Boxxy was chesting patiently outside a jail cell. Much like the rest of the Dryad’s Domain, this chamber as well had an overwhelming ‘tree’ theme to it. The ‘door’ was made out of various Ironbark spikes that jutted out of the frame and overlapped each other at random angles rather than a metal grate. The interior was all made out of wood, bark and leaves, and a bioluminescent flower of some kind bathed the chamber in a serene blue light.
It was a space monitored by the dungeon’s Prison Management module, which made sure that those trapped inside remained that way for as long as feasibly possible. This included emergency healing magic should they get hurt or attempt suicide, as well as maintaining a magical field that helped stymie the onset of hunger and dehydration. It couldn’t produce food or water out of thin air, but all things considered it was rather fancy and comfortable as far as prison cells went. Not even basic inn accommodation was this nice.
However, no matter how relatively luxurious it was, it was still a place to hold living things prisoner. Such as a very special ‘comrade’ of Boxxy’s who was, unfortunately, currently unavailable.
“Claws? You sure you didn’t get carried away and use too much poison?”
“F-fairly sure, Master. Why do you ask?”
“Because Reggie still isn’t waking up.”
It had been over three hours ever since Drea captured the brainwashed doppelganger mob boss. The paralytic toxin released by her original subspecies’ racial Skill should have worn off after only thirty minutes at most. Yet the older monster remained as unresponsive as ever while within the prison area of Boxxy’s personal dungeon. Granted, this had given the ex-mimic plenty of time to adequately reward Snack for her performance over the last few days, but the captive’s continued silence was a problem.
“Should I come back to base, then?” offered the stalker.
“No. You wouldn’t be able to do anything even if you did.”
The Mimic had tried several restorative alchemical products, as well as the Purge Spell courtesy of its first familiar’s Pyromancer Job, but nothing seemed to work. It also tried zapping the thing with the same Stun Stick he had tried to once use on Keira in an effort to jolt him awake. It was deliciously ironic to be sure, but all it did was make the shapeshifter revert to his base form. Needless to say, a spider-demon who was only good for webbing up, slicing up and eating people was not going to be helpful in any way, shape or form. Besides, Claws had her own assignment to fulfil.
“Just focus on finding my dinner. And be quick about it.”
Strictly speaking though, all that amounted to was Boxxy poking and prodding what might as well be a corpse. It had no idea how to help Reggie snap out of his unresponsive state. Of course, it wasn’t trying to do so out of some sense of responsibility or feelings of camaraderie. It just wanted, among other things, the information the once-banker had gathered on soulstones. Unfortunately, such a thing would be inside his head, and getting at it in his current state was problematic.
Not even Snack’s Dreamweaver was proving useful, as Reggie was not so much asleep or unconscious as he was just staring off into the infinite void without moving or saying anything. Boxxy also considered killing him on the spot and absorbing the corpse with the Broken Reflection Skill, but immediately gave up on that idea. Doppelgangers in their base forms didn’t have a singular organ that could be identified as a heart, and as such their corpses would not make viable targets for that Skill. But even if it could use it, Boxxy would likely avoid doing so unless absolutely necessary. There was no telling whether absorbing a mind addled by magical drugs would result in unintended consequences or side effects.
Those were undoubtedly the cause of the elder ‘ganger’s comatose-ish state. Getting rid of their influence was going to be rather difficult, too. The prolonged exposure of Attitude Adjuster had caused the substance to became as much a part of his body as his own ichor-like blood. This meant that using regular means and ways of detoxing him, such as all-purpose antidotes or cleansing magic, were not effective.
Then what about a more irregular method?
“Ambrosia!” shouted Boxxy. “Are you here?!”
“I am always here, milord,” said the dryad as she rose out of the dungeon’s floor. “Thou needs not yell.”
“Sorry. Anyway, could you please prepare a pool of your Waters of Life?”
That stuff was way more potent than any healing magic or potion that the Mimic had ever seen. And it had seen a lot of those during the war. It was honestly a shame it couldn’t be brought out of the unique environment that was a Hylt tree’s mana-saturated trunk. Otherwise Boxxy could probably make a killing selling the borderline miraculous stuff. If such a thing could not cure Reggie’s condition, then nothing would.
“Why? Is milord injured?”
“No, it’s for our guest over there.”
The chest-shaped monster’s lid flew open and a tentacle pointed towards the prison cell where its ‘patient’ was. The tree-woman peered inside to see a human-sized doppelganger in its natural form, laid out on a cot made of wood with leaf-based bedding.
“Ah. One of milord’s playmates?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Very well. Thy request is a simple one, so I shall oblige.”
A tub of timber rose up from the floor as per the dryad’s will, and a small waterfall of green liquid fell into it from somewhere overhead. It took all but a few seconds to completely fill the vessel. Boxxy thanked Ambrosia for her help and retrieved the unresponsive Reggie from his cell. It brought the elder shapeshifter to the tank of rejuvenating fluid and dunked him into it.
Several tense seconds passed while the Waters of Life bubbled and stirred, but sure enough a four-fingered hand covered by gnarled black skin erupted from it. The rest of Reggie followed immediately afterwards as he leapt out of it, scattering the magical liquid everywhere. He flew through the air and landed several meters away, frantically taking in his surroundings.
“… Where is this place? And how did I get here?”
As one might expect, he had quite a few questions after waking up in a vast cavern surrounded by bark with nothing for company but a vibrant green woman and a plain-looking treasure chest. Surprisingly enough, that last one was the most interesting bit of scenery around. It was far too mundane. Aside from the pair of perfectly round yellow eyes that seemed to gleam out of the box’s barely open lid, of course.
“You’re Boxxy, aren’t you?” he asked in a somewhat expectant manner.
“Yes, I am..”
“Figured,” said the old ‘ganger while relaxing his stance. “You’re the only being I know absurd enough to be standing side-by-side with a dryad as if you were somehow equals. Ah, do forgive me for intruding upon your splendid interior, madam,” he offered with an impeccable bow that oozed class despite his monstrous appearance.
“My! Milord’s playmate is quite courteous,” she remarked with a light smile.
“May I inquire as to milady’s noble name? I know of Sabatia, Alderis and Roseris, but your beauty does not match any of them.”
“Thou may call me, Ambrosia, young one. And what might thy name be?”
“… I never really had one of my own. I suppose I’m just a nobody now, aren’t I?”
“Well, ‘nobody,’ I’m afraid I must leave to attend to certain matters. However, I would appreciate it if thou played nice with milord in my absence.”
The dryad then sank into the floor, leaving the two doppelgangers to keep each other company. The first to break the silence was Reggie.
“Excuse me for a moment, I have some things I need to work through.”
Now that the truly dangerous entity was not around anymore - at least not physically - the shapeshifter dropped all pretense of being calm, collected and polite. What flowed out of him was cursing, screaming and yelling in a fit of rage. He kicked at the walls and slammed his forehead against the floor over and over. He even changed his head back to that of his banker persona, only to rip it off, throw it on the ground and stomp on it viciously enough to splatter it all over the place.
Reggie was, for lack of a better term, actively trying to kill the side of him that embodied everything the Foundation put him through. The sheer animosity and hostility he gave off while engaging in this self-destructive act was the first time in years he’d been able to unleash his more monstrous nature. And, as was befitting of a volatile and violent existence like that, he showed absolutely no mercy while kicking his own ass.
This carried on for a solid half hour before he finally calmed down enough to engage in rational conversation. However, it was quite clear the anger simmering within him had not even come close to being sated.
“So. You got a dryad to call you ‘milord,’ did you?” he finally spoke to Boxxy.
“Long story,” it replied. “What about you? You seemed to know a lot about them.”
“Please, youngling. How long do you think I’ve been in this town? Truthfully speaking, many of the major players in the Republic know the dryads are there, they just keep it under wraps. Wouldn’t want the sheep knowing they live amongst a dozen demigods who could wipe them out in an instant if they so chose to.”
“Ah. I guess that does makes sense. People around here have a habit of hiding away from realities like those.”
“Tell me about it…”
“What about the other ones you mentioned?” asked Boxxy. “Sabatia, Alderis and Roseris?”
“Oh, I’ve only met the one called Roseris myself, and only briefly. The others are either hibernating or extremely antisocial. You would know all this if you actually tried visiting the rest of Azurvale’s dryads though. I’m honestly a bit shocked you haven’t done that yet.”
“Yeah, I’m not too keen to invade an immortal plant lady’s insides without a plan.”
Admittedly Boxxy didn’t really have one when it first confronted Ambrosia, but it wasn’t quite aware what sort of powers it was messing with back then.
“You made that sound quite rude,” noted Reggie.
“I know, realized it the moment I said it.”
“You need to watch your tongue better. From what I gather, dryads respond well to flattery and good manners, but comments like that could get you killed. I honestly have no idea how an upstart like you managed to earn the favor of one. Seriously though, how come this Ambrosia’s so nice to you?”
“Not entirely sure. I think some motherly instinct is making her treat me like a surrogate child.”
It made sense in an odd sort of way. After all, Boxxy became a Hylt Creeper while in her care, so it was possible she felt some sort of familial bond with it. And since dryads were born out of the Goddess that best personified ‘mother nature,’ they placed a great deal of importance on such things. Even though they were technically monsters.
“I don’t really understand it,” continued the junior shapeshifter, “but it makes her happy to spoil me with tasty things, so I am not complaining.”
“Tch. You got all the luck, huh?”
“The good and the bad, yeah. Sort of comes with the Hero of Chaos gig, I suppose. What about you, though? How much do you remember?”
“Everything,” was the immediate answer. “I’m still piecing it all together, but yeah, it’s all coming back to me. How those elves captured me, tortured me… Broke me. About how they used me and my kind to fund their own private projects behind the government’s back. About how you tried to do the same. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“To be fair, you did try to get me killed by sending me after the fake Jones Alexis, so I’d say we’re even. Actually no, not ‘tried.’ You succeeded.”
Boxxy stepped out of its preferred chest shape, returning to its base form. It turned around and showed the deep crimson-colored gemstone that was still fused to its back.
“Oh, so that’s how it went,” exclaimed Reggie. “Those idiots went and resurrected you, did they?”
“Then you standing here and now must mean you killed every last one of them as payback, right?”
“Hero of Death got to him before I could.”
“Did he now? That’s a shame. I was hoping he died horribly. What about that bitch Honoka?”
“I shover her own arm down her throat, then ate her. Got her pet wardrobe, too.”
“That’s good. Shame I didn’t get to rip them apart myself, but I doubt they died peacefully if you were the one doing it. Well, at least I understand why you suddenly wanted that soulstone info. Also explains why you bothered to cure me. Or leave me alive, for that matter.”
“That’s only part of it,” claimed Boxxy, much to Reggie’s surprise. “The Foundation is still aiming for me, which is a problem. One I doubt I can properly deal with by myself. However, you’re the owner of an underground syndicate of shapeshifters and spies.”
“Former owner. Those assholes are probably dismantling my operation as we speak. Granted, it wouldn’t have grown as large as it had without their help, but-”
“-but they have no idea how it all actually works, right?”
“… No. No they don’t, actually. They just used me as a go-between and never bothered to ask me for specific details concerning the organization’s inner workings, sleeper cells or ongoing operations. Heh, I even put some contingency plans in place should I ever disappear without warning or notice that they’re probably unaware of.”
“Sounds like you could salvage a good chunk of your criminal empire if you wanted to.”
“Oh, I see. So that’s what you’re getting at. You want me and my agents to keep the Foundation busy so you can live peacefully.”
“Something like that, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to get involved. You remember our initial arrangement?”
Boxxy would be the ‘muscle,’ and Reggie would be the ‘eyes and ears.’ It was a basic ‘you scratch my back I scratch yours’ sort of deal between two monsters using each other for their own purposes.
“Come off it. You seriously expect me to believe you’d just let someone who knows your secret identity run free?” asked the elder shapeshifter.
“Please. As if you’d ever go to the authorities with this. Nobody would believe you even if you did.”
There were a number of high-ranking witnesses that could vouch Keira and the Sandman were separate entities. Not only in the military and adventuring communities, but the Slyth family as well. They would all vouch for the nation’s beloved Hero without a second thought. Even the loony bins that thought up ridiculous conspiracy theories for a living would find it hard to believe the perky catgirl and the ‘Demon Whisperer’ were one and the same. In fact, Boxxy’s primary Facade was so secure by this point that nothing short of Keira openly revealing her true nature would compromise it in any meaningful way.
“Okay, you got a point there. Goddamned easy-mode Hero bullshit,” grumbled Reggie under his breath. “Anyway, why would you even bother helping me?”
“Because we share a common goal. If you’re even half as spiteful as I am, you won’t be satisfied until you see those guys dead, beaten and humiliated.”
There were very few things Boxxy could trust even a little, and one of those was that monsters were extremely partial to revenge. Anything they saw as cruelty upon themselves they would want to return a hundredfold. Granted, a creature with at least half a brain wouldn’t bother tackling the impossible on a whim like that, but Reggie’s wounds ran too deep for him to just skip town and save his own hide. It would barely be much of a bother even if he did, though, as the Mimic wouldn’t really lose out on anything in this situation.
“It’s us versus them,” it added. “We gain to lose much if we get in each other’s way and may miss crucial opportunities to strike back if we ignore each other. However, we only stand to profit if we cooperate.”
The best possible outcome would have the Foundation dismantled, exposed, or otherwise disabled. Absolute worst case scenario, aside from the threat of re-death, would include Keira’s Facade being torn down. If that were to happen, then Boxxy would retreat to the Dryad’s Domain without a second thought. It would then gather the most valuable of its shinies and transport itself to Goroth’s dungeon to start anew in dwarven lands.
Strictly speaking, the Mimic would probably be safer for a time if it did that right now, but it wanted to at least try to maintain the tasty life it had only just finished rebuilding.
“I guess that’s one way of looking at things,” mused Reggie. “I wouldn’t mind that sort of arrangement at all, though you’ll forgive me if I’d rather we avoid face-to-face meetings in the future. For both our sakes.”
“I suppose since I’ll be taking you up on that offer I should at least give you the good news. Your soulstone - it shrinking in size is nothing to worry about. Apparently it’s just being, uh, ‘digested’ by your body. Or, something like that. You just have to make sure it doesn’t get completely shattered or ripped out of you until it goes away on its own. Otherwise you’d die. Again.”
“Oh? You sure that’s all there is to it?”
Frankly speaking, Boxxy was expecting to have to somehow have to maintain the profane object tethering its soul to its body. ‘Waiting around until it went away’ was almost too straightforward of a solution.
“Fairly certain,” claimed Reggie. “I only got a chance to skim the report so I don’t remember the exact details, but that’s what my agents found out about a week ago. This information came from some ‘confidential’ archives from a major guild south of the border, so for what it’s worth, I’m quite confident it’s legitimate.”
“… That guild wouldn’t have to be the Order of the Black Wand, would it?”
“It is, actually. Why do you ask?”
“I may have some business with them in the near future.”
Boxxy was still considering whether it would even attempt the Quest it had received earlier. The time limit made it so it had a little over a month to go scour the Empire and take out over a hundred targets. At least it wouldn’t need to spend too much time looking for them, as they would appear as tiny red dots within its vision whenever it activated Eyes of the Dead God. The problem was that it wasn’t sure whether it could cover that much ground in that little time. The Quest reward being so immaterial was quite disappointing as well.
Then again, this was only the first of Mortimer’s tasks. The Gods loved to test mortals all the time, so it was possible the God of Death was treating this as a sort of trial to see if Boxxy was up to his Hero of Death standards. This was all guesswork though, so the pragmatic monster didn’t want to commit to anything based on mere speculation.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll go pay them a visit after all.”
But now that Reggie had revealed what he knew and where he learned it from, the Mimic judged it was worth it after all. Even if it wasn’t a test that would lead to tastier and/or shinier things, taking this Quest seriously would let it confirm whether Reggie’s claims were true. Verification was the highest form of trust, after all. Being officially taken off of Teresa’s shit-list was definitely not a bad thing, either.
“You sure your public side can afford to be away from the capital for so long?” asked the older ‘ganger.
“It’ll be fine. Keira’s currently off on a ‘private adventure’ into the Kingdom of Horkensaft. She can afford to stay away for another month or so without people around her getting worried.”
This was partly because Rowana, her parents, as well as the two VIPs that ‘broke’ Keira out of the Foundation base knew the Sandman was keeping watch over her. It was highly unlikely any of them would share that private information after what the catgirl had supposedly gone through. Admittedly the adventurers among them had a ruthless side to them, but they were all good-natured people that cared for their friends and family first and foremost.
It was almost a shame that they had unwittingly put their trust in the wrong ‘people.’
“Well, if you say so. You know your Facade best, after all,” said Reggie with a Shrug. “However, I should warn you that my guys heard some disturbing things while they over there. The Inquisition is cracking down hard on all the major players in the Empire, and that guild is no exception. Not to mention that they say the Hero of Death is slated to pay them a visit pretty soon. I wouldn’t tangle with that lizard if I were you.”
“I’ll be fine, but I appreciate the warning.”
“Don’t mention it. Wouldn’t want my ‘partner’ to disappear because of some bumbling humans with a hard-on for truth and justice or whatever.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. What about you? Will you be fine here without me? It’ll be some time before I come back here.”
“That’s fine. You should probably lay low until the Foundation heat dies down anyway. I’ll be doing the same while I reconnect with the rest of my crew. Ah, I’ll make a personal request to Keira Morgana through her guild when I have something for you. You’ll know it’s me if you get a Quest from someone named ‘G. O. Welles’ talking about frozen peas.”
“Noted. If that’s everything, then I should start planning for my trip.”
“Indeed. I need to get going myself but, uh, mind pointing me to the exit?”
“Right, gimme a sec. I’ll have one of my familiars show you the way.”
Claws was still looking for a suitable meal donor, while Arms was busy helping Ambrosia out with some ‘pest problem’ in the old sewers her roots had broken into. This meant Snack was the only viable candidate left, so Boxxy called out to her through the thought-link. The djinn appeared next to her Master shortly afterwards via the dungeon core’s Nexus Access function. She then collapsed on the ground moaning, mewling, twitching, and with various dried up fluids all over her.
It would appear she hadn’t quite regained the use of her lower body after Boxxy’s extra special reward.
“This is Snack, I believe you’ve met,” said the Mimic. “She’ll show you the way out once she’s… done.”
“Ah. I see.”
Reggie let out an automatic affirmative response, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the creature wallowing on the ground. Much like the junior doppelganger and the rest of his species, he too was utterly deprived of any sort of a sex drive. He still felt the urge to reproduce whenever he saw pregnant women, but that was due to the nature of his species. There was nothing lecherous or particularly pleasurable about the act, either. Yet his vast life experience made it so there was no doubt in his mind exactly what the ex-succubus was going through, and all the nonsensical implications that followed.
Reggie wasn’t ultimately all that bothered by this turn of events, though.
“Greetings, miss Snack. I will be in your care for a little while.”
He had already decided bothersome things like common sense didn’t apply to the thing named Boxxy T. Morningwood.