Chapter 100 - Dreams and Delusions III
With her back against a tree and her face twisted into a scowl, Claire reluctantly popped a mirewulf petal into her mouth and crammed it down her throat. She made sure not to chew, as to extract as little of the bud’s disgusting flavour as possible, but her throat was not as robust as a pureblooded lamia’s. Her gag reflex kicked in thrice before she finally managed to choke it down.
Only after rinsing out her mouth did the lyrkress turn an eye on her surroundings. The second dog was dead, but Sylvia was nowhere to be seen. Her non-presence led Claire to furrow her brow and scan her surroundings with a skeptical gaze. Is she planning something? Or is there another mirewulf coming?
Whatever the case, the bloodthief decided that it was going to be Future Claire’s problem and got back to working on her axe. Repairing the damage dealt by the mirewulf took very little time. It was a few seconds’ worth of work at most, but she couldn’t remember the weapon’s exact shape, so she removed any remaining ice and started from scratch. All in all, attempt number two went far more smoothly than its pioneering predecessor. She made a fancy blade in no time flat, topped it with a series of half-practical decorations, and slapped a hook on the side opposite its edge. Technically, it was done, but examining the weapon left her unsatisfied, so she once again melted it down and began the forging process anew.
The silence that came with the near countless repetitions left the halfbreed feeling refreshed. The lack of an intrusive sidekick was a welcome change. That wasn't to say she disliked the fox’s company; teasing the furball was certainly an entertaining pastime in its own right, but the peace and quiet was every bit as cathartic and enjoyable.
After what felt like the better part of an hour, Claire finally arrived at a design that was equal parts pretty and practical. It was of roughly the same shape as before, but sported a slightly longer blade with a more robust, spiked counterweight. After waving it around and felling an odd tree or two, she nodded, undid her magic, and strapped it to her back. A quick crack of the neck later, she returned to the mirewulves’ corpses and retrieved what parts she could. To the untrained eye, all of the monsters' parts appeared fairly similar, but picking them up revealed that there were distinct pieces with different properties and functions. The roots that made up their skeletons were hard, while their claws remained supple and flexible. From the pair, she retrieved just two items, a whip made from a dextrous tail, and a cudgel that had once served as a hind leg, with both coming from the first mirewulf to perish. The second plant’s body was unsalvageable. Flower aside, all its parts crumbled to dust the moment she touched them. The bloom itself was practically useless; it was too soft to be kept as a weapon and too frail to be made a means of defense. Still, she stuffed a petal or two into a freshly formed pocket. Who knows? If I’m lucky, they might even keep Mittens away.
Claire waited around for a little longer, but mirewulf number three never showed up, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. Giving all her belongings a final once over, the vector mage got to her feet and wandered through the forest.
She couldn’t help but take on her humanoid form and turn her cloak back into a mantle as she recalled the state she had been in just two weeks prior. Back then, even the ravens had been notable threats. There had been little choice but to sneak around and avoid them. With the status quo as it was, however, they avoided her. She could hear them squawking off in the distance, but they fled every time she approached. It was almost as if they knew that any she caught unawares would be murdered without a second thought.
The lyrkress’ wayward stroll led her to stumble across another five mirewulves, three of which were immediately assassinated without a sound. Though given the opportunity to engage, the remaining two were not much better off; they were also put down in short order. Her second encounter had already taught her everything she needed to know. They were fast, but their attacks were weak. Most of their levels went into their ability to drain the energy from their surroundings. It was an interesting concept that reminded her of her own thieving abilities. But in combat, it was practically useless. A mirewulf that had to resort to anchoring itself in the dirt was a mirewulf already on its back foot.
She had no doubts that a less temperature-resistant combatant would struggle against an ingrained tree-dog. They were difficult to approach. Their surroundings were freezing cold and their most powerful heat rays put even molten lava to shame. They were also resistant to long-ranged attacks. Magic would be rendered impotent and consumed, whereas physical projectiles were intercepted by their roots. But as the high elf had stated, compatibility was key. And a mirewulf had nothing on an anomalous moose-snake resistant to temperatures in both extremes.
Claire was glad to capitalise on the easy experience, but frankly, it was too easy. The buccaneers were much more challenging, so long as she refrained from lighting them on fire. Locating and exterminating the wooden dogs felt too much like a chore; the procedure left her feeling more inclined to nap than continue. If not for the inflated rate of growth, pushing forward would have been a hard fought struggle—not that there was much else for her to do.
Looking back, the lyrkress found that life in the library was just as bland as it was action-packed. There was hardly any entertainment. Even the citadel, the only place that seemed to bear a tiny semblance of civilization, was completely devoid of any fun facilities. There were no plays, no operas, and no exclusive events reserved for members of high society. The only arena had belonged to the borroks, but it was already no more; the colosseum and all its gladiators had both been buried under a layer of volcanic ash. Socialising was just about the only source of entertainment, and the blueblood had already had her fill.
No wonder Sylvia wanted to play tag. The only other things I can think of are swimming with the cows and playing pranks.
Breathing a sigh, she extended her mantle, returned to her lyrkrian form, and got right back to experimenting with her various abilities. She had already spent far too long working on her axe, so she decided that it was time to try something new. Her attention was shifted to the elephant in the room—her runecloak. The magically enhanced overcoat was overflowing with untapped potential and there was no reason to see it wasted.
She was already relatively proficient when it came to making rusty iron gauntlets and soft silken nightgowns, but she had yet to create any decent armour. The best she could do was leather, but the leather that she was accustomed to was more meant for luxury than it was for defense. It was far too soft to offer any real protection. A metal bulwark was the ideal she had in mind, but she couldn’t quite get it to work the way she wanted. The only full suit she managed to make was rusty enough to belong in a dumpster.
As a whole, the problem stemmed from her lack of familiarity. She knew how armour was supposed to look, and she could even recognize the various provinces and territories that different designs came from, but she had never worn any herself. The only pieces she had ever touched were the ones her father had left on display, and she didn’t have a strong enough impression to imagine the material in vivid detail.
Such a lack of precision would hardly have mattered had she been a painter. Her creative liberties could have filled in the blanks and provided a final result that echoed as larger than life, but Claire was not an artist and her brush required specifics. She couldn’t simply make something up and call it a day; the desired result had to be pictured with precision. Had she not been in direct contact with the material, transformations of both iron and stone would have remained beyond her reach.
Focusing on the former material, she set the starting line at her previous failure and created a thick suit of rust. Large chunks of iron appeared atop the cloak, bolted themselves to her body, and formed a series of plates that ran all the way from her tail to her shoulders.
A sigh escaped her dinky helmet as she was immediately exposed to all the armour’s problems. The metal was modeled after a sample torn from a buccaneer. Even at its thinnest, it had a thickness of at least two or three centimeters. Moving was a struggle; lifting her arm was strenuous and required excessive, wasteful exertion. Adding to the difficulty was an unworkable layer of red that covered every last bit of the iron slab’s surface. Claire had tried to get rid of it on a number of occasions, but it wasn’t possible. She couldn’t remember what the metal was supposed to feel like without its spiky brown bits. The abrasive overcoat didn’t just impede her movements. It was also uncomfortable. Corroded iron would rub against her every time she tried to do anything even in spite of the linen layer coating the armour’s interior. She didn’t mind it when it scraped her scales, but her skin would scream for the sweet release of death every time it made contact with the rust.
“What am I doing? I don’t even like full plate armour.” Claire turned her helmet back into a hood and peeled it back. With the sudden increase in her field of view and her ears no longer half-deafened, she noticed a mirewulf attempting to sneak up on her. It was on its tiptoes, a few dozen meters away, slowly circling around to her rear.
It attacked her as soon as it realised that the jig was up, pouncing with its claws bared.
There was more than enough time for Claire to leap out of the way, but the armour kept her anchored to the ground. Its thick but brittle plates were torn apart by the whip claws, leaving her with a broken arm and a headache that had nothing to do with any of her injuries.
Heaving another sigh, the halfbreed turned the rusty deathtrap back into a cloak and moved onto dispatching her next victim.
“That everything for today, Miss Cedr?”
“It is. Thank you, Tim.” Allegra responded to the gruff shopkeeper with a smile as she reviewed the items placed on the counter. “I’ll stop by again if I need anything else.”
Almost all the materials she needed were present and accounted for, no doubt in part due to the shopkeeper’s excellence. As advertised, Timmolt’s Briar was a witch’s best friend. Its shelves were stocked to the brim with specialty goods from all corners of Mara. The merchant in question had somehow managed to acquire seven whole bottles of an elder pixie’s dust, five of which had just become property of the Grand Magus. The only missing ingredients were regulated goods that could only be acquired from a licensed apothecary.
“Delivered up to Augustus Manor?” he asked.
“Of course,” replied the mage.
“Then it’s gonna cost ya a sword and three daggers.”
The bulky centaur at the desk snorted as the witch fumbled with her wallet and struggled to produce the requested coinage. Four finger-length blades were eventually placed on the counter, with one much thinner and shinier than all the others. After examining each and weighing them to ensure that none had been clipped, he nodded briefly and put them away.
“One of the boys will have it brought over by evening.”
Tipping her hat to express her gratitude, as all cottontail mages did, the rabbit lady squeezed past a petrified lizardman, ducked under a frozen treant and stepped over a bottled slime before finally making her way out the door.
As the shop’s bell rang behind her, she pulled her hat over her eyes and walked down the busy street. Centaurs, cottontails, and thorae were rushing along to their destinations. With few exceptions, the busy urbanites spoke only to their companions. Not even shop owners called to strangers, opting instead to let their signage pay its due. Those that did speak did so quietly, with their voices blending in with the city’s dull drone.
It only took a few turns for her to find herself in a district with all sorts of people doing business out in the open. Huskars were selling their prided cured meats to stereotypically glutinous halflings, satyrs were pestering harpies to pay their overdue loans, and humans were jeering at nymphs in a desperate attempt to solicit their attention.
All sights that could only ever be seen in the slums.
Huskarian cuisine was odorous, so their establishments were often driven out of high-end neighbourhoods by unhappy cottontails. Satyrs shied away from centaurs out of fear of being mocked. And humans often found themselves removed and banned from a wide variety of thoraen establishments, courtesy of the two-legged race’s characteristic perpetual estrus.
Without looking at any of the signs, she made three quick turns, walked halfway down an abandoned alley and faced a stone wall almost exactly like any other. The only remarkable feature was a piece of graffiti that lay close to the ground, a painting depicting a small clay jar filled to the brim with grasses and flowers. Taking a moment to whisper a spell under her breath, Allegra walked straight into—through—the brick and entered the shop hidden on the other side.
“Oh, you showed up in person? Fancy that.” An old grug croaked at her as she stepped through the invisible doorway. “And here I was, thinking that I was going to be stuck dealing with that servant of yours for the rest of my pitifully short life.” She leaned forward and rested her froggy face on a pair of cat-like paws, prompting the beads that made up her necklace to rattle.
“Good evening, Madame Merdle.” said the rabbit. “It hasn’t been that long. I was just here in person last month.”
“That’s a long time to me. We grugs only live for two weeks, if we can’t ascend.”
“Yes, Genne, I know. You remind me every time I visit.”
The two exchanged a pair of blank stares before breaking into laughter. Meeting in the middle of the shop, they shared a hug and moved over to a counter at the back of the store.
“I heard about the incident.” Her mantis-like wings twitching, the grug produced a pair of cups, sat down, and filled each with a bright yellow liquid tapped from the keg on her desk. “Were you caught in it?”
“I was barely affected. But the others…”
The grug clutched her stomach and brayed. “That divine protection of yours sure seems to come in handy. Almost makes me wish I was one of Builledracht’s apostles myself.”
“It isn’t as good as it sounds.” The rabbit lady’s ears drooped. “The Church of Order has offered its assistance, but it’ll still take months for everyone to be cured.”
“A few months is better than nothing. Most don’t ever get help.” Genevre took a sip from her cup. “How’s your apprentice? The duke’s kid.”
Allegra twitched and dropped the cup she had at her lips. A quick wave of the wand was the only thing that stopped it from hitting the ground.
“Not good then, I assume.”
“She’s fine.” The cottontail’s pulled her hat over her eyes. “But I don’t think she’ll be allowed out of the manor for another week, maybe two.”
“That bad? I’m guessing she’s the one that botched the ritual then.” Genevre chuckled. “Always funny to see it happen to the young ones. You should bring her over sometime, maybe let me help you fix some of her bad habits.”
“Maybe next time.” Gulping down her drink, an exceptionally sweet mead, the rabbit stood up from the counter and walked over to one of the shelves. “I’m in a bit of a hurry today. Would you mind if I just grab what I need and go?”
“Of course not. Did you need anything from the back?”
“Not this time.”
Allegra quickly grabbed the things she needed and placed a spear-shaped coin on the counter. “Hold onto the change for me. I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
Genevre placed a hand on her old friend’s shoulder. “And I’ll be here. No matter what you need.”
With a forced smile, the rabbit gave the grug another quick hug before wordlessly making for the door. Only upon exiting, and stepping far, far away, did she finally raise her voice.
“I need a new job.” She put the processed mandrake parts in her purse as she retraced her steps and returned to the wealthier part of town. Her ears still drooping, she looked up at the three specks of rock looming overhead—the fortresses floating over the city—and grimaced. “Maybe one that doesn’t involve killing children.”