I tugged at my collar to let the breeze I had summoned play through my shirt and cool my overheated body. We had set a punishing pace right after Lieutenant Corvus had regained consciousness. Maybe I should refer to him as Major now. With his level of contribution, he would surely be promoted once he returned to camp and announced his promotion to Tier 4.
He had described the infighting between the two colonies of ants at the centre of the Forbidden Zone in much greater detail than he had been able to over the mind crystal channel. His familiarity with the terrain and ability to aerially scout ahead for us had offset the delay caused by his need for frequent breaks on account of his freshly healed injuries.
Time was of the essence. If we reached there too late, the two colonies were liable to reach a ceasefire and retreat back into their respective nests to recuperate from their intense engagement before going for another round. Without any way to predict how long that period of recuperation would last, we had no other choice but to reach there before it could happen. Otherwise, we would have to either infiltrate the lair of the ants when they were all home or wait for them to do battle with the other colony again, leaving their lair void. The former option was clearly suicidal while the latter was risky; if we took too long to fulfill our mission, we might not have a camp to return to.
I crested a rise and the battle between the two opposing colonies came clearly into view. There was only one word for it: brutal. Corpses lay piled high at the intersection of the two armies and the ants climbed over their fallen to do battle on the hill of their comrades' bodies. Runnels of their bluish-green blood originated from the corpse pile, steaming as it soaked into the earth. The atmosphere was heavy with fire and death.
It only took a look for me to realize why Lieutenant Corvus was so sure that the key to the Duchess' plans lay here. The ants of the colony that had based themselves within the volcano of Gun were clearly different from the ordinary fire ants that opposed them. Instead of a crystalline red carapace, their bodies were encased in an exoskeleton the colour of ash. Their natural runes and the lines where the segments of their bodies met, glowed red from their internal flame, making them look like smouldering pieces of coal given life. Instead of the characteristic clean-burning, orange flames summoned by the regular fire ants, their fire was the blue of a well banked fireplace and emanated copious amounts of smoke that bent to their will under the effect of their mana.
There was no question about it. The variation of the elemental affinity of the ants of the colony to resemble the incense flame of the kitsune was a clear indication that the goal of our trip lay within the Dungeon of Gun.
Turning back, I waited for Ceres to catch up before pulling her up the steep section so she could stand beside me and get a better view of the battle. The forced march with the infrequent breaks had taken a toll on her. Her hair lay plastered on her forehead by sweat and she was breathing hard. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. This trip had been one trial after another for her.
After I had learnt of Lieutenant Corvus' promotion to Tier 4, I had feared that he would use his cultivation to pressure me into giving up Ceres. Thankfully, the Lieutenant was a man of honour and for the favour he owed us for treating his injuries, he had decided to defer any punitive investigations till after the mission. Which was a relief as I wasn't sure how mother's doppelganger would fare against him, especially after the large amount of mana it had expended to heal him. Let alone, the contract ceremony had done something strange to it and it had developed a disturbing measure of independence. Only the Gods knew if it would even follow our instructions anymore.
One advantage of it, though, was that its presence within Ceres' mana-flesh had accelerated her rate of recovery. She had recovered from her Geas inflicted wounds almost completely. Her lungs, ribs and sternum had regenerated fully. The only thing remaining was her artificial heart which had become the abode of the doppelganger.
I felt her gripping my hand tightly and I squeezed back to comfort her. We would soon be facing the scheme of the mother of the woman who had ruined her childhood. A woman who had given her life in the service of her nation, and with it, traded an opportunity to hold an entire district hostage. Ceres had every right to be nervous.
In fact, I actually admired the Duchess' mother a lot. Her selfless sacrifice for her nation made her a hero – a martyr. If our standpoints weren't different, if her actions didn't threaten the lives of my family, if they didn't put thousands of innocents at risk, she was the kind of inspirational figure I would have loved to make a subject of my poetry.
Lieutenant Corvus returned from an aerial sortie and landed next to Marshal Canis and said something to her.
"Team! Halt!" she barked out. Despite the Lieutenant being the one with the highest cultivation and field experience, she had continued to perform in the capacity of the leader of our squad. "Earth mages! I want you to dig out a cave right here. It must be ten paces across, twenty paces long and a man high. Shadow mages! I want you to deposit all our equipment in the cave. The tents, pots, pans, everything. We will be fighting for our lives soon and we can't afford to have you encumbered with these things. After they have deposited the baggage, earth mages, seal up the cave. If we succeed, we can come back here to gather everything again. Hei Lian, you and Lieutenant Felidae, come with me. Captain Ceres, you come too."
I made my way along with Ceres to where she was standing with the Lieutenant as the squad burst into activity. All the way, the shadow mages had doubled as our equipment carriers. Using their Aspect of Space, which they unearthed when they learnt the Tier 2 magic: Shadow Walk, they could store objects in their shadows at the cost of permanently engaging a part of their mana to keep the space open. The volume of the objects they could store was directly proportional to the amount of mana they kept engaged. Thus, if they were to fight while encumbered, they would only be able to use a part of their mana. Of course, in an emergency, they could always collapse their space with the objects still inside to unlock their mana. But that would make the stored objects pop out of any nearby shadows randomly.
The orders to deposit our baggage here meant that the Lieutenant had discovered a relatively safe route into the Dungeon. The time for action had arrived.
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