Klbkch sat in a small office inside the Hive of the Free Antinium of Liscor. He had a desk, a proper wooden one and a chair. Aside from that, his office didn’t resemble any other building by the name in this world or Erin’s. At least, Klbkch assumed this was the case. If there were any Humans who worked in what was essentially a hole in the ground that would have induced claustrophobia in most species, he would nod to efficiency of space optimization if nothing else.
Most offices had filing cabinets. Or lights. Or at the very least, bathrooms. But Klbkch’s office had none of these things. If need be, he could access the waste disposal areas the Antinium used. The Hive was literally five steps out a door which he did not, in fact, have. And he needed little of the supplies most [Secretaries] or [Receptionists] or [Clerks] needed.
Klbkch’s desk had a quill and ink pot among the few devices in place. He used that to write notes. But as mentioned, he seldom stored any writing. A truly important document, say, a map of Albez, would go to one of the Hive’s storage rooms specifically designated for reading materials.
But Klbkch’s personal correspondence or information he recycled, tossing organics into the vats tended to by Workers which made the Antinium’s edible paste. Paper and parchment and even most kinds of ink were actually more palatable than what went into those vats. Non-edibles were disposed of very sanitarily.
Klbkch kept almost nothing. He remembered what was important. And he never, ever forgot what was truly important. All else was dust.
At the moment, Klbkch sat straight in his chair, reading some notes. They were his daily briefing; the totality of information available to him as the Free Antinium’s Revalantor, which meant spymaster, head of security, vice-ruler, steward, strategist, engineer, diplomat…essentially everything and anything he needed to be. The Free Queen was of course in charge, but she listened to Klbkch’s opinions and he could overrule her if need be.
So this was his report. It was short compared to, say, the pages and pages of neatly written documents that Ressa received every morning, which had already been reviewed by Magnolia’s staff. And that was because Klbkch had few information sources compared to anyone.
The Antinium did not get [Criers], or written [Messages] from overseas. They did not have [Informants], although they did have ways of obtaining information. Nevertheless, it was sometimes difficult to get the most public of information.
An Antinium Listener, one of the rare subtypes of Antinium the Hive used, was a specialized version of their kind designed only to listen to sounds. They could pick up a conversation five miles away in a quiet room. But the Listeners couldn’t listen to everything, and they had short half-lives before their sensory organs experienced overload and they died. They died quick, even for Antinium. And while Klbkch had learned all kinds of interesting things over the years from the Antinium’s networks, he sometimes missed the mountain for the shiny pebbles on the road.
The scrawls of the Listeners recorded conversations in full. The marching of feet, in number and proximity to the Hive. Sounds—animals, magic, or sometimes the gurgle of water flowing underground. All of it had been transcribed, and interpreting it would be impossible to most. But Klbkch could scan through the pages of the day’s overheard sounds and dismiss most at once. Three times he noted down interesting details.
“Water is eroding the sewer system underneath the southeastern street…in Scaithi Walk. The sounds indicate crumbling stonework. I will report the issue to Watch Captain Zevara. A conversation in a bar between ‘you idiot’ and Resci—possible male Drake, or male Gnoll raised in Liscor—indicates an exchange of illegal goods. Follow through with Relc during work hours. Possible link to drugs? Lastly, Shield Spider mating and reproduction appear greatly heightened, most likely due to Face-Eater Moth and Goblin corpses feeding population.”
Klbkch tapped his quill’s tip lightly on the table. He had not written any of that down. All of it was committed to memory now. The verbal repetition was to process Klbkch’s thoughts as an audio cue he could easily recall. Because, obviously, conscious thought and inferences were stored in a different way than auditory memory. One was easier for Klbkch to file and draw upon than the other. He didn’t think it worked so conveniently for other species, which was their loss.
Well, that was typical of the Listener’s reports. Scattered information at best; usually random unless something made a very loud and repeated sound. Like the marching of an army. But they had limits to their range as well. They could tell Klbkch nothing about politics, or the world outside of Liscor. And he needed that information, so Klbkch studied a second piece of parchment. This was covered in his own handwriting.
Ironically, Klbkch’s best and most reliable news source for public information came from Relc and sitting in bars, listening to gossip. Because no one else talked to the Antinium. And while Relc was a very unreliable source, Klbkch was still able to glean the most-repeated facts and sift through the gossip. His notes from last night were only slightly smudged from some ale that Relc had spilled on his parchment. Klbkch read out loud, memorizing and thinking at the same time.
“An enduring war in Tiqr. The Mages of Wistram are selling scrying artifacts at an expensive profit. The sales alone coming through First Landing and Zeres are allegedly at least four hundred thousand gold pieces’ worth alone. In addition, the market value of such artifacts has risen suddenly and collapsed due to the sudden influx of manufactured artifacts coming from Wistram. Magnolia Reinhart and her peers were the subject of assassination attempts, all failed. The Drake city of Wicess was the subject of a large attack by hungry Griffins, unusual given their usual hunting territory…”
Klbkch read for eight minutes. He paused, digested everything he’d read, and discarded most of it. Instead, he focused on the news about Chandrar for a moment and sat back against the plain wooden back of his chair.
“The King of Destruction. What will he do? Tiqr is unlikely to last as more forces begin occupying its lands. Will the King of Destruction move? Could he in theory send out his vassals to roam as Gazi Pathseeker once did? His remaining war leaders are each capable of toppling nations in the right circumstances. It would be problematic if he fell and they were employed on Izril. Is that a possibility?”
Klbkch pondered. He distinctly recalled Gazi of Reim. As Named Adventurers went, she hadn’t been the most fearsome of the ones he had personally encountered or heard reports of during the Antinium Wars. But she was dangerous. And he had a small dossier on the rest of the King of Destruction’s Seven, which placed them all at Level 40. At least.
He had never met Flos of Reim. He had no idea what the King of Destruction’s war capabilities were. Nor had the Antinium ever done battle with the Titan of Baleros.
And yet, Klbkch was a Revalantor of the Hive, and it was his job to prepare for the worst scenario. He might only be part of the Free Antinium, but the fate of all the six remaining Hives concerned him. And he did not like the possibility of either individual ever coming to Izril.
“The odds of any of his vassals seeking employment on Rhir are remote. However, destabilization in Chandrar shifts attention towards that continent. The King of Destruction’s success and Tiqr’s survival is to be hoped for—so long as he himself does not regain his former strength. What will be, will be. This speculation is fruitless for now. Monetary aid would not change the situation, even if it were feasible.”
With that said, Klbkch dismissed Chandrar and the King of Destruction from his list of immediate worries. And with that, he was nearly done with his daily routine. The last number on his short docket was a list of short integers. They had no context because Klbkch did not need the context. He knew what they were.
Casualty reports. Tallies of wounded Antinium, Soldiers and Workers on duty. Income earned, money spent. Levels gained by Individual Antinium. New Antinium created in the Hive. Tunnels constructed. Tunnels collapsed…
Numbers. Klbkch also wished he had access to the statistics of the other five Hives, all located in southern Izril. But his Hive had been cut off, his Free Queen rejected by her peers. Until now. Now, Klbkch thought of Xrn’s proposal to him. And he did calculations that involved Antinium Soldiers, distance…
And boats. But that too was a far-off plan, one that required time to come to fruition. For now, Klbkch analyzed his Hive and judged it to be sound. He added two more notes to the day’s auditory recollections, not that he needed to remember. But they needed to be said out loud.
“I must speak to Wrymvr. And the tunnel linking Liscor to the Hives must be completed. And we must have more Queens.”
Simple tasks, impossible tasks. They were all the same to Klbkch. They had to be done. And so he would do them, or die. And even death was only an obstacle. Although it seemed with each death, it would be his final one…
Klbkch stood up after a second. The pieces of parchment covered with ink he carelessly tucked into his belt pouch for disposal. His table was now clean. And he was done with his duty. So it was back to work.
Last night he had completed a shift with Relc into late morning, a total of nine hours. He had slept for three hours. This morning he had conducted a sweep of the Hive, gone to the barracks for scheduled socializing for an hour and a half and to fill out paperwork, returned to the Hive to collected Listener reports and summarize his own notes here.
Now, Klbkch strode out of his office, ready to get back to work. He had do patrol with Relc again tonight, and there were his Revalantor duties to fulfill. And the first one appeared not eight steps out of Klbkch’s office. Klbkch stopped as the smaller figure approached him.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Am I interrupting you?”
The Worker nodded deferentially. He and Klbkch stood outside the office; Klbkch didn’t normally have a chair for anyone but himself.
“I came to inform you that Pawn is still not eating a fully balanced intake of nutrition. He eats, but he does not speak often. He does tend to the Painted Soldiers. But he is—dispirited.”
The [Tactician] paused hesitantly. Klbkch studied the Worker and wondered if Anand was afraid to bring the topic up to Klbkch again. He spoke curtly.
“Since the siege at Liscor. This is not new information.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch. I bring it up because it has been another week since my last report.”
Klbkch’s head ached for the first time this day. He closed his mandibles firmly and after a second’s thought, shook his head.
“Your report is received, Anand. So long as Pawn maintains some form of intake and he is able to respond and carries out his functions, that will be sufficient. If he is…unhappy, let him be so. I have spoken to Erin on the subject and she has expressed her philosophy. So long as Pawn eats and does not neglect the other Painted Antinium, he may be emotionally unfit as he wishes to be. I can do nothing for him. I am, apparently, not a nurturing figure. Even if I am a father one. According to Erin Solstice.”
“A father figure?”
Both Antinium stared at each other for a long moment. Anand’s mandibles opened and closed a few times.
“I see. I will inquire as to the meaning when I see Miss Solstice again. And I will continue monitoring Pawn.”
“Do so. Appraise me in a week unless a situation develops.”
Anand nodded, a bit reluctantly. Klbkch ignored that too. He would readily admit that both Anand and Belgrade had become instrumental in making the Hive more efficient, but they were still subordinates with personalities. And Klbkch wasn’t used to having other individual Antinium around him besides the Queen. He had functioned like this for a decade. And before that…
Alarm. Alarm. ALARM.
It wasn’t actually that word. But it was danger, an intense, alert, but not panicked feeling. And it came from above. Klbkch’s head snapped up immediately and Anand paused.
“The Soldiers guarding the Hive’s city entrance report intruders.”
Anand shifted. Now he was ready to run. Klbkch shook his head. The nuance of the thoughts he’d picked up on from above weren’t as immediate as they would be if someone had actually attempted to breach the Hive. Klbkch would have sensed them fighting as well. He concentrated, sending his thoughts up to see exactly what the Soldiers saw as he stood still.
It was faint. Klbkch had to listen hard, to pick up on the signals being conveyed from the Soldiers on guard duty at the Hive’s entrance. Their thoughts were an open book to him of course, but a distant book, on a bookshelf fifteen feet away with that tiny writing that was so obnoxious.
“…No. No assault. Someone has sent a message through the Hive. They are requesting my presence. It is not an emergency.”
It was just that the Soldiers reacted to anything coming into the Hive with the utmost paranoia, as they should. Anand relaxed. Klbkch began walking.
“I will attend to it. Return to your duties.”
Klbkch didn’t hear the rest. He walked down the tunnel, and then up a sloping intersection, past Workers and Soldiers who all paused and stood aside to let him through. The Hive moved like a machine, but Klbkch was an anomaly in the perfect, organized motion.
And yet, he was an integral part of the Hive too. He glanced from side to side, picking up the thoughts of all the Workers and Soldiers he passed. Their direction and actions were easy to read. And ensuring that he didn’t hear any stray thoughts, any hints of violence or…insanity, was his job. Klbkch ‘heard’ nothing out of the ordinary. And then—
The thought paused Klbkch straight in his tracks. The image that flickered through his head was faint—one thought among hundreds nearby. But it was a burst of color, emotion, so vibrant among the other mechanical instructions that it was impossible to miss. Klbkch’s head turned and he found the sender.
A Painted Soldier. The Antinium was marching along, perhaps to consume nutrients, or to sleep. The Soldier was not walking with his unit, as Soldiers always did. He had little blue dots drawn all over his carapace, the armor of his body. Klbkch stared at him for a second. Then the Revalantor kept moving.
Painted Antinium. Their thoughts stood out from the others. Once, Klbkch would have followed that Soldier, taken him away from the other Antinium and beheaded him with a cut from one of his silvery blades he carried if the Soldier failed his test. And if he had not, Klbkch would still have watched that Soldier like a hawk, hoping that the Soldier was something else. Something new.
Emotion, thought—it was a sign of Aberration, or a hint of Individuality. Either one made the Soldier precious. Once, such a way of thinking would have made that Soldier rarer than diamond. Although that was a poor comparison, because diamonds were useless and worthless in the Hive. Klbkch had ordered the Workers to stop throwing them away or using them to pack the walls with stones, though; apparently they had value as commodities.
Yes, half a year ago that Painted Soldier would have consumed Klbkch’s thoughts and his day. Now, Klbkch just kept heading to the surface.
The Painted Soldier’s head turned as he heard Klbkch’s faint voice. He halted; the other Workers and Soldiers paused, heads straight, hesitating with indecision. Klbkch met the Painted Soldier’s gaze.
“Nothing. Carry on.”
The other Workers and Soldiers moved forwards smoothly, never looking back. The Painted Soldier hesitated. He gazed at Klbkch and then ducked his head. Shy? Afraid? Embarrassed? Klbkch didn’t bother reaching for the Painted Soldier’s thoughts. He didn’t care to know.
The Soldier with blue dots continued walking, and Klbkch watched him go. Even now, the Painted Soldier was valuable. More valuable than a hundred Soldiers like him. Because he was something new. An Individual. But he was not what Klbkch had hoped for.
Once. Once, he would have known what was happening above in detail as it happened. Once, Klbkch wouldn’t have had to strain to read the thoughts of the Antinium around him. He could have reached out and known what a Worker walking ten miles away from him was thinking, what the Antinium was seeing, sensing, whether it was injured or hungry—everything and anything, as if that Worker and Klbkch were the same. And the Workers and Soldiers would have known Klbkch’ thoughts. But those days were past. And they might never come again.
“More Antinium are coming. The Hives will reunite. There is hope. Especially if the other Queens will take inspiration. If more Individuals appear, then we will have an irregular force. Prognugator-level leaders. If nothing else.”
Klbkch spoke as he ascended through the maze of tunnels. The Painted Soldiers, the new Individual Workers and the leaders like Anand, Pawn, and the others were extremely valuable. Not what Klbkch or the Free Queen had envisioned, but valuable nonetheless. Change was coming to Liscor. It was just that he still remembered what had been, and if you had seen perfection, how could you ever admire anything short of that?
That was how Klbkch lived. How he lived almost every day, in fact. Caught between maintaining the Hive, remembering the past, thinking of the distant, possibly unobtainable future, and being surprised by how his Hive had changed almost without him knowing.
He did not dream of the future, and he seldom slept. He had a job to do and he did it, with every hour he spent awake. He was driven, a perfect example of what was Antinium surrounded by fake copies. Klbkch walked and remembered.
Once, they had been better.
Selys Shivertail peered into the Hive and shivered, true to her last name. It was a full-body shiver that had nothing to do with cold; the dark tunnel leading downwards was purely ominous. And worse, Selys could see the half-hidden shapes of the Soldiers waiting in their alcoves. The Drake danced from foot to foot nervously, and then looked at the Drake beside her.
“I’m going to wet myself if one of them so much as moves. Can’t we stand further back?”
The Drake standing next to her with light blue scales, a very fit figure, and a more muscular, yet shorter and less curved tail than Selys’ turned her head. Watch Captain Zevara shook her head after a moment’s pause and resumed staring into the Hive.
“They won’t attack so long as we don’t go down into the tunnel. Even if you slip, you’ll be fine. And if you need to pee, do it over there.”
She shooed Selys over to the side. Selys bit her tongue at Zevara’s dismissive tone. But she was also embarrassed. The [Receptionist] turned [Heiress] squared her shoulders a touch indignantly.
“You’ve done this all the time then? It’s my first time looking into the Hive.”
“Really? I have to talk with Klbkch often. This is how we do it.”
Selys remembered Zevara walking a few feet into the Hive and calling out for Klbkch as the Soldiers moved to block the way. That had been a moment she was going to remember in her nightmares. Yes, the Soldiers were part of Liscor. And yes, Selys even knew some Antinium like Pawn and liked them. Still, the sight of a dozen huge shapes stepping out of the walls with all four fists raised, ready to kill—
“Uh—so. What do you do on your days off, Zevara? I’ve never really seen you outside of work. Not that I really see you around. Do you um, dance? In bars? There’s this really good one that I went to the other day. It’s this troupe at Wishdrinks. They play really well. Have you been to Wishdrinks…?”
The Watch Captain turned her head slightly and gave Selys a fish eye glance.
Shut up, Selys, you’re embarrassing yourself! The younger Drake closed her mouth. She was only a bit younger than Zevara, but she felt like a hatchling. After a second, Zevara shrugged slightly.
“I don’t do much off-duty. Watch Captains have to work all hours. You know that.”
Silence. After a second, Zevara checked her posture.
“…I tend to drink at bars where most of the City Watch goes when they’re off-duty. Other than that? I might read a book. Clean my apartment. Sometimes I pay for a mage-show, or go to an event with some of the Senior Guardsmen. Wishdrinks is out of my budget most of the time, though. I’d like to visit it sometime.”
“Oh! Me too. I mean, it was. Until I uh, earned some money. You should join me sometime. I’m sure my friends would be delighted to meet you.”
“Hm. Perhaps. I wouldn’t want to spoil the atmosphere. A Watch Captain tends to drag down a night’s entertainment.”
More silence. The two Drakes looked at each other. Selys hesitated.
“Maybe with Erin?”
“The H—Erin Solstice?”
“She’s been visiting Pallass a lot, but she’s always interested in new experiences. And she’s impossible to bother, as far as I’ve seen. Maybe with her, Lyonette, Drassi—”
Zevara winced with each progressive name. Selys bit her tongue again. The Watch Captain eyed her again and sighed.
“Perhaps. It’s not that I mind her too much, you understand? But she causes trouble. Why not, though? Let me know and I’ll see if my schedule lines up. The er, thief girl’s actually pleasant to be around these days. And your chatterbox friend isn’t bad either.”
“You know Drassi?”
“True. But she knows you?”
Zevara almost smiled. She uncrossed her folded arms, which appeared to be her default stance.
“I’ve met her on patrol. Even before I was Watch Captain. And she is one of Liscor’s finest [Gossips]. Even when she was a little brat—er, hatchling, running about the streets, she’d talk my ear off while I was on duty. I had to deal with eleven noise complaints involving her.”
“I had no idea.”
Tickled, Selys grinned. She saw a smile flash across Zevara’s face. The two Drakes looked at each other, and then caught themselves. Zevara cleared her throat and Selys coughed.
“We haven’t talked much.”
“No. We have not.”
It was an odd pairing. Selys was a [Receptionist], a no-name grunt in a standard job. Admittedly, her grandmother was head of the Adventurer’s Guild and Selys worked there, but Zevara was a Watch Captain. One of the most important people in Liscor outside of the army. Neither had crossed paths more than once before and certainly, Zevara hadn’t known Selys’ name until recently.
But here they were. Standing in front of the Hive. And they were also collaborators in a huge project that might change Liscor forever. Krshia, Selys, and Zevara were part of an alliance to force an election for Liscor’s council. But they needed help. And as if thinking that had summoned him, a shape appeared in the dark tunnel and marched up it.
For a moment Selys was uneasy. But she relaxed as soon as she saw the familiar, even friendly form of the one Antinium everyone in Liscor knew. Senior Guardsman Klbkch, the dependable partner of Relc and popular member of the Watch, appeared out of the Hive. And only when Selys looked at him in this context did she remember that he was also Revalantor Klbkch, the Slayer of the Antinium Wars. But Liscor had grown used to Klbkch’s face, and the Antinium’s precise voice was even pleasant to hear as he nodded to both Drakes.
“Ah. Watch Captain Zevara. Miss Selys. I apologize for the delay. I was at work. How may I help you?”
Zevara coughed, and a tiny plume of smoke escaped her mouth.
“Klbkch. Sorry to call you out before your shift starts. I was hoping I could speak with you with Selys here. I’m off-duty, but this matter concerns the Antinium. And the Watch.”
Klbkch’s head turned for a second to Selys. He paused and then nodded.
“Certainly. The Hive is not a suitable place for casual conversation. May I recommend a nearby bar?”
Both Drakes nodded, so Klbkch indicated the left street and they walked past the opening to the Hive. Drakes and Gnolls used this street; the Hive’s entrance, an area of excavated dirt, was an anomaly in the road. The area around it had been cleared of buildings, but the hustle and bustle of Liscor resumed barely a dozen feet from the entrance. Klbkch led Zevara into the first tavern he came to. Instantly, a Drake [Server] came up.
“Watch Captain Zevara? Senior Guardsman Klbkch? And…”
He frowned at Selys.
“Are you General Shivertail’s—no, Guildmistress Tekshia’s—”
He bit his tongue.
“Er, how can I help you all? Is this a Watch matter? The owner’s out, so if it is…”
He looked nervous, as well he might. Zevara coughed again and shook her head.
“Not Watch business. We’re all off-duty. Could we have a private table to talk?”
Much relieved, the [Server] immediately ushered the party to a table closer to the back. Selys realized that her face along with Klbkch and Zevara’s attracted immediate attention from the patrons in the morning crowd. But Klbkch was received with neutrality at the worst—some people even waved to him. Selys got stares, which was new and possibly relating to her most recent Skill; it was only Zevara who made anyone with a guilty conscience hunch up.
“What’ll it be? We’ve got a Dwarven brandy on tap. Very strong stuff, although not as potent as good Drake spirits of course.”
Selys and Zevara chorused with straight faces. Zevara shrugged.
“I’ll have that brandy for a taste. Get me a mug of water too to go with it. Selys?”
“Uh…yeah, that sounds good! Water too, please. Klbkch? Order anything you want. It’s on me.”
Lamely, Selys copied Zevara. Klbkch glanced up at the chalk writing on a board above the bar.
“I will have a mulled wine. Thank you.”
The [Server] disappeared and came back with three containers filled to the brim. Selys accepted her mug and sipped from the heady, sweet liquid. It was certainly strong and Selys was glad she’d gotten water with Zevara. She decided she liked it, and waved a claw.
“Do you have snacks?”
“Of course! We’ve got some nuts, some Gnoll uh, silkap, and french fries. Hot! With that katsup stuff.”
The [Server] blinked. Then he eyed Selys.
“Right. You know that [Innkeeper] who made it. Ours is good! You want salt?”
“I’ll take the nuts, actually. Can we get two bowls?”
“Sure, sure. You wouldn’t happen to know how that white stuff is made?”
“Mayonnaise? No idea, sorry.”
“Well, I tried. Tell my boss that if he rips off my tail.”
The [Server] disappeared again. Selys looked at Klbkch. He was sipping from his drink and exchanging polite conversation with Zevara.
“And you stopped Relc from beating the [Thieves] into the ground? Thanks, Klbkch. I don’t mind the bruises, but we have to fix broken bones.”
“It is part of my job, Watch Captain. Moderate bodily harm is appropriate under our code of conduct.”
“Tell Relc that. If he weren’t so useful, I would have kicked him out of the Watch years ago. As it is, I think he can be put to better use. Although he does keep [Thieves] off the streets after he catches one for a few days…”
Zevara sighed. She leaned back, sipping her drink and popped a few walnuts into her mouth as they arrived in a bowl. She nodded, burped a small gout of flame, and to Selys’ delight, blushed.
“Sorry. Flame breath. Happens sometimes. Duck if I sneeze. Klbkch, mind if I cut to the chase?”
“I believe we have done an appropriate amount of socializing, yes, Watch Captain. What is the issue you would like to discuss with me?”
Selys edged closer to their booth table. Zevara leaned forwards as well and Selys studied Klbkch. He was someone she hadn’t really known before Erin either. Oh, she saw him around, but like Zevara, he wasn’t someone she’d ever imagined she would have been friends with, or talked to as an equal. A coconspirator. A…partner? She looked at Zevara and the Watch Captain nodded. They’d agreed to let her do the talking. Selys was just here to help with the negotiations. And Krshia?
She was hard at work selling the idea to Liscor. Zevara leaned forwards, bracing herself with an arm on the table.
“Alright, Klbkch. Here’s the details. You’re aware that the Council is changing seats this month? Well, Krshia and Selys approached me two days ago with a plan that involves changing how the Council forms itself…”
The pitch was short. Zevara finished explaining the concept before her mug had half-emptied, with Selys adding in a few details. But its effect on Klbkch was anything but trivial.
The Antinium sat back at his table. The mulled wine in his cup he’d ordered to be sociable was untouched. Klbkch blinked down at it, realized he’d forgotten to drink, and downed the entire cup while he thought. Zevara and Selys stared at Klbkch as he calmly put down his empty cup. Alcohol had a limited effect on Antinium, as did most poisons.
“One Council member per district. I see. And your assumption is that Krshia Silverfang would win in her area?”
The two exchanged a look. And now Klbkch saw how they were clearly allied. Selys nodded.
“Yeah. That’s what we’re proposing. But we have to get the Council to allow an election to go forwards. But if it does—Krshia’s really popular among Gnolls. There’s nearly one Gnoll for every three Drakes were Krshia lives. That’s higher than most other districts of the city. If they all turn out to vote for her, she’s already got a huge lead.”
“And your proposal would strengthen the Adventurer’s Guild, City Watch, and provide much needed relief to a number of societal issues. Assuming the election takes place.”
That was the uncertain variable as Klbkch understood it. Zevara cleared her throat again and took a sip of water.
“Krshia’s tweaking the Council’s tails right now. We’re here to convince you to lend the Antinium’s support to this election proposal. Krshia’s plan is a good one. We get funding to all the areas that the current Council has failed to support. Only…”
She trailed off delicately. Klbkch nodded. He’d been doing internal calculations as Selys described all the way Liscor’s funds would be allocated. And Klbkch knew how much money Liscor was able to spend annually.
Even with her proposed tax, the city lacked enough the resources to double the City Watch’s budget, expand the walls, and retrofit the Adventurer’s Guild. Doubtless all three projects would bring money to Liscor, but how did you borrow money against the future? The Merchant’s Guild? They had a very punitive system of borrowing and lending as Klbkch understood it. And so…his mind flickered to the inevitable conclusion as Selys spoke.
“We’d like the Antinium’s support for Krshia’s idea. If you agreed to even offer us a discount on construction, Liscor would be able to afford everything. What do you say, Klbkch?”
The Antinium did not immediately reply. He paused, staring at Zevara and Selys.
“I understand these projects would be beneficial for Liscor. But what would the Antinium gain from spending the Hive’s resources for the city?”
It was not a malicious question. Klbkch suspected he knew the answer, but he had to feign ignorance. Zevara took another breath. She was nervous; he could see her claws gripping the table, even if her tail was still.
“Klbkch. I’m putting my position as Watch Captain on the line by opening up elections. The Council could well decide to replace me. But if, if Krshia wins, I keep my job. Which means more powers to the Watch. And with someone on the Council and in the Watch Captain’s office, they can renegotiate some of the terms of the Antinium’s deal with Liscor.”
She looked meaningfully at Klbkch. He nodded. Oh yes. But how much was she willing to allow?
“Go on, Watch Captain. What did you have in mind?”
“I’ll petition the Council to allow Antinium to serve as members of the Watch. We could bring as many as a hundred Soldiers onto the walls, or swear in those patrols as formal members of the City Watch. They’ll be full [Guardsmen]. Like you, Klbkch. That’s what I can offer.”
Zevara folded her claws together. She met Klbkch’s gaze. And he detected the nerves in Selys’ twitching tail as well. They wanted this.
“We can offer something else too, Klbkch. Not gold. But…we could give some Antinium formal citizenship. Like Pawn. He wouldn’t be allowed to travel to other Drake cities I’m sure, but it would be a first. Or we could…I don’t know. What do you think?”
Again, Klbkch didn’t immediately reply. He looked from face to face at the two female Drakes and paused. His mind was…not whirling. It was doing the exact opposite of whirl, in fact. Klbkch existed in a cold, calm place, and the thoughts that passed through his mind were unaffiliated with the chaos of emotion. But he did like what he thought.
A seat on the Council? Watch Captain Zevara was offering to expand the Antinium’s role in the City Watch? This was everything he had ever wanted. And more. Klbkch calmed himself.
No, he couldn’t offer too much. What was appropriate? Reluctantly, or rather, feigning the emotion, Klbkch opened his mandibles.
“I suppose the Hive could agree to a very lenient building contract with Liscor. The Antinium are certainly capable of mass construction, although sourcing the stone will be an issue. As will constructing such a huge area. The Hive’s Worker population may be unable to handle the entirety of the task themselves, you understand?”
The two nodded hurriedly. Klbkch nodded as well, though that was a barefaced lie. He could pull two thousand Workers out of the Hive to begin construction tomorrow if need be. And he would. Selys hurriedly spoke up.
“Stone can be quarried. We have the High Passes around here; there are some good sources of stone, or so Krshia claims. But the Antinium being willing to help pay for the costs is the thing. Would—your Queen be willing to do so?”
“I would need to consult with her. I believe she would be extremely reluctant to part with the Hive’s resources for the city, despite our mutual alliance. However—I am sure I could offer Liscor appropriate aid. Yes. If the Hive were to fund…twenty percent of all the costs of construction and offer our Workers at a largely discounted rate, would that be sufficient? I can also say with authority that the Hive could contribute t—two thousand gold pieces to additional funds for the City Watch and Adventurer’s Guild. Annually?”
Klbkch watched Selys and Zevara’s faces closely. Both of them gasped.
“Two thousand gold a year?”
Klbkch was relieved he hadn’t said twenty thousand gold pieces. He clicked his mandibles softly.
“Ah. The Hive does have a surplus of funds at the moment. We could of course offer something more. But I am afraid that the Hive’s expenditures have to be taken into account. If this is unacceptable…”
“No, no. It’s wonderful! If it were ten percent, and you only discounted the price of construction—Krshia is going to be ecstatic when she hears this!”
Selys beamed as she looked at Zevara. Klbkch nodded. Now, carefully, carefully…he held up a finger.
“There are a few conditions, however. I am afraid that my Queen would never accept the Antinium expanding their role in the City Watch as an equitable trade, even as allies.”
Zevara’s head swung back to Klbkch.
“She wouldn’t? I mean, why not?”
“She does not see my role as Senior Guardsman as particularly important to the Hive. I am in favor of expanding the Antinium’s role in the Watch, but I would have to convince my Queen of the necessity.”
Klbkch shrugged his shoulders delicately. He watched Selys’ face sink. Zevara on the other hand was sharper.
“Did you have something else in mind then, Klbkch? Krshia’s said she’s willing to offer the Antinium what she can. But what is it you’d like?”
“Hm. Would you allow me a moment’s thought?”
The two nodded. Klbkch pretended to think. Then, carefully, he spoke.
“If the city is to expand, then perhaps allowing the Hive to expand with the city would be appropriate? We are, currently, bound by a treaty to the size of our Hive’s dimensions, which must be largely constrained to the area under the city with auxiliary tunnels of course.”
Tunnels that extended all the way to Liscor’s dungeon. Zevara was nodding warily. Klbkch went on.
“Allowing the Hive to grow to match Liscor’s area of expansion would be beneficial. As we could use the new area for storage and water runoff tunnels. As would a few diplomatic rights in accordance to the ones Miss Selys proposed.”
Klbkch nodded to Selys. She blinked.
The Antinium steepled his hands together delicately.
“I would like to allow more Antinium from other Hives to visit Liscor. In an official, diplomatic capacity.”
Zevara half-rose from her chair. Selys’ jaw fell open. Klbkch glanced behind the two, but no one else seemed to have heard. He twitched his antennas and looked innocently at the other two.
“Is this an unacceptable term, Watch Captain Zevara? We have had Antinium visitors to Liscor from other Hives before.”
“Of course, but—well, you mean officially? On a regular basis?”
The Watch Captain ran a claw through her neck spines. Klbkch nodded again.
“Yes. Perhaps there might be a limit on the number of Antinium allowed to visit. Say, fifty at most? But they would be accorded free passage from Liscor and while about the city and its environs.”
“What for? To see the sights? Purchase gifts? I had no idea the Antinium travelled.”
Zevara looked at Klbkch. And he saw a flicker of suspicion cross her brow. She was, after all, a Watch Captain of her city. Klbkch was sure the Drake cities had a number of orders in place about his Hive. He thought quickly and put his hands flat on the table.
“If I may be blunt, Watch Captain Zevara? I will speak to you not as Senior Guardsman Klbkch, but in my role as Revalantor. In which I maintain a superior rank to you or any Watch Captain.”
The Drake opened her mouth and closed it, looking perplexed. Klbkch spoke over whatever she might have said.
“The other Hives do not possess the same level of understanding of Drake and Gnoll culture that the Free Antinium do. Nor do they wish to. Their attitude is…antagonistic. And they will go to war in time, given a sufficient opportunity. I am sure that Liscor and the other cities know this full well.”
Selys and Zevara fell silent. Zevara nodded tightly, as the casual attitude at the table disappeared. But Klbkch had calculated the risk. He went on.
“The Free Antinium’s split from the other Hives was in part due to our understanding that war was not necessary for mutual growth. My Queen and I did not desire a third Incursion War. Nor, I think, does Liscor. Hence our pact and our attempts to establish friendlier relations.”
“Really? It was that profound a difference?”
Zevara muttered, and then caught herself. She nodded slowly.
“We see eye-to-eye in that at least, Klbkch. Ever since the Second Antinium War when the Antinium helped fight the Necromancer off—so you’re saying the other Hives don’t share any of your Hive’s views? The Free Antinium, you said? As opposed to…?”
She was fishing. And even Selys could tell that, from the way she glanced sideways at her companion. But that was fine; Klbkch was willing to give any number of details away. He pretended it was an innocuous statement.
“As opposed to the Armored Antinium or the Silent Antinium, yes. Excuse me. I am aware your people do not differentiate between our Hives. Yes. The ideological rift between our Hives is somewhat considerable. Hence my proposal to allow other Antinium into the city. One group has already come to witness the benefits of mutual cooperation between the Hive and Drake cities.”
Zevara’s tail twitched. Klbkch had no doubt this was all going down into a report. He nodded, mixing fact with fiction. And mostly fact, to be honest.
“There will be Prognugators among those I invite to the cities. They are to the Hives what Watch Captains are to Drake Cities. These individuals alone may sway their Queens. They must come here and know that Drakes are not a single-minded enemy who will show the Antinium no quarter.”
This time the Watch Captain’s lips twitched.
“The Antinium think we’re a single-minded foe incapable of diplomacy?”
Zevara’s face told Klbkch she was unsure of whether or not to be proud. That was unexpected, but Klbkch capitalized on the emotion. He nodded slowly and deliberately.
“The Antinium learn slowly in some regards. And you must understand, Watch Captain, we did not sweep through Izril as planned. The Drakes are a formidable foe, as are the Gnolls. And our perspective is colored. Recall that before the Antinium ever came to Izril, our only contact with a surface species were the people of Rhir. We had…many, many years of conflict with them.”
“Trust the Blighted Kingdom to attack first and never try for diplomacy ever.”
The Watch Captain looked amused. Klbkch nodded.
“They are the more belligerent of the two peoples I mentioned, yes, Watch Captain. But you understand my point, I trust. The Antinium can learn. And allowing more representatives of other Hives into the city may lead to an alternative to war.”
“Yes. Yes. But…”
Zevara’s eyes were flickering rapidly. She glanced up, meeting Klbkch’s multi-faceted eyes for a while.
“So allowing Antinium visitors would benefit Liscor greatly, wouldn’t it, Klbkch? That’s generous of you.”
She was suspicious. Klbkch spread his hands on the table.
“It would facilitate a number of advantages for my Queen. Having the rights to allow Antinium visitors from other Hives would be a right she possessed that the other Queens lacked. This matters to the Antinium. I am unsure if I can explain the nuance.”
“No, I get it.”
Zevara grinned tightly. She drummed her claws on the table. Restlessly, she pushed back her chair a bit.
“So that’s the offer? Allow the Hive to expand past our original borders and give Antinium the right to enter the city? And allow more on the streets, I suppose? In exchange for Antinium construction aid and money for the Watch and Adventurer’s Guild.”
“It may be possible to negotiate some of the terms, but yes, Watch Captain. I think that is the least my Queen would take.”
Klbkch was lying. He would gladly take either offer and offer twice what he’d just given Zevara. Just to have Krshia Silverfang on the Council would be a boon worth twenty thousand gold pieces in itself. But he pretended to be conflicted.
Zevara didn’t need to pretend. She stood up and turned to Selys.
“I…need to think about this. Give me a moment?”
“Of course. Uh…we’ll be here. Klbkch, another drink?”
Selys smiled, baring her teeth uncertainly. Zevara nodded. She looked at Klbkch.
“I’m sorry. But I can’t be sure I can agree to any of this. I know you, Klbkch. But I am a Watch Captain and…give me five minutes? Ten?”
“Only naturally. I will have the brandy, Miss Selys. If that is acceptable?”
Klbkch reached for the nuts. He’d done the best he could. Selys was clearly nervous, but to her and Zevara, Klbkch appeared calm. But that was because neither of them had learned to read Antinium expressions, like Erin, Lyonette, and come to it, Relc. Klbkch was maintaining a good façade, but internally he was intent, urging Zevara to agree with every fiber of his being.
And more than that. Klbkch watched as Zevara walked out of the tavern. Silently, he activated his Skill. Or rather, he activated it again.
There were a number of classes that Klbkch possessed that no one knew he had. Not even his Queen. [Guardsman], [Sword Slayer], these were only the ones everyone knew. But Klbkch possessed a number of tertiary classes. Unfortunately, he had come to understand that these classes were inhibiting him from leveling from his conversation with Ryoka. But they did come in useful, particularly one of his classes. [Diplomat].
The idea of an Antinium [Diplomat] was a joke anywhere in the world. What did the Antinium need to negotiate? And—everyone knew they barely leveled up. Why would they specialize in that? So those people thought and they were all fools. Because the best [Diplomat] was one you never saw coming. And Klbkch, Klbkch the Slayer, had that class.
He’d told Ryoka that. It might be a drain on his levels, but he was a Level 11 [Diplomat]. And he had one Skill from that class he used all the time. Every day in fact. He had used it on Erin Solstice. He was a master of it.
[Reassuring Presence]. That was all. A Level 10 Skill, and hardly a powerful one. But for Klbkch, it was a mighty Skill. Because what was an Antinium? An enemy. And he, Klbkch the Slayer, was a known villain to the Drakes. But with one Skill, he could influence those around him to give him a chance.
To reevaluate him. To give him a chance. And he had used that Skill for ten years. Perhaps all of his reputation in Liscor was the product of the Skill. Perhaps it had little effect other than smoothing his entry into the city. But Klbkch used it. And no one had any idea.
Of such secrets was the world made. Klbkch waited, talking a bit with Selys, but the female Drake was too nervous to make much conversation. Klbkch saw Zevara come back eight minutes later. The Watch Captain sat down and spoke abruptly.
“Okay. I agree.”
Selys let out a huge breath. Klbkch exhaled silently. But internally he was as happy as he had ever been.
Success. Zevara met Klbkch’s eyes squarely.
“I’m in, Klbkch. For what the Antinium are offering? Well, if you could increase the amount you’re giving to the city, especially the Watch—we’ll sort out the details. But I can try to get you both an expansion on your Hive’s limits and the right to allow other Antinium into the city. But I’m warning you, Klbkch. It’s going to be tricky. Even if Krshia could swing the Council, this is bigger than I am. Krshia will say the same thing. We can try to get you both deals, but neither she nor I can guarantee it, even if we win the election.”
If Krshia and Zevara won, Klbkch would consider that a victory in itself. He nodded calmly and took a sip from his new mug.
“Allowing the Antinium more autonomy aboveground and giving the Hive a construction project of this magnitude is a sufficient promise for now. If you promise to advocate for open borders with the Hives, I will take it on…faith, Captain Zevara. Miss Selys.”
And if Liscor refuses, the other Prognugators will simply have to keep their presence hidden in the Hive. They can be smuggled to Erin’s inn some other way. And Gnolls on the Council might well moderate their views. At the very least, Krshia Silverfang was friends with Erin Solstice. Any way you looked at it, a victory for Krshia meant that the Antinium won.
“I’ll tell Krshia at once. She’ll be ecstatic. She’s already outlining her proposal—with this, she can plan out even more! We could expand the city a huge amount! If the Council has the money. Ancestors, I’ll pay for a few streets if it means we can deal with the overcrowding and the rent!”
Selys excitedly got to her feet. Zevara did likewise. She hesitated and held out a claw.
“So it’s a deal, Klbkch?”
“The Antinium will support Krshia Silverfang, Watch Captain. To the utmost of our ability. This strengthens Liscor.”
Klbkch shook Zevara’ hand firmly. He paused as they headed to the door; Selys had left a two gold coin tip, which made the [Server]’s eyes pop.
“Watch Captain. It occurs to me there is another small concession I would like to request.”
Zevara turned at the door, again wary.
“I would also like to formally request that the number of allowed Soldiers for my Hive be increased to, say, six hundred?”
The Antinium stared innocuously at Zevara. The Drake paused. Her lips twitched and she gave Klbkch a raised brow.
“Of course, I’ll take that into consideration.”
She left Klbkch there, with promises to have Krshia meet with him that very night. Klbkch looked forwards to it; he was already calculating how much gold he could be persuaded into giving Krshia’s cause. How much was suspicious or too much? Ten thousand? Eight thousand per year?
He would be circumspect. But the Hive would be generous, ‘unknowingly’ if need be. The Antinium were not thought to have a strong grasp of economics, a fact Klbkch had played up his first years working with Relc. The truth was that Klbkch agreed with everything Krshia had proposed. What strengthened Liscor strengthened the Free Antinium. And more.
Krshia Silverfang on the Council. Selys Shivertail and Zevara were helping her. It was a combination of individuals that Klbkch had never anticipated. But it came together because Krshia was important, at least among the Gnolls. Zevara was a Watch Captain, so that fit. And Selys had inherited…
The Heartflame Armor. Yes, now it belonged to Selys. And Zel Shivertail was dead. So many developments in favor of the Antinium, not that Zel Shivertail’s death was necessarily one such. All thanks to one person? No. Thanks to another world.
Thanks to Erin Solstice. The Antinium of Liscor had been struggling until she had come here, trying to make Individuals and instead creating Aberrations. She had done so much for the Hive. Klbkch was sure that this latest development was in some way related to her, or simply an effect of her coming from her world.
Another world. What other effects might Erin and Ryoka be having on this world? What if there were more of their people? How would that affect the continents, the countless nations? The Antinium themselves?
That was impossible for Klbkch to imagine. But he would speculate with Xrn. She could be trusted. And perhaps his Queen, although Klbkch feared she could not be trusted. Not with this. She was brave, and she had risen to every occasion. But this was something only the First Queen would have been able to understand fully.
For now, this election. Klbkch walked through the streets. And now he was aboveground, he noticed the disciplined chaos in the city, something he would only have picked up on with his evening patrol duties with Relc. Klbkch watched. He listened to Krshia speaking on her stall and he saw Selys hurrying up to the Gnoll.
Yes. Krshia had to win the election. And the election had to occur. That was the new priority of the day. He walked back to the Hive. And on the way he noticed more things that gave him pause. Among them was Lism arguing in front of the Mage’s Guild. Screaming, rather. At Wing Commander Embria.
Klbkch walked back towards his Hive, thinking carefully. Now he was analyzing the situation, Zevara and Selys’ confidence in the surety of Krshia’s victory wasn’t something he shared. He was already anticipating what would follow. In his way, he understood more of Drake politics than either Zevara or Selys.
But that was fine. Klbkch stopped at the entrance of the Hive and descended slowly. The Soldiers waiting at the entrance let him past, their thoughts alert, watchful. Klbkch cast his own thoughts downwards and spoke. An auditory component helped reinforce the clarity of the signal, or so he’d found.
“My Queen. I have an opportunity for you. If you are ready.”
He listened for the response. And his mandibles rose in a smile. Yes. Krshia’s small party had come to him seeking a trade. But they were looking at it like a Drake. Or a Gnoll [Shopkeeper] might. They thought of things in give and take. The Antinium did not. What benefitted the Hive was all. Krshia was beneficial to the Hive. Zevara had promised something Klbkch wanted, and so he would put the full weight of the Free Antinium behind them. Or just one Antinium. Sometimes that was all you needed. Klbkch descended, speaking to his Queen.
“We await the right moment, then, my Queen. If you will prepare, I will signal the moment. Wait. This ‘election’ may be won without uncertainty, in which case there is no need. If not—is he able to move?”
Klbkch smiled. And he thought of how this would change events above and below. Klbkch waited for the moment to change everything he could. And if Pawn didn’t cheer up after this, Klbkch would seriously consider dumping him at Erin’s inn and leaving him there.
…He wondered if Erin was selling acid flies yet.
Deep in the Hive, Pawn knelt. He clasped his four arms together and prayed. It was a simple prayer.
“Please let my people stop suffering. Let there be peace. Let there be Heaven. And let us build it if none such exists. Only give us the chance. Give us any chance. And let there be peace. Amen.”
It was a poor prayer. One without the—the graciousness of words, the elegance that Pawn wished he could have. But it came from the heart. And that was all Pawn had. His heart, which beat painfully in his chest.
He rose. And in the darkness, hundreds of bodies rose with him. Painted Soldiers, their bodies dabbed with bright colors, stood. They looked at Pawn. And he looked across their heads.
Each one was different. Each one unique. Though their bodies were the same, they were individual as could be. Even other species were less unique. For what separated two Humans? A difference in height? Different bones, or skin color? The quality of their voice?
Those were uncertain variables. But this? This was different. Each Soldier’s carapace was decorated. They each bore a symbol of who they were, and they could reapply that proof whenever they needed to. They had chosen who they were.
The Painted Soldiers. The Individuals of the Hive. Pawn’s flock. That’s what Erin had called them. But if they were his flock, he was a poor [Shepherd]. And he was tired. And so, so very sad.
Pawn spoke simply. The large chamber in which he stood was both the Painted Soldier’s barracks for sleeping as well as their break hall. And home. And memorial. On the walls covered with the signs of fallen Soldiers were spaces dedicated to reading. Small, children’s picture books shared space next to boards that were extra-large to allow Soldiers to play chess or go together. There was a spot to sit on fluffy, comfy blankets and pillows, always in high demand. Even a spot to paint.
But the Soldiers had stopped their tasks to kneel or sit in front of Pawn. For his morning prayer. He offered two a day. Morning and night. Not all of the Soldiers could be present; even now some fought, or guarded parts of the Hive. But all who could come, came. And they listened. So Pawn tried to pray as best he could. He never repeated himself. And he tried to be short.
It was inadequate. But with so many expectant faces, Pawn could never do nothing. So now he raised the stick on which hung the censer and waved it. The fragrance of cinnamon hung in the air as Pawn walked past the Soldiers. He hadn’t lit it, but the censer still smelled of the wonderful sweet scent.
“Go in peace. Go, thinking of peace. You may go. Thank you. Thank you…”
The Soldiers waited until Pawn was past them to move. Slowly, they filed past him, returning to their lives. And they looked at Pawn as he walked slowly past him. He was an [Acolyte]. The only one of his kind. And he felt like a fraud. But he kept walking until he reached the end of the cavern. Then he let the Soldiers get back to work. And he sat.
It had been weeks since Yellow Splatters had died. Since the hundred fell at Liscor. Pawn knew he should do something. Erin had come to see him. And he had duties. But he couldn’t find the strength to do any of it.
They had died around him. Shielding him from the Goblin Lord’s magic. And they had died because he asked them to save her. And they had. Erin Solstice lived. And that was one of the reasons Pawn lived. But they had all died for her.
Yellow Splatters. Pawn bowed his head and wished an Antinium could weep. But he made no sound. Because the Soldiers were walking around, enjoying being alive. Enjoying their time off that they were given as Painted Soldiers. And looking at him. So Pawn sat. He made no sound, though he would have wailed. And he ate when it was time to eat, and slept when it was time to sleep. He prayed, and he spoke. Because he could not abandon these Soldiers to his despair as he had so selfishly before. They were all he had left.
Him. And Purple Smile. The [Sergeant] came over to Pawn and waved two of his arms. The peculiar Soldier raised his purple-colored mandibles in a smile. And Pawn tried to copy it.
“Hello Purple Smiles. Is it time to eat?”
The [Sergeant] shrugged. He stared at Pawn and then sat next to him. That was his way. As any Soldier, Purple Smiles couldn’t speak, but his hands did the talking. Thumbs-up, a walking hand, another thumb, a pointing finger—his crude, Soldier’s fingers on his four hands constructed a message.
“Thank you. It was a good prayer? And…I should go for a walk?”
Nod. Pawn looked at Purple Smile’s finger.
“The inn? Maybe later. I’m sure Erin’s busy.”
Purple Smiles stared at Pawn. Both Antinium knew he was lying, or rather, avoiding saying what he meant. It was not an Antinium thing. But Purple Smiles didn’t give up. Slowly, he urged Pawn up, taking the Worker’s arm as carefully as if he were clutching paper. And the Worker couldn’t very well refuse. Purple Smiles had given so much. He still fought against the monsters of the dungeon. And Pawn had asked so much of the Soldiers. If they asked him anything—
“Very well. Where should I walk?”
Around. Purple Smiles gestured. Pawn nodded. Slowly, he walked around the barracks. His body felt…tired. He’d been doing a lot of sitting. And remembering. Thinking, really. Thinking of how things had come to this.
Look. Look at the barracks now. It was incomparable to before. The barracks of the Painted Soldiers was now more of a wing; the tight, intersecting tunnels had been excavated as the barracks grew, becoming larger, with a more open design than any standard Antinium area. Something that reflected the architecture above, with a higher ceiling, the space to move without being cramped.
An echo of the sky. And the colors that shone from the walls were nowhere to be found in the Hive. If Pawn had not known what this was, he would have thought he had stumbled into a magical land here. Soldiers were free to rest. And they had things to occupy themselves. Fun. Games. Things no Antinium had ever dreamed of.
They had paid a bloody price for it. Once again. Only, this time it had cost Yellow Splatters. Cost a hundred Painted Soldiers. Was that the new equation? Was every step forward bathed in the blood of the Painted Antinium? Pawn feared it was.
Hence his despair. For what was right? It was good, beautiful that the Painted Antinium existed. But the cost—the cost they paid so willingly—Pawn wasn’t sure if his heart could bear it.
It was the argument he had had so many times in the past. And again, there would be no answer. But Pawn couldn’t avoid it. He walked past Soldiers. And then he remembered his duties and paused. He asked them what they were doing, spoke to them. And he saw that they were happy. One showed him a clay cup. Another a picture in a well-worn book. And that was all they had ever wanted. No—they had never wanted this because they had never known it existed.
And perhaps if he had been like them, he would have been happy despite the deaths. But Pawn had dreamed of heaven. And that glorious sight was too much for a mortal mind to bear. He had heard of salvation. And he craved it. So Pawn kept walking. Until he reached one of the entrances to the barracks. And an entering Antinium nearly ran into him.
It was a near miss. Unlike the usual order of the Hive, Workers and Painted Soldiers were free to move about as they pleased. So only in this place did collisions occur. And when they did—no one got hurt. Why would they? The Antinium’s bodies were covered in shells. It was just a funny peculiarity.
This time Pawn saw the Worker coming in a rush of other Workers. The others noticed Pawn, but this one failed to and nearly stepped into Pawn. He moved back of course. The Worker paused and looked up. He saw Pawn and the [Acolyte]’s censer stick.
Pawn politely stepped aside and gestured, as he had been taught to do on Liscor’s streets as a humble Worker himself. But the Worker in front of him froze.
“This one apologizes, Individual Pawn. This one is deeply sorry.”
The Worker quivered. Pawn stopped and stared at him.
“This one was in your way. This one humbly moves. Apologies, apologies.”
The Worker scuttled back. The other Workers in his group looked at him. And like him, they wilted.
They were the same height as Pawn. But he felt like he was looking down on them. Certainly on the Worker in front of him; the Worker was hunched, much like Pawn remembered doing when he was miserable or feared having made a mistake. The sight hurt Pawn to see.
“It’s nothing. Please. It was my fault as well. Don’t be worried.”
Pawn unconsciously reached out and patted the Worker’s shoulders with two arms as if he were a Soldier. The Worker stared.
It was such a timid reply. And yet—the words, the tone, made Pawn think he wasn’t speaking to a regular Worker. No, of course not; if the Worker were allowed into the barracks, it meant they weren’t a regular Worker. Pawn paused. He looked at the Worker.
“What is your name, Worker? If you have a name.”
Too late, he remembered. Some workers didn’t have names. They hadn’t chosen like him. And he tensed. But the Worker did not begin shaking. He did not behave as Pawn once had when Erin asked. Instead, the Worker ducked his head and replied timidly.
“This one is Archer B23.”
“Archer…B23? That is your name?”
“Yes, Individual Pawn. It was given to me by Revelator Klbkch. It is my name.”
Pawn stared. Then he started.
“Klbkch gave you that name? I mean, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“Yes, Individual Pawn. This one passed the test and was named. This—I am Archer B23. He gave me my name along with the other Workers in Archer Unit B.”
That at least was clear. Pawn looked at the other Workers in the group. Let’s see. Twenty four. Probably about right.
“Archer B23. Why did Klbkch give you that name?”
It was almost as bad as calling all the Workers…Workers. Archer B23 paused.
“This one does not know what Revalantor Klbkch thought. But Archer B23 is this one’s name. It is a functional name.”
Was there a touch of defiance at the skepticism in Pawn’s tone? The [Acolyte] stared at Archer B23.
“Of course it is. It’s a fine name. Forgive me. I am Pawn. You…know me?”
Archer B23 nodded. He looked up at Pawn.
“You are Individual Pawn. All the Autonomous Workers know of you.”
The title threw Pawn. Archer B23 looked around at his companions as if seeking help. Another spoke up.
“We—I—I—are Workers who have passed Revalantor Klbkch’s tests. We are Autonomous Workers, Individual Pawn. But we are not you.”
The other Workers nodded as once. They gathered around their two companions. And they looked the same. They even acted the same. But they could say ‘I’. They were…
Pawn remembered them. The other Workers playing chess in the break room back at the start. The Workers who had passed Klbkch’s tests. So this is what they had become?
They played chess. But they had never met Erin. Or if they had, it was a fleeting meeting. Not like her chess lessons. They were like Pawn had been at the start, with the other members of the chess club.
The [Acolyte] touched his chest, above his heart.
“I see. Autonomous Workers. Not Individuals. And you are all Archers?”
“Yes, Individual Pawn. I am Archer B25.”
“I am Archer B11.”
“I am Archer B3.”
“I am Archer B8.”
Pawn’s head turned to each Worker as they began to introduce themselves. They did it eagerly, never mind that even Mrsha would have caught onto the pattern after the eighth Worker. But Pawn listened to all twenty five, nodding as each spoke their name. Because it mattered to them.
It was their name. And suddenly, Pawn had so many questions.
“You are all on break?”
“Yes, Individual Pawn. We are relieved from duty.”
“I see. Then will you sit with me? Some of the fluff places are open.”
In fact, they all were. The Soldiers let the Workers sit with Pawn. The Workers carefully touched at the blankets and pillows, afraid to sit too heavily. Pawn sat on the ground, refusing the pillows.
“You’re [Archers]. And you…fight.”
“Yes, Individual Pawn. Revalantor Klbkch assigned us to an archery unit. We were the second one formed. We support the Soldiers. It is an experimental role. We are experimental.”
“No. You’re not.”
The Workers started. Pawn held up a hand.
“I’m sorry. I meant…you’re not experimental. You’re all very—vital. You help fight, don’t you? That is a function the Hive needs. You use bows. That’s brave.”
They stared at him, hungrily. And Pawn didn’t know why, until he remembered what it was like being them. Hungry for…
“Was it hard?”
“We fulfill our roles. We try not to fail. Sometimes we do. Our arrows miss.”
“Arrows miss. But you shoot at monsters coming straight at you. You do a good job. Have—have you ever been above?”
The whisper came from all of them. And they spoke in unison as much as apart. Pawn looked at them.
“We were on a patrol. We saw the sky. We fought Shield Spiders. We did not eat food. The inn was closed. But we saw a dog. It barked at us.”
The Workers all nodded together. That was important. Pawn remembered being a [Builder] above. Yes, it was special if you saw anything other than the building you were ordered to construct, deconstruct, or repair. He nodded solemnly.
“That is very special.”
And inside, he felt a knife cutting his organs to pieces. Look at these Workers. They stared at Pawn as if they were staring at the Queen herself. And they had only been above once. The same for many Soldiers. Purple Smiles took patrols above of course, but—
“Let’s go above.”
The word came out of Pawn. It stunned the Workers. They hugged the pillows and blankets.
“Are we allowed? Is it permitted?”
“We have gone above once, though.”
“Some Workers have not. Archer Group F has not.”
“No? Then they should come too. Let’s get them. Where are they?”
Pawn stood up. He felt terrible, but in a different way all of a sudden. Look at these Workers! What was he doing? The Workers stood with him.
“Archer Group F is on the frontlines. Individual Anand has their group.”
“Let’s find them. You—come with me. Purple Smiles! I’m going to lead a patrol to the surface. That’s fine. I think.”
Pawn waved at Purple Smiles. The [Sergeant] smiled widely with his mandibles. Soldiers turned. Pawn pointed at a group waiting for their turn on the sparring circles.
“Are you free? Come with me. We’ll go to the surface.”
The Soldiers fell into line. The Workers followed Pawn, excited, as he strode down the tunnels. Nearly forty Antinium walked behind Pawn. It would be the biggest patrol ever allowed onto Liscor’s streets outside of a battle. Pawn didn’t care. He marched towards the front lines, where the dungeon met the Hive. The fortified sections of tunnel weren’t rushing with activity, which meant there was no fighting. And indeed, Anand was standing in a war room, speaking calmly.
“Shore up the first layer of Belgrade’s traps. Archer Group F will delegate ten members. Bring up five Painted Soldiers and send twenty regular Soldiers and fifteen Workers. In notation, this order will be: Shore 1st Layer. Reinforcements: archer F, 10. Painted 5, 20 S, 15 W. Execute. Are we clear on the details?”
“Yes, Individual Anand.”
A group of Workers chorused around Anand. Pawn stopped, surprised. Anand was standing around a map of the Hive. And the Workers around him were…the [Tactician] mumbled to himself, clicking his mandibles.
“The notation is flawed. Once we implement unit designations across all the Hive, it will be easier to specify exact numbers from exact groups. Until then, draw from the reserves first and then the nearest tunnel not bracing for action or engaged. I trust your judgment. One of you send the message. Now, I—Pawn?”
He looked up, surprised. One of the Workers hurried down the corridor. Pawn stepped forwards.
“Anand. Am I interrupting you?”
“No. There is no fighting. Belgrade’s traps—Pawn, it is good to see you moving. What is this? Reinforcements?”
“No. A patrol. I was hoping to get Archer Group F to bring them to the surface for the first time. What is this?”
The two Workers met, stepping past all the other silent Antinium. Pawn and Anand, two of the original members of Erin’s chess club. Anand opened his mouth in a smile and Pawn did likewise. They had both changed. But they were connected. Always.
“I am maintaining the defense of the Hive, Pawn. Belgrade is supervising the construction. I can pull Archer Group F and replace them if you want them. Someone go rescind the order. Order Archer Group C to fill their role. You…Steinitz.”
He pointed to a Worker. Pawn stared as the Worker sped off after the first Worker.
“Steinitz? That Worker is an Autonomous Worker too?”
“Yes. They aren’t Individual. But they have names and they passed Revalantor Klbkch’s test. All of them are now [Archers] or assisting me in my war room instead of regular Worker duties.”
Anand gestured to the group of Workers around him. Pawn stared.
“It was my idea, Pawn. Mine and Belgrade’s, on order of Revalantor Klbkch. These semi-Individual Workers aren’t like we were. You understand that after meeting them, don’t you?”
“Yes. But why—”
“To teach them. And so they level. Having regular Workers fill the role won’t level them much. But some of these Workers—Archer Group A has two of their members who are Level 7 [Archers] already! Imagine what will happen if they reach Level 10? Or Level 20?”
Pawn nodded slowly.
“They’re valuable. Like the Painted Soldiers.”
Anand caught the note in his voice. He turned back to Pawn, his antennae twitching apologetically.
“Strategist. I am a [Tactician], Pawn. But there’s someone I want to introduce you to. You, come forwards.”
He pointed to the Worker who’d been standing closest to Anand. The Worker approached. Anand gestured to him.
“Pawn. This is Bishop.”
Pawn jerked back. He stared at the Worker, who raised a tentative hand. He was holding a clipboard, which was really a nail board since the bit of parchment was held on place by a small nail.
“Hello, Individual Pawn. I am Bishop. Individual Anand has told me about you. I am—”
“That’s not Bishop.”
The Worker recoiled. Anand whirled.
Pawn was shaking. The Worker looked at the other two. His voice was trembling. Blooms of fury were rising in his chest.
“Bishop named himself in the battle for Liscor. He died there, Anand. That was his name. You should have known—no. That was his name. You have to take another.”
He looked at the fake Antinium. The Worker was trembling.
“I—I am sorry, Individual Pawn. This one didn’t know. This one—”
Anand put two arms out in front of Bishop.
“Enough. Pawn. I allowed him to take the name Bishop.”
Pawn looked at Anand, shocked. The [Tactician] nodded.
“Two Antinium may have the same name, Pawn. And Bishop would not have begrudged his name being used. He might even have liked it, if he had understood it.”
“But it was his name. If another Worker has it—”
Pawn couldn’t articulate the rest. How would they remember Bishop, the real Bishop? But Anand just shook his head.
“The name is both of theirs. And it will matter to both. What this Bishop becomes and the Bishop we knew—it is not one thing or the other. They are both Bishop. Pawn. He wanted that name. Look at him.”
He pointed to Bishop. The Worker was shuddering. Hunched, like Archer B23. Pawn instantly felt his anger subside. He reached out.
“I am sorry. I did not mean that. I am sorry. Bishop. Forgive me.”
The Worker looked up. Anand put a hand on his shoulder.
“Say yes, if you bear Pawn no ill will, Bishop. It is your decision. Your power. No one may force you to say yes.”
The Worker looked back at Anand. And the Workers in the room stared at Anand. Workers and Soldiers. The [Tactician] looked around. And Bishop stared at Pawn. He hesitated. And thought. And then he spoke.
“Yes. I bear you no ill will, Individual Pawn.”
Susurration. Pawn stood back. Anand let Bishop walk back to his peers. The two looked around, and at each other.
“We were still growing. We were barely Individual, then. Even you. Now we are truly Individual. But these are Autonomous Workers. Not like us. Bishop is the closest, I think, because I play chess with him and he helps me. But even he has a way to go. I am not sure about your Painted Soldiers, but I think all but Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters are closer to Autonomous than Individual.”
“That is the new metric? Did Klbkch come up with it?”
“Belgrade, actually. It helps differentiate them. And it makes sense.”
Pawn nodded slowly. He hesitated. Archer Group F arrived, walking into the room holding bows and arrows, both crude. But no less deadly.
“I confess, Anand. I did not understand the plight of the Workers until now. I was too focused on the Soldiers. I’ve ignored part of our Hive. Again.”
Anand shrugged. He leaned on a wall; the action was so spontaneous and natural that neither Worker noticed. But the other Workers and Soldiers stared; none of them would ever have done that. None had.
“You were busy with the Painted Soldiers, Pawn. You gave to them what the Workers could obtain with chess. You cannot be everywhere.”
“You’ve looked after these Workers, then. I thank you.”
“To an extent. The ones in this room—excluding the Archer Groups—are mine. But the vast majority of the Workers I don’t interact with. This is my personal group. Belgrade has his.”
That shocked Pawn. He opened his mandibles wide and hissed at Anand.
“It is not fair to single out separate Workers, Anand! They all deserve the same amount of attention!”
The [Tactician] tilted his head thoughtfully to one side.
“Fair? Of course not. But it is more efficient, Pawn. We cannot be everywhere, Belgrade and I. And Garry and Bird have not as yet expressed the desire to speak to any Workers or Soldiers.”
“But if you rotated them—”
“This group is my group. They are all [Tacticians]. They have the aptitude. I don’t need [Archers] or Workers whose talents lie elsewhere, Pawn. I like this group. I know all their names.”
“But they’re all Workers, Anand. Autonomous Workers. And the other Workers, the ones who aren’t Autonomous—if you don’t spend time with them, I can’t do it alone! It would not be equal, not be fair!”
Pawn stared at his old friend. Anand was nodding, but then he shook his head abruptly.
“Why would that matter? Fairness? That is a wrong concept, I think. Some individuals within the Hive possess capabilities greater than others. And unique existences such as the Queen and Revalantor Klbkch are worth more than any number of Soldiers or Workers. Our value is not equal, Pawn. Mine is not the same as yours, let alone Revalantor Klbkch’s. Or Erin’s. If we are to die, better it be Belgrade or I first.”
He tapped his chest. Pawn stared at the spot. Anand went on.
“In the same way, these Workers matter more to me. Archer Group A matters most because I know them. I realize it is unfair. But I cannot be fair. To make this group strong, I must prioritize it over others. And if there is a danger I think will wipe out an Archer Group, I would not send Archer Group A. That would be the wrong move strategically, you understand?”
He’d said that in front of Archer Groups B and F. Pawn looked at them, horrified. But he saw the Workers nodding calmly in response to Anand’s words. They approved the logic.
“I can’t accept that. If we’re not equal, if one life has more value than the others, how can we understand each other? We were all Workers once, Anand.”
The [Tactician] paused as Pawn reached out to him. He grasped Pawn’s arm gently.
“That is true. That is very true.”
Pawn relaxed. Anand hesitated.
“And yet, I would say that has no bearing on how I conduct strategy or which Workers I select to be around me. Your line of thought interests me. It is not Antinium, Pawn. It comes from Erin, and Miss Ryoka who you spoke to. It comes from above, from other species. I do not say it is wrong. I only wish to tell you that it may not be practical.”
He spread his arms. And Pawn could not deny that. Logically, Anand was correct. But illogically, in his heart, Pawn hurt for the Workers that Anand would never meet.
“I must disagree with your philosophy then, Anand. Even while I admit that your strategy is sound.”
The words were bitter. Anand nodded, accepting them. Then he looked up.
“Good. And I hope you will not change how you act, Pawn.”
The [Acolyte] twitched his left antennae. The [Tactician] smiled.
“I do not think I am wrong. Nor do I think it is wrong of you to continue believing as you do, Pawn. But I will act as I can for the Hive while balancing what I understand with what you say. I hold your words in great esteem. I only wish I could fulfill your expectations of me.”
And to that, Pawn had nothing to say at all. Anand thoughtfully looked back at his map. And then he raised his head. A Worker rushed into the room.
“Contact on Breach 1, Individual Anand. Thirty Eggwalkers.”
“Ah. I must attend to this. Send fifteen Painted! 40 S! Archery Group D!”
The Worker strode back among his peers, shouting orders. Only, Anand wasn’t really one of the other Autonomous Workers. He did seem taller among them, more animated. Pawn walked back, and the Workers and Soldiers in his group followed him. Anand waved to Pawn at the door.
“It is good to see you are not unhappy, Pawn. We will speak later.”
Pawn nodded. He walked past the other Workers clustering around Anand. It was hard even for Pawn to tell them apart. But then he saw one of them turn.
“Individual Pawn? This one will try his best to become worthy of the name Bishop.”
Pawn stared at Bishop. He hesitated. Then he nodded.
“Thank you. Goodbye, Bishop.”
Then he turned and went to find Belgrade.
“Anand has changed.”
Pawn spoke to Belgrade in front of a curious sight. Workers were constructing formations of dirt, terrain, even tunnels in a large cavern. It was a new addition to the Hive; it had replaced a storeroom and three access tunnels to be built. Presumably it was important if the Hive had shifted its structure to allow for it. Belgrade stood in front of the flurry of Workers and nodded slowly in response to Pawn’s statement.
“Yes. As have I. More dirt to this section. There. Now, trigger trap six.”
He pointed absently as Workers packed dirt on a long tunnel. Pawn watched as one of them pushed a pillar made of dirt and set off a chain reaction. The tunnel ahead of the Worker collapsed in a whumph of dirt. Belgrade looked up.
“Six seconds. The speed can be improved. And I am dissatisfied about the weight dumped. It would not be able to crush one of the suits of enchanted armor, don’t you agree, Pawn? Try tripling the weight. We may have to add boulders.”
The Workers swarmed over trap six. Pawn looked at Belgrade. The Worker was still as he stared down at some blueprints on a piece of parchment, but his instructions were precise. The patrol that Pawn had brought waited, content to watch the other Workers while the two Individuals talked.
“Pardon me for not taking time to speak with you fully, Pawn. But I want to complete my latest trap modifications for the kill zone in front of the dungeon by today. Lyonette has requested an Antinium team to begin construction on The Wandering Inn. I will be directing the Soldiers and Workers to that duty. Unless you would like to fulfill the objective yourself? Or will you visit the inn?”
“She has? I—I think she told me about that. No. I’ll be going above with a patrol today. I’m…I don’t wish to have the duty. I’m sorry, Belgrade.”
Pawn lamely looked at the [Tactician] who was hard at work. While Pawn had mainly sat about and led prayers with his Painted Soldiers. The [Tactician] looked unconcerned.
“Do not be. I enjoy it.”
The traps and attempts at creating a more sturdy foundation looked as boring to Pawn as anything he had seen. Belgrade was measuring how much one dirt load-bearing column could hold. And comparing that against a similar weight in rocks. The Worker shrugged.
“Anand is always better at free roaming tactics. Aggressive, evolving maneuvers of instinct. I have played chess, Shogi, and Go against him. I have lost more games than I win. Except when he plays a strategy I am familiar with. You see, I prefer to create scenarios in which I can triumph. Which is why I like traps. Traps are predictable.”
One of the load-bearing columns collapsed. Belgrade made a note on his plans.
“Dirt is cheap too. I have now constructed six miles of traps from here to the dungeon by which we are able to eliminate most monster types. Workers and Soldiers are still needed especially against Flesh Worms and the like, which can tunnel, but we are now slowly gaining in numbers, rather than maintaining an acceptable casualty rate. I wonder how the other Workers and Soldiers will be deployed? Perhaps to your unit?”
He glanced up at Pawn. The [Acolyte] hesitated.
“I do not know. Revalantor Klbkch has ordered me to expand, but slowly. I think that is wise. I hope the Soldiers and Workers have a chance to rest if they are not needed to fight.”
“Most likely Revalantor Klbkch will send them into the dungeon to curb the enemy’s numbers. Or use the Worker in more construction projects. They are useless idle. Have you seen the Archer Groups at work, Pawn? They are most efficient for their kill-to-death ratio. Pawn? Pawn?”
Belgrade kept working on his blueprints for a minute before he realized Pawn had gone silent. He looked up. Pawn’s voice trembled.
“How—how can you speak of Soldiers and Workers dying like that, Belgrade? They are us.”
“They are not, Pawn. They are Autonomous. Or regular Soldiers and Workers. They are not you. I have grown used to losing them. I could not bear to lose you. So. Do not die, please.”
He looked down. Pawn stared at him. He swept the blueprints from the desk. Belgrade made a clicking sound.
“Look at me, Belgrade! How can you say that? How can you not care about their deaths?”
Pawn seized Belgrade with all four arms. The other Worker raised his, then paused. He stared into the depths of Pawn’s gaze. And what was reflected in Belgrade’s multi-faceted eyes was—
“I counted, Pawn. After my first engagement as [Tactician] on the front, I was deeply disturbed and did not maintain adequate sleep after the first Soldiers and Workers died.”
Pawn stopped shaking Belgrade. His friend’s voice was soft.
“After the first week, I stopped waking up. Perhaps I was too tired. But I maintained adequate sleep. For the most part. After the first thousand. I stopped thinking about them with my every waking thought. I have counted them, though.”
The [Tactician] nodded.
“My failures. I have lost…six thousand, seven hundred, and twenty three Workers in engagements under my command. Is it a high number? Or is it lower than the Hive’s average? I do not know.”
He looked down at the blueprints lying on the ground. The Workers in the room beyond had stopped working. They stared at Pawn, along with the patrol. Belgrade’s voice was far away.
“They die when I fail. They die when I succeed. There is not a day where a Worker does not die under my command. And they look like me. They look like you. They look like us. But they are not us. They cannot be. Or else what am I doing?”
No one answered. Belgrade walked out of Pawn’s limp grip. He bent and picked up his plans, dusted it off.
“Traps. Traps are nice. They don’t kill Workers or Soldiers. Usually. But I will order them to their deaths if need be. If monsters breach my defenses, I will drown them in Antinium blood.”
He looked up abruptly at Pawn. The [Acolyte] couldn’t move.
“Facestealer killed four hundred Workers, Pawn. I just sent them into the tunnel until he left. I went there to see when he was gone. He took their heads, Pawn. Took them and left them. Lined them up. They stared at me. They looked like you. Like you and Anand and Garry and Bird and Manus and Bishop…like me. Are they me, Pawn? Me, before I met Erin?”
Pawn reached out. Belgrade stepped back. He held his plans in his four hands. And his voice cracked. But he was no Aberration. He was just Belgrade. Trembling. Suddenly shaking, his stoic demeanor gone.
“Tell me. What am I now? Pawn?”
And there was no answer Pawn could give. But at the same time, he could have never been still. He threw all four arms around Belgrade. The two Workers shivered, and Pawn slowly dragged Belgrade back. Out of that room filled with traps. The other Autonomous Workers helped Pawn pull Belgrade up as the [Tactician] protested weakly. Out of the dark Hive, and into the light. Towards the inn, where Belgrade sat and shook and Pawn called for Erin. And the patrol sat in the sunlight and drank blue fruit juice. And that was special.
Pawn sat in the familiar inn, because he was special and he had been there more times than he could count. And he saw how Anand was wrong and right at the same time. Erin came out with Lyonette, and hugged Belgrade. And the [Tactician] stopped shaking. Pawn explained, and Erin’s face contorted with sadness. And that was a crime in itself.
But for the first time, as he explained Belgrade’s anguish, Pawn saw the uncertainty on her face. As if she had no idea how to comfort the [Tactician] who had counted every Antinium he’d ever lost. And he wondered if that expression had been on her face from the very start and he’d never noticed. Pawn wished he hadn’t seen it. But it was important that he had.
She might not have known what to do. But she found out. It was a warm cup of milk, a blanket, a dozen hugs. A gentle song as she rocked Belgrade. A flower from outside held up in a white Gnoll’s paw. And a pretty lie.
“It’s going to be alright, Belgrade. It’s alright.”
Erin held her old friend. And Belgrade calmed. And eventually, he looked at Erin timidly.
“Do you have time to play a game of Go, Erin? Anand and I have wished to play you for a long time.”
The [Innkeeper] laughed.
“Of course I can. Settle down over here; I’ll get a board. Who else wants to play? You? And you? Who are you?”
“This one is Archer B23.”
“Oh. Oh? That’s a good name!”
“Yes it is. Thank you.”
“And who are you?”
“That’s a good name too! Alright, you sit here and I’ll show you how to play if you don’t know. Someone get more milk for these guys?”
Lyonette grabbed a pitcher of warm milk by the fire. She brought it over and whispered.
“Erin, they’re acting on stage.”
“Oh. Right, right! I’ll lower my voice. Everyone who wants to watch, sit over there. I’ll go over here and teach these guys. Be shush. Hey, Archer B23. Do you know Bird?”
Pawn smiled. He sat with Lyonette. The [Princess] sat next to him, watching the rest of the Soldiers and Workers taking tables closer to the stage. The Players of Celum, clearly pleased to have an audience not heckling them, decided it was time to put a full performance of Hamlet on.
“You haven’t been here lately, Pawn.”
“No. I’m sorry, Lyonette. But I’ve been—”
Her hand found his on the table.
“You don’t have to explain. I’m just glad you came up. With Belgrade.”
And somehow, Lyonette’s silence was more comforting than anything Belgrade or Anand had said. It was a good silence. And Pawn sat with her as Mrsha crawled up onto a chair next to Lyonette and decided to nap on her other side. And he sat there for…he couldn’t have said how long. Watching the play. Until the door burst open and Ceria shouted into the inn.
“It’s a damn election!”
And then of course things were noisy. But Pawn felt the warmth on his hand even when Lyonette got up. He turned obligingly as Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon all entered from Liscor’s door to shout about something with Erin and Lyonette in the corner. Another Antinium followed them. He was notable because he had three arms. And he was as different as Belgrade and Pawn. But…
The former Prognugator stiffened a bit when he looked at Pawn. And Pawn felt the phantom pain racing down his arm. Ksmvr edged backwards. He looked smaller to Pawn. Less terrifying. Pawn wondered if he should shout something. But then he looked at Ksmvr’s missing arm and decided not to. The Prognugator looked around.
“I will get out of your way. Excuse me.”
“I…you don’t need to. That is your team. I am simply listening.”
Pawn walked past Ksmvr. The other Antinium stared at him. Then he ducked his head slowly and joined the group.
“An election? Really?”
“That’s right. And we just heard the latest. Uh—Pisces, explain it.”
The [Necromancer]’s sniff was very familiar to Pawn.
“The Antinium are funding Liscor’s expansion and giving money to the City Watch’s budget, among other things. If the election takes place, and I assume that offer is also contingent upon Krshia’s seat on the Council. Which, if I understand the districted voting system, almost ensures her victory.”
Yvlon nodded. Erin whistled softly, an action that made every Antinium in the room instantly turn to look at her. The [Innkeeper] glanced at Pawn.
“Whoa. That’s big. Pawn, did you know about this?”
The Worker shook his head. He didn’t really care, but he cared that everyone else cared. Then he thought about Workers getting a chance to work in the sunlight. Maybe Soldiers could guard them or help?
“I think this is a good idea. But I have no idea what it is about.”
“Krshia’s claiming that the Antinium will pay two thousand gold per year. Possibly more. Not bad, although I can see that not going too far in the case of the City Watch. Even steel’s expensive if you’re arming a thousand. But more? And helping pay for construction? That is a big incentive—I don’t know if the Council can deny an election with that on the table.”
Drassi, who’d also been sent to gather information was chattering to the others. She had the pulse of the crowds. News was spreading fast about the proposed election and the Antinium offer had just pushed public opinion hard. Lyonette nibbled a fingernail as she thought, frowning.
“Klbkch is offering a lot to Krshia, Selys, and Zevara. I’m surprised they’re the ones behind it. Erin, you’re sure you didn’t say anything to them?”
“No! I mean, not about this specifically. Why does everyone think this is my fault?”
Lyonette turned towards Pawn.
“Can the Antinium really fund all this, Pawn? Or even more?”
Belgrade looked up from his table where he was pondering his next set of moves. He hesitated and closed his mandibles without speaking. Erin absently placed a Go stone down as Archer B23 hopefully placed a black stone.
Pawn thought of the storage areas devoted only to holding the gold, copper, and silver. They had to be reinforced to account for the weight of all that metal. Then he thought of the artifact chambers, and other stockpiles in the Hive. He shrugged.
“The Hive can pay for it. It would not be hard.”
“Well then, I’m sold. Go election! Hey, can anyone run?”
Drassi threw up her claws in delight. Erin was smiling too.
“That’s so cool! Democracy! And I didn’t do anything! Honest! I think. Wait…no, I’m pretty sure! Hey, let’s go see what Krshia’s saying! How about it?”
She looked around. The others nodded. Pawn found himself following Erin through the door. She reassured him.
“Your Workers and Soldiers are fine. Belgrade’s there and he thinks he can plot out a victory while I’m gone. Hah! Although he’s a lot better. But I’ve been practicing Go. It’s nice to have a good opponent! Where’s—oh, wow!”
She’d come to Market Street, or rather, the crowd hanging out the back of it. Drakes and Gnolls let Erin’s group push into the crowd—mainly because they weren’t given any choice. Yvlon was polite—Drassi knew every third person, but Ceria and Pisces unapologetically pushed through.
The [Necromancer] tripped, cast minor cantrips, and elbowed without mercy. Drakes and Gnolls sprang aside, swearing at him as little jets of flame cooked their tails. Erin followed, smacking Pisces on the back of the head and apologizing. Which, Pawn realized, coincidentally brought her through the crowd as well. Ksmvr was taking notes.
Krshia was standing on her stall, but she was now speaking to a huge number of people. And many of them were chanting ‘election’ while others shouted questions at the Gnoll. She was fielding them, and pitching her election plan every few minutes to the crowd coming in and out.
“The Antinium have agreed to help expand Liscor! Yes! And contribute to the funding of the City Watch and Adventurer’s Guild! That is an opportunity we should not pass up! Think of it! We could expand Liscor and build an entirely new district! And with that space, we could build more than just apartments, yes? Let both Drakes, Gnolls, and yes, Humans immigrate to Liscor! We could construct forges for [Blacksmiths], perhaps even huge warehouses like those used in Pallass! Or—what about a forest, a park inside the city walls? One with trees?”
The citizens of Liscor stared at Krshia, caught by the ideas she was floating past them. Erin, who’d reached the crowd right in front of Krshia, paused, and Pawn heard someone else half-shouting.
“Tone it down, Krshia! Don’t promise too much!”
“Let her! It’s just an idea!”
Two Drakes were standing in front of a group of Gnolls. Pawn recognized Zevara and Selys. The Watch Captain was shaking her head, dismayed by Krshia’s rhetoric.
“This idea is getting too big. I mean, we didn’t even consider it! Inviting Humans to settle in Liscor? A huge park? Swimming pools? Who gave her those ideas?”
Both Drakes turned and stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] shrugged innocently.
“Hey. Krshia just asked me for ideas the other day. And if the Antinium are going to build it, they can do it, right? I mean, I’ve seen some cool stuff in Pallass, but even they don’t have pools! And you could make walkways and add more floors to all the buildings! Build the walls even higher! Raise those walls! Raise those walls! Whoo!”
She raised her fist. The Gnolls turned around and the chant started spreading through the crowd. Erin laughed. Then she looked unaccountably guilty.
“Ooh. I don’t know if that’s a good one to shout. Oh well.”
Pawn looked around. He didn’t know what Erin meant, but the crowd seemed very pleased with Krshia’s ideas, as far as he could tell. Krshia was getting cheers, and the chant of ‘raise that wall’ was already being adopted. Zevara was addressing Erin when Pawn turned his attention back to them.
“You can help. Ancestors preserve me, but I’m okay with that. Especially if you can get Klbkch to promise more gold. But you have to promise me—no disasters!”
“Hey! I don’t try—okay, sometimes I do try—”
“No disasters! No one knocks down a wall or—or you somehow invite a group of Half-Giant [Architects] to the city! Got it?”
“Do half-Giant [Architects] exist? I wonder if Moore knows any.”
“Gah! Selys, do something about her!”
“Calm down, Zevara. Erin’s not doing anything. This is our idea. She can’t—”
“Raise those walls! Raise those walls!”
“Elections! Gnolls on the Council!”
“Vote for Krshia! How do we vote?”
“No more Antinium!”
The voice cut through the shouting. It was a strident shout, a piercing note of dissonance. The crowd quieted. Zevara closed her eyes. And Krshia’s head turned around. Her smiling face turned into a snarl.
Pawn looked left. Coming down the street was a group of Drakes. Some Gnolls, but mostly Drakes. And they were being led by someone being carried on his own stall. Pawn didn’t recognize him until Selys hissed his name.
“Lism. Oh, Creler eggs. What is he doing now?”
The [Shopkeeper] swayed as his counter crowd advanced down the street. He came to a stop, grabbing at the side of his stall and glared at Krshia. His voice was a shout.
“Let Humans in to Liscor? Do you not remember the army that was besieging our city not a month ago? Hello?”
The jubilant mood of the crowd was gone in a second. Pawn was quite impressed. He stared as Lism shook a fist at Krshia.
“And what’s this? Antinium paying for Liscor? Excuse me, but am I the only one who sees a problem with that?”
“Only you could find a way to object to free money, Lism!”
Krshia snapped back to a laugh from the crowd. Lism turned red, but Selys leaned over to Erin, looking worried.
“What is he doing here? Krshia chased him off once, but he’s got a crowd behind him. Is he trying to stop the election?”
Drassi snorted. She’d come up on Selys’ other side and leaned on her friend.
“He’s just a blowhard. Who’s going to argue against expanding the city if it’s cheap? And free money? We’ll take that from the Antinium, thanks!”
The Gnolls around her nodded. But Selys looked worried. So did Zevara. And Pawn, looking at Lism, saw the Drake sneer at Krshia.
“You think the Antinium do anything for free? You’re delusional, Silverfang. And what’s this about having them construct the city? Would you trust walls built by the Antinium? They’re the only thing that’s kept the Antinium from wiping us out!”
He pointed dramatically at the walls of Liscor in the distance. The crowd craned their necks to see. Krshia folded her arms and glared.
“You say that, but unless you can solve our housing issue—”
Lism bawled over her, cutting Krshia off with sheer force of volume!
“I don’t need to hear a bad idea to refute it! No Antinium walls! No Ant builders! No Humans taking our city!”
“No Humans! No more walls!”
The crowd chanted behind him. They weren’t larger than Krshia’s crowd, but this group was organized and united. Some of the listeners began looking towards Lism instead of Krshia. The Gnolls around Erin, Selys, and Pawn looked disgusted. Krshia growled.
“You’d do nothing, Lism? You’re as bad as the Council!”
“Hah! I’d do better than you, Silverfang! And I wouldn’t be a tool of the Antinium! People, don’t listen to this furball! If you want leadership, vote for me, Lism!”
The Drake struck a pose to cheers from the people around him. The Gnolls shouted in outrage.
“Not an hour ago you were against an election. Why the sudden change of heart?”
Krshia shouted back at Lism. The Drake laughed at her.
“If we do have an election, why not run? And what’s more, I can promise better than Antinium gold and Antinium favors!”
“Lies. Pure lies! You don’t have anything to offer!”
Krshia howled. Lism smirked.
“Oh, I don’t, do I? Everyone, please direct your attention that way! Wing Commander, please take your men forwards!”
There was a moment of silence as the crowd turned to look. Zevara, standing in front of Pawn, suddenly groaned.
“Wing Commander? Oh no—”
Pawn heard the first beat of the marching drum like a tingle on the back of his carapace. Then the ratatatattat of the drum sounded and trumpets began to blow a triumphal melody. Pawn looked up and saw the crowd parting.
They marched down the street four abreast, as precise as a unit of Antinium Soldiers. Their armor was polished. Their neck spines oiled; their fur combed. The [Soldiers] were Drakes and Gnolls, but their insignia marked them. Liscor’s sons and daughters.
The army of Liscor. They came down the street like thunder. One of the Drake [Captains] roared above the sound of the trumpets and beating drum.
“4th Company! Present arms!”
The Drakes and Gnolls unsheathed their blades and held them out. The crowd jumped back, but the 4th Company’s track was perfectly calculated. They walked forwards, their feet a solid pounding beat accompanying the drums. And at their head rode a Drake whose scales were as fiery as the blush on her cheeks.
“Citizens of Liscor, I give you the hero of the Battle for Liscor. Wing Commander Embria!”
Lism roared over the sound. Krshia stared. She pointed at Embria.
“What is she doing here? This is not a military affair! The army left Liscor in our darkest—”
“The army was here! They held the line! Or do you forget that the 4th Company fought and died outside our walls?”
Lism bawled at the crowd. The Drakes, even the Gnolls, looked ashamed for a moment. The 4th Company did indeed have conspicuous holes in the hundred that had first come to Liscor. Krshia tried to shout something, but Lism had the momentum. And perhaps a voice-enhancing spell, because his voice resounded even over the marching 4th Company.
“The army defended us! It was Drake [Soldiers] and Gnoll [Guardsmen] on that wall! More than the Antinium. Liscor defended itself! And the army was here. If they had known the Goblin Lord was assaulting Liscor, our army would have come back in force to smash both the Goblins and Tyrion Veltras to bits! But I agree with honored Krshia. We should have more than just one company! That’s why if I’m elected, I’ll call for three more companies to be stationed permanently in Liscor!”
The thump thump thump of the boots was a backdrop to Lism’s voice as well as the beat of the drums.
“I’ve spoken with our High Command and they’ve agreed to send permanent reinforcements to aid our heroic City Watch. We don’t need foreigners and Ants flooding our city. I hear the Antinium want to bring more of their kind in. The High Command has also approved to fund Liscor’s walls with honest money the army earned themselves! Vote for me, and we’ll bring our army back! Bring them back! Bring them back!”
The crowd howled the same words behind Lism.
“Bring them back! No more Ants! No more Humans! Bring them back!”
Lism stood on his platform and raised a hand. Embria had reached him. Reluctantly, the Wing Commander looked around from the back of her restless steed. Lism pointed at her, raising a claw clenched in triumph.
“Wing Commander Embria stands with me for a united Liscor! A hero of the Battle for Liscor supports Lism Swifttail! Remember that! Who will back Krshia Silverfang? Not one of our army’s finest! Vote for Lism! Market Street! A vote for Lism is a vote against Krshia! A vote for a sane Liscor!”
The crowd around him roared approval. Krshia’s supporters shouted back, but the crowd that had come to listen wasn’t full of diehard supporters and they were drowned out. Pawn, wondering if he could block out the discordant sound, heard Drassi exclaiming next to the others.
“Oh, dead gods. He lives around here too! Selys! Lism’s in the same district as Krshia! It’s him or her!”
Zevara stared up at Embria. The Drake wasn’t exactly meeting anyone’s eyes. But the entire 4th Company was standing there, and Lism was continuing to shout over Krshia. Selys and Zevara slowly turned around. Ceria was chewing her lip and Pisces was frowning. But then they turned. Slowly, everyone looked at Erin. So did Pawn.
The [Innkeeper] raised her hands.
“Uh oh. Uh—that’s not my fault either.”
“I think. I’m pretty sure. I…I think?”
The streets around Market Street in Liscor were in uproar. The chant, the beating drums, and Lism’s voice was an unrelenting beat. A march of sound. But beneath Liscor, the Hive was just as mechanical.
Mechanical and silent. Usually. For the sounds the Antinium made as they went about their duties lacked voices. It lacked intention. The sounds were byproducts of tasks being carried out and as such, usually gave the Hive a sense of quiet, even in the noisiest corridors. It was unfeeling sound.
Until it was broken. The noise receded. And something small, quavering and meandering crept through the tunnels. It halted Workers in their tracks. It echoed. And it journeyed from place to place, a strange bit of audio in a world unprepared for it.
It was a song. And it came from the chambers of the Free Queen. The song trailed off and started. It went fast and it slow. But it was music. And it was as magic as magic itself.
The Soldiers standing guard shifted. One almost turned to look before he turned straight, watching for threats. And the sound travelled further, through the tunnels. And those who heard it, Worker and Soldier alike, paused. The Listeners grew still and their quiet notation of what they heard above halted for a second. Their ink-stained appendages, so much like a quill, stopped transcribing. Because they had no idea how to write music.
At first it was glorious. Then it was playful. Serious. Meandering. And then just silly. Inside the chambers, a little Antinium rocked back and forth on his back. The stump of one regrowing hand waved the air as Bird sang.
“Bird that I am. Birds that I see. A bird flies down and calls to me. Birds of the land, birds of the sea. Oh, I wish I had a bird to eat.”
It was a nonsense song. A silly song, one the Worker made up on the spot. Those were half the songs he sang. The other half were songs the Free Queen had never heard before, with words that Bird sometimes sang from memory, other times inserted into the existing lyrics. Songs he had been taught by Erin Solstice.
But it was a song. The Free Queen listened. Bird rocked back and forth, singing happily. Then he trailed off. She looked at him.
“Is that it?”
“I have not made the rest of the song. Perhaps there is no rest of it.”
He stared up at her innocently. The Free Queen nodded. That was an answer she’d learned to expect from Bird.
“Then sing me another song, Bird. Another song.”
Bird happily acquiesced. With no context, with no warning, the pitch of his song suddenly changed. He sang a staccato, high-pitched melody.
“There-is-a-nutcracker. Who-cracks-nuts. There-he-goes. Cracking-nuts. Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack.”
After the silly song, the sudden change in music was as discordant as someone smacking two rocks together. The Free Queen sighed.
The Free Queen bent. In her cavernous chamber, her massive form bent down, to the little Worker lying on his back. The Free Queen inspected him with one huge eye.
“I have heard that song before. The song is Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. From a…play called The Nutcracker.”
“I have a question.”
Bird waited. The Free Queen sighed again.
“There are no faeries or sugar in your song, Bird. Just a song about a nutcracker who cracks nuts and kills birds by using them as bait. Why?”
“I do not know. I made up the words myself.”
The Free Queen stared down at Bird. He stared back up at her. The Free Queen’s mandibles opened.
“I have many questions.”
“I have no answers.”
“I see. You may stop singing. I have heard enough for now.”
Bird happily rocked back and forth. The Free Queen stared at him. One of Bird’s legs was pushing him off the ground, rocking him on his beetle-shell back. His regrowing limbs waved happily. They were rapidly regrowing. And Bird was animated. Perhaps too much. The Free Queen sighed, but without any rancor. She turned and her thoughts grew pensive.
For she was the Free Queen. And while Bird’s music was a welcome distraction, Klbkch’s messages to her reminded her of her duty. She turned her head and raised her voice.
“Bird. Garry. Come here.”
From out of the private kitchen an Antinium Worker appeared. Garry the [Cook] in charge of the Free Queen’s meals scurried out, looking distressed.
“My Queen, I am afraid your snack is not ready—”
“It is fine. Leave it. Approach. You too, little Bird.”
Garry nodded and came forwards to halt, staring up at his Queen. Bird rolled over until he was lying in front of the Free Queen. She looked down at them.
“Bird. Garry. I am about to speak of a subject of utmost importance to the Hive. You two will respond to the best of your abilities.”
The two Workers looked up at her. Bird slowly stopped rocking. Garry stood straighter.
“Yes, my Queen.”
“Good. Then listen. Garry. Bird. I tested you, once before. To see if you were worthy of being True Antinium. You failed.”
Garry’s antennae quivered. Bird opened his mandibles.
“I remember that. Pawn was very sad.”
The Free Queen looked down blankly at him.
“Was he? It may be an appropriate reaction. But do you recall the nature of the test?”
“I…recall some of it, my Queen. But I do not remember all of it.”
Garry slowly took off the chef’s hat he had been allowed to buy. Bird wiggled his antennae.
“I asked you what the purpose of the Antinium was. Recall your answers.”
Bird hesitated. He looked up at the Free Queen.
“Was it…something about birds?”
“Yes. And it was incorrect. Garry. Do you recall what Bird does not?”
The Free Queen looked at Garry. The Worker hesitated. Then he spoke in a clear voice, trembling slightly.
“I do, my Queen. We answered, each in turn. Belgrade answered that it was to defend and protect the Hive. Anand believed it was to level up and serve the Hive in that way. Pawn thought it was to…be better. That fewer would die. Bird thought it was to eat birds. I—I asked if it was to replicate and create more Hives. Is that the answer, my Queen?”
The response was flat. Cold. Garry flinched under it. Bird just stared up. The Queen looked down on them. And the pleasant music that Bird had sung was a distant memory. Now she was pensive. Thinking deeply. And unhappy. Both Bird and Garry could see that in her.
“Bird. Garry. You both failed that test. Your answers were false. But I will test you a second time. So. Listen. And answer. What is the purpose of the Antinium?”
And the Free Queen waited, the answer in her mind, shouting. And she looked at the two Workers. At Bird especially. And she waited. The two Workers looked at each other. Garry was first.
“Is it to be happy?”
The little Worker stared up at the Queen. She stared back and her antennae quivered. She had thought on this for weeks. And she had not dared test Bird, because of what it might mean. She was afraid. But duty was duty. She did not know if she wanted him to be wrong or right. Bird thought for a long while. Then he answered slowly, haltingly.
“Is it not to eat birds?”
The Free Queen exhaled. The wind ruffled both Worker’s antennae. Relieved, almost relaxed, the Free Queen reached down with one large feeler. Bird made a sound as she lifted him up, cradling him.
“No. You are incorrect. You have failed.”
Bird didn’t react in any particular way to the news. But the words staggered Garry like a blow. He looked down, and then up. He spread all four hands slowly towards the Free Queen.
“My Queen. You ask us a question with many answers but only one true one. May I ask…how should we know the correct answer? Is it something Revalantor Klbkch would know the answer to? He never told us, my Queen.”
“He was never meant to.”
“Then why ask? Is it something we should know?”
The Free Queen rocked Bird. His mandibles opened in a smile. She half-turned from Garry. He spoke again, hesitantly.
“But how should we know? If we were not told—is it something we should have known from our creation, my Queen?”
The Free Queen hesitated. But the truth didn’t matter to the test. She turned her head back.
“The question does not matter. It is a different one each time. But the answer matters. It must be the same as mine. Do you understand, [Cook] Garry?”
He hesitated and shook his head.
“No, my Queen. I do not understand.”
“Ah. Then look at me, Garry.”
He did. A tiny Worker appeared in the Queen’s gaze. She stared down at him and held the answer in her mind.
“This is the nature of the test. I ask you a question. Any question. And you answer it. What number do I think of, Gary? That is the test. Now. Listen. I am telling you the answer. Can you hear it?”
The Worker listened. He looked up at the Free Queen’s closed mandibles. He looked at Bird. The Worker was staring up at the Free Queen. After a minute, Garry shook his head.
“I am sorry, my Queen. I hear nothing. But you said nothing. How was I supposed to hear it?”
The Free Queen lowered another feeler. Garry flinched as the feeler gently touched his antennae. Then, wonderingly, he reached up to touch it.
“My Queen? But you can hear my thoughts with it. And you can order me. Or—if I concentrated—”
“I can hear you, Garry. With effort. If you project your thoughts as you are ordered. I can even send my will to you. But you cannot hear me. I must be the one who sends to you. Do you understand that?”
Garry slowly nodded. Bird tilted his head.
“We can hear and speak. And you can hear and speak, Queen. But only one of us has a voice and ears?”
“Yes. That is…close, Bird. Garry. Do you understand?”
The Free Queen looked at him. The [Cook] hesitated.
“I think I do, my Queen. Forgive my ignorance.”
“It is a question. I answered. Now you understand why you failed.”
Wearily, relieved, the Free Queen waved a feeler. She looked at Garry. A month or two ago she would have never said more than a few words to him. Now, she spoke to him. On occasion. She knew his name. Because of the Worker gently humming below her. She put Bird down. She had hoped he would hear the answer. Feared it.
“You may go, Garry. Bring Bird a snack. An Ashfire Bee if one is left.”
“Or a bird.”
“Or a bird.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
Garry sketched a bow. Then he hesitated. He turned back and hesitantly looked at the Free Queen. She, sending a mental order, did not miss the gesture. She looked back.
“Soldiers. Escort. Garry. Speak.”
Two of the Soldiers stationed at the entrance to the chambers left at a trot. Garry looked up at the Free Queen. And then he spoke.
“My Queen. Forgive me. But will you tell me the answer to your question? What is the purpose of the Antinium?”
He waited. Then he flinched as the Queen looked down at him. Her huge head bent. And her voice was very quiet.
“Return to the blighted lands. Destroy the thing that lurks in the darkness. Return and bring death to the deathless one. Destroy all that lives on Rhir and render it to dust. Avenge, revenge the Antinium. For her. For her memory, and in her name. That is the purpose the Antinium have. The purpose that burns in the hearts of the Prognugators and the Queens. It should be your existence. But it is not.”
Garry stumbled back. The Free Queen looked at him.
“You cannot hear it. Though I roar the name in my mind, Garry the [Cook]. And though you do not mean it, you offend me.”
“I—I am sorry, my Queen.”
“For what? You were not created properly. You are a failure. The fault is not yours.”
The Free Queen straightened abruptly. Garry spoke again.
“That was what you told us.”
“That was why Pawn was sad.”
Bird spoke up. The Free Queen looked at them.
“It is the truth. You two are failures. For all you are Individual.”
“But I thought—aren’t we what the Free Antinium set out to create, my Queen? Individuals? That is what Revalantor Klbkch claims.”
The Free Queen mulled over the statement.
“Klbkch speaks a half-truth. We set out to create Individuals. But I would rather have created True Antinium. Because Individuals shape the Hive. But the True Antinium are all Antinium.”
“And what separates them from us? Hearing? Listening with the mind?”
Garry’s voice shook. As if the denial of his purpose had shaken him. Bird just rocked back and forth. Back and forth. The Queen’s voice was flat.
“Yes. There have always been Soldiers. Always Workers. They did not look like you. They were…far different. But they fulfilled the same tasks. And no matter how they looked, they were Antinium. Because they were part of the Hive. I had only to think, and that will would be carried out. The Antinium were not separate, but one mind. A Queen was but one part of a whole. A Soldier a limb. We were together. We never marched alone.”
“I am with Garry. We are not alone.”
Bird spoke up, almost defiantly. The Free Queen shook her head.
“Little Bird. You do not understand. Tell me. Do you think the Soldiers who guard this Hive are strong?”
The question made Bird and Garry look at each other. Both nodded. The Queen laughed and it was a hollow sound.
“Why? Because they have strength? Numbers? A thicker carapace? That is not strength. An army of Soldiers fights together. It is true. The Antinium have cohesion. But the True Antinium were beyond that. If you had seen them, you would understand. An army of True Antinium Soldiers moved as one being. They looked with a thousand eyes. Thought with a thousand minds. Thus linked, an army of Soldiers could outmaneuver most [Strategists], and fight with a unity no other force could match. Imagine it. A Soldier could dodge a blow from behind, or know a charge was coming without needing to hear. He would comprehend and react at the speed of thought!”
Garry nodded. Bird opened his mandibles.
“But we all react at the speed of thought. Don’t we?”
Garry and the Free Queen looked down at him. Bird shrank.
“Don’t we? Am I wrong? I am wrong. Wrong…”
The Free Queen patted his stomach gently. Bird stop rocking.
“They thought with every mind present, Bird. That is the difference. Consider this. One of the abilities of the True Antinium was the power to coordinate flawlessly over long distances. Queens could work together in small groups or by the hundreds and amplify our connection. It was known as a Unitasis Network—we formed a similar bond during the First and Second Antinium Wars, the few of us that remained. But we had to route our connections through our Prognugators, and at distance we lost focus, cohesion. If we had armies of True Antinium, we would have not needed to strain so to make our voices heard. We would not have needed Prognugators.”
“Because we would have all been linked. One command would have reached us all.”
The Free Queen nodded. Garry understood. He looked up at her.
“Is that what we lost, my Queen? In our voyage across the sea?”
She looked down at him, startled. Dark memories swam across the Free Queen’s mind, but she chased them back. She bent down.
“What do you know of the crossing of the ocean, Garry?”
He shrank. The Free Queen forced herself to pull her head back.
“Only—only what Anand said, my Queen. He found a book. About the Antinium Wars. It said that we lost many ships leaving Rhir. Were we on Rhir?”
The question was both painful and offensive. The Free Queen recoiled from Garry and her body rose, almost convulsing. She raised her limbs furiously. And then paused. He did not know. It was not his fault. Garry flinched, looking up at his Queen. When she spoke, her voice was taut.
“You have never witnessed the True Antinium. You cannot imagine it, little Garry, little Bird. But the six remaining Queens of the Antinium remember. Xrn. Ksmvr. Wrymvr. The last of the Centenium. They remember. Yes. We were on Rhir. We may still be. And we left it. And we were glorious. Look around. Look around my chambers. Look upon me. Walk the length of our Hive. And understand this if nothing else, Garry, Bird. What you think is the Antinium is nothing less than a fraction of what we are. What we were.”
They looked up at her. And they had no reference, no frame to understand. But the Free Queen tried to make them understand. Suddenly, she was gripped by that horrible compulsion. She tried to project it to them as if they were Klbkchhezeim. But they were deaf and mute.
“You think this Hive is large? It is small. Insignificant. You think I am a proper Queen? I am weak. Compared to my predecessors, I am a fool. A fool, and pathetic.”
“But you are our Queen.”
Garry’s voice was small. The Free Queen paused. Then she shook her head.
“You were not there. You did not see them. The glories of a true Hive. The forms of true Antinium. As varied as the species that walk Izril. There were so many Queens. So many Prognugators and Centenium, yes Centenium like Klbkch. But he was different too. Our Hives stretched countless miles down into the earth. Our armies could have swept across Izril like a true tide. In our youth, we were mighty.”
They were just words. But still, they held Bird and Garry. The Free Queen went on, and her eyes saw glorious halls and sights that decades had failed to erase. A glimpse. Oh, a glimpse.
“We were so strong! We emerged from the ground and took all four walls of Rhir. We could have taken the capital, but we were fleeing. The kingdom was necessary to safeguard. So we left. Because our enemy was that strong. That terrible. That even the combined Hives of the True Antinium and our armies were helpless against it.”
The shadows grew long on the Free Queen’s chambers. She raised her feelers helplessly, as if she could conjure the scenes she spoke of with shadows instead of memory.
“We fled. Yes. But even in flight, in retreat, in decline, it was an age of glory that exceeds any of a species above ground. They wane. But we are a species younger than any other. We were created. And we created ourselves. You have seen Klbkchhezeim’s new form. I shaped that. But my work is clumsy. Slight. The Queens of old were capable of shaping chitin and flesh as easily as Garry shapes food. They created Antinium of every color and size and function to serve the Hive’s needs. And we had our champions.”
“Who were they?”
Bird’s voice was wondering. Garry simply stood, staring at his Queen as she spoke, more animated than he had ever seen her. The Free Queen struggled to even speak.
“How could I ever tell you if I could not show you? They were giants. War Queens, mighty and immune to harm. Shaper Queens, who spun new Antinium as easily as thought. And Hive Queens, who administrated our Hives, tended to supplies and security and expansion. And there were smaller Queens too. Junior Queens who assisted the older Queens in their duties. I—I was a Junior Queen.”
“Oh yes. Barely created. I was one of the last generation to leave our home. And I was part of the fleet sent to cross the oceans. To take Terandria, a nation described to us as weakest of the four other continents. But we failed the voyage.”
“Because of the water.”
Both Workers shuddered. The Free Queen hesitated.
“No. Yes. Perhaps. It was a failing of parts. We had never been at sea. We knew water, but we had never dreamed of sailing across it. We underestimated the distance. The trials. But we might have made it better than we had. We had brought an army. But the army died without more than a fraction having fought.”
“How? Did the boats sink?”
The Free Queens’ voice darkened. The shadows cast on the wall writhed.
“Worse. They died asleep. The bulk of our force was sealed in the bottom of the ships. In stasis, to avoid the need to consume our own during the voyage. We left the mightiest of our Queens and the Centenium to guard the ships. We thought…the Grand Queen of the time must have thought it was enough. It was not.”
Her voice quivered. And then grew flat. As if emotion were something you could simply switch off.
“First it was pursuit. Warships sent by Rhir. They sank our ships with fire and magic. We were unprepared. The Antinium had not adapted to the water. We could not swim. They used that against us and sank our ships. But we destroyed them. Then came pirates. People of the waters. They clashed with us. We killed them. Overran their vessels and slaughtered them at sea. Monsters preyed on us. We hunted them. Soldiers leapt from the edges of the boats and died killing their foes. But we continued. Our fleet would have made it. Then the storms came.”
The darkness closed in as the two Workers looked up at the looming Free Queen. She whispered, reaching out. Rain and water fell from the skies, until it seemed as if the horizon, the ocean itself was all water.
“I have never seen such storms. Xrn says they were more than winter storms. They came from Wistram itself, from the [Mages] of every nation in the world. I do not know. I only know that the waves were fifty times as large as the tallest ships. They swallowed ships whole. And yet, we sailed through them. Xrn broke the waves in half with magic. The Queens sailed their ships through whirlpools and maelstroms. They had never crossed the ocean, but they dared the storms. And for every ship that broke, six survived. And we might have survived. But then it came.”
Something with a hundred limbs reached out. The Free Queen looked around. One of the lead ships disappeared. A Queen called a warning in thought and mind. Below the ships, a dark shadow appeared in the churning waters. One miles long.
“I understand it to be called a Kraken. A devourer of fleets. This enemy brought the storm. Or perhaps the storm summoned it. It came to feast. And it brought all the horrors of the ocean with it. But the Antinium did not give in. We had nowhere to run. So we brought the fight to it. Our Queens dove from the railings. They cut it. Xrn brought down lightning. But it was not enough. One by one, they leapt. Into the waters.”
Galuc the Builder clung to a tentacle as it gripped a ship. The giant of the Antinium tore into flesh until the limb retreated to the waters. And blood turned the waters purple. But Galuc never returned. The Antinium were leaping, into a maw that split the sea. Fighting, dying, as the ships struggled to flee.
“Sixteen of the Centenium died there. Klbkchhezeim lost his true form. And our fleet sank, and with it, all the true Antinium were lost into the waters before they had a chance to fight. Sorcery could not damage the vessels our War Queens and Shaper Queens resided in. Even the Soldier’s containers were impregnable against ordinary steel wielded by faulty flesh. But water killed the Antinium of Rhir, where no other force in the world could. We have never suffered such a defeat save for when the First Queen fell.”
The roaring storm subsided. The howl of the Kraken faded into memory. The ships drifted as Xrn’s magics kept them together. Wrymvr flew, cutting a path in blood towards the shore, a distant speck. And the Free Queen looked around for someone. Anyone. But all that was left were children. Two hundred warships gone. Four, battered, sinking, all that remained.
“We were less than twenty when we landed on Izril. We were all juniors. The oldest of us was an apprentice. And we had lost everything. All you see now, the works of decades, is a paltry fraction compared to what left Rhir. A disgrace.”
The Free Queen’s limbs trembled. The hole in her was opening, trying to swallow her again. She looked around reflexively, but there was nothing to eat. Two Workers stared up at her. So she finished the story, bitterly.
“I lost my mentor. She died before my eyes. I saw our Grand Queen’s ship go down. Our species died there, on the water. We were supposed to be the hope. In a decade we would have returned to Rhir bringing justice and retribution. Instead, we are locked in a struggle. Forced to a stalemate by a handful of species incapable of working together. That is the Antinium of now. But we were greater then. She was greater than I will ever be.”
Garry asked, but the Free Queen could not speak her name. She retreated, sinking down. And the word beat at her mind, a scream of longing, regret. Until she heard it.
The Free Queen thought she’d said it out loud. But the voice that spoke it was quiet. Male. She looked down. Bird stared up at her. He said the name again.
“Bessachidia. It is a pretty name.”
“How do you know that name?”
The Free Queen breathed slowly. Then not at all. She reached down. Bird tilted his head as she lifted him up, staring at him.
“I can hear it. Like a distant bird flapping. Very far away. Sometimes, it sounds like the other thoughts in my head. Or words. Is that what it is? Is that you, my Queen? I thought it was just me. Or something else.”
“You can hear me.”
Bird was uncertain. He looked at the Free Queen intently, like the birds he hunted. The Free Queen shook her head.
“You heard me. Then, at the battle with the Goblin Lord. You heard me and the Soldiers.”
“They were laughing. And sad. But laughing. Sometimes I hear things like that. You were very loud.”
“That was her name. A Queen had a name? Was—was she the Grand Queen?”
Garry’s voice was awed. The Free Queen laughed bitterly.
“She was not the Grand Queen. Bessachidia was my teacher. My mentor and one of the finest Queens ever to be created of the Hives. She was a Shaper Queen, a master of manipulating and creating the essence of which all Antinium are formed. She could weave forms as well as any but our First Queen. She might have even created something akin to one of the Centenium had she the resources and time.”
That was all Bird said. The Free Queen made a sound like laughter as she held him. And it was laughter; the True Antinium had known laughter, rare as it was. It was said the First Queen laughed before she died. But now the Free Queen thought of her mentor.
“Bessachidia. If she had lived, she could have brought all the war forms and images of our people to live on Izril, even alone. She could have created other Queens. And she could have fixed you in minutes, little one. I was meant to learn from her. Everything I have done now is based on the few lessons I learned. I, and the Silent Queen. But we were never Shaper Queens. We were just…”
Her voice trailed off. Birds looked up at her. Garry was trembling, overcome by too many emotions.
“Do you want to go back?”
“To Rhir. You said you’d go back. Was that a lie? Erin does not like it when I lie.”
The question paused the Free Queen. She stared at Bird. Then she nodded. Slowly.
“Yes. That is what we swore. And that is what the Grand Queen claims we will do, when Izril is ours. But I do not know if she believes. And the other Queens—I do not know if they believe.”
“Yes. I still believe. I still work for that day, little Bird. The day we return and bring justice and vengeance to Rhir. So does Klbkch. But I have grown. I am…different now. Very different from the Queen I once was. I eat this—food. I cannot help it. I cannot stop. It hurts.”
She gestured towards Garry’s kitchen. And the [Cook] looked up at her, suddenly alarmed. Bird glanced at the kitchen.
“Does it hurt very muchly? Eating?”
“No. Living. Always, Bird. We destroyed our bodies birthing the first thousands of Antinium. And we were not meant for it; we had to modify ourselves during those first days in Izril. Experiment—some of us bore more of the cost than others. Silent Queen, the Flying Queen, and I were…lucky. We were youngest, our bodies frail, so we were not chosen for the first tests. The older Queens accepted it. Eight died. Of the first that survived were the Twisted Queen. The Armored Queen. The Grand Queen at the time was less affected. But we all suffer.”
“It sounds bad. I do not like it. Do you want a healing potion?”
Bird’s voice quivered. The Free Queen made a sound like a laugh.
“It is. And no healing potion can change how our bodies have altered, Bird. But we persevere. And I—I have found what I need. I was exiled from the other Hives. Cast out, because I tried to create an Individual. Or one of the True Antinium. One who could think as we originally did. I thought it was an impossible task at times. But Klbkchhezeim believed. And now. Now I have found a True Antinium.”
Bird looked around excitedly. The Free Queen made the same sound. Garry looked up.
“She means you, Bird.”
The Free Queen reached for Bird’s head. And she stopped. She looked at Bird and tried. Oh, she tried. But it was hard. Harder than words. It shouldn’t have been. Why did it have to be him?
“If it were my mentor, she could have found out what makes you different. But I am not her. I have none of her Skill. And even if I took you apart, I might not find out what it makes the True Antinium. But even a fragment of a chance is enough. If I could just kill you without regret. If you did not sing, little Bird. How easy it would be.”
And he looked at her. And the Free Queen saw he understood. Bird looked at her feelers. At her limbs. At her. And he spoke clearly.
“But I do not want to die.”
The Free Queen held him to her face. Her mandibles opened and closed.
“And yet, you can hear me. Barely. But it is enough. What makes you so, Bird? I must know. The True Antinium are what made us strong. If I was sure it would be so easy. And if I knew it would matter…to strike a blow at our enemy, I would kill you, dear Bird. I would tear myself apart bit by bit if it would help.”
“But I do not want to die.”
He looked at her. The Free Queen hesitated. She reached for him and Bird rocked. But the Free Queen did not touch him. Slowly, gently, she placed him on the ground. Garry ran to Bird and hugged him. Bird stared up. The Free Queen sat. And she felt old and tired. And it hurt.
“What should I do? We are waning, Bird. Waning. Even Klbkchhezeim, my Slayer, is faded.”
“Really? Klbkch is very scary. He has swords.”
This time the Free Queen did laugh. She thought of Klbkchhezeim and laughed, and laughed, a despairing, echoing sound.
“Once upon a time, he needed no blades. His body was a weapon. He walked in shadows and danced like death as he cut his enemies apart. We lost his form in the waves, and only the Silent Queen’s imitations even come close to what he was. He was Centenium. And we will never recreate that, not with a thousand years of trying.”
Garry and Bird looked up. Garry was holding Bird protectively. He dragged Bird backwards slowly, edging away from the Queen.
“My Queen, what are the Centenium?”
The Free Queen watched him.
“The Centenium were a hundred prototypes, Garry. Created by the First Queen, whose skill was unrivaled, even by Bessachidia or the other Shaper Queens who came after. Each one unique. We could copy their forms, but never their identity. And now there are three. Three, from a hundred. Can you imagine the loss?”
“Yes, my Queen. But what can be done?”
Garry was tugging Bird back. A few more steps and he’d be out of the Free Queen’s immediate reach. She spoke slowly.
“That is the question all the Queens ask. Each has another answer, hence our Hives. The other Queens believe it is numbers, or armaments, of a superior form that will save the Antinium. I say not. I say, war with the Drakes is fruitless. I say we are bound to return. And I say that we must have our Centenium. Our leaders. Our heroes.”
Garry stopped. Bird looked up.
“Heroes, my Queen?”
She nodded. And the Free Queen rose as she raised herself on old limbs. Garry began to retreat with Bird. But the cavern was suddenly so small.
“The Centenium were heroes. They were our greatest, Individuals. For we had Individuals. Prognugators, even among the True Antinium. They led us. And they were what we have not been able to replicate. Queens and heroes. That is why I came to Liscor. And that is why you, Garry, and you Bird are precious. Too precious to kill.”
She caught them. Garry stopped. He looked up at the Free Queen. Bird did too, on his back.
“I am good at killing things. But I am only Bird.”
“Yes. But you are an Individual. One of four true Individuals. And you are strong, little Bird. Klbkchhezeim told me you killed a Flesh Worm yourself in the dungeon.”
“…Maybe? Was it a bird?”
The Free Queen shrugged.
“It does not matter. You are precious. And you sing. If you did not, little Bird, I would never have cared. But you sing. Bessachidia sang. And you are Bird.”
“Yes. Will you kill me, my Queen?”
The Free Queen sat. She raised a feeler and Garry turned to her. And both he and she were trembling.
“Garry. Take Bird before I change my mind. Bring him somewhere else. Far from me. And Bird, grow your legs. Grow your arms. And go back to your inn. Grow. Level. And never be injured. Never come back to me. When you die, I will take your body and find out what makes you True Antinium.”
Garry bowed. Bird looked up at the Free Queen.
“But I like you.”
“And I like you, little Bird. So fly away. Or else I will eat you.”
The Free Queen bent. And Bird reached up. She touched his hand. And Garry pulled him towards the door. The Soldiers stood there. Garry slowed. Her mandibles opened and he gasped. The Free Queen ignored him. She looked past Garry, past Bird. And she spoke to the Antinium gathered there, and to her faithful Prognugator above.
“Klbkchhezeim. Come back to the Hive. You say it is time? Very well. I am ready. Show these Drakes, then. And show the Free Antinium something akin to what you were. What Xrn is.”
She rose. And Garry and Bird stopped. The Antinium standing in the doorway paused and the Soldier retreated. The Free Queen spoke.
“You. I am tired. But you are my greatest work yet. You, who know why the Antinium struggle. Go. And show me something that can rival the true Antinium. Show me a new kind of Antinium.”
She received no reply. Garry looked back at the Free Queen and tugged Bird towards the door. The Worker, lying on his back, stared up as he passed by Soldiers. He blinked and his antennae waved. He spoke almost hesitantly.
“Hello. My name is Bird.”
Two sides met and mingled in Market Street. But the debate, no, the argument had taken a life of its own across the city. Somehow, the debate had changed. It wasn’t ‘should we have an election’, it was ‘who will we choose?’ And the easy question became difficult.
“Let me ask you something, people of Liscor. Do we want more adventurers crowding our city? Do we need the Antinium to do the jobs of our [Builders], [Bricklayers], and [Masons]? And, with respect to ‘honored Krshia’, is she really the best person for the Council?”
Lism stood on his platform and shouted at the crowd. Drakes booed Krshia. Some Gnolls looked unhappy. The 4th Company of Liscor’s army marched, their breastplates gleaming in the sun. Lism pointed at them.
“For your consideration, citizens of Liscor! A hero of Liscor! And Wing Commander Embria does not trust the Antinium. Do you?”
On the other side, Krshia growled and her Gnolls howled insults and Drakes shouted insults at Lism’s crowd.
“The army sent back only a hundred soldiers in Liscor’s direst hour! Is that heroism? The Antinium fought for the city! They saved it from the Necromancer, no? Is that not worthy of trust?”
The crowd split and mingled. Lism bellowed, his scales flushed with rage.
“Who held the line in front of Liscor? Our army! Who kept the Goblins from the breach, who foiled Tyrion Veltras’ plans? Wing Commander Embria!”
“Hero of Liscor? You mean, Butcher of Liscor! It was Goblins who saved the city. An army of them, not a hundred or so [Soldiers]!”
Krshia bellowed back. But not everyone was with her, not even her own species. In the crowd, Erin looked up at Lism, fists clenched. Pawn was silent. Hurt. He wanted to leave the crowd, but Lyonette was holding his hand tightly. She glared up at Lism. Selys’ voice was tight.
“You get up there, Erin. Tell him to go walk into a Shield Spider nest.”
“You’re more of a hero than Embria ever—”
Drassi looked at Zevara and Selys.
“Not that I’m saying this is a good idea, but what about Numbtong—”
Everyone around Drassi chorused that. A Goblin wasn’t the right person to call a hero at this moment. More than a few citizens around Lism were waving old banners, Drake banners with heraldry of Dragons, or Liscor’s symbol, a cut line bisecting the outline of Izril. The city that divided a continent.
And it was a divided crowd that Lism crowed to. He pointed at Krshia.
“Butcher? Harsh words for someone who fought! Wing Commander Embria held the line to defend our city. She had orders, and for Liscor, she would have died. She is a daughter of the city, and she does not trust the Antinium. Wing Commander?”
There was a shuffle. Wing Commander Embria got onto the podium, looking upset. But her voice was clear as she spoke.
“The Antinium cannot be trusted. Will you trust them with the walls of our city? Why not let honest Drakes and Gnolls build it with their own claws? Why not let us defend our home?”
She raised her spear and the 4th Company shouted in reply. The crowd looked at Krshia. And the Gnoll had no one to hold up.
The issue was dividing the crowd. Goblins and Antinium. Humans and open borders versus the Walled Cities and Liscor’s army. It wasn’t that Lism was making great points; it was just that whenever Krshia tried to poke holes in his words, he’d have the drums begin banging or shout over her.
“Do we even need an election? Why not let the army send their reinforcements? Why risk doing things like Pallass? Do we need to deal with this?”
Lism changed his stance a third time, appealing to the parts of the crowd that were sick of the argument on the streets. Krshia opened her mouth and shouted back at him.
“Are you afraid of Gnolls on the Council, Lism?”
“I’m not the one trying to strike a deal with the Antinium to steal a spot, Silverfang. Why do you feel entitled to a seat?”
Lism sneered back. Krshia glowered.
“Why not put it to a vote, then? An honest vote?”
“Oh, sure, sure! Let me see. Vote for the Gnoll who came here ten years ago or a Drake that’s lived in Liscor all his life? And who has the support of a hero of Liscor?”
Lism raised his arms to another cheer from his supporters. Selys ground her teeth together.
“That’s not even an argument! He’s just making noise! Krshia’s getting killed up there! Erin, come on, you can shout something at Lism.”
She grabbed Erin’s arm. But the young woman looked sick as she stared at Lism.
“I don’t want to.”
“Erin—of all the times—!”
“If she does not wish to speak, it would be a minor felony to force her to do so against her will, Miss Selys. This is a warning, although I am not currently on duty.”
A voice spoke up from behind Selys. Pawn turned. Watch Captain Zevara blinked.
The Antinium had appeared out of the crowd. He calmly surveyed the scene.
“I seem to have arrived in time. And I understand this argument has gone against Shopkeeper Krshia? I see. Her ability to debate Shopkeeper Lism is impaired. She is using rational arguments. The trick is to employ words like swords. Something I had to learn from people who were not Antinium.”
Everyone around Klbkch stared at him. But Pawn only looked at Klbkch and silently moved out of the way. Klbkch walked past him.
“If you would allow me, Watch Captain Zevara, I believe I can assist Miss Krshia at this moment.”
“If you think you can—be my guest!”
Klbkch nodded. He reached for a stone at his throat and clicked his mandibles.
The sound made the entire crowd wince. Lism swore at the same volume and looked around, clutching at his earholes.
“Who on—oh. One of them.”
He pointed at Klbkch with disgust. Some of the Drakes among his supporters made disgusted expressions, but most of the crowd, even those supporting Lism, turned to Klbkch with curiosity. The [Soldiers] in Embria’s 4th Company were among those who glared at Klbkch. The Antinium made a sound like clearing his throat.
“Good evening. Pardon my interruption. I would simply like to clarify a few details for the sake of accuracy. To begin with, the Antinium have no goal of sabotaging Liscor or its walls. Our offer to assist with the construction of Liscor’s walls and contribute funds to the city was made with goodwill. I deeply regret any misunderstandings that have occurred due to lack of clarification.”
He gazed steadily at Lism as he said that. The [Shopkeeper] flushed.
“Well, how can we trust—”
This time it was Klbkch who spoke over Lism.
“Furthermore, I would like to clarify a detail surrounding the battle for Liscor as it is being referred to, against the Goblin Lord’s army. For right or wrong, Liscor’s army did fight. But a fraction held the walls and took to the field. Statistically, Pallass’ army spilled twenty eight times more blood than Liscor’s army did on the field. They held the walls. And the Antinium took to the field before Wing Commander Embria.”
This time, there was silence. Erin leaned over to Pawn.
The 4th Company of Liscor’s army was giving Klbkch a death-glare as was Wing Commander Embria. Lism’s face mottled.
“Are you—Senior Guardsman Klbkch—accusing Wing Commander Embria and the heroes, no martyrs who gave their lives of cowardice? How dare you. How—”
“I do not make any allegations of cowardice, Shopkeeper Lism. I only respectfully point out that if there is a debt in blood to be honored, it is to be shared with the Antinium and Goblins who died to the last to stop the Goblin Lord. For they did die. Goblins attacked Liscor. And Goblins saved it.”
“Lies! That was a Goblin civil war, not some grand act of goodness!”
Lism bellowed loud enough to make the shutters rattle on nearby apartments. Klbkch’s voice snapped back, calm and collected as the ice.
“Shopkeeper Lism. I am Senior Guardsman Klbkch. I do not lie. To do so would be a violation of my duty. And you are one of the people I am sworn to protect and serve, sir. That duty I will uphold until death and after it. Regardless of how I am perceived in your eyes. Goblins fought for Liscor. And they did so to save the city. That is the truth. I will swear it on a truth detection spell. Will you do the same?”
The Drake hesitated. Before he could reply, Klbkch turned. And his voice rose by another order of magnitude.
“Wing Commander Embria is a hero of Liscor. And so is Watch Captain Zevara. They held the walls and they held the breach. But they did not assail the Goblin Lord. They did not give their lives for the city. My Soldiers did. I would remind those listening that they died for this city. And the Antinium believe in Krshia Silverfang’s vision for Liscor. They believe it is something worth dying to protect.”
The Drakes and Gnolls quieted. They listened, and looked at Klbkch. And he stood alone, in a circle of people who were not his own.
“I regret that I am unable to bring forwards a company of the victorious Soldiers who fought against the Goblin Lord. But they perished in the line of their duties, unlike the 4th Company of Liscor. And yet, a hero of that battle does stand with us.”
His head turned. Pawn, standing a few feet away from him, had a terrible premonition and began to back away. Klbkch looked at him. And Pawn felt Selys grab his arm and look pleadingly at him. But the Worker was shaking his head frantically as more and more Drakes and Gnolls looked at him and remembered.
“I have heard that true heroes never die. This is true of the Antinium. If Wing Commander Embria stands here, it is only fair that a hero of the Antinium answer her.”
Pawn resisted the clawed hands pushing him forwards. He was going to shout at Klbkch. He could not do this. But strangely, Klbkch was not looking at him. His head had turned past Pawn. And slowly, Pawn’s head turned too. And he heard it.
A shout. A cry that rent the air. Above the shouting of the crowd, Lism’s failing voice charm. Shouts. And then screams.
“The Antinium are invading! Sound the alarm!”
Someone cried that in the distance. Every head turned back to Klbkch. He did not reply. And the crowd laughed. Someone had probably seen that patrol of Antinium. Who was panicking? Idiots.
But it was an invasion. The laughter became gasps and even screams. A black army was flooding out of the Hive. Soldiers were rushing out of the Hive. Soldiers and Workers. They filled the streets, pouring forwards.
“Attack! It’s a coup! Flee for your lives! Soldiers, defend us!”
Lism panicked on his platform. The 4th Company formed a line and Embria grabbed her spear, staring. Then her eyes widened. Pawn, craning to see, desperately pushed through the crowd. The Drakes and Gnolls moved back, afraid of the black tide that flowed forth. But it was not towards the other Antinium that Pawn looked.
And the Free Antinium followed him. A single figure, striding out ahead of the rest. He was not like the Soldiers or Workers that followed him. Not in body. Nor in whom he was.
He was taller. Larger. The Soldiers, who were all the same were a head shorter than he was. And this Antinium’s body was enhanced beyond even that of the regular Soldiers. His four arms flexed, and his fully-realized digits stretched in the air. The sun shone down on his shoulders. And he walked in front of them, taller with each step. A colossus. A familiar soul.
He came to a stop as Pawn stumbled forwards. The Worker was shaking. Disbelieving. It couldn’t be. But it was. The giant looked down at Pawn. And he was taller than Pawn remembered. His body was changed. But the smile was the same. And the yellow glinting off the arm he offered Pawn was real.
The Antinium turned to the crowd. And he opened his mandibles and spoke.
“I am Yellow Splatters.”
His voice was deep. And commanding. Yellow Splatters stood in front of the people of Liscor. And his body was new. It had been built by a despairing Queen. It had been filled with a soul of a Soldier. A dying warrior. A son of Liscor. And though he had not been created with the genius of the Shaper Queens of old, the Free Queen of the Antinium could give him a voice. And voices were just sound. Easy to make. So she had given him the voice of a leader. A general.
Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles and spoke. To the disbelieving citizens. To the 4th Company of Izril, who faced this giant among Antinium uneasily. To Erin Solstice, eyes full of tears. To the Antinium of his Hive. And to Pawn. And the Antinium could not weep. But they could listen.
“I am Yellow Splatters. I perished in battle against the Goblin Lord. My hundred Soldiers and I fought to the last for Liscor. I was brought back to life. I have heard what Krshia Silverfang has proposed. And the Free Antinium of Liscor supports her. For Liscor is worth dying for. This is what I have come here to say. The Antinium die for Liscor. Let us help build our home as well.”
That was all. Two of Yellow Splatter’s arms came up and he saluted along his left side. Then he turned and walked back. But that was all he needed to say. In the silence, no one could speak. Not even Lism. Well, not really.
“That’s clearly an impostor. They got another Soldier, put yellow paint on him—they all look alike. How could anyone fall for…”
He trailed off and stared at Yellow Splatter’s back. Someone whispered as Yellow Splatters passed by, followed by his people.
“It’s part of his body. Look.”
The bits of yellow on his body weren’t paint. They weren’t added on. The yellow color was part of the Antinium’s carapace. Irreversibly marking him. And where he walked, the people turned and stared. At a miracle. A truth too large to be a lie.
There he walked. And Pawn followed him, feet away. So close he could touch the broad back. A giant among Soldiers. Larger. Stronger. And he had a voice.
He stopped in front of the Hive. Amid a wave, a sea of Workers and Soldiers. They stared at him. There Yellow Splatters stood. And when he spoke next, it was just for them. To them.
“I have died. I have come back. I stand here to tell you all one thing. One truth I saw after I died with the others.”
He looked at Pawn. And the Worker trembled. He shook with guilt and regret. But Yellow Splatters gently took Pawn’s shoulders. He looked down into Pawn’s eyes.
“You were right. It is there.”
The Worker didn’t know what he meant. Then his legs grew weak.
“You saw it? Truly?”
The head nodded once.
“I saw it. Heaven. It exists. Believe. It exists.”
The Antinium stopped. The Hive looked up. Yellow Splatters gazed towards the sky and shook his head.
“It is not up. It is not down. And it is tiny. It is as fragile as this. As small as…”
He opened his hand and grasped at the air. He clenched his fist and met every eye.
“But it exists. And it is being built. It can be built. We must make it grow. So believe. Believe. And you will be saved.”
He looked around. Pawn fell to his knees. The Workers and Soldiers looked at Yellow Splatters.
They had all gone away. Soldiers and Workers. They had died for glory, ignobly, by ones and twos and by the thousands. But at last—after so long it had happened. Yellow Splatters had died, fighting for the Hive. He had sacrificed everything he had. But that was not what made him a hero. If that was so, all Antinium were heroes and none were. No. It was that Yellow Splatters had fought. He had gone to protect the Hive. And then he came back.
He came back.
That was all they had ever wanted. And Pawn knelt. He bowed. And he no longer needed to believe.
Because it was true.
[Acolyte Level 18!]
[Miracle – Heal Minor Wounds obtained!]