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Chapter 105 - Dreams and Delusions VIII

According to the hairless cat, only four of the temple’s thirty spare beds were still available. Two were placed in a larger room that already contained another party of people. They were all women, but Claire rejected the notion of joining them without so much as waiting for an introduction. She could hear the drunken sows giggling from within their sty, and from that alone deduced that there was no benefit to joining them. Hearing her own thoughts would be impossible in their presence, especially with one of them fervently flaunting her own lack of chastity.

The second option, a hammock suspended in the middle of the cathedral, was discarded for a similar reason. The airborne bed was located directly above the drunken crowd, and she had no doubt that its conversations would be distracting if not outright offensive. Left with no other choice, she defaulted to the final option, a small partition in the attic. The confined space had only a smidgeon of legroom. Even at a glance, she could tell that it was clearly meant for storing things and not people; it was so small that she couldn’t leave her tail fully extended, but the halfbreed was not uncomfortable amongst all the random objects strewn about. If anything, she found it rather nostalgic. The mess reminded her of the manor’s storehouse, which she had explored and looted on more than just the odd occasion.

“I’m sorry we don’t have anything better.” Beckard smiled apologetically as he handed her the key. “We normally don’t get very many guests, but most of the other buildings fail at providing shelter during the storms.”

Claire shrugged. “I don’t mind.”

“I appreciate your understanding. Would you like to stay here while Fred fetches the armour? Or would you rather wait somewhere a little more spacious?”

The halfbreed almost immediately defaulted to the first option, but revised her decision soon after. She was going to need more space if she wanted to move around and test the armour’s flexibility. “Is there anywhere without a lot of people?”

“I would say that we could head back to Lova’s room, but she’s likely about to sleep, and it would be better for us not to disturb her.” He meowed as he raised a rear paw and scratched his back. “My office would be the next best place. It sees the occasional guest or two, but you’ll be largely undisturbed.”

“Okay.” Claire nodded with more vigour than usual—and not because she was excited.

Why hasn’t Sylvia fallen off my head?

She craned her neck in all sorts of different directions, but the sleeping fox fairy remained perfectly in place. Not even in bending over and looking at her own stomach did she displace the half-elf from where she first lost consciousness.

“Claire?” Beckard looked back when he realised that she wasn’t following him. He nearly caught her in the midst of her experimentation, but she straightened herself out before he finished turning around.

“Right behind you.”

She slithered after the cat-sith and followed him up a flight of stairs that had appeared out of thin air. By all means, its existence was an anomaly. The cathedral looked like it only had two floors, and they were already in the attic. Her room’s roof was also the building’s, but they managed to climb up above it without being exposed to the elements. The confusing subspace was akin to a fox’s abode; its true volume was far greater than what its appearance otherwise suggested.

“This is something we obtained following a negotiation with Alfred.” The explanation came unprompted. He had started to speak without turning around and reading her expression—not that there was much to glean from it either way. “It doesn’t measure up to what the foxes are capable of creating, but it’s still much better than nothing.”

He pushed open the door at the top of the phantom staircase and walked into a room filled with scrolls. The shelves were completely jam-packed, and those that didn’t fit were neatly stacked in one of the office’s far corners. There were just as many individual objects as there were in Zelos’ abode, but their careful arrangement drastically cut down on the amount of space consumed.

“How much space will you need?”

Beckard grabbed a piece of parchment off of his desk and made a few quick notes before returning it to the pile. The seemingly countless processed skins came in a variety of makes. Many appeared rather refined, but not all of them could be deemed high-quality. Evidently, not all of the citadel’s craftsmen were as proficient as the purple-skinned goblin. With several points of criticism in mind, Claire walked over to one of the corners next to the door, turned back into a lyrkress, and stretched out her tail. “I want a square. One about as long as I am.”

“Not a problem. I’ll have Fred set up the partition once he arrives,” he said, “On the topic of others, did you happen to meet a pair of centaurs that go by Carter and Marleena? One is a slightly wider gentleman, of the kinder, more passive sort, and the other is a sharp young lady of a much smaller make.”

“In passing.”

“I thought so,” he said. “They mentioned they were saved by someone that matched your description. Would you mind if I brought them in to meet you?”

Claire crossed her arms. “I’d rather be left alone.”

The mare was fine, but the stallion was a pervert. He wouldn’t stop staring at my ears.

“That’s too bad. I’m sure Carter would have been thrilled to see you,” he said.

“That’s exactly why I don’t want to see him.”

Beckard slowly shook his head as he laughed. “I certainly do think he tends to be a little too enthusiastic. He’s really not as bad as he may seem at first.”

“I don’t care.”

“I won’t force you then.” He climbed up on his desk as he spoke and situated himself in front of what she assumed to be an important document.

“I was half expecting you to,” said Claire. “Zelos did.”

The cat-fairy smiled. “He does tend to be a little meddlesome.”

“He kept trying to make me work with Mittens.” She almost frowned as she recalled the rodent the elf had attempted to introduce.

“Mittens?” The priest furrowed his brow and scratched the back of his head. “I don’t think I’m familiar with a ‘Mittens.’”

“The obnoxious rat,” said Claire.

“Rat?” He paused for a moment to scratch his chin. “Ah, you must be talking about Geoff! Would you mind me asking why you’ve nicknamed him Mittens?”

“Because he’ll make a good pair. Once he dies,” hissed the half-snake.

“I see I was right to assume that your relationship with him was not as he described it.” Beckard heaved a sigh, dipped a claw in a jar of ink, and scribbled down a quick note.

Claire narrowed her eyes. “What did it say?”

“Nothing you would be happy to hear,” he answered, with an audible groan.

“Then keep it away from me,” said Claire.

“An excellent, decisive answer,” the priest meowed contently. “Certainly befitting one of Flux’s children.”

“Why do you keep calling me that? I was never given a divine quest.”

“While it is certainly true that we often refer to those with divine quests as the children of the gods, that is not the term’s only use, let alone its most accurate.” The bald feline assumed a meditative stance by crossing his legs and placing both paws in his lap. “It is meant to be used to refer to individuals whose souls have been tampered with. And I was told that yours was handcrafted by the lovely goddess of the eternal flow herself.” He looked her in the eyes. “You’re incredibly blessed, to the point that I’m both fulfilled and envious to be in your presence.”

“Blessed? Hardly.” Claire closed her eyes, pausing to take a breath before opening them once more. “She told me that my life would not be easy.”

“The blessed often don’t have easy lives,” he said, with a knowing smile. “What do you think of when someone mentions a god-blessed child?”

“A champion. Someone that becomes a subservient celestial.”

Beckard placed both paws on his desk, one on top of the other. “Do you think the lives champions lead are easy?”

“Naturally,” said Claire. “They’re hand-picked by the gods and handed ridiculous abilities.”

“I don’t blame you for making that assumption. I did the same, once.” Beckard smiled softly as he closed his eyes and clenched his tail. “They do tend to be disproportionately powerful, for their levels, but that is only because the risk that they had to endure to get to that point is equally as ludicrous. They are relied on by others, propped up on pedestals and celebrated, but few are ready to deal with living up to all of the unrealistic expectations that come with their positions.”

“They’re the only ones to blame. For their mental frailty.”

Claire spoke under her breath as she fought back the urge to shudder. The horrifying experience that came from encountering the statue flew to the forefront of her consciousness, her own statement serving as the trigger.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” The cat traced his ink-laden claw down a page, doodling a figure that only he found familiar. “They may often seem larger than life, but they’re still people. Just like you and I.” He raised his eyes towards the ceiling. “If you would rather not take my word for it, then ask Zelos or Frederick. We’ve all met our fair share of them, and I’m sure they would tell you the same.” Standing up, he began pacing back and forth atop his desk. “Champions don’t have the easiest of lives. Most of them crumble under the pressure, which is why you hear of the occasional god-chosen warrior falling to an ordinary soldier backed by nothing but mediocrity.” He blinked and took a slow breath and allowed his tail to relax. “In the first place, not all god-blessed children are necessarily meant to be renowned on the battlefield. Some become prominent political figures instead, and there are just as many that go on to live their lives in unknown solidarity. Many even seek refuge with the clergy and blend in with their ranks, their secrets unknown to those around them.”

“I wasn’t aware,” said Claire. Or maybe I was. I think Allegra might have mentioned something similar while I wasn’t listening.

“The gods may have certain intentions in mind, but only overbearing deities will dictate the lives of their creations. Fortunately for you, Flux does not happen to be one of them.”

“I almost wish she was.” Claire turned into a humanoid and leaned her back against a shelf. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. Not now, nor when I leave.”

“Do not worry. You will find your purpose in due time,” he said, with a laugh. “Though, perhaps it does not seem quite as very believable coming from me, seeing as how I have yet to find my own.”

“You haven’t?” The person-shaped lyrkress finally relinquished her poker face and raised a brow.

“I have not,” he said, with a calm smile. “Why do you think I’m here? In Llystletein?”

“I don’t know,” said Claire. “Maybe to serve a criminal sentence? Or because you chose to join in on a suicidal raid?”

“Nothing of the sort.” He smiled confidently. “I’m here under Flux’s instructions, issued to me roughly seventy years ago. She stated that I should go to Llystletein to watch over a key individual that would appear only after a number of decades came to pass.”

“And you listened?” Claire raised just one of her ears and tilted her head.

“Yes. Fred, Zelos, Archibald and I decided that Llystletein would be our next adventure, as per my goddess’ instructions.”

“That’s ridiculous. At least two of you were on your third ascensions. Your most powerful classes must have been nearing a thousand. Why would you throw them away?”

“We didn’t. Not exactly, at least,” said Beckard, with a smile. “Our entrance into Llystletein was a tad abnormal. Archibald, a huskarn friend of mine, crafted an artifact that warped us inside without following the standard procedure. Admittedly, there were a few miscalculations and we did lose most of our levels, but our skills and classes remained intact.”

”You broke in?” Claire narrowed her eyes.

“Yes, but no, that does not mean we can break out. When our artificer reaches a high enough level and our rune mage perfects a few theories and designs, perhaps, but not now.” The cat-sith smiled. “Unfortunately, Alfred has ordered that we put a stop to coming up with the aforementioned theories. Agreeing to that is a part of the reason that we happen to have this subspace, in fact.”

Claire pressed a hand to her face. She could already feel a headache on the way. “And why are you telling me all this?”

“I thought it would help prove my point.” He got up off his desk and moved towards the door. “You don’t need to concern yourself with a greater purpose. Go with the flow, and you’ll do just fine.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

Claire could certainly see some sort of validity in the priest’s way of life. If anything, blindly pushing forward was exactly what she aspired to do, but she was held back by her inability to shrug off her doubts. She knew that her father would send either captors or assassins after her as soon as she escaped the library and stepped before the public eye.

For the most part, she felt as if she had started to get over him, but his influence was still strong and there was no knowing how she would react in the face of a blatant reminder. More concerning was the curse; she wasn’t confident that she could remain herself in a catgirl’s presence. She was at risk of being consumed by the impulse. And knowing that terrified her, far more than any would-be cutthroats ever could. The thought of being pursued already had her feeling hesitant to leave the lost library. But the thought of having her mind invaded and overwritten made her want to hide in a corner, tremble, and cry.

If the plays she so often watched were to be believed, conviction was one of the great driving forces, one that would stay strong in the face of all the adversity she would one day come to face. And she had none of it. She wanted—needed—the box to give her a greater purpose, something that would keep her going even if she was confronted by a cat-eared nightmare.

Flux had instructed her to ascend. Accruing more power was sure to prepare her for everything to come, but the vague directive provided little inspiration. For all she knew, it could have been a joke. At the very least, it sounded like one. It was almost unheard of for a mortal to complete the final ascension and become a god. There were only a few legends that spoke of such events. It was common knowledge that new gods were sired by existing members of the pantheon.

She needed something more concrete. But she received nothing of the sort. There was no impending world-ending threat, no star-crossed lover she had to rescue, and no blatant reward at the end of her journey. She didn’t have to move forward. Her attachment to life was the only thing that kept her on track, and at some point, she would stop having to fight for it. Llystletein only had three floors; if she grew strong enough to kill all the lords, then there would be nothing left to threaten her.

Maybe she’ll provide more detailed instructions, next time I ascend.

When Claire finally finished working through her thoughts, she raised her head to find the old priest casting her a gentle gaze. “I wouldn’t think too hard about it,” he said.

“That’s easy for you to say,” she muttered.

“It wasn’t always.” He spent a moment smiling wistfully before looking at one of the walls. “I’d love to tell you more, but it’ll have to be a story for another time.”

Following his gaze, the blueblood found herself contemplating his senility. His gaze was focused on something, but there wasn’t anything where he was looking. At least not at first.

An obvious explanation came after a few seconds of inaction. Strange clicking sounds filled her ears as the stone wall started to shift. The bookshelf placed in front of it sank into the floor and vanished, with a large metallic device rising to replace it. The artifact, which was covered from head to toe in runic engravings, whirred to life as soon as its position was locked. The seven rings that made up its face span in alternating directions, with each rotating at its own distinct speed. Claire felt a strange but familiar sensation as the cryptic letters pulsed in different colours, a distinctive pull she immediately recognised as belonging to force magic.

A brown-black rift opened up in front of the device, a dimensional crack, a portal that led to a matching machine. It was similar to the magical rifts that led to the lost library’s various subregions, but far less refined. Through it, she could sense and even see its partner. The coupled machine was close by, just a few dozen meters away.

Frederick emerged from the portal after a brief delay, dragging with him a cart adorned with metal and leather. All in all, there were several dozen pieces of armour, with their styles and dimensions as varied as the colours in an artist’s palette.

“Wait here already, lassie? Have good idea then, me did. Make up for stupid earlier.” he grunted. “Forgot ask for size or type. Brought lots for you try. Seem no good then will get more.”

He moved the trolley in front of her and grinned as she gave it a stare. Claire had no idea what half the pieces were, and frankly, there were many that she very much enjoyed knowing nothing about. Then and there, she decided that the less-than-modest pieces shaped like lewd undergarments existed only to be ignored.

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Spicy Space Squid

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