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A note from Spicy Space Squid

Early Sunday chapter. Not going to be around at the usual time.

Chapter 64 — Gods and Illusions VII

Claire’s attempt to turn Borrok Peak into a stress-relieving squeeze toy ended in abject failure. Having realised that their attempt at a battle of attrition had only resulted in a stronger, faster halfbreed, the borroks quickly transformed their blind advance into a swift retreat. Fighters of all shapes and sizes turned tail and ran, scattering to the winds like fickle, fall leaves. The lyrkress had managed to run down a few dozen of them before they left the prison’s halls, but they dispersed so effectively upon returning to the surface that she had no choice but to give up on pursuing them. They had run in every single direction. Some even stopped short to hole themselves up in the city’s various buildings. They were free pickings, but ultimately a waste of time.

Glancing at her status, she noted that she had barely gained any experience since her ascension. There was not a single level between any of her classes; even Force Mage had failed to reach its next milestone. Thinking about it, Claire had to begrudgingly admit that the slowdown made a lot of sense. Her ascension had drastically raised her power level and the half-insects were no longer a threat, even as a seemingly infinite horde. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t annoyed. The combination of the borroks’ newfound frailty, their sudden flight, and the lack of any notable experience left the halfbreed grinding her teeth and thwacking her tail against the ground.

The irritation only lasted until she realised that her body was already responding to her emotions. The dysphoria that had stemmed from suddenly being put in a frame one and a half times as tall and more than ten times as massive had stopped plaguing her by the time she got her first few kills. There was still a bit of a sense of unfamiliarity in that she wasn’t quite used to using all of her newest body parts, but going on a killing spree had at least helped. Had she not lost them in the transformation, Claire was sure that Quadrupedal Bloodrush and Lashing Tailstrike would have gained a level apiece.

Though she was now short a few racial skills, the halfbreed was happy with the way her ascension had turned out. She didn’t have any peers to compare with, but she remained fairly confident that she had chosen one of the best options available. At the very least, she thought her choice more impressive than both the ascended borroks. The difference between a lyrkress and a halfbreed was far greater than the difference between a rotblood and a warrior.

Thinking of the ascended Borroks lead the lyrkress to turn her eyes back to the arena’s underground facility. There were still a number of prisoners locked away, but she had no intention of heading back inside to free them, in part because they were already being helped by the other inmates, and in part because their gratitude left her with an empty sense of guilt. Some of them had already poked their heads out of the prison to thank her. Even though she had seen them as nothing but experience.

Now that she was no longer blinded by an imminent ascension, Claire had come to realise that her behaviour was disgustingly inappropriate. She was anything but the gentle soul her mother had wanted her to become. Not even Cadrian knights killed indiscriminately. Lest they were commanded by Duke Augustus, of course.

Wincing, Claire slowly shook her head and set her sights on the city’s most prominent landmark—the pyramid that served as the volcano’s highest peak. The massive triangular building was only a hop, a skip, and a jump away from the arena. Given that there were still over sixty hours left on the clock, Claire decided on leisurely strolling her way over. She doubted that killing another rotblood would require any measurable amount of time—not that she was expecting just one. Alfred had only tasked her with killing ‘The Sentinel’ and ‘The Lifegiver,’ but there were clearly others, with the basement dwelling spell-caster serving as a blatant example.

The halfbreed’s walk went uninterrupted. Any of the locals that spotted her turned tail and ran without even the slightest semblance of aggression. Even the pyramid’s guards—a group of warriors and mages—fled on sight. Half of them ran inside, while the other half made a mad dash for their surroundings. One particularly confused individual even ran right past her. It was a silly move that should have served as a death sentence, but Claire cared too little to deliver.

Slowly raising her head, the half-lamia cast her gaze upon the massive structure she was set to enter. It was, in a word, unfitting. Unlike the bland, uninspired arena, the pyramid didn’t look like it belonged. It was too complex, too finely crafted for it to be the work of the incompetent architects that had put the rest of the city together. For one, the walls were smooth, thick, and opaque. The materials used in their construction were unlike any other seen throughout the city. They were perfectly straight with no visible defects; there wasn’t a single crack or uneven surface, no matter where she looked. Even the door was seamless. It was a rectangular opening with a frame devoid of the blemishes that should have come with its construction. Inscribed near the top of the triangular tower was an epitaph of a horned whale, glowing in an icy blue, the only decoration on an otherwise clean canvas.

Looking inside the doorway, the rogue noted a distinct lack of everything. She could still hear the borroks that had fled, but they were nowhere to be seen. The building was empty, completely devoid of both fittings and life. Primitive murals aside, it featured nothing but a flight of spiraling stairs. Claire gazed upon them as her hooves echoed throughout the crystalline building. They featured depictions of beasts and battles, etched right into the structure’s walls. The blood-iron stains were almost like a sort of taint, a malady that the otherwise pure blue barriers were being forced to suffer.

They extended far past the ground level, crawling up the sides of the pyramid like vines. Each thread was its own story. The details differed between the individual biographies, but they all followed the same rough structure. They would always begin with a man casting a spell on a borrok. That borrok would go on to accomplish many great things before evolving into a rotblood after a series of tough battles. But no matter how heroic each protagonist seemed, there would always come a wall they could not surmount. Every tale was met with the same ending, an untimely death in a pool of borrokian blood.

Only halfway up the pyramid did the last story thread run dry. Not that Claire was paying it any attention. Her mind was elsewhere, in part because she had no interest in borrokian history, and in part because she was preoccupied with something more important.

Her surroundings were flooded with conflicting forces. The space around her felt like it was warped, distorted by a greater power. Gravity was pulling on her, both from above and from below. It was like she was in the marsh during a turn. Something was manipulating her position, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on what, even though it was making her feel like she was in three different places, all at once.

The environment outside was revealed to her as the walls rapidly thinned, as the icy layers lost the ability to obscure the beholder’s gaze. In one eye, she saw what she expected, a snowy mountain, illuminated by moonlight. But in the other, there was a clear blue sky with daylight streaming in from an invisible source.

Log Entry 1753
Detect Force Magic has reached level 13.

Looking down, she found both the icy city and a large rectangular plot of dirt floating within an endless sky. The muddy shape came hand in hand with a massive horn, directly beneath her feet. Following the curved structure with her eyes led Claire to the realisation that she was seeing Mirewood Meadow from within the construct that loomed over it. Looking more carefully, intently, she spotted a series of birds, flapping their wings as they flew about within the brighter dimension. The further she climbed, the clearer they became. Some even flew over to the horn’s exterior and stared at her from beyond the icy walls. One feathered avian, a half-mechanical raven, rammed the building as soon as it spotted her. Its attacks never ended in anything but failure, but it kept trying until its beak started to bleed, at which point it squawked at her and boosted away.

An additional layer of peculiarity was added to the mess of realms and forces as Claire neared the top of the staircase. Phantoms started to appear in her peripherals, vague centaurian outlines whose shapes grew more vivid and defined as she continued to rise. The first to form was Durham, watching over her with his usual lecherous but fiercely protective glare.

Next was Sir Rydland, judging and cynical as always. He stood before the manor’s guard detail, the trained warriors whose names she couldn’t be bothered to recite. They were followed by their apprentices, young lads and lasses whose hopeful gazes knew not of the horrors of war. She had seen many of them change over the years. Some embraced the Cadrian way and became veterans in their own rite, while others retired to their hometowns, unable to cope with the harsh realities and immoralities of war.

The servants started appearing before her once there were only a few dozen steps left. They would emerge exactly as she remembered them, but deteriorated with every step. Their skin would be cut, their fur would be shredded, and their limbs would be broken. One of her personal maids, Marie, even lost half her lower body. Claire tried to avert her gaze, but the phantom followed. It stared at her with its dominant arm in a sling, its eyes hollow, and a bloody bandage covering half its face.

The malicious hallucinations were clearly the work of magic, an obvious attack on her psyche, perhaps even magic that worked directly on the mind. But the force mage’s awareness did nothing to help her shut it out. The servants’ voices called her name, one after another, their ghastly whispers spoken with raspy, broken throats.

It took a long pause for the halfbreed to steady her quickened breath. She had seen and inflicted a countless number of injuries over the past week, many far more brutal than the ones that the projections depicted. But throwing people she knew into the mix changed everything. She had to close her eyes. Seeing them bothered her. Because cursed wounds didn’t fade. And if the injuries were real, they would have been her fault. The ritual was one meant to plague an entire army; the backlash that resulted from its premature dissolution was sure to be just as widespread and unconstrained.

Gritting her teeth, Claire forced her eyes open and resumed her journey up the stairwell. The ghosts continued to haunt her as she advanced, but she ignored them. She pushed their manifestations away with magic and cast their comments aside, shelving them in one of her mind’s furthest corners.

The approach was solid. Until she reached the end of the climb. What awaited her at the top of the staircase was a room that wasn’t a room. It was both the pyramid’s tip and the open space that was the horn’s furthest extremity. Mirewood Meadow seemed to be the more dominant of the two domains. The pyramid’s icy walls were faint, barely visible even beneath the now brightly lit backdrop. At the far end of the horn, the very tip, there was another hexstone.

With a former Bloodwinged Darkhorn standing in front of it.

She knew it was fake, that it wasn’t him.

But that didn’t stop her from trembling, falling to her knees, or gasping for air.

I thought I was over this. The thought passed through her mind as she continued to look upon her father’s image. The four-meter tall, white-furred behemoth was Cadria’s most fearsome man. Both in his enemies’ eyes, and in his daughter’s.

She tried to force herself to her feet, to move as he approached, but she couldn’t. The only part of her that accelerated was her heart.

She could feel it threatening to burst from her chest.

Somehow, he terrified her. More than any of her recent near-death experiences. More than a celestial that was obviously trying to manipulate her. More than the god of curses, showing up unannounced.

Even though he was just a projection, an obvious, illusory copy of the man that had dictated all sixteen of her years.

If not for Shoulderhorse taking autonomous action and consuming the spell, she would have remained paralysed. Despite knowing that there was a borrok standing behind the phantom. Slowly approaching with a katar in each hand.

Still panting, she rose to her feet, all her mammalian parts dripping with cold sweat. She raised a hand towards the borrok. The limb was still trembling, shaking as would a teapot in an earthquake, but her magic remained steady. Apply force sent him flying into the hexstone to his rear.

Claire nearly tripped as she ran up to him and kicked him, over and over. Each attack was accompanied by a feral scream, a display of the frustration that had come as a result of her own ineptitude. A display of the fear that she couldn’t keep bottled inside.

Only after a dozen strikes did she finally back away. Surprisingly, the horn and the hexstone were both undamaged. The borrok had borne the brunt of the attack. And somehow, it was still alive, even with its skull pulverised by her hooves and its brain leaking out from within.

“It looks like you enjoyed my spell.” He smiled at her with his disgusting broken jaw as he raised a bejeweled blade and summoned another apparition.

Claire felt her stomach lurch, but she didn’t collapse a second time. Digging her fangs into her lips, she charged straight at the projection with every intention of passing through it and attacking the borrok that was its master, only to discover that the spell was one with substance. And it weighed every bit as much as the duke himself, barely budging as the two made contact.

The only part of her that tore through the illusion was the glacial spike embedded in her chest. And tear it did. It ripped through the phantom’s lower half as she fell over, destroying the spell outright.

Though confused and disoriented, the halfbreed was able to recover from her failure. She pulled the borrok towards her with one hand while swinging her mace with the other. The result was a series of sickening cracks. She broke the borrok’s spine with her first swing and got its arms with her next two.

A fourth and final hit ended the creature’s life, prompting it to swell and detonate as did all others of its kind. Throwing it off the side of the horn, Claire sat down and breathed a sigh of relief. She was far from calm, but at the very least, she was doing better than she was before. Her heart was only beating a little faster than usual and her breath was starting to return.

But she was still annoyed, sick to her stomach.

At him, and at herself.

“So much for being free. I can’t even face him when I know he’s not real.” The force mage placed a hand on her face and massaged her nose as she fought back a sniffle. “How am I supposed to prove anything like this?”

Log Entry 1754
You have slain a level 63 Borrok Rotblood.

“Maybe he was right.”

Log Entry 1755
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 41.

You have gained 6 ability points.

“Maybe I really am worthless.”

Log Entry 1756

Makeshift Weapon Mastery has reached level 17.

Rubbing her eyes with her cloak, Claire turned her gaze on both horizons and stared off into the distance as she absentmindedly listened to everything the goddess had to say.

Log Entry 1757
Unarmed Combat Mastery has reached level 14.

Log Entry 1758
You have completed “Destroy Borrok Peak.”

You have been awarded 60 of each ability score.

The following bonus objectives will remain active for the next 62 hours:
- Borrok Peak is vandalised beyond recognition
- Beckard Links does not attempt to speak to you

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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