Stephen lowered his gaze, his hands slothfully tucked inside his pockets. The battle had somehow ended with a one-sided slaughter; Predators 1, Goblins 0; he cackled. The only regrettable tidbit of news was that almost all of the goblins they had killed were unranked, which meant no rewards. They were something akin to civilians, he assumed. It was a wonder how they had stumbled upon another civilization, albeit way regressed to initiate any sort of communication with them, but it was good, the forest didn’t seem to be modest in size, he was sure they would meet many more marvels. It was just a question of time.
“Hah! I got Fireball, take that, you bitches!”
Frank’s boisterous laugh filled the merry atmosphere, his smile was so wide the corner of his eyes wrinkled up.
“Everybody’s got that stuff, you’re not the only one, so no…” Natasha interjected with a smirk, “… you’re not special.” she drawled out, which earned her a pout from the potbellied man.
John gave her a slantwise glance, “Have you ranked up?” he queried, it was almost natural how easy he could gauge Predators’ ranks from a look alone, without availing himself of the analysis the screens have been helping him heretofore.
“Yep!” she bounced around in excitement before snorting arrogantly, her nose curled up, “I’m of a higher rank than you two.” she crossed her arms as she announced to her fellow female Predators in a condescending tone, her foot tapping rhythmically, “Now you gotta show me the respect I deserve.” she whipped her hair around, “You should consider becoming my lackeys, I won’t treat you unfairly.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, “God please no, why not shift that offer to Stephen? He seems to be willing to do anything to earn your… favor…”
“Hey!” the man in question looked accused, “Don’t involve me in this topic!”
“Let me! Let me!” Frank butted in, smoothing out the tuffs of hair at the sides of his head whilst cat-walking towards Natasha, he even straightened up a non-existent tie on his collar to look more elegant, “I’m sure I’ll be able to fulfill any criteria you might set for your special lackey.” he husked his voice, wagging his eyebrows at her in what he thought was a panties-dropping expression.
Daphne tried hard, but for all the will she had steeled up, she couldn’t stifle back the peals of giggles that escaped from her lips, “Oh my…” her laugh was now followed by a pig’s grunting noise as she doubled over, wiping a few tears that had welled up at the edges of her eyes, “What an interesting specimen of a man…”
“So it was you who had made that noise…” Stephen muttered to himself, seemingly content at having solved the riddle behind that sound, “Whatever…” he shrugged.
“Frank…” Natasha cupped her forehead in exasperation, “Forget I said anything, okay?”
“…” Frank sat back down with a theatrical sigh, “I don’t believe Cupid won’t shoot an arrow for me.”
“What if he shoots an arrow at a man?” Stephen quipped, “I mean… I do believe that there are two specific terms to describe homosexual relationships like these, uh… what were the words?” he racked his brain, “Ah.” he snapped his fingers in realization, “Uke and seme.” he continued, puzzled, “Though I don’t know what they mean…” he wrinkled his nose, “Where I used to work, some of my female co-workers liked pointing at me while whispering at each other something along the lines, ‘He’s definitely a Uke’.” he scoffed.
Sarah at the side burst out in laughter, “So you’re not that uncultured.” she hummed, “Let me clarify your doubts. Uke means bottom, aka the one who… receives, if you know what I mean,” she grinned mid-explanation, “While Seme means…” she curled her thumb and forefinger together, shaping them up in an ‘o’ form before slipping her other hand’s forefinger inside the hole, “… the one who gives.” Sarah ended with a wink towards a traumatized Frank and a very apprehensive Stephen.
“That’s… that’s interesting.” John expressed thoughtfully, still, it was hard not to notice his twitching eyebrow, “But can we switch topics, please?”
“We haven’t checked those huts out yet, have we?” Stephen pointed his thumb over his shoulder, where a cluster of crumbling hovels stood in a jumbled mess, “Furthermore I can faintly hear something,” he frowned.
“Now that you mention it I can hear something too,” Natasha confirmed, getting a nod from John who furrowed his brow in concentration, trying to make out the sounds.
“I can’t hear anything…” Frank said, and if Sarah and Daphne’s countenances were anything to go by then they were in the same boat as him.
It was not surprising considering their difference in attributes.
“Let’s see what it is.” everyone concurred with this motion as they marched towards the source of the unidentified noise. The shacks were spread with no logical order, and their condition was outright degrading, as if a harmless breeze could easily take them apart. Stephen halted in front of where that weird bewailing was wafting from. Now that they were only a wall away from it, they could faintly recognize a sound that oddly resembled that of a crying baby; multiple crying babies, it seemed.
“Well… I hope it isn’t what I think it is…” Frank scowled, “That would be troublesome.” he cupped his chin with his stubby hand.
John carefully bumped the door, eliciting the wooden and moldered frame to creak in protest as a narrow and shadowed gap allowed them to dimly see what was skulking inside. There was a heap of overlapped leaves and branches alongside a slimy and brownish substance strewn over the floor, and it emitted an unpleasant smell.
“Ugh, this place stinks!” Daphne squeezed her nose, “Damn…” she waltzed back whilst waving her hand in front of her in a futile struggle to swat away the odor.
“Yeah, it smells like… s***…”
Stephen grimaced, slinking inside, followed right after by John and the rest of the crew who were vigilantly looking around, lest an unwanted surprise popped up and caught them off-guard. The wooden floor didn’t seem sturdy enough to carry their conjunct weight, but it was holding on for now.
They drew nearer to the source of their confusion, shirking left and right to avoid stepping on what they thought were goblin feces. The stink was becoming unbearable.
At last the whining cries reached their ears with unmistakable clarity, at that point, it was obvious what they were looking at, “Babies…” Sarah muttered, utterly appalled.
“Goblin babies.” Stephen corrected, his expression unreadable, “That might indeed become a problem…”
“What should we do?” John asked, staring down at the baby goblins flailing their short and stocky arms around, trying to grab something, before crying out when they realized there was nothing they could grapple themselves onto, “Leave them here?”
“No, duh. Unless you’re endorsing for mothering those little bastards and raise them as humans, I mean, as Predators…” Stephen retorted, his nose curled up in disgust, “… I propose to get rid of them…” his eyes flashed with a hesitant gleam but he steeled himself into doing what was needed to be done. He couldn’t afford to feel pity for monsters, babies or not, “Better be safe than sound.”
“You can’t be serious… they’re… not even children!” Sarah offered fruitlessly, her words didn’t budge his hesitation, and it seemed John was not leaning on her side either, “Natasha?” she spun her head back, staring at the red-haired woman, “What is your opinion about this?”
However, before Natasha could add her input Stephen abruptly cut in, “Why are you even protecting them? You know better than I do that had we not killed those goblins previously, now you would be nothing but the shell of a woman who had been stripped off of her dignity.” he snorted, “Those pesky little bastards may be innocent and harmless right now, but they’ll eventually grow up, and they’ll be no different from their parents.” he glanced at her from the corner of his eyes, “If you don’t want to partake, or see, what is about to unfold then nobody’s stopping you from waiting outside.”
Sarah bit her lips, and no help came from her fellow female Predators. She had no remorse killing normal goblins. But babies? that was a different matter altogether, and the fact that they looked anthropoid enough to pass off as some kind of deformed or disfigured human being didn’t alleviate her troubles at all.
“I’ll wait outside…” she relented plaintively with a wag of her head, before hustling out of the hut, her actions trailed by a concerned John.
“You shouldn’t have been so severe with her,” his words were laced with a tinge of anger, “She’s relatively new to all of this, she needs her t–“
“We don’t have TIME! John.” Stephen hissed, his eyes lighting up in a darker shade of red, “I’m not angry at her for latching onto the last straw of whatever nonsensical humanity she has left.” he bored his crimson orbs deep into the older man’s ones, “But this is not the apt place for showing mercy, because nobody in this f****** place will show it to us! Hammer it in your skull, dammit!” he cringed a bit at berating his older friend, but it was something that had to be done, “Sorry John, but if you care about her then you should stop babysitting her.”
John didn’t speak, but his actions were crystal clear to him. He muttered loud enough for everyone to hear, “You’re changing, Stephen…” before he stormed off.
Frank stayed silent, witnessing the whole ordeal going on, his face scrunched up in worry, “That…” he sighed, “I’ll check on them, and while I’m at it Imma make sure there are no surprises in this place.” he stole a glimpse at the infant creatures and then headed out, Daphne quickly scampering behind him, her features stiff as she sent an apologetic look at them.
“You’re still here.” Stephen didn’t need to turn around to know Natasha hadn’t moved an inch, “Won’t you go out too?”
“Hmm…” she tapped her chin thoughtfully, “Do you want me to?”
He turned around, “I won’t force you to do something you don’t want to, Natasha.” he said whilst looking at the woman, her hand restlessly slathering against the back of her other arm, her lips pursed, “But if you disagree with my decisions then you’re free to speak out and tell me when I’m about to do something stupid.” he cackled, “But this time I’m afraid whatever you want to say will have to wait, for that I apologize.”
Stephen hoisted his sword up, a flimsy thread of the now all familiar Encore Power enveloping his blade. Now that his Encore Slash had reached Lv.3 he could freely store more power into his slash to deliver a stronger output of damage upon his enemies. But it was all reliant on the amount of Encore Power he had available.
He sliced, his wrist deftly flicking forward, prompting the stocked up energy to lash out, kindling the room in a red glare. Blood furiously sprinkled out, painting the walls in crimson brushes as the goblin infants ceased to make any sound. Their whining died out, as did their lives.
“How are you feeling?” Natasha inquired, her tone almost a whisper.
He looked at her quizzically.
“Your hands are trembling.” she pointed out, tucking a chock of hair away from her eyes, “You’re forcing yourself to become something you aren’t.” her bitter chuckle resounded, “Yet I can somewhat understand why you’re doing it… but no matter, as long as you don’t forfeit your emotions for your ambitions.”
Stephen drooped his gaze, breathing out. It was harder than he thought, but he tempered himself through it. Killing goblins never weighed on his heart, they were just food and a steady source to power himself up with, but denying the miracle of life to newborns was a sinful act he strongly frowned upon. He knew they would become nothing less than their dead predecessors were, but was that supposed to make him feel better? Was he a hypocrite? He saw them as a trial to harden his emotions, was it wrong?
“Stephen! Natasha! Come quickly!” Frank’s uneasy voice echoed out, disrupting his train of thoughts, “We found humans!”
They widened their eyes in shock before Natasha ushered out, escorted by flabbergasted Stephen.