Having pushed my stomach to the maximum possible level quickly starts to pay dividends. After mutating, the three of us pick ourselves up and start to move to another spot. The usual method to traverse the coral reef is to climb our way back down to the ground and move from there. This has a few benefits. Firstly, we don't get hunted by monsters from above and there's no chance of accidentally bumping into any leviathan class monsters, which is nice. Safety first as I always say! Secondly, we increase the possibility of happening across a nest or den of monsters along the ground. The crabs proved to be such a tasty and delicious meal of XP and Biomass, one I have no objection to indulging in once more. We haven't stumbled across many such treats but if we don't try then we never will.
It just so happens that in the process of moving, always a careful and slow affair in this web of coral plants with their stinging barbs, I sense a signature of a nearby cluster of monsters. How delightful! A travel snack!
[Tiny, Crinis. I can sense a nest of creatures to the left over there. Can you see them Crinis?]
[Oh! Ah, yes! I have them!]
[You should have picked them up way before me. What's the story Crinis? Have you been sleeping back there?]
[I haven't been asleep! I was just distracted.]
[Distracted? By what? Is there something else around here?]
That'd be the last thing I need, jumped by some monster leaping out of nowhere to smack me in the thorax whilst my supposedly omnipresent eye was dazed and confused. It's very unlike Crinis to be anything but perfectly diligent. She's almost obsessively careful in her scouting responsibilities. Her Ability to sense mana sources at great range and clarity is such a blessing down here. I haven't checked, but I hope that the first thing she mutated to +20 was her Mana Sensory Gland followed closely by her Shadow Eye. The latter of those two has grown to be quite the handy thing here in the Second Strata. It gives her the ability to see through shadows, and since shadow mana is literally everywhere down here, she's able to get a good look directly at whatever is in range of the thing.
[No, there isn't anything else here! I was just thinking.]
Thinking? What sort of development is this?!
[What were you thinking about? If you don't mind sharing that is,] I hasten to add.
I've been trying to build a sense of independence in my pets for a long time, I'm certainly not going to try and squash this fleeting sign of development from my most dedicated pet!
[ It's nothing.]
[ Sure. Remember you can always talk to me, or not. Your thoughts are your own. If you decide that you'd like to chat to me, you can do so anytime. Okay?]
[Alright then. Now let's go annihilate whatever it is that's occupying this nest nearby.]
[I think it's Centipedes again, Master.]
DAMN CENTIPEDES. EXPERIENCE THE HEAT OF MY RAAAAAAAGE!
Thirty minutes later the hated shadow variant of the claw centipede has had their territory reduced by one nest. I'm still determined to completely erase this hated species from the entire Dungeon. Perhaps it will be impossible on my own, but with the assistance of the colony, we may be able to accomplish one day. The thought of millions of ants hunting the hated centipede throughout the entire world of Pangera puts a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart. It's decided! The moment we return to the colony I shall pass on this most sacred of missions!
As we're busy munching on the Biomass, Crinis interrupts my thoughts.
[Master, I think I'm sensing something?]
[More monsters? Excellent! I'm barely warmed up.]
[I'm not sure that it's monsters, it feels different. I think they're coming this way.]
This sounds a little interesting. What could be going on here? I reach out with my own mana sense, but I can't get a handle on what it is that Crinis is telling me about.
[They might be coming for the clearing. Let's get behind some cover. I want to try and get a look at whatever this is. What direction are they coming from?]
Once Crinis points out a direction with one slender tentacle, the three of us scramble to hide on the other side. I duck and weave through the stone coral until we are reasonably behind cover. It's not easy for an ant larger than a car to hide, but I do my best! Hopefully the stealth skill to carry me a little here. Tiny isn't particularly stealthy either so I urge him to get a little further back. Crinis is, quite naturally, still resting on my back and quite small in her shrunken form, shouldn't be any problems there.
After a few moments, I start to detect what is was the she was talking about. There are six different mana sources I detect, but they're different to what I would normally associate with monsters. Monsters are bright with mana, filled to the brim with it as it flows through every fibre of their bodies. If the monster has a core, it glows like a lightbulb to my mana sense, and energy ripples around those creatures as their core pulls in the mana around them.
What I sense now isn't like that, not at all. Their seems to be hardly any mana inside the bodies of these creatures, nothing at all like a monster. It's so confusing! What could possibly be down in the Dungeon looking so dim to my mana sense?
I'm curious! What is it? What could it be?! Unconsciously, I nudge myself a little closer to the clearer to get a better view as these six strange entities step into view.
The six figures step into the clearing, taking in the scattered remains of the Biomass we had been consuming. They move quickly toward the centre of the clearing and I take in my first impressions. It's immediately obvious why they didn't feel like monsters. It's because they aren't. Monsters, that is. If I'm not mistaken then these are sapient creatures, possibly from the surface. They're humanoid, but taller and bulkier than a human. I'd put the tallest at over eight feet tall, nearly as tall as Tiny, and wide, thick in the shoulders and hips. Unless the light is playing tricks with me, it also appears as if they are made out of, or at least covered in, stone.
"Gruhalesa Rorrhan." One of them speaks and its voice is as deep and rough as two rocks being crushed together.
I'm agog, fascinated. Surface people! With language! Made of stone! This might help explain why they felt so strange to my mana sense. They had a stronger reaction than humans had in the past, which made me think there was no chance they were a sapient race, but clearly they have a bit more of the special stuff in their makeup. Not as much as monsters, who are literally born from the stuff, but hey.
The obvious problem that I have now is, how the heck do I get as far as possible from these giant stone people before they try and hack me apart for my delicious core?