When the final bit of rock separating them from the magma chamber crumbled under the persistent efforts of their earth mage, Xing, the short, brawny man stepped away from the opening, giving Hei Lian her first glimpse of the heart of the Dungeon. A rush of scorching air from the opening assaulted her, making her shade her eyes with her hand. Her long hair whipped behind her in the wind that slowly died down as the temperatures on both sides of the opening equalized. Removing her hand, Hei Lian took in the sight of the ebullient lake of magma that seethed several hundred metres below them.
The magma was a churning mix of incandescent oranges, reds and yellows. But curiously, the flames that overspread them were the same smoky, pale blue as that of the mutated ants. Billowing white smoke, tinted purple by the combined glow of the magma and the flames, curled upwards, obscuring her sight of the base of the chamber where the elemental was most likely located. The chamber itself was pear shaped, the top opening up into the vent through which the volcano erupted. The aperture Xing had created opened up near the top of the chamber, close to the volcanic vent.
Using her Hellfire to protect herself and her squad from the scorching waves of heat emanating from the molten rock, Hei Lian tried to locate any possible points of entry the other two squads might have used.
The walls of the chamber were made up of black basalt with several areas where the stone had been crystallized by the heat and pressure into glittering swathes of obsidian. The continuous wash of high-density mana had converted some of the rock into fire stones and over time, fire stones had turned into Inflammation Crystals. Veins of the glowing red mineral were embedded into the walls, making the entire chamber seem like a gigantic heart.
The volcano had stopped rumbling in the time Xing had been excavating his way through the rock, indicating that the eruption was at an end. The ants would soon return to their nest. Time was running out.
"Li," she summoned.
"Yes, Lord." the only other fire mage in her squad replied respectfully.
"Come up and help me detect any symbol the others might have left for us."
Wordlessly, the man with messy dark curls stepped up, stopping one step behind her at the opening. She felt him send out pings of his mana hoping to pick up something ordered, and therefore artificial, from the chaotic mix of smoke and fire that was the core of the Dungeon. Hei Lian too spread her senses, trying to use her mana to cut through the dense fog of the elemental's mana.
Nothing. After nearly fifteen minutes of trials, she had to accept that the mana permeating the chamber was too dense. There was nothing she could sense through it.
Sighing, she turned to Xing. "Since magic didn't work, we'll have to locate them manually. How much mana do you have now? Enough to carry us all down to the base of the chamber?"
The stoic man simply nodded his assent. "Good," she said, "we will meet up with them there if they are on schedule and have already arrived. If not, we'll wait as long as we can before declaring this mission a failure and evacuating. There's nothing we can do to an elemental by ourselves – even one weakened after an eruption." Seeing that no objections were raised, not that she expected one, she along with Li stepped back to let the earth mage work his magic.
Xing laid his palms on the rock, pumping his golden mana into it and making it his own. The hard stone, softened by his mana into putty, bent to his will, morphing into a jutting platform large enough to hold all the members of the squad – if they squeezed together a bit.
When everyone had crowded onto the platform around him, with another effort of his will, he sent the outcropping of rock sliding down the wall of the chamber, leaving a rectangular furrow in the rock as they descended. The sound of stone grinding against stone was muffled by Hei Lian's domain, as were the ever-intensifying waves of heat that assaulted them as they neared the magma lake at the base of the chamber.
Due to the shape of the chamber, the smoke obscured their lines of sight when they were moving down the narrow, top half. The magma lake came fully into view when the platform moved below the half-way mark and the walls began to bulge outwards, keeping the smoke away from them.
"There!" remarked Fung, pointing towards a spot at the edge of the chamber on the bank of the lake.
Narrowing her eyes, Hei Lian could make out the hazy forms of three large boulders of equal size placed at the vertices of an equilateral triangle through the large amount of smoke that wreathed the area. Clearly a signal from one of the other teams, although, the members themselves were nowhere in sight.
At her instruction, Xing guided the platform, setting it on a diagonal course towards the artificial rock formation. Stopping a short distance from it, all of them jumped off and the exhausted earth mage let the construct collapse, sitting down on one of the pieces to regain his breath. After he had recovered sufficiently for movement, "Wrap us in your shadows," Hei Lian ordered Steven. The boy was uncharacteristically silent as he obeyed her directive and soon, a thin layer of shade covered them all, diminishing their presence. Bolstering the community stealth spell with her own Domain, Hei Lian led her squad on a straight route to the rock formation.
From what she knew of elementals, their five senses were dull while their mana sensitivity was quite strong. She was confident in her Hellfire's ability to block mana scrying – especially if the technique used fire mana. Having sacrificed the ability to comprehend the Dao of Darkness in favour of the Dao of Flames, she had to rely on Steven to increase their degree of stealth. Something unneeded to fool the worker ants she had come across on her route till now… Yet faced with the possibility of detection by the elemental, she was unwilling to take risks. Shooting a wary glance at the centre of the lake where the blue flames burnt the strongest and the smoke was thickest, she sped up her steps.
When they were just a few paces from the rock formation, the smoke around it parted slightly, revealing the form of Marshal Canis. "It's good that you made it," she said with a smile, running her eyes over the members of Hei Lian's squad, checking for injuries or missing personnel and finding none, "In one piece, no less."
The smoke parted further behind her, revealing the forms of the other volunteers of the Expedition arrayed within. Hei Lian's eyes widened when they met the gaze of a huge, russet-red fox, lying at the centre of the smoke, with four beige-tipped tails swinging behind it in a lazy counterpoint.
She could distinctly feel smugness in its gaze and for the life of her, Hei Lian couldn't figure out why.
The battle will begin next chapter onward.
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