Six monstrous ants each the size of large hounds snapped their mandibles toward the human hunting party, the sharp *clack* sounds reverberated through the rock walled tunnel yet Isaac Bird, Chief Guard of Renewal Village, didn't feel threatened. He raised a hand to signal the delving party behind him to halt which they did without hesitating. A small jolt of pride welled up in his chest at his troop's quick response but it was followed by a more powerful pang of loss. He'd trained these men and women with Morrelia, but he hadn't seen that glorious paragon of the female gender for weeks now. If the rumours were to be believed, then she wouldn't be coming back at all
He couldn't think about his bride-to-be now! There were more important things to worry about. He shook his head slightly to refocus and sharpened his eyes on the monsters before him. A small Colony hunting party, the sort the human delving parties had reported seeing more of over the last weeks. Isaac drew a deep breath through his nose and detected a faint tang of blood in the air. The Colony had been hunting and found success nearby, the ants were defending their Biomass. Isaac signalled to his people once more and began to slowly back away.
Once a respectable distance had been created the ants relaxed their posture and skittered away, leaving a lone sentry to keep watch on the pesky humans. Seeing the de-escalation of the monstrous neighbours Isaac was comfortable taking his eyes off them and turning back to his party.
"Looks like they're going to be blocking off this tunnel for a little while yet. May as well get cosy."
The group seemed to agree and settled in for a short rest, leaning against walls or sitting down on the hard stone. They were becoming used to seeing the monsters in the tunnels as the Colony appeared to be increasing its activity in the surface levels. Far from frightening them, it lifted the hearts of those from Renewal Village every time they came across the sacred monsters performing their task of cleansing the Dungeon. To their minds, the fact that the ants would annihilate all Dungeon monsters with extreme prejudice yet leave the humans untouched was yet more evidence that this Colony of ants was special. Sacred.
If they were to realise the aggressive expansion of the Colony through the upper layers was merely the young of the colony, tier one and two ants working in groups with their academy instructors in order to obtain the Biomass and experience needed to 'graduate', then they might be a touch nervous despite their faith. Considering they were seeing more ants than ever before, this increase of sightings would clue them into just how high the daily egg production of the Colony had climbed. If they were to wonder where the more powerful ants had gone, and why, then that would lead them down some very unexpected paths before they could find an answer.
Increasingly when the humans went delving they would find huge stretches of tunnel had been picked clean, not even a stain remained to show what had occurred. It hadn't taken long for them to realise that this was the tell-tale sign of an ant sweep, which was what they had taken to calling these Biomass raids. They didn't mind too much, the tunnels were dangerous and even though they were here to level up they didn't mind this evidence of the safety of their homes. They may not have had a national army, or the Legion (fat lot of good they'd proven to be) guarding over their Dungeon entrances, but they had something even better!
"Should be a lucky hunt today, Captain," one of the delvers said to Isaac.
The Guard turned to the speaker, Roy Drum, an early volunteer to the Dungeon Delving teams. The ex-farmer was a lean faced, serious sort of person who had the characteristic tan from working in the sun most of his adult life. Didn't do him much good down in the Dungeon though.
"Why's that then?" Isaac asked him.
Roy gestured down the tunnel to where the single ant still watched them warily.
"We've come under the eyes of the Colony. 'Tis a good sign."
Isaac stifled a sigh and nodded to the man before looking away. The fervour with which the members of the village worshipped the mysterious ants remained hard for him to accept. He definitely recognised that the Colony was special, something perhaps entirely new in the history of the Dungeon. An entire community of intelligent monsters that did not exhibit any form of aggression towards people. It was insane, unheard of. It was a fact that the ants had acted to defend the people of the village when they didn't have to. It was enough to make a believer out of him, he just wasn't as far gone as most of the villagers.
In fact, at this moment more than one of his party had begun to kneel and pray toward the watching ant. Exasperated by this display of piety the Guard Captain could only wonder what the watching ant was thinking.
The ant in question, a Brood Tender, was watching the humans with a feeling bordering on contempt. They didn't appear to be doing anything. So lazy! Luckily the ants would be finished soon and this training group would move onto another section of tunnel before making their way down to the Marsh Expanse where the newborn ants would drink their fill of aphid nectar before evolving. The trip through the tunnels and down to the expanse had become something of a rite of passage for new members of the Colony, and the aphids provided a safe and reliable source of Biomass which the ants could use to max out the mutations of the young. Thinking about the foresight of the Eldest made her antennae quiver in wonder. Despite the relative lack of Biomass available compared to the wave, the Colony was thriving and graduating more new members per day than ever before. The new Queens had begun producing young already back in the original nest!
Isaac knew none of this. What he knew was that he had ten villagers-turned-delvers that needed experience and they weren't going to get any here. He gathered a few of the more experienced members of the group around him; Roy Drum, Cedric Malon, Mel Blonc, and had a brief planning session. Predictably, the others wanted to stay and observe the ants until they moved on, but Isaac wanted to move on and argued strongly to get his way.
"We've been down for two days already. Supplies are gonna get thin on the ground soon. We can't afford to waste four hours for the Colony to move on and then wander along in their wake not fightin'!"
After ten minutes or so the group grudgingly agreed and they began to pick themselves up, gathering gear and shouldering packs.
"Come on then, you lot!" Isaac grinned at them. "These monsters aren't going to kill themselves, they need you to provide assistance with the end of your spear! A little gentle persuasion! Make sure you get your point across!"
"Please shut up, Captain." Mel begged. "I can't take another two days of this."
"Insubordination! On my delve!? Get that spear over your head and hold it till I say!"
Mel groaned but raised her hands nonetheless as the others chuckled at her expense. Isaac smiled to himself as he felt the mood amongst the delve become more energised. They had a lot of ground they needed to cover if they were to hit their targets for this delve and Isaac would be damned if he was going to miss. As they began marching again Isaac took the forward position and watched carefully for any ambushes, but he couldn't help his thoughts turning to a certain berserker and just how attractive her enraged glare made her look.