The brilliant rays of the sun permeated through the gaps between the canopy.
Rhode stopped in his tracks; he stared at the hilly dirt path in front of him for a moment, then he turned back and looked at the girl who was gasping for air behind him.
"Ms. Marlene, can you move a bit faster?"
"W-wait a minute... let me... catch my breath..."
Marlene's present state was a mess. With mud, twigs, and leaves sticking onto her robe as well as with a face full of sweat, she'd lost all of her previously elegant features. If someone saw her pitiful state right now, they'd have thought that she'd just came back from a war. But in fact, she was only climbing a hill.
"I... never thought... that it was... going to be this tiring..."
She took heavy breaths with each step as she slowly staggered up the hilly road. The enthusiasm that she displayed before had completely vanished. When Rhode saw her like this, he started to regret his decision to bring her along. After all, he wasn't here to fool around. Physical strength wasn't a mage's forte; clearly he'd forgotten about this point.
During the previous mission, Marlene didn't fall into such a miserable state because she used her magic to float up against the steep mountainous slopes. However, as the elevation here was much gentler, she refused to use her magic and insisted to walk. And that was how she ended up exhausted.
At the beginning of the climb, she was energetic since it was her first time exploring the wild without anyone guarding her. This newfound freedom in adventuring made her even more enthusiastic than Rhode.
Alas, enthusiasm wasn't something that could be eaten and converted into energy.
Therefore, her enthusiasm gradually waned and turned into anguish.
Rough roads, thorny shrubs, thickets of grass... observing nature from afar was nice and all, but walking through it was another story altogether. And to make matters worse, even wanting to take a rest was a chore. According to Rhode, she must carefully scan the surroundings just in case a poisonous snake lurked nearby.
Thank the Holy Soul. At least I am given enough time to write my epitaph.
Marlene was already extremely tired and dizzy. She even felt that this was worse than studying a ton of magic law books in the Magic Tower.
"I really don't know how Lize adapted to this lifestyle."
In the end, Marlene chose not to sit on the ground. Instead, she leaned against a tree trunk to catch her breath.
"She must have suffered... back then she was such a crybaby."
"Nothing is impossible."
Rhode gave a casual remark as he compared a nearby mountain with the one in his 'game memory.' Then, he rested his hand on the scabbard of a magnificent looking sword on his waist, the Blood Tears. This sword was given as a gift of appreciation from Claytor. It was apparent that the Keller family was very grateful towards Rhode when they presented him with this magic grade weapon.
Compared to Star Mark, the appearance of Blood Tears resembled those swords from the Middle Ages. It had a dark, crimson hue along with a rare spell that coincided with its name. Whenever the sword contacts with blood, it would gradually become sharper and more durable. Weapons that could grow in strength were rare and highly sought after.
Rhode accepted the gift unreservedly. While Star Mark was still his favorite, it occupied one summoning slot, which he felt was quite a waste. The Summoning Swordman's Magic Circle that Rhode possessed was the 'Ten Strongest Spirit Deck.' Within the Magic Circle, he can decide what Core Card he wanted to use for each deck. For example, in an army, if the player was the commander and the summoned spirits were the soldiers, then the 'Core Card' would be the platoon leader. Once the Core is set, the summoned spirits can be materialized as an entity without consuming soul power. If their power runs out, then they will temporarily return to the Magic Circle to 'charge up' before materializing once more.
For the Summoning Swordsman class, deciding what Core Card to use was crucial and should be done with care, as once the Core was set, it couldn't be changed unless the player chooses to delete it. That was the reason why Rhode hadn't decided on Star Mark's Core yet, since its current level was fairly low. If he found a better card in the future, then everything would be too late.
Rhode had made an error once before, so he wouldn't be stupid enough to repeat it one more time.
Marlene continued. "But, she somehow appears... strange."
Rhode was surprised for a moment.
Lize was strange? How come he did not feel so?
"Hmm... how do I put it..."
Marlene frowned for a moment as she pondered on how to describe it to Rhode, but in the end, she didn't know how to phrase it.
"I can't really say, but I feel that she's different from before. Moreover... nevermind."
Marlene recalled the time when she was about to leave with Rhode on this mission. Lize held her hand tightly and hesitated as if she wanted to say something, but after a while, she didn't say anything and left. As a woman, she could feel that Lize was jealous and worried at the same time. But Marlene did not know the reason why.
Was it because she wanted to tag along, so she got mad? But the Lize she knew wasn't that kind of person...
Marlene suddenly straightened up.
A magical wave surged in the air, sending a direct signal to her body which caused her to react immediately.
Rhode also noticed Marlene's body twitching slightly.
"Someone is coming."
Marlene turned her head and gazed at the mountain below which was hidden behind a thick foliage.
"My sigil detected people marching towards our direction. One... two... three. Three people. But there's a chance that there might be more..."
"Let's get ready to move forward."
Rhode loosened the grip on his sword.
"Do it as planned."
Marlene acknowledged his order and raised her wand towards a tree beside her. Soon, a bright, mysterious sigil appeared and penetrated into the trunk.
"Why don't we just ambush them and kill those group of nasty people?"
Marlene simply threw out the question on her mind. In her opinion, those guys weren't tough. If Rhode and herself combined strength, they could easily dispatch them. So why should they be afraid of being caught being these people? It was something that she didn't understand.
"Simple. Because this place is not too far from the Deep Stone City."
Rhode answered her question without hesitation.
"If we engage them now, those guys will immediately send some signal for reinforcements. By then, we will lose our advantage. However, now they are unaware that we have intel of their locations. Letting these guys continue to follow us is a better option for now because we can lead them deeper without alarming them. Even if they realize that something is wrong, it'll take too long for their reinforcements to aid them. So, rather than finishing them off here, we can keep track of their movements without worrying about an ambush."
Marlene nodded and no longer said anything regarding the plan. She could guess what Rhode planned for them. But still, she was rather annoyed with the sweat trickling down her face.
"But if you're just looking for magic herbs, do we need to walk this far in?"
They had been trekking the mountain since morning and Marlene was already dead tired. She didn't understand why they had to enter so deep into the forest when there were other spots closer to the edges.
"Indeed we don't. If we are looking for magic herbs, we won't need to go this deep in. But, coincidentally, I've found some treasure maps which points to the Twilight Forest. If we can find it, it'll be a boon to our group."
Rhode's expression was indifferent as usual. It didn't appear as though he was lying, and since Marlene trusted his judgment, she stopped being skeptical about everything he did.
Marlene's eyes sparkled for a moment. She couldn't imagine what kind of treasures would be buried here. Those fantasy adventure stories that she had been reading made her slightly less skeptical about these things. After all, instead of going to some underground cemetery, a treasure hunt sounded much closer to her 'adventure fantasy.'
"Then which direction shall we head next?"
Rhode pointed to the front.