The elemental, to my senses, was an incandescent mass of white. Trying to sense it was like looking directly at the sun. Even when I turned away, the impression of its vast and potent mana was seared into my mind. Even now, weakened as it was by its failure to ascend to the next stage and by the large amount of mana it had frittered away during its eruption, it had deeper reserves of magic than all of us combined.
The more I observed the magma chamber, the more I got the impression that it resembled a heart. I could feel the fire mana in the atmosphere swirling around in a vortex, converging on the elemental, being absorbed by it and then expelled in a much purer form than before. I had read about this before, the ability of an elemental to convert all other strains of mana into its own element. The records were unsubstantiated and fuzzy. I had classified the information as suspect in my mind, not to be trusted without confirmation. Well, now I could see the process taking place right in front of my eyes.
Fascinating as the elemental was, we had to think up a plan with reasonable odds of success to locate and destroy whatever arrangement the Duchess' mother had set up. Of course, the best-case scenario would be if the elemental did not notice us at all as we went about our task. It hadn't up till now, but if we were correct in our assumption that the woman had tampered with the elemental itself, we couldn't count on this state of affairs continuing.
"I propose that we split up into two teams – a velocity profile team and a destruction focused one. The runners can bait the big lump over there and lead it on a merry chase around the chamber while the gunners take a peek at what it's got hoarded in its nest. If it's what we are looking for… bam!" suggested Adeline enthusiastically. The short-haired fire mage had recovered her energy during the short break we had for Ceres to adjust to her new Tier. The side effects of the potions she had used during the fight had worn off too and along with her strength, she had recovered her energetic personality.
A stereotypical fire mage through and through, she preferred the direct approach.
Marshal Canis sighed again. "We have too little information to base our decisions upon. We keep calling it by vague terms like 'arrangement' but we have no idea what it actually is or whether it needs to be kept by the elemental in its nest. For all we know, the elemental might be fused with it and we are sending your so-called gunners on a futile mission and endangering the runners for no good reason."
Lieutenant Corvus placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her. "You are getting too hung up about the details. Lacking info, every workable plan has the same odds of success as another. All we need to do is take action before the time runs out."
"I can understand. As the leader, you have the responsibility to keep us safe. But this isn't careful planning. It is just useless worry."
Clapping his hands, he announced, "Fine, listen up people. We'll go with Adeline's suggestion. It's as good as any we've been obsessing over for last few minutes. Now, who wants to be a runner and who is up for the gunner role?"
All the wind mages were automatically designated as runners. Marshal Canis, Steven and another shadow mage from Firang joined the group too due to their inherent superiority in dodging with Shadow Walk. Azure was quite reluctant to separate with Teal, whose water magic, as the antithesis of fire, was important for the gunners. Ceres and I were separated as well. One of us had to be the bait to lure the elemental with our ability to control incense flame. The other would be required for the destruction of whatever arrangement was present. I decided to join the runners due to my current weakened state while Ceres, with her bloodline and near infinite mana pool within the Dungeon, was more suited to deal with the enemy's arrangement. Whatever wards the arrangement had might even be keyed to the kitsune bloodline.
Hei Lian suggested that we assign all the earth and fire mages to team gunner to deal with the logistical difficulty of crossing the pool of magma to reach its centre where the elemental rested and it was approved.
Ceres wanted to lend mother's Doppelganger to us to increase our survivability with the addition of a Tier 4 Healer but no matter how she tried, she couldn't get it to exit her body, let alone listen to her. In the end, we had to give up, resolving to look into its disobedience and unnerving sentience at a later date. Inwardly, I was a bit relieved that Ceres would have more insurance for her life. I hoped that the Doppelganger, tied to Ceres as it was, wouldn't just look on if Ceres was in danger. After all, there was a high chance that the elemental might lose interest in us half-way through and return to its nest and attack the gunners.
If that happened, they would be trapped in the centre of a magma lake with an angry elemental bearing down upon them. Between deliberately provoking an elemental to give chase and that, I couldn't decide which role was the riskier one.
We didn't waste time and immediately went to work. Under the cover of Marshal Canis' Domain, we were able to reach the edge of the magma lake undetected. Waves of heat crashed against us, making us feel dizzy and breathless from the strong stench of brimstone combined with the scorching temperatures.
Marshal Canis barked out her orders, "Azure, you form a team with me and Lieutenant Mars. Fung, right? You pair up with Steven. Keira, you stay with Ennis. Wind mages, you are in charge of protecting the shadow mages from the heat and accelerating their movements with Haste. Shadow mages, conceal your small team when the elemental comes too close and another small team will attack and distract the elemental." She patted me on the back. "Mars here can taunt the elemental and draw its aggression, or curiosity... whatever, most easily. We'll distract it if any team gets into a tight spot. Shadow mages, use Shadow Walk sparingly, this is a battle of attrition. One we won't ever win. We are just protracting the time so that the gunners have more time to search the nest."
She looked around. "Any questions? No? Good! Let's go play tag with a natural disaster."
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