Watching Hei Lian was always a source of joy and frustration in equal measure for Steven. Her competence made him feel inferior. He took in the view of her back as he followed her into the depths of the Dungeon, staying one step behind her. He ached to lengthen one of his strides by one pace, step up and walk side by side with her. But that single pace was like a bottomless ravine – one he was sure he would be able to leap across if he only had the courage. But any action was precluded by his crippling self-doubt.
What qualifications do you have? It would whisper insidiously in his mind and he would have no answers for it.
Just moments ago, she had incinerated a fire ant with a mere flick of her finger and a miniscule amount of mana. It was specially jarring for Steven. He couldn’t help but feel that she was giving him a demonstration of authority. His mind went back to the conversation they had on their way here from the military camp.
“Focus on your Aspects. They will serve you better than the increased mana you’ll get from the meditation you seem to love so much.” she had said.
He had ignored her advice. The only thing on his mind was narrowing the gap between their cultivation bases. If he focused on his Aspects like she did, he would never be able to catch up. They were like two runners on the same track and she was running faster than him. So, he had chosen to focus on the long jump instead. If he exceeded her in his mana cultivation, he would finally be able to balance their relationship. Or so he thought.
She had imbued a mere speck of mana with the Aspects of Inflammation as well as Enslavement and inserted it into the Tier 3 ant’s body. There, the Hellfire had ignited the Fire mana suffused throughout the ant’s flesh, burning it from inside out with its own mana. Of course, there was the ingredient of luck involved. Hei Lian’s skillset was the nemesis of the fire ants, what with their fire mana imbued bodies. If the ant wasn’t too focused on condensing its Explosion spell, it would have realized what had happened and purged the affected portion of its mana. By the time it did understand, it was too late and the Hellfire spread throughout its body as though it was a heap of dry leaves, charring it to cinders.
Despite all that, to Steven, it felt like a slap on his face. Instead of a verbal rebuke, she was reproaching him through her actions. The fact that she didn’t even spare him a glance before striding away afterwards hurt more.
After Steven had burnt that infernal notebook and she had cried on his shoulder, he had expected some positive change in their relationship. A shifting of power, so to speak. He had been disappointed. The way Hei Lian treated him had remained the same even after the incident. If anything, the sense of distance between them was even greater.
Earlier, she would joke with him occasionally; tease him with his shortcomings and then convey through word and glance that despite him being a sorry excuse for a man, she, a paragon of her gender, was still willing to accept him. Even if he didn’t like the constant state of embarrassment and humiliation, he had to agree with her on the fact that she was the most perfect woman he had ever seen in his short life. Looks, talent, everything about her was larger than life. Every adjective required to describe her had to be in the superlatives. There was no doubt in his mind that in becoming her husband, he had exhausted several lifetimes worth of luck.
Now, her interactions with him were formal, stilted. It was as if he was a glass figurine and she, cautious of inadvertently shattering him. Yet, their positions in their relationship were unchanged. She was still the dominant one and her word was law. Only, now, she didn’t try to intentionally humiliate him for her enjoyment. And that, ironically, had reduced their level of intimacy. Steven felt that their relationship now was less of a husband and wife and more of a servant and his master. Even the one time they’d had sex to stave off her Feralization, in their tent when they had set up camp on the way here, had been a mechanical, dispassionate chore. For the first time since meeting Hei Lian, he wasn’t looking forward to having sex with her.
Their mark, which had survived an abusive relationship, had begun to dim when it gained some semblance of normalcy. Steven didn’t know what exactly that said about his character.
“Lord, we’ve reached the end of the road.” said Fung, breaking Steven out of his contemplation. “This one doesn’t go all the way to the magma chamber but it is pretty close. I think Xing can take us the rest of the way by tunnelling through from here.” His tone was respectful and he kept his eyes lowered when he talked to her. Steven didn’t like the wiry wind mage much, or his sharp eyes that seemed to look right through him and find him lacking.
“Xing?” inquired Hei Lian.
The short, brawny man stepped up and laid his palm on the wall. Closing his eyes, he went silent. The rest of the team waited patiently for his appraisal. As the only earth mage in the team, if he deemed that the rock layer was too thick to realistically tunnel through, they would have to retrace their steps and join another team. Considering the time they had taken on the way in and factoring in the time required to meet up with the other team who were sure to be at the end of their path… the civil war between the ants would have reached an armistice by then. Splitting the team up had seemed like a sound tactic in theory. But they had underestimated the time needed to traverse these paths. Unless a team failed at the very beginning of their route, there wouldn’t be enough time for a re-run.
Still, it wasn’t a total failure. It had greatly improved the probability that at least one team would successfully reach the core. Whether or not they would be able to deal with whatever lay in store for them there was a different story altogether.
Finally, after an interminable amount of time, the man opened his eyes. Turning to Hei Lian he said, “I can get us through.”
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