"I can't maintain my Domain if we go further." Hei Lian said as she called a halt. "The turbulence of fire mana in front of us is too much for me to handle. Something drastic happened here. Probably something to do with your missing Lieutenant."
One of the earth mages in our squad stamped the ground, raising a spire of rock. Kneeling down, he measured the angle its shadow made with the east to get a measure of the time before bringing out a sextant to measure the angle of the sun. Some calculation later, he called out the coordinates of our present location. We were very close to the position reported by Lt. Corvus.
All of us looked up at the peak of the mountain we were scaling. From where we stood, we could only make out that there had been an avalanche recently as rocks of various sizes had rolled down the side opposite to the face we were at. They had blocked our path up, forcing us to detour. There were several winged ants circling above the peak, seemingly searching for something.
"It seems that he's there at the peak." One of our mages said, grimly. "He had mentioned a Tier 4 ant detonating itself in its dying moments. It is the most likely cause of the turbulence in the ambient mana."
The only wind mage from the Wolves on our squad took out a collapsible brass telescope and trained it at the peak, surveying it. After he was done, he passed the instrument on and we all took a turn getting an idea of the situation for ourselves.
There were seven Tier 3 ants and several Tier 2 ants flying about above the peak, searching for the Lieutenant. It was a small miracle that they hadn't found him yet.
"Why do you think they haven't located him yet?" asked the water mage. "With their sense of smell and with so many of them working in tandem, they should have found him by now. Not that I'm complaining, but it seems kind of fishy."
The talk of fish reminded me of dark blue hair, soulful cerulean eyes and skilful webbed hands. I shook my head to clear off the distracting thought. Where had that come from?
"The self-detonation of the Tier 4 ant probably burned the scents in the region away. That is why they are having such difficulty in locating anything. Aeryn most definitely hid himself away in the most covert position. So, until the mana turbulence settles, they probably won't be able to detect him. But, to prevent any eventuality, we need to act as soon as possible." replied Marshal Canis.
"All the ants need to die." Hei Lian opined as she took her turn at the telescope. "If we leak even one, then they could hover above us and reveal our position to all the other ants. We don't have any fliers among us. We won't be able to take it down. So, if we move, we have to do it with a plan that will not leave any living witnesses."
Seizing a lull in the conversation, Ceres spoke up, "I can attract all the ants with my smoke… lure them into gathering so that we can take them on all at once. Just, the fight will be quite intense, what with so many Tier 3 mages. It might bring in more unwanted company."
There was silence as everyone contemplated on her offer with a complex look on their faces. I could make a pretty accurate guess as to why they were hesitant. Finally, Marshal Canis broke the silence and asked, "Can you lure the ants separately without attracting the attention of all of them?"
Ceres replied, noncommittally, "I cannot say. It depends on whether the ants will investigate the scent first and then report back to the others or whether they will gather and investigate together."
"Oh well," shrugged the Marshal, "There's no helping it. We'll have to try it out." She addressed us, "Lieutenant Mars, Ceres, the both of you come with me. We'll try to tempt one of the Tier 3's but if all of them gather, we'll direct them towards the rest of the squad." Addressing the rest of the squad, she said, "And all of you, follow Lady Hei Lian's lead and set up an ambush for whatever we manage to bring."
Hei Lian acknowledged her with a nod before barking out orders to the remaining soldiers. For a brief moment I wondered why she was in charge. She had to have less experience in military tactics than the more experienced Tier 3's in the squad. She was extremely young after all. Then, I threw the thought to the back of my mind. I didn't have to care about it. All I needed to do was keep Ceres safe as she tempted the ant and the Marshal concealed our whereabouts.
"Come," said the Marshal and we followed her as she led us through the rocky terrain of the mountain, using it to conceal our forms as we made our way up to the peak. Wrapped in her shadows, we were as invisible as it was possible to be in broad daylight and Ceres' incense ensured that they couldn't find us via smell. As for mana pings; the turbulence of the fire mana in the region meant that the pings would return garbled messages.
I was a bit worried that my external casting wouldn't work in this environment and I would have to depend purely on my physical strength to protect Ceres and defend myself. But a quickly drawn fire rune clad me in a coat of fire. The Tier 1 fire magic: Ember. It seemed that I wouldn't have to worry about that happening. In fact, my fire magic was slightly amplified by the increased activity of the element in the region.
As we drew nearer the summit, the scene of the battle between the Tier 4 ant and Lieutenant Corvus came into view. There were scorch marks all over the ground as well as the scattered, smouldering remains of the ant's carcass. I spied a charred leg and a mandible lying around nearby. Above our heads, the air buzzed as the ants circled in search of clues.
"We can't approach any further without getting detected. Do your thing now," urged the Marshal.
Nodding, Ceres took out a small glass jar filled with a pungent paste. She beckoned to me with her hand and I leaned my head towards her. Reaching out like lightning, she plucked a hair from my head. Rearing back in surprise, I rubbed my scalp where it tingled as I shot her a reproachful glare.
Ignoring me, she dipped the strand of hair into the paste like a wick and lit it with her flame. Immediately, the pungent smell of the paste desalinated and a thin stream of white smoke emanated from the transparent flame.
"What did you do?" I asked curiously.
"I just amplified the smell of your burning hair with this unguent and concentrated it into the smoke so I could control it. Actually, the true use of this is to forge the scent of someone else so that false trails can be laid and two enemies can be played off against the other." She replied.
My lips twitched. "Soo… these monsters now have my scent?"
She nodded at me in all seriousness. "So, Husband, you should start running."
Behind me, I heard the buzzing of wings and the shrill screech of one of the monsters. "Damn," I cursed as I took to my heels.
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