The moment I entered the Queen's chamber, a powerful antennae came flying at my head. This time though, I was prepared, I'd thought ahead, inspired by Morrelia's thoughtfulness I had anticipated how my reception would begin.
Thus it was that I stood upside at the entrance, clinging to the roof with one of my mother's antennae clasped between my own. Sword catching is for fools, antennae catching is a whole new level.
"Hold on a second, mother! It isn't like you to be hasty!" I appealed.
The Queen's eyes lay on me like a weight, peaceful, serene, but heavy.
"I see you have brought a gift for me child" she replied evenly.
I tried to shrug my antennae whilst still gripping hers and largely failed. I wouldn't weaken my hold just yet, in case she felt I was being particularly foolish.
"Oh this old thing?" I deflected, "there are so many of them up on the surface that I'm starting to think they don't hold any value at all. Why, I almost feel bad giving you something of such low rarity."
"In that case" mother answered, amusement rippling through her voice, "perhaps it would be best if you kept it for yourself."
Dang it! Operation downplay the core was a failure.
"Is this the kind of welcome you give to your child who was away from home, slaving away as a scout in dangerous territories for the colony?" I try a different tack and divert the conversation.
I may have struck a chord with mother on that one, since she retracts her antennae from my grip before she responds.
"Welcome home child. I am, of course, very pleased to see you, even if I am concerned at what mischief you might have caused whilst you were away."
Oh, she's definitely amused now. I reply whilst climbing down the wall to the chamber floor, hoping to put myself on more solid ground.
"You wound me, mother" I say reproachfully even as I sweat inside.
Truth be told there is some bad news coming our way but it isn't my fault this time! I may have caused Garralosh and company to come down this was earlier than they had planned, but considering the Kaarmodo lizard was actively utilising scrying magic, chances are they already knew the human survivors were congregating here.
The Queen loomed above, still so much larger than myself. Her chamber still rests under the surface level, within the Dungeon, which necessitates her guard to be constantly on-alert, seizing monsters the moment they spawn from the walls, subduing them and more often than not bringing them to the Queen to kill, feeding experience and Biomass to the monarch.
"There might have been a couple of things that came up whilst I was away. Nothing we can't handle…" I hope.
Mother's antennae waggled with frustrated amusement.
"I had assumed as much the moment you walked out of the nest."
"Where is Aphy? I haven't seen her about?" I wondered, trying to shift the focus of conversation away from myself.
The Queen was only too happy to take the bait. Her eyes shone warmly as she discussed her beloved pet.
"I was worried that Aphy would be at risk here in my chamber, she is currently positioned with the brood under the watchful eye of the tenders. Did you know she'd already evolved?" she said proudly.
"Congratulations, Mother. I'm pleased to see your pet has brought you such joy."
And I was. Mother cared deeply for every member of the colony and we all loved her back, but we had stuff to do. It's nice to have someone be your devoted companion. I only had to think of the ever loyal Crinis resting on my back to remind myself of the security a devoted pet brought to the owner.
"Not much longer now and she'll be able to add her own eggs to the brood chambers" I mused.
"Yes" the Queen nodded happily, "it will be so helpful for the family."
Nice. Now that I've reminded her of all the good work I've done, it's time to bring her attention back to my gift.
"So about this core…"
Swift as a lightning bolt from the sky, the Queen's antennae descended on my head. Even with all of my upgrades, that still really smarts!
"There are others in a better position to make use of this gift than I, child, we have discussed this before" Mother spoke adamantly.
I winced, but held my ground.
"I already have one, and I'm not going to need another for a long time. I promise you I will obtain more of these cores for myself before I need it, but right now there is nobody in the colony who can make use of this core as much as you can!"
The Queen wasn't convinced.
"What of the soldiers? What of the generals? If the family is to fight for its survival, they will need to be as strong as possible. I am the only Queen in this colony right now, but there are two others who will soon fulfil this role. I do not fight as the others fight. They need all of the strength they can muster."
Haaa. The Queen was always downplaying her own importance to the colony. I'm not sure if she's just humble or if she just genuinely doesn't understand what it would mean for the colony if she were lost. In truth, I suspect that she simply sees herself as performing her function for the family as well as can be she believes there are other parts of the colony that need to be strengthened more than herself.
On that point we disagree and I'm not going to back down this time.
"For fighting we already have me. I have a rare core already and soon I'll be prepared to evolve. I promise you that whatever battles threaten the family, I will stand forward and fight. There is no other ant in this colony who is close to matching me. What we need isn't more battle potential, we need the strongest Queen possible to act as our beacon of hope, our bastion of strength and to fuel our growth."
My antennae wave passionately in the air as I try to convince the Queen to go along with my idea. Why is it so hard to convince this particular monster to get stronger?!
"Many times you've been the last line of defence for us and I suspect that you will be again. In truth, giving you this core will increase our fighting potential the most, as well as increase the future growth prospects of the colony. You have to accept it. Even if all it does is relieve the nerves of the workers, none of us want to lose you and it will give us comfort to see you as powerful as you can be" I pleaded.
As my words ran out, for the first time I noticed that not only was the Queen watching me in her careful way, but so where her guards, all of them facing me at rapt attention.
"He's right, Mother" one of them spoke up.
"It would be a boon to the colony" another said.
"You must not fall" a third chipped in, standing directly on the Queens head.
Gradually more workers began to speak until the chamber was filled with their voices, each of them urging the Queen to accept the rare core, to strengthen herself so that she would not be lost. I was shocked. It was so rare for the workers to express themselves to the Queen, even after they had gained the ability to speak. Her guards were like shadows, ever alert but never questioning her slightest decision. To see them speak out like this was unprecedented. Clearly they thought as I do. The Queen had to be preserved, no matter the cost to the rest of the colony, our Mother would be protected.
The Queen rose one antenna into the air and all sound cut off in an instant.
"I will accept this core" she said.
Her guards turned back to their task without comment, as if their display of loyalty and affection had been an illusion the room returned to what it had been but moments before.
"That's great" I sighed, relieved to my core.
Not willing to wait, I rushed forward and deposited the large core on the ground before the Queen before stepping back.
"How long until you'll be ready to evolve?" I asked out of curiosity.
It was one thing to accept the core, it was another to reach max level and evolve. Until that point, all the core did was provide a little extra mana, a little juice in the tank. It was in boosting our evolutionary potential that the core really shone.
"I can evolve at any time" the Queen said dismissively as she reached down to the core with her antennae, rolling it this way and that as she inspected it.
"You can evolve now?! That's huge news! Is your core maxed out? What about your mutations? You maxed them yeah? Tell me you've maxed them!" I gushed.
The Queen waved one antenna to brush aside my concerns.
"You know I have not filled my mutations child, the Biomass must go toward the growth of the colony. But yes, I reached my maximum level not too long ago. The children saw to it that I have been supplied sufficient cores to reach my full potential. Something of a waste but they were insistent" she huffed.
Fantastic news! Good work colony!
"In that case, I won't keep you, Mother" I said gleefully, "accept the core and evolve straight away! No need to wait!"
"Thank you child" the Queen said softly.
"You're very welcome, Mother" I responded with a tip of my antennae.
I retreated quietly out of the Queen’s chamber and into my own quarters below where I found the twenty already waiting for me.