Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
“So, Lisa got ahead of us again.”
Starfall Year 837, an underground tunnel yet to be named, Moldavia.
In the gloom of deep subterranean reaches, the bright illumination of pyroxene swayed amidst the passageways. With the sound of shuffling footsteps, the light reflected five shadows on the stone walls that were strolling over the path.
They were in an unnamed tunnel near ten thousand-feet beneath the surface of Moldavia. To prevent exhausting oxygen and avoiding any flammable gases that might appear, the party who was wearing mage robes used pyroxene lights that did not consume oxygen to illuminate the way, carefully using magical detection to determine the conditions of the path ahead every few distance so as to fall into any accidents such as getting caved in or falling through crumbling paths. While cave-ins would not be serious enough to claim the lives of those Silver-advanced mages, they still lacked the ability to return to the surface from hundreds of meters below—if that happens, they could only wait for rescue from their instructors.
And that was undoubtedly an outcome the entire party did not want.
“Ah. There’s no helping it since Zero-One is with her.”
A rather bold voice suddenly complained in the passageway. “It’s fortunate for her, really, to actually find an entrance to the first subterranean realm within the borders of the Empire.”
It was a dwarf’s voice, who was chattering away while carrying a pyroxene light in his hand. “The points award to the first discoverer is three times for all others. Along with the rewards for finding the Jillian Sea Lavenders and the Moonlight Crystals, it’s going to be difficult for us to get first place this semester.”
“Nick, stop lashing at your own team’s confidence!” A disgruntled girl’s voice scolded him. “Even if Lisa secured an early advantage, she did not actually map the subterranean ecosystem or the passageways before simply coming back… We could turn the tables on her!”
“Drop it, Karin. That’s a five-thousand academy points gap—how long are we going to labor to close it?”
Possibly bored after a long period of exploring the underground reaches and bickering when the opportunity arose, both Nick and Karin hence retorted and doubted even as they carefully inspected the path ahead. Behind them, a young boy and a young girl whose facial resemblance made it evident that they were siblings were talking quietly as well.
“Brother, our dragon’s appetite is growing larger and larger… Half of the reward from our last mission had already entered its belly.”
Amelia’s tone appeared helpless—the platinum blonde was carrying an unusual plant that resembled a trumpet. It was a magical herb often used in expeditions beneath the ground, being able to rapidly convert oxygen through mana stimulus and prevent the party from being unable to journey ahead due to lack of oxygen. “If this continues,” she told her brother rather worriedly, “we might be impoverished by its diet.”
“Dear sister. Not ‘might’, we are already poor—I would have switched for a new scepter last time otherwise.”
The person the girl was complaining to—a youth who was platinum blonde as well, clenched on his rather dilapidated scepter. Standing behind the entire party, he held an enchanted sketch on his left hand that automatically records the conditions of the path they had covered. Then, Ivan made an expression that was as helpless as his own sister’s. “The liege has said that our dragon’s talent far surpassed its contemporaries, which is well it eats three times more than normal white dragons… In two days, it consumed hundred and fifty points worth of mana crystals, and another two hundred pounds of magical beast flesh. We won’t complete missions as quickly as it eats!”
Standing beside them, Arlwa did not join in their conversation. He was holding an instrument that resembled a geomantic compass and frowning, while his mouth appeared to be muttering something.
“This is weird. We are eighteen hundred meters below the surface, but not only did the mana concentration not fall, but it also leaped fourfold… Where had Zero-One been digging toward? A huge deposit of mana crystals?”
It was clear that the Seventh Prince did not understand the data displayed in the apparatus in his hand, but having picked up no sign of danger, he simply kept exploring with his companions.
The quintet that treaded beneath ground was the First Party of Winter Fort Academy, and Joshua’s own apprentices.
More than fifty parties from the Academy had now joined the ranks of the underground expedition. Parties of spellcasters, having made sufficient preparations and sortied appropriately led their familiars, puppets or even contracted elementals down into the mysterious and unfathomable underground passageway in search of the other end. And there was no doubt that, apart from Zero-One who had tunneled beneath the ground itself, the First Party was the team that had ventured the furthest.
The five-person group that was the First Party often ranked first in ability within the Academy. Save for the recently enrolled Prince Arlwa, the others who had spent five years in the Academy and was instructed by many elite instructors had risen, from Mortals to Silver-Advanced spellcasters. Just a little further, and perhaps with opportunity, they would smoothly reach the barrier to Gold.
A batch of students, not yet twenty but having a great chance of ascending as Gold—while the Great Mana Tide had made their disbelieving growth rate convenient, the role of Winter Fort Academy’s excellent education policy must be mentioned as well. Furthermore, it was not without reason that the Empire and the Moldavian territories would increase their funding by the year, because no matter how mundane an individual’s ability or how a learner could not rise as Gold, with sufficient knowledge they could become specialists on enchanted creatures or researchers on magical skills: all of them would display a particular proficieny.
In fact, if not for the students, the Moldavian territories would not establish so many magical factories.
“The mana concentration is no issue, and we would be profiting if we find mineral deposits.”
Having heard Arlwa’s quiet murmur, Ivan led the others forward past a small pile of collapsed dirt while shrugging. “Didn’t Lisa discover the Moonlight Crystals due to the extraordinary mana signatures? The reward of twenty-five thousand academy points is enough to redeem a new generation of magical armor—how envying.”
Underground exploration was really too uninteresting. It was all dark paths, soil and stone of brown and gray hues, therefore making it a great test for the psychological composure of the expedition. Therefore, to avoid problems arising from extended periods of monotonous journey, the First Party would hold discussions from time to time, preventing distraction.
Even as they chattered like that, they covered another distance down the underground path, arriving almost two thousand meters below the surface.
“Wait, that’s not right—it’s actually been weird from the start!” The dwarf Nick who was walking up front muttered discreetly. His expression was solemn, before instantly turning uneasy. “This is bad. This spot isn’t where Zero-One dug…”
Before he could finish, the path beneath their feet shattered like a crumbling layer of ice. Fragile soil and scattered stone collapsed below, but the instant that unexpected moment struck, the First Part promptly showed their supreme composure.
Not one second after falling, the quintet hung mid-air with the Levitation spell, while a layer of pale-blue atmospheric barrier appeared around them, forming an invincible wall to hold against all attacks. As for Amelia, her eyes were flickering with red radiance as she frowned. “Massive life signatures!” She quickly told her companions. “We must have reached the subterranean realm Lisa discovered!”
“That passageway we passed through was much smaller than the ones before. That must not be Zero-One’s work, but made by indigenous creatures!”
Nick hurried to finish what he could not tell the others before, as he drew out a war-axe shaped scepter that had a clear trigger on its hilt. The dwarf proficiently drew out several large alchemy bullets inscribe with runes denoting ‘burning’, ‘freezing’, and ‘explosion’, and shoved it down his personal magical tool that could either be axe, scepter, or firearm, readying himself perfectly for battle.
“But who cares what creatures they could be? Be prepared to eat my elemental bullets!”
Various luster of augmented magic began to appear faintly around the dwarf, while others prepared themselves before.
Unlike before, the seasoned First Party were ready for unexpected battles. Additionally, it was a mere ground collapse: the party had already planned ahead even before they began their expedition. With the measures they had set up, their confidence to escape alive even when encountering a secluded Dracolich.
Nonetheless, it was clear that they did not have to face off against a Dracolich which wielded abilities ranging from Gold-pinnacle to lower-Supreme. The party, hovering in the air as the soil and stone beneath them collapsed entirely, clearly saw the immeasurably vast subterranean reaches illuminated by pyroxene stone.
There were fungi that were flickering in a weak light, and swarms of bat that panicked when they heard the resounding noise. Then, as they sensed the unusually concentrated mana ripples, peculiar yet extremely orderly crashing sounds could be heard.
“So, are we going down?”
“Of course. Aren’t we here to explore to the subterranean realm!?”
Coming across something unexpected and yet coming out of it unscathed, as well as directly finding the destination of their journey, the quintet was immeasurably excited. However, they suppressed the twofold delight, and as Karin chanted softly, the Levitation spell cast on them slowly diminished and they approached slowly landed on the pile of collapsed dirt.
“So, this is the subterranean realm? Feels a little wide.”
Arlwa looked out around, expressing wonder.
“And I’d thought there’d be just mushroom forests or insect hives… Never thought that it’d be so plain.”
He had planned to strode forward as he spoke to investigate things carefully, only for Ivan to reach out and hold him back. Arlwa turned, puzzled, but found Ivan’s solemn expression.
“I sense hostility.”
Arlwa’s pupils contracted slightly the moment he heard those words. He had also suddenly sensed that faint but extremely distinct hostility—or perhaps killing intent that was quickly encircling his party.
Grunting, Nick threw the pyroxene stone in his hand toward the direction where the hostility emanated. The light from the stone at once illuminated fleeing black and brown insects amidst the fungi clusters, but soon, at a spot where the pyroxene light did not touch but was brightened by the faint light of fungi, two golden dots appeared.
The two dots then quickly increased, becoming four, eight, and then a dozen… Seconds later, more than thirty of those golden dots approached the party silently, entire the zone brightened by pyroxene.
Snakes… or more correctly, ‘python’, given their size.
A dozen black twenty-meter long pythons slowly slithered out from the darkness. Their entire bodies were releasing odd mana signatures, as if they are able to absorb all light around them. Then, amidst the sounds as their bodies scraped against the ground, the pythons stared coldly at the five of them, the unusual subterranean creatures opening their mouths, revealing their gaping maws that were filled with serrated teeth as they hissed mutely.
At once, dark brown mana surged as the earth around the First Party rapidly transformed, turning into sharp edges that stabbed toward them!
“Let’s do this!”
Without any hint of nervousness, the battle-hardened First Party who almost wiped out all shark-lizard swarms by the coasts of the Icy Plains of the Extreme North had long gotten used to ambushing and being ambushed. The sudden battle in the subterranean realm was all within their expectations.
One might also put it that it was precisely the reason those apprentices of a certain person was so expectant of that dangerous expedition.
“Karin, more fire.”
Deep underground, at the center of a messy battlefield, the fatigued First Party lit up a bonfire.
Having set up a wire netting grill and painted it with a layer of olive oil, the dwarf Nick appeared to be moving something around. Then, when he returned to the simple kitchen, the red-haired girl had lit a raging flame beneath a steel frying pan
Sizzle. The familiar scent of fragrant oil wafted within the subterranean realm, but before it spread, it was restrained magically to a certain boundary.
On another end, Ivan and Amelia were also coming from the distance, carrying handfuls of luminous fungi and various unique medicinal herbs with them.
“How fortunate that Kaman Cinquefoils grow here,” the youth said in wonder. “It’s actually the chief ingredient of stamina potion.”
His sister, however, shook her head. “It’s not really valuable compared to the Jillian Sea Lavender Lisa and the others found, though.”
Meanwhile, Prince Arlwa was handily using his pocket dagger to swiftly slit the python corpses Nick was carrying to him.
There was not much difference with the skill he attained from dissecting countless shark-lizards when applying it on the pythons. The former prince and current adventurer were displaying his proficient skills with the knife that he inherited from the Imperial Family, and in a brief few seconds, the python skin that was harder than steel and muscles as firm as tree roots were easily diced into layers of smooth fillets.
“Is the soy sauce ready?”
“Ready. The seasoning as well.”
“The meat’s been filleted.”
“Alright, leave the rest to me!”
With everything prepared, the eyes of the dwarf glinted as he used magic to pull the snake meat diced by Arlwa to him across thin air. Then, drawing iron skewers from his hip pocket and poking each fillet finely, he placed them on the heated grill rack.
[Underground Python Kabayaki]
[Ingredients: One Unnamed Underground Python]
[200 grams of grain sugar]
[150 grams of pepper and salt]
[50 grams of Holy Water]
[Poison Dispel Magic (twice)]
[50 grams of Kaman Cinquefoils Powder]
[100 grams of luminous fungi essence]
“The luminous fungus is edible as well?!”
At a side, Arlwa watched calmly despite the bizarreness as the dwarf skillfully season the serpent flesh with soy sauce, the alluring fragrance for food causing him to swallow unwittingly. Still, to ensure the safety of his digestive system, he raised a suggestion carefully, “Doesn’t that thing… stink a little?”
“The stink is from the rot of dead fungi. You could actually pick up a resin-like scent if you cleaned ordinary luminous fungi.”
Nick shook his head, having often lived beneath ground enough to correct the prince’s misunderstanding about the growth. Holding aloft a spherical fungus that had been washed well, he said: “The reason this thing could emit light is that of the colloid in its center that is rich with mana… let me put it this way. Its colloidal core is almost the same as Slimes, and being pure mana, of course it can be eaten.”
As he spoke, Nick took up a brush and spread a layer of fluorescence mana colloid on the snake fillet, and the fragrance promptly thickened.
“The fungus is actually fine… But is that animal actually edible?” Arlwa asked worriedly beside him. “That python could use magic to control earth, stone and water flow, and appear to be intelligent… is there really no problem, eating it?”
“There are some magical beasts that speak as well,” Ivan retorted nonchalantly. “The most important thing is that it tastes good. Look at dragons and civilization—whenever hostile dragons were killed, there wouldn’t be just a few people who eat their flesh.”
“I’ve also already checked—the python itself is non-venomous and rich with nutrients. What’s more, we’ve added fifty grams of holy water, it would be fine even if we lick a blade laced entirely with poison when we have that… We should be taking some protein too, after exploring these subterranean reaches for so long.”
“That’s right.” Karin nodded in agreement. “Look at Lisa—she’s now malnourished after weeks of eating only rations. We are professional explorers unlike her, and must learn to replenish our body’s nutrients from our very own environment.
The meat cooked quickly, and the party soon had their first meal since venturing into the subterranean realm.
“Feed me, brother!”
“Really? If this goes on, be wary that you’re never getting married.” Helpless against Amelia who was reluctant to touch the snake meat, Ivan could only play along with her whims.
“Open up,” he said softly.
Through it all, Nick listened as the exclamations of ‘Mmmm!’, ‘Such fragrance!’ and ‘That’s very good!’ wafted into his ears. He chewed on his own share of snake meat as well, relishing the results of his culinary arts.
“Having considerable stamina recovery effect, it should be thanks to the Kaman Cinquefoil and the fungal essence that stirring Slime goo together Kaman Cinquefoil powder would form a simple stamina potion.”
As he chewed on his meat, the dwarf thoughtfully drew out pen and paper, writing down the effects of Python Kabyaki. “Greatly restores mana of earth and water attributes, strengthening night vision to some extent… Note, the snake flesh has amazing texture.”
Having written down the culinary procedure and gaining effects from the ingredients, Nick pocketed the simple recipe with satisfaction. In fact, the notebook was visibly scrawled with densely packed recipes on its other pages, and the entire book was about to be used up.
Joshua had rushed at once to the underground lab of Winter Fort Academy, having heard the news on his return to his own domain.
There, he encountered the solemn-faced Nostradamus.
“What is it?”
The warriors’ brow arched, puzzled. “What’s so urgent? A problem with the server? Or does the warship production line need my help in repairs?”
“None of those mentioned. You’re really underestimating the Empire’s magical technology there…” Shaking his head, the old mage smiled faintly for a moment before turning serious again.
He was standing outside the tempered glass platform outside the laboratory, and gestured to Joshua with a tilt of his head. “As to why you’re recalled… Take a look at that.”
Shrugging, Joshua turned, his eyes directly piercing the walls instead of walking to the windows, looking toward where Nostradamus gestured.
It was a black python on its last breath, kept alive by liquid nutrients. Its golden serpentine gaze was now unresponsive, no longer showing the vigor it once had.
Unable to see anything at first, Joshua’s eyes soon widened and his brow tightened to a frown. “Divine Power?!”
“Divine Earth Power?!”