The gate emerged into a dark tunnel, the tell-tale black veins of mana threaded through the walls signalled that they remained in the second strata, but Granin knew they have travelled a great distance. Over a hundred kilometres in fact. The delving party were now firmly within the territory claimed by Galgarin the empire to the east of Liria, beyond the great lake. They stood in a near empty tunnel, almost identical to that which they had left on the other side, with the exception of a small outpost that hosted a team of Shapers on rotating duty. Having connected the gate, the triad of Shapers responsible for this side of the gate nodded politely to the delving team, curiously eyed the enormous ant they had dragged through with them before retreating behind the outpost door to rest.
Granin heaved out a breath as he let the terrible feeling of being the last through the gate to leech out of him.
Balta was having none of it.
"Let us be away. I want to arrive with the beast at the warrior's circle to turn in the request and retire. Let's move!"
After snapping out his orders, the prideful warrior turned and began to march away, leaving the others scrambling to follow his wishes and seized the ropes attached to the netting to drag the monster away. Granin sputtered for a moment in shock before he threw off his lethargy and raised his voice.
"Warrior Balta! The request does not require us to return the creature to the Warrior's circle but to the Shaper's outpost beyond the city!"
The moment he heard the older Golgarin speak, Balta turned on his heel and strode back toward the Shaper. The moment he was close enough he slammed his fist into Granin's stomach, his fist grinding into the hard granite skin. Instantly overwhelmed by the warrior's strength, Granin collapsed to his knees gasping for breath. Balta looked down on him dispassionately, shaking his fist.
"Do not gainsay my orders in the field, Shaper. Thanks to your wretched circle, the city is still an hour's march from the gate, which means I still have complete authority over this delve. If you seek to countermand my orders one more time, I'll have you put to death for insubordination. Do you understand me?"
Mind racing, Granin tried to understand what was happening as he coughed and tried to catch his breath on his hands and knees. To one side, Nium knelt beside him and placed a hand on his back in concern. What was Batla up to? He was within his rights to flex his authority here, he was technically correct to state that they were still in the field and that he still held absolute command over the delve. But why bother? The request required them to return the monster to the Shapers outpost. Why would he want to drag it all the way to the Warrior's circle? When he attempted to hand in the request, he would be refused and have to turn around and take the monster back out of the city and to the outpost as was required.
As Balta turned to march away, Granin saw him glance toward the monster and his heart dropped in his chest. This idiot warrior. He wanted revenge. In the Warrior's circle the Shapers would have no allies, no one they could depend upon to help. Balta would have a number of ways he could delay them long enough for his clan to "invite" the warriors to rest at their compound, naturally taking the monster with them. Once it was there, it would never emerge and they would say an accident occurred, pay reparations to the Shapers and forget about it. If Granin tried to object inside the city, then he would be "invited" as well, along with his triad and they would share the fate of the creature.
The warriors hefted their ropes and began to drag the monster after the swiftly marching Balta but the moment the ropes became taut they jerked to a halt. They looked back confused, only to see the monster had dug in with its regrown legs and was refusing to move. The warriors shared a confused look before they redoubled their effort, only to see the monster working even harder to resist, using its considerable size and strength to resist the pull. Eight Golgari warriors then began to engage in a ridiculous game of tug of war with a massive insect. The warriors were powerful, filled with the strength the Golgari were famous for and although it was slow, they began to make progress.
The ant unleashed an irritated clack of its mandibles and decided to change the playing field. The ground shifted and dirt began to fly as it employed Earth magic to dig itself into a hole in a matter of seconds, causing the warriors to curse under their breath. Balta continued to march away, confident that his arrangements would be followed and ignorant of the growing mess getting further and further behind him.
If the monster could hold out against the warriors, then Granin had a chance of completing his task yet. He turned to Laksham who was clearly straining to maintain the glamour she had cast over the ape monster.
"You won't be able to hold on for much longer Laksham. Run toward the outpost and try to reach the circle there. If we can get enough people here then we can take the monster there ourselves. Go!"
Quick on the uptake, she understood what the older Shaper was trying to say and turned to run immediately. Still on the ground, Granin forced his tired mind to weave the threads of mana required to connect his mind to the monster's.
[You need to tell your ape to go with Laksham and cooperate.]
[What the heck is going on here stone face? The silver guy is being more of a douche bag than usual!]
[I told you provoking him would have consequences! He's trying to get you taken to the Warrior's circle so he can have you killed off! You need to hold out until we can bring more of my people here to take custody of you!]
[Alright, fine. Sure I can't kill him?]
[If you kill him there's no saving you from the vengeance that will come!]
[Okay, okay. Sheesh. I'll turtle up here.]
"Nium," Granin whispered to his second, "Go after Laksham and help keep her safe, then return with the Shapers. Once Balta comes back, we'll have to follow orders or he'll cut us down. Better there were only one shaper here than two."
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"Are you sure you're alright?"
"I'll be fine! Get out of here!"
The younger Golgari took off like a shot and by the time Balta finally realised nobody was following him and returned, both he and Laksham were out of sight. Eyes filled with rage, it was clear the leader knew what had happened. He couldn't delay any longer, if the monster wasn't going to cooperate, that was all the excuse he needed.
"The creature is attempting to fight back! Destroy it! Shaper Granin, invade the creature's mind and annihilate it! This is an order!"
"Without the support of my triad it will be impossible, warrior Balta!" Granin tried to demur.
"If isn't done in five minutes I'll declare you a traitor and put you down myself!"
Coriinam Balta was in frothing rage at this point. His eight foot frame quivered with anger and his sword leapt from its scabbard, flashing sword light toward the monster before he had even finished speaking.
[This guy has serious anger issues.]
The creature sounded wryly amused as the blows began to rain down on it, even cutting through the defensive layer of dirt it had created. The other warriors quickly joined in, surrounding the creature from all sides and hacking at it with abandon.
[If I don't incapacitate you in five minutes he's going to kill me too. He's lost it!]
[You really are a pain in my thorax, you know that? You could have just left me chilling in the expanse. Would that have been such a bad thing? But oh no, had to capture me and drag me back to you stupid cult. Why would I even want to be an ancient?! I was happy back with my colony. Should have stuck with them, then I wouldn't be in this mess.]
[You'd really want to live with a collective of mindless monsters?]
[Mindless? Well … yes, mindless. But they didn't kidnap me and get me jumped by a pack of stone skinned sword maniacs!]
[I take your point, but how are we going to get out here?!]
The warriors continued to pour strikes onto the hardened carapace of the monster as sparks flew everywhere. At this range it was difficult for the warriors to inflict real damage, especially since the monster was wily, never giving them a good angle or allowing them to close the distance. The creature defended itself as best it could without fighting back, shifting its body to deflect blows and trying to disrupt the footing of the enemy by shifting the earth beneath their feet, but it was being worn down.
[Only one thing for it I suppose!]
That was all the warning Granin got before the ant exploded out from its hiding hole with extreme speed, rushing toward him and snatching him up in its mandibles. Bolts of purple mana flew out from the creature to strike against the warriors repeatedly, one bolt every few seconds. Granin strangled a cry in his throat as he saw the monster fight back, but it didn't seem as if they suffered any damage from the magic.
[I'm just slowing them down. Although….]
POW! POW! POW!
Acid flew from the creatures bulbous backside and coated Balta from head to toe as he readied another strike against the monster. Then they were off, speeding down the tunnel as bolts of magic continued to fly back at their pursuing warriors.
[So which way to the cult?] the bright, positive voice of the monster rang inside Granin's head.
Dangling from the jaws of this giant ant, he could only think that his headache had grown significantly worse.