Somewhat cynically, Granin noted that it was Biritite Cryslas, the fresh faced youngster who stepped forward to address the gathered Shapers. Presenting the face of change, the new way, as full of promise and youthful vigour. An innocent face atop the monster beneath. Granin couldn't help but curse in his mind. Stuck here in the outpost he didn't have any opportunity to contact his own allies in the cult. The broader picture hovered beyond his grasp. It was possible that the insane bloodsport that was about to take place here was being replicated across cult strongholds all over the Golgari empire. How many promising monsters, reared with care over years, the culmination of all the research and effort of their forebears would be destroyed in the pursuit of this short sightedness?
"Welcome all. It's wonderful to see so many members of the Cult of the Worm able to meet in such open congress. This is certainly the first time I've been able to witness such a gathering, but I'm certain there will be many more in the near future."
Warm applause greeted these words as Cryslas managed to look both abashed and pleased at the approbation of her fellows. Behind her, the two older members of her triad looked on with approval.
"As happy as I am, as we all are, to witness the strides the Cult of the Worm has taken over the last decade, we must be sure that we don't rest on our laurels. The leadership has determined that a sense of urgency must infuse our work going forward. Our purpose has remained the same over the duration of our existence. To reach that end we have accumulated knowledge, experience and resources through rigorous experimentation and practical application of our craft.
"But now comes the time when we must put these things to use. The pressure is building upon us and we need to apply that pressure to our charges. In the heat of the crucible we hope to create a perfect being. Perfect as Yarrum is perfect. A monster of indomitable strength, unyielding will and inevitable victory. It is our hope, that through the coming contest the final ancient will be born."
More applause, rapturous this time. Many voices called out to Yarrum, called on him to watch over their efforts as they struggled to fulfil his command and break the chains of this world. Amidst it all, Granin and his fellow triad members were a point of stillness amidst the activity. They showed no joy or acclaim, or indeed, any response at all. Ever watchful, Irette Plamine, first in the leading triad in the outpost, took notice of this lack of enthusiasm but quickly dismissed it. The ant would be crushed underfoot soon enough, there was no need to be concerned with Lazus and his ilk.
Cryslas raised one hand and quiet gradually descended on the gathering.
"Each triad here represents one monster in the coming trial, one hope of the cult. I urge that each and every one of you give your all to ensure that your charge puts forward all of their strength. Only through your combined efforts will we be able to crown the most deserving candidate. We have gathered together worthy specimens from cult strongholds across a five hundred kilometre stretch of the empire. An effort that has proven once again the growing might and influence of our cause. Each of these specimens represent the hope and distilled wisdom of our elders and I for one can't wait to see which will be the most worthy!"
Shouts and cheers rose from the gathered shapers as they called out the names of their own charges, each wanting to demonstrate their conviction that it would be their own monster who would reign supreme. Granin had doubts. If his hunch was correct, the leading triad already had a favourite picked out, the contest was an excuse to feed as much experience and biomass to their chosen monster as possible.
"The pairings for the first round have been drawn. To ensure objectivity, my triad and I have randomised the process to the best of our ability. If you have any concerns with the draw, please don't hesitate to speak with Oridene Gravus."
The old Golgari glared hard at the surrounding shapers as if daring them to bring a complaint before him. Granin doubted anyone would take them up on the offer. Not delaying any longer, Cryslas turned and summoned a block of stone from the floor using earth magic. With another wave, letters began to appear on the stone, revealing the pairings for all to see.
There was immediately jostling for position as the eager shapers pushed past each other to get a better glimpse, as if that they could seize some sort of advantage by finding the name of their opponent a few seconds ahead of the enemy. Although Corun bounced on his heels a bit, their triad waited patiently for the frenzy to die down before they began to push their way forward.
When he finally reached the stone Granin ran his eyes over it dispassionately until he found the name he was looking for. Seeing the opponent, his eyes flickered, then he turned back to his two allies.
"Let's go. We've got work to do."
The two of them nodded and as a unit they walked away from the excited murmurings of the gathering behind them.
They had to trade a few favours to get the information they wanted, but in the end it was easier than Granin had thought it would be. If there was one thing that Shapers were eager to blabber about it was powerful monsters.
"What do you think, boss?" Corun asked, concern written all over his face.
In contrast, Torrina looked much more composed. Granin eyed her appreciatively. It seemed as if she had already reached the same conclusions that he had, but with access to less information. She really was a hidden gem. He'd lucked out when the other triads had refused to take her. She was the most promising young Golgari he'd seen for a long time.
"They've mucked up," Granin stated confidently. "They wanted to crush Anthony early and use him as food for one of their pet favourites. I expected as much from the beginning. Heartless cretins. Despite the fact he's a reincarnator, they just don't believe that the ant archetype has any hope of becoming individually strong."
He couldn't help but shrug a little sheepishly.
"I have to say, I agreed with them until very recently. Common wisdom in the Cult has dismissed ants as a dead end without promise."
"I think we know that's not true anymore," Torrina stated.
"Don't get ahead of yourselves," Granin warned, "our current charge is far stronger than I would have expected an ant to get, but he's far from achieving the sort of level he needs. We just got lucky in the first round."
Corun was still confused.
"I don't get it, it'd be nice if someone clued me in."
Granin slapped him on the back.
"In their hubris, they've played straight into our greatest strength, putting the heaviest, slowest beast they have up against the ant. All power, no brain." He huffed with displeasure. "No elegance at all."
"Isn't that a bad thing? Big and strong? It sounds like Anthony is going to get crushed like a . Bug?"
"Not to worry. I think we'll get to see some interesting faces tomorrow." Granin chuckled evilly. "I can hardly wait."