Moving swiftly through the mountain path, the village of Akigawa quickly disappeared behind the terrain as the road twisted and turned. The villagers had given us a final warning about an eerie creature that had taken residence around that area in the past months.
Though they had not run upon it themselves, we would apparently know when we got close to it.
Thinking back to our last visit here, I couldn’t imagine anything scarier than the dragon that we faced. However, we had seriously pissed it off that time by smashing its eggs. Hopefully, whatever was out there wouldn’t have any reason to chase after us.
Given the narrowness of the mountain path, there was no room to maneuver. The road was barely wider than the wagon, so anything charging down the path would run straight into us. In fact, a couple of animals had seemingly parked themselves ahead, preventing our way forward.
Hoping off the wagon, I stared at the white, fluffy animals that were a bit too adorable to slay. They were simply relaxing on the path, oblivious to our urges to push them away. Scanning them, a box popped up telling us that they were Mountain Alpacas that ranged in the lower 20s in level.
Though I briefly wondered if alpacas were edible, one look of disapproval from Katsys, who had noticed that I had drawn my knife on them, shut down that thought. Katsys and Ludmila had also climbed down and walked over to take a better look at the creatures. Given that they were both higher level than them, it would probably be okay even if they were to suddenly attack.
Despite our close approach, they seemed to ignore us, continuing to laze about. Even when Ludmila bent over to pet one of them, they hardly moved from their spot. Seeing that, Katsys went over to join her, and the two were soon in mofu mofu heaven.
The alpaca apparently had no qualms with the attention that they were getting from their new guests.
I stood back and sighed. There was no point in rushing through. I relented and let them enjoy themselves. Personally, I had never been a fan of animals, so I kept my distance. Since it wasn’t looking like we would be moving soon, I walked past the group and scouted ahead a bit.
Walking down the trail alone but keeping an eye on the girls behind me, everything seemed to be pretty normal so far. The beasts seemed to ignore us for the most part as long as we stayed on the trail and didn’t bother them. There was no reason for us to power level Katsys anymore, who had already cleared the level 40 mark. Most monsters here wouldn’t be a danger to her even with her basic equipment. However, I doubted any of them would even be able to approach her before feeling the wrath of her magic gun. Even I would have a bit of trouble against her at this point. The idiom ‘bringing a knife to a gunfight’ never felt more appropriate at this point.
As I kept moving forward, the sound of creatures in the surroundings started to fade. A strange silence had formed in front of me. Accompanying it, there was an odd change in the air, a feeling of dread.
I could tell with every step forward that the feeling was starting to grow, but it was hard to pinpoint where it came from. Behind me, I heard the clatter of the wagon rolling up. Ludmila had taken the reins and advanced forward. It looks like the two of them had convinced the alpacas to let the wagon through.
However, as the horse approached me, it suddenly pulled itself back, suddenly unsure about moving forward. It, too, had detected something strange in the air.
I activated my skill to see if the source could be highlighted with my eyes. However, I could only see a dark mist swirling ahead of me. Something was definitely there, but its presence was so thick that I couldn’t see through whatever mana that it was giving off.
With the horse unwilling to continue, we had no choice but to leave it behind for now and investigate ahead. It found itself a bush to hide behind, seemingly content to stay there, so we grabbed our stuff and walked onward. If we could take out the source, then that would solve everyone’s problems. If we couldn’t, then we’d come back and reconsider our options.
After traveling on foot for about thirty minutes, we reached the top of a particularly tall outlook point. The view of the mountainside greeted us, and we could see that we had traversed about halfway through the mountain range. The country of Sanshiro could barely be seen on the horizon.
“Are you doing okay, Katsys? You’re not familiar with such physical exertion, right?” I looked back to her, who was slightly out of breath.
“I’ll… be fine. This much I can handle. I’m more worried about the unsettling feeling that I’ve been getting,” Katsys replied sharply, as if disguising her lack of energy.
Truly, the farther we walked, the more ominous the air around us became. The woods were dead silent at this point. Not a single creature could be seen. Just what could have scared them off?
Since this was a good vantage point, I scanned the mana around the area again. My eyes were suddenly hit with a flare of darkness in one corner of my vision. Not far below us, an aura of murkiness brooded. The veil of strange mana seemed to be concentrated on that location. Tracing the pathway, it looked like we would be running right into it.
Deactivating the skill, the ominous mana disappeared from my sight. However, I was greeted with a field of fallow earth. The vegetation had withered from the poisonous mana surrounding it. Trees were stripped bare and grass didn’t seem to grow at all. Without the veil of mana clouding my sight, I could see a large creature lying on the ground in the distance, curled up and possibly asleep.
Seeing our target, I pointed Ludmila and Katsys toward that direction, indicating to them to prepare for a fight. My senses reminded me of the familiar feeling I had when a demon had appeared.
However, there had been no sign of demonized beasts up until this point. If there was a new demon around, the miasma from it would’ve created many demonic beasts that would likely have swarmed the nearby towns. Could this be a stray beast that was never taken care of? How had it grown to such a menacing level?
Either way, I told Katsys and Ludmila to stay alert as they had never fought anything like it before.
The ground crunched under our feet as we walked down into the affected area. The dry earth was filled with cracks, and the rocks seemed to crumble from the slightest touch. Katsys placed a hand on a nearby tree. Its bark fell to the ground where her hand brushed. Ludmila poked at a branch, which promptly snapped like a piece of straw.
The air around us grew stale, and an odd pressure brushed against our faces even though there was no breeze blowing through the area. My head started feeling a bit cloudy, and I could see the other two girls were starting to lose their energy as well. It was no wonder that traders chose to avoid this area. I didn’t think that we would last long either at this rate.
As I got close enough to finally see the form of the demonic beast that laid at the center of the ruin, I noticed large scaly skin that had been broken up by wounds that appeared to be festering. Wings that were torn adorned its back, a hind leg that looked a bit distorted like it had been broken and improperly healed, labored breathing that sounded like it was in constant pain – what stood before us was a large dragon that was surprisingly alive despite its horrid state. A scent of death from it assaulted our noses.
Seeing the damage that it had sustained, it reminded me of the dragon that we had fought here months ago, but how was it possible that it survived all this time? Also, why was it giving off the feeling of a demonic beast?
I tried to check its status, but all I could see were ‘???’ where its level should have been. However, the letters above that had caused my knees to momentarily give out in fear.
‘Mountain Dragon (Demonic Zombification)’
A demonic beast and a zombie! Who the hell decided to combine the two worst things into one?!
Cocking its head towards us, the dragon’s eyes widened as it finally noticed us standing before it. With a large growl, a dark wave suddenly emitted from its body, impacting the three of us and knocking us back a few feet.
“Roar alone did that?!” Ludmila cried out softly.
As the dragon stumbled to its feet, the ground shook around us. Facing us for the first time, I saw a gaping hole in its chest where its heart would be. Instead of blood, purple miasma dribbled out. Aside from these differences, it looked very much like the dragon that we fought before.
“Create some distance and pepper him with magic!” I turned to Katsys who had already drawn her magic gun.
The dragon ignored the inventor girl as she dashed away and focused its sights on me. Ludmila and I quickly ran in the opposite direction. Behind the dragon, Katsys had started firing her gun.
The spear of ice that was launched out of the magic gun flew towards the dragon, but then dissipated as it got closer. Katsys didn’t hesitate to increase the power to the maximum.
Yet, the spears of ice continued to be chipped away to nothing before reaching the dragon.
“Don’t you have any other magic you can shoot?” I shouted in her direction.
“As if I’ve had time to create an alternate core for this! It’s no good anyway! The dragon is somehow cancelling the magic!” She cried at us.
Great, now what were we supposed to do?
The dragon swung a claw at the two of us. Ludmila and I split off from each other as the dragon struck the ground between us. A horrible tremor sounded as the earth split in two like the sea being parted.
“Master, dragon is more powerful than before!” Ludmila had quickly moved to a safe distance.
On the other hand, I felt the ground under my feet buckle and toss me, causing me to stumble forward. Seeing the slower prey caught in its attack, the dragon turned towards me.
“Claude, behind you!” Katsys shouted through the rumbling.
A portal had been sent a few feet behind me. The dragon quickly approaching, I scrambled to my feet before diving in. I fell out next to where Ludmila had been standing. Katsys quickly shut off the portal near the dragon just as it made another strike.
“How can it move so fast with such a battered body?!”
The dragon certainly didn’t look like it was in any condition to fight. Yet, it swiftly moved its decrepit body without any regard to the sickening cracks that sounded from its bones. The wounds across its body sprinkled black blood to the ground as the skin stretched over it and continued to tear. At this point, would anything we did stop it from its rampage?
If magic didn’t work, there would be no choice but to attack it physically. We waved to Katsys, telling her that we were ready for our portal combination attack. After she sent one portal next to the dragon’s back, I dove into the other one close to us. Ludmila used her speed to draw the dragon’s attention as I did.
With a clear view of its back, I tried to ignore the nauseating smell of it. I drew my knife and swung at it, relying on my past experience to locate a weak point. Before my knife got within 5 feet of it, I felt the speed of my swing dampen. Within moments, I couldn’t push the knife forward any more. An invisible force in the air had stopped it from advancing.
I pulled my knife back and struck a few more times, but it was being stopped in midair.
“Master! Mana too thick! You can’t slice!” Ludmila yelled at me, figuring out why I had been struggling.
The heavy mana that surrounded the dragon was so dense that it formed a natural magic barrier around it. That explained why Katsys’s magic attacks had dissipated as well. I jumped back and dove through the portal as the dragon turned around to face me.
Neither magic nor physical attacks could make a dent to the demonized zombie dragon. It was starting to look like a lost cause.
“There’s no choice. We have to escape!” I yelled at Ludmila.
The dragon was once again chasing after her. After a few portals, I was safely out of the dragon’s range. Just as Katsys was about to send a portal over to rescue her. I felt the presence of another person approaching behind Katsys and I.
I turned around to see a tall Asian man with a solid physique walking towards us. Though his fully white hair suggested that he was well past his prime, his strut and eyes gave off a look of youth and confidence.
“That’s an interesting toy you have there. Want to send me over to lend the kiddo a hand?”