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Chapter 97 - Giant Frogs and Wooden Dogs IX

Sighing for the tenth time in just a few minutes, Claire stared at the ceiling through a pair of bleary eyes. Nothing felt right. Her arms and legs refused to move, her eyelids were heavy, and her breaths were laboured. All the signs were saying that she was completely, thoroughly exhausted. But for whatever reason, her consciousness refused to fade. The rogue had tried tossing, turning, and counting the fifty seven and a half mushrooms growing out of the ceiling on three separate occasions, all to no avail.

The bed wasn’t the problem. If anything, it was soft, heavenly, and just as inviting as the nice fluffy mattress she had back at the manor. By all means, it should have had every bit of power it needed to entice her into an unplanned afternoon nap. But it didn’t.

Putting the blame on a lack of darkness was equally as untenable. The underground space completely blocked out the sun and the mushrooms that otherwise kept it illuminated dimmed as soon as she closed the door to her room. They still continued to radiate a faint light, but their glows were soft, barely visible even in the dark.

Not even her form was giving her any trouble. She wasn’t uncomfortable, despite having remained a humanoid for something in the realm of an hour. Still, Claire couldn’t help but suspect that undoing the transformation would aid in the pursuit of rest. Logically, it was worth a shot, but she couldn’t bring herself to act. Turning back into a lyrkress would take a tiny bit of effort, effort she was completely and utterly unwilling to spare.

“This is a waste of time.”

An audible hiss escaped her as she opened up her quest menu. A week had passed since she had been tasked with slaying the lords, but she had failed to make any sort of progress. If anything, she had only moved the goalpost further away by asking for the lord of the slough to remain as it was. There were only three and a half weeks left. She would likely reach level 150 within the month if she continued at her current pace. Though not necessarily remarkable, it was still a respectable number for someone with only a few weeks’ combat experience, but still a far cry from the frog’s 250.

I don’t need to match it. I can kill it without my second ascension.

There was no doubt that the frog still had a dozen tricks up its sleeve, but Claire had already confirmed that her magic did not leave it unscathed. The freezing ray had hurt it, badly enough to irritate it into really attacking her. Knowing that provided a sense of security. She was confident that a series of focused attacks would allow her to remove the creature’s tongue. But she doubted that she would be able to take it down.

Breathing yet another sigh, she allowed her eyes to wander. They eventually settled on the object resting atop the chair by her bedside, the once trusty mace that had served her throughout her adventure. It wasn’t exactly completely out of commission per se. It was still more or less in one piece, but there were deep, irreparable cracks running its length.

“Why did it have to break?”

Slowly, reluctantly, she crawled out of bed and grabbed the dysfunctional weapon. The lethargy had yet to leave her system, but she saw no purpose in lazing around, not with the overpowering sense of misery that came with being left alone and conscious in the dark.

Her nightgown transformed into her usual outerwear as she dragged her feet to the door. Opening it, she found that the whole burrow was a lot darker and quieter than it had been just half an hour prior. No one else was home. The only sounds she heard were muffled and came from outside.

As a whole, the abode was on the humbler side. There were few decorations, with most of the random objects strewn about built more for practical use than they were display. The few ornaments that did exist were peculiar. There was a clay vase in the shape of a fox’s head, a shelf covered in serrated flowers, and a magical lamp made entirely of bone. Claire almost wanted to grab the objects and take them along with her, but she made sure to keep her hands to herself. As curious as she was, she knew better than to raid her pet’s home.

With her half-broken mace dangling from her hips, she crawled out the doorway, walked outside the village’s bounds, and sought the nearest body of water. Her choice of destination didn’t come with any real rhyme or reason; it was simply the first notable landmark her ears had managed to identify.

A few minutes of walking led her to a large lake with a sparse but welcome headcount. There was one small group of foxes swimming around in the shallows and another napping by the bank, but it was otherwise free of any sentient life. There were a number of critters drinking from the watering hole, deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and badgers, but they appeared as would ordinary animals, lacking the obvious sentience demonstrated by the foxes.

Wandering over to an empty stretch of the shore, she sat atop an old log and planted the bone club in the mud in front of her. It felt surprisingly durable, despite all the cracks. But frankly, there was no real point in salvaging it. It would last a few more swings at most before shattering into a million pieces. Throwing the weapon away seemed like an obvious choice, but she couldn’t bring herself to simply see it discarded.

Unlike a blade or other manufactured good, she couldn’t exactly get the bone reforged by visiting a blacksmith. The only way to produce a spare was to find and slay the monster it belonged to, but she had no idea what she was supposed to be looking for. The watchers were the only ones she’d found that were roughly the right size, but they were much too fragile. Even her own bones were more durable, and not by an insignificant amount.

“What if…”

Picking the weapon up again, she covered it in a layer of ice and froze its cracks shut. A quick test confirmed that the makeshift repairs were effective. The poor tree she bashed had its trunk half crushed, and none of the mace’s cracks spread any further. All of the damage had been directed towards the icy covering instead. Though problematic in its own right, the brittle ice was far easier to deal with. Unlike the bone, the frozen water could be fixed in the blink of an eye, a quick, effortless burst of magic.

It was perfect, save for the change to its center of gravity. Claire adjusted its shell and gave it another swing, but it still didn’t feel right. Again and again, she repeated the process, but something always felt off.

Five failed attempts led the lyrkress to start grumbling.

Fifteen made the veins in her forehead budge.

And fifty was when she finally gave up.

Throwing the cudgel at a nearby tree, she leaned back into the mud and stared up into the marshy meadow’s murk. Nothing was working. It simply never felt right in her hands.

“I don’t even remember how it’s supposed to feel anymore.”

The weapon floated over to Claire’s extended hand and landed in her palm. It began to change, slowly but surely, as she focused her gaze on its tip. The ice attached to its far end warped; it was soon forged into a rounded blade resembling one of the axes she had found in Crabby Crags.

Lazily getting to her feet, she walked over to the nearest tree and gave the weapon a swing. It drew a massive arc in the air before cleaving the poor maple that was its victim in two.

Though it still didn’t feel natural, she was pleased to discover that its new form was significantly less obtuse. Taking away the expectation accompanying its mace-like shape helped curb the uncanny distribution of its weight. Durability was still a problem, but she was getting quite proficient at repairing her icy creations on the fly. The spears she had used against the frogs had only lasted as long as they did because she kept refreezing and reshaping them. The same could be done for the axe, so long as she put enough time and effort into memorizing its form.

Too bad I can’t make it out of true ice. She stared at the supposedly indestructible shard in her chest, the only part of her body to have survived Shoulderhorse’s little accident. Or can I?

Activating thermodynamic regulation, she emitted a wave of hot air and melted any of the ice still clinging to the mace. Once it was dry, she channeled all five points of divinity into her shard, expanding both its length and its diameter to over three times their defaults. Its shape was altered as well, becoming more of a wedge than a spike. She tried to stare at it to get a better grasp of its new form, but the change in its size threw her already wobbly legs off balance and sent her plummeting into the mud.

Her face warped into a scowl as she pushed herself back off the ground. The shard’s new weight was notable, but not entirely unmanageable; keeping her back straight was only slightly more challenging than maintaining her humanoid form. Its difficulty diminished with time, but only because her center of balance shifted. Half her body almost seemed to freeze as the true ice slithered down her arm, filled the mace’s cracks, and grew up its length.

A brand new blade sprouted from its tip, a hefty robust edge that was unlikely to shatter or break, even if used to parry an oversized tongue. Moving her arm was somewhat difficult with the icy fetters wrapped around it, but a bit of practice quickly proved that they were less restrictive than they seemed at first glance. They would dig into her arm whenever she tried to suddenly switch her grip, but they would never go as far as piercing the skin. It was akin to how her fangs didn’t cut her lips, even though the sharpened points were often in contact with the supple flesh. The sensation bothered her at first, but it went away after she delivered another dozen or so haphazard swings.

Smashing the axe against a boulder confirmed its durability. The weapon remained in perfect form, even after she bludgeoned the oversized rock and shattered it into a burst of shrapnel. The blade was blunt at first, but that changed as she closed her eyes and focused solely on the sensation she experienced as she cut down the trees in her path. Its edge grew sharper and more deadly with each slice. Before long, it went from needing ten strokes to down a plant to gliding straight through the wood with surgical precision. The squirrels and birds chirped and chittered at her, as if to condemn her for the destruction of their property, but she ignored them and continued pushing through the forest, felling every tree she happened to cross. A few light adjustments were made after each; saplings and great oaks alike were used to improve the weight and feel of her weapon.

“Claire! Stop! You’re getting too close to the hollow!” A voice prompted the lyrkress to turn around. Sylvia, its owner, popped out of the undergrowth and frantically waved both her arms.

“How long have you been there?”

“I just got here! Burr, er, my fat uncle, woke me up in the middle of a nap and told me you suddenly started cutting down trees for no reason!” Dropping back down to all fours, the fox breathed a sigh of relief and started walking over.

“There’s a reason. I was testing something.”

The lumberjack raised her axe, but Sylvia’s gaze never managed to get past her shoulder.

“Woah… what happened to your arm?”

“Nothing.” Claire turned her eyes on the limb. “Probably.”

A pair of icy vines spiralled around the limb, running all the way from her shoulder to the palm of her hand. That, she had expected. Claire had explicitly instructed the shard to travel down the limb so she could reinforce the bone. What she hadn’t expected was for her magic circuitry to go haywire. The pathways in her arm were pulsing with a blue and yellow glow. Claire wasn’t particularly concerned. It didn’t feel like anything was wrong, even though the limb appeared as would a piece of blatant evidence to the contrary.

“Well ummm… okay, I guess.” The fox craned her neck and shifted her gaze downwards. “Wow, that’s a really ugly axe.”

Claire pressed her free hand against the side of her head and steadied herself. “It’s a weapon. It doesn’t need to look good if it works.”

“Yes it does! A scary weapon can intimidate the crap out of whoever you’re fighting. Yours is just going to make people think that you couldn’t find anything better.”

“Who cares?” Claire rolled her eyes. “A weapon is a weapon.”

It’s not even ugly. It’s a part of my shard, and my shard is very pretty.

Sylvia shrugged. “Oh yeah, do you wanna learn how to fly now?”

The half-cervitaur’s eyes moved towards the trees, many of which happened to be lying on the ground for no explicable reason. “Is there enough space here?”

“Yeah! You don’t really need that much since we’re just going to get started. You have detect force magic, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay! Then it should be easy. All you have to do is sense the force that’s holding you to the ground and negate it.”

“How do I negate it?”

“Uhmmm… don’t you have negate force? It should be one of the first spells you get.”

“Only resist.”

“Oh… I guess you’re gonna have to level it then. It should evolve once you max it.”

Claire raised a brow. “I don’t know how to level it.”

“You just have to try to resist the force I was just talking about. It shouldn’t be too bad. Won’t take more than a week if you try hard enough. It gets even faster if you’re trying to do it when you do other stuff.”

“Okay.”

Claire closed her eyes and centered her mind on the tether that kept her bound to the ground. But try as she might, the lyrkress was unable to keep her attention focused. A sense of discomfort caused her to stray every time she tried, a blanket of exhaustion that killed all her motivation.

She tried opening her eyes and seeking a distraction, but they refused to move. Her body simply didn’t want to budge.

A strange burning sensation flared up within her chest and spread through her arm.

The same searing pain that had assaulted her the previous night.

The pain that had come with her newfound divinity.

Recognising the source of her suffering lifted the veil clouding her eyes. She finally understood that it was all because she had overused her divinity. The seemingly undue pain was the same adverse phenomenon that would come with emptying the entirety of one’s mana pool too many times in rapid succession. The unfamiliar energy was eating away at her magic circuits, burning them from within with its fiery might.

The raging inferno didn’t begin to calm until she undid the shard’s transformation and reverted it to its usual size. A second wave of relief came over her as her body followed suit and returned to its lyrkrian form. But it wasn’t enough. The world spun as her knees buckled and collapsed beneath her weight.

“Ummm… Claire? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Her chest heaved up and down as she slithered to the nearest tree and leaned her back against it. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”

Claire closed her eyes and focused on her chest. A sharp pain coursed through her system with every breath, starting at the tips of her fingers and rippling throughout the rest of her body. She could feel the sensation traversing her magic circuits, scorching them with each vibrant pulse. Malleable as she was, the lyrkress struggled to adapt. Channeling her mana through her circuits didn’t help. Taking control of them only pained her more.

Inaction, on the other hand, provided a means of recovery. The burning agony slowly abated on its own, giving way to an echo of lethargy, a renewed sense of demotivation that left the force mage feeling like a frozen tuber, buried six feet underground.

“Claire! Get up! You can’t just fall asleep in the middle of the forest! It’s not even comfy here!”

“I’m not falling asleep.”

“You’re lying down with your eyes closed. Falling asleep is the only thing you could be doing!”

Sylvia pawed at her face, but Claire didn’t budge. Her arms were too busy being stuck underneath her for her to push the fox away. “I’m pretending to be a potato.”

“I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“I’m not moving until it’s spring.”

“That’s not how potatoes work! They sprout almost all year round!”

“Not in winter.”

“It won’t be winter for another six months!” Sylvia grabbed one of the lyrkress’ cheeks and pulled.

“It’s winter right now. I’m touching a piece of ice.”

“Huh?” Sylvia blinked and looked around, her gaze eventually settling on Claire’s chest. “Wait! That doesn’t count! It’s literally a part of your own body!”

“It’s cold. I don’t want to get up.” Smiling faintly, she powered through the haze clouding her mind and pushed herself off the ground.

“You can’t just say that and get up right after!”

“Good point.” The half-snake formed a pillow with her hands and laid them on the forest floor. She moved to lie on top of them, but a bubble appeared out of thin air and stopped her from reaching the ground. “Useless fox. Can’t even let me sleep.”

“Oh, shut up, Claire! You’re the one that’s being weird. I know you don’t feel right, but there’s a nice soft bed like two minutes away!” grumbled the useless fox. “I can help you walk and stuff if you want.”

“I don’t need any more rest.” All signs of sleepiness vanished from the lyrkress’ face as she got back to her feet.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Sylvia narrowed her eyes as she directed her gaze to the half-cervitaur’s gait, nodding only after a brief delay. “What happened anyway?”

“Nothing.”

“It can’t have been nothing! Your arm was totally messed up!”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Claire slowly raised the limb to eye level and carefully looked it over. It wasn’t pulsing anymore; her magic circuits were no longer visible and the golden light that had lit them aflame had vanished without a trace.

“Are you sure you don’t need any healing?”

“I’m fine.” Raising both arms overhead and pushing her front legs forward, she stretched out her back and loosened up her muscles. “Let’s go. I want to kill a mirewulf.”

Sylvia froze where she stood and blinked twice before finally dredging up a response. “R-right now? Aren't you tired?”

“Right now.”

“I really don’t think you should. You’re just going to get yourself killed! They’re really strong and you should wait until you’re feeling better.”

“Exercise is going to help me feel better.”

Sylvia lifted one ear and lowered the other. “Jumping into a fight with a high level monster sounds a little too stressful to be exercise. Can you like… run or something?”

“No.”

“You really don’t have to push yourself so hard. It’s not like the mirewulves are going to go away.”

“I know. But I want to hit something.” Claire took a step forward, only to immediately trip over her own feet and fall face-first into a bush.

“Go hit some more trees then!” Sylvia pointed a paw at a patch of woodland in the direction opposite the hollow.

“It needs to be something that’ll give me levels. I’m not getting them fast enough.”

“You should really get some rest first…”

“No.”

“Now you’re just being stubborn!” The fox stood up on her hind legs and put her front paws on her hips. “Okay, fine! You know what? If you’re going to be stubborn, I’m going to be stubborn too!”

Straightening her back and placing one hand on her chest, the bard took a breath and started to sing. A warm melody, made up of soft, long notes, rang throughout the forest. The lyrics were distinctly Elvish, made up of lengthy guttural sounds that came not from the throat, but the chest.

Log Entry 2711
You have been afflicted with intense drowsiness.

Claire’s head started to spin as Flux’s voice echoed through the back of her mind. She tried plugging her ears, but the lullaby pierced right through her defenses. Opening her mouth and shouting for the fox to stop was equally as ineffective. Her tongue was caught in her throat, too tangled for her to speak.

“Good night!” said Sylvia. Her tone was bright. Too bright. “You can save all the fighting for when you wake back up. The giant frogs and wooden dogs will still be right there, waiting.”

I want to fight them now.

The lyrkress tried to hang on. She tried to push back and resist to no avail. Not even digging her teeth into her lips was enough to stop her mind from sinking into the darkness. Still, she didn’t give up, not until she recalled that her inability to sleep had been the only reason she had escaped her bed in the first place.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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