Titus watched the battle unfold from the rear of the formation. The irregulars had formed up once again and begun to execute another charge. Using them as shock troops, charging, pulling back, charging again, was a brutally effective tactic the Legion had long made use of. It was hard on the half-monsters, in terms of effort and casualties, but it was a role they seemed to relish. The ants had held up remarkably well against the punishment, but as he had expected, they were being ground down.
In the distance, he could see the abomination buck and lash out with its mandibles, using its body to shove against the tide and try to push the Legion back, all to no avail. The auxiliary troops rammed into the gaps the regular Legionaries opened up for them and the ant lines were thrown back once more. Another wave of the giant insects flooded out of the gate, jaws snapping at the air in rage as they replaced those who had fallen and after a few minutes of furious fighting the order was given and the irregulars pulled back, replaced by the iron wall of the Legionaries who continued to relentlessly batter away at an enemy that outnumbered them immensely, but couldn't hope to match them one on one.
In a way, the ants had chosen a poor field of combat. Within the confines of the tunnel, their ability to maximise the effectiveness of their numbers was hampered. In a more open battleground, where they could flank or open up more fronts, their numbers would matter far more. Still, they hadn't had a choice. In many ways, he had to acknowledge the cleverness of whoever had coordinated the defence of the ants, presumably the abomination. This was the only plan that could hope to save them, and it had almost worked.
Had the wave come early, and he had been worried for some time that it would, he would have ordered his troops back to the base camp already. Orders were orders, but any commander who pushed to complete the mission and got their Legion wiped out would get hanged and deservedly so. Even now there was a chance, a narrowing window in which he would be forced to order the retreat, but it was so slim now that he felt rising confidence that this nest would be purged before time ran out.
It was likely the satellite nests wouldn't survive the surge of monsters from the third strata without the support of their most powerful members here, but just in case he would have his troops bunker down within the nest to ride out the wave. Once it was done, they could emerge and track down the remnants at their leisure.
"Looks like the gate is starting to take damage, commander," Aurillia observed from his side.
The other tribunes attached to his Legion nodded their heads, each of them an experienced head with decades of experience, they watched the fight with the air of hawks.
"After the next push, they'll probably fall back behind the gate and wait for us to break it down," Titus mused.
"Do you think they have another gate?" Alberton asked, the Loremaster having joined with his advisors. "They have two, why not three?"
"Judging by the size of the nest, I deem it unlikely," spoke up Meognus, a newly attached tribune, "but the possibility exists, as you say. If we find another gate, we'll knock that one down too. How else can we achieve our aim?"
The young tribune was a fresh promotion, placed within Titus' Legion for a bit of seasoning. He was a good soldier, but Titus found him a little green as a leader.
"Our troops are tired and drained, casualties are mounting and exhausted Legionaries make more mistakes," Titus spoke slowly, no judgement in his voice, "if there is another gate, we will pull back to give rest, water and food to our people. The men and women who put on the armour of the Legion are our greatest resource and they mustn't be wasted under any circumstances."
There were a few nods, but it was Alberton who protested.
Titus silenced him with a glare.
"Under any circumstances," he repeated.
His friend turned his head away from the anger on the commander's face, his protest dying in his throat. 'What about Morrelia?' he'd wanted to say, but Titus had known his intentions before he finished opening his mouth. Despite appearances, Titus was desperately worried about his daughter. The thought of her in the clutches of these monsters was enough to make his blood boil and his stomach turn, but there was only one way within his power he could bring her back and so he would follow it to the letter and hope.
After a few moments of awkward silence, the other tribunes began to offer their own thoughts on the battle as it raged on. To the more seasoned officers, the cold, brutal calculation of war was evident in their observations. Discussions centred on the rate the monsters were slain versus the number of Legion casualties and how those numbers could be improved were had in quiet voices amongst them as various hypothesis were pondered. Such talks may seem inhuman, and Titus found new officers often struggled with them, but in reality, this was how a commander and his tribunes ensured aims were accomplished with the minimum possible losses. To do anything less than confront the harsh reality the Legionaries faced with unemotional logic would be an unthinkable abrogation of responsibility.
Over the next minutes, things played out much as expected. Though the abomination and the pets it had raised caused significant issues, they were not individually powerful enough to overthrow the course of the battle. It was lucky they hadn't had a chance to evolve again. Had the reincarnated monster reached the next tier, this fight would have been far more difficult. As it was, the next charge of the irregulars disrupted the ant lines enough that they were forced to pull back once more lest the Legionaries cut their haphazard formation to pieces. Acid and spells rained down on the Legion forces as they advanced more and began to batter at the gate itself. Without proper siege equipment, it would take some time to break down, but with the proper application of fire and water the metal could be warped and splintered. Throw in some good old fashioned whacking with sword and axe skills to provide some oomph and the job would get done.
The closer they got to breaking through, the more tense Titus became. He hoped he could trust the enemy to provide mercy to his only remaining child. Would they hold to their word and keep her safe? Or would they strike her down out of spite once the battle was lost?
So lost on his thoughts was the commander that he didn't notice the disturbance behind until Aurillia reached out to shake his arm.
"Titus!" she shouted, "look behind!"
Shocked at his own lack of awareness, the veteran turned to see something he had truly hoped not to see.
Green. The entire tunnel had turned green. Even as he watched, vines and leaves sprouted out through the Dungeon walls, transforming the darkness around them into an emerald sea.
"That damned tree!" Titus growled under his breath as he drew his axe in a tight grip.
"The Great Mother Tree feels much the same toward you," an unfathomably deep voice echoed out of the darkness. "You have made war on her and she does not forget, nor forgive."
"Your mother is a monster," Titus spoke flatly.
"Haaaa," a sound halfway between a sigh, a laugh and bending tree branch resounded through the tunnel, causing the leaves to bend and flutter.
A great figure stepped into the light, massive, as his kind always were, his head near scraped the ceiling of the tunnel as his thick wooden limbs were as far around as the mightiest of trees.
"What care do we children have for the origins of our parent? She made us, that is enough."
"She is spawned from the Dungeon," Titus replied, "that is enough."
A tense air had descended amongst the officers and those Legionaries around them as each of them stared at the newcomer. As if it sensed the hostility, the greenery had ceased its expansion and remained as it was, ominously writhing and twisting with every word that was spoken. At Titus' declaration, a rustle so loud it was almost a shout rippled through every leaf and the giant figure cocked its head.
"She has told your kind she had no choice regarding the manner of her birth in this world," the giant said.
"Did she also have no choice in the lives she has consumed?" Titus didn't back down.
The giant shook his wooden head slowly.
"There can be no understanding between our people, this is old growth."
"Why are you here, Grove Keeper?" Titus demanded, "this conflict has nothing to do with your kind, or your damned mother."
From the abundant growth, more figures emerged, smaller and thinner, but nonetheless powerful, the bruan'chii formed loose ranks behind their Keeper.
"Haaaaa," that sound came again as the Grove Keeper looked down on them with ancient eyes, "you want something, so the mother will take it away."
"She can be petty like that," he said.
The leaves rustled again with malicious glee.