Chapter 96 - Giant Frogs and Wooden Dogs VIII
Claire stifled a yawn as she made her way through Darkwood Hollow. Her body was afflicted with a strange weight, a familiar sense of lethargy that clung to her mind and refused to let go. She didn’t feel like moving, and it had taken Sylvia several minutes of harassment to convince her to finally get to her feet. Her eyelids drooped every time she stopped paying attention to them and the urge to simply pass out where she stood never left her. Still, she was able to navigate the forest and wander back to the almost feline town.
Gauging the settlement’s population was difficult. There were foxes and fairies strewn about at random, with at least half of them napping on giant mushrooms. The population density varied greatly between the different areas and there was no way for her to count any of the individuals that had chosen to remain indoors. Though Sylvia spent almost all her time as a furball, the other residents didn’t appear to be as partial to their four-legged forms. Less than half of them were foxes. Most of them were transformed into humanoids, with some a third of Sylvia’s size and others standing at ten times her height. The taller ones looked almost exactly like regular beastkin, with context the only reason she assumed otherwise.
“Okay, here we are!” Sylvia spoke from her position atop Claire’s head. She was already back in her fox form, as she almost always was. “It’s under the third tree on the left, right next to all the lightcrowns.”
The pet had transformed soon after their initial post-almost-mortem discussion. The fox’s insecurity hadn’t come as much of a surprise, but dealing with it had proven challenging, even for Claire and all her social aptitude. Alice had been much more receptive to the subtle hints she gave. With Sylvia, it almost felt like she would have to give voice to her thoughts for the fox to finally understand them. She wasn’t exactly fond of going out of her way to display her emotions, but she at least decided to give it a try, both for her safety, and Sylvia’s peace of mind.
“All this effort for a useless fox,” she muttered, as she walked up to the burrow’s entrance.
“Hey! I’m not useless!”
“That’s exactly what a useless fox would say.” Rolling her eyes, she reached up and pinched Sylvia’s nose before directing her gaze to her feet. “Do I need to knock?”
“Nope!” Sylvia leapt off her trusty steed and jumped right into the den. “Mom! Dad! We’re back!” Her voice rang with a strange quality. It was quieter than usual and half faded, as if she were speaking from a distance.
Claire raised her ears overhead and listened carefully as the fox’s parents replied. Oddly enough, their voices were similarly distorted. It was almost like their words were going through a layer of fluid. It was a curious phenomenon, but the blueblood shrugged it off, took on her lamian form, and slithered her way into the foxhole. The tunnel almost seemed to expand as she got deeper inside. She could have sworn that the home was only a meter or two beneath the surface, but her whole body was able to fit inside of the entryway.
The half-moose stared blankly as she finally poked her head through the other end of the underpass and looked upon the family’s subterranean home. It was oddly spacious with far more head and legroom than Grant’s tiny treehouse. She would still bump her head against the ceiling if she were to assume her lyrkrian form, but she had no trouble turning into a humanoid and standing straight up. Likewise, the furniture was also upscaled, with most of it just large enough for the home’s sole elven occupant. There were a few disproportionate pieces scattered throughout, like the tiny swing hanging from the ceiling and the miniature desk floating off in one of the room’s corners, but for the most part, the fittings were usable by all three of the home’s residents.
Though underground, the space was well lit, with the mushrooms scattered throughout providing a constant source of illumination. Some of the fungi were big enough to double as stools, but most were thumb-sized, growing out of the floors and walls alike. Further contributing to the bright atmosphere was the crackling flame kept in one of the cave’s distant corners. Zelos was standing by it, tending to a pot that stood at nearly half his less-than-remarkable height.
A subtle but present clinking led her eyes to his ankle, where she discovered a rusty chain, binding him to the wall. The metal leash was several dozen meters long, more than lengthy enough to allow him to walk around the house and even step out into the yard. It hardly bound him, but it was undoubtedly a restraint.
The elf nodded at her as their eyes met. “You lived! Congratulations.”
“Barely surviving is still surviving,” said Dixie. “Lords are notoriously hard to kill.”
“I can see that. The tongue was obnoxious.”
Zelos cocked a brow as he looked up from the pot. “The tongue? You were able to face a cotton crab buccaneer head on. You shouldn’t have had any trouble with the tongue.”
Claire shrugged. “It was faster than any of the crabs. Deadlier too.”
“Really?” The elf set down his ladle and crossed his arms. “They’re supposed to be a lot better with magic than they are in close quarters.”
“It was. But it was also good with its tongue.”
All three humanoids immediately turned towards the only four-legged critter present. Having already anticipated the unspoken accusation, Sylvia had long committed herself to staring at a particularly bright mushroom with seemingly great interest. She continued to silently converse with it, even as she started to sweat, under all the pressure.
“Sylvie? What did you make her fight?” asked Zelos.
“T-the lord of the slough,” stuttered the furball.
“And what level was it?”
“T-that’s confidential and I can’t tell you since you’re technically a torch!”
“It was a level 250 eldritch frog, freshly created and twice ascended,” said Dixie, from the other side of the room. She had her eyes closed and her hands pressed against a small metallic object adorned with a series of bright runes.
“M-mom!?” squeaked the fox. “You’re not supposed to tell them that!”
“And you’re not supposed to be creating new lords, sweetie.”
Her eyes narrowed into a glare, Claire walked in front of the fox and picked her up by the cheeks. She pulled the critter’s face as wide as she could get it to go without causing any lasting damage.
“Claire! Stop that!” cried the victim.
“It feels weird!”
“That’s the point.”
“I thought you said you weren’t mad!”
“I never said that.”
“Yes you did!”
“I said I was a little mad. Now, I’m a little more mad.”
“Argghhh! Mom! Dad! Help! She’s going to tear off my cheeks!”
“You’ll be fine, sweetie,” said the victim’s mother. “Fox cheeks are highly malleable.”
“How would you know!? You never spend any time as a fox!”
Dixie huffed before turning to the only man in the room with her eyes moist. “I used to, before I met your father.”
The elf returned the gesture before turning to his daughter and her assailant. “Claire, would you mind letting her go and taking a seat at the table? I was hoping to serve lunch.”
After one last particularly violent tug, the lyrkress set the fox back down and approached one of the chairs. It seemed a little small at first, but it adjusted itself as soon as she touched it. The rest of the furniture followed suit, growing to accommodate her height with the various seats only partially changing. Their length and width remained identical, as to best support the individuals they were meant for, but their legs extended as to stay level with the table.
“Finally!” Sylvia rubbed her sore cheeks and patted them with her paws.
Her father was left with an awkward, apologetic smile. “Thank you, Claire. I’ll be giving her a stern talking to later, about how friendship is meant to work.” His plants got to work and immediately began setting the table, placing a bowl and several wooden utensils in front of each of the five chairs. “Oh, right. Where’s Geoff?”
Claire looked at Sylvia, who replied with a shrug, before turning to Zelos and doing the same.
“Well, that’s certainly unfortunate. I was expecting him, so I made enough for five.” A pair of roots tidied up one of the bowls and placed it in a basket while another pair ladled two portions of soup, one for the elf and the other for the lyrkress. The remaining plates were adorned with pieces of fresh meat, cut into slices thin enough for them to be translucent.
“Don’t worry. Nothing’s gonna go to waste!” said Sylvia.
The elf chuckled. “I was more worried about him. He doesn’t really seem to be eating too well.”
“Good,” said the moose.
The Redleaf family sat down as the napkins were placed, with Sylvia situated next to Claire and her parents seated across from them. The blueblood took the momentary lapse in the conversation to look upon the meal presented to her. It wasn’t anything particularly outstanding, but neither was it offensive, just an ordinary soup with meat and vegetables.
“The rabbit is fresh.” The mother’s fork moved without the use of her hands. It floated over to the meat, retrieved a tiny piece, and brought it to her face. “I hunted a nice plump one after the two of you left, and Zelos cleaned it up.” The slice was still too big for her, so she kept the utensil floating in front of her as she slowly chewed through it, bit by bit.
“I can tell! It tastes really good.” Sylvia was already on her third piece. “It’s always much better without the fur, but getting it off is such a pain in the butt.”
A wave of lethargy struck Claire as she raised a spoonful of warm soup to her lips. It wasn’t any more bland than anything else Zelos had ever made, but for some odd reason, she felt the urge to set it aside. She wasn’t hungry. She didn’t want to eat. The only urge she felt was to lie down and get some well-deserved rest.
“Umm… Claire? You look kinda woozy.”
“Because I am.” She pressed a hand against her forehead and leaned on the table. “I’m just… tired. I’m not really sure why.”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause you pushed yourself too hard?”
“I doubt it,” she said, quietly.
Dixie pointed towards a hallway that led further into the burrow. “We have several guest rooms, if you would like to take a nap. The beds are nice and soft, the best you can find in Llystletein.”
Claire nodded. “Maybe after lunch. Thank you, Dixie.”
“Not a problem. I’ve already gotten one ready for you.” Dixie’s fork retrieved another piece of meat.
“Thank you,” said Claire, as she turned to Sylvia. “But first, there are a few things I want to get out of the way.”
“W-what?” asked the fox, as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She guarded her cheeks with her paws and kept a careful eye on Claire’s hands.
“If the frog I just fought was 250, does that mean it’s stronger than both the other lords I have to fight?”
Sylvia breathed a sigh of relief and put her forelimbs back on the table. “Oh, whew. That’s what this was about?”
“I can pinch your cheeks more if you want.”
“No thanks!” The younger vixen’s guard went right back up. “I-I’m gonna fix it next time so it’s actually level 100 like it’s supposed to be.”
“Huh?” Sylvia blinked. Thrice.
“Don’t fix it.”
“B-but why not!? It’s way stronger than it should be! You’re never gonna be able to finish your quest!”
“I don’t care. I want to fight it again.” The rogue took a deep breath. “After I get stronger.”
She closed her eyes and took a moment to reflect on the battle. She didn’t think that she had a shot of victory, as things stood, but she was confident that she could have forced it to reveal more of its hand, had she held out for any longer. Five seconds was all she had needed to lob a horse-shaped bomb down its throat, but alas, she could not.
“I’m not really sure if that’s all too great of an idea…” said Sylvia. “You’re probably gonna need to ascend again first, and who knows how long that’ll take.”
“I’ll be fine. I just need to gain a few more levels,” said Claire.
“I’m starting to think that you’re more likely to be the cause of your death than I am.”
“You’re the one that made me fight it.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to fight it again!”
“Yes it does.”
“No it doesn’t!” Sylvia creased her brow and looked around the room for support, but neither parent said a word, opting instead to watch the pair with smiles on their faces. “I can’t be the only one that thinks she’s weird, right?”
Claire crossed her arms. “I’m not weird. Centaurs live without shame.”
“I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean,” said Sylvia, raising one ear and lowering the other.
“It means that I’m not allowed to lose.”
“I don’t see how that’s in any way related to anything! Especially since you’ve already lost!”
“It won’t count as a loss if I kill it next time.”
The fox threw up her paws. “That’s not how that works! You can’t just beat someone at something once and then say you’ve never lost when they’ve already beat you before you beat them!”
Claire shrugged. “It’s how it works in Cadria.”
“Well it shouldn’t be!”
“You’re just uncultured.”
“No I’m not! Oh screw it! I give up!” Sylvia plopped onto the table and closed her eyes. “Convincing you of anything is impossible. I still can’t believe you chose vector mage right after I explicitly told you not to!”
“It seemed like the best choice.” The half-lamia spooned some meat and vegetables into her mouth.
“Vector mage is a great choice.” Dixie set her fork down and leaned back in her seat.
“It does seem rather potent,” said Zelos. “I was considering making it my fourth.”
“No it isn’t! It’s all woomy and hard to control,” said Sylvia.
The older fairy magically lifted her plate and placed it in a basket on the other side of the room. “It just needs a bit of practice.”
“Yeah, but getting the hang of it is really tough.”
“It’s not that bad.” Claire seized the dirty dish back out of the basket and returned it to the table. “But flying is hard.”
Dixie tilted her head. “Flying? Really? Flying is supposed to be the easiest part, if you’ve picked up the Llystletein variant.”
“It’s hard to control.”
“It should be easier than what you just did. Much easier, in fact.”
The two took a moment to exchange a pair of blank stares.
“I have to use my tail to push myself around. It’s hard to move in the right direction.” Claire grew out the extra limb and pointed it at her back.
“That’s not how you’re supposed to fly.” Dixie stepped off her chair and floated across the table. “It’s more like this.”
She wasn’t pointing anything at herself. All three of her tails were left hanging behind her, and her limbs were all positioned naturally. Observing the forces around her, Claire didn’t immediately notice anything abnormal. Until it suddenly hit her. One was missing. The fairy wasn’t being pulled to the ground.
“Wait… Sylvia does that too.”
“W-well yeah, h-how else is a fairy without wings supposed to fly?” The fox tried her best to make it seem as if nothing was wrong, but she wasn’t able to keep herself from squeaking.
“You’re teaching me to fly later.”
“B-but you’re supposed to figure these things out yourself!”
“I said, you’re teaching me to fly later,” repeated Claire, with a hiss. “Weren’t you supposed to ‘make it up to me somehow?’”
“I mean, I am! But this is just extortion!”
A small smirk on her face, Claire raised her spoon and took a satisfied, slow sip. The dish may not have been very flavourful, but the satisfaction that accompanied it made it every bit as delicious as a gourmet meal.