After smacking Virgil around a bit to vent its frustration, Boxxy began to understand the true nature of the Dragon Festival. As the name itself suggested, the event was indeed a carnival of sorts. If one ignored the extreme lethality of the whole affair, there were sights to see, excitement to be had, and prizes to be won. All of this seemed to be to the adventurers benefit and at the expense of the various native draconic broods. Yet despite having more than enough power to put a stop to this, the elder dragons did no such thing. In fact, Hazalag seemed to almost encourage the wholesale slaughter of his lesser kin.
Though this seemed illogical and cruel from an enlightened standpoint, Boxxy’s monstrous nature began to grasp the benefits. Unlike the civilized people of Terrania, monsters thrived on conflict, strife, and violence. The weak were culled, the strong prospered, and thus the monstrous races continued to advance and progress in their own brutal, corpse-laden way. Dragons were no different in this regard, if all the infighting between them was any indication. The issue with that sort of competition was that it would stagnate very quickly. Therefore, having hordes of adventurers to focus on instead would ensure that the dragons learned to adapt. After all, the enlightened races’ creative spark allowed them to come up with inventive means of dishing out death and destruction that were beyond the means of more… feral minds.
Then there was the matter of elder dragons. Being already at the pinnacle of all living things, the only real threat to them was other elders and maybe a few ambitious adult dragons. Therefore, Hazalag and his peers treated the Dragon Festival purely as a means of acquiring more of whatever thing or concept they had decided to hoard. They might have even been the ones to orchestrate the whole affair. If creatures that ridiculously powerful got together as a group, then it was feasible they had the power to make the Shattered Isles flicker in and out of existence.
Or at least that was how Boxxy imagined things. It knew full well it was likely missing something from the bigger picture, but these were the conclusions and theories it could piece together. A lot of it was pure speculation based on the shapeshifter’s gut instinct, and it knew full well how dangerous it was to cling to those assumptions. After all, a dragon’s mind seemed to be as alien to Boxxy as the abomination’s thoughts were strange and bizarre from the perspective of regular people.
Ultimately though, none of these mental gymnastics helped the creature further its goals. Knowing the why, when, and how of things was preferable to being clueless, but information was hardly the reason Boxxy had come to the Shattered Isles. It was a curious creature, yes, but it knew better than to try and unravel one of Terrania’s most ancient and inexplicable mysteries. The only reason it entertained those thoughts in the first place was because it had some time to chew on things, both figuratively and literally.
Snack needed to be consoled and motivated after being used as the test subject for Boxxy’s trial and error experiment if she was to remain focused for the rest of the Festival. The abomination simply didn’t have anything better to mull over while it was railing the ex-succubus in every orifice imaginable. It had to be careful so as to not completely kill the demon, as the Beyond was still as unreachable as it was when it first arrived on these lands. Once Snack was maximally satisfied, Boxxy left her to wallow in a small pond of bodily fluids while it checked on Fizzy.
“So, how’s Meatball?” it asked expectantly.
“Uh… I’m not sure,” the golem tapped her metallic chin. “The ceremony went off without a hitch, but nothing’s changed.”
The mangled, mutilated, and mutated form of Therian let off a strange gurgling noise as per usual. From Fizzy’s perspective, it seemed as though it still had the intelligence of an unpainted lead doorknob. That wasn’t how Boxxy understood it, though.
“He says he’s feeling much better,” the shapeshifter declared.
“Wait, you understand that?” the golem cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, let me guess, more psychic bullshit, yeah?”
“I guess,” Boxxy shrugged as much as a heaping mass of teeth, eyes, and tentacles could shrug. “I understand actual words this time. Before it was just vague concepts and intent.”
“Right. Well, the rest of us don’t speak ‘freaky meatbag’ so I hope you don’t have any plans that involve anything more complex than throwing this sack of shit at the enemy.”
“Grrhrhrhrhrh!” Meatbag grumbled.
Boxxy then suddenly lashed out, grabbing the mini-abomination with a tentacle and slamming it hard enough into the ground to leave a Meatbag-shaped imprint in it.
“No, none of that,” Boxxy scolded it sternly. “Fizzy is an irreplaceable treasure, and you will treat her with the respect and care that station deserves.”
The golem smirked cockily at being referred to in such a manner while Meatball let out a string of affirmative gurgles.
“Good,” the abomination relented. “Now, since your brain isn’t quite as shattered as it was half an hour ago, why don’t you tell me all about what you hoped to accomplish here.”
Digging through Therian’s memories, Meatball revealed that the team of double-rankers had been searching for a legendary city called Avalon. Allegedly it was an enlightened stronghold unlike any other, built by immortal and unfathomably powerful beings that predated the Gods themselves. It was supposedly hidden away somewhere at the heart of the Shattered Isles, promising great power, knowledge, and blah blah blah, yaddah yaddah yaddah.
Boxxy had heard such tales dozens of times before. These legends always turned out to be either immensely disappointing and greatly exaggerated, or outright fabrications that did little but lure gullible morons into traps and ambushes. The shapeshifter knew this for a fact, as it had chased all of those stories down to their sources, and had been burned each time. Sure, it had secured several valuable relics here and there, but those had never been worth it. This Avalon business promised to be no different. Even if an entire team of double-rankers thought there was enough evidence to warrant an exploratory expedition into the Shattered Isles, Boxxy had had enough of chasing after maybes and what-ifs.
It instead opted to focus on Hazalag’s request. It was a tangible, clearly defined goal that was most assuredly within reach. Even now the adventurers it had crippled, mutilated, broken, and then taken captive within its Storage were steadily generating despair that furthered the dragon’s Quest. It had already fulfilled about a fifth of its quota, though Boxxy’s goal was to exceed this number by a significant margin. The creature doubted it could achieve this solely by relying on adventurers, and had concluded that the only way to achieve that within the time limit of the Dragon Festival seemed to be to take drastic action.
“Hence why our new objective is to find and humiliate an adult diamond dragon,” the abomination concluded its explanation.
“Uuugh,” Fizzy let out a grinding groan. “I would say I’m surprised, but I had a feeling it would come to this.”
Granted, she imagined Boxxy would have changed its mind about going after dragons because it had stumbled onto a treasure hoard that was too shiny for it to pass up, but this was close enough.
“Point me at my target, and I shall crush their scales and bones to dust.”
Jen, for her part, seemed to find the prospect of going against a fully-grown dragon was far more exciting than stamping out mooks and fodder.
“Fuck yeah! Dibs on the skull! And horns! And fangs! And claws!”
Kora was equally hyped up, as she only thought of expanding her trophy collection.
Xera, on the other hand, was currently too blitzed out of her mind to respond in any coherent matter, though she would have most likely agreed with whatever course of action her one true master had decided on.
“Y-yeah, uhm, th… tktktkt…”
Drea’s reaction was even less comprehensible, though it was plainly obvious she had reservations about the whole thing.
“What is it, Claws?” Boxxy turned to her. “You have an objection or something?”
“N-no! No such thing, tktktkt, Master,” she hurriedly chittered. “I was just wondering, how would we even find one of those?”
Given her supernatural senses and naturally superior speed and supernatural perception, it seemed natural that Boxxy would use her to try and locate its quarry. She didn’t like the idea of that. Partly because it would interfere with her hobby of stalking Boxxy, but mostly because she didn’t want to be the first one to encounter one of those walking calamities. It seemed like an excellent way to get killed, and thereby miss out on the rest of the Dragon Festival.
“An excellent question, Claws!” Boxxy declared.
Though entirely selfish in nature, the inquiry was indeed valid. Diamond dragons could be found on the Isle of Light, but it wasn’t as if Boxxy could just search through every cave in the area, hoping to stumble onto a suitable candidate. Not to mention that finding said caves would be an ordeal in and of itself, as the illusory terrain made it extremely difficult to scan an area from afar. And even if that basic and crude method succeeded, confronting an adult dragon by brazenly strolling into its lair was ill advised, to say the least. Succeeding in the hunt would require a certain amount of finesse and investigation, which in turn meant it would take time.
“We start by making more Meatballs,” was Boxxy’s solution.
“Grrhlh?” Not-Therian gurgled.
“No, not like that,” Boxxy rolled its many eyes. “Actually, that might be worth trying, just to see what happens, but I meant just using my Corrupting Influence a whole bunch.”
Given the Skill’s once-a-day limit, that meant that Boxxy’s plan would take several days to even set in motion, let alone complete. Going ahead with this course of action meant that this was the only thing that Boxxy’s troupe would be doing for the rest of the Festival. The shapeshifter was going to forego all of the kills and loot it would have gotten from hunting adventurers, betting everything on the idea that Hazalag would absolutely love seeing the anguish and torment of his elementally opposed cousins.
Boxxy’s group began their search with a solid three-hour debate on what to actually call the endeavor, eventually settling on Operation Fire Cobra Claw. Once that crucial detail was nailed down, they set up camp on the edge of the Isle of Light and Boxxy began amassing a small squad of corrupted dragonoids. The Skill only succeeded about half the time on these creatures, but when it did, it produced a loyal pawn that readily shared whatever information it had. Through the dragonoids’ feral and bestial understanding of the world around them, the shapeshifter found a number of locations where these lesser creatures dared not tread. There the shapeshifter acquired tougher and more dangerous scaled beasts and repeated the process. It continued to steadily build its following while also moving up the local power structure and closer to its target.
In the process it began to glean some understanding into dragon society, if it could be called that. Each island was ruled over by a single brood made up of thousands of dragons. Each of these shared an innate blood-bond, a hereditary contract that had a number of effects. One of these was that those belonging to the same brood could easily find one another even over great distances. Another was that the younglings were compelled to obey the elders without question, no matter how suicidal the order. Boxxy found this particular trait quite interesting, and performed a few experiments to test whether it could be… exploited.
In regards to leadership and chain of command, the shapeshifter learned that at the head of a brood stood an elder dragon. That much was obvious, but it seems as though there was no room - both literally and figuratively - for two elders in a single brood. Should a second elder rise from the same brood, the two of them would inevitably fight for dominance and control of the brood, with the loser winding up either dead or expelled from the Isles. That somewhat explained the presence of elder dragons on Terrania, and why Hazalag seemed to have a dismissive attitude towards them.
The dragonoids that Boxxy was enslaving were at the very opposite end of the hierarchy, so the information gleaned from them was… sparse on details. These creatures were to full-bloodied dragons as farm animals were to humans. Their only purpose seemed to be to multiply so they could serve as food or companions to hatchlings, sometimes both. Hatchlings would then focus on feeding, fighting, and exploring, growing both physically and mentally until they matured into adults. Boxxy was left with the distinct impression that only a small fraction of them survived this stage due to exceedingly violent and violently excessive competition. The abomination imagined cannibalism was a common occurrence as well.
If they survived long enough and became adults, dragons would start settling down. They made lairs, sought mates, and engaged in the ridiculous amount of reproduction necessary to sustain their young’s mortality rate. Said young were then treated as disposable slaves, forced to gather food and treasure for the adults while also digging up and maintaining their lairs. This information was most welcome, as Boxxy hadn’t considered the fact that an adult might have an entire spawn of juveniles at its beck and call. This meant that challenging one within its lair was completely out of the question, even more so than before. Therefore, the mega-mimic’s best bet of taking one of these flying lizards down at all - let alone in the very specific way that it had in mind - was to ambush it mid-flight.
This presented its own set of challenges, chief among them being the matter of how one would surprise a dragon hundreds of meters up in the air. There was no cover to hide behind, and diamond dragons were innately suffused with light magic, so illusions just didn’t work on them. On top of all that, their horns doubled as Mana Locator Glands that covered their blind spots. It would be incredibly difficult to sneak up on one in its sleep, let alone while it was flying around while fully alert.
Of course, Boxxy had always been a resourceful creature. On top of that, it had surrounded itself with most capable allies indeed. It drew upon Fizzy’s mechanical expertise, Snack’s understanding of magical theory, and Jen’s copious experience with aerial combat to formulate its attack plan. Arms, Claws, and Meatball weren’t all that useful in the scheming department, but they still did their part by keeping the local wildlife in check. It was quite the significant contribution, actually. A subspecies of quadruped dragonoids with sparkling white scales and two-to-three heads seemed drawn to Boxxy’s base of operations, requiring significant effort to maintain a perimeter. The reason for all this attention was the same as it had been when the group first passed over this island - they stood out like a sore thumb amidst the vomit-inducing background of shifting colors and patterns.
The upside was that there was a steady supply of candidates for Boxxy to turn into loyal servants. After the first week, the shapeshifter had acquired four corrupted dragonoids, which it immediately sent out to scout and explore the island. Though robbed of their simple minds and their bodies horribly mutilated, they still maintained their blood-bond with the rest of their brood. This led to them being perceived as allies, allowing them safe and easy passage through most of the Isle of Light. More importantly, they could also sense where to find the sort of prideful and powerful adult dragon that Boxxy needed to break.
Incidentally, the despair factories in the shapeshifter’s Storage had dried up by that point. The captured adventurers had completely snapped under the mental and physical strain, rendering them comatose and unresponsive. Boxxy had harvested a good deal of despair from them thus far, but it seemed as though this was all it would get from them. Their usefulness dried up, it ended their lives and absorbed their corpses, earning itself some Levels and a few hundred points of Agility. This was done almost as an afterthought, as Boxxy’s scheme had made significant progress by then.
The shapeshifter’s spies, for lack of a better word, had located a prime candidate for Operation Fire Cobra Claw. The dragon in question was a female that bore the name Azzyth, and she seemed to be searching for a new mate at the time. This involved copious amounts of flying, which provided ample opportunity for Boxxy’s aerial ambush. Her lair - a dome-shaped hole carved out of a glimmering mountain - was relatively sparsely populated, offering a few interesting opportunities for sabotage. She even had a sizeable hoard of gemstones and nuggets of precious metals, which the shapeshifter was itching to claim after it was done with her. Having decided on its mark, Boxxy ordered its corrupted dragonoid minions to spy on her constantly in an effort to determine her habits and preferred flight paths while it finished preparing for the actual confrontation. This took a while, as it seemed adult dragons spent nearly twice as much time sleeping as they did awake.
All things said and done, it wasn’t until day 24 of the 32-day Dragon Festival that Boxxy finally put its plan into action. On the fateful day, Azzyth rose from her twenty-hour-long power-nap and emerged from her lair. As an adult, she towered over her young, though was still nowhere near the gargantuan size of Hazalag. She seemed to be just a fraction of his length, width, and height, which still put her at an intimidating fifteen meters tall and about eighty meters long. Her scales were a brilliant white that shimmered and sparkled at even the slightest hint of light, befitting her heritage as a light-attuned diamond dragon. She had numerous short, straight, and pointed horns jutting outward from the top, sides, and back of her skull. They framed her long and conical muzzle with a halo of spikes, a far cry from Hazalag’s quartet of bony spires.
The dragon took an agonizingly slow deep breath, filling her lungs with so much air that her torso seemed to almost double in volume. She then let loose a shrill, high-pitched roar that sliced across the glamoured terrain around her. Though not as bone-rattling as one might expect, the shrill cry was so loud that echoes of it could be heard across the island even without the aid of enhanced auditory senses. After several minutes passed, Azzyth received a response to her call from somewhere far beyond the horizon.
Seemingly recognizing the roar, she snorted confidently and spread her wings. Localized whirlwinds stirred around them for a few moments, rapidly picking up speed to form miniature storms in the shadow of the dragon’s wingspan. A single beat of said wings saw the winds directed downward in a violent gust of air that simultaneously launched the dragon upward while also blasting away whatever loose debris were underfoot. The dragon tore through the air, ascending and accelerating at a rate that seemed impossible for a being of her sheer girth, even with the assistance of magic. Once she reached an altitude of about seven hundred meters, Azzyth leveled out and propelled herself forward. If anyone on the ground were to see her glittering form hurtling through the air, they would easily mistake her for a shooting star from that distance.
This altitude had a certain significance within the species. The older, mightier, and prouder a dragon grew, the higher they would climb during their flights. It was as if one’s standing within the local hierarchy dictated their cruising altitude. To go above another dragon was to openly declare that one was stronger than they were. This move was usually interpreted - and often intended - as an official challenge between rivals. Dragons weren’t idiots, of course, so none dared to do so unless they felt the ensuing battle would be to their favor. Azzyth’s Level in particular was such that she could cruise comfortably at a higher altitude than most, with only a handful of dragons sharing her airspace and fewer still daring to rise above it.
It would therefore be extremely insulting if a creature were to assail her from above.
“I’m in position, Master,” Xera reported.
“Excellent,” Boxxy replied. “Standby.”
The djinn was hovering at nearly double Azzyth’s altitude, her form obscured by invisibility. Any lower, and she risked being detected by the mark’s mana-sensitive horns or piercing eyes. It would be foolish to assume a simple illusion would trick a creature that was suffused with that very same magic. Xera could have potentially gone even higher up, but that would have made the first phase of Boxxy’s dragon-hunting strategy take too much time. Well, that and it risked pissing off an elder dragon, which was to be avoided at any cost.
One casting of Transfamiliar later, the shapeshifter found itself hurtling downward. The amorphous mass of flesh, eyes, and teeth undulated rhythmically as it altered its trajectory into a collision course with its target. After accelerating for several seconds, it entered the range of the dragon’s MLG. The Mystic Camouflage Skill triggered automatically, instantly masking its presence for a precious few seconds. That was all well and good, but the issue was that it happened nearly three hundred meters from its mark - much farther than Boxxy’s generous estimate. The shapeshifter had already reached its terminal velocity of about sixty meters per second, which was extremely unlikely to be enough. Mystic Camouflage could obfuscate it for up to ten seconds, but Boxxy seriously doubted it could protect it from a freaking dragon for more than two or three, let alone the five it would need.
Sure enough, at about a hundred meters away, Azzyth’s horns broke through her would-be ambusher’s tricks. Her neck head and gaze turned upward, and Boxxy finally experienced firsthand what it was to have a real dragon’s enmity. Even at this distance that glare pierced directly through it. Not in a metaphorical sense, though. Azzyth’s eyes had lit up, launching a scorching beam of light that punched a sizeable hole straight through the abomination’s center of mass. Thankfully much of the damage was in the form of heat, allowing Boxxy’s Fire Affinity to nullify most of it. It still stung like a bitch though, eliciting a multi-faceted cry of anger and pain from the creature.
Realizing that her target wasn’t as obliterated as she had thought it would be, Azzyth began swerving so as to avoid a collision while continuously firing at it. In response, Boxxy sprouted a quartet of leathery wings to both stay on target and evade those beams. Thankfully the dragon had to twist her neck at an awkward angle whenever she took a shot at the incoming abomination. This twisted her body and limited her mobility, making it a bit easier for Boxxy to do its part. A precious few seconds later it became obvious a direct collision was inevitable, at which point the dragon enacted her first line of defense. Her scales shone briefly in a multitude of colors, and a prismatic barrier of solid light appeared above her.
Without missing a beat, Boxxy threw open its Storage and retrieved something from it. Or rather, someone. In a split second, one of its tentacles was holding firmly onto Drea’s legs. The shapeshifter extended that flexible limb and swung it downward like a combination of a pendulum and a guillotine. In a premeditated motion of absolute precision, the demon used that momentum to cleave a line through the freshly erected barrier with her magic-disrupting blades. Though it didn’t collapse outright, the shield was still weakened enough to allow Boxxy’s mass to smash through when it crashed into it a split second later.
The shiny-seeking missile thus collided with its target, causing the dragon’s mass to shift and lurch as if a ship struck by a wave.
“I’ve got the right, you take the left!”
Barking a quick order to Claws, Boxxy got busy disabling one of the dragon’s wings while its familiar aimed for the other. Naturally the dragon didn’t just sit still throughout all this. It thrashed around, spun wildly, and suddenly changed direction, but couldn’t dislodge either of the annoying insects from its back. Both of the intruders stubbornly clung to her scales with webbing and adhesives they could control freely. When physical means failed, Azzyth moved onto magical countermeasures. She puffed a plume of scorching-white dragon fire and flew through it. It cooked both Boxxy and Drea somewhat, but not enough to dislodge them. The dragon then tried to turn around enough to blast them with her eye beams, but couldn’t get a good angle without hitting her own beautiful hide.
Meanwhile the two unwelcome hitchhikers were frantically attempting to rob their quarry of her ability to fly. Even if dragons were propelled mostly by magic, their wings still served as the main points where said magic was focused. Tearing off those gargantuan limbs was a colossal undertaking, as it was impossible for either Boxxy or Claws to cut through those scales in that situation. Though it was theoretically possible to punch through them, the terrible footing and constant jerking motions made it difficult to put in the gargantuan amount of force required to do so.
However, the shapeshifter’s goal wasn’t to sever the wings, but to disable them. It was a far more manageable task, though hardly a simple one. Boxxy climbed up along the right one and slashed furiously at the exposed leathery webbing that comprised most of the wing. This part wasn’t protected by scales, so the abomination was managing to rip holes through it. The issue was that, compared to the sheer size of the blasted thing, the tears it made were rather minor. The dragon’s ridiculous regenerative ability was also hard at work to repair the damage. On the other wing, Drea was having just as much luck. Her job was to immobilize it with her spider thread, but the powerful limb kept ripping it apart through sheer physical strength.
The apparent futility of these attempts to ground the flying fortress were why Azzyth hadn’t taken more severe measures to remove them. She still had a few tricks up her sleeve, but those would require a lot of energy and, as far as she was aware, those two annoying nuisances were simply not worth the effort. That assessment was fueled by more than simple arrogance, however. It took time for mature dragons to recover the absurd amounts of energy required to fuel their indomitable power. Expending too much of that to squash a couple of bugs would leave Azzyth vulnerable to a savvy challenger that sought to claim her lair, hoard, and position. That potential threat warranted far more caution than her current situation.
This decision would soon prove itself to be a grievous miscalculation. Boxxy and Drea were likewise holding back while they tested the waters, as it were. The shapeshifter now had a solid grasp on how tough this webbing was, while the demon was able to closely observe the strength and motion of the flapping joints. Armed with this new information, they both escalated their efforts accordingly. Drea activated a new Skill she had acquired as a result of her master’s post-Rank-Up power spike. Called Web Blossom, it sacrificed almost all of her MP to instantaneously fill a twenty-meter-wide area with countless sticky threads - a feat that would have taken her precious minutes otherwise. She had also timed it so that the massive limb her webs wrapped around would be fully extended. It flailed around awkwardly like a broken sail in a thunderstorm, unable to shake off its bindings.
Dragons, as the stalker had figured out, had more difficulty furling their wings than they did spreading them.
At the same time, Boxxy blasted the other wing with a fully-powered point-blank Reality Slash. Lacking in scales, the webbing was far more susceptible to magical attacks than the rest of the dragon’s hide, and was subsequently ripped right down the middle. Azzyth roared in rage and pain and her flight path became erratic. The back of her skull was then nailed with an enchanted arrow that completely enveloped her head in an area of pitch blackness, a creative application of Boxxy’s True Darkness spell. The shapeshifter further produced a Spell Crystal that had stored a gravity-amplifying incantation that was activated atop the dragon’s center of mass.
With both wings either crippled or restrained, gravity’s pull on her intensifying, and her head wrapped in a shadow that her senses could not punch through, Azzyth plummeted. Her entire body flailed wildly as she fell, but she seemed unable to stop herself. It was at this point that her stubborn mind finally upgraded her assailants from ‘harmless nuisances’ to ‘minor threats.’ About thirty meters before making landfall, a burst of white flame erupted from every single one of her scales. Their combined heat enveloped her, momentarily turning her into a miniature sun that seemed to burn away even the magical darkness.
Boxxy and Drea, who were still clinging to the dragon’s back, took the fiery blast directly. The abomination was mostly fine because of its Fire Affinity, but the force of the jets still managed to push it off. However, its familiar was far less fortunate. Both the webstalker demon and her massive wad of webbing were instantly turned to ash. With the trapped wing freed from its bonds, the dragon was able to twist herself around just in time to land on her feet. Yet despite the sheer mass and momentum of the creature, she landed as gently as a mother’s kiss upon her newborn child’s forehead. The otherwise tremendous impact had been nullified by the dragon’s Emergency Landing Skill, but the fact that she had to use it there and then made Azzyth incredibly pissed.
The shimmering white dragon wasted no time and lunged towards the spot where Boxxy had landed. A single swipe of her front claws instantly demolished the stone spire the shapeshifter was hiding behind, flinging it and the debris away like a localized hurricane. Azzyth gave chase while the shapeshifter dodged and darted through the various outcroppings and canyons in that part of the Isle of Light. This obstacle-ridden terrain gave it a slight advantage, which was why it had conspired to make the dragon make landfall in that particular area. This edge was rapidly dwindling, however, as Azzyth’s rampage was steadily transforming the treacherous mountain into a rubble-filled plane.
Boxxy did more than simply run, of course. Whatever that nova of white flame was, it had left most of the dragon’s scales cracked and scorched. Sensing a chance to whittle away at its quarry’s HP, the amorphous monstrosity eagerly fought back as best it could. With the Shattered Isles’ mana rich environment fueling its Hylt Metabolism, Boxxy threw away any notion of restraint as it battered its opponent with overcharged Spells at every opportunity. Azzyth upped her efforts in response, blasting away at it with eye beams in addition to her devastating claws.
Nevertheless, though the shapeshifter was putting up a good fight, it was hopelessly outmatched. Thankfully taking down the dragon was not its plan. It was merely keeping the shiny calamity’s attention while it stalled for the rest of its allies to arrive at the scene. Though it had ordered them to lie in wait in the surrounding area, it would still take them a few minutes to arrive. Minutes that, given the intensity of its predicament, seemed like hours. However, if it managed to pull through this and regroup with the others, Boxxy felt it had a decent chance of securing victory. Otherwise it would have already fled the scene with all its might.
Then things got worse, as they often did. Azzyth’s rage had subsided somewhat, allowing her to deduce that this annoying little box with legs likely had more friends. That was how it usually was with these would-be dragon slayers - where there was one, there were likely thirty more scurrying around. They always had a plan, as well, and allowing it to proceed unhindered was an idiotic idea. These were all things Azzyth had learned during her first encounter with Terrania’s adventurers as a mere youngling. The scars of those harsh lessons were still there, right underneath the soiled radiance of her scales.
Thus, the dragon decided to intensify her efforts further, and to stamp out the disgusting gnat with overwhelming force. After smashing the barn-sized boulder that Boxxy was hiding behind for what felt like the twentieth time, she cut off its escape route with a couple of eye beams. The shapeshifter hopped away from them, unaware that it was moving just as Azzyth wanted it to. Dragons were intelligent creatures, and this one had studied the former mimic just as much as it had tested her. She was thus able to put her target in the middle of a small canyon that had been carved out of the side of the mountain by the dragon herself.
Boxxy realized the predicament it was in only when it noticed its opponent’s torso had swelled to almost twice its usual volume. It didn’t even get the chance to utter a profanity under its breath before Azzyth’s mouth flew open and a cone of blindingly white light enveloped everything in front of the dragon’s maw. The earth shook and the sky trembled as a stretch of land nearly fifty meters in length was instantly reduced to a pool of molten rock. There was more to this attack than heat, however. As an adult diamond dragon, Azzyth’s breath was suffused with elemental properties that dispersed magic and reduced solid matter to dust. This allowed her to obliterate even creatures invulnerable to fire, so she felt confident not even that flame-retardant flesh-thing would survive a direct hit.
This was a correct assessment, but, unfortunately for the dragon, one that Boxxy had made as well. Once the cataclysmic aftermath of the breath attack began to settle, Azzyth watched with mounting frustration as a rip in reality opened up and the abomination emerged from within. It had managed to hide away inside its Storage, avoiding the bulk of the blast. Boxxy hadn’t gotten away without injury, however. Though it had planned to use this trick to dodge the dragon’s breath from the start, its sheer bulk had made it impossible to completely retreat into its pocket dimension in time. The shapeshifter had lost about a third of its body mass as a result. The Storage portal had also collapsed because of the breath’s anti-magical properties. This amplified the feedback from misusing the Skill, forcing Boxxy to take yet more damage while it reopened the portal. At least it appeared in the same spot it had been previously, though that spot was now about a dozen meters above a pool of lava.
Still, that entire situation could have gone much, much worse, so the monster merely counted its lucky stars as it plopped into the molten rock without taking any damage from it. Another upside was that the dragon seemed to have momentarily overexerted herself and needed a few seconds to recover. This gave Boxxy the opportunity to swim towards more solid ground while it could. It didn’t have the chance to capitalize on the dragon’s moment of vulnerability, but it now knew to look for it if she unleashed a full-powered breath again.
The mass of lava then began to stir, bubble, and shift as if it had a will of its own. In a surprise to both the abomination and the dragon, the molten rock began to converge at the center of the pool, nearly dragging Boxxy along with it. The blob of liquefied stone then ignited with a brilliant green flame. It let out a deep rumble that rapidly shifted to an angry roar as a gigantic figure emerged from within, its body slowly simmering down to a mockery of flesh.
It stood well over ten meters tall and was comprised entirely out of rock and fire, both blazing with a vibrant emerald hue. Its lower half remained an amorphous mass, but its top had assumed a humanoid shape. A pair of bulky arms stretched out from a set of broad, spiked shoulders. The torso sported a massive breastplate of superheated metal that moved and bent as if it were skin. The head was a fearsome sight, sporting a massive jaw with two sets of dagger-like teeth and four blazing red eyes that radiated pure hatred. A regal-looking headdress rested upon the creature’s brow, and two enormous horns curved forward and downward from either side of its bare flaming skull.
“FREE!” the lava-monster bellowed in a deafening roar. “AT LAST, AFTER COUNTLESS CENTURIES, I AM FINALLY FREE FROM THAT DAMNED PRISON!”
“Silence, interloper!” another voice interrupted it, this one sharp, clear, and distinctly feminine. “How dare you besmirch my territory with your vile presence!”
Azzyth, as it would appear, was not a fan of this new arrival. She had perched herself on a nearby cliff and was radiating enough hostility to make even the sun sweat.
“AH-HAH-HAH-HAH!” the other laughed mockingly. “A MERE WELP LIKE YOU IS NOTHING BEFORE ZINGRONATH, THE VOIDCALLER!”
As the horns, name, and title implied, this sentient mass of burning hatred was indeed a demon. An ifrit sultan most ancient, he was powerful enough to rival any of the four Overlords. Maintaining his colossal might in the physical realm therefore required an absurd amount of mana, but that was not an issue within the Shattered Isles. The air was perpetually thick with the stuff, and Zingronath was able to feed off such ambient energies to sustain his being. This meant there was effectively no time limit to his physical form, making this the perfect environment for him to have been unleashed upon.
It was also extremely fortuitous for someone in Boxxy’s predicament. Zingronath the Voidcaller had several centuries’ worth of pent up rage, which seemed to be aimed squarely at Azzyth. If those two powerful entities were allowed to clash and exhausted one another, then an objectively weaker third party could potentially swoop in and claim them both. This was without question the most logical course of action for the shapeshifter to take, especially since it had apparently been forgotten about, at least for the moment.
However, that was not what Boxxy did next.
“CRUSHING ONE OF YOU ARROGANT LIZARDS WILL BE A GOOD WAY TO CUT LOOSE!” the demon bellowed as green flames gathered in his palm.
“Your skull shall make a fine addition to my hoard,” the dragon grinned widely as she spread her wings in a display of dominance.
Then, just as Azzyth and Zingronath’s shouting match was reaching its peak, a Divine-chanted Reality Slash sliced into the former’s neck. The dragon let out a surprised shriek of pain as the aberrant magic cleaved her scales asunder and dug into the flesh underneath. It was a relatively minor wound, but without a doubt the most serious injury she had received in a long time. Azzyth’s attention was naturally redirected to the source of the Spell, and Zingronath followed suit.
There, upon a partly demolished stone spire, they saw the creature solely responsible for bringing the two of them face-to-face. The abomination, though noticeably smaller, still maintained its chesty shell. And yet, though neither the dragon nor the demon was particularly familiar with it, they both could tell something was… off.
“Mine…. It’s mine…”
The various toothed tentacles that sprouted from it flailed around wildly. All of them spoke the same word, albeit the cadence, tone, and volume varied wildly between each utterance. It seemed as if the creature had gone mad, especially since it had just given up its one chance to escape unharmed. Further still, neither of the two entities were going to ignore it now that had revealed itself to possess enough destructive power to be considered a threat. In fact, this behavior was so illogical, that the dragon and the demon were wondering if it was all an act meant to serve an elaborate battle plan.
The truth of the matter was that Boxxy was having somewhat of a mental breakdown at the worst possible time. The cause of its distress was that it recognized the demon. Its facial features perfectly matched the ornate metal skull atop the Voidcaller staff. The same staff that had been caught up in the dragon’s breath attack that Boxxy failed to completely dodge. It hadn’t had the chance to think about its belongings in the heat of the moment, but witnessing Zingronath’s appearance had left no doubt in its mind.
The demon was loose because Voidcaller, the prison that held its soul, had been destroyed.
Something snapped within Boxxy when that realization hit. That staff had been its first Artifact, its favorite weapon, and one of its most prized possessions. Though not particularly shiny, the creature nevertheless treasured it immensely. It wasn’t as if Boxxy hadn’t experienced the pain of loss before, but that item was special. Losing it felt like losing part of itself, and compounded with the shock of its injury made something within its twisted mind snap.
“MINE!” it bellowed in an unearthly screech.
“You’re mine!” it howled at Zingronath.
“And you’re mine!” it screeched at Azzyth.
“I’m going to kill you both, and then you’ll all! Be! Mine!”
Boxxy had gone completely berserk.