Chapter 66 — A New Quest II
The first thing Claire did upon returning to her body was stretch. She extended her tail as far as it would go, raised her arms overhead, and pushed her legs forward. It was an odd set of movements, not the sort she would’ve been willing to perform in public, but it did a good job of loosening up everything from her stiffened shoulders to her missing hind legs.
Though still annoyed and far from rested, the halfbreed decided that it was time to move on. With one final stretch, she turned around and exited the pyramid’s penthouse. Stepping onto an elevated platform, she found herself staring down at a crowd of borroks. There were a thousand of them gathered in the atrium. Rotbloods, mages, and warriors were all present and accounted for. Some even had their hands together in prayer.
But that all came to an end as she stepped far enough forward for them to see her. The swarm began buzzing and hooting as it scattered to the winds. Even without the horrified shrieks, it was evident that her survival—the so-called lifegiver’s death—was not the result they had been hoping for.
Watching them leave filled her with a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, she felt like death itself, like a member of the royal guard entering a crowd of dissenting rebels. Knowing that her presence was enough to strike fear in their hearts filled her with confidence. But the pride that stemmed from their terror came hand in hand with a sense of disgust. That was exactly how he did things, and she didn’t want to be anything like him.
Why does everything have to be so complicated?
Claire fiddled with her tail’s feathered tip as she spiralled down the staircase. Though it seemed like an incredibly simple process, the lyrkress found herself struggling to descend. Every downwards step she took would leave her upper body pitched at an awkward angle. It almost felt like she was falling, even though her serpentine rear was keeping her grounded. She wasn’t able to speed up until she realised that she could get rid of her legs. Playing snake allowed her to forgo the steps altogether and slither down the central pillar that supported them.
Log Entry 1763
Lyrkrian Shapeshifting has reached level 3.
I should’ve done this on the way up.
The bloodthief kept experimenting with her body after hitting the ground. Rather than returning to her base form, she chose to become more centaur-like and grew out both her front and back legs. She was somewhat hesitant to get rid of her beautifully plump tail, but retracted it in the interest of keeping her frame as sleek and light as possible.
She started running off as soon as the transformation was complete. Galloping proved about as easy as slithering. Her body somehow knew what it had to do, despite her lack of familiarity with the anomalies known as hind legs. The murals whooshed by, but the halfbreed’s newly improved eyes kept her surroundings from blurring. She could still observe the paintings as easily as she could whilst not in motion. She felt like she had all the awareness in the world. But not even that was enough to stop her from running straight into a wall. Despite having lived amongst centaurs all her life, the halfbreed had forgotten that they weren’t the most adept at suddenly stopping or turning on a dime.
The pyramid’s wall had taken the Claire-shaped battering ram surprisingly well. There were a few small cracks here and there, but as a whole, the meter-thick ice had remained undamaged. Likewise, Claire was hardly any worse for wear. Her head was spinning, but she didn’t have any obvious external injuries.
After taking a moment to shake away the dizziness, the force mage pressed her arms against the wall and pushed herself away from it. Or at least she tried. For some odd reason, her body didn’t budge, no matter how hard she tried to pry herself off the ice. Looking down revealed the problem’s source. It was the shard of true ice.
The thorn in her chest was stuck. More than half of it was wedged inside the wall, and pushing on the structure did absolutely nothing to help. She tried wiggling her way out, but that was equally as ineffective. Her chest refused to move, no matter what she did. The most she could manage were the tiniest of twitches, small enough for her to suspect them figments of her imagination. Plan B, punching the wall, also failed to work out as planned. There wasn’t enough room between the halfbreed and the fortification for her to use all her strength. She tried bashing it with her tail, but found herself subjected to the exact same problem.
Left with no other choice, Claire called upon her spirit guardian.
“Hello, Claire! Quite the interesting predicament you have yourself stuck in,” said the equine, as it materialised. “But don’t you worry. I, the magnificent Shoulderhorse, will have it solved in a heartbeat!”
“Shut up and do it already.”
At her command, the horse activated its ability and started inhaling. But the wall was not consumed.
The spirit guardian was.
It spun around in circles as it was pulled straight into a point of space located within its own mouth, shrieking all the way. Claire was by no means exempt from the backlash. Her body began following in the deformed pony’s footsteps. The joint holding her shoulder to her chest had its nerves lit aflame; the limb was twisted out of shape and dematerialized, sucked inside the horse’s gut. Having failed to anticipate the sudden torment, the halfbreed howled in pain and tried to escape its source. But she couldn’t. She was still stuck.
“Shoulderhorse! You useless idiot!”
She wasn’t able to move until the black hole ate through half her chest. Her lungs, ribs, and innards were all torn to bits as blood poured from her open flank. The shard of true ice was the only thing that wasn’t destroyed by the spell’s backlash. It remained stuck in the wall, even as she was finally able to pull herself away. Her wounds looked bad, life-threatening even, but glancing at her status page, she found that she was only missing about a third of her total. Her health regeneration would take care of the injury in due time. All she needed to do was sit around.
Why did that happen?
It took a moment for the halfbreed to process that the equine’s ability could only backfire when it attempted to consume a spell that she didn’t have enough mana to handle. And it just so happened that the pyramid was an interdimensional mountain-building that just so happened to be made and maintained with magic.
Groaning, she pushed herself against a different part of the wall and leaned on her shoulder. In spite of the wound’s relatively low lethality, she was left feeling about as awful as awful could get. She couldn’t breathe and it was hard for her to put any strength into any of her limbs. Even her tail was rendered mostly unresponsive. It took everything she had to stop herself from screaming. There wasn’t enough adrenaline in her system to dull the pain.
At least the ice is gone. Now I can finally cross my arms again.
The thought crossed her mind as soon as it was clear enough for there to be something beyond the burning agony. She looked down at her chest to confirm her suspicions, only to find that the shard—the entirety of which had clearly been removed—was slowly growing back alongside her flesh and bone.
Shoulderhorse! You can’t do anything right!
Grumbling and complaining, Claire laid about until her wounds were finally healed. Once finally stable, she stood up and arranged what was left of her cloak so that it would cover everything that she didn’t want exposed. The gaping hole left in the fabric was massive, but not problematic so long as it was rotated behind her. Thankfully, the garment didn’t have any sleeves. Its hood was its only strictly defined feature, and tearing it off was all she needed to turn the dysfunctional garb into one that could be worn in any which way.
Once she was sure that she was at least presentable, by some stretch of the imagination, she once again shifted into a full blown centaur and resumed galloping, albeit not at her top speed. After completing a few laps around the building and rediscovering her confidence, she left through the perfectly rectangular doorway and made a beeline for the nearest restroom. Shoulderhorse was summoned mid-process and ordered to consume every non-interdimensional building she happened to cross. The ice would be necessary for what she had in mind.
The public lavatory she arrived at was already occupied, but Claire had no intention of waiting for the borrok inside to finish its business. Her lack of patience was resolved with a kick to the face; the bug-monkey was sent spiralling straight down the pit, broken wings and all. Taking a moment to peek over the edge, she took a deep breath, transformed herself into a humanoid and joined it on its trip to hell.
Her descent was accompanied by a rapid change in the environment, just as it had on her first trip down. But this time, she didn’t find herself overwhelmed by the change in temperature. She wasn’t even uncomfortable. The heat-resistant halfbreed was confident that she wouldn’t have noticed the difference had she not been actively seeking it.
Though she didn’t exactly want to grab the filthy ladder, she had no other way to redirect herself in midair, so she reluctantly reached for it and swung herself to shore. The borrok, on the other hand, was not nearly as agile. It fell straight into the cesspit and burst into a ball of flame as it made contact with the fiery abyss. Its body was rapidly consumed, spirited away by a thousand layers of brimstone. The only reminder of its presence was a subterranean explosion, a tiny detonation that caused a bubble to rumble to the lava’s surface.
Log Entry 1764
You have slain a level 21 borrok.
After stopping to thoroughly wash her hands, the rogue undid her transformation and wandered over to the lava’s edge. She knew that it was unsanitary, but she needed to confirm the extent of her resistance before moving forward with her plan. Scrunching up her nose, she extended her tail and inched it towards the magma. Only as she came within a few inches of it did she finally begin to feel the rising heat. It felt like she was holding the limb above a boiling cauldron. The steaming gas bothered her, but not enough for her to feel the need to pull her tail to safety. One final nervous gulp later, she pressed forward and dipped a feather into the igneous solution.
Log Entry 1765
Thermodynamic Regulation has reached level 3.
Unlike the bug-monkey, she didn’t suddenly catch fire, but she did find herself involuntarily reeling the appendage away from the pit. The burning sensation lasted only for a few moments before it started to fade. The visuals seemed in line with the relative lack of pain. Her tail’s tip was left slightly discoloured, but otherwise remained in perfect shape. Even her status screen was telling her she was fine. The experiment had only cost her a scant few points of health.
Though not as ideal as she had hoped, the results proved more than good enough for what she was about to do. If everything went according to plan, she would be able to mount an easy escape.
With that thought in mind, the rogue began washing her tail as she scanned the environment. It was difficult for her to differentiate between the various lavacombs. Finding her safe zone was nigh impossible, but her destination was in plain sight. It was the only place with its icy tubes sealed shut—the whale’s last known location. Taking a deep breath, Claire reverted to her bipedal form as she neared. The less the monster knew, the more effective her bluff would be.
Her eyes closed, the halfbreed took a moment to shift gears. She ripped off her usual mask, her neutral low-effort poker face, and put on the sort of highly emotional act that she often opted for around other members of the nobility, seasoned veterans well adapted to reading faces and guessing at the true intentions of others. Given the circumstances at hand, the halfbreed chose to sneer, as would a spoiled brat backed by a veritable army of soldiers. She doubted that the behemoth could actually see her expression, let alone understand it, but if it did, the smirk would be as good a provocation as any.
“Who dares intrude upon my domain?”
No sooner had she stepped underneath a sealed pipe than the whale burst from the ground. Just as it had on her previous encounter. It even said the same line.
“It’s me, the thing that isn’t a borrok.” She stared straight at the hulking behemoth as she spoke. “I killed the corruptor.”
“Hah! Nonsense!” Bits of rock fell from the ceiling as the whale laughed. “If you managed to kill him, you would have my staff.”
“Really, now?” The volcano spirit sent a pulse of raw magical energy through the environment as it leaned forward and turned an eye on her. “Now that… is a surprise. Yes… yes! I can sense it! But it feels… strange... changed.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t really know what to tell you,” said Claire. “Sometimes, things don’t exactly go according to plan.”
“What has happened to it!?” The ground rumbled as the whale pounded it with a flipper. “Explain immediately!”
“Well… about that,” said the halfbreed, with a dark chuckle. “It’s not getting fixed. I’ve already absorbed it.”
Claire pulled her cloak closer to her chest and exposed the shard. Its tip ripped right through the fabric as would a freshly whetted knife through a sheet of paper. She channeled her magic through the catalyst as she revealed it, and in doing so, made it—and her body—glow with an icy blue light.
“No… you didn’t!”
The whale pushed itself forward with its flippers as it spoke, as if to get a better glimpse of the shimmering object stuck within the humanoid’s chest.
“Did you really think I was going to give it to you? How stupid are you?” Claire cackled, loudly, dramatically. The laugh was so haughty that she even managed to annoy herself. “You didn’t even promise me a real reward.”
“You lie! I sai—”
She cut the whale off by magically seizing its tongue.
“I don’t care what you said,” snickered Claire. “Do you really think you can offer me something that’s worth more than an elemental power source?”
Her taunts were working. The oversized cetacean hadn’t reacted at first, but the lava levels started to rise as soon as it got over its initial shock. Everything was bubbling, and the mountain itself even seemed like it was starting to shake. It was clearly angry. But not angry enough.
“The only thing you could possibly give me is your blessing.”
“If you know that, th—” Again, the monster’s tongue was forced back into its throat.
“But even that’s worthless. The most a lesser spirit like you could give would be a single point of strength.”
“I am not a les—”
“I’d rather be blessed by a borrok.”
“Cease this immedi—”
“At least they’re smart enough to know not to live in cesspits. Do you think their priests are any good? They’re bound to be better than a lesser spirit, at least, right?”
“Enough! I have had enough!” The whale shouted as several nearby pools erupted into pillars of magma. “I will not stand to be insulted by the likes of you!”
It shot a dozen spears of flame at her, but Shoulderhorse negated them all. The hexes only cost Claire a hundred mana each, an amount that, in the grand scheme of things, was pitifully unimportant. Its subordinates had joined in on the assault as well, but their attacks, she ignored. The fire that left their mouths passed her by like a cool breeze, lighting only her clothes aflame. Even that was soon negated. Lowering the temperature of her surroundings snuffed out the dolphins’ embers.
Log Entry 1766
Thermodynamic Regulation has reached level 4.
“Give it up. You can’t hurt me,” she said, with another cocky grin.
It was a bluff. She would soon be overwhelmed if it kept up its barrage, but that was not something the spirit had any way of knowing. All it knew was that its abilities were being nulled. And never before had it encountered a creature capable of outright obliterating its magic. The phenomenon was so bizarre that the beast never stopped to consider that it could have been limited in scope.
“Impossible! You’re just a low-leveled rogue! You weren’t even fifty the last time, and you’re hardly any different now!”
The skill the whale relied on was one Claire knew well. It was called Eye of Perception, and was often held by monsters capable of commanding others of their species. It was why the corruptor had looked at her the way it did, as well as the reason the whale had been able to guess her power level. Those that were less barbaric—individuals that the system described as people—could learn the skill by investing in the Judge class. It was a common and well documented ability that returned the level and grouping of the target’s primary class without exception or error.
“Eye of Perception doesn’t work if you’re outclassed.” Claire undid her transformation as she lied. In a matter of moments, her body turned from that of a halfbreed to that of a serpentine cervitaur. “You couldn’t even see through my disguise. Did you really think your magic could outdo mine?”
She pointed a finger to her right and ordered Shoulderhorse to empty the contents of its stomach. The massive glob of ice that resulted crashed through the mountain’s wall and left a gaping hole in its magma chamber. Had the mountain’s lord been in its right mind, it would have been able to determine that Claire’s projectile did not stem from the magical source she implied. But it was too rattled to interpret the display as anything but an overwhelming show of magical talent, proof that she had already mastered the shard that the whale would have needed months to fully integrate.
The halfbreed pulled one of the dolphins straight into the palm of her hand. The whale tried to assist it by slapping her with one of its flippers, but the attack was too slow. She evaded it with a lazy, half-attentive hop.
“Your stupidity is what got Herk killed.” With a smile on her face, she stuck a hand through the ash that made up the gargoyle’s body, tore out its core, and drained it of its magic as she held it up to the mountain spirit.
With a squeeze, the stone that was the creature’s heart was shattered.
Log Entry 1767
You have slain a level 23 lesser volcano spirit.
“Helvett! No! How dare you!”
The entire volcano was starting to shake, in part because of the spirit’s fury, and in part because it was flailing about in an attempt to assault her with its pathetically underdeveloped limbs. But not a single one of its attacks landed on target. Though the whale had power, it lacked the technique to move its body in anything but the simplest of arcs.
There were plenty of opportunities to counterattack, but Claire took none of them. She doubted she would be able to land any meaningful hits, let alone get through to the spirit’s core. Not that she needed to. Her task had been completed the moment the cete’s rampage began.
Grabbing another random dolphin, Claire casually made her way towards the chamber’s newest exit. When she wasn’t dodging, she was strutting, with obvious swagger in every step. Each attack that missed came with a corresponding change in the environment. A molten pit would burst into a pillar of flame and ash with every hit she dodged.
“Stop evading and fight me!”
“Maybe if you were worth the experience.” Claire stuck her tongue out as she continued her advance. “I’m going to go kill some more borroks now. Bye!”
With a wave and another snicker, she finally started running to exit. The whale created a wall of lava that spanned the distance between the halfbreed and her destination, but she galloped right through it, her resistance aiding her in escaping unharmed. Once outside, the lyrkress threw the dolphin she had kidnapped onto a patch of snow and stepped on its back, turning it into a makeshift snowboard as she raced down the mountainside with an earth-shattering eruption following in her wake.