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Chapter 55 - The Corruptor’s Realm IX

“Why is it so empty here?”

Claire gave voice to a whisper as she wandered her way around the lavacombs. The sewage system’s lack of life had her thoroughly confused. Even back home, where there was technology aplenty, the underground waterways were flooded, not just with waste, but also with monsters. Their unsanitary conditions provided the perfect nesting grounds for parauses, slimes, gorches, and other incarnations of filth.

By contrast, Borrok Peak’s sewers were empty, devoid of both excrement and the life it attracted. Anything that was discarded was incinerated the moment it reached the pipe’s bottom. The environment served as the perfect disposal system, so long as the people inhabiting it didn’t mind the constant threat of a society-ending eruption. The pipes, the vessels used to transport the borroks’ waste, could just as easily serve to carry magma up into the city.

Staring at the plumbing, the halfbreed wandered around until she stumbled across a landmark. She realised, as she neared the lava chamber’s center, that not all the tubes were open. The ones directly above the largest pit were shut off, sealed with a thick layer of ice.

Their ladders were still present, but not fully intact. Some looked partially melted, while others seemed to have been broken through the application of brute force. Whatever the case, the ladders that remained ran no more than halfway down the chamber.

“Who dares intrude upon my domain?”

A deep booming voice called out to her as she approached the edge, accompanied soon after by the swelling of magma. Molten rock was raised and pushed aside as a creature with a frame at least fifty meters long and twenty across rose from within the pit. Flames were littered across its face, covering its visage with a multilayered hexagonal pattern akin to a spider’s web. Its ovular head was decorated with a large mouth that spanned its entire length, a gaping maw that could easily swallow a building in one bite.

Right beneath its face were a pair of wide paddles attached to a body that appeared to thin out into what was likely a pair of flippers, hidden beneath the surface. Two large eyes sat on each side of its head, tiny when compared to its frame, but large enough for her to think her weapons ineffective; the diameter of each oculus was at least three times the length of her mace. The creature was a cetacean. A titanic whale made from crystalized volcanic discharge. And it wasn’t alone. It was followed by a dozen dolphins, each of which had taken to the air after rising from the lava.

Each entity came alongside a small box that said “-4% Catgirl” but otherwise provided no context whatsoever. A brand new log entry was paired with the curious pop-up, but Claire ignored it. She was too preoccupied with running away. A blink and a half was all it had taken for the rogue to spin around and start scampering away. There was no way for her to deal with the whale. Giant slaying was far beyond the realm of her expertise, and she clearly recalled that even the borrok warrior had only done minimal damage to the whale’s miniature counterparts. With only lackluster tools at her disposal, killing the lava-immune leviathan was outright impossible.

But try as she might, she was unable to flee. A wall of magma stopped her in her tracks. The lava within the honeycombs had risen and gathered to form a bastion that spanned the length of the subterranean space. Its height was equally as impressive. The wall nearly reached the ceiling, leaving only the tiniest of gaps between the roof and its apex.

Great. More magic.

“Don’t run, little one. Face me and explain yourself.”

Taking a deep breath, Claire set her expression to neutral as she slowly turned around. “I’m just passing through.”

“You know this is sacred ground, borrok. I will execute you unless you are here to provide a means for me to reacquire the staff.”

The whale crafted several spears of flame, each thick enough to split the halfbreed in two. They were suspended in the air behind it, unmoving but poised to strike, like a set of arrows nocked into a giant, invisible bow.

“I’m not a borrok,” said Claire. Sacred ground? Isn’t this a sewer?

“You’re not?” The whale turned its head on the side and focused a pair of eyes on her. It had to squint for a good few moments before finally shifting back to its previous position. “How strange. Your frame reminds me of their ascendants and you reek of their blood.”

Giant golems can smell?

“Name yourself, little one,” continued the leviathan. The clear displeasure in its voice had been replaced with curiosity and suspicion. “Who are you? And why are you here?”

“I am Claire Aug—” The halfbreed caught herself mid word, let go of her skirt, and returned her arms to her sides. “I’m Claire. Just Claire,” she said. “And I’m here to kill some borroks.”

The whale raised a brow and looked at her again before breaking into a series of booming cackles.

“You? Kill borroks?” The cave shook as it laughed. Tiny pieces of dirt and stone fell from the ceiling as a number of nearby ladders snapped and fell into the pits below. “Ridiculous!”

The gargoyle’s flaming spears faded as it huffed and wheezed. Its tail emerged from beneath the lava’s surface as it shook uncontrollably, smashing a number of nearby pathways in the process. Flopping up and down, the rear flipper created a series of massive waves, blasts of flaming stone that decimated the pipes and ladders behind it. Even the dolphins were busting their guts; the subterranean space was filled with their high-pitched demonic screeches.

“I’ve seen far more powerful assassins try and fail.” The cete raised a fin to its face and wiped away its molten tears. “You stand no chance against the borroks. You’ll be swarmed and eaten in a matter of minutes. Give up and go home, little one.”

“We’ll see about that. Tell me where the sentinel an—”

“The sentinel? The sentinel!? You want to kill the sentinel?” The whale cut her off by breaking into another unrestrained fit of laughter. “Now that is a sight I would like to see.” He drummed the front of his belly with his flippers as he continued to chortle.

Claire’s expression remained neutral, but the halfbreed was miffed. Her lips were on the verge of twitching and her hands were itching to ball themselves into fists. She even had to tie a knot with her tongue just to stop herself from mouthing off. She wasn’t able to calm herself until she recalled that being underestimated was to her advantage. Taking a quick breath, she crossed her arms, looked up at the magmatic cetacean and spoke in a perfectly controlled tone of voice.

“Who are you?”

“I am the lord of the mountain, the spirit that governs this land,” said the whale. “And this is my abode.”

“You live under their toilets?”

“Yes, I do.”

Accompanying the low growl was a rumble. The earth shook and the already glowing creature turned an even brighter shade of red as the lava levels rose; the five-odd meters between the path and the volcanic river shrank to two.

“If you’re mad, then show me where the important ones are. I’ll kill them, and you won’t have to live in a cesspit anymore,” said Claire.

“You really think you have a chance?” The molten rocks receded as the whale started to laugh again. “Not even I can kill the ascended borroks lest they step foot in my domain, and I have been trying for years,” he said, between half-stifled giggles, “a tiny, flimsy thing like you is not going to get anything done.”

“You don’t lose anything if I die,” said Claire. “The sooner you tell me where to go and how to get there safely, the sooner I get out of your face.”

“Very true.” The spirit’s chuckling slowed, grinding to a halt after one final fit. “Fine, I will have one of the lesser spirits show you to the ascended borroks. If you happen to live long enough to find the Staff of True Ice, and you somehow orchestrate a miraculous escape, return it to me and I will reward you handsomely.”

In your dreams, jerk. If I find your stupid staff, I’m snapping it in half.

Smirking internally, the halfbreed looked towards the obsidian dolphin flying her way and greeted it with a light nod.

“This is Herk,” said the mountain. “He will show you the way.”

“We’ll start with the corruptor,” said Herk. His voice was oddly high pitched, but not in a feminine sort of way. “It’s the easiest ascendant to find.”

“I don’t need to kill the corruptor.”

“You will, if you want to stand a chance against the sentinel.”

There was a moment of silence as the halfbreed narrowed her eyes and shifted her glare towards the lesser spirit’s master. “Fine.”

I bet the corruptor has the staff they’re looking for.

She wasn’t happy to be made a pawn, but more experience was more experience, and an ascended borrok was sure to provide plenty.

___

Claire shivered as the cold mountain air rushed by. The cetacean assigned to her had taken her outside through a small opening in the magmatic cesspit’s wall. Navigating the mountain’s steep exterior was impossible on foot, but surprisingly easy on dolphinback.

The magma swimmer was completely unbound by gravity. It could move in any direction it wanted and would float in place if it remained completely still, even while supporting her weight. Contrary to what was suggested by the creature’s visible fiery core, it wasn’t hot or even warm to the touch. The halfbreed was very much dismayed to find that it was just as cold as the icy environment around it.

I never should’ve given that stupid goddess my cloak.

Without her watcher-based overcoat, she was left with only a few thin layers of insulation, none of which helped with the sub-zero winds. The stark contrast from the lava-filled hellhole only served to worsen the winter’s bite. There had been no temperature gradient, nor any sort of warning. It had gone from burning hot to freezing cold in the blink of an eye, the shock of which had left the rogue sniffling and sneezing.

Even with gravity as a nonfactor, the trip remained equal parts lengthy and tiresome. The dolphin’s top speed was negligible, clocking in at a mere fraction of her own. Had they been on level ground, she would have been able to pass it with just a light jog. But alas, they were not. Despite its lackluster tempo, the mammalian rock-fish remained the fastest mode of transport; it was the reason the giant sparrows were kept at bay. The watcher-sized birds only steered clear of the pair because the air-swimmer would fire warning shots, balls of flame, whenever they tried to approach.

Claire had tried to mimic her newly acquired mount, but her spells were much less effective. The passerines were too heavy. Apply Force could only slow them down at best, even with her wisdom stat nearing its third threshold.

All in all, it took about an insufferable hour to reach the caldera’s outer edge. The volcano’s peak wasn’t as warm as the city that lay within it, but neither was it as cold as the mountainside below. The occasional stream of lava kept it at a reasonable enough temperature to thaw the force mage’s frostbitten fingers.

“We’re close,” said Herk.

The dolphin seemed to be expecting a reply, based on the way that he kept glancing back at his rider, but she ignored him. She was too busy staring at the scene laid out beneath her. It was one of the targets she had identified during her survey of the city, the isolated manor she had spotted from afar. Slowly, they descended upon it. The dolphin dimmed the light of his core as he moved to a particularly black patch of rock and inched down its side at a snail’s pace. Left with little else to do, Claire took the opportunity to observe the manor in detail.

The building stood out thanks to its hilltop position and its obvious high security. Both elements served to emphasize that the mansion was no ordinary building, but neither conveyed the message as well as its distinctive make. Unlike everything else in Borrok Peak, the manor was only covered in ice, not made of it. It was built instead of all the usual things seen in a fancy home. Wood, clay, glass, and lime made up the vast majority of its construction, with the only exception its foundation, which was laid with large stone bricks. It almost looked like a relic from another time, a building that no borrok could have possibly built.

Though the architectural style differed greatly from the standard Cadrian model, the mansion reminded Claire of her family’s seaside villa. It was roughly the same size, two stories tall with what looked to be about a dozen spacious rooms on each, assuming the window placement was to be trusted.

“It looks… dwarven,” muttered the rogue.

The doors were tiny, likely meant for people that averaged in at somewhere between three and five feet. Combining that with its flat roof, its stout, squarish construction, and its mountainside location provided the impression that it was made by and for Dorr’s favoured.

“We don’t know what it was,” said the dolphin.

Again, he glanced at her, expecting her to continue the conversation, but again he was ignored. It wasn’t as if Claire didn’t hear him. She just didn’t feel like talking. Speaking to the dolphin seemed like little beyond a waste of time.

Kicking off the mini-whale’s back, the halfbreed leapt onto a nearby rock and shook her cloak free of any remaining snow. She was at least fifty meters above the manor, but her weapons, the only two blades she had left, were already drawn.

“Stay here. It won’t take long.”

She didn’t want him following her. His glow, however dim, stood out as a distinct source of light, an obvious marker that made him an easy target.

“For you to die,” laughed Herk, with his creepy, high pitched voice.

I’m going to strangle this stupid thing.

Narrowing her eyes, the halfbreed turned around, spun one of her knives into a reverse grip, and approached the manor under cover of night.

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Spicy Space Squid

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