The Blackrock Depths entrance was situated within an underground mining cavern in the northern side of Deep Stone City. Legend told that a long time ago, it was the historical remains of a Dwarven Kingdom. However, in the eyes of everyone now, it was merely a large cave. Rhode led his men towards the entrance of the underground tunnel and saw two men dressed like mercenaries leaning lazily on a table with one elbow. They were playing cards and drinking beer, clearly not interested in doing their duty.
When Rhode let out a soft cough, their ears perked up and turned their heads sharply towards the sound.
"Mr. Rhode! Y-you've arrived... we are-"
One of the mercenaries quickly addressed Rhode nervously.
"I'm here to follow up on our bet. Have they returned to the surface?"
Rhode pointed to the underground entrance, and the two mercenaries looked at each other awkwardly and shook their heads.
"No, they haven't, Mr. Rhode. We can assure you that no one came out."
"Alright, so can I go in now?"
"Yes Mr. Rhode, as you wish."
The mercenaries let out a sigh of relief. One of them swiftly retrieved a key from his pocket and opened the steel gates to the underground tunnel. Then, he waved a torch in an arc, confirming the status of the route and then nodded towards Rhode.
"Mr. Rhode, since they aren't back yet, according to the rules, you can enter."
"Good. It'd been tough for you guys these days."
Rhode walked to the front of the mercenaries and tapped on their shoulders. Later, he fished out two gold coins and planted them sneakily into their palms. The mercenaries lit up in joy. Although guarding the entrance was a relaxing job, doing absolutely nothing was just incredibly boring. Rhode's arrival meant that they could end their monotonous duties and report back to the association.
"You're welcome, Mr. Rhode. We are just following orders. Do you need our help for anything else? If there is, please let us know."
After receiving a generous tip, the mercenaries' became incredibly passionate. They swiftly tidied the cards and swept the beers off the table. However, Rhode didn't have any requests for them. Sensing his intention, as though their thoughts were in synchronization, both of them stopped talking at the same time and left immediately after packing up their stuff.
When the two men were out of sight, Rhode turned back and scanned his group.
Marlene, Anne, and Lize were standing by his side. Behind them were Joey, Randolf, and Kavos. The other mercenaries split themselves into two teams, quietly lining up behind the trio appropriately. Only Kavos knew how difficult his men were when Rhode instructed them to look for magic herbs in Twilight Forest. From their perspective, this order was akin to slapping their faces; if it was only gathering herbs, why would he employ mercenaries to do that? He should just get himself an alchemist.
However, when Kavos and his brothers unveiled the wooden chest filled with equipment bestowed by Rhode, the mercenaries' attitudes instantaneously flipped 180 degrees. Never in their mercenary life had they seen a group so generous. Exquisitely crafted equipment? Magical weapons? Where on the continent would they find such a reward for picking up magic herbs? Previously, they could only drool while looking at these equipment from afar, but now they could actually get a hold of one!
Generous people were always popular no matter the era. Rhode's 'benevolence' instantly transformed the views of the mercenaries. Initially, when the mercenaries joined Starlight, they had an inkling that Rhode was arrogant and cruel. After all, his 'fearful name' had spread far and wide. But now, at least if he was arrogant or cruel, at least he was a generous boss.
But that wasn't the end of their jubilance; Kavos dropped another bomb on them just like what Rhode did to him - their rights to retrieve magical potions!
Magical potions! If the mercenaries could only dream of these luxurious gear in their dreams, then these magical potions belonged to an even higher tier! Now that these things were already in their possession, they couldn't feel anything less than joy.
If the previous impression of Rhode was 'favorable', then now it would be 'worship.' A leader that could provide such expensive equipment and magical potions would be a leader worth fighting for.
If Rhode could prove his abilities in leading the mercenaries, then they wouldn't mind formally accepting him.
Of course, Rhode didn't know what was going on in their minds, but he didn't care either way. Since the mercenaries were willing to listen to his command, then all is well. Now that his group had grown rather big, it appeared rather impressive, but under the veil, it was much easier for the situation to turn chaotic. Starlight used to be lacking members, but under pressure, everyone still cooperated hand-in-hand to work things out. Now that they've expanded, even though the weight on each individual decreased, who knows if they could perform as splendidly as before?
Back in the game, guilds were the same. When there were lesser members, cooperation was much simpler. But once they grew in size, small issues could snowball into more significant problems. Thus, if the mercenaries were at least willing to listen to his commands, it would certainly be enough.
"I think that all of you must be anxious for battle."
Rhode flicked his finger towards the fully-armored mercenaries.
"And I know all of you are curious why we're here. But I can tell you now if you are willing to abide by my orders adequately, then I guarantee your safe return. The situation in Blackrock Depths is complicated, and the only aspect of this operation I can reveal thus far is that all of you must be prepared to handle some thorny situations - if I were to describe it using an example, think of it as a poisonous fiend that has the ability to fly. I think all of you should know how to react."
The mercenaries nodded in response. They weren't newbies like Randolf. After being in this trade for so many years, they'd been through numerous similar situations. So Rhode needed only to remind them, and they would know what to do.
Rhode called and turned to Marlene.
"I need you to keep the Flame Shield up at all times like Lize had done. Prioritize yourself first before the rest of the group. This journey will be a long and arduous one, and we will face multiple dangerous situations. Both you and Lize should prepare yourselves mentally and distribute your spiritual energies reasonably."
"Yes, Mr. Rhode."
Hearing Rhode's reminder, both of them nodded in response. Ever since they had followed Rhode, they knew that as long as he reminded them of something, it wouldn't be redundant and will be crucial to the mission's success. Thus, any information they received from Rhode would be treated of the highest importance.
"Ok, let's go."
Rhode turned back towards the steel gate and walked into the underground tunnel.
Inside the dark tunnel, there was only silence.
Rhode led the group at the front while Lize maintained her Holy Radiance at the rear. Beside her was Marlene, Anne, and also Celia. As per usual, Rhode would summon Celia for assistance. At this moment, she walked beside Rhode, furling her wings, not minding the mercenaries' gazes from the back.
Far away in the tunnel, a faint sound echoed.
Hearing this sound, Rhode clenched his fist into a ball.
Previously, the reason why Rhode agreed to Barney's conditions wasn't solely because of conflicts of interest, in fact, when Rhode discovered this mission, his head throbbed incessantly over something troublesome - the characteristics of this dungeon. Compared to the mechanics of a regular dungeon, the Blackrock Depths was a somewhat unique experience. The first group to enter would trigger the sleeping BOSS and the monsters, and then the following group who entered would be able to clear the dungeon as per normal.
This setting caused a wave of unhappiness amongst the players who felt that this feature was unmeaningful. However, there were still some that felt that this was a reasonable development because it created an unexpected variable to an otherwise unremarkable dungeon. They felt that it was exciting because a BOSS wouldn't appear every single time they triggered the instance which would be more challenging and realistic.
While not everyone agreed to this setting, there was nothing much that could be done as this was how the dungeon was established.
So, afterward, once they understood the mechanics, the players devised their own strategies to tackle this dungeon. By how you say? By stripping of course! They would strip down to their underwear and force the BOSS to spawn, get killed, respawn and then re-enter with their full gear on. There was another option though, - kill the boss through brute force. If the player were highly skilled and had extremely good gear, it would otherwise be nigh impossible to kill the BOSS in the first run.
During the first run, when the BOSS was summoned, monsters would appear from the rear of the BOSS, and if one weren't powerful enough, there would be no way of defeating the BOSS and its monsters.
This was exactly the reason why Rhode hesitated to pick up this mission. He couldn't possibly send his men to their grave, and the method to overpower the BOSS with overwhelming strength was out of the question as well.
However, Barney's intervention resolved Rhode's dilemma. Since the other party handed itself on a platter, then Rhode wouldn't mind taking up their offer. Not to mention that he had already warned Barney. Alas, he didn't listen to his advice and since that was the case, what else could Rhode say?
The only worry that lingered within Rhode's mind was Barney being unable to trigger the BOSS, but from the sound of it, it seemed like he had successfully awakened it.
"Everyone, get ready for battle."
Rhode quickly raised his hand and gave a command.