Chapter 16: Association Eastern Branch
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“So basically... you got left out of out of today’s mission, and you're mad…”

With a deadpan expression, Liam stared at May. It wasn’t a look he should be giving someone who could probably kill him with one hand, but after listening to her story, he couldn’t help it. 

Oblivious to Liam’s internal thoughts, May happily patted him on the shoulder.

“Exactly! I knew you’d get it! Those bastards, they knew I was broke and yet… and yet…!”

May clenched her fist, holding it tightly as if she was resisting the urge to punch someone in the face.

“They left me behind! How cruel can they be?! They should’ve at least woken me up, right?!”

Over an hour had passed while May explained why she was abandoned. It would've taken a lot less time if she didn’t explain every little, pointless detail. What happened was quite simple: May had overslept after drinking too much last night, so Scott and the others left her behind. When she woke up and found out they were gone, she felt betrayed. They all knew how much she was looking forward to this job; apparently, not only was it easy, but it also had a big payout.

In a fit of rage, she had stormed over to the Association and began drinking. Even though she was broke, she knew plenty of ways to get booze, most notably – bar fights. Throughout the day, she partook in numerous brawls, winning them all. As a form of thanks for the free entertainment, the patrons gave her free drinks.

Liam watched as May guzzled down another beer.

‘How many is that now? Three? No… four? Damn, how much has she drunk today then? Is that even humanly possible?’

That was only over the last hour. Judging by how drunk she was, she had already had more beers than Liam could count using all the digits on his hands and feet. If any normal person drank like her, they’d have alcohol poisoning by now.

Liam let out a sigh and began to push himself up; he had just wasted an hour listening to May complain, he needed to get moving if he wanted to check out the training facility today and also find an inn.

“If that’s all, then I’m gonna-”

“No! You gotta stay with me and keep me company! It’s boring waiting here alone!”

May yanked Liam back into his seat.

“May… I have to go. There’s important stuff I need to do.”

Hearing Liam’s serious tone, May loosened her grip on his arm and tilted her head, showing an interest.

“Stuff? Like what?”

“Well, first I need to check out the Association training facility, and then I-”

Before Liam could finish, May cut him off.

“Eh, that’s boring! Stay here! Come on! I’ll buy!”

Liam was about to ask, ‘Didn’t you say you were broke?’ but stopped seeing May jingling the pouch of coins she looted off Aaron earlier. Reluctantly, he gave in. It wasn’t like he had a choice from the start, looking at what happened to Aaron, she might break his legs and force him to stay.

“Fine.”


Early the next morning, Liam headed out of the inn. Yesterday, May had held him hostage and forced him to drink with her until late in the evening. It wasn’t until Scott and the others arrived that he was freed. According to Scott, the real reason they didn’t take May on the mission wasn’t that she overslept; she was just too hungover to be useful.

Although it had been late when Liam left, he was able to find an inn that didn’t charge any ‘Earthling’ fees. Not wanting to repeat the experience, he decided to reserve the room for a week. Now with his housing problem solved, he headed to the training facility on the east side of Kelm.

As Liam approached, the guard in front of the gate grunted at him.

“You need something? If you’re looking for the Earthling branch, it’s back in town.”

“I’m here for the training course.”

“Oh, in that case…”

The guard nodded and pushed the gate open. Pointing at a large building, he continued.

“Follow the walkway to the building. Inside, talk to the receptionist at the front desk, she’ll tell you what to do.”

Following the guard’s instructions, Liam walked down the path and entered the building. Inside was clean, unlike the Earthling branch. There were stained wood floors and furniture which gleamed, as if freshly polished. No foul odors lingered, or spilled mugs of beer lay on the ground, even a sleeping receptionist was nowhere to be seen.

Hearing Liam entering, the woman at the front desk looked up from her work and gave Liam a friendly smile.

“Welcome to the Eastern Association Branch! I’m guessing you’re here for the Earthling training?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a bit early, but you can go back to the to the training grounds now. I just need you to pay the five nickel fee first.”

Liam pulled out the coins handing them to her. After counting them, she stood up.

“Please, follow me.”

Liam was escorted through a pair of tall doors and entered a long hall, which appeared to be a gallery of sorts; portrait paintings were hanging, and polished suits of armor were on display. Reaching the end of the hallway, they exited the building and entered the training grounds.

Outside, there was no grass or greenery; the ground was entirely dirt, packed down from years of heavy use. There was a rack of weapons with swords, maces, shields, greatswords, axes, bows, hammers, as were many others. All of them had dulled edges and wear from heavy, repeated use. There were about thirty battered wooden posts of various sizes lined up for use as target dummies — the slashes and cracks in them, a testament to their age. In the open field were archery targets, set out at three different distances, ten, thirty, and fifty yards.

Noticing Liam eyeing the different weapons and equipment, the receptionist smiled.

“Feel free to take a weapon and practice while you wait. If you need anything, please find me. I’ll be inside at the front desk.”

“Yeah, thanks for the help.”

As she headed back inside, Liam made his way over to the weapon rack.

‘Wait, won’t I need wrist guards to shoot a bow?’

Liam remembered that wrist guards were one of the pieces of armor the old shopkeeper had brought out. While he wasn’t knowledgeable about bows, the thought of a bowstring snapping against his forearm didn’t sound enjoyable. His worries didn’t last, as there were wrist guards coupled with a small quiver of arrows for each bow; everything prepared for Earthlings so that they could get to training as quickly as possible.

Liam picked up a bow. It was a simple recurve bow similar to the one at the shop yesterday, except it had seen a lot more use. It looked like it might break. He searched for a bow in better shape, but they were all in the same condition, every weapon on the rack was on its last legs. Compared to the lavish interior, the state of the equipment was less than impressive.

After selecting the best bow, Liam attached the leather wrist guards and slung the quiver over his shoulder. He practiced drawing the string a few times, getting used to the motion. When he felt comfortable, he moved over to the targets.

Focusing on the closest target, Liam nocked the arrow and pulled back the bowstring. He filtered out the chirping birds, steadied his breathing, then released the string, firing the arrow…

Whoosh!

Liam furrowed his brow. The arrow had flow off to the left and stuck in the ground without even making it halfway to the target. Frankly, it was pitiful.

‘How did it go so far to the left?’

Since there was no wind, the arrow couldn't have been blown off course. Liam needed more information if he wanted to figure out what went wrong. Repeating the same steps, he loaded another arrow and fired, this time aiming a little to the right. Again, the arrow traveled a few feet and then fell, but this time, the arrow hadn’t veered as far to the left.

‘Is it the bow, or me? Damn… I can’t tell yet…’

Liam continued firing arrows until the quiver was empty. Unsurprisingly, the aim of the bow was off, but he was getting used to it. Each arrow was either getting closer to the target or was more on center; it was slow, but progress was progress. He gathered the arrows stuck in the ground and fired them again. He repeated this process until he was interrupted.

Clap…clap…clap…

Liam turned around to see the man clapping behind him. He didn’t know how long the man had been there; he had been too focused on his training.

After finishing his slow applause, which was only meant to mock him, the man grinned at Liam and spoke sarcastically.

“Damn, you’re really amazing. I’m impressed. I didn’t know someone could be that good.”

‘Who the fuck is this guy?’

Scowling, Liam looked the man up and down. He was wearing leather armor and had a sturdy steel sword hanging from his waist. His face sported a messy beard, and his upper body was muscular. He was normal looking, except for his right leg which had been replaced by a wooden prosthetic.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the guy in charge of your training. No need for formalities, just call me Keith. And your name?”

Keith hobbled over to Liam and stuck out his hand; it was calloused, befitting of a veteran warrior. Liam reluctantly took the outstretched hand and answered Keith.

“Liam.”

Keith pointed at the bow in Liam’s hand.

“So… Liam, by the looks of it, you’re a Ranger. This your first time shooting a bow?”

“Yeah… Is that a problem?”

Hearing Liam’s defensive tone, Keith chuckled while shaking his head.

“Nope. I figured it was by how bad you were. I’m not an expert with a bow, but even I could tell that much. Everything in your stance and form is wrong. I just wanted to make sure you were just inexperienced and not hopeless.”

Liam’s eyes narrowed. He had no clue what Keith meant; was Keith just trying to make fun of him?

“Huh, hopeless? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Liam’s tone was harsh, expressing his distaste for Keith’s rude behavior.

“Well, if you said you’d been practicing for years and you were still that bad, I wouldn’t bother teaching you anything. There's no point in wasting my time helping someone who’s talentless. I did it once years ago, and I don’t plan on repeating that mistake… No matter what I taught that guy, nothing stuck. The scary part was that he said he’d been learning to use the spear for years in martial arts. I still can’t believe he said he was a fucking black belt or some shit. I don’t know if he was lying, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was a talentless moron.”

‘Talent, huh…’

Liam didn’t believe in talent. Being called talented was just an insult in the form of a compliment. Why? Ten years or ten thousand hours, that’s how long it takes to ‘master’ something, no exceptions. Even the thirteen-year-old prodigies that are praised as talented still put in thousands of hours of hard work and effort. A natural aptitude isn’t a requirement for mastery, but time is, practice is, and hard work is. So, what is talent then? Nothing. It’s just a word that attributes people’s success as natural ability and discounts their hard work. How is that not an insult?

As Liam was thinking, Keith held out his hand again.

“Here, give me the bow. I’ll show you the proper form, so watch closely.”

Liam handed the bow to Keith and studied his stance. Keith stood with his feet side-by-side, shoulder-width apart. Standing up straight, he rotated his chin over the shoulder of the arm holding the bow out. With his other arm, he pulled the bowstring back, close to his chin. Aiming, he held the bow steady, letting out his breath, he fired.

Whoosh!

The arrow flew straight towards the target and pierced the center.

“You catch that, Liam?”

“I think so…”

“Sorry, I’m not great with words. So, I’ll demonstrate a few more times.”

Keith shot the bow four more times before handing it to Liam.

“Okay, now you try. I’ll fix your form if anything is off.”

Liam mimicked Keith’s form and shot. The first arrow missed, and so did the second, but there was a notable improvement. As Liam shot, Keith corrected his form, telling him to drop his shoulders or tuck his back. After shooting around thirty arrows, Liam needed a break.

Haahaa…”

Tired and out of breath, Liam put down the bow and stretched his wrists. Keith looked at Liam with a confused expression; Liam should be far from tired even if he was a new Earthling. There was only one reason Keith could think of.

“Hey, Liam, what are your stats like?”

Hunched over, Liam looked up at Keith with a hint of annoyance in his eyes.

“What, so you can laugh at me? Yeah. No, thanks.”

“Does it look like I’m in any position to laugh?”

Keith tapped his wooden leg, chuckling.

“Hahahaha! Even if my stats were maxed out, I still couldn’t outrun you! Don’t worry. I won’t make fun of you. I just want to know so I can help you train.”

“Yeah, I’ll pass. A few minutes ago, you were worried I might be another hopeless trainee. Why would you suddenly want to create personalized training for me? I bet it’s probably nothing good.”

“Why? Well, why not? I've got nothing better to do. Plus, you’re not bad. I mean... at least, you listen to my instructions.”

Liam kept staring into Keith’s eyes; it didn’t look like Keith was lying. Liam was suspicious, but what harm was there in Keith knowing precisely how bad his stats were? The Association already knew, and anyone who saw him exercise would know how out of shape he was, so his poor stats weren’t much of a secret.

“Fine…”

Liam opened his status window and read his stats out to Keith.


Liam collapsed to onto the ground, out of breath.

Haaahaaacoughhaaa...”

His clothes and hair were drenched in sweat, after having exercised more than he ever had before. He rolled onto his back and looked up. Keith stood above him, his shadow blocking out the strong mid-morning sun. Keith’s eyes said what he was thinking – pathetic.

“Done already?”

“This isn’t…wh-haa-at I was-haa expecting...”

The training consisted of cardiovascular and strength exercises to the extreme. Keith made him continue until he puked, and even then, his ‘break’ was only long enough for him to rinse the vomit out of his mouth. Far from what you would call special training, it’d be more fitting to call it spartan training.

Seeing Liam glaring at him, Keith laughed.

“Hahaha…! Well, how do you think I felt hearing those lousy stats! I mean… I thought you’d have one or two E grade stats, but… all E’s... Buahahaha!"

Keith doubled over, holding his stomach, acting like he just heard the joke of the century.

“…Ahahaha! You even had an F in Endurance…!”

When he finally stopped, he reached out and helped Liam up.

“Listen, before you can even start thinking about archery, you need the fitness level of an average person. All the technique in the world doesn’t mean jack shit if you can’t even run a mile. Monsters aren’t going to wait for you to be ready. In a battle, you always need to be on the move regardless of your class. If you can’t do that, you won’t last long.”

Liam grumbled internally, resisting the urge to yell at Keith. He knew that Keith’s words weren’t wrong. His lack of physical capabilities had already shown up in the Tutorial.

Keith pointed to the weapons racks where Earthlings were gathering as they started to arrive.

“Looks like you can rest for now.”

For the first time in a long time, Liam was glad to see other people. Because of them, at least for now, he was saved.

7