The second strata has for centuries been known as the place in which true danger begins. The first is considered the realm of the mercenary, the opportunist. Any party with a modicum of organisation and training should be able to eke out a living there. Farming for the smallest of cores and the petty materials that form at such low levels of concentration.
No, the real promise and opportunity of the Dungeon lies below. Where the mana grows thick, and takes on attributes as it is exuded into the air. The second strata, the shadow realm, is the first such challenge. It should not be assumed that only shadow mana can be found here, but it is for sure the thickest. There are other insidious and dark forces at work here. Undead, terrible lightless and cold creatures abound in this layer, making it far more dangerous than the first. But the rewards are commensurately great.
The Dungeon is always fair. Greater risk means greater reward. Cores are more abundant there, not to mention the incredible wealth of attributed minerals and materials. The armour of the Undying Phalanx of Rillex was crafted from metals mined in this layer, the powerful death mana sustained those men beyond what their bodies could endure. Such are the rewards of the deeper delves.
[A shame you couldn't stay longer, old chap! It's been wonderful to make your acquaintance a bit better this time.]
[Likewise, Formo! Your people have been remarkably hospitable. I have only positive things to say! Except for maybe the noise…]
[That's it, right there.]
[I suppose you are right. We hardly notice it, you know. Until you pointed it out, I hadn't even considered how we sound to others.]
[Well, how often do you meet other people? I can't imagine you get many visitors down here.]
[Hardly any! Since we were classified as monsters, we get hunted by a lot of opportunistic nincompoops. Those tend to get fed to the worms. There are a few groups still willing to trade with us, but they tend to be considered a little unsavoury by upstairs standards.]
[IGNORANCE!] I shout.
[QUITE SO!] Formo agrees. [Nevertheless, we persevere. Good luck on your journey, young Anthony. I wish the best for your colony.]
[Any chance I could bring some of my core shapers here to learn from you?]
[HO HO! HA! No.]
[Worth a try.]
[No it wasn't. Your kin are more than welcome to come and trade with us, but we don't share all of our secrets so easily.]
[Didn't seem so shy when you were teaching me…]
[We didn't show you nearly everything, boy!]
[Fine, fine. All the best Formo.]
[Farewell, young Anthony.]
Only Formo came to see me off, which is fine. I gather that these sorts of farewells are not a big thing amongst the Sophos. I've had a good time staying here, and I've learned a ton, but it's time to move on. Some might say I've been shirking my duty to the colony, and we can't have that!
Standing in the tunnel somewhere outside the Sophos village, I wave to Formo with one antenna. Naturally they wouldn't see me off from the village, oh no, they had to darken our minds before hauling us out on a worm. At least they were polite this time and didn't knock us out immediately, they asked politely, which is something.
Formo raises one scrawny, shrivelled arm to wave back before he mounts his enormous worm and turns around, moving back down the tunnel.
[Alright then gang. Time to go deeper!]
Tiny matches his mental communication with a rowdy bellow. He's ready to unleash his rage upon more powerful monsters and harvest that rich, succulent xp! And I can't say I blame him. I'm ready for a more serious challenge as well. With Crinis on my back and Tiny thumping the ground by my side with his meaty fists, we set our sights on a new destination.
Using my Tunnel Map, we angle back towards the colony, but with a new twist: we're going down. As the tunnels start to slope downward I can feel excitement building in my heart and relief building in my core. Every metre down thickens the mana in the atmosphere and eases the burden on my newly densified core. My body is thirsty for mana now, I can feel it. Even using my sub-brains to drag the nearby energy into my core is barely enough to sate my appetite. The second strata is calling to me and I'm happy to answer.
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Not to mention all of the goodies the Sophos told me about down there. Enriched materials, stronger monster cores are compelling arguments. When we eventually return to the colony, it'll be with a mighty haul of riches, I've no doubt. Before then, we need to amass cores to reinforce ourselves and experience to improve our levels and skills.
We proceed with caution through the Dungeon. The after effects of the wave are still being felt here in the form of monsters who were spawned in the height of the wave or made their way up and are now surrounded by monsters who aren't their match. Most of what we encounter are just the usual first strata dross, not nearly able to match up to us, but every now and again we come across a nasty shadow creature or evolved beast which means we need to progress carefully.
I let Tiny and Crinis fight for the most part, both of them need more experience than I do, but I take more than my fair share of the Biomass. I need a heck of a lot of the stuff now, post evolution and I'm going to make sure I max everything before I evolve again.
It takes days for us to shift our away across since we move laterally more than we do vertically, but soon enough we come to a place where the narrow, craggy tunnel opens up to a wide, wide passage before us. Immediately I can smell a change in the mana in the air. We're close!