After he was dry, Thorn got dressed again, putting on his black underclothes and then trying to fit into his somewhat tattered armor. The corrupted wolves, though not strong enough to get through his armor completely, had damaged it, ripping scales off the arms and legs and mangling the bracers and leg guards. With a little bit of pressure, he was able to bend most of the pieces back into shape. It was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it was still usable.
Sitting on the bank of the river, Thorn thought back over the fight, examining the tactics he had used as well as the moves made by the corrupted wolves. At a certain point, the whole fight became a blur of blood and fur, but, before that, it was pretty apparent that Thorn was tactically inferior to the wolves. While his strategy had been good, it was only his strength and the armor he was wearing that allowed him to carry the day.
As he sat and thought about the encounter, he slowly became aware of a strange stillness that had fallen over the whole area. Normally, he would hear the sounds of birds and insects from the forest overlaying the gurgling rush of water as it flowed down the stream. Thorn recognized those sounds almost unconsciously at this point, never paying attention to them.
This made their absence all the more startling. Hearing the river running and the leaves rustling in the wind, it took Thorn a moment to realize that all signs of life had vanished. Careful not to react too much to his discovery, Thorn stretched, pushing himself to his feet before looking around.
His gaze swung around, seeing nothing on his side of the river. As he looked over the other side of the river, his eyes passed over a particularly deep shadow, before snapping back to stare at it. Something about the shadow seemed unnatural. His instinct was proven right when a man stepped out of the cloaking shadow.
Big, at least by normal standards, the stranger had thick, knotted muscle that ran down his bare arms. Large hands hung toward his knees, his fingers twisted into the shape of claws. Deep, green eyes peered eerily from under shaggy brows, and he walked with a strange rocking motion as if he was going to pounce or break out into a loping run the very next moment. A twisted smile rested on his face, making Thorn glad there was a river between them.
That gladness was short lived. The strange man approached the river and, with a sudden leap, flew through the air, landing on the other side. His shoulders hunched and, his long arms touching the ground, he turned his intense green stare on Thorn, who could barely suppress the shiver that ran down his spine.
There was something about the stranger, a palpable menace that set Thorn’s teeth on edge and made the hair on the back of his neck stand to attention like soldiers on parade day. Only twenty feet separated them, and all Thorn could think about was if he could get his knife or arbalest into play fast enough.
His confidence had increased greatly from fighting off all of the corrupted wolves not even an hour earlier, but that confidence seemed to drain right out of him when he looked at the stranger. Afraid even to blink, Thorn couldn’t help but give a great start when the stranger opened his mouth to speak.
“What’cha doin’ out here?” he said, his drawn back lips revealing pointy teeth. “Pretty far from the city, ain’t’cha?”
“Not too far. I’m…” Thorn paused for a brief moment, deciding not to show the tails he had been about to pull out of his bag. “I’m just enjoying the scenery.”
“Uh huh.” Unconvinced, the man gave Thorn a long, intense look before making his way forward in his strange, rocking gait. Squatting down by the fire, he fixed his green eyes on a bit of the food Thorn had not eaten, licking his lips.
“Would you like some?” asked Thorn, pushing the meat over.
Spearing the meat with a long claw-like nail, the stranger devoured it, juice dripping down into his long beard. Once the meat was gone, he lifted his eyes and resumed gazing at Thorn.
“Hmmm. Gargish. The Blood Hunter,” said the man, scratching his thigh.
“Nice to meet you, Gargish,” lied Thorn. “That is quite the name you have there.”
Lapsing into silence, Thorn watched Gargish. It was obvious that Gargish had come with some purpose, and his silence made Thorn very uneasy.
“So. Are you from around here?” asked Thorn.
“Mmhmm,” affirmed Gargish after a moment, pointing toward his back right. “Valley of the Fang.”
“Oh, I haven’t been there yet. I hear it has got a lot of corrupted wolves, though. You must be pretty strong to be able to live there.”
“What brings you out this way?” asked Thorn, as nonchalantly as possible.
“Yeah?” said Thorn, faking a chipper tone as he dried his sweaty palms on his pants.
He had never felt more like a small woodland creature than now. He was one and a half times Gargish’s size, but for some reason, he felt like a small, furry rabbit being stared down by a timber wolf. The fire in between them gave him a small degree of comfort, but it was starting to die down. Thorn reached over for another piece of wood and added it, poking the fire in silence until it was blazing again.
“Are you a hunter by trade?” Thorn asked after the silence became unbearable.
“Heh, yeah.” Gargish seemed to find the question quite funny and broke into a strange, wheezy laugh.
“Cool. I bet you have seen a lot of places, then. This whole mountain range seems good for hunting, so I imagine you have been to most of it,” Thorn said, casting around in his mind for topics. “So far I have only seen some corrupted wolves and some small game, but I can imagine that there are more animals the deeper into the mountains you go.”
Unresponsive to Thorn’s leading questions, Gargish stared.
“I mean, I could imagine that there are some bears in the woods. Probably big bears, as well,” said Thorn, trying to continue the conversation.
He lapsed into silence, staring at the other man over the fire. The sun was beginning to sink down toward the horizon, indicating that this day was coming to an end, the golden sunlight sending the shadows of the trees stretching long, like grasping fingers creeping ever closer to Thorn.
Seeing the shadows inch toward him as the silence grew, Thorn couldn’t help but shiver, reminded of the long, clawed fingers on Gargish’s hands. In silence and stillness, they sat there, the only movement that of the flames, leaping between them. The firelight cast Gargish’s craggy features into stark relief, causing his bright green eyes to stand out even more.
The whole situation began to feel surreal to Thorn. Was he sitting across from a man? Or was it a corrupted wolf? In the growing dusk, Thorn began to have trouble telling what was sitting on the other side of the fire, as the shadows caused Gargish’s form to twist and morph, forming something that wasn’t wolf, yet wasn’t man.
Stuck in this strange half-world, somewhere between light and darkness, Thorn jerked as Gargish stood, raising his head to look around. Not sure if the flickering firelight was playing tricks on him, Thorn could swear that Gargish’s face had grown a wolfish snout.
Flexing his claws, Gargish stared up at the empty night sky. Pointing a clawed finger up at the darkening sky, he smiled his sharp smile.
“The time is coming for the hunt,” said Gargish, his eyes taking on a fanatical gleam. “Soon the blood moon will rise, covering the world with its light, and blood shall flow. The new order will be toppled, and the old order will once again step forth into their rightful place. Blood purity will be restored!”
Almost as if to celebrate his statement, a long, eerie howl broke out from the forest to Thorn’s right, the trembling sound echoing across the mountains, causing even the sounds of the river to fade away. Deafening silence reigned when the howl finished, but Thorn felt like it was still echoing among the trees.
Looking at the still empty sky, Thorn had a sinking sensation that this night was going to be long and hard. Putting his hand behind his back, Thorn found his knife, watching Gargish for any sign of aggression. Gargish, however, seemed to be ignoring him completely, instead gazing with a crazed longing at the darkening sky.
“What is it you are hunting tonight?” asked Thorn, his back slick with sweat.
Gargish’s head snapped toward Thorn at the question, his intense green gaze taking on a tinge of the red bloodlust that Thorn had seen in the eyes of the corrupted wolves.
“Oh. That's nice,” said Thorn, a wave of relief washing over him. Somehow having it put into words made it much less scary.
Down in the corner of his vision, a small symbol had appeared at some point, and Thorn, curious and slightly distracted from the nerve-wracking situation in front of him, focused his attention on it. Nova Terra, like most games, relied on popups to communicate with the player, but, in the interest of immersion, most of the popups were kept as small as possible when outside of towns and cities.
Only by focusing on the small symbols that hovered outside of the normal field of view could the popups be brought up for the players to read. Curious about the blinking symbol, Thorn focused part of his attention on to it, causing the popup to expand in front of him into a constantly growing list of messages, one coming right after the other.
Blood Moon Terror
You have been influenced by Gargish The Blood Hunter’s natural terror aura, causing your will to weaken. You have become more susceptible to the influence of others.
Your increased resistance to mind-affecting conditions has negated the effect of Blood Moon Terror.
Watching these two messages chase each other down the page, Thorn breathed another sigh of relief. ‘That’s right. This is a game,’ he thought to himself. He had heard rumors of people who were unable to separate the world of Nova Terra from reality, and he no longer doubted that they existed.
The combination of the environment, the pressure from Gargish’s ability, and Thorn’s tired mental state had left Thorn believing that all of this was somehow the only reality, causing him to completely forget that the terrifying being in front of him was a bunch of code. Fortunately, one of his racial abilities was an increased resistance to the insidious mental influences that Gargish exuded.
Sighing again, Thorn put his hands on his knees and stood up. Gargish, confused as to why the frightening atmosphere he had so carefully crafted had changed, took a step back, as Thorn’s figure grew larger and larger. Big himself, Gargish stood at seven feet tall. Yet this human in front of him seemed to keep going up forever. He took another step back.
“Alright, so how are we doing this? Brawl right here? Do I get a head start?” asked Thorn, picking up the few camp items he had pulled out of his inventory.
For a moment, Gargish was at a loss. Wasn’t his prey supposed to be terrified? What was with this matter-of-fact tone?
“No plan? Alright, brawl right here it is.” Thorn pulled out his knife. For all his bravado, Gargish was still giving him a terrifying feeling. Despite his mental resistance being able to overcome Gargish’s aura, no one he had met in the game so far gave him such a heavy feeling of menace.
“Wait, wait,” said Gargish in his raspy voice, waving his clawed hands and grinning menacingly. “Fighting here is no fun. Hunting is much more fun. Tell you what. I’ll give you a thirty-minute head start.”
“But if you are going to hunt me down, why not have a fight right here?” asked Thorn, tightening his grip on his knife. Before he had even finished speaking, Gargish’s figure blurred, and Thorn felt a sudden pain in his stomach, sending him stumbling backward.
“Heh, that is up to you,” laughed Gargish as he reappeared where he had been standing across the fire.
Scrambling to his feet, Thorn’s heart dropped. Gargish was too fast and strong for a direct fight. Calculating in his head, Thorn realized that there was no way he could take him on one-on-one. In fact, if Gargish’s fist had been aimed at his throat, Thorn wouldn’t even have known how he died.
“Fair enough,” Thorn said with a cough. “Thirty minutes, you said?”
Watching Thorn’s big form dash off into the woods, Gargish laughed again. No one had ever escaped him, and this abnormally-sized human would not be an exception to that rule.
Jogging into the forest, Thorn’s mind was working furiously. Since he could not fight Gargish head on, Thorn had to come up with a solution to even the playing field. Gargish was too fast and strong for direct confrontation. Thorn never had any illusion of being able to hide from him either, for a very particular reason.
When Gargish hit him in the stomach, Thorn had sensed something being applied to his armor and a quick check had shown that there was a patch of some substance on a couple of the scales.
No doubt this was some sort of tracking aid. Thorn had even checked his log-off button, but seeing that it was greyed out, he could only assume that Gargish had a means of keeping him from leaving the game. Despite the growing difficulty of his situation, Thorn once again felt that burning excitement in his chest.
He had been discovering more and more that the dangerous, nerve-wracking situations of the game gave him an intense rush of joy and uncontrollable desire to conquer. This situation was no different, and countless possible solutions presented themselves to Thorn as he lengthened his stride through the forest.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.