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-The Path-

In a world beyond worlds, far removed from the concepts of time and space, there exists a mysterious tree. Seven friends encounter this tree after a series of unfortunate events, resulting in their deaths. Now, they are fated to be reborn over and over again, bound by a System they know little about. This is their story, a tale of tragedy, overcoming impossible odds, and surmounting mortality...

Einlion · Fantasy
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83 Chs

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After a break lasting a little over an hour, Will and the members of Silver Cat pressed forward with the intent of reaching the Dungeon's final floor. Will was given the singular responsibility of dealing with the Saighba'an's sneak attacks, but while he noticed the subtle differences in its form each time it materialized, he wasn't sure if there was more than one or if it was a peculiarity of the curse itself.

"Well, this is new..." remarked Angil, raising his right hand in the form of a fist, signaling the party to stop. The reason was that a particularly tall Saighba'an appeared directly in their path rather than emerging from the shadows to perform a sneak attack. Even stranger was that it showed no overt signs of hostility.

"The one in front is a diversion..." said Will, raising his voice to ensure he was heard. None of the others noticed it, but he was keenly aware that a second, smaller Saighba'an had appeared around a bend in the Dungeon, ostensibly planning to take advantage of their confusion to strike them at their most vulnerable.

"Then...there's more than one of them...?" asked Allyson, the fear she had been keeping at bay resurfacing on her face, causing some of the color to drain from her face.

'So it would appear...' thought Will, choosing to remain silent as most of his focus was on the subtle differences between the two Saighba'an. It was difficult to discern when there was only one, but now that he had a chance to compare two against one another, he noticed it wasn't just their appearances that were different. There was a disparity in their focus and the potency of their intents, and the one blocking their path was stronger than the one preparing to attack them from behind.

Demonstrating it wasn't there simply to observe, the taller Saighba'an held its right hand out to the side, materializing a predominately black, triple-bladed spear with accents of icy blue and a vibrant, bluish-white pattern coiling around its shaft.

"That can't be good..." remarked Angil, starting to regret his decision to press forward with their investigation.

"I'll go..." said Kris, stepping forward without a hint of fear as he rolled his right arm and shoulder, channeling Aura throughout his body but focusing primarily on strengthening his arms, back, and shoulders.

Before Kris could engage the spear-wielding Saighba'an, shadowy tendrils suddenly erupted from the floor beneath its cloven feet. It bounded to the side almost instantaneously, but the tendrils were faster, wrapping around the Saighba'an's torso, legs, and left arm before contracting tightly.

For a brief moment, Ohta's surprise attack appeared like it might succeed in restraining the Saighba'an. Unfortunately, while it was initially stopped mid-leap, the Saighba'an's body promptly became immaterial, allowing it to phase through the shadowy tendrils and escape through a nearby wall.

Ostensibly attempting to take advantage of the distraction caused by its kin, the second Saighba'an emerged from around the corner it was hiding, leaping through the air and twisting its body to unleash a charged bolt of condensed, ice-elemental Mana.

'Shatter...!' Will shouted internally, simultaneously extending his left hand and releasing a pulse of Aura that smashed the icy projectile to pieces. In the same blindingly fast sequence, he retracted his left hand and stepped forward with his right foot, drawing a six-shot Runescaster and accurately firing three shots in such quick succession the sounds of their discharges overlapped seamlessly.

Though all three of Will's bullets pierced the Saighba'an center mass, they didn't so much as harm a single hair on its lithe yet shapely body. Instead, they passed through it, creating tiny, swirling channels of mist that closed in on themselves soon after.

Looking down at where Will's bullets had pierced it, the Saighba'an raised its right hand and tentatively touched its chest, diaphragm, and abdomen. It seemed curious about the condition of its body but didn't dwell on it for too long before raising its gaze to meet Will's. 

"Isn't this where you usually turn tail and run...?" asked Will, raising his right brow as he casually loaded three replacement cartridges into his Runecaster.

Leaving Will speechless, the Saighba'an responded to his provocation by retracting the Mana forming its bow into its body. Then, stepping forward with its right foot, it spread its hands adjacent to its hips and materialized a pair of black and icy blue, long-barreled, bladed Runescasters...

"I believe she may have taken exception to your words..." muttered Aelius, his usually calm, friendly, and confident smile cramping.

"Interesting..." was Will's only verbal response. His physical one was to holster his Runescaster and begin walking toward the Saighba'an, a faint crimson hue emitting from the depths of his eyes as he spread his hands as if to say, 'Well, what are you waiting for?'

Tilting its head to the left, the Saighba'an looked as if it was considering its response before abruptly turning its body to the side and raising the Runescaster in its left hand, firing several swift-moving bolts of icy blue energy. After six shots, it twisted its body around, spinning on the toe of its cloven foot before taking a wider stance and firing six more shots with the Runecaster in its right.

Since the members of Silver Cat were standing behind him, Will did not attempt to dodge the Saighba'an's projectiles. Instead, he chantlessly activated the Second Circle Wind Magic, Wind Wall, forming a protective curtain of wind in front of him. The powerful current of air redirected the icy Mana toward the Dungeon's ceiling rather than dispersing it, but that wasn't a concern for Will, who, following the Wind Wall's natural collapse, charged forward with the destructive momentum of a cannonball.

Though it could have turned its body intangible, the Saighba'an reacted to Will's charge by springing back nearly as quickly. At the same time, it fired several additional shots to deter his pursuit, but the icy projectiles curved away from him, arcing into the walls, floor, and ceiling.

"That won't work...!" shouted Will, a vicious smile adorning his face as he extended his right hand to try and grasp the Saighba'an's neck, covered in a thick layer of bristly, bluish-white fur. Unfortunately, while he possessed greater speed, the Saighba'an's unguligrade leg structure, smaller stature, and cloven hooves allowed it to change direction nigh-instantaneously. As a result, his fingers closed around empty air as the Saighba'an altered its trajectory nearly ninety degrees and bolted down the corridor it had been hiding previously, its body angled forward and hands trailing behind it as it darted away much faster than it could leap backward.

Adopting a toothy grin, Will attempted to give chase, but his right foot got caught on something. More accurately, Ohta emerged from his shadow, grasping his left ankle and nearly causing Will to faceplant into the hard stone floor as he shouted, "If you can't tell it's trying to separate you from the rest of the group, you really are an idiot...!"

All but confirming Ohta's words, the Saighba'an stopped nearly as soon as it realized Will wasn't giving chase, staring back at him with its head tilted to the side as if to ask, 'Are we finished playing...?'

"Besides..." added Ohta, releasing his vice-like grip on Will's now bruised ankle. "Even if you catch it, it becomes intangible and slips away. Unless you have a plan, it's best to conserve energy and let it run-"

Interrupting Ohta's lecture, the Saighba'an raised the Runecaster in its right left and fired a single, far more powerful shot at the former's head. Ohta was still half-submerged in Will's shadow, so his movement options were limited but not zero. The moment the Saighba'an pulled the trigger of its Runescaster, Ohta immediately ducked into his shadow dimension. Less than a tenth of a second later, he popped out of the ground behind the Saighba'an, a tiny, conical horn protruding from above his right temple as he shouted, "Go get fucked by a goat, you pale, furry bitch...!"

Punctuating his exclamation, Ohta clapped his hands together with the Saighba'an's head at their center, visibly squishing it before it burst into a cloud of frigid, bluish-white mist. The resulting shockwave forced what remained of the Saighba'an into the Dungeon's floor, its figure deforming and flattening as if it was made from clay before scattering into a dense mist that left a thick layer of blackened, blue-tinted ice in its wake.

"You good...?" asked Will, pushing himself up and into a sitting position while staring at Ohta with raised brows. The members of Silver Cat also came over to take a look, their eyes widening when they saw Ohta at the epicenter of what looked like the aftermath of an icy explosion.

"I'm fine..." responded Ohta, his expression an ill-tempered deadpan as he covered his horn and willed it to recede. He wasn't embarrassed by it, but as it made him feel like all the blood was rushing to his head, making it difficult to think rationally, Ohta preferred to keep it suppressed.

"What happened to the Saighba'an...?" asked Angil, his gaze focused on the peculiar black and blue ice coating the walls, floor, and ceiling around Ohta. It had the same appearance as the Saighba'an's weapons, so while conventional wisdom told him it was impossible, he didn't outright dismiss the possibility that Ohta had killed the purportedly immortal creature.

"Beats me," responded Ohta, shrugging as he kicked and fragmented a section of the blackened ice. As far as he could discern, there was little difference between the Mana signature of the ice on the ground and the one produced by the Saighba'an while it was alive. Its form had certainly changed, but he felt it would reconstitute itself if given time.

"Regardless, this is where our investigation concludes," said Aelius, his expression and tone serious as he argued, "There is clearly something abnormal going on here, and I'm not willing to risk our lives trying to get to the bottom of things..."

With Aelius looking at him near the end of his statement, Kris exhaled a faint sigh and closed his eyes. He wasn't comfortable with the thought of abandoning those potentially trapped in the Dungeon to their fate, but as he had never heard of a Saighba'an forsaking its bow for a spear or a pair of Runescasters, he knew they would be playing with more than just fire if they continued their investigation. If his insistence-

rumble rumble rumble

Interrupting Kris's reflection, the Dungeon began to vibrate, weakly at first but quickly building in strength. Will and Ohta weren't familiar with this phenomenon, but Aelius, Allyson, Kris, and Angil immediately knew what it signified, the former's eyes widening as he exclaimed, "We need to get off this floor! It's a stampede...!" before taking off in the direction they had come.

Coinciding with Aelius's words, inky black sacs began sloping down from the ceiling, emerging from the walls, and rising from the floor throughout the corridor. There were easily dozens of them, and hundreds more would emerge until they either vacated the floor or succumbed to the seemingly endless tide of monsters. In reality, a ten-floor Dungeon like The Tomb of the Jackal Lord could only spawn a few thousand monsters before it was exhausted of Mana, but that was more than enough to deal with the vast majority of Adventurers, regardless of Rank.

With Kris leading the way, bulldozing through the horde of monsters like a train meeting a car parked on its rails, Will and the remaining members of Silver Cat only had to worry about monsters dropping down on them from above. Fortunately, when monsters spawned by the Dungeon were killed, they immediately dispersed into an inky black substance, an inert form of Mana that was eventually reabsorbed.

Taking advantage of this, Will used his Runecaster to pick off dozens of monsters before their placenta-like sacs could fully emerge and plop from the ceiling. Ordinarily, this would have resulted in a considerable amount of inky black liquid raining down on them, but since he could handle most of the spawns on his own, Allyson shifted her focus to maintaining a one-way barrier, shielding them like an umbrella...

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