"Who's there?" The two nobles were flabbergasted while Marlene's eyes beamed with astonishment and luster.
Marlene stood up and turned to the door hurriedly. "Rhode... Sir," she greeted while holding back her excitement.
"I'm back, Marlene." Rhode pushed the door open and entered. He greeted Marlene before shifting his attention to the two nobles and waved his hand as though swatting a mosquito. "This is the Starlight Guild's territory. Your Soloman Financial Group has stepped into where it doesn't belong. I'll give you one day to get out of the Land of Atonement."
"And what rights do you have!" The fat noble stuck out his potbelly and scurried towards Rhode before lifting his head and glaring in disdain. "Let me tell you. We are..."
Bam! Rhode landed a punch on his nose. The fat noble wailed painfully like a butchered swine. He collapsed to the floor and rolled about while holding onto his broken nose. The other noble froze on the spot and gazed at his companion, who was groaning pitifully. He extended his arm and stopped their guards from avenging their master. Then, as he was about to speak, Rhode interrupted abruptly. "I don't care who you are. This is my territory and you shall obey my rules. As for those who refuse to listen, we don't have time to waste. Now, let me repeat. I demand you to leave the Land of Atonement immediately. If not, I can't guarantee your safety."
The noble continued to gaze at Rhode meaningfully while unrolling a strange smile before beckoning for his guards. The guards dragged the fat noble out of the room while the noble nodded slightly and left.
"Phew..." Marlene heaved a sigh of relief after the troublesome duo had left and sat back on the chair. Although she gazed at Rhode with some complaints in mind, her emotions relaxed as soon as she saw Anne and Gillian. "You guys are finally back, Rhode, Miss Anne, Miss Gillian. You must have had a hard time. How's the situation?"
"No problem; everything is great." Rhode nodded with assurance. After clearing the Castel Plateau Ruins, Rhode's group didn't return to the Fortress through the Teleportation Stone. Instead, they headed to Eagle City and handed the phylactery to the Mercenary Association. Upon confirming the completion of the mission, Rhode activated the Teleportation Ring and returned to the Fortress. They separated from Delno after leaving the ruins and the Battle Angel brought the ashes of his companion back to their homeland. Although Metzel's mercenary team was eventually disbanded after suffering grave losses in the underground ruins, Rhode valued the young man's sense of responsibility and sword skills and decided to recruit him. Even though Metzel's performance was inflexible, his role as a mercenary team leader was commendable. Besides, he could be considered a rare talent for leading and defending his team under the pressuring waves of undead creatures for a long time, which even players in the game couldn't accomplish. This was why Rhode invited Metzel into Starlight, which was also a huge surprise for Metzel. Metzel agreed with all his might. As for Shirley, she naturally followed Metzel's footsteps and joined the guild too.
As a matter of fact, Rhode's group had heard of an interesting rumor after returning to Eagle City. It concerned Earl Tyler, who competed against Rhode for the 'Endless Forcefield' during the auction. However, this rumor wasn't regarding Earl Tyler, who paid a sky-high price for the Construct. Instead, it was about his household matters. Rumors had it that Earl Tyler's wife had gotten into an affair with his one of his home guards and she was chased out of the house as soon as he discovered their adultery. As Earl Tyler's wife was likewise born into a noble family, Earl Tyler's actions had brought both families into a huge dispute.
Rhode had intended to snatch the Endless Forcefield using this opportunity. However, he hesitated and eventually gave up on that idea after Gillian gazed at him with a strange smile. Indeed, the Sphere of Mystery was an extremely rare and precious relic. However, if he were to sacrifice himself in order to obtain it, the price would be too much to pay. Although Rhode loved to make others a cuckold, it didn't mean that he wished to be a cuckold himself. Even though Gillian's explanations on this matter sounded like a joke, Rhode refused to risk his life. After all, he was still young and he wouldn't dare abandon everything just for the Sphere of Mystery. In the end, Rhode gave up on the Endless Forcefield and led the rest back to the Fortress using the teleportation ritual.
As for the Castel Plateau Ruins itself, Rhode had nothing much to comment on. Marlene and Lize had witnessed Gillian's true strength before and once this Fire Elemental Lord got serious, no undead creatures could stand in her way. Both of them let out a sigh of relief after knowing that the first 5 Star Mission had been completed successfully. This meant that half of the future for this new Starlight Guild had been laid out properly and completing the next 5 Star Mission could put their hearts to rest.
Without a doubt, Marlene didn't forget to report the Fortress's status to Rhode.
The Fortress had operated normally after Rhode left. Roughly five days before Rhode's return, the mercenaries had completed the first stage of their training mission led by Mini Bubble Gum and Canary. As of now, they were traveling to the distorted points in the Land of Atonement for the real combat practice.
From the start, these mercenaries were passive and lacked enthusiasm because Mini Bubble Gum and Canary had shown them just how powerful they were during training. Some of them watched from the sidelines and began to idle on the job. However, Mini Bubble Gum and Canary weren't just ordinary humans. They were impressive players themselves and one glance was enough for them to determine who was slacking off and who was putting in effort. Therefore, with their assistance, Marlene issued a rule that the mercenaries had to meet Mini Bubble Gum and Canary's requirements when battling against monsters in the distorted points. For example, no injuries received while maintaining their formation, or eliminating x number of monsters within a certain timing. If any mercenary couldn't fulfill their requirements, Mini Bubble Gum and Canary would assist them. However, at an expensive price: the mercenaries that failed would be marked down and if they were marked down too many times, they would be kicked out of the Starlight immediately upon their contract's expiration.
This move was indeed ruthless for the mercenaries. After all, apart from Lize and Marlene, only Lapis and a few Clerics had signed for a longer contract term. The other mercenaries who joined Starlight Guild had a contract period of one year and they would be forced out of the guild if their performance wasn't up to expectation.
Without a doubt, there would always be loopholes in such terms and conditions. After all, the appraisal would be based on the individual judges. Not only would the mercenaries be unconvinced if Mini Bubble Gum and Canary didn't give their best, they might even be resentful towards them. However, they were fortunate that these mercenaries' consciousness on class equality was rather faint. Furthermore, Canary and Mini Bubble Gum possessed the strength of the Legendary stage and no mercenaries dared to talk back to them whenever their mistakes were being picked on. Due to this, the mercenaries had become fired up for battles. After facing a series of incidents, they recognized that the future of this guild would be glorious.
It would all depend on the mercenaries' abilities in future battles to determine if Starlight would continue to flourish this way.
"Do you have any news on the Liberty Mercenary Alliance?" Rhode pondered for a moment before mentioning his doubts. As a matter of fact, this matter had been on his mind ever since Barter informed him of it in Eagle City. If this Liberty Mercenary Alliance really came to his territory, it would be a problem.
"Mr. Walker has reported to me regarding this." Marlene nodded and revealed a smile. "But please be assured, Rhode. According to the intel that we've gathered, none of the mercenary groups in the Paphield have joined the alliance."
"Oh? That's interesting." Rhode twitched his brows as he refused to believe that these mercenary groups would be this considerate towards him and were willing to stay under his care no matter what.
After all, every mercenary group had their own interests. There were some who contested against Barter's powerful Purple Lily Guild. As for Rhode, his Starlight had just been established while plenty of mercenary groups had been around for a much longer time. It was impossible for Starlight to impose prestige and cohesion. Therefore, Rhode predicted that there would be some mercenary groups in the Paphield that joined the Liberty Mercenary Alliance before he returned to the Fortress. However, Marlene's answer surprised him. It seemed that things were developing much smoother than he had thought. "Do they really have no interest in joining them?"
"I think they have definitely considered it. But there indeed wasn't a single mercenary group that ended up joining the alliance. After all, they are really afraid of you, Rhode." Marlene chuckled and even though she maintained a calm expression, she wasn't able to cover up the smugness on her face. "I think you still remember the plight of the Jade Tears? At this point in time, no one is willing to follow in their footsteps."
"I see." Rhode came to a realization due to Marlene's words. Indeed, Starlight might not have been established for longer than most of the other guilds, but they had something the guilds were inferior to: the threat of Starlight.
Over the past century, there were very few large-scale battles between mercenary groups. However, Rhode's Starlight wiped out Jade Tears cleanly before it was even established as a guild and shot to fame because of it.
What instilled the most fear in other mercenary groups wasn't Starlight's powerful strength in destroying the Jade Tears. Instead, it was because a huge mercenary group like the Jade Tears was wiped out secretly and all the Elites ranked below their leader, Frank, were annihilated. Moreover, nobody knew how and where they all died. Even now, the status of these Jade Tears members was still marked as missing in official records and there was no evidence to prove where they had gone.
Because of this, many other mercenary groups feared Starlight. They wouldn't be this afraid if Rhode relied on brute force to eliminate the Jade Tears directly. However, everyone knew that Rhode's Starlight wiped out the Jade Tears, yet, they weren't able to provide any evidence nor eye-witnesses... This discovery left the other mercenary groups shuddering. Furthermore, Starlight had been promoted to a Guild and now their actions were equipped with more rationale and legitimacy. No one wished to become the second Jade Tears and go 'missing' without leaving any traces.
Everyone knew about Rhode's conflict with the two guilds from the South. Although there were a whole lot of benefits for small operating mercenary groups who joined the alliance, those shiny gold coins waiting for them seemed a little too hot for their hands compared to the risk of going 'missing'.
The mercenary groups under Barter and Viktor's control dared to sneak off and join the alliance because Purple Lily and Cole Falcon hadn't eliminated any mercenary group for a long time. This was why mercenary groups under their watch dared to gamble. Well, this was human nature and it was easier for them to accept tangible benefits than refuse illusory dangers. However, it wasn't delusion or guesswork that the mercenary groups in Paphield were facing. It was the bloody truth: the Jade Tears was still undiscovered to date.
But Marlene presented not only the good news as she began her lengthy grumble on a huge list of problems. The tens of thousands of words that she spewed could be summarized into one sentence: insufficient manpower.
It was naturally a good decision that Rhode had constructed the Fortress efficiently. After moving into the Fortress, a huge problem revealed itself immediately, and that was the lack of manpower to manage the entire operations of this Fortress. This Fortress was humongous and the daily chores for cleaning and maintenance required about a hundred people. Even though most of the villagers in Deep Creek Village had moved into the Fortress, it still wasn't enough. After all, the Land of Atonement was too far away from the other hamlets and even interested parties faced the difficulties of moving in. On the other hand, Rhode clearly instructed that the Summon Gate was a top secret of the guild and shouldn't be used to transport manpower. Therefore, Marlene had limited manpower on her side apart from the help of the civilians that moved in to work. She had to rotate the mercenaries and the church Clerics to tide over the daily operations of the Fortress. Yet the mercenaries and Clerics weren't full-time servants, so this wasn't a permanent solution.
"I hope you can come up with a solution, Rhode. This lack of manpower will definitely affect the guild's development if it continues. The Fortress needs someone to specially manage it and it will be good if that person is trustworthy... Hmm?" Marlene thought that she was hallucinating because there weren't any signs of nervousness on Rhode's face. Instead, she felt that Rhode seemed unconcerned...
"A trustworthy servant... Maybe I can introduce one to you." Rhode stood on his feet and beckoned to Marlene. "Come, follow me."
"??" Marlene and Lize exchanged curious glances and followed Rhode out of the room to the hall on the first floor.
The hall was empty and cheerless which showed how serious the shortage of manpower was in here: even this place to receive visitors didn't have anyone on standby.
"I got my hands on something good in the Castel Plateau Ruins." Rhode retrieved a hexagonal crystal from his waist pouch. The clear, transparent crystal glittered in colorful radiance and small circles of mysterious magical runes could be seen floating on its surface. A small ball of light sat in the center of the crystal while radiating a strange light.
"What's this?" Lize asked curiously while Marlene widened her eyes and focused her attention on the crystal as though she were waiting for something to spring out of it.
"This is the Fantasy Key." Rhode tossed the crystal in his hand while gazing at Marlene.
"Borrowing magical powers from its source, it can open paths that link to the Seven Fantasy Boundaries and summon creatures from the Plane of Existence. These creatures will serve the summoner and could be a great help for the Fortress."
"Seven Fantasy Boundaries?!" Marlene cried out in surprise.