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Chapter 557 What“s going on up here?
The council meeting was cut brutally short, the revelation of a possible city underground, so close to where the Colony is operating, warranted immediate investigation. If an enormous pile of Golgari pop out of a city, right on our doorstep, our home ground advantage will go for nothing. Not to mention they could flank us horrifically. I also need to be wary of the possible reinforcements that they call in. We need to move fast, uncomfortably fast.
To this end, I hurry to gather up my entourage for this whirlwind trip to the surface. I pick up Torrina and Corun before gathering my pets. Rather than bring them with me, I decide to send them in support of the scouting efforts. They’ll be more useful there. If something does end up going south, they’ll be able to help the ants escape with lives. There’s only one problem with this plan.
[Nooooooo, I won’t leave you, Master!]
[Crinis! I’m only going to the surface, I’ll be back in less than a day! Will you get off me!?]
[Don’t make me order you!]
[Don’t do it, Master! You’ll get sucked through a portal, or challenged by a mega-monster, or slip and fall down a pit and land in the fifth strata, or an ancient will rise from the depths and swallow you, forcing you to live as a parasite in its gullet, or a great confluence of stars will smite you down the moment you set foot out of the tunnels! Take me with you!]
… All of those things sound completely ridiculous, but why is it I can’t seem to say that none of them will happen? I have managed to put my claws in some unlikely, bad situations during my stay on Pangera.
[Alright, fine! You come with me. Tiny and Invidia, you guys go with Sloan to check out this underground city.]
[I shallll peel away their secretssss.]
Crinis nearly cracks my carapace with her grip as she wriggles with joy at my concession. I suppose it does make sense to take a bodyguard with me wherever I go. It’s certainly not likely that I run into trouble on the surface, but I’m starting to become allergic to taking chances. With that done, I depart on a brisk journey upwards to the surface nest. Corun and Torrina do an admirable job keeping up with my monstrous stamina but we do end up having to take a few breaks. It’s during one of these that I notice something strange.
My Vestibule is still ablaze with energy from the plethora of ants that pick their way through the tunnels around me. Scouting, hunting, hatchlings on training expeditions, there’s no shortage of reasons for the Colony to be active in this area. Yet I feel there’s something else, something… slippery. A tiny presence that somehow slips out of my awareness when I’m not paying attention to it. A small cl.u.s.ter of muted lights that seem to hover nearby, fading in and out of existence. Since they turn up in the Vestibule, I have to a.s.sume they’re related to the Colony in some way, but nonetheless, I’m put on edge by their strange elusiveness. For the rest of the journey, I try to identify or see whatever is causing this phenomenon, but I can’t seem to get a grip on them.
Besides that, we reach the surface nest without incident. It’s interesting to be surrounded by so many hatchlings in the tunnels. They’re so tiny! It’s hard to believe I was once so small and weak. I’m almost tall enough for them to crawl beneath me without having to lift myself up! As one would expect, there are more Brood Tenders here than anything else, supervising the pupae and guiding the hatchlings once they’ve emerged. It’s nice to see that a sizeable garrison of more combat-oriented castes still maintain a very visible presence in order to protect the precious future of the Colony. Not to mention the huge number of carvers bustling about, carting materials, and working in the huge forging chambers we pa.s.s.
There’s something weird about watching ants work a smithy…
As we pa.s.s one such chamber, I see a carver, amongst the smallest of all the castes, taking a blinding hot rod of metal out of a circular forge with her bare mandibles, before placing it down on a low built anvil. Moving quickly, she skitters off to one side and triggers a mechanism that brings a heavy weight down from above onto the metal with a resounding clang! Sparks fly and she resets the mechanism, the weight rising slowly as she repositions the metal with her mandibles before triggering it again.
I was wondering how they were hoping to work metal without the capacity to use a hammer… although with another evolution they could probably work to build up the strength in their front arms. They could grip a hammer just fine, but the leg strength isn’t there at tier three.
We rush past all manner of interesting chambers until we breach the surface. I step into the glare of the bright, surface light and immediately feel my core shudder in pain. Here on the surface, the mana concentration takes a ma.s.sive dip and the drain that was already in effect the moment I crossed from the second strata to the first suddenly kicks into overdrive. My days of leisurely wandering about up here are long gone, my friends. It’s the tunnels for me.
As I did in the past, I reach out with my external mana control and drag every sc.r.a.p of energy I can reach into my core to stave off the drain, but even with my increased Skills, I can’t cover for my loss as effectively as I could before my last evolution. The increased need for mana appears to grow exponentially at each tier. After one more evolution, I won’t even make it half a day on the surface before my core runs dry.
The town has come a long way since we began. Even standing atop the even larger and more heavily defended ant hill, I can see new buildings have arisen, and the beginnings of a town wall going up, ants mixed with the human workers, helping to clear land and shape stones. As I crawl from the hill, I’m a little shocked to see a small open-air building, almost like the tiered seating you’d see in a sports stadium, but much more modest. Every row is filled to capacity with humans wearing strange brown robes, with weird pointy things sticking out the top.
Come to think of it, they kind of look like antennae…
The moment I come within their sight, every single one of them throws their hands in the air and cries out with an ecstatic voice.
“PRAISE THE GREAT ONE! PRAISE HIS SHINYNESS. MAY THE SHADOWS FLEE FROM HIS CARAPACE, AND HIS MANDIBLES PIERCE THE HIDE OF EVIL!”
What in the h.e.l.l…
I try to skirt around and avoid them, but the moment I try, they leap from the platforms and rush to greet me. Just when I think I’m going to be buried under a pile of human bodies, they stop and form a loose circle around me, with their hands clasped in front of their chests, facing outwards. When I move, they move with me, forming a living barrier of devoutness that goes where I go. When I pick up the pace, they try and run with me, but it’s clear that they can’t all keep up. I sigh and slow down, allowing them to do what they want…
This feels really weird.
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