Following the tunnels underground was the best way to figure out where the king stoneworm went but also the most dangerous.
After some discussion, only Shao Xuan, Ao and Ta would go underground. Not too many together or it would be difficult to move.
A rope was lowered into the hole in the short hill. The rope slid downwards. It was not very long, instead was pieces of short straw rope tied together. It only touched the ground after almost a hundred metres. That meant the king stoneworm moved upwards, peek its head out, retreated back down this tunnel, then changed direction.
“Which direction should we head towards？“ Ao looked at the two tunnels, unable to make a decision. One was the tunnel made by the king stoneworm travelling towards this direction, the other was made when it left.
Shao Xuan studied the patterns on the stone walls and touched it. He pointed in one direction. “It travelled this way but let’s take the other path.”
He wanted to check if the king stoneworm had come from its mountain or it had passed through bat mountain first. If it did, then there was a reasonable explanation to the bat leader’s sudden appearance.
Understanding his thought process, Ao and Ta did not object, walking down the tunnel made by the worm coming towards them.
Although they were underground, Shao Xuan had memorised the entrance and carried a universal eye in his hand.
“It can still pinpoint directions without the sun or moon?” Ta was surprised.
“Yeah,” said Shao Xuan. When he spoke to the Ya tribe, they said they used it underground too. However, only leaders of the tribe had a universal eye. It was rare and the Jing tribe rarely gave them out as gifts.
As if to prove his words, under the glow of the water moon stone, the universal eye opened a slit like the eye of a beast. As the slit grew, the direction it pointed at grew clearer.
Ao and Ta had a strong sense of direction. As long as they knew the rough direction of the sun and had an estimate of the time, they could confirm the direction of bat mountain.
They continued ahead.
“It came from that way!” confirmed Ta.
They grew more sure as they travelled. This tunnel extended from bat mountain.
They accelerated and soon arrived at bat mountain.
How did they know they were at bat mountain?
Other than based on their own estimates, there was a tunnel extending upwards. However, the tunnel did not break through the surface, merely extending twenty metres up.
“Do you think the king stoneworm noticed the bat leader’s presence when it came here? Hence it decided to head upwards? But then the bat leader reacted so quickly that it ran the moment the king stoneworm approached. Do you think it’s possible?” Ao told them his guesses.
“That is indeed possible,” agreed Ta.
“Bat mountain should be above us, even if we are not directly underneath the mountain. We are very close though. But why did the king stoneworm leave its nest? Even if it’s because of the natural disaster, after leaving its nest, it should return after the disaster subsided,” wondered Shao Xuan aloud.
“Maybe the king stoneworm wants to change its nest location?”
“Let’s go check it out.”
The three of them travelled towards where the king stoneworm came from in a tunnel a hundred metres deep underground.
The air was thin here as they travelled farther from the short hill. Since they were not close to the king stoneworm’s nest, there were not enough tunnels for ventilation. At least all three were more resistant towards thinning air. Any low or middle-ranked totemic warriors might not be able to bear it for long.
Ao and Ta also wanted to know why the king stoneworm left the nest. However, they quickly found the reason why the king stoneworm never returned.
There was a dead end not far from bat mountain.
The tunnel had been cut off here. Then, there were signs of the king stoneworm changing direction.
“This must have happened some time ago. The natural disaster is the only event that can cause such a major change underground,” said Ao.
“So this means that the king stoneworm was startled last year during the natural disaster and left its nest, heading in this direction amidst the chaos. But then due to the underground movements, it could not find the tunnel it came from so…” Ta was not sure whether to laugh or not. “Even if the king stoneworm can’t trace its original path, it can always take another route. Why would it continue to stay away from its nest?”
“What if… it can’t sense directions?” offered Shao Xuan.
Ao and Ta fell silent. A king beast with no sense of direction? Weren’t high-level beasts all very smart?
“I guess… that’s a possibility.” That was all Ao could say.
Shao Xuan sensed the area. “The stone walls here are much thicker than other places. Maybe the king stoneworm stopped here for a long time.”
The longer the worm stopped in a place, the thicker the solidification of its surroundings. Shao Xuan could sense that the tunnels were made of the special rock caused by the king stoneworm and were not the naturally-occuring kind.
“Maybe the king stoneworm left its nest and ran here to escape the natural disaster. It stopped for a long time, maybe it fell asleep. When it woke up, its original path had been cut off due to the ground movements, so it decided to continue moving somewhere else?”
Shao Xuan did not want to make the king stoneworm seem so stupid either but this might be the most likely explanation.
If that was true, all three of them had one thought: its intelligence was just…
“No matter what, let’s continue searching the area?”
Since this path had been cut off, then they had to travel along the path where the king stoneworm left.
They prayed it was not travelling towards the Flaming Horn tribe.
They returned to the short hill and told the rest what they found. After some rest and a meal, all three went underground again.
A hundred metres below ground, three people ran along the tunnels.
In the middle, the three of them found another short hill similar to the previous one, proving that the king stoneworm had broken through the surface here.
“This happened during these past two days.” Shao Xuan looked at the trees in the area, whose roots had turned to rock but crowns remained bright green. The branches had not shrivelled up yet. This meant the stoneworm had been here not more than two days ago.
“Let’s carry on.” Ao had become increasingly anxious. Although they were not heading directly to Flaming Horn, they were not too far off.
‘Please, not Flaming Horn! Not Flaming Horn!’ Ao chanted in his heart.
However, the mood grew solemn the more they walked.
Shao Xuan looked at the universal eye to confirm their location.
“We’re at… Flaming River?”
“How is that possible?!” gasped Ao and Ta in unison.
They were already at Flaming River?
But how is that possible?
Shouldn’t there be water?
But that’s not right either. The river might have been more than a hundred metres deep before the natural disaster but it had turned shallower afterwards, at most tens of metres. Of course, some parts of the river might be deeper but it was not the time to think.
Ao pointed upwards and asked Shao Xuan. “Are you sure Flaming River is above us?”
“Mostly sure. There are no hard rocks above us, I think it’s mud. And there is water flowing further up.” Shao Xuan could not give specific distances but could feel that above him was mud and water. Compared to rocks, they did not limit his senses as much.
Additionally, based on the direction they were travelling in, they must be close to the Flaming River now, upstream of the Flaming Horn tribe. Shao Xuan had scouted that area before.
“So this means the king stoneworm has crossed the river already?” asked Ta.
If the king stoneworm crossed the river, then it was not heading towards the tribe. They relaxed slightly. However, the Flaming River Trading Point was also there and any damage caused to that area would also result in major losses to the tribe.
“Let’s carry on!” Ta was so frustrated he wanted to pull his hair out. The tribe had been on guard against people from the other side of the ocean (who hadn’t even arrived yet), then against the ‘Robbers’ who had been giving them headaches… Then the bat leader… He could not believe that there was now an even larger threat. If they did not have the mental strength, they would have been panicking already.
The three of them must continue looking, no matter where it went.
“Any signs of danger and we’ll run back immediately,” said Shao Xuan.
While tracking the worm was crucial, their lives were more important. They must not die here, that’s a king beast!
Plus they were now a hundred metres underground, which was advantageous towards the king stoneworm. In the event of a fight, all three would be killed.
Meanwhile, at a patch of forest outside Flaming River Trading Point.
This location was a little far from the trading area. After Flaming Horn decided to expand their patrolling area, anyone who wanted to steal or rob was forced to retreat their ‘hunting grounds’ back. They wanted to rob the visitors but did not want to face the Flaming Horns.
“Why can’t the Flaming Horns mind their own business? Us robbing the other people doesn’t even concern them!” said a person fiddling with a dagger made from beast bone as he sat on a tree.
“Who knows? I don’t like them at all and I’ll never enter the trading area,” replied a man with hair so dishevelled his features could not be seen. He was covered in bulging muscles and his face in sideburns.
A voice came from the thick bushes nearby. “The last time I went there, the guards at the entrance stared at me so hard they almost bore holes into my brain. Tsk, you think I want the stuff inside you’re selling? I’ll never step foot in there even if they send me an invitation!”
“Yeah, I’ll never go there! We’ll rob the rest outside instead! Haha, then we won’t have to face the stupid Flaming Horns, haha!” laughed the guy on the tree, slapping his thigh.
They were a group of thieves outside the Flaming River Trading Area. More than twenty people were hiding here. They had about fifty members but all scattered in different areas, only sending a message if they found ‘prey’.
They only chose to take advantage of travelling parties with fewer and weaker people, never taking risks to rob anyone who looked intimidating. They must be smart about this or they would get killed.
The guy who had been targeted by the Flaming Horn guards had previously bumped into a few patrol guards outside the trading area. The guards had even killed a few of their members, though he ran fast enough.
They were new to the area at the time, thinking of entering the trading point to identify the people with great hauls. Then they would attack these people once they left the trading point.
The Flaming Horn guards at the entrance thought they seemed familiar, therefore kept staring at them. They grew so nervous they almost ran off. Since that day, they did not set foot into the trading area in fear of being caught. They hated the Flaming Horns who interfered with their robbing activities deeply.
They were heavily insulting the Flaming Horns when someone suddenly squinted. “What was that?!”
The air suddenly grew tense but he could not determine where the feeling came from. He looked around, unable to see anyone else. The Flaming Horn patrol guards would not come here either.
“Who’s there?!” Everyone stopped talking and grew alert.
The forest was eerily quiet.
They suddenly had a feeling that something terrifying had happened to the area. They could previously hear a lot of bird calls but they weren’t paying attention to their surroundings so they did not notice the abrupt silence.
The first person who noticed the eeriness had sweat dripping down his temples.
He still could not find the source of the terrifying aura. He felt like it came from every direction!
The feeling was growing more intense. Even the slowest member of the group felt a chill so cold his scalp was about to explode, the hand holding a knife trembling uncontrollably.
Usually, they would hide quietly in the face of a threat to observe. However, they could not keep their calm this time.
Where are you?!
Everyone held their breaths to observe the area. Every insect would be noticed.
Where is the terrifying aura coming from?!
There was not a single person around, not even a bird. Even the insects seemed to have disappeared. Even the air was frozen.
Crack crack crack crack---
Fraint crackling sounds triggered their nerves.
It came from beneath their feet.
When they finally looked down, everyone felt their souls leave their bodies.