The inn was tense silence. Erin’s heart was in pieces over Mrsha, and she was afraid for Ksmvr, confused about the Antinium. She looked at Badarrow, bleeding, expressionless, and her heart broke in a different way. And then there was the bee.
Apista fanned her wings dangerously as she slowly extended her stinger on her abdomen. Erin stared at the Ashfire Bee coldly.
“Sting me and Lyonette will have to sweep you up, Apista. Understand?”
The air around her froze and the bee hesitated. Slowly it withdrew its stinger and flew off Erin’s arm. It landed on a table and hid behind a mug. Erin nodded. She took a deep breath.
“Okay. Everyone? Freeze.”
It wasn’t so much the words as the atmosphere that came with it. A chill and a pause swept through the inn, which halted the adventurers, the Antinium, and the Goblins where they stood or sat and drew every eye to Erin. She nodded.
“Good. Now, the first person who moves I will personally break their arm. No one stands, draws a sword, or does anything until I say they can. Got it? Good.”
She looked around. The room was quiet. Erin bent and went to Lyonette.
The young woman was crying.
“I had to—I couldn’t—”
“I know. But Badarrow’s fine. Lyonette, look at me.”
The [Princess] did, eyes red, nose dribbling. Erin gripped her arms.
“You don’t have to go into the room. Just sit outside it and make sure Mrsha doesn’t go anywhere, okay? Can you do that?”
Lyonette hesitated, and then brushed at her nose. That only made things worse.
“I—I can. Okay.”
She got up slowly. Erin looked around. Next? Goblins. Antinium. The Goblins were staring. She pointed at Drassi and the Drake flinched.
“Healing potion, Drassi! Give it to Badarrow. Now, as for you—”
She turned to the tableau of frozen Antinium. All three of them stared at her as she walked over. Ksmvr had the tip of his shortsword jammed into Yellow Splatters’ side. A trickle of green blood was running down the length of the blade. Erin stared at Ksmvr.
“Put your sword down.”
“I said, down, Ksmvr. Bow as well.”
He reluctantly obeyed. The other two Soldiers shifted when he did. Yellow Splatters began to raise his fist and Purple Smile tried to slide away across the wall. Erin stamped her foot and there was a localized tremor. The Antinium went still.
“You three, sit. Now.”
They looked at her, confused. Erin stared at them. There was a…look in her eyes. A suggestion that she might be willing to beat all three to death with her bare hands if she was not obeyed. The look of a Prognugator of a Hive.
“I said, sit.”
All three Antinium sat down. The two Soldiers and Ksmvr looked up at Erin from their cross-legged positions on the floor. She eyed them but decided not to comment.
“Good. Now, keep sitting. If any of you three move, I will have Moore come over and hit you. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll get Jelaqua to do it.”
She nodded at the Halfseekers. They stared at her. Erin flashed them a smile and walked over to the Goblins.
“I am very, very sorry about what Mrsha did.”
She said that to Badarrow first off. He stared at her and his face twisted into a sneer reminiscent of Pisces. He had already poured healing potion into his ear and was tilting his head to hold it in. Erin hoped his eardrum hadn’t been punctured or if it had, the healing potion would fix it. She looked at him and around the table.
“I mean it. That was inexcusable and shouldn’t have happened in my inn. You have my word she won’t do it again.”
The other four Goblins shifted in their seats and looked at each other. One gave Erin a half-hearted nod, and another shrugged.
There. That was what Erin felt, had been feeling this entire time. That sense of…disconnect. They didn’t believe her. Or if they did, they thought she wouldn’t be able to keep her word. Or—they were Goblins. They were used to being attacked. That was life.
And that was wrong. Erin hesitated just for a moment. But this was it. She felt what she had to do at last. She reached out and touched Badarrow. She grabbed his hands with hers, feeling his hands—warm and real, in hers.
He jerked, a trickle of potion and blood spilling out of one ear. Reflexively he tried to pull his hands away but Erin wouldn’t let him. She held his hands. His fingernails were long, yes, and his skin was green. Of course. But they were warm hands, and she could feel his pulse. It was accelerating. He was nervous. And as she stared into his crimson eyes, she saw a person there.
“There you are. I knew you were like me.”
He didn’t understand. Erin smiled at him. She leaned closer, and now she could smell him, and he couldn’t look away. She looked into his eyes and spoke.
“I am sorry about Mrsha. But she has a reason to hate you. Goblins killed her tribe.”
He flinched at that. All the Goblins did. They looked at Erin and away. They understood what she meant in a heartbeat of course, but they tried to distance themselves. They tried to hide in what they were and what she was. Goblins and a Human. Two species destined for conflict. They had given their hearts away once and lost them. They didn’t want to feel. But Erin was too close. Badarrow couldn’t look away.
“It was recently. A few months ago. And when she came here…I think she’s afraid you’ll kill her. I know you won’t. But I’m asking you to forgive her. I know she tried to kill you. But she’s a child. I’ll try to get her to come downstairs. I’m not asking you to do anything—but I hope you understand.”
Badarrow glanced into Erin’s eyes and away. He tried to turn his head, but she kept drawing him back. And then he looked at her as if intoxicated. They were close. She was real. And so was he. He nodded, slowly and Erin smiled.
“Thank you. And I want you to know that I had a friend, once. Her name was Rags and she was a Goblin. She and I didn’t always understand each other, but I thought of her as a friend, as a person. I think you’re people too.”
The Goblins stared at her. Badarrow’s face was filled with expressions the other Redfang warriors had seldom seen. Shock, surprise, and then…a smile. As if he couldn’t help it. Erin smiled and looked around.
“Wait, please. Ishkr? Give them food and make sure everyone has something to eat. I’ll be down shortly.”
She strode towards the stairs and took them two at a time. She looked back only once. Badarrow was staring at his hands and another Goblin, Shorthilt, was prodding at his palms. He looked up at and met her eyes. And she smiled at him and knew he was embarrassed. All that Goblin mystique, all the tension, the uncertainty—she’d forgotten that if you looked into someone’s eyes, you could see their soul. And it shone brightly in the Goblin’s gaze.
Upstairs was different than below. The murmuring below and thawing of shock was at odds with the sound of crying above. Mrsha was sobbing and Lyonette was in tears. Erin strode towards the door to their room and opened it. Lyonette hovered at the doorway. Erin turned to her.
“I think I need to talk to Mrsha by herself.”
Lyonette hesitated, and then nodded. She went downstairs and Erin went inside. She found Mrsha curled up in her bedroll, quivering and making sobbing sounds, although of course she couldn’t fully articulate them. She had no voice, but some things were wordless. Erin reached out and the ball jerked under the covers. A head poked out and Mrsha stared at her.
The Gnoll swiped at her with a paw. Erin caught the paw gently and looked at the Gnoll.
“We need to talk.”
Mrsha didn’t want to talk. She wanted to be sad. She wanted to hurt. Erin understood that, but she also had to be heard. So she compromised. She held Mrsha’s paw and stroked it. At first, the Gnoll tried to pull away, but then she gave up and lay there, weeping, as Erin patted her head and stroked her fur. After a while, Erin felt it was time to speak.
“I should have talked with you a long time ago about this, Mrsha. About the Goblins, I mean.”
The Gnoll froze up and her paw was suddenly sharp with claws in Erin’s hand. The young woman adjusted her grip and sighed.
“Mrsha. Listen to me.”
The Gnoll didn’t want to listen. She pulled hard, and Erin pulled right back. Surprised, Mrsha tumbled out of her bedding and met Erin’s eyes. The [Innkeeper] bent her head and spoke in a quiet, direct voice.
“Mrsha. Hating the Goblins is not wrong.”
The Gnoll Cub froze. She looked up at Erin and the young woman nodded.
“No, it’s not. I should have said that to you earlier. Hating the Goblins isn’t wrong. They killed your tribe, your friends—why shouldn’t you hate them?”
Confusion. Mrsha stopped pulling and listened. Erin tugged her closer, until she was sitting across from Mrsha, very close. She met the Gnoll’s eyes.
“It’s not wrong. Anyone would hate them for that. Hating Goblins isn’t wrong. But hating all Goblins, hating these Goblins—that’s not right, either.”
The conversation had only one voice, but it was not one-sided. Mrsha narrowed her eyes and Erin went on.
“Listen, Mrsha. I am going to tell you something important. Something you have to learn. And it’s this: people are not the same. Understand?”
A silence. Uncomprehending. Pain.
“That’s all there is. People are not the same. Where I come from Mrsha, people look…well, we’re all Human. But we’re not all the same. Some of us have black skin, some have white skin, others have long hair—some are men and some are women. We are not all the same. Not all Humans are the same, right? That’s simple. You’re smart. You know that Lyonette and I aren’t the same, right?”
A smile and in return, a small nod. Puzzlement.
“But some people think that, oh, because Lyonette and I are both female that we’re the same. Or—they think all people with black skin are the same. And that’s not true. There are good people and bad people, Mrsha. And they might look alike in some ways, but they aren’t. I could look at Ishkr and Brunkr and if I was really silly, I’d say they look alike. But they’re not, are they?”
A quick shake of the head.
“No, no they aren’t. But some people think that way. In fact, most of us do it. We don’t mean to, but we do. And that means we judge everyone by the actions of a few. Like Goblins. They are not all the same.”
Eyes widening. Looking away, tense.
“Mrsha. Not all Goblins are the same. That is what I have to tell you. Just that.”
Just that? Looking back. A nod.
“That’s it. I’m not going to tell you all Goblins aren’t evil, or they aren’t all murderers, because then I’m talking about all of them. I’m just telling you that you can’t judge all of them without seeing them. Like the ones downstairs. They’re Goblins. But they haven’t hurt anyone. Aside from evil goats, that is.”
Looking down. Paw clenched. Erin lowered her voice softly.
“You don’t have to like them. I won’t ever make you do that.”
Mrsha looked up.
“I promise. You don’t even have to go near them. But you can’t hurt them. Because they’re not the ones who killed your tribe.”
The Gnoll began to shake. Erin drew her closer and hugged her.
“I’m sorry, Mrsha. They’re not. They might look like Goblins, but they are not the same. They didn’t know. And you don’t have to like another Goblin if you don’t want to. You don’t have to forgive. Not right now. But you can’t blame them all for the same thing. They’re different. Like you and like me.”
Silence. Trembling. Erin tried to explain the last bit. The most important bit.
“I’m letting them stay here. Not because I think they’re innocent, but because I don’t think they’re bad. And Mrsha, they’ve given me no reason to distrust them. If they did, I would kick them out in an instant. Believe me. But they’ve done nothing bad. So that’s why I’m giving them a chance.”
She whispered to the Gnoll as she hugged her.
“They might not deserve a second chance. But everyone deserves a first one. That’s what I think. And you don’t have to like that. You don’t have to like them. But you do have to accept that that’s what I believe. And if you try to hurt them again, Mrsha—that can’t happen. Understand?”
The Gnoll looked down. She wasn’t crying now. She was just…lost. Erin looked at her.
“Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going downstairs to sort the rest of this out, Mrsha. And you’re going to come with me.”
The Gnoll jolted in fear. Erin held her.
“You don’t have to do anything. You can sit with the Halfseekers. With Moore. And you’ll be safe, Mrsha. The Goblins won’t do anything. If they hurt you, if they do anything bad, you tell me and I will cut them up into little pieces. But I don’t think they will. If you see them doing something bad, you tell me. Otherwise, you come down this once, and then you can do what you want, okay?”
A long pause. Erin waited as Mrsha thought about this, as she struggled—and then nodded slowly. Erin bent and kissed her on the head.
“You’re very brave. And I know you’re hurting. Just remember what I told you. People are not the same. Now, let’s wipe that blood off and bring you downstairs. You can eat something hot and we’ll sort the rest of this out, okay?”
She reached out and a small Gnoll took her hand. And if Mrsha was afraid as they went downstairs, if she flinched from the Goblins, that was okay. She went willingly and sat next to Moore and Jelaqua, holding both their legs for support. That was all Erin had hoped for.
This was how it got better. With food, with enforced sitting, as the blood cooled and regrets took over. With an [Innkeeper], going around to each table, talking to people, holding hands—treating them as people. Yellow Spatters sat very still and didn’t look around. He could sense the other Soldiers and Workers looking at him.
And he was lost. He didn’t know what he’d done. He’d tried to kill Purple Smile at the end of it. Another Soldier. One of his brothers.
One of his people.
He was barely conscious of Erin moving around the room, and then her exasperatedly arguing with the Gnoll, Ishkr, over an object.
“Why did you buy this if you cannot play it? It seems like a waste of money, yes?”
“I thought I could learn! I want music, Ishkr, and I don’t want to pay for a [Bard] or something. If I could teach myself—”
“Why not let me play?”
“Wait, you know how to play?”
Erin stared at the Gnoll in disbelief. Ishkr looked embarrassed and scratched behind one ear as Lyonette and Drassi passed out strong drinks for everyone.
“I play a bit. Not this instrument, but I have earned coins doing it before. Hrr. Ahem. This is similar to instruments I know, though. Still.”
He frowned at the guitar, looking at it dubiously.
“Why not an oud, or a mandolin? I’ve played a gittern, but this?”
Ishkr poked the guitar with one claw, looking dubious. Erin stared at him anxiously.
“I have no idea what those other things are. Most of the music from my country is on this…well, I guess there’s the violin, cello, and so on. Ukuleles…look, if you can play this, that’d be great.”
“Hrr. I can try.”
The Gnoll lifted the guitar and slung the strap around his shoulder. He strummed across the strings, making a sound that Erin hadn’t been able to after ten minutes of trying. Erin gasped with delight and hurried into the kitchen. Lyonette stared as Ishkr played a chord quickly and easily.
“Don’t your claws get in the way?”
Ishkr smiled at her.
“They do. I cut them short, but I’ve also learned to play with them. Many Gnoll instruments are made to be easier for my people to play anyways, though. And this is one.”
“Oh. No wonder Erin couldn’t play it.”
“Hrm? What? Humans could play it without much difficulty. Perhaps she is just, ah—”
He broke off as Erin came out of the kitchen. She had a bit of parchment in one hand and thrust it at him anxiously.
“I tried to write down songs in my spare time. Good ones from home. I can remember the lyrics, but the notes—I uh, I think I’ve gotten it mostly down. Could you—could you try playing this?”
Ishkr accepted the parchment and studied it. After a second he looked up.
“This—is not music, Miss Erin. I cannot read it.”
“What? No, it’s good music! Pop songs! Why can’t you play it?”
The Gnoll looked incredulously at her, and then shifted the parchment and pointed at a section.
“It says here…twang, twang, higher-pitched twang? How am I supposed to play that?”
Erin turned bright red and snatched the parchment back from him. Across the inn, a Goblin laughed out loud and then fell silent as everyone stared at him. But the laughter was good.
“I’m not good with music, okay? Look, how about this? Can you play something like—”
She hummed, and Ishkr tried to copy the sound. Erin broke off.
“No, not like that. Do it more like—double the sound here. Good! And make it lower. Longer—don’t glare at me! I know how it should sound in my head! Try another string. No, not that string. This string!”
As she argued with Ishkr, Lyonette went around the room, trying to serve the three different groups in the room and praying none of them would cause trouble. Surprisingly…they didn’t. The Antinium were sitting in a kind of meditative silence, Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters sitting and staring at each other and at Erin. Yellow Splatters had his arms folded, but he didn’t look like he was going to start another fight. He looked like he was sulking, actually.
The Goblins were listening to Erin and Ishkr, wincing every time he played a discordant note. But they seemed more entertained by this than they had by anything else. As for Mrsha and the adventurers—she was having her fur stroked by three different sets of hands at once as she stared at the Goblins. All was tranquil for now, and Lyonette conspired with Drassi and several mugs of alcohol to keep it that way.
“We’ve never served the Goblins ale!”
Drassi hissed at Lyonette as they filled up mugs by the bar. Lyonette shook her head. Really? They hadn’t? But everyone drank. And yet, Lyonette couldn’t remember ever serving the Goblins a real drink besides milk, juice, or water. That felt a bit…wrong, to her.
“So what? They’re guests, Drassi. Fill the mugs and serve them, and help me find the stronger stuff. Where does Erin keep it? We’ll try them on it, and if they don’t like it, well, Jelaqua and Seborn drink like mules!”
The Drake grimaced, but didn’t object. She pointed to the kitchen.
“Erin keeps it hidden behind the potatoes, remember? After Mrsha tried drinking some—”
And then there was music. Lyonette went back into the common room and heard something. A melody. It was quiet, and had a few mistakes at the start, but there was a…feeling it carried. Just a few repeating notes on a guitar played by a Gnoll. But then Erin began to sing.
At first her voice was out of place. The guitar and her words were not enough. Erin frowned and looked around.
“Guess I don’t have an immortal moment. Hold on, we need a drum for this to work properly.”
She ran into the kitchen and grabbed a long wooden spoon and a wooden tong. After a moment Erin grabbed a large bowl and ran out. She plonked the bowl onto a table in front of Numbtongue. He stared at it.
“Can you give me a beat? And you—Headscratcher. I bet you can match my voice, right? I need a chorus.”
The Goblins gaped at her. But now the guitar solo had an accompaniment. Erin began to clap her lands rhythmically and Headscratcher was the first to copy. She turned.
“Come on, then! I need some help! Numbtongue, give me a beat.”
The Goblin picked up the spoon and began to hit the bowl. The sound was high—too high. Erin made him slap the bowl and then the Goblins began to pound on the table. She turned, and then she needed voices.
“Ceria? I know you can sing. Yvlon—Ksmvr? Pisces? Aw, don’t be like that. All you need to sing is this—now, I want a beat! Come on Numbtongue, hit that table!”
The Goblin slapped the table and there was something like a proper drumbeat. Ishkr bent over the notes, playing, and now Erin had a crowd. She pointed at the other Soldiers and Workers.
“I could use some clapping! Join in any time? Okay? Let’s start. I’ll start and you join in like this? Ready? One, two, three!”
And then there was music. It started out disjointed, and then it grew louder. Erin began to sing as the guitar’s melody became only one part of a symphony. Voices joined with hers, and the Goblins clapped and slapped the table to music. The first music they had heard.
Sitting by himself, Yellow Splatters tried to ignore it. He did. He tried to tell himself there were things that mattered more. He sat, hunched, trying not to listen. It was just sound.
But then he heard a Soldier begin to stomp on the floor. The voices of the singers blended with the beat. Yellow Splatters stared at the Soldier. He was thumping the floor with his feet, and then clapping his hands together clumsily. He knew Yellow Splatters was watching, but the other Soldier didn’t care. And then another Soldier stood up. He began to beat a rhythm on the table with an empty cup, and the others joined in.
Now the beat ran through the inn. Erin stood in the center, laughing and singing. And one of the Goblins was singing too. Numbtongue had memorized every word. Across the inn, Moore was gently thumping the table as Mrsha bounced up and down. Jelaqua, Ceria, Yvlon—even Pisces was joining into the chorus. Drassi and Lyonette were singing as they passed around drinks.
And now the music was reaching into Yellow Splatters’ mind, into his body, tugging at his heart, searching for his soul. He couldn’t help it. He uncurled and his leg began jiggling to the beat. That was the start.
Erin paused the music and amid cheering, began to teach them another song. She started with Ishkr, and then gave the others a beat and words to sing to. And the words reached into a place that Yellow Splatters had forgotten he had. He listened to Erin, a Human who knew nothing of his pain, sing. And somehow, the words were meant for him. She sang about home, about belonging, and the music broke Yellow Splatters’ heart and healed it at the same time.
That was how it began. Erin knew a hundred songs, some which required guitars, some which required a beat, others which were solo. Some were sad, others tragic. Others made the people in the inn sit up and made the hearts beating inside race. Others made them dance. Erin grabbed Headscratcher and linked arms with him. She began to dance with the surprised Goblin.
“Hey all of you! Is this a party or not? Come on! Show me how you dance!”
That was how it began. Yellow Splatters found himself dragged up and spun around. Soldiers didn’t know how to dance. But he found that there were no rules to it. He saw Purple Smile doing a two-step with Ksmvr across the floor, taught by an amused Erin. At one point Jelaqua took the dance floor and began what the Antinium could only term enthusiastic flailing. But it was so enjoyable that a Worker, Mrsha, and Drassi copied her.
Dancing was different. The music demanded it. Yellow Splatters found himself whirling, arms wide, spinning in place. And that was fun! And then Erin told them they were only getting started. He looked at her and felt like crying. Because at some point he’d realized he was wrong. And when Purple Smile looked at him and offered him a mug of ale, Yellow Splatters searched for the pain and anxiety and anger in his chest and realized it was gone.
The music had taken it away.
The party in the inn had music, people, food, and more importantly, a need. After so many days of tension and anxiety, all of that emotion had to go one way. And so Erin took it and released it. She filled her inn with music and people heard.
“I heard an odd sound. What is going on? Oh. Hello Ksmvr, other Antinium I do not know. Are you having a good day? Good. I am Bird.”
The Antinium on the roof came down, swept up by the music. He found himself shouting at Badarrow about arrows as the Goblin admired his bow. Bird quite enjoyed that. He kept waving his arms and shouting over the music.
“You shot me! It was a good shot! I said good shot! Show me how!”
That was the first. Then a Worker took a wrong turn going to the bathroom and Octavia poked her head into the inn, looking outraged.
“Hey, what’s all that noise? I’m trying to wor—hey, what’s this music?”
She came in. And she was the last. No one would come to an inn with Goblins, after all. No matter what they heard.
A group of Drake and Gnoll [Guardsmen], or rather [Guardspeople] since there were [Guardswomen] among them as well was patrolling around Liscor, searching for monsters nests and so on. They heard the music echoing from the inn on their way back.
“Hey, that’s a good song.”
One of the Drakes looked up as she heard the beat coming from the inn. Another Drake leaned on his spear and sighed.
“Huh. That’s loud.”
The other [Guardsmen] looked at each other. One coughed.
“There’s Goblins at that inn now.”
The others nodded.
“Can’t imagine what that innkeeper’s thinking.”
“Eh. She was always crazy. Remember that time she was singing and there was all that music? Good food. Dancing…”
“Yeah. Shame she has all those Goblins there.”
The [Guardspeople] stared towards the inn, where the music was flooding the wet landscape. On this grey day, it was as if someone had taken the sun and brought it inside. It was as if the light was music and it was flooding out of the inn. One of the Drakes sighed.
“Damn lucky Goblins.”
“Good night! Good night to you all! Don’t get lost on your way back! And don’t fight with each other anymore, okay? Or I’ll come over and kick both your butts!”
Erin said goodbye to the Antinium just before midnight. Her voice was raw and her legs hurt. She wasn’t the only one.
The Goblins had passed out downstairs. Numbtongue, true to his name and past, had practically lost his voice. He could actually sing! And he had taken the guitar. Ishkr had signed off with a hefty overtime bonus, complaining his claws hurt. But he had been smiling.
As for the others? The Halfseekers went to sleep tired, but beaming. None of them had danced with the Goblins, but as they had found there was room in the inn for both of them. The Horns of Hammerad had passed out in their room already. And Mrsha was in her room with Lyonette.
Healing. It was a long process. But if Erin was good at one thing, it was bridging gaps. Between people, in hearts…Yellow Splatters walked slowly back with Purple Smile and thought about all the mistakes he’d made.
Because he’d been wrong. The Antinium needed Erin Solstice more than they needed him. They didn’t need more training. They needed to stare at the sky.
And he had forgotten that. Because…because he’d seen too many of his people. Because he’d forgotten what had made him Individual to begin with. Because he was a fool.
And that knowledge left him quiet and empty. Despair over Twin Stripes crushed him. His failures hung about him. If the music and food had not filled him with hope and happiness, Yellow Splatters might have been lost. As it was, he was simply sad.
He reported back to his barracks and sat for a long time by himself. The other Soldiers had brought gifts for the others. Food from Erin’s inn—still fresh, one of Mrsha’s balls she’d given them to throw around, and even a small keg. The Soldiers mainly just stared at that since they’d forgotten to bring bowls.
As for Yellow Splatters? He looked at Purple Smile and thought the other Soldier would be a good [Sergeant]. And he wondered if he could be one as well. He looked around the barracks, at the sparring area, and then at a space that had never really been used.
A few pieces of carefully-bound paper sat in a corner. Just ink and paper. But Pawn had seen the value in them. Yellow Splatters went over, and, with many Soldiers watching him furtively, sat down and picked up a book clumsily.
It was very hard to turn the pages, and the lighting wasn’t good. When Yellow Splatters got the first page open he saw there was a Drake child on the page. A Drake child with a magic sword.
He had no name. The book had no words. It was just pictures. But there was a story there. Yellow Splatters read the book slowly, turning the pages laboriously, but caught up in the little Drake’s story.
He had a sword. A magic sword, surely, because when he found it, it glowed. And it slew a Mothbear, a Wyvern, a horde of undead, and then it carried him into the sky to fight a Giant on a mountain. The Drake became a hero. He had friends. He led an army. And then they crowned him as he sat in a city he had built.
It was a simple story. A simple story for a child, with no real moral other than that magic swords were amazing, and that slaying monsters was good. But it was the first one Yellow Splatters had ever read. And it was magic.
When the Soldier looked up from the book, he found he was not alone. Someone sat across from him. Pawn. The Worker looked tired, but smiled as Yellow Splatters froze and looked at him.
“I did not want to disturb you from your reading. Forgive me. I did not see you at the front as usual so I grew worried.”
The front? But that was in—Yellow Splatters checked his internal clocked and realized it was long past dawn. Morning, in fact. He’d read the book for—he shot to his feet in a sudden panic. The fighting! The monsters!
He’d abandoned his post. He would have run towards the front had Pawn not caught him.
“Be calm, Yellow Splatters. There is no need for fighting today. Hopefully…not tomorrow or much at all.”
What? Yellow Splatters stared at Pawn uncomprehendingly. The Worker nodded.
“It will be easier to show you. Come.”
He took the [Sergeant] down the tunnels, past groups of Soldiers who did not march to their deaths but rather wandering around, looking confused. Yellow Splatters arrived at the place where they normally fought and found something else in its place.
A barricade of stone and dirt. High walls—intersecting tunnels filled with disguised pits filled with spikes, tunnels designed to collapse once triggered. And wide areas designed to funnel monsters into each other so they would kill each other. Belgrade was explaining all of this at length to Klbkch and Purple Smile when Yellow Splatters arrived.
“You see, it takes advantage of the dungeons’ radius. Monsters will pass by this point and into this room and begin to attack each other. We have set it up so monsters will arrive at roughly the same time. After they have reduced each other’s numbers, we have many, many trapped tunnels which they will be forced to travel through. And if they survive that—”
“A kill zone.”
Klbkch studied the final room, in which rows of Workers stood. Workers, not Soldiers. There were Soldiers at the ready, but they had yet to fight today. Instead, the Workers were armed with the Antinium’s crude bows and arrows. They stood behind battlements that had been constructed to let them fire behind shelter, and they had slaughtered the few monsters that had made it to their position with massed volleys. Belgrade nodded proudly.
“Pawn has long said this and both Anand and I agree. It is time for Workers to take charge of defending the Hive as much as Soldiers do. Moreover, we need an archery-based unit. Thus, we have found those Individual and regular Workers who seem to have an aptitude for aiming and equipped them. You will note in the budget report I sent that I am requesting better bows and arrows.”
The Revalantor flicked through several pages of parchment and nodded.
“I see. And your prediction?”
“Over 86% reduction in casualties taken and a greatly reduced need for constant combat. True, the material costs rise by a small margin, but this would allow our Hive to allocate resources and bodies—”
“Yes. I see. Am I to understand this was your undertaking, Belgrade?”
Yellow Splatters stared at the [Tactician]. Belgrade nodded as Anand walked over, munching on an apple. Purple Smile must have offered it to him.
“That is correct, Revalantor Klbkch. Recently, my acquired Skills have shifted in nature. Both Anand and I have received Skills, but while his pertain to rapid movement and assaults, I have obtained Skills suitable for static defenses. My two latest Skills—obtained from reaching Level 20—are [Simple Trap Construction] and [Basic Fortification Construction].”
Anand munched down the rest of his apple. Pawn nodded. He stepped forwards as Klbkch turned to him.
“It is a project all of us have worked on tirelessly, Revalantor Klbkch. Were it not for the Painted Soldiers, we would not have been able to hold the areas around the dungeon’s entrance to construct this defensive network.”
Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile turned to Pawn. Realization flashed between the two and Yellow Splatters trembled inside. Klbkch looked around, clicking his mandibles, seemingly at a loss.
“Very…good. Unexpectedly good. Carry on. I will relay this to the Queen. I do not doubt she will be very…well, good.”
He walked off. The Workers stared at him, and then gathered around to celebrate.
“I think he was impressed.”
“I owe it all to Erin. And you, Pawn. And you, Anand.”
Belgrade seemed overjoyed, his antennae trembling with emotion. He spoke, fondling a chess piece on the command table as he did.
“It is as Erin said, every time I despaired of beating you in chess, Anand. Practice can defeat talent. And when I applied that to the real world—preparation and planning will win battles in advance of reactionary tactics. I may not have your gift Anand, but I can contribute to the Hive in my own way.”
“I did not doubt it for a second, Belgrade.”
Anand grasped Belgrade’s shoulder, speaking softly. He indicated the maze of defenses.
“This is beyond me. This is your accomplishment. And the scope of it—you have won battles before I needed to fight them. I believe this understanding is key to what it means to be a [Strategist], and not simply a [Tactician]. That is why you will reach that class first, Belgrade. Be proud of what you have done.”
The Worker quivered in place. Anand hesitated, and them embraced him. The two Workers hugged as the other Antinium looked on. After a second, Belgrade spoke in a more normal voice.
“While I appreciate the gesture and am very emotional Anand, I do not seem to have acquired the ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings that Erin spoke of.”
Anand let go and nodded.
“Neither do I. Perhaps it is an error in our methods? Our expertise?”
“Let us ask her when we next meet.”
“Yes. For now…I think we have earned a break. Pawn, we shall be sleeping now. You know how to manage the defenses—”
“And I will wake you if needed. Rest, you two. You deserve it.”
Pawn let the two Workers stagger off, and then turned. The two Soldiers stared at him. Pawn nodded.
“We will need a few Painted Soldiers in case of dangerous enemies, but far fewer than before. You two are relieved of duty for now. We will have to find more ways to occupy you two in the future. More patrols perhaps. Or maybe…books.”
He looked at Yellow Splatters as he said that. The [Sergeant] just stood in place. No more fighting? His people wouldn’t die? He was…what a fool he’d been.
Perhaps Pawn sensed it, because he put a hand on Yellow Splatters’ shoulder. And surprisingly, so did Purple Smile.
“I know what you have been going through, Yellow Splatters. And some of the fault is ours. We did not want to speak of what we were doing, should we fail. But we should have told you. As for the rest…I am glad.”
Glad? Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn in astonishment. After all he’d done, after what he’d done. Perhaps it could be forgiven. But Twin Stripes? Never.
Again, Pawn read his mind.
“Come with me. I have one last thing to show you. And this is my accomplishment.”
He led the two Soldiers away, through tunnels, to a new area. A small room had been hollowed out and a door installed. Two Soldiers stood aside as the Worker opened the door. Yellow Spatters froze as he saw Twin Stripes chained to the ground.
The Aberration Soldier was thrashing. Pawn bowed his head and stepped forwards, but both Yellow Spatters and Purple Smile moved forwards protectively. Twin Stripes was trying to move, trying to get at Yellow Spatters. The [Sergeant] wanted to let him.
But it was Pawn who moved. The Worker walked forwards, heedless of the Aberration struggling in his manacles. He bent, and raised something.
A hand. And in it he held light. Or…was light drawn to his hand? He reached out, and Twin Stripes froze as it touched his head gently.
Two more hands rose. Pawn’s other hands reached out and touched Purple Smile in the chest, and Yellow Splatters on the arm. The Worker’s mandibles opened and he uttered a word.
It was the simplest of messages. A quiet word, breathed into the silence, spoken with all the sincerity in the world. And with it came forgiveness, peace.
Yellow Splatters jerked, feeling warmth and light entering him. Twin Stripes stopped thrashing and Purple Smile touched his chest as Pawn withdrew his hands. The Worker bent over Twin Stripes and the Soldier looked up. The Soldier, not the Aberration.
“This is my gift. Three times per day I may use [Benediction of Hope] to ease those in need. I think it calms the thoughts. It gives our people hope, a small blessing. And perhaps—understanding. Of what it means to be Individual.”
Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn. He was shaking. He should have been exhausted after being up for over a day. But now he felt fresh. And the despair that had gripped him, the pain and guilt—it was still there. But something else was in him, balancing it out.
And he looked down at Twin Stripes and knew the Soldier was back. Slowly, Yellow Splatters bent and freed the Soldier. Twin Stripes got up slowly, and Yellow Splatters bowed his head. The two were silent for a moment before Purple Smile seized both of them up in a hug. The Soldiers struggled, and then went limp. It was not warm and fuzzy at all. But it was…perfect.
Pawn looked at the Soldiers and smiled. He bowed his head.
“Congratulations, [Sergeant] Purple Smile. I think you and Yellow Splatters will be a wonderful team.”
Yellow Splatters looked at Purple Smile as the other Antinium let go. Purple Smile tilted his head to looked at Yellow Splatters, and the [Sergeant] saw the weight of command settle on his shoulders. But that was the thing about Purple Smile. He just brushed the weight off.
And that was the word for it. At last, Yellow Splatters realized what was missing. He looked around. Not leader. Not alone. That wasn’t what he was. At last, he knew. He was one of many. Not the lone leader. He could rely on others.
He had a team. A people. A mission.
One last thing. In the Wandering Inn, as Erin went back to her kitchen to snore and Lyonette lay in her bed, sleeping in a quieter manner, a small Gnoll sat in her room and listened. She heard only silence.
She had had a big day and she was tired. She had been angry, sad, happy…Mrsha knew she was still in trouble and she still had a lot of being sorry to do. But the music had helped. The food had helped. And Erin…
The words were still in her. She did not have to forgive. And she hadn’t. Mrsha had been afraid, so afraid when she’d gone downstairs. But the Selphid had leaned down and whispered to her, and Moore had smiled and given her a bud that bloomed into a flower in her hands. Mrsha had felt safe with them.
She did not forgive the Goblins. But she had sat in the inn and watched them all day. Not all people were the same. And yet, Mrsha couldn’t forget it was their people who had slaughtered her tribe.
Each time one of them laughed, Mrsha hated all of the Goblins and their entire species. When they smiled, she wished their happiness would go away. It was easy to hate them, then.
It was harder, much harder, to hate them when they cried. When they shed a tear for a sad song that made Mrsha curl up inside, or when they hugged each other and looked around as if they expected there to be others with them. Then it was hard.
Mrsha had gone upstairs, but she could still smell them in the basement. Sleeping. She could even smell they were sleeping. Their scents were one of many in the inn. Only, she’d been focused on them for so long she had forgotten the other ones. Now she could smell Lyonette next to her, comforting, and Pisces in another room, playing with dead bones. And Yvlon—still smelling of fire and burning.
The Goblins were below. Mrsha knew that. She still hated them. And maybe she always would. But she stopped waiting for the moment when they would draw their swords and kill her. Mrsha curled up into a ball and slept.
At some point, Apista crawled out from a mug downstairs and looked around. She had miraculously survived the raucous party simply by the expedient of hiding in the mug and scaring the daylights out of anyone who reached for a drink. She fanned her wings and flew up to the ceiling, where she perched by a windowsill and fanned her wings in the warm sun.
Everyone was sleeping of course. Partying did that to people. As for insects, well, their opinions were less well recorded on the matter. Apista consumed a bit of nectar from the faerie flowers. She might not be a person. But she was happy.