I sprinted downhill with the ants hot on my heels. Side-stepping to the left, I dodged another of the fireballs they had been puking at me. It slammed onto the ground with an explosive rumble, raising a cloud of dust and peppering my back with debris that bounced off my Barrier. With a low whistle, I called the winds and took advantage of the shockwave to propel myself forward, widening the gap between me and my pursuers. Yes, pursuers. The ant which had first detected me had called all its friends and a small-scale swarm was behind me, buzzing for my blood.
Thankfully, my Abstinence enhanced physique was holding up well. I felt as light as a swallow as I bounded down the slope, my improved reflexes allowing me to find the perfect foothold every time on the rough terrain. Coupled with the swirling winds around me that flowed in the patterns of the wind magic Haste, I had very little trouble staying ahead of the ants.
I was drawing steadily closer to the spot of the ambush. The ants, unable to smell the others due to Ceres' incense and with the smoking jar hanging at my waist amplifying my scent, had no idea that I was leading them to their doom.
Marshal Canis had remained hidden in her position behind the ants so even if one of them tried to escape when the trap was sprung, she could deal with it, or if there was more than one, delay them long enough for one the members of our squad to provide support.
I noticed the pre-determined symbol for the ambush spot before I reached it: three similarly sized stones placed on the vertices of an equilateral triangle. A clearly artificial rock formation.
Instead of running directly at it, I cut across it on a diagonal, exposing the flank of the swarm of ants to the ambushers. Just as the first ant cleared the symbol, the rocks exploded outwards, slamming into the ants and knocking several of them down from the air.
Forms wrapped in wind fire and shadow leaped out of the cloud of dust like comets and smacked the rest of the airborne ants down on the ground. Through the billowing dust cloud, I caught a glimpse of one of the Tier 3 Earth mages slamming both of his hands down on the heads of two Tier 2 ants, encasing them with rock at a touch: Tier 2 earth magic: Petrifaction. All three dropped from the air like stones, disappearing into the dust cloud. Explosive sounds and flashes of fire and lightning were the only indications of the fierce fight going on within.
Then I had no more time to appreciate my handiwork as I had to dive into a roll to avoid a blazing white fireball that landed where I had been standing. It was the Tier 3 ant which had been the first to detect me. It had been in the forefront of thee swarm and had managed to avoid the fate of its brethren. From its angry screeches, it seemed to know that I was the chief criminal for their current situation. It seemed like it wouldn't rest until I was dead. Which was fine by me.
I stood up, patted off the dust and cricked my neck from side to side. I hadn't enjoyed being chased down either. It was time for some payback.
The rocks shattered beneath my feet as, with a blast of wind, I charged at the beast. Runes of wind formed and circled me, growing more numerous with each step. My form blurred as I slammed into the ant, sending it tumbling through the air and onto the ground.
It drew a furrow on the ground before sliding to a stop. Leaping to its feet immediately, it clacked its mandibles at me in fury and its body blushed red with heat. The air around it warped as the temperature of the surroundings suddenly shot up several degrees.
Tier 2 flame magic: Heatwave.
Roiling flames spewed out of its body in all directions, spreading outwards like a deluge of flame. I had no time to dodge, the build-up was too short. I would have to tank it.
Settling into the familiar stance of the Thunderclap Samsara Palms, channelled the runes into my movements. The wind mana around me responded by following my palms as they cut through the air, forming a swirling vortex of wind around me. Then the flames arrived and the world around me burned.
I was like a reef within a sea of flame. The fire pressed onto me from all sides, trying to erode my defences. It was like a hungry beast that wished to devour everything in its path. I could feel the barrier of wind around me contract as the ant concentrated its flames onto me. The heightened density of fire mana meant that there was less wind mana in the atmosphere for me to work with. That coupled with my inexperience with my magic and the fact that it was the first time I was truly facing a Tier 3 meant that I was leeward in our contest of strength.
Deimos' words at the pier where we had consummated our marriage for the first time reverberated in my mind: "The wind is your friend…" I relaxed my control of the runes and they roamed around me in random paths disrupting the orderly eddies created by my martial technique before settling into a new order. I truly felt one with the wind. My palms blurred, creating a vortex that drew in the dust around us.
There, cut off from the world by a sea of flame and protected from the flames by storm, I had an epiphany. My mind seemed to sharpen as I reached ever closer to the Void. The world slowed in my eyes. I could feel every current of wind and every stream of mana that surrounded me. The fire mana was like a swarm of devils embodying the anger of the ant, hellbent on destroying me. I had a feeling that if I could put myself in a mindset similar to the ant, I would be able to nullify its spell. But if I chose that path, I would lose the calm of my Oneness, and miss this chance to experience the Void. So, I let go of that temptation and sank further into thoughtlessness.
I watched, rather felt the tiny particles of dust rub against each other, producing sparks of electricity that leapt from particle to particle, weakening and finally petering out. I observed sparks that met other sparks, merged and grew strong. I realized that there was more to the Thunderclap Samsara Palms than I had thought as more sparks merged than were lost. I watched emotionlessly as my barrier of wind shrank under the onslaught of the flames until it dwindled to almost nothing and I could feel the heat against my skin. Then it was gone, leaving me unprotected… except for a coat of electricity that kept the flames away.
Tier 3 wind magic: Thunder clad.
The flames couldn't burn me anymore. In a burst of electricity, I disappeared… and reappeared in front of the ant.
Like a sudden thunderclap.
I clapped it on both sides of its head with my palms, sending the reverberations through its brain, giving it the mother of all concussions. The docile coat of lightning around me turned manic and discharged into its body through my palms, lighting it up an electric blue and cooking it from the inside.
The flames around it diverged. I stepped back. The smoking corpse of the Tier 3 dropped onto the charred ground.
I felt weak. Having used up all of Vita's power in my fight, my muscles felt like jelly. Staggering, I stepped on a loose rock and fell backwards, plopping down onto my butt. I lay down on the ground and breathed in air in gulps. Even the air with the scorched scent felt like the nectar of the gods to me. I was totally spent. If I hadn't comprehended the aspect of lightning or if the ant had used its Tier 3 flame magic: Explosion, the one lying on the ground as a charred corpse could have been me.
We ended the week with Rank 92... not exactly 90, but since it's my birthday tomorrow, we'll have a double chapter on Christmas.
[Target for next week: Rank 85.]
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