Almost every safe zone leader around the world had recognized the importance of stationing an intelligence officer inside the Tavern. Shortly after Cheng Yang listed his Stones of Return, every leader knew about it.
Since the end of the world, people couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the gods’ rules and modern video games. As such, many leaders had religiously studied video games from the past and knew that some form of return function must exist. The only problem was, they didn’t know how to unlock it. So, as soon as they saw the Stone of Return, they realized they’d found what they were looking for.
Without a doubt, anyone with the Stone of Return in their hands would be completely safe. All they needed was for their subordinates to buy enough time for them to escape!
When someone bought the first Stone of Return, countless people cursed themselves for being so stingy. If they had just raised the price a little faster, they would have an indisposable tool. Even if it was a consumable, it was a life-saving object.
This disappointment didn’t last long since a new Stone of Return was listed a few minutes later. One safe zone leader, in particular, saw that and instantly bought it. She was a cowardly and vicious person, so the ability to escape death was a very precious thing to her.
Just when people thought their chances were gone, another Stone of Return was listed!
By now, it was clear that someone had obtained several Stones of Return and was selling most of them. Some of the more observant individuals were even able to associate the appearance of these items with the disappearance of a God Quest. However, for both groups of people, there was only one question in their mind: how many stones did this person still have?
Some people weren’t able to ease their anxiety and decided to buy a stone right away just in case there were only a few. However, once those wealthy individuals were out of the way, the price fell, but not once did an auction finish without the stone selling.
Watching stone after stone sell for astronomical prices, many people grew uneasy. If this was one person like they thought, they had just become the wealthiest person on the planet. Since this morning, very few leaders dared to plunder the resources of their populace, so the number of Experience Fragments they watched flow through the Auction House to that person was enough to make them green with envy. Almost every leader had concluded that a single strong individual couldn’t defeat an organized military force. However, someone with that many Experience Fragments for training would still become a monster they couldn’t provoke.
At the same time, Yuan Jianzhe was contemplating in the silence of his condo’s attic. A few moments later, he broke that silence when his subordinate Lao Wu entered.
“How many stones were you able to buy?” Yuan Jianzhe asked in a grave voice.
“Only one.” Lao Wu said apologetically. “Since we aren’t willing to pay more than six thousand for a stone, it took a while for the price to fall.”
Yuan Jianzhe naturally understood that the limitation he placed on Lao Wu made it too difficult to obtain that many so he wasn’t upset.
“They’re disposable items, so don’t invest too much into them since we still need more funds for Project Uplift. Still, try and buy a few more even if it means throwing money towards that bastard.” Yuan Jianzhe said. “Someone else would do it if we didn’t, so it doesn’t matter in the end.”
Yuan Jianzhe wasn’t a foolish man. He had already connected the dots between the God Quest that disappeared and the Stones of Return. Considering the nature of the quest, in Yuan Jianzhe’s mind, only that monster who cut down humans like wheat could have completed it so quickly.
“Is there any news on the forums?” Yuan Jianzhe asked. “Did Cheng Yang post anything?”
“There’s too much to sort through. Dozens of people are claiming to be the ones selling the stones, but none of them have any proof.” Lao Wu replied.
“That’s to be expected. There are scammers anywhere you go and plenty of fools around.” Yuan Jianzhe snorted. “Those fools on the forums are likely to end up dead.”
“You’re right, commander.” Lao Wu replied. “By my estimates, Cheng Yang’s earned more than six hundred thousand Experience Fragments by now. Anyone claiming to have that much is going to find themselves in a lot of trouble.”
“Since that rat Cheng Yang is progressing so quickly, please tell me the investigation had good results.” Yuan Jianzhe asked with a bitter sigh.
After losing to Cheng Yang that day, Yuan Jianzhe came to an important conclusion: there was a place outside the safe zones that allowed people to perform class change ceremonies. Since that day, evidence continued to point to that being true. So much that even ordinary safe zone leaders believed it was a possibility.
That evidence was, of course, the various items listed in the Auction House. Architecture drawing, statue lifting stones, and even different class change statues were listed, but none of them could be used in the safe zones. The only logical conclusion was the existence of something else.
Although the existence of safe zones outside Cloud City wouldn’t explain Cheng Yang’s overpowered abilities, it would allow Yuan Jianzhe to find the source of Cheng Yang’s army.
Thus, Yuan Jianzhe violated the contract he made with Cheng Yang the same day he signed it. Spies and scouts were sent to observe Cheng Yang’s subordinates, and a check the status bridges Cheng Yang wanted to control.
Sure enough, although the Western Bridge under Yuan Jianzhe’s control was teeming with monsters, the other three were completely cleared. As such, Yuan Jianzhe ordered a long term investigation mission to explore the other side of the bridges. Today was the day that mission was supposed to end.
“Commander, the investigation was a complete success. All of our scouts returned alive and without being detected. It seems Cheng Yang believes the contract was enough to stop us from investigating him.”
Hearing this, Yuan Jianzhe sneered. “What a fool. He may be powerful, but he’s just one man. I’d like to see him stop us once our preparations are finished. What were the results of the investigation?”
“People are passing through the Northern and Southern bridges every day to hunt monsters and obtain refugee laborers. Our scouts followed those teams and found two outposts in the wilderness. We also checked the Eastern bridge but couldn’t find anything, but there’s strong evidence a third outpost exists to the East.”
“So, there was something out there. Is there another one to the West, or did Cheng Yang let us keep that bridge because he couldn’t find one?” Yuan Jianzhe’s eyes lit up. “We’ll need to explore that possibility later, but for now, were we able to determine the size of Cheng Yang’s army?”
“We were able to make some inferences. We weren’t able to observe the outposts for long, but Cheng Yang should only control around fifteen hundred soldiers but as many as twenty-two hundred if a third outpost exists.”
“Just fifteen hundred?” Yuan Jianzhe frowned. “Are you sure? That’s far too few. Are they all as strong as Liu Wei?”
“No. Their average soldier is stronger than ours, but only so much that a single monster wouldn’t trouble them. They probably have more Standard-Grade soldiers proportionally but less overall.” Lao Wu replied. “Other than that, they are better equipped than us, meaning they control more instance dungeons that just the one in the city.”
“Good, that means Project Uplift was the right choice.” Yuan Jianzhe said once Lao Wu said that Liu Wei was an exception. Although Cheng Yang was a monster, Liu Wei was a more shocking existence in Yuan Jianzhe’s mind. In less than a week, she had developed from an ordinary civilian to a person capable of slaughtering dozens of soldiers.
Yuan Jianzhe wracked his brains on how that was possible and eventually concluded that her Innate Abilities must be unique. He’d read on the forum that several Unique Innate Abilities had been discovered, and quite a few were absurd. Whenever he thought about how he personally handed a treasure like Liu Wei to Cheng Yang, he gnashed his teeth, but at least now he had a way forwards.
Since there were powerful individuals hidden among the city’s populace, Yuan Jianzhe started project uplift to find every last one of them. His previously passive attitude towards civilians becoming Professionals morphed into an aggressive push to pay for every single person within the safe zone performs a class change ceremony and forcing them to reveal their system panes. In addition, he ordered his soldiers to focus as much labor as possible towards rescuing civilians from the ruins since any one of them could turn into a hidden ace as useful as Liu Wei would have been.
Although allowing so many people access to power would destabilize the safe zone and possibly even fragment his authority, it was the only choice Yuan Jianzhe could make. If he didn’t act decisively, Cheng Yang would come back and devour the safe zone eventually.
“Have we found anyone useful yet?” Yuan Jianzhe asked.
“Several dozen candidates have Unique Innate Abilities, but none of them seem as powerful as Liu Wei.” Lao Wu replied. “They will raise the combat prowess of our armies, but they won’t help us in a battle against Cheng Yang.”
“Keep looking. Less than a quarter of the population have performed class change ceremonies. There’s bound to be someone useful out there.” Yuan Jianzhe said, unaffected by the lack of progress. “And if there isn’t, we still have the artillery project.”
“About that commander.” Lao Wu said with an awkward face. “We’ve run into an issue with the artillery. Most of our weapons specialists are dead, so progress has been slow. We’ve tried to contact specialists using the forums, but if we don’t receive help, it will take a few weeks.”
After the earthquake at the start of the apocalypse, electrical equipment stopped working, which fried the firing mechanisms on most of the advanced weaponry Yuan Jianzhe had in his arsenal. However, the actual explosives were still active, so if the ignition method was switched to manual or mechanical they could still be used.
Doing so was only a matter of time. The real question was, how much damage would the advanced weaponry deal? A handgun only dealt three or four, while a rifle could deal up to seven. The most potent weapons the military possessed right now were the USES armor-piercing sniper rifles, which dealt between ten and twelve damage. Regardless of the number, Yuan Jianzhe was satisfied that the artillery would deal damage to multiple enemies.
“Do whatever you need to to make the artillery usable by next week.” Yuan Jianzhe said. “We’ve already lost prestige among the militias, and without the ability to control the civilians that became Professionals, the safe zone will be splintered.”
“Commander, I also have something to report regarding the monsters outside the safe zone.” Lao Wu said, “The number of Standard-Grade monsters has increased greatly. If we don’t do something, casualties will skyrocket.”
“What do you suggest.”
“Right now, we’ve spread our elite soldiers among the ordinary ones, but that strategy will grant diminishing returns in the future.” Lao Wu explained. “I suggest we gather all of our elites into a single unit. It will act as our sword and neuter hordes so that our ordinary soldiers can clean up the rest.”
“Do it. Even if lives are cheap now that we’ve planned to have everyone perform class change ceremonies, we can’t afford the loss of respect heavy casualties will cause.”