Boxxy let out a tired sigh as it stared up at the midday sun poking its face through the sea of leaves overhead. With those insufferable cultists having made it miss the Lunar Convergence, it no longer had the optimal conditions for what it was about to do. It could wait until the next one, but it would be far too late to act by then. The doppelganger still had a cult to eviscerate and it had already put this off for far too long, so it decided to stop stalling and get this over with. With that in mind, the Sandman-shaped monster reached into its cloak, pulled out the Elder Dryad’s Authority, and spoke the magic words.
“Mater est opus vobis!”
The amber orb let out a blinding flash so bright that it illuminated about a quarter of the massive hylt tree’s upper canopy as if it were trying to rival the sun. The light subsided moments later, leaving only sparse daylight to light up the branches and leaves surrounding Boxxy. The shapeshifter looked in front, to the left, and then to the right, seeing no trace of the woman it had tried to get in touch with. It somewhat expected this, but it still felt slightly defeated.
“Uh, Master?” Drea’s words poured into its head. “You best turn around.”
The monstrous Warlock took its familiar’s suggestion and gracefully spun on its heel, putting it face to face with an extremely irate-looking dryad just outside the fringe of its MLG range. As expected of Ambrosia’s peer, she was every bit as wide-hipped and heavy-chested as Boxxy’s landlady. The head was where the majority of the differences were visible, most notably in the slightly bushier nature of this one’s grass-hair and the swept back shape of her branch-antlers. She did have one other distinct characteristic in that she was missing four out of the ten fingers on her hands, which looked to have been cut off right at the knuckles.
“Lady Alderis, I presume,” the Sandman bowed.
“I have little patience for thy false courtesy, fleshy one,” she said in a cold tone. “Thou best hath a good reason for disturbing mine slumber.”
“Alright, I’ll skip to the point. I want to find the one who cut off your branches.”
“Thou art but one of dozens of petitioners to claim such things. What maketh you any more qualified to find mine attacker?”
“I know who they are.”
“Verily?” Alderis cocked an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
That statement certainly seemed to get the dryad’s attention, as she now regarded the cloaked figure with vague interest rather than aggressive indifference.
“It was a doppelganger, a shapeshifter who bore the name ‘Reginald Namhel’ back when I last saw him. A lot of people he wanted dead made their homes amongst your branches, so he decided to take them all out in one fell swoop. By sabotaging the very limbs they slept on.”
This revelation made Alderis seethe with a quiet rage. As expected, being so bluntly told the reason why her precious branches had been pruned did not sit well with her. Boxxy could even hear the massive tree under its feet groan faintly and shift slightly, almost as if the timber itself was tensing up in agitation. The subtle rumbling and quivering then began to steadily climb in intensity, making it clear this was no subconscious reaction, but something the dryad was doing on purpose.
Boxxy resolutely stood its ground, though. Just like when it first met Ambrosia, it felt absolutely confident in its ability to run away if things turned violent. Claws was on hand to free it from any bindings the dryad could throw at it, and Snack was there to set fire to her canopy as a distraction. As for Arms, she was still busy polishing its shinies as part of her punishment, making her the perfect Transfamiliar target.
Thankfully, attacking the cloaked stranger did not seem to be what Alderis was aiming for. Several seconds after the disturbance began, the bark covering the topmost part of the tree trunk behind her suddenly split open with a series of loud snaps. The hole grew wider and wider until it was big enough to fit a carriage through it. A massive moss-covered log was, for lack of a better term, spat out of it in the next instant.
A web of vines and branches shot out of the bark under Alderis’s feet, tangling up the rogue piece of lumber and gently easing it down to Boxxy’s eye level. The shapeshifter wanted to ask what this old trunk had to do with anything, at least until its Eyes of the Dead God identified the seemingly inanimate object as ‘Yuul.’ And judging by the HP it had remaining, this piece of timber was far more alive than it appeared to be at first.
“Indeed,” the dryad coldly confirmed. “A most treacherous one at that. It came to me on that wretched night, seeking mine protection and aid. I thought it curious enough to hear its words. Alas, that proved to be a regrettable decision. For while this wretched thing pined and moaned at me, I failed to notice mine body was being violated until it hath become mutilated. I hath doubted whether tis mere coincidence, and it would appear ‘twas not.”
In other words, this treant called Yuul had been acting as a distraction while Reggie and his associates hooked up the Forest Gates to the hylt’s limbs. If not for this plant monster occupying her attention, Alderis would have probably noticed her mana circulation was being tapped into. Which, if Boxxy’s past experiences were any indication, would’ve been more than enough to coax a dryad into violence.
“Why haven’t you killed it yet?” Boxxy couldn’t help but ask.
Though the treant had been relieved of its arms, legs and head, it was unquestionably alive.
“It must be made to suffer for the sins committed unto mine sacred bark. What did thou fleshy things call it? An eye for an eye?”
“And how are you so certain this one is involved?”
“The name of this Reginald thou mentioned hath fallen out of this one’s mouth before I silenced it.”
The shapeshifter silently contemplated its options, and concluded that getting its hands on the sentient lump of wood might be worthwhile.
“Would it be permissible that I borrow your prisoner?” it asked respectfully. “Just for a day or two, you’ll barely even notice they’re gone.”
“No, it is not,” she coldly shut it down.
“Even if I promise to catch the one who attacked you?”
“Thou spoken promises art as fleeting as thy life.”
“I see. What if I were to give you something of equal value? Would you hand over the prisoner then?”
“Hah!” the dryad chuckled. “Do tell, what ‘value’ doth thou think thou hast to offer one such as I?”
“How about a mountain alraune?”
“A flower-creature, far softer and sweeter than any gnarled old treant. One you shall not be able to obtain without my help.”
“What need have I for a flower?”
“You dryads seek to cross-pollinate with exotic flora, yes? Doing so with one of the alraunes I offer will dye the petals of your flowers a novelty pink color while also ensuring your fruits are the sweetest around.”
The dryad’s eyes narrowed as she waved her hand, prompting the vines around her to drag Yuul away and return him to the confines of her trunk.
“Ah. Thou art Ambrosia’s latest pet,” she sneered. “No wonder thy stench is so familiar.”
“Yeees… Now that I deigned to notice it, thou absolutely reeks of her nectar,” she drew closer, causing Boxxy to reflexively take a step back. “Truthfully, tis rather unsettling how much of her lies within you. How hast thou retained thy senses this long?”
“What are you talking about it?”
“Verily, tis most curious,” Alderis took another few steps closer. “The nectar of our bosoms is but bait to enslave the children of flesh with pleasure. It floods thine body and clouds thine mind, making both yearn for thine hylt-mother. Thou hath consumed so much that thou should be naught but a gibbering wreck moments from expiring, yet thou remains spirited and vigorous.”
Indeed, such was the cruel truth of a dryad’s nectar. Though sweet, nourishing and invigorating without peer, it was also extremely addictive. So much so that a single mouthful of fully ripened nectar would be enough to make a person unable to forget the tree woman they’d gotten it from for the rest of their lives. It could take days, years, maybe even decades, but it was almost inevitable they’d return desperate for another drink. The dryads could - and often did- coerce these men and women to undertake various tasks and go on perilous journeys just to satisfy their whims. Naturally it was not something that could be done often, lest word spread of their bewitching nature. Which was why dryads only allowed the truly exceptional to sample the contents of their teats directly.
Suffice it to say, Boxxy was as exceptional as a dryad’s ‘patron’ could get.
“I’m a hylt creeper,” it stated calmly. “Ambrosia’s care and attention have allowed me to inherit quite a few of your exceptionally resilient species’ traits. Allow me to demonstrate.”
The shapeshifter took off its glove and rolled up the sleeve on its muscular right arm. Alderis was a bit confused as to what this thing before her was trying to achieve, but that became clear when the human skin was replaced with bark. And not just any old bark, but the Ironbark that only hylts of a certain age possessed.
“I may be only part hylt, but that still allows me to enjoy the tasty nectar without having to worry about the negative consequences of it.”
“Thou art quite full of surprises,” the dryad remarked with eyes wide open. “How… admirable.”
However, though Alderis seemed convinced otherwise, the truth of the matter was that Boxxy had indeed fallen victim to the more nefarious properties of Ambrosia’s nectar. Its hylt-touched constitution and truly exceptional vitality helped it resist the addiction, but that was only at first. The continuous consumption of its landlady’s nectar-based cuisine had made it so even this hylt creeper found itself hooked on the stuff before it realized it.
And the longer Boxxy went without a drink of nectar, the worse its withdrawal symptoms became. They started with minor annoyances like irritability, restlessness, and itching of the teeth, but escalated drastically after a short while. Insomnia, skin rashes, shaking limbs, constant joint pain and unceasing migraines were the sort of nasty things it would have to endure next. Boxxy didn’t know how much worse this particular condition went, though, as it had found a way to keep its addiction under control even without Ambrosia.
Namely, through the drug known as Honeydew. Manufactured with hylt sap as its basis, this alchemical compound was like off-brand dryad nectar. It did the job of quelling the shapeshifter’s withdrawal symptoms, though it did have to chug the stuff by the jar. Usually a table spoon’s worth would be enough to give most people a solid high, but Boxxy’s case was clearly an extreme one. The creature itself wasn’t all that bothered by such things though. It had convinced itself that consuming kilograms’ worth of narcotic substances at a time was not a problem, but a ‘necessary expense.’
“So? Do we have a deal?” Boxxy insisted. “A delicate flower for a gnarled old tree. Not a bad trade, is it?”
“Perhaps,” Alderis finally gave in. “Bring thine alraune of the mountains before me. Only after I have judged its worth with mine own eyes will I permit thee to barter with me.”
“I must admit, I don’t have one at present. I will require some time to grow one.”
“It matters little. I am not going anywhere, unlike thou.”
The dryad then sank into the branch she was standing on, disappearing from sight.
“Well, that went better than expected,” Boxxy mumbled to itself.
“But, master,” Drea piped up through the thought-link, “won’t it take months to grow another Lavender?”
“Will Reggie’s trail not have completely dried up by then?”
“Oh, I don’t actually need that lump of timber. I just made it seem like I did.”
Though it was indeed possible that Yuul might help it track Reggie down, that was not at all why Boxxy bargained for it. It just figured it might as well use this opportunity to get in another dryad’s good graces. Truthfully speaking, all the hylt creeper needed from this exchange was to find out whether Alderis powered up the Forest Gates of her own volition. The answer to which, according to her own words, was a resounding ‘no.’ With this information in hand, the shapeshifter could now proceed to confidently present the Gilded Hand agent that Stain had taken custody of as the culprit.
After all, one had to cover all possible angles when enacting a ruse of this magnitude.
“Master, I too have a question.”
“What is it, Snack?”
“Is it true what she said? About a dryad’s nectar?”
“More or less.”
“And you’re certain you’re not affected?”
“Completely,” it answered immediately.
“… Understood. What happens now?”
“Now? Hmm, I suppose I should check in on the gift Claws got me last night.”
The shapeshifter leaped off of its perch and proceeded to make its way back to its home dungeon, contacting the slimiest of its business partners along the way.
|Boxxy: Stain, any progress with the last human I gave you?
Hookenstein: Some, yes.
Boxxy: Care to elaborate?
Hookenstein: This one is more in control of his action than the other naughty children you gave me.
Hookenstein: His mind is less tainted, and therefore more legible.
The soaring shapeshifter sighed inwardly, as it could clearly feel there was a ‘but’ coming.
|Hookenstein: But, it is still difficult to get a clear picture of his organization without destroying what’s left of his brain.
Boxxy: I don’t need to know everything, just the location of their headquarters or the name of their leader.
Hookenstein: That I should be able to extract. For the right price, of course.
That, at least, was a simple enough matter. The only thing Stain wanted, other than ‘constituents,’ was booze, of which Boxxy had plenty of. Even if it found the stuff neither shiny nor tasty, its value would make one believe it was liquid gold. Liquid mithril, even, depending on the quality. As such, there was no way the greedy chest-obsessed monster would miss out on hoarding it if the opportunity presented itself.
|Boxxy: Name it, then.
Hookenstein: Let me think…
Hookenstein: I’m feeling a little adventurous, so get me a bottle of that drink your Snack told me about. What was it called again? Rotface?
Boxxy: You mean Rotgut?
Hookenstein: Yes, that. She said it was so horrible it would give me a newfound appreciation for quality drink. I wish to experience that.
Boxxy: Simple enough.
Hookenstein: I also want one cask of elven hylt wine from Crowntop Winery, two bottles of gnomish vodka, and a keg of Bluehill Buzzer.
Unfortunately, aside from the wine, none of those things could be found within the doppelganger’s possession, so it would have to go out and acquire them. Rotgut was cheap, but hard to find outside of the Empire. Vodka was in a similar position, as it was a regional specialty within the Horkensaft Kingdom. The Bluehill Buzzer, on the other hand, was easy to find, but quite expensive. It was a popular dwarven beer that had been alchemically imbued with cold magic that always keep it at perfect serving temperature. This made it the ideal drink to unwind with after a hot summer’s day of work, and it was priced accordingly.
That said, fulfilling Stain’s request was ultimately a matter of time more so than anything else, and she would need a short while to extract the information Boxxy wanted anyway. The mimic therefore agreed to get her the drinks she wanted and set out to procure them. Fortunately its dungeon network had quite a few nodes in both human and dwarven territory, allowing it to cut out much of the traveling with Nexus Access.
An intruder has entered your dungeon.
It was two hours into this transcontinental beer run that Boxxy got a rather curious message. After checking in with Lavender, it learned that the alert was caused by Fizzy stopping by. Apparently she was working on a new project of hers and needed to borrow some materials from Boxxy’s stores, along with the Aetherial Repository to transport them discreetly. The shapeshifter saw no reason to object, so it instructed Lavender to give Fizzy everything she needed. The alraune also informed her employer that its prized shiny wanted to have a word with it regarding said project and that it should meet her at her workshop when it has the time.
Boxxy couldn’t help but look forward to this meeting, at least a little bit. It hadn’t gotten the chance to stop and appreciate the shiniest woman alive what with all this cultist business going on. It had taken the time to explain the situation to the dynamo golem, of course, though she did not take it well. She seemed quite annoyed to have been left out of such a major event, even though there was little she could’ve done to help. That said, she was not sorry to have missed the day-long trip through the desert since she hated the Pearly Dunes with a burning passion.
Unfortunately, as much as Boxxy wanted to skip ahead to seeing Fizzy, it still had a booze delivery to complete. A chore that took most of the afternoon. It couldn’t complain too much though, as Stain was also taking care of Rowana and her mother, Doris. Upon arriving at Bitterhold and handing over the goods, it was informed of the results of Stain’s mental probing. She had extracted a location that seemed to be of great importance to the cultist called Zeke, supposedly the place where he and his ‘congregation’ were supposed to eventually return to.
It was as promising a lead as one could hope to glean from an indoctrinated mind, which left Boxxy in an agreeable mood as it set foot in Fizzy’s workshop a short while later.
The place had changed significantly ever since the golem Artificer acquired it last year. Though it looked like just another of the Stone District’s warehouses from the outside, the inside was a different story altogether. The wide open space had been broken up into half a dozen smaller rooms, each one specifically geared towards a different task. There was a Frequency Lab, a Materials Lab, a Weapons Lab and an Electricity Lab, each one dedicated to researching and developing different aspects of an Arclight Artificer’s craft. The other two chambers had more practical applications, one being a high-tech smithy with an electric forge and the other a testing ground for Fizzy’s less civic creations. Last but not least, a generator of the golem’s own design lay beneath the floor, from where it provided power to the various devices throughout the workshop.
Long story short, it was almost as if the shapeshifter had walked into an alien world filled with whirring, clanging and buzzing.
“I’m sorry, sir. Fizzy is currently too busy to be taking visitors.”
Boxxy looked down to see Plus’s remote-controlled mithril doll standing in its way. It was only natural she wouldn’t recognize it though, given the doppelganger’s current appearance of a random elven pedestrian. The monster closed the door behind it while simultaneously transforming into a more recognizable shape.
“It’s me,” it spoke as Keira. “I’m supposed to be out of town right now, so I didn’t want to be seen coming in here.”
“Oh! Hey, Boxxy!” the golem’s alter ego exclaimed. “I’ll, uh, go tell Fizzy you’re here.”
Her surprise, lack of pep and the way she ran off towards the back struck the shapeshifter as a little odd, which in turn put it slightly on edge. Fizzy’s message didn’t seem to imply her summons was urgent, so was there any need for her to be so jumpy? Come to think of it, did she really have to ‘go tell Fizzy’ when the two of them literally shared a mind? Such thoughts were pushed aside, however, when the main golem herself appeared from around the corner. The various lights shining down on her impeccable mithril frame gave her an almost ethereal and otherworldly radiance that the shiny-obsessed monster couldn’t help but approve of.
It was a bit of a shame she was in her Skirmisher Mode rather than the sleeker Service Mode, but the shapeshifter appreciated the view nonetheless.
“Finally!” she groaned. “Your flower-lady said you’d be ‘along shortly,’ but it’s been almost three hours!”
“Had some chores to take care of,” Boxxy explained. “Got a lead on those morons that attacked me a few days ago.”
“That’s good. You’re bringing me along this time.”
That wasn’t a request, but a straight up order. As one of Josephine’s more fervent followers, the dynamo golem was not at all pleased when she found out that cult considered her patron deity their ‘Nemesis.’ She was practically bursting at the bolts to come down on them like a one-woman crusade, so her demanding attitude was understandable.
“If you insist,” Boxxy conceded. “That aside, why did you call me here? Got another project you want to show me?”
“Yup. I think you’ll get a kick out of this one.”
Fizzy led the shapeshifter through the heavy door in the back, down the hallway behind it, and into the firing range at the end of it. The doppelganger felt a bit nervous due to all the high-capacity electrical conductors built into the walls around it, but this wasn’t its first time here. All it had to do was focus on the shiny and the uneasiness would pass. The testing area it soon found itself in was essentially a massive box whose walls had been reinforced with steel and magic to withstand all sorts of impacts. An array of lamps in the ceiling provided ample light and the metal walls were marked with various bumps, scrapes, and scorch marks.
All of this was fine and good, but what seemed out of place was the massive thing at the end of it, which was covered by a large tarp hooked up to some pulleys via steel wires.
“That it?” Boxxy asked curiously.
“Not quite. That’s actually the target for today’s demonstration.”
“Oh. Why the theatrics?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise.”
The golem flipped a switch on the wall next to her, prompting a winch to lift the large canvas into the air and reveal what lay underneath. Which was to say, a large stack of hundreds upon hundreds of sealed glass jars, each of them filled to the brim with Honeydew. Five hundred and sixty three kilograms of it, to be precise - the entirety of Boxxy’s drug stash.
“What… Why do you have those?!” it yelled at her.
“So I could do this.”
Fizzy pointed her wrist-mounted cannon at the stuff and fired a shot at it before the doppelganger could respond.
The glowing lump of blue pseudo-plasma streaked through the firing range in bold defiance to Boxxy’s protests. It splattered against the pile of Honeydew jars, making a significant chunk of them explode into a deluge of golden syrup and broken shards of glass. Outraged at this sudden and unexplained development, the doppelganger lashed out at Fizzy, momentarily forgetting it wasn’t dealing with the average meatbag. The golem effortlessly blocked the wild swing with her shield, then swung the Novaspike that had suddenly appeared in her right hand. The mithril warhammer slammed into the shapeshifter’s side with a bone-shattering impact that sent it flying and crashing into one of the chamber’s reinforced walls with a thunderous noise.
That wasn’t the worst of it, however.
You have suffered blunt force trauma. HP -825.
You have been electrocuted. HP -1,097.
You have been stunned for 3 seconds.
Your Skills have been disabled for 3 seconds.
As per its design, the Direct Impact Lightning Discharge Oscillator built into the hammer’s head also delivered a powerful burst of electricity. Being caught so completely off guard, Boxxy had no time to put up its defenses. The result was that it had taken a massive jolt of its Bane directly to the torso, leaving it momentarily incapacitated. It still clung to consciousness, but it struggled to even take a breath as it twitched and spasmed on the floor, its body refusing to listen to it.
“A little blue-skinned slut told me you’d been doing something really, really, really stupid behind my back.”
The shapeshifter barely registered the sight and sounds of the cold-faced dynamo golem as she slowly approached it, electrified hammer in hand.
“So I’m here to knock some sense into that squishy head of yours.”