Liam stayed kneeling on the ground even after the Viermins retreated. Although this wasn’t the ideal place to be resting, he didn’t bother moving. The fatigue earlier was only the start, what came next was the mental fatigue, since he wasn’t in anyone’s way, he decided to put off moving until his exhaustion subsided.
Liam looked around the battlefield. In a short time, a lot had changed. The barrier protecting Liam and the other Earthlings had disappeared, and now the Clerics were resting off to the side. They were a bit pale and droplets of sweat had accumulated on their foreheads. Apparently, maintaining such a large barrier for an extended period took a bigger tole on Clerics’ stamina than healing wounds. At least that’s what Liam thought since compared to when Sherry used her magic, these Clerics showed greater signs of exhaustion.
The other Earthlings were walking around surveying the area; some dismantled Viermins, taking any parts of value while others stood watch. Pat and the other Rangers were collecting arrows that could be reused, and Rex and Marc were arguing about who had won the bet; Marc insisted the challenge wasn’t over until the last Viermin was dead, while Rex teased him about being a sore loser.
His eyes eventually fell on Claire, who was standing off to the side, far away. For the most part, she was unharmed, except for a few scrapes and bruises.
‘Good. She’s not dead.’
As Liam finished observing the other Earthlings, a sharp voice called out to him, accompanied by a shake of his shoulder.
“Hey, how long do you plan on sitting there? If you’re hurt, move off to the side or something, just don’t sit in the middle of the trail.”
“Ah, my bad. I’m a little tired, so I’ll move in a minute.”
As Liam turned, he was a bit surprised to see the person speaking was the bald man who had argued with Nate. The man had a deep frown on his face, an utter contrast to his carefree attitude earlier.
“Tired? That’s all?”
The man looked like he was going to say something else, but he held himself back. After a short pause, he rattled off a few questions.
“Whatever… Hey, were you part of the teams that went to kill the Puffers? Did you get them, or are they still out there?”
Liam inadvertently said his thoughts aloud; he had momentarily forgotten that Puffer was the name of the monster that launched the surprise attack which killed the Cleric.
The bald man’s brow furrowed; the look on his face expressed both confusion and surprise, after hearing Liam admit to not knowing information that he regarded as common knowledge.
“Huh? How can you not know what a Puffer is – Wait.”
He looked Liam up and down, inspecting his equipment. However, that only caused him to become more confused. Liam’s equipment was dirty and a little worn out, but its craftsmanship was impressive. It wasn’t something that a new Earthling could afford, but at the same time, there was no other explanation for Liam’s lack of knowledge. Unable to reach a definitive conclusion, he decided to ask.
“How long have you been in Orbis?”
“About a month.”
“Fucking hell! From your gear, I was hoping you'd been here for at least a few months! But a month, fuck, that’s it?! Why you would come here if…”
The man paused after remembering the unique circumstance of the current mission. He kicked the ground in frustration, mumbling to himself.
“Dammit, the Branch Head was so pissed he forgot to tell the new Earthlings to stay back… Fuck, just my luck getting stuck with newbie!”
Liam was shocked by the man's words.
‘What?! If they aren’t supposed to send new Earthlings, then why the hell did they send me?! The Branch Head even told me to watch Claire! He should have…’
Liam suddenly recalled his interaction with the Branch Head.
He realized what happened. Claire had said she knew him, but she never said how. There was no way the Branch Head could have known how long he had been in Orbis. As the bald man just said, based on his equipment, he looked far more experienced than he was. The Branch Head probably thought he been in Orbis for at least three months, maybe more.
It was also possible that the Branch Head thought Liam had a team. After all, why wouldn’t Liam have a team? Almost every Earthling worked with one. Not to mention, Rangers were hard to come by, so they were recruited quickly. The fact Liam didn’t work with a team made him an anomaly when compared to other Earthlings.
The bald man turned to Liam and spoke with a sharp voice.
“Hey, newbie. This isn’t something you can handle. Normally, I’d tell you to go back to town, but given the circumstances, I think you’re better off staying here. I need you to tell me how many members are in your team? It's important.”
“There’s only two of us.”
“Okay, good. It’s not that many. If it were then the rest of us would be in serious trouble… I hope you realize you’re pretty much useless. No, worse. You’ll only get in the way during a fight.”
Liam nodded. He didn’t think the man cared to hear his opinion, and he didn’t disagree. While ‘useless’ might be a bit of an exaggeration, Liam and Claire certainly weren’t up to par with the other Earthlings.
“Good. Keep that in mind, and we won’t have any problems.”
With a quick nod, the bald man turned and rejoined his teammates.
Fortunately, Liam and Claire looked to be the only other new Earthlings. This wasn’t purely coincidence. The majority of new Earthlings couldn’t afford to eat out, since they were busy saving for equipment and weapons. Liam was no different; the only reason he ordered food at the bar was because he made a considerable amount of money from the Goblin Hunt and had a little money to spare.
A few minutes passed, and the Earthlings who had gone after the Puffers returned. Except for a few minor wounds, all of them were unharmed.
Liam was relieved. It meant the surprise attack earlier had only caught the Earthlings off guard, and the mission’s difficulty hadn’t skyrocketed as much as he initially thought. It didn’t change the fact that the mission was too dangerous for Claire and him, but it was reassuring to know that the other Earthlings weren’t in the same position.
The returning Earthlings approached Nate, who had become somewhat of a de facto leader for the group since his team discovered the Viermins.
“Did you guys kill the Puffers?”
One of the Earthlings spoke up, acting as a representative for the group.
“Yeah, we did, but I think you should see this.”
He dropped the corpse of a strange creature in front of Nate. The body was short and stubby, making it look like an inflated balloon with small arms and legs attached to it.
Nate furrowed his brow as he crouched down to look at the creature.
“What’s this? I’ve never this kind of monster before.”
“It’s a Puffer.”
Nate looked up at the Representative.
“Huh? What are you talking about? Puffers don’t have arms or legs, and they aren’t this big… I guess, if you disregard that, then I can see the resemblance, but so what? That only means it’s a mutant.”
“Well, about that, we… we aren’t sure… At first, we thought the same as you, but that changed when four more attacked us. As far as I know, mutants are unique. There shouldn’t be more than one… None of us could pass it off as a fluke, so we all tried to think of another reason… That’s when we remembered what the Branch Head said about the Viermins mutating monsters instead of humans…”
Nate’s expression stiffened as he listened, he didn’t like where this was heading.
“So we thought, what if this isn’t a Puffer but a Puffer that has been turned into a Viermin. It didn’t sound impossible. Up until now, we’ve always thought of Viermin as Viermin, we’ve never considered they could be any different because they’ve always been the same. But… couldn’t that be because they’ve only used humans? What if the Viermin we’ve known until now is the human Viermin, and this is the Puffer Viermin?”
“Are you saying that you think the Viermin transformed from monsters retain their monster features, like a hybrid?”
The Representative nodded and began talking faster as his voice became panicked.
“Couldn’t this be bad? And I mean really bad. What happens when the Viermin infect any high-rank monsters? Puffers are only Medium-Upper rank, and these things were a bit stronger than that… If they captured any Hard monsters, then…!”
“Woah, woah, woah. Calm down. I doubt they have anything that strong. At the end of the day, they’re still Viermin. They may have captured a few Puffers, but Hard rank is a completely different level. Even if they've managed to capture a few Hard monsters, we can still handle them… Listen, I’m not saying you’re wrong, your information is good, it’s just you need to stop overthinking things.”
“No! You’re missing the bigger issue! If they captured Puffers, that means they’ve been to the swamp. If they’ve been to the swamp, then they’ve already encountered high-rank monsters! There are fucking Blight Sinkers there! If they have any of those, we’re screwed. No, we’re beyond that, we’re straight up fucked!”
The Representative looked around as if he was reading the mood; everyone had a grim expression.
“I think… I think we should go back. This is worse than expected. I’m sure the Association will understand why we decided to retreat… I’m not saying we should give up. I just think it would be better to come back with more Earthlings. I really don’t want to get killed because we were unprepared, dying like that makes me…”
As Nate stood up, he cut off the Representative.
“I agree that it would be bad if they had a Blight Sinker. But the odds of that are one in a million at best. It takes a group of ten to fifteen Rank 2 Earthlings to take one of those down. So it would be impossible for a bunch of Viermin to capture one alone, let alone transform it… From what I can see, there’s no reason for us to go back to town yet.”
“What?! Are you fucking crazy?! How can you say that after seeing this thing?!”
The Representative pointed at the hybrid Viermin’s body.
“How? Well, I could say it’s because of experience, but there’s a more obvious reason…”
Nate pointed to the dead Viermin littered on the ground.
“You see those Viermins? We just fought about thirty of them, and none of them had any ‘monster’ features. They were normal Viermins. If you remember what the Branch Head said about the Viermins using monsters, then I’m sure you remember he said the reason why he thought that was because there haven’t been a lot of missing people over the past week. I’m pretty sure thirty people is enough to be considered a lot. At the very least, I’m positive the Association would notice if that many people went missing.”
“That has nothing to do with this! I’m talking about this thing!”
The Representative began kicking the hybrid Viermin’s body, moving it closer to Nate’s feet.
“I don’t give a shit that you ran into a bunch of normal Viermins! What we need to worry about are the hybrids, not the normal ones! Why can’t you understand that?!”
Nate sighed and shook his head.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Of course, I don’t! What you’re saying is nonsense!”
“Just calm down and think about it for a second. There’s no way all of these Viermin were human. Maybe a few, but I bet most were monsters. Thirty is just too many…”
“Well, based on that, I’d say the chances of a Viermin become a hybrid are extremely low. At best, we might run into a few more of them.”
“That’s only a guess. And an overly optimistic one at that.”
“A guess? You could call it that. But isn’t what you said a guess too? If you think about it, isn’t everything a guess? It’s impossible to predict the future. All we can do is try and make the best choice based on the information we have… Like I said, you need to calm down and think about this reasonably.”
“What? How is saying we should retreat unreasonable? If anyone is unreasonable, it’s you! You’re the one who wants us to charge in headfirst despite knowing the risks!”
“I never said anything about charging in headfirst. I said that I didn’t see any reason to go back to town yet. First, I want to send the Rangers ahead to scout the area and the Viermin nest. Once they come back, we can discuss what to do next.”
The Representative crossed his arms and snorted.
“You’re saying that after your Ranger messed up? He said it was 80 yards ahead, but we were attacked way before that. And let’s not forget that he completely missed the Puffers. You expect me to rely on someone like that?”
Nate snapped back at the Representative.
“And what did your Ranger do again? That’s right, nothing. Don’t try and blame it on my Ranger when the other Rangers did jack shit… And for your information, my Ranger is Rank 2, and his Sub-Class is Archer. He doesn’t specialize in tracking, so there’s no way he’d be able to pick up traces of a stealth-type monster like Puffers.”
The Representative frowned; it was harder to argue with Nate’s reasoning, especially about the Puffers. He was also beginning to calm down since Nate had kept a level head and refrained from yelling, there was nothing to rile up his emotions, so they were gradually fading. Still, he wasn’t completely done.
“That just proves my point. If the Rangers can’t pick up traces of the Viermins, then we should retreat. This isn’t something they can handle.”
“So you’re saying you don’t trust your Ranger?”
“No, wait, that’s not what I–!”
The Representative tried to correct himself, but Nate didn’t let him.
“If you can’t trust your Ranger, then why are you on the same team? How can you complete missions? Do you give up every time a small mishap occurs?”
“Yeah, sure. The Rangers made a mistake. All of them did. But that’s not a reason to give up. It’s just an excuse… Mistakes happen all the time. They’re inevitable on missions. I trust my Ranger and my teammates, and I’m not going to let one mistake change that. My trust in them isn’t that fragile.”
The Representative bit his lip. Nate was correct. Had this been any other mission, the Representative would have agreed, but this was an emergency mission, and they weren’t getting paid. From a cost-benefit perspective, there was nothing to gain by continuing, which made him reluctant to give up on retreating.
“Okay, fine. I’ll wait and see what the Rangers have to say, but I want a vote. I think that’s fair.”
The Representative decided to compromise, and a vote was the best way to resolve this issue. Although nothing was stopping the Earthlings from splitting up, they knew doing so would cause both groups to fail. The Earthlings who went to fight would end up dying and the ones who retreated would be treated as deserters. Whatever decision they made, everyone had to be on board with it.
“Yeah, that’s fine with me.”
The other Earthlings agreed as well. Three Rangers volunteered to scout the Viermin nest and quickly set out. After some time had passed, the Rangers returned and shared their findings.
The report could be summarized as follows:
The Rangers estimated that there were over fifty Viermin. It was less than the Branch Head had told them, but if they included the ones they had killed earlier, then the Viermins’ forces were close one to hundred in total. The worrisome part wasn’t the Viermin’s numbers, it was the organization they showed.
Viermins were positioned outside the cave as guards, while they weren’t rank and file like well-disciplined soldiers, it was more than Viermin usually showed. Many of the Earthlings had already suspected that the Viermins had a chain of command after they retreated in unison, so few were surprised.
The report wasn’t all bad though, since Nate’s assumption about the hybrids appeared to be correct. The Rangers only saw five hybrids, and none of them looked to be stronger than Medium rank. While this was a relief, the Earthlings didn’t rule out the possibility that there might be stronger hybrids lurking somewhere else.
The question of whether to proceed forward or retreat was still up for debate. However, one side had lost the biggest part of their argument.
Nate turned to the Representative, who had a frustrated look on his face.
“So, do we still need to have a vote?”
The Representative stayed silent for a few seconds before speaking with a pained voice, as if he still had some lingering attachment to his old idea.
It was a hard decision to come to, but it was the right one. Even if they held a vote, the overwhelming majority would vote in favor of continuing. Everyone knew that the Viermin’s numbers, which were now only half of what the Association had estimated, along with signs of organization, weren’t enough to convince the Branch Head to postpone the mission. If anything, going back would result in severe consequences, and they would still have to complete the mission anyway. As for lying, there was no point since the Association would figure it out as soon as the mission resumed.
“Well, I guess that settles it. We’ll continue forward.”
Nate shifted the conversation.
“Alright, before we get started with our plan, it would be good to get a better idea of what resources we have to work with. Let’s keep things simple and have one person from each team give a brief introduction. Your name, Rank, Class, and a summary of your team should suffice. Here, I’ll start. Nate, Rank 2 Swordsman. My teammates are two Warriors, one Ranger, and one Cleric, all Rank 2.”
The bald man stepped up next, giving a slow clap as he spoke with a hint of sarcasm.
“Wow, impressive. Very cool… I’d say I’m jealous, but I’ll be Rank 2 soon enough. Besides, everyone knows Sub-Class is what matters most. Get a bad one, and you’re no different than a Rank 1…”
Nate frowned but chose to keep his mouth shut and let the man finish.
“Anyway, you can call me Hayes. I’m a Rank 1 Warrior, and my teammates are the same as Nate’s, two Warriors, one Ranger, and one Cleric, all Rank 1.”
The Representative spoke next.
“I’m Glenn, a Rank 1 Warrior, and my two teammates are a Warrior and a Ranger.”
Immediately following Glenn, a man from the dead Cleric’s team stepped forward.
“Well, unfortunately, we lost our Cleric, and the rest of us are all Warriors, we don’t have a Ranger.”
“Indeed, that was unfortunate. Having another Cleric is always a plus. Also, what’s your name and Rank?” Nate asked.
“Right, sorry. I’m Jay, and all of us are Rank 1.”
As Jay stepped back, everyone’s eyes shifted to the last team. Finally, it was Liam’s turn.
‘Well, let’s see how this goes.’
He had been looking for an opportunity to mention something, but now that it was time, he wondered how the other teams would take it. He stepped forward and spoke with a calm and collected voice.
“Liam, Rank 1 Ranger and my teammate is a Rank 1 Warrior… And both of us have been in Orbis for one month.”