When Itet’chi’zzt arrived at her hive, the celebration was legendary.
In the handful of months since she’d sent the Mythic Cores home, their fortunes had improved tremendously. Nymphs and drones who’d worked the land by hand for hours to eke out a mouthful of shoots a day were now leading teams of banta, digging troughs to make room for rows of shoots as far as the eye could see.
Once the harvest came in the problem would no longer be how to get enough food, it would become how to store it, and where to sell the rest. A good problem to have.
Her hivemates assembled houses, bridges, mills, and pens for livestock with the teamwork that could only be expected from Tzetin, using good steel tools. She even saw a two-person sawblade with blueish adamantium teeth, with a wooden handle and steel back, designed to be replaced every fifteen years or so. The teeth might outlast the hive itself.
The entire hive was a frenzy of activity. The three spheres had more than blown away their debt to the Inner Spheres, and her queen, in her wisdom, had bought all the materials needed to make them self-sufficient, including a fair amount of preserved food and wine, to feed her people well for the half-year of backbreaking labor it would require.
It was this very same wine that flowed upon her return.
“In honor of Itet’chi’zzt, your Queen-to-be, and those who did not return, Drink!” her queen shouted from the raised dais. Itet’chi’zzt shifted uncomfortably, bottle in hand, drawing from the straw built into her winecup. She stood beside her Queen, under the watchful eyes of the rest of the hive.
Gone were the strange antennae twitches and odd, querying gazes, replaced with blind adoration from every member of the hive. She could see it in the way their antennae were held low and trembling gently.
But that wasn’t the only thing that made her uncomfortable.
Behind her, immortalized as a pale imitation of themselves, her companions, Tch’naztt and Tit’chitet stared down at her, their antennae frozen in a noble posture of self-sacrifice.
And it was true. They had given of themselves, and Itet’chi’zzt…she had learned to take from others. The disparity of it made her want to retch, and the only thing she could do was force her antennae into the neutral Attentive/Neutral pose as the party went on, masking her discomfort.
Below her, the drones caroused. For one day, princesses, warriors, drones, and Nymphs mingled freely, unconcerned with caste or gender, the words they spoke nothing but praise and gratefulness for Itet’chi’zzt and her deeds.
“I’ve always admired you!” a drunk young Nymph stumbled onto the dais to speak to Itet’chi’zzt. He had large, glittering eyes that seemed to take in everything around him, his antennae moved rapidly between complex emotions and thoughts with remarkable speed, despite being drunk, but his waist was absent fat reserves and his shoulders narrow. A bright mind and a pretty pair of eyes on a frail body.
The pair of warriors tasked with protecting the Queen stepped forward to move him away but the Queen stopped them with an amused gesture from her antennae.
“Others may have dismissed it, but I-‘ the skinny male took another long draw on the straw in his cup. “I knew you had what it took to be a queen…Lovely and strong and…different. We need…different.”
The male collapsed onto the floor, his drink sloshing out of his cup.
“How about that one?” the Queen asked, amused as the wine began to spread toward Itet’chi’zzt’s feet. She backed away from spill as the Royal Guard picked the young Nymph off the floor and cleaned up his mess.
“How about that one, what?” Itet’chi’zzt asked.
“As a mate.”
Itet’chi’zzt blinked. She hadn’t thought about that. At all. Her mind had been so embroiled with the inner turmoil of leaving her hivemates behind that she hadn’t even thought about what came after she got home.
The ceremony. And becoming a Queen.
“Kolath’s balls,” she said in surprise. “Why that one?”
“Isn’t one male as good as any other? And you know he spoke the truth. He admired you before you left.”
Not speaking the truth was a concept that hardly even existed, except recently, to the Tzetin Queens.
Itet’chi’zzt considered it for a moment, before turning her Antennae down dismissively.
“I would prefer a mate that would ensure a strong generation to follow yours.” Itet said, her mandibles clenched tight with seriousness. She would birth the next generation. She couldn’t let the hive down with sickly, skinny drones with bright eyes.
“I see. I will choose one for you then, Is that acceptable?”
“By your will.” Itet’chi’zzt nodded.
When the party was over, the Queen led her down to the Succession Chamber, buried deep underneath the Queen’s hut.
The chamber had been dug into the stone millennia ago by a spare queen that had been produced by a thriving Tzetin hive, cut straight into the stone with nothing more than the carapace-breaking labor of her and her spawn.
Itet’chi’zzt followed the Queen down into the earth, tree roots and low ceilings forcing her to duck her head. She dragged her fingers against the rough-hew walls as the air turned cold and damp.
Finally, the Succession Chamber lay before them, a nest of soft pillows and silks in a depression of rock, lit by curiously glowing mushrooms that hung from the ceiling. The mushrooms had an odd, x-shaped pattern of darkness on each of their bulbous surfaces.
“Now, I will reveal the method by which a queen is made.” The Queen said, motioning for Itet’chi’zzt to follow her into the chamber.
“Every day for a month, you will stay here in the darkness, and consume the milk and flesh of these mushrooms, Glow-caps, you call them, but us queens know of them as Queensfruit.” The queen picked up a wooden bowl and made a quick slash across a large mushroom in an X, with the center being at the lowest point.
“The combination of darkness, and a diet rich in glowcaps, will trigger a growth spurt, leading to sexual maturity.”
The mushroom began to bleed a steady stream of glowing fluid, and the queen held the bowl beneath it until the dripping slowed drastically, then she held it out to Itet’chi’zzt, nearly half full of glowing liquid.
“We’ll begin right now.”
Itet’chi’zzt accepted the bowl and drank its contents through the bowl’s straw. Itet’chi’zzt was concerned there might be an odd chemical taste, but the milk was mostly tasteless with an odd earthy flavor.
“And as for the flesh,” the queen said, scraping a small mushroom off the wall. “One of these a day is plenty.” She handed it to Itet’chi’zzt, who ate it obediently. Once again, a mostly tasteless, earthy flavor, except with a bit of squishy consistency between her mandibles.
“Am I supposed to feel anything?” Itet’chi’zzt asked.
“Not yet,” the Queen said with an amused twitch of her antennae. “But after the first week or so, you’ll definitely be feeling something.”
Itet’chi’zzt wasn’t sure if the queen had just made a dirty joke, as it was difficult to make out her antennae in the darkness of the cave, so she decided to remain silent.
“Good luck. The Nymph I choose for you will take care of your necessities.”
“Thank you my Queen.”
“Thank you, for coming through for us.” She turned to leave before pausing. “And I wanted you to know, I never once doubted you. That wasn’t why I made you stay on Earth. I wanted you to be proud of the home you returned to. I was ashamed of what my naivete had done to my hive, and wanted it to be different when you returned. I wanted it to be in a state where I could give it to you, my daughter, without shame.”
“I’m honored.” Itet said, her antennae in reverence.
“I’ll see you in a month.” The Queen said, heading back up the tunnel into the Queen’s Hut.
Itet’chi’zzt eyed the exceedingly comfortable looking ten foot wide depression in the floor filled with silks and pillows, and decided to sharpen her swords, back against the cold stone wall.
“So the travel time from the Inner spheres to the outer spheres is pretty long, but across a single universe is actually longer.” Garth said as the two of them walked down a dirt path, backpacks over their shoulders, looking for all the world like a father and daughter on a trip.
To either side of the path were shinta farmers weeding rice paddies. Or at least what he assumed to be rice paddies. Who knew on this planet?
“Then we gotta pass from one hemisphere to the next. Without government aid, that’s a long, painful proposition that probably includes several checks to make sure we’re not Kipling. Which we are, apparently.”
“So, alternatives?” Leanne asked, watching the farmers hungrily. Garth was impressed she was able to follow the conversation and lust after their meat at the same time. That sounded wrong.
“Well, the alternatives are just giving up and settling down somewhere that’s not Earth, depriving us of our favorite meal.” For some reason human tasted way better than any other walking, talking species.
At that comment, Leanne spat on the ground in disgust.
“Ooor, we could make friends with some people who traffic illicit goods across the spheres, and bum a ride off of them.”
“What makes you think they won’t just kill us?”
“The thought had occurred to me.” Garth said with a shrug. “But I mean, they’re only feeling, weak, humanoid meat sacks anyway. It’s not like the inter-hemisphere Gates they own are gonna shut down if we kill them all.”
“So what’s the plan?” Leanne asked.
“This.” Garth said, motioning to the planet around him. “Is the planet where Arcanite is produced. Arcanite is a highly illegal poisonous mineral that comes from a swath of mutated dungeons on this particular planet. The mineral, when diluted, becomes an extremely addictive and pleasurable drug, and when worked into sanatite blades, gives them a natural poisonous effect that never fades. One needle made of pure Arcanite will fuck up somebody’s day, while the nobility run around with tiny diluted needles with a reddish hue, and put that shit under their skin like acupuncture to get off. Best of all, the expensive ones made with sanatite never lose their potency, so an aristocrat can shoot up whenever they feel like it.”
“I already know all that.” Leanne said with a scowl. “That’s what the guys you tortured to death all said.”
“Well, you gotta read between the lines.” Garth said with a shrug. “You must not have watched enough TV growing up. Where there is an illegal drug with a known source, and a lot of law enforcement involved, there is corruption and smuggling.”
“Somehow, adventurers are going into those mines and walking out with their pockets stuffed with arcanite despite people watching for it, and someone is making bank off of it. all we have to do is join the local dungeon delving scene, start at the grass roots and work our way up on the merits of having absolutely no limits, morally speaking.”
“Like Kaiser Soze.”
“Hooolleeee shit. You actually knew one.”
“I watched it at a friend’s house when her mom went to work.”
“Anyway, once we find out where their lair is, we either strike a bargain or brutally murder their entire family. Whichever they prefer. In the meantime we can get some street cred as adventurers.”
“Don’t they have scanny-thingys?” Leanne asked, referring to the orbs that read people’s status.
“Why do you think we’re in a Podunk town like this? Garth asked, gesturing to the thatch-roofed shacks around them.
“They’ll be lucky to have paper to write on.”
“Write your name, attributes and class here, along with any special information about yourself you wish the guild to know.” A rather skinny orc woman said, sliding a rough sheet of paper toward them. The paper had blotchy boxes with strange characters stamped on them, and Garth couldn’t read a single word.
“Could you translate these boxes for me?” Garth asked sheepishly. The orc woman rolled her eyes and listed off all the boxes from top to bottom at a speed almost too quick to follow.
“Since you can’t read, I’m required to ask if you know your rights and responsibilities as an adventurer, and whether or not you have a class.”
“Class?” Garth asked, glancing at Leanne. “Do they have Wizards?”