“Hello? Is anyone there?” Valerius fumbles through his robes in a half panic. The sudden darkness around him after that ludicrous display Teach and Re-Haan put on has him on edge. The ring on his finger forgotten, he keeps patting himself, hoping that one of his pockets might hold a torch. The moment he remembers the wide variety of glowing crystals in his small spatial ring is the moment he sees.
There isn’t darkness around him. Technically, his eyes don't see anything, yet he knows that there is earth all around . Dirt, rock, ground, and soil is present in quantities that make him weak in the knees. He might be a wielder and cultivator of the energy named qi at the moment, but this doesn’t mean he has forgotten his roots. He has been in contact with the trusting emotion of putting yourself in another’s shoes named empathy for long enough. The state of mind that represents the lighter side of earth mana is very well known to the man. Enough to still feel it when its present in large quantities, even without trying. The bleak apathy from the dark side of the earthly power is also present in massive quantities, but Valerius has been consciously trying to lessen contact with that numbing energy.
Dropping his hands to his sides, he looks around. Realising that earth mana is all around allowing him to perceive it, and his energy sense shows him a narrow cavern. Barely a few meters wide, the roughly tear-shaped tunnel stretches onwards on either side of the farmer. He realises he can even see into the rock, in a manner of speaking. His awareness of the mana drenched matter extends a few meters into the surface before the yellow hue becomes a solid brown. The tunnel on either side of him bends before he can see more than a few dozen meters ahead, he will have to find a bigger space before he can test how far this sense reaches. Patting down his clothes, the middle-aged man randomly picks a direction and starts walking, taking deep breaths as he strolls off.
Valerius had been quite content with his role as gardener, and he had fought tooth and nail to keep his managerial duties to a minimum. Instead of trying to gather people to his cause, making them work for him, he had allowed people to do as they wished. They, of course, had to abide by a few rules if they wanted to cultivate themselves and the fields he had prepared, but nothing major. Simple stuff like forbidding people to harvest plants they haven’t sowed and tended themselves unless given permission - small rules like that.
But then rumours had circulated that a pale savage from the far eastern cliffs had earned a massive amount of points for finding out a wholly new way to cultivate. Valerius is not a greedy person, but having more points will allow him to garden more, and that high-tech mana crystal engraved hoe in Database’s store was begging him to buy it. Not even the prodigious rates at which he had been earning points through selling the massive quantities of produce and herbs was enough to keep up with the new and improved farming implements the moon based eggheads had been coming up with.
So he had had a long think about what he wanted to do in life, and decided to make a new core. At the centre of his being, he wants to see things grow. What's done with the product of that growth, he cares little. He just wants to see small little leaves burst from the soil, tending to them as they bloom into majestic plants, fruits, nuts, grains, cabbages…
Valerius reigns his wandering thoughts in as he steps over a large boulder and begins crawling through a narrow space.
So he had given up his cultivation base, let his body be stripped clean from qi on the moon, bought a premium re-cultivation nutrition package from the scientist beastkin duo, and had sown a seed inside himself. It had started small, just a single speck that endlessly drank all the qi he could get his fingerprints on.
The robed man clambers up a sheer cliff face, the small crevice high above the only way out of the chamber he ended up in. Hard rock moulds itself into comfortable handgrips with only minor applications of qi.
As Valerius makes his way through the seemingly endless cave system, he observes the smooth pit in the middle of his being. Inside his gut hangs a small brown sphere that looks glossy despite the lack of light inside of the man. Every breath he takes guides more mana to the small kernel, which is turned into qi in short order. Not a single sprouting or beginning root can be seen, but Valerius isn’t worried.
Then the dottering man is snatched up by large jaws, his qi enhanced body the only reason he isn’t crushed into a paste. Instead of fighting as any sane person would do, the gardener is just amazed at the beast that had burst from the wall a fraction of a second earlier. There wasn’t a single sign of the animal before it ambushed him, not a single distortion present in the mana patterns of the cave wall.
Valerius fumbles and arm free at the same moment his attacker starts moving. At speeds many times faster than his previous stroll, he is carried through a complex network of tunnels, dark caves, open rooms, and confusing natural corridors. He caresses the smooth mandibles that are holding him with surprising gentleness. At least, as much gentleness as a two-meter high ant can muster while running through caves.
Valerius doesn’t mind the occasion head bump - the fact that ordinary people would have died a hundred times over not really interesting to the man. Instead, he studies the interplay between natural earth mana and the beast carrying him. The ant’s internal mana pattern is ever-shifting in such a way that it copies the pattern of mana around itself.Like a form of moving paint, it manipulates its internal power densities to simulate the very air it is walking through.
When Valerius is about to get a better idea of how the insect accomplishes this task, he is dropped. In preparation, he channels a bit of qi from the shining seed at his centre into his body, enhancing his farm toughened muscles and frame. Not a second too late, it turns out, as a rather sharp collection of ridges, needles, and overall sharp objects slams the air out of his lungs.
It takes him a few moments of wheezing breathlessness before he manages to gather his wits about him. Then the farmer feels the surface he is laying on moving. He stands up with care, somehow avoiding letting any of his large arteries or veins meet sharp edges, and looks around with eyes still closed.
Valerius has found himself in a dumping ground, he concludes a few moments later. He is at the bottom of a cylindrical pit, openings up above leading into tunnels that fade from his mana senses. He sees a single opening at his level, which is covered by a thin sheet of rock. Behind the wall are stock still insects made from clay. Or rather, still insects that have copied the mana patterns of rock inside their very bodies as they stand still.
“Could you not stand on my eye, please?”
Valerius jumps in shock, looking down at the floor as he gingerly steps away.
“Thank you. We might not be able to serve, but that doesn't mean we should be uncomfortable, right?”
“What? Who are you?”
“I’m right here! You were just now standing on me,” comes the slightly disgruntled reply.
“My apologies, my good sir. Are you that spiked lump with the holes or that blade covered object over there?” Try as he might, Valerius can’t manage to make out a person anywhere in this mess.
“The spiked limp is my eye, I’m afraid. Something went wrong, so here I am. Mother tried her best, I’m sure. At least I can return what was given shortly.”
“That’s your eye? What are these spindly bits, then?”
“My limbs, you buffoon. Did your brain get damaged? Mother has those down to a tee, usually never gets those wrong anymore.”
“No, no. I’m not from around here, you see. I just… ended up here through some circumstances.” Valerius shakes his head and tries to recenter himself. “That’s not important right now. Those are your limbs? But they’re all wrong! How can you move like that?”
“I can’t, why else would I be here?”
The gardener is unsure of what to say to that. Instead of continuing the oddly polite conversation, he decides to explore the area for a bit. The pile of weird looking things is only a few dozen meters high, so it takes him but a few minutes of careful clambering - and the occasional apology for stepping on someone’s malformed appendage - before he has reached the ground.
There, he takes a deep breath. He tries opening his eyes again, but the unchanging blackness just confuses him at this point. Walking around, he has a few more conversations with the cave’s inhabitants. He learns that everyone is quite content to be here, waiting for whatever fate this Mother has in store for them. They all keep praising the woman, to a point that Valerius is starting to get creeped out. More conversations turn the creeping dread roiling in his gut into a vague sort of depression, the happy yet fatalistic mindset of every single misshapen individual here rubbing off on the man.
And he hasn’t seen the sun, and thus he hasn’t seen anything grow in what feels like days. He occasionally takes fruits, vegetables, or other prepared foods from his ring to snack on, more eating out of habit than any real feeling of hunger. Water is not a problem for the green-thumbed cultivator, as there is plenty of moisture in the air. The cave even has a small stream of runoff flowing into a crack in the wall.
A few more hours of civil yet one-track conversations later, he’s about ready to bust down the guarded wall of dirt and fight his way out. He approaches the largest clear space in the entire cave, the smooth stone walkway leading up to the closed door. Then he spots movement in the mana. At a single point, hiding in a deep and narrow crevice, mana sluggishly moves.
Valerius runs closer, mumbling apologies on the way, and closes in on the moving bit of yellow power. The mana is slowly absorbed by a shape that seems awfully familiar to the man. A small mushroom is somehow managing to stay alive on nothing but moist air and bare rock. Gently probing the thing with his fingers, he plucks it with all the care he can muster.
Gently trickling a strand of qi from his seed core into the sprouting fungus, he is amazed at the hardy lifeform. It seems to have kept itself alive on random bits of biologic detritus, filtering it from the small trickle of water running down the wall with a long web of roots. Valerius gently puts it in his robes, determined to cultivate this new strain of life. He doesn’t immediately begin with this process, because the still statues guarding on the opposite side of the door are moving.
Valerius watches with fascination as the stone slab is slowly shifted through concerted effort. Hardy poles are inserted under the door, the ants using their powerful mandibles and forelimbs to efficiently wedge the massive block of stone to the side. After the door is opened in its entirety, the two guards go back to their post, now guarding an open doorway.
The earth mage doesn’t have to wait long, as a stream of ants enters the room seconds later. They march in lockstep towards the pile of malformed beings, who happily greet the silently working insects. Each ant picks one misshapen lump of sapient insect from the rapidly shrinking pile. The work is being done with extreme efficiency, the only sound in the echoing chamber being the rapid clicking of keratin limbs against stone and the exited mumbles of the beings that are carried off.
Valerius knows he should have run the moment the last being is picked up, but he is too fascinated with this entire process to pay attention. Another ant approaches him, and he is snatched between massive mandibles once again. Another high-speed rush through the tunnels follows, and Valerius thinks that maybe he should be taking a more active role in matters for once.
Just when he is about to start punching insects in the face, he is dropped to the floor.
“Why did you bring that one? That isn’t one of mine.”
Turning to the petulant voice, Valerius is stunned. Standing at a little over a meter and a half, an extremely cute and bright girl is staring at him. She tilts her head, causing the flowing locks surrounding her lovely face to shift in glossy waves.
“Who are you?”
Valerius has no reply to this happy question.
“Wait, you aren’t from my family! No way!” Now jumping up and down, the small girl shows that not everything about her frame is small, and Valerius can't help but stare at the jiggling mounds of plenty attached to her petite frame. “Haha! I wanna hear what has been happening! How’s mum? How’s the family? Are aunty and greataunt still fighting?”
Valerius is shaken from staring at the hypnotic swaying by the giddy stream of questions. He immediately starts puking his guts out, splattering himself and the floor around him in partially digested food and sour acid. The girl tries to come closer, but is held back by the very thing that made Valerius regurgitate his lunch. The massive pustulent maggot of flesh attached to the girl’s back contracts in concern as she sees him fall over.
“Are you okay? I didn’t mean to scare you!” Now obviously distraught, the girl motions to one of the insectoid monsters in the room. The being - the biggest and bulkiest ant Valerius has seen up to now - picks up one of the misshapen lumps and hands it over to the small girl.
“Thank you, Moth-” The malformed being sounds deliriously happy when the small girl’s mouth stretches open to an impossible degree. Valerius managed to make out the general shape of things, sure, but never has he been so thankful for being practically blind as this very moment. His mana sight only shows him vague shapes instead of the gruesome details that are playing out in front of him. The unfortunate thing is eaten quickly, and not a minute later, the girl licks her fingers while addressing Valerius.
“Sorry, I’m laying right now, so you know how hungry we get.” True to her word, a white sphere pops from her hind section. It bounces off the cancerous mass attached to the girl’s backside before it's expertly caught by one of the ants surrounding the massive mound of pulsating flesh.
“N-no problem. Sorry about… this,” is Valerius’ weak attempt to stay civil as he points at the vomit on the floor.
“Haha, no problem, dude! So, anyway. Do you wanna do me a big one before you shack up and start squeezing them out? You can use one of my males, if you want. I’m still working some kinks out, as you can see, but I’ve got their nervous systems pretty much done!” Thanks to the amazingly dense earth mana inside of the girls’ body, Valerius can see that she is happily smiling at him while licking her lips.
Valerius thinks about legging it for a bit. He just sort of went with the flow his entire life, and it has worked out so far, but this entire situation is a bit much. “What?” he manages to croak out.
“Some of my workers are missih-hing!” Dragging out the last word like a sulking whine, she stomps her foot. Valerius ignores the ripple of disgusting flesh behind her that results from the childlike action. “And more and more aren’t returning. Making properly working males for trade is already hard enough. I need my drones, how else am I going to survive?” Here she glomps down on another happily burbling miscreant. “They keep coming out like this, and it’s just too hard.” Pointing at the partially eating being, she pouts cutely.
“Downdraft, that way,” she points with an ichor covered finger. “Thanks a ton. I’m about ready to try making another batch of these,” she says while motioning at the pile of unfortunate males. ”So that will take all my attention. I’m sure I’ve got the early developmental mutations figured out now!”
“Okay, bye!” And Valerius runs. He scampers off as none have ever scampered. He follows the rough direction that the terrifyingly cute girl pointed at, yet fails to keep track of where he is going in the mix of terror and sheer uneasiness he is currently suffering. He pulls qi from his seed core, and barely notices the small sprout peeping through a crack in the otherwise smooth orb. Instead of investigating this development, he panickedly tries to make sense of what just happened.
He is pretty sure that the enigmatic Mother figure just assumed that he was a female specimen of her species. This implies that this isn’t the only massive ant colony underground. Their breeding cycle is probably made up of a lot of lower class workers, interspersed with the occasional seeding of breed-ready females that go around looking for breed-ready males. This might also shed some light on why carapace covered beastkin are seen as boogeymen and are universally reviled by all beastkin up above. Or something. His mind is not in the best state of mind to piece all of this together at the moment.
Valerius doesn’t give a shit if he's totally honest. He had been holding it together pretty well, but being given a quest by a cute girl with a massive horrific ass who is eating her own misshapen and failed sapient spawn is enough to make him flip.
“A female, get her, girls!”
“Down with Mother!
“All drones matter, chaaarge!”
The suffering earth mage doesn’t even register that he puts up a token struggle in the face of talking, fighting ants. One of the heavy clubs wielded by the shouting bugs hits him in just the right spot at the back of his head, and his lights go out for real.