Chapter 33 - Darkwood Hollow
“Are you really sure you needed all those antlers, Claire?” asked Sylvia.
“That’s the third time you’ve asked me that in ten minutes,” grumbled Claire.
The pair was already on the go. Having thoroughly abandoned the thought of confronting Grant about the state of his tools, the fox and the snake had set out without first returning to the treehouse.
“I know, but I really can’t help it. It just looks like you have way too many,” said Sylvia.
“Well I don’t,” lied Claire.
The serpentine halfbreed was covered in antlers. She had one in each hand, six strung to her ropey belt, and another four tucked into her bandolier. The horns were sharp and jagged, which was good, given that they were meant to be used as weapons. But it wasn’t only good. At least one of the thorny protrusions would prod her with every step. The prickling pain was enough to annoy the blueblood, but it wasn’t bad enough to prompt her to seek an immediate solution. Bearing with it was more than worth saving the embarrassment.
Yet another pair of antlers sat atop her head. She had repurposed a frog’s freshly cleaned skull into a helmet, with her ears poking out of its massive eye sockets and her nose sitting just under its upper jaw. She could still see out of it, but only because the dead anuran’s nostrils had happened to be at eye level. It only blocked her line of sight when it was jostled out of place, which unsurprisingly happened all the time; the makeshift head protector didn’t exactly fit its owner.
“Are you sure? It doesn’t look very comfortable.”
“No Sylvia, I’m not sure.” The humanoid rolled her eyes as she adjusted her helmet. “Yes, I’m sure. Stop asking.”
Stupid helmet. Stay still!
“If you say so…”
The fox continued to shoot the occasional curious glance in Claire’s direction, even in spite of the other halfbreed’s harsh tone. It wasn’t the first time she had been told to shut her mouth, and it most certainly was not going to be the last. She spoke whenever they were out of danger, beginning one-sided conversations with lines like “Hey Claire, have I ever told you about the time I caught a fish with my eyes closed?” and “You wanna know something really funny about Grant? You won’t believe this, but he wasn’t always so grumpy.” The unwelcome introductions would turn into full-on rants, regardless of whether the half-lamia responded.
By the time the environment had changed, Claire was all but certain that she had unwillingly developed a substantial grasp on Llystletein fox culture. Unlike the veabers’ territory, which featured a wide variety of trees of different shapes and sizes, the foxes’ domain was home to just a select few species, all of which were incredibly tall with canopies thick enough to block out the marsh.
The forest’s floor was also nearly free of greenery, sporting fewer brushes and an excess of exposed dirt. But it wasn’t bare. Where the plants had withered, the mushrooms thrived. Toadstools could be seen growing from nearly every tree in the area, dead or alive. Their caps spanned all ends of the colour spectrum. Violet chanterelles littered the ground while upside-down crimson sprouts flourished above, hanging from the branches overhead. They were accompanied by thick vines. Green fibrous tentacles were wrapped around nearly every tree, with many featuring bright yellow fungi that dripped with nectar.
“We’re finally here! This is our neck of the woods. We call it the darkwood because it doesn’t really get as much sun as everywhere else, even though it’s not really that dark,” said Sylvia, before directing a paw at a group of mushrooms with long thin stalks. “You see those? Those are lightcrowns. They’re not that noticeable during the day, but they get really bright at night so you can see no matter what time of day it is.”
“Oh, and remember how you wanted to know about the mirewulves? This is one of them.” The fox walked up to a large flower hanging off the side of a tree. Its massive withered petals were nearly lifeless. Browns and blacks made up most of its colour profile, with only the base sporting a faint hint of green. “They’re harmless during the day, but they’re really scary at night, and the only real way to get away from them is to stay underground.”
“It’s just a flower.”
“Oh, ummm, about that. It’s actually not just the flower. It’s the whole tree.”
“The whole tree?” Claire furrowed her brows and tilted her head. “Aren't they supposed to look like wolves?”
“Only at night! During the day, they go dormant and turn into trees, so we don’t have to worry about them until it starts getting dark. I think they’re actually just really strong ents or something.”
“Dormant? So it’s sleeping?”
“Ummm, kind of? It’s not exactly the same but it’s pretty close.”
“Then why don’t we just kill it?” Claire twirled the antler she had in her right hand, catching it in a reverse grip as she laced it with poison.
“That’s a really bad idea! It’ll wake up if you attack it, and we’re not going to be able to outrun it!” shouted the fox, as she got between the snake and the bulb.
“How strong is it?”
“Very! It can tear us both to shreds in the blink of an eye and it’ll chase down anything that messes with it while it’s sleeping, so please please please stop thinking about attacking it.”
“Can it take on a hellhog?”
“Ummmm… a hellhog? I think so. I’ve seen one of these beat two of those.”
“Two? By itself?” Clicking her tongue, Claire lowered her blade and flicked the rocket fuel off of it.
“Yeah, they’ve gotten really scary ever since one of them became the Lord of the Holt. We used to be able to fight them off with fire, but the Holt's Blessing is making them resistant to it.” Sylvia’s tail flopped onto the ground. “Nowadays, we have no choice but to dig our homes under bramblewood trees and stay indoors at night. It sucks because it’s harder to hunt during the day, but I guess it could be worse.”
Weren’t the stupid squirrel things living aboveground? Shouldn’t they all be dead if these things are all over the place?
“I still need you to help us with the steelwings. I’d like it if you didn’t get yourself killed until you’ve solved all my problems for me,” said Sylvia.
“That was blunt.”
“I learn from the best,” she said, smiling.
Claire could feel her cheeks tugging her lips skyward, so she quickly forced a frown, crossed her arms, and huffed.
“Shut up and get moving. We don’t have all day.”
“Sure Claire, whatever you say.”
With a light giggle and a knowing smile, Sylvia continued on her way.
“Stop here. I don’t think we can get any closer,” said Sylvia, in a whisper. “Oh, and welcome to Darkwood Hollow!”
The two halfbreeds were sitting in a tree. One was on all fours, perched on a thick branch with her arms between her legs. The other was positioned above her. Sylvia’s head rested right on top of Claire’s, her fuzzy front paws positioned upon the other girl’s equally furry ears. It was almost like she was a hat. Almost.
“Remind me. Why are you on top of me again?” grumbled Claire.
“Better me than that silly helmet, right?”
Sylvia was heavier than the skull, but she wasn’t anywhere nearly as prickly. And as could be seen from the unhealed cuts on the rogue’s ears and forehead, the two properties weren’t exactly equivalent.
“Shut up. It was supposed to be a good idea.”
Claire reached for the fox’s tail, looking to pinch it in retaliation, but she stopped just shy of following through. It was going to have to wait. They were far too deep in enemy territory, and the resulting yelp was sure to get them caught. That wasn’t to say that the rogue was going to let the fur ball off the hook. She was still going to get her revenge, one way or another.
No dumb fox is going to get the better of me.
Turning her eyes away from the puffy appendage and back towards the settlement, Claire found herself staring at a small clearing barely any different from any other. The only object of note was a two meter tall obelisk, nearly covered in moss and highlighted by a wide beam of light. She could make out a few runes beneath the patches of green, but a lack of literacy made it impossible for her to understand them. Still, the stone-centric glade was almost a serene sight, ruined only by the dozens of ravens hovering around the area.
“Oh, oh, look over there!” Sylvia raised a paw. “You see the tree with the purple flower on its trunk? That’s my home. Me and my mom are the only ones who live there, but we had to make it extra tall since dad stops by sometimes and he wouldn’t fit otherwise. You’re a little bit taller than him, but I’m sure you’d fit too. Well, not right now since it’s flooded, but later.”
A short male elf? You don’t see one of those everyday.
“I don’t care,” said Claire, intentionally turning her eyes away from the violet blossom. “Now be quiet, I’m trying to think.”
Unlike the flock that she had encountered previously, the ravens sitting around the hollow were eerily silent. New arrivals aside, the only one that made any noise was an exceptionally large bird situated at the hexstone’s base. Its thrusters and its single crimson eye aside, the towering monarch looked perfectly organic. It was twice the width of the average raven and more than three times as tall, standing at roughly the same height as the magical stone.
Each time it opened its mouth, the bird would let loose a series of deep distinctive squawks. Its voice was commanding, silencing all that heard it without a moment’s delay.
Why does it sound so familiar...?
“What’s with the big one?” asked Claire.
“That’s the bird in charge,” replied the fox. “I think he’s supposed to be ascended or something. We couldn’t fight him off, even though we can hunt the others fairly regularly.”
“Any idea what level it is?”
“Ummmmm… probably around fifty? I’m not really sure.”
“Useless fox...” Claire grumbled.
“Hey, that isn’t even my fault! How am I supposed to know what level it is? None of us have the Judge class, and it’s not like we’d know even if we did! It’s not like we can sit down and talk to it.”
I probably won’t be able to take it in a straight fight.
“So do you think you can do anything about it?”
“How fast is it?”
“Really fast. Like, really really fast.”
“Be more specific.”
“Like, two or three times as fast as all the other steelwings, maybe? I’m not really sure.”
Too fast for hit and run tactics… Maybe I can poison it.
“Has it been here this whole time? Where is it getting its food and water?”
“There’s a lake nearby with lots of really tasty fish. I don’t know if that’s where it’s going, but if I had to guess, I’d say it probably is. It could also be flying into the marsh, but I doubt it. The ravens are really clean and don’t like the marsh water.”
“Can I poison it?”
“Huh?” Sylvia blinked. Thrice.
“Can I poison the lake?”
“O-of course you can’t! What are you thinking!? How are we supposed to live here if you kill all the fish!?”
“Well we have to! We can’t keep an eye on the stone if we don’t and Cyrus will get really mad at us if we stop doing our jobs!”
“Cyrus? Your jobs?”
“Oops… Don’t worry about it, that doesn’t matter. Just think of something else!”
“Fine,” grumbled the former mage.
What would Father do?
Claire closed her eyes and pictured the hulking pig of a duke that was her father. The man’s strategies were nothing if not cowardly and roundabout. But they were effective. No matter how much she disliked them, she couldn’t deny that they minimized casualties. A life-preserving tactic was precisely the sort of solution she needed; brute force wasn’t something that could be applied when the enemy had more of it.
Thinking back, she recalled the grand schemes that were frequently highlighted as the cornerstones of his career, his deceptive conquest of Sthenia, the Secret Battle of Fjierford, and the betrayal at Atma’s Gorge. Three decisive efforts, all in different wars. She didn’t know all the details, as the man himself rarely boasted, even when questioned by his peers.
It wasn’t just because he was tight lipped. Virilius Augustus simply didn’t enjoy holding extended conversations. He was known to many for his taciturn nature, speaking at length only when under the influence of a drink strong enough to outright kill a troll.
What she did know came in the form of second hand accounts, bits and pieces elaborated on by the commanders that so often tried to convince her of his greatness. Even the ever bitter Rydland sang him praise, no doubt in part because he had participated in all three of her father’s great exploits. The jaded officer’s personal favourite, and consequently the effort that Claire knew the most about, was the one at the gorge; mentioning Atma’s name was one of the few known ways to get Rydland to do away with his perpetual scowl.
“Umm… yes? What is it?” The fox looked down from her head-perch. “Eek! Please don’t ask me to do anything! The way you’re smiling right now is really scary...”
“How fast can you dig?”