It takes a few days, but we finally make it down here. The remnants of the wave are still visible in mana levels and spawn rates that are higher than they otherwise would be, but the never ending streams of monsters bursting from the walls of the tunnels are no longer to be found, which is nice. To be honest though, the spawn rates and mana levels have never really returned to what they were when I was born. If I had to hazard a guess, after the first wave, the mana level never dropped back down to what it would normally be, and this time is likely to be the same.
Are we going to experience a series of waves that will push the mana level higher each time? Is that a normal sort of thing? Somehow I doubt it. Whatever is going on doesn't appear to be what would be considered part of the 'normal' cycle of mana in the Dungeon. I can't decide if this is going to be a good thing or not. The higher spawn rates and frequent waves are only going to push the Colony forward at an accelerated rate, so long as we remain strong enough to protect ourselves.
[You guys ready for this?] I ask my gathered friends.
[Ready, Master!] Crinis assures me.
[I am alwayssss ready to take!]
[Seems good. Let's see what we can see then.]
"Wait a minute! Wait for me!"
I turn around impatiently.
"Come on, Brilliant! What the heck have you been doing back there?"
"Still?! How slow are you?!"
"I'm only a few days old! Unlike an ancient ant like you!"
"Whoa now, don't call me an ancient," I glance around shiftily, "that word has different connotations around here."
"What do you mean?" she asks whilst trying to stop herself from flopping onto the ground in exhaustion.
"I'll explain it to you later, but yes, I get your point, I am very old compared to you. We'll take a quick break."
[Quick break everyone.]
Tiny slumps over a little in disappointment before taking up his now accustomed rest position near Brilliant, making sure the little thing remains protected as she gathers herself.
"Come on, I brought you all the way down to the third strata! You're going to be the second ant in the Colony who gets to see this. Aren't you excited? Pumped up!?"
"I am…. I'm just…. So tired."
"Crinis worked you pretty hard huh."
Defence training basically consisted of Crinis chasing Brilliant around and whacking her with tentacles, helping to train the Exo-Skeleton defence Skill through repeated impacts whilst making the young ant Dash to avoid getting entangled in a constricting mess. When she failed to Dash in time to avoid her clutches, Crinis made sure she regretted it. The things we need to do in order to raise our young to be strong in this cruel world! It's almost enough to bring a tear to my eye!
"On the plus side, your Skills have come along nicely! It's time for you to start working on what you really wanted to be doing, mana manipulation! You've bought the Skill yet?"
"I have," a little energy comes back into her eyes, "I have bought it, along with mana sight."
"Excellent. These are going to be your fundamentals of magic. I want you to use them as much as you possibly can until your headache gets too bad. When that happens, let me know. You need to keep your wits about you where we're going and I don't want you to get careless."
Just because she has the very basics of self-preservation abilities doesn't mean she'll be able to get away from anything down here. The Demons mean business.
"Is there anything you can tell me about the third stratum? So that I can be forewarned?" she asks, quite reasonably.
"Nope," I cheerfully reply, "at least, not much that I've been able to confirm with my own eyes. In terms of things that I've been told about it, there's rather a lot, not that much of it will be useful to you. In essence, the third stratum is the realm of demons, if there are any other types of monster here, I've not heard of them or seen them. The primary elements are fire and ash, although apparently there are other variants as you get deeper. The whole place is very open, almost the entire thing is considered to be one vast expanse with small offshoot tunnels in the floor and in the side of cliffs. Lastly, the key feature is the pillars that connect the ceiling to the floor. Kilometres high, they are made from an apparently unbreakable stone. The higher tier demons form societies and cities attached to the side or around these formations, one of which sits beneath us right now."
"A whole city of high tier demons?!"
"Yep. I'm not suggesting that we go and pay a visit, but I'd like to get a bit closer and lay eyes on the place. Now, let's get going!"
Impatient with all the delays, I urge Brilliant forward along with my pets and we make our way deeper, to the threshold between the strata. Just like the first time, the shadows, darkness and stench of death boil away as we descend, replaced by the searing heat and burning air of the third stratum.
[How are you holding up Crinis?]
[I-it's better than it was before, but it still feels very uncomfortable.]
[I'm sure you'll be able to manage. Let me know if it gets too bad. We don't need to be here for a long time.]
[I will, Master.]
The tunnel connecting to the vast open space that lies below isn't very long, and we soon find ourselves greeted with a familiar sight. The bridge to the top of the pillar. On either side, the drop falls sharply away, the air filled with ash and fire, I can't see the bottom very well at all this time, but I can still see the pillar as it descends to the floor.
"This… is quite something," Brilliant's scent is almost disbelieving.
"It's different all right."
Nothing to stop us this time, I lead the way, walking forward along the bridge until we stand at the point the pillar connects to the roof above. It's a fearsome sight, thinking that this stone holds the weight of billions of tons. The Colony, the stone, the dirt, the town of Renewal and everyone in it, all of it sits atop this pillar. It's… insane. How the heck is it so strong?! Another mystery of the Dungeon. Far below, I can see the plate with the demon city resting atop it. The haze in the air is so thick I almost can't make it out, but it's there for sure.
Breathing deep, I extend one leg onto the surface of the pillar, making sure to grip tightly with my claw. Confident of my hold, I reach out with another leg and grip tight, repeating the process until I find myself vertical, the full weight of my massive body concentrated in my claws. It's a strain for sure, but I can take it! I seriously need to train Grip some more…