The Hive was always dark. Always secluded from the light of the surface above. Even in the grandest chamber, where the two spoke—it was so dim as to disconcert every species but theirs.
Neither one minded. They had lived underground for ages before ever bothering to reach the surface. In the subterranean passages and the criss-crossing tunnels of the Hive of the Antinium in Liscor, two beings spoke.
One of them was female. The other was male. Klbkch. The female shifted, and in the darkness, her deep voice rumbled through the air.
“Do I understand you correctly, Klbkch? Do you truly believe sending Workers above is wise? If they become Aberration all together, Liscor’s Council will not remain silent. Have you confidence in this venture?”
Her voice was deep, and she spoke with more than mundane words. She was tired, so tired that even as she reclined, supine, her voice wearied, she seemed ready to fall asleep. Yet there was a core of will that never left her.
Sometimes, he thought she was the stronger of the two of them, for all she did not leave this place and labored endlessly. But then—
He was older. Older and wearier by far. Klbkch shook his head. He patiently tried to explain the necessity to her, and he could not articulate it even to himself.
“No, my Queen. I merely request that a few of the Workers—perhaps ten or twenty—may be allowed to leave the city in my care. They would visit a local inn for several hours before returning.”
“Interesting. So you have faith this venture may be rewarded?”
The word rolled outwards, rich, darkly velvet with hidden connotation and meaning. The Queen paused, and Klbkch hesitated.
“I regret that this is not my initiative, my Queen. She—the innkeeper of which I spoke—she requested it of me. I am merely representing our Hive in a unique opportunity. Not necessarily one I have faith in for the success we hope for.”
“Ah. I see.”
Surprise flicked through the female’s deep voice as it echoed in the cavernous chamber. Surprise and regret. But then she latched onto something else that was fascinating.
“This Human did? What species would desire the presence of Workers if not to work?”
That was what made Klbkch so interested himself. He lifted an antenna, like one lifted a finger.
“She did not ask for the Workers specifically. Rather, she was inclined to sell foodstuffs to our people. Acid Flies. She wishes to earn money by gaining our business.”
“And this Human is genuine? She does not fear the Antinium?”
“To the best of my knowledge and ability, I believe her so. Nor does she fear us, my Queen. It is as if she has no past with nor knowledge of the Black Tide.”
Again, surprise was the primary emotion in the female’s voice.
“And you think her worth spending your time and the Hive’s effort upon, even risking an Aberration.”
Klbkch hesitated. He bowed his head in the direction of the female.
“Her name is Erin Solstice, my Queen. And I believe—yes, I believe the experience may help further our plan in some small way. At the very least, it would help increase her trust of our kind. A rare opportunity.”
“And why should I entertain her request?”
Now she sounded petty. Tired and petty, for she saw no value in this. And he could not fault her, but Klbkch spread his hands outward. They were humanoid hands, at least in that they resembled them more than an insect’s feelers. The same could not be said of the appendages of the Queen.
“My Queen, do we no longer seek to improve relations with other species? Is this not why Liscor’s Hive was founded at such great effort? Drakes are one species; Humans would be a rare boon, even if she was but one representative predisposed to look kindly on us.”
The female moved in the darkness. Her voice changed, hissing softly in regret and frustration. She clicked in her distress.
“The plan has not changed, Klbkch. But we have. And not in the ways that we desire. I am weary, and you—ten years. No; the change comes from the others. The Grand Queen speaks. The other Queens once again question our lack of success.”
Klbkch looked up. His hands moved unconsciously to the twin swords at his waist. Not that he would bear blades against them. It was a sign of his emotions, a rare display.
“…Are any of their objections backed by orders? Have Xrn or Wrymvr made any objections of their own known?”
She waved a languid feeler at him.
“Not as such. Calm yourself, my Prognugator. My authority is undiminished, such as it is. And yet. The Queens move, Klbkch. They are waiting for an opening, and they would sacrifice us if they saw a chance to strike.”
The male Antinium looked up sharply. The antennae on his head twitched.
“Is that the position of the Grand Queen? If I may offer my counsel, that would be…unwise. The Hives are not ready.”
She nodded in the blackness.
“Yes. But they grow impatient with time. The Grand Queen speaks more than she acts. However, she is correct. We cannot continue this endeavor for nothing to show for it. Ten years. They speak of recalling us, idly for now. But they do speak. That is why I will allow this risk. Take twelve Workers. Let them visit this Solstice child. It may harm, but we have been a decade of failure.”
Her head bowed. Klbkch knelt on one segmented knee.
“Thank you, my Queen. I will not betray your trust in me.”
A great sigh echoed through the room, shifting Klbkch’s antennae as the air moved.
“Of that, I have no doubt. But I need more than your loyalty. Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. I must have success. Can you promise me that?”
Her voice was so longing. Despair rang in every tone. Ten years, and ten years of failure for the Free Antinium and their Hive, despite their lofty boasts when they left. Klbkch felt it too. He was still as he knelt before her. Then Klbkch looked up and shook his head slowly.
“I cannot. But I will try.”
“Very well. Try, then.”
Klbkch nodded. He stood and began to stride out of the room with quick, light movements.
He turned. In the darkness, a large feeler pointed at him, and a titanic shape moved. A weary voice spoke.
“Something must be done in the next few years. Some—tangible success. Or I will accede to the will of the others and pursue another project in the Hivelands.”
For a second, Klbkch froze. If she said that, she who had opposed the other five to do this? She who believed in everything? He looked at the Queen and bowed his head.
She was giving up, and he could not blame her.
“I will ensure that all goes well, my Queen. Erin Solstice is not hostile to our kind. I believe she will be a positive influence for them.”
“Then go. But there is one more thing I ask of you.”
“Yes, my Queen?”
The weary head rose, and the exhausted Antinium latched onto something Klbkch had mentioned. A loud clack as she moved her mandibles.
“Ahem. These flies…how do they taste?”
“I shall bring you a sample, my Queen.”
Erin was making a list.
“Okay, do I have everything? Let’s go over it again. Larder? Stocked. Check! Silverware? Lots of it, even if it’s not silver. Check!”
She turned and bustled over to another table.
“Blue fruit juice? Check. Four full pitchers and a basket of blue fruits.”
She’d stripped several trees in preparation for tonight. At this point, she’d eaten nearly half of the fruit in the orchard. Sooner or later, she’d run out of blue fruit, which might be a problem. How long did it take for the trees to grow new fruit? Maybe Pisces would know.
“Acid Flies? Check. Dead? Double check.”
It was almost sad how easily she caught them in her floating jar traps. Almost. Erin made sure they’d all exploded before she rolled them onto the grass. She thought the flat fish in the water were helping—they kept bumping into the jars, trying to eat the flies. She supposed that they might one day break the thick glass.
“Great. Bathe upstream from the glass jars from now on.”
She should also probably put warning signs up. Whom they might be warning, Erin had no idea. A certain Human necromancer stayed well away from the glass jars, and she wasn’t sure if Goblins could read. Either way, her list continued.
“Pasta? Wait, I don’t need any pasta.”
Unless Relc dropped by. But from what the Drake told her, he didn’t like Antinium besides Klbkch, so that was an outside chance. Erin put a pot on the stove anyways. She could always eat it.
The lovely thing about being near a city was that you didn’t have to make your own pasta. Instead, you could just buy it from an odd Gnoll-lady who knew exactly when you were on your period. In other words, there were advantages and disadvantages to living near a city.
“Okay. That’s about it. I’ve got bread in case Pisces comes by, and I even have cheese. Lovely, smelly cheese. Possibly from cows. And I just bet Klbkch is lactose intolerant too.”
Her larder was fully stocked, her plates and cups were clean, and she’d even gotten out the chess board and set it up. She thought Klbkch might be up for a game or two—that was, if she wasn’t busy feeding flies to her customers.
For a moment, Erin had to put her head against a wall and wonder how she’d gotten to this point in her life. A girl from Michigan should not think it was normal to sell dead fly torsos to walking ant-people for silver coins. She was also probably ripping them off, but Klbkch seemed willing to pay whatever it took for the flies. He’d eaten six bowls before he’d walked out.
Now all Erin had to do was wait until Klbkch came by with his promised friends. He said they’d come by as soon as they finished with their work. Were they all guardsmen? Erin had forgotten to ask.
Someone knocked on the inn’s door. Erin turned and opened the door with a big smile.
The group of Goblins all took a nervous step back as Erin stared down at them. The eight—no, nine of them clustered together and shoved at their leader, a small Goblin wearing rags. Erin remembered.
“It’s—it’s you. Do you, um, want something?”
The ragged Goblin awkwardly thrust out a hand at Erin. She blinked down at the pile of dirty copper and silver coins in the small palm.
“Oh. Oh! You want to eat, right?”
The Goblin nodded stiffly. Erin opened the door and gestured inside.
“Right then, come in.”
The ragged Goblin hesitated. It thrust the coins at her once more.
Erin recognized the raggedy Goblin as the one she’d met first, and the others were new—maybe two were of the original four she’d found?
But this Goblin, the small one, Erin knew. So she smiled.
“Hey, Rags. How’s it going?”
That was her nickname for the Goblin who had the most tattered clothing. Her companions fidgeted behind Rags and glanced around. They seemed nervous, as if not certain this was wise, but Erin went on, voice calm.
“Do you want something in particular?”
The Goblin stared at Erin’s menu and then shook her head urgently. She thrust the coins forwards, and Erin let her pour them into her palms. Once again, another day of silence, so Erin filled it.
“How about I take the money, and I’ll feed you until it runs out, okay?”
Again, Erin received a blank look, but Rags seemed relieved when she took the money. Erin gingerly put the filthy pile of coins on the inn’s bar counter and wished she had hot water to go with the soap.
“Okay. Right. This isn’t the best time, but why don’t you have a seat over here with your friends?”
The Goblins meekly wandered over to the table Erin was pointing at and sat down. She hesitated. What next?
All nine heads shot up, and the Goblins stared at Erin. The ones she’d fed before were already drooling onto the table. It was the little Goblin, the Rags one, who watched Erin sharply as she hurried around.
“Give me five—ten minutes, and I’ll have all you can eat. I just need to put on another pot. And make some soup. But I’ve got bread!”
Erin turned. Okay, she’d stuff their faces quickly. She dashed into the kitchen and reemerged with a loaf of fresh bread she’d bought and some cheese and sausage. The Goblins stared hungrily as Erin began dumping plates in front of them. They flinched back from her, though, and when she handed them a fork, they ducked down as if they thought she were going to stab them with it.
“You can eat this while I get more food, okay?”
The Goblins stared at the food. Rags cautiously reached for the bread, and Erin grabbed her hand. All the Goblins flinched as one, and Rags recoiled, eyes wide, but Erin was staring at the filthy claws.
“Oh, er. Sorry about that. I’ll slice it up for you. I have water and soap. Here—”
Confused, the Goblins watched Erin dart into the kitchen again. They eyed the wonderful-smelling bread, meat, and strange yellow thing, and wondered if they could eat it. Then they looked up and screamed as Erin walked back into the room with a kitchen knife and a bucket.
“Oh no, don’t run! I’m not going to hurt you!”
Erin waved her hands frantically and nearly poked herself with the knife. The Goblins halted in their mad rush out the door. Erin put the bucket on another table and took a bar of soap and the dustrag out of her pocket.
“I’m just going to cut this food for you. See? And this is to wash your hands. Wash your hands. Because they’re gross.”
She slowly and carefully went over to the food and sliced it up into smaller pieces. Erin smiled at the Goblins as they suspiciously moved back to the table. Rags was eying Erin with deep, deep distrust for the knife. But she was also eying the water and soap with clear confusion. Erin stepped back.
“And now I’ll put the knife away. No more pointy thing. You don’t have to worry; you’ll be safe here. Okay? But wash your hands. It’s unhygienic.”
She gave them another reassuring smile. That was the precise moment when Klbkch entered the inn, followed closely by a group of Antinium. Erin’s smile froze on her lips.
Klbkch froze too, and the other tall, identical brown and black insects behind him instantly halted in their tracks. The Goblins were petrified in their seats, but half immediately began edging towards the nearest window.
Erin waved frantically at Klbkch. Then she turned towards the Goblins and gave them another reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry! Don’t worry. These people aren’t here to hurt you. They’re guests. They’re going to eat too, understand?”
They hesitated, but Rags seemed to be made of sterner stuff than her larger comrades. She returned to her seat. And it was a she, Erin was sure of it. The other Goblins—all but one of whom were boys—didn’t wear anything on their upper torso. They barely wore anything to cover their privates.
She shepherded them back to their seats and tried not to look at Goblin nether regions as their loincloths shifted in unfortunate ways. There was a reason pants were invented.
“Go ahead and eat as much as you want.”
Again, the Goblins glanced nervously at the Antinium, but now that the initial scare was over, the fresh food called to them. There was a moment’s hesitation, then Rags grabbed a piece of sausage, and the Goblins began gobbling all the food on the table with their hands.
She winced at the mess, but at least they were occupied. Erin edged back to Klbkch, who was still waiting with his group of Antinium.
“Hi, Klbkch. Sorry about the confusion. I had a few visitors pop by unexpectedly.”
“There is no problem, Miss Solstice. I have brought others of my kind as you requested.”
Klbkch nodded to Erin and gestured to the silent Antinium behind him. Erin eyed her new guests somewhat apprehensively.
They were like Klbkch and not like him at the same time. They were like each other though. Erin couldn’t tell one from the other, and all twelve of these other Antinium stood and moved like one unit.
What made her stare was that they were identical to Klbkch. They had the same brown carapace and waving antennae. Four arms, beetle shell—but you could say that of Humans.
What was meant by identical was exactly the same. Unlike a Human, who had a world of variation in hair and lips, even of the same color, the Antinium were carbon copies of one another.
Only Klbkch stood out because of his swords at his waist and armor and belt. The other Workers silently lined up, standing in two neat rows. And they also seemed disinclined to talk. Each one of the Antinium stared at Klbkch rather than look at Erin.
“Are they—are they your friends? Or other guardsmen?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“I am afraid you are under a misapprehension. These are Workers, Miss Solstice. They are not fellow guardsmen—rather, they perform tasks within the Antinium section of the city. I took them because you wished for more customers, but I have not interacted with them before.”
“Oh. So they’re not your friends?”
Klbkch opened and closed his mandibles a few times. He turned around and stared at the Workers before turning to Erin. He clacked his mandibles a few times, and then, to her astonishment, made a laughing sound.
“Ha. Hahahaha. That is a good joke, Miss Erin. No, these are Workers. They will behave themselves under my supervision.”
She was so surprised that she made no response, which Klbkch took as encouragement. He turned towards the standing group of Worker Antinium and pointed to a few of the tables.
“You have entered an inn. The polite protocol is to introduce oneself and then take a seat. I will handle your greetings. Move to those tables.”
They obediently walked over to each table. At first, they all crowded around one, but Klbkch impatiently directed them so the Antinium stood four to a table.
Klbkch snapped at the other Antinium. They instantly sat in the chairs. Erin’s smile slipped even further as Klbkch began ordering them about with curt, clipped commands.
He treated the other Antinium like—well, like sheep. Or…like children. Idiotic children you couldn’t trust to pick up a fork without stabbing themselves in the eye. Yes, that was it.
Erin watched Klbkch out of the corner of her eyes as he lectured the other ‘Workers.’ He was telling them how to use a spoon. And how to drink from a cup. And how to request another bowl of flies.
Flies. They stared at the black insects, and even the Goblins looked confused, if not horrified by the loaded bowls. Black insects, dead and staring and icky, but Erin brought them out.
“Um, thanks, Klbkch. Did you want me to get the food now? I’ve got the Acid Flies of course, but I also have pasta—”
Erin’s eyes widened.
“Oh no! The pasta!”
The Goblins and Antinium watched as Erin dashed into the kitchen to salvage the over-boiled noodles. She came out a few minutes later holding plates of pasta with chopped bits of sausage and onion, which she placed in front of the Goblins.
“Use forks. Got it? Your friend here knows how to use forks.”
Erin pointed at the silverware and then started bringing out bowl after bowl of the Acid Flies she’d prepared. She set them down in front of the Antinium Workers awkwardly. They moved out of her way, but didn’t say anything.
That was, until Klbkch snapped at them, and then all twelve murmured ‘thank you’ every time Erin brought out a plate and cups.
They could speak! Their voices sounded like Klbkch’s—but flat. Lacking intonation or emotion. And that was the only thing they ever said. They moved when spoken to and did whatever Klbkch said—beyond that, they just waited, as if they were robots expecting input. Yet they were people, right?
So was this an awkward moment? Yes. Erin was redefining the word for herself at the moment.
However, she placed all the bowls in front of the twelve Workers, and the Antinium finally began to eat on Klbkch’s command. At least there they appeared to be somewhat enthusiastic, because they began gobbling the Acid Flies down with commendable speed, shoveling them past their mandibles with a spoon and crunching the insects up. But for that, they ate in silence, which was also unnerving. At least they were eating.
Erin breathed a sigh of relief. And the door to the inn swung open.
A familiar Drake poked his head into the room. He immediately launched into what sounded like a prepared speech as he awkwardly held a chess set in front of him.
“Good evening, Miss Erin Solstice! I hope you don’t mind me dropping by, but I was wondering if you’d like to play a game of ch—”
Olesm paused and stared around the silent room. His jaw dropped as he saw the Goblins. When he saw Klbkch and the other Antinium, it dropped further. He slowly put one clawed hand on the door.
“…Is this a bad time?”
Erin had gone to funerals. Well, she’d attended a funeral. And while they were solemn, sad occasions, she could rightly say that she’d visited funerals that were noisier than her inn at the moment.
At least funerals had coughing people, the occasional sniffling, fidgeting children, and crying babies. In the Wandering Inn, all Erin could hear was the mastication of Goblins as they gobbled their food or the quiet cracking as the Antinium chewed down their Acid Flies and clicked their mandibles together.
Chomp. Chomp. Click. Chomp.
Erin stared from the Antinium to the Goblins with a desperately cheerful smile plastered on her face. Neither side looked at the other directly, but she had the distinct impression they were silently sizing each other up. The Goblins to run away, the Antinium…well, they were just looking.
The atmosphere was so tense you could—well, Erin was pretty sure pulling a knife out would be a disaster. The Goblins were nervously eying the Antinium, and the Antinium were frighteningly silent and uniform. They ate and moved in almost perfect synchronization.
Erin circulated the room, pitcher of fruit juice in hand. She filled cups, took away plates and refilled them with food, and instructed Goblins not to pick their noses. It felt like being a waitress for an entire restaurant by herself, but Erin was up to the challenge. At least, she hoped she was.
She wasn’t taking orders or cleaning up plates yet. All she was really doing was making sure there was food in front of her guests. The Goblins were easy. They ate anything she put in front of them. They were also terrified of Klbkch, the Antinium, Olesm, and Erin.
Only the one with ragged clothing, the tiny one, seemed brave enough to inspect the soap after Erin made them wash their hands. She kept peering around, surreptitiously, then springing to attention and pretending to be eating. Then Erin would catch her peeking at the menu and moving her lips, as if trying to read it.
But the Workers? They were hard. Erin had to make sure none of them had empty bowls or cups or they’d just stop eating. They didn’t even ask for refills by themselves.
In a lull between serving, Erin stopped in front of Klbkch and Olesm’s table. The two were talking quietly together, which made them exceptionally noisy in the dead silence.
“How’re you two boys doing?”
Both Olesm and Klbkch looked at each other to make sure they were the ones Erin was talking to. Olesm gave her a weak smile.
“I’m quite well, Miss Solstice. Or—may I call you Erin?”
“Please. I’m getting sick of being called Miss Solstice. I feel like my mom.”
“My deepest apologies. I was not aware this was an insult to your culture.”
Klbkch bowed his head, which made Erin feel guilty. She just meant her mom…
Her mom. Erin’s heart and mind twinged, and she changed the subject fast.
“Are you two enjoying your meal? Anything I can get you?”
“Another glass of the blue juice perhaps?”
Olesm raised his glass, and Erin topped it off. He smiled at her.
“It is quite tasty.”
They both paused awkwardly. They were just as bad as the Goblins and Workers! Olesm glanced around the inn and fidgeted.
“Do you—do you always serve Goblins in your inn? I saw the sign, but I must admit, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Goblin not trying to stab someone or running away. They’re monsters, you know.”
He tried to whisper it, but in the silent inn, his voice carried. As one, the Goblins stopped eating and stared over at Olesm. He flinched. Yet he gave Erin a look as if she had just invited hyenas into her inn. She gave him a level stare and decided to start with the basics.
“Um, no. They’re new here too.”
“Oh, I see.”
More silence. Erin glanced down at the table. The Drake Tactician had brought along his chess board, and although he’d set it aside for the food, she saw him glancing at it now and then. To break the ice, and because she thought she might die of awkwardness, Erin did the only thing that came to mind. The most obvious thing—at least, to her.
“How about a game of chess? Anyone want to play?”
Klbkch and Olesm looked up.
“Oh, I would love to play—”
Olesm caught himself. He glanced around guiltily at the other diners.
“But I wouldn’t want to take you away from your work. Perhaps another time.”
He looked so downcast that Erin wanted to pat him on the head. She thought for a second and then smiled.
“Oh, don’t worry. We can still make it work. I’ll play you and serve food.”
Both Klbkch and Olesm eyed her incredulously. Erin grinned.
“I don’t suppose either of you are familiar with chess notation?”
Two minutes later, the most interesting thing was happening. Workers and Goblins watched as Erin stood with her back to the chess board. It was all set up.
Both the littlest Goblin and the Worker who swept were here. It was pure coincidence that Klbkch had ordered the same group of Workers who had dug out the door to come to the inn—or perhaps he had simply found it easiest to take them out since they had no assignments yet.
As for the littlest Goblin, she’d brought a bunch of other Goblins to show them that the one who had killed the Chieftain was not…not…
She had brought them here to see. Many hated the Human. But she fed them. She was…more than the death of the Chieftain and two Goblins, and because the littlest Goblin said it, some listened.
Not all. Even the littlest Goblin didn’t know if the Human was good—she hung out with the Ant monsters! The most terrifying deaths who came from below if you went to the wrong places. And she kept calling the littlest Goblin a stupid name.
‘Rags.’ What did that mean? Yet the littlest Goblin watched avidly because she was as curious as the listening Workers. The Workers did not understand this inn. The rules were unknown to them and Klbkch kept correcting them. They were terrified of doing something wrong and becoming Aberrations, but now they heard something fascinating. Something…with clear rules that made sense.
Intriguing. The [Innkeeper] was speaking to Olesm, who was fiddling with the chess board, and she was giving instructions to him and Klbkch, but also the inn at large.
“Okay, so you’ve moved your pawn up two spots. That’s E4, so just tell me you’re moving a pawn to E4, got it? And when I want to move, I’ll let you know by saying, oh, pawn to D5.”
Olesm nodded and glanced down at the chess board. He carefully moved the black pawn up two spots and looked up at Erin. She nodded.
“I believe so, Erin.”
“Right. Let’s play!”
Erin spun away from Olesm and grabbed a cup and filled it. Across the room, Klbkch and Olesm bent over the chess board and conferred. Olesm moved a piece.
“Pawn, ah, Pawn to F3, Erin.”
“Got it! Knight to C6!”
Erin concentrated on the game as she walked around the inn. She wasn’t conscious of how the Goblins slowed in their eating and the Antinium Workers paused from their meal to follow her around the room. Erin’s thoughts focused, and as she mechanically took plates and filled them with food, her mind focused on only one thing.
The game. Some called golf the greatest game ever played. They might be right. But Erin loved chess.
She could even play it in her head.
“Bishop to D6.”
“Hm. In that case, I’ll move…um, I believe that’s Pawn to D4.”
“Queen to H4! Check!”
Erin said it instantly and grinned to herself. She heard Olesm groan in dismay.
“Ah. Then—then Pawn to G3?”
Again, Erin replied almost before he’d finished speaking.
“Bishop takes Pawn at G3!”
“Pawn takes Bishop at G3.”
“And I’ll take your Rook at H1.”
Erin grinned to herself as Olesm hissed in distress. In her mind’s eye, she saw her queen piece sitting in the corner of Olesm’s side of the board, nestling right up against all of his lovely, undefended pieces.
The game continued, but only as mop-up. Erin happily munched away at Olesm’s pieces with her queen. He eventually managed to take hers out with his own, but only after he’d lost another knight and a bishop. By then, Erin had more pieces than he did on the board and in better positions, too.
Olesm tipped over his king and stared despondently at the board. Erin paused serving sliced up sausage to the Goblins long enough to see Klbkch pat Olesm on the shoulder consolingly.
“It was a good game.”
The Drake shook his head.
“You do me too much credit. I made several errors that cost me many pieces. But I believe you had me from the start. Without looking at the board once! Would you do the kindness of showing me where I made mistakes?”
He seemed shaken, but Erin was delighted to play the game. Much less in her head! She felt like a kid again, and she used to do this all the time in the school bus or when she was bored. These days, you could do everything on a phone, but…she beamed happily, as only someone who loved the game could.
Erin walked over to the table. She rearranged the board until it was back to normal and then moved Olesm’s pawn up two spaces.
“You started out with a classic: the King’s Pawn Opening. That was a good move.”
Olesm looked blankly down at the board.
“I just moved my pawn to E4. Was that truly a noteworthy move to have a strategy named after it?”
Erin nodded happily.
“Oh, it’s a classic. Did you know almost a quarter of all chess games start with it? It’s great for taking the center spaces, but unfortunately for you, I love playing against that move.”
Klbkch raised one hand.
“Do you mean to say that there are established counters to this opening? And that this move is a chronicled…strategy? I had not heard of that.”
Neither had Olesm, but Erin was too enthusiastic to notice Klbkch’s cautionary tone or Olesm’s confounded one. She nodded and pushed a black pawn forwards.
“Oh, there are lots of good strategies. I countered with an old favorite—the Sicilian Defense. It’s great against the King’s Pawn, but you made a mistake when you moved that pawn up to F3. It doesn’t open up your side for many pieces to get out, and you really want a knight to put pressure on my side of the board. Of course, you could try to take my pawn, but that leaves your center open. Most players try to push forwards aggressively, but that’s why the Sicilian Defense works so well since it means you have to lose a pawn if you want to push into the other side.”
Erin paused and looked around the inn. Olesm was wearing a half-glazed, half-delighted expression on his face. The Goblins and all the Antinium, including Klbkch, were staring at her, open-mouthed.
“Uh, sorry. I tend to lecture when I get too into chess.”
“No—don’t worry in the slightest, Miss Erin.”
Olesm shook his head and smiled at her. His eyes were alive with interest, and she noticed his tail wagging like a dog’s on the ground.
“You have such a deep understanding of this game! How is it that you know so much about chess? I only heard about it when someone told me the Titan was playing it a few years ago, yet you say there are strategies already in place?”
Erin crossed her fingers as Olesm shook his head. Klbkch clacked his mandibles.
“…I believe there are players of this game on every continent, Olesm. We appear to be in the presence of a master.”
“Indeed, indeed! I suppose it’s arrogance to think that I knew everything. Why, they might be doing this in a Walled City like Pallass…and you’re kind enough to keep me from looking like some back-country rube. Thank you, Miss Solstice.”
Erin nodded at Klbkch in relief, and he twitched a mandible at her. She really hoped she wouldn’t have to explain being from another world. Erin glanced at Klbkch and wondered if she should play him next. Then she looked at Olesm and Klbkch together and had an idea.
She grinned wickedly.
“Yeah, I love playing chess. In fact, I’ll play both of you at the same time, if you want. We have two boards, after all.”
Olesm and Klbkch shared a glance. Both frowned slightly. Well, Olesm frowned and Erin had the distinct impression that Klbkch was frowning.
“Aren’t you taking us a bit too lightly, Erin?”
She blinked innocently at Olesm.
“Me? Of course not. But I bet I can play both of you while serving drinks and food and win against at least one. Want to test my theory?”
They did. Erin grinned to herself as both Olesm and Klbkch set up their pieces on opposite sides of the room. Each player stared intently at their board. She could practically feel the intensity coming off of each. It reminded her of the adults she used to play as a kid. No one liked being trash-talked by a middle schooler. It was hard for her to keep a straight face.
Klbkch moved first. Erin stared at his board and then decided to move a piece on Olesm’s board while she thought. She circulated the room, filling up the glasses with what little fruit juice she had left. When Olesm made his move, Erin decided to hit Klbkch with a knight. And then she went back into the kitchen for more pasta. Those Goblins could eat.
The games continued as Erin filled up bowls with the dead flies and handed them out to the Workers. They happily chomped down the flies, but she had the distinct impression they were watching as she travelled back and forth between Klbkch and Olesm’s boards.
Occasionally, Erin would wait while one of the other two players moved a piece, but when she did move from board to board, she attacked fast, seemingly without pausing to think. She could see Klbkch and Olesm watching her as much as the board, but she effortlessly continued playing both players while serving her guests.
Her audience watched the dual games intently. Erin kept an eye on them as well and saw both Rags and the Antinium Workers staring hard at Klbkch and Olesm’s pieces. The Goblin’s eyes narrowed, and the Antinium appeared confused. Erin smiled to herself, but kept sweeping around the room, refilling cups and swiftly moving pieces on each board.
Eventually, the game ended with a win for Klbkch and a loss for Olesm.
“Congratulations, Klbkch. And to you, Erin.”
“Indeed. I am quite impressed by your ability.”
Erin smiled at both players and tried not to laugh.
“Yeah, it was a good game. Too bad I wasn’t playing either of you.”
She pointed down to the chess board in front of Olesm. His King was cornered by a queen and a bishop.
“Notice anything similar about Klbkch’s board, Olesm?”
He looked over. On Klbkch’s side, he’d cornered Erin’s king with a bishop and a queen. In the exact same spots as the pieces on Olesm’s board.
“What is this?”
“I played you two against each other. It’s the oldest trick in the book—I once heard of a guy who tried it against two Grandmasters and failed. I always wanted to do it just once.”
Erin smiled as Klbkch and Olesm exclaimed and then raised her hands as they immediately demanded another match. She was setting up the boards for a real dual game when something happened.
One of the Workers stood up.
Instantly, Klbkch stopped setting up his pieces and let one of his hands fall down to his side. Erin saw he was holding his sword hilt as he stood up.
“What are you doing, Worker?”
Klbkch’s voice was cold and hostile. The Worker froze in pure terror, or so it seemed—then meekly bowed to him. And then? He opened his mandibles and spoke.
“This one would watch, Prognugator.”
His statement confounded Erin, who hadn’t thought the Workers had any desires, and Klbkch himself. The [Guardsman] replied slowly.
Klbkch glanced down at the board and then back to the Worker. He seemed uncertain.
“It is impolite to intrude or impede the innkeeper’s path.”
Erin hastily interposed herself between Klbkch and the meek Worker who was already retreating back to his seat. She beckoned him over.
“It doesn’t bother me, Klbkch. Let him watch. An audience for a chess game is great.”
“I would not wish to impose on your hospitality or patience—”
“Impose away, by all means!”
Erin rode over his protests and pulled up another chair. She steered the Worker over to the chair without touching him and made him sit down. Then she noticed the other Workers and Goblins were staring at the chess boards too.
“Come on over if you want to watch, all of you.”
Instantly, there was a crowd surrounding both chess boards. Olesm and Klbkch blinked at the spectators, but Erin smiled happily.
“Okay, now let’s do this so it’ll be fun for me and you. I’ll play you both, but we only get five—okay, ten seconds for each move.”
“Is this another way of playing chess?”
“It’s how some games are played, yeah. This style is called Lightning Chess, but in tournaments, you can have anywhere from an hour’s time in total to think of all your moves to only three minutes. If we had a clock we could—never mind, I’ll explain it as we play, okay?”
Klbkch and Olesm nodded. Erin took a chair and placed it between both tables so she could reach both chess boards.
“I’ll have to sit down for this. I’m no Grandmaster.”
The first two rounds of games, Erin won handily. But in the third game, Olesm scored a draw. Klbkch nodded as he saw the blue Drake raise his claws and open his mouth with joy.
Erin covered a yawn and massaged at her back. She gave the elated Drake a weary smile.
“Yeah, that was a great game!”
“Why, thank you.”
Olesm’s scales turned a light shade of red as he shook Klbkch’s hand. His tail thrashed around wildly on the floor, but Klbkch and Erin pretended not to notice.
“I must say, it’s quite amazing—I feel relieved to have finally tied a match against you, Erin. I was beginning to think it was impossible.”
She blushed and waved a hand at him. It felt extremely embarrassing to be treated like some kind of chess genius, especially since she knew she wasn’t. Erin was about to suggest a rematch with different rules when she looked over at the watching Worker Antinium.
“Do you want to play?”
The Antinium she was addressing sat up in his seat and bowed to her. Quickly, Klbkch sat up, but the Worker spoke before he did.
“This Worker would not presume to…play.”
Erin frowned. Did that mean he wanted to play but he was afraid to?
“Why not give it a shot? I’ll teach you how to play, and we can always make more chess boards. All we need is a few pieces of paper and a pen.”
She went into the kitchen and pulled out a few pieces of paper and a quill and ink. It had made her feel like a wizard when she’d first bought the quill, and then she’d wished for a computer and a printer five seconds after she’d had to actually dip the quill every few words when she wrote.
As her guests watched, Erin drew a rough chess board on a piece of parchment and then tore up other pieces. She carefully drew symbols on them to show which were pawns and which were other pieces and put the makeshift chess board on the table. She put two of the Antinium Workers in chairs facing each other across the board.
It was the most low-key chess board Erin had ever seen, but the Antinium stared at the scraps of paper with total concentration.
“Okay, so how much did you guys see when I played chess with Klbkch and Olesm? Do you know how to set up the board?”
Instantly, both Antinium moved. Erin recoiled for a second, but they merely rearranged the pieces on the chess board with mechanical precision. In seconds, each side was set up. Erin blinked at them.
“Good. Good. And, uh, show me how this piece moves?”
Obediently, the Antinium Worker moved the piece forwards.
“And can you move it from left to right?”
“This one does not believe so.”
Klbkch hovered over the board. As always, he had few features Erin could read, but he appeared distressed for some reason.
“Address her by her title.”
The Antinium instantly bowed his head at Erin.
“Apologies, Innkeeper Solstice. This one does not believe the pawn piece moves left and right.”
Erin gave Klbkch a half annoyed glance, but turned back to the Worker.
“Right, that’s true! Very good. And show me how it takes a piece?”
He showed her.
“Good. But did you know there’s one more move the pawn can do?”
Instantly, the other Antinium and the Goblins watching the game were filled with attention. They stared as Erin showed them how to take a piece en passant and explained the unique rules around that action. The Antinium she was coaching immediately bowed its head to her.
“This one was unaware of this fact. This one apologizes to Innkeeper Solstice for its failure.”
“What? Don’t apologize. Not many players know about that move. How could you? Now, let’s have you play a game with your friend.”
Erin stepped back as the two Antinium Workers stared at each other in silence. For a moment, she was afraid they’d do nothing, but then the first Worker moved his pawn up to E5. After a moment, the other Workers replied with the Sicilian Defense, and then the game was on.
Piece after piece moved with minimal pausing in between. At first, Erin was afraid they were recreating her games with Klbkch and Olesm, but the two players were playing their own game. It took her a while to realize they were still playing by Lightning rules. Once she’d explained they could take their time, the game slowed.
Erin stared at the two Workers playing each other in complete silence and then looked around at her audience.
“Anyone else want to play?”
Silence. It was the sound of funerals and churches, except that it wasn’t. Rather, it was the sound you thought should be in such places, but really was more like an ideal goal than the truth.
It was the sound of chess tournaments, though. Erin circulated the inn, filling plates with dead flies and pouring water (she’d run out of blue juice), and felt like she was home as she listened to the click of chess pieces moving, or, more often, the shuffling of dry paper.
“Oh. How’s the game going? Anyone want more flies? How about pasta? A cup of jui—water?”
Erin passed by each board and watched as Antinium and even Goblins played each other. There were eight boards set up, and the players rotated with each other once someone lost.
Her natural instincts as a chess player warred with her desire to give the new players advice. She compromised by letting Olesm and Klbkch offer commentary and then dissected games after they’d been played out by recreating them and pointing out good or bad moves.
The Antinium Workers watched Erin’s every move and listened to her words with frightening attention. She’d heard the word ‘rapt’ used to describe people, but never had she met a group so completely focused as the Workers. It was frankly unnerving, but her love of explaining chess moves and strategies more than made up for the awkwardness.
That was one thing. But what really amazed Erin and even Olesm and Klbkch were the Goblins. They were playing chess.
Okay, not well and not quickly, but the Goblins were sitting down and giving each other spirited, if not particularly well thought out games. The exception was the smallest Goblin, Rags, who had actually beaten two of the Antinium Workers back-to-back.
Erin stopped in front of one of the real chess boards as Rags slid into the seat opposite. It was technically Klbkch’s turn to play, but the Goblin stared at her. It was an obvious challenge.
“I’ll play you, if you want. You’re white, so go ahead.”
Rags eyed Erin defiantly and moved her knight first. Erin hid a smile.
“Oh, the Baltic Opening, huh? Well…”
She moved a pawn two squares up directly in front of the knight. It was her favorite way to deal with that opening move. Rags frowned and then moved another piece. And then another. For a while, the Goblin looked like a strange, green kid playing chess. That was until she opened her mouth and Erin saw the sharp teeth. But Rags still looked a lot less threatening than before.
Erin crushed her while she served the last of her pasta to the Goblins and had a bite to eat herself.
The Goblin challenged her three more times while Erin played Olesm and then two of the Workers. Each time, Rags handily lost, but Erin was impressed by the way the small Goblin was willing to try new strategies. She said so.
“You guys could learn a lot from her. Most of these moves are actually established patterns. Okay, moving the rook right away wasn’t a good choice, but you’re better than most beginners.”
She smiled at Rags. The Goblin fidgeted in her chair and looked away.
Klbkch nodded, and Olesm expressed an interest in playing the Goblin. Erin looked over at the Workers. They were eying her surreptitiously. She had the impression they wanted to play her too.
She clapped her hands together and smiled.
“Now then. Anyone else want to play another game?”
“And that’s checkmate.”
Olesm looked up from his king and shook his head despairingly.
“Another fine game, Erin. I wasn’t aware of your trap until you moved your bishop up.”
Erin yawned and grinned sleepily at him. Around her, the Goblins sat or lay on the tables, sleepily watching the game.
“You keep giving away too many pawns. They’re more valuable than you think.”
Olesm bowed his head and nearly toppled over. He jerked upright and nodded at her.
“I shall keep it in mind, Erin.”
She nodded and yawned again.
“Anyone want to play another game? Klbkch?”
The ant man shook his head. He glanced towards the door and at the Workers still playing chess. They were still intensely staring at the paper chess boards without any sign of fatigue.
“It is late. I am afraid we must take our leave, Miss—Erin. If I may address you in that way.”
Erin blinked at Klbkch and then looked out the window.
“Oh, of course you can call me that, Klbkch. And wow, it is late!”
She stood up. Immediately, the Workers stopped playing chess and stood too. They bowed to her.
“Allow me to thank you and pay you in their place, Erin.”
Klbkch handed her a bag of silver and gold coins. Erin blinked down at it.
“Oh. That’s a lot.”
“It is only fair payment for what we have consumed. And, might I trouble you to ask for a container of Acid Flies? I wish to bring some back to Liscor.”
“What? Oh, sure. I’ve actually got a huge glass jar. Do you want it?”
Erin ended up giving Klbkch a huge jar full of Acid Flies for a gold coin. She felt guilty about it, but the Antinium insisted it was a fair price. He left with Olesm and the Workers in tow, and Erin saw the Goblins off as they slowly streamed out of her inn.
“Come again! I’ll feed you lot another meal if you come by. You don’t need to pay—you paid me enough this time. Okay?”
The Goblins grunted or waved their hands awkwardly at her. They filed out of the inn, patting their stomachs happily.
The paper chess board and pieces were in a big pile. The Goblins seemed less keen on them—perhaps because they thought this inn was their chess spot to play in safety. Klbkch had told Erin giving the Workers the game was not a good idea. So she silently waited until he was talking with Olesm by the door and handed a Worker the entire stack. The Worker promptly hid the papers behind its back and shuffled towards the door with the others.
The last Goblin, Rags, paused as she walked by Erin. The small Goblin held her hands tightly at her side.
Erin tapped Rags on the head. She held out her hand. Silently, the small Goblin handed her the pawn back as the other Goblins glared at her.
“No stealing. Besides, a chess board isn’t complete without all the pieces.”
Rag’s eyes lit up. Erin narrowed hers.
“That doesn’t mean you can steal them either. If you want to play a game, come back any time. Okay?”
For a while, the little Goblin hesitated and then nodded. Erin smiled.
“Have a good night.”
She closed the door. Then she bolted it and made sure all the windows were fastened tight. She didn’t mind the small Goblin, but she was damned if she was going to let it walk off with her chess set.
“Um, Senior Guardsman Klbkch? May I have a word?”
Klbkch paused as he walked swiftly back to Liscor. He was setting a fast pace, and Olesm was struggling to keep up.
“My apologies, Olesm Swifttail. I had forgotten you were with us.”
“No, it’s nothing.”
Olesm gasped and wheezed as Klbkch slowed. The Workers behind him silently adjusted their pace to give the two room.
“I just wanted to talk to you—if I may.”
“Certainly. May I ask if you are addressing your comment to the liaison of the Antinium or Senior Guardsmen Klbkch?”
“Both, I believe. Um, how shall I put this?”
Olesm paused as the two strode through the night. Klbkch waited patiently until the Drake began.
“As the [Tactician] who liaisons with the Council and other guilds and the guard, I am privy to some confidential information. I am, uh, aware of the situation with the Workers within the Antinium. R-regarding Aberrations and how they appear.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat. He was normally quite friendly, but this statement instantly put him on guard and small wonder. The Watch and the Council were there to check the Hive as a threat.
Olesm glanced nervously behind him at the Workers. They silently stared back at him.
“Will—will this be a problem, do you think?”
Klbkch hesitated. He looked back, and the Workers instantly looked down at the ground.
“We shall see. They will be observed as usual, and I will personally supervise them.”
“Ah, good, good. I wouldn’t ask, but I know that these kinds of things have, uh, dire consequences. This isn’t to say that I’m against taking a few Workers out under supervision, but the Watch Captain and Council—”
Klbkch turned and faced Olesm. The [Tactician] stopped nervously, but Klbkch merely bowed respectfully.
“I understand your concerns. If it helps, I will address this topic in my monthly report to inform you of any significant changes. I shall note our conversation and these instances most rigorously in my report to Captain Zevara.”
Olesm sighed in relief.
“Thank you. Yes, that’s perfect! Just so we have a written record.”
They went on, and Klbkch resumed their conversation in a more casual manner, to Olesm’s relief.
“I trust you have enjoyed yourself tonight?”
“Oh, yes. Very. Erin—that is, Miss Erin Solstice is quite a remarkable Human, isn’t she?”
“Her mastery of the game of chess may be unmatched within the continent.”
A moment of painful silence. Then Klbkch’s head rotated slowly, and he said something completely unexpected.
“…Would you like to play a game after this, by any chance?”
Klbkch glanced at the Drake, and Olesm hesitated. Senior Guardsman Klbkch was a known figure in Liscor who had won his approval over a long time, but Olesm knew his past, and he knew more about the dangers of the Antinium than most as Liscor’s [Tactician]. Yet right at this moment—he thought he had never known Klbkch more.
The two losers of endless bouts with Erin looked at each other, and Olesm managed a smile and a nod.
“It would be my pleasure.”
The Workers were left at the gates of Liscor to find their way to the Hive, which they did, unnoticed by all but a few citizens who avoided them. The Goblins who had gone with the littlest Goblin to the inn crept back to their cave and did not tell the others why they weren’t that hungry and where they’d been.
But the one thing Olesm and Klbkch didn’t realize was this. While they sat and had a genteel game of chess at Olesm’s office, trying out new moves and what Erin had taught them, it failed to occur to them that they were not the only people who had learned something from Erin.
The Workers had a bundle of paper slips. While they were supposed to be asleep, one slowly, slowly let a chess board fall to the floor of the Hive. Then, as many Workers watched, another slowly placed down the chess ‘pieces’, the squares of paper, just like they’d been shown.
After all—this made sense to them. It was just numbers and patterns, and the [Innkeeper] had played with them.
The Goblins did not have any paper chess boards, because it would invariably be used as toilet paper or kindling for a fire. But the littlest Goblin was busy arranging some grass and sticks into an odd formation, and the rest of her tribe ignored her. She was always weird, and they didn’t see why she was thinking and placing them in odd positions on the ground.
Klbkch and Olesm retired after a few games, and Olesm levelled up that night, much to his delight. But that was nothing to the voice which spoke to the many confused and frightened Antinium who panicked because they were going to get in trouble. It said the exact same thing to the littlest Goblin and a few others, who sat up in confusion and awe.
The voice said:
[Tactician Class Obtained!]
[Tactician Level 2!]
[Skill – Risk Calculation obtained!]
[Skill – Group: Erratic Maneuvering obtained!]
Or some variation of that in level and Skills. Yet the [Innkeeper] flopped into her makeshift bed in the kitchen and closed her eyes and slept.
Erin heard nothing at all.