The Queen almost felt young again as her mandibles crunched through a writhing shadow centipede. The experience notification rang in her mind but she hardly listened, too eager to chomp down the waiting Biomass before moving onto the next target. She felt a savage joy at being back on the hunt, taking the risks her children were so willing to face and putting them on her own carapace.
Meal complete, she raised back up and searched for another tunnel she could attack. That's when the Brood Tender at her side spoke up.
"Mother, it's time to head back to the nest. You should have hit your quota by now," Theresant reminded her.
The Queen started.
"Already? How long have I been out?"
"It's been three hours, Mother. If anything, we are past the time you were supposed to return."
Checking her available Biomass, the Queen was surprised to find that her daughter was correct. She was beyond the required number to produce her next clutch of eggs.
"I apologise, child," she told Theresant, "let's return."
The Queen turned her bulk around and began the trek back to her nest within the second strata. The Colony had laboured long, battling against the shadow beasts to carve out a secure space they were comfortable placing their precious Queens in. Only to find that their Mother insisted on leaving the security of the newly constructed fortress to secure her own Biomass.
The Queen couldn't help but sigh as her escort settled in around her sides. It's not that she minded the company when hunting, but she felt it was a waste of resources. She was perfectly capable of holding her own out in the tunnels without aid, which meant the soldiers and scouts would be free to secure territory, or gather food for the other Queens, but she'd been forced to compromise. When she'd told Victor that she would go out battling on her own, the poor girl nearly went into torpor from shock. Nothing was stopping the Queen from simply walking out anyway, her children wouldn't stop her, but she didn't like to worry them. So a mixed escort of fifty members was agreed on to accompany her whenever she was outside of the Colony.
"Did you enjoy your hunt, Mother?" Theresant asked.
"Very much, child. I feel as if I'm contributing to the Colony again," the Queen hummed.
Theresant could only shake her antennae. Giving birth to almost every living member of the Colony didn't count as a contribution? If that's the case, every ant was being far too slack! Thankfully for the brood tenders, none of the other Queens showed the slightest inclination to leave the nests, happy to perform their task in the safety and security that the Colony was only too happy to provide. Mother, on the other hand, had been spawned fighting and alone. The only time she'd felt as if she were fulfilling her potential was probably in those early days when the Colony consisted of only a single member and she'd had to gather Biomass and construct the first nest by herself. A monumental effort which left every one of her children in awe.
As they marched the Queen happily watched as her escort picked off the few monsters they encountered along the way. With her Biomass quota achieved, there was no need for her to monopolise the food or experience. She had no need to evolve again in the short term, and the Colony demanded more powerful members now that they sought to control another strata. It was pleasing to see the number of tier four children she had now. No longer was the troublesome one the lone standout, though she felt certain that particular child was pushing close to tier six by now. Once that happened, the Queen would no longer be the highest evolution in the Colony, which would be a strange feeling. Thinking of that particular ant caused her antennae to twitch. She felt sure that they were doing something foolish, somewhere in the Dungeon
In fact, nothing was more certain. Nonetheless, she hoped that the efforts to return them safely were proceeding well. She had every faith in her children. They had achieved so much, after all! Not the least of which was this second nest.
The approach to the second nest was marked by the elaborate carvings that were etched into the walls as their small convoy approached. The carvers had begun taking their caste name quite seriously once the secrets of earth magic had begun to be known to them, they never seemed to stop carving! A combination of magic and their front claws was used to create these images and the Queen had to say she found them nice.
Scenes of the Colony at work, learning, fighting, growing, scouting and teaching covered the walls, the troublesome child featuring prominently, as did she herself. Then the tunnel began to slope upwards and they began to encounter the outer defences of the nest. Layers of raised walls and ambush positions were frequent for the next few hundred metres, then they approached the first 'gate'.
This was a concept the humans above had given to the carvers and they had been fascinated by the idea. A tunnel, with a door? It sounded ludicrous at first, but as the humans had explained it, Tungstant had become enamoured of the concept. Not just a door, but a powerful door! Made from strong materials and designed to repel intruders!
The gate loomed before them now, a glittering construction of enchanted metal with the proud image of an ant head carved right in the centre. From above, antennae poked out of holes as the sentries kept watch.
"Of course, Mother!" Came the call. Followed quickly by "It's Mother! Get the gate open, quick!"
The Queen shifted her legs and tried not to chuckle at her children's enthusiasm. They did step too carefully around her sometimes. In a trice, the gate swung outward to reveal the cluster of ants who worked the mechanism to open them. The Queen had no idea how it worked, but Tungstant had assured her it was very clever.
More tunnels layered with obstacles for foes needed to be traversed before they came to another gate, this one double layered and even more impressive. Once navigated, they at last reached the inner sanctum, the nest. The Queen welcomed the sight with a warm heart as her children bustled energetically around her. Of course, not all of these ants were her children, not anymore, but she still thought of them that way, and they all still called her 'mother', which is all that mattered really. There were many smaller tunnels within the nest, but the Queen stuck to the main, larger thoroughfares as she made her way to the brood chambers.
"Ah, hello Mother!" Came a scent she knew well from a side chamber.
"Tungstant? Still working, child?" The Queen welcomed her daughter.
"Of course! Never a slack moment, eh Mother?" the carver twitched her antennae in amusement. "Besides that, I can't rest until the nest is finished!"
The Queen was confused.
"I thought it was done already. You've done so much," she gestured to the carvings that covered every surface within the nest.
"Not at all, Mother! There's still so much to be done! We're compacting the ground!"
"Compacting whatever do you mean?"
"We're trying to make it harder to dig through," Tungstant explained. "If another colony wanted to invade us, this will make it much harder for them to tunnel past our gates and avoid our defences. It's tough work though. I wish we'd thought of it before we started construction."
"I'm sure it'll be fine," the Queen encouraged her, "you've done so well."
The Queen continued down the chamber, leaving her busy child to her work and soon found herself in the very heart of the second nest. Surrounded by enchanted chambers filled with brood, the laying chamber was occupied only by the three Queens and the brood tenders. Even her escort had taken up a position outside, not willing to disturb the brood in any way.
This was sacred work, the very future of the colony!
Antionette and Victoriant looked up happily as they saw the Queen return.
"Welcome home, Mother," they chorused along with the brood tenders in the chamber.
"Hello again, my children. How goes the work today?"
"All done," they both replied happily.
The two younger Queens radiated contentment and happiness with their days task complete. Once their quota of eggs was reached, they had done all they could for the colony and tended to engage in idle gossip and play with the brood to while away the hours.
"How was your excursion, Mother?"
"Satisfactory, child," the Queen replied as she began to commit her Biomass towards producing her next clutch. "You two are welcome to join me any time."
"Oh, not for me thanks," Antionette shivered, "I couldn't possibly fight like you mother."
"Didn't the troublesome one train you to fight?" The Queen asked, surprised.
At the mention of their 'education' with the Eldest, both young Queens froze in place and didn't reply. The Queen sighed. Some trauma was difficult to overcome. It was probably the distaste for battle they experienced during their training that pushed these two into becoming Queens in the first place. Nothing to do about it now. She shifted around the chamber as she waited for the eggs to be ready, already thinking of her next hunt.