I didn’t expect our spell to be so effective. At most, I hoped to disturb the elemental’s casting and maybe inflict some damage on it. Instead, it just popped like a balloon under the impact of its own spell, scattering blue flames everywhere.
Since we were so close to the epicentre of the explosion, the shockwave had affected us as well. We had been thrown clear across the cavern by the force of the blow. Azure, the Marshal and I had been thrown in different directions.
I had slammed into the wall of the cavern with enough force to be embedded in it. The rock had fissured around my outline and cascaded down on me, burying me. Thankfully, I still had the last of my divine power, using it to block the impact with my Barrier.
Still, the force travelled through my body and shook up my internal organs. I was reasonably sure that I was bleeding internally.
As I groaned in pain and tried to claw my way out of the rock, I tried to make sense of the situation. An elemental, even one as young as Gun, shouldn’t be that weak, even right after a volcanic eruption. Maybe it couldn’t stand up to two Demigods at the same time like its progenitor, Zhurong, but the battle-strength of a Tier 5 was a given.
It hit me then. It wasn’t the true body of the elemental that we were fighting – it was a Doppelganger. The true body of the elemental was the core of the Dungeon. To deal with us, the elemental had split off a part of its mana to form a mana construct. With the limited mana it had, the final spell it was casting probably contained most of its remaining mana, that’s why it seemed so transparent while it was gathering power for its spell. When the spell failed, the remaining mana within it must not have been enough to resist the explosion and maintain the integrity of its structure.
As I pushed away a few loose rocks and connected the interior of the pile I was buried under to the outside, letting the scorching air flow in, I also wondered about the stream of smoky mana that had suddenly emerged from Ceres’ contract marking into my mind. Had she encountered some sort of trouble? Or was she just trying to alleviate the pressure on her by sharing her burden with me?
Anyway, now that we had destroyed the elemental’s Doppelganger, I had no idea what its subsequent reaction would be. Maybe it would send out another one, more powerful than the last. It might even set out its main body.
Whatever be the case, I wouldn’t be of any help stuck under some rocks.
With a mighty effort, I managed to roll the large boulder that had fallen on top of me and regained my freedom. Breathing in the scorching air tainted with the stench of brimstone, I took in the aftermath of the explosion.
There were blue flames scattered everywhere and at the epicentre was a deep depression with cracks spreading out from it to the surrounding rock. Turning to the centre of the magma lake, I couldn’t make out the forms of the gunners. They had probably already entered the bank of smoke surrounding the centre of the lake.
Suddenly, I noticed a movement at the edge of my vision. Whipping my head around, I noticed that a bunch of flames was beginning to wriggle. Sweeping my gaze across the battlefield, I noticed that all the flames were creeping on the ground towards each other. In front of my eyes, two bunches of flame merged together into a larger, more exuberant flame. Then it moved to merge with another flame until it reached a certain point where it morphed into a small one-tailed fox.
Soon, there was an army of small foxes covering the entire bank of the lake, filling the air with their high-pitched cries as they searched for us.
I knew it couldn’t be so easy. I shrank back into the hollow of the rock. It was like fighting the ants all over again. I might be able to beat dozens of them on my own but I’d be overwhelmed by the numbers.
A foxy whine from behind me startled me and I whipped my head around to see a small flaming fox staring down at me imperiously from atop the pile of stones. It must have formed out of some flames that were burning on the rock that I didn’t notice.
There was suddenly a pin-drop silence. I mechanically turned my head back only to see hundreds of pairs of eyes staring emotionlessly at me. Sweat trickled down my forehead and I cautiously tried to move aside. The gazes followed my movements in eerie synchrony giving me a creepy feeling.
I gulped. “Hello…” I tried with a weak smile, “can we be friends?”
*kuu* The fox behind me yelled again and the entire horde went into motion, plunging into me in a deluge of small flaming blue foxes.
“Damn!” I cursed as I scrambled away up the pile of rocks, kicking the evil snitching fox away as it tried to tackle me. Descending from the other side of the rock pile, I sprinted for my life with the fox army in hot pursuit.
‘This is the last time I’ll think foxes are cute. Well, except Ceres, that is.’ I rambled in my mind as I dodged the gouts of flame shot at me by zigzagging. But running like that was slower than the straight-line path the foxes were taking. Even if they weren’t able to hit me, they still achieved their goal by slowing me down with the constant barrage.
When they were nearly nipping at my heels, I cruel-heartedly let one of the fireballs blast out against my back. Taking advantage of the momentum of the explosion, I spread out from them once again. I had to clench my teeth against the pain. The stench of charred flesh assaulted me.
A few more hits and I would be cooked through and through.
Even as I unceasingly changed directions, I kept my eye out for the other members of the team. ‘A little help, please.’
As if in answer to my heartfelt desire, a strong gust of wind slammed into the foxes chasing me, scattering them like so many skittles. Marshal Canis stepped out of the shadow of a rock, grabbed my hand and pulled me into the darkness.
Suddenly, my field of view changed and we emerged in the middle of the rock formation where we had stayed before launching our attack. The rest of the team was also gathered there.
Losing sight of their objective (me) the foxes began roaming about everywhere searching for our trail.
“Those things are thorny. Their senses are connected. If even one finds you, the others will too. The same for if you destroy them. It’ll bring you to their attention.” Marshal Canis explained.
“What do we do then?” I asked.
“Hide,” she replied. “Our job is to delay the time for the other team after all.
“Good.” I agreed as I gingerly moved my arms to test my range of motion, wincing as it stretched the charred skin on my back. Nearly everyone here had some sort of burn injury. These small foxes were much more troublesome than a single large one.
Suddenly, the sounds of the foxes stilled. Turning to them I saw all of them frozen in place as they looked at centre of the lake. Then, with a vast momentum, they all rushed towards the centre.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” exclaimed Azure, throwing up his arms in frustration. “Give me a break already!”
Then he jumped out of the concealment and attacked the backs of the fox army with his Blade Edge Hurricane, clearing a large swathe of them. Exchanging glances with the others, we all followed after him and began to bombard the army in order to shift their attention… or if that wasn’t possible, slow them down and weaken them before they reached the centre of the lake.
It was all we could do.