The light of the morning sun infiltrated through the ventilation slit at the top corner of the tent and illuminated Ceres’ face, causing her to frown in her sleep. Uncomfortable, she wrinkled her nose and tried to turn away from the light only to fail as she was trapped within Mars’ embrace. Finally, unable to stay asleep anymore, she opened her eyes, squinting against the light.
Blinking a few times to clear her vision, she took in her situation. After their nightly exertions, they had fallen asleep with Mars spooning her. Sometime in the night, the heat had grown too much to bear and one of them had kicked the blanket away, resulting in them lying bare on the bed. For a moment Ceres soaked in the sensation of Mars’ strong arm around her waist and the feel of his chest pressing up against her tails.
She felt his gentle breaths blowing against the back of her head, ruffling her recently shortened hair. It felt ticklish. She wished the moment would last forever.
Burrowing her face into the pillow again, she tried to return to sleep but the annoying heat of the solitary sunbeam kept her awake. Sighing in resignation, she gently raised Mars’ arm off her waist and wriggled out of his grasp.
Stretching and yawning, Ceres turned around to find Mars looking up at her with a smile. It seemed that she had awakened him with her movements. Grinning back, she clambered out of the bed and picked her clothes off the floor where she’d discarded them, patted the dust out of them before donning them.
Fully clothed she turned around to find Mars decent as well — just lacing up his last boot. Straightening up, he offered her his arm and she took it with a smile. Unfastening the flaps of the tent, they exited together, the ruddy glow of the rising sun dyeing their faces red.
Taking in a deep breath, Ceres felt freer than she had ever been. Her new hairstyle made her feel so light, so unburdened. She could feel the caress of the fresh morning breeze ruffling their hair with so much more clarity. If she was a wind mage, at that moment, she was sure she would have been able to fly.
She was finally her own woman. Her grip on Mars’ arm tightened. No. She was his, willingly given.
“Lieutenant Felidae, Captain Ceres, there is a general call-up.”
Ceres sighed inwardly as the voice of the female wind mage, Keira interrupted their private moment. The world just didn’t seem to want to stand still.
Adjusting her mentality, she reluctantly separated from Mars and the both of them made their way towards the command tent along with Keira. On the way, they saw the rest of the team already gathering towards it. It looked like something big had happened. Suddenly a thought flashed in her mind. Could it be?
Turning to Mars, she saw him looking at her with the same realization mirrored in his expression. Immediately, they sped up their pace.
When they pushed through the flaps of the tent, they found nearly everyone already there, sitting cross-legged surrounding Lieutenant Corvus’ communication crystal which was placed on a foldable stool. ‘So, they finally managed to get a message through to HQ.’
Mars sat down in the empty position on Lieutenant Corvus’ left while Ceres sat directly opposite them in the seat of least importance. After all, going purely by military rank, she had the least qualifications among the mages gathered in the tent.
Lieutenant Corvus indicated for them to wait and after a while Adeline entered along with Azure and Teal. Shooting a smile at her they took up their position in the ring, completing it. Without further ado, Corvus, Canis and Ennis, the three remaining shadow mages in the team channelled their mana into the crystal, causing it to gleam darkly and vibrate.
After a while, a rush of static filled the tent as it connected to its counterpart in Firang. The static soon resolved itself into a feminine voice. “Tower one-one-oh-nine. Identify yourselves.”
“Operative Corvus. Expedition leader Canis.” replied Marshal Canis.
There was a slight pause on the other side. “Situation code?”
“Standby.” After a much longer pause, Epione Felidae’s voice floated out of the crystal.
“Casualties?” Her voice was tight with tension.
“Two. Hei Lian and Steven.” replied Marshal Canis.
There was the sound of a rush of air as Epione breathed out in relief before quickly realizing the inappropriateness of her reaction and catching herself.
“Ahem. Continue. Situation report.”
As Marshal Canis reported the details of their mission in a short, concise manner, Ceres couldn’t help but feel warm inside. Mars had used Abstinence shortly after leaving the Dungeon. Even though the communication crystal was disturbed by the high density of fire mana, Abstinence was unzoned.
It was a way of informing everyone back in Firang that he was still alive. But they wouldn’t know how Ceres was doing. Especially since the Doppelganger had dissipated, it had probably returned to Epione’s side. That might have created a misconception that Ceres had died in battle as it was linked to her. Therefore, the worry in Epione’s voice was for her.
Soon, Marshal Canis was done reporting their situation. She asked, “HQ status?”
“The offensive of the Crimson Coyotes ended abruptly a few days ago. Scouts report them engaging the forces of the Calamity that suddenly launched an attack on them. The result of your handiwork, I suppose. As it stands, it freed the forces of the border defense further south. They have dispatched a regiment by locomotive that is due to arrive tonight. Right now, we are fighting a defensive war with the Calamity. The two Queens are being held up by the Wolf Ancestor and Husband while the rest of our forces are dealing with the other ants. Without reinforcements, we could have at most held out for another week.”
She paused, the channel devolving into static as there was a change in the mage supplying mana to the crystal on their side. “Test.”
Marshal Canis responded, “Clear.”
“Ok. Your estimated arrival time?”
“No. Use thirty-two. We’ll send an escort. If possible, scout ahead. Corvus?”
“Can do.” Lieutenant Corvus affirmed.
Then static filled the tent again before silence returned as the shadow mages stopped supplying the crystal with mana.
Adeline was the first to break the silence, an enthusiastic grin plastered on her face. “Well boys and girls, it looks like we’ve gone and done it. Saved the entire military camp and hundreds of thousands of the civvies to boot!
“Heroes one and all.”
End of Volume.