We were on full alert as we stared at the form of Hei Lian who was slowly standing up, wreathed in dark flames. As soon as the Dungeon core had sneaked its way into her body, flames had begun pouring out of her body when it failed to contain the immense power within the crystal. Eyes, nose, mouth, ears, through the cracks in her skin… it seemed she’d be burnt down to ash at any moment by the fire spewing out of her.
Just like Steven… Affected by Hei Lian’s fire through their bond, the boy had become the first, and till date, the only casualty of the Expedition. But it seemed that might change soon.
Suddenly, the unruly flames that had been ravaging Hei Lian settled down and became incomparably docile, circling her like obedient dogs around their master. The flames burning out of her eyes extinguished revealing a pair of golden wolf pupils.
We flinched under that gaze. Indifference. Nihilism. Apathy… To the owner of that pair of eyes, nothing in the world seemed to matter.
I couldn’t help but wince internally at Hei Lian’s current appearance. The fire had really done a number on her. Her once beautiful porcelain skin now looked more like overbaked pottery with cracks, that burnt internally with black flames, spread all over her inflamed skin. Her waterfall of midnight black hair had been burnt away, laying bare the scorched skin of her scalp. And her clothes had turned to ash, revealing the full extent of the damage.
As if sensing my gaze, her eyes turned to me, sending shivers up my spine. Involuntarily, I took a step back.
Hei Lian slowly raised her arms and as if responding to her gesture, streams of fire converged on her from the black flames that were burning all over the magma lake, wrapping her up in a fiery vortex.
When the flames diverged, they revealed her form clad from head to toe in armour made of solidified dark flame. Black fire cascaded down from her waist, forming into a translucent ankle-length skirt that gave a more feminine cast to her form. Her head was covered in a helm replete with a face-plate, revealing only her glinting amber eyes.
Mana manifestation. The characteristic power of Tier 5 mages – the ability to convert mana into a solid entity like father’s artificial arm. One more sign that it was probably the Witch inhabiting Hei Lian’s body now.
Suppressing his nervousness, Lieutenant Corvus boldly stepped forward and asked, “Are you Miyagi Vulpine?”
Ignoring him, she turned her back to us and moved towards the crystal palace. Reaching the edge of the stone platform, she stepped off without hesitation, walking directly on the molten rock, leaving footprints burning with black flames in her wake.
At her approach, the Inflammation crystals that made up the palace caught fire, the entire mass of dark flame shrinking into itself and morphing into a high-backed chair. Climbing the flaming steps, she took her seat on the chair, overlooking us all.
‘No,’ I thought. ‘Not a chair… a throne.’
“Miyagi Vulpine is dead…”
Many voices overlapped when she spoke, her words echoing throughout the magma chamber, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “… as is the girl.”
She looked up at the ball of dark fire that was still floating above the magma lake. It was on its last legs, having almost exhausted all the mana that had been pumped into it. Under the force of Hei Lian’s will, it shrank into the size of a marble, slowly floating down to hover docilely above her armoured palm.
Studying it for a short moment, she clenched her fist, crushing it. “You may call me the Dark Sun.”
‘Hei’yang.’ I savoured the name in my mind. An aggressive name, a name that echoed her father’s but was directly opposed to it. ‘But, what does it mean? Who is she?’
“Then… what would your excellency have us do?” asked Lieutenant Corvus warily.
“Forget.” The word was like a hammer against our minds causing us to collectively stagger but the mages from the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries were affected the most. Their eyes lost their light and they froze in the same place like mindless puppets.
“Yes, Lord.” They intoned mechanically.
“Rest.” They collapsed on the ground like marionettes with broken strings, fast asleep.
“I do not wish for my presence here to be known. Speak of me and your life is forfeit, along with that of your kin… As a reward for keeping my secret, I will command my ants to ally with the other colony and invade the territory of the Crimson Coyotes… Now, take them and depart.”
It seemed like Lieutenant Corvus wanted to ask a few more questions but looking at the mysterious figure’s indifferent golden eyes, he backed down. It was extremely lucky for her to propose such excellent conditions, in the first place. Even if she didn’t keep her word about the ants, we would still be fortunate to escape with our lives. And if she did, then we would have fulfilled our mission objective and then some.
She didn’t wait for us to give our agreement. With a gesture of her hand, the magma beneath our platform rose in a wave and carried us to the edge of the lake, unceremoniously dumping us on the bank.
Now we were doubly sure. There was no way we could take her on in a fight. It wouldn’t be wise to push our luck.
As we left the magma chamber through the tunnels, I glanced backwards one last time. There, in the middle of a pool of dark fire, sitting on her throne of flames, armoured in darkness was the figure of the princess of the wolves. The Empress of Flames receiving the obeisance of her subjects. Billowing black smoke covered my line of sight as it obscured the centre of the lake, replacing the Witch’s vortex of white.
Taking back my gaze, I trudged up the tunnel towards the sunlight. So much power in a single hand…
The only sounds that disturbed the silence shrouding the chamber after the mages left were the crackling of the flames and the ebullition of the molten rock. The newly christened Dark Sun sat motionless like a statue, fixedly staring at her clenched fist.
Then, slowly, she relaxed her grip, letting her fist unfurl into a palm. There floating in the middle of the palm was a spark of rose-red flame, edged with pink. Despite the efforts of her dark flames to devour it, it had persisted tenaciously in the heart of her spell. Even now, in her palm, sieged on all sides by Hellfire, it still fought on valiantly.
The two flames reflected off her golden pupils. One vibrant with enthusiasm for life, one heavy with the desire for vengeance. Both possible motives for survival.
A thought floated up in her mind. ‘Is this what I could have been?’
She immediately discarded the notion. That wasn’t her path. It had never been. It would never be.