The entrance to the Dungeon looked like the gaping maw of a ferocious beast, the jagged shards of obsidian that jutted out resembled teeth and the warm drafts that blew out of it carried the stench of sulphur. The gusts ruffled my hair as I waited for Luke, our earth mage to survey the tunnel for us. The lanky man with salt and pepper hair stood up from where he had been kneeling on the ground in front of the entrance with his palm flat on the rock. He was using his mana to detect and interpret the slight vibrations generated by the ants as they traversed the tunnels.
"It's clear going for a hundred paces before we reach the first fork in the road. I can't see much past that – not with the volcano rumbling as it is." He said.
"Fine. Let's go." Said Lieutenant Corvus as he took the lead into the tunnel.
He was the one responsible for shielding our presence with his Domain. At Tier 4, unless another Tier 4 crossed our paths, we didn't need to be worried about being detected. Not with Luke muffling the vibrations of our footsteps and Ceres' incense absorbing our smells. My connection with her allowed me to use Incense flame too, therefore, I could operate the smoke, albeit to a much lesser extent.
Intermittent rumbles could be felt through our feet as we walked into the labyrinthine tunnels the ants called home. Both the volcanoes were still erupting as the fire elementals Zhurong and Gun clashed their Cultivation bottlenecks. Whether Zhurong would successfully evolve to Tier 6 was an unknown – it did have several millennia of experience, after all. But Gun, with less than a couple of centuries under its belt was set up for failure. It just didn't have enough time to accumulate the requisite mana.
On our way here, we had noted the pillars of smoke rising from the two volcanoes, connecting them to the skies. Ominous clouds had gathered above them, blocking every bit of sunlight from illuminating the mountains. Streaks of lightning connected the swirling vortex above to the jagged obsidian ground below. Thunder rumbled in their wake.
Along with the red glow of the ebullient lava, it was a picture of the end.
But, over the few days we had spent reaching here, the pillar of smoke above Gun's Dungeon had dwindled while Zhurong still burnt strong. Its eruption at an end – Gun would soon slumber to recover from its failure to transcend. We speculated that the conclusion of the confrontation between the two ant colonies would coincide with the moment the elemental quieted. Our window of opportunity was extremely short. We couldn't enter the magma chamber, the core of the Dungeon, while the volcano was erupting but when it did stop, we would have to race against time to deal with whatever arrangement the enemy had in place and evacuate before the main force of the ant colony could return to their lair.
We cautiously made our way deeper into the Dungeon, relying on Luke's senses to choose the least populated forks in the road. When we did encounter ants that couldn't be avoided, Lieutenant Corvus and Azure worked in tandem to put them out of their misery - swiftly and silently. The fire mage, a petite woman with sun-browned skin and blonde hair cropped close to her skull, Adeline, left marks on the volcanic rock to demarcate our progress for any team that might follow in our footsteps.
Teal and I were relatively idle, with my only responsibility being keeping the incense sticks burning. I hoped that Ceres team was doing well. I was worried that mother's Doppelganger wouldn't listen to her and rebel at some crucial moment of the delve. If only we had some more time to test out the idea…
Driving those unproductive thoughts away from my mind, I decided to occupy myself with investigating the Dungeon with my mana senses.
The familiar feeling of the world growing clearer and gaining definition struck me as the composition of the mana around us revealed itself to me in a kaleidoscope of colours.
The pitch black of Lieutenant Corvus' Domain encapsulated us like a pair of shadowy wings. Luke's golden mana rippled out from his soles whenever his feet touched the ground. Adeline's marks were like embers glowing within a dying fire. The air around Azure buzzed with his bluish-white mana while the large gourd on Teal's back practically thrummed with her ultramarine mana – probably filled with the potion she used for her Fluid Manipulation spells.
Their mana signatures all stood out against the ambient mana of the Dungeon – composed primarily of a smoky blue variation of fire mana. It seemed suspiciously close to the incense flame I was using to keep our smells locked in. This further strengthened my conviction that the Duchess' mother had messed with the fire elemental here.
On a whim, I took out the mind crystal shard that had belonged to her. Imposing my will upon the ambient mana through my connection to smoke and fire, I introduced some of it into the crystal. I didn't know what reaction I had expected, but it surely wasn't the one I got.
The crystal seemed to come to life, buzzing within my grasp so hard that I nearly dropped it in surprise. A tremor, much more violent than any which had come before ran through the entirety of the labyrinth, nearly knocking us off our feet.
Dust and chunks of rocks peppered us as they showered down from the ceilings of the tunnels. For a moment, I was afraid that the tunnels would collapse and that I had doomed us all. But the vibrations stopped as suddenly as they had started, leaving us covered with dust and startled but none the worse for the wear.
"What the hell was that?" hissed Teal as she picked herself up from the floor and picked out chunks of basalt from her hair.
"Probably a particularly violent gas explosion within the magma chamber. It seems that the eruption is nearing an end. We need to pick up the pace," replied Luke who had remained unmoved by the quake as though he was nailed to the ground. The dust and rock had miraculously avoided him, leaving him pristine.
Lieutenant Corvus vibrated the wing with which he had covered his head to shake off the dust. Letting out a grunt of approval, he quickened our march.
I wondered for a moment whether I should bring up my introduction of mana into the crystal before shaking my head and stuffing it back into my pocket. Hastening my stride, I caught up with the team. It was probably a coincidence.
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