Chapter 1016 End of the Line Part 2
"He's the to-go guy when you want things done by the book, but he lacks both foresight and flexibility. He was too good to remain a Lieutenant but not good enough to make a decent Captain.
"Lotta, instead, is a smart and competent woman, but too ambitious for her own good. You never know if she's serving the army, her political allies' interests, or her own.
"If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say that probably Berion chose Kortus to make you look good, while his enemies exploited the crisis to put Lotta in charge of the reinforcements before one of Berion's people was available." Tlea said.
"That's one heck of analysis for someone who just a second ago claimed to don't like to talk behind the back of her colleagues." Friya was glad to not have joined the army.
The more she learned about it, the less she liked the power plays hidden behind even the smallest decision.
Phloria rolled her eyes, glad that Friya was just a consultant. Her brash attitude coupled with her habit to speak to anyone as if they were her peers, disregarding both age and rank, would have made her career so short that she would become a cautionary tale in the army.
"Indeed, it is." Tlea laughed. "For a moment I had forgotten that in my line of work, there is no place for politeness. To survive as long as I did, you must learn to distinguish with a glance if a vein is worth your time or not, and people are no different.
"You're my crystal veins, girls. Don't let me down." The chief Prospector yawned and wished them good night before going to her tent. Casting arrays all day was a tiring business and age only moved forward.
"Is it me, or does Tlea resemble Yondra a bit?" Phloria asked once they were alone.
"Yeah." Quylla remembered with nostalgia the late Professor of the Black Griffon who had clashed with Lith on their first meeting, just to later offer her magical legacy and her professorship to him.
"Nope. Age aside, they have nothing in common." Friya had never met Yondra, but she considered herself a good judge of character. "Based on what you told about how she lived and died, Yondra was passionate, whereas Tlea is calculative.
"She didn't ask us for protecting her unit or her disciple, only her own ass."
"What a Lith-like thing to say!" Quylla gasped at her sister's cynical analysis.
"Yet Friya is not completely wrong." Phloria thought back at all Tlea's words and actions. "I'm not as cynical as you two, but if there's something I learned from Kulah's aftermath, is that believing in blind loyalty is for fools.
"Under all the pretty words about honor and the oaths we took, under our uniforms, the military are still humans. Let's take Tlea's words with a grain of salt and from tomorrow onwards, let's put a tail on her as well."
Friya nodded and prepared their beds. The following day promised to be interesting as well.
Thanks to Friya's custom amulet, they could resume their search exactly from the same spot they had left a few hours prior.
Between the words they had shared among themselves and with Tlea, the Ernas sisters had a lot to think about. They proceeded in silence, only interrupted by the status reports Friya and Phloria regularly received from their respective subordinates.
Moving in the tunnels gave them an eerie feeling. There was only magic to light their way, all the tunnels looked the same, giving them the impression of going round in circles, and every one of their steps produced an echo.
It made them feel vulnerable and fighting the urge to not keep spells at the ready, made them often lose focus. Casting arrays while keeping their guard already drained a lot of energy.
Keeping powerful spells at their fingertips would make their exploration last minutes instead of hours. Unlike Awakened, fake mages would consume mana the moment they cast a spell, no matter if they used it or saved it for later.
People like Lith, instead, could cast and later release unused spells, expending solely the mental focus necessary to keep them at the ready.
The Ernas sisters were forced to fight the paranoia and claustrophobia that walking for hours in the dark inspired, so when they saw a light ahead of them, they didn't rejoice.
They turned off their own light and weaved their best spells as fast as they could. Phloria's Reaver was the perfect tool for an ambush, while Friya's rapier, Dreadnought, was more a jack of all trades.
They slowly moved forward, using darkness magic to conceal their smell and air magic to float above the ground while creating the sound of their steps to give the impression that they had never slowed down.
The spell moved faster than them so that they would ambush anyone who attacked the source of the noise. Yet when the spell reached the illuminated area, nothing happened.
They didn't lower their guard and Friya conjured a dimensional fissure the size of a keyhole in front of her eye and its exit point in front of the source of light, using them as an improvised surveillance device.
"By the Great Mother." She whispered while passing the fissure to her sisters and allowing them to look through it as well.
The dark cave led to a crystal vein where the lowest tier gemstones were green colored, something that would put to shame even the mines of Laroxya. By rotating the exit point of the fissure, Friya had searched the place for enemies, only to find blue and violet crystals bigger than an apple protruding from the walls.
Only after conjuring a Hush zone did Phloria speak.
"Things couldn't get any worse. We just stumbled into the closest thing to a death-trap I've ever seen. The crystal vein means that we can't Warp away, only Blink. Yet in such a poorly lit and unfamiliar place, even that is pointless.
"If we step through that cave, we'll not be allowed to use big spells without risking to blow everything up. If I were an undead, I'd choose this place to ambush us since it would allow me to exploit my superior physical prowess and endless stamina.
"We need to get far away enough to safely open a Warp Steps and call for reinforcements." Phloria's analysis was so accurate that if the Ghoul in charge of the ambush could've heard her, she would've thought Phloria to be a psychic.
Unfortunately for the Ernas sisters, their trick with the sound of footsteps had fooled and alerted their enemies at the same time. Not seeing them appear had halted the attack of the Ghouls, who soon started to wonder what was going on.
The Hush zone kept them from overhearing Phloria, but the noise that the spell produced also made the Ghouls understand that somehow their plan had failed and that they had to move before it was too late.
They came out of the cave walls, surrounding the humans from every side. This time they wore enchanted protections and wielded short weapons that would amplify their attack prowess without being hindered by the confined space.
"Friya, take Quylla and run!" Phloria feared that without dimensional magic, Friya would be no different from Quylla.
Phloria was already outnumbered and outmatched, making the situation a losing fight before it even started. If she also had to protect someone, her chance of victory would go from little to none.