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Chapter 21 - Pests and Poisons II

Claire proceeded with caution. She did her best to stay hidden amongst the leaves as she silently moved from tree to tree. Her ears remained perked up throughout the journey, working overtime to ensure that she was aware of everything in her surroundings. It was hard to stay focused for so long, but the halfbreed didn’t mind it too much. Fatigue was the only roadblock she experienced. Traversing the upside-down canopy was otherwise difficulty-free. The individual plants were clustered so closely together that she barely had to worry about watching her feet; there was always a sturdy, central branch to stand on.

Another benefit derived from avoiding the swamp came in the form of a distinct lack of moisture. She was still sweating and making herself clammy and uncomfortable, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been the previous day. She wasn’t half soaked anymore—her clothes weren’t as heavy, her dress wasn’t sticking to her skin, and best of all, she no longer had to deal with the horror that was getting the bog’s grime stuck between her scales.

Comfort was certainly a reason that the rogue had stayed out of the water, but it wasn’t the reason. Her number one priority was keeping out of sight.

The entire meadow forest was filled with birds. Tiny winged dinosaurs were perched in every tree. Only a fraction of them were ravens, and though their cries and thrusters were easily identifiable, it was difficult for her to pick them out when they stayed silent. She could, to an extent, pick out the faint metallic creaks that their less organic parts would make from time to time, but even that was difficult. They were almost always drowned out by all the noise in the background.

Avoiding the marsh would have been a must, even if it wasn’t a major source of discomfort. It was too open. She would have been spotted by one raven or another if she dropped down for so much as a few minutes. Staying in the trees was all the halfbreed could do to give herself a fighting chance of noticing the black-feathered birds before they noticed her.

“Stupid achievement,” groaned Claire. I was just trying to be nice. All I did was murder a mother and feed her to her kids! ...Okay, admittedly it sounds a lot worse if I put it like that, but whatever. They were just dumb birds.

Heaving a bit of a sigh, the bluescale began sneaking up on a raven she had spotted from afar. Unlike most of the others, which remained airborne, it was at rest on top of a branch.

All because I felt bad for them… Ugh… Durham was right… Why does Durham of all people have to be right?

Her combat instructor had stated on many occasions that feeling pity for one’s foes was the sort of folly that would lead to one’s downfall. As much as she hated him, she was starting to think that he had a point. The crows wouldn’t have marked her had she not let the box guilt trip her into making a mistake.

Wait! That just means that this is all the box’s fault...

With another internal groan, the halfbreed closed the distance between her and her target. Her Sneaking skill lightened her footsteps and kept the upside-down bird from perceiving her movements. Once upon it, she stabbed it in two places at once. One dagger pierced its skull while the other broke through its trunk. She knew striking it twice was already overkill, but she turned two attacks to four by activating Double Stab nonetheless. Just so she could feed the skill the experience it needed to grow.

Log Entry 637
You have slain a level 12 altered raven.

Log Entry 638
Assassinate has reached level 3.

That reminds me… Why don’t my achievements show up in my status? The only way for me to check them is to go through my log. Stupid box.

The swift murder of a living creature reminded Claire of a biological need that she had failed to attend to. Hunger. Being one of her more reptilian traits, her stomach rarely complained when it was left empty. She still had to eat regularly if she wanted to keep her strength up, but she never really got hunger pangs. If not prompted, she would on occasion even forget to eat. Such an occurrence was relatively rare, as she was well accustomed to eating at regular intervals, courtesy of her maids, but it certainly did happen, from time to time. Case in point, her current circumstances. She realized, upon reflecting on the previous day, that she had skipped dinner and forgotten about breakfast the morning after.

Finding herself a nice well concealed perch, Claire sat down and activated Llystletein Authority. Nothing on the list really did much to stimulate her appetite, so she settled for the cheapest option. She activated the skill again and looked through the drink menu as the bread slowly phased into existence. A part of her really wanted to try something other than stale water, but recalling her most recent attempt, the rogue decided to err on the side of caution.

A large plate of bread formed in her hands right as she finished quenching her thirst. There were several different types of loaves atop it. They came in all different shapes. And though Claire didn’t recognize all of them, she was confident that she would have been able to name more than half, courtesy of a long-lasting acquaintanceship with a certain eccentric chef.

I miss Amereth, but I’m glad she’s not here. A bit of a smile crossed her lips as the bipedal shark’s freckled face came to mind. She’d throw a fit if she ever had to eat anything this awful.

Claire grabbed only a single thin loaf from the pile. She knew that she wasn’t going to finish all the bread she had summoned. That wasn’t to say that such a feat was outright impossible, given that her stomach was well suited to expanding beyond what otherwise appeared to be its maximum capacity, but trying was sure to leave her immobile, vulnerable, and half asleep. She was still tempted to give it a shot, just to see how much of the platter she could consume, but the rogue refrained. It really wasn’t a good idea.

After kicking the plate through a gap in the canopy, just to rid herself of any further temptation, the halfbreed stretched and got to eating. There was a big splash as the oversized ceramic dish hit the water, but Claire wasn’t particularly concerned. The various semi-aquatic creatures strewn throughout the region made similar commotions each time they repeated the transition from land to swamp and back.

Much to nobody’s surprise, the bread was every bit as tasteless and awful as everything else the skill had created. The excessively hard texture made it extremely unpleasant to eat, but Claire didn’t bother complaining. She was too busy thinking about her next steps to care.

The most important thing on her agenda was escaping Mirewood Meadow. Hunting the various monsters that lived within it was another task of considerable value. Most of them seemed weaker than the ones on the previous floor, and she was certain that they would function as a decent source of experience. The only problem was that there were no opportunities for her to fight them. The ravens were still on the hunt, and even Claire understood that it was best to lie low, either until they relented or she escaped their territory, the bounds of which remained a mystery.

The best-case scenario was leaving by sundown. Another overnight stay seemed foolish if not outright suicidal. She knew that she had only survived the first by chance. Anything with a decent nose could have easily caught wind of her, and the simple burrow she had constructed had only one exit; there had been no way for her to run. The safe zone was the only tool she had to ensure that she wouldn’t be attacked in her sleep and five days needed to pass before she could create another.

Escape and experience aside, the only other goal the rogue had in mind was to pick up more equipment. She had lost half her weapons during her previous encounter. Three of the armaments she had on hand had quite literally vanished overnight and there was no telling when the remaining three would kick the bucket. Or at least that was what she thought until she recalled that she had looted a certain huskar’s house.

Swallowing the last piece of her bread loaf, the petite halfbreed undid her new bag’s straps and confirmed that the kitchen tools she had acquired were all present and accounted for. The clothes were there as well, but she knew that trying to put them on would be pointless. They were all far too large for her. She was going to need to modify them before she could put them on, so she left them in the bag and extracted only the knife block and its contents.

All in all, there were ten knives stuck within the oversized wooden sheath. Two of them were without pointed tips. Their blades were rectangular, and while one was smaller than the other, they were both significantly thicker and longer than all their peers. The remaining eight, Claire recognized as standard knives of different sizes. Their forms weren’t exactly identical, as some had serrated edges, and others had odd deformities in their blades, but they still remained relatively familiar, even if she was unable to put a name or purpose to each individual utensil. Not that she needed to. The only bit of knowledge she required was that of their sharpness, and that was something she obtained very quickly.

Playing around with the various knives led her to realize that wearing them on her person was infeasible. They were too dangerous. Every single one of them could cut through wood with next to no difficulty, and her scales and skin were unlikely to offer any more resistance than the tough plant fibre. She would have to keep them sheathed if she wanted to avoid cutting herself and there was no way for her to equip the entire wooden block that they were stored in. Strapping it to her person wasn’t exactly practical.

After wrapping her experiments up, she put away all but two of the blades. The first she kept on hand was the one that most closely resembled the sort of knife seen at the dinner table. Its blade was short, only slightly longer than its handle, but it compensated with a set of jagged teeth near its tip. She knew that the steak knife’s bite could chew through a cow’s flesh with little effort, and saw no reason for a monster’s to be any different. The second knife was one that she failed to recognize. Its tiny curved blade was even shorter than the first’s. Its most notable trait seemed to be that it was flexible, but she couldn’t quite figure out why.

Once her weapons were ready, she activated her authority skill and selected the option that she had meant to test the night prior, one that would also relieve her of a biological need whose name she wasn’t inclined to mention. An odd sensation emerged in her abdomen as soon as she made her selection. It felt like something was changing, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what that something was. The feeling lasted only for the briefest moments. She waited with bated breath for her body to expel the magical energy that her waste had supposedly become, but nothing happened, not even after she sat completely still for what seemed like several minutes.

The lack of any noticable effects confused her at first, but her bewilderment vanished as she realized that her urge to excuse herself had long vanished. Her eyes lit up and her ears started fluttering up and down on their own as her mind processed the ramifications wrought by the action’s silence. It was literally everything she wanted. The power to stealthily use the bathroom wherever and whenever she pleased was hers to abuse.

The thought that she would never again have to concern herself with noble etiquette was one that left her equal parts overjoyed and depressed. And contemplating it didn’t exactly make things any better. The more time she spent thinking, the more the latter emotion seemed to cement. She found herself bothered by the sudden departure from the only life she knew. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve always wanted to be able to make my own decisions. And now I can.

Shaking her head clear of any remaining negative thoughts, the rogue got up, stretched, spun the candle, and got back on the move. In pursuit of freedom.

___

I hate making my own decisions.

Three random changes in direction later, a very lost Claire came to the conclusion that freedom could be as detrimental as it was beneficial. Though the circumstances appeared to imply that the decision to alter her route was to blame, the halfbreed felt she wasn’t entirely at fault. She had only veered off course to avoid the areas the ravens nested in en masse. And while it may have been true that she had no idea where she was, she had least managed to escape the black-feathered birds’ domain.

Their headcount had continued to dwindle as she traveled and something in the realm of half an hour had elapsed since she last spotted one. But that was true of more than just the birds. The number of other monsters in general had dropped drastically as well.

While the ravens’ domain had primarily featured oaks, the trees that populated her current location were much more diverse. Some were stockier and had rounded tops while others were much taller and thinner, with branches that were difficult for the halfbreed to traverse. Another significant change came in the form of the water level. It wasn’t nearly as high. There were still ponds and small bogs all over the place, but generally speaking, the realm below was more meadow than marsh.

Of the monsters that she did see on occasion, few were recognizable. Most of them were larger woodland beasts roaming the forest floor above, but she wasn’t sure what exactly they were. That was in part because she didn’t know what they were to begin with, and in part because she hadn’t been able to keep sight of them for long periods at once; they often vanished as quickly as they appeared.

Though she was itching for a fight, now that she was much less likely to be swarmed by an unreasonably large mob of cyborgs, she found herself unable to engage them. There was no real way for her to attach herself to the forest floor. At first, she had been frustrated by the development, but it wasn’t a big enough deal to drive her to loiter around and think of a solution. Because she had a destination in sight, a large wall off in the distance. She had thought that it was the exit at first, but getting closer revealed that she was just as wrong as usual.

It was indeed a large wall, tall enough to span the gap between the two inverted realms, but it wasn’t anything like the one that she had emerged from. The only similarity the two shared was their height. While the exit was made of stone and seemed like a part of the dungeon, the landmark was artificial and constructed from wood. Unlike its rocky counterpart, the wooden wall also didn’t exactly go on for what seemed like forever. It was certainly large; there was no mistaking that, but it was also clearly finite.

Getting even closer provided the observation that it was crude at best. Many of the materials used in the crooked border were barely processed. The excess branches had been haphazardly torn off, but that was it. The trunks were left completely uncut, and in some cases, even the bark was untouched.

There were even gaps present all along its length. Most of the larger ones were patched, filled with branches and sticks. But the smaller holes, the ones that came about naturally as a result of the boundary’s poor construction, were left as is. She was able to catch a few glimpses of what lay beyond, but she wasn’t close enough to make out the details, nor was she able to get any closer without running the risk of being spotted.

The site, which she assumed to be some sort of settlement, was well guarded. Groups of small bipedal creatures patrolled its perimeter. Labeling their dark red bodies as ugly and unpleasant would make for a series of understatements at best. Fuzzy red squirrel-like tails aside, they were hairless and scaleless; their wart-covered skin was laid bare for all to see. Some were so marred by growths that she couldn’t tell if they had one nose or four. She was almost tempted to conclude that they were goblins, based on their crooked malformed ears, but their body-length tails spoke to the contrary. Goblin tails were only supposed to be stubs.

As they were moving in groups and coordinating with one another, she was under the impression that they were at least somewhat intelligent. But that was not by any means a signal for her to attempt communication. She knew better than to try something so futile. The only sounds they were capable of making, from her observations, were high pitched squeaks. She was never going to be able to understand them.

In other words, they were fair game, lambs to the slaughter, just like the barbarians to the north.

Brandishing her knives, Claire did as any sensible person in her situation would. She sought a straggler.

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Spicy Space Squid

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