CHAPTER 25-MAPPING THE GARDEN:FINAL

Wind whistled subtly through the dense foliage as a group of footsteps strong and true strode down a fairly well traveled dirt path. The lead two figures born brown feathered wings upon their back, with one on the right being a male demihuman of the hawkman race, and a female winged human with long brown hair tied in a single ponytail. They both wore leather garments of fine make, and were armed with ivory bows and spears.

Behind them was Madara's in his brown traveling attire, the Armored Avatar of the Deep Darkness Dragon Lord that was black as night, the Swordmaster Dragon Lord in his dragonoid form, the Vampiric Dragon Lord in her hybrid form, and in his fully humanoid form was the Brightness Dragon Lord. With the latter wearing fine navy-blue garments that would make one think that he was of nobility.

How they came to be in this forest, escorted by the pair in front of them was rather simpler than Madara had expected. After Dy'vom's Avatar made contact with the Heavenly Dragon Lord and explained their situation, they were allowed to approach the massive, island-sized body of the Dragon Lord in question.

Madara was not one to be easily awed or impressed, but to say that he was speechless upon seeing the create with his own eyes was an understatement. Truly, the Heavenly Dragon Lord's form was a majestic sight to behold, easily dwarfing any of the Bijuu from his original world by a wide margin.

His grey/green-colored scales would easily blend in with his environment, in either day or night. Its massive tail trailed behind its body for over a dozen or more miles as its venous, leathery wings briefly bloated out the sun as it flew over them. Its traditionally draconis head was framed by a white-colored, unidentifiable full and fluffy material that was like a cross between fur and feathers.

Before they flew over its body, they were given a clear glimpse at its massive, sky-blue eyes that regarded its kin with equal amounts annoyance and disinterest. It was only when its gargantuan gaze met Madara's did its curiosity seemed piqued, and so too was Madara's.

Then they flew overhead, they saw its main body seemed less like that of a traditional dragon, more like like Konoha's "Forest of Death", with twisted forests and "rocky" formations. There was no exaggeration when the Heavenly Dragon Lord was described as a "large island floating in the sky".

When they touched down on a rocky outcropping, it was clear to Madara's senses that its massive body was more akin to its own ecosystem than that of a living being. In his mind, it could very well serve as a proving ground for adventurers. If they survived the journey that is, since tails of those seeking this Dragon Lord ended with people not returning to speak of it again.

Once they made "landfall", Madara was taken aback by how controlled the massive dragon's center of gravity was. Whether it was due to a [Wild Magic] spells, or an innate ability he could not say, but even he would have been fooled into thinking that he was on an island at sea.

Of course, he was also struck by how the Dragon Lord's lifeforce was as massive as its body. So massive in fact that in a rare feat for any creature, even his sensory abilities were completely jammed and scrambled! Even his ocular abilities fared no better in distinguishing energy signatures.

It was both a vexing and exciting thing to have some of his extra-sensory perceptions be rendered almost completely useless by this most unconventional of environs. Of course, his other finely honed senses were still as sharp and useful as ever. Which is why he was not taken by surprise when their current escorts arrived to guide them to one of the center most sanctums on the Dragon Lord's body.

Before they even arrived it was explained to him that some human and demihuman tribes were allowed to live here. In exchange for shelter, they acted as "custodians" of its body, helping to maintain a balance to its self-contained ecosystem between the various types of hostile and benign, flora and fauna. An analogy that immediately came to his mind was the relationship between sharks and remoras.

Such idle thoughts were quickly dispelled when the group came upon a clearing with a well-made and organized village made of stone and wood construction. Curious gazes from all around them were tempered with caution as they saw a mix of races including winged humans, avian-type beastmen, and curiously, winged elves which was in the majority. A fact drawing a fascinated reaction from the Brightness Dragon Lord.

"Winged Elves? I thought their kind went extinct over 200-hundred years ago."

"Hm. As did I, but perhaps that is to be expected. Our comrade has been over the length and breadth of the continent." The Vampiric Dragon Lord Aithusa Rahmoth replied with a similar tone.

"..."

The other Dragon Lords merely nodded in understanding with varying levels of interest, whilst Madara mentally filed that detail away for another time. As they reached the village's center that was marked with a pyramid-like structure, their escorts took guard positions on either side of the entrance as they bowed and bade them to enter.

As they did, they were greeted by an empty meeting hall, with shimmering blue-colored crystalline structures along the walls that provided soft, ambient lighting. In the center an intricate, 6-foot wide magic circle with draconic script lay, which began to shine the moment they entered. Madara noted how the Dragon Lords to his sides did not seem bothered by this, and elected to wait and see what would come of it.

Suddenly, it shined even more brightly as a mass of blood, bone, muscle, and flesh rose from the circle in an amorphous mass. This mass then started to coalesce as he took on a more humanoid shape. As it did, a simple brown robe draped over the form of a 5-foot tall male with a hybrid of human and draconic features, much like Aithusa Rahmoth.

This "man" possessed an athletic build with light grey/green skin, dark scales of similar coloration, medium-cut white hair, and crimson-colored eyes that soon morphed into a sky-blue shade similar to those of the Heavenly Dragon Lord. Its gaze was stoic and impassive as the ripples of muscle and skin began to settle.

"Oooh~! I have heard of this technique. Using one's own flesh to create a 'simulacrum' from which one can send off into the world to experience life, collect information, or in our comrade's case, simply to speak with us in a voice that would not shatter bone."

The Brightness Dragon Lord, Brelzronth Oriculus commented with rapt interest at this display. It was amusing to see him act this way when he, not too recently, was none-too-pleased to be forced to come along. If he had to be honest, Madara too was fascinated with this method of creating a "clone". However, he set aside such curiosities as he stepped forward and spoke with his usual strong, stoic tone.

"As Dy'vom has likely already explained to you when setting up this meeting, I am Madara Uchiha."

The equally stoic countenance of the "simulacrum" narrowed its eyes upon Madara as he took in his measure, and in only a few moments seemed to come to its own conclusion. If Madara's own senses held true, it seemed satisfied as it spoke with a deep masculine tone.

"Hm. I see my peer did not exaggerate when describing your presence, paragon. Very well. I am the Heavenly Dragon Lord, Vidon Gryveneid. Come, let us hear what you have to say to one such as I, who has withdrawn from this world."

The hybrid-looking simulacrum stepped out of the magic circle, sitting cross-legged upon the floor with that same impassive expression. Madara did much the same, as did the others behind him, as he locked eyes with Vidon's fleshy Avatar, and evenly spoke with conviction in his tone.

"Hmph! Only a fool tries to completely withdraw from the world. For so long as they in that world, they are a part of it. And I shall elaborate as to why..."

...

The afternoon weather was fair for the Dragon Kingdom's capital-city of Brilho Taoul as Hilma, after having recovered from her near-miss with the former Martial Lord Kullervo Palantynen (A/N:CH.23), busily put into place final preparations for tomorrow's royal visit from the country's ruling monarch, Queen Draudillon Oriculus. After placing the last folded missive aside in a pile due to be delivered, she leaned back and sighed wearily.

"Tired?" The disguised Edström asked next to her with a slight chuckle.

"Hm~? Oh, yes. Full glad am I to complete today's tasks so soon." The disguised Hilma replied with a pleased sigh.

"I must admit, I was surprised you went right back at it after you regained consciousness from that Kullervo business."

"Heh~... As much as I am still unused to near-death experiences, this is a task I could not leave unfinished. Some things can be left up to time and potions, but this was not one of them. Despite what we have accomplished, everything else depends on the audience with the Queen, and I'll not fail it." Hilma resolutely stated whilst slowly standing up, and walking over to a nearby cabinet as she promptly downed an orange-colored potion.

"A well said and displayed resolve, Hilma..."

'"...!"'

Both Hilma and Edström were taken aback by the familiar, authoritative voice of their mutual master. Searching frantically for its source, they both then noticed a form rising up from a nearby shadow as they quickly stood side-by-side, kneeling before it. As the blackened form coalesced into a more humanoid shape, they saw that it was one of Madara's clones, masquerading as the Fire-Leaf Concern's Stablemaster.

Bowing their heads as the clone folded its arms, it spoke with a firm, yet oddly gentle tone that took them by surprise.

"I commend you on surviving your latest gambit, woman. You continue to show considerable guts, despite how outclassed you are at every turn."

"Thank you for your kind words, my lord. I hope to continue to prove my devotion to you and your cause." Hilma devotedly affirmed.

"Hm... I do not doubt your words, but lift your heads and let me see if the looks in your eyes match them." Madara said in that same strange tone.

Doing as instructed, both of them raised their heads and saw the transformed clone's eye had already morphed into the [Sharingan] as his gaze pierced them as if it were looking into the depths of their souls. While his countenance was its usual, stoic form he nodded as if satisfied by what he saw.

"Hm. Very good. I'm convinced. However, while I do admire and appreciate conviction, from now on I would advise caution, Hilma. Devotion and guts alone will not save you if there's a repeat of the incident with that man, or something else. I do not recommend relying upon [Edo Tensei] if such risky gambits backfire upon you." The disguised Clone said in a tone akin to a teacher chiding a pupil.

"Y-Yes, my lord. It won't happen again." Hilma ardently replied.

"Very well. I will hold you to that..." Clone-Madara said, pausing whilst briefly glancing to Edström, as if to reinforce the point of keeping Hilma out of trouble.

"...Now then, on to other matters. I take it that there are no disruptions to operations and that all proceeds apace?"

"Just so, my lord. All that remains is to deliver a stack a missives and await the audience with the Queen tomorrow." Hilma dutifully replied.

"Good. On the subject, the last of the Edo Tensei will arrive at dusk, so they will be present for that audience."

"Oh, thank you for informing me, my lord."

"Hmph... Edström, be sure to be present for their arrival. Once all the Edo Tensei have been gathered in one place, you all shall be linked with [Ninshu]. This will increase your strength, and ensure that you are better able to watch over and protect your charge."

"Understood, my lord."

"If there is nothing else...?" Madara said as he paused, allowing them to bring any other matters to his attention.

"Well... There's only one other matter I would discuss with you, my lord. It concerns that of Ijaniya. I am grateful for their number serving as scouts and spies for the Fire-Leaf Concern. However, the way they operate leaves little opportunity for me to assign them tasks and missions beyond that which has already been given to them by your lordship. So I humbly request the means to contact the leader of their contingent here, ensuring a more efficient means of responding to the ever changing circumstances surrounding the war and our evolving operations."

"Hmm... A reasonable request... Very well. It shall be arranged. Expect their leader to contact you tomorrow evening." Madara plainly replied.

"Thank you, my lord."

Without another word, the disguised Clone-Madara simply nodded as it melted into the shadows, leaving the two of them alone. Both breathed a sigh of relief as the Clone's aura dissipated, allowing them to stand as Hilma spoke in a more relaxed fashion whilst going to her desk.

"Ah, my word~... One would be hard-pressed to tell our master's main-body apart from one of his duplicates."

"Yes, that aura of power is overwhelming, even for one such as I." Edström affirmed with a sigh.

"Well, that aside it is good that you'll soon be able to attain greater strength, no~?" Hilma said with a friendly tone and smile whilst retrieved a stack of envelopes.

"Uh-huh. It's nice and all, but remember that's not an excuse to be reckless like you have been with Kullervo." Edström skeptically replied with a half-lidded stare.

"Ah~kufufufu... Don't be so suspicious my friend. I made a promise to our master, and I'll very much aim to uphold that promise. Now then, be a dear and please see to it that these missives are delivered? Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I shall now retire for the rest of the day." Hilma good-naturedly chuckled as she handed Edström the stack of letters.

"Huh... Alright then... Do you want me to send the usual stable-boys to your chambers?"

"Hm~? Well, not this time. As appealing as that sounds, I must prepare for the audience tomorrow and I will need both my strength and wits about me." Hilma replied with a weary sigh and shrug.

"Ah, yes. I understand. Although, I'm sure the boys will be disappointed to hear that. The way I hear it, they've grown quite fond of that particular 'benefit' of working for you." Edström said with a teasing smirk.

"Oh? Not surprising. I've rather enjoyed their company as well... But perhaps this shall make it up to them..." Hilma said with a mischievous tone and smile while pulling a small coin-purse from her hip-pouch.

"...Be sure that each of the boys gets at least one gold. Whether or not they use it to entertain themselves with some of our newly hired 'working girls', or pocket it for their own is entirely up to them." Hilma smugly finished.

"How... uncharacteristically generous of you. Hehe... Sometimes I forget that you're not the same Hilma I once knew." Edström whimsically said as she chuckled.

"Hm, indeed.~"

Hilma replied with an equally whimsical smile and tone as she excused herself from her office, using the side door connecting to her private chambers. Yes, they all have changed and she wondered with interest at how much they would continue to change as time went on. Especially her now friend and confidant was soon to undergo the much vaunted "Ninshu Rite" to link her to the others, thus increasing her strength...

"Oh~! Wait, if that's the case then maybe... Hmm..."

As if struck by a bolt from the blue, an idea was suddenly pushed into the forefront of Hilma's consciousness. One that was both insane, yet also logical. One that perhaps their master might acquiesce to, but one she would keep to herself for the time being. Yes, first she would further their successes in the Dragon Kingdom before making such a bold request. After all, she felt she had grown to know him well enough to accurately feel that in his eyes, she would first need to earn it...

...

Curled up like a cat in the middle of an incredibly wide open and spacious chamber atop a platform, the majestic form of an enormous dragon with sparkling platinum-white scales meditated. Reflecting the low-light with a glitter to it, were it not for the telltale rise and fall of its back and sides from breathing, one might think it an elegant, graceful work of art, rather than one of the strongest species.

This was Tsaindorcus Vaision, the Platinum Dragon Lord, and one of the Argland Council State's ruling Dragon Councilors. A slight change in the air's movement before its snout brought him out of his meditations. A measure of pleasant surprise came over him, as his senses were more acute than that of the average dragon. Few could possibly sneak up on him, even if he were asleep. But the presence was unmistakable, and he smiled.

Opening his eyes, the low lighting did nothing to impair his vision. For a dragon, much less a Dragon Lord, even pitch-black was akin to a clear day. He saw the form of an older human woman with gray hair tied into a ponytail wearing a long black robe held in place with a red jewel in the center, and had a shoulder plate on her left-side. She wore a playful, mischievous smile full of life, going at odds with her age-wrinkled face.

"Yo~! It's been a while, Tsa." She said with familiarity and an almost childish vibrance to her expression that further contradicted her years.

"..."

Tsaindorcus said nothing at first. He knew full well who this old woman was, who slightly tilted her head and spoke teasingly.

"Well now, not a greeting to spare for an old friend, hm~? My, my... To think even dragons can go senile with age."

He chuckled amiably at the jab as he spoke in a gentle voice one would not expect to from such a massive frame. This was just like his old friend and comrade Rigrit Bers Caurau, from their mutual days among the Thirteen Heroes centuries ago.

"Ah, forgive me, Rigrit. Suddenly seeing an old friend moved me so much that I was unable to speak for a moment."

"Oh~? Whatever could you mean? My old friend is that beaten up, empty suit of armor over there."

Her voice was positively dripping with sarcasm as she pointed to a nearby suit of armor with a small sword-like insignia embedded in the middle of its chest. The helmet had a long hair-like fabric on top, a layer of fur around the two arms, and pauldrons depicting a dragon on both shoulders with two horns protruding. Glancing at it, she noticed a hole in the armor's right-pauldron, like it had been pierced recently. She was curious at first, but wanted to see her friend's reaction to her dig at him first.

Tsaindorcus didn't reply, merely smiling at the joyous feelings filling his heart at being able to trade idle banter with his old friend. Then his attention went to her fingers, as if noticing something amiss. He then spoke in a casual and curious manner...

"Hm? The ring seems to be gone. That is a powerful magic item beyond the domain of humanity. Please tell me it hasn't reached the hands of any dangerous elements. Like the Black Scripture of the Slane Theocracy..."

"My, what sharp eyes you have~! And a smooth tongue to so easily change the topic of conversation. No matter. I gave it to a young man with some potential, so don't worry about it."

"..."

Tsaindorcus mulled over this for a moment. That item was not something to be simply given away. It was made through the use of [Wild Magic], but since today's magical forces were distorted and out of balance, making another such item with the same methods would be extremely difficult. As one of the few [Wild Magic] practitioners left, he very much wanted to ask her where the ring had gone. Still, he implicitly trusted in his old friend as he spoke.

"Well, if someone won your confidence, then I won't doubt your judgement. Hmm... I heard that you were an adventurer once but no longer, correct?"

"That's right. I've retired and turned my duties over to that crybaby, little Miss Invern."

"Aaaah, that girl. You're most likely one of the few humans capable of beating her. But how did you get her to agree to talking your place?"

"Hmph~! I had a little help, but crybaby wouldn't stop complaining, so I said, 'If I beat you, you'll have to listen to me', and then I smacked the crap out of her! Ah~kakaka!" The old woman said with hearty laugher.

Tsa shook his head, as he recalled another one of his old friends whom was just spoken of and fought the Evil Deities by their sides. She performed great deeds in the battle against the Evil Deity of Insects. Being able to develop an entirely new spell to combat it. She was Keno Fasris Invern, once known as "Landfall" and one of the forgotten members of the Thirteen Heroes. As Tsa mulled on this, Rigrit spoke up again...

"Anyways, speaking of the little crybaby, I actually visited her very recently, and it was the subject of said visit that brought me here."

"Hmm... I thought as much. Then please, do share with me the reason for your visit old friend." Tsaindorcus gently but seriously asked, giving her his full, undivided attention.

"One of the Evil Deities we sealed away before the crybaby joined up with us in the old days had been discovered in the Re-Estize Kingdom. Discovered and re-sealed by an unknown power quite dissimilar to either [Tier Magic] or [Wild Magic]." Rigrit said with a deathly serious tone. (A/N:CH.16)

"..."

Tsaindorcus did not reply, but instead becoming contemplative and introspective as he searched his memories for the possible identity of the creature she may be referring to.

"I assume you speak of Dy'varnak, Evil Deity of Sin and Corruption. Correct?"

"Yes, that's right. According to what I've been able to gather, a cult worshipping the Evil Deities may have been involved. I've only recently been hearing whispers of such a thing from the Karnassus City-State Alliance. Between that and recent events in the Re-Estize capital, I felt it was long past time we got back in touch."

"Hm. Indeed. Long past time... I heard about what happened in the Re-Estize Kingdom so no need to brief me on that." The Platinum Dragon Lord thoughtfully replied.

"Well~! That saves on some time. An old woman like me can't waste too much time playing at storyteller. But I get the impression that you somewhat knew about some of this already." Rigrit said with a perked brow.

"Not in great detail, but I've heard similar rumors of such a cult. As well as some of the old resting places of the Evil Deities being disturbed. Though your account differs greatly from the others..." Tsaindorcus began in that same thoughtful tone, only for Rigrit to interject in surprise.

"Oi, oi, oi~! Hold a moment. You mean to tell me that other locations where we fought those monster have been disturbed? How many are we talking about?"

"Hm... By my reckoning, five if we include the one you and the Invern girl learned about just recently."

"Oooh, Tsa. It would have been wonderful if I knew of this earlier. I would have come much sooner and with more haste." Rigrit wearily said with a sigh as she facepalmed.

"My apologies, old friend. I'm afraid other matters have been occupying my thoughts and attentions."

At this Rigrit expression hardened as she once more glanced at the armor, and then turned her attention back to the Platinum Dragon Lord.

"Does it have something to do with why your Avatar over there is looking less than pristine?"

"Hm... Indeed. It encountered a powerful vampire. Far too powerful by this world's standards. To say nothing of its panoply."

"So the once-in-a-century aftershocks return, do they? By your tone, I take it that it's not on the side of this world like Leader was."

"Correct. It's not. I could tell that vampire's nature was evil. Perhaps it was sheer luck allowing me to confirm their presence. And... there's something else..." He said in a pensive tone, maintaining Rigrit's full attention.

He then explained that he has been feeling it for some time now. It was a tremendous shift in the forces making up this world. Something had once again greatly tipped the scales of magical energies, and it was a shift that felt as if the world's very lifeblood was being drained away. Rigrit mulled over this for a moment before sighing.

"I see that it hasn't just been my imagination. You've been feeling it too. An interesting puzzle to be sure, but without more to go on, its too vague. We should focus on doing what we can in investigation and preparation. Which reminds me, why not ask the other Dragon Lords for help?"

"That's another topic I was meaning to broach to you, old friend. It seems that someone else has had a similar line of thinking, as I have been hearing other whispers, speaking of some of my fellow Dragon Lords making moves of their own. Those whispers tell of them gathering under the auspices of a human man. Or what can be assumed to be one, but it has been less than clear."

"Oh~? This is surprising news. Then what...?"

"...!"

Just as Rigrit was about to continue, the Platinum Dragon Lord suddenly stood up on all fours in full alertness. As if something so unbelievable had caught his attention that he had momentarily forgotten about his friend's presence, who now looked extremely small in comparison.

"Um, Tsa? Something I should know?" Rigrit asked in concerned confusion.

Without another word Tsaindorcus waved his tail to the front, and a magical display was conjured. Rigrit turned around and could not believe her eyes at what she was seeing. In the live image, she saw the forms she recognized to be the Deep Darkness, Brightness, Vampiric, and the Swordmaster Dragon Lords landing in front of the city of Eryuentiu!

As they sat up on their haunches, she also saw unknown figures standing atop the heads of the Deep Darkness and Swordmaster Dragon Lords respectively. The latter had a young looking man with both human and draconic features, while the former was a man in his thirties with a powerful posture, long black hair, and red-colored eyes with some unusual markings within them.

She could only smirk as she realized the significance of this sudden visit. Not to mention the irony of them literally dropping in for a visit in the same breath as they became a topic of discussion. Truly, if that man atop the Deep Darkness Dragon Lord was the one that had been gathering them together, then he had a perfect sense of dramatic timing.

"So then~! Aren't you going to go out to greet them? Clearly you're the one that they're waiting on." Rigrit said with a snarky tone and smirk as she turned around.

There was only a weary sigh as Tsaindorcus sat on his haunches, and meditating only for a moment before his form shined with a turquoise-colored light. This light then flowed into the Armored Avatar as it came alive, promptly flying off through the opening in the ceiling. Rigrit chuckled in amusement at the whole thing as Tsaindorcus pondered the meaning of this timing.

All the whispers that reached him of his fellow Dragon Lords gathering were clearly more than whispers. And while Rigrit didn't seem to recognize the hybrid-type being atop the Swordmaster Dragon Lord, Tsaindorcus knew full well it to be a simulacrum created and controlled by the Heavenly Dragon Lord! For someone like that who had completely withdrawn from the world to show up in any form was momentous.

As Tsaindorcus' Avatar sped to where his brethren patiently waited, he swore to himself that he would NOT squander whatever fortunes had brought them together like this. He knew full well that Dragon Lords only fell at the hands of the Eight Greed Kings and their minions due to how divided, arrogant, individualistic, and isolationist their kind was.

If they had presented a more united front from the outset, things would have definitely been different. Now with the world beset by a myriad of new, emerging threats, what they truly needed now was a united front. With this in mind, he steeled himself for whatever he needed to do to make that a reality. Coming upon their position, his Avatar slowed down as it took position 15-meters away from the group.

"Greetings everyone. I bid you welcome to the city of Eryuentiu." His Avatar said in as respectful and dignified tone he could manage without seeming weak to them.

"Greetings, Tsaindorcus Vaision. It has been a long time since the lot of us have gathered in one place." The Vampiric Dragon Lord Aithusa Rahmoth said in a friendly manner.

"Hmph... Believe me, Platinum. I wouldn't be here if there weren't good reason for it." The Brightness Dragon Lord Brelzronth Oriculus coolly said with an undercurrent of resentment.

"Now, now. Let's not start that old song again. I for one am glad for us being able to be in one place again. A long life without the unexpected happening can be a rather dull existence." The Swordmaster Dragon Lord Arimour Rakahn said in a familiar tone.

"Hmph... For my part I would've been perfectly content to have remained undisturbed, but circumstances have changed." The Heavenly Dragon Lord's Avatar plainly stated.

"Indeed. And if our kind is to weather the coming storm, then we must learn from those mistakes made in the past, or else we'll have no future..." The Deep Darkness Dragon Lord Dy'vom Nivra'mortis somberly said, before firmly continuing.

"...To that end, we have gathered with this human, whose might easily rivals anyone here among us."

"And you are...?" Tsaindorcus evenly asked as his Avatar's line-of-sight went to the one atop Dy'vom's head.

"My name is Madara Uchiha. As your fellow Dragon Lords can attest, I'm indeed human, but by no means am I an ordinary human. Nor am I one of those you and yours would call, 'Players'. I am one from an entirely different world. I have brought all present here today to address a fundamental problem with this world. One that goes beyond the once-a-century appearance of Players. I speak of the fractured disunity that sows the seeds of chaos in this world, allowing for such elements to flourish. And now, something else is on the horizon. Something undefined that we all can feel. Until we can discover what that source is, you will listen to what I have to say..."

The Platinum Dragon Lord was completely taken aback by this human. Not only by his words, the power therein and his presence, but how the rest of his fellows, all to have been known to be prideful and stubborn in their own right, were deferring to him. As the day's light faded with the coming of dusk, one thing remained ever clear for Tsaindorcus; this powerful and strange man would mostly definitely become the focal point of great change.

On the one hand, it was something that brought him some relief in the face of the new Player threat, but to an arguably greater extent it worried him. For the Platinum Dragon Lord it was a long-awaited relief to see his kin being brought back together. But for it to be by the hand of this strange human made him internally wonder, what would be the actual quality of this change?

Especially when this man had brought together individuals who were either isolationists or difficult to work with by default. To see the Heavenly Dragon Lord's Avatar felt like an impossibility to him, because long had the ancient titan reduced himself to being more of a force of nature than a living being. Just who was this Madara Uchiha? What were his true intentions? And most importantly, what would it take to put him down if Tsaindorcus concerns were justified? After all, more was needed to earn his trust.

...

It was past midnight within the north-eastern section of the Dragon Kingdom as a slight breeze carried over the night's cool air. A heavy overcast ensured neither the moon nor the stars were visible, effectively making it pitch black. At least for those lacking the ability to see in the dark. For the Beastmen now occupying the mountainside village of Kessaryne however, darkness posed no issue for them.

Over two-hundred strong, this force of mostly feline-type Beastmen overran this village of over three-hundred residents only a few days ago. Now? Nary a single human soul remained. Those who once called this place home mistakenly believed it to be safe, due to its location being on the opposite side of a thick forest, inside a valley flanked by mountains, with the few passes blocked by thick log high-walls.

Their overreliance on this isolation proved fatal, as a chance discovery of a path through the mountains by a beastman scout sealed their fate. Upon the Beastman horde's arrival a valiant yet rushed defense was made, but they were easily overrun within the day. Most of the men, elderly, and children were killed and eaten during the initial attack.

They were the lucky ones, as the women suffered worse fates. Those not killed and eaten were violated for hours on end by beastmen, using them to vent their pent-up frustrations and mating instincts, due to not enough females of their own kind not already "claimed" being available. Afterward their unconscious, exhausted forms were dragged off behind enemy lines.

Now the once picturesque village of Kessaryne was occupied territory. With its stable freshwater well, it was primed to become a staging area for more beastman incursions into the Dragon Kingdom before any was the wiser. A fact that made the leader of this particular raiding party smile wide. He was a saber-toothed black tiger named, Zun Gao.

"Hmph! Humans foolish. Humans weak. Only King can fight pack Alpha."

He was a "Beastman Alpha"; a powerful class of beastman whose might rivaled that of Adamantite-ranked adventurers. Of course, given beastmen were naturally physically stronger than humans, it could be said that an Alpha could exceed even that.

Next to him slept his mate, Xue Gao. A tiger-type beastman, she was this raiding party's "Beastman Beta", which was a step down from himself. The strength of Betas could vary wildly from Mythril to Orichalcum-ranked, but Xue Gao proved herself the strongest of the latter, and was the reason he chose her as his primary mate.

Beastman society was one that truly embraced the principles of "survival of the fittest" and "might makes right". Their natures were by and large barbaric and savage without question, and thoughts to the future was mostly limited to the strongest of the males gathering females to carry their bloodlines and furthering their tribes and clans.

From that perspective, Zun Gao was the perfect exemplar of this ruthless, primal lifestyle. A fact made all-the-more obvious as he looked around the inside of the house he now occupied with satisfaction. Once belonging to the "village chief", the exhausted forms of at least a dozen female beastmen slept about the floor. These mere concubines held only aspirations to birth strong, worthy pups for the clan.

Although weak in comparison to him and the Beta, as Beastman Regulars they were still ten-times stronger than average adult humans. Even without training, their strength and physical capabilities alone made them a match for fully equipped Silver and Gold-ranked adventurers. Combined with their sheer numbers, and their King's move to invade was mostly met with success...

"Hrm? What that?"

Sniffing the air, Zun Gao caught a vary faint scent that was unfamiliar to him. Yet his instincts began to warn of potential danger as the fur on his back stood on end. It was then Xue Gao sat up to almost full alertness, doing much the same. After all, as the strongest in his raiding party, theirs were the sharpest instincts of all.

Zun Gao looked to Xue who only nodded in response as they quickly moved out of the house and into the village center. The feeling became even more intense, and while they could see nothing of note, a shift in the wind quickly alerted the pair to five, quite unfamiliar human scents, standing atop a hill overlooking the village.

"Humans? Why here? Why only five? They wanna die?" Zun Gao indignantly growled in confusion.

"No... They standing. They waiting. Somethin's coming." Xue Gao contemplatively answered.

While weaker than Gao, he always appreciated Xue's sharp mind and honed instincts. It was those instincts that found this village which remained hidden from them for so long after all. Just as he pondered on this, they both saw a light in the distance, which they both judged to be a single flaming arrow.

The way it shined brightly and flew to their position from over 3-kilometers away than a normal arrow could, made them realize [Martial Arts] were used. Those skills that some of their kind developed as they grew stronger. This did not make any sense to their primitive minds. Firing a single fire arrow, regardless of how impressive the distance, would only serve to give away the humans' position. So why did they...

'"...!"'

Suddenly, both of their instincts were screaming "DANGER!" in their minds. Just as the Alpha was about to roar to rouse their raiding party...

*FA-WOOOSH!*

Within an instant the village erupted into a firestorm that swallowed everything in its path like a hellish tidal-wave! The roars and shrieks of pain and agony echoed like a chorus from all the hells at once. And as both the Alpha and Beta wildly thrashed at the flames, one question resounded above all others: how was this possible?!

...

Minutes before the village was turned into a literal hellscape, five figures stood tall and resolute upon a hill overlooking the village. The first was a man in his mid-30s of almost 6-feet, with strong features, reddish-brown hair, blue eyes, and carried himself with the air of an elegant, chivalrous knight.

An impression reinforced by the bluish-white full-plate armor of mythril-orichalcum alloy he wore with his helm held under his left-arm, and an adamantite claymore planted vertically. If one were to take a closer look, an Adamantite-plate hung around the necks of himself and the others. He was the leader of the Dragon Kingdom's only Adamantite-ranked team, the Holy Lord and "Fierce-Flash", Cerabrate of Team Crystal Tear.

To his right was an extremely fit man of average height in his early-to-mid 30s with dark-green eyes, with a had single slash scar that ran over his left-eye and side of this face. He had heterochromatic hair with the left-side bright red and the right-side brown with dark-red highlights. He wore medium-armor that appeared to be made from wyvern hide and scales.

Some sections on his shoulders, torso, forearms, boots, and shins were also reinforced with orichalcum plating. Like Cerabrate he held his helm under his left-arm, with his weapon of choice a curve-bladed lance held in his right-hand. The weapon's appearance was both metallic and natural, much like his armor. Simply named Bryce, he was the party's only frontline fighter besides Cerabrate himself.

Next to him was a female Half-Elf with hood down, allowing her long single-ponytailed hair to flow in the breeze, with sage-green locks easily blending into the dark of night. It was likewise for her brown and black attire, which was perfectly suited for speed and agility. It contoured to her shapely, athletic physique that was the envy of most women. This was the team's scout, ranger, archer, and a native from the Karnassus City-State Alliance, Elvyra Gordeau.

Upon her forehead was an intricately designed adamantite circlet with dull-gold trim in a horizontal-oval shape, much like a large eye. Even at night her pink-colored eyes seemed to sparkle as they surveyed the village with a hardened, focused edge. Sheathed on both sides of her waist were a pair of mythril-orichalcum alloy daggers, with smaller throwing blades in straps across her chest, belt, and legs.

Her left-hand held a weapon from the Karnassus City-State Alliance called a "Compound Bow". It was an expensive item that often rivaled the katana in terms of cost. Especially when made with special materials and enchanted to boost its capabilities. Hers was of an adamantite-white iron alloy construction, possessing a curved-bladed front, used as a defensive melee weapon when necessary.

To Cerabrate's left was the healer of the group, Dacre Teixeira. The man possessed a fit yet slender build, maroon-colored hair in a single ponytail, and silver colored eyes. Being in his late-30s, he had a mature, worldly air about him. As an adherent of the Earth God, he wore predominantly brown robes, with its white portions given gray coloration thanks to the application of [Magic Dye].

His right-hand held a staff made of a silver-mythril-white iron alloy, with an emerald-colored jewel upon it. Specially made to channel divine-type magicks, it was a worthy compliment to his priestly look. The only thing that may have seemed out-of-place was the light-armored helm upon his head, but considering the Dragon Kingdom's current state of war, protection for one's cranium was expected.

Their final member to the far-left was a young man in his mid-20s with a lean body build, chestnut-colored hair with a rat-tail, and yellow eyes. The latter being a fairly common trait in the Dragon Kingdom. Wearing high-quality magic caster robes of brown, dark-blue, and red with a hood, Argyle Gilhouly was their Arcane-type magic caster. This was made more evident by the dark-brown staff with ruby-red jewel his right-hand held.

Using his left to pull out a gold-colored pocket watch called [Twelve Magic Power] and opening its lid, he looked upon its face as its distinct ticking sound was interrupted by its alarm's vibrating function. Nodding in satisfaction, he spoke in a low, yet earnest tone.

"That should be enough, leader. We can begin the plan at any moment now."

"Hm. Good. I don't like just waiting out in the open like this. Are you sure that this plan will work?" Cerabrate skeptically asked.

"Oh, come now, Cerabrate. Have some confidence in the young lad. He's proven himself enough time and again. Or is using such an unfamiliar method of bestial extermination really giving you such pause?" Dacre said in a relaxed tone.

"I suppose it is, yes. At least partly. But are we sure that the majority of the Beastman Regulars will die from this?" Cerabrate asked back in concern.

"Yes! For the tenth time, I'm positive of it. All the Regulars should die from this, but the Alpha and perhaps even the Beta will likely be able to survive. Any Lieutenants in there could survive, but they'd be damned lucky to, and likely wished they hadn't." Argyle replied with unwavering confidence.

"Which is why we're hanging our arses out here in the open breeze to draw them to us. By the way... Elvyra?"

At Bryce's prompting, the team's Half-Elven member closed her eyes. Focusing her will into the magic item upon her brow, it opened down the middle to reveal an amethyst-colored "third eye" upon her forehead. Her mother was a City Elf from the Karnassus City-State Alliance, while her father was of the Four Eye race from the same nation.

That union bestowed upon her traits from both parents, including an extra ocular organ that possessed enhanced visual capabilities. Even without using [Martial Arts], she was blessed with increased depth perception and field-of-vision. More than that, she could even see the slightest changes in air pressure currents like they were waves in water. It also granted her limited night-vision, long-distance sight, and even perceiving the "aura" of individuals, depending on their strength-level.

Keeping her "primary eyes" closed, which was necessary to fully utilize these abilities without the use of [Martial Arts], the entirety of her will and senses were focused upon the village's center. As expected, two figures hurriedly stepped out, and soon looked in their direction. Drawing an arrow from her quiver, she notched it in her [Tempest Bow] as the trick-arrow caught on fire and she spoke with a smile.

"Confirmed, two targets. Upper Orichalcum and lower Adamantite-leveled."

Using shorthand, Elvyra confirmed their primary targets, the Beastmen Beta and Alpha were present, and their relative strength levels. The Dragon Kingdom's adventurers used this method to quickly quantify how strong opposing beastmen were. Of course, like the Guild's Difficulty Ratings it was more of a loose guideline than an absolute, since beastmen physical capabilities were always higher than their human equivalents.

Keeping these facts in mind, the Dragon Kingdom ranked the strength of Beastman Regulars to around a fully equipped silver to gold-plate adventurer. Above the Regulars and often leading small groups were the "Beastmen Lieutenants", that could average from upper-gold to platinum-level.

Above them was a "Beastman Beta", ranging from a mythril to orichalcum-plate level. Finally was a "Beastman Alpha", which was always within the adamantite-plate range. Although the weakest always required Cerabrate and two additional members of Crystal Tear to fight them, since the Kingdom had no one else who could do so.

"I see... In that case, loose the arrow." Cerabrate replied with seriousness.

"Understood... [Spirit's Long Shot]."

Charging the arrow with elven [Martial Arts] passed on to her from her mother, it easily covered the 3-kilometers from their location to the village's center. As soon as it did...

*FA-WOOOSH!*

The entire village burst into a bright-orange sea of flames akin to a beacon in the once pitch blackness of night. The intense heat made them profusely sweat even from their current distance. The group's younger magic caster smiled deeply at the sight, even as his teammates bore awed expressions upon their faces.

"Wow... An' here I was expectin' an explosion. Not damn a firestorm." Bryce commented with mouth agape.

"Y-Yes, I know what you mean. This is completely new to me as well." Elvyra said, clearly taken aback.

"Hehe. Well, I have to admit it was well worth all those preparations we did beforehand. My apologies for ever having doubted this approach, Argyle." Cerabrate said with a proud chuckle.

"It's quite alright, leader. I'm just glad it worked." The young man humbly replied.

"Oh, come now. There's no need to be so modest. It was a good plan based upon solid alchemical foundations. After all, 'Dragon's Breath' has always been a useful gas found in nature." Dacre interjected with a scholarly tone.

"Indeed. Although ensuring the conditions are ripe for its use can be quite a challenge. Dragon's Breath, or how it was known as 'meh-thayn' in ancient times, requires a rather specific set of circumstances for optimal use. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas can be quite finicky after all." Argyle matter-of-factly explained.

"Is that why we spread all those gas bombs throughout the village under the magical cover of [Odorless], [Silence], and [Invisibility]?" Elvyra asked in curiosity.

"That's right. Although with only ten bombs for each of us, those fifty were merely the catalyst. The main crux this plan depended upon Dacre and I opening up the Dragon's Breath vein he scryed to be underground up the mountain slope."

"Actually, that's one part o' this plan I didn't really understand. We know ya'll used spells to release some more gas from its underground confines, but how the hells did it flow down here like water downstream?" Bryce asked in confusion.

"Thank our combined understanding of the natural world my dear fellow. You see, there is this natural phenomena called the 'Mountain Breeze', occuring at night when heavier cold air descends down the mountain slope, forcing the lighter warm air in the middle of the valley to rise up. What we did was use this natural occurrence to help spread the gas further, which would be mostly contained in the valley, and by extension the walled off, formerly human village." Dacre explained in a pedagogical manner.

"Under those conditions, with the gas having nowhere else to go, would be contained within the village." Argyle concluded with a proud smile.

"Well, this is much better than any frontal attack we could have made under such short notice. Even with the hundred or so support troops granted to us by Her Majesty, this village was just too well positioned after those beastmen fortified the place. But in the end it ended up being their funeral pyre." Cerabrate said with a smirk.

"Hm?"

Elvyra's focus then took on a hardened edge as her line-of-sight never wavered from the sea of flames before them, and she grimaced with increased alertness. They all noticed this as Cerabrate spoke with the same seriousness.

"The Alpha and Beta survived I take it?"

"And they're heading right this way, leader. Aside from them, there's no survivors." She replied with bow readied.

"As we expected. Everyone! You know what to do." Cerabrate loudly announced as he and Bryce donned their respective single-slit helms.

They then spilt into three distinct groups with Dacre Teixeira and Argyle Gilhouly on the left, as Decre cast the spells [Summon Angel 3rd: Archangel Flame] and [Summon Earth Elemental]. The former conjured an angelic form of a shining white knight with golden flaming wings, wielding swords of similar make, and a shining halo behind its head. The latter spell summoned an elemental of earth and rock which was slightly smaller than an adult human, but with bulky arms larger than its body.

Both the summons floated to the pair's front to act as their shields, even as Elvyra leapt to the two group's rear-middle. The group on the right was a two-man team of Bryce and Cerabrate as they readied their weapons. The moment they did, everyone felt the ground beneath their feet tremble. Spine-chilling howls met their ears as a pair of flaming beastmen raged out of the inferno and charged towards them.

Looking more like demons now, the pair of crazed beastmen moved at speeds faster than normal humans could react. Their charred hides were revealed as the flames faded and their bloodshot eyes were laser focused on only one goal; to kill. The Beastman Alpha charged towards Cerabrate who grinned at the simplistic attack, as the Beta went for the others.

The Beta's advance was blocked by the pair of summons as she thrashed wildly to no avail, as they both were largely immune to normal physical attacks. Even those of a rage empowered Beta. Notching three arrows in her Compound Bow, Elvyra fired upon the Beta, with all three of the projectiles striking true upon the Beta's charred chest.

"GROOOU!"

The Beastman Beta howled as the trick arrows released a paralyzing surge of electricity, stopping her in her tracks. Cerabrate and Bryce blocked the Alpha's advance with their weapons and applications of defensive [Martial Arts], and without missing a step Elvyra gracefully spun on her heel, nocking three more arrows before she fired upon the Alpha.

"GRRAAGH!"

The trick arrows, whilst causing the Alpha further pain, failed to paralyze it and instead shifted its attention onto her. Batting away the pair's weapons with a *CLANG* echoing throughout the air, the Alpha leapt into the air as its enormous form swiftly descended towards her.

"[Wind Step]!"

Briefly shining neo-green from the application of an elven [Martial Art], she swiftly dodged backwards with a flip as she notched two more arrows. However, instead of firing upon her attacker, her arrows once again struck the Beta, who howled in agony, briefly distracting the enraged Alpha, instinctively unable to ignore his mate's anguish.

Taking advantage of its moment of distraction, Cerabrate and Bryce charge their own respective [Martial Arts] as they attacked in tandem.

"[Divine-Skill Single Flash]!"

"[Dragon Fang Thrust]!"

Cerabrate's attack caught the Alpha's right-shoulder, slightly turning him around as Bryce's two-hit attack struck the beastman's upper-torso. Digging into his charred hide, the Alpha was rendered off-balance as the pair assaulted the beastman with a flurry of sword slashes and spear thrusts.

Meanwhile, the Beta struggled against the pair of summons as the Earth Elemental used a right-cross to her jaw, and the Archangel Flame executed a double-slash upon her torso, before rejoining the Elemental's side.

"[Lightning]!"

Argyle fired a bolt of electricity from his staff that was blocked at the last moment by the Beta's left-hand. While it was successful in stopping the attack from puncturing her chest it came at the cost of her arm, which was turned into smoking minced-meat.

"[Shock Wave]!"

Immediately taking advantage of the opening Dacre cast a spell, sending an invisible shockwave into the Beta's torso. Although not killing her, she slumped forward and was left gasping for air. Not a second later a pair of arrows penetrated her eyes, blinding her. That her brain wasn't pierced was a testament to her body's toughness.

"GROOOU!"

Reeling back in pain and shock from the loss of her sight, both Argyle and Dacre charged their respective spells, not failing to take advantage of the opening.

"[Memory Magic: Dragon Lightning]!"

"[Maximize Magic: Divine Lance]!"

As a dragon-shaped arc of lightning swallowed the Beta, Elvyra could not help but be in awe of Argyle's [Talent], [Memory Magic]. This allowed him, after 30-minutes to an hour of meditation, to "store" up to four spells in his mind for instantaneous use without the loss of mana. Of course while powerful, this ability still had its limits, such as only being able to store spells within his tier capabilities, and only from the arcane school.

Although his normal limit was the 4th-tier, thanks to being able to use the [Over Magic] enhancement modifier, allowing the user to cast spells one tier over their normal ability at great mana cost, this was recognized by his [Talent] as being within his ability. Thus he was able to "store" the 5th-tier spell for this very moment.

Despite this however, Elvyra lamented some of its other limitations as Dacre shining white lance impaled the Beta's gut, bringing her to her knees. Such as not being able to store the same spell twice, and the fact that each spell had a 48-hour time-limit before needing to be stored again. A time-limit they very nearly reached before using this plan.

Shaking her head at such idle thoughts, the young Half-Elf drew another arrow from her quiver as she charged it with an elven [Martial Art].

"[Piercing Spirit Weapon]!"

Pouring her soul into her bow and arrow, endowing it with effects similar to those of magical weapons, this heightened its piercing power. It was perfect to penetrate armor and a beastman's thick hide, and could be used on both melee and projectile weapons. As she released the attack, that became readily apparent as the shining red arrow impaled the Beta's head, killing her instantly as her body slumped upon the ground.

Not wasting a moment to revel in the kill, she instantly turned towards her teammates fighting the Alpha. She was about to notch another arrow before she halted mid-way, seeing them more or less on equal footing with the monster that roaring in fury. Its body shined in a reddish hue, indicating the use of its own [Martial Arts] as Dacre's pair of summons immediately moved to intercept.

"[RENDING TEAR]!"

The Alpha howled as it unleashed a blindingly swift barrage of claw swipes that even she had difficulty following, despite the heightened kinetic vision provided by her tri-eyed ocular prowess. This would have chilled her if not for the fact that she had her own [Martial Arts] to enhance those senses when necessary. Still, the speed and power of the Alpha's attack could not be denied as it obliterated the summons.

Once again though, the polished teamwork of the Dragon Kingdom's Adamantite-ranked team was demonstrated, as both Bryce and Cerabrate capitalized on the opening this created, charging their respective Arts.

"[Piercing Blue Dragon Dive]!"

Launching himself into the air with astounding speed, Bryce's weapon become charged with elemental lightning as he rocketed straight towards the Alpha's back. Impaling him from behind with an electrical discharge, he invoked another Art to quickly remove his weapon and retreat with a backflip.

"[Evasion Jump]!"

In that instant, Cerabrate charged forward as his trump-card was invoked...

"[Shining Sword Smite]!"

This was the ultimate technique that helped make his name as the "Fierce Flash" as a blinding light engulfed his adamantite claymore, [Holy Lord's Faussar]. Enhancing the divine power already enchanted onto the blade it combined [Limit Breaker], [Slash], [Flow Acceleration], [Ability Boost], [Greater Ability Boost], [Blessed Weapon], [Holy Strike], and [True Holy Strike] into one attack as he executed a single downward swing upon the Alpha's form at point-blank range.

A crescent-shaped wave of divine power was explosively released as Cerabrate's sword sliced into the Alpha's flesh. Although usable at ranges up to 15-feet, the closer he was to his target, the more damage it did. Since this was his last resort trump-card, using it threatened to leave him almost completely drained after two consecutive uses.

So it was of the utmost importance to finish the fight upon the first try. Not that there was any doubt it would fail to finish off the monster before him, since this was not the first Alpha he has felled with this technique. As the dust cleared, the expected outcome became visible when the Alpha's lower torso fell, with the upper blown clean off.

There was a collective sigh of relief from all present as their victory became apparent. As if to congratulate them, the clouds parted with the still flowing breeze, bathing the area with star and moonlight. Combined with the still raging fires in the village, it could have looked like an early morning sunrise as they gathered around the charred corpse.

"Whew... Glad that's over." Bryce wearily said.

"You said it. Still, that's got to be among the easiest Alpha kills we've ever had." Elvyra said in relief.

"Yes, we got lucky that Argyle's plan took them by surprise and weakened them to such a degree. Otherwise, this could've been a lot harder, and a lot messier." Cerabrate said with a pleased sigh as he lifted his helm's visor.

"That, and these arrogant monsters rely much too much on their superior physical abilities. We've yet to see any that make proper use of magic items and gear the way we do." Dacre added with a cautious edge to his voice.

"Pfft~! These filthy monsters aren't smart enough to do that. Or ever will be." Cerabrate dismissively snorted.

"Hey, guys? What should we do about this valley? Odds are good that there's plenty of other beastmen that know about this pass." Elvyra asked in concern.

"Oh, there's no need to worry. This firestorm'll continue to burn for a while yet. At least until the underground supply of Dragon's Breath exhausts itself. But by then all of the infrastructure would've been reduced to ash, and the fresh-water well buried beneath it. Then it's just a matter of Dacre and I using magic to create landslides to block the few usable passes in and out of this valley. After that? Any beastmen that marches up here hoping to use this valley to stage more raids will just find blocked paths with no water sources and much of their time wasted." Argyle confidently answered.

"Hmph. We can do that another time. Between getting here, the two of you using magic to dig that Dragon's Breath well up the mountain slope, and all of us spreading those [Dragon's Breath Bombs] throughout the village, we've been up and active for over 36-hours now. We could all benefit from some sleep." Bryce impatiently huffed.

"Hmm~! Yeah, I'd have to agree. Some sleep now would do us all some good." Elvyra said as she stretched her head and arms upward and folding her weapon away.

"Hehe. Yes, Dacre's magic has been helpful in keeping us going, but that's no substitute for a proper night's rest. Let's head back to camp. Good Captain Adel Kujo is probably getting worried." Cerabrate said whilst hanging his weapon on his back and stretching his neck.

"Really, that man can be such a mother hen." Dacre said in ironic humor.

"Oh, give him some credit old friend. He and the support troops given to us by Her Majesty have been useful. As the only Adamantite-ranked team in the country, it's only natural they want to keep us safe." Cerabrate retorted in a friendly tone.

"Hehe. Me thinks it's actually the fact that they want to keep her safe." Dacre said as he smiled mischievously, looking towards Elvyra.

"W-Wha-? What're you talking about?" She replied with reddened cheeks.

"Come now my dear. I know that you've noticed how the men have been looking at you and treating you with more kindness and familiarity than the rest of us. The whole lot are positively enamoured with you, despite coming up with what could be considered a rather unflattering moniker for you."

"Huh? What moniker?"

"Well, bear in mind that I'm only repeating what's been said out of earshot, but I believe that some have referred to you as their, 'Princess Tri-Clops'."

"W-WHAT?!"

"Ugh, why'd you have to tell her that?" Arglye facepalmed with a sigh.

"Wait, did you all know about this?!" Elvyra asked, gritting her teeth with reddened face.

"Y-Yes, but rest assured that Dacre speaks true that it's not meant as an insult! T-They truly hold you in high esteem. You're like an idol of beauty to them! Why, I heard some say that they'd happily lay down their lives for you." Argyle quickly, earnestly added.

"I-Is that so?" Elvyra mumbled, seemingly being placated by the additional information.

"Heh. That's not the only 'laying down' they wish to do with her." Bryce cheekily said, earning a death glare from the Half-Elf.

"Alright, that's enough of that. There'll be plenty of time for friendly banter after we get back to camp and get some rest. Let's get back to the horses." Cerabrate said with a weary smile, trying to maintain some grace himself.

"Ooh... F-Fine." Elvyra replied in a flustered tone.

"Ahem~! By the way, in our rush to get here, I never asked how we were made aware of this situation so quickly. I mean, I don't recall seeing any runners or message birds being sent our way." Argyle said in an effort to quickly change the subject as they walked.

"Hm... I was wonderin' the same thing myself, actually. How did you hear about this so quickly boss?" Bryce contemplatively asked.

For a moment, Cerabrate's expression soured before he composed himself, answering in a neutral tone.

"A runner from the 'Fire-Leaf Concern' told me about it. Said that one of their scouts became aware of what was happening here."

"Oh? Intriguing. One would think that they'd seize the opportunity to increase their own reputation~." Dacre said in a light-hearted and intrigued tone.

"I wondered the same thing myself and asked their runner why they brought me the information. It seems that their own people weren't ready to deploy yet, and felt that someone needed to stop the beastmen here as soon as possible before they had a chance to further fortify of bring reinforcements." Cerabrate flatly stated.

"Huh. I've been keeping track of what they've been doing, and pegged them for just a group of opportunists. Maybe they really do want to help this country?" Elvyra mused aloud.

"Hmph... Maybe." Cerabrate said softly, with an undercurrent of disapproval.

"Oi... Somethin' wrong, boss? We do kind of need all the help we can get ya' know. I mean, we're good an' all, but takin' down one Alpha after another takes its toll. Plus there's the rest of the beastly horde ta' worry about." Bryce said in a laidback fashion.

"Yes, I know. And if it's for Her Majesty I will gladly throw myself into any kind of danger. I just cannot shake the feeling that we were being used somehow." Cerabrate replied in a somewhat displeased manner.

"Maybe you're overthinkin' it a little bit there, boss. Beastmen are dead, an' this area is safe for now. Worst-case scenario? We show up and the Concern's mercs are actually doin' a good job fightin' the main force an' using the chance to take center stage. Which we just stroll back in an' show 'em how it's done. An' in the end, we're all on the same side, ain't we?"

"Hm... Perhaps you're right. Maybe things will become clearer after we get some rest."

"Aye. We all can profit from some sleep after this mission. Let us return to camp with all haste then." Dacre energetically said, as the rest of the team agreed.

As the whole of Crystal Tear continued to put distance between themselves and the burning village, one of Madara's clones emerged from the earth like a wraith, as he then smirked at what he had witnessed, and then dove back into the soil as if it were made of water.

'Very interesting. These children performed their mission much like shinobi would, given how they made use of that flammable gas. They danced very well against the beastmen's elite. Perhaps they will be useful once Hilma's operations get under way...'

...

*A/N: Sorry for the delays folks! IRL's been kicking my ass, so there's no telling when I can get these chapters out. So don't bother asking when the next one will come out. I honestly have no idea. But what I can say is that the next chapters will focus on the Dragon Kingdom and the aftermath of Madara's recruitment efforts. See ya'll then!*