At this moment, with my head filled with the glorious victory of the new super-ant race, I notice something a little odd.
There is a dull ache coming right from my core.
What the heck is with that? What on Pangera makes your core hurt? Do I have core-itis? Flu of the core? Seasonal Core swelling?
I'm unusually disturbed by this inexplicable pain. Once formed, the core is attached to a monsters life force. If anything where to happen to it I'm not sure how long I'd last!
Focusing intently on this feeling I try to analyse it. When I carefully sense the area around my core the issue becomes clearer, there is more going on than meets the eye. Almost like a lung that is slowly leaking, as time passes my core is slowly draining energy out into the air. Almost as if when my body tries to draw in mana there isn't anything there and then I 'exhale' mana out.
I'm losing mana!
As time passes the loss becomes more noticeable until I was stuck with this pain that I can now feel. It's literally my core gasping for air! I need mana! Whilst the pain is completely debilitating now it's only going to get worse the more energy I leak.
I suddenly realise that this must have been what was inflicting the Queen! Weakened and in pain by the lack of mana she had literally been bleeding her life out into the air until I had finally noticed something was wrong.
I can't help but get a little emotional.
Dammit Mother! Just how self-sacrificing can you be!? Just because I'd said the colony would be safe on the surface you were willing to bleed mana from your core until you died?! Why is it the best Mother I've ever had is a giant ant?
Well now I feel like garbage. Not only because my core is increasingly pained but the guilt of unknowingly causing such suffering to a dear parent. I'll make it up to you Queen! You'll be the mother of the most successful ant colony in the history of the entire .. Wherever we are!
I'm not really sure if this is the same universe as the one I was born it, come to think of it. Something to ask Gandalf if I ever see him again.
Well now that I know about this problem, what am I going to do about it? The fact that it took a few days for the problem to grow this severe means I'm not completely unable to operate on the surface, I'll just have to take frequent trips underground. Actually, is this the reason that Tiny has relocated himself underground? It's possible that his core has also advanced to the point where he can't sustain himself on the surface level of mana.
Sighing to myself I grasp my bag of unworked on cores in my mandibles and make my way down to where Tiny is currently sitting munching on some low level plants that leapt out of the walls and into his waiting hands.
As soon as I descend past the surface level and into the Dungeon proper I can feel a sense of relief. As the light emitted by the mana veins washes over me and my feet begin drinking energy in a steady flow the pain in my core begins to ease. I can feel myself getting a little more energetic and alert as I stop leeching out my life into the air. Feels good!
This incident does really hit home at something that Gandalf said. When he told me I might join him one day he suggested I might have a choice but to go further down. Is this what he meant? Every time I condense my core and evolve I'll have a higher requirement for mana, forcing me to live deeper and deeper in the Dungeon? I guess this explains why the most powerful monsters live closer to the center
I'm not sure how I feel about this. Obviously evolving is the best thing in the universe I should keep doing it, but then aren't I basically imprisoning myself?
It's complicated! Think about it later!
This is my policy and I'll stick to it!
Tiny seems quite relaxed down here, his silvery hair taking on a distinct blue shade in the reflected light of the Dungeon. I pass him the bag and then take some time to hollow out a chamber for us to use, shoving the loose soil further down the tunnel. Once that's done I ask Tiny to keep watch for me and rest a little before resuming my core grinding. I don't want to rush over and start working on the Queen's core straight away with Core Surgery at level 1. If I can push a few more levels out of it then I'll be more confident at being able to achieve my goal.
Back to grinding!
It takes a few more naps and one hundred cores before I finally achieve Core Surgery level 3. By this time my brain feels like a puddle of sludge and my other brains aren't much better. Despite my improved mental power, grinding through so many cores in such a short time has pushed me right up to the wall. This kind of speed would have been completely impossible before my evolution so there is that to celebrate. I have to say though, training this line of skills is a pain in the ass!
Who has one hundred cores lying around, Gandalf?!
All in all I've nearly gone through two hundred cores over the last few days, perfecting my skill at making nuanced changes to monsters and grinding that precious xp to get to this point. How long would it have taken me to amass all of these cores if I hadn't been able to rob the Lirian vault?
Not wanting to waste the opportunity I flick cores at Tiny until he's full up. He's at the same level of evolution as I am so it takes fifty cores for him to top out, then I do the same for myself.
[Your core has reached max capacity for your level of evolution].
Hue hue hue hue.
So soon after evolving and my core is already maxed out. It feels so good! All we need now is the special cores but there is no way I'm going to put up with that pain for an extended time again. I can whip those up right when we are ready to evolve.
Although. If you give it enough time would you get used to it enough that you could absorb a second one..
As if reading my thoughts Tiny raises his head a glares at me with his dark red eyes.
I don't think I'll be able to raise the skill any higher for the short term, so I take good nap, getting Tiny to defend me from the spawning monsters and making sure he feeds the Biomass to Crinis.
When I wake up I'm fully refreshed. Time to head over to the Queen and try this out!
Zipping up the tunnel, full of beans I push my way through the crowd of workers and come face to face with Mother once again. The giant ant is quite placid at the moment, perhaps enjoying this interlude of relative quiet.
"Hello Mother, how are things?" I enquire.
She reaches forward to tap on my head. "I am well little one. The colony has been safe here, you have done well".
Awwww shucks! I'm not used to this sort of praise. If I could blush I would!
"Thanks Mother" I beam, "I'm glad I could help!"
"Of course child. We should always seek to better our family" she says warmly.
"Exactly! That's why I'm here!" I say enthusiastically, "I've gained a skill that will allow me to make all of the ants in the colony stronger!"
The Queen's antennae whip about a little in surprise. "Really child? That's wonderful" she says.
Now for the tricky bit. I hesitate a little at this point. "Thing is, it'll only work on the ants who haven't been born yet, I can't do anything to the family members who are already alive".
The Queen seems confused. "What are you planning on doing?" she asks.
I really have no idea how the monstrous Queen is going to react to the idea of me modifying her core. She is quite intelligent for a monster but her own logic and mine and quite different, as well as our experiences. This Queen is still not even one year old, after all, she can't compare to my own nearly sixteen years of life.
"This is what I can do" I decide to explain it all carefully, "I can perform the skill on your core, while you rest here. Then I can make the young that will be born in the future more powerful, smarter. I'm hoping that by doing this more of them will be able to survive and grow until they can evolve, making the colony stronger"
The Queen wibbles her antennae around for a while as she digests this news. "So you think you will be able to keep more children alive?" she asks.
"Yes" I reply, "Their species won't change and they will still be our family, but they'll be better equipped to survive and live a long life. What do you think?"
This is the magic moment. I've worked so hard to try and make this project a reality but if the Queen says no then I won't question it. The project will die right here. Perhaps it's silly to take the feeling of a monster into account but this giant ant is no ordinary monster to me, this is the best parent and family member I've ever had.
My main motivation for this project isn't even for ant world domination. I just don't want to see my siblings throwing their lives way anymore. I want them to be smart enough to retreat when needed and be able to take care of themselves.
I look the Queen straight in the eye and await her judgement. I tried to be as honest as I could and explain things in a way she could understand. My heart is pounding in my chest as she gazes calmly back at me.
Eventually she speaks.
"Of course child. It is the responsibility of every member of our family to strengthen the whole. If you can achieve this we will all benefit. That is what being part of the colony is about. You can start when you are ready".
Of course, I should never have doubted the Queen's capacity to risk herself for her children.