"What do you want?" asked Ceres tiredly.
"You know what I want." replied the Witch. "I want your body. It's a fair trade for the lives of the rest of the members of your team, wouldn't you say?"
Ceres sighed, weariness etched deep in her expression. Really, when would this stop. When would they stop coveting her flesh? And it wasn't even the good kind of coveting that Mars did under the sheets.
"If it really was the exchange you say it is. If my death would buy the lives of the rest of my team, I wouldn't hesitate. But that isn't the case, is it? The only reason you would need my body is because you are trapped in that Dungeon core over there and you want to get free. Trading my life for your freedom?" she shook her head. "It won't happen. Let alone, your words are no guarantee."
Lieutenant Corvus stared the smoky construct in the eye. "We came here knowing the risks. Letting you loose would be a direct failure of our mission. And like Hei Lian said, it doesn't seem like you can do much to us. If you could, you wouldn't be negotiating."
A hint of mockery flashed past in the Witch's gaze. "Right you are. I'm quite hard up for mana right now. Wasting it killing you isn't something I want to do. And even if I did, that little girl would bite down on the pill in her mouth, isn't that so, girl?" She directed her last sentence to Ceres.
Ceres expression remained unchanged even under everyone's gaze.
The Witch continued, "If I am not wrong, that's a Myriad Toxins Pill. Unless someone has mastered the Aspect of Healing or more preferably the Aspect of Intoxication, it is almost unheard of for them to survive it."
She sneered, "For the weakest member of your party to have to protect you with the threat of suicide. Have some shame."
Everyone's expression changed and they all looked towards her. Ceres frowned. She knew why the Witch had revealed this information. It was the same reason she hadn't told them.
"You don't need to do that. We aren't ones to use the life of a child as a shield," said Teal. "Yeah, spit it out," said Adeline as she squeezed her shoulder.
The Witch wanted to rouse the sentiments of her comrades to pressure her into dropping the only leverage she had against her. She took a quick glance at the reactions of the rest of the team. Lieutenant Corvus looked a bit uncomfortable but he didn't try to persuade her. A pragmatist, he wouldn't easily be swayed by emotions. 'So, she is the key to solving the arrangement,' he would be thinking something like that now.
Then there were the other mages from Regiis. With the exception of Teal and Adeline, they all held a mentality of indifference or 'that's how it should be'.
As for the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, their looks held appreciation. They agreed with her method but they weren't going to vocally oppose Adeline and Teal's persuasion either. All, that is, except Hei Lian.
"Hahaha. Good job." she said, slinging an arm around Ceres' shoulder. Turning to Teal and Adeline, she said, "Are you two daft? It's common sense to secure your chip before negotiating. She's just going the extra mile."
Turning to the Witch she said, "Since you're fused to the core, we can't really do anything to you, now can we? There isn't anything else we can offer you that'll get you to make those insects of yours turn head and attack the Crimson Coyotes, I suppose?"
Ignoring her, the smoky apparition still addressed Ceres, "You really won't reconsider?"
Ceres shook her head.
The figure of the Witch dissipated and the smoke covering the Dungeon core thinned and then disappeared. The crystal that had been flashing between red and blue now settled solely on red.
All the mages there felt like they were being observed by a giant red eye. They could clearly sense the thick hostility in that gaze.
Suddenly, the swirling vortex of smoke that had been blocking their view thinned, then cleared, revealing the situation at the banks of the magma lake.
Their eyes widened in shock when they saw the hundreds of small foxes rushing towards them over the magma as though it was flat land. If one looked down at the situation from above, they would see that a flaming blue tide was covering up the reddish glow of the magma as it converged towards the lake centre.
Just as all of them took their battle stances, a voice echoed in their ears. "Hey, make some space for us!"
"Husband?" muttered Ceres as she tried to make out their forms on the bank beyond the fox army.
"Not there, above you."
Startled, all of them looked up to see all the runners floating a few metres above the lake, over the onrushing foxes.
"Hurry! Hovering like this burns mana like there is no tomorrow."
Lieutenant Corvus was the first to recover. "Earth mages, fire mages, expand this raft. Make it as sturdy and stable as you can. We're up for a difficult fight and we need every advantage we can get."
With the mages working in tandem, the raft had soon expanded into a platform capable of holding the runners and they descended onto it.
As soon as Mars' feet touched the ground, he staggered as Ceres leapt into his arms and hugged him tightly. He winced as the movement aggravated the burn injury on his back but he stayed silent and let her hug him when he noticed her shaking shoulders and the steadily expanding wet patch on his clothes. He gently rubbed her back, letting her release the fear and frustration she had built up after repeatedly getting targeted by beings beyond her ken.
"Shh…" he whispered comfortingly in her ear. "Whatever the outcome, we'll be together, yeah? But for now, we need to fight. So, be strong, yeah?"
His words seemed to help as the magnitude of her sobs reduced until they stopped. Then she looked up at him with reddened eyes.
Locking gazes with her, he gently disentangled himself from her grasp and cupping her face, he tried to wipe away her tears with his thumbs. Unfortunately, there was a lot of dirt on his hands and all he managed to do was smudge that onto her face.
Awkwardly, he tried to move his hands away but Ceres caught them and put them back on the sides of her face. In a hoarse voice, she asked, "Together till the end?"
He nodded confidently, "Together till the end."
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