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Chapter 544 – the long walk home

The tunnels are a complete mess. Huge cracks run through the stone and sections are collapsing all over the place. Before we even meet up with the main group, I know what’s taken place. The moment I came under attack, the message was passed to enact the ambush on the Golgari in the other tunnel.

No point allowing the two groups of rock-people to reunite and fight together. Decisive action was called for. I objected to the Colony going to head to head against such a powerful enemy, but the other members of the council assured me that they had another strategy in mind. Which turned out to be collapsing the tunnel on top of the enemies’ heads. Using earth mages and our natural predilection to tunnel digging, the council was able to arrange a fairly broad tunnel collapse in a matter of hours. After the stone came down, the ants moved in to fight whatever they could find, taking advantage of the less than ideal state of their opponents.

The fact that the armoured Golgari, the ‘nobles’, were in the center of the column would have played to our advantage. They should’ve taken the brunt of the fall, and been too far from the front to be in a position to fight the ants when they charged. Somehow, I doubt they died. With their Skills, armour and doubtlessly potent true skin, if anyone was going to survive a tunnel collapse it would be them. All the more reason to get ourselves out of here.

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“Eldest! What a glorious injury you’ve received! I’m jealous…”

“Leeroy, you idiot. You’re looking disappointingly healthy.”

“I was unable to find an enemy during the battle. I wanted to start unearthing the Golgari but the others stopped me.”

Her antennae droop sadly as she talks of saving the lives of our enemies, only so that she could end them in person.

“I’m tired, Leeroy. What did you want?”

“Right! The others were wondering if you wanted to discuss what was going to happen next? It’s a little up in the air, from what I gather.”

Up in the air? Why the heck would it be up in the air? Let’s go home! Irritated, I drag my still regenerating backside around the tunnel until I find the other council members gathered in a huddle.

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“What the heck is going on here?” I demand. “We need to get away from this place and go back to the nest! Why am I hearing about discussions regarding our ‘plans’?”

The others make room for me as I barge forward, my larger frame taking up much of the room. Only the tier four soldiers can rival me for size but even they fall short of my bulk and I loom over the council. When I think about it, my eyes are probably at a similar height level to that of a tall human, my third body segment actually being the ‘tallest’ part of my body. It’s in length that my true mass lies and I’m a fairly chunky ant at this point.

“Obviously the plan is to get back to the nest,” Burke explains patiently, “but we need to do it in such a way that we don’t get followed. At the very least we need to make tracking us as difficult as possible. The more time we can buy for the Colony to grow, the better.”

Actually, that’s a damn good point.

“Doesn’t that just mean we keep going without using pheromones?” I ask.

“Look,” Burke says, exasperated, “doing that isn’t as simple as some of you seem to think. My scouts rely on those trails to move around and ensure that they stay on safe paths! We don’t have mind magic to communicate, and it’s too risky to drag a mage that far away from the main group. Long range scouting is basically impossible without pheromonal communication.”

Ahh. I’m starting to see the problem.

“So that means we need to move slower in order to ensure we don’t take any wrong turns and run into trouble,” I say.

“Right,” Burke agrees, “but we can’t really afford to slow down that much.”

“Not to mention,” breaks in Sloan, “that we still don’t know how they were tracking us once we ceased using our pheromones. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible for us to be certain we can’t be followed.”

“Have either of the prisoners said anything?” I ask.

“Nothing!” declares Leeroy. “They won’t even fight with me!”

“What about the two new Golgari you brought back with you?” Burke asks.

“How do you even know about that already?”

“I have my sources, Eldest.”

“I bet. No, I’m not going to question them on anything that might be considered a betrayal of their own people. To be honest, I’m not even sure why they were sent with us. I’ll have to work that out with them later. For now, let’s put our antennae together and work out a plan.”

The four of us rattle on for twenty minutes without coming to any conclusive path forward. It’s frustrating, but we’re dealing with something unknown, a Skill that we don’t know about, perhaps. In the end, all we can do is try to limit our scent and move as quickly as possible. To that end, it’s agreed that the main group will maintain ‘radio silence’ whilst the scouts roaming ahead would be able to put down a limited number of trails to mark paths. Alongside this, an extensive network of false trials would be laid by splinter groups roving away from the main group before they returned.

“If we slow ourselves down too much worrying about something we don’t understand, we’re only shooting ourselves in the claw,” I tell them.

“Right you are, Eldest.”

“Sounds good!”

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to try and finish healing myself as we start marching.”

They agree that seems like a good idea and I pull away from the group to go find my pets. Predictably they’re hanging out with Corun and Torrina, both of whom seem a little stunned to be where they’ve ended up. As I painfully crawl over, I whip up a mind bridge and extend it to both of them.

[He didn’t tell you what he was going to do, did he?]

Torrina starts when my mind touches hers and turns her head to find me amongst the swarming ants.

[No, he didn’t. I kind of had a feeling that something like this might happen though,] she replies.

[You did?!] Corun cries. [You might have said something. I had no idea…]

I’m also a little curious.

[Why did you think he would leave you behind?] I ask. [This is hardly a wonderful place to be for you guys. Your people are about to go to war with mine, for starters.]

Torrina thinks for a moment before she replies, the gleaming metal of her skin shining softly in the dark.

[Do you remember what the Cult of the Worm is all about, Anthony?]

[Finding the twentieth ancient? Or creating the twentieth, more accurately.]

[Right,] she nods, [it’s not unusual for the Cult to appoint a mentor, a steward, to prospects that come under our care, which was done for you. The Cult placed Granin and his triad in charge of you.]

[So?]

I’m struggling to see where this is going.

[So you’re still our responsibility as a candidate monster.]

[This seems a little far to go just to fulfill that responsibility, Torrina. I’m not buying it.]

[We take that a little more seriously than you seem to think we do. But there is more. I think that Granin has come to believe you actually have a chance.]

[WOT?!]

[That makes sense,] Corun muses. [For Granin to stick his neck out like this. To put the two of us in harm’s way? He must really believe in you.]

[Ah, heck.]

So the old man was loopy in the end after all. No way I want something like becoming an ancient. Sounds like way too much work. Not to mention,  I have no idea what’s supposed to happen when twenty of them get together. Something big apparently. I can’t be bothered thinking about this. I’ve got about a week of marching ahead of me.

[Invidia! Get over here and help me fix my butt. We start marching soon.]


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