Argos could do little else but sob and plead as the six-armed demon dragged his mangled body across the ground. With his arms ripped off and his spine tied up in an almost-literal knot, some might call it a miracle that he was still alive. However, the adventurer knew for a fact that it wasn’t some incredible stroke of luck or divine intervention that kept him alive. It was the whim of a truly twisted and sadistic mind. What his captor had in store for him, Argos did not know. But if Therian’s horrifying fate was any indication, then oblivion would likely be a preferable alternative.
“Here he is, boss. The last one,” the demon declared as she tossed the crippled Rogue at the monster’s feet.
“Excellent,” the abomination replied, its voice burrowing into Argos’ brain. “Put him down over there, I’ll return to him shortly.”
With a painful kick, the demon hurled the Rogue several meters to the side. He skidded to a halt on some disturbingly wet dirt. He knew in his heart of hearts where this moisture came from, and though he really didn’t want to see it, he couldn’t help himself. He opened his eyes and found himself staring straight at Emilia’s head. Or, to be more precise, what was left of it. Something had gnawed out the right side of her skull and face, leaving the rest of her locked in a half-expression of pain and terror. She was somehow still alive, but the way her remaining facial muscles twitched and spasmed did little to comfort Argos. He shut his eyes once more, but his finely-tuned senses betrayed him as he could hear the pathetic gurgles the woman was making every time she took an erratic breath.
As for Boxxy, it was busy inspecting its latest ‘recruit.’ That mutated human had somehow survived the suicidal charge it had been set upon. In retrospect, all of those explosives were strapped to the outside of his armor, so he would have avoided the worst of their effects. To their credit, his former teammates did not hesitate to hit Not-Therian with everything they had, yet the thing still clung to life. Boxxy had definitely underestimated the super-elite vanguard’s toughness, even if his mind had been shredded to bits.
Speaking of which, the shapeshifter managed to figure out how communication was possible. Though incapable of understanding language, the mutated adventurer had some kind of psychic link to his new master. Words had no effect, but simple thoughts and concepts could be understood on some basic, instinctual level. Boxxy mused this was how its own thoughts must have ‘sounded’ to Snack and Carl back when it was still a barely sentient lesser mimic.
However, though it certainly helped corrupt the man’s flesh and mind, the curse inflicted upon the adventurer by Boxxy’s Warlock Ultimate was now a detriment. That was why it had Fizzy attempting to use her Paladin magic to remove it, ‘attempting’ being the operative word. Apparently, the affliction was so powerful that a simple cast of Cleanse had no chance of dispelling it. The radiant construct was going to attempt an advanced holy purification ritual, hence why she was currently scattering diamond dust along the ground, around the thing that was once a man.
The creature in question just stood there, gurgling quietly with each breath. Though its armor was still damaged, its wounds and severed limbs had been completely restored by a Rejuvenation Potion. Boxxy could have just had Fizzy heal it up, but the shapeshifter had been curious whether the powerful elixir might undo the Corrupting Influence. It hadn’t. As best as Boxxy could tell, the freakish growths, tumors, and limbs on the man’s body were now just as much a part of him as his arms or legs. The shapeshifter was eager to learn more about its new toy, but unfortunately its pet Scribe was a little bit indisposed at the moment.
When Hazalag covered the area in that obfuscating smog, Jen had ended up squaring off against the Rogue. It wasn’t clear exactly what had happened in there, but the duel had somehow ended in a double knockout. Considering the sorry state of the man that Arms found him in and the harpy’s wound-riddled body, Boxxy could more or less piece together what had happened.
Jen had succeeded in pummeling the Rogue into submission, crippling him to the point where he could neither fight nor run. She then passed out because of the rather extreme amount of blood flowing from the various cuts and gashes her opponent had inflicted on her. He had most likely used weapons and Skills that maximized the amount of bleeding in an effort to drain the harpy dry. His plan had worked, though he’d been just a little bit too late.
As for the monstrous Monk, she was currently passed out with a content smile on her face. It was obvious she had thoroughly enjoyed the duel. Fizzy had tended to her wounds, of course, but healing magic couldn’t restore lost blood on that big a scale. A Rejuvenation Potion could, but Boxxy had a limited number of those and her condition wasn’t extreme enough to warrant one. It had instead force-fed the harpy a few Bloodspawn Pills, but it would take a while for her body to metabolize those. The abomination was thus unable to take a peek at the Status of its new flesh-pawn.
“What about… Lenny?”
So, it decided to pass the time by trying to guess the former man’s name, if nothing else.
“I don’t know, Lenny seems too pedestrian,” Fizzy absentmindedly replied. “It’s probably one of those posh, snobbish names. Like Sebastian, or Maximillian.”
“Hey, you never know. I mean, look at Arms,” it gestured at Kora with a spare tentacle. “You’d never think a simpleton like that has such a uselessly long-winded name.”
The demoness was too busy stripping the dead or dying adventurers of their equipment to notice the casual insult. She had been stuck fighting Frealla during the blackout, and was feeling rather disappointed as a result. The fight had been fun in and of itself, but demons left nothing of themselves behind when they died. There was no loot or trophy to claim afterwards, which made the victory feel strangely hollow to Kora.
“I think it’s Therian,” Drea telepathically informed Boxxy. “That’s who the archer woman was calling for earlier.”
The tundra webstalker hadn’t had a lot of difficulty in her own matchup. In those circumstances, the long-ranged sharpshooter stood no chance against an assassin specialized in close-quarters combat. The difficult part had been to take down the archer without killing her. Boxxy had telepathically informed its familiars it wished to take the adventurers alive, and Drea had tried her best to fulfil those wishes. She thought she had gone a bit overboard when she chomped off part of the archer’s head. The stalker had overestimated the solidity of her opponent’s skull. Still, she was technically alive, though losing a part of her brain had left her a drooling vegetable.
“Therian, huh?” the shapeshifter mused. “That sounds familiar, somehow.”
“I believe you are thinking of the lord-mayor of Moorlane, Master,” Xera chimed in. “Therian Blutwert?”
The djinn was floating around idly, bored out of her skull. She hadn’t had the ‘fortune’ of having a one-on-one battle in the smog, and all of her efforts to incinerate the adventurers prior to that had been shut down by that giantess’s light and ice magic. Xera wanted to personally demolish that Lightbinder, but she had already been killed by Fizzy when the smog lifted.
“Oh, right, that guy. Had no idea he was a double-Ranker.”
“You’re sure it’s the same meatbag?” Fizzy asked casually.
“Probably,” Boxxy replied. “Wouldn’t be much of a coincidence otherwise.”
“That’s a fair point.”
Though the shapeshifter no longer had the title, Fizzy still considered it to be the true Hero of Chaos. So did Murglegurk, in all likelihood. Both the golem and the abomination were certain the Goddess of Gambling had made Keira her official representative because of one scheme or another. It was a business decision, not a personal one, so Boxxy, Fizzy, and, to a lesser extent, Jen had silently agreed to let it be.
“So, what are you going to call that thing?” the Paladin shifted the subject. “Knowing you, there’s no way you’d use its actual name.”
“Meatball,” Boxxy decided on the spot. “Yeah, Meatball seems tasty enough.”
“Oh, okay,” Fizzy raised a mechanical eyebrow. “That’s… slightly better than what I expected.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, your naming sense is still pretty childish and immature.”
“Says the inventor of the DILDO.”
“It was one time!” she protested.
“And I’ll never let you live it down,” Boxxy stated matter-of-factly. “By the way, are you done setting up for that purification ritual?”
Fizzy paused for a bit before deciding to just drop the topic.
“Yeah, sure. Just need to do the ceremony.”
“How long will that take?”
“About an hour.”
“Good. I’ll finish cleaning up in the meantime.”
The abomination turned its attention back to its spoils. The scout and the archer had been successfully captured intact and whatever loot they had on them had been stripped away. Well, except for the girl’s bow and the guy’s boots. Those were Phantasmal items which were impossible to take even though they were within the region they originated from. The other equipment they had on them was good stuff though, perfect additions to Boxxy’s collection. Some of the stuff was potentially useful, but there was no way of knowing for sure until Jen woke up and appraised them.
As for the giantess spellcaster, her electrified corpse still had a few goodies. Unfortunately, it seemed like Fizzy had destroyed a few magic items during the battle, but there were still goodies to add to the hoard. What was left of the buried druid had already been claimed by the land-shark dragonoids, unfortunately, though he didn’t seem to have anything particularly shiny on him so Boxxy didn’t care. The knight that was now Meatball had fused with his equipment during the corruption process. The gear was salvageable, but it seemed like there was a good chance ripping the armor out of it would kill it. Boxxy deemed that Meatball was more useful in its current state, so it didn’t want to take that chance. Besides, it would rip that armor off of it eventually.
After taking its time cataloguing all of its newly acquired weapons, armor, jewelry, potions, and other miscellaneous bits, Boxxy got busy dealing with the bodies. The giantess was eaten slowly and loudly. Her meat was surprisingly tough as far as enlightened went, but nothing a thorough tenderizing didn’t solve. The flavor was nothing exceptional, but it was also seasoned with the sweet taste of victory. The shapeshifter had forgotten how fulfilling a hard-won meal was, as it had been some time since it had struggled so much. The monster therefore made sure to carefully savor every bone, muscle, and internal organ.
Once Boxxy was done gorging itself on the giantess, it finally got around to dealing with the survivors. The two captives were, of course, forced to watch all of that happen. Even jaded as they were, seeing their ancient comrade mutilated in such a careless and violent way still added onto the mental anguish of their defeat. The shapeshifter then proceeded to cripple the two humans. It severed all of their arms and legs, broke their spines, and punctured their throats, though it was careful to not accidentally kill them. It wasn’t doing all that just to be cruel. Though torture was certainly part of it, these ‘procedures’ were made in preparation for what followed next.
As part of its preparations for the Dragon Festival, Boxxy had developed and built a set of devices it had dubbed ‘people hangers.’ In essence, each apparatus was a metal frame that intended to have a limbless human-sized torso bolted onto it. Mana-draining restraints would ensure no magical fuckery allowed the captive to escape. Tubes connected to the throat would connect the lungs and stomach to an automated clockwork-driven and magic-item-fueled air-and-nutrient delivery system. The intent was to keep the subject completely immobilized yet alive while Boxxy carried it around in its Storage. That way the shapeshifter could capture and contain any delicious humans it ran into so they could be brought home as souvenirs, of sorts. The captured enlightened would then be imprisoned within its lair and repeatedly used as ingredients in Ambrosia’s delicious dishes.
That had been the original idea and theory, but in practice the people hangers failed to keep test subjects alive for more than a few days. Something about the extreme duress that the apparatus put the subject under took its toll on them and they expired anyway. The monster wasn’t a skilled enough Artificer to figure out the problem in the short amount of time it had, especially with all the stressful things that happened just before the Festival. However, Boxxy had only gotten the chance to experiment on basic enlightened. Ranker adventurers were significantly more resilient than the lowly street rats that the shapeshifter relied on for test subjects, so it was feasible that they would endure longer. Not to mention the people hangers didn’t take up too much Storage space, so Boxxy saw no harm in bringing a few into the Shattered Isles, just in case.
Of course, the odds of those two captives surviving for nearly a month were effectively nil, but that wasn’t too bad. Even if Boxxy couldn’t keep them for long, it could at the very least savor their remains. The limbs it had hacked off were absolutely delicious - the highest quality human meat attainable. Imagining what the Rankers’ hearts would taste like after being dipped in that dragon-bone gravy made it salivate uncontrollably. Nevertheless, while new taste sensations were certainly motivating, they were not the creature’s end goal. Boxxy was attempting to maximize the physical and mental torture it could inflict on these once-mighty individuals. It wanted to bring them down low to depths of despair that no other person would last long enough to reach. It had gotten a Quest from an elder dragon, and it had every reason to do everything in its power to fulfil its obligation.
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.
Progress: 15.34 / 100
Judging by the results of its first ‘harvest,’ it had its work cut out for it. It had gotten less than a sixth of its goal for all of that? Was it that the methods it chose were deemed too dull and cliche for Hazalag? Perhaps the centuries-old adventurers were far more mentally resilient than they seemed on the surface? Or maybe Boxxy had indeed gathered quite the treasure trove of tragedy already, but the elder dragon’s quota was just too significant in terms of quantity?
This would simply not do. Sure, it was a good start, but Boxxy, ever the overachiever, was aiming for that big reward. It guessed that meant going over the maximum by a significant margin, which would require an obscene number of victims and only three weeks to find them all. Sure, there were bound to be a plethora of other adventuring groups within the Shattered Isles, but randomly stumbling onto them would take time.
“Excuse me, Master?”
Boxxy was inwardly contemplating its strategy when the most succulent of its servants approached it.
“What is it, Snack?” it asked curtly.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your devious scheming, but I wanted to ask if you could spare the time to,” Xera paused and shuddered enticingly with delight, “ravage me.”
The shapeshifter took a moment to consider the request. It had already finished ‘cleaning up’ after the adventurers and still had about half an hour before Fizzy finished her ceremony. Jen had woken up a short while beforehand and was still getting her strength back. Claws and Arms were securing the perimeter and warding off any dragonoids that showed up. So, all things considered, Boxxy could indeed spare the time to ‘motivate’ the djinn.
It was just about to agree to that proposal when it had an epiphany.
“No,” it said bluntly.
Xera was clearly taken aback by this refusal. She hadn’t just randomly presented herself. She had chosen the most opportune moment to do so, when she expected her master to be idle while it waited on things outside of its control. Sure, it was scheming, but she knew full well that Boxxy could brutally dominate her without even thinking about the act itself. The cold and dispassionate way it usually violated Xera made her feel like a toy, only adding to her perverse enjoyment.
And yet, even though the moment was just right, she had been given firm ‘no.’
“… Why not?” she asked, confused.
“You bore me,” Boxxy stated plainly. “And I’m busy.”
“Shut it,” it abruptly cut her off. “You will not bother me or anyone else with your perversions for the duration of the Festival. You are forbidden from even fantasizing about them. You are allowed to speak only when spoken to, or only to report enemy sightings and magical anomalies.”
The shapeshifter then shuffled its chesty mass towards Jen, leaving Xera in a state of absolute shock. This had been the first time her advanced had been denied so completely. The worst part was that her master said all that plainly and calmly without a single hint of anger or frustration. This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, it was just how things would be from now on. For Xera, who had practically become addicted to Boxxy’s ‘attention,’ this was soul-crushing. Not in the fun way, either. In that moment, she felt as if her entire reason for existence had disappeared.
Boxxy monitored the Progress tracker for Hazalag’s Quest while Snack was having her quiet breakdown. That whole interaction had been little more than an experiment to verify whether the turmoil of a non-enlightened being would count towards the task’s completion. The result confirmed this was indeed the case, as Snack’s emotional despair had pushed the Quest about three points closer to completing. The shapeshifter would later ‘console’ the sex-obsessed demon, of course. It wouldn’t do if she was too pent-up to perform her duties adequately. Admittedly there was also a chance that alleviating the distress could reduce the completion rate, but that was in and of itself something that would be good to know going forward. Worst case scenario, Boxxy would be right back to where it was a few minutes ago.
More importantly, this experiment showed that the shapeshifter had more options than it had initially assumed. If a demon’s despair fueled Hazalag’s hunger for horror, then so would a monster’s. This wasn’t to say Boxxy would start torturing its followers and minions. Though that was certainly an option, undermining their loyalty seemed like a bad idea. Not to mention that the shapeshifter couldn’t imagine a world in which it would willfully harm Fizzy, the most radiant and irreplaceable of its shinies. A far better way to supplement its despair quota was to go after the dragons themselves. The uniqueness of it would have value, as Boxxy guessed that Hazalag hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to taste the despair of his own kind.
Or had he? Were dragons as territorial as other monsters? It seemed logical, but Boxxy hadn’t really considered it before. There was also a chance the elder dragon might interpret its efforts as an insult, and that was not a good thing. Thankfully the shapeshifter had at its disposal the veteran of several Dragon Festivals within its own Storage. Not the two organ-bags it just stuffed in there, but the thing it had paid a small fortune to obtain.
After checking on Jen and informing her that her Scribe abilities would be necessary very soon, Boxxy took out a certain sentient sword.
“Oh! Good day, sir,” Virgil said politely. “It seems as though I have gotten some new roommates. They are quite rude, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“What do you mean?” Boxxy asked curiously.
“Well, they refuse to say hello, and one of them appears to be vomiting out of her nose. Quite unsanitary.”
“Ah… Looks like I need to tweak the people hangers a bit…” the shapeshifter mumbled. “Anyway, none of that is a problem, is it?”
“Their company is unpleasant, but nothing I can’t ignore, sir.”
“Good. Now, I have several questions for you.”
“Of course, sir,” the sword replied happily. “With what may I assist you today?”
“You’ve been used to slay a few dragons, yes?”
“More than a few, sir. Four younglings and two adults, to be precise.”
“Right. Do you know if dragons suffer from a lot of territorial disputes and infighting, like, say, orcs or kobolds?”
“I’m not quite sure, sir,” Virgil immediately responded. “To my knowledge, a brood will compete among themselves, but will work together to repel invaders.”
“Hmm. What about different broods? Different subspecies of dragons?”
The sword went silent for several seconds, the eye in its hilt fluttering around as it sifted through the memories imprinted onto it.
“I’m afraid I do not know, sir.”
“I saw a ruby and sapphire dragon clash once,” Jen chimed in from the side.
“And you didn’t mention this before?” it reflexively snapped back at her.
“You never asked,” the harpy calmly pointed out.
“Right,” it conceded the point. “Tell me more about it.”
The monstrous Monk detailed the encounter in question. It had happened during the previous Festival, which she had attended as part of a Gilded Hand expedition. The two adult dragons in question had clashed at the border region and, according to her testimony, were going at each other with murderous intent. Jen’s team hadn’t stuck around to witness the outcome, though. At the time neither she nor her colleagues had yet to Rank Up, so they opted to retreat while they could. Apparently, they judged they’d all be wiped out by the winner of the clash even if the dragon was heavily wounded.
In summary, if Boxxy was to undertake the extremely dangerous task of messing with dragons, it would need to aim for those who clearly had no affiliation with Hazalag. Ideally the shapeshifter would target those his ‘employer’ would consider especially bothersome. Going by the relationship between the magical elements, if the elder onyx dragon was aligned with shadow, then the diamond dragons affiliated with light would be his natural opposite. Boxxy’s crew were well equipped to handle illusions, too, so that seemed like a good place to start.
“I am confused,” Jen stated plainly.
“About what?” the shapeshifter inquired.
Boxxy knew from personal experience that its initial plans usually had gaping holes in them that the creature failed to consider. That was why it had spent the last few minutes voicing its thoughts process. Jen had a lot of life experience and a different point of view from the abomination, so she was a prime candidate to provide feedback and criticism.
“Why are we going after dragons now?”
It wasn’t as though the harpy was opposed to the idea of dragon-slaying. In fact, it made her blood boil with excitement. However, that went against the goals and objectives that Boxxy had outlined prior to starting this expedition.
“Weren’t we going to avoid them and focus on ambushing other Festival attendees?” she clarified.
“Oh, right, I haven’t told you yet,” Boxxy realized. “You remember the elder dragon that interrupted our battle?”
Jen, surprisingly, had very few questions about that. They were all alive and there was no dragon body, so she assumed it had just left on a whim. It was the most logical conclusion.
“Well, his name is Hazalag, and he gave me a Quest.”
The harpy stared stone-faced at the shapeshifter.
“Oh! Congratulations, sir!”
The moment of awkward silence was cut through by Virgil’s chipper tone.
“Wait, what?” Boxxy responded dumbly. “Congratulations for what?”
“Why, on obtaining a sponsor, of course!”
“Yes,” it replied, curtly and unhelpfully.
“What do you mean by that?”
“If what you say is true, then you have managed to acquire yourself a sponsor for the Dragon Festival.”
“… So, elder dragons sponsor Festival attendees?”
“By… Giving them Quests?” Boxxy asked for confirmation.
“And this happens regularly?”
“Of course, sir. How else do you think Phantasmal items are obtained?”
The way Virgil said that as if it was common knowledge made Boxxy feel like it was being made a fool of, and it didn’t like that.
“Why didn’t you say any of this earlier?!” it roared furiously at the sentient object.
“Well, sir, you never asked,” it responded with a chuckle.
The sword had a valid point.
It also had another, much sharper point, which was repeatedly slammed against Meatball’s nigh-indestructible armor in a fit of annoyed rage.