Once Tiny, Crinis and I had refilled our cores and Morrelia had snacked on her travel rations we set out once again, this time moving slower and taking more care as we moved. We weren't trying to chase anyone down and stumbling under the eye of big momma Croc was not something we wanted to experience. I made sure I was training my external mana manipulation as we moved, putting those sub brains to work and making them earn their keep. This had the added benefit of slowing down the drain on my core since I was able to capture the mana in the air and pull it in to replace my losses.
I did try and see if I could sense where the mana I lost went, perhaps to see if I could retain it, drag it straight back into myself and therefore never lose any mana at all, but I failed. No matter how I tried I wasn't able to sense where the mana that left the core went to, whether it bled out into the air, was consumed in some way by my body or just vanished out of my core via some extra-dimensional portal.
This could be a research project for the colony one day down the line.
Morrelia seemed to know what she was doing, leading us down farm tracks and dirt roads to locate isolated clusters of homes that we would investigate in the hopes of locating survivors tucked away in cellars, barns or attics. I was surprised by our strike rate, we did manage to find a surprising number of people who had taken shelter from the monsters and managed to hide themselves.
When we uncovered the first group of bedraggled survivors, Tiny cracking open the cellar doors with his bare hands, I'd been shocked! How the heck had the monsters managed to overlook them?!
Turns out that the monsters aren't the best at checking the nooks and crannies. They may have been put under the compulsion of their Croc overlords through some mechanism I have no understanding of, but they do seem to be a little lazy in the execution of their sweeps.
The larger towns and villages have received the full monster horde treatment. Burnt to the ground, the buildings smashed in and the people eaten or scattered, but the smaller hamlets have been hit with a lighter hand. More of a smash and grab approach, without a vigorous hunt for survivors.
The people we find are not in a good way. Starved and half crazed from their time in isolation, too afraid to stick their heads out into the open air in case a monster happened to be nearby, half of them either attacked or hid from myself, Tiny and Crinis before Morrelia could calm them down. I thought we'd have a hard time convincing the people to move, so fearful were they, but each time we managed to uncover another clutch of starved, desperate people, Morrelia managed to convince the of the security that waited for them in the village to the south.
After Morrelia helped the people pack whilst us monsters sat about at a calming distance. We had tried to assist by lifting and shifting things but Morrelia suggested we move to one side and allow the people to get themselves organised without us, as it would cause less "stress" to the survivors.
Which is fair enough. I do hope that Morrelia emphasised the presence of an entire colony of monsters living right next to this village of survivors. If any accidents were to occur, things could get very hairy down there, very quickly.
Over the span of a few days we covered a lot of ground, running all over southern Liria. We had a couple of run ins with bands of roving monsters, smaller ones this time, without any of the more evolved Croca beasts. We were able to clean those up without much stress, and I made sure to grind my skills across the battles.
It didn't take long for external mana manipulation to level to five and I was able to rank it up to Greater External Mana Manipulation. The rank up imbued me with the knowledge I needed to extend my reach further and grasp hold of mana at an extended range from my body. This increased the amount of mana I could shift somewhat but not by as much as I'd thought. I could use my will to effect mana almost twice as far away as I could before, a range of almost five metres. The extended range, came at a cost though, the further the mana was from my core, the harder it was to influence.
The upshot was that my minds burned more mental energy the further away the mana was from me. Whilst my sub brains were able to grasp mana close to me almost constantly, expanding their reach caused them to flame out before much time had passed. I decided to slowly increase the range of my mana manipulation as my levels increased and I became more confident with the technique.
After we had made a pass through the surrounding region, we had to retreat back to the Dungeon in order to recharge and plot our move toward the capital. I had business with a croc.