Chapter 22: The Hunter and the Hunted (2)
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“Fuck! Is that one of Keith’s guys?!”

Connor broke the silence and rushed over to the man. He turned the man over and immediately cursed.

“SHIT, it is! What the fuck happened to him?!”

Connor’s head snapped towards Liam.

“Liam, get Sherry! QUICK!”

Liam nodded and ran off to find Sherry. If anyone could figure out what was wrong with the man, it was her. And for their safety, knowing what happened could be the difference between life and death, every piece of information was important.

When Sherry arrived, she rushed over to the collapsed man and shouted at Connor.

“W-What happened?!”

Her shock and confusion were understandable. Liam had only told her the bare minimum – that they had found one of Clint’s men collapsed and bleeding. There wasn’t time to explain, nor were there words to describe the man’s condition, so Liam kept things brief, only letting her know the situation’s urgency.

“No clue. He came out of the bushes lookin’ like this and collapsed before saying anything… I checked his whole body but can't find any wounds… How is that possible?”

Connor had a troubled expression. He seemed to be attempting to unravel the mystery using what little information they had, but everything about it was too bizarre.

Sherry didn’t respond. Her hands were busy moving. She checked his pulse, eyes, mouth, and every inch of his skin before her hands stopped.

“He’s alive, but…”

She didn’t finish her statement, and instead, resumed her inspection, meticulously checking the man’s body as if searching for something.

“But? But what?”

Connor impatiently urged Sherry to continue.

“I-I’m not sure… I think he’s been poisoned, but then there should be an entry wound. Even a scrape would be enough, but I can’t find anything… Unless it was orally ingested, then… no, that doesn’t make sense…”

Sherry trailed off as she began muttering to herself.

“F-Fuck…”

Connor's face paled.

‘Poison, but by what? And how?’

Did he eat something? Get stung, or bitten? Or was it something else? A chill ran down Liam’s spine at the numerous possibilities that came to mind, depending on which it was they might be at risk too. However, his thoughts were interrupted when he heard someone shouting at them from afar.

“Hey, what happened?! Is everyone alright?!”

Brett ran over with Jackson and Maggie following behind. They had been stuck finishing off some goblins but were concerned when Liam had rushed over to get Sherry.

After the situation was explained, their expressions stiffened. Everyone was silent; their brains were working to rationalize things and ease their rising unnerve, except…

“Umm, sooo… yeah, I don’t get it. What’s the big deal? Why are you guys so tense?”

Jackson casually shrugged. While he understood it was dangerous, it was just that…

“Sure, it’s a bit spooky and bizarre. But c’mon! This is Orbis! We’ve seen weirder shit than poison before. Once Sherry heals him, we’ll find out what happened. There, mystery solved. No need to-”

Whack! Maggie smacked Jackson.

“Owwww…”

Rubbing the back of his head, Jackson looked at her.

“What was that for?!”

“Are you stuuuupid?! Did you forget Sherry has a limit of three, THREE spells a day! She can’t just go around healing people left and-!”

Whack! Jackson smacked Maggie back.

“You think I don’t know that! I was asking a question! Who knows, maybe Sherry can’t heal him, or something! Bet you didn’t think of that, huh? So, tell me again, who’s the idiot?”

Grrrrrr… you… you…!”

Maggie ground her teeth, glaring at Jackson with a vengeful look. A sibling fight could break out any second, but the others weren’t focused on that.

Brett stared at Connor, who had been unusually silent for a long time. Unable to bear it any longer, Brett finally said something.

“Connor, what’s wrong?”

“Ah, it’s nothing… I was just thinking about something I heard in the bar a few days ago…”

Connor tried to brush aside Brett’s concern, but that only intensified Brett’s interest.

“Well, what was it?”

“It was just a rumor. And the guys talking about it were drunk, so I don’t know how credible it is. It might not even be related at all… Shit. Maybe I should’ve asked them about it…”

“Fuck Connor! Just spit it out! What’d ya hear?!”

Everyone’s attention turned and focused on Connor, even Jackson and Maggie had stopped their bickering to listen.

“Alright! I’ll tell you. Calm down. There’s no need to be so pushy… They were talking about some creepy stuff that’s been going on in the forest recently. It was shit straight outta a horror movie. Disappearances, mauled corpses, deaths from supernatural causes, you name it… Mannnnn, just thinking about it gives me chills.”

Connor paused and rubbed his arms as if he were cold.

“Anyways… one of them thought it was a magic-user, and probably an amateur at that. The others laughed saying it was either that or a rampaging lunatic based on how sloppy the killings were… It got me thinking, are this and that related? Is the poison some kind of magic?”

Silence. None of them knew much about magic. The only time they had seen it was when the Host used it in the Tutorial, or when Sherry used hers to heal. Outside of that, their exposure was zero. They couldn’t even begin to guess how limitless it was and the forms it could take. All of them were in the same position, except…

“What do you think, Liam?”

“Huh?”

Liam was caught off guard by Connor’s inquiry. He hadn’t been expecting Connor to ask for his opinion out of all of them. They hadn’t known each other for more than a few hours, which was too short a time to establish any form of trust.

“Do you think it’s a Mage or something else? You’ve had different experiences than us, so I thought you might know something we don’t. If not, that’s fine too.”

The truth was Liam did know something. He wasn’t one-hundred percent sure about it, but he didn’t need to be.

“It’s not a Mage… well, at least it’s not a human one.”

“Huh, wha-? How can you be so sure about that?”

Connor hadn’t expected Liam to give such a fast and confident answer.

“You said they called it a magic-user and not a Mage, right?”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s a monster, does it? It could easily be referring to both.”

Liam shook his head. If what Keith told him was correct, new Mages should be receiving special treatment from the Association. Unless they were a psychopath that enjoyed killing for fun, which was unlikely, there was no need for them to rampage throughout the forest.

“You probably don’t know this, but the Association recruits every Mage into a group known as the Elites. They are trained and live a pampered life without any concern for money. There’s no reason for them to bother with a mission like this. Plus, I can’t see the Association letting their new talents wander around the forest alone and risk being hurt.”

From Keith’s story, Liam had gathered that the Association regarded the Elites as investments, not people. As long as the Elites were still profitable, they didn’t want to risk losing them.

“Where did you hear that? I did hear something about a superior group of Earthlings, but nothing about the Association's involvement.”

“From the instructor at the Earthling Training Course a few weeks ago. But does it matter? There’s no reason for me to lie, and you just said that you’d heard of an elite group of Earthlings. Our information matches.”

It wasn’t that Liam didn’t want to give out Keith’s name, he just knew that Connor wouldn’t know him. Neither he nor his teammates participated in the Training Course. If they had, Liam would have recognized them as he was there more than any other Earthling.

“Hmm, I guess you have a point.”

Connor nodded, seemingly satisfied, as he walked over to Liam.

“Andddddd…”

There was a smile on his face that stretched from one ear to the other.

“…We’re buddies, right?”

“Yeah, sure…”

Liam hesitantly bumped fists with Connor; he was a little uncomfortable with Connor’s overly friendly nature.

“Well, now that that’s settled. Let’s get to work, team!”

“What are you going on about? Get to work on what?”

Sherry snorted as she stood up, brushing off the dirt on her knees.

Connor ignored her question; instead, focusing his attention on the poisoned man.

“Hmm... Sherry, weren’t you treating him? I know you can’t heal him, but you’re still a nurse. Can’t you do something to help him?”

“He’s dead.”

“I see, that’s…”

Connor became downcast for a moment but perked back up.

“Anyways, we need to focus on ourselves right now. As Brett said earlier, it would be a waste go back empty-handed, and… it looks like Clint and his team got into some trouble. So, the way I see it, this is the prefect opportunity for us. Let’s finish up the mission, go back to town and collect the reward.”

“Correct. You’re missing a few of the finer details, but that’s nothing new… First, we need to scout the settlement. After assessing what we’re up against, if the mission looks impossible to complete, then we’ll have to reevaluate our options. We also need to keep an eye out for the magic-user.”

Sherry’s stern tone was the same as always, but the edges of her lips were turned upwards. She wasn’t alone, either. Everyone was pleased with how things were turning out; none of them held any goodwill for Clint or his team.

A beaming smile appeared on Connor’s face as he looked at Liam.

“Well, it’s a good thing we have a Ranger for that, right Liam?”

Liam nodded, affirming that he was up for the task. His last scouting mission hadn’t gone as planned, but since then he had gained a lot more experience. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

Quickly and stealthily, the group began to move through the forest…

Rustle, rustle…

On the perimeter of the goblin’s settlement, Liam crawled through the bushes as quietly as possible. He pushed aside the branches, making a hole large enough to look out of and surveyed the area.

‘One, two… seven, eight, nine… fifteen, sixteen… nineteen…’

Liam stopped counting the dead goblins scattered on the ground; there were too many.

This wasn’t a settlement; it was a gruesome battlefield. The straw huts were torn apart and the ground was soaked in blood. Goblins were chopped up, missing arms, legs, and heads. Some were even bisected; their lower half separated from their upper, organs spilling out.

‘There’s eight alive.’

A few goblins were weeping over the corpses, sometimes even cradling the dismembered body parts. It was a scene that made you wonder…

Who were the bad guys, again?

To Liam, that was a meaningless question. Monsters were monsters. If the tables were turned, would they spare him?

It was pointless to consider such thoughts. His own survival was all that mattered, and that hinged on his ability to grow and adapt to this world. Killing monsters wasn’t a choice. It was his work, his new life.

Liam’s eyes continued to search the area.

‘Where are they? Are they still alive?’

There were no human bodies, which could mean a few things. One, Clint’s team was still alive, and the man earlier was the only victim. Two, they had escaped and fled after encountering the magic-user. Three, they were still fighting. And finally, they were killed, and their bodies were taken elsewhere. The latter three being the more likely of the four.

Unable to find anything else, Liam retreated back into the bushes and rejoined the others.

 “Well? What’d you see?”

Connor spoke in a hushed voice, cupping his mouth and leaning close to Liam.

“There were eight goblins still alive and at least thirty dead. As for Clint and his team, nothing. I couldn’t see any of their bodies.”

“Are you saying that they’re still alive?”

Liam shook his head.

“Maybe, but it’s more likely they fought somewhere else or their bodies were hidden.”

“Right. What about the magic-user? Did you see them?”

Again, Liam shook his head.

“No, not unless it’s one of the eight goblins, but that’s doubtful. They looked too shabby, no different than normal one. I didn’t see anything that could be related to magic, nor any signs of it being used.”

“I see. Good work, Liam… Well, team…”

Connor paused and his lips curled into a greedy grin.

“…It seems that Clint did the hardest part for us and wiped out most the goblins. All that’s left is for us to swoop in, collect the spoils, and clean up a few remnants…”

Connor checked that everyone was in agreement before moving on to their plan of action.

“Here’s the plan... We take out the ones left and collect what we need, then get out of there. If possible, I want to avoid a run-in with the magic-user. They won’t be expecting another group to show up so quickly after the first, and their guard will be down… Liam, you take out the ones that are farthest away from the forest’s edge, and we’ll get the ones closer. We do it at the same time. I’ll give a signal, so look for this…”

Connor held up his hand and made an ‘okay’ hand sign.

“When you see that, we take them out before they can alert the others. Sound good?”

Everyone nodded.

“Alright, let’s go.”

With that, the plan was set in motion…

Liam positioned himself inside the bushes on the edge of the settlement again. It was the ideal spot for a Ranger. He was hidden from sight and had a full view of the battlefield. The only way it could be better is if he were on higher ground.

‘One’s missing.’

Scanning the area, he only counted seven goblins. The one missing must have moved away while they were discussing their strategy.

‘This makes things easier.’

Excluding Sherry, who wasn’t fighting for obvious reasons, they had five on their side. If they wanted to remain unnoticed, two of them needed to take out at least two goblins in quick succession. Liam was one of the two. Since he used a bow, his task was sniping the targets in the middle of the settlement, the ones the other four couldn’t sneak up on.

While they were moving into position, Liam nocked an arrow and aimed, readying himself. Jackson, Maggie, and Connor each marked one goblin while Brett took the remaining two.

Once everyone was ready, Connor gave the signal and Liam released the bowstring.

Whoosh!

His arrow cut through the air, piercing the neck of a goblin. Without wasting a second, Liam nocked another arrow and fired at the second goblin.

Whoosh!

“Kyaaaaahk!”

The goblin screamed as the arrow hit its shoulder, narrowly missing its neck.

Liam cursed under his breath and prepared to fire again. The others had already taken out their targets, and this was the only one left.

The goblin stumbled to its feet and began to run, but…

Slice!

Connor had bolted over and sliced off its head before it could run more than a few feet.

“Phew.”

Liam let out his breath and relaxed his body. It was a short, tense battle, but ended in a clean victory for them. They were lucky that one of the goblins left; otherwise, things would’ve been much more difficult.

‘Things worked out well.’

Liam was satisfied with the outcome. While it was unfortunate that he didn’t get to practice as much as he hoped, a big payday was nothing to complain about either, especially when he barely needed to lift a finger. Clint’s misfortune was their fortune.

Seeing Connor waving at him, Liam stepped out of the bushes to join the others.

“See? Easy, right? I told you everything would work out.”

“That’s because we scouted and made a plan. At first, you wanted to charge in headfirst, remember?”

Sherry corrected Connor as soon as she joined the circle.

“And don’t forget, one is missing. We need to keep an eye out for it and any others that show up.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. But can’t you let me celebrate just this once? We all did really well.”

“Celebrate as much as you want but do it while collecting the ears, don’t forget we need proof of the kills.”

“Fineeeee…”

Connor whined but got to work collecting the ears with the others; they needed to hand in a pair of goblin ears to receive the reward from the Association, which was typical of any subjugation missions.

Liam crouched down near a pile of goblins and began cutting. Luckily for them, Clint’s team didn’t have a chance to collect any ears.

‘This is the worst part.’

Although he had done it a lot over the past week, dismantling and collecting parts of monsters was still unpleasant. It wasn’t the visual aspect that made it gross so much as the physical act of touching slimy tissue and organs. Maybe one day, it would become no different than handling raw chicken to him.

Liam finished cutting off the last goblin ear and stuffed it into his bag. When he was about to stand up, behind him…

“Gyuuuaaahk!!”

Jackson suddenly coughed up a pint of blood and collapsed.

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