Erin sat on a grassy hilltop and played a game of chess. It made life easier. When she was playing, she could forget about life. She could forget about suffering.
She moved her pieces on the chess board, pausing, considering, moving, retreating, taking. It was a dance of strategy and perception and she had learned many of the steps long ago. But chess was always different, with every game. That was why she could lose herself in it.
And yet, it wasn’t just calculation that Erin did. A chess player played against an opponent, and unless it was a computer, they read the other player and danced with them. Mind games were part of chess, just like basic strategy and knowing fundamental moves was. But Erin had never played against a mind like the one that sat opposite her.
She looked up over her pieces at Pawn. He was staring at the board, pondering his next move. Something was wrong with him. It wasn’t just that he had a name. Erin didn’t understand the Antinium, but she understood chess players. And something had seriously gone wrong with him.
He was too good.
“I still don’t get it. Where do levels come from? Why do people have them? Why do people only level up when they sleep?”
“I do not know Erin Solstice. These are mysteries of the world. They are that they are, yes?”
Krshia shifted in her seat in the grass. She sat with Selys, inside the circle of watching Antinium Workers, but distinctly apart from them. She was calm, at least in that she was watching Erin play Pawn, but Selys kept glancing around at the silent Workers nervously.
“Fine. But if that’s the case, why don’t we get levels for everything? Like…walking. Is there a [Walker] class?”
Krshia shook her head.
“Walking is something we do, not something we live for, yes? Only things that we make our goals and dreams form classes.”
“But that does mean you could get a class for eating, right?”
“You mean a [Gourmet]? I’ve heard some rich merchants and nobility have that class.”
“Okay, I think I get it. But people can have multiple classes, right?”
Selys nodded. She was the bigger expert on classes, apparently. It probably had to do with her being a receptionist. Erin frowned, looked at a knight and nearly ran right into the trap Pawn had set. How had he become so good?
“In theory, you could have as many classes as you want. But in practice, even most Adventurers only have three or four classes, tops. It’s because you don’t just get a class even if you qualify for it. It has to become part of your life.”
“Oh, I get it.”
Selys paused. Her tail curled up as she sat with her claws folded politely in her lap. Erin had noticed Drakes were expressive with their tails where their faces told nothing. Krshia on the other hand had a perfect poker face and her tail wasn’t nearly long enough to give anything away.
“Um, did…no one ever tell you this when you were growing up, Erin? I mean, everyone knows this stuff. It’s basic.”
“Even the Antinium? Even the Workers?”
Pawn looked up from the board.
“Yes, Erin Solstice. We are taught such things as we first hatch. All Workers know of leveling, but we seldom do.”
“Why? I’ve gained ten…yeah, ten levels this month.”
Krshia and Selys exchanged a glance. Even the Workers twitched their antennae at each other in their seats.
“Are you serious?”
Erin looked up and saw Selys gaping at her.
“What? I’m only Level 10. Isn’t that low?”
“It is—but—I mean, it is but no one levels up that fast! Erin, normally someone has to apprentice to someone else for years before they hit Level 10. Most kids—well, most people our age are barely Level 12 in their chosen profession around now.”
“Really? That just seems so…low.”
Again, Erin had the impression she was the only person in the group that thought that way.
“Well, Level 100 is the highest, right? Doesn’t that mean most people would get to…I dunno, Level 60 or higher before they die?”
Selys laughed—more incredulously than politely.
“You’re joking. Right?”
Erin shrugged. She moved another pawn and took a bishop. Then she realized it was another trap. She was going to lose her other knight.
“Am I wrong?”
“I have known many elderly people. They all have levels in their twenties or sometimes thirties, yes? Not one was above Level 40. Few even reach their thirtieth level. If I had to name those above Level 50, there would only be a few in each continent, yes?”
“So someone over Level 70 for example…?”
Selys looked at Krshia. The Gnoll shrugged.
“I don’t think I know of one living, in any class. I’ve heard legends about warriors that reached that level, but those are ancient stories. You know, the kind where a single hero defeats armies by himself or slays Hydras and Krakens single-handedly. People just don’t level that high.”
“Okay. I think I get it. So people level up, but not that high. And you can have more than one class, but you have to level that one up from the start, right?”
Selys nodded. It was a different nod than Erin’s. Her neck was longer, so it looked more like a long bob than the short motion Erin was used to.
“Right. If you were a [Spearmaster] like Relc, say, and then you picked up a sword and started using that, you’d probably get the [Warrior] class until you were high enough level and had enough skills for a [Swordslayer] class or a [Duelist] class or something like that.”
“So classes change names?”
“Are you sure no one’s ever talked to you about this?”
“Klbkch explained some of it to me.”
“Oh. Um. Oh I—well, yes, classes change. It’s just usually in name to represent you’re more specialized or—or you’ve hit a higher level. For instance, [Tacticians] can become [Leaders] or [Generals] or just stay the same depending on what skills you have.”
“And…I think I remember this. Skills define classes, right? But doesn’t everyone get the same skills when they level up?”
“No. They do not.”
Krshia stared at Erin. Her eyes narrowed as her brow creased together in a frown. Erin paid no notice. She could see more than people thought when she played chess, and she learned more than she let on. But right now? It didn’t matter.
“Everyone gets different skills when they level. Often, they’re the same, but some people get them at different times, or get different variations on skills…it’s about need. Need and want determine what skills we get.”
“And what we do, right? That determines our classes, which determines how our level ups affect us and whether or not our classes change.”
Selys looked relieved Erin was finally getting it.
Erin looked at Pawn. He and all the Workers were staring hard at the board.
“Do the Workers have lots of levels? You guys work all the time, so you’ve got to have lots, right?”
He paused and Erin noticed something odd. All of the Workers were focused on the board. But when Pawn moved a piece, suddenly they looked at her, or elsewhere. But whenever she moved a piece, they immediately focused on the board again to the exclusion of everything else.
“We have very few levels, Erin. I myself am a Level 2 [Butcher] and Level 1 [Carpenter].”
“What? Is it—is it because you’re young or something?”
“I have lived more than half of the average Worker’s lifespan. The Workers do not level up frequently. Some do not level at all.”
Erin turned in her grassy seat to look at Selys and Krshia. The Drake flicked her tongue out in surprise.
“I…didn’t know that.”
“Neither did I. But it is not unexpected, yes? Leveling comes from learning, and trials. Without such things there is no experience gained. For one who does the same thing without change, they will not level.”
“And that’s probably why you’ve leveled so quickly, Erin. Starting an inn by yourself—that’s got to be a lot harder than just working in one or taking over a business.”
It had been the hardest thing Erin had ever done in her life. She looked down at her stomach and legs folded pretzel-style beneath her. They should have been full of holes, or scarred from countless stab-wounds. Yeah, it was different than just being an innkeeper in a city.
“So the Antinium don’t level up much? I guess Klbkch was an exception.”
“A big one.”
“But doesn’t that mean they’re weak, then? If most Drakes around my age are Level 10 or higher, why aren’t they way stronger than all the Antinium?”
“Erin, have you seen those giant soldier-types the Antinium keep in their tunnels? I caught a glimpse of one walking through the streets this morning.”
Selys shuddered. Her tail twitched several times.
“They don’t need levels, Erin. They’re deadly enough as it is. If you gave them high levels and churned them out the way the Antinium can, they’d be an unstoppable army.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I guess levels can’t replace numbers or muscle, can it?”
“Well, it can, but only if there’s a big difference in levels. Relc for instance…he’s strong. He could probably take on a lot of those soldiers. Not that he would—don’t get me wrong! But he’s Level 32, I think. That’s incredibly different than a Level 13 [Warrior]. Does this all make sense, Erin?”
Erin moved another piece and knew how the game would end.
“I think I get it. Thanks for explaining.”
“I just don’t understand why you don’t know all th—”
Selys was cut off as Krshia elbowed her hard in the side. She hissed rather than squeaked and sat straight up. Krshia broke into the conversation.
“It is curious you do not know of levels, but perhaps your people do not believe in it the same way we do, yes?”
“Yeah. Something like that. Is leveling big a part of people’s lives here?”
“Some would call it religion. Some yes, some worship levels instead of Gods, Erin. In some places leveling is preached and those with the highest level are worshiped. I have heard it said that to each one of us is a maximum level given, and when we reach that level we have reached the end of their life.”
Silence fell over the grassy audience. Erin turned in her seat and stared at Krshia.
“Seriously? Some people believe that?”
Krshia’s gaze didn’t waver.
Selys gasped, but Krshia shrugged.
“Some believe, Erin. And who is to say what is true?”
Erin turned back to the game and saw Pawn had moved. She tipped over her king.
“I forfeit. Good match.”
Pawn bowed from his seat to her. Erin bowed her head back.
“It was a good game, Erin.”
“It was a great game!”
Selys sat up in her seat and stared at the two players.
“I don’t know much about chess, but I’ve seen Olesm play. You’re way better than he is, Erin. And you…um…Pawn.”
He bowed to her and she flinched.
“I merely learn from Erin Solstice. She is an expert in this game.”
“And that’s another thing. How are you so good at that, Erin? Olesm says you’re the best player he’s ever seen or heard of. Are you a high-level [Tactician], then?”
“What about some other class? Or is it a rare skill?”
“No, it’s just skill. Not the kind you get from leveling up. Just skill in the game. I don’t have any levels besides [Innkeeper].”
“But then how are you so good?”
Erin took her time before answering. She reset her pieces and switched the board around. Silently, Pawn moved a piece forwards and she countered. Another game began, but she had the same feeling.
“I just played since I was a kid, that’s all. Every day. At first it was just a hobby, y’know? Something I saw an adult do, but then I found I liked it. When I won my first tournament, I was over the moon. And after that I just kept playing.”
Selys glanced at Krshia.
“But wasn’t chess invented only a year ag—”
Again, she received an elbow in the side and glared at Krshia, but then she stared at Erin in sudden interest.
“Well, I guess maybe here it’s new. But chess has been around a lot longer where I come from.”
Erin smiled briefly.
“A lot longer. And lots of people love to play it where I come from. There’s strategy books, lessons online, tutors…I learned it all. Fun fact? I learned how to play chess blindfolded before I learned how to ride a bike.”
She moved another piece. After a second of staring, Pawn moved his queen and took it. She frowned and kept playing. Memory was overlapping with reality.
“I was never the best. But I was good. Really good. For my age? I was incredible. I played in tournaments, I stayed up late playing chess—my parents let me. They knew I had a gift. So I would study chess every moment I had free time, play adults, go to chess clubs and tournaments after school, and I kept winning. But then once you get to a high enough level, you start losing.”
Like now. Just like now, and then, Erin stared at a board and felt outclassed. She moved a rook and watched it die two moves in the future to protect her queen.
“It happens. And it’s not surprising. Even a genius kid can’t beat an adult who’s played thousands—tens of thousands more games. But every time I lost it crushed me. So I quit.”
“You q—ow! Stop hitting me!”
Erin smiled, but it was fleeting. Her entire focus was devoted to the game before her, and speaking.
“Somewhere…sometime I guess I lost interest in playing chess. Or maybe I stopped having fun. I don’t know how to explain it. I was just a kid, but I spent every waking moment playing the stupid game, going to tournaments, studying, winning, losing—I never really lived. I never played with my friends.”
She moved a pawn. The Workers paused, and then Pawn moved a piece.
“When I realized that, I quit. I just stopped playing, threw away my chess set…I did normal things. It took me years before I even looked at a chess board, and then it was fun to play. But I never wanted to be a Grandmaster again. The pressure, living just for that one game—it’s too much.”
Pawn took her queen. Ironically, with a pawn. It couldn’t be avoided, but Erin knew how the game was going to end now.
“I guess I’m just a normal girl who’s better than 99% of the world at chess. But that last 1%. That’s a heck of a large gap.”
“If that is the case Miss Erin, I shudder to imagine what kind of geniuses live in your home nation.”
At some point Olesm had appeared, and Pisces, and even three of the four Goblins. Rags sat in the grass among the Workers, silently watching the game. The Antinium looked at the Goblins and then away, but Selys gripped a dagger at her belt as she glared at the Goblins and Krshia sneezed. But there was peace, however tenuous. Perhaps it had to do with the pile of Goblin corpses buried in the unmarked grave a mile away.
“I’m sure you don’t think of it this way, but I cannot imagine a player better than you, Erin. I have skills that allow me to play the game better than most, but I cannot beat you no matter how hard I try.”
Pisces nodded in agreement. Erin grinned mirthlessly. They hadn’t seen how the last few games had been played.
“Why don’t I level, then? I don’t have any levels in [Tactician], but Pawn tells me the other Workers have leveled up in it. Probably the Goblins as well.”
Erin moved another piece and watched Pawn hesitate. Well, good.
“We’ve got a ranking system in my world. People who play chess in tournaments get a score, which goes up and down when they win or lose. A Grandmaster’s got about 2600 or more points, and the really amazing chess players all have over 2200 points. If you have that many, you’re pretty much one of the best in the nation.”
He decided to lose a knight as opposed to his bishop. Erin frowned. The game was ending. How was he this good? It was impossible. She felt like she was playing…
A Grandmaster. But it couldn’t be.
“I got to just over 2000 when I was a kid. That’s insane but—it’s still a huge difference between that and being a Grandmaster. If kept playing maybe I’d be around 2400 right now. But either way, I’m one of the best in the place where I lived. In this world—I probably am the best. So why don’t I level?”
Olesm appeared distressed.
“…I could not say. It does not make sense.”
Pisces nodded self-importantly as everyone looked at him. He was still arrogant, but it was muted arrogance, subdued. Erin was grateful for that.
“Classes are based on what we pursue. Yet—by that same notion, what we consider unimportant or trivial fails to trigger the same classes in other people. It is a known phenomenon I studied during my time in Wistram Academy. I wrote a paper that—well, suffice it to say, if you do not consider chess to be anything other than a game, you would not level.”
Olesm and Selys looked incredulously at Pisces.
“A game? But it’s obviously a game.”
“Allow me to rephrase my statement.”
Pisces looked annoyed as he searched for a better explanation.
“What I mean to say is that if Mistress Solstice does not considered any of the tactical applications of learning to play chess – how moving pawns is similar to organizing warriors for instance – she would not level in the [Tactician] class. To begin with, the amount of experience gained from playing chess is far lower than actual work as a strategist, so if she cared not at all about games of war as opposed to games of pieces…”
“I don’t level. Makes sense.”
Erin tipped over her king and sighed.
“I lose. Again.”
She sat back in the grass and looked up at the fading sky. Olesm and Pisces stared open-mouthed at Pawn as he carefully set the game back together.
“How are you doing it? No one gets this good overnight. Not even a genius can play like that on his first go.”
Pawn ducked his head in front of Erin’s stare, cowed.
“Apologies. But the Innkeeper Solstice makes a mistake. This one—I am sorry. You misunderstand, Erin. At this moment you are not simply playing me, but all the Antinium gathered here.”
He gestured around at the grassy knoll where the countless workers, the two Drakes, two Humans, Goblins and single Gnoll sat.
“The hundred play as one mind. We see a hundred moves and play them all in turn. We think together and play as one body.”
Erin stared at him.
“Just so. We think as one. That is the nature of the Antinium. Even if—that nature has been compromised by the experiment. Though I am individual, that is still true of me.”
“And Klbkch? And the Worker?”
“We felt their loss, Erin. We knew their death and intention in the moment of their demise. They are not lost to us. Though their individual memory and body is lost to all but the queen, the Workers remember.”
Erin stopped placing chess pieces back on the board. She stared into Pawn’s fragmented eyes, urgently seeking the truth.
“And you won’t forget?”
He shook his head.
“We are the Antinium. So long as one exists, we never truly die.”
Erin paused. She looked down and wiped at her eyes.
“I wish that were true.”
Selys shifted in her seat. She bowed her head. Olesm cleared his throat.
“As much as it pains me to say it, Klbkch was truly unique. He was the first – and only – Antinium ever to be accepted as a member of the Watch. Ever since the Antinium entered the city eight years ago, he’s been the one who acted as a liaison between their Queen and our city. He is—was the representative of their race.”
“I never knew he was so important.”
“He was humble. It was why many liked him. And now he is gone.”
“Not so long as the Antinium live.”
Pawn stared around with something approaching defiance. Erin shook her head.
“But he can’t speak to us, Pawn. He’s gone for us.”
“I—see. I feel there is much misunderstood, but I respect your grief.”
Awkwardly, he placed his king back in position.
“Will you play another game, Erin?”
“Would it do any good? I can’t win. You—you’re better than I am.”
Olesm and Pisces began to protest, but they were quickly drowned out. Every Worker clicked in denial of Erin’s statement. They made a low buzzing sound that was quiet individually, but sounded like the sound of armageddon bees together. Selys clutched at Krshia’s fur.
“There is much we learn from each game Erin Solstice. Please do not stop teaching.”
Erin smiled hollowly.
It didn’t feel like that. It felt like running away from everything. But fine. She owed the Workers. She owed the Antinium. So fine.
Slowly, she drew the board away from Pawn, batting away his hands.
“Stop that. Let me show you something.”
She reversed the board and moved the white pawn forwards.
“This—is an Immortal Game.”
Instantly, Pawn stopped protesting. Pisces and Olesm exchanged a glance, and moved up. Rags was already sitting next to the board. Erin slowly moved the black pawn up in front of the white one.
“In the history of chess, there are a lot of famous games that we study because of how brilliant they are. Some people call other games Immortal Games as well. And there are a few famous ones. But this. This is the Immortal Game. Some of the moves aren’t considered as good nowadays, but this is still considered one of the pinnacle moments of chess in my world.”
Krshia breathed in sharply, but Erin’s words passed over the audience as she moved the chess pieces slowly across the board. Slowly, the two sides played against each other. Erin pointed out each gambit, each strategy and attack and counter as the game played out.
“King’s Gambit Accepted to open with, and then the Bishop’s Gambit…see here, he tries the Byran-Counter Gambit with the pawn? And then the white side attacks the queen with a knight here…”
She played the game out from memory. She’d seen it so many times in her head it was second nature to her. The chess players watched, frowning, trying to keep up with the dizzying display before them. But the Workers stared at the board, and as Erin moved into the last phase of the game and took the white queen, Pawn spoke.
“We can see the ending.”
Erin looked up. Olesm and Pisces stared at Pawn in disbelief.
Pawn hesitated, but then reached out and moved the white pawn up. Erin stared down at the board and played the next move, checking the white side’s king with a queen. Pawn moved the king diagonally, and the game continued.
A perfect game. He played the game exactly how Erin remembered it. In the silence, she toppled the black king and looked up. Olesm and Pisces were staring at Pawn as if he’d turned into a horrific monster.
“Good. Now play me. One last time.”
Silently, Pawn sat opposite Erin and set up the pieces once more. She stared at the board. She was white. Slowly, she moved a pawn forwards.
“I was always afraid of losing as a kid. Always. I studied so hard so I wouldn’t lose. Maybe that’s why I never improved. I thought losing was a terrible thing.”
Pawn waited, and studied the board. He moved a knight forwards in response. Erin whispered.
“But chess? Chess isn’t scary. Not compared to other things.”
That was the last thing Erin said. She wiped at her blurry eyes and set aside her heart for a moment so she could play. It was a relief. It felt so good to lay everything aside, and at the same time to let it all out. To let it hurt and play.
Her pulse pounded in the back of Erin’s mind. The world around the chess board vanished, and it grew before her eyes. Each piece consumed her vision, and she heard only the click of moving pieces. That sound was thunder in her head.
Pawn sat in front of her, but she didn’t focus on him. He couldn’t be read. He couldn’t be outthought. There were a hundred of him thinking over every move. So Erin just played. The chess board was her world, the pieces parts of her soul.
She looked at her opponent and saw another Antinium sitting opposite her. Erin dreamt as she played. She was playing in her heart, in the core of her being, in her wishes of what might have been.
In this place, there was only the game. And Klbkch.
Erin was crying as she played. Her tears fell on the chess board and into the grass. She played and moved pieces and lost them. But it was all part of a bigger plan, one she couldn’t see, couldn’t understand. She could understand chess. That was easy. But she couldn’t understand anything else.
She took the enemy pawns. She took his rook, his knight, his bishop, and his queen. She hounded him, lured him into traps and pushed into his lines and kept her own pieces safe, or gave them away to tear his apart. She pushed and pushed, until he had nothing left.
In the silence of her dark world, Erin saw the king topple over. She blinked, and the moment was over.
Pawn bowed his head. Erin heard ringing in her ears, and then snuffling. She looked over and saw Olesm was crying. The [Tactician] wiped away tears from his eyes.
“I will—I will never see—I cannot explain what it is.”
Pisces was covering his eyes, rubbing them with the heel of his hands. Rags was staring at the pieces, her eyes bloodshot as if she hadn’t blinked in an age.
“It was—that was a display beyond anything I’ve seen. It was pure! I couldn’t see how it would end! I couldn’t predict the next move! How are you not a [General] or—or a [Tactician] of the highest level?”
Erin shook her head. She looked at the chess board.
“It’s just a game. I’m no tactician or even a warrior.”
She stared at her hands.
“I’m just an Innkeeper. I don’t want to be anything else. I don’t even want to be that, but I am. That’s all.”
She stood up. Pawn stared at her. The Workers stared at her. She met their eyes and bowed her head. She wiped at her eyes and let her tears fall into the grass.
Then she left. Slowly, Erin walked inside her inn and collapsed onto the floor. She slept, mercifully, with the blackness of oblivion and no dreams.
[Innkeeper Level 11!]
[Skill – Lesser Strength Obtained!]
[Skill – Immortal Moment Learned.]