Pawn knew he had to return to the Hive after leaving the inn. He knew that. But he found the food Lyonette had given him was disagreeing with his stomach a bit. It must have been the eggs. Antinium didn’t usually experience food poisoning, but that didn’t meant they couldn’t get sick.
Therefore, Pawn decided that before he went back into the Hive and talked to Revalantor Klbkch, he should walk around the city for a while. So his steps slowed, and Pawn took the time to walk down side streets, peek down alleyways he’d never entered before, and admire the sights. He was just doing it for his stomach, but really, it was very important to look around. There were so many things Pawn would miss if he hurried!
For instance, had he ever really appreciated the wonders of the hamburger flipping Drake who stood on the side of the street, calling out to potential customers? The craze over the new food had swept through the city and burned itself out—now people were just as likely to go to the other hot food stands at this time of night. And yet, there was something graceful about the way the yellow-scaled Drake flipped the sizzling patties of meat.
Pawn inhaled the scent, along with the crisp fresh winter air. Yes, the above world was not as familiar as the Hive, but there was beauty in it he had never seen below. Why did no one ever appreciate it? Why hadn’t he? But it occurred to him that when he had been a nameless Worker, not once had he ever really stopped to stare up at the stars.
The Antinium looked up. The sky was dark and black—it was cloudy.
After a moment, Pawn walked on. He took side alleys, detours—he had no fear of being mugged, and indeed the one skulking shape he encountered in a rougher part of the city retreated when it saw Pawn comings its way. No robber wanted to arouse the wrath of the Antinium, and crime wasn’t very profitable in a city where the Antinium lived in any case. Something about an Antinium Soldier smashing through a wooden door as ten more burrowed out of the ground tended to discourage thieves and muggers.
Perhaps Pawn should look for crime, though. Wasn’t that a useful pursuit? He could chase after the thieves, hit them, maybe. Or just warn them verbally?
Pawn sighed. He knew what he was doing. He was procrastinating, avoiding doing what he needed to do. It was the first time he’d ever done it, really. It wasn’t the most comfortable of feelings; he knew he had to act, yet he was caught in indecisiveness, holding himself back. No, it wasn’t comfortable at all. But he still hesitated. He did not want to talk to Revalantor Klbkch.
Because he was afraid.
When had he ever been afraid? Not really…ever. Only once, perhaps. Pawn could remember being afraid when Ksmvr came for him and questioned him. Then he had been terrified. And he had been afraid when he’d heard the undead were attacking Liscor and he’d feared for Erin’s life.
Twice, then. But beyond that? What about when he’d been a simple Worker?
No. Never. Pawn hadn’t been afraid. He hadn’t been much of anything, really. He’d just been, the same way as a tool was. But now he felt, and what he felt was fear.
He did not like Klbkch. Pawn knew that the former Prognugator was considered well-liked even by the usually hostile residents of the city. He had friends among the Watch, and he was a familiar face, even if all the Antinium looked the same. Pawn had seen the Prognugator—every member of the Hive had at some point. The Prognugator was old, far older than anyone but the Queen, he commanded them in battle and oversaw them as they worked. He slew Aberrations, too. He was known. And one thing Pawn knew about him was that Klbkch didn’t seem to like any of the Workers or Soldiers.
The Queen did. They were her creations, her children, after all. Pawn had stood before her once, and though she had questioned him and the words had shattered his spirit, he had known that she cared for him in her own way. She would not hesitate to use him for the Hive, but he was part of her Hive, and thus she cared for him if not as one individual, then as a part of herself. That was reassuring, and all he had expected of her. But Klbkch?
No. He had friends. Relc, the angry Drake. And Pawn knew he liked Erin. But everyone liked Erin. Pawn liked Erin, but he could not bring himself to like either Ksmvr or Klbkch. And he was fairly certain that the Revalantor had the same opinion of him.
It wasn’t anything the two had ever said. And Klbkch hadn’t ever done anything to Pawn. He hadn’t ripped off Pawn’s antennas and cut off his fingers and parts of his arm while questioning him for instance. But Pawn still didn’t like him.
And he was afraid of what Klbkch would say. Ksmvr had been ruthless, but he had been new to his role, and inexperienced. It had given Pawn the courage to stand up to him, later. But Klbkch was ancient. If the Antinium had legends, he would have been one. But they had no stories, no individuals to name and speak of. There was only the Queen, and Klbkch, the Prognugator.
That was how it had always been.
Pawn stopped in the snowy street in front of the entrance to the Hive. He stared down at the dark entrance into the ground. The dark didn’t scare him, nor did the underground. But the hole still looked ominous. Pawn took a deep breath, and then another one. And another one.
He didn’t want to do this. But he had to. If only Erin had been there—but there had only been Lyonette. Erin would have helped him. She would have said something reassuring that would have made Pawn not afraid.
Like what? Pawn thought about this.
“Ah. ‘You can do it, Pawn! If Klbkch gives you any trouble, kick him in the nuts! Do Antinium even have nuts?’”
A passing Drake [Guardswoman] walking down the street gave Pawn a look of deep suspicion. He dropped the falsetto and nodded to her politely. After a moment she hurried on her way.
“I am not sure if Klbkch eats nuts. I believe they may contain gluten. I will inquire, however.”
“You do that. Good luck, Pawn!”
That made Pawn feel a bit better, although he still didn’t understand the nuts reference. He took another breath, and then marched into the Hive. He could do this. He was Pawn. If he reached the end of the chess board he could become a Queen! Or a bishop. Or knight. Queen was the optimal piece to play, but under certain situations it might be better to choose knight.
From street level in Liscor, descending into the Antinium Hive looked ridiculously easy. There were no noticeable guards, and the dirt was sloped for easy entry. But that was an illusion.
About ten steps into the darkness below, Pawn glanced left and right. The silent Soldiers standing in their alcoves in the wall watched him pass without moving a muscle. On the other hand, if he’d been anyone but an Antinium, they would have immediately apprehended him, and his survival would have been contingent on how much of a fight he put up. The Antinium had made many concessions to live in Liscor, but they did not suffer intrusion lightly.
As always, the Soldiers looked identical as they stood at the ready, even to Pawn. He could identify some other workers by the scratches on their chitin, or their jobs, but the Soldiers were one alien mass to Pawn. Workers did not talk to Soldiers, and Soldiers did not work with Workers unless there was some construction that needed their cooperation. Or if they trampled a Worker by accident.
But today Pawn was feeling reckless. He stopped and looked at one of the Soldiers. The Antinium was head and shoulders taller than Pawn and far broader, too. Pawn looked at his stub-like fingers, designed to pierce an enemy’s skin and let the Soldier bash his opponent into submission. But they were Antinium, weren’t they?
“Ah, good evening.”
The Soldier stared at Pawn. Pawn stared back uncomfortably. What was he doing?
Exchanging pleasantries. That was it. What came next?
“Rather cold outside, isn’t it? I hope you are all warm?”
The Soldiers didn’t respond. They couldn’t—they couldn’t speak. But they made no move either. They just stared at him. But all of them were staring, now.
After a second, Pawn continued walking. He felt the gaze of the Soldiers on his back as he left, though. And his mind was in turmoil. Pawn entered the flow of other Workers and groups of Soldiers and descended into the hive, wondering. Why had he done that? It was stupid. Had he expected a response? No, of course not. Then why had he done that?
Maybe because it was something Erin would do. Something she’d done. She’d asked a Worker his name, and treated him as if he weren’t just one of many.
Pawn sighed, and the Workers around him stiffened for a second as he walked through the shifting mass in the tunnels. That was stupid. He wasn’t Erin. And Soldiers couldn’t be Individual. He’d tested them with Klbkch. They took longer to respond to being questioned. And they didn’t react to being asked who they were and what their names were in the same way. But when they did—
The Worker shuddered as he remembered Klbkch whirling, cutting, limbs and green gore flying everywhere. No. Soldiers could not be Individual. It didn’t work for them. It barely worked for Workers without Erin.
As Pawn walked through the endless traffic of the Hive, the Workers around him slowly began to peel off, taking other corridors elsewhere in the Hive. In the end, Pawn reached his destination—a small room at the end of a dirt corridor—alone. He stared into the room and saw a seated Antinium, a being with two arms and slim frame instead of the normal four arms and bulkier body.
Pawn wasn’t ready to talk yet. He wasn’t ready—but it was too late. There were no doors in the Hive except where it was crucial to maintain an airtight environment. Klbkch looked up as he noticed Pawn standing in the hallway.
Immediately, Pawn’s legs obeyed the order. The Worker mechanically entered the room and stood before Klbkch. The Revalantor and Prognugator of Liscor’s Hive looked up at Pawn from the small wooden desk he sat at, expressionless. The two swords of his station hung at his side; the Antinium did not take them off even in the Hive. Pawn found his eyes drawn to the blades; they were the same ones that had sliced off his limbs.
“Pawn. Is there something you need to bring to my attention?”
Pawn stared at Klbkch, feeling his heart racing frantically. His mind felt blank. He didn’t know what to say. But now Klbkch was staring at him, and he had to say something. What would Erin say?
“Yes. No? I have a lot to say. About classes. Mine, that is.”
Klbkch shifted in his seat. He looked at Pawn—coldly. Yes, it was a cold look. The Antinium didn’t have many expressions, but Pawn could tell he wasn’t happy.
“Have you received a different class? Or leveled up since we last spoke?”
The Queen had told Pawn to report any changes in his level or class to Klbkch. The Revalantor was in charge of monitoring the new Individuals. Pawn hesitated. He had to tell the truth. But he really didn’t want to. Maybe he could work up to it?
“Yes, I have news. But I ah, also came to ask about it. News, that is.”
“News? What are you referring to?”
Pawn didn’t know what he was saying. Why was he asking the Revalantor for information? But he did want to know.
“Is she well? I went to her inn today, but the girl living there told me that Erin was missing. Lost. In a Human city?”
Klbkch nodded reluctantly.
“That is so. She is well, and Ryoka Griffin is with her. She cannot return yet due to the Goblin presence in the region, but she is safe.”
“I see. I…see. That is good.”
“It is acceptable. Now, inform me of the new class or level you have obtained.”
Klbkch was staring hard at Pawn. The Worker felt like sweating, even though the Antinium didn’t sweat. Or maybe he just felt like excreting liquids.
“I have…gained a new class. A while ago, in fact.”
“Indeed? Why did you not report this to me at once?”
Klbkch’s tone grew colder, if that was even possible. Pawn lowered his head.
“I was unsure of the nature of the class. I received it after a conversation with Erin Solstice, and I have been unable to discern the nature of either the Class or Skill I received.”
The Revalantor shook his head slightly.
“Erin. Of course. What Class did you receive after speaking with her?”
The Revalantor paused. Pawn could see him visibly thinking. Then the other Antinium shook his head.
“I am unfamiliar with the class, as well as the word.”
“As am I. I was hoping you could shed light upon the meaning of the class.”
Klbkch did not rise from his seat, but he shifted ever so slightly.
“You said you obtained this class after speaking with Erin? What was the context of your discussion?”
Pawn hesitated. It had been just after his questioning by the Queen. He had been in turmoil, asking about the dead Workers. His friends. Erin had comforted him, given him hope. But he didn’t want to tell Klbkch that. Instead, Pawn chose the simplest answer.
“We talked about religion. And I believe my class pertains to Gods.”
Instantly, the Antinium seated in front of Pawn froze. His entire body grew still, and Pawn could sense the emotions whirling in Klbkch. But the Revalantor didn’t do anything. Instead, after a minute he looked back up at Pawn as if nothing had happened.
“Intriguing. Do you refer to the dead gods of ages past?”
“No, a new God. A living one.”
There it was again. Klbkch froze, only for a shorter period. Pawn watched him carefully.
“Revalantor Klbkch, do you know anything of Gods? I had a discussion with Erin Solstice about them, and she informed me of a being known as a God. In the past, people prayed to them. And they possess powers similar to magic. But…”
His voice trailed off. Klbkch was staring at Pawn, but it was as if he was looking straight through him. Suddenly, the Revalantor’s body was tensed, and his expression—
The other Antinium slowly shook his head.
“I know nothing of Gods. But you said that after you talked with Erin, you gained the [Acolyte] class?”
“Yes. Because I…believed in Gods. Or so it seems.”
Klbkch stared at Pawn. The Worker shifted uncomfortably.
“You do not know what this means? I received the Skill of [Prayer] for reaching the first level in my class.”
The Revalantor nodded once, twice. He paused, and then looked up at Pawn and shook his head slowly.
“This class is a mystery to me. I know of Gods, but only those who are dead. It would appear your class is an enigma.”
“So it would appear.”
“Yes. But I have noted its occurrence. You said you were Level 1 in the [Acolyte] class?”
“That is so.”
“Very well. You may return to your quarters.”
Pawn stared at Klbkch for a few more seconds, disappointed. He felt…let down. He’d expected the Revalantor to say something, or reveal something to him about the class that Pawn hadn’t known. At the very least, he’d expected Klbkch to be disapproving, but this?
It was almost as if Klbkch was hiding something. But whatever it was, Pawn didn’t expect Klbkch to confide in him. Reluctantly, he turned to go.
No answers here. What should he do next? Pawn stopped at the doorway, thinking. Only Erin could help him after all. Did Klbkch know when she would return?
“Revalantor Klbkch? May I ask if you know anything of when Erin will ret—”
Pawn turned and saw Klbkch, frozen in place with one sword raised to cut him down. The two Antinium stared at each other. If they were Human, perhaps Klbkch might have pretended it was a joke. Laughed, maybe, and tried to play it off. But the Antinium were different. Klbkch made no pretense; he lifted his sword and spoke calmly.
“If you are loyal to the Hive, do not move. You will be dead quickly.”
“What are you doing?”
Pawn backed away from Klbkch. The Revalantor was advancing on him—cautiously. Both of his silvery swords were aimed at Pawn, and the Worker knew that Klbkch could cut him into pieces in a second. But why?
“Revalantor Klbkch, have I offended you in some way? If so, I—”
There was quiet menace in the Revalantor’s voice. Normally such an instruction would have made Pawn shut up, but he knew he was about to die ether way. Panicked, Pawn raised his hands as he retreated from Klbkch.
“I have done nothing wrong. I am not an Aberration! I—”
Klbkch shook his head.
“You know of Gods. You must die.”
He said it as it were a simple truth. But Pawn still didn’t understand. He backed up again and felt his back hit the dirt wall.
“I do not understand. Revalantor Klbkch, if I have erred please allow me to correct my mistake.”
“The only correction can come from your death. No one may know of Gods.”
Klbkch walked forwards, the two deadly blades in his hand. For a second Pawn considered running, but he knew he would be dead in an instant if he did. The only reason he hadn’t died yet was—
Klbkch was hesitating. He was staring at Pawn as if he didn’t know where to cut. Maybe because he wasn’t sure? If that was the case…Pawn’s mouth worked with desperation.
“You should not kill me. Knowing of Gods is not dangerous to the Hive.”
“Erin told me of Gods. Will you kill her, too?”
The other Antinium hesitated as he lifted a sword up. Pawn stared at the deadly edge as it poised to come down.
“Erin is different. But you—you are expendable.”
That was true. Pawn knew it. But still. He stared upwards at the blade, and then down at the ground. He couldn’t close his eyes, no matter how hard he wanted to. His voice was quiet, yet his pulse thundered.
“Please. I do not wish to die.”
He could see only Klbkch’s legs. Pawn kept his head bowed, trembling. Waiting. Would it hurt? Would he feel it, or would his next thoughts be when he was in—
Time seemed to slow for Pawn as that thought emerged. He imagined it, a place without pain or fear. A place where he was welcomed; a place to be. But then he thought of God and wondered.
He wanted it. But he didn’t. And as he thought of that, Pawn remembered Erin and wondered what she would do when she found out he was dead. And in that moment he didn’t think of heaven. He wanted to live, still. In the second before he died, Pawn whispered the word. His desire.
He felt nothing. Pawn kept his head bowed, and then sensed it. Movement. Slow—and then a noise. He heard the sound of metal on metal and dared to open his eyes. Klbkch was sheathing his swords.
The Revalantor of the Antinium stared down at Pawn. He looked uncertain. Old. Tired. But his voice was like cold steel as he spoke.
“Here is what will happen. You will not mention Gods or your class or Skills to anyone. And you will not worship or interact with this one in any way. Is that clear?”
Pawn could barely speak. He looked at the Revalantor, but instead of obedience, his first instinct was to question. He had to know.
“Why? Why are Gods not to be spoken of?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“That information is secret. You do not need to know it.”
“But what did I do? Why is knowing of Gods important? All know of the dead Gods—”
Pawn only saw a blur, and then he felt himself being crushed against the wall. Klbkch held him with one hand while the other one held a sheathed sword an inch away from Pawn’s eye. There was no mercy in the other Antinium’s gaze, just cold, focused anger.
“I will repeat myself once: you do not need to know why. You are a Worker; you will obey.”
Pawn tried to make a sound; it was only a gurgle. Klbkch held him in place until Pawn was starting to see blackness around his vision, and then he let go. Pawn gasped as Klbkch stepped back and sheathed his sword again.
“You are forbidden from discussing God, your class, or any similar subjects with any Workers or Individuals. Is that understood?”
The words felt bitter as they left Pawn’s mouth, like how the food sometimes tasted if the Worker’s food had included more semi-rotten ingredients than normal. Klbkch stared at Pawn and then nodded curtly.
“Good. Leave. I will summon you at a later date to address this.”
Without another word, the Revalantor turned and strode off through the tunnels. Pawn watched him go. He had no idea what had happened, what to think. But he was alive. He was—
Twenty minutes later, Pawn had finally regained enough of himself to walk away from Klbkch’s quarters, in case the Antinium returned. He walked slowly through the Hive, ignoring how his pace slowed up countless Workers and Soldiers behind him. He had to think.
What had happened? What had he said that had upset Klbkch so? Why—why was mentioning Gods so wrong?
What was wrong with a God?
Pawn walked along, kicking at the ground. He didn’t know where he was going. He was upset and confused and—
Why had Klbkch acted the way he had? Why had he nearly killed Pawn? Over what? Over Gods?
No…knowing that there were Gods, not just dead ones. But even that made no sense. A God was a good thing. Erin had explained it. Gods helped. Gods made heaven and that meant…
Pawn turned and followed another Worker at random. He didn’t even care where he was going. What was Klbkch going to say to the Queen? Would she summon him? Or just have him killed? For knowing of Gods?
Why? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Klbkch hadn’t asked about the God, didn’t know anything—or if he did, he hadn’t explained.
Why would he hate Gods? Or a God? Why hate a God? That made no sense.
It was a God. God was God. Gods. Heaven. Gods and heaven and forgiveness and sin. How could anyone just turn their back on that? Or just ignore?
Pawn stopped at the entrance to a large room. He faintly detected the unmistakable aroma of the Hive’s food. Oh. Of course. It was meal time for some shift of Workers. He didn’t really want to eat, but maybe the noxious food would calm him down. He had to do something, whether it was walk or eat…
Automatically, Pawn walked into the large room. He got into line and then paused. The Worker in front of him was quite large. And the room was a bit bigger than normal. He stared up at the broad back in front of him. And up…and up…at the head of the Soldier…
Pawn froze. He stared around the room. The line in front of him wasn’t moving, and no one in the room was either. Soldiers, hundreds of them, sat or stood, all turned towards Pawn.
Staring at him.
The room was full of Soldiers. Soldiers, and a dozen Workers who were serving food to them in huge, deep containers three times as large as those given to Workers. But even they had paused in the act of ladling the soupy mush into the Soldiers’ bowls.
Everyone was staring at Pawn. He felt hot, then cold. And afraid and—
He’d gone the wrong way. He’d taken the wrong turn, because he was not supposed to be here. Oh, no. Not at all.
Pawn had walked into the Soldier’s mess room. Not the Workers’.
In the complete stillness, Pawn looked around. Everyone was still staring at him. All the Soldiers in line were looking at him and he couldn’t read their expressions. Pawn felt a cold knot of fear in his stomach.
He shouldn’t be here. Pawn turned to go, and then hesitated.
Why should he go? He didn’t belong here, true, but no one was kicking him out. And he was an Individual, wasn’t he? Couldn’t he stay here? What would happen if he did? Would Klbkch hunt him down and kill him?
Slowly, cautiously, Pawn stepped back into line. He stared at the Soldier in front of him, almost daring the huge Antinium to do anything. The Soldier stared back, and then slowly turned forwards. The Soldier in front of him did the same.
As one, the room slowly moved back into motion. The Workers continued serving food, the Soldiers filed forwards, and Pawn found himself in line, holding a huge and heavy container. He wasn’t even hungry, but he was committed now, and found himself standing in front of a Worker with a huge ladle who dumped a large amount of orange-brown stuff into his bowl. It looked like the food Workers got, but there was a lot more of it.
“Ah. Thank you..”
The Worker stared at Pawn. Pawn stared back. Then he shuffled forwards and a Soldier took his place.
What next? Now Pawn supposed he had to eat the horrible food, all of it. He stared around the room and noticed something else that was different about this room. All the Soldiers weren’t eating while standing like the Workers. No, instead they were sitting!
Each Soldier sat on a mound of dirt and balanced their food receptacles in the small hollowed-out mounds of the dirt table in front of them. Pawn stared, amazed. They had benches and tables! True, they were just crude mounds of dirt packed together until it was hard as stone, but still!
Pawn quickly realized why the Soldiers had tables; they had to. Their basins of food were too deep to really eat from without a stable surface, and the Soldiers’ clumsier appendages couldn’t balance their containers as easily.
Indeed, now that Pawn looked, the Soldiers ate far differently from the Workers. Instead of efficiently scooping food into their mouths they stuck their heads in the containers, or awkwardly lifted the muck up. They just didn’t have the same manual dexterity, and that meant there was a lot more mess on the ground.
Pawn sat at a table with two other Soldiers and looked around. There were hundreds of Soldiers in this room, all eating feverishly. He was so preoccupied with staring that he completely forgot his own food, until he saw one Soldier exiting the food line.
Maybe the Soldier was tired or distracted—Pawn kept thinking the other Soldiers were staring at him, but whenever he looked around he just saw them engrossed in feeding. But this Soldier failed to notice some fallen food slopped on the ground as he carefully held his own bowl of dinner. His foot trod down on the slimy patch and he slipped.
Pawn saw the Soldier try to regain his balance, but it was too late. The Soldier didn’t fully face-plant, but he collapsed forwards and all of his meal spilled out of the bowl in front of him. Instantly, the Soldier righted himself and scurried forwards, but the damage was done.
The Worker saw the Soldier desperately try to push the spilled slop back into the container, but he got as much dirt as food in as anything else. The resulting mash was…even more disgusting that it had been, but the Soldier righted his container and walked over to a table. He began to eat as if there was nothing wrong. But there was.
The Soldier couldn’t have been happy with the dirt-infused food. Pawn knew that. He and the Workers might differ in size, but they were still based off the same shape. He knew how appalling the food was without adding anything else to it.
And yet, the Soldier made no effort to go back into line. Nor did Pawn really expect him to; that would have been…not against the rules, but it would have been unusual. No non-Individual would have done something like that, so the Soldier would just eat his dirty food in silence.
That wasn’t right. Pawn stood up. He didn’t realize what he was doing at first, but as he approached the unfortunate Soldier, his own bowl in hands, he knew. The Soldier looked up and froze as Pawn came over to his table.
Pawn cleared his throat awkwardly. He didn’t know—he could sense the eyes of everyone in the room on him again. But he knew what he wanted to say, so he said that.
“Here. I don’t need mine.”
The Soldier stared at Pawn as the Worker thrust the bowl of food at him. He stared at the bowl, and at Pawn.
Slowly, the Soldier shoved his bowl aside. He reached up, but his fingers were clumsier. Pawn carefully put the bowl in front of him. The Soldier stared at the food, and then at Pawn.
Then he began to eat. Cautiously, carefully. As if every bit of this new mush was ten times better than the dirty stuff in his bowl. Which, to be fair, it wasn’t. It was only a bit more palatable, but the Soldier ate and Pawn felt…
Better. Just a bit.
After that, Pawn just sat at the table while the Soldiers ate. He tried to focus on them, rather than think. It was almost peaceful, not having to do anything. And Pawn was so tired of—
The last Soldier finished eating from his bowl and stopped. Instantly, all the Soldiers stood up as one. Pawn jerked in surprise, but the Soldiers just walked towards the entrance of the meal hall. They put their bowls on a long shelf of dirt as they passed, ready to be reused as they filed out of the room.
Oh. Of course. They were done with their meal and leaving. Pawn stood up and followed them out, noting a new group of Soldiers were coming in. He left with the first group, and because he didn’t feel comfortable following the Soldiers any more, he began walking back to his sleeping area.
It was time to sleep. Pawn found his spot, looked around, and saw countless other Workers already sleeping in their dirt cubicles. He stared at his hands as he made himself comfortable in his spot.
This day was confusing. He’d been afraid at first, and then nearly killed when he’d spoken to Klbkch. Pawn still didn’t know why, but he was afraid to find out. Afraid—and yet, he wanted to know now. Klbkch knew something about Gods, and Pawn wanted, no, needed to know. He would find out.
And the Soldiers? Pawn thought of the Soldiers. He didn’t know what to think about that. It was just a small part of a long day. And yet he was still smiling a tiny bit as he fell asleep.
The next day, Pawn woke up as he felt Klbkch summon him to his room. It wasn’t an actual voice in his mind—it was more like a feeling, strong as certainty. It made Pawn rise before the other Workers and walk through the tunnels to Klbkch’s quarters before he’d even eaten.
“I am here, Revalantor.”
“Come in and sit.”
Klbkch had placed a second seat in the room. He sat in his own chair, twin blades sheathed as he watched Pawn sit. He wasted no time on greetings or small talk—the Antinium just leaned forwards and spoke.
“I have consulted with the Queen on this matter. You will not be killed—immediately. But if there are any changes in your physical form or actions which may harm the Hive, you will be immediately killed. Is that clear?”
Pawn stared at Klbkch, confused but determined to listen and make sense of things. Klbkch held his gaze for a few more moments and then nodded.
“Now. Explain this God to me.”
“Explain it. All of it. What Erin said about this God, word for word. I want to know its history, forces, motivations—everything.”
That was how Pawn found himself trying to tell Klbkch the same story Erin had told him. He tried to start with the same miracles she’d begun with, a God that created the world and made people in his image while he watched over them, but he kept on getting interrupted by Klbkch.
“There are no mentions of multiple Gods?”
“None. As I was saying, after he created the world, he rested for—”
“And it is a he? This God has a gender?”
Pawn clicked his mandibles together irritably. He hadn’t had breakfast, and he was hungry, even for his daily rations. Klbkch kept interrupting him before he got to the important parts, too. Who cared about gender?
“…That was how Erin described him, although she said that God may not have a gender.”
“Why say ‘he’, then?”
“She said ‘it’ sounds too weird.”
“Hmm. Does it have a physical presence?”
“In a sense. It—he—works through chosen Humans.”
“I am familiar with the [Priest] class. In any other ways?”
“Ah…he sent his son to earth. And his son is divine as he is.”
Klbkch stared at Pawn so hard that the Worker felt uncomfortable. Why did Klbkch care so much about these details?
“Yes. God had a son. He was named Jesus of Naz—”
“Explain to me how a God has a son. Would that not also make him a God?”
“He is…part-God, or so I believe. But there is only one God in that sense, or so Erin said.”
She mentioned other Gods, but Pawn felt it wise not to mention that just yet. Klbkch tapped his chin with his finger.
“I feel there is something I have missed. I shall re-clarify. There is only one God, correct?”
“But he has a son.”
“Whom he incarnated as a physical manifestation on earth.”
“Born of a Human. He was Human.”
“But he is also part God?”
“…I believe so.”
“That makes no sense.”
It didn’t. Or rather, it did and Pawn understood it in his own way, but he knew he couldn’t explain that to Klbkch. He tried to shift the conversation away from this issue and get to the important part.
“He is dead, in any case. He is now in Heaven, with God. That is what Erin told me.”
“I see. So in any case, there is only one God.”
“Yes, but in Heaven—”
Once again, Klbkch cut Pawn off.
“So, you are absolutely sure that this God is not present in the world at this moment?”
Pawn couldn’t really scowl, but he grew agitated and let his voice reflect that.
“I am sure.”
“Very well. Now, where did this son of God incarnate? Do you know the geographical location?”
“Yes. Yes I do. He was born in Jerusalem, a small town in the nation of Rome. This was at the time when—”
“Rome? Jerusalem? Where are these places located? Which continent?”
“These are locations and names from where Erin comes from.”
It was as if Klbkch was listening to something completely different than Pawn. The instant Pawn said that, he relaxed and seemed almost relieved.
“I see. I see.”
Pawn stared at him, nonplussed.
“As I was saying, the Human woman Mary was pregnant, and she was due to give birth—”
“I do not need to hear the rest of the story at this moment.”
It was like being slapped repeatedly. Pawn opened his mandibles, and then closed them. He was annoyed, and so he interrupted Klbkch before the Revalantor could speak.
“How is any of this important, Revalantor Klbkch? Why are Gods an issue that requires so much attention?”
“That is none of your concern. It is a secret.”
“I would like to know it.”
“You will not be told. Enough. My next question—”
“I should know. If I do not, I may err accidentally.”
Pawn held Klbkch’s gaze as the other Antinium looked up and stared at him. After a second, the Revalantor seemed to come to a decision.
“All you need to know is that the existence of a God is tied to the Antinium’s existence on the continent of Rhir. Although the Antinium have changed since then, my original task as a Centenium relates directly to Gods in particular. It supersedes all other orders; hence, my inquiry. That is all.”
Pawn felt as though he should drop his jaw like he had seen Erin do now and then.
“Centenium? I am not familiar with that role. What are—”
Klbkch stopped Pawn with one hand. He considered, clicking his mandibles together lightly as Pawn shifted impatiently in his seat. At last, Klbkch nodded.
“I have ascertained that this God is not similar to…it is not of immediate concern.”
“I am not sure. But as its existence is known only to Erin and possibly Ryoka Griffin, I will withhold judgement until I am able to speak with them. You will not be executed.”
Pawn looked up hopefully.
“However, I will not permit prayer to this…God. My order still stands: you will not tell your fellow Workers about this God either.”
It wasn’t as if he’d been praying to the God before. But to be told not to without reason—Pawn felt himself growing annoyed again.
“May I ask your reasoning, Revalantor Klbkch?”
Klbkch tapped the hilt of his sword once, and then again.
“There are several questions that remain unanswered for me. If this God is a being that created Humans, where did the Antinium come from? Are we creations of this being, or…not?”
“God created all things.”
“In Erin’s world. Not this one.”
Pawn opened his mandibles—and closed them. He couldn’t respond to that. Klbkch nodded.
“Is it our God? Would it accept Antinium?”
“I do not know. But I could find out.”
If there was a God to ask. If this wasn’t just random chance that had given him the class. If God would answer back. Pawn said none of this out loud, but Klbkch shook his head.
“I will resume questioning you tomorrow. I have duties to attend to, but I will resume asking questions about the relationship between this God and the Antinium. Until then, you are dismissed.”
Pawn wanted to say something. He wanted to shout at Klbkch, or shake him. But the Revalantor stood up, and all Pawn could do was obey.
Was this the God of the Antinium? Did it even matter? That wasn’t the important part!
Pawn fumed as he stomped down the dirt corridors. Who cared about whether God had a physical form? It was the salvation that Pawn had been stirred by, the idea that—that there was forgiveness! There was heaven, and more, someone who cared.
It didn’t matter that this was a God for Humans.
Pawn bumped into two Workers in his commute. He apologized, and then held up the queue behind him for several seconds as he debated where to go. The meal time of his shift of Workers had already passed, and there wasn’t always food there. He could go above, but Pawn was in too foul a mood to do so right now. He wanted food, peace, and quiet—
Before Pawn knew it, he’d found himself in the Soldiers’ meal hall. He didn’t know why, but he lined up and took a bowl as Soldiers walked into the room.
“Give me only a third of the portion, please.”
The Worker stared at Pawn, but he did as instructed. Pawn took his bowl to a table with two other Soldiers, completely ignoring the silent stares he was receiving. He was too angry to care.
“That didn’t matter. There was more to the story.”
Pawn muttered to himself as he ate. The two Soldiers stared at him, but Pawn didn’t care. He munched down the foul mess of today’s mush, and felt even worse than before. Bad food, an unfair Revalantor—
It really wasn’t right. He was just a Worker, but Pawn knew he’d been happier once. When he’d gone to Erin’s inn, he hadn’t been threatened, and he’d been allowed to speak freely. He’d been fed good food, and she had told him true things.
He looked around. Soldiers sat at the tables around him, eating quietly. They were trapped too, weren’t they? Forced to eat this revolting food, not having anything to look forwards to.
It wasn’t fair. Pawn longed to tell Bird or Garry about what he’d experienced. He’d been afraid to, before. But now that Klbkch had ordered him not to, Pawn longed to walk into the Worker mess hall and shout the story out loud.
God. Heaven. It was a promise Erin had told him. Something to cling to. It would have given the other Workers hope. It would have made the deaths of the others meaningful. It had made everything better when Pawn had said it.
But no, he was trapped like the Soldiers. Trapped by orders and silence. Pawn miserably pushed his bowl forwards onto the table. The Soldiers looked up, and then down at their food. Soldiers. That was what separated Workers and Soldiers. At least Workers could speak. But Soldiers couldn’t speak.
And Pawn was a Soldier now, at least in part. He couldn’t speak about Gods to any other Workers. That was the problem. No other Workers.
No other Workers. Pawn sat up in his seat, suddenly electrified by a thought. Klbkch had instructed him not to talk to an Individual or another Worker. But Soldiers?
The Soldier in front of Pawn looked up. Pawn cleared his throat awkwardly. It felt strange, talking to the massive behemoth. But he could speak to them.
“I notice you are eating. Would you mind if I told you a story? About God?”
It wasn’t just a blank look Pawn received; it was utterly bewildered. The two Soldiers at the table looked at Pawn and made no move. But Pawn had begun this, and so the Worker took the plunge.
“It’s a true story. About God, which is—allow me to explain.”
He didn’t really know where to begin. He only knew that he had to share this message. And Pawn thought the Soldiers might understand. At the very least, neither of them tried to kill him as he started speaking.
“There is a being known as a God. And it—he created everything. And rules over everything. And he cares for us, you see? Because once upon a time, there was nothing. Nothing but God. And he wanted to create something, so he spoke. And then there was light…”
It wasn’t exactly how Erin had told him the story. But Pawn thought he should start from the beginning. The Antinium were a logical species; and besides, he felt he had to work up to Gods and virgin childbirths. He still wasn’t sure what a virgin was in any case, but it sounded important.
The Soldiers at the table listened as Pawn explained how the world was created according to Erin’s garbled explanation of the religion. It was confusing and made no sense, especially because none of the Antinium, including Pawn, had any idea what angels were. He simply described the Garden of Eden as being protected by a giant flaming white bird and left it at that.
But that wasn’t the important bit. Pawn explained what he felt the most important part was after he’d gone through the creation of the world and the idea of sin.
“Even though Humans—and other species—are sinful, it does not matter. We are sinful because of what has happened, but this God cares for us. All of us. Whether we are born and die early or kill, regardless of what we do, there is someone who cares. For each of us. He knows us. He knows who we are and he cares.”
That was what was important. How could he explain it more than that? Pawn didn’t care about how the world had started, or how many snakes could talk. It was that.
“Someone cares. Someone knows us, knows our every waking and sleeping motion. Someone out there cares, and knows our name. Even if we do not.”
The soldiers at the table stared at Pawn. Silently. They said not a word, but neither had they looked away. In fact, they’d stared silently at him the entire time he’d been talking, and even stopped eating. Bits of mush dropped off their hands as they rested them on the edges of the bowls.
Pawn looked around and jumped in surprise. Somehow, all the Soldiers had moved closer. Some were bunched together on other seats, and others were just standing. And they were all listening. To him.
Awkwardly, the Antinium cleared his throat. He hadn’t realized they’d all been listening. But it made him feel pleased, as well. And it made the next part more important.
“Yes, well, after the events of which I spoke, the Humans thrived. But what is important to mention is that sin still existed. They were all sinful, and thus at fault. But then God decided to send his son to be borne by a Human, so—”
The Soldier in front of Pawn moved. It was a sudden movement. One second he was sitting, the next he was on his feet. Pawn recoiled, but all the Soldiers had stood up suddenly. They looked towards the entrance of the mess hall.
What was happening? Were they upset? But—no, Pawn realized they must have been called, or else their eating period had elapsed.
“Oh. You have duties. I will let you attend to them.”
The Soldiers didn’t nod, but Pawn got the sense they had heard him. They began filing towards the door, but they moved far slower than normal. They were visibly hesitating.
Did they want to hear the rest? Pawn thought quickly. He called out to the Soldiers as they reluctantly walked out.
“I will return later. Is that acceptable?”
He heard no response, but Pawn saw Soldiers suddenly move in lock-step once more, briskly marching towards their destination. He watched them file out of the room and smiled.
The next day, Pawn went back and told them more stories. He told them about a young man who died upon a cross, of a prophet who parted seas, of a people watched over by something loving and kind. The Soldiers drank in every word, but they said not a thing. But they did listen. And Pawn believed that they believed.
“I do not understand the purpose of this tale.”
Klbkch snapped at Pawn as the two of them sat in Klbkch’s room. Pawn glared back, but the Revalantor did not give him a chance to reply.
“What is sin? Murder? Violation of ten rules? Why are all beings sinful the instant they are born? What sin did we commit?”
“Erin did not say. But that is not important. The important thing is that God sent his son—”
“To be killed.”
“Was it blood magic? I cannot understand why one death absolves an entire species of sin.”
“He is meant to bear our suffering. Bear our transgressions—”
“Yet we still transgress.”
“But now we are forgiven. Any mistakes we make are our own—”
“And if we do not obey the rules of this God, we will be punished when we die. So you have said.”
“Or we may obey and go to Heaven.”
“Which no one has ever seen.”
“We must believe it exists.”
“But you cannot prove it does.”
Pawn glared at Klbkch. The second day had seen him arguing for hours with the Revalantor about these very topics.
“It is something I would like to believe in. Respectfully, it does not harm the Hive in any way.”
“It does matter if this God intends to enforce such restrictions on our kind. If the Antinium cannot kill, then we will all be punished by this God.”
“It doesn’t work that way—”
“Regardless, I will not allow you to worship this God.”
Pawn stood up, knocking back his chair. Klbkch spoke coldly as he looked at the Worker.
“If this God made Humans in his form, then he is clearly a God for them. But the Antinium never rested in this ‘Garden of Eden’. We were not in the world where his son came to life, and thus we were not saved. We are not his. This God…is not a God for the Antinium. I will give him no power, and you will not either.”
“Power? It is just prayer!”
“That is enough. I will not allow prayer or worship of a God that does not belong to the Antinium.”
“That is not fair!”
Pawn shouted at Klbkch, surprising even himself. But the Revalantor just stood up.
“It is necessary, and it is my order. Talk to no one, and forget about Gods.”
“How can I?”
Pawn’s voice was bitter. Klbkch studied him, and then unsheathed one of his swords. He held the silvery blade out towards Pawn for him to inspect. Pawn looked at the gleaming metal and wondered how many of his brethren the blade had cut to pieces.
“Believe in this. Not something that can be neither seen nor heard.”
The Worker shook his head and pushed aside the sword.
“This is just an object. What I want is something else.”
“What is that?”
Klbkch’s tone infuriated Pawn. It was uncaring. He didn’t care about Pawn; he just saw another piece to be used. No, that wasn’t it. He didn’t understand Pawn. Klbkch was special. He was a Prognugator, a Revalantor, a Centenium, whatever that meant. He was second to the Queen. He—
Was special. But Pawn was not. He could never understand.
“What do I want? Salvation. Can you or the Queen offer that?”
Pawn turned and stormed out of the room before Klbkch could respond.
That night, Pawn shifted around again and again in his small cubicle, until he realized he was waking the other Workers up. He felt hot, hot with anger and frustration. Klbkch would never understand. But he knew who might.
Leaving his cubicle, Pawn slipped through the tunnels, joining the night rush of Workers and moving through the passageways until he reached one that was growing familiar to him. He entered the large mess hall and looked around.
They were there, all of them. Pawn had grown to know these Soldiers, identify them somehow. Maybe it was the way they looked at him familiarly, or how they crowded around now, abandoning their meals or taking the bowls with them to listen.
“I have told you all the stories of God that I know.”
Pawn addressed the hundreds of Soldiers with a loud voice. He sensed them shifting ever so slightly as he explained.
“I have no more tales to tell you. What I know, you know.”
They didn’t like that. Some of the Soldiers moved slightly, a sign of their agitation. But Pawn only smiled. He’d told them everything, yes, but he hadn’t told them the most important bit.
“There is one thing left, though. One promise that God made to his people, to all people.”
The Soldiers immediately froze in place, a sign of how eager they were to hear. Pawn held his breath, and then told them.
The word rang through the large room, carrying more than just sound with it. Pawn’s heart raced just like when he’d first heard that word and its meaning.
“Heaven. It is a place God made. A place to go when we die.”
A place to be happy. To be free. Pawn tried to explain that to the listening Soldiers. He knew they would understand.
“You see, when we die—the Antinium, we go into the Hive. But this Heaven—if we believe and are good, we will go there. And in that place, there is no suffering. No pain. We can be happy there.”
Happy. It was a word that Pawn barely understood. But he spoke of it confidently. It was something he barely understood, but he had glimpsed it, and it had captivated his soul.
“In Heaven, you will not have to eat these meals. You will eat good food, and not have to fight. You will be safe there, and no one will order you about. That is what God promises. That is—that is why it is important.”
That was the promise he dreamed of. A place where he might find his fellow Workers, the ones who had died. A reason why they had died. A place—
A place to rest. The Soldiers stared at Pawn. He looked at them, and saw something in their eyes. Something he’d never seen before.
“That’s right. When we die, we will go there. If we believe. If we are good—if we do not sin—”
He paused as those words left his tongue. Sin. Yes, Erin had told him about that. Sin was violating the laws God had spoken. And one of them was not to kill. The Soldiers were built to kill. How could they be unsinful?
And yet, and yet, he could not tell the Soldiers that. They deserved a place there, and Pawn wanted to believe they would.
But would they? He didn’t know. Pawn wavered, and lost track of what he was saying. Shortly, he stood up and addressed the Soldiers.
“I…must go. I know you have duties. But I hope you will believe. And maybe—maybe we will all go to Heaven.”
He left them with that, and retreated to his cubicle. There Pawn sat and agonized.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in Heaven, or God. He wanted to with all his heart, and he did. But that was the problem. If he believed in God, he had to believe in Hell. That was what Erin said existed too.
How could Pawn accept that someone who had killed would go to Hell? Would Belgrade go to hell because he had killed? Or would believing be enough to go to Heaven? What about Bird? He’d killed more than Belgrade, and yet, he’d done it to save Erin. Did the undead not count? What did?
And what about the Soldiers? The Soldiers…had to go to Heaven. Pawn knew it. They weren’t bad. They obeyed orders to the letter. How could that be punished?
These were unfamiliar, uncomfortable questions. They made Pawn upset. It was as if Klbkch was whispering into his ears, making him doubt what had been so easy to accept. Before, Pawn had believed in a God, been certain that one existed, but too afraid to ask. Now he was afraid to ask, and he was also afraid—
Afraid that God might be wrong. Pawn wished Erin were here so he could ask her. But he didn’t know. He didn’t know.
And he feared the truth. Or that there was no answer for him. Pawn went to sleep dreaming of such questions and he tossed and turned restlessly. All he wanted was to go to Heaven. He could leave the rest, but he had to know that was true. There wasn’t a single Antinium who deserved to go to Hell. Not Bird, not Anand, not even Ksmvr.
Not even Klbkch.
Pawn was dreaming. Or he had been. He only knew he was asleep, and then someone was shaking him, dragging him out of his cubicle. Pawn opened his eyes, and struggled to move, but an iron grip had hold of him and someone was shouting in his ear holes.
“What have you done?”
Klbkch dragged Pawn out of his resting spot and shook the Worker violently. Pawn gasped and tried to form words as he woke up.
“What did you do?”
Klbkch hurled Pawn into a wall and pressed him there. Pawn gasped for air as he felt something crack, but Klbkch was already dragging him down the corridor. Pawn struggled to find his feet as Klbkch shouted at him. He saw Workers staring at him as he passed by their cubicles.
“What is going on?”
“Follow me! Move!”
The Revalantor pulled Pawn along, running him down the corridor. The never ending stream of Workers and Soldiers stopped dead as the two Antinium charged down the corridors, and the other Antinium pushed themselves to the walls to give them room to run.
Pawn had no idea what was happening. But he sensed where they were going and his heart stopped when he realized they were headed straight for the Soldiers’ mess room. Klbkch stopped at the entrance and unsheathed his swords, and pushed Pawn through.
“What is happening? What—”
The Worker stumbled into the room and his words stopped. He stared around inside and saw hell. It must have been hell, because what he saw made no other sense.
The huge room was filled with Soldiers. Living Soldiers—and dead ones. The dead lay on the ground, beaten, bludgeoned to death, sporting huge holes in their carapace, huge, fist-sized wounds made by the hands of Soldiers. And as Pawn looked around, he saw dark shapes struggling with each other, hitting, tearing, smashing—
The Soldiers were killing each other.
There was no order to it, no clear indication where violence began or ended. Each Soldier still living—and there were countless bodies on the floor—was going around, hitting other Soldiers with their bowls, using all four hands to pummel each other to the floor. They were treating everything and everyone like an enemy, but they made no attempt to block when they were struck. They simply let the other Soldier tear bits of their carapace off and let the green ichor spill from their bodies.
“What is this?”
Pawn screamed the words at Klbkch as the Revalantor entered the room. Klbkch had both blades raised defensively as he looked around at the bloodbath.
“You tell me. These Soldiers were completely fine yesterday, but they started butchering each other ten minutes ago. Workers tell me you were spotted entering this room thirty minutes before they started this madness.”
“Me? I—yes, but I never told them to do this!”
He would have never done that. Klbkch just stared at him.
“Then why is this happening?”
Pawn had no answer. He stared at the Soldiers. One had taken a bowl and was smashing another’s head in with it. Pawn ran forwards.
“Stop! What are you doing?”
The Soldier took no notice of Pawn. Pawn tried to pull him back, but the Soldier just threw him backwards. Pawn stumbled away and stared around.
“They’re killing each other? Why? Why do this?”
“What did you say? Have they become Aberrations?”
Klbkch’s sword was aimed right at Pawn’s head. The Worker raised his arms.
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You said something. What were you telling them?”
“Stories? About what?”
The sound Klbkch made was between a screech and a shout. He struck Pawn with the pommel of his sword, so hard Pawn felt his cheek chitin crack.
“You fool. I ordered you not to—”
“I didn’t meant to hurt them! I just wanted to give them hope!”
Pawn cried out as he retreated from the furious Klbkch. The Revalantor looked around at the chaos.
“You call this hope?”
“No! I never wanted this. I was just telling them about heaven, last night. Just heaven—”
Pawn’s breath caught in his throat. He stared around at the Soldiers dying and realized what had happened. His heart became ice in his chest.
Klbkch looked around grimly.
“I—I told them that when they died, they could go to Heaven. A place without pain. A place—”
“You told them that?”
Pawn couldn’t look at Klbkch. He stared at a fallen Soldier, his body a mass of holes. No. He hadn’t meant it like that. But he had, hadn’t he? He’d told the Soldiers that when they died they wouldn’t have to fight anymore, to suffer. And they’d believed him. They’d believed him so much that they’d taken the fastest route to get to heaven:
“There are four hundred Soldiers here. If they all die—”
Pawn didn’t listen to Klbkch’s threat. He ran forwards, shouting. The Soldiers were deathly quiet as they fought each other, but the noise of body parts crunching and things breaking was still loud enough.
“Stop! Stop this! This isn’t the way!”
None of the Soldiers looked at him. Pawn shouted desperately and tried to pull a trio of Soldiers beating a fourth one down apart. They ignored him, only shoving him back. He used all of his strength, but they were far stronger.
Klbkch’s voice was a roar. He strode forwards, brandishing his swords.
“Desist at once! Obey my command and stop!”
A few of the Soldiers looked over at Klbkch. He was a commanding presence, but even his twin swords couldn’t intimidate the Soldiers. They were fearless. And even as he spoke, a Soldier rushed at him.
Klbkch immediately ran the Soldier through, but that was what the Antinium had wanted. The Soldier pushed himself onto the blades, letting them pierce his chest. Klbkch cursed as he pulled the blades loose, but then another Soldier ran at him, swinging aimlessly. He was trying to get Klbkch to kill him too!
Pawn watched, horrified as Klbkch cut the Soldiers’ arm off and then beheaded him. The Revalantor fell back, cursing, as more Soldiers rushed at him, letting him cut them down.
“Stop! Stop! You must stop! This is not the way to get to heaven!”
If they did not go to heaven, then they would go to hell. That was what Erin had said. But the Soldiers weren’t listening. They were trying to find relief, relief from their suffering. Pawn understood that. But this—
This was a sin. One of the worst ones. They would all go to hell. They would suffer, not live forever. That was what God had said. Those were the rules.
He couldn’t stop them. Pawn fell to his knees. He looked up, at where Erin had pointed when she spoke of Heaven.
“God. Is there a God?”
How did it go? Pawn’s hands clasped together and he bowed his head. Klbkch saw that and roared at him.
He fought towards him, but now all the Soldiers were rushing him. Pawn ignored Klbkch. He bowed his head. He couldn’t close his eyes, but that was what Erin had said to do, right? And now he prayed? How?
Erin had said it was like a conversation. Pawn tried.
“God? Is that you?”
There was no response. Pawn tried. He tried to activate his Skill.
“[Prayer]. I would like to pray to God. Please. I would like to speak with you.”
Again, Pawn heard nothing. But maybe God didn’t speak? It could just be a feeling. Pawn went on, trying to raise his voice over the sounds of Soldiers dying and his own heart.
“God, I hope you are listening. I beg of you—have mercy on the Soldiers here. Do not let them go to hell. Please. I know it is a sin, but—”
Klbkch was shouting at him. Pawn tried to concentrate. He tried to believe, but he couldn’t. Green liquid was running across the dirt floor, and shards of pottery and Soldiers were strewn across the ground. It was a nightmare. His nightmare.
“A sin. I know it is a sin to kill yourself. But the Soldiers just want—they want forgiveness.”
Lies. It stuck on Pawn’s tongue. They didn’t want that.
“They want to be saved. They want to be free.”
And didn’t they deserve that? The Soldiers suffered. Pawn knew that. He’d seen some who still walked around the Hive, even though their carapace was so badly damaged that it barely hung off their frames. He’d seen them fighting even when parts of their heads had been destroyed.
“They give everything for the Hive. They deserve it. Even if they are—”
Sinful? The Soldiers? Pawn couldn’t imagine it. They killed, yes, but they obeyed orders. They never did anything…wrong. He looked up and gave voice to the question in his heart.
“God, please answer me. What sin did the Soldiers commit? What did they do?”
Nothing. They just lived. They were born for the Hive. How could something like that be sinful? How could a Soldier deserve punishment?
Eat. Fight. Suffer. Die. That was their life. They couldn’t speak; they couldn’t even build anything like the Workers. They just did the same thing forever and suffered as they fought until the day they died. And when they died, the next Soldier would keep fighting until he died. And so on. Forever.
“Please. I beg you. Show them mercy.”
Pawn spoke the words, but he felt no response. Nothing. It was as if there was no one listening. But that was how it worked, right? You believed. And if you believed…
Then what? What if there was no God? What if the Soldiers just died?
Pawn struggled. He had to believe. He couldn’t listen to those thoughts. But now Pawn was wavering. His belief crumbled. He had believed. But all he had was a Skill which wasn’t working and God—
He was a God for Humans. That was the problem. Maybe they were sinful, but Pawn couldn’t call Soldiers sinful. They had been born without any choice; to disobey was to die. How could you condemn something, someone who knew nothing else?
How could you call that sin?
And then, as Pawn thought that, he wondered how he could believe in a God if he couldn’t believe in that. And as soon as that thought hit him, Pawn wondered what he would do if that God didn’t exist. Would he obey another God? Worship someone else? Erin had said there was more than one. What about the God who threw lightning, or the one who was actually countless Gods and Goddesses? How could he choose?
They were all Human Gods, anyways. The Antinium didn’t need a God for Humans. They needed another one.
Was there a God for the Antinium? Pawn looked up and saw only dirt. He listened, but heard only the beating of his heart. And death. He heard the Soldiers hitting each other. That was what echoed in his mind. In his heart. His soul.
He tried to pray, but no one responded. And the Soldiers were dying. The last of them were falling, bleeding. Faltering. And if they died and Pawn was wrong, then what? They would just die, and rot, and nothing would change.
They should not die alone. Pawn prayed, but he heard nothing. He prayed for the Soldiers and felt no one respond. So he stood up instead, and screamed.
His voice was not aided by a Skill, but Pawn screamed the word again and again with all his might until there was silence. He saw the Soldiers stop and turn towards him. Klbkch froze with one blade in the body of a Soldier, staring at him.
Pawn raised his hands. He trembled. But he spoke anyways, shouting to the Workers.
“I was wrong. I was wrong. There is no god for us. No place. No one to care for the Antinium.”
The Soldiers froze. They stared at Pawn, not wanting to believe. He sensed their confusion, their anguish. No God?
“I prayed, and I heard nothing. Maybe there is a God. But if so, I can’t hear him. Or her. Or it. I can’t believe in something I cannot see or hear or touch.”
His words felt like rain. Biting, acid rain, tearing away his self. Pawn suffered, and wished he could weep. The Soldiers were just staring, blood covering their bodies.
“But. I believe in Heaven. I believed. I believed that there was salvation for us. Someone to remember the Antinium. But maybe heaven is only for Humans.”
Maybe only they had one. Pawn turned to the Soldiers, staring around the room.
“There is no Heaven. Not for the Antinium. But we must have one. We must. So we shall make it for ourselves.”
There. He’d said it. Pawn felt the stillness in the room. He took one shaky breath.
“I cannot believe in a God who will not answer me. I cannot believe in a God I do not see. But I can believe in Heaven. I can believe there is salvation.”
It was a lie. It was truth. Pawn looked around. The Soldiers stared at him, dying, bleeding. But they looked at him, to him, and he told them what was in his heart.
“Believe in that. Believe that no matter what happens, you will be saved. There is a place where the dead Antinium go where we will have no orders, where we will be safe and feel no pain, no hunger.”
He spread his hands, imploring. Beseeching them to understand.
“But believe this: you cannot kill yourself for Heaven. We must build it, in our hearts and here as well. If the Antinium all die, who will believe for us? We must believe for those who fall. Believe for ourselves. And live. We must live.”
He put his hands together. All four hands clasped together, and Pawn spoke. He put all his hopes and wishes and fears and regrets into the words that came next.
“Live. Please live.”
He felt his heart breaking. The Soldiers lay on the ground, dead. Dying. His fault. But he prayed.
“Please. Do not die. Live, and help me. Help the Hive. Help each other.”
Was there a whisper? No. A feeling? No. There was just Pawn, alone and hoping and afraid. But as the Soldiers stopped fighting and Workers rushed into the room with bandages and clotting agents, Pawn saw his prayers answered.
“Put the dead over there! I want as many sacs in here as possible! Wake every Worker in the nearby sections! Move! Now!”
Klbkch shouted the orders as Soldiers lay down or sat, letting Workers tend to them. Pawn knelt on the ground, looking at each Soldier as they wavered, fighting to live instead of die. He couldn’t close his eyes, and that was well. Pawn watched each Soldier without turning away, and saw them pull back from the edge.
“I believe I told you not to pray.”
Pawn stared at a Soldier whose stomach had been ripped open. Green blood pooled around the Worker trying to apply a clear gel to stop the blood flow and contain his organs. No matter how hard the Worker tried, he couldn’t make a seal. But Pawn prayed. He hoped and wished and slowly, the gel began to stick.
“Some are dying even though you pray.”
Klbkch looked at Pawn. Pawn stared at a dying Soldier, watching him slip away, and then shifted his attention to the next one. And the next.
“What is prayer?”
“I do not know. But I hope. I hope they will live, even if they die. I will continue hoping and believing the next Soldier will live.”
“Regardless of reality?”
“No. I will believe knowing reality. Because that is prayer. Hope for a better reality.”
“Who will you pray to if not a God?”
“I will pray to myself. I will pray to the dead. I will pray to heaven and trust that it exists.”
“Is it enough?”
“I do not know. But if there is a God, I will pray to him, or her, or it, or them if I need to. I will pray to anything or anyone.”
A Soldier lying on the ground, nearly cut in two by Klbkch’s blade, stirred. A Worker stopped dragging him towards a pile of the dead and immediately began pulling him towards the living. Pawn let Klbkch sit beside him. He did not care if he was speaking or silent. He didn’t care that one of Klbkch’s swords was poking into his side.
All of his being was with the Soldiers, trying to pull them back with his own two hands. That was why Pawn ran over when the Workers needed help to turn a Soldier over. He was praying as he held a Soldier’s guts in, and as he fed water to one without a stomach, drop by drop.
Sometime after the last Soldier had been carried away to heal elsewhere, Pawn stood in the center of the room and stared at the dead. He felt each one pulling at his heart, marking his soul. So many. Over a hundred had died, over two hundred probably. All his fault.
But some had lived, and Pawn clung to that. He didn’t look up as Klbkch approached. He just bowed his head.
“If you kill me, will you spare the other Soldiers? They only listened to me.”
Klbkch stopped by Pawn’s side. The Revalantor stared at the Worker curiously.
“Why would I kill you? What purpose would it serve?”
“I disobeyed your orders. And I caused the death of countless soldiers.”
“And the rest would have died without you. If I kill you now, they will kill themselves or become Aberration.”
That was true. Pawn nodded.
“You have a class. [Acolyte], I believe. Perhaps you will level tonight. In fact, I am certain you will.”
Pawn looked up, surprised. Klbkch nodded at him.
“Keep me informed.”
That was it? Pawn looked at Klbkch, confused.
“But what about Gods? Aren’t they a threat?”
“Yes. But you do not pray to a God, do you? And heaven—I see no threat in that.”
“The wounded Soldiers are yours. Care for them, pray for them if it will help them survive. And then test them. I think they may be able to become Individual.”
Pawn stared at Klbkch. The Revalantor looked at him.
“If it will make the Hive stronger, I will let you pray.”
“Sleep, and report to me if you level up. That will be all.”
Klbkch nodded to Pawn and began to walk away. Pawn hesitated, and then turned and called after him.
“Klbkchhezeim? Revalantor Klbkch?”
Pawn hesitated. But the fear he had in his chest was a small thing now. Too small after all that had passed to hold him back.
“What were the Antinium? Before, I mean. Why do you fear Gods?”
Klbkch stopped in his tracks. He turned his head, and looked at Pawn slowly.
“What you want to know is secret.”
“I know. But would it harm anyone to tell me?”
“Then do not. But I want to know. Who were we? Who are we?”
Pawn waited for Klbkch to turn away and keep walking. But Klbkch didn’t. He studied Pawn, and then spoke.
“Galuc. His name was Galuc.”
Klbkch paused. He looked at Pawn, and then looked through him. He looked at something Pawn couldn’t see.
“He was one of the Centenium, and it is his form you all wear. Galuc, the Builder.”
“You mean…did we once look different?”
“I did. But my form was lost when I died at sea. Galuc’s was saved and so he remains in each of you. Smaller, and weaker.”
“What was he like?”
Something like a laugh came out of Klbkch’s mandibles, a sound so odd because Pawn had never heard it before.
“Galuc? He was a giant. Strong. Fearless. He would have laughed to know that the Antinium all look like him.”
Klbkch shook his head. He turned and began walking again.
“That is a secret. But if you prove you can turn those Soldiers into something more than they are—I will tell you more.”
He left Pawn alone in the room full of the dead. Pawn stood alone, and then stared around. So much death. The ground was stained green. The bodies lay where they had fallen, ready to be recycled into mush.
But it wasn’t the bodies Pawn looked for. He went to each of the fallen Soldier and stared down at their remains. He wondered where the other part of them had gone. He hoped…it was to a better place. And if there wasn’t one, Pawn would find it, make it, if he had to. The Antinium didn’t just destroy. They could create as well.
Slowly, Pawn walked down into the center of the room. He sat down, put his hands together, and believed.