Chapter 23: The Hunter and the Hunted (3)
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Announcement

Imortant Announcement: No chapters next week (I have some IRL stuff that I need to do). Chapters will return on 3/16/2020 (Maybe sooner, but no promises).

“JACKSON!!”

Maggie screamed as Jackson hit the ground.

Connor was already running over to Maggie with his sword drawn, ready for battle, shouting…

“SHERRY!”

“I know!”

Everyone except Liam rushed over and stood around Jackson. Sherry began inspecting him as Connor started questioning Maggie; she was next to Jackson when he collapsed.

“Maggie, what happened?!”

“I don’t know. I don’t know… he was fine and then… and then he just…”

Maggie’s voice was stricken with panic.

“Calm down, Maggie! We have Sherry! He’ll be fine!”

Maggie took a few deep breaths and collected herself before speaking again.

“He was fine, and then... and then he suddenly collapsed! I know he wasn’t hurt unless... unless he tried to hide it. But he’s a wimp, so he’d definitely whine about it… Sherry, is he gonna be okay?”

“…”

Sherry, who had finished her inspection, stayed silent.

“SHERRY ANSWER HER!”

Connor yelled. Out of all of them, he was the most worked up. He seemed frustrated at his inability to help Jackson. All he could do was put his faith in Sherry; Jackson’s fate was in her hands.

“I don’t want you to panic…”

“JUST SAY IT!”

“It’s the same as the man before – poison.”

Instantly, Connor eyes began darting around the area, searching for the attacker. He raised his sword and moved his body in front of Sherry. Brett followed suit and covered the other side.

Connor spoke in a hushed but urgent voice.

“…Does that mean the magic-user’s here? No, more importantly, can you heal him?”

“I’m not sure… I’ve never used magic on anything besides broken bones and cuts, and the spell’s description in my status window says that it’s for physical wounds… It might not work on magic or poison. I don’t want to waste any spells. We might need them for-”

Maggie grabbed onto Sherry’s arm and started frantically shaking her.

“N-No! You have to try! Please! Please don’t let him die! He’s my brother!”

Sherry’s composure didn’t falter.

“I understand that, but… I need to consider the rest of the team as well. He’s not in any immediate danger. Look…”

She pointed at the pile of vomit on the ground.

“There’s blood mixed in, but it’s not as much as the other man. I’m pretty confident that the poison affecting Jackson is weaker than what we saw before. Otherwise, his condition would be much worse. By my estimate, he has at least an hour left. I would rather not waste spells on uncertainties, at least not until the magic-user is killed, but if his condition gets any worse, then I’ll use my magic.”

“But… but…”

Sherry’s cold voice cut off Maggie’s whimpering.

“I have nothing against Jackson. This is simply the most rational decision.”

Connor cut in; his voice was sharp as a knife, not a hint of his usual playfulness remained.

“Sherry. Heal him.”

“No. I already told you, this is the optimal decision. If he’s about to die, then I will. But until-”

“Don’t argue. Heal him. That’s an order.”

Sherry snorted.

“Since when are you the leader? You may have created this team, but I don’t remember agreeing-”

“Just do it.”

Sherry bit her lower lip.

“Fine… Don’t blame me later.”

Reluctantly she began casting a healing spell on Jackson.

“Thanks…”

Connor whispered as a faint smile appeared on his face. He knew Sherry hadn’t made her decision lightly. This was harder on her than anyone else. After all, she had to restrain herself from healing one of her comrades for the sake of the greater good. As Sherry said, it was the logical decision. Perhaps, it was also the better one too, but Connor didn’t care. He only cared about saving his teammate. The future was something he would deal with when it came.

While the others were dealing with Jackson, Liam was…

‘Why hasn’t it attacked anyone else yet? It’s had ample time to prepare, so why…?’

Liam scanned his surroundings, searching for where the magic-user might be hiding. As his eyes searched, his mind thought.

‘Are there conditions to the magic? Or is it something else? It seems that it can only attack one person at a time…’

Liam became positive of one thing…

‘Sitting here is the worst decision! We need to find it before it attacks again!’

They couldn’t give the magic-user time to prepare another spell, especially when the time between attacks was so long.

Liam’s search hastened. The fact it only attacked after they showed themselves meant it needed to see the target for the magic to work, meaning it had to be close.

‘Out of six of us, it attacked Jackson. Sherry and I were hiding, so it couldn’t target us. But the others weren’t… If I can find the place that had a line of sight on Jackson’s position, I might be able to narrow down it’s hiding spot.’

Liam quickly moved over to where Jackson was before he collapsed and resumed his search.

“Liam, what are you doing?”

Brett tilted his head. He found Liam’s behavior odd, especially given the severity of the situation.

“The magic-user is hiding…”

Liam paused, causing Brett greater confusion.

“Yeah, we know that. That’s why we’re on guard… Liam, are you feeling okay?”

Liam ignored him and pointed towards a cluster of bushes.

“There…”

“Huh? I still don’t get what you’re saying.”

“There, there, there, and there…”

Liam pointed to four more places. They were all the sections of bushes on the edge of the settlement that had a clear line of sight on Jackson. Assuming the magic-user hadn’t moved, it was in one of those five places.

Liam finally clarified to the others what he was talking about.

“Those are all the places the magic-user could be hiding. We need to find it before it attacks again. It can’t use the poison spell consecutively, or else it would’ve already used it again. It’s biding its time.”

Liam didn’t need to say anymore; everyone instantly understood. His theory was logical, and it was all they had.

“Okay, but what makes you say it’s in one of those places? Are those guesses, or are you basing it on something?”

Connor questioned Liam as he eyed the nearest hiding spot; clearly, he was itching to take out the magic-user as soon as possible.

“It’s partially a guess, but all of those places have a line of sight on where Jackson was positioned earlier.”

“That’s all I needed to hear.”

Connor nodded and pointed at two of the locations, claiming them.

“I’ll take those two over there. Liam and Brett, you two split the last three. Maggie, stay here and protect Sherry!”

“Mhm!”

Maggie gave a resolute nod and wiped the tears from her eyes.

Connor, Liam, and Brett split up…

Liam pushed his way through the dense thicket, searching for any trace of the magic-user. Many bushes and trees were tightly packed together, making perfect hiding places. He checked them all but found nothing.

Exiting the thicket, Liam looked around. Brett was already searching his second area, and Connor was still on his first. Instantly, Liam came to a decision and headed to the final location, one that Connor had previously claimed. It didn’t matter who searched it as long as someone did and fast, finding the magic-user was their top priority.

Liam arrived at the cluster of bushes at the same time as Connor. Without speaking a word, a single nod was all they needed to understand what the other was thinking. They divided the area in half, each searching one side. When they had made it deep enough into the forest…

Swishhhhh!

With the sound of a sharp blade cutting through the air, the branches in front of them were sliced in half as something flew toward them at lightning speed.

Liam’s feet moved before his mind did. He instinctually jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding the invisible blade; if not for the branches and leaves being blown away, it would have been impossible to perceive.

Shhhhhh!

‘Wind?’

Hearing the whistling sound as the attack passed, that was the first thought that came to mind. After that, it was…

‘Magic.’

It was the only explanation. He looked in the direction the wind-blade had come from, and that’s when he saw the humanoid creature. It had an ugly face, pointy ears, bald head, and green skin. At a glance, it appeared no different than a goblin, except taller, closer to a human’s height.

Hobgoblin, the bigger, stronger, and more intelligent form of a goblin. That by itself wasn’t an issue, even new Earthlings such as themselves could take out a single hobgoblin. The problem was that it was a magic-user.

‘No… rather than a Mage, it looks more like a shaman.’

A necklace made of bones hung around its neck, and in one hand it held a straw doll, which was similar to a voodoo doll.

‘Does it use curses or something? Is that what happened to Jackson and Clint’s team?’

Liam didn’t have time to think about that. The shaman was preparing for another attack, waving its free hand in the air. He nocked an arrow and fired.

Woosh!

“Keurk!”

The shaman dodged, interrupting the spell. It glared at Liam and began recasting the spell, but it was no use. Liam was faster and fired a second arrow before it could finish. 

The shaman shouldn’t have shown itself if this was the best it could do. It seemed to be more suited for assassination than head-to-head confrontation. That being said, the shaman effortlessly dodged Liam’s second arrow.

‘Shit! I missed it again!’

Liam cursed at himself. Whether the shaman was skilled at dodging or Liam was unskilled at shooting was yet to be determined. It was a stalemate, but… Liam wasn’t alone.

Slice!

The shaman staggered backward, narrowly avoiding the sword swinging at its neck. Clack, clack. The bone necklace fell to the ground, and a thin red line appeared near its collar bone. Blood started flowing from the shallow wound.

“Kreeeeuuuuuurk!!”

Screeching in rage, it threw away the voodoo doll and began casting again.

Liam pulled back the bowstring and prepared to shoot, but…

Swishhhh!

“!!!”

He dove to the side, trying to avoid the wind-blade rocketing toward him. But he wasn’t fast enough.

“Aaaa-!”

Liam clenched his jaw, suppressing a scream as the blade cut his arm. Rolling on the ground, he shouted at Connor.

“Careful! It’s faster now!”

The casting speed had increased more than two times.

“I see that!”

Connor moved in for another strike, but before he got close enough, another wind-blade shot out, forcing him to retreat.

“Damnit! How many of those things can it shoot!?”

“Not sure. It seems-”

Rustle, rustle. The leaves rustled, capturing their attention. Rustle! Brett burst out of the bushes with his mace in hand, ready for battle.

“I’m here! Where’s the-!?”

The shaman flashed a toothy grin and switched its target from Connor to Brett.

“Brett, dodge!”

“Huh?”

Connor’s warning meant nothing to Brett. He didn’t know the attack was invisible, so he couldn’t react.

Slice!

“Aaaaaaaaaahk!!”

Brett screamed as the wind-blade sliced into his shoulder, gouging out a large piece of flesh, and nearly cutting off his arm. He collapsed to his knees, holding his arm.

“Goddammit! SHERRY! SHERRY, GET OVER HERE!”

Connor yelled at the top of his lungs, and at the same time, Liam shot the shaman, and his arrow pierced its shoulder.

“Kreeeeeeeeeurk!

“Fuck!”

The shriek brought Connor’s attention back to the battle. He tightened his grip on the sword; his eyes were blazing, filled with a desire for revenge.

“Brett, hang on!”

Pushing off the ground with the balls of his feet, Connor launched toward the shaman.

Swish! Swish! Swish!

The shaman fired a volley of attacks at Connor, but it was no use. Between his quick footwork and Liam’s covering fire, Connor dodged all of them and…

Slice!

With the swift swing of his sword, the shaman’s head was cut off.

Liam lowered his bow and let out a sigh. It was over; they had won. Both his mind and his muscles relaxed, knowing that the threat of being attacked by magic was gone.

Thud!

Hearing the loud sound, instantly, Liam’s looked in the direction it came and saw Connor collapsed, face first in the dirt. Liam’s guard instantly returned.

‘Is there something else here?!’

There were other possibilities, but Liam’s mind jumped to the worst. His eyes were about to start scanning the surrounding forest, when he noticed the state of Connor’s body. It was shredded. Numerous cuts and slashes covered his skin, making it hard to say who was in worse condition, Brett or him.

Liam was the last one standing, which meant there was only one thing he could do. Turning, he prepared to get Sherry, when…

Rustle, rustle. 

With near perfect timing, Sherry popped out of the bushes; she was responding to Connor’s call for help earlier. Following behind her was Maggie, supporting a weak Jackson whose complexion had improved a little, at the very least, it seemed his life was no longer in danger.

‘Was the magic lifted when the shaman died?’

Liam could think of multiple reasons for Jackson’s recovery. Perhaps, the shaman could only use one magic at a time and the spell was canceled when the shaman started firing the wind-blades. It could also be connected to the voodoo doll or bone necklace, and of course, there was Sherry’s healing magic too. Liam wanted to know exactly what happened in case he ever ran into a similar type of magic in the future, but now wasn’t the time to ask.

Sherry brushed off the leaves sticking to her cloths and glanced between Liam and the other two before speaking. Her voice was calm, unfazed by the destitute state of her comrades.

“What happened? Which one is more serious, do you know?”

Liam shook his head.

“We killed the magic-user... As for them… sorry, I don’t know which is worse. Brett’s arm was nearly chopped off, and Connor was cut multiple times during his final charge.”

Hearing the last bit about Connor’s charge, Sherry snorted and walked toward Brett, seemingly annoyed.

As Sherry treated both Brett and Connor, Liam learned what had happened on their end. Sherry’s magic didn't work. Maggie had insisted that she keep trying but Sherry adamantly refused, saying it would be a waste. Things were looking bleak for Jackson and they had prepared for the worst. However, around the time that Connor called for Sherry, Jackson suddenly began showing signs of recovery. From that, Liam guessed that the voodoo doll was responsible for the magic, since the timing of Jackson’s recovery and the shaman discarding the doll roughly matched up. It made him wonder if the magic was a type of curse, and not poison.

Fortunately for Brett and Connor, and unfortunately for Liam, Sherry had two spells left. While her magic couldn’t fully heal Brett and Connor, it was enough to stabilize them until they reached the church in town. Liam, on the other hand, didn’t get healed. The cut on his arm was minor compared to the other two, so Sherry cleaned and stitched it up, promising to heal it tomorrow.

The journey back to town took twice as long due to the injured, so It was late afternoon when Liam, Sherry and Maggie delivered the other three to the church. After helping, Liam was about to leave when Connor grabbed his arm. Still half-conscious, Connor insisted that Liam join their team and become an official member.

Liam declined.

After parting ways, Liam headed straight to the Association to collect his reward. They had split the goblin ears between them, each getting six pairs. It was equivalent to twelve nickel, a hefty sum for Liam, who had barely made three nickel a day.

Entering, Liam headed straight to the back and dropped the bag of ears in front of the receptionist. She grumbled as she raised her head off the counter, annoyed at having her daily nap interrupted. She opened the bag and counted the ears before handing Liam his reward.

Liam checked the amount, and after making sure it was correct, he went over to the bar and sat down. It had been a long time since he had a drink, the last was when he ran into May three weeks ago. Considering how often he drank back on Earth; this might have been the longest time he had gone without one.

Liam signaled to the bartender, a middle-aged man with combed-back gray hair. He spoke to Liam in a tired voice.

“You want something?”

“One beer and…”

Liam looked at the juicy steak that the man next to him was eating. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a good meal, even back on Earth, he ate nothing but frozen meals and cheap takeout. Treating himself to something nice every once in a while, wasn’t a bad idea.

“…I’ll take that. Whatever he’s eating.”

“Alright, that’ll be five copper.”

Liam paid the bartender and waited for his food. It didn’t take long, no more than ten minutes passed before a sizzling steak was placed in front of him. Cutting off a big piece, he stabbed into it with his fork and stuffed it in his mouth.

‘So, gooood.”

His mouth was in heaven. Having eaten only dried meats, bread, and soup, the juicy steak was nothing short of delicious.

SLAM!

Suddenly, the door flew open, but Liam didn’t turn around. He had already grown used to the noisy atmosphere here and continued devouring his meal.

A girl had stumbled inside and fell onto the ground. Covered head-to-toe in dirt and blood, the area around her eyes was red, and her face was ghastly white. She screamed in a panicked voice as she pushed herself up.

“H-HELP! PLEASE HELP!”

While Liam showed no interest, the same wasn’t true for the other patrons who were always starved for entertainment. The bar had fallen silent and everyone was staring at her, waiting to hear what she had to say.

“Please help! My... My team was…!”

The girl got choked up and couldn’t finish her sentence. It didn’t matter though. Everyone had already lost interest the moment the words ‘help’ and ‘team’ were put together. If her team had gotten themselves into trouble, it wasn’t anyone else’s problem. Immediately, as if someone hit the play button on a remote, the room returned to its usual noisy atmosphere.

The girl’s eyes darted around, as she whimpered, hoping that someone might look her way and offer help.

“Please…”

No one cared.

This fact seemed to fuel her determination. She stormed over to the receptionist and began pleading.

“Please, please, you have to help! My, my team is… about to die! I need-!”

The receptionist interrupted her.

“If you want to make a request, then fill out the form over there.”

There was an apathetic look on her face. Dealing with all these people alone was bad enough, she didn’t care about dealing with this distraught girl, especially not at the end of the day.

“H-How… How long will that take?”

The girl’s voice quivered slightly. She was trying to hold onto hope that her team would be fine, but things were looking bleaker by the second.

The receptionist shrugged.

“Maybe a week. Depends.”

The remaining color in the girl’s face instantly drained and her eyes widened.

“I-I can’t wait that long!”

“Those are the rules. No exceptions… If you’re done, then leave. I’m busy.”

The receptionist did her best to shoo the girl away, but she wasn’t listening. Instead, she was fishing something out of her bag. She pulled out a medallion and slammed it down on the counter.

“Please! I’ll do anything, just save them!”

“Listen, I already told you – !!!!”

The receptionist’s eyes shot open, and she jumped out of her seat when she saw the medallion. Her attitude did a 180-degree turn in an instant, apologizing and slightly lowering her head to the girl.

“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t know the Association was looking to recruit you... Follow me. I’ll take you to the Branch Head.”

The receptionist turned and promptly began leading the girl to a door in the back. As she entered, Liam finished his steak and leaned back, catching a glimpse of her face.

‘Claire…?’

Despite her dirty appearance, there was no way he wouldn’t recognize her, not after being stuck with her in the Tutorial. The question was what had happened to her, and why she was being treated so kindly by the Association when she wasn’t an Elite; if she was, she wouldn’t have been at the Training Course a few weeks ago.

‘Strange.’

But since there was nothing he could do, and it wasn’t his problem, he ordered another beer and kept drinking. After a long and stressful first few weeks in Orbis, now that he had some spare money, he could finally take some time and relax a bit.

7