The dragon instantly soared high into the sky, clearing away the clouds in its passing, ultimately reaching a height other flying monsters rarely flew at. The party rode on Tzaobath in the following order: Sety first, as guide, Shin behind her, as he also could tell which direction to go, followed by Tiera, Filma, and lastly Shibaid.
“No one fell off, right?”
Shin had already checked the map, but turned around to look just in case. He knew that riding on Tzaobath without any protection would be risky, so he had set up a barrier to protect all passengers from the wind and any bird or insect collisions. Even then, they sped through the air at an incredible rate.
Tzaobath had risen so quickly that during its ascent many birds and insects had been knocked off their paths by the barrier. Had Shin not put up the barrier, high STR members like him, Filma, and Shibaid would have been fine, but Tiera would have been thrown off their dragon steed easily.
In terms of STR, the mage-type Sety would have been in danger too.
“….it looks like we’re in a different world.”
Tiera slowly opened her eyes to look down, with a mixture of excitement and surprise plus a streak of terror. The scenery that spread before her was surely very different compared to anything she had experienced before this. The ground, usually firmly supporting her from below, was no more: more than half of her field of view was now colored blue. The ground was so far that she almost couldn’t believe that she had been standing there just moments before.
Tiera had ridden Elder Dragons before, but Tzaobath’s speed and height were a whole other experience. Shin felt that they were now flying in a place where only very few flying organisms could, which surely made it seem like a whole new world.
“It’s rare to be able to look down at the earth from this high. The rideable monsters can’t fly this high, after all.”
Shin’s eyes narrowed.
He had ridden on flying monsters several times during events, but their current speed and height far outstripped anything he had experienced in the past. Their search would take much less time than expected.
“This feels just so unreal. I can’t even imagine what would happen if I fell off.”
The current situation seemed to exceed the limits of Tiera’s imagination. It was a normal response for someone without any experience riding flying monsters. When encountering a situation beyond one’s comprehension, normal people could find it difficult to even think.
“If you feel sick, just say it, all right?”
While not to the same degree as Tiera, Filma and Shibaid also seemed somewhat tense.
Shin had flown on airplanes in his home world, so he wasn’t as greatly affected, but the current situation could be stressful to this world’s denizens.
If they fell from this height, not even Shin’s support characters would be unscathed.
Some people felt sick when flying on a plane, even if they were not afraid of high places, so Shin warned his companions before anything happened.
“We’re really going fast. Won’t we arrive in no time, at this pace?”
Sety mumbled while looking ahead, the Tsumugins clinging to her.
“Can you tell the distance?”
“So said the Tsumugins, at least. Besides if we go this fast we can cross the whole continent in one day.”
Tzaobath’s flying speed did not come only from its wings: it was also affected by magic and skill effects, as one might expect in a fantasy world. Tzaobath’s unique abilities, however, were not the most important concern to Shin right now.
As long as he could reach Schnee’s location as soon as possible, he didn’t care if he was riding a monster, a jet, or anything else.
“We just need to go straight like this, and we’ll arrive in…about 20 minutes.”
Sety spoke after confirming the time with the Tsumugins. The exact distance was still a bit vague. As she said, however, they would reach their destination in about 20 minutes: Schnee’s marker appeared in Shin’s detection range.
“It’s over there in that area surrounded by mountains!”
The location Shin pointed at was to the north of the middle of the Eltnia continent. It was a plain area surrounded by rather tall mountains, though there were not enough mountains to form a chain. It was an area with thick vegetation and tall trees, but a single spot seemed to have been carved by something. As the flora was different too, that might have been the spot Tzaobath had blasted away previously. Maybe because of the evil deity’s presence, heavy clouds hung over the mountains, making the locations appear much darker than its surroundings.
“So this is the place.”
“Do you recall anything?”
“Yes, among the places I destroyed, this had the largest number of Kishimi tribe members. To think that the origin of everything was here…I am to blame for not bringing it all to an end back then.”
Tzaobath’s tone was filled with anger. The scales covering the dragon’s body began glowing in response to its growing excitement.
“I understand your feelings well enough, but wait until we’ve rescued Schnee. You can do whatever you want after that.”
“My apologies, I’ve let my feelings take over for a moment. I’ll descend now, but anything could happen. Keep your guard up.”
Tzaobath urged the party to be careful while focused on their destination. They had managed to reach it in less than a hour thanks to Tzaobath. No matter how high Schnee’s stats were, considering how much time had passed since she had left Shin, she had moved a distance far too great for her abilities. Shin didn’t know if she had tamed a flying monster or was teleported, but the possibility that the evil deity was in wait was very high.
“In any case…there’s really nothing here.”
Small trees grew here and there, but there was literally nothing else. Any buildings had probably been blasted away, not even leaving debris behind.
“Schnee’s presence…is over there.”
“The Tsumugins are saying the same thing.”
The direction Shin and the Tsumugins pointed toward was the very center of the crater.
The group decided to land at a certain distance away, just in case.
“It doesn’t look like there’s anything there though.”
“It is either hidden, or underground.”
Filma and Shibaid spoke while eyeing the crater.
Shin looked in its direction too. He activated the 【See Through】 skill to neutralize any concealment or camouflage effects, but nothing changed in his field of view. There was nothing in hiding there, apparently.
Shin then narrowed his field of detection, thus increasing its precision.
“Looks like there really is something underground. I can’t tell how wide it is, but it seems to be pretty deep.”
Schnee’s presence came from a rather deep location. It did not seem to be moving. Shin couldn’t tell if it wasn’t moving or could not move, but there was no mistake that it was there.
“So even if the aboveground part had been destroyed, the structures underground remained. We have no choice but to have Tzaobath wait here then.”
“Ngh…I cannot reduce my body’s size, after all. It cannot be helped…I shall stay here and watch the surroundings. Do let me know if anything happens.”
Being unable to change his body size, Tzaobath could not explore underground easily, as it couldn’t go through the corridors.
After calming down Tzaobath’s fury at the evil deity’s countermeasure, Shin and the group headed towards the center of the crater.
“Must be here. It’s buried, but 【Magic Sonar】’s response is different.”
Sety had closed her eyes to concentrate on the ground, then announced her discovery with confidence. Shin examined the location too and found out that it was indeed different from the rest of the area.
“It would be a waste of time to dig a hole, should we just blow it up?”
“What!? Do you realize how dangerous that sounds? I can remove this much ground in a snap, just step back!”
Shin was ready to unleash his magic, but Sety stopped him. After Schnee’s disappearance, he was maybe acting a bit different than the usual.
“I’ll create an entrance, then.”
Sety held her hands over the ground that was supposedly covering the entrance, which started moving by itself, as if giant arms were sweeping it away, and gradually formed a small hill next to the entrance.
“Is this magic?”
“Just a variation of 【Earth Wall】. Ever since the Dusk of Majesty, it’s been possible to modify spells and apply them to various situations.”
According to Sety, this change did not only apply to magic: it had become possible to change martial skills too, to reduce the burden on the user or give them different effects.
The newly formed cavity leading underground was about three mel tall and two mel wide. It was not exactly large, but Shin stepped inside without hesitation. Sunlight illuminated the entrance just slightly, but thanks to 【Night Vision】 Shin could proceed with confidence.
“I see, so this is a secret dungeon.”
Shin saw the hostile response on the map and recalled knowledge about the existence of such a dungeon. Information about it had been shared on the game’s bulletin board, but there were conditions for it to appear, so Shin was actually seeing one for the first time.
“Well, no matter. I’ll take the lead. Filma, Tiera, Sety, and Shibaid, follow me in that order.”
Shin placed emphasis in the rear guard, setting Shibaid as last line of defense. They did not think their group would proceed easily without encountering any obstacles, so they were not shaken in the least. Thanks to her gradual learning of Marino’s abilities, now Tiera could use 【Night Vision】 too, like the rest of the party: no member was thus unable to see in the darkness.
“There was nothing like this when we went together, was there.”
“That’s right, Filma. In your case we just defeated the monster-turned Kishimis, and that was it.”
“….hey, Shin. Haven’t you been acting kind of weird since we got here?”
Shin replied with a sigh to Filma’s blunt remark. His words were rougher, as was his demeanor.
He wasn’t like this when they left the Faerie Village, but he was aware that he was restless since he had detected Schnee’s presence, and it showed.
Schnee’s name was displayed on the map, still as a party member, so at the very least he knew for a fact that she was not dead.
Even so, he felt the urge to race to her side as soon as possible. Even if she was physically safe, who knew what her mental state was? She was already unbalanced to begin with, so there was no time to waste.
He walked while paying attention to his surroundings, but if Filma and the others hadn’t been there he would have probably sprinted ahead as fast as he could, relying on his stats and gear for protection.
Now that Shin was aware of his feelings, after talking with Schnee the night before, he realized how terrified he was of losing her.
“If you’ve fought this boss before I think it will go okay, but if anything happens to you big sis Schnee will be really sad, ok?”
“I know that, I’m being careful.”
After Filma, Sety also pointed out Shin’s restlessness, so he cooled down a bit. While they did not talk, he sensed Tiera, Yuzuha, and Shibaid watching him. Even without looking at them, he could tell they were worried.
Shin drew a deep breath, then slapped his cheeks. Haste makes waste, he told himself, trying to calm down.
“Hey, Shin, don’t you know anything about this dungeon?”
“I just heard bits and pieces about it. I know the route to take though, thanks to 【Magic Sonar】. The traps will be the problem.”
Despite the fact that the boss itself used various mental-type skills, the dungeon itself housed all sorts of large-scale magic attack traps, or so Shin had heard.
He just remembered other players complaining about them in the bulletin board, but if it was true it would be a pain, as such attacks were very difficult to defend against.
Some traps caused explosions via fire magic when the party reached the center of a room. There were many other traps dangerous enough in the game that would now be absolutely lethal.
“Well, just leave those to me. I’ve explored dungeons solo many times, my trap detection skills and abilities have been duly trained.”
In the game some traps could easily pierce through average status effect resistance. They rarely killed the player directly, merely slowing down their progress. Maybe because of management’s malice, these traps were always set on monster routes.
Being mauled to death while helpless because of 【Paralysis】 or 【Petrification】 or ambushed while attacking allies due to 【Confusion】 or 【High Confusion】, there were all sorts of triggers that could cause the party’s destruction.
Traps in dungeons, no matter where, were all nasty. This was a sentiment shared by all players.
“Stop, everyone. Speak of the devil…”
Shin signaled for Filma and the others to stop and picked up a pebble in the middle of the corridor. Then, as soon as he threw it, he activated the Divine skill 【Twin Branch Purification】.
A semi-transparent, glass-like barrier appeared before Shin. Moments later, the pebble he threw hit the ground. That same moment, an orange light flashed, immediately followed by a large explosion, big enough to completely engulf Shin’s party.
It was the very same trap Shin mentioned before, which caused an explosion with the party at its center. This time, the treacherous trap had been fully sealed by 【Twin Branch Purification】’s barrier, cast across the corridor.
Compared to the 【One Leaf Absolution】 skill Shin had used in the Wraith Plains, this barrier was even more resistant to physical and magical attacks and its resilience was stronger too: not only did it block the flames, it did not let the blast’s heat wave either.
Even though Tiera had heard about the trap, she couldn’t hide her surprise.
“I can see how scary that can be now…triggering that without knowing would be a nightmare.”
“You need at least two types of detection skills maxed out to pick it up too. Having maxed skills as a condition is something no one usually considers, which makes the trap even nastier. Despite this, you could even find them in normal dungeons sometimes.”
“It’s like they want you to fall in one…”
“That’s why people said that dungeon traps were made by those with malicious intent. Anyway, it’s pretty quiet here.”
Shin spoke with Tiera while looking around. It had been around 10 minutes since they had entered the dungeon, but all they found was just one trap, which seemed odd. The party continued to piece together a map of the dungeon via 【Magic Sonar】, heading towards Schnee’s location — the deepest part of the dungeon — through the shortest possible route.
The lack of monster encounters and scarcity of traps made their progress much quicker than even a normal dungeon. While they couldn’t simply go straight down, they had already covered about one-fifth of the total dungeon. The party did not know much about this secret dungeon, but it was clearly bizarre for the map and detection skills to not show any signs of a monster presence.
There were trap-riddled dungeons without monsters inside, but there were too few traps here for that to be the case.
Before entering the dungeon, Shin’s 【Magic Sonar】 had clearly showed a monster-like response too.
“Maybe they’re drawing us deeper? In some dungeons monsters would appear in mass after you passed a certain point, right?”
Filma was referring to time attack-type dungeons, where the players had to dispose of the boss quickly and teleport away, lest they would be crushed by multitudes of monsters.
“Yeah, you’re right. But even in dungeons like that you encountered some monsters on the way, so you wouldn’t realize that you were in one.”
Dungeons completely devoid of monsters were an all too clear sign that there was some trick to them. In the game, even if the monsters were there just for camouflaging purposes, there would be some prowling around, but here Shin’s detection field did not pick up even a single response.
Shin asked Shibaid, the rear guard, but there was no sign of anything approaching them from behind either.
“With things so quiet, I wonder about big sis…will she be okay?”
No one replied to Sety’s whisper. Everyone was thinking the same, especially Shin.
“Hey, Shin, do you—”
Receiving no response, Sety was about to say something else, but Shin interrupted her.
A red marker appeared on the map. It was a monster presence.
“Is this a test or something? Five units. Coming from the front.”
After Shin’s words, Filma gripped the hilt of her 『Red Moon』 and Tiera nocked an arrow.
The party was walking down a corridor about four mel wide: for at least 20 more mel, there were no forks in the path. The movements of the icons on the map made it clear that they were not monsters with wall-phasing abilities, such as ghosts or element tails.
There were few obstacles in the path. Shin activated 【Far Sight】, in order to find out the monsters’ identity as quickly as possible. As he did, he noticed something unnatural.
“Even with 【Night Sight】 activated, the corridor ahead is dark…there’s a Dark Summoner. Sety!”
“Leave it to me!”
Prompted by Shin, Sety casted a spell. The staff she held, about as tall as her, extended as to surround an eight-faced crystal. Sety’s exclusive weapon, 『Dusk Moon』 responded to its owner’s will and started glowing. The rainbow crystal on the tip of the staff emitted a globe of light.
The first globe was followed by two and three more, ultimately creating 30 balls of light which illuminated the path ahead of the party.
“There they are.”
In front of Shin, humanoid monsters clad in tattered capes were retreating, intimidated by the light globes.
The monsters, carrying darkness capable of shutting off 【Night Sight】 and 【Far Sight】 , were Dark Summoners.
They appeared humanoid, but their tattered robes contained nothing but darkness, which suffered no damage when attacked. Their actual body was the candle-like item they carried, which burned with a dark flame.
“Tiera, aim at the candle they’re holding! That’s their actual body. Filma, you take down the Shadow Stalkers behind them. Shibaid, keep watch on the rear. Sety, you watch the whole situation and support when needed. Yuzuha, Kagerou, protect the rear.”
Shin gave orders to the party, then joined Filma in fighting on the front lines.