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Chapter 20 - Pests and Poisons

When Claire came to, she found herself not within the hole she had dug, but a room whose ceiling was over ten times her height. The sun’s rays shone through the windows, dulled by the thick stained glass. Even in summer time, the daylight was not enough to illuminate the atrium by itself. Countless candles, mechanical and otherwise, were strewn throughout the room to make it easier for those that struggled in low light. Looking around at the many dazzling sources, Claire noted a few familiar faces, all unmoving, frozen in time.

The manor’s chef, Amereth, stood by the entrance, pushing a cart topped with a variety of pastries. Claire had never quite understood how the shark lady was able to walk on her fins, and perhaps it was precisely her lack of comprehension that made it impossible for her to make them out as anything but a blur. The rest of her, however, was clear as day. Even her apron was highly detailed, its upper left strap slightly burnt from a halfbreed-induced artifact explosion, many long months in the past.

Allegra was by the windowsill, one hand on a textbook, and the other fiddling with a pair of wide rimmed glasses. A large hat sat on her head. Flat top aside, it was nearly identical to that of the stereotypical witch’s, with the only other difference being the two thin slits that her ears protruded from. Unlike Claire’s ears, they were rounded, wider at the center and thinner at the base. Rabbit ears. The witch was lecturing a young halfbreed whose mind was clearly far from present. Her younger self was wearing light clothing, a plain sleeveless dress that exposed the occasional patch of scale decorating her arms. She was a lot paler back then. Even the lamella on her cheeks bordered on white; her hair was the same, missing most of the blue that it had gained over the years. Looking at the pair, the rogue smiled. Though she had only been twelve, back then, it was already clear that she was much more attractive than her mentor in magic.

The last person in the room was Durham, seated in a corner with his eyes closed, legs folded, and palms together. It was a meditative pose, one that every disciplined centaur warrior could assume at a moment’s notice. He was dressed in full gear already, most of his face hidden beneath a helmet with no padding sewn in. His mane and beard more than played the part. Likewise, his triangular horse-like ears were also obscured from view, folded downwards so that they would not be an easy target. The man played two roles. He was both her guard and her instructor, but in the end, he had proven himself capable of neither.

After taking a deep breath, Claire left the room, walking straight through Amereth and her cart alike. Her body was like a phantom’s. She had a definite form, but she was as difficult to grasp as the mist. Wandering through the halls, the halfbreed ignored the maids, the butlers, and the guards. Back then, she remembered all their faces and all their names. But now she wanted to forget. The failed ritual’s backlash had likely taken many of them as casualties.

Passing through several walls, she arrived at the garden, and then the gate. She walked straight through it, stopping only once she reached the floating rock’s edge. The supports were invisible from where she stood, but she knew that, within the stone that made up the manor’s base, there was an artifact keeping it afloat. One of Canterbell’s three masterpieces. The other two were present as well, floating off in the distance, visible just above the clouds. Together, the three ducal manors formed a triangle that perfectly enclosed the Cadrian capital below. They were keystones, artifacts meant to strengthen the barrier protecting the king and his castle. The master artificer had created them as a gift to her father for praising his craft and, after many long years, finally acquitting it of its status as taboo.

Shaking her head, Claire returned to the manor and resumed wandering around its halls. Stepping towards her father’s office. Her teeth were clenched, biting against her lips with enough force to draw blood. Her hands were balled into fists. Trembling, fragile fists. The sun rapidly set as she got closer and closer to his study, the sky turning as red as it had been when he had informed her that she would be sacrificed to Builledragcht. She wanted to question him. Even though she knew exactly what his answer would be. To him, the lives of a thousand men far outweighed hers. Rationally, she understood it. But she couldn’t agree. And she had to confront him. Even if—especially because—it was a dream.

She needed to give him a piece of her mind. While she still could.

But each step she got only took her further away. Every time she placed a foot forward, the corridor would extend, with the door growing further and further with every passing moment. Her fiery emotions dulled as the events grew more distant. She suddenly felt detached, unwilling to confront him even though he had forced her to run a dagger into her own chest. Her heart started to pound, harder and harder as she was filled with the urge to run. Somewhere. Anywhere. But she couldn’t. Her legs trembled. Her feet refused to move. Even as fury pressed her to strangle him, to grab him by the neck and squeeze as hard as she could.

And then, there was nothing.

Her anger and fear both vanished, replaced by a sense of listlessness.

Suddenly, she didn’t care.

None of it seemed to matter.

Not now.

Not then.

Not ever.

The scenery began to change as she slowly raised her head, Her fists unclenched, and her jaw slackened. Gone was the reddish hue that accompanied the setting sun, and with it went the familiar scent of home. Even the cold that accompanied the howling winds had vanished without a trace.

The hallway warped out of shape, transforming into a dimly lit room with walls constructed through artificial means. No ridges were present whatsoever, as would have been with lumber or stone obtained through a natural source, and not just because they had been painted over with a thick layer of colour. Each wall appeared to be a single piece, made to perfectly fit the house’s floor plan. They were likely magical creations, building materials that even those in positions of power were inclined to avoid. Most constructs were transient in nature. It wasn’t impossible to invoke one whose essence was perpetual, but the amount of time and effort required was nothing short of monumental.

Employing a legion of mages was far more expensive than paying a lumberjack his due. And that was without considering the potential for dishonesty. Discerning a temporary fabrication from a permanent fixture was difficult, impossible for those not highly skilled in the art of magic.

As such, artificial walls were an unusual sight, even for one that lived in luxury. Claire rarely ever saw them outside of the part of the dream world she found herself in. Its presence came as a bit of a surprise, not because it was unusual for her to be pulled into it, but rather because it rarely happened in such rapid succession. There were typically weeks between the individual instances.

The home’s scruffy looking owner was in both his usual positions. His solid form was sitting on a soft, wide piece of furniture clearly meant for three while his translucent spectre floated beside her. She could never quite get over having two of him in her line of sight. It was jarring. In the past, she had even found herself disturbed by it, but not anymore. The only aspect that bothered her now was that their expressions would often convey opposing thoughts.

Noticing her gaze, the phantom turned towards her and nodded in greeting. He spoke, mouthing the salutation as soundlessly as a reflection. She had never been able to hear the projection’s voice. The only sounds that reached her ears came from his physical form and the environment that surrounded it. And yet, his words were able to reach her. They painted themselves on a black canvas within her consciousness. Pure white text, too neat and regular to be handwritten. Just like the box.

The sentences that appeared in her mind were always much briefer than those traced by his lips—if they could even be referred to as sentences. Sometimes, there were only single words that she struggled to make sense of. His initial address, however, was easy to grasp. He had led with the same thing as usual, a simple “Hello.”

Her response was a nod, not because she didn’t want to speak, but because she shared the phantom’s inability to make sound. And unlike the spirit, she knew not how she was supposed to project her thoughts.

“Watch. Important.”

After acknowledging her greeting and saying a few more things, he directed her attention towards his more solid form. She really didn’t want to look at him, given that he was in the middle of changing his clothes, but she went ahead and did it anyway. His new outfit was too curious for her to ignore. He had switched from what she thought to be casual wear to a set of pure black clothes that more closely fit his body. He wore two belts, one on his waist, and another on his forehead. Though both were made primarily of cloth, the latter stood out, likely because it featured a metal plate too thin to serve as a line of defense. Once he was done changing, he grabbed a device likely meant to aid him in the casting of magic. The large rectangular box hanging from his wall flashed to life as he depressed one of the circular protrusions that covered his wand.

A smaller but more muscular man wearing the exact same outfit appeared within the now glowing device. He began walking through various scenarios on the use of the human body. The scruffy looking man attempted to imitate the procedures, but failed every time. The process repeated for what seemed to be an hour, ending only as the human within the box demonstrated his final technique. He grabbed a doll, leapt into the air, turned his body upside down, and smashed the mannequin’s neck into the floor. When the scruffy man attempted to repeat this process with a nearby pillow, he wound up failing his flip, falling over, and hurting himself. After screaming a colourful variety of curses and tearing off his headband, he limped off into another part of the house and vanished.

Blinking several times, a bewildered Claire turned towards the man’s astral form. He smiled awkwardly. Rather than answering her or explaining himself, he opted to do nothing but go through the motions of sitting atop his couch. He wasn’t actually capable of putting any weight on it, given that he was a weightless spirit to begin with, but floating atop it was enough to demonstrate his intent. Once he was supposedly comfortable, the astral projection began to speak at length.

“Learn martial arts.”

Log Entry 633
Detect Force Magic has reached level 2.

A notification went off in her mind as a summary of the man’s rant plastered itself at the front of her consciousness. She couldn’t tell if the log entry was real. Something about the airy way it echoed in her head made it seem like it had only been a figment of her imagination. But she didn’t have the time to dwell on it.

With a snap of his fingers, the man caused the scene to shift. She was shown yet another instance where his corporeal form was wearing the dark outfit, but this time, he was sitting in front of a much smaller magical box. His hands manipulated a different wand, a rectangular box with a large knob and several clacky, depressible pieces of an unrecognizable material.

“Practice.”

Within his glowing artifact, she saw what looked to be a poor illustration of a woman repeating the action that had caused the man to injure herself, except with a twist. A literal twist. Each time she turned upside down, she would spin both her body and her target to add to the force with which she broke her opponent’s neck. Looking at the illustration, she started to think it was somewhat familiar. It was wearing a thin dress underneath a muddy brown cloak. She could see scales both on the soles of its feet and across its cheeks. And its head featured a pair of almost comically large ears.

But the more she focused on it, the more blurry it became. She could only note its details when she regarded it through her peripherals. And no matter how she tried, she couldn’t deduce its identity. Her mind was too clouded for there to be anything besides a vague sense of familiarity.

He mouthed a sentence summarized as “Learned?” after they watched the blurry illustration repeat the exact same set of actions for what seemed like hours on end. She wasn’t able to discern what it was that she was supposed to have picked up, so all she did was return his gaze with her brows furrowed.

The lack of a positive reaction seemed to disappoint the man greatly. He sighed to himself and slowly shook his head from side to side.

“Shame. Out of time."

Log Entry 634
Detect Force Magic has reached level 3.

With another snap of the man’s fingers, the lucid dream ended the same way it always did. Everything vanished. The man, his astral projection, and the house he possessed all faded to the same shade of black. She started to fall, endlessly, into a pit of nothingness. The descent was something that had scared her once, but no longer did it lead to panic. She had even started to enjoy it. Closing her eyes, Claire spread her arms wide and basked in the sensation of plummeting through the darkness. She even flipped herself over so she could feel the rush of the wind against her face.

Her familiarity with harmlessly falling awake was the precise reason that Claire was so surprised to find her face in pain. Her nose ached. It had been smashed right into the flat part of a root. With how much it was bleeding, she thought herself rather fortunate to discover, with an initial touch, that it was not broken.

Though Claire was bothered by the pain, her focus was elsewhere. She couldn’t be bothered to stop the bleeding, not when her hands were too preoccupied with pressing her ears down against her head. Desperately, she grit her teeth so she could drown out the bells that were assailing her mind.

Log Entry 635
Detect Force Magic has reached level 4.

Log Entry 636
You have heeded the Whisper of Mirewood Meadow. The Lord of the Steppe and the Lord of the Slough await those who dare to challenge them.

Shut up, Box. You’re not helping.

One small puddle of blood later, the brass contraptions finally died down. She pushed herself off the ground with one of her newly freed hands and pinched the bridge of her nose with the other. Her whole face was sticky, covered with a mixture of red and brown. The bloodstained mud was plastered all over her eyelids, so she kept them shut until she washed her face, after her nosebleed went away.

Finally ridding herself of any traces of her embarrassing morning mishap, Claire gathered her things and climbed down through the hole that she had dug the night prior. Having suffered at gravity’s hand already, she knew that the world had once again turned itself on its head, so she exited feet first to avoid a second equally embarrassing accident. She still didn’t know exactly where she was, so she started by landing on a branch in hopes that the elevation would provide her a better grasp of her surroundings. The only problem? It didn’t.

The upside down forest floor refused to provide any hints and the overly dense canopy made it so she was unable to see off into the distance until she climbed through it. Even then, there was nothing of note. There was little but swamp in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

“This is all that stupid huskar’s fault.”

The halfbreed felt absolutely no remorse in blaming the man. In fact, she was even starting to feel that he had been fully deserving of the kick she had delivered straight to his groin. The rogue had no doubt that she would have had a much better grasp on her whereabouts had he not spent the night randomly teleporting about. But that was only because she was blissfully unaware that the artificer had only warped around to secure his properties against any potential Claire-shaped intruders.

Even after some additional scouting, she was unable to make heads or tails of her location; she had absolutely no idea where she was supposed to go. Fortunately, she had a solution. The halfbreed retrieved a certain candle from her waist pouch, gave it a spin, and after checking for any nearby birds, headed off in the direction of its wick.

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Spicy Space Squid

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