4.13 L

Once upon a time there was a Worker. He had no name. He had no future. He had been born to work, and he knew he would die. If not today, then tomorrow.

He would die while working. A chance fall from the top of a building while carrying lumber might be his end, or perhaps in a freak monster attack. He might die when fighting to defend his Hive, or if a tunnel collapsed due to an earthquake or flood.

And if he survived that, he would die when he grew old. When he grew slower he would be given jobs fitting his station. But at some point he would be too slow, too weary. And then he would walk into the jaws of a monster, or curl up and stop breathing. That was what the Worker knew.

And he didn’t mind. Because all routes led to death in the end, he did not worry about his fate. He was part of his Hive. If his Queen could live a fraction of a second longer, or his Hive prosper by the sum of one more copper coin, he would die fulfilled.

So he thought. And then one day, he met a girl named Erin Solstice. And she asked him if he had a name. The question had broken him into pieces. A simple question, but one that asked the Worker things he had never thought of, things he had no answers for.

He might have fallen. He might have become an Aberration. But he did not. He found a name in despair and found something else to live for besides his Queen. He found he was no longer a Worker, and he realized he was afraid of dying. He chose a name.

That was then. Now Pawn was something else. Not just a [Tactician] or [Carpenter] or [Butcher], but something that defined him. He had a class that was unique to him, something no one else had. He was an [Acolyte]. The first of his kind.

He was also a leader. It was not the same as [Tactician], no. For a [Tactician] only thought of the world in terms of loss and gain. They could command, but their Skills and nature did not inspire.

Pawn led Soldiers, the huge, silent guardians of the Hive. He had hundreds of them under his command, each one a killing machine. They didn’t have hands. Their fists were designed for murder, for tearing and pounding force, not to hold things. They had less future than that of a Worker, for they would live and die in their Hive, fighting against threats with their short lifespans.

They were fierce, loyal, unwavering. Pawn did not deserve to command one of them, but he had no choice. He had been given a position of power, so Pawn had learned to lead. He had lives of Soldiers under his authority, and he had unwillingly accepted the trust they had placed in him. He was no true general, no gifted visionary, but he had a duty. So Pawn learned. He learned what to say when he held a dying Soldier in his arms.

And he learned how to give them hope. Because that was what the Antinium needed. Hope. A dream. Faith that there was something worth dying for. The Hive wasn’t enough. Not at all. The Queen wasn’t enough. What they needed was light.

So Pawn took the Soldiers who had lived their lives in darkness. He took them out of the Hive. And showed them the sky.

 

—-

 

A few desultory snowflakes drifted down from grey skies above Liscor. A cold wind blew. Not a fell wind, or a chill wind—just cold. It wasn’t a wind that could scourge flesh or scale from bone or freeze extremities in an instant. It was just cold. And unpleasant. The Drakes and Gnolls and Humans walking down the street moved quickly to be out of the wind and weather. They were sick of winter, and wanted it to be over already.

But the Antinium marching down the streets stared up at the sky and marveled. The Soldiers walked with uniform alertness behind Pawn, drawing heads and clearing the street as they marched down it. Drakes and Gnolls alike got out of the way, eyeing the Soldiers a bit warily, but without fear.

The Humans were less circumspect. Twice already, Pawn had seen a group of Humans scream and run, or reach for their weapons. Both times he had resolved the situation, but the Humans made him uneasy. He couldn’t predict how they’d act.

The Drakes and Gnolls on the other hand, the citizens of Liscor, were easier. They just watched the Antinium warily, but the Soldiers Pawn led through the streets towards the eastern gates were accepted by now. Perhaps even liked?

No. No, not liked. Pawn sighed as he watched one of the Soldiers stare up at a cloud and then snap his head down and keep walking. It was a good sign. The Soldiers were too careful to stop paying attention, but these new ones had never seen the sky, let alone snow or people. Pawn knew they were staring while pretending not to. And he didn’t mind. They would have a chance to stare as long as they liked today.

“Left here.”

He indicated a street, and the Soldiers instantly filed after him, surprising a family of Gnolls. They backed away, but Pawn immediately halted to let them move past the Antinium.

“Hrr. Thank you.”

The father—or mother—bowed her head to Pawn and he inclined his. The Gnolls stepped quickly around the Soldiers, half of whom stared at the furry Gnolls. And the Gnolls stared back. One of the three children of the family of five, the youngest, sniffed at a Soldier’s leg and then hurried away as his parent snapped at him. It was another good sign, Pawn decided.

“Resume marching. Be careful of pedestrians.”

Pawn began walking and his Soldiers immediately fell into step behind him. The Antinium marched down the street, pausing to let a wagon go past as the [Driver] stared down at the Antinium. He had no words for Pawn or the Soldiers, but that was good too.

Because it meant Liscor was getting used to Pawn’s daily patrols.

At first, Pawn had encountered fear, suspicion, and downright hostility as he’d brought his group of Soldiers through the streets and out the gates. Despite Watch Captain Zevara and Klbkch assuring the residents of Liscor that these Antinium were not dangerous, they had feared Pawn and his group almost as much as the rumors of Goblin armies or Rock Crabs.

At first. But each day, Pawn had come back, his Soldiers carrying dead Shield Spiders, Corusdeer carcasses, and other proof of their victories against the dangerous creatures roaming around Liscor. That was all they did. They went out, patrolled the landscape, and came back with spoils that were turned into meat for [Butchers], armor for [Blacksmiths], ingredients for [Alchemists], and so on.

And the city had accepted them. Slowly, but surely, the people had realized that Pawn’s group of Soldiers were there to help. They had already known Klbkch, the Antinium with a name. He was recognized as a reliable, if odd Senior Guardsman, and, it was said, the only person who could put up with Relc or survive his escapades. So instead of people fleeing the Antinium when they appeared or screaming for the Watch, they just watched.

And then Pawn had begun painting his Soldiers, or rather, letting them paint themselves. It was their identity, and perhaps the single greatest idea Pawn had ever had. Perhaps the greatest idea any Worker had ever had, come to that. Because the Soldiers could not speak. They could not name themselves and Pawn had agonized over that fact. How could they be remembered without an identity, especially because they all looked the same, even to Pawn?

With paint. That was how. The paint was thick, water-resistant, and Pawn had bought enough of it from Krshia to let the Soldiers reapply it to their armored carapaces whenever they wanted. And he had let them paint themselves. So each Soldier that walked behind Pawn stood out. And the people noticed.

“There they are again. Damn bugs.”

A group of elderly Drakes sat at a table outside of one of the taverns, watching the Antinium wait for a wagon to be unloaded. They could move past, but Pawn didn’t want to spook the Drakes and Gnolls who were working. They were already moving double-time to get out of the Soldiers’ way.

In the meantime, the Drakes who’d taken issue with the Soldiers talked, and Pawn listened to them complain. They were old. Their scales were discolored in places by age and faded by time. These old Drakes often sat outside, Pawn knew. They seemed unaffected by the cold, or perhaps it was because they sipped spicy alcoholic beverages in the morning. They always had something to say about the Soldiers, too.

“Every day that Worker brings them this way. Now they’re blocking my view of the street too. Ruins my morning.”

“What morning? You barely wake up before noon.”

“Shut up, Shadowspine. I rise at the crack of dawn—”

Hah!

“—at the crack of dawn I say, and if I have to crane my neck every time a band of those black giants passes by—”

“You barely turn your head when your grandchildren come by. You’re just sore because I won five silver from you last night over dice.”

“It was a bad toss! You barely rattled the dice around, you cheating—”

Two of the Drakes sitting at the table began arguing and throwing things at each other. They bickered loudly as Pawn passed by. But another of the Drakes sitting at the table, an old female Drake with grey-green scales peered intently at the group of Soldiers.

“There he is. See?”

“What?”

The two arguing male Drakes turned their heads. The female Drake smiled.

“The one with yellow paint. See? I saw him yesterday.”

Pawn didn’t have to look to know which Soldier she was talking about. One of the Soldiers marching behind him had yellow splatters of paint all over his carapace, as if someone had thrown globs of paint at him. In fact, that was exactly what had happened.

The old Drakes stared at the Soldier in question. One of them, the alleged cheater, coughed and grumbled.

“So? He looks silly. What did that one do, trip and knock paint all over himself?”

“Hush.”

The other Drake turned and flicked her tail, smacking the speaker in the chest with her tail. Pawn was impressed. Drakes had a good amount of control over their tails, but this old Drake seemed quite adept with hers.

“I like him.”

“Pah! That’s all you know, Shivertail.”

The old Drake that apparently woke up at the crack of dawn cast his eyes across the group of Soldier. He pointed.

“There! That one’s far better.”

Every head in the group of Drakes turned to stare at the individual the Drake had pointed at. His chest and back was bare, but his arms and legs had been painted with purple slashes of color running from his shoulder down to his legs.

“Now that’s war paint.”

“Bah. What about that one?”

The cheating Drake pointed and Pawn saw he was looking at a Soldier who’d drawn a pair of eyes on his shoulders. It was unsettling how they seemed to stare at anyone the Soldier faced. But the elderly Drake seemed to approve.

“That’s proper art, that is. If you two knew anything about color, you’d be admiring him, or the one with the bird on his face.”

“Is that what it is? Who paints their face? That’s plain odd.”

“Bah. When I was a young [Soldier]—”

“Here we go again.”

Silence! When I fought in the army as part of the elite scouting division—

“You mean, glorified rangers?”

“—we hunted in groups, wearing war paint to demoralize the enemy! Anyone who saw our colors fled in fear or begged for their lives—”

“Didn’t you lot get routed by a single Gnoll tribe?”

“They had the terrain advantage! But mark me, if we’d been fighting on neutral ground—”

The wagon rumbled out of the way and Pawn continued marching. The arguing Drakes’ voices faded into the background noise, but Pawn’s smile did not.

Identity. Each of his Soldiers had it now. It wasn’t just elderly Drake grandmothers who watched out for a particular Soldier. Some of the other citizens noticed when a particular Soldier went past. It was like a game. The Antinium had been faceless and identical for so long that now there was a way to tell them apart, people were beginning to pay attention.

The Antinium group left the city, walking past the [Guardsmen] who watched the group with no visible signs of wariness. Pawn looked around and saw snow-covered hilltops, and a distinct lack of detail. So he pointed in a random direction, towards a mountain peak that looked somewhat inviting.

“We shall patrol in this direction. At a leisurely pace. Follow me.”

He began to walk. Not march, but walk. The Soldiers nearly ran Pawn over before they realized how slow he was moving. Over half of this group hadn’t ever been outside, and so they didn’t know how the patrol went.

Pawn proceeded up a hill, down a hill, and then around a hill because he was getting bored of walking up the incline. He set a pace slow enough that the Soldiers could get their fill of staring. Because they would stare, Pawn knew. They would stare at the snow, the sky, and watch a bird until it died of boredom if he let them. It wasn’t because the Soldiers were that simple, either. It was because they had never seen any of these things, and so the experience was precious and wonderful to them.

In that, Pawn envied the Soldiers. They could find so much meaning in a blade of grass. Too much, in fact. Pawn had learned to start the Soldiers off slow, get them out of the city and patrolling the boring landscape around Liscor for a few hours. Because that was all the stimulation the Soldiers could handle. Only after that would Pawn work them up to getting back in the city, staring at flowers, fire, and eating.

Food was one of the highlights of the day for Pawn, and probably the most important experience he could give the Soldiers. Instead of the horrible paste they ate, each one would get a meal courtesy of Lyonette, or more recently, Erin.

Erin. Pawn stopped and let the Soldiers covertly bend down and feel at the snow. Erin was back. He hadn’t had time to talk to her, but she was back. That filled Pawn with countless emotions, relief being first among them. She was back.

He hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with her much, of course. Erin was always busy and so was Pawn. He didn’t like to bother her. Pawn had his life and Erin…was surely too busy to always be looking after him. He had Soldiers to lead now. And not only that…

He had a faith, as well. Pawn was an [Acolyte]. He could pray. He had no god, but he believed in heaven. And it was that faith that gave him a class and Skills no one else had.

Once, Pawn had told the Soldiers about heaven. They had believed in it like he had, and killed themselves to go there, rather than stay. But that was not the way. Pawn had known it. So he had told the Soldiers to stay, to build a heaven for the Antinium while they lived. Because there was no heaven for the Antinium. There was a god—one for the religion of Christianity, for Humans, that Erin had told Pawn about. But none for the Antinium.

So Pawn would make a heaven for his people, for the Workers and Soldiers. He just had to figure out how.

After a while, Pawn began walking again. The Soldiers fell in. He walked over a hill, down a hill, into a Shield Spider’s nest—

The Soldiers jumped in after Pawn and he got out with only a bite on his arm, barely fracturing his carapace. Pawn shakily climbed out of the pit as the Soldiers began smashing the Shield Spiders to bits.

“Ah…very good. Thank you.”

There was danger out in the area around Liscor. Not a patrol went by when Pawn didn’t have his Soldiers fight something or other. But not a single Soldier had died on these patrols, not one. Pawn was proud of that. The Rock Crabs, the fearsome scuttling giant boulders, were no match for the Antinium en masse. The Soldiers would just hold the Rock Crab’s shell down and break through the top with brute force, killing the surprised crustacean from above while it was pinned down.

Soldiers didn’t fight fair. They didn’t fight dirty either. They just fought. The Soldiers probably would have been astounded to learn there was a way to fight fair. They had been born to kill, and they did that quite efficiently.

Pawn watched as a Soldier kicked a Shield Spider into the air. The armored spiders were a considerable threat, worthy of a Silver-rank team or more dangerous in larger nests. Their armor could resist sword cuts, and they had terribly dangerous bites. A normal warrior would be hard-pressed to kill one, even with a mace or axe.

But the Soldiers were strong. One picked up a Shield Spider and held it as it struggled. Another Soldier hit it repeatedly as the other Soldier held it until the Spider’s center burst. Pawn looked away. Then he looked back sharply as something strange happened.

A Soldier had been striking down at a particularly large and aggressive Shield Spider. It had bitten into his legs, sending trickles of green blood out of the wounds. Pawn would have ordered someone to help, but the Soldier suddenly paused as the Shield Spider reared up, trying to bite at his face. The Soldier seemed to hesitate—and then one of his hands blurred.

It was an uppercut, but at a speed that nearly escaped Pawn’s vision to see. The blow caught the Shield Spider as it was rearing and knocked its head off. Literally. Pawn flinched as bits flew out of the pit. The headless Shield Spider collapsed and the Soldier stared at his fist.

Every other Soldier in the pit stared too. Pawn stared as well. He jumped down into the pit and walked over to the Soldier, who flinched.

“Was that a Skill?”

The Soldier stood at attention, silent. Pawn stared at him. This Soldier was the one with the yellow spatters the Drake grandmother had found so interesting. He had patrolled with Pawn several times before.

“Did you use a Skill?”

The Soldier stared down at Pawn. The Worker couldn’t read what was behind his eyes, but he had grown used to the Soldiers by now. He thought the Soldier seemed…nervous? Could Soldiers feel fear? But then the Soldier nodded hesitantly.

“A Skill.”

Pawn exhaled, clicking his mandibles together. One of his Soldiers had learned an activated Skill? That meant…they had leveled up! Pawn knew the Soldiers might, but to realize it now…

“What level are you? No—what class? Is there a way to tell? Ah, but…you do not know how to write and your fingers…”

Pawn stared at the Soldier as he looked down at Pawn. He seemed nervous for all that he was bigger, and stronger than Pawn. The Worker nodded at last, and the Soldier flinched as Pawn looked at him.

“Good work.”

All of the Soldiers stared. Pawn looked around.

“If you have Skills, do not hesitate to use them. But please do not risk yourselves.”

He pointed to the Soldier’s lacerated legs.

“We will stop the bleeding before continuing. The rest of you, clean up the corpses. We will collect them on the way back.”

The Soldiers paused, and then got to work. Pawn had the Soldier with yellow splatters sit and stopped the bleeding with cold snow and some strips of linen he’d purchased with his limited supply of coin. The Worker apologized, because he hadn’t been allowed to use the Hive’s supply of healing potions on Soldiers.

But he cared. And that was why the Soldiers followed him. Because even if Pawn didn’t know it, he had given them a purpose. He had given them identity, shown them the sky. He had given them something to believe in, and so they followed him. Each one would die for him.

But Pawn didn’t know that. All he knew was what it was another day. Another fine day, where none of his Soldiers had died. And it would have been a fine day tomorrow, where he did the same thing again. It would have been, but Klbkch summoned him the instant he returned to the Hive.

 

—-

 

“Combat duty?”

Pawn sat in Klbkch’s small office, a dirt room filled with a table and two chairs. And a coatrack which held no coats. Only a single scarf. Klbkch looked up from his desk where he was busy writing something down and nodded briefly.

“That is correct. Do I need to repeat myself?”

“No. It is just that—why me? Why now?”

Pawn stared at Klbkch as the other Antinium clicked his mandibles sharply together in irritation and pushed his papers aside. Pawn felt nervous as Klbkch regarded him over the desk.

He was afraid of the other Antinium. Klbkch may have been the Revalantor of the Hive, and the former Prognugator, both a unique role for the one individual Antinium who directly served the Queen and enforced her will, but Pawn knew his blades had slain more of his fellow Workers than any lone monster.

For that was the duty of a Prognugator. To lead the Antinium in battle, to oversee the Hive while the Queen was busy, and to kill Aberrations. In theory that meant individuals like Pawn, if he turned out to be useless or worse, a traitor to the Hive.

Pawn could never forget that when he was around Klbkch. The Revalantor studied Pawn, and then nodded shortly as if he’d made a decision.

“I require your group of Soldiers to fight today for two reasons. Firstly, I wish to test whether any of them have indeed gained levels as a result of your leadership.”

Pawn nodded as his heart sank. That was the reason Klbkch had assigned the surviving Soldiers to him in the first place, to make them stronger. Pawn knew that, but it was too soon! They’d barely been with him for a week, and now they might die? But Klbkch wasn’t done. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment before looking at Pawn.

“Ordinarily, I would give your unit another month before committing you to a far less-dangerous assignment to test your capabilities. However…the second reason is that we are in need of every Soldier in the Hive at this moment, Pawn. Each and every one, regardless of their worth. I recalled Anand and his group of Soldiers and Workers to the Hive two days ago, but they were not enough. Your Soldiers will fight and many may die. But they are needed to hold the line. If they cannot hold, we may be overrun.”

“What?”

Pawn felt stunned. Overrun? How could the Hive be overrun? Klbkch studied Pawn and shook his head.

“Ah, now I realize you are not informed about matters within the Hive. Belgrade and Anand know, but they have not spoken to you of this matter, have they?”

“No. I had not spoken to them for several days now.”

Pawn hesitated. He hadn’t seen Belgrade or Anand at all, actually. Klbkch nodded.

“They have been working without rest to defend the Hive. Now I understand. I will inform you of the situation, so you may understand why your Soldiers are needed, Pawn. I would not do so for Belgrade or Anand except in a tactical sense, but you are like Relc.”

“I am?”

“You are. You ask superfluous questions. Now listen. You are aware our Hive has battled monsters from the dungeon underneath Liscor, correct?”

“Yes. We always have been.”

For as long as Pawn had lived, the Hive had fended off the incursion of monsters from the dungeon. There were many, many routes from the dungeon to the Hive, many tunnels dug by hungry monsters or by the Antinium. They had to be guarded against attack, which is why Soldiers fought almost daily. But the Hive had always pushed back every attack, from Shield Spiders to Pickstriker fungi, and Crypt Worms and the undead. What had changed?

“We have always sought to defend ourselves from monsters within the dungeon. It has been a difficult task at times, but we have defeated every incursion regardless of the cost of life. However, now that adventurers have entered the dungeon…it is waking up.”

“Waking up? It is sentient?”

Klbkch shook his head.

“That is a metaphorical statement. A non-Antinium expression. To clarify, the population of monsters is growing increasingly active in response to numerous food sources. Thus, the amount of attacks on our Hive has doubled or even tripled in number. For the first time, the Hive is losing more Workers and Soldiers in battle than it produces. We are struggling to increase reproduction while holding the line.”

“I did not know.”

Pawn knew Soldiers and Workers died each day. But he hadn’t noticed more empty spaces or fewer bodies. There were so many Antinium in the Hive, how could you tell? Klbkch tapped the desk slowly.

“You were not meant to know. Nor will you tell anyone of our weakness, including Erin. Is that understood?”

He waited until Pawn had nodded to go on.

“We are capable of resolving this issue—in time. Workers are attempting to repair breached tunnels and create a second layer of fortifications. That is not the issue. The issue is that while Anand and Belgrade have successfully held back every monster attack—with far less loss of life due to their Skills—the latest skirmish created an event where Anand was wounded.”

Something twisted in Pawn. He hadn’t known.

“Is he dead?”

“No. But he is unable to lead, and Belgrade is unable to command alone. I must fulfill my duties as Senior Guardsman for a set period of each day, and rest at other times. I cannot apply for leave and alert the city of the Hive’s weakness at this moment. Thus, you must fulfill the void Anand has left.”

Pawn absorbed all this slowly. He had to fight? With his Soldiers? But—they had paint. They had identity. They were…his. And he had to tell them to die?

Perhaps Klbkch saw his indecision, because the Revalantor spoke sharply.

“You will select one hundred of your Soldiers to do battle. So long as you hold your position, there will be no issue. Belgrade is able to handle the battle as a whole. But you will not retreat unless ordered to, understood?”

Pawn wanted to object, but he knew it was pointless. Instead he asked the other question on his mind.

“What about the other Antinium? The visitors? Will they not fight to defend the Hive?”

Klbkch paused. Pawn had seen the other Antinium, and he remembered the one called Xrn, the Small Queen. She had been radiant. And she knew magic! He had never heard of someone like her, but Pawn was equally in awe of the Antinium with wings, and the ones that wore armor, or seemed to slide from shadow to shadow. Surely they could fight?

But the Revalantor just shook his head.

“They are guests of the Hive. If they wish to participate in battle, they are free to do so. But to request aid is…not a course of action which my Queen and I wish to undertake. No, we will fight back the monsters alone. You have your orders Pawn. Report to Belgrade tomorrow at noon. Now, leave.”

Pawn left. He didn’t want to, but he dared not defy Klbkch. Not the Slayer. And Pawn knew he was right. If the Hive was in danger, he and his Soldiers had a duty. They had to fight.

But Pawn didn’t have to like it. He immediately began walking down through the tunnels of his Hive, following the flow of Workers, searching for Belgrade.

He found the Antinium in the chess room. That was where other Workers played chess. They had no names. They were still not Individual, despite having leveled up in the [Tactician] class. Klbkch and Pawn had agreed the Workers were missing a key element to gain individuality.

Erin. Probably.

But Belgrade and Anand still loved to play. They always hung about in this room when not on duty.

Belgrade was not playing when Pawn found him. He was sitting by himself, in a corner, and the other Workers were sitting as far away from him as possible, glancing at him. Belgrade was hunched into a ball, clasping his four arms around himself in a pose Pawn had never seen before.

He was shaking.

“Belgrade. What is wrong? Are you sick? Are you injured?”

Pawn knelt beside his friend. Belgrade turned his head towards Pawn, and his mandibles clacked together soundlessly. When he spoke, his voice was taut, strained.

“Pawn? I—I cannot. Revalantor Klbkch says I must fulfill Anand’s role and my own, but there are too many, Pawn! I cannot counter all these attacks, and if they overrun the entrenched fortifications—”

“Belgrade. Listen to me—”

“I cannot do it alone, Pawn! Each time I send Soldiers and Workers out, they are killed, Pawn! There are too many this time. Shield Spiders, hundreds of them keep pouring out of the tunnels! And there are suits of armor that ten Soldiers cannot bring down, and the Crypt Worms! They are reanimating our dead, Pawn, our dead. Anand and I could fight them together, but by myself—”

“Belgrade.”

Pawn reached for Belgrade and held his shoulder. Erin had done that to him, once. The other Antinium was shaking, but it grew less as Pawn held him firmly. He looked into Belgrade’s eyes as Erin had once done. Pawn wondered if he should sing.

“I do not know how to sing.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Belgrade, listen to me. You will not be alone tomorrow. I will be participating in battle as well, with my unit of soldiers.”

“You?”

Belgrade stared at Pawn. Rather than finding reassurance in this knowledge as Pawn had hoped, he looked horrified.

“Who gave you this order?”

“Klbkch.”

“No. I must speak to him.”

Belgrade struggled to get up, but Pawn held him down.

“I see the necessity of this order now, Belgrade. I will fight.”

The other [Tactician] shook his head.

“It is too dangerous, Pawn. You are not the same level of [Tactician] as I am. The fighting envelops the entire area—monsters will dig through the walls, or bypass defenses. You will not be safe.”

“You and Anand were not safe. I am needed. My Soldiers are of a higher level than the others, Belgrade. That is why Klbkch assigned them to my command.”

Belgrade hesitated, looking at Pawn with one of his multi-spectrum eyes.

“Truly? That would be—but it is still—”

He broke off, thinking. Pawn could see the [Tactician] part of Belgrade analyzing Pawn’s statement, looking to see how it might help in the coming conflict. He nodded, heart pounding out of his chest, but forced the words out of his mandibles.

“Leave the most dangerous areas to my group of Soldiers, Belgrade. We will not retreat. And we…we will do our duty.”

There was nothing more to be said. Pawn was a Worker, and he commanded Soldiers. They had been created to fight, to protect the Hive, as had Belgrade. And now Pawn understood something else as well. If he did not fight, Belgrade might die. Or more Soldiers and Workers might die. It wasn’t a choice where his Soldiers would die or not die if Pawn refused to fight. If he did not fight with them, Antinium would die. If he did fight, Antinium would still die. But perhaps if his Soldiers fought, less Antinium would die.

There was no good outcome. But there was only one choice that Pawn could take. And Belgrade saw it. He nodded. The shaking had stopped. Slowly, the [Tactician] got to his feet and placed his hand on Pawn’s shoulder as the other Antinium had done for him.

“I must rest if I am to fight at peak efficiency. Pawn, you must promise me to stay behind your Soldiers. If you die…I would not know how to speak to Erin.”

“I know.”

Belgrade left the room. Pawn remained. He clenched his fist. Now he had no other choice. Not that he’d ever really had another option. He turned to go, to seek out Erin despite the late hour, when someone called out his name. Pawn turned, and saw another Antinium staring at him across the room.

“You are the Individual designated as Pawn, are you not?”

The other Antinium was not a part of Pawn’s Hive. He could not be. No Antinium looked like him, not even Klbkch. This Antinium was as tall as a Soldier, and had the same build, but he had only two arms, and he carried a mace and shield at his side.

And he was wearing armor. It shone in the light, and in the eyes of the Workers who stared at him. Tersk, the Prognugator of the Armored Antinium was an armored giant, and he had a helmet which protected his head, which had no antennae.

“Prognugator Tersk.”

Pawn bowed his head as Tersk strode forwards. Tersk nodded in reply. Pawn had not spoken to any of the special Antinium who had come to visit the Hive, although the others, Belgrade, Anand, Bird, and Garry had all had strange interviews with the other Prognugators.

“How may I help you, Prognugator Tersk?”

“I wish to speak with you, Individual Pawn. I had wished to make your acquaintance when I heard of your existence a few days ago, but I have not seen you about until now.”

“Ah. I have been…busy.”

Tersk nodded.

“Yes. I understand you command a detachment of Soldiers. Tell me, Individual Pawn. How do you feel they would match up against a similar unit of Soldiers from my Hive?”

It was a military question, a question of tactics and analysis. Pawn stared at Tersk blankly and shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

The armored Prognugator paused. He seemed surprised by Pawn’s response.

“You don’t know? But you have levels in [Tactician].”

“Only a few. I have not fought, Prognugator Tersk. And I do not know the capabilities of your Soldiers.”

“Ah. I understand. I will signal my Soldiers to approach.”

Tersk turned his head and to Pawn’s surprise, took his mace and struck his shield with it, making a dull metallic beat that sounded like some sort of signal. And in less than a second, two Soldiers appeared, striding into the room and halting behind Tersk.

Why hadn’t he used Klbkch and Ksmvr’s inaudible way of signaling Antinium, like the Queen? Pawn’s eyes went to Tersk’s helmeted head. Oh. He didn’t have antennae.

“Here are two examples of my Hive for you, Pawn.”

Tersk indicated the two Soldiers, and Pawn noted that these Soldiers had a greatsword and a spear respectively. They stood completely still, staring ahead like Pawn’s Soldiers.

“We are the Armored Antinium, the sole Hive to use steel and metal to reinforce our bodies. We fight with weapons because they are more efficient, and allow for greater survivability of each individual in combat. We fight in formation, and are adept at battle above and below-ground. Now that you have analyzed these two Soldiers, tell me, what chance would your special unit have against them?”

“Well, there are two of them and I have over two hundred Soldiers under my command. I think we would win.”

Pawn’s reply made Tersk pause again.

“I was referring to an engagement of equal numbers.”

“Oh. In that case I don’t know.”

Pawn stared at Tersk, almost daring the Prognugator to ask another question as Tersk paused. He didn’t know why he was feeling hostile towards Tersk. Maybe it was because Tersk wasn’t fighting and Belgrade had been. Even Klbkch was leading the Antinium, when he wasn’t above-ground. But what had Tersk done for Pawn? According to Garry, all he did was wander around and ask questions. He had armor and a mace. He could be fighting!

“I understand your assessment capabilities are somewhat limited, Individual Pawn. I ask these questions to ascertain how your Hive capabilities match my own. It is a matter of strategic importance.”

“I have not heard of your Hive, Prognugator Tersk. But I am sure it is a capable one. However, I have never seen another Hive besides my own or other Antinium until recently.”

“Yes. Contact between the Hives is limited. That is a situation I feel must be rectified if we are to combine efforts.”

Tersk nodded repeatedly. He seemed so serious. Pawn felt a bit bad for being deliberately obtuse. But then Tersk turned to Pawn and began asking more questions.

“What is your class? What do you do besides lead Soldiers, Individual Pawn?”

Why did he keep calling Pawn that? The minute tolerance Pawn had felt evaporated. He answered shortly.

“I am an [Acolyte]. I pray.”

“An [Acolyte]?”

“Yes. Would you like me to repeat myself?”

Tersk paused, and his mandibles clicked together inside his helmet.

“I am unfamiliar with this class. I take it that it is unusual?”

“Yes.”

Perhaps unique. Why was Tersk asking all these questions? Pawn…didn’t feel like talking at this moment. Even to a Prognugator. It was an insidious, rebellious thought, he knew, but Tersk wasn’t his Prognugator. And Pawn hadn’t cared for Ksmvr, his former Prognugator, either. Why did he have to obey anyone, for that matter? Why did he have to obey Klbkch?

Oh. Right. He had swords. And Tersk had a mace. And two large armored Soldiers following him. Pawn grudgingly continued to talk rather than walk away.

“And what is prayer?”

“It is believing in something. It is believing, and having faith that something is true.”

Tersk waited, but that was the only answer Pawn was going to give him. The Worker crossed his arms, and Tersk noted that.

“Ah. And is this prayer activity enjoyable?”

“Not really. Not all the time.”

Tersk paused.

“It is helpful in some way?”

“Sometimes.”

There was no way of knowing. Pawn had prayed the day Soldiers lay dying, clinging to life after trying to kill themselves. Had more survived because he had prayed while trying to keep them alive? Did a prayer do anything? Pawn asked those questions every day, but he still prayed. He prayed that there was a meaning to prayer itself.

“I see. In that case, perhaps you will instruct me in the method of this prayer activity at a later date. It sounds intriguing.”

That surprised Pawn.

“Why? I doubt it would be useful to you, Tersk.”

Tersk nodded, looking thoughtful.

“The utility of this activity does not concern me, so much as the value of entertainment derived from it. You see, the Prognugator class is meant to oversee, to learn. However, one of the failings of my station is the nature of boredom.”

“You get bored?”

Tersk paused, and seemed to grow a bit guarded.

“At times. I serve my Queen best when my mind is alert. To that end, I require mental stimulation. It is a careful balance of factors that contributes to my most efficacious state. But another question. You are assigned to combat the monsters attacking from Liscor’s dungeon tomorrow.”

“Yes I am.”

“How do you believe your detachment of Soldier will fare—”

“No clue.”

The two Antinium stood in silence for a minute. Tersk stared at Pawn.

“Do you not wish to tell me your evaluation, Individual Pawn? If so, I must ask why—”

That was it. Pawn raised his voice slightly.

“I don’t know. I told you, I cannot make such judgments.”

“But surely, based on your previous experience—”

“I have never fought monsters from the dungeon.”

The Armored Antinium stopped.

“Oh. But surely you are aware of the dangers of the dungeon?”

“Of course I know. But I have never been assigned there myself.”

Tersk paused.

“Ah.”

How could Pawn not know? He knew Workers were assigned to construct defenses, shore up and fortify tunnels, all while Soldiers fought and died. He knew how many died each day. He could see the empty spot in the barracks. But he had never been there, never really thought about the cost. They were all Antinium, and they died for the Hive. That was all. It hadn’t really mattered so long as the Hive was fine, in Pawn’s mind.

Until now.

Tersk looked at Pawn, calculating, and then turned his head to look around the chess room.

“I understand the effort of this room is to create more Individuals like Belgrade and Anand. That is a logical way of thinking. The monsters that attack from Liscor’s dungeon are of a considerable threat, which surprised me given my understanding of this Hive’s…capabilities.”

“Did you fight on the front lines?”

Tersk shook his head.

“I did not. My safety is important to my Hive and I would not risk myself. However, Revalantor Pivr did participate in battle and was wounded. Three of the five warriors accompanying him were slain, and the heavy-combat variant he brought was heavily damaged in the fighting. He underestimated the monsters your Hive fights against.”

For some reason, that really cheered Pawn up. He didn’t like the buzzing Revalantor of the Flying Antinium, and suspected no one else did either. The thought that Pivr and his elite warriors couldn’t do better than Soldiers from Pawn’s Hive was…well, it wasn’t a bad feeling.

“Revalantor Pivr’s failure is instructional for us all.”

Tersk nodded.

“Yes. I believe he is somewhat of a failure of the Prognugator class. Moreover, I would argue that he does not deserve the title of Revalantor either. He does not command the same presence as Revelator Klbkch, nor does he possess half as much experience in battle as Klbkch the Slayer.”

He spoke about Klbkch almost reverentially. Pawn tilted his head.

“You know of Klbkch?”

“Revalantor Klbkch? Of course. I was instructed to learn from the examples of my predecessors, and Klbkch the Slayer’s exploits are notable within my own Hive’s history. According to my Queen, Klbkch is the most stable and trustworthy of the three remaining Centenium.”

Curious. Pawn only knew fragments about the Centenium, and Klbkch hadn’t told him more than a few things. Like how all the current Antinium were based on the form of Galuc, the Builder. He realized Tersk might know more and pressed the Prognugator.

“What do you know of Prognugators, Tersk?”

The Armored Antinium tapped a hand on his armor, making a ringing sound as metal struck metal.

“I am familiar with my duties, and that my creation was an arduous task for my Queen. Prognugators require too many resources to justify the cost at the moment, hence my desire to remain alive to serve my Hive. However, I am aware this was not always the case.”

“Really?”

Tersk nodded.

“Before we came across the ocean, it was apparently a common practice to appoint multiple Prognugators per each Hive. As many as thirty in some cases, or so my Queen has told me.”

Thirty?

“Apparently. This was a time when we remained on Rhir. But my Queen has not spoken on that subject, and I am afraid that Revalantor Klbkch or Prognugator Xrn would know more than I. Ah, I had one more question for you, Individual Pawn.”

“What is it?”

This time Tersk visibly hesitated before he spoke.

“I have witnessed the Soldiers under your command. I noticed the markings on them, the paint markings. They are…striking. I wonder if such paints would allow for greater visual recognition on the battlefield. However, I do not understand why each Soldier is painted differently. Please explain that aspect to me, Individual Pawn.”

“They are important because they define the Soldiers, Tersk.”

The Armored Antinium waited.

“Only that? I thought there would be some greater meaning to the paint.”

Pawn nodded.

“That is everything. That is what makes the Antinium…Individual.”

“No. That is not what I understand Individuals to be. If paint were all that it took to create an Individual, why not paint every Antinium?”

“Because they need to do it themselves. It is a choice, Tersk. The Soldiers under my command chose their markings, chose to be Individual. That is what makes the paint so special.”

Tersk folded his arms, sounding testy as he replied.

“I do not understand. That seems illogical. Soldiers should allow themselves to be painted if it means they will become Individual and better serve the Hive.”

He really didn’t understand. Pawn felt a hot bubble of anger bubbling up inside him. He had places to be! He’d spoken with Tersk so long, he was sure Erin was probably asleep by the time it would take to reach her. He stared at Tersk, unmarked by battle, striding around asking questions not understanding anything.

“You remind me of a former Prognugator I served, Prognugator Tersk. Prognugator Ksmvr did not understand what it meant to be Individual either.”

The words struck Tersk, and Pawn saw him straighten slightly.

“I understand Prognugator Ksmvr was expelled from the Hive for incompetence, Individual Pawn. I am not sure I appreciate the comparison.”

“I think it is apt.”

Tersk stared down at Pawn. He opened his mandibles slowly as he clenched his fists.

“It occurs to me, Individual Pawn, that your statements throughout this conversation have been deliberately inflammatory and unhelpful.”

Pawn nodded slowly.

“Yes. I believe they have been.”

Tersk clenched one hand and took a step towards Pawn. The Soldiers did likewise, and the other Workers quietly playing chess froze and stared at the Armored Antinium. Tersk spoke quietly.

“I am a Prognugator of the Hive. I am not your Prognugator, but I will be answered with full clarity. That is what Revalantor Klbkch promised me. Need I take the issue up with him?”

Pawn nearly laughed in Tersk’s face. If that was a threat, it was the worst one Pawn had ever heard. He spread two of his arms out.

“You wish to understand, Tersk? Then understand this.”

He pointed at Tersk. He didn’t poke the other Antinium, because Pawn was sure that if he did, the other two Soldiers would kill him. But he did shout.

“Neither of you can understand what it means to be a Worker or a Soldier! We are not just numbers, Tersk. We feel pain. We suffer. We despair. And we die. If we do not feel boredom, it is because we have never known respite. You cannot understand what makes us Individual.”

“The other Individual, Belgrade, froze up due to his fear. Is that the weakness of your new identity, Individual Pawn? The Prognugators do not bow to emotion.”

“Neither do we.”

Pawn spat the words at Tersk. He felt angry, angry because Tersk did not understand, because he couldn’t. How could this Antinium be a Prognugator, lead Soldiers and Workers like this?

“If you cannot understand Belgrade’s fear, then it is because you have never experienced failure. You do not feel the same danger. You wear armor. We have none. If you want to understand us, take off your armor and fight as we do, with your bare hands. I would tell you to ask your Soldiers, but they have no voice. That is a pity, or they might tell you all you are doing wrong.”

He turned and stormed away, despite Tersk shouting for him to stop and explain. Pawn left the chess room, and Tersk stood in the silence as Workers hunched over their chess boards. At last, the Armored Antinium looked over his shoulder at the two silent Soldiers.

“I do not comprehend that strange Individual Pawn. What am I doing wrong?”

They just stared at him and did not reply.

 

—-

 

The next day, Pawn went to see Erin. She was not there. He waited, but before long he had to return to his Hive. It was time. One second he was in the Wandering Inn, speaking with Bird, asking him to tell Erin…to tell Erin…

And then he was in his Hive, facing his Soldiers. They were arrayed before him, a hundred, a little less than half of his entire command. They faced him, painted bodies standing tall, unflinching.

Pawn wished he felt half as confident as they looked. He walked slowly down their line, staring at each Soldier in turn, at their markings. They looked back at him, their leader.

Pawn had never felt like more of a fraud in his life. He had never felt like a fraud, in truth. He had been as true a Worker as any other, and confident in that knowledge. But a leader?

He was no leader. He didn’t have the class. He didn’t have the Skill, or the skill. He was not Zel Shivertail.

But he had to try. So Pawn squared his shoulders and spoke to the assembled Soldiers. His Soldiers.

“We are going into combat in twenty minutes.”

They looked at him. Not one Soldier moved. They had expected this. Perhaps they had known. They had ears…earholes, after all. Pawn nodded.

“You have fought before, I know. I have not. I believe I am unworthy of leading you.”

The Soldiers did stir at this. One of them paused, hesitated, and then shook his head. The other Soldiers looked at him, and then they all shook their heads. Pawn stared. He felt like he wanted to cry, like he’d seen Erin do. But the Antinium could not cry.

Instead, he bowed his head and uttered a prayer.

“I am praying.”

The Soldiers stopped shaking their heads. Pawn lowered his. He couldn’t close his eyes, but he clasped his hands together.

“I am praying for us all. I pray that we will survive this, each one of us. I do not pray that we will not fight. We must fight. It is right that we were chosen to fight. Because we, all of you, and me, are capable. We aren’t just fighting for ourselves, or to stay alive, but for the entire Hive.”

He gestured at the Soldiers standing in front of him, solemn, each one an individual, marked with paint, given identity.

“You are my people. If one of you died, you could never be replaced. Ever. And yet…the unnamed Workers and Soldiers who die each day are my people too. I did not think of it that way before.”

Pawn clenched his fist.

“I do now. Each day, Soldiers and Workers die. Sometimes only one or two. Other days, hundreds. Of late, too many have died. So we must fight. You are stronger than the average Soldier, you have levels. If we fight here, maybe a few less Soldiers and Workers will die. I think…I have to think that is worth it.”

There was no reply. Pawn looked at his Soldiers. He spoke to them like Zel told him to. When you held a dying soldier in your arms, you lied to him. You told him it would be alright. Or you told him the truth. But when you spoke to soldiers before they were going to die, you told them nothing but the truth. Or you lied.

This time, Pawn told them the truth.

“We are going to fight. Some of you may die. I may die. I hope none of you will. After this, I will bring you to the Wandering Inn and we will all eat. But we must fight. If we do not, our comrades will die. Other Soldiers will die, other Workers. We are fighting for each other. Remember that.”

He raised his hand, clenched it into a fist. Pawn raised all four arms, shouting.

“We will fight. We will win. So do not die!”

There was no response. But the Soldiers’ eyes burned. If they could speak, if they could only express themselves…there was no time. It was now. Pawn turned.

“Please don’t.”

He walked out of the barracks. Each of the Soldiers marched out behind him. And in minutes, in no time at all, they were fighting.

Fighting monsters.

 

—-

 

Two hours past noon, Belgrade was screaming. He screamed at a group of Soldiers.

“Move up! Take the L4A tunnel!”

They obeyed him as he projected his thoughts at them, telling them where he needed them now. He should have sent five times their number, to hold off the Shield Spiders dropping out of holes in the ceiling, flooding the corridor, but Belgrade didn’t have enough reinforcements.

They were all blocked off from the fighting. A tunnel had collapsed at the wrong moment, sending two suits of magical armor falling in with them. They’d begun hacking apart the Soldiers and Workers trying to clear the rubble, and until they were destroyed, Belgrade had to hold the front on his own.

The former Worker could have laughed at the thought. A front? The network of tunnels and interlocking corridors leading from the dungeon to the Hive was anything but a unified front. Belgrade would have traded both his antennae and two of his arms for a neat, clear board like chess to fight on.

Instead, he had to defend countless tunnels at once, collapse the ones he could to stop monsters from advancing while he slaughtered as many as he could before the passages reopened. It would be easy, so easy if Belgrade could funnel his opponents into one spot, but—

The monsters dug. The Antinium dug, and the monsters dug. Everyone dug. So a monster could dig right into a corridor filled with Workers rather than fight through all the entrenched Soldiers. It meant nowhere was safe, and it meant Belgrade had to be everywhere at once.

And he was failing.

“Workers! Twenty of you—no, forty! Hold back the Crypt Worms in the R98 tunnel!”

A group of Workers immediately ran to an upwards-sloping tunnel, going to do battle. It was a desperation play. Anand would never have made that call. Or would he? Belgrade knew the Workers would be slaughtered in an instant, but there were no more Soldiers. And there were three Crypt Worms rampaging through the R98 tunnel at once!

The horrifically long, fleshy creatures with tendrils that could rip open carapaces and remove skin from anything they touched were difficult foes at the best of times. By now Belgrade knew they were the smaller, weaker versions of the monster Skinner, the first creature he’d ever done battle against. They lacked Skinner’s incredibly thick armor he’d built over the centuries of skin, but they could still have several layers a Soldier had to rip away, and worse, they could command the dead.

Sometimes they’d bring rotting zombies, other times skeletons or Ghouls. The worst times were when they brought undead Soldiers or Workers. It was hardest for Belgrade to fight them.

And now they were advancing. In his mind—using the [Battlefield Eye] Skill he had recently acquired, Belgrade saw the Crypt Worms advancing, tearing the Workers he’d sent to shreds.

“Hold out. We just have to hold out for more Soldiers—”

He was talking to himself as he studied the map he was constantly updating with forces. Could he take some soldiers from S41? No, they were fighting the horrific poisonous worm things with wings. If they got through, everyone would be dying of poison. Then what about—

Belgrade’s hand fell on a spot on the map, one of the corridors he and Anand had designated the ‘death spots’. It was marked by a golden piece and Belgrade hadn’t moved any forces to or from it.

Pawn was there. He was fighting in one of the widest corridors, places where thirty Soldiers could line up shoulder-to-shoulder. Crypt Worms often came down there, and monsters would flood the huge passageway.

“Does he have Soldiers? Can I—no!”

Belgrade jerked away. He couldn’t ask Pawn for help. He didn’t even know how Pawn was doing. Belgrade had let Pawn take his command to hold the tunnel, made the Antinium promise to send word if he needed reinforcements. He might be fighting with all he had. If Belgrade took his forces away…

Pawn had to survive. So long as Belgrade could keep hurling the Hive’s forces at the monsters, he’d hold them off. It was a horrible thought, but the Hive had thousands of Soldiers and Workers remaining. Their concern wasn’t any one particular battle, but keeping the number of Antinium the Hive produced each day higher than the average morality rate of their people.

They just had to reopen one of the tunnels to let the Soldiers reinforce his position! Belgrade turned and uttered another desperate order.

“Twenty seven Workers, engage the enchanted suits of armor.”

That would give them time to dig, and lose him the Workers. Belgrade turned as Workers began to move, and then heard a voice.

“No.”

One of the Workers had paused. Belgrade looked at him.

“I said go—”

No.

Workers didn’t speak. It wasn’t that they couldn’t, it was that they never voiced their opinions. Belgrade stared as the Worker he’d ordered to fight and die turned, and started shaking. The voice that came out of his mandibles was suddenly loud, filled with horrible madness.

“i wILl nOT. I ReFUSE. diE? DiE fOR THe HiVE? nO! pOINtleSS! i rEFuSe!”

He turned, arms shaking, and pointed at Belgrade. His hands clenched and unclenched, and then he seized the nearest Worker and grabbed the Antinium’s neck with all four hands. The Worker who’d refused twisted and the other Worker’s head made a snapping sound and he went limp.

The Workers around Belgrade froze. He froze. There was only one explanation for this Worker’s suddenly behavior. He had gone insane. He’d turned against his Hive, become a killing thing that had no reason, no purpose. He had become…

An Aberration. Belgrade reached for his side. Klbkch had given him a weapon, although Belgrade had no Skills. The Worker, no, Aberration, charged at him, screaming.

“dIE!”

The Aberration ran at him, throwing off the other Workers who tried to bar his way. Belgrade waited until he was close, and then slashed with the enchanted sword he’d been given. Too slow, too late.

The former Worker ducked. Belgrade cut one of his antennae off, and then the Aberration knocked him to the ground. Two of his fists began to pummel Belgrade as the other two reached for the sword. Belgrade used all four of his arms to cling to the sword, trying to bring it to bear.

It ended when the other Workers tore the Aberration off Belgrade. He came away with one of Belgrade’s antennae. The pain was—Belgrade stumbled up and ran the Aberration through as the Workers held him down. The thing that had been a Worker kept reaching for him, trying to kill him until Belgrade twisted the blade and he went still.

Shaking, the [Tactician] got off the Aberration’s body and looked at the other Workers. They looked as shaken as he did, and they had been about to fight and die without hesitation.

“Take the body away. Now.”

Belgrade hurried back to the table. But no sooner had he used his one remaining antennae to sense what was going on then he felt a cold jolt of fear in his chest.

“Oh no. No, no!”

He looked up, and now he could hear the sounds of fighting. Belgrade turned, opening his mandibles to shout for every Worker he had to go above, but it was too late. Something shot down one of the tunnels, knocking aside the two Workers who’d been hauling the Aberration’s body away.

A red whip of flesh struck a Worker and pinned him to the ground. It pressed down, and the Worker was crushed into paste. Belgrade stared numbly up as the rest of the body followed, a huge, sinuous brown-red form, and a faceless head with long antennae. A worm with arms? No, something much worse.

A Crypt Worm. In his struggle, Belgrade hadn’t noticed them slaughtering the Workers. And now…they were here.

The first Crypt Worm loomed over Belgrade, slashing with its tendrils, sending the Soldiers running at it flying into walls where they broke. It was wounded in many places, but it was too large, too furious to be stopped. And it was in front of Belgrade.

And he had no more cards to play. Belgrade stared up at the Crypt Worm, suddenly calm. He’d used his Skills. The tunnel where the enchanted suits of armor were had been cleared somehow, but it was too late. His reinforcements were too far away and the Crypt Worm was looking at him.

Sword. Belgrade found it and raised it with one of his hands. He spoke, not to the Crypt Worm, but to his friend, as if he could hear him. It was just a foolish thing, but it comforted Belgrade.

“Anand. You must become strong for the both of us.”

That was it. Belgrade thought Erin might have approved. He stood up from the table as the Crypt Worm slithered towards him. A tendril shot out. Belgrade cut at it.

Again, too slow. This one sent him flying towards a wall. Belgrade heard his body crunch and slid to the ground. He looked—and didn’t see his left arms. Either of them. He knew he should feel pain, but there was nothing.

“So—so that’s what it’s like. Should have sent more Soldiers.”

Belgrade wheezed as he stood. The Crypt Worm was finishing off the last Soldiers trying to fight. Now it came towards him. Belgrade looked up. How would it end? He raised his sword. Try to cut it, just once—

The Crypt Worm dove. Something flashed towards its head, and suddenly there was an empty space in the air. There was no more head. Belgrade flinched as he heard the air tearing.

The Crypt Worm fell, head torn open. It jerked, trying to stand, despite missing part of its brain, and Belgrade heard the sound again. This time he saw…

What? It looked like a white jet of something moving unbelievably fast. It tore straight through the Crypt Worm’s center, cut it in half. And then…what was that?

Splattering. A spray. Some of it had blasted backwards from impact and struck Belgrade. He flinched, and then studied the liquid on him. It wasn’t blood. It was…

“Water?”

He got up. Belgrade was bleeding, but he had to see. He turned down the corridor the water had come from, as two more Crypt Worms shot down the passageway, and a group of Shield Spiders burst out of one of the tunnels. Everywhere was being overrun. Too late. Had to retreat. But all of Belgrade’s hazy thoughts stopped when he saw her, shining like the sun.

Xrn.

She was holding a staff in the air, a staff with a crystal orb. Her eyes shone with every color Belgrade had ever known and more he hadn’t. And from her came light. A piercing, brilliant light that made the Crypt Worms flinch away, screaming in high-pitched voices. But the light was soothing to Belgrade and all the Antinium who saw it.

Then she spoke. And her voice was thunder.

I am Xrn, the Small Queen!

It echoed down the cavern, filling the minds of the struggling Workers and Soldiers. They turned and saw her holding her staff high, the light emanating from it shining like a sun underground. Xrn raised one hand, and called a word.

“[Burning Lightning].”

Something red and orange and brilliant shot past Belgrade. He turned, and saw one of the Crypt Worms shriek as lightning struck and turned the creature’s skin and body into flame. It writhed, and died. Just like that.

With one spell. Xrn strode forwards, and Belgrade saw Soldiers and Workers running after her, ahead of her. It looked like the entire Hive. They flooded the tunnels, abandoning their duties, called by her voice. Xrn pointed at the monsters rushing towards Belgrade’s position and shouted.

“Stand, Antinium. Fight, Antinium! In the name of your Hive, stand with me and push back the invaders!”

Some of the Workers had survived the Crypt Worm’s attack. They rose. Belgrade was already running. He didn’t think, he just ran. The first of the Shield Spiders was crawling towards Belgrade. It reared up, half-blind from the light and Belgrade cut it apart with his sword. He was shouting. A worker charged into a Shield Spider, threw it down. And then the tunnel was full of Antinium, fighting, pushing back the stunned Shield Spiders with a ferocity unknown even to Soldiers.

They charged into the tide of monsters, a black wave of flesh and carapace that smashed the first rank of monsters to pieces. The Crypt Worms lashed out, but the Workers clung to them and the Soldiers tore flesh from the writhing, screaming horrors.

Xrn swept a wave of blasting steam down one corridor, broiling a group of obscenely large maggot-butterflies that were shedding a poisonous miasma. She was not alone. The Silent Antinium raced past her, half-invisible, disappearing from Belgrade’s sight. The sword-wielding clones of Klbkch formed a shield around Xrn as she cast spells. She planted her staff in the ground, and burnt a Crypt Worm to ash as the Custodium dueled a suit of enchanted armor, nimbly dodging and cutting at it, their enchanted blades slashing through the thick steel.

The Silent Antinium, the thin assassins with scythes for arms, brought down a group of the huge not-Gnolls, as Belgrade marshaled the Soldiers and Workers around him, sending them to reinforce Xrn’s position.

The transparent Antinium leapt from a wall where they had been waiting, practically invisible and beheaded two of the lumbering monsters before they realized what was happening. Their scythes were as sharp as any blade and in moments they were moving away from the bloody remains of the group.

“For the Armored Antinium! Flying Antinium, cover our backs!”

Someone strode down the corridor, shouting. Belgrade saw Tersk, for some reason unarmored and not holding his mace and shield, leading his Soldiers and a few of the Flying Antinium at a group of ghouls and zombies. Belgrade went to run after him, and fell.

It was the blood loss. Belgrade stared up at the dirt ceiling as Antinium raced around him. He expected to die, but again he was surprised.

“Belgrade. Hold still.”

Someone reached down for him. Belgrade felt a soft hand on his chest, and then the bleeding stopped. He felt something warm rush into him, something that felt like hope given form. He sat up, filled with…some kind of energy.

Xrn was looking down at him. She shone with magic. And when she pulled him up, Belgrade realized all his injuries had closed. He looked at Xrn, and she told him to follow. She led the way, forcing monsters back. And Belgrade stared at her.

Xrn. The Small Queen. [Thaumaturge]. Not [Mage]. Not [Wizard], or [Sorceress], or [Witch]. She didn’t practice just magic. What Xrn worked was something else.

Wonders.

They pushed the monsters back. Xrn raised waves of poisonous waters, flooded the tunnels, made the wind into swords and threw it at her enemies. Belgrade accompanied her, protected by a ring of silent Custodium, the equivalent of any Prognugators.

They found Pawn in the death corridor, still fighting. His Soldiers struggled with a group of the not-Gnolls until Xrn raised her staff.

“[Fear of the Mighty]!”

They fled. Belgrade rushed over to Pawn. The Worker was at the back of the group of Soldiers, sheltered by them. Belgrade halted when he saw the painted Soldiers. Their markings were barely visible under the coating of blood and flesh that covered them. Not a single Soldier was unharmed, but Pawn—

There wasn’t a mark on him.

Pawn turned to Belgrade. The gore had barely touched him, protected as he was by his Soldiers. He was holding something, someone in his arms.

A Soldier. Belgrade stared down at the huge Antinium. He could be held in Pawn’s arms, because there wasn’t any part of the Soldier below his chest. And yet, he was alive. Pawn held the Soldier as the huge Antinium struggled to clasp his hands. The Soldier’s mandibles clicked together, as if he wanted to speak.

But he never did. He died there, as Xrn cleared the passageway. Belgrade knelt beside Pawn. The other Antinium looked at him.

“We were fighting, but there were so many. We lost countless Soldiers and Workers. You were right Belgrade, they were everywhere. My Soldiers fought, but…”

“How many?”

Belgrade could see many of the painted Soldiers. So many, in fact! Compared to the dead monsters, there were so many Soldiers. For this many dead, Pawn should have been overrun long ago. But Pawn closed his mandibles, covered his eyes with one bloody hand.

“Twenty five.”

“Only twenty five?”

Belgrade stared at Pawn. The Worker nodded.

“I couldn’t do anything. My one [Tactician] Skill—they died, Belgrade! They died!”

“It was only twenty five. Pawn, your battle here was a tactical victory. It—”

Someone pulled him back. Belgrade turned and saw Xrn. She shook her head slowly. Pawn had covered both his eyes with his hands, but the other two desperately held the Soldier still. He shook. But he did not cry.

The Antinium could not cry.

Belgrade stepped away. Xrn was the one who knelt next to Pawn. There was the deepest blue in her eyes, a color more vast than the sea, darker than night. She touched the Soldier in Pawn’s arm and looked at him.

“I am sorry.”

Pawn did not reply.

 

—-

 

They did not bury the Soldier. That was not how the Antinium treated the dead. Instead, the Soldier was taken to be processed. He would be food soon enough.

Pawn knew it. He knew it, and he knew it wasn’t right. But the Soldier was dead. And there weren’t—weren’t enough pieces of the others.

He sat in the barracks, still bloody, as the Soldiers still able to move clustered around him. The Soldiers who hadn’t fought stood with their brethren, clumsily tending to their wounds. They were all wounded. And not enough of them.

Twenty five dead. Exactly a quarter of his command, of his people. Pawn had expected—he had known—

He hadn’t been ready. No.

He could still see the Soldier who’d died. He had a small five-pointed star on his upper right arm. That was all. He’d only taken that lone marking. And he’d died, protecting Pawn from a—a tendril that had reached out and cut him in two.

He was dead. It was Pawn’s fault. And there was nothing left of him to remember. Nothing. Just a memory. For all Pawn had done—

Pawn stood up. No. The Soldier couldn’t be forgotten. He stumbled past the Soldiers as they parted for him. He ran over to one wall of the barracks, to the spot that had been cleared. Pawn knelt by the cans of paint he’d bought, pawing through them frantically. Which color was it? This one? No. This one.

The Worker stood with a jar of paint in his hand. The other Soldiers stared. It was bright green paint, the same color the dead Soldier had used. Pawn slowly dipped his finger into the jar, and turned.

The walls of the barracks the Soldiers lived in were dirt. Not loose dirt, but hard-packed, as good as stone and unbreakable in most circumstances. Pawn found a spot along the wall. It didn’t stand out from any other spot. He dipped a finger into the bright green paint.

And then he pressed it against the wall.

Pawn slowly drew on the wall of the barracks. The other Soldiers watched as Pawn traced on the hard-packed dirt with green paint. He drew a star. The star that had been on the Soldier’s chest.

It was small. It was green. It was a tiny thing in the vast barracks. But it was there. Painted on the wall, marked. A memory. So long as no one damaged the paint, no one destroyed the wall, it would remain.

And if they did? If an earthquake happened, or Klbkch told him to get rid of it? Pawn would repaint the star elsewhere. Because he remembered. He remembered that star, and he would for the rest of his life.

And so did the others. Pawn turned as a Soldier moved. The Soldier found a jar of purple paint. Slowly, carefully, taking all the time in the world, he drew purple slashes down the wall.

Another Soldier moved. He took some paint and began to draw. The other Soldiers, wounded and intact, did the same. They did not have to speak. They did not have to confer. Twenty five Soldiers had died, but each living Soldier remembered.

So did Pawn.

When they were done, the barracks were not covered in paint. There were only a few, small places where the walls had been colored in. The symbols were small. But they were there.

A green star, a…cup of brown and silver. A clumsy number ‘7’ in turquoise. A speckled egg, white and blue and orange. A sun rising over a green horizon. A green flower. A rainstorm and clouds all in blue. A snowflake in purest white.  A black cat with orange eyes. A circle of red, mixed with yellow.

Five numbers, 46252, each in a different color. A picture of a bee on a plate, clumsily drawn. A smiley face. A stick-person with four arms. A word. ‘Winter’.

A map of the Hive. Eight lines and a curvy wave beneath it all. Two stones, one shaped like a face, the other like no stone ever seen. A question mark, drawn out of brown and a pale blue so bright it could have been white.

A line that looped and spun and dove. A cloud made of pink and yellow. A paw print in white. The memory of the first Soldier ever to be painted.

A cup running over with water. A sun and four moons.

A blade of grass.

Pawn stared at it all. Each Soldier was there, on the wall. Their bodies were gone, but there they were. He ran his hands along the dried paint, and felt something there.

Small things. Shapes and symbols, things that held meaning only the Soldier that had chosen them would know. Fragments of their soul.

It was not enough. It could never be enough. But it was something. It was something to cling to. Pawn looked at the Soldiers, covered in paint, in blood. He knelt as they clustered around him, putting awkward hands on him. Pawn could not look at them. He whispered the words.

“I am so sorry.”

They said nothing. But they held him, clumsy killers, people with no voices who wore their souls on their chests for all to see. Pawn looked at them and wept. His eyes shed not a tear. They were his. His Soldiers. His guardians. His friends.

His people.

He embraced them. Pawn wept again, without tears. Then he went to see Erin.

 


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62 thoughts on “4.13 L

  1. Of all the characters I write, Pawn is perhaps one of the easiest. Not because his story is easy, or even fun to write. But he is a clear character to me. At times. Sometimes it feels like I’m writing a lot any saying a little.

    I experienced both sensations this chapter. I hope it was decent, and I can tell you good Patreon folk that next chapter will be…well, I shouldn’t actually give it away. But it will have more Pawn, since I don’t think anyone actually enjoys too many cliffhangers, even me.

    Drama, excitement, resolution. A good chapter isn’t always one that blows your socks and pants off. Sometimes it’s one that brightens a day, or just satisfies the reader. In this case…tears would be nice, but a few minutes of quiet reflection would also be accepted.

    The Antinium have a tough lot. But at least Erin’s there to make one Antinium feel a bit better. Hope you enjoyed this chapter. Thanks for reading!

    • The Antinium sounds like they could use a daily delivery of a big batch of Scale Soup. Would taste better than their slop at the very least.

      • No doubt.

        That was… a brutal battle. Xrn and the other guests arriving to turn the tide brought a physical sensation of relief to me as I read it, but the Individual soldiers lost… Wow, I think Pawn will need therapy after this.

      • Scale Soup would be great for the Antinium. Especially for the Individual Soldiers who need to survive in order to level and grow stronger. It’s just too bad it’s so expensive. If only they had some other way to pay Erin… some service they could trade her… maybe a job they could do worth, say, three hundred twenty eight gold coins…

        Yeah, they should definitely trade work on the Inn for a supply of Scale Soup. Even better would be if Erin could make a defense soup out of Shield Spiders- then they could sell her the materials. And you just know she’d give them a great bulk discount.

    • The Painted Wall, is filled with Powerful Emotions, that can bring anyone to Tears!
      You should Definitely make sure that there is a Graphic Design Art or a Picture, of IT!

  2. Leave a typo and who your favorite Soldier was. Mine was Paw Print. Damnit…I didn’t want him to die.

    (Favorite Readers: Lhans, gueenee, Iituem, MrWiggles, Neceros, The Outrider)

    • Why is the chapter heading L instead of P? L is for Liscor?

      Can’t tell which of your chapters has had me cry the most, honestly. Geneva, Pawn’s times kneeling in wonder and despair, Calruz’s honor, Pisces’ suffering, Ryoka telling superhero stories, Laken’s spittle flying as he screams his claim and saves lives… One of the many reasons I read this is the fact that it can make me cry for each of the good reasons to cry.

    • My favorites are tied between the stick person, cat, and red-yellow circle.

      “All he knew was {what} it was another day.”
      {what} -> {that}

      “There was only one explanation for this Worker’s {suddenly} behavior.”
      {suddenly} -> {sudden}

      “But no sooner had he used his one remaining antennae to sense what was going on then he felt a cold jolt of fear in his chest.”
      {then} -> {than}

  3. “What level are you? No—what class? Is there even a way to tell? Ah, but…you do not know how to write and your fingers…”

    Five numbers, 46252, each in a different color. A picture of a bee on a plate, clumsily drawn. A smiley face. A stick-person with four arms. A word. ‘Winter’.

    Er so can Soldiers write or not?

    • Soldier cannot write, but they can copy anything they see. They might not even know what they’re copying, only that they like what it looks like. Or Pawn can help them out if he understands what they want.

        • Language is but a set of patterns that represent meaning.
          It does not have to be in the form of words, it can be body language, colour flashing, rhythmic tapping, pictures, sigh language, math, physics notations, wordless empathic telepathy or charades. Yes, charades.

  4. The battle was fucking intense and Pawn’s reaction to their death combined with his decision to honor their souls via painting brought tears to me eyes. However my favorite part of the chapter has to be sassy Pawn taalking to Tersk.

    “It occurs to me, Individual Pawn, that your statements throughout this conversation have been deliberately inflammatory and unhelpful.”

    Pawn nodded slowly.

    “Yes. I believe they have been.”

    I love it.

    • I’m pretty sure he’s been told to absolutely not do that. As well as telling klb if his soldiers start using skills, which I’m not sure he has done.

      Rebelious Pawn Incoming.

  5. Hey my name is Ksmvr, i’m back up in the house.
    Here to drop you to the floor, so be ready to bounce.
    Took a sec to breath some air,
    now i’m here to bust your ass.
    If you rile me like before.
    I’ll halve your mass.
    I heard there where a bunch of pawns,
    out there dissing me.
    So now i’m back to turn y’all asses into history.

    • It has occurred to me, watching Ksmvr’s growth, that the same experiences which can produce an Individual might… “upgrade”… a flawed Prognugator into a more complete being. I think that may be what we are seeing with Tersk here, and it’s very interesting.

  6. Gonna be honest, I hope Xrn chews out Klbkch for not asking for help.

    Also, I really hope Pawn gets some great levels after this. I want his [Tactician] class to upgrade- either to [General] or to [Prognugator]. Both of those would be amazing in their own way. (I’m leaning toward wanting [General] or a subclass thereof, just because Pawn emulating Zel is super adorable.)

    • I think a new hybrid class would be cool. [Religous Commander], [Zealot], or maybe [Grand Master] in the style of the leaders of many monastic military orders were styled. Indeed, [Grand Master] might have some thematic potential given his relation to chess, Erin, and his very name.

      • [Prelate] = [Leader] + [Acolyte]?
        [Acolyte] -> [Monk] -> [Abbot] -> [Grandmaster Abbot]?

        What if Pawn’s soldiers begin leveling up as [Templar]?

      • Google Jan Zizka, 15th century czech knight and Hussite religious leader then tell me if Pawn isn’t following in his foot steps specially how his men loved him. As clincher Zizka’s army used a technological edge to defeat more numerous foes i.e. Hussite war carts/Tanks.

  7. To my surprise, I liked the chapter. I usually didn’t find Pawn’s chapters overly entertaining.
    The only thing that bothered me a little was Xrn shouting her name.
    (“I am Xrn, the Small Queen!”)
    I found this rather cheesy. This kind of reminded me of cliché anime characters that needlessly announce their whole name, with title.

    • In this case, Xrn was inspiring the Antinium to rise up and fight back. Dramatically announcing who she was, with her name and full title was perfect for the situation.

      • I don’t know if that was perfect for the situation.
        It’s not that any of the Workers or Soldiers really know who she is, aside from being a Prognugator. So why would that inspire any of them.
        A short speech would have been better suited, in my opinion, especially for the readers.
        The line: “I am Xrn, the Small Queen” has been overused, making it rather dull to read.

    • Maybe, but cliche anime characters also announce their attack names, and that’s a real, functional thing in this universe. There’s no reason to think that Xrn doesn’t have [Inspiring Presence] or some other such Skill which is activated or aided by her making such a dramatic pronouncement.

      Not to mention… these are Antinium she’s talking to. They don’t exactly have a whole lot of inspiring speeches to compare against. The basics work well for them.

  8. “..you are like Relc.”

    “I am?”

    “You are. You ask superfluous questions.”

    Daaaaaamn, Kbltch throwing shade.

    On a side note, ouch, right in the feels.

  9. Dawn, serious flashback to the fight for the inn against Skinner with the antinium dying one by one… Also, Belgrade was COLD, guess it’s what to expect from a tactician.

    Also, I agree with previous comment that Erin should supply magic food on the cheap for the hive. Might make the queen like her more…

    • Yeah. With the patrol bringing back monster corpses each day she even has a supply of ingredients she can be using for them.

  10. This was great. I loved everything about the actual fight, but it was also pretty cool seeing the prelude and the aftermath, which really isn’t something you see in strategy games like Battle for Wesnoth.

  11. Oh wow, was not expecting the tears at all! Such a good chapter… there is such a richness you’ve brought to the Antinium, I’m delightedly amazed where we’ve reached.

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