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Chapter 26 - Pests and Poisons VII

The settlement’s entire population gathered within the central tower over the course of a few brief minutes. Claire tried to keep track of the total, but enumerating every single veaber that entered the range of her perception was outright impossible. The wart-covered rodents refused to sit still and the rogue’s less-than-exceptional vantage point did nothing to facilitate the head-counting process. In the end, she wasn’t able to make anything even close to a decent estimate. The only conclusion she drew was that there were likely over a thousand of them, all headed straight for the third floor. It was a volume that seemed impossible, at first, but her opinion changed as soon as she climbed through the fruity fungal pile that was her hiding spot and directed her gaze through a hole in the ceiling.

Only then did she discover that the building was far from the static construct she had thought it was. Her ears flustered in shock as its midsection gradually expanded, growing to accommodate the population. A product of wood magic.

All of it seemed to be the work of a single caster. One of the upside down cave dwellers was standing directly above the cauldron with a staff raised over his head. The two-handed cane looked unwieldy at best, its weight distribution thrown off completely by a multi-coloured rock over five times the girth of its shaft. The halfbreed wasn’t able to feel the mana that the supposedly magical stick was infused with—she had lost that ability when she stopped being a ritual mage—but she could still see it. Many of the tiny gems embedded within its rocky staff twinkled with each growth-inducing pulse. But notable as it may have been, it was not the mage’s spell that drew Claire’s gaze. The bluescale’s focus stemmed from a completely different source.

Recognition.

Differentiating between the various veabers was something that the halfbreed found more or less impossible. Their only discernible facial features were warts and she hadn’t stared at any individual for long enough to memorize its patterns. But she identified the sorcerer nonetheless.

Because its head was adorned by both a flower and a knife.

It was the one that ignored her, the one that expressed nothing but nonchalance in the face of a supposedly traumatic head injury.

Keeping a careful eye on the mage revealed that wood magic was not its only specialty. Much to Claire’s dismay, it soon transitioned from augmenting the tower to a task that she was much more familiar with. A horrified gasp escaped her lips as she watched it point its staff at six distinct points in its vicinity, each a precise distance and angle from the previous.

No sooner did the magic circle actualize than she determined its purpose. Everything clicked into place. She finally understood why the redskins had chosen to gather the swamp’s water in buckets caked with their own filth. They had no need to concern themselves with sanitation, and not because their bodies were capable of filtering it. So long as the caster was present, the settlement would never be without clean water. He was a ritual mage, one capable of performing the Sacrament of Purity.

Claire was fuming. She was so frustrated by the ritual mage’s presence and purpose that she nearly hissed. With just a few simple steps, the knife-hatted goblin was about to accidentally invalidate all the effort she had put into invading his home. She wanted—needed—to stop him before he ruined her day a second time. But she didn’t know how. There was no way to disrupt the ceremony. The only thing she could do was keep watch and hope for him to make a blunder. Which he did not.

The rodent performed the ritual with such mastery that Claire couldn’t help but find herself impressed. Though she wasn’t able to sense and confirm his control over it, the perfectly formed magic circle led to the impression that he was far more adept than she had ever been. His offering was bizarre, as he was using a large berry in the place of what was otherwise supposed to be a cup of wine, but he proceeded with utmost confidence nonetheless.

Even his prayer was unlike any that she could conjure. It was unintelligible to her, but somehow solemn and disciplined nonetheless. She could tell, even from his awkward squeaking, that he truly trusted the powers above. Most impressive, however, was not the way he handled the ritual’s precursory steps, but rather the manner in which he assimilated the offering’s vessel. Raising the berry to his lips, the rodent sucked all the liquid from it in a single breath—without damaging its structure or integrity. Somehow, he was more proficient at draining the fruit than she was a glass. While just about every one of her instructors begged to differ, the halfbreed insisted that it wasn’t her fault. Ceremonial goblets simply weren’t made for people with forked tongues.

Log Entry 655
Envenom has reached level 4.

Log Entry 656
Assassinate has reached level 4.

Huh?

Claire blinked a few times before her eyes finally caught a tiny detail. The fruit that the ritual mage had drained in one breath happened to feature a slight blemish, a tiny imperfection in the form of a nibble.

It was the fruit she poisoned.

Serves you right!

While poisoning the rodent didn’t put a stop to his ritual, it did at least have an adverse effect on his performance. His chittering became sluggish and slurred, and his imposing, almost saint-like aura was greatly diminished by a newfound lack of vigour. The shaman’s condition only worsened as the seconds ticked by. His head wound, the one tied directly to Claire’s knife, began visibly festering by the time he moved onto the last step of his rite and plunged his staff into the water. Despite his wounds, the ritual was unaffected. Large ripples coursed through it, transforming the mucky slough into a clear reservoir.

Having watched the rodent complete his duty, Claire decided that it was time to take her leave. There wasn’t much else for her to do. Sticking around wouldn’t provide her any second chances to poison the water supply, as there were too many eyes in the room, and she doubted that she would be able to find any stragglers to kill, so she grabbed her wooden hoverboard and left as quickly as she could. Sneaking out wasn’t very difficult. None of the veabers were keeping watch, so she was able to leave the building and float her way up to the settlement’s nearest stump-sized exit without any further interruptions.

After spinning her candle and deciding on a random direction, the rogue got on top of her prehistoric flying machine and launched herself through the swamp. Staying just above the ground and using her cudgel as an oar aided her in moving through the marsh at a rapid pace that completely eclipsed any she was previously capable of. Steering was somewhat difficult, given the lack of friction, but keeping her feet out of the mud made it well worth the effort.

Claire’s mind began to wander after a few minutes on the road. Before long, she found herself reflecting on the day’s progress. The results were clear-cut. She had failed to poison the whole camp, but not all her efforts had been wasted. The druid’s life was hers. Like the first redskin, the mage would eventually succumb to her poison. All she needed to do was wait.

Or at least that was what she thought until a notification popped into her mind.

That was quick.

Log Entry 657
You have slain a level 1 altered raven.

Huh? Again? How?

Claire stopped in her tracks to give the log entry another once-over. Surely enough, its text remained unchanged even after a good staredown. According to the records, she had somehow killed a raven. Again.

The most perplexing part of the whole situation was its consistency. There were now two instances where attacking a caveveaber had somehow induced a low leveled raven’s death. Claire was confused. Very, very confused. Speculating about the cause didn’t get her anywhere either. The only hypothesis she was able to come up with was that the veabers kept tiny ravens inside their bodies, but even that didn’t seem quite right. The naked rat that she may or may not have lobotomized had shown no signs of housing another entity.

But what if the ravens are just really, really small? That can’t be right, can it?

Log Entry 658
You have slain a level 1 altered raven.

Another one? What’s going on…?

Log Entry 659
You have slain a level 1 altered raven.

Stop messing with me, Box.

Claire wanted to get to the bottom of whatever was going on, but she wound up dismissing the idea soon after she tried her hand at thinking it through. Leaving the veaber camp caused the adrenaline flooding her system to drain. She found herself too worn out to bother with any sort of abstract mental exercise. Unraveling the raven mystery would have to wait. Unlike the previous night, she wasn’t on the verge of collapse just yet, but she was certainly starting to get there and forcing her brain to work overtime was unlikely to help.

Pretending that there was nothing to worry about left her in a much better mood. She found that she was fairly content with how the course of events had played out and a minor shift in perspective was all it took for her to label the expedition a success. She couldn’t quite deny that her attempt to eradicate an entire species had ended in failure, but systematic genocide had never been on her todo list to begin with. The whole point of infiltrating the stronghold was to murder a very specific individual. And as that particular specimen was now dead, there was no reason to say that the operation had failed.

None at all.

Even if she hadn’t walked out with a thousand kills.

Okay, maybe I’m a little bit disappointed, but that’s okay.

Claire was used to being disappointed. Coincidentally, so was her father. And coincidentally, it was always her fault. Coincidentally.

“Why did there have to be a ritual mage?”

One loud groan later, Claire gave up on lying to herself and admitted that she couldn’t get over her lack of success. She had spent an excessive amount of time wading barefoot through piles of manure, the stench of which had practically baked itself into her clothes. She couldn’t even open her mouth anymore. Her tongue was far too sensitive to the repulsive miasma that she was worried she would retch and vomit the moment she did. The evening she spent in the camp still would have been one of torture without accounting for all the labour and stress. And the only thing that came out of it was the bitter taste of defeat. Her victory had been wrenched from her hands at the very last moment.

It wasn’t fair.

For no other reason than to spite her, the mage had turned everything on its head without any prior warning. Just like her father.

She bit down on her lips as one of the memories she had tried to repress forced its way into the foreground. The scene of a dusty office at dusk. The smell of smoke and liquor. The clicking of the door as the butler left the room and locked it behind him. And the presence of a cold-hearted oppressor desperate for nothing but bygone glory. He had tried to convince her to sell her soul. For a cause that she cared nothing about.

Unable to bear the thought any longer, Claire bashed her head into the nearest tree trunk with enough force to leave a visible dent. The primitive method failed to fully purge the thought, but it did at least help her focus, in part because the shockwave had startled a nearby raven, which she quickly dispatched with a sharp bony projectile.

Log Entry 660
You have slain a level 12 altered raven.

She seriously contemplated leaving it where it was, but even in her distress, she knew it to be a waste of a perfectly good weapon. Still panting heavily, the teary eyed tomboy climbed her way up to the forest floor and begrudgingly retrieved her dagger from the freshly made corpse.

That’s enough moping. Think happy thoughts.

Despite her best efforts, she wasn’t able to make anything pleasant come to mind. She was so frustrated she nearly stabbed the raven a few extra times, just to work off some of her stress. But her blade stopped short.

A few deep breaths later, she pulled away from the dead bird and slid back up the tree’s trunk. Landing on the nearest branch, she took another breath and started wiping her dagger off with her cloak. It wasn’t actually getting any cleaner, no matter how much she scrubbed, so she took the garment off and threw some stale water into the mix. Once all the blood was gone, she put the weapon away and moved on to scouring the cloak. She didn’t know if getting the smell out of the old rag was possible, but she at least wanted to give it a try.

Her hands working away by themselves, Claire raised her head and scanned her environment. Now that she was paying more attention to it, she started to find that it was oddly familiar. She couldn’t shake the impression that she had been in the area before, and not just because the forest was monotone. Something about the way the trees were positioned had her mind screaming in recognition. And soon, she realized why.

There was a small hole right next to a particularly conspicuous uprooted bush. It was somewhat narrow, but not so narrow that an underdeveloped teenager wouldn’t fit.

Thanks, mystical candle of luck. I knew I was right to trust you.

After winging out her cloak and finding it significantly less odorous, Claire swapped it with her dress, which she began cleaning in a similar but more thorough fashion. The ceremonial gown was her sole undergarment. All the other articles of clothing she looted were too rough to be worn by themselves. Only the fifth or so of her body that was covered in scales would be even remotely comfortable without a softer fabric to serve as a buffer.

Finally clean, Claire got on top of her floating stump and sleepily hovered her way to shelter. She was expecting to relax, but sticking her head inside the burrow led to a sense of malaise. Something about it didn’t seem quite right. It was much larger than what she recalled. The chamber was tall enough to fit her even if she stood upright, and it was even connected to a second separate room.

For a moment, she thought that she had made a mistake, but the bush was definitely the one that she had wrenched from the ground and there was a clear imprint of her face on the floor, alongside a slightly darker patch of dirt, a remnant from an unfortunate mishap she would have very much preferred to forget.

“Oh, you’re back! I’m really sorry. I probably shouldn’t have moved in without your permission, but this was the only bramblewood tree I could find.”

A voice came from the freshly excavated second chamber. It was feminine, timid, and apologetic. Meek, even. Its owner began walking over after setting down an object that produced a notable metallic clink. Claire wasn’t able to make out its form, as the cavern was dim. The only light source was to her back, but the sound of the creature’s footsteps made it seem small and nimble, with feet as light as feathers. It took straining her ears to determine that the intruder walked on four legs.

“I was really hoping that you’d at least let me stay the nigh—”

The speaker froze the moment it rounded the corner and laid its eyes on her.

And as did she.

Both were equally taken aback.

Because one was an unusual halfbreed with two weapons drawn.

And the other was a fox. A confused, terrified fox.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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