I was blessed many times over for such events occur, not only in my lifetime, but in my vicinity, allowing me to take a direct hand in the magnificent triumphs that transpired. But that isn't what I value most, the thing I gained the greatest joy from. The understanding that was granted to me far outweighed any other considerations in terms of the impact it had on my life and the direction I took.
What is the System? Divine intervention, most would say, certainly in the human kingdoms where the Church of the Path is most entrenched. A power that was granted to the wise that they may defend the light of civilisation from evil and temper themselves in battle, that they might prove themselves worthy.
What is the Dungeon? Providence, they would say. A place of trial, where the gifts of the System are to be developed to fulfilment, so that the worthy might be discerned and given their proper due. That, was the Path.
But I was shown that it wasn't so. Even now I am surprised that it didn't shake me more, I had been diligent and faithful all of my life, trained with the priesthood with such zeal that I had graduated two years ahead of my peers. The masters at the Temple of Ways in Croninheim had anticipated great things from me, but even they could not have anticipated the insights I would gain.
I was shown a new way, a different path. The depredations and depravities of the church had blinded it to the truth of the world in which we lived. What is the System? A tool, nothing more. A tool to be grasped by strong hands and wielded by each individual to forge a path of their own. The Dungeon? It is not of the divine, but of the earth. It is a tool, nothing more.
I lost an arm in order to glimpse the true divinity, that creature who forged a path of compassion, of sharing, protection and purity with the tools that others made objects of their worship. For that blessed realisation I was cast low by mortal hands, only to be raised high by the winds of the divine.
- Excerpt from 'The Path Reforged' by Beyn Naligic the Apostate.
Tungstant, Victor and Mendant stood huddled in a small chamber awaiting the next round of scouting reports from the front.
"Seems as though the ambush went to plan" Mendant offered to her sibling.
Victor waved the compliment away with one lazy antennae and continued to click her mandibles irritably.
"What is so wrong with the battle going the way we wanted it to?" sighed Tungstant, puzzled by the attitude displayed by one of the two generals of the council, "Isn't that supposed to be a good thing?"
Victor clacked her mandibles a few more times before focusing her attention onto her two siblings. "The ambush went well" she conceded, "but I had hoped most of all to bait some response from Garralosh or the Lizard creature. Those two are the greatest threats to us and not having a clue of what they might be capable of is… worrying."
"Perhaps they couldn't do anything? Maybe we just hit them too fast for them to muster a response" Mendant suggested.
The small healer had spent the last few hours tending to the wounded who had made it back to the fallback position. The ambush had been carried out with surprisingly few casualties but there had been many injuries suffered by the soldiers who had battled in the tunnels. Despite the scales being tipped so far in their favour, it was inevitable that a few legs would be lost, an antennae shorn off here and there. The few soldiers who had actually perished had simply been unlucky.
Victor clacked his mandibles derisively. "We hit them fast but I doubt it was that fast. From the intelligence we have, we've been told that the Kaarmodo is to be considered a spell caster greater than the Eldest by several degrees. I refuse to believe that such a creature would be incapable of hitting us back in any way."
"So what are you suggesting?" Tungstant inquired, exasperated. She liked to work with stone and dirt, concrete materials that behaved the way they ought to. The Generals and soldiers took so many variables into their claws it seemed ridiculous. How were you supposed to guess the mind of giant lizard?
"I'm not sure" Victor said and Tungstant slumped to the floor.
Mendant was more patient. "Let's see what the scouts have to say before we discuss further" she suggested.
The three ants stood in companionable silence whilst they waited. The twenty members of the first generation were not often in the same room together anymore, but they quite enjoyed the companionship of those who had been born alongside them. The only ants to receive the direct 'teachings' of the Eldest other than Vibrant, they had gone through much together and those bonds still held.
It was Wills herself who came to report, rushing into the chamber without appearing to be hurried in any way, which was her special talent.
"Waiting around for little old me?" Wills chuckled, "surely you have better things to do?"
Victor was in no mood for levity.
"Give the report, scout" she ground out, "how many of my soldiers died today?"
"Not many" Wills shrugged, "you'll seldom have a better fight than this one."
The scout settled herself unhurriedly before beginning to speak again.
"Our last report has the elements of the horde that had been in pursuit pulling back to the main body and resuming their march along the projected path. So far no deviation has been observed. Current count of casualties sits at fifteen. Most of the injured are back up and crawling, thanks to your healers, Mendant."
Wills nodded towards the healer in question and she responded with a calm tip of her antennae. The colony hadn't produced many healers yet, barely twenty, but each and every one of them had been sent out as part of the ambush force. Where the fighting was thickest, they were there, healing and regenerating their fellow ants.
"Estimated casualties inflicted on the enemy are over five thousand, with more to follow I believe."
Victor flicked an antennae in confusion.
"What do you mean? We aren't fighting them right now, why would they be dying?"
"Scout reports suggest that those monsters who survived the acid strike in a wounded condition are being consumed by their … allies. I don't believe those running the show want to be slowed down."
Possibly as many as six thousand casualties inflicted for the loss of only fifteen soldiers. A tremendous victory by any metric, yet each of the four ants in the chamber was silent.
"The Eldest won't be happy" Tungstant sighed, breaking the silence.
"The Eldest will understand the need. We were never going to get out of this without losing family members" Victor snapped, a touch defensively.
Tungstant just shook her head.
"Eldest will understand perfectly well. But that won't prevent them from being unhappy."
Silence returned once again as the four members of the twenty considered their strange and often bewildering elder sibling.
It still felt unnatural to them, to care so much about each individual member of the colony. The Eldest had changed much in designing them, but had failed to remove the instinct of sacrifice. Those fifteen soldiers had died with hearts full of gladness, there was no doubt of that. Leeroy would possibly strangle herself with her own guts out of sheer jealousy, to be frank. Only the Eldest seemed immune to this instinct, also Vibrant to some extent, and demanded that every member of the colony fight against it. So they did.
It also helped that preserving the strength of the colony made good logical sense. The enhanced minds of the Formica Sapiens helped them grasp this point, at least.
"Have we had word of the Eldest?" Mendant asked Wills, "what was his status?"
Wills nodded to her respectfully, showing far more deference to the healer than to the General Victor, who ground her mandibles to one side.
"The Eldest retreated in good order along with both pets. From the last report I received, the Eldest levelled up once during the battle."
The other three ants each sighed with relief. One level down, five to go.
None of them wanted to put pressure on the Eldest, but that possible evolution was looming as their ace in the hole. The ants had only just begun their study of the System but already they were unlocking some of its secrets. It was clear to see from their limited experiments that evolutionary bonuses snowballed at an exponential rate, each evolution giving more power than the last. With the rare core consumed as well as the possible unlocks the Eldest had achieved, who knows what might come out in the Evolution menu?
"Let's move onto planning the second ambush. How are preparations proceeding?" Victor pushed the conversation forward.
Tungstant was eager to detail the digging works and spoke excitedly, finally, something that made sense!
"The interconnected tunnel networks will allow us an opportunity to draw away a more significant number of enemies and engage them on friendly ground, but we must be prepared. The collapsible tunnels worked well on this occasion but I would like us to consider more contingencies, such as …"
The four ants discussed their plans for two more hours as the horde marched inexorably onward.