Every member of the Wild Five was at a point in their lives where they’d pretty much seen it all. Multiple times, at that. For better or for worse, exceedingly few things could surprise and astonish these jaded individuals. Boxxy’s group, though nowhere near as well-traveled or experienced as those ancient adventurers, was the same. The shapeshifter’s brief-yet-eventful tenure as Hero of Chaos had seen it and its followers face a wide range of ridiculous situations. Compared to putting down an old god’s avatar and then accidentally waking up a group of ancient war golems, the Shattered Isles’ anomalies were mildly interesting at best.
However, no matter their previous experiences or expectations, none are ever truly prepared to face down an elder dragon. The living cataclysm’s appearance had taken enlightened, demon, and monster alike by complete surprise. The total lack of warning made nearly all of them questioned whether this was just an elaborate illusion of some sort. It certainly seemed like the most likely explanation, but deep down, they all knew this was reality. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl while everyone took a brief second to affirm and process what stood before them.
And then, the dragon started drawing a deep breath.
As the first to recover from the collective shock and awe, Therian let out a loud and clear warning to his teammates. That single word snapped friend and foe alike back to their senses, and they all began fleeing by whatever means necessary… except for Boxxy T. Morningwood. The shapeshifter pounced on the human knight the instant the latter’s back was turned, striking at him with its bladed tentacles. Therian managed to turn around and raise his blade and shield at the last moment in an effort to deflect the massive sickle-like growths.
Although the man succeeded in defending himself, he found himself unable to pull his weapons back. In a flash of creative brilliance, Boxxy had coated its limbs with a powerful adhesive from its Liquid Mimicry. That indestructible shield and unstoppable blade were now stuck in its flesh, and their owner was unable to pull them out. Sure, the double-Ranker might have had the upper hand when it came to raw strength, but the abomination had the edge when it came to mass, leverage, and girth. Though Therian pulled and yanked with enough force to lift an entire barn full of livestock, all he ended up doing was sinking into the ground.
“What are you doing, you moron?!” the knight shouted in desperation. “We won’t survive an elder dragon’s breath!”
“Correction,” Boxxy’s maddening voice washed over him. “You won’t survive it.”
Panic gripped Therian’s face for the first time in decades, as he felt the creature’s malicious intent with his very soul. Above and behind the abomination, the elder dragon had finished preparing and unleashed a torrent of crackling black smoke. The man’s mind went completely blank as he watched the attack stream towards him like a geyser, threatening to wipe both himself and his assailant from existence.
Of course, the shapeshifter wasn’t foolish or prideful enough to believe it could withstand a direct hit from that. Even if, in theory, it had enough HP to survive an overcharged dungeon core going into meltdown right in front of its face, an elder dragon’s breath was potent enough to literally flatten mountains. That also meant that running likely wouldn’t make a difference, as the blast zone would be far too wide for any being to escape it in those few seconds without long-range teleportation.
In the precious moments between the dragon drawing and then releasing its breath, Boxxy had been able to concoct a plan that would guarantee its survival while also dooming its prey. All it had to do to avoid the blast was to release the knight and then drop into its Storage dimension. The adventurer would get incinerated, possibly even disintegrated, while the shapeshifter got off with just relatively minor backlash damage from misusing the Skill. There were a myriad of other issues with this course of action, of course, but Boxxy didn’t have the time to fully think through all aspects of the plan. In fact, in its haste, the abomination hadn’t even considered one very basic thing.
Namely that a house-sized pile of flesh would not be able to squeeze through a meter-wide portal in just a fraction of a second like a doppelganger could.
As Boxxy’s mass slammed into the ground beneath it, it didn’t even get the chance to realize its own folly before the breath fell upon it. The magical smoke exploded in all directions, enveloping everything within several hundred meters within a matter of seconds. It caught every member of both groups, plunging them into a world of absolute darkness wherein light was not allowed to exist, both literally and metaphorically. All forms of luminescence were drowned out, and any sense of joy, hope, and courage ceased to exist.
That aside, however, no physical harm came to anyone caught in the smoke, aside from being knocked over by the sheer force of the breath. Therian, for his part, rose to his feet. He could see nothing, regardless of whatever light or night-vision his equipment should’ve given him. His other senses were still there, and they were all, for lack of a better word, freaking out. He felt an odd, disturbing sensation not unlike strands of thread dragging along his skin, even under the armor. He heard whistles and whisper, like words at the very edge of his perception. He smelled an unsettling odor, like freshly burned flesh mixed with the musty fragrance of a centuries-old tomb. He tasted something resembling dirt and sand under his tongue, yet nothing was there when he attempted to spit it out.
The man found himself unable to settle down. His resolve broken and doubt seeping in through the cracks, he was too slow to react when a fleshy tendril slammed into his chest like a hundred raging minotaurs. He reflexively swung with his sword, and felt it cleave through something effortlessly. He then noticed the ticking against his breastplate, just moments before the shatter-bombs that had been stuck to his armor unleashed their deafening payload.
The thunderous shockwave rattled his bones and ripped up his insides. The knight withstood it, but the attack knocked the wind out of his lungs and forced him to inhale the shadow-dragon’s breath-smoke as he attempted to catch his breath.
He felt something creeping up behind him, so he turned around and swung at it blindly. He once again felt himself cleaving through something, but the sound he heard was of a high-pitched and disturbingly familiar wail. It sounded exactly like Emilia, the comrade for whom he still harbored an old flame. Assailed as it was by negativity, his mind leaped to the conclusion that he had struck her down. Fear and despair began to flood his being, and he gave in. He swung around wildly, yelling all the while, only to trip over something and fall flat on his face.
An incomprehensibly heavy mass landed on him, pinning him to the ground. A monstrous hand gripped the back of his skull, forcing his face into the wet dirt. A tsunami of psychic energy flowed into Therian’s brain as Boxxy channeled the mind-shattering essence of the Demon King himself. And shatter the man’s mind it did, leaving him as no more than a husk of a person. Memories, knowledge, experience, desires, fears - everything that made Therian who he was dissipated in an instant, though not for good. A month of recovery or perhaps some powerful curse-nullifying magic would see his wits restored to full.
Unfortunately for Therian, he would never get the chance to attempt either of those options. As he drooled and groaned unintelligibly in the darkness, Boxxy moved onto the next step. It wasn’t just plain old murder, though. After all, why eliminate such a powerful entity when it could be turned into a resource? With his mind and sense of self both in shambles, Therian was unable to resist as the eldritch abomination began corrupting his flesh.
A dozen or more tumorous growths sprouted from the man’s limbs and torso, deforming him to the point where he barely looked human. Countless pustules formed and then burst, covering him in a thick layer of pus, blood, and other disgusting substances. Vines of meat emerged from underneath the knight’s armor, coiling around his arms and legs. Their skin, if it could be called that, was pudgy and loose, its pinkish-red shade almost identical to the natural color of Boxxy’s own flesh. Finally, with a wet plop and a loud snap, the figure’s pauldrons fell to the ground as two tentacles with sharpened bone tips grew out of his shoulder blades.
The lifeform formerly known as Theiran stood up, and let out an unsettling noise that was best described as a gurgling scream.
“Huh… That’s kinda weird,” Boxxy remarked casually.
“No, never mind. Just stand there and wait for further orders.”
The shapeshifter wasn’t quite sure how it understood that auditory mess, but it definitely did. It also had no idea whether the thing sounded like that because of Corrupting Influence or Demon King’s Favor. One scrambled its throat while the other reduced its mental capacity to that of a turnip with legs, so the culprit could have been either of those. Speaking of which, the mind-rending curse would have persisted through the transformation, something it hadn’t considered when trying out its new Ultimate.
Breaking in its new pawn would need to wait until later, however, as Boxxy had more important things to worry about at present. Much like Therian, it too was completely blind in this smog. Not even its MLG could pierce the veil of it. It had only been able to find the man because bits of its flesh had stuck to him after the dragon’s bizarre breath had separated the two. The abomination was able to remotely tap into them with Corporal Stability and had them form an organic high-pitched whistle that gave away the human’s position.
This had the unintentional side effect of further unnerving the confused man, but the majority of that was caused by the smoke. It clearly had some psychoactive effect on living beings, and it was powerful enough to bypass even Boxxy’s mental defenses. Unlike its enlightened counterpart, however, the monster didn’t have its capacity for hope and courage taken away because it had never truly experienced those things in the first place. It was like gouging out an already blind man’s eyes.
The other sensory illusions were still there, though. The taste, smell, sounds, and sensations brought on by the smoke were extremely inconvenient, to say the least. The shapeshifter had no idea where it was in relation to the others or the elder dragon. It did have time to think now that the damnable knight was under its control. It considered why the dragon would cover the battlefield in this weird smoke rather than obliterate everything within it. Their kind was known to occasionally have access to more than one of their so-called breath weapons, so it wasn’t like it was incapable of doing so.
As Boxxy pondered this and edged towards a conclusion, it found its thoughts drift toward a different topic. Namely, about how… easy it had been to bring down a double-Ranker. Boxxy had taken significant damage while dealing very little, and yet it still had more than half of its HP and nearly all of its MP. The fight hadn’t even been close. In retrospect, it could have ended things much quicker if it had simply been more reckless. Its ludicrous durability and powerful regenerative abilities would’ve been more than enough to let it beat that knight in an all-out damage race. Had it overestimated the man? Or was it simply underestimating its own power? A mixture of both, perhaps? And would all of its encounters be this one-sided? Not that Boxxy hated an easy win, but if it was able to thoroughly trounce a warrior of that caliber now, then wouldn’t its future challenges eventually amount to being nothing more than annoying chores?
Just as the shapeshifter was about to arrive at a thoroughly unpleasant conclusion, it made its entire body shake and quiver in an effort to forcibly derail its own thoughts. An old and simple trick, but it worked for the most part. It should’ve known better than to contemplate things in this mind-muddling smog, but it felt that was a natural reaction to being left alone with just its inner thoughts. It was truly a sinister substance, but a magical one nonetheless. Boxxy had already attempted to nullify it with the Disruptive Wave Skill, but it wasn’t powerful enough to do the job. The shapeshifter still knew the De-spell incantation thanks to its Wizard Job, but had some doubts whether that would do the trick. This was an elder dragon’s magic it was trying to disperse, so it assumed it needed to do something extraordinary to get out of it.
Boxxy was uncertain whether it was good enough, but the most it could think to do was to try chanting De-spell in the Divine language.
Which was precisely what it did, and this course of action did indeed prove to be sufficient. A wave of anti-magic in its most literal sense erupted from Boxxy. It eradicated both the magical smoke and the ambient mana within fifteen meters of it, replacing them with the unsettling aura of cursed land. The shapeshifter nevertheless felt oddly clear-headed as its overcharged Hylt Metabolism wound down for the first time in several days. It didn’t cease completely since the sun now shone upon the shapeshifter, but ‘sunlight’ and ‘magical air’ were two very distinct flavors. The former wasn’t quite as intoxicating as the latter, which was decidedly a good thing as it left Boxxy feeling eerily calm and collected as it turned to face its audience.
“Hrmm… A curious little box, aren’t you?” the elder dragon spoke in a low rumble. “I knew I had a good feeling about you.”
The massive lizard was currently lying on its belly with its wings draped around its body. Its head was held up high without it even attempting to crane its neck down towards the much smaller monster. Not even its eyes were aimed at Boxxy, as the dragon’s attention was directed to the lingering smog all around it. The shapeshifter allowed itself to glance around, and noticed that various projectiles and beams shot out from the smoke, a sign that its companions were likely fighting their own battles within. One might consider it a fool for daring to turn its attention away from the dragon’s imposing presence, but the shapeshifter had a pretty good idea about what the scaled catastrophe’s goal was.
“Enjoying the show?” it asked brazenly.
“Quite so,” the dragon rumbled. “It has been far too long since I’ve seen such an odd amalgamation of creatures.”
That more or less confirmed Boxxy’s suspicions. If the dragon’s aim had been to kill everyone, then it would have just obliterated them with its breath without even bothering to land. Elder dragons were ruthless like that. They were also quite ancient, much like their designation would suggest. Boxxy had already met and spoken with a plethora of millennia-old beings, even killed one or two of them. They were all wildly different in many aspects, of course, but the shapeshifter had noticed a common trend between all of them when it came to their goals and motivations.
Boxxy had deduced that, given enough time, every individual would eventually either achieve or abandon every goal, dream, objective, and aspiration they could ever think of. Without a clear purpose or objective to work towards, most sentient creatures would end up following one of two lifestyles. Some chose to lead idle, mostly meaningless existences punctuated with increasingly extreme attempts at entertaining themselves. That nosferatu bloodlord called Arisha was a prime example of this mentality. The second kind latched onto some endless task and preoccupied their time with that, not unlike the gods, the Overlords, or even that Sage of the Sands fellow.
The bored thrill-seekers seemed to be the most common outcome by far, and it would appear this elder dragon was one of them. This meant that a little bit of cheekiness and arrogance in Boxxy’s responses would probably go over better than outright submission. The ancient lizard had probably seen far too many people grovel and panic before it. Displaying such cliche behavior would probably result in it getting annoyed, and then squashing the annoyance without a second thought. That said, too much bravado would probably tick it off as well, so this situation called for a… measured amount of cockiness.
“So, uh,” Boxxy spoke up after a few minutes, “should I bother to introduce myself?”
“I must insist that you do, actually,” the dragon rumbled again. “Names are more than just labels, after all, and they will be important for what is to happen next.”
“In that case, I am Boxxy T. Morningwood,” the abomination introduced itself simply.
“Hazalag,” the dragon responded in kind.
“Terrified to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.”
Hazalag let out an extended snort at those thoroughly sarcastic words, though Boxxy wasn’t sure whether it was laughter or aggression.
“What happens next, then?” the shapeshifter continued. “Because if you’re not going to just kill me, then I’d rather we get it over with. I have people to murder and shinies to collect.”
It wasn’t until Boxxy said all that that the living disaster turned its overpowering gaze towards it. Every muscle fiber and nerve ending in the monster’s body tensed up at once. Its survival instinct was screaming at the back of its mind so loudly that it seemed ready to start a revolution and seize control of the body by force. The abomination would have definitely lost it if there was any actual malice in the dragon’s glare.
“A collector, are you?” Hazalag asked.
Thankfully, the nature of the attention seemed to be one of mild curiosity, though the shapeshifter dreaded to think what an elder dragon’s murderous intent would feel like.
“I am,” Boxxy confirmed. “I’m not going to show you my stuff though. You might take it.”
“Hrrrnn,” the dragon snorted again. “Spoken like a true collector. Though it is rather bold of you to assume I would want such trifling things.”
“Oh. Do dragons not hoard treasure?”
“Mhrrr… We all do at one point, but as we grow older, we begin to yearn for more elusive, more fleeting collectibles.”
Hazalag moved his terrifying gaze back towards the smoke.
“Despair,” he said grandly. “To see these insects driven to the point of madness by sorrow, fear, and grief; to watch their so-called morals and ideals crumble as the unfair harshness of reality collapses in on them; to etch into memory the moment they depart this world with nothing but pitiful resentment in their hearts - that is my treasure.”
Boxxy quickly amended its initial assessment of Hazalag. The dragon wasn’t just a bored entity in search of entertainment or an ancient being that had undertaken an incompletable task to fill their time with. He was somehow both. The shapeshifter had no idea how to handle this situation, as it hadn’t encountered such a thing before. At the same time, it could still relate to Hazalag’s goal. It could be said that Boxxy itself also had an immaterial collection of its own - that of tastes and flavors. The shapeshifter was always eager to sample new foods even if it knew very few of them could match up to things like dragon gravy, dryad nectar, or Snack.
It seemed as if Hazalag was the same way, and was seeking variety rather than quality or quantity. Otherwise all the elder dragon had to do to witness his precious moments of despair was simply show up in front of people. Boxxy wasn’t certain what led Hazalag to this place, but it felt fairly confident that he expected to encounter some fresh experiences. Seeing as the abomination would prefer to be on the living calamity’s good side rather than on his bad side, it seemed obvious what its next course of action was.
“So, if I show you some new ‘flavors’ of despair, will you consider not wiping me out of existence?” the shapeshifter offered.
Of course, there was always the chance that Boxxy was wrongly assuming too many things, but if there was anything it learned from Bob, it was that chances existed to be challenged.
“Hrrrnn,” Hazalag let out another ambiguous snort. “You catch on quick for a lump of flesh with teeth.”
Then, for the first time since the conversation started, the elder dragon’s body moved as he raised his front foreleg and shifted it towards the shapeshifter. It was by no means a quick or sudden motion, yet it still caught Boxxy by surprise. Aside from his head and neck, the dragon had been standing so completely still that the abomination had subconsciously treated the rest of him as a small mountain. This went further than just an uncanny likeness, but Boxxy didn’t get the chance to analyze it further. Hazalag’s tower-sized claw descended on the monster and squished it against the ground hard enough to bury it halfway in the rocky soil while crushing the life out of it.
Thankfully, the bodily harm was only a side-effect of what the dragon was trying to do.
Boxxy T. Morningwood has undertaken a Quest: Harvest Despair for Hazalag.
Something strangely nostalgic yet completely unexpected flowed into Boxxy’s consciousness. This warranted so many questions that it would take a while to even list them all, but in a moment of clarity the shapeshifter remembered what Hazalag said about names. A Quest was, in essence, a magical contract between two parties, and one’s true name was a necessity for those whenever Essence Concealment wasn’t a factor.
Once the dragon’s crushing talon was lifted from Boxxy, the shapeshifter crawled out of its hole while still contemplating the implications. When it looked towards Hazalag, both with its eyes and MLG, it was no longer able to see anything that could be identified as a dragon, elder or otherwise. What it witnessed instead was a nondescript lump of nothing. It wasn’t invisible, it wasn’t a shadow, and it wasn’t an illusion. The phenomenon was something so completely outside of its multifaceted perception that the shapeshifter’s mind could only process it as ‘nothing.’
As unsettling as it was, it seemed logical that this was caused by one of Hazalag’s unfair abilities. It was the only explanation for how something could completely and utterly obfuscate the presence of a goddamned elder dragon. It would also account for how the terrifying lizard got the drop on a dozen high-Level combatants so easily. That said, the ‘nothingness’ seemed unable to mask its owner’s passage.
Some rather torrential winds began to kick up in the next few seconds, presumably from Hazalag taking off. The air current was so strong it threatened to blow Boxxy away if not for the abomination having access to a convenient abomination-sized hole. As it crawled back into it, it spotted its newest meat puppet off to the side, tumbling head over heels. It seemed the creature formerly known as Therian was incapable of securing its footing. The oppressive black smoke that the dragon had unleashed earlier was also being dispersed, albeit slowly. The stuff seemed surprisingly stubborn for a bunch of magical vapors, but it seemed obvious the cloud would lift soon. Boxxy decided to double check exactly what it had gotten itself into while it had the chance.
Harvest Despair for Hazalag
Cause pain, inflict suffering, administer sorrow, diminish hope, and crush dreams.
Perform poorly, and you shall be eradicated.
Perform adequately, and you shall be released.
Perform splendidly, and you shall be rewarded.
Well, it was about as ambiguous and unclear as Boxxy had expected. All things considered, it seemed to be about as fair a deal as it could have gotten. There was even a progress tracker, which was going to be quite handy. The shapeshifter would have liked to know exactly how Hazalag quantified something like ‘despair,’ but having a clear goal was nice nonetheless. The counter was even going up slightly, presumably because its familiars were still fighting the other adventurers.
That simply would not do, however. Gaining a few ten thousandths of its goal at a time was for chumps. With the pressure of imminent destruction should it fail and a possible reward from an elder dragon should it excel, Boxxy felt doubly motivated to absolutely devastate the Rankers in cruel and torturous ways. The shapeshifter had plenty of juicy ideas for how to absolutely ruin someone psychologically, though its next move was a no-brainer. Sure, some might call it a tired trope, but Boxxy liked to think of it as a new spin and old classic.
When the draconic smog lifted several seconds later, the surviving adventurers found no sign of the elder dragon. Its absence alone brought them some measure of hope that they might yet survive this day. They then noticed their loyal companion and brave leader, his flesh twisted, warped, and mutilated completely beyond recognition. Yet, the all-too-familiar armor it wore left no doubt in their minds as to its identity.
The shell of a man let out a disturbing shriek-gurgle as it charged at them in a mindless frenzy, its chest strapped with enough magical explosives to level a city block.