Chapter 10 - First Contact III
Claire found herself stopping once every few moments to focus on the trio that had departed her now empty armoury. Though she had already dismissed the idea of following them, she still felt the urge to at least sniff out their tracks. Knowing more about their route would make it easier for her when she got around to investigating their destination. The thought of keeping an eye on them almost seemed to flip a switch in her mind. The corresponding skill activated immediately, and she suddenly found herself with knowledge of their locations. She couldn’t quite pinpoint them, but she knew what direction they were in and how far away they were. The sense was rather sharp at first, when they were still close, but it grew vaguer as they got further away.
It didn’t take long for her to start to feel like she had to strain herself in order to keep a grasp on their whereabouts, but she didn’t mind. If anything, she appreciated the challenge. The added difficulty appeared to aid her in acquiring a better understanding of the skill and its use.
Log Entry 506
Tracking has reached level 2.
I guess I wasn’t just imagining it.
The skill level expanded her tracking range and allowed for a more precise estimation of her quarry’s location, but she lost track of the group shortly after nonetheless. It wasn’t a surprise as they were going in opposite directions, but it still came as somewhat of a disappointment. Given how quickly the first skill level had come, the halfbreed had felt a strong desire to pursue a second, but she stopped herself short. She knew that she would likely continue to use the urge as an excuse to keep following them if she was to give in even once. Shaking her head to purge the thought, she took a few slow, drawn-out breaths and continued along her way.
It only took another minute or so to reach her sleeping quarters. Safe and settled, she set down her latest acquisitions and examined them. Most seemed fairly usable without tampering. The only exception was her spear, which she had yet to assemble. It looked fairly simple at first, as there was a socket near the bottom of the three-pronged bone, but putting it together proved far more difficult than simply slotting it in. Neither epiphyses was thin enough to fit.
With a sigh, Claire set the speartip back down, grabbed a rough-looking rock, and began grinding away at the shaft’s smaller hardened cap. It was by no means an ideal solution. She was well aware that any damage or destruction would lessen the resulting weapon’s durability, but disfiguring it seemed to be the best choice. She was far better off with a spear than not, given the presence of her mastery skill.
It’s not like it’s supposed to last forever anyway.
After what felt like an eternity of grinding away at the shaft, she managed to shave away its excess girth. Sliding it into place still proved rather difficult, as she needed to press down the full weight of her body to get it all the way down, but as far as she was concerned, that was a non-issue. The halfbreed was much more comfortable with the use of brute force than she was the mind-numbing task that had preceded it.
For a moment, she was relieved, happy enough to sing even the most vile god a set of praises. Her hellish task seemed like it had reached its end the moment she fastened the spearhead in place with a piece of rope, but glancing at the tip told a completely different story. All three blades were still dull. The spear would be no better than a staff if she refrained from sharpening it.
Oh come on...
One defeated sigh and a thousand monotonous iterations later, the half-blooded reptile lifted the weapon and gave it a few test swings. She was happy with how it turned out. It was heavier than her first spear, but she didn’t find that particularly problematic. Her strength was much higher than it used to be and the added weight would enhance her blows with the power that they so desperately needed.
Setting it down alongside the rest of her acquisitions, Claire looked over her collection expecting to feel something along the lines of enthusiasm or excitement. But all she got was a strange sense of disappointment.
Maybe I should sharpen the club…
The issue was her largest weapon. It seemed to fit in thematically at first, as it was made of bone like everything else, but its lack of an edge made it stand out like a sore thumb, and that particular problem was more easily described than addressed. The mace was more durable than any of the other boney armaments, and it likely wasn’t going to change much even if she did try to sharpen it. Her earlier tests had proven that it was tougher than stone; it remained in perfect condition even after she used it to smash a random stalagmite. It wasn’t as if she was simply discarding the idea because she didn’t want to spend any more time with her makeshift whetstone. That would have been silly.
The only other option was to turn it into an axe. There were a few sharp rocks laying around, with many of them being of roughly the right shape, but she didn’t feel that attaching them would provide any benefits. The weapon was already hard enough for her to swing as is. Weighing it down even further would only cripple her ability to wield it. Out of ideas, Claire decided she was just going to have to live with one of her weapons being a little different than the rest.
It’s not like it bothers me that much anyway.
Equipping her weapons, Claire gave her mossy lair one last look and set off, this time, with the goal of leveling up in mind. If she wanted to get stronger, she would need to find monsters that she could kill without putting herself in too much danger. The caveveabers were almost a viable target, as she had discovered their weakness and was fairly certain that she could take them one on one without suffering any significant damage. But there was a major caveat that prevented her from hunting the oversized rodents. She had no idea how she was supposed to isolate them. They had proven themselves capable of literally popping out of the walls, and the colony that inhabited the spiralling corridor was far too large for comfort.
I could always retreat to my safe zone. The bubble was quite literally right around the corner. But what if one of them ends up getting inside of it before me?
Frowning, the halfbreed concluded that the zone’s proximity was a double-edged sword. If any caveveaber managed to outpace or otherwise get ahead of her, there was a fair chance that she would find her safety net invalidated and her frail, tailless body exposed to the hoard.
I guess that means I’ll have to go left.
The cave had only three exits, and as the halfbreed had no intention of interacting with any veabers or werebears, she had only a single option remaining. Her only choice was to explore the route she had taken following her arrival. And seeing no reason to reconsider, she did just that.
Claire was well aware that she had grown significantly stronger over the course of the day she had spent in the dungeon, but that didn’t mean she was willing to throw caution to the wind. Not that there was any wind within the cave system, but that was besides the point.
The bluescale remained on guard. She would slowly poke her head around every corner before deciding whether to proceed, and she tried her best to stick to making only right turns so that she could more easily find her way back. Fairly confident in her memory, Claire felt that she wouldn’t have had any issues navigating the cave system even if she navigated the intersections and openings sporadically, but she refrained.
I don’t want to have to think about where I’m going if I need to run away again.
She found her first monster shortly after her seventh right turn. It was an eggeye roughly three quarters the size of the two she had seen the previous day. Its lack of bulk wasn’t the only thing she noticed immediately. Her eyes were drawn to its underdeveloped wings. They were so small that they could have easily fit in the palm of her hands.
If that thing can fly, then I should be able to too. Maybe I should try flapping my ears…
As it so happened, the winged mammal, if it could be called that, was suspended from the ceiling with its eye closed, sound asleep. What happened next was for Claire to decide.
She was tempted to attack; the flier was as close to grounded as it ever would be and its presence in dreamland meant that it lacked the awareness it needed to evade an attack. But even then, success was unlikely. It was too high up. She couldn’t reach it, no matter how hard she jumped.
“I could always try throwing something at it,” she said, under her breath.
Her mastery skills came with the knowledge she required to launch her bladed weapons, but she wasn’t feeling confident enough to put any of the skills’ theories into practice. Her makeshift boney arsenal was malformed and uneven. There was no telling if her projectiles would land blade first or rotate out of position midflight. And that was assuming that they managed to land in the first place. Either way, it seemed like a bad idea. The bat was sure to wake up regardless of how her first strike went and its stubby wings would keep it out of her reach thereafter.
Maybe if I could fly, like my father.
She considered sneaking past it, but didn’t feel that the risk would be worth it. There was a chance it would notice her and awaken. She had heard the bards tell tales of similar incidents. Though in those cases, the monsters were typically much more fearsome than deformed, earless bats. But that was besides the point.
There’s still a chance. He didn’t have wings until he ascended either.
Claire quietly backed away, returned to the last split in the path and headed in the opposite direction.
Not that I’d want them to begin with.
The wise and venerable Lady was well aware that the feathery appendages were useful in a wide variety of combat scenarios, but their owners suffered in other ways. They were extremely limited when it came to clothes and equipment alike. They required unique designs and accommodations based on the precise wing structure. And much to every smith and leatherworker’s annoyance, the shape and form of a wing could vary drastically amongst the ascended. Heavy weapons and plate armour were completely out of the question for all but the strongest fliers. It was difficult to accelerate while weighed down by so much metal and the wing-based accommodations often led to faults in the armour’s structural integrity. That was why her father’s winged warriors often returned with so many casualties; many chose to go topless in battle so that they could remain as nimble and swift as could be.
I’d much rather pick something that would let me be more like Mother.
Taking on her reptilian parent’s form came with its own set of difficulties, but it was nowhere near as egregious or otherwise difficult to deal with.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
With all that said, it was not as if Claire was anywhere close to making a choice. She wouldn’t even know what her options were until her racial class hit its first level cap. Ascension was always rather finicky and unpredictable due to the circumstantial achievement-based nature of class acquisitions, and it only grew even more confusing when rare halfbreeds were involved.
Shelving the thought, Claire crept her way to the next intersection, which was only a few meters away, and poked her head around the corner. There was nothing of note to her right, but an odd serpentine insect was situated within the wide open corridor to her left.
What the heck is that?
It’s body plan was surreal. Its overall form appeared to be that of a snake’s. It had a snake’s head, a snake’s torso, and a snake’s tail. But it also had something in the range of a hundred legs growing from both its flanks. Not even its head was free from the tumorous limbs. Legginess aside, the odd beast’s most notable property was that its figure was thickest at its ends. Both its head and tail were as wide as Claire’s hips, while the centre of its frame was unnaturally thin. If not for its hairy, segmented legs, its shadow would have been difficult to distinguish from that of a tall hourglass.
Its form, however, was not what Claire was most focused on. Her eyes were instead drawn to its freaky antennae. Both head ornaments were pointed straight at her, turning to greet her as soon as she poked out from around the corner. And when she took half a step forward, they followed.
The message they told was clear.
The snake-like insect knew exactly where she was.
She took a moment to consider her options. Despite being at least relatively well read, she had never heard of anything like the centipede snake before. The halfbreed knew nothing about its abilities or even its relative strength, but at the very least, she was able to determine that its lack of action was indicative of a lack of fear. It didn’t consider her a threat. And if the corpse it was nibbling away at was any indication, it likely wasn’t hungry enough to attack unless she approached.
But as the proud owner of a set of scales herself, Claire suspected that the pseudo-ophidian wasn’t as confident or almighty as it was making itself seem. Its lamella were nothing like hers, which were fine and neatly layered. Each of its individual plates was the size of her hand. More importantly, they only barely overlapped. Slipping a blade beneath one of its faulty coverings and getting at the flesh it served to protect seemed more than easy enough, and leaving a foreign entity stuck within the half-isopod’s body was sure to debilitate it with pain. Splinters were the bane of all scaled creatures. Even small ones hurt more than sudden leg cramps.
Knowing that the snake’s defenses were faulty wasn’t enough to prompt the halfbreed to attack. The centipede’s defective armour said nothing about its offenses. But its prey did. The five-meter long bug was eating a caveveaber.
The stone-tailed critter had been brutally beaten to death. Its body had been broken in many different places and parts of it were clearly bent the wrong way. The countless wounds signalled a slow painful demise. Not a swift execution.
It has to be feigning confidence.
Everything seemed to be pointing towards a single conclusion.
The snakipede was prey, ready to be hunted.
Taking a deep breath, Claire reached over her shoulder and drew her spear. And then, she lunged.