"How'd it go Tungstant?" Cobalt asked.
The carver ant slumped into the council chamber, exhausted but with a glimmer in her eye that suggested she was more energetic than she appeared.
"Well enough I suppose" The small ant replied, dragging her tired front claws across her antennae.
"Will she be able to move more freely now?" Antionette asked, her concern for her mother bleeding through.
"Should be fine now", Tungstant replied, "we had to be a little careful in places seeing as the structure is more complicated than it was before, but with a bit of care we were able to widen the main shaft and strengthen the walls to bear her weight. She should be able to move vertically within the nest without too many issues."
Each of the ants relaxed slightly upon receiving this news. The evolution of the Queen had been a major event in the life of the colony and one that required several adjustments the moment the Queen had awoken in her new form. For one, she'd needed to retreat slightly lower in the Dungeon, meaning that a new chamber had to be prepared and more soldiers placed on guard to ensure no harm came to the Queen or to the brood.
Secondly, the carvers had needed to make several adjustments to the main body of the nest to ensure that the main pathways within the nest were able to accommodate the Queen's new size. The main shaft in the nest had been dug just large enough for the Queen to move through before she had evolved, as she was by far the largest ant in the colony, but her new size had necessitated some careful work to ensure the widening project didn't collapse or disturb any other chambers.
"The newly discovered 'Architecture' skill seems to already be paying dividends to the carver caste," Cobalt observed, "along with 'Engineering' our ability to make precise structural changes is vastly improved."
"I agree, sister," Tunsgtant responded with building enthusiasm, "but you know I think we also need to investigate the possibilities behind the utilisation of Earth magic in nest construction."
"You aren't worried about the increased Skill training load?"
"Well I think that the Brood Tenders may be able to offset that."
"With the education Skills?"
"It may be worthwhile even without. It feels that there is sure to be a skill unlock in there somewhere."
"I quite agree."
"Do you two want to save that conversation until after the council is finished?" Coolant asked, amused.
"Sorry about that, sisters."
The twenty took a moment to clean their antennae and settle into their spots as they prepared for perhaps the most important council meeting of the colony's history. It wouldn't be long until the horde arrived at the nest and the family would engage in a battle for its very survival. To make matters more complicated, the Eldest was still engaged in levelling up and had yet to return, meaning the twenty would be forced to make the final preparations on their own.
They were arrayed in a circle in a similarly shaped room that sloped down slightly towards the centre. Each of the council members had their own place, including two spare positions for the Eldest and for Vibrant, should either choose to attend.
For the time being, Vibrant had chosen to attend to the Queen, ensuring her safety and providing food to pick up the pace of egg production. One of the things to come out of the Queen's evolution was an increase in her daily maximum egg production from two hundred to three hundred. Not a massive increase, since the Queen had emphasised other aspects of her form with her chosen evolution path, but it would make a difference over time.
Every member of the council knew that casualties were going to be inevitable in the upcoming battle, perhaps as much as half of the colony would be destroyed, maybe even more. By ensuring a healthy amount of brood was prepared in advance, the colony would be able to ensure that they would regenerate as fast as possible.
"How far from evolving are you two?" Mendant leant over and whispered to the two Juvenile Queens to her side, Antionette and Victoriant.
"Still quite a ways, I'm afraid," Antionette whispered back. "The jump for tier three to four is large, even the Eldest hasn't reached it yet."
"Yes, but the Eldest hasn't had the colony force feeding experience down their throat" Mendant pointed out.
"Due to the oncoming conflict, we've asked that the combat castes and members of the colony be given priority over our own growth," Victoriant chimed in. "Every advantage must be seized in order to achieve victory, and even if we were to evolve before the battle, which we couldn't, our eggs wouldn't have hatched by the time we had to fight."
It was a fair enough stance. The colony had placed great importance on evolving these two Queens into an egg laying state, but even with the support of the colony during the wave, reaching level forty was no easy feat. Once the threat had been dealt with, then the family would return to funnelling resources into the two young Queens.
"I believe our preparations are almost complete on the construction side of things?" Sloan spoke out to get the discussion rolling.
"Absolutely" Tungstant agreed. "The traps are done, the ambush tunnels are ready, the wall and moat have been prepared. Without any brilliant ideas popping up, I'm not sure what else we'll be able to do."
"Great work. Our gratitude goes to the carver caste," Sloan dipped her antennae in a show of respect, a gesture which the two carvers reciprocated.
"The academy has been running on schedule. We should have our final class of graduates ready twelve hours before the horde arrives," Florence chipped in.
Grant the soldier nodded her head.
"We've got as many troops as possible battling and strengthening themselves in the Dungeon. Every skill level counts at this point."
"How many are down there?" Sloan inquired.
"A touch over four hundred at last count."
"Combined with the harassing forces we have in the field, we've committed a lot of soldiers outside the nest. Is the Queen secure?"
"Of course!" Grant huffed, her antennae twitching in irritation. "Do you think we'd leave Mother in any way vulnerable?"
Sloan raised her own antennae in a mollifying gesture.
"I apologise. Of course you wouldn't. How goes the preparations of the mage caste?"
Coolant raised her head, as if she hadn't been paying attention and only tuned in once her name was spoken.
"What's that?" the mage ant asked.
Sloan bit back a curse. Damn mages, always had their heads in a cloud.
"How are the preparations going for the mage caste?"
"Oh! Right as rain. We need a ton of Skill levels before we can be truly useful, so the new mage ants are in the Dungeon, assigned to teams with the soldiers. We're hoping to have one hundred combat ready mage ants in time for the battle."
All the members of the council waved their antennae in approval at this. It had been a risk to produce so many Mage Ants this close to the arrival of the horde but with recent breakthroughs in the academy program, as well as Coolant and Propellant nailing down their desired skill progression path had meant the time to develop a new mage ant had been drastically reduced. With the numerous Skills required to be effective, the mage ants were still a long term investment for the colony, but their help would be invaluable in distracting the enemy mages.
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"We project our project should be completed in fourteen hours," Bella the core shaper chipped in.
"That's cutting it close," Advant the soldier frowned.
"Modifying cores is exhausting and difficult work," Bella defended her caste. "Not to mention there aren't that many of us." The second statement was a little cutting, since the core shapers had been neglected in favour of other castes.
"Considering the number of Shadow Beast cores we've handed over, the results had better be worth it," Advant muttered.
"You needn't be concerned. Our early field tests have been extremely promising. The first Shaper teams with their modified beast pets will be deployed to the Dungeon in the next two hours. We think you'll be impressed at their effectiveness."
The council nodded soothingly toward the grumpy member. It was well known that the shapers had a near perpetual headache due to spending every spare moment modifying cores in order to raise their skills. Elligant and Bella had been desperate to prove the worth of their caste and the Shadow Beast pet initiative had been their best chance to date.
"Has there been any word from the Eldest?" Victor turned to the two scout leaders to ask.
Burke and Wills both shook their heads.
"Not a peep. We've got scouts keeping an eye on the Eldest, obviously, but it's been difficult to get close. Lightning storms, fireballs, even boulders and ice spears seem to be filling the air around the Eldest almost constantly."
The council shifted uncomfortably at that. None wanted to see the Eldest fall.
"From last report the Eldest is still alive, and battling the Mage Servants to try and gain the experience required for evolution. No need to worry."
"By distracting the mages, the Eldest has ensured our advance force has been able to operate in much safer conditions," Victor affirmed. "Casualties have dropped massively and the damage inflicted on the horde has risen accordingly."
The twenty fell into silent appreciation at the risks the Eldest was taking on behalf of the family, all except one Soldier, who, when considering the glorious, almost suicidal fight their senior was embroiled in, couldn't help but curse softly.