Silence. Erin walked in it. It was the numbing static in her head. It was the sound of tears falling in her heart. It was everything.
She walked in the darkness. Short, narrow walls of dirt enclosed her. She followed a massive shape as it led her through the tunnels.
Her arms were breaking, her lungs screaming as she carried Klbkch, almost falling, towards the gates, and a horn began to blare.
Noise. Erin still heard it echoing in her memories. They were scattered. She still felt like she was there, blood running sticky down her legs. Not hers. Seeing Liscor’s gates rising as Drakes and Gnolls ran at her, shouting.
“Klbkch? Summon the Captain! Get a [Healer], now!”
“—Not breathing. Contact his Hive! Get the Human out of the way!”
“Klb? Buddy? Speak to me.”
Voices. Them grabbing her, almost throwing her aside but taking him as carefully as a baby. He was cold. Curled up. His skin—his chitin was cold, and she felt nothing.
—Bending down, throwing glowing liquid on him. Relc slapping a still face until someone knocked him down. A bright, blue badge covered in green blood. Running feet, a Drake shouting orders until a thousand Antinium, giants, were forcing their way through the crowd. And grabbing Klbkch. And her.
Taking her down into a place no one could follow. Through walls of dirt and staring faces, each one like Klbkch’s. Workers. And Soldiers. Until she came here.
To a chamber where a giant sat. Made of the same brown-black chitin as the others but incomparably vast. A feeler, not a hand, shivered in the darkness, and a voice deep, resonant, and female—spoke.
Then Erin woke from her dream.
“—Human. What have you done?”
Erin looked up. She was standing in a massive cavernous room. Across from her, something sat in the shadows. The Queen of the Antinium under Liscor.
The gargantuan figure moved. Erin couldn’t see. It was so dark. But she caught a glimpse of a massive, bloated body and bulbous backside. The massive Queen of the Antinium was so huge she couldn’t move from her spot.
The Queen raised one massive foreleg. She wasn’t like her subjects, who looked vaguely humanoid. The Queen was completely insectile, and her wide, faceted eyes had no pupils nor color to them. They were blank, foreign, unreadable—yet hostile, a dull glow reflecting off the smooth surfaces under the dim light as they focused on the human before her. Erin could not read her face, but she saw the pain and anger. Even in this creature, in her voice.
She waited, but Erin said nothing. So the Queen continued.
“Your name is Erin Solstice. I have summoned you to explain the death of my subject to me. My…Klbkchhezeim. My Prognugator. Klbkch of the Centenium. Do you know what you have done?”
Erin looked at the Queen. She didn’t know what to say. Her chest was hurting, but her heart was already broken. They’d taken his body away. She felt like she was still dying. She couldn’t feel the pain, it was so great.
The Queen gestured behind Erin. She pointed to the two silent giants flanking the doors.
“Do not fear my Soldiers. They will cause you no harm if you answer.”
Erin glanced over her shoulder. She’d been grabbed in the midst of the confusion. A group of giant Antinium had swept her out of the guard barracks against her will and the protests of the other guards. Now, they silently watched her.
The two guards that stood in the back of the massive chamber were far taller than the Workers. A head higher and thicker and stronger by far. Unlike Klbkch or the Workers, these Antinium were nearly twice their size, with massive forearms and spiked, sharp gauntlets formed of their exoskeleton.
What was strangest and scariest about them was that they held no weapons. Instead, their four arms were bent, and they appeared to be ready at any moment to leap on Erin. Their hands—Erin saw their hands had no real digits, just awkward stumps and tearing barbs. These Antinium were clearly soldiers, built for war.
These ones had been made to kill.
“Erin Solstice. I hold you accountable for the death of Klbkchhezeim. Speak.”
Erin looked back at the Queen. She opened her mouth and didn’t know what to say. There was nothing. The silence in her was too large for words.
But she had to speak.
“I’m sorry. I never meant for it to happen.”
The Queen loomed above her. Her deep voice deepened further.
“Is that all you have to say?”
Erin shook her head.
“I don’t—I can’t say sorry enough. Klbkch—he died protecting me. He was a hero. I’m so sorry.”
The Queen silently watched as Erin wiped at her eyes. She raised a single feeler.
“Human. You misunderstand me. Klbkchhezeim’s death is…is. He is Antinium. Workers and Soldiers die, and if Liscor did not cause this, there is no need for war. But his death was wasted—needless. I am told he perished fighting Goblins. Goblins. Saving you. That is what I find unacceptable.”
Erin looked up, and the Free Queen stared down at her. Her voice was confused, Erin realized. Confused and angry and hurt.
“Klbkchhezeim was more than a match for a hundred Goblins. A hundred Hobgoblins could not ambush him. He is Klbkch of the Centenium. He—was—Klbkch the Slayer. The only reason he could have fallen to a mere forty Goblins was because he placed your life above his. And he lost a Worker of—the first Worker in—”
Her voice was rising, her feelers waving. The Queen fell silent. Her trembling voice returned to normal, and she spoke slowly in the darkness.
“He has paid for his folly. But his foolishness has cost the Antinium living within the city greatly.”
Erin stared at the Queen in shock. In turn, she felt the giant Antinium’s eyes piercing her to the core.
“I am disappointed, Erin Solstice. I had expected better of my Prognugator’s judgment. He spoke highly of you. Klbkch called you a Human worthy of emulation. But I see nothing to back up his claims. I see no reason why he would have wasted his life saving you.”
What? Erin’s head felt fuzzy. What was she saying?
The Queen continued. It was hard to discern emotion in her monotone rumble, but there was a definite element of irritation in her voice.
“My Workers play games in their resting periods. They gain useless levels in classes not needed for their work. Three have already become Aberration. This experiment has created naught but waste. My Prognugator’s judgment has been in error.”
Erin struggled for words.
“He—he was only doing what I asked him to. He was helping. He saved my life.”
She felt the titanic gaze on her. Erin had to look down. She couldn’t meet the Queen’s eyes.
“Nevertheless. Klbkch died a failure.”
Erin’s head rose. She stared at the Queen.
“Take that back.”
The Queen’s presence beat down on Erin, but this time, she refused to look away.
“I will not. My Prognugator’s foolishness has cost Liscor and the Antinium this day. He died a failure.”
“He was a hero!”
Erin shouted at the Queen. The guards behind her stirred, but the Queen raised one foreleg.
“He died worthless, against enemies he should easily have overcome. He died a failure.”
“No. He was tired. Tired and sorry.”
Erin mumbled the words. The Queen stared down at Erin. Her body had begun rising, and her feelers had risen—like a hammer, over Erin’s head. Now they trembled, in some paroxysm Erin didn’t understand. Her voice shook.
“Klbkchhezeim said that?”
Erin didn’t know why the Queen froze. She only bowed her head in silence. The Free Queen’s voice was strangled, and her mandibles clicked until she spoke.
“Then he is a fool as well as failure. We were so close. He had no right to lose hope.”
Erin stared up at the Queen. The massive insect regarded her and then looked away. She flicked one foreleg at her.
“You do not understand. You, the creatures of the above world, fail to understand all of what is Antinium. Enough. I waste valuable time. You are not worth killing.”
Erin was shaking. The two Antinium Soldiers marched up to her, but she stepped forwards towards the Queen.
“Why’d you summon me then? To tell me how worthless Klbkch was? He wasn’t. You’re wrong.”
The Soldiers seized her roughly. The Queen gestured, and they released her.
“You are not what we seek. You cannot understand. Klbkch must have been mistaken. I see nothing to admire. Only his failure written large. Begone from this place, Erin Solstice. I have much to do.”
The Queen slowly turned away towards the far wall. Erin was dragged out of the cavern by the two Soldiers. She wanted to say something, anything to the Queen of the Antinium. But she could think of nothing.
Erin walked out of the entrance to the Antinium tunnels and back into the light of the day. She blinked, shading her eyes. The two Antinium Soldiers turned and left without a word. She was alone.
For a moment. Even as Erin looked around, another Drake walked up to her. He was the yellow gatekeeper Drake.
“Human. You’re wanted by the Captain. Follow me.”
Erin walked after him without a word of protest. As she walked down the street, she was conscious of people watching her as she passed by. Some murmured and pointed. Others flinched away.
She realized she was still covered in blood. Hers, the Goblins’, and Klbkch’s.
The yellow Drake stopped when he realized Erin wasn’t following him. He turned and opened his mouth angrily until he saw her throwing up. Silently, he passed her a water bottle and cloth. Erin wiped her face and rinsed her mouth. She walked on.
The guard barracks were full of quiet voices and one loud one. They all fell silent when Erin entered. She looked around and saw a blur pushing his way through the crowd of guardsmen.
Two Drakes tried to grab Relc, but he shoved them aside like they were made of paper. More grabbed him as Relc loomed over Erin.
She looked up at him. Relc snarled at her. His tail was thrashing around, and his fists were clenched at his side.
“Sorry? Sorry? Klbkch died protecting you! All because you didn’t want to kill those damn Goblins!”
“This is all your fault.”
Erin stared at the ground. Relc stepped forward, and the other guardsmen all tensed. But he didn’t attack. Instead, he took a deep breath and spoke with a trembling voice.
“I had a good partner. He was a silent guy and a real idiot, but he was one of the best guys I knew. And then he died because he went and tried to protect a damn Human. We never even—Wishdrinks. It was just two days ago we gave him a badge!”
She didn’t know what he meant. Erin squeezed her eyes shut as a bit of spit struck her. She looked up and opened her eyes and saw his sharp teeth opening and closing as he spat at her.
Relc narrowed his eyes as he stared down at Erin. He tensed—and a huge Gnoll and a Drake with a sword grabbed him.
He tried to shrug them off, but they refused to let go. The Drake was breathing heavily. He raised an arm, and both of the others had it in their grips, but all he did was point a claw at her.
“I…I don’t want to see you around here again. And if you come running here for help again, I’ll stab you in the gut. Got it?”
Erin looked up at Relc. His thrashing tail stopped dead as he saw her wipe away the tears in her eyes.
“Yeah. You do that.”
She walked over to a seat and sat down. Tears began flowing from her eyes once more. Relc hesitated. He turned away and kicked a chair. It exploded in a shower of splinters.
Erin barely noticed as the pieces of wood rained down around her. She covered her face with her hands, but the tears leaked through her fingers. She heard a door open and a loud, female voice.
Erin barely moved. The other Guardsmen moved aside as a female Drake advanced. She marched up to Erin. She glared down and snapped.
“Thanks to you, the only Antinium Guardsman in the city is dead. The fourth highest-level [Guardsman]. A Senior Guardsman—the liaison to the Free Hive…”
She stopped, looking for words. Her mouth was…smoking. Trails of dark smoke leaked around her lips, and Erin stared at them despite herself. The Watch Captain looked around, and she spoke one word.
“Klbkch. He’s dead.”
All the Watch looked up in silence. The Drake stared blankly around, then looked at Erin.
“Not only that, he died because he wasted his emergency healing potion on you. Saving you from Goblins that should have been wiped out.”
Relc hammered a fist into a wall and left a dent. Erin didn’t look up, even with the crack of wood.
“Who are you?”
The Drake narrowed her eyes.
“I’m the Captain of the Liscorian Watch. Klbkch was one of my best Senior Guardsmen. Without him, there’s no one to control the Antinium. Without him—if the Queen orders it, Liscor and all of Izril might face another Antinium War. One of their Prognugators is dead. We can only pray they understand it was monsters, not us.”
A moan ran through the Watch House. Erin didn’t know what to say. She looked up, and her eyes were blurry. She knew it was all bad. It sounded bad. But Klbkch?
Klbkch was lying there. Her tears were only for him. She couldn’t take any of the rest in. Erin gulped for words.
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
The Captain’s tail twitched.
“Really? Is that all? From what I’m told, Klbkch had to protect you from a mob of Goblins. You’re no citizen. He should have let them eat you.”
“I guess so.”
Erin didn’t look up. The Captain’s eyes were narrowed in fury, and her tongue flicked out. She hissed.
“The Liscorian Watch should never have interfered in the affairs of outsiders. You don’t live in Liscor, and you are not one of our citizens. From here on out, the Watch will cease patrols in your area.”
The Captain of the Watch glared at the young woman holding her head in her hands. Erin didn’t look up.
“Is that understood, Human?”
No response. The female Drake’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“I said, is that understood, Human?”
Erin looked up. Her eyes were red, but she’d stopped crying. She met the Captain’s gaze without flinching.
The female Drake stared at her. She had a scar on the left side of her face. Her scales were light blue. Her eyes were yellow and narrowed with rage. She held Erin’s gaze and then turned away in disgust.
“Get out of my city.”
The Captain slammed the door shut behind her. In the silence, Erin looked around the room at the other guardsmen.
“Klbkch died protecting me. He was a hero. He looked out for me when no one else would, and he helped me even though I’m a Human. He was a good person. I’m sorry that he’s dead.”
She looked at Relc. He looked away.
Erin wiped at her eyes and then walked out of the room.
Selys found Erin sitting next to Krshia’s stall in the marketplace. The Human had curled up into a ball and was hiding her head in her arms. A Gnoll, Krshia Silverfang, was standing at her stall as if waiting for another customer.
At first, it seemed like she was ignoring Erin, but then Selys saw how Krshia was staring. Staring—and not even Lism said a word, nor the hostile Drakes and Gnolls standing at a distance. She let Erin weep as Selys hesitantly approached.
“Hi? Erin? Are you—are you okay?”
Erin didn’t look up. Selys hesitated and then came to stand by the stall.
“Hi, Krshia. Um, how’re you?”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] sniffed and nodded without smiling to Selys.
“Miss Selys. I am well, but Erin is not. She is resting here, away from unkind words. If you have any, you will leave, yes?”
Selys raised one hand as her tail twitched.
“No, not me. I just wanted to see how Erin was doing. I, uh, heard what happened.”
“Everyone in the city has heard.”
Krshia nodded. She finished arranging a display of onions.
“It is a dark time. Others mourn, but many are simply upset. The death of Klbkch, it is a bad sign for the city. He was our link to the Antinium. Without him, there will be trouble, perhaps terrible events. But it is wrong to blame it all on a single Human. So think I and other Gnolls.”
“Really. Really? That’s surprising. I, uh, thought you lot would think differently.”
Krshia shrugged. She crushed a rotten onion and tossed it in a bin of refuse behind her with more force than necessary.
“Blood and death. It is not Erin Solstice’s fault where Klbkch chose to fight and die. It is not her fault the Goblins attacked, yes? We do not blame those who are not guilty.”
Selys looked at Erin. She wasn’t moving. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Look, Erin, I wanted to talk to you. I know this isn’t a good time, but I don’t think you should go back to your inn. You should stay here, at least for tonight.”
Erin didn’t move. Selys glanced at Krshia. The Gnoll shrugged impassively. Selys tried again.
“I know you felt safe in the inn, but after this, things will be different. It isn’t just about Goblins. If the Watch doesn’t patrol the plains, more monsters will start appearing. Without protection or high levels, you won’t survive.”
Again, no response. But then Erin wiped her eyes on her sleeve before she buried her head back down.
“Look—I could get you a job in the Adventurer’s Guild as a receptionist. Some of the others might not like it, but you’d be safe there, and you’ll earn enough to eat and live in the city.”
This time Erin moved. She shook her head slightly.
Selys opened her mouth, but Krshia placed a huge furry hand on her shoulder and shook her head. She squatted down next to Erin.
“Erin. I regret the loss of Klbkch. He was a strange one, one of the Antinium, the Black Tide which came from Rhir, but a good one, yes? Many in the city mourn his death. But he would not want you to die. Without the Watch suppressing the monsters—there will be worse at your door in the wilderness. Even so close to a Drake city. You must know this.”
“And it’s not like you have to stay here forever. We could look into finding you a place in a Human city if you really didn’t like it. It’s just that it’s a bad time to be here. I know it’s not your fault, but the others—”
“I’m not going.”
“Look, Erin, I know how you’re feeling but—”
“I’m not going.”
Erin stood up. Her eyes were swollen and red with tears. Her nose was dripping, and she wiped her face on her sleeve. She glared at Selys.
“I’m going back.”
“Not a good idea. Those Goblins might still be out there.”
“They’re all dead.”
“But—there’s monsters. Just stay here. I have an apartment. You can stay the night, okay?”
Selys wanted to say something more, but she looked over Erin’s shoulder and gasped.
Erin turned. The street had gone deathly quiet. Every shopper and shopkeeper in the marketplace was looking in the same direction. They slowly backed away as a procession of dark insects slowly walked through the market.
They weren’t Soldier Antinium. They were just Workers, but there were nearly a hundred of them as they slowly walked towards Erin. The group stopped a few feet from her as Selys stepped behind the counter and Krshia sneezed.
Erin looked around. Black-bodied Worker Antinium filled the street. They stood in front of her. Suddenly, they all bowed their heads, and the Worker in front spoke.
“These ones offer condolences to the Innkeeper Solstice.”
Selys whispered in a panicked voice to Krshia and Erin.
“What are they doing? They shouldn’t be here! Someone should call the Watch!”
Krshia nudged Selys hard.
The Worker continued.
“These ones wish for the Innkeeper Solstice to heal from wounds received. These ones express their regret for her suffering.”
Erin stared at him stupidly.
The leading Worker appeared confused.
“It is part of custom. These ones are taught to express regret/sadness/loss for death in appropriate mourning moments. To cease work during funerals to not disturb Liscor’s citizens.”
He said this all so abstractly, as if they were rules he had to obey without knowing why. Erin just stared at him.
“But I didn’t die. What about Klbkch? What about your—friend? The other Worker? He died protecting me.”
The Worker paused and then shook his head.
“The Prognugator carried out his duties. The Worker died carrying out his duties. No mourning is necessary for broken shells and dead individuals. These ones merely express regret of individual Klbkch’s failure to protect.”
Erin stared at him.
“So you’re saying you’re sorry I got hurt?”
“These ones express regret for the failure of the Prognugator to protect the Innkeeper Solstice.”
The Worker said it so blankly, almost accusatory, that Erin’s head rose. Her hand tightened on the stall as she pulled herself up.
“It wasn’t failure. Don’t—don’t say that.”
The Worker froze—then bowed his head again. All the other Workers did likewise, and its antennae trembled.
“This one offers apologies for its mistake.”
She waited, but that was all. It glanced up at her like a child. It didn’t understand why she was mad, but it was afraid of her.
“Can’t you feel sorry? For Klbkch? And your friend?”
“This one apologizes. But this one cannot. These ones offer regret to the Innkeeper Solstice.”
Erin waited. But the Worker just kept its head bowed.
“Is that it?”
“Yes. These ones will disperse to assigned duties. Forgive these ones for disturbing the Innkeeper Solstice and others.”
As one, the Workers turned. Erin hesitated.
They stopped and turned back to her. She paused and closed her eyes. Erin took a deep breath and then looked at the Worker.
“…Come to my inn. I’ll feed you, and you can play chess with me.”
Selys grabbed for her, but Erin was moving. She reached out and touched the lead Worker on the shoulder. He went very still.
“You said you’re sorry? I’m sorry. It was my fault Klbkch and the other Worker died. And that’s a bad thing. Even if you can’t understand it, I want to do something. Let me help you. Somehow.”
The Worker hesitated.
“These ones are not permitted to leave the city or move about without permission.”
“These ones are not suitable for independent action. These ones must not be unaccompanied.”
“I’ll accompany you. Just—come with me. Please? It doesn’t have to be all of you. What about just you? What’s your name?”
The Worker went deathly still. All the Workers did. Erin looked at them curiously. Selys gasped and ran forward.
She grabbed the Human’s shoulder urgently. Selys whispered loudly in Erin’s ear.
“You never ask them what their names are! They don’t have any!”
The Worker shuddered and looked at Erin. Selys raised one hand as her tail thrashed wildly.
“They just don’t!”
“This one has no name. This one is not important. This one is not an individual.”
“You could be.”
This time, Selys tried to grab Erin and drag her away. Erin fought her hands off.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
She poked the Worker in the chest.
“You’re an individual. You’re you. And the Worker who died? He was someone. Klbkch was someone. You’re all important, and that means when one of you dies, it’s a bad thing.”
The Worker shook his head as the other Workers around him backed away. He began trembling and shaking. Erin thought she knew him. Wasn’t he part of the twelve who had come to the inn? Now—his hands shook, all four of them, a tremor as if he were suddenly freezing. It was in his voice too.
“This one is not an individual. This one cannot be.”
“You are. Can’t you understand? You’re all special.”
“Stop saying thAt.”
The [Innkeeper] froze. She heard a strange sound in the Worker’s voice. It was trembling, and Selys turned dead white under her scales.
“Tribes—Erin, back away.”
Krshia reached below the counter of her stall as the people in the street suddenly backed away. The Workers closed around the one who Erin was talking to. He was clutching at his head.
“stOp talkinG. Stop askING me—”
“Hey. Hey…don’t be upset. I’m just asking you…are you okay?”
She reached out, and he grabbed her arm. So hard her skin bruised. Cold chitin dug into her skin, and Selys made a sound as Krshia slowly pulled something up and pulled a bowstring back. But Erin just stared into the Worker’s gaze.
She was crying. Tears ran down her cheeks. They had stopped, and now they returned. The Worker gazed at her.
“Stop tHaT. Stop weeping for hiM. Stop aSKING mE—”
His fingers hurt. But Erin didn’t draw away or move as Krshia hissed at her. She just reached out and gently took hold of one of his arms.
“I’m sorry. But he was kind to me. Don’t hate him. Don’t say bad things about him. He saved me.”
“You don’t know what he was.”
The Worker whispered. He was shaking so badly now that she saw his mandibles opening and closing. Opening and closing, and a razor mouth behind them. His fingers began to dig into her skin.
“Don’t ask—this one is not Klbkch. Not individual. We are worthless. Just like the one who died there. No names. Not like him.”
It was almost pleading with her. Erin looked at the Worker, and she whispered back.
“You could be. I wish I knew that Worker’s name. I wish I’d known him. I wish I could do it all again. You don’t have to have a name. But do you want to?”
A sound like a keening scream came from the Worker’s mouth. A third hand rose from her arms and grabbed Erin’s throat. It began to tighten, and Krshia whispered a word as she swung up her bow.
Then the Worker looked into Erin’s eyes, at the blurred hazel depths filled with tears. It shook and shook until it seemed like it could shake no more and the world was falling to pieces. Its world. It let go of her suddenly and stumbled backwards.
Eight Workers had been dragging it back, but the single Worker had been locked in place so fiercely that their fingers and arms had been cracking its shell without moving the Worker. Now, they tumbled back. An arrow passed straight over the Worker’s head and thunked into Lism’s stall. The Drake stared at it. Then—at the Worker.
He lay on his shell, staring up at the sky. Erin stared down at him—and appeared in his line of sight. Someone was shouting for the Watch—but the Worker didn’t move. He didn’t scream or shriek. He just lay there.
“Are you alright?”
She stared down at him. Slowly, the Worker got up, and the other Workers pulled Erin back, making a shield between her and—
This one. The citizens of Liscor, Krshia—some had drawn blades and others were calling for the Watch, but the Worker did not shout. His trembling had ceased.
He felt at his shell and looked around. For a long time, no one said a word. He stared at Erin, and then at last, spoke. Wonderingly, confused.
“This one—I understand. This one has become I.”
Selys gasped in horror. The Worker stared down at his hands and then looked up.
“I understand sorrow. I understand regret for the death of individual Klbkch and Worker. I was wrong. It was a sad thing. For Klbkch. For the Worker. Then death is sad. Then it is all…sad.”
He looked around, and the Worker’s antennae waved. His hands shook, but without the wildness of before. He stared around as if a great weight suddenly rested on him. He looked at his kin, and they were frozen. But Erin just nodded.
Erin didn’t notice the other Workers backing away. The Worker that she’d addressed quivered. His hands opened and closed restlessly. Selys and the other Drakes instantly backed up. Krshia slowly reached below her counter for another arrow. But the Worker was just prodding at his head, feeling at his body as if it had changed suddenly and he was no longer sure if he had the right one.
“I. I am. I have become I. I do not understand.”
He looked around, up at the sky, at Erin. He shook like a leaf.
“If this one—is not—how are the many one? An individual cannot exist—the many are—how am I?”
He shook. Erin grabbed him.
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it. Come on. Let’s play a game of chess.”
He stared at her. Selys was trembling, and the air in the marketplace was tense. But then the Worker nodded.
She began walking out of the marketplace. The Worker followed her, and the rest of the Antinium followed in a silent, winding procession. Selys stared at Erin’s back, eyes wide. She looked at Krshia.
“She’s insane. They’re going to kill her. It’s going to kill her. That was an Aberration—”
Krshia nodded. Her teeth were bared, and her fur was standing on end, but she had a quiver of arrows now.
“Yes. It was an Aberration but it wasn’t. At least—not yet. Is that how it happens? I do not know. Let us follow quickly, yes? Silverfangs, to me! Get every [Warrior] you can find.”
Selys yelped, but Krshia was already gone from behind her counter. She barked something at another Gnoll and strode in the direction the Antinium had gone. Selys stared around at the other wide-eyed Drakes and then ran after Krshia.
The Worker walked behind Erin, and his fellows followed the two in a silent mass. She left the city gates behind, ignoring the Drake shouting at her. She walked as fast as she could, trying not to think, to feel.
Behind her, the Worker shuddered and twitched as he walked. Erin ignored that, but she heard him begin to mutter as he walked along.
“I. I am. But it is wrong. All is wrong. When the many become one, it is Aberration. I am Aberration.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
The Worker just looked at her blankly, as if trying to explain reality to her.
“I cannot be individual. I cannot have names. I cannot choose my own actions. It is wrong. I am no longer one of the Workers. I am…me. This is wrong.”
“Klbkch did it.”
The Worker shook his head. He opened and closed his four hands restlessly.
“He is Prognugator. I am—was Worker. I should not be.”
Erin turned her head.
“You’re fine. You should be. It’s fine to be a person and not a thing.”
“I cannot understand. I am Aberration. All is Aberration. This Hive—I cannot accept it. Why am I sad? Why am I sad? What have you done to me?”
“…I’m sorry. But I wanted you to feel something.”
“I feel. I feel all.”
Erin kept walking, but the Worker stopped. He started twitching again, and then his gaze snapped to the back of her head. Slowly, the Worker increased his pace until he was right behind Erin. She didn’t notice, lost in her thoughts.
In the silence, the Worker reached out for Erin as he walked behind her. The other Workers watched as they followed. They said not a word.
“I don’t know what it means to be me.”
Erin said it as she walked along. She didn’t know how to explain it to the Worker. She had to say—something. To tell him what it was like.
“I don’t even know what it means to be Human. All I know is that there’s a big hole in my heart. Because Klbkch and the Worker died. I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing. I’m just—sad.”
The Worker paused. His hands hesitated at the back of Erin’s neck.
Erin smiled. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked through the grass.
“I just am. That’s how it works. You don’t get to choose to be someone. You just are. Even if you’re not special. Even if you don’t want to be. You just are.”
He paused. Slowly, the Worker lowered his hands.
“I do not understand. But—I am. And I too am sad.”
“Good. That’s—that’s good.”
Erin sniffed and wiped at her eyes and nose. The Worker slowly walked faster until he was next to her.
“Innkeeper—Erin Solstice. I am sorry for the death of Klbkch and the Worker. I regret their death and your suffering.”
They walked on in silence. Eventually, the Worker spoke again.
“I am no longer a Worker. I am an individual. I would like a name.”
She looked at him.
“I can’t help you. I’m not—I can’t give you one. Couldn’t you ask your Queen?”
He shook his head.
“I—do not wish to. I must have a name. Where may I find one?”
“I don’t know. Can’t you choose one for yourself?”
The Worker paused. He turned his head to Erin and hesitated before nodding.
“I will do so.”
She waited. After a minute of walking, the Worker spoke again.
“I would like to be known as ‘Pawn.’ It is a fitting name for this individual.”
Erin nodded. She gave him a weak smile.
“Hello. Erin Solstice.”
“…Will your friends be like you?”
Pawn looked over his shoulder. The other Workers looked away. He bowed his head.
“They are afraid. They will not be like me.”
“But I have told them what it means to regret the passing of individuals. They understand.”
“They—we. We are all sad.”
They came to the inn on the hill and the bodies. Erin stared down at the blood and collapsed. She’d forgotten they were still there.
Pawn caught her before she hit the ground. He helped her up, and Erin sat down while the other Workers surrounded the area. They paused as they surveyed the wreckage of the inn and corpses and then seemed to come to a decision. As one, the Workers began hauling the corpses away while others of their number began digging several hundred feet away from the inn. More still entered the inn and began dragging out broken wood.
Erin sat in the grass and looked away. She glanced up as one of the Workers dragged out the body of their comrade. Then she threw up.
Eventually, Erin felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She looked up and saw it was Krshia.
“Erin Solstice. I was looking for you, yes? The Workers, they have finished their cleaning.”
She looked and saw it was true. The area around the inn was clean. Even the grass had been cleaned with water, and the Workers stood silently around the inn. They were all staring at her.
She said it to Pawn and then to the other Workers. They nodded as one.
“We assist to maintain order and preserve peace.”
Krshia stared at the sign above the Wandering Inn. She looked around and then followed Erin as the Human stepped inside.
“So, this is your inn, yes? It looks better than I had thought. Worth defending.”
Erin nodded. She looked around the empty room. The Workers had cleaned it almost to perfection. All the broken chairs and tables were gone. But they hadn’t touched one thing.
A splintered chess piece lay on the floor. Erin slowly walked over to it. It stared up at her, a Drake caught in mid-strike, a spear in his hands.
She looked down at the broken knight piece on the floor and picked up the base. Carefully, Erin put it in her pocket and looked around. Silent Workers filled the room. More stared through the windows.
Erin looked around. She saw the chess board and picked it up. It was heavy in her hands. She remembered sitting at a table and staring at a brown ant across the board.
Her eyes stung, but there weren’t any tears left. Erin brushed at her eyes and then turned with the chess board.
Slowly, Erin brought the board out and set it down in the grass outside the inn. The Antinium formed a huge circle around her, and Pawn stood in the center next to Erin. She sat down and placed the board in front of her. She gestured, and Pawn hesitated, then sat opposite her.
Erin looked at him. He was a bit shorter than Klbkch, thinner, and his features were somehow less sharp than Kblkch’s had been. He looked nothing like Klbkch at all, in fact. But her heart still hurt to look at him.
Slowly, Erin put the broken knight on her side of the chess board. Pawn rearranged the pieces on his side. She stared at him. She stared up at the sky. It was too blue, too pristine for a day like this. It wasn’t even night yet.
The sky should be raining blood. The world should be filled with darkness, and the earth should have opened up and swallowed her whole. She should have been paralyzed by sadness, but Erin just felt hollow. She understood nothing. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
And there was nothing she could do about it. So Erin moved a piece on the board. The broken knight moved up to C3. She looked at Pawn. He stared back, and the rest of the Workers stared with him at the Human who wept for Antinium.
Erin bowed her head.
“Let’s play chess.”