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Chapter 109 - Eel Season III

Lova breathed a sigh of relief as a fiery bolt landed square on the corsair’s chest. The slow but powerful projectile drilled its way into the monster’s interior and transformed it into a living pyre. Without waiting for the crab to die, she unstrapped her weapon with one pair of hands and took off her helmet with the other. Both heavy pieces made dull thuds as they landed in the sand, a weight that evidenced their solid iron construction. They were going to be gritty when she put them back on, but she very much preferred the mild discomfort to the suffocating heat.

Shaking her head, she shed the beads of sweat clinging to her fur and closed her eyes. For a moment, she considered removing the rest of her armour, but discarded the thought as quickly as it surfaced. There was no point. She would have to take off her bodysuit to dry off the rest of her sweat, but they needed to get back on the road, so that they could catch up to the snake girl.

“Great job, Lova!” Myrtle walked over to her four-armed friend and lowered herself into the sand. Her roots were ingrained in the grainy earth, a surefire sign that she was also looking to rest. “Where do you think Claire went?”

The moth took a moment to scan their surroundings before shaking her head. “I’m terribly sorry, Murtt, but I haven’t the slightest idea.” The spellweaver twiddled the thumbs on her second set of hands. “There are too many different markings in the sand. I’m not even sure we went the right way.”

“I wish I still had my tracking skill,” said Myrtle, in a whisper. “That would have made this much easier.”

Lova reached over and gave the plant a quick hug. Her armour made the whole experience awkward and uncomfortable for both parties, but the alraune relaxed nonetheless.

Neither of the two had managed to get over the loss of their abilities, but they were a lot better off than most of the others that resided within the citadel’s confines. Three quarters of the population was completely deprived of motivation The spellweaver had also shared in the struggle. It had taken a budding romance to convince her to rekindle her will to grow, and a new friend to get her over the embarrassment that came with her lack of function.

“Might you have any idea where she might have gone, Grell?” Lova turned to the jellyfish, who was floating around nearby.

“It is very strange. There are no traces of a battle. It is possible that she didn’t make it here because she encountered something she was unable to handle.”

The trio was at an impasse. Though the sand certainly bore the occasional tail-shaped mark, they weren’t frequent or consistent enough for the group to keep track of her. Fortunately, they knew Crabby Crags well enough to have several maps of their own making, and following in her non-existent footsteps was as easy as taking the most direct path to the instance’s boss.

“I don’t know…” Myrtle created a small platform with her vines and set her chin on top of it. “There wasn’t any blood anywhere.”

“It is possible that she was buried under a pile of rocks.”

Lova frowned. “She couldn’t have died. You saw all the corpses. Even the buccaneers were mangled.”

“Still, I think it is a possibility. These monsters may not be very intelligent, but their attacks are lethal,” insisted the jellyfish. “A stray hit could very well have spelled her end.”

“I’m not dead.”

A voice came from nearby. All three party members looked around, but none were able to pinpoint its source, not until the wall started to peel like a tarp. Out from within a large hole slithered the lamia, who apparently thought nothing of her inexplicable advent.

“Surprise!” said the fox perched on her head. “See, Claire? I told you they wouldn’t notice.”

“Fine. You win, this time.”

Standing up, the vixen put two hands on her hips and puffed out her chest. “And I’ll win next time too.”

“I doubt that.”

The trio took a moment to exchange glances. Lova knew that they were all thinking about the confusing entrance, but none of them went as far as actually voicing their uncertainties.

“It appears that my theories were incorrect,” said the scyph.

“Don’t worry about it, Grelly. It happens to me all the time,” said Myrtle.

Lova took a deep breath. “I-I’m sorry, we didn’t mean any offense. It’s just that it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened…”

“None taken.”

Gulping, Lova raised her eyes and looked at the snake in an attempt to gauge the statement’s truthfulness, but she was unable to make anything of the serpent’s blank face.

“Follow me,” said Claire. “Going through the walls is faster than going around them.”

“Doesn’t digging through them take a lot of time?” Myrtle tapped a root against the stone. “They seem a bit tough.”

“If it did, then I wouldn’t have suggested it.”

The lamia slithered towards a perfectly intact piece of the wall, with a massive gaping hole opening in the stone cliff following her approach. Though the angle made it difficult to spell out any definitive conclusions, Lova was almost certain that she didn’t touch it. It didn’t even look like she had cast a spell, despite the fact that more and more of the rock vanished each time she moved.

Myrtle blinked a few times before finally starting to follow. “I don’t know how she’s doing that, but it’s really neat.”

“It certainly does appear to bear a number of potential peculiarities,” buzzed the floating jellyfish.

Though her two closest friends were engaged in conversation, Lova herself remained silent. Her eyes were fixed on the freshly dug tunnel. Its walls were so perfectly smooth that they left her feeling somewhat concerned. Frankly, it was unnatural. The lamia’s ability cared unnaturally little for the different types of stone. All were treated equally, destroyed with no hope of resistance. She couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to be on the magic’s receiving end. And as her mind wandered, she began to wonder why Claire refused to use it in battle. The only reason she could come up with was that the not-lamia was driven by some sort of sadistic impulse, a terrifying urge to revel in violence and inflict pain and suffering upon others.

Shuddering, the Kryddarian gathered her things and chased after the group so she wouldn’t be left behind. When she finally looked up, she found that Claire was looking over her shoulder, staring at her. At first, she thought it was because she had become something of a straggler, but the half-snake’s lips twisted into a carnivorous grin as soon as the others looked away. And when the moth girl froze up, she giggled, as if to proclaim her superiority.

Lova hugged herself with her upper arms and took half a step back. It was happening again. She was being tormented. For fun.

A shiver shot down her spine. The other day’s events were still fresh in her mind. The others all thought that she had simply been hallucinating, but she knew for a fact that Claire had sported a pair of legs, when they first met. And that she had been hitting her.

There was no doubt that they were the same person, especially now that the lamia had shown evidence of her sadistic streak. But the more Lova thought about it, the more she began to realise that something was off. Namely, the state of her skull. It had remained perfectly intact throughout the process. She had never been hit hard enough to bruise, let alone bleed.

If the bizarre creature had truly wished to torment her, then it would have hit her harder. It wasn’t as if she was lacking upper body strength. She had already demonstrated the ability to literally rip a crab’s shell in two, and Lova’s bones were only slightly more durable. If she were truly a sadist, like him, then she would have broken open her head every time she threatened to wake, even if she was tied up and harmless.

The bug girl furrowed her brow. And after taking a slow, steady breath, looked up at Claire, who once again immediately returned her gaze and smirked. An annoyed frown surfaced on Lova’s face. But it vanished as Claire’s eyes turned cold. They stayed that way for what felt like an eternity, until the snake-girl eventually donned another small but smug grin.

It was gone by the time she blinked, but Lova was sure she saw it. It had seemed too natural to be a figment of her imagination, but there was no way for her to confirm. Neither Grell or Myrtle had been paying any attention; they were too busy discussing the ins and outs of accidental forest fires to care for their surroundings.

Her lips twitched, pursing as she contemplated the very real possibility that she had simply fallen for a long series of coincidences and relatively harmless pranks. She almost couldn’t believe it. But all the evidence was right there in front of her. Her fear was nothing but a misunderstanding, and an obvious one at that. As she calmed and analyzed the situation rationally, she concluded that she was wrong to assume that the girl was even remotely related to the duke of death. The odds of such a coincidence were so astronomically low that they may as well have amounted to zero.

“Dear Builledracht, I can’t believe it. I’m so embarrassed.” Whispering the words under her breath, she pressed her face into all four of her palms and slowly shook her head from side to side.

“I told you she wasn’t that bad.” A voice came from what almost seemed to be inside her head.

“W-what? What was that?”

She spun around wildly in order to find its source, but to no avail. All she managed to do was attract the others’ attention.

“Lova?” Myrtle turned around and blinked at her. “Is something wrong?”

“I think I heard something,” she said, with a nervous gulp.

“Shhh! You’re supposed to be quiet about these things!” said the oddly familiar voice.

“I can’t just tell them it’s nothing. I clearly hear you,” protested the moth.

Myrtle’s eyes opened wide as she brought a hand to her mouth and gasped. “Oh no! Lova’s talking to ghosts again!”

“It’s just Sylvia,” said Claire. “She’s being a nuisance. As usual.”

“Huh? How’d you kno—” The fox collapsed both hands in front of her mouth. “Er, I mean it wasn’t me!”

“I could hear you speaking.”

“Huh? You could?” Sylvia blinked. “What the heck! Not even I could hear me, and I thought my ears were supposed to be better!”

“They’re not.”

“But I can hear things from further away than you.”

“And I can hear quieter things if they’re close.”

Rubbing her cheekbones, Lova raised her head, looked forward, and advanced. Without a smidgeon of fear. At least not until she saw Claire murder a crab without any change in her expression. The snake girl may not have been Kryddar’s worst nightmare, but there was no doubt that she wasn’t without a few loose screws.

___

The group set up camp not too long before nightfall. The sky was starting to turn a shade of orange, and the sun was no longer visible beneath the labyrinth’s walls. All the group’s members were present and accounted for, sitting around a fire lit by the floating jellyfish. Wads of cotton fed the flames. They had a near infinite supply; there was a mountain of dead crabs piled up around the temporary base. One would assume that a pile of rotting shellfish was sure to reek, but Claire couldn’t pick up on any notable scents, even when she flicked her tongue.

“I’m hungry,” said Sylvia.

“It’s barely evening.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t stop for lunch!”

“Perhaps we are due for a meal then,” said Grell. A glob of magic formed in front of one of his tentacles and gradually assumed an ovular shape. Both Myrtle and Lova immediately began to do the same, but Claire refrained.

She walked over to the wall and, with a burst of force magic, grabbed one of the creatures tunneling around within it. She couldn’t see it, but her ears allowed her to pinpoint the prey with minimal effort. Pulling on it to prevent its escape, she raised her other hand and got ready to smash her way through the stone, but her hand froze before she had a chance to ball it into a fist. Because the creature, the fish, was wrenched straight out of the stone. It glided through the wall, as would a penguin atop a piece of ice, and landed in the palm of her hand.

The specimen’s size was impressive for how little noise it made; it was roughly as thick as her arm and twice as long. Its body was shaped almost like that of a snake’s, but it lacked the scales. Its dark frame was coated instead with a layer of slime that made it slippery and hard to catch—not that it mattered, with her force magic active.

“Oh, sweet! You caught one of the eels!” Sylvia practically hopped over, skipping and jumping as she approached. “Those are really tasty, probably the best fish around.”

“You said that before too.” Claire presented the eel to the fox, but she didn’t take it. “Why didn’t you just catch one yourself?”

“I’m not supposed to kill them since they’re technically monsters.”

The lyrkress rolled her eyes. “You don’t follow half the rules anyway.” She squeezed down on the squirming noodle’s neck and snapped it. “There.”

Log Entry 2921
You have slain a level 25 Llystletein Longfish.

This feat has earned you the following bonus rewards:
- 1 point of wisdom

Log Entry 2922
You have unlocked a new spawnable food item.

“Thanks!” Sylvia shoved the eel into her mouth and, despite its size, swallowed it in a single breath. “Yup, super tasty! Just how I remember it.”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Claire grabbed a second longfish and threw it straight into the fire.

Looking around, she noticed a number of curious gazes. All three unwelcome guests had their eyes on her, with one particular individual looking much hungrier than both the others. Is that sap or drool?

Log Entry 2923
You have slain a level 22 Llystletein Longfish.

“I’ll share.”

“T-thanks,” said Myrtle. Her cheeks turned a deeper shade of green as she lowered her gaze and retreated halfway into her flower.

Having learned from her previous mistake, Claire magically pulled the ray-finned fish out of the flame right as its outside began to crisp up. She broke it into several pieces and handed one to each of the curious onlookers while summoning a basket of bread for herself—a contingency, in case things went the way she was expecting.

Log Entry 2924
Llystletein Authority has reached level 8.

And surely enough, that did.

All three taste testers twisted their faces in misery, a surefire sign that she did not, in fact, magically gain the ability to cook just because she had happened to unlock a related skill.

“Is what your dad said about the eel still true?” Having decided to pretend that the eel event had never happened, Claire threw a wad of cotton into the fire and looked to the fox curled up beside her.

Sylvia raised her head and yawned before returning it to its previous position. “Ummm… it should be. I haven’t really been keeping up with all the news, but I haven’t heard about anyone messing with it.”

“You aren’t sure?”

“Nope!”

The rogue crossed her arms. “Useless.”

“Hey! It’s not even my fault! There aren’t any terminals around here so I can’t check.”

“Right. Those.” The blueblood muttered under her breath before prodding the vixen’s cheek with her tail. “You were supposed to show me to one so I could test my authority skill.”

“Oh… right. I forgot.”

“What do you mean, you forgot?” Claire was certain that her eye would have twitched, had her poker face been any less practiced.

“You’re really not going to like hearing this, but there are two in my mom’s den. You totally could’ve used one while we were there.” Sylvia’s tail shot up. “Oh! And before you call me useless again, I’m totally not! Right, guys?”

She looked around the campfire for support, but none of the three collapsed members managed anything but a groan.

“Darn it, Claire! They’re all out of commission because you basically killed them with your cooking!”

“They’ll be fine. It’s just food poisoning.”

“Pardon me, Claire, but what exactly did you feed us?” moaned Lova.

“Longfish, apparently,” said Claire.

“I knew I should have stuck to summoning something. Why did I get so greedy? I thought she only threw it in the flame because she knew what she was doing…” Setting down the rest of her eel, Myrtle coughed a few times before raising her voice and speaking to someone other than herself. “Sylvia isn’t useless. Just look at how cuddly she is.”

The lyrkress scooped the fox up in her arms. “She’s maybe a seven out of ten.”

“What!? I’m way more than a seven!” Sylvia tapped her paws against Claire’s arms in protest. “I’m okay with you calling me useless, but I’m definitely a 10 on the fluffy scale! There’s no way I’m not! Look at how poofy my tail is!”

“Are you?” Claire suppressed a mischievous smile, just before it showed on her face.

“Of course I a—” Both the vixen’s eyes shot open. “Wait, wait, I didn’t mean that! I’m not okay with being called useless!”

“Then I guess you’re not a ten either.”

“There’s no winning with you,” mumbled the fox. “Whatever. I give up.”

“Took you long enough.” Claire scratched the fox’s ears. “It was a joke, Sylvia. You’re the fluffiest fox I’ve ever met.”

“It’s too late now,” she huffed. “I’m not letting you touch me anymore, since you clearly don’t appreciate my fluffiness.” She pushed the other halfbreed’s arms away and dropped to the floor.

The vixen slipped away before she could be grabbed and appeared on the other side of the campfire. Claire tried to chase her down, but Sylvia continued to evade her grasp, every time, until the moon rose high in the sky.

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A note from Spicy Space Squid

The writathon is over! We'll be returning to the Wednesday/Sunday schedule as of this chapter.


About the author

Spicy Space Squid

Bio: Surprisingly tangy and delicious.

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