A quick discussion between the four of them resulted in a unanimous decision to bring the body back with them. Kantaro and Mark were too scared to disagree with Sam’s declaration and ceded further arguments. Kantaro and Jennifer went to help Ben and Dustin bring the body while Sam and Mark broke the news to the rest of the students.
Mark took Katie aside and told her the news prior to announcing it, using her reaction to judge how the others might take it. She looked away from Mark and stood with her arms crossed, expressing intense interest in not seeing the body. He understood the sentiment and gathered the other students up with Sam.
“There’s been some… disturbing news. Ben and Dustin found a woman’s body in the forest.” A moment of silence spread across the group before it shattered into an uproar of questions and gossip. The older students processed the information easier, and a few offered their support.
The biggest question being asked was how? Mark kept his lips shut as the details of Grace's death were not pleasant, nor conducive to keeping everyone calm. A bit of panic was all it would take for everything to descend into chaos. Now that they knew they were not alone in the forest, keeping everyone accounted for and quiet was a concern.
Keeping the source unknown was the best they could do to quell concern and keep the atmosphere level. Dustin was adamant that other goblins finding them was only a matter of time. They had to search for an exit, wherever that may be. They were doomed if the invisible barrier protected the entire outer rim of the forest.
None of the students trained in forest survival, and the agitated wildlife witnessed earlier served as a stark reminder of the hostility the forest directed at them. Between the bickering and questioning looks, Mark failed to notice Ben sneaking up behind him until he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Mark jumped forward and turned to Ben with his hands raised, earning him a smirk.
“Jesus, Ben, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
The culprit gave a guilty shrug and swung the baseball bat he had cleaned of blood from side to side.
“Then pay better attention to your surroundings. Did we not tell you there are things out there that want to harm us?” Ben chided, raising his eyebrow. Mark scratched the back of his head and lowered his hands.
“Yeah, I heard the memo. Short green monsters with loincloths and rusty shivs.”
Ben punched Mark in the shoulder and walked over to Sam, notifying her of the incoming body. Sam passed the information on to the rest of the students. Katie hid behind Mark as Dustin and Jennifer approached the group with what looked like a long sack wrapped up in jumpers held on Dustin’s back.
Although obvious that it was the body, it wasn’t until a hand peeking through the covers that Mark associated the two and held Katie’s hand tight within his own. Blood stained the front of Dustin’s shirt and pants, so he stayed behind Jennifer as the group got to their feet. Ben took Dustin’s bow off of Jennifer and handed an extra bat to a student who volunteered to help, leaving Dustin with one tied to his waist.
Dustin had both hands holding the bottom of Grace's body, keeping her from falling off his back. Between carrying a corpse at the back of the group and stumbling behind them, he painted a large target on his back. Scavengers might try their luck at stealing the free meal, not to mention predators waiting for any chance to strike.
Despite the dangers the forest floor possessed, his eyes stayed glued to the canopy, searching for any signs of the spider he had seen slinking away earlier. Intelligent monsters smart enough to back away from an ‘easy’ target were worrisome. The other non-mutated wildlife might maintain some baser instincts of running from stronger prey, but the hyper aggressive and carnivorous rabbits that attacked him were proof of exception to the norm.
With just the two of them when Ben confronted him, the spider could have gotten the drop on one of them. With that advantage, it was odd that it retreated instead as its spear like legs could pierce skin. Just noticing it was enough of an indicator for it to back off, meaning it would either wait for a better opportunity, or deem them too difficult and leave.
His continued search returned nothing, giving him hope that it was the latter. The group was moving at a walking pace around the outskirts of the forest, with Sam and Ben leading from the front, Mark and Kantaro hanging around the sides, and Jennifer and Dustin at the back.
He was glad to see that Jennifer was handling the situation well, her keen eyes scanning every tree and bush for hidden threats. The weight of the body on his back was pushing his feet deeper into the underbrush, forcing him to watch the ground and ignore the treetops so he did not fall. The moss covered roots of centuries-old trees swam across the dirt floor, giving him no way to move unhindered.
He struggled to maintain a similar pace as the group. Many of the students did not want to look back at him in fear of seeing a part of the body poking through the patchwork of clothing used to cover it, leaving them unaware of his proximity to them.
“Hold up!” Ben hissed, pushing his hand against the nearest students to stop them from barreling into him. The group came to a halt, looking around as Ben pushed aside an enormous mass of weeds. A large buck laid on its side next to an alga covered pond, crushing the flora under its weight. There were no signs of blood among the reeds, nor any sign of disturbance at all.
The buck looked by all standards normal and had died from natural causes or fell to an ambush. The pond could contain many strains of poison or fast-killing bacteria on the alien world, but Dustin could feel a shiver run down the back of his spine as he felt something amiss.
Wary of an ambush, the group hunkered, some students peering over each other to get a glance at the buck. Ben looked back at Dustin and gestured at the animal that lay unbreathing. Dustin shook his head, double checking his surroundings for any movement.
The canopy continued to sway hypnotically, but nothing about it screamed danger. The place they were sitting offered a small view of the surrounding bush which revealed no hostile creatures in sight. Dustin could not shake the icy dread that sunk in his stomach. The buck was left behind, a senseless killing if not for food. An ambush was the only other situation Dustin could imagine for leaving it untouched.
If the group avoided the buck, perhaps they would continue on unharmed. Dustin hoped it was the case, but his mind was whispering otherwise.
“Eek!” A girl squealed, leaping back into another student behind her. A large worm similar to the one Dustin had seen before crawled out of the dirt, wriggling through the dirt urgently.
Dustin knelt down, sifting through the dirt with his fingers. It was damp, and much softer than the hard ground that surrounded the small clearing. The realization hit him as a sharp arachnid leg shot out of the dirt and glanced off his shin. It tore through the pant leg and left a superficial across the skin, drawing blood.
“Spiders underground!” He shouted.
Some students stood unmoving, watching as the dirt flew up in a minor explosion, revealing the mahogany coloured carapace of the giant spiders that lay beneath the dirt. Dustin planted his foot on the nearest spider and used it as leverage to leap backwards off the ground and away from the loose dirt. The many legged monsters shook off the dirt and planted their thin twig like appendages around them, beady eyes staring up at the students. They were the size of a desk fan, absent of any hair and covered in abhorrent chitinous plates. He had to catch himself on a tree trunk to avoid toppling over from the body pulling him backwards after the retreat.
There was no time to spare as the spiders leapt into action, racing towards the closest human. Two spiders’ focused their attacks on Dustin, while Jennifer handled a third by herself.
He could not focus on what the other students were doing and hoped that his friends could handle it as he pulled his hands away from the body on his back, feeling the strips of clothing wrapped around his torso and shoulders pull taut and almost topple him.
It was not an ideal way to fight, but having both his hands free was necessary for taking on enemies like this. He was thankful for the bat tied to his waist and held it at a diagonal angle in front of him. The two spiders staring him down skittered forward, each taking a diverging path to pincer Dustin in the middle.
He paid attention to which arachnid would reach him sooner and shifted his weight towards it, keeping the other in his peripheral vision. The first spider arrived with deft movements, launching itself at him with its sharp pointed legs and vile fangs. Dustin made an underhanded strike to swat the bottom of the spider’s stomach at an angle and send it tumbling behind him, giving him enough time to bring the weapon back into position and strike at the second spider.
It followed a similar pattern to the first but threw itself towards his legs rather than his torso. He pulled his front leg back and dazed it by battering it in the head. It fell to the ground and skidded forward, leaving him little choice but to use his foot to pin it down as a hissing came from behind. The other spider had recovered from his initial strike and latched onto the body on his back. He could feel three of the pincer legs dig into his side and add more weight atop the corpse.
Dustin had to swat it a few times like he was trying to scratch his back before it slid off, intent on biting the back of his knee. As it left him, the change in weight on his back combined with a quick turn intended to batter it sent him to one knee as his feet slipped in the soft dirt. The spider raised its two front legs and rushed forward to bite, but an arrow nailed it in the side. Dustin’s fall had freed the first spider trapped under his foot and it skittered backwards to find an easier target, still dazed from the blow to the head as it shifted side to side.
Dustin flipped the second spider onto its back and hammered at the soft plating on its stomach. It quickly dented inwards and the spider's legs grew still. He wrenched the arrow from its side, ignoring the splatter of green blood that coated his arm, and flung it over to Jennifer.
He gave her a nod as she snatched it from the air and looked around the scene. The other arachnid monstrosities had a hard time singling out a student. Ben held Sam back as he fended off a spider covered in green blood, past a field of three dead spiders and a group of students running. The spider that had retreated from his fight had elected to escape into the forest after being shot at, the arrow scraping the top of its carapace and leaving a long groove.
Kantaro and Mark had taken out three spiders, but had not come out unscathed. There was a long tear in Kantaro’s shirt with blood trimming the edges, and Mark was kneeling next to Katie, who held her side in clenched fists.
In the attack, Dustin estimated about ten spiders had emerged from the trap, with one escaping into the forest and one still fighting. He left the remaining spider for his friends to clean up and beelined for Mark and Kantaro instead, fearing that the worst had happened.
Mark was comforting Katie as Kantaro waved Dustin over, his hand shaking.
“She got bit.”
A spider had slashed open her shirt, and as she shifted her hand away for a second, Dustin could see puncture marks where a spider had sunk its fangs in. Dustin assumed the worst, that the spider had injected some kind of venom. Regardless of whether it was for certain, expecting the dungeon to play nice was like pulling the pin out of a grenade and hoping it did not blow up.
A quick inspection of the students revealed only minor injuries, but a lot of mental trauma. The bite on Katie’s side was the most pressing issue, and they lacked the resources to remedy it. In a rather straightforward way, Dos provided a cure to most ailments one accrued through dungeoning. A generic antivenom to neutralize venom from creatures below level five was available in the shop for a modest sum.
The issue Dustin faced was not having access to the shop. Modern medicine could deal with the weaker venom too, but both avenues were unavailable until they defeated the dungeon boss and could leave. The best Dustin could do was steal some more clothing from the other students to wrap her stomach up tight above and below the wound site.
He wanted to keep Katie immobilized to prevent an increase in blood flow and further distribution of any venom, but did not have the luxury to leave her behind.
“Mark, can you carry her?”
He nodded with no hesitation, still jacked up on adrenaline from the fight. He hoisted Katie up under her back and knees while she wrapped one hand around his neck, keeping the other pressed against the bite. Dustin could see her face growing paler, whether out of fear or as a reaction to the bite, he did not know.
The symptoms could worsen in as little as ten minutes, giving them no time to dawdle.
“Everyone, it’s time to move!” He shouted, deciding to keep one of his hands free to carry the bat while the other held up Grace. Ben shared a distressing look with Dustin before repeating what he had said, placing himself in front of the group. Whatever creatures occupied the forest definitely heard the screaming and fighting, pushing any means of stealth out the window. The spiders had been intelligent enough to lay an ambush. Wild monsters in the dungeons usually acted out in blind rage against any pioneers, rather than precise and calculated attacks.
It wasn’t impossible for the goblins to have tamed the spiders, and the gnawing at the back of his mind made him believe it was likely the reason. Beyond the cave, the goblins had not interacted with them at all, and a probing attack by disposable units was the perfect way to test their strength.
If Dustin was a goblin, he could only assume that the students were lacking in combat skills, and ambushes caused mass panic and injuries, albeit minor.
He had no way of knowing how many spiders they had at their command and did not want to find out. Dustin determined that the only way he could see the group escaping without casualties was to infiltrate the goblin hideout and remove its leader. They now had a ticking time bomb on their hands, and further run-ins with the wildlife would make it worse.
Dustin snuck his way around to the front of the group, tapping Ben on the shoulder and dragging him aside.
“We need to find the primary goblin force and take the leader out.”
Ben looked at Dustin with furrowed brows and opened his mouth to argue, but saw Dustin’s grim expression.
“I know it sounds dumb, but it’s the quickest way out of here. We can’t keep running into these situations by taking it slow, it’s just giving them more time to set up better traps. If we can kill the leader, it’ll open a way out of here,” Dustin pointed back to Katie as he spoke, “and she will not last long unless we do it quickly.”
Ben looked down at the ground and sighed, “I trust you.”
Before Dustin could rattle off more commands, Ben held his hand up.
“I trust you as my best friend Dustin, but if I find out you’ve been leading us into a trap, or this is just some sick experiment of yours…”
Dustin clapped Ben on the shoulder and gave a weak smile, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
In a flurry of movement, the group was standing back up again, dazed and confused, but mobile. Dustin had persuaded two students to take the body from his back so he could be in full fighting form, in part because of his performance in combat stopping them from saying no.
Rather than stick to the back, Dustin had Ben replace him at the back with Jennifer while he roamed ahead up front.
There were crude traps placed in their path, confirming his suspicions that the goblins knew of their movements, putting him on even higher alert. The creature's green skin tone let them blend into the forest background with ease, making it a pain to spot them with the speed they were moving at. Tension mounted within the group as they explored the deeper parts of the forest, feeling the colder air take over their lungs and only dim light penetrating the thick canopy.
It horrified Dustin to discover where the buck’s partner had been when a grotesquely bloated doe stumbled into them, covered in web. Dustin ushered to the group to stay still and nodded at Jennifer, then pointed to the deer.
Jennifer had a hard time associating the creature’s state with a healthy deer and felt only a pang of guilt at having to kill it. She shot at its neck, only missing by a few inches when it whipped around at the sound of her bow releasing the arrow.
A cracking sound echoed off the trees as the doe tumbled to the side and coughed up blood, its body shuddering before it exploded and showered the nearby area in gore. A hole had torn open in the side of its stomach, sending foul liquid and its remaining innards to stain the dirt. Palm sized spiders emerged from inside the doe, hesitating with their first steps over the flesh that had borne them. Dustin could see the explosion had thrown Jennifer’s arrow out and it laid on the wet grass surrounded by viscera.
Given how weak the hatched spiders were, Dustin killed them before they could become a problem. The dungeon heightened growth rates, and they would become full-fledged adults before the sun set. He could see chitinous plates slipping into place as he smashed them into the dirt with his baseball bat.
Students were throwing up behind him as he cleaned up the hatchlings, letting none of them escape. Although they had regained some semblance of strength, their numbers were few, perhaps because of their size, and he cleaned them up with ease.
Further encounters with wildlife were much easier to stomach, as a few rabid hares charged them at random. A few pieces of clothing had taken a chomp or two and they left some minor scratches, but no further major injuries presented themselves among the group. Katie was growing weaker by the minute and had thrown up on herself and Mark. Dustin checked the wound and saw the surrounding skin was turning purple.
With his continued lead of the group, he had collapsed at least three spiked pitfalls, and two that were only half completed, giving him hope that the hideout was close as they had forced the goblins to give up finishing them before retreating. After a few minutes of trekking through the thick bush, he stumbled upon one of the hidden paths the goblins had laid out, nigh invisible from the height of anything taller than its creators.
Another stroke of luck gave him the likely direction of the hideout as a distant sound of running water caught his attention, with the shabby road leading straight toward it. Like humans, goblins needed water to survive, and were likely to have built near a running water source for ease of access. The sounds of flowing water calmed the group, and a few other students took it as a sign that civilization could be nearby.
While they were not wrong, the inhabitants would not be pleased to see them. Dustin halted the group when he estimated they were two-thirds of the way to the water. The tree’s were sparser closer to the source, and Dustin could just make out the outline of a rocky cliff face.
He could see the faint splash of water running over the cliff side, hammering down upon the pool beneath it. A thin ridge, invisible to all but the keenest of eyes, ran along the cliff and disappeared behind the waterfall.
A small green figure ran along it a moment later, not returning even as Dustin waited a minute.
Dustin waved Ben over and pointed through the trees to where he had spotted the goblin going.
“The hideout is behind the waterfall.” He whispered, using his bat to draw a close approximation of the cliff and water line in the dirt.
“You’re sure?” Ben asked, squinting to see the same ridge that Dustin pointed out.
Ben chewed his lip and looked back at the group, looking over them until he found Katie. She was sweating profusely, her breaths growing laboured and her skin hot.
“If it’s the only way out, and you’re sure it’s in there, I think we have no other choice but to find the boss, Katie’s getting worse.” Ben said, running a hand through his hair.
Dustin grunted and the two of them retreated into the group, calling for a quick meeting before they assaulted the goblin’s hideout.