For the time being Tiny and I resist the temptation to try eating this strange tree creature. After a few minutes of tickling I back away a few steps, making it clear that tickle-time is over and I wait to see how the creature will respond.
After wiggling about on the ground for a moment, then giving me the puppy dog eyes for a little while longer, the strange branch monster eventually stands up. Now that it's standing on its own two feet I can get a better look at it.
This thing is skinny! Rather than a walking tree it puts me more in the mind of a stick insect. The body is more of a branch than a trunk and four humanoid like limbs extend organically, with little sign of joints. The monster doesn't have a head of any kind really, the face peeks out from the top of the torso, the wrinkles and grooves in the wood giving rise to surprisingly expressive features.
Tiny is radiating disappointment as he gets a closer look at the monster. I think he's sad at how thin the monster is, it isn't likely he'd be able to get much of a feed from it.
Blissfully ignorant of being weighed for Biomass the …. Branchie? The Branchie looks at the two of us with eyes twinkling deep in that weathered face before gesturing for the two of us to follow and walking briskly off into the forest.
I hesitate for a moment before I decide to follow. I've not seen anything in this forest that is a match for Tiny and myself at this stage, we should be fairly safe. Besides, I want to learn a little more about this walking wood stick if I can, it seems relatively harmless and is the only creature other than Formo that hasn't reacted with hostility upon seeing me.
So I follow along with Tiny trundling in my wake. It isn't long before we have to speed up though. The Branchie is fast! Despite being shorter than Tiny, so skinny a stiff breeze could knock it down and not having knees, the Branchie really motors along!
Could it be the lack of air resistance?
Whatever the reason Tiny and I have to quickly raise our pace and in the end we have to sprint along behind the Branchie for ten solid minutes before it finally stops when we reach a beautiful section of forest.
A small pond in the center sits perfectly still, ringed with spectacularly old looking trees. The air is so still here, as if nothing has drawn breath in this spot for a hundred years.
The Branchie smiles at us, the folds and twists of the wood curving to create the expression, before walking towards one of the trees and just, blending into it. I almost can't believe my eyes, one second the Branchie was there, walking, and the next it was just … gone!
I can still detect it with my heat sensitive antennae though. As I wave my antennae about this section of forest I actually detect a few more signals from the nearby trees. Curious, I wind my way around the pond and I find more than twenty responses from the trees in the area. It looks like the Branchie brought us back to its community!
It doesn't appear as if they want to come out and greet us though. I get the feeling these are particularly shy monsters, hiding from their enemies by using their impressive tree melding skills.
There must be something special about this spot for these tree creatures to make their homes here. My attention turns back to the pond. Do I detect a faintly familiar shimmer to this water?
Out of curiosity I flip on my mana sensing and sure enough the pond lights up with a faint response. The water is infused with mana! Nostalgia comes flooding back as I recall the pond in the first chamber I'd entered after being reborn.
By drinking that water I'd taken the mana into my body which had expedited the formation of my core. This water probably has similar properties, the Branchies must have formed their community here due to the mana in this water.
Or perhaps they were formed from the trees here?! The trees drinking in this water with their roots may have been what created these tree creatures in the first place?
In the end it all comes back to mana. This mysterious energy that can be turned into almost anything, has a seemingly unlimited supply and can even create life itself! I can't help but feel that somewhere deep in the Dungeon the source of this energy resides. I have no evidence for that but it just seems right. I mean, it has to come from somewhere!
It has to come from somewhere…. Right?
So how did it get into this pool?
With a thought tingling in my mind I retreat from the pool about thirty metres, Tiny trailing curiously behind me. Once I've created enough distance I start to dig! Furiously ripping into the dirt with my mandibles I make rapid progress.
Before too long I've managed to tunnel down ten metres, slightly angled towards the pond. Gasping for breath after my exertions I activate my mana sense and eagerly look towards the pond.
And there it is. Under the pond there is a thin tendril of mana that reaches up right towards the bottom of that pond.
It's the Dungeon!
It's extremely thin, just a tiny little thread, but it's enough to bleed mana out of the Dungeon and up into the waters of this pond. If I were to dig down further I would definitely be able to connect a small tunnel to the Dungeon and begin farming xp and Biomass!
This is excellent news! I'll have to thank those Branchies somehow, they've saved me a lot of effort!
This will also give me a place I can recharge my mana which will allow me to more rapidly develop my magic skills. Everything is coming up Anthony!
Not willing to wait a second I throw myself into my digging efforts, burrowing deep under the pond to try and avoid the saturated water I try to connect myself to that tiny thread of mana. As I dig down I can see it more and more clearly, extending deep into the ground.
All it all it takes a few hours for me to dig my way down to that thin tendril of Dungeon but when I do it is a glorious sight to behold.
The bright glow of mana shines in my eyes once more, the mana veins have wound their way up even in this space. To be honest I may have saved the Branchies and perhaps even the humans with this effort of mine. It may have been possible that the mana veins would expand upwards and connect directly to the pool, it may have even been possible that they would start spawning monsters directly on the surface!
As it is I'm delighted to see those mana veins start to extend out into my new tunnel slowly.
I'm assuming monsters didn't spawn in that thin crack since there wasn't enough space for them, as the veins extend deep into my tunnel the monster spawning will soon follow!
Elated in the extreme I bring Tiny down my cramped little tunnel to help me dig and expand it out in preparation for the monster spawning.
After several more hours work we dug out a relatively open chamber with a more narrow opening that stands fairly high above the floor, hopefully preventing any monsters from escaping up the surface, except for those that spawn in the surface tunnel once the veins have extended that far but I want to limit the surface exposure as much as possible.
After digging out this huge space I'm pretty knackered. It might be time to head back to the colony and then come back here after a nap to see how things have progressed. With a little luck a lot of effort I should be able to create a nice monster farming network here, giving the colony a healthy shortcut to pump up in size and strength!
The only drawback is that Tiny and myself won't be able to strengthen ourselves much here. The monsters will simply be too low a level to provide enough xp and Biomass for us to gain much.
I shake my head, this is a problem for another time.
For now we head back to the colony where I drain all my mana practicing my shaping, getting myself to level nine before taking a well-earned rest.