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Chapter 8 - First Contact

It was a world of spires, a world of buildings tall enough to pierce through the clouds and rend the heavens asunder. Their towering shadows almost seemed to stand as affronts to the gods, attestations of resistance and defiance.

It was impudence incarnate. And yet, no divine punishment was doled.

Because there were no gods left to administer it.

Within the metropolis’ boundaries, nature’s remnants were few and far between. The occasional tree stood. But none had been truly allowed to be. Their limbs were pruned, their extremities constantly cut, and their desperate efforts to grow denied without remorse. Those of a certain age were always replaced with younger plants, plants whose thinner trunks would not obstruct the passersby.

The dryads were not the only ones denied. While the tree nymphs were robbed of their prosperity, the spirits of water were contained and controlled. Likewise, the spirits of thunder were turned to slaves, forced to fuel the ambitions of those unable to hear their cries.

Not even the spirits of flame, once burning with destructive passion, could resist their bindings. They were all but extinguished, to be revived only when it was convenient for their masters.

There was nothing to be done.

The land was too defiled for the nymphs to have power, their divinity robbed by a lack of worship.

The fallen titans had been forgotten. And with their fading came that of the pantheon whose duty was their repulsion.

Not even their titles remained, wiped from the records and sealed beneath ten hundred thousand solar revolutions.

And yet, the people continued to prosper.

In a land where not a single blessing remained.

___

Claire rubbed her temples as she slowly sat up. She wasn’t feeling well. Attempting to sleep in the brightly lit room had certainly been one of her predicament’s notable contributors, but it was not the worst. Nearly all her discomfort had come from the bizarre dream she returned to each time the night took her in its embrace.

Like many of her other recent late night reveries, it was clear. Too clear. She could vividly recall the experience of watching over an unkempt man’s shoulder as he spent countless hours staring at a miniature catgirl inside of a glowing box. That alone was enough to qualify the dream as a nightmare, but it was just the premise, the base atop which her dreadful, lucid experience was built.

He wasn’t just sitting in front of her. The very same man was also standing beside her. It wasn’t a body double or a twin, but a legitimate second instance, a projection as astral and non-present as the form she had taken. From time to time, he spoke, explaining what he showed her in a language she somehow understood. But that didn’t mean that his words were heard.

It wasn’t the first time she had been in his company. The experience wasn’t always awful either. She would even say that she enjoyed it, on occasion. Last night’s encounter, however, was not one of those occasions. Calling it traumatizing would have been an understatement. She really hadn’t needed to see him pull down his pants. Nor had she even remotely wanted to listen to him explain his interests in extreme detail. It was like the librarian’s curse had somehow corrupted even the spirit in her mind.

“And why does it always have to be catgirls?”

The question she mumbled was the part that had thrown her off the most. It wasn’t as if she didn’t understand why people were attracted to the feminine felines in general, courtesy of a certain curse, but she failed to see why both the spirit and the librarian were so obsessed with them. They weren’t noble like the harpies, mysterious like the merfolk, nor great conquerors like the elves. None of their more notable traits were particularly uncommon either. Tails, fangs, and animal-like ears could be found anywhere. She did have to admit that they were notably more acrobatic than the average beastkin, but that was a strength they shared with over a dozen other subspecies.

“This is a waste of time.”

Coming to the conclusion that there was no real conclusion to be made, Claire discarded her train of thought and began sorting out her agenda for the day.

The first thing she wanted to do was to get cleaned up. She was filthy. Both her cloak and her dress were covered in blood. Bathing was typically a part of her nightly routine, but she had skipped it in favour of heading straight to bed. The previous day’s events had left her far too exhausted. Now that she finally had the time and energy, she decided to get to it right away.

Eight casts of Llystletein Authority, each featuring a stream of stale water, more or less did the trick. She was able to get herself squeaky clean, but her clothes remained at least somewhat stained. Both her dress and her cloak sported a series of permanent red stains that she was unable to rinse off.

A more pressing problem presented itself right as she gave up on washing out all the blood. She didn’t have anything else to wear. Preparing a change of clothes was a task that the halfbreed had never once concerned herself with. Her maids had always done it in her stead. With a defeated sigh, she hung her clothes on a nearby glowing rock and moved on. Her lack of planning had left her feeling embarrassed, but she didn’t mull on the sentiment for long. There was no point crying over spilled milk, and sitting around in the nude was at least preferable to being cold, wet, and soggy. The halfbreed wasn’t exactly cold blooded, but her more reptilian ancestry led her to prefer warmth over its opposite.

Fortunately, the heat the rocks radiated helped her solve her clothing problem by the time she finished breakfast, another veaber tail. Both the dress and the cloak had been thin enough to dry off relatively quickly. Only the ropes were still a little bit soggy, but Claire didn’t particularly mind them since they didn’t make direct contact with her skin.

What do I do now?

She began contemplating her options as she dressed herself. She had already concluded that the bull knight’s gate was most likely the dungeon’s exit and that defeating it was the key to opening the door. But for the time being, winning such a duel was impossible. The guardian was obviously too strong for her. She needed more power if she wanted a fighting chance at taking it down. I think I should at least wait until my first ascension. A second class would be nice.

That, however, did not mean that grinding out her levels had to be the first thing on her agenda. Claire had lost her spear to the caveveaber horde, and while the weapon wasn’t one she had been particularly attached to, it had definitely served her well. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to survive the two versus one she had managed to win last night.

Another important task on the chopping block was to sort through the knowledge granted to her by Llystletein Authority, but Claire didn’t have any Llystletein classes unlocked. The exercise seemed rather pointless given its lack of immediate relevance, so she decided to put it off. She was confident that she wouldn’t forget to check up on it once its teachings became relevant. She was also confident that pigs were incapable of flight, but that was only because she’d never seen a skygrunter before.

Listing out her options led Claire to realize that there was a rather obvious choice. Weapons had to come first. She was sure to need more of them if she wanted to stand a chance against the lost library’s less-than-friendly inhabitants.

With her next steps decided and her equipment ready, she headed off to the hellhog’s lair as she glanced over the two skills she had acquired from her misadventures in Caveveaberland.

Spear Mastery - Level 1
The way of the spear comes as naturally to your father’s people as the art of waddling to a duck. This skill will allow you to better draw upon that of which your body is naturally predispositioned to understand, even if you are an ugly duckling.

Effects
- Unlocks spear-based skills.
- Improves your technique with the spear.
- Increases damage dealt by 11% (10% + 1% per level) when attacking with a spear.
- When wielding a spear, strength is improved by 27.5% (25% + 2.5% per level) of your dexterity.

And here I was thinking that the box wasn’t going to insult me for once.

Dagger Mastery - Level 2
Did you know that not every problem is meant to be solved by repeatedly stabbing it in the face with whatever sharp object you happen to have on hand? Well, you do now. This skill should teach even you that not every weapon is meant to be used like a greataxe.

Effects
- Unlocks dagger-based skills.
- Improves your technique with the dagger.
- Increases damage dealt by 12% (10% + 1% per level) when attacking with a dagger.
- When wielding a dagger, strength is improved by 30% (25% + 2.5% per level) of your dexterity.
- Gain the ability to identify the weaknesses and vitals of enemies you are in combat with. This effect grows more pronounced with skill level and time spent in battle against a particular foe.

“What’s wrong with stabbing things in the face?”

Claire stopped moving for a moment to blink at the skill’s description. Logically, it made sense to her. But at the same time, it didn’t. There was no reason not to attack an obvious weak point, after all.

She arrived at her destination shortly after she finished contemplating the effects of her newfound skills. The half reptile was surprised to find that, while the collection she wished to sort through was still present, the hellhog itself was gone. Its corpse had vanished, flesh, bones, and all. Foot and body prints aside, the only remnant of its existence was the occasional crimson stain upon the mossy backdrop. It was a bit off-putting, given that the desperate struggle was still clear in its killer’s mind, but not strange enough to distract her from the task of sorting through the deceased hog’s trophy collection.

It was difficult to find anything decent among the fleshless carcasses, and not just because everything was more or less the same shade of white. The large hardened fangs she had looted the first time around had been the cream of the crop. All the other potential weapons were notably worse. Most of the other enamel-based constructs were too small to function as instruments of war and few bones were any better off. Nearly every osseous remain she came across was too frail, too dull, heavily damaged, or all of the above. That wasn’t news, of course, as Claire’s first spear had been made of nothing but a broken rib and a stick, but she wanted to get her hands on something better if she could.

A whole hour of searching and sorting later, she was able to pick out a few passable pieces. The first was what looked to be the tip of a tail from a monster that used it as a weapon. It was jagged and shaped like a three-pronged pitchfork with the base of each blade fused together. It would’ve been perfect as a speartip if not for how dull its ends were. That wasn’t to say that it was unusable, however, as remedying the issue was as simple as grinding down the edges. Claire wasn’t a hundred percent sure that it would hold throughout the process, but there was no reason not to at least give it a shot once she got back to base.

Her second acquisition had almost been a veaber tail. Almost. Her plans took a sudden turn for the better when she accidentally smashed it with its replacement during a durability test. It turned out that the tails were a lot more fragile once detached from the veaber’s bodies, a trait that was surprisingly common amongst minerals and monster parts alike. Many materials were known to either gain or lose durability based on the amount of mana contained within, and given that the rear appendage’s owner had almost been deceased for an indiscriminate amount of time, its frailty came as no surprise.

Channeling her own magical energy through another one of the tails in the collection would have easily rectified the tail’s main issue, but the blue blood discarded the idea in favour of keeping the bone she had used to smash it. The hefty organic mace stood at somewhere between half and three quarters of her height. She had dismissed it at first glance, but her tail experiment led her to discover that it was one of the few items still in perfect condition. Surprisingly, it continued to stay that way, even after she tried bashing it against a wide variety of objects for the sake of experimentation. Swinging it around wasn’t easy, but the devastatingly heavy blows that it could deliver were well worth the trade off.

The only pre-sharpened weapons Claire managed to acquire were a pair of antlers just a bit longer than her forearms. They were somewhat like the club in that she hadn’t actually considered them at first. Being attached to a skull had made them a little too unwieldy for her, even with her Makeshift Weapon Mastery skill. Fortunately, the violent application of a certain girthy bone just so happened to solve that particular problem. It turned out that the antlers were just as good as the fangs. Each featured a lengthy handle in the form of a blunt base as well as a series of pointed ends to do damage with. The only complaint she had was that they were curved as opposed to straight, but she was confident that she would be able to put them to good use with enough time and practice.

Unlike the four that preceded it, her fifth and final piece of loot was much less notable. The prospective spear shaft was thin, long, and light, everything it needed to be and nothing more.

“This supposed to be where the little shit was last seen?”

“It’s what I heard. Doubt even the gods know if it’s true.”

Claire’s ears perked up. The long, pointed organs angled themselves upwards and outwards as they caught a pair of distant voices.

Other people.

They were getting closer. Their words were becoming clearer and clearer with every passing moment.

At first, she thought to approach their owners for help, but stopped as she recalled that she knew nothing about the people she had nearly set herself up to encounter. It was entirely plausible that they were the sort that meant her harm. With that in mind, she packed up her newfound belongings, moved behind a large rock formation, and slowed her breathing to minimize the risk of discovery. Though it was uncomfortable, she even tucked her ears down close to the side of her head to further shrink her already tiny frame.

“Oh great, now we’re working un-fucking-knowns. Which sorry bastard did you rip the news from this time?”

The first man’s voice was fairly deep. For reasons beyond her understanding, he sounded both neutral and incredibly annoyed at the same time. His tone alone was enough to remind her of the ever irritable Rydland and his perpetual scowl.

“Beck, of course. Who else?”

The angry person’s conversation partner had an even deeper voice, but unlike his companion, he sounded calm and relaxed, gentle even.

“Beck? Beck!? Fucking brilliant,” complained the first man. “We’re investigating a Hellhog’s lair on that shortdick’s terms? I should’ve fucking known.”

“Beck was the only one that had any news.”

“Can you two shut up already? You’re going to get us killed.”

A third, more feminine voice joined the conversation. She sounded almost as annoyed as the angrier man, but for what seemed a much better reason.

“Feh! You’re the only one of us that’d get killed, Shortstuff. Unlike your tiny midget ass, me and Niel have got real legs. We’re leaving you behind and getting the fuck outta here the moment the hellhog shows up.”

“Why did I team up with this jerk?” said the girl, with a tired groan.

“You were worried about Gurd,” said the man named Niel.

“Right. Of course I did,” the girl sighed. “I’m starting to think Gurdy might not be worth the trouble.”

They were so close that their footsteps were audible even through the moss. It wasn’t all that difficult to distinguish between the three sets. Each was clearly in its own weight class. From the context of the conversation and the individual voices, she deduced that Niel was something along the lines of a giant, whilst the female sported an audibly generous waistline. She couldn’t tell what the angry man was, but his footprints made it sound like he had an average build.

“Quit acting like you don’t have a thing for him, Shortstuff,” said the most irritable member of the party. “The whole damn citadel knows you want his tiny ass prick between your legs.”

Citadel? There’s a citadel?

“Excuse me?”

“What? You think we don’t see the way you stare at him? Only time any bitch ever gets a look like that on her face is when she’s got dick on her mind. Dumb slut.”

“You piece of shit! I’m going to kill you!”

Claire was confused. She couldn’t figure out the group’s intentions. On one hand, they had stated that someone would die if they encountered a hellhog, and on the other, they were screaming loudly enough for her to think that they were trying their best to attract it. Are they just stupid?

“Oooohhh scary! The fat twat’s going to poke me to death with her toothpick!”

“It’s a sword, damn it, a sword!”

I’m really starting to think they’re just stupid.

“Yeah, and it’s even smaller than Gurd’s dick.”

“Buzz off!” she shouted. “I swear to Dorr, Eric, I am going to stab you in your sleep!”

Definitely just stupid. And vulgar.

“Oh, I’m sure you will, Shortstuff. I’m sure you will.”

Claire could practically hear the man’s idiotic smirk.

“Quiet. This is its nest.”

Niel interrupted the shouting contest as the trio came to a stop. They were only a few short steps away from the rock that Claire had hidden behind, but not a single one had been able to detect the girl that had secretly deemed them to be amongst the cognitively inept.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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