Alice purposely strolled away and soon Duncan caught up. They furthered into the forest without straying far from the mountain. The distance between the two increased and estranged silence filled the air, both finding that not talking was a much simpler form of relationship.
In a strange way, silence helped both to concentrate on the task. They would point at tracks, evade ravines, choose less exuberant bushes. Alice was on high alert, yet she noticed no lurking shadows around or hounds on their heels. With some luck, they would be good neighbors with a goblin tribe, the girl hoped. Paranoia in the meantime whispered Duncan was right and she had been too good of a person to let the green creature go without old-fashioned bloodshed.
No, logic is solid. The violent option includes too many ifs. The girl knew very well all the shortcomings of being violent without a good cause (as in good guys) and a follow-through plan. Long ago, she had been that big girl in a sandbox that picks on all kids and takes all their toys regardless of are they wearing skirts or pants.
Even after the bed stage of her 'terminal cancer', as she loved to cut short all questions, there had been two, three years most kids had yet to have their growth spurt. In fact, the desease only added to her reasons to punch people. Also, she wanted to be a superhero and studied karate. A complicated childhood, Alice thought so herself. She had had bruises back then, frequently, but never a problem.
Truthfully, you don't have problems when your mother's line of the family can be traced in law enforcement officers records back to great-great-great-...-grandfather Oliver J. Branson, a notorious sheriff who loved an occasional runaway slave manhunt (kind of an ancestral story your family never tells you until you grew old enough to actually read it yourself in the dusty attic among other cheerful memorials and decide to never tell your kids).
Anyway. Those weren't the bad memories on her mind.
The girl and the boy found the sought-for while struggling with themselves. A young deer with horns a few inches big was eating leaves. After a series of silent gestures, they prepared their bows.
Swoosh! Two arrows pierced the animal, one the chest and the other a hind leg. Before it could cry out, an arrow hit its other hind leg. In silence, they chased after the wounded. The pursuit didn't last long. They traced the blood to a low ground where it was lying, already dead. Duncan seemed to luckily or skillfully scratch an artery. Alice felt vague sadness, although was it pointed at their act of hunting or the way of the world in general, she wouldn't answer if asked.
Today one hunts, tomorrow is hunted.
Maybe by goblins.
Alice shook her head to remove the already annoying theme out of it. Very professionally for a pair of teenagers the two gutted the deer and then hung it in a windless ravine to let the blood flow out. Alice loosened the ground under with her blade and sat on an old fallen tree to clean the steel with grass.
"Teach, we found a goblin. She is level 5, not a threat. No, she was hiding, I didn't see much. Yes, I assumed her gender!" the girl growled at an innocent question and glanced at the guy near. "Well, I was going to tell them anyway, but we are here and they are there."
"Green, pointy ears, short body," she continued in the chat. "She had a simple spear and I think wore camouflage. Lines of mud or some sort of paint. Knew really well how to be quiet and be motionless. Nothing else. No, no more info, I repeat, no more info! We left it alone. For now, I don't want to change plans."
She cleaned the sword and sheathed it. The silence then lingered.
"I would toss away any meat if predators find their way here," it was Duncan who broke the ice.
If lots of predators come. The girl clarified inwardly. Giving up on prey was an inherently wrong and evil act in her opinion.
"You are good," she said instead. Duncan had shown himself as a good hunter. Alice had no problem with admitting the truth. What she struggled with was putting up with wrongs, especially when those wrongs were in fact little devils of her own mind.
"...thanks." His face livened up a bit and then darkened again. "I thought it would be different after my training. That I am different now."
Alice didn't know what to say. That he was different? She didn't know Duncan-before-the-system. In fact, a small rowdy part of the girl wanted to order him to shut up and man up.
"I only had to fight in the dungeon. Fight, fight, fight," she only said roundabout while thinking about the other part of herself that wanted to punch the guy to speed up the process of manning up.
Duncan eyes, maybe for the first time, studied her closely. Alice's armor was damaged badly. The chest plate had segments bulged-in, cut deeply, nearly punctured through. Her bracers were the same, and even leg plates. Wearing all of it was uncomfortable and taking effort to prevent noise.
"Maybe fighting goblins without preparations is unreasonable," he uttered softly. "I only wanted... you know... to minimize the danger."
Alice sighed. How could she explain that other sentient beings are no less entitled to live than humans? Especially to someone clearly not interested in such nonsense? Her nostrils fluttered suddenly and the girl cracked her head, listening to something far away.
"I wouldn't attack first even if goblins appeared aggressive," Alice said, distracted. Troubled by looking for words. "...death is always scary."
Since her dream the girl had been yet to smell it, this familiar scent lingering in the air. She smiled fiercely.
"We have guests."
The smell of life energy1I will properly establish the terms when Alice starts to cultivate properly, I promise!.
With her sword unsheathed, Alice leaped out of the ravine. Scarlet flared in the eyes as she stared at the sky. She saw weak, unstable and rare streams of energy coming from the depths of the forest.
The system says so, why a scream? The girl scattered the light from her irises. She might not know what impurities are yet, but there was no reason to risk creating new.
[Widetooth Tiger Lvl.4] [Widetooth Tiger Lvl.6]
"These are monsters, Duncan. Not little green men."
"Sh-shouldn't we run?"
I am surprised you aren't, she kept the honest thought to herself.
"Your bow is too weak, take your spear out."
Alice stepped out leisurely, the tip of the sword slithered through grasses and weeds. Keenly her gaze swept around. I cannot go too far. She stopped in the middle of an opening between trees. There were two of them, a papa-tiger and his sonny-tiger, treading left and right, but more of their family could be hiding somewhere beyond her perception range.
Wolves, snakes and of course, that spider... the possibilities were endless.
"Duncan, spear," she repeated without looking. "Don't concentrate on the tigers much. Watch your flanks and back."
The big cats strolled out, showing off their signature toad-like wide grins, encircling her in their slow manner.
Beat the pattern.
Alice dashed at the smaller tiger. It was barely a few meters and she crossed them instantly. Hearing its partner racing behind after she had shown her back, the girl grinned herself.
'Mrawu!', with a roar, the beast struck the ground with its tail. She maneuvered between trees and slashed out from afar. The cat did the cat thing by slicing, – the empty air,– with both paws. The girl spun around, thrust high and pierced the leaping tiger in an eye. She dived under the already dead monster, punched from beneath and threw it further, at its still breathing friend!
A thin pine tree on the way wasted some of the girl's efforts, but the tigers jointed into a ball on the ground. Alice closed in and cut down the one still moving. The girl then rotated, observing the forest in one well swoop.
She nodded to herself and read system messages.
[+600 EXP, +120 BP] [+400 EXP, +80 BP]
The reward was almost neglectable... Alice grimaced.
Duncan was standing above the ravine with their deer, staring dumbly with a jaw dropped.
"What?" somewhat playfully, she asked, weighted the sword in her hand and crawled down.
"Teach, we stumbled on monsters from my dungeon," the girl reported in the chat while her hands were freeing the bigger corpse from its magic core. "This place is totally connected to our dreams. The dungeon is out there. Yes."
"We are returning," Alice called for Duncan, sighed ruefully, "I would love a tiger pelt."
The girl was almost positively sure the few dungeon emanations wouldn't be able to 'recycle' the bodies. The tip of the blade touched the fur and suddenly stopped.
"Wait... are you not level 5?"
The guy was batting his eyes at her.
Phew... I almost forgot... even with a minimal stat grow he is stronger than he looks.
"Then take the deer. Go-go!"
John and Robert shouted at the same time. They met the pair of hunters on a border between the mountain and the forest.
"It won't wake up, right?" the lanky guy asked cautiously.
Everyone including Duncan looked at him like an idiot. Alice puffed a tiger fur from her eyes and shifted the tiger carcass on her shoulders. Truthfully, the girl was almost buried under the thing. Level 4 might be level 4, but in fact, it was big as an adult tiger. One might even inquire why would it have a pair of human legs. The girl was still very pleased with herself.
"And are there many... cats in that forest?" John ignored the gazes entirely.
"We had an encounter. They are from Alice's dungeon... you didn't know?" Duncan asked suspiciously. After the initial shock passed, he became a bit more outgoing for some reason. He even stopped a few times to shoot down a few birds to fill his bag.
Alice had no idea why would he waste more strength when he was already panting while hauling the deer, but she approved the small change nonetheless.
"Dungeon... the one with monster ants, spiders and wolves big as cars?" thoughtfully nodded John. His feet started to drag him back seemingly on his own.
"I told so... don't you read the chat?"
"Not for hours! Teach just asked us to meet you here!"
"Then what's the problem?"
"Nothing! Nothing. Let's hurry! Here, here, let me take it," he accepted the deer from Duncan and romped up the mountain like on wings, leaving all to foolishly stare at his back.
Alice powerlessly relaxed her tightly pressed teeth and fists.
The girl suddenly felt that if she wanted to remember every person she had to avoid punching then the best method would be writing a list.