The combat grounds had been used by the Cult of the Worm to conduct field tests and training for prospective candidates for many years. It was a wide, circular field of loose sand and obstructing stones that had been created for this purpose. It wasn't easy to operate this kind of facility under the nose of the Shaper's circle, which is why the cult strictly practiced these sorts of activities in out of the way outposts, away from the cities and the prying eyes of those who would obstruct them. This was, however, the first time the combat grounds would be used for such a brutal and bloody competition as this.
Oridene Gravus shifted in his seat as the murmur and hum of his fellow cult members around him increased in pitch and intensity. Tonight, the first few battles of the contest would take place and there were several bouts that he was looking forward to, in particular the first. Customarily the viewing area would be a place of silent reflection and learning as diligent cult members helped to train their candidates through live battle. On this particular night, things were a little more energetic. Even though he was happy to acknowledge the influx of energy and enthusiasm into the Cult over the last decade, Gravus could admit to himself that he wasn't fully comfortable with the rapid pace of change taking place.
But he would endure it, gladly. Creating and guiding the twentieth ancient was a sacred task, bestowed upon them by the Eternal Worm itself, a being so much greater than the entire Golgari empire put together. When the circle was complete and their shackles were broken, they would experience true freedom. For this, any sacrifice was worth it.
A rattling sound reached his ears and he turned his head toward the main gates, sitting forward in anticipation. This promised to be an interesting spectacle. On the far end of the combat grounds, the gate inched upwards until it locked into position with a resounding crash. From the shadowed recesses of the tunnel, a large monster emerged tentatively. The ant had arrived.
Immediately the tone of the watching Shapers became derisive and critical. Gravus didn't even need to hear what they were saying to understand the sentiments that they expressed. Although the ant type monster was amongst the most feared and despised of all the different archetypes, nobody had high hopes for this creature. It was almost ironic. Ants had caused untold amounts of devastation throughout the Dungeon over the centuries, wiping out cities, annihilating eco systems and cleansing vast swathes of territory in breathtakingly short spans of time. The discovery of a nest was enough to put most of the Dungeon's civilised powers on a war footing until complete extermination had been achieved. Yet Gravus couldn't muster any fear of this creature. A lone ant was only fearsome because it signified the presence of a horde of similar creatures nearby. No Dungeon inhabitant throughout all of Pangera would lose to a single ant! Baseline stats were too low, offensive potential was weak, defensive prowess was still below average, well below average for an invertebrate. They came from such a low base and potential evolutions just had such little promise. It was just this creature's poor luck to be reborn as such a weak monster.
To his knowledge, this was the first and only reincarnator to be born into an ant monster, at least that had come to the attention of the Cult. In many ways, it was quite a waste. This Anthony character had an interesting attitude. If circumstances had been different, there was a chance that cooperation between them would have been fruitful. Alas, the unfortunate nature of his rebirth made it impossible. Reincarnated monsters were something of a special interest for the cult, as they often provided the greatest insights. A cooperative monster like Sarah was a gold mine of information and research. What was so pitiful about Anthony's case was that there was simply no interest within the cult to investigate the possibilities of an individual ant.
Gravus almost started when someone suddenly sat down heavily beside him, interrupting his musings as he looked down on the unnaturally still insect brooding in the grounds. He was quite irritated to realise it was Granin Lazus.
"Don't you have somewhere to be? Like supporting your candidate alongside your triad?" Gravus groused.
Granin responded with a wry chuckle.
"I don't think too much fussing is going to be necessary for this one, Gravus. Do you?"
Oridene Gravus grunted in response. At least Lazus wasn't a complete fool, despite what his record might suggest. He'd probably seen the writing on the wall the moment the pairings had been released and not bothered wasting any time on the creature.
"I'm glad to see you've held on to a little of your intellect." Gravus harrumphed.
"Oh stow it, you cantankerous goat," Granin replied, "always convinced you're on the right side of everything, aren't you? Not much has changed. If I didn't want to see your face at the end of this, I wouldn't have bothered sitting up here."
Having said his piece, Granin folded both arms across his chest and stared down into the pit with rapt attention as the opposing gate began to rattle open. Somewhat taken aback by his fellow Shaper's words, Gravus took a few seconds to process what he'd heard. Did Granin actually think that the ant could win? Had he gone completely soft in the head? Too much time out in the field might have weakened his judgement perhaps? With a contemptuous snort, the older of the two Shapers turned his attention back to the field. He'd ignore this fool's jibes for now, plenty of time to make him eat his words when his charge had been flattened and eaten.
With a resounding crash, the second gate slammed into position and from the shadows a massive creature shuffled forward. When it was fully revealed there were gasps and a wave of excited chattering arose from the spectating cult members. A huge, bulky frame supported on eight thick, powerful legs, the Rhinosergradon was an imposing sight. A large, brutish head that sported three gleaming horns emerged into the light, thick bone plating pushing through the leathery skin provided even more defence atop the rock hard skin that covered the creature.
It was a slow moving boulder of a monster, at least four times the weight of the ant that faced it from across the field. The moment it laid its eyes on its opponent, the hulking brute huffed out a blast of air, lowered its horn and charged! The ground rumbled beneath the beast's feet, even the seat beneath Gravus vibrated with each step, causing an appreciative gleam to light up in his eye. Trying to contain the smug feeling that arose in his heart, he glanced toward the Shaper sitting next to him. To his surprise, Granin didn't look in the least bit worried. In fact, he looked more calm than before.
"It's even slower than I thought it would be," Granin observed, "this thing is so slow moving, no way you could trust it to hit a deadline."