A single sound in the darkness. The sound was of two mandibles snapping together. Long pincers, like those of tiny ants, but scaled up for a body slightly shorter than most Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. The mandibles were a last-ditch weapon; they were meant to lacerate and tear, but they were really for breaking up bits of food. They still frightened every species not insectile in nature.
As did the bodies in the shadows, milling about, each one moving independently of the others but adhering to a grand plan. Hunched figures barely more than ominous shadows became more visible when they stepped past a glowing strip of green fungus placed on the wall for illumination.
A rounded shell on the back. Four arms. Four arms and two antennae, waving as the silent figures moved. They had somewhat rounded feet, but their creators had given them more support that they might walk upright.
In fact, they seldom fell, even in battle. If they fell, they landed on their beetle-like shell and would have to rock madly to swing themselves to their feet or be helped up. Not that they were supposed to fight.
These were but Workers. They scooped dirt out with their bare hands, loaded it into sacks they carried away, to move dirt and rock and roots, sometimes merely a dozen feet, then packed it into another wall in progress. They pounded the walls of the tunnel with their bare hands, and there were a hundred, all working in this long section of ground.
What was it? A tunnel. A vast tunnel that had been in progress for a month. This group was no more than two dozen strong, but they could hear another group moving just to their left.
The thinning wall fell inward, revealing more Workers, more Antinium in the darkness, completing their section of the tunnel. The first group barely paused a second before they began shoveling the dirt aside. They were so efficient, so…similar that despite both groups beginning independently, without line of sight, they had reached this point at practically the same time.
These were Antinium. The Free Antinium of Liscor’s Hive. They worked far below Liscor in the sprawling Hive. And this was their entire world.
Darkness. Dirt. If you found an edible root, pull it free and deposit it in a pile for sustenance. Rocks, another pile. Dirt went into the walls.
When it grew too dark to see, one of the Workers would continue the strip of glowing fungus, providing just enough light for the Workers to tell what they were doing. But it was so dark and so claustrophobic, another species would go mad in this place.
Boredom, anxiety, and the like were alien concepts to the Antinium. For the Workers below—there was no such thing as claustrophobia. There was no such thing as names or wants or even purpose. All these things were bad to ask of them.
Very bad. Aberrations appeared when you asked an Antinium questions. The citizens of Liscor had long known to ignore them and only give basic instructions. Workers just performed tasks like sweeping, building, and hauling things. Only one Antinium had a name, and that was Senior Guardsman Klbkch, and everyone knew him from the war.
These Workers had no names. They had no purpose, either. They only did what they knew must be done. Because the Queen, or Prognugator Klbkch, had ordered them to.
That order was everything. Their orders were to dig. If one even thought about the future, they would know, know that at some point they would be told to leave their post and go eat. Then they would eat, scooping the nutritional paste into their mouths. Then sleep in their assigned spots. Then wake.
And then? Then they would work. Or fight.
Fight in the darkness. All the Workers froze a second as a sound echoed through this place.
Click. A pair of mandibles snapped together. The Workers froze because the sound was an interruption, an unneeded waste of movement. The auditory disruption to their perfect cycle was the lesser cause, though. Or rather, not the only reason.
They listened for scraping, for rustling or chittering or growls not here, but ahead of them. Past a thin layer of dirt, at any moment, a hand might reveal a roaming eye. Or teeth. Or a glowing body and too many legs and blades to count.
Then they would fight, and many would die until Soldiers arrived. The Workers did not fear this. It was. But they did listen.
The scrape of their hands pulling loose dirt was the entire world. The feel of the sack in hand, the pale green glow amid black-brown bodies their only existence.
Few Workers ever saw the surface. They knew it existed. If an intruder entered the Hive, Soldiers would kill them. If an army came, they would fight to the death to keep them from the Queen.
Only Prognugator Klbkch went above regularly. He chose Workers to perform duties above. Soldiers were not allowed above. Above was a strange place for Workers, filled with non-Antinium people and rules you must obey about streets, but you followed orders.
One of the many Workers had gone above yesterday. He had been sweeping a street that was dirty. He swept from dawn till dusk, and then he went below.
It was an easy task, sweeping dirt. It was not the same as having a cascade of dirt shower down as he accidentally loosened the supports of the tunnel. He was buried in an instant and lay there for six minutes until the other Workers unburied him and he got up to work.
Antinium were built to withstand poison. They tired less easily than other species. They could survive being buried alive and fight on even as they bled from multiple wounds or losses of limbs. They were a species so unique even the rest of the world’s many species found them—strange.
Even so. The Worker who had gone above wished not to be buried again and took care to make sure he did not make the same mistake. He had no desires. He had no wishes.
But if he could have chosen, he would have gone above again. For there was something up on the surface.
Color. A breeze from the pale blue sky that changed to a fiery red he had never imagined in his existence. The Workers who went above did not speak to the others. Workers seldom spoke because there was no point.
And yet that sky…the smells from the place called Market Street and that entire moment stood out more to the Worker than his entire life below. He had even seen something strange.
The entire world above was strange. Drakes and Gnolls ignored you, and nothing made sense. Sometimes, one might curse or throw rocks at you, but that was rarer these years compared to the beginning.
Not that any Worker here had lived long enough to remember the beginning, ten years ago when the Free Hive had been founded here. Only Klbkch had been there. He and the Free Queen.
But there had been something that almost—almost made sense, above. The Worker kept remembering it.
It was a board of black and white pieces and tiles. Nothing made sense to a Worker. He did not understand why lips rose and curved, or what laughter was, or why water would come from a small Drake’s eyes. He did not understand why food looked different every time above, or why there was no tunnel overhead, bare feet above his antennae.
But he liked that board because it had rules. It made sense. He had watched as each piece moved according to its place.
That made sense to him. He actually understood it as the Human girl played with the Drakes and even Prognugator Klbkch.
Click. A third time a mandible clicked, and this time, as one, every single Worker turned and stared at the Antinium who had made the sound.
It was not the Worker who had gone above. It was, in fact, another Worker, ubiquitous to the rest, who froze slightly.
Click. Why did it make that sound? There was no need. There was no danger—and this Worker still made the noise. It stood out. It was…an Aberration?
Some of the Workers backed away, wondering if this were how they died. But this Worker did not shriek. It did not kill, as Aberrations always did when they appeared. It trembled slightly—then made the sound again.
Click, click, click.
There was almost a kind of…rhythm to it. As if the clicking were more than a warning or accidental rubbing of mandibles. Almost like what the Antinium had no name for. A thing heard on the surface.
—But that was not right. Antinium did not, should not make sound. One began to hurry off to find a Soldier or Klbkch. When either arrived, this Worker would die. Then silence and normality would resume. This is what would happen.
The clicking Worker continued to snap its mandibles together as the one who had gone above tried to make it quiet.
Click, click…click click click…he listened as the other Worker ran to find a Soldier.
Then the walls imploded, and a screaming, fleshy creature stuck its head out the side of the cave. It was thin, but so long it twisted into the tunnel, fourteen feet long, grabbing the running Worker and tearing its head off in a single twist as two long tendrils shot out. The clicking Worker and the one who had gone above recoiled in a moment of terror and then reaction and adrenaline.
Then it was death and battle. Green blood, running as Workers began to fight for their lives and more monsters poured out the tunnels. The two Workers, the one who made sounds and the one who went above, fought, punching with their bare hands, tearing at shrieking moths with mouths like razors fluttering everywhere—
Was this now death?
No. Seconds into the battle, Soldiers arrived. They crashed into the fighting, swinging their fists, bigger, stronger than the Workers. They died too—but the monsters fell as a wave of bodies rushed over them.
Four Workers out of sixty survived the carnage unscathed. Many of the survivors had lost limbs; some died before their wounds were staunched with a gel, and others were…no longer useful. They were left to die too. The rest stood there, blood and bodies leaking, Antinium and monster alike.
Then—more Workers arrived to pick up the dead for processing, Antinium and monsters both. More Workers pushed past the two covered in monster blood and their own green blood and began digging out the tunnel.
The two Workers who had survived looked around, then stood against a wall as a figure strode past Soldiers milling around the breach in the Hive. He was known to them.
Known to them all. The Worker who had been clicking trembled, and the other one stared as Klbkch walked forwards.
He wore no armor of a [Guard] down here. Only a loincloth—unnecessary since they were all the same body, chitinous armor, not flesh. But what marked him apart from the others were the two swords which hung at his sides, the belt of magical items.
The swords were bared and shone in the faint moss-light. Normally, they only came out to slay Aberrations. Or kill monsters.
“Another breach. The fifth this week. Casualties mount. My Queen—we cannot continue this rate of attrition.”
He spoke, not to the Workers—why would he, except to give orders?—but to the unseen presence in their heads. The being who governed this Hive and sent Workers to their tasks. She seldom spoke—but they knew her will.
The Queen. Oh, the Queen—and Klbkch was the only one who spoke to her. Her reply came more as thought than word. It was exhausted, like the last vestiges of energy that came after the mania of a day without sleep, without rest. She seldom slept but managed the Hive, kept the monsters at bay.
“Yes. The plan must be completed quickly, Klbkch.”
The Workers didn’t know what this meant, but the survivors stood there as Klbkch nodded.
“I shall expedite it at once. Five teams of Workers have already perished, but we are near completion. You four. And you…sixteen. Follow me.”
The four survivors from the original dig group and sixteen new Workers instantly stepped forwards and followed Klbkch. He gave them no orders; they simply followed him through the Hive.
Click. This time, only the Worker who had gone above and swept heard the sound. It was so infinitesimally small that only he heard it—and the Worker next to him who clicked his mandibles together.
Click, click, click—the sounds continued. Had he been doing this the entire time?
Stop. If Klbkch heard, he would kill the Worker. But the Worker continued as they wound their way up through the Hive, through secret tunnels no one knew about, that were not supposed to exist.
When they emerged—they saw the sky.
It hung above them, and the Workers all froze for half a second as they saw black night above. Like the cavern, but so wonderfully vast. And stars. Colors never known to the other Workers shone down, winking under a blue moon that hung waning in the sky.
“Follow. In silence. We must not be detected.”
Klbkch made the Workers spring to attention. They followed, keeping low, as he led them past Liscor’s walls. They should not be here. They knew that—Antinium were not allowed outside the city—but Klbkch was watching the walls cautiously.
He was not Senior Guardsman Klbkch here. So he led twenty Workers to a plot of land by a hill, far enough from the city that the Workers were able to feel the soft, foreign grass below their feet, stare at the sky, even flinch as something passed overhead, squeaking.
A…flappy thing? The Worker who clicked stared up at it and followed it with its head. Such strange things—but the Worker who swept was afraid.
He realized that if five teams of Workers had died, the sixth might be this very group. Yet he did not do anything.
He was Antinium. This was his purpose.
Klbkch came to a halt by a strange area along one vast hillside. Higher than most. He pointed, and the Workers saw an area of disturbed grass covered over to look from afar like regular hillside. It was, in fact, the opening to a tunnel.
“Within you will dig. There is a door. Reach it. If monsters attack, kill them. Dig—you have until morning.”
The Workers slowly filed into the tight opening and found a far vaster complex within. And…the bodies of other Workers. Most were torn to pieces, but they recognized parts of a head, shell—the Workers trembled, but they saw the outlines of a door.
It was open. It was so tall that they had to create dirt footholds just to climb up and dig it out, then haul more soil and dead bodies away. Not all the bodies were Workers. Klbkch stood outside, watching the moons move as the Workers hollowed the tunnel.
The door itself had been forced open by the sheer pressure of earth and stone. Weathered stone straining against the weight of hills in the deep gloom for centuries, perhaps even longer, until one gave and let in mundane dirt and grass and roots into a place quiet and untouched for aeons.
Waking what lay within. But the Antinium had been the first visitors to this place, and the desperate crew shoveled dirt. The gloom beyond the entrance seemed to be alive—as if inspecting their presence and inviting them to step further within. Or perhaps something inside was simply moving.
Choosing its moment to strike.
Every second, the Worker who swept waited for something to come through the door. Klbkch had drawn his blades; he was waiting too. He stood in the doorway, dividing darkness and moonlight with his blades—and it seemed like that was the only thing that gave the silent shadows pause as they lengthened. The Workers knew this truce might be broken at any minute, in the next second.
But nothing came. He heard…rustling from beyond, as if something listened to the Workers, but perhaps it was no longer hungry.
Hours passed as the Workers dug, frantically, and then Klbkch glanced inside the hollowed complex and spoke.
“The sun is rising in two hours. This will do.”
All the Workers froze. This would what? The door was now unearthed, and a large, hollow space existed in the hill, hidden by the grassy embankment above. Klbkch eyed the tunnel, then gave the strangest order yet.
“Collapse the opening. The door should be visible from above; no signs of any tunneling. Work fast. We have less than an hour.”
The Workers milled about, loosening dirt, pulling apart the supports they had dug. When the first showers began, the Worker who clicked looked up, and the tunnel began to fall—but the Worker who swept grabbed him and pulled him to safety.
In the darkness before dawn, the entire structure that six teams of Workers had dug out finally fell, and an entire hillside cascaded down as they ran to join Klbkch. Twenty Workers stared at the hillside, now visibly crumpled inwards from a distance.
Klbkch eyed the debris and ruins of their work. The Workers did not understand; they saw a bit of that foreign door poking out of the hillside, but it was blocked again by dirt. And now…
The door was closed. The Worker who swept felt a strange prickling sensation in his body.
When had that happened? But he said nothing, lest Klbkch think he was Aberration. And the Prognugator seemed pleased by this.
“Good. Very good. Go back and rest. This will do.”
So, like that, twenty Workers went back to the secret tunnels and to their Hive and ate before they headed to their holes and slept. The next day, they would have more orders and live or die.
It was all they knew. They had no notion of what they had done or even thought long about how close they had come to dying. Antinium blood was still flaking off the sweeping Worker’s chitin. And still…he saw that game of chess, playing in front of his eyes. Again and again, a beautiful thing not like this Hive. He slept and dreamed of that, a rarity, the first dream in his life aside from the dreams he had of the sky and floating up away from the Hive.
He only woke up when he heard a faint clicking from the Antinium in the cubby hole next to him. He clicked and clicked, like a little song, late into the night. And this time, no Antinium stopped him.