As if the first gate wasn't impressive enough, the second one is even larger, thicker and more heavily enchanted than the first. Not to mention it positively bristles with ants in defended lookout posts. How anyone could possibly break through, I've no idea. If another wave happened, we'd be laughing at the monsters on the outside. Unless a battering ram made from living metal happens to spawn nearby, I don't think anything will get through.
That's not a challenge, Gandalf! Don't you dare create that frickin' creature just to spite me!
After passing through the second gate, the procession began to break up. Sarah and Jim are led to a nearby chamber to rest as the scouts, soldiers and generals break away to find their own chambers to enjoy their rest. As they march past me I don't see the grateful ants I thought I would, but tense and somewhat resentful ones. You hate rest that much?! For a brief moment I contemplate increasing their enforced break to twenty four hours, but managed to contain myself.
"I told you they wouldn't like it."
"Sloan? Bah! Who cares if they don't like it? Rest is important and we're all extremely fatigued. They need it."
"You may be right about that. I know I'm exhausted."
I look at her appraisingly.
"That's not something I hear many members of the council admit to, Sloan. Is this indicative of growth?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps I've just been working harder."
"You're tier four now, so you should be."
With the soldier caste gone, the workers and crafters also peel away to find their own places to rest, making sure to give me the stink eye as they leave. I make it a point to stare them down, waving them away with my antennae. Yeah, you go rest and you freakin' like it.
Without any destination in mind, I start to wander down a branching tunnel, just taking in the design with my pets in tow. The further I go, the more of my siblings begin to cover the surface of the tunnel and I notice something different. The way the tunnel has been shaped is off. Only when I pause, causing a few hurried ants to crawl over me since I'm holding up traffic, do I realise the difference. In the first nest, tunnels were usually round and fairly narrow. Like you would imagine the inside of an ant nest to be back on Earth. Cramped, little tunnels that connect similarly cramped chambers together.
This is different. The tunnel is wide, with enough overhead space to allow 'two lanes' of traffic to exist, one on the floor and one on the ceiling. More than that, the shape of the floor and ceiling aren't flat, but rather folded into waves, like the letter 'w'. By watching the ants travelling around me, I realise that this increases the surface area that can be gripped, allowing more ants to move through at the same time. The ceiling is shaped the same way, but with the dips and valleys opposite to the floor, so the same distance is maintained from the ground and the roof at all times. It's a little thing, but it's super clever! They've really been putting those brains I gave them to good use! Chuffed, I keep moving down the tunnel, taking in the sights.
After a few dozen metres, I notice something that I haven't seen before embedded in one of the walls. Curious, I skitter over to it so I can make a more thorough inspection. It looks like a metal plate, indented with numerous grooves that form a strange pattern. I look at the thing with interest, unable to work out what it's for. Have the Carvers decided to engage in some sort of modern art project? I wouldn't call the thing objectively beautiful, but it certainly is different. Then all of a sudden the metal plate speaks at me.
"Remember, daily rest is mandatory!"
I leap back in surprise when my antennae register the ant pheromones emitting from the thing. What the heck was that?! It speaks? Obviously I know that it isn't speaking as an ant would, of its own volition. This is clearly a clever invention that can store pheromonal messages and 'play' them like a recording! Astounding!
I approach it once more and start tippy tapping it with my antennae, in the hopes of detecting exactly what is happening. I can't sense a damn thing though. Once it had spread its message, all sign of pheromones have vanished without a trace. Are they magically developed? That would be nuts. Curiosity fulfilled, I continued to make my way within the nest.
When we come across a chamber, the first thing I notice is its unusual size. Much like the tunnels, it's been built wider, with a higher ceiling and the surfaces are all constructed with that same wavy rise and fall, dotted with side tunnels. My antennae tingle with a constant stream of ant communication and the persistent trails that advertise where each tunnel leads. Rather disturbingly, in the centre of the chamber, a rather elaborate looking stone statue of what appears to be me stands proudly, pointing into the distance with one leg as the antennae slope forward at a noble and confident angle. An angle you would never find my own antennae at, by the way.
These damn ants with their carvings and statues! Why? Why would ants like statues?! It makes no sense! I feel a bubbling rage building up in my carapace and for a moment I'm tempted to go down there and smack the thing down, but rather quickly I start to get noticed. Which isn't hard when Tiny, Crinis and Invidia are trailing along behind me.
It isn't much, but the ants slow down a touch when they see me, some of them muttering or whispering to each other as they rush past.
[You guys probably need a bit of rest. Find yourselves a comfortable chamber and get some sleep. We'll go out hunting tomorrow before we make any long term plans.]
[Understood, Master. You won't go far, will you?]
[Precioussss sssleep. I wantsss it!]
The three of them wander off and I'm confident it won't be long until a helpful ant leads them to a quiet spot. For myself, I want to try and find somewhere a little less crowded. Maybe I'll go play with the brood. Those little grubs are always in need of a good tickling! Putting my antennae down I start to follow the trails to the brood chambers, joining into the winding trails that flow this way and that throughout the nest. Before long I tumble into a soothing chamber filled with wiggling larvae, lovingly tended by the ever watchful brood tenders.
"Hey all," I say, "just looking for a quiet spot. Mind if I hang out here for a while?"
These grubs look criminally under-tickled! I have much work to do. Waiting for a response, I check on the ants and notice that they don't seem to be looking at me. This is something that's hard to tell amongst us members of the Colony, since we see pretty close to omni-directionally, but it's a skill I've been developing. They're watching something behind me, right in my blind spot. I have a bad feeling about this.
Dammit! She could never have snuck up on me if I wasn't distracted by the grubs!
"Welcome home, child. It's been some time since I saw you."