Ikaris felt as if he had just been rammed by a truck. His lungs emptied of air, but he also felt the blade of his knife and proboscis digging deep into the enemy's hard flesh. He resisted for a brief moment, then was sent hurtling through the air, crashing heavily against his tent on the opposite side.
Choking and dazed, the boy spat out a mouthful of blood, yet biting his lip he ignored the searing pain thrashing his body and rolled to the side as he magically sensed the life force and spirit flow of the creature lurking in the darkness that wanted him dead. Perhaps an unexpected effect of his Appraisal Spark.
The monster's clawed paw or jaw hit the ground in the exact spot where its head had been a split second earlier and with a backhanded strike he instinctively retaliated, stabbing the proboscis into an unprecedentedly soft tissue.
This time, the monster felt the blow. It really hurt him. Gaining confidence, Ikaris went for broke and focused harder than ever to link with his Divine Spark. For an infinitesimal amount of time, the tiny speck of light engulfed his field of vision and he wished with every fiber of his being that he could "see" the thing he was fighting against, including his heart.
The pitch black tent momentarily became as clear as day and knowing his time was limited, the teenager ignored the terror that overtook him at the sight of his enemy and focused all his attention on the monster's rhythmically beating heart.
The heart on display before his eyes grew a new hole a few millimeters wide and a liquid as black as ink leaked out, drowning the enemy creature's rib cage. Ikaris would have liked to know what happened next, but magic always claimed its due.
He blacked out instantly. His body went cold, his heart rate slowed dramatically until it was only beating once or twice a minute, but this time he narrowly escaped cardiac arrest.
Then, thanks to the stimulating influence of the ingested Heart Strawberry, his body gradually returned to normal functioning, while his mind switched from fainting to a nightmarish sleep filled with monsters stalking him in the dark.
The rest of the night went by, during which Ikaris forgot whether he was dead or alive, the recurring nightmare forcing him to face endless hideous creatures that he could not see.
When morning finally came, he opened his eyes with a jolt, his torso jerking upright like a zombie. The boy panted for several minutes, covered in sweat, wondering if what had happened last night was a nightmare or not.
Upon inspecting his tent, he found no terrifying monsters and unknowingly let out a quivering sigh of relief. Then his gaze went back to his meat and strawberries and he froze.
The meat had disappeared. Instead, he found a dried black bloodstain over the tree leaves that Malia had used to wrap it.
'It's real!' Ikaris gasped, realizing that this ghastly nightmare was no nightmare. 'Then why am I still alive? Or rather... where did that Crawler go?'
The teenager clearly remembered poking a hole in that monster's heart. He found it hard to imagine that a living being could survive such wounds, but clearly he was wrong. But then, why not kill it after he had passed out?
He could only assume that his final move had damaged it enough to force the monster to retreat. The meat's disappearance also made him realize something else.
'It was not here for me but the Rank 2 Demonic Boar meat.'
In other words, Malia screwed him... Well, he couldn't be sure. Maybe this meat had actually saved his life. Without it, maybe the Crawler would have chosen to devour him instead...
In a way, this Crawler's absence was good news for him. He didn't have to justify what the corpse of such a monster was doing in his tent. These creatures seemed to be good at cleaning up. Except for that one forgotten spot of black blood, there was no trace of their fight in his tent except for his triggered traps.
'At least the Crawler didn't touch my strawberries.' The boy perked up with a genuine smile.
Alas, life was full of irony. If this monster wasn't interested there was another who coveted his possessions.
"Hey Ikaris are you there? I'll get you some water as usual." Oliver's voice rang out at the entrance to his tent.
The boy did not answer immediately. As he stood up, he had finally become aware of the nasty scratch that had lacerated his right arm from the shoulder to the back of the elbow. The laceration wasn't deep, only a millimeter or two, but it ruined his plans to keep what had happened to him that night a secret.
If the scratch was ordinary, he could have passed it off as a Demonic Beast attack, but the wounds were blackened, the nearby blood vessels quickly turning the same color. He felt no pain, but that made the wound even more ominous.
"Ikaris? Are you okay, man?"
"W-Wait a minute."
Thinking hastily, Ikaris used his knife to tear a piece of his tent and bandaged it around his injured arm. It would surely arouse suspicion, but it was better than showing his gruesome wound for all to see.
For a second he considered telling Grallu and Malia, but he couldn't be sure they were innocent. He clearly remembered that the monster had crashed into his tent before sniffing out his presence. If it wasn't a coincidence then Grallu, Malia or one of the Guardians had deliberately targeted him.
So far he felt fine, but he knew how scary to look at his wound was.
'Another setback...' The boy lamented internally while crawling out of his tent after ingesting another serving of strawberry. He hoped the metabolic boost would help his immune system fight off the poison.
lightsΝοvεl ƈοmAs soon as his head popped out of his tent, Oliver pounced on him.
"Ikaris, my good friend, I need more of those strawberries. I know you have more, man." Feeling that he was perhaps a little too disrespectful and aggressive, he added, "I'll give you twice, not three times as much water.
Ikaris, who had just faced death, frowned at the barber's indecent attitude. His stony countenance hardened and he declared coldly,
"I can still give you the same portion as yesterday, but not more. Don't push your luck."
Oliver's friendly, smiling facade collapsed like a house of cards, a contemptuous smile plastering his face. Wrapping his arm firmly round the teen's neck as if they were best friends, he whispered menacingly in his ear,
"Ikaris... You better give me what I ask for if you don't want me to reveal... your little secret."
The boy, though a head shorter than the barber, didn't let himself be intimidated and sneered in a chilling voice,
"Are you blackmailing me? FUCK OFF! No need to bring me water in the future I'll manage."
Oliver put on a scandalized expression, not expecting a puny teenager ten years younger than him to respond, but in the end he didn't find the guts to press on and strode off with a snort. Krold, who had passively spectated the argument, approached Ikaris and said,
"You should have killed him. He'll come back to cause you trouble and next time it won't be so easy."
Ikaris mused over the barbarian's words, but in the end he wasn't ready to kill another human, let alone an earthling like him.
"Let's hope you're wrong."
"Sigh..." Krold shook his head, not hiding his disappointment, but just as the boy was about to walk away, the warrior grabbed his injured arm and held on tight. "Let me treat your wound. If Crawlers scratches aren't healed in time, you'll wish you were dead. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
Ikaris stiffened, but remembering that the man was a deserter who had fought on the Great Wall, he relaxed and accepted his help.
The boy accompanied him inside his tent, and he was startled to see that it was not as empty and primitive as he had imagined. In addition to many "civilized" clothes and a bronze armor he never wore, there were also all sorts of boxes, herbs and concoctions piled up in the corner. There was also an old painting of a couple and a child. The man depicted looked like a younger version of Krold.
"Give me your arm." Krold ordered politely after grabbing one of those boxes filled with archaic surgical instruments and some medicinal herbs.
Ikaris obeyed obediently, but with a restlessness that was hard to hide. He feared the barbarian's reaction at the sight of his wound. The time it took Krold to remove his makeshift bandage seemed never-ending, but when the inky black lacerations were revealed the warrior became livid, as if he had just seen a ghost.
"I-I'm sorry Ikaris..."
The next moment, Ikaris found himself immobilized on the ground, belly down and his injured arm pinned by Krold's knee who was adjusting the positioning of his sword over his shoulder to sever his arm.