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A note from Exterminatus
Triple Malefic Union concept (bonus Fizzy for scale), sketch by dmaxcustom
Sandman with tentacles (colorized), original commission by OnionRings27, art by dmaxcustom

Once upon a time, over a century ago to be more precise, there used to be a group of adventurers known as the Wild Five. The former half of the nickname stemmed from their seemingly reckless behavior, as they would take on any Quest offered to them regardless of how dangerous it seemed. This was a gross misunderstanding, however. While the Wild Five did indeed take on an abnormally high number of deadly jobs, they meticulously prepared for each one. Though they did not succeed on every single Quest, they never failed to return alive and largely unharmed. It seemed like not even Mortimer himself could claim this bunch’s souls.

These days the Wild Five were an old, obscure story, though not because they were wiped out. The group had merely fallen apart because of interpersonal issues which had inevitably appeared after so many decades of constant life-and-death struggles. Each of them had achieved their first Rank Up by then, which only widened the gap between them as individuals. No longer able to see eye-to-eye on various issues, the Wild Five split up and went their separate ways. With the group officially disbanded, it was only a matter of time before they faded from public memory.

This was, of course, far from the end of their tale. Each member continued to pursue their own passion. Some started up a family, others just retired to some remote place to live in peace, and one even helped establish a new town. None could walk away from an adventurer’s lifestyle for long, though. Whether through intent, luck, or hubris, each member of the Wild Five ended up having to deal with a number of crises over the years. They would, of course, rely on one another for help when the situation allowed it, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to seek aid from fresh faces as well.

This seemingly endless string of hardships saw these mighty individuals grow much older, much stronger, and much wiser. Eventually they had all become double-Rankers, and whatever grievances had forced them apart in the past seemed pettier and more foolish with every passing year. Thus, the Wild Five were able to reconcile and band together one more time. Their aim was to challenge the Dragon Festival and uncover what secret lay at its very center. It wasn’t a pursuit of power or lust for treasure that drove them to attempt such an impossible goal.

What drove the Wild Five forward was, and always had been, their shared sense of wanderlust.

There was more to this reunion than just that, of course. The group had all heard through a certain grapevine that there was something waiting for them at the very heart of the Shattered Isles. Something that might help them reunite with some old faces they’d thought forever lost. Sure, it seemed ludicrous, far-fetched, and even suicidal, but even these world-weary adventurers kindled the dangerous thing called hope.

The leader of the bunch was a man called Therian, a human knight of noble birth and founder of one of the city-states belonging to the Sovereign States Alliance. He looked like a prince that had walked out of a fairy tale - tall, well-built, and handsome, with glimmering armor and flowing locks of luscious blond hair. Beneath that glamorous facade lay a keen tactical mind with a thorough understanding of diplomacy. Admittedly the last one wasn’t going to be very useful out here in the Shattered Isles, but there was always the chance his team might attract the attention of an adult or elder dragon. Should that happen, talking things out with the living calamities was preferable to fighting them.

“Yeah, because it worked so well last time,” the woman next to Therian rolled her eyes. “Need I remind you what happened to Westinder?”

“Look Emilia, I’m just saying,” the man continued arguing his point, “there’s a chance it might work and spare us all a lot of pain.”

“You’ve been talking to Doc about this, haven’t you?” her eyes narrowed.

“Yeah? So?”

“You know he says that about everything, right?” she cautioned.

“That’s because it’s true!” the man in front shouted over his shoulder. “There’s always a-”

“Non-zero chance, I know,” Emilia finished the sentence with a sigh.

The woman shook her head in disbelief. Not at Doc’s statement, but at how he hadn’t changed a single bit over the past one hundred and eight years. Of course, one wouldn’t think Emilia was that old just by looking at her. She was a lovely woman possessing both youthful beauty and mature charm, though that was hardly unusual. Most Rankers had attractive features, regardless of their race or gender. Emilia was a very practically-minded person and never cared much for her appearance, hence why her black hair was always cut very short and she never wore make-up. This sensibility extended to her equipment, which looked rather plain despite its effects being every archer’s wet dream. The only piece of gear that really stood out was her bow, which looked to be gold-plated and covered with arcane sigils that glowed with power.

As for Doc, he was a curious, pint-sized Druid that bore the name Donkakleeze Squigglecount. It was difficult to say while keeping a straight face for most people, hence why it was usually shortened to just ‘Doc.’ The man himself was aware of how silly it sounded, but he embraced it rather than trying to fight it. Just looking at this bald, hunched-over, baby-faced midget in his patchwork robes and crooked walking stick of a staff would make one think he was a loony bin. They weren’t entirely wrong, of course, as most of his kind were at least slightly touched in the head. However, this particular one also happened to have such a ridiculous command of nature that he could make dogs fly and pigs bark.

Doc was also, as his size would suggest, a gnome. Well, a former one, technically speaking. When gnomes Ranked Up, they turned into welchlings. These looked exactly like regular gnomes, only with slightly paler skin and more vibrantly-colored eyes. They also gained a racial ability called Welchling Luck, making it easier to obtain and raise the LCK Attribute. Another Rank Up would see them become surfblin gnomes like Doc. These had skin that was either porcelain-white or midnight-black, and their eyes would appear to lose their irises. The overall effect was a doll-like appearance that was either adorably cute, or nightmarishly creepy, depending on one’s tastes. Surfblin gnomes also gained the Skill Detach Thoughts, which essentially let them literally pull certain memories or thoughts from their heads and store them as magical ribbons. These could be shared with someone else or stored away safely should the original thought slip their owner’s mind.

As for Therian and Emilia, those two had achieved the status of so-called perpetuals, the next evolution after ascendant humans. Aside from being rejuvenated to their youthful vigour, the Rank Up had also given them an enviable Skill called Limited Immortality. With this, perpetuals would reconstitute themselves back to life a mere three days after being killed… so long as their brains and hearts remained mostly intact. Putting it bluntly, that wasn’t likely to happen should the team be wiped out in a region full of bloodthirsty dragonoids.

The reunited Wild Five naturally wanted to avoid that, and the best way to do so was to avoid walking into an elder dragon’s lair. This was where the team’s scout really shone. Another perpetual human by the name of Argos, he was a Level 100 Rogue and Level 100 Ranger. Nothing escaped this guy’s notice. Whether it be invisible dragons, land-sharks, or even souls drifting onto the afterlife, he’d see it all.

A big part of this awareness was the combination of Ultimate Skills he had at his disposal. First was Eyes of Truth, an ability he unwittingly shared with Edward Allen, the former Imperial Spymaster. With this, he could instantly spot any visible or audible deception without fail. His Ranger Ultimate, on the other hand, could read the lay of the land around him. Called Primeval Awareness, it filled his head with information regarding all natural terrain within five kilometers of him. Better yet, he could use the Skill at will, provided he spent at least a few minutes concentrating on it. With this ability, he could easily determine the quickest and easiest way to move forward.

The last member of the Five was another woman, this one towering above everyone else with a head of oily, black hair and a blank stare. Dagna was a half-breed born to a big-hearted giant mother and an extremely brave human father. Though she wasn’t as tall as other giants, she still stood at an impressive two-and-a-half meters. Her race had advanced to that of colossus and then to titan upon reaching Level 100 in her Lightbinder and Cryomancer Jobs. Each Rank Up gave her a racial skill, of course. She obtained Colossal Vigour from the first one. It raised maximum HP by a good chunk while also increasing the effectiveness of any healing magic received. The second racial ability was called Starseeker, which allowed one to read the stars in hopes of reading the future. These divinations were… decently accurate, all things considered.

Dagna herself seemed entirely removed from what her people were supposed to be, however. She was gloomy, severe, and had zero sense of humor. Though some might point fingers at her human heritage, the cause for this negative attitude could be traced back to the fall of Percepeia. Dagna was one of the few beings still alive today that had witnessed the Boneshaper’s rise to power firsthand, though she had been powerless to stop it at the time. She still tried, of course. Even went as far as dragging the rest of the Wild Five into it. In fact, the group’s failure to save the giants’ homeland from turning into the Blighted Lands had been one of the major reasons why they had disbanded in the first place.

Regardless of the circumstances, the event had left Dagna with a broken spirit that had yet to fully heal. She had, however, gotten word from her former student Orrin that this rowdy bunch were going to attempt to reclaim it. Apparently, they’d gotten their hands on some occult artifact from a disreputable mercenary that promised to give them the power they needed. It seemed like a desperate move doomed to fail, but Dagna wanted in on it nevertheless. Orrin’s group wouldn’t be ready to move out for another few months, and the Dragon Festival seemed like the perfect way for the giantess to get her head back in the game.

As part of her getting ready for the upcoming Steel Crusade, as Orrin called it, Dagna also took up a Job that she’d been considering for a long while. It was the easiest way for a Caster with an already developed mana pool to achieve a quick power spike, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to take advantage of it. This method was simple on paper, but could backfire in a major way. Dagna’s former teammates weren’t exactly thrilled about it when they found out, but they trusted the ‘Keeper of the Light’ to maintain control.

This was how and why the Wild Five had obtained a sixth member to their troupe - Dagna’s new demonic familiar. Indeed, though her Warlock Job was only at Level 25, and her Summon Familiar Skill was barely Level 5, the sheer weight of her MP pool made it so the demon could stand almost on equal footing with the rest of them. It also helped that said demon could make the most of the power given to them since she was also a Ranker. More specifically, a spire archfiend by the name of Freallausiz Aurphoirriz Zalathraxas de Thotealphiol.

It was naturally no mere coincidence that Tol-Saroth’s former ‘employee’ was on the Shattered Isles at this point in time. It was also, for once, not orchestrated by the God of Gambling. Dagna wanted the most powerful type of familiar she could get when challenging the Shattered Isles. Frealla wanted a rematch with Kora, and knew Boxxy would be attending the Dragon Festival. All it took was a little bit of luck and a hint from the giant’s Starseeker Skill, and the two were instantly matched through the Demons ‘R’ Us agency.

Frealla, for her part, had barely changed in appearance since her Rank Up. She still wore the same type of highly impractical ‘armor’ and held an almost identical oversized battleaxe. This would change as she gradually grew accustomed to her new, higher state of being, but for the moment the only significant outward difference was that she had four spiraled horns instead of two. Ability-wise she was nothing like her former self, and not just because of the absurd mana that went into forging her conjured flesh. Having recovered mentally from her centuries-long imprisonment in Tol-Saroth’s lab, she now had full control of her faculties and could fully utilize her vast combat experience.

That said, Frealla wasn’t exactly having fun at present. Sure, she had a blast cutting loose and bullying those pathetic dragonoids that got in her master’s way, but that didn’t last long. Once Argos had figured out how to avoid treading over any more of their nests, the group had yet to encounter any significant resistance as they made their way forward. The dull drudgery of having nothing to do but obediently walk around as her master directed was bad enough, but having that insufferable gnome ride atop her head? It was insulting. The way he held onto her horns and pulled on them as if to steer her was especially infuriating. Frealla had signed up with Dagna for the chance to put that red-skinned upstart in her place, not to play babysitter to some loony midget that smelled of dirt and manure.

Whether she knew it or not, the newly-ascended archfiend was about to get her wish, for Boxxy’s troupe was closing in. The mish-mash of monsters and demons were a few kilometeres behind the Wild Five-Plus-One and closing in fast. They weren’t following the adventurers’ footprints, though. The veterans were so loaded up on Levels and magic items that it would be surprising if they didn’t have something to completely cover their tracks and mask their passage. Combined with the fact that they’d stopped leaving dragonoid corpses behind, this meant it would be nigh-impossible for anything to track them within this mostly-barren wasteland. Even clairvoyance magic wouldn’t spot them because of Dagna’s Veil of Refraction, an illusory Lightbinder Spell that rendered herself and her allies invisible to any would-be observer that was more than five hundred meters away.

Unfortunately for the adventurers, and through no real fault of their own, there was something they had failed to take precautions against. The news that there was a new Skill called Relic Hunter’s Pact available to Level 60 and up Warlocks hadn’t spread quite yet. Even these thrice-hardened combatants couldn’t prepare for something they had no idea existed. And, as luck would have it, they were currently in range of a certain something that had the freshly-minted ability.

Boxxy had been maintaining its Shiny Sense™ by ‘feeding’ it a series of Masterwork-class items it had pilfered from that expedition once every two hours. It figured that if there were any similar objects around, they’d belong to its target. It doubted the whole group would be decked out in Artifacts, so this seemed like a good way of doing things. The abomination had, however, failed to consider the dragons’ tendency to hoard things. The Shiny Sense™ was telling it there were a whole bunch of magic items deep underground, but Boxxy ignored those and followed after its initial target.

After several hours of forging ahead at top speed, the shapeshifter eventually detected a concentration of Masterwork equipment moving along the surface of the island. Deducing that these were the adventurers it had been looking for, it made a beeline straight for them. In doing so it also disturbed all the steel dragonoid nests the adventurers had skillfully avoided. The creatures surged from beneath the ground at Boxxy and its allies. The shapeshifter dealt with them easily enough, as all it needed to do was hit them with the Shadow Plague and Lethargic Mist Spells it gained from its Necrotic Aptitude Skill. All draconic beings were vulnerable to scourge-based magic, so those steel-scaled pests rapidly found themselves too weak to lift their own bodies. They probably wouldn’t die from the magical diseases, but it kept them from chasing after the monstrous troupe.

Things came to a head when Boxxy was about a kilometer away from its unknown target. The shapeshifter was propelling itself forward using a method of movement that could best be described as a surreal gallop. Rather than rotate its limbs forward after each step, the abomination simply retracted them into its body and sprouted new ones as it rolled forwards. It was more akin to a self-propelled conveyor of flesh than a living creature. Fizzy, Drea, and Xera were riding Boxxy’s lid as none of them could really keep up with the shifting advance, or at least not for long. Kora was the only one able to keep pace on the ground, which she accomplished by going at a full sprint for several hours straight. Jen, on the other hand, tore through the air just above the group on her massive wings.

As the monstrous formation shortened the distance to their target past the one-kilometer-mark, the griffin-harpy suddenly surged to the front of the group. She intercepted a barrage of lightning-bolt-like projectiles, knocking them all out of the air with her metal staff. The volley didn’t relent, however, and she had to summon up her Spirit Guardian to help deflect all of the attacks. The electrified projectiles fell to the ground, revealing they were specially-made mithril-tipped arrows, no doubt fired from some exceptionally powerful Artifact.

This assumption was only partly right, as Emilia’s longbow was actually a Phantasmal-grade item called Raigon’s Roar. Much like other high-end weapons of its class, it enhanced all of its shots in some way. In this particular case, it charged them with enough lightning to chip away at Jen’s HP even though she was deflecting the arrows fired from it. Realizing that the threats Argos had spotted wouldn’t go down with a basic barrage, the marksman decided to employ her Ultimate Skill right off the bat.

“Conjure Volley,” she murmured under her breath.

Though both she and her spotter had Level 100 Rogue and Ranger Jobs, their skill sets were completely different. Unlike Argos, who put all his effort into trickery, observation, and nimbleness, almost all of Emilia’s Skills were focused on maximizing her ranged firepower. Conjure Volley, her Ranger Ultimate, was a reflection of that. Once invoked, it would magically split and duplicate one arrow into thousands, transforming what would normally be a projectile attack into a wave of death and pain.

This was precisely the case when she unleashed it upon Boxxy’s crew. It was impossible for any single Monk, no matter how skilled, to defend against so many arrows that they completely blocked out the sun. And with each one carrying a powerful electric charge, it seemed reasonable that the shapeshifter might not, in fact, survive this. Thankfully for Boxxy, Jen’s reflexes had bought just enough time for Fizzy to finish reconfiguring herself into Fortress Mode.

Still riding atop the abominable box’s lid, she charged up her Static Shield and erected a barrier around the group. The magical charge of the incoming attack was completely nullified and absorbed, while any arrows that punched through the Static Shield were blocked by Boxxy’s own Mana Shield underneath. From the outside, it seemed as though a serpent made out of lightning smashed against the group, only to have them emerge completely unscathed moments later.

Without skipping a beat, Boxxy grabbed Kora by the leg and nearly chucked her at the enemy, but then realized that was a terrible idea. The greed-fiend couldn’t control her air trajectory very well, which against a marksman that skilled was no different from a sitting duck. There was no point to propelling her at the enemy if it would just get her killed before the real fight started, especially since Boxxy couldn’t resummon her on the Shattered Isles’ territory. A plan was quickly formed, and the shapeshifter issued its commands.

“Jen and Fizzy, you’re on defense. Block those shots at all costs. Snack, throw some illusions around to confuse their aim, even a little. All of you, keep going forward!”

The lightning arrow barrage resumed moments later, but this time Boxxy was going to return the favor. Its lid opened up to reveal the upper half of an alien-looking humanoid figure, its arms already gripping onto its own high-grade bow, the Winter’s Bite. It shot back at the adventurers with as much zeal as it could muster, though it was clearly outclassed when it came to archery. It wouldn’t stand a chance of actually hitting the enemy if not for the heat-seeking properties of the bow’s conjured projectiles. Even then it doubted it would do much, but it was still better than nothing.

Shards of ice and bolts of lightning collided in midair as the shapeshifter’s group advanced on the Wild Five’s position. Argos had already relayed other party’s composition to his teammates. Granted, he wasn’t entirely sure what all of those creatures were, but he was able to identify an abomination, a golem, and a harpy. In other words, the adventurers had to prepare lightning, cold, and water magic to exploit the inbound monsters’ elemental weaknesses. There was little they could do about the three demons, though.

“I knew I should’ve packed my Demonbane longsword,” Therian grumbled. “But nooo, ‘cursed items attract more trouble than they’re wooorth.’”

“If you have time to complain, finish taking your elixirs,” Dagna said sternly. “Those things are coming in fast.”

The knight clearly disliked being talked down to like that, but chugged his potions nonetheless. Even if the giantess was still a bitch, she was right. The group hadn’t expected to run into this sort of trouble on the inner Shattered Isles. It wasn’t unheard of for Festival attendees to assault one another in hopes of getting easy Levels and loot, but a group of monsters and demons doing so? That part was new, even to these world-weary adventurers. And if the inbound creatures were strong enough to survive the inner islands while also tracking the Wild Five, then there was no telling what they were capable of.

That said, educated guesses could still be made. Demons meant Warlocks, and Warlocks meant primarily dark and mind magic, so Therian chugged an Elixir of Shadow Absorption and a Potion of Mind Shielding. These were but the first of about a dozen sickeningly expensive potions the man consumed in preparation for the battle. Something that was only made possible through his Warrior Job’s Ultimate Skill, Combat Metabolism. It drastically increased the number of alchemical goodies he could imbibe before succumbing to potion sickness, though their effects wouldn’t last as long.

Argos was busy acting as Emilia’s spotter and instructing her on how to adjust her aim for maximum effect. It wasn’t as if Emilia couldn’t see the enemy herself, but she trusted her teammates’ eyes more. Especially since that scantily-clad demoness had started throwing around giant phallic illusions. Even if they were clearly fake, they still obscured her vision, and only Argos’ Ultimate could see through them at this range.

Meanwhile Doc had leapt down from Frealla’s shoulders and was helping Dagna fortify the group’s defense and vitality with a series of support Spells while also deflecting the incoming ice arrows. The archfiend had tensed up in anticipation of what was to come, as she was certain this was indeed Boxxy’s group. The giantess noticed her familiar’s anxiousness, but couldn’t spare the time to ask her about it at the moment. She and her allies had dug in their heels to prepare for the rapidly incoming monsters, so they didn’t have much time to prepare before the clash happened.

And Boxxy was indeed closing in. The distance between itself and its prey had been reduced to about two hundred meters over the past half-minute or so. It had also subtly shifted itself and its group’s formation. The abomination was currently rolling along on a set of six organic wheels, a literal wagon of flesh being pulled along by Kora. Xera, Fizzy, and now Drea were riding atop it while Jen flew just behind it. The reason why Boxxy had opted to this method of transportation was that it allowed the shapeshifter to move along at great speeds while focusing on other things. This was necessary because the next step in its assault plan required quite a lot of preparation.

Thankfully preparations were nearly complete. The vaguely humanoid thing poking out of its open lid was now holding the Voidcaller staff rather than the Winter’s Bite bow. It had just taken a dose of Distilled Quintessence of Magic and had Snack use her Amplify Magic on itself. With Power Overwhelming up and running, the shapeshifter began channeling its favorite Warlock Spell.

“Sed risus ex,” it spoke in the language of the gods, “semper a lacus condimentum, molestie malesuada nisi.”

Ideally it would have prepared some Mirror Images in order to employ Synchronous Chant, but that wasn’t an option at the moment. Not to mention it was probably unnecessary.

“Pellentesque sagittis auctor turpis pretium diam!”

After all, unlike a certain towering mound of undead flesh, these adventurers were very likely to dodge something with too much of a wind-up.

“Remulus Secare!”

Reality itself was cleaved in half as Boxxy’s augmented Spell flew towards the Wild Five, about a hundred meters ahead. Much as the shapeshifter had expected, they all managed to avoid the brunt of the attack. They could not evade the after-effects, however, as the ripped fabric of space slammed itself closed with explosive force. The ground erupted with rocks and sand while the air quivered with deafening thunder. The adventurers took some minor damage, but were neither distracted or off-balance as the distance between the two groups shrank to about fifty meters.

It was at that point where things started heating up. Spells flew in both directions, further scarring the desolate landscape. Xera, Boxxy, and Fizzy launched a coordinated assault of fire, shadow, and lightning while Dagna and Emilia retaliated with a focused stream of light, ice, and yet more lightning. A Scorching Ray from the djinn and an Ice Beam from the giant clashed in the middle, the opposing Spells pushing against one another in a mesmerizing mix of colors.

Drea moved in to eviscerate the Cryomancer while Xera kept her busy, but Argos easily spotted and intercepted her. The two agile fighters traded a lightning-fast series of blows before both slinked off, disappearing into the smoke and steam around them. Jen went straight for the knight that seemed to be in charge of the adventurers, eager to pit her mettle against his. Sword and staff sang a duet of metal as they clashed against each other, but it immediately became apparent that Therian was the superior combatant.

The griffin-harpy just couldn’t match his raw speed and strength when it was bolstered by a suicidal number of alchemical supplements. She was also outclassed when it came to fighting experience, as the knight was her superior in every way. It was a good thing she went into this with her Ultimate ready, otherwise she’d have already taken a number of nasty hits from that sword. Jen was especially wary of said weapon, as every time its blade clashed against her staff, it left behind a noticeable scratch or dent in the shaft. Very few things could damage an Artifact made out of adamantite, and this guy clearly wasn’t putting his all behind each blow.

The duel didn’t last long, as a fiend-shaped projectile flew right between the two, forcing them to back off.

“Ack! Fuck! Bitch! Cunt! Dick!”

Frealla unleashed a string of curses, each foul word punctuated by her tumbling form bouncing across the rocky ground. She managed to land on her feet and skid to a halt, just in time to avoid Kora’s follow-up drop-kick. The hoarder caught herself on her many arms and did a bizarre impression of a spider as she palm-walked face-up across the ground while kicking at the other demon’s shins. Frealla had to back off from the bizarre fighting style, as low attacks like that were difficult for her to deal with.

“Ora, ora, ora, ora!” Kora yelled tauntingly. “Come on, Bitch-Nugget! That all you got?!”

“Cleave!”

The archfiend responded with a downward swing of her comically large axe that threatened to cleft Kora in twain, but instead created a miniature canyon in the ground. The red-skin had avoided it by grabbing the ground and pulling herself backward over her head. She backflipped onto her feet, bringing her three pairs of hands together as she landed. The Thunderclap boomed loudly, rattling Frealla’s bones and causing some internal damage. Kora was about to go back in when a geyser of thorny vines erupted from the dry soil, wrapped around her, and lashed her to the ground. The axe-fiend did not miss this opportunity and brought her weapon down on Kora, leaving a deep dent on her breastplate.

Elsewhere Boxxy was not having the best of luck catching that annoying little gnome. Having identified him as the group’s healer, the shapeshifter prioritized beheading him first. The tiny Druid had fully expected this, of course, and was evading the abomination’s assault through some rapid shape-changing of his own. He had gone down the rarely-picked path of the ‘Beast-Shifter,’ allowing him to rapidly switch between several bestial forms at will.

Where Doc differed from other Druids was that he didn’t transform into mighty beasts and apex predators. His already small form instead turned into even tinier critters - species whose entire existence seemed to revolve around running for their lives. The rapid changes in size and mass made it difficult for Boxxy’s attacks to catch the little guy. Spells weren’t doing a lot of work either, as its target turned into a mole-like creature and burrowed rapidly into the ground every time the abomination stopped to chant.

Another issue was that the eldritch abomination’s maddening presence, amplified as it was by Slayer perks and Despair Aura, wasn’t all that effective. The adventurers definitely felt the mental pressure as the alien visage of a vaguely box-like mound of flesh, eyes, and malice undulated towards them. However, while simply gazing at Boxxy’s form could make even battle-hardened minds go mad with fear, these double-Rankers had seen worse. Much worse. The various horrors and tragedies the Wild Five had witnessed over their long and storied careers had hardened their wills to the point of being nigh-unbreakable. Even if their MNT wasn’t all that impressive, they could easily fight off mental attacks with sheer willpower. The magical terror that Boxxy exuded was certainly chipping away at the adventurers’ spirits, but it was akin to digging a tunnel with a needle.

To make it even more infuriating to Boxxy, the Druid was able to freely use his own magic while slithering, fluttering, skittering, and otherwise running about. This was not usually possible as most feral forms lacked the ability to chant Spells. This surfblin gnome was the exception because of his Druid Ultimate, Bestial Evocation. Coupled with his Level 100 Shaman Job and its own high-end ability, Earth-Mother’s Protection, he was effectively untouchable so long as his feet remained on the ground.

The one who struggled the most was Fizzy, however. Given that her side had a shapeshifter and the adventurers had someone that was packing lightning arrows, it seemed obvious that she be the one to keep the Ranger busy. She clearly had no idea what she was getting into at the time, as it turned out that longbow had a lot more to it. Raigon’s Roar held the essence of an elder tempest, a legendary elemental being whose might rivaled that of adult dragons. While the bow could certainly produce lightning, it was by no means its only ability.

The golem thus found herself chasing an elusive Ranger through a localized snowstorm while being pelted by freezing arrows that threatened to rob her of the ability to move. The pint-sized Paladin’s previously unstoppable combination of Engine of Destruction, Parallel Plot, and self-healing was gradually getting overwhelmed. Sure, she wasn’t running out of MP anytime soon, but Plus’s chanting could not keep up with the damage she was taking. To make matters worse, that human seemed to slip away every time Fizzy tried to intercept her with Armored Charge and Lightning Warp.

Truly, the power of a Phantasmal weapon was a hurdle all on its own… and that bow wasn’t the only one the Wild Five had at their disposal. Therian’s Vorpal Blade was also one, and its impossibly sharp and durable edge could shear through most armor as if it were paper. Jen’s staff would have already been cut in two if the Monk had been blocking the blade rather than deflecting it. It also didn’t help that the knight was also a Level 100 Blade Dancer, making him far more agile than anyone clad in armor that heavy has any right to be. In other words, it readily became apparent that Therian outclassed Jen in nearly every aspect. He could even fly through the air with the help of those winged boots at his feet, though his flight wasn’t nearly as fast as hers.

Being who she was, the Monk took this realization as extremely good news. It had been so long since she’d faced an opponent so much stronger than herself that she couldn’t help but smile madly the entire time.

Unfortunately for her, Boxxy had seen enough of the developing battle and decided that a mix-up was required. It launched itself into the air with a mighty leap, aiming for the spot where the knight and the harpy were having an all-out duel. Doc tried to stop it with more of those vines of his, but failed to notice the little ‘present’ the shapeshifter had left for it while it escaped. With the flashiest bang to ever flashbang going off underneath it, Boxxy threw something at the flying knight. The object flew at a speed even Argos would struggle to follow, leaving Therian little choice but to throw up his shield and brace for impact.

He felt almost nothing as the projectile collided with him, other than hearing the sound of glass breaking. In the next instant he saw the distinct fragments of a broken Spell Crystal, and was then immediately enveloped by the Gravity Well stored within. Sure, the man’s raw physical might was so vast that even making him ten times heavier would barely inconvenience him. His winged boots, however, had a finite weight capacity, and he found himself plummeting towards the ground and crashing into it with a loud bang.

All of this happened so quickly that Jen barely had time to register the interruption of her duel before she felt something wrap around her ankle.

“Plan B.”

Boxxy let out a firm command as it flung the harpy at the giantess with the ice and light magic. Now having to deal with a frustrated muscle-head, Dagna could no longer keep Xera tied down. The djinn followed her mental commands and went to deal with Emilia, thus allowing Fizzy to gang up on the archfiend with Kora. At the same time, Drea had been told to ignore that Rogue and aim for Doc, as her webs would make it a lot easier to catch the squirrely little guy. Argos had little choice left but to trust the Druid to handle himself as he went to back up Frealla. The archfiend was arguably the weakest link in their formation, and she would surely be overwhelmed by the vertically opposed duo of Fizzy and Kora.

Of course, none of these ‘duels’ would last for long. Plan B called for Boxxy’s troupe to constantly switch up their opponents and force the other side to be on the reactive. This was easier said than done, as one could not disengage from combatants at this Level without significant risk to themselves. Monsters and demons were generally far more durable than enlightened, so it was a gamble that Boxxy’s troupe could afford to take. At least that was the theory, though only time would tell if it agreed with reality.

For his part, the knight had instantly proved himself to be the single strongest enemy that Boxxy had ever faced. It was only to be expected, of course, as the creature had never fought a double-Ranker before, but it was still unprepared mentally. A big part of the issue was that every enemy the shapeshifter had encountered over the past two years or so had been significantly weaker than it. Long-gone were the days when a moronic little box had to regularly rely on cheap tricks and dumb luck to scrape by against more powerful opponents.

In short, Boxxy was out of practice. It was so used to bullying hordes of weaklings with almost no effort, that it found itself unable to match the legendary knight’s movements. Its attacks were always a split-second too slow. No matter how frequently or at what angle it struck at the man, its weaponized tentacles were unerringly parried, blocked, or evaded while he counter-struck at every opportunity. Naturally, much of this was only possible because of Therian’s immense experience, top-quality gear, and ridiculous physical prowess. However, that wasn’t how Boxxy saw it.

The shapeshifter considered every attack missed and every hit taken as personal failures. It kept attacking with full force and yet all its zeal amounted to was a rapidly mounting number of lost body parts as Therian’s blade carved through its flesh effortlessly. An overwhelming sense of ‘Why isn’t this guy dead yet!’ seemed to grow in the back of its mind, and the resulting frustration only caused the shapeshifter’s attacks to worsen. It probably would have realized what it was doing wrong if it had the chance to stop and think for a second, but its opponent was too dangerous to afford anything less than the former mimic’s full attention. Something needed to change, and luckily for Boxxy, it was something of an expert when it came to such things.

So, all at once, and at great risk to itself, the abomination stopped. Its movements ceased so abruptly and completely, that one might think time itself was having a mild malfunction. Boxxy forcefully removed its focus away from the knight and turned it to the battle around it. It soaked it in all at once and rapidly processed the situation, quickly arriving at the conclusion that its allies were steadily losing ground. It didn’t have the time to analyze the battle and pinpoint the exact reasons as to why this was, but that didn’t matter. The side that suffered a casualty first would lose this engagement, and Fizzy’s healing just couldn’t keep up with the entire group’s damage.

When Boxxy snapped its focus back to the knight, it was struck with an odd realization. It had stood completely still for a good three seconds, which was almost tantamount to suicide at this level. And yet, its opponent had hesitated to approach the abomination. It clearly wasn’t because of the various fear-inducing effects emanating from Boxxy’s mere presence, as this guy had ignored them completely as if they weren’t there at all. That and he clearly had the upper hand thus far, so why would he give up such a clear advantage?

Realization crashed into the shapeshifter’s mind like a meteorite squashing a frog. This man wasn’t afraid of what Boxxy was doing, but what it might do. He had assumed the abomination had halted in preparation for some unknown move, or as some sort of trap to lure him into striking it. It was the sort of automatic, instinctive caution that all veteran adventurers possessed. They would never assume the enemy stopped attacking and gave them a seemingly free hit unless they were plotting something. Indeed, people that have achieved this level of power sought to anticipate and predict what action an opponent of equal footing might take. They were at the stage were things moved far too quickly for a living being to react with reflexes alone, so foresight was a necessity.

Having finally recognized it needed to defeat its opponent psychologically before it could triumph physically, Boxxy once more lunged at the knight. It actually had a plan of action this time around, though. Granted, not the most brilliant or well-thought-out of strategies, but it was the best it could come up with on the spot. The basic idea was that if these people were so wary of the unknown, then all the shapeshifter needed to do was to demonstrate just how much they didn’t know about their opponents.

The renewed offensive started off with Boxxy spewing out a Mirror Image. It had subconsciously avoided using this Skill because it didn’t agree with the monster’s new species. The doppelganger ability still produced body doubles, but they were nearly four times smaller and much weaker in relation to the original. Still, they were hardly useless, and the shapeshifter wasted no time throwing it into the fray. It went off to harass that giantess, making it slightly more difficult for her to fend off Kora’s attacks.

That was only the first one, as Boxxy continued pumping one of those out every few seconds while its maintained pressure on the knight. The miniature abominations didn’t last very long with all the destructive forces being thrown around casually, but they still did their part. A lucky hit here and a surprise Spell there were all that was necessary to give the rest of the monster-gang some much-needed breathing room. The only issue was Xera, who had to specifically be ordered not to run face-first into one of the clones’ gravity-based Spells.

The Wild Five quickly realized they couldn’t afford to have all those miniature horrors running around. They collectively and wordlessly agreed to help Therian in taking down ‘the big one’ as quickly as possible, even if it meant opening themselves up to attacks from the rest. Charged arrows, poisonous vines, localized blizzards, and caustic gas clouds were all directed at Boxxy, but it just took them like they were nothing. Its natural healing and regeneration were so overcharged that it would take a far more serious effort to overpower its immense HP pool.

Pretty soon the battle devolved into pure chaos, with both sides striking at whatever enemy was in front. The adventurers’ formation well and truly shattered, Boxxy moved onto bringing out the big guns. For the first time in the fight, its Storage flew open, and a freshly-made Mini-Boxxy dove into it. The replica emerged moments later, its writhing mass quickly coiling around a rectangular metal object. The adventurers hadn’t gotten a good look at the item before it was completely swallowed by the lump of flesh, but they definitely noticed that it was carrying something.

“That one over there has something, watch out!” Therian shouted, one of his magic rings painting the clone in question with an illusory glow.

The marked Mirror Image then ran off, moving away from the fight. Fizzy happened to notice what Boxxy was trying to do and moved to cover the thing’s ‘retreat.’ She barely managed to use Rebound to deflect one of Dagna’s Cryomancer Spells, and the giantess wasted no time repeating the effort. The mithril Paladin failed to defend against the follow-up beam of ice and got hit center-of-mass, leaving most of her left half frozen solid. The giantess launched a third Spell, but it was now Drea’s turn to body-block it. She didn’t even attempt to Counterspell it, letting her Cold Affinity completely neutralize the hostile magic instead.

Frealla’s bruised and beaten body then crashed into Dagna while her focus was elsewhere, and Kora charged in after them. Jen flew in and smashed Fizzy free of her icy restraints before turning around landing a devastating kick on Argos, who tried and failed to stab her in the back. Three arrows imbued with water then struck her wings, knocking her out of the air with their enhanced impact and temporarily disabling her ability to fly because of the harpy’s elemental weakness. Emilia didn’t get a chance to follow up as Xera’s pet Molten Guardian tackled her and held her down as a Meteor screamed towards the Ranger. Doc countered the lump of falling fire with a Tornado while Therian knocked the magma construct off of his teammate. Boxxy was hot on his heels, of course, pestering the man with a combined deluge of fire, acid, ice, and whatever else it could produce from its dozens of pilfered abilities.

In the flurry of impossible-to-track exchanges, the Mini-Boxxy managed to make it to a distance of about twenty meters. It transformed into a crude caricature of the land-sharks native to the area and began burrowing through the ground. This did not go unnoticed, and Therian had little time to make a tough call. He could make the gnomish druid chase down and stop that thing from doing whatever it was trying to do, putting the entire party at risk in the process. On the other hand, he could let the conjured creature complete its mission and deal with the consequences later. Neither option was particularly attractive, but Therian did not hesitate.

“Doc, chase it down!” he yelled decisively.

“Oh, dear. Here I go, digging again!” the Druid replied in good spirits.

The small man hadn’t acquired an Ultimate Skill called ‘Earth-Mother’s Blessing’ for no reason. Moving through solid ground was something of a specialty of his, which had been one of the reasons why the group chose to cross this island in particular. Doc demonstrated this by abruptly falling through the dirt as if it were empty air, instantly disappearing from sight. The mysterious abomination let out a soul-wrenching screech and immediately began tunneling after him.

Thank fuck, Therian sighed inwardly. We’d have been in deep shit if that didn’t work.

The enemy had gone to great lengths to make sure that box-carrying thing got away. A bunch of monsters and demons wouldn’t do something like that unless the object in question was somehow vital to their survival. Therian had no idea what they could be planning with that thing, but he hazarded a guess that if it was that important, then one of them would try to intercept Doc. That would turn the battle on the surface from a six-versus-six to five-versus-five, which was still more or less equal odds.

Therian inwardly thanked his lucky stars that was exactly what happened. Granted, he hadn’t expected the boss-monster to be the one to go after the Druid, but it made sense since none of the others looked like they’d be very good at burrowing. He also wasn’t too worried about Doc’s safety, as he had faith that his eccentric companion would be able to handle himself. The knight was correct on this account as well, as Boxxy was far too slow to catch the mole-gnome despite giving it its all.

Luckily for the shapeshifter, that was not its intention. The entire point of this whole exercise had been to convince the adventurers that they needed to stop the Mirror Image. It expected one or more of them to be able to give chase, and it was inwardly overjoyed to see it was that troublesome Druid. So, while the surfblin gnome charged forward, the abomination pretended to give chase for a while before it turned around and tunneled its way back towards the main battle.

As for Doc, he had shifted into a giant monstrous ant with a drill-like head and easily tracked down his quarry. The Druid effortlessly caught up to the creature, and a brief struggle ensued. The Mirror Image was tough, yes, but its basic, automated intelligence made it terrible at fighting, especially in such unusual environments. Completely at the gnome’s mercy, it didn’t last even five seconds before it was utterly ripped apart. As its conjured flesh began to evaporate, the transformed Druid was able to get a good look at the object it was carrying. It was an oddly shaped metallic box, almost like a briefcase. Its shell was painted in an eye-catching array of black-and-yellow stripes oddly reminiscent of bumblebees. Doc didn’t get a chance to ponder this thing’s function before he heard the soft click of the MOAB’s dead man switch being released.

The ensuing detonation made the entire island heave and shudder. Well, not really, but it certainly felt like it. A torrent of bright green flames erupted from the two tunnels in the ground as the shockwave rattled the bones of enlightened and monsters alike. Once the shock and awe had passed, Theiran, Dagna, Emilia, and Argos felt their hearts sink. Doc was gone. They didn’t need to question it or confirm it, they just knew. Their already shaken resolve was tested further when Boxxy emerged from the ground like a volcano of flesh. The mind-rending effects of its mere presence crashed into the shaken adventurers, and for the first time in decades, they began to falter.

If this was a fairytale, that would have been the point in the story when the noble adventurers rallied and took vengeance for their fallen comrade, triumphing over insurmountable odds in the process. Or perhaps, some valiant third party would swoop in to save the day at the last second. The battered and beaten adventurers would then go on to find Doc grievously injured but miraculously alive. They would treat his wounds and for a second he would seem to pass on, only to wake up and say something silly to instantly lighten the mood.

Real life regularly disagreed with such cliches, of course, and this would be no different. A desperate struggle would occur without question, but there would be no miraculous outcome. Not even divine intervention was possible, as Terrania’s pantheon was powerless on the Shattered Isles. The only thing that awaited the Wild Five was a cruel and bitter end brought on by an unfairly powerful monster that got lucky one too many times. It would be, to put it mildly, a criminally pedestrian conclusion to a group of living legends… if not for the extraordinary location all of this was taking place in.

Just as Boxxy and its followers were about to tear into the adventurers now that their healer was out of the picture, both sides froze in unison. An unimaginable chill descended on the scene, as if something was clutching at each and every soul in the area. A massive shadow eclipsed the sun for a few painfully long seconds before it descended and crashed into the ground with its entire mind-boggling weight. The island shook once more from the impact, only this time it was far more literal than when Boxxy’s MOAB went off.

When the shapeshifter gathered enough courage to gaze up at this intruder, it beheld a figure that struck fear into all living things. It was three hundred meters long, wingspan just as wide, a height of over seventy meters, with teeth, claws, and horns the size of towers, and wreathed in an aura of malice that seemed to devour light itself. There was no doubt as to anyone’s mind as to this being’s identity. It was the ultimate, undisputed top of the food chain on Terrania, maybe even beyond.

An elder dragon had descended, and its indomitable gaze was aimed squarely at one Boxxy T. Morningwood.

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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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