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Chapter 90 - Giant Frogs and Wooden Dogs II

“I dunno if he’s gonna be home.” Though her words seemed to express concern, Sylvia’s tail wagged with all the force of a great typhoon; it was kicking up enough wind to blow away the fallen leaves that littered the stone-paved street.

“He will be.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I just am.”

The pair was walking through the residential district with hurried steps. The speed with which they carried themselves was attracting a fair number of looks, but it couldn’t be helped. Claire could only hold her humanoid form for so long, and she had no choice but to assume it. Parading around with any of her other larger body plans would only garner even more attention.

Being in a rush didn’t stop her from getting a solid grasp of her surroundings. To her surprise, most of the eyes on her seemed to express curiosity over caution or concern. Despite living in an ancient ruin, a literal dungeon cut off from the rest of the world, the locals were all at ease. Most of the people out and about seemed to be attending to their homes in one way or another. Some were trimming the various plants that were growing on and around their houses, while others seemed to be focused on either redecoration or repair. The only source of contention was a tiny lizardman arguing with an equally tiny gnome over whether garden lizards or garden gnomes were the superior decoration. Old-fashioned idiots. I bet they haven’t even heard of garden ducks.

Despite the lack of conflict, the neighbourhood’s demographic was not by any means monolithic. Elves, dwarves, beastkin, insectoids, humans, and tortillians all seemed to be living in relative harmony. She even saw a giant go out of his way to greet a bipedal raccoon, even though Fornestead and Zarkaahn, their homelands, had been in a royal blood feud for the past thousand years. Equally as unbelievable was the huskar gently scolding the human child—another pair of races that should have been at war.

Retaining her humanoid form grew more difficult as she closed in on Zelos’ abode. Her nonpresent tail was screaming to be released, so she shook her head clear of any stray thoughts and picked up the pace. After another nigh unbearable minute of walking, she located and stepped up to the particularly green house she had been looking for. The force mage raised a hand to knock, but Sylvia stood up on her hind legs, grabbed the knob, and twisted it open before she could. Claire was left where she was, blinking with one of her hands raised in front of her.

“Don’t worry, he won’t mind,” said the fox, before raising her voice. “Dad! Are you home?”

“Is that you Sylvie? I’ll be out in a second!”

The shout was followed by a loud zap and an even louder explosion. A cloud of smoke rose from behind a distant bookshelf, but Claire was too preoccupied to pay it any heed. Closing the door behind her, she breathed a sigh of relief and undid her transformation—all her muscles loosened at once as she was finally allowed to relax.

“Uhhh… Dad? Are you okay?”

“I’ve never been better.” Setting down whatever he was working on, the wood elf stepped out into the open and welcomed the pair with a smile. “Good afternoon, both of you.”

Claire nodded in greeting as she quietly examined him. The front half of his body was covered with what seemed to be a layer of soot. His face was completely black and his outfit was damaged in more than just a few places. Though his leather breeches looked like they would be fine with a wash and a polish, his cotton tunic was far beyond the point of repair. Half the garment was charred black, burnt to a crisp with its edges still smoking.

“Sorry you had to see that,” he said, as he grabbed a towel off a nearby chair. “I’ll need a moment to clean up. Please make yourselves at home in the meantime.” After picking a few more things, namely clothes, the elf stepped into the building's only other room and closed the door.

“That was… unexpected,” said Claire, as she sat in front of the table. The pillow that she had used during her last visit was still exactly where she had left it.

“You’ll get used to it. Dad’s always blowing stuff up,” Sylvia hopped on top of the table. “He’s actually a rune mage. He spends a lot of time messing with different crystals so stuff like this happens all the time.”

The plants began moving around as the girls conversed. Each was presented with a cup of freshly brewed tea alongside a number of snacks, dried fish for Sylvia, and a platter of grasses, herbs, and dried meats for her less-canine companion.

“I thought rune magic needed high grade materials. The only crystals I saw were on the floor beneath the marsh. And they didn’t look like they were good enough.”

“You know your stuff.” Zelos stepped out of the bathroom with his face washed and his body wreathed in a fresh set of clothes. “The Green Belt is the only place you can find anything good enough.”

“I knew a few rune mages,” said Claire. “Most of them never stopped complaining about gem quality.”

“Not without reason. Finding the right stone for a spell is rather difficult, even with access to a mine.”

“Blech, that’s enough about runes and stuff! Let’s talk about something less boring,” said Sylvia.

“Are you just here to chat today?” asked her father.

“Uhhh… nope, not exactly. I think Claire wanted to ask you about something.”

“I don’t mind,” said the high elf. “But first, I think the two of you might be glad to know that you won’t have to camp out any longer. I’ve managed to get Beckard to arrange for some sleeping quarters for you. I can show you where they are later.”

“I dunno Dad, I kinda like camping out. Sleeping in a house will probably just make this whole trip feel a lot less special.”

“Yes, but you’re both girls and you’re all by yourselves. Not everyone that makes it to this floor is aware of the citadel’s rules, and there’ve been more stray high level monsters lately. Someone must have accidentally aggravated the equitaur.”

“We’ll be fine! Most people aren't weird enough to get off to foxes, Dad.”

“Sylvie… please. We have a guest…”

“It’s okay. She’s my pet, so she won’t tell anyone.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m not your pet. You are my pet.”

“But you always look to me for directions and want me to take you places!”

“And you’re constantly pestering me to play with you.”

“That doesn’t make me a pet!” shouted Sylvia, indignantly.

“Yes it does.”

“No it doesn’t!” The fox turned to the elf. “Back me up here, Dad. She’s more of a pet than I am, right?”

“Well… I’d hate to say it, Sylvie, but I don’t know your friend well enough to give an opinion on her, and I can certainly see her side of the argument.”

Claire smirked. “Even your father agrees.”

“Whaah!? Dad! You traitor!”

The man placed his hands on the desk, leaned back into his chair, and smiled as he closed his eyes. “You can still see bits and pieces of it now, but you were even more pet-like when you were younger. You were practically a puppy. I remember the time you ju—”

“Stop right there!” Sylvia catapulted off the table and stuffed her paws into her father’s mouth. “Say another word and I’ll never talk to you again!”

He removed the furry limbs and set her back down on the table, a motion that looked more practised than not. “I guess I’ll have to keep quiet then,” he said, with a smile.

“What are you doing here anyway? Didn’t you say that you were gonna go see mom after you finished your research?”

“I did say that,” he said, with a frown. “But I think Dixie will need a few more days to calm down.”

“Dad…” The half-elf gave the pure-blood a fed-up glare.

“I am planning to go sooner or later. Just… not this week,” he said, as he stared at one of the plants on the wall.

“I’m going to warp you there right now.”

“Wait, Sylvie! Please!” He placed his hands together, as if to beg, but the fox ignored him and started working on a spell.

While most others would have seen the wood elf’s situation as a dilemma, Claire saw it as an opportunity. She didn’t know how important he was or where he ranked among the citadel’s hierarchy, but his familiarity with Beckard and his focus on scholarly pursuits appeared to suggest that he was at least somewhat influential. Any favour owed was unlikely to remain unpaid.

“Hold on.” The lyrkress magically pulled the canid into her hands and pinched her cheeks.

“Claire! I’m in the middle of something!”

“I know. Wait.” With another pinch, the lyrkress disrupted the fox’s spell by absorbing her mana.

“Ahhhh! What the heck! What was that for?” Sylvia lowered her paws and turned around just to pout.

“I’m going to go stab the lord of the slough in a few days. You can drag him with us when we leave. That way, you can make sure he gets home.”

“I dunno…” said Sylvia.

“You want to challenge the lord already?” Having caught onto the half-snake’s intentions, Zelos ignored Sylvia’s remark and moved the conversation forward.

“I’ll be ready soon.”

“Will you now?” The high elf raised a brow, his eyes changing colours soon after. “Sixties across the board already?” He shook his head and leaned forward in his chair. “I know your quest has a deadline, but I advise pacing yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking it slow and steady.”

“I am. I’ve only had one or two near death encounters in the past few days.”

“Claire… you’re normally not supposed to have any of those ever,” said Sylvia, her tail pressed against her face.

“She’s right. Every situation is meant to be approached with a solid plan.”

“I tried,” said Claire. “Both times.”

“Perhaps some better planning is in order,” said the elf, with an awkward smile.

“Right? She’s super reckless!” said Sylvia. “She even engaged one of the buccaneers before she evolved her mage class!”

“And she won?" Zelos furrowed his brows. “I suppose it isn’t impossible, but it certainly doesn’t seem like something anyone should be actively attempting.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” said Claire. “And I don’t think the frog will be either.”

“I would strongly advise getting to level 100 before challenging it.”

“Trust me, Dad. There’s no stopping her when she gets like this. I’ve already tried!” The fox allowed her limbs to relax and fell flat on her stomach with her tail resting on her back. “I really don’t know why she’s so stubborn.”

“I’m not stubborn. I just know my limits,” said Claire.

“Uh huh…”

“That reminds me… the citadel’s other newcomer was also ridiculously reckless,” said Zelos. “Though he isn’t as infamous.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s… nothing. I wouldn’t worry about it.” The elf refused to meet her eyes.

“Tell me,” hissed Claire.

“Ask Beck, if you really want to know. Or the other newcomer. I’m sure he’d talk.”

“Are you talking about the squirrel with the meat cleavers?” asked Sylvia.

“That would be the one.”

Claire frowned as she recalled the red-furred critter. He was by far the most annoying person she had met since she escaped the manor. That said, she had to admit that he seemed relatively proficient when it came to combat; she almost couldn’t believe that he had survived the mosh pit.

“We saw him fighting a deer’s whole army the other day,” said Sylvia. “He dashed right into a huge mob all by himself.”

“I heard about that. Carter mentioned that he began fighting at level 30 and came out ready for ascension less than three hours later.”

“Wow… he must be insane.”

“See? I’m not that unreasonable,” said Claire.

“Diving into a crowd of monsters that are anywhere from one to two times your level is very unreasonable,” said Zelos.

“Normal people don’t fight stuff that’s a higher level than them,” said Sylvia. “I don’t even really know which of you is more reckless.”

“Him. I’m not reckless,” said Claire. “No one thinks that.”

There was an awkward silence as the father-daughter pair attacked her with a barrage of blank stares. It lasted for what felt like a straight minute, their gazes remained perfectly fixed on her even as she shifted around to avoid them. The blatant accusations were so uncomfortable that she wound up averting her eyes and looking elsewhere. She knew as well as they did that she had told a bold-faced lie, but as a noble lady, or at least a former noble lady, she had her dignity to preserve.

Log Entry 2034
You have received a divine revelation:

Three.

Shut up, Box. Weird elves aren’t people either.

“I can come with you as an escort if you really insist on fighting monsters that outclass you,” said Zelos.

“Wouldn’t that mean less experience?”

“It shouldn’t. I’ll only join in if it looks like the situation is going to get out of hand.” The elf picked up Sylvia and scratched her nose. “That was how we used to train our soldiers, in my time. If you know how to use a sword or a spear, I’ll also be able to give you a few pointers.”

Claire narrowed her eyes. “What do you get out of this? It’d be nothing but a waste of your time.”

“Consider it an added perk of befriending Sylvia,” he said, with a gentle smile. “I’ve been meaning to spend some more time with her, and this seems like as good an opportunity as any.”

“Hmmm… that kinda sounds fun, but it’s also kinda weird. Normal dads don’t hang out with their daughters when their friends are around!”

Zelos scratched his head. “Really? I always thought it was fairly typical. Elves stop minding the generation gap after they get into their late teens.”

“Yeah, but I’m not exactly an elf, so it’ll probably take another 200 years.”

“The curse of the naturally long lived,” said Zelos. Sighing and slowly shaking his head, he turned his attention back to Claire. “That reminds me… now that you’ve already ascended once, there’s even less of a reason to rush through the leveling process. Failing a quest may seem like the end of the world right now, but it really isn’t. Your lifespan is likely going to be at least double, if not triple what it was without your first ascension, and it’ll only keep growing as you continue to progress. You’ll be able to acquire whatever he’s rewarding you eventually, so long as you keep putting in the time and effort.”

“I know,” said Claire. “No need to lecture me on the basics.”

“Sorry. I just thought you might have benefited from a bit of a reminder.”

She was annoyed by his knowing smile, even though it wasn’t malicious. As far as she could tell, he was speaking out of concern for her safety and well being, something her own father had never done, but that didn’t mean she was going to sit tight and allow him to lecture her. Especially not when he looked like he was 10 at most.

“Not being in a rush is why Sylvia is going to take another 200 years to finish growing up.”

“You have a fair point there,” he said, with an awkward chuckle.

“No she doesn’t!” said Sylvia. “Levels and ascensions are only for physical growth! They don’t do anything for your mind. All that is totally outside the syste—er, oops. I probably wasn’t supposed to say that, but it’s an open secret anyway, so whatever!”

“Trying to level is stressful. Stress makes you grow faster, mentally,” said Claire.

“Uhh… I don’t really know if it works that way, but I guess it doesn’t sound totally implausible... Why are you in such a rush anyway?” asked the fox.

“I’m not.”

“Then why are you so reckless?”

“I’m not,” repeated Claire.

“You totally are! I just watched you pick a bunch of really dumb fights!”

“The first crab caught me off guard. That couldn’t have been helped,” explained the lyrkress. “The second group was easy since I figured out what they could do, and the buccaneer was a misstep. I thought that I would be able to teleport away if I needed to run.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less reckless! You should’ve tested the chest with weaker monsters first.”

“There’s no reason to assume that it would behave any differently if there’s a monster nearby.”

“Yes there is! You’re in a dungeon!”

“Sylvia has a point,” said Zelos. “Take this from a man who’s explored dozens of dungeons in his lifetime. You’ll want to try out each and every scenario.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “What if they only work certain ways for specific monsters?”

“Uhhhh…” Sylvia was left at a loss.

“That would be why you have to put together contingency plans and the like. It doesn’t devalue experimentation, as there are most likely still going to be trends,” explained the elf.

“I did have a contingency,” said Claire. “Beating it to death.”

“That’s generally more of a last resort,” he said, with an entertained shake of the head.

“Whatever.” Claire got up from her seat. “Let’s go. You’re coming, right?”

“I’ll need a few minutes to gather my things and clean up the mess I just made.”

“Do it then.” The lyrkress turned back into her humanoid form and stepped out of the house for a breath of fresh air.

“Is she always like that?” asked Zelos.

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it!” said Sylvia.

“I can still hear you,” came Claire’s voice, from the other side of the door.

“We know!” said Sylvia, with a giggle.

“I wonder if she’ll get along with the neighbour,” muttered the elf.

“You have neighbours now? I thought that people hated living near you because you keep blowing stuff up.”

“Just one. The newcomer moved in a few days ago, apparently doesn’t mind the noi—”

The elf’s words were cut off by the pounding of feet, followed immediately by a deafening crack. The bloodthief casually stepped back into the house a moment later, with one of her toes bent completely out of shape.

“Ummm… Claire? Wh-what just happened?” stuttered Sylvia.

“Nothing.”

“That couldn’t have been nothing! I definitely heard something!”

“Okay fine. It was something. Just nothing important.”

“Uh huh… Go on…”

“I kicked the neighbour.”

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Spicy Space Squid

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