I pulled Ceres up beside me as we scaled our way up a cliff face while passing through the mountainous terrain between the military base and the last known location of Lt. Corvus. She hadn’t recovered fully from her injuries yet and that coupled with her original lack of focus on body tempering meant that we were at the tail end of the squad of volunteers for the Expedition. Ahead of me, a wind mage easily bounded from ledge to outcropping like a mountain goat, her body lightened by her wind. The tips of her toes barely touched the ground before she was in the air again. A shadow mage was much less showy in his mountaineering. He was a barely visible patch of darkness that moved from shadow to shadow, making his way up the vertical wall of rock. Craning my head and squinting against the sunlight, I tried to make out the forms of the others after ensuring that Ceres had firm hand and footholds.
There was a total of eighteen members in our squad, with five of them stemming from the Wolves… six if one counted Steven, which they should seeing that his marital status had been made public. There had been a lot more volunteers of course; there was no dearth of the courageous amongst us… or glory hounds. But only those at Tier 3 had been allowed to participate as well as Steven and Ceres due to their special circumstances. The rest had been given military commendations for their courage and loyalty. Subsequently, Phobos and Deimos had to stay back. A fact they weren’t happy about but which had relieved me greatly. Lt. Corvus’ predicament hadn’t left much time for argument otherwise they’d have protested the decision much more vigorously. A few hasty lines by father to drum up morale and the announcement of Steven’s marriage to Hei Lian by her grandmother as a symbol of the alliance of the two forces and we were off.
Marshal Canis had set a punishing pace all the way so we could improve the odds of Lt. Corvus’ survival. The information he had provided about the movement of the ant legion had served us well and we had avoided any encounters until now. We were pushing through some of the most difficult terrain in order to cut our travel time as much as we could. Hopefully, we would reach him in time.
I wished, not for the first time, that Major Ursa had come along. A Tier 4 earth mage’s terrain shaping abilities would come in handy right about now. We’d be able to blitz through these mountains as though they were plains but unfortunately, Tier 4 mages were too conspicuous and in the heart of the Forbidden Zone, remaining undetected was the key to survival.
Beasts detected other mages the same way Bestia did: by sending a pulse of mana outwards infused with their consciousness. If the pulse bounced off or was absorbed by something, they would be able to detect it. As simple and crude as it was, it had the drawback of alerting the victim of the fact that they had been detected as the pulse interacted with the mana in their mindscape. The advantage, though, was that being extremely simple, it had no loopholes as such, making it quite effective. Tier 4 mages, with their concentrated mana, would be like shining beacons: impossible to conceal except with the aid of some rare and precious equipment, unless they were shadow mages, that is. Unfortunately, we had no Tier 4 shadow mages and mages at Tier 2 and below would only slow the march down. So, the team was mainly composed of Tier 3 mages with Major Canis having been assigned to lead the Regiis portion of our team. Hei Lian was in charge of her wolves and the joint leader of the Expedition.
Logically speaking, I outranked Marshal Canis and should therefore be the leader but my inexperience meant that she got the job. I had no complaints; I had no wish to get my squad-mates killed due to my incompetence.
My eyes finally adjusted to the glare of the sun and I could make out the tiny dots that were the forms of the rest of the squad. By my estimate, they were nearly four hundred metres above us and were soon going to reach the top of the precipice and let down the rope for the rest of us. Glancing down, I felt slightly dizzy at how high up the vertical rock wall we were. We wouldn’t survive a fall. Dangerous though it may be, this route was the shortest, and fastest, path to our destination. Unlike the normal sized ants, whose tiny claws and the sticky pads between their claws allowed them to climb up walls effortlessly, the oversized monsters were really poor climbers, restricting their range of motion to the canyons and valleys of the Sixth Forbidden Zone. The mountains were safer – except for attacks from the winged ants, that is.
Turning to Ceres, I asked, “How are you holding up?”
Having caught her breath, she replied, “If I knew I’d have to do this much rock climbing, I wouldn’t have focused on my illusion magic that much. My muscles feel like jelly.”
I grinned, “Now, you’re making me feel bad for letting my delicate lady suffer hardships. Actually, you know what? Why don’t you grab onto me? I wanted to test something.”
“You want to carry me up?” she asked. “Will you be fine?”
“Yup. I’m sure. Hop onto Mars Express.”
I studied her flushed face, sweaty brow and windblown hair as she struggled a bit over burdening me. Finally, she smiled and said, “I’ll trouble you then. As for the fare… you can have me.” Heh. She said some really nice things sometimes.
A few moments of heart-in-the-throat manoeuvring had her securely lashed to my back by a rope circling our waists while she locked her arms and legs around my body. I could feel her chest pressing up against me, the dimensions greatly reduced during the healing process after the Geas had done a number on her. Quite regrettable but feeling the weak beat of her newly formed heart was all the compensation I needed.
Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes and reached for my bonds. Three sigils became clear in the void of my mind. A hazy purple wreath of smoke for Ceres, a bluish-white gust for Deimos and for Phobos, an orb of darkness. Abstinence had been eminently easy for me. The only reason I hadn’t figured it out earlier was my inertia of thought. I had grown up with the concept that sex was required for the transfer of Vita’s divine power to me as an axiom. I hadn’t thought to challenge it and therefore, I had never thought to try replicating the state using only my imagination.
My time in the bed with my wives were some of my most poignant memories. It didn’t take me too long to recall the sight of their flushed faces, the sound of their breathy moans, the feel of their skin, their scent… the taste of their lust… And I felt the power flow through my bonds and pour into me, scattering into motes of light that filled my body like tiny asterisms that glittered briefly before turning invisible. My heart beat slowly and powerfully in my chest. Each beat sent a pulse of power through me. I felt strong. Every flex of my muscles seemed to affect the world a lot more than it had before. My fingers cut into the hard rock as if it were mere clay, my Barrier glowing softly to protect my fingers from my own strength.
Looking up, a golden glow protected my eyes from the glare and amplified my vision. I could make out all the forms scaling the cliff. Each mage used their magic to aid their climb. The Earth mages manipulated the very rock, creating platforms which carried them up the cliff face. The fire mages, like the wind mages leapt from ledge to outcropping, except that every time their foot touched the rock, a directed blast would propel them to their next target. The water mages coated their hands and feet with a sticky concoction with Fluid Manipulation, scaling the cliff like geckos. The only light mage, and Tier 4, mother’s doppelganger, had concealed herself within Ceres’ artificial heart, and was hitching a ride with us.
My external casting was still immature and I needed a cushion time for the runes to form and interact with the ambient mana before my spells could be cast. Not to mention the times I failed when my runes collapsed due to my inexperience. I dared not risk using my magic to assist our climb. A single failure would mean a drop to our death. Instead, I decided to use my body, sculpted by years of exercise and potion therapy.
Digging my right hand into the rock up to my elbow, I let go with my other limbs, hanging from the cliff face. Ceres screamed in surprise and clutched me tighter. With a low roar, I pulled myself up as hard as I could with my right arm. With a ripple of force that shattered the rock, I was flying up the cliff vertically. Feeling myself slow, I kicked downward with my left foot, shattering rock and pushing myself further upwards, faster.
Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot. I was running on all-fours like a beast, just I was doing it up a vertical wall. Feeling the rush of adrenaline and the wind against my face was exhilarating. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Ceres had buried her face into the crook of my neck, quivering with fear as she held onto me with a death grip.
Soon, I crossed the wind mage ahead of me, then the shadow mage, a shocked water mage, an earth mage… I left them all behind as I rushed up the cliff. In the end, there was only one form left ahead, a girl clad in dark fire. At that time, all I was thinking was to exceed everyone, who it was didn’t matter I just had to beat them to the top and she was just a few metres away from the edge.
With a ripple of force, I kicked downwards, blurring upwards. Overshooting the edge of the cliff, I flipped in mid-air, landing on the ground on all-fours, bleeding off my momentum by drawing four furrows on the ground as I slid backwards.
Straightening up, I met the eyes of the surprised Hei Lian who had just cleared the edge of the cliff.
I grinned. “What’s up?”
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