Everything in the world is made up of mana. It is the very foundation of reality. Altering it to suit our needs is what magic is all about. It is a terribly lucrative power and those without hold those in possession of it in awe. The moment you awaken your magic, you become something more. There was a time when I was on the other side of the fence. Before my first wife, Deimos, turned Feral and gave me the chance to tap into her mana, I too was locked away from the wonders of magic. At that time, I consoled myself with platitudes like 'Our every action, no matter how mundane, alters reality. We don't need magic for that, now do we?' I immersed myself in the creative arts. Calligraphy, painting, poetry… they all alleviated my disappointment at not being able to call the winds or bend rock to my will like my peers. An escape from the fantasy I was living in, but couldn't touch, to a fantasy of my own making. After I obtained magic of my own, the amount of effort I put into my artistic pursuits naturally saw a tremendous decline. I had a new toy, so, my old ones gathered dust.
It took a shattered mindscape and considerable luck – whether ill or good, I cannot say – to reunite me with my craft. My words themselves were magic. And they changed the world.
- Preface to 'A Treatise on Magecraft' by Mars Felidae
There were three kinds of mana affinities: elemental, compound and special. The elemental affinity was the most common type, encompassing the six elements of air, water, earth, fire, light, and shadow. In rare cases, a child was born with a combination of two elemental affinities and was said to possess a compound affinity. Ice, a compound of fire and water, was one example of such affinities. Finally, rarest of all, the elemental affinities of some people would mutate into some variant of the original element. These cases were classified under the banner of special affinities.
No affinity was stronger than any other. A fire mage had the exact same potential for growth as a mage with the special affinity for smoke, also known as the Incense flame. The only difference between them was that due to its rarity, the special affinity would seem more exotic and less would be known about how to counter it.
In fact, rather than the affinity, what determined the outcome of a fight between two mages of the same level was the degree to which they had comprehended the Aspects of their respective affinities.
A shadow mage for example, could advance to Tier 2 without comprehending the Aspect of Darkness that they contacted at Tier 1. They could advance to Tier 3 without fully understanding what the Aspect of Space truly was. Tier 4 was reachable as long as they had a dense enough bloodline. As for their degree of familiarity with the Aspect of Enslavement? It was not a necessary criterion. Even during the promotion to Tier 5, mastery of any one of the three aspects was sufficient. Any other special condition for advancement would be a result of the mage's bloodline – if it originated from a Sacred Beast.
For a mage with an elemental affinity, the Aspects available to them were determined by their element. For a compound affinity, at every stage, the mage had a choice as to the Aspect of which element they wanted to study. In the case of a special affinity, though, it was somewhat different. They had to create their own Aspects.
That was the reason all Daemonic bloodlines had a reputation for being changeable and treacherous, since there was no way to tell what exactly their abilities were.
The only time Hotaru Vulpine had ever complimented Ceres was when she had mastered her Aspect of Illusion before she had advanced to Tier 2. "You managed to match my record," she had remarked, "Impressive."
The Aspect of Illusion allowed Ceres to affect the senses of her opponent by altering the composition of her smoke. Her smoke could alter the way someone perceived scent or taste and it could cause hallucinations when it tampered with vision. To achieve this feat of creating and comprehending her Aspect at such a tender age, she had spent nearly all her time with her nose buried in books. Specifically, musty medical tomes that dealt with the anatomy and physiology of the eyes, nose and the throat as well as treatises on toxins and hallucinogens.
If there was anything Ceres was thankful to the Duchess for, then it would be her help in perfecting her Aspect. After all, the second Aspect of the Duchess was the Aspect of Poison.
The Duchess' most widely known Aspect, though, was the Aspect of Invigoration: her first Aspect. She was famous for buffing soldiers on the battlefield, giving them a temporary boost in power and dulling their sensation of pain so they could fight extremely vigorously for a short period of time before fainting from the drain on their stamina. It was an extremely useful skill in a pinch and had reversed the outcomes of several battles. As for her third Aspect, Ceres had no clue. Neither did the rest of the world.
Ceres had obtained her inspiration for her second Aspect the moment Mars had inscribed the symbol of their Contract upon her skin. The words 'Smoke within a Dream' had, ironically, kept her up at night. Those sleepless nights had given birth to the Aspect of Slumber. And this day, it saw use upon the battlefield for the very first time.
Supported by the near infinite mana that the Dungeon's environment provided her, she continuously spammed her spell, filling the corridors with the soporific smoke. Under the influence of her will, the purple smoke avoided her team, surged forward and submerged any ant it came across. Unlike her first Aspect, that required an opponent to imbibe her smoke before it took effect, the purple smoke was far more insidious, infecting the mana of the ants instead.
The only way the ants could get rid of the toxin was if they discarded the infected portion of their mana. Even if Ceres was only at Tier 2, she could use this Aspect to exhaust the mana of a Tier 3 opponent since the amount of mana they had to discard was much greater than the amount she needed to infect them. Now, with the support of the Dungeon, there was no way the ants could resist the deluge of her smoke.
So, it came to be that the second team, the one which was expected to have the hardest time reaching the core, ended up being the most relaxed among the three groups. They simply strolled down the passages of the Dungeon with Ceres leading the way in her feral form. Her purple smoke billowed around them, filling the corridor ahead and behind them, only leaving a small gap where they were. Whenever the form of a sleeping ant entered within that circle of clarity, one of the seven other mages would dispose of it in a single strike.
In the end, unsettled by the surreal situation, the female wind mage, Keira, couldn't help but speak out, "Are we really in a Forbidden Zone?"
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