Volume 13, Chapter 13: A Network of Caves

“Yuki! Yuki! Did I do the first-aid wrong? I know Ge said to do this first and then…”

I opened my eyes and saw Ying scrolling through her phone. She huddled near a flame, extending her hands toward it every few seconds. What happened again? Oh yeah, I got sucked into the mountain. Hold on, I thought it was just me though. Yet, Ying was right here near me.

“Ying,” I called out with a hoarse voice.

“Shoot, I knew I messed it up there. Oh! Yuki, I’m so sorry!” Ying apologized, dropping her phone.

“I’m pretty sure I should be the one apologizing. You’ve taken care of me this entire time, right?” I felt a slight pain as I walked towards her.

Ying rushed over, leading me over to a wall that I could lean on. I pulled up my shirt and saw white bandages wrapped around my stomach. Wait, when did this happen? I poked my injury but felt no pain.

“That was a really scary fall you took. I’ve tried reaching Ge and Zhang but there’s bad signal here. It’s really bad out there too,” Ying answered, picking her phone up from the ground.

We were in a small cave and the only light source was the flame. I heard the wind howling and the sound of something pelting against the exterior. The ground was rugged, bits and pieces of rock, digging into my clothes. Better than the sewer I just witnessed in my mind dive. I leaned further back and felt my feet slipping underneath me. Ying quickly grabbed my shoulder and steadied me. I finally noticed the small, slick ice patches surrounding us.

“Ying, I saw a portal of some sort. Do you know what it was?” I recalled the strange hole.

“I think you triggered a trap and activated the portal. That’s how you ended up tumbling down here. I’m so glad I managed to dive in after you before it closed,” she explained.

“It couldn’t be the person that En’s chasing after, right?” I slowly lowered myself to the ground.

“No, it’s probably the person Fei was tracking. Let me do a quick check up. Ge will kill me if he finds out that I made a dumb mistake,” Ying decided, hovering over me with concern.

She lifted up my shirt with care and inspected the bandages. Ying squeezed my stomach with her hands, asking if I felt any pain. I shook my head in response. Well, that was probably a good sign. After confirming my upper body was fine, she did the same with my legs.

“Oh man, I’m so glad Ge isn’t here! I managed to fix my mistakes so you should be a-okay, Yuki!” Ying declared.

Hold on, something just occurred to me. Only four people? That wasn’t right. I swore Zhurong agreed to accompany us on our search to find the sword thief. But she wasn’t present at all when we were making our preparations at the bottom of Pitfall Peak. The only person that stopped by was Kyoi. Was my memory that messed up?

“Hey Ying! Can you re-?” I inquired but the flame going out stopped me mid-sentence.

An ambush? They sure picked a great time to pull it off. In my condition, I wasn’t too useful in a fight. Still, that didn’t me I could sit back and let Ying handle everything. I struggled to my feet and then a bright light filled the room. Ying stood next to me, wielding her halberd with a serious expression. Quite a contrast from her usual self.

“Finally found ya!” a familiar voice greeted us.

Ying loosened her grip on the halberd. Just the person I was thinking about. Zhurong flicked two flame orbs into the air, brightening up the area. She wore a heavy fur coat and thick winter boots with red laces. The blacksmith gave us a huge smile, setting her heavy pack down on the ground.

“Zhurong, how are you here?” I sat back down on the ground.

“I told everyone that I meet up with you later. Don’t remember?” she opened up her pack and brought out a first aid kit.

“I really don’t,” I admitted.

“Maybe I didn’t tell you. Oh, that’s right, I only talked to Zhang and Jun ’bout it!” Zhurong revealed, walking over to me.

That was one thing cleared up. My memory wasn’t that messed up from the fall then. That still didn’t answer how she located us when Ying couldn’t even contact En and her brother.

“Have you seen my Ge and Zhang yet?” Ying held her phone up in the air.

“That’s the next thing to do! Yuki, let me see those bandages. Pretty sure you need new ones,” Zhurong instructed, taking out medical supplies from her first aid kit.

“I’m more interested in how you found us, Zhurong,” I responded, allowing her to inspect my injuries.

“Easy. Your weapon,” she answered, removing my old bandages and applied fresh ones.

“How does that work?” I stared at the woman in confusion.

“There’s traces of my magic whenever I work on weapons. Usually wears off in a couple weeks,” Zhurong revealed, burning up my old bandages with her flames.

“That’s useful. So that means you know where En and Jun are then, right?” I remembered she worked on the dual elemental user’s weapon too.

“Yup! We don’t have to go outside either! These small caves are connected by magic,” Zhurong confirmed.

“Oh, I get it now! Can you let me do it, please?” Ying’s eyes lit up with excitement.

“‘Course you can!” Zhurong responded with a smile.

No idea what was going on. I watched Ying swing her halberd into the wall and then a portal appeared. Just that easy, huh? We all entered it and were transported to a different cave. Three men, wearing compression clothing, sat around a wooden table. A pile of coins was in the center along with a stack of cards. Opened bottles of alcohol were placed underneath them.

“Damn, can’t do anything. Your turn,” one of the men said, tossing his cards down in disgust.

“Sucks to be you, bitch! It’s all mine this turn!” another man boasted.

Zhurong smashed her sledgehammer into the back of the man’s head before tossing him aside. Ying’s halberd swept the remaining men into the wall, knocking them out in one hit. I summoned my sword too late and leaned on it for support. Come on, I was hoping to do at least something! We traveled to ten different caves, taking care of the enemies in each one before finally arriving at an empty one.

“Oh, your brother was here,” Zhurong stated, waving her hand over the ground.

“That’s my Ge. He’s always been good at hiding our tracks whenever we’re on a mission,” Ying said, nodding her head.

“Someone else besides them is here too,” Zhurong commented, flicking tiny embers around the area.

“I’m gonna guess someone not on our side,” I predicted.

“Come on, let’s go already! Ge and Zhang could be in trouble!” Ying dashed ahead of us.

Unlike the previous caves which were just small isolated areas, this one was larger and contained multiple passageways. We caught up with Ying at a split path. I glanced over at the blacksmith, waiting for her decision.

“Both lead to the same area. But it looks like your brother and Zhang went this way,” Zhurong revealed, pointing at the right path.

“Did anyone go through the left one?” I questioned.

“Yup, match the ones from before,” she replied.

“Left one! Maybe we’ll get some clues on who these mystery people are!” Ying proclaimed.

“Yuki, what do you think?” the blacksmith asked for my opinion.

“Yeah, let’s take the left one. Maybe we’ll get lucky and run into them,” I agreed with Ying.

The blacksmith nodded and we set foot into the left path. There were large gashes on the wall, created by something heavy dragged against it. Hmm, this was concerning especially if the cause was heavy weapons. Ying ignored the walls, going straight ahead without a care. I ran my finger over the walls and discovered traces of a metallic substance. This only confirmed my suspicions.

“Modified magical weapons,” Zhurong stated.

“How bad is it?” I asked as we caught up with Ying.

“Depends on who’s using it. Ying, stop! Someone’s coming,” the blacksmith warned, wielding her sledgehammer.

A creature with wolf ears emerged from the darkness ahead of us. He wore an anti-magic amulet and steel gauntlets. Someone from Lionel’s dimension? Ying pointed her halberd at him, not taking action yet. The wolf man continued approaching us without a word. Should I set up an ice wall or wait for him to make a move first?

“Tomo Yuki,” he finally spoke and pointed at me.

“Who are you?” I summoned my sword.

“An associate of Ace. She’s asked me to come and test your skills,” he revealed.

“We don’t have time for this! I’ll handle this, Yuki!” Ying decided, swinging her weapon at him.

The wolf man pushed away her halberd with his left gauntlet, not impressed by her attack. He snarled and evaded another one of her attacks before charging at Ying. She dodged his quick jabs and then pinned him to the wall with her weapon. Yeah, I shouldn’t have worried at all. She was a skilled fighter despite her nonchalant behavior.

“Let’s not interfere,” Zhurong instructed, motioning for me to move back.

Ying unleashed a flurry of thrusts at the wolf man and destroyed his gauntlets. He managed to grab her weapon and tried throwing her off balance. Ying, without any effort, lifted him up and slammed him into the wall. She then stabbed her blade into his shoulder before flipping him up into the ceiling.

“Okay, he’s out of the way now! Time to keep moving!” Ying stepped over his limp body.

I trapped him in an ice cube just as a precaution. Ace’s associate, huh? That didn’t seem right at all. She wouldn’t send someone so weak to test me. Maybe Ying was just too strong since she did break his gauntlets with ease. Zhurong inspected the pieces of his broken weapon with interest.

“Something interesting about them?” I questioned as we continued forward.

“Ying’s crazy strong. She broke weapons that are almost on the level of Artifacts,” Zhurong answered, shaking her head.

“If she can do that, then what’s her older brother capable of?” I wondered about Kang.

We traversed through more split paths and arrived at a door. There were five glowing locks on it, each one a different color. Damn, just the kind of situation that required the services of the Gatekeeper. I could hear shouting and the clashing of blades behind the door. No doubt that we finally located where En and Jun were. The only problem was how to get inside.

“I got this!” Zhurong said, swinging her sledgehammer into the locks.

I anticipated a repellent force but her weapon destroyed them without any issues. I pushed the door surface, not seeing a door knob anywhere. There was a creak before it opened, revealing a battle inside. En fought against someone wearing a hood, which had a lotus flower design on it. Jun was up against a humanoid with crow wings on its back.

Ge!” Ying shouted, joining the fight alongside her brother.

“Yuki, I’ll help Zhang! You help the twins!” Zhurong ordered, rushing over to the hero’s side.

I would have liked to make that decision myself, you know. The humanoid flapped its wings and sent out sharp feathers at the twins. I created an ice wall, blocking its projectiles. Jun gave me a nod and then drove his ax into my ice wall. His weapon fractured it and blasted chunks of ice into their enemy. All of the ice struck its wings and sent the creature plummeting to the ground.

Mei!” Jun directed, striking the ground with his weapon.

Ying swept the ground with her halberd, unleashing waves of magical energy at our enemy. It pinned the creature down and she slashed at its wing multiple times. Her weapon couldn’t slice through it though and bounced off with a clang. Alright, we needed to soften it up then!

“Let me handle that!” I trapped the humanoid in a flame vortex.

After thirty seconds, I extinguished my flames and then blasted it with a stream of ice. Jun slammed his ax into the left wing, breaking it clean off. Ying slashed at the right wing twice, severing it. Surprisingly, no blood flowed out. Instead, metal shards poured out from its back, striking the ground with a loud thud. The humanoid screamed in agony, clutching its head.

Ge!” Ying leaped into the air, aiming for the creature’s back.

Jun nodded and swung his weapon at the humanoid’s legs. His attack crippled it, bringing our enemy down to its knees. The humanoid didn’t retaliate, still holding its head, and muttering inaudible words. A few seconds later, Ying’s halberd blade cut right through its back. The humanoid spat out a blue ooze and collapsed to the ground.

“It’s not over yet!” Jun warned, leaping back as an outline of a circle appeared around the fallen humanoid.

Its severed wings rose into the air and then zipped toward the humanoid. I fired off icicles at it but my projectiles were repelled. Fine, a different elemental attack then! Lightning shot down but it too couldn’t make contact. Hold on, a magical repellent? I glanced at the ground and realized the source.

“Figured it too, Miss Tomo? Those shards!” Jun dashed at the pile of metal.

He was pushed back as the magical circle underneath the humanoid grew stronger. A burst of light shot up into the air and enveloped it. When the light subsided, the humanoid emerged with its wings intact and a snarl on its face. Of course this happened!

Mei, no magic!” Jun pulled out a small bottle from his pocket.

“I know! Time to switch things up!” Ying reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out a metal sphere.

That didn’t limit me. In fact, this was the perfect opportunity to unleash Zhuyu and Shan’s natural world skills. I dodged the metallic feathers it fired off from its wings and then applied Shan’s powers. The humanoid fell straight from the air and into the ground. Perfect! Now to give the twins time to wail on it. Zhuyu’s zero-vector powers were up next.

“Go!” I ordered, estimating I could only keep it in place for half a minute.

Jun uncapped the bottle, pouring the contents of it onto his ax. Ying tossed five of her metal spheres into the right wing. Oh, they were magnetized! She pointed at her brother and leaped back. The older sibling slammed his weapon into the other wing. I anticipated it just bouncing off but his ax became embedded in the wing. Just what were these two planning?

“Thanks for giving us the time we needed, Yuki!” Ying hacked at the right wing with her halberd.

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The ground suddenly shook as an enormous explosion occurred. What the hell? You could have given me a warning! I protected myself with a defensive barrier as multiple blasts engulfed the humanoid. When it was all over, only charred shrapnel remained. I stepped forward, unsure if it was safe.

“What did you two do?” I questioned, staring at the burning remains of a lantern.

“Just made things go boom! The best way to deal with weirdos who don’t let us use magic,” Ying responded with a grin.

“Ignore my sister. All we really did was use the guild tools at our disposal. This is nothing compared to what our Ge is capable of with the same tools,” Jun said.

Was it really just guild tools? I was curious about that but now wasn’t the time. I was so preoccupied with assisting Jun and Ying that I didn’t even check in on how Zhurong and En were doing.

“Oh, they’re already done! I really wanted to go help out too,” Ying said.

Multiple colored flames dotted the ground, all burning at max strength, and the enemy was surrounded by them. Zhurong stood behind En, holding a sledgehammer over her right shoulder. The dual elemental user flicked his sword and sent electric sparks into the ground.

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“I know you have a lot of questions, Miss Tomo, but we’re close to the thief. We can talk about it later. For now, follow me,” Jun directed.

En nodded at his words, walking beside him. At least everyone was safe, relatively speaking. These fights so far weren’t too challenging. Then again, the people around me were pretty damn strong. Time to see what kind of difficulty the person up next would provide for the hero.

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