Chapter 34: Showdown

Natasha’s back sagged down along the craggy and dank wall with her legs curled up, her head finding temporary respite within the protective and isolating cocoon of her arms. She had literally entombed herself in a futile struggle to escape from her thoughts, but it was that contemplative veil of darkness she had huddled herself in that tugged them closer.

Her heart was hurting. It was a mild burning that ignited the entirety of her body with each beat, and she found herself wondering whether it was pumping blood or kerosene. Natasha slowly peeked out of the safety of her appendages, where the burning embers of a snuffed-out fire still rippled with a hazy column of smoke.

While she brooded inside, the others had kindly ventured out and hazarded through the forest for a bunch of rabbits. It was an improper behavior of her, she knew it. “Sorry…” she mouthed out, not for the first time that day.

John, who had strategically stationed himself near the exit, shook his head with an understanding smile, “It’s okay… you took it the hardest. Zoned out as you are, it would have been dangerous not only to yourself but to us too if you had tagged along.” he shrugged half-heartedly. There was a bout of silence that followed up, and he decided to close his eyes and resume his rest.

She huffed in ambivalence. John hadn’t shifted from his position for hours; it was so he could protect them better in case mishap knocked in, he said. Of course, behind that smudge of truth, Natasha knew the true reason laid more in her current volatile mood than a chivalrous commitment. She wanted to call b*******, but his sympathetic gaze had doused her burning indignation in a cold shower.

He had a better grasp on his emotions than everyone else could ever hope for. That’s why, despite Stephen’s unexpected – and rather spooky – circumstance, and subsequent walkout, nobody raised too much of a fuss. Except her. But she liked to think it was more out of fear that one of their core warriors could be gone forever than a wishful emotional investment.

She couldn’t be more wrong.

“You’re okay?” Apolline scooted closer, mimicking her curled up legs stance as she leaned against the wall.

Natasha spared her a glance, “I guess.”

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Her vexed tone killed off any further exchange that could have stemmed from it, and the goth Predator struggled to come up with another conversation starter that would have not pushed the wrong buttons.

“We… have come to a conclusion…”

“Uh-huh… I’m listening…”

“Uhh, we don’t think Stephen died.”

It had been a day already, what were the odds?

“Yeah, knowing him, that seems reasonable.” Natasha loosened out a fond chuckle, “I just need to sort myself out a bit…”

Apolline hummed in concurrence before her eyes picked up on something. It was hard not to catch her interlocutor’s fingers unconsciously brush and roam around her ring-finger. Having already adapted to the group’s dynamics, she had been introduced to a bit of information pertaining to their former lives.

“Hard to choose?”

“Excuse me?” Natasha was promptly yanked out of her reverie. She turned her head to Apolline and blinked in confusion.

“I mean… between…” the dark-haired girl stole a last peek at her ring, “… your husband and Stephen.”

“Oh, please… not you too…”

“I’m just curious, I think I can speak for everyone here that your subtle attempts at hiding your interest in him… isn’t really so subtle.”

“What makes you so sure I have any budding romantic interests towards him anyway? He’s 20 years younger than me, he’s in his golden years. I’m too old to be anything more than a crush or a fling.” okay, she seriously prayed that her eyes weren’t reddened, because something was tingling them.


“F***…” too late to hide them, “Sorry…” what was she even apologizing for?

The heel of her hands hurried themselves to wipe away the wetness at the edges of her eyes. Even so, a stray tear still managed to glide through. It was at that point that she surrendered and blew out in a peal of helpless chuckles as she wagged her head in a desperate need to deny something, her cheeks constantly flooded by the salty liquefaction of her grief. And like a dam bursting its walls, she cried her eyes out.

Because she couldn’t hold the weight of the stress anymore.

Apolline froze, she wasn’t prepared for this. Everyone took notice of the commotion, with Daphne and Sarah quickly springing up to their feet and sidling up to her side, a hand from each working in circular soothing motions on her back. Soon the crying petered out into tamed sniffs, but the red-haired woman refused to look at them, finding asylum behind her hands.

“Nat…” Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but the words died down in her throat. Apolline, instead, felt awkward and sidelined. Considering she wasn’t particularly accustomed to them, and adding her own introvert and shut-in personality, it was a strenuous task to willingly reach out to others.

“That was unsightly of me…” Natasha regained some of her bearings and spoke out, her tone a bit hoarse and destitute, and it was with a false smile what she looked up with, “I’m fine.” Sarah wanted to raise her voice and pound some goddamn affection into the woman to let her know she was not alone in her woes, but she was too distracted… because in that fleeting instance, the tear-smeared Predator’s eyes had reverted to their original green color. So vulnerable were them, alone and grasping at straws.

It might have been lost on the other girls, John and Frank included. Taking into account their positions, and the fact that she was the only one directly looking at Natasha, that was to be expected.

It was only an instant, yet that didn’t diminish the impact they had on her. She frowned, but ultimately sighed and decided to address the issue at a later date. Her eyes had already gone back to their vibrant amethyst hue anyway, and she had a sad woman to console.

The first of many thunderclaps rumbled out.

Stephen looked skyward. Behind him, a troop of roughly 30 lamias marched on with military-like discipline. It had been over two hours since they had set off, and their destination was finally within sight. Jadesin had a brave mask on, but he knew it was her first time embarking on a diplomatic journey. The trees thinned out as manmade wooden constructions greeted them; the first of such being a large wall.

“Are you sure they won’t shoot us down? We’re at a distance that would rend us helpless if they start firing arrows at us.” he pondered aloud, more worried about the weaker lamias instead of himself.

“That would have been a problem if they knew how to use them in the first place. Fortunately, they’re only half-brained brawns that rely only on their innate attributes instead of skills. They like to swing heavy stuff around like a child would do when throwing a tantrum.” Jadesin patiently explained, “Even so, they’re not to be underestimated.” she snapped her fingers, and as if on cue, the battalion of lamias behind them started widening up their area of coverage in a half-moon like formation.

That left them both at the forefront as the rest scattered and advanced slowly, making sure that they were always partially shielded by the trees. Stephen arched an eyebrow and commented casually, “Well… it seems like you’ve been practicing that snapping fingers thingy with them just to look cool at this moment.”

“I would never do such a thing.” she replied stoically, “Anyhow, we’re here…” they promptly halted.

A bunch of sentries garrisoned atop the walls started growling and making as much hubbub as possible. Their out of the blue – and uncalled for – arrival triggered surprise and no little amount of hostility from the greenish Schwarzenegger wannabes. And although they hadn’t attacked yet, it was just a question of time.

The boulder at their entrance slowly rolled away from the threshold, creating enough space for a cluster of Orcs to scoop out. It was interesting noticing how they came in many shapes and sizes, whilst their colors ranged from light green to slate gray. All of them had some sort of cumbersome and heavy-looking scrap of metal in their clutches, most likely acting as makeshift weapons.

“Lamias! Lamias! Lamias!”

“Bad lamias are here! Kill bad snakes!”

“They here! They surround us! Chief Tribe! Where is Chief Tribe?”

Stephen frowned at their jagged speech… and their retarded expressions. He started tapping the hilt of his sword when the throng of Orcs started backpedaling and shifting out of the way. A path arose in the middle of that green sea, and the reason soon made its gaudy entrance with heavy stomps.

[Chief Orc, Male, Age: 21 years old, Rank: 3, Encore Power: 129]

“Weeeeeell…” a hoarse and nasal voice rocked out, the Chief Orc’s body – unlike those of his weaker kin – resembled more that of an overweight whale, instead of a muscle-addicted hulk, “What can we do for you?” he waved his hand, and the ruckus behind him died down.

Only allowed on

Jadesin slithered forth and cleared her throat, “Greetings, Chief Orc. My name is Jadesin, and I’m the current matriarch of the lamia tribe.” snickers and derogatory chuckles flew out of the crowd of Orcs, but she easily ignored them and went on, “As you know, times are changing… and for low-ranked tribes such as ours, these upcoming currents will certainly test our willpower. I’ve come with my tribe, and an ally…” at that point she beckoned to Stephen with her eyes, “… to set forth an alliance, to survive this storm.”

A clap of thunder cracked overhead; it was the only sound that disrupted the silence beneath… until a full-blown guffaw broke out of the Chief Orc, “Ahahahaha! Wait… wait… hahaha… you’re telling me that you want an alliance? With me?” the hilarity cloaking his tone seemed genuine, nonetheless, that didn’t hamper Jadesin’s smile as she uttered out her answer with likewise mirth.

“I think you didn’t understand me, my dear Chief Orc… I don’t want an alliance with your ugly ass face. I merely want to integrate your tribe into mine. As for you–“

“As for you…” Stephen chimed in, stealing the spotlight, “… I have– oh gosh no, you look ugly as hell bud.” he made a throw-up gesture, “Sorry… I just can’t look straight into your eyes. You look like someone ripped a goblin’s face and glued it into a glob of lard.” it was the lamias’ turn to giggle and snicker in amusement. Jadesin opted to roll her eyes but otherwise let him take the reins of the situation. 

“ENOUGH!” the Chief Orc seethed as he plodded towards him, “You didn’t only come here to threaten my authority… but to make a mockery of me as well? Do not think even for a moment that just because we’re of the same rank you can–uhh?”

“Look down.”

Stephen’s deep voice pulled his attention downward. The monster’s eyes almost bulged out upon realizing the new whereabouts of his foe, “How…” he was not the only one indulging in such thoughts, Jadesin had been left rather spooked by the sudden disappearance of her partner as well.

“Hmm, you don’t look appetizing…”

The Chief Orc gnashed his fangs and issued out a defiant yell, his chunky and long arm rising up before coming crashing back down upon him. Stephen’s hand took on a red sheen as he coated it in Encore Power and leisurely parried the monster’s jab. A gust of wind sailed out once the two forces collided.

[You have gained the skill Encore Augmentation, Lv.1]

Stephen grinned and delivered an abrupt Encore-powered kick at the Orc’s knee joint, propelling him down on one leg with a shriek of pain, “… but I’m too hungry to care.”

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