Lieutenant Corvus' domain, Ceres' incense and some nifty wind magic from Azure – concealed by this trifecta of magic, we managed to infiltrate our way into the heart of the Dungeon without much difficulty. The problem was that the route we had chosen led directly to the hatchery of the ants, the area with the strictest defences in the entire labyrinth.
Just as we reached the entrance of the hatchery, we were greeted by a deluge of blue flames. If not for the prior warning from Luke, our veteran earth mage, we'd have been turned into six, very charred corpses. As it was, the shadows around Lieutenant Corvus twisted and warped, forming into the shape of two gigantic wings that wrapped around us protectively. We were a rock amidst the river of flame and it split, flowing around us.
After an interminable amount of time, the flames gradually subsided, leaving us unharmed – if a bit scorched – and giving us our first glimpse of the hatchery and our assailant. Once again, I was struck by the grotesque beauty of the creatures. The ordinary fire ants had ruby-red crystalline carapaces that grew clearer and harder the further they advanced down their path of cultivation. Under direct sunlight, they glittered like gems, dangerous in their beauty. The ants of the colony affected by the machinations of the Duchess' mother, looked completely different. Instead of the crystalline carapaces of their cousins, their exoskeletons were a sooty black. Their joints glowed with their internal blue flames, giving them a different, more sinister aesthetic.
The hatchery was a large, elliptical cavern hollowed out from the same dark volcanic rock as the rest of the Dungeon. Veins of fire stones ran through the walls, lighting the area with a dim red glow. The walls and the ceilings were covered by a transparent blue mucus. Embedded within the jelly-like substance were thousands of tiny eggs that glowed with a dim blue iridescence due to the mana suffusing them. From the information Luke had obtained from his survey of the terrain, there were more than ten such chambers linked by a network of tunnels. But this cavern was the only one connected to the main labyrinth, so if anyone wanted to reach the other chambers, they would have to go through this one - the perfect place to station a guard.
The ant that had attacked us, judging from its size and intense mana fluctuations, was a Tier 4. When we had chosen this route, we had been prepared to face the blockade of at least one Tier 4 ant at this juncture. The hatchery was simply too important to leave unguarded, no matter how intense the tactical situation of the civil war. Thankfully, there was only one such guard. In the eventuality that there were more, we would have had to beat a hasty retreat.
Using my mana senses, I located the tunnel leading out of the chamber that had the highest density of mana. It was the one most likely to lead to the core. From the moment we had entered the Dungeon the density of mana had increased the further we had penetrated into it, until at this point, the air was practically buzzing with it.
"The entrance to the magma chamber is the one directly behind the ant," I informed the other members of my team. They nodded, accepting my words at face value. I had made no secret of my abilities and all the way here I had often warned them of the presence of ants Luke had missed because they were simply staying still and not creating vibrations in the earth for him to sense. They knew to trust me.
Lieutenant Corvus said, "I'll engage it. The rest of you rush through the channel. I don't think they will follow us into the magma chamber. After all, they are only the servants of the elemental. They wouldn't dare to step foot into its territory."
"Yes, sir." We all agreed, getting ready to make a dash for it.
Flaring his mana, the Lieutenant stepped forward, challenging the ant. It let out an enraged screech that bounced off the walls of the cave, echoing down the tunnels.
"They're coming," warned Luke, moments before the scuttling sound of hundreds of feet on stone became clearly discernible. Take it from me, enclosed spaces and fire ants make for a terrible combination. They bore down upon us like a wave. Tier 3, Tier 2, Tier 1 and even ants that hadn't awoken to their magic. Every single ant within earshot of the Tier 4's screech responded to its call and swarmed towards us, their intent to kill nearly substantial in its intensity.
With only six of us – five, now that Lieutenant Corvus was engaged in a standoff with the Tier 4 ant – there was no way we could take on that many ants at the same time. The only reason we had enough confidence to survive was our location.
We were in the hatchery. The ants had to be careful not to shatter the eggs so any sort of long range or highly destructive spells were out. Of course, that applied to us too. If we harmed even a single egg, I'm sure they would let go of all inhibitions and bombard us into oblivion, considering any shattered eggs acceptable collateral to prevent us from doing more harm.
Before that, they'd only engage us with close combat.
Unwilling to wait for the swarm to catch up to us, we sprinted towards the other end of the cavern at maximum speed. The Tier 4 moved to block us but froze when a jet-black phantom of a raven appeared behind Lieutenant Corvus and spread its wings, blocking its path.
Lieutenant Corvus had promoted to Tier 4 just a few days ago. His realm was barely stable while according to my senses, the cultivation of the ant was at least at the middle stage of its Tier. In a straight up contest of strength, the Lieutenant didn't stand a chance.
Thankfully, the collision of two Tier 4's was too destructive. The shockwaves would destroy every single egg in the room. That was why the ant didn't dare to make a move against us, only aggravating the volume of its calls as it watched us run past helplessly.
Before the rest of the ants caught up to us, we entered the tunnel I had pointed out with the Lieutenant bringing up the rear.
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