Chapter 31 - The Secret Lives of Llystletein Foxes V
Having thoroughly inspected her surroundings for snakes, Claire dropped down from her perch and walked back towards the clearing. The centaurs were already gone. They had trotted off as soon as they finished refilling their waterskins, one with vigour, and the other reluctance.
“Are you still alive, Sylvia?” she called out to her guide as she put both her bone daggers away.
“Yes, no thanks to you!”
The vixen poked her head out from a patch of leaves with a grumble. She was no longer sneezing, but her snout still twitched from time to time. The fur around it was covered with seeds, an obvious result of her attempt to stay silent.
“I can’t believe you did that to me!” she complained, shooting Claire a venomous glare. “I really thought I was going to die! I had to keep my nose plugged the whole time just to make sure I wouldn’t sneeze, and they still nearly found me.”
“Hide better next time.”
“How am I supposed to hide better!? It wouldn’t have mattered because someone decided to shove a poisonous fruit down my throat! Hiding better wouldn’t have helped at all! They were still going to hear me unless I got really far away.”
“You could’ve just run, if it was that big of a deal.”
“I just spent half an hour running… How am I supposed to run if my legs feel like jelly!? Can’t you see how wobbly they are right now?”
“The only thing I can see is your face.”
“Oh right.” Sylvia hopped onto the ground, nearly failing the landing. Her body was sprawled, all four limbs open so wide that her stomach was only an inch above the ground. “I’m not sure how you didn’t notice. I was really unsteady when I was on the water too.”
“Apparently, I’m bad at paying attention to details,” mumbled Claire.
“I’m not that great at it either. I always keep forgetting more things than I remember. Oh, and speaking of, there’s something I want to check on nearby. Follow me!”
“Awww, why not?”
“It’s just going to be another dumb prank.”
“I promise it’s not! I’ve actually got a really nice hiding spot nearby. Well, ummm, it’s not actually mine since we share it, but it’s basically mine. It’s still above ground, so it’s not really safe at night, but it’s a really nice home away from home during the day. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you’ll get it when you see it. Can you swim?”
“Then I guess I’ll have to use my magic.” Sylvia sighed as she began pawing at Claire’s leg. “Can you pick me up? Gently please.”
Claire grabbed the fox by the tail and yanked her up so they were face to face.
“I said gently!” she complained, as she flailed about. “If you walk around while you’re holding me like this, I’m going to get really dizzy and I won’t be able to keep the spell going.”
“Is this better?” Claire turned the fox around and pulled it close to her chest, tucking both her arms underneath the canid’s forelimbs.
“Yup! Ok, now when I give the signal, walk straight into the lake and into that big hole in the middle.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just another prank?”
“I wish it was, that’d be much more fu—erm, I mean it’s not and I don’t like messing with people for fun. There’s just something like a den on the other side of the water thingy. If you keep walking, you’ll reach the other side. Now give me a second to cast.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.” The rogue raised her brow, her steps growing slower and more hesitant as she got closer to the water’s edge.
“Ughhhhhh, come on Claire! Just trust me!”
“You’ve already tricked me more than once.”
“Well ummm… I only did it with the rope because I didn’t want to stay tied up all night, and the fruit was just a harmless prank. Wasn’t all that chasing just great?”
“Well I had lots of fun. Maybe you just need to learn to enjoy the simpler things in life.”
“Like running through a forest and chasing down an obnoxious fox?”
“Yup! I promise it’s plenty of fun.”
“I’m sure it is...”
“Trust me, it is! You just have to stop taking everything so seriously.”
Closing her eyes, Sylvia hummed a tune and forged a musical note made of mana. The magical inscription, which glowed in a pale green, dissipated into the air soon after it was crafted, reforming around the pair as a thin ovular barrier barely visible to the naked eye.
“Now hurry up and start walking before the spell wears off! I can’t keep it up forever.”
With a frown, Claire hovered a foot above the water’s surface and slowly lowered it inch by inch. Her eyes opened wide when she discovered that it slipped through the liquid without making contact.
She was unable to interact with the water at all. Her whole body, clothes and all, phased straight through it as if it were incorporeal. The sensation would have been equivalent to that of walking through the walls in her dreams if not for the fact that she could still detect the accompanying change in temperature. The hairs on her legs rose as the limbs began to shiver. The tingling cold spread with every step, rising as she continued her descent into the tiny lake’s depths.
The feeling wasn’t so bizarre at waist or chest level, but Claire froze when it got to her face. She could feel the cold fill the insides of her mouth, regardless of whether she kept it closed. It tickled her nose as it rose through her nostrils, but she didn’t feel the urge to sneeze, nor was her breathing disrupted. And when it washed halfway over her eyes, she had to close them and hurry deeper so that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by discomfort.
Looking down, she found the fox staring up at her. Sylvia had the corners of her lips raised in expectation. To many others, the expression would have been off putting, given that the fox’s sharp pointed teeth were on full display, but Claire didn’t react. Her own fangs may have been smaller and less numerous, but they were just as jagged and deadly.
Does she want me to say something?
All the signs seemed to point to a clear yes, so the rogue looked up, set her expression to neutral, and marched on without another word.
Her surroundings dimmed as she dropped down into the hole at the pool’s center. The fall was slow and gradual. It was too dark for her to make out her surroundings in detail, but she never felt like she accelerated. The light above grew further at a steady pace. And when her feet finally met the floor, they did so gently. Her knees didn’t need to bend to support the shift in her weight, nor did she need to concern herself with staying balanced. It almost felt like she was being kept afloat, even though she was slipping right through the water.
There was a loud crackle a few seconds after she touched down. And not because of her. Lamp posts on both sides of the narrow corridor flickered to life, revealing a small rocky tunnel just a bit taller than she was. Dark green weeds could be seen growing from within the stone, standing upright with their stems aflutter. An underwater meadow that looked nothing like the swamp.
Claire waded through the subaquatic grassland, pushing the thick blades of greenery out of her way as she advanced. After a few minutes, she reached a small incline, an upwards slope that led her out of the water into another forested area. Confused, the halfbreed turned around, but the path she had just taken was nowhere in sight. There was nothing but more woodland behind her, and the only water in her vicinity was the marshy field overhead.
The fox in her arms was once again grinning from ear to ear. Her tail was wagging, brushing against Claire’s cloak every time it moved back and forth.
“Well? What do you think? Awesome, wasn’t it? That’s a fox trail. We’ve got plenty of them scattered throughout the whole forest,” said Sylvia, as she slipped out of the bluescale’s arms. “Oh, and we’re outside steelwing territory now too, so you don’t have to keep looking around the trees all the time.”
Claire paused for a moment before she decided to speak. “What happened to all the water?” Her ears were twitching, a clear sign that her curiosity had come out on top.
“It’s still there, but the path we just took is closed. You’ll need to jump down that tree to get back.” Sylvia pointed to a stump. “It’s a bit hard to explain since us foxes are the only ones that can make it work, but enough about that. We’re almost at the hideout. Follow me!”
Her destination was only a hop, a skip, and a jump away. Crawling through a bush, she revealed a small door carved into the side of a tree. Claire tried squinting and tilting her head, but no matter how she changed her perspective, she was unable to see anything but an illustration, a childish piece of artwork chiseled into the trunk with a sharp stone. The lines were rough and squiggly; each cut sitting at a different depth. Some were barely present, nearly faint enough to be dismissed as natural blemishes, while others were deeply engraved, violently etched into the wood.
And yet, it was tangible. Sylvia placed a paw on the knob and turned it, revealing an interior space much larger than the tree itself. It was a small house, one decorated with all sorts of furniture made of polished wood. The home had windows, openings from which light and air could stream in. Even though the trunk did not.
“Is anyone here? It’s me, Sylvia!” she shouted as she entered. Her voice was oddly muted, as if it were coming from far away.
Claire followed after her, ducking through the door, which only stood at about chest height. For once in her life, she felt like a giant. Back home, all the doors dwarfed her. They were more than two times her measure, constructed for citizens that stood at three meters on average and warriors that stood at four. Here, everything was backwards. The tables were at knee height and the chairs only went up to half that. Crouching was mandatory. Her head would have banged against the ceiling if she stood.
This must be how Rydland feels. No wonder he’s always so bitter.
“Sylvia? The pesky little cub?”
A fox with shaggy orange-silver fur and a missing ear emerged from within the house. He was standing upright with a small bone in his mouth and his front paws resting atop a shovel with a bent, broken blade. He was nearly twice the other fox’s size, in part because his coat was much puffier.
“Grant! I knew you’d be here! And I’m not a cub anymore, I came of age last cycle. I’m an adult now, and that’s a fact, no matter what you and Reynault say!”
“I thought you didn’t know where any of the other foxes were.” Claire sideeyed Sylvia, who promptly turned her head away.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never said anything like that.”
“Then why aren't you facing me anymore?”
“Because if I look at you, you’ll know I’m lying!” The fox quickly brought both paws to her mouth. “I didn’t mean that! I mean ummmm… I never lie! I only ever tell the truth, honest!”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Of course you do.”
“And who might you be?” The second fox looked the reptilian blueblood up and down. “Turn back to your regular form. My eyes are too blurry to recognize you as a sprite.”
“My what?” Claire raised a brow.
“Oh, ummm, Grant, this is Claire. She’s one of the torches, and she can’t shapeshift. Or at least I don’t think she can, since she’s really conspicuous and it’s really easy to identify her.”
“A torch!?” The one-ear gasped. “Meow! Meow meeoooow meow meeeeow!”
Why is he also pretending to be a cat?
“Grant? You know I can’t understand you unless you actually talk, right?”
Shaking his head, Grant stumbled over to Sylvia and pulled her into the next room.
“You’re not supposed to let the torch know you can talk,” whispered the older fox. “And you’re not supposed to bring them to our hideouts either. What’s the matter with you, cub? Have you lost your mind?”
Claire had no trouble listening in even though the man had lowered his voice—not that she was particularly interested in the discussion to begin with. Her focus was on the wall, where she found several tools suspended from a rack.
“It’s okay! I’ve actually convinced her to help, I think. It’s at least better than sitting around and waiting for the steelwings to go away, right?”
The rogue lifted a shovel and examined it in detail. Unlike Sylvia’s, which had looked more or less like a wing strapped to a stick, its shaft was made of a tough polished wood, smooth to the touch and reflective when exposed to direct sunlight. The blade looked to have been beaten into its current shape, likely by the stone hammer hanging beside it. I almost forgot. I need to go hunt some more frogs.
“Better? This is not better, cub! Do you know what the torches have done to us? They know what we are, Sylvia, and they’re not beyond hurting us to achieve their goals. I’d much rather deal with a flock of steelwings than risk exposing myself to one of them.”
“Well it’s too late now! Her burrow was the only real shelter I found, and I had to talk to negotiate! Besides, she’s kinda nice.”
“Well… maybe not, but she’s only tried to kill me once! That’s already way better than Dad’s friends, and you didn’t mind them at all!”
“Once is more than plenty.” The older fox sighed. “And Zelos’ companions came to us under a completely different set of circumstances. You cannot simply equate them, cub.”
“I’m going back outside. I’ll be back soon.” Claire popped into the room and interrupted the conversation, hammer and shovel in hand. “Oh, and I’m borrowing these.”
“Borrowing them? Those are my tools and you may not borrow them without my express permiss—” shouted Grant, before cutting himself off and finishing with a series of angry meows.
“I don’t care,” said Claire, rolling her eyes.
“Have fun out there! I should be done talking to him soon, but if you’re going to do something, I might as well take a nap. I should be up in around an hour, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. I’m not really sure, but you can wake me up whenever you’re back.”
“Done? No, no, no, you will not be done, cub. You need to be reminded that actions have consequences.”
“Shut up, Grant! I’m not a cub anymore, and I don’t have to listen to any more of your lectures!”
Leaving the two foxes to argue amongst themselves, Claire exited the treehouse, raised her ears, and sought the closest frog.