Granin Lazus looked around the room with thinly veiled contempt. He didn't recognise most of the Cult members who were present. The new blood had flooded this outpost, filling it to the brim until the entire place stank of impatience, ignorance and disregard for tried and tested methods. All these Golgari, some of them with their true skin barely set, looked so excited to be there. Huddled together in their triads their excited whispered fill the room.
"Boss, how's our man looking? Ready to go?"
The insistent whisper of Corun Nium, second of Granin's triad probably drew more attention to them than talking in a regular voice would have done. The sibilant hiss cut through the hubbub around them and drew more than a few curious eyes. Granin just shrugged at them and tried to insinuate through gestures that his second was suffering from a mental ailment and his medication had run out.
"Boss. Hey. Boss!" Like being prodded directly in the ear with a knife, the hissing voice seemed to stab directly into his brain.
"Dammit Nium! Shut up would you!" Granin bellowed.
All sound in the chamber cut off as everyone turned to look at the cause of the disturbance. All they saw was a fuming Granin, a very slightly abashed Corun and Torrina Laksham, third of the triad, trying to shrink out of sight. Far from wanting to hide, Granin openly glared back at everyone who met his eyes until he was satisfied they had registered his anger. Gradually the sound picked up again as the various groups resumed their chatter, only then did he turn back to his second.
"Your damned stage whisper is the least effective possible way of hiding what you want to talk about. Just speak like a normal person."
"Sorry, Boss. I'm just worried. The Cult has never done anything like this before, have they?"
"They haven't" Torrina broke in quietly from the side, "at least according to all the records that I can access."
"That's what I'm saying. Is Anthony going to be alright? How's he feeling? I can't imagine he's in a good place right now."
He did look genuinely concerned and Granin couldn't help but wonder again at how quickly the cursed insect had managed to win over the members of his triad. His own conversations with the creature were irritating more than anything else.
"He's fine," he grunted, "I wouldn't say that he's happy about the situation. Far from it. But he's managed to wrap his head around what's going to happen to him."
"Did you find time to talk to him about strategy? About his build? What sort of Skills are we working with?" Torrina asked, her voice quiet but intense.
"First off, he wouldn't let me look at his core. Damned ingrate."
The other two members of the triad shared a glance.
"I'm not too surprised by that," Corun said slowly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Granin huffed.
"Well. You haven't exactly endeared yourself to him. You have to admit, your demeanour is less than friendly at the best of times, and towards Anthony you've been particularly cold."
Torrina nodded in agreement, which soured Granin's mood.
"I haven't been that bad," he protested. Then he reflected. "Have I?" he wondered, sounding far less convinced than a moment ago.
The two younger shapers shared another look with seemed to confirm the mounting suspicion that he'd treated the newest member of the Cult's menagerie worse than he should have.
"Look, I did manage to talk to him a fair bit. He was cagey, and there was a lot he didn't want to share, but we managed to find a few things that he can work on before this circus gets started. We three know that he's got a lot more going on under the hood than people expect. He's going to shock some of these morons, I have no doubt about that."
Corun smiled and nodded. This was what he wanted to hear!
"Do you think he's got a chance of winning this thing? That's his only way of getting out alive, right?"
The still expression that came over his leader's face didn't inspire a lot of confidence in him.
"Granin?" He asked.
"I'm not sure he's going to have what it takes to go all the way," he said reluctantly. "I know there's a few projects that the Cult has squirreled away for a long time. If they've been brought here and dragged into this mess then it would be hard to see the ant making it through alive."
"Let's hope he doesn't get put against such a monster in the first round then." Torrina observed quietly.
The three of them fell into a grim silence as they each contemplated the fate of their charge in the upcoming battles. All around them the Shapers of the cult engaged in polite small talk, animated discussion and quiet strategizing about their own prospects in the tournament. Observations, tips and pointers were exchanged as the Golgari mages tried to predict the outcomes of theoretical matchups and considered the finer points of monster archetypes. The atrium was the perfect space for this kind of thing. A wide chamber with soft and comfortable furniture for reclining in, sconces and columns around which small groups would naturally form. Anytime the Shapers would hold some form of gathering it would inevitably be in a space such as this. Granin hated them, much as he hated all of the formal settings he was forced to endure. He would rather be in the field. Out there he was able to make his own decisions and didn't have to put up with other's idiocy.
A short time later there came a single, loud chime that resounded through the space with unnatural clarity, cutting through all conversation and silencing any words yet to escape from lips. The note hung in the air pure and clean as the chatter ceased as if cut by a knife and all in attendance turned toward the centre of the space where the leading triad had assembled to address the gathering.