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Chapter 48 - The Corruptor’s Realm II

It took three hours for the storm to settle, three painful hours that Claire spent staring at her quest menu and doodling in the snow. That wasn’t all she was doing, of course. She would spend a few minutes casting spells every time her MP shot over a thousand.

Basic Force Manipulation was her primary focus. Thinking back, she recalled that she had been able to move her weapons around without making any gestures when she fought the watcher, but attempting to reproduce the phenomenon resulted in nothing but failure. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite make the snowball sitting in front of her follow her instructions without an accompanying motion.

Fruitless, however, her efforts were not. The skill gained two whole levels, one when she accidentally pushed on and subsequently collapsed the dome’s front half, and the other when she learned that her hands were not the only tools at her disposal. Moving her feet in sync with her spells could provide similar results, with the only caveat coming in the form of a difficulty spike. Her lower limbs weren’t as dextrous as their fingery counterparts. It was difficult to keep them from arcing when she swung them forwards and the extraneous vertical movement influenced the vector produced by her magic. Still, the discovery proved a critical breakthrough, as it had netted her more than just a skill level. The class had gained one as well.

It was the first time she had grown from anything other than combat since she left the manor. For a moment, the achievement filled her with nostalgia, a surge of euphoria and familiarity that drove a yearning for home. A very brief moment. Her mood took a sudden turn for the worse as she remembered that most of her ritual mage levels had come from studying—carefully browsing grimoires and their contents. And if there was one thing she hated more than Ryarrd, it was being forced to read a tome.

Not all spell books were poorly constructed. Some, the halfbreed considered fairly tolerable. That wasn’t to say they were fetching or compelling by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least, they cut straight to the point and readily presented their formulas, processes, and justifications without any extraneous fluff.

The average grimoire was by no means so user-friendly. Most doubled as their authors’ autobiographies and sequestered their secrets within long-winded rants about the mundane ins and outs of their lives as second rate mages. It took careful analysis to pry out the necessary details, and key parts were oftentimes left to the reader’s inference or interpretation. The most sadistic and secretive writers would go as far as encoding their secrets such that they could only be pursued by those willing to devote an extraneous amount of time to decrypting them.

While Claire held great interest in tales of heroism and other stories documented by the various bards’ ballads, she cared very little for the histories of those devoted to the development of magecraft. Nearly every spell book she ever read had drained her of what little enthusiasm she had by the time she turned the second page. It didn’t help that ritual magic was her subject of study. Most of her peers spent their lives hidden away in the basements of various temples. Their meager existences were as far from interesting as could be, but their egos were as vast as the oceans. Even though their spells relied on the powers above.

“I don’t get why everyone thinks they’re brilliant. Most scholars are just self-centered morons.”

Claire spoke aloud as she took another step through the shoulder deep snow. Each motion she made was careful and deliberate. Her dexterity allowed her to move with some degree of finesse, but it remained a struggle nonetheless; perfect balance was the only thing keeping her from sinking into the powdery sheet of white.

“Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if more of them were like Allegra.”

The former court mage was one of the many individuals that had come to House Augustus to seek asylum. Her crime? Imprinting in a foreign prince a deep-rooted fear of the communal sanitation sponge. By the rabbit lady’s account, it was an act of retaliation conducted to punish the giant for his unwanted advances. Her wrongdoing would not have been discovered until far into the future had the circumstances not strayed from the norm, but alas, she was unlucky. The Goddess of Fortune had decided to throw a wrench in the witch’s plans.

Unaccustomed to the hay that most Cadrians considered a key staple, Prince Elric was rendered incapable of touring Valencia, the capital city, immediately upon his arrival. The day he finally recovered just so happened to be the day that the Used Sponge Association held its annual parade. Needless to say, the encounter was not a pleasant one for the prince, who discovered that confronting his newfound fear would result in little beyond a fit of epilepsy.

“It’s getting steeper.”

Claire took a break from reminiscing to look up the mountain. The path she had been taking, a straight line up the side, was rapidly losing its viability. That wasn’t to say that she was outright barred from continuing forward. While she had very little experience scaling vertical walls, she was fairly confident that she would have been able to push ahead if she set her mind to it. Though it was certainly a problem, the peak's geography was not the problem. That crown lay instead with the wildlife that inhabited the rocky biome.

Large winged creatures were circling the airspace above. They were too far away for her to make them out in any sort of meaningful detail. But she didn’t need to. There was no reason for her to pursue their precise identities; their presence alone served as more than enough of a deterrent. The rogue doubted that she would be able to put up much of a fight without any proper footholds, and falling to her death was nowhere near the top of her agenda. Or on her agenda at all in the first place.

Scanning the environment didn’t quite seem to yield any results, so Claire retrieved her trusty old candle and gave it a spin. She could feel an external force influencing it, but seeing no obvious problems with the direction it was pointing her in, the halfbreed obediently followed the divine directive and headed to the right. Marching alongside the slope was equal parts tedious and obnoxious. Large swaths of ice were hidden beneath the snow, and while the scales on her soles made it so that she wouldn’t start sliding around on contact, not every part of her foot was covered. She would still slip and fall every time she accidentally allowed her skin to make contact with the invisible skating rink.

All the halfbreed’s aimless wandering eventually led to a distinct trail, a road made of downtrodden snow, compacted to the point where her footprints no longer registered. It led beneath the ice, into a powdery white tunnel that seemed to gradually slope up and around the mountain. Claire’s first thought was that it was suspicious. There were a countless number of reasons to avoid the beaten path, with the most obvious being that someone or something had clearly left the underpass in its wake; the tunnel was dangerous at best.

Another issue came in the form of visibility. Entering the subnivean channel robbed her of the ability to scan her surroundings—front and back would become the only places she could look. But even so, the newfound passageway remained difficult to dismiss. Navigating it was much easier than forcing her way through the snow.

Claire peeled back her hood and raised her ears as she stepped inside, but she wasn’t able to glean any information. The only pair of feet she heard were her own. Stopping in place and waiting for the echoes to fade left her alone with the sound of silence, nothing but her own beating heart. The roaring winds had turned silent and there weren’t any creatures in her detection range, a far cry from Mirewood Meadow and its overwhelming vitality.

This is… nice. She smiled to herself. I wonder what kind of monster I’ll find.

Pulling her hood back over her face, she nearly hummed as she resumed the march, stopping short only to avoid disrupting the silence. The silence that, for once, failed to plague her.

___

Two quiet hours later, the halfbreed found herself startled to hear what almost seemed like the echoes of a distant city. She couldn’t quite see it, courtesy of all the winter in her way, but she could hear all sorts of different voices bouncing off the tunnel’s walls. They were accompanied by the clinking of metal, the crackling of flames, and the squeaking of wheels. There was even a set of bells thrown into the mix. It rang once every few seconds, a steady, stable cadence.

The chiming nearly made her tense up, courtesy of her experiences in the marsh, but she soon relaxed as she realised that it was much quieter and didn’t seem to come from both everywhere and nowhere at once. And before long, it went quiet, ringing only a total of six times as if to signal the time of day.

Claire tried clawing her way through the ceiling so she could get a better view of her surroundings, but that particular task proved itself more difficult than anticipated. A thick layer of sea-blue ice sat behind the snow-packed walls. It almost seemed indestructible, given that whacking it with her mace barely left a scratch. She couldn’t tell how thick it was or what lay behind it, so she soon gave up and resumed the march.

Each step she took came with a slight increase to the soundscape’s intensity. And with it was another change that she didn’t quite notice right away. The realisation that something was off didn’t hit her until a drop of sweat fell from her brow and sank into the snow underfoot.

“Why is it so hot?” The halfbreed wondered aloud as she peeled back her hood.

Her clothes were soaked through and through and her dress was practically stuck to her skin. She was so uncomfortable, all of a sudden, that she had to unfasten her watcher-based overcoat and tear off her scarf while fanning herself with her other hand.

“And why isn’t any of the snow melting?”

Though it was hot enough for the bluescale to sweat up a storm, the ice and snow had both remained completely unaffected. She could tell that the warmth was rising up from underneath her, but she could also feel the cold through the soles of her feet. Her toes were still every bit as sad and frozen as they had been since she first set foot on the mountain.

Covering a bit more distance, with her scarf and glove stuffed in her bag and her wintery cloak tied around her waist, the force mage found herself with company. Their footsteps came from up ahead, notifying her of their presence far before they came in range of her eyes. She thought they were heading towards her at first, but a twitch of her ears informed her otherwise. They were also heading forward, towards whatever it was that awaited her at the end of the tunnel. It was hard to tell because of the way the sounds were bouncing around, but it seemed like they were coming from different tunnels in what was likely a system of caves.

One set of feet clearly belonged to a group of borroks. They were both the furthest and the quietest, nearly undetectable because of the light weight of their relatively small frames.

Behind them were four pairs of hooves. The much larger centaurs were easier to track, with their feet audibly crunching the snow. Even louder than their hooves was their armour. The metal plates clinked against each other with every step they took. Might be Carter and Marleena. They were both wearing standard Cadrian armour. The style even seemed a bit Valencian… I should try to stay out of sight.

Claire was supposed to ensure the half-horses’ survival, but that didn’t mean that she had any intention of making contact. If they really did hail from Valencia, then there was a fair chance that one of them would be able to identify her based on her features. Knowledge of them was widespread, courtesy of her unique lamian heritage.

Alongside the centaurian pair was a third individual with much heavier footsteps. They reminded her of the watcher’s, but she wasn’t absolutely certain. She had no idea how the one-eyed mountain gorillas were supposed to sound when they weren’t stomping around.

Turning the corner verified Claire’s hypotheses. Her path, alongside several others, converged to form a larger leveled passage with an icy cave set behind it. Making out all the details proved too difficult with the walls and ceiling blocking her line of sight, but she was able to confirm that there was some sort of settlement at the end of the tunnel. There were several buildings in sight, all of which were constructed of ice.

The conclusions she made about the other individuals were also correct. There were two groups, one with the centaurs, bound by ropes and led by something that somewhat resembled a watcher, and another that featured a dozen or so borroks. Both were quite far along the tunnel. So long as they didn’t turn back, they were unlikely to notice her even if she was to follow, but she chose to hang back and remain an observer until they passed the bridge leading to the community.

Beneath the overpass ran a stream of magma, lava that flowed straight through the ice. Without melting it. It was a curious phenomenon, but not one that held Claire’s attention for long. She was more focused on its guardian.

Identical to the creature leading the centaurian prisoners, it was a hulking one-eyed, one-horned beast with an abdomen and six segmented legs sprouting from its back. Its hands were missing, replaced by scythe-like hooks resembling those of a mantis. The sharpened carapace was only one of many features that differed from those of the watcher’s. Its head sported a pair of cat-like ears that were so large they extended past its shoulders, while its rear featured an equally feline tail. All signs seemed to say that it was a sort of borrok, or perhaps a watcher-borrok hybrid. Bad news, in either case.

Its behaviour around the more normal-looking borroks served to further the theory that it was related to them. A toll in the form of a small token was taken from each individual, after which the bridge’s guardian stepped aside and allowed them to pass. The same thing happened when it was approached by the individual of its own species. It accepted payment and let it through. Once everyone but the halfbreed was gone, the mutant borrok placed its earnings inside a wooden chest at the foot of the bridge and returned to its previous position.

Claire tried examining the environment for any alternative exits, or ways to cross the lava stream without alerting the guard. But it wasn’t possible. She couldn’t climb the icy walls, and the glowing red river was too wide for her to leap it.

The bridge was the only way forward and she obviously didn’t have the token she needed to afford a toll—not that she believed the creature would have been willing to take one from her in the first place.

Whatever the case, her next steps were decided. She was going to break through.

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Spicy Space Squid

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