Titus watched the battle unfold from the rear ranks of the Legion column, his experienced eye catching numerous flaws in execution that any outside observer would fail to notice. He couldn't prevent the slight twitch of his eye at the sight. They can't help it, he reminded himself, his Legion was still green, not used to working together and lacking proper drill experience. The auxiliaries were even worse, though it was more common for the shock troops to show such a lack. Former prisoners slated for death, they hadn't come from the best stock, even so the Legion had turned them into viable soldiers, given them a family, a purpose and the dignity they had lacked most of their lives.
"Don't pull that face, commander, I can see it too. Don't you worry, I'll give them a proper tongue lashing when they get back."
Titus turned to his side where the commanding officer of the auxiliary detachment stood, doing much the same thing he himself was, looking over the field of battle, seeking flaws in both sides of the conflict.
"Your unit is relatively fresh into the field?" he enquired.
Waving a gnarled claw, the former human turned to one side and pulled a towel from beneath his robes, which he then used to wipe the slobber from his distended jaws.
"Pardon, commander. I figured you wouldn't want a shower as well as a conversation!"
A wheezing chuckle emerged from the auxiliary which threatened to do just that as a spray of sizzling drool launched from the back of his throat. Titus glanced down and saw that little was left of the towel, most of the fabric already being melted away.
"Cloud salamander?" the commander asked.
"Spot on! You know, most people think the acid came from a bile monster or some such. Terrible eating! I'm far too classy to be caught feasting on Biomass such as that!"
Once again the wheeze and cough which passed for a laugh, followed by another spray of hissing fluid.
"We lost a lot of people during the last wave," he continued, "fresh recruits get shoved into the mix with hardly a 'how do you do' and we need to whip them into shape faster than you can blink. It's not easy, but I think we've done fairly well."
Titus nodded. If what he was saying was true, then the many tactical lapses he saw were understandable, generous even.
"It's hard for us once we get in the field," the auxiliary commander went on, gesturing at his own facial appendages, "communication isn't our strong point at the best of times. If I start barking orders at my troops I'm likely to melt half of them!"
Wheeze. Cough. Spray.
"So we'll give them a full review once we're done. The blood will have cooled by then. Once the monster gets into you, the urge to fight is always there, after all."
"Your sacrifice is honoured, commander."
The once-human shrugged his massive, misshapen shoulders.
"It's nothing. Not like I was doing anything worthwhile before I enlisted. No need for the title, just call me Ristos."
"Ristos then. Your troops don't appear to have listened closely to the briefing. I can see many moving to engage the abomination in direct combat. I believe they were instructed to avoid that target, it's too strong for them."
Wheeze. Cough. Spray.
"Some of us are a little hotter in the blood than others, shall we say. When they hear there's a big bad monster out there, they want to show that they're bigger and badder, you know? It's something that happens, I've seen it a lot over the years. That's why auxiliaries who can't overcome the urge don't last long. Oof. There goes another one."
The ant in question had reared back and unleashed a brutal chomp, crunching the opponent in front of him into a mangled mess in an instant.
"Stupid waste of Biomass," Ristos sighed. "Don't matter how you warn them, some people just too stupid to live."
The commander rolled his shoulders and turned back to his own Legion. They continued to support the assault with long range fire and medical assistance, dragging the wounded clear for healing and pounding the ant's shields with an endless barrage of spells and arrow fire. It wasn't like they could miss. There must have been twenty thousand ant monsters packed into the tunnel in front of them. The rows of the enemy were so densely packed from floor to ceiling that the imposing metal gate (the second damned gate!) was almost totally invisible.
He still felt irritated by the existence of that imposing ant head studded metal monstrosity. If he'd known there was another, he'd have been much more reluctant to step out of the battle. It wouldn't have swayed his decision in the end. Morrelia had to survive, that was the end of it. He could still feel his body protest when he recalled the blow he'd unleashed to damage what had turned out to be the outer gate. It had been a long time since he'd been forced to unleash his Master Axe Arts and the strain had been severe. The mana saturation in his cells was still too low to channel Skills of that magnitude, though age may have also played a factor. He wasn't exactly in his prime anymore, and hadn't been at his peak strength for some years. The surface would do that to a person. Not even the mana tonics were enough to stave off the decay.
Almost by habit, he checked the ambient mana and then was forced to stifle a sigh. It was still rising. The wave could come anytime now. Might be a few days, might be in an hour. The ants had done everything they could to delay the Legion advance and if they were lucky it might just pay off. Titus pushed it from his mind, he wouldn't stress over things he couldn't control, that was a quick way to burn out in the Legion. Besides, if the waves kept coming at this pace, everyone would have much bigger things to worry about than an ant colony. A second cataclysm, the rising of the ancients. If it came to pass as he suspected it might, he may just need to get back into top shape. Just the thought of baring his axe at one of the nineteen strongest monsters in the Dungeon was enough to get his blood pumping.
"Tell your people to push harder, Ristos," Titus ordered, "In five minutes I'm going to order my ranks forward and you'll have a chance to rest before the next engagement."
"Right you are then commander," the half-monster saluted before he turned and loped forward through the column to relay his instructions.
An experienced and able ally was always welcome in Titus' book, even if he did threaten to melt your face off every time he laughed.