Chapter 192 - Antsy (3)
“IT’S TERRIBLE! They are coming. You should prepare!” Screaming at the top of his lungs, Valerius runs through the dark tunnels. The small trickle of guilt inside his heart is now overshadowing the slight feeling of victory in its entirety, yet he perseveres. He isn’t really sure why he is performing these social experiments all of a sudden, but the results are honestly too interesting to give up.
He is expending a massive amount of effort to minimize harm, but the farmer still suspects that a certain chaotic sword wielder and bunny scratcher is having way too much influence on his actions. The results speak for themselves, though. The single leaf on the one side is blooming into a small plant at a visible rate. The small sprout on the other side of his seed core is also moving, the slow germination speeding up the closer he approaches his destination.
“Oh, hey girl! How’s it going?”
Bursting into the throne cave, he skitters to a halt as he lies eyes on the horribly cute girl again. Blazing with earth mana of absurd densities, the smiling girl waves at him. Then she scrunches up her face like she’s on the shitter, and with a wet squelch, another large round sphere pops free from her horrid hind section. Valerius barely manages to hold in his lunch.
He is hit with a sudden wave of clarity and confusion both. How long has he been awake? Hours? Weeks? He isn’t sure. He suspects that he slept on the long stretches of running underground, but it’s honestly all a blur at this point.
“Hey, Mother. So I found your missing workers…”
“Oh, thank you so much! I was getting worried.”
Ignoring the stab of guilt in his heart, Valerius continues. “But they’re not coming back. They don’t want to keep doing stuff for you without getting anything in return.”
And the cute girl turns on the waterworks. She tries to sit down on her knees, but the fleshy protrusions stuck to her back prevent her from sinking down into a crying heap. “But why? Why don’t they love me anymore?”
The mage keeps staring at the large sack of egg-producing flesh behind the weeping girl. He doesn’t look at her trembling lips, nor the impossibly dense mana inside her tears, making each dripping droplet look like a small explosion of power in his senses. “What do you want to do about them, though? They keep fighting with your workers.”
“Why, though? Why do they hate me noooooooowwww buu-huuuu.” As the girl devolves into a sad pile of hiccuped sobbing, Valerius observes the small sproutling grow quickly.
“I… I can help? I might not look like it, but I’m pretty strong.”
At his hesitant comment, the girl looks up. “R-really?”
“Sure. And you don’t even need to give me a male in return.”
“R-really? But a few in the latest batch can walk! You sure you don’t want one?”
“I’m very sure,” he replies quickly.
“Al… Alright then.”
“She’s not willing to…” Valerius’ thoughts grind to a halt. He had been completely caught up in figuring out what his cultivation base does for the last few days. He had been running around between the growing group of cultivating ants and Mother, playing both against each other just to see what effects his actions have on his seed. The rebel faction’s side has bloomed into a beautiful plant, a thorny bush of flowers, each lovely bloom representing another ant firmly under his control. Mother’s side is a single massive flower, adorned with a complex web of fine branches and a myriad of small leaves.
He has been making up excuses here and there, leading Mother’s workers into ambushes, guiding the rebels to stockpiles of lesser importance while weaving a complex web of lies and intrigue. But he had been so caught up in this entire farce that he failed to see the core of the matter.
“What do you guys want to keep?” he softly asks.
“What do you mean, ma’am?” asks the single ant with which he has been having most conversations.
“All of this… You have been fighting. Mother has been defending. What is the resource that drives this conflict?” Valerius feels like he just woke up again, an absurd form of haze lifted from his consciousness.
“Uhm, it’s food? What else did you think we were taking down the foraging crews for?”
Explosions going off in his mind, Valerius looks at the towering insect. “Food? Is that scarce here, or something?”
“Oh, yes! Drones like our poor dumb brethren need to forage all the time in order to feed Mother. We could only keep half, and that barely fed us.”
“So…” he asks while regaining his wits, “what do you eat?”
“Grubs, fungus clumps, moulds, mushrooms, all sorts of stuff. Mother always yells at us when we bring large beasts or workers from other colonies, so we usually don’t do that. Wait, no, we never do that now! We keep it all! Come on, ladies, WE KEEP IT ALL!”
“KEEP IT ALL!”
“ALL FOR ME!”
Taking a deep breath, Valerius observes the crowd of a dozen cultivating ants. He slowly reaches in his pocket and pulls out the mushroom he found. Injecting a bit of qi inside of it, he drops it. All heads snap towards him and his actions, water immediately dripping down every single massive mandible in the room.
The mushroom takes root immediately, cracking the hard rock underfoot with ease as it qi enhanced roots dig in. It takes less than a minute before a faint waft of spores falls from its gills. Valerius blows on the fine dust gently, smiling peacefully as he grows something for the first time in weeks. The minuscule spores land all over the cave, new mushrooms growing within seconds.
“There, that’s food taken care of. Just inject some qi inside one of them to make it produce another bloom like that.”
A right ruckus breaks out when the couple dozen ants realise that there is food around. It takes them half an hour and several more mushroom spawnings before they are sated enough to converse again.
“Observe!” Dramatically, Valerius twirls around. “Using the power of qi, you can grow as many mushrooms as you want! No longer need this fight continue.” Smiling at the awestruck girl, Valerius realizes that he might have let things go on for a bit too long.
Just like a plant must take any and all possible advantages in order to grown, it seems that his core might have made him into somewhat of an opportunistic and ruthless profiteer. His core had become his entire worlds the moment he observed it sprout and grow a plant, he sees now. The gift of hindsight makes him wonder how he could have spent such a long time in such a haze, running all over in order to forcefully grow his core.
“This is… Amazing!” Happily clapping, the girl named Mother looks around at the slowly blooming mushrooms. Opposing the awestruck bug-ended humanoid is a group of shamefaced ants. “Couldn’t you have done this before… you know, before half of my drones got killed?”
“Yeah, our bad. They are super dead.”
“I’m feeling sorry. But I just wanted to keep my stuff!”
“Shush, it’s okay. All we did was keep food so we could live.”
“Ah, no worries about that. I didn’t want to lose any of my precious leaves, so I patched them up and put them in the chamber where I was dumped.” Valerius calms the chattering insectoids. The true reason he had been feeling extremely exhausted over these past few weeks is that he had been saving all the ants from death. The massive insects had turned out to be near unkillable without massive force, not something a few newly cultivating and unskilled brawling insects could have done.
He had healed them all to the best of his abilities before dousing them with a sleeping draft before storing them in the pit he himself had been dumped in. “They’re all fine and should wake up in a few days at most.”
The girl jumps forward, only to be halted by the massive mass of flesh attached to her backside. Frowning at the large mass of egg-bearing tissue, she takes a deep breath, before stepping away from the horribly looking slug. “This qi energy is super great! I can even step away from egg laying for longer now!”
Flabbergasted at having a naked and extremely attractive girl plastered to his side, Valerius ignores the chattering and chittering of the cultivating ants around him. “Thank you, miss! How can I ever repay you?”
Avoiding looking at the bouncing globes, Valerius coughs drily. He wonders why an insect queen would need to be conventionally attractive, but quickly concludes that the tales of child-kidnapping insect-kin must have some core of truth somewhere.
As he basks in the somewhat absurd conclusion that this entire escapade has come to, he observes his seed core. The two plants on the opposite sides had started moving towards each other the moment he had started planning how to bring the groups together again. It had taken him quite a bit of talking and explaining, but the results are very apparent.
The lower stems are already fused, a single and strong branch emerging from his perfectly smooth core. The many small flowers have all merged in beautiful patterns around the single bloom representing Mother, all the little leaves showing signs that they could turn into flower bulbs at any moment. The possibilities stretch on endlessly, and brief images of ruling over a planet-spanning empire of insects, a beautiful queen mother on either side of him, flash through his mind.
That will require more food, though. The mushrooms he has been planting everywhere are a massive improvement on the lacklustre food situation down here, but that can be fixed too. “So, here is a plan. How about we start expanding? Introducing qi to other workers will allow us to recruit them to our cause. A queen without her spawn will be an easy target to convince to cooperate with us, no? Then we could grow more mushrooms and even plants!”
The mage swears he sees he faceted eyes of the cultivation ants sparkle in his energy senses. Even the girl clinging to his arm is looking up at him with expectant eyes. The plant emerging from his core blooms further, large branches growing at a visible pace. The nearest dumb worker ants all have basked in the qi aura generated by the group of cultivators to also start developing sapience. The small leaves representing them all turn into bright little flowers as their consciousness sparks, boosted by the higher energy.
“We can expand as far as we want, but these mushroom won’t be enough. We’ll need to introduce some form of a farm, and illuminate them with qi lanterns, I think. Nothing else will allow us to quickly grow enough food to expand.”
Pulling shining crystals from his ring, Valerius churns a bit of rock into dust while mixing in some of his stored compost. “Look, we can grow some of the hardier plants like this, set up a nice little cycle of light, growing plants, and cultivated earth. The right earth mana all around us will only have positive effects on the growth of greenery down here.”
Enthusiastically showing his plans to his audience, he fails to take note of the increased agitation shown by everyone except himself.
“We’ll need to do a lot of work, and we’ll need a lot of light, but I’m sure that we can grow quantities of food to rival the production happening in Tree. If you all are willing to work hard, of course. Qi production will also skyrocket as plants congregate mana. This is going to ama-”
“AAAAAGH, IT TOUCHED ME, HELP ME!”
"IT BURN MY EYES, KIIIIIIILLL!"
Woken from his planning haze, Valerus looks around. He sees a roiling mass of furiously shouting ants, all of them brandishing long stone staves and heavy rock clubs. The beautiful girl called Mother, who had been clinging on his arm not a minute ago, is now huddling near the grotesque mass of flesh, pointing an enraged finger at him. “KILL THE LIGHT BEARER! SNUFF OUT HIS SHINE!”
“““SNUFF OUT HIS SHIIIIIIIINE!”””
With horror, Valerius watches the blooming tree sprouting from his core wilt and die within seconds. All the ants who had been his best buds only moments before charge, swinging weapons at vital spots with surprising speed and lethality.
Valerius runs, cursing himself for ever getting involved in insectoid politics, weeping for the loss of the plant now turning to ash inside his guts.
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