The pain Granin had been experiencing in his head had only grown more pronounced as they continued to travel toward the Golgari gateway network. Having banned his two fellow triad members from conversing with the specimen, he was forced to take responsibility for all communication onto his own shoulders. This had quickly proven to be both irritating and exasperating. Being dragged, legless, through the expanse and into the tunnels over a period of days wouldn't do anyone's mood any good but Granin was starting to believe that the creature was diverting its frustration into annoying him and trying to provoke Balta at every opportunity.
Like the time the leader had walked behind the monster, a foolish move as it turned out. From seemingly nowhere the creature had unleashed a blast of sticky acid that had etched away the Warrior's True Skin before they'd been able to remove it, an affront that had driven him almost berserk with rage. No matter how many times he warned the monster that antagonizing a powerful and connected individual like Balta was a bad idea it didn't seem to care. After the acid attack came more clacking laughter every time the warrior came near. Balta had attacked the monster twice more, the second time managing to cut through the carapace and draw blood. Not that the creature seemed too perturbed, the injury was healed in minutes.
During this period of observation, Granin took copious notes. His role as a member of the Circle of Shapers and member of the cult meant he was well versed with documenting monster characteristics, not to mention his superiors in the cult would expect a full report of the monster. Initially he'd had some doubts about the capability of the creature, an ant was historically pathetically weak by itself. Terrifying in large numbers, to be sure, but amongst the Dungeon's most unthreatening creatures when battled alone. That this specimen had managed to accrue such strength and powerful evolutions from such a weak base was fascinating. Of course, the reborn monsters, those whose soul had been reborn, either experienced an accelerated start due to their greater than the average monster intelligence, or burned out spectacularly, unable to adjust to their new existence. The cult had found several such creatures over the centuries, not many compared to how many were created by the Dungeon, but they were documented obsessively when they were found. Several had been sponsored by the cult but none had been able to achieve the seat of the final ancient.
Granin didn't hold much hope for this particular specimen, but he was starting to think more of it than he had at first.
[Any chance you remember where your second servant went?]
[You know, I honestly don't remember having a second servant… Me and Tiny, that's the way it's been for a long time.]
[You know I could stop healing your ape friend, how long do you think he would last if that happened?]
[I could kill you, me and everyone here with one spell. Let's play nice, eh? Aren't you trying to cooperate with me? Holy moly, there's no need to get your knickers in a twist. Make sure you heal my ape and bring him along with us and I'll have another reason to go along with what you say. Accept the leverage I'm offering you!]
The blasted creature had a point.
Despite the obvious intelligence, impressive defensive ability and magical prowess, he wasn't sure the monster would be successful in receiving the support of the cult. They'd been cultivating monsters of their own, they had prospects they'd been supporting from the shadows for a long time, it wouldn't be easy to supplant these established prospects.
Although something different was brewing at the cult. The air had felt tense lately, ever since the strangely extended and potent wave had occurred. Granin wasn't close enough to the upper echelons to have an inkling what they were thinking, but something about the atmosphere was growing colder, people were on edge and a flurry of urgent meetings had been arranged. That in and of itself was unusual, the cult was a secret society after all, mobilising the members quickly and quietly wasn't easy.
"Final checks! Shapers to the fore!" Came a loud call.
Granin looked up to see the triads in defensive position around their quarry. The creature was close to motionless as usual, the only sign it was paying any attention was its slowly waving antennae. It had taken five days since the capture of the monster to get to this point, far longer than it would usually take. Forced to drag the creature through the expanse and into the tunnels to get here, it had not been a journey that anyone had enjoyed. He began to suspect that even Balta began to regret his impulsive decision to hack off the monster's legs.
They'd finally made it. Before them stood a seeming dead end, a tunnel that ended in an innocuous wall like a billion other tunnels in the Dungeon.
[This is a gate?]
[Break off this connection, I need to concentrate for this.]
[You're the one who opens it? What kind of magic is this anyway? Spatial?]
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[Be quiet! This is hard!]
[Makes sense, I suppose. Puncturing a hole in space or time or whatever should be difficult.]
[I'm not talking anymore.]
[Oh, right! Gotcha! Good luck stone man.]
Granin, Nium and Laskham gathered together facing the end of the tunnel and raised their hands. He focused hard and reached out to connect his mind to that of his second, Nium. What made this even more difficult was that he wouldn't be able to draw on the assistance of Laksham, since she was occupied concealing the great ape they'd been forced to heal and keep alive in the shadows over the journey. This meant that the two of them would need to work even harder to Shape this working.
Still, Granin was an old hand, under his guidance they reached out to reveal and then activate the runes etched into the tunnel wall. Enchanted monster cores buried into the wall came alive and began to funnel mana from the Dungeon and fuel the Gate.
The runes formed a circle around the edges of the tunnel wall and gradually a pinpoint of pure light appeared in the centre. Here in the second strata, such a thing was blinding and Granin had his eyes firmly closed. He needed to work with his mind, not his eyes.
With the assistance of his second, he reached through the hole with his mind and entered the in between space, a blank world of white that seemed to stretch forever in all directions. He expertly oriented himself and directed his thoughts toward the direction he needed and honed in on the mind reaching back toward him.
Like people clasping hands they locked onto each other and began to solidify the link, forming a bridge of pure mana between the two gates.
"The gate will open in five seconds," he ground out, "we'll hold it for twenty, no more than that."
Balta nodded. This was Shaper business and he had no place sticking his nose into it, not that any warrior would lower themselves to do so.
"Grab the ropes and haul!" He commanded and the hunting party leapt to follow his order, hauling the monster toward the gate, picking up speed as the tiny circle of light widened to occupy the entire circle within the runes.
The light was blinding and the monster struggled weakly as they dragged it forward, unable to protect its eyes. Fortunately it didn't last long. In just a few seconds the warriors had dragged it through and vanished into the light, they would appear instantly on the other side.
All that was left were the three shapers and their hidden guest.
"Are you ready, Laksham"
A terse nod was all Granin got to acknowledge his words and he nodded back. Seconds later she was gone, followed by Nium. The final remaining Shaper, Granin grit his teeth as he held the gate without Nium assisting him and walked forward slowly so as not to break concentration. The moment he stepped through the gate melted behind him, as if he had thrown himself from a cliff that had collapsed the instant his feet left the ground he felt a rush of adrenaline as the pathway began to collapse behind him. For a dizzying second he felt as if he might be lost in the between space but then he was through and sucking in a deep breath to calm his pounding heart.
"We made it home."
The monster watched him with glittering eyes, it's thoughts inscrutable. As the members of the delve stretched and began to relax, their attention was seized by a strange popping sound. Turning toward the creature they saw that its legs were regenerating at a visible rate. In only a few minutes it was able to stand on its own.
After a single snap of the mandibles, it sat back down again.