Things weren't going the way they were meant to. When things in the Dungeon didn't go the way they were meant to, that usually indicated something was going very wrong. There wasn't a single Dungeon delver who didn't feel the same way. As chaotic and unpredictable as the place was, there were ways to combat it, knowledge that was sure and tested over hundreds of years. When creepers were around, you packed up and tried to lose them. When Binding Spiders appeared, you burned them out of their nests. When ants turned up, they would mindlessly devour everything they found, regardless of the cost.
So what exactly was happening here?
Ants that invaded a specific outpost, left survivors, took prisoners? It made no sense. Not only did it not make sense, it was completely unfathomable. There just wasn't enough information to hand, particularly with how silent the Shapers were being, to try and draw any accurate conclusions.
This made Ferrox Irron concerned. He didn't like being concerned.
His armour shifted uncomfortably around him as he walked in the centre of the expedition and he cursed. He must have made a mistake when strapping it on that morning. The stuff was a right pain in the true-skin to attach and cost a fortune to maintain, but it had proved its use in battle on more than one occasion. He ran one hand down the runic inscription on the inner side of the gauntlets. The mana density here wasn't nearly high enough to maintain constant use, but would last for a good ten, twenty minutes of hard fighting if it kept charging at the current rate.
He was getting irritable. His feet hurt, his back hurt, his armour was chafing and the enemy wasn't behaving the way they were supposed to. This was starting to feel like a truly disastrous outing.
"Stellen! What the hell is going on up there?" He demanded of his attendant.
"Lord Irron. There appears to be some manner of disagreement amongst the Seekers."
"The useless mutt managers. What's the problem this time?"
The attendant checked his master with a quick glance, observing the slight frown and general air of disagreeability that hung around the man. He'd told the man not to attempt to don his armour without assistance, but what would a lowly attendant know? He sighed without thinking and managed to cover it with a slight cough.
"Haa-hem! From what I can ascertain, my lord, there appears to be some disagreement about the route we should take."
The irritable feeling that had been niggling at Ferrox flared into full blown anger for a moment before he was able to tamp it down. He'd known this was coming, he'd felt it clear as day.
"Go and tell them to present themselves here so their betters can sort it out," he ordered Stellen before he collapsed into silent meditation.
If he were to get through the rest of the day without doing something he'd regret then he'd need to try and find some calm.
"Why Irron, what troubles you so?" Came a cloying and coquettish voice from behind him.
He jerked around too quickly and his armour grated against his true-skin underneath, scraping against the ore. He cursed. That sort of damage would take hours to buff out of his true-skin. Won't Stellen be pleased. The look on the smug attendant's face as he polished his master would be just another nail in the coffin of Irron's mood.
"Is there some reason you have addressed me, Lady Calytryx?" He managed to push the polite address through his gritted teeth.
"Not at all, my lord Irron," the laughter in her voice said otherwise, "I merely observe that you appear a touch out of sorts. Whatever could be the trouble to dent the jovial attitude of such a regarded noble?"
Oregal Calytryx took great pleasure in seeing her old rival and fellow veteran noble suffering. Retiring to the edge of the empire had been a move they'd both made hoping to be rid of others like them, only to find they now lived within the same circle in the same city! The niggling war had begun immediately and no ceasefire was in sight.
"You know, Calytryx," Irron grated, acerbically, "I've no idea how that husband of yours manages to stay so cheerful, given his circumstances."
"Lord Calytryx is an endless optimist."
"Mired in the bottom of a well."
"He couldn't have finer company."
The two lapsed into companionable silence as they waited for the others to come to them, as proper nobles should. The titles weighed on the both of them, but it was hardly something they were allowed to put down. In a few long minutes, Stellen returned with a half-dozen grumpy looking Seekers, their pets trailing at their heels.
"What's the problem?" Irron demanded. "We have a rather important task to be about, do we not? Why the delay?"
"I have spoken to our eminent Seekers and it appears that they do not agree on the direction the quarry we pursue has travelled."
"I found the scent trail down the westward tunnel break, my lord. Strong it was, near made my snuffer sneeze his nose off."
"Please, my lord and lady, this man is a fool. My charges and I found the trail leading to the northeast, clear as day."
"Haven't you both just located divergent scout trails?" Irron snapped.
Both Seekers hastily assured him that they had located the correct trail, far too strong for a few scouts, and the other Seeker had clearly made the blunder.
"This is odd, Irron," Calytryx observed.
"I agree," he nodded, grim. His poor mood was proving more prophetic than he'd supposed. "The possibility exists that both of these men are correct and we are being led on a false trail"
"Such a thing would be unusual," his fellow noble observed carefully.
Unusual? It would be completely unheard of in the annals of Golgari history. An ant colony with the sort of intelligence to pull a manoeuvre like this? It didn't bear thinking about. Yet it remained consistent with what they knew of these monsters. Strange behaviour, unusual goals and methods. It would be foolish to think that normal thinking and methods would apply in this case.
"I don't like this," he muttered.
"We don't know enough," Calytryx agreed.
Irron sank deep into thought. If these damnable Dungeon spawn were able to consider the ways in which they might be being tracked and attempt countermeasures then they possessed more advanced thought processes than any hive creature the Golgari had ever encountered. Which meant they would be incredibly dangerous. The possibility still existed that this was all a coincidence, but such a thing was becoming increasingly unlikely. Irron hadn't risen to being a noble, the most celebrated caste of soldiers in the empire, by ignoring his instincts.
"Bring me the Farseers and the Shapers," he ordered.
In short order it was done. The robed Farseers stood before him in their robes and holding their staves in one hand. Irron tried not to pull a face, the Farseers were a difficult lot to get along with, they always seemed delighted to know something you didn't, but they were necessary out in the Dungeon. The Shapers on the other hand, know-it-all do nothings and scholars. Just being around them set his teeth on edge. The Shaper in front of him now, put in charge of his fellow mages by virtue of his close knowledge of the quarry, was not much like the Shapers Irron had met in the past, but he disliked the man on principle.
"We report to you, as you requested, my lord," the Farseer envoy bowed low.
"What do you want?" The Shaper grunted.
Irron reigned in his temper before he smashed the man into pieces with a single punch.
"It appears the quarry is taking measures to avoid being traced by their scent," he told them. "I asked for the esteemed Farseers so that they might report if their own methods of tracking remained unhindered."
"It is so, my lord," the Farseer bowed once more. "Their feet have touched the Dungeon and so it knows them. So long as it does, we do as well."
That was good news.
"I've asked for the Shaper representative to join us in case there is any new information to share with us. It would seem these ants are behaving in ways that are beyond what we might expect from monsters such as these. Has anything trickled out of that highly trained mind of yours, Shaper? Something that might save Golgari lives?"
"Not a damned thing," Granin grunted.