AN: Been working on this chapter for quite some time now. I had intended this to be longer but the battle scenes is taking some time to be fleshed out (next chapter will be a bit action-packed). So, here's the update for now :D

Chapter 9: Prelude to Destruction

"How's the opposition?" asked Cerby

Aerix surveyed the group before them. 24 people. Varying classes. Very Dangerous.

"Three Guardians, Four Assassins, One Pirate, Two Summoners, Two Clerics, Three Druids, Four Sorcerers, Two Enchanters, One Swashbuckler and One Dukun. Levels ranging from 80-90"

"Well, Shit. Quite a handful. The mercs took your advice seriously Card."

"Think we can take them with just the five of us?"

"On one end, we have a raid party. On the other end, the zone boss and tons of minions"

"So I take it as a no? Should we surrender then?"

"Heh. You all know the answer to that."

"I knew it would come to this. Why didn't we bring my husband along?" sighed Gail

Though just a child, Puff had her share of skirmishes back in the day. To the surprise of the entire guild, she was good at it.

"Dying is not so bad mama. Just as long as we take many of them with us heehee."

"The only advantage we have is that they don't know who we are." said Giznow

"Well, that and being a team of purely mercenaries makes their teamwork rough on the edges." added Gail

"So… what's the plan Clown?" asked Aerix

"Obviously taking them all out is not possible. So I need you guys to focus your attacks one by one. But knowing them, there are tanks that will draw our attention.

Gail, you be the vanguard. I know defense is not your specialty but you'll have be the one soaking up all the damage for our part.

Aerix, pour all your supporting skills on Gail. I think your skills can outweigh their damage for some time.

Puff, use your summons to help out Gail. Use healing spells when needed.

Giz, me and you will stay out of taunt range and attack them one by one.

We might not win. But we'll give them hell before they do."

Three Days Before - Mt. Cristobal Outskirts

The party landed outside the Cursed Mountain. What made this area harder to explore is the fact that mounts are not allowed inside. Slightly weary from the flight. The party decided to make camp and discuss a few things.

"So Card, where should we begin the search?" asked Giznow

"First things first, let's head on over to the nearby {Shrine} to save our positions and mark our respawn point should things get messy."

{Shrines} are smaller versions of the {Cathedrals} to which a limited number of people can save their positions. To offset this limitation, the game often spread numerous {Shrines} near dungeons to accommodate the adventurers.

"Then where do we look?" asked Gail

"My source told me he was last seen roaming the {Ascent}. So it's a good place to start."

The Cursed Mountain is divided into six zones. The {Garden} is the forest surrounding the mountain and the largest on the area, home to numerous party bosses and the occasional roaming Raid Boss. The {Bastion} is the area at the foot of the mountain, containing high-level mobs that spawn at a quick rate. The {Mine} is a winding cave with only one path leading to the next {Ascent} is a solitary road going up the mountain from the cave. Numerous guards block the passage at set points. The {Zenith} is a narrow field on top of the mountain. A Legion-Raid Boss is at the very center. Lastly, the {Abyss} is a secret area accessed from the {Zenith}, unlocked after defeating the raid boss that takes players to the heart of the crag for an opportunity to challenge the true master of the Cursed Mountain. It has been said that clearing the {Abyss} yields two {Phantasmal-Grade} items per participating player. This area has been repeatedly sought out by organized groups but only few clear it entirely.

"If that guy manages to get to the {Abyss} by himself, he's a monster." said Cerby

"We all know he's absurdly strong, but he's not THAT strong. Well, maybe 1/10th of the {Zenith} raid boss hp can be done by himself."

"So... How do we get to the {Ascent}?" asked Puff

"As it stands, we are at the {Garden} zone. Giz, since you can move the fastest out of all of us, I need you to scout for the safest route that leads to the {Bastion}. Gail, you and Puff stay at the camp and set-up your crafting tools. Me and Card would look for certain materials around the area. Use telepathy call if anything comes up. Any questions?"

"Why the safest route? I thought we were trying to race against Demon's pursuers?" asked Giznow

"We could go for the shortest route, but we will encounter a lot of monsters along the way and the time it would take fighting through them would roughly be equivalent to the time we would traverse the safest route."

"For this rescue, subtlety is key. We don't want to attract any unnecessary attention. Remember, we are going up against a Raid Group as a five-man party. If possible, we go in, get him out, before the enemy shows up" added Aerix

"Uncle Bicep Face is going to fight us. He's a meanie." chimed Puff

"And that's the reason for the head start. We might as well push him off the cliff than make him listen to reason easily. He needs to know we are as strong as him or trick him to believe that fact."

"Not like it's fool proof anyway. Dumb as a brick he might be, he might have learned a thing a two from us." said Gail.

"You two might be wondering as to why I'm letting you two prepare your crafting materials.

Gail, I'll give you all our hauled {Volcanic Diamonds}. Transmute them into reagents for Puff's potions. Me and Card will look for the final ingredients around the area."

"What on earth are you two scheming?"

"Nothing much. It just helps to be prepared." answered Aerix with a sly grin

"Somehow when you say that, it makes me more worried."

Gail often has bouts of "Women's Intuition" whenever Aerix and Cerby are in complete agreement about a plan. Giznow tried to dispel such notions.

"Eh, don't sweat it so much Gail. When has Card's preparations ever got us in a bind?"

"Well, I guess you're right about that. But something tells me that something big and bad is going to happen."

"I can't blame you for thinking that way. Since it's Demon of all people we are dealing with. That man attracts trouble wherever he goes."

Cerby continued

"Anyway. Let's get on with our assignments."

"Last question, what exactly are we making?"

Aerix handed out a list to Gail.

"This? This is…"

"It's worth a shot. I already gave out some of the ingredients to Puff. Me and Cerby would just be looking around for a certain item in this area to complete that. In the meantime, start transmuting those {Volcanic Diamonds} into reagents"

"Are you sure this would work?"

"Maybe."

Gail was baffled by his response as they left. Usually, it's either a "yes" or "no". This is one of the few times she felt uncertainty in his answers. But she just shrugs it off and proceeds to carry out his requests.

Two hours have elapsed, Giznow was still deep inside the {Garden} whereas Aerix and Cerby are examining the nearby areas for some ingredients.

"How many of those roots do you actually need Card?"

"At least five hundred of the red ones, and five hundred of the violet ones."

"If only our herbalist was here. We wouldn't be taking so long with this."

"Agreed. I'll have to make finding our production team on a higher priority after our mission here."

"I lost count, how many 'til quota?"

"About half more."

"I hope your plan works since we would be squandering a day of our lead for this."

"Trust me. If this works, it will benefit everyone."

"If you say so."

"Hey, do you get the feeling we're being watched?"

Aerix took a quick look at his surroundings, noticing nothing out of the ordinary.

"I don't think so. Must be your imagination."

"Still, we better be careful. Who knows if there are people already here."

"Point taken. Let's pick up the pace."

At nightfall, back at the camp, the party regroups and discuss the accomplishments on the day.

"So, Aerix. Care to explain in detail what are we doing with a large pile of reagents and roots?"

In response to Gail's question, Aerix went to the center, sat down and started his explanation.

"Do you remember when the discovery of manual cooking was released?"

"Yeah. What of it."

"Well, me and Hohen discovered the idea of certain actions being done with the right subclasses."

"And your point is?" while raising an eyebrow

"With five hundred roots, we could make at least fifty of a basic type of potion if doing it by conventional means. And to make an ultimate-type, we need at least a hundred thousand herbs to guarantee at least one. An ultimate-type potion's effects are at least 15 times stronger than a basic potion"

Taking a deep breath, Aerix continues.

"Now here lies the trick I'm trying to pull, what if potion making was done manually instead of relying on the system?

Taking a large batch and reducing the mixture until it becomes more of a concentrated liquid. What would the effect be? Would the potion strength be additively or exponentially increased?

Granted this will take a lot of time but under the hands of a high-level pharmacist, the chances of failure are zero!.

If this idea works as I would have intended, we would have created something beyond the parameters of the game."

"I've heard you spout on about some crazy ideas before Card, but this one takes the cake." said Giznow

"But it's not really farfetched since it was proven by manual cooking that the laws governing the game can be bent to some extent." added Cerby.

"Aerix might be on to something. Puff, get your cauldron ready. This is going to be a long night."

"'Kay mama! Time for some bubbly bubbly"

"Okay, now that my explanation of the motive is done. Little Puff, I need you to make a giant batch of {Titan Potion} with the red roots and {Breaker Potion} and reduce all the liquid until we can fit everything in a single flask or vial"

"Sure thing, Uncle Glasses! But you owe me a basket of berries for this."

"I know, I know, I'll give them to you afterwards."

Puff started placing the ingredients into a giant cauldron on top of a bonfire and cheerily started stirring.

{Titan Potions} and {Breaker Potions} are basic potions prepared by {Pharmacists} that can support their allies. The former, boosting the attack power of an ally by 20% and the latter, reducing the attack power of the enemy by 25%, each lasting for five minutes.

"How can you be so sure that this would work?" asked Gail.

"Well, you remember all the {Volcanic Diamonds} we asked you to transmute to reagents?"

{Alchemists}, a subclass that enables a player to convert a material into another. The higher the level of the alchemist, the wider the range of items that can be transmuted to and from. The limitation of transmutation is that there are only certain properties of the original item that can be transferred to a converted item. These transmuted items can be used as reagents for other crafts such as potion making.

Needless to say, the pairing of an {Alchemist} and a {Pharmacist} is a convenient combination to have in any group.

"I'm not sure into the details but aren't {Volcanic Diamonds} used for weapon enhancement?"

"Exactly. I was banking that you transmuted the {Increased success rate} property into the reagent."

"Oh, I see. Quite the insurance. *sigh* I wish my husband had a brain like yours, we wouldn't have to fight so much."

"Trust me, the advantages are not that all it's cracked up to be."

("If Dread did have a mind like mine, they would fight more often.") Aerix inwardly smirked.

"Enough about the potions, how did it go on your end Giz?" asked Cerby to their worn-down scout.

"Not so good. I tried three routes today, each ended up with me getting killed. Even if I could outrun, bind and kill some, there is always at least one or two popping up to ambush me. I end up getting killed due to the zone debuffs and accumulated damage. I didn't want to use a lot of consumables since it would be wasteful at this stage. But the {Death Penalty} is a pain to deal with."

With each consecutive death incurred in PvE, a debuff reduces the base stats of the adventurer lingers for about an hour. Each death increases the duration and incurred penalty capping to 80% reduced stats. It has been a custom of players incurring multiple penalties to log-off, afk or avoid combat participation to let the timer run out before resuming their play.

"How many routes do you still need to check?"

"About four more. But I have to wait until morning as monsters become more hostile at night"

"We'll take some of the load off you tomorrow. That way, more ground is covered."

All Giznow could mutter was "Thanks" before getting his rest.

"We'll take turn keeping watch with Puff as she completes the potions tonight."

{Garden} Outskirts - Morning

A sleeping Aerix was awoken by a tug in his robes.

"mmmm…. Puff?"

The tugging came from none other than the lively child in their group outstretching her small hands.

"All done. Berries please."

"Oh right."

As promised, he handed out a basket of berries to the kid.

"Thanks uncle glasses! Here's the stuff you asked for."

Taking out two small vials, she handed it out to Aerix. Taking a closer look at the vials, only the item name was revealed. The effect of the items on the other hand, remain a mystery.

"{Titan Concentrate} and {Breaker Concentrate}. Interesting."

Inside the vials, ooze-like liquid stirred inside. Though not volatile in nature, the fluid ominously gave off a hint of danger.

"I hope I even get the chance to use this later."

Storing the vials in his bag. Aerix could only hope his hunch was right.

"Aaah, I'm pooped. I'll go nap now. Night night."

These were the last words Puff said before falling flat on the ground.

(Hehe, how cute.)

"Good work. You earned your rest little one." said Aerix as he picked up the sleeping child and went to her mother.

Back at the campfire, Aerix handed off a sleeping Puff to her mother.

"I gotta hand it to you, you raised an amazing child. As young as she is, she is obedient enough to manage our requests and fight with us. All that while keeping that sunny disposition about her."

Cradling the child in her arms, Gail couldn't help but smile at the compliment.

"If it were any other person, she wouldn't have done this much. You guys are as much family as Dread and I to her. I'm looking forward to the day when we are all together."

"It will be difficult, but trust us. We will make that happen" said Giznow with a bright smile.

Cerby started off the briefing after breakfast.

"Okay. For our second day, Giz, you will take two routes. Me and Gail would be taking one each. Aerix, stay at the camp and watch over Puff."

"Alright, I'll be the babysitter for the day."

"Quick question, why not have Card take the other path and have Gail guard the camp instead?" asked Giznow.

"Three reasons. Firstly, you, me and Gail all have movement skills. While Card can navigate and survive the route, the fact still stands that he would take longer time than us. Secondly, all of us can use him as a telepathy relay point when we find a safe route out of the remaining. Lastly, the camp is away from the common spawns, he's capable enough to fend off one or two that wander near the camp if needed."

"I guess you're right."

"Let's move out. Time is of the essence."

Three hours have passed since the three moved out of the camp. Aerix is standing watch for any hostile creatures.

And a ringing sound is heard. A telepathy call.

("Hm? From Dread.")

["What is it?"]

["We found another stray. I'm sure you'll like this one. I'll link my call to her"]

("Somehow, I get the feeling this won't end well.")

The notification linking the call displayed the following.

{Connecting call to Eclair}

Name: Eclair

Level: 90

Race: Elf

Class: Summoner

Subclass: Necromancer

Guild: None

("Oooh. The zombie princess.")

Their specialist at using undead minions. She and Giznow shared an interesting past, much to their discomfort. Usually, one would equate a practitioner of the dark arts to be serious and gloomy most of the time. Eclair, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.

["HEEEEEEY! OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD! CARD?"]

Still reeling from the shout likened to an obsessive fangirl. Aerix calmly replied.

["Yeah, Hi."]

["HAVE YOU SEEN MY GIZZY DARLING?!"]

["Lower the volume a bit. Yes, he's with me but not here right now. And no, I won't patch my telepathy call to him."]

["BUT WHY?!"]

["You don't want to ruin the novelty of a surprise do you? Greet him in person when we get back in a few days. I'll give you a heads up before we arrive."]

["REALLY? REALLY? REALLY? YOU MEAN THAT?"]

["Again, tone it down. And yes, I mean it."]

["YAY! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!"]

And the telepathy call was abruptly ended. Aerix inwardly snickered.

("Giz is going to have the shock of his life when he sees his crazy on-and-off again ex-girlfriend when we get back. You really picked up a good one Dread. Though the painful ringing in the ears leaves less to be desired.")

At one of the routes. Giz suddenly shuddered.

Two hours later, another ringing alerted Aerix back at the camp.

["Anything to report Giz?"]

["Yeah. Found it. I'll detail everything when we get back"]

["Alright."]

Seeing as the required route has been found, Aerix relayed this to Gail and Cerby.

Back at the camp. Giznow began his explanation.

"Here's the thing. The route would take six hours on foot. Monsters can be cleared with minimal difficulty. I've already taken the precaution of setting traps along our path. There is a safe zone before we arrive at the {Bastion} so we can make camp there when we arrive before nightfall"

Scouting is a skill not much utilized and is looked down by the majority of players due to the trend of relying only on superior numbers or superior gear to win battles. However, if you look at two evenly matched factions, the one who has the lead in information has an edge to determine the winner. To acquire information, scouts have to be dispatched in order for their observations to be analyzed by the strategist to make appropriate adjustments. Simply put, if the strategist is the "mind", the scout is the "eyes".

A scout's role is more than just observe. Since any capable opponent would surely send out scouts of their own. A scout also has to be capable of taking out opposing scouts to prevent them to have information. Or if the opposition is too much to handle, sufficient mobility and skill to evade capture and eventual death. Good judgement is also a factor on whether to fight or flee; a trait most scouts lack.

Behind his overly-dramatic persona, Giznow has proven that he is a capable scout during his tenure in the guild. Many battles would not have been won without his ability to observe and survive.

Cerby made good use of the information and planned accordingly.

"Excellent. If we speed up our pace, we can reach the {Safe Zone} in five hours or less. That would give us enough time to protect ourselves from the zone debuffs.

Giz, get ahead of us to lure the monsters in our path out.

Puff, you stay in the middle and place your summons at the front, keep {Heartbeat Healing} active.

Me and Gail would protect Puff from the sides

Aerix, I give the rear to you. Switch to offense and support only if necessary and to remove the zone debuffs.

If there are no more questions, let's move out."

Four hours into their journey, there have been no issues other than the occasional stray monster that was easily dispatched by their numbers.

"So far so good. Any threats ahead Giz?"

"I count three {Cultists} on the front. And two {Plague Hounds} on the left side closing in. The former within 30 meters, the latter within 20 meters. Which should we deal with first Cerby?"

"We'll take the front. But first set your traps. That should buy us enough time to kill the the {Cultists} blocking the way and get away from the hounds."

{Cultists} are the humanoid monsters that wander around the {Garden}. Specializing in ranged magic attacks, they are weak individually, but are damaging if found in clusters of five or more. {Plague Hounds} are fast-moving monsters that deal the zone debuff every few attacks. They also give the debuff upon death to one who struck the killing blow. Parties are wary not to aggro too much of them due to this fact.

A few seconds later.

"All set! That should hold the hounds for about 20 seconds"

"Plenty of time. Now, sprint for it. We'll take them apart quickly. Don't use flashy attacks. We need to conceal our tracks."

"""Roger"""

Gail moved ahead with her {Phantom Step} easily drawing the attention of the three monsters. Puff summoned two wolves to tackle the two cultists while her mother attacks the remaining.

Before the wolves reached their targets. Giznow already launched {Atrophy Break} and {Paralyzing Blow} to incapacitate them. Aerix invoked {Argent Shine} and Cerby launched his throwing axes using {Early Thrust} to grant debuffs on Gail's Target.

Gail struck the Cultist with a {Lighting Straight} followed by {Tiger Echo Fist}, knocking it back. Giznow and Puff provided supporting fire with {Rapid Shot} and {Icicle Ripper} respctvely. The killing blows were sent through Aerix's {Judgement Ray} and Cerby's {Tomahawk Boomerang}.

Overall, the confrontation lasted fifteen seconds. The remaining five seconds on the trap were spent getting away from the aggro range of the {Plague Hounds}. The party rested as soon as they have reached the camp.

The next morning, the party stepped out of camp and went inside the {Bastion} Zone. The fast spawns were dealt with efficiently however it took more time than expected. By nightfall of the third day, they had reached the entrance of the {Mine} zone where they had a chance for a small reprieve.