Grant exited the small council chamber and returned to the widened main shaft. Gripping onto the walls that glowed with intense, blue light, she made her descent toward the lowest chamber in the nest where the Queen now rested.
As the shaft opened up, Grant took in the contents of the room at once. It was crawling with ants. Over a hundred had been committed to the defence of this room. The spawns were happening rapidly now, shadow beasts and plant monsters erupted from their cocoons in the walls at regular intervals and no harm would be allowed to come to the main occupant of this chamber.
She loomed large in Grant's eyes now. She sat in the centre of the chamber as her protectors revolved around her, as if she emitted a powerful force that kept them close but unwilling to approach. Grant saw a shadow beast erupt out of the floor, right under the giant form. Before she could even shout out, the Queen had shifted her weight and stabbed down with one leg, impaling the shadow beast clean through. The Queen brought the leg to her mouth and swallowed the Biomass in one go.
"Have you come to greet me, child?" a warm voice rang out.
Grant started and came back to herself.
"Ah, yes Mother. I've been checking on the soldiers and I wanted to speak to Sloan, if she was here."
"She is." The Queen flicked an antennae toward one corner where Grant could see a small cluster of scouts, generals and soldiers had gathered.
Grant completed her climb down the wall and steadied herself on the floor, looking up at the new form of her only parent. The Queen had already been the largest ant in the colony by a wide margin, but her evolution had pushed the boundary even further. Grant was one of the largest ants also, being a Mature Soldier who had the benefit of maxed core evolutions. The Queen towered over Grant. Her mandibles were almost equal in size to Grant's own head.
The power contained in the rare core was no joke.
"Tell me," the Queen continued, "did the troublesome one return?"
"Yes, Mother," Grant told her, "the Eldest has begun their evolution in the chambers above."
The Queen tilted her head to more directly face the roof of her chamber, as if she could penetrate the layers of rock and soil that lay between and stare at her wayward offspring.
"That is good then," she huffed.
"Were you worried that the Eldest may not make it back?" Grant enquired.
The Queen lowered her head to look Grant compound eye to compound eye.
"I am always worried about that one. Do you think I don't have cause?"
Grant shifted, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. She was unwilling to admit wrongdoing or poor judgement in the Eldest. How could she? The Eldest had done more for the colony than any other, the Queen included. The Eldest had created their species!
"The Eldest has been known to push a little too hard at times," she was able to admit.
The Queen chuckled. The scent of her mirth spread throughout the chamber and tickled the antennae of every ant present, causing them to pause for a moment as the warmth of her emotion washed over them.
"I have to agree," the Queen hummed.
It was a delicate thing, what the colony was undergoing at the moment. For the Queen to not be the Eldest member of their colony was possibly unprecedented in the history of ant monsters. The council had been wary that there may be a power struggle between the two most revered members of the colony. On the one claw, the Queen, mother to them all, who had raised the colony from nothing. On the other hand, the ant who had caused the colony to be reborn into something new, something better, and in so doing had claimed the position of the Eldest Formica Sapiens in the Dungeon.
To their relief, no such conflict had become evident, or even appeared to be brewing. The Queen remained devoted to all her children. Uninhibitedly so. But she appeared to hold extra concern for her most troublesome child. The Eldest, for their part, appeared devoted to the Queen and the colony without reservation. Both of them appeared happy to leave the day to day running of the colony to the council. Which seemed to work fine.
It wasn't normal. It wasn't antlike, to worry about these things. Grant could sense that now. The colony had been pulled into unexplored Dungeon by the Eldest and they would need to puzzle their own way out.
"What are they talking about over there?" Grant muttered as she watched the huddle around Sloan.
"They are discussing how to adapt the plans for the upcoming battle," the Queen chimed in unexpectedly.
"Adapt the plans?" Grant cried, "why are they changing the plans?! We've pinned down every angle we can possibly cover!"
The Queen shifted.
"That's my fault," she sighed, "They are trying to account for what I've said I will do during the battle."
That brought Grant up short.
"What have you said you'll do?" she asked, nervous.
"Lead from the front, child, as I should," the Queen replied calmly.
"What?!" Grant panicked.
Nonononoononono! Unacceptable! The Queen couldn't be on the front lines! She should be in the nest! Deep in the nest! And covered in Soldiers!
As if reading her mind, the Queen chuckled again.
"I did not take this evolution to be sheltered in the nest during the battle, child. I will fight, as I did when the colony was young."
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Grant took a few deep breaths and looked up at the Queen, taking in her new form.
Thick plates of hardened carapace covered the folds in her exoskeleton and around her head. Her legs were thicker, and tipped in sharp spikes that gleamed wickedly in the cold light of the cavern. The sheer size of the Queen, possibly double what she had been before, was a testament to the muscle mass she possessed.
The Queen's body had transformed. No longer was she just strong, she had become a physical powerhouse. That was just the outside. Who knew what powerful organs or glands she had chosen as part of her evolution.
"What was the name of your evolution, Mother? If you don't mind me asking."
The Queen raised herself to her full height, lifting her body from the ground she dominated the room with her majestic aura.
"There will soon be other Queens for this colony, Queens who will be able to raise young and provide the future generations of the colony. What is needed now is not a Queen who will hide behind her children and allow them to sacrifice themselves for her safety. I will step forward and shield my children with my own body and, should I fall, I will fall with the knowledge that by my efforts I have given all I could in the defence of my family."
The Queen looked down at Grant.
"Perhaps I am being selfish. But I will fight."
She reared back and reached up with her powerful front legs. She dug them into the wall and began to pull her massive body up the vertical face of the tunnel. Grant watched her climb in stunned silence. The idea of the mother of the colony charging forward into almost certain death drove her to the brink of panic.
When the Queen left her sight she woke up to herself and rushed toward the huddle in the corner.
"Sloan!" she yelled, "what are we going to do!?"
The general glared at her fiercely as she barged into the meeting.
"We keep her alive," she hissed, "no matter the cost."