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"Damn it! Their firepower is so strong! How many people did they send?" Cynthia's cheek was cut by a shrapnel and blood seeped out from the gash. "Stay under cover. Don't come out!"
She leaped out, did a forward roll, reclined on the ground and fired three consecutive shots upward, creating a large cloud of dust. She then got up and fired another shot.
Someone exclaimed outside the door. A black shadow was hit and crashed to the ground. The gunfire seemed to gradually slow down, until it stopped.
Sergeant Rio roared in anger, extended his arms out, and fired a few blind shots.
Three groans could be heard coming from outside the door. More people had been hit.
Garen remained hidden behind the sculpture, listening to the sounds of gunfire steadily becoming scarcer and scarcer. Cynthia and sergeant Rio returned fire while covering each other and were able to gradually suppress the gunfire outside.
After an unknown amount of time had passed - it could’ve been ten minutes, or maybe fifteen - the shooting finally stopped.
"Has it ended?" Garen asked, quietly sticking out his head to look.
The lobby was a mess. Sergeant Rio and his men were all injured. Out of over ten policemen who had come, only two were alive now. The fates of the rest were still unknown.
The sergeant was shot in the shoulder. His coat was wrecked and half of the white shirt inside was dyed red. He was crouching by the door, gasping hard to catch his breath.
When Garen looked over, the sergeant turned his face away in shame.
Black Panther was tending to a gunshot wound on his left shoulder. He held the white bandage with his mouth and was bandaging himself. Cynthia, on the other hand, was with the two remaining men, silently arranging the equipment.
"Is Radin still alive?" Cynthia casually asked.
"No… I don't know. Maybe," one of the men replied absent-mindedly. He took a dagger and gently dug out a bullet from his thigh. There was cold sweat and popped veins all over his forehead.
"This was a heavy loss. But those guys will figure out a way to hide." Cynthia reloaded the handgun in a swift move, then took out a black shotgun from the backpack beside her and loaded a shell into its chamber.
"Now it's up to us."
Garen recovered his line of sight, hunched his back and crept toward the study. Grace wanted to follow but was held by Garen motioning for her to stay.
"I'll be fine going alone, you stay put."
Faced with bullets, which would be troublesome to others, he was not afraid. Even though Golden Hoop Number 10 had shot at him yesterday, it hadn’t caused any real injury. He was more concerned about Golden Hoop’s Number 9. He was sure that the real reason the other side hadn't barged in directly, even though they had an absolute advantage over them, was out of wariness toward him.
He quietly crept along the corner of the wall toward the study. He crossed the corridor and entered the dark room before straightening up.
There were several new footprints at the entrance to the cavern in the study. It was clear that someone had followed them in.
Gunfire burst out in the lobby again.
Garen gently pressed on the bullet hole in his lower abdomen. He could still feel a slight pain. Before his wound fully recovered, he could only apply 80% of his true strength. Facing an oppponent stronger than Golden Hoop Number 9, he didn’t want to confront him directly either.
"Antiques of Tragedy are not a priority now. I need to figure out how to get out of here! I can't believe the Golden Hoop was brazen enough to directly confront the police force." He started to regret this adventure to Silversilk Castle. He was different from Dale Quicksilver and the others. He was here just for the Antiques of Tragedy, not to investigate the case.
"I need to think of a way to escape safely…"
Suddenly, a muffled explosion came from outside. Its force shook the entire castle.
"Go to hell, you bastards!" Cynthia shouted fiercely from the lobby. It was clear that the explosives set up by her men were detonated.
Garen relaxed slightly. With the deterrence of explosives, the people outside wouldn’t dare to simply approach. After all, they had no idea how many explosives were buried around the castle.
"I'll stay here for a while more, waiting for the detective to come out and leave together. There might be some unexpected gains…" He couldn't leave now anyway. He might as well stand guard at the entrance and wait for Detective Dale and the others. This way he might be able to get his hands on an Antique of Tragedy and then still be able to leave safely.
Garen was confident that if he wanted to retreat, neither firearms nor martial arts experts from the Golden Hoop could stop him.
He walked to the entrance. As he was about to sit down for a rest, he felt that the edge of the entrance was a little chilly.
"Could it be?" He suddenly turned serious. "Could it be that there is wind?"
He reached out with his head to the entrance and carefully felt around.
On his palm, he could feel a slight breeze flowing out from the entrance.
"There is wind indeed! There must be an exit on the other side!"
Garen stirred, his face instantly revealing his glee. He was about to stand up and go back into the lobby to inform the others, when turning around he saw a black shadow blocking the study entrance. It quietly watched him.
The shadow had a black hood on. A huge golden earring hung from his left ear, the number '9' engraved on it. By the looks of his stature, this was a strong and well-proportioned man. His face was covered with a black mask that revealed only a pair of very beautiful sapphire like eyes.
"This is the underground entrance?" the man asked softly. His voice was deep, and the accent a very standard confederal one. "He is indeed the famous Detective Dale. We've searched for so long but never managed to find it, while he located it as soon as he arrived. This is excellent."
Garen turned around fully, carefully listening to the sounds from the lobby. The gunfire was still going on. Obviously this person had sneaked in here by himself.
Without waiting for Garen to respond, the man continued to speak. "Kelly, I heard that you are an expert in appraising Antiques of Tragedy. That's perfect. Follow me down for a look. If you can prove your talent, I'll consider sparing your life."
Garen was stunned. He had just told Detective Dale not too long ago, yet the Golden Hoop had already gotten wind of it.
The man seemed to think that Garen did not believe him. He reached out with his hand toward the wall on the left and applied pressure to it.
A slight crack instantly appeared on the wall. It was like a piece of glass that was about to break.
"This will be your fate if you don't agree."
Garen took a look at the wall. He could have produced that degree of splitting too. The castle walls have been in disrepair for years, so the stone bricks were extremely fragile. What he found strange though, was that this Golden Hoop Number 9 did not regard him as a martial arts expert, but instead thought of him merely as a normal expert with a strong build.
That move on the wall could probably work on most people, but it wouldn't have any deterring effect on a martial arts expert. Moreover, Garen was the type of martial arts practitioners who were known for their strength.
"Does he not know that I injured Golden Hoop Number 10?" Garen speculated internally, but said, "Are you the Golden Hoop’s martial arts expert? As long as you can guarantee my safety, I'm alright with it." He was planning to go down anyway.
"You've got some nerve." Seeing that Garen was not afraid, a trace of admiration flashed across the man's eyes. He nodded, took the lead by walking to the entrance, and went down the stairs step by step. "Follow me. Don't play any tricks. Even if you have trained in some martial arts, I can finish you off in a few seconds."
"Don't worry. I'm very clear about the situation." He followed the man down the stairs.
Tap tap tap…
Both of them went down the stone steps, and soon they had completely entered the underground space.
The space was cylindrical. The black stone staircase spiraled down along the wall with white chrome handrails on the side. Garen looked down past the handrails.
Below him, the staircase spiraled into an infinite darkness, like a screw thread on a cylindrical inner wall. At the center was a small black void; it seemed bottomless.
When he looked up, the entrance they had entered from was reduced to a tiny hole.
The screw-thread staircase spiraled clockwise downwards, loop after loop. Strangely, this staircase and its handrails, as well as the surrounding walls, were exquisitely decorated. The walls were engraved with fine vines, and so were the handrails. The stone staircase felt unusually level and solid, like it was built by stacking whole stones together.
They walked in a single file. The black-hooded man was in front. The back of his hood would flap up from time to time, and a faint fragrance would disperse through the air.
Garen trailed behind. When he smelled the scent, his spirits lifted.
"Here, if you're not wary about the Mindtwister Vine scent, you’ll just be walking to your death," the man walking in front of him said in a low voice. "Stay close. Otherwise I won’t be able to take care of you either."
"Okay." Garen nodded.
The two of them walked down, round and round, their surroundings seemingly never changing. If Garen didn’t occasionally look up at the gradually shrinking entrance, he would have thought they weren't too far in, just going round in circles.
He wasn't sure for how long they were walking, maybe half-an-hour or more.
Garen looked up again. The entrance was completely out of sight now. There was only darkness above. The only source of light around him was the small torch that Golden Hoop Number 9 carried in front.
The amber glow illuminated up to one loop above and below them.
The temperature in the stairwell seemed to be dropping too. Garen could see a white mist when he exhaled.
"How long do we still have to walk? It's already very cold here. No wonder you wore such thick clothes." Since the detective and the others were trailblazing ahead of them, there shouldn't be much danger in here. And now since Golden Hoop Number 9 was walking in front of him, he didn't mind anything at all. He might as well think of this as an adventure. Since he didn't know the extent of the man's powers and wouldn't be able to directly confront him in his current state, it was better for him to conceal his powers.
"These stairs are endless…" the hooded man replied in a low voice. "These are the Infinity Stairs of Ancient Endor, the stone steps leading to the realm of the dead, according to legend."
"You really believe it's endless?" Garen asked.
The man did not respond.
They continued forward in silence. The walls were black, same as the stone steps, only the handrails were white. They seemed to emit an eerie pale glow under the torch fire.
It was extremely quiet up and down the stairwell. There was no sign of the detective and the rest who’d came in first.
Walking downward silently, an unknown amount of time had passed until there was a change of scene in the monotonous stairs ahead of them.
There was a stone table leaning on the wall to their left, and on it was a square fishtank.
Sealed. It was half full with water, and some fish could vaguely be seen inside.
The hooded man put down the torch and went up for a look.
The water in the fishtank was already dark green, like slimy sewage water. The three to four dead goldfishes inside were not golden-red anymore, but instead covered in dark green, floating dead on the surface of the water.
"I didn't expect there to be goldfish in here…" Garen was confused. "So deep in."
"There will be more unexpected things down here," Golden Hoop Number 9 said indifferently. He raised the torch and continued forward.
Garen walked past the fishtank. He couldn't help but give it another look, then keep up with the man.
"Since it's a fishtank used to keep goldfish, why would it be sealed?"
"This was a simple ancient ritual. Seal up life, let it slowly die inside until it decomposes completely and fully integrates with the other ingredients. The seal will be broken when the time comes, and the content inside would be consumed. The life, blood, flesh, and soul would all be eaten. According to legend, this was a ritualistic method to attain immortality," the man explained casually.
"How disgusting." Garen was speechless.