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Chapter 34 - Darkwood Hollow II

Together, Claire and Sylvia tunneled their way through the forest’s floor. The pair was barely underground, with only about thirty centimeters between the tunnel’s roof and the surface. In front was the half-lamia, who was using her hands to shape the underpass as she saw fit. The fox to her rear was focused on packing the displaced soil against the walls. They were going to need a path of retreat, and the haphazard way that Claire dug was by no means conducive to two-way travel. If left unattended, she would have left a trail of dirt piles in her wake.

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Sylvia hummed a tune under her breath, enhancing her tail as she used it to press another mound against the wall. “It seems a bit risky. And by a bit, I mean really, really risky.”

Ignoring the canid, the rogue pressed forward in silence. Tracking informed her that her target was only a few meters away. Because it was so close, she could not only sense its precise location, but also deduce the positions of its various body parts. Not all of it was clear to her—the skill’s level wasn’t high enough for that just yet—but she felt like she could see its outline through the soil, even though the bird was still fully obscured.

Once in position, she stopped digging forwards and turned her attention towards the sky. Slowly, stealthily, she worked her hands through the soil directly overhead, accelerating only after she broke through to the surface. Wrapping a rope around her target’s ankles, she pulled its legs underground before it could react to the unexpected assault.

It tried flailing at her, gouging at its subterranean assailant with its razor sharp talons, but the bird was unable to deal damage before the knot was tied. While the raven couldn’t break free of the restraints, it did prove capable of outright ignoring them. Flapping its powerful wings, it wrenched itself out from the mud and took to the skies. But not before it was struck. Claire Double Stabbed its legs as it rose. Both antlers were coated in venom. One featured the halfbreed’s staple, rocket fuel, while the other was laced with something much more debilitating.

Its effects showed themselves immediately. The bird’s beak twitched, moving left and right as it fought to hold back the urge rising within it. A futile struggle.

Seed-bearing parachutes sprayed from the raven’s nostrils as it sneezed, again and again. It managed to keep itself airborne, but the constant attack on its respiratory system disrupted its focus. That wasn’t to say that the monarch was unaware of its surroundings. Occasional momentary lapse aside, it remained at attention. Its eyes were focused, directed straight at the patch of mud that it had just departed. A deep croaking order guided its subjects to follow suit. Every bird in the area had its eyes peeled for the underground threat.

And that was precisely why Claire’s next attack did not come from below. She snuck out of the tunnel, climbed a tree, and hopped through the canopy before dropping down and delivering a heavy blow with her mace. The overhead strike smashed an outstretched wing and threw the bird onto the ground. Claire tried to finish it by bashing it over the head with her mace, but another raven interfered, forcing her to dismount her target and evade.

Thinking her ambush successful, the rogue stayed where she was, swinging the heavy femur around and splattering any corvid that dared approach. It was a decision predicated on the assumption that the king had been crippled. But he wasn’t nearly as injured as she thought.

Three awkward hops later, the bird returned to the sky. Claire’s attack had drawn blood; the bone she struck was broken. It had snapped at an awkward angle and a jagged piece of it could be seen poking through the king’s feathers. And yet, somehow, the raven remained capable of flight. It wasn’t completely unaffected; the cybernetically enhanced corvid could no longer hover in place. It would drift to the right with every flap of its wings. But it wasn’t grounded. Nor was it oblivious to her whereabouts any longer.

A loud grating croak erupted from the depths of its throat. It was a paralyzing warcry that reeked of power and experience. Or at least that was what it would have been, had it not been interrupted by a sneeze. The flier resumed its rallying call as soon as it recovered, but the effect was gone. Lost, even in the face of its blatant seething fury.

He’s almost as indignant as the crazy count.

Snickering, Claire smashed away another wave of birds before retreating into the canopy and hiding amongst the leaves.

Completely escaping the flock was impossible. There were far too many of them to lose sight of her, and they appeared to actively communicate her location by squawking at each other, but the rogue paid them little mind. Average altered ravens were no match for her. She had been able to take them out with one strike when her stats were a third their current value. Now, they were just minor setbacks. And in some cases, they even served to help.

Grabbing one of the smaller birds in the midst of its charge, Claire broke its wings with a squeeze, coated it in a layer of rocket fuel, and threw it straight at its monarch. Unfortunately for the halfbreed, and even more so for the bird, the less-than-aerodynamic projectile missed its mark and hit a large tree instead. The neck-to-trunk collision echoed throughout the woodland, a dull crack accompanied by a sickening wet splatter.

“I probably need to aim a little bit higher…”

Muttering under her breath, she grabbed an antler with her free hand and intercepted a magical attack. The raven king had launched a spear of darkness as visible as a creeping shadow. If not for the mana enveloping it, the dart would have been impossible to see under the cover of night. The crackling purple energy coursed through the boney blade upon making contact, directing itself up Claire’s arm and zapping it with a powerful surge of arcane lightning.

The lance-shaped slug had been nothing but a vessel, a spell made to deliver another.

With a grimace and groan, Claire picked herself back up and leapt just far enough to dodge a second, identical attack. She stabbed a random raven along the way, restoring a single point of health with a fatal phantom strike. The healing was a tiny fraction of the damage that she had taken, but she wasn’t worried. She wasn’t too hurt and there was more than enough cannon fodder for a full recovery. All she had to do was go on a stabbing spree.

The only problem?

She didn’t have the time.

The raven king burst through the verdant clouds that kept her figure obscured. Its wings were folded and its engine was roaring. Burning hot fire spewed from its rear, marring its path with a trail of smoke. Its first strike missed, taking down a tree to her left. But it kept going, rising into the air as it tore through boughs and branches like sheets of paper.

It stopped just a few inches from the swamp, spreading its wings to come to an abrupt halt. Momentum nulled, it jumped back into action, flipping on its head and reigniting its thrusters. Another attempt on her life.

This time, the bird threw an additional element into the mix, a twist. It began rotating as it accelerated, spinning like a drill as it closed in on her.

Claire raised her weapon and prepared to counter the rush, but soon realized that it wasn’t an option. Her foe’s body was covered in lightning. It was hard to make out given the way the cybernetic raptor was moving, but the occasional dark purple glint gave it away. Diving forward, Claire managed to get out of the avian’s path, but the tree she had been perched in wasn’t so lucky. A chunk was taken out of its three meter wide trunk and its branches and leaves were doused in crimson flame. But somehow, none of it caught fire.

Ignoring the inconsistency, the rogue spun around and threw her antler at her feathery assailant. It pierced the raven’s lower back, drawing a splash of blood. But the bird didn’t flinch. It tried to match the attack with one of its own, but the urge to sneeze took it out of the moment.

Not missing her chance, Claire flung her mace at one of the raven’s thrusters, warping it out of shape as the weapon was wedged inside the cybernetic enhancement. A second similar attack followed suit, but the broken shovel wasn’t anywhere nearly as potent. The fox-sized tool left nothing but a light scratch.

The halfbreed took a deep breath as she pulled another pair of antler blades from her bandolier. Coating both in soarspore poison, she dashed forward, seeking to close the distance while the man-sized avian was still preoccupied with its nose. For a moment, it looked like she was going to succeed. But the sovereign’s defenses weren’t frail enough to be so easily pierced by someone with less than a week’s worth of real combat experience. It spun around at the last second, opening its bill to blast her with a spell at point blank. Claire dove to the right in an attempt to dodge it, but she wasn’t quick enough. The dark projectile struck her in the shoulder, drawing blood as it triggered an electrical surge many times more powerful than the last.

A pained feral scream erupted from her throat. She was nearly cooked alive. The shadowbolt had used her magical circuitry as a conduit, travelling throughout her frame as it shocked her over and over. Her whole body was damaged. Her hair was burned and frizzled, her fair skin was charred, and her scales were roasted, burnt black as they shriveled and bled. Not even her internals were spared. The contents of her stomach had boiled, with the acidic vapour scorching the insides of her throat.

She was stunned by the pain, at first, but the rogue clenched her jagged teeth and endured without losing consciousness. The attack had only drained half her health. She would be fine so long as she didn’t take another hit. Or succumb to the fiery agony it caused.

Wheezing, she flung herself out of the way of the incoming body slam. Two smaller ravens struck her before she could regain her footing, one in her back, and the other across the side of her face. Both were promptly killed, double stabbed so that she could regain a sliver of the health they had taken from her.

With a deep breath, the rogue rose to her feet, brandished her weapons, and took a defensive stance. Her blades were used to repel anything that drew near. But her eyes were hardly focused on the cannon fodder. The one that stole her focus was the black-feathered ruler. Keeping track of everything at once was so difficult that Claire felt like her head was going to explode, but it was her only choice. She had no allies to rely on. Sylvia had already run for the hills. As much as it irked her, the two had agreed that the vixen would do nothing beyond helping her with the tunnel. It was a win-win situation. The fox would be able to stay out of harm’s way, and the half-snake would get all of the experience. If she managed to survive.

Her chances didn’t seem great, but the Cadrian had no intention of falling back on her other plan just yet. The rope around the monarch’s feet made it difficult for the bird to hop around, and the attacks she had landed on its thruster had effectively crippled it. It was no longer capable of flying in a straight line without reducing its speed, and her poison provided her with periodic openings, each of which was put to good use. She threw an antler at it each time it flinched, steadily wearing it down with her venom-coated blades.

But then the bird learned.

It stopped charging at her. It left that job to its lackeys and opted instead to pelt her with magic from afar. Shadowbolts soared through the air, one after another without pause; it launched over twenty projectiles in the span of a minute, each as deadly as the last.

Evading them got more difficult as time elapsed. The bird learned to predict her movements and would sporadically switch between firing at where she was and where she was going to be. The flock was getting more difficult to deal with as well. The melee fighters took advantage of the mage’s covering fire to worm their way through her defenses, often charging at her while she was in the midst of evading.

The trees were her only saving grace. Their trunks were too thick for the purple-black spears to pierce them and Tracking allowed her to keep an eye on the ruler even when she broke line of sight. But at the end of the day, leveraging them served little purpose but to buy time. And stalling was not to her benefit.

The flock, which started somewhere in the range of a hundred strong, was down to just two dozen. But there were more of them on the horizon, inbound at top speed. Time was on their side. The enemy forces would replenish if they just waited.

And yet, they refused to back down. They continued to press the attack, even as she slaughtered them. So many ravens fell to her blades that she was able to restore her health to three fourths its maximum value.

But then it happened.

One remarkably irritated squawk later, the king suddenly stopped attacking and went dead silent.

Even though it was supposed to be poisoned.

Confused, she turned towards it, only to find it in the midst of recovering from self-mutilation. Only the bottom half of its beak remained on its face. The other had been left in a tree, nostrils and all.

The bird was panting, clearly in pain, but it flapped its wings, puffed up its chest, and croaked what seemed to be an order nonetheless. Once all the other birds were out of its way, it reared its head, opened its mouth, and fired a spell far more powerful than the other two it had revealed so far.

If the previous attacks were shadowbolts, then the concentrated strike was a shadowbeam, a continuous ray of energy that moved with the corvid’s beak. The distance made the spell nearly impossible to evade. Sweeping its head, the raven blasted through everything in her vicinity. Every mushroom it hit was burnt to a crisp. The trees were able to last a little longer, enduring for a few seconds before being turned into lifeless husks. Claire was barely able to evade the lightning-based attack by leaping up a maple at the last second. When the pillar of dark energy rose to follow her, she dove underneath it, sprinting at full speed towards its caster.

Beam spells were powerful, but they were also contractual. Like rituals, they spanned a set amount of time based on the amount of magical energy expended. The limitation was a trade-off, a shackle that served to produce a result far greater than what was otherwise deserved of the initial investment. Only expert practitioners could end their beams early. Less skilled mages often had to continue channeling until the spells petered out on their own, lest they were willing to deal with the consequences. Like botched rituals, mishandled beams were prone to backlash. And that was precisely what Claire was after.

The birds seemed to realize this as well. The remaining peons did their utmost to get in her way. They threw themselves at her with vigour with no regard for their lives. But stop her they could not. She killed those that she could and ignored those that she couldn’t. Their beaks gouged at her, but none of the damage was severe enough to bother her. Not after she had been struck by lightning.

I should’ve just done this from the start.

Closing the distance wasn’t something that came without its own set of disadvantages. The magical bird’s aim grew more accurate, nearly catching her on several occasions. It was only thrown off by her projectiles, which it had to destroy to prevent interruption.

By the time she reached it, she was barehanded, with only two antler blades on her waist and her bone daggers strapped to her thighs.

It tried to run away from her by taking to the air, but with a bludgeoned thruster and a broken wing, there was only so much it could do. Until its spell suddenly ended.

Gasping with her eyes wide, Claire barely managed to evade a sudden shadowbolt by rolling forward. The halfbreed pushed herself off the ground feet first and delivered an inverse dropkick straight to the creature’s chest. Her daggers came out shortly after. One was driven into its fleshier eye, while the other shattered its mechanical one. Double stab activated, twice, with both phantom strikes eating away the avian’s already diminishing health.

The bird batted at her with its wings, but none of its blinded strikes landed. She kept dodging towards its broken shoulder, stabbing at it repeatedly until it was ripped from its socket.

Spinning around to its rear, Claire mounted the birds back and slashed at its spine. The first attack didn’t do the trick, nor the second or the third. But the fourth did. With a loud thud, the raven’s body collapsed. While its severed head rolled away.

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A note from Spicy Space Squid

There'll be a significant uptick in releases, as I'm participating in NaNoWriMo.


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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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