Erin sat on a grassy hilltop and played a game of chess. It made life easier. When she was playing, she could forget about life. She could forget about suffering.
It didn’t end such things. Chess was an escape. If you were bleeding or crying, it couldn’t help. Playing chess would bring no one back. There was an irony to the game; it was a complex competition still popular hundreds of years after it had been invented.
A computer would always win. Yet some people, like Erin, had spent great portions of their lives playing this game. In a world of computers and countless other things to devote your time to, Erin had become one of the world’s experts in this game.
And she was an expert. She was no Grandmaster or even an International Master, but she had reached a level beyond most players as a girl. Then the pressure, the game no longer being fun, and the futility of playing this game when real tragedy occurred, when it had no point, came crashing down on her.
All that was the same Erin who sat on the grass outside her inn. The fall was changing the colors of this place, and the wind was blowing at the top of the steep hill. If there were only some trees with autumn leaves…this would have been a perfect moment. A hill where she could sit in peace. No monsters. No death.
Klbkch’s blood and the blood of Goblins still stained the grass elsewhere. Gnolls and Antinium had found some of the bodies that had been left untouched. They were burning them. Erin should have stood and helped, but she was so weary. Her eyes were red from tears and she had no more to give. So she sat and played chess.
Erin moved her pieces on the chess board, pausing, considering, moving, retreating, taking. It was a dance of strategy and perception, and she had learned many of the steps long ago. But chess was always different with every game. That was why she could lose herself in it.
And yet, it wasn’t just calculation that Erin did. A chess player played against an opponent, and unless it was a computer, they read the other player and danced with them. Mind games were part of chess, just like basic strategy and knowing fundamental moves were. But Erin had never played against a mind like the one that sat opposite her.
She looked up over her pieces at her opponent, the Worker with a name.
Pawn. He was staring at the board, pondering his next move. His shaking was gone. He no longer spoke in a trembling whisper, and he was—calm. Calm, and as if he were the very grass upon which they sat. Blown away by the wind in this vast sky. Yet he did play, quickly, placing the pieces with the same confidence as Erin did, if not more.
Something was wrong with him. It wasn’t just that he had a name. Erin didn’t understand the Antinium, but she understood chess players. Something had seriously gone wrong with him.
He was too good. Their pieces clicked on the board as Erin Solstice realized she was losing. She had beaten state champions and even played Grandmasters, a rare honor.
And she was losing flawlessly. She could have blamed it on recent events, her lack of sleep, but her mind felt clear, beyond exhaustion and grief. Her focus deepened as she spoke.
“I still don’t get it. Where do levels come from? Why do people have them? Why do people only level up when they sleep?”
“I do not know, Erin Solstice. These are mysteries of the world. They are what they are, yes?”
Krshia shifted in her seat in the grass. She sat with Selys, inside the circle of watching Antinium Workers, but distinctly apart from them. She was calm, at least in that she was watching Erin play Pawn, but Selys kept glancing around at the silent Workers nervously.
“Fine. But if that’s the case, why don’t we get levels for everything? Like…walking. Is there a [Walker] class?”
Krshia shook her head.
“Walking is something we do, not something we live for, yes? Only things that we make our goals and dreams form classes. However, there is a [Runner] class.”
Erin glanced up, exasperated.
“But that makes no sense!”
“People run for a living, Erin. I’ve never met anyone who walks. That kind of class would be a [Traveller] or a [Journeywoman]. You see? No wait, [Journeywoman] is an apprentice class. See? Now you’re getting me confused.”
Selys sounded exasperated too, but she thought Erin had a point. The [Innkeeper] frowned and waved a pawn in her direction before she put it down.
“But that does mean you could get a class for eating, right?”
“You mean a [Gourmet]? I’ve heard some rich merchants and nobility have that class. Lifestyle, Erin. I hear there are some fat slobs who live all their lives just partying and living life up. [Hedonists].”
“No way. Really? Okay, I think I get it. But people can have multiple classes, right?”
Selys nodded. She was the bigger expert on classes, apparently. It probably had to do with her being a receptionist. Erin frowned, looked at a knight, and nearly ran right into the trap Pawn had set. How had he become so good?
“In theory, you could have as many classes as you want. But in practice, even most Adventurers only have three or four classes, tops. It’s because you don’t just get a class even if you qualify for it. It has to become part of your life.”
“Oh, I get it.”
Selys paused. Her tail curled up as she sat with her claws folded politely in her lap. Erin had noticed Drakes were expressive with their tails where their faces told nothing. Krshia, on the other hand, had a perfect poker face, and her tail wasn’t nearly long enough to give anything away.
“Um, did…no one ever tell you this when you were growing up, Erin? I mean, everyone knows this stuff. It’s basic.”
“Even the Antinium? Even the Workers?”
Pawn looked up from the board.
“Yes, Erin Solstice. We are taught such things as we are formed in Birther Sacs. All Workers know of leveling, but we seldom do.”
“Why? I’ve gained ten…yeah, ten levels this month.”
Krshia and Selys exchanged a glance. Even the Workers twitched their antennae at each other in their seats.
“Are you serious?”
Erin looked up and saw Selys gaping at her.
“What? I’m only Level 10. Isn’t that low?”
“It is—but—I mean, it is, but no one levels up that fast! Erin, normally someone has to apprentice to someone else for years before they hit Level 10. Most kids—well, most people our age are barely Level 14 in their chosen profession around now. Maybe they have other classes—my friend, Drassi, switches jobs every other week, so she’s barely got levels in anything but [Gossip]. Still! Ten levels in a month?”
“Really? Only Level 14? That just seems so…low.”
Again, Erin had the impression she was the only person in the group that thought that way.
“Well, Level 100 is the highest, right? Doesn’t that mean most people would get to…I dunno, Level 60 or higher before they die?”
Selys laughed—more incredulously than politely.
“You’re joking. Right?”
Erin shrugged. She moved another pawn and took a bishop. Then she realized it was another trap. She was going to lose her other knight.
“Am I wrong?”
“I have known many elderly people. They all have levels in their twenties or sometimes thirties, yes? Few are above Level 40. A great Tribe might have more than one; some tribes have none at all. Few even reach their thirtieth level. If I had to name those above Level 50, there would only be…a dozen in each continent, yes?”
“So someone over Level 70 for example…?”
Selys looked at Krshia. The Gnoll shrugged.
“I don’t think I know of one living, in any class. I’ve heard legends about warriors that reached that level, but those are ancient stories. You know, the kind where a single hero defeats armies by himself or slays Hydras and Krakens single-handedly. People just don’t level that high.”
Erin nodded. She knew they were watching her incredulously, and she knew she was giving away her ignorance. Klbkch had noticed it…
And he was dead. So Erin just went on.
“Okay. I think I get it. So people level up, but not that high. And you can have more than one class, but you have to level that one up from the start, right?”
Selys nodded. It was a different nod than Erin’s. Her neck was longer, so it looked more like a long bob than the short motion Erin was used to.
“Right. If you were a [Spearmaster] like Relc, say, and then you picked up a sword and started using that, you’d probably get the [Warrior] class until you were high enough level and had enough skills for a [Swordslayer] class or a [Duelist] class or something like that.”
“So classes change names?”
“Are you sure no one’s ever talked to you about this?”
“Klbkch explained some of it to me.”
“Oh. Um. Oh, I—well, yes, classes change. It’s just usually in name to represent you’re more specialized or—or you’ve hit a higher level. For instance, [Tacticians] usually become [Strategists], but they can become [Leaders] or [Generals]. It depends on the Skills you have. And what you do with your life.”
“And…I think I remember this. Skills define classes, right? But doesn’t everyone get the same Skills when they level up?”
“No. They do not.”
Krshia stared at Erin. Her eyes narrowed as her brow creased together in a frown. Erin paid no notice. She could see more than people thought when she played chess, and she learned more than she let on. But right now? It didn’t matter.
“Everyone gets different Skills when they level. Often, they’re the same, but some people get them at different times or get different variations on Skills…it’s about need. Need and want determine what Skills we get.”
“And what we do, right? That determines our classes, which determines how our level ups affect us and whether or not our classes change.”
Selys looked relieved Erin was finally getting it.
Erin looked at Pawn. He and all the Workers were staring hard at the board. Erin pushed her king over. She’d lost. They reset the board, and she began again. And once more—he moved so surely she felt like he had been playing longer than she had. How had he done this overnight? He’d been an amateur when she met him in her inn. Now…she glanced up, and all saw his antennae waving slowly in thought. It made her smile.
“Do the Workers have lots of levels? You guys work all the time, so you’ve got to have lots, right?”
He paused, and Erin noticed something odd. All of the Workers were focused on the board. Yet when Pawn moved a piece, suddenly they looked at her or elsewhere. But whenever she moved a piece, they immediately focused on the board again to the exclusion of everything else.
“We have very few levels, Erin. I myself am a Level 2 [Butcher] and Level 1 [Carpenter].”
“What? Is it—is it because you’re young or something?”
“I have lived more than half of the average Worker’s lifespan. The Workers do not level up frequently. Some do not level at all.”
Erin turned in her grassy seat to look at Selys and Krshia. The Drake flicked her tongue out in surprise.
“I…didn’t know that.”
“Neither did I. But it is not unexpected, yes? Leveling comes from learning and trials. Without such things there is no experience gained. For one who does the same thing without change, they will not level.”
“And that’s probably why you’ve leveled so quickly, Erin. Starting an inn by yourself—that’s got to be a lot harder than just working in one or taking over a business.”
It had been the hardest thing Erin had ever done in her life. She looked down at her stomach and legs folded pretzel-style beneath her. They should have been full of holes or scarred from countless stab-wounds. Yeah, it was different than just being an innkeeper in a city.
“So the Antinium don’t level up much? I guess Klbkch was an exception.”
“A big one. He was the Slayer, a Prognugator—”
Selys hesitated. She ducked her head.
“—He was famous among his people, Erin. One of the few Antinium with a name. He—”
Krshia kicked Selys, and the Drake looked guilty, but Erin just nodded. She took all the feelings and put them into the chess pieces. Just for a while. Then she thought of the Soldiers.
“But doesn’t that mean they’re weak, then? If most Drakes around my age are Level 10 or higher, why aren’t they way stronger than all the Antinium?”
“Erin, have you seen those giant soldier-types the Antinium keep in their tunnels? I caught a glimpse of one walking through the streets this morning.”
Selys shuddered. Her tail twitched several times.
“They don’t need levels, Erin. They’re deadly enough as it is. If you gave them high levels and churned them out the way the Antinium can, they’d be an unstoppable army.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I guess levels can’t replace numbers or muscle, can it?”
“Well, it can, but only if there’s a big difference in levels. Relc, for instance…he’s strong. He could probably take on a lot of those soldiers. Not that he would—don’t get me wrong! But he’s Level 32, I think. That’s incredibly different than a Level 13 [Warrior]. Does this all make sense, Erin?”
Erin moved another piece and knew how the game would end.
“I think I get it. Thanks for explaining.”
“I just don’t understand why you don’t know all th—”
Selys was cut off as Krshia elbowed her hard in the side. She hissed rather than squeaked and sat straight up. Krshia broke into the conversation.
“It is curious you do not know of levels, but perhaps your people do not level in the same way we do, yes? Rare classes, perhaps? I understand not all classes are earned equally. Especially in places like the Kingdom of Keys. Samal. Peaceful places.”
Selys frowned at Erin, but the [Innkeeper]’s face was smooth as she moved a piece.
“Yeah. Something like that. Is leveling a big part of people’s lives here?”
“Some would call it…belief. Some yes, some think levels rule everything. No one w…hm, what’s the word? Worships? The gods are dead, Erin. They are dead. In some places, leveling is preached and those with the highest level are worshiped. I have heard it said that to each one of us is a maximum level given, and when we reach that level, we have reached the end of our life.”
Selys rubbed her head as if even talking about this was giving her a headache. Silence fell over the grassy audience. Erin turned in her seat and stared at Krshia.
“Seriously? Some people believe that?”
Krshia’s gaze didn’t waver.
Selys gasped, but Krshia shrugged.
“Some believe, Erin. And who is to say what is true?”
Erin turned back to the game and saw Pawn had moved. She tipped over her king.
“I forfeit again. Good match.”
Pawn bowed from his seat to her. Erin bowed her head back.
“It was a good game, Erin.”
“It was a great game!”
Selys sat up in her seat and stared at the two players.
“I don’t know much about chess, but I’ve seen Olesm play. You’re way better than he is, Erin. And you…um…Pawn.”
He bowed to her, and she flinched.
“I merely learn from Erin Solstice. She is an expert in this game.”
“And that’s another thing. How are you so good at that, Erin? Olesm says you’re the best player he’s ever seen or heard of. Are you a high-level [Tactician], then?”
Erin was mildly insulted by the suggestion. She helped Pawn reset the board as Selys frowned.
“What about some other class? Or is it a rare Skill?”
“No, it’s just skill. Not the kind you get from leveling up. Just skill in the game. I don’t have any levels besides [Innkeeper].”
“But then how are you so good?”
Erin took her time before answering. She reset her pieces and switched the board around. Silently, Pawn moved a piece forwards, and she countered. Another game began, but she had the same feeling.
“I just played since I was a kid, that’s all. Every day. At first it was just a hobby, y’know? Something I saw an adult do, but then I found I liked it. When I won my first tournament, I was over the moon. And after that, I just kept playing.”
Selys glanced at Krshia.
“But wasn’t chess invented only a few years ago by the Titan of B—”
Again, she received an elbow in the side and glared at Krshia, but then she stared at Erin in sudden interest.
“Well, I guess maybe here it’s new. But chess has been around a lot longer where I come from.”
Erin smiled briefly.
“A lot longer. And lots of people love to play it where I come from. There’s strategy books, lessons online, tutors…I learned it all. Fun fact? I learned how to play chess blindfolded before I learned how to ride a bike.”
She moved another piece. After a second of staring, Pawn moved his queen and took it. She frowned and kept playing. Memory was overlapping with reality.
“I was never the best. But I was good. Really good. For my age? I was incredible. I played in tournaments, I stayed up late playing chess—my parents let me. They knew I had a gift. So I would study chess every moment I had free time, play adults, go to chess clubs and tournaments after school, and I kept winning. But then once you get to a high enough level, you start losing.”
Like now. Just like now, and then, Erin stared at the board and felt outclassed. She moved a rook and watched it die two moves in the future to protect her queen.
“It happens. And it’s not surprising. Even a genius kid can’t beat an adult who’s played thousands—tens of thousands more games. But every time I lost, it crushed me. So I quit.”
“You q—ow! Stop hitting me!”
Erin smiled, but it was fleeting. Her entire focus was devoted to the game before her and speaking. She had to admit, she’d thought she was too good to beat at one point. As if you could talent past experience.
…Much like Pawn was doing, actually. Erin glanced up at him. This was impossible for someone to do, play at this level without practice. It was more than intelligence or experience. She knew patterns and strategy. Yet he won. She went on, remembering.
“Somewhere…sometime I guess I lost interest in playing chess. Or maybe I stopped having fun. I don’t know how to explain it. I was just a kid, but I spent every waking moment playing the stupid game, going to tournaments, studying, winning, losing—I never really lived. I never played with my friends.”
She moved a pawn. The Workers paused, and then Pawn moved a piece.
“When I realized that, I quit. I just stopped playing, threw away my chess set…I did normal things. It took me years before I even looked at a chess board, and then it was fun to play. But I never wanted to be a Grandmaster again. The pressure, living just for that one game—it’s too much.”
Pawn took her queen, ironically, with a pawn. It couldn’t be avoided, but Erin knew how the game was going to end now.
“I guess I’m just a normal girl who’s better than 99% of the world at chess. But that last 1%. That’s a heck of a large gap.”
“If that is the case, Miss Erin, I shudder to imagine what kind of geniuses live in your home nation.”
At some point, Olesm had appeared, and Pisces, and even three of the four Goblins. Rags sat in the grass among the Workers, silently watching the game. The Antinium looked at the Goblins and then away, but Selys gripped a dagger at her belt as she glared at the Goblins, and Krshia sneezed. Yet there was peace, however tenuous. Perhaps it had to do with the pile of Goblin corpses buried in the unmarked grave a mile away.
“I’m sure you don’t think of it this way, but I cannot imagine a player better than you, Erin. I have Skills that allow me to play the game better than most, but I cannot beat you no matter how hard I try.”
Pisces nodded in agreement. Erin grinned mirthlessly. They hadn’t seen how the last few games had been played.
“Why don’t I level, then? I don’t have any levels in [Tactician], but Pawn tells me the other Workers have leveled up in it. Probably the Goblins as well.”
Erin moved another piece and watched Pawn hesitate. Well, good.
“We’ve got a ranking system in my world. People who play chess in tournaments get a score, which goes up and down when they win or lose. A Grandmaster’s got about 2600 or more points, and the really amazing chess players all have over 2200 points. If you have that many, you’re pretty much one of the best in the nation.”
He decided to lose a knight as opposed to his bishop. Erin frowned. The game was ending. How was he this good? It was impossible. She felt like she was playing…
A Grandmaster. But it couldn’t be.
“I got to just over 2000 when I was a kid. That’s insane but—it’s still a huge difference between that and being a Grandmaster. If I kept playing, maybe I’d be around 2400 right now. But either way, I’m one of the best in the place where I lived. In this world—I probably am the best. So why don’t I level?”
Olesm appeared distressed.
“…I could not say. It does not make sense.”
Pisces nodded self-importantly as everyone looked at him. He was still arrogant, but it was muted arrogance, subdued. Erin was grateful for that.
“Classes are based on what we pursue. Yet—by that same notion, what we consider unimportant or trivial fails to trigger the same classes in other people. It is a known phenomenon I studied during my time in Wistram Academy. I wrote a paper that—well, suffice it to say, if you do not consider chess to be anything other than a game, you would not level.”
Olesm and Selys looked incredulously at Pisces.
“A game? But it’s obviously a game.”
“Allow me to rephrase my statement.”
Pisces looked annoyed as he searched for a better explanation.
“What I mean to say is that if Mistress Solstice does not consider any of the tactical applications of learning to play chess—how moving pawns is similar to organizing warriors, for instance—she would not level in the [Tactician] class. To begin with, the amount of experience gained from playing chess is far lower than actual work as a strategist, so if she cared not at all about games of war as opposed to games of pieces…”
“I don’t level. Makes sense.”
Erin tipped over her king and sighed. She’d sped up the rate of her play, but somehow that had only made her game worse, not Pawn’s.
“I lose. Again.”
She sat back in the grass and looked up at the fading sky. Olesm and Pisces stared open-mouthed at Pawn as he carefully set the game back together.
“How are you doing it? No one gets this good overnight. Not even a genius can play like that on his first go.”
Pawn ducked his head in front of Erin’s stare, cowed.
“Apologies. But the Innkeeper Solstice makes a mistake. This one—I am sorry. You misunderstand, Erin. At this moment, you are not simply playing me, but all the Antinium gathered here.”
He gestured around at the grassy knoll where the countless workers, the two Drakes, two Humans, Goblins, and single Gnoll sat.
“The hundred play as one mind. We see a hundred moves and play them all in turn. We think together and play as one body.”
Erin stared at him.
“Just so. We think as one. That is the nature of the Antinium. Even if—that nature has been compromised by the experiment. Though I am individual, that is still true of me. I do not know why, but I feel…”
Pawn gestured silently around at the other Workers. Something was happening, and not even the other Antinium seemed to understand that. Yet if they did feel each other’s thoughts—Erin looked at him.
“And Klbkch? And the Worker? Did you feel…?”
Pawn shook his head, slowly.
“We felt their loss, Erin. But only when we knew it. The Queen remembers. She knows us all. But we—we are Antinium. This is new.”
He stared down at his hands as the [Innkeeper] lowered her eyes. Until Pawn spoke.
“At least, Klbkch will not be gone forever. So long as the Queen lives, she will remember him.”
Erin stopped placing chess pieces back on the board. She stared into Pawn’s fragmented eyes, urgently seeking the truth.
“But what about the other Worker? What about him?”
Her reply was a sad look. Pawn’s antennae stopped moving, and he replied quietly.
“Why would she remember him? He was no Prognugator. He had no name.”
“But he was brave. He—he died for me. Both of them should be remembered.”
Erin clenched a hand in the grass. Pawn looked at her, and then he bowed his head.
“He was the designated Worker who won 54.6% of all games he played. He had no name. If you wish it, I will remember him, Miss Solstice.”
Her head came up. Erin gave Pawn a pained look, but one filled with gratitude.
“So will I. And you won’t forget?”
He shook his head. Pawn peered at Erin’s shimmering eyes and tried to reassure her.
“Do not be sad, Miss Solstice. We are the Antinium. So long as the Hive exists, all will be well. So long as the Queen lives—nothing else matters.”
Erin paused. She looked down and wiped at her eyes.
“I wish that were true.”
The Antinium moved in shock, but some of them turned from Erin to Pawn and listened. Selys shifted in her seat. She bowed her head. Olesm cleared his throat.
“As much as it pains me to say it, Erin, I have to disagree with you. Klbkch was truly unique. He was the first—and only—Antinium ever to be accepted as a member of the Watch. Even among the Antinium’s Prognugators, and there are few, he was the only trusted Antinium to ever exist. Ever since the Antinium entered the city ten years ago, he’s been the one who acted as a liaison between their Queen and our city. He is—was the representative of their race. I, um, feel like I should say that about him now. I quite respected him, despite him being an—an Antinium.”
“I never knew he was so important.”
“He was humble. It was why many liked him. And now he is gone.”
“Not so long as the Queens live. He will be remembered. It is more than any other Antinium has.”
Pawn stared around with something approaching defiance. Erin shook her head.
“But he can’t speak to us, Pawn. He’s gone for us.”
“I—see. I feel there is much misunderstood, but I respect your grief.”
Awkwardly, he placed his king back in position.
“Will you play another game, Erin?”
“Would it do any good? I can’t win. You—you’re better than I am.”
Olesm and Pisces began to protest, but they were quickly drowned out. Every Worker clicked in denial of Erin’s statement. They made a low buzzing sound that was quiet individually, but sounded like an armageddon of bees together. Selys clutched at Krshia’s fur.
“There is much we learn from each game, Erin Solstice. Please do not stop teaching.”
Erin smiled hollowly.
It didn’t feel like that. It felt like running away from everything. But fine. She owed the Workers. She owed the Antinium. So fine.
Slowly, she drew the board away from Pawn, batting away his hands.
“Stop that. Let me show you something.”
She reversed the board and moved the white pawn forwards.
“This—is an Immortal Game.”
Instantly, Pawn stopped protesting. Pisces and Olesm exchanged a glance and moved up. Rags was already sitting next to the board. Erin slowly moved the black pawn up in front of the white one.
“In the history of chess, there are a lot of famous games that we study because of how brilliant they are. Some people call other games Immortal Games as well. And there are a few famous ones. But this. This is the Immortal Game. Some of the moves aren’t considered as good nowadays, but this is still considered one of the pinnacle moments of chess in my world.”
Krshia breathed in sharply, but Erin’s words passed over the audience as she moved the chess pieces slowly across the board. Slowly, the two sides played against each other. Erin pointed out each gambit, each strategy and attack and counter as the game played out.
“King’s Gambit Accepted to open with, and then the Bishop’s Gambit…see here, he tries the Byran-Counter Gambit with the pawn? And then the white side attacks the queen with a knight here…”
She played the game out from memory. She’d seen it so many times in her head it was second nature to her. The chess players watched, frowning, trying to keep up with the dizzying display before them. But the Workers stared at the board, and as Erin moved into the last phase of the game and took the white queen, Pawn spoke.
“We can see the ending.”
Erin looked up. Olesm and Pisces stared at Pawn in disbelief.
Pawn hesitated, but then reached out and moved the white pawn up. Erin stared down at the board and played the next move, checking the white side’s king with a queen. Pawn moved the king diagonally, and the game continued.
A perfect game. He played the game exactly how Erin remembered it. In the silence, she toppled the black king and looked up. Olesm and Pisces were staring at Pawn as if he’d turned into a horrific monster.
“Good. Now play me. One last time.”
Silently, Pawn sat opposite Erin and set up the pieces once more. She stared at the board. She was white. Slowly, she moved a pawn forwards.
“I was always afraid of losing as a kid. Always. I studied so hard so I wouldn’t lose. Maybe that’s why I never improved. I thought losing was a terrible thing.”
Pawn waited and studied the board. He moved a knight forwards in response. Erin whispered.
“But chess? Chess isn’t scary. Not compared to other things.”
That was the last thing Erin said. She wiped at her blurry eyes and set aside her heart for a moment so she could play. It was a relief. It felt so good to lay everything aside and at the same time to let it all out. To let it hurt and play.
Erin’s pulse pounded in the back of her mind. The world around the chess board vanished, and the chess board grew before her eyes. Each piece consumed her vision, and she heard only the click of moving pieces. That sound was thunder in her head.
Pawn sat in front of her, but she didn’t focus on him. He couldn’t be read. He couldn’t be outthought. There were a hundred of him thinking over every move. So Erin just played. The chess board was her world, the pieces parts of her soul.
She looked at her opponent and saw another Antinium sitting opposite her. Erin dreamt as she played. She was playing in her heart, in the core of her being, in her wishes of what might have been.
In this place, there was only the game. And Klbkch.
Erin was crying as she played. Her tears fell on the chess board and into the grass. She played and moved pieces and lost them. But it was all part of a bigger plan, one she couldn’t see, couldn’t understand. She could understand chess. That was easy. But she couldn’t understand anything else.
She took the enemy pawns. She took his rook, his knight, his bishop, and his queen. She hounded him, lured him into traps and pushed into his lines and kept her own pieces safe, or gave them away to tear his apart. She pushed and pushed, until he had nothing left.
In the silence of her dark world, Erin saw the king topple over. She blinked, and the moment was over.
Pawn bowed his head. Erin heard ringing in her ears and then snuffling. She looked over and saw Olesm was crying. The [Tactician] wiped away tears from his eyes.
“I will—I will never see—I cannot explain what it is.”
Pisces was covering his eyes, rubbing them with the heel of his hands. Rags was staring at the pieces, her eyes bloodshot as if she hadn’t blinked in an age.
“It was—that was a display beyond anything I’ve seen. It was pure! I couldn’t see how it would end! I couldn’t predict the next move! How are you not a [General] or—or a [Strategist] of the highest level?”
Erin shook her head. She looked at the chess board.
“It’s just a game. I’m no tactician or even a warrior.”
She stared at her hands.
“I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I don’t want to be anything else. I don’t even want to be that, but I am. That’s all.”
She stood up. Pawn stared at her. The Workers stared at her. She met their eyes and bowed her head. She wiped at her eyes and let her tears fall into the grass.
Then she left. Slowly, Erin walked inside her inn and collapsed onto the floor. She slept, mercifully, with the blackness of oblivion and no dreams.
[Innkeeper Level 11!]
[Skill – Lesser Strength obtained!]
[Skill – Immortal Moment learned.]