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Chapter 108 - Eel Season II

“Why did I agree to this?”

Claire grumbled under her breath as she paddled through the sea. Her undesired companions had done little but further demonstrate their incompetence. The alraune was struggling to walk across the ocean floor. Her roots didn’t seem to take any damage, even from the sharpest stones, but the current was too strong for her. She needed to take a very specific, less-than-ideal path to traverse the deep without being washed away. The Kryddarian was even worse off—she had long given up on even trying to fight the waves. Claiming that she was too tired to put forth the effort, the moth wrapped herself up in a cocoon and asked the others to transport her while she rested.

But the most infuriating of all was neither the lazy moth nor the dysfunctional plant, but rather the jellyfish. Despite his status as a Ryllian native—a literal man of the sea—he had claimed that he was too afraid of the infinite abyss to enter the ocean. He opted instead to stay above the far waves and navigate through the airspace above. In spite of his inability to resist the storm. Long story short, he had joined the manatee, who for some odd reason, had managed to acquire the ability to fly. It was soaring through the skies, riding the various air currents and jumping between the clumps of vegetation swirling about within the tempest.

“How do you think he’s gonna get back down?” asked Sylvia, who was also watching the scyph.

“I don’t think he is,” said Claire.

“Mmmphhh… mmpphhh mmrrrhh mmphh.”

The plant girl walking ahead of them turned around and attempted to offer an explanation, but the water garbled her voice and transformed the words into a mess of unintelligible nonsense, though with things the way they were, Claire was starting to suspect that it wouldn’t have mattered either way. As a party, they were severely lacking in brain cells, no doubt in part because neither the jellyfish nor the plant had any to begin with.

In spite of their observed disabilities, the group managed to shape up and surprise the lyrkress as they approached the portal. The scyph almost seemed to suddenly regain control of his body right before they entered the cave. He dove through the water, popped up beside the alraune, and stood at attention. He was so calm and composed that Claire was willing to believe that his airborne misadventure was but a figment of her imagination. Likewise, the Kryddarian unraveled her silken bed and woke up without the need for a prompt. She was clearly on the groggier side given her shaky steps, but she returned to her post at the group’s front nonetheless. The plant was the only one that didn’t change. She was still full of energy, her face betraying not a hint of exhaustion even after the hour-long underwater trek—not that it mattered. Her vigour would only go to waste unless she defied the bloodthief’s orders.

“Don’t forget.” Claire spoke in a low growl as she stepped forward and stuck a hand through the portal. “Stay out of my fights. No matter what.”

“We will,” said Lova, with a timid nod.

“Don’t worry, we’re just here to collect materials,” said Myrtle.

Grell didn’t say anything, opting instead to buzz in affirmation.

“Good.”

Sylvia tugged on one of the larger halfbreed’s ears. “Oh, come on, Claire. That’s like the third time you’ve said it. I’m sure they’ve gotten the point already,” she whispered.

“Don’t underestimate stupidity,” she said, as she stepped through the gate.

“You can’t just assume everyone’s an idiot!”

“I can. And I will.”

After looking around and confirming that the trio was still on the other side of the portal, she stuck her tongue out at Sylvia and tugged on the fox’s cheeks before slithering down the corridor. Her lamian form lacked the top speed that came with having legs, but she made up for it with raw acceleration. Tiny, body-length dashes made up the majority of her movement. Momentum was no longer a caution or concern; turning the corner was as easy as slingshotting her body around the other side.

Without stopping to form a weapon or cast a spell, she rushed straight at the first crab she saw. The crustacean was quick to react, swinging its hook in time with her charge. The weapon was on track to gouge her head and tear through her skull, but she was one step ahead. Growing out her legs at the last moment, she kicked off the ground, further boosting her already impressive speed and throwing off the monster’s arm. She crossed her arms in front of her face to brace for impact, rammed straight into the corsair’s torso, and smashed her way through its shell. It was a classic, centaurian execution, often described by bards aplenty.

Claire didn’t take any damage from the collision. The thick leather that made her cloak dampened the blow and absorbed all the shrapnel that would have otherwise bored into her arms. Her target, on the other hand, was not so lucky. Because it, like her, had joined a select group of individuals, individuals that knew what it was like to be speared by a shard of true ice, the tip of which was firing a bolt of frost every half second. The mage knew better than to assume a Llystletein monster dead from just a bit of minor mutilation, so she grabbed the sides of its body and tore it in two.

None of the other members of its group were able to provide any assistance. They were preoccupied with Shouldersnake, who was digging holes through their bodies with its spring-loaded lunges. Something would break each time it curled its tail and shot forward, be it an arm, a leg, or a thorax.

The encounter was the exact opposite of a challenge. Claire had boiled killing crabs down to a science by the time she had left to seek the frog, and she had only grown stronger since. Surely enough, her lackluster gains reflected their harmlessness. Four kills amounted to roughly 2% of a level, split between her three classes.

“They’re dead already?” The alraune rounded the corner to find a fully lamian Claire covered from head to toe in stray strands of cotton. “Isn’t this supposed to be one of the rooms with four?”

The lyrkress shrugged. “They’re just corsairs.”

Myrtle put a hand behind her head and laughed awkwardly. “We still struggle with them. It’s not like we can’t deal with them, but we need to take on one at a time if we want to salvage any of the materials.”

Claire pointed at the mangled corpses. “Can you salvage any of these?”

Their shells were destroyed. The first one had been literally torn open, while the rest had snake-sized holes all over. But apparently, the alraune didn't mind. Inspecting the corpses led her to nod with all the enthusiasm of a child in a candy store. “They look good enough to use.” She grabbed several fistfulls of cotton, compressed them with her hands, and shoved them into her bag.

“You don’t care about the shell?” Claire tore one of the legs apart and strapped its tip to her waist, where the two halves of her body met. “You could make something out of these.”

“Corsairs do not yield long-lasting materials,” said Grell. For a scyph, it was a strong statement, completely lacking in the usual wishy-washy uncertainty.

“I’m just picking this up to make some snacks for Lova later,” explained Myrtle. “She loves my cooking.”

The Kryddarian nodded as everyone turned towards her. Her head moved with such vigour that Claire was left wondering how her glasses managed to stay on her face.

“Did someone say snacks?” said Sylvia, from on top of the lyrkress’ head.

When did she get there? Wasn’t she just standing beside the plant?

“Murtt is a wonderful baker. Her cookies are delicious enough to die for,” said Lova. She was avoiding Claire’s gaze, but at the very least, she had stopped trembling.

“I’d love to try some!” said Sylvia. Her tail flicked from left to right as she licked her lips.

“No drooling.” Claire grabbed the fox by the face and forcefully placed her on the ground. “Not on my head.”

“I always make extra, so you’re welcome to try some, when we get back,” said Myrtle.

“Thanks Murtt!” chirped Sylvia.

“I wouldn’t,” said Claire.

Myrtle put her hands on her hips and frowned. “And why not? I’ll have you know that my baking is top notch.”

“Because she,” the lamia pointed at the fox, “is an idiot.”

“I’m not an idiot! They’re cookies, Claire! Cookies!” said Sylvia.

“You’ve never had cookies. You didn’t know what they were until I explained them to you this morning,” said the lyrkress.

The fox huffed. “That’s exactly why I want to try them! You told me they were tasty, and you hate eating everything! I can’t even imagine how good they are.”

“Didn’t you hear her?” Claire rolled her eyes. “Her cookies are made of cotton.”

“So?”

“Palm leaves.”

“Huh?” The four-legged fairy blinked for a few seconds before turning pale. “R-right. I think I’m going to keep my mouth to myself.”

“Exactly,” said Claire. Externally, she kept her poker face on, but internally, she was smirking in a manner that would have left a certain goddess swelling with pride.

“I don’t think we follow,” said Lova, in a half-whisper.

“I-it’s okay, you don’t need to,” said Sylvia.

The bloodthief bit her tongue to suppress a giggle. “She tried eating palm leaves and got sick. Because she’s an idiot.”

“Hey! I’m not the one that thought brown coconuts were rotten! Eating leaves is way more reasonable!”

Claire’s hands shot forward, but they never reached the fox’s cheeks. Sylvia’s body almost seemed to fade, like an illusion or hallucination, before reappearing on top of her head.

“You’re not gonna catch me that easily!” The fox snickered as she leapt off the blueblood’s crown and darted down the hall.

“Try to keep up. If you get lost, you can follow the marks I leave in the sand.” Giving the group only half an explanation, the hissing halfbreed took off and gave chase, her magic propelling her through the sky.

___

The rest of the day went about as expected. Claire plowed through all the corsairs in her path, often more literally than not. Her ramming attacks were heavy enough to break through their shells and her spells ripped them to bits. Though they were able to put up more of a fight, the buccaneers were also quick to fall. A chain of fiery punches was all she needed to dispatch each blade-armed crustacean.

Though Sylvia had led her down the shortest route, the occasional break drastically inflated their travel time. Needing to wait for the three leeches to catch up turned the three-hour journey into one that required two thirds of the day. The lyrkress didn’t understand the lack of speed until she decided to leave the brilliant trio a corsair. Finding herself a rather unique hiding spot within one of the walls, she bunkered down to watch the group engage. And in doing so, immediately deduced that there was no need to keep up her guard. Their frontliner, Lova, was about as mobile as a rock. She was unable to move at anything beyond a snail’s pace and she struggled to wield the massive hunk of steel that was meant to be her weapon. She needed to put her full weight behind every swing of the shieldlance, even when she was just using it for defence. Aren't those supposed to be meant for centaurs?

Frankly, the oversized cavalry weapon didn’t fit its Kryddarian user. As its name described, the armament was one that drew from a pair of existing concepts. It was effectively a thick, meter-long slab of metal that could be used both for offense and defense. Unlike a traditional lance, it was strapped to the wielder’s arm, and unlike a traditional shield, its front end was sharpened and extended far beyond the wielder’s hand. They were standard issue in the Cadrian army; her father happened to have a few hundred lying around his armory. But the centaurs were one of the only races to put them to use, largely in part because they were rarely ever lacking in the way of raw power. And though every soldier had at least one, many regarded shieldlances as side arms. Spears were more common, as the defensive blades were often too short to reach smaller targets. Gnomes, for example, could quite literally walk right under them without the threat of injury; they were far more effective against other centaurs than they were their common enemies.

Unlike the average Cadrian warrior, the Kryddarian did not appear to have any significant investment in strength, a mystery solved by a quick moment of thought. Spellweavers were mages; there was no reason for one to invest her points in something that would have no effect on her hexes. As could be inferred from her racial class, the moth was lacking in more than just brute force. Her attacks were slow and clumsy, a surefire sign that both her agility and dexterity were also pitifully low. As things stood, the lyrkress was starting to suspect that she was only the party’s frontline because she was best at taking hits. If nothing else, her two ascensions guaranteed that she had more health than the scyph sitting behind her.

The flying sea creature in question was slowly twisting his tentacles together to form a shape akin to a drill. A few seconds of clumsy preparation later, he lit himself on fire and launched a projectile in his image. Given the crabs’ cotton interiors, she was confident that the attack would kill so long as it landed, but it never did. They were too fleet of foot; he could never quite catch them. At least not on his own.

The alraune was trying her best to support both other members, but she was doing a terrible job of it. Her lightning spells often went wide, courtesy of a habit that Claire could only assume came from time spent as a melee fighter. She held her wand in a reverse grip and kept it moving, as if to make it too hard for her opponent to read her next move. More importantly, the power of each individual strike was nothing if not lackluster. They were barely able to make the crab flinch, even when in the case of a direct hit; her wisdom stat was likely not even a tenth of Claire’s own.

Whatever the case, they were all incompetent. Grell and Myrtle were both stuck in their old ways, and Lova was simply dysfunctional.

They eventually managed to slay the crab, but their performance was so poor that Claire struggled to keep herself from looking away.

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Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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