The moment she stepped into the Dungeon, Ceres felt at home. Well, at least, what she had always imagined 'home' should feel like. When she had lived up in the mountains with her mother, she was too young to appreciate the concept. At the orphanage – she hadn't stayed long enough to truly settle in before her bloodline was discovered. Then she had dreamed of castles as the homes of her future. Instead, she had been locked up in a library in a foreign nation, under the thumb of a woman with a frozen heart. She had truly begun to appreciate what the word meant when she had started her life as Mars' wife. Even at the lowest point in their relationship, she had felt far more welcome than during her years at the Vulpine mansion. After her stunt with the Geas, she had come to the realization. Home was by his side.
The atmosphere of the Dungeon gave her the same warm, fuzzy feeling having him near her did. An envelope of warmth that promised protection.
She savoured the feeling as their team proceeded cautiously down the passageways. These corridors allowed the soldier ants to patrol the entirety of their lair unimpeded and respond at the quickest speed to any disturbance in any part of the Dungeon. It wasn't long before they met a small squad of ants on patrol. Composed of Tier 2 ants as they were, they didn't provide much of a challenge to the team. Six Tier 3 mages were a substantially powerful force and they didn't expect any difficulty in blitzing through the tunnels until they were quite close to the Dungeon core.
It was only after moving down several layers of the labyrinth, decimating several squads of ants in the process, that she noticed the changes to her mindscape.
Back in Patera, to stave off the ninja who had attempted to abduct her, she had been forced to use the Mind Crystal to fire off a Tier 3 spell without any preparation. Unable to bear the mana backlash, her mindscape had fissured. If not for the crystal tanking the major portion of the damage, a fissured mindscape wouldn't be the end of her injuries.
While the crack in her mindscape had been instrumental in allowing her to loosen the restrictions the Geas placed on her enough to attempt the daredevil stunt she had, it had also come with a drawback. During her stay at the Felidae Estate, the crack had healed. She was able to use her mana freely, without any detention. But no matter what she tried, she wasn't able to advance her cultivation. As it had healed, her mindscape had ossified, leaving her unable to grow her power. If she couldn't find a solution, she would forever be stuck at the initial stage of Tier 2.
When she had first detected this condition, she was at the Felidae estates and her relationship with Mars was tenuous at best. Confiding in him and asking him for help hadn't crossed her mind. And after she was free of the influence of the Geas, she hadn't wanted to burden her newfound family with more trouble than she already had.
That was why she had been researching all sorts of old tomes, hoping to find something useful for a situation like hers. The knowledge she had dug up about external casting and contract magic, leading to her current awkward situation with the Doppelganger, was just a bonus result of her efforts.
But now, simply staying in the Dungeon, she felt her cultivation miraculously begin to advance again. The deeper the team penetrated into the Dungeon, the more pronounced the effect. Despite her joy at the development, she didn't forget to inform the Marshal about the change.
"You say that the longer you stay here, the more your Cultivation advances and the closer you are to the heart of the Dungeon, the faster the gains?" Marshal Canis asked her.
Ceres nodded her confirmation.
"Alright then. Tell me if you notice something else. I think that whatever method the enemy used to alter this Dungeon is resonating with your bloodline."
Just as they were moving on from another swiftly concluded slaughter, the entire Dungeon seemed to vibrate. If not for the Marshal swiftly grabbing onto her arm and steadying her, Ceres would have sprawled onto the ground.
Right after that incident, the speed at which Ceres' cultivation was advancing increased to a ridiculous rate. It felt like someone was blowing into her brain to inflate it and making it press up against her skull. Dull throbs of pain, almost debilitating in their intensity, hammered into her head. She instinctively knew that if she didn't relieve the pressure somehow, it wouldn't stop at a mere headache. There was very real danger of her mindscape shattering.
When she informed Marshal Canis, the dog-eared woman immediately asked the other team members if they had noticed anything strange. "The density of the fire mana in here just shot up several notches," the fire mage replied.
"It seems that the eruption of the volcano is nearing its end," observed their Earth mage, "The elemental is presumably discharging the excess mana it couldn't use up during its aborted breakthrough."
"M-marshal," Ceres forced out through gritted teeth, "Can I participate in the following fights?"
Marshal Canis seemed hesitant. "There are only Tier 3 ants going forward… at your level…"
"If I don't d-discharge the excess mana, I feel like I'll explode!" Ceres gasped out.
"Fine. You provide long range support then. I'm not really familiar with your skillset so I can't assign you a role… just, try not to get in the others' way."
Taking a deep breath, Ceres shrugged off her outer garments, leaving her in only her Heavenly Silksnail clothing. With a thought, she morphed into her Feral form: a russet-red fox with two bushy tails tipped with white. She was quite large for a fox, coming up to Marshal Canis' hips. The only imperfection on her silky coat was a large white scar on her chest where the Geas had left its trace.
"Here, let me take care of those," said the Marshal as she stored Ceres' discarded garments into her shadow.
Ceres flexed her muscles and stretched her back, trying to acclimatize to the sensation of inhabiting a completely different body. She quite disliked shifting to her Feral form and tried to avoid it as much as possible. That was why, unlike Deimos, she wasn't an accomplished fighter in both her forms. In fact, shifting to the form would make her already poor close combat skills abysmal. The only reason she had shifted was because maintaining it burnt mana, thereby alleviating some of the pressure on her.
Just as the team was about to set off again, the clattering of claw against stone resounded as several panicked ants rounded the corner of the passage. Even with the concealment magic active, at such a short distance, it was impossible for the ants to miss them. They immediately stopped short. There were five of them, with two at Tier 3. The sudden quake had probably spooked them and sent them running about randomly, causing them to encounter the team.
Identifying the auras of the mages, the ants immediately realized that they were outmatched and turned around to escape. After finding an object to vent with great difficulty, Ceres wasn't willing to let them go. With a sharp cry, she pumped as much mana into the technique as she possibly could.
Tier 2 Personal Magic: Smoke within a Dream.
Thick purple smoke gushed out of her mouth, forming a torrent that submerged the fleeing creatures instantaneously.
Marshal Canis was just about to reprimand her for obscuring the line of sight of her allies and increasing the ants' chances of escape when she closed her mouth with an audible click.
The smoke that had flooded the entire corridor parted for Ceres like a crowd for their Empress, revealing the prone forms of the three Tier 2 ants while the two Tier 3 monsters were staggering about woozily.
A couple of well-placed blows and they joined their sleeping brethren on the floor as cold corpses. Three more strikes and the sleeping ants were dealt with as well.
Turning to Ceres, Marshal Canis noticed that instead of two swaying, russet tails, her Feral form now sported three.
We ended the week at Rank 79. Thanks for the support... I'll release a double chap this week on one of the days.
Next week's target Rank 75. Let's do this.
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