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Chapter 98 - Dreams and Delusions

Stupid fox.

Claire failed to voice a grumble as she opened her eyes to see a familiar garden. Roses, lilies and azaleas lined a long corridor made of greenery. They grew in carefully partitioned patches of soil, their leaves green and their petals in a perpetual full bloom. Their branches were perfectly trimmed; not a single leaf was allowed to stretch into the stone-paved aisle. A familiar, rabbit-eared figure stood at the far end of the perfectly maintained courtyard. The tutor’s frame was adorned by her usual garments, a tall felt hat with its pointed tip trimmed and a long dress made of a soft, expensive leather. Both pieces were dyed an unnaturally deep shade of black—they almost seemed to suck the light from their surroundings. It was a luxurious enchantment that made her appear as would a shadow’s incarnate, a spell woven into the fabric’s very fibers by a highly skilled tanner.

Her presence was nothing out of the ordinary, but her behaviour led the observer to narrow her eyes. The country’s one and only Grand Magus was sniffing one of the roses with a line of drool dribbling down the corner of her mouth. Eyes shifting from side to side, she pulled out her wand, tapped her chest, and vanished into thin air, with the innocent flower’s petals following soon after.

Claire turned around and walked away with a snicker, as she always did when she found Allegra doing something irresponsible. Her hooves clicked against the cobblestone path, she made her way to the manor’s nearest entrance—a large open window—and climbed inside. She moved right past the servants, sparing them only a glance apiece as she hurried through the manor. Because the flower incident was one she vividly recalled from her childhood.

Her heart pounded as she galloped through the hallway and rocketed up the stairs. Two familiar turns later, she slid to a stop right in front of her mother’s room and took a deep breath. Unlike the last time, the door was exactly as she remembered it, four meters tall and wide enough to fit a trio of warriors standing shoulder to shoulder. Violet Eurylia Augustus was etched front and center, carved right into the dark cherrywood entryway.

Grabbing the handle, Claire took a deep breath, twisted it open, and stepped inside. It was a single swift motion, completely uninterrupted until she closed the door behind her. A practiced motion, graceful enough to impress the lady that was the room’s master. Slowly, she gulped and looked up with a hopeful gaze.

And found nothing.

The room was empty, devoid of everything and anything. There wasn’t even any furniture. The bed, the dresser, the drawers, and the mirror were all missing. Not even the carpet remained. It too had been taken, replaced by a polished but plain hardwood floor.

Spinning around, she found that even the entrance was gone, a fate shared by every last window. She doubled back several times, but she couldn’t find anything but floor, wall, and ceiling, no matter where she looked. Each time she turned around, the three pieces blended. Forming a strange mix of things, difficult, but not impossible to discern.

Intuitively, she recognized that there were three distinct pieces. But none bore a distinct start or end. They simply were.

“She isn’t here.”

A dark giggle came from directly behind her.

She tried craning her neck to meet the speaker, but her body refused to listen. It almost felt like her head was being held in place by something she couldn’t see. Turning herself with magic proved far more successful. She was able to spin around by applying a rotational force with her tail and twisting her body. But there was nothing behind her, nothing but the same indiscernible mess that flooded her surroundings.

The wloor and the feiling were gone, no longer discernible from the call that bound them.

For a few counts, that was how it stayed.

A dull pain echoed through the back of her mind as she struggled to separate the floeiling from the calloor. But the concepts remained fully intertwined, mixing and watching until the spark in her chest flared to life.

With her next breath, everything was reverted to its rightful state. The windows, the door, and the furniture returned, all at once, with each piece arranging itself precisely where it belonged. Violet was the only thing still missing from the picture, and the halfbreed had already expected as such. She knew exactly why she was nonpresent. Allegra’s hat had given it away. The latest iteration was one she had only acquired after the duchess had passed on.

“I just wanted to see her again.”

The lyrkress froze. After a moment of fluttering her ears, she opened her mouth and made a random “ahhh” sound, her eyes shooting wide open soon after. She wasn’t supposed to be able to speak. Not while she was still asleep.

“What’s going on?” Continuing to mutter aloud, she stepped out from her mother’s room and walked across the hall to enter her own. A quick scan was all it took for her to find herself lying down with her eyes closed, her breath steady, and a bag of ice on her head.

The lyrkress cocked a brow and crossed her arms as she approached the bed. Staring herself in the face sent a shiver down her spine.

Because it wasn’t her.

Its features were accurate, its ears were identical, and its proportions were perfect. But something about it simply felt wrong. Staring at the face produced a bizarre uncanny sensation that left her quaking in her non-existent boots.

It couldn’t have possibly been her.

She didn’t know how she knew. But she did.

Her breath grew ragged as the thing started to stir.

It was going to awaken.

But it didn’t. Everything faded to black just as its eyes began to open. Claire was left in a dark abyss, with no rhyme or reason to explain the dream she had just witnessed.

“It must have been a nightmare.” Mumbling to herself, she raised her head again as she caught a faint glow out of the corner of her eye.

Looking forward, she found the usual phantom floating behind his body. His less-ethereal half stared at the usual artifact as he issued a set of instructions through another magical device. Unlike usual, the glowing box was completely lacking in obscurity. Its contents were crystal clear. And for once, she could see the tiny figure that was being controlled—an artistic rendition of the only lyrkress she knew.

The illustration was demonstrating incredible flexibility in its attacks. It would punch its foe before spinning around, transforming midair and delivering a chain of kicks within the next quarter second. One particularly egregious attack involved grabbing the tiny, squirrel-shaped punching bag, throwing it into the air and skewering it with the sharpened tips of her flippers mid backflip. The displays were impressive, but they seemed impossible. She didn’t think she was anywhere near as acrobatic as she needed to be to pull them off.

Maybe if I used my magic.

She began swinging her fists in an attempt to replicate the first sequence, but the translucent man raised a hand and stopped her. Slowly shaking his head, he pointed to the tapestry hanging on the wall. Her eyes started in one of the oddly coloured corners, where she found a painting of a massive maned cat whose jaws were dripping with drool. Her scales rose as she met its sinister, piercing, blood red eyes, warning her of impending danger. Averting her gaze immediately, she shied away from the predator and beheld at the painting’s background, a tranquil village in the mountains, drawn with a fine brush. Large huts were built into the rocky forests, made of straw and wood. Some of the structures were fancier than others, suspended atop the clouds by a series of patchwork stilts.

There were children running around the settlement. Some were playing with leather balls, while others were at work with their elders, tending to the water-flooded fields. Young or old, the four-legged creatures were all beaming. Even with the concerning carnal beast, the tapestry radiated little but peace and joy.

Until it suddenly started to change.

The blues and greens warped into hues of red, yellow, and orange as the tiny mountainside settlement was lit aflame. Smiles turned to cries of fear and terror; carrying only a few belongings on their backs, the villagers fled, quickly as they could. But the hunter spared them no mercy. Leaping from father to son and mother to daughter, the lion ate, smearing its mane red as it tore its fangs through their scales. Some tried to resist, but their antlers were broken, smashed to bits by the feline’s bulky front paws.

None were able to escape the carnage. The violence continued to contort the tapestry, with the violence lasting until there was not a single villager remaining.

The lion then departed.

And the peace returned.

With all traces of the beautiful settlement vanishing beneath the growing greens.

Turning away from it, she looked at the ghost, tilted her head, and scrunched up her brow. It took him a moment to catch her confusion; he didn’t look away from the canvas until the colours faded. A mess of words escaped his lips, a half-audible mess of sounds, impossible to discern on their own.

“Beware the hunter.”

The summary that appeared in her mind provided only three short notes. Claire was still confused, but the man was gone by the time she opened her mouth to complain. His spirit, his body, and his home were all swallowed by another veil of black.

A familiar falling sensation overcame her, so she stuck out her arms and closed her eyes. When she next opened them, after a relatively damp impact, she found her view obscured by a curtain of leaves. She was tucked inside a bush with a pile of branches supporting her waist. There was no one else nearby, nor even anything remotely familiar. The darkwood’s glowing mushrooms were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by a dense jungle of undergrowth, most of it dyed in yellows and browns.

“She left me in the middle of the forest?” Suppressing the urge to yawn, she picked herself up off the ground and examined her surroundings. “Why did I expect anything else?”

It almost looked as if autumn had come to Mirewood Meadow. The trees were balding like middle-aged men, their leaves falling out by the handful with bare branches left in their wake. Both the marsh and the forest were littered with an excess of dead foliage. It was floating in the water, sitting atop the bushes, and completely covering the ground. The critters she saw running about, the squirrels and chipmunks, were all on the verge of morbid obesity. Their guts were wide enough to spill over their hips, a surefire sign that they were ready for many a winter to come. There was even a family of bears wandering the forest. As usual, the fuzzy tubs of lard were skittish around centaurs. They ran for their lives the moment they were spotted by the halfbreed, with some even climbing up and subsequently collapsing a number of nearby trees.

Claire slowly shook her head and watched them run off before finding a relatively flat patch of ground and spinning her mace. Following its instructions and heading to the left, she wandered straight through the woodland without any particular reservations. The trek lasted for what felt like the better part of an hour, but she didn’t seem to get anywhere. The vegetation didn’t change, nor did she encounter any of the usual monsters.

The only alteration came in the form of the forest’s vitality. Little by little, the headcount started to dwindle. The bears vanished first, followed soon after by the critters. And before long, even the birds were gone. Her surroundings became deathly silent; her own body was all she could hear, besides the rustling leaves and the billowing wind.

Her scales stood on end as her eyes darted around the forest.

From beyond the treeline, she saw a pair of massive jaws attached to a beast with crimson eyes. Its maw was still dripping with blood, with fragments of scales, antlers, and bone stuck between its finger-length teeth. A flick of the tongue informed her of its rancid breath; the sickly scent of carrion was detectable even from a dozen trees away.

With an audible gulp, Claire turned tail and ran. The hand on her mace was immediately returned to her side as she changed her flippers into another set of legs and pumped them for dear life.

Looking behind her, she found the predator giving chase.

She darted past trees, leapt over rocks, and plowed straight through bushes.

But it was always there.

Right behind her.

Its hungry eyes stared her down as the distance between them shrank.

She pointed her tail at her back and boosted her speed to its limit.

But not even that was able to stop its teeth from glancing off her scales.

It continued to gain on her.

Until she suddenly blinked awake.

With a shout, she rolled out of her bed with her limbs flailing wildly and her body drenched in cold sweat. She panted heavily, eyes darting around the room. She checked the bed, the chair, the nightstand and the closet twice each before finally dropping her guard and climbing back up on the mattress, her breath still ragged and her heart still pounding.

“What was that?” Bringing a hand to her face, she sat up and took a moment to sort through the dream. Am I supposed to be watching out for fake lions? I don’t get it.

The room’s door was flung open before she was finished putting her thoughts together. “Good morning sleepyhead!” Sylvia walked in, leapt atop the bed, and sat down next to her. “Are you feeling better?”

Claire moved her arms around and stretched her back. “No.”

“Really? You’re still tired? That’s weird… It’s been a whole sixteen hours.”

“I’m not tired anymore.”

“Huh? But I thought you just said you aren't feeling better.”

“I’m not.”

The fox tilted her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you should never put me to sleep like that. Ever again.”

Sylvia puffed up her cheeks. “Oh, great. Now you’re just being stubborn again.”

“I’m not.” Claire tugged on the fox’s face. “Your stupid spell gave me a bizarre nightmare.”

“Huh? It was just a lullaby! If you had a weird dream, then that’s your fault, not mine!”

“I wouldn’t have had it if you didn’t put me to sleep.” Her expression still perfectly neutral, the lyrkress pulled a little harder.

“You clearly needed it!”

“Debatable.”

“Says who!?”

“Me.” The lyrkress put the fox down and got out of bed. “Now let’s go. I’ve waited long enough. It’s mirewulf time.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to eat something first? You’ve already skipped dinner, and fighting on an empty stomach sounds like a pain in the butt.”

“Good point.”

After quickly praying to Flux and confirming that she had only gained a few skill levels from her frog harvest, the lyrkress walked over to the kitchen, popped open her authority skill, and summoned a basket of bread.

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Spicy Space Squid

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