The white robes the four-person party donned had [Wind Protection], while their bodies were supported by the low-level buffs [Agility] and [Free Movement] that churned with light silver halos on their body. That way, they could ignore the ice underneath their feet as they quickly approached their target.
All four of them had returned to school through portals within Winter Fort Academy. They did not rest for a moment even after they had submitted evidence that their mission was complete, and quickly left, teleporting themselves to a dimensional warp point in the Icy Plains.
Their hearts were surging with tremendous passion at that golden chance.
Obviously, as Ivan had mentioned, that armored deer's words might not be real. A daemon lying to keep its life was not unusual, but the question was—what was the harm in taking a look?
Furthermore, they originally were to train in different locales and mold their spellcasting techniques. It did not matter much where they did so, for there was not much difference between the giant boars in the White Sleet Forest, the wolves and specter in the Forest of Icy Mist or the hostile environment in the Icy Plains of the Extreme North.
The other three thought so too. As Nick had put it, their aggregate scores in the academy were at a steady first-place after having slain enough daemons. It was time to explore new things since the most important thing for mages is a heart of curiosity—they should never limit themselves.
And the fact has been proven that simple hostile environments would not pose a threat to adventures who had sufficient preparation. The quartet was not obstructed by the snowy gales at all, and easily arrived near the dragon lair despite being Iron-class mages at best.
The Icy Plains of the Extreme North was not inhabited by any powerful enchanted creatures since it was a white dragon territory once—there would not by any daemons above silver-class within a hundred from the lair of astral dragons. Indeed, the white dragons' lair had been leveled by a certain liege, but the daemons would not boldly approach these lands in one or two years, a place remembered by their ancestors as a forbidden ground.
Despite that, Ivan was being extra cautious as the team leader. He raised a hand and gestured for his companions to stop, before speaking in a hushed voice, "Let's track down any signs of daemons around us."
The four-man party was five kilometers away from lair. That towering peak was almost right before them, the mountain itself still looking majestic even after the dragon lair had crumbled at the summit.
Ivan's words were reasonable. Wiping away the frost on her eyebrows, Karin carefully took out a mechanism that resembled a magnifier. A magical ripple flashed, scanning through several kilometers of land and so thin it was virtually undetectable.
This was an army-issue magical detection item the red-haired girl's father had given her. It uses a similar concept to a radar by releasing weak mana ripples. If the flow was absorbed or cut, it meant that there were creatures nearby that possessed ability above Iron.
Amelia, too, started casting her magic. The platinum-blonde girl with a ponytail waved her right hand once, and crystalline white powder covered all four all of them. The breath concealment magic worked, temporarily hiding their physical scent and mana movements, assimilating them into the external environment.
"Wait! There's actually something!"
Careful actions do not yield results on every occasion, but this time they felt rather uneasy. Looking at the feedback on the lens, Karin frowned towards the lens, and told her companions with a stifled voice, "There's a huge mana reaction nearby… Something above Silver-class has been around here!"
"Whit shoods we dae?" Nick asked with a spill of his native accent, stroking his own head as he clenched the white snow cloak over himself. "Be it man or daemon, Silver-tiers could kill us several times, much less above Silver."
Though the two often argued, the half-dwarf trusted Karin's judgment.
"Let's hide," Ivan said, sweeping a gaze around the vicinity. Everyone then squatted and hid within the snowy winds. Their cloaks that were covered in white snow could never be distinguished in the distance.
Meanwhile, the young hunter thought about their situation calmly, before saying, "The Icy Plains is on the other side of theDark Forest under the Great Ajax Mountains. It's normal for daemons to appear nearby, and especially now that the white dragons were wiped out by the count, it's not impossible for daemons to appear near the dragons' lair."
Silver-tier monsters were not exactly important creatures in the Dark Forest. Compared to Steel-tier cannon fodder and the lower reaches of the food chain, they would at most occasionally be a scrumptious meal for the more powerful cannon fodders and high-level creatures. Nevertheless, the quartet could never hold against any Silver-tier monsters—it would cost them something dear even if they wanted to run.
"Amelia, use your far sight skill to take a look," Ivan ordered decisively.
The four of them had prudently climbed a small hill nearby, and Amelia stood upon the slope, and looked afar towards the mountains in the direction of the dragon lair.
The girl's excellent mana control and affinity allowed her to easily cast most low-level magic; she could utilize intermediate-level magic with the use of some ingredients too. Therefore, an Eagle Eye was quite a simple task for her—but this time she was nervous when she unleashed it.
Still, with the wave of mana moving and stretching her vision to an extraordinary reach, the girl had no time to feel nervous.
Far away, there were more than ten humans clad in black under the mountains where the dragons' lair was. They were busy climbing up and down the mountain, as if busy doing something.
Amelia could only see that much before canceling her spell due to the obstruction of wind and snow. Then, in the very next moment, a somewhat slim figure amongst the black-clad group turned and frowned tightly at the location where all four of them were.
"What is it, Priestess?" Another black-clad figure asked attentively beside the black-clad woman.
After a brief bumble, the woman shook her head. "It's nothing, could be just some daemon taking a peek at dragon blood… This lair is full of it—a powerful attraction for them."
Then, she quickly scolded the attentive person. "You, don't just stand there either. Keep inspecting the cavern."
Without a moment of hesitation, the attentive man ran towards the peak where the dragon lair was.
Meanwhile, although the four had escaped the black-clad figures' attention, they were still in immediate danger.
Because a real daemon had arrived.
A red light flashed over the detection mechanism that was almost a mirror, almost making Karin let out a surprised yelp. Still, she swallowed the inclination when she remembered Nick's embarrassing behavior.
She then hurried her friends along with an urgent and nervous tone, who were still around her, busy debating whether they should maintain their endeavor into the dragon lair.
"Quick, run! There's a Gold-tier daemon nearby!"
The others froze in shock, with Nick carelessly dropping his shield into the snow. Nonetheless, they were outstanding students in the academy, which was how they stave away panic and calmly made the decision—determine the daemon's path, and avoid it.
This was because now absolutely was not the time to complain why a Gold-tier daemon would appear. What they had to do was do what they can to protect themselves.
"The daemon came from behind us!" The red-haired girl explained their current situation even as they quickly moved around the billowing snow. "They should be coming from the eastern side of the Dark Forest underneath the Great Ajax Mountains—the only place where Gold-class daemons appear!"
"Which direction should we be running?!" Ivan asked pressingly, although Karen just needed one-tenth of a second to make her call.
"Towards the dragon lair ruins!" she exclaimed, "Since we can't do a thing, we'll let those people fight the daemon!"
The young woman was undoubtedly a perfect representation of lawful evil; her eyes glinted with the intention to damage others for self-benefit. Of course, the other three were not angels either.
"Let's do that!"
"Lucky we've got them."
Snow splattered at the hill where the four were. The earth trembled in the company of reverberation on the lower levels. Soon, seams spread through the ice layers and frozen dirt and were soon fissured entirely by a tremendous power, followed by a primal roar that rang over ten kilometers.
A colossal daemon that resembled a thirty-meter pangolin, covered in metallic scales, climbed out from the ground beneath and made its presence known to all. It grumpily swept its tail that was seemingly made of steel around, and the mound that was about to collapse collapsed into countless pieces, scattering ice and dust into the air.
The impact that was almost an earthquake and powerful presence affected all four of them who did not manage to get far. Sensing the movement, everyone gulped but did not look back, merely sprinting towards the former dragon lair.
Iron-plated mountain dragon.
It was a horrendous creature that could only be found in vast stone mountains that attain Gold-tier in adulthood. Its lair was three thousand meters below ground near regions filled with magma and rich in metals.
The behemoth, possessing the blood of Primordial Dragons, consumed steel ore, minerals or other high-level daemons. It could move freely around magma and use the scorching heat to incubate its eggs, as well as breathe out air currents as its own form of dragon breath.
This draconic species also seemed to have reached a limit in its resistance against physical and fire-element attacks. Its shell, a special alloy, is a solidification outside its body thanks to the dragon's consumption of all sorts of metals. Also known as dragon steel, it was one of the best alloys for armor crafting.
In short, this daemon was a living war machine. Capable of breaking through city walls whether above or below ground, and subsequently causing huge casualties in the town itself. It was only thanks to their seclusion and disinterest in humans who do not have metallic composition that they did not live within the Dark Forest or join the Dark Tide.
But now, it was lured here due to a certain scent.
After Joshua had cleared out the dragon lair, he did not do anything else before returning to his own domain. His own knights had come by and collected the dragons' remains slightly later, but there were still many white dragon corpses left.
Iron-plated mountain dragons enjoyed the flesh of creatures that were in the same tier as them apart from their preferred rare metals diet. Humans simply were not meaty enough—only daemons would give them their fill, and dragon corpses were undoubtedly a banquet for them.
Following the observation that lasted months and ascertaining that there were no traps or living things around, the prudent steel shell dragon quickly broke out of the soil layer.
At the same time, it noticed the humans around the lair, and that they seemed to be digging it.
The mountain dragon blew out an angry bellow. It cannot allow others to touch its own target, quickly rushing towards the people in black and the dragon lair in the distance, thundering the land in its wake.
On its way, it also found the fleeing quartet. The dragon readied its tail, prepared to sweep the little ones away, but suddenly stopped entirely.
Because it picked up another smell.
A very familiar smell.
The iron dragon could not help but violently shudder; it had seen the owner of the smell from afar a few weeks ago.
During that occasion, it had just crawled out of the ground when it is startlingly sensed an existence that eclipsed it in power battling against something else. The mountain dragon carefully poked its head out and watched the fight, only to see the hegemon of eastern Dark Forest—a Gold-intermediate iron eagle—being slain effortlessly by a human as if it were a chicken.
"Is this really fine as a harvest festival offering?" The man seemed to be mumbling then. "Doesn't look like it had much flesh."
In the next moment, the human turned towards where the iron-plated mountain dragon was hiding, but shook his head in disappointment. "Tsk, even less flesh. A whole body of iron and doesn't even look nice."
With just a glance that seemed to place it in hell, the Gold-tier daemon did not know that it was being spared just because it was ugly and did not have much meat. Still, it did not stop the iron-plated mountain dragon from holding the scent tightly in its mind while keeping a safe distance from it.
Holding back its tail and sparing the four insignificant beings, the Gold-tier daemon slowed down and observed its surroundings warily to pick out the human's breath.
It would have been easy to kill the four feeble beings, but even the daemon was aware that attacking the young of any species would undoubtedly lead to their most vicious strike.
Even if there was just a shred of possibility, it would never touch those weaklings—it had not lived long enough and did not want to find death.
The four-man party was panting right then as they spoke.
"Why is it still chasing us?!"
"Wasn't it almost overtaking just now? Why would it slow down?"
Amelia, on the other hand, frowned in thought.
"It seemed like the beast wanted to attack us," she said softly and melodiously. "Then it suddenly stopped… Perhaps it doesn't want to hurt us."
"Why?" Nick said gruffly. He was confused, but could not care much. "It's fine, we'll keep running towards the dragon lair—it'd definitely go up against the black-clothed people."
Ivan, however, had a hazy guess.
A few days ago, their team had received a citation from the academy's deans Joshua and Nostradamus with top aggregate scores and most missions cleared. The four of them had come in close contact with the two Supreme strongmen while receiving a small model.
No, that's unlikely. The young hunter shook his head vigorously, believing that the thought was too nonsensical. Even if it was the count himself, he would not be able to scare the Gold-tier daemon into staying its hand with just a little breath.
Yeah, it's unlikely.
On the other hand, the people in black were in an uproar after the Gold-tier daemon appeared.
"It's an iron-plated mountain dragon! Gold-tier capability!"
"Survey team, pull back! Do you copy, survey team, pull back!"
Incessant alarms started ringing. The woman in black stared at shock towards the iron-plated mountain dragon that was advancing towards them slowly.
"What the hell," she cursed. "The plan's wreck! This is the Plains of the Extreme North, why would there be an iron-plated mountain dragon here!?"
She would have been able to accept it if it was a frost winged dragon or colossal ice elementals, since they were creatures that should appear here. Nevertheless, they were chased away or eliminated by the white dragons that were protecting their own domain.
That was why most of the enchanted equipment they had prepared were used to counter against ice monsters—they never imagined that they would provoke a war machine such as that iron-plated mountain dragon!
As the Gold-tier behemoth slowly closed in on the vigilantly gathered black-clad team head-on, the quartet used the opening to climb up a flank towards the peak where the dragon lair was.
Their hearts thumped ceaselessly after reaching the half-summit and watching the standoff far below. They were not half-pleased even if they did arrive at their destination.
"What should we do?" Karin complained softly as she watched the scene below in melancholy—it could explode into a battle in any moment. "What on earth, the plan's changed too quickly."
The other three nodded in agreement. They could not keep up with the continuous shift in their original plan—who would know before they came that there was a mysterious bunch who would make a move first and arrived at the lair? Not to mention that Gold-tier daemon who had been watching this place stealthily, although they incidentally did make it.
In truth, the four who were on the mountain right now were out of ideas.
As the black-clothed people and the dragon prepared to battle at the foot of the mountain, Joshua and the human-form Black seemed to be hesitating.
They were standing over a cluster of crystalline flowers near the edge of the Icy Plains of the Extreme North.
"Frost Diamond Thornblooms," the warrior said softly as he gazed at the small flower that was silvery and translucent. "Hmm… To think that there are flowers in such a place."
Like snowflakes, the beautiful flower that gleamed with a chilling light swayed slightly with the wind, effusing clear ripples of mana. Frosty air that was a hundred and twenty degrees below zero spread as its petals moved, making an icy hell out of the area ten or more meters around it.
Apart from the aesthetic value of Frost Diamond Thornblooms, this mystical plant could be used as a base material for ice-element equipment or magic scrolls. It is rare and only grows under very specific conditions—there would not be more than ten clusters even in the entire Northern Realm.
"So pretty," Black said without being aware of the flower's value; she appeared to be simply expressing her delight.
"Ying would like this, right?" The black dragon girl slowly approached, wanting to touch it. "It would fit her hair."
"Don't touch, your magic is clashing with its own."
Joshua thought about it seriously after he stopped the seaborn fire dragon from touching the ice-type mystical plant. "But really, it does resemble Ying's hair."
The warrior recalled how the female divine armament had always been accompanying himself for so long, fearless even in the face of Legendary individuals and Evil Gods. Unable to stop himself, he smiled slightly.
"She would be happy if we give her one flower, right?"
Still, Joshua did not quickly pluck it. Instead, he placed his aura and scent in the surroundings, sending the daemons that could be around or any other dangerous factors away.
Patting Black's head, Joshua said, "Alright, let's go take a walk. We'll pluck it when we're returning so that we won't shatter it carelessly."
"Alright." The black dragon girl appeared to be more obedient to her master's words. She left the flower and changed back into her dragon form, while Joshua returned to her head too.
"A stroll, mapping the daemons, coming back to pluck a flower," Joshua said, nodding in satisfaction. "Really, a flawless plan."
Like blades, the November snow and the chilling air current cut into the marrow. The diamond-shaped crystals that stood erect upon the Icy Plains of the Extreme North moved slightly under the wind, emitting sharp trembling sounds.