Chapter 952 – Don’t You Open That Trapdoor!

Burke skulked with all her Skills working to the fullest, her stealth enhancing mutations humming as she slipped from shadow to shadow, creating patches of darkness where none existed and blending into the rock behind her as her carapace shifted and moulded itself to match the surface she stood on. She was on high alert, every one of her senses strained for the slightest hint of stimuli.

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When a pebble shifted and rolled down the tunnel wall, tumbling over the rocks on its way to rest on the uneven floor, the fine hairs of her antennae vibrated furiously. Despite being drawn to such a height of tension, she didn’t move, but held her position still on the ceiling. She was far from the territory of the Colony, on a deep scouting mission, she could not afford to make any mistakes.

Clinging to the darkness felt unpleasantly spiderish, an insect she despised with all her ant heart, as did being alone. She felt no trails that were not her own in this far away place, unnatural to say the least. Yet even so, she enjoyed these moments, the times when everything rested on her own carapace and nothing else.

Confident that there were no demons in the vicinity, she crept forward a few metres before she drew still, wrapping her stealth around herself once again. She was so close to the goal now, she couldn’t afford to be impatient.

She briefly considered digging herself another resting chamber, a hidden room that she could fall back to and enclose to avoid danger, but decided against it. One look at the walls gave her all the information she needed as to why.

Rivulets of lava streamed all around her, so hot they seared the air itself. Delicate blue flames danced across the surface as the boiling rock flowed ceaselessly from reservoirs of unspeakably dense mana above. She was far too deep now to risk digging anything at all. It was hard enough to find sections of stone solid enough to grasp onto; if she were to try and dig, the odds of everything collapsing on her head was far too high.

What was that? A trembling in the air. Eddies of wind that brushed against the hyper-sensitive hairs on her front legs.

She tensed, locking her muscles in position. She could retreat or attack in a flash, depending on what she saw, but hopefully it wouldn’t be necessary. She could see her target now. Having to fight at this point would be such a pain.

From the darkness opposite emerged a lithe, bladed shape. A demon, high tier. Illuminated by the lava streams, it certainly appeared dangerous, the flames glinting off the absurdly sharp blades that emerged from that dusk dark skin that coated each of the monsters native to this stratum. Hesitant at first, the demon sniffed heavily, sucking in the heat and ash as it tasted the air.

Burke didn’t flinch. Her scent was disguised, just like the rest of her. The demon was only twenty metres away, but it was likely too far for a single dash to reach. Patience was her ally.

Finding nothing amiss, the demon advanced toward the hole in the rock and vanished quickly out of sight. Burke didn’t move. Only after ten minutes had passed did she shift her leg, then froze again as she watched for any response. Finally confident that nothing remained in the area she advanced to the target and began to poke her antennae through a millimetre at a time.

She still sensed nothing and now dared to poke her head in.

What met her gaze was much what she expected. No matter how deep she went, the third stratum remained much the same, the only difference being that what made this layer unique was more evident the further down one travelled. Right now she stood over an entrance into the fourth ‘layer’ that made up the third stratum. The pillar was close, and far below, obscured by burning air and thick clouds of ash that made it almost impossible to see, lay a massive demon city. At least a dozen plates, each larger than what the Colony had conquered at Roklu.

That would take a bit of work to control. And that was putting it mildly.

Thankfully it wasn’t her job to worry about that. All the planning could be comfortably punted to the generals and carvers. She was of one mind with the Eldest when it came to thinking too much. Leave it to those better suited. She would instead focus on the things she could do exceptionally well.

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Stealthy as ever, she emerged through the gap and clung to the ceiling above the sheer drop of a dozen kilometres that spread out beneath her. Once she’d achieved a solid grip she positioned herself carefully and focused her gaze on the distant city, giving some time for her lenses to focus.

Gradually things came into better focus, though it was immensely difficult to see much through the smoke. It was so hot she could swear that the air was on fire. Ants certainly enjoyed the heat more than the cold, but there were limits for everything.

Wait a second… what was she seeing?

That smoke, was it purely a product of the stratum? Or was the city… on fire?

The longer she stared the more confident she became, something was happening down there. An attack? A planned demon war? She didn’t know who controlled the city below, but surely they wouldn’t allow an inter-city conflict to extend to this point?

That was when she saw it.

A demon. Enormous. Like a drawn blade of blood and fire. The moment she saw that towering form its aura washed against her senses, crushing her will and battering her with thoughts of battle and war. Her mandibles strained against the desire to gnash and chomp as she fought for control of herself. Only after a long battle did she manage to regain mastery of her own mind.

What was that?

The city was burning. Whatever that giant demon happened to be, it was clearly attacking the city. With an aura that powerful, it had to be at least tier seven, and it was directly below the territory the Colony sought to claim… this wasn’t good.

She watched carefully as the fight progressed, her gaze frustrated by the frequent gusts that broke her line of sight, but the glimpses she gained were more than enough to chill her heart.

Then she saw the other one.

In a flash, Burke was gone, back up the hole she had emerged from and rushing back to her nearest hiding spot.

One was bad enough, but two? Just what the Colony needed. Another enemy too powerful to deal with.


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