Ari’s first thought was to run, but his whole body tensed up.
We need to talk. We need to talk.
The voice reverberated inside his head. He didn’t want to talk with whatever was down there; instead, he glanced over his shoulder at Killian. The man’s face was contorted in fear as he stared at the ground. Ari waved his hand to get his attention. Their eyes met, and focus returned to Killian’s eyes before he nodded faintly.
They kept crawling, hoping that whoever talked in their minds was trying to flush them out of their hiding spot. When they were close to the second tunnel’s entrance, Ari’s nose tingled, and he buried it deep in the crook of his arm. He held his breath and bit his lip, doing everything to stifle his sneeze.
But the urge overwhelmed him.
His entire body shuddered with the sneeze, the sound echoed off the cavern’s walls again and again. After what seemed like an eternity, it finally died down.
“Run,” Ari said in a hushed voice.
He sprang up and rushed toward the tunnel, but two shadows emerged out of it. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the giant ants. They were the size of a large man, with two legs and four arms — each ending in long, razor-sharp claws. The ants stepped out of the tunnel with their arms held before them like swords. Their bulbous, completely black eyes stared unblinkingly at the two recruits.
A few things happened at the same time.
There was the sound of wood croaking accompanied by crackling buzz somewhere behind Ari.
A sizzling acorn appeared in the squirrel paws, and it cocked its small arm back.
The ant’s curved mandibles opened, and a ferocious clicking emanated from their mouths.
Time seemed to slow down as thoughts raced through Ari’s mind. They could retreat toward the other tunnel, but it was a dead end. And running deeper into the cavern, where hundreds of ants waited for them was also out of the question.
The alternative was to fight their way through, but the two ants in front of them were opal-ranked, and he knew they simply stood no chance against them. And if not the creatures, then the point-blank explosions of both the squirrel’s acorn and Killian’s spell would kill them instantly.
That left him only one thing to do.
“We surrender!” Ari shouted and raised his hands.
The squirrel stared at him incredulously, and it chittered with disappointment before the acorn vanished from its paws. The crackling sound also stopped.
“Wise choice.” The voice spoke again in Ari’s mind.
The ants lowered their arms, and the one standing on left stepped off the ledge into the darkness. Ari shook his head, not believing what he saw, but the other ant gestured for him to follow its companion. Only after Ari retrieved the lightning stick and illuminated the darkness again, he noticed a path leading downward. The ant’s mandibles clicked again as if urging him to move.
Well, it’s too late now, Ari thought and began to descend the narrow path. He carefully planted his feet one in front of the other to avoid tripping over the stairs that had been chiseled out of the rocks. When he was halfway down, he felt a tug at his cloak.
“Are you sure about it?” Killian whispered a moment later.
“I’m not,” Ari replied, glancing over his shoulder. He noticed that the second ant followed closely behind the recruits, blocking their escape, in case they decided to change their mind. “But we have no choice.”
After they reached the bottom of the cavern, Ari raised the lightning stick over his head. He balked when the light reflected off the eyes of hundreds, or even thousands, of ants standing still and staring at them.
Most of the creatures were smaller and thinner than the two that led them — they were the size of an eight-year-old. Several ants, similar to the one that escaped from the sac, clung to them, hiding behind their legs or burying faces in their necks. They were behaving almost like... Parents and children.
Somehow the thought terrified Ari. He always assumed the monsters were mindless, and their only goal was to kill, but what he saw turned his world upside down. He looked into the creatures’ bulbous eyes and saw fear. They were afraid of him, probably even more than he was afraid of them.
The large ant’s mandibles clicked again, and the sea of ants parted, letting the recruits pass through. When they were near the platform at the back of the cavern, the ants stopped at the ramp leading up to it and blocked the recruit’s way. Hundreds of various sized sacs were scattered around the elevated platform, but most of them were empty.
Ari froze when he heard the scratch of claws on stone. Then he saw a movement between the sacs. He squinted his eyes nearly shut and noticed a much taller ant coming toward him. But the creature’s size wasn’t the only thing that made it different. Cracks ran the length of its red carapace, revealing orange flesh beneath that was blackened and burned. Two pairs of membranous wings were folded flat over its back, but the one on the right looked like it was partially cut off.
“We do not like to be ignored.”
The voice spoke again in Ari’s mind, and the two antennas at the ant’s head stirred. He cast a questioning glance at Killian, and the man nodded. Good, so he can hear it too.
“We are sorry,” Ari said. “We didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You didn’t”—the red ant curiously tilted its head—“intrude. We wanted to speak with you.”
That surprised Ari. He recalled the voice that spoke in his mind back in the forest, telling him to stay away. He wanted to ask about it, but there were more important things he needed to know first.
“What happened to our companions?” Ari asked.
“They left the forest.”
“Left?” Killian interjected.
The red ant turned toward the archer. “We think we have used the correct word, human. They left. Or fled. Our soldiers chased them away.”
“Were they harmed?” Killian asked, with a note of worry in his voice.
“No. Killing you was not our goal.”
“We nearly died falling into that hole,” Ari said.
The red ant descended the ramp and stopped in front of the recruits. It towered over them by at least three heads. The creature reached out with one of its claws and gently stroked Ari’s face, and he tried not to recoil under the cold touch. The squirrel growled, but he commanded it to do nothing, and it hid in his hood.
“We didn’t know you were so soft. Why don’t you grow some armor? That would make things easier for you.” The ant paused and withdrew its hand. “Our name is Rhaqantiash of Formicans.” It looked at them expectantly.
“I’m Killian Woodley.”
“Ari Ragnarsson,” Ari said and paused. “Why did you want to talk to us?”
Rhaqantiash hadn’t responded right away. It glanced past them, at all the other ants, and Ari saw regret in its eyes.
“We were driven away from our home and wanted to ask you, humans, for help, but it’s too late now. There were hundreds of thousands of us. What you can see in the cavern is all that is left from our hive.”
Hundreds of thousands… Ari’s mind boggled at the number.
“Something stirs deep beneath the surface. A long-forgotten foe. Once, our ancestors fought alongside humans in a war, and you promised something to us. It is time to fulfill that promise.”
“We can help. There are two teams in the village and our mentors, who are stronger than us—”
“We are afraid that it is not enough.” Rhaqantiash didn’t let Ari finish as its voice boomed in his mind. A small sac, filled with the green ooze, appeared in its claws. “We can smell his scent on you, so we know we can trust you. Take this to your Islands and find a new home for us.”
His? A chill ran down Ari’s spine, but before he was able to say anything, a rumble shook the cavern, and a few rocks fell from above. The sound made the hundreds of the ants that surrounded them click their mandibles together, creating a wave of noise that nearly made him cover his ears.
“They are already here.” Rhaqantiash glanced around the cavern in surprise.
“We will stay and help,” Ari said with determination and unstrapped the scepter from his belt.
“As you are right now, Ari of humans, you can’t help us.” Rhaqantiash paused. “Save yourself and the village you talked about. Warn the Founders that the Thalethians were never truly defeated.”
Thalethians? Ari stared dumbfounded at Rhaqantiash. The aura around the ant that till now was silent flared, climbing rapidly from white through green and stopping only when deep blue wisps surrounded its figure.
“Zoties will lead you to the surface,” Rhaqantiash said, and one of the large ants standing near them clicked with its mandibles.
Rhaqantiash passed the sac to Ari, and he hid it in his pocket — he wasn’t sure if storing something like that in his void ring was a good idea. Then, the ant turned away from the recruits and returned to the platform. More ants emerged out of the tunnels on the sides of the cavern. They formed protective circles around their smaller comrades and Rhaqantiash.
Ari was torn between helping the ants fight against Thalethians or whatever threatened them and running for his life. But if the creature in front of him was a sapphire, then deep down he knew it was right, and he couldn’t help anyone. He clenched his fingers into a fist, his fear mixing with anger. Why? I’m always too weak to make a difference.
“Do not weep for us human spawn. Keep your promise, and we will return.” Rhaqantiash’s voice brought him back from his thoughts.
“We need to go,” Killian said, and Ari nodded reluctantly.
He glanced at the ant that still stood beside them. So that’s Zoties. It pointed with its sharpened claws toward the back of the cavern and started running in that direction. They followed, but not without troubles — Zoties’ legs were so powerful that the ant was much faster than them.
Silence befell the cavern, and only their footsteps echoed through it. The ants stared at the tunnels, waiting for their enemy to appear. When Ari and Killian were close to the path leading up the ledge, the walls of the cavern shook again furiously. A moment later, a fissure opened in the floor to their right, swallowing at least a dozen ants, and their panicked clicking died down a moment later.
Then, the first of the dark shapes emerged from the fissure.
The creature looked exactly like any other ant in the cavern, but glowing, purple runes covered its carapace, and its eyes glistened with the same color. Without wasting a moment, it jumped into the crowd, slashing and rippings with its claws. Orange blood filled the air as the other ants tried to run away, but there was nowhere to run.
Ari aimed with its scepter, and the gem at the top of it flared to life. A blue-white bolt and Killian’s arrow struck the murderous ant at the same time, but the attacks only threw it back into the fissure. Then, more fissures opened all over the cavern, and a flood of those strange ants poured out. Ari forced himself to turn his eyes away from the slaughter that followed.
Zoties waited for them at the top of the path. When they joined the ant, it led them into the same tunnel they tried to escape through earlier. The sounds of fighting and rumbling behind them grew louder as they ran. The tunnel was moving steeply upward, and the earth trembled under their feet, making Ari worry that the walls would collapse on them. Killian muttered something under his breath, and blue streaks of air appeared around their feet, and suddenly their speed increased.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the tunnel straightened and started to level out. The sound of water falling could be heard in the distance, and soon the noise became almost deafening. Up ahead, Ari saw the light shining through thick branches, and he let out a breath of relief when they reached the end of the tunnel. Zoties’ sharpened claws made quick work of the thick bushes and low-hanging trees that covered it.
Ari and Killian paused for a moment, trying to catch their breaths and let their eyes adjust to the light. The ant mandibles clicked sharply, and it pointed at the tunnel’s end before it started walking in the opposite direction.
“Wait!” Ari called after the creature.
Zoties turned to face Ari and tilted its head slightly.
“Your comrades”—Ari paused, trying to find the best words—“they are dead. You need to save yourself.”
Ari barely even heard his voice because of the waterfall, but he had to try to convince the creature. Zoties mandibles clicked again, and it stared at him with its bulbous eyes.
“Queen. Help.” Those two words appeared in Ari’s mind.
“You can’t help them if you die too. Come with us, and we will keep you safe.”
Ari didn’t know how he would hide a two-meter tall ant in a world full of monster hunters, but he would find a way to do it. He had to.
“If queen dead, I dead.”
Zoties responded, and without waiting for an answer, ran deeper into the tunnel. Ari shouted after him, but the ant ignored his pleas. As its figure vanished into the darkness, something inside of him snapped. Years of bottled-up frustration surged through his veins and into his fingertips.
“Fuck! Why didn't he listen?!” Ari screamed in anger and smashed his fist into the wall, leaving a gaping hole.
Breathing hard, he glanced at Killian, standing beside him. The squirrel hid behind the archer’s legs, and they both looked up at him in worry.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ari caught a glimpse of something in the tunnel. Filled with hope, he turned and peered into the darkness, hoping that Zoties decided to return, but his smile froze on his lips when he saw the purple lights.