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Book 7, Chapter 51 - The Eternal

 The world was big and its denizens varied.

Beast Riders were not uncommon in the wastes. Lizards and leopards were just the beginning; rats, snakes, eagles - all relatively common to find. Now, though, it seems ant-riders were added to the list!

A whole army of them! How had they managed to domesticate these insects?

The ants alone numbered in the tens of thousands, with thousands more bearing riders. The ant soldiers rode insects the size of warhorses and carried weird hooked poles. Their left hands were all covered in gauntlets that tickled Cloudhawk's sixth sense. He told his companions to be wary.

Ants continued to pour out from the valleys around them. It was impossible to know if there were thousands more just beneath their feet, ready to strike.

It was all a matter of scale. Even the most insignificant thing could be as deadly as a panther when blown up to monstrous proportions. These ants were covered in chitinous armor stronger than iron and their legs were like steel rods. An awful chittering sound followed them as the pincers around they maw snapped. The ax-like mandibles could bite through armor.

Ants were low-grade insects ordinarily, but these had evolved keen sight and extrasensory perception. They even had rudimentary intelligence, so they were smart enough not funnel in one by one. Instead they surrounded Cloudhawk and waited for the right time to strike.

They were almost ready. Cloudhawk's pupils contracted and there was a flesh of red within. His mental energy was released, infecting the ants with fear and holding them temporarily at bay.

"We're not here to fight. Get Belial out here." The demon Elder was their target. He didn't want to waste time squishing pests. However this welcoming committee was definitely under Belial's control. A fight seemed inevitable.

Belial had spent the thousand years since the Great War wandering the earth. Centuries were spent sifting through Elysian lands and building his forces. Indeed Cloudhawk and his companions were a rare class of fighters, but against a swarm of this size there was still the chance they would be ripped apart. What's more, the cunning Elder was probably lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to strike.

Cloudhawk wasn't foolish enough to underestimate Belial. Not Gehenna's greatest artisan.

But just as things seemed overwhelming some of the ants parted. They cleared a route to allow one of their leaders to emerge.

This rider bore a long spear and sat upon a particularly imposing giant ant. It was then Cloudhawk noted that the gear these riders wore was peculiar. They were covered from head to toe in gray cloth with their hoods raised. The rider's face was also veiled so that the only thing Cloudhawk could see were his red eyes.

Strange. How could they tolerate the heat in those robes?

All of the riders were dressed the same; wrapped in gray with concealing masks, gauntlets on their left hands and hooked spears clutched in their right. They reminded him of wizards he read about in old books.

A strange guttural sound emerged from the leaders' throat, like rough leather rubbing together. Cloudhawk paused... it seemed this 'wizard' was speaking, or trying to. Had they lost use of their vocal cords?

To him the sounds this creature made were meaningless. But that wasn't so outside his experience - some mutants were so deformed that they couldn't use their throats or mouths and had to adapt. So did that mean these riders were mutants? Was this some sort of tribe?

It was clear there was no way to understand what this rider was trying to communicate. Without another sound the wizard pulled forth a pitch black dagger.

Was he preparing to strike? Cloudhawk was ready, but in a surprise turn the wizard flipped the dagger around and plunged it into his own chest. He forced the dark steel in, centimeter by centimeter until it was buried up to the hilt.

Coudhawk wasn't sure how to react. This idiot didn't have to kill himself because they couldn't talk!

But there was no sign from the man that he was in pain. There was no reaction at all. It was as though it wasn't a body the dagger pierced at all, and in fact there was no blood leaking from the wound. Rather a thick black smoke poured forth and began to congeal.

A few moments later the wound closed up. This strange wizard was unharmed, even his robes were intact. Returning the dagger to his waist the rider continued to make rasping noises at Cloudhawk and then... bowed? Like he was entreating something.

"I know what they are." Jara spoke up with a hesitant, quavering voice. "They are the Eternal! Creatures that live forever! The legends are true..."

But something was bothering Autumn, making her ill at ease. She held tightly to her flute, ready to unleash the Shepherd God's power at a moment's notice to control the ants. Frost and Abaddon could deal with the riders.

As for Cloudhawk? He needed to conserve his strength! Only his spatial abilities could ensure a safe escape if they needed it. Furthermore, he was the only one who could defeat Belial.

The Eternal's superhuman regenerative abilities meant this conflict would be much harder than originally thought. It wasn't even certain if blowing them to pieces could keep them down.

Slowly, the leader raised his staff. The other riders reacted to this signal... by stepping aside. A long passage was formed through the swarm, which took Cloudhawk and the others by surprise. Their intention had been to storm this stronghold, but instead of fighting back these natives offered no resistance. They were letting them pass. What did it mean? Cloudhawk looked over his shoulder at the others and shrugged. They would deal with things as they occurred.

They followed the passage toward a cave.

Kesjir's cave system dug into solid rock, likely created by the ants themselves with their mighty jaws and powerful acids. Below was a maze-like network that was heavily traversed by the insects. They could jump out from the many exits to attack intruders.

Only this time they didn't. The ant riders, brandishing their hooked spears, kept the unbridled insects at bay. A kind of energy was released by the spears that allowed them to control the ants and prevent them from attacking.

They were some sort of relic. It was how these wizard-like natives were able to live and thrive here. Cloudhawk guessed the gauntlets on their left hand were offensive relics, but he also felt a resonance from the body of these beings as well.

He suspected Belial had done something to them, changed these people in some way. It was where their strange power came from. The way the smoke had appeared... it reminded him of Blackfiend the Undying.

Cloudhawk imagined there was much about these wizards that was similar to Blackfiend. Had they been turned into immortal fiends by Belial, like Skycloud's Seraphs? If that were the case then a thousand of them would be a formidable threat.

Worry was heard in Autumn's voice. "If we follow them in there are we walking into a trap? Remember, these people belong to the demon."

"Don't worry, I don't think they'll pull any tricks. Actually, I think they want to help," Cloudhawk mused. "I've been testing this place's enchantments. It's more like a cage, stopping people from coming in but also keeping the Eternal from going out."

Autumn understood. These folk were prisoners. And as they all mulled over the implications a scene unfolded before them.

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