The sharp blade mercilessly pierced through the thick fur of the Blood Bat. Its flesh scattered in the air as it flapped its wings frantically, searching for a route to escape. However, a flame emerged on the tip of the sword, instantly turning it into ashes.
"Was that the last one?"
Everyone exchanged looks before nodding to Rhode's whisper. Although there was a large number of Blood Bats around, no one stopped moving. Everyone advanced all the way into the depths of the cave. The bats, realizing that their prey was too difficult, chose to leave.
After catching their breath, they realized the cave in front of them wasn't the same as before. Instead, it was an exceptionally dusty man-made tunnel as though no one had touched it for decades. Although the thick layer of grime and spider webs covered most of the tunnel, everyone was still able to clearly identify the neat platform, roundly shaped obelisks and shattered statues under the light.
Rhode scanned the tunnel thoroughly and saw some broken spider webs. His expression dulled. He beckoned to Marlene without turning his head around and she immediately extinguished the light hovering by her side. Everyone immediately scattered and hid in the shadows.
Everyone remained motionless in their positions as darkness and silence re-enveloped the area. Shortly after, footsteps could be heard in the distance. Several figures holding torches appeared. As the flames brightened the area, a few Barbarians appeared at the end of the tunnel. They lifted their torches high, scanning their surroundings.
"What happened? Did you find anything?"
"Nothing. There's nothing abnormal here. Why did those bats cry so suddenly?"
"Could there be rats?"
These Barbarians seemed to be fearful of those Blood Bats too. Under the bright flames, Rhode observed their features carefully. After discovering the broken spider webs, Rhode realized that someone might have passed through this area earlier. It seemed that he was right. Those Barbarians somehow managed to discover this secret passageway. However, luckily, it seemed that these people weren't too mindful of this place and they didn't set up stricter security. If not, it would be very troublesome.
Rhode stuck his head out and looked at the Barbarians. There was a total of five Barbarians lined up in two columns. The leading Barbarian held his torch highly while the remaining four Barbarians followed him closely behind.
"Where the hell did those irritating Blood Bats go to? The last time when I waved the torch, those bastards came flying towards me. Why isn't there even one today?"
"Could it be those bats flew away? Haha, if that's the case, then it's a good news for us... Shall we go check out the situation?"
Rhode slowly slid his hand towards his sword hilt while the others stayed close behind him. They held their weapons, waiting for the moment to strike. When the Barbarian was about to step one more foot into the ambush location, he spoke out.
At that moment, the Barbarian behind him held his shoulder.
"Perhaps those bastards went to search for their meals. We'd better not leave this tunnel. Did you guys forget how that idiot died? What if those bats return after we're halfway through? I don't want to be a dried corpse!"
The Barbarian leading the way considered for a moment before retracting his foot.
Rhode gritted his teeth. It seems that this bunch of people didn't intend to leave. So then... Rhode let out a sigh before lowering his head and gave a command into his ring.
"Marlene, Lize, attack!"
An incantation sounded from the corner and along with it, Lize rolled swiftly on the ground and appeared in front of the Barbarians.
The sudden appearance of the woman caught the Barbarians by surprise. They widened their eyes and gaped, revealing a shocked expression. Meanwhile, they waved their hands and seemed to be screaming incoherently. However, the entire tunnel was in a completely odd silence. Not a single sound left the open mouths of the Barbarians, making them seem like their performing a mime show.
Lize extended her right arm high and swung it downwards. Along with this action, a golden barrier emerged behind the Barbarians, blocking their escape route.
The Barbarians felt something was off. Two of them immediately turned around and hammered the golden barrier. Their attacks were fruitless, however. The remaining three started rushing towards Lize.
Lize took two steps back in a calm manner and another golden barrier immediately wrapped her body. When the Barbarians had arrived with their knives, they were unable to shatter the barrier.
Rhode emerged behind the three Barbarians like a specter. Then, along with a red flash, two of the Barbarians collapsed to the ground. The one remaining Barbarian was pushed to the ground by his companions before his neck was cleanly sliced by Rhode's blade. After witnessing the deaths of their companion, the remaining two Barbarians were petrified. But before they could come up with anything, they felt a cold breeze passing by and the next moment they knew it, numerous ice shards pierced into their foreheads and chests. After a while, the two Barbarians finally entered their eternal rest.
Rhode proceeded to scan the depths of the tunnel and after ensuring there weren't any more odd occurrences, he let out a sigh of relief. Then he beckoned Marlene with his right hand.
Noticing his gesture, Marlene stood up and chanted softly. A magical symbol shattered in the middle of the young woman's palm and the silenced tunnel was once again injected with new signs of life. Lize heaved a sigh of relief and extended her right arm to deactivate the golden barrier.
Rhode unsheathed his sword and nodded at the both of them, looking pleased. Lize replied with a smile while Marlene blushed and lowered her head, feeling embarrassed.
At this moment, the other mercenaries had gathered. One of the middle-aged mercenary plucked out the throwing knife from the Barbarian's forehead, wiped the blood off and unsheathed it into a leather sheath. Then, he asked with a slight frown.
"Sir, what's next? It seems like this tunnel isn't that safe."
"Continue to advance."
He swept a glance towards the two corpses and twitched his brows. It seemed that this Fortress was in a worse condition than he had imagined. In the game, this secret passageway was so extremely hidden that even Rhode only knew this secret after bribing some high-leveled players of the guild. However, it seemed that there were differences between this era and in the game. The Barbarians dared to patrol around this area proved that this area wasn't as hidden as before.
Rhode frowned and shifted his gaze to the mercenaries before handpicking two of them.
"Marlene, cast a concealment spell on them and get them to check out the intersection ahead. Remember, don't advance rashly. Immediately retreat if there's anything abnormal, understood?"
The two mercenaries immediately nodded and waited for Marlene's spell. However, what surprised Rhode was that Marlene didn't seem to notice that the two mercenaries were standing before her as she was lowering her head and glancing towards the Barbarian corpse that was pierced by the ice shard.
Marlene lifted her head in slight panic.
"What's wrong? Mr. Rhode?"
"Cast a concealment spell on them. I need them to check out the situation ahead."
Rhode intended to go ahead with them, however, after realizing Marlene's odd behaviors, he wasn't assured. Marlene used to be Rhode's most trustworthy and reliable member, however, now she became the one who he worried most now. To be frank, if Rhode didn't require the help of a Mage, he wouldn't even consider bringing Marlene along and left Anne in Gillian's lead. Rhode knew clearly that both Anne and Gillian weren't easy to be dealt with. Anne had always been obedient with Marlene because Marlene would get really strict when she's angry. However, for Anne to be willing to obey Gillian's words...? Birds of a feather flock together would be how he would describe the duo. This was why Rhode was worried about Gillian to replacing Marlene on the frontal assault of the Fortress. Usually, he wouldn't be worried about Gillian, when paired with Anne... he could already feel his stomach aching.
At that moment, Marlene who had returned from her reverie promptly cast the concealment spell. Then, the two mercenaries swiftly disappeared into the tunnels without making a sound.
When the both of them left, Rhode nodded with satisfaction. To be honest, some things needed to be investigated to be known. If Starlight didn't recruit members, Rhode wouldn't have known that within the casual mercenaries, there would be so many of them in the Elite stage. Within the 300-over members that Starlight had recruited, almost two-thirds were the casual mercenaries and not even a hundred of them could pass the mercenary test.
This showed how influential a guild could be to a region. Considering purely on the number of mercenaries in the Elite stage, Paphield had no lack of them compared to other regions. However, as the mercenary groups and guild here failed to live up to expectations, they couldn't uphold a stable position and reputation. This led to many of them preferring to go solo or just form a small party for a carefree living and never wished to spend their lives with the disappointing mercenary groups.
When Rhode's Starlight Guild came to popularity, these mercenaries saw hope and found their calling. If not, it would be hard to say if Rhode would still be able to recruit so many mercenaries at the Elite stage.
Rhode withdrew his thoughts and scanned the surroundings before nodding to the remaining three of them.
"Go check on the surroundings for any happenings. Lize, I'll leave here to you."
Lize answered in a fluster. Meanwhile, the two mercenaries exchanged glances with one another while revealing an 'Everything was clear without the need for a word' smile. These mercenaries were experienced, seasoned elites and were sophisticated. Furthermore, they spent quite some time in the guild and had known about Rhode and his relationships with the few females that were always beside him. After hearing Rhode's command, they consciously didn't wish to be 'light bulbs' as they pretended to quickly arrive at the other end to check on the situation outside.
After everyone left, Rhode approached Marlene. She knew that her behavior was strange and she lowered her head with uncertainty.
"You're acting strange lately, Marlene."
Rhode observed Marlene's expression and asked. The series of weird behavior by Marlene had been seen by Rhode and he guessed that she was hiding something but couldn't find the courage to face him. This wasn't normal for the usually prideful young lady. What was the thing that Marlene wouldn't dare to face him for? Did she do something wrong?
Rhode had zero idea. That's for sure.
"This... I'm sorry, Mr. Rhode. I'm just distracted."
Marlene blushed after hearing Rhode's question. To be honest, not only Rhode, even Marlene felt that she was acting weirder and weirder. Like before, after witnessing the Barbarian dying to the ice shard, Marlene suddenly had an odd feeling for unknown reasons.
Mr. Rhode wouldn't see me as a cruel woman, right? Will he hate me for it?
If it was the past Marlene, she definitely wouldn't have such thoughts. Not to mention, the Barbarians' status was even lower than civilians. Previously in High Cliff Village, when facing the rude villagers, Marlene wiped them all up without a second thought. However, right now, after facing the Barbarian's corpse, the woman couldn't help but worry about her image in Rhode's mind.
Marlene was extremely confused as she couldn't understand why she would have such thoughts. She was aware that such thoughts were useless and feeble. Therefore, when Rhode questioned, she couldn't immediately give him an appropriate answer.
"I know, but you have been acting strange lately."
Rhode shook his head and scanned the surroundings. This wasn't a suitable place for a heart to heart talk but the timing was convenient.
"If you have anything troubling you, you can let me know. Of course, if I'm not the best person to talk about that problem, you can also look for Lize and the others. But I hope no matter what, you wouldn't keep your troubles to yourself. As long as we're by your side, we're willing to help you. Also, we will be engaging in a very aggressive battle soon. No matter what you're thinking, I hope you can suppress it and think about it after the battle, understood?"
Marlene's eyes were filled with signs of joy and some shamefulness. The woman placed her palm on her chest and closed her eyes as she took in a deep breath. Then, she opened her eyes and lifted her head. Gazing back at Rhode in resolution.
"Okay, Mr Rhode. I understand. Please be assured that I will not let this happen again."
Rhode nodded in relief at Marlene's determined expression. Although he couldn't read Marlene's thoughts, at least at for that moment, it was the usual Marlene standing in front of him, which was enough.
As Rhode turned around, the air in front of him shook and a mercenary gasping for air suddenly appeared on his face.
"L-Leader, I think you'd better check this out yourself. There's something really odd."