“Well. That didn’t take long, did it?” Fizzy muttered.
“It most certainly did not,” Xera agreed.
“Can I, tktktkt, eat that?” Drea asked hopefully.
“I dunno. Can you?” Kora scratched her head.
“I think not,” Jen chimed in.
“Then what do we do about this?” Boxxy asked the big question.
The group had barely gone a hundred meters after gearing up when they encountered their first major anomaly. More specifically, a hole several meters wide had suddenly opened up in the ground in front of them. Except that it was clearly magical, given the way it looked like the dry, cracked dirt had been torn open like fabric to reveal a pit of pure blackness. It was clearly some kind of bizarre spatial portal by the look of it, though what lay on the other side was a complete mystery. It was as if light itself was incapable of passing through its border.
“Perhaps we should throw something in to see what happens?” Ambrosia offered excitedly.
“… Worth a shot,” the shapeshifter conceded. “Snack?”
“Oh! Does this mean I get to be treated as a disposable and easily replaceable object?!” the djinn squealed with anticipation.
“Not yet, you shameless sow,” it hissed at her, then pointed at her equipment. “Take your gear off first. It’s a hundred thousand times more valuable than a worthless failure of a whore like yourself will ever be.”
“Forgive me for speaking out of line, sir,” Vergil spoke up, “but that seems a harsh way to address one’s comrades.”
“It’s what she wants, though. See?”
Boxxy idly directed the sentient sword’s attention to Xera, who squirmed and giggled at the verbal abuse as she eagerly stripped her armor off in full view of the others. The others were used to her shenanigans and didn’t even bat an eye, but Vergil was having a bit of a tough time… adjusting. This was hardly the first questionable thing it had seen while in its new owner’s possession, but each incident took some time to fully process. It was probably a good thing that Vergil was an artificial consciousness incapable of deep thought, or else it would have probably been on the verge of a mental breakdown by now.
In any event, once Xera had finished stripping off all of her gear, she walked up to the spatial rift in the ground and gently put her hand through it. The instant her finger crossed the event horizon, she was abruptly sucked into it with an odd slurping noise. Looking into the portal, Boxxy could see her drifting off into a seemingly endless black void at a rather impressive speed. It would seem light could indeed travel through this portal. It was just that whatever lay beyond it was so empty that there was nothing for said light to bounce off of except for Xera. It was also worth noting that the djinn abruptly lost telepathic contact with her master, implying the destination was more than a hundred kilometers away… if it was even on this plane of reality.
A thought then occurred to the shapeshifter. Snack’s conjured body was a lost cause, but if her soul couldn’t return to the Beyond from whatever realm she was now in, there was a good chance Demons ‘R’ Us would be quite upset with it. To make matters worse, when Boxxy got the notification that its familiar had perished a few minutes later and tried to re-summon her, it found itself incapable of doing so for some unknown reason. A quiet panic began to set in, but that turned to confusion as its attempts to contact Carl bore no fruit.
“What seems to be the issue, sir?” Vergil asked, sensing its owner’s distress.
“I can’t summon Snack,” it replied.
“Ah, yes. That would make sense,” the sword declared in an agreeable tone.
“Of course, sir.”
“… Oh, right. The Shattered Isles screw with spatial magic,” it remembered.
Between the ridiculously thick ambient magical energy and the region’s inexplicable ability to pop in and out of existence, it came as no surprise that most forms of teleportation just didn’t work on the Shattered Isles. Though some short-range stuff like Fizzy’s Lightning Warp Skill functioned well enough, any spatial transfer over fifty or so meters would simply fail. A peculiarity that, apparently, also affected a Warlock’s ability to contact demons in the Beyond. And yet there was an anomalous portal right there on the ground, and Boxxy’s Storage could be accessed with no real issue.
Actually no, that last one wasn’t quite true. Upon closer inspection, the shapeshifter realized that its Storage Skill was draining an absurd amount of MP to remain open. It just hadn’t noticed because its body’s ability to feed upon the mana in the air effectively nullified the cost. Perhaps teleportation and such was possible in theory, but at such an increased cost that it was impossible in practice.
In any event, that was something for the scholastic community to figure out. As for Boxxy, it somewhat begrudgingly had to swim beyond the Isles’ premises, summon Snack back, and then make its way back ashore. All in all, this had taken no more than ten minutes, but it was still a waste of time. The upside was that its familiar’s soul was safe. That and she was able to provide some insight into where exactly she’d ended up.
It would appear that, rather than some alien realm of darkness, Xera had wound up floating in the void of space. She had clearly seen a blue, green, and white ball being illuminated by the sun, which she assumed to be the planet of Terrania. She couldn’t tell for sure because she was so far away that it had been as small as a kickball from her perspective. There were stars as well, though they couldn’t be seen from the terrestrial side of the portal since the ambient light completely drowned out their distant twinkles. Xera recognized a few constellations, which was how she was certain the planet in the distance was, indeed, Terrania.
She had then spent a few minutes suffocating and freezing to death in that dark void. An experience which she recounted fondly and enthusiastically. That aside, Boxxy had obtained some good data from the experiment and concluded that touching one of those portals would be a terribly bad idea. Or a terrifically good one, if it managed to throw its enemies into one. Either way, it would appear that such spatial anomalies were fairly rare, as neither it nor its entourage spotted any more of them as they explored the dried-up wasteland. Plenty of other sporadic bursts of magic, though.
Once Xera was finished gearing back up, the monstrous troupe resumed their exploration of the first island. Everyone remained alert, with Jen taking to the skies to scout out potential threats. It really wasn’t necessary for her to do since Boxxy’s absurd Attributes and Ranger Skills made it so it could see kilometers ahead in this flat and barren landscape. But, having a second set of eyes wasn’t going to hurt anyone, so it let the harpy do as she pleased. Meanwhile Fizzy looked to be on the verge of throwing a hissy fit because all the dust and sand being blown about by the wind.
After a few hours of disappointingly uneventful travel, the group ran across their first major discovery - an outcropping of over a dozen oddly shaped rocky spires as large as siege towers. Or at least that’s what they appeared to be at first, but a closer inspection revealed a rather unlikely fact.
“Elder dragon bones?!” Boxxy practically screamed.
“Indeed, sir,” Vergil confidently confirmed. “Ribs, to be more precise.”
“And you know this how?” Fizzy asked doubtfully.
“They appear identical to ancient dragon bones I’ve seen before, but this size could only belong to an elder of the species.”
“Huh. So those pompous lizards can die after all, eh?” Kora mused as she tapped the rock-like remains.
“Young dragons fight each other more than they fight invaders,” Jen chimed in. “The elders probably have disagreements as well.”
“What shall we do about it, Master?”
Xera’s question served to snap Boxxy out of its stunned silence. The shapeshifter had thought there wasn’t anything left on this world that could truly surprise it anymore, but this clearly wasn’t the case. It, of course, made sense that if two elder dragons clashed, then one of them might end up perishing. The thought had simply never occurred to it, as it was something almost on the scale of two planets crashing into one another in terms of ridiculousness. There was, of course, always the chance that Vergil was either lying or mistaken, but Boxxy couldn’t deny how much this ‘outcropping of rocky spires’ looked like a dead dragon’s half-buried ribcage.
“Master?” the djinn spoke up again.
“Right. Uh… Hmm…” the abomination sank into thought. “I have a few ideas, but for now, I want to learn more about these bones.”
Namely, how tasty they were.
But before Boxxy could sink its teeth into them, it first had to figure out what to do about that layer of caked on mineral dust that gave the bones their rocky appearance. The stuff was unreasonably tough, to the point where neither Kora nor Boxxy could break through it with sheer brute force. Even the abomination’s bladed steel tentacles, courtesy of Metal Mimicry, bent and snapped from the strain of being hammered against this stuff. Magic seemed to just bounce off of the stuff no matter how many spells Boxxy, Xera, and Ambrosia threw at it. Granted, the Warlock felt confident it could punch through the stuff if it really tried, but the destruction that would cause would make it difficult to follow up with its plans for this place.
Thankfully, the shapeshifter’s group had an unreasonable number of Artifacts with them. Fizzy grasped Ridley’s Rattler with both hands and slammed it into the rocky formation as hard as she golemly could. The maul in question had the special ability to transform force and momentum into destructive vibrations that could bypass one’s armor and shred their insides to bits. So, when the radiant construct slammed it into the stubborn object, it began to rattle, shake, and crack. A few more hits saw chunks of the orange-red mineral layer break off and fall to the ground, revealing pearly white bone underneath.
Boxxy’s teeth sank into it the instant it saw what lay underneath that shell. The bone itself was quite dense, but no match for the abominable mimic’s jaw strength. It snapped, cracked, and splintered like a tree trunk collapsing under its own weight. The shapeshifter burrowed into the tower-sized rib with such ferocity that it disappeared inside within seconds, making grinding and sloshing noises all the while.
“Yeesh,” Kora grimaced. “The boss sure is enthusiastic, huh?”
“It isn’t the only one either,” Fizzy remarked. “Those two are getting into it as well.”
The golem pointed to another section where the sedimentary shell had broken away, where Jen and Drea were frantically clawing through the bone to get at its interior as well.
“I must say, I cannot blame milord’s enthusiasm,” Ambrosia smiled knowingly. “The scent is quite overpowering.”
“Scent? What scent?” Xera asked, sniffing the air in confusion. “All I smell is dirt, heat, and… salt?”
She then bent over and picked up one of the shattered pieces of bone-rock. The djinn barely even brought it up to her face before the salty smell overwhelmed her like a boulder falling onto a spring daisy. She began coughing uncontrollably as she felt all the moisture in her mouth, throat, and lungs disappear. Her luscious blue skin as well, both on her hand and around her face, had dried and cracked up like the very dirt the group had been walking on since they got here. Fizzy, having noticed Xera’s condition, rushed into the Boxxy-shaped tunnel to drag the frenzied shapeshifter out of there before it turned into a shriveled-up bag of dead skin, only to find out there was no reason to worry. That, and she also learned that the bone’s interior was actually a lot… squishier than one might expect.
An elder dragon was an unyielding walking calamity that continued to ravage its surroundings even in death, should their remains not be disposed of in a timely manner. Once all the meat, scales, and sinew had fallen off of them, their bones would eventually begin to soak up anything even remotely resembling nutrition. Like a life sponge, they would draw in moisture, plant matter, dead animals, and small insects, gradually destroying the surrounding ecosystem from the ground up.
This process would have three distinct side-effects. The first was, as one might expect, the creation of a barren wasteland for many kilometers around the corpse. The second was that the bones themselves would be coated in a peculiar mineral, a type of magical salt that could suck the life out of the average human with just a sprinkle. The third phenomenon was that all of the nutritious goodness stolen from the region would be gathered inside the bone’s marrow, where it would coalesce and ripen over time into a substance that the enlightened races of the world didn’t even have a name for.
Boxxy had already decided on one, though - dragon gravy. Granted, not the most imaginative of designations, but the shapeshifter was currently too busy gorging itself on it to really care. It was a deliciousness that was on par with, if not superior to, Ambrosia’s milenia-aged nectar. If the dryad’s fluids could be described as the pinnacle of sweetness, then this dragon gravy was the ultimate in savoriness. With every bite, Boxxy felt like it was tasting a hundred different types of meat at once, resulting in an orchestra of flavors it had never even thought was possible to achieve. And since it was a carnivore first and foremost, it couldn’t help but gorge itself on the stuff.
Jen and Claws were in the same situation, which was why they were currently going overboard as well. One whiff of the exposed dragon bone had sent their appetite skyrocketing. Xera and Kora, on the other hand, were about as interested in food as Boxxy was in reproduction, so the subtle scent had very little effect on them. Fizzy and her alter egos were even more divorced from the topic since they were unable to smell things to begin with. As for Ambrosia, while she did recognize the nutritional potency of the dragon gravy, it wasn’t her ‘cup of tea,’ so to say. She was already more than content savoring the exotic flavor of the Shattered Isles’ ambient magic through her remotely-controlled spriggan body.
All things said and done, it had taken several minutes for Boxxy’s crew to settle down. By then they had determined that the gluttonous trio were in no mortal danger. Fizzy and Null had used their combined scientific knowledge and expertise to determine that the ‘bone salt’ was perfectly safe so long as nothing with a pulse was stupid enough to touch it. Interestingly enough, the outermost layer of the stuff seemed to be inert. It didn’t voraciously absorb moisture, but was both extremely tough and dispersed magic aimed at it like nobody’s business. Using her intimate understanding of minerals, Fizzy theorized that the stuff had been, for lack of a better word, hardened over time by the Shattered Isles’ constant magical activity. It would certainly explain why the inner layer of salt was so brittle that even the faintest gust of wind would scatter it around like fine dust that could prove deadly if inhaled.
The important thing here was that both active bone salt and hardened bone salt had a number of very interesting magical properties that an ambitious Artificer could make use of. Fizzy couldn’t explore their applications here and now, of course, so she and her mithril entourage started collecting as much of the stuff as they could fit in the Aethereal Repository while Kora, Xera, and Ambrosia just sort of sat on the sidelines and kept an eye out for trouble. In the meantime, Jen and Drea had gorged themselves so much that they were throwing up. Considering that a single mouthful of bone gravy was enough to feed a person for a week, it was a miracle that some violent vomiting was the extent of the consequences their feeding frenzy had incurred.
As for Boxxy, it could hold its dragon gravy a lot better than those two. It wasn’t until half an hour later that it emerged from the colossal rib bone, a significant chunk of which had been hollowed out. The shapeshifter had, unsurprisingly, packed on a lot of bulk. However, unlike a harpy or a demon, an abomination was an amorphous blob of flesh and bone that had no real limit to how much body mass it could have without negative repercussions. Well, other than making itself a bigger target.
And ‘bigger’ was indeed the best way to describe Boxxy at that moment. Its appearance was more or less identical to when it first stumbled upon these remains, except that it was now more than twice as large in every dimension and over eight times heavier. Its constant flesh-shifting was far more pronounced as its body worked overtime to convert all those overflowing nutrients into muscle and bone. As one might expect, devouring all that stuff had given its vitality a boost, much like Ambrosia’s nectar.
Description: A dragon’s greatest asset is their ability to outlive everything else.
Requirements: Consume at least 20 kilograms of elder dragon bone marrow.
Effects: Doubles overall automatic HP recovery.
Doubles natural lifespan.
With this thing at its disposal, and with the Hylt Metabolism working at maximum capacity, Boxxy was now recovering over 900 HP per second. However, the shapeshifter realized something - shouldn’t that be even more? It had Legendary Overachiever, yet the effects of Draconic Infusion were not doubled for an overall quadruple boost in automatic HP recovery. It seemed as though those Perks refused to cooperate for some reason. Was it perhaps because the latter stated that something was ‘doubled’ rather than ‘increased by 100%’ as with Lesser Colossal Vitality?
Lesser Colossal Vitality
Description: The bigger they are, the harder they are to bring down.
Requirements: Become an Abomination variant.
Effects: Increases the effectiveness of the END Attribute by 100%.
Comparing this Perk to the new one certainly made that seem like the most likely explanation, but if that was the case, then this was an… oddly specific distinction. Then again, Legendary Overachiever did have the caveat of only amplifying effects ‘where applicable,’ so perhaps Boxxy was simply being a bit entitled in feeling disappointed. Still, even ‘only’ 900 HP per second was a ridiculous amount. Common logic dictated that automatic HP recovery was practically irrelevant during a fight, but this? Not only was it more potent than its Mend Flesh Skill, but it was also free, to boot! Okay, maybe ‘free’ wasn’t quite right. The body’s natural healing demanded energy in the form of food and rest to be sustainable, but that was hardly an issue with this much dragon gravy at Boxxy’s disposal.
Speaking of which, there truly was a mind-boggling amount of the stuff. The rib Boxxy had been burrowing into was only one of over two dozen, and it was far from tapped out. There was literally too much of it for even this greedy glutton to realistically bring home. Unless, of course, it happened to have an instantaneous mode of transport to and from its primary lair. And as luck would have it, it did indeed possess such a convenient thing. It was a bit iffy whether it would work, given the region’s spatial instability, but Boxxy figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
So, the instant it emerged from that oversized rib, the shapeshifter threw open its Storage and retrieved one of its dungeon cores, then started looking around for a good place to put it. Up until yesterday, this particular core had been used to maintain one of Boxxy’s footholds in the dwarven kingdom’s territory. The crafty shapeshifter had naturally not failed to see the potential benefits of expanding its dungeon network to the Shattered Isles, so it determined this was a better use of this particular orb. And even if this experiment didn’t exactly pan out, then it could always put the thing back in its old-
“Master,” Xera’s thoughts interrupted its own, “I think it would be wise to put away the dungeon core for now.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Boxxy asked as it turned its attention to the crystal orb in its grasp.
The crystal orb that seemed to be sucking in all of the wild magic in the air and was currently growing bigger at a rather blistering pace.
Boxxy then quickly and quietly put the thing back in its extra-dimensional pocket before it went into meltdown mode. Though it was now so ridiculously sturdy that it could mostly shrug off another Calamity, there was no need to waste a perfectly functional dungeon core. The shapeshifter inwardly chastised itself for its complacency. It had experienced the invasive nature of the region’s ambient mana firsthand, yet had failed to consider it would also affect a dungeon core. The one it had brought was the highest capacity core at its disposal, with a whopping 50,000 MP, yet even that looked like it would ‘pop’ well before it could be put to use. It was possible, at least in theory, that a more robust core from one of Terrania’s top-tier dungeons might do the trick, but Boxxy didn’t have one of those.
“So, what do you think, Boxxy?” Fizzy got its attention. “Should we set up shop here? Seems like a good enough spot, if a bit exposed.”
“That’s precisely what I was thinking,” it agreed.
“How much time we got?”
“The festival attendees should be making landfall in a few more hours, but they’ll spend a day or so establishing a beachhead before they move inland. Still, it’s not a lot of time to get everything ready, so let’s get busy!”
That was why it was so important to get a head start on this expedition. Unlike Boxxy’s crew and their conjured vessel, adventurer ships would’ve waited a safe distance from the Shattered Isles’ impact area so as to not get swept away by the resulting wave. Then, after fortifying their position, they would send expeditionary forces to explore the immediate area. One of those would surely notice this outcropping of dragon bones, and would result in them mobilizing a large force to either investigate or harvest them.
“Ambrosia, start spreading your roots like we discussed!” Boxxy started barking orders. “If you need fresh water let me know, I have a few dozen Waterspout Jugs on me. Claws, you and the Fizzies start setting up the explosives. And don’t forget to map them out this time! Snack, go scout out the shore and keep an eye out for our guests. Jen and Arms - you’re with me. Let’s make sure we’re the only ones hiding in these bones.”
And when the enlightened finally got here, they would have front row seats to the performance of a lifetime.