The Rancid Summit was a lonely mountain that stood amidst the endless Velosian jungle, inconveniently located eighty kilometers from the nearest settlement. The place got its unfortunate name from its surrounding environment, which was so overgrown with toxic, poisonous and otherwise unpleasant plants. The flora was so voracious that various species of barely sentient vegetation fought each other violently for sunlight and soil on an hourly basis. The air itself was so heavily laden with spores and pollen that it made the area seem like it was perpetually drenched in a green fog. That stifling miasma made the environment so hostile to beings made of flesh and blood that not even orcs could settle in the region, let alone people.
Which, incidentally, also made it a perfect place to hide a dungeon.
A Gate Spell opened up halfway up the Rancid Summit’s southern slope, and two figures stepped out of it. The first was Boxxy, who was still in its base hylt creeper form, followed closely by Jen, who still clung tightly to its hand after accepting the creature’s proposal mere minutes ago. The shapeshifter rolled a nearby boulder out of the way with its free hand, revealing a deep crack in the barren cliffside. It silently led the fallen angel inside, guiding her deeper and deeper into the mountain’s underbelly.
You have entered the Dark Eyrie.
The dark and tight passage opened up into an extremely spacious cavern the instant the two of them entered the latest addition to Boxxy’s dungeon network. It was a bit remote, yes, but as the only means of quickly travelling between continents, it needed to stay as hidden and secure as possible. The Rancid Summit was quite suitable for this task, as the only people who ventured into this area were those looking to procure rare plant materials and would have no interest in the barren rock of a mountain. As for the dungeon’s name, it was just some generic appropriately sounding thing the monster had come up with on the spot.
The dungeon core responsible for maintaining this hollow space hung idly in the air at the top of the cavern, bathing it in its soft white light. The interior was mostly empty, save for what looked like a doorway in the wall opposite the entrance. Fizzy was standing next to it with her arms crossed, her spark-filled eyes glaring at Jen so hard one would think she was trying to make her head explode with just her stare.
The Monk, on the other hand, did not even seem to register the golem’s presence, which only served to piss the latter off even further. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, however, as her fragile state of mind made it impossible to focus on anything other than the monster leading her by the hand as if she were a child. She obediently followed it into that tiny side room, which turned out to be closer to a jail cell than a place of residence. It was about five meters wide, deep and tall, with impossibly smooth walls that made it seem like someone had just erased a cubic area of solid rock from existence.
Boxxy led Jen to one of the far corners and motioned for her to stand there, which she did without saying a word. The shapeshifter then took a strongbox out of its Storage and placed it on the ground. It twisted the dials on the face of it a few times until it unlocked it with a heavy click. It then opened it up, causing a chilling white mist to pour out of the enchanted and highly secure icebox. Finally, it reached inside and took out a large crystal syringe with a ten-centimeter-long mithril needle, which was filled to the brim with a thick red fluid.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Boxxy began explaining. “I’m going to jab this into your back and pour its contents into your system. It’s going to hurt like your spine is being ripped out, and your body will want to reject it. You need to do everything in your power to not fight it and let it do its thing. If you cannot, then it might kill you. If it doesn’t, then I will. However, if you follow my words and survive the procedure, then you will become something far stronger than a mere human. Do I make myself clear?”
It was a single word, but said without hesitation or doubt, which was as good a sign that she was ready as Boxxy could’ve asked for.
“Very good. Now turn around and stand still.”
The shapeshifter positioned itself behind Jen, who was now staring at the cubic chamber’s corner. She didn’t even get the chance to have second thoughts before the monster drove that needle into her back, between the gaps in her vertebrae, and into her spine. It then began administering the alchemical concoction with a smooth motion over the course of the next two seconds. It then pulled the needle out as soon as the syringe was empty.
You are now under the effects of an Essence Transfusion Serum.
Your body has begun to mutate.
“Ah. Ahh! AAAAAAACK! RAAAARGH! AAAAAAHAAAHAAAAAAH!”
And none too soon, either, as Jen began convulsing and screaming the instant it did so. She fell forward, slamming her fists into the bare rock wall with enough force to break it were it not for the dungeon fortifying this place. Boxxy calmly exited the chamber and sealed it with a solid stone door, leaving the woman to thrash around and scream her lungs out in solitude. Even then it could still hear the thundering impacts and muffled wails as the Monk went berserk from the pain. It was probably a good idea it prepared that space, as it doubted whether anything else could contain her while she was in that state.
“Sweet Arnold,” Fizzy exclaimed. “What was that stuff?”
“… Oh, right, you weren’t there at the time,” Boxxy realized after a brief points. “You remember when I told you about when I was revived in that secret Foundation facility?”
“You mean that think-tank you blew up on the way out? What about it?”
“I did more than just blow it up. I looted the place, took everything that looked like it might be valuable or important. And this stuff,” the monster explained as it held up the empty syringe, “is what they used to create their number one living weapon.”
The former house mimic called Wardrobzilla had been imbued with the essences of several monsters, giving him access to their respective Jobs and Skills. The process was documented as ‘essence transplantation,’ and was responsible for turning the harmless piece of sentient furniture into a violent monster. More specifically a changeling, a being that was many things at once, yet also none of them. As such, it was completely incapable of achieving a Rank Up, even if it did gain strength and magic far beyond its original form.
“I stole eleven doses of this stuff,” Boxxy added in a jovial tone. “Never thought I’d have a real use for it before, but I’m glad I hung onto it.”
Especially since the monster had no idea how to make more of it, but knew what it was capable of after running a few trials.
“Wait, that was over two years ago. Are you sure that stuff is even still good?”
Volatile alchemical solutions had an extremely limited shelf life, some even lasting for mere hours after being completed before they lost their potency. That much was common knowledge, so Fizzy’s question was hardly unwarranted.
“I’m not too sure to be honest,” the shapeshifter admitted. “However, they were all in these magical ice boxes, which I assume is meant to preserve them. It’s probably fine though, I don’t think it would’ve done anything if it had gone off.”
“Mind telling me why you’re even bothering with that stuff?” Fizzy asked with a hint of jealousy in her voice. “She’s plenty strong as a human as it is, why do you insist on turning her into a literal monster?”
There were a multitude of reasons for this decision. One of those was the delicious irony of coercing a follower of Axel to willingly become that which they once hated. Another was that this also technically counted as revenge on Zone for taking away its Warlock Job back in the day, something it had never truly forgiven her for. There was also the fact that past experiences had taught Boxxy that monsters worked better with other monsters than enlightened. That way there was less chance for there to be a conflict of interests caused by silly things like morals. Jen’s loyalty was a problem, of course, but the shapeshifter had a fix for that.
Ultimately, however, the defining reason for choosing this course of action was relatively simple.
“Because I can.”
“Fair enough,” Fizzy said with a shrug. “What about me? What’s my part in this?”
“I need you to stay here and keep an eye on her over the next few days. Monitor her condition and heal her with your magic should her HP drop too low. Then, once the screaming stops, I need you to contact me. And in order for you to easily do all that, I need you to agree to something that might seem… unpleasant.”
“Appoint Dungeon Master: Fizzy Rustblood.”
A message asking the golem to become the steward of this freshly-made dungeon popped into her mind.
“It’s entirely temporary, I assure you,” Boxxy said in a slightly apologetic tone. “Ideally I would’ve liked to have someone else handle it, but this was rather short notice.”
In fact, the dungeon didn’t even exist until about fourteen hours ago. It tried putting in a request to hire a dungeon master from Demons ‘R’ Us, but unfortunately there seemed to be no takers. Hardly surprising considering this place was supposed to remain a secret, meaning its caretaker would have literally nothing to do. And if there was one thing that all demons shared a hatred for, it was being bored to tears. Boxxy still wanted someone around long-term, however, as this dungeon was of high logistical importance, so having a reliable caretaker was a must.
“No worries, Boxxy,” the golem said with a nod and a smile. “Just promise me you’ll give me a rub down with that special Sun God oil later.”
Fizzy accepted the offer and officially became the active dungeon master for the Dark Eyrie. Boxxy then gave her a quick rundown of all the features and functions, as well full access to all of them. Unfortunately it had responsibilities to take care of as Keira, so it didn’t have time to go over all of the intricacies of dungeon management. It trusted the golem would be able to figure things out, though. She was a clever girl, after all.
“Oh, one more thing before you go,” Fizzy exclaimed. “You can instantly hop between here and Azurvale with Nexus Access, right?”
“Yup. How else do you think I managed to fetch that syringe to begin with?”
Being able to do that was kind of the whole point of setting this place up to begin with. It was not exactly free, however, as the sheer distance between the two continents meant it took over 90% of the dungeon core’s 20,000 MP capacity to transport Boxxy to Atica. And even then it couldn’t send the once-mimic all the way to Azurvale in one shot. The shapeshifter had to first stop over at one of the southern dungeons under its control, then use its MP reserves to transport itself to the northern part of the continent.
It was a pain in the lid, but still infinitely faster than spending two weeks on a ship and another two by carriage or caravan. Unfortunately Boxxy and Fizzy would still have to take the long way back home once Keira left Velos if they hoped to maintain their public image. Showing up at the elven capital nearly a month ahead of everyone else was sure to raise questions. Admittedly it wasn’t as if owning nearly a dozen empty dungeons was illegal or anything, but it was probably for the best if the authorities never found out. Not to mention Keira still had to pick up Teresa’s bastards from Empire territory.
“Then could you do me a favor and grab a bunch of stuff from back home?” the radiant construct asked. “If I’m gonna be stuck here for Bob-knows how long, then I wanna get some work done.”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“Let me see… I’ll need a good deal of mithril. We have a bunch left over from our last deal with Stain, right?”
“We do, yeah. About thirteen kilograms.”
“Good, bring me all of it. Also silver, platinum, brass, copper, and bronze - twenty kilos of each and another hundred kilos of steel. Going to also need three or four of those five hundred carat star sapphires, and eight hundred grams of volcanic quartz. Oh, and alchemical conductive fluid. The good stuff, and lots of it. Two barrels’ worth should do it.”
“That’s a lot of stuff,” Boxxy remarked.
“I doubt I’ll use all of it to be honest, but I’ll be experimenting a lot and will have to make a few prototypes, so I’m not sure how much I’ll need exactly. I figure you can bring me as much as you can carry then you can pick up the leftovers once it’s done.”
“Ah, sounds reasonable I suppose. What are you trying to make anyway?”
“That meatbag made me lose my wrench,” the golem said spitefully. “Broke it almost in two, too. I need a new weapon so I’m going to try making one.”
“I see. You going to need Plus, Minus and Null’s spare bodies?”
“Probably not, but do bring them along. The girls wouldn’t mind being able to stretch their legs, as it were.”
The objects in question were a trio of mithril dolls made by Fizzy for the sole purpose of bringing them to life through her Animate Armor Skill. She had a set of them shipped to Velos along with herself, but there was another batch hidden in Boxxy’s primary dungeon. There were only six of them in existence, and making more was extremely difficult due to the scarcity of the necessary materials. Not the precious metal that made up their outer shell though, that could be procured easily enough with the power of money. What made it difficult to replicate those articles were the various war golem parts they required - specifically cores, voice boxes, eyes and ears.
The mechanisms in question were what allowed Fizzy’s alter egos to gain such complete and total control over the armored dolls. The only way to obtain these, at least as far as the shapeshifter’s troupe was aware of, was through the Golem War Zone instant dungeon, courtesy of Patrick’s Divine item. Just gaining access to it was difficult enough, as it had to be randomly selected out of a pool of about fifty or so presets and the Atlas of Dreams could only be activated once every five days. Even then there were a bunch of hidden objectives that had to be cleared before one could earn the inert and intact war golem cores that were necessary to make those dolls truly come to life.
After the golem was done listing off all of the raw materials she’d need, Boxxy began the process of relaying itself to its home base. Lavender the alraune greeted it with her normal enthusiasm upon its return, despite the fact that it had been less than a day since she last saw it. As for Ambrosia, she was still in the middle of her ‘quick six month power nap,’ so it was unlikely she’d be up anytime soon. It was regrettable Boxxy wouldn’t get to enjoy her nectar-based cuisine for a while, but it could always use the Elder Dryad’s Authority to wake her up should its cravings get too strong. Ambrosia loved to spoil her surrogate child, so she would probably not mind its insolence too much.
The monster was still in the middle of sorting through its coffers when a message popped into its head.
|Fizzy: Uh, Boxxy? Hello?
Fizzy: Is this thing on?
Lavender: Oh, it’s the shiny friend! Hello!
Boxxy: Lavender, please don’t interrupt me when I’m talking with Fizzy.
Lavender: Sorry, Boxxy! Whatever you say, Boxxy!
Well, that was surprising. The monster had never had multiple dungeon masters before, so it had no idea they shared the same cross-dungeon communication channel. That was certainly good to know, though perhaps not the most important thing right now.
|Boxxy: What is it, Fizzy?
Fizzy: You know how you told me to contact you when Jen stopped screaming?
Fizzy: She just did.
Boxxy: Ah. That’s unexpected.
The few times Boxxy experimented with the essence transplantation concoction, its test subjects writhed around in agony for two to three days before expiring. According to the documents it had pilfered along with the serum, these fatalities were caused by a ‘synaptic something-something bonding failure.’ In layman’s terms it meant that there was poor compatibility between the host and the implanted monstrous genes, and their body was too weak to handle the stress of the transition. That was why it chose to give Jen a dose of harpy serum. It wasn’t the strongest monster it could have attempted to turn her into, but it seemed the most fitting considering harpies looked half-human to begin with. Not to mention that giving the Monk her wings back was a good way to earn some loyalty and goodwill.
|Fizzy: Oh, no, nevermind. She just started again. Must have passed out or something.
Boxxy: Huh. That’s new.
Boxxy: Next time, try checking her condition with the Prison Management module before you jump to conclusions.
Fizzy: Duh! Will do.
Fizzy: For the record, if she lives through this, I’m going to hit her again. This time with everything I’ve got.
It would seem the golem was still carrying a grudge over the way Jen sabotaged her jetpack and tossed her out of the ring during their last tussle in The Gauntlet. That said, if she truly did go all out on that one hit, there was a good chance even that Monk would be turned into a bloody smear, defeating the entire purpose of this exercise. Boxxy made a mental note to placate her as much as possible while it could, then resumed packing the rest of the materials, tools and items its trophy wife had requested.
Once it was done stocking up, it returned to the Velos dungeon and dropped everything off with Fizzy. A quick spit-shine later it left the dungeon and returned to Oar’s Rest with a Transfamiliar and a Gate, then resumed masquerading as Keira. It did a number of Quests the local guilds were offering, mostly to gain reputation and favor rather than money. It had two whole rooms overflowing with gold and treasure back in Azurvale, so the amount earned here was paltry at best in comparison. Not that it was complaining about getting more gold, but it wasn’t nearly enough to salivate over.
Its hard work since coming here paid off the next day when Keira was invited to stand before the Council of Elders, the ruling body of the Eight Tribes’ government. As one might expect, they were made up of eight wizened raptors, each representing a branch of raptor society. They held a small ceremony officially thanking and commending the catgirl for her contributions towards quelling the massive orc scourge that Gutzstompa started. The whole thing just reeked of politics, however. They were treating Keira as if she were a foreign dignitary of some kind, despite the fact she had come here in a purely personal capacity. Still, they gave her a shiny new medal that was unique enough to add to Boxxy’s collection, so the shapeshifter didn’t mind their hollow flattery too much.
The doppelganger spent the rest of that day playing nice with the locals, and that evening playing nicer with Rowana. The couple had just gone to bed when Fizzy contacted it for the first time since they last saw each other.
|Fizzy: Boxxy, Jen went quiet again. I think that monsterfication serum has run its course.
Boxxy: Did it work?
Fizzy: I think so. The race on her Status is no longer listed as Angel (Human), but Changeling.
Boxxy: Oh-hoh! Alright, I’ll be over as soon as I can!
Your species has become Changeling.
Feat of strength performed! You have unlocked a new Perk: Divine Beast.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 1 Harpy! DEX +3. AGI +3. END +3.
The tortured woman in question panted heavily within her stone cell. She was splayed out with her back against the cold floor, staring absentmindedly at the only witness to her ordeal - the magical lamp embedded in the ceiling. Its dim white light shone upon the walls, which were positively plastered with several layers of the Monk’s dried up rust-colored blood. Mostly a result of her thrashing about, as the only way she could bear the pain was by repeatedly smashing her hands and feet against the confines of her new home until she passed out. The self-destructive behavior might have gotten her killed if it wasn’t for Fizzy dropping in to mend her wounds whenever she was unconscious.
But that was then, this was now. And at present, Jen was something that could only be described as a freak. Though she maintained most of her human features, all of her hair had fallen out, having been replaced with soft black plumage. Several rows of giant raven-like feathers ran down from her shoulders all the way down to her wrist, giving her a pair of bizarre half-wing half-arm limbs. Her feet and ankles had also undergone a significant change, as they were now bird-like without a single trace of humanity in them.
If Boxxy were to see her current form, it would most definitely brand her a failure. She looked weak and miserable, her body noticeably thinner and feebler than it used to be. Not to mention her bones had become more fragile as a result of becoming light and hollow like a bird’s. Though the transformation into a half-harpy might have been an upgrade for a regular human, the opposite was true for one who had already evolved to the next level. Which was why the Foundation discontinued testing this serum on people, as they’d never had an unranked enlightened survive the process.
However, it was rather fortunate for both Jen and Boxxy that the latter was still en route, otherwise the shapeshifter would have disposed of her without realizing there was more to come.
The effects of Essence Transfusion Serum have been amplified.
Your body has begun to mutate.
Her raptor lineage, her desperate desire to achieve a stronger form, her absurd vitality, and the unknown abnormality in the slightly expired monster serum all fit together like an unseen jigsaw puzzle. The extremely unlikely combination forced her unstable biology to adapt and overcome all of those defects she had acquired. Another round of pain coursed through Jen as a result, but this time around it was of a different quality. It was an oddly satisfying pain, like vomiting after eating something rancid, popping a pus-filled pimple, or pulling out an especially troublesome tooth. That was why even though it still hurt like her entire body was on fire, Jen’s responses were only grunts and snarls as opposed to the wails and screams of the past two days.
The changes brought on by this second round of mutations were much more severe, but also much faster. The plumage covering her scalp fell out all at once and was instantly replaced with luscious black shoulder-length hair that could easily be called a mane. A disgusting ripping noise could be heard as a pair of triangular feline ears eerily similar to a beastkin’s popped out of the top of her head. The raven feathers on her arms fell away while a massive pair of hawk-like wings sprang out of her upper back, much larger in size than the ones Axel took from her.
Her upper pair of limbs also underwent drastic change, starting from the nails on her hands that grew out to become sharp and sturdy claws. Short golden brown fur rapidly grew out of the skin on her forearms, covering them from the tip of her fingers all the way up to her elbows. The same lion-like pelt enveloped her legs from the lower thighs down until it reached her raised ankles. Her bird-like feet remained, though the talons became noticeably larger and blacker while the leathery hide covering them grew thick and heavy as they filled up with new muscle.
Not just the feet, but her entire body started to bulk up considerably at this point. Whatever muscle mass she lost during the last two days was returned with interest, as her body visibly grew until it was one or two sizes larger than it used to be before this all started. Jen let out a bestial roar as a long, slender and flexible tail covered in more brown fur and tipped with a tuft of soft white hair rapidly grew out of the lower end of her spine, completing her transition.
The effects of Essence Transfusion Serum have expired.
Your species has become Harpy (Griffin).
Congratulations, you are now a Level 1 Griffin! STR +5. END +5. AGI +2.
Proficiency level increased. Wind Assisted Flight is now Level 1. INT +4. END +2.
It was at that moment that the door to Jen’s cell slid open to reveal the world’s most dangerous hylt creeper.
Something the newly reborn part-harpy part-griffin didn’t seem to appreciate, as she lunged at it like some sort of feral creature. Boxxy responded immediately by dashing forward to intercept her, grabbing her by the throat and choke-slamming her into the ground. Jen continued to snarl, growl and thrash about in a truly inhuman, but also highly irrational manner, forcing the shapeshifter to climb on top of her and pin her down with its considerable body mass. It was at the point where she tried and failed to bite off one of the tentacles holding her head, arms and legs in place that Boxxy noticed her eyes were unfocused and darting all over the place.
The shapeshifter then realized Agent of Chaos was still in effect despite the rather impressive looking transformation. It seemed as if its next course of action would determine whether it snapped Jen out of this bestial frenzy or condemned her to it. While having her be as ferocious as possible sounded like it would be kind of fun and interesting to see, that was not why it wanted to recruit her. Physical prowess was certainly important, but it was Jen’s copious battle experience and single-minded personality that truly made her a force to be reckoned with. It was therefore preferable that she be returned to her previous state of mind.
And who better to reign her savage side in than the only man Boxxy had known to be capable of keeping her in line.
“Calm yourself, Zone!” it shouted in Edward’s perfectly mimicked voice. “Is this any way for an agent of mine to behave?!”
Boxxy’s quick thinking seemed to have done the trick, as the monstrous woman instantly ceased her struggling and stood perfectly still. She kept staring up at the creeper’s misshapen head and beady yellow eyes for several seconds until some semblance of light returned to her previously vacant eyes. She blinked several times as if only now waking from a two-day-long nightmare. Which, for all intents and purposes, was the case.
The flows of chaos have returned to their default, causal state.
The doppelganger allowed itself to relax a little, as it would appear the turbulent period of heightened uncertainty had finally passed.
Or it could just be starting, if Jen’s one-word question was any indication.
The drowsy voice, the dumb look on her face and the softness of her gaze were so foreign that they momentarily threw Boxxy for a loop. She looked like a completely different person, to the point where it wondered whether her mind had survived the agonizing transition to monsterhood. Fizzy’s most certainly suffered some irreversible changes during her golemification, so permanent brain damage was a very real concern in retrospect.
Thankfully that didn’t seem to be the case, as Jen shook her head rapidly as if to dispel some sort of lingering daze, causing her usual emotionless mask to reappear moments later.
“Reporting that I have survived as promised,” she said calmly. “Requesting release from bondage.”
Boxxy nodded and released the griffin-girl from its grasp, allowing her to stand up and look herself over. She had certainly become something that would never be able to pass off as human. A skirt could theoretically conceal those freakish legs, but there was no disguise that would be able to effectively hide those wings. Her new body was also significantly taller than it used to be, as the serum had bumped her up from around one hundred and eighty to an imposing two hundred and fifteen centimeters.
“How is your condition?”
Jen opened her mouth to answer Boxxy’s question-
-but her growling stomach beat her to the punch, causing her to blush lightly from embarrassment.
“Hehehehe, I see, I see, that is a feeling I understand very well,” the shapeshifter nodded with a light chuckle. “I also get absolutely ravenous after a Rank Up. Come on, let’s put some fresh meat in you, then we can see about finding you a new deity to worship. Truth be told, my friend Fizzy and I already have one in mind. He can be a bit of an asshat sometimes, but you don’t need to worry.”
The shapeshifter then threw an arm around Jen’s shoulder and ushered her out of her cell.
“Something tells me you two are going to get along juuuuuuust fine.”