Burke wouldn’t say she disliked the company of other ants, not at all, but it couldn’t be denied that she, and quite a few other scouts had developed a strange sense of independence over the months. More than any other group, except perhaps the far ranging core shapers who spent more time with their pets than others of their own kind, the scouts spend huge periods outside of the comforts of the nests, patrolling, carrying messages, scouting (obviously). All of this alone time had made them a little reclusive, a little uncomfortable when exposed to the crush of the nests and the tightly packed ranks of their kind.
She herself could admit that upon leaving the demon cities and climbing down to the plains below she had felt a certain tension unwind within her thorax, a subtle pressure relaxed within her mind.
She breathed deep of the third stratum air and allowed the heated mana with a tinge of destruction swirl around her core. It felt good to be back out in the wilds of the Dungeon with only herself to rely on. A little peace. A little quiet. It was important, she felt, to enjoy these moments whilst they lasted.
She detected a slight vibration through the ground being transmitted to her legs, the fine hairs there thrumming at an increasing pace.
Just breathe. Take in the peace.
The vibration had now become a faint rumbling. Even the demon larvae on the ground were starting to shimmy and shake as they engaged in their eternal tussle, yet Burke tuned it all out. Until the very last moment she would concentrate on the here and now.
An assault of pheromones washed over the suddenly exhausted scout as the vibrations ceased when Vibrant and over a hundred of her loyal crew rushed over and slid to a stop right next to the scout leader.
“Vibrant…” she started, “aren’t you supposed to be inspecting the territory to the east of here? Isn’t that what you said you would do for the council?”
All of that serenity, all of that quiet peace, gone in an instant. Already she could feel the burgeoning pressure as over a hundred ants packed in around her. Burke loved to be around her kind, don’t think otherwise, she just needed a break from them every now and again, and this wasn’t helping.
“And don’t forget to talk slower,” she reminded the much larger soldier, “I can barely understand you at that speed. I mean, can your followers even understand you? Can you figure out what she’s talking about?” she asked a nearby general.
“I get it,” she cut her off, “Vibrant, please.”
“Fine-fine,” Vibrant cheered, “though it feels so much more natural to go fast. How are you Burke?! I finished looking over the east side, it was really cool! Lots of demons, a few tunnel entrances and some strange crystal thingies that some golgari and humans were mining. We run up to say hello but they all screamed and fled from us. So funny! Before you ask, no I didn’t map it out or write anything down, but I think someone did.”
“Great! Thanks so much! There you go. So I thought I should head over here and see if you needed any help!”
The scout leader deflated just a bit as she took it all in. Crystals, golgari and humans mining? So many questions. Although one issue did stand out to her.
“You do remember that you were supposed to remain hidden as much as possible during this scouting mission, right Vibrant? During this period the Eldest has explicitly stated that we should avoid bringing unwanted attention to the Colony, right? You remember that? Vibrant?”
The more she talked, the more still Vibrant became, until even her antennae weren’t moving, as if every hair on her carapace had gone still.
“Vibrant? Anything to say?” Burke pressed.
The big ant shifted on the spot, her front legs brushing through the air in front of her as if sweeping the scout’s words into the bin.
“I forgot!” she cheered. “It’s fine-fine! We didn’t fight anybody and there wasn’t anyone around to chase us or anything.”
Burke wanted to slap herself in the face with one leg.
“That’s not the point though. Just try and be more careful, please?” she begged. “We don’t want to ruin things in this important moment for the Colony do we? There’s a lot going on right now and a ton of things are getting fixed up above us, it’s just going to take a bit more time and we can’t afford to lose that!”
Vibrant nodded and reached up to pat her on the back.
“Of course. Don’t worry Burke, I’ll be sure to take care of things here for you.”
“You’re the one I’m worried about!”
“Ha ha!” Vibrant laughed. “I’m sorry, I just find it a little hard to focus on these sorts of warnings sometimes.”
“I kind of figure the Eldest would have ruined everything and gotten in trouble by now so I don’t have to worry about it.”
“Just what do you think about th… you might have a point actually.”
The scout leader suddenly was forced to reflect on all the times the Eldest had thrown the Colony head first into conflict without affording them the time to properly prepare. In a way, the accelerated timeframe for invading the third stratum had come about because the Eldest had pushed downwards and though it wasn’t their fault, the Colony always wanted to follow where their oldest member went.
“Right? But don’t worry, I’ll do better!” Vibrant thumped herself on the front of her thorax with a leg. “What do you need scouted in this area? We can get it done in a flash-flash!”
“I’ll bet you can’t?” Burke muttered.
The scouts were certainly fast, amongst the fastest ants in all the castes, but speed wasn’t their only concern. They also needed to be stealthy, with keen senses and heightened detection abilities to find what others wanted to keep hidden and locate enemies before they were close enough to harm them. All of those things took a significant chunk of evolutionary energy, more than were dedicated to sheer physical prowess, whereas Vibrant and by extension her entire group poured the bulk of their potential into covering ground as quickly as they could. Her mages weren’t as strong as regular mages in the Colony in terms of spell slinging, but they were a hell of a lot more mobile. If all Burke needed them to do was put some eyeballs on the terrain, then Vibrant and her team would get the job done by far the fastest out of anyone in the Colony.
“Alright,” she sighed, “you can do it, but make sure you’re more careful this time. Until we know the Eldest has stuffed up the peace in some way, you don’t want to be the one the council has to blame.”
“Look here,” she leaned forward to sketch a few rough shapes in the gritty stone between them, “we’ve located three cities in these locations, but so far we haven’t mapped the ground between them and we don’t know who has interests here, so we’ve been reluctant to get too close. If you can rush through there at top speed and keep an eye out for tunnel entrances and traffic between them, that would be great. So long as that goes fine and there isn’t a reaction then you can push further out in this direction and meet up with my scouts who should be operating in this area,” she indicated a section to the right of the cities with a front leg, “check in with them and then, if you have the energy to spare, you can swing out to the west. Once you’ve gone five hundred kilometres out, you should come back, we aren’t intending to go further out than that at this time.”
Vibrant looks down at the map carefully for a long moment before her head snaps up, her eyes ablaze with energy that seems to sear Burke’s eyes.
“OKAYBYEBYESEEYOUAGAINSOON!” a wave of pheromones smacks Burke in the face once more and then a cloud of dust kicks up, as well as a heap of demon larvae who don’t move out of the way fast enough, blocking her vision.
When the dust and demons clear, Vibrant and her entire group are gone.
Burke settles back with a sigh.
“Peace and quiet,” she huffs to herself.