At the mention of Dragon, Annie's face twisted in an unwilling frown but it seemed the same curiosity that had seen her volunteer for this mission also let her endure Ivan’s scowl. She just pulled her bearskin cloak closer around her thin frame.
By unspoken agreement, the group remained out of the wind for almost five minutes, massaging their hands and consuming small amounts of food and water. Then, Warlord gestured and the group began to move.
Shivering slightly, Alana led the way as they left their small alcove and began to ascend the mountain once more. When they had started out on their climb, Alana had assumed that the drop in temperature wouldn't be much of a problem so she had only brought a thin cloak as extra equipment on the quest to track down the dragon.
However, it quickly became apparent that there was some System related variance occurring in the area around the mountain. The temperature at their current location, perhaps halfway to the peak, was far lower than what could be explained by elevation. As far as Alana could tell, this mountain didn’t contain a Danger Zone, but she wouldn’t be surprised if some other surprise had been squirreled away here.
Which might explain what drew a dragon here… Alana thought in wonder. How often had she read stories about quests to slay wicked dragons growing up…?
But of course, based on Ivan’s report, the Dragon was only an infant. It had a wingspan of almost a dozen meters, but its body was only as large as a dog. Quite a bit less grand than fighting against a Dragon that had gathered a careful cache of gold, but the System had made fantasy much more like a job than like an adventure.
Alana flexed her fingers and tried to push the current unpleasantness of their mission away. The distribution of their forces appeared before her eyes. Donnyton's reinforcements to Zone Eleven had arrived about a week ago, and during that time it swiftly became apparent why Zone Eleven came to them for help.
It wasn't just a matter of numbers, although the flow of monsters out of the Epic Dungeon was certainly intimidating. But more dangerous was how intelligent and organized the various monster tribes were. The area surrounding the Dungeon was now thick with fortifications and defensive structures. Primitive ones, but it was clear that the monsters intended to protect the Epic Dungeon from being cleared so additional waves of their fellows could explode outward.
Mount Olympus was in the Southeast portion of Zone Eleven and it and the surrounding mountain range served as a deterrent to keep the Eastern half of Zone Eleven relatively safe from marauding monsters. As such, the combined forces of the two Zones had set up a base camp on the Western slope of Mount Olympus.
While preparations were being made to organize their newly combined forces against the monsters, Warlord had invited Alana and Annie on this quick trip because they were already based at the foot of Mount Olympus and it seemed that he truly trusted the report of the hunter Ivan.
Plus, there was the word Dragon. Like magic, it drew them all upward in search of the mythic beast.
Still, for Alana, this couldn't have come at a better time. I'm tired of being stuck in my own head. Alana's fingers tightened around her spear. I just need to stop worrying about the image thing. Better to just let my body remember it naturally...
The rather peaceful trek up to Zone Eleven had done nothing to alleviate Alana's secret fears that she had missed some crucial piece of Randidly's lesson about images and now was doomed to never master he own. Although she could generate a huge amount of ambient energy, she had no progress in creating more concrete and detailed images. As some of the other warriors of Donnyton sharpened their abilities, Alana was floundering.
That helpless feeling was one she liked not very much at all.
Alana blinked slowly. There was nothing but snow and wind around them, but she felt something change in the air. Small hedrons of ice landed on her fluttering eyelashes. Then her gaze burned orange.
The only other warning the trio had was a small waning of the wind, then a navy blue blur shot upward past their path and toward the summit of the mountain. Annie was already on her knees with a bow knocked and Warlord was gazing seriously upward.
But it was Ivan who caught Alana’s attention. The rather serious and silent man was staring slack-jawed upward. Then his message popped into the group message.
That… is much bigger than I remember.
But it certainly looks like a dragon… In Warlord’s sharp response, Alana could feel the man’s sharp hunger. It was apparent, too, on his face as he gazed upward. Like all of the people from Zone Eleven that she had met, Warlord was constantly driven by a strange urge to embrace all the whimsical and wondrous elements of the System.
It certainly made the people she had met much more accepting of their current circumstances. But it was in that almost jealous gaze of Warlord that Alana sensed the darker side of that implicit acceptance. It was only after Alana checked all of her party that she too, looked upward toward the Dragon.
Unlike the winged-snake description that Ivan had given, this being of leather and scale had a torso that was about as large as a horse. But its wings and tail likely stretched ten meters out from its body in each direction. Its scales were a lovely navy-blue color that made it almost look black compared to the swirling white snow around it.
Alana was able to make out the text Level 49 Frost Dragon as the beast beat its wings and ascended upward into the storm swirling above them. Although Ivan hadn’t gotten a visual on its Level before, if its Level growth was commiserate with its physical expansion...
"If it grows this quickly..." Alana gritted her teeth. Thank god we decided to investigate.
Annie had to bellow to be heard above the wind. "Taking the shot."
A split second later, Annie's arrow whistled upward into the swirling snow. Even with Alana's high Perception, she soon lost the projectile in the storm of frost above them. There was a part of Alana that even wondered if it would be effective. There were so many wind currents and temperature changes to calculate that it would be a miracle if the arrow found its mark.
For several seconds, there was only the suffocating noise of the wind. Then-
The low rumble cut through the wind. In the darkness above, Alana could see the form of the dragon slide side to side, then ungracefully alight on the side of the mountain. Snow tumbled off of the ledge where it had crashed.
Warlord gave a sharp gesture with his hand, and all four of them exploded into motion. They had moved upward with stealth to this point in order to keep the possible dragon from being spooked, but now that it was located and wounded they would rush forward for the kill. And for all Alana’s momentary doubts, Annie’s sharp image these days specialized in tracking down foes that shouldn’t have been hit.
Alana couldn't help but be a little disappointed that the dragon only ended up being Level 49, but there certainly was something about the dragon that seemed to transcend that Level. If it had time to grow, it would have been a powerful opponent. Perhaps so powerful that Alana wouldn't be able to beat it.
For the first time in a while, Alana felt a faint stirring in her heart. That image that Alana just couldn't bring into focus finally relaxed. The thought of that fight seemed to free up the image to flow down into her limbs, bringing with it warmth.
Eyes burning, Alana exploded upward in a swirl of orange energy. Sorry if I take this too seriously dear dragon... but I think you are the key I need to finally figure out how to refine my image. I'll be taking your heart as a souvenir.
Although Annie was quick, Alana's explosive assent was even faster. Ice and wind parted before her rapid launch. Ignoring the tumbling snow behind her, Alana reached up and gripped the edge of the cliff. Partly she grabbed the lip to flip herself over, but also to disperse some of the momenta from her explosive jump upward.
As she gripped the edge, she felt it give a small amount as it cracked. It was ice, not rock. But Alana still rolled forward and came up in a low crouch with her spear aimed forward. A buckler shield condensed on her right arm and her Valkyrie Helmet formed around her eyes. Which was good, because the wind was dangerously cold and aggressive on this new portion of the mountain.
The snow here was so intense that it rendered Alana almost blind. Rather than precipitation, the heavy veil of snow and cold settled over the area like a persistent mist.
But Alana's eyes quickly located the dark silhouette of the wounded dragon, which appeared to be scuttling forward toward a tall darkness that must be the mountain proper. Just as the other three ascended to the cliffside behind her, Alana accelerated forward toward the dragon. It seemed that Alana's arrow had struck accurately because its left wing was awkwardly extended. Alana could see half of the shaft sticking out exactly from the shoulder joint of the dragon.
No one I would rather have at my back, Annie. Alana thought with a confident grin.
As Alana stalked closer, the long neck of the dragon spun its triangular head around. Eyes glittering, it opened its mouth and belched out a dark blue bolt of cold energy that shot toward Alana. Striding confidently forward, Alana condensed her energy around her spear. She was a Valkyrie, and she would pierce through this.
The image of a gleaming spear without flaw or equal flickered hesitantly in the air around Alana as she activated her Skill. It was feeble... but Alana felt it. This was her own image. The confidence that had been anemic for the past week showed immediate signs of life.
Which meant, of course, that the dragon was not her equal.
Her spear drew a brilliant line through the air and smashed apart the blast released by the wounded dragon. It seemed to immediately realize the danger of her strike because it shot several cobalt bolts back toward her and then began to hurry toward the mountain. Although it could not fly, its powerful limbs could still move its body through the mountainous terrain with ease.
Alana cut down these projectiles just as she had the first. Then she exploded into motion again to cut down the distance between them. Two arrows cut past Alana and ripped toward the dragon's back legs as a silent reminder of her reinforcements. Alana’s mouth twisted again in a grin.
But Dragon had seen the terrible power contained in the arrows before. It flung its already wounded wing backward, preferring to allow two new holes in the wing that losing functionality in another limb. Alana chuckled, imagining Annie grinding her teeth in frustration at such tenacious prey.
More and more sandy-orange energy swirled out from Alana. She moved forward less like a hunter and more like a sandstorm ready to devour the dragon until all that remained were cracked bones. She was a force of nature. Her image beat in her chest, filling Alana with confidence.
When she caught up to the dragon, Alana thrust her spear forward with almost insulting familiarity. Hissing in fury, the dragon used its long tail like a whip to strike at Alana's legs. With a calm detachment, Alana felt her body shift. The arm holding her buckler shield dropped downward and deflected the attack away. Then she completed her thrust.
She had meant to spear the dragon through the chest, but it wriggled out of the death blow. Instead, it allowed its wounded shoulder and a portion of its neck to be pierced by Alana's spear.
Mewing in fear, it wildly beat its wings. The impaled flesh of its shoulder tore and ruptured. Snow stained red with blood and chill wind buffeted Alana, but she was beyond the reach of such things. Alana was a force of nature. She raised her spear to finish the dragon off with the same thrust that had brought her to this point.
The mountain behind the dragon shifted abruptly. Snow tumbled down on the sheer face of the near black stone wall behind the Dragon and suddenly a huge glittering sapphire was revealed in the mountainside. So large that it might even be larger than Alana herself. And it was such a pure color that Alana hesitated in her attack; it had the same magical entrancement that Alana had seen in the eyes of Randidly Ghosthound.
For a split second, Alana considered the sapphire. The snow must have been shifted by the dragon's struggles. And based on the color, there was quite a bit of energy in the gemstone. Perhaps it was the very reason that it was so cold on top of the mountain. It was possible that there was a very rare variety of ore that was present up here.
But this new surprise didn't delay Alana long. Her spear slid forward and into the chest cavity of the desperate dragon, despite its struggles. It shrieked in agony. With its trembling claws, it attempted to rend her flesh as life left its body. But once more, Alana's buckler shield casually smashed away the attacks.
Alana, retreat. Now.
Alana blinked. Why did Warlord-
The color of the sapphire gemstone swirled like it was a snow globe that had been set spinning by a flick of the wrist. A thin black strip with a fist of gold emerged in the two-meter long sapphire. That black line slid forward.
Moving as quickly as she could manage, Alana stored the body of the dragon in her interspatial ring. But as she did so, a cave yawned open in the side of the mountain. The cave opened wider and wider until it stretched almost five meters wide.
Those aren't stalagmites, Alana thought with a chill.
A burning river of blue energy flowed quickly out of the cave toward Alana. Rather than dodge, she settled into her defensive stance with buckler shield forward and spear high. Orange energy swirled around her. All the while, Alana's gaze was upward toward the monstrous beast that loomed above her.
Level 79 Ice Dragon Broodmother
Its terrible sapphire eye regarded Alana dispassionately. Its head was the size of the sort of mansion that sat tall and empty on expensive beachfront, a gaunt thing that screamed of opulence. Even as the sea of frigid energy rushed toward her, Alana saw almost a dozen dragons similar to the size that she had just killed take flight in the surrounding area.
They circled like crows seeking to make mischief.
Alana bit her lip. I am the spear of Donnyton. There are people behind me. I am the shield and the spear. I will not fall. My image-
The orange energy around Alana faltered and then failed. Like a river carrying away a fallen leaf, the blast of cobalt energy from the Dragon Broodmother wasn't stopped in the slightest by Alana. The cold of its Skill immediately seeped into her bones. The pain was immediate and debilitating, as the world around Alana transformed into a swirl of white and grey.