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Chapter 17 - The Night's Knell II

Claire had expected the change in terrain to come with a boost to her mobility. At a glance, the woodland seemed much easier to traverse. It was free of murky pools and she no longer had to worry about sudden invisible dips in the ground. Better yet, she could finally just walk. Wading was no longer her only option; pushing herself through the thick, muddy liquid had been equal parts exhausting and uncomfortable. And yet, wandering about the forest wasn’t any easier. The halfbreed moaned and groaned as she realized that exploring the once upside down biome came with its own set of difficulties.

The excess of undergrowth was nothing if not obnoxious. Plant life was so abundant that the rogue found it nearly impossible to move in a straight line. Every time she tried to mindlessly press onward, she would find herself pricked or cut by whatever brush she pushed aside. Seeking an alternate path was rarely helpful. Overgrown shrubs obscured her vision at every turn and made it difficult for her to stay on track. The few spots that they didn’t occupy instead housed small trees, which were, much to her annoyance, just as difficult to deal with. Though she could push their trunks aside with surprising ease, they would almost always rebound and smack her in the back of the head when she released them. Even their fully grown counterparts proved themselves rather intrusive.

Only ten minutes had passed since she resumed her trek, but she had already stubbed her smallest toe on three different large roots, all of which were nearly undetectable, hidden beneath the night’s veil. Claire was so annoyed by that particular pain point that she had almost started to regret not stealing a pair of shoes. Needless to say, allowing her mind to wander led to a fourth toe-stubbing incident. The halfbreed was starting to think that she had hit rock bottom. And that was precisely when she learned one life’s most important lessons. It was always possible for any given situation to worsen.

A sudden assault on her person began right as she started hopping around on one foot. Her assailant, an altered raven, was impossible to miss, in part because it was angrily cawing at the top of its lungs, and in part because it was literally glowing in the dark. It approached from the bog with its thrusters roaring, spitting fire and flame from its rear as it launched itself at her like an arrow.

She managed to evade the attack by letting go of her foot and diving to the side, but evidently, getting out of harm’s way was beyond her, as her face was soon introduced to the trunk of a less-than-well-placed tree. Groaning in frustration, the rogue scrambled to her feet and drew a dagger.

Her vision was still spinning from the impact, but she managed to impale the bird in midair the next time it tried to attack her.

Log Entry 569
You have slain a level 12 altered raven.

Raising her kill to her face, Claire furrowed her brows. She had swung her weapon from overhead, but for some odd reason, it looked like she had caught it from below. Her knife’s base was at its stomach, and its tip protruded from the bird’s back. She knew for a fact that it hadn’t been spinning around in midair. It was almost like the bird had been upside down. A nonsensical conclusion.

Thinking it a function of her exhaustion, she dismissed the thought, flung the bird into a bush, cleaned off her weapon, and got back on track. Or at least that was what she tried to do.

Less than ten seconds later, her ears perked up. There was yet another raven zooming at her from behind. It was just as loud as the first, screeching nonstop as if to get her attention. Dispatching it only led it to be replaced by a third, a fourth, and a fifth. Claire didn’t think that the situation was out of hand, even when they started coming in pairs. They were faster than her, but their only means of attack was predictable and easily dealt with. Still, she realized it would only be a matter of time before she was overwhelmed.

Though there were no more in her immediate vicinity, there were dozens if not hundreds of glowing birds on the horizon, all converging on her location. Most were upside down like the first she had eliminated, but some had remained rightside up. The glaring inconsistency almost seemed to scream for an investigation, but she didn’t have the time to think about something so trivial, not with so many of them approaching from every which direction. Even if she could easily dispatch two at once, she knew that challenging a literal army was impossible. She was going to be picked apart.

Eyes wide and heart racing, the halfbreed activated Sneaking and dove into the nearest bush. The number of corpses nearby all but guaranteed that they would find her if she remained, so she began crawling away as quickly and quietly as she could.

She wasn’t able to make it very far before they were upon her, but that wasn’t to say that the distance she gained was insignificant. The rogue had stumbled across a half-decent hiding spot, a small den underneath the trunk of a tall thorny tree. Squeezing through the narrow tunnel that was the burrow’s entrance was difficult, even for her. A normal-sized girl her age would not have been able to fit, but fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Claire had failed to inherit her mother’s hips.

The chamber within the burrow was much more spacious than its narrow entrance. While there wasn’t enough space for her to stand up, she could at least sit on her knees without having to hunch over. She couldn’t see too well; it was too dark for her to discern the cavern’s exact dimensions, but there was at least room for her to spin around without bumping into anything.

Knowing that there was enough space, Claire climbed back up the two meter-long tunnel, retrieved her belongings, and pulled them into the depths of her newly acquired shelter. The larger of the two bags was immediately used to block off the burrow’s second, less vertically inclined entrance. Padding it with some dirt and turning her bone mace into a structural support allowed her to seal it shut. She stuck the rest of her weapons into the walls near the first exit for easy access, save for her spear, which she kept on hand. The pole weapon seemed best suited for defending the entrance, given the size of its three-pronged tip.

She could tell that the ravens were close. Raising her ears, she determined that some were flying directly overhead, while others were hopping around on the forest floor, investigating the area nearby. Her heart began pounding when one ventured into the tunnel she had blocked. It pecked at the leathery pouch, once, twice, thrice, as if to inspect it.

Hypothetical situations rushed through her mind at a million miles a minute. She nearly made the call to stab the bag and impale the bird before it could make any noise, but stopped herself short. If she was unable to kill it in a single blow, or worse, missed, she would only wind up giving herself away. And even if she did succeed, some other raven would eventually discover the fresh corpse and deduce her location. In either case, the outcome wasn’t worth the sacrifice of a perfectly good shoulder bag.

The decision she made instead was to hold her breath and wait for the bird to leave. Which was, according to her ears, exactly what the corvid ultimately chose to do. For a moment, she relaxed. She loosened her grip on her spear, breathed a sigh of relief, and allowed the tension to drain from her body. The halfbreed even went as far as closing her eyes and stretching her arms. It was the only moment she let down her guard. And the only moment she shouldn’t have. What she failed to realize in her moment of hyperfocus and subsequent complacency, was that there was another bird at the other entrance.

It didn’t notice her immediately. The doorway’s steep incline prevented it from seeing all the way into the den, but it was only a matter of time before it spotted her. Because the bird was actively hopping to her location. Had she been fully focused, she would have been able to pierce it through before it found her and sounded the alarm, but the momentary lapse of attention had cost her the opportunity. It saw her right as she grabbed her spear. She was able to cut its cry short, but it was too late. The distorted squawk only made it more obvious that one of the ravens had spotted their foe.

Log Entry 578
You have slain a level 6 altered raven.

Log Entry 579
You have leveled up. Your health and mana have been restored and all harmful status effects have been cleansed.

Your primary class, Llystletein Rogue, has reached level 19.

You have gained 2 ability points.

Wait, why am I reading? This isn’t the time for this!

Claire tightened her grip on her spear as the flock closed in. She impaled the first three to enter with little effort. Each had tried diving straight at her, and each had run right into the tip of a spear. The encounter led her to realize that the den was surprisingly defensibile. Only a single raven could fit inside the narrow passage at once and there was not enough space for the oversized corvids to evade her weapon. The birds seemed to discern this as well. After a small number of sacrifices, they put their assault on a temporary hold. The androids continued to gather near the den’s entrance, some in the trees, some on the ground, and some even a few steps inside the tunnel. But there was a limit to how close they would get. None dared to venture within range of her strikes.

Oddly, they began quieting down as they converged on her. The constant squawking was replaced by a wall of silent, mechanical gazes. She didn’t think much of them at first, but quickly grew more unsettled as the staring contest continued. It was eerie. Their cybernetic eyes were soulless and empty. And yet, they almost seemed to be staring at her with an undying fury. The glares were so hostile they could unnerve even a veteran, but not Claire. The ravens’ animosity felt no different than the spite-fueled malice with which other noble ladies had often regarded her, often because they were jealous of her long, floppy ears.

Equating the birds to indignant, tiny-eared aristocrats led Claire to realize that there was an easy way to resolve the situation at hand. All she needed to do was bait them into stepping out of line. That said, she doubted that they were as easy to manipulate as the duchesses and countesses whose pride she had often besmirched. All that was needed to make an insecure Lady stomp over was to flutter her ears while greeting the men they were promised to. Playing innocent when confronted—a classic trick her father had taught her himself—was all that was required to guarantee an explosive storm of inappropriate insults.

The first underhanded ploy that came to mind was to summon the raven-based drink that she had recently unlocked. She wasn’t sure if the birds would understand its significance, but she knew they were supposed to be clever. One of her tutors had frequently advertised their unaltered variants as perfect companions for warlocks of all tenures.

Her plan in place, Claire activated her authority skill and selected her most recent acquisition. A thick, oily liquid began streaming from the tip of her free hand. Pointing the digit towards the tunnel’s exit, she ejected the fluid with enough force for it to leave the underground shelter. She even started to wave her spear around, coating its three-pronged tip to better flaunt the bird-based liquid.

Exposing the solution to the light of the moon revealed that its colour was a dazzling amber, like that of a well made ginger ale. It’s scent, however, was much less appealing. It was noxious, dizzying and unpleasant, reminding her more of the grease used to polish a blade than a beverage that would accompany a pleasant dinner. Something in the back of her mind warned her against drinking the “rocket fuel,” whatever it was, but she went ahead and popped her finger straight into her mouth regardless.

The rogue gagged almost immediately. The raven-based drink was disgusting, equal parts bitter and sour. Worse yet was the burning sensation that assailed her as it pooled in her mouth, akin to that of a liquor distilled only for strength. Swallowing caused the pain to spread down her throat and into her stomach. It caused her so much distress and agony that she couldn't believe she wasn’t drinking poison.

Log Entry 583
You have been poisoned. Your health regeneration has been reduced from 24/hour to -36/hour for the next two hours.

Claire pulled her finger out of her mouth immediately the moment she spotted her latest log entry, but it was too late. She had already ingested enough of it to make her sick. The burning sensation continued to linger, even after she swallowed. Everything from her throat to her gut ached as her head spun. The dizzy spell was so intense that she would have fallen onto her knees, had she not already been on all fours. Her fingers felt unresponsive and weak, even though she was continuing to grip her spear with enough force for her knuckles to go white. Her toes weren’t much better off. She could barely feel the dirt beneath her feet.

The worst part of it all was not her suffering, but rather that the taunt had outright failed. She didn’t know if the ravens hadn’t recognized the fluid, or if they simply hadn’t cared, but not a single one had bothered to grace her with a response, an outcome that was as much of a blessing as it was a curse, given how poorly she had taken to the poison.

As she clenched her teeth and wrestled her mind from the poison’s grasp, Claire recalled that leveling up would cleanse the status condition she had afflicted herself with. The thought of the much needed relief came with an epiphany. There was no harm in letting them into the burrow.

The underground chamber wasn’t spacious enough for the birds to pick up any speed, nor was there any way for them to maintain their velocity upon entry. The tunnel’s sharp incline made it so that they were sure to crash straight into the ground unless they slowed themselves before they reached her. And that was something they didn’t know. They couldn’t see into the chamber from outside. The rogue was certain that their eyes had only managed to find her because of the way her scales glimmered under the moonlight.

Having run through a mental simulation, Claire proceeded to get rid of one of the major deterrents halting the ravens’ advance. She reversed her grip on her polearm, raised it overhead, and threw it into the crowd with all the might that her awkward, seated position allowed her to muster. Much to her surprise, the projectile attack proved itself a success; her bony weapon speared three different birds on its way out. Of those that were hit, two suffered fatal injuries while the last squirmed and seemed to hang to life for a moment before toppling onto its side. And after what seemed like a brief struggle, it finally fell still.

Log Entry 584
You have slain a level 8 altered raven.

Log Entry 585
You have slain a level 6 altered raven.

Log Entry 586
You have slain a level 11 altered raven.

Log Entry 587
You have acquired the Throwing skill.

Log Entry 588
The following Llystletein Rogue skill has been acquired: Envenom

The third raven’s loud, painful, rocket fuel-induced death caused the other birds to take action. The silent glares were replaced by a sudden explosion of shrill caws and sinister croaks. It didn’t take long for the first of them to resume diving into the tunnel at full speed. The bait had worked. Hook, line, and sinker.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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