The crawling little bastards bite and sting. I suspect they also have a type of ultrasonic communication—I think I can almost hear some sort of high-pitched tone. It’s more of a feeling around my inner ear, rather than something I can actually hear.
Okay. Okay. Back up. Let me start from the Library of Carnivorous Ivy and go forward from there.
I hate these ants.
Sorry. Digression. But these things are so far on my bad side they couldn’t see my good side with the Hubble Space Telescope.
So, back at the library. I decided to go out scavenging, mostly to see what I could take back through the gate with me. A couple of containers—bowls, cups, anything to hold water—wouldn’t go amiss, either. I can rig up a dew-collection station, maybe, and have water trickle down to fill a jar or something during the morning hours, collect rainwater, and so on. I get thirsty during the day, after all.
Bronze and I went through some of the other campus buildings, starting with the cafeteria.
For a wonder, it wasn’t the on-campus food that made the building a horror. It was the fact other things had tried to eat it. I don’t know what-all broke into the building to tear into the powdered eggs and freeze-dried everything else, but the creatures obviously decided to argue over who got the last of it. They were worse than sophomores and almost as bad as freshmen.
The place was a mess. A very old mess, granted, but still piled with bones, spiderwebs, mold, and various sorts of slime.
Bronze didn’t want to go in. Rotted floors, you know. I didn’t want to go in either, once I had a look inside. I weigh a lot more than a human being, sure, but during the day I have to breathe. The cafeteria was never a good place for that.
Besides, given the exposure to the elements and the various forms of foulness in there, I doubted any surviving container was anything I’d be willing to drink from. We skipped the building after a preliminary look and marked it off our list of places to scavenge.
We moved on at Bronze’s walking pace. She kept an eye on her footing, I kept both eyes on the rest of the world. Occasionally, I called a halt and searched buildings for salvage. There was nothing in the way of mechanical or electronic devices. In the greater scheme of things, they simply don’t last very long when left to rot. There were some interesting gadget cases, though, mostly lacking in controls of any sort. How do you use a device the size and shape of a wristwatch without controls? Touch-screen? Okay, but what about us fat-fingered types? Those are teensy little screens. What about the stylish-looking pendants and chokers in the ladies’ section? They can’t even see the screen, if it has a screen. Voice control? Radio-control implants? Wireless neural interfacing?
I broke a couple of the defunct electronic gadgets open. The wristwatches and pendants and whatnot seem to use the same clear-crystal technology as the university computer, only much tinier. I missed it in the first one and only caught it in the second one by a chance glint of the light. The computer “chip” was multifaceted, clear as glass, and about the size of a grain of table salt.
I hate not understanding how they work. It frustrates and humiliates me. It makes me feel inadequate, and I already have enough issues on that front, thank you.
During our scavenger hunt, we also stepped through a downtown park. I’ll say this for modern (postmodern?) city planning: They went to some effort to make the place walk-friendly. Wide sidewalks, frequent benches, public comfort facilities (okay, yes: toilets), and small parks.
There’s something sad about an empty playground, though. All the equipment was intact, or mostly so. Enough to look old instead of ruined, anyway. There were slides, monkey bars, see-saws, swings, all the usual stuff. Why is that sad? Maybe because it’s meant for children to play on. Silence on a playground seems lonely, almost tragic, as though the equipment mourns for children who will never use it. I suppose anything with a clear purpose is somewhat dismal when it isn’t used, but playground equipment is meant to bring joy. Maybe it’s the contrast between a playground of running, screaming, laughing children and a playground empty, silent but for the creak of swings in the wind.
I tugged on a couple of swings. A flaky coating came off the cable supporting the seat. Weatherproofing? Probably. It would have rusted to nothing by now without it. The material of the seat seemed intact, though. I didn’t try to swing on it.
A little more poking and prodding told me the playground could probably still accommodate children. I’d want to go over everything metal with a wire brush, first, to check for rust and sharp bits, but the plastic parts seemed solid enough—not even faded. Bright colors, mostly yellow and red, still beckoned. A bright-green frog smiled at me, although old streaks showed he had cried rust-water tears at being left alone so long.
I pushed the merry-go-round and it squealed in protest, a harsh sound, almost a wail, enough to set my teeth on edge. I couldn’t help but think of it as a crying sound from a metal throat, something like a child wailing for its mother—and no, you are not my mommy! Mommmmmm!
I almost shouted for my mommy, as well. I managed to catch the edge of my hand on a broken bit of the ancient equipment and cut myself. I sucked at the cut, spat, and examined the injury. It wasn’t too bad. Most of the pain was from the surprise. Some peroxide and a band-aid would do fine, but I’d want a stitch or two if I were mortal. I would have worried about getting a tetanus booster shot, but come nightfall…
With a sigh, I turned toward Bronze just as she snorted nervously. The ground shivered. I immediately grabbed the sturdiest-looking post and prepared to jump out of the way of anything falling on me. After a moment, I realized the ground, as a whole, wasn’t actually shaking. It wasn’t an earthquake. Pockets of ground were vibrating. I’d barely noticed what I thought were plants—twiggy things jutting up from the ground, sometimes with a skeletal-looking, fern-like branch laid flat at the base. I thought it was the off season for the plant.
They weren’t plants. They were ants. The twigs were the main, longer antennae. The fern-like bits at the base were secondary, more delicate antennae. These projected above the ground while the ants burrowed down under the surface. Hibernating, maybe? Do insects hibernate? Dormant, anyway.
Now they were waking up all around me.
In retrospect, I can see good reasons to run. After all, something woke them all up at once. There was a significant chance I was the cause of their wake-up call, and this did not bode well for me. Even if I didn’t wake them, whatever did might not be friendly. Moreover, whether I woke them or not, they were heavily armed—mandibles and a stinger—and outnumbered me about a thousand to one. Even if they didn’t wake up angry at me, they might wake up hungry, and this did not bode well for me, either.
In all honesty, I thought of these things later. My immediate reaction was to sprint for Bronze, crushing a few ants underfoot. I didn’t want to step in front of one and get bitten, nor did I want to step behind one and get stung. Squish!
I bounced up on Bronze’s back without bothering about the stirrup. I felt something inside my ears, a sharp sensation, much like the almost-heard sound of a dog whistle. I didn’t bother to wonder if my semi-undead ears could hear a dog whistle or not. I could feel, if not hear, this sound. My immediate assumption was This is a bad thing.
Bronze took off. An ant was already latched on to the feathering over her right front hoof, but she ignored it, ran a couple hundred yards, and then paused on the street to let me deal with it. I slid down and carefully cut the thing away.
Very carefully. There are drawbacks to having an atomic-scale edge on one’s sword.
Once I had the thing dead and off her, I examined her. She seemed all right. I couldn’t find any scratches, but the feathering around her hooves is pretty thick. She seemed to think she was fine, but had all the hair-like wire around her hoof stand up and wave, helpfully moving around as I checked.
The ant, on the other hand, also deserved some attention. If I was going to have to deal with these things on an us-vs-them basis, I really should know my enemy.
The antennae were doubles. Two long, sticklike antennae projected above the head and were covered in fine hairs. Two smaller antennae projected from the head between the larger ones. These were more feathery—featherier?—and more delicate. The eyes seemed large for the head, and also came in two sets. Two were large, compound things, faceted. Above them were two smaller eyes, although they lacked the structures of a human eye.
The mandibles were almost the size of the head and serrated on the inside. The legs all ended in what I can only describe as pincers—little, two-pronged things, curving inward and also serrated. Too small to even get my finger into, but doubtless useful against smaller creatures. Probably good against larger creatures for gripping, too. And gripping would let it use the stinger.
The stinger was a retractile thing. When I poked it with a stick, it shot out from a small, pointy bit to about two inches long. A clear substance oozed from the pointy end. I felt sure it was poisonous in some way and felt an acute desire to avoid human trials. Human-ish trials.
Important safety tip for post-apocalyptic exterminators. Don’t get stung.
Are these in any way normal for an ant? I never thought I’d need to know. All I ever did with ants was buy something to sprinkle around the nest. I’m no entomologist! Or is it etymologist? One is insects, the other is the origin of words. I can never remember.
I bet I could look it up in the library!—if I could get the damned computer working. Grr.
Bronze snorted and stomped. I looked up at her, then at where she looked.
Ants. Ants everywhere. Coming toward us in their skittering little way, antennae quivering, mandibles working back and forth. Most of them were the same nut-brown color, but scattered through the hordes were some much larger ants, about the size of my foot, colored in several shades of mottled brown. Workers and warriors? Maybe. But does knowing this do me any good when even the workers have poisonous stings?
I leaped aboard Bronze and she took off, thundering her way through the crunchy brown carpet. A few managed to grab on and hold, working their way up slowly. One of the big ones grabbed on and started climbing with some speed. I leaned down, one knee hooked around the “saddlehorn,” and poked it with my sword, skewering it though the body. I felt the sensation of some ultrasonic noise in my ears again, only more pronounced.
It turned its head, looked at me with all its eyes, spread its giant mandibles wide, and hissed .
Someday, I’m going to need to intimidate the hell out of someone. I’m going to remember the look the ant gave me, and the hiss. I suspect I’ll remember it whether I need to intimidate someone or not. That’s nightmare fuel, right there.
I flicked my sword up, tossed the ant into the air, and cut it in two as it fell.
Bronze didn’t like having things hanging on to her legs and feet while she ran. It threw her gait off, preventing her from hitting top speed. Her legs move at such speeds, even a few pounds scattered around can mess with her timing. As it was, I was quite happy with thirty miles an hour or so—the ants weren’t exactly sprinters.
They bothered her by clinging to her feet. The fact they were slowly climbing her legs bothered me. Once we cleared the carpet of crunchy monsters and gained some distance, she slowed to a walk and I started skewering bugs. Again, with great care—I could take one of Bronze’s legs off with the sword of sharpness. It was tricky. I had to dismount and dance around and over her, keeping out of reach of snapping mandibles and swishing stingers. Bronze stomped a few and I carved the rest. They didn’t die immediately when cut in half, but they stopped chasing me and were more of a hazard than an adversary.
Once free of bugs, we took stock of our situation.
Bugs are after us. Lots of bugs.
Under normal circumstances, I’d get a can of insecticide, maybe a bug fogger, and the whole problem would be over. Giant, omnivorous ants who hold a grudge are another matter. This is a big deal, and it took me a few minutes to get past the thought. I never considered what it would be like to die from being eaten alive by giant bugs. I considered it now and decided I wanted nothing to do with it. As far as ways to die are concerned, I can think of better. Less painful, anyway.
Was the sound of something ultrasonic tickling my ears?
I climbed up Bronze’s neck. She held still where necessary and moved her head only to help me balance. With one of my feet on her head, between the ears, the other on her nose, she lifted me into the air. I felt like a ball balanced on the nose of a trained sea lion, especially when she moved her head to keep under my center of gravity.
On the plus side, I had a fantastic view of the local neighborhood. Mostly residential and fallen to ruin, overgrown and covered in dirt, but the buried streets were still obvious under the new topsoil.
On the minus side, a carpet of clickety-clackety-chompity-chomp surrounded us and was closing in. It was more than a hungry carpet. It was an army of ants. It outnumbered us. It outnumbered Karvalen. It might outnumber Rethven.
This was a pretty big minus.
Okay, these things seem immensely motivated. At a guess, they’re reacting to something I did—the blood on my hand might be the instigating event. Now, though, we’ve crushed some of them and sliced a few more. This probably classes us as threats, as well as prey, which means we probably have a whole ant colony rising to take up arms—and legs, and fingers, and whatever else they can grab off me.
How are they communicating? The ultrasonic thing? Scent? Telepathic hive queen? It could be important. It could be vital. It could be anything, and I had no idea if they communicated in one, two, or a dozen different ways.
For now, though, outrunning them seemed the best option. I jumped down onto Bronze’s shoulders, turned and dropped into the saddle before consulting her.
“What do you think? Can we outrun them?”
Bronze was not pleased with the idea. All the running around without eating anything was starting to tire her. Low-magic environments aren’t good for golems. She would willingly take me as far as I liked, or as far as she could take me before turning into a statue from exhaustion.
At least the ants probably wouldn’t bother her. They didn’t seem too interested in biting and stinging her—just climbing her to get to me.
All right. So, given we have a limited amount of fleeing we can do, we can’t simply run away indefinitely. We need someplace to flee to. My first thought is the library. It’s covered in carnivorous ivy and the ants don’t seem to hang around it much. My only problem with the library is… what if the scuttling carpet of ants chews its way through the ivy and invades the building? It’s my headquarters, my campsite—it’s got the only archway!
So, no. I’m not going to the library.
I could head down to the physics building and hide in the particle accelerator vault. Assuming, of course, it’s still there. And, if it is still there, it hasn’t cracked or been repurposed or been otherwise compromised. Ants can dig, so if there’s a crack in the foundation, I’ll have locked myself into a concrete-and-steel hole with the ants. Not an ideal outcome.
Sometimes, when you don’t have a lot of information, you have to guess. You roll the dice, draw a card, flip a coin, or do whatever it is you do to make a choice.
We got out of town following the remains of I-99, headed southwest. My best idea was to take it to highway 322—or what was left of it—and follow it up into the mountains. I had two major hopes and one minor one at this point. First, the ants might not like the rocky terrain and prefer to be lower down, in soil, which would mean fewer ants to deal with as we went along. Second, if we could find a coal mine—of which there were plenty in that region—we might have a good place to hide until after sunset. This differed from the particle accelerator vault in one important respect: the vault is small. Mines can run on for miles. And, finally, my minor hope involved finding some coal in a mine. Bronze could graze on a seam of coal, no problem.
The tricky part was splashing our way through a flood of giant ants.
Bronze ramped up into a heavy-footed gallop. Anything she stepped on instantly squished. Unfortunately, anything near something she stepped on tried to grab her leg and start climbing. Ever gone running through the grass and been surprised at how many bugs you’ve managed to pick up? It’s like that, but on a larger, angrier, uglier, and more deadly scale.
I kept busy, flicking ants off her legs as we splandered—it’s a combination of “splattered” and “thundered”—along. It was a process, really, of carefully sweeping ants off, one leg at a time, all the way around, again and again and again.
They started to cheat, the ugly little turds.
Did you know some ants can fly? Not all of them, obviously, but some of them. These started jumping out of the crowd and strafing at me. They had longer, whip-like stingers and flicked them at me as they passed.
Under normal circumstances, swatting a flying insect is difficult-to-impossible. These guys, on the other hand, were the size of softballs and much slower. I cut them out of the air, spraying bug guts everywhere, in between removing their uglier relatives from Bronze’s legs.
I started paying more attention to her legs when one of the climbers sank mandibles into my boot. The sole took it pretty well, but the leather upper portion did not. Neither did my foot. I howled as the chomper squealed in the ultrasonic—loud enough it felt as though a needle went through my head, ear to ear. The evil little schmuck started sawing its mandibles back and forth, too.
I discovered I could, in fact, swat bugs faster. I quick kick against Bronze’s side crushed the ant’s body, but it required some careful work to remove the mandibles. The gruesome thing wouldn’t let go even after it died.
The carpet we stomped through went on longer than I estimated. In a moment, I realized why. The bugs weren’t all closing in on us. Bugs were moving across our path, moving to intercept us—not simply move toward our present position. They were anticipating our movement. True, they couldn’t actually block us or cut us off—but they were trying!
I liked it about as much as the way my left foot throbbed. Blood pooled in my boot and leaked out through the holes.
Bronze grimly stepped up the pace, even though her unbalanced gait became considerably more rough. It cut down on the number of ants jumping aboard, but it also reduced my ability to remove them with care and precision. She knew I was going to nick and score and scrape her legs with my sword; she was willing to risk it. It was the only way to get me away from the bugs.
Then, much to my dismay and surprise, just when the carpet seemed to be thinning out, non-flying ants started raining down on us. Not because their flying brethren were lifting them—no, that would have been relatively minor. Instead, they were climbing the trees along the remains of the road and jumping onto us!
There comes a point when slicing is not helpful. I stopped slashing and started swatting, both with the flat of the blade and barehanded. Ants exploded under my hand and under the hilt of my weapon—I should have been doing this in the first place! No worries about accidental dismemberment means a much higher rate of bug-killing.
The paratroopers delivered a number of bites and stings, mostly to the back and shoulders, but one clipped my ear and grabbed a mouthful—mandible-full?—of hair. Another landed squarely on my head and dug in with every leg—bug goo dripped down my face after I crushed it and swept the remains aside. The bites were painful, but I paid more attention to anything stinging. My reflexes are such that, while the stingers were surely envenomed, they didn’t get a chance to sink in deep and pump venom into me. The hypodermic went in, but it came out again as close to instantly as is possible with mortal flesh and bone.
I dislike being poisoned. I dislike being chewed on by giant insects with a grudge, too, but I dislike being poisoned more.
We cleared the gauntlet of ants, outdistancing them. Before us was clear trail, uncluttered by poisonous little monsters. We rejoiced wearily and woozily. Bronze was weary—she needed fuel. I was woozy from what venom actually made it into my system. I felt more than a little nauseous. I was also bleeding freely from dozens of little holes—the mandibles had little spikes inside, like thorns. I’m not sure what those are called. Teeth, maybe? Is that right for insects?
Bronze pushed on while I muttered healing charms and applied direct pressure on the bloodier of my injuries. I could feel her forcing herself to go onward at speed. She was slowing, despite her fierce determination to get me farther away from the bugs.
I glanced back. I couldn’t see them anymore, but we both knew they were following. Chasing. Hunting.
I hate being hunted. It brings out some of my darker qualities, and I don’t like it. Nobody else does, either. The tenacity of these things was starting to piss me off.
When Bronze finally slowed below the speed of a marching ant, we halted. I really didn’t feel up to running for it. My foot still hurt and I had to breathe deeply while reminding myself not to throw up.
Besides, I wasn’t leaving Bronze. I’m sentimental like that. Sue me.
Bronze grazed, chomping on deadwood to build up her strength—she couldn’t even breathe fire, only hot air. It was difficult for her to move.
I started carving wood for Bronze. Earlier, I managed to stop my bleeding, but a few of the arm and shoulder wounds oozed again from the exertion. The venom caused a mild dizziness as well as nausea, but didn’t seem to affect clotting. Higher dosages would doubtless make the existing symptoms worse and demonstrate other unpleasantness.
I was covered in my own blood and bug goo. If I’d had the energy for a cleaning spell, I’d have used it even before a spell for healing. I wiped sweat, blood, and slime from my forehead and got to work.
Rather than merely letting Bronze take a chomp out of trees, low branches, and the like, I split logs into long, rough poles, as though preparing to build a split-rail fence. She opened her mouth and I fed thirty feet of timber down her throat.
Pay no mind to the fact she’s not thirty feet long. Somewhere in there, some magical mechanism turns anything combustible into energy for her. This merely proves it can do so faster than she can eat.
I wonder. Can I find her some gasoline? Kerosene? I could distill alcohol, certainly. With a hand-pump and a hose, how fast could I dump fuel into her?
We weren’t up to our old selves, not by a long shot, when my ears felt the sensation of ants talking to each other. Moments later, I could hear the clattering, clicking, clattering sound of the chitinous little bastards approaching.
A quick check with Bronze and we decided she was well-fed enough to travel. I brought along an armload of the longer pieces as we started up the road again, away from the clacking mandibles. One piece at a time, I kept pushing an end forward for her to take a bite from, eating as she trotted along. We were outdistancing the things, yes, but we couldn’t keep it up forever. They, on the other hand, seemed relentless. Robot assassins have nothing on these things.
By the time I finished feeding her what we brought, we turned onto the remains of highway 322—now nothing but a wide place in the terrain, not quite a trail—and were headed into the mountains. I say “mountains.” They’re not the Eastrange, that’s for sure. Still, the rocky terrain did seem to be less favored by the bugs. All the ants were behind us. No new ants were being vectored into our advance, so that was to the good.
We stopped to refuel again fairly quickly, but I managed another minor healing charm on the way. When I dismounted to prepare Bronze’s high-speed snack, I didn’t start bleeding again, at least. The venom was still annoying me, but it’s not the first time I’ve worked while sick. It helped enormously to know why I felt sick, of course, and to know it would go away soon.
I say “soon.” Nightfall. It was still a few hours away.
Once I had Bronze set up with a well-split tree trunk—she took one end in her mouth and walked forward, sliding it down her throat and into her thaumaturgic furnace—I took a moment for myself. The tree stump did admirably as something to squat over and then something to throw up over.
I’ve been poisoned worse than this. Crag Keep sprang to mind. Nasty stuff, but this was minor by comparison. I spat, cleaned up as best I could, and went back to slicing wood for Bronze.
Of course, the ants showed up again. This time, I heard the aerial buzzing before anything else. We didn’t stop to evaluate, but hit the road at a hell-for-leather pace. Once we gained a mile or two, Bronze slowed to let me feed her what we’d brought with us, but we didn’t stop until we had to.
I noticed we didn’t make it as far as before. We would stop, take on as much fuel as we could, and then run when the ants approached. This periodic stopping allowed them to catch up to us more quickly than I’d have thought. Unless we had a better plan, Bronze would eventually have to stop for good and refuel on her own while I ran for it.
In case I haven’t made it clear, I despise the idea of leaving her behind under any circumstances. I can leave her to munch a manger of coal, and that’s fine. Abandoning her to save my own skin rubs me the wrong way—worse than sandpaper underwear. No.
We made as much distance as we could. I started lopping off branches as we passed under them, dragging them along, and feeding them to her. It wasn’t enough, but it was better than nothing.
I kept an eye out for indicators of coal mines, mine roads, any legible signs, those sorts of things. When we found a trail—formerly a mine road—we risked everything on it.
We turned off what was left of the highway and hurried into the wilderness.
Sometimes you get lucky.
The mine was indeed a coal mine. The chain-link fence around the abandoned minesite was a rusted mess. It couldn’t have stopped a curious cow. Bronze barely noticed it as she went straight through it.
Good news. We now had a choke point in a wall of rock.
Bad news. It wasn’t something we could seal against giant ants. Time and weather had done evil things to the boards and the sheet metal covering the hole in the rock face. I could barely make out the “Keep Out” stenciled on the face of it.
We could hear the ants coming down the road behind us. We might be able to go back through them, to the highway, and find another coal mine… but Bronze was tired, I wasn’t feeling so well, and it was by no means a sure thing the next stop would be better.
Bronze started eating scrap wood and deadwood, along with any nuggets of coal lying around. I started chopping trees. If we were going to make a stand here—and we were—then we would build a fire in the mouth of the mineshaft and hide behind it. But if it was going to last until after nightfall, it would need a lot of wood.
Bronze wanted to help with the chopping and dragging. I vetoed her offer. She needed to build up her internal fires, which meant eating as fast as she could. I gathered fuel while she prepared herself for lighting our bonfire.
I hoped really hard the mine didn’t have a lot of internal gases. The last thing I needed was to find our fire caused an updraft in the mine and sucked up natural gas or whatever it is that causes mine explosions. We could be perfectly safe for minutes or hours—and then buried in a cave-in. Bronze would eventually be all right, but I squish much more easily than she does.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Hmm. Almost appropriate.
Bronze started the fire going and I continued stacking wood in the mine. We left a narrow space at one end of the arc, near the wall, for me to go in and out. I laid out a few of the leafier branches where I could simply pull them into the fire to create a wall of flame. If the ants, like most things, had a fear of fire, we might be okay. If they kept coming, sacrificing themselves by the hundreds to lay down a carpet of roasted ant-flesh so their fellows could proceed unharmed… okay, yeah, I could have a problem.
As another option, Bronze could stay in the mouth of the mine tunnel to fire-breath, stomp, roll over, and otherwise eliminate as many as possible, thinning them out for me, while I retreat farther into the mine. I doubt the mine tunnels were long enough to let me run until dark, but I might find a better spot to defend myself. Maybe, if there’s an underground lake and something to use as a raft… Swimming ants would be more vulnerable. I might hold them off. Again, for a while—maybe long enough.
But I have high hopes for the fire.
There was a slight bobble with the arc of fire in front of the mine tunnel. It worked perfectly, but… Well, it’s like this.
The ants came down the old mine road like ugly syrup. They flowed in as a steady, incoming tide of ultrasonic twittering, mandible clackings, and the shuffling rustle of little ant feet. It was not a pretty sight. They moved around the trees and rusted-over hulks of unidentifiable emplacements, skittered all over the area as though searching for me. Several climbed up on stumps I’d cut, antennae waving, mouth-parts snapping.
I’m going to assume smell plays a part in their ability to follow us. This from the man with dried bug guts in his hair and on his clothes.
More of them poured into the area, a steady river of unpleasantness filling a lake of hungry, angry little monsters. They avoided the fire, though. They came toward it, stopped ten or twelve feet away, and milled around, unwilling to approach. I was very pleased.
Since the fire was sucking air from inside the mine, as well as from all around, I assume any smell involved was buried in the smell of smoke and ashes, or carried up on the column of hot air where it wouldn’t matter. Score one for me and my ally, convection.
Then one of the larger, mottled-colored ones—apparently one of the smarter ones—looked at me and screeched. It was audible, but there was an ultrasonic component to it, too. It felt like something stabbed the inside of my ears.
The whole valley area turned in unison to stare at me. Firelight reflected in thousands upon thousands of beady little eyes and shattered in compound eyes.
Still, they didn’t go through the fire. Whatever else, they didn’t like fire and wouldn’t touch it. Under the urging of the bigger ones—warriors ordering drones, maybe?—they approached to within about a meter, but that was as close as they could be driven.
I watched this for a few minutes and added some more wood to the lower-burning sections of my fiery arc. It worked. Fire stops ants. Well, mutant, giant, omnivorous monster ants, anyway.
I moved back into the tunnel and sat down, watching the progress of the fire. Bronze continued to graze outside. They ignored her, aside from keeping clear of her. Something about her smell, probably. She crunched her way through old railroad ties, deadwood, and scattered bits of coal while we waited for nightfall. She chomped around and through a few trees, near the base, before biting off branches and dragging them over. She stepped right over the flames to make deliveries. I accepted the fuel and arranged it in my wall of fire, saving my reserves inside the tunnel.
The cracking, splintering sound didn’t register, at first. Bronze was regularly cracking and splintering wood, so it didn’t mean much to me. It should have. The sound of green wood giving way is different from the dry crunch of deadwood. The echoes were different, too. In retrospect, I should have noticed. As it was, I thought I had a stable, relatively safe situation.
One of the trees above—forty, fifty feet up the cliff, up near the top—toppled over the edge, slid-bounced down the face of the cliff, and crashed into the ground on top of—and, more importantly, inside—my fire defense.
The tree was loaded with giant ants.
I did not see that coming. They’re ants. They’re not supposed to be smart enough to chew through a tree trunk and topple it down. They’re not supposed to be smart in the first place!
Bronze immediately came over. She stepped right through the fire and a good portion of the tree, into the mouth of the tunnel, and started flaming. Huge breaths of fire engulfed the foliage farthest in before she started backing out, still huffing clouds of flame. A lot of the tree was about to be on fire from the fiery barrier, but the green leaves damped it down temporarily. Bronze saved my life; she kept the fires up enough to kill a lot of ants clinging to the tree branches and drive back the ones who surged toward the suddenly-opened defenses. She didn’t have enough fire to keep it up for long, but since the ants already provided a whole tree of fresh fuel, she didn’t have to.
At the time, I was too busy skipping and jumping back into the tunnel to care about much of anything else. The ants don’t look all that big if you don’t think about how small they’re supposed to be. To be fair, they really aren’t too sizable, objectively. Rat-sized, or thereabouts. But a dozen or more of them with stingers out, advancing on you while trying to bite your ankles off—let’s say I didn’t appreciate their presence. Once I limped off a fair distance and wasn’t in danger of being bitten, climbed, stung, and eaten, I started whacking them with two pieces of wood from my woodpile, crushing them. Backing away, I drew them out, always killing the one in the lead. I never stopped backing away and killing them until they were all dead.
There were only twenty-three of them. I’m just glad I didn’t run out of tunnel before I ran out of ants. I’m also glad I didn’t back into a vertical shaft. Or trip on something. Or… nevermind. I could list the ways it all could have gone wrong, but too many people would die of old age before I finished.
I should probably explore the mine a bit more, just in case. I won’t though. I have fires to tend. At least I have a suspicion about why the ants are afraid of fire. Some of the ones in the tree shrieked and screamed their ear-piercing ant screams when Bronze set them on fire—and I do mean “set them on fire.” Their chitin shells, their exoskeletons, they burn, as in they actively catch fire because they’re flammable. Not to any great degree, but they do burn. I also tossed ant remains into the fire to double-check. It’s an eerie thing to watch ant heads burning like that. They almost seemed to be watching me as the fires consumed them.
Now I’ve got a fire in the mouth of the tunnel, fully blocking it. The breeze from behind me is more pronounced, too. This is good; it means the smoke goes out. It worries me, though. Mine gases, yes—but what about where the air comes from? Underground chasms? Open shafts from the surface? How long would it take ants to travel from there to here? Will they find such things? Are they smart enough for that?
Well, okay, yes—they’re obviously smart enough for that. They can drop trees on the fire in an attempt to bypass it. They’re smart enough to go through alternate holes. But will they find them? Any smell involved is being sucked into the fire, not vented throughout the mine.
I’ll be sitting here, muttering healing charms over my injuries, and hoping really hard until sundown. I’d pray, but to whom? When prayer acts like a lightning rod for quasi-deity attention, who should I trust not to smite me?
Later, if nothing else goes wrong, I’ll have to go find someplace deeper underground to hide.
I’ll say this for coal mines. There are places where the light of day hasn’t touched since prehistoric ages.
I limped slowly down the main tunnel with a burning branch in one hand. After a little exploration and one good kick through a rotted wooden barrier—it wasn’t structural, merely a few boards with more “Keep Out” spray-painted on them—I felt I was in a place of sufficient darkness. I was also ankle-deep in water, a fact my wounded foot complained about. The holes in my foot were thoroughly scabbed over, at least, but I don’t have a healing spell for a wounded boot.
The sunset started after a bit and I put my fiery branch into the water, quenching it. The tingling, stinging sensations intensified and the darkness of the tunnel seemed less dark and more dim. My transformation ran its course, slowly shifting my metabolism from living to undead. My wounds started to regenerate on their own, without assistance from my feeble spells. The darkness faded from my vision, leaving the world a shadowless place, all in shades of grey.
I let out the breath I’d been holding and felt no need to take another. Instead, I stretched tendrils of night out from my spirit, reaching through air and steel and stone, feeling the rock of the mountain. It wasn’t my mountain, so it didn’t cooperate, but even so, it was no more difficult then reaching under the water in a cooler to search for something under the ice.
Yes, there were still seams of coal to be had. Whether they abandoned this mine because coal was no longer a viable energy option, or because they didn’t know where to dig for more, I’m not certain. Regardless, between a super-sharp blade, monster talons, and inhuman strength, I crushed my way through a layer of rock, careful to watch the fracture lines and feel the stresses in the stone. I didn’t want a cave-in, and I managed to avoid one.
Bronze would have fodder. That was the first, most important thing.
Next, I marched up through the mine to the flames. Bronze was still dragging wood to the tunnel mouth, hitting a balance between feeding herself and keeping me safe. She saw me and dropped her latest acquisition to start chomping into it.
Tendrils spread out, surrounding me like long, dark hair underwater. They extended, shifted, formed into a cloud of life-drinking night around me.
With a few of them, I flicked bits of my fire-wall away, clearing a path. I cut a few of the larger branches, pushed some others, and ants closed in.
The cloud of death was invisible, intangible. They charged forward into it and the vitality of their bodies drained out as surely as blood drains out of a crushed corpse. Death preceded me as I moved forward, stomping a few of their lifeless bodies into paste.
They kept coming and kept dying. Bronze kept well away, making things easy for me. Since there was no one around me I cared to preserve, I didn’t need to be careful. Anything my writhing tendrils touched, they lashed through, sucking out the bright spark of life until everything around me was as dim and dark as ashes.
The valley area was dead in minutes. Nothing moved. Nothing lived, not even the scattered grasses or the standing trees.
I showed Bronze to the coal. She started taking delighted bites out of it, smoke already pouring out her ears.
“Stoke up,” I advised. “I’m going off to find more ants. When you feel up to it, come after me, okay?”
She snorted agreement, careful not to set anything on fire. Wherever I was, she would know it and she would find me. I headed back the way we came.
I wanted one of those larger ants, one of the warrior or commander or whatever type they were. I’ve never tried to read the mind of an insect before, but these were hardly normal insects. If they followed the pattern, there should be various sorts of ants in the hierarchy, with a queen at the top.
We were going to have words. Well, I was going to have words. She was going to have three feet of steel and an angry nightlord playing exterminator.
I ran down through the mountains, tendrils spreading before me, rolling and roiling ahead like a ghostly avalanche. Ants in groups of six to a dozen died without ever rising from their burrows just below the surface. I didn’t care. I wanted one of the smarter ones, anyway.
I found it. It had an overstrength company of followers—an extra platoon or two—and it screeched as it saw me coming.
They know what I look like. Interesting.
Tendrils lashed over his—its?—minions and they fell in droves, dropping exhaustedly to the ground to die in place. The warrior-ant didn’t seem to like this. All of them charged toward me at the screech, but the warrior, now alone, reversed itself and started to run.
My tendrils are quite capable of handling that much weight. I lifted it up, brought it back, and looked at it while it hovered in the air before me.
It spat. I wiped away what was probably something venomous and made another note to have a bath before dawn. It snapped mandibles at me, twisted to try and get its stinger into play—it struggled, and it never stopped struggling.
I pinned it down with tendrils, sliced off all its legs, removed the mandibles, and put my boot on its back—no stinging, please.
Then I slid tendrils into the thick, grey knob in its head it used for a brain and started peeling back the rudimentary spirit of the thing. Yes, it was smarter than the average insect. It had a basic level of self-awareness, of its place in the society of its hive. It didn’t—couldn’t—comprehend much beyond that, but it identified me as prey and as an enemy. It knew me, somehow, even though we had never before met.
While I peeled it, I felt something. It wasn’t alone. It was somehow talking with someone—or something. It was reporting constantly. This was an unusual situation for it, and whatever it “spoke” to was paying close attention.
Whatever it was, it was in a southeasterly direction and—allowing for weirdness in a giant ant’s perception of geography—maybe sixty to eighty miles distant.
I finished crushing the ant and started concentrating, building up into overdrive. I sprinted southeast, hurdling minor obstacles such as hedgerows, old fences, and twenty-foot ravines. There was no such thing as darkness, and nothing that could stop me.
By the time I reached the ant hive, I estimate my kill count climbed to over a million of the pesky little buggers. They simply didn’t grasp how even approaching me was lethal. I had my tendrils out, lashing and whipping, and they died whenever one touched them. It helped they were so small and didn’t have much in the way of vital energy. Even a light tendril-touch would drop one to exhaustion. What I was doing would kill anything up to a hundred pounds before it could get close enough for me to stab it. The ants had no hope, but they didn’t know it.
The hive itself was fairly characteristic of an ant mound. It was a bit smoother, being dirt bonded together with some sort of excretion—resin in the spit, maybe? Or some specialized masonry ant which produced a bio-cement for the dirt? At any rate, the mound was solid and easily a hundred feet high. It reminded me of a shield volcano, much broader than it was tall. It had a main entrance at the very top, of course, but the ants weren’t limited to that. There were other tunnels through the body of the hive. All of them were far oversized. Six ants could walk abreast through them, not counting the ones crawling on the walls and ceilings.
It took me a minute to realize why the tunnels were so large. It wasn’t for ants to pass through; it was for passing through whatever they dragged home. If you kill a mastodon, you want to be able to drag large chunks of it in through the door.
Of course, the whole hive was covered in ants, all of which kept marching straight at me.
I walked the perimeter of the hive, circling it, lest I become buried by the sheer weight of numbers as they died and died and died, trying to reach me. It suited me fine. They were coming at me in such numbers and at such speed I doubted they could keep it up all night.
So I went for a slow walk, leaving behind miles-long heaps of ant corpses. And I was right. By midnight, the flood slowed markedly. Ants weren’t coming out of the hive all that much, but reinforcements from everywhere else kept closing in. Flying ones were the first to arrive, but they ran out of those early on. The rest were all footsloggers, arriving as quickly as they could.
Well, if no one else was going to come out, I was going to have to go in and introduce myself.
I elected to go in the top entrance; it was widest and seemed to go straight down to a much lower level. Unlike most people, I could see all the way to the bottom, even count the side-tunnels branching off the main one. This suited me. I wanted to find the boss of the place.
The side of the shaft was as hard as the exterior, but rougher. Ants probably found it easy to climb; I know I did. The consistency reminded me of the harder plastics—my fingernails bit right into the surface. I half-climbed, half-slid to the bottom of the shaft. Three tunnels led off in different directions, so I killed off the latest swarm of ants pursuing me—they kept coming in from farther and farther away, but in lesser numbers. Once I had some breathing room, metaphorically speaking, I extended my tendrils again, this time to reach for distance instead of a local, concentrated, killing cloud.
I could feel life all around me, mostly in clusters like thick clouds of sparks. I’d never encountered anything like it.
Puzzled, I followed the tunnel that seemed to head quickest to a cluster of them. These tunnels weren’t tall enough to stand up, but too tall to feel right when crawling through them. It annoyed me to go through on all fours when it was almost high enough to let me half-crouch and sort of walk. It was a case of crawl quickly or duck-walk slowly. This did not make me feel any more gruntled.
The tunnel led me to what was obviously an egg chamber. They were white, about the size of a golf ball, and hard as a miser’s heart. Thousands of the things were stacked in piles. As I examined one, I realized what I was seeing. Each egg was alive, with a tiny spark of vitality. The clusters of them were clouds of sparks.
I put the egg back and swept tendrils through the pile. The cloud turned dark and faded to nothing. Really, though, it wasn’t the eggs I was after. Somewhere—if these things followed the pattern of regular ants—there was an egg-laying queen. She was the key to killing the hive. Sure, I’d eliminated the majority of the population, but she would raise another generation of the gruesome little things and go right on trying to kill me… if I stayed long enough. Or, for that matter, if I ever came back! I didn’t want to risk it.
It also occurred to me to wonder if these things were the dominant life form on Earth. There were no signs of surviving human beings—at least, none on the planet—and the Ants of Doom seemed pretty prevalent.
Maybe it just offends me that mankind can be replaced by insects. No, I’m sure it does. But I think my desire to eradicate the bastards stemmed more from pain, anger, and fear. Hello, ant queen; the dark side sends its regards.
I killed off the latest squad of attacking ants and spread tendrils again, reaching out through cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh. I felt my way along tunnels, brushing over anything small and alive, seeking something larger. When nothing showed up within my range—about a hundred yards, practically; I can reach farther, but it’s usually easier to move closer and try again—I relocated, sucking the life out of ants with my killer cloud formation before crunching over their corpses.
The queen was in a chamber farther down. There were two passages into her chamber, one at either end. Presumably, a line of ants went in one, did whatever they do, and exited the other. The chamber itself was larger than I expected, roughly hemispherical, probably sixty feet in every dimension. The walls were lined with pockets, each of which contained a larger-than-normal… well, larger-than-expected-for-a-giant-mutant-ant. These were the size of german shepherds, but with stubby, almost vestigial legs and tiny mandibles. Males? Possibly. They weren’t attacking, of course. I doubted they could move out of their compartments without an all-out effort, much less actually attempt to kill me.
The queen was in the middle of the chamber. She was twice the size of a horse, with vestigial wings and mandibles capable of shearing a leg right off a man. She was still spitting out eggs from the back end while working through the remains of the food-piles in front of her.
When I came in, she stopped eating, looked at me, and hissed. Ultrasonics when through my ears like sharp spikes. Then the males took up the screeching and added to the painful, almost-audible din. It was like feedback through a rock concert amplifier system—feedback of nails on a chalkboard, dialed up to eleven.
I didn’t take it well.
My original idea was to find the queen, suck all the life out of her, repeat the process with any eggs I might find, and pay special attention to any eggs that seemed unusually well-cared for—no new queens if I had anything to say about it. Simple, direct, and low-risk.
The audio assault, however, seemed to trip something inside my skull. The sensory overload was too much; all I wanted was to make it stop!
The queen was covered in a layer of exoskeletal armor and almost sessile; she couldn’t run around. She could barely turn around without help. But her lower body was what kept her in place. Her upper body and head were quite nimble and quick, and her forelegs were less legs and more clawed appendages—another ten thousand years and her descendants might have fingers. Her mandibles were strong, sharp, and large enough to be intimidating. I doubted she had any natural predators.
Sadly, I’m a decidedly un-natural predator. I shifted into a high state of overdrive and charged. She ducked her head and swept her clawed forelimbs toward me. I caught one forelimb, twisted it, and jammed it in between her own mandibles. The other limb locked a claw around my chest and flung me away from her. The damage to one of her forelimbs was already done, though; my grip and her mandibles splintered the exoskeleton and mangled the musculature beneath it. The limb could flail about, but it would no longer try to claw me apart.
Meanwhile, I landed in a compartment with a male. It tried to bite me, but I gave it a foot in the face that broke its head and propelled me out of the compartment. At least it shut up.
Back at mommy, I charged in again, this time aiming for the head. She brought her remaining arm around, trying to sweep me aside, but I caught it—it was only about the thickness of my lower leg—and snapped it, ruining it. She screamed again, and that was fine by me. I leaped up, caught her on the thorax—if that’s the term for the midsection—and clawed my way up to her head. She tried to scrape me off with her broken limbs, but I reached the juncture of midsection and head. I wrapped my legs around her “neck” and started ripping my way through it.
I finally wrapped my arms around her “neck,” just under the head, heaved upward with my arms, pushed downward with my thighs, and ripped her head completely off.
The bitch still didn’t stop screaming. Anything else, you behead it, it shuts up. This thing had some sort of tympani organ, or at least something it could vibrate without recourse to things like lungs.
I leaped down after the head, sank claws into the chitin, and tore big pieces off, rather like shelling a nut. More bug goo; more screaming. Eventually, I started ripping soft tissues out by the handful. That worked.
Then there was the matter of shutting everything else up. One compartment at a time, one bloated ant at a time, with occasional detours to stomp the hell out of more of the smaller ants as they trickled in.
Finally, I finished. I stood in the queen’s chamber, ankle-deep in bug guts, clothes pierced in dozens of places, but everything was dead… dead and quiet. For minutes, I simply stood there and reveled in the blessed silence.
I climbed out of the hive, clawing my way up through the central core and through masses of dead ants. I somehow failed to rejoice in taking yet another bath in dead bug guts. Once on top of the hive, I saw there were still lesser ants around, but they seemed stunned or confused. They didn’t try to attack me, but I drained them of vitality and life anyway, mainly because I didn’t know if they could evolve into queens. Maybe a little bit because I was still feeling disgusted, angry, and downright ornery.
Hmm. These things burn…
For the next hour or so, I laid out ant trails. That is, I scooped up ants and dragged them into the hive, putting down a couple of layers of them in all the tunnels and chambers that weren’t already carpeted in bug bits. I piled up carapace in stacks at every tunnel mouth I could find. Then I cut down a tree, turned the trunk into a two heavy poles, and laid them across the mouth of the upper entrance.
I spent the next while trying to build a fire with no magic and next to no tools. I was working diligently at a fire plough, grinding away down the groove, blowing gently on faint embers in the wood shavings, and missing Firebrand something fierce when the ground vibrations told me Bronze was on her way.
She had a nice meal of fresh coal, a much more potent fuel source than wood, and didn’t have all that far to go compared to our original retreat. She arrived with smoke still coming out of her and more than enough fire to help me out. She started a fire—well, strongly encouraged my beginnings of a fire—and immediately went to eating again. I built up my fire, got things arranged while the fuel got going well, and dragged a couple of leafy branches to the poles atop the hive. Burning them there caused an updraft, sucking air up from inside the hive and sucking air inward from the mouths of tunnels lower down.
Bronze and I went around the hive in opposite directions, lighting the dead ants at the tunnel mouths and starting the whole region ablaze. The whole place was covered in the things, after all.
A little while later, I could hear the few ants still alive on and in the hive screeching as they died.
I don’t often approve of genocide. This was an exception.
I had a thorough wash in a stream while Bronze at a tree. We walked back to the library, taking our time, me chopping limbs and feeding them to her as we traveled. When she felt strong enough, we ran most of the rest of the way. I insisted we stop short, however. We were close enough I could sprint to the library and hide. The rest of the pre-dawn morning we spent stuffing her with combustibles.
We both kept an eye peeled for ants.
And I still haven’t found anything suitable for use as a water bottle.