The rain announced its arrival followed by the bellow of thunders, that like snakes, slithered and clashed against each other through the clouds, unrelenting. Stephen who had just stepped back in the cave, leisurely propped his harvest on the ground as he curiously scanned the whole group who were sporting restless frowns. Frank was leaning on the damp wall of the cave, his foot drumming against the soil.
“Frank?” Stephen called out once he caught sight of the potbellied middle-aged man, “What happened?” he hinted with his eyes towards the rest of the group who was uncharacteristically silent, even Natasha’s cheerful greetings were missing today, “Wait! Where’s Natasha?” he furiously eyed left and right to make sure he didn’t disregard her presence, but no matter how much he scoured the cave for her, she was not there.
“She…” Frank’s frown deepened, “… she’s not here, Stephen… we have no idea where she went… when,” he nibbled his upper lip in shame, “… when we woke up she was not here…”
“How’s that possible? Where the f*** could have she gone to?” Stephen felt concern clutch his stomach in its merciless grip, “She didn’t go hunting, did she?”
“No… but she’s been trying hard to…” the older man averted his gaze with a sigh, ” … to prove herself to the group… so I don’t know…”
“That foolish woman…”
Frank smiled bitterly, not bothering to correct him. Everyone was afraid of being left behind, especially them who aside from periodically complaining and eating the food they’d been provided with, they were pretty much worthless, so he could kinda understand where Natasha was coming from. John and Stephen could practically survive on their own, it was the cruel truth, that after all they were not needed.
“I’ll go look for her.”
He spun around before a hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks, “Wait, Stephen, it’s dangerous right now… it’s raining, should you come across a creature,” he gazed deep into the younger man’s eyes as he warned, “It certainly won’t be a rabbit.”
Stephen stared back at him from the corner of his eyes, “You’re telling me to abandon her?”
“No.” John shook his head, “But something bad might happen… no, my gut feeling is actually telling it WILL happen,” he pulled his hand back reluctantly, “I just want to make you aware that you may not be coming back tonight.” his words were laced with a hidden meaning as he secretly stole a glance at Sarah before regrouping with others, his expression unreadable.
The group looked at him worriedly, but none of them tried to persuade him into staying, someone had to go looking for Natasha, and they had to put that burden upon him, something that didn’t make them feel well, but it was way too dangerous for them to delve in the forest, and the weather would have only made things harder. They could only hope he’d successfully bring their missing member back.
He stayed silent for a moment. Steeling his resolve, he bustled out of the cave under the group’s complex gazes. He knew that John’s suggestion was the wisest one, worthy of a levelheaded man who rarely showed his emotions. But Stephen wasn’t capable of that, during these days he had interacted a lot with Natasha, and he came to quite like the older woman’s bubbly personality and her heart-warming smile, a far cry from what he was used to back at home.
She was a hard-working woman who always bothered to take care of the group as the matriarch. So why shouldn’t he ensure her safety? Stephen’s eyes flashed a deep red before he welcomed the whistling wind and the rumbling thunders.
He’d make sure she’ll be okay.
Steadfastly threading through the brushes, Stephen tried his best to ignore the beastly roars that proliferated from the distance, occasionally accompanied by deep booming sounds. He looked around the perimeter of the Safe Zone. Natasha didn’t seem like the kind of woman who’d ignore their warnings not to go further from it, after all, she had no reason to go there anyway, but just to be safe he decided to check it out.
Just as he reached the place, however, he noticed that faint sounds of footsteps running in the distance reached his ears through the cacophony of noises that were intermittently ringing out in the forest. Frowning, he silently skulked it, wanting to make sure it had nothing to do with Natasha’s disappearance.
From behind a fairly big tree, he spied on what he recognized as short-sized men, similar to those the group had once stumbled upon. There weren’t many of them, he counted 3, and all of them were somehow in possession of some kind of protective gears, though said equipment was mostly battered and worn out, but apparently, it gave them a false sense of security, it was better wearing it than not, or so was what he mused.
Slinking behind another tree to get a broader field of vision, he finally noticed what the short-sized men were making all that fuss about. The red hair was a dead giveaway, and he instantly knew that the lithe and unconscious form that was slouched on the ground near a puddle of vomit was Natasha.
He didn’t understand why she was there, or even unconscious for that matter, but looking at another form, smaller and way uglier that laid on its own pool of gore made him roughly realize what had transpired there.
“She has awakened,” he muttered under his breath, his eyes narrowed as he looked at the creatures’ reaction.[Analysis Complete!]
[Goblin, Age: 50 days, Rank: 0, Encore Power: 0]
[Goblin, Age: 39 days, Rank: 0, Encore Power: 0]
[Goblin, Age: 43 days, Rank: 0, Encore Power: 5]
Stephen gawked as he studied the screens. Goblins? He certainly knew what goblins were, one of the games he used to play had a huge quantity of them, and they came in many shapes and sizes, usually depicted as the weakest of the monsters, but was that really true?
Also, one of them even had 5 values of Encore Power, and although he still hadn’t a clue as for what it was, he knew it wasn’t something to scoff at. And contrary to the ‘One-Horned Rabbit’ none rank, the goblins had a numerical value of 0, which was basically the same, so why were they different?
Reorganizing his thoughts, he waved off the trail of thoughts he was losing himself in as he concentrated on the creatures. However, he had to change his plans for Natasha’s eyes slowly flickered open, and to his surprise, instead of crimson pools both he and John donned when they were in the so-called ‘Hungry State’, hers were of a mesmerizing amethyst color, almost like crystals that glowed in the darkness of the sky.
“Ugh… hmm… what is this smell?” she groggily looked up before scurrying backward when her eyes fell on her guests, “No… no… you… no…” her fingers jabbed into the soil as she tried to placate her trembling body, “Help!” she futilely called out, which prompted the goblins to release a chuckle-like rattle, “Someone! Please, I need help!”
Stephen steadied his grip on the sword, ready to slaughter the goblin nearest to him in a moment’s notice, but what happened next made him question reality.
“That’s what I’d say if I actually needed any help,” Natasha giggled, clambering back to her feet as she dusted her back, her eyes scanning her surroundings, “Hey Steph, why don’t you come out? A banquet is going on, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to eat all these…” she licked her lips in anticipation, her fingers fluttering up to point at the goblins snarling at her, “…delicacies alone.”
Dumbfounded, he stepped out of his hiding, crimson orbs locked into amethyst gems under a thundering sky.
“Yes.” she nodded approvingly while eyeing him up and down, “You definitely look sexier with red eyes.” she smiled.
“…” Stephen blinked, not really understanding why she had such a sudden twist of personality, but stopped paying it any more attention for the goblins started growling vigilantly as they peered at him.
“Kill them for me, okay?” Natasha winked sultrily at him before skipping over the goblin she had previously killed, “Hmm, this smells good,” she crouched down – tucking her hair behind her ear – while holding the dead goblin’s head up before proceeding to sink her growing canines into its unprotected neck.
Stephen followed her with his gaze, shaking his head with an amused smile on his face, “Well, did you hear her?” he lifted his sword up as he took a step forward, “I have to kill all of you pieces of s***.” chuckling, he sprinted with a ridiculous speed towards the goblin closest to him, and before it even had a chance to use its shabby shield to fend off the incoming attack, the blade of his sword flared by, followed by a flying head that flopped onto the ground with a thump.
Blood spilled out like a fountain from the stump of the now dead goblin, framing a chunk of the soil in red brush strokes, right before the corpse wobbled and fell into it.
“Delicious.” Stephen licked the blood off his fingers, his crimson eyes glowing in delight, “Who’s next?”
The goblins couldn’t possibly understand his language, but the unbridled mocking tone his voice dripped with didn’t make them pleased.
“Grrragh!” one of the goblins who had a huge broadsword in its hand roared out before pouncing towards him.
Stephen identified that goblin as the one who had measly points of Encore Power available, and he was fairly curious to know how it would use them, granted that it knew how to use them, of course.
Sidestepping, he evaded the slash with ease. Sensing an encroaching shadow, he ducked under another attack that came from a mace-wielding bulky goblin behind him.
Frowning, he used his growing momentum to waltz a step back, right when the goblin was about to go for another attack at him – its hand still airborne – he nimbly spun his blade around and chopped, severing its arm along with a section of its shoulder, blood sprinkled everywhere as its body tumbled to the ground with a pained shriek. No doubt about to die from blood loss.[Footwork has reached Lv.2]
“Minus one.” he cackled gleefully.
“Stop wasting time, Steph, and kill it… it’s dangerous staying here.” Natasha’s voice rang as she draped one leg over the other, her back leaning against a trunk, leisurely nibbling on a slab of goblin meat, “Hmm, the rib is truly the best part.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Stephen truly had no idea what happened to the older woman, her eyes were glowing in mischievousness. Was it because she had just awakened? Was it some kind of side effect?
Rolling his eyes he decided to quickly kill it. She was right, it was not wise staying there any longer than they needed, but he had been caught up in the thrill of the fight.
Moving his hand way faster then it could perceive, the last goblin’s arm slid down from its bleeding stub, its heavy broadsword falling onto the ground with a muffled thump. It fell on its knees trying to defiantly endure the pain as it malignantly stared at Stephen.
“You’ve tried.” he mouthed out, slashing his sword down at its neck, ending its already slowly fading life.
Looking down at the bloody mess, he cut off a chunk of meat from its torso before stuffing it inside his mouth.[You have gained 1 point in Strength.]
[You have gained 2 points in Encore Power.]
[Basic Sword Arts has reached Lv.6]
[You have gained 1% in Evolution.]
He breathed out, feeling a sliver of foreign energy washing the insides of his body as it coursed through his veins before vanishing in the depths of his heart. It was truly a wondrous sensation, he felt refreshed and relaxed, the tiredness he had been dealing with instantly dissolved. The only disappointment was that he didn’t have a hunch at what its purpose was or how to even draw it out, he hoped the goblin would have used it, but maybe it was for the better, if it was dangerous then there was a fair chance that he would have been the one with his head on the soil.
“S-Stephen? I… I… what happened?” Natasha’s feeble and scared voice resounded.
Turning his head around, he stared at the red-haired woman whose eyes had changed back to the usual vibrant green he was used to look at, “Natasha?” he approached her with fast steps, “Why did you suddenly start behaving… weirdly?” he queried curiously.
“I… I don’t know?” she truly had no idea what happened, just that she wasn’t in control of what she had done, and she felt terrified because of it, “I… did I really eat this?” she wrinkled her nose, gaping at the dead goblin near her, the taste in her mouth was solid proof, let alone that she remembered having actually eaten it, yet she desperately latched onto that hope that they were just coincidences with a reasonable explanation behind.
“Yup, you did.” Stephen nodded, “And you liked it too. Ribs are your favorite, I’ll remember that.”
“…” Natasha was shocked, her mouth hung open in disbelief, “Stephen… you…” she heaved a deep and exhausted breath before she suddenly jumped back in fright, “Stephen! Stephen! There are weird things in front of me!” she waved her hands in the air, as if trying to swat away mosquitos.
“Weird things?” he looked puzzled for a moment, “You mean black screens?” he then realized what she meant.
“Yes! What are those?”
“It’s a long story, let’s go back first.” he beckoned her to follow him, not willing to stay there anymore. His heart had started beating faster for a while, and his pupils had dilated. He didn’t like it, he felt oddly fidgety.
“Stephen! Natasha!” a familiar voice abruptly called them out, prompting both of them to turn around and stare at a panting John who looked panic-stricken, his face blanched as sweat glided down his forehead in torrents. The man in question crouched down, claiming whatever mouthfuls of air he could whilst gritting his teeth to endure the strain he had embedded upon his muscles.
“We…” he took a deep breath, “We have to get the hell out of here, and fast too!” he quickly ran past them, not forgetting to grab their hands to drag them along, forcing them to run so as not to tumble down.
“John calm down! What happened? And what are you doing here?” Stephan looked nonplussed as he questioned the older man, but he was also pleasantly surprised to find out that John at least went looking for them, it seemed he was not as emotionless as he wanted to let on.
“No time to explain, Stephen, just run! run!”
“Jo–” Natasha’s voice was cut off from a sudden ghastly roar that echoed through thunderclaps, a huge shadow stalked closer to them, uprooting trees in its wake; the crackling of wood being snapped reverberated before it stopped in front of them, propelling them to fall down on their backs.
Natasha brought her hands to her mouth as she stared in sheer horror at the monster in front of them. It was a two-story tall spider-like creature, however, its body – if it could even be defined as such – was a gargantuan and ghoulish mouth from which bustling fangs jutted out like spines on a hedgehog, its stubby and uneven black limbs resembled that of a badly mowed human’s.
Stephen’s eyes widened, his body petrified in place, his limbs motionless and unresponding.
[Night Stalker, Age: 7 years, Rank: 5, Encore Power: 180]