It's a long 'ol march home, over a week before it's all said and done. It wasn't hard for me to find a use for the time, however, since there was the whole 'impending war of doom and death' looming over our heads. How on Pangera I manage to stumble from one of these disasters into the next I have no idea. Am I cursed by Gandalf, the almighty voice of the System? If so, please let me know! I'm worried I'm causing more harm than good by sticking around the Colony. The nagging thought that they'd be better off if I just wandered into the Dungeon and never came back pokes its way into my mind and refuses to go away.
On the other side of the coin, the endless whispers of the Colony that arrive through the Vestibule tickly at the edge of my awareness, pleading with me to stay, to help, to lead. It's so hard to refuse them, especially when there are so many of them nearby, the voices swell from a collection of whispers to a deafening chorus. What's it going to be like when we make it back to the main nest? I'm almost scared to find out.
Of course, no time can be wasted, even when marching through the Dungeon! Crinis, Invidia and myself devote our time to practicing our mana handling and developing our magic Skills. Crinis has been diligent in her Shadow Magic practice and is starting to do some interesting things. Deadly, disturbing and horrific things, for sure, but also interesting. I encourage her to pick up mind magic affinity when she can, since she has the potential to reach an advanced enough stage that she could make use of the multi-layered mind construct technique the Shapers informed me of. It's clear from her evolution into the Tri-Maw Amorphous Horror, that she will pursue a balanced stat build, at least for now, which means that she may eventually reach the point of becoming a sincere magical threat. I think it's a build that suits her role in our little team, since she isn't really needed to output damage, that's more for Tiny and me, or even Invidia to do.
Invidia continues to develop and practice his defensive shield and healing magic. Whenever he gets the chance to cure an ants wounds, he floats off shouting [give your painss to meeeeeee!] in a rather charming, yet display of care to his new insect brethren. The ants, for their part, respond with perfect calm in the face of the glowing green eyeball of doom. They don't seem to flinch no matter what pets I raise, simply accepting them as part of the Colony and moving on with life. His grotesque mental stats and potent magical Skills, coupled with his heavily caster focused collection of organs and mutations, allow him to progress rapidly as he just never seems to run out of mana, or the capacity to shape the stuff to his will.
I'm jealous dammit.
I have a long way to go before I manage to fuse my elemental casting Skills as the desired tier. I've come a long way, and learned a few new tricks, including the ability to weave the basic elements together. Pushing earth and fire together to create lava mana is way more taxing and far less efficient than simply fusing the two affinity Skills together to form Lava Magic Affinity, but right now I maintain the flexibility of using earth, fire and lava mana whenever I want. Hopefully when I eventually fuse all elements together, I'll still have access to those options. The idea is use the elemental magic as a stopgap until I get myself to the higher ranked stuff. Gravity magic is out there somewhere! I just need to keep on believing.
Invidia himself has an elemental fusion magic. Fire and Air coming together to form his combustion magic, which he can use to such devastating effect.
So I use the week to drill my weaker magic Skills, Air and Earth, successfully ranking them up to tier four and getting some decent levels towards rank five. Whenever I get a chance, I continue to grind at my Core Manipulation Skills as well. We seized quite a few valuable cores in our raid against the Shapers and I grab a couple every time we break to fiddle around with, still trying to master the fusion technique. I've no desire for more pets for myself, but the work is challenging and if I can master the technique, I'll be able to pass it on to the Core Shapers back at the nest.
Besides, if I manage to create a super cool new pet monster core, then I can just give it to another ant. Bella and Ellie back at the nest would be delighted to have a fancy new pet, I'm sure of it!
I can sense it when we begin to approach the nest. More and more ants have been flickering into existence within my Vestibule, tiny motes of energy appearing and drifting from the strange organ and into my body, nourishing me with their energy.
It's quite a thing to find that with so many ants around, I don't really get tired at all. The only fatigue build up I have to deal with is emotional, which seems fine. Even after grinding away at cores until my head aches, it's a only a short time until I feel fresh one more, ready to go again. My grind capacity is starting to get out of control!
"Eldest, we're getting close to the new nest," Sloan comes over to let me know.
"I figured as much already," I tell him, "it's been a long haul."
"That it has."
I can only imagine what a pain it's been to try and organise our path as we escape, a burden that has fallen almost entirely onto the carapace of Sloan. She's borne up well, something for which I'm extremely grateful. If they'd tried to bring me into the planning, who knows what would have happened.
"Do you think they'll be able to track us, after all the measures we took?"
Decoy paths, detours through numerous expanse' and long stretches of pheromone free travel were just a few of the tricks we attempted during the journey. Burke was going crazy running all over the place, sending groups of scouts on deep side tunnels to try and muddy our trail.
"We can hope that they can't, but we have to assume that they can," Sloan sighed, a little of her weariness showing through. "If we don't start preparing then when they get here then we'll lose too much."
I can't help but feel guilt welling up within me at those words. If only I hadn't gotten caught
"Don't mistake me, Eldest," Sloan breaks into my thoughts. "Regardless of the outcome, we still would have gone to save you. We all know that you would have done the same for us."
My eyes would be welling up with tears if that were something I could still do.
"Thanks, Sloan. I really appreciate that."
"Not at all, Eldest."
"Now, you make sure you get a proper rest once we get in the nest, alright?"
She flinches a little at hearing the dreaded word. I double down.
"And you spread the word to every member of this expedition. I expect a full twenty hours of torpor for each and every one of you."
"You heard me Sloan."
"They may not like being punished like this, Eldest"
"I couldn't care less. Everyone is exhausted and exhausted workers are sloppy workers. Rest!"
" fine," she mutters, but I can tell she's still unhappy.
"Come on then, Sloan. I'm really looking forward to seeing what the carvers have been up to down here. I wonder if they've learned any more about building in the time I've been gone."