(Important: I have REWRITTEN this chapter as this one was not the one I intended to write. It will be released as the next regular chapter. If you would like to read this chapter, feel free, but know that it may spoil some of the events of the actual 5.54 and not all of the events contained within are canonical. I does have some good parts, though. Somewhere.)
The problem with Liscor was that no one asked Relc for his opinion before doing things. That was the sum of Liscor’s issues. That, and nothing else. Okay, maybe the dungeon. And Rock Crabs. And the rain. And other stuff. But a lot of it could be improved if they asked Relc about what he thought about all this!
No one did. Not Captain Zevara, or Olesm, or even Embria. Which was why Relc had to volunteer his thoughts. It was a public service. The Drake strolled down the road, twirling his spear and following a group of [Guardspeople] who’d been called to deal with some emergency or other. About Goblins? Relc hadn’t been paying attention when he’d heard the warning go out.
“I just think it’s unfair, you know? All I’m saying is that we deserve free food now and then!”
Ahead of him, a pair of Senior Guardsmen groaned. They were a Drake and Gnoll, a classic team up. Like Relc they had become Senior Guardsmen by merit of their high levels and talent. Unlike Relc, their talents involved more than hitting things on the head. They were well-respected, did their jobs efficiently, and both had happy families. Relc hated their tails sometimes.
“Everyone gets hungry. Everyone needs food. I’m not the only [Guardsman] to eat while I’m on duty, and everyone gets a free meal sometimes! Even Klbkch! So why am I the only one who gets chewed out by Captain Z for it? I’m peckish! Is that so wrong?”
The Gnoll sighed loudly.
“It’s not wrong, Relc.”
“—It’s just wrong when you keep hinting that you’d like something to eat. There’s a difference between a gift and a bribe. You know that.”
“Right, I want a gift.”
“But it’s not a gift if—Jeiss, do you want to say anything?”
The Drake looked at his partner and shook his head.
“Why are you arguing with Relc? Just ignore him. He knows what he did wrong. Come on, we have to get to this incident on time.”
The Drake swished his tail dismissively and picked up the pace. Relc debated tripping him up with his spear, but he decided against it.
“Hey! It’s a legitimate problem that—okay, what about all the adventurers, huh? Why do we have to get called in every time they start a brawl, even when we’re off-duty? And by we, I mean me. Why am I never given a break?”
“Because you’re the only one who can brawl with Gold-ranks, idiot.”
“Yeah, but then why don’t I get vacation days each time I’m called in? I was on my break yesterday!”
The Gnoll, whose name was Beilmark shot Relc a disbelieving glance.
“You were called in for an emergency at the Adventurer’s Guild for a scuffle, yes? It took less than thirty minutes to sort out and you didn’t file any paperwork! We had to charge and fine the adventurers. You just showed up, broke three tables, and left!”
Relc stared back innocently as he jogged after the pair.
“Exactly. So why didn’t I get thirty minutes off today?”
Beilmark groaned and Jeiss shook his head. The two sped up. Relc ran after them, grumbling under his breath. The [Guardsmen] were following the sound of whistles being blown, telling them they were needed. Relc wasn’t sure what the problem was. Goblins? Had one of Erin’s pet Goblins entered the city? He grunted as he shifted his grip on his spear.
“So, you guys have kids, right?”
This time Beilmark glared over her shoulder. Relc rolled his eyes.
“What? I know you’re female!”
“And I have two children. Whom you have met!”
Beilmark snapped back at Relc. He scratched the back of his spines.
“Yeah…okay, well, so my question is—what do you do with them? For fun?”
Jeiss and Beilmark exchanged a glance, much like Klbkch and Relc sometimes did.
“How do you mean?”
“Well…my kid’s in town and we don’t do anything but argue. I keep trying to give her fatherly advice, but I don’t have much and uh, y’know…I could use a hand. Klb’s no good for that kind of thing.”
The Senior Guardsmen pair exchanged a long, tired look. Jeiss eventually spoke up.
“Relc, my oldest kid—Jacs—whose birthday you missed by the way—is ten.”
“And my oldest is fourteen. Embria is a Wing Commander in the army, yes? I do not think our advice applies.”
“But you’re the same age as me. I know Beilmark’s older. Hey! Don’t snarl at me.”
“Yeah, but you had a kid earlier than we did. It’s not the same. Now, would you shut up and let us get to the emergency on time? Not all of us can run as fast as you. You should be there by now!”
The Drake glared at Relc. Senior Guardsmen Relc sighed.
“I’m tired from that other fight at the Adventurer’s Guild. You know, the big fight just now? The one we all had to stop?”
“I don’t recall you doing the paperwork.”
“But I did take out three Gold-ranks! Hah! Besides, we haven’t heard the whistle blown twice so it’s not an emergency emergency. And aren’t we having fun talking?”
Jeiss and Beilmark sighed. They tried to run even faster, but it was a futile effort attempting to get away from Relc. The big Drake easily followed both [Guards], despite wearing chainmail armor and carrying his spear. If he needed do, he could lose the armor and even outrun a horse. Heck, he could probably catch Hawk if he had to! Maybe. With a head start.
The Gecko of Liscor enjoyed his life most of the time. It was peaceful, despite monster attacks and all the latest craziness with the Raskghar. It wasn’t like being in the army where every skirmish could be your last. Relc loved it in Liscor. He loved eating, he loved his job most of the time, and he loved…this.
But Embria kept telling him to go back to the army. As if he didn’t know what he’d left behind. He didn’t know how to talk to her. He never had. Relc opened his mouth to ask Beilmark what, if anything, he could say. Then he saw the Goblins.
There were five of them. Hobgoblins, not the regular, pesky Goblins. Instantly Relc became wary. He recognized the Redfang Warriors of course. They were an official adventuring team now and they were part of Erin’s inn. But they weren’t supposed to be in Liscor. And they were armed.
“Whoa. Hold up.”
Relc appeared in front of Jeiss, spear held more firmly in his claws. The Senior Guardsman slowed and for once didn’t complain as Relc peered at the situation. Five Hobs, surrounded by at least twenty of the Watch. Right in front of the entrance to the Antinium Hive, which didn’t seem good. And—Relc’s pulse quickened—there was Erin. And Klbkch.
“What the heck’s going on here?”
The three Senior Guardsmen approached slowly and heard Olesm speaking loudly to Erin. Relc’s jaw dropped as Olesm’s voice reached them.
“…am confiscating your door, Miss Solstice. A detachment of the Watch will be sent to collect it. As for the Goblins, I cannot risk them endangering the city. We will find this Hob and kill it. As for these five—”
“Hey, is he serious? He can’t do that, can he?”
He looked at Beilmark. The Gnoll shifted uneasily and gripped the mace she carried at her side.
“I don’t know. We heard the alert called earlier. Something might be happening again.”
“What was that about another Hobgoblin? Is that the issue?”
“Hold on, hold on—”
Relc was hopping from foot to foot. Klbkch was right there! And his partner had drawn his blades, which was not a good sign. But now a Gnoll was arresting the Hobs! He put a pair of manacles over one of the Hobs—the one carrying a beat-up guitar. Numbtongue? Relc never paid attention to their names. Relc exclaimed.
“No way. He really is arresting them! I thought Olesm loved Erin and her Goblins! Why’s he doing that?”
Jeiss shot Relc a disbelieving look.
“They entered the city. Relc. He can’t let that slide, Human or not. Why is she here, anyways?”
“Well, yeah, but—hold on.”
All three saw Erin stepping forwards. They could hear her voice quite plainly.
“No! You can’t do this, Olesm! They were helping me save Bird! They’ve done nothing wrong!”
The Senior Guardsmen looked at each other.
“That’s the Antinium who lives on top of Erin’s inn. You know, the one with the bow?”
“Oh. What happened?”
“I have no idea. But—hold on. What is she—”
Olesm was arguing with Erin, clearly telling her that this wasn’t a debate. But Erin wasn’t having it. She spread her arms, but the Gnoll with the cuffs just walked around her. Erin turned as he began to shackle the Hob with the enchanted axe, and then her eyes narrowed. She spun.
Her fist rose. Relc saw Erin throw a punch. Olesm raised his claws and Erin decked him in the face. All three [Guards] winced as Olesm took a full-force blow to the face. He yelped and fell. Jeiss shook his head.
“She didn’t just—”
“Your friend’s in for it now, Relc.”
That was definitely true. But Erin wasn’t done yet. As the Gnoll [Guardsman] turned to her in surprise, Erin whirled.
This time her punch took the Gnoll in the stomach. He doubled over, folded up, and curled into a ball of suffering. All three Senior Guardsmen gaped at Erin. So did the other members of the Watch, and the Hobs. Erin turned. She raised her fists and looked at the five Hobs.
The Hobs hesitated. Then they scattered. Relc swore and Jeiss and Beilmark grabbed for their weapons as the Watch shouted in alarm and began chasing after the five. Relc saw Erin charging a Drake and trying to punch him before Olesm tackled her to the ground. He tore his eyes away and focused on the five. They were splitting up, each one running in a different direction! Relc pointed to one of them that was heading their way. The Hob held a bow and was loosing arrows as he ran, forcing the other pursuers to slow and take cover.
“I’ll take the dude with the bow. You guys get the others.”
Jeiss and Beilmark hesitated, but then nodded. They didn’t argue as they ran past Relc. He walked forwards slowly, twirling his spear. The Hob spotted him and slowed down.
Now, which one was this? Headscratcher? Numb…toes? Rabbitfeeter? No—this was Badarrow. The Hob looked around as if trying to find an alley to run down. Relc just kept advancing slowly. He could catch Badarrow. The question was if the Hob would fight or run.
Badarrow and Relc locked gazes. The Hob’s reached for an arrow. Relc grinned and lifted his spear.
The two froze in place. Relc could see Badarrow performing the warrior’s internal calculation, assessing Relc’s gear, his level and the Skills he might have and weighing his odds against that. The Hob’s eyes narrowed, then he made a disgusted sound.
Slowly, Badarrow released the grip on his arrow. The Hob glared as he tossed the bow and quiver to the ground.
“Hah! You’re pretty smart.”
Relc gave him a toothy grin. He bent to collect the bow and quiver. Badarrow twitched as if he’d like to kick Relc in the face and run, but he was indeed intelligent enough to know what would happen if he did. Hob or not, he wasn’t a match for Relc, and both Goblin and Drake knew it.
It was true that Relc was a [Guardsman]. But he’d been a [Spearmaster] back in the army and a [Sergeant] as well. A high-level one. He could fight Gold-rank adventurers with just his spear and win. Sometimes. For all the Redfang Warriors were strong, they weren’t that strong.
“Hey, I got one!”
Relc sauntered back to Olesm and a few of the City Watch. They stared at him as Badarrow trooped over, scowling. Relc indicated the Hob.
“Anyone got a pair of cuffs? I uh, forgot mine back at the barracks.”
Some of the guards groaned, but a young Drake with cuffs came over to shackle Badarrow, hand and foot. Relc looked over and saw that Erin was sitting on the ground. Her cheek was scuffed up and she had cuffs on her hands.
“Uh, hi Erin.”
“Saw you punch Olesm. Nice hit! Stupid idea, though.”
Erin breathed out heavily. She looked at Badarrow as the Hob sat next to her. Relc shifted uncomfortably.
“So…what’s this all about?”
The Drake turned. Olesm glared at him. His eye was already getting puffy, but the [Strategist] seemed on edge for different reasons. He pointed in the direction one of the other Hobs had run.
“Go after the Goblins!”
“Aw, do I have to? Jeiss and Beilmark can catch them.”
“Don’t argue! Do it!”
Relc glared, but then he sighed and jogged off. Olesm glared after him and then turned. Erin stared up at him. The Drake met her eyes and then looked away. He stood, barking orders while Erin sat on the ground. Badarrow grumbled and tested the iron manacles, pulling at them until someone raised a spear. Then he just sat.
Slowly, the City Watch returned, with prisoners in tow. Erin’s heart sank as she saw Relc come back, and the collection of Hobs sitting in chains grew.
One, three, four…Headscratcher, Rabbiteater, and Shorthilt joined Badarrow, all three having been subdued and manacled hand and foot. Headscratcher’s nose was bleeding and Shorthilt had several long scratches on his arm which were dripping a bit of blood. Olesm looked at Jeiss.
“Did they give you trouble, Senior Guardsman?”
The Drake saluted.
“No sir. They tried to knock us down but they didn’t draw steel, sir. But the fifth Hob, the one we already shackled—he uh, made it out.”
Olesm’s eyes widened. He turned and glared at Relc, who’d come back with Shorthilt in tow. The Drake raised his claws.
“Hey, don’t blame me! I got this one! Had to tackle him before he got to Erin’s magic door.”
He pointed at Shorthilt. The Hob glared at Relc. Beilmark nodded apologetically as she explained.
“The fifth one—he ran down the streets shouting about a Raskghar attack. In the panic we couldn’t catch up to him and then he ran up to the battlements and jumped off.”
Erin murmured to herself. Olesm glanced down at her and made a frustrated sound.
“That’s—keep an eye out for him! Don’t shoot him, but if he appears in the inn or the city—just keep an eye out! As for these four…”
He turned and looked grimly at Erin and the Hobs.
“Take them to prison and put them in separate cells.”
Relc raised his brows. Olesm shook his head.
“All of them. The Hobs…and the Human.”
He didn’t look at Erin. Relc whistled slowly. Some of the City Watch blinked. But Olesm was already turning to Beilmark.
“I want a patrol to secure The Wandering Inn. Senior Guardsmen and our best fighters. Take at least two mages! Get them to open the door to Pallass and tell them I want Watch Captain Venim now. Pallass is already aware of what’s going on. Move!”
Beilmark nodded and ran with Jeiss down the street. Relc watched them go, blinking. Something was going on. He just didn’t know what. He looked awkwardly down at the Human sitting on the ground.
“Hey Erin. Sorry about this. You’re going to jail.”
Erin sighed. She stood up slowly and gave Relc an imploring look.
“Sorry. Just doing my job. Don’t try to punch me because I’d have to hit you. Hold on, we have to check you for weapons. Hey, rookies, one of you get over and check Erin!”
Relc carefully turned Erin about as a female Gnoll came over. He spoke reassuringly as the other Hobs stood and were divested of their weapons too.
“Don’t worry. This is just to make sure you don’t stab each other in jail or something. And it’s not that bad! We don’t have rats or anything and you get fed…something. You’ll probably only be there the night.”
“And the Redfangs? And Bird? Relc, can you check on Bird? We took him to the Hive. He was hurt—bad! Klbkch brought him to the Queen.”
Relc’s eyes widened.
“That must be bad. Old Klb never bothers his Queen unless—what happened? And where’d Klb go?”
“Back into the Hive. I think—oh, Relc. It was awful. Bird was—”
“Senior Guardsman Relc!”
The Drake stiffened. Olesm was glaring at him.
“Escort the prisoners to the cells and report to the barracks without delay. Don’t waste time talking.”
Relc saluted smartly. He gave Olesm a toothy grin. And if Relc had said or done what he was thinking, the [Strategist] would have two black eyes. Because, fair play to Olesm, Goblins were a threat. But Erin wasn’t. She’d done more for Liscor than most Senior Guardsman had over their careers. And if Relc had learned one thing, it was that if Erin was on one side and you were on the other, you were probably on the wrong side.
They needed her. But she had struck a [Strategist] and directly aided in the escape of monsters from the Watch. So there was no choice, was there? Relc sighed. He didn’t want to do this—
“Come on, Erin. We’ll get you to a nice cell.”
He began to steer Erin away. And then he heard it. A faint sound, like a rapid set of drums. Relc paused. He raised a claw and the other guards urging the Hobs along stopped obediently.
“Hold on, what’s that? Anyone hear something?”
Relc turned his head and frowned at the entrance to the Antinium Hive. Olesm turned back, clearly annoyed.
“Shut up, Olesm.”
Relc stared at the Hive. He heard an outraged sound, but he didn’t care. Slowly, Relc backed away from the entrance to the Hive, tugging Erin out of the way. The drumming sound was louder now. The City Watch eyed the entrance to the Hive as well. And then the first Soldier charged out of the Hive.
Relc saw the massive Antinium run out of the Hive’s dirt entrance. The Antinium was as tall as Relc and even bulkier. His four arms were raised and he stopped abruptly in front of the surprised Drakes and Gnolls, looking around. Relc’s heart began to race. He pulled Erin back as more Soldiers charged out behind the first.
Olesm was staring incredulously. But Relc’s instincts took over. He looked around and shouted a warning.
“Oh shit. Back up, boys. They’re not playing around!”
The City Watch reacted to the uncharacteristic snap in Relc’s voice. Instantly they moved back down the street and just in time. Because more and more Soldiers came flooding out of the entrance. Dozens…then nearly a hundred. Relc stared at the Soldiers as they formed a solid brown-black wall in front of him. Soldiers in the streets of Liscor? These weren’t the Painted Soldiers either. They were regulars and they looked ready for a fight.
What in the name of the Walled Cities was going on? And then Relc saw a familiar face. An Antinium unlike any other walked up from the Hive. He had only two arms, and both were holding silvery blades. Klbkch walked past the ranks of Soldiers. He paused as he inspected the sudden change that had occurred—the shackled Goblins and Erin, Olesm’s black eye. His head turned and he nodded to Relc.
The Drake managed a smile.
“Hey, Klb. What’s up?”
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch—what is this?”
Olesm stared at the Soldiers in horror. Klbkch’s head turned to Olesm.
“Strategist Olesm, I am not acting in my position as Senior Guardsman Klbkch, but my role as Revalantor Klbkchhezeim of the Hives. By my Queen’s command, I have been sent to find and destroy the Hob responsible for injuring the Individual Worker known as Bird.”
“What? But that’s—Klbkch, you cannot take Soldiers through Liscor! Please, order them back into the Hive. The City Watch will investigate whatever happened to Bird. But there’s a larger issue at stake here.”
The [Strategist] looked appalled. He tried to step forwards, but Klbkch raised his blades and Olesm stopped. Relc held his breath, Klbkch did not look anything like the amiable Senior Guardsman who normally patrolled the streets. Olesm gulped and stepped back as Klbkch looked at him.
“No. I am invoking the treaty between Liscor and the Free Antinium, Strategist Olesm. My Soldiers will move by boat with the Watch’s assistance and search the floodplains and even the northern and southern passes. We require transport immediately and Liscor’s full compliance. My Queen demands vengeance.”
“What? Now? But Klbkch—”
“No. I must speak to Watch Captain Zevara. Soldiers, fall in!”
The Soldiers began to march after Klbkch. Relc saw Olesm tagging after Klbkch, arguing with him, trying to get him to slow.
“We cannot have the Antinium in the city, not right now! Klbkch, listen to me! There is a larger situation happening at the moment. I need the Antinium’s full support, not—”
“My Queen’s orders take priority. Move aside, Olesm.”
Klbkch swung a sword out. Olesm flinched back. Klbkch marched onwards, the Soldiers beginning to spread out behind him. Relc saw Olesm’s face twist and his tail lash the ground. The [Strategist] clutched at his head and then shouted at Klbkch’s back.
“Liscor is going to fall!”
The Antinium halted in their tracks. Relc froze in the act of scratching one armpit. The City Watch whirled. Erin, the Redfang Hobs, everyone looked at Olesm. The [Strategist] panted. He looked at Klbkch and spoke in a trembling voice.
“Liscor is going to fall in four days. Unless we prepare. Unless I do something about it. I don’t have time for a single Hob. I don’t have time for Antinium marching through the streets! You can either help me, or I will arrest you and every single person who gets in my way!”
He shouted the last bit at Klbkch, straight to the Revalantor’s face. Relc held his breath as Klbkch stared at Olesm. Then, slowly, the Revalantor sheathed his swords. He nodded, and the Soldiers began to move back towards their Hive.
“Very well. We are at your disposal, Strategist Olesm. Inform me of the situation.”
Olesm looked around at all the listening guardsmen, at Relc, Erin, and the others. He shook his head.
“Not here. Follow me.”
He pointed and took off at a run. Klbkch ran after him. Relc stared after the two, and then at Erin and the Goblins and his fellow guards. He looked at his spear, and then at the clear skies.
“Aw hell. I knew today was going to be a bad day.”
The alarm that went out from city to city was immediate. And as always, it led to a swift response. One by one, the cities began sending [Messages] to each other. The six-way chat opened as hundreds of other [Messages] were being sent and urgent clarifications and requests were coming through the harried Mage’s Guilds in every Drake city on the continent. But these had highest-priority.
Zeres. We’ve received the alert. Thoughts?
Oteslia. Is Liscor’s [Strategist] certain? They’ve issued a city-wide emergency. If they’re wrong…
Zeres. We agree with Liscor. The pieces fit. And we received intelligence from an unknown source claiming the same as Liscor’s [Strategist]. The Humans have trebuchets.
Oteslia. That’s an unfounded claim.
Zeres. It is, but it fits. And there is evidence.
Fissival is online. Where?
Zeres. There were reports of Humans employing siege weapons in a conflict with a Goblin war band, but the details were inconsistent and mentioned the Goblins constructing trebuchets of their own.
Oteslia. But if the Humans did have trebuchets…
Manus joins the conference. This situation is grim. How did none of us spot this before now?
Zeres. The Humans played us like scatter-brained hatchlings. That’s all.
Oteslia. Focus. In that case, Liscor is under attack in four days.
Manus. Assuming the water level drops as the [Strategist] indicated. How can the Humans be certain?
Zeres. They must be. There’s no point otherwise.
Salazsar is present. This is a disaster. We must warn the Humans at once! If they think they can take the city, it is war.
Oteslia. They’ll just deny the intent. And once they have Liscor…
Fissival. Politics aside, the Humans will attack Liscor. If they can manage it with the Goblins sacking the city, they will. But I would not trust Tyrion Veltras to hold back even if the Goblins were defeated. Objections?
Zeres. We agree with your assessment.
Oteslia. We agree.
Salazsar. Something must be done. We must reinforce. At once!
Oteslia. How? They’re four days away. There’s only one city that can reach Liscor in time. Pallass must send all its armies north this instant! Or use that door!
Zeres. Where IS Pallass?
Fissival. We have made Pallass aware of the meeting.
Manus. Are their [Strategists] all asleep or something?
Oteslia. Hold on. Sending urgent request to Pallass to join in.
Zeres. It may be that they’re considering their options.
Salazsar. What options? Liscor must be held.
Zeres. Even with Pallass’ support, the odds of holding the city are low.
Salazar. Not if they send their elites through that magic door.
Manus. And endure a bloodbath? Come on, this is Pallass we’re referring to. They’re next if Liscor falls. They’re considering whether to send all they have or…
Fissival. If Liscor falls, the Humans can march armies at us from countless directions unimpeded.
Manus. We know. But can it be held?
Zeres. Where is Pallass? Oteslia?
Oteslia. Waiting for a response…
Pallass responds. We are aware of the situation and analyzing the statements Liscor’s [Strategist] have made. They are not yet verifiable.
Zeres. We confirm Liscor’s report.
Oteslia. What is Pallass doing? How many armies and [Generals] can Pallass send to Liscor?
Pallass. The decision to reinforce Liscor has not yet been decided by the Assembly of Crafts. Deliberations are ongoing.
Manus. Deliberations? Pallass must send forces through to Liscor now, or begin marching them north at once!
Fissival. Will Pallass have a force large enough to repel the Humans? Estimates puts their army at 200,000 or more.
Oteslia. We can have a force of half a million converging on Pallass in ten days between all the Walled Cities, not including smaller cities. Oteslia’s armies stand ready.
Zeres. In ten days, the Humans will have Liscor and their own reinforcements marching south. Zeres to Pallass. Can you hold the city if the walls are broken?
Oteslia. Ancestors damn it, Pallass! We need to know how many regiments you can send through to Liscor! Can your 1st Army reach Liscor in time? Answer!
Manus. They aren’t responding. They must be weighing the odds.
Fissival. Liscor has a strong City Watch. They can hold the breach, surely.
Oteslia. Against constant bombardments? Perhaps against the Goblin Lord, but not against them and the Humans.
Salazsar. Tyrion Veltras’ army is not merely 200,000 strong. He brought too many elites. Our reports showed an unusually high number of [Knights] and [Lords] and their personal forces in his army.
Manus. Disguised under the pretense of beating the Goblin Lord. Clever.
Oteslia to Pallass. Well, your response?
Pallass. We are prepared to assist Liscor in every meaningful way possible. Deliberations are ongoing for reinforcement at this moment.
Oteslia. Cowards. Are you being serious?
Pallass. We believe it may be prudent to avoid reinforcement at this moment to assemble a larger force in the event Liscor falls.
Salazar to Pallass. Are you suggesting we allow Liscor to fall?
Pallass. The Assembly of Crafts is debating. Standby.
Oteslia. Are you spineless cowards, you [REDACTED]?
Pallass to Oteslia. Please refrain from unhelpful rhetoric.
Zeres. We…agree with Pallass’ assessment. It may be wiser to avoid conflict until we have a force capable of taking Liscor.
Salazsar. You cannot be serious.
Fissival. We concur. The loss of Liscor is devastating. But the loss of Pallass’ forces would be even more so. If this is a trap, it may be designed to take as many soldiers with it.
Manus. So what should be done?
Zeres. Perhaps it is prudent to discuss contingency plans. In the event of Liscor’s fall.
Oteslia. They’re not fallen yet.
Fissival. Yet. And it could be beneficial in one sense.
Manus to Fissival. Explain.
Fissival. The effort required to defend Liscor from two armies armed with siege weapons would result in a bloodbath on Liscor’s side. On the other hand, the Antinium Hive in Liscor would be bound to aid in its defense…
Zeres. In which case, if Liscor falls there is one less Hive. And if they successfully repel the defenders, the Hive would be weakened.
Oteslia. What about Liscor’s citizens and soldiers?
Manus. Could Pallass even send enough soldiers through that magic door or bring enough forces north in time? Four days to march from Pallass to Liscor would exhaust any army and I doubt they could move more than a few thousand soldiers through per day.
Zeres. Pallass does have a point.
Oteslia. Have you all gone mad?
Fissival to Oteslia. Pallass is considering a logical response. This is not the same as the Face-Eater Moth incident. This is an invading army several hundred thousand strong. The Walled Cities must stand. But other cities, even ones as important as Liscor, are expendable as the circumstances dictate.
Salazsar. This is unacceptable. Liscor must not be allowed to fall. Pallass must send reinforcements immediately!
Salazsar to Pallass. Does Pallass acknowledge?
“What’s going on? Senior Guardsman Jeiss, why hasn’t the door been moved out of the inn?”
Olesm arrived at The Wandering Inn panting and out of breath. Klbkch was currently with Zevara, being appraised of the situation while Ilvriss kept repeating the alarm to the other Drake cities. Olesm was sure that there were hundreds of [Message] spells directed to him that he had to respond to, but he’d come to The Wandering Inn first.
Wing Commander Embria turned, glaring, and Olesm saw a group of her soldiers milling about with the City Watch on the hill outside of The Wandering Inn. Olesm glared balefully at the [Soldiers]—had they caused this? Then he tried to catch his breath.
He’d had to climb up to the battlements, climb down the ladder and then run across the water bridge to reach the inn without the magic door. He’d forgotten how far it was that way! Olesm glared at Jeiss, who saluted him guiltily.
“Sorry, sir. We were going to remove the door, but we ran into…complications.”
The Drake looked miserable and his partner, Beilmark, hunched her shoulders.
“One of the employees, refuses to give up the door. She claims Liscor has no authority to remove the door from the inn.”
“Who? Lyonette? Then arrest her!”
Olesm had no time for niceties. The two Senior Guardsmen exchanged a glance.
“Uh, we tried, sir. But then both adventuring teams objected. As did half the guests in the inn.”
“The Halfseekers and the Horns?”
They nodded miserably. Olesm nearly tore his neck spines out.
He paused as he eyed the two dozen or so [Guardsmen] and imagined them trying to arrest Moore. Just Moore, by himself. Olesm paused.
“Okay. I’ll talk to them. Why are Embria’s [Soldiers] here?”
One of the Drakes stepped forwards and saluted smartly. Olesm remembered to return the salute after a second. The Drake looked like a [Captain].
“Wing Commander Embria came by to secure the door and request formal assistance from Pallass, sir!”
“And why didn’t she move the door to Liscor?”
Olesm’s tail thrashed angrily, but the [Captain] didn’t waver. He looked past Olesm’s head as he spoke.
“Our [Mage Captain] agrees that this inn is the best location for mass-transit! The inn is a natural power source.”
The [Strategist] closed his mouth. He did know that Erin’s inn had a lot of magical power thanks to its Skill. But it was risky leaving the door there! Still…if it meant avoiding a fight…he gritted his teeth.
“Very well. Senior Guardsman Jeiss, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark?”
“Secure this spot. I want a group of the City Watch posted here—inside the inn—at all times. No one touches that door. And—ancestors, what did that?”
Olesm had just spotted the destroyed tower on the roof of the inn. He stared at the spot until he remembered. Bird. He looked around.
“Put someone on the roof of the inn and make sure we’re clear. In fact, get Relc over here now.”
The two Senior Guardsmen saluted, looking relieved. The [Captain] wasn’t so happy.
“Sir, we’re more than capable of holding this position. Wing Commander Embria—”
Olesm glared at him.
“Someone nearly killed the Antinium standing guard here, [Captain]. A Hobgoblin, apparently. And this inn attracts trouble like a rotting corpse attracts acid flies. If you want to assist the Watch, keep your earholes open. Now, where is Wing Commander Embria?”
The Drake stomped into the inn. He took one look around and saw the reason why none of the [Soldiers] or the [Guardsmen] had dared enter the inn. His name was Moore and he was holding a big staff threateningly over Olesm’s head. The Drake gulped.
“Oh, it’s just you, Olesm.”
Moore lowered the staff and stepped back. Olesm edged back from him and looked around. Both the Halfseekers and the Horns of Hammerad were seated close to the entrance. Ceria smiled and waved at Olesm.
“Olesm! You’re here! Can you help us sort this out? A patrol of your guys tried to take Erin’s door!”
“Yes! They were supposed to!”
The adventurers blinked in shock. Olesm glared at them.
“This is an emergency! We need that door—oh Ancestors damn it, never mind! It can stay! But move out of the way!”
He strode over to the magic door. Embria was standing in front of it, arguing with someone on the other side while Lyonette scowled at her a few feet away. The [Barmaid] looked up and hurried over to Olesm.
“Olesm! Where’s Erin? Is Bird okay? Where are the Goblins? These [Guardsmen] tried to take the door away—”
“I know, I know! I ordered them to! I need to speak with Embria and Pallass! This is an emergency!”
Olesm growled at Lyonette. He approached the door and stopped. Embria was snapping at someone on the other side and now Olesm could see a Drake [Soldier] dressed in Pallass’ yellow-and-white armor.
“I want to speak with Watch Captain Venim! Where is he? This is a national emergency! I am Wing Commander Embria and I demand—”
The Drake was shaking his head as Embria bellowed at him. Olesm brushed Lyonette away and stepped forwards.
“Wing Commander Embria! What’s going on?”
Embria turned. She glared at the [Soldier] in front of her.
“I’ve been trying to speak with someone in authority in Pallass for nearly twenty minutes now! I’ve demanded—requested immediate reinforcements, but I can’t get an acknowledgement that anyone’s heard my request!”
She glared at the Drake.
“Is Watch Captain Venim or the Assembly of Crafts aware of the issue, soldier? Respond!”
The Drake winced. He eyed Embria and saluted slowly.
“They are, Wing Commander. But I cannot tell you what their status is. The Assembly of Crafts is debating—”
“What is there to debate? Send a regiment through already!”
Embria roared at the Drake. Olesm saw the Drake wince, but he held his ground stubbornly.
“I cannot leave my station, Wing Commander. I told you, the Assembly of Crafts is considering the issue and Watch Commander Venim is indisposed.”
His eyes slid sideways and his tail twitched, giving away the lie. Olesm’s eyes narrowed. He stepped forwards.
“Soldier, I am Olesm Swifttail , chief [Strategist] of Liscor. Do you acknowledge my rank?”
The Drake gave him a slow look.
“I do, sir.”
Olesm nodded. In certain situations he outranked Embria, for all she was a Wing Commander. This was one of them. He spoke slowly and clearly.
“In that case, I request immediate contact with Pallass’ [Strategist] or another civic leader on an issue of national emergency. You are aware that under Drake military law, denying my request is a treasonous offense?”
Beads of sweat stood out on the Drake [Soldier]’s head. He glanced sideways at someone neither Olesm nor Embria could see through the doorway.
“I do, sir. But—”
“That will be all, soldier.”
A voice interrupted the Drake. He visibly sagged and practically ran out of the way as a Gnoll in robes replaced him. Olesm blinked. A [Senator], one of the elected officials who ran the Assembly of Crafts, Pallass’ governing body, entered the door’s view. He smiled with his teeth at Olesm and Embria.
“Wing Commander, Chief Strategist, my apologies, yes? We have been deliberating this shocking news about a probable assault on Liscor.”
Olesm cut Embria off.
“The attack is coming, senator. [Strategists] from other cities including Zeres have confirmed the report as urgent. I am requesting immediate reinforcements from Pallass as per Liscor’s status as a national strategic interest.”
“Hrr. Yes. We have received your request. All six of them, in fact.”
The Gnoll didn’t appear to be too bothered by the issue. He grinned again, politely.
“The issue is that Pallass’ Assembly, we have voted, yes? And we think that Liscor’s announcement is…premature. Not confirmed. We hesitate to call into question your analysis, but we decline to send our soldiers to reinforce Liscor on what may be a…misunderstanding, yes?”
Olesm and Embria stared at the Gnoll, incredulous. Olesm’s jaw dropped. The Gnoll looked politely apologetic.
“You see, it would take much effort to send soldiers from Pallass through the door. And for no good reason, yes? Liscor is not in danger. And if it is—well, we should wait and see.”
This time both Olesm and Embria chorused the word together. Embria growled, clenching her fists together.
“Senator, if we wait any longer there won’t be any chance of saving Liscor! Without reinforcements, coming through as fast as possible, we won’t be able to put enough bodies into Liscor to defend from the Goblin Lord and the Humans! If we wait another day for full confirmation, let alone more, it will be too late!”
The Senator nodded slowly.
“Yes, and that would clear matters up nicely, yes? It would save Pallass from having to waste lives defending a lost cause.”
Embria had been inhaling to shout. Now she choked. Olesm felt a cold pit settle in his stomach. He stared at the Gnoll in robes. He couldn’t be suggesting…
“You—you can’t be serious. Senator, this is—you can’t delay. Please, the other Walled Cities have heard our request. They have to be mobilizing…”
The Gnoll just smiled as Embria began to stumble over her words. He shook his head and sniffed, his eyes flicking back and forth.
“I am afraid that the other Walled Cities understand the issue as clearly as you do, Wing Commander. Perhaps even more so, yes? A Goblin Lord’s army against Liscor. And a Human’s army capable of taking down the walls. Pallass could sacrifice a hundred thousand—two hundred thousand of our own [Soldiers] and not hold the city. It would be…more prudent not to lose such lives in a fruitless endeavor but rather retake the city.”
Olesm felt squeezed. The Gnoll nodded. He looked sympathetic.
“It is not an easy decision. But it is a sound one. Strategically, yes? Naturally Liscor must be held by Drakes and Gnolls, but if it cannot be held at the moment…”
He shook his head.
“Regardless, it is a troubling situation. There are many civilians in Liscor, yes? They should be sent to Pallass via the southern roads. Or perhaps it may be arranged that they can be sent through this door. We will deliberate and come to a decision later today and inform you of what must be done. Until then—”
Embria started for the door, but the Gnoll was quicker. He raised a paw and gripped the edge of the door. Olesm moved as well. He stared at the Gnoll. This couldn’t be. This was a betrayal.
This was wrong.
“Senator, if Liscor is under attack, it is an act of treason not to support us. Your city is bound to aid Liscor. The Goblin Lord’s army and the Humans…is considerable. But we can hold Liscor, trebuchets or not. The Antinium have agreed to lend their support. And we have Gold-ranks—”
“Ah, yes. Them. We will require our adventurers back. Soon, I think. But there is time so long as this door is here. It should not be lost either, yes?”
The Gnoll nodded sagely. He tapped the edge of the door with his paws, looking unconcerned. Embria had gone pale. Olesm just felt angry. He glared at the Drake.
“This is treason! You can’t do this! The other cities—”
A paw reached through the doorway and gripped him tightly on one arm. The Gnoll senator narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth at Olesm. He lost his friendly smile and spoke in a low, growling voice, so quietly only Olesm and Embria could hear.
“This is not treason. This is practicality! Speak of this to the other cities and we will bury your [Message] spell. The Walled Cities know of this decision and they will not gainsay it.”
Olesm felt a pang of fear. No, they couldn’t have decided that.
The Gnoll released him and smiled again, all friendliness. He grabbed the edge of the door and leaned forwards. His voice was low and lacked any hint of goodwill as he spoke.
“The Assembly of Crafts has made its decision based on the evidence. Liscor will fall either way, Strategist Olesm. It is my duty as [Senator] and the duty of the Assembly of Crafts that when Liscor falls to the Humans, it does not take our city with it.”
He gave the petrified pair of Drakes another fake smile. Then he closed the door firmly shut, leaving Olesm and Embria to stare at it as the world began to crumble under their feet.
The Hive was in chaos. Or at least, it wasn’t functioning properly. Chaos implied pandemonium, and in truth, the Hive had just…stopped. Workers and Soldiers stood around aimlessly while others continued on with their tasks. But the central guiding force that linked the minds of the Free Antinium and gave them direction had suddenly stopped.
Thus, chaos. At least for the Antinium. Klbkch strode back through the tunnels, giving orders and trying to manage the Hive and his own thoughts at the same time. But he was no Queen and his orders had to be processed verbally and disseminated the same way.
“Resume excavation of the tunnels. Send four hundred Soldiers to the front. Go to Belgrade and Anand and tell them to assume command of all Soldiers and Workers in the area. Find me Pawn and order him to do the same in his section. All Workers and Soldiers not on duty will continue the last task they were assigned unless the objective has been fulfilled, in which case they will immediately return to their assigned sleeping areas for break until further orders. Send forty Workers above to excavate and repair a collapsed house on Scuffscale Street…”
Workers and Soldiers milled about Klbkch, their confusion fading and a sense of purpose filling them once more. Klbkch hurried onwards, still giving out rapid-fire instructions. He could only keep the Hive moving for so long by himself, though. Even with Belgrade and Anand, the Hive needed her. The heart and mind of the Hive.
The Queen of the Free Antinium. Her control over the Hive had stopped. And without her, the Hive was weakened. And this was the wrong time for weakness of any kind.
Because Liscor was about to be under attack. Klbkch’s heart rate was a steady beat in his chest, but even he couldn’t help but feel a moment of apprehension at the news Olesm had given him. The Goblin Lord was coming here. And the Humans were intending to sack Liscor.
It was war. Politics and official declarations aside, the fact was that two armies of hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants were about to assail Liscor. And Bird had nearly been killed by a Hobgoblin. Erin was under arrest, and Olesm was about to summon aid from Pallass.
And his Queen was occupied. Klbkch left the last of the Workers and Soldiers behind as he strode down the hallway where no Antinium save for Garry, himself, and a select group of Soldiers were assigned. He entered the chambers of his Queen.
The chambers of the Queen of the Free Antinium were large, made specifically to hold her. They were almost completely empty as well, save for two tunnels. One was small and led to a kitchen of all things. Garry the [Cook] was constantly at work there, creating morsels to feed his Queen. And the other passage led to the Free Queen’s work area, where she could create and design new versions of the Antinium. It was that door that Klbkch strode to, but he stopped halfway.
Something was sitting on the ground on one of the walls. Klbkch nearly drew his swords and ran it through before he remembered. He stared at the miniature Antinium Queen sitting there with distaste. It was a copy of a Queen’s body, made to act as a relay between this Hive and the other Hives at need. A Queen could assume control of it and see through the replica’s eyes and speak with it. Klbkch kept forgetting it was there.
Because the vessel was the sole link of communication between Liscor’s Hive and the Grand Queen’s Hive, it could not be removed from the Queen’s personal chambers. Nor could it be neglected; the body had to be fed and cared for. So there it sat, staring blankly ahead. Klbkch regarded the puppet silently for a second.
His Queen had not enjoyed the presence of this communication tool. Not at all. She did not like the miniature replica staring at her. So she’d consulted with Klbkch, who had in turn mulled the issue over before coming to a reasonable solution. He had made a slight adjustment which made the presence of the puppet more bearable, if…somewhat odd.
Klbkch stared at the puppet. It looked like a Queen, that was to say, a more insectile creature than any Worker or Soldier. Instead of arms and fingers, the miniature drone had feelers, six of them. And her posture was more hunched, her lower abdomen bigger. She looked like any Queen would, really, save that she was smaller and not bloated from obesity and the pains of labor like all of the Queens residing in Izril. And there was one other addition to her that Kblkch had made.
There was a wooden box covering her head. Klbkch stared at the box. He’d cut holes in it to make sure it didn’t suffocate the puppet, but that was about it. He wondered if there was a better solution, but if there was, he hadn’t been able to think of it. And besides, Erin’s idea had worked. After a fashion.
Klbkch shook himself. Now was not the time for this. He strode towards the two doors that blocked off the Free Queen’s work area from the rest of the room. Klbkch found the pull rope, strained to pull the massive doors open, and slipped inside.
A foreign scent assailed Klbkch the instant he entered the Queen’s laboratory. The chemical tang to the air was overpowering, as was the humidity. Much of what the Free Queen needed required the moisture and so Klbkch passed by waterproof, sealed containers as well as rooms designed to grow or incubate plants, materials, or…parts the Free Queen might make use of.
There was no risk of mold or disease—at least not ones not desired by the Free Queen herself. The Antinium had long known how to create a hostile environment for things they did not desire, and in its own way, this room was as sterile as any operating room in Erin’s world.
Klbkch followed the sounds until he found his Queen. She was in a room, bent over a dirt table and a small body that dripped green. Bird. Klbkch halted as he saw his Queen work, her body bent over the small shape. Several smaller shapes surrounded her, moving as the Queen spoke.
“Halt the blood flow from his arteries. Apply the gel there—and there. Open the second container.”
The Antinium around her moved precisely, applying a gel to Bird’s torso while another walked over to a sac and collected a bowl of…blood.
It was Antinium blood, green and flowing. But it was not truly blood, not as Drakes and Humans and other species understood it. Klbkch knew the word as the Antinium thought of it, but he had no equivalent besides ‘blood’ in the common tongue. If he had known what to call it, he would have referred to it as haemolymph, a substance just like blood. For without it, the Antinium perished.
And Bird was still bleeding. The Queen was slowly applying a gel over his wounds, closing the bleeding from the gaping hole in his chest, but by all rights he should have bled out twenty minutes ago. That he hadn’t was due to the bowl of blood that the mindless drone carried over to his body.
The drone looked like a Worker, except that it had six delicate feelers instead of arms and it was thinner. It was not designed for combat, but for precise manipulations. It moved somewhat unsteadily; it had not been perfected and so it was a crude helper, if somewhat efficient. It was too much like a proper drone and yet not, so Klbkch ignored it and focused on the bowl.
Haemolymph slowly poured down from the edge of the bowl and into a…tube made of a sticky, almost resin-like substance the Antinium could produce. It was connected to Bird’s chest. Inserted in it, in fact. The Free Queen had connected the tube to Bird’s bloodstream and the green blood ran into him.
“Good. Another bowl.”
The Free Queen’s voice was low. She had to be calculating how much Bird had lost and how much could be safely replenished to him. The drone walked back over to the sack and siphoned more blood from it. Klbkch’s eyes turned to the sac. Then he looked away.
Klbkch had once observed that the Free Queen lacked all the instruments of her craft necessary to alter or produce enzymes and products unique to the Antinium. All the craft of the Antinium had been lost. But necessity bred invention, and so the Free Queen had devised a way to procure at least some of the missing elements herself. For haemolymph, or blood, she had created the shivering sac the drone collected blood from.
It was alive. And it was Antinium, at least, in biology. It had…a stomach. And a means to ingest. Excrete. Organs, floating amid the green. But the rest of the body was just a sac, a bulbous, semi-transparent membrane designed to contain blood for the Free Queen to use at will. The drone pressed down and blood oozed from an opening and into the bowl the drone held. Klbkch could not stare at the thing long so he looked at his feet.
It was an ingenious solution in one sense. Horrific in another. In another time, the raw components of what made up the Antinium would be distilled, such that a Queen proficient in weaving together the base materials could create…anything. They could replace a limb in minutes. Today, his Queen, the Free Queen could only replenish Bird’s blood and stop the bleeding and begin the agonizingly slow process of regrowing his limbs.
“The bleeding is almost stopped. Close the blood vessels here…and here. Then remove the transfusion tube.”
The Free Queen moved her drones delicately as they tended to Bird. At last, they drew back and Klbkch could see Bird as he lay on the table. The Worker was unconscious, whether by pain or lack of blood it was unclear. His left two arms and part of his chest were gone. They’d been torn away by some incredible force, exposing his innards.
It was a wound that would have killed any Human or Drake and even an Antinium was not long for this world with such an injury. But the Free Queen had not allowed Bird to die. She had applied the regenerative gel the Antinium labored to create in vast quantities, and affixed strange, pulsating pieces of flesh to Bird’s side. Organs, meant to reroute blood. She’d even repaired parts of his chitin, binding it together to form a scab of sorts, covering his open side. Now the Free Queen sat back and clicked her mandibles softly.
“Will he live?”
Klbkch walked forwards, ignoring the drones who began cleaning up the blood and tidying up the tools, recycling what could not be cleaned. The Free Queen turned and Klbkch felt a wave of shock and then fury emanating from her through their mental link.
“Klbkchhezeim? What are you doing here? I ordered you to find the thing that attacked Bird and kill it!”
The Free Queen drew herself up and Klbkch sensed her wrath. Just like when he had brought Bird, dying to her. Klbkch held fast, though the other drones scurried away out of the Queen’s reach.
“I led the Soldiers to the surface despite my objections, my Queen, and formally requested Liscor’s aid in hunting down the assailant. However, Liscor’s [Strategist] informed of a developing situation which threatens both the Hive and Liscor.”
“An assault on the city. Thus, I have returned, but the Soldiers will begin combing the city and the Watch has agreed to send multiple patrols via boats to investigate the immediate area around Liscor.”
“That is not what I want.”
The Queen’s voice was dangerously low. She drew herself up and pulled herself towards Klbkch. Her mandibles clicked in front of Klbkch.
“I want the one responsible for injuring Bird dead. Send your Soldiers across the waters, Klbkch! Use the artifacts or the Waterwalking Potions. Find the one who did this and kill them.”
“My Queen, using our limited resources would be unwise. Not only would it alert the Drakes to our preparations, it would—”
“Do not argue with me, Klbkchhezeim!”
The thunderous voice silenced Klbkch for a second. He held still, looking into the Queen’s huge face. Klbkch thought quickly and carefully.
“My Queen, this assault on Liscor threatens all the Free Antinium. It may destroy the Hive if it is not addressed. The situation is dire and I cannot guarantee that Liscor will survive it.”
That got through to her at last. The Free Queen slowly closed her mandibles and moved back a bit.
“It is that serious?”
Klbkch could sense the outrage changing to caution in his Queen. He waited, hoping she would return to her senses. She had been enraged on seeing Bird hurt. Bird of all people. Why? It made no sense. But the strange affection the Queen had suddenly found for Bird had saved the Worker. As for deploying Soldiers…madness. But now that she was aware of the scope of the threat, at last some of the Queen’s logic began to override her emotions.
“Very well, Klbkch. Inform me of the situation.”
“I was just informed that—”
A feeler silenced him. The Queen gestured at the still Worker lying on the slab.
“Not here. Bird must rest. Follow.”
She led Klbkch out of the laboratory and back into her central chambers. Klbkch saw Garry poke his head out of his kitchen anxiously.
“My Queen, is Bird…?”
“He will live, Garry.”
The Free Queen glanced at Garry, another surprise. Klbkch had never seen her do more than perfunctorily order the Worker about. But now she even spoke his name. Had Bird changed her so much? And…how?
Klbkch nodded and Garry scurried back into his kitchen. That left the two alone in the chamber. The Free Queen spoke abruptly.
“What is occurring, Klbkch?”
“War, my Queen. The Goblin Lord is being driven to assault Liscor, by the Humans. Rather than destroy them, they have turned the Goblins into a force by which they may assault the city without directly instigating a war.”
For a second the Free Queen froze up, as Klbkch had once Olesm finally managed to convey the enormity of the situation. Then she looked at Klbkch and shook her head.
“Impossible. They could never take Liscor. Any assault would fail. You are overstating the danger, Klbkch.”
The Free Queen spoke flatly. Klbkch shifted.
“I am not. Your assessment is valid my Queen, but the Humans have prepared a way to weaken Liscor to the extent that the Goblin Lord’s army could well take the city. They have trebuchets.”
“…I am not certain. But somehow they have discovered the means of constructing such weapons. And Olesm—Liscor’s [Strategist]—believes they have the numbers to breach even Liscor’s walls and allow the Goblins to assault the city directly.”
Klbkch waited as his Queen slowly sat back, digesting the information. Her mandibles clicked open and closed as she whispered to herself.
“The Humans have trebuchets? But the Antinium have offered countless incentives for the plans of such weapons for years without gains. How could they create them so quickly?”
With help from another world. Klbkch did not speak his theory out loud, but his hands tightened on the hilts of his swords. It was not impossible. He had spoken to Ryoka and while she had refused to give him any information, it was clear that both she and Erin possessed a great deal of knowledge of technologies that this world lacked. If one of them had joined with the Human Lord Tyrion Veltras…
Not for the first time, Klbkch wondered if he should have told his Queen about Erin and Ryoka. But up until this moment he was certain that doing so would have resulted in their immediate capture and interrogation. And he had not been willing to do so for that reason. But faced with this disaster, Klbkch was forced to admit he had underestimated the danger that the people from the otherworld posed. If the trebuchets were their doing…
“How many volleys would it take to breach Liscor’s walls, Klbkchhezeim? How many trebuchets do the Humans have?”
“The number is unknown, my Queen, but if the Humans use enchanted ammunition or have managed to enchant the trebuchets like those present on the Walled Cities, they would break through quickly. Olesm has requested our support.”
“To destroy the trebuchets? We have the tunnels. But they are a secret to Liscor.”
“Yes, but the Goblin Lord’s army far outnumbers that of the forces of Liscor. And even our numbers, my Queen. If it comes to a battle in the city—”
“I see. Return above, Klbkch. We must consult with their [Strategist] and Watch Captain. Liscor must not fall. We have struck a bargain.”
“And the Soldiers? I realize your fury my Queen, but they are in danger on the waters and complicating the situation.”
Klbkch held his breath. The Free Queen hesitated. Her feelers moved together angrily.
“I am wroth. But I will recall them if needed. For now.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
Relieved, Klbkch sensed her give the order and the Soldiers moving above start to return to the Hive. He relaxed. Too soon. The Free Queen bent.
“Now go. If Liscor is to be defended, we must ready ourselves to strike at these siege weapons and sacrifice thousands of Soldiers and Workers to do so. And if this Hobgoblin that injured Bird is an advance scout of the Goblin Lord’s army…”
Her voice grew ominous. Klbkch nodded.
“I will ask Liscor’s [Strategist] to make inquiries, my Queen. I will open a link as soon as I am above—”
“No. That will not be necessary, Klbkchhezeim.”
For a second Klbkch thought the Queen had interrupted him. But her mandibles had not opened. He stopped and stared at her and saw her head move in surprise. Both Klbkch and the Free Queen looked around. And then they heard the voice again.
“It is good that you two are together. I call you two to join a deliberation. The fact of the Human’s movements has spread to the Hives. It presents an opportunity. So I, the Grand Queen of the Hives, call all six Hives together. To decide. To convene. To listen. Join us.”
The voice was deep. Muffled. But unmistakable. Klbkch slowly turned and saw something moving. The body lying against the wall slowly sat up. The vacant drone that had been nothing more than chitin and flesh rose, and sat upright. Its feelers slowly rose and it spoke ponderously, deliberately. Every word was assessed, every word checked for accuracy and fact. The Grand Queen of the Antinium spoke through the drone. She turned her head left and right, speaking once more as Klbkch and the Free Queen stared at her.
“Long has the Free Hive of the Antinium pursued its goals independent of the other Hives. As was agreed. But the hubris of Humans means that it is well-placed to enact a gain for the Hives as a whole. Free Queen, Klbkchhezeim. Are you there?”
“Yes, my Queen.”
Klbkch replied instantly. He knelt and the Free Queen hesitated. She gazed down at the vessel and then slowly bowed her head as well.
“I am here, my Queen. The Free Queen of the Antinium will join the deliberation.”
The Grand Queen folded her feelers together. Then she hesitated. Slowly, she looked around once more. But she didn’t see a thing. Klbkch and the Free Queen stared hard at the Grand Queen. She sat with all the authority of six Hives, the last of the Antinium. And also the box on her head. The Grand Queen tilted her head back and forth, clearly puzzled. At last she spoke.
“…Is there something wrong with this receptacle’s visual functions?”
Neither Klbkch nor the Free Queen dared respond. The Grand Queen’s puppet swiveled its head a few more times and then gave up.
“No matter. The six Hives shall discuss the issue of the impending attack on Liscor. It appears the Drakes may well give up the city.”
Klbkch was surprised. He looked at his Queen as the Grand Queen nodded. Her voice was satisfied.
“They regard the cost of defending too high. They plan to retake the city on their own terms. However, that is not in the interest of the Hives. If the Drakes will abandon Liscor to the Goblins and Humans, then it may be possible for the Antinium to take the city and hold it. If the Free Queen is able, the Antinium will control Liscor after the Humans attack. Or abandon it.”
The Grand Queen’s voice echoed, making Klbkch’s heart skip and jump. He stared up at his Queen, and then at the puppet who spoke for the Antinium. The Grand Queen’s words brought the prelude to war into the Hive. War and destruction once more. Betrayal. She spoke and Liscor trembled on the brink. And yet—Klbkch hesitated.
She still had the box on her head and she hadn’t noticed. He wondered how he was going to be able to get it off without her noticing. That, and the fall of Liscor concerned him greatly.