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Chapter 129: Receding Shadows

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Author: TypeAxiom Original Source: Scribble Hub

Where there was undead, there was trouble, or so the saying goes. Undead excluding Kagriss and herself, of course. While undead outbreaks weren’t uncommon—after all, what is the Church for?—Camilla was on edge regarding anything to do with unknown undead.

Why were there undead here? What are they doing? What is their goal?

Despite there easily being answers completely unrelated to the Orlog-type monsters and the traitors at the Church, Camilla couldn’t shake her paranoia. Even now, she tried to piece together different clues in her mind while factoring in their current location and seeing if there were any traces that linked them together.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, she couldn’t find anything. She didn’t know enough information. All Camilla knew was that these undead are south of Moltrost with Amaranthine Point in the northeast. Could that be a clue?

“Elyss, any more information?” she asked, sprinting alongside the lion with a ton of excess mana leaking from her feet to keep up.

Kagriss and Lucienne rode on top of Elyss since they were slower.

Their surroundings became a blur as they dodged around trees and brush, changing directions constantly to weave through the forest. A normal human would’ve long been tossed off of Elyss by now. Luckily, neither Lucienne nor Kagriss were exactly normal.

The lion growled, shaking her head in a barely visible movement compared to her whole body. “It’s still a bit far away. Not to mention they’re not very strong so they’re all mixing together. There are a lot of them though.”

Camilla nodded and she continued to sprint, trying hard to match Elyss’s movement. As expected of a mana beast. Elyss wasn’t even going her fastest either, since she had yet to channel too much of her mana into her feet as she did when they fought.

After a moment, Elyss spoke up again. “I sense something new! I was too focused on the undead before.”

“What did you find?”

“There’s two users of holy mana up ahead near the undead. They seem to be fighting against them…” Elyss growled, sounding a bit confused, as if she couldn’t figure something out. “They’re outnumbered but they’re not retreating.”

Camilla took the new information in and just nodded, keeping her thoughts to herself. They were almost there anyway. She could gather all the information she wanted on site. Still, she couldn’t help but be curious about what those holy mages were doing out there in the middle of nowhere.

On second thought, was their destination actually in the middle of nowhere?

Although Camilla wasn’t going to say anything, Lucienne piped up, unable to hold in her curiosity. “What do you think they’re doing?” Lucienne asked. “If they’re outnumbered but not retreating, maybe they’re strong?”

Her suggestion had merit but Elyss shot it down immediately with a low growl. “Impossible. My senses tell me that the two mages are much weaker than your magic—grrAH!”

Elyss couldn’t finish her words. Abruptly cut off, she looked back with Camilla following her gaze. Although Elyss couldn’t turn back far enough, Camilla could clearly see what caused Elyss to stop. On Elyss’s back, sitting in front of Kagriss, was a certain ex-templar. That templar had a fistful of Elyss’s mane in her hands and was glaring at the back of the lion’s head.

Even if she couldn’t see it, Elyss could clearly feel the resulting pain. She shook her head. “It’s true! Your magic isn’t that good… your sword skills are okay though…”

That seemed to placate Lucienne’s indignation. With one last little tug, Lucienne loosened her grip on Elyss’s mane, going back to holding on just enough to not be swung off.

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Camilla looked on speechlessly. When did Lucienne and Elyss get to be so close? Elyss would never have tolerated something like this before without complaint, not even from Camilla who she considered her superior.

Strange…but now wasn’t the time to be worrying about something like this.

“…maybe they’re defending something?” Kagriss suggested in her calm, quiet voice. Despite Elyss’s running bouncing Lucienne all over the place, even almost shaking her off at times, Kagriss was much more composed in comparison.

“Defending, huh?” Camilla considered the idea. She couldn’t refute it. No evidence existed against it, only supported it. Why else would a pair of mages stand their ground against a horde of undead if they’re not defending something?

At least, Camilla couldn’t think of another reason. Kagriss’s suggestion also reminded her of something that she had overlooked and left forgotten in the back of her mind.

Despite how desolate this forest seemed, there were actually small villages littered all over the place. They’ve been to several.

Camilla couldn’t rule out the possibility of there being one such village up ahead, despite it not being on the map she bought. No such thing as a completely accurate map, after all. If the pair of mages were defending a village, then everything becomes clear. They also had to hurry.

With her signal, Elyss picked up speed, a mere golden blur through the forest. Camilla had already climbed on, not bothering to try and keep up when it would just be a waste of energy.

As she steadied herself on Elyss’s back, a bit amazed at how Kagriss managed to look so unperturbed, Camilla spread out her own senses. Her life sense was out of question considering the distance, but while weaker than Elyss’s, her sense for mana worked just fine.

Only, it was still a bit too far from her.

Just how wide was Elyss’s detection range? But despite how much as she admired Elyss’s assets, she still shook her head when she remembered how Elyss didn’t manage to uncover the ambush—what if there was something waiting for them at the mages’ location?

Even if there was no chance of that…she was overthinking again.

“Update?”

At this rapid pace, even Elyss had gotten a little out of breath. Her exhaustion leaked into the voice she used in her mind, becoming slightly choppy. “There’s no change. I believe that Kagriss is right. There is a small barrier that the undead are gathering up against.”

“What about the number of undead? Any more information or abnormalities?” she asked again.

Again, Elyss shook her head and answered in the negative. She didn’t get impatient either, despite Camilla’s repetitive questions. Through those questions, Camilla gained access to the intel she needed much quicker than she would’ve been able to before and constructed a model in her mind about the events.

Even before the village that was supposed to be up ahead entered Camilla’s detection range, she was already giving out tentative instructions on what to do. When the signs of undead finally reached her, she just updated her models and instructions.

According to Elyss, and now verified by herself, there were no jack-class undead mixed into the horde up ahead.

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With the absence of the powerful class of undead, the horde itself didn’t possess the capabilities of threatening Camilla’s group and Camilla allowed herself an early sigh of relief. For better or worse though, the absence of jack-class undead mixed into the horde lowered the chances that the horde had ties with the mysterious undead faction that was plotting something nefarious in the background…

As Camilla’s group got closer and closer to the fighting, Camilla didn’t bother having Elyss slow down. Caution could be thrown to the wind when facing ordinary undead. It would take countless undead bodies to stop them.

The gulf in strength was just that big.

“We’re almost here!”

“Got it!” Lucienne shouted back. From her straddling position on top Elyss’s back, she rose slightly, ready to fly into action.

The undead aura coming from ahead of them became so strong and overpowering that even normal people could sense it in the form of chills deep in their bones. They were really close and their destination was just ahead.

Although Kagriss just nodded, a minor indication compared to Lucienne, Camilla noticed how her shoulders tensed.

Camilla patted her but said nothing, just as the scenery changed in an instant.

Fractions of a second after the rough wooden walls of sharpened tree trunks—the palisades of the forest village—became visible through the trees, Elyss rushed out of the forest and crashed into the undead, scattering the crowd every which way.

As they had planned, Camilla, Kagriss and Lucienne all jumped off at the same time as Elyss smashed the primitive ranks of the undead, making room. In midair, Camilla summoned her new armor and sword.

Valorum, strong yet light, alloyed with the enchanted metals of harval that allowed mana to flow freely through the whole set of armor. Cystine, the mana absorbing metal and took in nearby mana and slowly adapted itself to take on the properties of the metal.

The armor that was once pure gold in color when Camilla first picked it up from the armorer had taken on a reddish tinge that would only deepen over time the longer it spent in Camilla’s blood.

As she landed, she swung her sword, instantly cutting through two zombies in front of her. The chaos mana in her blade dampened the undead regeneration that the zombies possessed and the four halves fell to the ground, with no signs of getting up.

Like her, Lucienne had also equipped her armor, taking down her own zombie and was starting on another. While not as flashy, Kagriss’s entrance was just as grand, her arrows of darkness piercing through the heads of several undead. Through those arrows, Kagriss’s mana ran wild with the bodies of the zombies, disrupting and erasing their existence entirely as they could do nothing to exist.

But of the four, Elyss had the easiest time, smashed apart whole groups of zombies with each swipe of her paws. Her massive size naturally made her a great bully for these weaker, smaller creatures.

A storm of armor, blade, magic, and claws suddenly appeared within undead ranks. Two ex-templars, a lich, and a lion laid the zombies back to rest wherever they went with nothing stronger to stop them.

Compared to their progress, the little streams of light that came every now and then from the rooftops within the village palisades seemed too pathetic. It couldn’t be helped; the sources of those lights could barely stand as their legs shook uncontrollably, let alone cast magic.

Dressed in mere rags, they were the only two people in the village still outside. Everyone else, man, woman, and child, have all locked themselves inside. Even the dogs and cats that wandered the walled village streets were nowhere to be seen, having sensed the approach of the undead horde long before any human realized, and now those undead were knocking on the village gates.

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They scraped at the gates, having long torn the bark apart.

If Sariel hadn’t come up with the ideal of sniping and burning through the heads of the zombies from the rooftops and slowing their progress, perhaps the gate would have already fallen.

As it was, they were lucky that the villagers didn’t shut them outside for the undead to hunt down…

But try as they might, no matter how many rays of holy magic they sent into the undead, they refused to fall for good, always getting back up as if the wounds that would’ve been fatal on anything else were mere annoyances. The walls shook under the crushing weight of the zombies.

Just when Sariel and Ariel had lost all hope of surviving this episode of their rather short life, wishing only to bring down some of these accursed undead with them to the infernal hells, something much more terrifying than any undead horde arrived.

From their vantage point, they saw a golden lion crash into the undead horde and begin to rip into the zombies. But despite how intimidating the huge lion looked, what was way more scary was the two huge masses of undead mana that Ariel and Sariel sensed riding on top of the undead.

Despite being holy mages, neither of them were part of the Church. All they did was go about and exterminate the occasional wild zombie when they could. But even they had heard about the frightful existences of higher tier undead, and clearly the two masses of undead mana atop the lion’s back were among those unholy ranks.

The only things that they were confused about was why the undead are fighting among themselves. What was that much smaller mass of holy mana fighting alongside the two high undeads? What about the huge golden lion that looked like it could flatter the palisades with a push of its paws?

Fragile hope in the unknown let the two sisters push on forward as they continued to put their dwindling mana reserves to use, doing what they could to protect the village that they had brought this disaster upon.

As the two sisters on top of the roofs held in their tears, Camilla was halving undead around her with every swing of her sword, cutting through their tough, hardened flesh ease. She didn’t even need to reinforce her muscles or sword with magic.

Although it was easy, clearing over a hundred zombies still took a while. The longer she fought, the more she found that something was wrong.

For some reason, these undeads aren’t afraid of her, nor do they hesitate to attack her. According to what Camilla knew, lesser undead rarely attacked high undead. They instinctively feared the latter.

Yet, these undeads attacked her without fear, seeking to overwhelm her through sheer numbers, as pointless as it was when their claws merely skid off her armor. Even their attempts to drag her down onto the floor was fruitless considering she could both withstand the body weight of multiple zombies as well as shaking them off easily.

But that wasn’t the only thing wrong.

She hadn’t noticed it at first, but the dress of one of the zombies caught her attention. Although most of the zombies’ clothing were in tatters to the point of indecency, baring large areas of rotting flesh, some were intact enough to tell what they once were. The zombie that caught Camilla’s eyes, right before she cleaved him in half from head to toe, was dressed in finely woven cotton, dyed meticulously.

The clothes of someone at least somewhat wealthy.

The more Camilla looked around, the more out of place she found the clothes of these zombies. Shouldn’t the zombies be found near this poor forest village be made of hemp or similar cheap materials? If it was only one or two that dressed like this, Camilla could still chalk it up to a zombie that wandered a large distance before joining this horde.

But this many in one place was a dead giveaway that something was wrong.

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This wasn’t a natural undead outbreak. Someone, something, brought these zombies where. The thoughts that she had in her paranoia on the way here reared its ugly head and she grimaced. After separating the arms of a particularly persistent zombie that kept trying to grab her from its shoulders, she took a break and looked for Kagriss.

Finding Kagriss spearing several zombies with dark spikes from the ground, Camilla slashed her way over, her breathing as even as ever.

Even Kagriss kept her indifferent expression on her face as she destroyed zombie after zombie, absorbing the meager amount of undead mana that these lesser zombies produced to replace the mana she wasted on them.

Kagriss looked up, a question on her face. “Is something the matter?”

“No. It’s just, do you think something’s wrong with these zombies? Like, their clothes?”

“What’s wrong with their clothes?” Kagriss asked, tilting her head. Then, her eyes focused on something behind Camilla and she waved her hand. Mana around her moved and the sound of flesh being pierced came from behind Camilla.

Something fell to the ground. Camilla ignored it.

“The clothes on these zombies are too high quality. They’re not from around here.”

“So you’re saying someone brought them over?” Kagriss asked, frowning a bit. “Someone is controlling them…my instincts told me that this wasn’t a wild horde, but I didn’t think too much about it since I thought it was just another stronger jack behind them, but now that you mentioned it…”

“You too?” Camilla cheered inside. So she wasn’t the only one that found something was wrong.

Compared to them, Lucienne and Elyss were having fun eviscerating zombies without a care in the world. Was Lucienne actually a berserker? Camilla couldn’t see her face, but Lucienne actually had a pretty wild fighting style for someone who used a sword and shield. Her bashes with her shield sometimes decapitated the zombies she fought.

Elyss didn’t even need to be elaborated on, playing with her prey…

It was nice to have someone else who had a working brain. Camilla smiled at Kagriss appreciatively, and although Kagriss looked confusing, she returned that smile when she felt the faint emotion through their bond.

“So what should we do?” she asked. Even if she knew that there was someone behind this attack on this village, there weren’t actually a lot of clues to go off of.

Apart from the two holy mages on the rooftops, everyone else were cowering inside their home. It seemed the holy mages are the only leads they have left. In that case, finishing off the rest of these undead is the highest priority.

Seeing that Kagriss deep in thought, probably thinking about an answer to her question, Camilla decided to make herself useful in the meantime.

As she raised her sword, about to dive back into the battle, Kagriss reached out and grabbed her hand. “Wait, don’t go yet!”

“Huh?”

“I have an idea,” Kagriss said with a smile on her face. Then, letting go of Camilla and turning to face a zombie that was sneaking up on her, tore the zombie’s arms off to keep it honest before she grabbed its head, pouring mana into it as she closed her eyes in concentration.

Although Camilla didn’t know what Kagriss was doing, zombies were closing in so she took it upon herself to clear the zombies around them while Kagriss did whatever she was doing…

As she cut down her ninth zombie, a change came over the horde as they seemed to collectively freeze. As quickly as they came, the zombies turned and retreated, each shambling back into the trees before a very confused Elyss’s eyes.

Lucienne and Camilla were equally confused but at least their helmets hid their expressions.

There was a faint thump and Camilla turned around to see Kagriss toss the unmoving body of the zombie to the ground with a faint scowl on her face.

“It got away.”

—————————————————————

“Hahaha! I did it! I did it! I found it!” Arvel shouted, throwing his hands up in the air.

At a nearby desk, reading over some notes, Justin almost jumped out of his seat. As is, his chair clattered to the ground as he stood up, followed by the thump and the sound of flipping pages as the book Justin was reading followed in the chair’s stead.

“What in the name of the five gods…” Justin grumbled as he stooped to right his chair. “What is it? What did you do?” he asked, picking up the book and dusting it off. Trying to remember what page he was on and what he was reading before he was interrupted, he flipped through the pages, although he did keep an ear out for Arvel.

Despite his ill-tempered growling from being distracted, he was actually pretty curious about what exactly was it that got Arvel so excited.

That didn’t stop him for continuing his own line of research though. That was the thing about magic and research. There were so many branches that it was all too easy to get distracted and constantly chasing after new discoveries, which was why magic research was so time consuming.

It was difficult, yet, but it was also so esoteric that most researchers usually found a topic that spoke to them more.

Justin was no different, having slightly diverged from his original plan of researching the magic that keeps Orlog going, heading down the path of how the strange mana possessed by Orlog could be harnessed in spells after being stored in crystals.

Compared to him, Arvel was a lot more mature, being able to hone in on a target and single-mindedly chase after it while ignoring all distractions. And now it paid off.

Arvel grabbed a book off his desk—two books, in fact. One was his own journal, and the other was the strange, unmarked book that Justin found before.

He laughed again, almost crazed.

“I found it! It’s all thanks to this book! It’s the last piece to the puzzle!” Arvel cackled, shaking the two books over his head while Justin pretended to ignore him while reading his book.

Seeing that Justin wasn’t as interested as he was, Arvel eventually calmed down and set down the unmarked book, taking with him only his own research journal, full of scribbles of charts and notes. He slapped it down next to Justin, who finally looked up expectantly.

“So what’d you find?”

Arvel grinned, his eyes shining. “The secret to the mana, why Orlog can use both holy and undead magic. Or rather, why he seems to be able to use it.”

Justin perked up at that. His own branch research involved the mana and learning more about it would be much more helpful. “Seems?”

“Yes! Seems!” Arvel said, working himself up again. “Actually, it’s not undead mana at all!”

“I’m sorry?” Justin stared at the excited priest in front of him, unsure what to say. He doubted his own ears. “What do you mean it’s not undead mana? It feels like undead mana, has the same properties, and does the exact same thing.”

Arvel was nodding even before he finished. “Yes, yes, yes. But does it really?”

“…yes?”

“No! It does almost the exact same thing, it has almost the exact same property. It feels like undead mana, but it’s always felt a little strange, doesn’t it?” he asked, waving toward the wall. Beyond the wall was the prison, the cage where Orlog was kept when experiments weren’t being performed on him.

“Not really,” Justin said, thinking back on the last time he had been in the same room with their captive. “It felt like normal undead mana to me.”

“That’s because you’re used to it. What about before?”

Justin furrowed his brows, trying to think back to when he first came into contact with Orlog. It was when the hunting team rendezvoused with him at the mines. At the time…all he had felt was a deep set discomfort from being near the weird creature. At the time he had chalked it up to not wanting to be near the undead, but perhaps Arvel was right.

Before he could say anything, Arvel took a crystal out of his pocket. “Remember Orlog’s mana? Here’s some pure, normal undead mana,” he said.

The crystal changed hands and Justin undid the holy seal on the crystal, letting the mana sealed within leak out. With the feeling of Orlog’s mana fresh on his mind, he instantly spotted several minute differences that he would’ve overlooked had he not been looking for it specifically. But now that he was, he found the root of his discomfort.

“Fine, so it’s strange. But not undead mana…? Then what is it?” he asked, slightly more convinced than he was before.

Arvel grinned in victory and he took back the crystal and slipped it back into his pocket again. “Like I said, the book you gave me helped a lot. It has a lot to deal with how holy and undead mana interacted, right?”

“Yeah?”

“Going a bit deeper, it’s their similarities, as well as how you can use both types. But using Orlog as a reference, I managed to extrapolate some data and combine it with my own research,” he said, his expression turning solemn as the excitement faded away.

His knuckles whitened as he gripped the book.

“The ultimate goal of the research is the unification of undead and holy mana so the bearer of the power could use both. I’m guessing that the priests that disappeared these past months…” He trailed off, but Justin knew what was left unsaid.

The atmosphere suddenly turned dreary.

But no matter how bad the past was, the only way to move was onwards. Arvel shook his head. “What Orlog has is not undead mana. It’s actually holy mana, or an extremely corrupted form of it!”

“Impossible!” Justin shot up, sending the chair clattering to the floor as Arvel dropped a bombshell. That was even harder to accept than the revelation that the mana was not undead mana. “How can that be? It’s clearly…not…”

“But it is. I don’t know how they did it, but that special undead mana is the result of a twisted affinity. Through some unholy process, no doubt, the people behind this turned someone with holy affinity into an undead, but not through killing them and then raising them.”

Justin gritted his teeth, reminded of how nimble Orlog’s movement had been. Compared to the shambling movement of lesser zombies, to the hard limits of undead power in each tier, and how slow to adapt to new circumstances they were, Orlog was better in every respect. He was fast, he had the raw mana of a jack-class, he was smart and adaptable as Arvel and Pavlor could attest to.

He wasn’t a real, standard undead.

Justin’s mind spun as he tried to make sense of all this new and old information, but Arvel didn’t bother letting him come to his own conclusions.

“My theory is that they had a way to somehow turn the subject directly into an undead while they are still alive. That matches up with what my Fleur said happened with the exploding gem.”

An explosion. Bloating.

No death in between, but rather a smooth transition.

Justin remembered the girl he took care of as part of his deal with Arvel and shivered to imagine her becoming the same kind of monster as Orlog, restrained and used as an experimental subject. Nothing deserved that fate.

Arvel sighed. “The result is that their original holy affinity mutates, in a sense, to that new affinity that takes on properties of undead mana, as is the original goal. Originally holy, but now pseudo-undead. As a pseudo-undead, they resist holy magic quite well, as well as being able to nullify spells to a certain extent because of their original affinity…”

“How troublesome…” Justin muttered, sighing as well.

He didn’t know what he expected when he asked Arvel if he could join, but this certainly wasn’t what he expected.

“…Justin.”

“Yeah?”

“This must not be told to anyone. Not yet.”

Knowing what he did about Arvel’s true identity as a spy, Justin nodded hard once.


Axiom’s Note

Oooo experimental holy undead… UwU


Be sure to support the author, TypeAxiom, by subscribing to his Patreon!



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