When the fox army arrived, it was sheer pandemonium.
There was a reason the military didn't openly battle the ants but only did so when they had the tactical advantage of a defensive wall. They were too coordinated. Inhumanly so. The ants at a lower Tier took orders unquestioningly and followed through with maximum efficiency even if the orders were for them to charge to their deaths. I guess having an entire society that put the needs of the collective above that of the individual had its advantages.
But what about a situation where the collective was the individual?
That's what we were facing when we fought the endless tide of flaming foxes that assaulted us. Not only did they have the advantage of numbers, their coordination was insane. They fought in cells of three to four and they all shared their senses within the cells so they had a panoramic view of our actions and in close quarters, their mana sense was more than enough to offset their poor vision. Just by the physical tells we gave off, they could predict how we would move and pre-emptively avoid the attacks. As for feints? Don't even think about it.
The worst thing was that if they managed to penetrate our guard and come close enough, they could choose to detonate themselves. Though the force of the explosions weren't that strong, but the internal injuries from the shockwaves piled up over time.
So, if we didn't want to be overwhelmed, we absolutely couldn't let them approach – a lesson we learnt within a minute of the first engagement at the cost of several burn injuries and shaken internal organs.
Thankfully the Regiis wind mages had drilled in cooperative casting and led by Azure, they managed to create a twister that picked up the foxes surrounding us and threw them away, giving us a moment of respite.
"This isn't working. We can't let the little critters close. They keep popping and making us spit blood. We need to engage them in a far-fight." remarked Fung while spitting blood.
I couldn't help but sigh internally. Close-combat was all I was currently good for. Me and all the fire mages. The efficiency of fire magic was too damn low. Actually, nothing below an Explosion could take the foxes down. And even then, the hugely mana draining spell only managed to take down three or four. To make matters worse, the foxes had inherited the Elemental's dominance over flame and the lower Tier fire spells were straight out absorbed by them to supplement their strengths. Only the Tier 3 Explosion was too much to absorb but still they managed to use that characteristic to reduce the damage dealt by it.
As for me? I couldn't even cast Explosion. I wasn't even a Novice in that Aspect.
To make matters worse, mother's Doppelganger had been tied down by Miyagi Vulpine's incarnation in Ceres' mindscape. We had lost our healer and our wounds were accumulating rapidly.
The only one who was doing well in this situation was actually the Wolf princess. After reaching Mastery of the Aspect of Wind, my sensation strength had increased explosively. The magic which had been mystical to me before was now much clearer. Earlier, I had wanted to ask her how her Hellfire could use ambient fire mana as fuel but now as her actions fell within the range of sensation, the mystery was solved.
She too had Mastered an Aspect – the Aspect of Inflammation.
My thoughts collided in my mind rapidly as I searched for a method to solve our current predicament. The earth mages were tied up in maintaining our stone platform and with the lithe nature of the foxes, even if they strenuously overcame the elemental repel and controlled the magma of the lake to attack them with Stone spike, the effects weren't tangible, wasting a large amount of their mana instead. Teal wasn't very useful in direct battle. Yes, her mana was the antithesis of fire but that was relative. In this environment, it was her mana that was suppressed instead. Yet, she was demonstrating her value by shouldering the load of protecting us from the high temperatures all on her own by enveloping us with her Domain.
The wind mages and the shadow mages were quite effective in their own way. Their element wasn't suppressed and they could put their best foot forward. Yet, they alone weren't sufficient to turn the tide. Ceres might have been able to help with that move she had used in the Queen's chamber but in her current state, her mindscape and subsequently her mana was sealed. She was currently being protected in our centre, sitting cross-legged and meditating to better confront with the Witch's incarnation.
The only breach was Hei Lian.
"Hey!" I called out.
"What?" she responded without turning her head.
"I can help you amplify your magic."
She turned around and stared fixedly at me frowning. I could feel her considering my offer then as if remembering something (probably my reputation for amplifying fire spells) she nodded.
"But Hellfire is different. Can you do it?"
I shook my head. "I'm not going to be the one controlling the flames. You will. I'll just be in charge of merging the Domains of the other fire mages and adjusting the mana frequency to match yours. You'll be the one doing the actual casting. Whether it works or not depends on whether you can convert the fire mana to Hellfire and whether you can control that much mana at once."
Even though I expressed my doubts outwardly, inwardly, I was confident in her ability to pull it off. After all, her Mastery of the Aspect of Inflammation was placed there.
As she was considering it, the foxes that had been tossed away by the twister charged at us again with a chorus of howls.
"Hurry up! We don't have time!" I rushed her.
Clenching her teeth, she said, "Good!"
Turning to her subordinate fire mage, she commanded, "Li, coordinate with him."
Adeline, who had listening in on our conversation didn't need further prompting, opening up access to her Domain along with the other Regiis fire mages. They must have heard of Azure's experience with me to agree so rapidly.
I immediately sat down on the ground in the lotus position with my fists touching as I fell into a trance. This entire trip had been one challenge after another, repeatedly pushing the envelope of my abilities.
Reaching Mastery of the Wind, internalizing the Void, taking control of a Domain, flying, imbuing Aspects in someone else's spell and now homogenizing four Domains. I had been forced to exceed my limits time and again. And I had succeeded time and again.
Was I really that special? Was my talent really so extreme? Was external casting really so easy to learn?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But one thing was sure. I wanted to live. When Azure reminded me of my wives waiting for me at home. When he told me that I was being reckless, my mental state nearly wavered. But he didn't understand. It wasn't because I had forgotten about Phobos and Deimos. It wasn't because I had forgotten that I carried the weight of their bonds. No. How could I when every time I closed my eyes their contract sigils floated in my mind, illuminating the void of my mind with their gentle brilliance.
I wasn't reckless because I had forgotten them. It was because I remembered them every waking hour. I was unwilling to leave my fate to chance. I wanted to do everything in my power to improve my odds of survival.
The very thought of them being forced to walk into the embrace of others, or worse, following me into the afterlife was enough to squeeze out the last of my potential. I wanted to live… I had to live.
A tiny flame burnt in my mind, born of an intense will to survive. Fire was emotion. Equivalently, emotion was a flame. The flame was rose red, with flickering tongues of pink at the edges. All my emotions, my enthusiasm for life condensed into an ethereal flame in my mind.
All of a sudden, I could feel the emotions of the three fire mages relinquishing control of their Domains to me. Determination, anger, desperation and fear, oh so much fear…
I fed it all to my flame and it grew and grew until it overspread my mind then when I couldn't contain the emotions anymore, they bubbled over. Ruby flames ignited on my crimson hair and when I opened my eyes, they smouldered with fire the colour of blood.
Raising my palms, twin jets of red flame shot out at the jet-black wolf that lay in wait. She opened her maw, revealing a bottomless abyss that burnt with black flames and swallowed down all my enthusiasm till I had nothing left to give.
As the last of the flame left me, I collapsed on the ground limply along with the rest of the fire mages.
Detachedly, as I lay on my back on the stone platform facing upwards, I watched the white smoke of the volcano spiral up towards the vent.
Aah… what a bother. Live, die, how does it all matter… The world went on before we were born. It will still go on without us there. Struggling, fighting… how troublesome... Maybe I should just jump in the lake and be done with it. Maybe, it'll be better to just die.
I didn't care when a huge ball of dark fire slowly rose into the air like a dark sun. I didn't care when it shone with a black light. I didn't care when all it illuminated burst into black flame. I didn't care when the flames spread from fox to fox, igniting them like so much dry grass on a prairie, turning blue flames to black.
I didn't care. Everything seemed so grey. So criminally boring.
Apathetically, I noticed the smoke around us swirling as it rushed into the Dungeon core that seemed to flash red less and less often as time went on, glowing a sapphire blue instead.
Idly, I observed that the aura of Incense Flame was dominating over the traditional flame aura within the crystal as more foxes that were consumed by the black flames that were now raging unchecked over the surface of the entire magma lake.
Hei Lian had lost control over her spell quite a while ago. Steven was holding her unconscious form, wiping away the blood that was seeping from her nose and ears. Handling the entirety of the mana of four fire mages at once must have been trying. I hoped that she hadn't cracked her mindscape like I had.
I felt a twinge of sympathy for her pain, the mild emotion a colourful spark of flame in my dead grey world. The spark slowly expanded, driving back the apathy with the warmth of its enthusiasm.
Simultaneously, my horror at the realization I had come to grew.
We had been used.
The Witch had used us to exhaust the mana of the Elemental. I had been too pre-occupied with the approaching army of foxes to think deeper. Now that I knew where to look, it became clear. Despite the colour of the flames, the foxes were made of untainted fire mana while the smoky mana of the Witch was concentrated in the banks of smoke that surrounded the Dungeon core. She had covered up her conversation with the gunners and then when negotiations had failed, deliberately exposed them to the eyes of the elemental to pit us against each other.
Unknowingly, we had been supporting our enemy.
"Stop!" I cried out as I staggered to my feet. But it was too late. It was as though we had dropped a torch into a barrel of oil. The Hellfire was expanding unchecked, and as Hei Lian had been knocked out, uncontrolled.
A menacing laughter rang out, echoing throughout the entire cavern and the smoke converged once again into the figure of the Witch.
"You really exceeded my expectations. You have my gratitude for helping me finally subdue this unruly creature." Turning her gaze to the unconscious Hei Lian, joy and greed flashed in her eyes, "Hellfire… who would have thought…" she muttered softly.
Without warning, the Dungeon core turned into a streak of blue lightning and submerged into Hei Lian's mind.
Her eyes immediately flew open, her mouth open in a soundless scream. Dark flames spilled out from her eyes, from her ears, from her mouth, from the cracks in her body as her flesh, unable to contain the magnanimous energy of the entire Dungeon, began to split.
Steven, who was holding her in his arms screamed as the flames transferred to him through their bond, searing him from inside out. Then he went silent as the flames burnt their way out of his throat.
It took but a few horrifying instants. Then all that remained of him was ash.
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