Fighting our way through endless hordes of ants on our way to the magma chamber was a harrowing experience. One I never want to repeat.
We had misjudged the location of the magma chamber. The high concentration of fire mana in the walls of the Dungeon so close to the core made it impossible for Luke to get a clear read of the terrain, thinking that the tunnel leading away from the hatchery which had the highest density of mana was the logical conclusion. Unfortunately, the corridor widened into another large cavern – the resting chamber of the Queen.
Instead of fire stones, glittering fire crystals formed the veins on the crystalline, obsidian walls of the cave. The domed vault of the ceiling was nearly the height of two adult men from the ground at its lowest point. It had to be if it had to house the elephant-sized queen. A similarly scaled tunnel led out of the chamber. It was the one through which the Queen entered or exited the Dungeon. If not for its other end being on the side of the volcano where the colonies were fighting, we could have used it to infiltrate the lair.
Of course, there was a tunnel leading away from the cavern to the magma chamber, but unfortunately, there were tunnels leading from it to the other hatcheries as well. Hundreds of ants were swarming into the cave from these tunnels in response to the calls of the Tier 4.
And in this chamber, there were no eggs.
Diving to the side, I dodged a gout of pale blue fire shot at me by a Tier 3 ant. Misjudging the distance in my haste, my shoulder slammed against the wall of the narrow tunnel. My Barrier lit up brightly, cushioning me from the impact and crushing an obsidian shard jutting out of the rock at the exact point of my impact. If I didn't have its protection, it would have surely pierced my shoulder. The only reason I hadn't been overwhelmed by the combined magical offensive of the ants was due the reckless abandon with which I could throw myself out of the way of their attacks without fear of physical injury. But that also meant that my divine power was draining away like water down a sink and I had no way to replenish it.
Although the loss of my mindscape and the increased strengths of my bonds meant that I could use Abstinence freely and use it to draw upon the divine power accumulated in my wives, it also meant that, unlike earlier, I couldn't supplement the consumption of my Barrier with my personal mana. Of course, I had tried to use ambient mana as a substitute but that didn't work. Apparently, it had to be mana generated by me for it to replenish my divine power. Thus, though Abstinence gave me a much stronger boost, the more I used it, the less divine power I had and the weaker the amplification. Couple that with the power required to maintain my Barrier and I had become something of a glass cannon. My maximum output was very high but I suffered a loss in lasting power and defensive capabilities. If only I had the Earth affinity as well…
Thankfully, I wasn't fighting on my own. A flash of green passed from the edge of my vision and slammed into the face of the ant. The ant reared back screeching in pain as a white mist rose from the point of contact. Getting back to my feet, I shot a glance backwards at my helper. It was Teal. She had discarded the large bottle gourd she was carrying on her back and its contents – a bright green potion – was circling around her like several pythons, protecting her in their midst. She was using her Fluid Manipulation to direct the streams of liquid, making them lash out at blinding speeds. Each strike was extremely precise, either incapacitating or outright reaping the lives of the ants.
Blue flames burst out of the wound on the face of the ant, cauterizing it and expelling the residual potion from the strike. When I saw it, my eyes widened in shock… one of its eyes was gone, along with half its face. The sturdy carapace had melted like wax under the effect of the potion, dripping down from the side of its head. Who the hell uses flesh-melting potions for fluid manipulation!? Isn't it illegal? For a short moment I even felt a bit sorry for the creature before it charged at me again with an enraged screech, its mandibles set to chomp down on me and split me in two. Oh well, it's either you or me… and I'd prefer it to be me.
Shrugging off my coat, I threw it at the ant, blocking its line of sight. It spewed out a fireball that burnt it to cinders but I had already sidestepped its charge. Before it could rein in its momentum and turn around, I slammed my fist down on top of its head with the force of Divine power bolstering the strike.
Its head slammed into the ground, fissuring the rock beneath. I chained the blow into an elbow strike with my weight behind it before finishing it off with a shoulder-drop.
There was a sickening crack and the ant twitched its six legs violently in its death throes before finally stilling.
Letting out a sigh, I had just relaxed slightly when a hand grabbed my collar and yanked me away. I was about to protest the rough-handling when several fireballs slammed into the spot where I had been just moments ago.
The hand let go of my collar and I staggered to a stop. Turning to my saviour, I muttered, "Thanks." Azure nodded his head without taking his eyes off the battle and replied, "Focus."
Taking a deep breath to bring my throbbing heart under control, I turned to where the sneak attack had come from. Three Tier 3 ants had focused their attention on us when they noticed that we had killed one of their peers.
"This way we won't last," remarked Luke detachedly as he manipulated the earth to create obstacles for the approaching swarm of ants. We had retreated into the tunnel we had entered from, using the narrow terrain to create a natural chokepoint to reduce the number of ants we had to take on at once. Even then, we were being pushed back by the sheer weight of numbers. And our mana was draining rapidly. Our fire mage, Adeline, a petite woman with sun-browned skin and blonde hair cropped close to her skull, was the one worst off. Her spells were nearly ineffective against the fire ants and the only thing she could do was deflect the incoming fireballs for us with ones of her own. She'd already exhausted her mana once and chugged a mana recovery potion, one with an extreme effectiveness and a correspondingly extreme side-effect. Her brown skin was suffused with an unhealthy flush and her eyes were gleaming dangerously. She could pass out at any moment. If not for her efforts, we wouldn't have lasted this long.
Behind us, Lieutenant Corvus was still keeping the Tier 4 at bay by threatening the eggs in the hatchery with his shadows but that state of affairs wouldn't last long as the Tier 4 ant was getting more and more agitated.
His voice carried over to us through a sound transmission, "I'll cast a large-scale spell in a moment. It'll freeze the ants for a few breaths. Get ready to make a dash for it."
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