The day after Ryoka’s encounter with Persua and the day before everything else happened, a [Message] was sent to Celum addressed to Ryoka and Erin. Two spells, actually. They were duly recorded and when Ryoka remembered to stop by the Mage’s Guild, they were delivered to both girls at the counter with no incident.
Erin and Ryoka stared at the short piece of paper and the neat, clearly legible handwriting of the scribe. It was a short message, but hit all the points Erin had been privately worrying about.
Erin, Mrsha is with me and Olesm is keeping an eye on your inn. M is worried, but adjusting. All is well; do not get stabbed by Goblins. I have told Klbksctch and Relc. Stay safe,
Erin breathed a sigh of relief as she looked at the message while Ryoka looked at the short reply she’d received from Krshia.
We will await the delivery. The others will abide until then.
The other girl didn’t exactly sigh in relief, but it put her mind at ease. Both young women left the Mage’s Guild without sending a return message, and met with Ivolethe and Garia to go about the rest of their day. While the situation was not ideal, Erin and Ryoka agreed that things would keep a little while before they would need to return.
However, all those in both Celum and Liscor had omitted one person in their exchange of messages. Selys had completely forgotten about her while attempting to deal with a restless and upset Mrsha, and Krshia was too busy taking care of her nephew Tkrn who was lying in bed moaning about his paw. Erin was too busy thinking about Toren to remember, and Ryoka didn’t really care. Thus, no one had mentioned the last small detail left unresolved in Erin’s inn.
They had all completely forgotten about Lyonette.
Lyonette sat in the empty inn that belonged to Erin Solstice and stared at the shuttered windows. It was dark. The room was empty and quiet and the falling snow outside did not disturb the suffocating stillness of the building. Nevertheless, Lyonette stayed still, refusing to move. She was not crying, and she wasn’t having hysterics. She was above such common reactions.
But she was afraid. She could see snow falling between one of the cracks in the shutters. It was the only one not fully covering the glass windows. She knew she should get up and close it fully, but she didn’t want to. Fear held her down.
Lyonette, or Lyon as she now grudgingly answered to, watched the snow slowly build up outside. Flakes fell down from the overcast sky, disappearing into the blank landscape. She watched the snow fall and wondered when it would stop. Part of her wanted it never to stop, as if time was tied to the snow. So long as it fell, time wouldn’t pass and she wouldn’t have to confront the truth.
Erin Solstice was gone. She had left her inn one day and never come back. She was gone, and now so was the cute little Gnoll child named Mrsha. Ryoka Griffin, the surly Runner girl had left too, and all the guests had stopped arriving. Now the inn was deserted, save for Lyonette. And if the Goblins came back, she would just be a corpse. Or worse.
In the growing cold, Lyonette shivered. She hadn’t dared light a fire, even though the winter chill meant she had bundled herself in every article of clothing Erin had given her. She had even dragged a blanket downstairs and she was shivering in it. She could see her breath sometimes in the air—if she held her breath and then slowly breathed out, she could see it as a small vapor trail.
This was a new discovery for Lyonette. She had seldom been in any place where she was this cold for this long. She had always been taken care of by a bevy of servants; exposure to potentially lethal cold like this was unthinkable.
But her servants were on another continent and Lyonette was alone. And Erin, the only person who had taken care of her, was gone. She might have been killed by the Goblin army. They had gone north, hadn’t they?
At that thought Lyonette shuddered uncontrollably and nearly fell out of her chair. The Goblin army. They had come through Liscor’s path, a huge army of them, just like those led by the Goblin Lords of the past. She hadn’t seen anything like a Goblin Lord, but the army had been enough to give her waking nightmares.
She remembered that night vividly. She had been sleeping in her bed the day after Selys had taken Mrsha. Lyonette hadn’t been sleeping well; she’d barely gotten to bed after the female drake had finally dragged the Gnoll forcibly out of the inn, ignoring the howls and shrieks of distress the Gnoll cub had made. And then she had heard the high-pitched shouting, and woken from her slumber. A minute later Lyonette had realized it wasn’t shouting she was hearing, but the Goblins.
An army had marched out of the darkness, through the falling snow, hundreds, thousands of them. Some had been holding torches, but the vast mass of their number had been mostly shadows, rapidly traversing the deep snow, laughing and shrieking as the torchlight glinted off of metal.
A Goblin army. The bane of civilization. Lyonette had been too afraid to count and see if there were really hundreds of thousands of them like those that had marched in the last Goblin King’s army. The instant she had realized the Goblins were moving towards Liscor, she had barricaded the door and fled upstairs to her room.
Lyon had hid in her room on the second floor of the inn, hiding under the bed with her heart hammering out of her chest as she heard the Goblin host marching past. Her first thought had been that the Goblins were attacking Liscor. But they hadn’t. Instead, the Goblin army had moved around the city on the eastern side. They were headed north, to the Human lands, and that had forced them to bypass Liscor.
The Goblins had passed by the walls of the city in one mass, loosing arrows up at the defenders while the [Guardsmen] held their ground behind the battlements. A few volleys had been loosed in return, but the main deterrent had come in the form of a glowing orb of crackling lightning that had formed over the southern wall. It had sent bolts of lightning shooting down towards the Goblins, who had scattered and retreated to a safer distance.
Lyonette had recognized the wards of course. They were standard among most large cities that faced regular monster attacks. And they were a sufficient deterrent for the Goblin army, for the mass of monsters didn’t stop to retaliate again and disappeared down the northern road. Lyonette had watched the dark shapes vanish and waited even longer until the last eerie howls had been covered up by silence. But she had hid in the inn until the morning, and many hours after that.
After that—silence. Lyonette had stayed in the inn for two more days, only opening the door once when a strange Drake she vaguely recognized tried to enter. He hadn’t said much—his name was Okresm or something and he had left as soon as he realized Lyon was still living here. Rather, she had chased him out.
Now Lyonette was regretting that, however slightly. It had been days since the Goblin army had passed, and the young woman had heard nothing about Erin’s whereabouts. For all intents and purposes, she had vanished.
What had happened? Ryoka had left with a few curt words saying she was going to look for Erin. Then Selys had decided to take Mrsha into the city and they’d gone. And then—
Nothing. Where was Erin? Had Ryoka found her, or was she still looking? Lyonette was in the dark about everything, and with only her fears to speak to her day after day, her paranoia had mounted.
Erin was never coming back. She might be, but she could be hurt, or wounded. What if a monster had killed her, or her skeleton? Maybe it had shown its true colors and stabbed her when her back was turned, or simply abandoned Erin in the middle of nowhere. She could be dead! Or eaten! Or—
Lyonette imagined Goblins doing all the horrible things her [Governess] had told her about, or what she’d heard when eavesdropping on the palace staff. Erin might have run into the Goblin army. She could be dying right this instant.
That didn’t inspire Lyon to go out searching for Erin like that rude Ryoka had done of course. She wouldn’t know where to begin, and the Goblins had probably eaten her. Besides, Lyon didn’t owe her anything. Erin Solstice was a rude peasant who treated no one with respect and was too trusting for her own good. Anything that befell her was probably her own fault.
But Lyonette had to admit, the inn had never seemed so dark when Erin Solstice was around. And it had never been quite so…
It was as if the life of the inn itself had gone with Erin. The day after she’d left, all the guests had stopped arriving. That may have had to do with the Goblins and the lack of any lights in the windows—Lyonette had stopped lighting the fire in the common room of the inn—but in an instant, the bustle of the building had ceased completely.
At first Lyonette had been impatient, waiting for Erin’s return. Then she had been afraid. Now, after many days, she was just…quiet. Lyonette sat in the inn day after day, only leaving now and then to fetch some water to drink or use the outhouse. But the longer she sat in the dead building, the more she knew something had to change.
It wasn’t a quick realization. If anything, it was a thought born out of several nights of sleeping with her back to the door, wide-eyed, flinching at any random sound in the night. It was finding Erin’s little money stash and realizing most of her gold coins had been given away to the Horns of Hammerad or on Erin’s person when she disappeared. It was staring at the empty pantry and feeling the small hole in her stomach where food should and always had been.
Lyonette had cried herself to sleep the first night she’d gone to sleep with her belly writhing with hunger; the next she’d just slept, too exhausted to even weep. Six days after Erin had vanished, Lyonette knew what had to be done. She looked up and watched another wisp of warmth vanish into the dark room of The Wandering Inn. She knew.
Erin Solstice wasn’t coming back. Or if she was, it might be tomorrow, a week from now, or months. Either way, if she was gone for even a little while longer, it would be too late. So. Lyonette knew what had to be done while Erin was gone.
She had to work. Or she would starve.
It was a foreign concept to Lyon in many ways, a hateful one. Demeaning. But it didn’t change the facts. She was running out of Erin’s coin, and she had even less food in the building. She had to work. Erin’s inn had sustained itself by selling food to customers; she had to continue that.
There were no other options Lyonette could think of. She couldn’t envision herself making her way north through the snow, and the Goblins—no. And she was banned from the city, so that left only the inn.
Again, this wasn’t a conclusion Lyonette came to willingly, but after two days of eating the last crumbs of frozen cheese and equally hard bread that was the last of the food in the pantry, Lyonette was desperate. That was how she found herself waiting at the door when Olesm, the Drake, cautiously broke his way through the snow to her inn.
“You! You there, Drake!”
He nearly jumped out of his scales when Lyonette threw the door open. She had seen the Drake come by the inn every day, or every other day at the latest. He usually just peered hopefully through one of the windows for a few minutes before leaving, usually quicker if he saw her face.
“Oh. It’s you. Um, Lyon, wasn’t it?”
Lyonette gave the Drake a big smile and deliberately refrained from correcting him on her proper name.
“That is right. And you are…Olesm, correct?”
The Drake coughed and looked into the dark inn hopefully.
“Is uh, Erin not back yet?”
“No. She hasn’t returned.”
“Ah. I see.”
The Drake hesitated.
“Well, I won’t be getting in your way. I’ll ah, drop by tomorrow, then.”
“No! Don’t do that! I mean—why don’t you stay here?”
Lyonette opened the door a bit wider. The Drake blinked into the dark room, and Lyonette realized that he probably couldn’t even see inside.
“It’s a bit dark, but I’ll start the fire. You can stay and—and order something!”
The Drake looked doubtfully at Lyonette as she smiled desperately at him.
“But Erin isn’t here right now. She’s the innkeeper.”
“Yes, but I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“I guess you are.”
“Well then. Why not come in? Erin’s inn—is still her inn even without her, isn’t it?”
“That might be true?”
Olesm frowned. He looked backwards towards the city as if he was considering leaving, then he reluctantly shrugged.
“I guess I could stay for a bit…”
Lyonette nearly gasped with relief. She opened the door and the Drake stepped in. He shivered; the inside of the inn was scarcely warmer than the outside.
“It’s freezing in here! Why isn’t the fire on?”
Lyonette pretended to fuss with some kindling in the fireplace. Then she struck some sparks with the flint and steel and the fire flickered into life. Olesm watched the small flames consume the shaved wood and begin to eat away at the larger sticks Lyonette had arranged in the fireplace as he stared around the empty building.
“It’s so dark. And gloomy. Uh, not that that’s a bad thing. I guess when Erin’s not here…”
He cleared his throat.
“Did—did you say you had something to eat? I wouldn’t mind a snack.”
“Food? Oh, now that you mention it—”
Lyonette turned as casually as possible and gave Olesm her best contrite expression.
“I’m sorry, but I forgot—there’s nothing left in the pantry. With Erin gone, there’s no one to go shopping.”
The Drake frowned at Lyon. She hesitated.
“I can’t go into the city. I’m banned.”
“Oh yeah. Right. You’re the thief.”
Lyonette hesitated. Then she slowly closed her mouth. She was the thief, even if she didn’t have the [Thief] class. She hadn’t seen herself as one, but the Drakes and Gnolls thought of her that way. She had to humor him.
“I am. That is right.”
She tried to look apologetic as possible.
“It’s all my fault, of course. I would go shopping, but I can’t. So there’s nothing to eat here.”
The Drake just stared at Lyonette. She cleared her throat again.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without food. If I can’t serve people, how will I keep the inn open until Erin gets back?”
“You? You’re going to keep The Wandering Inn open?”
The look Olesm gave Lyon was full of disbelief. She gritted her teeth, but nodded.
“It’s my job. I am a [Barmaid] after all. And I’m Erin Solstice’s employee. She said so herself. And what sort of…help would I be if I didn’t keep her inn open and earn her money while she was gone?”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
Olesm frowned as he scratched at his chin. Lyonette nodded, the desperate smile still fixed on her face.
“So I need someone to help deliver food to the inn while Erin’s gone. I’ll pay of course—and you can eat here as well!”
“Wait, what? You want me to bring you food?”
The Drake sat up in his chair and frowned hard at Lyonette. She nodded, keeping her eyes on him.
“You have to. Not cooked food; I’ll sell food here like Erin did. But you have to bring the supplies here so I can cook it. Or else I’ll starve. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
The Drake gave Lyonette a look that wasn’t quite as reassuring as she’d hoped. But he eventually agreed to find a way to get Lyonette more food.
“I guess I can make a few trips—but how will you keep the inn open? Without Erin, doesn’t this place lose a lot of its ah, attraction? Why would anyone come this far?”
“Why, because I’ll cook fine food of course, and serve people with grace and decorum!”
Olesm looked completely unconvinced. Lyonette ground her teeth, but she smiled at him.
“I do have a Skill in cooking.”
“Absolutely. And I’ve waited tables for nearly a month. You just bring the ingredients, and I’ll cook it. In fact, why don’t you bring some right now? I have money and a list right here…”
“Well, it’s sort of cold out—you mean now? What about—”
Olesm blinked as Lyonette thrust a sheet of parchment and some coins into his claws and practically pushed him out the door. She stared anxiously at him in the snow as he stared at the inn, and then watched him trudge slowly down towards the city, heart pounding all the while.
She’d done it! But the real test would be if he came back. Lyonette stared out the window at the faint shape of Olesm as he walked into the city, and then she sat at the window as the air in the room slowly warmed, staring fixedly at the gates.
It felt like forever and a half before she saw a burdened figure leave the city and start walking her way. It felt like even longer before the Drake struggled up the hill and exhaustedly dropped the packs full of ingredients on the doorstep as Lyonette flung open the door.
“Thank you so much for bringing everything here!”
“What? It was nothing. I mean, it was a bit heavy—I don’t suppose you have anything to drink?”
“I have to cook first.”
Lyonette was already busy opening the ties on the pack. Olesm nodded as he sagged into a chair.
“In that case, I could definitely use a bite to eat. Something hot.”
The Human girl stared at the Drake. He stared back.
“Yes. I mean, you are going to make food, right?”
“Of course. But—”
“—I have to work on a few recipes first. Why don’t you come back two days from now? Then I’ll probably need some more ingredients. Or—you could return tonight if you want to buy something.”
The Drake looked indignantly at the bulging pack of supplies he’d brought.
“What? My meal’s not on the house?”
Lyon glared at him. The Drake glared back.
“Okay, I guess I’ll come back later. I mean, if you’re not busy.”
“You do that. And remember, I’ll need more food soon! And tell your…friends. The Wandering Inn is open again!”
Lyon barely heard the door slam as Olesm walked out. She was too busy staring at the wonderful contents of the pack. Eggs, carefully wrapped to avoid breaking, fresh cheese—flour—her stomach growled uncontrollably and Lyonette’s hands shook.
Half of her wanted to scarf down everything raw, but she made herself drag everything into the kitchen and put all the ingredients away first. She had to do this right.
Almost mechanically, the girl pulled out ingredients and set them on the counter as the fire she’d started in the kitchen began to warm the air here too. She blew on her hands, ignoring her empty stomach as she prepared herself. She was going to cook. She, Lyonette du Marquis, was about to make a meal.
Hot shame and burning desire stole over her in waves, but the emptiness in her stomach quashed all other feelings. Lyonette stared at the ingredients and imagined something basic. Pasta. She remembered the lovely, buttery noodles Erin had served to her and the other guests in the inn one night. She could do that, surely?
Lyon had [Basic Cooking] as a Skill now, a fact that filled her with shame and privately elated her. It was the skill of a peasant, yes, but it was her Skill. It was hers.
That was how she found herself cooking with the flour, salt, eggs, and some water in the kitchen. Lyonette first mixed flour and salt together, and then made a divot in the mound of powder to add a beaten egg. Then she mixed in a beaten egg and squished the sticky mess together until it began to congeal. As if by magic, the disgusting mess of egg and flour became a different substance. Dough!
It was dough, the very thing Lyonette had seen bakers turn into golden loaves of bread! She stared at the small ball sitting on the counter of the kitchen and stared at her flour-covered hands in amazement.
“That’s how it’s done? It’s so…easy!”
She’d expected there to be some laborious process required, or a convoluted mix of ingredients. But this? Barely a few minutes of effort and she was nearly finished with her cooking! Part of Lyon was elated, the rest indignant that people paid [Bakers] and [Cooks] so much. There was nothing to it!
But Lyonette quickly realized she wasn’t done as her Skill prompted her to keep going. She had to knead the dough for several minutes, until Lyonette’s weak hands were cramping up a bit from the effort. Then, she had to find the rolling pin in one of the drawers and smooth out the dough. And then Lyon had to cut the dough into long strips, and then boil water.
That was actually the hardest part. Lyonette had of course gone to fetch water many times in the past for Erin, but she’d hated the duty and had done it as slowly as possible. Since she was making food for herself and she was alone, Lyonette had no excuse. She had to make two trips for water, and she was exhausted by the time she watched the water boil over the fire.
Then, Lyonette added the pasta and a bit of salt and watched the noodles swirl around as she stirred the pot anxiously. After only two minutes the pasta was done. Lyonette dumped the water outside and scooped the rest out of the pot, shaking it to dry the last of the water. Then she put it in one heaping mound on her plate and dug in.
In the lukewarm inn, by the flickering fire, the young [Princess] used a slightly-bent fork to lever the first mount of noodles into her mouth with a shaking hand. She bit, chewed, and swallowed, scarfing down the food almost too quickly to taste it. But she tasted the second bite, and the third, and her face fell with each new forkful of her pasta.
It couldn’t be. But it was. As the aching feeling in her stomach subsided, Lyonette slowly chewed the slightly watery noodles and knew the truth. Her food wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. It was bland. No, worse, it was simply mediocre. True, she’d made noodles thanks to her skill, but they were a far cry from what Erin could now do.
Lyonette had been famished, but even she couldn’t finish the huge mound on her plate. After about two thirds of it she just sat back and stared at the pale mass of noodles, disgusted and disappointed in equal parts.
It wasn’t the same at all. She could remember the wonderful noodles Erin had made not so long ago—buttery and hot, and delightfully fragrant thanks to some herb. It had been delicious even without the meatballs. Lyonette’s mouth watered just remembering.
But this? This was just pasta, barely serviceable. It was a disgrace to any inn, and worse, it had come from a Skill. Lyonette’s Skill. Was this all she could do, even with [Basic Cooking]?
Lyonette wanted to cry again. This wasn’t fair. Why was her cooking this bad? She’d remembered ordering one of her [Maids] who had [Basic Cooking] to make her a snack, and while it hadn’t been great, it hadn’t been…this. What had she done wrong?
Then she remembered what one of her tutors had said on the rare days she’d been paying attention. Skills could improve one’s ability greatly and even give them the means to do things they would never be able to do normally, like fish, work metal, or even fight. But a Skill improved on what was already there.
If two [Warriors] with the same Skills fought, the one who had trained longer and had more actual combat experience would inevitably prevail. Similarly, even with [Basic Cooking], if Lyonette had never made food, all her cooking would be just that: basic.
For two minutes Lyonette just stared at the cold plate of noodles, and then she heard a knock at the door. Instantly her body went rigid with fear and apprehension, but Goblins wouldn’t knock, would they? This wasn’t a monster, this was a guest. A guest!
She scrambled to her feet and flung the door open. Her mind was racing—was it too cold inside? She should have opened the windows to let everyone know the inn was open tonight! What about cooking? She couldn’t serve food to—what should she say? What was that Erin had always told her to say to new customers? ‘Welcome, please have a seat?’ or was it, ‘let me take your coat’?
The person standing in the doorway as Lyonette yanked the door open had no coat to take. A massive drake—far bigger than Olesm—blinked down at Lyonette as she stared up at him. After a moment, he coughed.
“Um, welc—do you have a seat for your coat?”
Lyonette turned red. The Drake scratched awkwardly at the spines on the back of his head and looked past the young woman into the inn. His eyes noted the single plate and dim fire before they returned to her.
“Is Erin back yet?”
Lyonette gulped. She vaguely recognized the Drake; he was Relc, the one Erin had thrown out of the inn earlier. But he was also a guest, wasn’t he? She tried to smile as welcomingly as possible as she opened the door a bit wider.
“Not yet. But would you like to stay and have something to ea—”
“Nope. See ya.”
The Drake turned before Lyonette had even finished her sentence. Desperately, she threw the door open to call out to him, but her breath caught in her chest when she saw the black Antinium standing next to the Drake in the snow. He’d been so still, so silent, she hadn’t even seen him at first.
Klbkch stared at Lyonette for a second and then turned to walk away with the Drake. Lyonette stood in the doorway, staring at the two [Guardsmen]’s backs. They waited until they were a few paces away from the inn to start speaking, but the wind blew their voices up the hill towards her.
“Looks like Erin’s not back yet.”
“But who was that Human? I’ve never seen her before, have you?”
“I believe it was the thief that Erin Solstice employed.”
“The one who burned down Miss Krshia’s shop, I believe. The one exiled from the city.”
“The Human girl.”
“There are a lot of—”
“The one who called you ‘scaley oaf’.”
“Oh! Her. Hey, can I go back inside and beat her up a bit?”
Lyonette shrank back in the doorway, but the other voice stopped the first.
“That would not be wise. If Erin Solstice comes back and finds you have attacked her staff, she will most likely ban you for life.”
“Damn. Are you sure?”
“Very. You will have to give her your apology gift later. Although, you will first have to buy her a gift.”
“Hrgh. I know, I know. But what do Human females like, anyways? Should I get her some meat? Jewels? I don’t have that much money on me, you know.”
“I recommend we ask about. There are Humans in the city. Let us ask them.”
“Sure, I guess. If we have to. Hey, where should we eat tonight…?”
The voices trailed off as the wind changed directions. Lyonette shivered as she stood in the open doorway a moment longer, staring out into the dark snow. Then she closed the door. She felt…bad, even though she didn’t know why. But the inn was full of light, especially when she opened the windows and added more fuel to the fire. It was warm and bright and it almost felt like before, even if dinner had been bland. But it wasn’t the same.
It really wasn’t.
Someone else came by that night. Lyonette was in the kitchen, trying to work out what would make the pasta taste better when she heard the door open. She hurried into the common room and saw a man wearing a worn, serviceable dark cloak shaking snow off of it as he looked around. A dagger at his side was his only weapon, but he walked as if he only needed his piercing glare to kill anything that might accost him.
Lyon recognized him as well. The man looked as annoyed as ever, and perhaps even more so today. His expression was grim, and he reminded Lyon of the oldest and grumpiest of the kingdom’s soldiers. She knew who he was—a Gold-rank adventurer. That made her defer to him slightly, even though she was royalty. It was certainly not because she was afraid of him. Well, maybe a little.
“W-welcome sir! Miss Solstice isn’t back yet, but if you’d like to stay, I could make you some pasta—”
Halrac’s piercing gaze froze Lyon in place. He looked at her, and then around the inn. He shook his head and grunted irritably.
He turned and left without another word. Lyonette watched him leave through one of the windows as the adventurer stomped back towards the city through the snow. She didn’t know what to think about that, but she imagined how much money a Gold-rank adventurer might have spent and felt even worse.
All in all, it was almost a relief when Olesm dropped by. The Drake was still irritable, but he came by for dinner by himself. He grew much more cheerful when Lyonette served him pasta and told him he wouldn’t have to pay for it; his expression immediately changed when he bit into the over-salted batch she’d made this time. He ate four bites and then pushed his plate away and didn’t touch it for the remainder of the time he spent in the inn.
Not that he took that long anyways. Olesm only stayed long enough to tell Lyonette about the Goblin army’s sacking of Esthelm, the news that Erin was alive in Celum, and that she wasn’t coming back any time soon. She badgered him with questions, but the Drake had no answers.
“I don’t know when she can come back, okay?”
He snapped at her as he drank some of the hot water she’d boiled and grimaced at the taste. It was the same water she’d used for the noodles, and he pushed that back on the table as well after another sip.
“But—when will she return? Can she?”
Lyonette wrung her hands. Olesm just shrugged, looking unhappy.
“It’s dangerous on the roads, and frankly, it might be safer where she is. After everyone’s [Dangersense] got triggered in the city, Zevara’s put the entrance to the dungeon on permanent watch with every spare [Guardsman] she can muster.”
Lyonette had no [Dangersense]; she hadn’t even realized the entrance to the dungeon had been uncovered. Olesm nodded as he exclaimed.
“None of the adventurers want to go in. Griffon Hunt hasn’t even gone through the entrance yet, and all the other groups are staying put. No one’s sure what will come out—if anything. Someone’s got to go in, but until one of the groups works up the nerve, it’s another threat along with those Goblins that the city has to be wary of.”
He sighed and stood up. Lyonette watched him anxiously. Olesm looked at the food and water and shook his head briefly before digging in his pocket.
He put a few bronze coins on the table and nodded to them.
“For the food. I’m not that hungry, I guess.”
“You’re going? Already?”
Lyonette was surprised at the tone of her own voice. Normally she would have welcomed silence, but Olesm was the first person to even enter the inn since Erin had left. The Drake nodded, looking tired.
“I’ve got to plan some stuff out with Zevara and—well, I’m busy. I’ll stop by tomorrow, though.”
“But why not stay here? For a little while longer, I mean?”
Olesm paused, looking awkward.
“I’ve really got to be going. I still need to ea—I mean, I’ve got a lot…”
He stopped and stared at something in the corner of the room. Lyonette’s eyes were drawn to the ghostly chessboard on one of the tables. None of the pieces had moved since Erin had left, but the Drake’s eyes fixed on them for a few seconds. He looked back at Lyonette.
“You wouldn’t happen to play chess, would you?”
Lyon shook her head reluctantly. She remembered it being the latest trend in court, but she’d never picked up the game. Olesm looked disappointed.
He left soon after, despite Lyonette’s attempts to entice him to stay. Afterwards, Lyonette stared at the bad pasta and hurled it into the fire along with the plate. It made a horrible mess and stunk terribly as the fire consumed the pasta. Then Lyon just stood in the center of the room as the smell of burnt food filled the inn.
She was lost. For a few minutes Lyonette desperately tried to suppress her tears, but then they came forth and she just stood in the empty inn, letting them roll down her cheeks and drip onto the floor.
It was all over. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t cook, and no one liked her. Lyonette had known that—she’d even relished the knowledge before. But now, she knew it would be her death. No one would buy any food. She’d starve to death and Erin would find her bones in the inn when she came back.
She was a failure. That’s all she was and would ever be. The pitiful third daughter of a small kingdom dying alone in an inn that wasn’t hers. She was nothing.
The girl curled up on the floor as the embers of the fire glowed and faded. She stopped crying because even that was no use, and lay there, waiting to die. She grew still as she rolled herself up into a ball of misery. Then the door opened, and the Antinium walked in.
Pawn didn’t know why he went to The Wandering Inn. It was just where his feet carried him. The Antinium had no idea what to do or where do go; he just knew that he might find the answers he sought if he could listen to a certain young woman for a while.
It had been a long time since he’d gone there. In fact, this morning he’d intended nothing of the kind. Pawn had woken up sitting in his small sleeping spot and believed today would be like all the rest. Empty and uncertain.
The Antinium do not lie down to sleep. It’s not that they can’t, but their backs do not curve like mammals. Pawn’s own back resembled a beetle’s in many ways, and he disliked the rocking that occurred when he tried to lie down. Thus, both Workers and Soldiers alike slept while sitting. It was the most economic use of space, and in the huge barrack-like sleeping area that held five hundred Workers, Pawn had had an adequate six hours of rest.
That was how Pawn’s day began. He would pull himself out of his small cubicle of dirt with his four arms and file into line with the other Workers as they left the room at the same time to receive their morning nutrition.
It was easier for Pawn to do this today than it had a few weeks ago. He had regrown all but a few digits on his hands, and his severed limbs had nearly fully regenerated thanks to the unique healing substances the Antinium used. As he stood behind a Worker, Pawn flexed his digits and marveled a bit at how the simplicity of that action alone made him feel so much better.
The Workers ahead and behind Pawn did not look at their hands, or even move except when they walked forwards. They were not like Pawn. They kept their gazes straight and did not talk. And they gave Pawn more room than strictly necessary.
He was the odd one out. Pawn knew that, but he tried not to take advantage of his position. When he stood in line the Worker gave him the same amount of brown-grey paste as the other Workers. Perhaps if he’d asked for more, he would have received it, but the calculated ration was enough to sustain him throughout the day. Besides, no one would ever ask for more of the Worker’s food than normal.
Pawn stood in the food consumption area and slowly ingested the muck he had been given. There were no seats for the Antinium to eat at; they simply collected their rations on earthenware bowls at ate as efficiently as possible before depositing the bowls to be used again by more Workers filing into the room.
Workers and Soldiers ate separately. This wasn’t because one group ate better quality food than the other—they all ate the same highly-caloric mush, but Soldiers just ate three times as much as Workers, and thus used different containers, necessitating a separate room to feed in. Pawn stared at the brown clump of mushed up…something…as he put it between his mandibles and chewed. The food went down easily, but the taste—
He had grown used to it. Even so, it was never what one would call easy. The Workers ate the food quickly, showing no signs of disgust, even though Pawn knew they had to be tasting exactly what he did. If they had gag reflexes—or an alternative food source, it might have been a different matter.
But food was food, and there were no alternatives. Except at Erin’s inn. Pawn could remember having delicious meals there, and he had to force himself to eat the rest of the mush. He crunched down on something on his last bite. Something hadn’t been fully processed? He swallowed it anyways. It was a nice interlude from the rest of the mush. Perhaps it had been a bone fragment.
Then, as soon as they had finished eating, the Workers moved as one out of the large cavern used for food preparation and into the tunnels to begin their daily duties. Pawn followed them, not pausing to duck even though the ceiling of the tunnel was barely a foot over his head.
That was another feature of the Antinium Hive in Liscor. While some of the cavernous rooms were indeed quite large, designed to hold large numbers of the Antinium, many parts of the Hive had been optimized for space. Thus, the tunnels used solely by Workers were barely large enough to accommodate them. They had only a foot of height as they marched through the cramped corridors built to accommodate exactly two Workers at a time. And such was the flow of Workers going to their daily duties—
Well, any creature with a hint of claustrophobia would have suffered greatly. Pawn didn’t mind; it was what he was used to. He walked with hundreds of other Workers as they walked through the tunnels and around each other in a perfect, synchronized flow of traffic that never halted or wasted time. Hundreds of Workers moved in every direction, going aboveground to work for the city, or below to dig or shore up collapsed tunnel walls, fulfill other tasks around the Hive, and so on.
This was only one of the shifts of Workers that worked throughout the day. Pawn was one of the Workers who slept from just before midnight to around dawn, so he considered himself close to a ‘normal’ sleeping habit. But there were other Workers who would sleep in the middle of the day. It didn’t matter; all time was the same in the Hive.
Pawn walked down the narrow Worker corridors until he came to a main intersection in the Hive. Here, traffic diverged and more bodies entered the ceaseless cascade of motion. Larger Soldiers marched in huge columns down the massive highway of bodies, going to reinforce weak spots in the Hive, to eat, or just to rest until they were called on again. Here the Workers joined other flows, moving deeper into the Hive, or up above.
Pawn walked forwards, following the Worker ahead of him until he came to the split in the traffic. There he paused, uncertain. The Worker behind him paused, and so did the Worker behind him, and behind him and so on. In an instant, thousands of bodies stopped for one crucial second until the Worker behind Pawn awkwardly walked around him. The Worker behind him followed the motion and so did the Worker behind him and behind him…
Instantly, the flow of traffic resumed. Unlike traffic in Erin’s world, the Workers did not hesitate. They moved in perfect synchronization, so that after the initial pause, traffic flow resumed without any pileups as it were. Even so, the incident had cost all the Workers following Pawn a precious second of inactivity. Pawn knew he should feel guilty, but he didn’t.
He stared at the bodies walking around him. Here were Workers, going to their duties. Across from him, another stream of Soldiers was rapidly advancing down the hallway, nearly running. They might be off to fight monsters.
Part of Pawn wondered what would happen if he walked in front of them. Would the Soldiers just trample him? They did that to other Workers who accidentally got in their way. But would his status as an Individual mean they’d avoid him?
He decided not to test this theory. Instead, Pawn resumed walking, resulting in a micro-second of delay as he rejoined the flow of Workers. He walked upwards, up towards a special room built near the surface of the Hive.
A large room had been sectioned off and given a new purpose. Instead of acting as another feeding room, the low-ceilinged area had been filled with cushions, small rectangular wooden boards filled with pieces, and even the odd chair. Antinium, all Workers, sat around these boards, playing chess.
They all paused when Pawn entered the room. The Workers looked up at Pawn, and then resumed playing. He stared around the room, looking at all the seated Antinium playing chess.
In truth, the dirt ceiling was too low to really allow any Workers to sit on the chairs. They sat around the chess boards on the dirt instead, completely ignoring the cushions that had been piled neatly in one corner of the room and never been used.
There were around sixty Workers in the room at the moment, all engaged in a board game. None of them looked up from their games, and they moved at very regular intervals. The rhythmic click of wooden pieces gently tapping on the board soothed Pawn. But he did not sit down at an empty board as he usually did. If he had, he would have had an opponent in seconds. But Pawn didn’t want that today.
Instead, he sat with his back to one of the dirt walls. Pawn stared ahead, not really at the chess players. They were all new Individuals, the few that had survived and not become Aberrations like the rest. They had chosen names, and they were all learning to play chess, as per the recommendations Pawn had made to Klbkch.
But they were not…like him. Pawn knew that. These new Individuals were not like he was. Nor were they like the original Individuals, the original Workers that had chosen names.
Pawn chuckled out loud at the ridiculousness of that thought. Instantly, every Worker in the room paused in their chess playing and looked up at him as one. He froze in place, unsure of what to do. After a second the Workers returned to playing as if nothing had happened.
That was it. Pawn closed his mandibles and made sure not to make another sound as the sounds of chess resumed. These new Individuals had names, but they didn’t have what he and the others had. They still obeyed orders like any other Worker, and they didn’t express their opinions. They hadn’t developed personality like he, Bird, Belgrade, Anand, and Garry, the only surviving original Individuals had. It wasn’t these new Individuals’ fault, of course. They had been forced into the choice, they hadn’t made it themselves. They didn’t have…Erin.
Things had been simpler a few months ago. Back then, the Hive had made sense to Pawn. There were Workers and Soldiers, the Prognugator, and the Queen. That was how it had been. But now there were Workers and Soldiers yes, and the Queen, but they had a Revalantor who also acted as a Prognugator in the form of Klbkch. He had kicked the former Prognugator who was also the new Prognugator, Ksmvr, out of the Hive. And there was a new group of Antinium.
The Individuals. Over a hundred Workers who had chosen names and been tested for individuality without becoming Aberration. But in that group of Individuals, there were five…leaders.
No, not leaders. Five exceptions. Five of the original Individuals who had become so of their own volition, to save a Human named Erin Solstice. They had been the chess club, her chess club, the Workers who had played at her inn every few days. And they had given their lives, almost all of them, to protect her from the undead.
That was the real change in the Hive. Five Antinium had chosen and become Individual, taking classes and names and true personalities. They had begun to level up rapidly like any other species, and they had become…
Unique. And it had to be said, of the five, one in particular stood out.
He was the first. Pawn knew that. He had been the first to choose a name, the first to choose. Because of that everyone treated him as if he were special. Klbkch, the Queen—they gave him no duties, no responsibilities. They just watched him to see what he would do. And Pawn had no idea what to do, so most days he just walked up to the chess room and either played games or sat like this.
He didn’t do much. Pawn just sat here, day after day. Thinking, really. That was all he could do. He was no gifted warrior like Bird, and nor was he particularly interested in other classes like Garry, Belgrade and Anand. Already the other four had begun to specialize in their roles just as his Queen had hoped. Bird had begun using a bow to harvest a large number of his namesakes even in the wintery climate, and Garry had learned to fry them and make a palatable snack out of their carcasses.
Belgrade and Anand had continued to improve in their [Tactician] class. They had already fought numerous engagements against the dungeon monsters in the tunnels below. They were all becoming assets to the Hive. But Pawn was different.
All the Workers knew it. Pawn knew it. He was different. He was the Worker that Erin had first spoken to, the first Worker to choose his name. Even the other four treated him differently. Because he was first. He was special. He hadn’t just chosen, he had been chosen by Erin.
He was unique. But Pawn had no idea what that meant.
He knew what his Queen wanted, what Klbkch wanted. They wanted him to become a useful warrior, or an asset to the Hive. They wanted him to specialize, to level up in a class and surpass normal Antinium in that way. But Pawn hadn’t done that.
Yes, he had the [Tactician] class. But he wasn’t that high-level in it. In fact, he’d stagnated his growth weeks ago. Pawn still loved to play chess, and he was the best player among the Workers by far. But like Erin, he had ceased to level.
And he had no interest in using a bow like Bird. He didn’t like to cook, only to eat, and he had no burning desire to do anything else in the Hive. Pawn was sure that if he walked anywhere in the Hive—save perhaps the Queen’s room—he could find something to do.
There was always work to do in the Hive. Since he had been allowed aboveground, Pawn had learned something of the customs of other species. Apparently boredom was something their peoples had to fight against. It was an alien concept in the Hive.
Were you done with your assigned duties? In that case, there was always time to be spent processing the nutritional paste the Antinium ate, chewing food up and regurgitating it into a vat to be mixed up with long poles. Or you could be sent to guard against monsters attacking from the dungeon underneath Liscor, supporting the Soldiers in their tireless battle.
And if neither of those two options were viable, you could be assigned to monitor the larvae, or maybe dig. There was always time to dig. You could dig out a collapsed tunnel, dig a new tunnel, dig a deeper tunnel, widen a tunnel, dig out a room, dig into a promising mine shaft, dig out a hole for excrement…
Occasionally, the Workers would build something. That was a refreshing change of pace. They would make wooden load-bearing supports to hold up the titanic weight of the dirt overhead, or fashion crude arrows out of wood. But even that grew tiring after hours of monotonous work blended together.
It wasn’t for Pawn. He knew that. He knew he wanted something different. And perhaps he had found it. Perhaps.
But he was no longer sure. The certainty, the faith that had filled him weeks ago had long since departed, and now Pawn could only rely on uncertain memory to fill the hole in his heart. Had it really happened? Was it true?
Was he really an [Acolyte]? What did it mean?
“I don’t know.”
Another pause, and the Workers looked up. This time Pawn stared back, just to see what would happen. They looked down as one, and he went back to thinking.
Once upon a time, an Antinium had been questioned. He had been asked who he was, and he had no answers. He had wondered why his…friends…had all died, whether it was all for nothing. And he had been given an answer. A ray of hope.
So the girl had told him. She had reached down into his despair and offered him something to hold onto. She had spoken to him of something beyond his understanding. A God. And a place…a place where the dead might go to rest. A wonderful place.
Pawn sighed, and clenched his still-healing fist. He stared at it. Yes, that night he had believed. And his belief had become reality! He had gained a Skill, and a class. [Acolyte], and the Skill, [Prayer]. It had meant something to him at the time, he had been sure.
There was a God. There was something to believe in. But in the days since, Pawn’s faith had wavered. He had not leveled again, and neither had he prayed. Because…because he was afraid.
There was a God. Erin had told him that. Not just a God, though. Gods. She had talked about a God who was born and died in her world, but apparently that God wasn’t the only one. Other people believed in a God who was the same, but different, but who had never said certain things.
“Are you even there? Will you answer me? Am I worthy of asking you such things?”
No response. The Workers looked up at Pawn and down at their chessboards. He looked up at the ceiling, in the direction Erin had told him heaven probably lay. He saw only dirt.
Heaven. Faith and Gods were all confusing to Pawn, but the idea of Heaven, the idea of forgiveness and a place to be happy was what he had clung to. He had believed in that, and so been rewarded. But if he was to pray, as his Skill seemed to indicate, then to who? To Erin’s God? Only…he wasn’t her God. That’s what she had said. So then, who did he pray to?
And for what? Why? What would it do? And would anyone answer? Would anyone care, or would his words go unheard?
Pawn didn’t know. He hadn’t known for the last week, and he was no closer sitting in the corner of the chess room. Part of him didn’t want to know. Another part told him to talk to Klbkch and his Queen, tell them of his new class. But the last part wanted to believe. It wanted to know of this God, and to put his self into believing in that God. To reach that place called ‘Heaven’.
But he was afraid. Afraid of knowing the truth. So Pawn sat in the chess room instead, wondering what would happen if he prayed. Would nothing happen? Or would something, someone answer? Which would be worse?
Pawn didn’t want to know. But he wanted to, desperately. He was afraid that if he went back to Erin, she would tell him he was wrong. That his class was a mistake. That God only existed in her world. Or—
Or that there was a God, but not one for him.
That was his greatest fear. There was a God. Probably. The class he’d received seemed to indicate that. And Pawn wanted to believe in a God. But what if God didn’t want him? Pawn was too afraid to ask.
So as the day passed, he sat quietly in the chess room, thinking. His mind spun in the same circles, over and over again. Workers walked into the room, played chess, walked out. They had their duties. But Pawn had nothing. Not a thing. He only had a question, and an answer he was too afraid to face.
And then, just as soon as he’d woken up, it was nightfall. Pawn knew this because of the clock in his head and the Workers on duty, not from any change in the ambient light. He stood up, stretched; the other Workers waited for him to do or say something. But Pawn just walked out of the room.
This time he went up. Up, to the city above. It wasn’t his choice; Pawn just felt his feet carrying him that direction. He went up, out of the tunnel that was one of the entrances to his Hive. He walked out into the streets of Liscor, around Drakes and Gnolls and Humans who gave him a wide berth in any case. He walked out of the gates of Liscor, and through the snow, up towards the small inn whose windows shone with inviting warm light.
He had to know. He had to ask, at least. Pawn had felt the certainty in his bones, he had. He had gained a class and Skill and that meant something. There was a God. But would God accept Pawn? He had to know, and so he had to ask Erin. She would know what to do. She always did.
But Erin wasn’t there. Pawn knocked at the door and then opened it, and saw the girl lying on the ground. She looked up at him, and she was not Erin.
“Excuse me? Is Erin Solstice here?”
The girl had been curled up into a ball. Now she sprang to her feet and wiped at her face. Her cheeks were wet, and her eyes were red.
“What are you—you’re that Antinium, aren’t you? Pawn?”
“That is so. Is Erin here? I would like to speak with her.”
“Erin? You haven’t heard?”
The girl laughed almost hysterically. Pawn would have frowned if he were able.
“Heard what? Has something happened to Erin Solstice?”
Pawn listened incredulously as the young woman explained what had happened. Erin had vanished? How could this have happened? How could anyone have allowed this?
Part of him longed to run out the door, to gather Bird and Garry and the others and immediately search for Erin. But she was safe? In another city?
“She’s safe. But she’s not coming back yet. I don’t think she can with all the Goblins around.”
The Antinium’s mind raced as he considered the implications. Goblin armies. Of course Erin’s safety came first, but if she couldn’t come back—should someone send an escort? Did Klbkch know? He must, but would he send the Soldiers out to guard her? What if—
“So…are you here for something?”
Pawn looked back at the young woman in surprise. Yes, she had stayed here, hadn’t she? Who was she? Someone new?
Lyonette. That was her name. He vaguely remembered Erin hiring her, but hadn’t she been a bad employee? Now the young woman was alone. She wiped at her nose as she pointed at the kitchen.
“Do you want…something to eat?”
Pawn’s first instinct was to refuse, but that would have meant he had to leave the inn. And he wasn’t ready to go back down into the Hive. Not yet. So he nodded, and told Lyonette he could not digest gluten. That threw her for a loop, but she eventually offered him eggs and bacon.
Pawn was under the impression such food was reserved for breakfasts, at least according to Erin, but he accepted. He still had the coins Klbkch had given him to spend. Enough for many meals.
The Worker sat at an empty table as Lyonette rushed into the kitchen and began to bang things about. He stared at the wooden grain, trying to think. Everything was chaos in his mind now.
“Erin is gone.”
There was no one to answer his question. Pawn felt immediately relieved, and then horrible at once. He was no closer to his answer, and the question was tearing him apart. If Erin could not answer him, then—
“Here’s your food!”
A plate was shoved in front of Pawn’s face. He stared at it, and the hand holding it. Lyonette looked anxiously at Pawn as she put it on the table in front of him.
“Sorry. It’s a bit—”
The bacon was slightly burnt. The eggs hadn’t been fully cooked and they ran a bit. Pawn poked at the food with a fork once Lyonette remembered to give him one. He cautiously took a bite of the greasy bacon and chewed.
It wasn’t like the paste the Workers ate at all. It had been so long that Pawn had nearly forgotten the taste of hot food. And salt! Pawn finished the plate and a second helping when Lyonette offered.
Then he sat in the inn, watching the fire fade. It was funny. He had come here searching for answers, and found none. But even without them, he had found an answer of sorts.
Erin was gone. She might be in trouble, but there was no way Pawn could help her. Not as he was. He was useless, a Worker alone. But if there was a God—
There was no Erin. So there was only one person he could ask. One person who might know what this all meant. Klbkch. He had been assigned to watch over Pawn, and it was Pawn’s duty to inform him of any new classes he obtained. He had not done so before, because he was unsure. But now? Now was the time.
He would tell Revalantor Klbkch about his class and ask him what it meant. Perhaps Klbkch would know of Gods. Pawn dug at the belt on his waist and left what he thought was close to an appropriate amount. Usually Erin told him the meal was on the house.
Slowly, Pawn walked out of the door and into the snow. He was no less lost than before, but at least there was something warm inside him. He stared up at the clouded sky. He couldn’t sense heaven up there. Nor could he tell if there was a God.
But maybe there was one. And if there was, Pawn would find him. Slowly, he began to walk through the snow, back into the city, to his Hive.
Gods. Heaven. He tried to believe. This time, Pawn thought he might have succeeded.
Lyonette watched Pawn go, silent, walking into the snow as he stared upwards. The Antinium had said barely a few words to her all night. He had sat, staring at the fire. But he had also eaten two of her plates and left—
She stared down at the pile of coins on the table. Silver and bronze coins glinted in the moonlight. Trembling, Lyonette scooped up the pile of coins. She counted them. Once, twice, again.
It was enough. More than enough. With this, she could feed herself for several more days. And if he came back—
Lyonette’s heart skipped. Part of her wanted to shout in revulsion at even touching something the Antinium had touched. She still remembered stories about what they had done, what horrible atrocities they had committed. But this one—Pawn—he had paid her.
Maybe it was just one time. But Lyon remembered the Antinium coming into Erin’s inn like clockwork. And they weren’t picky; they’d even loved the bees, disgusting as they’d been. They were a stable, profitable source of income. If she could stomach serving them, maybe, just maybe, she’d survive.
The [Princess] stared out the window at the Antinium’s lonely form as he walked back to the city. She could do it. She could live until Erin got back. She would do it, and she would show Erin she was capable. She would run this inn, and it would be her castle, her sanctuary until Erin came back.
All would be well. Lyonette had to believe in that.