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210 Moving Deeper

 The mercenaries quickly acknowledged Rhode's command and coated the flaming agent onto their weapons. Then, they made a flicking motion which ignited the agent, lighting their weapons ablaze. Soon enough, a series of flames brightened the dim tunnel.

Rhode made a subtle gesture and the group of mercenaries quickly gathered in a circle with him in the center. Marlene readied her wand and narrowed her eyes with a solemn expression. It seemed like after the training, their standards had indeed improved by leaps and bounds, but...

"Don't just blindly look to the front, don't forget to look above you as well."

Rhode's indifferent voice echoed in the tunnel. The mercenaries felt his mocking tone and raised the torch above their heads.

Perhaps it was due to their pride or whatever other reasons, the mercenaries didn't immediately scream when they saw the horrors that lingered on the ceiling. Marlene and Lize couldn't help but cup their mouths to stifle their scream.

"Wha-what are those things!"

"Wahhh!"

Even the experienced mercenaries were shocked, and some of them stumbled backward.

"These eggs have been dormant for quite some time."

Celia's first sentence made everyone slightly relieved. However, her following sentence caused them to freeze in terror.

"But they've been fertilized about four to five days ago."

Four to five days...!

The mercenaries looked at each other after hearing the news. Once again, they lifted up their heads to count how many eggs were there, but after a minute, they began to despair. There were just too many of them.

Meanwhile, it was obvious that Celia didn't care about the mental state of the mercenaries.

She turned towards Rhode and said, "These are Blogg eggs, master."

"Blogg?"

Marlene repeated the word in shock and turned towards Rhode.

"Aren't Bloggs the devils that resided in the Nine Layers of Hell? How did it appear here?"

"The devils can sometimes breach the boundary. It isn't rare for it to happen."

Celia explained to Marlene calmly while slowly unsheathing her sword. Then a silver flame suddenly emerged from the blade, blinding the mercenaries momentarily and flooding the entire tunnel with a brilliant light.

"Judging by the condition of these eggs, the devil must have been sealed for many years, only to be awakened recently. Master, I think..."

"Celia, that's enough. Analyzing the situation isn't your job."

Rhode waved his hand to interrupt Celia who respectfully lowered the sword in her hand and folded her wings obediently. The newer mercenaries were bewildered as most of them never interacted with an angel before. When they first saw Celia, they panicked slightly, not knowing what to do. Furthermore, they weren't exactly on best terms with angels. Although the senior mercenaries had preempted them about Rhode's association with the Celia, the newbies didn't seem to believe them. Instead, they speculated that both of them must be in some sort of companion relationship rather than a master-slave contract. But it was clear as day now; Celia's docile behavior was unlike the haughty battle angel they had expected her to be.

"Si-sir."

Kavos swallowed his saliva and tiptoed to Rhode's side. Although he didn't catch on fully what Celia had said to Rhode, he was absolutely certain that he heard the word 'devil.' To ordinary humans, this word was a taboo.

"Ar-Are we gonna fight a devil?"

"Maybe."

Rhode replied as he turned his head and stared deeper into the tunnel.

His expression was calm, albeit too calm for comfort. If it weren't for the interactions with him a few days back, Kavos would have concluded that his leader was an expressionless man. He even suspected that this leader of his knew what was going to happen.

"Why do you ask? Are you afraid?"

"Mercenaries only desire for money; even if we have to wade through the depths of hell, we will still go for it!"

Kavos focused his thoughts and regained his composure once he realized that the rest of the mercenaries didn't have any reaction to Rhode's question. After all, the senior mercenaries in Starlight had already experienced the terrifying Wind Serpents, dauntless undead, and other frightening creatures. Compared to that, a devil that had been slumbering for centuries was just a piece of cake. Kavos' band of newcomers were obviously shaken, so he had to cough to conceal his awkwardness and surprise.

"I was just but a little surprised, sir."

"Good," Rhode said. Then he turned away and extended his right hand outwards before swinging it towards the ground.

Scorching flames erupted from nowhere which soon formed a silhouette of a huge, black hound. Just before this mission, Rhode used another Gargoyle's Heart on the hound, causing it to level up once more. In the past, the hound was just a large dog, but now, it finally lived up to its name as the Flame Killer. It was at least a meter in height, with fiery wisps emanating from its jaws each time it breathed, and it had a string of embers as its mane, spanning from the top of its head all the way to the end of its tail. The black hound had transformed entirely into a monstrous figure.

Alas, despite its fearsome appearance, its defense was still just as abysmal as before.

Rhode's eyelid twitched when he saw the size of this hound. Based on the mass of its humongous body, its self-detonation ability should rival a medium-sized missile by now. If he had a better choice, he would never summon it in a narrow tunnel. It was akin to placing a walking time bomb by his side.

Rhode snapped his fingers and the black hound immediately shook its body vigorously. At the same time, a circle of flames erupted and enveloped everyone in it. Other than the well-prepared Rhode, and Anne, Marlene and Lize who had a defensive shield up, the rest of the mercenaries felt a singe on their skin. Instinctively, the attempted to avoid the flames, but they quickly realized that they were in a different world.

Their surroundings didn't change much, however, now everything they viewed had a strange red tint to it. Just below their feet, a circular formation of flames rotated on the ground, releasing a mild stench of burning meat.

"I guess most of you already realized what we are fighting against now," Rhode said.

The mercenaries raised their weapons and nodded. Some of them were still evidently hesitant, but at least they didn't have the intention to retreat.

That's the way.

Rhode nodded his head in satisfaction before turning to the front once more.

"Let's press on then."

The attack from the devil was far stronger than what most mercenaries could imagine.

When the group entered the deeper areas, they discovered gruesome beings they had never seen before.

-

A palm-sized, flesh-colored fiend flapped its oddly shaped bat wings, shooting towards them while making a high-pitched screeching sound. However, the air in front of it erupted for no apparent reason. They twisted and turned their bodies to defend themselves, and at this moment, the mercenaries made their killing moves. When their sharp blades contacted with the soft, fleshy skin, they were faintly surprised how delicate their bodies were. They half expected some sort of solid resistance from the monster, but instead, they split it into half easily like a hot knife through butter. But its death was as disgusting as its appearance. When it died, it vanished into a puddle of murky water, releasing a pungent smell.

Joey and Randolf began to display their enhanced skills. After the rigorous training in the mirage, they had finally managed to get the hang of their jobs. Marlene and Lize weren't weak either. They were looking forward to an actual battle to showcase their newfound abilities. However, those thoughts immediately vanished when Rhode placed a carcass in front of them.

"Look carefully."

Rhode lifted the burnt corpse of the fiend without any hesitation. It had six claws, quite similar to how a human hand looks like after peeling off the skin. In the middle of the 'palm,' there was a slit which opened and closed by itself, and if one looked closer into the hole, they would discover countless of tentacles crawling within.

"If you reencounter them, remember that they will attack your face and try to stick these things in your orifices, suck out your brain matter and then lay eggs into your emptied skull. By the time you open your eyes again, your body will be a host to these fiends and fall under their complete control." Rhode explained indifferently, ignoring the paling faces of Marlene and Lize. "So I advice you to stay in a relatively safe location and only attack when I need you to."

After Rhode's detailed analysis of the fiend, the tunnel fell into silence. From now on, no mercenary harbored any intention to take part in fights unnecessarily.

After subsequent battles with fiends, the mercenaries began to adapt to their attack pattern. That was the power of adaptability in humans. When facing the unknown, feeling anxious was a natural reaction. But when accustomed to it, it wouldn't be frightening anymore.

"Careful! On your left!"

Kavos plunged his dual daggers into a fiend that flew towards him. Then in a fluid motion, he pulled back one of the mercenaries who nearly stepped out of the ring of fire. Behind them, the black hound stood quietly in the center of the circle. Kavos and his men knew that it was due to this hound that they were able to fight with ease. Although he didn't know how it was done, it was clear that it protected his men. Whenever the fiends touched the flames, their movement slowed and were easily caught off guard. If not for the hound, Kavos wasn't sure if he and his men could surely defeat these monsters.

Now, with the help of the black hound, all he had to do was to command his men to stay in the ring and slay the monsters when they entered.

Slowly, the teamwork between the mercenaries grew better and better. They covered each other and worked together toward a common goal. The hectic shifting from one point to another wasn't because they had never faced such monsters before, but it was Rhode who constantly kept them on the move with his sudden commands. When they were busy fighting, Rhode would suddenly order them to an unseemingly inconspicuous location to regroup to welcome another batch of enemies coming from another direction.

"Damn!"

A mercenary grumbled as he needed to shift to another battlefield. He smacked away a monster flying towards him and glanced secretly at Rhode. Although he was unhappy about the order, he had no choice but to acknowledge that Rhode did well as a mercenary leader. In battle, Rhode would always lead the group at the vanguard, slaughtering the monsters with his sword. Compared to the mercenaries, Rhode was much more efficient. After every attack he made, a group of monsters would fall to the ground.

While Rhode's commands weren't the most pleasant to hear, to the mercenaries who were already acclimated to screaming and swearing, his mocking tone only pricked their pride.

Still, they could hardly tolerate Rhode's 'reckless' commands. Mostly it was the newbie mercenaries who were dissatisfied, but they still followed his orders without showing any external form of resistance. No matter what, the payoff was still worth it, and while his orders might be unreasonable, at least he didn't send them over to die.

"Seems to be going well." Rhode nodded to himself. While the mercenaries threw secret glances at Rhode, Rhode eyeballed them at the same time, observing and studying their movements.

During this mission, he could clearly notice the improvement in teamwork as compared to before. However, it wasn't an ideal situation for him. It was human nature to prefer familiar faces. If this went on, the mercenary group would inevitably split into two groups. That was the reason why Rhode always kept them on their toes, mixing them with each other so that they can learn how to support different people during fights. Once the mercenaries realize that they can trust each other wholeheartedly, that would be a step in the right direction.

And that was exactly what Rhode was doing. He separated the mercenaries who had good relations with one another and forced them into another group, mixing the newbies and the seniors. Fortunately, Kavos was able to understand Rhode's intention, so he lectured his mercenaries on Rhode's behalf.

Meanwhile, Marlene and Lize took cover behind Anne's shield and Celia was, as usual, taking charge of one side of the battle by herself. Each swing from her sword brought a wave of intense silver flames which roasted the fiends in front of her into ashes. Her pure, white wings didn't seem to be soiled in the least, maintaining its radiant shine.

After a while, Rhode realized that the movement of these fiends grew increasingly erratic and their screeches were getting louder as though they were upset.

Everything was progressing as expected.

Suddenly, he raised his sword high and hacked downwards.

Light emerged from his sword, forming an arc in the air. At that very moment, a huge tentacle shot out from the darkness towards him.

Slash! The light sliced the tentacle into two. Black-colored blood spewed out, releasing a horrid stench which filled the entire tunnel. Then a deep, menacing growl shook the earth, causing the rest of the fiends to retreat into the darkness.

The mercenaries didn't panic. On the contrary, they quickly assumed their defensive positions in a rather calm manner. They all knew that the main dish had arrived. Celia ran towards Rhode's side with both of her hands on the hilt of her sword.

Suddenly Rhode called out to Marlene.

The young mage immediately made her way to Rhode when she heard her name.

"Wait for Celia and my watch my signal. Then, release the ice swords. Remember, you must freeze it."

And at that moment, a colossal shadow emerged from the darkness.