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Chapter 41 - Edge of the Abyss IV

The environment continued to warp as Claire approached the horn. Every step led to an alteration, a major change that almost seemed to shift the realm itself. The horn, the subspace’s primary feature, didn’t fully stabilize until she was just a few hundred meters shy of its entrance. The edifice’s size was nothing short of absurd, towering at something over twenty times the marsh’s height, a feat only made possible by the wetlands’ sudden end. Not even craning her neck as far as it would go was enough for her to see the structure in all its majesty. No matter how she looked, half the horn remained hidden behind the swamp that lay overhead.

How am I supposed to vandalize something that big?

Recalling one of her quest’s objectives led the halfbreed to stop where she stood. It wasn’t possible. While she wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with the process of playful misconduct, the largest thing she had ever defaced was Allegra’s house, and that had been a whole day affair even with Alice’s help. Messing up something at least a hundred times larger all by herself was nothing short of inconceivable.

Thanks Alfred, I hate you.

With a sigh, she set all thoughts of the celestial aside and focused on her surroundings. Signs of life started to appear after she took another few steps. Several flocks of birds suddenly phased into existence all at once, some in the grasslands, some in the marsh, and some in the infinite sky that lay beyond.

Staring at the winged creatures caused her to spot two sets of footprints—hoofprints—in the soil up above her. She could tell at a glance that they didn’t belong to ordinary horses. The ovular two-tipped markings were identical to the patterns often seen on traditional centaurian footwear. One set was significantly wider and deeper than the other, indicative of an individual with a hefty frame, which was to say that they could have belonged to the pair she had been ordered to safeguard.

How old are these tracks? I can’t tell.

Despite her concerns, the halfbreed judged that following the trail was her best bet. It was more or less headed in the massive landmark’s direction. The prints’ owners were likely more familiar with the area than she was, and any knowledge was always better than none.

___

Five or so minutes later, she finally found her first non-avian monsters. Four shelled creatures were crowded around what looked to be a piece of metal left in the mud overhead. She couldn’t tell what they were meant to be; they were difficult to identify and their upside down positions didn’t exactly do her any favours.

Most of her confusion stemmed from the bastardization that was their form factor. Their human-sized heads seemed to declare them as primates. They had messy hair, chimp-like lips, wrinkly faces with flat noses, and prickly white beards. At the same time, they also had disproportionate cat-like ears, whiskers, and long striped feline tails. If those were the monsters’ only features, she would have assumed them to be failed catgirls, byproducts of whatever process the head librarian had used to fulfill his fantasies. But they weren’t. The rest of their bodies were beetle-like. They had segmented carapaces, insectoid legs, and wings hidden beneath tough green shells of chitin. Mammalian features aside, their bodies—their thoraxes and abdomens—measured in at roughly half a meter long.

“Their ears are even bigger than mine,” she muttered. But mine are prettier.

“Is it finally time to kill stuff?” A snake appeared on her shoulder. The silver noodle’s tongue danced gleefully through the air as it raised its body towards the marsh.

“You again.”

“Yes, me again.” The serpent turned around to face her. “Set me loose, Claire. This is the perfect chance for you to test your new skill.”

She had to admit that the snake had a point. As the product of an incredibly expensive and likely devastating spell, her spirit guardian seemed like a perfect contingency, which was to say that she needed to be fully aware of its strengths and limitations so she could pull it out if things ever went south. But she still didn’t want to deal with it. Not yet, at least.

“I don’t care. Go away.”

Not bothering to wave the serpent off, Claire leapt into action. She rose from the undergrowth and flung a nearby rock at the closest creature’s face. Landing right on target, the attack left a horrifying dent in the bug-monkey’s skull and sent the poor critter face-first into the mud. The bloody distortion was so large and eye-catching that she immediately assumed that the creature was crippled, if not dead. But it wasn’t. Even with its brain exposed, it righted itself and got back to its feet without so much as a moment’s delay.

Hooting angrily, like some sort of freakish owl, the abomination rose to meet her, accompanied by all three of its friends. Their wings buzzed as they whizzed through the air like a group of bees. They would hover in place at times while rapidly darting around at others. Both their acceleration and their top speed far outclassed the ravens’, but it made no difference. Their speed was irrelevant; they all froze as soon as she glared at them.

Log Entry 863
Paralyzing Gaze has reached level 2.

With the beating of their wings suddenly put on hold, the bugs began plummeting back towards the swamp. Most of the group’s members took a second to recover, with her brain-damaged victim needing roughly twice as long. Claire couldn’t help but feel that it was both too long and too short. On one hand, it would have been more than enough time for her to land a lethal blow had they been any closer, but on the other, each of the four casts cost her a full 250MP.

“You can stop bothering me now,” she said to the snake still on her shoulder. “I don’t have enough mana to summon you anymore.”

“They would’ve been dead if you spent that mana on me. Stupid, dimwitted, halfblooded, peanut brained barbari…” It grumbled at her as it slowly faded away, leaving only an unfinished trail of insults behind.

“Finish that sentence and I’ll never summon you again,” said Claire, as she drew a dagger.

The first whiskered bug to fully recover flew straight at her, hissing with its mouth agape and its fangs bared. It was quick, not quick enough to cause her any trouble by its lonesome, but a solitary hunter it was not. Its two uninjured companions followed soon after. Claire managed to repel one of them by parrying its chin with her wrist, but the other made contact with her shoulder and sank its fangs deep into her flesh.

Wincing, she grabbed the arm-sized bug with her free hand and tore it off of her, Double-Stabbing it twice as she threw it at the nearest tree. Both attacks ran it through, creating large holes in its abdomen. Fresh, yellow blood dripped from its wounds, but the insectoid primate was still alive and kicking. It resumed flying at her before it even hit the ground.

Must be a Llystletein variant.

The fourth cat monkey, the one whose head was heavily damaged, dove at her right as she launched its companion, but she managed to evade harm by pushing it with her magic. The repelling force slowed the oversized bug drastically and provided her the perfect opportunity to stab it in the face. Still, the number of fatalities remained at net-zero.

One of the uninjured simians dove at her from behind, while she was preoccupied, and drove its forehead straight into her spine. It was an impressive tackle, backed by all the speed the bug could muster, but it didn’t hurt nearly as much as the halfbreed had expected. The insect was no heavier than a large leather ball; she hadn’t even been knocked off her feet.

Spinning around, Claire drew her mace and smashed it into her assailant’s back. This time, she didn’t stop attacking, even when she saw its guts spew from its splintered carapace. She landed three hits into its torso, swatted its partners away, and whacked it another five times before finally backing off and taking a look at her handiwork. All but one of its legs were broken, its wings were dismembered, and its skull was caved in. Not even its tail had escaped her wrath. It was unmoving, bent three different ways in three different places. But somehow, it was still alive. The monkey was still hooting and using its sole uninjured leg to slowly push itself towards her.

Annoyed, she turned her attention back to the other three pseudo-primates, who had suddenly disengaged for reasons unknown. They were no longer anywhere near her. All three of them were hovering around at about a dozen meters away, hooting angrily. For a moment, she thought herself the cause of their alarm, but straining her ears proved her suspicions wrong. There was a quiet whirring sound, a high pitched shrill tone, stemming from the beetle whose body had fused with the ground.

Lowering her gaze and furrowing her brow, she stared at the corpse, which had quickly started to inflate. By the fifth second, the once-squashed bug was already as round as a balloon. A flame appeared at the tip of its tail once the swelling was complete. Fueled by the flesh, the conflagration moved its way down the appendage with gusto. The rogue was unsure of the fire’s significance, but a sense of impending doom led her to magically push the bug as far away as she could.

The beetle’s body exploded soon after colliding with a tree. A bright yellow fluid violently burst from within its body and began eating away at everything in its immediate vicinity. The trees sizzled as their trunks were burned through while the flowers and grasses were outright destroyed. Even the water seemed to suffer some sort of damage, as it would bubble uncontrollably wherever the two liquids touched.

Log Entry 864
You have slain a level 20 borrok.

This feat has earned you 1 point of dexterity.

Log Entry 865
You have unlocked a new spawnable food item.

Log Entry 866
You have leveled up. Your health and mana have been restored and all harmful status effects have been cleansed.

Your secondary class, Llystletein Force Mage, has reached level 2.

You have gained 4 ability points.

It was only then, after the explosion, that she received the notification, read to her in a resounding but monotone voice.

What just happened? She was, of course, well aware of the course of events—the bug had detonated and filled its surroundings some sort of corrosive material in the process—but she didn’t understand how the bug had survived for so long, or why it had managed a last ditch attack with its whole body smashed to bits.

The remaining three bugs didn’t give her a chance to mull it over. They resumed attacking shortly after the explosion, but she had little trouble warding them off. Force magic trivialized the encounter. She was able to draw them into her swings and delay their attacks by pushing back against them when they charged. Overcoming her lack of coordination was the only difficulty she experienced. Swinging her club with one hand while pulling a bug towards her with the other was awkward and she nearly tripped over her own feet both times she tried it.

It didn’t take long for a second borrok to swell. Like the first, it didn’t begin the detonation process until she completely destroyed its body and reduced it to a state where it could barely move. This time, she was ready, so she waited until the last second before sending it straight into one of its friends. The detonation melted the third monkey’s flesh, completely destroying its head and half its body.

Log Entry 867
You have slain a level 22 borrok.

Log Entry 868
Dagger Mastery has reached level 8.

But even then, what remained of it ballooned. It somehow took on the same round shape as all the others as its tail caught fire. Not that it mattered. Claire abused the third bomb the exact same way she abused the second and launched it straight into its final ally, which of course also detonated post mortem.

Log Entry 869
You have slain a level 17 borrok.

Log Entry 870
You have slain a level 24 borrok.

Log Entry 871
You have leveled up. Your health and mana have been restored and all harmful status effects have been cleansed.

Your secondary class, Llystletein Force Mage, has reached level 3.

You have gained 4 ability points.

Log Entry 872
Basic Force Manipulation has reached level 5.

Once everything was dead, the force mage began moving to inspect the piece of metal that the monsters had gathered around. Or at least she tried. A series of distant splashes drew her attention before she could investigate. There were too many sets of footsteps for her to pick out the individuals from the group, but she was able to note that their members were all of different sizes. The occasional baritone shout was mixed in with the otherwise voiceless stampede. It was infrequent, at first, with its owner only saying a few things here and there, but he began barking out orders in abundance as they neared the halfbreed’s location.

“Stay together! We don’t know how many of them there are and the mirewulf might still be around!”

A mirewulf? Aren't those only supposed to come out at night?

“Round up any stray borroks as soon as you can. Don’t let any of them get away! We don’t need them on high alert!”

Claire was tempted to hide and observe the group to glean what knowledge she could, but she was fairly confident that doing so would lead to her exposure. There was nowhere for her to hide. The bushes were too short to serve as cover; they could spot her with ease if they so much as glanced in her direction. And that was assuming they didn’t have any skills to further reduce the amount of effort required.

Quietly as she could, she retreated from the area and headed straight for the horn. Her eyes stayed focused on it throughout her journey. Scouring the structure for alternate entrances proved fruitless. Its windows were like the treehouse’s, drawn in ink atop the stony surface. If she wanted to enter, she was going to need to go straight through the heavily guarded front door.

Roughly two dozen borroks hovered around it. Some stood still, right by the hole that was the entrance, while others marched back and forth along the horn’s length. Most of the guards were upside down, with only a third remaining on her side of the world. Both partitions featured some sort of mutant or ascended variant, a larger specimen with a shinier shell and a horn that was nearly the full length of its abdomen. Their wings were reinforced with an extra layer of protection, a dull blue layer of magic.

If she wanted to get inside the horn, she was going to need to find a way to get past it. And it turned out she just so happened to have one in mind; violence was always the answer.

But first things first, she was going to need some sort of disguise.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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