Wooden wheels rumbled down the road with a wooden cage set on top of them. Clad in threadbare prisoner garb, Link, Eliard, and Dyleson leaned despondently against the bars of their prison.
After being questioned by the Shadow Stalker himself, their lives would come to an end. These thieves certainly would not have anything good in store for them.
Of course, to these thieves, these three were no more than ordinary merchants who might have known a thing or two about self-defense. Being completely disarmed, these merchants did not seem to pose a threat to their captors and so were left unsupervised in their cage.
This gave Link some leeway to discuss matters with the others.
As masters of unequaled power, they were able to converse with each other without even opening their mouths. Instead of silently mouthing out words or playing charades, they could communicate with each other via a series of subtle movements that they had decided beforehand, such as a twitch of a finger or an eyebrow.
On the surface, other than adjusting their postures slightly inside their cage, these three remained almost completely still. However, the three of them were already in the midst of a "conversation."
"Hey, you got it ready yet? We're about to meet Morpheus," said Eliard to Dyleson. They were now rolling along a small path through a thick forest. From the looks of it, they should soon arrive at Morpheus' lair. Their plan to defeat Morpheus now hinged on the Level-19 sacred gear that Dyleson had brought with him.
"Relax. Before leaving, the Snow Mountain Archmage did his research on the demi-god. This divine gear is forged especially for him. He will die for sure." Dyleson contorted his lips slightly. There was not a hint of concern in his eyes.
Link did not say a "word." He had kept his eyes glued to his surroundings throughout their journey while feeling the wind speed and the thieves' breaths in the air in order to determine where they were now.
By estimating their current coordinates and comparing it with the Shadow Fortress' location as he had remembered it back in the game, he would be able to determine if they were indeed heading towards Morpheus' lair.
The game had not been as detailed as this world Link now lived in, but everything was where it should be in this world. For instance, the bandits' fortress from before existed even in the game. It was known as Horde Fortress. It was one of the Syndicate's main strongholds and served as a base for one of the Syndicate's smaller divisions. The thief Yamu and the bandit leader were the fortress' bosses.
Back in the game, Link had brought a party of his own into the fortress and was able to find some clues concerning the location of Morpheus's Shadow Fortress after killing the bandit leader.
According to the game's description, the Shadow Fortress should be more than 80 miles southwest of Horde Fortress in the depths of the forest. Poison mist traps had been set up in its vicinity. Any trespassers who blundered into any of them would surely die as soon as they came into contact with the ensuing poison mist if they had not been properly vaccinated against it beforehand.
They had already traveled 40 miles through the forest. According to the game's description, they should soon reach one of said poison mist traps. If these thieves intended to let Morpheus interrogate them, they should at least give them the antidote for the poison in order to keep them alive. To Link's surprise, none of them seemed too concerned about their prisoners' well-being at the moment as they kept driving on.
No traps were triggered.
Slowly, Link realized that they were now taking a path that seemed to diverge slightly from the one that Link remembered taking back in the game. Right now, he could not determine if such a divergence had always existed, or if the thieves had simply decided to take a different route.
However, Dylosen seemed a bit too optimistic about this. This was not the right attitude to assume when one was about to go up against a demi-god.
Link then said, "He may be an upstart, but he's still a demi-god who had the fragment for a hundred years. Such a presence would most likely have something up his sleeve, so let's try to be careful, shall we?"
"Of course," said Dylosen, nodding slightly.
The prison wagon rumbled on down the road for another two hours. Suddenly, the path before them grew wide and flat; the wagon's jolting diminished somewhat. There were now fewer trees around them. Before them gaped a 50-foot-wide valley which seemed to be filled with a faint layer of mist.
As soon as the valley came into view, Link suddenly felt that something was amiss.
"Alright, stop the wagon," said the bandit leader, who had been walking at the front of the party. He then raised his hand, and everyone came to a halt. "Let them out."
One of the thieves approached the cage. He then opened its doors with a click and shouted, "Get out, all of you."
"What now?" Eliard shot a questioning look at his companions.
Dyleson frowned. He too did not seem sure what they should do next. Link raised a brow. "Just do as he says for now."
Their plan had gone off course. Still, this was normal. The information they were able to gather was incomplete after all, so how should one expect any plan to go smoothly on the basis of incomplete information?
The three of them got off the wagon. One of the thieves then pointed a dagger at their backs. "Walk, now."
The three of them were then forced to walk up to the bandit leader, who looked at them with a cold smirk. He then threw a bundle at Link. "Take the statue with you and go straight down into the valley. Don't even think about running; our lord is waiting for you in the valley!"
Link and the others looked at each other in confusion. Their bodies began to tremble. None of them seemed willing to take another step forward.
"Hurry along now, will you!" The bandit leader took out his crossbow and pulled back its bowstring with a click. So did the other bandits. At that moment, the tips of ten or so arrows which glinted with a cold metallic light were pointing menacingly at the three of them.
If they remained cowering there, they would surely be killed. At least they could live a bit longer if they followed the path before them into the valley. The three of them began walking forward tremblingly, especially Link, who was shaking so furiously he nearly dropped the statue from his hands. Evidently, he was more shaken up than the other two.
The thieves behind them howled with laughter as they watched Link and the other two enter the valley.
The three walked on and on until they finally entered the valley. The bandits were now completely obscured by the white mist behind them.
Morpheus was still nowhere to be seen. This was not part of their plan. However, the three of them had no choice but to walk on.
After walking for at least ten minutes, a voice suddenly rang out in the white mist. "Mortal, you seem familiar."
There was a stir in the white mist before them. The mist then coalesced into a humanoid form, which floated straight towards them. Link could feel its gaze on him.
This must be one of Morpheus' clones. Where was his real body? Without knowing where it was, Dylosen could not use the sacred gear on the demi-god even if he wanted to. He began to panic.
Link had once dueled with Morpheus in the past. In order to avoid being recognized by him immediately, Link had altered his own features, his own magical aura and even assumed a jittery disposition in order to transform into a completely different person. Still, even after taking these precautions, he was unable to completely fool the demi-god's unusually acute senses.
Link fell to the ground. Sweat was now streaming down from his forehead. He raised the bundle that was hiding the statue above his head in trembling hands. He then pleaded, "Almighty one, I'm just a simple merchant trying to make an honest living. Please spare me."
No one would have guessed that this trembling merchant was the peerless lord of Ferde. Though Eliard and Dylosen looked petrified on the outside, deep down, they now had nothing but admiration for Link's performance.
The human figure in the mist seemed to have dispelled his suspicions concerning Link's identity. Its attention was now drawn to the bundle in Link's hands. The bundle unraveled by itself all of a sudden, revealing the dazzling Celestial Stone statue inside it.
"Incredible, just incredible. Such a shame that you've brought me only half of the real thing." The figure in the white mist extended a hand to touch the statue's broken surface. "Where did you get this from?"
At that moment, Link's back was now wet with sweat. He was now sweating nervously for real. He had a feeling that if he gave Morpheus the answer that he had prepared before entering the valley, the demi-god would immediately make his move against them.
And once Morpheus made his move, the three of them would be forced to give themselves away. Morpheus' lair was nearby. As soon as he knew who they were, he would soon come out to greet them personally.
They had initially planned to catch Morpheus by surprise. Only through ambush would they have any chance at all of defeating him. All three of them would simply be stomped to death like mice by the demi-god in direct confrontation.
They were now standing on the crossroads of life and death!
The problem was, what should they do now?
Eliard and Dylosen were smart enough to know that things had taken a dangerous turn. However, the two of them were unable to do anything at this point. Their hearts pounded furiously against their chests as cold sweat oozed out from their pores.
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