Chapter 30 - The Secret Lives of Llystletein Foxes IV
Claire focused on her ears as she slowly climbed her way up the burrow’s main entrance, the one that Slyvia hadn’t added in the middle of the night. Moving the long triangular organs to and fro, she examined the soundscape and checked if there were any ravens in her vicinity. Only when she was certain of her safety did she lower the shapely floppers to their resting position.
Why do they have to be so heavy?
A groan escaped her as she considered the disadvantages of well-endowment. Most of the others found it easy to keep their ears perked up at all times without even the slightest hint of fatigue, but Claire’s were so big and clunky that they had to sit face down on the sides of her head.
“Claire? What’s taking so long? Hurry up!”
The fox was nowhere to be seen, hidden in the undergrowth, but the distinctive sound of her paws against the plant fibre made it easy for the rogue to follow her. Not that she did. Claire was too preoccupied with her flying machine to care about the canid or its desires. Unlike her, the stump had remained completely unaffected by the night’s knell. It was still sitting on the forest’s floor, its long dead roots resting against the soft dirt.
With a sad sigh, she scurried up the nearest tree and chased after her newest acquaintance. Navigating the canopy proved much easier than it had the other day. She was able to make larger leaps and remain balanced even when standing on branches that seemed too thin to support her.
An idea came to mind as she hopped around, an impulse she was more than willing to embrace. Casting her gaze on a random bird flying overhead, Claire took three long strides forward and leapt into the air. A tingling wave of excitement coursed through her as the wind rushed by, pushing back on her ears as she extended a hand and reached for the sparrow. The bird began chirping angrily at her as it frantically beat its wings to rise out of her grasp. After a few moments of struggling, it escaped her, but just barely. Her fingers glanced off the underside of its feathery fan-shaped tail right as her momentum was drained.
She was soon sent hurtling back into the ground with her heart pounding. She was barely able to stop herself from making contact by grabbing a low hanging branch. Her body felt light as a feather, a third its previous weight at most.
Swinging back and forth, she launched herself again, this time, not going quite as high. There wasn’t anything left for her to catch, as all the wildlife had fled, but she continued to soar and plummet, her voice the only thing she restrained. Knowing it to be reckless, Claire limited herself to just an odd minute of exhilaration before returning to the fox awaiting her on the forest’s floor.
“What are you doing Claire? Trying to scare the birds?” asked Sylvia, with her head tilted and her tail swaying back and forth. “The steelwings don’t actually scare that easily, you know? They’ll just come annoy you instead. Sometimes they’ll mess with you just because it makes them happy. They’ll even ummm… drop payloads. I hate them.”
“I was testing something,” said Claire, with a practiced straight face. “Why did you stop?”
“Because you were being really weird, duh,” said the fox. “Oh, and since you don’t know much about the forest, I thought I’d show you something.” Sylvia pointed a limb at a particularly conspicuous tree. “You see that? The one with the really smooth bark?”
Claire paused for a moment to eye the towering giant. It was broad-leafed, like all the others, but its trunk lacked the knots and ridges that most were riddled with. Many of its branches were low hanging, tipped with fully mature out of season acorns. Paying closer attention, she noted that its colour was slightly faded, its rind a lighter shade of brown. Difficult to make out under all the moss, but distinct nonetheless.
“Did you know it can make fruits out of nowhere? And they’re really tasty too! Here, watch this!”
Sylvia scampered to the tree, her tail wagging left and right like a puppy’s. Standing up on two legs as she reached it, the fox knocked three times, lightly rapping the back of her paw against the unwrinkled wood. Nothing happened at first, but as Sylvia was humming, still content and unsurprised, Claire decided that it was best to keep quiet and wait.
The tree groaned to life after about a minute of idling. Its roots rapidly expanded and contracted. They sucked various substances from the earth and gathered them in its stem to form a large lump. The round protrusion slowly moved up the trunk and through the lowest branch, stopping right above the first bunch of acorns. The fruits grew as the orb shrank, inflating to three or four times their previous size. Their form was also greatly altered, with their cupules shrinking into a stem and their nuts growing circular and soft. A fuzzy red skin formed around the once brown kernels, turning each into something that closely resembled a small peach.
Sylvia reached up and grabbed the lowest hanging fruit. She held it in both front paws, leapt over a series of roots, and returned to Claire’s side. Even walking on her hind legs, the fox was surprisingly steady. The behaviour almost seemed natural to her, despite its incongruity with her frame.
“Try it. It’s really good, I promise!”
Claire raised the produce to her face, inspecting it with a flicker of the tongue before she dared to taste it. Its scent was surprisingly sweet, so she popped the whole thing in her mouth at once. Apparently the fox found her caution amusing, as she raised both hands to her face and snorted as she did her best to choke back a laugh.
Biting down, the bluescale opened her eyes wide. It was the most edible thing that she had happened upon in the dungeon so far. The texture was airy and soft. It almost felt like her teeth had slipped right past its flesh, separating the individual pieces with little to no effort. There wasn’t even a pit to stop her from tearing right through its center. Likewise, the flavour was also on the lighter side, much milder than its scent, with a faint sweetness that lingered in her mouth even after she swallowed.
“It’s far from delicious, but I wouldn’t say it’s unaccepta—”
Claire stopped speaking as her nose started to itch. Her head lurched, ejecting a gust of air from her nostrils. Alongside the sneeze came a burst of dandelion-like seeds, each with its own tiny parachute. It wasn’t until she eyed her latest log entry that she was provided an explanation.
Log Entry 675
You have been poisoned. You will periodically sneeze out bundles of seeds for the next 5 minutes.
Log Entry 676
You are now familiar with and capable of producing Soarspore Poison.
“Syl-” Claire sneezed. “Sylvia!”
Her eyes shot towards the fox, who had already given up on stifling her laughter. She was on the ground, rolling around with her legs flailing and her chest heaving as she cackled.
“I can’t believe you ate it!” she choked out, between gasps. “Only cubs ever fall for that one! I can’t believe you actually did it!”
Claire narrowed her gaze as she strutted over to the tree, grabbed a fruit, and dashed at her companion, sneezing all the way.
“Here she comes!” Still laughing, the fox darted into the underbrush.
“Get! Ba-back! Here!”
Claire chased after her, but catching the canid proved difficult. There was almost always a tree or branch between the two of them. Whenever she got close, Sylvia would alter her momentum by using her tail to push off or grab ahold of an object in her vicinity.
The pursuit continued until the two reached a small clearing, a watering hole about ten meters in one direction and twice that in the other. Within it was a liquid clear enough to leave its gravelly depths laid bare. Its edges were shallow, but they quickly tapered into a deep pool. An occasional fish could be seen swimming about, darting in and out of the dark hole that lay at the center of the tiny lake. But even as impressive as it was, the opening’s appearance had nothing to do with the chase’s abrupt end. That accomplishment belonged instead to Sylvia’s ability to walk on the water.
“Can’t catch me now!”
The fox turned to face her pursuer as she reached the lake’s center. Her tongue was lolled and her chest was heaving, but the self-proclaimed half elf continued to laugh, shrilly, in a way that no humanoid could.
Claire, on the other hand, remained mostly unaffected. Her breathing was much steadier, thrown off only by the occasional huff of indignance. The poison had left her system long ago.
“I can’t believe you’re not tired yet! My legs are already about to give out!” panted the smug fox.
“It’s my father’s blood,” said Claire.
“Are you finally going to tell me what you are!?”
Excited, Sylvia trotted over to the water’s edge.
“No,” said Claire, as she grabbed one of the vixen’s paws, pulled her close, and shoved the fruit into her still open mouth.
“Aaaaahh! What wa-” Sylvia sneezed. “That for!?”
“Payback,” said the bluescale, matter-of-factly.
“You’re so mean… I wa-” Again, Sylvia sneezed. “Just playing around!”
“You made me eat something weird.”
With a blank look on her face, Claire slowly reached towards the fox and poked her on the nose. It was just a harmless boop, so the canid didn’t back off. Her lack of caution seemed fairly reasonable, but it soon proved itself a mistake. Claire threw another finger into the mix and plugged both Sylvia’s nostrils right as she tried to sneeze. Left with nowhere to go, most of the seeds found themselves stuck in her snout while the rest wormed their way into the back of her throat.
“Aaaaaahhhh! What the heck!?” Pulling away, Sylvia pawed at her face and blew out as much air as she could.
“More payback.” Only then did Claire’s expression finally shift from a poker face to a small but sure smirk.
“Wasn’t th-” Sylvia sneezed. “First bit enough!?”
“No. But it is now.”
Crossing her arms, the half reptilian began taking a seat next to the water. She relaxed for a bit, perking up only as her ears caught wind of an unexpected but familiar sound. Raising them overhead allowed her to capture the noise in more detail. It was a faraway metallic clinking, the distinct sound of forged plate armour. Without any further delay, Claire grabbed the fox by the neck, leapt up the side of a tree, and hid in the canopy.
“I-I thought yo-you said it was e-enough!” she said, between sneezes, as she flailed.
“Quiet. Someone’s coming.”
“I can’t! I can’t s-stop sneezing!”
“Oh. Right.” Claire set Sylvia down and silently crawled into another tree.
“Y-you can’t just d-ditch me! This is y-your fault!” shouted a teary-eyed Sylvia in a whisper.
“Good luck,” said Claire.
“You’re so mean!”
Ignoring the vixen, Claire climbed higher, stopping only after she found a well-hidden perch. She directed her eyes through a small hole in the canopy and kept them focused on the faraway pair. Both were beasts with tall four legged frames. Each had a human-like body at the front, featuring a second chest, a pair of arms, and a humanoid head. Centaurs. The pair wore breastplates and long frontal bubble skirts made of retractable sheets of steel that extended to their knees. A lever positioned near their humanoid waists controlled the pleated battledresses’ heights; they could be lowered down to their fetlocks, if they needed extra protection. Their rear legs were more exposed, featuring coverings primarily fashioned of leather. Only their greaves were metal, likely to save on expenses. The armour’s design was typical and likely of a Valencian origin.
“Think we should take a quick break?” asked the stallion.
He was a portly blonde with a pair of rounded glasses. His upper half looked fit as a fiddle, but there was no fooling Claire’s gaze. His horsier parts were far from average.
“We just took a break six hours ago,” said the mare. Unlike her companion, she wasn’t lacking in muscle or sporting any extra weight. Her whole body was thin, just like her tragically tiny ears.
“But this is the only watering hole in the area,” said the man. “If we don’t stop now, we’ll be without any water for the next day.”
“Then make some. I could march for another three nights without stopping.”
“Marleena, please. Have mercy. You know I don’t have the stamina to keep up with you, and you know just as well as I do that stale water hardly does the trick. Can’t you at least let me catch my breath and refill my skin?” The male placed a hand against the trunk of a tree, panting heavily as he set down his gear. “I just need five minutes.”
“Lazy oaf.” Marleena wrinkled her nose and looked upon the other man with disdain. “You are an ascended centaur. How is it that you are incapable of marching for two straight days like the rest of us?” The words were spat at him, laced with a shrill venom.
“I’m a plainsrunner, Marleena. I would have no problems marching for three days in a prairie, but I am not well adapted to the forest.”
“Excuses.” Marleena trotted to the pond’s edge, emptying her canteen in the mud before refilling it with fresh water. “Hurry up, Carter. We need to get a move on.”
The man didn’t respond.
“Carter?” Turning her head, Marleena found her companion staring at a tree.
“I think I hear something.” The stallion’s head was turned in Sylvia’s direction, honed in perfectly on her location. “Some sort of… sniffling.”
Marleena followed his gaze, raising her ears and opening them wide.
“Probably some critter. Just leave it. If you don’t hurry up, I’ll leave you behind. We’ve got some borroks to track,” she said, already starting to set off.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, with a defeated sigh.
He moved to the water and began emptying his canteen, only to freeze again as he moved to fill it.
“What now?” groaned his companion.
“Give it another minute or two, and that sniffling critter’s probably dead,” he said. “I think I just saw a big snake, reflected in the water. Or at least it’s eyes.”
“Ah, yes. Carter the ever compassionate, always worried about every last life. Perhaps I might’ve been more inclined to think you cared, if I didn’t know that you were a cold blooded killer.”
“That was in the past,” he whispered. “I’m atoning, now.”
It was too quiet for Marleena to hear, but clear as day for Claire. Or at least it would have been, had she not been too preoccupied with looking for a snake. Despite her best efforts, the only slithering serpent she could find was the one on her shoulder, pestering her to commit bloody murder.