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99 Protector and Provider

    --Eira POV--

    Goliath charges once more for the umpteenth time, making it clear his tactics are few, simple, and predictable. His body now wobbles, dribbling blood unto the floor, causing the makeshift arena to be a bit slippery. The blood is somewhere between the congealed, jam-like blood of the Crawlers and that of your average humans. This would make it a bit more challenging to use blood magic on, but it doesn't matter since I've already decided to conserve my mana. Yet, despite all this, it still appears as if it might be quite some time before he collapses.

    'Alright, this is taking too long. So if you're going to keep doing the same thing, I'm going to take advantage of that.'

    I brace the end of the scythe against the ground and apologize to its underdeveloped consciousness for my frequent abuse and misapplication. With the scythe now subtly braced, I act as if this nitwit has actually caught me off-guard. A shadow is cast upon me as Goliath approaches, but I stand my ground, unlike all the times prior.

    "Naht guh!" Goliath roars, with a throaty laugh.

    He slaps at me in a foolish attempt to crush me beneath his rugged palm. When his palm is nearing my body, I lift the scythe ensuring its shaft maintains its bracing against the floor. Under the force of the palm, the scythe creaks, but its sharp edge cuts deep into Goliath's hand. At the same time, I release the scythe, rolling away with claws extended. The scythe penetrates his muscly hand, wedging itself into the thick hide.

    Goliath jerks away with a thunderous, "Guh!"

    Meanwhile, I sprint to his back, sinking my claws into his calves. Bracing my feet, I leap upward, immersing my claws into the muscles around his backbone. Goliath removes the scythe, throwing it away, and immediately begins to try to reach his oversized arms behind himself, but his muscles prevent him from reaching very far.

    He resists vehemently and swings his body wildly, making me question if I've simply watched too many movies, and this was a terrible idea. Already wholly committed, I leap one more time latching myself to the area just below his neck. Goliath roars and begins charging toward the crowd. They part cheering while allowing his passage.

    It only takes me a second to realize what he is attempting. 'The oaf is going to try to smash me against a muddy wall! Let's hurry this up!'

    Releasing one of my hands, I bundle my claws together and stab at where a humans artery would typically be. To my relief, it pierces the hide, but also my brow furrows when hardly any blood leaks from the wound.

    'I didn't expect that the artery moved! Still, it should be somewhere in this area of the neck.'

    Swapping hands, I repeatedly stab at the neck, leaving deep, yet scanty slices in Goliath's nape. Finally, I strike a particular point, and my face is instantly stained with a shot of bland but slightly tart blood.

    "Naht guh!" he roars once again.

    Glancing back, the wall is swiftly approaching, so immediately push off his back, making sure to take a bit more flesh with me.

    **Bang!** Goliath smashes into the wall.

    He turns, gazing at me with hollow eyes. "Naht guh?" he says, collapsing to the ground.

    I lick my fangs excitedly. 'That was kinda fun!... But I don't believe I'll ever do it again.'

    Curiously, I watch Goliath as his gummy blood clots the gashes around his neck at an almost visible rate.

    "Eira! Are you okay!?" I hear Eden shout.

    Turning away from the wall, I find Eden, who, despite having just yelled, maintains her usual blank expression. Like a small animal who has been around people for a while, but is still wary of their presence. However, that only holds my attention for a second as I find myself enclosed by dozens of Brutes.

    They stare at Goliath, their bodies shaking silently.

    'Was I supposed to lose?'

    Hearing a grunt behind me, I turn to find Goliath lying on the floor with his mouth open. His eyes look strangely anxious.

    Confused I look back to see Dolt pointing at his mouth. 'Wait? Is that actually an essential part of this whole thing?'

    I remove a bowl of ramen and cautiously approach the giant. Under the gaze of the Brutes, I begin to pour the ramen broth into Goliath's gullet.

    """Naht guh!""" the room explodes into what I assume are cheers at once.

    '...I don't even know anymore,' I think, shaking my head.

    ...

    ...

    ...

    Some time has passed while I take a moment to recover my stamina.

    Aponi glances at me and then to the Brutes, who gawk at me with pride. "So it seems after beating them into a pulp to show dominance, you have to feed them afterward? I guess it sorta solidifies you as both their protector and provider?"

    'Protector and provider? I was hoping for warlord.'

    "Maybe, if you didn't offer them the food, then they would have banished him or something," Eden says, scratching two of the cubs behind their ears, "It would explain why we found Dolt on the surface, and why they weren't happy to see him again."

    I shrug. "Yeah, maybe."

    "Something wrong, Eira?" she asks.

    Crossing my arms with a frown. "Yeah, how am I supposed to feed these things!? I'm not giving them all my ramen, I refuse, and besides, that would only last a day at most."

    'This is either a complicated blessing or a complicated curse, but it's complicated either way. In truth, it obviously isn't about the ramen, but I am serious about how I'm supposed to be the "provider" for these things. What do they even eat!? They can't be too picky since they were eating a raw bear carcass on the surface. Which reminds me.'

    "...Keep an eye on the cubs. Don't let them be alone with any of the Brutes," I say pointing, at a nearby drooling Brute.

    Eden gasps and pulls the cubs close while I continue my thoughts.

    'But there are thirty-one of these things, and they're between three-feet-tall and fourteen-feet-tall with a median of eight-feet-tall. That's a lot of meat! Also, I can't take these things back to the hospital, not unless I'm planning on performing some kind of assault on it... Still, I can use them to assault the place beneath the facility, and perhaps that'll also leave me with fewer mouths to feed.'

    With a sigh, I separate myself from my thoughts. "How's Sam doing?" I ask Aponi, "And weren't you supposed to be helping him?"

    "I was helping for a while, but he was better at speaking to them than I was."

    I glance at Sam, who grunts at Dolt, followed by Dolt grunting back.

    "Well, as soon as he figures out or invents the words for, follow, stop, attack, and shut up, we'll be good to go. In the meantime, we need to discuss tactics," I say.

    Aponi stares at me with big eyes. "You actually want to discuss tactics?"

    "Well, yeah. If we are truly doing something that requires them, then, of course, I will," I respond with pursed lips.

    She nods and immediately begins talking, "Alright, well, if you're taking suggestions, I think we need to hurry, but I've also been thinking we need to gather more information."

    "I'm surprised! I thought you'd be more nervous about rescuing Jimmy."

    "Well, of course, I am, but we can't help him if we get captured."

    "I beg to differ!" I say, smiling, "I think you should be captured, but not by the Two Palm Society, but instead by the Brutes!"

    "Huh?" she tilts her head, pausing for a moment, "...Oh. Wait, I think I see what you're getting at."

    Eden stares at the two of us, then asks curiously, "I don't understand what she's getting at? Why does Aponi look worried?"

    Aponi takes a breath before answering Eden, "She thinks the Brutes are trading people for... something. What they're trading for doesn't really matter, but the fact they're trading means they're meeting somehow. So basically we could have a meeting with them. It is surprisingly less violent than I was expecting. Still, I don't know where she wants to go from there."

    I laugh, extending my claws. "Then, we murder the people who came to trade!" I shout.

    "Oh," Aponi lets out a long sigh.

    I smile knowingly, shrugging dramatically. "Well, I mean we could also tie them up, it's a bit boring, but it doesn't really matter. The most important part is that we need their uniforms and whatever it is they have that allows them to move through the Mind Magic."

    "All of us? There is no way the two of us could ever pull off a uniform, at least not convincingly." Eden looks between herself and me. "I-I mean I'm sure you'd look good, but... uh, uhm..."

    Rolling my eyes, I interrupt Eden's stammering, "But we look too young, I know. That's why Sam and Aponi are going alone."

    Eden looks away, seemingly embarrassed.

    Aponi, on the other hand, seems to be considering my words. "So Sam and I go because we both have some training and also the rings that way we can keep in contact. But still Eira, you know they probably have procedures and things like that, that Sam and I wouldn't know. We might get caught a few minutes after entering."

    "Well, then we go with our backup plan!"

    "...You mean reckless violence?"

    "No! Organized violence, obviously! I mean..." I swing my arm around the room, motioning wildly at everything around us. "These Brutes don't know anything other than violence and eating! I've... sorta adjusted my own methods away from pure violence, but Brutes are, well, brutes."

    Sam suddenly walks up. "I wasn't gonna say anything at first since tactics were always Bryan and Aponi's thing, but now that you're talking about putting my life in danger, I thought I should join. You know they'll recognize me the second they see me?" Sam adds.

    "The two we saw were wearing goggles, so you could probably wear those." I remove a razor and shaving cream from my ring. "Shave your beard, and with the goggles, they probably won't recognize you."

    Sam touches his face wistfully. ��...But I wasn't able to grow my beard in the army, so I was kinda excited to grow one."

    I shrug, waving my hand dismissively.

    "Sorry, Sam, but it's not a bad idea," Aponi says, "You'll have plenty of time to grow it later."

    Suddenly, the ground shakes as a group of Brutes approaches with Dolt at the lead.

    Dolt smiles so hard that the veins in his neck nearly pop out. "Guh!" he says, pounding his chest.

    He moves out of the way, and three other Brutes step forward, dropping what is most definitely a gigantic snake. Dolt point at his mouth and then at me.

    "Do they want me to eat this?" I poke the warm, scaly snake. "What kind of snake is it?"

    Eden seems to remember something. "Oh! That might be that Titanoboa thing!"

    "Are you sure it's not just an anaconda or something?" Aponi asks, "Isn't a titanboa supposed to be much bigger than this?"

    "Uhm? I suppose I can't say for sure, but it could be an adolescent titanoboa. Remember we read in that report that they were trying to clone one of these for some reason."

    Aponi lowers herself, opening its mouth to study its pitiful and dainty fangs. "Yeah, but maybe this is just an anaconda they kept for research purposes?"

    While they debate what exactly it is, I instead return my thoughts to Brutes. 'Maybe... I don't need to worry about these Brutes so much. They seem to be doing a decent job gathering food on their own. In fact, the blood of this thing smells pretty good! Hmm, I wonder if prehistoric blood tastes any different?'

    Removing a cup from the ring, I lift the snake's fat head.

    "Huh? Eira, what are you doing?" Eden asks.

    "I'm going to drink its blood, obviously. Might taste pretty good, and it seems like everything else down here has blood with the consistency of old molasses," slitting its throat, I ask, "Want some?"

    "But, this is a snake that has been extinct for millions of years?" she says, "Are you really going to eat it!?"

    "Yeah?" I shrug, "It's dead, but if you don't want any, that's fine."

    She pauses watching the blood flowing into the clear glass. Licking her lips she eventually responds in a small voice, "I-I guess if it's dead... w-we might as well not let it go to waste."

    "See tha-"

    ['Juvenile Titanoboa' Slain - 20% Contribution (Extra 10% for Killing Blow) - 5 Essence Acquired]

    Aponi gazes at me with raised eyebrows. "Everything okay, Eira?"

    "Hmm? Oh, yeah!" I say, laughing awkwardly, "I just started thinking of something... Now drink up, especially Sam and Aponi! You guys have a big mission coming up!"

    'I'm sure there's a few more of these around, right? Although maybe this is for the best, a magical version of this thing would be pretty scary.'

    We take a moment to fill our bellies with the blood of the giant serpent. It was delicious, like a finely aged wine.
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