The colony succeeded in pulling back to the second of their defensive lines with minimal losses. Each of the walls was shorter in length than the previous, allowing the ants to compress their numbers further each time they fell back.
Wills was pleased with the progress of the battle so far. After her (too short) rest, she’d emerged in time to see the retreat from the first wall and touch base with her people. The scouts had served as message runners and long range attackers for the most part, very few had fallen during the initial stage of the battle, but that could change at any moment. The scout leader felt sorrow as members of her colony had fallen at the first wall, an emotion she was still coming to terms with. Each death only hardened her resolve to see the enemy fall.
From the second wall she looked down as the horde pushed over the lip of the first in increasing numbers. Unthinking and without restraint, the horde didn’t pause to consider what the hundred metres of open ground between the two walls might mean. When the monsters saw their enemies crawling up the face of the next wall, they charged.
A ripple of glee shivered along Will’s antennae as the monsters triggered the first traps. Pitfalls, dead drops, spiked wooden stakes. The open ground was littered with the efforts of the worker caste. Some of those chutes dropped more than twenty metres straight down, where teams of workers waited to collect the fresh Biomass and bring it back to the nest to restock the colony supplies.
If the monsters were stupid enough, those chutes would continue to provide Biomass during the day. If the monsters decided to attack the nest through the drops, the ants would collapse the tunnels and move back to similar positions behind the next wall.
“Lucky our enemies are this stupid, eh Wills?”
The scout leader turned to look more fully at her sibling, Grant.
“True,” the scout agreed, “but I’d still be happier if there were fewer of them.”
“That’ll be us, soon enough,” the soldier prophesied, “uncountable thousands of us. We’ll be able to smash a pathetic pile of monsters like this with ease.”
“It won’t be monsters like this that’ll challenge us,” Wills disagreed, “we’ll be fighting against creatures from much deeper in the Dungeon. How deep have we explored? A few kilometres? If that? According to the Eldest, the Dungeon is thousands of kilometres deep. Who can say what opponents await the colony down there.”
“That’s why we need to continually improve and rise to the challenge!” Grant slapped her sibling on the back with one powerful, soldier leg. The impact caused the smaller scout to stumble slightly.
“Perhaps let’s focus on the battle at hand?” Wills winced and distracted the larger soldier.
“Good idea,” Grant nodded and turned her attention back to the onrushing monsters, still triggering innumerable traps on their way to the second wall.
Already the ants had begun another acid barrage, the scouts who had emptied their reserves had returned to unleash the fresh product they had made whilst the battle had raged at the first wall.
Will’s watched the devastation with satisfaction. By the time the mass of creatures reached the final wall around the nest, there would only be the Croca-Beasts left. When the colony finally had a chance to feast on those Crocs, Wills would be first in line for a chomp.
Just as she prepared to unleash her own acid at the enemy, what little she had in the tank at any rate, she felt a change come over the colony. A silent ripple of emotion rolled through the defenders, a stillness that brought quiet with it even as they continued to go through the motions of defending their home.
It wasn’t as if the ants were made quiet, or sleepy, or pacified. Quite the opposite. Within each ant defending the wall a spark had been lit that filled their frame with fervour. They were still and quiet because they felt that if they were to move to suddenly, they could no longer contain the frantic energy that boiled up inside them!
Wills could feel it within her own carapace. Her blood surged through her body and rushed into her brain, causing her to feel light headed. She felt as if her energy were inexhaustible, as if she could fight all day. In fact, if she didn’t fight all day, she might go mad from having nowhere to direct this energy!
What is happening?! She wondered.
She didn’t have to think for long. Rising from the top of the nest behind her came a sight that lifted her spirit even as her heart sank. First the long antennae, then powerful, elongated mandibles, followed by the heavily armoured and muscled head of the largest and most beautiful ant Wills had ever seen emerged. Powerful, thickened legs followed and pulled through the rest of her body. The Queen stood atop the peak of her nest and surveyed those who had come to attack her children.
One snap of her mighty jaws sent a wave of emotion through each of her children. Her rage and disgust toward the enemy had been conveyed in that gesture and each member of the colony felt a ferocious impulse seize hold of their thoughts.
Mother was here!
Without consultation the colony answered their Queen. Over a thousand soldiers, scouts and mages on the surface snapped shut their mandibles as one. The noise was sharp and piercing, like the slamming of a thousand doors.
Her royalty clear in every line of her stance, the Queen looked down at her children and felt her heart surge with emotion. Such good children they were. She would defend them to her final breath!
Even as her instincts screamed at her to exult in the presence of her Queen, Wills could only fervently hope that her mother would not come down from the nest.
Stay there, stay safe, go back down, let us take care of you, stay there, stay safe, be safe, stay there!
She begged the Queen in her mind over and over but she knew it would do no good.
Mother had come for her children.
Once more the Queen snapped her enormous mandibles shut and this time she moved down from the peak of the nest. From behind her a swarm of soldiers, mages and even carvers boiled out of the nest and surged forward to surround their Queen.
The colony answered back once more and this time, they didn’t stop, rhythmically snapping their mandibles as the Queen strode from the nest to the front lines.
CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! CLACK!
Each time they brought their mandibles closed the sound grew louder. Wills herself felt as if her jaw might break but neither could she stop herself. She both shivered with fear and exalted with joy. The Queen was here! The Queen was here!
The monsters of the horde rushed forward, uncaring of the deafening noise that thundered over the lip of the wall towards them. They knew only to press forward as their instincts demanded. But when they reached the wall and began to climb, they would find something had changed.
The Queen had stepped forth and the ants would not hold back any longer.