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The next few days flew by for the party before they had finally reached their destination, the Kelekona Mountains. Just a few more minutes of climbing and they would be able to see the dungeon right over the hill. Just a few more meters to climb, and their journey would be complete. Just a few more…

“Huff… Huff… This… is… why… horses—”

“Horses wouldn’t be able to scale mountains this steep, so we were quite lucky to have not brought. We can’t leave the horses at the foot of the mountain, since they might get stolen, and we can’t send a person in the party to return with the horses either. In the end, it all worked out.”

Ezekiel cut off Kayden’s complaint about the umpteenth time. Now that he thought of it, he had been complaining slot about the whole horse issue, huh? They were in the home stretch of their journey, just a few more minutes, and no longer would he have to complain about tired legs or the horses.

“Wait… We’re gonna have to walk back… without horses…”

“You never noticed until now? Just think of it as endurance training when you carry all those items.”

“Endurance… training…?”

He was reminded of a point during their journey here when Kayden found out about something unbelievable. Whenever Ezekiel cooked lunch or dinner for them, he would always pick out ingredients from a pouch. With the number of meals they had across the entire journey, there was just no way the pouch could hold that many ingredients.

Naturally, Kayden confronted Ezekiel about this, and what he got as a reply infuriated him.

“A spatial bag?! You mean we’ve been carrying all the equipment and potions all this time just because you refused to put them into your spatial bag? A-all my energy… wasted!”

“Calm down. You can’t just stuff random items into spatial bags. What if they contaminated the ingredients? Do you really want to place used equipment directly beside the food we eat?” Ezekiel calmly defended himself.

“I… see your point.”

“Relax. If it helps you feel any better, you can just think of it as endurance training.”

And that was how it went. Kayden truly hoped his endurance really got better from all his hard work, for if he had nothing to show for it, he might just lose all hope for himself.

‘Hold on! I can turn into animals! What about a horse?’

He shot the idea down as soon as he thought of it. Why on Eden would he become a pack mule for others? He had a feeling that he would either be forced to carry all of their equipment or be forced to transport a person. Neither of those options appealed to him.

Thankfully, during their journey, there had never been a time when he had to use this relatively new ability of his. They only encountered a few more goblins on the way to their destination, and all of them were immediately turned to ashes by Alice. It was during those fights that he witnessed a thoroughly devastating combo.

With Ezekiel’s sight and Alice’s might, Kayden witnessed what the System described as a “Guided-missile strike”, a highly accurate explosive attack that can devastate foes from a mile away. Needless to say, Kayden didn’t receive any experience, which meant that his level remained stagnant.

Louis had a role to play too. With his ability to manipulate and create water, he put out any vegetation that caught fire. Even Cathy could put out the fires with her ability to dispel magical effects. Only Kayden remained useless.

‘Alright, let’s hope I’ll be able to put my skills to use in the dungeon. That’s what rogues are for, right?”

Indeed, it was time to show the party his true skill, and just as he thought that, they had finally climbed onto the mountain peak. Looking down the mountain from above, Kayden could just make out the entrance of the dungeon, a massive staircase that led up right into a cliff. From the place that he was looking at, he couldn’t see the barrier, but nonetheless, the various adventurers loitering on the outside hinted at its existence.

“This is good. Nobody has found a way to break through the barrier, so we won’t have to worry about head starts.” Ezekiel observed whilst rubbing his chin.

The current time of day was around evening, and the sun was already setting. The sky dimmed considerably as it hid further and further into the horizon, and so the adventurers below all had their campfires lit. Like bright orange dots on a map, they clustered around the entrance, unable to do a single thing. Kayden looked arrogantly down at them.

“Well then. It’s about time we go say hello.”

***

The descent down the mountain took a considerable amount of time, for there weren’t any conveniently placed roads built for passage. Thanks to Ezekiel’s prowess at spotting sturdy footholds, even in the dark, the party didn’t meet with any accidents on their way down.

It took them two hours, a much shorter time if you compared it to when they were scaling the mountain, but it was still enough for the sun to completely set. Kayden had no abilities that bolstered his sight in any way, so he was having a tough time watching his step, but his years of training proved its worth, and never once did he trip.

‘Actually, I bet I could see in the dark if I turned into an animal with night vision… I’ll have to try it out one of these days.’

“Alright, we’re here.”

Ezekiel had successfully led them all the way down the mountain, and their journey was pretty much complete. Kayden turned back to look at the imposing black mass of a mountain they had scaled and whistled appreciatively. They had really come a long way.

“Phew… W-we’ve finally made it.” Cathy said as she collapsed on the ground, the exhaustion from the journey catching up to her. Alice immediately went to her side to pick her up, berating her to take better care of herself.

Kayden smiled at their interaction. He had grown a lot closer to the two over the course of their journey, and it now warmed his heart every time he saw those two non-blood-related sisters together.

Blood doesn’t matter when it comes to making close relationships. People are entitled to call someone else their family even if they weren’t related, just like Cathy and Alice, just like him and his master. He wasn’t about to start calling his master ‘mother’, however. That would be far too embarrassing, even if she did raise him since he was ten.

With tired feet, the party made its way towards the entrance of the dungeon. It wouldn’t hurt to get a closer look before setting up camp for the night. From the distance that Kayden was at, he could already observe several details that he had missed before.

Firstly, the staircase was inside the cliff, which meant that there must have been a massive landslide or cave-in of sorts for it to even be discovered by those lucky adventurers. It seemed that any leftover debris had been largely cleared out, as he could clearly see the massive double doors situated right at the top of the staircase. At a glance, the staircase must have been about ten meters tall, and the number of steps looked incredibly painful to climb. Even worse, each step was short enough to feel uncomfortable but tall enough that taking two steps at once felt bothersome. Whoever built this must hate humanity or something.

As they slowly approached the sin-against-mankind of a staircase, they passed by several camps made by the other adventurers. Most of them had already gone to sleep, but the people keeping watch all had an eye on them.

Everyone here was a competitor, and so it was paramount that they remained wary. Who knew if there were any insidious adventurers that may strike them in the dark of night. Kayden certainly would if there were clear benefits to doing so.

“A-all their eyes are on us… It’s kind of unsettling.”

“Haha! Little do they know, Ezekiel’s eyes will constantly always be on them! Haha, what a creep.”

Kayden cracked a joke in an attempt to calm the anxious Cathy, though it wasn’t well-received by the man who became the brunt of the joke.

“Focus.” He silenced them with a word.

They were now about to reach the base of the staircase, and an eerie silence descended on the area. Even Kayden couldn’t help but tense up with how quiet everything was, and he was incredibly used to quiet places.

Out of the blue, Ezekiel, who had been leading the party until now, stopped in his tracks. He held his arm out, signaling for the party to stop.

“Someone’s here. Right in front of us.”

“Eeeek!” Cathy immediately chose to retreat behind Alice.

Ahead of them, Kayden didn’t see anything. However, he knew better than to not trust Ezekiel’s judgment, especially his eyes. He too stopped in his tracks and waited.

After a long and uncomfortable silence, an unassuming pebble on the ground started trembling before turning into a large puff of white smoke. Standing where the pebble had been earlier was a man in a dark blue hood and cloak. As he stood there, silently watching them, a stray wind blew past them, and for a split second, Kayden could see his face. What stood out to him most was the black dragon-shaped tattoo on one side of the face.

“This guy… you’re from Aisha’s party…”

Kayden recognized the man the moment he saw his face. He was the man who had tried to resolve the conflict between him and Brandon during their first confrontation, and although it didn’t work, he was still grateful.

Ezekiel looked to be in thought before quickly refocusing his attention on the man. “Aisha… That’s the Crimson Menace if I recall correctly? Some sort of local hero in Dragonsteel.”

The man with the tattoo, Conner, started speaking.

“Right, I’m not surprised you don’t know of my name, since our party leader’s the one that attracts all the fame.” He turned to look at Kayden, “I’m even more surprised you don’t know my name. I’ve been part of the party since like… two to three years ago? Never bothered to learn my name, huh?”

“Err…”

“It’s fine!” Conner raised his hand to cut Kayden off. This time, he looked to Ezekiel. “More importantly, how did you discover me? As the professional rogue and scout of my party, it hurts my pride to be so easily seen through.”

Ezekiel paused, weighing the pros and cons of revealing his ability to a stranger, but since Kayden didn’t seem to be on bad terms with their party, he made his decision.

“I can see things from very far, even if the object is small or the lighting is poor. I noticed a black marble roll over towards our path since a long time ago. I didn’t say anything since it wasn’t that suspicious, but once you turned into a pebble, I knew I was dealing with a person.”

Conner stared at Ezekiel for a second, before bursting into laughter.

“Hahaha! I see. I see. That was really careless of me, wasn’t it?” He even began slapping his thighs as he continued laughing, “I’m sorry, haha! I’m just imagining how embarrassing it was. And here I thought I was being sneaky…”

He wiped a tear from his right eye as he continued, “Alright. Back to being serious. I came here with a message from the party leader.”

He looked over at Kayden once more. “She would like to invite all of you to our base camp. Personally, I don’t think that you guys could be of much help, but she said she’s confident that we would be able to think of something if we worked together.”

He paused, letting his words sink in, before continuing, “Ultimately, the decision to join us is on you. I understand that it’s hard to trust a random party, so we’ll understand if you refuse. You can ask that Kayden-boy over there for details about us.”

All eyes turned to look at Kayden, who now suddenly found himself in the spotlight.

‘Well, this doesn’t bode well for me.’

You decide if we should go.” Ezekiel said, “You have more knowledge than us for this situation We’ll go with whichever option you pick.”

“Huh… Really?” Kayden was surprised that the reins had been handed to him. “Well, in that case, let’s go see the Crimson Menace, shall we?”

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Kageko

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