As their small group returned to Droca, Anton remembered his thoughts about it when they were passing through on the way to the secret realm. Something about the land’s barrenness felt wrong, and that hadn’t diminished since his previous visits. But it wasn’t as if he could ‘fix’ a whole country just by thinking about it, and he wasn’t the only one who knew about the issues. The locals were more motivated than himself, but nothing about it had changed.
The country had enough arable land to support a small population, and enough energy for people to cultivate, but it was hard to compare it to Graotan to the north. Its neighbor Floelor was not much better off, however.
One significant detail had changed, however. That was the secret realm itself. It was, more or less, extra land inside of Droca itself. It was a bit difficult to navigate, though not quite as dangerous as it had been shortly after opening. For the local sects, it was a great boon- and the possession of the area was turning to Droca’s control, after the first period of years where it had been available to all simply for the sake of getting the support to open it.
From what Anton understood, the Iron Fist Sect- which he was visiting- and the Black Earth Clan who had been the original discoverers of the secret realm were controlling the area. Generally, they charged a small fee for anyone who wished to enter the secret realm and try their hand at the various challenges.
The Iron Fist Sect looked more like an outpost placed atop a rocky outcropping than anything else. They likely claimed much more territory around the area, but the actual buildings they had were condensed into a small area. It looked much more defensible than the Order, at least. Other than that, there was little going for it except presumably its proximity to valuable resources of some kind, beyond the stone that everything was built from.
The group of three and a wolf were only delayed slightly at the gates as the guards verified their reason for arrival, and then they were quickly escorted to a functional but austere meeting room, except for Fuzz who remained outside. Inside were Caeus and Printza, along with someone else from their sect Anton didn’t recognize. Like the others, he was covered from head to toe in armor.
“Greetings,” the man said with a strong voice. “I am Elder Magro. I have heard much about you from these two disciples.”
“I am Anton Krantz, and these are Devon and Alva,” Anton introduced them. “I see your cultivation has advanced quite well, Caeus, Printza.”
“… has it?” Caeus’ face was mostly hidden, but his body language spoke volumes. “It feels like we’ve only gotten further behind.”
Anton couldn’t honestly say they were wrong, at least from a certain perspective. They hadn’t yet managed to surpass the barrier to enter Essence Collection, but they were still young so Anton imagined they would. Though he’d pulled away, their own cultivation speed was not poor. With the poor quality of energy in the area, Anton also had a bit of an advantage, unless they were able to spend much of their time in the secret realm.
Elder Magro redirected the conversation. “We appreciate your assistance on this matter. We would normally handle problems from within our own sect, but we’ve been plagued by a particular problem that we haven’t been able to solve ourselves. These two were highly complimentary of your perceptive abilities. And your strength as well, but the Iron Fist Sect isn’t lacking in that.”
Anton nodded and smiled pleasantly. Elder Magro was a mid Essence Collection cultivator, so it would be hard for anyone to call him weak. Anton also felt others of equivalent strength throughout the Iron Fist Sect. However, few of them were in late Essence Collection. Anton thought his own cultivation was probably slightly ahead of the elder, though even considering the extended lifespans cultivators had, ‘Elder’ Magro was likely younger than him still. No more than seventy or eighty. That of course would imply he’d been cultivating for several times as long as Anton.
“Is there something difficult to find? I only heard there was a creature troubling the sect.”
“That is what we presume,” Elder Magro nodded. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to catch even a glimpse of whatever it is. It could be a cultivator, but it wouldn’t explain their activities. Not that it makes much more sense from a beast, but… well,” Elder Magro shrugged. “There have been a series of holes dug in the area. Or perhaps it is better to say smashed into the ground. While a hole or two isn’t a big deal, even a large one, the problem is they are often accompanied by earth tremors.” Elder Magro smiled awkwardly, “Not a good sign when a series of tunnels snakes throughout the region.”
“How do you know they are connected?” Anton asked.
“At first we only suspected,” Elder Magro explained. “We noticed some tremors first, and then we started finding the holes. It was only when one of our disciples happened to be nearby when it happened that we were certain about the connection. Since that time, we’ve had elders nearby once or twice, but nobody has managed to sense what man or beast caused it.”
“It’s not some sort of natural occurrence, I take it?”
“Certainly not. You’ll agree when you see one. Speaking of which, we’ll be heading out tomorrow morning, so that you and your companions can take a slight rest from your journey. We’ll take you to the area, and try to be there for another incident. They’ve been increasing in frequency as of late, sometimes more than once per day.”
When they came to one of the known locations, Anton saw exactly what Elder Magro meant. The hole was too circular to be natural. Not smooth and round, but it ran a clear line into the ground until the bottom filled with rubble.
The holes weren’t small, either. They were approximately four meters in diameter, and more than ten meters deep. If these were caused by a cultivator… well, Anton supposed if he’d gone down a different path it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to do such a thing a couple times per day. Or if he used ascension energy. It was just normal stone, after all. He tore off a chunk and crushed it in his hand just to be sure, but felt nothing special about it. It wasn’t soft, but it wasn’t exceptional.
“I can see why you would want to deal with this,” Anton said honestly. “Even without any tremors. Fuzz, can you smell anyone or anything else that might have been here?”
Fuzz spent a good ten minutes sniffing around the area, ultimately shaking his head. That didn’t mean he didn’t smell anything, but nothing that he would tie to causing the hole. He doubtless picked up all kinds of scents, but nothing that stood out as not fitting. The same remained true as they visited some of the most recent locations, with no scents matching any of the other locations.
Anton didn’t see anything either, though he wouldn’t expect tracks in such a rocky region. He didn’t sense any lingering energy, which was strange. “When did this happen?” he asked.
“This one should have been… the day before yesterday.”
Anton frowned. If it had been a week he might have supposed the energy would have completely faded, but for something of the size they were dealing with it had to have taken a large amount of energy, whether caused by man or beast. Especially since it happened all at once.
He dropped down into one of the holes, motioning Alva to come with him. “See if you can learn anything from this,” he said as he began inspecting the edges.
He didn’t get much himself. The impact had to be in the middle of the area, or it wouldn’t have been round. The edges were mostly the materials having shorn off at weak points, when they found themselves no longer supported. Beneath his feet the rubble continued for more than a handful of meters. He knew it was extremely suspicious, but that didn’t tell him anything.
“I can’t find anything,” Alva admitted. “There’s not really any sign of what caused this.”
“I agree,” Anton said. “I can’t even find traces of the impact point. Though perhaps they got turned to dust, like much of the rest of this.”
That day bore no fruit, so they returned to the Iron Fist Sect at the end of the day. They were all a little bit tired, mostly from the lack of anything really happening than from the physical exertion.
“Elder Magro,” one of the guards saluted. “There is a message waiting for you.”
He gestured for Anton and the others to follow. “I’m betting this is related to why you are here.” It took him a bit to track down the message, which then led him to a disciple.
The disciple was a middle aged man with a mediocre cultivation, but he stood tall and proud in his armor. “Elder Magro,” he said as they found him. “I found another hole related to your mission. A fresh one. I felt the tremors and heard the crashing, and immediately found my way there, but there was nothing.”
Elder Magro sighed, “I didn’t expect much differently. Even so, we’ll check it out in the morning.”
Anton had a thought about that. “Do the holes only happen during the day?” he questioned.
“Actually,” Elder Magro frowned, “There have been at least a few at night.”
“We should probably head back out now,” Anton said. “If it’s safe.”
“Safe enough,” Elder Magro admitted. “Anything that comes out in the dark around here I could handle… or any of you,” he nodded. “Except perhaps whatever is causing this. Come on then, we’re heading out.” He turned towards the disciple. “Your name?”
Eight figures went back out into the night, four in heavy armor while the others were in lighter fare. Perhaps one of them did not have armor at all, depending on how one counted Fuzz. They wouldn’t exactly be quiet, but it was likely whatever or whoever they were seeking could sense their energy anyway. But if they didn’t look, they wouldn’t find anything.
Guthini managed to get them to the location, with a little bit of adjustment to find his way in the dark. The stars were bright and they carried some light sources, but it was still nothing compared to the day.
“Not a speck of energy,” Anton said. “Not that I expected different. Fuzz?” Fuzz began sniffing around, eventually coming back to Guthini. “Yes, he already said he came here earlier when it happened.” The chance that the disciple was causing it was… miniscule. And reporting it would have been strange if he had. Just in case, Anton carefully sensed the man’s cultivation. If he was suppressing it or hiding something like the Twin Soul Sect, Anton would have found it. But he was quite normal. Fuzz also accepted the explanation easily, but it seemed he hadn’t found anything else.
They began to inspect the hole, but found it no different from any of the others except in location and exactly how the rubble piled at the bottom. This one had more of a slope from one side instead of a flat spread or a hill in the middle.
Then there was a tremor, accompanied by a loud rumbling sound. Not the sort of impact Anton expected, but he fired an arrow in the direction of the disturbance anyway. He went with the spirit arrow, his connection to it allowing limited sensing in the area. It was less than two seconds later that he reached the hole, and found… nothing. There wasn’t anything fleeing the scene, no sense of energy… only falling debris.
By the time everyone ran to the site in person, the Essence Collection cultivators far out ahead of the rest, a few last pieces fell. And then it was still.
“Did you sense anything?” Elder Magro asked.
“No,” Anton admitted.
“Dammit. What do we do?”
“Actually,” Anton flicked his eyes around the area. “The fact that I sensed nothing actually tells us a lot.” Anton jumped into the hole, and felt down, deep as he could. Sending his energy through rock was difficult, even broken up as it was. Ten meters. Twenty meters. He couldn’t go much further than that, but he smiled. “Oho, there it is.”
“You found it?” Elder Magro stepped forward excitedly.
“Not quite,” Anton admitted. “But I found a clear pointer in the right direction. The reason we couldn’t sense anything is we were looking on the wrong side of the hole. Whatever is causing this has been doing so from underneath. I can sense a bit of lingering energy down below, though not our quarry.”
“Of course,” Elder Magro nodded. “It only makes sense… though being inside a collapsing tunnel should be quite dangerous. And if it’s someone or something burrowing… what are they trying to get to?”
“A good question,” Anton shrugged. “But that might take some digging to find out.” He gestured, “The physical kind, though talking to people might help too.”