Climbing up the ladder, I stepped onto the the crenelated walls that surrounded the city of Firang. Positioned between two steep rock faces, in a break in the mountain ranges, it was a perfect choke-point for any invading army.
This time, the army just happened to be inhuman.
The heatwave from the amassed legion of fire ants assaulted me, blowing my hair back. In the region where they had gathered, winter had given way to summer as the temperatures rose drastically from the increased concentrations of fire mana.
The majority of the ants were quite small, the size of an adult’s thumb from tip to tip. They were like the unawakened masses of the Empire, who made up the majority of the population, but were incapable of accessing their mana due the diluteness of their bloodlines. Yet, their bloodlines made them stronger and in some rare cases, gave them special capabilities like accelerated healing for a commoner with a light attributed bloodline.
The ants were quite beautiful, their hard, chitinous bodies shining under the sunlight like flaming jewels. They formed a carpet of gems, dyeing the ground a lustrous red as they advanced upon our walls. These were the ants Phobos had used in her bid to break through to Tier 2. They each had the special capability of generating the most debilitatingly painful of toxins. It was perfectly balanced so the pain wouldn’t overload the system, yet reach the maximum pain threshold of their victims. One bite and you would lose most of your battle efficiency, only to be swarmed by the thousands of their brethren that followed.
Interspersed among the unawakened ants were the Tier 1 beasts, each of them the size of a cat. They were a brighter red than their inferior cousins, their fiery carapaces glinting in the sun. each of them was worth a Tier 1 Bestia mage. In some ways, due to their more durable bodies and instinctive use of magic, they were thornier opponents.
Leading the regiments of the fire ants were the Tier 2 beasts. Their bright red exteriors were patterned with naturally formed markings that looked like flames. The size of a large dog, they were quite horrifying to behold and their battle prowess was extremely valiant. A Bestia mage of similar level would have great difficulty escaping from a one-on-one encounter alive. Only if they were a water mage would they have some smidgen of a chance to defeat it.
Hanging back at the rear of the ant legion were the true commanders of the troops: The Tier 3 ants. The size of horses, the monsters were the true heart of the Calamity. Their dark red mandibles were the colour of dried blood and their reddish-orange, crystalline carapaces had naturally formed runic markings on them that glowed a fiery orange with their fire mana. Some books on the origin of the Old tongue even attributed the discovery of the letters to the imitation of such natural patterns by the ancient Hominum mages.
As for Tier 4 ants, they looked no different from their Tier 3 brethren, and were more dangerous for it. At the current size of the army approaching us, I doubted that there was more than one such ant in the entire group. After all, this was but a mere splinter force of the Calamity.
I looked up at the sky. From the distance, dark clouds were approaching. These clouds were strange, rapidly morphing their shapes as they approached. When the sunlight glinted off them, they would shine a blood red.
They were no clouds, they were the aerial forces of the ant legion. Just as numerous as their cousins on the ground, they made the city walls ineffective and tied up a large amount of the attentions of the forces.
The earth shook and the air buzzed as the legion advanced upon us, the ants marching in perfect lockstep under the influence of their leaders, their mindless discipline putting even the most seasoned of squads to shame.
In contrast to the legion, our army had more experts on our side, but since none below Tier 1 were employed, we were inferior in the aspect of population. This was the preferred tactic of beast tides. ‘Consume, then devour’, it was called. They would tire out a superior force with incessant sacrifice of cannon fodder before moving in for the kill. Their hive-minded society meant that the low Tier soldiers thought nothing of being sent to their deaths and mutiny wasn’t in the realm of possibilities.
Yet, their greatest advantage was also their greatest weakness. The mindless obedience of the low Tier ant soldiers made their tactical rules mechanical and easily predictable. They weren’t going to be capable of complicated strategical manoeuvres any time soon.
While the legion aimed to outlast us, we aimed to outwit them.
I looked around me. The facial expressions on our mages were fierce. For some of them, it was their first war and fear and anxiety were clear on their faces. Some were veterans and though they appeared calm, their clenched fists and tensed demeanours gave them away. No one could face the imminent possibility of death calmly. I felt oddly serene though. After my brush with death, where I had willingly gambled my life to snatch Ceres’ out of the jaws of death, I had come to an understanding. Fear wouldn’t stop me from getting my job done.
I might have the nominal post of a Lieutenant, but I could see that they expected little of me. The soldiers expected me to stay out of the fighting at best and be a hindrance at worst. After all, I wasn’t even from a military background. They were too disciplined to openly air their complaints, for that I was grateful.
I might not have any battlefield experience, but I would put forth my best.
Closing my eyes, I reached out to the world with my senses. The very world seemed to burn in my perception as I noticed the elevated levels of fire mana. Searching in the void left by my mindscape, I found what I was looking for. A hazy red sigil formed out of the words ‘smoke within a dream’ in the old language. Reaching out mentally, I touched it and immediately, a sense of connection flooded my being and my perception of fire mana grew even clearer.
After my mindscape had shattered, I had feared that my contracts would too. In fact, they had begun to fade shortly afterwards, causing me great panic. It had nearly broken me imagining having to see my wives off to other men to prevent them from going Feral. Thankfully, the marks weren’t disappearing but shifting. Shifting to the void previously occupied by my mindscape.
After these few days of training my new style of casting, I had concluded that my sensitivity to the elements of wind, shadow and fire, in fact, originated from my contract markings. As for water and light, I still had no clue. Thus, depending on how sensitive my wives were to their elements and based on the strength of my bond with them, my powers would increase too.
Given Ceres’ talent and the strength of our bond after she had regained consciousness, I could perceive the fire mana in the air with great clarity.
Opening my eyes, I drew my first rune in the air with my mind.
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