Casper flew towards the island with the Vault on, the curse energy revolving around him as he soared through the unstable space. The cause of the disturbance in the natural balance of space was naturally the world having been partly broken by the curse, but also due to the battles that had taken place within.
Many high-level beings, including A-grades and possibly even S-grades, had fought within the world known as Yalsten, and such battles rarely left the area unbroken. Yet space also had a natural inclination to always stabilize itself. It wanted to be as solid and as stable as possible while returning to its original form. This was why space could so often be shattered and the world borderline torn apart, yet space would nearly always find a way to stabilize once more. Of course, if large parts had been broken for good… those parts remained broken, and space simply had to find an equilibrium not to cause a chain reaction.
In these unstable places where space had been shattered, the physical realm constantly shifted and turned, overlapping in places to keep this equilibrium. It was patterns of failed attempts at repairing itself, which meant that any outside entity entering often resulted in space simply trying to shift and stabilize around them. Diving head-first into unstable space would be a quick way to be torn into several pieces.
However, Casper didn’t fear this. The curse that empowered him helped shroud and protect him, but even without it, he was confident. While his class revolved around curses, his profession did not. He was a Dungeon Engineer, and one of the basic elements of dungeons was space magic. His understanding was still simple and very specialized, focusing on dungeons and not general combat or even making things like spatial items… but what little insight he had was more than enough to survive the unstable space in the Treasure Hunt. In fact, his knowledge was especially suited for this kind of thing.
Now, if this world was one actually amid collapse or he found himself in a full-on space storm, he would be utterly fucked, but luckily it wasn’t that bad. Though Casper doubted it had much to do with luck and more to do with design. All of these system events were designed, after all.
They were set up to challenge those who participated, not that much different from most dungeons, albeit far more tailored to the participants. It was interesting, as the system even made its own dungeons, and in some aspects, one could view this entire Treasure Hunt as a collaborative dungeon of sorts specifically made for Earth. The comparison was actually quite apt, as this was even a completely separate space, and none would likely ever enter Yalsten again. At least not this version of it.
Just focus on your task, Casper reminded himself as he made it through the unstable space and got close to the island.
Once he got close enough, he noticed that a bubble of stable space had formed around the island. In fact, it was the reason why this island was even whole and not broken into tiny fragments like everything else around it. This was no doubt due to the Vault that had been formerly hidden on what had likely once just been part of the plains.
This was evident from the blue grass and the familiar-looking environment. The only real difference was a single structure smack in the middle of the island, emitting a giant red pillar of light. Casper ignored everything else as he made his way towards the structure.
When he got close, he saw it looked just like an old house with unassuming features. It was camouflaged well, or at least it had been. The issue now was that the building was whole with no broken parts and even looked recently cleaned, giving away the high tier of the materials used and the enchantments placed on it.
Casper walked up to it and placed his hand on the door handle. He knew something was off the moment he did so, feeling the enchantments, but frankly, there was nothing he could do about it. He sighed as he opened it without any problems and stepped inside to see a perfectly regular-looking room, at least by post-system standards. It was an entrance area to greet guests, and once more, it all looked way too clean. The door automatically closed behind him, startling him a bit as he upped his guard.
He slowly made his way forward as he spoke. “Lyra, do you detect anything dangerous yet?”
“No… it feels almost too safe. I can’t even detect the outside,” she answered him, her voice echoing in his head.
This made Casper frown as he turned around and opened the door he had just entered through. When he did so, he saw a living room where the outside of the island had been before.
“Great… a damn maze,” he sighed as he got to work. The worst part? He was pretty sure he hadn’t even found the actual Vault yet… this was just the automatic defenses to trap people, probably until someone could come and investigate. But, naturally, no one would come to investigate, so all this meant was that Casper would have to find a way out himself.
Closing his eyes, he took out a small compass-looking item and tapped it, sending out a pulse of space-mana, mapping out the building – or at least attempted to. It projected a structure to him, and when he saw it, he sighed again as all he got was a jumbled mess, showing the same rooms repeating tens of times over.
“I think we’ll be here a while,” he said to Lyra, in all honesty, not finding the situation that bad. At least he could now be alone with her with no other annoyance around.
Someone else who was also heading towards a Vault was naturally Jake. He used One Step Mile through the plains, not taking any detours or finding any distractions. At least not that many. He passed several people and parties on the way, and he even noticed a few of them changing course when they saw he was headed towards the same Vault they were.
The Vaults themselves were damn far away. Past all the towers and buildings, all the way to where the black mist had dominated in the distance before. Jake did wonder if he could have scouted it using the Root of Eternal Resentment before this second phase began, and while he probably could, he didn’t really regret his decision not to.
Even with Jake’s speed, it still took him over one and a half hours to make it to the Vault. He only had a handful of brief stops on the way to take some loot that was too good to pass up on. A part of him just couldn’t run by a rare-rarity herb or a super shiny piece of metal giving off dense mana.
Jake didn’t encounter many enemies on the way, but there were some. It was the vampires from before, those weak ones that had avoided him before, but now at a far higher level. He even encountered a few variants that were even more powerful.
Not that any of them were a threat.
The most usual kind he found deeper in looked a lot like the usual Ekilmares he had seen before – with the long fingers, willow form, and sharp claws – but instead of their pure white and sickly-looking body, these were an almost impossibly dark shade of black.
[Young Nocturne Ekilmare – lvl 132]
When he fought one, he found out it was because it was an impossibly dark color. They used magic to make themselves appear even darker than usual and even had some dark-affinity magic and illusion magic tossed in there. Overall? A lot stronger than the usual ambush predators.
They did have one little problem though… their stealth abilities were shit. With the mist turned white again, they stuck out like sore thumbs. Luckily for them, they were far stronger, so they couldn’t only ambush things.
Jake killed only a single one of them in a 2-minute bout, mainly to just get a look at what it could do before executing it.
He did find it interesting how these had clearly been living within the black cursed mist. It seemed to run contrary to the notion of the curse being anti-vampire and wanting them all dead. Actually, thinking about it, with vampires having to feed… had these vampires just evolved and mutated to feed off the mist? It was fascinating how both cursed and non-cursed variants appeared. Maybe they were both cursed?
Anyway, it was interesting but not at all something he should spend his time trying to find out with only a bit over a week of the Treasure Hunt left and many Vaults to loot.
The red pillar of light soared towards the sky right in front of him as it soon entered his line of sight, and as he passed over a small hill and into a valley… and… it was honestly hilarious.
Within the valley, he saw several broken trees that were little more than stumps. They had clearly been eroded by the curse combined with a lack of proper mana to feed them as they slowly died. Yet, smack in the middle of it all stood a perfectly normal-looking tree – at least by this world’s standards - utterly unaffected by anything. It was so out of place Jake couldn’t help but chuckle under his breath.
He was confident that back in the day, this place had been a forest of some kind. In fact, the only stumps remaining were those closest to the totally-a-real-tree, as whatever had protected it likely had extended slightly to those around it. He couldn’t detect anything suspicious about the tree with any of his senses as it really did just look and feel just like a regular tree.
A long time ago, when this place was a forest, he didn’t doubt it would be pretty much impossible to find. A single unassuming tree in the middle of a forest wasn’t exactly what many would assume was a hidden treasure vault. Jake made his way into the valley and towards the tree, and once he got closer and it entered his Sphere of Perception, it all began making a bit more sense.
It wasn’t a tree at all – shocker that one – but was actually just covered in a thin layer of bark-like material and fake leaves. Below the bark was a metal structure shaped like a tree with advanced runes carved into it, with the top of the crown concealing a sphere of metal.
Walking up to it, Jake decided just to poke it to see what would happen. He extended his finger and lightly touched the tree, expecting something to happen.
A few seconds later… nothing.
Jake tried casually punching it, with it still doing nothing. Then he tried infusing a bit of mana but found that the bark-like coating shielded the structure beneath. Which, funnily enough, was what bark on actual trees did after the system arrived.
He did find that at places in the bark, a little bit of mana seeped in through small holes if he tried to direct his mana into them, with each hole corresponding to a hidden rune. So Jake did a quick run around the tree and found hundreds of these tiny openings.
Okay… totally some sort of password system.
It was also notable how this worked with mana and not that weird blood energy. Was it made by some other enlightened race? Probably. The core of the whole tree structure was also obviously the metal sphere on top, and when Jake peeked into it, he saw how complicated it was.
Is the sphere the Vault?
It was large enough to contain some valuables, but if It had the name ‘Vault,’ he assumed it was more likely a spatial storage of some kind. No doubt he would have to input the correct password on the tree to make the sphere unlock and grant him access to the loot. It was the logical solution, and he was sure the creator had spent a long time making an elaborate puzzle.
Anyway, Jake set it on fire.
He pressed his hand on it as his Alchemical Flame began slowly eroding the bark. Now, could Jake have tried to solve it? He sure could, but that honestly just seemed like a lot of work. Was it possible this would end up breaking the tree and thus barring him from any treasures? It was possible… but he doubted it. It would be a horrible way to design the device as there was a big chance someone would try to break it. Also, if he did break it, then all he would lose was an hour or so of travel time. Way better than spending what could be days trying to figure out the password as he could just head for another Vault.
It didn’t take him more than a few minutes to get off a small patch of the fake layer of bark, and the moment he breached the outer shell, the tree got mad. Really mad.
The entire structure lit up as all the runes began humming with power, destroying all of the fake bark at once, revealing a metal tree with the sphere cradled where the crown had been. At the same time, the entire valley Jake was in began glowing, and he came to learn that those burned-out-looking tree trunks did serve a purpose.
A wave of mana was sent out, followed by a dozen of beams of light descending from the metal branches of the trees into all of the broken black trunks. The entire process took only a few seconds, and soon Jake heard creaking sounds from all around him.
The trunks all began growing with insane speed as branches resembling arms spewed out. Some of them with only two branches, while others summoned over ten. He felt the curse-energy be emanating from all of the growing creatures, and he had a strong feeling this entire defense system was kind of scuffed from the long exposure to the curse and the passage of time.
Nevertheless, the creatures weren’t entirely broken.
Around him, eleven figures were rising as feet of roots erupted from the ground as the creatures uprooted themselves. Finally, a twelfth figure erupted from below as it crawled out of the earth. It was larger and more brutal-looking than any of the other creatures, and Jake Identified a few of them, including the biggest one.
[Cursed Vault Guardian Treant – lvl 140]
[Cursed Vault Guardian Treant Lord – lvl 150]
[Cursed Vault Guardian Treant – lvl 140]
“Treants, huh,” Jake muttered. This was his first time fighting those, but it was quite the common enemy as far as he knew. They were also objectively superior creatures compared to the accursed fungi. Yes, even if these treants were literally cursed, Jake still believed that the natural existence of a mushroom was more cursed by default. Because fuck mushrooms.
The treants began closing in on him from all sides, the largest of them in the back. They were all semi-large, around five meters tall, with the Treant Lord standing at eight meters. Their bodies were all sorts of messed up too. Long, squishy tentacle-like vines were coming out from all over the Lord’s body, flailing around, with the other treants having far too many arms, and some even had more than seven leg-like appendages. They had really been fucked up by the curse, but they were still relatively dangerous - at least for the usual Treasure Hunt participant.
As for Jake? Jake was just happy he had skipped the overly long and unnecessary puzzle-solving sequence and found the more straightforward solution. Taking out his bow, he cracked his neck and got to work.
It was time to do some deforestation.