619 Chapter 618 - The Press
"Hold the line!" Advant flooded the surrounding space with her pheromones.
"FOR THE COLONY!" The ants roared back.
Another explosion rocked the tunnel, sending Colony members sprawling in the dust. Healers rushed forward, antennae darting over the fallen, checking for pheromones indicating injury or distress. The medics had to be careful, too many soldiers were hiding their injuries, or at least refusing to acknowledge them.
Once they'd identified those in need, they pulled them back from the front line and began to administer emergency treatment
"Mages! Return fire!" Advant continued to flood the combat zone with instructions, trying to bring some order to the chaos. "Another acid barrage! Where's my artillery!?"
A team of ants pressed forward, collectively raising their business districts and unleashing a flood of acid at the enemies in the distance. With dust, spells, smoke and the acrid haze of acid filling the tunnel, it was almost impossible to see what was happening in the distance. Advant strained to see, frustrated by her inability to determine the enemy's movements.
"They're advancing!" Called her spotter.
"Fall back!" she roared, "Give ground, steady pace! Healers to the rear!"
The ants organise themselves instantly, tiny bursts of pheromones flying between them as they communicate rapidly. Every member was constantly aware of where their neighbours were. Compound eyes, antennae firing with the scent messages, the Colony members were in constant communication with each other.
The healers scurried to pull the injured back until larger soldiers moved to join them. Their wounded family members clung to their back with mandibles and claws and they made an organized retreat.
"Ready the collapse!" Advant ordered and the gathered mages got to work quickly.
Mana flowed and shifted in the air. Great torrents of the stuff, drilling into the ceiling, softening the rock in places, splitting it apart in others. The mages were guided by their digging Skill, helping them to ascertain how to best perform their work.
Advant watched them carefully, waiting. It was subtle at first, one mage, then another twitched as if poked, their hold on the mana slipping from their grasp.
"They're pushing back!" One of them announced. "I've lost control of the stone!"
"Don't force it! Pull back with the others. Quickly!"
The mages broke off their working as the ceiling of the tunnel continued to groan and shift above their heads. The powerful Soldier was the last to retreat, watchful for any pursuit, but none came. The Stone people had been advancing for a day, frustrating the Colony's attempts to hold them back. Somehow they were even able to overpower the ant mages and prevent them from collapsing the tunnels when they tried it. With their superior command of earth magic, it was even possible that they could drop the tunnel ceilings right on the Colony's heads, but they didn't want a few crushed ants, they wanted to continue to push forward. Toward the nest.
The forward combat group fell back two kilometres until they reached the next defence point, a joining of three sizeable tunnels to form one major arterial passage. The Carvers had been hard at work here, ambush tunnels, thick walls enchanted against damage, a significant narrowing of the passage. They would make a major stand here.
Weary and in need of healing, Advant led her group into the defences, directing her members to rest and eat.
"There's plenty more fighting to do," she warned them, "anyone skipping torpor will be sent straight back to the nest. Maybe you can explain to mother why you thought you knew better than to do as the Colony asked of you."
The ants shrank back visibly from that threat. Getting a dressing down from the Queen was something few ants got to experience, but all dreaded. Only the Eldest had demonstrated any capacity to withstand the pressure, just another legendary aspect of their existence.
"That's an effective way to threaten the troops," another scent commented, "I might have to try that one on the mages."
Advant turned to see Propellant walk over. The mage looked exhausted, her antennae drooping against her will, her legs barely holding her abdomen off the ground.
"I think I need to use it on you," Advant observed, "it seems you're in need of some torpor yourself."
The mage waved one antennae wearily.
"I would if I could. I assume you know what's been happening?"
"The tunnels not collapsing?"
The smaller ant nodded.
"It's not as if it was central to our strategy, but it has exposed a weakness. They are stronger than us when we fight them directly without bringing our advantage in numbers to bear. This goes for the soldiers as well as the mages."
"It's not as if we didn't know that already," Advant pointed out.
"True, but I don't think we were prepared for how great the gap would be. I don't even think collapsing the tunnels would slow them that much, only hours perhaps, but they refuse to give us even that much. We aren't even able to succeed at tunnelling behind them. They can sense us as we move through the stone."
Advant knew this much. Once the golgari had begun to press forward, they'd been relentless. The Colony had no desire to throw lives away battling to the death over stretches of tunnel so far from their nests, so their delaying strategy had been put into play. Slow down the advance, wear them out, never let them rest. It was too early to say it wasn't having any effect, but Advant wasn't as confident as she had been.
"Have you had word from the other fronts?" she asked.
"I caught up with Burke on my way here. It's the same on every angle they're pushing forward. Every now and again they send out splinter groups to feel out the side passages, but never far enough that we can cut them off. They're hunting the nest, they don't care about anything else."
"They know we'll never retreat from the brood," Advant guessed, "they believe we'll stand and fight when they get close enough."
"Which is why I think they invited the second force," the mage shared, "a pincer, to make it more difficult for us to simply retreat away from the golgari with the young."
The conflict had only begun, one day of fighting with almost no casualties, yet already Advant was feeling pressured.
"Stay cool," Propellant advised, "and you know it's serious if it's me saying that. We have a long road and a lot of battle ahead. Things can change faster than you think. Be ready."
"Good advice," the soldier conceded, "let's both of us get some torpor whilst we can, sister. The battle here is going to be fierce."