Although it was strange, Naffur immediately produced a knife from his interspatial watch and slashed his own leg. Blood began to pour out and down his legs. Inwardly, Naffur wondered what others would think of him if they saw how bloody he was. If Mareen-
WHITE. WHITE. WHITE.
Naffur hobbled away toward a bend in the game trail, but he didn’t bother to actually tire himself out with speed. One thing that Naffur had learned from his Skills was the power of timing. Not the least of which was through Cheap Shot, but there were a lot more subtle ways to play with timing.
For example, due to Naffur’s Devil’s Luck with Entrances, it was without a doubt that the wolves would arrive just in time to witness him leaving. If he stood still, of course, they would arrive anyway, but because of his Skill, if he was making a decent effort, they would always arrive exactly as he was leaving.
Congratulations! Your Skill Bloodletting has increased to Level 21!
As expected, when Naffur reached the edge of the line of sight to where the wolf body was still slowly spasming, seven wolves leapt out of the brush and landed on the path. The largest wolf was pale gold in color and looked sharply up the path to meet Naffur’s eyes.
Instantly, Naffur could feel the concentrated hate there. Such was the force of emotion that he shivered, in spite of himself.
Grow strong or die,
Naffur thought dully.
That’s what this world is.
Just as the golden wolf was about to raise its head to howl, its ears flicked backward. It had heard the shuffling of the dying grey wolf.
It barked at three of the other wolves, and they nodded and tore off down the path after Naffur. For good measure, he hobbled another few steps then sidestepped behind a tree. Wincing at the pain, he pressed a hand against his wound on his leg and allowed his hand to be thoroughly soaked.
Then he flicked his hand forward, covering the path with specks of blood.
Congratulations! Your Skill Beguiling Ruse has increased to Level 30!
Some of Naffur’s newly acquired Skills made him nervous that he was once again moving toward the Path of Cowardice. It remained in his Status Screen, even as Naffur finished other minor Paths to improve himself. But this was different. This was strength. He was growing strong in this way.
It might not be the same method that the Ghosthound used, but-
The three wolves burst around the corner. They sniffed the air forward and continued to dash past the tree Naffur was hiding behind. He noted with pleasure that their eyes were on the drops of blood he had thrown.
Taking a fortifying breath, Naffur stepped out and smashed the nearest wolf with an Intrepid Hammer. He then followed it up with the only other offensive Skill that Naffur had learned since leaving the Orchard, Audacious Knee.
On contact, Naffur felt the ribcage of the wolf he attacked collapse.
The other two howled and stopped themselves. The first twisted around and lashed at Naffur’s arm with its claws, scoring several long scratches. Blood spurted out ceaselessly, as though an artery was struck.
Sensing weakness, the other wolf attacked immediately. Of course, Naffur ignored the Skill Level increase notifications and stopped playing injured. The attacking wolf had its skull shattered by an Audacious Knee. Somewhat stunned, the wolf that clawed Naffur watched its compatriot collapse.
Naffur made short work of the lone survivor.
“I’m not weak,” Naffur whispered to himself. His eyes stun for some reason.
After taking several breaths, he was about to go back for the other wolves when two more barrelled into him. Naffur swore inwardly and started throwing Intrepid Hammers as quickly as he could regenerate Stamina. It was much less pretty than the prior fight, but Naffur still managed to finish the two off.
Afterward, he checked his Health: 67%. That wasn’t low, but it also wasn’t a lot. Naffur knew that most Health was gained through Levels, so his Health was a bit…
Of course, that was offset by his recent fixation on putting points into Endurance. But that only accomplished so much.
Still, there were only two wolves left…
“I’m not a coward,” Naffur said to himself. His chest felt hot and clammy, all at once. But he walked back down the game trail toward the other two wolves.
One seemed to be keeping watch, and when it spotted Naffur, it turned and fled.
As for the other wolf, the golden wolf… it lay by the dead wolf, its eyes narrowed in fury.
Yet it remained sitting as Naffur approached. It seemed to be a kettle about to explode, its body humming with its anger. But slowly, Naffur realized that this wasn’t the case. Very soon, Naffur had arrived before the golden wolf. Perhaps he should have turned and run in case the fleeing wolf brought friends, but if they were out of earshot of that howl, Naffur knew he had time.
And there was something strange here-
It was only when the golden wolf struggled to its feet- her feet- that Naffur realized what was going on. She was trembling. And her swollen stomach hung low, weighing her down. He probably didn’t realize because they had only shared a single glance earlier, but this wolf was clearly pregnant.
Instantly, Naffur froze. Could he… truly kill this pregnant wolf…? Even though it so clearly wanted to kill him…?
Because when Naffur looked in that wolf’s eyes, all he could see was the certainty that this mother would raise these wolves to kill him and avenge their father. There was a brutal certainty there, a cold viciousness that Naffur was appalled by.
“I’m not a coward,” Naffur insisted to the air, tears in his eyes. His time in the wild was short in the grand scheme of things, but through it, Naffur had strangely begun to feel a comradery with the monsters and beasts of the wild. Everyone was struggling, and clashing was to be expected. There were no hard feelings.
But this was a time that Naffur had upset the balance. He had… broken something irrevocably. He didn’t belong here.
The wolf snarled. Naffur fled.
He ran for about ten minutes, then slowed to a jog. He knew that the golden wolf would not follow him. At least not yet. The gestation… pregnancy… was accelerated by the System, but it was not so accelerated that she would be able to do anything for a long while.
Shivering, Naffur continued to run.
Why had he run? If he killed that wolf there, the problem would have been solved. Anyway, was it even a problem? Could the wolf really track him down? He read a lot out of the wolf’s gaze, but perhaps that was foolish. Better to trust reality.
Besides, did he want to kill a pregnant mother? Even if it was a monster?
Did I run away, or did I… decide not to kill a vulnerable being?
After asking the question of himself, Naffur instantly felt worse. After all, he had no idea why he had done what he had done.
Almost heedless of where he was going, Naffur was perhaps going with much less secrecy than he normally did. His steps were loud and stumbling as the forest turned slowly into something that looked like an abandoned town that he been overgrown with vegetation. But when there was a figure that spun around as Naffur passed a large boulder, his mind kicked right back into high gear.
The first thing Naffur noticed about this figure was that they did not have a Level indicator above its head. Which, logically, meant that what he was seeing was not, in fact, a monster.
Yet every other sense of Naffur’s indicated otherwise.
The thing was only two meters or so tall, and most of that was a plethora of branches and leaves that were stretching upward from its back. It had gnarled grey arms and legs, with something akin to hands that ended in knobby twigs. Its legs were surprisingly stout, ending in a thick base that couldn’t truly be called a foot. There were cracks in its skin, and from those places, burning red light escaped.
It was, as far as Naffur could tell, some sort of teenage treant.
Except all of its leaves were smoldering and it smelled slightly of smoke.
Strangest of all, its mouth curled into a smile as it spotted Naffur. Its eyes were two black coals in its face, smoking slightly. With a surprising amount of spryness, it crossed the few meters between them and arrived before Naffur with its arms wide.
Scrambling backward, Naffur struggled to rationalize this aggressive behavior. Such was his haste to escape that his foot caught in a root and he went down in a tangle of limbs. As he did so, his eyes flashed dangerously.
Naffur twisted his ankle slightly, and it popped audibly. Immediately, Naffur began to moan and roll backward, his eyes rolling up into his head in the sheer agony of his ankle breaking. His hands instantly went down to cradle the limb, leaving him completely defenseless.
Several seconds passed Naffur fake sobbing into his arm. Nothing happened.
Still hiccuping in “pain” for effect, Naffur looked up. The treant was standing there, arms akimbo. Its eyes were extremely aggrieved. And without any hint of malice. As if this whole charade were extremely tiresome, and it was vaguely insulted that Naffur had attempted to trick it.
After coughing awkwardly, Naffur said. “Ah, well. I’m Naffur. And you are…?”