Fire and smoke filled the air and the sound of explosions dulled our hearing as wave after wave of the screeching ants assaulted our defence lines, driving us back, exhausting us. The Tier 3s and Tier 2s, limited by their size couldn't pile together into the entrance of the tunnel without blocking it off and becoming sitting targets for our spells, so they kept back from the mouth and bombarded us with their long-range attacks. The Tier 1 ants were the main force attacking us, forcing us to waste mana driving them back.
The density of the mana so close to the core was too high for the mundane, unawakened ants' survival so they weren't part of the assault force. Thank the Gods for small mercies.
The standoff between Lieutenant Corvus and the Tier 4 was getting more and more tenuous by the second. It was stronger than the Lieutenant and it knew it. If not for him threatening the eggs, there was no way it would have stayed still for so long. But the longer we held out against the other ants, the more of them that died at our hands, the greater its impatience and agitation.
If things went on this way, we'd run out of mana and get overrun by the ants, or the Tier 4 would decide that a few eggs were a worthwhile trade-off for our lives… whichever came first.
So, when his voice carried over to us through a sound transmission, it was no surprise. He claimed that the spell he would cast would be able to freeze every single ant in the chamber for a few moments and that we should use the gap to rush to the tunnel leading to the magma chamber. As sound a plan as any – except for the fact that it would thrust him into the jaws of death.
A spell of that scale would exhaust most if not all of his mana leaving him at the mercy of the Tier 4 ant. There was no way he would be able push it back and make his way through the gauntlet of the ant horde to join us at the opposite end of the room in that state. If we went through with this, we'd be sacrificing his life for ours. Taking in the grim expressions of the other members of the squad, I was sure that the fact wasn't lost on them either.
'There has to be another way,' I thought as I desperately tried to come up with an alternative. 'There has to be something I can do.'
From the moment we had stepped into the Dungeon, we were in the Domain of the elemental and the closer we got to its resting place, the greater its effect. The high density of the fire mana had driven away the other strains of ambient mana from the atmosphere. While this was a minor inconvenience at most for the other mages, having to use a bit more mana to cast their spells and deal with prolonged cast times, for me, it crippled my ability to use any magic of any element other than fire effectively.
Mastery of the Aspect of Wind endowed me with magical ability on par with a mage at the peak of Tier 3 and under favourable circumstances, such as an environment with a high density of wind mana, I could match a newly promoted Tier 4 in raw power. But my insights into the three Aspects subordinate to the fire element: Inflammation, Amplification and Explosion, were lacking. Although nearly half a year had passed since my contract with Ceres, I had spent one month of that time ignorant of her element and rest of the time training using the mind crystal. I hadn't started formally exploring the Aspects of Fire until after the mishap with the Geas. So, I had less than a week of time to explore the element and unlike the element of Air, for which I had father's notes to refer to, I was just going in blind for the fire element.
Yes, I had created a spell to amplify the attacks of the artillery squad but that was a simple stacking of the Tier 2 flame magic: Aggravation leveraging the mind crystal. All I had done in the way of innovation was giving it a fancy name. My understanding of the Aspect of Amplification had nothing to do with it. As for the Aspect of Explosion, I had yet to even touch the threshold for it.
So, right now, all I could do was use the increased density of fire mana to strengthen my spells to make up for my lack of comprehension. Currently, I was only a moderately powerful fire mage and just like Adeline, I wasn't very useful.
I clenched my teeth. 'Think, brain. Think!' Lieutenant Corvus could be done with his spell-preparation at any moment and when he issued his order, we would have to follow through with it without hesitation or risk making his sacrifice meaningless. 'There has to be something!' Droplets of sweat beaded my brows. Splitting my attention between keeping the ants at bay and trying to think up a plan to save everyone without resorting to sacrifices was extremely tough, especially with the clock ticking down. Absorbed in my thoughts, I failed to detect the palm-sized Tier 1 ant hanging under the belly of a Tier 2 that I kicked away. It leapt off its ride, latched onto my outstretched leg and bit down as hard as it could. To preserve my divine power, I had been limiting my Barrier to my vitals, leaving my extremities unprotected.
Its mandibles sank deep into my flesh and injected its venom deep into my muscles. Then… all I could think of was the pain. It was liquid fire burning through my nerves and hammering against my mind. I had experienced bruises and even broken bones over the course of my training. The pain of my mindscape shattering was the most agonizing experience I had ever come across. But this… this was positively soul-crushing. What made it worse was that I had no mana of my own to drive out the mana-based toxin. With a low roar, I slammed my fist down on the ant, crushing it, splattering my trousers and fist with its greenish-yellow blood.
Sensing an opportunity, the Tier 2 I had kicked away lunged at me with its mandibles stretched wide… only to have its head melted right off by one of Teal's potion whips. Then, Azure was pulling me out of danger again by my collar. "Kid, don't be making a habit of getting rescued now. This is the second time in a few minutes…"
With the debilitating pain running through me, I wasn't in any state to answer. Setting me down by Teal's side, he re-joined the fight.
Clenching my teeth, I pulled out the two mandibles that had broken off and gotten embedded in my flesh. Blood laced with glowing blue flecks of the mana-toxin seeped out of the puncture wounds and dribbled down my leg, soaking into my trousers. I tried to draw upon light mana to cast a Heal on myself, only for the spell to fail due to the lack of ambient light mana. We were in the depths of a Dungeon, after all.
"Damn," I cursed, frustrated at both myself and the situation. Instead of making things better, I had just become a liability. As I was in the middle of beating myself up, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a wisp of purple smoke curling around the feet of the ants.
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