I watched the sun dip below the horizon, deepening the shadows on the rugged terrain of the Sixth Forbidden Zone. The crimson of sunset gave way to the scarlet glow of the legions of fire ants that made their way past our temporary camp. Firang would soon be experiencing one of the most frigid wars since its inception. All we could do was pray for their safety.
Turning back to the centre of the camp, I ran my eyes over the arrangements. The tents had been erected in a tight circle around the smouldering campfire. It was quite easy to pick out the Regiis tents from the ones belonging to the Wolves. While our tents were a nondescript reddish brown that blended with the colour of the soil here, their tents were highly personalized with motifs and patches adorning them, mirroring their eclectic dressing sense. Our only water mage, Teal, if I remembered her name correctly, was busy cooking up our dinner over the fire – a stew prepared from the bodies of the Tier 3 ants we had slain earlier this day. Curious about how water magic was used in the preparation of food, I decided to strike up a conversation with her.
She looked up from her work at my approach, her eyes the same shade of blue as her name – a captivating teal. Favouring me with a smile, she returned to her task. Instead of distracting her with conversation, I stood by and observed her with my senses opened wide. Whatever unknown mutation had occurred due to our experimentation with contract magic and mother's Doppelganger, it at least had the positive consequence of improving my affinities to water and light. As I gave full play to these enhanced senses, the world grew more detailed in my eyes, every flow of mana laid bare before me in shimmering eddies of colour.
Teal's palms were lit a watery blue as her mana flowed through them and into the large cauldron full of ant legs submerged in water. The water had been conjured from the atmosphere with the combined efforts of her and her husband, a wind mage wo was enamoured enough with her to change his name to Azure just so they could fit better together. He had cycled the air through the camp as she had stripped the moisture from it with her magic – with her on the team, we didn't need to be worried about a shortage of potable water.
The water trundled under the dual effect of the campfire and the mana being poured into it. I observed the streams of mana infused water seep into the fire mana laden flesh of the ants, scouring them clean of their magic and infusing it into the broth. I could only admire her proficiency in her craft. "Are you specialized in control?" I asked when she paused to take a breather.
"Why, yes. How did you guess?" she asked, curiously. "Just an educated guess." I hedged. "I thought that cooking with magic would require a lot of finesse."
"It does," she said with a smile, "are you interested? It's quite rare to see a male take an interest in the culinary arts. My husband won't come near a stove for the life of him – not that I'd let him."
"I know my way around a kitchen and have some experience with alchemy but I've never tried combining both the way you cooks do here."
"Oh? Too bad you don't have a water mage in your harem. I could do with a scullion to order about in the guise of an apprentice." she joked. "Especially a young looker like you. That's guaranteed to drive my husband up the wall." she supplemented in a stage whisper.
"Well, this student is eager to learn the ways of the chef. I shall be in your care." I replied with mock-solemnity, bowing to her.
"Wait! Didn't you hear me? You need water mana to work with mana rich ingredients such as this. You can't process them otherwise…" Her words trailed away as I drew the rune for water in the air and the humidity in our surroundings shot up a few notches. I bowed again. "Teacher."
Zoya Canis was positively furious but her anger was tamped down beneath the weight of her iron will that had been tempered by her many years of service in the army. She hadn't wanted to believe that someone in such a high position of responsibility could be so arrogant, so foolish.
She had trusted her, trusted the heiress of the Wolves with the lives of her subordinates because she had felt that the girl was a capable leader from how the rest of the mercenaries followed her lead unquestioningly. That was a sure sign of their confidence in her leadership, she had thought. But as her subordinate with the most experience in ambush warfare, a grizzled earth mage spoke indignantly of how his opinions had been overruled and even outright neglected by the girl in favour of her own half-baked plans, her expression grew ugly.
Hei Lian had nearly endangered the entire mission with her domineering attitude. She had no idea why the grizzled mercenaries followed such a greenhorn. She didn't know but she couldn't help but break out in cold sweat at the thought of how things could have gone wrong.
Lt. Mars was a key to the success of the mission. He and his wife's connection to the Traitor's mother was what the entire premise of the mission was based off. If he had died, she didn't know what the girl would do. Actually… she did. Ceres had declared it to her personally. She would have joined her Husband in death. Then how would they complete the mission? If the ant had chosen to take to the air instead of attacking the young Lieutenant, they would have had no means to deal with it. It could have hovered over them, announcing their presence to any nearby ants. They would be as good as dead.
She shot a glance at the tent that held the unconscious Aeryn and sighed lightly. Her dereliction of duty could hardly be absolved. In her eagerness to search for her friend, she had decided to go ahead with Mars and Ceres when the task could have been as easily delegated to one of the other shadow mages. She could have stayed back to command the ambush then none of this would have happened. She had let emotions rule her on the field of battle.
Hei Lian was lucky to have come out of the fiasco without the weight of the blood of her comrades on her conscience. They both were.
She turned to a droopy eyed man who was slumped against the post of the tent looking like he wanted to be anywhere but there. "Azure! I'll assign you a new duty. You are to assure that until we reach the ant lair, Mars Felidae stays in one piece."
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