When she’d first woken and seen him, he had been just as she remembered. Tall. Proud, his horns gleaming in the faded light. A warrior and leader. The Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. That prickly, stubborn, prideful, honorable friend she’d fought with for years.
Calruz. But when the shock had faded and she’d taken in the Raskghar and the captive Gnolls—seen the madness in his eyes, Ceria had seen him as he truly was. Calruz was not the same. Not at all.
It was a thousand different things. The first thing Ceria noticed was his fur. The short hairs on his body were rough and dirty, matted with dried blood in places. She could see scars beneath his fur in places. Calruz looked like a savage. The Minotaur she’d known had cared for his appearance as fastidiously as any [Knight]. This Calruz looked scarred and rough.
His teeth and odor were another part of that. Calruz looked like he hadn’t cleaned his teeth and he stank of rotten meat and sweat. And blood. The smell of blood actually covered most of the other smells. To Ceria, the Minotaur stank like a butcher’s shop. Unwillingly, her eyes drew downwards and stared at his arm.
It shouldn’t have been a shock to see the pinkish stump of flesh at his shoulder, but it still was. Calruz’s right arm, his dominant arm, was missing. Ceria could remember the moment when he’d lost it. She’d had nightmares of that moment, when Skinner had reached down and plucked Calruz’s arm off his chest.
She stared at his other arm. It was whole. Damaged—clearly injured in later battles from the scars—but intact. It looked bigger than she remembered. Dead gods, she’d forgotten how tall Calruz was. Taller than Gnolls or Drakes and Humans. Only Moore was taller. The Minotaur still looked like a mass of muscle. But his eyes and the crazed smile he gave her—
Ceria had seen it many times before. In half-Elves in the village she’d run away from, in [Mages] in Wistram—and adventurers. In everyone, really. Or maybe just the people she hung around. She knew madness. The different kinds that took hold.
The half-Elf villages were isolated bubbles where centuries could pass with little to no change. The elders there had been insane, babbling about the glories of half-Elves and their connection to their ancient ancestors. They were frightening—dangerous old half-Elves who had twisted their minds so firmly around an idea that they couldn’t think any other way.
By contrast, the [Mages] of Wistram had been crazy in a different way. They hoarded secrets and played games of politics in what they thought of as the center of the world. Like half-Elves they were cut off from the rest of the world. Those of them that dreamed of more—Ceria thought of Illphres. She had been insane, but in her own way. She had reached for the height of magic, been willing to risk her life for that end. You had to be insane to do that.
By contrast, adventurers were just normally crazy. They risked their lives for glory, levels, and gold. They would rather die with sword or wand in hand than live a peaceful life. They charged into danger for the reward and thrill of it. Ceria understood and admired that. But Calruz? When she looked at him she saw something that made her shudder.
He was gone. It was something in the way he looked at her, as if he’d found her after getting separated. As if he wasn’t standing in a dungeon, as if he wasn’t leading a tribe of murderous beasts and holding innocent people captive. It was something in his eyes. Or rather, something missing.
“You’ve returned to me.”
Calruz repeated himself. He reached out and grabbed Ceria’s shoulder. His hand was huge, rough. Warm. It squeezed Ceria and she felt a shock run through her. He was real after all. She wasn’t insane herself. She stared up at Calruz as he went on, eagerly, triumphantly.
“I knew one of my team had to be alive. All of our team couldn’t have fallen. But no matter how long I waited, you didn’t find your way down here. You must have…escaped the undead and that thing some other way. How many of the others made it? Gerial? Hunt? Sostrom? Barr? My Raskghar were only able to identify you by smell. If you tell me where the others are, I can send another raiding party to retrieve them.”
He gestured to the Raskghar moving about the large, cavernous room. Ceria opened her mouth, head spinning. Calruz shook his, sending his hair flying. Ceria saw a tiny black speck jump from his fur. He had fleas.
“Later, though. The damned Drakes must be on high-alert after our last raid. I would have captured three times as many Gnolls if they hadn’t discovered my elite team. Those fools must have given themselves away somehow.”
“They attacked the city? Again?”
For some reason that was the first thing Ceria focused on. Calruz turned, looking surprised.
“Of course! A day attack. I misled the Drakes into believing the Raskghar were only able to function at night. I hid a team armed with artifacts above. They were to attack and seize as many Gnolls as possible, but they were spotted somehow and forced to retreat. They returned with you and a few Gnolls, though. So their mission was not a complete failure. I spared them from punishment because they brought you. With you at my side, managing these savages will be far easier.”
He grinned at Ceria again, revealing a cracked tooth. Ceria stared at Calruz. Her mouth worked silently a few times. Then she just said it.
“No. What the hell are you doing, Calruz?”
The Minotaur blinked. He frowned at Ceria.
“Laying out our plan of attack, of course. We have a dungeon to conquer. Or have you forgotten our mission?”
“Our mission? That was months ago! We failed, Calruz! The undead killed everyone! Skinner—that thing in the crypts wiped out our team!”
The Minotaur had no whites of his eyes. Rather, they were yellowish and his pupils were dark brown. He paused and Ceria saw his gaze flick to her uncertainly.
“Nonsense. I’m sure they escaped. You did. They’re in hiding, no doubt. We took—casualties—yes. But they can’t all be—what about Gerial?”
“They’re dead, Calruz! They’re all dead!”
Ceria screamed up at Calruz. He looked shocked, and shook his head in denial. But Ceria couldn’t believe any lie. She had been there. She had seen it all. She remembered Gerial pushing her back, striding forwards towards Skinner. She remembered having to identify his remains. She remembered—she felt sick.
“What is this, Calruz? You’re working with Raskghar? They’ve been killing innocent people! And—and kidnapping Gnolls? Why? Let them go!”
Calruz’s confused look hardened.
“The Gnolls are my prisoners. I told you. The Raskghar are my—my tribe. My warriors. Yes, that’s what they are. I found them. Forged the isolated Raskghar camps together. They’ve expanded since I became their leader. We’ve conquered a good section of the dungeon.”
“You ambushed adventurers. Killed them!”
“Those fools? They knew what they were getting into.”
The Minotaur waved a hand dismissively. Ceria stared at him. Then she looked at the Gnolls.
“Let them go.”
Calruz turned his head. He looked irritated.
“I brought you down here to rejoin my team, Springwalker. Not to question my orders!”
“Your orders? Your orders?”
Ceria laughed hysterically. This was unreal! She couldn’t believe it. She wanted to throw up. She pointed at Calruz. Her living hand trembled.
“You’re crazy! Working with monsters? Abducting innocent people? Where the hell were you, Calruz! We were searching for you! We left messages! Why didn’t you try to get out of here? Why did you—”
Calruz was shaking his head, more and more violently. He erupted.
“Enough! Don’t—don’t question me! You are my subordinate! You will obey me! I am your captain!”
Ceria stared up at him. Slowly, she shook her head.
“Not anymore. I lead the Horns of Hammerad now, Calruz. We made a new team. We were looking for you. I wish we’d found you dead rather than like this.”
He jerked. The yellow whites of Calruz’ eyes began to turn red. Ceria’s heart beat faster. She recognized that. That was a bad sign. He was losing his temper.
“You replaced me? Me? I was in the dungeon this entire time! I was fighting! For our honor! For our pride! How dare you question me! Enough talk! You will follow my command!”
Ceria’s ability to banter was nonexistent. But to an enraged Minotaur, even that was too much provocation. Calruz raised his arm and made a fist.
“Do not test me, Ceria. I tolerate no treachery. None! Stop talking about the Gnolls! Stop questioning my—stop talking!”
She almost laughed. Almost. Ceria remembered that Calruz had been just as bad at witty repartee as she had. She’d always gotten under his skin. This time though—Ceria’s mirth faded. She looked up at Calruz and shook her head. She raised her skeletal hand and raised her middle finger. She waved it in front of the bull man’s face.
He roared and punched at her. Ceria ducked. She felt a rush of air over her head and scrambled away. She was suddenly aware of all the Raskghar in the room. Oh hell, she hadn’t thought this through at all! Ceria rolled as Calruz swiped for her and drew her belt knife.
Ceria didn’t have a plan. If she had to put the rush of blood and fear into a plan, it would be to defend herself, and then take Calruz prisoner, somehow get the Raskghar to release the Gnolls, and make a break for it. She slashed at his arm with her dagger. Wound him, get the knife to his throat—
Her blade struck Calruz’ arm with all of her weight behind it as he grabbed for her. Ceria felt the impact, and then heard a ping. She saw the tip of her dagger snap on Calruz’ arm. The piece of metal fell to the ground with a ringing sound. Calruz’ arm on the other hand was unharmed.
“Oh hell. That’s new.”
Ceria raised her skeletal hand. Calruz seized her by the throat and lifted her up. He roared, spraying her with spit.
The half-Elf pointed at his face. Calruz cursed and threw her a second before the [Ice Spike] shot from her fingers. Ceria landed hard, tried to get up, and felt a huge paw grab her. She twisted and the Raskghar slammed her into the ground.
The world went black and red. Dizzily, Ceria squirmed and felt another blow to her head. Something—the Raskghar held Ceria down. She felt warm blood trickling down the side of her head. The Raskghar growled as he held Ceria. She heard Calruz roaring with fury and then striding over. A huge hand reached down—
And seized the Raskghar. The furry beast man had only a chance to yelp in surprise before Calruz threw the Raskghar to the ground. Then he began kicking the Raskghar. Ceria scrambled to one side.
“Insubordination! You do not touch her without my permission! You dare to injure her? You?”
He pummeled the Raskghar with his feet, striking him with a hammer blow from his good arm when the Raskghar tried to rise and fight back. For all of the Raskghar’s huge size, Calruz was still bigger. And clearly, stronger. He had always been strong, but Ceria thought he had gained some kind of Skill. Calruz turned from the bloody, whimpering body at last and turned to Ceria. The red madness in his eyes made her brace, but suddenly, Calruz was calm again. He strode over to her.
“Did that fool injure you? Let me see your head.”
The half-Elf flinched, but Calruz’ fingers were gentle as he inspected her head wound.
“Superficial cuts. A bit of healing potion will fix that.”
Then the Minotaur frowned and looked down.
“What happened to your hand?”
Ceria blinked up into Calruz’s face. He sounded…normal. Still a bit crazy, but more normal. She swallowed the bile in her throat and tried to respond.
“I uh, lost it when I used a spell to hold off the undead. The magical backlash froze all the skin off.”
“Dead gods. But your hand works! Is it magic? Some kind of spell?”
Calruz stared down at Ceria. She could see the Raskghar behind him trying to get up, keening silently in pain. He’d lost some of his teeth! The other Raskghar growled at him, mocking, but a Cave Goblin scurried forwards with a cloth in one hand. The Raskghar grabbed it and knocked the Cave Goblin back. Pain begat pain. Ceria focused on Calruz.
“My hand? No it’s—I think it’s a half-Elf thing.”
“That creature. That flesh monstrosity.”
Calruz growled. He opened and closed his left hand, breathing heavily. He turned away from Ceria.
“Do you know where it is? I’ve searched for a way back up to the crypt. I fell down a—a hole. But I cannot remember where it was. However, I am sure that this time we can fell the beast. The Raskghar have artifacts. I have a weapon myself that will do the job. How many undead remain, do you think?”
Again, Ceria had to remember what he was talking about. She shook her head.
“Undead? None. That thing—it was called Skinner, Calruz. Remember the poem on the wall? The people of Liscor killed it. And all the undead that came out of crypt. Almost everyone in our expedition died. But Skinner—they killed him. It.”
This time, Calruz’ brows creased. He repeated her words slowly, as if trying to make sense of them.
“Slain? They slew it? That’s good. That is…all dead? All of them? You saw them? All of my Horns? Are they truly…?”
He looked at Ceria. She nodded slowly. The Minotaur stood very still, and then he sat. He covered his face with his hand.
Ceria took that moment to look around. The Raskghar were staring at her appraisingly. They didn’t look afraid—rather, they looked like predators eying up a main course. But they looked apprehensively at Calruz. Apprehensively, but with expectation as well. He was leading them! And Ceria saw too much intelligence in their eyes. She looked at Calruz. A bit of hope stirred in her chest.
“Calruz. Erin killed Skinner.”
The Minotaur gaped at her.
“The…[Innkeeper]? The Human female? With the skeleton? Yes. Yes, I remember her. She slew the monster? How?”
Ceria watched Calruz’ expression change. Shock, indignation, and then—he laughed.
“Acid jars? Are you serious?”
She nodded. Calruz bellowed a laugh. He turned, made a fist, pounded his thigh. He laughed again.
“We should have bought everything she had! Acid jars? Truly? An [Innkeeper] did what four Silver-rank teams couldn’t? Acid jars?”
He roared with laughter. Ceria forced herself to smile and nod. She cleared her throat as Calruz’ laughter ebbed.
“Right. Erin killed Skinner. And guess what? That white Gnoll? The one your Raskghar kidnapped? She’s Erin’s ward.”
Calruz turned. He glanced at Mrsha, visibly confused. The little Gnoll was peeking out of her cage. She hid the moment Calruz turned, but she had been looking at Ceria. The half-Elf’s heart pounded wildly. If she could pull this off—
“That’s right. She took in Mrsha after Ryoka rescued her. Ryoka and Erin both care about Mrsha. These Gnolls are citizens of Liscor. You need to let them go.”
“Erin. Ryoka. Where is Ryoka? The last we saw her—”
Calruz shook his head. Ceria spoke quickly.
“It’s a long story. But I’m sure Erin—and Ryoka—are concerned for Mrsha. If you let her go…”
A rumble of protest sprung up from the Raskghar. Ceria looked at them, wide-eyed. They were listening! Worse, they understood. Calruz glanced at them and the rumble instantly faded.
“My people spoke of the white Gnoll. They believe she is special.”
White fur. Ceria glanced quickly at Mrsha. The Gnoll was peeking at her.
“She might be. But Ryoka saved her. Ryoka did. And Erin’s been raising her. Calruz. You should let her go. And the others.”
Calruz had been slowly nodding. Right up until Ceria said ‘others’. Then he paused. He frowned and looked at the Raskghar. When he turned back he shook his head.
“No. I told you. They are my prisoners. I have a use for them. You—I told you! That is not why I brought you down here! You will fight by my side! Leave the prisoners alone!”
“No. Let them go and I’ll join you.”
Calruz swung back to Ceria.
“You don’t make demands. I lead here! This is not a negotiation! Obey me or you will share his fate!”
He pointed at the bloody Raskghar. Calruz loomed over Ceria. The half-Elf felt his anger. Her legs shook, but she made herself stand taller. She made a fist with both hands and braced herself.
Again she saw Calruz’ face twist with fury. He raised a hand and Ceria gritted her teeth. She readied a spell. But this time Calruz’ madness took a different turn. He threw his head back and barked another short laugh.
“You always were insubordinate! It’s what I appreciated about you.”
He shook his head and turned away. Ceria lowered her hands. She felt another shiver crawl down her spine. This was not Calruz! He went from fury to humor in the blink of an eye. The Minotaur gestured around the Raskghar camp.
“This is why I needed you. Someone who could speak back when needed. Not like these Raskghar. They’re nothing more than beasts for most of the month. Only when the moon is nearly full do they regain any semblance of intelligence. We must make as many gains as possible now. Come, I need to show you around the dungeon. I plan to launch an offensive with your magics to back up my warriors. Can you cast [Fireball] with that wand or do I need to find you a better one?”
“Calruz—I told you no.”
The Minotaur paused. He looked at Ceria.
“And I do not accept that. You will work with me. I warn you, Ceria. Do not refuse me again. Join me.”
Ceria wavered. She crossed her hands behind her back, flicked her fingers. A bit of light flared, invisible to Calruz. Then she shook her head. Calruz’ eyes turned red again.
“I will not be disobeyed! You!”
He whirled and pointed. One of the Raskghar sitting on the ground looked up. She—it was a she—stood, looking wary. Calruz pointed at her.
“Take one of the Gnolls. Any of them save for the white one. You may perform the ritual. Do it now!”
The Raskghar bared her teeth. Alarmed, Ceria looked at her.
Calruz swung back towards her. Now the insanity lit up his eyes.
“You did this. You forced my hand.”
She didn’t know what ritual he meant. But the way the Raskghar smiled made Ceria terribly uneasy. She looked at the Gnolls. But he wouldn’t hurt them because of her, surely. He might be insane, but she had never known him to compromise his honor. She croaked as she watched the Raskghar turn.
“Wait, Calruz, I—”
Too late. The female Raskghar stepped towards the cages at the back. They weren’t the typical barred cells that Ceria had seen in Human cities. These were more like boxes, made of metal and wood and tanned hides. For all that, they were impossible for the Gnolls to escape. The Raskghar had taken one item from Liscor’s City Watch—iron shackles. Bound hand and foot, the Gnolls could barely move.
There had to be at least sixty of them in the cages. Ceria saw the female Raskghar sniff, and then look from face to face. The Gnolls tried to edge back. There were children, males, females—Ceria saw the female look at a young male Gnoll. She opened his cage. A terrible foreboding seized Ceria. She ran forwards but a Raskghar grabbed her. Calruz growled.
“Hold her down. Make her watch.”
A pair of Raskghar forced Ceria down effortlessly. She tried to blast them with magic, but the blow to her head made her dizzy. And the Raskghar were forcing her hands down. She couldn’t aim at them. She shouted desperately at the Minotaur as he turned to watch.
“Calruz! Stop! I’ll obey you! Stop! I’ll do it!”
He ignored her. The Raskghar held Ceria down but she could still see. The female Raskghar entered the cell after barking at the others. The Gnoll in the cell jerked and struggled as the Raskghar entered. One ripped the shackles from his hands and legs after unlocking it with a key. That gave the prisoners a chance. Ceria watched, hoping—but in vain.
The Gnoll fought wildly, but he was surrounded. Four Raskghar grabbed his arms and legs and towed him out of the cell. The other Gnolls howled, fighting their restraints. The Raskghar watched. All of the Raskghar in the room had formed a circle. Around—Ceria’s heart stopped—a slab of stone in the center of the room.
It was just a piece of rock, but it was stained dark red. Ceria struggled and the Gnoll did the same. The Raskghar paid him no heed. They were—crooning. Making a soft growling sound as they carried him. All the Raskghar were making the sound. It was low, ominous. Expectant.
The four Raskghar carried the Gnoll to the slab of rock. They slammed him onto the flat surface. The Gnoll groaned and then stiffened as the female Raskghar stepped forwards. She had a jagged bit of stone in her hand.
“Calruz! Calruz! Don’t do this! Don’t—”
A paw muffled Ceria’s screams. The Minotaur didn’t look back once. The female Raskghar looked at him and he nodded. She raised the stone and the crooning sound from the Raskghar stopped. The sudden silence was complete. Ceria could hear nothing, not even her voice screaming. She felt something in the air. Magic? It made her sick to her stomach. She saw the Gnoll struggling, his tendons bulging beneath his fur. Then he looked over at her. His voice echoed.
“Half-Elf—tell my family in Liscor—tell them I thought of them—”
The female Raskghar brought down the chunk of stone. The Gnoll screamed as it pierced his breast. He surged, fighting the four Raskghar holding him, howling. The female Raskghar twisted the stone and he jerked and went still.
Ceria heard a howl, long and loud. The Raskghar lifted the bloody stone dagger and licked the blood from the tip. The Raskghar around her howled in triumph. The four surrounding the dead Gnoll stepped back. The female Raskghar bent and, to Ceria’s horror, began to tear at the Gnoll’s chest. She was eating something.
The grisly feast took seconds. The entire time Ceria was staring at the Raskghar. At Calruz, who was watching, expressionless, his left hand clenching and unclenching impatiently. The female Raskghar chewed noisily and swallowed. Something like a sigh filled the room. Something changed.
When the Raskghar raised her bloody muzzle, her eyes glowed with inner light for a second. The Raskghar’s body shifted. Ceria saw the Raskghar grow slightly, her fangs and claws lengthening, her muscles developing. The change was slight, but when the Raskghar straightened she was taller, more fearsome than before. But the worse difference was in her eyes. Again. Only the Raskghar wasn’t mad. Fierce, bright intelligence shone from her gaze as she looked around. She wiped blood from her fur and licked it.
The room was silent. The Gnolls clung to each other, staring at the Raskghar, wide-eyed. Calruz grunted. He strode forwards and the female Raskghar turned to him.
The Raskghar’s growling voice made Ceria jump. She stared at the female Raskghar in shock. This Raskghar looked much like the others to her, but Krshia would have recognized her as the very same one she had met in Liscor. The female Raskghar’s deep voice rumbled as she addressed Calruz deferentially.
“Old way works. Gnolls make us stronger. Smarter. More blood means more power. All Raskghar will drink. Grow.”
The other Raskghar growled expectantly. They stared at the Gnolls. Calruz shook his head. he raised a finger, raised his voice imperiously.
“One for today. One. I will select another worthy Raskghar to conduct this ritual. The best of the warriors. You will take command of Dailre’s Fist. I expect greater results. The Gnolls will not be touched until then.”
The Raskghar female didn’t like that. She licked her lips.
“Want more Gnolls. More—”
Calruz’s face twisted into a snarl. He lashed out at the Raskghar, swinging so fast that Ceria heard the crack before she registered his left arm move. The female’s head jerked backwards. She howled in pain and surprise and lurched backwards, her ears flattening along her head. Calruz glared down at her.
“I decide! You will follow my orders or die. Is that understood?”
The air was tense. For a second Ceria thought the Raskghar would lash out, but she clearly thought better of it. Her eyes flashed with discontent, but she bowed her head submissively. Her tail lowered.
She bounded back towards the other Raskghar. They made way for her, sniffing at her. Ceria saw the female glance back at her. Then she disappeared. Ceria turned her gaze back towards Calruz. The Minotaur nodded and the Raskghar let her go. He let her get up and looked at her.
Insanity. Or was it just him, now? Ceria didn’t know. She stared dully at the Minotaur. Calruz spoke coldly.
“Every time you disobey my orders I will sacrifice another of these Gnolls. Follow my command and I will let a few go. Perhaps even the white one.”
He nodded at Mrsha. Ceria stared at the Gnoll. Mrsha had seen the entire thing. She was trying to hide in the corner of her cell. She stared at Ceria with wide eyes. Calruz looked at Ceria.
“Well? Do I have to make an example of her?”
“No. No. Please, Calruz.”
Ceria hung her head. Calruz grinned.
“Good! I knew I made the right choice. You and I—we’ll bring the Horns to glory yet. This dungeon is halfway conquered as it is. Isn’t it?”
He waited. Ceria didn’t respond. Calruz instantly turned to fury again.
The half-Elf looked up. Calruz took a step back. Ceria was crying. Tears rolled down Ceria’s cheeks. She stared up at him. Silently. Calruz wavered. The fury left him. He stared at Ceria and reached out with his left hand. Then he turned away.
“Follow me. We have work to do. Fourth Company, to me!”
He roared and a group of Raskghar sprang to their feet. They ran after Calruz. Ceria watched him stride away.
Ceria didn’t waver. Her feet moved forwards. Slowly. Her voice was defeated when she spoke.
The Gnolls in the room watched her silently walk across the broken, domed room. On the altar, the Cave Goblins were swarming around the Gnoll with knives, rusted swords. Turning him into food. Ceria looked once at him, and then at the captive Gnolls. She whispered a word that they all heard.
She flicked her fingers again. A spark of light shone. The Gnolls saw a tiny butterfly made of fire and light flicker into life and then disappear. The half-Elf turned. She followed Calruz into the dungeon.
Mrsha sat in her cage. The shackles were tight on her paws. They hurt. She could barely move. And she hurt. A Raskghar had grabbed her, squeezed her and smacked her when she tried to bite. She’d thrown up. She was dizzy. Thirsty. And Lyonette was gone.
She’d tried to protect her. Mrsha remembered it. She saw the Raskghar burst through the front door again, saw Lyonette scream at her to run. Mrsha had run up the stairs, but the Raskghar was fast! He grabbed her on the stairs. And then Lyonette attacked him. Apista attacked him! But he hit Lyonette. Made her wrist bend and crack.
Mrsha could remember the sound. And he’d hit Apista so hard the bee had landed on the far wall. And then he’d run with her into the rain and she’d been dragged underwater, inhaled water and choked until he’d struck her to make her throw up—
And now she was in a Bad Place. A Very Bad Place. Mrsha knew it. She could smell the badness in the air. And the horrible not-Gnolls, the Raskghar made her shudder. She knew, just as certainly as she knew that Erin was nice and Lyonette was warm and that water was wet that the Raskghar were her enemy. She tried not to remember what she had seen. But the Gnoll’s last scream echoed in her ears. Mrsha tried to bury her head in her side, feeling the shackles on her paws. Only when she sensed she was being watched did she look up.
A Gnoll was staring at her. He had dark grey fur, streaked with reddish-brown stripes. He looked old. Not as old as Urksh had been, but older than one of the Stone Spear hunters. He was a Gnoll from Liscor. Mrsha had never seen him, but she could smell that on him. Along with his fear. He was one of the oldest Gnolls in the cages and she could see the others looking to him. Mrsha sat up. The Gnoll stared at her and then looked around the room.
The Raskghar were agitated. Many were clustering around the terrible female who’d performed the ritual. The rest had followed bad Minotaur out of the room. So had Ceria. Mrsha wondered why the Minotaur had captured her. She knew why he’d ordered the Raskghar to catch her. Her stomach turned over when she thought of that.
The old Gnoll was thinking the same things. He eyed the Raskghar. They were keeping away from the cages as Calruz had ordered. But every so often they would look over and sniff the Gnoll’s scent. They stank of blood and death and grown up things. None of them washed, Mrsha was sure. She edged her bottom away from them. The Gnoll glanced at her and then he spoke in a gravelly voice.
Mrsha froze. She stared at the Gnoll. Her heart beat painfully in her chest and her stomach did another flop. The Gnoll shook his head tiredly.
“I did not believe it myself, no. I thought the legends and tales were just that. So Krshia claimed and I believed her. But I see the Raskghar here. Ancient enemies, stories made to frighten cubs. And I see you. And I think the old days are upon us once more. So. Doombringer.”
He looked at her. At Mrsha’s fur. The white Gnoll shivered. She tried to back away, but the older Gnoll shook his head.
“I do not blame you for what you are, cubling. You cannot help your curse. Nor will you escape, I think, no. But know what you are. Doom and death of tribes. Cursed one.”
Mrsha wanted to howl at him. She wanted to speak, to tell him no. But all she could do was hide. Hot shame and fear and too many emotions for words made her burrow her head in her side. She sensed the Gnoll staring at her for a long time. Then he turned his back on her. The other Gnolls stared at Mrsha too. They looked away. She was not of them.
Mrsha had known that. She knew that was why Lyonette didn’t let her play in the city. Because the other Gnolls told her she couldn’t. She’d been fine with that because Lyonette played with her and so did Moore and Erin and everyone else at the inn. But they weren’t here. And this was worse, to be alone with her people who weren’t her people.
The Raskghar were celebrating. They were in a frenzy. They drooled as they yipped and growled at each other, staring at the Gnolls. Like food. Like prey. The Gnolls stared back. Defiance flashed in their eyes. The Raskghar stood up, struck the cages, trying to scare the Gnolls. But they couldn’t.
It might have been a child or one of the younger females who opened her mouth and howled first. The high-pitched sound made the Raskghar growl in fury. The Cave Goblins looked up in alarm. The loud sound echoed through the room. At once, the other Gnolls did the same.
They began to howl. The Raskghar snarled and barked, but the Gnolls howled. Mrsha huddled in her cage, longing to join in. The howling filled the room, echoing, trying to bounce down the dungeon’s corridors, reach above. It was a howl of fury, of grief. And defiance!
We are here! Here! It was a call any Gnoll would know. A call for aid, of kinship. The Raskghar knew what the Gnolls were doing and hated the sound. But the defiant howling was stopped as soon as it had begun. Raskghar, enraged, tore open the cell doors, strode inside and began beating the Gnolls with their bare hands, feet, and stone clubs.
The howling stopped and cries of pain filled the air. Mrsha covered her eyes and ears with her paws and curled up. The beating lasted a long time. When the Raskghar finally strode away, Mrsha saw many of the Gnolls lying on the ground, bleeding, badly bruised. Some had broken bones. The Raskghar emerged from the cages, bloody, sniffing. One came towards her, baring his teeth for violence.
Mrsha backed against the back of her cage. The Raskghar bared his teeth at her, and then yelped as a hand pulled him back. Mrsha saw another Raskghar strike the first savagely and the Raskghar slunk away, growling. But he wasn’t the only one. The other Raskghar kept looking at her. Only Calruz’ order kept them from Mrsha.
Reluctantly, the other Raskghar moved away. The Gnolls stayed where they were, trying to tend to their injuries, beaten into silence. Mrsha sat up desperately. She wished she could do something! Anything! But the shackles were hard on her paws. She couldn’t move.
She didn’t have her wand. Lyonette was gone. Apista wasn’t here. She’d broken her legs. Mrsha had seen the Raskghar hit her out of the air. Erin had been gone. She might not even know where Mrsha was. Or she might be dead.
That was a terrible thought. Mrsha tried to take it back, but she couldn’t. She wiped her running nose on her arm. She tried very hard not to cry. If she did, the Raskghar might hit her too. She wouldn’t cry. Ceria was here. Ceria would rescue her. Or—or the other adventurers would. Halrac was strong. Moore was strong. They would find her. They would rescue her if she didn’t cry. Erin would come, or Jelaqua, or Pisces, or Ksmvr, or Ryoka, or Zel—
But Zel was dead. And Ryoka was gone. She’d gone far away. Mrsha curled up. She tried not to cry. But the hot tears that trickled from her eyes made her a liar. She hid her face and hoped this was all a dream. But when she slept and woke, she was still far below. And no one had saved her.
Calruz. It was Calruz. It had always been Calruz. And in a way, it fit. The disaster had begun with the expedition into the crypt and it had never quite ended. Skinner had come, and Skinner had died. But the misery he had brought had festered. And now, half a year later, one of the very same adventurers who had entered the dungeon was behind the attacks on the city.
There was a horrible order to it. But Erin’s mind couldn’t focus on all of that. She was just thinking about Mrsha and Ceria. They were gone. The Raskghar had taken them. They were gone and Calruz was behind it all. She imagined the big Minotaur, remembered him showing her how to punch. That Calruz was responsible for this. Erin looked around at the adventurers conferring, the Cave Goblin tied to the chair, the grim look in Ilvriss’ eyes as he spoke to Zevara and Olesm and Embria.
All of this.
It was too much. Erin couldn’t take it in so she shut it out. She focused on the only thing she could think about right now. Mrsha. Ceria. They had to be found. Erin looked around at the crowd of worried people and saw a familiar face standing at the back. Lyonette stood, one hand wrapped up, white as a ghost, staring at nothing.
She was cradling Apista. The Ashfire Bee’s legs were wrapped up and they’d been healed with a bit of potion, but the [Princess] didn’t let the bee fly or perch on her shoulder. She had made a little sling and Apista lay in it, fluttering her wings now and then but not moving. Lyonette gently ran her fingers down the bee’s fuzzy body. She looked lost, pale. Her left hand was splinted. The healing potion had mended the bone, but it was still weak according to Pisces.
The young woman didn’t look around the first time Erin called her name. Only when Erin touched her did she glance over. She looked lost. Erin hugged her with one arm.
“We’ll get her back. We’ll get them both back.”
Erin had no reply. Lyonette stared at her and then turned. She was listening to a group of adventurers talk. The Gold-rank Captains were standing in a circle. Halrac, Jelaqua, Bevussa, Keldrass—they all looked worried. Some were still hurt. They’d had to fight their way out of the dungeon. There were a lot less adventurers in the inn. They’d all been attacked by monsters and Raskghar. Many were just resting from their injuries or exhaustion. Some were dead.
“We took a score of Silver-rank casualties and we lost a Gold-rank adventurer in the battle.”
“We’re lucky we didn’t lose a team. Those monsters were flooding the corridors! My team barely escaped—how did the Raskghar control them?”
“I saw them coming down with artifacts. They’re intelligent—maybe they had one that manipulates monsters?”
“There were hundreds of them. Hundreds! And they have artifacts of their own. How are we supposed to fight—”
“Wait them out? In four days they’ll lose their intelligence.”
“In four days every Gnoll they captured will be dead. I don’t understand that part. Why Gnolls? Vengeance? Food? Breeding—”
“It’s a possibility. We have to hunt them down before then. But after what happened—”
“We can’t let Silver-ranks down there. Tekshia was right. This is a Gold-rank only. And we’ll struggle for every step. If there’s no safe time of day…”
“We’re going in. As soon as we replenish our potions and recharge our spells. No question of that.”
Jelaqua snapped. She was flushed, her dead-white skin slightly orange as her true body within manifested itself. Her claws trembled on her flail’s grip. An arrowhead had embedded itself in the Selphid’s body, right in the scales under her cheek, but she hadn’t pulled it out.
“So are we.”
Halrac folded his arms. His face was impassive, but Erin could feel emotion rolling off him, a hot torrent of fury and distress. The other Gold-rank Captains nodded, some dubiously.
“Of course, we’re contracted to go in. But we need a plan of attack.”
“You do. We don’t. I’m going in with my team at first light tomorrow. I’d go now, but Moore’s out of juice.”
“My team as well.”
Bevussa nodded. Keldrass spat a bit of flame from his mouth and nodded.
“The Flamewardens won’t run. We’ve taken this dungeon too lightly and paid for it. Tomorrow we’re going in. Our team will go scorched ground. Your teams will need to steer clear.”
“We’ll be using radical strategy too. Keep away from our team.”
Halrac turned. He strode away from the Gold-rank Captains, towards Revi and Typhenous. The Stitch-Girl was tending to the old [Mage], who had several scrapes on one arm. Halrac spoke sharply.
“Revi, Typhenous. We’re heading to our inn. Tomorrow at first light we’ll go in. We’re using the Griffin-kill strategy we used at Screaming Falls.”
Revi and Typhenous looked up, surprised. Revi hesitated, then nodded.
“I’m going to change up for tomorrow. The Screaming Falls strategy? Halrac, you know that last time we used it, we were banned—”
“We’re fighting Raskghar. Not Griffins. Typhenous, can you cast the spells?”
The old [Mage] grimaced.
“Give me a night’s rest and I will be.”
Halrac turned and strode over to Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked up blankly.
“We need your defense food. The soup or the salad. Tomorrow before dawn. Can you have it ready?”
Erin’s felt a bit of normalcy enter the world. She nodded once, and then again.
“Have it ready to go.”
Halrac whirled and began to stride away. Erin called out after him.
He came back. Erin grabbed his arm.
“Save Mrsha. Please? And Ceria. Tell me you can do it.”
She knew she shouldn’t have said that. But Halrac just grabbed Erin’s arm. He looked in her eyes and lied.
“We’ll find them.”
Then he was gone. Some of the other Gold-rank teams left just as fast. A good number of Silver-rank teams looked like Lyonette, uncertain if they were dreaming or having a nightmare. Erin breathed in and out heavily, and then looked around. Yvlon was standing at the center of a group of angry adventurers, trying to answer questions. Ksmvr was being ignored, and Pisces—
The [Necromancer] was walking towards the stairs. He turned as Erin called after him. Yvlon spotted him as well and shouted.
“Pisces! Come back here! We need to figure out what to do! Pisces!”
He turned his head and walked up the stairs. Yvlon fought free of the group of adventurers and raced after him.
“Pisces! Stop, damn it! We need to make a plan! We have to find Ceria—”
Pisces turned his head slowly. Yvlon stopped. The [Necromancer] had the blankest look on his face that Erin had ever seen. Anger, regret, sadness—none of it was reflected there. Yvlon let go of his arm. The [Necromancer] walked up the stairs and disappeared. Both Yvlon and Erin stared at his back.
“What was that? Is he insane? We need to prepare for the dungeon! We’ll go in with the others at dawn! Before that! Ksmvr, grab as many healing potions as you can—”
“Oh no you don’t. You’re banned from entering the dungeon.”
Yvlon spun. Falene, Dawil, and Ylawes were standing behind her. The half-Elf frowned at the stairs and then at Yvlon.
“What do you mean, I’m banned? Ceria is missing!”
“Which is precisely why you can’t be trusted in the dungeon. You’ll get yourself killed. Plus, your team’s understrength. You’ll stay right here.”
“Horseshit I will.”
The armored woman snapped. She put out her hand to brush Falene aside, but Ylawes caught it.
“Listen to Falene, sister.”
“Don’t try and stop me, Ylawes.”
“We’re doing this for your own good.”
Yvlon’s eyes narrowed. She made a fist at Falene.
“Try and stop me and I’ll tear your ears off. I’m going after Ceria.”
Dawil sighed. He grabbed his beard and tugged it unhappily.
“No you’re not, lass. And we’ll bind you in ropes and hex you until you can’t move if we have to.”
Erin saw a flash and covered her eyes. Ylawes grabbed Yvlon as she sagged. Dawil grunted as he lifted Yvlon’s legs.
“We’ll need to tie her down when she wakes up. I doubt she’ll want to listen to reason.”
Ylawes shook his head, looking troubled.
“She’ll understand once we explain it to her and she’s cooled down.”
The Dwarf looked up at the [Knight] and shook his head disapprovingly.
“You really don’t know your sister at all, do you? Miss Solstice, can you show us to her room?”
“Why are you stopping Yvlon? We need everyone going in after Mrsha and Ceria!”
Erin stared at the Silver Swords. Falene shook her head.
“Adventurers who rush in die. And this dungeon has shown us exactly how deadly it is. Our team will go in and support the other Gold-ranks. Naturally, we could do no less. But not Silver-rank teams.”
She sniffed. Erin stared at her, debated breaking Falene’s pretty half-Elven nose, and turned away before she did. She stormed past the adventurers, ignoring Ksmvr who was anxiously asking whether Yvlon was alright. Straight towards Olesm, Zevara, and Ilvriss. Zevara grimaced as Erin approached and turned.
“How are you going to get Mrsha and Ceria back?”
The Watch Captain folded her arms.
“We’ll be doing the same thing we’ve done already. Watch the walls—in the day as well as night, now—and support the adventurers going in. We can’t do anything else. I won’t risk a single [Guardsman] in the dungeon. Even Relc would be outmatched if Gold-ranks are falling down there.”
“But Calruz has Ceria! And Mrsha!”
“We know that. That Minotaur bastard already captured citizens of Liscor! Don’t you think we’ve been doing everything in our power already?”
Erin realized what she was saying and bit her tongue. But this time it was Mrsha and Ceria. Zevara shook her head. She looked sympathetic, but impatient.
“I understand, Miss Solstice. I do. But I cannot help you. And I must get back to the walls in case the Raskghar hit us again.”
“Olesm tells me that you were the one who raised the alarm to begin with. For what it’s worth, you saved dozens of my guardsmen and a lot of civilians. The Raskghar might have gained the wall without your warning.”
“Yeah. And I wasn’t in my inn.”
Erin looked around blankly. Zevara sighed and swished her tail before walking away. Erin stared at her door. The Raskghar had come right through that. It hadn’t been bolted or anything. Erin had been so sure they’d come at nightfall. She should have sent Mrsha into Octavia’s shop the instant her [Dangersense] had warned her. She should have raised the alarm and gotten Ceria out of there. She should have…
“We’ll find a way to get them out, Erin. The adventurers are working on a map and I’m contacting the Gnoll tribes for more information about the Raskghar. We’ll get them. The Raskghar can’t hide themselves forever. I’ll be working with the adventurers each day, and I’ll get you updates…”
Olesm was speaking to her, trying to reassure her. Erin stared at the unconvincing smile on his face until the [Strategist] had to stop. Ilvriss cleared his throat.
“Swifttail, why don’t you assist Watch Captain Zevara on the walls? And I’m sure Wing Commander Embria would appreciate an update. She has been on duty and I believe her input would be essential.”
“Oh. Sure. I mean, yes, Wall Lord Ilvriss. Erin, I’ll be back later, okay?”
Erin replied distantly. She watched Olesm back away and then looked at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord studied her.
“Can you do anything?”
He hesitated, and then shook his head.
“If you are asking whether I will enter the dungeon with my people, the answer is no. I will double the reward for returning the missing citizens of Liscor. I can easily afford to pay that out of my own coffers. But that is the limit of my ability to help.”
“You won’t fight?”
He shook his head. There was regret in his eyes. She thought it was genuine. Either way, it didn’t matter.
“I am not an adventurer. Nor am I versed in detecting traps. As a [Lord], my abilities are split between diplomacy, economy, and warfare. I am…sorry. But we must trust in the adventurers.”
Erin looked at the bewildered Silver and Gold-rank teams. She shook her head.
She whirled, suddenly sure of what she had to do. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue were speaking to each other, standing next to the unconscious Cave Goblin. Erin strode towards them.
Ilvriss snapped. Erin looked back at him. The Wall Lord eyed her much as Falene had looked at Yvlon.
“I’ve heard about your past exploits. Going into the dungeon would be a death sentence.”
The young woman looked silently back at Ilvriss.
“I know that. I’m not stupid.”
She walked on, making a beeline for the Goblins. Wall Lord Ilvriss stared at Erin’s back and frowned. He tapped a claw on the table and looked around.
“Keep an eye on her. Don’t let her leave the inn.”
Selys jumped. She hadn’t realized that Wall Lord Ilvriss had noticed her there. She stammered and nodded.
Ilvriss studied Selys and nodded curtly.
“I must communicate with the Walled Cities. Until later, Miss Shivertail.”
He strode from the inn. Selys watched him go and looked around. The gathering was breaking up fast. All the adventurers were headed for the doors. All save for the Halfseekers, the Silver Swords who were going to stay the night until they could make sure that Yvlon didn’t run into the dungeon, and Halrac of Griffon Hunt. He’d gone for the doors, but Bird had stopped him.
“Mister Halrac. Everyone is very upset.”
The Antinium looked subdued as he clutched his bow worriedly. Halrac looked like the last thing he wanted to do was talk, but he let Revi and Typhenous go before him. He spoke in a voice roughened from shouting.
“Everyone is upset.”
“Oh. Is it a bad thing that has happened?”
The [Scout]’s eyes blazed.
Bird rocked back and forth as he stood in front of Halrac. He looked uncertainly at the man.
“Is it…is it my fault?”
The Worker brightened.
“Oh. That is good. I feel much better.”
He began to hum under his breath. Halrac stared at him.
“Do you not know what is happening?”
Bird shook his head cheerfully.
“No! I was in my room thinking about the bad thing I did. Then I heard many crashes. When I went to look, Lyonette was lying on the ground. So I looked for enemies. I shot at Raskghar. Who are bad. They are bad?”
He waited for Halrac to nod and then went on.
“I shot at them. Then Miss Erin ran up to get me. She said I had to come downstairs. So I did. Many people talked. But I do not know what they were talking about. Raskghar and a Calruz and more things about the dungeon. Revalantor Klbkch says that I do not need to worry about the dungeon so I do not.”
Halrac listened to Bird’s speech. He visibly wrestled with a reply, and then shook his head.
“I need to sleep.”
He stormed past Bird to the door. The Worker watched him go and then turned to Selys anxiously.
“Did I do another bad thing?”
Selys stared at him.
“No. Bird, right?”
“I am Bird. This all seems to be about the dungeon. And Raskghar. I am not worried about it, though. Revalantor Klbkch says that everything is going according to plan.”
The Drake bit her tongue to avoid screaming at Bird. She took a few deep breaths.
“You should worry, Bird. Mrsha is missing. So is Ceria. The Raskghar took them.”
Bird looked alarmed. Selys nodded. Had he not been listening? She thought of Bird and imagined him rocking back and forth, singing about birds. He had not. The Antinium looked visibly shaken.
“But Mrsha is a resident of the inn. And I am supposed to guard the inn. If Mrsha is gone, then I have failed. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.”
He began to rock back and forth. Selys stared at him and took a step back.
“It’s not your fault, Bird. The Raskghar attacked when no one was expecting them. Stop that. Please.”
Bird stopped. He looked around wildly.
“Miss Ceria is gone too. I have failed twice over. She is a resident of the inn. And Ksmvr is gone. I have failed thrice over.”
“No, Ksmvr is here. He’s…”
Selys turned. She searched for Ksmvr, but the Antinium was nowhere to be found. Selys frowned.
“He was here.”
“I did not see him go up the stairs. Which means he is not upstairs or in this room. So he is outside the inn! He might have been taken by the Raskghar too!”
“No, he’s fine, Bird. I saw him just a few minutes ago. He’s fine.”
“How do you know?”
Selys had no reply to that. So she backed away. Bird kept rocking back and forth on his feet, muttering to himself about failing. He seriously creeped Selys out. The Drake looked around. She’d almost forgotten what she was doing.
“Drassi! Hey, Drassi!”
The [Barmaid] was cleaning tables. She looked worried and aimless. She jumped when Selys waved at her and then hurried over. Drassi was Selys’ friend. Normally it was impossible to shut Drassi up, but tonight the Drake looked at a loss for words. Nearly.
“Ancestors, oh, Ancestors, Selys! This is so bad! Mrsha’s gone! And Ceria too! I thought we were safe with all the Gold-rank adventurers! What do we do? What can we do? If they can’t find Mrsha—if she’s hurt or—I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t think of it!”
“Drassi! Calm down!”
Selys grabbed Drassi and shook her sharply. She felt panicked herself. Drassi blinked as Selys lowered her voice.
“You need to calm down. I need your help!”
“My help? What can I do? I’m just a [Barmaid], Selys!”
And a [Gossip]. Selys still couldn’t believe that was a class. It didn’t matter. The [Receptionist] shook herself and tightened her grip on Drassi’s arm.
“That’s fine. Keep doing what you’re doing. But I can only rely on you. Ishkr can’t leave the city. The Council ruled that aside from adventurers, no Gnoll is allowed outside the walls. That includes The Wandering Inn. So I need you to be here. Make sure she doesn’t get into trouble.”
Drassi looked worriedly at the [Barmaid]. Lyonette was still standing in the same place, white as a sheet. Selys glanced over at her.
“Right. Her too. I meant Erin. Don’t let her out of your sight. Sleep at the inn if you have to. But don’t let her do…anything. The last time Ceria went missing, Erin went into the crypt and brought her out. This time—keep her here. I’ll try to get other people to look after her too.”
“I’ll try, but—”
Drassi bit her lip. Both Drakes looked at Erin. She was talking to the two Hobgoblins. Selys groaned.
“I know you’re afraid of the Hobs, but try, Drassi?”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of them any longer.”
Selys looked at Drassi stupidly. The Drake [Barmaid] smiled.
“Not one bit! Erin had this amazing moment with them. They were dragging the Cave Goblin out of the inn—the other one, I mean. I think they were going to kill her when Erin made them play a chess game! Okay, let me tell you what happened. First—”
“Drassi! Now’s not the time!”
The other Drake closed her mouth apologetically. Selys breathed in and out heavily.
“This is a disaster. I need to get back to the Adventurer’s Guild and tell grandmother what’s happening. We need to tend to the wounded—help the adventurers get into the dungeon! I don’t know how many Silver-rank teams will even go back in. The Gold-rank teams are our only hope. They have to find Mrsha. I’m going to light a fire under their tails. You stay here. Get all of Erin’s magical food ready and make sure she doesn’t leave the inn! Got it?”
Drassi nodded anxiously. Selys turned. She felt like she was going to throw up. She had thrown up when she’d heard about Mrsha going missing. The thought of anything happening to Mrsha made Selys’ stomach lurch. She walked unsteadily towards the door and looked back at Drassi.
“The adventurers will save them. They have to. There’s no one else we can rely on.”
Drassi nodded. She looked like she was trying to believe Selys’ words. Selys was trying too. She wished she could. The Drake opened the door and walked into the rain, cursing it, cursing the Raskghar, and praying without knowing what praying was, that Mrsha and Ceria would be safe.
Only the adventurers could save Mrsha and Ceria. Only they could find the Raskghar camp. Selys had meant what she’d said. To her, the words had been true. But they were wrong.
Bird was right. Ksmvr had left the inn. But the Worker was mistaken. Ksmvr hadn’t been abducted. He’d left of his own free will. He marched down the streets, rain glancing off his carapace. Yvlon and Pisces were still in the inn, he knew. But Ksmvr hadn’t told them where he was going. Yvlon was unconscious and Pisces had left. Besides which, Ksmvr didn’t belong in the team anymore. All of this was his fault.
No one had said it because it was obvious. Perhaps they were being kind to him. Ceria and Yvlon were very kind. So was Pisces, at times. But the fact was that everything was Ksmvr’s fault. Ceria’s abduction? Completely and utterly his failure. After all, he had been right there. In the prime position to stop the Raskghar. He had charged in—and been knocked aside as if he were a fly.
Everyone else had done more. Yvlon had struck a blow and actually blocked the Raskghar’s axe. Pisces had chased the Raskghar, even downed another with his rapier during the pursuit. But what had Ksmvr done?
Nothing. He was a failure. Klbkch had been right to expel him from the Hive. Ksmvr knew it in his heart. Ceria was missing. Possibly dead already. So was Mrsha. Ksmvr felt far more strongly about Ceria. She was his Captain. His leader. She had given him a place. And he had failed her.
The streets were empty the further he walked. The adventurers heading to their inns were silent, but they disappeared street by street. At last, Ksmvr was alone. No one walked where he was going. Not even the Watch patrolled this street. There was no point.
The entrance to the Antinium Hive was a dark, sloping tunnel fortified with dirt. It looked like any ant hole, really, but made a million times larger. Ksmvr hesitated at the entrance. He felt afraid as he gazed down into the Hive. He had not returned since he had been cast out.
He would have rather have jumped in the water than entered the Hive. He would do it too, if it meant returning Ceria. Without his Ring of Waterbreathing. But life wasn’t that convenient. Life, Ksmvr had realized, demanded thought. Skill. Sacrifice.
“If that is what will bring back Captain Ceria, death is nothing.”
Ksmvr reassured himself with those words. Then he walked into the Hive. He descended down the dirt ramp and paused.
Though Ksmvr had been a Prognugator for mere weeks, he had been trained to the position by the Queen herself. He knew the Hive and its defenses. Thus, Ksmvr was keenly aware of the Soldiers hidden in alcoves. They would step out and disembowel any intruder. Or rather, crush them to paste since disemboweling wasn’t enough for some monsters. It was the Hive’s first defense against unwelcome visitors. And right now, that included Ksmvr.
Death was nothing. But a meaningless death was worthless. So Ksmvr stepped forwards cautiously. He saw the darkness move and stopped.
Soldiers appeared in the tunnel. A dozen of them, their fists raised. They stared at Ksmvr, clearly warning him off. The former Prognugator hesitated, and then raised his voice.
“Move aside. I have business in the Hive with Revalantor Klbkch.”
The Soldiers didn’t move. Ksmvr hadn’t expected them to. But there was no going back. Ksmvr drew his shortsword and the enchanted dagger. His cloak swirled behind him. Soldiers were tough. If he had to fight his way through he’d have to kill them or incapacitate them fast. So many would tear him apart in moments. The Soldiers tensed—and then paused.
The former Prognugator heard a whisper in his mind. Someone—the Queen or Klbkch—had sent an order. He saw the Soldiers straighten and stand aside. Ksmvr walked past them warily, and then strode into the Hive.
Workers and Soldiers streamed through the main flow tunnels. They moved day and night. They moved like the most perfect of dancers, though their only purpose was to move as efficiently as possible from destination to destination. Ksmvr ran into the tunnel and the flow stopped as a discordant note entered it. The Workers and Soldiers stared at Ksmvr. The Antinium shouted as he brandished his shortsword.
“Step aside! I must speak to Revalantor Klbkch! Where is he?”
The Antinium looked as one, Ksmvr felt a pang of dread as he slowly turned. Workers and Soldiers parted in a wave. Klbkch stood in the entrance of a tunnel. He alone was unique. He had two arms instead of four. His body was slender, lacking the beetle-like shell of the Workers and Soldiers. A pair of silvery swords hung at his sides, as did a belt around his waist.
He stood out from the others, an Individual among the many. Ksmvr felt his stump of a fourth arm throb. He was wearing a cloak and carried the equipment of adventurers. In his way, he was as unique as Klbkch.
Klbkch turned and walked back the way he’d come. Ksmvr followed as the Antinium stepped aside to make a path. He followed Klbkch, nearly running, as the Revalantor strode down the tunnels. When Klbkch stopped, it was in a place that Ksmvr recognized.
The front lines of the Hive. The place where the Hive met the dungeon. It had changed dramatically since Ksmvr had lived here. The network of tunnels was gone, replaced by a fortified kill zone manned by Workers with bows and a group of Soldiers. Dead monsters were being cleaned up even as Ksmvr watched. A pair of Antinium Workers—Belgrade and Anand—were supervising the defenses. They turned in surprise as Klbkch stopped in the center of the open space.
“So. You’ve returned. I trust you have an adequate reason for attempting to enter the Hive?”
Klbkch’s voice was clipped. Precise. He spoke without hesitation, like the perfect Prognugator that Ksmvr had aspired to be. He terrified Ksmvr. But the Antinium refused to show weakness. He opened his mandibles.
“Speak, then. Why have you returned? The Queen does not desire your presence. Nor do I consider you to be an asset to the Hive.”
“I know. I am aware of my failings. But my team—the Horns of Hammerad—need aid. The Raskghar captured Captain Ceria. And Mrsha. They are being led by the former Captain of my team. Calruz.”
“Is that so.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat. Disinterested. Ksmvr nodded desperately. He clicked his mandibles together.
“She must be rescued. She is an asset to Liscor! To Miss Erin’s inn! To the Hive!”
“I do not see the relevance.”
“Captain Ceria is—she is a leader! A kind and wonderful leader and mage and—and she will be saved! It is unacceptable that she die. Unacceptable! She must be rescued! I request—I demand that the Hive send Soldiers to locate and retrieve her unharmed!”
Behind Klbkch, both Anand and Belgrade stirred. They looked uneasily at Klbkch. The Revalantor looked up slowly.
“You may demand nothing, Ksmvr. You were expelled from this Hive for incompetence and failure. You are not of the Free Antinium.”
The words pierced Ksmvr’s chest like one of Halrac’s arrows. He actually staggered and felt cold despair—emptiness clawing at his very soul. If he wasn’t part of the Hive, what was he? iF HE wASn’T anTINiUm, wHAT wAs—
A vision of Yvlon flashed in front of Ksmvr. She was showing him how to hold his shortsword. He saw Ceria offering him one of her raw eggs, saw Pisces brushing his hair back and smiling before a lecture.
The world stabilized around Ksmvr. He stood taller, gripped the hilt of his shortsword. He was a Horn of Hammerad. Even if he had no Hive, he had a team. That gave him the strength. Ksmvr drew his shortsword and the enchanted dagger. He heard Belgrade gasp, and saw the Soldiers and Workers turn as one.
Klbkch’s voice was flat. He studied Ksmvr carefully.
“What are you doing, Ksmvr?”
“Revalantor Klbkch. I challenge you for the position of Revalantor.”
Ksmvr was amazed at how steady his voice sounded. Klbkch paused. Ksmvr had never seen him surprised, but for a brief moment he thought the other Antinium was. Then Klbkch shook his head.
“The Antinium do not decide such matters by challenge.”
“I know. Nevertheless, I challenge you.”
“And if I refuse?”
Ksmvr shifted his grip on the shortsword’s hilt.
“I will attempt to kill you and take the position anyways.”
“I see. In that case, I accept your challenge. It is meaningless either way.”
Klbkch drew his silvery swords. The sound rang through the large chamber. The Antinium watched in silence. Ksmvr and Klbkch held perfectly still. They did not walk around each other. They did not speak. The instant Klbkch had drawn his swords, Ksmvr had tensed. He had one chance. And it was beyond slim.
There was no doubt that Klbkchhezeim the Slayer was far stronger than Ksmvr. He had led the Hive before Ksmvr had been created, long before. He was a master with the twin blades he carried. Nevertheless, he had a weakness. He had gone through the Rite of Anastases. He had lost his levels. Plus, his swords weren’t enchanted. Ksmvr’s were.
He had an enchanted shortsword and the Flamecoat Dagger. That was his real weapon, the one Ksmvr was counting on. One cut from it and he’d set Klbkch ablaze. And his cloak could probably take a blow from Klbkch’s swords. Ksmvr could use his Ring of Jumping—no, Klbkch would cut him apart as he landed. Keep it simple.
Ksmvr moved first. He lunged at Klbkch, jabbing with his shortsword. At the same time he swung his dagger, aiming for Klbkch’s leg. He was hoping that Klbkch would slice his arm off, give him a moment to touch the Antinium. One touch was all he needed. Klbkch moved the instant Ksmvr did. His swords rose and fell.
The Antinium blurred. He blocked Ksmvr’s shortsword with his left blade, forcing the Shortsword off-target. With his other, he batted aside the Flamecoat Dagger. The instant that the silver sword met the dagger, it burst into flame. Klbkch regarded the flaming blade in surprise. Even the handle was ablaze.
That was the gap Ksmvr needed. The Antinium cut at Klbkch’s chest, shouting desperately.
He had gained that Skill after the Face-Eater Moth attack. Ksmvr’s blade shot towards Klbkch’s chest. The Revalantor dropped his flaming blade, gripped his sword in both hands, and leaned back. Ksmvr missed. The Antinium saw Klbkch step backwards and his blade flashed. The silvery light was beautiful as art. It cut as deep as despair.
Klbkch cut twice. His blade sheared into Ksmvr’s carapace both times. Klbkch yanked his blade away. It was green with blood. Ksmvr collapsed. The Revalantor studied him and kicked Ksmvr onto his back. He reached for his belt and produced a bottle. He uncorked it, poured the contents onto Ksmvr, and turned away.
“Take this failure out of the Hive and leave him on the streets.”
On the ground, Ksmvr could only stare up in shock. The cold pain to his insides had come and gone so suddenly he was still processing it. But he knew what had happened. He had failed. But still, as the Workers scurried forwards to reach him, he tried again.
He reached for Klbkch, not caring about pride. The Revalantor stepped away from him, not even deigning to look down. Ksmvr collapsed. He wept and shook without tears. He was a failure. A complete, utter—
“Anand, how many Soldiers have been assembled yet?”
The [Tactician] straightened.
“A full wave, Revalantor Klbkch. Ready to attack on your orders.”
Ksmvr froze. Klbkch nodded, satisfied. He turned back to Ksmvr and spoke casually.
“We are launching an attack on the dungeon. This has nothing to do with your request.”
“You’re attacking the dungeon?”
Klbkch seemed to contemplate whether Ksmvr deserved an answer. He nodded abruptly.
“Of course. Now is the opportune time. For the Hive’s ends. The monster influx has drastically reduced and the presence of both the Raskghar and adventurers have thinned the monster population.”
“Then allow me to help. I will fight. Please—”
“No. The Hive does not need you. Go back to your team and serve them instead.”
Klbkch turned away. The Workers hauled Ksmvr backwards. He stared at Klbkch’s back until it was out of sight. Ksmvr did not dare to hope. If Klbkch was pursuing the Hive’s objectives, he wouldn’t try to rescue Ceria or Mrsha. But Ksmvr hoped anyways. He had nothing left.
When he was sure that Ksmvr was out of earshot, Klbkch turned back to Belgrade and Anand. He nodded as if nothing had happened.
“As I was saying. Belgrade. Your defenses are useful against the monsters. They will crumble against any kind of formation with a magic user in it. I want you to study Antinium pit traps and learn how to dig them efficiently.”
“Pit traps? Revalantor Klbkch? I mean, yes! What kind of pit traps?”
Belgrade started nervously. He was the more timid of the two. Anand, who was outspoken and far more assertive, stared at Klbkch and the trail of Ksmvr’s blood, clearly nonplussed. Klbkch ignored him.
“Antinium pit traps, Belgrade. It is unique to the Hive. A spiked pit trap or one that relies on gravity takes too long. Antinium pit traps were employed by the Hives during both Antinium Wars. A Soldier digs himself into the earth and waits for a target to pass above. With the correct timing and position, he will be able to slay most magic-users and lower-level officers.”
“I see. But wouldn’t that mean the Soldier—”
Belgrade paused. His mandibles pressed together, the Antinium version of a gulp. Klbkch nodded dispassionately.
“Naturally that Soldier would be sacrificed. Anand, I want you to attempt to create a better variety of bow for our Workers to use. Bird’s abilities would be invaluable to have. Our primitive bow designs have not been updated. Take a budget out of the Hive’s treasury and experiment with materials to create a cost-efficient bow and arrows.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
Anand replied promptly, but Klbkch wasn’t satisfied. He studied the Worker’s response. Body language, the way they shifted and looked at each other. It wasn’t something he’d ever imagined having to do before this, but Belgrade and Anand, these new Individuals were…different. Klbkch had never met Antinium like them before. They had personality like true Antinium, and yet they were not. They had…moods. They could disobey. They would disobey. So he watched and waited. After a second, Anand voiced what was clearly on his mind.
“Revalantor Klbkch, may I make a suggestion?”
“Why are the Workers to be armed with bows made in the Hive? Would it not be more cost-efficient to arm them with bows produced by high-level craftspeople. And on that note, would not a crossbow be a simpler weapon to distribute to Workers?”
Klbkch considered the question. It was a good one. It spoke to Anand’s thoughtfulness. Klbkch had been working with both [Tacticians] of late to improve their effectiveness. And to impress on them what was important to the Hive. He shook his head as he cleaned Ksmvr’s blood off his blade. Klbkch stooped to pick up the other silvery blade, which was slightly blackened with soot. The enchanted dagger had surprised him. It showed that Ksmvr was learning. Good.
“I do not intend to buy the Hive’s arms. And the Drake cities monitor and prohibit mass shipments of weapons to the Antinium. If you are able to design and manufacture crossbows in the Hive, I will consider implementing their usage.”
“Very well. Send the first wave to the eastern dungeon entrance. They will await me there. Have you any more questions?”
The two Workers paused. Anand delicately scratched his antennae.
“So, Calruz is the leader of the Raskghar? That is fascinating. Revalantor Klbkch, are we to make the Minotaur a target? It appears that his raids have significantly hindered Liscor and the adventurer’s progress in the dungeon.”
“That is so. However, I do not deem it necessary to target the Minotaur. Or the Raskghar for that matter. I will insist on stationing a guard of Painted Soldiers in Erin’s inn at all times, though. The assault on her inn could have resulted in her injury or death, which would have been unacceptable.”
Anand nodded. He hesitated.
“Erin does care for Mrsha and Ceria, though. Revalantor Klbkch, if I might add a secondary objective to your raid?”
“That will not be necessary, Anand. If I locate Mrsha or Ceria, I will do everything feasible to retrieve them.”
The two Workers looked at each other. Anand raised a finger.
“But you told Ksmvr—”
Klbkch sheathed his swords briskly.
“Do not mistake my words to Ksmvr, Anand. He is an asset to the Hive, although he does not know it yet. It suits the Hive that he learn from adventurers. Retrieving Ceria and Mrsha is a priority, if not the main one.”
Anand cocked his head sideways thoughtfully.
“Ah. So you lied to him. Why are you telling us?”
“It is important that you understand the goals of this Hive. As [Tacticians], you are responsible for more than just the security of the Hive. The Queen and I both desire you to take on larger duties. When you are ready, I will inform you of longer-term objectives. For now, it is enough that you consider Ksmvr an asset in development. And it is crucial that he not learn of this fact.”
Belgrade spoke for the two of them. Anand turned.
“The Soldiers have arrived.”
A rank of gleaming carapaces followed his comment. Klbkch turned and saw a stream of Soldiers marching into the chamber. Their bodies were dark black-brown, gleaming, unscratched and freshly formed. New Soldiers, freshly made to serve the Hive. They formed into perfect ranks and marched down a tunnel past the Antinium. Klbkch nodded.
“I will commence the assault on the dungeon shortly. I expect to take at least 60% casualties.”
“Out of a thousand Soldiers. Devastating.”
Belgrade murmured uncertainly. Klbkch nodded.
“A necessary sacrifice. If I am slain, you will report to the Queen. Another detail. You will not tell Pawn of this operation, especially in regards to the number of casualties.”
“A curious order.”
Klbkch’s voice was icy.
“I expect it to be followed.”
“Are you not afraid that we will disobey?”
For a second Klbkch felt his hand twitch towards his swords. What a question! If he had not known Anand, he would have assumed the Worker was an Aberration. He checked himself and then responded.
“No. As [Tacticians], you understand that Pawn’s actions are erratic. His abilities benefit the Hive greatly, but he is unable to sacrifice the lives of Workers and Soldiers to achieve an objective.”
“I see. Thank you for clarifying that, Revalantor Klbkch. I agree with your thinking.”
The Worker nodded. Belgrade looked at Anand uncertainly. Klbkch weighed the odds of Belgrade informing Pawn. If it happened he would deal with it. He moved onto the next point in his mind without dwelling on the consequences unduly.
“Stand by to send reinforcements. You will not be risked on this assault, but your abilities will be needed to analyze traps and the dungeon’s layout. An Antinium will be carrying a scrying mirror which you will use.”
Again, Belgrade and Anand were visibly surprised. Anand clicked his mandibles together sharply.
“A scrying mirror? I was not aware the Hive had such artifacts.”
“The Hive has stockpiled a number of magical items. The scrying mirrors in particular are useful to the Queens during battle. Take care not to damage either artifact. They are the only two in the Hive’s possession.”
“What of the one possessed by the strange Antinium in the Queen’s chamber?”
This time Klbkch definitely twitched. He forced his hand away from the blade at his side. This was normal. For Individuals. He looked at Anand and injected as much frost into his voice as he could.
“Your inquisitiveness is an asset, Anand. Do not employ it in matters regarding the Queen.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
“Monitor the progress of the Soldiers. Analyze the monsters and traps and update the existing map of the dungeon with relevant details. I will commence the assault now.”
Klbkch strode down the tunnel before the other two could reply. He did not want to entertain any more questions. It was a relief to stride past the Soldiers who moved silently out of the way. Klbkch reached the entrance to the dungeon—a caved in wall that opened into a dark corridor. The same one the Horns of Hammerad and the Silver Swords had ‘accidentally’ stumbled into. That had been inconvenient in the extreme.
Individuals. Strange new Antinium who were not True Antinium, but were more than the half-made Soldiers and Workers that were what the world knew of as Antinium. Klbkch didn’t know how to deal with them. He had had problems understanding Pawn. By contrast, Belgrade and Anand were easier, but they asked questions that Klbkch was not accustomed to answering.
Drones, the mindless Soldiers and Workers, were easier. Klbkch paused at the entrance to the dungeon. The Soldiers stared ahead, patient as rocks. Klbkch unsheathed his swords and pointed.
“The first rank will follow me! Avoid designated spots and engage any monsters at will!”
The Soldiers snapped to attention. Klbkch led the charge into the dungeon at a run, the Soldiers following on his heels. He pointed with his sword to a spot on the right side of the corridor. Instantly, the Soldiers shifted left, hugging the wall, avoiding the trap.
Yes, this was easier. The drones the Queens had made weren’t True Antinium either, but they were close in many ways. They did not ask questions. All he had to do was order and they obeyed. They were part of the Hive. Not perfectly part of it, but close enough.
Behind Klbkch, a Soldier stumbled. He stepped onto the trap and vanished. Teleported somewhere, or perhaps just disintegrated. He was lost either way. Klbkch saw the Soldiers correct their footing, give the trap a wider berth. Klbkch didn’t waste time grimacing over the lost Soldier. Many more would die before the night ended.
The first group of monsters they came across was a patrol of enchanted armor. The metallic suits immediately charged the Antinium, not heeding exactly how many there were. Klbkch ran straight past them, hearing the crash and thumps as the Soldiers tore the suits apart.
Drones were useful. The problem was, these Antinium weren’t even perfect as thoughtless warriors. Even Soldiers and Workers who weren’t Individual developed…personality after living for a year or two in Liscor. They could be erratic, so Klbkch had requested freshly made Soldiers for this assault. They would not break or hesitate.
Klbkch sighed as he avoided another trap, leaping over the trapped floor tiles and then sprinting into combat with a group of humongous caterpillars which exploded as Soldiers tackled them. He maneuvered past the traps and led the Soldiers on automatically. His new body felt light and agile and he had memorized the Antinium’s map of the dungeon. Countless raids into the dungeon had allowed the Antinium to perfectly pinpoint all of the traps—by letting Soldiers and Workers run onto the traps in previous assaults. They had been costly. But this time Klbkch’s progress was smooth. The Soldiers trampled all the monsters he came across and soon Klbkch was at his first destination.
A treasure chest sat in the center of a small room, complete with running water and flowers. A bit of sunlight shone down, a final touch of irony by whomever had created the trap. It was so obviously a trap, but the allure of the chest was enough to overcome the sense of danger to most adventurers. However, the trap was deadly enough. Klbkch paused at the corridor and pointed.
“Soldiers will proceed into the room and attempt to open the chest. Move one at a time after the trap has activated. Stand clear until the preceding Soldier has perished.”
The Antinium backed up. Not just down the corridor—this particular trap didn’t just affect the room it was in, but both adjacent corridors. Klbkch pointed.
The first Soldier went. Klbkch heard it charge forwards, and then saw the trap activate. The corridor in front of him twisted. Klbkch heard a snapping sound and knew without looking that the Soldier had been wrenched violently in every direction, like Erin wringing out a rag.
The next Soldier ran forwards without hesitation. Klbkch waited patiently, hearing a group of monsters run into the Soldiers queued up behind him. He had time to think as the trap activated and the next Soldier ran forwards. By the fifteenth Soldier, they had to drag the bodies of their companions out of the way before attempting to open the chest.
The irony was that the Individuals, the five Workers, Pawn, Belgrade, Anand, Garry, and Bird, were actually better than the true Antinium Workers of the past. They could level exponentially quickly by Antinium standards—they were, in a way, closer to the Prognugators, rare autonomous Antinium destined to be leaders. But as for the rest? Klbkch shook his head.
“Individuals triumph as singular entities or small groups. But the true Antinium linked could still tear these Painted Soldiers apart.”
He felt that was true, at least as it applied to the Painted Soldiers of Pawn’s unique unit as they were. If they had ten more levels each? Perhaps. But the true Antinium Soldiers—the ones who were truly of the Hive and not replicas made by Queens trying to rediscover lost forms and techniques were stronger to begin with. And they fought as one.
Any [Drillmaster] would have been offended by Klbkch’s statement. After all, the Antinium Soldiers fought like the most finely-trained unit in the world. But in the past, Antinium Soldiers in Rhir had fought like a single thought. And it was impossible to break their morale. Their will was magnified a thousand times together, as was their ability to react to any situation. Whereas here…
It was possible to break Antinium Soldiers. Not easy, but Klbkch had seen it done in both Antinium Wars. When Soldiers died by the thousands or tens of thousands they lost their will to fight. They became aimless, rather than a disciplined fighting force. Again, not something the true Antinium had ever faced. They had lived and died in service to the Hives. Much like Klbkch himself, death was a necessity, not an end. Which made Pawn’s ideals all the stranger to Klbkch.
Speaking of which…Klbkch looked up. The forty second Soldier had returned. He was undamaged—and he was holding something in his hands. A pair of crystalline daggers, which shone bright pink despite the lack of light. Klbkch eyed them.
“Was there anything else in the chest?”
The Soldier shook his head. Klbkch did the same.
“Deficient. A trap that can only function forty one times before failing is no trap at all. Bring the artifacts to the Hive. You. Smash the chest.”
Another Soldier ran forwards as the lucky Soldier retreated. Klbkch nodded and set off at another dead run. There were two more treasure sites the Antinium had located that they hadn’t managed to plunder. He repeated the ‘trick’ again, waiting patiently as Soldiers went in and didn’t come out. Some traps could activate indefinitely, but most had a finite amount of energy they could expend before having to recharge. The breaks gave him time to think some more.
These Drones. Yes, they were convenient. Yes, they achieved objectives. But they weren’t as good as true Antinium. They just weren’t. He had to order them now along with sending the mental projections only he and his Queen were able to use. In the past, all Klbkch would have had to do was think and it would have been done.
True Antinium were broadcasters as well as receivers. They were linked, not tenuously held together like these half-Antinium. Yet, Klbkch thought of Xrn’s words and felt a pang. She was right. It wasn’t their fault that they had never known what they should be. It was not their fault they were ill-formed. The Free Queen had done her best. And they were still capable of becoming Individual. It was something.
Someone stood in front of him. Klbkch looked up and realized the third trapped treasure room had been cleared. The Soldier was half-dead. A pair of ghostly blades sprouted from his chest. He was bleeding, but he didn’t move. He held a handful of gems carved into eyes in his hands. Were they cursed? Klbkch would find a way to appraise them later. He eyed the Soldier.
“Return to the Hive with a companion.”
The Soldier turned and began running with another Soldier. He left a trail of blood behind. Klbkch studied it, and then did a rough count of the Soldiers remaining. They stood in rows, many damaged from encounters with the monsters or traps.
Five hundred and…twenty one. A good number considering his projections to Anand and Belgrade. And enough that Klbkch thought that it was worth pressing ahead. The Antinium had mapped out the dungeon in every direction, but progress without dedicated trap finders was slow. If he ordered the Soldiers into unknown territory they would die by the hundreds. Not to the monsters so much as the traps. That was why the adventurers were necessary.
But Ceria and Mrsha were missing and Erin cared for both of them. Klbkch made a decision.
“Soldiers! You will charge the next corridor. Move in waves, staggered ten feet apart. Avoid any traps encountered. Slay any monsters. If you come across non-hostiles, hold back and wait for my arrival.”
These Soldiers wouldn’t know what a Gnoll or half-Elf looked like after all. Klbkch checked the Soldiers, looking to see if they would break. They made no reaction to his statement. Good Drones.
And each one of these could be a Painted Soldier. Could be an Individual, like Pawn or Belgrade.
Klbkch paused. Where had that thought come from? He looked at the Soldiers and mentally shook himself. If he started valuing the lives of Drones over objectives, the Hive would surely perish. Pawn had his place, but the Antinium lived by sacrificing. These Soldier’s lives didn’t matter.
And yet, Klbkch’s mind denied that logical conclusion. It reminded him of the True Antinium. Klbkch paused as the Soldiers braced themselves for the charge, for the unknown and death. Slowly, Klbkch walked in front of them. The Soldiers looked at him, expectant. The Revalantor of the Free Antinium looked towards the dark dungeon ceiling. When he spoke, it was not in the voice of command, but in a carrying, loud tone.
“What I am about to tell you probably will not matter. I do not believe many of you will survive. Perhaps none of you will. You are worthless as individuals. And I have no expectations of you.”
The Soldiers stared at him. For the first time in their short lives, they were confused. Klbkch went on.
“You will be sacrificed for the goals of the Hive. This is fitting. However…if you die here, you are dust. You will be forgotten. As if you never existed.”
The Soldiers were silent. Klbkch felt the most inaudible of ripples go through them. This was how you created Aberrations, even among Soldiers. He remembered the old tests he’d done with his Queen, trying to provoke Individuality among the Antinium. Failing. How had Erin done it? He went on.
“If you die, you are gone. You will not be remembered. Perhaps the Soldier next to you will remember, or the one behind. But they will die soon as well. You will be forgotten. You will be nothing to the Hive or to me. But. Fifty years ago, centuries ago…if you died, you would be remembered. By all the Antinium who lived. The instant you were created, you would know why you existed, why you fought. You would never be alone. Those were the true Antinium. And you are only copies. Fragments of what they were.”
The Soldiers were silent. Klbkch lowered his head. He remembered them all. He remembered them all. Every nameless Soldier and Worker and all the Queens and every Antinium who had lived and died. They were part of him. One of the last True Antinium. When he straightened, it was with the weight of his species on his shoulders.
“Those days are gone. They may never return. But for what might have been, what was, and what we seek to reclaim, fight. Fight, and show me what kind of Antinium you truly are. Fight and be remembered. Now. Charge.”
The Soldiers moved in a soundless wave. They made no sound save for the hammering of their footsteps on the ground. They rushed past Klbkch, into the darkness. Into death. Klbkch watched them go and then shook his head.
“A pointless speech. What flaws am I developing?”
No one answered him. Klbkch concentrated. He spoke out loud, projecting his thoughts to the only other True Antinium close enough to hear him. In ages past, Klbkch could have reached out and communicated to another True Antinium a hundred miles away with ease.
“My Queen, we have obtained our three objectives. Permission to send a second wave into the dungeon?”
It will be done. They will rally at the eastern entrance.
“My thanks, my Queen.”
Klbkch ran back the way he had come. He stopped only to skirmish with a pair of Face-Eater Moths. When he reached the dungeon entrance his blades were still wet with their blood. Over a thousand Soldiers and Workers stood ready. The Queen must have determined that they had Workers to spare. Klbkch raised his voice.
“Time to launch the counter offensive. Soldiers, charge the western tunnel! Avoid traps! Engage monsters! Avoid non-combatants! Workers, follow me!”
A thousand Soldiers raced into the dungeon. Klbkch strode forwards. There would be death tonight. Death. But the Antinium knew death. And this dungeon was a foe worthy of every Hive. Too long the Antinium had been on the defensive. Now, for the first time they were fighting back. Klbkch wished he could feel happier about it. But he thought of the Soldiers who would be forgotten. For the first time in aeons, he wondered if he were growing too old. Then he shook off his doubts and charged into the dungeon. And the monsters fled and died as the black tide flowed forth.
Workers and Soldiers rushed into the dungeon, fighting, dying, sending fear into the hearts of even the most primitive of monsters. Shield Spiders fled. Flesh Worms fell, screaming. The Raskghar howled in alarm and retreated rather than fight. The stream of Antinium could not last forever, after all.
And sure enough, the last of the thousand-some Antinium passed down the corridor, their footsteps echoing like distant thunder. Only then did the Worker with the bow dare to emerge. Bird peeked his head around the corner and watched as the last Worker raced past him. He’d pretended to follow Klbkch, but he hadn’t been ordered to join the fighting, so he didn’t. He didn’t like crowds, anyways. Bird stepped forwards, then looked around. He took a corridor none of the Antinium had run down and began walking down it.
“I am Bird. And I have done bad things. I must do a good thing. So I will find Mrsha.”
Bird had understood more than Halrac and Selys had assumed. He knew there was a dungeon. And he knew the Raskghar were in it. And since they had taken Mrsha, it made sense that Bird would find her or the Raskghar if he walked around long enough. That was his plan. It was a good plan, without flaws in Bird’s opinion. He walked along, humming. After a while he began to shout.
“Mrsha? Are you there? Hello? Mrsha? And Ceria? Where are you?”
The dungeon echoed with his voice. Undeterred, Bird kept shouting as loud as he could. It was night. He had to be back by morning or Erin would be angry. She would not serve him his unborn birds for breakfast, or his fried bird flesh that he loved so much. Bird walked forwards, happily carrying his bow. It was his special bow. His Queen had let him buy it.
Around him the dungeon stirred. Things woke up and began to move towards the shouting Antinium. Bird took no notice. At first.
Someone else watched Bird walk down the tunnel. A skeleton. He’d been following the Antinium as well, and had noticed Bird’s aberrant behavior. Toren paused as he bent over a dead Raskghar which had been beaten to death by a horde of Workers and Soldiers. First the angry beast-men got stronger and smarter, and then the adventurers came—now the Antinium? The dungeon was getting crowded recently!
Still it meant more dead bodies. Toren shrugged. He’d take that. The skeleton bent down and began dragging the dead Raskghar back towards his inn. If he had lips and lungs he would have whistled. More bodies for him. He was starting a collection. And she was happy with all the new adventurers too. All in all, both Torens felt pretty good about death at the moment.
He wondered what all the fuss was about.
“You know they’ll come down after you. You have to know that.”
Even if you are insane. Ceria looked up at Calruz. The Minotaur was sitting in his squalid ‘personal chambers’. He had a dirty mattress made up of the cleanest and softest pieces of cloth the Raskghar had, and they had drawn a clumsy curtain around his ‘room’ for privacy. The Minotaur sat, polishing a huge axe with one edge that shone with magic. He grunted.
He raised his head and listened. Ceria heard a Raskghar’s howl, barely audible at the distance they were at, reverberate down the tunnels. Calruz grimaced.
“Antinium. My Raskghar have fought them in years past, apparently. They are launching an assault. There are thousands of them in the tunnels.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
“They’ll be dead soon enough. The Antinium do not hold the dungeon. Wise of them. The adventurers will encounter the same problem. There are enough monsters to bury two Antinium Hives down here. Only someone who knows the dungeon will be able to navigate without fighting constantly.”
“Like your Raskghar.”
Calruz looked up, pleased. He was sane, or pretending to be. But he spoke about the death of other adventures and Antinium as if it were the most natural thing.
“Exactly. The adventurers will not find the Raskghar camp. They are too well hidden, too deep in the dungeon and I move the camp nightly between set locations. My expedition will not be set back.”
“Sounds like you’ve prepared for everything.”
Ceria’s sarcastic tone made Calruz raise his eyebrows.
“You’re underestimating the adventurers. There are Gold-rank teams. I know some of them. They won’t give up. And the dungeon won’t kill them.”
“That remains to be seen.”
Calruz snorted and turned back to his axe, clearly unimpressed. Ceria closed her eyes. Her hands were squeezed behind her back. She was still numb with horror, but she knew what she had to do. Silently, unnoticed by Calruz or anyone else, Ceria flicked her fingers. The tiny butterfly appeared. It was made of fire and light. Illusion magic. The only one she knew. It flickered between her fingers and then vanished.
If anyone had seen it, it would have looked like a failed spell. But it wasn’t. The butterfly flew—not to any spot around Ceria or in the dungeon—but to the one person to whom the spell was meant to find.
Sitting in his room in The Wandering Inn, Pisces ignored Yvlon’s screams of fury and the argument she was having with Ylawes. He ignored the rain falling overhead, ignored his hunger as he worked. The pile of bones sitting in front of him was enormous.
Bones flew up and rearranged themselves, forming shapes, bending, cracking, reshaping themselves as the [Necromancer] willed it. He stared at the creation in front of him, barely blinking. Sweat ran into his right eye. Pisces didn’t move. Only when he saw the flash of light and the tiny butterfly did he look up.
Pisces remembered. He remembered sitting in Wistram, talking with Ceria when they had still been the closest of friends. His mouth formed the words he’d spoken so long ago.
“Naturally, a [Message] spell is the height of folly in the Academy. Any competent student should understand that. The potential for interception by an older mage is beyond—”
“So what’s the solution, Pisces? Stop showing off your vocabulary. If we want to trade secrets, how do we do it without everyone knowing?”
“We create a spell, obviously.”
“Uh huh. A new spell. All by ourselves. Hey, why don’t I carve a magic wand out of my sideboard while I’m at it?”
“Don’t be so hasty to disparage, Ceria. A simple illusion spell would do the trick. All we would have to do is, ah, customize it. Encode messages so that only we would understand what each spells says. Perhaps a cipher?”
“…Go on. And explain what a cipher is, first.”
Pisces smiled as the little butterfly landed on his finger, flashing a dizzying array of colors only he and Ceria would know to look for, much less interpret. It had taken them months, but in the end not even Calvaron could crack their code, and he had seen them using the spell countless times. It was a spell only they shared, a spell only they could read. Ceria didn’t actually know [Message]. She’d never bothered to learn. But this?
He could read the words she sent him, though the butterfly had to spell them out. The message repeated itself. Ceria had to form it before sending and then it played itself until it vanished. Pisces read the words.
Alive. I’m alive. Gnolls alive. Mrsha alive. Dungeon. Raskghar.
That was the first butterfly he’d seen. The second’s message was simpler.
Calruz. Enemy. Calruz. Chieftain.
“I know. I know.”
Pisces closed his eyes. He rubbed them, feeling exhaustion creeping in. Then he looked at the bones. They rose and shaped themselves into a skull, a creature that had never walked the earth, with three tusks and serrated teeth. Pisces changed the shape of the skull, added more teeth. He abandoned the design and tried to construct a foot.
Unconsciously, he made a fist. His fingernails cut into his flesh. Blood dripped down onto the floorboards. Pisces didn’t notice. The bones kept dancing, long into the night.
Erin stood with Rabbiteater and Numbtongue, staring at the small Cave Goblin. He was bruised. Battered. The questioning had been horrible to watch. She hadn’t stopped it. Nor would she have again. That was what made Erin feel like a terrible person. But she thought of Mrsha.
“She’s down there. She’s alive. So is Ceria. Calruz wouldn’t kill Ceria, and Ceria wouldn’t let Mrsha die. So she’s alive. But only the adventurers are going in and only the Gold-rank teams. They’ll never make it in time.”
Both Hobs looked at Erin. She took a deep breath.
“I know we had Plan G. Well—I’m abandoning it. This is more important. ”
She looked at them, pleadingly.
“You’re an adventuring team. I know you’ve never taken a request—but please. Please. Find them. Find Mrsha and Ceria. I’ll give you everything I’ve got. Find them and I’ll do anything. Please.”
She felt hollow inside. Hollow and useless. And weak. For a moment Erin wished she were as big as Moore, as strong as Dawil, capable of casting magic like Pisces. Someone who could walk into the dungeon and find Mrsha. Someone who could kill—
Erin’s hands shook. She remembered a burning Goblin dying in her kitchen. No. She didn’t want that. But she never wanted to see the dead little Gnoll in her mind become reality either. She looked at the two Hobs, tears in her eyes.
Rabbiteater looked at Numbtongue. The surly Hob hesitated. He reached out and grabbed Erin’s hand. She looked up at him through blurred eyes. Numbtongue’s voice was soft.
The two Hobs turned and strode for the boats. Erin watched them flip the boat over and then begin paddling across the water. She wiped her eyes and prayed for their success. Then she went into the inn. Drassi watched her anxiously from the windows, but Erin had no intention of leaving. She had a lot of cooking to do. It was all she could do and it would matter.
Adventurers. Goblins. Antinium. Pisces. All of them had their own reasons. Their own goals and methods. But as night fell on Liscor, the varied races and peoples of the city, above and beneath, found a common purpose. They prepared. They made plans. They were angry.
The next day they set the dungeon on fire.