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TDL BK I, CH 24: Striking Hot

Chapter Twenty-four: Striking Hot

A crescent of mana cut through the air of the arena as Nick Adil tested his new magic sword. This one was noticeably larger and brighter than the one before it. If they had precision instruments to measure and compare the two attacks, they would find that the second was boosted by the same values marked in the sword’s description. The boisterous mercenary stared down at the weapon in his hands with awe so taken by it that when his men crowded in admiration, he sheathed it and clutched it close.  

Watching the events unfolding in the arena, Dunstan nodded to himself. Westfall the Younger did his job well. He’d been worried that his elders, being born and raised as orthodox cultivators, wouldn’t get it. Theirs was a world where power, skill, seniority and honour seemed to take centre stage. Conversely, economics, administration and marketing seemed to be neglected. Take The Myriad Treasures Pavilion, for example; despite objectively being the most powerful organisation in the region, they barely registered to most cultivators. The slight disdain from Elder Howatt when talking about dealing with Ranulyn had been noticeable, and why? Because they were merchants and not warriors? Dunstan wondered if the man understood just how many warriors those merchants could buy with their wealth. It was the same with the Phantoms. They were fixated on the Vast Heaven Palace, fighting for the position of number one when there was money and goods for the taking. 

Thankfully, most of the younger elders, it seemed, were not as conservative in their thinking. Westfall, for instance, had clearly taken his lessons on how to upsell to heart. Dunstan watched as the man subsequently charged the mercenaries to identify the rest of their goods, a few artificially aged gold coins and some bone powder, before leading the mercenaries by the nose to Elder Gage, where they paid even more for some rudimentary healing. Seeing the man’s work, Dunstan doubted any mercenary group would be able to pass through his hands without at least spending a hundred essence stones. Speaking of business…

The young sect master stopped by Ranulyn’s seat. Greeting the old merchant, he pitched his offer. “Our sect is prepared to sell you the items you requested. We even have an additional business opportunity provided you can fulfil some conditions and a certain request.”

Alarm flashed across the man’s face at being approached in public. Already, some of the other forces were looking this way. Dunstan smiled to himself. This was intentional, something the man no doubt realised.

“What are these conditions?” the old man responded coolly.

Dunstan nodded appreciatively at the man’s understanding. “After a review of our reserves, my Vast Heaven Palace is prepared to sell you escape tokens for the mystic realm at a discounted price if you can procure for us more sky stone pillars similar to the ones you see anchoring the portal.”

The old man’s eyes widened as the implication hit him. However, he did not lose his senses. “That will be difficult”, he began, speaking in a tone reserved for bargaining. “Skystone at that size and purity is rare. How many of these … tokens can we expect to gain?”

“As many as you need. The Myriad Treasures Pavilion will be given priority purchase rights, and in case of any eventuality where we cannot deliver, our second offer will cover all costs.”

The old man burned to ask more about the tokens, but he kept his eyes on the prize. “And this offer is?”

“I stated once that The Vast Heaven Palace could not monopolise any loot from the mystic realm. I stand by that. However, we are prepared to offer the Myriad Treasures Pavilion the right to place a stall or store within the grounds where they might purchase any materials they desire directly from the adventurers who brave the mystic realm. There will be conditions, of course, as well as taxes and such, but those can be negotiated later.”

“Again”, Dunstan stressed. “This will be contingent on if you can meet our order of sky stone.”

 “I think something can be arranged.” Ranulyn answered, hunger in his eyes. 

“That’s good to hear”, Dunstan acknowledged. Looking away, he caught the shocked eyes of the representative of the Jade Dragon Row. “Have your people get in touch when they are ready.”

Saying his goodbyes, he made for the astonished dragon. It was time to deal with his would-be-in-laws.

——————

Guillaume looked away from Adil’s ecstatic tomfoolery and turned back to his men. That man had no sense of shame. Already word was going around that The Myriad Treasures Pavilion had already been in touch to purchase the magic sword. Fighting back pangs of jealousy, the mercenary focused instead on things that mattered. 

“We’re slated to go third, so you all need to keep your eyes peeled. The Sapphires aren’t as useless as the shields, so they should make it much further, even if they do not clear it out. Diarmuid, I need you to keep track of the numbers.” That was bound to be difficult. The transmissions were centred on a particular person, displaying them and their immediate surrounding up to three metres in diameter. It wasn’t too bad when they were grouped together, but it was a different story when they were apart. During Adil’s go, it was all but impossible to tell what was happening to the rest of his men when they split up. 

“Cyne, take notes on every trap you see. In fact, take notes on any possible traps and every suspicious action you see. Tevu, help him!” he said to a petite woman. “Make sure the Sapphires don’t pull a fast one on us.” Guillaume wouldn’t put it past them. 

While they were technically not competing. It was already clear that the more a group knew about this mystic realm, the more they could protect themselves and profit from it. Keeping secrets so as to prevent others from also benefiting from them wasn’t going to be out of the question. The opposite was also true. It wouldn’t be the first time the Sapphires fed a rival false information to their detriment. 

Speaking of the power of information. “Listen close!” He said, adding a gesture to draw them in. “The tomb is haunted. We’ve already seen walking dead. Wouldn’t surprise me if they are ghosts and the like in there as well.” 

Many of the mercenaries displayed some fear at the news. Guillaume frowned. They numbered thirty men, one of the larger groups gathered here. Before this, he had considered dividing them into two groups, having Howe lead one while he led the other. Two careful runs should have been enough while they waited on reinforcements from the rest of their men and Old Cauciel, but their reactions were discouraging, to say the least. 

“Hey! They’re just monsters. We’ve killed hundreds of those”, he reminded them. “You watched Adil’s Shields, didn’t you? Just smash their heads in, and undead or not, they’ll be gone. Besides, we’ve got other advantages.”

Howe knew a cue when one came up. “Undead monsters are not new, and they are easy to beat if you know their weakness”, he said in a half-whisper. He looked around, his mana pulsing slightly as he checked again for eavesdroppers. His actions had some of them looking around as well. “Dark spirits like that all share the same weaknesses; fire, running water, lightning, light and salt.”

Their eyes lit up at the news, just like Guillaume predicted. They knew Guillaume and Howe had two of the five. Add Diarmuid and Golda, and they had three fire users in their group. 

“Undead are very rare in our province, but a few thousand years ago, that was not the case”, The other man explained. “Worshippers of the Lich King of Nosires set up a Temple of the Dead in the Bildan Hills. After the Desecration of Bilda, the Four Cardinals Sect had them wiped out in a war that lasted thirty-two years. The Kaguri had to scour the Bildan Hills with light to cleanse the taint they left. They had to marshall other light users to help, of course, but that they were able to….”

Guillaume nodded to himself absentmindedly. Howe’s attitude might rub others off the wrong way, but the man was a treasure trove of knowledge. The kind of knowledge a person from an ordinary background like Guillaume would never have access to otherwise. Of course, keeping him focused was a task and a half.

“We’ll go the history later. We should take our current reprieve to come up with strategies to….”

A quick signal from Cyne alerted him to an approach from behind. Turning, Guillaume recognised the other as a member of the Sapphires. 

“What do you want?” he asked the man. 

Maybe it was his unfriendly tone, or maybe it was the twenty-nine mercenaries looming behind him, but the approaching man may have as well been frozen by his question.

After waiting for a minute for the man to say something, Guillaume started to lose his patience. “Speak!”

“Ataligri sent me to let you know that the Sapphires are pulling out! You guys can go next if you want to!” the man forced out in a rush.

“What?” Guillaume asked in surprise. “Why?”

The man shifted nervously as he caught his breath. “Our boss isn’t a fan of dead things.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Guillaume exclaimed, realising where this was going. He swept the arena, and sure enough, he found the man’s commander hiding in a huddle as some of the other mercenary groups jeered. “Not a fan? That’s what they’re calling it now? How did she manage before this?”

The other man became affronted. “We’re mercenaries!” he stated. “We don’t do ghosts or curses!”

“If you’re so hot, why not go in? I’m sure it will be a breeze. Of course, you could also wait for our second troop to come over and take over.” 

Guillaume shot the man a dark look. “Get the fuck out of my face!”

“Okay, change of plans. Howe, Cyne, Diarmuid, Golda, you’re with me”, he said, listing them off one by one. Hesitating, he gave his men a once-over. The two-team plan had to be abandoned. With less information than he had planned on having, he needed his best to tackle this mission safely. The question was whether to go all in on power or pick up some more utility. “Charles, join the team!” he added before picking a second scout, a medic and two archers. 

“Alright, everyone, ready your gear. Jenna! You’re in charge until we get back. Have meds ready in case we are forced to beat a hasty retreat.” 

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