Chapter 56 - The Corruptor’s Realm X
There were around thirty corrupted watchers patrolling around the manor and its exterior, none of which had caught wind of the halfbreed wandering its halls. Sneaking in had been easy despite the near excessive guard count. Though they were walking around and actively searching for intruders, the one-eyed watchmen were far from orderly or competent. Their routes were uncoordinated and their paths often crossed in a way that created blindspots aplenty. They also didn’t seem to be keeping count of each other, as not a single one of them had noticed that nearly half their number was missing.
A well-prepared assassin would have been able to take advantage of the lackluster security and get in and out in the blink of an eye, but ready for the task Claire was not. The half-lamia had no idea where she was supposed to find the corruptor. Tracking wasn’t activating because she had nothing to follow. She had never seen the borrok, nor picked up its trail. Her tongue produced an equally disappointing set of results. Flicking it through the air produced little beyond the scent of blood.
Reliable as they usually were, her ears were left thoroughly confused by the mansion’s soundscape. They picked up on a distant voice accompanied by the crackling of flame, but she found it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint either sound’s source. It almost seemed like they were echoing, coming from several different places at once. It took straining them for several straight minutes for her to conclude that they were coming from underground, but she had no idea how she was supposed to get into the building’s cellar. The only flight of stairs she found led up to the second floor.
Searching the ground level had yielded a grand total of ten wasted minutes. Everything from the floor to the fittings to the chandeliers was completely frozen, encased in the same frigid layer that covered the rest of the building. She doubted that the second floor would be any different, but the rogue chose to ascend the steps nonetheless. There was only time to lose and quite frankly, she wanted to examine the rest of the ancient residence. It was her first time seeing a building whose furniture was made almost entirely of stone. Cadria and its immediate neighbours preferred carpentry to masonry. Wood was easier to work with and always readily available.
The only obstacle in the way of her exploration was a one-eyed freak standing near the top of the steps, but a quick stab to the throat, followed by a dozen more to the face, rendered it moot. Leaving the corpse where it had perished was a surefire way to be discovered, so she quickly cleaned it up by ordering the vacuum on her shoulder to consume it. As it had all the others.
An unpleasant series of sensations filled the force mage’s mouth as her guardian spirit removed the kill, its blood the only bit of evidence left behind. The combination of the acrid flavour of its flesh and the stringy texture of its hairy body almost made her retch, but she was able to suppress the urge by gritting her teeth and clenching her fists. She hated it. She hated the taste and the mouthfeel. And most of all, she hated the way the horse was celebrating its meals. Every time it was fed, it would squeal and do tippy taps, as would an excited piglet.
Seven doorways and two dead watchers later, Claire finally found a smoking hearth with its inglenook removed—something that wasn’t frozen in time. The fireplace was inside an ancient study. Empty bookshelves lined the walls, in front of which was a half rotten desk, three broken chairs, and a metallic candelabra whose lit candles were covered in ice. It was a bit of a confusing contradiction, but the halfbreed didn’t dwell on it for long. She focused instead on the dark billowing clouds that clearly stemmed from a source beneath the otherwise empty stone basin. Claire recalled that she was apparently resistant to fire, but even so, remained unwilling to dive headfirst into a pit of flame. She opted instead for a much simpler and more elegant solution: removing the problem.
Sticking her finger through the burning hot smoke, Claire doused the source of all the heat in a stream of stale water. It soon sizzled out, leaving her with the perfect opportunity to poke her head over the edge and examine the shaft that lay below.
After taking a moment to listen for any possible threats, she slid into the narrow passageway and dropped down onto the freshly watered coals. A gasp was caught in her throat as the brick gave way to a large room containing a series of familiar creatures. She drew her weapons, nearly lunging at the nearest one before realising that it was lifeless and unmoving. Just like all the others.
Before her eyes lay a curious scene painted by a hundred corpses and an equal number of boxes. Monsters of all shapes and sizes were arranged throughout the room, ordered loosely by their species. Each beast had clearly been repositioned and posed prior to being frozen. Some had been made to stand idle, while others were standing as they would whilst engaged in combat. One of the watchers was even holding a blade, poised as if to strike at the feathered frogpole beside it.
Claire didn’t recognize all the creatures present within the mausoleum, but most were species she had seen within the city. Wolves, bats, bears, and watchers were all present in droves. Only the borroks themselves were missing and unaccounted for.
What is this place?
Lowering her daggers, the mage took a deep breath as she walked down an aisle of frozen cadavers. She realised, as she moved through the room, that the specimens nearest the flame were the only individuals that were fully flushed with insectoid features. The further away from the firepit she got, the less corrupted the creatures were. The ones at the back, near the only open doorway, were entirely untouched. They were just like they were in life; their bodies were missing random chitin-covered limbs and their jaws were entirely devoid of extraneous external mandibles.
Moving closer to the doorway enhanced the sound that had attracted her to the basement to begin with. The quiet murmuring was almost intelligible, distorted only because the same voice was giving life to a thousand high-pitched whispers at once. It came from a room at the other end of the hallway, another room that was illuminated by flame.
Sneaking down the hall, Claire checked all the other various chambers and confirmed that they were empty before sticking her head through the final doorway. Inside it was a lone figure with a dark green robe over its shoulders and an odd-looking bladestaff in hand. The weapon’s poorly constructed meter-long shaft looked to be made of cooled molten rock. She was fairly certain that it had been carved out of the crater’s walls by an individual with a severe lack of dexterity. Its entire handlebar was covered in jagged rough extrusions; there wasn’t a smooth surface in sight. The forearm-length chunk of ice that adorned its tip started out with a thick, wide bottom that ended in a sharp point. If not for the aura of frost radiating off of it, the icy edge would have more closely resembled the head of a wide bladed spear than any sort of magical catalyst.
The staff’s bearer was equally as curious. Like every other borrok, he could vaguely be defined as a mix between a monkey and a beetle. In his case, the former heritage was much stronger than the latter. If one was to ignore the insect-like wings sticking out of his cloak and the bits of shell that covered his limbs, then he likely could have passed as a sort of evolved simian. The only odd factors out were his ears, his massive, fluffy, triangular ears. They vaguely resembled those of a cat, given the tufts of fur that bordered their edges, but their shape wasn’t quite right. Like Claire’s, they were much longer than they were wide. As if to protest the observation, Claire’s newest catgirl skill created a window that confirmed the ascendant as “-37% Catgirl,” whatever that meant.
Though the borrok’s bizarre appearance was eye-catching, it didn’t hold Claire’s attention for long. Following the tip of his staff, she found her eyes on a line of frozen pillars, each of which was being used to restrain a different creature. On the end closest to the borrok was a pure white bear that stood at roughly four meters tall, its head just barely shy of the cellar’s ceiling. The monster was clearly in distress. It was flailing its arms about as it roared and howled, but try as it might, it was unable to break loose of the ring that held its legs and waist in place.
A magic circle appeared directly above the bear as the borrok finished his chant. The dark purple spell was eye-catching, a complex twelve-sided plane with over a hundred runes inscribed in its perimeter. Ignoring the ursine’s cries of panic, the borrok slowly lowered its staff and moved the circle downwards. The moment the magic touched the poor monster’s flesh was the moment it suffered an epileptic attack, an especially violent seizure that didn’t end until half a minute after the spell finished passing it through. At the end of it all, the bear was left with its body slumped forward and its mouth foaming. She could tell that it was still conscious, based on the way it was whimpering, but only barely. Its eyes were too distant for something that could use its mind to the fullest.
The strident nasally voice that came from the barbaric caster was more out of place than it was intimidating, but that didn’t stop it from terrifying nearly every one of its prisoners. The sole individual not to flinch was the dolphin that was next in line. It had its head held high and its core burning as brightly as the wooden furnace situated against the opposite wall.
“Release me, coward!” squeaked the cete. “Release me and return the staff, or you will feel our wrath!”
For a moment, Claire had started to think that Herk had somehow gone ahead and gotten himself caught, but the lavaswimmer’s deeper, slightly-less-obnoxious voice had thrown that theory down the gutter. Paying closer attention to the dolphin revealed that, while it mostly looked the same, there were a few slight differences in the shape of its shell. Its nose was thinner and sharper, and its tailfin was slightly shorter.
“Wrath? What wrath?” The nasally monkey laughed, snorted even. “He can’t do anything without his shard.”
“Push him any further and he’ll erupt and kill you all!”
“Let’s see him try.”
Twisting his wrist, the corruptor pointed the icy staff towards the gargoyle and initiated another long chant. Again, his words, his unintelligible multilayered whispers, echoed through the chamber. The windup lasted for about thirty seconds, after which he formed his mana into another ominous dark purple polygon.
Like the bear, the dolphin screamed and convulsed as it was exposed to the magic. Its body lurched, twisted, and turned until it finally collapsed. But unlike the mammal, whose chest still heaved, the lavaswimmer fell perfectly still. The burning red light within its core faded as its body slowly crumbled to dust. A fate that could not be mistaken for anything but death.
“Before you ask, yes, that was necessary.”
The borrok slowly lowered his staff as he turned to face her, revealing a set of features that irked her to no end. He had a large, wide nose with an obvious receding hairline shaped like a V. His face was covered in darkened spots, and his eyes were pitch black with not even the faintest hint of an iris.
“I wasn’t going to,” said Claire. “I would’ve killed him if you didn’t.”
The borrok cocked a brow. “Most intruders don’t understand our ways, but you seem like someone more open to… negotiation.” There was a sickening smile on his face, one that revealed a set of half rotten yellow teeth alongside a second, smaller set of insect-like jaws.
“Then you’ve got the wrong impression.” The halfbreed drew her daggers. “I’m here for the staff. And I don’t negotiate with barbarians.”
“But you’re not on their side, are you?” He gestured towards the ash and dust. “What would you do with it? Only spirits can channel its power.”
“I’m going to snap it in half right in the stupid whale’s face,” she said. “I don’t care about ‘its power.’”
“He wouldn’t care. The shard at the end is the only part that matters. The rest can easily be reforged.”
“Then I’ll just destroy that.”
“Not possible. It’s true ice. It’s indestructible.” The bug monkey chuckled. “Now leave. I’m busy.” He gestured towards the door with his chin before turning back around. “I’ve got a batch of creatures to corrupt and no time to deal with intruders. If you want someone to fight, then go attack the guards. You’d stand more of a chance against them anyway.”
“I already have,” she said, as she coated her weapons with poison.
“I heard. You dropped some of our men into the lava and made an escape before the mages could finish you.”
“I meant this manor’s guards. Half of them are dead.”
She slowly began stepping forward.
“Only half? Go finish the rest. I’ve got no time for you. I’ve got an army to build, a skill to improve, and a celestial to kill. This is my final warning, and the only courtesy you’ll get.”
“I don’t care.”
I bet he’d kill me if I turned my back to him.
The corruptor sighed and craned his neck back to look at her. “You’re in over your head.” His eyes were glowing a deep shade of purple. “We already know you can’t handle mages, and I’m the best mage in town.”
"Not for long.”
Ignoring the warning, the halfbreed raised both her blades and lunged.