Chapter 28: The Underground Kingdom
Kim Joo-won glided past him. In such close proximity to the scene, his face had turned pale.
“Focus, prepare to land!” Zhou Yu’s shout brought him back to his senses.
The three of them descended from high altitude, getting further away from the lake where the aquatic dragons were and gradually losing sight of them.
They landed on a tree. Zhou Yu looked down to check the conditions below before hitting the ground. Wu Yun followed behind him and they stood back to back with their guns out.
The only rookie on their team, Kim Joo-won, also landed. He immediately came to where Zhou Yu and Wu Yun were to create a triangular formation.
Wu Yun glanced at the locator on his wrist. All the researchers had a tracking device around their ankles that could send signals to the locator to determine their location when they were out on assignments.
The locator showed that the two researchers were close by.
Wu Yun made a hand gesture. The newcomer held up his gun and followed Wu Yun. Zhou Yu maintained a position that kept his back towards them, defending their rear.
Before them lay a forest of ancient trees. Their gnarled and twisted roots had grown out above the soil.
Wu Yun stopped. The rookie beside him was about to continue walking, but was stopped by Wu Yun.
“Careful, that’s not an ordinary tree.”
Plants without a consciousness were classified as E rank organisms, which was the safest category.
Kim Joo-won looked to the side and saw that within the twisted roots of the tree, there was the impaled body of a researcher that had been absorbed inside. He had become nutrition for that tree.
“My God…” Kim Joo-won wore an expression of astonishment.
It was no longer the first time that Zhou Yu had been in such a situation. Last time, when he had been in the primitive forest with Mo Ye, he also saw a vine that attracted prey using the sweetness of its fruit, then wrapped around them to absorb their nutrients.
His body did not tremble at all.
“How… Do we rescue him?”
Wu Yun shook his head, “It's too late for him… He can't be saved…”
The researcher seemed to hear the sound of their conversation and he opened his eyes slightly. His eyes were full of hope and his lips opened and closed.
“What is he saying?” Kim Joo-won asked.
“He’s saying, ‘Please kill me’,” Wu Yun answered.
He was under excruciating pain. Every minute and every second of being alive was torture.
When Wu Yun raised his gun, no one stopped him. However, instead of shooting the researcher, he aimed at the tree.
With a bang, the bullet sank into its trunk and the neurotoxin began to spread inside of it. The tree quickly withered, split open in the middle, and fell with a rumble.
Zhou Yu took a step to the side just as the tree fell beside him.
Wu Yun came to the destroyed root of the tree. The painful expression of the researcher gradually became peaceful as the neurotoxins dispersed in his bloodstream.
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The meaning behind 'finished' was whether the researcher had died. In this world, death was sometimes a form of release.
“Yeah,” Wu Yun nodded.
As he walked toward Zhou Yu, he checked the locator on his wrist and said, “The other researcher probably won't be any better off.”
Suddenly, Zhou Yu pulled the trigger of his gun, the bullet whipping past Wu Yun’s shoulder. Wu Yun quickly dodged. The rookie also starting shooting, the sound of their gunfire was particularly loud in the deathly still of the primitive forest.
Wu Yun turned back and saw the dead researcher shakily stand up. His gaze was unfocused and his eyeballs were completely white. The limbs that had been broken by the tree roots were hanging limp, and each step he took brought him closer to Wu Yun.
"What's happening? The bullets aren't killing him!"
Kim Joo-won retreated step by step, he had used up all his bullets.
The researcher came up to him and opened his mouth to bite him. There seemed to be a mass of roots from a plant inside of his mouth.
Zhou Yu quickly drew out a dagger from his side and threw it out, striking it squarely into its head.
Kim Joo-won had never seen anything like this before, "This… is a corpse?"
Wu Yun yanked him back, "Not a corpse… He had already been infested with parasites before he got captured by the roots of the tree."
They looked down and saw that something was stretching out from the earth beneath the researcher's feet.
"We got him, but not the parasite in his body."
Wu Yun aimed at his feet, but before he had time to shoot, something quickly sprouted from the bullet hole in its head, bursting from its skull and speeding into the sky.
Just as those words were said, the mistletoe fell down to the side because there were no trees nearby to climb up.
Zhou Yu did not hesitate to shoot. The mistletoe rapidly withered and decayed.
The rookie let of a breath of relief.
Wu Yun indicated the direction with his chin, “Shall we leave?”
“There’s one more researcher left. If he's alive, then we'll find him, and if he's dead, then we'll find his corpse.” Zhou Yu held up his gun and continued forward.
Along the way, they saw many ancient trees. Those trees seemed peaceful, but Zhou Yu could almost hear them breathing.
At the root of an ancient tree, Zhou Yu saw some tattered scraps of camouflage fabric, which must have been left behind by the guards who had been protecting the two researchers. Those trees were capable of attacking, but at that moment they kept silent, biding their time.
Once Zhou Yu and the rest moved in too deep, they would launch their attack, giving them no chance to escape.
They seemed to be the guardians of this piece of land, steadfastly protecting something.
Zhou Yu looked at Wu Yun and Wu Yun nodded. The three of them took out and put on respirator masks. Wu Yun then took out a grenade-like object and threw it high into the air.
The grenade whined, spewing out a light yellow gas in all directions which rapidly spread through the air.
The trees started to stir, and their roots slowly reached out from the soil, attacking them as if they were on their deathbed.
Zhou Yu and Wu Yun were both calm, but Kim Joo-won was nervous. He was no longer as arrogant as he had been in the beginning. Wu Yun had experience and Zhou Yu possessed the ability to make snap judgments. He had to keep up with them in order to survive.
The effect of nerve anesthetics was strongest in the first ten minutes, and the trees gradually stopped responding. It had been specially formulated by the researchers before Wu Yun started the mission.
It seemed that the people who came here before did not expect such a situation.
In Nibelungen, everyone survived on the experience of others. Those experiences were often exchanged at the cost of lives.
Wu Yun made a 'forward' gesture.
Following the locator, they came to a cave.
“Ha… Do you think he was dragged inside by some dangerous organism, or did he hide in there from them?" Wu Yun raised his eyebrows.
Zhou Yu clicked on his high-powered flashlight to light up the place.
The tunnel was deep enough that the flashlight's beam reached its limit of more than a dozen meters without hitting anything.
“Are we really going in there?” Kim Joo-won looked at Zhou Yu and Wu Yun.
It had only been a few minutes since the attack of the water dragons on the helicopters to the ancient trees that preyed upon living creatures and the mistletoe that grew from human bodies. He hadn't even had the time to catch his breath yet, were they going to walk right into danger again?
“Did Song Zhi say why he sent the researchers here?” Zhou Yu asked. Having reached this point, Zhou Yu felt that it was necessary to clarify what they are facing.
“There’s an A rank organism growing here—Elpis. It has a consciousness and can even think and respond to the external environment. According to the research department’s estimates, there is a fruit of Elpis about to ripen. They were here to obtain that fruit,” Wu Yun answered.
“How many guards were there besides the two researchers?” Zhou Yu asked.
He disliked this kind of ambiguous mission the most.
“Twelve guards,” Wu Yun frowned. “That's not an insignificant number, but not one has made contact with the base. They were probably all overwhelmed by the ancient trees. The ancient tree species we saw just now is the guardian of Elpis. There are two kinds of fruits of Elpis: one is a seed that is carried by organisms that live near Elpis to its surrounding area, then it will grow into the ancient trees that we can see right now when it’s buried in the soil. Their entire lives will be dedicated to defending Elpis from all those who trespass on its domain. Another kind of seed is one which Elpis produces only once in a thousand years to cultivate its descendant. When the young sapling grows up, it will absorb all the nutrients of the old tree and the old tree will wither and die.”
“So they came to obtain that special kind of fruit?” Zhou Yu asked.
“Yes.” Wu Yun looked at the rookie and said, “Hey, you stand guard outside the cave, just in case.”
“Wait a minute. What if those guards come and attack me?”
“Then shoot them,” Wu Yun simply said, “Or are you coming with us?”
Looking into the cave that was completely void of light, Kim Joo-won hesitated for a few seconds before nodding, “Okay, then I’ll stand guard outside.”
Zhou Yu and Wu Yun nodded, then they opened their flashlights and went inside.
“Are you scared?” Wu Yun asked aloud.
“What do you think is in the cave?”
They were still just barely within reach of the sunlight.
“Elpis is inside,” Wu Yun said, “But have you hear of trees that grow in caves?”
“This is Nibelungen, anything is possible.”
When the darkness completely submerged them, Zhou Yu could not even see Wu Yun, who was right beside him.
The road underneath their feet was bumpy and uneven. It was easy to step onto what felt like were masses of roots, making it easy to trip and fall.
Zhou Yu spoke into the darkness, “Before we get close to the center of the cave, can you tell me why you have to complete this mission?”
Wu Yun’s footsteps stopped.
“Isn’t that what we should do? Loyalty to the agency. Juli Corp pays us and we sacrifice our lives. We go get whatever they want to have.” Wu Yun’s tone was chilly in the darkness.
“Is that so? Is there any task that is more important than life? We are now entering a very dangerous situation. In fact, you could have gone back and told Juli Corp that all the researchers and guards were killed by the guardians of Elpis, and that we could not even get close to Elpis. We have only three people whereas the team of twelve guards already failed to complete the task. Even if we aren't able to complete it, Song Zhi can’t blame us for anything. Unless Song Zhi gave you a death command, that for certain reasons, you are compelled to carry out,” Zhou Yu calmly analyzed.
“… I do have a reason I need to complete the mission. I made up the nonsense I said today in the helicopter because I’m not used to telling others what I'm shouldering.”
“Your burden won't become my burden just because you told me about it.”
Wu Yun chuckled, “That’s why I like you, Zhou Yu. You're frank, straightforward, and will occasionally tell some hurtful truths. My wife never messed around with anyone, and on the contrary, we had a good relationship. She was eight months pregnant when she was involved in a car accident and passed away. The doctors saved the child through an emergency cesarean section…. it was a girl. Just as you spare no effort to protect Zhou Qing, my daughter is everything to me. But when she was eight years old, she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, then…"
“Then Juli Corp found you.” Zhou Yu continued walking.
“Zhou Yu, if you find yourself in danger, you don’t have to worry about me, just retreat immediately,” Wu Yun said.
“I won't do meaningless things. If you'll die even if I try my best, then, of course, I wouldn't waste my life on it.”
“… That hurt.” Wu Yun sounded wronged but carried a hint of a smile in his voice.
“You just said that you like my straightforward and occasionally hurtful truths.”
As they walked on, Wu Yun’s locator indicated that the missing researcher was just more than a hundred meters ahead.
“Isn't this cave a little too deep?” Wu Yun muttered.
“Rather than a cave, it seems more like a tunnel to somewhere.”
Just as Wu Yun was about to take another step forward, Zhou Yu held him back, “Careful!”
Aiming his flashlight ahead, Wu Yun found himself in front of a vertically descending pit.
Some loose pebbles fell down into it, their pitter-patters echoing back.
Falling in at this height meant that you weren't human if you didn't die.
“Still going down?” Wu Yun asked for Zhou Yu’s opinion. After all, Zhou Yu could still quit now.
The mission was too dangerous. From a rational point of view, Zhou Yu knew that he should leave now, and also stop Wu Yun.
But there was an inexplicable desire deep in a corner of his mind.
The darkest and most bottomless of places held secrets that were the most worth exploring.
And that secret was itching at Zhou Yu’s heart.
“Let's go down and have a look.” Zhou Yu took out some rope.
Because they had glided down in wingsuits, they didn’t carry much equipment with them.
“If the rope isn't long enough to reach the bottom, then we'll give up the mission and head back.” Wu Yun was clear about why Zhou Yu chose to continue the mission.
Fixing the rope in place, they slowly descended.
Zhou Yu pinned the flashlight onto his shoulder and adjusted its path of light.
As they went downwards, they could see marks on the walls of the cave.
Zhou Yu placed his palm over them. Although he wasn’t knowledgable about geology, he had a feeling that the cave was not naturally formed, as if it had been dug up by something.
When they came to the end of the rope, Zhou Yu shone his flashlight down and found that they had also come to the bottom.
“It was just the right height?” Wu Yun had some doubts.
They subconsciously looked up and found that there was plenty of light coming from where they had descended.
Wu Yun became nervous. There had been nothing there before they came down!
“What kind of organism is that?”
“They're eyes,” Zhou Yu answered, “Do you remember what Elpis relies on to spread its seeds?”
“The research team said that it's a type of small-sized organism.”
“Those organisms are probably it.”
Their eyes glowed blue in the darkness, with a touch of demonic magic and cold melancholy.
“It feels like we fell for their plans. They seemed to have waited until we came down here on purpose…”
As soon as Wu Yun’s spoke, the rope they fixed in place outside the cave came unraveled and dropped down.
“Fuck—” Wu Yun really wanted to take out his gun and invite them to eat his bullets.
“Let’s keep moving.” Zhou Yu retrieved the fallen rope and secured it to his waist.
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“In theory, yes. So what?
“So whether it’s the 'guardians' outside the cave or the small organisms that spread seeds for Elpis, they all bow down to Elpis. Elpis is an organism with a consciousness, so it must be controlling these organisms in some way, right?"
“I’ve heard from the research team that it seems so. That's why we need to be careful. Elpis will probably try to control us in some way." Wu Yun was worried.
The way they proceeded with the mission was too rash, and many things were not clear. However, weren't the researchers using them as experimental mice to probe Elpis in the first place?
“If Elpis ordered those organisms to kill all the humans who invade its territory, what do you think those small organisms would have done back then?”
“… Untie the rope when we were halfway down. Then you and I would have fallen to our deaths.”
“But they waited until we got down here before they untied the rope. Their purpose is not to kill us, but to not give us a chance to go back. Their ruler, Elpis, could be eager to see us.” Zhou Yu’s steps were much calmer.
Wu Yun was stunned for a few seconds. Sometimes he really had to work hard to keep up with Zhou Yu's thought process.
It may seem ridiculous, and it just a guess, but things often turned out in a way that proved he was right.
“I think you and Nibelungen may be linked by fate,” Wu Yun said.
“What fate?” Zhou Yu's flashlight found another hole at the bottom of the cave, which was just high enough for both him and Wu Yun to enter.
The coincidence made Zhou Yu feel that they were not intruders to Elpis, but rather like intentionally invited guests.
“You seem to know how the organisms here think very well.” Wu Yun also found the entrance and made a gesture of 'should we enter?' to Zhou Yu.
Having reached this point, if they were to return the way they came by, then those organisms that were keeping watch at the entrance of the cave would certainly not allow them to leave. They could only brace themselves to keep going.
Wu Yun was about to go forward, but Zhou Yu came to the front first.
Zhou Yu held a pistol in his right hand and held the flashlight on top of the gun with his left while moving forward.
It wasn’t a long road and he could see the pale blue light shining at the entrance of the cave.
Zhou Yu’s expression was serious. If there was any danger, he hoped that Wu Yun would have the time to run.
Wu Yun understood Zhou Yu’s plan, but still softly said, “I'm allowed to die, but you're not.”
Zhou Yu’s fingers slightly tightened. Suddenly, he thought of his vice-captain Chen Chong, the young Zhao Cheng, and all the other faces that were no longer with them.
Over the entire journey, Wu Yun’s position in his heart was now no less than Chen Chong’s.
What he was unable to protect last time, he had to protect this time.
When he reached the opening of the cave, his eyes opened wide with shock at the sight of the open clearing before him.
There was unexpectedly such a vast space underground!
In the middle of this space was an enormous tree growing upwards in a spiral shape. Its branches and leaves covered almost the entire ceiling of the cave. The trunk and branches were translucent, and he could see something akin to blood flowing through veins and arteries, interweaving with each other. Some were more delicate networks like nerves.
Its bottom-most leaves were gigantic. Attached on top of the leaves were light-blue fireflies! Zhou Yu still remembered the researcher's violent death to these seemingly beautiful organisms in the video he saw.
The tree also sprouted some large, white flowers, but unlike those of the deadly organisms whose fragrances were overly seductive, the flowers of Elpis were simple and elegant, with the loftiness of the lily of the valley and the grace of the white magnolia. However, there were swordbone butterflies perched in the centers of those white flowers.
Between the leaves and branches, Zhou Yu could also see a devil vine coiled up like a python.
Devil vines were dangerous to ordinary organisms, and even a thousand-year-old tree entangled in a devil vine would be sucked dry very quickly, but it was clear that Elpis had not been exhausted by it.
Taking in a deep breath, Zhou Yu knew that these dangerous creatures had been raised by Elpis.
They absorbed nutrients from Elpis while protecting it.
“What’s wrong?” Wu Yun saw that Zhou Yu was motionless and went to Zhou Yu’s side to look. He was also stunned by what he saw, “My God, is this an entire underground ecosystem?”
To the side of Elpis was a deep pool of underground water, which quietly ran along the cave wall. The pool was not overflown, indicating that the bottom of the pool led somewhere else. The pool was possibly the source of the water used by Elpis.
Tremors rippled across the water and a young El Niño water dragon leaped out above the surface, startling Wu Yun to subconsciously step back.
If they were to be attacked by the El Nino water dragon in a confined space, then they were dead for sure.
The underground space and the tree in there were both so large that there was no way to estimate how long it had existed for.
This was a monster of a chapter. Please let me know of any mistakes!