Despite my apparently harsh words, I found something for both Adrian and Melina to do. Since my duties included summoning Corvus and sending them around for reconnaissance missions, I was left vulnerable while I monitored the landscape through their eyes and ears. That was where Adrian and Melina came in. They spotted for me in the immediate vicinity, warning me of incoming dangers while I was distracted with the job of looking through the multiple eyes of so many Corvus.
The Silver Wolves mercenaries continued to climb the mountain, the scouts forging ahead in search of any sign of Ling Dan or any other humans. I continued to maintain a visual from above, my flock of Corvus easily navigating the skies and avoiding direct contact with other monsters. Even airborne monsters such as the Demonic Drakes we encountered earlier didn't bother to harass my Corvus for no reason other than food.
Fortunately, they weren't hungry right now, and those few predators that sought to hunt my Corvus were easily evaded, my crows diving right into the canopy of the sparse forest that dotted the mountains' slopes and disappearing within their leaves, much to the winged monsters' confusion or frustration.
And so our journey continued for a couple more hours, where we managed to avoid a horde of monsters by staying close to the trees and keeping our physical profiles as low as possible. As hostile as the monsters were toward us, they couldn't attack what they didn't see or hear. We had to be wary of their animal senses - which were a lot sharper than us humans, but it was nothing a good distance couldn't take care of.
"You don't know where this legendary receptarier is?" Adrian asked, panting as he and Melina struggled to keep up. I didn't blame him. Even I found the trek very taxing, and I wiped the perspiration from my forehead before I answered.
"No. All we know is that he might be residing somewhere in the Yao Cai Mountains, and even that's just a rumor. I hope it's true, though, or this would have been a wasted journey."
Adrian wisely didn't remark on that or on our extremely low chances. Instead, he just nodded thoughtfully.
"The Yao Cai Mountains are known for the medicinal herbs that grow on them, right?" He asked. "And if I'm not mistaken, because they feed on these herbs, or because the herbivorous monsters that eat the herbs are in turn preyed upon by the predators here, the monsters inhabiting the Yao Cai Mountains also have certain medicinal properties, which are used by alchemists and receptariers to forge spirit pills."
Why was this starting to sound suspiciously like some stupid cultivation story that involved concocting spirit pills and other medicine? Was I going to get some stupid alchemy urn or pot or furnace next and turn into a spirit alchemist?
Fuck, no. This was not an alchemist or receptarier story. Just look at the damned title. You see the word Summoner? That's all I'm going to do. Summon stuff. Not heal (or summon monsters that can heal). Not craft weapons like a blacksmith (go read Spirit Realm or The Great Conqueror or Doluo Dalu II: Jueshi Tangmen for that). Nor was I ever going to concoct spirit pills like the majority of cultivators or urban cultivators - go read Battle Through the Heavens or The Hunter or the millions of urban cultivator stories floating all over the Internet if you're looking for that. Stop asking me to come up with healing summons or summons that can produce alchemy or spirit pills or summons that can create weapons (what, my Constellation weapons aren't good enough for you?). Summoning magic wasn't a super-convenient magic that allowed you to simply summon whatever you want or whatever you need.
I was getting pissed off at the countless self-entitled readers who were used to overpowered Mary Sue protagonists going into god mode and literally shitting out spirit pills from their asses or being a super doctor in addition to their godlike martial arts. Jesus Christ, am I not allowed to be a relatively normal protagonist or something?
"Isn't your family well known for running a pharmaceutical company?" Melina asked Adrian, a curious expression on her face. Now that she mentioned it, I realized that she was right. The Stuart family did have a massive pharmaceutical company under their name. Particularly since wood mages had an affinity with identifying and preparing medicinal herbs and other plant ingredients, so many branch family members ended up becoming pharmacists.
Yeah, pharmacists. Not alchemists. Not receptariers. That was actually the proper name for people who manufactured medicine and other healing products. Which made this legendary Ling Dan even more dubious.
Then again, a lot of Chinese authors loved to exaggerate the so-called superiority of traditional Chinese medicine over Western medicine, and made up all these weird spirit pills and acupuncture techniques just to embarrass their medical counterparts who received a degree in medicine from Western universities, or Western-influenced universities, who were often portrayed as completely inept, corrupted (no doubt because of Western influence) and useless.
The more I thought about it, the more I dreaded about our chances of actually finding this guy. Reality wasn't so convenient to have a miracle TCM doctor show up with a cure-all. And come to think of it, if he really was that awesome, why the fuck would he hide in the mountains, away from all civilization? You would think that such a remarkable and lauded figure would go around healing people, and getting rich because of how in-demand his medicinal skills were.
"Did Teacher Cure deceive us?" I muttered. But why would she do that? She had no reason to lie to us and send us on a wild goose chase. Not unless the whole thing was a trap...but being a healer, if she wanted to kill or harm us, she had plenty of opportunities to do so in the infirmary, while we were injured or sick. She wouldn't deliberately send the whole lot of us into a trap like this.
What was going on here?
Scratching my head, I sighed. No use thinking too much about it. I wasn't going to find out by brooding over it in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't as if Teacher Cure was around for me to ask her. I had better things to do, such as focusing on finding the elusive Ling Dan. Even though I couldn't fully shrug off the feeling that we had just been duped, for now I decided to do my best to search. I would worry about what to do after we were unable to find him, but not before I even tried.
"Brother Richard? What's the matter?" Adrian had been bragging to Melina about the branch families of the Stuart clan, but he was astute to notice that I was fussing over something mentally. I let out a strained smile and shook my head.
"Nothing. Just a little worried that you might be right."
"Huh? Right about what?"
"That this whole this is a wild goose chase, and no such miracle medicine conveniently exists."
"Isn't it too late to begin doubting the veracity of the whole operation?" Adrian asked with a shrug. "I mean, I know I was the one who raised that to begin with, but now that you've come all the way here, might as well look around, right?"
"Yeah, that's right," I agreed as I pushed my mnd away from the lingering doubts and focused on seeing through my Corvus's eyes. "Look with eyes unclouded and a mind unhindered by fear and doubts."
"What's that?" Melina giggled. "That sounds so cheesy."
"Sorry. I was just butchering a quote from some Studio Ghibli movie." Even this far into the future, children from all over the world - including the Empires outside the Global Federation - continued to watch Studio Ghibli movies. These animation films stood the test of time and remained as loved classics even after almost a thousand years.
"Mononoke Hime!" Adrian guessed correctly and I nodded with a grin.
"Yeah, that's right."
"That was a great movie!"
Good thing I had a lot of common ground with the kids, which was why I got along very well with them. most readers scoffed at me for hanging out with them because they were cynical edgelords who hated children (very ironic, considering that they were young teenagers and effectively children), and projected their lone wolf desires upon me, demanding that I walk the solitary path or some bullshit like that, but that wasn't how real life worked. And kids were fun to hang out with and talk to. Hell, they were a lot more mature and likeable than some of the readers, especially given how antisocial, obnoxious and edgy the latter's comments were.
I couldn't imagine how someone who mocked and insulted me online behind the safety of virtual anonymity, just because I chose to hang out with kids, could ever be a nice person in real life. There must be something wrong with their heads.
While simultaneously drifting in and out of the conversation - my attention mostly focused on watching the mountains from the skies, courtesy of my telepathic link with my Corvus - we continued to stride forward. Adrian and Melina didn't mind that I wasn't paying attention to them, and they were more than capable of entertaining themselves. Only on a few occasions I had to silence them to maintain field discipline, because of monsters passing by in the vicinity, or when the other merecenaries were checking for traps and other stuff. Otherwise, nobody cared if they conversed.
The mercenaries were far from silent themselves. As they marched up the mountains, huffing and puffing under the weight of their weapons and fieldpacks, they also bantered and joked amongst themselves. Feng Hai left them be, because such camaraderie helped to maintain a high morale. Silencing them would have an adverse impact on morale and lower our performance levels. Besides, it wasn't as if we were shouting at the top of our lungs and attracting the attention of every monster in the area. While maintaining field discipline was indeed important, the noise we were making as we trekked uphill rendered any attempt to be stealthy a moot point. The crunching of twigs, leaves and branches underneath our shoes and boots, our heavy breathing, the sharp crack and snap as the vanguard hacked and bashed their way through thick and dense shrubs.
Make no mistake, this wasn't some manmade trail we were hiking on. It was the wilderness, a forest left mostly untouched by man. There was no conveniently laid out trail, no constructed path. We had to forge our own route forward.
Additionally, we weren't a stealth unit. We were a combat unit. While we wanted to avoid as much combat as possible, we weren't trained to sneak through the forest, invisible, unseen and unheard. If the monsters really wanted to find us, they could. That was what the scouts were for - the much more lightly equipped mercenaries moving ahead as they covered themselves in stealth spells and masked their movements and sounds, returning to the main body of troops to provide alternate routes that skirted past monster hordes.
Occasionally, we did encounter smaller monster hordes and the like, and these were easily dispatched by the mercenaries. Silver Fangs. Blood Claws. Even plant-type monsters such as Victory Bells and Pitcher Traps, their vines unfurling lazily as they seized unfortunate, smaller monsters and yanked them toward their acid-filed, bulbous bodies for a heavy meal. Those were a little tough to take out, so we went around them.
"Still no sign of whoever you're looking for?" Adrian asked when the mercenaries stopped after a couple of hours for a beak. The professional soldiers leaned against whatever trees or sat down in whatever hollows they could find, hydrating themselves. I shared my water with Adrian and Melina, knowing that they didn't bring rations or necessities of their own. Good thing I had packed extra - like I said, assume the worst and hope for the best.
Better over-prepared and having excessive water than being under-prepared and not having any water when you needed it.
"No, nothing." I couldn't keep the frustration out of my voice. "There's no sign of any human habitation anywhere. It's hard to imagine a single old guy living alone in the wilderness like this, without any infrastructure or amenities. I mean, he certainly can live off the land by foraging for food or finding a water source, but that's easier said than done. Most people who don't have the training, survival skills or knowledge would die within a week of trying to live in a forest like this."
That included me. Even back when I was in the military in my previous life, I was aware that soldiers did not simply live off the land like how was depicted and fantasized in novels and fiction. It was precisely because of training that I knew how difficult it was. We could certainly survive for a week or two in the forest, performing guerilla action, but any longer than that and we would begin to suffer malnutrition because of dietary deficiencies and a host of other problems, such as cholera (there were only so many water treatment pills you could find, and you couldn't simply drink from any water source, not if you wanted to avoid falling sick). Not to mention, the military wasn't going to teach you what plants were edible and what were not, so don't go foraging for mushrooms (actually, the first thing they taught you was to not eat any of the plants like they did in movies, not unless you wanted to die). Of course, the moment rations ran out, you probably had to hunt animals and eat them (because they were safer), but like I said, living on that sort of diet would lead to malnutrition and other problems. Also, bugs. Plenty of accursed bugs swarming around and bothering you. And those were the least of it - headlice that infested your hair, sandflies that left rashes across your skin, and mosquitoes that plagued you with deadly diseases. Those people who claimed that they loved to be one with nature had evidently never dealt with bugs, their romanticized vision often formed from trekking on manmade trails and admiring artificially constructed vistas. They didn't know the true face of nature, and would probably suffer a lot if they attempted to live off the land like some readers had suggested I did.
Not to mention skin diseases and conditions arising from a lack of hygiene and proper medical equipment and medicine...that shouldn't be a problem for this Ling Dan, but how was he going to get the necessary medicine, ingredients and equipment delivered to him? Let's say he could just concoct any medicine he wanted from the herbs here. He still needed the equipment, and then maintenance and repair of said equipment. And even if that was resolved, how was he going to fend off the monsters that intruded into his home? He was a receptarier, not a soldier or a combatant.
...not unless he was one of those urban cultivators or alchemist cultivators who excelled in both medicine and fighting...ugh, in other words, he was probably a godlike Mary Sue like the infamous Xiao Yan and other xianxia protagonists.
"I guess he learned survival skills then." Melina shrugged as she sat atop a root, using the chance to catch her breath. I felt sorry for her. She was visibly struggling, as was Adrian. The two kids evidently didn't have the training or physical conditioning to make the trek, but they didn't want to be a burden and thus exerted themselves.
"Are you all right?" Glacia had come along. She offered Melina a bottle, but the latter declined.
"Sensei already gave me some water. Thank you very much, though."
"...Sensei?" Glacia repeated incredulously, and I had to raise my hand.
"She means me."
"Oh! So you're a teacher."
"That explains why Brother Hai assigned you to look after them." Glacia was nodding in understanding. She turned back to Adrian and Melina. "But you can also find me if you need anything. I'll be more than happy to help."
"They are really nice people," Melina observed as Glacia left to check on the other mercenaries. She smiled a little. "I...I always pictured mercenaries as fierce and...ferocious fighters. I never imagined that such a beautiful Onee-san could be a mercenary as well..."
"Oh, Glacia can be fierce and ferocious if she wants to," I assured her with a cheely grin. Holding back from laughter at Melina's incredulous expression, I added. "You just haven't seen her fight yet, that's all."