Fire was emotion. Darkness was pain. Fear, disgust, despair, guilt… when the two came together, all became ash.
- Wolfsong; a biography of the Dark Sun by Mars Felidae
Her fire was an inky black. Like all fires it was both good and evil in equal measure. The warmth of a campfire in the heart of winter; the hungry blaze of a forest fire consuming all lives. As her team made their way into the depths of the Dungeon, Hei Lian reconsidered why her fire still burnt.
When she had first woken to her powers, it had been in captivity. She had been angry and filled with hate. Her disgust at being laid bare for the eyes of her captors had been palpable. Her guilt for being the cause of her mother's death had eaten away at her. And much to her shame, she had felt fearful for her life.
To maintain her sanity, she had needed an outlet for that darkness. So, she had fed it all to her flames and they had greedily gobbled it all up, turning her misery into power. She had come out of that cell as the youngest Tier 3 the Sun Wolf had ever heard of. Combining that with her Alpha trait – he had kept her on a tight leash. A justified measure, seeing that the moment he let her out of his sight was the moment his death became doomed.
Hei Lian walked through the dark corridors of the Dungeon in silence with her Domain active in the form of a ring of dark fire surrounding her. Her four subordinates were arrayed in a protective diamond within the ring while Steven walked by her side, one step behind. The only sound was the echoing of their boots on stone and even that tailed off before the edge of her Domain.
The tunnel they were traversing was the supply route for the colony. It was used by the worker ants to shift commodities and transport food in and out of the Dungeon. It was the longest and most circuitous route to the core as well as the safest one. With the ongoing war, all foraging parties had been recalled, leaving the worker ants quite idle. Thus, within the two hours for which they had been delving, the group had only met scattered groups of workers transporting food, and sometimes the bodies of the fallen, to other parts of the Dungeon – although, Hei Lian wasn't sure if those two commodities were any different in the eyes of the ants. Her Domain, along with their wind mage sealing their scents, had been sufficient to avoid detection. An uneventful jaunt.
Deciding that there was no danger her subordinates couldn't deal with, Hei Lian let her mind wander slightly. Raising her palm as she walked, she fixed her gaze on it. With but a thought, a tiny black flame appeared at its centre in stark contrast with her pale skin. It remained there, burning sedately as she used her senses to explore it.
Hellfire had given her three choices. Her first choice had been between the Dao of Flame and the Dao of Darkness. She had chosen the Dao of Flame and over the period of her captivity, she had mastered it. She had learnt that her magic was interlinked with her emotions and that the stronger her misery, the more power she had. In that hopeless situation, it was the only path to freedom she could see. So, she grabbed onto it with both hands. Accepting her suffering, she fed it to her flame and bided her time, waiting for the moment when the gulf of power between her and her captors wasn't unbridgeable anymore.
But destiny had different designs and now – as Steven had so boldly demonstrated by burning the diary – she was free. She had been using that book as a reminder, using it to reinforce her memories of that time so she could cultivate faster with the aid of her negative emotions. She never wanted to be in that position again and the only way to guarantee that would be by becoming the strongest. Now that the diary was gone, she could feel the deep-seated hatred she still bore desalinating with every passing day. In direct proportion, her speed of cultivation was dropping.
Hei Lian didn't know whether she should be angry at Steven or grateful for his actions. Having stepped back a bit, she realized that her personality was being distorted by her cultivation. The way she was treating Steven was the exact same way her father had treated her. She was trying to control and condition him into the perfect puppet. She was becoming the very thing that she hated.
But the fact remained. The more she cultivated, the less hatred she had left. And when that was exhausted, her rate of progress would fall to the same level as an ordinary talent. The very thought of being related to the term 'ordinary' was enough to let the Alpha in her blood seethe. She was torn between two conflicting desires.
Unable to reach a conclusion, she sighed internally and pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. Focusing on the tiny flame, she made it flicker from the middle of her palm to the tip of her index finger, ignoring the intervening distance. For her second Dao, she had chosen the Dao of Space. While she hadn't mastered it fully yet, she was quite close. In her understanding, all spells were crutches that were used to comprehend a Dao. Once one could cast the spell perfectly, they could be called a novice in the corresponding Dao. Adeptness was demonstrated by the ability to use a spell in unconventional ways – like how Steven used Shadow Walk to store and eject his dagger from the shadows or split himself to avoid an injury. Mastery was the ability to link a Dao with another, lending a spell the characteristics of both Daos.
The comprehension of a Dao was more influential to a mage's strength within a realm than their cultivation base. In her opinion, the only superiority Bestia had over Beasts was the ability to cultivate their Aspects. If a mage gave that up in favour of accumulating mana and just spamming rigidly defined spells, then the only thing differentiating them from Beasts would be their weaker bodies and longer cast times for spells. In short, they would be an inferior version. That was why Hei Lian had always focused on cultivating her Daos more than her mana.
A sudden commotion jolted her out of her thoughts. Looking up, she noticed that a Tier 3 soldier ant had stumbled upon them and launched an attack. The wind mage in their group, Fung, was just about to step up and engage it in battle when she called out and stopped him.
Narrowing her eyes, she flicked her finger, sending the black ember arcing through the air. Ignoring the tiny flame, the ant opened its mandibles wide and began condensing its mana into a white-hot fireball. Tier 3 flame magic: Explosion.
"That's why I didn't choose the Dao of Explosion," muttered Hei Lian as the black flame touched its carapace and sank into it without any impediment. "Too slow."
For a while, nothing happened and the ant continued charging its spell. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steven fidgeting as he prepared to push her out of the blast zone. 'It seems like that little incident has gone to his head,' she thought idly. 'I'll need to teach him some obedience. Not too much, though.'
Just before the ant could spit out its magic, inky-black flames jetted out of its every orifice, instantaneously reducing it to ash. The white-hot orb of magic wobbled unstably in mid-air before collapsing, sending a ripple of fire mana crashing into them. Her Domain flickered, then stabilized under the onslaught.
Without a second glance at the remains, she walked away, her subordinates hurrying to catch up.
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