Chapter 61 — Gods and Illusions IV
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The Saturday releases have been moved to Wednesday. This Saturday will still see a chapter or two, however.

Chapter 61 — Gods and Illusions IV

Claire watched the centaurs depart from around the corner as she contemplated a moral dilemma. She hadn’t expected prisoners. The gladiators back home were willing to put their bodies on the line and face death for fame and glory. Their pride always came first; they were known for never backing down from duels, be they in the arena or out. Given their profession, it simply couldn’t be helped. Their reputations were their livelihoods, and they were willing to go to no end to defend them. As such, it was not uncommon for a household name to be slain by an unknown wishing to put themselves before the public eye.

But the foreigners held beneath the arena were not gladiators. Based on their lack of equipment, Claire was all but certain that half of them weren’t even fighters to begin with, but rather victims, individuals persecuted and captured for none other than their lack of insectoid features. Their destitute expressions filled her with a faint sense of pity. She found herself strangely reluctant to murder them. But at the same time, she needed the experience.

The indecisiveness led her to postpone the decision until she finished off all the mindless beasts. Not that they were truly mindless to begin with. She was well aware that, given enough experience, any form of life could eventually attain the ability to form coherent thoughts and clear wills.

Log Entry 1277
You have slain a level 18 Barbearian.

In retrospect, even the borroks were edge cases. The first she had spoken to had clearly been able to think and speak, and they lived in a community that suggested an understanding of each others’ needs. The corruptor had taken it a step further and proven that he had possessed a strong will, one powerful enough to drive him to attempt to take her down at the cost of his own life.

She knew that she was supposed to empathise, but she couldn’t. There was no point in taking pity on the things she killed, especially not if they were barbarians. Purging them was but a part of the natural order. If she didn’t take what she was offered, then she could only fail when it came time for her to use her strength—their lives—for her own purposes. That was what her father had always taught her. And his mistreatment of her served as evidence for the exact point he argued. Duke Augustus had never been one for mercy. The doctrine of violence he perpetuated was one that put power above luxury, merit above justice, and war above peace. He saw no problem with taking whatever it was that he wanted—her mother included. To him, she was loot, a crown jewel pillaged from a nation whose armies and people had been systematically deprived of the ability to resist.

Log Entry 1278
You have slain a level 21 Llystletein Caveveaber.

Claire would likely have met the same fate had Cadria ever fallen. She couldn’t fend for herself or stand her ground as a warrior. Not then, not now. She knew she would stand no chance against the knights in service to House Augustus. Even a fresh squire would have her on her back foot. A well-practiced apprentice was likely to have three optimally chosen combat classes to her two haphazard ones. And that alone was enough to make a world of difference, their towering levels only icing on the cake.

Log Entry 1279
You have slain a level 24 Frost Wolf.

With the last beast finally dead, Claire flicked the blood off of her knife and turned towards a non-empty cell at the end of a long hall. Playing with her weapon as she approached, she looked upon the unconscious dwarf inside with an icy glare. Even without talking to him, she had already concluded that he was worthless. His presence within the lost library served to indicate that he was likely either a prisoner on death row, a knight with a foolish master, or a small-time hero, out to prove his worth and hubris. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what she did. He would fail to emerge from Llystletein, just like all the others. Slaying him herself would change nothing but the ultimate cause of his irrelevance and failure.

“Stop! Identify yourself!”

A voice caused her head to snap to the left right as she was about to order Shoulderhorse to consume the lock. It caught her almost completely off guard; she had been too engrossed in her thoughts to hear any footsteps, and she had no idea when and how she had been spotted.

Awaiting her at the end of the tunnel was an ascended borrok. It looked almost exactly the same as the first she encountered, but with larger muscles and a different set of equipment. Instead of a cloak, the bulkier rotblood had a loincloth, and instead of a staff, he had an axe and a sword, both raised and pointed towards the intruder.

“Are you the sentinel?”

Claire reached for her mace as she stepped away from the cell. She didn’t care so much for the question’s answer as it did the time it would buy her. She needed a moment to decide between fight or flight.

But the borrok was not willing to play along. He let out a series of high pitched, barely audible clicks as soon as her hand moved to her weapon. Almost immediately, she was made to realise that the sounds were orders. Feet of all shapes and sizes began hammering the ice above as warriors and mages swarmed the underground tunnels.

“Yes, I am.” Only when he was backed by an impossibly large mob did he finally answer the question. “And you must be another one of Alfred’s.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” lied the halfbreed.

She took a step away from the ascended warrior as she dismissed her horse and summoned her snake. Fleeing would have been her preferred choice, but it didn’t seem possible. Though Shoudlerhorse was capable of digging a path out of the underground enclosure, she didn’t think that she would be able to outrun him. His frame was no larger than hers; he’d be able to squeeze into any tunnel she made. She would have to test the waters. If he was strong enough to break stone, then she would have no choice but to do battle, even with the frostblight eating away at her insides.

“You aren't the first one he’s sent to kill us,” said the bug monkey. “It happens every time things finally start to change for the better.”

Claire didn’t interrupt him, opting instead to blatantly raise a brow and express false curiosity as she continued to assess the situation. She didn’t know if the monkeys were adept at reading humanoid expressions, but if the look on her face didn’t get the message across, her silence most certainly did.

“You wouldn’t understand. He treats us like disposable things. He made it possible for us to think, grow, and ascend just so we would be worth more experience. He doesn’t care about individual lives because he can create them.”

The borrok squeezed the words out in a raspy voice. They were weighed down by venom. Layers upon layers of venom. He was seething with rage, out of control of his emotions, and only half prepared for combat.

The perfect opportunity. Even if she wasn’t in perfect form.

“So what?” Claire put on the most exaggerated overbearing smirk she could muster. “Your experience is all you’re worth to begin with.”

His nostrils flared as he exposed his yellowed teeth and raised his trembling hands. “How dare you?” He spoke again, each word accompanied by its own shallow breath. 

“I’ve already exterminated hundreds of you. It won’t take me long to clean up the rest.”

“Kill her!”

He leapt into action with a primal roar, charging at her with both weapons poised to strike. The borroks behind him followed suit and rushed her like the fools they were.

Raising an arm, the halfbreed pulled one of the smaller insectoids forward and reeled it straight into her grasp. The arm-sized bug was abducted, grabbed by the thorax and turned into a piece of equipment. Claire parried the sentinel’s sword with her mace as she raised her newly acquired shield and thrust it against the ascended borrok’s axe. The weaker half-bug’s defenses were worthless before the smelted iron edge. Its chitin yielded and crumpled, leaving the blade to cut all the way through it and into her hand.

All according to plan.

She went on the offensive before the rotblood could regain control of either weapon and paralyzed it with her eyes. Even with the gaze at full power, she was hardly able to stop it for anything beyond a fraction of a second. More than enough time to squeeze in a roundhouse kick to the gut.

The borrok used the force of the blow to retreat to his side, but that too entailed playing into her hand. She moved so that she stayed opposite him and raised her uninjured arm. The magical shove that followed sent him flying into a cluster of icy bars. That alone wouldn’t have staggered him for long, so she sent Shoudlersnake to chain the blow with a headbutt and a bite. The serpentine projectile was followed by a dive kick, one that landed smack in the middle of his chest before he could reorient himself or determine the cause of his newfound position. When his grip loosened, she grabbed ahold of his axe, smashed it straight into his belly, and backed off. Just in time for the dying borrok attached to the weapon to explode. It all happened so quickly that none of the others were even able to get close before their leader’s insides were caught in a burst of blood, guts, and acid.

The display left many a borrok dazed and confused. Some of them slowed and others backed off, with only a few particularly brave warriors still leading the charge. But with her increased speed, they were no match for her. Shouldersnake handled two on its own, while she slashed at the last with the sentinel’s half-melted sword.

When it died, after just a few swings, she used it as fodder to hurt their ascended leader, who groaned and clung to dear life until he was made the subject of another two gut-wrenching explosions, his own detonation following soon after.

“So much for not being able to get anything done.”

The plan was a success, a perfect success that left her smirking in satisfaction. As much as she hated to admit it, she was starting to see why her father approached war the way he did. Playing a foe like a fiddle and forcing it to dance in the palm of her hands was nothing if not rewarding. She felt like a god atop the battlefield, an all-seeing embodiment of conquest and victory. And it had only happened because the sentinel was an intelligent being capable of thought and emotion.

And that same capacity seemed to be precisely what fueled the borroks’ next decision. A series of loud chirps and hoots later, they resumed their offensive, more fiercely than before. Individuals of all shapes, speeds, and skill levels attacked her with vigour, as if to seek vengeance for their fallen leader.

They tried every tactic they could fathom. They attacked her with elite groups of warriors. They sniped at her from afar with powerful ice magic. They even swarmed her and weaponised their own corpses, sacrificing themselves mid-flight. But never did her health drop below a third of its maximum value. Because a swarm of borroks was precisely what she had hoped for. And a narrow corridor, where all the enemies were in front, was the exact environment she sought.

She could fight off the warriors with her bare hands, evade incoming spells by dashing into the crowd, and magically displace any bombs that got too close. After a series of deaths and replacements, the borroks were joined by a horde of the corrupted, but they too proved incapable of turning the tides. Bats were crushed, wolves were strangled, watchers were stabbed, and bears were drained, vitality, mana, and all. Without a level-headed ascendant, they were doomed to fruitlessly struggle as she turned the underpass into a tunnel of death.

At a glance, the borroks’ continued assault looked to be an act of suicide. Each level she gained provided her with stamina anew, stamina she could use against them. But little by little, the endless wave began to take its toll. The amount of time that passed between each milestone grew, and with it followed the time it took for her vigour to be restored. Worse than the physical drain was the effect on her mental state. Her attentiveness was slipping. She was getting noticeably worse at dodging, and her fatality plummeted with every deadly flourish. It was a battle of attrition, and one measly Claire did not an army make.

In failing to fight off the swarm that consisted almost entirely of creatures roughly half her level, the halfbreed was made to understand that the tales of heroism the bards so often sang described not noble fighters or divine apostles, but psychopaths, incomprehensibly deranged freaks capable of staying in perfect form through hordes of tens of thousands.

The moment the halfbreed was finally hit by a spell, an icicle that pierced her straight through the gut, was the moment she decided that enough was enough. Throwing borroks into their allies wasn’t cutting it anymore. They were failing to die en masse. Corrupted watchers and bears would step in and sacrifice themselves to put an immediate end to the chain of detonations. She needed a new strategy. So she abandoned the notion of close combat and replaced her serpent with her horse.

As useless and vain as it might have seemed, Shoulderhorse was also a guardian spirit, an entity whose primary purpose was to serve her in combat. Like Shouldersnake, who could amplify its physical prowess and inject its targets with an endless supply of venom, the pony had exactly two abilities. One was to function as an invisible shield, an imperceptible aegis that could devour any inanimate entity. The other was to regurgitate anything it had consumed within the last 24 hours. All at once.

And that was exactly what it did.

The moment it was summoned, the four legged creature opened its mouth wide and ejected the contents of its stomach. Everything was mingled together. The ceramic shards, the bodies, and the lava had all melded into a single spherical mass of stuff, with magic the only exception. The spells she had consumed could not be preserved as they were. She lacked the understanding and mastery required to perform any feat beyond deconstruction. Not that it mattered. The sphere by its lonesome was already more than enough.

So massive was the orb that it didn’t fit within the prison’s halls. It spanned more than the entire width and height of the corridor. But it moved at a breakneck pace nonetheless. The dirt and ice in its way did nothing to stop it. Flying forward like a cannonball, it crushed everything in its path, reducing many a creature to nothing but ketchup and mustard. Its weight and momentum carried it all the way through to the end of the corridor, where it burst into a thousand pieces upon coming in contact with the far wall. Never again would it be whole. Just like the hundreds of combatants it had flattened.

There were still more of them. The city’s inhabitants continued to stream into the passage from the hallways that lined it. But Claire had no interest in them. Even without looking at her log, she knew. She knew that she had finally killed enough. Power welled up from within, flooding her system with wave after wave of euphoria. It was time, and she couldn’t wait.

Using Shoulderhorse to eat the ice directly beneath her, Claire tunneled her way deep underground. She didn’t stop descending until there were at least ten meters of rock overhead, a layer more than thick enough to stop any magic from reaching her.

Once she was confident that her location was secure, she vomited out all of the material consumed in the tunnel’s making and created a large chamber. Another smaller expansion was dug out on the other side, its material used to block off the entrance.

Almost everything was ready. The only thing she had left to do was check her status.