When Lyonette woke up in her bed and felt the winter daylight on her face, she smiled up at the ceiling, so widely she thought her lips would break.
She’d gained two classes. Two. And she’d leveled up!
Part of Lyon had been afraid that it was all a dream. But the voice in her head—it was undeniable.
She’d leveled. Lyonette hugged her pillow as she curled up. In doing so, she rolled over and nearly squashed the ball of fluff sleeping next to her.
“Oh no. Sorry, Mrsha!”
Lyonette heard a noise of protest from the still sleeping Mrsha. Tiny claws poked her as the young Gnoll reached out and stole the blanket back. Lyon smiled at the round, furry little creature and patted her on the head.
A mouth came up and nipped at Lyonette’s hand, making her yelp. Mrsha cracked one brown eye open and stared at the girl balefully. The message was clear: petting was only for happy, awake Gnolls.
For a while, Lyon lay in her bed. But soon the needs of the day got her up. She stood, dressed, and soon found herself paying a visit to the cold outhouse. It was well-crafted of course, and relatively warmer than the outside. But only just. Lyon sat on the toilet, shivering, but still smiling.
She’d leveled. She had. It wasn’t a dream. She now had both the [Carer] and [Tactician] class, from taking care of Mrsha and playing chess respectively.
Two new classes on top of her [Barmaid] class. As Lyon hurried back into the inn she marveled at the thought. How long had it been since she’d last leveled up in her ‘chosen’ class? Four years?
Yes. Four years.
Lyonette stood with the glass of water in her hand, watering the flowers as she stared out one frosted window at the snowy world. It was cold, lifeless, and beautiful. There was something terrifying about it as well, a sense that if you wandered out into that vast, unforgiving landscape you would die, in this place where civilization ended.
Of course, when Lyonette went to the window facing Liscor she saw a city full of people and beyond that, villages scattered across hilltops. It was only the southern window that was so bleak. But she liked that window. It showed her a world she’d never dreamed of in the palace where she’d grown up.
That place had been…Lyonette sighed as she went outside, bundled up, and tromped through the snow towards the stream, two buckets in hand.
She’d hated it. She’d hated not leveling, and she’d hated how boring everything had seemed. So she’d run off. To become an adventurer, or perhaps find a class meant for her. She hadn’t had any idea of what that meant—to the Lyon of now, the past her seemed so idiotic.
Staggering, Lyon walked back to the inn, the filled buckets of water straining her arms. It hurt, even walking this short distance with so much weight. But her arms were getting stronger. She was gaining muscle and more importantly—
She was leveling up in a class. A [Barmaid] class, true, something completely unbefitting her heritage. But a class nonetheless.
Part of Lyonette shivered with delight at how wrong it all was. She was a [Princess]! If her family knew how badly she was sullying her position by taking such a class—her mother even hated letting the princes take [Knight] and [Commander] classes.
It was a waste of her potential. But it wasn’t at the same time. Lyonette didn’t care about her duties right now. She just wanted to live here, in this inn, and finally realize her dream. Level. She had the [Carer] class and even a [Tactician] class! She wanted to level both up. She wanted to—
The girl had to put down one of the buckets to push the door open. When she did, she saw a familiar white, furry Gnoll cub running around the room anxiously. Mrsha ran in circles, hair standing on end, clearly in great distress.
When the Gnoll saw Lyonette she cannonballed into the girl’s stomach, nearly making Lyon spill both buckets. She clung to Lyon, sniffing at her and hugging her tightly.
She’d thought Lyon was gone. Gone, just like Erin and Ryoka. That nearly made Lyon cry; she held Mrsha tightly.
“Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m not going to leave. I just went to get water, see?”
When she showed Mrsha the buckets, the Gnoll eagerly helped Lyonette bring them into the kitchen, although Mrsha had to push the heavy bucket across the wooden floor. Lyon let her do it; it was a cute sight and Mrsha wanted to help. And Lyonette understood wanting to help, wanting to be useful.
And in this inn, Lyonette was useful. No—it was more like she was essential if Erin wasn’t here. Without her working hard, the fire wouldn’t be fed, and there would be no water, no food. The flowers would die, and this little Gnoll would starve. That was what got Lyonette up even when it was bitingly cold and made her work and count coins. She was responsible for a life now, and that was precious to her.
Yes, she was needed here. Far more than she’d ever been back in her home, in her kingdom. Damn being a [Princess]. Lyonette thought that, and paused.
She only hated the class because she never leveled in it. But she knew…if only she could level. But she didn’t know how. It was too hard back at home. Too hard, because everything was too easy, and she was useless.
But what had Erin said one time?
“You’d be like a temporary innkeeper. This would be my castle, and I would be like a [Princess]…”
Mrsha looked up at Lyon in confusion, tail wagging frantically. The girl had to smile at the Gnoll as she patted her head.
“Let’s make breakfast, okay? I’m hungry and your stomach is rumbling. And while we do—would you like to hear a story, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll nodded as she followed Lyon into the kitchen. There she watched greedily as Lyon cut thick slices of bacon and laid them gently in a pan to sizzle and pop. The girl had bought the precious and expensive meat for guests, mainly the Antinium, but today was a special day, wasn’t it?
Bacon sizzling, Lyonette found part of a loaf and sliced the slightly stale bread up. A bit of warming by the fire and some butter and more importantly, honey and it would be a treat. She still had three huge jars of honey, honeycomb, and even some royal jelly sitting in the inn after all.
Life was good. Lyon fried the bacon—she was getting better at making it crispy, not black—spilling a half-cooked slice on the floor. Not entirely by accident either—a certain Gnoll ramming into her legs had caused the mishap.
“Stop that, you!”
Lyonette scolded Mrsha as the Gnoll pounced on the greasy bacon slice. The young Gnoll looked up at her guiltily with her huge eyes and Lyon had to forgive her.
“Sit there and let me finish. I’ll tell you that story now. Did you know that there are types of classes in this world?”
The Gnoll sat on her butt, tail wagging as she chewed on the bacon and stared up at Lyon. She stared curiously at Lyon as the girl spoke, her eyes on the pan.
“Oh yes. Everyone knows there are classes, but when I was a girl—my family has many secrets. Many old secrets about the world and classes and levels. My father insisted I learn each one, as part of my tutoring. And do you know? I learned that some classes are better than others.”
The Gnoll scooted forwards, eyes wide, ears perked up. Lyonette laughed as she put a slice of crispy bacon on a plate.
“Yes, not all classes are equal. Of course, each one is important, but some are more important, see? Like classes that influence people. There are [Tacticians] and [Strategists] and classes that only [Soldiers] can take like [Sergeant] and [Commander] of course…but the best of all such classes is probably [General] or [Admiral].”
Mrsha just blinked at Lyon. How much did she understand? Lyonette didn’t know her age, but she thought Mrsha was young by any standard. Still, she continued.
“A [General] can have influence over a whole army. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people. Isn’t that amazing? She or he can even affect other armies with Skills that demoralize or frighten…but there are classes that can do the same outside of battle. [Lords] and [Ladies] have their own demesne, and [Farmers] control their plots of land. You see? Some classes have range.”
Mrsha nodded and sneezed. Perhaps the nod was because of the sneeze? Lyon took it as a good sign.
“So what my mother told me was that the best classes can touch entire kingdoms. Like royal classes. [King], [Queen], [Princess]…a family of rulers can all make their nation strong.”
If they had high levels. Lyonette swallowed a lump in her throat.
“So these classes are some of the best. Because they are so rare, and only a few can have them. [Lords] for example are strong and have good Skills. But a [King] will have greater skills. There is no stronger class, in that sense. Well…”
The girl had to pause.
“…I suppose [Emperor] or [Empress] might be better. Because there can be only one, you see? A [King] can rule with a [Queen] and even [Princes] and [Princesses] all adding their Skills together. But an [Emperor] can rule over many nations, so only their Skills would affect the entire empire.”
Mrsha began scratching at her side, a clear indication that Lyon was losing her. The girl scowled; but the bacon was nearly done.
“Fine. You don’t like that? Then how about this? This is the secret my parents taught me. Royal classes, rare classes, and special classes—the kind that appear when two classes merge—they’re all better than normal ones. A [Lord] has almost the same Skills as a [General]. He can fight and lead, but he can also empower his estate. A [Blademaster] will have far, far better Skills than any [Warrior]—even a normal [Knight]! And you can get special classes by doing secret things. In fact, a [Princess] can even give someone a unique class.”
The Gnoll stared up at Lyonette, and then flopped over on her back. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and Lyonette sighed. It wasn’t important to Mrsha. It was special to Lyonette, but only because she needed it to be. Why would a Gnoll child care what a [Princess] could do?
“Fine. Let’s eat!”
Bacon and honey-covered bread for breakfast was a sinfully delicious meal. Lyonette ate nearly as fast as Mrsha, although the smaller Gnoll had even less manners than she did. She greedily chewed down the fatty bacon, pausing only to lick her paws clean of grease and honey every now and then.
When breakfast was done, Lyonette found something for Mrsha to do. She’d realized the Gnoll needed a distraction, so she found some parchment and charcoal. The Gnoll sat on the ground, happily drawing while Lyon cleaned the tables and washed the dishes.
She wished she had some of her toys, the ones she’d had back in the palace. The Gnoll deserved some fun. Maybe she could buy something? She had a good amount of coin after Pawn had come by—a lot, in fact. When Olesm came, Lyonette could probably persuade him to go shopping, but would the Drake even know what a Gnoll liked? Perhaps…
Lyonette was scrubbing at a bit of solidified honey on the table when she saw movement. She looked up and realized it wasn’t Mrsha but something else. Cautiously Lyonette moved over and saw the thing move again. She was tempted to grab a frying pan before she investigated, but then memory nudged her and she realized what it had to be.
A white, wriggling larvae, big and fat and sitting in a pool of royal jelly stared blindly up at Lyon while she stared down in disgusted fascination.
The grub! She’d completely forgotten about it! Lyon had intended to give it to Pawn, but it had slipped her mind. Now the grub moved slowly in the white goo surrounding it.
It was still alive, and even fatter than it had been yesterday if her eyes didn’t deceive her. Lyon stared at it in horrified fascination. The grub was ugly as sin, and sightless to boot. Still, Lyonette had the crazy urge to poke at it like Mrsha had done.
Resisting that instinct, Lyon frowned as she considered the liquid in the bowl. It was lower than yesterday as well. Some had evaporated? Or—the larvae had eaten some. It was growing.
Well, that only meant Pawn would like it more when she gave it to him, right? Lyonette decided to make sure the grub survived. That meant adding more royal jelly—she’d heard that was best for bees to grow with.
There were several honeycombs in the jars that she’d cut from the hive. Lyonette could see pockets of the white, jelly-like substance, and tried to fish it out so she could refill the bowl with the larvae in it. To that end she had to reach into the jar full of honey with a clean hand, giggling and shuddering at the odd feeling of so much honey.
She decided to separate as much of the jelly from the honey as she could, in case she needed it later. So Lyonette found another jar and used a wooden spoon to transfer the jelly over. It was a messy and sticky maneuver, and it invariably attracted Mrsha. The Gnoll licked both the royal jelly and honey up as Lyonette tried to fend her off.
“Stop it, Mrsha! Mrsha! You’ve just had breakfast! You’re going to get so fat.”
Which wouldn’t actually be a bad thing. The Gnoll was still thinner than she should be, which is why Lyonette let her lick her palms clean, giggling as the tiny rough tongue greedily lapped up the sticky honey.
The grub wriggled when Lyonette poured the royal jelly over it, but in the end it was nearly covered except for its head again. That done, she placed the bowl nearer to the fire. Not too near—but close enough that the grub wouldn’t freeze during the night.
That was how Lyon spent the first hour of her morning. After that, the door opened and Selys came by. The Drake wasn’t working today, and so she’d come—anxious and worried—to check on Mrsha. The Gnoll was happy to see her since the Drake wasn’t trying to take her away, and she definitely enjoyed the toys Selys had brought.
“I bought these for her. They’re very popular with Gnolls but Mrsha never wanted to play back at my apartment.”
So said Selys as she sat at a table, enjoying some honey and bread and a glass of honeyed water in the warm inn. Lyonette buzzed around the kitchen, making more honey water—she had the idea it would be very popular with the Antinium—and storing it in another jar for later. The inn was full of life, and guests! Not just Mrsha, but Selys had come to visit!
And—surprisingly—Olesm as well. The Drake came by every few days, less and less often since Lyon made him go shopping for her each time, but he arrived not long after Selys, tail wagging with excitement.
He always said that. But he didn’t look as disappointed today. Instead, he happily joined Selys at a table, eating some of her honeyed bread, oblivious to her annoyed look while he waved a sheaf of parchment about, unable to contain his excitement.
“You won’t believe what just happened. I was in the city and Hawk—you know, the Courier—came over with all these letters! One had just been sent, and when he got to Liscor to deliver them, the Runner’s Guild told him there were tons of undelivered letters all addressed to me!”
“Why didn’t the Runners deliver them?”
“Well—oh, thank you. Is…why is this water sweet?”
Lyon explained as Olesm suspiciously tasted the water in the glass with a long tongue.
“Oh! It’s good! You should sell this! Can I have more bread? Selys has run out. Anyways, you won’t believe what happened! When I was sending all my letters out, I misspelled my name! So when I got the replies—they were all addressed to Oresm, not Olesm! I can’t believe no one at the Guild picked up on that mistake!”
Lyonette laughed, but Selys gave Olesm and exasperated look.
“Oresm? By all the Ancestors, how did you manage to misspell your own name when you sent all those letters?”
He hunched over, tail twitching defensively.
“I was excited! And I had good reason—do you know what I sent? Chess games!”
“You mean like the one Erin got? So what?”
Selys remained unimpressed. Olesm rolled his eyes, speaking faster as he tried to explain and convey his enthusiasm to an unreceptive audience.
“I didn’t just send chess puzzles. Don’t you get it? I sent the chess puzzle Erin made—the really hard one—as well as actual games she played! I managed to use the annotation system she taught me—with it you can go through her chess games step by step and see how it played out without needing to be there!”
“So you can recreate chess games across the world! And play them, too! I copied that game she played against all of the Antinium—and the games she played on the magical chessboard! They’re a goldmine for any [Tactician] or [Strategist], don’t you see? It’s been less than a month since I sent out the letters—open messages to major cities, just the nearest ones that I could afford—and I’ve gotten back so many replies!”
Excitedly, he showed the two young females the letters. Lyonette had to admit, the stationary collection did seem impressive. Selys didn’t understand the significance, but Lyonette could see the quality of the letters was high in some cases, and some had personal sigils or seals. In a political sense, Olesm had suddenly accrued quite a bit of attention.
“Okay, so some [Tacticians] are excited about chess. It’s a popular game. So what?”
“Would you stop saying that?”
“So—people want me to send them more chess games! I’m talking with the head [Strategist] of one of the Walled Cities, see? He told me the chess puzzle I sent helped him level! And this—the letter that came by Courier actually sent back some money!”
Selys choked on her drink when Olesm showed her the gold coins.
“What? People are sending you money for your stupid chess games?”
“Of course! Don’t you understand? This can help high-level [Strategists] level further! And if we can play chess by mail—I’m already planning on sending more of Erin’s games and more of the chess puzzles she taught me. I just…have to solve some of them.”
Olesm coughed, a bit embarrassed. Lyonette and Selys just stared at him.
“But when I do send them out, I’m not going to just stay on this continent. I’ll pay to have them delivered as a bulk shipment to every major city in the world! In a few months…just think of the possibilities!”
It was all a bit over Selys’ head, and the female Drake argued with Olesm over the cost of what she called his ‘silly project’, but Lyonette just sat, staring at the pile of letters Olesm so lovingly clutched, heart pounding.
This was big news. If Olesm was right, he might well be able to form a network of his own between [Tacticians]. Lyonette had—grudgingly—been taught history and she knew that this was how organizations like the Adventurer’s Guild, Runner’s Guild, and so on had been created.
She smiled at Olesm. She was happy for him. The Drake smiled back, and then Lyonette told them her big news of the day.
“I’ve got two new classes. [Carer] and [Tactician].”
Gaining new classes in any society was usually cause for congratulations and celebration, depending on the class. It wasn’t as dramatic as when people celebrated hitting their tenth or twentieth level—or the huge parties when people managed to reach Level 30—but Olesm and Selys still made approving sounds.
Olesm was curious about Lyon’s [Tactician] class—he screamed when she told him about playing on the magical chessboard and told her to play him instead, but Selys was more curious about Lyon’s other class.
“[Carer]? Is that really a class?”
Lyonette nodded, stroking Mrsha’s head as the Gnoll played with a wicker ball, rolling it across the floor and leaping after it. It was one of the toys Selys had brought and Lyonette was glad that it was too big for Mrsha to swallow.
“It is in my ki—my country. On Terandria. People get it for taking care of children, or the elderly.”
It wasn’t exactly a common class, but Lyonette knew some of the older [Lords] and [Ladies] employed people with such classes to help take care of them, just as the [Governess] who had looked after her had been an advanced form of that class.
“Don’t Drakes and Gnolls have a class like that?”
Selys and Olesm shook their heads, looking bemused. Selys scratched at a patch of dry scales on her wrist as she spoke.
“If they’re that old, I suppose we’d entrust them to a relative’s care. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting a class from it. Probably because Drakes don’t see it as a job.”
“And Gnolls always have a role in their tribes, no matter how old they get.”
So, Lyonette’s class wasn’t that useful in Liscor, especially since she was banned from the city. But the girl still welcomed it since it would help her deal with Mrsha, and it seemed to reassure Selys that Lyonette could look after her.
After they’d exchanged gossip and Lyonette had learned that Erin was doing well and Ryoka had gone north for some reason, the three adults sat in the inn while Mrsha played. They were all adults, although Lyonette was younger than Selys and Olesm, and even the oldest among them—Selys—wasn’t more than a few years into her twenties.
The two Drakes argued and sat as Lyonette made more food, bustled around the inn, and chatted with them. That was all she did. Just talked. It was all Lyonette wanted. She talked and played chess with Olesm and wondered whether Pawn would come by today.
She hoped he would.
Pawn had no bacon to wake him up, nor any honey. Instead, he had a meeting with Klbkch as soon as he had eaten the horrible mush in the Soldier’s mess hall. Given the choice, Pawn would have gladly eaten a vat of the grey-green stuff rather than talk to Klbkch.
But surprisingly, today Klbkch had nothing to criticize Pawn for. Rather, the Revalantor went over yesterday’s patrol with Pawn, highlighting the encounters with monsters and giving Pawn…advice.
“Do not engage the Corusdeer herds if at all possible. They are formidable combatants if roused, and the Soldiers will suffer heavy losses if they fight. Likewise, the Rock Crabs should be engaged with caution if it becomes necessary.”
Pawn sat in a chair before Klbkch’s desk, nodding nervously as the other Antinium spoke with him. It was strange.
“Ah, Revalantor Klbkch.”
The other Antinium paused and looked at him. Pawn realized Klbkch’s new form was slightly taller than the Worker’s form, as well as being slimmer.
“Does this mean that you expect me to patrol around Liscor at a later date? Or are these simply things I should keep in mind in general?”
Klbkch had very few papers on his desk, but he extracted one now and slid it across the desk to Pawn. The Worker stared down at it in confusion.
“I cannot read this, Revalantor Klbkch.”
Pawn could only read a few words of the local Drake script—enough to get around by, but not to decipher the words on the parchment.
“Of course. My mistake. I will take steps to ensure you and the other Individuals learn both Drake and Gnoll writing. It is not difficult—Erin picked up the word system very quickly as it apparently closely resembles the Human one.”
Klbkch took the parchment back and tapped it with one finger.
“This is a report to Watch Captain Zevara, detailing the monsters you encountered. I submitted it last night after your patrol returned.”
“And did the Watch Captain deem our patrol worthwhile?”
“She did. Although her praise is not the important issue—while on patrol I overheard several citizens expressing relief that our Soldiers were fighting monsters. Apparently they were observed chasing the Corusdeer herd off.”
Pawn hadn’t noticed any observers. He worried that this was an error.
“Oh. Should we have avoided detection?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“No. And in this case, the [Shepherd] was on a distant hilltop. But forcing the Corusdeer herd to seek grazing areas further from Liscor is considered a public boon, especially to travelers on the northern road who fear angering a herd. Moreover, the Shield Spiders you have slain are considered a public nuisance, and so the Soldiers generated goodwill from that as well. It also helps that people are seeing the Soldiers in a non-hostile environment.”
All of this made sense to Pawn in an oblique way. He had intended none of this of course, but so long as Klbkch seemed pleased by the results, Pawn could relax.
“In short, it appears that your patrol has generated goodwill among the citizenry already. That alone is worth continuing your activities. Take twenty Soldiers with you today and this time retrieve trophies from the monsters you slay. I will increase your stipend of funds as well.”
If Pawn had the ability to do so, his eyes would have widened. He bowed his head.
“Thank you, Revalantor Klbkch. I shall…I shall put the money to good use.”
“Do so. I will expect you to update me if the Soldiers show any positive effects from these patrols. If not…at least they will improve Antinium relations with the city, which is desirable. You may take a second patrol out at your discretion.”
That was all. Pawn stood up to go, but when he got to the door, Klbkch stopped him.
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“…Why the paint?”
The Worker considered the question, trying to figure out how to explain it to the one Antinium in the Hive who didn’t understand. Well, one of two if you counted the Queen.
“It is a way of naming the Soldiers without using words, Revalantor Klbkch.”
Klbkch sat up in his chair at once and signaled Pawn to sit back down.
“This is very intriguing. Can all Soldiers be ‘named’ and made Individual?”
“I would not attempt to do so with the Soldiers not under my command. They may become Aberration.”
“I see. But you believe the Soldiers under your command have all become Individual? Really?”
“I cannot say. They cannot speak after all. But I would guess that they are…closer to Individual than they were before by use of the paint.”
Klbkch considered this for a while. Pawn sat at attention until the Revalantor nodded.
“Continue. That is all. We will monitor the Soldiers and your attempts with them before expanding to a larger group. If you notice them leveling or using Skills—”
“I shall report it at once.”
“Good. You are dismissed.”
Pawn left Klbkch’s quarters, feeling elated and relieved at once, which naturally caused giddiness as well. For once he’d done something right! Not just right—something right.
He’d given the Soldiers identity. Pawn went to requisition the coin Klbkch had promised him. The Antinium had a room devoted specifically for funds. Pawn saw a few other Workers withdrawing exact amounts and recording the number on a piece of parchment—some had to pay for supplies or perform other exchanges with the citizens of Liscor.
Carefully, Pawn collected gold, silver, and bronze coins from the carefully organized stacks of coin. He stared at the gold coins, and then wondered idly what would happen if he took more. There were thousands, tens of thousands of gold coins in the Hive, the product of over ten years of hard work and little spending. And this was only one of the treasury rooms.
But who cared? The Antinium didn’t post guards on the room because there was no need for them to steal, and no [Thief] would ever make it this far into the hive. Then again, if other Antinium became Individual like Pawn, who knew?
That was a troubling thought. Pawn took no more gold than he was allotted. He carefully walked up towards the entrance of the Hive. It was still early yet; he didn’t want to patrol before he ran a few errands. After all, he could only take twenty Soldiers out of the Hive with him at a time. What about the rest, forced to wait and guard in the tunnels? That had to be boring, so Pawn decided to get them something to make the wait easier.
“You want what?”
Krshia blinked at Pawn. This time her stall was deserted, and Pawn saw that the other customers shopping this early were going to the more prosperous [Shopkeepers]. Again he felt bad, but reassured himself because of the size of the order he was placing.
“Cheese. I would like enough to feed roughly two hundred and forty individuals. Enough for a small meal, at least.”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] just stared at Pawn, jaw hanging open. Pawn wondered if he’d made a mistake. Was eating too much cheese a faux paws in Gnollish society?
Yes, cheese was what Pawn wanted. It was tasty and edible and it would go down well with the Soldiers, he felt. That was the only thing he could think of. Meat was too expensive and it spoiled quickly, and besides, it was hard to acquire in the winter. But cheese? Cheese was more plentiful.
And it tasted good.
Pawn stared anxiously at Krshia as the Gnoll struggled with shock.
“If there is an issue in delivery, I can arrange for direct pickups with Workers. And if there is a shortage…”
Krshia smiled at Pawn, baring her teeth in a wide grin.
“I am simply surprised, yes? Even when my shop was booming, such orders were rare things. I thank you, Worker Pawn, for giving me such business.”
“You are the shopkeeper that Erin trusts. So I trust you.”
That was all it was to Pawn. There could be nothing simpler, nothing easier to understand. But Krshia lowered her head to him as if it meant something truly important.
“Hrr. I am grateful for that. Truly.”
Her shop. Every time Pawn saw it, he remembered what it had been. This time he decided to ask about it, since Krshia didn’t seem to have any customers waiting.
“How has your business been doing lately, Miss Krshia?”
She bared her teeth again, but this time not in a friendly way.
“You can see for yourself, can you not? Rebuilding what was lost is difficult, no? I will survive the winter, but it will be a year or more before I am able to open this shop with pride.”
That hurt too. It was an odd, uncomfortable feeling, hurting for people who were not Pawn himself. He hadn’t known it could happen before he’d met Erin. But this too was part of being alive.
“Is it truly so bad?”
Krshia shrugged, looking tired.
“Truly? It is not the worst. I will not starve and the others, the other Gnolls and even some Drakes have supported me. But it is bad to feel what is lost and know you have fallen, no? Because of one moment. Because of a thief.”
That last word was bitter, and Pawn immediately thought of Lyonette, laughing and serving them all with respect and pride. It was different from the Lyon that Krshia knew.
“I met the Human Lyonette yesterday. In Erin’s absence she has taken over the inn.”
Pawn didn’t know why he was telling Krshia this, especially because the Gnoll stiffened at Lyon’s name. But he felt compelled to, as if sharing the good Lyonette had done would offset some of the bad.
“She has acquired more bees and honey. She served me and a number of Soldiers the food. It was very tasty.”
“Is that so? Good for her. I have not had honey myself for many, many moons, yes? It is a valuable thing even when it is not so very cold.”
Krshia’s voice was hard, and he could see she was upset. Pawn thought. He thought quickly about how he could make things better for her, if only in his small way. He thought about Lyon and regret and honey. Then he had an idea.
“I will obtain your cheeses for you, within a few hours, yes? But first we must talk about prices and which cheeses you would like—where are you going?”
Pawn took a few steps away from Krshia’s store. She looked alarmed, but he reassured her.
“I am not reconsidering our deal, but I have a pressing matter to attend to. I shall return within the hour. Please excuse me.”
He could feel the Gnoll’s eyes on his back as he hurried off. Pawn left the city and walked swiftly up a hill to an inn. There he opened the door and talked.
“Oh! Pawn! It’s so good to see you! Come in, would you like something to eat? Not staying?”
“Other Soldiers? Later today? Well of—of course! I’ve still got a lot of bees and here, try this honey water. I can get Olesm to buy more meat and make another soup.”
“Please, Olesm? Please? And I need butter and vegetables—I have a list here. Oh, and let me add…”
“Krshia? You’d like to…well of course. I—will you tell her that I—”
“…Thank you. But wait! Before you go, can I offer you this?”
“What do you mean, it looks fattening!?”
Less than an hour later—less than half an hour later, really, Pawn walked back down the street towards Krshia’s stall. She stared at him. She stared at him, but especially at the huge jar of honey he held, walking carefully so as not to drop it.
Other pedestrians stared at the Worker as well. The jar of golden liquid tended to attract stares, Pawn had noticed.
“I have brought you honey. It is yours to keep and use as you please.”
That was what Pawn said as he placed the jar on Krshia’s counter. The Gnoll just stared at him.
“I talked with Lyonette. She agreed to give you this jar of honey.”
It was a simple thing. Most things in life were, but Pawn had observed that the way people reacted to simple things was—complex.
Such as now. At the mention of Lyonette’s name, Krshia began to look angry.
“Why did she give this honey to you? Because you paid? Or because it is meant to be an apology?”
“She certainly feels remorse. I believe her acceding to my request was done out of guilt and an interest in helping settle the debt between you two.”
Pawn replied calmly. He watched with interest as Krshia’s ears slowly flattened on her head.
“And what does she call this? Repayment? It is hardly worth my stall, no?”
Some people would have hesitated to tell an angry Gnoll anything. But Pawn only spoke the truth, so his tone was level as he immediately replied.
“I think it is something, rather than nothing. An apology—the beginning of one, at least.”
That made the Gnoll pause. Pawn waited, and then spoke carefully.
“Lyonette has one message she would like to pass on to you with the honey.”
“‘I am very sorry.’”
That was all. But it changed things. Simple things, simple words, always did. That was what Pawn had told Lyonette, and why the apology she had given him was this. And what happened was that Krshia stopped growing angrier. She was still angry, but she let Pawn open the jar.
“Would you like to try some? It is sweet, and I am told there may be grubs within the honeycomb.”
The Gnoll sniffed at the honey, and then dipped a finger into the thick liquid. It came out glistening, and Pawn stared at the honey in envy. He liked honey. Maybe he should have gotten some to go with the cheese. He’d go back to ask Lyonette about it later. But this jar was Krshia’s.
She licked the honey off of her finger. Slowly, Krshia’s tail began to wag, although her face didn’t change.
“This is good. Sweet. Sweeter than honey from small bees, yes?”
“Mm. I believe so.”
The Gnoll nodded. She stared at Pawn.
“You are an odd Worker, Pawn of the Antinium. But…yes, I believe you and Klbkch are good for this city.”
Pawn nodded to Krshia. He felt happy for her words because she clearly meant them. Krshia nodded and smiled. When he left, it was with all the cheese in the marketplace and locations for Workers to pick up more. And Krshia was selling honey in the form of hand-sized jars. There was already a queue.
Lyonette felt good after Pawn had left. She felt better when he came back with his Soldiers. She cooked and served food again, and that night when she was cleaning up, she couldn’t stop humming.
The jars she and Erin used were truly big. They were taller than her knees and very wide—Erin had paid in gold for them since they were made by expert [Glassblowers]. At the moment she had two jars of honey, one half-empty and one and a quarter jars of dead bees. Even with the Soldiers’ appetite, Lyonette had still a lot left.
Well, she wouldn’t if she was actually feeding the Soldiers a full meal. Then she would have had to give them six or seven bees to fill them up, but two or three for a lunchtime snack was all Pawn had asked for.
And the honey? The honey had brought in more than a few guests—all Drakes—who’d come to drink a few glasses of honeyed water and fill their jars with the sweet honey and honeycomb. It wasn’t exactly filling tables at the inn, but it was more money.
And when Lyonette had sat down with Mrsha to eat a proper meal of shepherd’s pie—courtesy of Selys who taught Lyonette how to make it—they had one more unexpected guest.
He came into the inn while the two were eating. Lyonette wanted to find him a table, but the Antinium declined.
“I shall not be here long. Rather, I would like to make a purchase.”
“Of the bees?”
Klbkch nodded. He pointed to one of the jars Lyonette kept against the kitchen wall.
“How much…for the entire jar?”
“The entire jar?”
Klbkch nodded, looking at Lyonette’s ecstatic and panicked expression.
“I believe my Queen will enjoy the bees. Will you sell them to me directly?”
That was actually something of a hard question for Lyonette. Should she sell the bees? If she did, she might not have enough for Pawn tomorrow, and he was bringing more Soldiers then as well.
But a whole jar? All of Lyonette’s instincts told her to say yes. After all she could always get more bees, even if she was afraid of taking too much honey from the Hive. She had more flowers—hopefully she could use less this time—and she had to do it sooner or later.
“Of course I’ll sell you—the entire jar, you said?”
“Yes. Will that be an issue?”
“No, no! But the bees—they’re raw. Would you like me to fry them up first? They taste really good when they’re drizzled in honey. Apparently.”
“Hm. We have a [Cook], but perhaps it will be instructive to show him how it is done. By all means, please prepare a third of the jar. I will partake of a few as well to ascertain quality.”
In the end, Lyonette finished eating with Mrsha and then went into the kitchen to cook while the Gnoll played hide and seek with Klbkch. Although that really just involved Klbkch pointing at her while the Gnoll roamed around the inn, trying to be stealthy.
Cut, fry, drizzle. Lyonette worked tirelessly to make the best bees possible, conscious of who would be eating them. The Queen. And also, Klbkch, whom Pawn told Lyon was actually very important in the Hive. Klbkch ate five while he was waiting.
“Thank you. These bees are quite delicious. I may return at a later date if you have more stored away.”
“I will. Thank you for buying them! Have a good night!”
That was how Lyonette spent the rest of her day. She went to bed exhausted, but remembered to put the bee larvae very close to the dying fire as she did. Pawn didn’t want it, and she’d neglected to offer one to Klbkch. It kept slipping her mind. And besides—Lyonette stared at the larvae, wriggling blind in the bowl.
…She might be getting attached to it.
That night, she leveled up in all three of her new classes again, although she got no new Skills. That would have been enough, but Lyonette heard a new announcement after the list of level ups.
[Beast Tamer Class Obtained!]
[Beast Tamer Level 1!]
[Skill – Healthy Rearing obtained!]
[Beast Tamer]? Her?
Lyonette couldn’t believe it. But when she woke up, she knew it had happened again.
A new class! Why?
Because she’d taken care of the bee? Because she’d made sure it was warm and fed? Because she’d done all that? Was that all it took?
She couldn’t be a [Beast Tamer]. Of all the classes, Lyonette felt least confident in that one. What purpose would it serve her? Was she going to raise a bee? As a pet? It was a useless class. Well, the [Tactician] class was also useless to her, strictly speaking.
And yet—Lyonette wanted the class. She wanted the [Tactician] class too. And the [Barmaid] class she’d leveled up in! She wanted to level! No matter what class, no matter how few levels!
She wanted them. And from what Lyonettte knew of classes, that was probably why she’d gotten them. Because while other people had no desire to devote their lives to raising animals or monsters and so didn’t get the class even if they owned pets, Lyonette was different.
She had been starved of classes, not leveled while growing up. And now that she was free, truly free—
She’d take all the classes. No matter how damning it might be to her one ‘true’ class. Even if it meant she’d never reach a high level. She never levelled in it anyways.
With that in mind, Lyonette added a new routine to her day. After she watered Erin’s flowers and stoked the fire and before she went to fetch more water, she checked on the bee. It wriggled in the royal jelly and she saw it was a bit larger again. Lyonette wondered whether it would actually grow up—this was no hive. But she could always get more royal jelly and she did have a Skill to help her, after all.
“I guess you’re going to need a name.”
So saying, Lyonette touched the bee gently. It squirmed and it was wet and slimy. Gross, in short. But it was alive, and it struggled to stay alive.
Just like her.
One last thing happened that morning. When Lyonette was trudging back to her inn, she saw a Gnoll pulling a sled up the hill. She froze in fear, but the Gnoll’s sled was loaded with goods.
Food. Lyonette saw meats, vegetables, and all the things she’d asked Olesm to bring, neatly bundled up on the sled. The Gnoll set it down in the snow outside the inn. She—the Gnoll was a she now that Lyonette was closer—turned and saw Lyon with the buckets in hand.
That was all she said. She must have been one of the Street Runners the shops hired. But Olesm had told Lyon that no one would deliver to the inn, to her. What had changed?
The Gnoll began walking down the hill. With a start, Lyonette realized she was going.
“Oh. T-thank you so…”
The Gnoll [Runner] made no reply. She just growled something and stomped back down the hill, dragging the sled behind her.
Lyon watched her go. Then she opened the door and had Mrsha help her drag everything inside. She didn’t say much, but she was smiling. And crying.
“They are coming.”
That was all Klbkch said to Bird, Pawn, Belgrade, Garry, and Anand when he gathered them together for the first time in his small quarters. It was early morning, just after dawn, in fact. The Workers had been roused—in Pawn’s case from his sleep by the mental order—and told to come here.
Now Klbkch paced back and forth in front of them, clearly agitated. The other Workers said nothing, but they each felt slightly alarmed. None of them had ever seen the Revalantor like this.
“Pardon, Revalantor Klbkch, but who is coming?”
That came from Garry. Pawn hadn’t seen Garry in…so long! Klbkch had even ordered Garry to attend. That was unusual because Garry was specialized now in the [Cook] class—he played no part in commanding Soldiers and indeed, he stayed far away from any area of the Hive where monsters might attack.
“The other Hives. They have sent a delegation, and they will arrive sometime today.”
That was all Klbkch said, but it shocked all the other Workers to their core.
Another Hive? They knew—all the Workers and Soldiers knew in an oblique way that other Hives existed. But they had never seen or even heard of the other Hives until today. Liscor was far from their location, and the Antinium did not move between cities like other races.
“Why are they coming?”
“To see you. To greet my Queen and to see you. And appraise what value you have as Individuals.”
Klbkch never gave them detailed explanations. Pawn knew that was because he and the other Workers weren’t that important, but he wished the Antinium would trust them with more. He remembered Klbkch’s promise. If he made something out of the Soldiers, he would be told more.
“What should we do? What will the other Antinium ask of us?”
That came from Belgrade. He was probably the most worried, among the Workers, Pawn felt. Bird was usually calm, Garry was hard to ruffle, and Anand looked like he was actually enjoying this new development.
Klbkch said it as if he had to remember they could be worried.
“All you have to do is demonstrate your Skills. Questions will be asked—answer them to the best of your ability. It will not be difficult.”
He paused, looking the Workers over. Klbkch seemed to think, and then tapped the pommel of one of his swords slowly as he spoke.
“Some of the other Antinium may be…different. Unsettling. Odd, even. They are not Aberrations, rather they are created from a different template than we are. And the other Queens do not think as mine—ours does. Remember that.”
Pawn worried. What did that mean? Did they have Individuals of their own? But surely Klbkch would have mentioned that. He went on, looking at each of the Workers in turn as he gave them orders.
“Belgrade, Anand, and Bird will showcase their talents. Bird’s archery skills have much merit, as do Belgrade and Anand. They have the most value as [Tacticians] and as leaders of Soldiers. Garry will prepare meals to demonstrate his talents. Pawn—”
He glanced at the Worker. Pawn stood straight, holding his breathe, apprehensive.
“You will answer any questions directed to you if the others realize you are Individual as well. Do not volunteer information about your [Acolyte] class unless I address it specifically. That goes for all of you. Make no mention of that class, and not of Pawn either unless it is clear the others know about you.”
It felt like someone—Ryoka perhaps—had kicked Pawn in the stomach. He stood still, wrestling with his emotions.
Of course. He wasn’t that useful and his Skills still weren’t quantifiable. And from what Klbkch had said, his class pertained to Gods and Gods—
It still hurt. Even as Klbkch dismissed them and the Workers walked away to speak in an empty corridor in privacy, Pawn felt it hurting in his chest.
He wanted to be noticed. He wanted to be useful. But here—Pawn forced himself to listen to the conversation. It was the first time in a while he and the other Workers could talk, so they were all asking Garry what he had been doing in his new job.
The Worker nodded, folding his four hands together. He seemed slightly bigger than Pawn last remembered him—was he gaining weight? He still wore a slightly stained apron around his front, a piece of apparel that intrigued the other Workers greatly.
“I have been preparing meals for the Queen. I take monster parts and other edible foodstuffs and create food for her rather than the…paste…we are usually fed.”
The other Workers exchanged a glance, and then nodded their heads.
“This intrigues me.”
“Will you cook us such food?”
“If I am allowed. I believe Revalantor Klbkch wishes for me to cook for other members of the Hive, including himself. However, the Queen desires me to prepare food for her alone. I gather this is a source of contention between the two.”
That was fascinating. But Garry didn’t have details, so the other Workers quickly summarized what they had been doing. Belgrade and Anand had helped take down a Crypt Worm recently—Bird roamed the landscape, hunting animals with a bow and arrow. His life seemed exciting to Pawn, but the other Workers claimed he was actually the one with the most interest.
“I do not interact with any other species, Pawn. You are fortunate to talk with a Human on a daily basis.”
Anand and Belgrade nodded as Bird said this. Pawn couldn’t help staring at the feather hanging from a simple cord around Bird’s neck. It was a very red feather, and beautiful, too.
“I am envious. I have not been allowed to go to the surface.”
“Indeed. My duties keep me below at all times.”
“Does this Lyonette serve cooked birds?”
Pawn saw the keen interest in the other Worker’s eyes. He realized with a pang that they had never experienced what he had, and resolved to petition Klbkch to let them join him on a patrol. In the meantime, he could certainly bring some of what was above down below. He only regretted that the Soldiers had eaten all the cheese. If only he had his own quarters so he could store objects in them!
“The bees Lyon makes are very tasty. I shall bring you some, next time I go.”
“I believe Klbkch bought some for the Queen. I sampled one—the others have already been eaten. I shall attempt to replicate such treats for the rest of you and our guests.”
Just the thought of Garry’s cooking filled Pawn with hunger. He clicked his mandibles together sadly though, reflecting on his role.
“I regret that I cannot bring any value to the Hive. And that you must lie about my abilities.”
To Pawn’s surprise, Garry shook his head. He placed one of his hands on Pawn’s shoulders.
“Do not worry. You have value. In fact, it is I who envy you. You may not be of apparent worth to these Antinium who come, but you are special, even among us. One day, I believe your talents will surpass us all.”
Belgrade, Anand, and Bird all nodded.
“I will hunt birds to showcase my abilities.”
The other Workers looked at him. Bird shrugged.
“I like birds.”
They were coming. At last, after all this time…the other Hives were coming. They were taking notice. Klbkch had to sit down after the other Workers had left. He tried to contain his excitement, but his hands shook slightly.
They were coming. And not just any lowly Workers or Soldiers, no. Klbkch knew this group had to include Prognugators, valuable members of each Hive, sent to observe and be their Queen’s eyes. They would observe him and he would see…see how much each Hive had changed since he had last travelled south.
All of that would have been dramatic enough, but Klbkch had participated in and suffered such gatherings before. The other Hives always sent spectators to witness another Hive’s achievement. But this time…
Klbkch tried to modulate his breathing. It was no good. His hand trembled as it touched his swords.
He had heard the report from the Listeners. They had heard the other Antinium approaching of course, and monitored them closely. But it was only this close to the city that some details had emerged, details which had shaken Klbkch down to his core.
It was about one of the Antinium who travelled with the others, one who stood out.. Klbkch looked at the report. He had written it down, circled the information after speaking with the Listeners. To be sure.
“An Antinium who casts magic?”
That was what the Listeners had heard. Explosions, thunderous sounds coming from her location. Spells, in short, unless the other Hives had managed to create a truly incredible variant in the few years since Klbkch had checked on them.
It had to be magic. And there was only one Antinium in the world who could cast spells. At least, only one Antinium among the living.
Klbkch sat in his chair. He held his silvery swords, stared blankly at a dirt wall. Only one Antinium, now. One that he had known since…since the day he had been created. So long ago.
The former Prognugator of the hive, the Revalantor named Klbkch, and the being who had once been one of the Centenium sat in the wooden chair. He stared back into the past.
They came into the city as the sun was shining overhead. Not Antinium—a group of Drakes. They walked through the southern gates, talking with the guard, hoods covering any distinctive details like armor. Perhaps they would have entered quietly, but they were there to witness the monster attack.
It came out of the dungeon. The uncovered entrance to this new set of ruins was placed east of the city, at a good distance but close enough that the City Watch had posted a sizeable guard on the entrance.
Now this line of defense was under attack. The Drakes saw a band of Human adventurers fleeing the ruins, and behind them, shouts and screaming. Gnolls and Drakes fought desperately, the [Mage] among them shooting arrows of light into an oncoming crowd of—
That was what one of the Drakes in the group, a female adjunct whispered in horror. But these were no children who came pouring out of the hole in the ground, screaming, teeth bared.
Wall Lord Ilvriss spat the words as Zel saw the line of guardsmen brace for impact. Arrows took down the horrible apparitions—shaped like children of Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans to lower their victim’s defenses—running at the [Guardsmen]. They normally preyed on people at night, he knew, where their monstrous details—their bright yellow, pupil less eyes and unnaturally long limbs for children were harder to pick out.
But the team of adventurers wearing poor-quality armor had upset their nest, and so it fell to the [Guardsmen] to stop them from attacking the adventurers and travelers on the road. They shouted as they hit the first wave, the small Scalelings—or Children as they were known in Human lands—pushing back the [Guardsmen] with terrible strength and ferocity.
“They’re going to be overwhelmed.”
Ilvriss said this calmly, a hand on his sword as the guards at the gate of Liscor sounded the alarm. There were [Archers] on the walls of course, but the battle was too thick for all but the best to shoot into.
“Should we cut a path for them to retreat to the walls, do you think, Shivertail?”
“No. Allow me.”
So saying, Zel pointed at the [Guardsmen]. He spoke two words.
The [Guardsmen] had been faltering, falling back. But as Zel said the words, their actions changed. They stood taller, and when the snarling Scalelings rammed into them, it was the monsters who fell back. Suddenly, each Drake and Gnoll was rooted in place and they forced the horrific creatures back one step at a time.
Ilvriss commented as more [Guardsmen]—[Guardspeople], really—rushed out the gate. For how quickly the engagement had started, their response was quite fast.
“And there’s the local [Tactician] I think. We can move on.”
Zel nodded, seeing the battle was contained. He, Ilvriss, and the group the Wall Lord had brought with him walked further into the city.
“I’m not staying at the same inn as you, Shivertail. You can find whatever run down hovel you want, but I’ll be staying at the Tailless Thief. It’s the best inn in the city and I know the owner.”
“Fine by me.”
Zel didn’t rise to the bait. He looked around the city, noting all the Human adventurers who were gathered at the gates, watching the fighting.
“Lots of adventurers around. You might not find a room.”
Ilvriss just scowled at him.
“The innkeeper will make room. I am a Lord of the Wall.”
“Good for you.”
Zel would be glad enough to leave Ilvriss to his own devices—at least for a day. His feet hurt. He walked on through the city. Time enough to find an inn for himself later. Right now he had to announce himself to the Council with Ilvriss. The wretched Drake demanded such formailities.
So Zel Shivertail entered Liscor. And his arrival was unnoticed by many pedestrians, but the [Guardsmen] certainly noticed and word instantly spread to the Watch Captain of the incident. And one other person in the city noticed as well.
Selys looked up from her desk in the Adventurer’s Guild, cutting off her conversation with a wet and unhappy Gnoll. She suddenly felt lighter, and more refreshed, as if someone had given her a hot mug of tea. She made a fist with one claw, and then looked out the window with a smile. Only one person always included her in his radius of command.
“Oh. Uncle Zel’s visiting the city!”
Klbkch met the other Antinium outside of the city, in secret. He came alone, and nodded his head respectfully as the other Antinium stood, letting snow fall off of their bodies to greet him.
They were a little less than twenty in all. Klbkch noted each one as they introduced themselves. Four Hives had come. Four Hives had sent their best. The absence of the fifth troubled him, but—
“Prognugator Klbkch. I greet you as a fellow Prognugator. I am Tersk of the Armored Antinium.”
The first to make a move was a big Antinium with a form reminiscent of a Soldier. But he had only two arms instead of four, and his hands were proper ones. He was also wearing armor. Klbkch stared at the steel plate armor that covered his entire body and noted the specially-tailored metal plates that had been carefully crafted into a helmet. He nodded to the armored giant.
“I greet you Tersk. Although I am no longer a Prognugator but a Revalantor I will perform the duties of both while you are here. I see you have brought others of your hive.”
The Prognugator said it simply. He indicated three other Antinium, all as tall as he was, all wearing armor. Klbkch noted that all of the Armored Antinium had weapons. A shield and mace in Tersk’s case—swords and a spear for the others.
“Allow me to extend my apologies for my error in your position.”
“The error is mine. I did not mention this detail to begin with.”
Klbkch and Tersk lowered their heads. That done, the Prognugator stepped back and another one came forwards.
“Revalantor Klbkch. I am Revalantor Pivr. I observe that your form has changed from the standard template assigned to this Hive. Has your Queen been creating variations of the Worker and Soldier form without authorization?”
This came from an Antinium smaller than Tersk, but no less striking. Jade-colored wings fanned outwards from the Antinium, and Klbkch saw not two but four sets of eyes on his head. Even his body was hunched, all the better for his two arms to use the twin daggers at his side. He also had poisonous spit Klbkch knew—the odor was unmistakable on the Antinium’s breath.
And he annoyed Klbkch. The Revalantor stared Pivr in the eyes, and spoke calmly.
“My form is unique to me, as befitting my status. I greet you, Pivr. Who have you brought to my Hive?”
Pivr turned, fanning his twin sets of wings out to show them off, Klbkch was sure.
“Six of my Queen’s warriors—five regular warriors and a heavy-combat variant have flown here to see what your Hive has wrought. We are the Flying Antinium. Witness us.”
Klbkch did see, and part of him was impressed. Five of the warriors did look like Pivr, but the last was a larger variant. Thick carapace plates obscured his body, giving him more the appearance of a walking tank. But he had wings as well, huge ones, and even a horn like a beetle with sharp prongs.
Yes, part of Klbkch was impressed. The other part was not. But he kept his words within and simply nodded to Pivr.
“I greet you.”
The other Revalantor hesitated, opening his mandibles as if he wanted to say something. But then Klbkch was walking forwards towards the last unique Antinium in the group. He felt like he was in a dream, but when he stopped in front of the slim, short Antinium with blue carapace who held a staff in one of her two hands, she was real.
So very real.
It was all Klbkch could say. The other Antinium—no Worker, no Soldier, but graceful and unique, her body different from any other—opened her mandibles to smile at him. Her eyes shone with a thousand colors, flickering with the mystery of magic. And her voice was soft, deep, commanding.
“Klbkch. It has been too long.”
“Yes. Far too long.”
It was all Klbkch could say, as if he had been transformed into one of the birds that spoke, a parrot. Xrn smiled again. Klbkch didn’t know what to say.
“How—how did you come here? I would have never thought the Grand Queen would allow…”
“I had to persuade her of course. But I thought it worthwhile to see you.”
Xrn said it simply. She nodded to the Soldiers and Workers behind her, and only now did Klbkch realize he was neglecting his duties.
“Pardon me. I greet you, Xrn, Prognugator of the Grand Hive. Who are the Antinium who come with you?”
“Two Hives. Mine, and that of the Silent Antinium.”
She pointed, and Klbkch saw. There were two groups standing behind Xrn, eight Antinium in total. Two were still as shadows, hunched, almost invisible even in the snow. Their carapaces had changed to become whiter, more translucent, and their arms were more like scything blades. Their mandibles were likewise made to tear out an opponent’s throat and they were perhaps the slimmest of all Antinium save for Xrn.
“The assassin breed. Have they no leader?”
“Their Queen declined to send one. And with me—six of the Grand Queen’s soldiers, my escort.”
These Antinium were by far the most conventional, but even then…Klbkch saw two were classic Soldiers, but with carapaces so heavily reinforced that they stood two feet taller than a regular Soldier, to carry all the weight. They were taller even than the Armored Antinium, while the other four—
Klbkch inhaled sharply. Xrn nodded.
“They are like me.”
Indeed, the four Antinium closely resembled Klbkch’s current form. They were slim and had two hands, and at their sides they had blades. Not silver metal like his, but rather blades made of a dark substance, the same as those the scythes of the Silent Antinium were made of. These Antinium were also different from the rest in that they studied Klbkch with attentiveness. Intelligence.
“Natural blades. These are not Prognugators but Custodium—think of them as partial Prognugators.”
“Made in the same way?”
Xrn’s mandibles opened, and her tone was mocking.
“Yes. There are forty in the Hive.”
The number left Klbkch speechless. The sheer extravagance and waste it took to create—he would have asked Xrn more, but then Pivr interrupted.
“Revalantor Klbkch, are the introductions done? If so, I have a pressing announcement to inform you of.”
Klbkch and Xrn stared at him. They were all Prognugators and Revalantor, true, including Tersk, but Xrn and Klbkch were different. Tersk clearly knew that and respectfully stayed quiet, but Pivr was clearly different.
Xrn was the first to speak. Her tone was sharp.
“I am talking with Klbkch. You will be silent, Pivr.”
“You have been given command of our group, yes. But my Queen—”
Xrn turned back to Klbkch and only now did he remember the…personality of his old companion. He had forgotten it, living for so long in his quiet Hive.
“We have much to discuss. After we greet your Queen, you and I must have time to talk.”
“You are not expected to return soon?”
“No. In fact, I told my Queen I would be a long time in returning.”
“You told the Grand Queen that?”
That was Xrn. Klbkch shifted his glance to the Antinium and once again noted the absence of the fifth Hive.
“Wrymvr did not come? And his Queen sent no one?”
“You know him.”
“I do. I should not be surprised. In truth, I did not expect your presence either.”
“I have an announcement.”
This time Klbkch had to restrain himself from stabbing Pivr. But the Revalantor had strode into the center of the Antinium. He spoke loudly, without glancing at Xrn whose look was…murderous.
“My instructions were to obey Prognugator Xrn until we reached the city of Liscor. However, here I and the Flying Antinium will carry out different orders. We will go into the city via the main gates.”
Klbkch couldn’t believe his ears. Pivr nodded at him calmly.
“I was not informed of this.”
Xrn’s voice was foreboding, but Pivr didn’t seem intimidated.
“Your input was not required. My Queen has given her orders, and they will be obeyed.”
“You cannot enter the city. I forbid it.”
Klbkch had no idea how the [Guardsmen] would react upon seeing these Antinium. They would likely think the Second Antinium Wars were upon them again. Even in the best case—
But Pivr could not be argued with.
“These are my Queen’s orders. You, Xrn, have no authority over this. We will go into the city. We will not fight even if provoked, but we will maintain a show of force. You are allowed to follow us if you so desire. Indeed, Revalantor Klbkch’s presence would greatly be appreciated.”
With that, he and the other six Antinium began to march through the snow. They accelerated—then their wings opened and they flew.
Not into the air, but across the ground, skipping across the ground. It wasn’t true flight—but it was too fast to catch up to on foot. Klbkch didn’t waste time talking to Xrn. She couldn’t stop them. If she cast a spell the Flying Antinium would fight it, and if she bound them they would just wait to be free. They would fulfill their orders or die.
The Antinium flew towards the city, and soon Klbkch heard the shouting from the walls. He only prayed there wouldn’t be any fighting. So long as the [Guardsmen] kept their cool they would realize these were Antinium. And the citizens of Liscor had grown used to the Antinium. It could be okay. It might be okay.
Then he saw the two Drakes standing in the middle of the street. Pivr had stopped with his six Antinium, uncertain. Drakes and Gnolls and Humans were fleeing him, but these two Drakes—and the group of warriors standing behind them—were not.
Klbkch could sense they were no ordinary warriors. Their presence alone had warned Pivr not to approach carelessly. Klbkch looked at them, about to call out, defuse whatever misunderstanding that might have occurred. And then he recognized one of them.
Zel Shivertail had been prepared for the Antinium. He knew they were in the city so he had been prepared to grit his teeth if he saw one on the street. But the flying Antinium? They’d come out of nowhere, speeding down the street. Was it an attack? His pulse had been racing and he had had to hold Ilvris back, prevent him from unsheathing his sword and attacking.
But now another Antinium had come, one armed with two swords. Zel saw them, and his heart stopped in his chest.
Ilvriss froze by his side. His voice was the only sound in the street, the only sound Zel could hear over the hammering in his chest.
“Those swords. It can’t be—”
Another Antinium raced into the city, and behind her, more Antinium. Armored warriors—huge giants! The Drake warriors behind Ilvriss grabbed at their weapons.
“Those are specialist Antinium! From the Hives in the south!”
“Guard the Wall Lord!”
Zel ground the words out, but he felt like he’d been stabbed. Ilvriss had gone pale at the sight of the other Antinium who stood by the one with swords. His voice was a whisper now.
“Azure. The color of the sky.”
There was only one Antinium like that, Zel knew. But his eyes were still on the one with swords. There was only one Antinium like that one, as well.
“Klbkch the Slayer.”
His voice was thunder in his ears as he let go of Ilvriss. The Wall Lord had a death-grip on his sword as he stared at the Antinium holding the staff.
“The Small Queen. Xrn.”
Across the street, Klbkch stood frozen. Memory surged around him at the sight of Zel Shivertail’s face. It had caught Xrn as well.
“Zel Shivertail. And a Lord of the Wall.”
The air had changed. Pivr glanced uncertainly at Klbkch and Xrn.
“Who are these Drakes?”
No one answered him. Klbkch’s hands were on his sword. He felt Xrn trembling next to him.
“We must not fight.”
He said it, but the words were distant in his head. He couldn’t retreat. Not here. Not now.
Someone took a step forwards. Was it him? The Drakes started to advance as well. Shivertail’s eyes were locked on Klbkch’s.
Memory flashed between the two.
Zel Shivertail killed another Soldier, cutting apart his carapace with claws like razors. He turned, and saw the battlefield had disintegrated into chaos. Drakes and Antinium struggled everywhere, the Antinium fighting and killing anything moving.
Chaos. He turned and blocked a sword that came for his neck at the last moment. The Antinium who leapt backwards was slim, and covered in blood. Drake blood. He held his swords like a true blade master, watching Zel carefully.
“You must be Klbkch the Slayer.”
“Yes. I have come to kill you. If you die, the Antinium will triumph here.”
Zel pointed at the battlefield, where Antinium fought and died, killing mindlessly even as the Drakes organized and began to slaughter them.
“Is this how the Antinium do battle?”
“It is how we fight to survive, Drake. When we do battle, you will know the difference.”
Klbkch leapt forwards and then there were only his flashing blades. Zel snarled, slashing with his claws—
“I’ll take the mage. You take the Slayer.”
“We are not…here to fight.”
Zel rasped the words out. His feet dragged themselves forwards though, and he couldn’t muster the effort to stop them. He and Ilvriss advanced down the street, ignoring the calls from the Drakes behind them to stop.
Ilvriss felt one of his guards grab at him and swung one fist. The Drake fell back, bleeding, and the Lord of the Wall walked forwards as if in a trance. His sword was in his hand, and his eyes were on Xrn’s. They stared at each other, as they had done years ago on the battlefield.
He stood with the [Mages] and [Strategists], coordinating the battle as the Drake and Human forces contained the Antinium with walls of steel and blasted them with magic. Ilvriss stood patiently, knowing his chance for battle would not come. But then the earth exploded and he saw her standing amid the destruction.
The command tent burned as she drew a line of fire that burned the Human [Commander] to ash. Out of the billowing smoke, Soldiers charged into battle, fighting the unprepared [Mages] and support classes and their small retinue of guards.
“This battle is over. Flee, Drakes and Humans, or I will slay you all.”
That came from the Antinium who glowed with magic. She looked down at Ilvriss as he stood, shaking, blood running down his right leg, his long sword in hand.
“Name yourself! Who are you?”
He roared at her as he charged, cutting Soldiers down. The Antinium’s voice echoed as she stood on a rock, casting spells left and right, cutting down his allies, his friends.
“I am the last memory of my kind. Thunder which moves grass. I am a Queen without a Hive. Fire burning in the heart of ice. I am Xrn, and I will not die here.”
She raised her staff, and lightning split the sky. It broke the formations of Drakes, and a fireball fell among the [Mages] who hadn’t time to raise a shield spell. They burned, dying, and the Antinium with a staff raised hers high. The wind blew, and the Soldiers and Workers charged. Ilvriss fell back, fighting among the dying….
He couldn’t stop. Zel walked onwards, and so did the Antinium. The streets were empty.
The air was screaming with tension.
He knew he should stop. They were at peace.
Peace? With the Antinium? Zel walked the battlefield and saw his foes only a few feet away. He could smell the dead around him, and feel blood running down his side. The air was hot. Hot? It was the middle of summer, and the Antinium—
Zel felt snow crunching under his feet. He knew he was in Liscor, knew the war was over. But the pounding pulse in his head wouldn’t die down. And the Antinium were right in front of him.
Klbkch’s feet moved. His swords were in his hands.
“We must stop.”
Xrn said that, dreamily. But he could feel magic gathering around her. Klbkch said nothing.
He couldn’t stop.
“Fighting is prohibited.”
Klbkch’s head turned and Pivr quailed. He knew the other Antinium was right. But nothing could stop him. He was staring Zel Shivertail in the eye, and he knew it was time to finish things. The sword was cold in Klbkch’s hand. He took another step, another—
And then someone rushed in front of him, arms spread wide. Klbkch raised his sword to cut the person—the Antinium down—
The blade stopped. Pawn stood in front of Klbkch, arms spread wide, and twenty Soldiers stood at his back. Xrn had paused too, surprised by the other Antinium’s appearance.
“Revalantor Klbkch, I regret that we must bar your way.”
Klbkch opened his mandibles to protest, to tell Pawn to move before Zel Shivertail cut him down from behind—when he saw the shouting on the other end of the street.
“Guardsmen! Form a line!”
Watch Captain Zevara—Zevara was there, forming a living wall like Pawn had with Gnolls and Drakes. They blocked off Zel and the Wall Lord from advancing, faces grim, shields raised as if they expected a fight.
The Drake [General] was staring at Watch Captain Zevara as she shouted at them to back up. Klbkch heard another voice then as well, a familiar one.
“Hey, old man Zel! It’s me, Relc! How’s it going? And who’s this guy?”
A big Drake waved excitedly at the head of the tense group of [Guardsmen]. Relc was enough of a distraction by himself. Klbkch felt the madness—the memory holding him loosen. He turned.
“I know. Let’s get out of here.”
She turned. The Antinium—the Armored Antinium, Pivr and his band of idiots, and the silent assassins and Xrn’s honor guard ran through the streets. The City Watch and the Drake [General] let them go. And in a few moments…
There was peace.
They had come close to war. Perhaps. Zel could only shudder at the thought as he walked out of Liscor’s gates. If they had fought, regardless of who had lived and died, what would have happened? Would it have been war right then? Would the Queen have done that?
If Ilvriss or he had died—Zel didn’t want to imagine it. His earholes still rang from Watch Captain Zevara’s shouting. It had been a miracle she’d gotten there in time.
He should have known better. Zel knew that. But he had seen Klbkch and memory—
He’d think on it later. It was late, after all the shouting and then the explanations and introductions had been done. Zel glanced at the sky and wanted nothing more than to find somewhere comfortable to sleep.
But all the inns were full, and he had no desire to stay under the same roof as Ilvriss. So Zel walked out of the city and towards a place he thought he remembered.
It was odd. The inn seemed closer than it should have been, and in the wrong place. But it was the only inn around, and so Zel knocked politely on the door and waited.
When it did open, he stared down in mild surprise at the girl who stared up at him with huge eyes. A young Gnoll cub appeared behind the girl and then darted away as Zel waited for her to speak.
“Good evening, Miss. Is the [Innkeeper] here by any chance?”
“Erin? No she’s…I’m sorry, please, come in!”
Zel entered, somewhat mystified. Erin? That was a female name, or so he thought. What had happened to the man? Had he retired?
Perhaps he’d gotten married and this was his daughter. Or just a [Barmaid]. Zel sat at a table, smiling without showing his teeth as the girl brought him a drink.
“Here’s some water. Honey water, actually.”
Zel’s nonexistent eyebrows rose as he sipped at the sweet drink. It was quite nice, and pleasantly hot.
“So the [Innkeeper] is gone? Will she be back tonight, do you know?”
“No I—she’s been gone for a while now. I run the inn while she’s—away. My name is Lyon. Lyonette.”
Odder and odder. But Zel still needed a place to sleep.
“In that case, may I ask if your inn is full Miss Lyon? I’m looking for lodgings and all of the inns in the city are crowded.”
“A place to—?”
The girl’s eyes widened as if she was surprised he wanted to stay here. And judging from the way the inn was so empty at dinnertime, that was probably justified. But Zel liked the feel of the inn. It had glass windows, flowers, and a lovely fire.
“If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a room. I stayed here once before—I think it was here—a long time ago and I have fond memories of this place.”
“Oh. Well this inn was rebuilt…”
Zel blinked at Lyon. The girl blushed.
“I’m sorry. It’s a long story. But yes—we have plenty of rooms. If you’d like to stay here, I can offer you a very reasonable rate. But I’m afraid Erin—the [Innkeeper] is gone so I’m the only one who can serve you. I’ll do my best, but I’m not the best cook.”
“Well, as long as it’s edible I will be quite happy.”
Zel smiled reassuringly at Lyon, and she managed to smile back. He looked down as he felt a wet nose on his leg.
“And I see you’re not all by yourself. Who’s this?”
The Human girl yelped and chased away the Gnoll. But she paused as Zel laughed, and smiled again.
“If you’re willing…then welcome. As I said, my name is Lyonette. This is Mrsha. Welcome…to the Wandering Inn.”