When Ceres and I reached the spot a little distance away from the rest of the soldiers, we saw Lieutenant Corvus touching the mind crystal to his forehead with his eyes closed while Hei Lian and Marshal Canis observed. The Marshal nodded at us in acknowledgement while Hei Lian ignored us as we took our place by them. After some time, the Lieutenant moved the crystal away with a sigh and opened his eyes.
"I couldn't contact the base," he said, shaking his head regretfully. "The turbulence in the mana due to the ant legion is too strong. Getting a stable signal from this distance won't be possible. Not with a crystal this size. If only it was bigger…" Breathing out, he straightened up. "Anyway, we are on our own. We don't know the situation at camp, but it is surely tight. We need to complete our task as soon as possible."
Marshal Canis took over, "We have identified three possible points of entry that are most likely to lead directly to the core of the Dungeon. Due to the limited time we have on our hands, we need to split up into three parties and tackle each route separately. Each team will have at least one fire mage who will leave mana markings on their route. That way, if one team faces a dead end on their path, they can back-track and enter another one of the routes and meet up with the other team at the fastest speed. The ants won't find the fire mana markings suspicious, mistaking them for natural variations in the mana density."
"Wait!" interrupted Hei Lian. "How did you determine the routes from just an aerial survey?"
Lieutenant Corvus explained, "We have been studying the behaviour of ants for a long time. After all, it would be foolish to not even make an attempt at understanding an enemy that has made their home adjoining our borders. Our researchers made several replicas of the topography of the Sixth Forbidden Zone and migrated several colonies of ordinary, non-magical ants into them. They used sugar water to simulate the attraction the magma has for the fire ants here and studied the structure of the labyrinths the ants built. They found that the resulting Dungeons were more or less the same. My predictions are based on the data from that research. It is the best we can do given our circumstances."
"What about the composition of the teams?" I asked.
Marshal Canis replied, "For that, as we have a total of nineteen members including Aeryn, we thought of splitting the team into three teams of six, six, and seven." Turning to Hei Lian, she said, "There are six members from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries. I believe that you people would cooperate better amongst yourselves, so, you can form one team." Hei Lian nodded her assent. The Marshal addressed me, "As for you and Captain Ceres, as the key personnel for the completion of this mission, I would have you travel separately for the sake of safety. Placing all eggs in one basket is foolish. Do you agree?"
I wanted to protest but stopped myself after some thought. It made sense from the perspective of increasing the odds of success of the mission. Even if one of our teams got wiped, the other would be able to complete the mission. But with the hostility directed at her by the other members of the team, I didn't feel relieved letting her out of my sight.
"Lieutenant Mars, I can understand your worries but both Aeryn and I will be primarily focused on her security as we traverse our route, not to mention the Doppelganger of the Chief. Two Tier 4 mages and one at the peak of Tier 3… if anything, she'll be safer than you if she travels with us." She persuaded.
"Good." I said while Ceres objected with, "That won't do," at the same time. All of us turned to her. "Stealth is of the utmost importance, much more than power, within the Dungeon. If both the shadow mages with the highest cultivation travel with me, it will seriously unbalance the other team. Lieutenant Corvus, please travel with my Husband."
Marshal Canis and the Lieutenant exchanged glances. "That does make more sense," he said. "No objections from you I hope," he queried me.
"Are you sure?" I asked Ceres. At her affirmative nod, I sighed and replied, "None."
Marshal Canis continued, "For these past few days, I've noticed that you have developed a good relationship with Marshal Azure and his wife. Teal is even your teacher in name. I think that you won't have any problem working with them. Aeryn, you, Azure, Teal… and you can decide upon one of our two fire mages and take Marshal Luke, he has the most field experience among us and he is a master in making traps using his earth magic. I've heard that you can perform some basic healing…" I nodded. "Then that settles it. A pretty well-balanced delver squad, I think. The rest of the squad will be with me."
Lieutenant Corvus turned to Hei Lian, "Your squad will take the entrance half-way up the mountain on the south-eastern face. That one leads to the tunnels where the worker ants enter and exit. Even if you get into a scuffle, it won't be too tough to win. But the main threat will be if the noise alerts the soldier ants. Staying undetected is your best bet. With your hellfire, I think that it is the most suitable route for you."
To Ceres and Marshal Canis, he said, "Your team will have the largest population as well as our strongest healer. So, stamina is your forte. I think that the route that leads to the tunnels through which the soldier ants patrol the entire Dungeon will be the best fit for your team. There will be a significant amount of fighting involved but the level of your opponents will be low as most of them are involved in the war. It will be a battle of attrition. If you feel that you cannot continue, you are to retreat and join up with us."
Finally turning to me, "As for us, since we have the most balanced team, as well as the team with the most firepower, we will take the most dangerous route, one which passes through the breeding chamber of the ants. The Queen has left to direct the war, leaving the eggs unprotected but that is only relatively. It has the tightest security in the entire Dungeon, but it is also adjacent to the core, where the elemental lives. If we can break through the security it is the shortest route we can take. Any questions?"
There was a stretch of silence as we digested the information. Ceres raised her hand.
"I have been wondering, but even if we successfully infiltrate the core and deal with the enemy's method, won't we all be stuck in the centre of the Dungeon when the ants swarm back to investigate the drastic changes that are bound to happen?" she asked.
The Lieutenant's expression grew grim. "The circumstances are extremely dire. This Expedition is, to put it bluntly, a last-ditch effort to salvage our situation. The moment you joined, you did so with full knowledge that we might not return alive."
He paused. "There is but a spark of hope in the darkness and we are trying to grasp at it. We can only pray that that spark isn't an inferno that will burn us all."
End of Volume 9.
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