"We need to hurry, I can't hold her for long." Just as Ceres awakened from her bout with the witch, the entire cavern swayed violently as a blinding light turned their entire field of view white despite the protection of Lieutenant Corvus' shadow Domain.
Closely associated with the light a thunderous crack shocked their ears and gale force winds battered them one after the other.
The shockwaves created large disturbances in the magma lake giving rise to waves of molten rock that battered against and then submerged the floating stones that made up the bridge they had painstakingly crafted, cutting off their channel of retreat. If not for the joint efforts of the fire and earth mages, even the portion of the bridge they were standing upon would have been submerged by the magma.
It was only by holding onto the hand and footholds, promptly moulded onto their rocky raft by the earth mages, that they were able to avoid being flung off to their fiery deaths.
There had been a large explosion in the runners' battlefield.
Ceres' heart leapt to her throat as she stared directly at the dimming brightness and closely monitored her contract marking. As the spell's glow faded, it revealed a gaping crater in the ground where rock had melted into lava. Pale blue flames overspread the ruddy rock like spiderwebs as they ignited the Inflammation crystals that had been embedded within. The elemental was nowhere in sight.
She couldn't believe that they had managed to defeat it on their own. This wasn't what the records spoke of. Even for such a young elemental, the strength that it displayed was too weak. There must be some reason behind it and all the clues currently pointed at the Witch.
She didn't notice Mars' team anywhere either, but as her marking was still intact, she could feel relieved that he was alive at the very least. Her expression turned grim. The faster she was done with her task, the faster she could go check on him.
The turbulence of the magma lake slowly settled – the seething waves calming as fast as they appeared – and the chunk of porous rock they were using as their final bastion finally stopped threatening to buck them off.
Lieutenant Corvus had turned pale from the constant drain on his reserves from the proximity to the elemental's Domain and the large chunk of mana he had just expended to protect the team from the complementary waves of the elemental's spell. "We need to hurry," he said, his tone feeble. "Neither Captain Ceres nor I can last much longer. This way is too slow."
"And unstable," added Luke, "you saw what happened to the rest of the bridge. Counting on it as a way to escape is asking for trouble."
As the team racked their minds for a solution, Ceres tried to recall any bit of knowledge from her extensive reading that might apply to the current situation.
"Right!" exclaimed Adeline, suddenly as she slammed her fist into her palm. "This chunk of rock is like a raft!"
Ceres eyes brightened as she caught on to the fire mage's train of thought. Then she winced as the Witch assaulted her mind yet again. Her blows were reducing in frequency and power as time passed, her mana exhausting itself without a supplement from the outside as Ceres had used the Doppelganger to seal off her mindscape. It was a battle of attrition between the Witch's mana and the Doppelganger's reserves and by Ceres' calculation, the Witch would win.
Noticing Ceres' discomfort, Adeline began explaining her idea without preamble. Under her direction, the earth mages streamlined the shape of the rock under their feet to form a prow, then moulded the rock so that it wrapped around the feet and ankles of two of the three fire mages, locking them in place facing backwards.
In tandem, both fire mages punched out, shooting two equivalent jets of flame behind them, propelling the makeshift boat towards the centre of the lake. The shape of the boat caused its prow to tilt upwards as it skidded across the lake, approaching their destination much faster than they could by building a bridge. And If they wanted to change direction, all they had to do was vary the intensity of the two jets, giving them much more room for manoeuvre if the elemental gave chase.
Very soon, they approached the centre of the lake. Thick smoke covered their line of sight as they proceeded further until all they could see was serpentine coils of white twisting at the periphery of the Lieutenant's Domain. It almost felt like the smoke was alive.
"Be careful," warned Ceres. "This smoke is confusing our sense of direction. We are just going around in circles within it."
"But how? We haven't altered the output of our spells, we should be going in a straight line." Refuted Li, the fire mage from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries' camp who had joined Adeline in piloting the raft.
"The Aspect of Confusion," replied Ceres succinctly. "It's one of the Witch's three Aspects as far as I can analyse from her mana signature." The reason Ceres could get so much information from just the Witch's mana was her close association with it while it was still part of her mindscape. That and the mind crystal amulet…
Holding the glittering crystal at an arm's length by its chain, Ceres fed a very small amount of mana into it. With a buzz, the amulet began to swing gently before leaning towards one particular direction.
"That way." Ceres instructed.
The mind crystal fragment was once a part of the Witch's mindscape. There existed an impetus for it to join the whole. Activating it with mana, Ceres could use it as a dowsing chain to locate their goal.
Actually, Ceres loathed the crystal. The Witch had nearly succeeded in fusing it with her heart as the first step to body possession. She had enough of crystals embedded in her heart, thank you very much. She wanted to toss it into the magma but knowing that the Witch probably controlled the volcano, it would just be returning the thing to its rightful owner.
Using it against the Witch in this manner gave her some measure of satisfaction but this time, she kept her vigilance extremely high. She didn't want to fall into another one of her traps.
Very soon, under the guidance of the crystal, they went out of the smoke.
The sight in front of them shocked them into silence. Crystals. Innumerable inflammation crystals gathered together into what could only be described as a crystal palace glittered with a reddish-orange brilliance, dyeing the surrounding smoke in flaming hues. But at its core a peaceful blue flame burnt around a crystal that seemed to rapidly flicker between two contrasting hues.
Blink and it was the red of the rising sun. Blink and it was the sapphire of the sky at noon.
The smoke surrounding the centre of the lake seemed to receive some sort of instruction and began to swirl around the crystal palace. Tendrils of smoke bridged over the clear gap between the vortex and the palace to surround and cover the Dungeon core.
The sudden change obviously alerted the gunners and they stared at the smoke vigilantly. Finally, the smoke coalesced into a beautiful figure. Slender lips, upturned nose and imperious eyes under voluminous hair tied up in a coif. The woman that appeared from the smoke exuded an authoritarian aura from top to bottom. Eight fuzzy tails swung behind her, serving as a backdrop for her full figure. The figure was extremely vivid. If not for the lack of colour, it could have been mistaken for a live person.
Her voice, when she spoke, was cold and proud. "Should I commend you for your courage, or should I be amazed at your foolishness for voluntarily knocking on Death's door, I wonder. For making it here, I deem you worthy of gazing upon my countenance. Miyagi Vulpine, I am called. I would have you name yourselves before I take your life."
Her answer was a streak of dark fire that blew up her head. Lieutenant Corvus, Ceres, Teal and the rest of the team gawked at the sudden occurrence before turning to Hei Lian incredulously.
"If you want to kill. Then kill. Why waste so many words?" sneered the wolf-girl as she lowered her finger which she had pointed at the smoky figure.
The smoke seethed in tandem with the Witch's fury as her head reformed rapidly. This time, her expression wasn't as aloof. Anger was clearly writ in her narrowed eyes and the downward curve of her lips.
She wrinkled her nose in disgust, "A cultivator. I see that they haven't gotten any more civilized in the decade of my abse –"
She had to stop speaking to block another blast of dark flame with a shield of smoke.
Her voice shivered and her eyes seemed like they would spout fire, "You!"
Hei Lian's lips curved upwards in a self-satisfied curve. "You can't kill us, can you?"
The Witch stared at her with thick killing intent before her expression became extremely icy. Her tone could freeze fire. "You are more valuable alive… for now. Though I am curious as to what gives you the courage to gamble your life on an unsubstantiated guess."
Hei Lian shrugged, "You said you'd kill us. What reason would we have for a dialogue after that? And if you want me to beg for my life..." her tone grew sharp, "I'll have to disappoint."
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