Chapter 21: The Hunter and the Hunted (1)
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The subjugation force proceeded through the forest with Clint’s team leading the way.

Liam hung back, positioning himself at the rear of Sherry’s team. The other’s formation was as follows: Brett and Connor leading followed by Sherry with Jackson and Maggie on either side, guarding her. Everyone was spread out, leaving a few feet between each other.

“Hey, Liam!”

As Liam was busy observing the others, Jackson called out to him in a friendly tone. He slowed his pace to walk beside Liam.

“Wanna come up and join us? I know we introduced ourselves earlier, but we still don’t know anything about each other.”

Compared to their teammates, Jackson and his sister didn’t stand out much. They weren’t timid; they were just overshadowed by the unique personalities of the others.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Since we’ll be working together, it might be nice to get to know one another.”

“I’d rather stay back here. It would be bad if something happened, and we were all grouped together.”

Liam threw out an excuse, hoping that Jackson might leave him alone.

“Hmm, I guess you have a point… Mind if I stay back here instead?”

“…Suit yourself.”

Liam shrugged; he didn’t care enough to argue over it.

A big smile appeared on Jackson’s face, and he began chatting energetically.

“Cool… So, what did you do back on Earth? My sister and I were in college. I was an undergrad in the Engineering Department, and she was in Law School. I was going to graduate this year, already had a few job opportunities lined up.”

“I was a waiter at a local diner, nothing special.”

Jackson was unfazed by the clear disinterest in Liam’s tone and continued chatting.

“Oh, were you a student, too? Or, a recent graduate? I knew a lot of people who worked in service while they were looking for a job. Thinking about it, I was pretty lucky, huh… Well, not that it matters anymore.”

Liam stayed silent. He didn’t particularly enjoy talking with others, especially when it came to his past.

Catching on that it was a touchy topic, Jackson laughed awkwardly before changing the subject.

“So, what have you been doing for missions in Orbis? I bet it’s a lot harder alone. I couldn’t do it, that’s for sure. Wayyy too scary for me.”

“Mainly killing critters and other weak monsters.”

“Oh, we did those too. But that was a while ago. We’ve been doing mid-ish difficulty missions for about a week and a half now, but that's only because we have a Cleric. Things are sooo much easier when you don’t have to worry about dying from a stab or cut… Just wait till you see Sherry in action, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, that’s unreal!’ It’s crazy, trust me.”

Suddenly, Maggie looked over her shoulder and shouted

“Jackson, stop bothering him and get back up here! We’re getting close to the settlement.”

Jackson muttered under his breath.

“Uuuuh, I wish she’d get off my back for once…”

“Hey, idiot! Did you hear me?!”

Maggie was glaring back at Jackson, clearly irritated by his carefree attitude during a mission.

“Yeah, I heard you! I’m coming, just give me a sec!”

Jackson turned to Liam, rubbing the back of his head with a regretful look on his face.

“Sorry, man, looks like I gotta go. We’ll have to talk more later.”

With a wave, Jackson trotted back up, returning to his previous position.

Liam breathed out a sigh, hoping that Jackson wouldn’t be back anytime soon. He didn’t want to get to know anyone here. His goal was to kill goblins, not make friends, so conversations outside of the ones involving the mission were pointless to him.

Up ahead, Clint’s group came to a sudden stop. They all turned around and faced the others, an air of intimidation surrounding them. A man, covered in tattoos, most notably the claw-shaped one covering the left half of his face, stepped forward.

“Before we go any further let’s get one thing straight, we’re calling the shots which means I’m in charge… And I don’t want your fucking help, so stay back here and wait for us.”

Connor smiled and laughed a little, acting as if a close friend was playing a joke on him.

“Awwww, don’t be like that, Clint. We’re buddies, aren’t we? We just had drinks together at the bar last week. Don’t tell me you forgot already?”

“Ooh, now that you mention it, I do…”

“See? So-”

“I remember you were offering to buy me a drink as an apology for stealing our mission last week, then you got shitfaced and left me with the bill. Thanks for reminding me! So, do you wanna pay up now or when we get back to town?”

Connor’s smile instantly vanished.

“Connor, you fucking idioooot!”

Brett ran over and smacked Connor’s head, hard enough for it to jerk forward. Immediately, he began apologizing while Connor was crouched on the ground, holding the back of his head and groaning.

“Sorry about him…”

Pulling out his coin purse, he began searching through it.

“How much did he owe? I’ll pay.”

“Five nickel.”

Brett’s hands stopped, and his head snapped up.

“What??!”

“Did you not hear me? I said, it’s five nickel.”

“No, no, that can’t be right, that’s way too much. Are you sure it wasn’t five copper?”

“Nope, that’s the income we lost that day because you fuckers took our mission. Well, you gonna pay up or what?”

Clink, clink. The people at Clint’s sides grabbed the hilt of their swords, glaring at Brett with hostility.

Brett ground his teeth.

“We… We aren’t responsible for that just because Connor skipped out on the tab…”

“You sure?”

Clint gestured with his chin, and the people surrounding him unsheathed their weapons.

At the same time, Brett’s team pulled out their weapons, including Liam, who loaded an arrow and pulled back the bowstring. It was a standoff, but in terms of intimidation, the winner was clear.

The edges of Clint’s mouth rose into a big grin as the others backed away, but before anything could happen…

“Here, take it.”

Sherry walked over, holding her chin high, and stuck out her hand, which contained five nickel coins.

“Ooooh, a smart woman.”

Clint licked his lips, and quickly snatched the coins, shoving them in his pocket.

“With this, we’re done, right?”

Sherry wiped off her hands; her voice curt as usual.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry. I won’t be asking for any more money.”

Sherry adjusted her glasses.

“No, I’m referring to the mission. You’re fine with us participating, correct? If you would rather work separately, that’s acceptable, but this is a collective mission. Both teams must participate, and I’d rather there not be any tension between us.”

Clint stopped picking at his ear and flicked whatever he had dug out at Sherry.

“You sure talk a lot, maybe try listening sometimes.”

Sherry frowned in disgust at both Clint’s manners and words.

“I don’t understand what you mean. We gave you the money, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

Clint shook his head.

“This is the problem with woman. They never listen... All they’re good for is fuckin’…”

“Excuse me?”

Clint sighed.

"Listen, bitch. When the fuck did I say that I’d let you join?”

“Well, you didn’t, but you implied-”

“There’s your answer. Be good and stay here. Don’t follow us unless you want trouble, got it?”

Clint walked away with his lackeys before Sherry could respond. They stood in silence until they were gone.

Brett kicked the ground, sending a rock flying at a tree.

“Fuck this! Why should we listen to them!?”

Brett pointed in the direction Clint had gone.

“Let’s go after them! The reward is per head. Nothing is stopping us from killing them, collecting the ears, and turning them in. What are they gonna do, fight us instead of the goblins? No one’s that stupid.”

Brett’s face was bright red; his blood was boiling, and rightfully so after the disrespect Clint had shown him.

Liam didn’t disagree. While he didn’t know much about Clint and his gang, there wasn’t anything they could do about them once the battle started.

‘Clint’s bluffing. He can’t do anything to us… No, he won’t do anything.’

If there was one thing Liam was confident in, it was his ability to read people. If Clint’s team was strong enough to fight them and the goblins at the same time, then why bother threatening them? It would be more profitable to kill and loot them. Even without the goblins, Clint would have done something earlier when they were walking through the forest. So, it was obvious Clint was bluffing, but…

‘I can’t say anything… at least not right now.’

The only ‘evidence’ Liam had was his intuition, but that was worthless in the eyes of strangers, so he could only sit back and watch as things unfolded.

“No, we stay here. It’s not worth it.”

Connor spoke next; his attitude and tone had changed entirely, coming off as mature and strong.

Brett snapped at Connor's straightforward response.

“Don’t tell me you believe that shit about him murdering those guys in the Tutorial?! Everyone knows that’s bullshit! Clint’s just talking out his ass!”

“Maybe that’s true, but we need to error on the side of caution. A few nickel isn’t worth our lives.”

“Then why the hell did you call him your buddy?!”

“Brett, you know me, I’m like that with everyone…”

Clenching his fists, Brett turned to the others.

“What about you guys?! Don’t tell me you agree with Connor?!”

No one answered him.

“Damnit!”

At that moment, Sherry stepped forward, speaking in her usual rational voice.

“Connor is right. Even if it’s a rumor, we need to be cautious. If they are murders, then… are you prepared to kill them if necessary?”

Brett calmed down. Killing monsters was one thing, but humans, that was too much for him.

“No… you’re right…”

He breathed out, collecting himself before continuing.

“Okay, so what do we do then? We can’t sit here and do nothing. Going back empty-handed after coming this far is just… shitty.”

Jackson threw out a suggestion.

“Let’s just stay back and kill any of the stragglers that run away. It won’t be a lot, but at least it’s something.”

Since no one had a better idea, everyone agreed. They quickly got to work setting up a perimeter to catch any goblins, and soon…

Woosh!

An arrow flew from Liam’s bow and pierced through a fleeing goblin’s shoulder, causing it to trip and fall to the ground.

‘Damn, missed again.’

Liam was aiming at the area where its neck, heart, and head were. He was used to shooting small, moving targets after hunting so many critters, but consistently hitting a specific point required more precision.

“Nice shot, Liam!”

Connor enthusiastically yelled as he ran over and sliced off the goblin’s head with one swing.

For close to an hour now, the goblins had been sporadically popping up, fleeing from their settlement; it was obvious that Clint and his team were the cause. For the sake of efficiency, Liam’s team split up into three groups of two: Sherry and Brett, Jackson and Maggie, and Connor and Liam.

“Whew, there’s sure are a lot of them…”

Connor wiped the sweat off his forehead and crouched down, cutting off the ear of the goblin’s severed head.

“How many is that now? Let’s see… one, two, three, four…”

“It’s around ten.”

Connor stopped counting the goblin ears inside his bag and looked up at Liam; his eyes twinkled as if he was impressed.

“Ooh, so you were counting… A Ranger and reliable… Hey, wanna become a permanent member of the team? I promise it’ll be worth it. You’ll make more than you are now.”

“No.”

Not seeming to care about Liam’s instantaneous refusal, Connor stood up and patted Liam on the back.

“Hahaha… If you turn me down that fast, you’ll hurt my feelings… I’ll ask you again later.”

Liam wondered, if that was even possible. Nothing appeared to get under Connor’s skin, no matter what insult people said, he brushed them all off as if a friend was messing with him. Either he was the best actor, friendliest guy, or most oblivious person in the world. In any case, he wasn’t the kind of guy Liam got along with.

Rustle, rustle. The bushes shook, and both Liam and Connor glanced at each other before switching into battle mode. Connor raised his sword, and Liam pulled back his bowstring. Rustle, rustle…

Liam and Connor’s eyes widened in shock and surprise as a person stumbled out of the bushes.

“!!!”

“!!!”

Streams of blood ran out of the man’s eyes. His irises were cloudy, covered by an opaque film, making his eyes appear almost entirely white.

Liam and Connor both took a step back, out of caution and fear. Something was wrong with him, and neither of them wanted to get close, their instincts told them to keep their distance.

The man’s skin was dyed a glossy shade of red. Blood seemed to seep out of every pore. It dripped from his arms, from his chin, and rolled off his legs; a puddled had begun to form near his feet. As he took a step forward and weakly raised his arm, he opened his mouth to speak.

“He-luueeeck!”

Bloody vomit shot out of his mouth. He made a gurgling sound as more vomit poured out. As the soupy liquid rolled off his chin, his eyes rolled back, and he swayed side to side. Thud! He fell face-first onto the ground.

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