One of the things I learned from the human Queen is the value of monster cores to their society. They use them for enchantments, magical engineering, powerful weapons, armour, training magicians, jewellery and more. Cores are an integral part of industry on the surface, their ability to absorb mana from the atmosphere and then channel it cannot be replicated. In wealthy circles cores could even be considered a separate form of currency, valuable everywhere civilised enough to conduct trade.
I was also disturbed to learn of the market for monster body parts, using hides, shells, claws and even organs to make equipment, potions or even building materials! Apparently the Queens throne room is buttressed by columns carved from several massive spines extracted from the monsters who dominated this region before their death.
Hearing about the incredible value attached to the body parts of my own kind made me somewhat queasy. I do have to admit that my diamond carapace would make a fairly cracking set of armour…
Don't think about it Anthony! Just because you're a monster doesn't mean you are going to wind up with your head mounted on some wall, your core hung around a duchess' neck and your carapace turned into a truly sweet set of defensive gear. They might get the Anjanath, but not this ant!
That shall not be the fate of me, or my colony!
If anything the conversation with the Queen emphasised again and again the danger of the surface people to me and my family. Truly, humanity is the real monster! I'm super reluctant to enter into any sort of deal with this kingdom. Packing up the colony and rushing into monster territory sounds like the safest and best place for us ants to go!
But… the wealth!
So… many…. CORES.
I could pump the core of all of my pets and myself to max, special cores included! I could do the same for the Queen! I could grind my core engineering to the next level easy.
Hundreds of cores are on the table here! Not two or three, hundreds!
It's almost certainly a trick in some way.
The Queen has no options available to her, that much is clear, but would a wise and savvy Queen really be prepared to hand a portion of her nations wealth to a marauding band of monsters?
Is it really a betrayal if you know it is coming? Just because she'll turn on me at some point doesn't mean I won't be able to extract value. Is it risky? For sure. The reward though ….. My mandibles are twitching as I ponder that sweet, sweet largesse!
I need to control myself. I better go check on the real Queen.
Leaving Tiny to enjoy his new seat I scuttle over to the farm and head down to check things out. What meets me at the bottom is a veritable seething mass of ants. Workers are climbing all over each other in a huge pile, those on the outside twitch their antennae and constantly bare their mandibles at the surrounding walls, daring any monster to poke its head out.
Here and there I can see a separate, smaller masses of ants and just when I'm wondering what is going on I see a few workers break off from their smaller groups and walk back to the main mass with chunks of fresh Biomass in their mandibles.
Clearly the workers are piling onto every monster the second it comes out of the walls, ripping them apart in their desperation to ensure the Queen isn't threatened.
The problem I have is, how am I supposed to talk to the Queen when she is literally buried beneath a protective layer of her own children?!
I know I said to keep her safe but holy heck fam! You've really gone all out!
Descending into the farm I can see that the workers have even made a carpet layer underneath the Queen, squashing their bodies low to the ground to keep a vigilant eye on the ground. If a monster were to burst out of the ground these workers would rather place their own bodies between the ravenous claws and their Queen.
There isn't anything for me to do except push my way through the workers until I manage to come face to face with the Queen.
Even Vibrant displays some concern when she come before her mother. The little ant sits up on my head and tries to sense her parents condition with her antennae.
"How are you doing mother?" I ask anxiously.
Her antennae twitch as she detects my words and she slowly shifts her head until she spots me amongst the throng.
"I am … better" she replies.
Her voice sounds less thin than it did, some of the warmth that I remembered has returned as well as a little of her vigour. Flicking on my mana sense momentarily I can see that her core is more energetic than in was, no longer stuttering like a candle about to be blown out.
"Is it the Dungeon" I ask hesitantly, "Do you need to absorb more mana?"
The Queen looks at me blankly for a moment.
"I do not know, child" she replies.
I'm getting a sinking feeling that I'm right though. It's possible that the monsters with advanced cores, like the Queen, need to have constant exposure to concentrated mana in order to survive?
So ever since we came to the surface the Queen has been gradually leaking strength? Growing weaker every passing day?! And of course she doesn't say anything, she's too damn selfless!
If they could my eyes would be tearing up! THIS is the sacrifice a real Queen makes! No schemes here, just loyal service. Not a kingdom, a family!
"Have you been able to cast any healing spells on yourself?" I ask.
She waggles her antennae in an ant nod. "My injuries are somewhat better".
"When you feel that you can you should cast it again to make sure you heal quickly" I urge her, "and eat plenty! It will speed up the healing".
She once again waggles her antennae to nod. I can faintly sense some amusement radiating off her tired frame, being fussed over by her children instead of the (in her mind) proper state of her fussing over us.
Satisfied that the Queen is on the mend I climb back out of the farm, letting the workforce do its thing. My mind is buzzing with thoughts and not all of them are pleasant.
I have to bear some responsibility for this situation. I couldn't have known that the Queen would suffer in this way when we came to the surface but the fact remains that we are here because of me. I also can't help a little self-recrimination. If I'd been a little more attentive to the Queen and less focused on my own growth maybe I'd have noticed that she was weakening.
Logically I know that it isn't my fault but the thoughts are hard to dismiss.
Returning to the ant hill, lost in my own head, I'm knocked out of my thoughts by a bustle amongst the workers on one side of the hill.
What the heck is happening now?!
Unbelievably, an old woman is walking slowly but purposefully out of the tree line and into the clearing, hands raised above her head and a determined expression on her face.