A certain emerald dragon - so-called because of the verdant green scales its species boasted - was flying over the now-barren Isle of Life. A distant descendant of the elder dragon whose bones rested in the middle of it, the youngling carried with it a powerful affinity for the elemental force of life. This gift manifested itself in a few ways that were specific to this subspecies. The most obvious and practical effect was that an emerald dragon’s regenerative abilities were several times more potent than normal. It also empowered its fiery breath, allowing it to disperse any poisons, toxins, or disease that might prove harmful to it. It was especially effective at fighting back the undead and their Blight, although such things were not usually a concern on the Shattered Isles.
This special elemental affinity also had some other, more subtle effects. One of those was the young emerald dragon’s ability to sense when someone or something was employing powerful life magic within a few dozen kilometers of it. This trait was the main reason why it had returned here, to the gravesite of the emerald dragonflight’s matriarch. It had been drawn in by the sudden appearance of Ambrosia’s forest. Not only had it sprung into existence practically overnight, but its ongoing expansion was fueled by the deceased elder’s remains.
However, though young and relatively inexperienced, this particular dragon was no idiot. It instinctively understood that the greenery below was created by invasive outsiders that boasted formidable magical prowess. They were sure to be mighty beings that a mere hatchling could not stand against. The creature hadn’t yet developed the prideful arrogance and indomitable might of its older kin, which both allowed and forced it to rely on caution. Hence why it was circling overhead, well out of range of any magic or projectile the invaders could throw at it. There were definitely those among them capable of flight, but the dragon believed itself capable of fleeing easily enough should they give chase.
The youngling was therefore understandably quite surprised when a six-armed demon suddenly slammed into its underside with enough force to pulverize its scales and shatter its bones. The deafening boom of Kora’s supersonic box-assisted flight washed over it moments later, drowning out the beast’s shrieking roar of pain. The dragon somehow maintained its flight, unaware that it now had a passenger clinging desperately to its foreleg.
“Wow. You actually hit it,” Jen remarked in a vaguely surprised tone.
“Heh. I know, right?” Boxxy chuckled. “I thought for sure it would see Arms coming and dodge out of the way. Guess it wasn’t paying enough attention.”
The two of them had witnessed the collision from the ground and were currently watching the midair struggle as if it were a sporting event.
“Dragon’s going into a nosedive,” the harpy added. “Probably trying to shake Kora off.”
“Nah. Arms managed to climb onto its side and grabbed the wing by its base,” Boxxy corrected her.
Jen could somewhat follow the action despite the great distance, but her eyesight couldn’t hope to compete with the shapeshifter’s absurd collection of Skills and Attributes.
“I think she’s trying to- Ohhh, there it goes!”
“What? What happened?” the harpy asked impatiently.
“She just ripped a wing out of its socket. That’s gotta hurt.”
The thought of that made Jen shudder slightly. She was reminded of the uniquely agonizing feeling she had experienced when Axel stripped away her angelic wings. If such a thing were to happen to her new ones, it would surely be many times worse.
“Huh. It grew back instantly,” Boxxy continued. “I guess it was too much to expect that it would be that easy to bring down a dragon, even if it is a weak one.”
The shapeshifter had naturally scoped out the beast before it ‘delivered’ Arms towards it. At merely twenty meters in length, it was obvious that thing was a mere youngling and therefore not a major threat to the abomination’s group of demons and monsters. It could have just ignored the thing, but that would be passing up the chance to find out whether freshly killed dragons were tasty or not. And that just wasn’t how Boxxy T. Morningwood did things.
“By the way,” one of its many-eyed tentacles turned to Jen, “you’re free to go up there and have a bash at it too.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” she replied after a brief pause.
“Sure you do. You want to see how your new self would fare up against the strongest species in the world.”
It was fairly obvious that the harpy was itching to fly up there and beat the shit out of that dragon. Her face and voice made a valiant effort not to show any emotion, but the way her ears, wings, and tail twitched betrayed her desires. It was as clear as day that she wanted to be up there and in the fight rather than waiting around down here, and yet she was holding herself back. Unlike her red-skinned colleague, she knew full well what would happen if she admitted she wanted to kill the dragon.
“I’m sure Kora has a handle on the situation. I need to scout out for more enemies.”
The harpy turned around and took a few steps as if to walk away.
She didn’t make it far before a musclebound limb grasped hold of her shoulder.
“You’re not getting out of this,” Boxxy kindly informed her.
Back up in the air, Kora had managed to climb onto the dragon’s neck. She ripped out its scales one by one and used the resulting wounds as handholds in order to ascend up towards its head. The beast naturally thrashed and wailed in an effort to throw her off, but the hoarder demon would never easily let go of something she wanted. Which, at this point in time, was her desire to claim this thing’s skull as a trophy. Not even the absence of her legs, which had been pulverized into useless stumps by the impact, seemed to slow her down.
After some more struggling she finally made it up there. She grabbed onto one of the dragon’s horns with two hands and started using the other four to push against its scalp. A few seconds of grunting, yelling, and cursing later, the bony protrusion made a disgusting snapping noise as it came loose. Given Kora’s previous experience with this emerald dragon, she was fairly certain a new one would grow back almost immediately. However, she felt fairly certain she could nail this sharp and sturdy horn right into the scaly bastard’s skull.
Unfortunately for Kora, while not a bad plan in and of itself, she hadn’t fully considered the logistics involved. Sure, the horn had come loose just as she’d intended, but in doing so she had also pushed herself off of the head she had struggled so much to reach. Now freefalling with no chance of recovery, she could do little but make bold statements regarding the dragon’s mother at an unreasonably high volume.
At least until a fluttering of white and gold feathers plucked her out of the air in a rather violent manner.
“Sweet fucking ass-bandits!” the demon cursed as she got her bearings. “What in the- Oh, heya bird-brain.”
It had taken her a few moments to realize it, but Jen was now holding onto her shoulders with her feet while chasing after the retreating dragon.
“Whatcha doin’ up here? Weren’t you going to just scout around?”
The harpy responded by staring down at her with a sharp glare, at which point Kora realized Jen looked rather… ruffled.
“Oh. You got yeet-ed too, huh?”
The griffin-harpy clearly didn’t want to admit it, but that was exactly what had happened. Much as she had guessed, Boxxy wanted to fling her at the dragon just as it had the hoarder demon, likely for its own amusement. Though Jen couldn’t avoid being hurled at dizzying speeds, she was at least able to gain control of her trajectory and transition into flight. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out, hence why Kora was able to piece it together. It would take her a few seconds more to realize something else.
“Wait, hold up. You’re giving me a lift?” the demon finally noticed.
“Affirmative,” Jen replied dryly.
“You make for an effective projectile.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Kora said in a defeated tone.
Since the harpy was a fellow battle maniac, it wasn’t difficult for the demon to grasp what her intention was. She didn’t mind it too much, though.
“Well, whatever. So long as I get to skullfuck that piece of shit, I don’t care!”
She hated to admit it, but being tossed around was an expedient and efficient way of getting her within striking distance of her target. And as luck would have it, though the dragon had regenerated all of the damage it had taken, it had used up a lot of energy to do so and was too tired to escape the harpy. Either that or the recent boost in muscle mass had made Jen significantly faster. Or maybe it was a mix of both.
The important part was that the harpy was able to catch up to the dragon with ease. She made a few vertical spins to gain momentum and flung Kora’s mangled upper body at the poor lizard’s back. The ex-fiend managed to grab onto the base of its wing and, broken horn still in hand, resumed her quest to lobotomize the dragon while Jen began giving it the sort of merciless beatdown only a Level 100 Monk could deliver.
Sixteen minutes, three hundred punches, eighty five kicks, thirty seven fire breaths, twelve headbutts, and countless broken scales later, the muscle-brained duo finally succeeded in exhausting the dragon’s energy. Barely clinging to life and unable to regenerate, Kora and Jen cooperated to pin its wings and force it to plummet hundreds of meters downward, whereupon it snapped its neck on impact with the ground. The violent duo climbed out from under the bloodied, broken body and, after looking over their handiwork, high-fived each other to celebrate.
“Took you two long enough,” Boxxy declared as it approached. “I was starting to get bored.”
Naturally, neither Jen nor Kora asked what it was doing here. They also wisely avoided questioning why Boxxy was dragging along a giant slab of wood. The pair also abstained from inquiring why Drea and Xera were nailed to said slab of wood by a few dozen longswords. Fizzy was not with them, though it was safe to assume that violently sparking dot on the horizon was most likely her. She wasn’t mad just because she’d been pranked with that useless box mechanism, but also because she’d blasted it into oblivion in a fit of rage. She couldn’t even take it apart to see how it worked, and that ticked her off even more.
The shapeshifter, for its part, completely ignored the sort of discomfort it was causing its companions and was entirely focused on sampling the dragon corpse. It dropped the skewered demon platter and transformed the tips of its many limbs into tooth-filled maws. The snake-like tendrils assaulted the body, taking quick and powerful bites that left gaping holes in it. Rather than just tear into its center of mass as it once might have, Boxxy was aiming for various points of interest. It sampled a bit of thigh meat here, some wing sinew there, a piece of flank, and so on.
Unfortunately, the flavor was nowhere near as spectacular as the shapeshifter had hoped. The meat was tough, chewy, and somewhat bland. The scales, now devoid of life, were crunchy and flaky, but not in a good way. The blood had the most impact by far, though. The fluid was so overflowing with magical energy that it was toxic to the vast majority of other creatures and would kill them in minutes should they be foolish enough to ingest the blood as-is. Boxxy knew all this, but it wasn’t worried. The blood’s toxicity was so diminished by the shapeshifter’s Legendary Endurance and ridiculous vitality that the only thing it did was give the substance a sharp, spicy flavor. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could be enjoyed on its own, but would probably make for a killer hot sauce.
Overall though, Boxxy thought the dragon was a near-total disappointment, especially after having experienced that maddeningly delicious gravy. The abomination sighed and decided to move on to finding those shiny and/or powerful relics it wanted. Ambrosia’s vines were already slowly but surely hauling that broken elder dragon rib to the shoreline. The process would most likely take four or five days and the dryad’s spriggan self would expire shortly afterwards, so there was no point in waiting around for her to finish.
Boxxy thus decided to move onto the next island. It had already gotten everything it could feasibly get from this one, not to mention an ether storm was still imminent. There was no telling whether Ambrosia would survive said storm, but there was not much that could be done to prevent that from happening. The shapeshifter was far more concerned with which of the neighboring islands it would taint with its presence next. A choice that would’ve been a lot more difficult to make if not for the information it had gathered from the now defunct dwarven expedition.
The abomination now knew it stood on the remains of the Isle of Life, and that its neighboring areas were the Isles of Ice, Light, and Force. The first two were outer islands and therefore significantly less dangerous than the inner ones that were closer to the center of the Shattered Isles. This also meant that adventurers aiming for their second or third Ultimate were unlikely to be on those border regions, as they needed greater challenges in order to Level Up. And since such adventurers were extremely likely to be the holders of some exceptional gear, it was only logical that Boxxy would have to go to the inner islands in order to find them.
However, charging into the Isle of Force would be a huge mistake. That place was supposedly home to mithril dragons, a subspecies said to have nigh-unbreakable scales that glistened like white gold. While Boxxy certainly wanted to mount one of those shiny beasts in its lair, it wasn’t worth the risk. Mithril dragons were among the few creatures with an elemental affinity for force magic, which turned their already deadly fire breath into a superweapon. A mithril dragon’s white-hot flames would disintegrate everything they touched and would rip through any form of magical or physical defense with zero effort. Or at least that’s what Boxxy’s information claimed. They weren’t all that documented since very few people had ever returned from their island, but the abomination decided it was probably wise not to strain its luck.
With the Isle of Force off the table, Boxxy now had a choice between light and ice, which was a no-brainer. Light magic’s primary application was the creation of illusions, which the shapeshifter would easily see through with its Mana Locator Gland. Those would be much easier to deal with than the versatility of cold-based magic. Granted, Boxxy wasn’t planning on fighting any of the locals, but it was safe to assume they wouldn’t like intruders prancing through their territory. That and cold magic was Fizzy’s Bane, so the Isle of Light was clearly the more attractive of the two options.
Also, and this was only a small thing, but the light-attuned diamond dragons were probably a lot shinier than the ice-belching silver dragons.
After several hours of walking in a direction that was probably northeast, Boxxy spotted the Isle of Light on the horizon. As its name implied, the place was a visual cacophony of colors, though they were far from what most people would deem as beautiful. The rapidly changing patterns that floated in the air seemed designed to cause nausea, dizziness, seizures, and other adverse reactions from anyone who stared at them too long. Fizzy’s mechanical brain processed the shifting colors without difficulty, but everyone else - including Boxxy - felt queasy just from looking at it from across the boiling river that separated the islands. The abomination may have been correct in assuming its MLG could see through illusions, but its eyes were still vulnerable to the visual overload.
This was where Xera’s Conjure Mirage Skill really shone. Using her innate illusion magic, the djinn created a twenty-meter-wide semi-transparent pink-hued dome around the group. It blocked enough of the flood of light so it wouldn’t make their eyes ooze out of their sockets, but left them with enough vision to watch for incoming threats. The only real downside was that the dome stood out like a forest fire, making it impossible to even attempt stealth or subtlety.
It was therefore of no surprise that the group attracted the native creatures’ ire. The dragonoids, as the name implied, looked like watered down off-shoots of their legendary namesakes. Some were vaguely humanoid, giving them the appearance of more monstrous versions of Velos’ raptors. Others were massive serpents that snaked through the sky like streaks of malice. Others still had vague resemblances to various beasts and monsters found outside the Shattered Isles, but with a reptilian twist.
Strictly speaking, the only thing they had in common was their glittering scales that dazzled spectacularly under the hypnotic sky. However, much to Boxxy’s disappointment, they became like plain flecks of glass once their owners were deprived of their lives. The shapeshifter had noticed this with that emerald hatchling as well. It would appear the mystic properties of dragonic scales were closely linked to whatever innate magic was coursing through them. It took immense skill, effort, and time to restore them to some semblance of power, one such example being the Artifact-grade suit of armor Snack was wearing. Most draconic armor would need to be crafted from the leathery hides that lay beneath the dragonoids’ scales, which was far more durable and protective than most similar materials outside of the Shattered Isles.
All of that aside, the constant and seemingly endless stream of dragonoids made it so it took another full day or so for Boxxy’s group to circle around the Isle of Light’s outer regions. They would have had less ground to cover if they’d cut through the middle, but that was where dragons usually nested. Taking down a sole hatchling was one thing, but pissing off an entire brood with adults mixed in? That was a headache the shapeshifter wanted to avoid altogether if at all possible.
Boxxy wasn’t the only one who thought so, of course. Skirting the central parts of islands was common practice for most Festival attendees. Not only was it safer, but fighting the flood of dragonoids for a few weeks was usually enough to earn most adventurers their first Rank Up. Assuming they survived, of course. The shapeshifter was half-expecting to come across said pre-Rankers on this little detour, or at the very least their remains, but had little luck in doing so. Oh well, it wasn’t as if Boxxy had been looking for those specifically, so it didn’t let their absence bother it. There were still signs of fighting though, as the fringe residents of each region would, for some reason, frequently cross onto nearby isles and assail their neighbors.
It wasn’t long before the group made it to their next destination. The inner island adjacent to the Isle of Light was the Isle of Stone. It was home to the steel subspecies of dragons, who had arguably the best defense against physical attacks among their peers. Their heavy metal scales were invulnerable to damage from unenchanted weapons, regardless of how strong, swift, or accurate their wielder was. Even magical arms barely left a dent unless they had been imbued with properties that raised their offensive capabilities.
As for their home turf, the Isle of Stone was an odd phenomenon that could be described as an ‘ocean of stone.’ Its surface was predominantly rough, almost barren terrain with lots of small hills and cliffs. There were a few pine-like trees here and there, but no other signs of life. At least not until the steel dragonoids leaped out of the rocky ground to ambush whatever surface-dweller caught their attention. Their inherent magic allowed them to quite literally swim through dirt and stone without disturbing it. Even the dragonoids’ shapes seemed oddly aquatic, with the iron sharks and steel crustaceans being the most common among them.
If one were to burrow into the ground, they would find a sprawling, twisted maze of caverns that seemed to go on forever. And to make things worse, these tunnels did not stand still. The rock and stone would wax and wane constantly like waves in the wind, making it impossible to map the ever-shifting terrain out. This earthy movement didn’t seem to inconvenience the deadly traps that were all over the place, and the local steely-scalies had even more of an advantage when it came to surprise attacks.
Overall, both the environment and the natives here were a step or two above the outer islands when it came to the level of danger they posed, but the rewards were also greater. Steel dragons coveted magical arms and armor far more than their various other counterparts, and the shifting stones could yield an immense amount of raw gems and precious metals. It was one of the only three known areas where sinium could be harvested, along with the Isle of Wind and Isle of Weight. All of this meant that, as far as unimaginably deadly traps that seemed designed to prey on mortals’ greed went, the Isle of Stone was a relatively popular one. Even Boxxy was feeling its Shiny Sense™ tingling, though this wasn’t caused by some imagined treasure underground.
Upon crossing the dense, muddy river that separated this landmass from the Isle of Light, the shapeshifter found more signs of battle. These ones, however, were vastly different from the ones it had encountered earlier. The dragonoid corpses left behind hadn’t been chewed, eaten, or mangled. They had been cut, crushed, frozen, burnt, and vaporized. In great numbers, too. These corpses told tales of a calculated and efficient battle that combined deadly force with surgical precision. It was, in short, a trail of carnage created by millennia’s worth of civilization.
And as Boxxy followed this trail, it couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of excitement and anticipation well up inside it. It was a peculiar sensation, neither bad nor good, but quite unique. One it hadn’t truly felt in a long, long time. A little over two years, seven months, and fifteen days, to be precise. It was the shapeshifter’s predatory instincts readying its body for a violent confrontation that had been a long time coming.
It was the same feeling that Boxxy had experienced shortly before it launched the assault that put an end to Edward Allen and the Gilded Hand.