Chapter 4 – The Road to the Top

The Ebkai Mountain Range was a massive, natural wall that acted as the direct border between the Light Lands and the Dark Lands. Composed of over a dozen major peaks stretching from the Grecal Sea in the north to the Orisalic Ocean in the south, it was easily the longest mountain range on the twin continents, if not the largest, and nearly completely divided the two lands, if not for a few gaps near the the center of the range.

Of all of those many mountains, the biggest in Ebkai was the very home of the Fire Temple, a mountain known as Xelsha. It wasn’t the northernmost peak–that distinction belonged to its ‘brother’ Aksha–but it was still the biggest and probably the most culturally significant, mostly because of that Fire Temple thing, but also because some old sociopath called the Earth Lord had it as his home fortress over a thousand years ago.

Currently though, the mountain was home to around 400,000 drakes and a number of people from other races that lived among them. Still, while the lizardfolk did make up the vast majority of Xelsha’s population, they weren’t the rulers of the mountain by any means. That distinction belonged to a far more dangerous, if not as numerous, group entirely.

Which was what brought Julius to a rather fancy meeting room in the upper palace. Lightstones and oil lamps lit up the larvikite room, its high vaulted ceiling held up by a series of marble pillars in between the dark speckled walls covered by huge, crimson tapestries. Said tapestries, of course, were covered in dragon designs.

Julius let out a sigh, leaning back in his admittedly comfy chair. “How much longer is your boss going to be?” He was starting to wish he’d gone with Team Triple S to explore the city. Exploring and visiting shrines would’ve been far more fun than dealing with the one thing he hated the most in this world: Bureaucracy.

“Not too much longer,” the green-scaled dragon seated near the head of the table answered, his current appearance an odd mix of humanoid and drakinoid. He had the scales and tail of a drake, but a good deal of his face and some visible bits were clearly a darkly tanned skin. Plus, he had green hair, which was kind of disconcerting when most drakes had feathers instead. Oh, and his name was Bonifaci Vercoda. It’d be good to remember that. 

He hadn’t even bothered to look up as he answered. He seemed to be taking notes on a pad while he read through an open book, occasionally ‘hm’-ing and ‘ah’-ing to himself.

“Weren’t we supposed to be patient, Teach?” Maria asked, her head resting on her arms as she leaned on the table. “Asking questions like that sounds pretty impatient.”

“I did say that, yes. However, shut up.”

Adrien bit back a laugh, glancing up from the book Sue had given him because she actually had the forethought to realize waiting was boring. “That’s not really an argument, old man.”

“Here’s an argument. Both of you have better things to do than call me out like this.”

“Yeah, but this is funnier.”

Julius sighed. He looked across the table again and frowned when he noticed Vercoda had a smirk playing about his lips. “…So how long was that going to be again?”

“About now, sir,” the dragon replied, before standing and smoothing out his suit jacket. Julius sighed and stood too, and his students did the same after a moment of confusion. 

About a second later, the far doors to the meeting room swung open and a far taller dragon strode in. Easily a foot taller than her subordinate, Lord Galinori Arancoda was, as the title implied, a dragon lord with red-orange scales, dark brown skin, and long, fiery-orange hair than fell all the way down to her back. Gold horns curled up from the front of her head, lending her an almost demonic appearance, which really wasn’t helped by her black slit pupils and fiery red eyes.

Unlike her fancily-clothed subordinate, Galinori was dressed pretty casually in a red tunic and black pants, though the tunic did have gold accents. Her hands and feet were bare aside from a few jeweled rings, and so was her tail, which drooped and dragged lazily across the floor as she walked.

“My apologies for waking you from your nap milord, but we have some… ‘important’ guests who wished to see you.” 

“Yeah yeah, Ursi already told me what’s happening. You have anything else important to bring up?” Letting out a small yawn, she took the seat at the head of the table, her tail curling around her waist like a makeshift belt. 

“Nothing major, milord. However, our branch down in Surton doesn’t seem to be doing that well. Due to the rising tensions between the Demon Lord’s forces and the Rosiavan Union, trade has been stymied. Currently, the city is officially ‘occupied’ by the ‘Valon’ military forces and conflict has been spreading to the neighboring villages as Rosiava attempts to take the border.”

“Tch, what? Can’t that mayor of theirs just keep things calm down there?” 

Vercoda shrugged. “According to our reports, she is largely responsible for keeping the skirmishes from erupting into outright battles that could damage the city. In addition, our reports indicate she may wish to ask for our services in the future.”

“We’re not mercenaries.”

“No, milord. However, our people there have indicated she wants to use our services to transport evacuees in the event that Surton is besieged.”

“Hmph. Fine, send some people down to keep an eye on the situation. If things look like they’re going to start spiralling, they can talk to Six-Wings. We might be able to recoup some losses. You can go now.” 

“Very well, Lord Galinori.” Vercoda bowed to her and walked out of the room, taking his work with him. 

“Well, now that my business is taken care of, what business do you have?” Arancoda asked as she turned to the group, an eyebrow rising in curiosity. 

Julius bowed to the dragon lord, then straightened and met her gaze evenly. “Lord Arancoda, we don’t wish to take up your time. All we want is to ask for passage to the Fire Temple.”

“Oh yeah, your hero types do that sorta thing.” She slouched back in her chair, smirking lazily. “Well then, in that case, let me ask you this: what do I get out of this?”

“Get? Why would you get anything?” Adrien asked and Julius had to resist slapping himself in the face.

“Seems someone doesn’t know how business is done,” Arancoda commented, still smirking. 

“Ah, my sincerest apologies for my friend here, milord. He doesn’t study often,” Maria spoke up in Adrien’s place, immediately bowing. It seemed Namita had at least given her some lessons in etiquette. Or maybe the old bandit just taught her to back down against someone who could kill her with a finger…Which was basically the same thing, to be honest.

“H-Hey! I was just asking a question…” 

Arancoda snorted and her eyes narrowed as she focused on Adrien. “Well, boy, it’s simple. The Fire Temple is under my protection. As such, I can’t just let any old adventurer in, even if they are a hero. So, if you want in, you have to pay.”

“Protection? Aren’t you just a trading company?” 

Rather than respond, Arancoda just gestured to her horns. 

“…Oh yeah, the dragon thing.” 

“Yup, and aside from your boss here, no one alive has been able to take out a dragon, much less three, without a professional army.” Leaning forward, she gave them a toothy grin. “So, unless you want to test your luck, you’re gonna have to pay.” 

Then, without hesitating in the slightest, Julius gave her his solemn response.

“Send the bill to King Richard.” 

The room was silent as everyone stared at him for a moment.

“…Ha! I like how you think. But no, that’s not what I want. What I want is in the temple. To be blunt, I want its core.”

“…You want the Temple Core?” Julius asked. He actually wondered if his hearing really was going for a second. Not because of age or anything. He was around a lot of explosions when he was younger…

“Yup! I’d have gotten it myself, but the followers of Foco only let in heroes and those who’ve gained their goddess’s favor. Of which, I am neither.” 

“I can’t imagine why.”

“Ha! Ah, seems like the slayer’s a blunt one just like junior there.” Arancoda chuckled, grinning wide and baring her sharp yellow teeth. “You raring to have a go at another Great Dragon or something, big guy?”

“No,” he immediately replied. “We’re not here to fight you. All we want to do is get into the Temple so we can handle whatever issues its having.”

Arancoda paused and closed her lips, starting to frown. “Issues?”

“The last temple we went to had one of Valondrac’s generals trying to steal the core from it. Her magic was heavily corrupted the whole place, and if it had kept up, it likely would have spread out into the forests around it.”

“…And you’re saying Valondrac might be doing something similar with the Fire Temple.”

“Exactly. So, we can try talking this over all we want, but sooner or later, whatever they’re doing in there, and I’m positive her forces are already inside, will start affecting you and your people.”

“…Hmph. That would be a problem.” She mulled it over for a moment, then smirked again. “Okay, you have a deal. I’ll let you into the Fire Temple to deal with the problems inside, and you’ll bring me back the Temple Core.”

“…That wasn’t what I was suggesting.”

“No? Because it sounds like a good deal to me. And hey, if those generals can get to them in the Temple, wouldn’t it be better to put the core under my protection?”

“She does have a point,” Adrien muttered, frowning to himself.

“Ha, see? Junior agrees.”

“…” Julius stared at the dragon lord as she smirked back at him. He really didn’t want to try getting on the bad side of a god, even one as kind-hearted as the Warm Mother…

“Hey, uh, question,” Maria suddenly spoke up, raising a hand. “Why do you even want the Temple Core in the first place?”

“Good question, suck-up.” Arancoda actually straightened up in her chair as she grinned, linking her clawed fingers in front of her mouth. 

“Suck-up?!” Maria exclaimed, thankfully keeping quiet enough that Arancoda didn’t point it out.

“You see,Temple Cores are valuable.”

“…”

“…”

“…That’s it?”

“Pretty much, yeah. Think about it, there’s only one of each out there at a time and they directly belong to gods. Do you know how awesome it would be to own one of those?”

Julius sighed. Each passing moment only served to remind him how much he hated dealing with these kinds of things. He could decline her offer, lose access to the temple, and potentially lose the core completely to one of the Demon Lord’s generals, or he could potentially anger a god by stealing their Temple Core, or he could enrage multiple dragons by going back on the deal.

“…Fine. We’ll get you the Temple Core. Is that all?”

“Yup!” Arancoda beamed, keeping her mouth closed as she smiled. “In return for the retrieval of the Divine Core of the Holy Fire Temple of Xelsha, I, Galinori Aloisia Osanna Hascimagni Arancoda di Ebkai, Lord of the Home of Fire, Protector of the Faith, and Head of the North Ebkai Trading Company, do hereby grant you, Julius Goldforge di Luceneva, immediate access to the Holy Fire Temple of Xelsha in perpetuity with the understanding that you and your companions shall henceforth enter the Fire Temple within three days and, upon finishing your tasks within the Fire Temple, you and your companions shall promptly relinquish the Divine Core into my direct possession.”

“…Wow, that was wordy,” Adrien muttered. “Did you really need to say Fire Temple so many times?”

“Specifics are important, brat. You give anyone an inch, they’ll rip your throat out.”

“…I don’t think that’s how that idiom goes.”

“Adrien, please stop arguing with the dragon lord.” Julius sighed. “Do I need to repeat all of that to agree?”

“Nope!” Arancoda abruptly reached up under the hem of her tunic and pulled out a large sheet of paper. A flick of her finger saw a pen form in her hand, which she promptly flung at Julius. He caught it and sighed again. 

A quick walk over to her and a thorough reading of the contract later, Julius finally signed everywhere he was supposed to on the contract. With that, he and his group now had access to the Fire Temple. Yaaaaaaaaaay…

One “Pleasure doing business with you!” later, and the trio was finally out of the dragon’s lair.

“Jeez, when you said we’d be dealing with some dragons to get into the temple, I was expecting something a bit more…dazzling, teach,” Maria complained.

Adrien shrugged. “You gotta learn to expect this kind of thing with the old man. If he says we’re going on a training trip, then he means he’s going to do something horrifying to us. If he says we’re going to a seedy bar, it turns out to be a nice place run by some old friends of his. If he says we’re meeting some old lady he used to know, he brings us to a colony of nudists. Uh, no offense.”

“Eh, none taken. So if he ever brings up anything cool, expect it to be terrible?”

“Yep!”

“I can hear every word you’re saying,” Julius spoke up, glaring at his students as they walked ahead of him, out of the ‘palace’ section of the mountain and into the more normal city area. 

Bustling streets, merchants selling wares, guards slacking off…for all its intimidating reputation, Xelshavi, the city proper, was about the same as every other city Julius had been in. The people were just generally scalier and there were places you couldn’t see the sky because of the mountain. Oh, and there were a lot of stairs. Waaaay too many stairs and not nearly enough lifts.

“…” His students glanced at each other, some kind of silent communication passing between them before they unanimously decided not to acknowledge him. 

Julius sighed. Well, at least things probably didn’t go too badly for the Triple-S. Sue and Sophia were generally more responsible, and Sergio…hm.

Well Sue can keep him in line. 

…Though, come to think of it, she could get out of hand too in the right circumstances, and if Sergio went too far…Julius really hoped Sophia was able to keep them in check. 

At the very least, he did tell them to not wander far from the inn they were staying at, which happened to be close by a market, so there wasn’t any need for them to wander too far.

Well, as much as searching in a group would make things faster, he did need to get everyone ready for the temple visit. 

“Okay, Adrien, Maria, you two go check out one of the fire shrines. See if you can find anything useful. Spells, info, or anything else. Use discretion with any purchases you make.” 

“Sure sure.” 

“Sure thing, old man.” …Great to hear they were taking this seriously.

Letting out an annoyed sigh, Julius wandered toward the market as Team AM wandered off. At least the more responsible of his kids would help him out. 

That is, until the three of them came bolting out of a building, a decently sized bag held in Sophia’s arms, and a decently sized mob chasing after them. In that moment, Julius felt himself age thirty years. Someone was going to be in a ton of trouble for this. 

Julius stepped out in front of the three, right the path they were running down. He silently glared at them as they practically skidded to a stop. The sheer panic on their faces almost made him forget how pissed off he was. Almost.

“M-Mr. Goldforge!?” 

“Hey, don’t get in our way now Teach!” 

“Yeah, this really isn’t the best time-” 

“Tell me exactly what happened,” Julius interrupted, keeping his glare on his students as the mob that had been chasing them stopped in their tracks too. Though some of them were moving to surround them… A quick glance at the drakes and humans in the group made it obvious they weren’t going to be a problem, so he kept his eyes on his students.

“I’ll tell you what happened! Those fucking brats decided to cheat us out of our money!” yelled one of the crowd, a tall and scowly firedrake.

“Hey! I won fair and square!” Sue yelled back. Now that he looked, she was pretty much covered in bumps and scrapes.

“Yeah right! We saw your friend using her magic to help you out!” 

“I was only trying to heal her wounds!” 

“And how do we know you weren’t helping her out before!?” 

“Can you prove she was?” Julius asked, turning his gaze to the apparent ringleader. 

“Huh?! And who the hell are you!?” 

“I’m their mentor. If they did something wrong then I would like to know.” 

“H-Hey! We didn’t cheat, Teach!” 

“Sue, let me handle this.” 

“It’s simple! We told her no magic allowed, and then we find out one of her friends is a mage! Anyone would be suspicious after she won so many matches!” 

“…Okay, but do you have anything solid that says she cheated?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense! No way one person can take on thirty people in a row like that!” Wow, this guy didn’t get out much.

“Look, if you’re just gonna complain then go back and fight each other. We have places to be.” And that’s when the guy decide to pull out the nimcha at his belt, a long saber commonly found in the mountainous regions.

Julius felt his eye twitch. That was the shoddiest piece of steel he’d ever seen. It was covered in nicks and had a blatant crack in the blade. Had this asshole even tried to maintain it?

“Ha, nothing to say now-” the red-scaled asshole started. Julius didn’t let him finish, stepping into the guy’s reach before he could react, and grabbing him right on the mouth before bodily slamming him straight into the street.

Julius held his position, keeping the asshole in his crater, and glared up at the crowd, who were all staring in obvious shock. 

“I’m only going to say this once. My student beat the shit out of thirty of you. What do you think I can do?”

The assembled thugs glanced at each other, silently urging one of their number to try to make the first move. Finally, a very nervous greendrake stepped forward. “L-Look, we don’t want-”

“Go back to your club. I am going to talk to my students. If they have committed any wrongdoing, then I will return the money in full.  If they haven’t, I won’t pursue any action against you. If any of you come after us, I will snap the perpretator’s spine and then take a tooth from every soul in this crowd as payment for their stupidity.”

“…W-Well…W-W-Well you’re just-”

Julius squeezed and the whole crowd flinched at the crack of teeth. He slowly stood and the drake immediately backed up fast, colliding with his friends behind him.

“Leave.”

They left.

Once he was sure every last goon had scurried back to their club, he turned his glare back on his students.

“…Holy shit Teach,” Sergio muttered. “That was intense.”

“Sergio, Sue, explain what the hell just happened. Sophia, heal this idiot.”

“…Y-Yes s-sir…” Sophia mumbled, then knelt by to the unconscious drake and started to mutter healing spells while Julius picked up the asshole’s poor sword.

“Uh…what’s the sword for?” Sergio asked, then stiffened as Julius frowned at him. “Uh, sir.”

“I’m still waiting for that explanation.”

“…It’s, uh, my fault, Teach,” Sue spoke up, rubbing her arm sheepishly. “We were, well, looking around the market for equipment and maybe some spellbooks Soph or Maria could use, but then I saw that place with all those posters-” She gestured at the fight club. “-and, well…I wanted to test my stuff.”

“So you bet on yourself and beat the snot out of over thirty trained fighters.”

“…Yeah, pretty much.”

Sergio suddenly sighed. “Ugh, great, I’m going to feel guilty about this now…sir, Sue didn’t put any money on herself. I did-”

“Hey, no! I said I was fine with it-”

“After I started saying how much we could get out of it-”

“And I was fine with it-”

“Because I talked you into-”

“No, because I’m proud of how strong-”

Julius decided to let the two of them argue for a bit as he looked over the nimcha. It looked bad now, but it could probably be fixed up if he gave it some time. A soft, dark gray glow formed around his hand as he passed it over the blade. He felt out where it was most damaged and slowly pushed a bit of mending into it. 

It wouldn’t fully fix it, but his repairs would make sure that it wouldn’t break if he tried to swing it. 

“U-Um, sir, I-I’m done.” 

Julius glanced at Sophia as she took a nervous step back from the unconscious drake. He looked over her work for any problems and, finding none, gave her a thumbs up. And then he kicked the drake in the side.

“GAH!” the drake yelped in pain as his students took a double take at the kick. 

“Hey, asshole. Take better care of your shit.” Julius crouched down, grabbed the drake’s hand and shoved the nimcha in it. “I fixed your sword, free of charge. Now, are you going to use it, or are you gonna go back to your friends?” 

“…Fuck this.” The drake grumbled, some smoke puffing from his nostrils as he stood up, glaring at his student. “You assholes aren’t worth it.”

With that, he walked off, his wounded pride obvious for all to see.

“Well, that’s one annoyance dealt with.” Julius stood and turned to face Team Triple S. “So how much?” 

“Uh… how much what?” Sue asked.

“How much did you win? You beat up thirty people, all of which you bet on. So you must have won a lot of money.

Sergio and Sue looked at each other before Serge spoke up. “Well, I didn’t get to count all of it, but we definitely cleaned out most of the people that were chasing us.” 

“Hm. Sophia, bag.” Julius held out his hand for a moment, then promptly reached into the bag once Sophia handed it to him. He grabbed a fistful of gold coins, before putting his share into his satchel. “Well, you won this money fair and square. So I won’t punish you.”  

“…Then why did you take some gold?” 

“First, I solved your problem. Second, I had to take a shit deal with a dragon. And third, I might have a goddess trying to hunt me down in a few days.” Tossing the bag at Sue, Julius turned to walk away. “I need a night for myself!” 

“…what do you think he meant by that?” 

“Knowing him? He probably just pissed off someone he thinks is really beautiful…Hey, maybe he means Valondrac?”

“Serge!”

“What? It’s not like I’m wrong. We’re actively pissing her off by being alive.” 

“Uh…do you think it’s a good idea to let Mr. Goldforge wander around by himself, given what happened?” 

“It’s not like anyone would be able to hurt him. Besides he’s probably just gonna get drunk or go to a brothel.” 

“Sergio!” 

“I’m not wrong!”

…He wasn’t, but now Julius was tempted to do something else just to spite the kid.

He sighed. Maybe tomorrow wouldn’t be so bad? If Arancoda really was keeping an eye on things, then maybe there wouldn’t even be a general to fight tomorrow. Just a nice, normal Temple filled with lava spiders and golems.

…Maybe he should try that fighting club out? Work out some stress.

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