His name was Klbkch. It was what the members of other species called him, at least. His true name was longer and hard to express with lips. So he thought of himself as Klbkch or sometimes ‘Klb’. It was important to have an easy, affable nickname.
At the moment, Klbkch was off-duty. He had signed out of the roster and added Relc’s name to the log as well. His partner never signed out, or if he did, he did it improperly. Therefore, Klbkch had long ago made it a practice to do it for Relc. It was important to do things properly.
Propriety had gotten him this far. Propriety, an adherence to all the rules of Liscor, spoken and unspoken, and effort. A mountain of it.
Klbkch nodded to the desk sergeant on the way out. She barely looked up, but growled a goodbye.
“Thanks for dealing with those drunks, Klbkch. I owe you one.”
“Not at all, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark.”
And for that, she furnished him with a harried, grateful smile of a woman who had a family to get back to. These were salient details that Klbkch remembered, because they endeared him to people.
There was a time, not long ago, that he could remember when no one spoke to him when he became a [Guardsman]. When every eye was hostile or cautious.
Ten years ago seemed like both an age and a short time. Ten years…he wondered how much longer he’d do this. Another decade? A century?
If it were that long, he wondered if he would ever learn how to smile like they did. Not with their lips, but genuinely.
It didn’t matter. The cause was all. He should have gone straight back home, down, to the one street in Liscor where the ground opened up and no one but his kind went. Down, home to the Hive.
But instead, for once, Klbkch walked to the eastern gates. He passed by the [Guards], who straightened guiltily and then looked relieved that he was off-duty. He waved at the ones on the walls and then began to walk.
Klbkch walked through the dark grassland outside of the city, up rolling hills, head swiveling for monsters, but with little fear. He moved fast, in a continual stride, for he did not have all the time in the world. Once he was done here, he needed to conduct his work below, in his Hive. Six hours…and then he might sleep for four and get back to work. Depending on how long he took right now, he might sleep for two hours. Or one.
He was headed to the inn where a young Human female currently resided. Klbkch wondered why he was wasting his time doing this. It was not part of his duties as a guardsman. Relc had refused to go, citing some complaint he’d had with Erin, an argument.
Yet Klbkch went. He told himself he was visiting her to improve his relationship with her. It was important to maintain good relationships with other species. But she was hardly important; Humans were not well-liked in Liscor, and she had no capital, social or economic. So why?
Maybe because she had never mentioned The Black Tide. She had never met an Antinium and when she smiled, there was no edge behind it. She was guileless, possibly naive. He was only going to check in on her and have a drink.
Klbkch knew something was wrong when he saw the smoke in the distance. It wasn’t visible from Liscor’s walls, but he saw it once he got within a few miles of the inn, a thin line of smoke coming out one window. Not from the chimney. And the door of the inn wasn’t closed either, but ajar.
Even in his ruined form, his eyes had been made to spot details at a distance, and Klbkch noted how the door hung in pieces.
Instantly, Klbkch drew the two swords at his waist. He had two more hands free, but he left them unarmed for now.
Swords at the ready, Klbkch charged up the slight incline towards the inn. He moved extremely quickly—his long legs combined with his levels in the [Guardsman] class that gave him [Enhanced Movement], which turned the several miles into a blur behind him.
The inn was leaking black smoke out of the back windows. Klbkch knew they were connected to the kitchen. The door smashed in, and as Klbkch approached, he saw a crowd of monsters clustering around the windows.
The instant they saw him running at them, they turned and fled, running for the base of the mountains. Klbkch debated cutting them down for a second—then he turned to the interior. If she was anywhere—
Klbkch stopped outside of the inn and flattened himself against one wall next to the entrance. He drew his two daggers with his lower set of hands and braced himself, listening. He did not underestimate or overestimate his chances.
As a [Guardsman], he was the fourth in order of levels in the entire city of Liscor. His other talents put him in the top three fighters in the entire Watch day by day. Once, it wouldn’t have been a competition. He was capable of handling most Goblin varieties, but if he was outnumbered, he would retreat.
His goal was to assess the whereabouts and well-being of Erin Solstice and, if possible, escape with her. If not, his job was to witness her fate and the forces currently occupying the inn.
For some reason, Erin Solstice mattered to Klbkch more than assessing the threat at the moment. He dismissed that thought instantly and questioned his judgment. His survival outweighed a single Human’s. He should fall back and summon a Watch patrol.
But. She could be inside, wounded or dying at the hands of the Goblins at this moment. Klbkch was well-aware of their tendency to rape and assault females of any humanoid race. He heard nothing.
His instincts told him to wait, that it was too late. Klbkch ignored them. His mind was telling him to act. He charged through the door, ready for anything.
The common room of the inn was a mess of broken tables and chairs. Klbkch swept the room. Empty. The door to the kitchen was broken in. He raced into the kitchen. And stopped.
Two figures lay on the ground. One was a Goblin. Not just any Goblin; a Chieftain. A Hobgoblin. A true danger and threat. The other was a Human girl. Both were lying still.
The air smelled of smoke and oil. Burnt flesh.
Klbkch assessed the situation. The Goblin Chieftain was a great threat. He could be killed if necessary, but—he was already dead. Dead. A threat capable of wiping out low-level parties of adventurers by himself had been killed by…a girl?
How? But that didn’t matter. He looked at Erin Solstice. Then he heard the rasping sound.
The young woman lay against a kitchen counter. She held a bandage to her stomach with her arm. Her hands were blistered and blackened. Tears had painted clear lines through the soot on her face. Red-black blood had dried around the bandage on her stomach. Her eyes barely fluttered as he knelt beside her.
She was barely breathing.
For once in his long life, Klbkch of the Free Antinium had no idea what to say.
“Ah. Miss Solstice?”
The pain had left after a while. Erin floated in a dark, warm sea by herself. She was falling asleep. Or maybe she was asleep and just dreaming.
Erin slowly sank into slumber as the light of the world faded away. It was a wonderful feeling as she gave up her burdens and closed her eyes. Sleep. It had been so long since she’d slept properly.
But there was something bothering her. Something…was making a sound? Yes, a sound. Erin squeezed her eyes shut, but now she was being shaken. She didn’t want to wake up. But maybe if she did, she could go back to sleep. She listened.
“Miss Solstice? Miss Solstice, you must drink.”
She was waking up. And with the waking came pain. Erin groaned, or tried to. Her throat was terribly dry. She hurt. She hurt so much that she couldn’t bear the pain. She didn’t know what to do. She wanted to go back to sleep, but the voice was insistent.
Something was at her lips. Cool glass and a wet feeling. Erin felt cool liquid pressing forwards and licked instinctively.
At once, something wonderful began happening. Just as her tongue tasted bitter foulness and she gagged, the pain went away. For a second.
Then it was back. Desperately, Erin opened her mouth and tasted the disgusting, wonderful drink again. It was bitter and had some terrible taste like a mix of the worst medications combined with what she thought bugs might taste like. Yet with each gulp, the pain lessened, and the burning agony in her stomach fled, piece by piece. The terrible numbness in her hands vanished, replaced by pain, tingling, and then a sense of incredible normality.
Erin opened her eyes and sat up. Energy flooded back into her body, and the darkness of death receded. She looked up and saw a giant insectoid face staring down at her.
Erin choked on the last mouthful of the healing potion. Klbkch held her steady as she gulped it down and swallowed. His mandibles clacked as he spoke, and a tiny ‘mouth,’ more like an opening between the mandibles, opened and closed, producing the staccato voice. Staccato, but intent, worried.
“Miss Solstice. Are you well?”
Erin stammered. She looked at Klbkch. He was holding the empty potion bottle in his hand. He had saved her. Brought her back from death. She wanted to thank him. She didn’t have the words, but she wanted to thank him for saving her. She opened her mouth and then saw the body lying on the floor.
The Goblin Chieftain. Her eyes fell on his ruined face, on his motionless body. Erin paused and ignored Klbkch’s repeated questions. For a while, she just stared at the body until Klbkch dragged it out of the kitchen. When he returned and she looked back into his face, she’d completely forgotten what she wanted to say.
“You are not from here, are you, Miss Solstice?”
That was the first thing Klbkch said to her after he’d made sure she was well.
Erin lay against the kitchen cupboards, her shirt lifted up as she inspected her stomach. It was perfectly healed, although the bandage was still there. She would have felt uneasy about undressing in front of Klbkch but—she wasn’t. It was probably because he was an insect.
She looked up in surprise. Klbkch was staring at her. She didn’t know what to say. He, however, did.
“I do not mean this country or even this continent. You are not from here, are you?”
Klbkch squatted next to her. His back-shell actually rested on the ground, making it an easy position for him. He was incapable of lying on his back, and she wondered how he slept. Erin shook her head slowly.
“No. I’m not.”
“I thought as much.”
Erin smiled bloodlessly. She felt so tired, but sleep was as impossible as anything else, so she talked. She gazed at the insect-man’s face, and he was the most reassuring, normal thing this day. She tried to shrug and gave up halfway.
“Was it obvious?”
“Say rather that it has become obvious. It is an unbelievable statement, but it is the only one I can come to.”
Erin hesitated and then nodded. Klbkch nodded in agreement.
“How’d you figure it out?”
He raised a hand and began to tick off points on his fingers.
“Many clues lead me to this conclusion. Your curiosity about levels and classes, your mysterious arrival, and this ‘Michigan,’ which is no nation recorded in any book or map. But most of all, it was this last moment. No Human would weep for a Goblin.”
Erin brushed at her face. Her tears were long dried but—
“Really? No one? What about Drakes?”
“No Human. No Drake or Gnoll, Selphid, Dullahan, Beastkin, or any creature from this world would.”
“What about your people?”
Klbkch didn’t blink. He couldn’t. But he did twitch. His antennae, above his head, moved erratically then settled down.
“The Antinium? We do not weep.”
“Oh. I see.”
Erin felt Klbkch’s hands moving at her side. He was peeling away the sticky bandage.
“Ow. What was—”
“Worry not. The healing potion worked. The bandage has stuck to your skin.”
“Oh—ow! Good to know.”
“You will be weak for at least a day afterwards. However, you will recover in full. You are lucky; there was no infection that the healing potion could have exacerbated.”
Erin yelped as a bit of skin came off with the rest of the bandage.
“Good. Thank you. So. What now? Did you—what did you do with the body?”
“I buried it outside. Far from the inn, in pieces, to prevent chance reanimation. Worry not.”
“…Thank you. Um. Thank you.”
Klbkch nodded. He quickly and deftly folded the dirty bandage and added it to the fire he’d lit. It smelled terribly, but that was just one burned odor among many in the kitchen at the moment.
Then the ant man went to check on the small pot he’d set over the stove. It was filled with boiling water, not oil. After a minute, he dipped another piece of cloth into the pot and brought it over to Erin. She accepted it wordlessly and used it to sponge off dried dirt, blood, and other stains from her skin.
“I had made the observation that you were not from this world, Miss Solstice.”
“Yeah. I changed the subject. Humans do that when they don’t want to talk about something.”
She scrubbed violently at her stomach. The towel was quite hot, but the heat was welcome. She felt cold. Klbkch bowed his head as he watched her.
“Then you have a commonality with many non-Antinium species. My apologies. I should not be asking such questions now. You are still in shock.”
Erin looked up.
“I’m not in shock.”
“You are still suffering from this encounter. Your mental state is unbalanced.”
“I’m not in shock. I’m really not. I’m just—tired.”
Klbkch bowed his head again.
“As you say.”
“I’m okay. Really. I just—I’m from somewhere else. Another world. This place is different. I just—I just don’t want to talk about it right now. It’s been a bad day.”
“Of course. Forgive my rudeness. But if I may, I would like to suggest a course of action.”
“I have disposed of the Goblin Chieftain’s body. However, there are many Goblins still hiding nearby. If you feel safe here, I will dispose of as many as I can. If not, I will escort you to the city and then return with reinforcements to—”
Erin cut Klbkch off. She sensed the Antinium’s surprise.
“No? If you feel unable to travel, I can—”
“No. No killing Goblins.”
He paused. She could sense him looking at her even though his multifaceted eyes had no pupils. Klbkch seemed baffled, and his mandibles opened and closed several times, like someone opening and closing their mouth.
“May I ask why not?”
“Many would argue otherwise, Miss Solstice. Goblins are considered monsters and bandits for the purposes of determining crime under Liscorian law. They are killers who prey on the weak. You have nearly died at the hands of one.”
“They’re vicious, evil little monsters. And they’d probably eat me if they could.”
“And they’re murderers.”
“This is true. Over a quarter of the deaths of travellers on the roads around Liscor are due to Goblin attacks. They are murderers.”
Erin mumbled. She stared at her hands. Her clean, whole hands.
“They’re murderers. And so am I. Don’t kill them.”
Silence followed her last remark. Erin stared at her hands. At last, Klbkch’s staccato voice sounded next to her ear.
“I do not understand your reasoning. But I will accede to your request. Know that I will defend myself with lethal force if attacked, however.”
“That’s fine. They’re gone, anyways. They ran off when they heard him screaming.”
“Very well then.”
Klbkch fell silent. Erin stared at the spot where the body had lain. She felt lightheaded. At some point, she felt she should have clung to Klbkch and started crying. Or was that too stereotypical? Was it a normal reaction? But instead, she just felt a bit—empty.
“One more thing.”
“Is there something you wish to ask of me, Miss Solstice?”
Erin nodded vaguely. She pointed at her chest. It was still bare. Oops. She pulled her shirt down. Good thing her bra was still on.
“After I killed the Goblin—I gained a new skill. Two, actually. [Bar Fighting] and [Unerring Throw].”
“They are worthy skills. Unusual for the [Innkeeper] class, but not unheard of.”
“Really? Why’d I get them? And aren’t skills like…set?”
“Another sign you do not belong to this world, Miss Solstice.”
Erin looked up with a frown. Klbkch waved one hand.
“I mean no offense. It is simply that all beings know how classes and skills work.”
“Well then, explain it to me.”
Klbkch was silent for a few seconds.
“To put it simply, classes are general ways of life that individuals take. In life, one might choose to become a [Butcher], or perhaps a [Musician]. It is simply a matter of fulfilling the requirements. Often, they are known, but there are exceptions. One cannot simply take [Ruler]-type classes for instance.”
“Right, you’ve got to be born into it.”
“That is indeed one of the ways to learn such a class. But in any case, classes increase one’s proficiency at their role with each new level. And with that increase in ability, Skills may be learnt. But there is no one set of Skills for a class.”
“Indeed not. Two individuals taking the [Soldier] class, for instance, may learn different Skills at the same level. It is a matter of need and inclination which allows individuals to learn skills. For instance, while Relc is a higher-level warrior than I, he is not of a higher level in the actual [Guardsman] class and thus does not possess the [Detect Guilt] skill.”
Klbkch looked at Erin. She shrugged.
“Do you understand?”
“Not really. Sort of. I guess? But why are there levels in the first place?”
“It is the way of the world. All races that think are given the ability to level and take classes.”
Erin sighed and slapped her face lightly.
“Or whom. Who did it? And why?”
“It is not known. But our oldest texts tell us of this truth.”
Klbkch recited in his inflectionless voice:
“All those that Think—Feel. From Feeling do we Act. It is in Action that we Level. All those who Think have a Class. And it is in that Class which we find destiny.”
Erin snorted. Then she realized he was being serious.
“Did someone teach you that?”
Klbkch nodded gravely.
“It is part of the lessons any child learns. The exact wording comes from a book: The Book of Levels, which was originally written nearly twenty thousand years ago. Copies of this text are among the few mainstream works that have been faithfully reproduced into this age. I have studied it extensively upon coming to this continent to understand the mentality of the peoples here, as well as levels and classes in general.”
“But why is that how things work?”
Erin was getting frustrated. Klbkch’s calm, matter-of-fact tone wasn’t helping matters either. This time, his pause took longer, and she thought he sounded vaguely exasperated.
“It is simply how we live our life. This is a universal truth throughout the world. Is yours not the same?”
Erin scowled at him.
“No, it’s not. We don’t have levels, and we don’t learn Skills like we’re in a video game. We don’t have classes except for ones in school, and we don’t need levels to learn things.”
“Learning skills is not merely a matter of levels. Classes and leveling are simply the basis of our lives so we may grow faster from what we do. It is a fact of life.”
He looked at her in surprise.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your leveling is stupid. Your skills are stupid. I hate your world’s classes, I hate your city, and I hate you.”
She shouted those last words at Klbkch and then buried her face in her hands. After a while, she felt him place a comforting hand on her shoulder. It was cold, smooth exoskeleton. But it was still comforting.
“…I didn’t mean that.”
“I took no offense, Miss Solstice. I realize you have gone through a traumatic event. The fault lies with me for not being more receptive to your distress. I should have provided more comfort and companionship. In that, my partner Relc is occasionally more effective than I.”
Erin mumbled that through her tears. She’d begun crying. Not bad crying or loud crying, but her eyes were suddenly filled with tears.
“I’m just having a bad—I mean, it’s been—I hate this world. But I didn’t mean that last bit about you. You’re okay. Everyone else can go to hell.”
“I see. It is a long way to Rhir. Here. Please accept this.”
Klbkch handed Erin another piece of cloth. She blew her nose and sniffed loudly.
“I’d like to be alone now.”
“I will remain here with your permission. It would be unwise to—”
She cut him off.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Respectfully, I must disagree. Though the Goblin Chieftain is dead, his tribe may seek vengeance.”
“May I ask how you know?”
“I just know. Please. I’d really like to be left alone.”
Again, he hesitated, but at last, Klbkch stood up. He walked over to the door of the kitchen. There he turned.
“One last question, Miss Solstice, if I may? What caused the Goblin Chieftain to attack you in the first place? It is rare that the tribal leader takes any aggressive action if unprovoked.”
Erin closed her eyes. She felt so tired. And the events of…was it this morning? They felt so long ago.
“Relc. He killed two Goblins and beheaded them.”
Klbkch paused. Out of the corner of her eye, Erin saw him close one of his four hands. Then he bowed deeply.
“Allow me to apologize on both our behalves. Words cannot express my shame.”
She nodded shortly.
The lie said, she waited for Klbkch to leave. When he didn’t leave after a few minutes, she looked directly at him.
“I’m going to sleep.”
“Well then. Take care, Miss Solstice.”
The Antinium didn’t close the door since the door was broken. But he did prop it against the hole in the wall with two chairs. That done, the ant man disappeared into the grasslands, quickly becoming a silhouette against the orange sky.
Erin put her head against the wall. Her eyes were burning, and her body felt slow and fuzzy after the healing potion. At last, he was gone. It wasn’t that she didn’t want his company. In fact, she wanted to hold him or maybe him to hold her. But she wanted to sleep now. To forget.
But she couldn’t sleep.
She wanted to sleep badly. Her mind was crying out for her to close her eyes. But when she did, she saw things. So she kept them open.
She smelled the burned oil and burning flesh still. Klbkch had opened a window, and an evening breeze was blowing through the kitchen. But she still smelled death. She still saw it in the Goblin Chieftain’s eyes. He was looking right at her—
Erin smacked her head against the wall behind her. It hurt. She did it again.
The image of the dead Goblin’s eyes disappeared for a second. But the instant she thought about them, they were back, staring into her soul.
Erin bumped her head again. The pain made the vision fade briefly. It also made her head swim. Still, if she had to choose between that and the Goblin’s—
Thump. Thump. Thump.
She wanted to sleep, but couldn’t. And the night was coming. With it came uncertainty, fear, but worst of all was that one thing she couldn’t escape.
Klbkch walked through Liscor’s eastern gates and nodded at the Drake on duty. He received no reply from the weary Drake, but made no comment. Politeness was important. Fostering strong ties and goodwill towards the Antinium within the city was important.
What was also important was turning in a bounty. Klbkch had a large cloth bag he’d fashioned out of what remained of Erin Solstice’s shopping bag, and it was weighing down his left side by quite a bit. But the bag was necessary, and besides, it kept the smell and sight from disturbing the other civilians he passed.
Yes, the bounty. He would fill it out tonight at the Adventurer’s Guild. But before that, he had another mission that took higher precedence.
Klbkch walked through the streets until he came to a bar he knew was frequented by many Drake customers. It was a loud, raucous joint filled with many reptilian bodies, but they made room for him. Not out of respect for his occupation—he was off-duty—but out of a desire not to touch him.
The lone Antinium walked through the crowd of Drakes until he heard his name being loudly called and the smash of a tankard being hurled his way.
“Oi, Klb! You won’t believe what that stupid Human did this time.”
Klbkch approached Relc from across the bar. The Drake waved him over to a seat and turned unsteadily. He was with a gaggle or, as the proper term was, cluster of Drakes. Some were male; the majority were female. Or not. Gender was still difficult for Klbkch to ascertain at the best of times.
“Good thing you’re here. Let me tell you, that Erin girl? Stupidest Human I’ve ever met. Do you know what she did this morning?”
Relc didn’t wait for a response, but launched into his story. By the looks on the others’ faces, this was not his first retelling. Klbkch ignored Relc and ignored the seat the Drake was trying to shove him into. He was clearly inebriated.
Klbkch placed one of his hands on Relc’s shoulders to steady him. Proper posture was critical. Relc grinned at him.
“Hey, what’s gotten into you, Klb? Decided to take me up on a night out for once? Pull up a seat.”
He turned his head as Klbkch put the other hand on Relc’s other shoulder, and the Drake gave him a quizzical glance. Then Klbkch hit Relc with his other two hands as hard as he could.
The Drake saw the punches coming, but he was too drunk to dodge properly, and Klbkch’s hands held him in place. He smacked into the floor hard as both punches caught him in the jaw and stomach at the same time.
For a moment, all was stunned silence. Then Klbkch heard a loud hiss that turned into a screeching bellow of rage.
Relc surged to his feet with a roar and caught Klbkch’s foot while coming up. The blow smashed him in the jaw again and this time stunned him for a few seconds. Klbkch nodded to himself. Proper posture was critical for a good strike. Relc was a fine warrior, but he was drunk, and this was a surprise attack.
Relc lay at Klbkch’s feet. He got back up, received two more punches again, and decided to lie down. Klbkch nodded to himself and walked away from his partner.
The atmosphere in the room had turned hostile. Klbkch glanced around but decided not to draw his daggers. The other male Drakes were glowering and clenching their clawed hands, but experience told him that they would not attack unless he made further provocations.
Klbkch estimated the public perception towards Antinium within the city had lowered a degree from his actions, regardless of the reasons. Antipathy within the City Guard might also be substantial, at least in the short term.
It was a costly consequence, but it struck Klbkch as fitting. He nodded to the silent bar of onlookers.
“Good night to you. Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience. I shall take my leave.”
Klbkch turned and walked out of the bar. He heard the hubbub start as soon as he’d left, mixed in with Relc’s indignant and distinctive voice. Oh yes. There would be consequences tomorrow.
For some reason, that didn’t bother Klbkch. Instead, he wondered what Humans were like. Were they anything like Drakes? He had only seen them on the other side of a battlefield or rare visitors to Liscor. They had not been like Erin.
But the night was deepening, and he still had a bounty to turn in. The proper forms needed to be filled out, and an eyewitness account delivered. Things had to be done properly or not at all.
Klbkch walked into the night. There was a bounty to fill out and research on Humans to be done. But most importantly, his Queen must know of a Human named Erin Solstice. She was important. She was…unique.
The body was gone. But Erin still saw his face. She still smelled burning flesh, still felt her hands burn. She still heard him breathing.
She didn’t sleep. And as the night fell into day, she stared up at the dark ceiling.
Listening to the breathing.