Once everyone was transported to Fort Inuraid at the north border, they hurriedly rented some horses and crossed the border to head for Druuza’s magic lake.
Due to the impact of the war from seventy years ago, even now, the neighborhood was still covered in grey fog all year round. It was difficult to see even just a little distance ahead, but everyone continued on without hesitation.
“How do you know the direction?”
Tinassha, who was leading, turned around and laughed at Oscar’s question:
“Magic power is leaking. Every magician knows.”
The magicians behind him nodded. Oscar tilted his head in wonder.
Finally, after about an hour of ride, the scenery, which was barely visible due to the fog, began to change.
The trees growing here were twisted awfully. The sight of twisted leafless trees and scattering rocks was reminiscent of the Afterworld, which was believed to be real by some.
The desolated scene made some of the riders to falter, and conversations stopped. It seemed to be the same for the sensitive horses, as they slowed down their speed immediately. Before long, all the horses refused to move forward no matter how much they were urged or pulled. The group had no choice but tied the horses to the trees and walked on in a line.
“How far is it?”
“We’re almost there. Ah…”
Tinassha turned around to look behind and stopped. Those following behind all looked pale to various degrees as if they were feeling sick.
“Pardon me, I forgot. Let me set up a barrier.”
She chanted lightly, and the air surrounding them cleared. Everyone looked relieved at being able to breath easily.
“What was wrong?”
“It’s the miasma. It’s suffocating for ordinary people.”
“I felt fine; was it thanks to you?”
The witch grinned. Behind them, a magician called Doan groaned.
“Temis’ investigation didn’t record any miasma…”
“Seems like something is waking up.”
Oscar checked everyone’s conditions, then the group hurriedly moved on.
They reached the magic lake immediately after that.
It was a bare spot of land with no water or grass. It was also covered with fog like everywhere else, making seeing beyond it impossible. The ground was bone dry and cracking, but occasionally something transparent rippled a little above it as if there were waves passing.
“It’s the first time I’ve come here… Does it usually have these waves?”
“To some extent.”
Tinassha answered briefly and chanted a slightly longer chant. A large circular diagram began to spread out on the ground. When the chant finished, dozens of red threads rose up starting from the outer circumference of the pattern and intertwined with themselves above it, forming a hemisphere that enclosed all those present.
“Please wait for a bit and don’t leave this. I’m going to take a look.”
The witch said and floated up into the air without looking back. Then, she instantly disappeared into the fog.
Doan followed her figure with his eyes and mutter in mute amazement:
“What kind of person is she…?”
Oscar smiled wryly and turned around. Just then, the panic voice of a soldier rose up from the rear:
“Meldina is not here!”
A turbulent mood dominated the atmosphere inside the barrier. Amongst the confusion, Oscar narrowed his blue eyes and glared into the fog.
Tinassha circled the magic lake in the air, shooting out magic power and probing.
To the naked eye, the scenery between the occasional gaps in the fog didn’t seem to change at all. But the miasma, which was impossible to conceal and the magic waves, which were clearly much higher than normal, all indicated an abnormality.
The witch clicked her tongue and landed on the ground for a look-in into the barrier.
When she got back, everyone looked relieved but also troubled. Tinassha immediately realized the reason.
“Eh, where is His Highness?”
Sylvia apologetically raised her hand at the question.
“He went to look for Meldina, who got lost… We tried to stop him, but he said he has the highest tolerance, so… What do we do now, Miss Tinassha?”
Hearing that, Tinassha hazily wondered if her blood vessels would rupture considering how high her blood pressure had risen.
But what came out of her mouth was different.
“That… stupid prince!”
She was trembling with anger. Everyone looked at her nervously; her insolent words were totally forgotten.
Meldina walked in the fog, unable to tell where was where. Each footstep was hard to make.
Her body felt extremely heavy.
― How had she come to this, she wondered.
Ever since Oscar had brought that magician back, she had been stuck with an inferiority complex that she had never tasted before.
She knew that there was no need for a comparison, but whenever she saw that girl standing by Oscar’s side, she just instinctively compared herself with her. Especially after she had come to train with Art, Meldina realized that her skills were above her own. An unknown sense of defeat had knocked her down hard.
Even now, Meldina was still wavering between the desire to rejoin everyone and the desire to not meet her.
But just then, she saw a figure in the fog ahead, and suddenly came to her senses.
What was she doing? Someone worthy of the officer title shouldn’t get caught in such trivial emotions – she told herself and ran towards the figure.
But when she finally got close, she realized that it wasn’t a person at all.
She involuntarily shouted and pressed a hand to her mouth.
It was a moving corpse in ragged armor.
The corpse slowly turned around as if responding to her voice. There were no emotions in its empty eye sockets. It slowly raised the sword it was carrying.
On a second look, there wasn’t just one corpse but countless of them squirming in the fog. Meldina moved a trembling hand to her hips and somehow was able to draw her sword.
The sword came for her with unexpected high speed. Shrill metallic sound reverberated in the fog; the strength of the blow made her arm go numb.
Meldina leapt back to keep some distance, but she could also hear slow-moving footsteps from behind.
The circle of corpses was closing in on her little by little. Meldina felt a sense of desperation, but readied her sword again.
On the other side, those who remained inside the barrier also faced a fight with the corpses.
The corpses couldn’t touch them if they were inside the barrier, but if they were surrounded by corpses, they wouldn’t be able to go back. They were forced to fight an endless battle with the barrier as their base.
“These wear Farsas’ coat of arms!”
“There are those with Druuza’s coat of arms too.”
“Are these the dead from seventy years ago…?!”
No matter how many they cut down or crushed, the corpses kept coming. Everyone looked more and more impatient. Tinassha clicked her tongue and commanded the dragon on her shoulder:
“Naak! Go find my contractor and bring him back. It’s the blue-eyed man from a while ago. There’s a mark; you’ll know. There should be a woman with him; bring her back too. Don’t eat them!”
The dragon cried and got down from her shoulder. It whipped its neck and tail and stretched. Its red body grew in a blink of an eye and became as big as a horse. Before everyone’s surprised eyes, the dragon spread its wings, soared up and disappeared into the fog.
Tinassha bent down to dodge the sword that was coming for her, then put her own sword to the corpse’s neck.
“When the two of them come back, I’ll burn down the whole area. Please hold out for a while more.”
Everyone felt reassured at her steady voice. Before one knew, Tinassha had become the group’s mental support with her strength and ability.
Everyone picked themselves up and turned to face the coming enemies once again.
The corpses kept coming and coming, no matter how many Meldina hacked and struck down. She somehow managed to resist shouting at them. In the humid air, the sound of countless footsteps approaching and the smell of rotten flesh assaulting her nostrils made her nauseous.
The dead that had been stalking her from behind had also increased in number, but she had been able to repel them with her thin sword.
― It was her who let the situation become like this. She wished she had listened to Art more.
Regret gushed out and stained Meldina’s heart. She bit her lips hard.
Just then, a sword came from behind on her right and thrust at her side. She barely noticed the attack and turned around.
― She couldn’t dodge this.
Meldina instinctively closed her eyes, but someone in the fog took her hand and pulled her towards them.
“Strayed kids shouldn’t get carried away.”
It was her beloved prince who spoke those words and brushed the enemy’s sword aside.
“Can you fight? Let’s break through.”
At his unforgiving tone, Meldina swallowed the tears that were about to fall and nodded.
“I will accompany you.”
He nodded at her words.
Oscar took the lead. A chipped sword lunged for him from within the fog; he received it with his empty left hand. There seemed to be nothing in that hand, but the blade shattered before it could touch his skin. Meldina stared at the scene in wonder.
“Don’t just stand there. Let’s go.”
Meldina broke into a half-run to keep up with him.
But just then, something large landed behind them. The impact caused the air rush towards them, and when Meldina hurriedly turned around to look, she saw a pair of eyes staring at her, so red as if they were burning.
It took her some moments to realize that it was the dragon on Tinassha’s shoulder.
“Is His Highness not here yet?!”
“Don’t look away!”
The battlefield was full of screams and wails. Tinassha swung her sword while extending her magic to probe into the surroundings. The corpses must have been controlled from somewhere; it’d be over soon once she struck at it. But she couldn’t locate that place; either the enemies were also aware of that fact, or their movements were too erratic.
Tinassha slashed down on the arm that was coming for Sylvia. The ragged arm flew up to the air and fell down into the fog.
Sylvia sighed in relief. Tinassha smiled at her.
“It’s alright. Just a bit more.”
Just then, as if in response to its master, a dragon cried in the sky. It spread its wings and slowly descended while feeling the wind. There was a man and a woman on its back; the man jumped down before the dragon touched the ground. Tinassha looked at him coldly:
“You deserve a scolding.”
“Everyone, get back into the barrier!”
Everyone came inside the red hemisphere at her words. The dragon also landed inside with the woman still on its back.
The corpses once again gathered and closed in on the circle. Tinassha sheathed her sword and began chanting.
“Recognize my will as your order. One who sleeps under the earth, soar into the sky. I summon and control your fire ― Understand my order and manifest yourself in my concept.”
At the chanting, flames came out from Tinassha’s hands and formed a circular diagram. She scooped it up with her right hand.
“Burn it all down!”
The flame diagram grew brighter at once. It became a wave of fire, which then stretched its flaming tongue to all directions outside the barrier with terrifying speed and power. The swarm of corpses were burned down in the blink of an eye, and voiceless agonizing shrieks of death filled the wasteland.