The climb up the massive spiraling staircase was comparatively short to other distances it sometimes had to cover, thankfully, despite being tiring, the structure being no more than perhaps ninety or a hundred feet deep. The vast majority of the depth of the pit was unavailable to two-leggers and itself with said staircase, or it would have been double or maybe triple that length.
No, not two-leggers. Humans.
It had gotten used to calling them as such in its mind. It also sounded better, but it was wrong, because the big dark thing called them humans. Besides, it didn’t want to piss off the dark thing by thinking of them as two-leggers after getting corrected. Just in case it was still watching.
As the entrance to the trash pit slowly revealed itself around the cylinder of metal that was in the center of the staircase, the wolf stopped in its tracks, confused.
The problem was that where the staircase should open up to freedom, it was instead transformed into a tight wedge, a thick piece of iron blocking the escape near the top where there was no railing.
Was that something the humans did? Why would they deny themselves an escape route? It had never seen or been down in the waste pits with humans down there before, but that action made no sense. Why were humans so insane? Rats were aggressive, humans just seemed straight up suicidal. What was the point of blocking their escape!?
The wolf stood there, bewildered for a moment, and then turned and pushed its head between the thin pipes of the railing on the side of the stairs to look below. And sure enough, slowly but surely, it could tell by the light of the human female that the group were ascending, the horde of rats clambering up the steps after them in a mass of dirty fur and shrill-sounding squeaks.
They were only at about the first of the ten levels the stairs had, but that didn’t change the fact that the wolf was stuck with humans and a horde of frenzied rats slowly climbing their way up. And if the humans’ formation broke and they ran up, it would no longer be a slow climb. They’d reach the wolf in no time.
It moved itself as far up as it could, wedging its head between the last step and the iron plate, and despite looking as closely as it could, found no weak points it could exploit. Then it tried to tilt its head and bite through the metal, but it was too flat, and all its teeth managed was some shallow rends into the metal and some light cuts on its gums as it tried to cut it open.
It turned around in mild panic, cursing the stupid humans and their stupid useless senses for not knowing how many rats there were, wondering what it could do to escape its predicament. It could… it could cut off a portion of the stairs, maybe about half a level's worth, and wait for another human from outside to come over to lift the iron plate, or it could move down to help… them…
Help them what? Fight a horde of rats? It would stick its snout in to bite something and get its eyes ripped out before it could even close its jaws. Even if the humans below were the ones who could open the way to safety, it wasn’t like they would have any room whatsoever to lift the heavy, thick iron plate while fighting for their lives. Just from experimentally hitting its head on the iron it could tell that it was really thick. They’d get overrun, and the wolf would get swarmed and eaten alive.
With that horrifying mental image in mind, it activated [Bloodrush] and dashed one level down. The staircase was far too large, around ten loops high, but all it needed to do was cut off a sizeable enough part of it to isolate itself from the humans and the rats, and it would survive.
So, it hurriedly got to work. The structure was secure and sturdy, but it was also simple. Meaning that it was actually fairly easy to cut. The problem was just how wide it was. It seemed as if it was made in mind for at least four humans to walk side by side, for some reason.
It hooked its canines over the railing, cut through the thin pipes and then used its nails to cut through the film of steel just below, leaned back...
And froze with indecision, frantically looking for the best and fastest way to cut through the metal and get the horde stuck far away from itself. The build of the staircase was just planks of metal extending out of a thick tower of metal in the middle into a spiral, with a thin sheet of iron on the outside of the planks connecting to each and every one of them, upon which was the railing. For added support, or so it seemed, was the occasional bar of metal that connected all of the stairs together on the outside, going through the railing from the top of the structure all the way to the bottom. The wolf looked at the support pipe for less than a moment then clamped down with every sharp tooth it had, moving its head around in a semi-circle to weaken it as much as possible.
Despite the hollow metal being a bit too wide for it to cut through on the outside of the rail without falling to its death, the weight of the staircase disconnecting should easily snap that little bit of iron. It practically flew up the stairs again as soon as its mentally marked ‘cut-off’ area was dealt with, its teeth gnawing through every support pipe on its way back up to the last loop of iron planks.
It was simple, yet the wolf wasn’t the smartest, and thus found it very mentally taxing to theorize and visualize all this. Regardless, it rushed to finish before the thirty seconds of [Bloodrush] faded.
Using its nails, it dug its right paw’s tip into the inner edge of each plank of metal and cut through by dragging down, then went up a step and repeated, in a frustratingly slow but thankfully easy and simple process.
After a couple repetitions, it had learned how to just shuffle backwards on its legs rather than wasting time to turn around, doubling its speed. It broke the routine quickly to chew another pipe to bits, uncaring of its blood dripping out of its mouth as the sounds of shrill squeaks and human grunts, jabbering and battle cries grew nearer.
Then the skill faded, leaving the wolf feeling completely and utterly exhausted, its legs growing weak and jittery, but it pushed itself to continue, the combined weight of the iron planks slowly making a creaking, groaning sound as they strained the thin film of metal on the outside, slowly tilting on the inside as more and more were disconnected, the spot where it first cut slowly sagging inch by inch.
The only thing keeping the planks in place at all was the relatively thin metal on the outside, and groaning, damaged pipes.
Judging from the sound, the humans were getting frightfully close, their fighting retreat seemingly having turned into an outright retreat as the clamor got closer and closer with increasing speed. The wolf felt panic claw at its insides as it pushed its overworked, trembling body to continue just a little more, just enough to ensure that neither rat nor enraged human could possibly leap over the gap it would create in the stairs.
It chewed through another support pipe, then out of the corner of its eye, saw movement through the gaps between the planks as it turned around.
It severely underestimated how quickly humans could rush up stairs when in a panic, it seemed, because it felt like just a second or two ago, they were at least a full loop below. It watched in frozen surprise as the band of humans abandoned their stable footing to continue to race up the planks it was planning to cut off, which bobbed and groaned and tilted, one of the males losing his footing and getting covered by the horde almost instantly with an anguished scream, his companions letting out exclamations of what might have been sadness or frustration as they fought to keep their balance on the unstable platforms under their feet.
Something that the rats had much less issue with, considering how often they rode on moving bits of machinery to move in and around the human nest.
The female with leather shoulder coverings - oh, that’s what the brown stuff is - dashed up even faster, leaving the other female and male behind in a mad dash for freedom.
The weight of the rats on the lower end of the half-loop the wolf had weakened caused something to snap, presumably a support pipe, and the entire staircase, including the spot the wolf was sitting on, jerked and groaned suddenly, only the wolf and the human female with leather coverings on her shoulders even managing to stay upright, heart wrenching screams of agony and terror shrieking out from behind the female as her two companions were covered in mangy, sickly fur, the resulting blob writhing in panic as the rats started to chew through anything they could get their teeth on.
No doubt to be a slow, horrific death as the rats started chewing off little pieces of them at a time.
The footing of the stairs would only improve as the human got closer, and the upright female looked at it with an accusatory glare full of murderous rage and grief, now only about fifteen stairs away from the wolf itself. The wolf snapped itself out of its frozen state and jumped to the film of iron on the outside, and with a trembling paw, hooked its middle nail on the top, and pushed down on the slowly bending metal, cleanly severing it, before hurriedly jumped up the steps, away from the sagging stairs.
The damaged support pipes snapped and bent with clangs and groans, weighed down by four humans and hundreds of rats, and the human female’s face contorted in a mix of fury, despair, and horror as something below snapped, the stairs dropping out from under her with a loud shriek that mixed in with the screams of herself and her packmates, just a few steps away from the wolf.
The wolf watched with trembling legs as the portion of the spiral it cut off slammed into the level of stairs directly under it, which bent sideways towards the outside from the sudden weight, and with another literally deafening series of metallic bangs and metal shrieks, the cut loop slid and scraped off to dive into the darkness below.
It turned over mid-air and slammed into the stone ten levels down with an impact it could feel in its bones, rats being flung around in every direction during the flip or crushed beneath the deformed metal, hopefully along with the humans.
It didn’t particularly like humans, but they were usually apathetic at the very least, or nice like the lady from before, so it could find no joy in having their death be a painful one. Better to be crushed than eaten alive.
With about half a level of stairway being the only thing to keep it from sliding off to the bent level of stairs underneath, it felt anything but secure, even as it backpedalled up and pressed its back into the iron plate.
Eventually however, after what might have been hours or minutes, it calmed down, and a mixture of exhaustion and trust in its [Restful Awareness] skill allowed it to finally rest until someone came to lift the iron covering, either to repair the staircase or to check on their fellow packmates.
The symbols quickly came to notify it of new changes.
You have progressed on your Path.
[Hound of The Keeper] Level 1 → Level 8
Available Attribute Points: 7
Strength ( +0 )
Speed ( +0 )
Dexterity ( +0 )
Endurance ( +1 )
Perception ( +0 )
Resolve ( +0 )
Intelligence ( +0 )
Soul ( +0 )
The wolf was extremely tempted to just dump all seven points into Endurance, but decided to at the very least, check every attribute and what it meant. Everything until Endurance was easy to understand from a glance.
Perception was one that immensely interested the wolf. The symbols didn’t explain how, but putting points into Perception would essentially heighten its senses, from scent, to hearing, to how quickly commands travelled throughout its body, how quickly its eyes sent signals to its brain and how quickly the brain processed them.
Something that… was very interesting, but the wolf was fairly certain that with some given time, it could do most of that on its own. Its body was already in the process of making its eyes see better, and while it didn’t know how its ears worked well enough to tune them yet, that [Devourer] racial skill was still changing. Just a day or two ago, it didn’t seem to be able to let it see or change its own body, and then suddenly it could.
It didn’t know if it was tied to age, Level, or whatever else, but it decided to put just one point in Endurance and Perception for now, and keep the other five points.
Endurance ( +2 )
Perception ( +1 )
The next was Resolve, a very strange and seemingly unimpactful attribute. It was essentially one’s mental resolve, or willpower. It could make the wolf less weak to temptation, and shield its mind, soul, and mana from outside interference as well as assist during magic use when someone has to put their willpower into a ‘mana’ skill. And that was it. It was basically a weaker version of its [Mental Resistance] but included shielding its ‘soul’, with the added bonus of making it easier to tell a ‘mana’ skill what to do. Which might help with [Echoes of Oblivion], but the wolf really wasn’t sure if it wanted to put points into something it already had half-covered on the chance it could help with casting the weird shadow skill. After a moment, it decided it was worth it.
Resolve ( +1 )
That done, it continued to Intelligence, and barely contained itself from dumping all four attribute points into it without a second thought.
It was just a shortcut to being smarter. It could allow the wolf to process information better, recognize patterns better, visualize, theorize, understand and even remember more, and better. It could help it identify how other beings felt in the moment, and even in hypothetical scenarios by running simulations in its mind, the latter of which it couldn’t do right now if it tried. That, and it had a strong feeling putting more points into Intelligence would allow it to better understand itself and its prey using the [Devourer] racial skill.
It turned to the final one, Soul, and after staring at it for a while, finally realized what the weird limb in its chest was. It was Soul. Putting attribute points into it would strengthen it, allowing the wolf to feel and use it with more ease. Strengthening it would also allow it to excrete more of the odd thing that 'mana' was, which was the thing that [Echoes of Oblivion] used.
Thinking of which, it really had to figure out how that Skill worked. Every time the wolf would activate it, it would feel the limb in its chest deflate a bit with an odd sensation of something rushing out of its body like a gas through its flesh, likely the skill expending ‘mana’ to channel the darkness, but no matter how hard it had focused during its singular test, all it could manage were odd, flickering puffs of dark mist that held in place randomly over its body, nothing like the liquid, solid, and gassy darkness it had seen in the vision of its [Path].
It remembered now that it got the Skill before it had even accepted the path, and grew puzzled at how that worked, then returned to the manner at hand, making it a question for later.
After a lengthy session of thinking, it realized that it didn’t know what to do. It wanted to dump three points into Intelligence and one into Soul, but it wasn’t sure if that was a good choice when one swing of a human’s sharp metal rod could easily kill it.
Yet, putting anything into speed and strength was useless, as it already had plans to naturally attain those. And when every day could be its last, as today had proven, it wasn’t particularly keen on keeping its points for later when it could only access the odd numbers while it slept.
With mild hesitation, it succumbed to temptation.
Intelligence ( +3 )
Soul ( +1 )
The change was instant, its mind feeling clearer than ever before, every battle with the words to get information no longer a slow, taxing process but a smooth mental question and answer. It felt much like how its body felt more solid when it put points into Endurance, but about thrice as noticeable. Before it could do anything to test it though, letters covered its dream-sight once more.
-[Mana Perception] has Leveled Up. Level 1 → Level 2
-[Mana Manipulation] has Leveled Up. Level 1 → Level 2
-[Soul Perception] has Leveled Up. Level 1 → Level 2
-[Bloodrush] has Leveled Up. Level 1 → Level 2
Scavenger (1 / 1): You eat the unwanted remnants you can find rather than what you can hunt, trade, forage, cultivate, or steal. You are harder to notice when intending to scavenge.
Hunter (1 / 2): You hunt living creatures, whether it is for survival, sport or personal gain of one manner or another. You are slightly harder to notice when intending to hunt.
The symbols faded, and the wolf’s dream turned towards the most detailed de-construction it had seen so far.
It wasn’t even like the cockroaches. It saw what bones were made out of, thin, hardened hairs of connective tissue. It saw what white and red blood cells were, how the brain interacted with the body by receiving and giving signals via chemicals and pulses of ‘electrical’ signals, how its digestive tract melted and broke down the things going through it, how its muscles would behave before and after stress, how microscopic things would trigger the olfactory neurons and use the odor receptor to identify the smell by sending a signal to its brain, and a thousand other tidbits of information.
Every single minute thing was laid bare in utterly astonishing detail.
Then, parasites. Insectoids, how they used their hosts to feed and how their reproduction worked, how a being without a brain operated. Interesting, but useless to the wolf.
As the vision faded, its deeper understanding of how creatures functioned on the inside giving it a strange sense of creativity, it turned to see its own body. With two extra points in endurance, it felt fairly confident its body could handle rapid changes, so for once, it threw caution to the wind.
Well, not exactly, but it did take some risk.
Its left ear was no longer necrotic and infected, and there was some subdued blood flow in it, but it was still deaf, which was something it quickly got to fixing by observing its functioning one for a few moments and copying the structure to its left ear, somehow knowing that it would take about one rat’s worth of material to fix it. Which was an astonishingly cheap cost.
Moving on, its skull was marked by some odd mana-made symbol, but it couldn’t figure out what that did, if it was natural, or if it was even harmful, so it let it be for now. Its leg tendons on the back of its legs were forming with adequate speed, about one fourth the width of its natural ones and still inert and stretchy so as to not snap from pressure before they were fully formed and thick enough to handle strain, so it decided to speed things up.
Another near-death experience had made it realize that it was doing great by its old standards, but still kept getting into situations where it was in too much danger to be comfortable with.
So it spent what felt like literal days doing nothing but using its newfound intelligence boost to assist it into adding more tendons in every part of its body that used them. It was complicated to see the connection of how this little rope contracting would impact everything connected to it, but with [Devourer] being so accurate and easy to use, it eventually managed to reinforce itself with more tendons from back legs to front, to spine and tail.
And it felt instinctively that soon, it would be able to mess around with its teeth and claws, which was something that it was heavily interested in. It also felt that the racial skill would be changing soon... somehow. It was just a vague sensation of incoming change without any more information, so it didn't wonder too long on that.
For now though, it looked at the stored flesh, joints, ligaments, membranes and anything besides bones that it had gained from the rats, and invested about half of them, ten or so rats, into speeding up its tendon growth, another four rat’s worth of material to significantly increase how fast its antennae and cerci hairs would grow and kept about ten rodents to be quickly absorbed nutrients to support its quick transformations without massive fatigue. All the ways it was changing itself were beyond the scope of its poor understanding of reality, but it knew that massive, rapid growth needed equally large amounts of energy.
Seeing how the human’s materials were slightly more… higher quality, as it knew by some instinctual knowledge, it decided to use half of its remaining flesh to add to its own bulk, at a pace that was far faster than before, and finished it off by using every bit of rat bone it had available to slightly condense and harden its own bones even further.
The actual process of that was broken into three smaller ones, but that was thankfully handled by [Devourer], and all it had to do was make the choice.
Then it looked at itself for any improvements it could make, and found a couple. [Devourer]’s way of digesting biological material, it instinctively knew, was perfect. There was no waste, there was nothing lost. It was the peak of efficiency.
So… what was the use of having its abdomen clogged with intestines? All it felt it needed was its stomach, as it seemed to be where [Devourer] originated from and where it took the material for its later use from, but all the excessively long tubes of intestines were doing was taking up space, since nothing really went past its stomach.
It had been about three days since it last had to poop, so having a useless orifice and the majority of its abdomen clogged up by intestines just seemed wasteful. It considered dissolving the intestines for nutrients and removing the hole on the back of its body, which was something its body could do in a manner of a couple days according to [Devourer], so it went through with the decision.
Not having anything to fill the extra space with after it was done, it simply chose a couple thin and jointed bones to keep its abdomen from appearing far too thin and drawing attention to its odd body shape. And extra stopping power from sharp things was always good.
It couldn’t help but wonder how it was that the [Devourer] skill worked. It felt like its mind could simply switch from observation to modification, and the end result would be like a drawing or a symbol, saved for later use.
Experimentally, it mentally added another set of ears on its neck, and tried to solidify it as a different painting to choose from later, if it wished.
And it worked.
It wasn’t going to use the remembered painting, because it was impractical, but it was nice to know it could test things and have the skill remember them for later use, should the wolf need them done quickly.
With that done, the lucidity and awareness of its dream faded, and it returned to the limbo of half-aware sleep.