Silence. Erin walked in it. It was the numbing static in her head. It was the sound of tears falling in her heart. It was everything.
She walked in the darkness. Short, narrow walls of dirt enclosed her. She followed a massive shape as it led her through the tunnels.
Noise. Erin still heard it echoing in her memories.
“Klbkch? Summon the Captain! Get a [Healer], now!”
“—Not breathing. Contact his hive! Get the Human out of the way!”
“Klb? Buddy? Speak to me.”
“—Human. What have you done?”
Erin looked up. She was standing in a massive cavernous room. Across from her, something sat in the shadows. The Queen of the Antinium under Liscor.
The gargantuan figure moved. Erin couldn’t see. It was so dark. But she caught a glimpse of a massive, bloated body and bulbous backside. The massive Queen of the Antinium was so huge she couldn’t move from her spot.
The Queen raised one massive foreleg. She wasn’t like her subjects who looked vaguely humanoid. The Queen was completely insectile, and her wide, faceted eyes glowed with dim orange-red light as they focused on the human before her.
“Your name is Erin Solstice. I have summoned you to explain the death of my subject to me.”
Erin looked at the Queen. She didn’t know what to say. Her chest was hurting, but her heart was already broken. They’d taken his body away. She felt like she was still dying. She couldn’t feel the pain, it was so great.
The Queen gestured behind Erin. She pointed to the two silent giants flanking the doors.
“Do not fear my soldiers. They will cause you no harm.”
Erin glanced over her shoulder. She’d been grabbed in the midst of the confusion. A group of giant Antinium had swept her out of the guard barracks against her will and the protests of the other guards. Now, they silently watched her.
The two guards that stood in the back of the massive chamber were giants among Antinium. Unlike Klbkch or the Workers, these Antinium were nearly twice their size, with massive forearms and spiked, sharp gauntlets formed of their exoskeleton.
What was strangest and scariest about them was that they held no weapons. Instead, their four arms were bent and they appeared to be ready at any moment to leap on Erin. Their hands—Erin saw their hands had no real digits, just awkward stumps and tearing barbs. These Antinium were clearly soldiers, built for war.
“Erin Solstice. I hold you accountable for the death of Klbkchhezeim.”
Erin looked back at the Queen. She opened her mouth and didn’t know what to say. There was nothing. The silence in her was too large for words.
But she had to speak.
“I’m sorry. I never meant for it to happen.”
The Queen loomed above her. Her deep voice deepened further.
“Is that all you have to say?”
Erin shook her head.
“I don’t—I can’t say sorry enough. Klbkch—he died protecting me. He was a hero. I’m so sorry.”
The Queen silently watched as Erin wiped at her eyes. She raised a single leg.
“Human. You misunderstand me. Klbkch’s death in itself means little to me. Individuals die in service to the whole. That is natural. But his death was wasted—needless. I am told he perished fighting Goblins. That is what I find unacceptable.”
“Klbkchhezeim was more than a match for a hundred Goblins. If he were by himself and failed thusly I would eliminate his memory from the Hive in an instant. But even so, his foolishness has cost the Antinium living within the city greatly.”
Erin stared at the Queen in shock. In turn, she felt the giant Antinium’s eyes piercing her to the core.
“I am disappointed, Erin Solstice. I had expected better of my Prognugator’s judgment. He spoke highly of you. Klbkch called you a Human worthy of emulation. But I see nothing to back up his claims. I see no reason why he would have wasted his life saving you.”
What? Erin’s head felt fuzzy. What was she saying?
The Queen continued. It was hard to discern emotion in her monotone rumble, but there was a definite element of irritation in her voice.
“My Workers play games in their resting periods. They gain useless levels in classes not needed for their work. Three have already become Aberration. This experiment has created naught but waste. My Prognugator’s judgement has been in error.”
Erin struggled for words.
“He—he was only doing what I asked him to. He was helping. He saved my life.”
She felt the titanic gaze on her. Erin had to look down. She couldn’t meet the Queen’s eyes.
“Nevertheless. Klbkch died a failure.”
Erin’s head rose. She stared at the Queen.
“Take that back.”
The Queen’s presence beat down on Erin, but this time she refused to look away.
“I will not. My Prognugator’s foolishness has cost Liscor and the Antinium this day. He died a failure.”
“He was a hero!”
Erin shouted at the Queen. The guards behind her stirred, but the Queen raised one foreleg.
“He died worthless, against enemies he should easily have overcome. He died a failure.”
“No. He died free.”
The Queen paused. She stared down at Erin.
“Klbkchhezeim said that? Then he is a fool as well as failure. We Antinium are not free.”
Erin stared up at the Queen. The massive insect regarded her, and then looked away. She flicked one foreleg at her.
“You do not understand. You, the creatures of the above world fail to understand all of what is Antinium. Enough. I waste valuable time.”
Erin was shaking. The two Antinium soldiers marched up to her, but she stepped forwards towards the Queen.
“Why’d you summon me then? To tell me how worthless Klbkch was? He wasn’t. You’re wrong.”
The soldiers seized her roughly. The Queen gestured, and they released her.
“You are not what we seek. You cannot understand. Begone from this place, Erin Solstice. I have much to do.”
The Queen slowly turned away towards the far wall. Erin was dragged out of the cavern by the two soldiers. She wanted to say something, anything, to the Queen of the Antinium. But she could think of nothing.
Erin walked out of the entrance to the Antinium tunnels and back into the light of the day. She blinked, shading her eyes. The two Antinium soldiers turned and left without a word. She was alone.
For a moment. Even as Erin looked around another Drake walked up to her. He was the yellow gatekeeper Drake.
“Human. You’re wanted by the Captain. Follow me.”
Erin walked after him without a word of protest. As she walked down the street she was conscious of people watching her as she passed by. Some murmured and pointed. Others flinched away.
She realized she was still covered in blood. Hers, the Goblin’s and Klbkch’s.
The yellow Drake stopped when he realized Erin wasn’t following him. He turned and opened his mouth angrily until he saw her throwing up. Silently, he passed her a water bottle and cloth. Erin wiped her face and rinsed her mouth. She walked on.
The guard barracks was full of quiet voices and one loud one. They all fell silent when Erin entered. She looked around, and saw a blur pushing his way through the crowd of guardsmen.
Two Drakes tried to grab Relc, but he shoved them aside like they were made of paper. More grabbed him as Relc loomed over Erin.
She looked up at him. Relc snarled at her. His tail was thrashing around and his fists were clenched at his side.
“Sorry? Sorry? Klbkch died protecting you! All because you didn’t want to kill those damn Goblins!”
“This is all your fault.”
Erin stared at the ground. Relc stepped forward and the other guardsmen all tensed. But he didn’t attack. Instead, he took a deep breath and spoke with a trembling voice.
“I had a good partner. He was a silent guy and a real idiot, but he was one of the best guys I knew. And then he died because he went and tried to protect a damn Human.”
Relc narrowed his eyes as he stared down at Erin.
“I don’t want to see you around here again. And if you come running here for help again I’ll stab you in the gut. Got it?”
Erin looked up at Relc. His thrashing tail stopped dead as he saw her wipe away the tears in her eyes.
“Yeah. You do that.”
She walked over to a seat and sat down. Tears began flowing from her eyes once more. Relc hesitated. He turned away and kicked a chair. It exploded in a shower of splinters.
Erin barely noticed as the pieces of wood rained down around her. She covered her face with her hands, but the tears leaked through her fingers. She heard a door open, and a loud, female voice.
Erin barely moved. The other Guardsmen moved aside as a female Drake advanced. She marched up to Erin. She glared down and snapped.
“Thanks to you, the fourth-strongest Guardsman in the city is dead. Not only that, he died because he wasted his emergency healing potion on you.”
Erin didn’t look up.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the Captain of the Liscorian watch. Klbkch was one of my best Senior Guardsman. Without him, there’s no one to control the Antinium.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
The Captain’s tail twitched.
“Really? Is that all? From what I’m told, Klbkch had to protect you from a mob of Goblins. You’re no citizen. He should have let them eat you.”
“I guess so.”
Erin didn’t look up. The Captain’s eyes were narrowed in fury and her tongue flicked out. She hissed.
“The Liscorian Guard should never have interfered themselves in the affairs of outsiders. You don’t live in Liscor and you are not one of their citizens. From here on out, the Watch will cease patrols in your area.”
The Captain of the Watch glared at the young woman holding her head in her hands. Erin didn’t look up.
“Is that understood, Human?”
No response. The female Drake’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“I said, is that understood, Human?”
Erin looked up. Her eyes were red, but she’d stopped crying. She met the Captain’s gaze without flinching.
The female Drake stared at her. She had a scar on the left side of her face. Her scales were light blue. Her eyes were yellow and narrowed with rage. She held Erin’s gaze and then turned away in disgust.
“Get out of my city.”
The Captain slammed the door shut behind her. In the silence, Erin looked around the room at the other guardsmen.
“Klbkch died protecting me. He was a hero. He looked out for me when no one else would, and he helped me even though I’m a human. He was a good person. I’m sorry that he’s dead.”
She looked at Relc. He looked away.
Erin wiped at her eyes and then walked out of the room.
Selys found Erin sitting next to Krshia’s stall in the marketplace. The human had curled up into a ball and was hiding her head in her arms.
“Hi? Erin? Are you—are you okay?”
Erin didn’t look up. Selys hesitated, and then came to stand by the stall.
“Hi Krshia. Um, how’re you?”
The Gnoll shopkeeper sniffed and nodded without smiling to Selys.
“Miss Selys. I am well, but Erin is not. She is resting here, away from unkind words. If you have any you will leave, yes?”
Selys raised one hand as her tail twitched.
“No, not me. I just wanted to see how Erin was doing. I uh, heard what happened.”
“Everyone in the city has heard.”
Krshia nodded. She finished arranging a display of onions.
“It is a dark time. Others mourn, but many are simply upset. The death of Klbkch, it is a bad sign for the city. He was strong. Without him there will be trouble. But it is wrong to blame it all on the Human. So think I and other Gnolls.”
“Really. Really? That’s surprising. I uh, thought you lot would think differently.”
Krshia shrugged. She crushed a rotten onion and tossed it in a bin of refuse behind her with more force than necessary.
“Blood and death. It is not Erin Solstice’s fault where Klbkch chose to fight and die. It is not her fault the Goblins attacked, yes? We do not blame those who are not guilty.”
Selys looked at Erin. She wasn’t moving. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Look, Erin, I wanted to talk to you. I know this isn’t a good time, but I don’t think you should go back to your inn. You should stay here, at least for tonight.”
Erin didn’t move. Selys glanced at Krshia. The Gnoll shrugged impassively. Selys tried again.
“I know you felt safe in the inn, but after this things will be different. It isn’t just about Goblins. If the Watch doesn’t patrol the plains, more monsters will start appearing. Without protection or high levels, you won’t survive.”
Again, no response. But then Erin wiped her eyes on her sleeve before she buried her head back down.
“Look—I could get you a job in the Adventurer’s Guild as a receptionist. Some of the others might not like it, but you’d be safe there and you’ll earn enough to eat and live in the city.”
This time Erin moved. She shook her head slightly.
Selys opened her mouth, but Krshia placed a huge furry hand on her shoulder and shook her head. She squatted down next to Erin.
“Erin. I regret the loss of Klbkch. He was a strange creature, but a good one, yes? Many in the city mourn his death. But he would not want you to die. And it is death without the Watch to keep monsters away. Know that.”
“And it’s not like you have to stay here forever. We could look into finding you a place in a Human city if you really didn’t like it. It’s just that it’s a bad time to be here. I know it’s not your fault but the others—”
“I’m not going.”
“Look, Erin, I know how you’re feeling but—”
“I’m not going.”
Erin stood up. Her eyes were swollen and red with tears. Her nose was dripping and she wiped her face on her sleeve. She glared at Selys.
“I’m going back.”
“Not a good idea. Those Goblins might still be out there.”
“They’re all dead.”
“But—there’s monsters. Just stay here. I have an apartment. You can stay the night, okay?”
Selys wanted to say something else, but she looked over Erin’s shoulder and gasped.
Erin turned. The street had gone deathly quiet. Every shopper and shopkeeper in the marketplace was looking in the same direction. They slowly backed away as a procession of dark insects slowly walked through the market.
They weren’t soldier Antinium. They were just Workers, but there were nearly a hundred of them as they slowly walked towards Erin. The group stopped a few feet from her as Selys stepped behind the counter and Krshia sneezed.
Erin looked around. Black-bodied Worker Antinium filled the street. They stood in front of her. Suddenly, they all bowed their heads and the Worker in front spoke.
“These ones offer condolences to the Innkeeper Solstice.”
Selys whispered in a panicked voice to Krshia and Erin.
“What are they doing? They shouldn’t be here! Someone should call the Watch!”
Krshia nudged Selys hard.
The Worker continued.
“These ones wish for the Innkeeper Solstice to heal from wounds received. These ones express their regret for her suffering.”
Erin stared at him stupidly.
The leading Worker appeared confused.
“It is part of custom. These ones are taught to express regret/sadness/loss for death.”
“But I didn’t die. What about Klbkch? What about your—friend. The other Worker? He died protecting me.”
The Worker paused, and then shook his head.
“The Prognugator carried out his duties. The Worker died carrying out his duties. No mourning is necessary for broken shells and dead individuals. These ones merely express regret of individual Klbkch’s failure to protect.”
Erin stared at him.
“So you’re saying you’re sorry I got hurt?”
“These ones express regret for the failure of the Prognugator to protect the Innkeeper Solstice.”
“It wasn’t failure. Don’t—don’t say that.”
The Worker bowed his head again.
“This one offers apologies for its mistake.”
“Can’t you feel sorry? For Klbkch? And your friend?”
“This one apologizes. But this one cannot. These ones offer regret to the Innkeeper Solstice.”
Erin waited. But the Worker just kept its head bowed.
“Is that it?”
“Yes. These ones will disperse to assigned duties. Forgive these ones for disturbing the Innkeeper Solstice and others.”
As one, the Workers turned. Erin hesitated.
They stopped, and turned back to her. She paused, and closed her eyes. Erin took a deep breath, and then looked at the Worker.
“…Come to my inn. I’ll feed you, and you can play chess with me.”
Selys grabbed for her, but Erin was moving. She reached out and touched the lead Worker on the shoulder. He went very still.
“You said you’re sorry? I’m sorry. It was my fault Klbkch and the other Worker died. And that’s a bad thing. Even if you can’t understand it, I want to do something. Let me help you. Somehow.”
The Worker hesitated.
“These ones are not permitted to leave the city or move about without permission.”
“These ones are not suitable for independent action. These ones must not be unaccompanied.”
“I’ll accompany you. Just—come with me. Please? It doesn’t have to be all of you. What about just you? What’s your name?”
The Worker went deathly still. All the Workers did. Erin looked at them curiously. Selys gasped and ran forward.
She grabbed the human’s shoulder urgently. Selys whispered loudly in Erin’s ear.
“You never ask them what their names are! They don’t have any!”
The Worker shuddered and looked at Erin. Selys raised one hand as her tail thrashed wildly.
“They just don’t!”
“This one has no name. This one is not important. This one is not an individual.”
“You could be.”
This time Selys tried to grab Erin and drag her away. Erin fought her hands off.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
She poked the Worker in the chest.
“You’re an individual. You’re you. And the Worker who died? He was someone. Klbkch was someone. You’re all important, and that means when one of you dies it’s a bad thing.”
The Worker shook his head as the other Workers around him backed away.
“This one is not an individual. This one cannot be.”
“You are. Can’t you understand? You’re all special.”
The Worker froze, and then looked at Erin. Something changed in his eyes.
“This one—I understand. This one has become I.”
Selys gasped in horror. The Worker stared down at his hands and then looked up.
“I understand sorrow. I understand regret for the death of individual Klbkch and Worker.”
Erin didn’t notice the other Workers backing away. The Worker that she’d addressed quivered. His hands opened and closed restlessly. Selys and the other Drakes instantly backed up. Krshia slowly reached below her counter.
“I. I am. I have become I. I do not understand.”
He looked around, up at the sky, at Erin. He shook like a leaf.
“If this one—is not—how are the many one? An individual cannot exist—the many are—how am I?”
He shook. Erin grabbed him.
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it. Come on. Let’s play a game of chess.”
He stared at her. Selys was trembling, and air in the marketplace was tense. But then the Worker nodded.
She began walking out of the marketplace. The Worker followed her, and the rest of the Antinium followed in a silent, winding procession. Selys stared at Erin’s back, eyes wide. She looked at Krshia.
“She’s insane. They’re going to kill her. It’s going to kill her.”
“Yes. Let us follow quickly, yes?”
Selys yelped, but Krshia was already gone from behind her counter. She barked something at another Gnoll and strode in the direction the Antinium had gone. Selys stared around at the other wide-eyed Drakes and then ran after Krshia.
The Worker walked behind Erin, and his fellows followed the two in a silent mass. She left the city gates behind, ignoring the Drake shouting at her. She walked as fast as she could, trying not to think, to feel.
Behind her, the Worker shuddered and twitched as he walked. Erin ignored that, but she heard him begin to mutter as he walked along.
“I. I am. But it is wrong. All is wrong. When the many become one, it is Aberration. I am Aberration.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I cannot be individual. I cannot have names. I cannot choose my own actions. It is wrong.”
“Klbkch did it.”
The Worker shook his head. He opened and closed his four hands restlessly.
“He is Prognugator. I am—was Worker. I should not be.”
Erin turned her head.
“You’re fine. You should be. It’s fine to be a person, and not a thing.”
“I cannot understand. I am Aberration. All is Aberration. This Experiment—I cannot accept it.”
“…I’m sorry. But I wanted you to feel something.”
“I feel. I feel all.”
Erin kept walking. But the Worker stopped. He started twitching again, and then his gaze snapped on the back of her head. Slowly, the Worker increased his pace until he was right behind Erin. She didn’t notice, lost in her thoughts.
In the silence, the Worker reached out for Erin as he walked behind her. The other Workers watched as they followed. They said not a word.
“I don’t know what it means to be me.”
Erin said it as she walked along. She didn’t know how to explain it to the Worker. She had to say—something. To tell him what it was like.
“I don’t even know what it means to be human. All I know is that there’s a big hole in my heart. Because Klbkch and the Worker died. I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing. I’m just—sad.”
The Worker paused. His hands hesitated at the back of Erin’s neck.
Erin smiled. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked through the grass.
“I just am. That’s how it works. You don’t get to choose to be someone. You just are. Even if you’re not special. Even if you don’t want to be. You just are.”
He paused. Slowly, the Worker lowered his hands.
“I do not understand. But—I am. And I too am sad.”
“Good. That’s—that’s good.”
Erin sniffed and wiped at her eyes and nose. The Worker slowly walked faster until he was next to her.
“Innkeeper—Erin Solstice. I am sorry for the death of Klbkch and the Worker. I regret their death and your suffering.”
They walked on in silence. Eventually, the Worker spoke gain.
“I am no longer a Worker. I am an individual. I would like a name.”
She looked at him.
“I can’t help you. I’m not—I can’t give you one. Couldn’t you ask your Queen?”
He shook his head.
“I—do not wish to. I must have a name. Where may I find one?”
“I don’t know. Can’t you choose one for yourself?”
The Worker paused. He turned his head to Erin and hesitated before nodding.
“I will do so.”
She waited. After a minute of walking, the Worker spoke again.
“I would like to be known as ‘Pawn’. It is a fitting name for this individual.”
Erin nodded. She gave him a weak smile.
“Hello. Erin Solstice.”
“…Will your friends be like you?”
Pawn looked over his shoulder. The other Workers looked away. He bowed his head.
“They are afraid. They will not be like me.”
“But I have told them what it means to regret the passing of individuals. They understand.”
“They—we. We are all sad.”
They came to the inn on the hill, and the bodies. Erin stared down at the blood and collapsed. She’d forgotten they were still there.
Pawn caught her before she hit the ground. He helped her up, and Erin sat down while the other Workers surrounded the area. They paused as they surveyed the wreckage of the inn and corpses, and then seemed to come to a decision. As one, the Workers began hauling the corpses away while other of their number began digging several hundred feet away from the inn. More still entered the inn and began dragging out broken wood.
Erin sat in the grass and looked away. She glanced up as one of the Workers dragged out the body of their comrade. Then she threw up.
Eventually, Erin felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She looked up, and saw it was Krshia.
“Erin Solstice. I was looking for you, yes? The Workers, they have finished their cleaning.”
She looked, and saw it was true. The area around the inn was clean. Even the grass had been cleaned with water, and the Workers stood silently around the inn. They were all staring at her.
She said it to Pawn, and then to the other Workers. They nodded as one.
“We assist to maintain order and preserve peace.”
Krshia stared at the sign above the Wandering Inn. She looked around, and then followed Erin as the human stepped inside.
“So, this is your inn, yes? It looks better than I had thought. Worth defending.”
Erin nodded. She looked around the empty room. The Workers had cleaned it almost to perfection. All the broken chairs and tables were gone. But they hadn’t touched one thing.
A splintered chess piece lay on the floor. Erin slowly walked over to it. It stared up at her, a Drake caught in mid-strike, a spear in his hands.
She looked down at the broken knight piece on the floor, and picked up the base. Carefully, Erin put it in her pocket and looked around. Silent Workers filled the room. More stared through windows.
Erin looked around. She saw the chess board and picked it up. It was heavy in her hands. She remembered sitting at a table and staring at a brown ant across the board.
Her eyes stung, but there weren’t any tears left. Erin brushed at her eyes and then turned with the chess board.
Slowly, Erin brought the board out and set it down in the grass outside the inn. The Antinium formed a huge circle around her, and Pawn stood in the center next to Erin. She sat down, and placed the board in front of her. She gestured, and Pawn hesitated, and then sat opposite her.
Erin looked at him. He was a bit shorter than Klbkch, thinner, and his features were somehow less sharp than Kblkch’s had been. He looked nothing like Klbkch at all, in fact. But her heart still hurt to look at him.
Slowly, Erin put the broken knight on her side of the chess board. Pawn rearranged the pieces on his side. She stared at him. She stared up at the sky. It was too blue, too pristine for a day like this. It wasn’t even night yet.
The sky should be raining blood. The world should be filled with darkness, and the earth should have opened up and swallowed her whole. She should have been paralyzed by sadness, but Erin just felt hollow. She understood nothing. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
And there was nothing she could do about it. So Erin moved a piece on the board. The broken knight moved up to C3. She looked at Pawn. He stared back, and the rest of the Workers stared with him at the human who wept for Antinium.
Erin bowed her head.
“Let’s play chess.”