“I really am disappointed, you know,” Fizzy spoke as she approached the stunned shapeshifter. “I expected you to be smarter than this.”
She stood above the convulsing doppelganger, hammer in hand, as if waiting for it to get back up so she can knock it down again.
Rather than spring to its feet, however, Boxxy’s first move was to force the golem back with a wall of pure force. It didn’t work very well though, mostly because of her weight and the knockback resistance from her Shock Absorption Skill. It still made her skid across the floor, which gave Boxxy time to stand up and grab its Voidcaller staff out of Storage. A well-placed shot from Fizzy’s arm-cannon then blew its hand clean off, making the Artifact fall to the steel-covered floor with a heavy ding.
The monstrous Warlock’s invisible guillotine was then bounced straight back at it by the monstrous Paladin’s shield Martial Art. It dodged its own Spell by splitting its body in two and reconnecting the halves immediately after. It reached for the weapon on the ground, but Fizzy appeared between it and the staff via Lightning Warp, both zapping it and forcing it back.
“Oh no, you don’t! This is between you and me!”
The shapeshifter answered with a full-powered Acid Spray, dousing the shiny construct head-to-toe in green caustic fluids. That too was woefully ineffective though, as the Skill’s damage did not scale with any of its Attributes, and its origin was a low-tier monster. It momentarily obscured her vision though, allowing the monster to get a bit closer and hit Fizzy with a point-blank Cold Snap. This was an ability stolen from a much more fearsome creature and was also Fizzy’s bane, resulting in both her and the entire room being frozen rock solid in an instant.
With the ex-gnome on ice, at least for the moment, Boxxy smashed the ice covering the floor and picked up its Voidcaller. It raised the staff above its head and was about to summon one of its familiars to its aid when the black staff’s ominous skull-shaped ornament snagged on something. The furious monster had no idea what it could’ve gotten caught on so it yanked on it with all its might. A short motion followed closely by a loud snap, a brief yet sharp pain, and a trickle of black, tar-like blood streaming down its featureless face.
Part of you has been torn off. HP -11.
The sheer oddity of the situation managed to snap the creature out of its rage. It took a look at the staff, realizing that something was caught in one of the two ram-like horns jutting out of the item’s head. It was twenty centimeter long metallic spike that had a slight curve to it and was dripping black ooze from its flat end. It couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between this curious object and the horns Arms had growing out of her scalp while she was still a fiend. Its MLG didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary, but when the shapeshifter grew an eyeball at one of its fingertips, it was able to confirm that its head had those same horns. Not one, not two, not three, but seven of them, all jutting out at random angles from its own skull.
“What is this?”
The truly disturbing part, however, was that it had no idea where they had come from.
“Did you do this to me?!” it shouted at the frozen golem. “Why?! How?! When?! What?! I don’t-”
And like that, an eighth horn broke through its skin, all on its own. This was when Boxxy realized that the one giving it demonic head ornaments was none other than itself. It just didn’t do so willingly. Like a reflex or muscle spasm, its own body had produced steel-covered horns while its temper flared and burned. The thought that it was no longer in control of itself reignited that rage, making it start tearing away at those horns one after the other only to have them grow back to full moments later. They were multiplying, too, as Boxxy was up to twelve of them by the time it had broken thirty.
Fizzy, who had only just now managed to thaw herself out, tackled the berserk shapeshifter to the ground, giving it a full body hug while administering a dose of her own brand of electroshock therapy. Not enough to seriously injure Boxxy, but the current she put into it proved sufficient to incapacitate it. She didn’t let go of it though, as she had a feeling the shapeshifter wouldn’t be in any more of an agreeable mood when it recovered.
And sure enough, the instant Boxxy regained use of its limbs it started tearing away at its head again. Fizzy tried to stop it, but keeping a shapeshifter pinned down without zapping it to death was extremely difficult. Even in its blind rage the monster displayed flesh-moulding at a speed and precision that would make others of its species feel woefully inadequate. The golem did her best to keep the constantly appearing limbs in check, choosing to electrocute it only when she was certain its Mend Flesh had healed its injuries.
Pretty soon the feral monster directed its misplaced anger at the mithril construct, engaging her in a good, old fashioned brawl. It kept swinging at her with all the speed and strength it could muster, but there was practically zero thought or coherent intent behind its actions. It had stopped fighting by using its head, which worked in Fizzy’s favor since it made the creature more predictable and therefore much easier to deal with. She effectively volunteered to become Boxxy’s punching bag with the intent of letting its rage burn itself out while keeping it contained in what was essentially a padded cell.
Her plan did work, although it took nearly an hour for Boxxy’s rampage to come to an end. By the end of it, the steel-plated walls of her testing chamber had been all but torn down. There was even a hole through the wall, exposing the various mechanisms and wiring she had built into it. This gap was also the only remaining light source seeing as how all of the lamps in the ceiling had been shattered.
As for Boxxy, it was left splayed out on the floor, its head spinning and its entire body aching profusely. The doppelganger didn’t seem injured on the surface, but the repeated shock therapy had done a number on its pain receptors. Fizzy, on the other hand, was in the worst state she had ever been ever since she became a dynamo golem. Her outer plating had been ripped open in several places to reveal the underlying mechanical muscles. She also had an adamantite longsword lodged in her left shoulder joint, making it impossible for her to move her shield-bearing arm.
Thankfully Boxxy had regained most of its sanity by the time it remembered it had a Storage filled with various magical weapons. The shock of realizing it had severely injured its most treasured of shinies had been the thing that made it snap out of its temper tantrum. Something Fizzy was silently glad for, as she knew she’d stand no chance of subduing Boxxy if it started leveraging all of the Skills, Spells and items it had at its disposal. Well, not alive at any rate.
“There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there?” the shapeshifter finally spoke up.
“That’s an understatement,” the golem said coldly. “What happened to you back there? I’ve seen you get mad before, but this was something else entirely. You were completely out of control.”
And therein lay the biggest issue. When it first broke out of its home dungeon, the mimic that would become Boxxy T. Morningwood swore that it would not allow anyone or anything to dictate its actions ever again. It was the only conviction the monster had that could be called a belief or moral. Yet here it was, with no memory of what it had been doing for the past half hour and with one of its strongest assets - and arguably greatest creation - in a shape that was almost painful to look at.
“Do you need to get repaired again?” it asked, sounding concerned.
“I don’t think so,” Fizzy shook her head. “All of me is still attached, so I should be able to fix it by myself.”
Restoring her frame to pristine condition was only a matter of applying the unique metal-mending properties of her healing magic. In fact, she could’ve easily done so already. However, that would be counterproductive towards her immediate goal, which was helping Boxxy realize what that nectar was doing to it. Making it gaze upon the consequences of its actions seemed like a good way to demonstrate that. It was the equivalent of rubbing a dog’s face into the poop it had left on the carpet while yelling ‘Bad!’ at it over and over.
It seemed rather basic and maybe a bit childish, but it was certainly working given that Boxxy was clearly regretting its actions. It was why it let itself be lectured instead of the other way around. It recognized that, had it not lashed out at Fizzy when its Honeydew was destroyed, she would not have retaliated. It was actually somewhat proud of her, as she didn’t hesitate or hold back in the slightest. Granted, it had been an entire lifetime since she was a pathetic meatbag, but it was somehow encouraging to see she was still adhering to its teachings.
“So, are you ready to admit that you have an addiction problem?”
However, the golem’s next words immediately replaced that strangely tasty feeling with one of dread. Though violent, her actions had helped drag quite a few issues to the surface, and in doing so made it impossible for Boxxy to ignore them. The first of those was that yes, it had grown mentally and physically dependant on dryad nectar. Though it had convinced itself otherwise, it recognized that it would have never put Fizzy’s shininess in danger over something as trivial as jars of Honeydew. The latter’s golden glow made it relatively shiny for an alchemical substance, but it still paled before actual gold, and even comparing it to the former felt like blasphemy.
That said, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly when things had become this way. It had always adored and craved Ambrosia’s nectar, but it was fairly certain that was just due to its gluttony. The contents of her bosom had one of the most divine flavors to have ever crossed its tongue. Consuming it not only gave it extra HP through the Nature’s Bounty perk, but made both the dryad and itself happy. It was a win-win-win situation no matter how it looked at it. The nectar had also likely been the main reason behind its mutation into a hylt creeper, which the monster enjoyed being due to the extra versatility of its hybrid species.
After sorting through its memories, it recalled the first time it reached for the Honeydew stuff. That was about a year and two months ago, when Ambrosia was taking one of her season-long power-naps. She had told it she really needed to sleep for a while, so when the withdrawal jitters hit it somehow ended up reaching for the subpar substitute for the first time ever. Meaning that it was already addicted by that point in time, but it clearly wasn’t like that back when Edward the Spymaster was still alive. Or, at the very least, it hadn’t been that bad.
And then, Boxxy had an epiphany.
“Lavender!” it shouted aloud.
“Your dungeon master? What about her?” Fizzy asked, clearly confused.
“This is all her fault!”
The combination of Boxxy’s monstrous constitution, hylt-touched biology and Legendary Endurance had likely helped it fight off the habit-forming properties of dryad nectar. However, that must have changed once Ambrosia started cross-pollinating with the mountain alraune. The whole purpose of the act was to let the former take on some of the latter’s traits, resulting in several changes to her tree. The pink coloration of its flowers and the added sweetness of its fruits were but two of those, but it also augmented the quality of Ambrosia’s nectar. And considering that alraune were a species that lured prey in with hypnotic scents and pollen, it wasn’t far-fetched to assume that that it spiked the nectar’s addictive properties to begin with.
Unfortunately, ‘assume’ was all the monster could do. After all, one of the main reasons it gave Lavender to Ambrosia in the first place was because it was promised an even more delicious nectar. It was also possible that adding the alraune’s juices into the mix merely intensified an already existing albeit minor addiction. Since there was no way to know for sure, the shapeshifter chose to believe that Lavender was to blame solely because that made it feel slightly less worse about the situation.
“What, that dumbass?” Fizzy exclaimed in disbelief. “She can hardly put two and two together let alone try to sabotage you without you noticing!”
“I didn’t say it was on purpose,” Boxxy snapped back. “I’m just saying it’s her fault.”
“Uh-huh. The real question here isn’t who you’re going to blame, though. It’s what are you going to do about this?”
“I… don’t know. I doubt Ambrosia herself would have an answer, either.”
Her motives in feeding Boxxy her nectar were largely unknown since the nectar feedings started back when the dungeon core was still influencing her judgment. Did she willingly and knowingly try to get it addicted so it would always be nearby? Or was she unaware of what that stuff was capable of? No, that couldn’t be it. It was ludicrous to think Ambrosia wouldn’t know such a thing when Alderis did. Maybe she didn’t realize what she had done until after she had been freed from the dungeon’s control and decided to keep quiet about it?
Whatever the case may have been, it was probably a bad idea to wake her just to question her about it.
“I assume those Waters of Life are not an option?” Fizzy asked.
“Probably not,” Boxxy confirmed. “They come from the same source, so they’re just as likely to make it worse than they are to make it better.”
“How about a Rank Up?”
Back when she was stuck underground following Boxxy’s demise, the golem had suffered permanent damage to her core, the part of her that functioned as both heart and brain. It caused a myriad of problems, such as making both her thoughts and movements stutter uncontrollably. Thankfully she didn’t have to deal with it for long, as she was able to Rank Up into a dynamo golem soon afterwards. If that process could fix something as irreparable as a broken golem core, then it would surely cure even Boxxy’s deep-rooted ailment.
“That’s not much of an option,” the shapeshifter shook its head. “Won’t be another five months before I get a shot at that.”
“Oh, right, the wedding thing. Okay, what about regular people that get addicted to Honeydew? How do they get themselves off the stuff?”
“There are alchemical treatments to help deal with the withdrawal symptoms, but there’s a different one for each race.”
“And I suppose nobody thought to make one in doppelganger flavor, huh?” the golem sighed.
“I might be able to cook something up. My Alchemist Job Level may not be that high, but I think it’s worth a try.”
If Boxxy couldn’t manage it by itself, it could trick Rowana into helping it modify the existing treatments to match its freakish biology. She made the stuff regularly as part of her apothecary work, so she was intimately familiar with the formula. In fact, the elf was the one who told Keira about it in the first place. And if she too was incapable of making it work, then the shapeshifter would be out of luck.
“Wait, you said it helped deal with the symptoms, not the withdrawal itself?” Fizzy pointed out.
“Doesn’t that mean that in the end it still boils down to having the willpower to resist the urge to consume more of the stuff?”
In other words, whether the alchemical treatment worked or not would not actually influence the rate of its recovery. Even after that Boxxy could just as easily relapse, meaning it would have to abstain from nectar indefinitely, not only for the time being. That was going to be a challenge in and of itself, especially if Ambrosia started tempting it once she woke up.
“I guess we have to do this the hard way after all,” the golem bluntly stated. “It’s okay, though. I’ll be here to support you all the way.”
“No offense, but what can you do?” Boxxy couldn’t help but ask.
“For one thing, I’ll keep an eye on you, make sure you’re staying sober. I also know a trick that will help distract yourself when the cravings get real bad. It’s one I’ve used to run away from my problems ever since I was a teenager.”
“Oh? Let’s hear it, then.”
“I bury my troubles under a mountain of work,” Fizzy triumphantly stated. “Trust me, you’ll have no time to think about anything else if your head is full of nuts, bolts, cogs and springs. Just a short while ago I barely even noticed you'd arrived because I was trying to make a Vitality Evaluator and an Optimized Zapper Matrix run on the same circuit without one of them blowing up. You won’t get the time to complain if you constantly keep yourself busy.”
“I see… Keeping myself busy, huh…”
The golem made a very good point. Boxxy would have much fewer opportunities to screw up if all it did was tinker. Its Artificer Job had fallen into a bit of a rut lately, so perhaps focusing on that for a while wouldn’t be such a bad idea. That aside, Fizzy mentioning Snack also reminded the shapeshifter that this nectar dependency was but one of its problems. Though it may have been responsible for making the monster lash out at its irreplaceable shiny, it wasn’t responsible for the overpowering rage that took over it afterwards. At least there was no doubt as to what had caused that, as it was obviously a side-effect of the improvised ritual that saved Arms’s soul from collapsing. The procedure had left Boxxy’s ego tainted by her essence, it just didn’t know in what way this corruption of its character would manifest itself until thirty minutes ago.
Even if they were leftovers, the former fiend had left behind enough pure wrath to completely overwhelm her master should it allow itself to be consumed by anger. Keeping its temper from flaring up was one way to deal with this, but it was unlikely to solve the core issue. At least this one was related to the study of demonology, which was far better developed than the study of the milky stuff that squirted from the breasts of millenia old tree-spirits. A lot of people have likely faced this sort of problem before, so all Boxxy had to do was find out how they dealt with it.
“Now that you’ve calmed down, mind pulling this thing out of me?” Fizzy asked, pointing towards the sword in her shoulder. “I can’t quite reach the handle.”
Boxxy stood up from the floor and limped over to the beaten up golem, its muscles still spasming and twitching after the repeated shocks. It grasped the handle of the weapon and slowly pulled it out, being careful not to inflict any more damage than it had already caused. Once the foreign object was removed, the golem applied healing magic to her mangled shoulder joint. There was a moment of grinding, scraping and clicking as the machinery returned to its proper state, after which Fizzy moved her arm around to make sure there were no complications. She then moved onto fixing up the rest of her cracked, dented or cleaved chassis.
“Why did you do it?” Boxxy asked after silently watching her for a while.
“Do what?” she asked absentmindedly while tending to her damaged plating.
“You physically confronted me at great risk to yourself. Why would you go that far?”
The shapeshifter could somewhat understand why Snack would not want it addicted to Ambrosia’s nectar. She wanted her master to remain alive as long as possible, as Boxxy couldn’t satisfy her carnal urges if it was dead. That was why she wanted it to obtain an ageless or immortal body, as doing so would allow her contract to last beyond the length of a doppelganger’s lifetime. However, the chances of that happening would decrease astronomically if the shapeshifter was too obsessed with hylt nectar to pursue such things. Not to mention that unchecked substance abuse was a liability that could easily cost the monster its life.
The golem’s motivations, however, were a lot less transparent. Though she was unquestionably Boxxy’s ally and accomplice, it seemed odd that Fizzy would involve herself in a matter like this. Addiction was a problem only meatbags had to deal with, and her thoughts and plans didn’t stretch out towards eternity like Snack’s did. And with her and all three of Boxxy’s familiars having acted behind its back over the last several days, the shapeshifter couldn’t help but feel it was losing control of its assets. Hence why it couldn’t help but question Fizzy about her reasons.
“How can you say that?” the golem replied in an insulted tone. “I did it because I care about you.”
“… Because I’m a great metal polisher?”
“No. I mean yes, I do appreciate the time we spend together, but not because of that. What I feel towards you is something a lot more… enlightened. You’re the only one that gets me. Not as a golem, not as a Paladin, not as an Artificer, but as the wonderfully bizarre and thoroughly unique individual that I am. That means far too much to me to stand idly by while you destroy yourself. I’m not going to use the ‘L-word,’ but I genuinely dread the notion of a world without my favorite Hero in it. And what you showed me earlier, wasn’t that person. Monster. Whatever.”
Well, that and she would never permit Ambrosia to replace her as the center of Boxxy’s attention, but that was only a minor point compared to that other mushy stuff.
“I see. Thank you,” Boxxy solemnly said.
“If you really want to thank me, then get busy.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your tantrum back there did a number on my testing chamber.”
The large room that had been reinforced with copious amounts of metal and magic now looked like the aftermath of a Boxxy-class tornado. Which was to say that its state could easily be described as ‘completely wrecked,’ and that was putting it mildly. It was frankly a miracle nobody from the outside tried to investigate the ungodly racket they must’ve been making. Then again, Fizzy’s workshop was hardly the quietest spot in the neighborhood, so any passers by likely assumed it was business as usual at the eccentric Artificer’s place.
“… By the way, are there any Honeydew jars left?”
The golem raised the hammer in her grasp and started charging her DILDO with a loud buzzing noise at Boxxy’s words.
“Wait, wait! Hear me out!” the shapeshifter pleaded. “I found a lead on those cultists I told you about, the ones that attacked my Facade’s house.”
“And, uh, I need to be in peak condition when we raid the place. Which wouldn’t be the case if I was going through withdrawal.”
While the shapeshifter did intend to kick that habit now that Fizzy had beaten some sense into it, the timing of this intervention was hardly ideal.
“I just need, like, a week. Two at the most!”
“… Alright, fine,” the golem conceded. “On one condition, though.”
“Once that’s over with, you’re going to help me calibrate the project I mentioned earlier.”
“The one with the Vitality Evaluator and Optimized Zapper Matrix?”
“Yup. Making it work right will require testing it on fleshy bits that I obviously don’t have.”
“I’d be happy to. What is it that you’re trying to make, though?”
“It’s an invention I’ve been working on especially for you. Something that will help keep you honest if I’m ever not around. I call it the Honeydew Exposure-Reactive Preventative Electrocution System.”
Boxxy did not like the sound of that one little bit.
“Uh… Is there any chance that-”
Fizzy cut it off by channeling her Static Field through her weapon, making it crackle with electrical energy.
“Either the DILDO or the HERPES, Boxxy,” she blatantly threatened it. “Which is it gonna be?!”
“… I’ll take the HERPES.”
It disliked both of those options, but at least the latter sounded far less intrusive than the former.