Dungeons are wondrous constructs. They are both the homes of the most magical of creatures known to man and the pillars of his economy. And when I say magical, I mean that literally. Elementals are beings made up of solidified masses of mana. Till date, only Fire and Earth elementals have been recorded. There are unconfirmed rumours of Water elementals but without having laid my eyes on them, I will neither confirm nor deny their existence. After all, who knows what lies within the unexplored depths of the vast oceans? Not even the Mer can claim to have complete knowledge of what the seas have to offer and they live in it. If elementals of other species exist, then they have yet to show their faces to us.
According to myth, Terra, the Goddess of the Earth created the very first elemental of Earth and her father, Ignis breathed life into the beings of pure Fire.
These constructs of pure mana are found deep within the earth and nested within the magma chambers of active volcanoes. Their presence causes the increase in the density of their respective element’s mana in their area of residence. This means mana crystals form easily in their vicinity. In fact, over 90% of the supply of Terran crystals and Inflammation crystals come from their lairs; Dungeons, as they are popularly named.
Elementals multiply by splitting off parts of themselves. Born with Tier 5 prowess, the new-born searches for a suitable perch for itself far from its parent. Being sedentary creatures, they nest for life. Once they find a suitable location (mineral lodes for earth elementals and magma chambers for a fire elemental), they fuse with it, begin to absorb mana and grow. In the process, to defend itself, it embeds parts of itself into the local flora and fauna, converting them into Dungeon beasts. These mutated animals gain magical prowess and some have been known to grow strong enough to rival Tier 4 mages.
Riches and dangers coexist and there will forever be those willing to risk their life for the hope of a better future. To collect the abundant mana crystals within the dungeons; to slay dungeon beasts and extract their cores; to harvest the magical herbs only found in these unique environments; a new profession came into being. Dungeon delvers, or simply, the Delvers.
– Of Dungeons and Delvers; Cain E. Sinistra, Chief of the Delvers’ Society
The atmosphere in the meeting room was grim. The top brass of the Firang contingent had gathered once again. Unlike the previous session, Mother had shown up this time, as had Major Cervidae. Marshal Corvinus, Marshal Canis and a few other Marshals with enough clout were also included in the discussion. As was I. As was Ceres.
I hugged Ceres’ shoulder comfortingly as I sat side by side. A few of the Marshals were shooting dark looks at Ceres. I could almost read it from their faces. In the wrinkled noses, the narrowed eyes and the furrowed brows. ‘Why must we allow the suspect at our table?’
Yes. Suspect. I could feel the slight tremors of Ceres’ body as she leaned her shoulder against mine for comfort. My wife had been marked a suspect and was to be investigated for collusion with the Traitor, Hotaru Vulpine.
If only they knew. I was sure she would rather die than allow herself to bring any benefit to the Duchess. Hadn’t her detonation of her Geas already proved that? But, sadly, bringing that up would only open a whole new can of worms. I’d left that decision up to Mother and Father. They knew the ins and outs of the military better than I did. If they felt that revealing her origin would keep Ceres out of lockup, then they were probably right.
I could feel the tension radiating off her and her grip on the hem of my shirt had her knuckles turning white. I squeezed Ceres shoulder. She relaxed slightly.
Another officer gave Ceres the stink-eye.
I could understand their resentment. We were already fighting a war with the ant legion; even recalling all the highest ranked officers from the battlefield for a few hours for this meeting had made it extremely strenuous for the remaining soldiers to support the defences against the continuous assault. Now, there was a war on the horizon with the Duchess’ forces, whenever they finished quelling their captured lands and decided to extend their hand towards us, and a member of the clan responsible for it all was in their midst. Tensions were running high and Ceres had provided an apt target for them to vent.
I understood their antipathy, but I couldn’t condone it. Ceres had spent enough of her life in chains. I would do my utmost to keep her from experiencing incarceration again.
After everyone was properly settled, Father cleared his throat to draw attention. “Ahem. Well, it seems that we are in a bit of a tight situation. First of all, the ant legion is breathing down our neck. We have absolutely no spare energy to divert our attention and send aid to the forces of south and central. What’s worse is that there is no guarantee that the eastern District will be able to hold out for too long under the assault of a force which is able to subdue two districts in such a short time. The worst thing is that we have absolutely no information on the Traitor’s forces, her motivations or her plans. We are fighting her blind.”
Major Ursa raised his hand.
“I was wondering why the Border Defence Forces aren’t sending reinforcements to the East, South and Central districts… it’s not like Firang is the only Border outpost. We have two more along the Eastern Border. Why don’t they just send aid?” he questioned in his ponderous tone.
Father smiled wryly. “Because they are under attack as well.”
“What!?” “How’s that possible?” “Who?”
That bit of explosive information brought about several exclamations and questions. Waiting for the hubbub to die down a bit, Father continued, “As you know, the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries were employed by Regiis to help in the war efforts. After an – unfortunate altercation involving me, we had to switch our employment target to their rivals the Crimson Coyotes… Their employer was Hotaru Vulpine acting on behalf of the Emperor. Now that she has defected…”
Mother finished his sentence for him, “Their loyalties lie with their money.”
Major Tauros snorted, sending sparks flying. “Those damn mongrels. Have they gone mad out of greed? Where do they get the courage to face off against Regiis!? And damn that woman too. Using the Empire’s money to hire people to kill the Empire’s subjects. Despicable!”
Before he could go on with his rant, Lieutenant Ava asked, “What about reinforcements from the Western and Northern Districts then? We have been tied down by the fire ants, the other forces along the Eastern Border of the province have come into conflict with Vulpine’s hired goons. But what about them? They should be able to act.”
Father glanced at Marshal Corvus questioningly and he explained, “The word from them is that the Tomb of Koschei suddenly flared up and started an Outbreak. They had noticed an increase in the casualties of the Delvers exploring the Catacombs but they never thought to relate missing parties to an impending Outbreak. And this time, the scale is vast. The entirety of the Border Defence forces of the Northern District is currently engaged in containing the threat. The Western District has a very small foreign border. The forces they do have are trying to help, but they are not amounting to much.” Marshal Corvus’ wings were too large to let him sit comfortably with them around his back so he had to drape them around himself. Combined with his beak-like nose and sharp gaze, his resemblance to his bloodline source was uncanny. And as always, the news out of the Harbinger’s mouth spoke of Doom.
“Wait!” Zoya Canis, the Marshal who was in charge of the squad that had my wives spoke up. “Isn’t it too much of a coincidence? All these once in a century and once in a millennium stuff happenin’ right when the vixen needs it ta happen?”
That sent murmurs of approval through the ranks. One of the other Marshals present, a slant-eyed red-head, whose bloodline I couldn’t quite place, but whose breezy mana marked him as one of the Messenger squad’s members conjectured, “It is a tad too convenient for the Duchess – pardon, Traitor – to have all these ‘natural’ disasters happen right when she needs them.” He emphasized his point by air-quoting ‘natural’. “I believe that she might have set all these events up beforehand. How she managed to manipulate these Disasters, I have no idea, but it couldn’t have been done without external help. The entire budget of the two districts under her command couldn’t have pulled it off. Let alone, she didn’t have access to the full budget, just the resources of a part of the families.”
Lieutenant Neera’s eyes narrowed, “You mean that she collaborated with the Shogunate?”
The man shrugged, “I don’t know. This is just speculation, but it is highly likely that she has ties to them. They are the most motivated to pull off an operation of this scale, after all.”
Marshal Corvus picked up the thread of conversation. “Being an island nation, the only way they could attack was through their naval superiority. They would have to pay a huge price to beach even one of their ships on our shores. But now, if the fall of the two districts is really their doing and the Traitor their mere puppet, then they already have a foothold from which to wage war on Regiis soil.”
“Damn,” Major Ursa cursed softly, “I always thought that having a Kitsune rise that high was a big mistake. Crafty bastards are what they are.”
I felt Ceres’ grip on my shirt tighten. The Major’s statement had hit a bit too close to home for her. My brows furrowed. The way this conversation was going, it would soon shift to Ceres. The fact that it hadn’t yet was a testament to Father’s prestige in the camp. Despite being the elephant in the room, and a suspect, she was being ignored and kept for last. But what had to come, would come. All this avoidance did was delay the inevitable.
I believed that we had to seize the initiative if we wanted Ceres out of bars.
I made to speak but someone was faster. A soft voice cut into the conversation, stilling the discussion. “I believe that I have information that can be of assistance.” Every gaze in the room stopped on Ceres. Some quite incredulous that she had decided to speak up on her own.
She pressed on, “While I was with them, I learnt that the mother of Hotaru Vulpine was from the Shogunate. It was a time before the relationship between our nations had begun to deteriorate. An accident at sea led to the marriage between her and the leader of the Vulpine clan at that time. It was the beginning of the Vulpine clan’s meteoric rise to the position of a Ducal clan.
“But the demise of Hotaru Vulpine’s mother is shrouded in mystery. It is said that she and her husband travelled to the heart of the sixth forbidden zone in search of some treasure that might be able to help her promote to the Realm of Demigod. In the end, she never returned and her husband only lived a few days after he came out of the forbidden zone.
“He had only a portion of her mind crystal with him, the rest apparently lost within the forbidden zone to dangers unnamed.”
Marshal Corvus narrowed his eyes, “What’s your point?”
Ceres took a deep breath and continued with greater confidence. “The point is; the current situation might have been in the works for a very long time. As it was brought up recently, the eruption of the Calamity at the exact same time the Tombs of Koschei begin to stir is too much of a coincidence. It reeks of human intervention. I think that both events were triggered by some sort of mechanism and that the disappearance of the Duchess’ mother within the forbidden zone is the crux to understanding exactly what that mechanism was.”
There was a stretch of silence as everyone present processed Ceres’ words. I thought back to the time I had fought with the shadow swordsman in the Tournament. Now that I reviewed the situation, it was quite strange for someone from Regiis to have access to highly advanced martial arts such as Iaido. It was a technique closely guarded by the samurai of the Shogunate. While at first glance the explanation that the Duchess’ mother had brought the technique over when she married into the family was reasonable, when one really thought about it, it fell flat.
From the records I had read about the Duchess’ mother, she was an orthodox illusion mage. She had never been known to invest in the art of the sword. She couldn’t have been the source of the technique. The only reason the Samurai, an extremely exclusive social class, would allow its techniques to flow outwards would be if they stood to benefit from it. If the Duchess was related to the Shogunate; if she was their chess piece in the war; their first move…
Now that I started to consider the Duchess’ behaviour from a different perspective, a lot of her actions took on a new connotation. Her wanting me on the Throne began to make a lot more sense.
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