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"Let's move. We need to reach the ruins as soon as possible. Ranger Eari, you and two of my men take point. Ranger Verhen, cover our back. Everyone else, if someone tries to sneak away from the group, strike first and ask questions later."
The three soldiers nodded, making the a.s.sistant Professors swallow. None of them had expected their bodyguards to turn into their jailers.
Morok picked up the pace and so did everyone else. Everyone walked in silence, they were too busy watching their steps to waste energy chatting.
Lith was alone with Quylla again and was now worried about another unexpected turn of events. The more they advanced, the fewer creatures he would spot along the corridors until the group was completely alone.
'Whatever Kulah is, it seems that no one dares to come close to it. Let's hope I don't meet my third Lich.' Lith thought.
After more than four hours of walking, the group needed a break. From that moment onwards, only the members of the military were allowed to stand guard, whereas the others had to stay grouped together, making it harder for anyone to escape from their watch.
Aside from moss, nothing grew inside the tunnels, making them all look identical.
As hours turned into days, most members of the expedition started to fall into depression. There was no sunlight, the air was stale and smelly, making it painful to breathe from time to time.
Morok was still able to find his way thanks to the marks he had left while escaping from the Abomination-goblin hybrids, but every time he opened a new pa.s.sage, he could see doubt and mistrust in the eyes of the others.
They were growing afraid that he had lost his way and their lives in the process. The group was so deep inside Mogar that dimensional magic was useless. All places looked the same, so opening a Warp Steps was no longer an option.
Using earth magic with no idea where they were was likely to result in getting stranded or even cause a fatal cave-in.
The impossibility to do anything but walking, sleeping, and eating was a heavy burden for everyone which worsened with each rest they took. The dullness of their routine turned the enthusiasm of the discovery into a bleak, hopeless silence.
More than once one of the a.s.sistants had a claustrophobic attack and needed to e sedated. According to Lith's pocket watch, only four days had pa.s.sed, but to everyone the march seemed to have lasted weeks.
"Here we are. This is where I was forced to stop during my first visit. Now it's all up to you, smarty-pants." Morok said.
The group had reached a huge underground cave of irregular shape which was at least 100 meters (330 feet) wide with a ceiling about 20 meters (66 feet) high. Once again, Lith could see that aside from moss, there was no life form dwelling in the vicinities.
The floor was too regular to not be man made and several corridors departed from the cave. Each one of them had been clearly realized with earth magic and was wide enough to allow a huge carriage to easily pa.s.s.
"Where do they lead?" Lith asked.
"I don't know. I had no time to play explorer, my priority was survival. The moment we were cleared to leave, we took the same path back to the surface. It was the safest route." Morok replied.
"As you have probably noticed, there's not much to eat down here, so any predator that gets stranded will welcome our arrival as if we're a free meal ready for the taking.
"We can't close the pa.s.sages without running out of fresh air but we can't leave them like this."
The two Rangers started to put tripwires and alarms along the corridors while the Professors studied the structure at the end of the cave. There was a huge door there, so perfectly crafted that it would have been invisible if not for the moss that over the years had grown inside its small crevices, outlining its shape.
It was a double door made of rock, so high that it almost reached the ceiling and so wide that three carriages could easily pa.s.s together through it. The problem was that there was no sign of its activation mechanism.
Soon the cave was filled with light and noise as everyone did his best to find a solution to the conundrum in front of them. The array detection spells perceived several magical formations protecting both the door and the wall, making them immune to earth magic.
"How the heck can those things still work? Aren't arrays supposed to fade without maintenance?" One of the a.s.sistants asked.
"There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon, but your clearance level is too low to learn about any of them. So shut up and help us open this d.a.m.n door." Gaakhu replied.
Lith only needed a glance to learn the answer to that question. Just like most of the lost cities, whatever was behind the door had been built above a mana geyser. The arrays could draw their sustenance from it and unless an event of catastrophic proportions happened, they would last until someone turned them off.
Lith and Solus consulted all their Warden books, but the design of the arrays was unknown. The only thing they were certain of, was that they were powerful and that they would react badly if someone tried to forcefully open the door.
'There are several points in the wall where the word energy has been acc.u.mulated and compressed. It can't have any other purpose than to act as a defense mechanism in case of attack.' Lith thought.
To Morok Yondra asked:
"Do you have any suggestions on how to open the door?"
"No. During my first visit, my main worry was not dying of starvation and fortifying the place." He pointed at the south wall, where a few small buildings had been created with earth magic.
The ground in the vicinities was full of holes big and deep enough that moving recklessly would likely result in a sprain or worse, depending on how badly one would fall.
"What about you?" Phloria asked. Now that she was aware of Lith's Life Vision, she could expect one of his usual 'miracles'.
"None." He used Hush to avoid being heard. The cave was so full of echoes that even a whisper would be carried around, making it noticeable.
"The design of the arrays is too complex to understand something on a first glance. I need to study them carefully and then I'll let you know."
"Are you saying you can see arrays too?" Phloria was flabbergasted.
"As clearly as I can see you. Unlike people, they are entirely made of mana, so it's much easier to notice their details. Be careful with the door, I think it's surrounded by magical traps."
The situation made no sense to Lith. He knew thanks to Life Vision that no one was around, yet Morok had told him how they had met so many monsters during their stay to be forced to fortify the place and even resort to eating them.
'The question is: did it happen out of pure bad luck, was it some kind of automatic defense mechanism like the arrays, or did someone send the monsters to kill them?' Lith thought.
'I guess it's only a matter of time before we learn the answer.' Solus replied.