Darkness pressed in from all sides as Phobos' consciousness entered her mindscape. It ranged from shadows similar to the light shade under a tree at dawn to an utter lack of light that made it seem as if there was a gap in reality.
She floated in the nothingness as she manipulated her mana to wash out the boundary walls of the mindscape, strengthening it, working steadily towards tier 2.
Her metaphysical hands were inserted into a patch of the deepest of blacks. As she worked, the darkness stirred, resolving into millions of ants composed of a portion of the abyss.
The insects crawled up her arm, slowly overspreading her body. Maintaining composure, she continued with her cultivation.
As if incensed by her motion, the ants went into a frenzy and sank their mandibles into her ethereal flesh.
Pain exploded into her psyche. A horrendous burning pain that seared through her soul. Clenching her teeth, she barely managed to keep herself from screaming and persevered in manipulating her now extremely active mana to wash out her mindscape's walls.
Finally, unable to insist, her consciousness fled back to her body and in reality, she came to with a gasp.
Waves of agony inundated her, originating from her gloved hands. An agony so intense, that she had to curl up in a foetal position around her hands, clenching her teeth to hold in her voice.
Gingerly, she took off the bulky straw gloves and tossed them away, shivering with repressed screams as the motion irritated the fire ants trapped inside the gloves and they bit into her inflamed flesh.
Crawling over to a bucket of water, kept chilled with ice stones, she dunked her hands into it, groaning with relief as the cold counteracted the fiery toxins from the ant bites.
Soon, along with the water reaching a lukewarm state, the toxin in her hands was discharged and her taut body relaxed.
Dry-heaving from the sudden variations in her body, she spat only stomach acids. Having known this would happen, she had started her meditation on an empty stomach.
Shakily, she wiped her lips with the back of her hand, wincing as the contact irritated her still inflamed skin.
Her vision went to the innocuous looking straw gloves lying on the carriage floor. They were bulky pieces of equipment, woven out of dried irongrass in a double layer with the inside containing five of the most fearsome creatures in the continent.
Fire ants, one of the last remnants of the Beast race.
When Vita and Mortem had made their decision to fuse with the Beast race, they had done so with the intention of reliving the process of falling in love through the perspective of other sentient beings.
As such, organisms with hive-minds like bees and ants and other colonial creatures that didn't allow for emotions in their society were passed over in their merge.
Thus, for a time, such creatures were in decline… until the apocalypse arrived and they avoided the total annihilation that was visited upon their fellow beasts by dint of not being merged with the gods and hence unaffected by the Daemon Lord's spell.
Retaining their magical powers and devoid of natural competitors, the remnant beasts' populations grew explosively as they fed upon the mundane animals and expanded their territories systematically under the tight control of their hive mind.
Till this day, several parts of the continent have been declared restricted areas due to them being overrun by such remnant Beasts.
The worst of which is the Kalahari Swarm; a mobile restricted area formed of a giant swarm of magical locusts that leave nothing but a barren desert in the wake of their passing.
Fire ants are one of these remnant Beasts. Differentiated from their mundane counterparts by their size, reaching up to the length of a section of an average adult's index finger, and their fiery venom, they are apex predators.
Truly, ants which could bite an elephant to death.
Phobos was using them to accelerate her cultivation by smearing honey on her hands and wearing the gloves.
The ants would bite her through the mesh, injecting their venom and inflicting tremendous pain which, due to her shadow affinity would activate her mana, making attacking the bottleneck to tier 2 easier.
She had opted for this brutal method as it was the only way she could think of to break-through within the week.
Mars had resumed his training with renewed vigour after his injury had healed. By integrating wind mana into his martial arts and by dint of his body, strengthened by the bond with Deimos, he was nigh invincible within Tier 1.
But Phobos had received news from her father, who had been keeping tabs on Bruno's parents, that they had completed an extremely difficult assignment recently and given their observer the slip near Sun city.
The observer hadn't been able to trace them, but he had found out that a glacial crystal had been purchased from the auction house there by a cloaked couple.
Bruno, in all probability, was now in Tier 2.
Technically, they could cry foul and press charges of embezzlement on Bruno's parents but all they had to do was avoid coming back to the clan for the month and Bruno would have already finished with the tournament.
Tier 2 was a qualitative leap. While Tier 1 magic applied to one's own body, Tier 2 spells could affect targets at a range. For example, the most basic Tier 1 wind magic: Haste, increased one's speed by reducing air drag while at higher levels of Tier 1 one could use Air Bullets to attack at range with minimal efficiency.
It was the tier 2 magic: Blade Edge Hurricane which truly gave long-range capabilities.
Invincible in Tier 1 or not, if Mars faced Bruno as he was now, he would lose and Bruno would be declared heir while his parents could come to power and sweep the embezzlement case under the rug.
In short, the time for complaints and bureaucracy had passed and only suppression with martial might was an acceptable solution.
The only method was for her to awaken as a Feral. Although, that wasn't in her hands, it was well known that a breakthrough to Tier 2 was closely followed by Feralization for girls with strong bloodlines.
Thus, she had thrown herself into her meditative training with heart and soul without informing Mars, Deimos or her parents-in-law as she didn't want their morale to flag.
After the month of harvest was over, the preliminary rounds of the competition had started and within a week, a hundred talented youths had been screened from their territory.
Now, they were on their way to the capital of the South-Eastern province along with the selected youths as representatives of the Felidae clan and its head, Marquis Veer Felidae.
They had been travelling along the roads by horse carriages for almost a week and time was growing tight.
Mars would need at least a fortnight to familiarize himself with shadow mana, so if she didn't break through soon, all her efforts, all her pain would be for naught.
She was spending more and more time locked up in the carriage recently, cultivating… or more accurately torturing herself and it was taking a toll on her mental and physical health.
There were bags under her eyes, making her natural eye shadows more prominent while she had grown thinner with her cheekbones showing through more conspicuously. Even her prized hair was frazzled.
A knock at the door to her carriage was followed by the worried voice of Deimos.
"Phi-Phi? Are you alright, ya? If you're feeling better, then come eat with us at the campfire. The fresh air will do you good."
Phobos gingerly picked up the gloves and put them into a steel box with air vents, locking them in securely before reorganizing her appearance as best as she could.
Unlatching the door, she stepped out.
Poor Phobos... The associated artwork with this chapter is nsfw so I put it in my Discord server.
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