Chapter 22: This Place’s Gonna Be Ours!

Stephen’s shadow burgeoned on the cave’s rocky stoop, molding with the customary dimness embellishing the walls and ground in a funereal fleece of darkness, kindled up only by a brief source of light, provided by the constant overlap of thunders cracking through the looming padding of dusty clouds.

His form soon trekked in, an amused grin adorning his features, “Hey, I’m back!” his stocked hand heaved the content outwards onto the craggy mat, prompting it to roll towards his comrades’ feet with a dull thump, “This is a Rank 1 Nether Eagle, I didn’t chance upon any other monsters that’d be of any help to your growth…” he announced plaintively before nudging his shoulder’s tenant, his tone chipper, “And this, my dear Predators…” Stephen paused for dramatic effect, “Is Lady Fluffy, She-Who-Shall-Nibble-The-World!” he sprung his arms about.

“What’s all this no-” a yawn broke out of Apolline’s lips, automatically cutting herself off, “-oise about?” she slurred out, a hand shooting up to massage sleepiness out of her eyes, “Oh… hey Stephen…” she greeted with a curl of her nose as she smacked her lips, feeling hungry.

“It’s just Stephen and his antics…” Natasha stoically answered, “And… yeeess?” she drawled with a cute tilt of her head, “Why did you bring a rabbit back with you? You wanna eat it or something?”

“How could you even infer I’d do such an obnoxious act upon my new little furry friend?” Stephen spat out in mock-contempt, his words flowing out with a raffinate flair, “She’s my pet…” he announced.

“Stephen… why?” John butted in with an unreadable expression, “Why bringing back a rabbit?”

“Why not?” Stephen waved him off, “We need some entertainment here, and hunting is not an option we can engage in all the time, I believe her presence could at least make this hellhole a bit… brighter?”

“Who will take care of her? Feed her? Periodically take her out?”

“She’s not a dog, John. She’s a freakin’ One-Horned Rabbit, a Rank 1 too actually, perfectly capable of doing what she’s been doing most of her life alone. And food is not a problem, she eats meat too, apparently. We can feed her leftovers…” the youngest male Predator wrinkled his nose.

Daphne blinked, “She eats meat?”

“I think so… I proffered her a small slab of Eagle’s meat and she had no problem eating it.” Stephen pursed his lips, “Anyway, onto the more important stuff.” he beckoned to the dead and blood-covered avian under his groupmates’ watchful gazes, “Aren’t you going to eat that?”

“Yes… we are.” Sarah delivered a slantwise glance at Stephen as she crouched down and with Natasha, Daphne and Apolline’s help, sliced the edible parts of the creature in small sizes and handed them out.

“Ugh… I swear… I’ve never had defecated something of similar proportions before…” Frank sauntered in with an exhausted yet satisfied glint in his eyes, “It was monster-sized, a complete solar system with satellites and stuff…” he guffawed before spotting Stephen, “Ohh hey Steph, what’s up? And… is that a rabbit on your shoulder?”

“Yup. Please, meet Lady Fluffy.”

“Lady… Fluffy?”

Stephen shrugged, “Lady because she’s female, fluffy because… uhh… she’s fluffy.” he eloquently explained, his face a synonym of blasé.

“That makes sense.” Frank nodded with a growing smile, “I approve.”

“I knew you would like it, oh, I brought some food… go serve yourself.”

“Will do. Thanks for the effort buddy.” the potbellied man uttered with dripping gratitude, getting a smile in response as he ushered his way where the others had convened to feast on the Eagle, the plumage of the animal utterly plucked out for easier access to its flesh and blood.

“Hmm…” John wiped the smear of blood off the corner of his lips, his eyes shuffling over Stephen who had dilatorily sagged himself on the ground, “Have you ranked up?” he had been engrossed in his own pool of despondency before, hence not quite making out the suddenly altered fluctuation his younger friend’s Encore Power was sporting. But now that he wholly focused on Stephen, it wasn’t particularly hard to notice the sudden spike in presence he was leaking out.

“Uh-huh.” Stephen grunted out a reply, “I lucked out and met some Rank 1 monsters.” he continued, his hand twiddling with Lady Fluffy’s tuft of fur under her muzzle, “You know… I’m kinda surprised that I didn’t stumble upon Rank 2 monsters… I’m not sure if they creep out during a specific time or if they don’t dwell in this immediate area…”

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“Well… that orc, and those shapeshifters…”

“They don’t toll in the overall equation. We had met the orc way far from here… and the shapeshifters basically own this land.”

“Any idea how we should proceed from here onward?”

Stephen shook his head ruefully, “I was actually hoping you could offer some input. However, considering we’re facing off a hegemony of shapeshifters with no relevant information on their community or warfare power whatsoever… furthermore, our strength is still feeble and we’re low in numbers, yes… there isn’t really a solution that can yank us out of this s***…”

“Isn’t there really anything we can do?” John’s gaze flickered over Sarah for an instant, “From what we gauged from Damien and Britney, shapeshifters don’t seem to rely on skills or sheer power to overwhelm their opponents, maybe that shapeshifting skill makes up for their deficits?”

“I believe so as well, otherwise I can’t possibly fathom how they got themselves this stretch of forest.” Stephen exhaled slowly, his eyelids slanting down in contemplation, “We need to climb up the ranks faster if we wish to survive, and not only against shapeshifters… but against anyone who’d eventually pop up and balk our path. This place feels like it’s at a never-ending war.” he sniffed, “We must be prepared.”

“That we must… I guess a training schedule is up on our to-do list?”

Stephen briefly nodded, “We gotta make sure everyone is hardened up for what’s to come, also…” he hummed, “I met a dwarf before… he relayed to me some interesting stuff…”

“A dwarf?” John parroted, his timbre pouring out no small amount of surprise, “Like those in the stories?”

“Not really,” Stephen shook his head with a hint of a smirk crinkling his lips upwards, “He was… coal-blackish in color, I don’t know if it’s because of his curse acting up physically or a variation from being a subspecies hailed from the main kind.” he said, “I wish to bring him to our side.”

“Can we trust him?”

“I’m still trying to understand that, still, he and his kin are being treated as slaves to work under stronger creatures to constantly oven out weapons, I’m certain that a change for them would be more than welcomed.”

John hoisted his hands up and propped them against his mouth in deep thought, “So he’s a slave?” he queried with a frown.

“That would be correct, his present master is a shapeshifter, a Rank 4 one… heh,” Stephen barked out a chuckle, “What an ironic slap of fate.”

“That’s tricky… one thing that bugs me is not knowing when will they eventually come for us. I’m not fond of this silence, it feels stifling and foreboding, like the prelude of a storm.”

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“Yeah…”

“Guys… what are you talking about?” Frank’s voice conveyed everyone’s curiosity as they sidled closer, forming a semi-circle around the two Predators, “Is it something we ought to know?”

Natasha perched down, her legs folded to pad her weight for more comfort as she brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, “Did something happen?” her beautiful face crumpled up in concern.

“Well… something indeed happened, but it’s not as bad as you may think it is…” Stephen flashed her a smile, “You see… early today I…” and then he initiated his telltale regarding his encounter with the mystical dwarf and the knowledge he got ahold of from the creature, whilst catering his thoughts and description anent the ordeal he’s been through, trying not to leave anything out of his report.

John offered some of his views too, but it was nothing everyone else hadn’t already speculated about. The brainstorming session eventually came to a halt when Apolline heaved a deep sigh and clambered back to her feet, “So… what should we do now? Thinking about how to deal with this deadly s*** is not going to come to fruition soon anyway…” she forked her hips, her white chock of hair draping over her left eye.

“Isn’t it obvious, mon amie?” Stephen stood back up, dusting his bottom, “I’m not going to let them stomp over me, they’re strong, more powerful and numerous.” his voice boomed with angry undertones, “Yes, we’re outflanked in every f****** single way… godfucking yes, we’re in the shittiest pit given our strength.” he growled, a resolute yet slightly devious smile tugging at his lips, “But let it be known that I’m not going down without a fight, this place will either be our paradise or our own grave.”

Stephen waved his hand to stop Frank from interrupting him, “We have many loopholes, but each of them is easily patchable. Goddammit, we can rank up and absorb skills by eating! We should abuse the hell out of this s***! I know, this week has been a rollercoaster for all of us, but we can deal with our emotional entanglement later, we’ve almost died multiple times during our short stay here, and I’m sure luck is not part of our abilities either… ranking up doesn’t seem an easy thing for other creatures, but we can dance around this roadblock with food!” his voice thundered out, “C’mon guys! Is it possible that I’m the only one looking at the bigger picture here!?”

“What d-do you want us to do?” Sarah meekly queried, feeling a bit intimidated by Stephen’s sudden outburst, “Hunting?”

“Yes, hunting and training… it’s time all of you stop to indolently rank up by what I and John bring back, it’s not going to help you in the long run, you won’t grow stronger by leeching out our efforts, not that you need to.” he paused for a moment, his throat begging for a sweet respite, “Our fight against the goblins was proof that neither of you guys is a coward, but then again, that might be a side effect of being a Predator, which is good, isn’t it? If you don’t fear blood then you can fight, if you can fight you can become stronger, if you become stronger, you can survive…” his crimson eyes lit up, “We are Predators, time to forsake the past and strive forward, this place’s gonna be ours!”

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