[You leveled up!]
I shifted back. Breathing heavy, I looked at the message. The kindjal vanished from my hand as I focused on the Stats page and rearranged the numbers.
In the week since my row with Leticia, life had become pretty monotonous. I’d get up in the morning, sneak out of the hostel before the other girls could find me, then wander around the Gate looking for monsters. Unfortunately, Leticia’s posse was getting harder and harder to avoid. Especially since Leticia got out of detention yesterday. I thought it was odd that she hasn’t come for me yet. Well, I knew now.
The good thing was that I made it to level 5 while she was gone. With each level I gained, I got less and less injured and my moves became faster and stronger. I found that the Daily Tasks didn’t always give me prizes, but yesterday it surprised me with a Quick Hit skill.
After I gained Quick Hit, I thought it was the mystery skill, but I was wrong. The original [???] still remained. Even more confusing, another mystery skill had appeared beneath it after I’d picked up the drop of snake venom from a week ago. The odd thing about that was I knew I’d picked up the venom, but it wasn’t in my Items Bag when I went to sell it. It had vanished, leaving a curiosity killer in its place.
Still thinking about it, I collected the Drop Items — a wolf fang and pelt — and watched the wolf disappear. If only I could find another Acid Spitter, maybe I could clear up the mystery, but I’d been all over Edmond Woods and hadn’t found one yet.
My train of thought crashed when a System message popped up in my face. [Mission: Defeat three Preta-Squirrels by the end of the day.]
“Preta-Squirrels?” I’d never even heard of them before.
Frowning, I opened up the Monster Guide and scanned the list. Once I found the name, I opened up the page. I hissed out a curse that would make my aunt scowl. “Seriously? I have to kill three of these?”
It wasn’t until I saw their nickname that I figured out what they were. Their common name was Ghost Biters, which was a lot more literal. They were incorporeal flying squirrels, hellbent on making anything that moved suffer their tiny wrath. The monsters themselves weren’t such a problem, I was sure I could handle them at my level. The problem was where they lived.
The Fogmire was famous for the Treants that lived there. The living monster trees were nearly impossible to detect, since they blended in with actual trees. The continual heavy fog made it all the harder to see them. With an attack range of almost twenty feet, even C Ranked Hunters came out of that bog with injuries.
My stomach tightened painfully, but I took a deep breath and forced my body to relax. It’s fine. The System wasn’t asking me to take on a Treant. If I could avoid them, killing the Preta-Squirrels wouldn’t be a problem. Heh, right. Avoid the creepy, monster trees I couldn’t see.
I slapped my cheeks, not letting my thoughts drop down that black hole. I pulled up the Gate Vale map and started to jog out of Edmond Woods. I just needed to take the trail through Golden Meadows straight to Fogmire.
Of course, nothing ever happened that easily for me. Halfway through the Golden Meadow, I slowed to a walk so that I didn’t use all my energy. The yellow tall grass whispered in the light breeze, each stalk flashing gold in the bright light. Charmed, I couldn’t resist reaching out to touch the soft bristles on the top of a stalk.
“There she is!” The shrill yelled was faint behind me, but loud enough that it reached my ears.
I jumped and looked over my shoulder.
Leticia and her two followers were running down the path, their scowls focused on me.
“Shit!” I took off running as fast as I could.
The tall grass was nearly four feet tall. If they dragged me in, no one would see anything. It would be all too easy for them to leave me injured enough to fall under the next monster that came along. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think I was strong enough to take on all three girls at the same time.
Come on, I thought. I just needed another Hunter to pop out of the tall grass. As long as there was a witness, Leticia would have to leave.
Of course, that never happened.
My Agility and Strength Stats had gone up, but the other girls were still faster than me. Even running as fast as I could, they still gained ground. But the Fogmire was getting closer.
The golden tall grass opened up and thinned out. On the other side loomed a forest shrouded in mist. The barely visible trees were thick and twisted in odd shapes, some almost looking like humans in the middle of a torture session. Dull leaves hung half-heartedly on the tops of the branches, looking like they’d fall at the slightest touch. Thick tree roots webbed across the ground, obstructing anything that might remotely resemble a path.
I just needed to get there. As long as I could get into the Fogmire, I could hide in the mist and lose Leticia. Then I could return tomy mission.
“Run all you want!” Leticia yelled behind me. They were close enough that I could hear the sounds of her friends panting. “You’re going to pay for defying me!”
Seriously, I must have had a sign on my forehead that read, ‘Delusional person, please pick on me!’
“As if it’s my fault you broke into my room, you kleptomaniac!” I yelled over my shoulder.
Ten feet! I was almost there. The fog leaked out of the trees and swirled around my feet like lovers, trying to pull me into their depths. I didn’t resist, just simply ran faster.
Suddenly, heat warmed my back, growing hotter and hotter. I dodged to the side just as a small fireball shot past me. It was close enough that it singed my sleeve black.
I stepped uneven on a raised root. I gasped as I pitched to the side. My hand shot out and grabbed a branch. I used my momentum to swing around forty degrees and took off running at a new angle, zig-zagging between the mist-filled trees.
Instantly, my vision was cut to about five feet in front of me because of the thick mist. The musky smell of earth and water was so thick that I could almost taste it. After a minute, it dawned on me that the only thing I could hear was my own racing steps over damp soil. I paused and looked around, straining to hear or see something, anything. How was I supposed to find a Preta-Squirrel?
My brittle sleeve pulled tight over my arm and I glanced at the black spot. It was a good thing that Posse 1 was only an E. Any stronger and I would have been in big trouble. I bet her magic was limited on range and size, which was why I didn’t have to dodge fireballs the whole way through the field. Even so, if I got too close to her in the forest, I would still be at risk from her ranged spells — and visibility was low here.
Still thinking about it, I brushed my hand over the charred spot. Then I paused and touched my sleeve again. It wasn’t wet. Frowning, I patted my armor, my legs, then held my hands out to the thick fog around me. Dewy particles sifted through my fingers, cool and damp, but my skin felt completely dry. If anything, the fog almost seemed a little lighter around my hand.
“Odd,” I whispered and took a step closer to the tree next to me, to check if it’s bark was damp like the ground.
“Where did she go?” The words drifted through the air to my right.
I jumped, shocked to hear them so close. They couldn’t be more than fifteen feet away. The bottom of my boot stubbed against a gnarled root and I pitched to the side with a gasp. As I fell, something flashed in my periphery. Instead of correcting my balance, I dove to the side just as something slammed into the ground hard enough to shake the earth.
Gaping, I stared at the huge tree branch that missed my feet by inches. It was at least a foot and half thick with five long, sharp twigs at the end. It almost looked like — a hand? My eyes widened and I followed the branch up the tree it was connected to. The tree stared back at me. A huge deformed face took up almost one-third of the twisted trunk. Its eyes were sharp triangles a shade paler than the dark bark that covered the tree. A stubby nose jutted out over a wide, uneven mouth that nearly split the trunk in half. That mouth gaped open and a low rumble barely more than a whisper rippled through the air. Above it’s face was a System box that read in red letters: [Treant Lv 15].
Goosebumps raised on my arms. I scrambled to my feet.
The Treant let out another rumble and jabbed another branch at me. I grabbed the tree next to me and swung around it, completely ignoring the bark-burn on my hands. Just before I could finish the move, the Treant’s twig hand scraped my back and continued on until it thudded against the ground. I swallowed a moan of pain and scrunched down, hugging the tree.
I expected the Treant to attack the tree I hid behind, maybe even pull it out of the ground. Seconds ticked by, but nothing happened. Suddenly, the twig hand on the ground just inches from my feet lifted. My eyes widened. What was it doing? I peeked around the tree truck and watched as the Treant shifted back into a neutral position, it’s ‘arms’ raising like they were actually branched. Its eyes closed and just like that, it looked like a normal — albeit ugly — tree. In the mist, I could barely tell it had a face at all.
Why? It had to know where I was. Why wasn’t it still attacking me?
“Did you hear that?” Leticia said, still so close. “I think it came from this way.”
I held my breath and shifted while keeping the tree between me and the Treant. Leticia and the two other girls appeared from the fog. They walked slowly, obviously as jumpy as I felt.
Posse 2 looked around, and whispered. “This is—”
The Treant’s eyes opened and focused on them.
“— like, the creepiest —”
The Treant’s arms started to shift, completely unseen by the girls.
“— forest ever.”
The Treant’s arms shot toward the girls like battering rams.
Leticia and the Posse 2 jumped out of the way in time. The other girl was a step too slow. The twig hand hit her shoulder with a crack and she screamed. Posse 2 grabbed her and pulled her out of the way. If not, then the thick arm would have pinned her to the ground. There was no question that she would have died.
“What is that?” Leticia gasped, finally seeing the monster.
“Treant!” The injured girl sobbed, tears streaming down her face. “It tracks by sounds.”
“Let’s move.” They dodged another attack from the Treant and ran away, disappearing into the fog. Faintly, I could hear them threatening to do all sorts of things to me when they found me.
When I couldn’t hear them anymore, I let out a silent breath and watched the Treant move back into a tree position. I still needed to find three Preta-Squirrels. I glanced at the tree monster. There could be thousands of those hiding in the forest. As long as I didn’t make any noise, I wouldn’t have trouble with them. In theory.
I was just about the move when a window popped open. [Sit down and cultivate for five minutes.]
I blinked at the message, completely confused. Sit down? Like, sit down right now, right here, with a Treant looming on the other side of my hiding place? And what the heck did cultivate mean?
As if answering my thoughts, a new window replaced the original message. It showed a diagram of a person sitting cross-legged with their hands resting in their lap, fingertips pressed against each other and the thumb tips touching. But what threw me the most was the words beside the diagram. It talked about how there was energy in the world, and that energy, if compatible, could be stored in a body.
It sounded bogus to me, but if it helped me level up faster, then what the heck? It was just five minutes. I sat down on the cold ground and arranged my body like the picture. A timer appeared in front of me, ready to count down. I closed my eyes, cleared my mind as much as I could, and tried to open up my senses, whatever that meant.
There was no noise and all I could feel around me was a cool mist.
I had no idea what the System wanted, but I was pretty sure I failed. The timer went off, with nothing happening from beginning to end. But at least the bruise across my back had a little time to heal. I stood up and patted my butt clean. I really needed to find the ghost squirrels.
I leaned around my hiding place and glanced at the Treant tree. It was just as still as before. Okay, all I had to do was sneak away in the opposite direction as quietly as I could. I took a slow step back, keeping the Treant in sight.
The toe of my boot noiselessly landed on the ground and I shifted my weight back onto it.
Something moved on the Treant.
A jolt went through my body, as if all my nerves were electrocuted and ready to run. Then my mouth dropped open in a silent gasp.
A small gray creature moved around the branches of the Treant. It was pale gray with a fat bushy tail and so light on its feet as it jumped from branch to branch, that it almost looked corporeal.
Without a doubt, it was a Preta-Squirrel. Hiding in the Treant.
And I needed to kill it. Damn.
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I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.