Returning to my apartment after father's speech, I sat myself down on the living room couch and began contemplating on where I would be able to impact the war more.
With my external casting and the mind crystal locket, I could buff a large group of the artillery squad intermittently, thereby greatly improving their efficiency. If I stayed, my presence would be quite valuable in repelling the charges of the ants.
But, the expedition into the centre of the Forbidden Zone was just as crucial an operation. It had to succeed otherwise, even if we managed to hold out against the legion, we would be at the Duchess' mercy whenever she was able to extend her reach to us.
If Ceres was correct and the premature eruption of Zhurong was the handiwork of the Duchess' mother, the mind crystal amulet might very well be the key to unlocking the mysteries of the mechanism used. Given the attribute of the mind crystal, only Ceres or, due to our bond, I could utilize it. If we did not participate, the sacrifice of the exploration squad might be in vain.
And, truth be told, I was a bit excited for the adventure inherent in delving into the heart of the Sixth Forbidden Zone in the duration of the Calamity. Exploring the lands had always been my ambition and now, a chance to go where no man ever had before was placed in front of me.
There was a clack of claws against the window as a white cat unlatched it and leapt into the room. Padding up to me, it jumped atop my head.
The cat made herself more comfortable, messing my hair up in the process. "You're planning on volunteering, aren't you?" she asked. "Yes." "Well then… I'll just have to come along." Yawning widely and licking her lips, she settled her head down onto her forepaws and shut her eyes.
"You're going?" I asked mother, surprised.
Opening one eye just a crack, she replied, "Not me. My doppelganger, meow. And, of course I'll be going. Did you expect me to let you go gallivanting off to danger unattended?"
"Actually, I thought that you wouldn't allow us to volunteer."
She sat up and snorted, emoting her disdain in her feline form with perfection no human could ever hope to attain.
"And what kind of example would that set for the rest of the troops? The General and the Chief of the Healing department coddling their child, who is a Lieutenant himself, moments after their eloquent spiel about honour in sacrifice."
She shook her head and settled it back down upon her forepaws. "No, that wouldn't do at all. Their morale would drop to the valley. Not only that, if it was just a matter of you seeking thrill in danger and chasing glory recklessly, I would have stepped in, to hell with their opinions. But this? This is necessary.
"Apparently six months apart from us has made you forget what kind of woman I am… and what kind of mother." I grimaced as I felt one of her claws poking my scalp. "I'm the one who suggested that you stay together with Phobos and Deimos, even before they had Awakened, to strengthen your bond. You nearly died from that, didn't you?"
Deimos, who was sitting between my feet with her head in my lap, stiffened at the memory of the incident. One of her hands clutched the fabric of my trousers tightly. I remembered the coppery taste of her mouth when she had kissed me after the incident. She had brushed her teeth hard enough for her gums to bleed. I ran my fingers through her hair and she slowly relaxed.
"I will never bar you from taking necessary risks. The world is a dangerous place and the only way to thrive rather than just muddle on is to face it head on; overcoming the smaller dangers to grow strong enough to face the graver tribulations."
Deimos sat up, grudgingly separating from my caress. Turning to mother she asked, "What's a doppelganger?"
Mother seemed to struggle between sleep and answering her question for a bit before, with a sigh, she got up and leapt down from my head onto the ground. Padding up to the table in front of us, she leapt onto it and stretched before settling down on her haunches. Looking down on Deimos from her elevated position, she explained, "It's good that you asked. Since you are Specialized in control like me, creating a doppelganger will be part of your future magus path. Tell me, what is the main difference between a Tier 3 and a Tier 4 mage?"
Deimos hesitantly replied, "Bloodline manifestation?"
"Don't make you're answers sound like questions. Be more confident. Yes. The difference is the ability to have their bloodlines manifest in reality. Mars, what is a Domain?"
I stiffened subconsciously at her tone. Mother was a totally different person when she taught. A strict disciplinarian, every session with her was a harrowing experience for her students. Fiona, Gerard's wife and one of her students had confided in me that she thought that to balance her prodigious gift of healing the body, she had been given the ability to injure minds. Having learnt alchemy at her knee, I couldn't help but agree. Her acid tongue was infamous.
Knowing her hate for rambling, I kept my answer short and concise. "The Domain is the projection of one's mindscape into reality by using one's mana."
"What kind of answer is that? If I wanted something so unclear and metaphysical, I'd have let you know. Projection? Mindscape? Write a poem, why don't you?"
My eye twitched. Professors being unreasonable during a viva.
With an annoyed huff, she continued, "Listen close, meow. At Tier 1 you gain the ability to generate mana and use it. All Tier 1 spells are limited by the fact that you can't extend them out of your own body. Take the Tier 1 wind magic: Haste for instance. It generates a coat of wind around your body, removing all air resistance and lightening your weight. That's why your speed increases."
Turning to Deimos, "But were you able to apply Haste on the body of someone other than yourself at Tier 1?" she asked her.
"Uhh, actually, I could apply Haste on Master, ya." she replied, nervously. "I couldn't do it with Phi-Phi though."
Mother paused, surprised before recovering and looking pensive. "Interesting. It seems that since the Tamer has the same mana as their companions, they are treated as part of the body of the mage. Anyway, you get the point. Tier 1 mages can only cast spells that apply to themselves. Only upon reaching Tier 2 do they gain the capability to cast spells that affect distant opponents. Blade Edge Hurricane should be a good example. Also, a Tier 2 mage is able to cast their Tier 1 spells on others." She turned to Deimos. "You've been working with the Earth mages to dispatch the ants, haven't you? You must have seen some of the wind mages casting Haste on their partners to mitigate their shortcoming in the mobility department while the earth mages return the favour by casting Stoneskin on the wind mages to bolster their defence. This ability to cast on others is due to the increased density of Tier 2 mana." Noticing Deimos' raised hand, she asked, "Yes?"
"Well, it's not related to this per se, but the Earth mage I talked to yesterday said that using a balanced strategy was one of the worst ways of earth-wind collaboration. She said that having the earth mage focused on defence while the wind mage attacked was the best use of their superiorities."
Mother smirked, "Did she tell you how much training and trust is needed for that kind of manoeuvre? How tacit must your coordination be, how deep your trust, for you to put your life completely in the hands of another and survive the experience? Even husbands and wives do not dare to guarantee that they'd be able to pull it off with certitude." Mother's tooth gleamed as she curled her lip in a smile that made me apprehensive. "Could you give me the name of this girl who had the bright idea of getting my daughter hurt with her irresponsible words."
Deimos hastily shook her head. "No no. I n-ever asked her name, ya." Mother narrowed her eyes at the blatant lie. "Oh well, if you ever do find an earth mage worthy of your trust, make sure that she is a girl and a pretty one at that. She'd make a great addition to the family, meow."
Ignoring Deimos' blush, mother continued. "That's Tier 2 for you. The ability to cast external spells and buff others. If you noticed, when you advance to Tier 2, you gain the ability to cast two new kinds of spells, or rather, one new spell and an upgrade of your Tier 1 spell. Take Shadow mages for example. At Tier 1, they have the ability to merge with the shadows, effectively going into stealth in a low light situation. At Tier 2, not only do the gain the ability to extend these shadows outwards in an upgrade to the spell known popularly as Call of the Dark, but also become capable of travelling through shadows: Shadow Walk."
Despite my extensive forays into the library, I didn't know about these things as no magical knowledge was kept there. The inheritance of magic was strictly by word of mouth. Thinking about it, all the elements followed the pattern. "In the case of Fire mages, their Tier 2 spell, Heatwave should be the upgrade of the Tier 1 spell: Ember but what about Fire Bullets? You can cast that in Tier 1 and it allows for mana to be used externally." I asked.
"Every element has its superiority. The forte of the element of flame is its offensive power. It is easier for Fire mages to externalize their attacks but have you ever seen one of them try to buff another mage? No? It's because they are hopelessly inadequate in that department. They are more likely to singe you than amplify your magic when they cast Ember upon you, meow. That's why you are so popular with the Artillery Squad: Your ability to amplify their attacks."
Yawning widely, mother continued, "Now, Tier 3 is an entirely new realm and at the same time, it is incomparably familiar. Just like for all advancements, the density of your mana will increase and you will gain the ability to tap into a new aspect of your elements. Let's continue with the example of the shadow element... Do you have any idea what ability they gain when they advance?"
While I shook my head, Deimos replied, "Umm, I heard it from Marshal Canis, that shadow mages are able to control the bodies of others at a high enough realm."
Mother nodded her head appreciatively. The sight of her bobbing her small head in her feline form was kind of adorable but I didn't dare voice my thoughts. She had a complex about her feral form being so much smaller and less imposing than those of others. The forms usually enlarged in size as the Bestia progressed in their cultivation and changed a bit under the influence of the rushing mana in their bodies. It was speculated that in the Era of the Beasts, the world was populated by gigantic monsters, behemoths of magical might whose size indicated their strength. Unfortunately for mother, her bloodline origin seemed to be special in that it hadn't grown at all since its first manifestation.
"Correct," she said, "Shadow and Light are opposing elements, yet, they are extremely similar in their function. Both correspond to the physical body. While light is born of physical pleasure, shadow is born of pain. Where light heals, shadow jacks into the nerves of the body and manipulates. Facing a master of the shadow element, unless you have enough mana to counter their spells, you'll degenerate into their puppet. It is a fearsome power and isn't received well. Another reason, along with the instinctive fear of the dark and their propensity for pain, why shadow mages are shunned socially. Some families of light mages are known to be especially hostile to wielders of shadow magic. Thankfully, such knowledge is classified and kept from the public, otherwise the situation might be a lot worse... Phobos will have to face it down the line."
Mother looked at me meaningfully through her half-lidded eyes and I understood her regard. I met her gaze with a determination. Breaking eye contact, her lips curved upwards and she continued with her explanation. "At Tier 3 a mage essentially gains one spell and a Domain. The Domain is nothing as complicated as 'the projection of one's mindscape onto reality'. That's just a fancy way of saying 'saturate your surroundings with your mana'. The mage simply releases their mana while keeping a hold onto it. It displaces the other naturally occurring strains of mana in the surroundings and brings the entire region under their control. It works by attenuating the opponent's spells while the spells of the caster of the Domain are amplified.
"In practice, a Domain is actually a fusion of the two Tier 2 spells. Cast Call of the Dark, fill the region of effect with your mana and then use shadow walk to merge into one organic whole with the Domain. That's the Domain of Darkness for you. Combine that with Tier 3 Shadow magic: Shadow puppetry and you have a region of utter darkness which will take control of the physical bodies of any living being unfortunate enough to fall into it."
"As for Tier 4, you need to integrate your bloodline into your Domain and shape it into the form of your inner Beast. It is called Bloodline Manifestation."
Deimos asked, "Then a Doppelganger is…"
"A Bloodline Manifestation that can operate independently. Only those who are Specialized in control can achieve this. It takes immense precision to separate your bloodline and a portion of your mana from yourself and operate it like a separate individual. A Doppelganger is an extremely sophisticated battle puppet. Those who choose the route of Power increase their own strength, merging with their own Bloodline Manifestation at the pinnacle of Tier 4 in a process known as Bloodline Integration." To me, she said, "You have seen your father use it when he was battling the Sun Wolf."
Addressing Deimos, she continued, "So, while they pursue individual force, we will ultimately seek to multiply our battle prowess through strength in numbers. Our opponents will face not one, but two individuals of similar power."
A knock at the door interrupted our conversation.
Yawning, mother put her head back down onto her forepaws and closed her eyes. "The main body is here… She'll tell you the rest… I need to… sleep."
Deimos and I looked at each other, finding surprise writ large on the other's face. The cat in front of us was mother's Doppelganger.
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