It would be an understatement to say that Enid was nervous. The first time her husband had taken her into the Dungeon, she'd been nervous. When smuggling Karak shells from the blue desert, she was nervous. Marching into the heart of the Colony's nest? She was distinctly nervous. When representatives had approached her about the ants wishing to engage in further cooperation with the refugees living on the surface, she'd nearly fallen out of her chair. It was true that the people had grown more comfortable in the presence of the monsters, even Enid herself had experienced a profound shift in attitude toward them, but she'd felt that the ants were more or less uncaring of the humans who were their neighbours.
Certainly, they were curious. Even now members of the Colony, almost exclusively mages and crafters, wandered through the town, observing, questioning. It was hard for a craftsman to go a day without having a giant insect poke its antennae through a window and start asking about this or that. Some found it intrusive, but the ants certainly did more than their fair share of work around the place. Whether it was tilling fields, sourcing construction materials, extending the irrigation system that they themselves had built, the Colony did a lot to help a group of people they didn't really owe anything to.
She stepped carefully as they continued to tread through what must be close to sacred ground to the ants. They'd trudged through the Dungeon for many hours to make it to this subterranean nest. The town council had been more than a little apprehensive about journeying this deep, in the frontier kingdoms there were very few people who were able to venture to the second strata safely. Aarran the Bowyer had been amongst the most hesitant to venture down, yet the Colony had managed to make the trip almost boring.
Being escorted by a full hundred monsters seemed almost extravagant, but they'd done a remarkable job. Enid didn't think she'd even heard a monster during the entire trip, a ridiculous thought under normal circumstances, yet the sheer numerical strength of the Colony made the impossible possible.
"I still don't believe what I'm seeing."
Enid rolled her eyes and looked at Isaac as he gazed with wonder at the intricate carvings that adorned every wall that they'd passed. She herself had been shocked at the quality of the work. Her mercantile spirit had ignited at the sight of the intricate details. Work of this quality would have high demand in several markets that she could think of. She'd have to see if she could track down the artist during her visit.
"Try and focus, Isaac. We're here representing Renewal as members of the council. Stop gawping at the walls and try to project a little dignity," she snapped wryly.
The guard captain did straighten up, but it didn't last long. Five minutes later he was staring idiotically at something else. Enid went to rebuke him again, but Aarran cut her off.
"Leave him be, Mayor. I can hardly keep my mouth shut myself. If you'd told me something like this existed in the Dungeon, I'd have called you a liar to your face."
She turned her glare in this new direction, but the grizzled old craftsman was as immune to her ire as always. He merely shrugged and went back to carefully placing his feet as they navigated the tunnels.
[Are there any problems?] the slightly alien voice of her guide rang in her mind.
She concentrated on the connection and replied.
[No, nothing wrong. I think my people are just a little surprised at how far your family has progressed in such a short time.]
She could feel the ant's pride radiating across the bridge. Enid had noticed that the best way to compliment an ant was to praise their family.
[Yes, we have worked very hard to apply the concepts that we have learned from the Eldest.]
[Didn't you learn them from us?]
[It was the Eldest's idea to do that,] the mage shrugged.
That was another observation that Enid had made. They were almost incorrigible in their determination to assign credit and or praise to Anthony, often for things that he himself wouldn't agree had anything to do with him. Indeed, after considering the value of the artworks that she'd seen, her second thought had been how hilarious the 'Eldest's' reaction must have been the first time he'd seen it.
Rounding a corner they came to a large central chamber. Its size and perfectly uniform shape was enough to impress the visitors, but the elaborate carvings on the walls, when viewed alongside the truly massive carving of Anthony in the centre, were beautifully illuminated by glowing orbs placed around the base. The walls and floor of the room bristled with ants, climbing over each other as they darted in and out of the many tunnels that branched from this probably central area. Enid sucked in a breath at the sight, there must be thousands of Colony members around them at this moment in time.
"Ah! Welcome! Glory to the Colony!" came a call from their left.
Startled to hear another human voice in this nest of monsters, the delegation turned to see a group of robed figures approaching them after having exited a nearby tunnel. At their lead, as ever, was the one armed priest, Beyn.
"I was wondering when you were going to show up," Enid greeted him, "you've been down here this whole time?"
"I have," the priest's eyes were almost glazed over with joy at living in such close proximity to the ants and Enid averted her gaze from the disturbing sight. "The Colony - "
As he said the word, the figures behind him erupted in a unified shout of "Praise their wisdom! Praise the Colony!"
Beyn waited for them to finish before he continued. "- have been very accommodating. It seems that they were impressed at how useful my comrades and I proved to be during the siege and now wish to engage in a deeper partnership!"
The mayor of Renewal was shocked.
"You were useful?" she could hardly believe it. "I thought you'd all end up getting in the way before dying in a comical and stupid manner after making fools of yourselves."
Beyn's expression turned hurt.
"Really now, Enid. You surely wouldn't expect that the Colony -"
"- would let us just die? Especially after asking for our help!"
Enid noticed that he didn't even attempt to protest the likelihood of them making fools of themselves, just that the Colony wouldn't let them die for it. With Beyn and his followers here, there were a total of thirty-five humans huddled together amidst the mass of insect life that boiled with activity around them. She tried to draw closer to Beyn.
"Have you any idea what they want us for?" she muttered, "look at what they've been able to achieve in just a few months! What can we actually do for them?"
The priest's eyes glittered at her praise for the Colony. He'd observed the softening of the mayor's attitude toward the ants over time, and was mighty pleased to see that it continued.
"I can only suppose," he whispered back, "that they want us to act as a face for their interests. During the siege, I was used to negotiate with the city and I think they want you and a few others to represent them in further talks."
Her business mind instantly understood what the Colony was driving at. By bringing along other people who had lived peacefully and prosperously under their 'rule', the ants would be able to start to allay the fears of the people in the city. They would also be able to make use of Enid's sharp negotiating skills when it came to matters that they themselves likely didn't understand. Although it was an imposition on Enid herself, it isn't like she would say no. Her responsibility was to the people of Renewal, and a deeper relationship with Anthony and his family could only benefit them.
[It is nice to see you all gathered here together,] a new, powerful mind reached out to Enid and spoke to her. Judging by the heads swivelling around her, the rest of the gathering was able to hear this new voice as well. How'd they worked that out?
A large ant pushed forward from the crush of insects around them and dipped it's antennae in greeting.
[I am Coolant. Mage Ant and representative of the council here to welcome you to our main nest. It is nice to see both members of the town council,] she used one leg to gesture to Enid and her group, [as well as Priest Beyn and his acolytes who proved so useful at Rylleh. Come, let us move somewhere a little more private.]
[I do ask that you be careful as we walk. We are moving to a room quite close to the brood chambers and security is very tight, as I'm sure you understand. Sudden moves or noises would make the guards jumpy and they take their role very seriously.]
With that warning, Coolant turned and began to stride through the press of ants, who began to clear a path and move around the humans as they started to shuffle forward. Enid herself could barely breathe as she turned to look with a face full of dread at the idiot acolytes trailing behind their leader. Those idiots were supposed to be quiet?!