Chapter 19: Moving On

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Thunders cracked through the clouds, their lights briefly paving the way for the running group underneath. Stephen’s chest heaved back and forth as he took a quick peek behind him, making sure nothing or no one was trailing after them, but the dense foliage was proving to be quite the hindrance. The last bunch of trees came into view and soon enough they were back to the cave where both he and John propped the corpses onto the ground.

Only allowed on
“W-what do we do now?” Frank queried, feeling restless, “If what she said is true…”
Sarah curled herself against the damp wall, “She might’ve been bluffing.” 
“Or she might have been not,” Daphne chimed in, “We still don‘t know if those shapeshifters she talked about know anything relevant about us. Furthermore, they shouldn’t have any idea that we’re dwelling here.”
Natasha scruffed a hand through her wet hair, frustration oozing out of her, “But she told us this stretch of terrain belongs to them, how long would it take for them to find us?” she chewed her bottom lip, a frown marring her features.
“First and foremost, the stretch of the forest their group, clan – or whatever they are – own, might not include our cave.” Stephen interjected, lost in thought as he sat down, “And we‘re unaware of their overall strength, but Britney and Damien were rank 2 creatures.” he pointed out, “She talked about a Queen, so either she got to that position through sheer power alone, or via political influence. Either way, whoever she is, she should be perfectly capable of mobilizing their militia, which is not good news for us.” 
John readily agreed, “Yes, and let’s not forget she mentioned something called ‘Territorial Challenge’ and of someone; of equal rank or higher I presume, able to issue to get ahold of the challenged‘s territory.” the older Predator tapped his chin thoughtfully, “Which is even worse because it means there are other races, let’s say, deft enough to control a piece of land. I wonder if this cave is within someone’s area…”
“It probably is… it’s way too calm around here…” Natasha supplied, “But then again, why would goblins loiter around here if that was the case.”
“Maybe they were sent here from that Queen or someone else to scout the area.” Daphne offered, “Honestly, I can’t seem to understand anything, it feels like there’s a game going on and we’ve been caught up in it.”
“What now?” Apolline asked the one-million-dollar question, “Goblins are easily disposable, but I’m afraid against a shapeshifter my skills are lacking.”
Stephen abruptly scurried back to his feet, “Nothing that we haven’t already done before.” he became the focus of the group’s attention as he trotted next to Damien’s corpse, “We will eat until we become powerful enough to fend them off.” he wrinkled his nose before drawing out his sword, and with a quick slash, a chunk of flesh was sliced off, whereupon he picked it up, and under everyone’s astonished gaze, swiftly gobbled it down. 
[You have gained 1 point in Strength.]

[You have gained 2 points in Vitality.]

[You have gained 4 points in Encore Power.]

[You have gained 2% in Evolution.]

Taking a moment to go through the effects of his power up, he stared back at the group, “What? You’re expecting me to spoonfeed you? Dig in.” he swirled around and headed for his next meal, where he readied his sword and swung it down at Britney, ripping a slab of flesh off before proceeding to swallow it.
[You have gained 1 point in Strength.]

[You have gained 2 points in Endurance.]

[You have gained 1 point in Dexterity.]

[You have gained 5 points in Encore Power.]

[You have gained 2% in Evolution.]

Encore Power surged through his veins, prompting him to hiss in comfort as the foreign energy washed him anew in its strengthening bath. Stephen’s budding anxiety toned down a little, having more power at his disposal made him feel safer, but he knew that what he had just acquired was far from enough. He needed to climb higher. 
“Well?” he raised an eyebrow when he caught Apolline staring at him, “What’s the matter, won‘t you eat?”
“Sorry… I’m still not used to… this…” she beckoned to her surroundings, “And eating… humans, well… creatures that resemble humans, no matter how tasty they might look, is still something I’m having trouble dealing with…” she averted her gaze, rubbing her left arm in nervousness.
“I was disgusted too, actually…”
“You didn’t look like it though…”
“It means I was successful in fooling you then…” Stephen smiled, “Yes, it tasted pretty good, but I’m also aware of the psychological barrier that springs up when you put that chunk of flesh in your mouth…” he cackled ill-humoredly, “Not the best feeling, I must say, but it vanishes as soon as you stop thinking about it.” his crimson eyes sparkled with eagerness, “At that moment I was craving what I would have gained from eating it, pushing me further into doing it without a second thought. It may be different to you, but you can’t be stuck as you are right now, we need everything we can get.”
Apolline heaved a deep sigh, her lips thinning into a line as she surveyed the rest of the group who was reluctantly following the younger Predator‘s heed. She recognized the need to have more power; unfortunately her life had turned this way, but even so, she couldn’t give up what had made her human before. 
“We‘re not on Earth, apparently… “ Stephen muttered aloud, his face crumpling up in a frown for an instant, “And we’re not humans anymore.” he waltzed back to his corner of the cave, his arms hoisted behind his head, “… get used to it, Apolline…”
Twiddling with a chock of hair absentmindedly, the female Predator joined the others in their endeavors. The good news was that considering the noticeable gap in strength between them and their meals, their evolution percentage out filled the cap limit of their ranks, thus ranking them all up, even Apolline who had barely accumulated a measly amount of percentage had now made it to Rank 1, thus pushing the group‘s overall capabilities higher. 
The day slowly passed by as they rested, each with different thoughts flashing through their heads; however, their need to survive against the upcoming storm was the top priority, so whatever was tormenting them was backed off by the current most urgent emergency. Still, the desperation of not lodging in their home-world any longer was not kind on their unsettled feelings.

Stephen’s eyes flickered open, and whilst his body was stocked with energy, he was utterly mentally exhausted. The last few days had taken its toll on him, and although the upgrades relieved him somewhat of the burden, his mind was still trailing behind his progress. But he couldn‘t afford to laze around, so with a tired grunt, he clambered to his feet, dusting his clothes off of the dirt they had hoarded the night prior.
The sky rumbled with an angry thunder, and from what he could see when he stepped out into whistling wind outside, the rain had just ceased from encasing the lands. 
“What are you up to?” Natasha’s subdued voice came from behind, “You should rest a bit more…” she offered, seemingly not prone to her flirty and mischievous ways as she was before, something Stephen didn’t feel like mulling over for more than was needed to.
“I probably should, but I’m not going to,” he replied, shifting himself sideways so that he could look at both Natasha and the surrounding forest, “You should wake the others up as well, we need to do something about our situation.”
“Like what?”
“I don‘t know… relocate elsewhere, or training, something I will start doing from today henceforth.”
The red-haired woman faintly nodded as she leaned against the wall, her eyes glued on the ground, “That is indeed something we all should do…” 
“What’s up with you?”
“What do you mean?”
Stephen studied her closer, noticing that his interlocutor’s eyes were somewhat puffy, ”You cried…”
“I… I’ve not…” Natasha snapped her head to the side, “I’m going back inside…” but a firm touch on her shoulder stopped her on the spot.
“Look… I don’t wanna pry into your stuff, despite what I’m doing right now seems like it, but… you’re my teammate, and my friend, foremost. We’re in another world, probably thousands of lights years away from home, so we‘re gonna be stuck with each other for a long time, I presume.” he started with an understanding look, “Caging back your problems won’t do you any good, I speak from personal experience… if you wanna cry then don’t be afraid of doing it, no one’s gonna think you‘re weak because of it.” he pulled back, “And if you need a shoulder to cry on, or even someone to talk trivia with, you should go to Sarah, she seems quite good at this stuff.”
Natasha stared at him in disbelief, “Shouldn‘t have you ended that with a, ‘if you need someone to talk to, I’m always available’ or something along those lines?”
“Nope. That’s too cliché for me, sorry.”
Scrunching her face up, the corner of her lips tugged upwards before she burst out in peals of melodious giggles, “C’mere.” she widened her arms before engulfing the younger Predator in a bone-crushing hug, which he gladly returned as he playfully scooped her up off the ground for a moment, eliciting a squeal of surprise from the woman who flashed him a smile.
“Thank you.” she said after a while, “I needed that.”
Stephen waved her off, “Don’t worry, wouldn’t want to ruin that pretty face of yours with tears, wouldn’t we?”
“So cheesy, where did you pick that up from?” she slapped him in the arm, staring at him from the corner of her eyes, “Some watered down site for dummies?” she quipped, receiving a snort of contempt in response.
“Woman of little faith, don’t you know this used to work a lot?”
“The key word here is: used. Kudos for the try though.”
“Whatever…” he threw his hands up in the air, defeated, “Your difficulty setting is like… veteran.”
“Duh! Do you need me to teach you how to court a girl?”
“I don‘t want a girl, I want a woman…”
Natasha stifled back a bark of laughter, “Okay, okay… so you aim quite high,” she tapped her chin in thought, “You need more years and experience in your life for that.”
“I don’t like playing by the rules…” he retorted.
“You‘re not a solo player, and this is not a game, so don’t think that a good-looking face and a bit of strength will get you what you want.”
“What if I have a lot of strength?”
Natasha‘s eyes light up in amusement, “You‘re so insistent…”
“What’s the point of giving up halfway?”
“What makes you think you’re even halfway there?”
“Starter point? That bad? Oh well, one has to start somewhere…”
“Oh, stop it.” she rolled her eyes.
Stephen locked his eyes into hers, his hand sneakily nestling upon hers, his thumb rubbing her ring finger where the silverly proof of her married status was bundled on, “Maybe… if we accommodate each other, it won‘t be so hard.”
“You do know that I’m taken, don’t you Stephen?”
He nodded, not balking off his grip on her.
“Then why?”
“I learned in my relatively short life that if you intend to relinquish after only a few setbacks then might as well have not tried at all, and… I’d like to say I’m quite the fighter myself.” he softly whispered, his gaze never leaving hers as he closed the distance between them, his other hand slowly sailing up to cup her chin upward.
Natasha didn‘t brush away his touch, her amethyst orbs unblinking, “You‘re so sure of yourself.”
“I’m quite scared, to be honest.”
“You don’t look like it though…”
“I’ve been told the same thing just yesterday.” Stephen tilted his head forward, his lips inching closer to hers. 
Natasha’s heartbeat accelerated as her cheeks heated up, “Stephen?” she gnawed her bottom lip nervously, feeling drawn to him just as much as he was to her. However, just as she wetted her lips in preparation, her hand betrayed her own volition and shot up, covering the younger man’s mouth right before they sealed the deed.
The image of a smiling man went through her head when she snapped out of her daze, “I-I’m sorry…” she stepped back, overwhelmed by guilt, “I’m really sorry…” and then she stormed back inside.
Stephen ran a hand through his hair, clicking his tongue in disappointment. Picking his sword back up, he threaded off to the forest to blow some steam off and get some training in. 
- my thoughts:
Okaaay, I'm not sure if I pulled off well the dialogue between Stephen and Natasha, but hey... I did my best...
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