I am going to adopt this story for myself
A colony of meat ants is threatened by an approaching colony of fire ants. The meat ants know that the fight will not be easy, because of the Fire Ants' poison, but if they relent the Fire Ants will be able to take over the whole Park (they are already a dominant species). However, an old Scout named Thatcher tells the protagonist, Ari, about a great Warrior, Aranen, who, according to legend, likewise hates the Fire Ants and will defend the Meat Ants if they were ever threatened. However, no one knows where Aranen lives, except for a mysterious set of instructions which Thatcher heard once from a Praying Mantis while on Scout duty:
- Across the Streambed, north through the Jungle and over the great Black Flats, travel light to find the Great Desert. In the midst of this terrible waste, you will find Aranen, who dwells in the dust. Simply tell him that The Admiral sent you, and he will come to your aid."
Because Thatcher is so old, he cannot travel far anymore, so Ari takes it upon himself to find Aranen.
(Hint: The "Black Flats" is a parking lot, and the "Great Desert" is a sand pit. The "Jungle" simply refers to the dense grass and weeds that cover the ground in front of the parking lot.)
One: The Scouts ReturnEdit
On the edge of a rocky streambed that ran through the middle of a nature preserve park, there dwelt a colony of meat ants. The Ants had lived in their anthill in the Streambed for longer than most of them could remember. It seemed a fairly safe place, for there were few other insects around and therefore no need to defend against other, hostile creatures (except of rare occasions, of course). The stream itself ran regularly, although it tended to flood during Autumn. The Anthill was strategically placed on the edge of the water, about three-fourths of the way to the other Bank. The Workers had dammed up the flow between themselves and the closest bank, so that the ground was dry and they could easily walk across and pick food.
So the ants dwelled peacefully here, harvesting food from the plants on the side of the Streambed, digging tunnels and looking after the Queen.
The Queen was very old, some speculated the oldest in the colony. She had lain at least a billion eggs by now, and she was wearing down slowly but surely. Her husband, the King, was rather young yet, because the Queen usually outlived those she married. At any rate, the two were still deciding who would succeed her as Queen. She had at least a billion children, and it would be quite a job deciding who would be the next Egglayer.
Now amongst the Workers, there was a young ant, who had just a few weeks ago finished his metamorphosis into an adult. As soon as this was done, Mr. A, the head of the Working Class, had set him about going across the Streambed to the Bank to gather grain from the plants that grew there. Needless to say, he wasn't too fond of this job, because the grains were huge and very heavy, and he wasn't exactly the srongest ant in the Colony. However, he did as he was told, for the survival of the Colony was vital to his own.
This ant was called "Number 1,595,678,900", because he was the one-billion, five hundred and ninety-fifth million, six hundred and seventy-eight thousand, nine hundredth ant to be hatched. This was not his real name, of course, but that was what Mr. A called him. His real name was Ari.
Now on one particular day, which was sunny and rather hot, Ari was busy pulling a kernel off of a tall stalk, when he suddenly noticed a familiar buzzing sound. Looking up, he saw a thin, fast-moving cloud moving overhead, going downwards toward the Anthill. The Scouts had returned!
The Scouts went patrolling the territories surrounding the streambed for any signs of hostile insects, or perhaps good food to bring home. Usually they brought back good news, saying that the creatures had been generally friendly and usually told of some great feast they had discovered. But today, the news wasn't good.
As the Scouts landed outside the Anthill, Ari could tell that they were very restless about something. He watched the group for a few minutes, but then they went inside the Anthill, so he shrugged and continued to pick the grain. After it came loose, Ari lifted it using his proportional insect strength, and dropped it to the ground where a line of Workers was waiting. One of them caught the grain, and then the line moved forward to the next Worker, who would catch the next grain. And so it went, until suddenly Ari heard a loud voice shout, "Workers and Drones, please return to the Anthill immediately. There is to be an emergency meeting which you are all ordered to attend."
This caused quite a commotion amongst the Ants, and many of them began to speculate what the meeting would be about. Nonetheless, they obediently stopped picking grains, and then proceeded to carry what they had back to the Anthill, in the center of the streambed.
Two: The EmergencyEdit
The meeting was held inside the Queen's Eggchamber, the largest space in the Anthill. Whenever there was an urgent issue present, usually the top minds of the Colony would discuss it in here. But the Drones and Workers were usually not invited to such meetings, so Ari knew it must be extremely urgent.
As the Ants gathered inside the Eggchamber, they could see the Queen, the King and the top generals of the Army talking together in low, hushed tones. Finally, the Queen spoke up.
"People," she said, "I do not wish to alarm you but we have found that the Colony is in grave danger. An army of Fire Ants is on the move our way, and according to our Scouts they outnumber us greatly. Sgt. Pierce, please tell us exactly what is was you saw in your recent patrol."
Sgt. Pierce, a large, muscular Ant with powerful jaws and a stately stride, walked up to the edge of the large stone that jutted out from the wall, and in a clear, strong voice he said, "Me and my Ants were flying around the Eastern territories of the Jungle, and while we were in the air we saw a great red army that was headed West, toward our Streambed. Seeing such a great army, we flew down and saw that it was composed of Fire Ants, large, powerful ants with a terrible poison in their jaws.
"We spoke to their leader, and asked what his business was. He told us that his Colony had come from a place far to the East, a place where, he explained, there was little food or water. Therefore, they needed a better place to live in, and our Colony stood in his way. He gave us two options: either submit to his Army, or else be destroyed, Queen, Eggs and All."
There was a terrified gasp throughout the crowd, and soon the whole chamber was a mass of commotion, terror and confusion. The King stood up, spread his arms wide and shouted, "Workers, please calm yourselves. This is getting us nowhere." At length, the noise finally subsided, but there was still an occasional whimper or gasp to be heard.
"Now, people, this is no time to panic, for that will certainly get us nowhere," said Sgt. Pierce. "What we must do, is to come up with some sort of plan. Now, they do outnumber us by a good five thousand or so, so rather than rely on superior numbers of strenght, we must have a strategy. So, while we are thinking you Workers and Drones must, I'm afraid, put in double effort. Those in the tunnels must start digging tunnels that lead outside the Streambed, for if we need to evacuate then that is where we will have to go."
An Ant in the crowd suddenly piped up. "Why can't we just surrender to them? We can't fight an army like that!"
The Seargent shook his head woefully. "Friends, that cannot be an option for us. I have seen how the Fire Ants treat those under their 'protection'. They are beaten and made to work three times as much as they should, but they hardly get any of the benefit. They are made to give eighty percent of their takings to the Mother Colony, which leaves them with only twenty percent for themselves. Needless to say, many of them do not make it through the Winter. We must fight them."
"But we'll lose either way!" shouted another Ant. "If we don't surrender, they'll totally destroy us and it'll be worse than being under their rule."
"It needn't be that way," said Sgt. Pierce. "With proper strategy, we may, perhaps, have a chance. Nonetheless, I do think we shall have to have some kind of help from the outside. Perhaps, we should rally some other colonies to our cause!"
There was a murmer of agreement throughout the crowd, but it was not a very enthusiastic one. For, as most of them knew, they were the only Colony in that area. The other Anthills were scattered abroad at quite impossible distances for them to reach in time to stop the Fire Ants.
"It may be risky, but it would be wise," said the Queen. "I propose that we send out Scouts to the other Colonies, while those of us back here prepare for the onslaught. Then, if you are unable to get back here in time for the battle, we could at least escape and meet up with the other armies, and form an Army of our own to resist the Fire Ants."
At first there was much noise and commotion, but there was a general feeling of agreement. Finally, Sgt. Pierce said, "Then it's settled. That is our first plan. Now, we must come up with one for the defense of the Anthill."
At length, the meeting was dismissed, with the Generals continuing to talk urgently with the King and Queen. The rest of the Soldiers, the Drones and Workers were dismissed to resume their various duties.
As the magnificent Sun fell beneath the horizon in the far Western section of the Streambed, the Workers ceased their gathering. They carried what food they had with them back into the Anthill, where it was stored down in the Provisions Chamber so they would be able to eat during the Winter. Then they gathered with the Tunnel-Diggers and Soldiers in the great Banquet Chamber for their daily meal. The Scouts and generals of the Army were not present, as they were having private dinner with the Royal Family while discussing a war plan.
After the initial grace was said, the Ants began eating. Usually, there was lively conversation and an air of joy around the table, but tonight there was a cloud of uneasiness and gloom. There was conversation, but it was hushed and confined to groups of two or three. Ari stayed out of it for the most part, though he and another, older Ant eventually struck up a conversation. The older Ant's name was Thatcher, and he had been a Scout in the Army for many years.
"Yeah, I remember back in my young days when I used to fly around up there, lookin' out over the Jungle to the Black Flats. Never went farther than just a little to the North though, 'cause we were told it was dangerous territory there. When the Sun shines on those terrible black lands, they heat up somethin' terrible, or so I've been told. No insect trying to cross 'em survives then. Funny, those great big four-footed beasts manage to stand on 'em though."
"What are they?" asked Ari, suddenly interested.
"Oh, they're great big shiny animals that come walking across the land, flattening anything that gets in their way. They don't have our feet, though, they got these great big round things that roll. They come in all sorts of funny shapes and sized. Man, were those things big though! Almost as tall as some of the Trees around here. They make the ground shake whenever they move."
"Amazing!" said Ari, who maintained a rather skeptical attitude about it all. "Did you ever see anything beyond the Black Flats at all?"
"Hardly anythin'," replied Thatcher. "They're so big and so wide, it'd probably take days to find anything on the other side. I've heard, though, that there's a Great Desert beyond, so desolate nothin' can live there. Well, I should say, nothing except Aranen."
"Aranen?" Ari suddenly grew very interested. "What's that?"
"Not what, who, Youngster!"
"Who then?" Ari repeated impatiently. "WHO is Aranen?"
"I think he's our ticket to victory. If only we knew where he lives!"
"Is he an Ant?" Ari inquired further.
"Heavens, no!" scoffed the old one. "He's at least ten times the size of any ant! From what I've heard, he's got eight legs, two big huge claws on his front legs and a long, curled tail with a powerful poison at the end."
Ari laughed, suddenly losing any belief he'd had, and proceeded to continue eating his Oat casserole, when suddenly Thatcher placed a firm hand on his shoulder.
"Don't you go scoffing now," he warned. "You ever seen one of the Praying Mantises?"
"No, but I've heard about them from the Scouts," replied Ari, rather irritated. "So what?"
"You believe in them, right?"
"Sure," Ari chuckled. "I mean, many Ants have seen 'em! Who's seen this Aranen?"
"Seasons ago, when I was on Scout Duty," began Thatcher, "I was doin' my rounds when I suddenly found myself caught in the grasp of one of those majestic creatures. I thought I was a goner, but instead of devouring me, he laughed, and said I wasn't observant enough. He then told me that our Colony needed to be more prepared, because he knew how isolated we are. I told him we'd never had any encounters with hostile insects before.
'So you think', he said.
'So I know,' I replied.
'Your Streambed divides the Great Empire in half,' he told me. 'Sooner or later, your Colony will be attacked by an invasive species, and when it did, we should be prepared, and then he told me that I should find Aranen, for he was a friend of his, save a lot bigger and would come to our aid if we should ever be attacked. 'How do I find him?' I asked, now fully believing. And here's what he told me:
- 'Across the Streambed, north through the Jungle and over the great Black Flats, travel light to find the Great Desert. In the midst of this terrible waste, you will find Aranen, who dwells in the dust. Simply tell him that The Admiral sent you, and he will come to your aid.'
"So then he let me down, and just flew away. I really couldn't believe it, but I decided that, perhaps if a threat ever came, then I would keep his instructions in mind. And now, it looks like we may need him after all!"
Ari looked at him for a moment, then laughed. "Yeah, that's a great story, Thatcher, but I think we should focus on more practical ideas than great warriors. Heck, even if there was such a creature, why should he be on our side?"
Suddenly he felt another hand on his other shoulder, a strong one. It turned him around, and he found himself facing a large, powerful-looking Soldier. The insect looked him in the eyes and said, "You can trust what that fellow says, Drone. When I was just a young fighter, he looked after me and pretty much became a father to me. I can remember the day he was caught by the Mantis!"
"You were with him?" Ari asked with surprise.
"Aye, that I was," the Soldier replied. "And I believe what that noble creature told him. Those are some wise insects there." He turned back to his oat casserole. Ari looked back and forth between the two, trying to comprehend what he had just heard. Why would a Mantis befriend one of them? It didn't make any sense to him, but then again, why not? Maybe it just wasn't hungry at the time.
"Aranen hates those Fire Ants," Thatcher went on. "According to the Mantis, he eats 'em for lunch. Problem is, he isn't aware of the danger we're in, otherwise he'd come an' help us."
"Wouldn't he go for us too then?" Ari asked.
"No, because we're not invasive, like the Fire Ants. Aranen hates hostile creatures. Those're what he goes for. Why, I do believe he's even stung a few of those humongous two-legged creatures before!"
Ari couldn't believe his ears. "Are you making that up?" he asked suspiciously.
"NO! Heavens no!" the Soldier next to him exclaimed. "I've seen those things myself. They're huge!"
"But how could a creature move on just two legs? We usually move on at least four!" Ari replied.
"We may," Thatcher said, "But they certainly don't need to!"
Ari was curious again. "So, what do these things look like? Man, you Scouts do have interesting lives!"
"They're immense," said Thatcher, spreading his arms out wide. "Why, they're probably meters tall! Funny, they also ride inside those huge four-footed things. And they behave in the oddest ways. Once, I saw about four or five of 'em tossing around this big, brown object that looked kind of like some of the grains you Drones pick. And boy, were they rough! They'd jump on each other and get into huge tussles."
"Sounds bizarre, all right," Ari said, eating his casserole. "So anyway, you say that this Aranen has stung those things before?"
"Yes, but it's a very risky business for him," said Thatcher. "The Mantis told me that once he almost got crushed! He only attacks when he feels threatened."
Ari was filled with wonder. He'd always thought, in his few weeks of being an adult, that the Anthill and Streambed were the only world, and that anything beyond was of no concern. Now, he felt almost the opposite.
And then, suddenly he believed what the old Scout had been saying about Aranen. If he had survived an encounter with a Mantis, why shouldn't his story be true? The more he thought about it, the more he began to hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be a way to find Aranen!
He was just about to ask Thatcher about it again when the bell rang, indicating dinner was over.
Four: Setting OutEdit
That night, as the rest of the Drones were nodding off one by one inside their nest deep in the Anthill, Ari decided he would go talk with Thatcher again, and ask him about the instructions the Mantis had given him. When he was sure every other Worker was fast asleep, he creeped out of his small quarters, and moved nonchaleantly down the tunnel to where the Soldiers and Scouts slept.
He suddenly saw a figure moving up and down the tunnel in the dim lamp light. Seeing the spear it grasped, he knew it was a Guard. He waited until the Guard disappeared into the next tunnel, and then dashed toward the Soldiers' quarters.
It took a little while to find Thatcher's sleeping quarters, and the names were not listed alphabetically but in numbers. Ari remembered that Thatcher had the number "3,056" on his chest, so he counted on until he reached the small nest where Thatcher slept. The old Ant snored, mingling with the snoring of all the other sleeping Soldiers. Ari waited for a few seconds, then began to gently shake the Ant awake.
"Thatcher!" he whispered. "Thatcher, wake up! I need those instructions again!"
"Wha-what?" Thatcher asked, yawning. "What are you doing awake?"
"I need those instructions again! The ones that Mantis gave you!" Ari urged. "Please!"
"You mean about Aranen?" Thatcher said, now more awake. "You mean you're going to try and find him??"
"I think so," said Ari. "He sounds like the only one who could help us with this fight."
Thatcher looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then got up from his bed and walked over to the other end of his room. He reached up to the ceiling to where a small, green object hung, all rolled up. The old Ant grabbed one end of it and unrolled it, revealing a large leaf.
"Here," he said, handing the leaf to Ari. "This is a map I made when I was a Scout. From high in the air I could see for feet, and so I thought I'd make this map. It details the lands North, East and West of here. I didn't bother with the South, because I never had any Scouting missions there. Anyway, the instructions are written at the top."
Ari looked the map over. At the bottom was their Streambed, then on the North side there was thick vegetation, the Jungle. North of that it was less thick, and then finally ended up at a huge, black flat land.
"I didn't get beyond the Black Flats," explained Thatcher, "Because I couldn't see past 'em. However, I know from the stories of the insects I've met in my travels that there is land further north. Now, are you really serious about this?"
Ari thought for a moment. Should he really undertake such a venture? It was a dangerous world out there for a bug, especially an Ant like himself. But, if the Colony were taken over, his life would be miserable. And if they fought, he would probably die anyway. "Yes," he said at last, "I'm positive I want to do this."
"But you're not doing it alone," said Thatcher. "A single Worker, travelling hundreds of feet North to the Great Desert, no. You need someone to go with you."
"How about you?" Ari suggested.
"No!" exclaimed Thatcher. "Not me. I'm much too old. Besides, I've been asked by General Oomaku to be on the War Council, what with my experience and all."
"Then I'll have to do it alone," Ari said resolutely.
"No," Thatcher said, putting up a leg to stop him. "Not alone. You'd never be successful, and that would all the worse for you and the Colony. Go find Bill, and ask him to go with you."
"Bill?" Ari asked. "Who's he?"
"He's that Soldier Ant that was sitting on your other side at dinner earlier," Thatcher explained. "Go find him, and tell him I'm asking him to accompany you on your quest."
"How do I find him?" asked Ari.
"He's number 10,065," replied Thatcher. "That'd be way further down the tunnel. Now go on!" He nudged Ari to the openening of his room. Ari looked back at him, and said, "We'll be back with Aranen. I promise you."
Thatcher smiled, and the wrinkles on his face showed. "You've got a stout heart," he told Ari. "Now hurry! You want to make good time before Mr. A finds out you're missing!"
Ari saluted to him, and hurried down past the sleeping Soldiers, repeating "Ten thousand, sixty-five" under his breath as he went. After a few minutes, he finally arrived in the "Ten thousands" section, and so he continued until he came to "10,065". The Soldier was fast asleep, his hand on his long spear that lay beside his leaf-bed. Ari shivered at the thought that he might be mistaken for an enemy, but he gently moved the spear away and began to shake Bill.
The powerful Soldier Ant moved his head and mumbled something indiscernable (which sounded suspiciously like "I want some chocolate"), but didn't wake up. Ari sighed and shook him harder. Suddenly, he was heaved violently out of the nest as Bill leaped up and dealt him a powerful kick. Fortunately, he made no noise (which would have awakened the other Soldiers), but moved swiftly and silently for his spear.
"Who goes there?" he whispered harshly, aiming it at Ari's thorax.
"Ssssh, quiet," Ari urged quietly. "I sat next to you at dinner, remember?"
Bill frowned, then suddenly the recollection showed in his face. "Oh yeah, you were that little Worker who Pop was talking with! What the heck are you doin' here?"
"I'm going to find Aranen," Ari said, matter-of-factly.
Bill could hardly hold in his laughter. "YOU?" he exclaimed. "You think you're going to find Aranen? No offense, but you'd best just stick to picking grain! There's no way you'd survive the trip. Especially with Winter coming soon!"
"Thatcher thinks I could," said Ari, showing him the map. "If you go with me, that is."
Bill sat back down and sighed. "You've got smarts, kid," he said. "But I've got my duties here! What would the Colony do without me?"
"I don't see why they should miss one Soldier so terribly," said Ari, "Any more than they would miss a grain-picker. Besides, I think you'd be doing them more of a favor by going with me than by simply staying here and getting killed fighting the Red Ants!"
The big Soldier was silent for a moment, weighing the possiblities. Finally, he said, "Well, I guess you're right. If Aranen is on our side, that is."
"I don't see why he wouldn't be," said Ari. "Anyway, it would be better than just staying here and being butchered along with the rest of them, knowing we could've saved them."
Bill stood up. "If Thatcher thinks we can, then I'm all for it!" he said resolutely. "But we'd better get going now, before all the others awake. If they caught us trying to leave, we'd get arrested for desertation!"
"First we have to gather provisions," said Ari. "We'll have to get past the Guards."
At about five o'clock in the morning, the two finally made their way out of the Anthill, with large rolled-up oak-leaves filled with food strapped to their backs. Bill had posed as a Guard, so the Guard on duty at the Food Chamber took his leave and went to bed. Then Ari gathered edibles for them both, and the two slipped out the top of the Hill. Now, they stood on the brink of the flowing Streambed.
"It's gotten higher!" exclaimed Ari. "What's going on?"
"Happens every Autumn," said Bill. "It rains way upstream, and that flows down this way."
"But how are we supposed to get across?" Ari asked.
Bill looked up and down the stream, then suddenly pointed to a large twig standing upright on their side of the Bank, about five inches away. "We'll take that twig way over there, topple it across the Streambed, and walk across," he explained. "Good thing it's narrow here!"
"Are you sure it'll be safe?" Ari asked, a bit worried.
"Not entirely, but you can't be too cautious here! It's the only way across, so we'll just have to use it."
Ari was apprehensive of the danger, but he followed Bill across the length of ground alongside the Anthill to the Twig. The immense stick stood at least nine inches into the air, dwarfing the two Ants. Bill grasped the base of the twig with his powerful jaws, and began to saw through. Once he had gotten all the way through the wood, the huge piece of wood began to sway.
"Push!" Bill exclaimed to Ari. "Push at its base!"
The two Ants leaned against the base from the North, pushing South so that the weight at the top was directed to the North. Then, with a mighty groan the twig toppled and fell, the top now lying on the North side of the Stream.
"Well done!" congratulated Bill, slapping Ari on the back. "Now let's go!"
He stepped gingerly out onto the new bridge, making sure it was steady. When he was certain it would hold them, he beckoned his Worker companion. Ari gulped, then took his first step. The Bridge wobbled slightly, and Ari almost lost his courage.
"Don't look down, kid," said Bill. "Just look ahead!"
Ari heeded his friend's advice, and once again stepped out onto the Bridge, on all six legs. Crawling quickly, he managed to reach the middle within ten seconds, and then after fifteen more he reached the other side. His heart was pounding by the time he got to the Northern Bank.
"Ya did it, kid," Bill encouraged, helping Ari up on four legs again. He then went over to where the Bridge touched the Bank, and, with his proportional strength, picked it up and heaved it into the water. Ari watched in horror as it floated away.
"But that's our only way of getting back!" he exclaimed. "How could..."
"Firstly, so no one could find out which way we took," said Bill. "Secondly, now there won't be any chickening out! Now we have no choice but to keep going."
"I wasn't planning on turning back," said Ari, offended. "But I suppose there's no reason on letting the Soldiers follow us."
"They'll never guess where we've gone, either!" Bill continued. "They'll think we went South, so naturally that's where the Scouts will look for us! Heck, they might as well since they're going to those other Colonies anyway."
Ari sat down. "I need a rest," he said. "Just crossing the Stream tired me out. And I need to look at the map." He pulled out the leaf, and examined it. "How far would you say it is to the Black Flats from here?" he asked his companion.
Bill chuckled. "We haven't even fully entered the Jungle yet, Ari," he said. "Getting through that alone will probably take about three or four days. Then, once we get to those terrible black lands, it'll be a heck of a job gettin' across."
"Then we'd better get going now," said Ari, standing up again. "We'd better save our provisions. I didn't pack a whole lot, you know, because the rest of the Colony's going to need them. Plus, we don't need any excess weight."
"That's good thinkin," Bill remarked. "We'll eat sparingly, rest occasionally and travel fast. So now, what about starting?"
Colonel Barker appeared in the Eggchamber, and bowed to the King. "Sir," he said, "Something big has just come up."
"What is it?" asked the King, who was busy talking with General Oomaku. "Can't you see we're trying to plan our strategy? We're in the middle of an important tunnel system."
"Two Ants are missing," Barker reported. "We can't find them anywhere."
"What??" exclaimed the King. "Who?"
"A Soldier and a Worker," Barker continued. "And furthermore, some of our provisions are gone."
"Blast it! They've deserted!" the King fumed. "Cowards!"
"But that's not all, sir," Barker said. "A Messenger has just arrived at the Anthill."
"From where?" the King asked, irritated.
"From the approaching Fire Ant army, sire," he said. "He wishes an audience with you immediately."
The King swore. "Where is the scum?"
"Outside the Anthill, sir," Barker finished, and bowed again.
The King Ant sighed. "Very well, I will speak briefly with him. In the meantime, Oomaku," he said turning to the General, "Keep up with that Escape Tunnel. I'll be back shortly."
"Sir," Oomaku replied, and continued his sketch of the Tunnels. The King turned and followed Barker up out of the Eggchamber and up the path that led outside.
The Fire Ant was waiting by the edge of the Stream. He was huge, at least twice as large as any of the Meat Ant Soldiers. His muscular thorax and powerful arms were still in grim anticipation of the coming encounter. Beside his mouth, two huge fangs jutted out, dripping poison. The King hesitated when he saw the monstrosity, but he checked himself and continued.
"What is your business?" the monarch demanded. "Why are you here?"
"Our King encourages you to surrender," the Messenger rasped. "You must consider that our Army far outnumbers yours, and if you resist you will not be spared. Surrender, and you will be under his protection and leadership."
The King glared at him, hate filling his eyes. "We will not surrender to your devil-king," he hissed. "I would as soon be cut into thirds as be under his rule!"
"You are making a mistake," the Messenger protested, moving closer. "Our King will not tolerate defiance. But if that is your wish..."
"It is my wish!" the King barked. "You tell him that he will bleed when I see him!"
"Fool!" the Messenger growled. "Your Colony will be destroyed then! Wiped off the face of the..."
The King roared with fury, and dealt the Fire Ant a vicious kick, which startled it so much that it wasn't able to prepare. With a stunned look, it toppled backwards, off the Bank and into the rushing water below. The King looked down and shouted, "This is OUR COLONY!"
The day was cool and fresh, much more pleasant than the previous day. "Look's like Autumn's finally setting in," said Ari. "That means we have to hurry."
"We don't want to be caught when the really cold weather sets in," agreed Bill. "We could freeze!"
The two Meat Ants continued on, deeper into the thick Jungle. Soon, the foliage overhead grew so thick that the sky could barely be seen, and the sunlight was filtered through the grass, giving everything a rather greenish tint.
"Be careful now," cautioned the Soldier. "There are hostile insects in places like this, and I wouldn't want..."
He was cut off by a distant screech. Both Ants immediately stood stiff as poles, gazing in the direction the noise had come from.
"W-what was that?" Ari stammered. "Sounds like..."
"That's some kind of Feathered Beast," interrupted his Soldier companion. "They make calls like that all the time. Don't worry, they don't go for creatures as small as us. They only go for the bigger insects, like Caterpillars and Worms."
Ari tried to believe him, but he couldn't help but worry. Suddenly, a shadow fell over them, and then a low rumble as something flew off into the air.
"There it goes," said Bill, looking up. "It's taken off. So stop worrying and let's get movin'!"
It was high noon when Ari suddenly stopped. "Hold up, Bill! Smell that!"
"What?" Bill inquired. "I can't smell...wait a minute! Hey, I can smell it too!"
What they detected was a strong, sweet smell, one that seemed to draw them closer in. "What the heck could it be? Heaven?" Ari wondered.
"That's Human food," Bill said conclusively. "I've seen it before; the careless creatures leave the remains of their meals all over the place. Fortunately for us!"
"Hold up a minute," exclaimed Ari. "What in the world are Humans?"
"That's what those giant two-legged creatures call themselves," replied Bill. "I can't really understand what they say to each other but I've caught that word in the midst of their various ramblings. I guess it's what they call each other."
"Strange," said Ari. "Boy, that smell's getting better!"
Suddenly they could hear noise from other directions, as if hundreds of other creatures were headed for the same destination. "Uh oh, we'd better hurry," said Bill. "We could be in for some serious competition!"
Ari looked up, in time to see something through the foliage that was blocking out the sky. It looked rather brownish, and from where he was he guessed it to be at least an inch high. "Come on!" he urged. "Let's go!"
Not so long after they could see a clearing in the distance, and filling most of it was that same brown object that Ari had seen from a distance. But as he ran forward, he suddenly bumped into something, falling to the ground. As he got up, he saw a huge, bristly animal that was long and rather fat. It turned to look at him, and the Worker Ant could see two huge, black-colored eyes.
"Watch where you're going, midget," it boomed. "Don't get in my way again!" And with that, the monster continued lumbering forward on its many feet. Bill pulled his Worker friend to the side. "That's what we call a Caterpillar," he said. "They're enormously greedy, but usually not too much of a problem to us. Just don't take them on alone."
"Gall, what a jerk!" Ari exclaimed.
Bill laughed. "They're none too polite, either," he said. "Just keep away from him."
The two continued on, finding themselves now in an ever-thicker crowd of insects, large and small, some of which were the strangest Ari had ever seen. But oddly, he could find no other Ants there.
The huge brown object towered above them, stretching away into the distance, the other end hidden in the Jungle. But the end that was facing them could be seen clearly in the sun, and the smell it gave off was almost intoxicating.
What looked like a glistening brown skin was partially peeled away, exposing the insides, which consisted of several layers. The outer layer was brown, lighter than the skin and waxy in appearance. Underneath was a lighter brown substance, crumbly and sticky. Then, in the middle, was a layer darker than that above it but lighter than the outside. It was a stretchy, dark brown material, and most of the insects seemed to be going for it.
"What is it?" Ari asked Bill. "I've never seen anything like it before!"
"I'm not sure," the Soldier replied. "But I've seen Humans eating it before, and they sure seem to like it. But I think we'd best move on. We've gotta hurry!"
"Can't we just stop in for a minute?" Ari pleaded. "This is a totally new experience for me!"
Bill looked hesitant, but finally he said, "Well, I suppose we can take a quick break. But only brief, mind you."
The two ants walked toward the huge Mountain. The smell was nearly overpowering by now. Ari almost felt a little sick from it, it was so sweet. When he arrived at the base, he dug his three-clawed hand in and pulled out some of the brown substance. He smelled it and then placed it in his mandibles.
As it entered his mouth, he could feel the sweetness filling his mouth. It was unlike anything he had ever tasted before; it had a strong, almost spicy taste to it, totally exotic.
"We've gotta tell the Colony about this, man!" he said dreamily to Bill. "We can't just keep it to ourselves!"
"We can't go back," Bill said. "I wish we could let them know somehow, but if we did they would probably know where we are and come and force us back to the Hill. We have to keep on."
Ari sighed. "Yeah, I suppose so," he said. "It's a pity, though. I wish they would be able to taste it! Maybe then they'll lose their narrowmindedness and venture out a little bit."
The two tore off some of the Brown Mountain and stuffed the pieces into their leaf-packs. Then, after determining their position and direction, they took off North again, away from the Brown Mountain and on towards the Black Flats.
King Rey looked up from the map to see a Scout standing breathlessly in front of him. "Well?" Rey demanded. "What is it? Have you found them yet?"
"Sire," the Scout replied, "They left no trace. But we've found something else, something better."
Rey looked suspicious. "Don't try to get out of finding those two," he said fiercely. "You know how much worth each Ant is!"
"Yes, sire, very much so," the Scout replied. "And we shall continue our search. But, while we were searching northward today, we came upon a mountain of food. It was immense! If we could gather it all and bring it back, we could have enough to sustain us should we ever come under seige."
"Food?" the King asked, suddenly interested. "What sort of food?"
"Human food," the muscular Ant replied. "I'm not sure exactly what they call it, but it was covered in some kind of shiny skin. There were some strange markings on top. I made a rough copy of what they looked like." And with that, he pulled a small leaf off from around his abdomen and unrolled it before the King.
"Bizarre, indeed!" the King remarked. "But, if it is indeed food, then you shall immediately send out the Workers to retrieve it. We wouldn't want it to go to waste!"
"Yes, sire," the Scout bowed, and flew up and out of the Eggchamber.
The sun was beginning to sink beyond the tips of the grass, and the two travelers knew they would soon have to settle for the night. "We've made good tracks since we got the food, so we can pick someplace to sleep soon," said Bill.
"How far are we from the Flats yet?" Ari wondered.
"Still a good four-day journey," Bill replied. "But if we keep going at a good pace, we should be there within a good period of time."
Ari needed to address something. "About this Aranen," he said.
"Well? What about him?" Bill asked.
"How are we supposed to find him? All that Mantis said was that 'he dwells in the dust'. That could be anywhere. According to what I've heard, the Great Desert is immense. We could be searching there for weeks, and by then the Colony may have already fallen! And that's leaving out the fact that we could run out of food by then."
"Nonsense," Bill snorted. "Do you know how good a Soldier's sense of smell is? If there were a predator five feet away, I'd know. And Aranen is for sure a predator."