Dragging his broken body behind a rock to shield the line of sight of any pursuers from the sky, Aeryn Corvus collapsed against the rock, cradling his injured hand and broken wing. He knew that it wouldn’t baffle the following ants for long. Their primary sense was smell after all. It was only supposed to be a sortie into the airspace of the ants. Just a quick survey of their numbers and positions from an aerial vantage. As a Tier 3 peak Shadow mage and as the most accomplished flier in the regiment, save the General, he was the most appropriate for the task of scouting ahead.
At first, everything had gone according to plan. He had wrapped himself in his magic and concealed himself within the shadows of the clouds, mapping the terrain and the distribution of the enemy forces as he went.
The land beneath him was a rugged mix of mountains, valleys and canyons and the Calamity was like rivers of flame spidering through the terrain. He saw the rills converging with each other near Firang, growing into a river that battered its way towards the contingent. War wasn’t long in coming.
Tracing the streams back to their source with his eyes, he had seen a pillar of smoke rising up into the sky in the distance – the erupting Zhurong. Hoping for some intel that would pave the way for the Expedition and increase their odds of success, he had forayed deeper into the Forbidden Zone.
He had seen it then. It wasn’t just one pillar of smoke, there were two thick columns that seemed to hold up the sky, dyeing the swirling clouds above them black. Purple streaks of lightning arced from cloud to earth, the distant rumble of thunder rolled through the lands. Beneath the dark clouds, a red glow covered the two volcanoes. It wasn’t just Zhurong that had erupted, its offshoot Gun had too.
Fire elementals propagated by splitting parts of themselves off whenever they got too saturated with mana but weren’t ready to impact the realm of Demigod yet. Zhurong had split a part of itself off about a hundred years ago to form the volcano Gun which had become a home to one of the five ant queens that resided in the Sixth Forbidden Zone. The immature flame dungeon was nowhere close to a stage where it would be ready to impact the higher realm. There was no reason for it to erupt at that time.
Aeryn was sure that this oddity was the reason behind the Calamity sparing the territory of the Crimson Coyotes. Catching a thermal with his wings, he had spiralled upwards, gaining altitude before increasing the amount of mana he was pumping into his Stealth spell. Transitioning into a silent glide towards the two volcanoes, his eyes had scanned the surroundings for any sign of aerial patrols.
Approaching closer, he had seen neat rows of ants facing off against each other on the southern side of Zhurong. While the battle at the Firang wall had been tactical with the soldiers trying to efficiently decimate the legion while it advanced heedless of its losses, here the combatants met directly on the field of battle without any wall separating them. The fighting was extremely fierce with the two antagonistic forces doing their utmost to shred each other to bits under the urgings of their respective queens – house sized ants that hung back at the rear of their forces and hissed at each other across the field littered with corpses of their subordinates.
The eruption of both volcanoes at the same time had sparked a conflict been the colony at the southern face of Zhurong and the newly formed splinter colony that had taken up residence in Gun. Aeryn had comprehended the Duchess’ plan at that moment. She had pitted the two colonies against each other so they couldn’t set their soldiers aside to attack the Crimson Coyotes. It made sense now that he thought about it. The nascent Dungeon of Gun was obviously easier to influence than a mature one like Zhurong. Whatever trick she had played, the crux of it lay within that volcano.
He hadn’t stuck around to spectate any longer. He needed to get back to the base and report on whatever he had seen so the Expedition group could plot their path better and avoid the majority of the Calamity’s forces.
But unfortunately for him, he had been discovered by the winged Tier 4 ant that had been patrolling the airspace with its subordinates on his way back.
The problem was that while Shadow magic was great for stealth, muffling sound as well as obscuring his figure when he utilized Call of the Dark, it was of no help in hiding his scent and olfaction was the primary method with which ants perceived their world. It couldn’t be helped though. The dynamic vision of the ants wasn’t poor either and unless a wind mage and a shadow mage collaborated, perfect stealth wasn’t possible.
The war and chase had followed and now he was stuck within enemy lines, injured and hiding behind a rock with critical information that he needed to pass onto command before the squad set out. And it wouldn’t take the pursuing Tier 3 ants to catch up to him. In his condition, he wouldn’t survive a fight.
To make matters worse, his realm was showing signs of backing up with his intensive mana usage right after promotion without letting his body acclimatize to the sudden surge of power.
He sighed and leaned back against the rock.
After he had run away from home, he had made his way across the entire breadth of the Empire, from the North-Western Province to the South-Eastern Province. It had been an interesting few years. The caravans he hitched a ride with easily identified his noble roots. Sometimes, that got him preferential treatment, a better seat on the carriage, discounts on the passage fees… One time, it got him mugged. He had woken up on the roadside between two cities with a bump on his head and bereft of all possessions. Apparently, his meagre belongings had disappointed his muggers and they had decided to be quite thorough. So, he had found himself in his underwear as bare as a plucked chicken, with the roots of his feathers bleeding where some had been ripped out with all the finesse a crook could manage.
If not for the ‘red shirts’ on patrol finding him, he would have had to walk all the way to the city on foot in his condition. One of them had let him ride on his destrier and galloped all the way to the closest city. There, the guard leader had taken his statement, allowed him to choose some fitting clothes from a charity box and sent him to the police medic who had ensured his wings wouldn’t get infected and assured him of their complete recovery. Then, they had asked him what he planned to do next. He had asked to join the Internal Police Force. After some consideration, they had agreed to accept him on probation. After all, a young, healthy shadow mage with clear noble roots and the corresponding talent was too useful an asset to pass up.
Aeryn had worked his way up the ranks. The paucity of resources and the lack of teachers had hampered his progress, but compared to the commoners, his talent was placed there. So, it wasn’t long before he reached the threshold of Tier 3 and received a call to join the army. When he finally departed for Firang, the bandits had breathed a sigh of relief. In his tenure, Aeryn had taught them to fear the dark.
All Tier 3 mages unaffiliated to some noble clan were allowed to take on their own clan name and establish their own clan. Henceforth, Aeryn was Aeryn Corvus. He felt he owed it to the only man who had showed him kindness in his childhood, the man who had made his mother smile, and the man who had lost his life at the hands of his ‘father’.
So, here he was, after years of hard work without the support of any family – a Tier 4 mage. He might not be his cousin, the Emperor of Regiis, but he was satisfied with his achievements. He felt he could look the Pavones in the eye and say, ‘I’m fine without you.’
He had actually been scheduled to be promoted to the post of Lieutenant for the Scouting Department. Then the Ursas had come and Ava Ursa had been assigned that post while he had been transferred to the Messenger department and made directly responsible to the General. While it might seem like a promotion, it robbed his opportunity to become the chief of a Department. And recently, the General’s son had arrived and had immediately been conferred the post of Lieutenant. While his performance was shocking, it didn’t allay the fact that he was a mere civilian unskilled in command and unversed in discipline. There were candidates more deserving.
Marshal Zoya Canis for instance. He had always admired the grit of the woman. Her promotion to late Tier 3 despite her bloodline not being dense enough to allow her to turn Feral was proof of her tenacity. One of the reasons he had volunteered for the scouting mission was that she was leading the Expedition and he wanted to pave the way for her.
He looked up at the clear blue sky, his sharp eyes making out several rapidly approaching spots in the distance. The ants were coming. He didn’t have much time.
Taking out the mind crystal shard he had been granted, he pumped the remainder of his mana into it, establishing a connection with the main crystal node at Firang and touched it to his forehead. It was too small to convey images and impressions, but it was enough to get words across. The squad would have to make do with his verbal descriptions.
With a hiss of static, the connection stabilized and the voice of the operator rang out in his mind, his sentences clipped and short to preserve mana, “Corvus. Report.”
Aeryn described what he had seen as concisely as he could, stating his circumstances and location. He had little hope for rescue but the mind crystal shard was precious and it needed to be retrieved. After he was done, there was a short silence on the other side, interrupted only by static. He felt his mind fog up as his mana saw the bottom. He wouldn’t be able to hold the connection for long.
Right before the connection cut off, a gruff, feminine voice came through. “Hold on tight, soldier. We’ll be there.”
Using the last of his strength to bury the crystal under a shallow layer of earth so the ants wouldn’t find it and marking the spot with a scrap of cloth, he sank into unconsciousness.
His final thoughts were about the owner of the voice, ‘A woman like her, unmarried just because her bloodline is a bit thin, the aristocrats are really blind.’
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