Chapter 25 – “Smoke and Mirrors”
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-- Saer

Being lord of a city is not an easy task, even more so when you have the reputation of greed.
Saer certainly wasn't known for building a city for everyone.
Sometimes it was more profitable to favor the rich.

He was definitely closing in on being one of the more wealthy city lord's in the country, despite his plan to secure a noble rank failing; But being rich wasn't his goal.
Gathering strength in one place was the true aim.
He did not trust the church to muster anything but small fries when the time came.

The adventurer's guild did create strong individuals, but lacked the means to unite and motivate them when they were needed.
What attracted most people was one thing - money.
Where there is money, there's a strong army.

Suddenly, there's a knock on his door and he beckons his loyal advisor in.
"My lord, Zaster has requested to see you urgently."

Zaster ran the black market in his city, which Saer agreed to give a blind eye to in return for discounts and information.
The black market was akin to veins flowing through every city, carrying raw resources that only he seemed willing to tap into.

Saer entered the room where Zaster waited.
"Why have you requested me? Is something happening I should be aware of?"

"Yes, I thought you should know there are some shady buyers looking for a huge reservoir of Mana. My connections believe they are part of a cult that idolize the demon lord." Zaster informs.

Saer knew he made the right choice to connect with the underworld, but now he has much more to think about.
'These bastards, in my city? Could I wipe them out myself? Unlikely.'

He thought blankly before he finally came up with a plan.
'Wait a minute... I can use that naive dragon... I can't imagine that what they want is actually there. I'll just send them over there to be dealt with.'

"Zaster, I have an extra favor to ask. Please tell them what they are looking for is in Jora Village."

"I'll have it done. Your business is truly valuable, Lord Saer." Zaster replies.

Saer leaned back in his chair, simulating possible outcomes in his head and the worrisome doubts of himself.
'That dragon was easy to bluff. But it must care about that village in some way. What if I'm wrong? They don't have anything they would want, right? And there's no way it will just let them take what they want, right? I feel like that saintess won't be far behind. I suppose it doesn't matter if she somehow controls the dragon, but if it wants that village to survive then it will have to fight demons anyway...'

"Recherta, I also have something to ask of you."

-- Outside Jora Village

Slowly, a group of cloaked individuals crept unseen into the village.

"This is where the information leads. Spread out and search for it!" The tall one in command orders.

"H-Hold on. What do we do about the dragon? Why is it here? And what in demon god's name is it doing?" One of them pauses.

"What does it matter what it's doing? It's distracted by the children, just avoid it until you find what we need." The leader of the group continues.

They search every building with the protection of invisibility, until eventually, they find the priceless lump of Orichalcum, already fully charged for them to use.

Most of them haul the valuable metal out and masterfully avoid any detection.
But the one lagging behind is not so lucky.

-- Lava

My fun 'adventure' was turned into an ominous prophecy, but that's fine.
Nothing said I had to worry about it right now, I better enjoy peaceful times while I can.
I was given a surprise when I saw Ria waiting for me at home.

She spent so much time doing magic stuff that it's been a while since I spent time with her. So I know I'm in for a long day.
Maybe I'll finally let her fly on me, I'm confident enough now that I won't crash but I still think I'll have to get a saddle made first.

As expected, she cries out immediately and makes sure she gets all my attention.
She's so greedy that she won't share me with anyone else.

Liza could feed everyone in my place.
She was a fast learner of language, but until recently was still stuck with telepathy since she couldn't really make the right sounds. But Gramps taught her to mentally cast <Vocalization> and then use that to talk.
A bonus was that let her use a much wider range of spells than just the basic ones Abyssalix could effectively cast mentally.

I was laying there so preoccupied with playing that I didn't notice a faint sense of unease behind me, but it didn't take long before I heard a hiss and looked back to see Liza tail slap a skinny man clad in robes onto the ground.
He was previously invisible, but Liza was the only one that seemed to be paying attention.
I guess you can't use invisibility to fool a species specialized in light magic...

I nudge all my shocked little friends away and then turn around to face this unknown robed creep.
He did NOT waste any time to rush and take Gramps hostage with his dagger, his luck of landing right next to his target was a misfortune for everyone else.

"Don't even think of trying to whisper a spell or this feeble wretch gets it!" He screams in desperado.

What am I supposed to do now? Why was I so slow?
This was it. Exactly as I was warned, I got careless, and then I failed everyone.
If I could just have a do over.

Suddenly, an arrow- no, a bolt comes out of nowhere and lodges into his wrist with enough force to knock it away from his threat.

I zoom forward and angrily grab him as soon as Gramps is out of the way.
It takes too much effort not to crush him as soon as I get my claws around him.
"You better tell me what you're doing here and who you came with RIGHT NOW, or you're going to choose whether you want to be crushed or roasted to death!"

"The True Order doesn't tolerate traitors! For the order, I <Sacrifice>!" He screams just before he dies.

This time I thought ahead and place his body in a strong barrier, and he explodes just like I thought he might. Now there's nothing but charred ashes and seared ground.
There wasn't even a mess, it was like he was completely atomized.

"Are you okay, Gramps?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm alright, thanks to my little dragon." He panders while hugging my snout.

"I didn't do anything, though. And I'm not little anymore!" I whined.
Now that I thought about it, who shot that bolt? No one in the village has a crossbow on them or anything.
Whoever did it didn't even introduce themselves.

"A perfect performance, dragon. I think you'll be joining us soon..."
I turn and see a woman in a bright white robe and wearing an elegant covering over the bottom of her face. I can't see her expression but it's definitely not warm.
There was also a dragon with perfectly white scales, which happened to be the only other dragon I've seen besides my former mom.

"I-It's the saintess! Saintess Ilsia has come to reward us!" Some of the villagers cheer, but I don't get the feeling that's the purpose of this visit.

I look down and see Raine sweating bullets just from the sight of her.

I can't be careless again and be surprised. This is the time I should use the prophecy cube I got from the dungeon.
I do just as Chrome said and put it up to my head.

A queasy feeling runs through me and when I open my eyes again I'm suddenly standing a little further from where I was, and my body was now slightly transparent.
But what was important was that when I looked up, I could see what was undoubtedly myself, from a third person view.

Raine turned to what was presumably future me and called out.
"Lava! Quick! You have to- Lava?" She started before future me turned and opened my jaws over Raine.

I was so completely shocked at what was happening that I was more frozen than ice.
I just tried to close my eyes and not look, but...

"What are you doing? Bad sister!" A smaller voice cries out and forces me to open them.
Instead of Raine, Ria pushed her away and tried to scold me out of whatever I was doing.

But it didn't do anything, and instead of Raine...
I shouldn't have looked.
I should have covered my ears.

It felt too real, it doesn't matter if I know it isn't.
Just as abruptly as it started, the vision faded and I was back in the instant I used it.

But now I'm unable to even move or hear anything clearly, all I could do was think.
Could I even change what was going to happen? No, Chrome said nothing was predetermined.
Why would I do that? What did Raine tell me I had to do?

While I thought blankly I was brought out of my blank state by a tap on my side.
I looked down and saw Gramps trying to offer me food.

I'm sure I would have just taken it if I wasn't sick from what I just went through.
But that's when I realized barely any time went by and Gramps is where Raine should be right now.
An illusion? Could it be? I didn't hear any chant from Ilsia...

"<Dispel Illusion>"
With that, the image of Gramps becomes blurred and mixed with reality. I wasn't sure why it wasn't completely undone but at least I didn't end up like other me.

The saintess doesn't even react to my lack of action and continues on as if nothing was supposed to happen.
"I'm afraid we have holy business to attend to, but we'll be seeing each other again soon, dragon." She says warmly as if she didn't just try something.

"Choose the right path, impure dragon." The white dragon tries to chastise me before leaving.

I quickly crawled off to an isolated corner of the village and Raine didn't let me go hide.
"Where are you going?" She demanded.

"I explained the cube to you on the way here, didn't I? I saw a future I didn't like."

"..." She looked like she already knew what I saw, but she didn't know it would have been Ria.
"You can't let whatever she was about to make you do affect you! As I was about to warn you, she's a master of illusion spells and mentally breaking people. That's why she wanted me dead in the first place, because I'm one of the few that know."

"I should have sensed the activation without needing a glimpse of the future. If I wasn't stupid I would have noticed it was fake anyway." I respond in a depressed tone.

"Illusion spells are the hardest spells to use, and Ilsia is by far the best at using them. She covers her face and chants almost silently so that you can't tell when reality ends and illusion begins." Raine explains, "No, it's more accurate to say her illusion becomes the new reality of her target. Hence her signature spell 'reality substitution'. And because of her connection to the goddess, the illusions are almost impossible to break out of if you don't prevent it."

"What about her dragon accomplice?" I ask.

"Accomplice is a strong word... Prismet is probably the most pitiful dragon in existence. She only has one person that actually cares about her, yet the person for whom she would forfeit her life is none other than Ilsia." She replies with a visible expression and tone of pity.

I don't care how good that stupid saintess is, can I even look at Ria the same way?
Forget the pain it would have caused, the betrayal she would have felt was much worse.
If things went entirely to that vile illusionist's plan, not one of my family here would ever want anything to do with me again.

I've had to deal with others that tried to use me or attack my friends in the past.
But I've never wanted to kill any of them like I do now.
No one but Raine knows the truth, and I would look like I lost my mind if I did...