The maneater began to swing its antenna in all directions as the assault intensified, but it couldn’t locate its attacker.
Zin didn’t stop there. He loaded another round into his bolt action.
It didn’t take him long to fire again.
Leona was lying flat on the ground thanks to the roars and flashes, hands over her ears. She was sure her ears were going to explode.
Rather than explode, this round burst into flames as it hit the monster’s torn mouth. Instantly, one of the monster’s several mouths was engulfed in white smoke and huge flames.
The intensity of the fire caused the maneater to stagger and swing its antenna wildly, only managing to take down innocent buildings in its wake.
Zin reloaded. The rounds he just used were two different kinds of ammunition. The first was 7.62 mm buckshot, which explodes on impact. The one he just used was a #76 special incendiary. AKA a white phosphorous shell. It creates a blazing hot fire that instantly engulfs the target in flames. This special white phosphorous shell is made by taking normal phosphorous ammo and adding ignition and spreading agents, both processed from blue chips. The addition of even the tiniest amount of this special white phosphorous to a 7.62 mm round is powerful enough to create a colossal flame. Leona raised her head to the magnificently lit night sky, entranced by burning maneater.
“What in God’s name…”
Zin watched as the maneater thrashed and wailed.
He had taken a maneater down with just two rounds.
“Was that some kind of magic?”
“Monster blood is notoriously flammable.”
Fire has always been the enemy of beasts. Leona wasn’t sure fire had to do with being flammable. Zin didn’t provide further explanation.
Leona was pointing at the thrashing monster, overcome by an uneasy feeling.
“For whatever reason, it seems like the monster just looked at us. Am I wrong?”
While it was hard to distinguish its front from its back, Leona couldn’t shake the feeling that the monster was looking at them. Zin nodded his head.
“I think you’re right.”
“Wh, what?!? Then, ahhhhh!!!”
Zin grabbed the back of Leona’s head and lifted her up.
-THUMP! THUMP THUMP THUMP!!
The enraged maneater rushed at Zin and Leona. Its speed was unbelievable.
Zin pitched forward without looking back. Leona, hanging from Zin’s shoulder, was staring at the charging monster as it came closer and closer, leveling buildings in its path.
“Fa, faster! Run faster!”
Leona found it hard to keep her head on straight when a flaming ball of flesh was charging for her.
“Mister, I think that bastard is shouting that he’s going to kill us! Don’t you think?!?”
“I doubt it’s something much different.”
Zin fled from the monster calmly, nimbly leaping onto the roof of a building opposite.
Any way you slice it, running from a monster wasn’t a great look for Zin.
After the corpse hunters had fled, the only ones left in Jado were Zin, Leona, and the flaming maneater.
The maneater’s size had ballooned to upwards of eight meters in length. Despite his efforts, Zin was unable to outpace the monster’s top speed.
It occurred to Zin that whoever came up with the notion that fleeing is sometimes the best strategy created it with Zin and his situation in mind.
Zin’s current flight certainly made him think of the idea that discretion is the better part of valor.
-Thump thump thump!
Zin was avoiding open areas as he moved, choosing instead to work his way through the buildings into places the maneater couldn’t go. He only ran to places the monster would have to run through buildings to get to.
Zin could feel the maneater rushing behind him on his heels, crushing the buildings as he followed Zin through narrow alleyways and entrances. Every time the maneater reached where he thought Zin should be, Zin had already moved on to another location.
“How come it’s not dying?!?”
“He’s a big bastard - it’s gonna take a while for him to burn.”
The flames soon spread to engulf the entire monster. It was clear that he was slowly burning to death. Instead of becoming weaker, however, the maneater was turning Jado into a sea of fire, pitching burning flesh left and right.
Leona turned pale as she watched a chunk of burning flesh fall and explode like a fireball.
One hour. That’s how long it took the monster to burn up completely.
Zin and Leona, still sprawled over Zin’s shoulder, stood eyeing the exhausted, motionless monster draw its last breaths. Zin would have to wait until the smoke rising from the maneater’s body subsided until he could retrieve the chips. The pair found a bit of collapsed concrete in the area and rested for the time being.
While it was true that Zin took down a huge monster with just two shots, for some reason Leona didn’t think it was cool at all. Leona mumbled sullenly,
“I always thought that hunters would, you know, do something exciting like, BAM! POW! POW POW POW! when they fought.
Leona obviously had some kind of misguided, preconceived notion of hunters. This wasn’t just a problem with Leona - most people thought the same thing.
People think that a hunter’s life is filled with fights with monsters, magnificent battles, weapons crashing with weapons, quick and graceful movements, etc. Zin just laughed.
“That’s how amateurs fight.”
Real hunters aren’t ‘cool’ at all when they fight. They take down the enemy at minimal cost and reap maximum profit. That was even more true for Zin, whose life and death was determined by chips. Leona nodded her head, as she too was aware that the concept had nothing to do with being cool.
“Seems like you’re not afraid of monsters at all,” asked Zin, eyeing Leona. She did let out a few screams, but she didn’t shake in terror. Leona raised her upper lip into a frown, as if disregarding Zin’s statement.
“Even if I’m no match, I don’t panic.”
Fear leads to cowering. Cowering leads to death.
“What good can come from being afraid?”
Leona laughed, and Zin admitted to himself that Leona was more than a little different.
“Your name matches your spirit.”
“My name? What do you mean?”
Leona tilted her head as she asked. A name is just a name. People who were curious about the origin of a name - who placed meaning in names - those people disappeared a long time ago.
Even if I’m no match, I don’t panic.
Zin thought that was a pretty cool thing to say.
“What do you mean,” persisted Leona.
“Nah, it’s nothing.”
Leona, the name for an animal that no longer exists.
Wasn’t Leona once the name for a female lion?
After some time had passed, Zin stuck the chip extractor into the monster, still throwing up plumes of white phosphorous smoke, and retrieved the chips. Zin was able to get 108 chips from the maneater itself, plus the chips the maneater acquired when it ate all the other monsters. 229 chips in total. 168 chip profit when you consider the production cost of the two rounds he used to take out the maneater. It was a pretty efficient hunt.
His fee for completing the job, plus the chips he made from Leona, plus the chips he acquired from the maneater hunt, all added up to a fairly large sum for a search expedition to Jado.
[Operation Limit extended 400 hours.]
Minus a small amount for emergencies, Zin swallowed all the chips, as his fate demanded. Leona was in awe as she watched Zin shove hundreds of chips in his mouth.
“Ar- are you crazy?!?”
Leona was right to be shocked. Blue chips had been used as currency since the world collapsed. There were also the only source of energy. Nevertheless, they weren’t meant to be eaten. While only in trace amounts, blue chips contain a toxin called CP. Eating blue chips would be analogous to a person pre-collapse chugging gasoline.
Zin wiped his mouth and said nonchalantly,
“Don’t worry, it’s ok to eat them.”
“Just because it’s ok to eat them doesn’t mean it’s not strange if you eat them!”
It’s not like he had just eaten a little pebble from the side of the road - 400 chips could provide enough energy to power a sizable town for a few months. The two entered an empty building in abandoned Jado and pulled out their gear. They would leave tomorrow and head for Ard Point. Once he received his payment, this job would be finished.
While he wasn’t sure why, Zin had given up trying to understand the countless things in the world that were hard to grasp.
Zin stoked a fire and placed a pot on top of the flames. Zin glanced at the uncomfortable Leona as he took out a large pile of meat.
“Tha- that’s not the monster from...before? Is it?!?”
Leona shuddered at the thought that the pile of meat Zin had just taken out may have been from the maneater. She wondered what it would taste like - ghoul meat was awful, so how bad would the maneater be, as terrible as it looked?
“If you’d like to try some white phosphorous gas marinated meat, I could go get you some right now.”
Even Zin wouldn’t touch meat cooked with white phosphorous gas. Even if you disregard the toxins, it wouldn’t be edible.
That said, ghoul wasn’t that much better in the taste department.
“So that’s a no, right??”
“Uh-huh, this is ghoul.”
“....that’s not much better…”
Maneater or ghoul, both were gross. Nevertheless, they lived in a world of less-worse choices, and Leona knew that. Leona seemed to have adjusted to the smell of fat that rose from the boiled ghoul, as she managed to force it down without gagging.
‘She’s quick to adjust. No wonder she’s survived this long.’
She gagged and threw up when she ate ghoul for the first time. She’s not even blinking an eye now, chowing down on the very same meat. Zin suddenly became even more curious why this kid was wandering around such a pitiful world - so pitiful that the word ‘heartless’ had faded from colloquial use.
He didn’t say anything, though. Leona spoke up first.
“What’s your name, mister?”
“Hmmm. Just one syllable. Weird.”
“There are as many names in the world as there are people. There are bound to be some strange ones.”
Leona was sitting next to the fire, staring at the embers.
Zin was old and not accustomed to sleeping early, if at all. Leona wasn’t an early-to-bed kid, either.
“Being a hunter, you must’ve seen a lot of places, no?”
“Something like that.”
Leona added, staring at Zin,
“Are there any nice places out there to live?”
“A nice place to live?”
“Yeah. A place for a tiny kid like me. A point, castle, whatever. Anything’s ok.”
What are the standard for ‘nice places to live?’ Zin hesitated for a bit. There wasn’t one place in the world that met Zin’s standard.
Something did come to mind if qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ or ‘relatively’ were placed in front of ‘nice place to live.’
“Once your job is done mister, I want to live in a nice place. I’ll squeeze in if I have to.”
“If you’re confident you won’t get caught, wouldn’t a free city be perfect? You could steal for a living.”
“Almost getting beaten to death - I think working for a living would be better in a lot of ways. I don’t want to get hung up on a pole again.”
Leona was shaking her head side to side. Zin took a long look at Leona’s face and responded,
“A Castle may work.”
“You’d have no trouble staying alive if you joined a lord’s harem.”
“A harem? Would they even take a tiny kid like me?”
Rather than feeling repulsed about becoming a member of a harem, Leona was curious whether they’d accept her. Survival trumps everything in a world without dignity. Leona continued,
“Well, a few pricks have tried to rape me. I bet some lord would take me.”
Leona chuckled as she spoke.
“I guess it would be better than being a whore.”
There’s not much a small kid can do for work. Being weak means you’re a weakling, and weaklings are dangerous from all angles. They can’t assign work, and they can’t do any work themselves.
Kids - boys and girls - end up selling their bodies if they don’t have a protector. Even some kids with protectors end up selling their bodies; their parents may force them, they may get kidnapped, or they may do it for chips.
There was no trace of dignity in Leona’s face, so there could be no sadness, either. Nor was there anguish or distress.
That was natural in this world. ‘Natural’ is a variable concept. Zin thought about the past’s natural and the present’s natural. He could feel a considerable gap between the two.
“Why are you looking for a nice place to live?”
“I ran away from a nice place to live?”
“I killed my dad. People don’t take too kindly to murderers where I came from. So I left.”
Leona left her hometown when she became a murderer. She bounced around without a home, looking for a nice place to settle down. Zin watched as Leona added, mumbling,
“My mom was a whore; my dad a pimp.”
Leona neatly summed up her life story.
Buy us some coffee!