The Incen Mountain Range was one of the largest mountain ranges in the entire world. It did not have the highest peaks nor did it have the most dangerous Monsters, but it stretched for almost five thousand miles, creating the natural border between the Free Lands and its western and southern neighbors, preventing many territorial disputes as a result.
While there were many passes cutting through the Incen Mountain Range, most of them were narrow enough to dissuade conflicts, sustaining relative peace between the Free Lands and the likes of Laxis or the Rem Republic. Entering Laxis from the Free Lands was not as difficult as, say, Elius, for the peaks separating the two were not as high, nor was the valley as small as the other routes available to safely travel through. That, and the fact that it was one of the closest direct ways out of the Free Lands, were part of the reasons why I had chosen to go to Laxis after leaving the Dark Crusaders.
I could have gone east— to Anibes— but that would have required going through the Chalstics Confederacy. And despite freeing dozens of their soldiers from prison and potential… torture for some, I did not trust them to give me a warm welcome if they had found me in their territory; to them, I was a Dark Crusader— a heretic part of a siege on one of their key fortresses— my one good deed would not have fully abated whatever ill feelings they would have had towards me.
Regardless, now I was in Laxis, which had the Incen Mountain Range wrapping around almost half of the country, starting from the southeast, before going up to cover a quarter of the north. I had entered closer to the southeast, and strayed away from the valley with the orphanage which I first found myself in. But that did not mean I was any further from the Incen Mountain Range than I had been before.
Even from the city of Locke, I could see the undulating crests in the near distance, neverending, going beyond the horizon itself.
It was just almost 40 miles to reach the foot of the mountains. Supposedly, somewhere in that general area to the east, there was an Abomination infestation at the base of the mountain range. All the villages and towns in that direction claimed that they had seen Monster or animal carcasses with the signature blue lumps on their body, wandering down the hills. And considering that the Hunters sent to investigate have not been heard from again, along with the recent influx of Monsters attacks, the Hunters Guild has been led to believe that the rumors were true.
After having my dinner, I first went to the Hunters Guild to ensure that the job had not been taken, and while I was met with an odd look by the receptionist at the counter, she confirmed that I was not wasting my time doing this. Then I gathered my things and started for the distant hilltops, trudging along the roads that brought me closer to it until I could follow it no more.
While I did have the strength of an adult thanks to whatever spell or miracle removed the mark from my face, I still had the small stubby legs of a kid; pushing hard off the ground in a run might have carried me further than anyone my age could have possibly sprinted, but my walking speed still remained roughly the same. It would take me until dawn to arrive at my location, and I would probably have spent more time even finding where to begin my investigation.
So I did not rush. There was no reason to. I had even packed a bag full of traveling necessities, since it was likely that this job would have taken at least a full day. Likely even more if the Abominations were somehow well hidden.
I trudged under the thick canopy of trees, vines reaching down from branches like tendrils, smothering me in the darkness. The sweat on my hands— the only part of my body left uncovered— barely glistened under the light from the crescent moon hanging atop the sable night sky. It was more humid here than it ever got in the Free Lands; the close proximity to the sea, and the fact that I was probably just above the equator now made the air, thin as it was in this attitude, much more damp.
I had long since been unable to see the South Star at the edge of the horizon. And I was only going further north in the future, as my destination for now was the Taw Kingdom, a Dwarven country close to the very top of the continent. I almost felt glad that I could not see that dim red glow of the Inferna; its presence would have reminded me of Karna, and the knowledge that I had called him a friend only to betray him had weighed me down for more than just the first few nights after gaining my freedom. It would not do for me to be distracted and die in an ambush to some Monster, so I stayed focused, paying attention to every little sound and movement all around me.
Unlike the last few times I had gone out to fight, I had my staff with me to aid my spellcasting. I did not intend to fight what was possibly hundreds of Abominations unaided by magic— discretion was not necessary when there was no one around. I had worn my mask only as a precaution: if I was somehow found out, I could always dump my mask and cover my face with a new one and everyone would be none the wiser.
At least, if it was an isolated incident. I did not intend for such a thing to happen often, if at all.
Regardless, I was not sure if I even had to use magic for this extermination mission. One of the factors that pushed me towards doing this was my first encounter with the Abominations: I distinctly remembered being ignored by them when I saw them attacking Bys. I have not approached or come close to any Abomination since then, so I was not sure if this still held true. So to be cautious, I simply brought my staff with me.
Plus there were other reasons for me to have been wary. My eyes flickered to the side, as I caught a glimpse of movement. Something had brushed against the bushes, and I heard the faint rustling of leaves coming from the same direction.
I tensed— feeling the mana in the air, the earth, and my surroundings gather around me. No spell circle formed just yet. It was as if I were resting a finger on the strings of a bow. The arrow gently rested on the palm of my hands, the bow raised and ready to fire, but it was not nocked on. Not just yet.
I held my staff up at the ready, eyes darting from side to side. There was a Monster here. At least one.
I held still, unmoving, careful not to make a sound. But I was too stiff. I might not have reacted in time if something came out at me right this instant. So I took a step back—
And a figure burst out of the bushes. A large, serpentine shape emerged from beneath the thicket of trees, whipping itself out of the blanket of darkness to bask in the silvery moonlight. The Horned Viper lashed out at me, its fangs the size of my arms, and its head the size of my body.
I reacted instantly. The ground shot up, forming a wall between myself and the gargantuan snake. The impact sent dirt flying in all directions, but it held strong. The Monster reeled back for another strike as I raised my staff, spell circle already forming, the intricate pattern nearly complete.
A blade of wind shot out, sending a visible ripple through the air as it launched forward. The Horned Viper’s slit-like pupil flickered. It saw the Wind Blade coming. And despite its large size, it nimbly slithered out of the way of the attack.
I backed up as quickly as I could; I had to put as much distance between me and the Monster as possible. I already had another spell cast: three purple orbs floated around my shoulders. The spell circle was gone yet the spell stayed— I had pre-cast it, keeping it at the ready. I was about to send it flying at the Horned Viper, when the light from my magic illuminated its features. It… didn’t have a horn? Wait, that means…
This was its second head.
I made the realization just in time to save myself. I threw all my weight to the side, dodging a larger serpentine figure as it came crashing down where I once stood.
The horned head of a snake stared at me as I just barely rolled to safety. It was nearly twice as large as the other head. And although its fangs were just as long and just as sharp, it was twice as deadly, for this pair was actually venomous. Not that it mattered much, since it would have swallowed me whole if I did not get out of the way.
I found myself standing upright as I fired off half a dozen Magic Missiles at the first head in a flurry of attacks. I was hoping to hit it with at least one of them while it was still on the ground, but once again, the Horned Viper moved at an incredibly fast speed.
The first head retreated back to the second, and the two began coiling around one another. Two heads. Two targets. Connected by one body, dozens of feet in length. It was almost unfair, but I still found myself smirking. Because I knew all I had to do to even the playing field was give it multiple targets back.
The Horned Viper lashed out at me, striking with its second, hornless, head. As per usual, it came quick. But I pointed my staff at it while raising my free hand to the side, casting two spells at once. The first was a simple defensive Force Barrier. Enough to protect myself from the brunt of an attack, even if it would probably still send me flying. The second, however, conjured multiple glowing sources of light. Sources of heat.
The Monster’s eyes flickered in confusion as its vision was covered by dozens of flaming arrows. It rained down on the second head of the Horned Viper, too many to dodge, and coming in incessant waves that never seemed to cease. The damage was negligible, but more than that, Fire Arrows were forming around me. If my guess was right, and the Horned Viper actually had infrared vision, I had to be nothing more than a blur to it at that moment.
And I was.
The second head of the Horned Viper pulled back in confusion, taking the hail of arrows, barely more than a singe on its onyx scales. The first head, however, inspected the small dots of heat coming into existence like stars covering the night sky, trying to find my figure hiding behind it. I was bigger than a small flaming arrow, after all.
The Horned Viper saw something move. A heat source, larger than the others, running quickly behind the cover of the Fire Arrows. It sent the second head sweeping in that direction, ignoring the Fire Arrows that bounced off it, while uprooting trees and crushing the earth at where it struck.
But all the Horned Viper found there was a burning intense pain. The Monster hissed, though it came out almost as a scream. The second head pulled back, its face badly burnt, the scales now charred and flaking.
It glanced back at the Flame Wall as it went sailing through the ground, in the random direction I had sent it in. The Horned Viper whipped its head around, searching for me in confusion. And it saw me, standing amidst the now dissipating Fire Arrows.
I had not moved an inch.
I took a step forward, the three glowing orbs still floating behind me, and began casting two more spells once again. On my left hand, a ball of flames came into existence. Larger than even my head, burning almost like a miniature sun. And above my head, a magic circle began to misshapen itself, taking the form of a long, pointed object.
A chill slowly crept down the tip of my staff, frost forming a thin layer over the wisened wood. A crystalline spear made of ice finished forming, leaking out luminescent wispy smoke under the moonlight.
I threw the Fireball at the Horned Viper in an arc. It saw the attack coming. It probably wanted to laugh. The ball of flames came at too wide an angle. There was no way that would have ever hit the Monster—
And the Frost Javelin struck the side of its head.
The Horned Viper did not see the attack coming. And why would it? Vipers had infrared vision which let them see at night, but the spear was ice cold. Practically invisible compared to the Fireball. This Monster might not have had the same biology of a regular snake, but I had tested it, and came to the conclusion that it at least saw the very same way as one.
So the Frost Javelin had lanced out at the Monster while it was not looking, piercing it right next to the horn. It flinched, its entire body jerking back as the pain spread throughout it.
The Horned Viper thrashed about for a moment, before raising its second head to crush me. I leapt to the side, leaving behind the Explosive Orbs in my stead. I felt the blast go off at my back as I readied another spell.
I whirled around, casting a quick glance at the second head of the Horned Viper. Even together, the force of the explosion from the Explosive Orbs was still slightly weaker than a Fireball. However, it was enough to obliterate a quarter of the Monster’s second head. I had expected to see bits of brain or a half open skull, but only saw tendons and muscles where it was supposed to be. So it only has one real head….
I focused my attacks on the Horned Viper’s intact head. The Frost Javelin had already dissipated, leaving behind a large open wound where it once was. The Monster looked at me. Its tail— the fake second head— destroyed and lying idly behind it. Blood was pouring out from the gash at the side of its true head. It was not going to win. There was no way it was going to win.
And yet, the Horned Viper’s eyes flashed. It stared down at me with a hate-filled gaze. It opened its mouth once again and charged straight at me, its rage pushing it to go against its natural instinct to survive.
I brought both of my hands together, clutching at the staff. It had been Victor’s staff once, but it was mine now. Just like how I knew every spell in the former Dark Acolyte’s repertoire, and more. I had not spent countless hours studying and training in secret while traveling for naught.
It was so easy to learn magic despite being inhibited by the world itself when I literally was the most powerful spellcaster in the world— or at least, I thought I was. As long as that fake god did not trick me when he granted my request, I was certain that my quick mastery over the various fields of magic was truly unique. Beyond prodigal. And so far, I had no reason to doubt this fact.
Lighting. True lightning that fell from the heavens came crashing down at the Horned Viper. It took longer for me to cast than even a Fireball. But it was the most powerful spell I currently knew.
Unlike the other magicks I had read about— ones that summoned a storm of meteors that rained down from the sky, or conjured a blizzard of hail the size of spears and swords— this was a spell that was actually taught in the grimoires I owned. Not only that, it was something that I could practice when protected under the guise of rain.
So I called down the lighting onto the charging Monster. There was a flash of light, followed by the air ripping in a rolling grumble. It struck true and at the very tip of the Monster’s horn. Electricity crackled, being discharged into the surroundings as the Horned Viper fell limp from the spell— its attack completely halted.
It landed right next to me, the scales throughout its body burnt off by the electric current. Its eyes rolled up in its head as it lay there, dead.
I grimaced, the smell of the overcooked corpse almost overwhelming; I tried to cover my nose, only to catch myself from knocking my fingers onto my mask. I remembered about it this time, only because of the perspiration forming on the side of my face.
I was not tired yet, but it was stuffy because of my mask, and the humidity only made it worse. The fight had worked up more off a sweat than it normally would have, although I nearly did panic for a moment thinking I was going to die at the very beginning. It took everything I had to kill the Horned Viper, and although I did not feel my control over mana weakening due to exhaustion, I found it worrying that my first battle had been as difficult as it was.
I worried over this as I quickly went over to put out the fire patches I had caused all around. Most of them had already been put out due to the small size of the flames, and even the larger fires caused by my Flame Wall and Fireball were reduced in size when I got there to extinguish it.
As the last of the fires went out, I finally decided to press forward; going back seemed tempting, since it was the safest option, but I had already gone this far. However, I told myself that if I continued to find myself pushed up against the wall by powerful Monsters, I would make a hasty retreat back to Locke.
Fortunately, I found that that was not necessary.
After a short break, I continued towards the mountains in the distance mostly unhindered. The rare Monsters that attacked me were nothing compared to the Horned Viper I faced, and were quickly disposed of by a Wind Blade or a Magic Missile. Horned Rabbits came at me with their terrifying shrieks, only to be cut down in an instant by my magic. Packs of Kobolds saw me as easy prey at first, but quickly fled once they realized I could actually fight back.
In short: it was uneventful.
The sun was rising over the horizon by the time I found myself walking up an incline. An orange glow was cast across the sky, and light once again entered the world; I was glad that I could finally see without any aid— I had lit a torchlight once I realized the cover of the dark would not hide me from the Monsters stalking through it. I tossed aside the burning wooden stick that was only kept alight by my magic, pre-casting it so there would be no need for a spell circle.
I continued hiking up the rocky hill for another hour or two, until the sun had fully risen into the sky, before I saw my first signs of life— other than the small group of antelopes I had seen going the other way. But in stark contrast to the four legged mammalian creatures, these ones were neither quadrupeds nor were they mammals.
They were octopeds and they were arachnids.
Half a dozen Crawlers— giant spiders standing at over five foot tall and nearly ten foot wide, with metal-like chitinous shells— stood at a flat surface above and ahead of me; some of them looked injured, missing a leg or even missing an eye, but that did not dissuade them from attacking me.
Unlike the Chimera which displayed the intelligence of a smart animal with some wisdom behind its actions, or the Horned Viper which was driven by its territorialism and emotion, these Crawlers showed no decision-making skills beyond pure instincts. They were quite clearly driven from their homes by something, and they were quite clearly hurt. And yet, they charged at me nonetheless.
They ran down the steep decline, unbothered by gravity itself, as they let out an echo of clicks. Some sort of war cry? A tactic for intimidation? To be honest, I found the giant spiders themselves much more unnerving than the sounds they made. They were spiders. I hate spiders!
I watched the Monsters come down at me, before taking a quick look around to ensure that no one was nearby. I saw a faint trail of a plume of smoke in the distance, but it was far and really small, so I assumed it was an old campfire or something of the like. I focused my attention back to the Crawlers, as they edged closer and closer to me.
Seeing this as a good chance to gain some experience, I decided to practice my Geomancy on these Monsters; nothing but earth was all around me, and unlike earlier, it was not soft dirt but hard rock and stone.
I felt at the mana in the ground, and began to cast a spell. I pulled small chunks of rocks away from the ground. From the boulders sitting in the distance. And from the mountain itself.
Tiny fragments of rocks broke apart from their main bodies, flying together, forming multiple spears of stone above my head. The Stone Spears looked fragile, fissured, like pieces of stone crudely put together to form a weapon. And yet, I knew they held firm. I knew they held strong.
Unlike the Frost Javelin, I could barely control where the Stone Spears went. But that was the nature of this spell. The former flew through the air at my command, gently changing its course to where I directed it, but the latter shot out like a bullet— straight at a target, not stopping lest it came into contact with something.
So I carefully aimed the first Stone Spear at one of the descending Crawlers. I judged the speed of the Monster, and fired off the projectile at where I thought it would be. The Stone Spear traveled at such high velocity, covering over a thousand feet in a second. It missed, striking just below where the Crawler would be— I had not only misjudged their descent, but also underestimated the pull of gravity weighing it down.
I sent a second one at another Crawler, correcting the spear’s trajectory to account for previous mistakes, but I missed yet again as the giant spider dodged out of the way. The Stone Spear crashed into the rock wall, shattering bits of rocks out, spraying it like shrapnel in all directions. It bounced harmlessly off the shells of the Crawlers of course, although it served as a distraction for me as it stopped one of them from noticing the projectile flying at it.
The force from the Stone Spear almost crushed the Crawler into the ground, being impaled through its large abdomen, spilling purple blood and ickor out and down the steep slope. I created more Stone Spears as I continued raining the projectiles up at them.
Almost a minute had passed since I saw them, but I had only managed to take two out with the half dozen Stone Spears I flung in their direction. The first Crawler finally came with striking distance to me. It leapt up in the air, mouth open revealing razor sharp teeth like a shark, mimicking what seemed like a snarl—
And a pillar of stone came up from beneath it. Striking it in the underbelly as it was mid jump, tossing it even further into the sky, turning, spinning, before it crashed down the hill behind me, broken by a group of sharp rocks jutting out of the ground. I repeated the tactic on a second Crawler, killing it in the exact same way, before the remaining two giant spiders caught on to what I was doing.
They stayed low on the ground, feeling for the slight trembling of the earth that happened just before I sent a Stone Spire up. And that allowed me to break the ground underneath them instead, creating a small pit they quickly tried to climb out of. But a dark shadow loomed over them as they reached the top. A large boulder, about a dozen feet in diameter hovered in the air above the pit. I released my hold over the naturally formed rock, dropping it down onto them.
The Crawlers were crushed under the weight of the boulder, squirming like a spider caught underneath a newspaper, before it stopped moving. With the last of the Monsters dead, I heaved a sigh.
That was my first time trying out two of those three spells: I had used Stone Spears before back when I was alone in the Free Lands, but I had only ever read about how to cast Stone Spire and Quick Pitfall. Perhaps the amount of time I spent studying it allowed me to learn it quickly in practice, or my control over magic was simply getting better. But it was undeniable that I was putting myself at risk by testing that out in a combat situation. Sure, I had a Wind Blade at the ready the entire time, but there was always the fear in the back of my mind that I might not react fast enough.
It was risky. Yet with more risk came more reward (or that was how the saying went). This was a good learning experience for me. There was no short-term gratification to this. I was not instantly rewarded for my efforts. It did not assure me that I could reliably cast these spells whenever, but it at least let me know I was capable of casting them when needed.
So that put me at ease. I took another quick look around, surveying the landscape, trying to see if anyone could have spotted what had happened. I saw nothing.
There was no one within a mile from where I stood, and I would have been obscured by the hills and rocks if someone was beyond that. The closest road was over ten miles away— I would not have even been a speck in the distance— while the treetops would have blocked the view of anyone closer. I was certain no one saw me.
I quickly glanced heavenward just to be absolutely certain (a stupid precaution predicated purely on paranoia) and was relieved to find no flying-men staring down at me, mouth agape. The sun was high enough now that the sky held a deep blue color, with not a cloud in sight. I shook my head, casting aside my worries before proceeding up to where I first spotted the Crawlers.
I had a feeling. A rough idea of what could have happened. And I was right.
There, I found an opening at the side of the mountain. A cave entrance. One that led to what should have been a natural habitat for various Monster species, but was instead turned into the home for creatures not from this world.
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