Chapter 95 - Giant Frogs and Wooden Dogs VII
Sylvia silently stared as Claire ventured into the forest. She watched and waited, acting only as the other halfbreed vanished from her sphere of perception. By the powers vested in her as an aspect of chaos, she crafted a monarch outside the usual specifications, a lord imbued with the essence of her seventh nightmarish composition. Sending it off with a puff of air, she closed her eyes and turned back into a fox. The four-legged form was the one she preferred, but it wasn’t without its inconveniences. It was too responsive; she found it almost impossible to keep her body from blatantly conveying her thoughts and intentions.
“Goodbye, Claire,” she whispered.
Crabby Crags had failed to end the lyrkress’ life, even with all its monsters raised to their highest levels. But the fox was convinced that the lord she created would not allow the torch’s continued survival.
Muttering to herself, she closed her eyes and tried her best to steady her paws. But they wouldn’t listen to her. They kept shaking, even as she turned around and started walking away.
“It had to happen, sooner or later.”
Something in her chest didn’t feel right. It felt like her guts were twisting themselves into knots. She was sick to her stomach, and a quick hum didn’t remedy the malady, as it normally would.
“I have to go out and see the world.”
She could feel a counterargument bubbling up from within, but she dismissed it before it could be given form.
“Besides, pets need to be put down eventually.”
The trembling didn’t stop.
“I’m not doing anything wrong. This is just how Llystletein works. Us foxes only exist to collect souls in the first place, right, Al?”
Looking over her shoulder, she met the celestial’s gaze. The man’s echo appeared, but wordlessly shook its head, unwilling to offer her any advice or consolation.
“What the heck? This is your fault. At least say I was right. Talk about breaking out or something, like you always do.”
Sylvia chuckled quietly to herself as she leaned against a tree and breathed a series of deep breaths. It took a few minutes for her to finally stop shaking and get back to her feet—not that it really mattered. Returning to Darkwood Hollow was as easy as counting to three.
After teleporting back to the runestone, she walked through the quiet village and made her way home without any detours. Most of the other foxes were lazy and spent all their time napping. They didn’t like being disturbed, but that wasn’t the only reason she had refrained from calling out to them. Grant and Alfred were the only two whose company she enjoyed. Though not an outsider, like her father, she never could quite find any reason to associate with the others. They were too boring, bland, and focused on the mission.
“Hey Mom! Hey Dad! I’m home!”
Sylvia announced her presence as she entered the burrow. Like the treehouses that some of the other foxes used, the underground chamber was a separate subspace. It expanded to many times its true size as she passed through the entrance, a property that had been disabled during Claire’s first visit.
Almost everything was exactly as she had last seen it, with her dad’s presence the sole outlier. He was standing in the kitchen with a chain anchoring his ankle to one of the walls. It looked incredibly uncomfortable, but the man in question didn’t seem to mind. He had even created an echo to hum a non-magical tune as he went about deboning a rabbit—both actions performed solely for the sake of his captive audience.
“Welcome home, sweetie,” said Dixie. Her mom was hovering around her dad’s shoulders. Sometimes, she would sit on him, other times, she would spin around excitedly.
“Welcome back, Sylvie. We were just talking about you,” said her father. Unlike her mother, he was too preoccupied to spin around.
Sylvia blinked. “You were?”
The elf’s lips curved upward; she could see his expression reflected in his knife. “Yes, about you and that friend of yours.”
A sudden sharp feeling prodded at the back of the fox’s mind, but she shrugged it off.
“It’s a shame that she’s a torch, but I’m glad you two are getting along.”
“Oh umm… well… about that…” Sylvia turned her eyes away from her parents and stared at the nearest wall.
Dixie giggled. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’m not going to tell you that you have to listen to Al.”
But that’s exactly what I want you to tell me, thought Sylvia. A persistent itching welled up within her throat. Swallowing didn’t make it go away.
“I don’t know if we count as friends. She thinks I’m annoying,” she said, slowly.
“Because you talk too much,” said Dixie.
“No she doesn’t. In an elven settlement, she’d be considered one of the quieter ones. You should se—ow.”
Dixie yanked her husband’s ear and put an immediate end to his rant. “You shut your mouth, Zelos. Her taking after you is the problem.”
“Yes, Honey. If you say so,” groaned the elf. He sighed before perking up abruptly. “Oh, that’s right. I don’t think she really thinks you’re annoying, Sylvia.”
“But she constantly tells me to shut up!”
“Yes, but she still talks to you and treats you much better than everyone else.”
Sylvia blinked. “Really? I thought she was nicer to you.” She didn’t want to hear the explanation, but the words had spilled from her mouth before she could stop them.
The elf chuckled and allowed a root to take over his task as he turned around. For a moment, it looked like he was going to trip over his chain, but his foot evaded it with practised ease.
“She treats me cordially. The two of you are on friendlier terms,” he said, as he wiped his hands with a piece of cloth. “She may just come off as rude, but it’s because she’s more comfortable around you. Or at least that’s the way I see it.”
“How do you know she doesn’t just hate me?”
“Have you seen how she treats Geoff?”
“Right.” The fox’s mouth twitched as she turned her eyes on the nearest wall.
Her mother giggled. “Oh, Sylvia.”
“Don’t even start! I’m not bad at reading people!”
“And lying too,” said Zelos.
“You two are so mean. I need new parents,” grumbled the fox.
Dixie licked her lips. “If you wind up with new parents, we’ll need a new daughter.”
“I would be much obliged, my dear,” said Zelos, his cheeks glowing.
“Mom! Dad! That’s gross! Save that for when I’m not here!”
The couple shared a laugh as the elf sat down in front of the table. One of the roots carried the rabbit’s legs over, while the rest was placed in a pot. Dixie hopped off her husband’s shoulder and claimed a piece for herself. She slowly chewed on it, tearing off tiny bits and pieces with every bite.
Zelos, on the other hand, clasped his hands together and leaned on the table.“So where did you go? We were looking for you earlier, but Grant said he couldn’t find you.”
“I umm… showed Claire to Croaker's Creek.”
“Then shouldn’t you be keeping watch? I don’t think she’s going to be able to beat it, even with Geoff’s support.”
Especially not the one I summoned, thought Sylvia. “Geoff isn’t with her.”
Her father sighed. “Sylvie… you’re going to get her killed.”
“I know.” Sylvia took a deep breath. “That’s why I did it.”
There was a moment of silence as the elf lowered his gaze and took a breath. Seeing it as a chance to interject, Dixie swallowed the raw flesh in her mouth and looked between them as she spoke.
“I thought she was your friend.”
“She was,” said Sylvia. “B-but I’ll be able to make more friends, eventually…” Her lips trembled.
“Sylvie…” Zelos pinched one of his ears.
“I want to get out of Llystletein, Dad. I know I didn’t before, but I want to go see what’s out there now. And this… is the fastest way.”
“You’re not supposed to harvest until the seventh hexstone,” said Dixie. “Three is too early.”
“I know, but she’s already worth more than enough because of her divinity.”
The wood elf sighed. “This is why you’re a terrible liar, Sylvie. You should really try to think these things through a little more before you say them.”
“I’m not lying!”
“Beck told me that Crabby Crags had a sudden difficulty spike the other day.”
Sylvia stood up on her hind legs, crossed her arms, and huffed. “So what?”
“You were trying to kill her before that.”
“Okay fine!” shouted the fox. “Maybe I was! But it’s not my fault! If I don’t do it soon, then I’m never going to be able to do it ever!”
She slammed one of her paws on the table. If not for the barrier that appeared directly beneath the limb, the fragile wooden structure would have been smashed to bits.
Walking over, Dixie placed her hands on her daughter’s paw and looked up at her. “It’s okay, sweetie. You don’t have to kill her if you don’t want to. No one’s going to make you do it.”
“How else am I supposed to see the world!?” She clenched her other paw as her whole body started to tremble. “We’re going to be stuck here forever if Al can’t beat Flitzegarde.”
Neither parent answered her right away. The two exchanged a pair of looks and subsequent nods before Dixie got up, flew to the subspace’s entrance, and sealed it shut. There was a loud clicking sound a moment later as Zelos produced an artifact from his bag, one that projected a circular barrier encompassing the underground subspace.
“Being stuck here forever with a friend is better than being out there, all alone,” said the older fox-fairy, as she returned.
“You don’t know that! You haven’t even been out there!”
Dixie put her hands on her hips and huffed. “Your father has.”
“That doesn’t mean I think the same way you two do!”
“And you don’t have to,” said the elf. The man was wearing an awfully goofy smile, the sort that would always surface while he was in the midst of his research. “But it might be worth knowing that Alfred’s way out of Llystletein isn’t the only one out there.”
The fox gasped. “You kept working on all that artifact stuff? Didn’t Al tell you that he was gonna kill you if you didn’t stop?”
“He hasn’t caught on for the last fifty years. He’s not going to suddenly catch on now.”
“Fifty years? I thought you just started a few months ago.”
“That was just a test to gauge how Alfred was going to react. It’s not ready just yet, but it will be. Very, very soon.”
“Does that mean I’m really gonna be able to leave?”
“Whenever you want.”
Sylvia’s tail began wagging rapidly, only to freeze and straighten up as she paled. “Then I’ve been trying to kill her for nothing!?”
Not waiting for a response, Sylvia scrambled out of the burrow, failing twice as her parents disengaged the mechanisms sealing it shut. The first place she went was the youngest mirewulf’s base; the squirrel was still buried right beneath it, seemingly nonchalant.
“Oh, hello. Is that you, Sylvia?” he looked towards her and nodded.
She blinked. “How did you know it was me? Wait, don’t answer that! That’s not important right now.”
Humming a quick note, she made the ground beneath the squirrel rise. The mirewulf was disturbed enough to awaken, but she silenced it with a quick yip, an order for it to rest.
“There’s no time to explain what’s going on. Claire’s in trouble.” She spoke as quickly as she could as she raised a paw and pointed it westward. “Do you know where Croaker's Creek is?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he said, as he cracked his neck. “Thanks fo—”
“Stop talking and just go!”
“Ahh, finally, a ch—”
“Shut up! Go!”
The rodent departed as he shouted another incomprehensible phrase that never made it to her ears. His level was hardly any higher than Claire’s, but his sheer velocity was indicative of a near five-digit agility stat.
Sylvia did little but watch as he vanished into the forest. At most, he would last a minute. She knew that she should have accompanied him, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Her paws had started trembling again; she didn't know what she was supposed to do.
As the person who had set the entire mess into motion, she knew that she had to step in. They wouldn’t be able to handle an eldritch lord. Asking Geoff for his assistance was no different from needlessly sending another person off to their death. But she didn’t think that it was right for her to suddenly show up and act as if she hadn’t behaved like some sort of filthy turncoat.
It was all her fault.
Everything had been orchestrated by her hand and her hand alone. She didn’t know if her father was right. She had no idea if Claire really thought of her as a friend, or even a pet, as she claimed. Whatever the case, their relationship had already been ruined. She had betrayed her. Overtly, this time.
Claire would never trust her again. There was even a fair chance that the lyrkress would try to kill her.
And she would have no right to deny her.
“What’s the point in helping her if we’re not going to be friends anymore?” A sinking feeling settled in her gut as she gave voice to the thought.
She hated herself for saying it.
It made her feel terrible. Claire wouldn’t have been in any danger if Sylvia had taken a moment to think of anything besides herself. And now she was trying to make excuses. Again, entirely out of selfishness. To avoid an emotional burden.
She knew she had to act.
But her feet wouldn’t budge.
Sylvia didn’t want the inevitable confrontation to come. She didn’t want Claire to call her a traitor, attack her, or even express her resentment. Even though she knew she deserved just about all of it. But she also didn’t want her to die. Especially not without reason.
Clenching her jaws, the fox directed her focus inward, pictured the location in her head, and warped to Croaker's Creek.
Her destination looked a lot different from what she had in mind, largely in part because the monarch had already completed its manifestation. It had altered the environment to fit its new size and grown to ridiculous proportions, its height over ten times that of the usual lord of the slough.
The battle itself was long underway. Geoff was fighting it, cutting up its tendrils with his cleavers, defending the bleeding mess of a halfbreed that lay to his rear. He was many times faster than the giant frog, but it had too many limbs at its disposal. He was unable to get through all of them, and the assault was too heavy for him to continue holding his ground. Taking one of its attacks had already left him with a broken arm.
While everyone was distracted, Sylvia shrank down to her fairy form, snuck through the undergrowth, and checked on Claire. Her administrative skill was telling her that she was still alive. But she had to make sure for herself.
A grimace loomed on her face as she inspected the half-snake’s wounds. Her lower half was a battered mess, completely broken with several holes running through her body. Her gut was hardly any better. It was pierced all the way through. Her arms were broken and her piercing eyes were gone, ripped out of their sockets.
Sylvia knew the damage was temporary. But she still gulped, audibly, as her heart sank.
Again, she was made to face the fact that it was all her fault.
A scream, from Geoff, brought her attention back to the battle. He was roaring, shouting something incomprehensible in an unknown language as he continued to deflect whatever he could. But his loss was inevitable. Another few waves, and he would end up just like Claire.
Biting her lips, Sylvia hummed a low tune, an order for the monarch to detach from its host and leave. It abided by her instructions after a brief delay, causing the realm to warp and return to its default state.
The butterfly itself flew off to parts unknown; she was going to have to wrangle it some time later so that it could be stored with the rest. But for the time being, she had prioritised its disappearance. There would be chaos if any of the other foxes happened to spot it.
“What the hell?” Geoff was left creasing his brows as the giant frog deflated and vanished among a pile of similarly sized counterparts.
“It left,” said Sylvia, after another brief pause.
“Must’ve known I was about to get serious,” said the squirrel.
Sylvia was almost tempted to reject the notion outright, but nodded along instead. “Maybe. Thanks Geoff.”
“No problem,” he said, with the corners of his lips raised as high as they would go. “Is she going to be alright?”
Sylvia hummed an invigorating tune and wrapped all three of their bodies in a golden aura. “She will be.”
The vitality-boosting magic drastically increased the half-cervitaur’s health regeneration and restored her life force at an unnatural rate. Her wounds vanished in just a few seconds, leaving not a trace or scar behind. Claire began to stir almost immediately afterwards, groaning as she twitched and rolled around. Sylvia gulped. The sinking sensation in her chest only grew as her former friend grew closer and closer to waking.
“Geoff. Can we have a moment?” she asked, her voice unsteady.
Apparently, the rodent didn’t exactly understand her request, as all he did was take half a step away. He even started posing and adjusting his exact position, almost as if to ensure that Claire would see him when she finally opened her eyes.
“I’m alive? I thought I lost.” The rogue spoke as she brought a hand to her face, the rest of her body still unmoving.
“I’m sorry,” said the fairy, her heart pounding. “I’m sorry, Claire. It’s all my fault. I tried to kill you and I really shouldn’t have. I’ll leave you alone now, since you probably don’t want to deal with me anymore. Goodbye.”
Sylvia spun around and flew off. She started out at her top speed, but slowed against her will. The force spell negated her momentum and reeled her back, slowly pulling her into the palm of the mage’s hand. She was expecting Claire to grab and squish her, so she put extra effort into escaping, but the vector overpowered the song she used to bolster her speed, even though its value was hardly impressive. With a surprised blink, Sylvia turned around and found Claire’s eyes glowing with a violent golden light. Divinity.
Knowing that she couldn’t escape, the fairy surrendered herself to the force and hummed a spell to reinforce her frame. But no attack came. Claire stopped pulling her once she was close enough and flicked her tail to spin her around. She didn’t say or do anything else, opting instead to sit still, her arms crossed and her lips pursed into a stern frown.
“Ummm… Claire?” Sylvia stared at the ground, her gaze only occasionally flicking up.
“I’m waiting for a better explanation.”
“Oh.” Sylvia’s fox ears flopped forward. “Okay, I guess, but I’m not really sure where to start.”
Claire shrugged. “Then I’ll start. You trying to kill me isn’t much of a surprise.”
“Huh? It isn’t?”
“I was expecting you to do something like this from the start. Alfred too. I know he’s planning to stab me in the back at some point. It’s just a question of when.”
“That just means you never trusted me!”
“Trust is something you earn.”
Though the words themselves were harsh, the other girl’s tone was perfectly neutral. Sylvia knew that the lyrkress was good at concealing her emotions, but she couldn’t help but feel as if the lack of malice was genuine. The weight in her chest lightened, just enough for her to breathe a sigh of relief.
“You’re not mad?”
The lyrkress shrugged. “Maybe a little. Now explain.”
“Well… okay, I guess. But only if you promise not to tell anyone else.”
“Maybe you should get rid of him first then.” Claire pointed at the rodent, who had switched from posing to dancing.
“He’s a Llystletein monster, so he knows already.” Sylvia hummed up a bubble, sat on top of it, and made herself comfortable. “I really want to see the outside world. Everything you’ve told me about it just… really makes me want to go.”
Claire nodded, as if to urge her to continue.
“So umm… you know Al, the celestial? Llystletein is basically his prison. And since he made us, we’re basically trapped in here with him. The only way for us to get out is for him to harvest a bunch of souls so he can overpower the goddess of order.”
“Is that why Llystletein classes are so powerful? Because he has more influence?”
“Ummmm, not exactly. I think Llysltetein is actually supposed to be the name of a big empire. It used to be something of a superpower, back when it was still thrivi—errr, oops. I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about that. Knowing about it is supposed to be kinda taboo.” She covered the bottom half of her face with her tail as she averted her gaze. “Anyway! Al basically needs people to die so we can get out of here.”
“I shouldn’t have told you any stories then,” grumbled Claire.
“Maybe not,” Sylvia averted her gaze. “I’m really sorry. I just… thought that getting out was going to be my top priority.”
“I’m more important,” said Claire.
“I don’t know about that, but trying to kill you made me feel really guilty.”
“I’m sure it did.”
“I know you might not believe me, but I swear it really did!”
Claire smirked. “I can tell.”
“Ugh… you’re so mean! Maybe I should’ve let that frog finish you off after all.”
The lyrkress shrugged. “I wouldn’t have been surprised, even if you did. You were always suspicious, ever since we first met.”
“You’re a bad actor. The whole skit you did with Grant was unnatural. Darkwood Hollow was clearly never under attack, and the question you asked me right before I went to Borrok Peak really gave it all away.” Claire raised a finger each time she listed off an incident. “What you did to Crabby Crags just seemed like par for the course. And so did this.”
“You knew from the start? But then why did you keep me around?”
“Because I’m used to it. This is nothing, compared to what the noble houses do to each other.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“I’ve seen harlots who have tricked their husbands into naming the sons of others as their heirs, cousins who have cooked and served each other’s daughters out of spite, and children who have maliciously condemned and executed their own parents for false crimes. This is nothing.”
The fox shuddered. “That’s just plain old terrifying.”
“It’s what we call high society,” said Claire, with a self-deriding smile.
“So umm…” Sylvia floated up to the other girl’s face and meekly looked her in the eyes. She kept opening her mouth, but closing it right after.
Geoff took the pause as an opportunity to speak. “I’d hate to inter—”
His mouth was sealed with a quick application of brute force. Grabbing the top half of his jaw with her tail, Claire pushed it down and pressed him against the forest floor.
“D-do you really not hate me?” stammered the fairy, eventually. “You’re not going to blame me, yell at me, or call me a traitor or anything?”
Claire shrugged. “There was a girl that tried to kill me for having prettier ears than her. She eventually became something of a sister to me.”
“Ummm… that doesn’t really make sense.”
“She was a lot more direct than all the ones that tried to scheme, and I’d rather have a dagger pointed at my face than one pointed at my back.”
“That still doesn’t explain how the two of you ended up becoming friends!”
“We spent time together and it happened. Just like how you and I became friends.”
“Oh… well umm… are we still friends?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Does that mean that you trust me?”
Again, Sylvias’s heart sank. Her ears and tails drooped as she fell flat on her stomach. Her heart sped up, and her legs started wobbling beneath her. It was exactly as she had feared. She had lost Claire’s trust. Things would never really go back to the way they were.
“That means we’re hardly any different from acquaintances,” said the fox, the back of her throat completely dry.
“You don’t need trust to be friends.”
“Yes you do!”
Claire tilted her head, almost as if to express a lack of understanding. “Not in my book.”
“Having friends you don’t trust is just silly! What if I decide to kill you in your sleep?”
“Probably not anymore,” admitted Sylvia.
“But what if I suddenly deci—”
“There’s nothing I could do to stop you. Trust doesn’t make a difference. It’s not like the guilt is going to change your mind.”
“I guess not.”
“And that’s why there’s no point in me worrying about it.”
“Right…” Sylvia twiddled her thumbs. “But are you really going to forgive me? I basically tried to use you like a sacrifice. And you said that’s why you were here in the first place, right? What I did seems like something that’d bring up some really bad memories.”
The lyrkress pushed herself off the ground and got to her feet. “Maybe if I didn’t suspect you from the start.”
Sylvia put her hands behind her back and dodged the other girls’ piercing stare.
Claire grabbed the half elf’s cheeks, pinched, and pulled. “I know you didn’t like being told that I don’t trust you, but it isn’t as if I’ll never trust you.”
Blinking, the fox-fairy looked up. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“It means that trust is something that’s earned.”
Her tail ears perking up and her tail swinging back and forth, the two-legged forest dweller floated up to the other halfbreed and gave one of her ears a hug. “Thanks Claire. I’ll try to make this up to you somehow.”
“You better,” said the lyrkress, with a faint smile.
With their conversation finally complete, Claire let go of the squirrel’s face and stopped depriving him of air. Sylvia had almost expected him to immediately start talking, but he remained perfectly silent. Blinking, she looked at him again and realised that he had fallen unconscious.
Claire tossed the rodent into the swamp, where he lay with his tail twitching and his face in the water. “I’m going to need to find something else to fight, something stronger than the crabs, but weaker than the frog.”
“Wanna try beating up some mirewulves? There are some near Darkwood Hollow if you want to try taking them on.”
“Okay,” said Claire. “But not right now. I’ve had enough for one morning.”
“Then let’s head back! I think Dad’s making lunch, and he’s probably going to make your share too.”
“Five more minutes.” Sitting back down, Claire entrusted her weight to a tree and took a series of slow, deep breaths.
“Not this again!”
Sylvia tugged at her ear and tried to get her to stand up, but the lyrkress ignored her. Reaching behind her back, she drew her half-broken mace and cast her gaze on the cracks running down its length. “Stupid frog.”