In reality it probably didn't take that long, but leading these hatchlings around and making sure that they don't get themselves killed has been a royal pain in the global financial markets. Although they displayed surprising tactical acumen, organising themselves and operating as only a team of ants could, stamping out the remaining impulse towards sacrifice and martyrdom from their minds has proven to be difficult.
"It's the most efficient strategy" one of them protested to me at one stage.
"Efficient how?! Whilst having a decoy worker draw away the majority of the pack will allow the rest to engage the mature wolf hound in safer conditions, it's a suicide mission! One hatchling is no match for ten wolf hounds, even if they are cubs!"
The victim of my rage rubbed at their head with an antenna. "It's time efficient and makes use of the resources we have available to minimise losses!" they protested, "it's not the same as pointless self-sacrifice!"
"Time efficient is it?" I growled, "let's see about that."
I turned to the rest of the hatchlings. "Who volunteers for the suicide mission?"
Nineteen antennae went into the air. Turning back to the hatchling who had suggested the plan I found they had raised their antenna as well.
"So, how quickly and efficiently are you going to collectively decide who is going to go?"
The mastermind of the scheme looked a little dejected. "I see your point."
"No" I corrected them, "you are still only seeing part of it."
Using my antennae to bring down a vicious double barrelled thwack, I smack the workers head straight into the ground.
"You are STILL not measuring the weight of your lives correctly! The amassed experience and resources, the investment the colony has made in you, the potential work that you can achieve in the future! You would throw all of that away over one hunt?! It's not worth it, not even for one of you! AND …" I spit, rounding on the rest of them, "with even a little thought, you could have made arrangements for the ant tasked with the diversion to survive!"
They all stare at me blankly. The thought hadn't even crossed their minds, I bet.
"Dig an escape tunnel for them to run to in advance, prepare a hiding place, use a pit trap, connect the tunnels so they can loop back, there are many options."
The menace in my voice caused quite a few hatchlings to break out in a cold sweat on the inside of their carapace, I've not doubt.
"For not even thinking of preserving your own lives, we will go ahead with the diversion plan, but I will take the role of the sacrificial diversion myself."
"That should have been me!"
"Before this day is done I had planned to lay down my life gloriously and unselfishly!"
"Yeah that's right" I jeered at them, "no dangerous jobs for you, just the clean up!"
"Boo!" they roundly boo me for taking the 'glory' for myself.
Following that discussion I had the hatchlings re-evaluate their plan and take the time to prepare a way out for me, even though I didn't really need one. Following that extra preparation we executed the strategy flawlessly and the hunt was successful.
Despite having already evolved once, the hatchlings were able to rack up experience very quickly, with Tiny, Crinis and I defeating anything they couldn't handle and feeding them the last hits. With their stomach upgrades making it so that they suffered no Biomass penalties for their only evolution, they racked up the points and mutations quickly as well.
All in all it took only slightly longer than a full day of delving to get all the ants up to level ten. When I think about my own struggles in my early life and compare it to the silver spoon these chumps have been handed I can't help but feel a little bitter.
Suck it up Anthony! This is for a future of relaxation! If these guys can take care of the colony then you won't have to! Remember to play the long game!
When we finally trudge back into the nest, I get the ants to form up around me. I want to give them a little pep talk before the second evolution. This is a big step in their lives, after all.
"This is a big step in your lives. At this evolution you will be the first workers to select a caste that will determine the nature of your service to the colony. This is the system I designed to allow each individual to choose the path that they themselves believe is best suited to them. The drawback is that multiple specialisations are not really feasible. Because we start so weak as hatchlings, spreading our resources too thin is just too inefficient."
They all nod at that. Being efficient and getting the most out of every worker has been one of the lessons I've hammered into them the most.
"Think well on how you wish to contribute. Do you want to fight? Do you want to tend to the brood? Will you be our next Queen? Will you help craft and build in ways no ant has ever done before, or will you learn magic and assist the colony through spellcasting?"
I can see the thoughts turning over through the eyes of every hatchling before me. They are all burning to contribute to the colony, but unlike any ant who has come before them, they get to make a choice. Not some instinctual reflex either, but an actual reasoned, considered choice. I'm not worried that they'll pick something they aren't suited to, these ants are nothing if not brutally honest with themselves.
"Consider your choice carefully and when you are ready you can begin your evolution. I don't have any particular rules for you this time around. You're smart enough to make your own decisions."
With that, I let them go.
[Crinis, Tiny. I'll get you to watch over them while they evolve please]
With that taken care of… I'm gonna sleep!
I'm an absolute wreck. It may not seem like I've done anything stressful, and in reality, I haven't really, but my core is FREAKIN sore! I feel as if all of the bones I don't have inside my body are broken. Every step in painful. How have I managed to hold on this long? Sheer grit and determination. I will raise up these twenty hatchlings and then my time of rest shall come! Dreaming of not having to stress and worry about the fate of the colony has driven me this far, but I'm spent. If I don't rest and recuperate then I'm worried my core is just going to straight up shatter.
Thinking that I still have half a rare core to go my whole body shudders in despair. I'm already full! How the hell am I supposed to fit anymore in, I don't know. Claws crossed that my body will adapt to my larger than intended core.
I nestle into a corner of my chamber just as the hatchlings are beginning to do the same. After my nap, I may awake to see the fruits of all of this labour.