Shao Xuan had only met one bat that could appear behind them undetected. It was a bat no one in Flaming Horn would ever want to provoke, one they met while mining for fire crystals.
This was the bat leader they encountered years ago.
Although it was not technically a king beast, with its abilities, it might as well be one. Their last encounter had left the Flaming Horn tribesmen traumatised, even changing their hunting routes to avoid it.
How could he kill this thief so easily?
Ao did not know what to do either. He stood in the same spot, unmoving.
The cuts made on the Thousand Grain Gold plant were very smooth, whatever cut it must be very sharp and slashed very quickly. They thought it was a blade used by the ‘Robbers’, now they realised it was this bat.
Who would’ve guessed?
The question was, wasn’t the bat leader supposed to be leading the bats in the mountain?
The cave they had found the fire crystals long ago had been filled with bats. However, after the appearance of this bat leader, they went to conquer another new spot, which was a tall mountain with its peak high up in the clouds. It was a huge territory and far away from this place. While it could fly fast, why would this bat fly to their field every night, even slicing off only one plant at a time?
Was it curious?
But theoretically, unripe grains should not be interesting enough to attract it from its home deep in the forest.
Shao Xuan’s mind raced, thinking over his next move. Although his capabilities had improved since he last met the bat, while Ao and the rest were also stronger from merging with the fire seed, it was still not beneficial to them to fight the bat leader.
Under the moonlight, the terrifying animal quietly hung upside-down on a plant two steps away from them, unmoving. It looked at Shao Xuan and Ao, though its eyes lingered on Shao Xuan.
Just as Shao Xuan was thinking, the bat’s wings moved soundlessly, like fluttering shadows. In a moment, it disappeared.
The tense atmosphere dispersed as if it did not happen.
Caesar’s fur was still on end, he opened his third eye cautiously to look around.
Shao Xuan heaved a sigh of relief.
He would never have expected it to be this bastard.
“It’s… gone?” Ao asked in a low voice.
“Yeah, it left.”
Ao fell on his butt on the ground, ignoring the manure in the soil.
He wiped the dripping sweat from his forehead and turned to Shao Xuan, “It’s the one, right?”
Shao Xuan walked over to the spot where they first noticed the peculiar aura. There, they found the fourth cut stalk. Only one row of grains was cut off. It was a fresh cut with green sap dripping out.
The cut looked the same as the other three cuts.
Now that they had found the ‘thief’, they still did not know what to do. How would they deal with this thief that visited them every day?
Fight? There would be a price to pay.
Don’t fight? But the bat would likely visit every day. It no longer lived deep in the forest. Shao Xuan had a feeling that it was currently living near the Flaming Horn village and not the previous mountain.
“Go ask the hunters if they found anything odd when they went out hunting,” said Shao Xuan.
Since there was not enough reason here to attract the bat leader, then something must have happened to the bat mountain.
“Mm.” Ao’s face was solemn, extremely worried.
If this was a ‘Robber’, he would have the confidence to fight. But he was not confident up against this opponent.
When Shao Xuan and Ao left the field, the guards outside were puzzled. “Grand Elder, Elder Ao, you’re leaving?”
Ao was looking down, deep in thought. He did not respond at all.
Shao Xuan did not elaborate either, for it would just cause panic. “Be careful. If you face a situation you cannot handle, retreat first.”
Before the guards understood his words, Shao Xuan and Ao had already left.
The bat leader had already left with its grains so it should not return tonight. It had noticed Shao Xuan and Ao but since it did not react, it should not return to retaliate either. They expect this incident to be as soundless and traceless as before.
Shao Xuan and Ao rushed back to the village in the middle of the night, waking the few hunt leaders who were sound asleep.
“What happened?” Mai yawned. After entering the room, he realised Shao Xuan, Ao, Gui He, Ta and the rest were all here. The few major hunt leaders were also gradually arriving.
Very soon, other than Duo Kang, Zheng Luo and the rest at the trading area, everyone of hunt leader position and above were called over.
They were in a meeting room built on the mountain specially built for meetings like this. They drew the animal hide curtains close, blocking any light and sound from leaving the room.
The Elder and Chief’s faces were solemn, causing the atmosphere to turn tense. They would not have called a meeting if it were not urgent.
Anyone still sleepy was wide awake now, mildly uncomfortable as they eyed Shao Xuan and Ao’s expressions. They wondered what could have happened to make Grand Elder, who had been holed up at the trading area, to come over.
When all the leaders in the village arrived, they waited for the hosts to speak.
Ao looked at Shao Xuan, implying for him to speak.
Shao Xuan took a deep breath and looked around the room. Everyone became more anxious.
“This afternoon, Ao told me someone had been slicing off our Thousand Grain Gold.” Shao Xuan briefly explained the situation.
Everyone’s eyes became ablaze with anger. They all wanted to punch the thief.
However, what Shao Xuan said next was like a bucket of cold water. Not only did the flames disappear, they were shivering.
Everyone who had gone to mine fire crystals all remembered what happened.
“How can it be the same bat again?!” Mai clenched his fist, let go, then clenched it again.
“Isn’t it living on the other side of the forest?” Cheng was also panicking.
“Cheng and Mai, you should be able to see that mountain along your hunting routes. Did you notice anything unusual?” asked Shao Xuan.
After the incident at bat mountain, Cheng’s hunt party changed their hunt routes to avoid the bat mountain. They could see the peak from far away but never got any closer to avoid trouble. He had warned their brothers from the other side of the ocean not to get any closer too.
“We never approached the place but from afar, nothing looked amiss.” Cheng scratched his sideburns, frustrated. If this was another tribesman, he would not be afraid. However, he did not have a good impression of that bat, shuddering at the memory of the incident.
“I haven’t been either,” said Mai. Then, he suddenly recalled something. “I don’t know about bat mountain but we noticed changes along our hunt route.”
“Oh?” Shao Xuan straightened up and asked Mai, “Tell us anything unusual you noticed. Any changes in the mountain, trees, rivers, animals… anything.”
“It’s the mountain, the one you all say with the king beast,” said Mai.
“The one with the king stoneworm?” Shao Xuan rarely travelled there, usually going towards the plains. Therefore he really did not notice anything about the mountain.
“Exactly!” Mai paused. “Anyone who has used that path before knows that when you leave a mark in the tunnels within the mountain, you won't be able to see the mark again.”
Shao Xuan nodded. He remembered that there was indeed a king stoneworm beneath that mountain. It was not a rumour at all. It was due to the worm’s ‘activities’ that any markings left on the tunnel’s walls would disappear the next time they visited. Sometimes, even ropes they left behind would disappear.
The cave was like a long intestine, anything left untouched inside would be ‘absorbed’ without a trace. The further underground, the more obvious this phenomenon was, the faster the markings disappeared.
That was why anyone who used that route relied on their own experience and memory, passing on this knowledge to the next generation. No one would ever rely on markings.
“In the beginning, I didn’t notice but after a few times, I found a bit of straw rope I previously tossed inside!” Now that he recalled this, Mai regretted not paying more attention. He thought the king stoneworm must be resting or had gone somewhere else. Maybe the mountain would return to normal if it returned.
“The king stoneworm…” Shao Xuan wondered aloud, “What could have happened to even affect the king stoneworm?”
“Mai, when was the first time you noticed the markings were no longer disappearing?” asked Shao Xuan.
Mai looked ashamed. “The first time I realised this was actually before last winter. It’s just I did not have time to think about it. There were many threats in the cave at the time, even beasts we had never seen before inside. We spent most of our efforts guarding against them.”
“This means the changes within the mountain started before winter. Perhaps it’s due to the natural disaster,” said Shao Xuan. “But the bat leader only came recently. It must have been a recent event.”
There was a tense silence in the house.
There was a huge threat looming over the tribe and they found no explanations for it. No one would be able to rest well. They no longer had the fire seed, powerful fearsome beasts like this one could fly over their village undetected anytime.
“What do we do now?” Mai looked at Shao Xuan, then around the room. No one spoke, for no one had a solution.
“We’ll leave tomorrow to check on the bat mountain. And we’ll also visit the king stoneworm’s mountain. Perhaps we’ll find the reason,” said Shao Xuan.
“That’s the only solution we have. But the tribe must be guarded well. Don’t tell anyone else about this. We’ll only announce one we have found the reason or we’ll cause panic. And outsiders could ambush us while we’re vulnerable,” said Gui He.
After making arrangements for the expedition, everyone returned to their homes. However, no one would be able to fall asleep again.
On the next day, after the sky lightened, Shao Xuan had Cha Cha bring him, Ao and two other leaders over. Ta, Mai and the rest set off together with Caesar.
In the past, bat mountain did not contain any bats. However, a leader appeared in the colony and they abandoned their short hill to conquer a taller mountain. They even chased out all the fearsome beasts living inside. After that, the Flaming Horn tribe called it ‘bat mountain’.
Shao Xuan looked at the mountain so tall it extended into the clouds. Compared to the other mountains, it felt darker and eerier. This feeling became clearer as they approached.
Due to the colony of bats in the mountain, all the beasts had been driven away. Any fearsome beasts that remained behind became bat food. Any smart animal would not stay or their blood would get sucked by the bats.
Since there were no fearsome beasts or smaller animals, it was unusually silent and dead.
It was daytime so they did not see any bats flying out.
Shao Xuan did not enter the cave, merely circling the area.
“The colony is still here, they haven’t left. There are fresh signs of activity, even bat feces at the cave mouth,” said Shao Xuan.
“So you mean only the leader left?”
“Why?” Ao did not understand.
Why would the bat leader abandon its subjects to go steal grains at their field?
Shao Xuan could not think of a reason either.
“Let’s check out the king stoneworm.” Shao Xuan called Cha Cha over, who brought them to the mountain they hadn’t visited in a long time.
That year, Shao Xuan had exited the place carrying his ancestor’s remains. If it were not for the ancestral bone ornaments and the remains, he would have been swallowed by the mountain.
When he arrived at the mouth of the cave, he looked at the writings at the entrance and bowed according to tradition. Then, he entered the cave.