The rain fell. The pounding drops soaked into the already saturated soil of Liscor, pooling into lakes and ponds in the valleys, relentless. The rains covered the grass and chased the living indoors. And brought the waterlogged corpses of the Face-Eater Moths to the surface.
From the walls of Liscor, the Floodplains could be seen stretching to the base of the gargantuan mountains in the distance. In every direction, the grounds were filled with pale white corpses of moths, some bloodied yellow, others scorched or torn to pieces. The moths were dead. Most of them. Some still moved weakly, dragging their wings across the ground. But they were no threat anymore.
Liscor had won. The walls were still littered with dead bodies. And yet, the cost had taken its toll on the city. They had paid in blood to hold the walls.
Not that you would know it to stare at the walls today. As Watch Captain Zevara wearily greeted the rising sun, she saw only Face-Eater Moth corpses being hammered by the rain. Liscor’s dead had already been recovered and cremated, buried, or otherwise laid to rest. Otherwise they would have had to deal with the undead this morning as well.
She turned her head, feeling her body protest the motion. Zevara had barely put her head down more than an hour since the battle on the walls yesterday—just long enough to level up twice. She hadn’t gained a Skill, though. That was a sour plum that made her resent her long watch through the night. But when she stared at the Antinium sitting next to her she reconsidered voicing her bad mood.
Klbkch was sitting next to the battlements, letting the rain wash his body clean. The Antinium’s head was bowed, his carapace cut and still covered with fluids from battle. He looked tired. In Zevara’s experience, if an Antinium looked tired, it meant they were exhausted beyond belief. He didn’t seem to have heard Zevara’s statement. She wondered if he was asleep. She hesitated. But duty was duty.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch.”
He started and nearly unsheathed the twin swords at his side. He had been asleep! Zevara wondered how intense the battle in the Hive had been, for Klbkch the Slayer to have passed out during his duty. He stirred, realized he had been sitting, and leapt up.
“Watch Captain, my apologies—”
“Sit back down. You need rest.”
Zevara yawned. Klbkch hesitated and then leaned on the battlements next to her. It still felt strange at times to have an Antinium—much less the infamous Slayer—under her command. But at the moment Zevara just saw another [Guardsman]. One of her best, in fact.
“Walls are secure. The Face-Eater Moths have been driven off. The Hive is still recovering, but we estimate damages will be repaired within two days at most. We have Painted Soldiers on standby should more threats emerge. As per your request, I have allowed my subordinate, Pawn, to relieve your [Guardsmen] by posting his Soldiers on the walls. He has not reported any incidents as of yet.”
“Good. Did I—did I ask you that before?”
“I believe so.”
Zevara closed her eyes briefly. She turned her head and stared down the right wall, where Antinium Soldiers were indeed standing to attention. The rain battered their dark shells, but failed to wash away the bright colors on their bodies. She wanted to ask Klbkch exactly what the strange patterns meant, but he had been evasive every time she asked. She eyed the lone Worker walking from Soldier to Soldier, pausing to talk to them.
“That’s your subordinate? Pawn? I thought the Antinium—”
She yawned hugely.
“—thought they didn’t have names. Isn’t he supposed to go crazy?”
“That is a misconception. Aberrations arise in most cases revolving around an Antinium’s name. But Pawn is an Individual, capable of thought and action.”
Klbkch nodded. Zevara yawned again.
“Dead gods, the Walled Cities won’t like that.”
She realized she’d said that out loud and her heart leapt in her chest. But Klbkch only nodded.
“I believe they will not. But include in your report that they are few in number at the moment. And we are committed to honoring our agreement with Liscor. The Painted Soldiers are a new unit dedicated to this effort.”
The Watch Captain turned to Klbkch. He knew she was reporting to the other cities? Wait, of course he knew. He wasn’t an idiot. But hearing him address her secret duties out loud was—
“The Painted Soldiers? Is that a formal designation? Some new creation of the Antinium?”
Maybe he was tired enough to reveal something by accident too. Klbkch shook his head.
“It is an informal phrase. The Soldiers are functionally no different from other Soldiers. Their unique appearance is meant to foster trust.”
“Well, it certainly makes them stand out.”
Zevara shook her head, eying the Soldiers. It was very rare to see Antinium in Liscor in any numbers. Normally having them on the walls would be the cause for alarm. At the moment though, Zevara imagined that Liscor’s citizens slept soundly knowing they were there. They certainly allowed her to give her guardsmen a night’s rest.
“I’m grateful, Klbkch. Just tell me one thing—your Soldiers won’t panic because of the rain, will they? Or the heights?”
Klbkch had been nodding off. He jerked upright.
“The water? I do not believe so, Watch Captain. The heights are no obstacle to the Antinium, and the rain is only rain. Once the Floodplains fill to capacity, the Soldiers may experience…uneasiness. Until then, they should be unhindered.”
Uneasiness? What did that mean? Zevara clenched her jaws to avoid yawning again.
“Right then. Well…how much do you trust your man—Antinium—Pawn?”
Klbkch hesitated for the first time. Zevara noticed it, although she was too tired to wonder why. He nodded slowly.
“Pawn is…quite capable. He will lead the Painted Soldiers into battle competently, if that is your question.”
“Could he hold the walls?”
“By himself? Against most threats, yes.”
“And he’ll alert you if any danger threatens the city?”
“That is correct.”
Zevara was swaying on her feet. She looked around, lowered her voice, and then slowly lowered herself below the line of the battlements. Klbkch stared at her.
“I am still on duty. Wake me if something happens or when the other [Guardsmen] start reporting. Until then I’m taking a nap. You’re welcome to do the same.”
She leaned back and felt her head loll against the hard stone almost immediately. Klbkch stared at her. Then he saluted.
“Excellent orders, Watch Captain.”
He sat back down. Within moments both he and Zevara were asleep. The rain fell onwards, covering the landscape. Liscor slumbered. It had won, but no one was celebrating. They were all asleep. The day after the battle was quiet. Liscor’s heroes slept.
This is how they woke.
Pawn was still awake the day after the battle. He walked the walls, past unmoving Antinium Soldiers standing in the rain. More still patrolled the streets below. Pawn would visit them soon, though his body cried out for rest. But the Painted Soldiers had been fighting nonstop all day yesterday. How could he lie down before them?
And he had a duty. The incense censer was heavy in his hands and the rain pouring down threatened to extinguish the embers within. He protectively covered the top of the censer with two of his hands as the other one swung the censer, wafting incense as he passed down the wall.
It was barely noticeable, what with the smell of dead moths and rain all around. But it was noticeable and that was what mattered. The Soldiers stood as he passed behind them, speaking quietly.
“We remember Blue Circles, who leapt from the walls to bring down an enemy four times his size.”
The mandibles of the Soldiers standing on the wall snapped together. It was a faint sound, but every Soldier on the wall made the same motion. All at once. All four walls of Liscor echoed with the sound as Pawn paused a moment. He spoke again.
“We remember Jilted Lines, who fell while holding the southern wall against the moths.”
The sound was one. Pawn’s head was bowed. The rain washed over his carapace, unrelenting. He saw a Soldier standing in front of him, bleeding faintly from one leg. Pawn rested a hand on his arm and muttered a prayer. Perhaps it didn’t help. Perhaps it did nothing. But the Soldier stood taller as Pawn passed. The Worker spoke on.
“We remember Leaves of Trees, who was crushed by a giant moth as it landed.”
The Soldiers stood, proud, wounded, sentinels watching for movement. If a moth so much as twitched they rushed over to stomp it to death. They stood on the walls, listening to Pawn as he passed on round after round. Even when they could not hear him, when Pawn was on a distant wall, their mandibles still snapped together.
They listed the dead by heart, each one of them. Again and again, as Pawn prayed they would find a better place beyond. The Soldiers stood quietly as the sun rose and the skies brightened. But the rain poured on, on the dead, the wounded, and the living.
Olesm thought he heard a strange clicking sound as he wearily got to his feet. He shook his head, rubbed at his earholes, and blearily looked out his window. The rising sun made his eyes open wide and he shot out of bed.
He was supposed to report to duty on the walls every day at—Olesm flailed around his room wildly until his sleepy panic was replaced by memory. Oh! Liscor, the battle, the moths—Zevara had told him to rest until he was ready to replace her. Wearily, Olesm rubbed his face. He could have slept another day, but he knew Zevara was on duty until he relieved her.
The Drake hurried to toss some clothes on his body, avoiding the dirty rags he’d tossed in one corner of his room. He hurried out of his small apartment and onto the streets. The streets, filled with dead moths. They littered the ground like so much trash. So many. The Drake still couldn’t believe that Liscor had fought them off. If he closed his eyes he could remember the laughing moths coming up the walls, the sounds of screams, the boom of the enchantments going off—
For a few seconds the Drake’s pulse raced and he reached for the sword at his side. Then he remembered. They were dead. The moths were dead. The rain had chased them off. Olesm stared at the sodden bodies and shuddered as he saw something move underneath a moth’s wing.
“Dead gods, what…?”
He carefully approached the wing and nearly leapt out of his scales as a tiny moth scurried out from beneath the wing of a larger, dead moth. He cursed and stomped at it, and then yelped in horror as he saw several larvae oozing out of the same place.
Olesm wasn’t willing to stomp on them with his boots so he drew his sword and speared the larvae. They oozed as he cut them and the Drake backed up, shuddering as he stared at the other moth bodies.
“Are they infesting the other corpses? Damn it, we’ll have to burn the lot!”
“That was my thought. Although it’ll be a trick getting the bodies flaming in this deluge. Young Swifttail, it’s good to see you up!”
Olesm whirled. He saw a Drake in gleaming armor marching towards him, followed by several Drakes on patrol. Wall Lord Ilvriss looked tireless despite not having slept for over a day. He nodded to Olesm as the Drake stared at him. His escorts were certainly showing signs of fatigue.
“Wall Lord! I didn’t expect to see you up!”
Olesm hadn’t expected to see anyone up at this hour. Wall Lord Ilvriss just smiled, turning his handsome face to regard the moth corpses with disgust.
“Did you think I’d be asleep, young Swifttail? Far from it! Remember, Liscor’s citizens are already waking though her defenders are catching up on rest. I’m patrolling to show everyone there’s nothing to fear. Although these damned moths do worry me even in death!”
He glared at the body and larvae that Olesm had killed. Ilvriss nodded at a Drake standing behind him.
The Drake [Mage] raised her hands and wearily shot a jet of fire at the corpse. It didn’t want to burn, but the sustained flames eventually cooked the moth. Olesm saw a few wiggling shapes trying to escape the burning moth and shuddered. Ilvriss nodded in satisfaction and the mage lowered her claws, panting. The moth’s corpse hadn’t been incinerated, but the heat had probably cooked anything inside of it.
“Good work. We’ll have to come up with a more effective solution soon. Consider the issue, Swifttail—I’d appreciate your thoughts.”
“You are too kind, Wall Lord.”
Olesm bowed. He hadn’t actually wanted to meet Ilvriss, certainly not this early in the day. He liked the Wall Lord—well, sort of—and Ilvriss liked him. And Olesm certainly respected the Drake. He’d seen Ilvriss cutting down Face-Eater Moths left and right during the battle without pausing to so much as rest. But the Drake was a bit much to deal with.
“Well, I ah, I’m honored that you’re working so hard for the good of the city, Wall Lord Ilvriss. It truly is inspiring. I was intending to go and relieve Watch Captain Zevara of her duties.”
“Were you? I saw you off not six hours ago! Good soldier! That’s the kind of spirit we need!”
Ilvriss’ smiled approvingly. Then he looked Olesm up and down.
“You seem taller, young Swifttail. Tell me, did you level at all last night? I thought you must have!”
Olesm gulped. He really hadn’t wanted to get into it. Oh well, nothing for it.
“I did, Wall Lord. I ah, gained two levels?”
“Two? Excellent! We’ll celebrate that later—ah, but I’ll hold off on drinking. Nevertheless, it deserves a party! Several of my men leveled as well. Did you gain any decent Skills by any chance?”
The young Drake hesitated. He shouldn’t say it. It would definitely make Ilvriss focus on him and Olesm really did want to relieve Zevara. But he was bursting to say it. He fought silently for a moment and gave in. Ilvriss would find out sooner or later and he’d be hurt if Olesm didn’t tell him right now. Besides, Olesm really wanted to say it.
“As a matter of fact…I obtained my [Strategist] class from leveling up, Wall Lord. I’m now a Level 30 [Strategist]. I gained the army Skill – [Vigor of Champions] as well.”
Ilvriss had been nodding to some of his men, scanning the street. At Olesm’s words his head whipped around and his eyes went wide. He stared, and then was roaring and clapping Olesm on the back in the next moment.
His voice was so loud that Olesm saw Drakes and Gnolls opening their shutters to stare. Ilvriss shouted as his escorts crowded around Olesm, slapping him on the shoulders and making the young Drake wince. Ilvriss was ecstatic.
“A Level 30 [Strategist]? My dear young Swifttail, how did you not mention that right away? Ancestors! By the walls of my city that’s a cause for celebration! Don’t be modest! A Level 30—most [Tacticians] take another 5 levels to reach that class! We have a prodigy here! And what Skill—”
“You’re too kind, no, it’s really not—”
“Nothing? Ancestors, Swifttail, there’s such a thing as being too modest! That Skill’s not anything to dismiss either! I’ve heard of [Vigor of Champions]. That’s a Skill any [General] would be proud to use! Come, use it on us!”
He gestured at his escort. Olesm hesitantly did so, visualizing Ilvriss and his men as part of his command. Instantly he saw several of the weary Drakes straighten. Ilvriss clenched his fists experimentally.
“Incredible. The fatigue’s not gone by any means, but I could fight another battle here and now! Young Swifttail, this is more than just a level up. This calls for—Weille, run to the Tailless Thief. Tell that [Innkeeper] to prepare a celebratory feast for young Swifttail! We’ll toast his new class! And invite his friends and family too! I’ll buy out the inn for the day!”
“That’s really not necessary Wall Lord. Really—”
Olesm tried to back away, but Ilvriss wouldn’t hear of it. He had a hand on Olesm’s shoulder like a steel vice and he was beaming widely as his tail wagged on the ground.
“Swifttail! Modesty has its place, but this is phenomenal news! I insist you come with me—and I should give you a gift to celebrate the occasion! Come, let’s go and—”
At last, Olesm managed to raise his voice enough to slow Ilvriss. The Drake blinked as Olesm tried to find an excuse to get out of an all-day party.
“I truly am grateful, Wall Lord Ilvriss. But though I’d be glad to celebrate with you—at another time—I feel I must replace Watch Captain Zevara on duty. She’s been awake all night, and I would be remiss if I abandoned my duties to celebrate!”
He bit his tongue as he finished, hoping Ilvriss wouldn’t take his words amiss. The Drake [Lord] stared at Olesm for a long moment, and then he nodded slowly.
“Well said, that Drake. Well said!”
He clapped his hands together and his escort, following his lead, applauded as well. Ilvriss kept nodding his head as he turned to his followers.
“You hear that? The model of a Drake! This young Drake—no, this [Strategist] is exactly what we need in Salazar’s army! Not an hour after gaining a new class and he still thinks about his fellow Drake! By all means, relieve Watch Captain Zevara, young Swiftta—Olesm. She certainly deserves her rest. We’ll continue our patrol as well!”
He nodded authoritatively and Olesm saw several of the Drakes behind him wince, clearly longing for their beds. But Ilvriss was animated, filled with energy from Olesm’s Skill. The young Drake coughed.
“Well, I’ll be going Wall Lord. I’ll ah, look forwards to seeing you later.”
“Certainly! We’ll postpone the celebration. Mind yourself on the walls though.”
“Is there danger, Wall Lord?”
“Possibly not. But the Antinium are currently holding the walls and patrolling the streets. Those damned colorful ones. They appear to be doing their job, but keep an eye on them and watch your tail.”
He glowered, as if Antinium Soldiers doing a Drake’s job was a personal affront. Olesm nodded. He’d rather have the Painted Soldiers on duty while the City Watch caught up on their needed sleep, but he kept that to himself.
“I will. With your permission Wall Lord—”
He backed away. The noise of his meeting with Ilvriss had stirred some of Liscor’s residents out of their beds. Drakes and Gnolls cautiously emerged from their houses, staring with revulsion at the moth corpses. Some waved to Olesm and the Gnolls, having heard everything Ilvriss shouted and probably everything Olesm said, congratulated him on his new class. Olesm smiled, ducked his head and tried not to wag his tail as he hurried towards the walls.
“Watch Captain Zevara? I’m relieving you. I’m terribly sorry, but I—oh!”
Klbkch and Zevara both started as Olesm came up the stairs. They got up fast, pretending they hadn’t been asleep. Olesm coughed as Zevara rubbed at her face.
“Olesm! We were just resting while Pawn—what time is it?”
“Just past dawn, Watch Captain.”
She scowled as she blinked blearily.
“So early? Go get more sleep. I can uh, keep watch—”
“You should rest, Watch Captain! I can handle things—we only need an officer on duty. I don’t have to be on the walls all the time, just on call. The Antinium are holding the walls—let me relieve you.”
Zevara tried to protest, but she yawned hugely and gave up.
“Alright. Alright I’m—I’m going to sign off. Just until noon! I’ll be back up and relieve you then. Senior Guardsman Klbkch—you’re relieved as well. Get at least four hours of sleep.”
The Antinium and Drake stumbled down the stairs, nearly slipping on the soaked stone. Olesm shook his head as they left, and then looked around the walls. Antinium Soldiers on duty turned towards him and then swiftly away. They didn’t stop scanning the landscape. Olesm had no idea what to do with them, but he spotted a familiar figure doing the rounds.
There it was! That strange sound he’d woken up to! Olesm hurried towards Pawn as the Worker waved some kind of smoking object in front of him.
The Worker looked up. Olesm smiled in relief. He hadn’t been sure the Worker was Pawn—they all looked too alike—but Pawn was somehow familiar. Olesm gestured to Pawn and the Soldiers standing on guard.
“How are you? How are your Soldiers? What’s ah, the clicking about?”
The Worker tilted his head as if confused.
“I am well, Olesm. My Soldiers are able for duty. Those present are only minimally wounded. We are conducting a mass for the departed.”
Olesm’s good spirits sank for a moment. He stared at the Antinium and remembered the Soldiers fighting on the walls with the guardsmen. Too many Gnolls and Drakes had fallen as the moths swarmed. Antinium too. True, Pawn’s Soldiers had come later in the battle and only a few hundred had entered the fray, but Olesm had heard Klbkch’s report. Moreover he had seen—
The Drake turned his head and stared down into one of Liscor’s main squares. He could see a bit above the roofs of the houses from this point. Not much, but enough to see the heads of fourteen giant Face-Eater Moths that the Antinium had carried out of their Hive.
When Watch Captain Zevara had angrily demanded why Klbkch hadn’t sent up every Soldier under his command he had offered the heads as proof of the Antinium’s battle underground. Just the thought of how many Antinium must have died to fight that many moths made Olesm shudder.
“Your Soldiers. Did they take many casualties?”
“Many? Not many. Not by Antinium standards. But more than none, which is too many.”
Pawn shook his head. Olesm stared at him. The Antinium Worker seemed different than Olesm remembered. Just as quiet, but more reserved. More…somber, perhaps. Olesm stared down into the streets where an Antinium patrol was marching.
“Your Soldiers saved a lot of lives, Pawn. The city is grateful.”
Indeed, the Soldiers on patrol weren’t getting nervous looks so much as amazed glances by the citizens who had heard of the Antinium’s underground battle. Pawn nodded slowly, as if that had never occurred to him.
“The city’s gratitude…is a good thing, I think. My Soldiers simply did what was ordered. What was needed.”
“Nevertheless. As Liscor’s [Strategist], I offer you my heartfelt thanks. Without you we could not have held the walls.”
Olesm bowed slightly and felt a tingle in his chest. Liscor’s [Strategist]. He felt giddy at saying it out loud, and then guilty as he saw Pawn hunch his shoulders.
“Yes. I only wish less could have died.”
And what could Olesm say to that? Pawn was right, but he seemed focused on the dead. The Drake coughed and looked around for inspiration. With nothing coming to mind he defaulted to what he knew.
“Well…I’m sure Liscor will offer you a formal sign of gratitude. And uh, we’ll probably give the Hive a war gratuity for your fallen. I know that isn’t much, but I hope it will help your Soldiers’ uh…family? Friends? Comrades?”
He looked hopefully at Pawn. The Worker paused and one of his hands reached up to scratch at the top of his head.
“War gratuity? What is that?”
Olesm hesitated. He tried to explain.
“War gratuity’s well, money paid to fallen soldiers for fighting. It goes to their families…uh…to their closest relatives…to…”
Pawn just looked blank.
“The Antinium have no such practice. If the city is offering coin for the sacrifice of Soldiers, I am sure the Hive will appreciate the money.”
“But it’s for the Soldiers. I mean, they deserve something for their efforts. Do they get a—a break or a reward for fighting?”
“A reward? We will rest after being relieved of duty.”
Pawn noted Olesm’s dismayed face and shrugged.
“A Soldier does not ask for benefits, Olesm. He exists to fight. There is no need to reward his duty.”
“But he should get—”
Olesm broke off. He stared at Pawn and shook his head.
“Never mind. You know what? Can you stay in charge for the moment? If there’s trouble, send a message to Wall Lord Ilvriss or Watch Captain Zevara. I’ll be back in less than twenty minutes!”
“We will stand watch. That is what Revalantor Klbkch has ordered.”
Pawn nodded and Olesm hurried down the stairs. He knew he shouldn’t leave the city, but he had to. Maybe Pawn and his Soldiers wouldn’t receive any recognition besides gratitude from Liscor’s citizens. Maybe their Hive didn’t reward them for service or honor the fallen. But Olesm, as the Liscor’s new [Strategist] could probably see to it that the Antinium got a hot meal while on duty.
He remembered something about them not being able to eat bread or wheat products. But fortunately he knew one [Innkeeper] that specialized in meals for Antinium. Olesm practically ran out of the gates as the Soldiers on watch obligingly opened it for him. He stared in dismay at the sea of corpses and the actual sea of water filling up the plains. It was already deep enough in parts that he had to splash ankle-deep through some of parts as he tried to keep to the highest hills.
Tomorrow he’d probably have to swim to get to Erin’s inn! And that was only if he was suicidal—the moth’s corpses bobbed on the water, but they wouldn’t be there long. The rising waters meant more creatures would be appearing soon, and they ate anything in the waters. Olesm ran, slipping, the rain pelting his scales, and grinning wildly. He was a [Strategist]! He was a [Strategist]!
Then he fell into a giant valley filled with water. The Floodplains were flooding. Hence their name. And soon the city would well and truly be impossible to attack. As for the inn sitting on the hill, well, it might get a lot less customers. Because the waters were rising.
It was raining. Erin stared at the droplets falling as she got up. The water was hypnotizing as it came down in droves. It was almost exciting to see it fall, to watch it cascade downwards and show off nature’s unrelenting power. It was also a bit too close for comfort, as Erin was currently watching it pour down through a hole in the side of her inn.
“I think that’s not a good thing, you know?”
She sat in the ruined common room of her inn and stared around. Her inn was wrecked. Dried moth blood was mixing with rainwater and dirt on the floors. Glass and broken wood littered the floor in places, and all of her windows were smashed in. If Erin turned her head she’d be able to see a huge theatre stretching far behind her—filled with Face-Eater Moth corpses. They’d been piled up, pushed out of the main room to clear a path to move around. And that was just the ground floor. Erin knew her second and third floors were still filled with their dead bodies.
She was sitting on one of two remaining chairs, staring at the rain. Snoring filled her inn, despite the wreckage. It came from the basement. Of all the spots in Erin’s inn, the windowless kitchen and basement had been untouched. Bird and the Redfang Goblins had elected to sleep there. The others were in Octavia’s shop, or in Liscor. There was nowhere else they could rest as the rain poured in from the places where walls and windows should be.
“Holes in my inn. Holes in my inn. I have a holey inn. Which isn’t that funny.”
Erin blinked around at her inn. She didn’t actually feel that bad. She just felt grateful to be alive, really. After yesterday she would have been grateful to be sitting out in the rain. Well, not grateful, but it would have beaten having her face eaten off by a horde of angry moths.
They’d won. Liscor had fought off the moths. But the cost—Erin glanced out of a hole in her inn. Well, the cost was just a bit problematic, that was all.
And yet, she was up. She was alive and—Erin’s stomach rumbled—hungry. And Erin had no doubt her guests would be just as hungry when they woke up. And they’d probably be happy, despite not having beds…or chairs…or rooms anymore.
Because they’d probably leveled up. Erin understood that leveling was like having a birthday. It was almost always a good thing and a cause for celebration. Okay, maybe not if you’d just become a Level 4 [Laborer], but a Level 43 [Foreman]? When people reached Level 20 or Level 30 they often hosted massive celebrations with tons of celebratory gifts.
She wondered who had leveled and what they’d gotten. Erin knew she’d leveled, but she was sort of ambivalent about it. She’d become a Level 35 [Magical Innkeeper]. But she’d gained no Skills. And when she stared around her wrecked inn, her desire to wildly celebrate sort of drained away.
Erin waved her hands weakly as she peeked out one hole of a window.
“Darn it! They wrecked my outhouse! Both of them! How am I supposed to pee? Just squat over the hole and—wait, that would work. But it’s raining!”
She scowled around the inn and turned her head to the dead moth bodies.
“This is all your fault, you know.”
They didn’t reply. The moths were very dead, cut to shreds, pierced by magic, burned, crushed, and in one case bitten to death. Bird had done the biting. Erin went over to kick the nearest dead moth. She had second thoughts when she stared into its open stomach. And she had third thoughts when something inside the moth wriggled and came out.
The young woman screamed and leapt back as a yellow larvae wormed its way out of the dead moth. It wriggled towards her on the floor and Erin reflexively stomped. She wasn’t wearing shoes. After a horrified moment where she felt the squish and stared at her bare feet Erin ran screaming outside. She began wiping her feet in the mud and grass and then realized something.
“Hey. Where’d the land go?”
Her inn stood on a hill. A very tall hill compared to the rest. It was one of a few tall hills around—the rest were shorter and of course there were as many valleys as hills. Only, Erin couldn’t see the valleys or more than a few hilltops. Everything else was submerged in water.
It was only a few feet deep in places, or just barely covering the grass. But the water was rising. Erin saw the water rippling as the rain poured into it in every direction as she stared around her hilltop. In the distance, Liscor was surrounded by water. If it rose five feet higher it would start flooding into the city. Erin’s inn was too high up for the water to conceivably flood—but soon almost everywhere else would be covered in water.
Erin stared. Then she felt something wriggle on the bottom of her foot and freaked out again. She dragged the sole of her foot across the ground, avoiding the other dead moths lying around her inn. There were so many! Some were floating in the water around the inn and she could see hundreds more sunken beneath the water.
“Oh my god! How the heck am I going to get to Liscor now? And what do I do about food? And guests? And there are infested moths in my inn! What’s left of it!”
Erin clutched at her head, staring at her dilapidated inn. The second and third floors were mainly intact—if you ignored the smashed-in windows and moth bodies piled inside—but Bird’s watch tower was nothing but smithereens. The entire place needed reconstruction.
“Antinium reconstruction! They can totally build it! Yeah! All I have to do is ask Bird to—”
The [Innkeeper] turned. A thought struck her as she stared at the watery landscape. She opened her mouth.
“Wait a second. Antinium…can’t swim.”
She looked at the water. She looked at Liscor. She looked at her inn. Erin cursed. Then she saw a Drake swimming in the water. Erin hesitated. It was still early morning and she could barely see in the rain. But she thought the Drake looked familiar.
“Is that Olesm?”
“Erin! Erin! I have incredible news I have—oh.”
The Drake was swimming through the water over a valley to get to the inn. He stumbled out of the water, completely drenched and ran up to her inn. He stopped when he saw the ruined building.
“Oh. Your inn.”
“Hey Olesm. How’s it going?”
Erin smiled at him. The Drake looked at her cheerful expression and then at her inn, shock on his face.
“Erin I—I’m glad to see you’re okay. But—”
“I’m glad to see you’re okay too! Yeah, my inn’s sort of busted up. But that’s nothing some wood and nails won’t fix! If I can get someone to fix it cheap. It uh, got smashed when the moths attacked. But I’m so happy you weren’t hurt! I saw the fighting on the walls and I was so worried! I was trying to get help from Pallass, but those jerks didn’t do anything until the last minute! And then Pisces made it rain, can you believe that? He saved the day and—”
Olesm was just standing and staring at her inn. He looked heartbroken. Erin stopped talking. She walked over and gave Olesm a hug. The Drake started.
“Hey. Are you okay?”
He gaped at her. Then he realized what she was doing and hugged her back, fiercely.
“I’m so glad you’re okay! And I’m fine—in fact, I’m better than fine! I levelled up and gained a new class! But your inn. Erin—”
She laughed and hugged him harder. For some reason Olesm’s concern over her inn had banished hers. Seeing him put things in perspective for her.
“The inn? Don’t worry! It’s fixable. And everyone inside is safe. All I need to do is—all I need to do is get my friends to help out a bit. I can deal with my inn. But I’m glad you’re safe.”
The Drake seemed startled. Erin just smiled. Her inn was gone, but the people were safe. Not like last time. This time it had gone right. Well, mostly right. She thought about Liscor and her heart skipped a beat.
“How’s Krshia? Selys? Zevara? Klbkch? Relc? Ilvriss?”
“All—all okay. I think. There weren’t many casualties inside the city and I heard it was mainly the adventurers who went out to fight. Everyone who stayed inside was fine and Miss Krshia actually led some Gnolls in shooting down moths—I know Selys is okay, and Wall Lord Ilvriss. I just saw Zevara.”
Erin sagged in relief.
“That’s great. Really. Wait—what about Pawn and Belgrade and Anand and—”
Olesm cut her off as she looked towards Liscor.
“Pawn’s okay! And according to Klbkch, the Antinium fought off the moths! They killed fourteen giant moths, Erin!”
“Yes! Their heads are lying in Liscor’s main square right now! Apparently the moths invaded from an underground dungeon entrance—one the Antinium say just opened up—and started attacking! That’s why the Antinium didn’t reinforce us until later and I became a [Strategist]!”
Erin’s eyes widened and she released Olesm. The Drake blushed.
“Sorry, that slipped out.”
“No, that’s amazing! Did you get any Skills? That’s so great, Olesm! Isn’t that your dream? You have to tell me about it. But—”
She hesitated and looked back towards her inn. Olesm gazed around at the dead moth corpses in wonder.
“What in the name of the Ancestors happened over here, Erin? I saw glimpses, but—you killed a giant moth here, and hundreds of the smaller ones!”
She waved a hand in denial.
“I didn’t. That was all the adventurers. We had [Guardsmen] from Celum, the Goblins, the Horns of Hammerad, the Silver Swords, the Halfseekers—oh! Jelaqua!”
She grabbed his arm.
“Moore and Seborn rushed Jelaqua into the city! Do you know if she’s okay?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t visited the Adventurer’s Guild, but I can check. Where’s everyone now? Did anyone…?”
The Drake was clearly relieved when Erin quickly shook her head.
“No one died. Jelaqua got hurt, and Moore, but we healed him up. The Silver Swords went into Liscor with Drassi after the battle, and the Horns of Hammerad stayed here. They’re sleeping in Octavia’s shop and the Goblins are sleeping in the basement since everywhere else is a mess. Lyonette and Mrsha are in Octavia’s shop too.”
“That’s good. That’s good, but—what about your inn?”
“I’ll fix it.”
Erin raised her eyebrows as Olesm gave her a look of disbelief. She felt more confident after hearing about her friends.
“What? It’s doable! My walls are pretty intact—okay, there’s a hole in one wall and my outhouses are gone, but the only real damage is around the windows. And Bird’s watch tower. If I can get a team of Antinium here…”
“They won’t leave the city, Erin. The Antinium don’t leave their Hive during this season ever. They can’t swim.”
Olesm looked like he hated to be the bearer of bad news. Erin gnawed on her lip.
“Okay. Well…I might be able to hire someone from Celum. Or Pallass. Eh, that takes too much mana. Look, I’ll figure it out. But why are you here? Is something wrong?”
The Drake started guiltily.
“Me? Oh no, no—I just uh, well, I was hoping to get you to—nevermind.”
“What? Come on.”
“It’s uh—well, Pawn and his Soldiers were deployed to the walls and they’re standing guard. I was hoping to treat them to a meal, but…”
He gestured at the flooded landscape, at Erin’s ruined inn, and the dead moths. Erin looked around. Dead moths, inn, waters. It was a sight to bring despair to any [Innkeeper]. Any normal one, at any rate. Erin just raised an eyebrow. Thoughts swirled and coalesced into crazy ideas in her head. She had a good one right now, in fact. She smiled as Olesm stared at her.
“No problem! Do you want the food to go or have them come here on their break?”
The Horns of Hammerad woke up on the floor of Octavia’s shop almost at the same time. That was because when Ceria opened her eyes she moved her leg and kicked Pisces in the side. He sat up, which pulled the blankets off of Ksmvr. The Antinium jerked and Yvlon, who’d been sleeping under a table, sensed the movement, and banged her head as she tried to get up.
Everyone in Octavia’s shop woke up, including Octavia herself. The Horns of Hammerad sat up groggily, their bodies aching, their heads still filled with fog. They stared around, remembered what had happened yesterday, and then woke up.
“Tree rot! How long have we been out?”
Ceria leapt to her feet, staring around wildly, and then turned and beamed at Pisces. He blinked at her.
“We made it! We’re alive!”
“That was certainly my inference as well.”
He winced as she jabbed him with an elbow. Yvlon got up, wincing as she rubbed at her back. She was still wearing her armor and covered in moth gore.
“Silver and steel, I’m aching all over! I haven’t slept in my armor since—Ksmvr, Ceria, Pisces, how are you?”
“We are alive. I believe this is the reason for Captain Ceria’s celebration. I am ecstatic to be alive as well.”
Ksmvr sat up as the other sleepers slowly got up. Lyonette stumbled upright as Mrsha sat up and yawned. Octavia pulled herself up from behind the counter.
“Whuzzat? Why’s everyone—oh.”
She glared at the adventurers as Ceria laughed with giddy relief. Mrsha ran over to them but recoiled as she smelled all four adventurers. They hadn’t bothered to wash last night and had literally fallen asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Everyone had, but in the morning the stench was unbearable.
“Ugh! Anyone got soap and a bucket of water?”
Yvlon shook her head as she examined her armor and hair. Ceria realized she was covered in guts and sniffed at her arm and gagged. Pisces brushed at his pristine robes. He was barely dirty, save for sweat and a bit of blood on one cheek. The monster guts and blood had fallen right off the enchanted clothing Ceria had bought for him. By contrast, Ksmvr looked like the survivor of some kind of massacre. He had yellow bloodstains all over his body and shallow cuts on his carapace.
Octavia eyed her guests with dismay. She opened her mouth and pointed to the door to Liscor.
“Hey everyone, thanks for sleeping in my shop. I’d be happy to sell you all a cleansing potion and some water. Why don’t you all go to Erin’s inn and then come back when you’re clean? We can talk payment then.”
“Payment? What for?”
The adventures turned to her in surprise. Octavia gave them a look.
“For sleeping in my shop. And oh, I don’t know, for using all of my potions yesterday?”
She glared and pointed. Ceria stared at the [Alchemist]’s shelves full of potions, or rather, what would have been shelves full of potions. There were barely more than two dozen potions remaining, and the rows of mana potions, healing potions, and so on were all missing. Ceria winced and heard Pisces whistle.
Octavia folded her arms.
“Oh indeed. My entire stock of potions is gone. And since I doubt Erin can pay for all of them, may I ask who’s going to pay? How much gold do you lot have on you right now?”
She had a dangerous look in her eyes. Ceria eyed the Stitch-Girl and looked around.
“I uh, think we have some gold with us. Not much.”
“How much exactly?”
Ceria hesitated. The [Alchemist] was twitching slightly. She hadn’t made much of a fuss yesterday, not with Celum’s City Watch returning through her shop. Or maybe the Horns of Hammerad hadn’t heard. But now, with the absence of her entire supply clearly visible in the light of day, Octavia looked like she was about to snap.
“We’ll uh, talk with Erin. Why don’t we step through and—”
“You lot used forty one healing potions, thirty five mana potions, every tripvine bag I have, all of my combat supplies, over six crates of stamina potions—”
Pisces yanked the door open as Octavia began to shout. He grabbed Ksmvr and pushed him through as Lyonette scooped Mrsha up.
“Through the door!”
The Horns of Hammerad rushed out of Octavia’s shop as the [Alchemist] shouted at their backs. Octavia’s voice followed them before Yvlon could slam the door shut.
“Tell Erin I want payment or I’ll—”
The door cut the last of her words off. The Horns of Hammerad stared at each other sheepishly, and then stared. Lyonette, who’d followed them with Mrsha in her arms froze. The Gnoll cub whimpered.
Erin’s inn lay in front of them, gutted by combat. The bodies of the moths lay where they had fallen. Shattered glass on the floors, splintered wood—the memory of what Erin’s inn had been jarred with the image in front of him. Ceria leaned against the door.
“Oh, tree rot.”
The half-Elf stared blankly at the desolation. She’d remembered seeing the inn destroyed, but that had been in the heat of battle. She hadn’t thought about what it would mean. But now—
Lyonette looked close to tears as she gazed around her home. Mrsha looked up at her with wide eyes, and at the moth corpses, the holes where windows should be. She gazed at Lyonette for reassurance, but the [Barmaid] had none to give. Pisces muttered an obscenity and Yvlon echoed it with something worse. Ksmvr just clicked his mandibles together softly.
“It’s all gone.”
Ceria stared around, wondering how on earth Erin could fix this. She looked towards the kitchen and wondered if Erin was asleep. What could she say? Would Liscor pay to fix all this? No—could it be fixed? And the bodies—
“Hey guys! Good morning! Is everyone okay?”
Erin walked into her inn, beaming. She was drenched with rain and smiled at her friends. They stared at her.
“Hey Ceria! Are you guys okay? Yvlon, how are your arms? Ksmvr, how are your three arms? Pisces, good job with the rain! Can you turn it off for a while? Lyonette, Mrsha, how are you two? How are you Mrsha, hungry?”
She went over to them, still smiling. The others looked at her, concerned. Ceria hesitated before putting a hand on Erin’s shoulder.
“Erin, are you okay? Your inn—”
“What, this? This isn’t a thing. Holes in the wall? What holes? Nothing a few boards and nails won’t fix! The important thing is you’re all okay. Hey, anyone want breakfast?”
Before she could be interrupted, Erin swept into the kitchen and came out with a plate full of strange wrapped objects drizzled with red sauce. The Horns of Hammerad stared at the steaming plate of hot food. Pisces and Mrsha’s stomachs rumbled as one.
“Enchiladas! Sort of. I made them as close to the real thing as I could, although the hot sauce tastes different. Here! I think I have one table that’s not destroyed or covered in dead moth.”
She ushered the bewildered adventurers, Lyonette, and Mrsha over to a table. In short order Erin came back out with cups, milk, and utensils. Though Ceria was very confused, she began eating and realized she was famished.
“How did you make all this?”
Erin gave Yvlon a blank look as the woman tried to talk and inhale her food at the same time.
“What, this? I have [Field of Preservation], remember? All my food in the pantries is good! Heck, the dead moths are probably still preserved too. Which is sort of a problem because it turns out there are things living in them.”
Every head turned to stare at the moths. Erin nodded.
“Olesm came by this morning! Swam here, actually. He told me there are larvae living in the moths! And small moths hiding too. We need to clear them out of the inn before they lay eggs. Pity—I was going to see if I could fry them.”
It felt like Ceria was half a step behind Erin’s train of thought. She saw rain falling through a hole in Erin’s wall as the [Innkeeper] beamed and refilled Mrsha’s mug.
“Fry them. Moths?”
“Yup! It was going to be this promotional thing, you know?”
Erin stepped back and raised her hands, pitching her voice like a food vendor.
“Breaded moth legs! Moth wings glazed with honey! Get your roasted moths here—first plate is free!”
She dropped her hands.
“But I don’t think people want to eat moth larvae, so that’s out. Anyways, I was hoping I could get you to help with some stuff after breakfast. Anyone want seconds?”
The Horns of Hammerad stared at her. Lyonette started to smile and Mrsha sat up, tail wagging happily. Yvlon blinked at Erin and then pointed.
“There are holes in your inn, Erin. Aren’t you concerned?”
“What, those? Nah. They can be fixed.”
Pisces leaned forwards, looking amused.
“And the dead moth bodies?”
“Cleanable! Lyonette, we’re going to need a mop. Or maybe to buy some mops since I think they all got smashed. Can you go into Celum and get some?”
Lyonette opened her mouth. Ceria had to cut in.
“How are you going to fix all this, Erin? How in the world…?”
She waved her hands to take in all the mess. Erin just smiled at her.
“I’ll do it one step at a time, Ceria. It’s a lot, but hey, I’ve handled worse. Remember when my inn exploded? I’ve rebuilt before. And this time I know how to do it right. Speaking of which—hey, you lot how’s it going?”
She turned and waved. The diners at her table jumped as Bird and the Redfang Goblins walked in. They were all wet and as Erin waved at them, they waved back. Well, Bird and two of the Goblins did. Headscratcher and Rabbiteater waved, the other three Hobgoblins just nodded or grunted or in Badarrow’s case, ignored Erin entirely. They moved towards the pile of moth corpses and as Ceria watched, began hauling them towards the doors.
“Everyone good? I’ve got more food if you want it! Just let me know if you need to take a break! Headscratcher, you good? Badarrow? Badarrow? Okay fine, you’re good.”
Erin waved at them. Bird paused and waved back with one of his four arms.
“Look Erin, a baby bird-moth.”
He picked up a tiny Face-Eater Moth that had scuttled out from behind one of the moth corpses he’d lifted. Bird snatched it up and inspected it. The tiny moth shrieked and tried to bite his hand. He lifted it up and crunched it between his mandibles.
Erin’s optimism wavered as Yvlon made a face and everyone else at the table save for Ksmvr and Ceria had to pause in eating. She pointed at Bird as he ate his snack.
“No eating moths where we can see, Bird. And no eating larvae either.”
“They are not birds. I will not eat them.”
The Antinium Worker nodded happily. He carried the moth out and Erin turned to the others.
“I’ve got the Redfang Goblins dumping the moths outside. We’ve already tossed all the other moths in the water.”
Ceria had to go look and see. She gasped when she saw the flooded landscape. Yvlon whistled softly and Ksmvr groaned. Pisces just shook his head.
“That would be problematic.”
“I heard this is what happens, but it’s another thing to see it in person.”
Yvlon shook her head, amazed at the rising water level. She stared at Liscor in the distance.
“It’ll be a tough trip to Liscor. We might have to swim part of the way—and I don’t want to try that in armor. Are there monsters in the water, do you think?”
“They emerge during the rainy season. Whether or not they will appear during the start of the season is unknown.”
Pisces spoke calmly, his eyes darting to the moth corpses being hurled into the water. The Redfang Goblins seemed cheerful enough, and they were still wearing their ‘Security’ armbands in the bad weather. They’d slept in the basement since their rooms were destroyed and seemed well-rested, as if yesterday’s fighting had been a normal day for them.
“I guess we can find a boat but—”
Ceria was turning to confer with the others when they noticed Ksmvr was shaking. The Antinium stood in the doorway of Erin’s inn, staring at the water and trembling violently. Yvlon looked worried.
“Ksmvr. What’s wrong?”
“The water. So much water. Water.”
The Antinium’s voice was a whisper. Pisces glanced at Ksmvr and his brows rose.
“Ah. The Antinium cannot swim.”
“Oh. Oh. Oh no.”
Ceria and Yvlon exchanged glances. Ksmvr was shaking as he looked at the water around him. Ceria knew that the Antinium Hive was based underneath Liscor. She wondered if Ksmvr had ever seen so much water before, or if he had stayed in the Hive all his life. She gently pulled him back.
“We can stay in Celum, Ksmvr. You don’t have to go to Liscor. It’s alright.”
The Antinium jerked and turned to Ceria. To her surprise, Ksmvr shook his head violently.
“I cannot abandon my team! I will take a b—boat. I am not weak or insufficient to the challenge! Please, allow me to—”
He fumbled for words. Yvlon laid a hand on his shoulder and he stopped himself.
“Ksmvr, it’s alright. If you can’t swim it’s natural to be afraid. The Antinium must fear the water after the last Antinium Wars…”
“They do. It is terrible. So much of it. We—”
Ksmvr babbled as the Hobgoblins passed by. He stopped as Bird lugged another moth out of the inn and trundled down the hill. The Worker happily tossed the moth into the water right by the edge, ignoring the rain pelting him. He was singing another nonsense song.
“Water, rain, water, rain! Throwing birds in the water in the rain! If I fall I will drown! Water, rain, water, rain!”
He walked back up the hill and past the Horns of Hammerad, singing happily. Ceria stared at him and then at Ksmvr.
“Okay, most Antinium fear water. But it’s okay.”
“I would never disgrace myself—”
“Hey! Look at all that water, huh? That’d make getting the Antinium over here really tough, right?”
Erin cheerfully popped up, making the Horns of Hammerad jump. She smiled at Ksmvr.
“Hey Ksmvr, don’t worry about the water. I’ve got a plan! It involves fixing my inn and all I need is Pisces’ help!”
The [Necromancer] looked startled, and then blinked.
“Ah. Wait a moment. I understand completely.”
“You do? Well of course you do.”
Erin rolled her eyes as Ceria and Yvlon gave her uncomprehending looks. She nodded to Pisces.
“Think you can…?”
He smiled slyly.
“It would be a few minute’s work, provided I can gain access to Liscor and locate a suitable location.”
“For my door, of course!”
Erin grinned at Yvlon’s suspicious look towards Pisces. She pointed towards her inn, at the magical door.
“I have one to Pallass and Celum—and I can connect it to more places too, you know! Pisces, I have a few of those mana stones Typhenous ordered. Can you give it a look?”
Pisces rose, smiling with his self-importance. Erin winked at Ceria.
“Magic doors solve everything. Think I’ll have trouble getting the Antinium to work on my inn? Well, if they don’t have enough wood I’ll get some from Celum. The only trick will be making sure someone isn’t waiting on the other side! I wonder if I can make the door switching from place to place automatic?”
The half-Elf shook her head.
“Erin, you amaze me. That’s a brilliant idea!”
“No it’s not. It’s the same idea I’ve always had. I’m just doing the smart thing with it. Anyways, that means you can go to Liscor easily, Ksmvr. No boat, no risk of drowning!”
The former Prognugator stopped shaking. He looked at Erin and then at the water.
“But I was willing to risk my life for the group.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to.”
“But I should. I should ride a boat to demonstrate my willingness to—”
Yvlon put a hand on Ksmvr’s shoulder and he stopped. The armored woman smiled at the Antinium.
“Yes, Comrade Yvlon?”
The Antinium went still. Erin smiled at the Horns of Hammerad and they grinned back. She leaned on her doorframe.
“So, anyone level up last night?”
Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr all raised their hands. Erin grinned.
“Wow! Who got what?”
They looked at each other. Ceria opened her mouth and then Octavia kicked the door open, slamming it into Pisces as he approached with a mana stone. She glared at Erin.
Erin turned to look at her. Octavia opened her mouth to shout and took in Erin’s destroyed inn. She stared at the Face-Eater Moths, the broken furniture and glass, and then at Erin. A flash of guilt crossed over the Stitch-Girl’s face.
“Okay, we’ll talk about it later.”
She guiltily went to close the door and saw Pisces glaring at her. He had a bloody nose. Octavia paused.
“I have a healing potion for that. Want one? It’s only…”
She hesitated. Pisces was giving her a death-glare as he pinched his nose to stop the bleeding. Octavia sighed.
“Let me get you a bottle.”
Erin stared at Octavia’s back.
“So she’s got a conscience. Who knew.”
She smiled. Ceria looked at Erin.
“Octavia was talking about how many potions we used. I’d like to repay her, but the cost…you don’t happen to know how to deal with that, do you Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] drummed her fingers on the doorframe. Ceria sighed. Erin laughed a bit.
“One thing at a time, Ceria. One thing at a time. Now, tell me. Can you fix the holes in my walls? I really want the rain to stop pouring in. A bit of ice magic would probably keep it out long enough for me to do a patch. Yvlon, do you mind helping the others haul dead moths? If you don’t mind the ick. And Lyonette’s going to mop—once Mrsha has breakfast. Now, once Pisces opens the portal to Liscor…”
It was evening by the time Senior Guardsman Klbkch found himself checking into Liscor’s City Watch barracks. He signed himself in, noting his irregular hour, and then mustered with the other [Guardsmen] on duty. Watch Captain Zevara was addressing a tired group of Gnolls and Drakes. She nodded to Klbkch as he entered the semi-circle. She looked tired, though she had slept for half the day.
A Drake looked over and grinned as he saw the Antinium. He nudged Klbkch.
The Antinium nodded to his partner. Relc grinned as he flexed an arm, looking no worse for wear.
“You missed a heck of a fight up here. Tons of moths came out of the dungeon. Crazy fighting on the walls and explosions and huge monsters!”
“I am aware. The Face-Eater Moths attacked the Hive before the siege of Liscor. We were engaged with the enemy while you fought above. So I was thus in fact participating in the fight, albeit in my respective area.”
“Oh yeah? Well…we got like ten of the huge bastards. What do you think of that?”
“I believe we slew fourteen.”
“What? No way!”
“We presented their heads in Liscor’s central square earlier today. Did you completely miss their presence?”
Both Antinium and Drake instantly stopped talking and the other Gnolls and Drakes stopped their chatter as well. Watch Captain Zevara looked around.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch, good to see you up and about. Do you have another report on your Hive?”
She and the other [Guardsmen] looked to Klbkch. He paused.
“No further news to report, Watch Captain. The moth attacks have ceased and the Hive continues to repair. Casualties in the Hive were…substantial. However, we held our ground thanks to my subordinate’s efforts. We might have lost three times as many were it not for our fortifications. As it is we stand fully ready to support Liscor in reconstruction if needed.”
“Thank you, Senior Guardsman. I doubt we’ll need the Antinium’s abilities for the most part. The walls held and the damage to the city itself was minimal. But the rains are falling and I want to be sure there are no leaks in the walls! The water’s rising fast and this monster attack came at the wrong moment. Added to that, we’ve received word from Olesm, our new [Strategist]—”
Zevara paused to let the murmurs of surprise die down.
“—that all these moth corpses might be hiding larvae or smaller moths. Wall Lord Ilvriss has recommended to the Council and me that we collect the bodies and burn them with mass mage spell. Or dump them off the walls. Either way, that means we have a fun new activity to keep us busy!”
The [Guardsmen] groaned and began to mutter complaints. Zevara raised her voice.
“Stow it! This is a city-wide issue. If we don’t control the corpses we’ll be swimming in those bastards soon enough. Tell them, Klbkch.”
She nodded to the Antinium. Once again all eyes swung to Klbkch. He nodded and clicked his mandibles together precisely before speaking.
“The assessment of [Strategist] Olesm and Wall Lord Ilvriss is correct. Insectile monsters survive eradication by allowing their young to infest new sites and lay thousands of offspring when they reach maturity. A city that fails to properly account for after-battle cleanup may find itself dealing with a permanent population of such insects in the future.”
The Drakes and Gnolls standing around him blanched. Watch Captain Zevara turned and gave the other guardsmen a weary nod.
“You heard him. Double shifts for all but wounded and we work around the clock until the bodies are gone. We can’t clean the ones up outside the wall though, Klbkch. Will that be a problem?”
“No. The water will eradicate the young, as will the local wildlife.”
“Good. Then here’s what we’ll do. We have [Laborers] and other volunteers working already, but I want [Guardsmen] assisting and patrolling for moths down every street. Be vigilant! Not all the moths might be dead and the last thing I need is for someone to get their tail bitten off. Here’s how we’ll patrol. Klbkch, Relc, you head down Ancestor’s Walk. Circle the city. Guardsmen Tkrn, Euriss, check Market Street. Guardsmen…”
The [Guardsmen] named began forming up in pairs or checking their gear. They were still grumbling, but that was the nature of all guardsmen, universally. Klbkch and Relc heard the others chattering as they walked towards the doors.
“Ancestors, I hate those things. First we kill the damn moths, now we have to carry them?”
“And in the rain of all things? Dead gods! Let’s just toss them off the walls, why bother cremating?”
“You fancy hauling a stinking carcass up all those stairs?”
“At least that way they’ll be eaten. Water’s rising. Soon we’ll have to lock the gates. Tonight, maybe.”
“The fish’ll be coming any day now. Once they swim up from whatever hole in the ground they live in. Or come down from the streams.”
“At least they’ll have plenty to eat. That means we pull in more of a harvest.”
“Yeah, but what they’re eating is bugs. You think of that? That means we’re eating bugs because we eat the fish.”
“They can’t be that bad. I heard that crazy Human girl shouting about selling cooked moths from the walls. Did you see her inn? Completely wrecked! There’s a sea of dead moths floating around the hill!”
“Cooked moths? You’d trust her cooking? She sells acid flies!”
“To be fair, they’re really good if you add honey.”
Klbkch and Relc exchanged a look.
“Interesting. Hey Klb, did you hear how Erin’s inn was?”
“I believe it survived the battle, though it was heavily damaged. She incurred no casualties.”
“Really? Wow. Hey, are you free from your stupid Hive duties tonight?”
“My ‘stupid Hive’ is well-attended in my absence, yes. Although I resent the implication.”
“Yeah, yeah. But do you think we could take a look?”
“I can’t swim. Or are you suggesting you carry me the entire way there?”
“Hah! You wish! I could totally do it, but nah. Guess what I saw on the way here?”
“You will tell me eventually.”
“Your childlike response only solidifies my certainty.”
“Okay, fine. Guess what I saw?”
“Again, I refuse to guess.”
“Oh, come on…”
The two [Guardsmen] walked out of the doors on patrol. Klbkch and Relc, the Senior Guardsman duo. They were a good pair, if odd. One was a precise, almost perfect example of a [Guardsman] who happened to be Antinium. The other was a war hero who slacked on his job and was tolerated for his ability and little else.
They lifted moth corpses, argued, and worked tirelessly for six hours until they stopped at a door set into a wall. It was plain, inconspicuous, and was definitely not supposed to be there, given that the wall in question was Liscor’s western wall. Klbkch opened the door and stepped through.
“Hello? Miss Erin—”
He raised his voice as he entered a dark inn. Boarded up windows leaked rain into the inn, and the fireplace and [Light] spells illuminated the rest of the inn. Klbkch and Relc blinked as they saw something scuttle across the floor and heard an angry voice.
“Argh! It’s another one! Mrsha, get me a boot! Not that boot, get me my bad boot!”
Erin and Mrsha chased the tiny moth across the floor. Erin raised the boot as the Gnoll handed it to her and threw it. The boot spun through the air and crushed the moth. Erin cheered and looked around. Her eyes widened as she spotted the two [Guardsmen].
“Hey! I thought this place was totally wrecked!”
Relc walked into the inn, laughing and looking around. Klbkch entered after him and his mandibles opened wide with surprise.
“Ah. This is unexpected.”
Pawn looked up as he, Olesm and the Horns of Hammerad ate at the one good table in the inn. They were the only ones sitting on chairs. But the floor, newly cleaned and washed was covered with bodies. Painted Soldiers sat and ate from bowls filled with stew, and sipped from special tankards designed to be held by their awkward grips. They looked up as Klbkch stared around.
“Hey, did you hear about the special dinner for the Soldiers? Come on in! I don’t have any more tables, but I’ve got plenty of food still!”
Erin ushered Relc and Klbkch into the room, beaming. She took the boot from Mrsha and made a face at the oozing carcass.
“Ew. Mrsha, can you wash this outside? Thanks!”
“Whoa. What’s with the huge room?”
Relc gaped at the giant common room, stunned by what he was seeing. Klbkch stared at the empty stage and wide room. He tilted his head thoughtfully.
“I detect the presence of a Skill.”
“Gee, you think? But what the heck is it?”
“Like it? It’s my [Grand Theatre]! It was filled with dead moths and stuff, but we’ve been working all day and we’ve washed it clean! I also have the second and third floor cleared up! Well, mostly. I think Bird’s tossing moths off the roof right now.”
On cue, Relc and Klbkch heard a muffled thump outside and Bird’s voice.
“One moth goes splat, two moths go splat-splat. Three moths go splat-splat-splat.”
And then another voice which neither [Guardsman] recognized.
“Splat, splat, splat.”
“Ooh, Numbtongue’s singing! I bet he thinks we can’t hear him.”
Erin grinned up at the ceiling. Relc shook his head in amazement.
“What’s with the big room, Erin? I heard you had Goblins—which is totally fine by me!”
He raised his claws hurriedly as Erin turned back to them.
“Totally fine. I’m just here to eat. I’m not gonna cause trouble, okay? Klbkch and I stopped for a drink since we heard your inn got trashed. Looks better than I thought, actually. Right Klb?”
“Indeed. My partner’s wild speculations are quite groundless. Erin, I am pleased that you are well.”
“Hey, I’m glad you’re well too, Klbkch. How were things in the Hive? Are Belgrade, Anand, and Garry…?”
“I’m good too, Erin! I killed tons of moths! Hell, I held the wall pretty much on my own.”
Relc waved a claw excitedly. Erin laughed at him.
“I bet you did. Come on, take a seat and I’ll get you some food. Or rather—Ishkr? Can you get drinks and stew for Relc and Klbkch?”
A Gnoll came out of the kitchen. Relc chortled with glee as he saw the dark beverage in his glass mug.
“Alcohol? That’s good stuff there! When did this happen?”
“A lot’s been going on! Come on, sit. There’s a nice place by the fire.”
Erin sat with the two [Guardsmen]. She smiled broadly at them and Relc grinned back as Klbkch raised his mandibles. For a few seconds they recalled another moment, a long while ago, where they had been in a similar situation. Then the inn had been run-down and old. Now it was filled with Antinium Soldiers and they ate on the floor. But as Erin added a log to the fire and Klbkch and Relc argued over who got the bigger bowl of stew, it felt like not much has changed.
The Antinium looked at her as Erin twiddled her thumbs together. Relc was inhaling his stew and washing every bite down with a gulp of ale, happy as could be. Erin looked somewhat nervously at Klbkch as she spoke.
“My inn’s wrecked. Klbkch, can I pay you to fix it? Bird says the Hive is probably a mess right now, so I can make do for now. But if you could spare a few Workers…”
She trailed off hopefully. Klbkch pondered her request as he ate stew and then nodded.
“The Hive is indeed recovering, but there is a finite number of Workers and Soldiers needed to remove the corpses. The tunnels can barely accommodate a single giant moth as it is. Your request will not impose a strain on the Hive’s resources. I will send a small team up shortly.”
“Oh, really? Wow, I’m so grateful!”
“I appreciate your gratitude. However we will have to charge a fee, and lumber will be an issue.”
“Don’t worry about that! I can get some from Celum and I have coin! Olesm gave me money for tonight and I’ve got acting money coming in! Well, I’ll have more once I get the inn fixed up again.”
Relc and Klbkch exchanged a glance. Before they could inquire further, a sorry-looking Stitch-Girl sitting in a corner of the inn far from the fire raised her mug,
“That money had better come to me, Erin!”
Octavia’s eyes were bloodshot and she looked despondent as she drank. Erin coughed. Relc gave Octavia a weird look.
“What’s her problem?”
“Octavia’s sort of upset. We uh, used her potions up during the battle. And I can’t pay her back just yet. I haven’t seen the Silver Swords or Halfseekers yet, and I don’t know if they want to pay her back.”
“Sure, just leave me without any coin for all my hard work!”
Erin winced as Octavia came over to complain. She glared at Erin, Klbkch, and Relc although she kept well back from the fireplace.
“My stock of potions is gone, and I’m ruined without some kind of reimbursement! Why, the cost of the ingredients alone is—”
“Miss Octavia, may I assume that all the potions lost were used in the defense of Liscor?”
Klbkch calmly interrupted the [Alchemist]. She paused.
“That’s right. And without me charging a single coin, by the way! I did my civic duty—to another city no less! And do I get a word of thanks. Nooo—”
The Antinium nodded.
“We will reimburse you the costs of your lost wares, Miss Octavia.”
The Stitch-Girl broke off. Klbkch tapped his fingers against the side of the bowl, speaking clearly.
“Give me a full receipt of your lost items tomorrow morning. I will have you sign under truth spell and we will offer you a fair sum close to market value for your lost potions. Liscorian law states that services or items used in the defense of the city must be repaid at appropriate price to their respective owners. You may be able to claim some money yourself, Miss Solstice.”
Erin brightened up. Klbkch nodded.
“Your inn was used as a staging ground for multiple adventuring parties and both Celum and Pallass’s City Watch. You may also be able to charge all three cities for use of your magical doorway in transportation, although the cities may claim fair use of a magical artifact in times of war. I will review the relevant information and inform you of whatever reimbursements I deem fitting.”
“All right! You heard that, Octavia? You get money and I get money! Thanks, Klbkch!”
The [Innkeeper] smiled. Octavia looked stunned. Klbkch nodded towards her.
“Will that be satisfactory, Miss Octavia?”
“What? Um. Yes. Thank you. Thank you! Pleasure doing business with Liscor! And might I add that I hope my potions were of great service to the city? I would be more than happy to provide as many potions as necessary—”
Erin rolled her eyes and pushed Octavia back towards her seat. Relc watched her arguing with the Stitch-Girl and sighed.
“Part of Liscorian law. A staple of most Drake cities, in fact. You would be aware of this if you ever took the time to review the laws you enforce.”
“That’s what I’ve got you for, Klbkch old buddy. You do all the boring stuff.”
“That is sadly accurate.”
Relc laughed. The big Drake sat with Klbkch on the floor, drinking lightly. He looked older than Klbkch remembered. But then, they’d been partners for nearly seven years now. Relc looked into the fire.
“Hell of a week, huh, Klb?”
“Glad you made it out of there. When that scrawny Worker guy, Pawn, or whatever, came out of the Hive, I got worried, y’know?”
Klbkch paused with a spoon of stew raised.
“I…was not aware of that.”
“Hey, it’s not like I thought you were dead or anything. But you did die once.”
“That is true.”
The two sat in silence for a second as Erin circulated the room, offering more stew to the Soldiers who raised their bowls silently.
“Seems like this dungeon’s causing lots of trouble, huh?”
“To put it mildly.”
“And there’s an entrance that leads right up to your Hive, huh?”
“A recently discovered breach in our security, yes.”
Relc eyed Klbkch.
“Right, right. Just like how the dungeon suddenly appeared one day. The Antinium had no idea whatsoever. You guys just happened to know exactly where the entrance was.”
The Antinium was unmoved by Relc’s stare. He casually lifted his mug and drank.
“Your skepticism is wounding and hurtful.”
“Tell that to Captain Z.”
“She is aware of much of the Hive’s doings.”
“Yeah, and I bet you tell your Queen everything we’re doing too.”
“That is a fair assessment, but flawed in one respect.”
“I don’t bother her with your trivial antics.”
The Drake glanced at his partner. Klbkch’s face didn’t change one iota as he drank. Relc grinned.
“Glad you made it safe. Glad Erin’s good. Even if she does have a weird inn.”
“Magic doors, huh?”
“They appear to be quite useful.”
“Well here’s to that. And surviving another day. Moths are one thing, but Captain Z’s going to work us both to death. Glad you’re with me old buddy. And it’s a good thing the Soldiers are pulling the morning shift too, because I’m not rolling out of bed for dawn patrol!”
“You never do. I agree to your optimism however.”
Relc grinned and lifted his drink. Klbkch raised his hand and the Drake and Antinium gently chinked mugs. They drank, and then Erin came back.
“Sorry! The inn’s a mess, but all the bodies are out and all I need is a few Workers to fix it all up! Plus, I’ve still got my customers! We’re actually doing really well if you ignore all the moths and water outside.”
“Really? You’ve got customers coming in later tonight?”
Somewhat skeptical, Relc eyed Erin. She grinned at him.
“Hey, I know the inn’s a mess, but the Players of Celum said they’re still willing to put on a show and there’s plenty of people willing to stand if it means seeing them! Once the Soldiers finish their meal, I’ll call them through and start making popcorn. You want to see a play?”
The two [Guardsmen] exchanged a glance. Relc frowned. Klbkch clicked his mandibles together.
“What is a ‘play’?”
“You mean you haven’t seen one yet?”
The two shook their heads. Erin’s smile grew wider. Relc and Klbkch looked at each other again.
Some things stayed the same. Other things changed. But there was always something new here.
The Wandering Inn glowed with light. Not far distant, Liscor was illuminated by light as well. The walls stood as the rain continued to fall. Neither monster attacks nor the rising waters could bring Liscor’s walls down. They were a symbol of comfort, of reassurance to all who knew them. They meant safety, security.
A group paused at the entrance to the Floodplains on a distant hilltop. The dark waters were still being churned by the rainfall. Those gathered on the hilltop took no notice. A Drake spoke curtly.
“We’ve come too late. The water’s risen. Have the company prepare for aquatic travel and pitch camp tonight. We’ll make for the city at dawn tomorrow. I want us in the city before the underwater monsters arrive.”
“Yes, Commander Grasstongue!”
The Drake nodded her head. She turned to another [Soldier] with markings on his armor that identified him as a magic-capable officer.
“Send word to Liscor’s High Command via [Message] spell. Liscor’s 4th Company has returned home and is prepared to reinforce the city. We will reconnoiter the area and stand ready to secure Liscor against any threats. Monster, Goblin, or Antinium.”
The [Soldier] saluted. The company of Drakes began to make camp, posting a vigilant watch, keeping their weapons dry, ready for battle at any time. They were part of Liscor’s army, a hardened elite known throughout Izril. They were Liscor’s sons and daughters, come to defend their home in Liscor’s hour of need against the threat of the Goblin Lord and the dungeon.
They had marched day and night and had forgone rest in any of the Drake cities they had passed to reach their destination sooner. They were a force to be reckoned with, despite their few numbers.
And they were late. Just by a day or two. But they didn’t know that. Liscor’s army camped as the rain fell onwards, the waters rising. And as they did, the fish came out. The animals and monsters who made the annual trip to Liscor began to swim up from dark recesses or crossed through mountain streams and rivers to reach this temporary haven of life. It was spring. And the exciting times were just getting started.