They were called Workers.
It was more than a name. It was their purpose, their role in life. In the Hive. Worker.
That job included many things. They were hammers to build new tunnels and structures for the Drakes and Gnolls in the city. A butcher to separate meat from bone, or a sweeper to remove dust from the street.
Any task, no matter how menial, was their job. Not for pay or for gratitude from Liscor’s people. For the Hive. For the Queen.
That was their purpose. That was…everything. Aside from Aberrations, who were insane, Workers fought monsters if they had to, worked, and died.
But when Klbkch brought back the twelve Workers, they were not the same as the ones who had left. They marched into the Hive, and he left them without a word. Klbkch was different.
Yet the Workers who went to sit in the mess hall were changed. The Workers ate in silence—hundreds. But every single one stared at the new Workers, because instead of eating the brown, brackish paste that had little bones in it that crunched—these Workers sat together.
Together, at the long tables made of dirt. Every Worker sat shoulder-to-shoulder, packed in, their identical shells and bodies—save for where one had scars, a missing arm, a chunk taken out of their carapace—in a row as they ate.
Yet those twelve Workers who had gone above were sitting together somehow. Leaning over a table, practically ignoring their food. They were…moving something around.
A possession? Workers had no possessions. They had tools they sometimes carried because it was more expedient not to put them down, but they had nothing.
Yet these Workers sat there, and the other Workers, in the dead silence of the barracks filled only with the scraping and clacking of mandibles as they ate, nevertheless heard something.
It was the twelve, pouring over a little piece of paper and pieces of smaller paper. Thinking, perfectly replicating a game they had seen. Playing a game.
They were thinking so loud that the other Workers could practically hear them. Workers didn’t think. They just—worked. But these Workers were concentrating.
How do I move this piece? Rook goes straight. Bishop goes diagonal. Play, fun. Play.
Fun? The other Workers who were eating their food had a fifteen minute interval to consume their required nutrition. Then they would go to the barracks and sit in a dirt cubbyhole and sleep. But while the Workers lined up to put the cheap, wooden bowls in a receptacle for them to be filled up again, they slowed.
A line formed around the table where the twelve Workers, oblivious to all, played. Slowly, taking each step as if weighed down by boulders, Workers coincidentally just happened to peek at the board and the concentrating Workers, who had paired off, six by six, to play.
Only when one of the Workers looked up and started did they notice nearly a hundred Workers staring at them. All the Workers instantly rushed over to put their bowls away.
Time to sleep!
The twelve Workers got up instantly and hurriedly pushed their food bowls into the receptacle. Most weren’t even touched; they’d eaten food in the inn.
Flies! The other Workers who marched with them listened to these loud…thoughts. Flies? They imagined the crunch, and the twelve Workers had played a game of chess. With an [Innkeeper] who gave them ‘blue fruit juice.’
What did all this mean? The Workers filed into the barracks and began to sit for their nine hours of rest. That was all the rest they got before they spent an entire day working…but the twelve Workers hesitated as they sat together.
Slowly, one of them shuffled a bit of paper in the dead silence of the other Workers settling into their dirt cubbyholes. They were packed next to each other, thin walls of dirt separating them into alcoves that were barely more than rounded divorts where a Worker could ‘sit’ and sleep. Their rounded back shells prevented them from lying down like other species.
Shuffle, shuffle. The Worker was shuffling the papers around. Then it slowly put the chessboard down and lined up the pieces.
Black and white. Erin had colored in the black pieces, and the Worker arranged them neatly. The game had rules. All the other Workers, who were definitely asleep because what else would they be doing, didn’t at all listen to the faint sound in the huge barracks.
Or listen to the rules, which made such sense. Workers liked things like rules, and this was a game made of rules. Each pawn moved forwards but attacked left or right. Or it could take another pawn if it moved diagonally behind them which was called en passant.
There were many rules like that. You protected the king, and you played like…
The Worker pushed a pawn forwards on the white side, then after careful thought, moved another pawn forwards to oppose it. It stared at the board and moved a white pawn forwards in the center four squares, flanking the first.
Now, at this juncture, the black side could take the white pawn diagonal from it. But what if you put another black pawn so that you had four pawns, two black, two white, facing each other?
Was this good playing? Why didn’t you take the white pawn instead of making an opening? Not that the other Workers were paying attention. Or that all of them were united in thought.
After all, if you were really thinking about it, when you moved that pawn up, why didn’t you use the bishop? Could you win a game on pawns alone with their low movement range? Hey, couldn’t you move a knight diagonally outwards and protect your pieces with pawns and never risk your king?
Aha, but then there were ways to checkmate someone without ever touching the pawns. The [Innkeeper] had shown the twelve Workers all kinds of ways to play, and this game had so many pieces and moves that the combinations of outcomes were virtually endless. Especially with an unpredictable opponent on the other side.
…Not that this was fascinating. In fact, wasn’t this—Aberration?
All the Workers froze at this. Aberrations were not to be suffered alive. But the twelve Workers weren’t killing them or screaming. The Queen had said nothing—and Klbkch had not killed them. He killed Aberrations.
So was this Aberration or not? And why was that Worker just lining up pawn pieces in the middle of the board? Move the queen! Move the—
It was a long night in which no Worker moved, save for the one who shuffled bits of paper around. The next day, Workers were sluggish owing to something in the food, no doubt.
But at breakfast, while the twelve sat and put out the chessboards, something odd happened. A Worker sat across from one of the chess boards being set up and moved a white piece.
This was not one of the twelve. All the Workers froze—until the one who had been playing last night moved a black pawn up, facing the white pawn.
A second white pawn joined the first, in the center of the board. Every Worker in the room stared as the second black pawn joined it. The Worker, who had a butcher’s knife because that was his job in the city, stared at the board.
He took the first black pawn with his own. And then? The two began to play.
There weren’t enough chess boards for the twelve workers; they only had five boards and piece sets from the [Innkeeper]. So sticks and stones were carefully found and placed, and then there were twenty-four Workers. You could, after all, just remember which piece was which.
Twelve Workers played the twelve who had journeyed to the inn. All twelve newcomers lost the first game completely.
They stood up and began to walk off, feeling a vague sense of frustration—but accomplishment. Death might come tomorrow, but they had played a game of chess.
And lost. The Workers were walking to put their dishes away when one of the original twelve Workers beckoned them back. The twelve new Workers saw, to their befuddlement, the original twelve slowly trading seats, rotating one over. Then they sat back down, reset the board, and waited.
The new twelve came back to the table, slowly, and sat down. They played again. Lost again. Then the Workers shuffled places and began to play.
In silence, the other Workers in the mess hall stared at the games. Twenty-four Workers played together. On the fifth game, the Worker with the butcher’s knife glanced up as one of the watching Antinium carefully moved forwards. He stood up to let the new Worker sit—but the trembling newcomer grabbed his butcher’s knife instead.
The trembling Worker stared at the knife as all the other Antinium in the mess hall froze. It raised the knife, stabbed itself in the arm, and green blood ran. Then it opened its mandibles.
It screamed one word and then began to shriek. The Worker with the butcher’s job backed away.
The individual-who-was-no-longer-a-Worker raised the knife and began to stab others. He stabbed and stabbed as Workers fled and the chess boards were abandoned, and then turned. He shrieked, and the other Workers fled, trying to shield the remaining twenty-three Workers who’d played chess.
Aberration. Aberration! The call went through the Hive, and even the Queen heard it. She called for Klbkch.
Before the Prognugator arrived, six more Workers were killed and their parts used to decorate the tables. He walked into the mess hall and a screaming Worker covered in green blood ran at him.
“wE! WE! a gAMe!”
It screamed at him, waving the knife. Lunging at him. Klbkch the Prognugator reached down to the twin swords hanging at his belt. He drew them and swung one blade once. Then he bent, carefully thrust the second blade down, and pulled it sideways.
He wiped the silver blades clean and stood. Klbkch stared blankly at the odd, bloody bits of paper on the table and looked around at the Workers huddled at the far end of the room.
“Clean up the bodies. Get back to work.”
Then he turned and walked away. The Workers stood there, looking at the dead Aberration. Their fellow Workers, dead.
All the same. All the same as it ever was. They picked up the bodies for processing, and a Worker picked up the knife to replace the dead butcher. But as they cleaned up and got back to work, the chess boards stayed. Another Worker joined the twenty-three.
By lunch, they had become forty-eight. By dinner? 192.
Erin Solstice had taught the Workers how to play games of speed chess. Lightning rules, she called it, where you had a limited amount of time per move.
It was ideal for short moments, like between digging in the tunnels or at a mess hall. Workers picked up stones and sticks and played. Nevermind that you had a ‘board’ of four sticks and a bunch of identical stones.
After all, if you remembered which stones were pawns, rooks, and which were white and black, why did you need a board with shapes? There was nothing else to do. They remembered.
That night, the games of chess continued. Not all Workers took part. It was decided that only a quarter should play this new game in case of further Aberrations occurring.
Decided by who? Not Klbkch. Not the Queen. Neither one had paid attention to the boards. They surely knew because they were the Queen and Klbkch…the Workers just decided it.
The Chosen Workers were the original twelve. But now there were 1532—four had died this day due to a monster attack—in the Hive. Not all were in the same mess hall, but they counted.
Counted who won and lost. Of course, only a few won all the time, and the Chosen Workers were the best players by far. Initially.
However, it seemed clear that the [Innkeeper] had been better than all of them. And this game…this game was fascinating. But perhaps there were strategies, means that the Workers could not fathom?
That night, the Workers sitting in the barracks across the Hive played games. They played and played—and one would get up and slowly, carefully, move to another barracks. Then either return or go to a new barracks. The Workers counted and counted and played.
Therefore, the next day, when the Designated Worker stood, he was tired. He was not one of the Chosen Workers, the twelve, but he was definitively, by numbers, the best for the job.
He was afraid when he went to Klbkch’s office. The Prognugator was almost never disturbed; he was getting ready for his work as a Senior Guardsman. Yet the Designated Worker had to go.
He was the best player—his win/loss ratio was 54.6%, and thus he had been chosen to make the request. There was simply no other alternative.
Klbkch was not on duty at this time of day. He had retreated to his personal quarters within the labyrinthine tunnels, a hollowed-out room of stone and dirt near to the surface. He looked up at the knock on his door. When he saw it was a Worker, he immediately drew his sword.
“State your business immediately or be cut down. Why has the Queen not alerted me?”
The Worker froze. One of those two perfect blades was poised to stab, but he bowed his head towards Klbkch.
“This one would request time off, Prognugator.”
Klbkch hesitated. He did not lower his sword. That was not the voice of the screaming Aberration of yesterday.
His arm tensed, but the Worker’s reply stopped Klbkch again.
“This one wishes to visit the Innkeeper Solstice.”
Now, Klbkch stood up. Hesitated, then strode towards the Designated Worker and held his blade low, towards the other Antinium’s abdomen. Yet he stopped himself from running the other Worker through. Something was in his voice. A kind of…surprise, wariness beyond belief.
And perhaps something like anticipation. Hope.
“For what purpose do you wish to visit Erin Solstice?”
“This one would play a game of chess.”
Neither Antinium blinked. They were incapable of doing so, but Klbkch’s antennae twitched.
The Designated Worker spoke as precisely as it could.
“This one would learn more of chess for the sake of imparting knowledge onto other Workers. The Workers perceive a limitation in growth after a collective 15,360 games played.”
Klbkch paused as he digested this information. He looked the Worker up and down, and the blade, slowly, slowly withdrew from the Worker’s abdomen.
“I see. Your request will be considered. Return to your duties. Now.”
The Designated Worker bowed his head and left. Klbkch sheathed his sword, stared at the door, and then banged his head with one of his hands. Then he strode off to make an urgent report to his Queen.
Within the hour, he had left the city with the Designated Worker in tow.
After two days of experimentation, Erin had to face the facts.
“…I still can’t figure out how to make ice cream.”
All she could make was weird, sugary butter. She stared down at the pan of churned cream and ice cubes and wondered whether it was still edible.
She’d bought the ice and everything from Krshia, and she kept rushing back to her inn in hopes of making it work—but something was wrong, and the resultant mess was nothing like ice cream. Maybe she had missed an ingredient? Her Skill wasn’t telling her what she was doing wrong. Erin stuck a finger in the bowl and tasted it.
Erin licked her finger and decided it would go well with cereal. If she had any cereal. Well, there was that porridge-stuff, but she didn’t like how much chewing she had to do.
“Maybe I’ll feed it to Pisces.”
Glumly, Erin poured her fifth failed experiment into a glass jar. Glass jars were the way to go. Since she didn’t have tupperware and most airtight containers were jars with lids on them, glass jars with corked or glass lids were her best way of keeping things fresh.
“Too bad I don’t have any preservation runes.”
Erin grumbled to herself as she heaved the jar of milk onto a counter. She’d asked Pisces how much it would cost to get fancy runes done. He’d put the price at anywhere from twenty to sixty gold coins and added that she’d need to replace her cabinets if she wanted to make sure the runes stayed intact.
“Too rich for my blood. But refrigerators cost a lot too, right? But you only buy one, and that’s that. So I could save up if I ever got any customers. Big crowd one day, radio silence the next. And today as well. That’s life, isn’t it?”
Erin’s head snapped up as she heard the door opening.
“Speak of the devil.”
She raised her voice.
“Have a seat! I’ll be with you in a moment!”
Erin looked around and cursed. She didn’t have any food ready. It was only lunchtime—she hadn’t expected anyone to actually come by except Pisces, and he could wait forever. But he would have already made a snide remark by now.
No helping it. She hurried out of the kitchen and spotted a short creature standing in the inn. It had familiar green skin, pointy ears, and red eyes. Erin started to smile and then stopped.
“Wait a second. Who the hell are you?”
The four Goblins watched from the cover of a patch of long grass as the door shut. They watched and saw the other Goblins surrounding the inn. One had already entered, and the other Goblins were waiting to enter behind him.
The hiding Goblins weren’t waiting to enter. Rather, they were watching with dull dread in their stomachs. They would have liked to do something. Shouted, perhaps. But that wasn’t in their natures, and they were afraid.
They had been nine, but now they were four. And they feared making sound and alerting the other Goblins around the inn to their presence. They were forbidden to be here. They had been nine, and now they were four. And they feared becoming zero.
The littlest Goblin lay there, barely able to move. The other three were holding her down. They watched helplessly. The one Erin called Rags gripped a dagger in her hands, but she felt the bruises and cracked bones from the beating she’d taken just last night. She could only watch. They were four. The tribe had made a decision, and they hadn’t listened. The Chieftain was dead. The four Goblins were all bloody and filthy, and there were four of them.
The Goblins surrounding the inn were forty.
“Uh, hi there.”
Erin stared at the large Goblin as it glanced around her inn. She was sure she’d never seen this particular Goblin before in her life. He was larger than the rest, taller, brawnier. Not like the big one, but a head taller than any of the other small ones. Some kind of in-between?
And he was carrying a short sword at his waist, not a dagger or a club.
The Goblin looked up at Erin. He was still shorter than her by a good head, but he didn’t seem intimidated by her height. On the contrary, he seemed like he wanted to be the one doing the intimidating.
“Look, can I help you? Do you want food or something?”
Normally, Erin would have offered him a plate of something at once. But this particular Goblin wasn’t like Rags or her timid friends. There was an aggression about him she recognized. It reminded her of guys from her world. Something about the look, the way he stood there—too tense. Staring at her. It made her back crawl, and she realized her knife was in the kitchen.
The Goblin glanced at Erin and said something. He sauntered up to her. She stared down at him.
“Excuse me? What do you—”
He poked her. In the stomach. Actually, it was closer to her pelvis since he was shorter and uncomfortably close to another area.
He grinned and reached out to poke her again. Erin slapped his hand down.
“Stop that. Tell me what you want or get out.”
The big Goblin’s eyes narrowed. His hand went to his short sword. Erin made a fist and showed it to him.
“Try that and I’ll kick your face in. Got it?”
He glared up at her. Then, surprisingly, he grinned. He turned his head and called something in that scratchy language over his shoulder.
Erin looked up as the door opened. A Goblin walked into the room, and then another. And then another. And another and another and…
Suddenly, there were a lot of Goblins in her inn. A lot. And suddenly, purely by coincidence, Erin had just broken out into a cold sweat.
“Well. You have…friends. Do you all want food?”
More Goblins filed into her inn. It was an unending stream of them. They surrounded the bigger Goblin, exactly like a gang of…gangsters. Or, in Erin’s mind, much like a gang of children following the bully.
Erin took one step back as the leader of the Goblin mob grinned at her. He stroked the sword at his waist. Erin thought of the knife in her kitchen but abandoned the idea instantly. Every Goblin in the inn had a weapon, and most were holding them casually in their hands.
She had a bad feeling—no, she knew she was in trouble.
The big Goblin looked around the inn and snorted. Then he spat.
A glob of greenish spit landed right on one of Erin’s clean tables. Next to a chess board. The Goblin looked at it and then walked over and picked up the pieces.
She could run. In fact, Erin was pretty sure she could outrun them. If she got to the door and slammed it shut, then she’d be able to take off. They’d never catch her with their stubby little legs.
Erin slowly edged around a table, as if she were nervous. The Goblin tribe watched her, but they clearly weren’t expecting her to attack. They knew they outnumbered her. She didn’t need to get that close to the door, but if she were just a few feet away, she could—
Tapping. Erin looked over and saw the big Goblin leader smacking one of her chess pieces hard against the stone chess board. He grinned: a bully with a new breakable toy that didn’t belong to him.
Smack, smack. He was watching Erin out of the corner of his eye as he bashed a carved figurine of a Drake knight on the board.
Erin saw bits of the fragile chess piece breaking off. Her mouth opened.
“Oi. Put that down.”
The Goblin sneered. It deliberately tossed the knight on the ground. The other Goblins watched as their leader deliberately stomped on the chess piece. It snapped in two.
Erin stared down at the small, stone figurine lying in pieces. She looked up at the grinning Goblin.
The four Goblins heard the faint sound of something cracking as they waited outside the inn. Then they heard silence.
The next thing they saw was the big Goblin smashing through a window. They ran for cover as Erin strode out the door with a chair in her hands.
The big Goblin snarled at Erin and struck at her as she approached. She stepped back and then belted him over the head with the chair. She lost her grip on it, but that didn’t even slow her down. As the Goblin swung at her, she delivered a punch to his face and then jumped back. Erin didn’t know how, but when he tried to rush her, she instinctively stepped sideways and knocked him flat with a kick to his back.
It was like magic. Or—a Skill. Bar fighting. That was it. Erin had never really punched someone in her life, but when she made a fist and drove it into the big Goblin’s face, it floored him.
He was trying to rip the short sword out of its scabbard. Erin kicked the blade out of his hands as he got it free and then kicked him in the face. As he shouted in pain, she picked up the chair and drove it into his midsection.
“Not so tough now, are you? Huh?”
Erin raised the chair to hit the Goblin again. She prepared to swing it down—
And something poked her in the side. Erin turned around. She saw a knife sticking out of her skin. It was buried halfway in, and the green clawed hand holding it was shaking.
A Goblin was behind her. She let go as Erin turned and backed up. Let go—but her crimson eyes were both focused on Erin and very distant. Blood ran down her claw, and Erin felt at the sharp thing in her flesh. She tried to tug at it and felt something moving in her stomach. The female Goblin reached for a second weapon—a rock—and Erin lashed out.
She punched the Goblin into the ground, but then another Goblin was next to her.
This time, the blade was long and thin and went in further, into Erin’s thigh. It was a dull sensation. She felt her skin tearing as he raked her side with it. Erin shouted and hit him with her chair hard enough that she felt something in him break. But then another Goblin was next to her. He slashed her in the leg.
She didn’t feel it. And that was the scariest thing. As another Goblin stuck a knife in Erin’s back, she felt it go in, but she didn’t feel the pain. And the Goblins were suddenly surrounding her. They poured out of the inn as Erin tried to keep them away. And they all had knives.
Erin swung her chair and knocked three Goblins senseless. She kicked out and sent another one flying, then punched one so hard he fell over unconscious. She didn’t know how, but she was suddenly a fighting machine. But the Goblins kept coming, and their knives went in, and she didn’t feel a thing.
Two more Goblins went down to Erin’s punches before she toppled over. It wasn’t that she’d tripped. She just fell down and saw the blood pooling. Erin wanted to reach out and touch it, but her arms wouldn’t move.
The big Goblin was standing over her. When had he gotten to his feet? He had the short sword in his hand, and he was raising it. He snarled around his broken nose. Then his head fell off.
Klbkch beheaded the large Goblin with one sweep of his swords. He stepped forward to shield Erin as his swords scythed out and cut two more Goblins apart. He addressed the other Antinium by his side, the Worker holding the pieces of paper in his hands. The trembling Worker stared down at Erin as pieces of paper fluttered to the ground.
“I must save Erin. Cover me.”
The Worker nodded and dropped its pieces of paper.
Erin looked up and tried to wave at Klbkch as the ant-man knelt swiftly beside her.
“Stay awake, Erin. I have a potion. Stay alive for a few seconds longer.”
Erin laughed weakly. She wanted to say ‘you shouldn’t have,’ but her mouth stopped working. Klbkch’s hands were a blur as they dove into the pouch at his waist. He uncorked the bottle and splashed half of it over Erin’s legs. The other half he made her drink. He had to hold her mouth open because she couldn’t open it.
She felt the noxious liquid go down, and something happened in her body. But Erin wasn’t paying attention. She felt like a spectator, a ghost who wasn’t really attached to the thing Klbkch was cradling in his arms. She saw the Worker fighting as the Goblins recovered from their shock. She saw him dying.
The Worker had no weapons. He only had bits of paper. But he charged into the mass of Goblins, striking them with his four hands, biting, hitting them. Like how a child fought.
The Goblins fell back at first from the ferocity of the assault. But as soon as the Worker found himself in the midst of them, they closed in.
One second the Worker was grabbing at Goblin, the next, they covered him. Countless Goblins piled onto the Worker, stabbing, hitting any part of his body they could reach. The Worker fell to the ground, but seized one Goblin by the leg. His mandibles opened, and he bit.
The Goblin screamed and stabbed him in the eye. The other Goblins stabbed and clubbed him and then left the broken, crushed shell of the Worker on the ground. They swarmed away from him except for one Goblin, which still screamed in agony as it tugged at its leg. It came away with a sickly snap as the leg and flesh ripped from the Worker’s jaws to reveal yellow bone.
Erin blew out a bubble of blood and then coughed. Something warm was flowing up from her cold legs. She could feel them again and—pain. But she could feel them.
As the Goblins spread out around the Human and Antinium, Klbkch stood up from Erin’s side. He drew both swords and daggers and faced the forty-odd Goblins. He looked down at her and then the slot on his belt.
Two empty slots for two potions. Klbkch stared around and saw no place to put his back against. He could find a wall—but Erin was lying at his feet. Forty Goblins.
He could have run, but the Senior Guardsman didn’t. He looked across from him at the dead Worker. Curled up, staring blankly at the sky.
A Worker who spoke. A Worker who had desires. A success—
Dead. Klbkch felt his mandibles click together. He looked down at Erin. He should have left her. He should have taken the Worker back.
He should run or put his back to a wall or—the Antinium lifted the blades and looked around. His voice was a whisper.
“They call me the Slayer. Come.”
The Goblins didn’t wait. They charged, howling with blood and fury. Klbkch waited for them and attacked with all four arms at once. He drew two knives from his waist with his lower hands.
His swords cut arcs in the air as they lopped off limbs and heads while his lower arms stabbed out with his knives. The first few Goblins who approached him died before they could take a step.
But—so many. Klbkch stepped back as the Goblins kept coming. He spun left and shredded two Goblins with his swords as his lower two arms stabbed a Goblin in the neck with his daggers. One sprinted under his guard and raked his legs with a dagger, but only managed to cut into his exoskeleton. Klbkch beheaded him, but more Goblins jumped on his back. He shook himself like a dog and cut them off of him.
He could have moved, but there was something right behind him. His swords slashed out in perfect arcs—until he twisted. Threw himself into a burning vial a Goblin threw. It splashed over him, and his carapace ignited. Not a drop touched the young woman with hazel eyes. The Antinium began burning as the Goblins backed up. One raised a bow—
The twang and thud were one sound. Klbkch adjusted his leg. He glanced down at the arrow sticking out of it. Erin Solstice’s face stared blankly up at him, as if she were dreaming.
His hand flickered. The Goblin holding the bow staggered, and a knife protruded from the Goblin’s chest. She fell, gasping, as Klbkch turned. The Goblins charged him like they had the crab.
Erin watched through lidded eyes. The potion was coursing through her, but the drowsiness was making her sleepy. She couldn’t stay awake. It was like her mind was shutting down every few moments.
She kept blinking. Her eyes would close, and then her head would snap back up. Each time she opened her eyes, more Goblins lay in pieces around her. Blood stained the ground and her clothes. And Klbkch. But his blood was green. And there was a lot of it.
Erin opened her eyes and saw Klbkch stagger as a Goblin stabbed him in the back with the short sword. The Antinium turned and beheaded the Goblin, but two more struck him glancing blows from his other side. Even as he turned, more lunged forward. He swept his blades to keep them away, but he couldn’t guard every angle.
Why didn’t he run? He was surrounded. If he had his back to the wall, he could fend them off.
Oh. Right. He was defending her. And that meant he couldn’t watch his back.
Erin’s head lowered. The darkness closed in. Then she opened her eyes and saw Klbkch lying on the ground. No—not lying. Fallen. He was on his knees. He still had his blades, but he couldn’t stand up. Green blood dripped from the wounds on his body. So many.
But he’d taken vengeance for his injuries. Erin looked around and saw dead bodies everywhere. Pieces of Goblins. Heads. Limbs. Blood coated everything, including her.
Nine Goblins spread out around Klbkch in a wary circle. They didn’t dare approach the Antinium, even on his knees. Erin wondered what they were doing. Oh. They were waiting for him to die.
It was a rasping whisper. Erin looked at Klbkch. The Antinium didn’t move, but spoke to the ground as he used one sword to keep himself upright.
“You must flee. I will buy you a moment.”
She stared at him.
“Can you not move?”
“I can feel my legs. Sort of.”
“Then go. Once you are in sight of the city, you will be safe.”
He clicked his mandibles together.
“I cannot slay the rest. Nine Goblins are too many—I am a failure. Forty Goblins. Forty Goblins—”
He made a fluttering sound. Erin thought it sounded like an insect’s chirping. She realized it was—laughter. Klbkch whispered.
“If they could see me. Run.”
Erin said it automatically. Her brain still wasn’t working.
“No. There aren’t nine. There are thirteen.”
Klbkch looked up. He saw the four Goblins as they swarmed up the hill from behind the others. The other Goblins hesitated, afraid to turn away from Klbkch, and in that moment, the small band of Goblins struck them from behind.
The four Goblins worked together. Two grabbed one Goblin and held him down, and Rags stabbed him in the face while the fourth kept the other eight at bay. He was armed with a large stick and covered his friends from the enemy Goblins. They would have rushed him, but Klbkch was on their other side and shifted whenever they moved.
Rags and the other three Goblins moved from the dead Goblin to flank the other Goblins. They feinted as Klbkch guarded Erin, and the other Goblins turned their attention to them. In an instant, Klbkch threw one of his swords and speared a Goblin through the chest.
As the seven remaining enemy Goblins turned their attention to Klbkch, Rags and the three Goblins rushed forwards and repeatedly stabbed another Goblin in the back. They fled backwards even as the other Goblins sliced at them.
Tactics. They fought their kin, and Erin saw the little one, face mashed and bruised, screeching what sounded like orders. Crimson eyes and red blood blurred together.
Were the Goblins crying? She couldn’t tell. Which ones were weeping? All of them?
The seven Goblins backed up. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. They had come to kill a lone Human, however dangerous she might be, not fight deadly insect-monsters and their own kind.
They edged away from the wounded Antinium. It was clear that he couldn’t move, and wounded as they were, they still outnumbered Rags and her friends. Rags and her comrades retreated until they had the inn at their backs. But it was still two-to-one.
The Goblin that had picked up the short sword pointed at Rags and screeched a command. The seven Goblins turned away. And one of them collapsed with a knife in the back of his head.
Erin blinked down at her hand. She’d picked it up and thrown it without thinking. And it had hit its target. The Goblins turned in shock and looked at Erin.
She stood up and hit the closest Goblin with an uppercut that snapped his head backwards. Her legs felt like jelly. But they were whole. She kicked, and another Goblin flew and smashed into a wall.
Two more would have rushed her, but this time, Klbkch threw. He missed with his daggers, but his sword hit one of the Goblins vertically and lodged in his head. He fell down, and Erin hit the other Goblin and knocked him down.
She turned for the other three, but they were already dead. Two Goblins held the last one down as he screamed while Rags stabbed him repeatedly in the chest. He convulsed and died.
Erin breathed out shakily. She lowered her fists. She didn’t even notice the two Goblins she’d hit getting to their feet and running. Rags and her Goblins raced after them, screaming their high-pitched war cry.
Slowly, Erin looked around. The Goblins were dead. Their blood covered everything. Her breathing was ragged; she felt like there wasn’t enough air in the world. The world grew dark, and she staggered. She would have sat down and passed out, but then something moved.
Klbkch. He collapsed in a pool of green ichor that mixed with the red around him. Suddenly, Erin’s body was full of electricity and panic. She ran over to him. He was trying to get up, but his exoskeleton was full of holes. He was leaking.
“Oh god. Oh god no.”
Klbkch clicked at her. He spoke, still in that too-calm tone of his. But his head was jerking, trying to look at her, and it kept falling back. Spasming, as if he were—falling asleep.
“Erin Solstice. You are safe? Good. My Queen will send—her Soldiers will come. You will be safe.”
He tried to reach for her. Erin grabbed his hand and then released it. She helplessly held her hands over the oozing gaps in his body, but his blood ran over her fingers. Klbkch touched at her hair and let his hand fall away.
“Fascinating. So this—First Queen laugh—in pieces. Today of all days.”
His voice was breaking up. Thoughts blending with words. Erin grasped at the green blood oozing from his body.
“I can’t—how do I stop the bleeding?”
He didn’t answer her. Klbkch only sighed. He stared up at the sky. His silver blades lay next to him, coated with blood. His voice faded away. Amused, disappointed in himself, and so bitterly tired. He looked only once at the dead Worker, and then his mandibles twitched.
He turned his head north, as if staring a thousand miles at something he had left behind. At last, his voice broke, and he called out as the young woman held his hand. She didn’t know who he was speaking to.
“I was weary. Forgive me.”
Klbkch looked as if he wanted to say something else. But then his head lowered. He fell silent and still. Erin couldn’t tell if he was breathing. She put her hand next to his mandibles, but she could feel nothing. No breath of air. Nothing.
She stared down at Klbkch. He was bleeding. She had to stop it. She had to heal him. But he’d used her potion.
She needed help. She needed Relc or Pisces.
Erin looked around and shouted. But there were only the dead Goblins.
“Help. Help me.”
Erin whispered. She looked at Klbkch. He wasn’t moving. He’d curled up into a ball. He was still bleeding.
She had to get help. She had to.
Erin shook. She didn’t know what to do. But she had to—she had to—
Erin slapped herself. She hit herself so hard in the face that the world turned black for a moment. But she’d stopped shaking. She grabbed Klbkch and hauled him up.
Fireman’s carry. She’d learned how to do that in class. It didn’t work the same way with Klbkch because he was bulkier in places. Still, she got him onto her shoulders. He was light. Was it the lost blood?
Run. Erin was already running. She dashed down the hill with Klbkch on her back. Blood ran down her shoulders and soaked her clothing. Blood. She couldn’t feel anything from the burden she carried on her back. No heartbeat, no breathing. Only blood.
Erin ran and ran. Her heart was bursting out of her lungs, and each breath was fire. She felt the muscles tearing in her legs. But she ran on. And she felt the blood as it slowly dripped down her body and onto the grass.
Below Liscor, the Queen of the Antinium stirred. She looked up through dirt and bedrock. She knew. Already, her Soldiers marched towards the surface at her command. They emerged from hiding places, tunnels, and the Watch and the citizens screamed of The Black Tide.
The doom of Rhir. But they were too late.
Too late, and she had been resting. She felt it. The Free Queen reached up, feelers trying to hold—her voice breaking with disbelief. Pain.