Since leaving Midum, Isaac and his fellow survivors had made good time. Isaac found it was easy to motivate folks when they were escaping a literal horde of savage monsters that had killed almost everyone they knew. Glad to have survived, worried that it wouldn't last, the townsfolk and former guardsmen and women had packed their stuff with alacrity and hustled their way south, following the directions that Morrelia had given them.
Thinking of Morrelia brought a smile to Isaac's face and pang to his heart. He was deep in it, he could see that as sure as he could see the nose on his own face. He'd never been taken with someone on first sight like this in his entire life. Everything about her just seemed to punch him right in his most tender preferences. Strong, no nonsense, capable, decisive and built with a body that looked as if she could pick him and rip him in half with her bare hands.
Not to mention her raging temperament which had made him feel as if that might actually happen at any moment. Talking to her had felt like the best and most dangerous thing Isaac had done in his entire life.
Shaking his head to dismiss the lingering thoughts of the goddess who had captivated him so and tried to focus his mind on the literal mountain of an issue before him.
"It's a pile 'o somethin' alright" he muttered to himself, "just not sure if it's the plops yet."
"You say somethin' Isaac?" Anna, his fellow former Midum town guard queried from his left.
"Nothin' worth hearing" he nodded toward the massive hill of dirt that rose before them, "what you make of it, Anna?" he asked.
The dour guard shook her head. "It's well over my pay grade Isaac. I never seen anything like it."
'Aint that the truth, Isaac thought to himself as he tried to take it all in. He'd been warned before he'd left Midum, spoken to again, at length, when they'd arrived at the village, but he still wasn't prepared for the reality of it. A whole colony of monsters, living right next to a human village.
And apparently everything was… fine?
Isaac watched as hundreds of ant monsters larger than his old dog Toby ran about on the enormous mound of dirt at a feverish pace, carrying dirt out of the tunnels, shifting its position on the hill or using their bodies to press and compact the soil.
"It's so quiet" Isaac observed to Anna as he watched the ants work.
"It's eerie" she agreed after listening for a moment.
The monsters didn't talk, or communicate in any visible way, they just moved around each other in perfect synch. The effort and energy they expended put human labourers to shame, without a word of complaint or a single individual shirking. It was mighty impressive, in a way.
As to what they were doing, they appeared to be building a castle, out of dirt. Oh it didn't have all the trimmings of a castle, the fancy towers and gabled roofs, but in Isaac's more direct mind, this ant hill had the essentials: A big ass wall and a raised fort inside.
It even had a moat! How in the hell a group of monstrous insects managed to engineer something like this was beyond Isaac. Sure, a moat was nothing but a trench filled with water, sure a wall wasn't anything but a heap of dirt piled up, but it was the little things. The dirt wall had been properly braced against thick wooden posts, presenting a formidable obstacle to any who wanted to assault the hill. The moat would normally cause all sorts of problem regarding drainage but it seems that the ants had managed to think of that problem and used a bed of crushed stone, packed down hard, to help minimise.
The moat was even fed from their own channel network for cryin' out loud!
Shaking his head, Isaac turned on his heel and walked back toward the village, Anna trailing behind.
"You're finished looking Isaac?"
"What do you make of it?"
"I haven't the slightest."
"People are fair nervous" Anna warned him, "it's unnerving for them to settle down in a place so close to a pack of monsters."
Isaac grunted in agreement, "Not surprising, considering they were just chased from their homes."
There were rumblings amongst the new arrivals, uncomfortable with their new situation, but Isaac had to admit, the locals were a very … passionate group of advocates. The priest in particular was relentless in his efforts to ease the new arrivals into coexistence with the colony.
As he and Anna drew closer to the village, Isaac saw the one armed silhouette of Beyn hustling towards him. Isaac supressed a sigh. The priest had been welcoming, helpful, cheerful and tireless is his efforts to comfort the people of Midum, which was more than Isaac could have hoped for. It was just that the man was a little … intense.
"Greetings friend! Returning after paying homage to our friends?" Beyn called as he cheerfully waved his remaining hand at them in greeting.
Isaac rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't say payin' homage, as such your worship. Just wanted to take a look."
The former town guardsmen's lack of fervour washed off the priest like water. He simply nodded with enthusiasm, eyes shining as he looked towards the ant hill in the distance. "It's incredible isn't it? I can't believe how fast they are learning, how fast they are changing! I swear they are watching us, trying to understand us. In a years' time, who knows what they might be capable of? A miracle is what it is. Divine deliverance!"
"'Course it is father, 'aint nobody sayin' any different" Isaac hurriedly cut him off. He'd already been subjected to one of father Beyn's spontaneous sermons and he wasn't keen to repeat the experience. Only the timely intervention of Mrs Enid Bly had saved him.
Before the priest could get wound up again, Isaac cast about to divert the topic of conversation but came up blank. Dang it! He had to act fast or something else would set of the fanatical priest! In desperation he flicked a glance at Anna and she received his panicked signal.
"Ah, your holiness, there, father" she piped up haltingly, "I was, uh, wondering if, you could, ah, tell me some more about the, em, leader ant?"
You idiot! Isaac thought to himself, you couldn't possibly have dropped your foot in the sloppy soil any harder than that.
As expected, the priests eyes lit ablaze at the mention of his favourite subject. The man's entire face came alight as if it were receiving the mana of the Dungeon directly.
"I would love to!" he boomed, throwing his one arm wide as he stepped forward, closing the distance to his victim.
Isaac averted his eyes from Anna's pleading gaze. Sometimes sacrifices were necessary in order to achieve the greater good. With the priests' voice rising to the heavens behind him, Isaac stepped quietly away and moved toward the village proper.
He'd been fascinated to learn that the ant monster he'd seen with Morrelia had not been a pet and had in fact been the master of the other two monsters he'd seen. Just thinking about it was enough to make him shiver. Had it wanted to that ant could have slaughtered his people without resistance.
All in all, Isaac had to admit that conditions here in the village were better than he had expected by far. He'd only arrived a few days ago and already simple housing was being organised, people were being put to work, fields expanded, combat training undertaken. Despite the recent tragedy, the village town had an incredible energy that was surprising on so many levels.
In a moment of clarity he suddenly realised that the people of the village reminded him of nothing so much as the colony of ants he'd been watching just minutes ago. The single minded, uncomplaining zeal at which they approached their work was unlike anything he'd seen. Something different was happening here, and it wasn't just the monsters, the people were changing also.
It'd be interesting to see what came of it.