Townspeople, who were closing up their shops for the day, stopped and stared as the mob of Earthlings passed through the streets, heading toward the forest. They whispered to each other, both curious and concerned about what was happening. It wasn’t every day that these kinds of things happened.
Claire pushed her way through the mob, trying to make her way to the front. The only thing on her mind was saving her team. With each second that passed, it became harder to breathe. Her chest tightening, knowing that at any moment, Erika and the others might die.
The Viermins had ambushed her team while they were fighting another group of monsters. At the time, they knew nothing about the strange insect-like monsters that attacked them, only that their weapons couldn’t break through the monsters' hard shells, leaving them at a disadvantage.
It was only after repeatedly hitting the same place that Claire finally managed to kill one. But by then, it was too late. The monsters had incapacitated the rest of her team. She wanted to stay and fight, but her team yelled at her to get help, so she ran. She ran and ran as fast as she could back to town, praying that they would survive.
“Hey, slow down!”
Liam grabbed Claire’s shoulder, stopping her.
“Listen, I know you might not like it, but we’re a team. We need to stick together. Stop trying to go off on your own.”
“I don’t need your help. Let go.”
Claire shook off his hand and began moving again. Liam didn’t let her escape. He grabbed her arm, yanking her back with more force this time, spinning her around to face him.
“I said, let go!” Claire shouted as she tried to free herself.
“Are you stupid?! You forced me into this! If you get killed, that guy’s gonna fucking kill me!”
Claire stopped trying to pry Liam’s hand off, becoming quiet for a moment. It was true that she had dragged him into this for her selfish reasons. Her only intention was to get permission to partake in the mission, having Liam ordered to protect her was an unintended consequence. While she didn’t regret her actions, it would be a lie to say she didn’t feel a bit guilty about dragging him into this mess.
“…Fine. If you want to stick together, then keep up with me.”
“No. You’re going to stay back here with me.”
Claire glared at Liam, irritated by his flat-out rejection of her compromise.
“Why don’t you get it?! I have to hurry if I want to save my friend and-”
“I couldn’t care less about that. My only job is to make sure you don’t kill yourself, and that means I’m not going to let you charge headfirst into battle, dragging me along with you…”
Liam stopped, realizing this wasn't the best approach to dealing with Claire. Their goals might not align, but they were still in this together, and that meant they needed to work together, butting heads with her wasn’t the answer.
“Listen, if you want to see this through and save your friends, you’re going have to work with me. I get you might not want to, but don’t forget that there’s only two of us. Since that limits what we can do, we should stay in the back while the others do most of the fighting. If we're going to work together, we both need to make some compromises. You understand that, right?”
Claire paused and gave some thought to Liam’s words. Saving Erika and the rest of her team had been the only thing on her mind, nothing else mattered.
But Liam was right. If she wanted to save anybody, she needed to be alive to do it, and she couldn’t do it alone, that was obvious the moment she was forced to run. Truthfully, she was weak. Despite having high enough stats to be recruited into the Association Elites, stats meant nothing when she didn’t have the necessary skills or experience to go along with them.
Losing her will to argue, Claire mumbled a response before walking beside Liam.
When they reached the edge of town, the sky had already turned an orangey shade of red as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
Liam crouched down and began gathering some sticks, before pulling out a bottle of liquor and a few rags from his bag. He soaked the rags in alcohol before wrapping them around the sticks to make torches. He took out the flint and tinder that he had made sure to buy after his first mission. Back then, if he had a torch, he could have finished searching the cave before the Viermins returned and would never have gone through that horrifying experience.
Liam lit the torches and handed one to Claire.
“Here, take one. You’ll need it when it gets darker.”
She snatched it from him without saying a word of thanks. A look of displeasure appeared on her face as she let out a short snort and turned her back to him.
Liam paid no attention to her. He looked around at the Earthlings, inspecting them as they finished their preparations. None of them showed any intention of working closely with anyone outside of the teammates they already knew. They had nothing in common except they all wanted to get this over with quickly so they could get on with their lives. However, they knew better than to rush into the forest alone and chose to wait for everyone else.
What was more apparent was the size of the group; it was smaller than before. There had been close to thirty people when they left the bar, but now, only a little under twenty remained. At least one or two teams had the same idea as Liam did earlier and had snuck away while no one was looking. Unfortunately, Liam didn’t have that option…
‘I got stuck with babysitting duty.’
Liam looked at Claire, who had turned back around and was staring at him with eyes urging him to hurry up. Even though he had convinced her to cooperate earlier, her bad attitude hadn’t changed.
‘At least she’s quiet.’
Having someone glaring at him all the time was annoying, but it was much better than listening to constant complaints or insults. Still, it would be nice if she would stop. It felt like he was sitting at a red light with someone honking their horn behind him. If she had a problem with how slow they were moving, she should take it up with the other teams, not him; he was just following their lead.
Liam continued his observations. Excluding him and Claire, there were five other groups, one of three, one of four, and two of five. In total, there were nineteen people, including themselves. The only person among them, who Liam recognized, was the Cleric who had stood up to the Branch Head. The Cleric seemed particularly upset about being forced into this mission. He kept blurting out complaints, saying how it was stupid to make a Cleric fight without any spells and calling the Branch Head incompetent. His teammates were rolling their eyes, telling him to shut up.
‘Should we group with another team?’
It was hard to call Liam and Claire a proper team, and the terrain they were fighting in was also a problem. Having been in the forest more than once now, Liam was aware that, as a Ranger, he became useless in dense, woody areas and enclosed spaces. Both of which they would encounter during the mission. At those times, he would have to rely entirely on Claire, which made him uneasy.
‘No… It might be better to take our chances alone…’
If he joined a team that meant he had to participate. No team was going to let him sit back and stay out of harm’s way while they did all the work. He would have to fight on the front lines. For now, he chose to wait and see which was safer, fighting with everyone else or hiding.
Soon, the other teams began heading into the forest. Right away, Claire tried to hurry and join up with the first team, but Liam stopped her.
“Hey, hold on! Let’s wait until at least one more team enters, okay?”
Claire begrudgingly agreed.
Liam relaxed a bit. Being in the middle of the group was the best choice for them. The front was the most dangerous, and the back was open to ambushes. From the research he gathered on Viermins weeks ago, he knew they preferred sneaky tactics, so being in the back left them vulnerable.
The forest was dark. The trees overhead blocked most of the remaining sunlight, making it hard to see more than ten yards ahead. The dense shrubs lining the trail limited the Earthlings’ vision on their left and right flanks. It was dead silent except for…
“Fuck this shit!”
…the Earthling walking behind Liam, who kept complaining.
Liam could tell who it was without looking. While he didn’t know their name, there was only one Earthling lively enough to be chattering at this point, all the rest had begrudgingly accepted their fate and planned to complete the mission dutifully. Only the Cleric, who argued with the Branch Head back at the Association, held onto his resentment.
“How’s it our fault that the Viermin nest expanded?! If they wanted the nest cleared out immediately, they should have said so from the start! How are we supposed to know it would turn into this? Ridiculous. Just because a mission is issued doesn’t mean we have to accept it!”
The Cleric kicked a rock. The blow sent it tumbling down the dirt path, bouncing and skipping until it hit a tree and ricocheted off into the bushes.
“Fucking dumbasses. Telling a Cleric to fight with no spells, might as well tell me to kill myself… what a joke…”
His sentence trailed off as he mumbled various insults directed at the Association in a low voice.
Having been subjected to the Cleric’s rant for close to thirty minutes, Liam had given up hope that it would stop anytime soon. At first, he found satisfaction in the Cleric’s complaints, as he too was angry at the Association, but that feeling quickly faded as the Cleric continued. At this point, the Cleric was complaining for the sake of complaining, repeating the same things over and over like a broken record. Liam had become convinced the Cleric could find a reason to whine even if he won the lottery; he came across as that kind of person.
When Liam was beginning to think the Cleric’s voice would kill him long before the Viermins, a savior appeared.
“HOLY FUCK! Would you shut up already?! You’re driving me insane!”
The Warrior walking next to the Cleric screamed as he grabbed the Cleric’s shoulders. He violently shook the Cleric, causing the Cleric’s head to bob up and down like a bobblehead stuck to the dashboard of an eighteen-wheeler.
“We get it! WE FUCKING GET IT, DUDE!”
While the rest of the Cleric’s team had opted to ignore him after realizing that their attempts to silence him only fueled the fire, the Warrior couldn’t take it anymore and snapped.
The Cleric had a stupefied look on his face, surprised by his teammate’s sudden angry outburst.
“None of us want to be here! But we don’t have a choice. It’s not like we can tell the Association to fuck off. Either those guys that ditched are idiots, or they haven’t been here long enough to know how things work. Even if they’re lucky and get off with a slap on the wrist, they’ll regret it later. I mean, paying those fines drains your wallets, and the week-long ban on taking missions... don’t get me started on that…”
The Warrior stopped shaking the Cleric and let out a long sigh before giving him a pat on the shoulder.
“Listen, let’s just get this over with and be thankful it’s Viermin instead of Dwellers or any other Hard rank monsters.”
After a short moment of silence, the Cleric regained his composure and snorted.
“So what?! That doesn’t change the fact it’s stupid to send Clerics on a mission with no spells! What am I supposed to do to defend myself, huh?! I can’t cast a barrier or even heal a small cut! I’m basically useless!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, would you shut up about that! We all know you have two spells left. And don’t even start with, ‘Well, there’s no way the Association could’ve known that.’ Do you think the Branch Head is that stupid? Everyone knows it’s rare for a Cleric to use all their spells. The only time that happens is when a mission turns into a complete shit show. In which case, there’s no way we’d be relaxing and drinking at the bar.”
The Cleric ignored the Warrior as he threw his arms up in the air, shouting his complaints for everyone to hear.
“Goddammit, this town sucks! I swear, once I’m outta here, I’ll never deal with the Association again. What a bullshit organization. They bring us here, yet they push us around and fuck us over all the time! What was the point of summoning us in the first place?! If they need us for something, they should at least treat us with a little more respect!”
The Warrior made one last-ditch attempt to quell the Cleric’s anger, but his voice lacked its previous vigor. After seeing the Cleric bounce back from his verbal onslaught, his spirt was crushed, and now he realized that his effort was in vain.
“Please, for my sanity and everyone else’s, give it a rest already… I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it could be worse. If they wanted to, they could have made us all slaves. At least, they let us do what we want most of the time… Trust me. We’re better off than those snooty Elites. Who cares if they get to live luxurious lives? I’d rather be a poor freeman than a rich slave.”
While Liam did his best to ignore the argument behind him, the team leading the Earthlings suddenly came to a stop.
‘Huh, what’s going on now?’
This wasn’t the first time the leading team had stopped. It had happened frequently throughout the journey, so Liam wasn’t too alarmed. However, the other Earthlings were quickly becoming annoyed.
“Hey, isn’t this like the fifth stop in half an hour? Isn’t that too much?”
“Yeah, this is getting old, fast.”
“I don’t get it. None of the Rangers have noticed anything suspicious, so what’s with this over the top level of caution?”
The whispering behind him eventually stopped as all the Earthlings focused on listening to the conversation up ahead; even the whiny Cleric stopped talking.
“Hey, Pat, what’s up? Why’d you stop?”
Up ahead, a Warrior, carrying a small shield and sword who also appeared to be the leader, questioned the Ranger, Pat, whose eyes had narrowed on the dark forestry to his right side.
Pat didn’t respond right away; his eyes continued to scan the area before he finally held his finger to his lips and spoke in a hushed voice.
“I think… No, I’m certain there’s something ahead…”
The Leader gave a slow nod to Pat as he turned around and gestured to the two other Warriors behind him, a spearman and a swordsman, with his chin. All three of them moved to form a tight circle around the unarmed woman, presumably their Cleric. They kept their eyes fixed on the surroundings with their weapons raised.
Pat crouched down and pressed his ear to the ground.
No one spoke, and no one moved, causing the forest to fall dead silent in an instant.
‘What? What is it?’
Liam’s looked back and forth between dark forest on either side of him, trying to discern what was happening, but he couldn’t hear or see anything suspicious. His surroundings seemed lifeless except for low hum as insects buzzed around his ear.
Time passed. Seconds turned into minutes, yet Pat still didn’t move.
Eventually, one person had enough and let out a long sigh.
“Haaaaaaa… This is taking too long…”
A bald man, from the team in front of Liam, trotted up to Pat’s team. He had his hands tucked behind his head as he whistled a catchy tune in a carefree manner. It wasn’t the attitude someone should be displaying have given the tension in the air. At the same time, the man didn’t give the impression of a blundering fool either. He seemed more confident than careless, as if nothing in this forest posed a threat to him.
“Hey, what’s the holdup? If it’s nothing major, then we should get moving. I don’t know about you, but I’m not lookin’ to spend all night here… So if there’s a problem, let me know because maybe I can-”
“My Ranger heard something. Can’t you see that?”
The bald man frowned, hearing the Leader’s sharp tone which sound like he was telling him to buzz off.
“Yeah, I can see that, I’m not blind. I’m asking if you know what he heard. Because right now, none of us have any clue why we stopped. If there were monsters within 30 to 40 yards of us, the other Rangers would have noticed. I could understand the extra caution if stealth-type monsters were living around here, but those are only found deeper in the forest.”
“We aren’t sure what it is yet, but my Ranger is confident there’s something ahead. Just wait for him to finish, and I'll tell you.”
“Okay, but I still don’t get why you're going this far. Isn't giving us a heads-up enough? Or, did you forget what we’re up against? It’s Viermin, VIERMIN. They’re only Medium-Lower rank monsters. Even if five of them attack us together, there’s nothing to worry about. The same is true for everything in this part of the forest. All the monsters are weak for Earthlings who have been in Orbis for a while like us…”
The bald man abruptly stopped his sentence and facepalmed.
“Aw, shit! I get it now! Gaaah! Why didn’t I realize sooner? You guys, you’ve only been in Orbis for two or three months, haven’t you?”
The Leader didn’t say anything, his expression remained stiff, and his eyes stayed focus on his surroundings. Anyone watching could tell the Leader was ignoring the man; however, the man took the Leader’s silence as confirmation.
“Ahh, I knew it! I shouldn’t have let another team take the lead. Well, at least I caught it early… Listen, no hard feelings, but my team will take things over from here. You did a good job until now, it’s just that we need to keep things moving…”
The bald man walked up and reached his arm out to pat the Leader on the back.
“Woah! Watch it, man!”
He jumped back as the Leader swatted his hand away.
“Friend. If you’ve got a problem with me and my team, save it for when we get back to town. Right now, my Ranger is working, so be quiet and stay out of the way.”
The bald man quickly waved his hands in the air as if trying to dissipate the tension.
“Hey, hey. I’m not looking to start a fight. I was just offering to help out since you guys were having some trouble. If we keep this pace, we’ll be here until morning. My team needs to get some sleep. We’re trying to save for our departure from Kelm in a few weeks, so we can’t afford to miss a day of work. I’m sure everyone here has similar circumstances.”
“I understand your concerns, but we have things under control. We’ll be moving again soon, so be quiet and wait patiently.”
The bald man sighed and shook his head while giving an exaggerated shrug with his arms raised and his palms facing upwards.
“Looks like you just don’t get it… Well, maybe I should have phrased it better… What I’m saying is, you should listen to your seniors when they offer you advice. I’ve been here for almost twelve months, and my team and I are all almost Rank 2. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“Oh? I see, so that’s why…”
The Leader’s eyes widened in surprise. But for some reason, he didn’t look all that impressed with the man.
The bald man smirked and raised his chin with pride as he began lecturing the Leader. His demeanor was similar to an older sibling bragging to the younger one, trying to impress them.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s good to be cautious, but you’re going a little overboard for a few Viermins. If you keep stopping for every sound, we’ll be here all night. Just relax a bit and let me take over. My team and I will wrap this up quickly so we can all be on our way.”
The swordsman, standing next to the Leader, grit his teeth as he listened to the bald man belittling his teammate. He tightened his grip on his sword, causing the veins in his muscular arms to bulge. As he took a step forward, the thin spearman next to him moved the shaft of his spear and blocked the swordsman’s path. The spearman shook his head at the swordsman as if to say, ‘Don’t get involved.’
The swordsman stopped moving and clenched his jaw harder. His face twisted in rage as he sent a hostile glare towards the bald man.
While the man continued to talk down to them, bragging about his accomplishments and experience, Pat stood up and quietly approached the Leader.
“What’s up? Did you find anything?”
Nate turned to Pat.
“Yeah, it looks like there's a group of Viermin ahead.”
“Oh? What are their numbers and location?”
“It’s about 70 to 80 yards down the trail… I’m not sure how many, but if I had to guess…”
Pat held his chin and closed his eyes as he thought of an estimate.
“Hmm, maybe a little over thirty of them.”
“Damn, really? If there’s that many, then I guess the Branch Head wasn’t lying when he said their population exploded. Man, I really thought he was exaggerating like usual so they could take down that Viermin mission. The reward was getting a little too high for those money-grubbers, so I was expecting them to do something about the mission eventually, just not so soon… But if there are that many, I can see why they upped it to an emergency mission so fast. Having a bunch of Viermin running around the forest would be a big problem, especially since another group of Earthlings will be summoned in a few weeks.”
When Nate finished, he turned to the man who had previously been nagging him.
The bald man had fallen silent after hearing Pat’s report. Beads of sweat could be seen on his forehead, and his skin had turned ghastly pale.
“…Do you still want to take the lead?”
The bald man let out a big breath of air as if he had been holding his breath the entire time.
“Ahahaha… On second thought, it looks like you have things under control.”
He slowly crept back and rejoined his team.
While Viermins were weak monsters to every Earthling who had been in Orbis for a few months, that changed when their numbers surpassed a certain amount. With numbers, even the weakest of monsters could overwhelm a skilled fighter. The man was well aware of this, so when he heard Pat’s report, his courage instantly vanished.
As soon as he was gone, the swordsman, who had been holding his tongue, snorted.
“I knew that bastard was trash from the moment he opened his mouth! Fuck! Rex, you should’da let me punch him. Then we wouldn’t have had to listen to his shitty voice.”
“Calm down, Marc. Punching him would’ve caused trouble… But I know what you mean. Twelve months and still Rank 1, that’s pretty bad. I bet the dude’s a spineless coward who’s only survived until now by leeching off others… Speaking of Rank 2, what’s the average again? Wasn’t it ten about ten months?”
Rex had a calm voice. From this alone, he seemed much more levelheaded than Marc.
“Who gives a shit! All I know is that I made it to Rank 2 in nine months. That shithead can’t even reach my feet. He should know his place before he opens his mouth.”
The female Cleric shyly interjected.
“Um, Marc? It actually took you ten months, so technically you’re average. Rex and Nate did it in nine months.”
Marc whipped his head around, his mouth agape.
“Wha-? H-Hannah? Why are you saying that?! And why do you sound so confident about it?!”
Hannah looked to the side, avoiding eye contact with Marc.
“Well… It’s because you always mess these things up. You exaggerate your achievements and downplay your losses. Like last week when you said that you bought a sword for 250 nickel, but it was actually 275 nickel… I always found it a bit annoying, so I started keeping track. Sorry.”
“W-Wha-What the fuck?!”
Nate yelled at them before anybody had a chance to respond to Marc.
“Hey, cut it out, you guys! This isn’t the time to be messing around!”
Hearing Nate’s stern voice, the three of them became quiet. They had relaxed a bit because the Viermins were still a distance away, and they had time to prepare.
“Let’s let the other teams know what’s going on, then we’ll head out, got it?”
Nate’s teammates nodded at his instructions and quickly informed the other Earthlings about the Viermins.
They offered a simple warning, ‘There are around thirty Viermins ahead, watch out.’ That was all. No strategies, instructions, or finer details were given. It wasn’t out of malicious intent, but rather, this was Orbis.
A world where it wasn’t the duty of the strong is to protect the weak; it was the choice of the strong to protect the weak. Everyone was responsible for their own lives. If someone couldn’t defend themselves, that was their problem, not someone else’s. The Earthlings with righteous beliefs and altruistic mindsets either died or lived long enough to see their ideals change. Simply put, there were no heroes in Orbis, only survivors.
A few minutes passed before the Earthlings resumed their journey toward the Viermin nest. Since there was only one trail that headed in the nest, it was impossible to avoid the Viermins.
Of course, they could make their own trail by going through the forest, but that wasn’t a good idea. Movements became restricted, and it was harder to see once they left the trail. Additionally, their mission was to exterminate all the Viermins, so avoiding a fight was pointless. Not to mention that leaving the Viermins alive would leave their backside open to an attack.
Despite this, the Earthlings carried an air of confidence. Knowing where the Viermins were gave them time to prepare for the fight. They were as ready as they could be, but no expected what happened next…
When they were around fifty yards down the trail, Liam heard a swishing sound followed by something heavy hitting the ground.
“Wh-What the hell?!”
Hearing the shout, Liam whipped his head around and saw the whiny Cleric laying face first in the dirt. There was a foot-long needle in his head, running through his temples.
The Cleric was dead.