Chapter 110 - Eel Season IV
Claire rose from within a tent of leaves as the moon began to fall. Looking around the waning campfire and confirming that all the others were fast asleep, she took on her usual form, stepped out from the enclosure, and wandered down the hall. The fox was the only one to catch her departure; Sylvia groggily raised her head and waved goodbye with her tail, only to go right back to bed shortly after. While a less observant halfbreed might have written off the half-hearted dismissal as an act of laziness, the lyrkress recognized it as a sign of confidence; her companion had refrained from stopping her because she knew that she would come out on top.
The combatant in question, on the other hand, was a little less sure of her victory. She had already lost to overconfidence once, and another frog scenario was the last thing she wanted. That was precisely why she stuck to the stealthy stratagem she had devised while sitting around the flame.
Her preparations began far ahead of the battle’s onset. She summoned Shoulderhorse as soon as she left camp and loaded the malformed equine with all the mana it could accept. Though supercharged, the pony’s performance remained identical at first glance. It continued to eat Claire-sized holes out of the wall and forge a path to the lord’s chamber, exactly as it had during the day.
Rather than heading straight in and confronting the lord head-on, the half-moose opted instead to approach from an angle less likely to put her in harm’s way. She went up and then down to create an artificial ledge, an aboveground perch far away from the entrance the lord was likely to be watching.
The mage had her four-legged drill stop just shy of breaking through the final layer of stone to bore a tiny, finger-sized peephole with a pick of ice. The narrow opening was just big enough for her to peek through the out of place forest and observe the monster whilst minimizing the risk of exposure.
It was, in a word, pink. Its charcoal black body would have been nearly invisible in the darkness if not for the neon glow radiating out from its insides. Unlike most other eels, the monarch possessed eight pairs of legs, all of which she assumed to be vestigial. Though the limbs were tipped with large barbed feet, the slithering sea creature clearly didn’t think of them as tools to direct its movement. They hung by its side, flopping around lifelessly as it moved its head around in the sand.
The monster’s face was decorated by a star-shaped granite mask, and its body was lined with large, pointy spines as long as Claire was tall. Its back sported a boney sail, with even larger barbs emerging from its spine and a stiff-looking membrane holding them all together. There were a trio of horns on its head, all pointing in completely different directions. Their tips were dull, but that seemed more like a feature than an unfortunate coincidence. The magical energy that pulsed through the head spikes made it clear that they served as catalysts first and blunt weapons second. It was certainly a unique trait worth noticing, but even the three horns paled in comparison to the creature’s bizarre tail.
Simply put, it was a half-flattened morning star, a large metallic lump, covered in thorns and melded to the monster’s rear through a series of chains. Unlike a traditional spiked ball, whose protrusions often had random bits of space between them, the porcupine tail was not haphazard. The much smaller blades that ran along the top and bottom were positioned in perfect sequence with no gaps, almost like the teeth on a saw.
Though the chains measured in the tens of meters, each individual link was tiny, small enough for her to think that they belonged to centaur-sized weapons. A frown formed on her face as she continued to stare at the monster. Its weaknesses were difficult to discern. She couldn’t tell if she was going to be better off going for its head or its tail. The front of its body was more heavily armoured, but its destruction was sure to lead to a swift victory. Striking the exposed rear seemed like another viable option. Harming its tail would likely cause more lasting damage, but the approach lacked the immediate fatality that came with its counterpart. She couldn’t decide, based on the merits. So she chose the one that was closer.
A beam shot from her chest as she burst through the wall and made a beeline for the monster’s rear. The freezing ray glimmered beneath the stars, adding another colour, another dimension, to the neon lightshow crafted by the longfish’s aura.
The eel roared as the spell landed on the base of its tail and encased it in a layer of ice. A second attack came immediately in the form of a flying hunk of iron, followed by a third, a magical explosion fueled by Shoulderhorse’s pain and anguish. She had no idea how much damage the spell had managed to deal, but with a blast of sand as her shield, Claire turned her mace into an axe and charged at its back end.
On paper, it was a solid plan. Severing the monster’s tail would have been a huge boon. But the entire ploy hinged on the sand obscuring the eel’s line of sight—an assumption that immediately proved itself false.
The longfish’s morningstar blew through the smokescreen and flew straight into her side. Her runecloak mitigated most of the damage; the combination of the thick leather and the metallic plates stopped most of the finger-sized teeth from sinking into her flesh. She was subjected to only a few puncture wounds, all of which were shallow, save for the one that happened to sneak between her ribs.
Scowling, Claire dug her hooves into the ground and absorbed the force of the blow. Despite the weapon’s speed and size, the strike was lacking in raw power. She was able to push it back, but her advance was put to an immediate end.
Continuing the charge was too risky, not when the monster had already proven, with its pinpoint attacks, that it could see beyond the sandy smokescreen. Its tail swipes continued to fly at her even as she backed off, but knowing that they were coming rendered them harmless. They were light enough to parry. She had no trouble warding them off with her axe.
After leaping back five times and finally escaping its effective range, Claire breathed out through her teeth and moved her eyes to the monster’s injury.
Her initial attack had clearly done its job. The right half of its tail was still frozen solid, while the left was missing outright. She couldn’t say for certain, but she suspected that the damage had something to do with the monster’s inability to bludgeon her with the prehensile appendage.
The lull that came with her analysis allowed the eel to take control of the battle’s momentum. It lowered its head for a brief moment and fired a trio of magical projectiles, one from each horned catalyst. The rounded bolts curved through the air and converged on her location. She barely managed to dart out of the way. Like Shoulderhorse, they exploded as they reached their destinations, albeit on a much smaller scale.
A shiver ran down Claire’s spine. The air was crackling. She could feel the raw energy on her skin, even though it had come nowhere close to touching her, proof that it was a spell based in brute force.
Arcane magic was widely feared. Known as equal parts simple and complex, the ancient school focused first and foremost on raw power. Even a weak arcane bolt could overpower a spell with far greater complexity. The mages that practiced the almost feral art possessed far more mana than most, and they were known for being particularly adept at firing off wave after wave of spells whilst ignoring the fragile concepts from which other schools drew. The eel was quick to demonstrate that exact approach.
Another trio bolts was fired at her without a moment’s delay. The second barrage was more accurate; the spells curved through the air and flew straight towards her chest. She darted out of the way in an attempt to dodge them preemptively, but they moved with her, changing their trajectory to match her position. A less-than-smug hiss left her throat as she raised her free hand and crafted a large frozen pillar. The icy structure blocked two of the three projectiles, while the third was repelled by a serpentine phantom, summoned at the last moment and infused with a thousand points of magic.
Bearing the brunt of the explosion had little effect on the spirit. It was perfectly unharmed, even as its body was swallowed by the magical blast.
The air-breathing fish continued to throw spells at her from afar, not moving from its spot. But it was all pointless. The frosty partitions Claire used to block its attack cost only a sliver of mana; she wasn’t on her back foot and had no concerns about the sustainability of her defense. The monster was quick to catch on. It roared in annoyance, called off its attack, and glared at her. It was miffed, enraged even. But it refused to budge from where it sat. When she circled around, it turned not just its head, but its whole body, as if to hide something behind its back.
Claire strained her ears, but there was nothing. The eel’s heartbeat was the only one she heard; it didn’t seem to be defending a child or mate despite its behaviour. Frowning, she dodged another group of projectiles and listened again, but heard nothing but the crackling of a magical discharge.
The eel’s spells were effectively out of range. Its projectiles were too slow to cover the distance between them; she would always have more than enough time to react. But the opposite wasn’t true. Her spells could reach.
Had she been against a less stationary opponent, she would have focused on quantity over quality. Chipping away at a monster’s life force with a barrage large enough to guarantee a hit was much more reliable than trying and failing to land a deathblow. But the eel wasn’t moving. If it was just going to hold position, then all she had to do was slam it with a single big spell.
Channeling her magic through her free arm, she crafted a massive spear ten times as long as the standard issue projectile and twenty times as wide. As it was technically the product of her ice manipulation and not an icebolt, it wasn’t capable of propelling itself forward. Likewise, her force manipulation couldn’t push it fast enough for it to be effective. It was far too heavy for her to give it any real speed.
It would have been a conundrum. Had she not possessed the ability to losslessly transfer momentum. She twisted her hips, slammed her hand into its flattened rear, and propelled it forwards. A second boost came as its speed began to drop, a charged vector that added to the projectile’s swiftness, boosting it to match the velocity her fist had demonstrated a moment prior.
The eel had no choice but to abandon whatever was behind it. With an almost amused-sounding roar, it raised its head into the sky, its body soon following suit. The creature’s departure revealed the object that it had kept from Claire’s eyes, a large rocky monolith covered from head to toe in runes. A hexstone.
A barrier formed around the runic rock right before the halfbreed’s spell made contact. The defensive shield almost seemed to catch the icy spear head on. Before returning it. At ten times the speed.
She couldn’t react.
The still-extended arm that had fired the projectile was destroyed. Instantly. Everything from her shoulder down exploded into a mess of blood and bone.
A pained groan left her lips as she stumbled back, dropped her axe, and clutched the empty socket.
She almost couldn’t believe it.
The eel had tricked her.
It had put on a ruse to bait her into firing a powerful spell. And she had fallen for it. She walked right into its trap, like a mouse lured in by a piece of moldy cheese.
The eel didn’t hesitate to make use of its aerial supremacy. Shrieking in delight, it began firing projectiles at her. Not spells, but parts of its own body.
Spines and legs were shed and launched, only to be replaced in a heartbeat. They rained down like a hail of blades, with each threatening to end her in an instant. But Claire was not concerned. Fighting against the crabs had armed her with the knowledge to deal with the exact scenario presented.
Calmly raising her remaining arm, she parried the projectiles as they came, throwing them off course with a series of light blows meant only to alter their momentum. It was a tenable solution. Her right half was well-guarded. She managed to deflect everything that drew near it. But the other side of her body did not fare as well; the technique was imperfect without a second arm. A blade drilled itself into her shoulder and another even managed to take out her knee by the time the barrage finally slowed to a stop.
Her cloak was in shambles. It would soon recover. But the same could not be said for her body. There were cuts and scratches running along her wounded half; blood poured from her sleeves, a constant stream that left her head spinning. And that wasn’t even the worst part. Looking around, and seeing all the freshly sprouted trees, Claire was starting to get the feeling that the eel wasn’t quite done with whatever it had in mind.
All of the saplings that had sprouted from the monster’s attacks were humming eerily. Slowly, they started to shift, to move in her direction, limbs extended like members of the undead. Magnetting her axe back into her hand, she slashed at the closest target. But she failed to cleave it in two. It was a lot tougher than expected. Because it wasn’t made of wood.
Her attack had been accompanied by a metallic cling, a sound that echoed around the artificial forest and carried through the maze.
She almost couldn’t believe her ears. Or her eyes.
They looked perfectly wooden, but rang like bells. An impossible set of circumstances that seemed almost impossible to resolve. She was almost thrown off by the conflicting information, but managed to shake her head free of the juxtaposition and disregard it. It didn’t matter. She was confident that she would not be swallowed by the horde.
Pointing her tail at her rear, Claire lifted herself off the ground and flew after the airborne foe. After throwing Shouldersnake like a projectile, she refroze her axe and readied it for combat. But she never managed to reach her prey. Because there was a wall in the way.
One that she couldn’t see.
The labyrinth’s invisible ceiling.
All her momentum was nulled. Instantly. The urge to punch Alfred bubbled up from within as pain pulsed through her forehead. She couldn’t regain her balance. Her ears were ringing and her eyes were spinning. She had no idea what she was facing, or even where she was, until she crashed into the ground.
A trio of arcane bolts made contact before she could right herself. The raw energy coursed through her body, frying her from the inside out. But she bore with it. Clenching her teeth hard enough to draw blood, she leapt out of the way before she was hit by a second wave of spells. The approaching trees were repelled with blasts of ice, freezing them solid before they could reach her.
As much as it annoyed her, she had to admit that the eel was clever. Twice, it had baited her into hurting herself, and twice, it had capitalised on the subsequent opening to inflict a heavy blow. She was bloody, battered, and down to a third of her health. But she wasn’t ready to give up or retreat.
Though it could have all been a part of another elaborate ruse, Claire was confident that the eel was lacking in terms of direct combat prowess. Despite being twice her level, it refused to face her head on. Its tail strikes were pitifully weak and its spells weren’t any better. Its most devastating attack, the spine barrage, was more of a biological feature than it was something based on its raw stats. Even with one arm missing, she was sure that she could take it down if she just got close.
And she had already figured out exactly how she was going to do just that.
Or more accurately, Shouldersnake had figured it out for her.
The serpent she had thrown had managed to reach its target. Through an invisible hole in the invisible wall. The one the eel had entered through.
A small smile appeared on her face as she snapped her fingers and triggered an explosion. The action was entirely unnecessary. But it felt right, like bragging about her victory to a supposed superior that had demonstrated nothing but utmost confidence. Almost exactly like that, in fact.
Blood sprayed everywhere as the serpent detonated. Half the eel’s midsection was blown to bits. The force-based spell created a million swirling vectors that tore its flesh as would a high speed cheese grater. Layer by layer, it was deconstructed. First went its skin. Then its flesh. And eventually, even some of its bones. She wasn’t able to get through its spine, but if the creature’s pained shrieks were any evidence, she had certainly gotten around to providing it with an excess of undesired stimulation.
It writhed as it screeched, wildly swinging its tail and head alike. The rampage was accompanied by a series of thuds, And then a loud rumbling. As the invisible ceiling collapsed. The pieces that broke off lost their magical properties and became visible to the naked eye; the falling eel was accompanied by countless pieces of dirt, gravel, and stone.
The monster rose before the dust settled and opened its mouth wide. A massive lump of magic formed in the back of its throat as it prepared to unleash an earth-rending spell. Even across the hundred meter long room, Claire could feel the raw arcane power radiating from its spell. The lump had at least twice her maximum capacity packed into it, and it continued to grow with every passing moment.
If it hit her, she would die. And there was no way that a mere wall of ice would serve as an effective means of defense.
She had to stop it.
But there was no way to know how much longer she had until it fired.
Worse yet, there was always the possibility that it could release the attack at will and obliterate her the moment she committed to interrupting its spell.
Running wasn’t an option either. A sweep of the head was all the monster needed to redirect the beam. It could fry her even if she managed to get behind the wall.
She was in a tight spot.
Her heart was pounding. But she didn’t panic.
Because the eel wasn’t the only one with a trump card.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes for the briefest of moments and began to channel the energy lying dormant in her shard. She funneled every last drop into a simple spell, an everyday icebolt that began like any other.
And transformed it into a shard of true ice.
The bolt glimmered in the night, its gastly presence accompanied by an unworldly, ethereal glow. It was ready to be propelled, but she didn’t launch it. Holding in her hand, she opted instead to charge across the arena, straight through the eel’s line of fire.
Shaping it further, and forming it into something of a Claire-sized bowl, she propelled herself through the sky and drove it towards the sea creature’s lips. Seeing the attack, the eel unleashed its own and fired a bright red beam across the circular arena.
It was searing hot, crackling with an intense energy. She could feel it on the other side of her icy weapon, melting her limbs with its raw magic. By all means, it should have destroyed her spell with its raw power, as arcane magic was known to do. Its crackling pure energy should have overridden her magical formula and deactualised its effects. But the shield remained intact.
Because true ice was not something that could be easily destroyed.
The arcane energy that hit the inverted dome was repelled, reflected in random directions as she continued pushing forward. It felt like her whole body was burning, but eventually, she reached her destination and released the barrier only as it was jammed between the monster’s lips, reflecting its own spell back into the depths of its throat.
And only then did she finally release the projectile.
After a brief delay, the icy lump erupted. It burst into a thousand-petalled blossom, a thorny crystal with a countless number of thorns.
It violently expanded within the eel’s head. And plastered its melted brains all over the labyrinth’s walls.