Chapter 906: Slither (1017)
Rassan'tep looked back at the still burning mountain, his eyes gleaming with interest. The warmth he could feel, even from this distance, was pleasant on his scales, and he didn't mind indulging himself in a little basking every now and again.
[Master, we should leave,] Ammon'sil urged him. [This place is not secure.]
The Old One flicked his tongue to taste the air. Smoke and ashes came through powerfully, expected, given the circumstances, but underneath was that vibrant riffle of energy and life so common in the fourth stratum.
The Colony would rebuild that mountain, he was sure. It likely wouldn't even take long. With tens of thousands of mages to create and shape the rock, they'd be able to make it bigger and better than it had been before in a matter of weeks.
In attempting to push the ants down, the ka'armodo had only made them stronger.
He huffed in displeasure and the Set'sulah pulled back from him, concerned they had drawn his ire.
Hubris had been the downfall of many among the old races, and so it continued to be. The assumption that they were the highest, greatest and strongest on Pangera, simply by virtue of their birth, simply because they were first, was deeply flawed.
The place at the top was not a birthright, but a constant struggle.
The ants understood. They fought and strove every minute of every day to carve out a place for themselves. If the ka'armodo had displayed a fraction of their drive over the past two thousand years, his people would be the undisputed rulers of this world.
[Master,] Ammon'sil urged him again, [we must away. I am not confident we can keep you safe if we remain.]
The great lizard turned an eye toward his favoured servant.
[Peace, Ammon. A few minutes longer. The winds blow quickly here, sands are shifting beneath our claws. I wish to observe this change with my own eyes.]
[Is it worth risking your life? They will kill you if they find you.]
Rassan'tep closed his eyes.
[As you wish.]
He was dimly aware of Ammon'sil directing the others to form a perimeter, to watch with eyes and sense with minds for any danger, but he paid them no mind.
Instead, he cast his focus out toward the mountain once more. Not long ago, it had been teeming with their enslaved termite colony. A vast operation that had been guided and controlled by just a few of his people. Millions of individuals that created an ecosystem of their own, farming, gathering, building and making way for the next generation.
All of it gone in one glorious eruption.
He pondered on what this might mean for the potential Ancient, the ant, Anthony. Surely, he was the one who had cast the spell that destroyed the nest. A haul of experience like that may push the monster all the way to tier seven if it was close enough. If so, he might really see something interesting in the coming days.
A slight twitch in his senses alerted him to something approaching. He focused, using his prodigious Skills and experience to peer through the glamour they had shaped around themselves. One look inside, and he huffed once more, irritated.
[Mount,] he told his servants. [We will soon be gone.]
Relief radiated through the bond, and perhaps, under normal circumstances, the Old One would have chastised his Set'sulah for allowing their emotions to echo so powerfully, but he restrained himself. He knew they were relieved for his sake, not their own. In short order, they had climbed onto his back, comfortably holding the golden tassels woven into his covering to help them balance.
A few moments later, one of his own arrived on the hill he stood atop.
[Oolan'tep,] he greeted her, [I am pleased to see you were able to survive the calamity.]
Not unscathed, by the looks of it. The ka'armodo looked more than a little singed. In several places, her scales had been burned black. She must have lost one or more Set'sulah whilst escaping the mountain. A terrible blow for any of the bonded.
He hooded his eyes and dipped his head.
[I grieve for your loss,] he stated formally.
The younger ka'armodo's eyes locked onto his, fury burning openly in her gaze.
[You,] she growled.
Rassan'tep observed her with surprise. She was clearly emotional, the repeated catastrophes of the day had been more than she could bear. Even so, he expected her to retain her dignity. She was baring her teeth at him!
He looked down on her from the height his fully grown physique allowed him, his upper arms folded across his torc.
If his status and posture that declared him her elder slowed her at all, she did not show any sign of it.
[This is your fault,] she fumed, [everything was going well before you came. The plan was proceeding according to projections.]
The temerity of the declaration was almost enough to stun him.
[Everything proceeded according to your plan until the ants arrived,] he said. [I came here explicitly to warn you of them, which I did. I can hardly be faulted if the design you and your team created was not up to the task.]
Oolan'tep hissed at him.
Rassan'tep felt the rage of his Set'sulah rise to boiling point at the blatant show of disrespect.
Before their emotions could boil over, he took one long stride forward and struck his junior across the face with his upper claw.
As one, her remaining servants cried out and stood, ready to launch themselves at him in defence of their mistress.
[DOWN,] the Old One bellowed in their minds.
In the face of his fury, Oolan'tep and her servants bowed their heads, shame finally showing in their posture.
[How dare you act in this way? You bring shame upon yourself, and upon me, for having to strike you before my honoured servants. If you had not suffered such loss today, then I would challenge you to the Ank-Kai and wash this stain from my scales with your blood.]
He took a deep breath to calm himself. To lose his temper in such a fashion… such disgrace.
[This entire project was a folly from the start, and it has cost our people dearly. We lose support amongst the old races. The Legion has turned its back on us. And for what? We strengthen our enemies and bind their alliances tighter together.]
[What will happen to me?] Oolan'tep asked piteously.
Her anger had drained from her with that strike, leaving her with nothing but shame and grief. It overwhelmed her now, threatening to pull her down into despair.
[You will be disowned,] he told her bluntly. [They will say you started this mad project of your own volition and blame you for everything that happened. Your kin will turn their tails against you, even your clutch-mates will deny you sun and warmth.]
His words rained down like hammer blows on the young mage. How could this have happened?
[This cannot be…]
Rassan'tep gazed down on her, his eyes calculating. Oolan'tep was a promising mage, skilled with core manipulation and fiercely attached to the monsters she created.
He paused for a moment to ensure he was thinking clearly.
[You need allies to shield you from the fallout and a place in which you can develop and display your Skills,] he told her softly. [Tell me, what do you know of the Truth?]