The rest of the trip down the tunnel to the magma chamber was quite uneventful except for the steadily increasing heat and the corresponding elevation in the levels of fire mana. It appeared that the ants didn’t dare to build their tunnels too close to the lair of the elemental. The one we were using seemed to serve the purpose of a conduit for the mana to the dwelling of the Queen and the hatching chambers. The denser mana was conducive for cultivation and the development of the eggs.
The deeper we went, the worse the heat was until it got to the point where every breath scorched our lungs and our sweat evaporated the moment it seeped out of our pores. Finally, the fire mages in our team had to use their Domains to protect us. I chipped in to help as well.
Ceres filled me on how their team had managed to find us in such a timely manner. When the Tier 4 ant had started calling for reinforcements, its cries had been taken up by any ant within earshot and like a relay, it had quickly spread outwards through the tunnels of the labyrinth. The soldier ants who had been patrolling the Dungeon through their designated tunnels dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to the origin of the call. This was the quick response mechanism of the ants.
As Ceres’ team was in the soldier ants’ tunnels, they too picked up on the call and noticed the mass migration of the ants towards it. Correctly guessing that it might be because of us attacking the hatcheries, they followed behind the soldiers, hidden from them by Ceres’ smoke until they came upon the scene in the Queen’s chamber. And I had personally experienced what had happened after that.
If Ceres’ hadn’t been affected by the Dungeon and obtained nearly infinite mana within it, her team would have been much slower to move down their path. They wouldn’t be close enough to rescue us in that case. Let alone, they probably wouldn’t have the means to save us even if they did manage to reach us in time.
I noticed that Ceres was having a hard time adjusting to the mana density as we were moving towards the core. Even with the mind crystal locket providing a drain port for her excess mana, she was finding it increasingly harder to take a step forward. This resulted in us falling further back from the team.
Noticing our situation, Marshal Canis called a halt and walked up to us with Lieutenant Corvus by her side. “What seems ta be the problem?” she asked.
Suppressing a twinge of reluctance, I slid off Ceres back and replied while keeping the fingers of one hand twined in the fur of her neck. “She told you about how her cultivation was increasing, right?” When Marshal Canis nodded, I explained, “It is a reaction of her mindscape to the mana of the Dungeon. She is finding it hard to proceed further.”
“Allow me,” said Lieutenant Corvus as he stretched out a finger to Ceres and indicated for her to touch her forehead to it. Slightly hesitant, Ceres stepped forward and brought its tip into contact with her head. Both of them closed their eyes and fell into a sort of trance as Marshal Canis and I looked on. After a minute or so, the Lieutenant drew back and Ceres opened her eyes.
“Well?” queried Marshal Canis.
“She is on the verge of a breakthrough to Tier 3. Before she completes it, she won’t be able to increase the capacity of her mindscape. In other words, she won’t be able to proceed any further without the risk of her mindscape cracking.” he replied.
“Then what are we supposed to do?” I asked, worried.
He shrugged. “Nothing for it, we’ll have to assist her in her breakthrough. Her presence is key for the success of our mission after all.” Marshal Canis nodded and said, “I’ll call the fire mages. They’ll be able to help much more than us. We are ahead of schedule anyway due to Captain Ceres’ contribution. We can spare some time to help her advance. Coming here was apparently a spell of good fortune for her. Helping her grasp it well is the least we can do to reward her for her services.”
“Thanks.” said Ceres, moved.
Lieutenant Corvus shook his head and said seriously, “If you didn’t appeared when you did, I was planning to cast a last resort spell to try and get the rest of our team into the tunnel. It was highly unlikely for me to survive the experience. Let alone, I can’t be sure that they wouldn’t have died anyway. Everyone on my team owes you a life. So, don’t thank us.”
Adeline, the fire mage from our team who had been called up along with her fellow fire mage from the other team by Marshal Canis smiled at Ceres.
“Yeah. Leave it to us. We’ll make sure that you promote without a hitch. And if we ever get out of this hellhole and make it back home, you can count on me to have your back.” she said with a grin.
I felt proud of my wife. She had shattered the barriers of their prejudice and won their hearts with her actions. Like she had mine. Patting her back in encouragement, I left her in the care of the two fire mages and gave them some space to work.
The rest of our team had made themselves home on the ground as they rested their bodies weary from battle and meditated to regenerate their mana. Noticing Azure and Teal sitting to one side speaking to each other, I started to make my way towards them. I needed to thank them for having my back during the fight with the ants but Marshal Canis stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
In reply to my questioning look, she said, “Come with us. We need to discuss a strategy to deal with the elemental. And you need to tell us all you can about the mutation of this Dungeon.”
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