Not long after the undead retreated, Old Walker finally found a new clue.
"They left a trace!"
Old Walker and Sereck became excited once they saw a strange marking engraved on a nearby tree trunk.
"They're nearby... I think they should be over there!"
Old Walker pointed towards a dark cave not far away from them. Even if Old Walker didn't point out to them the similar symbols engraved on the cave surface, everyone could guess what happened from the undead corpses scattered at the entrance. A messy trail of footprints also revealed that there was some human activity though it was evident that something wasn't right.
Rhode didn't want to linger in this forest for too long so he quickly beckoned his group to move. While the journey had been fairly smooth sailing so far, they were only about two-thirds through Silent Plateau. They still had one-third more to travel once they rescued the mercenary group.
However, other than Sereck, everyone else appeared to be exhausted. The short rest from before couldn't recover much of their strength. Looking at their status right now, Rhode felt like they were similar to those NPCs that didn't want to hinder the player and would sacrifice their lives to help pave the way to conquer the final boss.
Rhode certainly didn't want things to turn out like that. Attempting to fight the final boss alone without teammates was just suicidal. Thus, he quickly prompted the group to follow closely behind him as he entered the dark cave.
Woosh! When Rhode entered the cave, all of a sudden, a dagger flashed in the darkness and ruthlessly lunged towards Rhode's neck. Clearly that attack was meant to kill.
If it were anyone else, perhaps their life would end right there without any resistance. Unfortunately, the hidden assailant didn't know that Rhode was different. As the top player in Dragon Soul Continent, Rhode often encountered sneak attacks from PKers. As such, the moment the hidden assailant attacked, his automatic reflexes kicked in.
He used his sword to parry the dagger and counterattacked immediately. The hidden assailant was slightly surprised that its attack was seen through and quickly attempted to retreat, but Rhode didn't give it a chance to do so as he thrust his sword towards the direction of the dagger, stopping directly before its throat.
"Stop! Rhode, it's an ally."
Sereck quickly stopped Rhode when he recognized the dagger. Lize ran forward and illuminated the cave with Holy Light.
Finally, Rhode could see the appearance of his assailant.
Half of her face was covered in a black mask. Her tight, black leather armor accentuated her slim figure and emphasized her well-endowed chest which moved up and down due to her ragged breathing. Her long ears trembled as her eyes focused on the sword at her neck.
It was a half-elf.
"Are you the member of Victorious Wine mercenary group?"
Rhode retrieved his sword and asked emotionlessly as if the person who attacked him wasn't her.
"Yes, I'm a member of Victorious Wine. Are you guys from the Mercenary Association?"
Sereck walked forward.
"I am Sereck. We've received a reinforcement request from one of your members and rushed here as fast as we could. It seems like we've arrived on time."
"Y-you are Mr. Sereck!"
The half-elf girl's eyes lit up.
"You guys really came! Great!! Quickly save my comrades!!"
She grabbed Sereck's hand and pulled him towards the depths of the cave.
"We followed our leader's orders to flee here..."
As she led the way, she briefed the group about their current plight.
"Initially, our leader didn't plan to enter the depths of Silent Plateau because we know how treacherous this place was. But when we were at the outer borders, we were attacked and surrounded by the undead. We decided to flee — but by the time we realized, we were already in the depths. Although we did try to break through the waves of undead, we never succeeded. So... we had no choice but to venture deeper to look for a way out."
"Well, you know the rest of the story. Many of us got injured and our leader had to send someone to ask for help. Fortunately, you guys arrived so quickly... otherwise..."
You guys sure know how to choose the most dangerous place.
Rhode frowned and thought to himself.
"Who is it?"
When everyone arrived at the end of the cave, a deep voice echoed.
"It's me. The people from Mercenary Association have arrived!"
That deep voice immediately went one octave higher.
"They actually came?! Quick, quick bring them in!!"
Soon, a deep, rumbling sound shook the cave slightly. A boulder at the end of the cave rolled to the side, revealing a hidden passage. At the same time, a tall and muscular man came out from the entrance. When his eyes met Sereck and the others, his face lit up with joy.
"Mr. Sereck? I didn't expect you to come here personally. We are eternally grateful..."
"Don't mention it. It's something that the Mercenary Association should do."
Sereck waved his hand and smiled while turning towards Rhode.
"If you want to thank someone, thank him. We wouldn't be here if not for him."
The man was slightly taken aback when he heard what Sereck said. He stared curiously at Rhode for a moment before shifting his attention back to Sereck. He thought that Rhode was merely Sereck's subordinate... but that didn't appear to be the case now...
After a while, he stopped trying to analyze Rhode and invited the group in.
"Everyone quickly come in. It's dangerous outside. Those undead are seriously tough opponents."
For a mercenary group to be named Victorious Wine, one would think of their exceptional fortune. Unfortunately, its members didn't seem to be blessed by its name. After entering the tunnel, the scene before them caused Rhode's group to take a deep breath.
Five to six people were heavily injured and were leaning against the wall of the cave. They were covered with blood and scars — some of their wounds even had rotting flesh dangling out! Continuous groans of pain filled the cave, but when they saw Rhode and the others enter, a spark of hope lit in their eyes.
Rhode didn't need to say much. Lize and the four Clerics understood their roles. They hastily rushed towards the mercenaries and began to heal their injuries.
"I'm Kudla, the leader of the Victorious Wine mercenary group."
The muscular man used his superhuman strength to shift the boulder back in place before walking forward and politely bowing.
"On behalf of my mercenary group, I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. Frankly, I didn't think that we could survive until now. Mr. Sereck, thank you..."
Then the man called Kudla turned towards Rhode.
"...and he is?"
Kudla couldn't help but study the young man in front of him. From Sereck's previous explanation, it was this young man who was the one that saved them. Who was he?
"He's the leader of Starlight. I think you might've heard his name before?"
"He's the leader of 'Starlight' mercenary group, I think you have heard about him before."
Sereck smiled and introduced him. After hearing Sereck's introduction, Kudla showed a surprised expression.
"He is the rumored... But... Why..."
"The Mercenary Association lacks manpower at the moment."
Before Kudla could finish, Sereck filled in the blanks. His face also turned dark.
"You might not be aware but every mercenary group in Deep Stone City were sent to destroy the undead though none of them succeeded. Five to six mercenary groups returned, but they faced multiple casualties. Other than that, there's no news about other groups."
"How could this happen!!"
Kudla was shocked.
"The Mercenary Association is currently investigating about the commissions and commissioners. What kind of commission did you guys get?"
"We were tasked to retrieve a keepsake of a traveler."
Sensing the seriousness of the matter, Kudla's expression also turned solemn.
"I heard that a traveler died at the outer borders of Silent Plateau. The commissioner claimed to be the older brother of the traveler and he was worried because his brother didn't come back, so he asked us to look for him. I disagreed initially, but the person appeared to be very sincere. He even gave us a deposit of three hundred gold coins..."
That last sentence was the key point.
"Was he from Deep Stone City?"
Kudla went silent for a moment before shaking his head.
"No, from what I've heard, he seemed to be from the South... Anyway, he certainly not a person from the Paphield Region. He also said that he often traveled and didn't live here for long."
Sereck and Rhode exchanged a glance; both of them understood what each other mean.
It seemed like Victorious Wine was also one of the victims. That traveler's keepsake was also fictitious — similar to Red Hawk trying to find a sword that didn't exist. In the end, it was just an excuse to deceive them to go to high-risk areas. But, taking into account that they must've spent hundreds of gold coins to do this... how could they be so generous?
What are they trying to do?