Chapter 60: Focus

When I asked Deckard for guidance, I expected another story from his time in the army, not actual combat advice. After all, he has simply ignored most of my questions so far. Thus, my surprise when he now seemed more like the trainer Rezso mentioned, and I so desperately needed. It made me all the more disheartened when, according to him, I had no other way to win the upcoming struggle, that was my training, other than by beating the mossbear to pulp.

It wasn’t advice I hadn’t heard before, either. They taught me the same thing in self-defense classes or by Rezso when I was training with him.

Eyes, ears, nose, crotch. I repeated to myself, knowing that there were many more weak points on the human body, but not all of them could be applied to the massive beast that I was about to face. 

“What about the throat?” I asked, thinking hard of something I could use to my advantage.

Deckard nodded approvingly. “Good thinking. Yeah, you can use the throat too. Just not to block its breathing with a punch. It’s got too much fat in there for that.”

“Then how?” I asked, pretty desperate to hear something that would give me an edge.

He looked at my hands. “If your claws are sharp enough, you could cut its throat. Or at least an artery.”

His calm, confident tone and attitude, as if this struggle was no big deal, was oddly reassuring even though he was basically telling me I didn’t have much of a chance to defeat the beast. Or so it felt to me.

“Can you think of anything else?” I asked frantically, almost adding, “Please.”

He thought, shuddered, and sighed. “There’s a spot on their bodies…”

“Oh, which ones? Where?” I asked when he paused.

“One that even humans shouldn’t forget to protect,” he said, and when he looked at me, his gaze went down to my waist. While I blushed under his gaze, not knowing what he was talking about, he waved it off. “Forget it. It would probably just piss it off.”

That Deckard refused to tell me this possibly critical information for my survival pissed ME off. Yet before I could let my emotions out and use harsher words to get it out of him, my brain connected the hints. The ire that I felt turned to understanding, quickly replaced by embarrassment as I grabbed my ass instinctively in defense.

Deckard smirked. “Not a pleasant thought, is it?”

Red in the face, I couldn’t help but shake my head in agreement. It was not a pleasant thought at all.

“As I said. Forget it, girl,” he stated seriously, looking at Esu. “The big guy wants to train you, to experience the actual fight. And to me, it’s the best way to see what you’re made of. Do that, fight, train, learn, and remember that most creatures have the same weaknesses, including you.”

“But…” I wanted to argue that this didn’t seem like good training to me, that I had almost zero combat experience, but he hadn’t finished yet.

“Protect your floppy ears, guard your throat, don’t forget the moss on its back. The shoots can gouge your eyes out in a second. I’ve seen it happen many times.”

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Yeah, the death of the thief and mercenary woman who were caught by the moss was still vivid in my mind, as well as that amazing-smelling carcass that ended up being delivered into Esu’s mouth by these shoots.

Be wary of shoots, got it!

He shrugged. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Be faster, be smarter. Don’t get caught.”

I didn’t intend to. But becoming a slave again wasn’t in my plan either, and it happened. 

Looking up at the darkening sky, I sighed, thinking that not even the setting sun wanted to see what was to come. Another complication, since the clearing was no longer in flames, nor did I have [Night Vision] anymore as I did when I was a slave. It was a useful skill in the dark cellar, but it just served as another reminder of what I went through in there when I got out. So I got rid of the skill.

Now I kind of regretted it, even though I could see well in the twilight, courtesy of my mutated eyes. The problem was the night. I could only hope it wouldn’t get that far as I would have to rely on my hearing and [Space Domain].

Going through my skills for what must be the hundredth time, looking for something I missed, some kind of edge, I did the only thing I could at the moment. I activated [Tail of Poison Empress]. Yes, I learned my lesson. And activating this skill only after I got into the fight was one of many mistakes I’ve been making so far.

Even though I knew Sage would claim a third of my mana, the use of the skill took my breath away, anyway. However, my gasps and grunts were drowned out by a frustrated roar of a beast that echoed through the clearing.  

This time it was not Esu’s but that of one of the adults. The beast stood out from the line of others at the edge of the charred woods. It looked at Esu, growled, rushed towards Shadows and mercenaries, only to stop a few meters in front of them, and roared. “Who dares, puny humans.”

There was no need to translate, as the meaning, albeit not exact, was clear to all humans and terrans.

“It was about time,” came a voice from the Shadow ranks, and Isaac stepped forward. It was a bit of a wonder that he decided to go first, after his boss ran away so quickly. Even stranger, his last look belonged to me and not his men. It was brief, without a hint of remorse or resentment in his eyes. When he turned back to the adult mossbear, he was in a fighting pose, sword in one hand and shield in the other. “Show me what you got, you f****** beast!”

The two just stared at each other for a moment, then without further warning, the adult mossbear attacked. Isaac sidestepped and swung his sword so fast that I had trouble following his movements. I found myself holding my breath and watching the fight in suspense, briefly forgetting my own situation.

When, a breath later, another two roars came from the line of beasts, and a duo of mossbears rushed into the middle of the clearing occupied by humans and terrans, it became more than obvious that this would not be an arena fight, that these beasts would not wait their turn, for their sibling to kill the human.

They didn’t even show the same courtesy to challenge their opponents to fight as the first one did and attacked the nearest Shadowbreakers and mercenaries they could find. Of course, Esu did not like that and made it known by grumbling, but that was all. He wasn’t going to stop the fight that had already begun.

It was a matter of moments before the matching number of adult mossbears joined the fray, determined to have this farce their father had forced them into behind them as quickly as possible. Their rivals were people hoping for a miracle like Tate’s. 

Within a few seconds, the clearing turned to mayhem full of roaring, shouting, screaming, and skills I’ve seen for the first time in my life. All of that shrouded behind raised ash and soot.

“What about Aspen?” I gasped as one of the battling pairs swept through the spot where she lay.

“You should worry about yourself first, girl!” Deckard said sharply, his gaze never leaving the battlefield into which the clearing had turned. “But take it easy, the boy took her to the edge.”

He did? Amazed by workhand yet again, I searched for him and Aspen, but failed to see them in the chaos of the clearing. Looking through the ongoing struggles, I realized one thing, though. Deckard was right. I should be worried about myself, about my life, not the people who were the reason I was here. Esu’s rumbling echoing above me only seemed to confirm Deckard’s words. 

“You fight too, cub,” declared Esu.

I felt like throwing up, but I lifted my head. “Training?”

“Training,” the King of the Woods confirmed. I could only hope it meant the same thing in beast-speak as it did in Standard.

Still hugging Sage, whose venom glands were already more than half full, I looked around the clearing again, searching for my opponent. That’s when I saw it rushing after me from one of the mothers. I took one last glance at Deckard, hoping for some miraculous advice, but all I got was a reassuring nod. Not exactly something that’s going to help me win this upcoming fight. 

So with a heavy heart, I let go of Sage and faced the approaching beast. Admittedly, it was a little guy or gal compared to the adults running rampant in the clearing. Still, it was a massive beast that made me lift my head to look it in the eyes.

Expecting to be attacked without warning like Shadows and mercenaries, I stood in the fighting stance Rezso had taught me. It was easy to attack from it and jump aside or take a step back when needed. But that was under normal conditions. Now I felt weak in the knees, my guts were clenched with anxiety, and my heart was beating so hard it felt like it was going to jump out of my chest.

Was I ready for this kind of training? Definitely not!

Already tensing my muscles to jump aside, I was taken aback when the young mossbear stopped a few meters in front of me. Unlike his older siblings, this beast obeyed its father and issued a challenge with its roar. Half ready to do it, half driven by my instincts, I answered with my own battle cry.

This mossbear, which my guts told me was almost level three hundred, and according to the system, the weakest member of this family, I’ve ever met here [Mossbear: lvl ??], hesitated. It was a brief falter but a big win for me.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the adrenaline pumping through my veins or my bestial instincts responding to the challenge, but the jitters I’d felt up until now had vanished. I felt lighter, more inclined to attack than to flee.

The best defense is offense, isn’t that what they say?

At least that’s how I remembered it. So, taking advantage of the beast’s hesitation, I attacked before it could rush me and gain momentum. But, of course, the beast wasn’t standing there petrified, waiting like sheep for the slaughter. The mossbear quickly recovered, and when I approached it, it tried to bite me in half. 

It failed as I was more agile then the beast with [Swift as a Whip] and no shackles on my feet. Yet, I dodged its maw full of sharp teeth too narrowly for my liking. Even more disappointing was my attempt to deprive the mossbear of its sight. I hit its eyebrow instead of its eye, leaving a barely bleeding gash in its thick skin.

Not an impressive start, huh? Fortunately, I didn’t have to think about my next move. The uncomfortable pressure in my tail and the leaking orange gas indicated that the poison was ready. So, not to poison myself even more, I formed a kind of mask from the shield around my face and without further ado, I released it. 

“What the f*** is that, girl?” Deckard echoed in my head. “Poison? No one mentioned poison to me. Bastards.”

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His rant was kind of distracting, but at the same time, I was pleased that not everyone knew about all my skills.

Unsure if it was even possible to poison such a massive beast with my poison, I still tried to keep it inside the orange clouds. And I quickly found a sweet spot to do so. All I had to do was stay behind the beast’s back, away from its maw. When I was there, the beast had trouble reacting to my movements or attacking me. Unfortunately, my claws didn’t do too much damage to its flanks and behind. I may have left a few scratches on its body, but that was about it. Nothing that would threaten mossbear’s life. 

Thus, a waste of my energy.

Thinking quickly, I concluded that the easiest way for me to beat it would be the neck. Not break it, but slash it. To break it, I’d have to manage to avoid its modest antlers. Not something I’d dare to do right now. Nor did I feel any more confident about the neck attack. It was damn close to its fangs and not far from its claws. So I was hesitant.

Stalling for a little more time by staying behind its back, I noticed in my perception that the poison seemed to be working. Though not as I had hoped. The beast sniffed the air. Then, wrinkling its nose, it shook its head and sneezed. It didn’t like the apple-scented air.

Another minor victory for me.

Now that I knew, the beast had trouble smelling anything but apples, and its vision was significantly impaired in the orange mist, as was mine, I saw an opportunity. Taking a deep breath, I took it. With a flap of my wings, I propel myself forward. Too fast for the beast to react, I slashed at its neck at double speed, hitting the spot I was aiming for this time. It was considerably disheartening to see that even a successful attack did no more than leave another gash on its body and exposed only the fat under the skin. 

“Move, girl!” shouted Deckard. But I was already moving as I saw what he saw. That under my bare feet, sunken in the ash-covered moss, small shoots grew. These little buggers tried to wrap around my ankles and stop me from moving. Mossbear must have been pretty frustrated with his inability to bite me, hence this attempt. Luckily the shoots were too weak, easy to break. Not like the Esu’s the thief got caught in.

If this skill was only half as powerful as the King of the Woods, I would already be tightly bound, unable to escape its claws. Instead, I jumped back with ease, tearing thin shoots in the process and avoiding the beast’s maw. Still, it was a shivering experience that made me break out in a cold sweat.

It also alerted me to be careful where I step. Even though it looked like this mossbear’s skill was in its infancy, I wasn’t going to take the chance that this was just some elaborate plan to lower my guard. And when I least expected it, I’d have my legs wrapped in rope-like shoots while the moss nibbles at my feet and the beast at my arm.

No, every clump of moss was like a landmine to me.

Not only could it explode into a pile of shoots when stepped on, but it was challenging to see them in the fading light under the layer of ash. It was so demanding that my next attack on the young beast’s neck failed due to my over-attention to the forest floor.

It wasn’t just that. I didn’t just fail in my strike. I wasn’t quick enough with my sidestep, didn’t pull my wing back to my body in time, and its claws ripped out a good number of feathers from it. What’s worse, that was just the beginning of my screw-ups.

Mossbear may have been young, the weakest of the beasts present, by no means stupid, though. It was aware of what I was aiming for, and it tried all the harder to protect its neck, snapping at me the moment I attacked, swiping with his paw the second after. It learned. Not something that could be said about me.

I hadn’t learned from my mistakes, or so it seemed when an adult appeared in the orange mist behind me, and I only noticed it when it was already in my domain. Too late to avoid it. Just enough time to prepare for the collision.

So what was my mistake? I asked myself as I was sent tumbling out of the cloud of poison. I had forgotten where I was, that this wasn’t a fight on the first floor of the labyrinth, where I had only one opponent in the vast meadows. This lack of awareness of what was going on around the beast I was facing and me was something I could no longer afford.

I was just lucky enough this wasn’t a deliberate attack, that I was just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when I got in the way of an adult who, to its dismay, struggled with the terran it was facing. Like focusing too much on where I was stepping, this could have cost me my life too.

So when I landed on my feet outside the poison cloud, I found it challenging to find the ideal balance between paying attention to my surroundings and the young mossbear I was facing. 

I’d take a time-out if I could.

The roar that reached my ears told me that was not an option, though. Beast burst out of the orange mist, wisps of which trailed behind it and clung to its fur, its target me. I could only hope to find the right mix between focusing on the fight and the surroundings quickly. Otherwise, this struggle of mine won’t last long.

Facing the beast again, I found it more relentless, each new attack faster than the last. It was harder and harder to attack, and the offense that was supposed to be the best defense turned rather quickly into a pure defense. I even questioned whether the beast hadn’t just played with me so far, and only now did it fight seriously.

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