Chapter 26: Fires in the Night (2)
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‘What just… What just happened!?’

Everything happened so fast that Liam couldn’t react. Even now, he was still grasping at straws, trying to piece things together. The Cleric was dead; he was certain of that. No one could survive having a needle, as thick as a pencil and long as a ruler, skewer through their brain.

The problem was… the attack had no warning or sound, making it impossible to predict or trace.

The unseen sniper. An enemy who struck fear into the bravest of soldiers. Attacks could come from anywhere and at any time. And until the sniper was dealt with, no one was safe.

‘How…How am I supposed to defend myself against something like this?!’

If Earthlings, far more experienced than him, were helpless, then what about Liam?

‘Damn, I have to do something!’

Liam pushed aside his encroaching fear and moved. He crouched down and crawled closer to some nearby trees, using them as cover. Given that the enemy was a sniper, staying low to the ground and out of sight was the best thing he could do.

A man, one of the Cleric’s teammates, crouched down and turned over the Cleric’s body. The Cleric’s face was expressionless, his eyes were still wide open, and his mouth ajar.

The man began inspecting the body with a complex expression. Having been in Orbis for far longer than Liam, the experiences he accumulated allowed him to maintain his calm and approach the situation rationally despite losing an ally. As he looked at the needle, he began muttering something.

“Wait… isn’t this…?”

His eyes popped open, and he shouted in a panic-ridden voice. No trace of calm remained.

“Goddammit! It’s a fucking Puffer!”

“Wait, what!? That can’t be right. We’re too far from…”

His teammate tried to speak, but he cut them off and pointed at the needle lodged in the Cleric’s head.

“Look at it yourself! That’s a Puffer needle!”

“…Oh God, you’re right… Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! What’s a Puffer doing out here?!”

“Hell, if I know! But we need to find it, fast!”

‘Puffer?’

Liam couldn’t follow the conversation. He had no clue what a Puffer was, only that it was dangerous enough to strike fear into the other Earthlings, and it didn’t sound like it was supposed to be in this part of the forest.

Something was wrong, very wrong. Liam could feel it.

‘Shit…’

Liam changed his evaluation of the mission. He had been fully aware of how dangerous this would be from the start; however, he wasn’t expecting it to be on this level. One wrong move could be his last.

The same was true for everyone else. It didn’t matter if they had been in Orbis one month or ten, no one was safe from this sniper. Liam couldn’t risk relying on them. If he wanted to survive, he needed to protect himself. The only problem was he didn’t know how to.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

Liam’s heart pounded. The initial shock of seeing someone drop dead, followed by the Earthlings panicked reactions, had caused his instinct to take hold. He needed to calm down. His nerves were getting in the way of his decision making and clouding his judgment.

Liam took a deep breath, filling his lungs, and as he breathed out, his head cooled down. With his mental state solidified, he looked around.

The Earthlings behind him had entered the forest to flush out the Puffer. They couldn’t let the sniper sit back and pick them off one by one.

But Liam didn’t have time to worry about them. He had his own problems to deal with.

Up ahead, Hannah and another Cleric had set up a translucent barrier to protect themselves from the sniper; the only reason Liam could see the barrier was because of the faint glow coming from the Clerics’ hands and the distorted air around them.

Liam’s immediate thought was to get inside the barrier. Since the two teams behind him were gone, he and Claire were the only Earthlings left on the trail who were outside the barrier; they were basically sitting ducks.

Liam sharply turned to Claire and barked an order.

“Hey, we need to go over there! Inside the barrier!”

He pointed at where the Earthlings had gathered.

Claire nodded, and they both started running.

Kreeeeeee!

When they were halfway to the barrier, a blood-curdling shriek came from the forest. A moment later, a Viermin jumped out and rushed toward them.

‘!!!’

Startled, Liam skidded to a stop and pulled out his bow.

Whoosh! He fired an arrow at the Viermin. Thwack! The arrow bounced off one of the Viermin’s exoskeleton. He remained calm and fired again, this time aiming for the head.

WhooshThwack!

The arrow hit the Viermin’s shoulder, missing by only a few inches.

Viermin had no neck, so their head connected directly to their upper body, similar to a lobster. It was a small target, too small for Liam to hit in the middle of combat.

His shots weren’t powerful enough to break through the Viermins’ hard shells, and they weren’t accurate enough to hit the Viermins’ heads.

‘Oh, fuck!’

Liam lowered his bow, turning to the side, he prepared to avoid the Viermin’s charge, but before he moved…

Crack!

Claire’s sword struck the Viermin’s torso, stopping it. Her sword was incredibly dull and couldn’t cut through the shell, but her brute strength was enough to make a crack. And more importantly, it captured the Viermin’s attention.

“Kreeeee!”

In a fit of rage, the Viermin raised its claws and snapped them.

Claire raised her sword and bent her knees, taking a defensive stance, as the Viermin swung its massive claws down.

THUD!

Claire jumped back as the claws smashed into the ground, leaving a deep indentation. Had the blow hit Claire, there was no doubt her bones would be broken.

As the Viermin was raising its arms, Claire put power into her knees and lunged forward, stabbing her sword through the cracked shell. Splat! There was a wet sound as slimly liquid spurted out of the Viermin’s abdomen. Claire twisted her sword side-to-side, digging the blade in and scrambling up the Viermin’s insides.

“Kreeeeee!”

The Viermin screeched, wildly swinging its arms at Claire in a desperate attempt to save itself.

Claire yanked her sword out and jumped back.

The Viermin hunched over, clutching the gaping hole in its stomach as if trying to stop its insides from falling out.

‘Now!’

Seeing an opening, Liam swiftly fired an arrow. Whoosh…! THUCK! The arrow hit, cleanly passing through the Viermin’s head, skewering its brain like a kabob.

The Viermin let go of its stomach, allowing a greenish green liquid to pour out, before staggering forward and collapsing.

‘The head is definitely its weak spot.’

As long as Liam had time to aim, he could kill the Viermins. Their bodies were tough, and their blows were heavy, but in terms of speed, they were only as fast as the average human. Still, that didn’t mean he could let down his guard. One blow was all a Viermin needed to kill him.

Liam was about to continue running forward but stopped after seeing two Viermins heading towards him.

‘I can’t even catch my breath!’

His entire body was aching from fighting the goblins earlier today. If the Viermins kept appearing this frequently, he didn’t know how long it would be before he ran out of energy.

Liam shouted at Claire.

“Hey! Watch out! Two more!”

Immediately, Claire raised her sword. Holding it like a baseball bat, she swung at one of the Viermin. Thwack! Her sword connected, and the Viermin smashed into the ground. Splat! Its shell split open and green guts shot out of its back.

‘I guess that’s one way to do it…’

With the two short fights, Liam could already tell that Claire’s fighting style had no technique. She fought recklessly and used brute strength to bulldoze her way through enemies. It was inefficient and had many flaws, but surprisingly, it allowed Liam to make the best use of his abilities.

Whoosh! Whoosh! Liam fired two arrows at the second Viermin, which had turned its attention to Claire. Crack! The first landed, crippling one of the Viermin’s smaller arms on its chest. Thuck! The second pierced its head, instantly killing it. Its limp body fell forward, hitting the ground with a loud thud.

Claire and Liam made a good pair. While she distracted the enemies, he could take the time to aim his shots.

Rustle, rustle! Three more Viermins popped out of the bushes.

‘Is there an end to them?!’

“Claire! More!” Liam shouted; his words were cryptic but carried a clear message.

“I can’t!”

Claire had her hands full fighting two Viermins that had appeared behind them and couldn’t help him.

“Damnit!”

Liam gritted his teeth and fired an arrow at the Viermins. Whoosh! Liam’s arrow hit one of their shells and bounced off. He jumped back to distance himself from them. Whoosh! Whoosh! He fired two arrows in quick succession, but his aim was off, and both missed.

“Shit!” Liam cursed as he reached into his quiver, grabbing another arrow.

Liam ignored his instinct to flee and took an extra second to aim his next shot. Whoosh! The arrow cut through the air, making a crisp sound and… Thuck! It penetrated one of the Viermins’ heads, causing its limp body toppled over, somersaulting across the ground.

Liam reached into his quiver again but stopped. The distance between him and the Viermins was rapidly shrinking.

‘!!!’

Liam spun around and sprinted the other way.

‘Where can I go?!’

His eyes searched the battlefield, looking for a safe spot, but it was hopeless.

‘Damnit! I have no choice! I have to try and make to the barrier!’

And there was only one way there – through the Viermins blocking his path.

Liam skidded to a stop and spun back around to face the Viermins. Reaching into his quiver, he grabbed an arrow and fired. Whoosh! Without checking if the arrow hit, he repeated the same action. Arrows flew rapidly at the Viermins.

Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

The Viermins charged through the volley of arrows, showing no signs of injury as the arrows pelted their shells.

As Liam nocked another arrow, pulling back the bowstring, his eyes widened at the Viermins, now mere feet in front of him; they had closed the distance.

‘Is this it…?’

In the face of death, time seemed to slow. Liam could see the outline of the Viermin’s claws opening, preparing to clamp down on his limbs, crushing his bones. Their tentacle-like whiskers wiggled in the air, and their beady eyes stared at him, longing to kill him.

Liam gnashed his teeth, reaffirming his desire to survive at any cost. Kill or be killed, that was the way of this world. He had already come too far to roll over and die.

Liam released the bowstring. The arrow rocketed toward one of the Viermins. Whoosh! Up close, it was impossible to miss, and the arrow, having just left the string, was still at maximum velocity. Thud! The arrow hit the Viermin’s chest with a powerful force, causing its body to quake as the arrow broke through its tough shell. The Viermin collapsed before reaching Liam.

The last remaining Viermin was already mid lung. It was too late for Liam to move out of the way. Using the bow as a shield, he blocked the Viermin’s claw. Crack! The bow split in half, sending pieces of wood flying in every direction.

Liam tossed the broken bow aside and reached for Keith’s knife. At the same time, the Viermin tackled him to the ground.

“Aaargh!”

Liam struggled to hold the Viermin back with one hand while his other fumbled at his waist, trying to grab the knife. As he desperately held back its snapping claws, Liam’s hand connected with the knife.

“Fucking bastard!”

Liam swung the blade around, stabbing the Viermin in the back repeatedly. Mucus-like blood oozed out of its shell, covering Liam’s hand, making his grip on the knife weaken.

“KreeeEEEeee!!”

The Viermin let out an angry screech but didn’t falter. Its claws continued to get closer to Liam as the Viermin gradually overpowered him.

‘!!!’

Liam’s eyes widened as the slimy, cold shell of the Viermin’s claws pressed against his neck. It was going to crush his throat.

Liam dropped the knife and used both hands the push the Viermin back with all his strength, as he pressed the back of his head into the ground, trying to move his neck away. Snap! The Viermin’s pincers snapped shut, mere centimeters away from his throat.

Immediately, Liam kicked the Viermin’s abdomen with both his feet, knocking it off him. He quickly rolled away and tried to push himself up, but the Viermin was already charging.

Smash! Liam rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding the Viermin claw as it smashed down on the spot his head was a moment ago.

While the Viermin was preparing to attack again, Liam scrambled to his feet and darted over to the knife. By the time he grabbed it, the Viermin was again rushing towards him.

Liam firmly gripped the slimy handle with both hands, and focused all his attention on the Viermin’s arms, waiting for the exact moment when…

Swish! The Viermin swung its arms horizontally, and Liam ducked down, dodging the attack. From underneath the Viermin’s chest, he pushed off his feet and extended his arms, plunging the knife into its chest.

Liam twisted the blade and, using all his weight, pushed the Viermin to the ground. He drove the knife as deep as he could into its chest before pulling it out and stabbing back down. Stab! Stab! Stab! Stab! Stab…! Liam repeatedly stabbed until it stopped twitching.

‘I…It's dead…’

Liam’s clothes and armor were covered in different shades of green slime, blood, and sticky mucus. There were mud and dirt caked on his skin and stuck in his hair. Disgusting was a fitting term, but after hiding in a pile of rotting corpses, he wasn’t bothered by some blood and guts.

Liam didn’t care about his appearance because right now, he needed to get to the barrier. As he stood up, he quickly glanced at Claire. It looked like she had things under control; she had killed one of the Viermins and was finishing off the second. That being the case, he decided to continue on without her.

Normally, Liam wouldn’t think twice about another person, especially someone like Claire, but this was a special situation. The Branch Head had ordered him to protect Claire; he didn’t know what the consequences of failure were, nor did he plan to find out. Still, that didn’t mean Liam would die protecting her, in the end, he always put himself first, that’s why he decided to continue forward; it would be suicide for him to head back into battle without a bow, and he wasn’t planning to die a meaningless death.

When Liam arrived at the barrier, one of the Earthlings inside shouted at him.

“Hey, you! Get in here! Hurry up!”

The Earthlings provided covering fire, killing the Viermins jumping out of the forest, as he ran through the barrier.

‘I…I made it…!’

Liam dropped to his knees from exhaustion. His muscles ached, and he was sore all over. The near-death battle with the Viermin had sapped the last of his strength, more than he initially realized. Now that he was safe, fatigue had hit him like a truck.

Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

The sound of arrows cutting through the air caught Liam’s attention.

Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

Liam looked and watched as Pat shot three more three arrows with incredible speed.

Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

Every time Pat fired, three Viermins dropped to the ground.

‘Woah… He’s like a machine…’

Pat’s feet stayed planted on the ground as he rotated his torso to shift his aim between targets. Each time he released the bowstring, three arrows shot out like a machine gun set to 3-round burst.

‘Is that a Skill, or is he just that skilled?’

Either way, be it power, speed, precision, or accuracy, Liam fell short of Pat in every way. The two of them couldn’t be compared; the difference in skill was that significant.

Pat wasn’t the only Earthling killing the Viermins in droves. Standing on opposite sides of the barrier, Rex and Marc fought the Viermins that were trying to break inside. Bodies were quickly piling up.

Rex thrust his spear forward, stabbing into the chest of a Viermin. With a sharp twist of his wrist, blood spluttered out of the wound. He yanked his spear out and stabbed another Viermin before the first one’s body hit the ground.

“Huaarhh!”

Marc let out a roar as he cleaved a Viermin in half, his sword passed through its hard shell with ease.

Swish!

He swung his sword to the side, slicing off the arms of another Viermin. He kicked the arms-less Viermin away, sending it flying into a tree, as he lunged forward, stabbing his sword through the chest of a third Viermin.

Marc glanced over his shoulder at Rex. A big grin appeared on his face when he saw there were only three corpses at Rex’s feet as opposed to the five at his feet.

“Hey, Rex!” Marc shouted in an upbeat voice.

“What?”

Rex responded as he stabbed his spear through the Viermin; he had a look of boredom on his face as if he was repeating the same monotonous task that he had done a thousand times before.

“Wanna make a bet on who can kill the most?”

As Rex casually pulled the spear out of the Viermin, a hint of interest appeared in his eyes. The edges of his lips curled into a slight smile.

“Hmm. Sure. What’s the wager?”

“50 nickel!”

“Woah!”

A look of surprise appeared on Rex’s face; he was a bit taken aback by the hefty sum. Even for Rank 2 Earthlings, fifty nickel was at least a few days’ work. Rex decided to offer Marc a chance to back out.

“Are you sure you? We can do 15 nickel if you want. Considering what happened last time, you might want to…”

“Shut up! That was a long time ago! This time, it’ll be different!”

“You sure?”

“You think I’m scared?! HA! Fine! Let’s make it 100 nickel!”

Rex grinned, having roped Marc in.

“Alright, just don’t get mad when you lose.”

Rex jumped out of the barrier and charged toward the attacking Viermins. He thrust his spear forward with more vigor than before and quickly killed two. He shot a smug smile towards Marc and spoke with a teasing tone.

“I think that makes us even, right?! You better pick up the pace, or you might end up going broke again!”

“You little-!”

Marc stopped himself short of yelling when he saw Rex moving to kill his sixth Viermin. His hands became sweaty, as he watched his initial lead evaporate in an instant. The possibility of losing started to look real, and he was beginning to regret his cocky confidence earlier.

“Shit!”

He jumped out of the barrier and rushed toward a Viermin, determined not to be outdone by Rex. But just as he was about to reach the Viermin, there was a high-pitched whistle.

Wieeeeeeeeee!

“Huh?”

The Viermin charging toward him turned around and started running in the opposite direction. It wasn’t just that Viermin, all of them were retreating into the forest.

“Hey, get back here, you little bastard! Let me kill you! I can’t let Rex win!”

Marc chased after the Viermin, but he came to a stop when he heard Nate’s voice.

“Marc! Rex! Don’t chase them! Let them retreat for now! We need to regroup!”

“Fuck…”

Defeated and dejected, Marc hung his head as he slowly walked back and rejoined the group.

7