Chapter 23: Predatory Fever

Stephen’s hand lugged forward with a deft flick of his wrist, his fingers encased around the hilt of his sword as he thronged power from the ground into himself with a fluid shift of his leg. The energy surged up his retracting arm before streaming down his blade once he swung it down, prompting an arc of crimson Encore Power to whizz against the cave’s bouldered inner wall.

A flare-up of red lights scampered out, unveiling a clear sidelong cleft on the smitten spot. Exhaling, he barreled his arm out anew, propelling another bolt of energy to blast upon the incision his previous slash had left behind.

Feeling his momentum sweep up, Stephen fired off yet another torrent of crimson energy under his groupmates’ surprised stares, and before he knew it, his arm was whirling out Encore Slashes that barraged all over against the wall, bursting out in a shower of flashing particles that lightened up the dim lit cave.

[Encore Slash has reached Lv.4]


[Basic Sword Arts has reached Lv.8]


Stephen allowed himself a satisfied smile through the sheen of sweat cloaking his face, “Damn… that was awesome,” his chest heaved back and forth claiming whatever mouthful of air his lungs could allow, optimizing the sweet amenity of his temporary respite, “And exhausting too, I reckon.”

Frank whistled, “That was indeed awesome, Stephen… if that wall right now was a crowd of people I wouldn’t dare to think of the manslaughter you would have wrecked!” he clammed his mouth shut when the entourage of women shot him a glare, “Oh c’mon… don’t look at me like that, I was just commenting.” he huffed with a pout.

“You shouldn’t talk about murdering people so lightly.” Natasha scruffed a hand through her hair, “I know I’m not entitled to say anything about it after what happened with the goblins and the shapeshifters, but… I’d rather we not lose that sliver of humanity we still have left in us.” she demurred, seemingly in conflict with herself, “Ahh… that sounded so cheesy, nevermind I said anything…”

Stephen raised an eyebrow in mild amusement, “Aww… don’t be crestfallen, humanity is the last thing we need in this place, and although I’m aware of the sinister undertones behind Frank’s dark humor just now, he’s not wrong…” he scrambled back to his feet whilst using his knees as a support to prop his upper body up, “That was cute though…”

“Shaddap…” Natasha wrinkled her nose indignantly, “And what’s up with this demonstration?” she crossed her arms, her eyes stealing a quick glimpse of the avalanche of debris and dust flooding down the craggy surface Stephen had just concluded on ravaging, “You needed an excuse to show off?” she slanted her head, letting her mane of red tresses to cascade over the right side of her face.

“Of course,” Stephen cackled with a knowing smirk, “Just wanted to let you know I can kill all of you in a matter of slashes.” he cheerfully announced, bursting out in a violent fit of chuckles when the pregnant silence of his stunned groupmates ensued, “I’m kidding.” he waved his hand off.

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“Uhh…” Apolline blinked, not sure whether to be scared shitless of the casual way he voiced out the leisure he could get rid of them with, or just laugh it up as another quirk of her new friend, “So… what was your true purpose then, redecoration?” she chose the latter.

“Not at all my dear goth friend, I merely wanted to get some training in whilst giving you an incentive to train hard. Trust me, mon amie, it feels amazing having so much Encore Power breezing through your veins, ready to be beckoned upon whenever you want… and this is me at Rank 2!” his eyes sparkled like a child on the morning of Christmas, “It means there’s so much we’ll be able to accomplish if we put our souls and minds into our own development!”

John took a deep breath, “While I’d vouch for both Stephen and Frank to stop their dark jokes, I think we should all prepare ourselves, and–” a thunder cracked out in the clouds, the flash of light draping over them via the cave’s entrance gap, “– and hunting right now is not recommendable, might as well hone our skills a bit inside.”

“Wouldn’t it be dangerous? What if the cave winds up crumbling?” Sarah queried with a foreboding frown.

“I do believe it is a bit of a stretch saying it would crumble, yes, we will definitely cause quite the mayhem but the walls are thick enough to sustain heavy damage,” Natasha chimed in with a sigh, “And the only one here who has a chance to spark to life your concern is Stephen.”

“And John too!”

“Yes… and John too.” the red-headed Predator corrected herself with an appeasing smile when she descried the heavy look redirected to her from Sarah, “What?” her eyes slightly narrowed.

“Hey! What about me?” Frank butted in, his chest puffed out, “I’m quite strong too ya know!”

Both Natasha and Sarah’s heads snapped towards him with a ‘Bitch, please’ kind of look.

“Let’s calm down ladies…” Apolline raised her hands in order to placate them, “This is not the time to bicker and umh… Stephen, John? What would you suggest we work on first?”

John hummed, “We need to bring your skills with your weapons up, so we’ll focus on that first.”

“Moreover I’ll have to teach you how to get the Encore Manipulation skill, it’ll do wonders for your overall strength.” Stephen continued with a nod, “But for now yes, we really do need to increase our weapons skills, especially those whose level is still quite low.” his lips curled upward, “We’ll train every time there’s a storm outside, and hunt when there’s none.”

“How long do we have to train for?” Daphne asked.

“I’d say until we can venture ourselves deeper into the forest even when it’s raining.”

“…”


Stephen settled down in his own corner, the cacophony of noises from the blustery rainstorm provided the perfect background melody for him. John had offered himself to train the rest of the group’s Weapon Arts up before leaving the reins to him. Now he found himself with quite some time to experiment on his own.

“I wonder if…”

Hoisting his sword up to eye-level, he focused on a skill he had seldom used in his hazards. A fireball sprung up from nothingness, wholly defying Newton’s theory of gravitation, its flickering edges barely licking Stephen’s face. Ignoring the proximate heat rippling across his cheeks, he tried to establish a connection between the blade and the flame.

[Fireball has reached Lv.3]


[You have gained the skill Fire Manipulation, Lv.1]


The globe of flame airborne inflated almost twice its previous size, its temperature heating up, forcing Stephen to slid away from the encroaching smoldering limbs of his skill.

“Hmm…”

His eyes narrowed as he attempted the process once again. The fireball bustled about for an instant, a reddish haze shepherding out of the blazing orb into the blood-stained rain guard of his weapon up to its tip. However, just as the new luster capped his blade, it scattered into a tide of glowing sparks that drifted onto the ground.

[Fire Manipulation has reached Lv.2]


“What the hell…” Stephen stared at his sword, “… why didn’t it work?” he wrinkled his nose before trying again, flushes of heat wrapping around his weapon, just to end up in his second failure when it dissolved into a paltry firework of glitters upon him.

Not giving up, he went back up to his endeavor, his concentration waning each time he was unsuccessful, sweat trickling down his forehead, streamlining up his nose before dropping down onto his clothes.

“Why!?” he hissed to himself, feeling a growing smudge of annoyance inside of him, “Is there something missing here?” he tightened his grip on the hilt, yet it was only a disuse of his already depleted energy, “Goddammit!” he growled, hurling the recipient of his vexation against the wall with a clinking noise, unconcerned of the possible damage done to it in his violent fit of rage.

The only consolation was the pulsing screens in front of him.

[Fire Manipulation has reached Lv.3]


[Fireball has reached Lv.4]


But it was short-lived, and it certainly was fruitless in abating his acrimony. Stephen laid back against the wall, his arms bolstered up by his knees with his head buried within. It shouldn’t have bothered him that much, but it did. He was used to failing in his goals anyway, this was supposed to be just another roadblock he could have gotten around with a bit more of effort.

However, considering the looming threat, stretching out the timespan of his foreseen growth was a variable he was afraid of tolling up in his calculations. The fact that it could have taken more than he had anticipated to match a Rank 4 shapeshifter in strength seemed to be staving off of his eyesight. Granted, it was only a skill that might or might not have been possible to whip out, but he was fairly sure it was doable.

Stephen grunted out his fatigue with a deep exhale, an irksome throbbing making its presence known throughout his veins as he clenched his teeth in annoyance. Clambering back to his feet, he fecklessly dusted himself before hustling closer to his sword.

Lady Fluffy hopped next to him, her whiskers wiggling left and right as she sniffed around. Stephen stopped for a moment to stare down, “Sorry little one, I’m not in the mood.” with that he bent over and picked his weapon back up, his determination boiling up. He had to complete what he had set his mind up for, weariness notwithstanding.


“And that’s all for today, I guess…” John’s voice boomed out, engendering relieved groans from the carcasses sprawled on the ground, each of them fighting against themselves to win over the exhaustion and get back up, an attainment that didn’t look achievable at the moment.

Apolline curled her nose, perspiration rolling down her face in a steady torrent, “I can already foresee the soreness I will feel tomorrow… oh boy…” she croaked out, her throat struggling to emit the sound she had ordained.

“You look like a stomped chunk of fresh s***…” Frank chimed in with his usual subtlety, “And you smell too…”

“…” Apolline looked ready to strangle the potbellied Predator, but the soothing layoff she was partaking in was doing wonders to her resting muscles, something she didn’t wish to forgo in the sweet name of revenge.

“Frank, who are you to say who smells and who doesn’t, I can see the clutches of your stench spreading out through the room…” Daphne chastised with a growing frown.

“Males can smell, it makes us more attractive to the opposite sex, but a female who stinks is… yuck!”

“WHAT!?” all of the offended parties chorused, a veil of darkness shrouding their faces. John retreated quickly, almost tumbling down on a stray pebble.

“What what? It’s the truth!” Frank defended himself, “John, tell them! Bestow enlightenment upon those lost women! They need to see the light of Jesus!” he yelled ardently, saliva springing out of his mouth.

“…” all the stares snapped their focus onto a startled John whose face was faltering between keeping up his usual unruffled confidence and deal with the situation as peacefully as possible, or wave the white flag, turn around and withdraw from the forthcoming battleground.

“John?” Sarah’s voice flashed into his ears like a thunderstrike, “Please, tell me you don’t believe in what he just said…”

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“Of course not! I like the way you sme– I mean, I don’t mind it…”

Frank cupped his hands around his mouth to augment the sound output, and shouted, “HA! PERVERT!” before blowing out in loud chuckles.

Natasha who had finally managed to stand back up snickered, her eyes leafing over a brooding Stephen for a moment, her legs fueling up as they unconsciously paddled over the target of her stare, “Hey, you okay?” her hand smoothed out the crinkles on her jeans before she slid down next to him, “Heeeey?” she received no answer, not even when her hand fluttered in front of his face to snap him out of his daze.

“Stephen?”

“Sorry, Nat. I’m not feeling well… just let me rest…”

“Not well? What do you have?”

“…”

Natasha slathered herself against the wall, her fingers veering down to twiddle with a loose rock, “Umh… sorry if I sound insistent, but I’m concerned, can’t you just tell me what’s going on, or if I can do anything to help?”

“Nothing that you can help me with, just a strong headache… that’s all…”

“But–“

“I’m fine!” Stephen snarled out with a wolfish growl, his tone seemingly diffusing the ongoing discussion a few meters from them as everyone stopped in their endeavor and shuffled their attention over him, “I’m f****** fine!” Lady Fluffy at his side hopped backward, her woolly frame shivering.

Natasha scurried back, her eyes wide, “What’s wrong with you?” she was quickly backed up by the rest of her groupmates, each of them donning worried visages. The younger predator now uncovered head revealed a pale face glazed in streams of sweat, his breathing hastening whereas the sclera of his eyes had altered into a blackish substance, his brighter crimson irises enthroned at the center of his darker orbs, upon which slit pupils glared back at them.

[You have been affected by a Predatory Fever. No empathy, no forbearance for your foes. Everything shall succumb afore your hunger.]


[All of your attributes have been augmented by 25% until your feverish state comes undone.]


[You have 1 minute left before the next wave of hunger storms you within.]


[00:59]


[00:58]


[00:57]


Stephen clenched the sides of his head from a sudden spike of pain shooting through his temples, “What the f*** is this!?” he squeezed his eyes shut, a ravenous need to gobble down anything within hand’s reach pulsed from his heart down to his stomach, and the grumble that ensued was the perfect announcement befitting his circumstance.

John frowned as he watched his younger friend’s unforeseen changes, an expression that was shared by everyone else.

“Hey, dude… what’s with you?” Frank probed, utterly ignoring the freezing cold that had settled down upon his ever so slowly trembling body, “I think he’s not okay guys…”

“No s***…” Apolline had the urge to facepalm but held back due to the serious atmosphere, “Stephen… what happened to you?”

“Hungry…” was his answer, whisper-like and forced through gritted teeth.

“Do we have any leftovers?” she spun around and queried John, “Is there any Eagle’s meat left?”

“I’m afraid not, it was not particularly huge in size…”

“Isn’t there really anything?”

“We were planning to go hunting once the weather calmed down…” John demurred, “It is not safe to delve outside right now, even if we group up; the odds of getting back alive with actual food are very slim.”

Stephen’s veins bulged out around his eyes, “Damn!!” his hands looked like to be under the Parkinson’s disease full potency. His motor flexibility and movement had been completely gone haywire despite the temporary increase in his attributes.

[00:25]


[00:24]


“F*** this!!” he shoved himself up, almost stumbling down from the haste, “I need to eat something now!” he started staggering his way towards the entrance.

“No, wait! It’s dangerous!” Natasha’s voice wormed into his ears muffledly, the concerned expression etched on her face just a blurry blotch of bromidic colors that blended in with the likewise canvas around her, “Stephen!” she attempted to reach for him, but a firm grip on her wrist yanked her back in place, “John!? What the f*** are you doing?”

“Let him go…”

“What… why?”

“I believe it’d cause a nasty altercation should we try to bind him here,” the older Predator heaved a deep breath, “Something is messing with him, and he’s in no state to reason right now… if a fight breaks out who do you think will come out the most uninjured?”

“But… but… we just can’t let him leave, what if he meets…” Natasha shuddered, “… what if he meets that thing…” her voice was laced with a haunting memory.

John closed his eyes, his head drooping, “I don’t know Natasha, but it would not be wise to coerce him into staying here…. hey! No, stop!” he redirected his gaze over Frank who had taken a scanty couple of steps forward, “Frank… no, none of you…” his attention swooped back to the red-haired woman in his grasp, “Please, stop…” she had started to struggle, but the gap in strength was conspicuous. It was futile.

“John!” a modest in size fireball spawned above her free hand, “Let. Me. Go. NOW!” her amethyst eyes deepened as Encore Power started leaking out of her, but the meager amount didn’t budge him. Her determination was admirable nonetheless, he mused.

“Why can’t you understand…” he mumbled, yet the dogged shimmer in her eyes was a clear disclosure of her budding feelings for the younger man, and for a moment, he put himself in her place. He knew he wouldn’t have done it any different from her was the object of his care going through Stephen’s unexpected crisis.

He felt guilty, but it was necessary, “Frank, come here and help me calm her down.” he ordered with a tone of finality, allowing no room for argument.

“Frank, no… Stephen wait!” her shout sidetracked everyone’s scrutiny upon said man, but he was already at the threshold that linked to the craggy terrain outside.

[00:06]


[00:05]


The timer ticked down, each number shortening the chasm that’d eventually shepherd Stephen into the abyss of his gluttony. A feeling that shared its throne with a sprinkle of unbridled rage, a spark that became a scorching inferno. Everything was so clear yet so confusing, and the only smidge of logic still left in him had thankfully derailed him from plunging himself at his friends in the hopes of consuming his anger, and instead opted to temporarily venture out.

His light of reason knew it was a bad idea, but it was flickering light that was quickly snuffed out.

[00:02]


[00:01]


[00:00]
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