Moving with some hesitation so as not to tax my aching body we advance down into the Dungeon, fulling in any gaps on my tunnel map as we go and earning me another level in that skill for my troubles. Unlike before we liberated the Marsh, the tunnels are filled with plants and beasts fighting their maddened little hearts out, tearing at each other as a near endless supply of them continues to rip out of the walls and throw themselves into the fray.
In other words, normal Dungeon behaviour. It's a little weird how normal this has all become. Ravenous creatures out of nightmares tearing out of the dirt that surrounds me, attempting to eat me sounds like a nightmare. After living here on Pangera for a few months, it's all beginning to feel a little blasé. I can't even muster up a sense of danger or excitement as Crinis and Tiny swat most of the monsters the moment they come close to us. I barely get enough time to try and utilise my mind magic to trick and deceive the enemy they last so little time. This isn't even useful for grinding!
We've become too evolved and too highly mutated to feel threatened up here at this level of the Dungeon. The reality is starting to sink in more and more that in order to gain power and strengthen myself for the purpose of protecting the colony then I'll need to go lower into the Dungeon. Which means leaving the colony for extended periods of time with Tiny and Crinis to hunt, something I'm not prepared to do until I'm certain that my family will be able to protect themselves from all threats. Thinking of Vibrant, the Queen, the twenty and all of my siblings coming to harm I can't help but feel tight and panicky in my thorax.
No harm will come to them! I'll work hard to make sure that it is so!
With the number of ants starting to climb rapidly, and those ants being more special than any species of ant that has come before, it won't be long until the colony becomes powerful in its own right. All we need is time.
Completing a clean out of the tunnels my pets and I continue to grind our skill as we take the long the long way down to the Marsh. Refreshingly, we don't encounter any of those filthy Croca Beasts. I've had quite enough of having to fight those punks.
By the time we reach the Marsh itself I'm tired, aching and more than a little irritable. In order to recover we unearth the shortcut and the three of us clean the place out and huddle inside for a little peace.
[So, Tiny. What do you think you'll evolve into next?] I ask my furry bat faced gorilla companion.
Tiny's eyes lose focus as he stares blankly into the air, considering my question.
[Gorilla] he stated finally, nodding with satisfaction at having arrived at such a definitive answer.
[Aren't you already a Gorilla?] I press him.
He frowns for a moment before his eyes widen with sudden understanding. He then proceeds to stare vaguely into the air again as he contemplates deeply.
After a minute he arrives at another answer.
[Bigger Gorilla] he declared with finality.
To be fair, he's probably right. Each evolution has made him more impressively powerful and yet, each time he also grows increasingly more dim. If this trend were continue through further evolutions we wouldn't be talking about dim any longer, the lights will go completely out!
I'm a little worried about Tiny. He's always been thicker than a concrete milkshake, it's a part of his personality and I've somewhat accepted that to some extent I'll always have to take care of a few things for him, but if he gets any worse after his next evolution I think I'll have to step in personally.
It will cause him immense emotional pain, I've no doubt about that, but he may have to sacrifice some of his impressive flexing capacity in order to ensure that his brain doesn't deflate like a popped balloon.
[How about you Crinis?] I turn my attention to my other pet, [What do you think you'll evolve into?]
[Don't you know, Master?] she asked, referring to the adjustments I'd made to her core before she had been reconstructed.
[Well, as it turns out there are a few options for you at the next evolution] I lower my voice menacingly at this point, [you will have to… MAKE A CHOICE!]
[A few tentacles extend and start whacking me on the back.
[S-stop teasing me Master!] Crinis protested.
[Gweheheheh. There are a few options there. I was able to shape the general direction of those forms and I believe the system will have tidied up the edges for me automatically. I wasn't quite as skilled at core manipulation back then, so I wasn't able to go as deep.]
[I'm sure you did wonderful work master!]
[Very kind of you to say so. I might take a look at the core just before you evolve though. Do remind me about it, would you? I need to make sure that nothing weird or useless has been mixed in.]
[As you say Master] Crinis said contentedly from my back.
I feel like she gets reassured when I'm prepared to look into her evolutions and stats personally. If what she was worried about is my disapproval, then perhaps the steady drip of compliments and positive reinforcement I'm been feeding her lately is starting to have an effect?
I hope so.
After an hour of rest to get my aching core back under control we progress into the Marsh expanse itself. What appears before my eyes is that grand vista of swampy waters, densely swaying vegetation and the savage roars of thousands of monsters engage in the vicious struggle of life and death.
Music to my ears.
Time to harvest some experience, skill levels, Biomass and most importantly, check in on my little aphid friends. The colony needs to expand its food supply and those little critters might be able to provide me with a solution.