Chapter 30 — The Wilderness
At the guard post of Amber City, a fully armored guard rushed into a room and said, "It's bad!
"Sir Callas! A dozen people simultaneously disappeared last night! It seems to have been done by the followers of the fallen!"
The two men who were arguing in the room immediately went silent.
Sir Callas, the representative of the nobles, was a man in his forties with a thick beard. Back in the old days, he had participated in the wars in the northern regions. He looked at the guard with bloodshot eyes and yelled angrily, "What?!
"People kidnapped again?! You trash! It's been five days and you don't have a single clue where those rats are hiding! What the hell did the council pay you guys to do?"
Opposite of the raging noble was a knight who had a serious expression. After hearing what the noble said, he immediately stopped Sir Callas and said in a low voice, "This is not the time for that!
"The noble council must hand over jurisdiction right now! These incidents are beyond trivial matters already. We must seek help and let the churches handle the case! I will now contact the Hand of Justice and ask them to send out paladins to conduct a large-scale investigation."
Was there really a need to mobilize the paladins?
Sir Callas was still hesitating. Paladins were muscle-brains who could not tolerate even the slightest of evil; once they were sent out, they would use Detect Evil on a large scale. Most, if not all, nobles in Amber City had illegal dealings or even controlled the grey areas. If the paladins were sent out, a mass purge would occur in the city—not only would the evil followers of the fallen be killed, those who were working within the grey areas of the law under the nobles would also be purged.
If that happened, the power of the nobles would drastically decrease while the churches would gain more influence in the city. Unless there was no other way, the nobles would always try and suppress the influence of the churches and only seek their help as a last resort. Polytheism and fanatic followers were on opposite ends of the spectrum, and once the paladins were dispatched, there was no turning back. All the black markets within Amber City would be destroyed, so the one who requested help from the churches would offend every noble in the city.
The gangs which controlled the brothels, smuggling, slave trading, and black markets were all secretly supported by the nobles.
"That won't do!" Sir Callas gritted his teeth as he rebutted the knight. "The 9th Army Corps has been recalled. We have sufficient strength to handle the situation.
"I will now meet with the castellan and request a search order of the highest tier. We will definitely find those evil rats today!"
A search order of the highest tier meant that they could even search the houses and properties of nobles within the city. There were no traces or clues of the culprits for so long that Sir Callas began wondering if one of the nobles in the city had fallen completely into the dark realm.
"Fine." The shrine knight nodded with a solemn expression and replied, "Go and apply for the search order now.
"If you can't get it by dawn, I will instruct the churches within the city to cooperate and take the matter into our hands. After so many people have gone missing, I have to suspect that they are preparing for some sort of evil ritual!"
Somewhere away from Amber City.
It had been three hours since Soran and the merchant squad left the city. It was rather surprising for Soran, as the merchant squad really left and travelled on without any delay or breaks.
Soran rode on the horse with Vivian sitting in front of him and followed the merchant squad from behind. As Vivian was quite light, the two siblings and their belongings did not seem to put too much of a burden on the travelling horse.
When they initially left the city, fields and farmland could be seen. Dozens of villages and towns surrounded Amber City and supplied it with all sorts of products. Carts pulled by horses and cows and trolleys pushed by people could often be seen on the road as the farmers transported goods for trading in the city the next day.
As they travelled further away from the city, farmland became scarce and was instead replaced by forests and wilderness. There were still a few villages here and there, but the number of villagers was low. The further the villages were from the city, the more dangerous they were to live in. These small villages formed their own militia guard force to defend the area as the guards from Amber City rarely ventured to these faraway villages. The only times the city guards would exterminate monsters within the region were when the villagers actively pled for help or managed to persuade the ruling nobles.
Initially, the road they traveled on was ten or so meters wide, but the road was now only half that width. It was getting muddy as well due to previous rains, and workers had to push the larger carts when they got stuck in the mud.
Now thirty kilometers away from Amber City, they were within the territory where monsters and wild beasts often appeared. The merchant guards were in full alert at this stage. A portion of the guards were spread out around the merchant squad, while others began scouting their surroundings and the road conditions ahead.
Soran remained silent along the way. Vivian was particularly obedient as well, simply looking at her surroundings with curiosity and asking Soran questions whenever there was something she could not understand.
The merchants did not seem to mind the two as they were all busy with their own affairs. The mysterious mistress of the merchants did not show her face even once, and her three managers were the ones taking charge of things.
It was a large merchant squad with over a hundred people when taking into account the workers, slaves, and thirty merchant guards. However, the composition of the squad was rather common for Northerners, with normal merchants gathering under the banner of a master. These merchants had to prepare their own carts, men, and goods, while the master of the squad would ensure their safety during their travels. After their journey, they would have to hand over a third of their profits to the master of the squad, the mysterious daughter of the Northern witch in this case.
A galloping sound could be heard as the head merchant guard approached Soran. Their vision was getting obstructed by the dense wild vegetation in the wilderness, and there were no human settlements in sight.
"A rogue?" The guard leader sized Soran up and said, "Something happened ahead. Follow me there and have a look at the situation."
Vivian nervously held onto Soran's sleeve. He soothed the little girl by patting her on the shoulder and replied, "I have to take care of my sister.
"Look, she's still small and can't ride a horse by herself."
As soon as Soran replied, the large carriage in the middle of the merchant squad came to a stop, and an alluring beauty with her face veiled emerged from within. She glanced at Vivian and showed a charming smile while gently saying, "The young girl can stay with me. It's safe and comfortable inside the carriage."
Soran hesitatingly looked at Vivian, who tilted her head as if deep in thought. She soon nodded and said, "Mhm. I like the big sister. She's not a bad person."
Vivian had decent intuition due to her 18 Wisdom, and Soran decided to trust his sister's decision. He nodded and replied, "Alright, stay in the carriage and I'll have a quick look with the guards, okay?"
Rogue—this was the official name for thieves. They were like cheats among professions, dabbling in almost everything. Their detection abilities in the wild were only second to the gifted ability Wilderness Survival which all rangers had.
Soran and the guard leader quickly headed toward the area ahead on their horses. The merchant squad slowed down and waited for the guards to confirm that it was safe to travel.
“Head, you’re finally back.”
Soran took a turn on the mountainous road, and suddenly the forest was a lot denser than before. Not far ahead were three merchant guards who were veterans with close combat professions.
One of them who had distinctly Northern features squatted down and pointed at the footprints on the ground. “Look, these are footprints of goblins.
“From the looks of it, there seems to be several dozens of them. There might be sorcerers among them as well.
“These annoying pests just won’t die off. Every time we exterminate them, they just pop out of nowhere the next year!”
Goblins had rather short growth cycles and high survivability in harsh environments. They could even survive just from eating grass if the situation was dire. It was almost as if they were wild grass themselves, showing up no matter how hard a gardener weeded his garden.
“These indeed belong to goblins.”
Soran roughly investigated the footprints on the ground. Some of them were already gone from the rain, but he could still estimate their numbers.
However, these goblins would not dare to attack the merchant squad. From his past knowledge, these timid creatures would only attack humans when their numbers were at least five times more than their opponents’.
The current numbers were something any five-man adventurer squad could handle, thus Soran was slightly unsure why the guards were so troubled.
Noticing his doubts, another guard pushed aside the bush and said, “That was not the important part, look here.”
There was a patch of soil which was notably different from the others, as if it had been dug recently. The patch was roughly five feet by five feet, and bloodstains could be seen within a five-meter radius.
“Apparently the goblins encountered something.”
The head guard clutched a handful of soil and smelled it.
“This creature is definitely not small in size and is extremely dangerous! The goblins couldn’t even hurt it at all!”
Soran tensed up as he nudged the others aside and inspected the patch of soil himself. Using his curved sword, he dug up more soil and muttered, “Ankhegs?!
“If that’s true, things are gonna get troublesome. Ankhegs are social monsters!”
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