Elder Cultivator 267

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“Something is working underground to create these holes. Collapses, really.” Anton reiterated the situation. “That means we’ll have to dig it out, and we might as well start with this most recent point. Though it might also be prudent to check things out from the perspective of the tunnels in this area.”

“The Black Earth Clan knows the tunnels better than us,” Elder Magro replied. “I should get in contact with them, since they’re likely also concerned about what’s happening here. Will you be safe here if I leave you?”

“I finally caught a sense of the beast. At least, it feels more like beast than cultivator. It should not be something we can’t handle… but no battle is truly safe. We could hold off on finding our way through but…”

“Time might be important,” Elder Magro nodded. “Come on Guthini. You’ll return with me, and I’ll have you make another trip out here with backup. Since we’ve actually found a real lead, it’s best to be proactive about this.”

With that, Elder Magro left. Left behind were Caeus, Priscia, Anton, Alva, Devon, and of course Fuzz. Fuzz almost began digging, but Anton stopped him.

“I have no doubt you would make the fastest progress of all of us, but you’re also likely to make things unstable. Perhaps you could start at the top and dig a slope to make it easier for us to get chunks out?”

Fuzz nodded, happily clawing at the stone, pulling chunks of it away with every swipe of his paws. It wasn’t quite the same as a normal wolf digging through loose soil, but it hardly seemed to slow him down. Anton and the rest, who all had hands, began chucking pieces out of the hole while they kept a careful watch on the stability below them. If it had collapsed once, it might do so again.

Soon enough Guthini returned with a handful of others, including an Essence Collection elder. The hole was just wide enough for everyone to work without disrupting each other, but they were getting to the point it was difficult to toss the larger chunks of rock out of the hole. Fuzz’ work had only gotten him a couple meters down the edge, as he had to cut a longer and wider furrow in the stone to keep it stable. 

The members of the Iron Fist Sect had sturdy bodies, as one might expect from people who spent all their time in armor. Anton was only able to keep up with them by advantage of superior cultivation, and he was used to hard work. There was only so much they could do with their hands, however. After a few hours of digging, while they were certainly making progress, they sent disciples off to get proper tools. The biggest problem was still getting large quantities of stone out of the area, and some were too large to fit through the mouth of a storage bag. They could break them apart, but as they got deeper the stone became more dense and difficult, and thus tiring to break apart.

They worked tirelessly, but by the time the rays of dawn shone onto the upper parts of the hole, they were only perhaps a couple dozen meters deeper. They were well below the point the creature had dug up to to cause the collapse, but yet more rubble was buried deeper below them. They had no idea how far it might extend, and if they actually came upon something they didn’t want to fight it fatigued. Thus, they finally took a moment to sleep shortly after dawn, returning to the Iron Fist Sect.

—–

When they later awoke, after a mere handful of hours asleep, they met up once more to return. Elder Magro was waiting for them, along with some members of the Black Stone Clan. This expedition was turning into a larger thing, and not quite what Anton and the others signed up for… but they wanted to see things through to the end.

The Black Stone Clan had sent over two elders, a man and a woman, as well as a number of disciples. “Greetings,” the man inclined his head. “I am Pero.”

“And I am Olimpia.”

“Anton, of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars.”

The others introduced themselves as well, including Fuzz with a short bark. Alva enlightened the rest to his actual name.

Elder Magro explained what he could while they returned to the site. “The Black Stone Clan had noticed the oddities as well, including some collapses in the tunnels. They had not found any connection to the holes, however, making the same assumptions of something coming from the surface. They sensed nothing down below, at least.”

“We hadn’t expected something to be digging entirely new tunnels,” Pero commented. “But it fits the evidence we had seen.”

“Combining our efforts should be most effective,” Olimpia continued. “If it’s just clearing out rubble and stabilizing tunnels, we have plenty of experience. And whatever we might find should be of interest to both our sects.”

When they arrived back at the site, the Black Stone Clan showed their expertise in the situation. They took over the sloping furrow Fuzz had been digging and turned it into a proper ramp, pulling away pieces of rock instead of digging them out. They acted more like they were molding clay with their energy, and they had much more precision. That also left the sides of the ramp more secure, which became important as people got deeper. 

“If it goes much deeper than this we’ll have to set up a proper mineshaft of some sort,” Elder Pero pointed out when they were around a hundred meters down. If they weren’t cultivators it would have already been too risky to work as they were with potential collapses. 

His words turned out to be prophetic- or perhaps experienced was more correct. Either way, the tunnel continued ever deeper, winding back and forth in some places, but nearly packed full of rubble in all areas. 

Several days passed, and there were discussions about what the purpose was. It couldn’t have just been for traveling through, because it all seemed intentionally collapsed. Like weaker areas of stone were dug through for that very purpose. That made them ever more worried about the multitude of presumably similar tunnels now dotting the landscape. 

Their work became more efficient as they got used to it, though it was also due to recruiting more disciples from either sect for the labor. There was now a constant stream of people moving in and out of the tunnel, each carrying a storage bag full of rubble. 

One kilometer down. The temperature went from the ambient coolness of cave systems to uncomfortably warm. Special care was taken to make sure proper amounts of air were reaching everyone working. 

Two kilometers. People began to question whether anything could create such a tunnel in just a few hours. But they hadn’t found the end yet.

Three kilometers. People were sweating constantly from temperatures that were bordering on deadly for normal humans. Anyone who had surpassed Body Tempering could withstand much more for extended periods of time, but it was uncomfortable.

Several more days of work, and they reached four and five kilometers deep. Soon enough they could all sense it. A source of heat, the nature of which was pointed out by the Black Stone Clan elders. “We do not usually dig so deep, not without good reason. That source up ahead is almost certainly a magma chamber. It’s not safe to dig near them. That said, it’s not as if we are opening up the walls. This tunnel already leads there, so we should be safe enough. At least, from that.”

The tunnel slightly leveled out as they approached, and more than that it was not as completely full of rubble. When they reached a point it was actually opened up for a significant distance, Anton sensed something as the heat washed over everyone. The same energy signature as before, but less muted now.

It was stronger than he had thought, though not worryingly so. It just fit in with the natural surroundings so he’d been off with the magnitude of its power. If it had been just himself and a couple others he might be concerned, but at the moment they had six Essence Collection cultivators and dozens of Spirit Building disciples. 

“I sense it,” Anton said. “We should be cautious.” Just because he wasn’t worried didn’t mean it was appropriate to be careless. There was a great beast ahead, an overlord if anything deserved to be called that. “Its energy does not feel as strong as a Life Transformation cultivator, but it isn’t too far from it. We can expect it to have an exceptionally powerful body as well.”

Anton was picking out all the details he could. It was, unsurprisingly, about as wide as the four meter diameter of the tunnel. A long body, and with rows of legs. From what he could sense it seemed more akin to a lizard than an insect, but it was difficult to tell at their current distance.

He explained what he could to the others, and pondered the situation. Even for something of that size and power, it didn’t make sense that it could create the tunnels so quickly. And for them to find it in its lair, when it seemed to constantly be at work…

His energy senses dipped into the lava which filled up a good portion of the chamber. He could hardly sense anything beyond the heat, but he knew there was something there. Many things, with a sense of life about them. Not the size of the overlord, but still perhaps a meter or more in any particular direction. 

Back at the mouth of the tunnel, he saw the trail of rock, chunks of it in an obvious path to the magma. And around the large chamber, there were many openings at various angles. Some came more directly from above, and were empty. He couldn’t quite pick out why things were done one exact way, but he began to get the picture. Among other things, he could just pick out a partial magma tube, where the magma must have once been able to flow out of the chamber they were in. 

“I think there’s a mating pair,” Anton said calmly. “That’s how they managed certain collapses close together, though they must still have powerful burrowing abilities. I also sense some young… in the magma, no less. These tunnels are to fill up the pool, though I’m not entirely sure why it had to be done this way.”

Extremely long tunnels where most of the rubble didn’t even get to the end, when there were closer sources, seemed unnecessary. But maybe there was a reason for it he didn’t understand.

Elder Magro looked ahead, clearly trying to feel what Anton did. “I’ll take your word for that. The question is, what do we do?”

“I’d say- run!” Anton reached out, gesturing towards a group of disciples that were milling about. He wave them towards him, and to their credit they reacted instantly. They probably didn’t even sense the large creature burrowing through the rock next to them, but they moved forward out of its way just in time to get away mostly unscathed. 

A monstrous lizard, the visible part of which had a dozen legs and a maw large enough to swallow a human, had burst through the wall, scattering rocks everywhere as it did so. 

“To the magma chamber!” Elder Magro ordered, as well as the elders of the Black Earth Clan. “There will be more room to maneuver there!”

Anton absolutely agreed. He took a few quick shots at the creature, as he began to move, to allow the disciples behind him to start moving. Fighting the creature in confined quarters that it was accustomed to would be bad for them, especially if the other moved to cut them off. Which he thought he felt it moving to do. Elder Magro was the first into the chamber, just as the other creature was reaching the entrance. He didn’t hesitate to charge straight for it, stretching his arms out so that it couldn’t engulf him with its maw. The armored man collided with the creature and actually managed to push it back. A few meters, anyway, which was enough for several others to enter the chamber and begin a coordinated attack that drove it back even further.

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