As we made our way down the tunnel to the magma chamber, Ceres slowed her steps so we were at the rear of the team. Our other teammates kept ahead, the earth mages scouting ahead to prevent any sudden eventualities while Ceres' smoke was enough to conceal us from the senses of any ants with how close it was to the mana characteristics of the Dungeon. That left the wind and the shadow mages idle and in between keeping a lookout for any dangers that might have been missed by the earth mages, they swapped stories of their experience travelling down their respective routes.
I often heard muffled references to Ceres and glances were directed her way by members of both teams. They contained admiration, respect and surprise – all positive emotions.
Judging by the changes in her Feral form, something significant must have happened to her. And that community sleep spell was quite shocking. Unable to repress my curiosity, I leant down and whispered into her ear, "What happened to you?"
She flicked her ear and leaned her ear away from my mouth with a huff. "Don't do that," she said, "it tickles."
Increasing the distance between us and the others slightly, she said, "Husband, put up a privacy barrier, would you."
I frowned slightly. It seemed like something serious had happened. Although my magic was greatly suppressed here, there was enough wind and shadow mana in the environment to cast a dual layered privacy barrier. Shadow mana was specially sufficient – we were in a dark tunnel after all. After I was done, I asked her, "Are you alright?"
Ceres nodded in reply. "Worry not, husband, I'm not in any immediate danger. In fact, as you can see, I'm in a much better state than when I came in. Look, I'm nearly at the peak of Tier 2." she said, directing my attention to the semi-solid mana phantom of her fourth tail.
Kitsune realms were notoriously easy to predict by simple observation of the number of their tails. Every Tier, they gained them tails. Two tails when they broke through to Tier 2, four at the initial stage of Tier 3 and so on until they gained eight tails when they reached Tier 5. The final tail was the hardest to gain and it was rumoured that only a Kitsune Demigod could take the form of a nine-tailed fox. The Duchess, despite her huge impact on the world was only at the early stage of Tier 4 going by her six tails. It was a wonder that she could fight mother, a peak Tier 4, to a standstill at the site of the Mortem's Duel. She had probably mastered more than one Aspect.
Whatever had happened to Ceres had advanced her cultivation from the initial stages of Tier 2 to the cusp of breaking through to Tier 3 in the short few hours of our separation. But that didn't make me happy one bit. Such a high rate of advancement was quite dangerous and placed a huge load on the mindscape. And Ceres had just recently recovered from a crack in her mental world. Her use of the phrase 'no immediate danger' didn't reassure me either.
Recognizing my concern, Ceres quickly launched into her explanation, "From the moment I entered the Dungeon, I felt really comfortable. After some time, I noticed that my cultivation was rising on its own at a very high speed. The more I approached the core, the greater the effect on me. It got to a point where my mindscape was getting dangerously stressed. So, I reverted to my Feral form to burn some mana and reduce the pressure on me. That worked for a bit but soon, that too stopped being enough. So, I took to spamming my spells constantly to drain my mana and keep from exploding. That had the additional effect of strengthening my mindscape."
"How?" I asked.
She replied, "It is part of our cultivation. As a Hominum, your mindscape -when you had it – was different from a Bestia's and depending on the cultivation of your wives, it could change its capacity and strength. But for us, we need to strengthen our mindscape in order to stand the pressure of the denser mana that comes with increased cultivation. The best way to do it is through tempering it by casting spells. You must have noticed that people progress extremely fast after they cast a spell outside their Tier forcibly… It is because if they succeed without any permanent injuries, their mindscape gets strengthened a lot."
"So," I mused, "your constant casting of your spell both strengthened your mindscape and allowed you to burn mana at a high rate to counterbalance whatever forces had jacked up your mana regeneration rate."
"But what is the reason for it?" I thought aloud. Ceres shook her head. "I have no idea but I believe that it has some relation to the strangeness of this Dungeon and the schemes of the enemy. I was hoping you would be able to tell what was going on with your mana senses."
"I'll try," I said, "But, before that, let me get off. My leg has recovered. I can walk on my own." Given my strengthened body and resilience, it was a testimony to the virulence of the venom that even after it was withdrawn, it took me nearly two quarters to recover.
Ceres turned her head to look at me sitting on her back. "Husband, here your magic is suppressed while mine is amplified. Stay there. Let me protect you," she said earnestly.
"Makes sense," I agreed with a shrug before closing my eyes and tapping into my mana senses. Ceres made for a great ride anyway, her back was so comfortable and her fur was soft. If she didn't want me to get off, I wasn't protesting.
As I shut off my sight, the flows of mana became clear in my mind. Immediately, the cause of Ceres rapid advancement became evident. "Your mana signature is extremely similar to the ambient mana of the Dungeon. Just as a Tier 3 mage emits their mana into their surroundings to form their Domain, your mindscape is treating the ambient mana as your Domain and working in reverse. It is trying to recall 'your' Domain and that's what is causing the abnormal flux in your mana." I informed Ceres after repeatedly confirming it.
"Oh," she said in a worried tone, "if this goes on, I won't be able to step into the core room. The mana density there will be too high. It will outpace my spending and crack my mindscape."
Thinking for a bit, I took out the mind crystal locket from my pocket and hung it over her neck, clasping it in place. "Here, I think this will help."
Ceres brightened up. "Oh, yes, I nearly forgot about it." She channelled some of her excess mana into the crystal and it buzzed lightly as it accepted the influx with great ease. As I had thought, the mana here was nearly a perfect match with it. This didn't bode very well for us as it indicated that the degree to which the elemental had been compromised was very high. We had our work cut out for us.
Sorry for the delay... got a really high fever due to the cold.
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