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Chapter 106 - Dreams and Delusions IX

Sorting through the armour was a long and arduous process. Claire wasn’t quite sure how she was meant to sort or order the different pieces. Her initial approach came in the form of categorizing them by their function. Breastplates were kept separate from gauntlets, which were further set aside from helmets and battleskirts. The approach seemed somewhat sensible at first, but it didn’t take long for her to realise that complete sets were being broken into smaller individual pieces. Undoing the organisational damage was far more difficult than inflicting it; she wasn’t entirely sure which part was meant to belong to which whole. They weren’t exactly the most distinct pieces in the world. Aesthetically, most fell into one of three design patterns with only the details varying drastically. Sorting by thickness was equally as unsuccessful, with pieces of the same set often varying based on their intended position.

Fortunately, there was no one to judge her mistakes. Beckard and Frederick were on the other side of a large folding screen, discussing something about gauntlets, and Sylvia was still sound asleep. The fairy had been yoinked off her mount’s head and set on top of the partition, the only place where she wasn’t at risk of being crushed by a stray piece of metal.

After trying on a few random pieces and ultimately sorting the various sets by their detailed patterns, Claire eventually settled on one of the lighter sets. Its primary feature was a small breastplate with a metal skirt that only fit when she wasn’t equipped with a pair of horse-like legs. It came with a stuffy-looking, full-face helmet, but she didn’t bother trying it on. Her ears wouldn’t fit, and more importantly, she didn’t like the aesthetic. The bone-based engravings were far too messy and barbaric for her to consider it an option.

Emulating the material proved surprisingly simple. It only took her a few tries to mimic the thin metal sheets and a few more to adjust the skirt so that it would fit even when she wasn’t transformed. She even managed to carve a slot in the chest for her spike, just so she could show off its beautiful glow. Though functional, the armour was uncomfortable, so she formed a few pieces of cloth underneath, a soft silken robe that went all the way down to her knees. The new layer did its job, but that was where the good news came to an immediate end. A quick test of durability—a self-inflicted tail whip—was all it took for the armour to crumple. Jagged metal pieces dug into her side and tore open her skin, inflicting a wound far worse than what she would have received had she not been wearing any armour.

Did I do something wrong? She grit her teeth and grimaced as both the flesh and steel went through their respective restoration processes, with the magical-mantle-turned-metal-deathtrap being the quicker of the two. Her body’s restorative process was not exactly slow, but neither was it quick enough to match the rune-covered cloak. It took a few minutes of waiting for the 100 damage scratch to fade into her flesh.

In the meantime, she directed her attention to the model she duplicated and examined it for any obvious discrepancies. But as far as she could tell, there were none. Chest hole and skirt shape aside, her copy was indistinguishable. And that was precisely why she put the original breastplate through an identical durability test.

She swung her tail like a whip and thwacked it dead center. There was a loud crack, followed by the groaning of metal as the poor plate collapsed with even greater ease than the modified skirt sitting on her torso.

Why is it useless? Are all the others like this too?

Claire creased her brow and got to experimenting. She flailed her tail around the partitioned room and bashed at random pieces of armour. Though most of the leather garments were unscathed, their metallic brethren were not nearly as fortunate. The thinnest ones crumpled immediately; a single blow was often more than enough to permanently disfigure them. Their thicker counterparts could take a few more hits, but not even the heaviest suit could hold its shape for more than three.

“Stop! Stop, no be crazy break everything!” The items’ uninsured owner charged straight through the folding screen and grabbed her tail just before it busted its way through a set of metal delicates. “Explain!” His spit flew everywhere as he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Break merchandise no funny! Keep break things then me break you!” His veins bulged as he scanned the partition and found nearly everything dented. “Explain now or me take as threat!”

“I was trying to find something durable.” She yanked her tail out of his fingers. “But none of it is able to take any big hits.”

“Taking hits, you striking!?” His voice trembled as he fell on his rear and buried his face in one of his palms. “Understand now. Think you know armour, me did. Thinked wrong, me did. Jumped to conclusions and now suffer.”

Claire blinked. “Armour is meant to take hits.”

“Well, yes and no.” A third voice entered the conversation from the other side of the partition “You are on the right track, but a little off the mark. It is, of course, meant to protect you, but different types of armour are better at dealing with different types of damage.” Beckard walked over and climbed on top of a desk to pat his old friend on the back. “Most of the metallic armour Fred brought is best for protecting against slashing weapons. If you want protection against blunt force trauma, then you’re typically best off with something made of leather, or perhaps a padded jacket.”

“Oh.” Claire picked up a half-broken metal piece and took a minute to stare at all the strange patterns cut into its side. “But most monsters don’t use sharp weapons. What’s the point?”

“Can no believe. Have runecloak but no idea how use. Act like idiot, break me hard work” complained the smith. He picked up a random plate and tapped it with a hammer he pulled out from his belt. A few light hits later, and it was right back to its prior pristine condition. “Need have metal under leather cloak. Protect first with leather, then if leather cut, metal stop cut. Wear padding underneath, help dull force.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” said Claire. “The knights back home only wore one or the other.”

“Fight other people then no need leather, lassie. Cut and stab with sharp weapons most of time, so metal better. Use leather like me say be wasteful, expensive and no last long. Fix self mean runecloak different, no use same way. Can’t think and use right then wasting. Should give back to Archibald.”

“No.” Claire turned its outermost layer back into a leather mantle and pulled it tightly around herself. “It’s mine now.”

“I doubt that this will change your mind, but for what it’s worth, he is likely to offer you a reward if you decide to return it to him,” said Beckard.

“I don’t care. Mine,” hissed the halfbreed.

The declaration was followed by a loud yawn. “Can’t you guys quiet it down a bit?” Sylvia complained, raised her hips, and stretched like a cat. It was a bit of an eyebrow raising sight, given that she was still in her fairy form, but none of the observers chose to comment. “I’m trying to nap. I barely got any sleep last night, and it’s only been like two hours.”

“Oh. Now you’re awake,” said Claire. “Took you long enough.”

“Huh? Did I miss something?”

“Yes. The world’s ending. Alfred is going to destroy the citadel and take Llystletein with it.”

“Oh crap! He found out about the thing!?”

“What thing?”

“The thing! Wait…”

The two halfbreeds exchanged a pair of stares, with one completely flustered and the other somewhat confused. Likewise, the men in the room were also reacting in completely different ways. Frederick was in panic mode. He scanned with a hurried gaze and fumbled around in his pockets, breathing a sigh of relief only after he retrieved a glowing cube-shaped artifact and raised it to his face. Beckard, on the other hand, was chuckling with his head lowered and a paw pressed against his forehead.

“Sylvia.” Claire narrowed her eyes.

“W-what?” The fairy slowly backed away and lowered herself beneath the folding screen. Her ears were folded back and her eyes were kept just barely above the divider’s peak.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing! Why do you always think it’s my fault!?”

“Is it not?”

“No! It’s everyone else’s fault this time! Blame them!” She pointed her tail at each of the two men in turn. “Not me!”

Claire looked around the room and noted the awkward smile on the priest’s face before turning back to the fairy and speaking with her usual deadpan tone. “I was joking.”

“Oh…” Sylvia dropped to the floor, took on her four-legged form, and breathed a sigh of relief. “Whew! Don’t scare me like that.”

“Now explain. What’s going on?”

“That’s a secret,” said the fox.

“Not a very good one,” said Claire.

“Well I can’t tell you anyway! He’ll find out for sure since you talk in your sleep.”

“Explain,” repeated the lyrkress.

“Worry no, explain soon, me will,” said Frederick. “Need wait little longer, almost ready. Keep patience, will be good for you, lassie.”

Claire closed her eyes and took a breath. “Fine.” It wasn’t worth chasing the topic any further. The goblin king was clearly thrice ascended, and she wanted to avoid angering him, given that he had already started to threaten her. Digging deeper would have to wait until she was alone with the fox.

“Thank you,” said Beckard. “Now, I think it’s safe to say you’re done with your armour?”

“I’m done,” she agreed.

“Excellent.” He clapped his paws together. “Now why don’t we all go our separate ways and pretend this conversation never happened?”

“Agree, me is.” Frederick nodded as he continued hammering away at the various half-broken pieces of metal strewn all over the floor.

“Yup! Me too!” said Sylvia. The half-fox placed her hands on her hips and nodded with almost excessive vigour.

Taking another look around the room, Claire heaved a sigh and began walking towards the door. “Fine.”

“Fine indeed,” said Beckard. “Ah, yes. One more thing before you go.”

“What?”

“When are you planning to leave for Crabby Crags? Lova’s group will need some time to prepare.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Claire. “I need to take a nap.” She opened the door and looked down the phantom staircase, which for whatever reason led back to the second floor, before turning around. “Thank you, Beckard. And you too, Frederick.”

“Anytime, child of Flux.”

I thought I told him to stop calling me that.

“Keep alive, lassie,” said Frederick. “Need you gather materials, pay me back for damages.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“See ya guys!” Sylvia flew up Claire’s back and crawled into her hood. “Wait, did you just say you’re gonna nap?”

“Yes.”

“Then what the heck am I supposed to do? I just woke up! I won’t be able to go back to sleep right now.”

A small smirk appeared on Claire’s face. “That doesn’t sound like my problem.”

“You could come down to the cathedral and join the crowd,” suggested Beckard. “Most will be drinking and open to conversation.”

“Ummm… no thanks.” Sylvia’s ears drooped.

“Can drop by forge,” said Frederick.

“That might be a little too loud for me. Oh well, I’ll figure something out. Thanks guys, bye!” The fox waved a hand from left to right and bid her farewells.

“Stay well,” said the priest.

“Return with materials.” His goblin companion grunted as he began tidying up his things and getting ready to return to the forge.

“If you’re still tired, I can tickle you until you run out of breath and fall asleep,” said Claire, as she closed the door behind her and walked down the steps.

“Uhhh… Claire? I really don’t think passing out is the same as falling asleep.”

“Might not be. But I have other ways of putting you to sleep too.”

“That sounds really suspicious, so no thank you!” said Sylvia.

“You’ll enjoy it,” said Claire. “Promise.”

“You promise?” The fox blinked a few times. “Well I guess there’s no harm in trying, but if this is just a prank, I’m gonna get super mad and ignore you for a whole week,” said Sylvia.

“Don’t worry. It’s not.”

“You saying that just makes me even more suspicious!”

Shrugging, Claire slithered up a ladder and navigated her way to her supposedly private quarters. The tiny storage unit wasn’t the most secure thing in the world, but fiddling with the door’s handle confirmed that the lock was at least fairly functional. Her centaurian legs were dismissed as soon as she stepped inside. The space was too cramped; she had to take on her old humanoid form just so she could stretch out her body.

“Get out of my hood if you don’t want to fall.”

Having seated herself on the bed and settled down, she waited for Sylvia to plop onto the mattress before transforming the overcloak into a nightgown. She wasn’t quite feeling the usual white dress, so she opted for a light blue tint, to match with her hair and scales.

She didn’t know how or why, but the cloak would always clean itself whenever it transformed. The bizarre feature saved her a lot of trouble; not having to launder her equipment was a godsend. She had never thoroughly washed anything herself, courtesy of the manor’s maidservants, and her previous cloaks were never exactly sanitised, after being covered in gore.

“Okay.” Claire tapped her lap. “Now turn into a fox and come here.”

“Geez, you’re so demanding today.” Sylvia crawled right over and transformed, but only after shaking her head and heaving an exaggerated sigh. “I’m only gonna listen because I’m nice.”

“You mean stunted.”

“I’m not mentally stunted!”

“No one said anything about it being mental,”

“I hate you, Claire. You’re way too mean!”

“Thanks. I love me too.”

The lyrkress placed a hand on the fox’s head and slowly traced it down the length of her spine.

“Eek!” Sylvia squealed, leapt into the air, and landed on a nearby wall. “I thought you said you weren’t going to tickle me!”

“It wasn’t meant to tickle,” said Claire, with a small pout.

“Well it did!”

“I’ll use a bit more force this time.”

“Somehow, I think that might be even worse,” mumbled Sylvia, as she dragged herself back into the humanoid’s lap.

Attempt number two went significantly more smoothly. She massaged the tips of her fingers into the fox’s pelt with one hand and scratched her chin and ears with the other.

“Oh wow! This feels really good,” said Sylvia, who closed her eyes and raised her head.

A mischievous smile appeared on Claire’s face as she fiddled with the base of the canid’s tail. “I’m just copying what I saw people do at a spa for pets.”

The establishment was one of the more popular ones on Valencia’s main street and Claire had passed it every time she went from the manor to the castle. She had never been inside the shop, but their large open windows had allowed her to see how they worked. Father never did let me have a pet. I still don’t know why he insisted I’d be a terrible owner.

“Wha!? I’m not a pet!” cried the fox.

“You kind of look like a cat with a bushy tail if I ignore your head.”

“I’m not a cat! Even if I do meow every once in a while!”

“I know.” Claire pinched one of the fox’s ears. “I wouldn’t be able to touch you if you were.”

“Is it really still bothering you that much?”

“I can hear them meowing whenever I close my eyes.”

“Uhmm… wow. That’s really bad.”

“It’s getting better. On its own.”

“That’s umm… good, I guess.”

There was a moment of silence as Claire massaged the fox’s cheeks. She kneaded them for a long time, carefully and thoroughly, as if to make up for all the times she had wrenched them out of shape.

“Oooo, that really hits the spot,” said Sylvia. Her words were distorted. “I dunno if it’s really gonna put me to sleep, but I’m definitely enjoying it!”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t really need to sleep more anyway.”

“Not that,” said the rogue. “I’ve been meaner to you lately. Since yesterday.”

“Oh uhmmm… well… I guess that’s kinda my fault.”

Claire frowned. “There’s that. But I was also having fun.”

“Wait! You weren’t just being mean because you were mad at me!?” Sylvia turned around and raised both her paws. “What the heck! I’m starting to have some real second thoughts about your definition of fun.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.” The lyrkress twisted her lips into a pout. “Fun is fun.”

“There was that one time with the poor kryddarian too! That was just mean, not fun!”

“I got carried away that time too.”

“When don’t you?” The fox gave her groomer a nit of side-eye before turning around to face her.

Claire put a finger on her chin and tilted her head. “When I need to keep up appearances, like when I went to a ball last month.”

A brief memory of the event flashed through her mind. It was anything but pleasant, and she had been forced to spend the majority of the night dealing with the various incompetents in her age group. If she was a failure in her father’s eyes, then they were nothing but whining sacks of garbage, their only purpose to be married off and used in politics.

“A ball? Like a round thing?” Sylvia hummed a tune and formed a small round bubble with her magic.

“A formal event for dancing.”

“Oh, that kind of ball! That sounds like it could be lots of fun.”

“Hardly.” Claire scrunched up her face. “Old perverts spend the whole night staring at your ears.”

“Oh, that isn’t so bad. Al does stuff like that all the time.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” muttered the blueblood.

“He’s actually really fun to be around when he isn’t being a huge perv.”

“I think your definition of fun might just be worse than mine.”

“Well… maybe. Now that I think about it, he might just be the reason I stay in my fox form most of the time in the first place.”

“Disgusting.”

“On the bright side, I think he’s a bit better now than he was a few thousand years ago. Or at least that’s what Grant says.”

Claire narrowed her eyes. “There’s no way that is better.”

“Oh trust me, it is…” Sylvia placed a paw on her face. “You must not know much about Llystletein’s history.”

“Nope. All I’ve ever heard was that it’s where dreams go to die.”

“Well… that’s kinda true I guess.” Sylvia leaned back into her mount’s lap. “I don’t really know how accurate the records are, but ummm… do you remember what I told you last time?”

“Kind of.”

“Well I’m not really sure, so I’ll kinda start whenever,” said Sylvia. “Apparently Llystletein used to be this super well-off country way back in the past. Al was already a celestial back then, and he was basically its god-king.”

“He was a king?” Claire narrowed her eyes. “He lacks the charisma.”

“Yeah, I don’t really think he’s up to snuff either, but apparently he was. Maybe it’s because he changed. That was like a whole twenty thousand years ago.”

“Does that mean catgirls are less than twenty thousand years old?”

“Yup! Al didn’t make his first batch until a few thousand years after the purge.”

“The purge?” Claire stifled a yawn as she shrank her shard, hugged Sylvia to her chest, and laid down. She’s like a stuffed animal. Just not stuffed.

“Right, I forgot I needed to explain everything.” Both the fairy’s ears flopped as she took a deep breath. “So basically, Al tried to um… put together a huge orgy with gods and mortals and stuff. Flitzegarde found out and decided that she didn’t really like his idea.”

“I can’t believe you said that with a straight face,” said Claire, with a slightly reddened scowl.

“You uhmmm… wind up getting desensitized to it if you’re around it for long enough,” mumbled Sylvia. “Anyway, she basically decided that she wanted to punish him, so she purged the heck out of his whole country. He managed to set up a barrier around his royal library, and she couldn’t quite get in, so she decided to seal the whole thing off. Then to make it worse, she made sure to cut off his ability to make contact with the outside world.”

The lyrkress closed her eyes as she slowly worked through all the information the fox had presented. “So the goddess of order enforced order.”

It was the sort of story that was frequently repeated in a number of different contexts. Flitzegarde was known for bringing down the divine hammer whenever it was necessary, and sometimes even when it wasn’t. Her definition of order was widely preached, but many saw her rules as suffocating and denounced her as more of a tyrant than a benevolent administrator.

“Pretty much, yup!”

“This is my first time hearing so much about Llystletein.” She took her remaining hand off the fox and crossed her arms. “Outside, no one seems to know anything about its history. There is an absurd amount of speculation, but its name is the only real consistency. Maybe the goddess of order has something to do with that.”

“Well… Al’s a part of it too. Apparently, he was really happy when he first made catgirls, but then Flitzgarde found out and decided he wasn’t allowed to be happy, so she banned all catgirls from Llystletein. He’s been trying to break out ever since, and people knowing about it is a big part of his plan.”

Claire smiled. “He deserves that.”

“You wanna know the ironic part? The only reason Flitzegarde was really mad was apparently because the first batch was made in her image.”

“Gross.” The lyrkress kneaded her brow before breathing a sigh. “How are we supposed to get out if not even Alfred can?”

“Well, it’s not that he can’t, exactly. He’d just get sealed right back in the moment he broke out, so he’s been cooking up a plan to beat Flitzegarde. The rest of us can’t really do it though.” Sylvia’s voice began trailing off. “That’s um… why I tried to harvest you.”

“So you could break out?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. But kinda. Since I really want to see the outside world, and waiting too long is gonna kill me.” The fox’s tail rhythmically flicked back and forth as she continued. “Oh, and make sure you don’t pick up the seventh hexstone. Six is okay and will make you stronger, but seven is really bad. You’ll get instantly harvested and Al’ll do some weird stuff with your soul. He might even try drinking it right away if you’re unlucky.”

“Are you sure you should be telling me that?”

“Mhm! I care more about us being friends than I do about Al’s hopes and dreams.”

Claire frowned. “I find that hard to believe.”

“I know.” Sylvia’s tail drooped. “But it’s true.”

The lyrkress resumed her massage, starting first with the fox’s ears. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m not dismissing it outright. Even though the whole story seems as absurd as an old legend.”

“Well that’s because that’s kinda what it is!” said Sylvia. “And uhmm… thanks. For trying to trust me.”

Claire shrugged. “I told you I would. Sort of.”

“Yeah, I know! But I was expecting you to hold more of a grudge.”

“Noble ladies don’t hold grudges.”

“I don’t believe you!”

“Well it’s true.” Sticking out her tongue, Claire gave her four-legged companion one last scratch before closing her eyes and surrendering her consciousness to the void.

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Spicy Space Squid

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