Chapter 71 – The Cursed Effigy III
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Chapter 71 - The Cursed Effigy III

Claire transformed back into her lyrkrian form and adjusted her clothes to better fit her frame as she stepped away from the old fox’s den. Expanding the cloak was just as difficult as drilling ear holes into the sides of its hood. It took a full minute for her to get it down to her knees.

“Done?” Sylvia waited for the half-horse to nod before continuing. “So what was all that about anyway? When the heck did you get on Grant’s good side!?”

“I didn’t,” said the blueblood.

“But you guys were totally getting along super well just now! It was like you’d known each other forever. You were acting the same way all the older foxes act around him.”

Claire pulled her hood over her face to hide a small smile. “We were just messing with you.”

“Huh? What do you mean, you were just messing with me!?” The fox turned around and blinked a few times with her tail frozen in place behind her.

“I meant what I said.”

“But when did you guys find the time to put that whole prank together!? It was super complicated, you guys were even syncing up your dialogue and stuff. Remembering all those lines must’ve taken forever!”

“We didn’t memorize any lines. It was all improvised.”

“What the heck!?” Sylvia’s ears flattened for a moment before springing back up. “Ugh, fine, whatever! I don’t care anymore. Let’s just play the game I had in mind so I can vent my frustrations on you, er, I mean have lots of fun and get over it!”

“You’ll just be even more frustrated,” said Claire. “I’m going to win.”

“No you won’t! You’ll never catch me this time!”

Humming a note, Sylvia wrapped her legs in a veil of wind and dived into the foliage. The orange blur was so quick that the bluescale was unable to keep track of her, even with her eyesight enhanced. It didn’t help that the plants didn’t react to her touch. She phased straight through them like some sort of incorporeal ghost. Catgirl detector was the only thing that allowed the half-lamia to keep track of the vixen’s position.

The fox’s speed was certainly impressive, but it was by no means the driving force that secured her victory. That title belonged instead to her magic. The tune she sang whilst fleeing echoed throughout the forest and caused it to distort as would an image painted beneath the surface of a lake. Each step the lyrkress took was a ripple, a crease that caused the environment to shake, warp, and tremble. Her eyes were screaming at her, complaining there was nothing but nausea inbound, but the effect on her vision remained far from the worst offender. Her sense of touch was worse off; her feet were unsteady and her tail was deprived of all sensation. She couldn’t tell if it was slithering along the forest floor or floating three feet in the air.

Claire tried covering her ears, but the fox’s hymn continued to echo in the back of her mind. Each repetition of the chorus would come with an increase in the volume, courtesy of the ever-increasing number of trees joining the choir. Their trunks sang in a deep baritone and their leaves a striking soprano. Like a practiced ensemble, their voices were perfectly synced, harmonized. Even their roots came to life humming like the strings of a harp as they were struck against the ground. An instrumental background, a series of chimes and xylophone-like rattles, flooded her mind as the old oaks moved in front of her and blocked her path.

A particularly ancient tree, the singer with the deepest voice, extended a pair of branches as she stopped in place. Atop one sat a bunch of dark blue berries, each the same size as the tip of her thumb. The other presented a shiny green fruit that vaguely seemed to resemble an apple, both in shape and size.

Somewhat confused, the halfbreed eventually settled on the heftier green object. Picking it up with one hand, she carefully glanced at its waxy skin before throwing it at another member of the chorus.

Log Entry 1774
Catgirl Detector V. 0.32 has reached level 5.

“Ow!”

Alongside the anticipated dull thunk came a yelp of pain. The fox hidden inside of the canopy fell straight down as her fur went from transparent to its usual orange shade. Rubbing her head with her front paws, she got up onto her hind legs and begrudgingly moped over to her assailant, singing all the way. “How did you know I was there!? I was supposed to be invisible!” The impromptu lyrics melded into the song, as if they should have always been one of its parts. “And you shouldn’t have been able to hear me either since my voice should’ve been coming from somewhere else.”

“I just knew,” said Claire. She could barely hear herself think.

“And why did you throw it anyway? You’re supposed to eat it, not throw it! Throwing it is just a huge waste of all the mana I used to make it.”

“All the more reason to throw it away.”

“Oh come on…” Sylvia plopped onto the ground and closed her eyes. Her tail fell flat behind her as the music began to quiet and fade. “You’ve gotta trust me or else it won’t be any fun. Just try it.”

“No.” Three, striking high pitched tones followed the blunt refusal. Followed by dead silence.

“Please?” The fox folded her ears downwards as she gave the half-snake the best puppy impression she could muster. “I promise it’s nothing bad!”

A very skeptical Claire eyed her furry companion for a few moments before heaving a sigh. “Fine.”

“Yay!” Sylvia cheered as she got back to her feet, her tail wagging rapidly, serving as the metronome that signalled the song’s resumption.

Already regretting her decision, the lyrkress picked a berry off the bunch and popped it into her mouth. Surprisingly, she didn’t need to chew, let alone swallow. The fruit melted the moment it touched her forked tongue, not into a liquid, but into pure mana.

Log Entry 1775
You have been afflicted with confusion.

Alongside the sudden burst of magical energy came a sense of unease. The force mage could tell, distinctly, that something was off, but she wasn’t able to pinpoint the sensation’s source until she raised the wrong hand to her face; she had meant to move her right, but her left was the one that responded. Stumbling backwards, she found that the rest of her body was just as distorted, reversed. The foot she moved was never the foot she wanted to move, and her tail kept swinging the wrong way.

What… is going on? What did I just eat?

“Super fun, right?” said Sylvia, as she leapt through a nearby tree. “Bet you’ll never catch me now!”

Claire was still feeling unsteady, like she was going to trip and fall no matter how she moved, but after struggling to pick the berries back up off the ground, she raised her head and started wobbling after the fox with her eyes narrowed into a vidicative glare.

___

A few hours and twisted hallucinations later, the pair arrived at a large wall that had almost seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Like the horn, the ridge had revealed itself only when they approached, suddenly popping out of the ground and filling the space between the marsh and the forest as they came within range. The only opening that decorated the seemingly infinite wall was the mouth of a cave, a tall doorway that reminded the halfbreed of the entrance that had led her into the meadow. She didn’t have the best view of its insides, but from what she could tell, it wasn’t anything too special, just another subterranean tunnel.

“We’re here!” said Sylvia, as she plopped herself down at the edge of the forest. “I think this is about as far as I’ve ever gone, but I still know where everything is.”

“You do?”

“Yup! I have a built-in map thingy that I can follow. It shows me just about everything, including all the people and stuff.”

“A skill?”

“Mhm! All the other foxes have it too,” said Sylvia, as she started to stretch. “Oh, and there are gonna be some monsters up in the tunnel, but I’m not allowed to fight them so you’re going to have to go in front. It’s kind of annoying, but we can’t really get around them because they live there and there’s only one way up.”

“Okay.”

Stepping forward, Claire closed her eyes and steadied her breath. She was still feeling a little thrown off by everything that Sylvia had put her through. It wasn’t the first time she had been whisked away to the world within a song, but never before had she experienced one that was as absurd and phantasmagoric as the fox’s hymn. Stupid dancing fruit bears.

It took three and a half sighs for the lyrkress to finally dismiss the psychedelic melody. Shoving it into one of the furthest recesses of her mind, she entered the vertical hallway and scanned it for any potential threats. Like the room that had freed her from the mossy caves, it was a tall corridor shaped like a cylinder, a ramp running up its side as would a helix. But that was where the similarities ended. There weren’t any roots hanging from the ceilings, let alone a set that extended all the way down to ground level. Only the bottom third or so was green, with bits of kelp sprouting from the floor. The rest was dyed in shades of blue and black, save for the single beam of light that came from up above.

From the outside, the stairwell had looked perfectly dry. But filled with air the passage was not. In its place was water. Lots, and lots of water. What confused her most, however, was not the sudden change in the environment. That, she was already accustomed to. The lyrkress was much more taken aback by her body’s complete and utter lack of concern. The breath she had accidentally taken had filled her lungs with water, but the organs weren’t responding with pain or agony. They continued on as if everything was perfectly fine, even as she kept breathing through her nose.

Maybe this means I can swim now.

Claire kicked off the ground and waved her tail back and forth, as if it were a paddle. She spread the fins on her front legs and worked her flippers whilst pushing through the water with her hands. The initial jump’s momentum carried her a whole five meters upwards. But it was soon nulled, negated entirely by gravity’s pull. A second attempt led to an equally disappointing failure, and a third provided not even the slightest bit of improvement. Still, she tried again and again for a good fifteen minutes before finally giving up and allowing herself to sink back to the bottom. Hopes dashed and spirits crushed, the halfbreed walked over to a corner, coiled her tail around her legs, and buried her face in her arms.

“Wow! You still can’t swim? That’s super weird,” said Sylvia, as she doggy-paddled her way over.

“Shut up,” said Claire.

Unlike the fox, the lyrkress’ body wasn’t shrouded in a water-repellent bubble, but her voice was clear nonetheless. Somehow, her throat had become capable of producing perfectly intelligible sounds even while underwater.

“I mean, it is! Why can’t you swim if you can brea—”

Syvlia tried to keep talking, but Claire clamped a hand around her mouth and limited the sounds she made to a series of “mrrmmphs” and “rrrmmfs.” She didn't release her until she was done wallowing in despair, about a minute or so later.

Plugging her ears with her hands, the blueblood blatantly ignored the overly friendly canid and started making her way up to the dungeon’s third floor. The fox apologized, but she stubbornly kept the act up until she encountered her first monster. At a glance, she had thought the creature a large floating rock, but getting closer to it revealed that it was a turtle with its flippers retracted; all four of its limbs were tucked inside its stony shell with the only notable protrusion the reptile’s three-pronged tail. The appendage was spinning, slowly but surely propelling the leatherback through the water.

Despite looking friendly and relatively harmless, the sea critter attacked her on sight. It tucked its head inside its shell and kicked its tail into overdrive, rushing her down as would a bull. Above the water, avoiding such an attack would have proven a simple task. But within it, the lyrkress could only move at a snail's pace.

The shell-shaped torpedo crashed straight into her chest. Her ribs creaked beneath the weight of the aquatic reptile’s frame as she found herself winded by the surprisingly heavy blow. It looked as if the turtle had been crowned the first round’s winner, but Claire was the one to come out on top. Though she lacked the speed she needed to get out of the way, she was able to maneuver the pointiest part of her body straight into the turtle’s path. The sharp, frosted blade tore straight through the missile’s armour and devastated its soft interior. The long gash in its side wasn't a fatal blow but neither was it a trifling flesh wound. Its stomach was threatening to spill out from its shell as would a negligent lady’s from the seams of an old corset.

Despite being the more heavily damaged of the two, the turtle was the first to recover. It pushed her with its flippers and backed off before spinning around for a second charge. Attack number two was aimed at her gut, but it failed to land on target. Rearing up onto her flippers, Claire kicked the loggerhead into the ground right before it reached her.

The ramp cracked as the beast’s shell made contact with the stone. Not wanting the path to collapse, she refrained from stomping on its back in favour of holding it still as she fired a series of spells, icebolts. None of the projectiles were able to pierce the testudine’s armour, but they froze it, creating patches of ice wherever they landed. A dozen-odd casts was all it took to transform the thoroughly decreased creature into a submarine iceberg.

Log Entry 1782
You have slain a level 35 Turpedo.

This feat has earned you the following bonuses:
- 1 point of vitality
- 1 point of wisdom

Log Entry 1783
You have unlocked a new spawnable drink item.

Log Entry 1784
Ice Manipulation has reached level 2.

Claire spent a few moments staring at the fresh corpse, which had started floating upwards the moment she stepped off it. A quiet grumble escaped her throat as she bashed a fist against it and sent it flying away from the ramp. The turpedo was practically a boulder. Its shell was hard and heavy, and she was confident that its weight far exceeded hers. And yet, the monster succeeded where she failed. Even in death, it retained its ability to stay afloat.

Maybe I’m just cursed.

Shaking her head, she tried her best to free herself of the negative thought. Her inability to swim was undeniable, but on the bright side, the turtle had proven itself a relatively easy kill. There was no way for her to know for sure, but the halfbreed suspected that she would have struggled to slay it prior to her ascension. She found that dealing with it was surprisingly difficult, even with several thresholds freshly breached. Its shell was tougher than the rock that made up her environment, and its speed exceeded hers by far. At the very least, the marine reptile far outclassed the borroks that she had spent the past few days fighting.

I wonder how strong the ascended Llystletein variants are.

Her mind already on the next challenge, she turned to face the path and continued climbing her way up towards the distant sunbeam.

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