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Chapter 107 - Eel Season

Claire’s eyes shot open as the dream came to an abrupt end. She was surprisingly well-rested. Her mind was clear and her body lacked all the lethargy that came with being at rest, but she didn’t immediately rise from her less-than-comfortable bed. The rogue remained where she was, blinking as she went over the bizarre event that had happened in her sleep. There was no way to tell if it was meant to have any significance or if it had merely been another figment of her imagination. It was just as impossible to comprehend as the make-believe animals perched on her shoulder, both of whom were staring at her for no reason in particular.

“Seven hundred and ninety three fish... Seven hundred and ninety four fish…”

Slowly craning her neck towards her feet, she located the source of the sound. Sylvia was curled up and her eyes were closed, but the fox was fidgeting nonstop; sleep didn’t quite seem willing to bless her with its embrace.

A small smirk on her face, Claire waited for the fox to get to 850 before finally speaking up. “Counting doesn’t work if you get past fifty.”

“Huh? Really? I think I was starting to get a little drowsy…” The vixen’s ears perked up as she hopped over to the pillow. “Oh ummm… sorry. I didn’t think I would wake you up since you usually sleep like a log.”

“It didn’t. I’m done sleeping.” The rogue sat up, raised her arms overhead, and stretched her back, not because her body needed to be jolted awake, but more so because it didn’t feel right to completely skip the routine.

Log Entry 2796
Frostblight Lyrkrian Shapeshifting has reached level 17.

“Really? It hasn’t even been an hour.”

Claire shrugged and swung her legs out of bed. “It was just a nap. I wasn’t that tired.” She briefly paused to change into her outerwear, new armour and all. “I just needed a break from all the talking and fighting.”

The former activity had been particularly straining. Picking apart Beckard’s intentions had taken a strenuous amount of effort, and his wart-nosed friend was just as hard to read. She had gone into the conversation with no idea what they were up to, what they wanted, or why they were willing to offer their resources and aid. The goblin’s reactions were especially concerning; he was undoubtedly the most suspicious of the lot. Any other smith would have outright demanded reparations, regardless of whether the damage inflicted could be fixed with just a few taps. If they wanted to kill or capture me, they would have done it already. Maybe they’re trying to use me as a decoy… to cover up whatever it is they’re trying to hide from Alfred.

A frown on her face, she turned back into a lamia and slithered out the door. Discerning their intentions would remain an impossible task so long as she was unable to gather any information. The whole ordeal would have been a much easier task to handle had the two been a pair of Cadrian nobles. She would have been able to easily determine their priorities by looking at their backgrounds and recent dealings, but as it stood, she lacked the information to make any definitive conclusions. The continent-spanning spy network at her beck and call was gone, and in its place was nothing but an unreliable fox whose loyalty remained in question. She was going to have to gather the information she needed on her own.

The blueblood shook her head as she tried and failed to locate the entrance to Beckard’s office. The stairwell she could have sworn she saw just an hour prior was missing altogether, so she pulled her cloak over her head and climbed down the attic’s ladder. The second floor was, for the most part, devoid of any notable persons. The occasional drunk lumbered through the halls, but it was otherwise completely free of any passersby.

Navigating to the staircase, Claire heaved a sigh, pulled her hood over her ears, and reluctantly made her way into the cathedral-turned-bar. She didn’t even need to flick her tongue to pick up on the stench of liquor. The distinctive scent filled the holy sanctuary and even seemed to seep into its walls and furniture, defiling it as would some sort of primeval evil.

Straining her ears, she sifted through the various voices and pinpointed her targets. All three were gathered in one of the room's far corners, discussing their plans over several plates of food. There weren’t any tables or even conventional chairs, but neither they nor any of the other temporary occupants seemed to mind. Those that were less comfortable in the pews would simply sit on the ground and use the wooden benches as makeshift tables.

“There’s nothing to be worried about,” said Myrtle. “Beck would have spoken up if he thought Fred was putting us in danger.” The plant girl took a bite out of a boiled egg before continuing. “Besides, I think you’re just overreacting. She didn’t seem anywhere as terrifying as you made her out to be. Cold, maybe, but not scary.”

“That coldness is what makes her scary.” Lova’s face was pale, and not just because moth girls were naturally pasty.

“Perhaps, but it is unlikely that it is of any concern while we have the citadel’s support.” The jellyfish had a strange manner of eating. He would only consume tiny morsels one at a time by sliding them beneath his bell.

“I know but… but…”

“Wow, they’re being really mean,” whispered Sylvia. “But I guess it makes sense. I’d be pretty freaked out by you too, if I was her.”

“Coward,” said Claire.

“I’m not a coward! You literally told her that you were only hitting her for fun!”

“I don’t see a problem.”

“Well I see many!”

Suppressing a chuckle, Claire stuck a hand into her hood and scratched the fairy’s head before walking up to the table. “I’m not scary.” Evidently, the statement was false. Lova nearly jumped out of her pants when she turned around and noticed the not-cervitaur, but Claire ignored her and turned to the rest of the group. “Are you ready?”

“We’ll just need a few minutes to wrap up our breakfast,” said Myrtle. “Would you like to join us?”

The rogue had yet to eat breakfast, but she had no intention of sitting down and playing along. For one, their food was revolting. The jellyfish was consuming what looked to be a thick, slimy glob of mucus and the Kryddarian was eating a fresh insect, an arm-length dragonfly that twitched with every bite. The only dish that looked even remotely appetizing was the alraune’s. She had in front of her a fairly standard breakfast, albeit with everything discoloured. The eggs had yellow whites and green yolks, the meat was glowing an offensively neon purple, and the untoasted bread was a deep jet black.

Even more dissauding than the unappetizing platter was the atmosphere. They were all close friends; there was no room for her to intrude on their dynamic, especially with Lova suddenly freezing up in her presence. The urge to torment the insect crept up within her chest, but she brushed it aside as she shook her head. Wait… the Kryddarian is eating? I thought she went to sleep.

“I’ll be in the attic. Just knock.”

“Sure thing. One of us will come up to grab you as soon as we’re done,” said the plant.

Nodding, Claire left without another word. The group, on the other hand, immediately broke into a ball of noise.

“You see how stone-faced she was?” whispered the Kryddarian. “That is why she terrifies me!”

“Don’t be silly, Lova,” replied Myrtle, without suppressing her voice. “She seemed nice enough.”

The weaver pressed all four of her hands against her face. “You say that about everybody. And I know she used to have legs, I swear to Builledracht! She must have done something to hide them!”

“It is not likely. Her clothing was tailored to her size, and I did not observe any legs on her person. Perhaps you were still half asleep and mistook them for her flippers,” said Grell. “I have observed a few symptoms that may be indicative of night terrors.”

“Please just listen to me, Grell. She had them. I’m sure of it,“

“If you are so convinced then it may be worth warranting an investigation so that you may come to a definitive conclusion.”

You won’t find anything, no matter how hard you look. Smirking, Claire wandered back up the stairs and summoned a plate of bread.

___

Virillius Augustus was a strict instructor. Everyone he trained would soon learn that a lack of discipline would lead to a disproportionate amount of punishment. He would dock pay, assign additional training, and even fall back on petty harassment if it was the only effective approach. To that end, Claire was well accustomed to everyone around her being punctual. When the flower girl told her that they would be done in a few minutes, she expected to wait no more than five, ten at most.

“They’re late.” She thwacked the tip of her tail against the floor as she polished off the rest of her bread. “Where are they?”

“It’s only been half an hour,” chirped Sylvia, who was back in her fox-form.

“And they said a few minutes,” grumbled the snake. “If they wanted me to wait half an hour, then they should have said half an hour.”

“Oh come on, it’s not even a big deal. It’s not like it changes much. We didn’t really have anything to do anyway.”

“It is a big deal,” grumbled Claire. “It’s not about wasting time. It’s about punctuality and integrity.”

“Neither of those are things that actually matter!”

“They matter. If you don’t know someone, then their reputation is what you judge them by. You’d know that, if you’d ever lived outside of Llystletein.”

“Hey! That was super mean!” The fox’s ears drooped. “I thought you were done being bitter.”

“I am. I just got carried away again.”

Sylvia sighed. “I think I’m starting to see a pattern, and it’s not one I like.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Claire got off the bed, slithered to the door, and opened it before the group that gathered outside got close enough to knock. “Hello.”

All three potatoes were present and supposedly ready to go despite not exactly looking the part. The Kryddarian was the only one geared up. She had a thick leather cloak thick enough to ward off the rain and all of her belongings underneath it. The other two didn’t bother putting on raincoats, likely because they weren’t as concerned about getting wet. Claire was more surprised by their lack of armour. Neither party had even the slightest bit, despite their companion demonstrating that affording it was not beyond their means.

“Wow, that’s a surprise. How did you know we were here?” asked the plant, as she withdrew her hand.

“I could hear you.” She pulled her hood over her face and pulled her ears inside it. “The Kryddarian’s armour is loud.”

Each of her steps had been accompanied by a heavy metal clink, a clear sign that she was wearing a metal suit beneath her outermost layer.

Lova gulped. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Claire.

“P-please don’t mind me! I’ll stay out of your way!” For reasons beyond the halfbreed’s comprehension, the offhand remark caused the moth lady to step backwards and gulp.

“Don’t mind her,” said Myrtle. “She’s not great around strangers.”

It was a blatant lie. Claire had already heard the Kryddarian explain that her problem was the demeanor, but she couldn’t be bothered to comment. Picking a fight would be nothing but counterproductive, given that they had little choice but to spend a short but excessive amount of time in each others’ presence.

“It is possible that she will warm up to you in time,” said Grell. The scyph, who was otherwise perfectly level, bobbed up and down whenever he spoke.

“Oh, that’s what I did!” said Sylvia. “I didn’t really think I’d get too attached to her at first, but now we’re super close.”

Choosing not to comment, the lyrkress grabbed the furball and placed her atop her head. “This is Sylvia. You didn’t meet her earlier because she was asleep.”

“Hi, nice to meet all of you! I’m Sylvia Redleaf, a Llystletein woodfox.” The vixen waved a paw. “Wait, why didn’t you tell me to hide? Wasn’t I supposed to be trying to be stealthy?”

Claire shrugged. “They’re going to see you eventually. Since they’re coming with us. And the moth already saw you last time.”

“Oh… right.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it anyway.” The talking flower giggled. “We see Llystletein foxes out and about all the time. I’m Myrtle, Murtt or Murty for short, a moonflower alraune.”

“Grell Starieff, infernal skyscyph. It is nice to finally meet you.” The jellyfish’s glow dimmed briefly. “Your father has mentioned you on what is most likely over a thousand different occasions.”

“It’s nice to see you again Sylvia,” said Lova, with a meek nod.

“Yup! You too!” barked the fox.

“Okay. Introductions are done. Let’s leave.” Claire pulled the key into her hand and locked the door behind her. “What do I do with this? I don’t need the room anymore.”

“Beckard is likely to find it if you leave it within the lock,” said Grell.

Following the jellyfish’s instructions with a nod, Claire followed the rest of the group down the ladder and made for Crabby Crags.

To the halfbreed’s surprise, the group wasn’t as utterly incompetent as their lack of punctuality would have otherwise suggested. They weren’t anywhere near as good as professional soldiers, but they actively maintained their lines, even when moving through the halls. The heavily armoured vanguard stayed in front while the other two marched side by side, a triangular formation that was actively kept consistent. Claire was almost impressed enough to offer an internal compliment. Until the party made its way out the front door.

Both Lova and Grell found it difficult to resist the raging tempest, with the former slowing her pace to a crawl and the latter being blown away. His body was flung against the building and his insides were splattered all over it, sprayed from the bottom of his mouth. It looked as if the scyph had instantly died, but he was still alive. In fact, he was perfectly fine. The bizarre sea creature sucked his guts back into his body with a single breath and pushed himself off the wall with a strained groan.

“Perhaps I will fare better with someone else’s body weight to assist. Murtt, would you mind lending me a tendril?”

“Of course not.” The alraune grabbed the sea creature with one of her hands and tied two of his tentacles to her knapsack.

“Thank you,” he said. “Your patience is likely to be appreciated.”

“Today is going to be a long day.”

Muttering under her breath, Claire pulled her hood over her eyes and did her best to zone out the idiots she had been made to escort.

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Spicy Space Squid

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