Understood, Master. What is it you were planning to investigate?”
“I want to know about Mountain Alraune. I made a deal with Ambrosia to bring her one of those by spring, so I need to know where and how I can get one.”
“Oh! Well, you’re in luck, Master!” exclaimed Xera. “I happen to know exactly where you can find those!”
It would appear that the ex-succubus was full of surprises today.
She would also be full of bigger, harder, and more numerous things once Boxxy got around to giving her that extra-special reward, but that would come a bit later.