Down into the nest we plunged. Is it just me, or is the opening a lot wider than it used to be? Even Tiny fits into the main shaft quite comfortably now. I wonder what that's all about. As usual, my antennae are assaulted by a plethora of pheromones. Trails that paint the way to each of the different sections of the nest are mixed with an overwhelming number of more short term messages from ants coordinating the many tasks that they've been given.
"We need more wood! Follow this trail for the worker teams heading to the forest!"
"Food! Get on it! You think the colony feeds itself?! Hunting parties are leaving from the Dungeon staging area now!"
"Got nothing to do? What the hell is wrong with you?! There's always earthworks going on, report to the Carver headquarters to join a work team!"
"Hey! Stay positive and work hard! :D"
… Not sure what the point of that last one was… just trying to keep spirits up around the place I guess. I hardly think it's necessary, the ants I can see look as if they could hardly work any harder. In fact, the only ant I can see standing still for any amount of time is … me. Dangit, better get moving before I start to look conspicuous and lazy.
We clung to the wall and made our way straight down, innumerable ants rushing in and out of smaller side tunnels constantly. I feel as if the population has definitely lifted whilst I've been gone. If we managed to hatch and graduate two hundred a day then the colony would have gained 1400 new members in the time I've been gone. Some of that would have been offset by losses at the front, but even considering that, there would have been roughly one thousand more ants in the colony than there had been before.
If only we'd had another week! Then I'd be far less concerned.
When I reached the Queen's chamber I was quite confused to find that, apart from a few guards, it was empty! No Queen, no retinue of attendant soldiers and tenders, nothing! Where has she gone? Curious, I led Tiny and walked down the walls and followed the main shaft beneath the Queen's chamber into my own room.
Even this space has been widened, at least double the space it was before, but other than a couple of soldiers who sit around the outside of the room, keeping watch for spawning monsters so that they might leap on them the moment they emerge, the chamber is empty.
[Home sweet home] I told my pets.
[It's nice to be back] Crinis assured me.
[Hrrr] Tiny let his actions do the talking as he threw himself down onto the ground to rest.
That was fair enough. Our run back to the nest had been exhausting. Matter of fact, our entire last week had been exhausting. The entire colony must be tottering on its feet unless the mandatory rest has kicked in. The amount of work that had been done was staggering. I know it's almost impossible for the ants to admit they are tired, but I hope that the council will start forcing the family to rest before the final battle. Even just a couple of hours of torpor could make all the difference. Especially now when the horde was only four hours away!
OK. No more stalling. Time to get that rare core out.
I've been dreading this experience for months. I've already pushed my core beyond the System Imposed limit and even though gaining some levels and Biomass combined with a bit of time has helped ease the pain, it hasn't ever gone away. Even now my core aches with a dull throb, an inexplicable tightness that I can feel twinge every time I breathe.
Now where is that stupid thing? I know I left it here somewhere…
Flipping on my mana sense, my mind is momentarily blinded by the ever present glow of the mana flooding out of the Dungeon walls. After a second or two I was able to blink the background glare out of my mind and focus on detecting the glowing core I had buried in the wall.
There it is!
I scuttled over to the wall and extracted the gem with my mandibles before I retreated back into the centre of the chamber, the bright, spherical gem held in my mandibles.
[I might need your help with this Crinis. I'm a bit worried about how it's going to go,] I admitted.
[Anything, master. I'll be ready for your orders,] the sphere of cosmic horror and tentacle death assured me.
This tender moment of bonding between a monster and his devoted pet was only disrupted by the thunderous nasal snoring of Tiny a few metres away.
Alright then, here goes…
[Compatible rare core detected!]
[Would you like to absorb, or reconstitute this core? Warning! Your core has pushed beyond the allowed limit for your evolution. Further absorption will prove fatal. Do you wish to proceed?]
You know… Not really? But if I don't push myself beyond the limit, how can I possibly hope to match up to powerful creatures like Garralosh and the Kaarmodo?
Fear blossomed within me, along with the constant anxiety that had been bubbling away inside me, the nervous worry that I'd shoved into the back of my mind gushed to the fore.
I don't want to die… again. I'm enjoying my life on Pangera! I finally have a family. I finally feel accepted. I don't want to lose it all now that things are getting better and better every day.
At the same time, that fear of losing my family is what is driving me forward. If I don't go this hard and risk it all, I might not be able to defend the colony that has come to mean so much to me. How would it feel, to lose the colony knowing that I didn't do all that I could to protect it?
[Bring it! Absorb that core!]
Holy smokes! Ahhh! That.. That stings! Right in the core!
The moment I give the mental command to my good friend Gandalf the system, the energy began to leak out of the core and swirl through the air as a bright energy vapour toward me and then into my own core, which immediately began to expand.
Which was a problem.
Unable to contain the pain, I slumped to one side and collapsed into the dirt floor of the chamber, my legs twitching uncontrollably as my focus is turned inward toward the agonizing changes that are taking place within my body.
Come on Anthony! You can do this! Hold on man!
The pressure continues to build as the energy flows into me, the outward pressure of the expanding core is pushing outward against my inner organs, which in turn is pressed into my carapace, causing me to feel like a balloon on the verge of popping.
I can hear a vague noise echoing in my ears and with a start I realise it's my own mandibles grinding against each other. Even my face hands are starting to hurt! This is absurd! The pressure builds and builds until I can feel my core on the verge of cracking.
The outwards force is just too much! I need something pressing down on the other way, otherwise I'm gonna burst!
[Crinis! Wrap me up and squish me!] I screamed desperately.
[Just do it!]