Chapter 191 - Antsy (2)
“No, don’t chew off that part. That’s rude.”
“Yes, I would appreciate it if you don’t eat my p…” Valerius hasn’t ever said a bad word in his life. Even his current state doesn’t allow him to say dirty words any easier than usual. “…penis.”
“Listen to the girl, girl.”
“I’m not a girl, though.”
“What are you then? You’re not a male, because you actually make sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Males don’t make sense. Everyone knows that.” All of the compound-eyed and mandibled heads surrounding Valerius nod in agreement. “So you’re a female, right? Looking for some nonsensical male to pump you full before making your own army of slaves. Well, not today! Because today we have caught you, you fiend.” The heads surrounding him nod along fiercely with each inflammatory accusation.
“Nope. I was just wandering around when I was brought to this Mother thing. She asked me to figure out what’s going on with her missing workers in exchange for a male. I am not interested in finding a male. And even then…” True scorn touches Valerius’ placid face for a bit. “I’d never want one of the defective things she is creating, no matter how polite.”
“Ah, yeah, you go girl! We don’t need no man to pump us full so we can spawn thousands of workers. We're all fierce and independent warriors!” The entire group does some more rounds of patting each other on the back, denouncing men every second they do so.
A suspicion is creeping into the back of his mind as he watches the overgrown insects converse and rally. His eyes are already closed, so it takes him some mental exercising before he figures out how to close his mana sight’s eyes. Instead of using the emotional control techniques taught to him in his younger days, he employs the more base feeling of truly trying to connect to the earth he knows so well, but in reverse. The gorgeous shades of brown and yellow all around him vanish as he puts a mental wall between himself and the concept of earth, plunging him into true darkness again.
Except for a small glowing core at the centre of each and every ant around him.
“Did any of you eat something that fell down from the surface?”
This sudden question causes a wave of clacking mandibles as the chattering group shuts up. “Duh. That the only food around. We can’t get to the farms, and the forage grounds are too busy anyway. What are you, stupid?”
“Could you show me?”
“Sure! Come on girls, to the shafts!”
He keeps himself in check, refusing to laugh at the juvenile joke that’s threatening to shatter his fragile sanity with crude humour. The large ant that was holding him up against the wall with three of her arthropodic legs lets him down and hurries after the large group. Valerius thinks ‘what the hell,’ and follows the group after shrugging his shoulders. He trundles on after the stampede, breaking out in a jog to keep up.
The run to these shafts takes the boisterous group, plus exhausted gardener, an hour. This gives Valerius time to check out what has been going on with his cultivation base. On the side of the gleaming seed inside his gut is a crack. He studies it for a bit, but its utter lack of movement has him checking out the rest of the core after a few minutes of staring at the small break.
On the opposite side of his core, he finds a small sprout. He nearly falls on his face as he stumbles upon the developing little bud. He hurries along after the chattering group of ants, and briefly wonders how the large insects can produce the sounds required for speech. Deciding that navigating the chaotic warren of tunnel combined with his internal examinations are already tasking enough, he decides not to think too hard about that for now.
He studies the sprouting bud with interest as he jumps back and forth a rocky wall. Unlike any other plant he has seen or studied, this sprout has just a single leaf. The earthly cultivator estimates the germination to be a week old, immediately leading him to conclude that passing time has no immediate bearing on his seed’s developments. He tries looking closer, but the fact that he is running after a large group of ants, and is only using his mana sense to navigate, prevents him from observing it calmly. He thinks he manages to catch a glimpse of many more leaves in their early bud forms scattered across the small stem, but he isn’t sure.
The crack on the opposite side of his seed isn’t moving at all, appearing like a small crevice in the smooth surface, not a hint of germination in sight.
Valerius is once again unsure of how much time has passed, but he suspects that he has been running for over an hour by the time he slams into the rearmost ant. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
“Alright, alright,” Valerius mumbles in answer, his mind completely occupied by the awesome sight in front of him. The group of a dozen ants is silently and reverently staring out into the open space. For the first time in what felt like weeks, light enters his eyes. The minuscule pinprick of illumination high up above shines light down upon a massive open space. Valerius looks up into a round cave, at least a kilometre in diameter, and seemingly endlessly high.
“Here is where we found our voices and reason,” intones one of the ants.
“Instead of following the smells, we thought for ourselves,” chants another.
“Trudy died, though,” interrupts the first one.
“Oh yeah, she is super dead. We put her over there,” another ant waves a tarsal limb at a dark pile laying to the side.
“She didn’t want her voice, so it killed her.” Once again, all the bulbous ant heads nod in unison.
“What did you all do with the power?” asks Valerius.
“We kept it, duh.” He isn’t sure, but the ex-mage gets the feeling that ant would have rolled her eyes at him if she had the capability. Instead, she just moves her head in a circle, the light sparkling off of her faceted eyes. For some reason, Valerius has assumed that all the large insects are female by now. He isn’t sure where this certainty comes from, as their voices sound like high pitched gravel raining down on a collection of wooden buckets and dry leaves.
“You all kept it?”
“Trudy didn’t. She wanted to give it to Mother, even after she knew better. She was old anyway. Now she’s dead.”
“The first thing she could keep, and she didn’t want it.” All the ants shake their large heads as they mumble some more banalities concerning their deceased fellow insect.
Valerius, in the meantime, has trouble keeping standing as his mind is blown again and again. Previous certainties are shattered as the bickering army of oversized ants keeps commentating on the truths of life. For as far as the gardener knows, animals are too dumb to doubt what qi is for. They can’t freak out about having more possibilities inside their bodies, thus allowing this pure potential to grow wild like a cancer. Animals do stuff, and they unconsciously use qi to do that stuff even harder or better.
These ants seem like some freaky border case. Initially, either their thinking capacity should have been suppressed, or they were truly too limited of mind to let qi go wild. After being contaminated by qi, however, their mental faculties seemed to have either evolved or been released from some limitations. Valerius thinks over his encounter with the Mother, the cute and bright face displayed in highly dense earth mana coming to the forefront of his mind. His desire to go out into the world was minimal at best, but he had gone through the aura detection training program and test Database required everyone to go through before being allowed to leave Tree. He is pretty confident in his ability to read people, and that bug-assed girl didn’t have a single shred of maliciousness inside of her.
“What do you gals want to do now?” he asks after the insectoid tea party has calmed down. The chittering of mandibles and tapping of chitinous limbs fades as all heads point in his direction. “This shouldn’t have happened too long ago, right? A few days at most?”
“What is a day?” asks one of the indistinguishable beings.
Valerius has no logical reply to that question. He thinks a bit more before pointing upwards. “That’s when that light goes out.”
“Then it hasn’t been a single day!” replies the same ant, a proud inflexion to her answer.
“Does it ever go out?” Valerius asks.
“No,” is her immediate reply.
Valerius hears water dripping far away, some distant stream of moisture tapping out a rhythmic pattern in the oppressive silence. “What do you gals want to do now, though?”
“Ah, I think we should not bring stuff to Mother anymore,” is the spoke-ant’s answer.
“I don’t want to end up like Trudy.”
“Super dead, she is.”
“I’d like to chew my own food for once.” All the ants stare at the latest speaker. One by one, they all enthusiastically start expressing their consent to this statement. It takes the group a while to calm down, and Valerius uses this time to get his thoughts in order.
“Alright, ladies. Let's get back to hunting!” Until this happy sentence is shouted by the most vocal ant. She receives a bunch of agreeing comments in return, and the small group storms off, back the way they came.
Valerius stares upwards for a bit longer, the extremely faint bit of light high up above somehow calling out to him. He has the weird feeling that this place is somewhat familiar, but he can’t recall how so. His introspective mood leads him to glance at his cultivation core, and the large leaf sticking out from the side of the kernel is quite the shock.
“Ah, miss? Sorry about that. Making decisions is still quite tough, you know, so we get distracted easily. Come this way, please.” The ant standing behind him nervously rubs her two forefeet together before swiftly turning around and running away.
Valerius decides to follow her, casting a single longing glance upwards before he leaves the massive pit. He runs after the oversized scuttling insect as she disappears from the range of his mana vision. He needs to put some effort to keep up this time, the group seemingly having forgotten to slow down to allow him to keep up. Instead of complaining, Valerius takes a bit of qi from his core and lays it over his legs in a thin layer. Just like fertiliser, he realises. Too little has no effect, yet sprinkle in too much, and things go wrong.
He loses himself in the taxing task of having to sprint through narrow runnels while seeing nothing but the mana inside the rocks around him, and the occasional blip of recognisable qi from the ants in front of him.
“No, sister! Don’t bring that to Mother, keep it for yourself!” A gravely yet feminine plea shakes him from his oddly serene sprint. Patting all the wet dirt from his stained robes, Valerius stumbles to a halt. He spots a tangled mass of limbs and chitin, all of it wriggling in a confusing struggle.
He stays well away from the flailing mass and taps one of the standing ants on her abdomen. “What’s going o-” he tries asking, but he’s immediately snatched by large mandibles.
“No! Don’t take her to mother. Think for yourself, you dummy!”
Another ant smashes into his kidnapper, sending him flying. Having learned his lesson, he avoids all the large insects as the six-legged monsters duke it out. It doesn’t take long before a single ant lies on the floor, unmoving, with a large crack in her head carapace.
“How come this one is dead?”
“Same as Trudy.”
“Hey, we’re near the heap, let's toss her.”
“You don’t want to keep her for yourself?”
“Nothing, just asking,” replies the ant who is trying to hide the fact that she is drooling.
Valerius once again follows the group, who are slowed down by the fact that they are carrying a dead ant. “Hey, I think you could take on Mother, then you could keep all of her stuff.”
The entire group freezes. The two ants responsible for carrying the dead insect drop their burden as they all face him. Valerius keeps a part of his consciousness trained on the slowly moving leaf that is sprouting from his seed-core as he does his first bout of conscious and pre-planned bit of social manipulation ever. “You took her on easily, you know. Maybe you could all beat Mother that way?”
His unease slightly growing, he sees that now two of the ants are drooling. “F-fight Mother?”
“That would be… That’s actually possible? I’d never…”
A wry feeling of triumph and guilt worms into Valerius’s heart as he sees the small little leaf turn a little more sharp and vicious. “Maybe take out some of her workers first? You could get swarmed, maybe?”
The feeling only grows as he sees his words take hold, small thorns now sprouting from the plant that’s growing from his cultivation base.
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