“The hunt’s on, kid. Better be prepared. Our prey is leaving the roost.”
Eric looked up from what he was doing, giving the sleek and deadly Morlekai a pleased nod. “I was hoping tonight was the night. Just one second, I’m almost done.”
Morlekai's hardening gaze gave way to curiosity as he adjusted the steel-reinforced tricorn hat upon his head. Elegant, stylish, with a frock coat that was effectively a jack of plates with all the reinforced steel underneath the velvet. Eric couldn't help grinning as he finished smearing blood upon his heater shield before gritting his teeth and binding the blood to it forevermore. With just the tiniest expenditure of his potency, the essence of heat resonating at room temperature was now covering the surface of his shield, along with a patina of his blood. As it was every other piece of his armor, including rawhide reinforced bluejeans and the shirt of mail he had first joined them with, his torso upgraded with the best of the gear their enemies had brought the other day, no one at the house feeling the need to splurge on upgrades when what might be the best armor they would get their hands on for who knew how long, was only a few days away.
And even if it had taken a small chunk of his stored potency, the added protection, skill improvement, and hands-on practice was more than worth the investment.
Congratulations! Blood Mastery is now Rank 5!
“Just taking your advice and assuring that every single item of clothing I wear is covered in blood happy to radiate a temperature of almost exactly 77 degrees. Including the tricorn hat I’m wearing. Which makes using my insanely bright and hot blade just a little bit more, well, sane. Not to mention it means my clothes stay warm and snug in winter and cool in the summer, not that any of that matters with the temperature being that of a warm spring day down here, all day, every day."
This earned him a bemused smirk. "And yet, I can't help but note that your non-enhanced saber is the one at your waist."
Eric nodded. “Damn right. It was insane blooming my serrated blade with 2000 degree blood in the first place, but I’m determined to see how far I can push it. See if I can learn to control it. So I can actually use it comfortably. But as for taking out baddies in the dark where my infravision truly shines, where silent killing is my friend, I’ll take the blade at my hip, and the blood-linked bardiches I can pull free in the blink of an eye every time.”
Morlekai’s gaze grew thoughtful. Then he smiled, and Eric was reminded once more that his friend really did have impressive canines. And the wink the man gave him made it clear that he knew exactly what Eric was thinking as well. “I wonder if you’ve considered just how useful your armor might be. Something to discuss at length… another time. Are you ready?”
And despite the calm tone, Eric didn’t need to be a mind reader to know that the answer damn well better be yes. “Yes… but I need to clear out my storage space. For obvious reasons.”
Morlekai’s brows raised. He couldn’t help but flash a curious smile. “Yes, that would be for the best. Then the hunter’s place it is.”
Eric smiled with relief and they were off, heading through the town and to Jeffrey’s house, also noteworthy relative to the ramshackle state of most homes and businesses, though everyone was serious about keeping things tidy, and no one was stupid enough to steal from their one shelter in the darkness. Then Eric amended the thought to no one currently among the living was stupid enough.
And maybe Eric shouldn’t be surprised that the hunter had found prosperity of a sort. For what skills were more in demand than those of a hunter with a Profession-linked big game storage space for a fledgling town? Which was good, because Eric had known just where to go to unload his excess meat, that which hadn't already been processed thanks to Eric's continuing daily gifts to the town. Because Jeffrey had let slip an unthinking comment about reaching level 10 in his Profession when last they had been practicing archery together. Carelessly mentioned words that had sent Eric’s mind racing with the possibilities implied. Such that today, when he knocked on Sam’s door, he caught his friend rubbing bleary eyes and glaring just a bit at a beaming Eric.
“Kid, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this thing called sleep...” Then he caught the look in Eric’s eyes, and an intently gazing Morlekai standing just behind him.
Eric just beamed. “So, how much meat can your storage space hold?”
The hunter gazed at him for long moments. Long enough for a young woman with silky dark hair and a lithe, colt-like figure wrapped in a kimono to slip to his side, gazing curiously at his late-night visitors.
Then he smiled. “Let’s find out.”
Wordlessly, the four headed to the same area by a presently dormant smithy they had used for the first lizard Eric had brought for a slaughter. And the way Jeffrey laughed and the girl by his side started cursing under her breath in Korean, made it clear that he had managed to impress even his hunter friend.
“Damn, you do enjoy going after big game, don’t you, kid?”
Eric shrugged his shoulders. “What can I say? When opportunity comes charging for your friends, you take advantage.”
“Damn right,” Sam said, pausing only to squeeze his wide-eyed girl’s hand before closing his eyes and seeming almost to shiver in and of existence, an eerie transformation Eric hadn't even noticed before, as first one, then a second, then a third massive dead lizard was transformed to steaming piles of meat, organs, bones, and, most important to Eric, priceless hide cleaned and trimmed and ready for the touch of a master armor smith. Interestingly enough, there were three more luminescent beast cores as well. Eric still had no idea what they were for, or how to use them, but he had no doubt that they were worth a pretty penny.
"Shit, that's a lot of meat you're harvesting, lover,” said the soft, husky voice of the woman gazing fondly at a somewhat nauseous-looking hunter. “Are you okay, honey?”
He jerked a nod, before flashing a pained smile Eric’s way. “I’m happy to help dress your kills, but I can only take on a couple thousand pounds of meat.” He chuckled softly. “I thought maybe I was a fool, investing my one available node perk in storage but… yeah. This will help feed a lot of hungry people.
“Um… we certainly wouldn’t mind helping out, if that was alright with you, noble hunters?” Just one voice among many that suddenly filled the air, Eric turning to wince and force a smile for the crowd gazing so intently at them.
Morlekai’s sardonic gaze said it all. Because of course a handful of people had followed them, and a crowd that now seemed like half the town had gathered in very short order, the positively beaming mayor himself leading the charge. "Morlekai, Eric! So good to see you both! And please feel free to leave as much meat as you desire..." He paled, only then taking in the true scope of Eric's kills. "Or, perhaps a single half-lizard's worth? With the help of our Profession-gifted craftsmen, and the green mages as well, we've finally created vats sufficient to take advantage of all the meat Eric's been leaving us to process every day like the kindhearted lad he is. But I'm afraid your newest member has shown us up once again, Morlekai, ha ha."
Eric found himself positively inundated by what now seemed to be hundreds of intent stares. He winced under the combined weight of their hope, and their desperation.
"Sure," Eric said as he reclaimed everything but the majority of the meat from the smallest of the three lizards. "I've seen how efficiently the green mages and craftsmen have been processing my game whenever I stop by with a fresh delivery. I'm guessing they could process a heck of a lot more, if they're willing to push themselves for the sake of the town."
He gave the crowd his warmest smile. "And I'm more than happy for everyone else to take what they like, so long as they wait their turn, and share with everyone else." He turned to Sibbs. "I guess I'll leave organizing that to you, mayor?" This earned a brilliant smile from the man and warm nods from the handful of town guards present, quickly forming a line for the milling crowd.
“Thank you, hunter. If it weren’t for people like you and Sam...” Grateful words from a young, teary-eyed woman with careworn features and clothes that had clearly seen better days. But her eyes shone with hope, as did those of the little girl on her hip, gazing happily at the meat she now held in pudgy little hands, quickly gathering up what she could when the mayor gave her an encouraging nod.
Eric winced and smiled, catching his partner’s look, realizing that maybe he had been a little bit dramatic, pulling his hunter friend aside and just cryptically saying 'it's time.' If there was one phrase that would have absolutely everyone following when they headed beyond the town proper...
For a second, he had thought one or two townsfolk were eyeing what were for him the true prizes, scaled hide that, when properly treated, could deflect almost any blow, even spears enhanced by class skills, or perhaps the beast cores Eric had reclaimed almost instantly.
But all that most of the spectators cared about was the meat, even the town mayor singing Eric effuse praise, everyone seeming to pay absolutely no attention to his scars, and as awkward as he had felt, it was kind of nice to be seen as a hero as much as the cold-blooded killer that too many of his nightmares made him out to be.
At least Morlekai’s glare had softened to a bemused smirk when it became clear that the pair of them could now slip free of the crowd and to the gates with hardly anyone looking their way, save perhaps to clasp Eric’s hand and give profuse thanks for doing his best to singlehandedly supply the town with food for the last few weeks, letting him know that more than a few people appreciated his efforts, which meant far more to Eric than his awkward smile could convey.
Then the air rang with an offer from the Tavern keeper himself offering for his cooks to grill chunks for free, and drinks at a reduced price, which Eric was sure would earn the man lots of goodwill, and no doubt a tidy profit, when all was said and done.
Morlekai smirked and shook his head as they finally broke free and made a beeline for the gate. “If you’re done feeding the pigeons...”
Eric winced and chuckled. “Yeah, uh… ready when you are.”
They exchanged polite nods with the gate guards whose solemn looks, being forced to stay behind, turned to grateful smiles when Eric shared prime cuts from what now seemed an infinite supply of readily prepared cutlets in his storage space. “Thank you, hunters. We could use more townsfolk like you.”
Final words shared with a wave and a smile.
Then the reinforced gate that was rapidly being built up to secure the entire cavern from the outside passage, now equipped with murder holes and archer slits aplenty, was tightly sealed behind them as the noise, light, and bustle of their sanctuary was rapidly replaced by the near absolute darkness and a profound silence occasionally broken up by distant shrieks and howls unfathomable distances away through the tunnels.
The air smelled of limestone and damp earthy things but was surprisingly cool and fresh as well, a steady breeze making it clear that the tunnels were nothing like those of a far more mundane earth.
Mysterious, alien, and deadly. Yet the look Eric and Morlekai traded was the farthest thing from fear.
“Our prey left an hour ago. Their trail is faint, but I have no doubt as to their destination. Shall we?”
Holding back a gleeful surge of anticipation, an undeniable hunger for the hunt, Eric tightened straps and boots before giving a quick nod, and they were off at a full-out sprint. Eric found himself exhilarating in his almost boundless endurance as his infravision displayed the world in exquisite detail in countless shades of blue and purple, with the hot glow of living creatures immediately revealing predators and prey.
Another time, and Eric would have reveled in sniping what prey he could, paltry as it was along this particularly well-maintained tunnel leading to the city proper, where Alice and her former crew had worked to rescue countless hundreds of human refugees along a trail Morlekai and his band had worked to keep clear of both predators and the prey they hunted, and it showed.
For this particular passage was so tame, so docile, with so little of the fungi, mushrooms and moss that Eric now understood to be key sources of sustenance for the monstrous ecosystem that was evolving in this underworld, that even a quintet of anxious-looking spearmen were able to proceed unmolested, as the tallest among them held an oil lantern, flinching almost comically at whatever twisting of light and shadows the dim, flickering medium provided.
“We should have waited for that bitch to form another Caravan,” one of the spearmen grumbled. “We could have hired on as guards. Then our cover would have been perfect! And if we could have actually captured her...”
“You’re dreaming, Mel,” snapped the man in the center. “We knew this wouldn’t be easy when they took out Tim. And the fucker was bragging that he had Alice and the fuckin’ new-blood dead to rights! If that was the case, why the fuck didn’t he shoot?”
The tall, lanky lantern man shook his head, scratching his scraggly excuse for a beard. “Piss-ass blowhard was found desiccated the next day. Poor fool was mummified, and you could see from his face that it hadn’t been any gentle goodnight, either. And no one had to say anything to know it was a warning. The nervous twitching in the mayor’s eyes… he knew who was responsible, but he ain’t so stupid as to bite the golden hand serving as the watchdog of that town.”
“But not for long,” said the one named Mel, the whole band now chuckling coldly.
“True! So damned true. It would have been nice if Jules had actually been able to pull off that coup, though. Thought he was the chosen one after being declared Custos by our bosses and being given a proper fuckin’ class!”
“Didn't matter," said the smallest of the band, gazing about in the dark with wide, frightened eyes. "That damned scar-faced kid. He just smiled at them, acted like a clueless simp about to open the door, and next thing you know, he's firing crossbows like fuckin' six-shooters, and first Hank falls, then Johnny-boy, and shit… he's running like Usaine Bolt, and I hear Carlos screamin' on the other side of the house, but I sure as shit am not moving out of position…
“Because your a coward, Usef!” snapped the central man, covered in pockmarks and sores, scratching at an open pustule on his bristly neck.
“Fuck you, Rich! You weren't there!" Usef glared at the larger man. "That kid was a fuckin' machine, pulling crossbows out of god knows where. Maybe he had them lying around at just the right spots like that kid who was home alone all the time, just fantasizing about picking people off? Fuck. I got a look at his eyes just once. I swear he was looking right at me! Thought he was going to fire his crossbow halfway across the cavern. But no." Usef shivered, body trembling so visibly in the infrared spectrum that Eric couldn't help but grin as he stalked his prey.
“But that’s not the worst part.”
“I know,” snapped Rich. “You told us this fucking bullshit story of yours half a dozen times! No one, not even a guy who saw Rice’s films way too fucking much, is actually a vampire.”
“But Rich, you didn’t see what he did! He turned Jules into… I don’t even know how to say it!”
“A flock of bloody crimson crows?” Snorted Mel, and everyone but Usef chuckled.
“It's a murder of crows. They're called a murder. And his fucking sister! Shit, that bitch looked like she was high as fuck, when she came outside."
“Good,” said Rich with an ugly chuckle. “Things will be a lot easier if she likes to party. Maybe we won’t have to kill her once our masters take over. We could use a good piece of meat.”
“Not when she was getting high off everyone’s blood!” Usef screamed, before being instantly silenced with a backhand blow that sent the man crashing to the ground.
“Just fuck off with your goddam vampire crap!” Roared the largest of the five, eyes wild with a mixture of fear and fury. “It’s all just bullshit! You were just too much of a coward to help Jules, and you’re just afraid they’re going to stick your head on a fucking pike, like every other asshole who lets them down!”
“Chill, Niles!” Rich said. “You all know the shit that lives in these tunnels. So keep it the fuck down!”
All five of them had gone deathly silent, looking all around themselves in fear.
“We should just cut and run,” Usef urgently whispered. “We don’t have to go back. We don’t have to go back!”
“Fuck you, coward!” Niles hissed. “They’re our ticket to actual warrior classes! You don’t like having your own house, your own slaves? Where people who treated you like an ex-con shithead are now on their fucking hands and knees, asking how they can serve you today, master?"
The man gave an ugly, throaty chuckle. "Admit it, asswipe. The orcs are the best thing that happened to you. Once we proved ourselves by surviving the pods and earning our first level, the world was our fucking oyster! And the garbage and shit won’t be nearly so bad, once the slaves are properly sorted and maintaining the big boss’s territory.”
“Damn right,” said Rich. “So just keep a lid on your fuckin’ whimpering, Usef. You and I both know you only survived by panicking like a bitch dueling those fucking rats, and I couldn’t give two shits. So long as you pretend you have a fucking spine when we see our bosses, and don’t get us all killed for cowardice!”
“Maybe we should just kill him ourselves,” sneered Mels, glaring evilly at a pale-faced Usef. “Would save us time, and net us a sweet little bundle of experience.”
Usef gulped, a look of genuine panic coming over his ratlike features. “No, come on, man, please! I… I was just talkin’ out my ass. Besides, you guys need me. You guys need me to make the report! You alls don’t want to take the fall, do you? Come on, Rich. You know I’m stand-up! I’ll tell them what happened… whatever you want me to tell them what happened, and that will be that! Then we’ll lead our bosses back to the city and we’ll all be lauded as fuckin’ heroes. Isn’t that what you said, Rich?”
Usef’s eyes bulged, his voice keening with a sound that transcended mere horror. Because a scowling Rich’s head had been replaced by a fountain of blood.
Stealth check (with major modifiers for pitch-darkness and target distraction) made!
You have critically struck your target with blood-bound bardiche!
Your opponents have failed to save versus Savage Reprisal!
Your opponents are stunned by fear!
“No, no fucking way!” Whispered the one known as Niles, stumbling back as Usef crashed to the ground, squealing his head off.
Mel's eyes glittered with hate, catching sight of Eric, holding his gore-spattered warblade at the ready, the five-foot long haft married to three feet of razor-sharp steel eager to make some new friends. "Fucking scar-faced shithead! Daring to attack the chosen? Kill him, fools!" He snarled and lunged with his spear, looking for all the world like a hungry wolf as he tried to disembowel Eric with his furious blow.
Only to blink in wide-eyed disbelief when his spear was sent cartwheeling down the corridor with an effortless flick and weave from Eric's weapon. A blink that became a wince as a crimson spray spattered Mel's face, and he gazed down at his own wrist stumps, spurting blood.
Mel stumbled back and screamed, animalistic fury replaced by a whipped cur’s terror.
Then his screams were cut off as his mouth was filled by a sudden flurry of crimson wings as first one bird, then another, forced themselves into his mouth. Bloodshot eyes widened with unspeakable horror as Mel stumbled back, lungs heaving for air that wouldn't come, crashing to the ground and gazing at his own wrists in disbelief as crows flooded inside them as well.
“No more decapitations. They do me no good unless they’re living dead.”
Eric jerked the tiniest of nods in response to the whispers of the crimson crow now perched upon his shoulder, all his attention on the now horrified-looking Niles. “You’re him. Fucking scar-face. The one who shot up our crew!”
Eric glared at the man, filled with a searing contempt that transcended mere hate by leaps and bounds.
His bardiche weaved and danced before his foe, and Neils desperately tried to counter with his spear, only to find Eric moving so fast inside his guard that he lurched back with a cry.
Eyes bulging as he spat out great gobs of blood as Eric slammed helmeted forehead to nose, stunning the man an instant before tearing open his bowels with a vicious slice of his killing tool.
The stunned Niles' eyes bulged when the pain finally hit him. But before he could collapse, Eric was holding him up with a steely grip upon the man’s tattered leather jacket. “You betrayed your own kind, scum. You don’t get to collapse. You don’t get to pass out. Ever!” Eric roared, eyes boring mercilessly into Niles’ own when the dazed man's eyes bulged open with unspeakable pain as a flood of crows began flooding into the horrific rent Eric had torn into the man's abdomen.
Filling a panicked Niles up.
Then devouring him from within.
Only then did a coldly glaring Eric let the man go, as Niles began to dance and twist, clawed hands desperately scraping at the blood crows swarming into his bursting abdomen.
Before tilting back his head and screaming. Shrieks that echoed through the corridor like the cries of the damned, until eventually being cut off as clawed fingers desperately clenched his own throat, bulging unnaturally as first one, then a second, and moments later a storm of crows ruptured from the dying man’s throat before pecking at the silently shrieking Nile's ears and forcing their way in.
And suddenly Niles was eerily still, twisting his neck and gazing at Eric curiously, much like a bird would, though its voice was the rasp of things long dead. "Go get the others."
And he did.
No matter how the remaining spies begged and screamed, Eric showed them no more mercy than they would have shown the countless refugees who had fled to Junk Town for their lives.
One after another, they fell to disemboweling wounds and a relentless murder of crows, until only the squealing, panic-stricken Usef was left.