Clenching her teeth, Ceres released her mana outwards, forming her Domain. It was her first time trying out the signature magic of a Tier 3 mage after her recent promotion.
Her Domain wavered before she lost control of it, the entirety of her mana slipping out of her grasp and flooding away from her like water out of a broken dam. That was the danger of an improperly cast Domain. Even the most mana intensive of Tier 2 magics rarely utilized more than half the mana in a mage's mindscape. The Domain on the other hand, used all of it. If one's grasp over mana wasn't strong enough, then they stood to lose control of their Domain after they had cast it, causing it to dissipate and leaving them devoid of magic.
As it was her first time trying it out, Ceres' failure was expected. Under ordinary circumstances, that would mean that she would now be useless for battle until her mana regenerated, but in this case, it was actually helpful.
Her problem was an excess of mana, being able to dump the contents of her mindscape to make way for the new mana was an advantage.
But it wasn't a true solution. She needed to offset the excessive regeneration and maintain her battle-readiness simultaneously – not one or the other. For that, she needed to successfully cast her Domain and block out the intrusive ambient mana.
Once, twice, three times… she failed an entire six times before finally managing to cast her Domain successfully. Focusing on controlling such a large volume of mana and keeping it from escaping was difficult, to say the least, and she had a throbbing headache to show for her efforts. For each step she took towards the centre of the magma lake, the mana density increased and pressed against her Domain, each of her steps more strenuous than the last.
To make matters worse, Ceres was finding it tough to concentrate. Mars constantly evading danger by the skin of his teeth wasn't helping.
The elemental was extremely swift and violent in its attacks. Each of its tails was a fiery whip of death. One touch from them would result in severe injury at the very least. And even its casual spells were enough to punch through the defences of the runners as though they were made of paper.
Ceres couldn't help but worry for Mars' safety even as she struggled against the increasing mana density.
'Why do you resist, girl? Were you not instructed on what to do?'
Ceres' ears pricked up and she snapped her head from side to side to find who was talking to her. There was no one there except the members of her team, Lieutenant Corvus sweating profusely as he resisted the increasing pressure of the mana, counterbalancing it with his Domain. The voice she had heard was clearly feminine and it didn't sound like either Teal or Hei Lian. It sounded – aged.
She had a guess as to who it might be but she tried to project her thoughts at it and ask anyway. 'Who are you?'
The voice in her mind didn't reply for a short while before saying, 'Why pretend otherwise, child? You carry the blood of the kitsune as well as a shard of my mind hanging on your neck. You must have been sent by my daughter to be my vessel… Cease this senseless struggle against your fate. Let loose your defences. NOW!'
The final word was like a hammer crashing against her skull, sending Ceres reeling and making her nearly lose control over her Domain. Now there was no doubt as to who she was talking to. The perpetrator of the Calamity had finally revealed herself. Even as she wrestled with her mana to bring it back under her control, she couldn't help the feelings of shock that upwelled from the depths of her mind. The Duchess' mother was still alive?! How?!
Not only was she alive, she had expressed her intention to use her as some sort of 'vessel' and Ceres had a feeling that it was exactly what it sounded like.
Ceres tried to warn the others about the old witch, but as soon as she opened her mouth, another spike of pain slammed into her mind and only a pained gasp escaped her. This time, she lost control of her mana. Her Domain dissipated and she collapsed on the ground.
"What's wrong?" asked Teal, noticing her poor state.
"En-e-my…" She managed to choke out through the constant barrage of mental attacks that spiked into her mind.
The Duchess' mother's voice resounded in her mind, much louder now that her Domain was gone. 'It seems like that daughter of mine isn't as meticulous as I had hoped. First, she sends me a Tier 2 weakling and I have to fatten you up to reach the minimum standard for my possession, wasting my scarce resources. And now, I find that she hasn't even imposed a Geas on you with my mind crystal… Such incompetence.' Her words trailed away into a mutter, 'It seems I'll have to educate her again when I get back…'
Then she focused back on Ceres. 'As for you, little one… do not resist. It will only hurt more if you do.'
Then, Ceres' world was taken over by pain.
The mana she had believed to be her own turned on her and suffused her body. In her Feral form, she possessed the body of a Beast and like all Tier 3 Beasts, every inch of her flesh was capable of holding mana, endowing her with great strength and resilience. But now, that mana-attuned flesh became her purgatory as the Witch took control of the magic within it and utterly paralyzed her.
"Ceres. Ceres! What happened! Talk to us!"
Teal's anxious voice seemed so far away, the touch of her hand on her fur so dull, as the Witch's mana swiftly encroached upon her senses, driving Ceres into the prison of her own mind. Touch, hearing, smell, they all were robbed from her one after the other. The last to go was her sight and then, she was floating in endless darkness, insensate.
She realized now – too late, much too late – that the moment she had entered the Dungeon she had fallen into the Witch's trap; a helpless fly trapped within her spiderweb. The more she had struggled, the more the threads had entangled her.
The warm feelings she had about the Dungeon; her happiness at her promotion to Tier 3… it was all a lie. A falsehood crafted to put her at ease until the spider was ready to draw in the net.
'No. I don't want to die… not now, when I just started living.'
Ceres was lost in the darkness. She couldn't see, smell, hear or feel. Time and space held no meaning for her there in the prison of her mind but she knew that every moment she spent there was a moment the Witch had to take over her body.
Myriad thoughts collided in her mind and the confluence of numerous streams of information painted a picture of the Witch's plans. The woman had always meant to return. She had sent off a portion of her mind crystal with her husband. A portion that had found its way back into the Dungeon.
The Duchess had gone to great lengths to bring Ceres to Regiis. Why did she need a kitsune specifically? She was married to Edward Vulpine. Although rare, it wasn't unheard of for the father's bloodline to dominate over the mother's. Any Vulpine girl could have been passed off as her daughter.
Now she had the answer.
Ceres finally understood her purpose. She was always meant to be the sacrificial victim – the vessel the Witch would inhabit upon her rebirth.
But it seemed that the Duchess wasn't as filial as the Witch had hoped. Instead of using the Witch's mind crystal shard as the locus for the Geas, she had used a shadow mage's mind crystal to bind Ceres and involved her in convoluted plans to support Mars onto the throne.
Now that she had more context, Ceres realized that if the Witch had inhabited her body with the Geas still in her – a very likely outcome as the shadow crystal was nearly impossible to sense – then she would have fallen under the Duchess' control.
It was typical behaviour from the vile woman. Even her own mother was just a piece upon the chessboard of her ambitions.
Ceres' impulsive action had really messed up the Duchess' scheme. Not only had she lost a shot at influencing the throne and had her plans forcefully preponed, she had also lost the chance to control a Tier 5 mage – albeit one that had dropped a level or two from the reactivation. Given that the Geas would fail for a Tier 5 anyway, the lost levels were actually a bonus.
The Duchess had probably given up on her mother reactivating when Ceres had broken free. Yet, cruel fate had brought Ceres right into the Dungeon. She even had the Witch's mind crystal dangling from her neck.
To think that she had once felt self-satisfied for outwitting the Duchess and using her gift against her to foil her plans.
Desperate, she screamed her thoughts out into the void hoping against hope for some miracle to shatter the dark. The phantom sound echoed within her mindscape for a brief moment before being swallowed up by the darkness.
The chill of hopelessness crept into her psyche, freezing her thoughts, whispering discouraging words into her mind. Then, just as she was on the verge of collapse, two lights shattered the darkness and brought back hope.
One was a smoky purple sigil, the proof of her bond to Mars. The other was a petite cat made of solid light.
Ceres latched onto them like a drowning sailor would a plank adrift at sea. Connecting her mind to the contract marking, she opened the channel wide.
Mana was sucked out of her like smoke through an opened window and she could slowly feel her sensation returning to her as the Witch's hold over her weakened. Mars had no mindscape. But taken another way, the entire world was his mindscape. No matter how much mana the witch had, it wasn't enough to flood the world.
With an enraged hiss, pale blue fire burned throughout her mindscape, dispelling the last of the darkness and out of the flames rose a perfect duplicate of the elemental that was raging outside. As the Witch had influenced the elemental, the elemental too had influenced her. Her image of herself had changed to mirror the monster she had merged with.
Swinging her eight fiery tails in agitation, she snarled at Ceres, 'What are you doing, girl?! Did I not tell you to cease your futile resistance! Now stop thi-'
The rest of what she had to say went unheard as with a feral yowl, the Doppelganger slammed into her side, sending her tumbling across Ceres' mindscape. The cat didn't give her time to recover, turning into a stream of light and following close behind.
Mid-tumble, the flaming eight-tailed fox lashed out, her tails forming a fan of flames as it slammed into the approaching cat, batting it away with greater speed than with which it had approached. The Doppelganger slammed into the wall of the mindscape, sending hairline fissures radiating off from its point of impact.
Ceres, now present in her mindscape as a phantom copy of herself in her Feral form, grunted in pain from the injury.
Yet, she didn't falter and continued channelling the Witch's mana to Mars, as well as keeping up her efforts to revert from her Feral form – an action that would expel the Witch's mana from her body.
Now, the Witch had to split her attention between blocking Ceres' instructions to her own body and fighting the Doppelganger. All the while, she was weakened by the constant drain on her mana. Not to mention, she had to combat the elemental that hadn't stopped trying to expel her from its core even as it was fighting the runners.
Still, the danger covering Ceres hadn't reduced. Having two such powerful entities use her mindscape as a battlefield put her at grave risk. They could shatter her mindscape if they were a bit too enthusiastic with their magic.
The Doppelganger pushed off from the mindscape wall, the force of the spring causing the fissures to grow deeper and expand further.
Its entire body shone with a pale brilliance that concentrated into a thigh-thick beam that shot at the Witch. Ceres' heart leapt to her throat. If the Witch dodged the attack, it would surely perforate her mindscape and she wouldn't have long to live.
But, strangely enough, the Witch didn't dodge. Instead, she wrapped herself into a ball with her tails surrounding her and met the attack head on. The beam was prolonged, pushing her backwards until she was pressed up against the crystalline wall of the mindscape. The force of the beam embedded her form into the wall, causing more fissures to form.
'STOP!' Ceres yelled at the Doppelganger but it ignored her and kept up the attack.
Right from the frying pan into the fire. The Doppelganger was totally uncontrolled. She had hoped that it would be a boost in her war against the Witch but now, it seemed that it was a greater danger to her than even the woman who wanted to take over her body. After all, the Witch needed her alive if she wanted to possess her body and any injury she had now, was an injury the woman would have to heal from once she had successfully possessed her body.
From her tenuous connection to the cat, all Ceres could make out was that it was angry that its lair was being invaded by a foreign entity and wanted to drive it off. Being injured by the Witch had clouded its immature mind with anger. It had gone berserk.
Ceres felt anger grip her.
She couldn't remember the last time her body had purely been her own. First it had been the Geas embedded in her heart. Then the Doppelganger had made her heart its nest without even a hint of listening to her orders in return. Now, it was the Witch that wanted her body – all of it.
Why couldn't they just leave her body alone!?
Ceres eyes bloomed with a silver brilliance as she brought the entire power of her mindscape to bear. Fire responded to emotion. Smoke was a variation of fire. And Ceres was sick and TIRED of random beings lording it over in HER mind!
Aspect of Illusions. Aspect of Sleep.
Tier 3 Daemonic Domain: Dreamland.
The walls of her mindscape burnt with a transparent flame, releasing billowing purple smoke into the mental space, as she forcefully regressed her realm in return for an instant restoration of her depleted mana reserves. The smoke submerged both the Witch and the Doppelganger in a relentless tide, covering their lines of sight. With an eerie howl, Ceres focused the entirety of her mana onto the Doppelganger.
A Domain was the projection of one's mana into the world. In essence, it was actually the extension of one's mindscape. Now that the Witch and the Doppelganger had invaded her mindscape, they had in fact placed themselves voluntarily within her Domain.
Just, until now, Ceres didn't have any mana of her own to leverage this aspect of the situation. But now with her crazy act, she did.
The walls of a mindscape are made out of mana one phase denser than that produced by the mage in their current Tier. For example, a Tier 1 or a Tier 2 mage with gaseous mana and mana clouds filling their mindscape respectively would have a liquid mindscape wall. A Tier 3 or a Tier 4 mage on the other hand, with their liquid mana would have a solid crystal mindscape wall. Finally, a Tier 5 mage would have their entire mindscape transform into their mind crystal.
Out of the two trespassers into her mindscape, the Doppelganger was the easier target. Not only was its Tier one stage lower than the Tier 5 Witch, it's mana reserve was similar to water without a source.
Unlike the Witch who could supplement her mana from the core of the volcano, the Doppelganger was stuck with slowly absorbing ambient light mana to replenish whatever mana it lost. But unfortunately for it, there was very little light mana to be found in the dark depths of the Dungeon.
By igniting her mindscape wall and sublimating the crystal into gaseous phase mana, Ceres had a near endless supply of mana – at least until her mindscape wall was consumed – while the Doppelganger couldn't restore its mana due to the shackles of the environment.
Of course, there was a deeper layer of consideration behind her act beyond mere impulsiveness born of emotion. Her recent promotion to Tier 3 had actually been bestowed by the Witch and achieved by her absorption of the mana in the Dungeon. Therefore, the recently formed layers of her mindscape walls were actually composed of the Witch's mana. Knowing her, the Witch had surely planted some sort of method during her promotion to better take over her body.
Rather than leave a hidden danger behind, Ceres would rather ignite the mindscape walls – trading her artificially raised realm for peace of mind and an immediate refill of her mana reserves. As the mana that was born of the ignition of her mindscape wall carried her mental mark, it was much safer.
Ceres' crazy, nearly suicidal action of igniting her own mindscape and the sudden appearance of all-encompassing smoke filling up her mental world startled the Witch, making her loosen her hold over Ceres' body for a short moment.
That instant was enough.
Ceres finally managed to shift back, the mana-conductive flesh of her feral form being substituted by the impervious flesh of her Bestia form. The Witch's mana that had been trying to control her body was forced into her mindscape to join the portion of her mana already there, causing the fiery fox in Ceres' mind to inflate several-fold and break free of her smoky shackles. With an enraged howl, the Witch immediately charged towards Ceres.
The corners of the lip of Ceres' projection in her mindscape curved upwards. Too late. She had achieved her goal. The flaming fox was intercepted by a streak of light that sent it tumbling away. When the two forms separated, the situation became clear. The unruly Doppelganger was facing off against the Witch silently, its eyes vacant. Ceres had successfully introduced it into her Dreamland and gained control over it.
The Witch narrowed her eyes slightly, then smiled slightly and spoke in an appreciative tone, 'You're ruthless enough.'
Ceres simply smiled in reply and directed the Doppelganger with her thought. The cat began to give off light, illuminating her entire mindscape, growing transparent in the process before finally dissipating. The light transformed into a watery coating that covered the walls of her mindscape.
'Play here slowly…' she said to the Witch before withdrawing from her mind.
In the real world, her eyes flew open as she regained consciousness. The worried face of Teal, Adeline and the rest of her team mates mapped into her field of view. Just a little beyond them, Hei Lian was looking on with her arms crossed while Lieutenant Corvus still kept his attention focused on the Elemental.
"Are you alright?" asked Teal.
"Fine," she replied. Struggling up to her feet, she addressed everyone, "The Witch is still alive. She just tried to take over my body."
Lieutenant Corvus turned to her, "The Witch? You mean the Traitor's mother?"
"Yes. Her will is probably ambushing in the core crystal of the Elemental. She entered my mindscape to try and possess me. I managed to seal her inside with the help of the Doppelganger. We need to hurry to the core before she manages to break out."
Even as she finished speaking, her face whitened and a trickle of blood ran down her nose as the Witch's will impacted against her mindscape wall.
"We need to hurry!" she gritted out through clenched teeth. "I can't hold her for long."
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