"Welcome back Eldest" Victoriant, the budding queen to be, greeted me.
At the sound of her voice, the others turned their antennae toward me, signalling that their attention was with me as I crawled down the wall and onto the floor in the centre of the chamber. There were a few soldiers present, I noted, to keep the spawning monsters out of our carapace long enough for the council to take place.
"It's good to be home" I told them as I settled in place, observing the first generation of my grand experiment. The twenty hadn't changed much in my absence, perhaps a few mutations here and there, but none of them had taken the next step and reached evolution. I suppose they hadn't wanted to hog resources that were needed to grow the population of the colony.
That was something I could respect. The twenty did not use their seniority to benefit themselves, they thought only of the best for the colony as a whole. It was the kind of unselfishness that I had come to see as normal within the colony. The workers, the Queen, every member, thought only about contributing to the collective and not about empowering themselves.
I suppose, as the only true 'non-ant' in the colony I was the sole exception to that rule. It would be unlikely, or improbable, for any one worker to come into the kind of resources that I had lavished on myself. The sheer wealth of Biomass I had consumed, the cores I had absorbed and the experience I had earned, most workers would have donated much of that to the colony. I suppose in some ways it made me a selfish, member of the colony, but at the same time it had allowed me to contribute my new family in ways that would have been impossible had I not reached as high as I had, as quickly as I had.
Which was something I would have to consider in the future. We didn't have the resources, and likely never would, to raise every ant in the colony the same way I had raised my pets, and invested in myself. Maximised cores and Biomass, special cores absorbed to go beyond capacity and push the evolutionary potential to the limit. It simply wasn't feasible when we were talking about two hundred individual monsters being born per day. My minimum standard would have to be enforced, every worker would generate a core rather evolve in a weakened, dead end state, and each worker would be given the opportunity to reinforce their core before evolving. But I had to consider whether it would be beneficial to pick out individuals for exceptional reinforcement.
It fundamentally didn't seem fair to me, but I couldn't discount the possibility either. After all, I'm just one individual with more resources poured into them than average and I'd been able to change the destiny of the colony completely by changing our species. Who's to say another, similarly resourced ant couldn't do the same via incredible prowess in battle, or magical research, or through crafting?
For now, I didn't intend to make any changes to my hatchling rearing policy, but I would have to continue to think on it if we survived this crises.
"Well" I opened up, "scouting to the north was … interesting."
I tried to keep my tone light, but the twenty clearly detected something as each member's antennae drooped low at my words.
"Would you like to elaborate on 'interesting', Eldest?" Wills the scout asked, almost visibly bracing for an impact.
"Look, I want to say up front that it wasn't my fault!" I said defensively, "if anything, I did a good job as a scout by identifying a major threat!"
At my declaration of a major threat, the antennae drooped even lower, almost touching the floor, as I confirmed their worst fears.
"How big is the threat?" Sloan the general enquired tiredly, trying to focus on the problem.
"Dinosaur sized?" I hazarded. What sort of size scale are they working with for threat measurement?
I could see some confusion ripple through the gathered ants and I realised they had no concept of what a dinosaur was, or how large it would be.
"Okay. I was able to identify the nature of the destruction occurring to the north, as well as locate the source of the strange monster behaviour and the raids that have been sent our way through the Dungeon."
The twenty all perked up at these words. This was good stuff so far.
"The unfortunate part is that the creature responsible is a gigantic monster crocodile and she's coming our way to stomp us out, along with the human village."
And now they were deflated once more.
"They are also bringing a horde of thousands of monsters and a powerful mage lizard with its own sorcerous attendants."
If the scout Burke sunk any lower he'd melt into the floor.
"What are our chances of avoiding the danger?" Frances the healer ant spoke up. "Is there a chance we can deflect this threat onto the human village or retreat into the Dungeon?"
I shook my antennae. "I don't think so. The lizard is capable of scrying magic and probably knew we were here before I even left to scout. Now that they are coming this way, I think they'll work to hunt us down. Since they can control Dungeon monsters somehow, moving into the Dungeon would be too dangerous. Our best bet is to make a stand with the humans and try to fight them off."
"That's going to be difficult" Brendant the soldier muttered, "we are only just now beginning to ramp up our growth. Active hunting outside of Vibrant and her group only started two days ago. The Queen has been laying at full capacity since then but those workers will only be fully grown and ready for deployment in a week."
"We have slightly less than a week to prepare" I informed them, "they're moving fairly slow and taking the long way around. I can't be exactly sure why but I clapped eyes on them myself before returning."
"Well that's something at least" Burke muttered and turned her eyes toward Wills, who nodded and rushed out of the chamber.
I twitched an antennae, curious at the exchange and Burke filled me in. "Wills has gone to organise our scouting regiment, we'll need trails laid further to the north and eyes on the horde if we can get them."
"Be careful" I warned, "that magic lizard is no joke."
"We'll be careful" she assured me.
Hmm. I suppose having as constant a flow of information as possible will be a great first step.
"We are going to have to fight this" I declared to the council, "and we can't afford to wait until they get to us before we begin to inflict damage. We need to start chipping away at them as they advance. Does anyone have thoughts on how we can do this?"
The generals and soldiers flapped their antennae for a moment as they considered their options before Leeroy spoke up.
"I suggest I lead an advanced unit to - "
"Rejected" I said.
"You didn't let me finish!" the offended soldier replied.
"Alright then, go ahead" I sighed.
"As I was saying. I lead an advance unit to engage the enemy and die in glorious battle, sacrificing ourselves to buy more time for the colony to prepare. My very guts will rise up to entangle the foe!"
I slapped down on the ants head in retribution for the nonsense she'd spewed.
Damned Leeroy… Get some sense in your head!
"Any serious suggestions?"
Tungstant used one leg to rub her mandibles as she thought out loud. "We should limit ourselves to the 'hit and run' tactics that the eldest taught us during training. It should be feasible to attack using tunnels, pitfalls and prebuilt defence networks that we can abandon and flee. Cobalt and I have cooked up a few ideas in that direction already."
"Do we have any ants that can do damage from long range?" I asked. All of the workers were born with acid glands, just as I was, but the range wasn't exactly stellar.
Burke filled me in. "The scouts have a dedicated group with range and damage mutations on their acid glands. We are experimenting with ways that scouts can contribute to pitched battle and using them as an artillery battery in open areas is one of the concepts we are developing. We are soldiers, after all."
It was true, and easy to forget. The scouts were one of three offshoots of the baseline soldier variant and therefore were beefier than all of the other casts. It would be a mistake to think of them as anything other than a battle asset as well as a scouting force.
"Fantastic. What else can we get done?"