848 Adventures with Tolly (959)

Hello my dear readers, it is wonderful to be able to share with you the next instalment of my adventures amidst the lands of the Colony! When last we spoke, I had been assured that a meeting with THE Queen was quite simply impossible, outside of a crusade of the most bloody sort to fight through tens of thousands of fanatical insect soldiers! I enjoy a good crusade as much as the next person, but I have to say that even I am not that eager to score an interview.

So with a great deal of reluctance I abandoned the idea of speaking to the Queen. I was, however, eager to continue to explore in the pursuit of finding the 'Great One', the Eldest! Exactly what had this ant done in order to secure such devotion from its Colony? Of course, my guide, Emilia, was replete with stories of this particular individual's excellence. Great battles fought, duels won, incredible feats of strength, cunning, bravery and derring-do!

I have to say, reader, that there could be a very good book in the telling of this ant's exploits. Might I suggest, this author's tenth best seller?

Naturally, I assume some level of exaggeration to be in play, but I am far too polite to push my guide for the exact details! That simply wouldn't do! It pays to be polite at all times, this has been my policy for decades.

My guards and I continued to enjoy the hospitality of the Colony within the second stratum and I must say the sights I beheld were quite beyond my expectations.

After the well regulated expanse in which vast fields of trees hosted the aphids raised by the Colony, we visited a mine. Emelia was quick to assure me that this mine was typical of those operated by the ants and I have to say it appeared to be a model of efficiency. A replenishing supply of Cold Iron, the brittle, freezing ore that can appear in the Shadow Sea, was being efficiently harvested by a rotating team of ant workers. The entire operation was conducted in perfect silence, a trait of the ants that I struggled to adapt to.

It's so strange! No matter how many of them are gathered in one place, the tikky tak of their claws is basically all that one can hear. Emilia assured me that the ants were constantly communicating and were, in fact, quite chatty, but without the ability to understand their pheromonal language, it isn't possible to partake in these conversations.

After visiting the mine, we followed the trail taken by the raw ore into Anthome itself, whereupon it was delivered into the largest foundry I have ever laid eyes on. The heat was so intense, even within this frozen stratum, that the viewing area we were taken to was lined with cooling enchantments on the walls. The air outside wavered and shimmered in the heat rising from the enormous crucibles of molten ore. At least a dozen of these literal melting pots could be seen from our position and Emilia took the time to point out the different minerals being processed and the final products they would be turned into.

Each crucible measured dozens of metres across, giant cauldrons into which tons and tons of material seemed to constantly flow, with waste product and separated liquid metals flowing from controlled outlets at the bottom. From there the precious metals were funnelled into gravity fed pipes and whisked away for further processing elsewhere.

The sheer scale of the operation opened my old eyes to just how vast the industry of the Colony truly was. How many mines like the one I saw would be necessary to feed a foundry like this? A hundred? And this was far from the only such foundry, I was assured. Hundreds of mines, thousands of tons of material that was fed to a literal army of artisans who crafted everything one could imagine, from arms and armour for ants, people or their pet monsters, to furniture, statues and kitchen implements.

The most senior and revered of all the craftsants, was Smithant, and I was especially pleased to be able to meet this individual hard at work at the forge.

"Smithant was one of the original smiths in the Colony and the first to craft armour specifically for use by ants," Emilia told me, a touch of awe evident in her voice as we stood to the side as the large ant beyond feverishly worked the tools of her trade. "It isn't often that she returns to this stratum, as she runs the Colony's largest armoury deeper in the Dungeon. She comes up to teach younger ants sometimes, or to check the quality of the more basic equipment produced here.

Nothing I saw in front of me looked basic. Even my guards were impressed as we watched the dark coloured ant shape the metal; the speed at which she worked was incredible, taking a raw ingot, firing it, and then using a strange, enchanted hammer to pound it into shape. Her six legs were constantly in motion, shifting, adjusting, firing the bellows, changing the angle, operating the hammer. It was almost dizzying to watch.

As she worked, I was able to see how she had adapted her body to her work. One leg channelled pure heat into the metal as she worked it, keeping it cherry red as she plunged one claw deep into the molten steel. In fact, she needed no equipment to touch or move her work, so heat resistant had her body become.

I was even more shocked when she leaned forward and clamped down onto a rod of glowing iron with her jaws directly! Sparks flew as she chomped several times in rapid succession, her mandibles acting as hammers to compress and fold the metal.

Nor did she stop the motion of her obviously enchanted hammer during this motion. The more I watched, the more I felt I wasn't looking at a smith, but an entity who had designed its entire being around metalwork. She had moulded every aspect of herself to better suit her chosen field.

Without a mage present, I couldn't speak directly to this remarkable individual, but Emilia offered to translate for me and I was most eager to learn more.

"Can you ask her what she's working on now?" I led with.

Always go for the safe questions first, readers!

To my eye, the ant before me didn't respond in any way, even after Emilia turned towards her and (I assume) began to speak.

"She is attempting to perfect a new archetype of heavy armour. Specifically, the Mark 10 Layered Armour, Immortal edition."

"Mark 10?"

"Yes. She has developed nine previous versions of this particular armour, I believe. I must confess, Ms Tolly, I am not too certain of the technical aspects."

"What specifically does she mean by 'Immortal edition'?"

"I can answer that. The Immortals are a particular heavy armour division of the Colony. They are famed for their durability, to the point that legend holds that only one has ever died in battle."

Every army in the world has these sorts of stories, but for some reason I always give them more weight when I hear them in the Colony. The ants do not seem to have the capacity to lie.

"Can you ask her why she decided to become an armour smith?" I ask. "I am most fascinated as to why she chose this path."

A brief pause as the two confer and then Emilia comes back to me.

"Armour is good, a carapace is also good, why not combine the two? Would it be possible to create a methodology that would make an armoured ant not a hindrance, but more than twice as durable?"

I blinked.

"Is it? Possible, I mean."

"She says, of course, that is what I did."

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