The trip back to Firang was quite uneventful when compared to the journey to the Dungeon. There were only two events of note.
First, Lieutenant Corvus' proposal to Marshal Canis. It was a bolt from the blue. None of us expected it. Least of all, I suspect, the Lieutenant himself. He seemed quite surprised at the words coming out of his own mouth.
We had stopped by the concealed bunker to gather the stuff we had deposited there and then hung about, waiting to see if the new owner of the Dungeon would honour her promise. Fortunately, it appeared that she would because soon afterwards, the ants that had been mercilessly slaughtering each other mere moments ago called a truce and the two Queens met in the centre of the battlefield to touch antennae.
I have no idea what their conversation entailed but soon afterwards, a raging tide of ants was making its way towards the domain of the Coyotes. 'Good, let them suffer the fruits of their evil.'
After a hard day's travel from the Dungeon, I was helping Teal with the cooking when it happened. Some of the mages were setting up the tents while the rest were loitering about the campfire, their noses twitching and their tongues watering even as they shot not so covert glances at the bubbling cauldron while keeping up their pretentions of conversation.
Then all of a sudden, they went silent and Teal and I turned around to see the Lieutenant down on a single knee, his wings awkwardly spread out so that they didn't brush the ground, holding the Marshal's right hand in his only remaining hand and staring up into her eyes.
"Zoya, marry me!" he blurted out before bending down to kiss the back of her hand. Then he refused to raise his head. While others later ascribed it to a demonstration of his resolve by maintaining the kiss till she said 'yes', personally, I feel he was just hiding his embarrassed face.
Marshal Canis just stood there staring down at the back of his head shell-shocked for a long, poignant moment. By the time she managed to pick her jaw up from the ground and yell out, "Oh fuck yes!" I think I saw a few more of the Lieutenant's feathers turn white from the stress.
We celebrated that night with the best ant hotpot Teal and I could manage to cook up. The new couple were totally inseparable throughout it all. It turned out that the two of them had known each other for years. The Lieutenant had been focusing on his magical prowess, delegating thoughts of marriage till after he reached Tier 4. The Marshal on the other hand had been rejected by all potential suitors due to her commoner background. It had taken this trip on the edge between life and death for the two 'friends' to realize the true nature of their feelings.
The uptight Lieutenant wearing a silly grin on his face as he wrapped a wing around the Marshal, who seemed like she'd love to climb into his lap, was a sight to soothe our weary souls. We'd been walking to our deaths and somehow, by luck, returned alive. Looking at the happy couple, it all seemed worth it.
The second notable event involved Ceres and the residual will of the Witch in her mindscape. Now as ominous as that sounds, it wasn't. It was actually good news for once.
The Witch's incarnation had been trying to escape the prison created by Ceres using the Doppelganger's mana. While it did succeed in exhausting the cat's mana and obliterating it, it had dwindled to a fraction of its former self in the process. Since we had been so unceremoniously expelled from the Dungeon and relatively secure, Ceres had immediately settled down to meditate to accelerate her mana regeneration.
So, by the time the Witch's incarnation shattered the Doppelganger's shackles, Ceres was ready and lying in wait with her Dreamland Domain.
The incarnation had put up a valiant fight, fully resisting Ceres' Aspect of Illusions with its own and even managing to counterattack, but under Ceres' overwhelming home ground superiority, it had finally succumbed to the Aspect of Sleep.
Thus, it came to be that we were in possession of a portion of the Witch's will – the only portion remaining if we were to go by the words of the Dark Sun. And Ceres even came up with a way to extract information from it.
After her tour of the Dungeon, her mana signature had subtly drawn closer to that of the Witch's. It was close enough that she could supply the Witch's incarnation with mana after deputing it through the mind crystal amulet. This way, there was no danger of the incarnation dissipating while she tried to scry its memories using her Dreamland.
Naturally, it was an uphill process. The Witch was no slouch and her comprehension of the Aspect of Confusion was nearly a hard counter to Ceres' skills. Very little headway was made until I mentioned my experience of using Azure's Domain to unleash wind spells with a higher level of mastery than he himself possessed in that Aspect.
That inspired her to use the Aspect of Illusions, the common ground between her and the Witch as a breach through which to invade the incarnation's consciousness.
It worked… to an extent. After several hours of struggle, she manged to unearth some information regarding the Aspect of Illusions, including the existence of the kitsune's secret library. Miyagi Vulpine, as a member of the main family had been allowed to browse the records in the library and their contents were slowly being extracted by Ceres.
It wasn't exactly what she had hoped for but it was beneficial nonetheless. And Ceres was confident of eventually extracting all the memories from its mind. After all, it was trapped in her mindscape with nowhere to go.
If she had managed to directly extract compromising data about the Shogunate's schemes, the merit would have been more than enough to elute any residual suspicion of her loyalty to Regiis. I had already discussed this link with the Lieutenant and the Marshal and they had assured me that they would have our back.
In other news, the mages from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries seemed to have been greatly affected by the words of the Dark Sun. It took them several days to recover from their zombie-like status. When they did, they claimed to have forgotten everything that had happened past their entry into the Dungeon. Stranger still, when questioned about their lack of reaction to the absence of Hei Lian and Steven, they looked at us strangely and asked us who these people we spoke of were.
Any memory they had of her, or anyone closely related to her had been erased from their minds.
What kind of fell magic was this? It went beyond the category of the spells that we knew. For the lack of a better term, it resembled the promulgation of a Law. It was a stratum of magic I had never encountered before. Thankfully, it only seemed to affect the wolves – "Probably bloodline related," speculated Ceres.
After a discussion with the rest of the Regiis team, we decided that in the face of such a powerful entity, accepting her demand that we keep her location secret was the wiser course of action.
We decided to claim that we had infiltrated into the Dungeon's core chamber and while the elemental was recuperating after its exertions during the volcanic eruption, we had destroyed the arrangement of Miyagi Vulpine. In the process, Steven and Hei Lian had lost their lives and the mages from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, their memories due to the Witch's backlash.
When Firang was only a day's march away and we had set up camp for the night, Ceres came in to our shared tent and said, "Husband, I just wrangled some information out of the Witch that I am sure you'll find useful."
"What is it?" I asked as I smoothened out the creases on the bedroll and sat down on it cross-legged facing her. Walking over to me, Ceres made herself comfortable in my lap, leaning her back against my chest.
It required a bit of manoeuvring as her four tails got in the way, but we managed. Wrapping my arms around her from the back, I rested my chin on her left shoulder. Pressing my cheek up against her neck, I savoured her scent.
She smelt of cinnamon and smoke.
Giggling, she gently flicked my nose. "Don't sniff me, it tickles. What are you, a dog?"
"Woof!" I replied with a smile eliciting her clear laughter. I loved how much more cheerful Ceres had become after leaving the Dungeon. It was like a huge weight had been taken off her shoulders and she could finally let loose a bit.
"So?" I asked. "What's that bit of news you came here to give me?"
Shifting a little to make herself a little more comfortable, "Well," she began as she fiddled with my fingers in her lap, "remember when you told me about how you were worried about the direction of your cultivation?"
I hummed in agreement. She continued, "I was investigating the memories of the Witch today when I came across the term Grandmaster."
"Go on." I encouraged, my interest piqued.
"In the kitsune clan, they classify cultivation more rigorously. They have a system of Tiers and Realms that's much more elaborate than what is speculated in father-in-law's notes."
"Well, it's to be expected that a clan with such a glorious heritage would have a more systematic take on cultivation than the Felidae clan. The difference in historical background is placed there. So, what's different about it?" I asked.
"The Tiers refer to the intensity of one's mana cultivation – how dense their mana is, how developed their mindscape, that kind of thing. It's more or less the same as the system used in Regiis. There isn't really much wiggle room there with how clear cut it all is. No. The main thing is their classification of Realms. You know that there are three Aspects related to each element, right? It's what the cultivators of Huaxia refer to as Daos. The system of Realms is to quantify someone's progress in comprehending their Aspect.
"The first realm is Initiate, or Novice. It means that someone has fully grasped the ability to cast the spell associated with that Aspect. The second realm: Adept, means that the mage has begun using the spell creatively, resulting in some sort of variation. For example, Azure's Scythe of Wind. The third realm is Mastery. Mages at this stage can apply the mastered aspect to a spell of a different aspect, combining them like what you did during the fight with the elemental.
"But that's not all. There are further realms beyond Mastery."
"Grandmaster…" I muttered.
"Exactly. You told me about how father-in-law used the mental states of the Oneness and the Void to do it, but acknowledged in his notes that it wasn't the only possible way to reach mastery, maybe not even the best way. Actually, the process of mastering an Aspect is heavily influenced by the thought process of the mage.
"When I was trying to master my Aspect of illusions, I was thinking of how to influence someone's physical senses using my smoke. I thought about it too literally and in the end, it came in the form of the ability to alter the alchemical composition of my smoke, making someone hallucinate when they inhale it. But in my search of the Witch's memories related to the Aspect, I found that over the years other kitsune had used widely different methods to reach the same goal of tricking the enemy's senses.
"Some managed to alter the physical properties of the smoke itself so that it turned into a life-like replica of an object, managing to sculpt entire fake sceneries out of smoke. Some focused solely on using the Aspect for espionage and ended up creating the famous Transformation technique giving them the ability to change their appearance with the help of the smoke.
"There is even a Smoke Clone technique which gives a mage access to an incarnation that is totally indistinguishable from their real body except for the lack of mana and the fact that a strong blow will cause it to dissipate."
"So, a more accessible Doppelganger." I commented.
"Yeah. So, mastery is more of your personal take on the Aspect. Depending on your thought process, personality and perspective, it can vary widely. Just like the story of the blind men and the elephant. But Grandmaster is one step beyond that. When you understanding of an Aspect reaches a height where you manage to peek into its very essence, then you are considered a Grandmaster. It's as though you've taken off your blindfold and are finally seeing the elephant for what it truly is."
The parable Ceres was referring to was one which originated in Indus and trickled its way all parts of the Continent including Regiis due to the universality of its message. In it, a group of four blind men encounter an elephant in a forest. The first man touches its tail. The second man, its side. The third, its trunk. The fourth man, grasps its tusk. Depending on the part they touch, they end up with the conclusion that they had each met a different beast when, in fact, it was the same elephant.
The moral was that we interpret the same reality differently based on our limited perspective.
She continued, "The more I delve into the Witch's mind, the more content of the kitsune library I manage to extract, the deeper is my cognition the Aspect of Illusions. I can feel that if I manage to read through it all and integrate all these ideas and techniques in my own form of Mastery, I can step into the Realm of Grandmaster."
Shifting around in my lap to face me, she looked me in the eye and said, "Husband, I feel that this is the point of your breakthrough. Your plan to blindly Master every Aspect seems somewhat impractical. I feel focusing on one Aspect will serve you better."
That got me thinking. It was true that I had found a deficiency in my plan to become a jack-of-all-trades. When I used my mastered Aspect of Wind in isolation, I could only unleash power at the level of a Tier 4 initial stage, and that too only in extremely favourable conditions of high wind mana density. Ordinarily, I'd be on par with a Tier 3 peak mage. Even if I merged other Aspects, say the Aspect of Amplification, I could only hope to bump the power back up to the level of a Tier 4 initial stage mage. And there was always the problem of incompatible Aspects.
By increasing the number of Aspects I dabbled in, all I was doing was diversifying my options in battle. Yes, it would make me more versatile and flexible but it wouldn't increase my maximum output. I had already run up against that wall but without the knowledge of the existence of Realms beyond Mastery, even knowing that I was spreading my efforts thin, I still had to try to improve my Realm in as many Aspects as I could. I had been stuck.
I looked at Ceres. She really was my lucky star. After she had entered my life, I'd had one breakthrough after another. Sitting, as she was, on my lap, our noses were almost touching. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my face.
Detecting the change in the atmosphere, her breath sped up and a slight flush appeared on her cheeks.
With a thought, a gust of wind blew out the candle in the corner of the tent, plunging us into darkness.
I guess it was time to test how comfortable the military supply bedrolls really were.
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