I was an avid reader. Our library back at the Felidae Estate had a large collection of fiction and any time I wasn’t training or taking lessons, I would just hole myself up in there and lose myself in the world born of another’s fantasy. Most of the novels were from the romance genre – and maybe because mother was the one who ordered the books, the majority of them were written from the perspective of the female lead. Despite cheesy titles like ‘The Duke’s Mischievous Wife’ and the ‘The Demonic Emperor’s Cute Consort’ they were surprisingly good reads and best of all, they were applicable in real life. They gave me a peek into the female psyche. They told me what girls wanted from a man.
Inexperienced as I was, I had no idea of how to deal with two girls who were suddenly thrust upon me as my future wives. Especially when Phobos and Deimos kept flinching away from me in the early days of our relationship. I know now what the reason for that was but at that time, I was utterly confused. Thankfully, the scenarios presented within the pages of the book gave me a model upon which to base my behaviour. I believed in their credibility, after all anyone who writes a book on relationships and is confident enough to publish it must be an authority on psychology and social sciences. And they didn’t let me down. I placed my trust in them, complimented them often, did nice things for them and never forgot their birthdays. That was all it took for the girls to warm up to me.
Why? Just recently, the books had shown their worth by telling me what to do to console Ceres. In them, whenever the female lead was bullied by her step-mother/sister/brother she would be utterly miserable and it would be the job of the male lead to kiss them back to good cheer. What if kissing her publicly was a bit embarrassing, the results spoke for themselves, didn’t they? Her smile afterwards was reward enough for me.
One of the most common ways for the female lead to meet the male lead in those novels was the ‘hero rescues the damsel’ scenario. At the height of her distress, the man would come charging in on his white destrier clad in his most polished set of full-plate and tear through all obstacles to save her. The contrast between her despair and the joy at being emancipated from it would manifest in the form of a strong favourable impression for her saviour. A very believable reaction. There was a reason it was such a popular trope.
Although, it did get a bit tiring reading about it after the umpteenth time. That was why the authors sometimes tweaked the trope to keep it fresh. One of the variations was a swapping of the gender roles: the strong female lead rescuing the male from danger. While it was fresh, I didn’t particularly empathize with the scenario – until it happened to me.
When Ceres walked out of one of the tunnels leading away from the Queen’s chamber in her Feral form, three tails swinging behind her with the mana-phantom of a fourth most of the way to solidification, I kind of understood what the male lead might have felt in that situation.
With every step she took, her purple smoke billowed out before her and smothered the ants in her way. Silence covered the battlefield like a gradually drawn blanket as she regally stepped over the prone forms of the fallen ants towards me. My magic had been restricted, I had been helpless to stop my comrade from sacrificing his life for ours, in my hubris, I had assumed I was capable of improving our situation but losing concentration, turned into a liability instead… let alone the excruciating pain from the ant toxin battering my senses. At my lowest point, she appeared magically. Nearly transparent blue flames flickered over her cinnamon brown fur and purple smoke twined around her. Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3… once they disappeared within the roiling bank of smoke, they fell silent. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Even the rest of my squad, Lieutenant Corvus as well as the Tier 4 ant had gone utterly silent. In that stillness, she walked up to me and cocked her head to the side to study my state. She had grown. Earlier the top of the head of her Feral form reached my hip but now, it would have reached my shoulder if I was standing. Sprawled on the ground as I was, she had to lower her head to inspect my condition.
I saw her eyes widen as she noticed the injury on my foot. Bringing her snout close to my leg, she huffed gently. A transparent flame charred my bloody trouser leg to my knee, exposing the puncture wounds. She licked over the wound and I could feel the toxins that were ravaging my nerves halt, then retreat from my body and seep out of my wound under her control. My relief was palpable. I nearly collapsed back onto the rocky ground, barely managing to prop myself up on my arms.
Ceres nuzzled my face with her snout before saying, “Wait here,” lisping slightly due to the unfamiliar feel of her vocal organs in her Feral form.
Before I could collect my thoughts enough to form a coherent response, she had brushed past me and was walking towards the Tier 4 ant who had finally recovered from its shock at her sudden appearance and the doubtful fate of its subordinates. It was furious. Blue flames jetted out of its every orifice, condensing around it in a flaming armour. One, two, four then sixteen white hot balls of flame formed around its body circling behind it in a ring. The fluctuations I sensed off each orb told me of the ruinous strength condensed within each one.
Tier 4 ultimate magic: Bloodline Integration.
Tier 3 flame magic: Explosion.
Faced with the slaughter of its subordinates with such ease, it had raised its evaluation of Ceres’ threat level several notches. It was going all out.
Huk huk huk…
Ceres barked out thrice in a strange coughing manner and the ant stagnated for a moment before screeching at her and clacking its mandibles. Ceres nodded her head then the sea of smoke parted under her command revealing the prone forms of hundreds of ants lying on the ground. But unlike what I had assumed, judging by the blue flames that still burnt in their body they weren’t dead, just sleeping.
The ant seemed to relax slightly but it still didn’t dismiss the ring of explosive orbs. Ceres frowned and hissed at it. At the edges of the room, the smoke cleared to reveal the rest of the members of her party including Marshal Canis. They were poised to take out the sleeping ants.
Seeing that, the Tier 4 seemed to deflate. It dismissed the spells slowly, so as to minimize the backlash to itself before taking a step back.
Ceres addressed Lieutenant Corvus, “It won’t stop us anymore if we spare the ants and the eggs.”
He nodded and withdrew his shadow and both of them began backing up to us, keeping a wary eye on the ant.
Both our teams converged and moved towards the tunnel that led to the magma chamber. The venom had dulled the nerves of my bitten foot and it would take some time for it to recover. If not for my enhanced physique, I could have even been crippled. Much to my embarrassment, Ceres insisted upon carrying me and in such a tense situation, I couldn’t bring myself to argue. As soon as we had passed the halfway mark to the tunnel, Ceres wrapped us up in her smoke again to obscure the senses of the Tier 4 ant and we made a dash for the tunnel.
Just as we entered the tunnel, an explosion sent us staggering forward and caused large chunks of rock to rain down and block the entrance. The ant had decided to attack us when it was sure we had crossed most of its subordinates. It was willing to sacrifice the minority in order to kill us. Truly, brutal, cold logic. If we hadn’t run when we had, we might have been heavily injured.
I twined my fingers into the soft fur of Ceres ruff and breathed out long and slow. That had been close.