"There's nothing strange about their movements so far." A black-cloaked man spoke as he carefully observed the tracks on the ground.
"Everything is going as planned," another black-cloaked man replied, feeling somewhat wary, "but, why do I feel that everything is going too well?"
The men were fully wrapped in a black cloth, and other than their eyes, everything else was concealed. Even their voices were suppressed. And whether they were male or female? No one could tell.
"According to our intel, this young man has an extremely cautious personality. Why isn't he alert now?"
"That's not surprising, I mean, after all, there's a beautiful woman beside him..." One of the black-cloaked men joked in a low voice.
The other three men chuckled. But they soon contained their laughter and began whispering again.
"We should do as instructed. Let's wait for them until they've within the depths of the forest, then we attack. Remember! We must do this cleanly."
"What about that woman?"
"Capture her alive whenever possible. Whether we knock her out, drug her or whatever, as long we retrieve her alive. However, if we fail, we must silence her. A mage is a tough opponent to handle. All of you must be careful."
The men nodded in acknowledgment. Of course, they knew how difficult it was to handle a mage. If they were determined to escape, almost no one could stop them.
Suddenly, one of the men detected a slight movement nearby. He swiftly made a hand gesture to the rest and slowly unsheathed a dagger by his waist. Step by step, he trod lightly towards a cluster of bushes. The others behind him immediately crouched followed him with weapons drawn. Then, in a flash, the black-cloaked man nearest to the bush suddenly thrust his dagger forward.
Swoosh! The bush shook, and a frightened squirrel shot out, crashing into a nearby tree before frantically climbing up the trunk. For a moment, it turned back and stared nervously at these humans before disappearing into the canopy.
When the men realized that it was a false alarm, they merely glanced at each other, not speaking a word. Then, they jumped into the bushes, disappearing from sight.
Meanwhile, Marlene was in a gully, stamping her foot in anger.
"Argh!" Marlene gnarled as she held her clenched fists in the air. "These guys are simply too rude! Just they wait..."
Rhode did not like to be tailed by someone. But since he allowed himself to be followed, naturally he needed to find a way to track them back. This is the so-called 'cycle'.
Thus, after reaching the Rock of Lament, Rhode did not attempt to look for treasure just yet; instead, he requested Marlene to devise a method to counter the black-cloaked men's reconnaissance. His primary goal was to figure out their intentions in detail. Secondly, he wanted Marlene to realize that things weren't as simple as it seemed.
At first, Marlene didn't put these people in her eyes. She was a pure blooded noble from an influential family. As such, for most of her life, she was only exposed to the 'brighter' side, and regarding the other side of the spectrum, she wasn't very knowledgeable. In her opinion, these black-cloaked men were no more than sneaky thieves. So, when Rhode suddenly asked her to check the bushes, she complained incessantly.
But after checking carefully, she found several shadows hiding in the bushes. Marlene's face immediately paled, but her pride prevented her from saying anything. While she was proud, she wasn't stupid.
As a mage, she knew that being attacked from behind was one of her weaknesses. In a full-fledged battle, she would've cast a shield over herself beforehand so that she wouldn't have to worry about stray arrows or backstabbing. Mages' weren't able to protect themselves 24/7 - that would be ridiculously overpowered.
If she was caught unprepared when walking past the bushes, the result would be disastrous. Thus, as soon she saw these black-cloaked men, she stopped disregarding them and took them seriously.
Rhode carefully watched her and nodded satisfyingly. Since the beginning, he had already noted the strength of their foes. Based on level alone, they were much higher than him because as they were at the advanced level. Fortunately, their surveillance route and secret techniques were precisely the same as what Rhode had remembered it to be, giving him more confidence to finish these guys off.
On the surface, both Marlene and Rhode appeared somewhat passive. However, in the shadows, a great deal of movement was taking place. No matter how weak or powerful those men were, Rhode needed to find them first before they could attack. Therefore, as the one choosing the location of the ambush, Rhode had the advantage.
And during the process of finding the men, Rhode discovered an something interesting.
"An adorable familiar, you have," Rhode said, with a faint curve on his lips, uncertain whether he was praising Marlene or being sarcastic. And in the meantime, a squirrel scuttled onto her shoulders.
"Frankly, I thought a mage's familiar would be more unique."
"Unique?" Marlene raised her brows and glared at Rhode.
"You think that my familiar is as weird-looking as your summoned spirits? This little one is my baby! If it weren't for us traveling so far out, I definitely wouldn't have brought it here."
The poor and innocent summoned spirits were suddenly being thrown into the fire...
Rhode sighed and shook his head. He stared at the squirrel sitting on Marlene's shoulder. It was using its small teeth to nibble on a nut.
From a female's point of view, cute is justice. Rhode clearly comprehended this 'fact' since he had led a guild before. Many female players in his guild didn't choose their pet based on their skills, talent, income or combat power. Rather, they close the ones who were beautiful, lovely, and charming. It appears as though no matter which world he resided in, women always had this side in them...
In the gully, overgrown bushes and shrubs spread onto the rocky walls. Whenever a gust of wind blew through, loose soil and dead leaves would fly all over the place.
"Can we really find a treasure here, Mr. Rhode?" Marlene complained, with one hand raised to her front, blocking the leaves from striking her face.
"How can this deserted place house a treasure?"
"'Deserted' is precisely the reason why a treasure can be found here, Ms. Marlene."
Rhode walked into the shadows and observed his surroundings thoroughly.
"Do you know why this place is called the Rock of Lament?"
Marlene shook her head. She wasn't a native Deep Stone City citizen, how could she possibly know about this?
"Long ago, there was a bandit camp built nearby. At that time, Deep Stone City hasn't existed yet, and all the mines were monopolized by large merchant conglomerates. Not only did these merchants exploit the miners, but they also did not pay them wages or give them adequate provisions. In the end, the bandits killed the merchants and returned the money to the needy."
Marlene's mouth twitched ever so slightly. As much as she hated ruthless nobles, she knew that it was the job for nobles to handle these situations. No matter what was the reason, for ordinary citizens to take up arms and fight for their own justice wasn't something that would make her feel happy.
With Rhode's acute perception, he obviously noticed Marlene's reaction, but he chose not to say anything. When he came to this world and interacted with the people, he found out that their culture and beliefs were vastly different from his. For example, just like now, if he told this story to the people of his world, most likely they would applaud and praise the people for their courage to fight against the strong. But it was different in this world.
While Marlene wasn't against this matter, she also did not think that it was something worthy of praise. Since she was a noble, her opinion differed from the common people. She had been raised to maintain a strong sense of noblesse oblige as well as to uphold their dignity. So, when hearing such a story, Marlene couldn't accept it completely.
For the citizens of a lower caste, they did not mind if the protagonist of the story was a thief or a bandit, as long as someone could solve their difficulties, they were a hero in their eyes.
Rhode did not intend to correct Marlene's ideology, and neither did he have the interest to change her point of view.
He began to recall the original description of the quest and continued, "in time, the bandits became famous among the people, which made the wealthy merchants jealous. Eventually, they retaliated and rallied the soldiers to surround the bandit camp. Although the bandits were outnumbered, their spirits did not waver. They fought against the soldiers courageously and perished with dignity. Later that night, after the soldiers left, the people mourned for the death of their heroes and erected a tombstone. Thus, because of that, this place is called the Rock of Lament."
"What a wonderful story... what happened to those guys after that?"
"I do not know."
Rhode simply shook his head, the quest description only introduced the situation, and did not mention anything like, "if you want to know what happened afterwards, read the next chapter."
"It was a wonderful story."
Marlene nodded her head, but she sounded a bit complicated.
"But, Mr. Rhode, according to what you've said, those guys, after all, are just bandits. They are a group of criminals, how could they leave any treasures?
"Well, Marlene, let me ask you a question. Why is the Senia family so strong? Is it only because of fame?"
"Of course not," Marlene replied snappily.
She did not like how Rhode stated it so bluntly.
"We, the Senia family, are not the kind that only possesses a glorified past. Hmph, if only you knew, Lize is the real-"
Marlene suddenly covered her mouth. Then, she felt slightly guilty while looking at Rhode. After discovering that there was no change in Rhode's expression, she felt relieved. At the same time, she secretly shook her head,
Lize... it's better if you openly reveal your situation to Mr. Rhode. Otherwise, not only you will have to be careful, even I have to pay attention all the time. This feeling is quite troublesome.
"These bandits are the same," Rhode said indifferently, as though he didn't hear what she said.
She didn't know whether did he actually hear it, or just pretending not to.
He continued, "don't you find it odd that they had the ability to contend against the merchants in the first place? After all, most people wouldn't dare to risk their lives to become bandits. Since they could obtain that amount of strength, they must have a someone backing them. If we can follow up on this point and investigate further, maybe we can find an unexpected harvest."
Rhode began to insert some half-truths into his narrative. Back in the game, many hidden quests derived from rumors, legends or even stories. Players were a sensitive bunch about this part because it was a virtual reality game. Therefore, the logic shouldn't be too far off from the ones in the real world. Any sentence contained within the game could be a trigger for a hidden quest.
In the game, the Rock of Lament questline activated when a player heard a bard singing a song in a tavern. The player's purpose of visiting the tavern was to seek an adventure, so they waited for the bard to sing to activate the quest.
Of course, Marlene was unable to relate to it - which was exactly why she was presently staring at Rhode with her eyes wide open. She was shocked at Rhode's ability to perceive information from a story. Marlene felt that the more time she spent with this man, the more she thought that he was becoming increasingly unfathomable. Could it be that nothing in this world was difficult to him?
Who is he actually?
Marlene's curiosity grew once more.
At this moment, Rhode stopped in front of a cave. He carefully examined the mouth of the dark cave and went inside. Marlene hesitated for a while, but she still picked up her skirt and followed behind.
The duo lit up their torches, illuminating the dim tunnel. The only sounds they could hear were the echoes of their footsteps. Occasionally, a drop of water would fall to the ground, producing a crisp, tapping sound. Just from a brief scan, there was nothing peculiar about this underground cave.
Not long after entering, Marlene, who was in the rear, suddenly screamed as she jumped forward.
Rhode swiftly turned around and looked at her.
"I-I felt like someone touched me from behind," Marlene said while she trembled slightly, clearly embarrassed by her sudden outcry.
Before he turned back to the front, Rhode thought of several possible reasons. But never would he had believed that it would be the most unrealistic one. He lifted his torch and waved it behind Marlene.
"There's no one."
"O-or maybe I am mistaken?"
Marlene also turned around, her face was flushed, and she did not know what else to say.
Rhode did not mind her. Soon, both of them continued walking. But after three steps, Marlene's voice sounded again.
Rhode turned around again, failing to discover anyone behind her. But this time, he realized that Marlene's face was incredibly pale. Her whole body began to tremble vigorously as though she'd seen a ghost.
"N-no, this isn't right... there's something...! I don't know what it is, but I know it touched my back... Rhode, h-help me! What... what is it tha-"
Before Marlene could finish, Rhode discovered fur-like mandibles stretching towards her neck.
Whoosh! He swiftly waved his sword past her collar, quickly pinning the perpetrator to the wall. At that moment, both of them finally saw its actual appearance.
It was a palm-sized spider!
Although the spider's sternum was cleanly pierced through, it still desperately tried to twist its body to escape. Brown-colored blood spurted out from the wound, and it sprayed out a white thread from between its chelicerae as though it was in severe pain.
The sight of it was truly disgusting.
While Rhode had encountered much more revolting beings than this, his rare indifferent expression changed slightly. He flicked his sword slightly, and the spider was immediately torn into pieces.
After getting rid of the spider, he finally felt relieved.
"Ms. Marlene, are you hurt? How do you fee-"
Rhode was interrupted when a soft, fragrant body flew into his arms.
"..." Rhode was speechless.
Marlene clung to Rhode tightly as she buried her head in his arms. Although he couldn't see her expression, he could hear her sobbing faintly.
Was this missy actually crying?
Rhode knit his brows together in confusion. Then he stretched out his left hand and patted her shoulder.
Surprisingly, the young maiden did not react. Her arms remained hooked around Rhode's body. He had to admit; those two soft buns were really tempting.
"Ms. Marlene? Everything is alright now."
"Sobs...sobs... I-is that thing really dead? O-on my back, there's no more terrible monster? Mr. Rhode, please help me check, did that terrible monster leave something on my back?"
Rhode scrutinized Marlene's back with the torch. All he could see was a clean and tidy robe without any markings.
"There's nothing, Ms. Marlene."
Once she heard his reassuring words, Marlene finally felt relieved. Then, she raised her head and quickly wiped her eyes. She suddenly remembered something, so she gave him an embarrassed smile and said, "I-I have something to do, I will come back very soon, okay?"
"... Of course, no problem, be careful."
Her meekness was somewhat refreshing from the usual. Rhode didn't know what was going through her mind right now, so he could only watch as she swiftly ran over to a corner, acting suspiciously. Soon, the torch in the corner moved once again, and when she came back, she was totally refreshed.
However, not only did her expression return to normal, the usual luxurious robe that she always wore... also changed?
"Eh? It's alright. I'm sorry for acting so unprofessionally, Mr. Rhode. I panicked and slipped up... I'm okay now, let's get going."
"That goes without saying, but I have a question."
"What is it?"
"Are you actually...afraid of spiders?"
"Oh... ha ha ha ha ha..." Marlene forced a laugh when she heard Rhode's question.
"What are you saying, Mr. Rhode. You are so funny, do you know that? How can this lady be afraid of those black, rough, fur-like, eight-legged creeps? It's impossible. I was just a little shocked and slipped up, that's all. Those kinds of useless insects only know how to scare people with its tiny jaws. I'm totally not afraid at all!"
Sounds like she really is afraid...