102 Valley of the Dragon
The giant carp landed in front of the cave entrance. There were no obvious signs of a dragon's trail, but they decided it was still worth checking out. Astrid went in first, activating invisibility to scout the area. Upon seeing that the coast was clear, she signaled the others to follow. Kimmy transformed back into a cat and walked close to Alice.
As they walked forward, they saw a bright light at the end of the tunnel. It was an exit to the other side of the mountain. When they reached the spot, they stared in awe at the beautiful scenery before them.
"What is this place?" Lyria couldn't believe her eyes.
"A hidden valley?" Alice looked around. The area was surrounded by a tall mountain range that hid it from outside. Different varieties of flowers and trees grew around them. It was like paradise.
Lyria immediately caught sight of a bunch of herbs growing and went to harvest them. "These are hard to find! I'd better stock up on these for my medicine..."
They heard a roar.
"What was that?" Astrid examined her surroundings.
Just seconds after, a dragon landed in front of them and caused the ground to tremble. It roared again and looked ready to attack the girls.
Alice hid behind Kimmy. "Oh crud! Don't eat us, please!"
"We're not enemies! You helped us earlier, remember?" said Lyria as she attempted to calm the dragon down.
Astrid prepared her daggers. The dragon didn't look like it was ready to sit down and talk.
"Kimmy, fox mode!" Alice commanded.
Kimmy transformed into a giant white fox, bigger than the dragon. The two creatures roared at each other. Neither were intimidated.
"This is going to be interesting. I wish I had popcorn," said Astrid.
"Woah, woah. Easy there," Pio walked towards the dragon and calmed it down. "They're friends. Don't fight them." Soon, the dragon settled down and stayed still.
"Pio!" All of them (except Alice who didn't know who he was) were happy to see Pio again.
"Yo," Pio greeted them casually.
"Thank goodness you survived." Lyria drew a sigh of relief. "We thought we'd never see you again."
"So you're a dragon tamer, now?" Astrid asked as she examined the dragon that was about to kill them some moments ago.
Pio laughed. "No. This isn't my dragon. I just borrowed it to help you guys."
"Then whose is it?"
"Come, I want you all to meet someone."
Pio led the girls deeper into the valley. There was a pathway leading down.
"After I tried to chase after Yaya that night we attempted an escape from Aries, I was separated from the other Black Rose members. I lost Yaya's trail and was left to wander alone. That was when this dragon rescued me from a mini-boss and brought me here. Since then, I've been cooperating with this dragon's owner and gathering information for him," Pio filled them in on what happened.
"Where did this dragon come from? It's unusual for a creature to have a powerful healing ability," asked Astrid.
"That person made this dragon."
"Who is he?"
"Ah. We're here."
They stopped in front of a small hut that looked enough for two people to live in. There was a bonfire outside with a cooking spit and a pot half-filled with soup.
"You'll meet him inside," said Pio.
When they entered the hut, they saw a man whose back faced them. He had black hair and glasses. His armor was one of the mage robes acquired at raid dungeons.
"So these are the friends you went off to save?" he asked as he turned around. He looked around the same age as Wen.
"Yes. These are one of the players who fought with Wen against Cecil," Pio replied.
"Pio, you know about Wen?" Astrid was surprised.
"I heard about why Wen disappeared from him." Pio pointed at the man.
The dragon's owner laughed. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Elris."
Astrid recognized the name. The last member of M.K. The one skilled enough to create this whole world.
Elris continued, "I'm aware that Cecil is the one causing all this. I had a feeling this would happen. Unfortunately, my preparations to prevent this weren't finished in time. I apologize deeply."
"Wen has been looking for you!" Alice said. She never met Elris before, but she went on countless missions that involved retrieving messages from him.
"I know, but it's safer to stay separate this way. At least it makes it harder for Cecil to catch both of us. If he ever catches one of us, we still have a chance of stopping him."
"How do we stop Cecil?" Lyria asked.
"Good question. As of now, our best chance is to eliminate the enemy and restore the normal function of this world. We need to fight and weaken them. It will be hard with their strength, but I will give you an advantage." He glanced at the dragon outside. "I've been developing this new creature. A dragon that breathes fire which heals allies and harms enemies. I plan to create more of these and pass them to you."
"Is it impossible to undo what the enemy has changed from here?" Astrid asked.
Elris nodded. "It's possible to breach the current security and create hacks such as enhancing abilities and summoning creatures that are already part of this world. However, it's different when it comes to changing the actual laws and physics of this world. You need to possess the Centuris Cube to do changes such as allowing players to be harmed and reforming a whole area. The cube was always with me at all times, but I lost possession of it after an attempted 'assassination'. There was no way I could have been killed that time because the law prevented physical harm, but it was enough for them to steal the cube from me. With the way the cube was programmed, even I'm unable to have access to the codes that govern this world's laws. I made it that way in case someone would try to blackmail me. I would pass the cube to Wen."
"There's still hope, right? I heard about a reset mechanism."
"That's right. There's a reset function on top of one mountain. Activating it will bring Aries back to a save state from long before this mess happened. However, we need to focus on securing the Centuris Cube first. Otherwise, it will be pointless to reset the world and have it back to this dangerous place in no time."
Elris rummaged his backpack and took out a small blue cube. "This is a code for a portal leading to the real world. You can use this to let the other players escape, but I urge you to ask the brave ones to stay and fight. You're going to need numbers when you're battling against Cecil. I'll assure them a generous reward if we pull through this."
Astrid received the blue cube. "Thanks, Elris."
"No, it is I who should thank all of you. You're fighting for this world I created with my peers. It's a disaster that happened because of my carelessness and you're helping me correct it. I'm honestly no good at fighting in the front lines, but I will support you from the shadows. I promise you an army. Please lead it to victory."
The girls looked at each other. "We'll do our best."
Elris held up an envelope. "Take this letter to Wen. He will know what to do. And don't bother taking him here to me. We won't be here for long, but we will be nearby watching things closely."