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The shapeshifter, along with Fizzy, Xera, and Jen, beat as expedient a retreat as a group of land-dwelling monsters in a flooded factory could manage. Thankfully Boxxy’s Legendary Intelligence gave it a perfect recollection of the last two days, so it had no problem navigating the confusing serpentine path they had taken to reach that deep into the compound. Unfortunately, it couldn’t exactly move at top speeds in these tight and twisting spaces, so reaching the main access shaft would still take a minute or two.

The deafening defrosting then repeated itself, this time causing huge chunks of the unnatural ice encasing everything to break away. The weird screech took several seconds to recharge itself before washing over Boxxy’s group again. This time it seemed to have been aimed at the intruders directly, as they all felt their muscles scream and bones creak underneath that frequency. It wasn’t enough to kill or seriously injure them, but the damage sustained still slowed them down. Well, except for Fizzy, whose metallic body resisted the vibrations effortlessly.

Seven more sonic blasts rang throughout the facility over the next forty seconds, alternating between the anti-ice and anti-meatbag frequencies. By the time they’d reached the hundred-meter-tall tube they’d all descended through, Boxxy, Jen, and Xera had started bleeding profusely out of various orifices. A few quick Holy Lights from Fizzy saw them restored to full health, after which they began swimming up towards the exit.

However, they were not fast enough. The facility had almost completely shaken off the ice by that point and was rapidly coming back to life. It wasn’t just assembly lines and conveyor belts that were being brought online, either. Dozens if not hundreds of humanoid constructs started emerging from the walls and floor. These seemed to be torpedo golems like Nora, only without the face, axe-tail, or personality.

This was precisely the sort of thing that Boxxy, Fizzy, and Jen were worried about. They had all experienced firsthand just how terrifying a squad of war golems could be. Not only was their Paladin one such a being, but they had fought her kind on several occasions inside the instant dungeons conjured by Regina’s Divine item. Sure, each of them would likely trounce one of these faceless drones in single combat, but there was no telling just how many lay dormant within these walls.

So, when faced with a potentially insurmountable obstacle, the group of monsters reacted as one would expect - by running away.

That was easier said than done, however. The first four torpedo golems easily caught up to them before they were even halfway up that shaft. A kick from Jen, a hammer blow from Fizzy, and a Spell from Boxxy and Xera each had sent them hurtling down towards the bottom. Those attacks alone were not enough to kill them, but they’d at least stall them. The show of force did little to dissuade the next eight golems, however, and the twenty-something below those seemed equally unimpressed.

Unfortunately for the sentient submarines, Boxxy knew how to take advantage of a choke point. True, this shaft was almost fifteen meters in diameter, but the shapeshifter had something that could clog this up and then some. It urged the others to go on ahead while it intentionally lagged behind. It allowed the next wave of golems to get nice and close to it, then used Cold Snap. The resulting instant glacier took only moments to immobilize the constructs while also completely sealing the bottleneck.

Admittedly Boxxy was stuck right in the middle of that frigid cork, but a coordinated Scorching Ray from Xera created just enough of a hole in it for the shapeshifter to crawl out of.

“That’s not going to hold for long!” Fizzy pointed out as her Assault Mode’s jets carried her upward.

She could easily see the flashes of the enemy golems’ own Magitech Cannons through the cloudy lump of ice. Though none of them seemed to be able to use fire Spells - or at least not at Xera’s level - they’d still need only seconds to break through.

“It’ll be long enough!”

Shifting its lower body into an organic propeller, Boxxy easily caught up with the others and grabbed the bustiest of its familiars from behind.

“Malefic Union!”

The djinn barely had a chance to react before her flesh began merging with her master’s. Five long and agonizing seconds later, the two had become one, and the shapeshifter cast off the Sandman’s cloak to reveal a twisted mockery of a succubus’s form. It was the same shape its body seemed to naturally adopt whenever it fused with Xera, complete with the jagged horns, third eye, and blade-tipped purple tentacles dangling from the head and waist.

It was just in time, too. The torpedo golems had forced their way through the instant glacier and were coming in fast, though not faster, than the djinntacle’s chanting.

“Massive Rejection!”

With a crackle of Power Overwhelming and a few words of arcane power, a wave of pure, unyielding force shot out of Boxxy’s hands. Everything below the creature was pushed away in an instant. There was a brief moment where not even water remained in the space Boxxy’s empowered Spell had travelled through. The liquid then collapsed in on itself with explosive force, kicking up a turbulent torrent that, unfortunately, did little to disturb the humanoid torpedos that were still coming in.

“Dark Explosion! Gravity Well! Reality Slash! Frostbite! Frostbite! Shadowbolt! Mass Hysteria! Massive Rejection! Dark Explosion!”

Boxxy’s follow up barrage of magic was another story entirely. The armored host underneath was ripped, cut, and torn apart in various ways as Spell after Spell hammered into the bulk of them. The shapeshifter wasn’t doing much damage, though. It had to employ a few tricks it had picked up from Nao to shorten the incantations in order to keep up this rate of casting, but doing that drastically cut the power behind each Spell. Power Overwhelming was making up for the difference, but was also rapidly draining the monster’s MP reserves. Not even Hylt Metabolism supercharging its natural recovery could keep up with the outrageous demand.

Or at least, not if there was only one of them. As Boxxy weaved the arcane while dodging plasma cannon fire from below, it also created Mirror Images as often as it could. Yes, these things appeared with a grand total of zero MP, but their own copy of the Hylt Metabolism Skill allowed them to rapidly fill up on enough magical energy to start slinging Spells as well. There was only so much ambient mana to go around, though. Boxxy and its clones were sucking up so much of the energy around them that the restorative bonus from Hylt Metabolism dropped from an impressive 400% increase to a relatively modest 150%.

Still, having ten admittedly inferior copies of itself as backup had earned the shapeshifter enough leeway to put the next phase of its plan into motion. It backed off and used one of its body doubles as a shield, then activated Xera’s Conjure Catalyst Skill to create the material component for its next Spell. A reactivation of Power Overwhelming and several intense seconds of full-blown chanting later, it dumped precisely two and a half thousand MP into a single incantation.

“Singularity!”

The super-dense mass of darkness appeared some thirty meters below, its pull so strong that not even war golems were able to resist it. They clumped together around it into one messy ball of metallic scraping, crunching, and screeching. Even the walls of the shaft seemed to groan ominously under the pull, despite their magical reinforcement.

“Huhuhuhu! AHAHAHAHAHA!”

Meanwhile Boxxy just floated there, cackling like a maniac at the mayhem it had unleashed.

*THOK*

You have suffered insignificant blunt trauma. HP -21.

It was then clonked on the head by a rather hefty piece of steel tubing.

“Hey!” Fizzy yelled from above. “Stop goofing around and get up here!”

“… Right.”

It had been a good while since Boxxy last performed the Malefic Union with Snack. It had forgotten how… easy it was to get almost literally drunk on power in this state. It might have wasted this prime opportunity if not for Fizzy’s well-timed intervention, so it made a mental note to show her some special attention later on. For now it swam up to the exit that its shiniest of shinies was standing next to and the two of them joined Jen on the outside.

Something had clearly changed since they were last here. The mecha-crab’s body was still there in the corner of the lava pit, but that sonic defrosting had disturbed the seismic stability of the area. Ominous rumblings echoed all around them, and new lava flows dripped down from the bell-shaped cavern’s walls and ceiling. Being in the center of a volcanic eruption was hardly desirable, but far from the group’s most pressing concern.

“Requesting urgent extraction,” Jen nervously chimed in.

The harpy Monk hadn’t been having a good day, to say the least. Her diving suit was damaged, she had nearly gotten golemified against her will, and, perhaps worst of all, had also been yelled at by Boxxy. Actually no, the worst part was that she couldn’t fight as well as she’d like underwater. Yes, she was fast and strong, but her diving suit prevented her from grasping her staff, and without that she’d struggle to make so much as a scratch on those metal soldiers. She briefly considered ripping off her other sleeve as well just so she could fight better, but had no idea if that might rupture the suit and turn her into dead weight.

Under the circumstances, it was entirely understandable why she’d want to get out of here, and her fellow follower of Finnigan was nodding furiously in agreement.

“I’ll get right on that.”

And now that they were free of the facility’s anti-teleportation wards, Boxxy seemed more than happy to oblige, though perhaps not in the exact way that Fizzy and Jen were expecting.

“Aperire portas inter regna. Nulla metus magna, pellentesque nec nulla in, fringilla tincidunt ex.”

For starters, the fact that it was chanting in that language was not what either of them would call a good idea. Neither was the way that its ten or so body doubles were performing what was undoubtedly a synchronous chant. But perhaps the worst part was how they seemed to be taking their sweet-ass time, carefully enunciating every single nonsensical syllable. This became an even more pressing issue when the magic Boxxy had used to ‘clog the drain’ seemed to have either expired or been forcibly dispersed. Fizzy and Jen could clearly hear the approaching angry screeches of hundreds of pissed off torpedo golems.

But, for better or for worse, both of them trusted Boxxy’s judgement and knew better than to interrupt a magic user’s concentration without good reason, so they silently agreed to cover it while it finished doing its thing. That was going to be more difficult than originally anticipated, however, as the platform that CR-4B had been using as a bed began to groan open after centuries of disuse and abuse. A veritable swarm of murderous machines poured out from inside and spread out, completely encircling the group as they prepared to assault them from every possible direction.

These golems were not mindless drones. Sure, they seemed to follow the same will and looked almost completely identical to one another, but each individual was capable of thinking for themselves. They could clearly see the enemy Casters preparing some giant incantation, so they didn’t just blindly rush towards them. Well, not all of them. Just ten to twenty. Enough to either put a stop to this or force the shapeshifter’s hand while the others remained well outside of the standard thirty meter range that most Spells had. Though while they were technically beyond the reach of the Spell Boxxy was preparing, they were all well within its grasp.

With a smirk of ‘just as planned,’ the shapeshifter and its copies uttered the same final word in unison.

“Portus!”

A massive spatial rift that rivaled Azurvale’s Forest Gates in sheer size flew open above and behind Boxxy. Both its companions and the confused torpedo golems were given a brief glimpse of a sunny blue sky before all of them were given an express one-way trip right to it. Water, lava, stone, metal, and flesh alike were hurled through the supercharged gateway. The force behind it was not quite as extreme as the explosive decompression when Boxxy had first tried this, but it was plenty to transfer everyone and everything in that submerged crevasse into the sky whether they liked it or not.

A special action has been performed. FTH -15.

The shapeshifter barely even registered the Attribute penalty for its actions amidst the flood of other messages, nor did it particularly care. It had a very specific reason for moving the battlefield from several kilometers under the ocean to several kilometers above it. Its biggest issue with the torpedo golems was that they clearly had the environmental advantage down there, but up here? Well, considering it and its companions could fly, float, hover, and glide while the hostile constructs were in an uncontrolled freefall, it was safe to say the tables had turned.

“Jen! Catch!”

The harpy, though still mildly disoriented from the violent transfer, perfectly caught the Artifact grade staff Boxxy had thrown at her. She also instantly grasped the monster’s intentions. With an utterance of the command word ‘aflac,’ the griffin-girl burst out of her constrictive ducky suit and slammed one end of her favorite weapon right into the nearest floundering golem. The gilded tip of her adamantite staff crushed its head like a bucket that had been stepped on by an elephant. It was still alive though, seeing as it took a blind swing at her, but another crushing blow to the torso area saw the construct mangled, killed, and flung to the side. A single beat of her powerful wings propelled the feathery Monk towards the next one, which was impaled right through its core as if that Ki-infused staff was a spear.

Fizzy, for her part, had needed a lot less prompting to recognize a good opportunity to wreak some havoc. She was already pummeling the life out of her fourth victim with her mechanized warhammer. When she was done with that, she employed her Jump Jets to dart over to the next one and repeated the process. It didn’t matter how numerous these things are when they were completely helpless. Okay, maybe ‘completely helpless’ was too strong a phrase, but their awkward slashes and horribly aimed Magitech Cannon shots were of no real threat.

As for Boxxy, it had given up on using magic for the moment. Merging with Xera might have massively magnified its mystic might, but that didn’t mean its overwhelming physical force and deadly precision had disappeared. In its currently feminine hands were a pair of Artifact-grade items. In its right was a lightforged orichalcum dagger called Daybreak, which was empowered with the sun’s scorching incandescence. In its left was its shadowed orichalcum counterpart, dubbed Nightfall, which was imbued with the cold shadows of the celestial void. Though their individual power waxed and waned with the time of day as their names would suggest, they were at their deadliest when wielded simultaneously.

And none demonstrated their full capabilities better than Boxxy T. Morningwood. As the shapeshifter descended onto a falling golem from the side, it plunged Daybreak into its back and Nightfall in its chest. Both the construct’s outer and inner layers of steel armor were violently punctured. Its core, located and targeted by the ex-mimic’s MLG, was pierced from opposite ends. The weapons then discharged their elemental properties, simultaneously melting and freezing either half of the vital component. The latter was especially effective since cold magic was a metal golem’s Bane, resulting in the hostile construct’s instant death.

It was thus that the trio of monsters on the side of Chaos proceeded to eliminate the opposition, each one needing only seconds to dispatch a torpedo golem before moving onto their next victim. Boxxy’s body doubles were also doing their part, but relied on Spell-slinging since they lacked the original’s enchanted arsenal. When they began to run out of what little MP they had left, they were ordered to start literally pulling apart the golems using nothing but brute strength and teamwork.

That said, there were still far too many targets to dispatch and not enough time. The endless expanse of the Shimmering Ocean drew ever-closer from below as everything either fell or flew at terminal velocity towards it. It seemed as though Boxxy’s group wouldn’t be able to dispatch all of the golems by the time they hit the water, at which point they’d be able to either fight back or retreat. The shapeshifter didn’t like either of these options, so it mentally instructed its Mirror Images to perform another synchronous chant with their last reserves of MP, though this time without resorting to the Divine language.

“Magnetic Tilt!”

Together, the ten clones conjured a radius of fifty or so meters where gravity worked in the opposite direction. As golems, both living and otherwise, fell into it, they rapidly slowed down and started ‘falling’ upwards, only for real gravity to reclaim them and see them plunge back down. The process would then repeat itself, trapping them in a seemingly endless loop of vertical movement. It wasn’t perfect and the Magnetic Tilt Spell could only influence a limited amount of mass before its power faded, but it still gave Boxxy, Fizzy, and Jen enough time to mop up the survivors. Not one of them were left functioning by the time the aerial battlefield was finally allowed to crash into the ocean.

“That was crazy!” Fizzy exclaimed as she hovered over the water. “I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun! I’m so excited I can almost feel my old heartbeat!”

Even with an unfeeling metallic body, there was just something deeply satisfying about crumpling those tin soldiers beneath her might. A few of them had managed to gain some measure of control over their descent and others were especially tough nuts to crack, but for the most part they had been nothing more than helpless bundles of XP. Quite bountiful ones, at that. Fizzy had already gained two Levels in both her Paladin and War Golem Jobs in just a few minutes. She could scarcely remember the last time she’d gained this much in such a short time frame, and with such relatively little effort to boot. Jen had likely experienced similarly explosive growth, judging by the way she was flying around and greedily looking for any leftovers.

Unfortunately the only ‘leftovers’ to be found was the black sludge that Boxxy was vomiting as the Malefic Union Skill reached its time limit. It was disappointing to be sure, but Jen didn’t complain. The sky was her domain, and she had clearly racked up the most kills during that freefall. The resulting confidence boost allowed her to speak up on a matter that had been nagging at her from the back of her mind since this frantic chase had started.

“Boxxy?” she called out while hovering above it.

“What?” it responded while floating atop the relatively calm waters.

“Back in the factory, the voice said something about detecting multiple hull breaches.”

“Yeah. And?”

The shapeshifter hadn’t had a chance to give that statement much thought, but that line probably referred to the lava-filled hole in the wall they’d encountered. It made sense there’d be more than one of those given that the place had stood idle for centuries, possibly even millenia.

“Why did it say ‘hull’ instead of ‘perimeter’ or ‘wall?’” Jen calmly asked.

“… Oh, crap.”

One would not use the word ‘hull’ specifically unless referring to a ship or vessel. This implied that the war golem factory was not, in fact, a structure built into the sea floor, but a vehicle that had been buried in it. It couldn’t be tallied up to a mistranslation either, seeing as how that place had somehow assimilated and adopted the language in a matter of seconds.

“Hold that thought,” it told Jen while it switched to telepathic communication. “Claws, are you still in the krymer city?”

“Yes, Master,” the stalker confirmed.

“How are things down there?”

Drea might not have had the full picture of what was going on, but had figured out that something unexpected had happened upon ‘overhearing’ communications between Boxxy and Xera. She had dialed the djinn’s soul-number after her departure from the mortal realm and had gotten the gist of the situation from her. And judging by how she felt her master’s presence was now somewhere above rather than below, she could hazard a guess as to how the shapeshifter had handled said situation.

She therefore made sure to keep her report brief and to the point.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, Master.”

“Nothing? Nothing at all?” Boxxy pressed.

“Not as far as I can tell.”

“No quakes or rumblings?”

“There was a bit of shaking about five minutes ago, but nobody seemed disturbed or surprised. It’s likely a common occurrence.”

“I see.”

“Uh, okay, scratch that. The ground beneath the city’s central square is now actively rising upwards. The buildings are falling over like humans with their heads cut off.”

“… Any chance that’s a common occurrence, too?”

“The lava bubbling out from between the cracks might be, but the torpedo golems that are now slaughtering the civilians most definitely aren’t.”

“Well,” Boxxy turned back to Jen, “bad news is your hunch seems to have been right. The thing seems to be rising from the ground and those war golems are now invading the krymer. Good news is that it’s not our problem.”

Sure, the shapeshifter’s actions may have doomed the city of Nautilin and possibly even the nation of Saphrina to golem-induced extermination, but that was happening all the way down there. There was nothing stopping Boxxy from simply ignoring this development and going back home. Admittedly it would be leaving behind that mechanized crab’s sonic cannons, but it hadn’t come out of this empty-handed. The golem eggs in its Storage went without saying, but it had also acquired a significant amount of precious metals as well. Though the majority of the torpedo golems had been silverite or steel, there were dozens of them that were made of shinier stuff. That number included constructs of mithril or various flavors of orichalcum, and Boxxy had killed and collected those ones in a manner similar to Nora during the freefall.

But… if this was just the vanguard, then wasn’t there a chance that there’d be even more shiny golems down there? Not to mention that the XP earned was quite tasty indeed. That magical standoff at the factory’s entrance had earned it a whole Warlock Level. Then there was the oddly religious nature of the war chant that Snack had translated. In retrospect, it seemed fairly obvious that this whole thing was the work of another old god from Eren’s generation. Which, in turn, meant that the God of Luck would definitely be grateful if Boxxy were to clean this up. Yes, it did already have a divine I. O. U. in its pocket, but a second one surely couldn’t hurt… right?

“On second thought, I’ve decided to go back and make it our problem.”

It was thus that Boxxy’s insatiable greed had once again triumphed over its caution.

“Count me in!” Fizzy eagerly joined in. “I need to show these obsolete rust-buckets what a real war golem is capable of!”

In her case, it was pride that was clouding her better judgement. Rather than cheap knockoffs, the radiant Paladin had started to consider these ancient constructs as inferior and outdated models. They were but remnants of a bygone age that no doubt wished to spread their laughably primitive methods to the surface. Fizzy felt it was her duty, as the clearly advanced and superior version, to put those uppity constructs in their place. True, their numbers were an issue, but they’d be much easier to deal with now that they were no doubt fighting the local krymer.

That final thought helped Fizzy realize that Boxxy’s opportunistic and profiteering nature had seemingly rubbed off on her. Not that she or her alter egos saw that as a bad thing. After all, as Claude himself liked to say, chances existed to be taken.

“Requesting that I be left out.”

Jen, on the other hand, seemed far less enthusiastic to go back under the water so soon after finally getting out of it. Well, that and she had ‘misplaced’ the yellow and orange hat that her diving suit had compacted into, so she wanted an opportunity to find it before Boxxy found out and yelled at her again. Whether she’d manage to do that was another point entirely, but Jen had faith that the Hide of the Great Yellow Beast was floating around somewhere nearby that would make it easy to spot and scoop out of the ocean without getting her feathers wet.

Thankfully for her, Boxxy either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the missing Artifact as it allowed Fizzy into its Storage and used Transfamiliar to swap places with Drea. The webstalker would be woefully ineffective against those heavily armored golems anyway, so taking her out of the emerging war zone was of little consequence. Upon arriving in Nautilin, the shapeshifter was met with the scene of carnage it had expected to see. The local guards and adventurers were putting up a fight, but were clearly outmatched by the seemingly endless stream of torpedo golems emerging from the ocean floor.

Being the exemplary Hero of Chaos that it was, Boxxy immediately hid in a relatively quiet ruined building and began making preparations. Its MP reserves were still somewhat exhausted, so it couldn’t use Summon Familiar normally. It still had its Voidcaller staff on hand, however, so it wasted no time in using its special ability to emergency-summon Kora and outfitted her with its last spare set of diving gear. The hoarder seemed surprisingly unaware of what was going on, as the Beyond’s ‘Boxxy Show’ had apparently been suffering from ‘technical difficulties’ for days now. Still, it wasn’t like her part in this was all that complicated.

“Smash as many golems as you can, but focus on the shiny ones and collect their bodies!” Boxxy ordered.

“CAAAN DOOO!” she declared with overflowing enthusiasm.

A few streets over, a couple of krymer adventurers were hiding in the ruins of a collapsed warehouse. The rubble hadn’t even settled yet, but these two were already at their wits’ end.

“What do you mean it does nothing?!” one of them shouted in their native tongue. “You’re a damned Hydromancer, aren’t you?!”

“I don’t know! It’s just not working!” his friend argued. “No matter what I try, those things just shrug it off like nothing!”

Though Hydromancers were relatively weak on dry land, their magic became exceptionally potent at the bottom of the ocean. The problem was that, unbeknownst to these two, all torpedo golems had the Water Affinity Skill, which rendered the latter one almost completely powerless against them. The other didn’t fare much better either, being a simple Warrior with a focus on spears. His choice of weapon alone put him at a significant disadvantage against those walking lumps of metal.

All in all, neither of them were willing to or capable of putting up a real fight. It was therefore rather unfortunate that their raised voices had caught the attention of a trio of golems, the first of which smashed straight through the wall they were hiding behind. Thrown back by the impact, the terrified Hydromancer could do little but watch as his friend was pinned to the ground beneath the metal monster. It raised its arm-blade, clearly intending to gut the krymer like the bipedal fish that he was while its comrades chuckled to themselves from above.

“ORRRAA!”

It was then that something large, red, green, and black tackled the golem out of nowhere, slamming them both into another wall. The other two constructs darted into the resulting mud-and-dust cloud, likely intending to team up against this new threat. The Hydromancer went to check on his friend. He was alive, if badly injured, and the pair ended up staring dumbly towards the filthy glob of water, their attention utterly captivated by the sounds of yelling and ringing metal. The big multi-armed thing then leapt out of the cloud while holding onto two of the golems and body-slammed them head-first into a solid-looking slab of stone next to the adventurers. The floor cracked and heaved under the combined weight, and now had two badly mangled and very dead golems sticking out of it.

Another patrol attacked the demon, this one comprised of no less than six golems. Three of them charged her. One was sidestepped, another punched aside, and the third grabbed. Kora held her captive in her three left arms while her right ones rapidly pummeled it into crumpled steel. She tossed its mangled remains at the one she dodged, then kicked off the ground to intercept the three above that were taking aim with their arm cannons. She headbutted the middle one and grappled the other two, then proceeded to quite literally rip them apart with her armored hands. She was then hit by a sonic blast from a surviving golem’s Depth Charge Skill, but this only served to piss her off.

“I got one of those too, dickface! Thunder Clap!”

Her own shock waves rattled the metallic monster hard enough to make its frame dent and warp, after which she stomped it flat underneath her weight. Kora herself was then trampled underfoot as an exceptionally bulky and top-heavy golem practically fell on her. This one was almost as big as the demon, and much heavier than the others seeing as it drove the hoarder face-first into the stone floor beneath it. It was also higher up the evolutionary ladder, as its shell was a vibrant and reflective green as opposed to the lifelessly gray ones that made up the bulk of the enemy force.

The former fiend growled with surging rage as she pushed against the ground with all six arms simultaneously. In what seemed to be an active demonstration of ‘fuck physics,’ she launched both herself and her new dance partner several meters straight upwards. The Berserker then spun around and put the struggling golem in a spinal lock. With a ‘heave’ and a ‘ho,’ she kept twisting and bending its back. The construct’s water jets made it dart frantically around, but it couldn’t shake the demon off before its frame gave way under the strain and its torso cracked open like a clockwork egg.

The hoarder put the relatively shiny remains into her Vault once the struggling had stopped, then went off to find more shell-heads to beat down on, leaving two very confused krymer behind. Elsewhere Boxxy was making similar impressions on the locals as it pounced on any distracted golems it could find. Its paired daggers had little trouble eliminating its targets in a single strike with the help of Assassination. Especially Nightfall, which had a rare Amplified Criticals enchantment that made it deal additional damage whenever a weak point was struck. It also considered summoning extra Snack-shaped backup, but lacked the extra diving gear she’d need to be effective in this environment.

Fizzy was taking a far more direct approach in what was now a one-Paladin crusade. She charged the enemy head-first and overwhelmed them with her superior might, lightning-powered hammer, and magnetic abilities. She did sometimes take hits while passing by the locals, but the krymer either quickly apologized or were turned into paste for their insolence. The radiant construct also took this opportunity to purge a few Taboo holders that were floating around, just to scratch that righteous itch in her arm-cannon.

Between the three of them, Boxxy, Fizzy, and Kora had managed to rack up almost a hundred and fifty confirmed kills in as little as six minutes, but the enemy reinforcements showed no signs of abating. It was more than likely that the mobile factory was now fully operational and was spewing new war golems by the second. The upside was that these ‘new recruits’ were practically Level 1, which meant that the krymer defense force was able to dispatch them relatively easily. At least until one of the Ranked Up ‘veterans’ showed up and turned entire platoons into fish-paste with a single Depth Charge.

Despite all that, the military presence had fully recovered from the initial shock of the attack and was now rapidly taking control of the situation. Or at least so they thought before the bulging ground underneath the central plaza finally burst open. A castle-sized vessel shaped loosely like a spinning saucer with a central spire poking out of its middle rose from the fiery depths, puddles of still-hot lava oozing from its surface. The city’s central region began collapsing and sliding into the now gaping abyss in its heart, forcing civilians, soldiers, and adventurers alike to abandon it.

It would appear Null’s prediction that Boxxy would leave Nautilin as a smoldering crater had been only half-accurate, but the day was far from over.

As the krymer fled the tilting ruins, they found no safety in the surrounding waters. A fresh swarm of ancient torpedo golems started flowing freely out of the mobile base, each of them holding one of its ‘eggs.’ They quickly captured and converted as many people as they could, turning them into murderous monstrosities like themselves. Some kind of brainwashing seemed to be in effect, as well. Unlike with Nora, none of these assimilated krymer’s memories or personalities had survived the conversion process and they gleefully turned on their former friends and loved ones. Witnessing the horror of their own people being transformed into golems en-masse was too much for the locals, causing them to disperse in all directions in a frantic panic.

“So… is it time to leave, now?” Fizzy asked urgently.

“Might be, yeah,” Boxxy replied uneasily.

The two of them had retreated to and hid inside a wrecked hotel towards the edge of the city that hadn’t quite yet slipped into the gaping fiery chasm in the middle of it. Kora was still out doing her thing somewhere, but Boxxy paid her no mind since she was far more expendable than either of them. The only way she could mess this up was to find and then challenge another Demonbane wieldier, but not even she was stupid enough to do that a second time.

“I still wanna try something, though,” the shapeshifter declared.

“It better not be more fancy chanting, I don’t think they’d let you pull that off again,” the Paladin cautioned it.

“I’m aware. I was actually thinking of giving this little number its first field test.”

The Storage portal opened up and spit out what appeared to be a rectangular metal suitcase. It was about half a meter on each side and fifteen centimeters thick, its shell painted in a series of eye-catching black-and-yellow stripes. It was bolted completely shut, the only opening in it being a keyhole near the handle with a row of three round dials next to it.

“That?!” Fizzy’s eyes widened. “Here?!”

She immediately recognized the experimental device as the MOAB, short for ‘Massive Ordnance Appearing as Briefcase.’ It was the brainchild of one Mimi Flickerbutton, and the project that she had requested parts for from Keira. Boxxy had acquired the blueprints for it by ripping them out of her head while torturing her to death. It had been tinkering with this MOAB whenever it had a moment of calm clarity during its recent unstable period, but hadn’t gotten the opportunity to fire it even once.

“What better place?” Boxxy shrugged.

At least, not until now.

“I mean… I guess, but how are you planning on getting it where it needs to go?”

“See, that’s the thing, actually. You know how that place had anti-teleportation wards?”

“Yeah?”

“Enchantments like that are affixed,” it casually explained. “They can’t be moved without disrupting them.”

“Okay, and?”

“And, well… Let’s just say it’s a good thing our target is nice enough to stand still in such a visible spot.”

Following that playful remark, Boxxy fiddled with the three dials to set the timer before casually pulling a small key from Storage. This was inserted into the corresponding slot and turned. The metal box produced a solid click, which was followed immediately by a subtle ticking coming from its interior. Boxxy then held the item out in one hand and, after taking a moment to focus on the floating circular fortress, chanted a Spell that was seldom used for anything beyond magic practice.

“Apport.”

The MOAB disappeared in a flash of light and a burst of bubbles as it was teleported to over a kilometer away in an instant.

“Apport? Really?” Fizzy asked sceptically.

“Just watch.”

The problem with that particular Spell was that, while it could be used to instantly transfer relatively small objects a great distance, its targeting relied on line of sight rather than spatial calculations. This trait made it impossible to aim the Apport at the mobile factory’s interior, where the MOAB would do the most damage. Or at least that would have been the case if not for the six lava-spewing hull breaches dotting its exterior. Boxxy had simply zoomed in on one of those with the Ranger’s Eagle Eye Skill and used that to precisely pinpoint its intended target, allowing its package to bypass the thick outer shell. Sure, it would have most likely landed in residual molten rock, but a little heat was hardly going to impede its function.

A mere five seconds later, the floating disc was rocked by an immensely powerful explosion, its deafening din blanketing the entire city in mere moments. Bright green flames spewed out of several hatches and holes as a flood of damage messages filled Boxxy’s consciousness. The shapeshifter had to admit, even though Mimi had been an insufferable annoyance, she had certainly been a gifted Flamespitter Artificer. Her MOAB might not have cracked the golem factory open, but it certainly crippled it, judging by the way it was keeling heavily to one side.

“Okay, that was damned impressive,” Fizzy admitted. “Now can we leave?”

Though not entirely accurate, the phrase ‘down but not out’ certainly seemed an appropriate way to describe that automated vessel’s state. And since Boxxy only had the one MOAB prototype, it didn’t seem like it could deliver a finishing blow without putting itself in unreasonable danger.

“Alright,” it conceded. “I’ll just grab a few souvenirs and be on my way, so get inside.”

“Finally!”

The mithril golem happily retreated to the safety of Boxxy’s Storage to await transportation. However, the shapeshifter had, as per usual, not been entirely truthful with her. Souvenirs aside, it still had one more thing it wanted to try before leaving this place for good. It was an experiment of sorts that wasn’t very dangerous in and of itself. It just seemed like a good idea to get Fizzy out of sight just in case it worked.

And now that she was safely stashed away, the shapeshifter retrieved two items from its Storage. The first was its Prismatic Cloak, which it immediately draped over the Sandman’s disguise to make itself invisible. It made a beeline - or perhaps a fishline - straight for the damaged golem factory. The waters around it were swarming with golems, krymer, and wildlife alike, but it dodged and weaved through them until it reached the small circular platform at the top of its central spire. Once there, it held out the other object it had retrieved from its personal pocket dimension. It was an orb of translucent orange amber with some kind of flower trapped within.

“Mater est opus vobis!”

The Elder Dryad’s Authority shone brightly, bathing the ocean depths in a blinding light that it had never seen before. It was as if the sun itself had come to witness the fall of Nautilin, though the radiance only lasted for several heartbeats before it faded away and darkness reclaimed the depths. This flashy beacon naturally attracted the attention of every war golem in the vicinity, though the only thing they found when they converged on the site of the disturbance was one very pissed off six-armed hoarder.

While Kora went berserk in every sense of the word, Boxxy mopped up the few golems she’d been molesting before being whisked away with Transfamiliar. With that settled, the shapeshifter hid itself and patiently waited to see if its little stunt would bear any fruit. Yes, there were no dryads to hear the Authority’s call for maybe a thousand kilometers, but it wasn’t trying to reach out to some ancient tree spirits. That quasi-divine burst of magic was indeed used as a signal, though its intended recipient was something far more sinister than a busty vegetable.

And sure enough, no more than two minutes later, a titanic shadow loomed over the decimated city. Khar-Shargurk’ithlag, colloquially known as Big Smoke, had been drawn out of the surrounding depths, its attention roused by the quasi-divine scent of Ambrosia’s densely packed mana. Its appearance confirmed that its supposed hatred for all things holy was just as profound as Boxxy had hoped. Which, when coupled with the suspected origins of those ancient golems, made it fairly obvious what would happen next.

The shapeshifter watched with glee as the leviathan to end all leviathans ripped into the disc-shaped vessel like it was a piece of steel pie. Its massive teeth kept the already crippled craft firmly in place as a wave of glowing white energy climbed up Big Smoke’s throat. It poured out of its mouth as a devastating beam that obliterated the factory, erasing it from existence so completely that not even a single rivet was left behind. With a devastating breath weapon like that, the legends that this leviathan could tussle with an actual elder dragon were sounding a little bit more plausible. Thankfully it had been angled slightly upwards, sparing the local topography from acquiring any additional anomalous alterations.

Moments later, war golems throughout the city started collapsing one after the other. They didn’t seem to be dead in the truest sense of the word, but losing whatever link they might have had to that mobile fortress had put them in a comatose-like state. They would likely reactivate at some point, so the surviving krymer would no doubt rush to dismantle them as quickly as fishily possible. The only reason they weren’t already doing that was because they were too busy staring with bated breaths as the leviathan slowly turned its colossal gaze towards the remnants of their city.

The sentient force of nature lowered its head, its house-sized eyes affixed firmly on one creature in particular.

Boxxy panicked immensely. It had hidden Fizzy away because it was worried she might catch the thing’s attention, but it had failed to consider that it was a Hero itself. Granted, it wasn’t anywhere near as pious or preachy as the mithril Paladin, but that tentacled sea-serpent was most definitely staring straight at it, its gaze easily piercing its Prismatic Cloak. The leviathan didn’t seem to be outwardly hostile, but Boxxy nevertheless prepared a Transfamiliar Spell as rapidly as it could. It had no confidence it could outpace something this humongous in its natural environment, so magic seemed like its only feasible way of escaping this predicament.

Its efforts were abruptly put to an end when Khar-Shargurk’ithlag began to, of all things, speak.

“Hrooooooook, taaaaaaaaaar, meeeeeeeeeeemnooooooonsssssssaaaaaaaah!”

It was a fittingly rumbling and drawn-out voice, the very weight of which was enough to force Boxxy to its knees, both disrupting its concentration and tearing its Prismatic Cloak to shreds in the process.

“Viiiiaaaaaaarrssiiiih, mooooookhraaaaaaataaaaaaaar! Gooooorshruuuuuuuk puuuuuuutaaaaarrr!”

Whatever was left of the surrounding buildings was swept away by the whirlpool caused by the leviathan’s speech while the already unstable ocean floor rumbled ominously underneath.

“Saaaaayooooo, naaaaaaah raaaaaaaah!”

Having apparently said its piece, Khar-Shargurk’ithlag pulled away from the shapeshifter and slithered away into the depths, its two-kilometer long form disappearing within seconds. Boxxy collapsed on the ground and panted heavily, its enchanted water-breathing equipment struggling to keep up with its frantic breaths. The shapeshifter was fully aware just how close it had gotten itself to complete annihilation by toying with forces it didn’t fully understand. It would’ve been actively thanking its lucky stars it still drew breath if it wasn’t sore about losing that valuable garment.

Being singled out like that had also had another effect. Thousands of surviving krymer were now gathering around the freshly made clearing with the rag-covered surface-dweller in the middle. Of course they couldn’t help themselves. On top of every other ridiculous thing that had happened in the last half hour, the leviathan had spoken. Most krymer never even considered the possibility that it might be capable of speech, though it seemed obvious in retrospect considering its kind were supposedly highly intelligent creatures.

In any event, the peanut gallery was keeping their distance from the masked mercenary, terror and despair still fresh on their minds. The reality of what had just befallen their homes and families had only just begun to settle in, so they were more than a little wary of this stranger. They visibly recoiled with fear and hostility when the surfacer stood upright, his masked features and ominous presence doing little to endear him to anyone.

“H-Hugh?”

Well, except for one specific idiot.

“Huuuugh!”

Amona streamed out of the crowd, burying her face in the shapeshifter’s chest as she wrapped her arms around it. Boxxy had very nearly swatted her away on reflex, but managed to control the urge to do so. Its head was still ringing from that ‘conversation,’ so it was a small miracle that it was able to grasp why that would’ve been a bad move, given the circumstances. It really wasn’t in the mood to massacre a bunch of nobodies just because they let their fear and ignorance control their actions. Thankfully they seemed a lot less willing to do something stupid now that they saw that one of their own was apparently familiar with ‘Hugh Mungus.’

“I was so scaaaared!” Amona screamed hysterically. “First there was this earthquake! And then these golem-things came up! And then that huge disc! And then- and then- and then-!”

“It’s alright, I took care of it,” the cloaked figure reassured her.

“Y-you did?” she looked up, oily tears drifting out of her eyes.

“Of course, I did. I was the one that called the beast here with that flash of light.”

“What!? Was that why it was here, yelling at you?!”

“Probably.”

“Why would you do such a stupidly dangerous thing?!”

“Because I had to do something before this madness took you from me.”

Amona’s ear-fins went bright red and her face lit up like she was about to explode with joy, forcing her to bury her head in Hugh’s muscular chest in order to hide her embarrassment. She started to sob loudly again, though her muffled cries carried a subtly more lighthearted tone than before. The onlookers had started murmuring intensely amongst themselves in the meantime, which was only to be expected. The steaming stream of shark-shit Boxxy had just spewed from its face-hole had been delivered just loudly enough for them to overhear. Though the shapeshifter had no idea what Big Smoke actually said, or whether those noises were indeed words, but it certainly had no qualms about claiming the credit for saving their hides.

Then Boxxy realized that very few of these people actually spoke its language, meaning that this little performance was mostly meaningless. At least until a tentacle-headed ‘deep one’ in full scale-mail showed up, a glittering diadem on his forehead. The krymer Ranker was clearly both famous and important seeing as how the crowd parted around him to allow him passage with hushed whispers. He drifted over to Boxxy, looking at Amona’s back with a clearly disgusted look on his face. The shapeshifter decided it was best if the kinky girl collected herself, so it gently pushed her away and brought her attention over to their visitor.

Amona’s ear-fins rapidly went from hot-red to icy-blue as she bowed down on all fours, lowering her head low enough to lick the muddy ground if she so wished.

“You there, drylander!” the man called out in an authoritative tone. “Is it true you are the one who called Xarr- Khar-shrak- the Trench Lord here?!”

He had made a valiant effort at pronouncing the leviathan’s name, but gave up and resorted to using a more formal-sounding alias than ‘Big Smoke.’

“I did,” the cloaked figure firmly admitted. “What of it?”

“Then you have done what I could not. Though I know not your reasons, your actions have saved countless lives under my protection. And for this, you have my undying gratitude.”

The krymer Ranker, who would later identify himself as a member of the Council of Saphrina and ruler of the entire region around the Trenches, bowed before the stranger in a manner similar to Amona. Very few of the surrounding fish-folk understood the words exchanged, but not one of them failed to recognize the significance of this gesture. One by one they all floated to the ravaged seafloor and followed their regent’s example until the only one left standing was Boxxy T. Morningwood.

Level up!
Congratulations, you are now a Level 50 Doppelganger! All Attributes +2.
Feat of strength performed! You have unlocked a new Perk: Ultimate Flesh-shifter.
Proficiency level increased. Essence Shift is now Level 1. All Attributes +20.
The flows of chaos have returned to their default, causal state.

“… Wut?”

The creature couldn’t help but utter a sound of utter confusion. How did its Doppelganger Job get this far along without it noticing? True, it hadn’t paid attention to its progress since that whole corruption thing started getting serious, but this was way beyond its expectations and projections. That aside, when in the name of Barry’s exploding nipples had Agent of Chaos become active? Had its own Hero Skill been subtly influencing its user’s circumstances without it realizing it? Actually, that would certainly explain the undeniably crazy series of events that led to this point in time.

Those had been but a few drops in the flood of questions and thoughts that rushed through the shapeshifter’s mind. It couldn’t even begin to process all the implications and opportunities now open to it. It was like a five year old village boy that had just been given ten thousand GP by a passing pigeon. To say this outcome felt unreal would have been an understatement.

Essence Shift
Description: The shapeshifter has learned the secret art of circulating the magical energy fortifying their body, mind, and soul.
Requirements: Ultimate Flesh-shifter, Any 4 Legendary Attribute Perks
Type: Sustained
Activation Time: Instant
Cost: 800 MP/sec
Range: Self
Effects: Pulls Attribute Points from one Attribute and transfers them to another at a rate of 50 Attribute Points per second.
This Skill cannot be used to transfer Attribute Points between different Attribute Groups.
This Skill cannot be used to raise or reduce Attributes to more than 500 points from their base value.

Yet lo and behold, there it was - Boxxy’s Ultimate Skill in all its deliciously abusable glory. It clearly had limitations and quirks that needed to be tested and explored, but the ‘Ultimate Flesh-shifter’ was still gripped by indecision. It just silently stood there amidst a sea of krymer that seemed to practically be worshipping it. This carried on for a solid three minutes before a rather impatient Fizzy ‘knocked’ on the inner boundaries of Boxxy’s Storage, snapping it back to reality.

The shapeshifter was then able to determine its immediate course of action by formulating a solid three-step plan. Step one - take advantage of these idiots’ goodwill and acquire whatever shinies they had left. Step two - return to the surface and officially celebrate its Ultimate Skill acquisition. Step three - come up with a step three.

Okay, it was still a work in progress, but it was better than just standing there like the world’s deadliest sore thumb.

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About the author

Exterminatus

  • Chestiest Chest That Ever Chested

Bio: I'm a programmer, a mythical creature that survives completely on beer and cynicism. We skulk in the dark, secretly cursing and despising everyone else. Especially other programmers.

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