Forrest climbed up the ledge and was rewarded with a view of the neighbouring mountain. Turning, he stretched a hand to help his companions up.
“I told you this was the fastest way!” he said smugly.
“The shortest route is always a straight line. Had we listened to Derrick, we would still be rounding the second mountain.”
Despite his words, Forrest was not too pleased with their progress. Two days of hard travel would do that to you. Then there was the annoying reluctance of his companions. They had all seen the light and clouds. Some heavenly treasure had been born right in their backyard. This was the chance they had been dreaming of. Yet, without his urging, they would never have come; his brother and friend too chicken-livered to brave the possible dangers.
“Let’s take this chance to rest”, he said, observing his brother’s panting. Brook always took things too easy and practised lightly in his opinion.
“We camp for an hour and then try to find the treasure. With luck, we might be the first on the scene.”
“Too late for that”, Derrick said with a frown, his eyes glowing intensely.
Forrest was instantly on high alert. His friend’s sacred art gave his eyes sight that would not lose even to an eagle.
“Check the lower southern slope”, Derrick directed. “People are fighting there.”
Channelling some aura to his eyes to boost his sight, Forrest tried to match his friend. It did not take him long to spot the signs of battle. The figures were too far to make out clearly, but he could tell from their movements that they were locked in fierce combat.
“How many?” he asked, his spirits falling at the thought of competitors.
“Five people fighting”, Derrick quickly informed him. “I count at least two more waiting on the sidelines.”
“It gets worse. They are fighting in front of some sort of entrance so, the treasure should be in there somewhere. One of the people blocking it is Gruesome Stella.”
“You’re shitting me. Walker’s Hounds are here? FUCK!” Forrest cursed.
Walker’s Hounds. A mercenary group that worked for a wealthy merchant out of Wayton. They were a hateful bunch that every loose cultivator in the region avoided. Three teams of five roamed the wilds, hunting whatever they could to feed their master’s business. Worse, they were not above robbing other parties they encountered. Forrest had suffered at their hands more than twice, his prey snatched by the thugs.
Few were brave enough to go against the hounds for fear that they would call for reinforcements. Fighting one team could turn into three very quick. Plus, in emergencies, the two teams that would ordinarily be busy protecting their master would show up. Then you would have twenty-five mercs on your hands.
Realisation dawned. “Shit!” Forrest exclaimed.
“I’m guessing three of the fighters are hounds, right?” he asked Derrick who nodded. “They’re stalling so the other teams can get here.”
The two fighting them were probably aware of this. If they did not get past this team before their fellows came then, they might as well give up on the treasure. Unfortunately, they were short on numbers. The other onlooker knew this as well. Three against five was a sure loss but if they were to add his group.
“Don’t even think about it!” his brother warned. “We join, and we’re dead meat.”
Forrest frowned at his brother’s cowardice. However, before he could come up with a proper argument for why they should join in, Derrick spoke up instead.
“We don’t have to!” the archer said with a joyful smile. “Longspear is here. The fight’s breaking up.”
Hearing this news, Forrest’s face lit up with hope. Greg Longspear was a reputable hunter. A true mana condensation expert, there was no way he would stand aside and let the Hounds gobble up all the benefits.
“We’re going down there!” he said in a tone that broked no disagreement.
That did not stop his brother from trying. “Why bother?” Brook whined. “There’s already so many people. We’re only going to come up empty-handed.”
Again, Forrest frowned. This, however, he had something to say. “If it was before, I’d agree. I thought it was some sort of rare treasure, like those mystical herbs you hear in the stories.”
He spoke slowly, thinking things through. “It’s clearly not. Walker’s Hounds would have just grabbed it and left if that was the case. Also, there’s an entrance into the mountain. Someone had to have made that.”
“You think it’s a cultivator’s cave?” Derrick questioned, following his train of thought. A mysterious cultivator’s den, uncovered after being hidden in the mountains for untold ages. Who knew what it held?
“Maybe”, Forrest admitted trying to be realistic. “It could be anything, and that’s the point. We’ve got to try. We might not get the treasure, but we can probably grab something to sell.”
“B-but.. what if there’s ghosts?” came his brother’s contribution.
Forrest could only sigh.
Greg stared at the stone archway that led into the mountain. Truly, the heavens never deserted the faithful. Just when he was thinking of giving up his ambitions, an opportunity like this unveiled itself.
“Stay back!” Stella yelled. “This here is property of Walker’s Hounds!”
He sneered at the bitch. Ordinarily, he would steer clear, unwilling to make trouble with such a large organisation. Not so this time. They were both locals. Greg himself had roamed this mountain range long before Walker’s Hounds were established. That entrance never existed before today. Everyone knew or guessed just what it meant for it to be hidden so well for so long. He marched closer.
“I said, stay back!” Stella warned as she unsheathed her sword.
“We’re in the wilds”, he reminded her, moving confidently closer. “You have no claim here. The treasures of heaven and earth belong to those who can seize them. You know this.”
It was a familiar maxim that all cultivators lived by. Out in the wilderness, you get what you find, and you keep what you can hold. The skinny woman cursed, her face scrunching up in a way that caused her facial scars to line up. She could not argue his point, and she knew she was no match for him in a fight. It did not help that his presence had emboldened the other loose cultivators. Already, they moved in behind him. Smiling triumphantly, Greg walked past her, the other cultivators quickly followed at his heels.
“Smug prick!” Stella cursed as she watched him walk into the cave.
“You!” She yelled, pointing to the weakest in her group. “Stay here and keep watch.”
“Boss, some kids are coming”, the relegated lookout said. “Should I stop them?”
“Just you?” she asked incredulously. Ignoring his sputtering defence, she added, “What’s the point?”
Her bluff had failed. There would be more people arriving. Soon there would be more than anyone could hold off. Her own colleagues were days away so they could not help. The most important thing now was to make sure they grabbed what they could.
“Your job is to stay here and keep your eyes peeled”, she instructed. “Anyone so much as passes by, you note them down. Keep track of everything, numbers, cultivation levels, equipment, what have you. If we’re not back by the time the other teams come, you let them know everything. I find out you missed something and I’ll pluck out your useless eyes. Is that clear?”
Cowed, the lookout nodded, his head bobbing comically. Stella turned away, pleased. This way, the next team would be better prepared. Her team, regrettably, would have to walk into the unknown.
Fletcher was alerted the instant people crossed into his dungeon. It was a most unpleasant feeling, his burgeoning instincts reacted with a strange mixture of fear and hunger. What’s more, he got a helpful hint in the form of another glowing panel of text.
WARNING: There are enemies in your dungeon!
Wasting no time, Fletcher extended his consciousness towards his entrance in search of his quarry.
‘This is really happening!’ he thought to himself.
Something about the fact that he had actual adventurers invading his dungeon made his circumstances all too real. He was about to do it. He was actually going to kill people to feed his dungeon. There was nothing in his past life that could prepare him for this. In spite of that, Fletcher found himself strangely looking forward to the experience.
Maybe, if he still had a body of flesh and blood, he might feel differently about the situation. As it was, he lacked not only flesh but the hormones and restrictions that came with it. Fletcher was a glowing hunk of stone whose instincts were pushing him to do something that human reasoning said he should abhor.
‘It’s either them or me!’ he rationalised. ‘They’re coming in to kill my creatures and take my treasures. If they lay hands on my core, they will kill me or worse.’
With a thought, he put his dungeon on high alert. All nine of his creatures prepared themselves for battle. Their lives depended on it.