Chapter 6. Familiar faces
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“They’re all dead. Gone, forever. Cycle after cycle, I searched for anyone without those glaring red eyes that hunted me every night. I found no one and as the days passed even our blazing star dimmed until all light left my home. Darkness comes for everyone and it seems my turn finally arrived.”

~ Unknown diary, Realm of Despair, 9th Outbreak

The door creaked open and Leo thanked whatever deities were listening that the Gibsons loved to spend hours outside their house and leave the doors open. He didn’t want to create any unnecessary noise.

Almost tiptoeing, Leo entered the familiar hallway that connected the front and back of the house. Shadows surrounded him from every direction and almost instantly a stench of blood and death filled his nostrils.

Leo grimaced. Not good.

The grip on his dagger tightened. When Leo found his father’s husk he didn’t smell a thing. Maybe he wasn’t paying much attention to his sense of smell back then, but Leo could never forget the overpowering scent of blood, not after that night.

Deep breath in and Leo stalked forward, his glowing hand acting as a glorified lamp. He really needed to find some better source of light than his own limb…

Almost hugging the wall, Leo peeked into the living room, his eyes scanning the dimly lit area. With no monsters in sight, he entered the room, passing the old furniture as he neared the entrance to the kitchen.

Just like before, nothing awaited Leo inside apart from some fruits laying on the cupboard.

Grabbing an apple in between his claws, Leo frowned at the white mold consuming over half of the fruit's crumpled surface. This didn’t seem right. Whenever the female Gibson wasn't bothering her neighbors with small talk, she worked hard to make everything around her house clean, or she strong-armed her husband into doing it for her.

As such it seemed impossible for the fruit to achieve such a state and still remain in the Gibson house... No, there had to be something wrong with this entire situation. Just like with the sudden growth spurt of some of the smaller plants and grass outside.

How long was I trapped inside my soul?

Leo had no way to find an answer to that question. He didn’t even know it was the correct one. Maybe this entire Void Outbreak brought about those sudden changes. After all, Leo’s food was in the same state he left it, though it could be argued that he only bought stuff that survived at least a week.

It’s not important now, Leo shook his head, retreating towards the hallway, the apple left forgotten. He had to be on alert.

For the next few minutes, Leo walked around the house’s ground floor, his heart rate speeding up with every door opened. He stayed almost crouching, ready to bolt out of the house at any moment’s notice.

With the last room cleared, only the stairway remained, looming over Leo as the scent of blood assaulted his nostrils once again, now stronger than ever. He gulped and set his feet on the first step.

The wood gave out a weak groan and Leo stilled, breath catching in his throat. For a moment the world stopped as he just stood there, waiting for a signal to move. A signal that arrived in the form of a bloodcurdling screech that echoed through the house.

As if someone slapped him in the face, Leo moved, his feet carrying him back into the living room.

Heart thundering, Leo leaned against the wall just next to the entrance and forced his Essence to obey for at least a minute longer. The defensive barrier, as uncomfortable as it was, still provided him with the advantage he needed.

Another screech came, this one louder accompanied by the slow steps and groaning of wood that neared Leo’s location. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the glowing arm behind his back and raised the dagger to his face.

Don’t fail me now.

Another step and Leo thrust the dagger into the arch leading into the living room. He met some resistance as the dagger impacted what Leo supposed was the Voidling’s skin. Scowling, he pulled the blade out and spun around, his claws already flying at the growling monster.

Black blood spilled all over Leo’s face as three long gashes appeared on Voidling’s throat. It didn’t stop the monster though. Crimson glare met Leo’s gaze as the monster’s sharp nails flew towards his face.

“Fuck,” Leo raised his deformed arm and blocked the incoming strike. Blood dripped on the ground, but just like the monster, Leo answered, his dagger sailing at its chest where the heart should be.

He stabbed once and yanked the blade back. Another stab gave Leo chills as the monster snarled and attacked again.

He jerked away, avoiding another swipe of the Voidling’s nails. The dark creature followed, arms flinging as Leo’s instincts finally caught up to what was happening and began to lead his dagger in this brawl.

With every attack, Leo backed off a step and cut at the incoming limbs, drawing more and more blood. He tried to find a reason why the creature didn’t die when its heart got stabbed two times, but he just couldn’t. It worked for the last Voidling, didn’t it?

Leo even attempted to activate Reinforcement to simply overpower the monster, but once again, his Essence refused to act as it should. Only Identify worked, and apart from letting Leo know that this Cursed Human was already level two, he didn’t gain any new information.

Then, out of nowhere, Leo caught a glint of silvery glow at the left side of the Voidling’s abdomen. It was almost hidden by the crimson shine coming from the monster’s cracked skin.

As clueless as Leo was, he somehow recognized the glow’s importance, and this time when another attack came, he ducked and cut the monster across the glowing area. The Voidling howled and stumbled as if this time the wound finally affected its state.

Not questioning what the hell even happened, Leo kicked the creature and tackled it to the ground, his dagger stabbing into something the monster hopefully couldn’t shake off.

Its head.

The rusty blade impacted the side of its skull and Leo screamed as he poured every bit of his strength to pierce through the bone. For a few seconds, the bone held, adding another few bloody scratches to Leo’s side.

Leo grunted and pushed again, cracking the skull open as the dagger slipped into the mushy organ inside. Underneath him the Voidling stilled, its arms falling to the ground as the crimson glow left its eyes.

Leo rolled off the monster and just laid next to the corpse, his chest heaving up and down. He did it, he survived, a moment to rest wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Though it seems this System is against any breaks, Leo groaned and pushed himself up to lean against the overthrown armchair.

Cursed Human (LVL: 2) slain | Experience awarded | 1 Ether gained

You are now level two. +2 DEX, +1 PER, +1 MIND. Please assign your 2 free attributes.

And you just couldn’t wait with that at least a minute longer? Receiving no answer, Leo cursed and closed his eyes momentarily, taking a moment to think about his options.

He didn’t need any more dexterity and perception. He had enough of that from his class. Strength seemed a good choice if he wanted to get into more brawls. Which he didn’t. And soul was still a big unknown.

As such Leo was left with mind and constitution. One gave him better control of Essence. Something Leo really needed. While the other might provide him with a tougher body.

Yeah, let’s go with that. One to each, He nodded, accepting the choice.

Leo’s gaze blurred as his body spasmed.

In less than a second, the negative status disappeared and was replaced by something incredible. Somehow, his senses sharpened ever so slightly. The grasp on his Essence improved as now Leo only had to fight for control for a few seconds.

Hell, even some of the aches faded, replaced by newfound strength.

Standing up, Leo momentarily forgot what happened here a minute ago as he felt even his steps become more graceful, wasting slightly less power for the movement.

And then reality came crashing around him as Leo’s eyes landed on the corpse and the blood staining the wooden floor. He flinched, realizing that a small boost of power almost made him forget why he was even here.

Letting out a long sigh, Leo crouched next to the Voidling and let his tainted arm cast light on the monster’s face.

Head lacking any hair, the round-shaped face, so popular among the Gibson family. And the remains of wrinkles became even more visible with the cracks forming along them.

Leo almost turned away, refusing to look at another person he knew well, dead by his hands. Even worse was the thought that entered his mind as he gazed at the corpse and his tainted arm.

He is dead. Long gone and I need to survive. I need to know how this works. He tried to reason, and not even the familiarity of the man before him could stop Leo. Not when the words of the doppelganger echoed in his mind.

“If you ever hesitate, you will be left behind, consumed by the never-ending Void.”

The clone warned him and Leo would be stupid not to listen with everything that already happened.

“I’m sorry, but I have to survive,” Leo gritted out, his head hung low, “May you find peace, Charles Gibson.”

Claws spread, they sunk into the Voidling’s abdomen. The glowing veins on Leo’s tainted arm shone brighter as Essence moved. Like with his father’s husk, the body of Charles collapsed into a pile of dust in a matter of a minute.

Pure Void Essence absorbed. Satiated status extended to 9 hours.

Not as much as before, Leo thought, watching the glow of his arm dim a bit. No matter how hard the guilt of desecrating his neighbor’s corpse weighed on his shoulders, deep inside Leo was glad that he proceeded with his actions. Now he knew that he could drain dead Voidlings. This information just might save his life one day.

Standing up, Leo took a last look at the living room and walked back into the hallway. He would come back there, to loot the place of anything important, but for now, he had to find out what happened upstairs. No matter how much his stomach twisted at the thought, he wanted to know what to expect from those monsters.

When he did reach the upper floor and peeked through the open door to a room from which the scent of blood came, Leo instantly regretted his decision.

Bile rising in his throat, he did everything to stop himself from hurling on the spot as he turned away from the sight. Not even the loss of his mother could prepare him for the scene awaiting inside the room.

The image again flashed in his mind and Leo bent forward, puking what was left in his organism. A few coughs removed what tried to stop in his mouth and Leo almost wanted to throw up again as the new disgusting scent mixed with the blood and death.

He forced a calming breath and then took another, steadier than those before. Fuck.

Leo straightened up and grimaced as he wiped the grime off his mouth. Another shirt wasted. Though it didn’t help that the Voidling, with just a few slashes, almost shredded it into pieces.

Alright, let’s try again. Leo clenched his fist and entered the cursed bedroom.

It was a small square room, with quite a homely feeling thanks to the warm color of the walls and simple furniture. Of course, any comfort disappeared when Leo’s gaze landed on the queen-sized bed drenched in blood.

With the added rays of the sun, the entire bed seemed to be just painted red. And if one ignored the body lying on top of the mattress, it could be the truth. For Leo, it was never an option.

Once again Leo had to stop himself from hurling as his gaze landed on the mutilated corpse of Mrs. Gibson.

Most of the top of her head seemed fine apart from all of the blood. Her jaw was another story. Ripped out and barely attached to the maw with a few strings of muscles. Going lower, Leo ignored the bloody neck and rested his eyes on the chest area.

It looked as if a dog decided to dig a hole in the center of the human body and then rip apart anything it found inside. Organs were splattered around the bed, some half-eaten while others just laid there, deemed unnecessary even by the Voidling.

Enough, Leo averted his gaze, teeth grinding against each other. He grabbed the discarded blanket from the floor and threw it over the bed, covering most of the horrifying sight.

Just as quickly, Leo left the room, shutting the door. Maybe when his mind cleared a bit, he would try to search the bedroom. For now, Leo just didn’t have the mental strength to do it.

And so Leo returned downstairs, ready to start his task of looting the house of anything useful. He slipped the additional backpack from his school days off his shoulders and started with the living room.

He didn’t find anything useful in the Gibson household apart from some additional food and gardening tools that could be used as a weapon. Not that Leo knew how useful they were against enemies like Voidlings.

Identify only graded them as broken, describing that their durability left much to be desired with the steady flow of Void Essence in the air. Apparently, almost no pre-Outbreak item could withstand this corrosive energy for too long.

With that in mind, Leo only dragged a metal shovel, hoping that its sharp edge could at least make a difference when it mattered.

After that, the looting continued becoming almost mechanical and Leo’s thoughts began to drift towards the body lying in the bedroom. The memory alone made him dizzy and so he quickly forced his thoughts to go into another direction. Like the fight against the Voidling.

It didn’t go well, at all.

Leo wanted to end the monster fast, just like an assassin should. Stagger it with a stab to the chest and then cut its throat open. Only it didn’t work and he had to engage the monster in a head-on battle.

A battle that would have lasted forever if the System didn’t guide him through the basics of using a dagger. And the less said about the silver glow the better. After some wondering, Leo identified it as an effect of his skill. Though he still had no clue how it even activated.

Vital Strike (Common):
Ever since ancient times, people tried to find the weakest points on their opponent’s bodies to take advantage of them. Now their skill is in your hands, use it well.
Allows you to locate and utilize the weak spots on your foe’s body a bit easier. The efficiency of this skill is dependent on your Perception.

Did it use Essence? Did Leo need to activate it with some phrase? Was it just a passive that appeared every now and then? Nothing like that. The system and Leo’s instincts refused to give him any guidance.

Truly marvelous, Leo frowned as he locked the backdoor behind him. With his task done, he put his mind back on track. He could think about his weird ability after he got to his adoptive parent’s house.

The crimson sun provided just enough light to see as it disappeared behind the horizon and Leo wanted to use the empty house of his parents to rest. The thought of sleeping inside a house Edward died in, just didn’t seem wise. Not after such a day.

Shoulders stiff from the weight of the backpack, Leo moved along the walls of Gibson’s house towards the road. Stealth once again covered him in an invisible blanket as his eyes scanned the entire neighborhood, searching for any signs of movement.

The beating of his heart echoed in his mind as he forced himself not to jump when a particularly strong gust of wind rustled some plants in the distance. The reappearance of normal weather did nothing to calm Leo’s nerves.

At last, Leo reached the end of the house, took a deep breath, and dashed forward. His hand reached into a pocket of his sweatpants, pulling out a single key as the door neared.

With a speed he didn’t possess just a few hours ago, Leo unlocked the doors and jumped inside. He shut the door just as quickly and leaned against it, gasping for breath.

“Safe for now,” Almost as if someone was listening, a message appeared in front of Leo’s vision, freezing the blood in his veins.

Night is coming. Find a secure shelter or prepare to fight for your life. Nightmares are waking.

Bonus experience and Ether awarded during the night. Good luck.