Chapter 25 - Pests and Poisons VI

Claire was confused. It was supposed to be nighttime. The sky had been a mix of oranges and purples when she first started digging, and she’d been at it for an incredibly long time. Evidently, she was wrong. Turning herself upside down and sticking her head out of the freshly excavated overpass led to an uncomfortable staring contest with the morning sun. She wasn’t able to see the glowing sphere itself, but its unreasonably bright rays seeped through the fence’s imperfections and burned themselves straight into her retinas.

She blinked a few times, not just to get the sun out of her eyes, but also so that she could make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. The halfbreed was so bewildered that she even raised her ears like a hare to better survey her acoustic environment. She didn’t know how the marsh’s mornings were supposed to sound, but the various bird calls she noted seemed awfully similar to the ones that she had heard when she first woke up.

Or at least I think they do... What if I’m wrong?

With a shiver, she quickly double checked her memory for any blank patches. There didn’t seem to be any, but it was hard for her to say for sure. As far as she could tell, she had spent the last hour or so digging a long tunnel that spanned the length of one of the tower’s sides. She hadn’t exactly remained at attention throughout, given that the task had bored the living daylights out of her, but she was at least fairly certain that the world had never flipped. And that she had probably never passed out. Probably.

What if I fell asleep and just didn’t notice?

It seemed unlikely, but the possibility wasn’t one she could outright deny. Thinking back on the past, Claire recalled a number of incidents. She didn’t remember how she had managed to finish knitting the scarf she gave Alice for her seventh birthday, nor did she have any substantial memories of the time her father had forced her to dance with Durham. Admittedly, the second batch of memories was more likely repressed than missing, but they were more than compensated for by the countless rituals that had somehow automagically completed themselves while she was off in dream land.

Oh no.

The more she reflected, the spottier her most recent memories seemed. Popping back into the tunnel didn’t help either. She couldn’t remember exactly when she had dug out each part. The only section she could really recollect was her starting point, and only because it happened to line up with one of the building’s corners.

That aside, she was unable to recall any additional details. Even her own thoughts remained a total mystery. She couldn’t remember what she had been thinking about while she dug the tunnel. Anxiety struck her like a wave, but it ebbed as quickly as it flowed. The time of day was no longer something she had to care about. She didn’t have any lessons anymore and her father wasn’t there to nag about the importance of keeping a schedule. The halfbreed finally could nap for as long as she wanted wherever and whenever her heart desired.

Having come to a happy conclusion, she set the matter of her exhaustion aside, climbed back into the great outdoors, and looked over her handiwork. The tower’s midsection was starting to bow. It didn’t seem like it was on the verge of collapse just yet, but it was sure to fall over on its own if given enough time. Patience, however, was not exactly Claire’s strongest suit. She had every intention of bringing down the building as soon as possible. The only problem? She was starting to get bored. Really, really bored.

Maybe I should try thinking about something fun...

Her mind immediately jumped to the life she left behind, but that depressing chain of thoughts was quickly shelved in favour of something that was clearly much more amusing, counting veabers. She used her ears to track the individuals that came and went from the central supply depot as her hands worked the dirt.

Log Entry 652
Digging has reached level 8.

Digging is already level 8? I don’t even remember it hitting level 7. I guess I really did fall asleep… Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. ...That’s probably it, right? R-right...?

Naturally, counting the veabers wasn’t exactly the most entertaining thing in the world, so she spiced the pastime up by throwing her imagination into the ring. The first thing her brain came up with was a fictitious sound, the thump of a heavy blow. Prompted by the theme, she started to imagine the veabers meeting horrible fates as their footsteps faded. Some were beaten to death, others were torn apart, and a third group was shredded to bits by the gnashing of teeth. The sounds grew more vivid with time. And before long, she felt as if she could hear them for real. The squelching of liquified flesh, the grinding of bone, and the veabers’ death cries were so evocative that she didn’t believe it possible for them to be mere figments of her imagination.

Log Entry 653
Tracking has reached level 7.

Shaking her head, she tried to clear her mind of the perturbed thoughts, but to no avail. She could still sense the red-skins meeting horrible ends even when she stopped tracing their locations. They weren’t the only sounds she heard either. Her ears seemed to be telling her that there was some sort of commotion. Hundreds of squeaks and chirps rang throughout the camp as it buzzed to life. The unwanted screeches led the halfbreed to suspect that she was under the influence of force magic, but she soon realized nothing of the sort was present. Her detection skill wasn’t going off, and folding her ears inwards successfully served to dampen the sounds.

That was when it finally hit her. She wasn’t just imagining them. The splats, cracks, and thumps that had prompted her less-than-savoury thoughts were real. Poking her head out of a freshly excavated exit, she looked towards the source of all the violence.

There was another intruder.

Its size was less than half of hers, but its might was far more than double. Unlike the floppy-eared teenager, the metallic platypus was capable of slaying the veabers in a single strike. Its tiny tail was so powerful that it tore through the rodents’ bodies with ease. Its bill quite literally snapped their spines, separating their corpses into distinct parts with each bite. Everything that entered its mouth was smashed to bits, regardless of whether it was flesh or bone. Thin rods of steel were occasionally fired from an oddly familiar set of semi-circular pads mounted on its back.

The veabers didn’t run, focusing instead on confrontation. Workers and guards alike swarmed the metallic threat, throwing their bodies at it with enough vigour to mute the pale blue light of its core. Others made use of the environment, calling the power of the forest to their aid. New growth sprung forth from the land and nipped at the duck billed abomination’s heels, but the magic had little effect. No spell was capable of slowing the mech down for any more than a second, regardless of whether it came from the ceiling or the floor.

Claire continued to keep an eye on the situation as she snuck her way over to the central tower. She was confident that her demolition-based approach would have wound up working out, but she saw no reason not to make use of the golem’s advent. Frankly, she was sick of digging. Any excuse to set down her nonexistent shovel was more than welcome.

Even with the distraction, getting inside the central spire proved surprisingly difficult. Most of the more important-looking veabers were still hovering around; the ruling class had opted not to kill itself on the drone. That, however, wasn’t to say that they weren’t focused on it. She managed to avoid their gazes by sneaking around the building and accessing it from the side opposite the mechanical threat. Much to her relief, the red-skins’ noses were just as inept as those of their non-Llysltetein counterparts. Staying out of sight had kept them from noticing her.

I wonder if their backs are still just as vulnerable…

The blue scale wanted to put the theory to the test, but shelved it for the foreseeable future. She couldn’t afford to risk revealing herself. Not when she was finally so close to poisoning the whole population.

Only once she was inside the tower did she finally focus most of her attention on the battle. As they had induced a day-long headache, Claire was more than interested in watching something give the squirrel goblins the pummeling they deserved. Still, she approached the conflict with a mixed bag of emotions. The halfbreed was well aware that each death was ultimately a loss. Every rodent the metallic duck killed was one that she was denied.

At first, she had even been worried that the artifact would wipe out the entire population, but that concern was almost immediately put to rest. It was far stronger than the veabers were individually, but nothing could be done about the red-skins’ strength in numbers. Permanent damage was inflicted to the golem every time it was caught by the tide of vermin. She didn’t know whether the construct was capable of leveling up, but she doubted that such an event would even help it. Its health would be restored to its maximum, but the resources that it used, such as the pellets that it fired from its mouth and the explosive needles that it shot from its circular turrets, would not be restored. One particular red-skin was even starting to run circles around it. The super speedy squirrel was ducking and weaving its way around the robot’s attacks while retaliating with various bites, headbutts, and punches.

Seeing the artifact continue to struggle raised a few questions in Claire’s mind, mainly with regards to its presence and purpose, but she wasn’t able to come to any real conclusions. The only suspicion she had in mind was that it was somehow connected to the orb that she had kicked, but she doubted it. There was no reason for the artifact to attack the camp if she were its target.

After a bit of musing, she discarded any further thoughts about the golem and tore her eyes away from it. There was no reason for her to keep watching now that the result had been set in stone. Navigating the supply depot was much higher on her priority list.

As most of the building’s occupants happened to be missing, working her way through it was much simpler than it would have been under more normal circumstances. Unlike the first tower she explored, the central spire wasn’t split into a series of smaller rooms. Each floor was effectively its own large open auditorium that stood at twice the height of the other towers’ chambers. The only way to get between the stories was to climb a wall and then move along the ceiling until she got to one of the holes. Or at least that’s what it would have been, had she not been in possession of a floating tree stump.

Claire had managed to transport the levitating device between the spires by weighing it down with a few random pieces of wood and pushing it along. She had only brought it with her because she had taken a liking to it, but the impromptu choice paid off. It still would have been possible for her to navigate the tower without it, but the self-rising platform saved her oodles of time and effort.

To the rogue’s surprise, the squirrels proved themselves fairly organised. Each story was dedicated to a specific type of supply, with the bottommost floor mainly meat. The corpses of all sorts of different monsters were piled up both on the ceiling and on the floor. Some of the piles were less uneaten than others, and those that did have fresh goods always contained a surplus of them.

The second floor was filled with the fruits of the veabers’ foraging efforts. Mushrooms and berries could be seen piled up all over. The halfbreed had been curious about the bright red fruits since she first saw them, so she grabbed an especially ripe looking berry off a pedestal and raised it to her face.

Much to her dismay, the head-sized fruit tasted just as awful as everything else she had consumed in the labyrinth. It wasn’t completely deprived of flavour like the dishes summoned by her authority skill, but it was still nasty to say the least. An overpowering acrid sourness filled her whole throat after just a tiny nibble. With a frown, the rogue cast Envenom and pumped it full of semi-persistent rocket fuel before setting it back where she found it. There wasn’t any real purpose in defiling the fruit. It was unlikely to be eaten before the five-hour poison decayed and the entire population was likely to suffer the effects of her water-related efforts either way. She had mostly done it out of spite.

A part of her was tempted to try some of the fungi as well, but she knew that to be a bad idea. Mushrooms were not always safe to consume and the rogue wasn’t exactly looking to get herself poisoned two days in a row. Further contributing to her swift dismissal was the sour taste that still lingered in her mouth. She doubted that the dark lumpy earth balls were anything near worth tasting given how unpalatable the berries had been. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t imagine the experience of eating one being any better than that of eating a rock. The rounded shrooms were just as firm and had clumps of dirt wedged into their countless creases, stubborn earthy clumps that not even a stream of stale water could purge. Even the snake on her shoulder screamed that they were to be avoided at all costs.

Floor three was where Claire finally found what she was looking for. The water that the veabers had gathered was contained in a large wooden basin that had grown out of the ground. Wide but shallow, the circular container spanned nearly half the room while standing at only roughly three quarters Claire’s height. She could easily imagine the rodents hunching over and drinking from it.

Not wasting any time, she placed one of her hands on the misshapen cauldron and coated the entire dish in a layer of permanent rocket fuel—deadly poison ready to be consumed.

Log Entry 654
Envenom has reached level 3.

The raven-based fuel’s colour barely differed from that of the swamp water, but it was far from invisible. Its rainbow coloured reflections were impossible to hide courtesy of the sunlight beaming in through the building’s shoddily constructed walls. Claire was tempted to see if she could do something about the iridescent film, but her mace proved itself a poor vessel for stirring the oversized pot, so she gave up, packed up her stuff, and exited the supply depot.

A loud boom rang throughout the camp shortly after she snuck her way back outside the tower. Peeking around the corner, she confirmed that the platypus golem had died, leaving a large explosion in the wake of its shut down. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised by the suicidal detonation. That was just how things made by artificers were. Any combatworthy vessel that didn’t explode was likely outright dysfunctional, not quite as dysfunctional as Durham after she accidentally spent five straight minutes kicking him between the legs with a metal boot, but dysfunctional nonetheless.

The not-beavers began to chirp and bark with vigour, as if to declare their victory to the world. The sheer volume was giving her a headache; Claire had to hold down her ears to tolerate the noise level, but not even that was able to help her for long. One of the more important looking squirrels joined in, shouting at the top of its lungs as would a warlord. The sound of its violent, bloodthirsty cry was so loud that it nearly blew out her eardrums. She could hardly believe that the noise had come from the rodent’s throat. It just didn’t seem physically possible, lest the creature blew itself up in the process. Not that flesh and blood monsters could.

Its ridiculous cry prompted obedience in its subjects. All the others silenced themselves and began moving towards the central tower.

The tower she was standing behind.

There was no real way for her to escape. The monsters were on both her left and her right, and they were sure to spot her if she tried to run. Standing still wouldn’t help either. There were too many of them to fit through the front, and she knew from her previous observations that they would much rather use another entrance than wait calmly in line.

Left with no other choice, Claire dashed back into the building, floated up to the second floor, and dove straight into an upside down pile of berries and fungi. Getting inside of it proved surprisingly difficult. Random fruits and mushrooms kept falling to fill in any gaps she made, but she eventually managed to slither her way into a makeshift tunnel nonetheless.


About the author

Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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