On the other side of the large doors was a beautiful meadow that stretched out far beyond my view. As we all peered agape at the brightly lit field of grass that glittered like polished emeralds, for a moment, the fact that we were underground seemed like a dream.
“Let me guess, this field wasn’t here last time either,” Reginald muttered as his eyes stayed glued to the enrapturing scenery in front of him.
Brald let out a sharp breath as he continued to stare at the field. “N-No, nothing of the sort.”
After mumbling something indiscernible, Reginald let out a sigh of resignation and stepped through the door. The rest of us just exchanged hesitant glances before following after the hammer-wielding augmenter.
Stepping into the meadow, I studied the large area. I almost thought that we had stepped through some teleportation gate out of the Dire Tombs until I looked up to see the rows of stalactites high up on the ceiling. The deposits of calcium that littered the ceiling of this cave glowed brightly, to the point where I had to squint to make out any details.
What I found suspicious, though, was the very fact that a space like this could exist underground. There were no pillars visible and this area stretched for at least a few hundred meters in all directions. With such an extensive open field with no supports holding it up, I was surprised that this place hadn’t been buried in rocks.
“Wow! It’s so pretty!” Samantha gasped, her head constantly turning to take in the view.
Tall trees and bushels of shrubs dotted the field. Even I couldn’t help wanting to just lay down and relax here but ever since we walked through the door, the hairs on my body had been standing on end, as if my body wanted me to stay alert.
Everyone’s guards seemed to be down except for Jasmine and Elijah, whose eyes kept darting around as if searching for anything suspicious.
“Something’s off. Keep your guards up, everyone.” I remained vigilant with my shortsword out and my left hand on the grip of Dawn’s Ballad, which was still sheathed.
“Are you sure? I don’t even hear anything, let alone see much besides the grass and trees,” Kriol asked dubiously. I could tell he was a bit doubtful but he followed my advice and raised his shield.
I continued examining our surroundings to see what was making me feel so tense. The light that radiated from the stalactites glowed much brighter than the ones from the previous caves. There was also a thin veil of haze layered over the meadow but that was it. There was literally nothing else besides the plants and this mist.
What am I missing?
However, soon enough, the mist around us began to gradually grow more dense, eventually thick enough so that I could only make out the shapes of everyone around me.
Suddenly, a deep thud broke through the silence hovering around the mist.
“Clara? Is that you? H-How are you alive?”
I whipped my head to the direction of the voice in time to see that Kriol had dropped his gigantic shield and was holding his arms out, reaching desperately at something in the distance.
“I knew you couldn’t be dead, Clara! Stay there! I’m coming to get you!” Kriol bolted off, leaving his shield behind him.
“Damn it, Kriol! Stop, it’s dangerous!” I cursed, trying to warn him, but his figure faded out of sight within the ever-growing layer of fog.
All of a sudden, something grabbed ahold of my arm and jerked me.
“I think the mist is an illusion.” I heard Jasmine’s voice right next to me, but even with how close she was, it was becoming hard to make out details inside the haze.
“I thought so too.” I clicked my tongue in frustration. “Everyone! Stick together! This mist is playing tricks on your senses. Samantha, barrier!”
Eventually, they were able to gather, using the sound of my voice as their destination. Huddling together, we discussed our plans for clearing through this cavern inside a sphere of water.
“Who’s Clara?” Samantha asked, confusion evident on her face.
Reginald shook his head. “It…It’s Kriol’s fiancée. But it’s impossible for her to be alive. I saw her get killed in a dungeon with my own two eyes. We even cremated and buried her ashes together!”
It was obvious that Reginald and Brald were both shaken up. The three had partied before numerous times, so the name Clara wasn’t news to them, and hearing Kriol go after his dead fiancée wasn’t exactly the best of news either.
“What the hell is going on?” Lucas cursed under his breath. His knuckles were white from how hard he was gripping his staff, and it looked like he was doing all he could to keep his wits together.
“Jasmine. Do you have a spell that can create a wind strong enough to clear this mist around us?” I turned my head to my partner, hoping she could give me some good news. We didn’t have any wind attribute conjurers here besides her.
She answered, lowering her gaze. “Not strong enough to clear it all away, but I can make a path.”
We gave her space inside the barrier of water as she began preparing her spell. Soft gusts that glowed a greenish hue began swirling around her, gathering around her hands. Her straight black hair lashed wildly around her as the swirls of wind circled her arms, growing larger.
While an augmenter’s biggest disadvantage compared to their counterparts was the limited range of their spells, after a certain level, augmenters were able to store and exert enough mana to use ranged techniques. Of course, the power and efficiency at this stage would be vastly inferior to a conjurer of the same level, but even the fact that she had enough control over her mana to do this showed talent.
The mist around us grew thicker, limiting our field of vision to about a meter away from us. The once peaceful field of grass now emanated an ominous pressure, almost as if this mist wanted to swallow us alive.
“Clear my enemies from my path with an ever-raging howl,” Jasmine chanted, struggling to keep the frenzied wind in tow.
The condensed whirlwinds swirling around Jasmine’s arms collided as she clapped her hands together. The impact of the two tornadoes expanded and burst forward, shredding the mist into a clear path in front of us.
However, the once excited looks on everyone’s faces turned pale at the sight before us. The tornado revealed a path, but also uncovered something else.
Tentacles of vines and branches were quickly making their way towards us.
“Enough of this!” Lucas pushed Jasmine aside and swung his tall staff at the wave of vines advancing towards us and muttered a spell.
“Crescent Ember!” he shouted, lashing his staff. The bright flame that glowed on the tip of the staff expanded, shooting a large blade of fire.
With a fiery explosion, the slithering vines and branches flinched back, but other than a scorched impression where the spell had hit, they were unaffected.
“Shit! What kind of trees aren’t afraid of fire?” Brald hissed as he ignited his broadsword into a fiery tornado and charged into the wave of vines that were approaching rapidly.
“Samantha! Elijah! Lucas! Support us!” I barked, willing mana into my body and sword as well.
Jasmine rushed next to me, both daggers unsheathed and glowing brightly. The spell she had used to clear a path had drained a lot of her mana, but it didn’t do much as the mist had already filled the path the tornado spell had created.
Reginald stayed behind to protect our Conjurers as they casted spells.
Brald let out an unintelligible battle roar as he continued mindlessly hacking away at the endless wave of vines that seemed to manifest out of nowhere.
The vines, however, were regenerating faster than Brald was cutting them as the one-armed adventurer was getting buried deeper and deeper inside the torrent of vines.
“Fool,” I cursed under my breath. Whether he had just gone reckless or he wanted to die here in battle, I couldn’t help but doubt that he was an AA class adventurer.
Augmenting my sword in fire as well, I made my way to our one-armed companion, hoping I would make it in time to support him before he got himself killed.
Concentrating on the fire dancing wildly around my sword, I condensed the augmentation so that just a thin layer of bright red enveloped my sword.
Lashing my molten-hot weapon at the vines continuously shooting themselves at me, a pile of dismembered branches began forming around me.
I kept tabs on Jasmine to make sure she was okay but she seemed to be fine on her own, her body spinning furiously like a cyclone of blades, mincing any vines that came in her direction. Brald was having a harder time as more and more gashes began oozing fresh blood on his face and body.
“—spread and burn!”
Lucas finished his spell first as he unleashed a spray of red liquid from his staff while Reginald continued blocking the incoming vines that targeted our conjurers.
The three of us jumped back to stay out of the way of the spell. I had to hand it to the noble brat for still thinking straight despite the situation. The spell, Liquid Fire, wasn’t as powerful as the actual fire spells but it spread quickly and, if not doused, would eventually envelop everything in its way.
The spell landed on the torrent of vines, but before the liquid fire was even able to spread, the mist around us gathered toward the spot where the spell hit the vine. With a loud hiss, the spell was doused by the moisture from the mist.
I could see Lucas’s face pale as sweat rolled down his neck. From the state he was in, it was safe to assume that this spell had exhausted all of his mana.
Elijah held out his staff as he finished the spell. The ground underneath the wave of vines crumbled and a hole, meters deep, formed, deterring the vines from reaching us for now.
Samantha fell to her knees as she released the powerful spell.
Aqua Siphon was a frightening spell that sucked the surrounding area of its water. The only drawback of this spell was the amount of mana it used for the limited amount of space it could affect.
The rampant vines that were crawling out of the crater Elijah had conjured began withering at a rapid pace as the moisture was sucked out from them.
Before the withering could spread, however, the rest of the mist surrounding the cave swirled and gathered, sucked in by the vines. The shriveled, brown vines were once again turned a healthy green, filled with vigor, and seemed angrier than before.
“N-No way…” Samantha’s face drained of color as she slumped in resignation.
The positive, however, was that the mist that had surrounded us was being absorbed into the huge wave of vines, clearing our limited view.
As the vines continued to hungrily consume the mist, we were all finally able to see what exactly it was we had been going up against.
Standing more than twenty meters tall, high above our heads was a colossal mana beast. With a humanoid structure that oddly resembled a centaur, it towered over us like a massive building.
While it seemed to be made up completely of densely packed and intertwined vines, the top half of its body was that of an armored man holding a drill-like lance that came to a menacing point just over our heads. Its lower body was that of a horse, but rather than legs, its limbs consisted of the countless vines we had been battling against. Two green eyes peered down at us, filled with unbridled enmity.
I swallowed hard, staring mindlessly up at the imposing figure. For the last hour, the seven of us had been literally battling against the toes of this mana beast.
“I-I’ve read about a monster that looked something like this,” Samantha stuttered in horror, sinking to her knees in complete resignation. “I think th-that’s an S class mana beast called the e-elderwood guardian!”
“It can’t be, right? What the hell would an S class mana beast be doing here?” Reginald almost dropped his giant hammer as he peered up at the elderwood guardian in dread, and with good reason too. An S class mana beast meant that it was on par with an SS class adventurer or at least ten S class adventurers.
“I-Isn’t that Kriol?” Reginald exclaimed as he pointed a shaking finger at the lifeless torso and legs sticking out of the body of the mana beast.
“W-We’re doomed…” Brald had a crazed expression on his face as he began laughing madly at the giant mana beast. He had already lost his arm and he was worn out from the fighting. This was probably the last straw for the veteran adventurer.
“We have to run.” Jasmine yanked my hand, gesturing me to run back in the direction of the doors we had come from.
“What about them?” I called out, my eyes glued to the elderwood guardian.
She remained silent, tugging harder for me to move.
I knew that rationally, it made the most sense to get away from here as fast as possible. Hell, I wasn’t even close to any of them, and I certainly wasn’t chummy with Lucas. But it wouldn’t be right to betray their trust in me as their leader.
Suddenly, the elderwood guardian thrusted his giant drill lance at us, creating a gale of wind just from its movement.
Elijah conjured a flat wall of earth from the ground, angled slightly so that the force of the drill would be parried away from us.
A thunderous explosion resounded from the impact as the beast’s lance shattered the thick, earthen slab.
Picking up his hammer, Reginald charged forward, seizing the opportunity that Elijah had created. His giant warhammer glowed a brilliant yellow as he roared out in desperate resolve. “Go back to the damn hole you crawled out from, you oversized tree! Impact Barrage!”
The giant hammer began vibrating fiercely in his hands as he unleashed his attack down at the elderwood guardian’s lance.
It felt like a warship had just fired a massive storm of cannons as the whole cavern shook. The sheer force of Reginald’s spell had reduced the beast’s weapon to shreds.
Just as he was about to land on the ground, the broken vines that made up the lance whirled like tentacles and surrounded him. “GAAAH! HELPP!! NOOOO!”
The tendrils that had once formed the giant lance swirled around to mold back into its original shape, eating up Reginald in the process. The gruesome sound of bones snapping resounded from within the weapon as the tendrils continued to intertwine, slithering around each other like pythons to complete the shape of the lance.
Samantha, who had been preparing a spell to our left, lurched forward and heaved what little food she had consumed since coming down here as the sound of Reginald’s body being ground filled the cavern.
Damn it all.
The lance had formed back into its original shape, with the addition of Reginald’s body and weapon inside it. Looking up, I could see that the elderwood guardian didn’t have a mouth but just from the look in its eyes, I felt like it was gloating, refreshed by the fact that it had caught one more insect that had been bugging him.
I grabbed Samantha, who had been petrified from shock, and lifted her up on my shoulders. “Jasmine! Grab Brald and let’s run! Lucas, Elijah! You have to try and block any incoming attacks until we can make it out of here!”
Jasmine picked up the one-armed adventurer who was still laughing psychotically and we look back to see that the elderwood guardian was looking directly at us.
“We need to move!” I barked, hurrying everyone. However, just as I willed mana into my body, a blast of fire hit me square in the chest, sending me flying back as Samantha tumbled off to the side.
While my body, reinforced with mana and from the assimilation of Sylvia’s Dragon Will, prevented me from sustaining serious injuries, my breath had been knocked out from the almost point-blank spell cast by Lucas, the only one possibly capable of doing this.
Furious and baffled by the sudden betrayal, I had to practically peel my eyes away from the blond brat that was already running away to look for Jasmine. She had been knocked back much farther from the spell and was unconscious, but she didn’t seem to be dead.
“What the hell are you doing?” Elijah cried out for the first time, pointing his staff at Lucas who was already almost at the entrance of the cave.
“You think I’d risk my life to help all of you escape? Be honored that you’ll be the valiant heroes that stalled the beast enough for me to escape! I’ll tell everyone all about your courageous deeds!” he scoffed, turning back just to shoot me an arrogant smirk before conjuring a smokescreen.
Another deafening crash reverberated as the ground split around us from the force of the elderwood guardian stabbing its lance where Lucas had just been. The smokescreen subsided, but Lucas was already gone, closing the door behind him.
“That spineless ass!” Elijah cursed, holding his glasses in place as the cavern continued to tremble from the force of the beast’s attack. The endless vines that made up the mana beast’s limbs managed to climb out of the crater left from Elijah’s spell and approach us.
Suddenly, the elderwood guardian let out a baleful roar, gripping my body with a fear incomparable to any of the other mana beasts I had faced before. Its green eyes turned a menacing red and the tendrils that made up its body turned gray and disassembled to form a tsunami of vines, destroying everything in its path as it made its way to us.
“HAHAHA!” Brald’s maniacal laughter faded as a wave of vines consumed his body.
Elijah’s usual terse expression was nowhere to be found as his face slackened, turning several shades lighter, while Jasmine was still unconscious from taking Lucas’s spell directly. The fact that she was still knocked out meant that Lucas managed to hit her before she had the chance to reinforce herself with mana.
I started calculating the options I had left. Even if I were to use the first phase of my beast’s will, I wouldn’t last long enough to save everyone and carry them out.
I bit my lip, frustrated that I allowed myself to fall into such a crappy situation. I had no choice but to use it.
I didn’t know how severe the recoil of using it would be but I had no choice but to try.
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes, searching deep within my mana core for the source of Sylvia’s slumbering power. Releasing it, I was met with an almost strangling amount of energy as my body burned.
The world around blurred as a near-palpable aura of different colors enveloped me.
“Phase Two,” I let out a strained whisper. “Dragon’s Awakening.”