Having had just one disciple for months now, Anton expected to get another in short order. And he did, but not the individual he expected most. Sustained Chittering had been quite impressed by the power Three Squeaks showed helping Lowcliff Burrow, and she was among those who had come to join Shadysands Burrow. It would have also been less intimidating to approach him through Three Squeaks.
Perhaps that might still happen, but instead someone else came along as he was working in his little food patch. One of the meerkats simply waddled over to him. If Anton remembered correctly his name was basically a single sound. Meep was a good approximation.
The meerkat spoke slowly, each sound punctuated by its solitude. “You… make… food?”
“I grow food,” Anton agreed. “Seeds become plants which are food,” Anton gestured.
“Food… only… on… surface?”
Anton pondered the question for a moment. His initial instinct was to explain that food grew from and into the ground, but that might not have been the real question that was being asked. “My people live on the surface,” Anton said. “So we tend to plant near the surface. Either way, plants mostly require sunlight to grow.”
“What… about… deep… roots?”
The meerkats didn’t have- or at least hadn’t used– the relevant botany related words for Anton to explain properly, but he did his best. “Most roots will come from a plant growing on the surface.” He scanned the area with his senses just in case, and while there were indeed roots poking into the meerkats’ burrow, they all came from above. “Very few things grow without light.” Many fungus did, of course, and then there was everything from Aipra. But Anton didn’t know if the meerkats could digest any of that stuff. “Some plants that might not be safe to eat,” Anton added.
“Will… try… plants. Staying… underground… safer.” Meep looked up to the skies.
“You have guards keeping you safe, too. And they will get stronger.”
“Yes. Guards… keep… safe. Better… for… them… if… we… don’t… roam… far.”
Anton nodded. He supposed the other side of the hill counted as ‘far’ by some metrics. “I have some plants you can try to grow. But you need to be careful when eating them.” Anton could help someone that ingested something poisonous if he was around. In the worst case scenario, he could entirely remove the poison from their system, though it might be a bit harsh on their body.
“Show… me… how… to… grow,” Meep requested.
“It might be a lot of work to get nothing useful,” Anton warned.
“But… it… could… be… good?”
“It could be,” Anton agreed. “But it will probably take a season or more.”
“I… will… try.”
Well, Anton couldn’t deny anyone with an industrious personality. “Alright. But if you want to do it better, you’re also going to have to cultivate energy.”
“How… do… I… start?”
Anton had the answer for that. And he was also developing a series of modifications to the One Hundred Stars given the differences he’d observed in the various meerkats. “First you need to sense natural energy. Some of it is all around you. You can breathe it in, absorb some of it as heat through your skin. Or fur. Or eat it.”
“Good… food… for… guards,” Meep said. “They… need.”
“They might need it more,” Anton agreed. “But everyone else can do more with some.”
“Good… food… can’t… catch.”
“That’s why you want to grow it, right?” Anton asked. The meerkats tended to eat all sorts of insects. Or really, anything smaller than them. Fruit, seeds, and root vegetables were still options of course, but they were far from herbivores. “These plants I grew to feed to whoever I want. So you can also have some.”
“Not… just… Squeak… Squeak… Squeak?”
“No, Three Squeaks doesn’t even need all of this. Besides, he seems to like the crunch of scorpions and beetles more.” Anton was glad that the stick and leaf bugs that appeared to be sapient were quite a distance away. Because while he could tell the meerkats not to eat them, it was better if it came with understandable reasons instead of just ‘I told you so’. For that, more mental development was better. Three Squeaks was just about on the verge of breaking through in that area regarding Body Tempering. In fact he might have snuck off for just that.
And now… he was skittering back towards Anton with a fierce determination.
Peace and serenity… were difficult to obtain when anything in the sky could try to swoop down and eat you. Being inside the burrow had peace, perhaps, but serenity… not so much. Three Squeaks liked his fellow meerkats well enough, but there wasn’t exactly a place of solitude in their burrows. Which had been fine for Three Squeaks until he needed to just think about things. So many distractions.
So now he’d come out to his favorite hunting ground, one with tasty beetles. He was able to hunt many things he couldn’t before with his bow, but aside from snakes he didn’t think most things would be tasty. Maybe eagles, but Anton hadn’t wanted them to eat them for some reason.
Three Squeaks crunched on his snack and dipped out of easy sight to relax. He felt the natural energy in his stomach, and also around him. He circulated it throughout his body, focusing on his head. He had to be delicate, as he could hurt important things like his eyes and tongue. And also apparently the thing inside his skull was where he thought things, so that was important too. So, gentle… but not too gentle or he would be lacking in power. It was difficult, but Anton had helped guide him along the way.
Then he felt it. Just like when he had completed the first star. A pressure was building, but Three Squeaks found himself wrestling against it. It was quite difficult, but he’d been waiting for this day for a while. The energy within him was sufficient, and he made use of his practice to guide the energy where it needed to go.
Safely, it seemed, because when everything calmed down he could still think and see. Better than ever, in fact. It was strange, to experience such a swift change.
He planned to return to Anton to report his success, but something caught his eye. The shiny black texture of chitin. A large meal. Was it a termite? No, even though it was bigger than those, it was an ant. But strangely, it didn’t have any natural energy that he could sense. Three Squeaks looked at it. It looked back. He was certain of it.
He didn’t know why it had no natural energy despite being clearly enhanced. And he didn’t like the way it felt, to know something was there with his eyes but not his new senses upon which he had come to rely. And he especially didn’t like the idea that it was looking at him.
He turned to run. Normally, he would only be afraid of things larger than him. Or debatably snakes. Predators. But even though insects were supposed to be food, something told him it was a bad idea to try to eat this one. He scurried towards the hill, looking over his shoulder to check if he was being followed. He didn’t see anything, but that didn’t make him feel better.
He found Anton together with… was that Meep?
“Anton! I saw something dangerous!”
“Should… I… warn… the… burrow?” Meep asked.
Now wasn’t the time for an old man who could barely talk. “No. I don’t think… it will make a difference.”
“What did you see?” Anton asked.
“A big ant! A weird one that didn’t have natural energy but was scary anyway!”
“Hmm. Good instincts,” Anton said.
Three Squeaks just tilted his head.
“You don’t need to worry about that one,” Anton said, sending his senses back where Three Squeaks had come from- and picking up the distinct lack of anything that indicated the Great Queen, discernible given her particular size. “At least, not if you don’t try to eat her,” Anton clarified.
“I figured that out… somehow,” Three Squeaks admitted.
“Looks like you broke through successfully. Congratulations on your first prime tempering. You will probably think more clearly.”
“It’s… weird,” Three Squeaks said.
“I agree,” Anton said. Suddenly remembering things that he had forgotten in vivid detail was only one aspect of that. It was difficult to explain to anyone who hadn’t experienced it, it was like being in a state of great focus all the time. Except it was possible to be distracted still. Wandering thoughts still existed.
“You said ‘she’,” Three Squeaks brought up. “Like you know it. Her. What is she?”
“A void ant,” Anton said. “A very special species of ant. They consume and quickly process natural energy, and their chitin tends to break it down into nothing. She is their Great Queen, the progenitor of all of those that currently live. At least, to our knowledge. Some people tried to wipe them out because they were afraid.”
“And she is dangerous?”
“Yes. But I am also dangerous. And to a lesser extent, you are dangerous. Do not worry. The Great Queen will not suddenly try to eat you. But if in the future you find other ants like that, I would be careful with how you approach them. At some point you can meet her.”
“… I didn’t try to speak with her,” Three Squeak said.
“In this case, it would not have worked. She is not from here, and thus doesn’t know this language.”
“She speak the weird one you use sometimes?” Three Squeaks asked.
“She understands it, but she doesn’t have vocal chords,” Anton indicated the part of the neck the two of them used to make sounds.
Their conversation was cut short by an interruption. “If… there… is… no… danger… Can… you… show… me… how… to… start?”
“Of course, Meep,” Anton said. “Didn’t mean to cut you out of the conversation. I have a few different sorts of seeds. Listen carefully and I will tell you how to plant them.” Technically the things that would grow into mushroom were spores, but they served the same purpose. Anton would continue to help Meep, now that Three Squeaks was reassured.
It was very difficult for Chikere to think with constant distractions, so she did her best to cut off all sensation besides her right arm. That annoyingly bright lady was back in the room, repeating her attempts to get information from Chikere.
In a moment of weakness Chikere had asked the woman to scratch her nose, but she had just laughed and hadn’t even offered to do so in exchange for information. So Chikere was going to have to manage it herself.
There had been some talk of putting a sword in her replacement arm, but ultimately that hadn’t happened. The engineers weren’t really swordsmiths, so it would have been subpar. In some circumstances Chikere might have been happy to have a subpar sword, but now… she’d really rather avoid them.
She knew how long her arm was. Thus, she began measuring the size and shape of the room using that as a measuring stick. There was all sorts of fancy garbage in the storage room, but obviously none of it was the key to get out. Chikere would have normally just slashed the door open but… no swords. And smacking the door had just drawn unnecessary attention.
So her arm grabbed anything that seemed like it might be able to whittle away at the bottom of the door, and she began carving away. The door itself was mainly a vessel for the formation markings anyway. She didn’t want to mess with those as people would pay more attention once she did, so she just scraped away at the wood with some fancy rocks and random sharp non-swords.
Some of them were pretty useful, and she managed to get an area her arm could probably go through. That was… as far as she had thought. The only things on her mind had been that stupid itching nose, and trying to stop it.
What was she supposed to think about, if she wasn’t thinking about swords? It was strange and weird. She didn’t like it, but she also didn’t want to go back to the sword thing because it nearly made her vomit just to think about the mere concept of swords.
She focused her thoughts back on the things in the room. Some of those rocks had to be able to negate energy, right? She could just shove them through the opening she’d carved out and slink out. Energy negating rocks had to be a thing.
But if they were, the first two dozen of them weren’t any good at it. They broke and cracked on the inside of the barrier, and she swept away shards of them to make room for more. Now that she thought about it, they might have been gemstones of some kind. Not that they were any better than rocks, but some people valued such things.
She would have to try other things. About the time she was going to beg the interrogation lady to just solve her problem, she realized that the woman was gone. And there was more of her blood dripping onto the ground. The whole room smelled of iron. And that was just like swords and she hated it.