She sat below. He stood above. The distance between the two was immaterial. They were linked and the rock and stone and water that lay between them were no barrier. If they had stood ten miles apart they might have struggled with this trick. But practice made the task easy as breathing here. When she spoke he spoke. When he listened, she heard.
“I dislike interruptions. I am busy. Nor do I care for questions.”
Klbkch bowed smoothly to the two Drakes.
“My Queen greets you with perceived warmth and welcomes your inquiries, Watch Captain.”
Zevara cleared her throat. She looked nervous, although she had spoken with Klbkch often in her private office in the Watch’s barracks. Only, it wasn’t Senior Guardsman Klbkch she was speaking to. Klbkch stood behind her divested of his armor, with only the twin silver swords hanging at his waist. In this moment he was the Revalantor of the Free Antinium of Liscor and she addressed him as such.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Do I have that right? Let me first congratulate you on your promotion.”
Watch Captain Zevara waited, but Klbkch did not elaborate on what his new rank meant. She coughed and went on.
“Ah, I realize this is somewhat irregular, but some concerns have been raised about the proximity of the Antinium Hive to the dungeon.”
The Drake shuffled some papers on her desk. Klbkch nodded.
“My Queen is aware of these concerns. She has tasked me with relaying her words. Ask your questions, Watch Captain.”
“Right. Well, to begin with, how long have the Antinium known about this dungeon?”
Beneath the earth, the Queen shifted in her chambers. She spoke in the dim light, her mandibles slowly clicking together as she looked upwards.
“How could we not?”
Klbkch inclined his head a fraction.
“The discovery of the dungeon was quite a surprise to our Hive. I believe we first became aware of it a few months ago.”
Zevara glanced at something hidden in her right claw. Red light shone brightly at her and she grimaced.
“I see. And the entrances to the dungeon?”
“It seems monsters are able to tunnel through the earth. The fortifications discovered by the Horns of Hammerad and the Silver Swords are a natural precaution.”
“Very sensible of you. This wouldn’t also be a, ah, staging ground for the Antinium to enter the dungeon themselves?”
Below, the Queen sighed. She moved her huge body a few feet, ponderously, a giant confined in a cavern too small.
“Tiresome. Why ask what is known?”
“Of course we would leave the exploration of the dungeon to adventurers in all circumstances. However, the proximity of so many threats to the Hive—and to Liscor—necessitates a combative approach that may result in incursions of a preventative nature.”
Zevara scratched at the spines on her head and sighed.
“You are aware that under Liscorian law that all items retrieved from the dungeon are technically Liscor’s property? Naturally the dungeon falls under existing agreements with the Adventurer’s Guild’s right to trespass, but that would not apply to third parties.”
“What the Antinium take will never be returned.”
“My Queen is fully aware of the existing legal structure of Liscor and abides by every law placed to the best of her ability. However, it would be remiss for me not to point out that under the agreement signed by Liscor’s Council and the Free Antinium, our Hive is not subject to the legal restrictions of Liscor, nor would the dungeon be considered Liscorian property as the claim to Liscor only applies to the lands around the city, not, in fact, what lies underground.”
Both the Queen and Zevara paused. The Queen raised one massive feeler.
“Is that so, Klbkch?”
Far above, he shrugged. Zevara cursed softly and rifled through her papers.
“Damn. Really? I uh—sorry, Klbkch. Let me just write that down.”
She scribbled urgently on a piece of parchment as Klbkch waited patiently. After a few seconds, Zevara looked up and sat up formally once more.
“I see. Well, as Watch Captain of Liscor I am concerned about the possibility of Antinium and adventurers meeting by accident. I understand the Hive is…dangerous to intruders.”
“Tell her that creeping spies and saboteurs will die as they always have, Klbkchhezeim.”
“The entryways to the dungeon will be marked, Watch Captain. Quite clearly. We cannot take responsibility for anyone who ignores the warnings.”
“Nor can Liscor prevent any accidents that might occur while adventures explore the dungeon.”
“I fully understand.”
Zevara met Klbkch’s eyes and sighed.
“Please tell your Queen that I hope for our continued success working together. I am sure that whatever reservations the Council may have about the dungeon will be assuaged by our meeting. I would like to speak with you further about the possible dangers of monsters attacking Liscor and the Hive…but I think we can do that in your capacity as Senior Guardsman. Send my sincerest regards to your Queen.”
“I shall do so.”
The Queen of the Free Antinium turned her head.
“Tell your Watch Captain that I do not care for her.”
“She thanks you for your interest and wishes you continued success as Watch Captain. My Queen was especially pleased to note your commendation after the siege of Face-Eater Moths. It is well deserved.”
Zevara blinked. Her tail, hidden behind her desk, swished and gently knocked against the table before she caught herself.
“Oh? Oh. Thank you. I ah, thank her and wish her the same. That’s all, Klbkch.”
The Antinium nodded. He left Zevara’s office, marching downstairs and out of the barracks. A few Gnolls and Drakes waved at him. Klbkch waved back as he stepped out into the pouring rain. He strode down the street. After a moment the Queen spoke.
“What commendation was that, Klbkchhezeim?”
Klbkch spoke softly, although no one was around to hear him as he walked down the street. Water glanced off his carapace as he headed for the Hive.
“She received a medal for heroism and competence in the defense of Liscor, my Queen.”
“Medals. They are…”
“Bits of shaped metal that are hung on a body to emphasize superiority for deeds achieved.”
“Ah. Are they valuable?”
“I see. Do you have more of your duties above, Klbkchhezeim?”
“No, my Queen. I will return below shortly. However, I have been apprised of an outstanding package waiting for me at the Runner’s Guild and will meet the Courier there before returning.”
The Queen of the Free Antinium felt Klbkch stride down the street and turn before she broke the connection between the two.
Klbkch was gone. He vanished from the Queen’s mind and she no longer sensed the rain falling, saw and heard and smelled what he did. Suddenly, she only had one body and it sat, bloated and immobile in her chambers. It felt limiting. But the Queen had lived so for over a decade and she was used to the feeling.
She settled back in her dark cavern, feeling isolation steal over her. But only for a moment. Because the Queen of the Free Antinium was never alone. If she reached out she could feel thousands of Antinium moving in the space around her, each connected to her by a thread thinner than a spider’s strand. She was at the center of the Hive. She gave them purpose.
The Queen thought, and more Antinium obediently moved towards a passage that had sprung a leak, allowing water to pour in from above. She sensed them battling the waters, retreating, one falling behind. Drowning. The connection disappeared as the Antinium drowned. But there were always more.
While the Queen existed, the Hive moved. They demanded her thoughts. Even if it wasn’t conscious, the Queen was still responsible for the way the Antinium moved in perfect synchronization. It was…taxing.
On busy days when the Hive was at war or in crisis, the Queen devoted all of her mind to allowing the Hive to run at peak capacity. Even on ‘slow’ days, a portion of her intellect was consumed by the task of managing so many. Klbkch did his job but he was only one. The Queen had to send hundreds of orders each second. It was a task that would have killed Watch Captain Zevara and her desk full of papers in a single day. Sometimes all the Queen could do was sit and keep everything running.
But of late, the Queen had found herself with more thoughts, more freedom to do as she wished. The new Individuals were responsible for this. Not all of them. Two, rather. The Queen recalled their names vaguely.
“Belgrade. Anand. [Tacticians].”
They were efficient. Together, they had effectively taken away the burden of managing the Hive’s defenses and had begun to regulate a greater portion of the Hive without the Queen needing to take command. They had freed up her mental space and so she deemed them worthy…if still flawed. Of the five Individuals that had first been created, they were the most useful.
The Queen was aware that more Individuals had been identified of course, but she had not inspected them yet. Klbkch told her they were all inferior copies of the original five to begin with. She had no desire to observe them in their failings.
Five Individuals. Around two hundred lesser Individuals capable of receiving names, but lacking the same degree of autonomy. Or so Klbkch claimed. Of that number an inordinate amount were Soldiers—Painted Soldiers as they had been dubbed. That was not part of the original plan, but they were an asset to the Hive.
After ten years, the Free Antinium had succeeded with part of their goals. But their grand success was still incomplete. The Individuals were still flawed. That dissatisfied the Queen when she thought of it. And yet—she felt an urge move through her body and looked up.
Her words provoked instant movement. The Queen’s head barely turned as a small Worker scurried out of the newly-built side tunnel in her chambers. Garry, one of the original five Individual Workers, practically fell over himself as he pushed out a small cart laden with food.
Cooked food. The Queen felt her appetite rising the instant she detected the scent rising from the hot dishes. She saw glazed pieces of meat, succulent dishes of sweet fruit and delicately roasted vegetables, fillet fish freshly bought and then steamed, baked, or fried, and of course, insects.
“What is that?”
The Queen reached with one huge feeler and picked up a fried ball of something chitinous before the cart had reached her side. Garry squeaked and fled as the Queen greedily grabbed more pieces of food with her other feelers. He retreated rapidly and spoke loudly.
“I have prepared a Shield Spider abdomen by cleaning the insides and then stuffing it with a mixture of lentils and fried eggs, my Queen. I then deep fried the entire dish in oil—”
The Queen gestured and Garry fell silent. She crunched the abdomen, savoring the complex flavors. The hot oil, the way the insides squished as she ate—it was heavenly. Taste! After a decade of eating the paste that the Antinium made, such flavors were as addictive as a drug for the Queen. She consumed the abdomen quickly and then lifted a roast of pork up. She knew she liked that.
“Good. Make more. What is that?”
“That is a Lurkersnatch Fish, my Queen. I attempted to prepare it by—”
Again, Garry broke off as the Queen waved a feeler. She chewed and swallowed.
“I don’t like it as much. Make something else.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
Garry waited until the Queen had finished the cart of food. It took her less than five minutes. The Queen opened and closed her mandibles and then turned away.
The small Worker grabbed the cart and turned it, trundling backwards into the kitchen he’d been assigned to. This was his job—feeding the Queen delicious food every day. It was something the Free Queen enjoyed. In that way, Garry was useful.
The Queen stared at Garry as he hurried away. Her feelers twitched with annoyance. He was Individual. But a failure. He was not true Antinium. Nor was Anand or Belgrade or Pawn or…the last one. They had all failed her test. In that sense, they were incomplete. They were not people. They were only useful tools for Klbkch and her to make use of.
The Queen sighed as she sat back in her chambers. So close. Yet their final goal was still so far. She and Klbkch had labored for a decade to bring about true individuality in the Antinium. They had made that the goal of their Hive, while the other five advanced the Antinium’s goals in their way. The Free Queen had gone against her peers, been exiled to this far-off spot with little resources because of her goals.
And she was lonely. Only Klbkch had been here to keep her company these long years and he was so busy. She had no one to converse with. There were only two real Antinium in the Hive. All else were dross. Expendable shells. She stared at Garry as he left, shoulders hunched, scurrying along.
She shook her head and pulled herself across her chambers. The Antinium Soldiers standing guard stirred, but they did not follow her. The Queen exited her chambers, moving into a private area that no other Antinium save Klbkch could enter. She opened a pair of doors, airtight, and sensed a miasma of foul and strange odors assail her before she crawled through and closed the doors. It was time to work while she still had enough mental space for it.
Hawk the Courier was wet. His large, furry ears drooped as he pushed his way into the Runner’s Guild, muttering about wet fur. He didn’t often enter Liscor’s Guild compared to the Street and City Runners—his job took him across Izril and it was more convenient to visit a larger Runner’s Guild. But there was always paperwork to fill out, and as a resident of Liscor, Hawk had to provide his city with occasional updates.
The Runner’s Guild in Liscor was as usual, mostly filled with Street Runners. There wasn’t much call for City Runners in Liscor, given that Drakes rarely traded with Human cities and other Drake cities were too far away. Thus, most of the Runners in the Guild were part-timers. Young Gnolls and Drakes who wouldn’t ever become City Runners, much less Couriers. They stared at Hawk and pointed covertly as he strode past them. Hawk paid them no notice.
However, he did stop and stare when he saw the Drake with dark orange scales and bright white stripes of color across his face. Hawk broke into a grin.
The Courier sitting at the table was looking anxious and restless, but he turned with a relieved look the instant he heard Hawk’s voice. He stood up and grabbed Hawk’s arm.
“Hawk! I hoped I’d see you here!”
“What’s Oteslia’s finest Courier doing this far north? How’s the work going? Did you have a quiet run north?”
“Oh, you know. Dodging Wyverns all the way. I had to take a massive detour rather than go near the Blood Fields.”
Baiss shuddered as he sat. He had white slashes of color across his face and tail that stood out from his darker scales. Some of the Street Runners recognized him and pointed excitedly to their comrades. Baiss was a Courier like Hawk and his abilities were a known quantity to anyone who lived and breathed the world of Runners. He wasn’t as distinctive as Hawk, the only Beastkin Runner on the continent, but a Courier was famous, if only in their home city.
“Had any problems with getting across Liscor? It’s not easy to move, is it?”
The Drake grimaced.
“I don’t know how you can do it, Hawk. [Flash Step]’s no good on water and I thought someone would grab me as I was swimming. I had a bottle of Boneset Marrow in one claw the entire time I was in the water.”
Hawk rolled his eyes as he took a seat.
“Don’t use that! Boneset won’t harden nearly quick enough! Just toss something loud in the water. The explosion scares most things away. Besides, I don’t swim. I jump from hill to hill.”
“Horse crap. You’re pulling my tail. There’s no way you can jump that far!”
“Wanna bet? Some hills are just under the water. I can land on them. You just have to know where you are.”
“Huh. Well, I’m not memorizing the landscape. I’m only here to do this delivery and get out. Can’t say I’ll enjoy swimming back, but I can’t wait to be done.”
Baiss grimaced and reached for a mug. Hawk raised his eyes as he noticed how many drinks Baiss had gone through. The Runner’s Guild supplied liquor on demand, but they were hardly a bar.
“I want to be gone yesterday. Damn rain. Damn water and fish trying to take chunks out of my ass. I don’t know how you stand it.”
The Rabbit Beastkin watched Baiss drink deeply. The Drake did look quite stressed, which was unusual. Hawk thought a moment and then nodded with his head.
“You know, there’s this door from Pallass to Liscor. Magical. You can step right through and be in Pallass in a second.”
“You serious? If I’d known that—”
Before Baiss could throw his drink, Hawk cut him off.
“The [Innkeeper]’s got a deal with the Runner’s Guild, though. No deliveries or anything that cuts into our work. You could walk through it, though. As a traveler.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense. Good thing for us, huh?”
“I don’t see the point. It’s not like Liscor to Pallass is a good route for Couriers, anyways. Too short.”
“Right. And it’d help keep us out of the water. I’ll ask when I get done with this.”
Baiss shifted again. He looked quite worried. Hawk eyed him and hesitated. Couriers, like Runners, had a strict code that prohibited them from leaking secrets of what they delivered and to whom. It mattered a lot more for Couriers given how much they traded on their reputation, but Baiss looked like he was about to burst. So Hawk carefully chose his next words.
“Can you tell me about your delivery?”
The Drake jumped and looked around. He frowned and Hawk expected him to say no. But to his surprise, the Drake grunted.
“Can’t hurt. It’s not like everyone doesn’t know about it already.”
Now both of Hawk’s eyebrows rose. A Courier usually kept every detail of their delivery private. Even for innocuous deliveries. But Baiss was nodding.
“You have no idea how many Drakes know about this. Not my fault either. I had to get this cleared by so many channels that—well, I should never have taken the job. But the pay was really good and they wanted someone to do it. So—here.”
He put something on the table. A bag of holding. This one was delicate, hand-made and clearly superior to most mass-produced bags of holding. Hawk had seen it before so he picked up the black pouch stitched with red and gold and peeked inside. The instant he opened the drawstrings he recoiled and closed the bag up tight. It took all of Hawk’s effort not to shout.
The Drake drained another mug and waved at the [Receptionist]. The Gnoll on duty gulped and hurried over with another drink as fast as he could. Hawk waited until he was back behind the desk before hissing at Baiss. Couriers used anti-listening charms and other tools to detect observation as a matter of trade, so there was no chance of being overheard by the Gnoll’s keen ears.
“And you’ve been carrying that all the way from Oteslia?”
“Not that far. I was on a trip northwest. Scale me alive, do you think I’d get something like this anywhere else?”
“No. But—are you sure this is alright?”
Hawk looked at Baiss with genuine concern. The Drake nodded slowly.
“It’s been cleared. Through the highest channels. I’ll bet my tail and yours that every official in all six Walled Cities know about it.”
“And they agreed to let you deliver it?”
“It’s a request. It pays well. I just want to be rid of it now. I’m waiting on one of them to pick it up. But—”
The door opened. Baiss looked over Hawk’s shoulder and choked on his drink. The Rabbit man thumped him on the back and turned. He saw Klbkch looking around. The Gnoll on duty hurried towards him and pointed to the table.
Baiss shook in his seat. Hawk stared at him before he realized that Baiss had probably never seen an Antinium before.
“Calm down, Baiss. That’s Klbkch. He’s known around the city. He’s a Senior Guardsman. As Antinium go, he’s the only one I trust.”
“Him? I heard the Antinium actually walked about Liscor, but—oh, dead gods.”
Hawk turned and waved at Klbkch as the Antinium approached. Baiss was stiff in his seat, but he remembered to stand.
“Uh—are you—are you—?”
Klbkch nodded coolly at Baiss. He glanced at Hawk.
“I am Klbkchhezeim, Revalantor of the Free Antinium of Liscor. I believe you have a delivery for me?”
“I do. I do! It’s right here—I’ll need a seal, proof of your identification. Uh—”
“I should go.”
Hawk got up to leave, aware that he shouldn’t be listening. But Baiss shot him a desperate look and Klbkch also shook his head.
“That is not necessary. I am sure your presence would expedite matters, Courier Hawk.”
That was true. Hawk sat back down and helped Baiss go through the somewhat lengthy process of making sure Klbkch was who he said he was and receiving confirmation of delivery. The Drake was so nervous and stumbled so many times that he seemed like a Street Runner doing his first delivery.
At last, Klbkch had the bag of holding in his hands. It was Baiss’, but the Runner had assured Klbkch that he could return it to the Runner’s Guild later that day. Hawk thought privately that Baiss would have given his precious bag of holding away if it meant the Antinium would leave sooner. Klbkch marched back out of the Runner’s Guild and both Couriers sat. Baiss was breathing as if he’d run a hundred miles.
“Ancestors. I don’t know how you live with them in your city, Hawk.”
“You get used to it. Did you notice how Klbkch told me I could stay? He knew the delivery was public knowledge.”
A bit of color flooded back into Baiss’ scales.
“That’s true. Damn. I’d better note that in my report. You know, I’m going to have to file twice as much paperwork for all of this? Not to mention I need to do an interview with a [Mage]—it’ll be such a pain to do! I wonder if I can do it in Pallass? Better get it out of the way, you know?”
Filled with relief, Baiss started babbling. Hawk listened, nodding at the appropriate times, but his mind was still filled with what he’d seen in the bag of holding. He thought of Klbkch. He’d seldom spoken with the Antinium, but he’d gotten to know him over the decade that Klbkch had been working in the city. It was true what he’d said. Klbkch was well-liked. Better than other [Guardsmen], actually. He was polite, efficient, and had won over Liscor by hard work.
But still. Hawk shuddered. Sometimes he forgot what Klbkch really was. He reached for Baiss’ drink and drained it entirely. He’d delivered terrible and wondrous things in his line of work as a Courier. But there were still things that made him very, very nervous.
Klbkch walked with the small bag of holding in his hands. His movements were quick. Graceful. His new body was unlike that of the hunched Workers or solid Soldiers he passed as he entered the Hive and strode down the tunnels. Klbkch stood tall with only two arms and a far slimmer body than any of the other Antinium. It felt good. Not that he could recall what his old body had been like very well. But he remembered the awkwardness.
This body was smoother. It had been designed for him. The designer had broken the rules set upon her to make it, but she had done so for him. Now Klbkch strode into her private chambers and looked for her. She wasn’t there. He turned his head and stared at the two stone doors that had been custom-built. He strode towards them and hauled one open. A strange, alchemical scent assailed him and he walked inside, closing the door swiftly before anything could enter. Or escape.
“My Queen. I have received the delivery. It is of great importance. I think you will want to view it at once.”
The inside of this sealed chamber resembled a place of horrors, even to Klbkch. He stared past the sacks of fluid, the heaps of strange minerals and powdered or crushed objects, the vats of fluids, and saw a gigantic, black form turn as it slowly mixed something at the far end of the chambers. The Queen of the Free Antinium turned, her face nearly invisible in the darkness. No lanterns hung here and the only glow came from glowing lichen on the walls.
“How goes it, my Queen?”
The Queen moved, pulling her bloated body towards Klbkch. Halfway there she paused and stared at one of the sacks clinging to the wall. The membrane was slightly translucent and something was suspended within. But what hung there even Klbkch dared not stare at. In the fluid, something cried out without tongue or voice. The Queen of the Free Antinium looked away.
“I see. Shall we enter the main chamber?”
That was all Klbkch said. The Queen nodded and they left the room quickly. She knew he did not like to be there. It brought up too many memories. Nor was entering that place particularly encouraging for either of them. It reminded them of failure. Of what had been lost.
“What have you brought me, Klbkchhezeim? A delivery? Did you buy something for the Hive?”
“No. This was sent from the Hives. The other Hives.”
The Free Queen froze. She stared at the bag of holding that Klbkch held.
“I see. It comes from the Grand Queen?”
“Without a doubt. Would you like to inspect it first?”
“No. Place it before me.”
The Free Queen waited as Klbkch reached into the bag of holding. He had to kneel so whatever would come out would spill onto the ground. That alone told the Queen that whatever was inside was ungainly or heavy. She waited as Klbkch slowly pulled.
The Courier, Baiss, had been terrified and uneasy about what he’d carried. He knew what was inside, of course. Generally Couriers respected the desire for anonymity, but the Runner’s Guild demanded to know the contents of anything sent or received by the Antinium. So did the Drakes. The instant a request had been made—through the most unusual of channels—the contents of the delivery had been known to anyone with power in southern Izril.
It nearly hadn’t been sent. The Walled Cities had been highly, highly suspicious of the package. They would have blocked it, but they had a peace treaty and they did not want to reveal to the Antinium what they knew. Better to have them use a public service than do whatever they wanted in secret. They hadn’t dared tamper with what Baiss carried, but they had studied it as extensively as they could with magic.
There was some genius to the delivery. That Klbkch understood. It was hard to travel from Liscor to the other five Hives, all of which were located far to the west in southern Izril. Such a journey was difficult, especially covertly. That Xrn and the others had made the trip at all was a testament to how important it had been. Or perhaps how important Xrn had made it. But beside that one occurrence, Klbkch had not seen another Antinium from the other Hives for ten years. They had communicated of course, but rarely. But this?
For all their uses, bags of holding had several flaws. It was dangerous to carry multiple bags of holding around on the same person. They had limits on what they could store. They could break, malfunction, and you couldn’t put something living inside. Bags of holding could not contain living things. So what was inside was not living.
A dead Antinium exited the bag of holding. It fell wetly to the ground. It was encased in a thick mucus. Its limbs were wrapped around itself. It was very dead. But the body was preserved. That was not what surprised the Free Queen. Her mandibles clicked together in a sharp gasp. She stared down at the dead Antinium.
For a second she was stunned. And then the Queen picked up the Antinium and ran her feelers over it, swiping away the gel impatiently. After a second she shook her head.
It was not female. This drone had been created in the shape of a Queen, scaled down to a Worker’s size, but the change in appearance was cosmetic. Her internal organs and biological processes were the same as any Worker. She had not the capacity for thought, or the ability to give birth that any true female Antinium would.
By the same token, it would have been wrong to call her ‘male’. The Drone was Antinium, neither male nor female or any sex unless the biological need arose. Still, the Queen thought of the small replica as female, if only because that was her function.
“It is not female, Klbkchhezeim.”
“I thought as much. It is a replica made to imitate a Queen, though.”
“Yes. And I think it only requires revival.”
The Free Queen waved a feeler. She placed the drone back on the ground.
“Hardly. It is perfectly preserved. Reactivating the brain will only take a moment. But cleaning out the air passages so it does not choke would be helpful.”
“I will do so.”
Klbkch knelt as the Queen placed her feeler on the Antinium’s head. The miniature replica of the Queen twitched once and then went limp. It was now alive, for a given value of alive.
“It is conscious?”
“No. It has no mind. It is a shell. We must wait for the Queen in charge to realize it is awake.”
The two stood in silence for a while. Klbkch studied the inert Drone.
“I understand part of why it was sent. But surely it cannot relay anything? Not unless they have discovered how to form a Unitasis Network?”
The Free Queen paused, her feelers rubbing together.
“I am unsure. Perhaps—”
Both broke off as the drone sat upright. The Free Queen blinked as it slowly raised something. It had been holding an object in one of its feelers. She saw it raise something that shone. A piece of glass? No. A hand mirror. It stared into it and the Queen saw a flicker of light. Somewhere, far away, the cousin of the mirror activated and magic shared both image and sound between the two.
A Queen from the Hives far to the south would not be able to control one of her drones from this far away with any subtlety. Without a Unitasis Network, her range would only extend a hundred miles. At most. But the little scrying glass would neatly bypass the issue. The Drone stared into the mirror and the Queen used the magical link to augment the mental one. Now the Drone stood taller and her posture changed. The mandibles opened and closed and her feelers moved with delicate subtlety as she looked around the Hive.
When she spoke, it was quietly.
“The transport was successful. The Grand Queen of the Antinium sits here. And here.”
She gestured with one feeler, then she saw the Free Queen. She looked up.
“Free Queen of the Antinium.”
“Grand Queen. It has been eleven years.”
Neither Klbkch nor the Free Queen bowed. The Queen paused, her feelers moving uncertainly. She searched for words. The sudden contact unsettled her. Eleven years. After a moment she spoke.
“I assume this drone was sent after Prognugator Xrn returned to the Hive? I trust that she relayed her findings—”
The Grand Queen spoke over the Free Queen. She turned her head, looking around the cavern as she spoke in what was for the Antinium, clipped, quiet tones.
“This vessel was delivered for the purpose of communication should the need arise. The Free Antinium have been judged to have adequately made progress towards their objectives. They will now rejoin the larger Hive through this relay.”
Her words were abrupt. Almost insulting. The Free Queen bristled until she remembered that this was how the Grand Queen had been. She spoke, concealing her anger.
“Prognugator Xrn has returned to the Hive, then?”
Silence. The Free Queen paused.
“A series of proxies using magic to facilitate control at range. My design.”
The Grand Queen’s satisfaction radiated through her voice and posture. The Free Queen clicked her mandibles together shortly.
“Is the process one w—”
“Other Queens have their own proxies. This one was sent first. Others will arrive in time.”
“What if I wish to instigate communications with other Hives?”
“That is not necessary at this point. Other Queens may contact your Hive as appropriate.”
The Free Queen contemplated the miniature Grand Queen. Perhaps the only thing that kept her from picking up the drone and breaking it was how satisfying it felt to look down at the Grand Queen. The Grand Queen didn’t feel the same way. She stepped backwards until she was able to stare at the Free Queen without tilting her head up.
“Drakes have made inquiries as to the Hive in Liscor. In regards to the dungeon unearthed recently.”
“As I informed you in my latest report. The dungeon is currently the subject of interest in Liscor. A group of adventurers inadvertently discovered a route into the Hive from the dungeon. However, the Hive is well-fortified and—”
“This information has already been considered. Continue probing the dungeon. Commit whatever resources are necessary to acquire artifacts.”
The Grand Queen turned from the Free Queen and looked at Klbkch.
He bowed smoothly. The Grand Queen studied him. Her feelers waved. When she spoke next she sounded irritated.
“Your form has been altered. Without permission.”
“It was a necessary side effect of the Rite of Anastases, Grand Queen. This form allows me to fulfill my duties far more efficiently than my old one.”
“…Understood. Do you have anything to report at this moment?”
Klbkch looked at the Grand Queen’s proxy. He glanced up at the Free Queen who was vibrating dangerously.
“Did Prognugator Xrn return to the Hive safely?”
“Then I have nothing to report.”
“Understood. Maintain this vessel. Other proxies will be delivered in time. Await orders until then. That is all.”
The Grand Queen departed as quickly as she’d come. The drone crumpled and Klbkch and the Free Queen looked at it. Neither spoke for a second. Klbkch clicked his mandibles together shortly.
“That was unexpected.”
The Free Queen was simmering with slow-burning fury. Klbkch paused.
“I suppose not. She is still angry at you, my Queen.”
“Yes. Because I am here. Because I succeeded where she believed I would not.”
The two looked at each other. Klbkch nodded.
“The other Queens will send their own proxies? It would be good to communicate with the Hives.”
“And receive orders I do not wish to obey. But yes. The connection will be reestablished. Perhaps a transportation network will be built.”
“That would be an undertaking. But yes, it would be welcome. What concerns me is that the Hives may soon move.”
“We must say as much.”
The Free Queen turned away from Klbkch.
“You must say as much. She will listen to you. I am renegade. She saw your new form. She was displeased.”
“As well you did not show her your experiments. But if she is willing to speak, perhaps she would lend you the components you require.”
“Perhaps. I am in need of them, Klbkch.”
Klbkch’s gaze went to the sealed stone doors.
“The alchemy ingredients I purchased did not work?”
The Free Queen shook her head.
“Alchemical goods are too complex. Without rendering they are impossible to work with. Magic and body parts—”
The Queen clicked her mandibles irritably. The notion of alchemy, of the so-called masters of potions and craft offended her to her core. To a Queen of the Antinium, [Alchemists] were nothing more than infants playing around with cheap toys. They banged rocks together when they should be rendering miracles out of sand.
Of course, these were metaphors based in the terminology of other species. The Free Queen didn’t think of rocks and sand, or even infants. Her image of the [Alchemists] was of a wriggling larvae with half-formed eyes, squirming about and playing with complex cellulose instead of the most basic of enzymes. The Free Queen clicked her mandibles together, scratching them irritably.
“The Grand Queen boasted of her invention. Magic scrying and remote control. A poor solution.”
“I saw her Prognugators. She has not altered them in any way. What have the other Queens done in this time? Have they learned nothing?”
Klbkch paused, his antennae moving restlessly.
“I observed the Flying Queen and the Silent Queen’s new combat forms. The Silent Queen has improved on her designs.”
“True. As for the Flying Queen, she has delved further into folly. I saw the Flying Antinium’s forms. Many flaws. Imperfections. Even in her Revalantor! That they move and ‘fly’ is a product of so many faults. So many that they cover for each other.”
“If they function well in battle, her methods have merit, my Queen.”
“She should have spent time perfecting what she had. As I did. I spent four years reconfiguring the formulation of muscle fiber. Two more years after that I spent on balance. Your current form is the pinnacle of that achievement. Not enough. But it is better, is it not?”
The Free Queen looked down at Klbkch. He flexed one arm and nodded.
“I am stronger. Though I have still yet to regain the rest of my lost levels…this form is stronger than my old one.”
“Do you have plans on mass-producing this form?”
“No. It requires too much work. Too many resources. I may update the Workers and Soldiers with the changes in muscle fiber. If I am able. There is much to do, Klbkch. Much, and the Hive still consumes my attention.”
“Belgrade and Anand have helped in that regard of late, haven’t they?”
The Free Queen nodded. She picked up the lifeless Drone and set it in a corner of the room, propping it up. Garry would have to feed it now and then. Tiresome.
“Progress has been made. But there is still far too much to be done, Klbkchhezeim. These Individuals are incomplete and the methods of creating them are far too uncertain. Look at that one.”
She pointed. Garry froze as he scurried out of his kitchen, perhaps to do some shopping. He turned and bowed to the Free Queen and Klbkch.
Garry trembled. Klbkch stared at him and then at his Queen. He hesitated, and then stepped backwards, as if shielding Garry from the Free Queen’s displeasure.
“They are not true Antinium, my Queen. But I believe you do them a disservice. Each of the original five Workers has contributed to the Hive’s wellbeing in their own way. Garry is an exemplary [Cook] and I believe his continued leveling is a testament to his hard work.”
Garry’s mandibles opened wide in surprise. Klbkch turned his head and stared at him and then looked up at the Queen.
“You might consider giving him a day off? That is customary for those employed in other races.”
“Is it necessary?”
Klbkch paused. He glanced at Garry again. The Worker looked hopeful.
“…It may assist with his leveling.”
The Free Queen was already in a bad mood. The idea of not having anything to snack on displeased her, but she put Klbkch’s advice over her desires.
“Very well. A day. Go.”
“Thank you, my Queen!”
Garry bowed. The Free Queen stared at him and he fled. Klbkch sighed. He looked up at his Queen. In some ways she understood very little about the world. She was holed up in the Hive while he had gone above and seen the world. He understood more than she did, he knew. But he had little but admiration for her. She had seen the flaw of the Antinium and attempted to solve it, though she understood little of the solution. He wondered if he could tell her what he had seen, explain to her what Pawn had done.
“I believe these Individuals show promise. Especially Pawn’s new unit.”
“The Painted Soldiers. You have given me the reports and I have observed their efficiency. Yes. I agree. But they are still not…”
“I know. But it seems that we will be able to create more of them. That will strengthen the Hive.”
The Free Queen was moody. Unhappy. The Hive would become stronger, but her goal, the goal that she and Klbkch were working for was no closer.
“You say these Individuals show promise. I agree. But we have but five. Five who you claim are…original.”
“Perhaps seven, now, my Queen. Two of the Soldiers show great promise. Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile.”
“What ridiculous names.”
Klbkch had no answer to that. The Free Queen paused.
“Will these Individuals ever be true Antinium, Klbkch?”
“I do not know, my Queen. But they are helpful. If I could turn a thousand Antinium into such Individuals of Belgrade or Anand’s character, I would in an instant. Those of Garry’s quality, likewise. Even Pawn shows promise, for all the trouble he causes.”
“Hmm. What about the fifth one?”
“Does he show promise, Klbkchhezeim?”
The Free Queen stared down at Klbkch. He looked away from her. She had worked with him, shared her mind and goals with him, for over a decade. She knew he had his secrets. She knew he was, in a way, far superior to anything she could be. A Centenium while she was but a Queen. She trusted him, and took his words to heart, even if she disagreed with his assessment of the Individuals. But she was very sure he was lying to her right now. And because she was frustrated, annoyed with the Grand Queen and her failed experiments and not having anything to eat, she called him on his lies.
Bird sang in his little watch tower above Erin’s inn. He watched the rain come down as he sang. It was not a song he knew. He made it up as he went along. Sometimes the song surprised him.
“Rain, rain, go away. Rain on me another day.”
This one was based off a song Erin had taught him. Bird rocked back and forth on the little stool she’d given him, his homemade bow in hand. He missed his other bow. It had broken. Bird had tried to put it back together, but he’d failed. But he still had a bow. And arrows. And what else did you really need? Bird didn’t know, but Erin had told him there was something else.
He didn’t care. The rain kept falling down, pattering on the roof on top of his tower. Bird hadn’t wanted it—how could he look overhead with it there?—but Pawn told him he could take it down when the rain was gone. The rain made a nice pattering sound overhead.
“So rainy. Lots of rain.”
It was the second week of rain. Or was it the third? The fourth? Bird couldn’t remember. But the rain kept falling and the waters were still high. He could see little fish swimming around and bigger ones hiding in the murky water. If he looked really hard he could sometimes see Rock Crabs scuttling in the waters, feasting. They were dangerous. Bird had already heard of people nearly getting eaten by them while fishing.
If one tried to climb up to the inn, Bird would shoot it. He didn’t know if his bow would do any good, but he’d learned [Piercing Shot] and he had lots of arrows. Bird didn’t think of the possible dangers an encounter like that might entail, however. He was watching the water, and the skies too. He was waiting. Waiting for water birds.
They had to exist. Bird had no proof, but water birds had to exist. If they didn’t…what was the point of anything? So he waited, bow at the ready for when the elusive water birds appeared.
They did not. After a period of time that might have been long or short, Bird felt his stomach rumble. He realized he was hungry.
Bird looked towards the trap door leading down to the inn. He decided to go down for food. He had no idea if it was night or day—the sky was always grey and dark. But that didn’t matter. If no one was awake, Bird would just go back to his tower and wait. He remembered sitting up there, listening to his stomach growl for hours.
That didn’t matter. Bird was good at waiting. He could wait for a bird to come closer for hours. That was why he was a [Hunter]. Because he shot birds.
“I am Bird. I shoot birds. La, la, la…”
Bird pulled up the trapdoor and then remembered to be quiet in case he woke anyone up. He closed the trapdoor, wiped the steps with a towel on a little rack that Erin had put there for that very purpose. Then he trundled downstairs.
“Oh! Erin is awake. And so is Lyonette. And you.”
Erin, Lyonette, and Ceria looked up. They were all gathered around a table. Bird stared at the table. Then he stared at what was on it. They were eating from a plate. And on that plate was…
“Pretzels! I’d offer you one, Bird. But it’s all bread so you can’t have it.”
Miss Erin looked apologetic. Bird nodded.
“That is okay. I would like to eat. If that is good.”
“Oh! Sure! What do you want? B—”
“Why am I surprised?”
Erin laughed. She bit the chewy bread pretzel she was eating and then dipped the uneaten side into a bowl. It was filled with a cheesy mixture. Erin ate the rest of her pretzel.
“I like the sauces more. The cheese has too much oil in it for me.”
Lyonette had another little bowl of red sauce. She and Ceria were cautiously dipping their pretzels into it. Bird stared at the bowls as Erin went into the kitchen.
“You good with any kind of bird, Bird?”
Bird sat at a table and listened to his stomach grumble. He wondered how bad it would be to eat a pretzel. Probably bad. He remembered his stomach hurting last time he ate bread by mistake. But maybe the pretzels could be good? Could he use them as bait for birds? Maybe water birds would eat a crumbled pretzel? He was about to ask Lyonette about that when he saw a little bit of white.
“Oh. Bird bait.”
Mrsha poked her head up from the table’s edge and regarded Bird severely. She snatched a pretzel and dipped it in another, dark brown sauce. She savored the flavor and disappeared behind the table.
“Here we are! Hot chicken! Seared wings and some veggies. What do you want to drink, Bird?”
A big tankard of milk was placed in front of Bird. He happily put down his bow and picked up a fork.
“Birds. Mm. Tasty.”
The food was hot and filling. Miss Erin watched him eat and then frowned.
“Hey Bird, how long have you been up on the roof? I can’t remember the last time I saw you eating down here.”
Bird paused and shrugged.
“I don’t know. Maybe I was here a week ago?”
“Maybe I was here an hour ago?”
Erin exchanged odd looks with Ceria and Lyonette. She went to confer with them as Bird ate. Good food made him happy. He saw Mrsha sneaking up to his plate and blocked her when she tried to snatch a piece of his chicken.
“Bird, you need to come down at least twice a day for food, okay? Promise me.”
“Okay. I promise.”
Bird finished his food and felt better. His head felt clearer and his stomach stopped bothering him. He sat as Erin took his plate and when she asked him how it tasted he told her it was good. All things were going well, until Bird remembered something.
“Oh. I forgot.”
“About your promise?”
“No. Today is an important day.”
A special day. Bird had nearly forgotten, but he was sure he’d remembered just in time. He stood up.
“I must go to the Hive today. I have to meet Pawn and Belgrade and Anand and Garry. Maybe not Garry. But the others will be there.”
Erin slapped her forehead.
“That’s right! Pawn did say to remind you! Hold on—I even made a few snacks for you to take with you! Hold on—”
She want into the kitchen. When she came back she had a rucksack filled with nice smelling things. Bird opened the pack and discovered it was more food! His stomach rumbled again.
“Now Bird, remember, this is for everyone. It’s not bird bait. And you can’t get it wet, okay?”
“Okay, Miss Erin. I will go now.”
Bird strode towards the door. He opened it and was halfway down the hill when Erin came chasing after him.
“Bird! Not that way!”
Bird was headed towards the underwater bridge. He looked back at Erin, confused, as she waved at him in the rain.
“Are you crazy? Go through the magic door!”
“But there is a bridge now.”
“You can’t swim!”
That was true. If he fell in the water, Bird was sure he’d drown. But the bridge looked like fun as it swayed just under the water’s surface. Erin dragged Bird back into the inn, though. She made him promise not to use the bridge and fiddled with the door.
“Let’s see—oops! That’s Pallass.”
Bright sunlight shone on Bird’s face. He looked at the blue skies.
“Do you think there are birds in Pallass?”
Erin hesitated, looking at Bird. She bit her lip and looked at Lyonette, who waved her hands and shook her head for some reason.
“…No. I think Pallass has no birds. At all.”
“That is a shame.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it? Okay, here’s Liscor.”
It was wet and raining. Bird stepped through into the street and heard Erin turn back to Lyonette. He quite clearly heard her voice before the door closed.
“Lyonette, I think you should take Bird when you go with Mrsha to Celum. He’ll be a good bodyguard.”
“If we can get him through the city without causing trouble. I’ll try it next time. Now, these pretzels are good, but they won’t stop trouble at tonight’s play, Erin.”
“That’s why I’ve been practicing with my aura. The pretzels are just for fun. Did you like the cheese sauce or is it—”
The door closed. Bird stared at it for a second and then began walking down the street. Liscor was rainy. Drakes and Gnolls passed Bird on the street, some staring at him, but without much alarm. Bird hummed under his breath, looking around in case there were birds, but not really expecting any.
Soon he came to the Hive. The entrance was dark and rain was pouring in. Bird paused there.
He didn’t like the Hive. There were no birds in the Hive. He always had to work in the Hive. But he had promised Pawn, so he went down inside. He passed through the entrance into dry dirt. Then he saw the Soldiers.
“Hello. I am Bird.”
They stared at him from their alcoves. Big Soldiers. They would kill him if he wasn’t a Worker, Bird knew. He walked past them, humming. Then his hum vanished. He felt himself enter the Hive.
There was a difference there. A rhythm. A flow. Bird didn’t like it. He had lived in the Hive for almost all his life, but when he entered the lines of Soldiers and Workers moving in perfect synch, it was still a struggle to move with them.
Walk. Stop. Walk. Turn. Step left to let Soldiers go past. Walk. Stop. Turn. Turn.
Each Worker moved in unison with the others. Each one stopped and stepped precisely. The crisscrossing lines of Antinium were efficient. Bird didn’t like it. He shifted, awkwardly holding the rucksack Erin had given him. He wished he’d brought his bow, but he’d forgotten it on the table. He hoped Erin didn’t throw it away.
Walk. Stop. Step left. Turn. Walk. Walk. Turn.
At least he could do this without having to think as hard. So long as he became one with the others, Bird wouldn’t fall out of place. Reassured by this, he began to hum to himself.
“Birds and pretzels, birds and pretzels. I like birds. I cannot eat pretzels.”
He stopped when he realized no one was moving. Bird looked around. All the Antinium in the tunnel were staring at him. All of them. Hundreds. Bird hunched his shoulders. Suddenly he felt bad and his insides hurt.
“I am Bird. I did not mean to sing.”
After a moment, the flow resumed. Hunched, afraid, Bird moved as one. He did not sing again. Soon he reached his destination.
“Bird. You remembered!”
Pawn stood in the barracks. Bird stared at him and waved one of his four hands.
He stared around the big barracks. It was bigger than before. And there were more Workers and Soldiers in it. That was Bird’s only observation. He noticed three other Workers waiting for him.
“Belgrade and Anand. Oh. And Garry.”
“Hello Bird. We have not spoken in a long time.”
Bird stared blankly at Garry. Then he shifted his attention to what the Worker had brought.
The [Cook] nodded.
“I have brought a few treats to share. What is that you are holding, Bird?”
Bird remembered the rucksack. Carefully he placed it on the mound of dirt the Workers were using as a table.
“This is food from Miss Erin. She says it is for me to share with everyone. It did not get wet.”
Anand and Belgrade immediately clustered around the rucksack. Garry and Pawn held back. Bird looked around. Yes, there were more colorful Soldiers around. That was good. Bird stared at Yellow Splatters reading a book, Purple Smile doing something like dancing and showing the other Workers and Soldiers how to do it too, and then he found the special thing. It was always what he looked at. On the barracks, on the far wall, was a white bird. A symbol of one of the Soldiers. Bird always liked staring at it.
“This is delicious. What are these things? Bird? Bird?”
Someone interrupted Bird. He looked around.
“Oh. Those are fish flakes.”
The other Workers were intrigued. Bird nodded. He explained them as best he could.
“Miss Erin made them. They are fish with bread. Or bread on fish. She says she made some for Antinium with less bread because bread is no good for Antinium. But it still has bread. There is a sauce you dip the fish flakes into. Miss Erin says the fish flakes are good hot and a nice snack.”
“How wonderful. I must copy this design.”
Garry reverentially picked up a fish flake, breaking off a bit and then inspecting the insides to see what was underneath the crust. He nibbled at the food as Anand and Belgrade offered the fish flakes to some of the other Antinium who had passed by. It was Pawn who gave two thirds of the pack’s contents to Yellow Splatters to distribute. The rest went on the dirt table.
“I envy you, Bird. It is a privilege to work at Miss Erin’s inn and experience her cooking each day.”
“It is? Yes, it is good.”
Bird nodded at Garry. The other Worker paused and looked at Pawn. The Worker opened his mandibles and looked around.
“I suppose it is time. Let us speak.”
The other Workers nodded. They sat around the table, eating from what Garry and Bird had brought. Belgrade and Anand had brought real chess sets and so the Workers took turns playing while they spoke. Bird sat, letting Anand play Pawn first while Garry played Belgrade. He listened, staring at the white bird on the walls sometimes. Just in case it moved.
“—An incident while I was on duty. Two adventuring teams entered the Hive from the dungeon. It was the subject of much agitation from Revalantor Klbkch. However, he told me this may be an opportunity for the Hive. He did not elaborate.”
Pawn delicately moved a chess piece, nodding.
“The issue is that of the Drake cities. Or so Lyonette tells me. The Drakes may be upset that we have a route into the dungeon and thus may obtain treasure. By we, I refer to the Hive in general.”
“Surely they knew? It would be obvious that a Hive would have some vectors by which to enter the dungeon given our proximity.”
Anand paused as he pushed Garry across the board with ease. Pawn shook his head.
“I cannot speculate. I only know what Lyonette told me and she is not an expert on Drake politics.”
“But she is a Human. She knows many things. And you danced with her. I did not know this.”
Garry’s tone was wistful. The other Workers had not seen him for over a month. Garry’s duties involved serving the Queen and apparently that meant he did not get much time off. Bird watched as Garry lost the game against Anand.
“Revalantor Klbkch was very upset with you, Pawn. But he has expressed contentment with you as well. I do not know how he regards you.”
Belgrade’s mandibles clicked as he cornered Pawn’s bishop. He was a better player than Pawn. Both Belgrade and Anand were very good. Bird obediently sat as Anand reset the board so he and Anand could play. He enjoyed chess. But not as much as hunting birds.
“I do not know what Klbkch thinks of me either, Belgrade. I hope to work well with him, but I cannot help but feel that I disappoint him sometimes. Other times I feel that I do not disappoint him because he has no expectations of me. By contrast he speaks highly of you and Anand. Your fortifications and traps perform wonderfully.”
“Revalantor Klbkch says that?”
Belgrade’s antennae twitched wildly. Bird watched with interest as he played Anand. Pawn nodded.
“In terms of developments I would hope for your and Anand’s continued growth most. You have already saved many lives with your strategies and I am told your management helps the Queen herself.”
The two [Tacticians] sat straighter. Anand nodded.
“That is most gratifying to hear. I hope that our continued efforts will mean we can visit Miss Erin someday. I would like to play her and see how much I have improved. And play games of Go with her.”
Pawn listened to the two and nodded.
“I will attempt to bring this matter up with Klbkch.”
“Thank you, Pawn.”
“Yes. Thank you. Garry, what of you?”
“I serve the Queen. It is…difficult. But I do level.”
Garry took over for Pawn in playing Belgrade. His four hands moved slower than the other Worker’s. Pawn stared at Garry with concern.
“I have spoken to the Queen only once. How is she to work under directly?”
“She is the Queen. I am a Worker. It is…good to cook. I must not complain.”
The [Cook] looked down at the board. The other three Workers looked at each other. Bird looked at the white bird on the walls. In silence, they played. It seemed Belgrade was suddenly worse because he lost to Garry, and Pawn told Garry to learn to dance and read some of the picture books on his day off. He got up with Belgrade while Bird played Anand. When they came back, Bird was still playing.
“What of you, Bird? Have you done anything of note?”
Startled, Bird looked up.
“I shot a fish.”
The Workers waited. Garry was staring at a picture book and glancing up every now and then. Pawn clicked his mandibles together.
“And my bow is still broken.”
Bird looked down at his board. He knew that he should say something else. But it was hard! He tried to think.
“I got paid.”
Suddenly all of the Workers stared at Bird. He hunched his shoulders.
“Is that news?”
“Yes. Miss Erin is paying you, Bird?”
“She is. She says I can save it for a new bow. She gave me many silver coins and bronze ones. She tells me not to use them as bait for crows. I have put it away in my room. Next to my fortress of fluff.”
“It is what Miss Erin calls my bedding. She made me a place to sit and sleep. It is made of pillows and blankets and soft things.”
The other Workers stared at Bird. Belgrade opened and closed his mandibles.
“I would like to express my incredible jealousy towards you, Bird.”
The other Workers kept pestering Bird about his fortress of fluff and what it was like having money and what he was going to do with it. And about Miss Erin and the adventurers, Goblins, and everything else. It was very hard for Bird to concentrate on his game and the questions. Eventually he lost.
Anand frowned down at the board. He stared up at Bird who was chewing on a piece of fish.
“Bird. That was a most curious game we played.”
Bird tilted his head. Anand looked at the board. Belgrade, Pawn, and Garry crowded around. They looked up at Bird.
“I had the same impression as Anand. Your playing style was incredibly odd, Bird. What was your objective? It seems as though you threw away your Queen and a quarter of your pieces. But your play on the left side was incredible.”
“I played to make the game good. It did not go entirely like I wanted. But it is good. See?”
Bird turned the board. Anand, Belgrade, Garry, and Pawn stared at his side of the board blankly. Bird waited. They looked at him.
“What is good about this, Bird?”
“I made a crow. See?”
Bird pointed. It was lopsided, but a black crow was looking at the other Workers. A white king was the one eye. The Workers stared at it. Belgrade turned his head left and right.
“I do not see a crow.”
“Bird. Was that your objective in playing the game the entire time?”
Anand asked sharply. Bird hunched his shoulders.
The other Workers looked at each other. At last, Pawn closed his mandibles.
“That is a good game, Bird.”
“Yes. Yes. I did not expect any of it. What does Miss Erin say when she plays chess with you, Bird?”
“I do not play chess with Miss Erin often.”
“Oh. She is busy?”
“Yes. And I say no when she asks me.”
The other Workers stared. Belgrade grabbed Bird with his four arms.
“Say that again?”
Bird shifted uncomfortably.
“I say no. Miss Erin says I am always ‘weird to play’. But she likes playing me. Especially when I win.”
All four Workers stopped and turned. Bird looked around and saw what they were staring at. The other Antinium in the barracks had gone still. Because Revalantor Klbkch was striding towards them.
He spoke and Bird looked up. The other Workers stared warily at Klbkch and Garry shuffled behind Pawn.
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“I require your presence. You will come with me.”
“Okay. Where am I going?”
“To meet the Queen. She wishes to inspect you.”
The other Workers froze. Bird nodded.
He wanted to follow Klbkch, but Pawn blocked their way.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Is Bird in trouble?”
“That remains to be seen.”
Klbkch was taller than Bird and Pawn. Slimmer too. Bird stared at the shiny blades at his side. Pawn glanced at Bird and then at Klbkch.
“May I ask why the Queen wishes to see Bird?”
“She wishes to evaluate Bird’s contributions to the Hive. He will be brought before her and questioned. I will not be present.”
Both Worker and Revalantor paused. They looked at Bird. He looked at them blankly. Klbkch lowered his voice.
“I will feed him answers. It should not be a difficult questioning.”
“But Bird is—”
“I am aware. But the Queen wishes to see him. Now.”
Pawn looked helplessly at Bird. He turned to the other Workers and then hurried to Bird. He pulled the Worker aside, and lowered his head.
“Bird, you must listen to whatever Revalantor Klbkch says. Understand? Whatever he says, you must do.”
“You will be alright. The Queen just wishes to speak with you. Do whatever Klbkch says and do not do anything…abnormal. You will be fine.”
“I will be fine.”
Pawn’s mandibles opened and closed. He seemed anxious. Then he lowered his head and two of his hands clasped together. The other two held Bird’s shoulders gently.
“You will be well. I will pray for you. You will be well, Bird. Be well.”
“Thank you, Pawn.”
He walked back towards Klbkch. The Revalantor nodded and Bird walked with him as the others watched him go. Bird stared one last time at the white bird on the wall before Klbkch took him out of the barracks. They walked through the Hive. This time Bird did not walk as one. The Workers and Soldiers made way for Klbkch as he strode forwards.
“You will be alone with the Queen. Answer her honestly.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
“If she asks about your contributions to the Hive, mention your income as well as your role defending the inn. Do not speak overly long or in tangents.”
“What is a tangent?”
“Answer her in short sentences, Bird. Speak only of the good you have done.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
The other Antinium turned to look at him as they neared the Queen’s chambers. Bird had only been there once. He remembered that day. Klbkch had been worried and so had the others. The Queen had asked them questions in turn. She had made Pawn afraid and the others had shook as they stood before her. Now it was Klbkch who seemed on the verge of shaking.
“I am sorry. I did not expect her to ask for you. If you are lucky, she will notice nothing as before. Answer her quickly, Bird. Do not speak about birds.”
“Why? I like birds.”
Bird tilted his head. Klbkch shook his head.
“Simply do not. Now. She is waiting.”
He pointed. Bird stared at the dark hallway where Soldiers stood on guard. He walked forwards. He did not know what the Queen wanted or why Klbkch and the others were afraid. He did not know many things he thought he should know. He had always been like that. Even before he met Erin. He wondered when he could go back and sit in his watch tower again.
The Free Queen watched the Worker and Klbkchhezeim enter her chambers. She saw Klbkch bow precisely, and saw the Worker copy him awkwardly. His gracelessness hurt to see. By contrast, Klbkch had no wasted motion. He had been created a warrior. The thing that stood next to him had been formed as a simple Worker. It had become something more, but the Queen did not see it in him.
“The Individual known as Bird is here, my Queen. If you wish, I will stay to answer any questions you may have. The nature of his task is complex and—”
“Your presence is not required, Klbkchhezeim. Leave us.”
Klbkch hesitated. The Free Queen saw him glance twice at the Worker before he bowed and left. Bird, he had called him. Another strange name. An odd name. Not like an Antinium’s name at all. It rankled the Queen so she spoke harshly.
The Worker shuffled forwards, staring up at her. He did not quiver, as other Antinium did when they stood before their Queen. She was unlike any other Antinium in the Hive. Where all the Antinium were uniform, she was unique. A colossus sitting in her chambers. Her arms were not based off of a humanoid appearance. She had feelers rather than hands. Her body was bloated, changed by food and the stresses of birth. And she was the Queen. The Worker stared.
“Hello. I am Bird.”
The Queen of the Free Antinium jerked in surprise. He had spoken! Without permission! She stared at the Worker and her mandibles closed slowly.
“Worker, you were not given permission to speak.”
“Oh. I am sorry.”
He was. The Free Queen regarded the Worker for a moment. Her feelers twitched. So this was the fifth. She had received regular reports of the exploits of the other four from Klbkch. Anand and Belgrade she had observed herself. Garry was almost always in her chambers. Pawn was…different, but his efforts had been recognized and an assessment could be made off the performance of his unit of Painted Soldiers. But she had never heard of this Worker’s deeds.
“You are one of the remaining Individual Workers formed after the battle against the undead.”
The Worker did not reply. The Free Queen inspected him. He was not different from the others. Not that she had expected him to be. She had heard that one of her Soldiers had grown after receiving his [Sergeant] class. An anomaly like that was troubling.
“Your class is [Hunter]. You provided the Hive with sustenance until you were reassigned to act as a guard for the Human known as Erin Solstice. You now reside in her inn, do you not?”
The Worker didn’t respond. The Free Queen stared at him.
“Is this so?”
He said nothing. The Queen, already irritable, felt dangerously close to true anger. She leaned down, shifting her enormous weight closer.
“Yes. I am working at Miss Erin’s inn. I shoot birds. But I am not supposed to talk about birds.”
The Worker’s voice was loud and cheerful. The Queen sat back.
“Birds? But your name is Bird.”
“Yes. I am Bird! And I shoot birds.”
“You are a [Hunter].”
“I am. I have a bow. I shoot birds.”
For the first time in years, the Queen had to pause to digest this information. She studied the Worker. Well, he had answered her. He hunted animals.
“And you believe this contributes to the Hive? Do you believe protecting this inn is a task that will further the Hive’s goals?”
The Worker tilted his head back and forth.
“Um. I do not know.”
Uncertainty. The Queen nodded slowly. At least he was aware of this. She peered at Bird again.
“Erin Solstice is a unique individual to the Hive. She has worth of a kind. But will she employ it for the Hive’s use or does she withhold her aid? Klbkchhezeim assures me she is an ally. What is your opinion?”
The little Antinium paused.
“Miss Erin is very nice. She made me a fortress of fluff.”
At first she was shocked by the reply. And then she was suspicious. Darkly so. This time, the silence that came from the Queen was ominous. The Worker seemed to take that as a cue to go on, so he did.
“She feeds me food when I ask for it. And she has many interesting things. She has a play in the inn. And Goblins. And adventurers. And she gave me a bow. Which broke. I like Miss Erin. She plays chess and says I play weird games. But good! When I hunt birds she takes them and cooks them. And she pays me money.”
The Queen latched onto that last word, ceasing the flow of chatter. The Worker nodded.
“I am paid money each week. She gives me silver coins and bronze ones and tells me not to use them to lure crows.”
“And do you give this money to Klbkch—to your Revalantor? Do you return it to the Hive?”
The Worker looked blank.
“Why should I? It is mine.”
Now the Queen was certain. She leaned forwards.
“But you are part of the Hive. You are Individual, but you are still loyal to the Hive. Or are you Aberration? Do you reject the Hive?”
“No. I am Bird. I hunt birds. No one told me to give money to the Hive so I did not. I hunt birds because Miss Erin and Revalantor Klbkch told me I could. I have a bow, but I left it on the table. But I brought the rucksack!”
And there it was. The Queen drew herself backwards. She spoke one word.
The word echoed in the chamber. At the entrance, the Soldiers shuddered, the first move they had made since arriving for their shift of guard duty. The Worker looked around.
The Queen ignored him. She sat back, feeling tired. Betrayed? No. Not even hurt, in truth. But she understood now why Klbkch had been so anxious not to let her see this Worker. She had not realized it when he stood with the others. Then, she had been too disappointed, listening to their wrong answers that marked them as not being true Antinium. But now it was clear. She looked down at the Worker.
“You are a flawed creation.”
The Worker stared up at her, neither surprised nor afraid. It did not understand.
The Queen nodded. He—it was a failure. It shouldn’t have surprised her. In a pool size as small as that of the Individuals, there was certain to be at least one. She sighed. Of course, Klbkch would have wanted to conceal an error, especially one that hinted at more faults in the creation of individuals. It was only fortunate that he had concealed the same failings from Xrn and the others when they inspected the Hive. Wearily, she beckoned with a feeler.
“Come closer, Worker.”
He walked closer. The Queen bent. Her massive face stared down at him and her mandibles opened slowly.
“Your mind is broken, little Worker. Your development was flawed. You never should have been created.”
“I should not?”
“No. The Workers and Soldiers are made to an exacting standard. Something—an imperfection in the growing stage—led to this flaw. It is not your fault.”
The Worker considered this.
“Oh. That is good.”
The queen nodded. She didn’t know why she had told the Worker that. Perhaps it was an admission of her guilt. She did not oversee the process by which new Soldiers and Workers were brought to life. Many were created each week. But she should have paid more attention. Perhaps the flaw was rampant among the others. She would inspect the process herself, order Klbkch to manually check each one of the birthing pods. It would be too late for those already formed however, just as though it was too late for this one.
“Come closer, Worker.”
Bird walked forwards. The Queen stared at him. A pity. But the other Individuals were sound and more could be made. A mistake was a mistake.
“So Klbkchhezeim gave you a position guarding this Human. Sensible. But he should not have hidden the truth from me. You are flawed. And that is unforgivable.”
The Queen nodded. She moved slowly, raising her massive feelers. Just one was large enough to grab the Worker. He stood in front of her, tilting his head back and forth.
“So it is my fault after all? Am I in trouble? I get in trouble with Revalantor Klbkch almost as much as Pawn.”
“I am sure you do. But this is not your fault. And it will be corrected soon.”
“That is good! I want to go back to Miss Erin’s inn soon. I left my bow there and I am waiting for water birds. I have not seen any before, but they will appear someday. Erin says it might happen. Oh, but Revalantor Klbkch says I must not speak about birds. I cannot speak about them. But I like birds. I sit in my tower all day and look for them. And sometimes I shoot fish.”
He babbled nonsense as the Queen slowly drew her feelers around him. She lifted the little Worker up, tightening her feelers slowly. He did not seem to notice. He spoke brightly and cheerfully.
“You are a big Queen. Not at all like a bird. I am Bird. Is it hard to breathe? I am very high. Like a bird! I always wanted to be a bird.”
“I am sure.”
The carapace cracked. Bird made a sound. The Queen found his head. She heard his voice, muffled. Still speaking.
“I always wanted to fly. Belgrade says a Worker cannot fly but I am very high. I am very high. I am very high, all up in the sky. I am Bird. I like to fly. So very high. When my Queen holds me, I am in the sky. Will I die? Fly, fly. Fly.”
And he sang. The Queen froze. Her feeler encircled the Worker’s head. He sang, his voice muffled, the words nonsense. His tune meandered, but his voice was pure. He sang.
She had not heard a song in the Hive. Not since coming to Izril. Not since—the Queen’s grip loosened. She slowly lowered Bird. The Antinium looked up at her. He had stopped singing.
“What was that song?”
The Free Queen stared at him. Bird tilted his head.
“What song? Oh. That song? I made it up. It is a song about flying. Because I flew.”
The Queen stared at him.
“You sing? Workers do not sing.”
“They do not?”
Bird suddenly looked worried, for the first time since he had been here. He looked around and then hunched his shoulders.
“I did not know that. I will stop singing.”
The Queen couldn’t help it. She bent down and Bird looked up.
“Do not stop. Workers do not sing. But I desire you to.”
“Yes. I am your Queen. Sing for me. Sing—Bird.”
He looked up at her. The Queen looked down. Bird shrugged. And began to sing.
It was a nonsense song. The first one was. The rest as well. Each one was silly, made up. A child’s song where Bird repeated his own name. There was no melody, no accompaniment. But it was a song.
While Pawn and the other Workers paced anxiously and Klbkch waited, afraid of what he might have to explain to Erin, the Queen of the Free Antinium sat in her chambers and listened to Bird sing. He perched on her feeler, sat, and sang about birds and water and what he saw every day. And she listened. Entranced.
Workers did not sing. They had not been designed to. They had not been given the tools, mental or physical that would allow them to make music of any kind. Yet Bird sang. Somewhere in his flawed mind, he had discovered music. And that was a wonder.
“You are special, little Worker.”
“I am special.”
Bird looked up at the Queen. He was so confident. She envied him that. In his way he had obtained something she could not. She thought of her experiments. The pain and death there bothered her. The failure. For each step she took forwards, she took a thousand back. What she made—the pinnacle of her creation in Klbkch was copying, redefining what was already there.
But in the past the Antinium had created beauty. They had created, and what they had created was unique. Klbkch’s first form had been grace and death and elegance at once. Xrn was a reminder of that. And she had fallen once before as well. They all had.
She was so lonely. The Free Queen sat with Bird on her lap. She touched his head gently as he stopped singing.
“I find you worthy, Bird.”
“That is good. Pawn and Revalantor Klbkch will be happy to hear that.”
“Yes they will. I am pleased with you. And because I am pleased, I will allow you to reside in these chambers. You will sing for me each day.”
Bird looked up. The Queen opened her mandibles and raised them in a smile. The Worker tilted his head, and then he spoke.
The Queen stared at him. Bird stood up.
“I do not want to stay here. You are nice, my Queen. But I will go back up to Miss Erin’s inn, please. I want to hunt birds.”
“Yes. There are no birds underground. And I want to hunt them. So I will go back above. And bring Miss Erin her rucksack.”
The Queen stared at Bird. She closed her feelers. He made a small sound, like a squeak.
“I do not wish to let you leave. I would keep you here.”
“But I do not want to be here.”
Bird stared up at the Queen. She stared back.
“I am your Queen.”
“You should obey me.”
“Do I have to?”
Frustrated, the Queen lowered Bird.
“That is your purpose! You must stay to sing for me. I demand it!”
“But there is nothing to sing about here. And I must go back above. Erin will miss me. She does not mind if I have flaws. She likes me.”
Bird’s plaintive voice struck a chord in the Queen. She lowered her head.
“I like you, Bird. And I will make you whole. Stay here and sing. And I will fix your mind.”
“But I do not want you to.”
This time the Queen paused. She stared down at the Worker as he stood before her.
“What do you mean? You are flawed. Your mind does not work properly. You should be fixed.”
He tilted his head. Bird patted his chest and waved all four arms about.
“I am Bird. You say I am broken. This is probably so. Pawn tells me I do wrong things. So does Erin and Revalantor Klbkch and everyone else. My mind is faulty. This is so. But if you fixed me, what would I be? Not Bird. Not me. So I will be me, and be faulty. Please?”
The Queen looked at him. Bird looked up. He scuffed at the ground and looked around. The Soldiers stared at him. The Queen of the Free Antinium stared at him.
“If I bring you a bird, can I go?”
For a while, the Queen looked. Then she smiled. She tried to remember an Antinium like Bird. She couldn’t remember a one. She thought of Galuc the Builder. Yes, perhaps Bird was close to him. Ironically, he had something of Galuc in him. Or perhaps he was unique. She lifted him and Bird looked around, excited to be in the air.
“So this is what Klbkchhezeim meant. You are not true Antinium, little Worker.”
“I am not. You told me.”
“Yes. But you are Individual. You are worthy.”
“Does this mean I can go?”
The Queen sighed.
“Yes. But you must return.”
“Oh. With birds?”
“Yes. With a bird. And to sing for me. Will you do that?”
Bird thought about this. He tilted his head from side to side and then nodded.
“Yes. I promise. And I do not forget my promises. Mostly.”
“Good. Then sing for me. One last song, little Bird. Sing for me.”
And Bird did. The Queen listened as Bird rocked back and forth, singing a song about the day he broke his bow and there are many birds in the sky. Oh, flying so high. And then they came down and broke his tower too. And there was rain and Bird could not put back together his bow. Even with glue.
He liked to rhyme. At last, Bird stopped singing and the Queen let him go. She gave brief orders to Klbkch when he rushed back in and then sat back as both Antinium hurried out of her chambers. Bird left. He went out of the Hive. But his song remained. And when Garry eventually crept back into the room, the Queen turned and looked at him. And bent low until her head was close to Garry’s trembling form.
“Do you too sing, little Worker? Do you sing…Garry?”
He did not. But that was fine too.
One unusual detail happened in Liscor. Aside from the Drakes that flooded into Erin’s inn to heckle her performance that night. And Watch Captain Zevara delivering her report to Wall Lord Ilvriss and the Walled Cities. And Baiss nearly getting eaten by a fish. But one more thing happened and Krshia was part of it.
It was the curious incident of a Bird in the marketplace. She was called by one of the Gnolls who ran a bowyer’s shop. He was in some distress. Krshia arrived to find Bird inspecting each bow with great curiosity.
“He—it—just arrived ten minutes ago and started looking at bows, Krshia. I cannot make it tell me what it wants! It just says it wants a bird-bow. Can you speak to it?”
Krshia eyed Bird and then approached him with a smile on her face. Bird looked up.
“Hello Miss Krshia. I am Bird. We have met.”
She nodded carefully. Erin had told her about Bird. So had Pawn. He was the strange one, even by Antinium standards.
“We have, yes. Are you here to shop, Bird?”
“Yes! Miss Erin gave me money today. I earned it.”
The Gnoll looked at the other [Shopkeeper] and grimaced.
“Yes, well, that is very good. But bows cost much money, no? It may be you do not have enough.”
“And it is not good to enter a shop and try merchandise without enough coin, you understand? Maybe you should come back another time. Miss Erin will tell you when you have enough money, surely.”
“I see. I thought I had enough.”
Bird drooped. Krshia felt so bad for him that she threw him a metaphorical bone. Or rather, gave him one since no Gnoll would bother throwing away a good bone without sucking the marrow out first.
“Maybe you have enough. Who knows? Miss Erin may be generous, yes? I can at least tell you how much you must save.”
“That is good! This is what I have. Miss Erin gave me this.”
Bird proudly showed Krshia a handful of silver and bronze coins. The Gnoll sighed. And then Bird pulled something else out of his belt.
“And my Queen gave me this to buy a bow!”
He upended a bag on the table. Gold coins spilled from it, in an unending flow. Both Gnolls’ eyes bulged as Bird emptied the bag of holding on the floor. He pointed at the glittering pile.
“How many more do I need?”
Later that night, Bird edged into The Wandering Inn holding a reflexed composite bow that had turned every Gnoll head on the street. Erin, who’d been shouting at a crowd of booing Drakes while the [Actors] struggled to perform on stage hurried towards him.
“Bird! I was worried when you were gone so long! How was the Hive and—where did you get that?”
She stared at the bow. Bird lifted it proudly.
“I bought it.”
“With what? Oh no—did you take it and leave the money? Bird—”
“No! Miss Krshia said it was alright. She said it was a very good deal, yes?”
“She did? Hold on—”
Erin winced as a Drake threw something at the stage. She turned and Bird felt something ripple in the air. The crowd went quiet and the impending riot stopped, but they began to boo under their breaths. He peered at the Drakes with interest.
“Are they pretending to be birds? They are saying ‘boo’. You told me owls go ‘hoo’. Or ‘whoo’. Did you lie to me?”
Bird gave Erin a betrayed look. She stared at him.
“No, Bird. They’re unhappy about the play.”
“Oh. That is okay then.”
Erin winced as something else broke. A Human [Actor] stormed off stage and she turned.
“Damnit. I’ve got to sort this out. Bird—get some food if you’re hungry.”
“I am not hungry.”
“Okay, then—stay out of trouble! The Goblins have this. I don’t want you getting hurt, so just uh—”
“Can I go to my tower and look for birds?”
“Yes! Do that!”
Bird walked upstairs happily as Erin went to shout at people. Erin was always having fun. He walked up to his tower and opened his trap door. Rain was still falling. Bird climbed up and sat on his stool. It was wet. He covered his new bow so the rain would not make it bad and wondered where his old one had gone. He would ask Erin about it later. It was good to have a new bow, but two bows was better than one.
It was wet up in his tower. The wind occasionally blew water into Bird. It was cold. There were no birds. But Bird was happy. He had had a special day alright. He sat in his tower. Time passed. After a while, he sang a song.
“When will the rain stop? Maybe never. Maybe we’ll all be washed away. Erin tells me someday, but forever is like tomorrow. Today is today. When will the rain stop? I miss birds and water birds never come out to play.”
And when he was tired, Bird went down to his fortress of fluff and slept in it. He curled up with his new bow lying in front of him. And he heard a voice.
[Singer Level 7!]
[Skill – Soothing Melody obtained!]
That was nice. Bird drifted off to sleep. And in his dreams the water birds came out to play. Bird watched them fly through the water and sky and happily raised his bow. It was about time.