Shao Xuan remembered that the animals living in the area were usually weaker species. The king beast would never allow any other fearsome beasts on its turf in the mountain. Anything weaker was beneath the king stoneworm and not worth its attention.
Just like how lions would ignore ants but never a wolf in its territory.
The Flaming Horns had lived in the area for a thousand years. Generations of hunters had passed through here to get to hunting grounds on the other side of the mountain, rarely meeting any beasts they could not handle. Occasionally, when new, younger warriors joined, they just might be targeted by the animals in the cave, just like what happened to Shao Xuan.
Shao Xuan had not been here in a long time but had a rough expectation of what animals he would encounter. However, when he entered the cave, he sensed many auras that should not appear here.
“Something is indeed off.”
Shao Xuan still remembered the paths in the mountain and did not need Mai to lead the way. He travelled ahead from memory.
They were ambushed several times by fearsome beasts hiding in the darkness along the way, though they were all dealt with by Shao Xuan. They were not particularly strong, or Mai would have brought attention to the situation here already.
All the stronger fearsome beasts should know there was a king stoneworm inside, therefore avoiding this place. Even if the king stoneworm seemed to be missing, they would still avoid this place temporarily.
The tip of his sword pierced a six-legged bug towards the cave wall, creating a dent.
Near the dent were scratches made by other weapons. They were marks from Mai’s previous hunts. They had not disappeared yet.
Within the cave, Shao Xuan expanded his senses to check if the king stoneworm was still here.
Shao Xuan could sense the fire seed in everyone within range. Even people who had not merged with the fire seed would carry a little of its aura. He could sense fire seeds of other tribes during the expedition downstream using the same ability.
It was a sensing ability stemming from his ancestral power. Compared to totemic power, it was more of spiritual intuition. The stronger one’s ancestral power was, the more powerful their sensing ability would be. Shao Xuan could sense fire seeds far away due to the strengthening of his internal ancestral powers.
At the Thousand Grain Gold field, he had been able to sense the bat leader’s location. He had the same ability while they were digging for fire crystals but at the time, his abilities were still sketchy. That night, his senses were much sharper. The bat leader had hidden itself extremely well. Any other fearsome beast of the same level should have been discovered by Ao and the rest already. However, Ao’s ancestral power was not as strong as his totemic power so he was not as sensitive as Shao Xuan.
There was one thing Shao Xuan did not tell them. When he sensed the bat leader, within his spiritual mind, he ‘saw’ a dot of light that looked like a fire seed. The bright dot was the bat.
Why would a beast have an aura resembling a fire seed?
What shocked Shao Xuan more was that the fire-seed-like energy on the bat was similar to the Flaming Horn’s fire seed. Just a little, approximately ten percent similar to the tribe’s fire seed. Another ten percent was similar to the other kind of energy that Shao Xuan had in his body.
Within his spiritual mind, there was not just the Flaming Horn totemic flames but also the light shell around the flames. The bat’s energy was similar to the energy from the shell.
Perhaps that was why the bat leader did not kill the Flaming Horns during their last encounter. Maybe it saw the Flaming Horns as its kind.
Shao Xuan believed that the bat leader saw the Flaming Horns as its little brothers.
But just the small similarity was shocking. The only thing connecting both the bat and the Flaming Horns was that before it stood out as the leader of the bats, it had absorbed energy from the fire crystals.
Shao Xuan had ‘burned’ the fire crystals himself.
He could not figure out the reason but this was not the time to think. He used his sensing abilities to search beneath the mountain for the elusive king stoneworm.
When he had the close encounter with the king stoneworm, he had not seen it with his own eyes. But he definitely could distinguish it by its aura. Shao Xuan could clearly remember the sensation of almost being turned to stone.
Ao and the rest walked behind Shao Xuan. When he slowed down, they did not hurry him but remained guarded.
‘If only Shao Xuan can find out the reason from his knot divination,’ thought Ao.
Shao Xuan searched in every direction. Since he was surrounded by rock, his abilities were greatly limited compared to sensing for tribe fire seeds over a large area. However, he shrank his search area based on where he remembered the king stoneworm had appeared before. As long as the worm was still here, he should be able to feel it.
Shao Xuan continued to walk forward, sensing the area.
He carried on until he exited the tunnel on the other side of the mountain and still did not find the king stoneworm.
“Indeed, the king stoneworm is no longer here,” said Shao Xuan.
This was not good news to the Flaming Horns.
They did not care for changes in fearsome beast territories but this was a king beast. King beasts did not change their territories easily. For example, on the other side of the ocean, the salt beast guarded its salt cave faithfully and had no intentions to leave although it was disturbed.
The king stoneworm that had not moved territories in a thousand years had left its home.
In reality, the king stoneworm’s territory was not small. The salt beast’s territory was horizontal, and could be calculated like a piece of flat land. However, the king stoneworm’s influence extended throughout this large mountain with a base area of unimaginable size, its peak reaching the clouds. Even few birds would fly over this mountain.
No one understood why it would abandon a territory like this.
Shao Xuan found the cave where he carried the ancestral remains out, then entered it. He found animals that previously did not dare approach the place inside, even bones of small animals. For a mountain that could swallow anything inside, small bones like this should not be able to last long. Yet now, leftovers left behind by another animal were here.
“The king stoneworm has been gone for a while,” Shao Xuan told Ao and the rest. “Maybe it left during last year’s disaster.”
If the king stoneworm left for somewhere else like deeper into the forest, it did not concern the Flaming Horns. However, what if it was headed towards Flaming Horn?
The bat leader’s behaviour was too sudden and inexplicable, causing a great deal of discomfort. As for this king beast, if nothing had happened recently, everyone guessed it must have found a new nest deeper into the forest. For a beast of that level, finding a new home was easy since it could defeat any other animal as long as it was not a fellow king beast.
“What should we do next?” Ao felt as if a boulder was pressing on his chest as he thought about the bat leader visiting their crop field every night. Even breathing felt difficult, for one mistake could result in a disaster.
“As long as we do not attack it, the bat will not attack us.” This might be due to the similarities in the fire seed. If it wanted to, the bat should have attacked a long time ago. However, there had been no recent reports of missing persons.
“Tell the wanderers to stay put. The bat might not attack Flaming Horns but I am not sure about them,” said Shao Xuan.
Although Ao did not understand why, he nodded. He too felt like the bat would not attack Flaming Horns for the moment. It had many opportunities to kill them but it had not.
“But we still cannot let this continue.” Even if the bat did not attack them, they still could not sleep well with this looming threat.
Shao Xuan thought for a moment. “You all wait for Mai and the rest here, I’ll go to bat mountain again.”
Shao Xuan had Cha Cha bring him towards bat mountain. He had previously roughly circled around the mountain but this time, he planned to search the area. He had a few guesses about the bat leader’s behaviour. One was that the king stoneworm’s movements might have affected it. A powerful beast like the bat leader should not be easily affected by the activity of any weaker animal.
Shao Xuan had to look for other clues around the mountain to check for reasons that forced the bat to abandon its mountain.
The reason wasn’t that it liked Flaming Horn’s village. If that was the case, why would it wait until now to visit?
Shao Xuan looked down across the forest as he rode on the eagle’s back.
Cha Cha flew at a medium height so they could see objects beneath them while still avoiding the ancient trees and potential threats in them. Cha Cha had been attacked before due to flying too low.
Mai’s hunting routes did not pass through the areas around the mountain. Shao Xuan also rarely came here hence he was unfamiliar with this place.
Cha Cha’s flight path was an outward spiral from the mountain.
There were huge temperature differences between different regions of the forest. Sometimes, this part of the mountain was cold as autumn while the other was humid as a hot summer. However, in general, at this time of the year, the place was mainly green.
The ancient trees determined the colour palette of the forest. Their only competitor was the mountains.
Vegetation became sparser up the mountain, the green quickly fading at high altitudes into green-grey boulders, until the white snow on the peaks. The peaks stood out clearly against the blue sky and its green surroundings.
Shao Xuan was used to these colours but as they flew, he noticed something unusual.
There was a hill a distance from the mountain. Regular hills had grass even if there were no trees. However, there were just grey-white rocks on it.
The closer they flew, the clearer he saw that the hill was barren.
“Let’s go down to check it out.”
When Cha Cha descended, Shao Xuan leapt off and landed near the hill.
When Shao Xuan stepped on the grassy ground, the sound did not resemble a footstep on soft grass.
He looked down. Some of the green grass had turned grey-white.
Some of the trees around him had also turned into the colour of stone.
The changes grew more obvious when he approached the hill. Around the hill were rocks that looked like tree trunks.
Those used to be trunks, though their upper halves had broken off to leave a stump. Even the lines on the tree bark could be clearly discerned.
They’ve turned to stone!
Shao Xuan had his guesses now.
The only beast that could do this was the king stoneworm!
Why wasn’t it at its home? Why was it here?
Shao Xuan walked up the hill. He could sense that the king stoneworm was not close by so he was not worried that he might be turned to stone.
The hill was completely bare. The rocks looked new. The stoneworm was only recently here.
As he walked up to the top of the short hill, he saw a round hole two-metres wide, He squatted at its edge and looked down. Based on its inner curvature, the worm must have emerged out of the ground from here. However, it had not exited completely, merely poking its head out and then going back underground.
The hill was actually a mound caused by the king stoneworm’s movements. Even the plants nearby were all turned to stone. The hole became narrower, deeper down as the king stoneworm retreated back inside. Once it was completely hardened, the hole maintained this current shape.
In the past, the Flaming Horns felt like the king stoneworm must be about the size of the tunnels in the mountain. However, Shao Xuan had a feeling it must be larger than those tunnels because they might have contracted after the worm left before hardening.
However, they were just speculations because he had not seen the king stoneworm with his eyes.
Standing on the hill, he looked towards bat mountain. They were not too close or they would have noticed this place the first time they came here. However, they were still not too far away. Perhaps near enough for the bat leader to sense the king stoneworm’s movements.
Did the bat leader really abandon the mountain and escape to Flaming Horn because of the king stoneworm? Well, to the bat leader, the Flaming Horns were its little brothers.
Unable to confirm this, Shao Xuan had Cha Cha bring him up into the sky to continue searching for other mounds like this one, especially in the direction of the Flaming Horn tribe. If he found anything in that direction, then they had another headache coming.
No one wanted to fight a king beast even though they knew the king stoneworm had a more placid temperament. If it were not for its non-aggressiveness, they would not have a hunting route near it. It had never attacked them for a thousand years.
However, they could not be sure in the event of an actual fight.
At least Shao Xuan did not find any more hills like this one in the direction of the tribe. However, he was still not completely convinced.
“Where did it go?”
Shao Xuan returned to the hill. After Shao Xuan told Ao and the rest about it, they too came over.
“Perhaps I should go down and check,” said Shao Xuan.
The king stoneworm left behind a tunnel everywhere it went. They would know where it went by following the tunnels.