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The Ironhart Coalition was an up-and-coming adventurer guild hailing from the Horkensaft Kingdom’s southern reaches. In as little as five years, they had grown from a small group of close friends to an enormous organization that matched if not surpassed long-established centuries-old guilds. Such a thing was quite unprecedented, as dwarves were known to be headstrong people that were mired in tradition and history and stubbornly refused change. This was in stark contrast to the Kingdom’s gnomish population, who seemed to chase after innovation and experimentation, even at the expense of stability and security. It was no wonder that the two cultures never used to - and to a significant extent still didn’t - see eye to eye on many issues.

However, the Ironhart Coalition was an example of what could happen if these two opposing philosophies actually tried cooperating, each side making up for the other’s shortcomings. Combining new gnomish research and technology with traditional dwarven smithing and education allowed the guild to produce dozens of fully equipped and trained adventurers every week. This efficiency, along with some extensive and aggressive recruitment programs, had allowed the Coalition to absorb and unite a number of smaller independent organizations under the same banner. They were, according to their own propaganda, ‘nurturing the next generation of Horkensaft’s citizens.’

This naturally did not sit well with the established elite of the Kingdom, as these upstarts openly and directly challenged their political and economical position. Their meteoric rise looked to be the first wave of a cultural and industrial revolution that had been building up for over a century. With the world either teetering on the edge of a Shift or already in the initial stages of it, the entrenched upper class had very good reason to worry about the safety of their way of life. Hence why, even though the Coalition had grown immensely atop a stable foundation, nobody in power would give them the time of day. They simply lacked the prestige and achievements necessary to compete with a bunch of established snobs who acted like their ancestors’ great achievements were their own.

But what would happen if this young organization took on the ultimate challenge, the Dragon Festival, and kicked its proverbial ass?

That was the question that Dane Ironhart wanted to answer. As the name would imply, he was the current leader of the Ironhart Coalition, having founded the organization alongside his brothers Thane and Bane. The three of them had made the bold decision to challenge the Shattered Isles and emerge victorious, and had pulled off all the stops to make it happen. All the gold, materials, weaponry, personnel, and favor they could muster had been funneled into this endeavor. It was an all-in gamble if there ever was one.

The result was an organized paramilitary expedition totalling a whopping four hundred and eighty three souls. Among them were not only steadfast fighters and skilled spell-weavers, but also artists, architects, artisans, and scholars. If one didn’t know any better, they’d think the Coalition was planning to settle the Shattered Isles. In reality, this approach merely reflected the guild’s overall ‘try everything at least once’ policy. Not that it was unheard of for noncombatants to accompany a Dragon Festival expedition, but the sheer number of them was unusual, to say the least.

Of course, none of them were here to sightsee, so the Ironhart brothers wasted no time and put all of these people to work. Dane, the youngest, took charge of the combatants, personally overseeing scouting parties and guard patrols. Thane, the middle brother, headed the logistical side of the operation, organizing the unloading of materials and supplies from the Coalition’s warships while also establishing a fortified perimeter. Bane, the eldest sibling, led a team of experts well-versed in the laws of magic as they tested and catalogued the Shattered Isles’ magical anomalies. The scholars had come prepared with ample knowledge gathered from survivors of previous Festivals, of course, but none of them had had any firsthand experience with this unstable environment.

Among said knowledge was a fairly reliable map of the fifteen different pieces of land that together made up the Shattered Isles. Even though the region changed its geographic location every time it reappeared, these islands always maintained the same position in relation to one another. Though they hadn’t been explored or mapped out in their entirety, it was a widely accepted belief that most, if not all, of the islands were attuned to a specific element, which would greatly impact its environment and residents.

Using that information, the Ironhart Coalition had planned on disembarking onto the so-called ‘Isle of Life.’ It was supposedly a verdant overgrown jungle full of hostile flora and fauna that made the continent of Velos look like a retired librarian’s small vegetable garden. And yet, what the expedition found instead was a barren, lifeless wasteland surrounded by a boiling ocean. Logic would dictate that their fleet had gotten turned around somehow and they ended up somewhere else by mistake. Still, this place seemed safer and more hospitable than what they had expected to find, so they had decided to make landfall anyway.

However, after spending an entire day ‘unpacking’ some of their Artificer-designed gnomish warships into coastal fortifications, the expedition came to the realization that this was, in fact, the Isle of Life. The environmental conditions and magical anomalies simply didn’t match any of the other outer islands in their records. The Isle of Earth was a mountainous region, the Isle of Air had constant typhoons rampaging through it, and the Isle of Death had black, spongy soil that sucked the life out of anything that stepped on it. And those were the most obvious ones. Using the process of elimination, and ignoring silly things like common sense, the dwarven expedition concluded that some time in the past twenty years the Isle of Life had simply… died.

On one hand, this was a good thing for the expedition. They wouldn’t need to deal with rapidly regenerating dragonoid creatures and aggressively encroaching vines that would work in tandem to immobilize and kill outsiders. On the other, this lifeless landscape was surely hiding dangers of its own. The high probability of an ether storm sweeping through did not escape the expedition’s scholars, though they also estimated it would be several days before one actually hit. Before then, the Coalition sent out an expeditionary party to push their way inland and towards the next island.

The culmination of all of that preparation and decision-making was that precisely one hundred and twenty adventurers were currently trudging through the dead island. This group was made up entirely of dwarves and gnomes, with the former being in the majority. All of them were seasoned combatants whose main Jobs were somewhere in the upper seventies and lower eighties. No Rankers among them, though that was to be expected. Job-wise they were all combatants, with a fairly even split between vanguard, back-liners, scouts, and support units. They moved in five man cells that kept a distance of about thirty to forty meters from one another. Close enough to lend aid should it be needed, but spread out enough so as to avoid getting wiped out should some overgrown lizard show up and unleash its destructive breath. This as well was made easier by the empty and relatively flat terrain.

After several hours of slow and careful marching, the expeditionary force finally stumbled upon something other than minor magical anomalies and hot, sandy soil.

“A forest?” Dane raised an eyebrow at the gnomish scout. “So something is alive here after all?”

“Yeah, boss. Right over there,” the tiny Ranger pointed at the horizon. “It’s impossible to see from ground level because of the hot air distorting the view, but the flyboys assure me it’s there.”

Dane spared a sideways glance at the bizarre flying machines overhead and silently praised himself for making those Flamespitter Artificers work a noise-dampening function into it. He’d seen the prototype, and the way that giant propeller sputtered, buzzed, and rattled to keep the thing aloft had been… maddening. The engineers argued something about ‘hull integrity’ or ‘fuel efficiency,’ but Dane didn’t care. Air superiority was too valuable an advantage to give up, especially since most of the outer Shattered Isles’ residents were flightless dragonoids. Sure, Wizards could fly with their magic, but that contraption allowed pretty much anyone to do so.

“How far is this forest?” Dane turned his attention to the matter at hand.

“Another half-hour’s march or so. Maybe less.”

"Good. The lads will be happy to have something to fight. Go take charge and lead the formation towards it.”

“You got it, boss.”

The scout gave a thumbs up and sprinted away as fast as his short legs would carry him. He pulled a flare gun from his belt and sent a streaking green light screaming through the air at an angle that pointed the expedition towards their new objective. This was echoed shortly afterwards by several more flares as the entire formation quickly changed the direction and pace of its march. Not the stealthiest approach to be sure, but the Ironhart Coalition weren’t here to explore or sightsee. They were here to fight creatures powerful enough to give them the XP they so desperately needed to max out their high-Level Jobs.

Which wasn’t to say that their primary occupation was the only one. Due to the extreme amount of magic in the air, the Shattered Isles would choke the life out of anyone with less than 130 total Levels under their belt. This wasn’t a hard limit, of course, but it was still the observed threshold beyond which almost nobody would die of mana poisoning. This also meant that any artisans that wished to attend the Festival and get their hands on rare and exotic materials were practically forced to take a combat-oriented secondary Job. This wasn’t much of an issue for large guilds though, as it wasn’t too difficult to artificially boost their Levels to a degree that would allow them to survive the Shattered Isles’ atmosphere.

Unfortunately most common mounts, animal companions, and beasts of burden were a lost cause. It was quite difficult to teach a warhorse how to be a Warrior, for example, so it was practically impossible to strengthen to a point where they could attend the Festival. That was the long and short of why the entire expedition was either on foot or flying experimental contraptions. This limited the speed at which they could travel, but on the upside their Attributes were so developed that they didn’t need to concern themselves with conserving energy. Even the wizardly types had no trouble keeping up the brisk pace for up to sixteen hours straight. Mental fatigue was another issue entirely, but nothing that a strong drink and a good meal wouldn’t solve once they made camp.

But first, they would have to sweep through that mysterious patch of trees. Once it started coming into view, it became apparent that calling it a forest had been an exaggeration. It was more of a garden, or a park, with a series of tower-like rocky pillars sticking out of the luscious green treetops. As the first few teams ventured inside, they noted how… normal everything seemed. They had been told to expect freakish vine-covered trees that could devour men whole. What they found instead was a downright picturesque grove of stoic oaks with a thick layer of shrubs, grass, and wildflowers covering every bit of soil between them.

Since they could find no signs of life, whether through physical or magical means, the forward scouts sent word that the grove seemed to be clear. Deciding it would be wise to thoroughly explore this anomalous patch of vegetation, Dane ordered a third of his forces to sweep through the area. It was at this point that the Ironhart Coalition would have really benefited from having some Republic-grown elves amongst their numbers. If there had been any, they would have been able to instantly recognize that these were not, in fact, fully grown oaks.

They were hylt saplings.

*SHUNK*

A weird cascading noise rose up as one throughout the grove, its echo washing over the dwarves and gnomes just outside the treeline. This was followed by a series of screams, putting the entire expedition on high alert. Though it was fairly obvious something terrible had happened, none of them knew exactly what it was. Actually, no, that wasn’t entirely true. There was one soul among them that had an inkling. A single gnomish Pyromancer that was, at this very moment, hyperventilating as he was gripped by a panic attack. It had been roughly three years since that day, but he had never forgotten that dreadful ‘shunk’ noise.

However, while what happened next did indeed emerge from the ground, it wasn’t a forest of deadly spikes made from hardened bark. It was smoke, fire, and shrapnel produced by several hundred kilograms’ worth of explosive ordnance going off at once. With a barely perceivable electromagnetic pulse at just the right frequency as the trigger, Fizzy’s special landmines ripped through the Coalition’s ranks. In that very instant, the entire area was turned into a war zone.

Of course, while such things might have been enough to either incapacitate or kill most average adventurers, only the very best dared to challenge the Dragon Festival. Through a combination of enchanted armor, defensive magic, and sheer toughness, none of the dwarves and gnomes had died in that initial salvo. The smoke hadn’t even cleared before the healers’ restorative incantations washed over the expedition, while the other Spell-slingers threw up barriers and dispersed the smog.

Or at least they attempted to. It took the startled adventurers a bit of time to notice, but it hadn’t been just fire and shrapnel in those mines. Deafening sounds, noxious fumes, and paralyzing arcs of electricity were also mixed in there, seemingly at random. The damage from these secondary effects was relatively pitiful, but their debilitating effects were impossible to ignore. The meatbags’ muscles seized up while their eyes, nostrils, and throats flared up with an intense burning sensation.

It was amidst this carnival of confusion that the ambush truly started. Jen descended from the sky, ripping through those flimsy flying machines like a sentient lightning bolt. The contraptions had some rather impressive weaponry bolted onto them, but they could never hope to catch the harpy as she was now. Over the past twenty four hours, Boxxy had forced her to consume the twenty kilograms of dragon gravy she needed in order to unlock the associated perk. She would’ve normally grown quite fat and pudgy from the ordeal, but she was a Monk with the Perfect Physique Skill. The ability in question always kept her body at peak condition, so while her weight had indeed increased by many kilograms, they were all gained in the form of pure muscle. Especially on her back, shoulders, and thighs, all of which seemed a size larger.

As for what effect this change had on her fighting capabilities, the smouldering machines being swatted out of the sky made that abundantly clear. The ground forces attempted to shoot at her with everything they had, but they were unable to so much as land a scratch on her. Even instantaneous beam-type Spells had difficulty hitting their mark with all the smoke and debris obscuring Jen’s form. With the buzzing annoyances all but taken care of, the harpy dive-bombed into the crowd, her legs crushing two unfortunate souls into pulp. Over a dozen melee combatants rushed to meet her in melee combat, only to quickly find out why ganging up on a Monk was a bad idea. Jen weaved through their attacks as she punched, clawed, kicked, and bludgeoned everyone within reach. The few opponents that managed to strike her found their weapons either bounce off of her Ki-imbued skin, or get parried by her Spirit Guardian.

It was perhaps a bit too much to unleash her Ultimate Skill in this sort of situation, but Jennifer Jackson had never believed there was such a thing as ‘overkill.’ The only concern she used to have was having enough Ki to maintain it, which wasn’t a problem any more. With all that she’d gained since her transformation and conversion, and with the Divine Decree ring given to her by Boxxy, Jen now had more than double the amount of FTH, and therefore double the amount of Ki, when compared to when she was still ‘Zone.’ By her estimate, it was more than enough to, bluntly put, mop up all of these weaklings by herself, if given enough time.

Jen was not going to get the chance to put that to the test, as a certain someone then fell into the Coalition’s ranks after having been thrown clear across from the other side of Ambrosia’s trees. Kora landed amidst the adventurers’ formation like the world’s rudest meteorite, and immediately started flattening whoever and whatever was in reach. The Artifact-grade helmet she was given was called ‘The Scanner’ for a reason, as it allowed her to easily pick out her targets amidst the smoke-filled minefield. Her fists did the rest, easily crumpling enchanted plate armor like paper through sheer brute force alone. The hoarder demon also made sure to expand her private collection with whatever shiny bauble caught her fancy. After all, she already had five arms on head-popping duty, so she saw it reasonable to dedicate the last one to pocketing valuables.

Draped in the Spectral Cowl, Drea emerged from the ravaged soil like a wraith. The cloak’s special ability allowed her to phase through solid matter just like a certain perverted thrice-dead lich. Combined with her innate optical camouflage, she effortlessly maneuvered through the Coalition’s ranks, gutting their Casters and slinking away before the others even realized their comrades had been assassinated. She had to make herself corporeal again in order for her natural weapons to actually deal damage, so she did end up getting hit by a couple of stray shots and wild swings. It was far from enough to make the glacial webstalker to lose her cool or her focus, but anyone who got a lucky hit on her would catch glimpses of a floating book just before their entire being was mysteriously engulfed in the black flames of the Ebonfire Spell.

Elsewhere the unfortunate enlightened suddenly found themselves ankle-deep in lava that seemed to bubble up from between the cracks in the soil. Something that was made possible by the Crust Controller staff that Boxxy had given Xera. The now boiling environment further amplified the effects of her Pyromancer Spells, allowing the depraved djinn to rip through the enemy’s ranks with repeated casts of Magma Missile, Scorching Ray, and Inferno. Seeing the mortals scream in agony as they were cooked inside their armor reignited Xera’s old pyromaniac tendencies, leading to a malicious high-pitched cackle spilling out of her lips.

Fizzy was in there too, of course. Wielding Ridley’s Rattler in one hand and Novaspike in the other, she crushed her enemies with a chorus of thunder and lightning. Some tried to desperately strike at her, only to hurt themselves when their weapons struck the golem’s electrified frame. Anyone attempting to blast her with magic would find their Spells dodged at the last second, interrupted by a sudden jolt of lightning, blocked by a random piece of debris, or bounced back at them by her shield. It was almost as if reality itself was conspiring to make the glittering construct untouchable. That said, it was Fizzy’s alter egos that were actually responsible for all that. With Plus on magical interference, Minus focusing on magnetic manipulation, Null with her deadpan analysis, and Fizzy swinging those hammers with her usual fanatical zeal, the four of them were in perfect sync as they taught those meatbags just how unfair the world was.

“There’s not much point in me getting involved, is there?” Boxxy sighed in disappointment.

“What doth thou mean, milord?” Ambrosia asked politely.

The two of them were currently sitting atop one of the dragon ribs in the middle of the small forest. Though in the spriggan’s case, ‘growing out of’ was a far more accurate way to put it, seeing as her upper body was poking out of some vines that had almost completely enveloped it. Having access to all the dragon gravy, ambient mana, and fresh water she could hope for, the dryad had been able to use her remote-controlled husk to sprout this entire grove in a single day. With such abundant nutrients, she was certain she could spread her floral influence over the entire island, but that was a topic for another time.

“Well, the original plan was to have the others soften up the enemy,” the shapeshifter explained, “and then I swoop in when they’re nice and weak to finish them off. But the way things are going, they’re not being ‘softened up,’ but rather ‘completely crushed.’”

In short, Boxxy had severely overestimated this bunch’s power level. It had expected them to have entire teams of Rankers pushing their way inland in search of glory and treasure and all that good stuff. It was a given they wouldn’t be able to resist checking out the bizarre forest in the middle of the wasteland, and the shapeshifter’s ambush would have to go off without a hitch in order to secure a flawless victory. But this bunch?

“I was expecting a feast, and what I got instead was just some finger-foods.”

“But I thought milord enjoyed mine finger salads?”

“Well, yes, I do, but that’s not the point, Ambrosia.”

It was an undeniable fact that stronger enlightened had richer flavors. And while Ironhart’s expedition was indeed filled with above-average individuals, they were highly unlikely to meet Boxxy’s impossibly high culinary standards. After having sampled that insanely delicious dragon gravy, it found it difficult to bring itself to sully its palette with that kind of junk food. They weren’t even human, for crying out loud.

“So, milord is feeling disappointed that thy food is of subpar quality?” the spriggan tilted her head in confusion.

“Yeah. More or less,” the abominable box grumbled.

“But, milord, thy did not bring me to this strange land just so thy could acquire delectable morsels,” Ambrosia pointed out.

“… Oh. Oh, yeah!” the shapeshifter’s many eyes suddenly lit up. “That’s right! I came here to get Levels and shinies, not food! So what they taste like doesn’t matter!”

The creature’s subconsciousness had, on some level, always equated ‘shiny’ with ‘tasty’ ever since its extremely ignorant youth. Because of that, when it had experienced the unexpected deliciousness of dragon gravy yesterday, its motivation had subtly shifted from the former to the latter. Boxxy didn’t feel too bad about it, though, because from its point of view, coming to the Festival was already worth it just for the gravy. Of course, that wasn’t to say there weren’t ways to sweeten the deal, as it were, and the shapeshifter had never been one to look a gift chest in the hinges.

Leaping off of its perch, the abominable box started making its way towards the massacre currently in progress. Its fleshy bulk made the ground shake and tree trunks break as it charged forward with enthusiasm. By the time it actually arrived on the scene, only about a third of the expedition remained. The survivors were already beating a hasty retreat after having realized that, though their opponents were few in number, they had no chance of defeating any of them. Witnessing the incomprehensible mass of wood, teeth, tentacles, and eyes emerge from that mini-forest didn’t do much to bolster their resolve, either. If anything, the sight of Boxxy kicked their survival instincts into high gear and inspired them to run in an even more disorderly fashion.

The shapeshifter was entirely fine with that reaction. This was hardly any different from how it usually did things, only this time around it was looking forward to thoroughly playing with its food. With a single mighty leap of its many limbs, the mass of murderous flesh launched itself into the air, and landed squarely on a group of five adventurers. Two were crushed flat under its immense weight, and the other three had their upper bodies swallowed up by serpentine tentacles that each had more teeth on them than any living creature should. There was a barely audible squelching noise as all of their heads were crushed and their liquefied brains sucked out of the pulpy mess that remained. As expected, their flavor was almost foul compared to that super-rare gravy, but Boxxy was never one to let a perfectly good mind go to waste.

About fifty meters away and counting, Dane was performing the most inglorious and shameless sprint of his life. This was hardly the first time he’d fled from a battle, but he had never experienced such helpless despair before. His mind, a jumbled mess of panicked thoughts, cursed everything around him. He’d come to challenge the outer Shattered Isles and the creatures native to them, not a bunch of incomprehensible monsters that, for some godforsaken reason, all look like mostly humanoid women.

The worst offender was definitely that thing that had just showed up, though. Dane hadn’t even looked at it, and yet he knew Boxxy was there. The dwarf could practically feel something clawing at the back of its skull. He wasn’t sure why or how, but he knew that he’d forever regret it if he looked back. So, he just kept running, as fast as his dwarven feet would carry him. Which was quite quickly indeed, given the athletic distribution of his Attributes. Not nearly fast enough to outrun what was about to happen, though.

As Dane legged it with all haste, there were a few of his guildmates in his field of view. The leader had been at the relative rear of the formation when things turned to shit, so it was only natural there wouldn’t be too many of his peers in front. He then felt a rush of wind as something shot past him, just a few meters to his right. One blink later, one of the men in front exploded into a chunky red sauce with shredded metal mixed in. Another moment later, the sound caught up to him, as did the rush of wind.

*KAPHWOOOOOOOOooooohm*

It was a very particular noise, that one. Quite unique, impossible to mistake, and seldom heard on Terrania. Thanks to his wealth of experience, Dane was actually aware of what it was. It was the noise made when an object flew through the air at a speed that surpassed that of sound, a so-called ‘sonic boom.’ Needless to say, anything capable of launching a projectile with that sort of force was well beyond his abilities to handle. He hardly needed another reason to keep running for his life, though, and merely filed that phenomenon away under ‘crazy shit to dissect later.’

Or at least that had been the intention until the second supersonic projectile ripped past him and into another of his teammates. Because this time around there was enough of the resulting carnage left intact for him to recognize that these weren’t ‘things’ being thrown around. They were people. His people. Unable to help himself, the dwarf finally did the thing he’d dreaded doing ever since he started running, and looked over his shoulder.

What he saw was an unspeakable, vaguely box-shaped abomination that was painful to look at, its nightmarish appendage holding the mutilated corpse of one of his comrades like a wet rag. The entire thing spun around rapidly to gain momentum, its movements so fast that the dwarf just saw a messy blur that looked like a spinning top. The corpse was then released at the perfect moment, sending it hurtling in a perfectly straight line. Not really paying attention to his feet, Dane tripped over something and fell to the ground just in time for the profane projectile to zoom through the space he’d occupied moments earlier.

The dwarf was well beyond his wits’ end. He could do nothing but lie face down in the dirt, babbling incoherently as a series of deafening booms ripped away at his eardrums. He hadn’t even noticed that the object he’d tripped over earlier was a piece of broken and bloodied plate armor that had lodged itself in the ground in front of him because of the absurd forces it had been subjected to. He wasn’t sure whether it was seconds or minutes that passed by, but the ever-mounting stress of the situation eventually made Dane pass out.

He jolted back to consciousness when he felt something colossal and moist drag him up into the air. He didn’t even get the chance to process Boxxy’s maddening form before the eldritch abomination’s innate body-altering magic flowed into him. His once stoic and noble bearing began to distort and melt under the Corrupting Influence. Within seconds his entire body became a horrific combination of tumors, boils, and oozing pustules. He didn’t even have a face anymore - just a messy mass of meat with far too many eyes on it.

And then he exploded into a gelatinous flesh-soup.

“Hrng, another failure, huh?” Boxxy grumbled, flinging the disgusting remains away. “This guy seemed to be the most important, but I guess even he was too weak.”

Of course this hadn’t been the first time the shapeshifter had tested its new racial ability. It being a ‘once a day’ type of deal meant it hadn’t yet fully figured out how it worked. Every time it attempt to gain a new minion through Corrupting Influence, they all sort of melted into goo. The more pathetic the victim, the quicker it had happened, so it stood to reason that it simply needed to find someone or something strong enough to handle the transformation without falling apart. And since these contenders clearly weren’t cutting it, it would appear its victim would need to be a Ranker at least. Probably one that had had the resistance thoroughly beaten out of them.

“Oh, well. No point crying over spilled marrow.”

Boxxy felt confident it could get the hang of this thing quickly enough, but first it had an expedition to deal with. After slurping up a few dozen people’s memories with Broken Reflection, it had a pretty good idea what the Ironhart Coalition had at its disposal. By its estimate, there were currently four docked warships at the beach and two more on standby just outside the Shattered Isles’ borders, each of them housing fifty to sixty souls. They might’ve been a threat initially, but with the vanguard all but wiped out, they were little more than bundles of XP ready for the reaping.

“Arms!” Boxxy bellowed through the telepathic link.

“Yeah, boss?

“Leave the cleanup to the others, you’re coming with me to get the ones at the beach.”

“Fuck, yeah! More shit to smash!”

Kora, who was currently in the midst of pulling the limbs off of a screaming Warlock as if she were an ill-mannered child with a new toy, rolled her victim up into a messy ball and gleefully followed her master.

Back at the Coalition’s landing site, it had already been about six hours since Dane led their vanguard forces inland. His brothers, Bane and Thane, were starting to grow quite concerned by now. They had stayed behind to organize a more concerted push towards a neighboring island, and had trusted the third sibling to be able to handle getting the lay of the land. He was supposed to keep in touch with them via Comm-crystal and make reports every half hour, or the instant his group encountered hostile natives.

However, he had missed his last check-in. Moreover, the Comm-crystal on their end had lost its blue luster and had turned gray and inert. This typically meant that its paired counterpart had been destroyed. Bane and Thane held out hope that the fragile thing had simply been broken in some battle or another, or that the magical anomalies around them were interfering with the connection. But, given the merciless reputation of the Shattered Isles, they had prepared themselves for terrible news.

What showed up on their doorstep was far worse.

The Ironhart’s experimental warships were designed in a way that their front halves could transform and ‘unpack’ into coastal fortifications. Getting the warships seaworthy again would be a painful and laborious process, but nothing a few hundred hardy dwarves and clever gnomes couldn’t handle. With four of them docked side-by-side, they had formed a veritable fortress on the shoreline. The outer perimeter consisted of eight-meter-tall walls of wood bound together by metal plates, all of them enchanted with as much fortification magic as the materials would allow. The rear halves of the vessels were dug into the sand of the beach’s shallows as the boiling seawater splashed against them in futility. Their towering crow’s nests served as the perfect vantage points for scouts and spotters, though the outer walls had their own set of ramparts and turrets manned by sentries.

Though this foldable castle was quite formidable as far as hastily constructed beachheads went, it was far from perfect. There were quite a few ways for a creature of Boxxy’s abilities and cunning to infiltrate it without being seen. For example, the security perimeter facing the boiling ocean was quite loose by design. Emerging quietly from the rolling waves could potentially allow even something of Boxxy’s girth to quietly penetrate those defenses.

In the end, that was not at all what the shapeshifter did. In fact, it did the exact opposite. It casually strolled towards the entrenched position in broad daylight without even attempting to conceal itself. Not only was the giant mass of rolling flesh in full view of the sentries, but it stood out like a screaming firework in a graveyard against the bleak and dry wasteland behind it. Strictly speaking, it was practically impossible for it to not be noticed with such a brazen approach. The entire base went on high alert, and some of the more ambitious Rangers even started making potshots at Boxxy once it was about four hundred meters from the wall.

“… Are those assholes ignoring me?” Kora couldn’t help but ask.

“Seems like it,” her master replied casually.

Though she was walking side-by-side with the abomination, it was obvious none of the Coalition’s sniping attempts were aimed at her. Boxxy’s thick hide was steadily starting to look like a pincushion as it effortlessly absorbed ranged attacks, but the demon just a few paces to its left had just a few arrows bounce harmlessly off of her armor. Even those were clearly just poor shots that somehow missed the six-meter-tall lump of flesh next to her. It was almost like she was invisible by comparison, and that made her unreasonably angry.

“They probably don’t see you as much of a threat at this range,” Boxxy added fuel to the fire.

“They fucking what?!” she yelled. “When I get my hands on them, I’m gonna rip their spines out, twist them into a spiky dildo, and then skullfuck them with it! Actually, screw the spine thing, I’ll just ram both my dicks into each of their eye sockets! Skull fucking for everyone!”

“That’s not why I took you with me,” Boxxy informed her.

“It… it isn’t?”

“Nope.”

“So… you’re not going to throw me at those pathetic weaklings and have me go on a suicidal rampage while you ransack their treasures?”

“Good try, but no.”

“Uh…”

Her confusion was understandable. Her master had ordered her to remove all of her extra equipment, which it had already stowed away in its Storage. With her newfound insight into her master’s seemingly infinite greed, the hoarder demon understood why it had done that. It was because she was expected to not survive this next bit, and it would be most unfortunate if the valuable Artifacts were somehow lost in the chaos. She was entirely correct in that regard, but it would appear she was mistaken as to how, exactly, she was expected to die.

“Then, uh, why did-”

She didn’t get a chance to further her line of questioning as one of Boxxy’s mouthed tentacles suddenly enveloped most of her upper body with a wet ‘glomp.’

“Malefic Union.”

The hoarder’s ensuing screams and insults were almost completely muffled as her entire body was absorbed into the hulking sea of flesh and malice. As her body and demonic might were added onto the abomination’s over the next few seconds, its hulking mass grew a size larger. By the end of it, it was well over seven meters in height, and roughly as much in width, giving it dimensions that would either match or surpass those of the demonic overlords. Its ever-crawling flesh gained some semblance of stability as it coalesced into the form of a chest-shaped monstrosity with eight ridiculously muscular arms and hands coming out of its rear and sides. Black metallic plating then formed rapidly around it, encasing it in a superheavy set of armor covered in spikes of various shapes and sizes. The seemingly inorganic material expanded and contracted rhythmically, as if the armor itself was breathing in synchronicity with its owner.

Kora/Boxxy fusion, abomination version, by dmaxcustom

Boxxy’s toothed maw opened up as it let loose a terrifying roar that sounded like the dissonant chorus of a million nightmares. The shapeshifter didn’t necessarily have to do that, and it wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. It had come here to have some fun, and yelling at the top of its metaphorical lungs seemed like a fun thing to do, so it did the thing. It then pushed itself a few meters off the ground with its many hands, then slammed all of its armored fists into the dirt as it came back down.

The immense force and weight behind this action seemed to have made the laws of physics throw their collective hands up in defeat, as the reaction to it was quite absurd indeed. The ground practically exploded into a cloud of dust from the impact, having been left with a series of person-sized fist-shaped craters in it. As for what happened to Boxxy, that was perhaps a matter of perspective. From where the Coalition forces were standing, it seemed as though the bizarre creature had just performed a ridiculously long and tall leap. From the shapeshifter’s point of view, it was standing perfectly still - it was the ground itself that had been punched away from it.

That fanciful sensation quickly gave way to reason and reality as Boxxy reached the apex of its jump and began to descend. It realized it should’ve probably aimed a bit better, as it was going to miss its target completely at this rate. Thankfully gliding was something it was quite proficient at, so it instantly grew a quartet of vaguely wing-shaped metal sheets that helped guide its descent towards the Coalition’s fortifications. It slammed fist-first into their outer wall, instantly crumpling it in two and sending splinters and shrapnel flying all over the place.

Its maw opened once again and it let loose the Fire Breath Skill it had stolen from a salamander, dousing one of the perimeter towers in flames. It didn’t do much, objectively speaking, but it did make those fools lose their collective shit because they instantly assumed the shapeshifter was some kind of mutated dragonoid. Watching them panic from something so minor was kind of funny, actually. The enchanted wood hadn’t even been set ablaze, and yet they were so quick to jump to conclusions, the abominable box couldn’t help but laugh.

Unsurprisingly, its guttural vocalizations were not perceived as laughter by the adventurers, but it mattered little. The shapeshifter grabbed hold of the slightly singed tower and with a bit of effort ripped it out of the wall. This was then swung like a club, sweeping across the inner yard and squishing dozens of victims in a few seconds. The weaponized rampart was then slammed into one of the nearby grounded warships with enough force to crush most of its upper decks. Two of Boxxy’s hands then came together into a Thunder Clap so powerful it outright caused heads and bodies to burst.

The empowered shapeshifter could, of course, punch the adventurers, but that was quite literally like swatting at bugs. It was both more efficient and more entertaining to smack them around with their own fortifications. It was naturally under constant fire from bows, spells, cannons, and whatever else the Coalition could bring to bear against it, but all of their efforts barely made a dent in its armored shell. Even the few that recognized this might be a shapeshifter and assailed it with lightning found out that their efforts were akin to attempting to douse a wildfire by pissing on it. Sure, the magic was dealing decent damage, but it was so minor from the monster’s perspective that it barely even felt it.

Then the spare flying machines came out. Their operators had made the obvious assumption that this threat was limited to close range attacks, so assaulting it from thirty to forty meters up in the air would be a wise strategy so long as they watched out for that fire breath. An understandable course of action, but ultimately quite erroneous. The instant they tried, Boxxy’s arms would stretch - armor and all - impossibly towards the contraptions, easily grasping and then crushing them into lumps of scrap metal that had blood and bile oozing out of them. A few of the more savvy pilots realized its reach was hardly infinite and tried raising their altitude even further, but all that earned them was death via supersonic projectile.

The Coalition was naturally routed within less than a minute. With their defenses, formation, air superiority, and chain of command utterly ‘skullfucked,’ as Kora would say, they began to flee for their lives. The enlightened then rapidly learned that escape was not an option. The hulking mass of metal fists would relentlessly pursue and flatten anyone attempting to flee the scene. Seeing the creature roll around by punching the ground as its main form of transportation would have been comical if not for its terrifying scale, maddening presence, and thorough brutality. Whether it be by foot, air, or water, none survived more than a few meters beyond the ruined perimeter. Invisibility, stealth, and other forms of trickery quickly proved futile, as did any attempts to teleport within the Shattered Isles’ territory.

By the second minute of Boxxy’s Malefic Union, the expedition members had given up on trying to escape, and were focused on weathering the storm. They hid in the rubble, praying desperately to any gods that would listen for salvation. Their hopes were then crushed when they witnessed Boxxy grab onto one of the docked warships by its underside and lifted the entire blasted thing off the ground. With another terrifying roar - actually a grunt of effort mixed with a gleeful cackle - the vessel was thrown at one of the others. Though their hulls were sturdy enough to survive the earth-shattering impact mostly intact, they did not last long once the shapeshifter started punching them full of holes.

It had ultimately taken less than three minutes to put the final nail in the coffin of the Ironhart Coalition’s ambitions. A promising and potentially revolutionary organization had come to an abrupt and tragic end that day, further solidifying the Horkensaft Kingdom’s traditional class system. Not that Boxxy knew about any of that. Nor would it care, even if it had the capacity to do so. It was having the time of its life, and that was ultimately all that mattered. Even though the Malefic Union expired before it could thoroughly eradicate the ambitious festival goers, it went around plucking the lives out of the survivors with a spring in its step and a haunting hum in its throat.

Once it was done with this lot, it would swim out to sea and annihilate the two backup ships for good measure, after which it would pillage, steal, and collect anything and everything that was even remotely shiny. It had also gained a significant amount of XP, enough to pick out a few new Skills. All in all, a fun and productive day. But, while Boxxy’s actions would surely have some kind of long-lasting impact, they also had some other, more immediate repercussions.

Deep within the inner Shattered Isles lay a particular plot of land dubbed Nightmare Rock by the Festival’s past attendees. This particular island was covered in an aura of darkness that robbed whoever entered it unprepared of more than just their sight. That was the first to go, of course, but as time passed, outsiders would gradually lose their hearing as well. Once that was gone, their ability to smell, taste, and finally touch would also disappear in turn. Unless one was protected by powerful light magic, they would be deprived of their senses, and then their sanity. That was assuming that the horrific creatures that made this place their home wouldn’t claim their lives first.

And it was within this blasted land that something immeasurably ancient and incomprehensibly powerful stirred from its centuries-long slumber, its consciousness drawn to the combined anguish, torment, and despair emanating from a certain group of upstart midgets.

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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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