"That… will be a lot of help," said Marshal Canis. She turned to one of her subordinates, a Tier 3 wind mage, "Then, since that has been taken care of, Devin, I'll need you to keep our smells from leaving the range of the Domain with your wind." Turning to the female wind mage who had been the one just ahead of us and the last to arrive on the summit, "And Keira, you substitute for him when his reserves drop to a third of his full capacity."
Ceres raised her hand and the Marshal paused her instructions curiously, "Yes?" Pulling a pouch out of the satchel she had brought along, she opened the drawstring and extracted two sticks of incense before tossing the pouch to the Marshal who asked, "What's this for?"
Adjusting her glasses, Ceres replied, "It is a special incense. Light it and it will eliminate all the smells around your body. You don't need mana for that."
"What!?" exclaimed the Marshal. "Why didn't you tell us about this before? Aeryn would have been a lot safer if he had this with him."
Ceres shook her head, "I remembered seeing this formula in the Vulpine clan library. After studying up on the characteristics of the ants, I decided to see if I could have it made. I only managed to get it ready yesterday night."
"Why didn't you hand the formula over to the Alchemy department? We could have made it much faster than you." said one of the two water mages of the Regiis side. "Because," replied Ceres, calmly, "the main component of the incense is my flame." "Your flame?" asked the water mage, confused.
"The incense flame," sneered Hei Lian, "She's a kitsune."
The atmosphere coagulated as everyone struggled to come to terms with the shocking information. Then there was pandemonium among the members from Regiis as some took a step back from us, falling into aggressive stances while others came forward and asked Ceres to clear her name. some even turned around to berate Hei Lian for deliberately sowing dissension among the ranks. As for the cultivators from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, they displayed unprecedented unity as they all formed up behind Hei Lian in a battle-ready stance, pointing their weapons at Ceres.
"SILENCE!" yelled Marshal Canis and the hubbub slowly died down. Every eye was focused on the two of us.
I sighed internally. If I disliked anything about Ceres, it was this procedure of hers. If she did something wrong, she didn't apologize the moment she realized it. She waited till a moment when the victim of her misdeeds was in a situation where they couldn't afford to sour their relationship with her. That way, they were 'forced' to forgive her. Not that they wouldn't have under ordinary circumstances… just that they would have taken a lot more convincing. The situation now was the same as when she had delayed revealing the plot behind her marriage to me.
Now that I was on the other side of the fence, I could somewhat understand the logic behind it… use the circumstances to force the opposite party to tolerate your fault, then make up for it with your actions.
Marshal Canis turned to us. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Ceres took a deep breath. "Look. I…"
"Tell us whether the she-wolf speaks true first!" a mage from the Regiis contingent cut her off. His eyes were red. If I recalled correctly, he had family in Central.
She sighed. "Yes. But…"
The mage didn't give her a chance to explain herself, as with a furious scream, he lunged at her, his fist wreathed in flames.
I was prepared for such an eventuality the moment Ceres had opened her mouth and moved to block him but someone was faster. Awakened by the hostility directed at us, mother's doppelganger vanished from the top of my head in a streak of light. Before I could blink, she was on top of his. For a brief instant, both cat and man shone in a sickly pale light then his eyes rolled up to the back of his head and he collapsed in an insensate heap. The doppelganger walked off this prone form and leapt onto Ceres' shoulder, from where she surveyed the rest of the mages, looking down her nose regally.
Everyone took another step back as they watched the cat with deep wariness. "C-chief?" stuttered Marshal Canis before she stepped up, cleared her throat and spoke with greater confidence. "Chief, do you intend to harbour her?" The Doppelganger stared at her for a bit before disregarding her and leaning down to touch Ceres' chest with a paw. Then she turned into a stream of light and merged with the mana that made up her artificial flesh.
They weren't aware of it, but that wasn't really mother's Doppelganger anymore. After I had experimentally tried to bind it to me with my contract magic, I had found that it wasn't actually possible. The doppelganger had no real will of its own and was only a mana construct and as such, the frequency of its mana was heterogeneous. The contract, based as it was upon the principle of resonating mana frequencies between both parties, would not hold in such a case.
In the end, after much trial and error and brainstorming, we had decided to bind it indirectly. Mother had merged the cat with Ceres' artificial flesh, which also originated from her and therefore was quite compatible, and I had linked it to my contract with Ceres. Thus, strictly speaking, the Doppelganger was now Ceres' guardian and beast companion. It wasn't fully sentient and its actions were mainly governed by the instincts it had inherited from mother's bloodline. Due to the bond, it was extremely intimate with Ceres and me and would listen to our requests but it wasn't a puppet and had developed some measure of self-will. It was like a very dangerous pet. But the essential characteristic of lethargy and being thrifty in its mana expenditure had remained. After dealing with the attacking mage, it had immediately retreated back into Ceres to rest and replenish its mana.
Everyone fidgeted nervously, torn between a desire to condemn Ceres and a reluctance to go up against a Tier 4 mage to do it. Especially within the territory of the ants where death was a mere pace away.
"Please," said Ceres, "Let me explain."
Hei Lian narrowed her eyes at her chest, making her quite uncomfortable. She finally shrugged, "Not like we have a choice."
Marshal Canis sighed. "Go on."
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