It was such a spontaneous thing. Saliss’ visit, for instance. That had been planned. But the outcomes changed things so much. In such a short amount of time.
Erin knew that was how life worked, but it still mystified her in a good way. What was amusing to everyone else was how surprised she was that it happened like that. Because that was literally the defining experience most people had with Erin. But she seldom had it happen to her.
Of course, spontaneous things weren’t always good. Spontaneous Crelers were almost always bad no matter when they happened. But you couldn’t predict things. And that was what Erin should have learned.
But then, she wouldn’t be Erin if she was even close to perfect.
“I’ll begin setting up, then. Miss Solstice, you have my thanks for letting me use your inn.”
Grimalkin stretched briskly as he surveyed one of the private rooms in The Wandering Inn. And yes, the inn was more than a sole common room now. There were three private rooms that could be used for everything from storage to dining. One held Octavia’s stuff, but another was in use this morning.
“Ferkr, Giren, set up three, no, six sets next to each other. Put up that mobile stand over there—the benches along the far wall. Terreskil, start loading the weights. Put them at—let’s call it fifty pounds on either end of the bar for now.”
“So, a hundred total, Magus?”
Grimalkin paused and looked back at one of his students.
“You can count, can’t you, Terreskil?”
The young Drake apprentice blanched. Erin exhaled slowly, but she didn’t interrupt. Grimalkin was a taskmaster, though. Like the coach of all coaches. His apprentices scurried about, setting up, well…
A weights room. A gym, in her inn. Erin stared about.
“Um. Not that I mind, Grimalkin, but would it have been easier to do this in Pallass?”
“Rather than screen visitors and go through the City Watch, I’d prefer to do it here. You may also have some insights, Miss Solstice. The mana cost is only for about a dozen people. And I was surprised to realize how easy charging the door was.”
“Oh, well, Wailant planted a third of his grass yesterday. That might have helped.”
Grimalkin’s brows rose. He glanced sideways at Erin.
“Wailant who? Did what?”
Erin realized the Sinew Magus hadn’t heard about the Sage’s Grass event. She began to explain, and Grimalkin’s brows instantly crossed.
“You managed to come up with a workaround to the issue of mana consumption for your door after meeting a [Pirate Farmer] that your Hobgoblin ran into? Who is also coincidentally the supplier of Sage’s Grass for the entire region?”
“You’re saying that in a strange way. Look, it’s just this one interconnected thing. Wailant’s daughter is actually Garia.”
“Garia Strongheart. As in, the same Garia who I have invited to my seminar today?”
“Yeah. Funny how that happens, right? So what happened was…”
Grimalkin held up a claw as he massaged what would have been close to the bridge of his nose on his face.
“…I will inquire later. I’m certain, no, I am sure that my decision was the correct one, Miss Solstice. You have my gratitude. Hmpf. What day is it today? I need to add another data point…”
He began fishing in his robes for what looked like a diary. Erin nodded.
“Cool, cool. I’m gonna see to everyone outside. Let me know when you’re starting!”
She walked out of the private room as Grimalkin stared at her back. The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.
“Hey everyone, thanks for waiting! Grimalkin’s setting up, but he’ll be done in like, thirty minutes, tops. Probably ten since it’s Grimalkin. I have water and oranges. And lemons, for if you’re thirsty. That’s free since Grimalkin is paying for it!”
“But wait until you’re sweaty, Relc!”
Erin admonished the Drake who was trying to cram a lemon into his mouth. Relc paused and spat it out.
“No one touch that. I’ll use it later.”
A bit away from him, Embria covered her face with one clawed hand. A group of her senior command of 4th Company looked like they wanted to do the same, but they were at military parade rest as they stood together.
It did not look restful. Also, they were hardly the only ones waiting. Erin stared at a crowd of, well, swol guests.
Swol. As in ‘swollen’, which Erin had understood to be slang for muscular in some capacity back home. She was employing the term because there was no other good word for the assembly in front of her.
Garia Strongheart and her father, Wailant. Moore. Jelaqua. Maughin. Relc, Embria, members of 4th Company. Councilwoman Raekea. Councilman and Senior Guardsman Jeiss. Even Pelt.
Yes, Pelt! The Dwarf was drinking at the bar, but he’d paid for his drinks. But he was here too! And for once, Erin had nothing to do with it.
Well, only a little. The truth was that this motley assembly of Liscor, Pallass, and even Celum’s strongest were here at one Drake’s call. Grimalkin’s. He’d requested a reservation at Erin’s inn, sent letters out, and gotten everyone to show up.
He’d even paid most of the group to appear. Certainly Pelt. Grimalkin wanted a spread of muscles on display, and it was telling that Liscor’s 4th Company of [Captains], [Lieutenants], and [Sergeants] along with some of the city’s [Guards]—were the scrawny ones in the room.
It was hard to flex in front of Moore, who was a half-Giant, or Maughin, who was as close to a War Walker as you got, whatever they looked like. Or a Gnoll [Blacksmith], or Relc, or…
The overpowering muscle in the room was forcing Erin to keep from checking her own biceps. She had [Lesser Strength] of course, but that was a lesser effect that made her just…stronger. She didn’t work out.
But some of this crew had muscle. Garia had abs. The kind you were only supposed to see in gym commercials! And—when you got down to it—so did most of the others.
Relc didn’t have abs, but if you stared, you could see muscle shifting under a very thin layer of fat. Embria was fit—wait, could Drakes even get abs?
Erin recalled Grimalkin. Yes, yes they could.
“Sorry I’m late! Am I on time? What’s this about?”
Someone bounded into the room. And then the Fellowship of the Lift was complete. Hawk, the muscular bunny-man and Courier, strode into the room. He looked around.
“Whoa. Am I in Liscor or Pallass? This inn has changed. I nearly didn’t recognize it!”
“Hey, Hawk! You here to lift?”
Relc curled a bicep. Hawk walked over as Erin stared at his abs. Garia was poking at her father’s beer belly.
“Dad, I was invited. You don’t have to be here. In fact, I’d prefer it if you weren’t. Go do your job!”
“I’m not missing this. What’s this about weights? And who’s this fishy Drake you keep talking up? If he’s lifting my girl, I want to meet him.”
“…I don’t…that is not what’s happening! Do you even know why I’m here?”
“Weights. It’s this thing where you lift heavy weights. Like, I dunno, training with a sword with lead cores. Only, the thing is—there’s no sword. It’s all weight.”
Relc was explaining what Grimalkin was pioneering here today to the others. Only, he was doing a poor job of it. Hawk had a cup of water and was drinking deeply; he was already sweaty. He must have just run in.
“Miss Solstice. Good to see you. Hawk? We’ve met?”
The Rabbit-Beastkin nodded at Erin. She smiled.
“Of course I remember, Hawk! Long time no see! Where have you been? Did you like the carrot cakes and stuff?”
“I was wondering. Sorry, the job takes me all over and sometimes I’m not back for a month depending on how deliveries run. I’m going back north just after this, but I got the message from Magus Grimalkin…he’s a good client. What’s this about weights?”
“Yeah, I saw a few, but I don’t know what it’s about. But I’d pay to be here rather than the other way around! Look at this crew!”
Jelaqua grinned around the room with the Selphid’s eye for bodies. Maughin coughed and gently nudged her; she was wearing a Raskghar body, which explained why Raekea was keeping her distance.
“Jelaqua, that’s a bit immodest.”
“Oops, sorry, sorry, Maug. But it’s just looking.”
The Selphid leered at Hawk’s legs. Erin and Maughin both sighed. In truth, all this muscle wasn’t doing much for Erin. Ulinde on the other hand was peeking glances from her spot in the audience; not everyone had been called over by Grimalkin.
“It helps you build muscle. Which, I dunno, is a good thing? I guess. Grimalkin’s going to show it off to other cities, apparently. With weights.”
“And you just…lift them? How does that work, Miss Solstice?”
One of Embria’s [Captains], an older Gnoll, looked skeptical. Erin shrugged.
“I mean, they’re heavy. You build muscle with them. I don’t really see the point.”
“Because you don’t lift. It feels great! And it’s new. Right, guys?”
Relc looked around. Erin blinked as some of the 4th Company and Liscor’s Watch nodded slowly. Was it new?
Erin hadn’t realized that weights, lifting in general, or the idea of going to the gym was completely unknown to this world. Wasn’t it such a basic concept? She’d assumed it didn’t matter. But it did. As Grimalkin thrust open the door to the weights room and lead people in, he was already giving a brief overview.
“Thank you all for coming. I’ll be repeating this speech once I have all six Walled Cities linked to my scrying spell, but I’d like to give you an overview of this new concept I’m calling ‘weight-based training’.”
There was a murmur from the crowd. Some of the non-affiliated audience members, like Mrsha, Numbtongue, Ulinde, and even Palt and some others peered around the open door as Grimalkin went on. Erin froze by the entrance as Lyonette hurried over with a platter of cut oranges.
“…Did he just say six Walled Cities?”
“Training, as we currently understand it, is a process of developing the body to a number of tasks. There is incredible specialization, from [Martial Artists] who hone their body in every conceivable aspect, to more focused disciplines, such as training a [Warrior] to be able to fight in battles.”
Grimalkin paced back and forth in front of his audience, gesturing to the weights set up behind him and the apprentices, each with their own station.
“Until now, we have conflated the development of proficiency at arms with muscular growth, as we spar, perform basic callisthenic exercises such as running, or even use supplements to build strength. But building pure muscle is not often tied to one particular training exercise. There are basic exercises, such as doing pushups, or jogging in armor, but sparring and our occupations have been the most relied-upon way of honing one’s body.”
It was a somewhat technical explanation. Relc scratched his head, and Erin saw Jelaqua lean over to Moore.
“What is he saying?”
“We don’t build muscle so much as just get fit.”
Grimalkin cleared his throat.
“Today, I am unveiling a new system designed to purely train muscle in the most efficient way possible! Not only will these weights provide a gravity-based exercise that targets whichever group of muscles you like, it is designed to build muscle beyond what you could regularly expect from say, practicing spear dances and without the dangers of sparring!”
Erin yawned a bit. But the audience…perked up. Some of 4th Company looked at each other.
“Is he serious? Building our muscles up further?”
“Told you this was great. Just watch.”
“Observe! Let’s assume we have a [Warrior] trying to build up strength for a thrust. No, a [Duelist], for their classic maneuvers. Normally, they’d gain an acceptable level of muscle just by repeating the exercise. But the muscles they focus on run from the arm muscle, which everyone thinks of, to the leg, and even the core.”
Grimalkin savored the word. Some of the [Guards] blinked. Embria herself raised a claw.
“Core, Magus Grimalkin? I’m not sure I’m familiar with the word.”
The [Sinew Magus] smiled.
“It is my understanding after decades of researching the body that muscular groups are not limited to just one body part, Wing Commander. Muscles—are connected. When a [Duelist] thrusts—observe how my muscles move as I step in.”
He demonstrated, conjuring a rapier made of fire as he did. Erin stared at the fire—and then saw Grimalkin’s muscles move.
Arms, shoulder, down through his tight core, and leg. Erin saw Grimalkin’s body ripple as he demonstrated. The audience murmured.
“[Martial Artists] have known this for years, along with [Fencers] and a number of other classes. When you punch, the blow comes from the rotation of the body, muscule groups that ordinary [Soldiers] may forget to prioritize. However, today, we will be revolutionizing muscular training. Weights will make [Soldiers] stronger than they ever have been before, by artificially increasing the limit beyond what they’d encounter in most day-to-day activities! Observe! Ferkr!”
The Gnoll apprentice was sitting under a weights bar. Now, she unhooked it and lowered it to her chest and demonstrated a bench press. Grimalkin strode over.
“Ferkr is now lifting about a hundred and fifty pounds of weight. Note that I have two equal fifty pound weights on either side, plus the bar. A hundred and fifty pounds, all challenging her pectoral muscles. By exercising with controlled motions, Ferkr is straining and redeveloping her muscles. In what scenario could a regular [Warrior] hope to achieve the same, specific training?”
At last, even Erin got the message. Grimalkin’s audience was already murmuring.
“Dead gods, I think I get it! You can’t get enchanted weight spells if you’re some copper pay [Guard] or [Soldier]. But this?”
Jeiss was talking excitedly with Raekea. He raised a claw.
“Does it really build muscle, Magus? Just from lifting weights?”
The question was ridiculous to Erin. Of course it did! But—catch yourself again. She knew biology. Grimalkin was nodding.
“It does, Senior Guardsman. I’ve seen a quantifiable increase in my apprentice’s muscles compared to my control group. I’ll be presenting the data to the Walled Cities momentarily. And—these weights may be somewhat expensive to manufacture, but I can assure you, if any Drake city cares to invest, they will be able to create a…a gymnasium where anyone will be able to improve themselves. For free!”
Grimalkin’s voice rose. And he was striding back and forth, as excited and animated as Erin had ever seen him. She looked at him and realized—he was going to bring weights to this world. And she’d erred in giving what she thought was something relatively small to the [Sinew Magus]. Because Grimalkin didn’t think small.
“Once constructed, these weight-lifting devices do not require any maintenance or upkeep. Now, I’ll go through each weight device I have here with my apprentices to show you all the correct form—do I have volunteers to try it out with them?”
He had his audience sold. They were already lining up to try the bench press. Even Pelt put down his mug and eyed a barbell. Erin stared at Lyonette as the [Princess] stared at the room full of excited people.
“Erin…this is going to change…”
“I didn’t know! How was I supposed to know? He was just supposed to lift stuff! I don’t work out! Who works out? I play chess!”
While The Wandering Inn hosted Grimalkin and his guests literally learning how to pump iron, the inn was far from empty. Mrsha got bored of sweaty people lifting things—especially since she wasn’t allowed to try—and wandered off into the Garden of Sanctuary to frolic.
And by frolic, she really meant stalking the [Green Mage], Viceria, as she planted Sage’s Grass. Wailant had abandoned his wife, but Viceria had not yet experienced Mrsha’s antics. Which meant Mrsha was ready to pounce and scare the [Mage], or throw water, or—
Viceria pointed her wand as Mrsha leapt out of the tall grass in the meadow. Mrsha went splut into a deep pit full of muddy, heavy liquid. Viceria smiled.
“Hello, Mrsha. Were you trying to scare me?”
The Gnoll looked up at Viceria. Her eyes narrowed. Oh, it was on.
At the same time, other people were working in the inn. The staff were downstairs, serving food and drinks to people waiting to see what all the fuss was about, and people were working above the inn too.
A group of twelve Workers were finishing the second floor. They’d come by every day to lay tiles, flooring, construct walls, fit windows, and so forth. It wasn’t the horde of Antinium that had descended on the inn under Belgrade’s supervision the first few days; their numbers had been cut by Klbkch’s order. No need to worry anyone.
Still, they worked hard. The Workers didn’t stop for food, breaks, or chatter, and they had all the tools they needed. If they required wood, some of them would hurry down their ladders and jog into the city or Hive to get more. If they needed nails, a Worker would be going to get them so that the others never had to stop working.
They were a dedicated, scarily-efficient force. And more were at work in Liscor as well, building the new parts of the city. But that was a story for another time.
These twelve Workers had been doing their job for about…oh, seven hours. They’d come at dawn, and even if they hadn’t been able to work on the second floor at that time because it was too noisy, they could pre-assemble parts of their work and haul it up later.
They did not stop, or slow, or rest. Anyone would have called it beyond backbreaking work, but that was a Worker’s life. And this was actually nicer than almost any other regular Worker’s life because when they finished, they’d be allowed to sit in the inn and have a bowl of soup for dinner, or some acid flies. That was bliss.
And it was also sad. Terribly sad, if you compared it to other species, other people. But no one did. Erin did, which is why she sometimes brought snacks up, and Lyonette and a few others had made the connection. But the Workers themselves didn’t know what they should be upset about. In a way, it was fulfilling just to be at work all the time, to have a purpose. No one bothered them. They did their jobs, ate, slept, and died at some point. And that was it.
That was why it was strange, when their work was interrupted. Only, it wasn’t by a young woman asking if they were sure they didn’t want a break, or lemonade. It was, in fact, by another Worker. He stood in the finished hallway and stared at them.
Bird, the [Bird Hunter], had a basket slung on one of his four arms. He tilted his head left, and right, as the other Workers paused and looked at him. He was not like them. He was Individual. Different.
Special. Bird spoke.
“Hello, I am Bird. Who are you?”
As one, the Workers paused. They stared at Bird, motionless. That did not happen. It was a rule everyone in Liscor learned—you did not ask a Worker their names. Even among the Antinium—no, especially among the Antinium, asking a question like that was…strange.
Beyond strange. But Bird was Bird. He hopped out onto the rooftop and walked over to the first Worker. The Antinium had a roofing tile in one hand and a hammer and nails in the others. Bird looked at him.
“Hello. I am Bird. What is your name?”
The Worker froze. But he had a name. Designation. He was Autonomous; the only reason he was trusted to be here without supervision.
“T-this one is Archer B12, Individual Bird.”
Archer B12’s voice was stuttering, and he spoke with that odd, unfamiliar cadence most Workers had. He was not ‘I’, but ‘this one’. Bird nodded.
“Hello, Archer B12. I am Bird. Are you having a good day?”
The Worker paused again. His mind was running up against a wall. Slowly, he turned back to his work. As one, the other Workers copied him.
“This one is on duty. It is not permitted to speak, only work.”
Bird watched as Archer B12 began hammering tiles into place, securing them with little copper nails. After a moment, Bird rummaged around in the basket he’d brought with him.
“Are you hungry?”
Archer B12, who had hammered each nail into place with the precision a machine would have envied, nearly slammed a nail into his own fingers. He paused. Looked up.
“I have cheese. Goat’s cheese. It is tasty. And fruity. And I have meat.”
Bird held out a crumbly, soft block of fresh goat’s cheese. And a hard salami, both taken from Erin’s kitchen. It was food. Archer B12 stared at it. Jerkily, he picked up another nail.
“This one is on duty. It is not permitted to speak, only work.”
The Workers were all hard at work. Bird tilted his head from side to side.
“But I am Individual Bird. What if I asked you which treat you liked better? Cheese or meat? I demand an answer. It is of utmost security to the inn. Yes. Probably.”
Slowly, Archer B12’s head rose. He stared at Bird. And Bird…smiled. Slowly, Archer B12 stared at the goat’s cheese and salami. He paused. And thought harder than he ever had in his entire life.
Bird instantly handed him the goat’s cheese. Archer B12 froze and didn’t take it.
“Eat the cheese.”
“This one is on duty. It is not permitted to speak, only—”
“If you do not eat the cheese, terrible things will happen. Archer B12’s duty is to eat the cheese. That is what Individual Bird says. Also, as slowly as you want.”
The Worker processed the statement. And then, slowly, he took the little goat’s cheese. He began to nibble at it. Just…tiny bite by bite. Eating something he’d never had. So wonderful.
Of course, he’d had soup, and acid flies, and everything else at the inn, all of four times. And Archer B12 remembered each time. But cheese? All of it for him? The Worker tried to savor each bite.
Bird sat down, humming happily and opening and raising his mandibles. He fished around in his basket.
“Would Archer B12 like a drink of apple juice? It is a question of utmost importance.”
Before Archer B12 could respond, a voice rang out across the roof.
“Bird! Are you bothering the Workers?”
Instantly, all the Workers began working twice as fast. Archer B12 started, but Bird put a hand on his shoulder.
He stood up and looked around. Erin propped her hands on her hips and stared at Bird. She had sensed him on the roof and she’d been checking to make sure he hadn’t been shooting Birds. But she stared at Bird and the basket as he came over.
“What are you doing, Bird?”
“Feeding the Workers.”
“What? But they never want food when I offer it. They say they have to work. Why are you feeding them? I mean, it’s fine. But why?”
Erin blinked at Archer B12, who was eating the goat’s cheese and trying to rush and not rush at the same time. The other Workers silently worked, trading places, setting up frames…Bird shrugged.
“They are Workers. And so am I. Since I am not hunting, I thought I would give them food. Because it is sad not having food all the time. Food in the Hive is bad food. Yucky.”
His little speech made sense. But it still impressed Erin. She looked at Bird.
“Huh. Well—good job, Bird.”
He really had changed since he’d been banned from his vocation in life. Or rather, that was the reason. Bird tilted his head left and right.
“May I feed the others?”
“Sure, I mean, are they hungry? They never are when I ask.”
Bird nodded. He turned back and walked back to Archer B12.
“That is because you ask. Is Numbtongue awake yet? He was asleep when I knocked.”
“I think he’s still in bed. He was dragged to Wailant’s farm to drink. I mean, he wanted to go, but he drank a lot. Also, Octavia’s in Pallass.”
“Yes. So our mining expedition will not happen today, probably. Which is sad. But they are happy. Miss Octavia is. Numbtongue is sad.”
“Oh yeah, Octavia’s over the moon. She’s learning from Saliss.”
“He is very naked.”
“Yeah. But he’s cool.”
In his secret laboratory, Saliss’ eyes glittered as he carefully maneuvered a dropper over the jar of Haste Potion. His eyes shone with excitement.
Real excitement. And that anything could make Saliss Oliwing, Saliss of Lights, Named Adventurer of Pallass excited was enough to nearly make Octavia rip her heart out of her chest. But she was learning.
For one thing, she was learning what it meant to be one of the best [Alchemists] in the world. Because Saliss was excited. He’d practically dragged her into his laboratory this morning to do this test. But he was also incredibly focused.
His claw holding the dropper didn’t quiver at all as he dipped it in and took a minute sample of the dregs that Ryoka had left Octavia. Saliss did not crack under pressure. Nor, in this moment, did he let excitement do anything other than intensify his focus.
“You can see my solution on your left, Octavia? That’s a basic magical condensing test. We can reverse-test the potency of a potion based on the ingredients used. It’s not a perfect test, especially if the potion isn’t wholly consistent, but this will tell us the grade we’re dealing with.”
Octavia nodded rapidly, too scared to speak. Saliss slowly dropped a bit of the Haste Potion into the liquid and it began to bubble and seethe. He slowly relaxed.
“Good. Can’t waste a drop if it is a powerful potion. Or even a Haste Potion! We’re sacrificing one drop’s worth; if we standardize how much liquid we use, we can compare the resulting mana crystal to other potion’s reactions. Assuming of course, we don’t get a reaction.”
The younger [Alchemist] nodded. Like Saliss, she was watching the flask intently for any signs of a bad reaction. Both were ready to move for cover, and Saliss had already secured the priceless Haste Potion sample.
“…I think we’re good. Go on, relax, take a look around. This will take a minute or two.”
After ten seconds, Saliss relaxed. Octavia did not. She stared around Saliss’ personal laboratory and then at the Drake himself.
He grinned at her.
“Sure! I mean, I am teaching you. Go on and poke around. Open anything you like. Just not any bottles. But ingredients? Sure! I’m gonna eat more chocolate. Ooh, and I bought a cake with this whipped cream stuff!”
Octavia saw him stretch and yawn. He took a slice of the cake he’d bought from The Wandering Inn and began to munch on it—he wasn’t using utensils and just licked his claws clean.
Octavia hesitated, and then began to wander the laboratory. The Stitch-Girl was taking notes and trying not to faint. She was lightheaded and on a mental high—higher than the time she accidentally burned an entire pound of Dreamleaf. She was tingling with excitement.
And terrified it was a dream. This had to be a dream. Ever since last night. She’d—she’d slipped, cut her head off somehow, and this was the last thing she saw before her life-thread ran out of magic. That was it. There was no way she could be here.
“Um, Master Saliss. Is it alright if I…?”
Octavia pointed to a steel cupboard, warded by spells. Saliss waved a claw and spoke around a mouthful of chocolate.
“Go on, poke at stuff. Just close the cupboards when I start experimenting. Don’t need a chain detonation. Also—if I say run, run.”
Octavia nodded. She opened a cupboard, stared at the rows of gemstones ordered by purity, and size, tried to guess at how much it was all worth, and had to sit in a corner and shake for a second. The sight of a few hundred gemstones gleaming at her had undone her in one go.
“Nice collection, huh? I get it from Salazsar. Xif has some, but he doesn’t have as many as me.”
Saliss winked. As he did, there was an outraged voice.
“You’re letting her investigate your shelves? Saliss! There are dozens of [Alchemists] past Level 30 who’d do anything for a day as your apprentice! At least let me in!”
The speaker wasn’t actually in the room. Saliss spoke into a little stone sitting on the counter.
“Shush, Xif! You’re making the cake taste bad. Mm. Ooh! And a glass of milk does go wonderfully with it! Erin was right! Hey—hey! I think the reaction’s nearly done! Maybe this is a super-valuable potion you ignored because you thought Octavia was too low-level to teach!”
He winked at Octavia and motioned her away; the reaction still had a bit to go. But outside Saliss’ run-down lab, Xif, the most famous regular [Alchemist] in Pallass, pounded at Saliss’ concealed door and howled into the speaking stone outside.
“Let me in! You can’t do this to me, Saliss! I’ll trade you one of the flower cuttings! Or my recipe for Alloyshine Oil!”
“Eat chocolate, Xif! Oh wait, you can’t! Because you don’t have any!”
Saliss crowed. He began to dance around the speaking stone, laughing as he mocked the older [Alchemist].
“You can’t buy what I’ve got! Why don’t you go to Erin’s inn and see if she’s in the mood to sell you more flowers? Hm? You know what, if you’re really nice to Erin, you might be able to get her to sell you another flower in a year, but I think—whoa!”
He twisted. Octavia nearly dropped the huge bicorn horn she was inspecting. Both [Alchemists] stared as something condensed in the clear liquid. Saliss dropped his cake, dove, caught it, and came back upright.
The crystal that had formed in the jar didn’t look big to Octavia. Barely thumb-sized. But it had come out of a single drop of the potion sample. And Saliss? He stared at it. Then he walked over.
“Let’s see. Based on the size, and the clarity, that’s larger than…my Youth Potion doesn’t have…”
“What? It’s bigger than the Youth Potion? Let me in!”
Xif shouted. Saliss nodded to himself. He put down the jar and the crystal he had been measuring with a little stick and scales. Then he looked at Octavia and nodded.
Her eyes went round. But Saliss was purely controlled. He took a deep breath, exhaled—and then threw his arms up. The Drake ran around the laboratory, shouting gleefully.
“It’s top-grade! This has to be a relic—do you hear that, Xif? Are you crying?”
He shouted into the speaking stone, and then turned it off before Xif could reply. Saliss turned to Octavia, chortling.
“He’ll be shouting into it for ages before he realizes I can’t hear him. This is a great day. And that proves it! Have some cake! You’re in luck, Miss Cotton! I have a new project! This—and you!”
He offered Octavia some of the cake on the plate. She stared at him.
“Powerful? It’s not just a Potion of Haste. It might be a Potion of Greater Haste.”
Octavia’s legs went out. Saliss instantly caught her and lowered her to the ground.
“Whoa, watch out! Don’t get weak-knees now. Seriously, that’s how [Alchemists] die. Tripping. And I don’t know if I can even replicate it. I have ways, but the attempt is what matters. I might level from it alone!”
He was rubbing his claws together, looking delighted. Alive. Octavia slowly rose.
“Master Saliss, I am so honored to—I’m so—”
“We went over this. It’s fine. We’re [Alchemists]. And I don’t steal. Not like you, Xif! Oh, wait. I turned this off. Actually, he doesn’t steal; he just has that pushy Skill of his.”
The Drake leaned against his table, sighing. Octavia glanced up at him.
“And you’ll teach me—?”
“Yup. I can’t make you an apprentice. I don’t do that. But we bargained and you’ll break Level 30 before we’re done. I hope you don’t mind this perfect body!”
Saliss winked and posed. Octavia looked at him.
“I uh—don’t mind.”
She blushed, trying not to look down. Octavia was still in the second day of meeting Saliss, which meant she was still conscious of him, unlike, say, the resigned Watch Captain Venim who could hold a ten-minute long conversation without so much as breaking eye-contact even with Saliss jiggling and dancing about.
Interestingly, that was what made the Drake pause. Saliss eyed Octavia, and then cleared his throat.
“Well, maybe I’ll put on a towel or something while I’m teaching you. Don’t want Xif getting weird ideas. I have one somewhere around here. Hold on.”
He walked out of the laboratory, undoing the metal latch on the door. Octavia instantly shot to her feet.
“Oh no, Master Saliss! Anything you prefer is fine. Don’t hold back on my account—”
Saliss reappeared with a towel over his privates. He looked like someone coming out of a sauna.
“No, no. I think I need to make one thing clear.”
He pointed at Octavia.
“Me, you? I’m never asking you to do anything…sexual. Or illegal. Or wrong. If you think I am, I probably said it wrong or you heard it weird. This isn’t Nerrhavia. I said that last night, right?”
Octavia stared at Saliss. She nodded slowly.
“I didn’t mean to imply—”
“No, no. Shh for a second.”
Saliss sighed. He came over and leaned on the steel counter, looking at Octavia. Seriously.
“I think we need to talk about it. I know what happens with master-apprentice relationships. The master, male, female, Selphid, begins getting touchy with an apprentice. Or you hear about them in bed. Or getting married. Well, the married thing might be different. But I studied in Nerrhavia. That’s not happening here.”
Octavia felt a surge of relief. Not that she’d thought Saliss was capable of it. But—she did know. She nodded silently. The Drake went on.
“Nerrhavia has a culture of it, right? What’s the expression about sleeping your way to a mastery? Never mind. Well, it happens in Pallass too. Sometimes. If you’re learning anything from me, learn this—no.”
Octavia nodded, then she paused.
“Is it wrong, though, Master Saliss? It is an exchange. It happens in Nerrhavia. I didn’t—well, I didn’t have an opportunity. It’s mostly Silk-castes who get offered that.”
The Named Adventurer paused.
“That’s what I hear. And I suppose that’s Nerrhavia’s way of doing things. Actually, I hear a lot of masters fall in love with their apprentices, or vice-versa. That happens a lot, right?”
The Stitch-Girl nodded. Saliss sighed.
“Here’s what I think of it. A master and an apprentice in the same bed’s like sulfur and fire. If it doesn’t explode, it will poison over time. It’s not an equal combination of ingredients. Believe me. I’ve lived that.”
Octavia’s jaw dropped. Saliss winked at her, but then paused.
“I’ll tell you about it, sometime. Maybe. Now, enough serious stuff. Let’s get to finding what this is!”
He whipped out the sample of the potion and gestured to it. Octavia relaxed. Saliss had challenged one of Nerrhavia’s traditions and she hadn’t known if she agreed with him. Master [Alchemists] walking about and being beloved and powerful was one of the reasons why she’d wanted to become an [Alchemist]. One reason. But she had always hated that transaction; she’d been stuck to grinding while lesser-talented [Alchemists] skipped ahead.
But now Saliss was teaching her, and Octavia was all for that. He wanted to try identifying the base components of the potion, and he had a number of ways to separate or isolate particular compounds. But finding every ingredient and how they’d been mixed, blended, burned, boiled, or otherwise transmuted would be a terribly long task.
“Alright, we’re rendering one sample and we’ll see if air-drying takes this other one. Shame we can’t try it; but tasting it is a last resort for me. If I had more, I’d try more risky procedures, but every drop counts.”
Saliss had a few clear glass petri dishes of liquid secured in a rack. Then he turned to Octavia and leaned on the counter.
“So, what gossip do you have?”
“Excuse me, Master?”
Octavia paused in the middle of taking notes. She looked up, alarmed. Saliss grinned and winked.
“What? We’re going to have to wait on some rendering to hopefully get a base component out of the samples. While we do—let me have you make me your best healing potion. And you can gossip with me about more fun stuff in that inn. Or Nerrhavia. Unless you need to focus?”
“Not at all? I—gossip?”
“I mean, do you have anything better to do? Sometimes I sing, or dance. If you want to do that, I’m all for it!”
He struck a pose and began to do a slow hop across the floors, circling his hips. Octavia blinked, and then smiled. She’d forgotten what it was like to be an apprentice, talking while she brewed.
“I do know some gossip from Nerrhavia. I haven’t returned in nearly five years, but I get [Messages]…”
“Aha! Nerrhavia gossip is the best [Alchemist] gossip! Tell me everything!”
It was strange to do it with a master, but Saliss was someone you could talk to. He came back over and grinned and Octavia reached for a jar of Eir Gel. She looked around conspiratorially, as if she and her [Alchemist] apprentice friends were gossiping together.
“Well…do you know Master Therel?”
“That stuck-up Stitch-Man? Pioneer of the puresand-cleansing process and the Flashfreeze Orb? Lover of ten thousand women? That’s what he kept telling me every time I met him.”
Saliss’ eyes twinkled. Octavia nodded.
“Well, he was caught in bed with one of his lovers by his wife just last month. And she sliced off his uh, genitals.”
“The very same ones that were apparently sewn with gold-fiber and gem-thread that came from across Zeikhal, and were said to have pleased a thousand women before landing him the hand of the fairest [Veiled Consort] in all of Nerrhavia.”
“Who did the cutting. Just to be clear, he could get a new one, right? He’s a Stitch-Man if I recall. If he’s not, this is a dark story.”
The Stitch-Girl smiled.
“Definitely, and yes, Master Therel is a Stitch-Man. Cotton-caste, originally. But this was his prized, er, jewels. His wife got the jewels, too.”
“Ouch. And? And?”
“Then she sewed them onto a camel’s backside, and sent it racing into the desert. It was said Master Therel was seen racing after it with all his [Bodyguards], as his fabulous treasure was seen flapping in the open air.”
Saliss rolled on the floor laughing. Octavia laughed too, and then paused.
“Well, if you think that was bad, wait till you hear what happened to the lover…”
A little while later, Grimalkin of Pallass, the Fist Mage, the [Sinew Magus], gave a lecture to a scrying mirror he held in one claw. It was a variation of the one he’d given his audience earlier, cut down a bit to make it more punchy and less academic after a few suggestions.
Occasionally, the Drake would show one of the students lifting to punctuate a point, or flex a muscle group; he had perfect control over his body.
And he was also speaking to all the Walled Cities of Izril. All of them in the world! True, he wasn’t being broadcast by Noass and Sir Relz on Wistram’s ‘approved’ channel, and the highest-ranking members of each Walled City weren’t watching.
Well, the Dragonspeaker of Manus was. As were a number of powerful people from other cities. Watch Captains, military leaders—they were all listening on Grimalkin’s request.
It began to hammer home just how important Grimalkin was. Erin nervously watched as he made his speech about the safety, increased effectiveness, and utility of the weights.
“We already have a number of civilians observing the tests, along with the group I have personally invited. I thought it would be instrumental to see a hypothetical gymnasium in operation. I have the exact numbers of how much this would cost, which has already been forwarded to each Walled City.”
He flourished a packet of paper. Another surprise; Grimalkin was much like a muscley professor! He went on as he headed towards the bench press.
“I thought it would be informative to observe how much or little muscle each type of profession or warrior can bring to bear. For instance, Selphids are known for their ability to Rampage and bring out a full body’s potential, but how might that compare with the strength of, say, an elite [Warrior]? Here we have Senior Guardsman Relc, also known as the Gecko of Liscor—”
Relc was lifting a weights bar up, both ends loaded with weight. He groaned.
“Aw, don’t call me—wait, am I being watched by everyone?”
He stared into the scrying mirror. There were six benches and Moore, Jelaqua, one of 4th Company’s [Captains], and two [Guards] were all sitting on the other ones.
“Another utility of these weights is measuring individual strength. We can actually quantify data, although any one test will not properly represent an individual’s full capacity, it is data. Imagine knowing definitively which of your [Soldiers] had the best upper body strength, or who had surprising growth or potential in any given area? We’ll begin testing who has the most strength among this group. Begin lifting—now!”
The six all lay down and tried to lift the bar in the press Grimalkin had taught them. Moore looked incredibly nervous and self-conscious; Jelaqua looked like she was having fun.
“They are attempting to press two hundred pounds of weight. Let’s see how they do. Now, lift! Exhale as you push! I want to see you struggle!”
Grimalkin roared at the lifters, switching gears. Erin saw the bars lift—she inhaled.
“That’s heavy. I weigh a lot less than that!”
Indeed, while three bars rose fast, Moore’s, Jelaqua’s, and Relc’s, the other three test subjects had trouble. The [Captain] got it up with a grunt. Embria and 4th Company cheered him on.
“Go, Pielt! Don’t let those adventurers beat you!”
Next to him, the two male [Guardsmen] were struggling hard. The Gnoll got it up, but his balance was off and he did have to struggle. The Drake—didn’t. The bar fell towards his chest and he cursed and called out—
“As you can see, not all the trained warriors can do two hundred pounds. And while I’m sure we’ll see a very high limit on those with Skills and levels, two hundred is still a sizable number.”
Grimalkin caught the bar one-handed and pulled it back into the rack. The Drake panted, shamefaced, as Grimalkin went on.
“Most [Warriors], [Soldiers], and [Guards] are physically fit enough to endure combat, but for how long? Ten minutes? Thirty? An hour? Good leaders know to rotate in fresh fighters, and most battles are very quick. Additionally, [Soldiers] may use a pike or heavier weapon like a maul, but most are using swords that weigh a few pound at most. Extensive training to lift heavy weights only happens with [Blacksmiths], [Laborers], [Farmers], and so on, which is why they can become such powerful [Soldiers]. But muscle can be an asset, and these weights provide a completely new way to achieve that goal with limited time and effort!”
He had a good point. Erin was surprised, but while male and female Gnolls could hit that benchmark of two hundred pounds by and large, both genders of Drakes struggled and only a handful of the female Drakes could do it. They did not have a lifter’s physique; they were trained to fight, not work out.
But one complimented the other. And there were exceptions. Relc did three hundred pounds, grunting and grinning, and so did Moore and Jelaqua. They hit four hundred—Jelaqua didn’t even blink as Relc growled. Moore had to tap out after five hundred; he couldn’t get the bar up.
“Come on, Moore! You can do better! Uh—I think I tore a muscle.”
Jelaqua cursed as she got her bar up. Relc was swearing as the 4th Company cheered him on. Moore rubbed at his shoulders.
“I don’t like doing that.”
“You can see that Skills can have a powerful effect, but this is in a [Spearmaster] and Selphid adventurer’s case. I submit that muscle is certainly useful—but when balanced. Overtraining one area of muscles simply unbalances the body. I have created a workout plan and exercises along with my theories on the optimal development of the body of a whole…”
Grimalkin was enjoying himself. And so was the rest of the room. New things were great. Strength training was great…among a certain group of people. But they’d also quickly caught onto the other aspect Erin was familiar with from her world—competition.
“Gah! That’s so heavy!”
Relc eventually lost to Jelaqua who pushed up a massive bar loaded with weights. The Selphid grinned—and then her smile slipped.
“Aw. I think I just snapped half my body’s muscles. Hey! Help me get this down—”
Pelt yawned as he effortlessly curled a two-hundred pound dumbbell. But he grinned when Hawk had to struggle to do the same. Erin was just beginning to grow sick of the smell of sweat and Relc going ‘yeah!’ when she heard Grimalkin speaking.
“Anyone who would like to participate, you may join the weights room now. I will broadcast this session with commentary, ladies and gentledrakes.”
Erin saw other people pushing into the room. She lifted her tray of oranges and water as the tired test group abandoned the machines.
“Oranges! Water! Good for you! I think! Lemons too! Wait, are those good for you?”
Grimalkin had told her to get both since Erin couldn’t remember. The Drake glanced at her as the weight-lifters converged on her citrus fruits and water. He spoke into the mirror.
“That reminds me. There are optimal dietary intakes to build muscle. I am certain that there are correlations between the intake of certain food groups and growth more effectively.”
He glanced at Erin and she winced. She headed over to him with her tray as Relc gulped down water.
“Uh, do you want an orange, Grimalk—”
“Refreshments to the side, Miss. Please clear the work area.”
Grimalkin spoke brusquely, gesturing to a table that had been set up. Erin paused.
She grumped over to the table and put down the tray; she’d need to get more water and fruits already. Perhaps only Lyonette saw how Grimalkin carefully angled the mirror to avoid showing Erin to the Walled Cities.
“Whew! That stuff is heavy! Captain Z needs to get some of these weights. Imagine doing this every day at the Watch Barracks?”
Relc was grinning and talking with some of the [Guards], who’d strained muscles. Grimalkin had advised them not to use healing potions; it would just reverse their gains. Erin saw some groaning, but many were nodding at the idea. As many female as male, in fact.
“Senior Guardsman, you can lift more than almost anyone else!”
One of the other [Guards] from Pallass, a Garuda, breathed, eying Relc. He had indeed been one of the champions of today’s lifts; Relc had both arm and leg muscle, whereas Maughin had been more unbalanced, and Jelaqua was just cheating.
Pelt could out-lift Relc, but one of the benches had collapsed and the Dwarf had said the steel bar had too much weight on it and had been beginning to bend.
“Hey, well, you know. I’m Relc. Say, are you from Pallass?”
The Drake grinned at the female Garuda. She nodded. Erin thought the Garuda was about a decade older than her, with ash-grey feathers mixed with blue.
“That’s right. I was on the 6th Floor when the Wyverns attacked. But I saw you taking one down.”
Relc preened. Embria and her 4th Company weren’t associating with the former [Sergeant], but Erin could see the Drake’s daughter glancing over at her father with pride. Relc leaned against one wall and coughed into his claw.
“Nice uniform Pallass’ Guards have got. Say—you wouldn’t mind lending it to me sometime, would you?”
The Garuda looked perplexed. Relc put one claw on his chest.
“Because miss, you’re wounding my heart. And while you’re at it, do you know where I can find a [Bard]? Because you’re plucking at my heartstrings.”
Erin nearly walked into Moore, who was gingerly squeezing a lemon into his glass of water. A pair of Gnolls looked up and tried to cover their ears. Erin waited for the inevitable rejection—
And saw the Garuda [Guard] laugh.
“That is the worst line I have ever heard.”
Relc blushed, scratching at his neck spines. He cursed, but the Garuda [Guardswoman] grabbed his arm as he tried to slide away.
“Not so fast. I’ll give you points for effort. Are you free after this?”
The Drake’s eyes widened. He looked over the Garuda’s shoulder at Erin.
“Of course! Are you staying in the inn?”
“Well, I have to get back to Pallass. Magus Grimalkin only had us here to demonstrate, but if you can get a ride, I’m actually off duty on the 8th at…”
Erin’s jaw dropped. She saw Relc and the Garuda conferring, and then she walked off, flicking sweat off her feathers. Relc watched her with a grin. Erin had to walk over as he called after her.
“Yeah! Definitely! I’ll find a way! Grimalkin and me are pals!”
He turned and jumped as he saw Erin staring at him. She stared at Relc, and then the Garuda.
“Oh, hey, Erin. Saw my slick pickup, there, did you?”
Erin stared at Relc. His grin faltered and he coughed.
“Okay, I fumbled, but I did it! High five?”
He held up a claw. Erin folded her arms.
“How? That was terrible!”
“Hey, you know, it works.”
A Gnoll exclaimed to Relc’s left. The Drake sniffed.
“’Course it does! Or why do I use them all the time? Anyways, I’m also a Senior Guardsman, pal. And it helps, being a cool hero who helped fight the Wyverns. That lady knows a cool guy.”
“But…what about Embria?”
Relc froze. It seemed he had actually forgotten his daughter was standing at the other side of the weights room. He glanced over—Embria was staring at him. She hadn’t missed on the obvious. Relc’s tail sagged.
“Relc! You can’t pick up dates when your daughter’s here!”
Erin shook her finger at Relc. The Drake looked defensive.
“Erin, come on. You can’t blame me for having some fun now and then, can you?”
“Can’t I? Wait, how often do you have fun?”
The young woman narrowed her eyes at Relc. She hadn’t heard anything about this! The Drake raised his claws.
“You’re getting sort of personal here, Erin. I don’t ask you who you had sex with two days ago, you don’t ask me. We’re not Gnolls.”
“You think we like smelling it all the time?”
Erin stared at Relc. Well—she guessed it had to happen. But she couldn’t imagine Relc…her mind shut down a bit to prevent showing her anything.
“But—okay, I—well—are you going to do anything?”
Relc blushed. He looked at Erin.
“Do I have to answer that? And do you want me to answer, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] was saved from answering by Embria. The Drake came over.
“I can’t help but see you’re popular. Dad.”
Only a few things could be worse than Embria and Erin both confronting Relc over his possible date. And the Drake [Guardsman] clearly looked like he’d rather fight an Adult Creler.
“Listen, kid. When the moment strikes, you have to take it! Didn’t I teach you that? And I told you those lines worked! Like a charm!”
Embria scowled after the Garuda.
“You can do better than her.”
“Hey, can’t I just have fun for one night? Come on! Ancestors! Leave me alone! I don’t ask you—wait, I don’t want to know. See? I know there are boundaries!”
Relc began to look genuinely exasperated. He threw up his hands and walked backwards. Erin began to feel a bit bad. It wasn’t her problem. She let Relc go. So did Embria, after a glance back at her command.
Aside from insights into Relc’s dating life, Grimalkin’s seminar seemed to be a hit. Certainly, Erin heard him answering questions as he stood in the center of the weights room. Strangely, he kept waving her off when she wanted to talk to him.
“Fine. I won’t get you a protein shake. Whatever they’re made of. Probably eggs and stuff.”
Erin grumbled and walked off. She found Lyonette in the common room; Erin enjoyed odor and sounds of cooking and a clean inn, not sweat and audible grunting in the background.
“Ooh, who’s making food? Drassi?”
“She burns food. No, Palt offered to make some of his curry. Erin, give me a hand with these, will you?”
Erin saw Ishkr and Lyonette were carrying down the pots full of faerie flowers.
“What are you doing with those? Remember that [Thief], Lyonette?”
The [Princess] nodded.
“I know. We’re putting them in the Garden. It’ll be even safer there. And the gold.”
She mouthed that at Erin. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes widened. Then she nodded.
“Hey, it would be safer there! Great idea! But why are you taking the pots downstairs? Can’t you just move the garden’s entrance?”
Lyonette shook her head.
“Wailant and Viceria are working. And they can’t summon the door, remember?”
“Oh, right. Okay, let me help.”
Erin was going upstairs for a pot when she heard Montressa and Beza race into the inn.
“Where is it? Did we miss it?”
“I heard there would be a competition! Why wasn’t I invited?”
Bezale snorted furiously. Palt poked his head out of the kitchen. Montressa stormed up to him.
“Palt! You can’t sabotage us like that! How dare—”
Erin grinned and grabbed a pot.
“Let’s put them somewhere special, Lyonette. Maybe up on the hill?”
The two were hauling the gold and flowers into secret spots as Mrsha rolled down the hill. She stared at Lyonette taking the little metal vault over to a hiding spot with Erin and waved her paws urgently. Mrsha was muddy after trying to sneak-attack Viceria, but she was excited and happy.
“Not now, Mrsha, darling. Sorry. We have to hide this. Why are you filthy—Erin, you’re stronger! Lift your side more!”
“Lift with your back! No, wait, your legs!”
The two young women couldn’t play with Mrsha. The Gnoll drooped. She sighed, turning about. Maybe she could lift with all the sweaty people? She walked out of the Garden of Sanctuary, and turned to see where Lyonette was hiding the gold.
A pair of hands grabbed Mrsha. She jerked—and a hand clapped over her mouth. When Erin turned around, the Gnoll was gone.
The dark figure carried the struggling Gnoll out of the common room. It was so fast no one noticed. Mrsha wriggled, but the four hands held her tight.
“Aha. Now we have the little Mrsha. We will eat her. Probably. Even though fur tastes bad. Yes.”
Bird pretended to nibble on Mrsha’s head. She flopped around indignantly. Captured! By her arch-nemesis!
“Hello, Mrsha. I have got you.”
Mrsha glared up at Bird as her tail wagged as he took her to her and Lyonette’s room. Numbtongue was in bed because his head hurt. But you could always rely on Bird!
“What do you want to do? Play tag? No? Hide and seek? Ah. Then I have sought you. You shall seek me.”
Bird tilted his head left and right as Mrsha signed quickly. Obediently, she covered her eyes. She heard Bird running.
“Stealthy! I must think like the shadows! Flee!”
He was the best at being fun. Mrsha waited, closing her eyes and covering her ears. She also buried her nose in her pillow. She counted to one hundred, and then opened her eyes.
Now, where was he hiding?
Hide and seek with Bird wasn’t your ordinary game played by the ignorant peons who thought it was some casual activity. It was life and death. Numbtongue would play too, and all three were experts at hiding.
Bird was really the surprising one; Goblins were good at hiding and Mrsha was a [Druid] and [Sole Survivor], but Bird? Well, he just had great hiding spots.
Like—like hiding among the other Workers on the roof of the inn! Mrsha only found him because she smelled him. He got her when she squeezed into a cupboard in the kitchen—Palt ratted her out.
You were allowed to ask people where the other person had gone. It was only fair; the inn plus the garden was large. But Mrsha had one secret other ability.
When Bird hid the next time, she raced about, checking the gym, the roof, the garden—but she didn’t find him. She gave it ten minutes, and then gave up and used her nose.
Mrsha’s nose was incredibly good. She sniffed down Bird’s trail, and followed him into the garden. There, she realized Bird had pulled a fast one on her.
“Aaah! Aaah! You found me!”
Bird exploded out of the soil that Wailant and Viceria had dug up so they could plant their flowers. Both [Farmers] jumped as Mrsha leapt onto Bird. He smiled.
“My turn! I will find you!”
He had twenty minutes to do it. This time, Mrsha raced into her ultra-special hiding spot. Namely, a sack of potatoes in the basement. Bird wouldn’t find her here!
And he didn’t! The Antinium came close, but Mrsha had chosen a random sack and he couldn’t sort through them all; she’d buried herself deep. After twenty minutes, he had to give up and she smugly came out of hiding.
“You are good. But I will hide better. Away I go!”
Bird ran off and Mrsha counted to a hundred.
This time she really tried to find him with her eyes and ears. She asked everyone, but after sixteen minutes, Mrsha had to admit Bird was nowhere to be found. She even ran all over the garden to find him!
So she sniffed him out. To be fair, it was a hard thing to follow. Bird had done well, but Mrsha eventually ended up at the pond. She stared into it, and realized there was a tiny patch of blackness sticking out of the water. It quickly retreated, but Mrsha had seen the mandibles.
“You found me. And I nearly died.”
Bird announced as he sat up out of the water. Tenacious and fearless, he’d actually submerged himself into the pond, ducking into the water every time Mrsha passed by. He was in a shallow section so he could stand up, but that was Bird for you.
Creative. Still, he couldn’t beat her nose. Mrsha felt a little bad about it, but she triumphantly splashed him with water nonetheless. Then she ran off to hide.
“I have lost again.”
Bird stared at Mrsha as she rolled out of a pile of curtains where the Players of Celum were setting up. There were just too many spots for a little Gnoll to hide, and less for an Antinium Worker. Mrsha laughed and pointed at Bird.
And Bird…grew frustrated. He paused, and folded all four arms.
“I am losing. Hm. But I want to win.”
It was mild frustration, but Bird took this game as seriously as Numbtongue, who had once folded himself into one of the huge stone ovens in the kitchen. Erin had nearly baked him before she’d heard him coughing and swearing. Mrsha smiled and closed her eyes as Bird hid.
“You will never find me. Ever! This will be my victory.”
The Worker promised as he ran off. Mrsha counted to a hundred…
And she realized Bird had vanished. Completely and utterly. Mrsha raced about the inn, checking all of Bird’s usual spots. But he hadn’t gone upstairs. He hadn’t left the inn, she was pretty certain. He wasn’t in the garden—
Guiltily, as the timer reached eighteen minutes, Mrsha began to sniff the ground. It wasn’t cheating—it was her nose! And she didn’t want to lose. Mrsha was the best finder and hider in hide-and-seek in the entire inn and she wanted to keep that record. She had to beat Bird.
So she sniffed. And sniffed.
But his scent was incredibly hard to trace this time. Mrsha roamed around the common room of the inn, pausing, sniffing again. Then—she narrowed her eyes as she passed by a staircase leading down.
The basement. The cellar door was closed, but Mrsha had rushed down there on her second hiding place. And Bird’s scent was coming from there.
Mrsha opened the door. The basement now had proper stairs and a doorway, rather than a single hatch door. It was also much larger than before.
At the moment, it was just holding supplies. And it was checked daily by Ishkr or a Gnoll to make sure it was free of pests. Now, Mrsha crept into the dark room.
Spooky. She shivered in delight. Numbtongue and Bird had surprised her a lot on their nightly ‘scare-hide-and-seek’ games, where the goal was to scare the seeker. But she felt like Bird had let her down.
This wasn’t the best hiding spot. Just a good one. Mrsha wondered if she should plug her nose somehow to make the game more fair as she sniffed around. Or they could go on an adventure! Numbtongue had promised he’d take her on one, even if Lyonette said it wasn’t okay. She just had to…
Mrsha prowled up and down the basement. Something was wrong. Bird’s scent came here, but there it stopped. He’d…vanished again. She frowned. Mrsha sat on her butt in the basement and stared around.
She had a minute left and Bird was gone. But he had been here. He wasn’t in a sack; she’d smell that. Ergo…
Mrsha put her head to the ground and sniffed, like a dog. Krshia said never to copy it and Mrsha usually didn’t need to. But she needed absolute smellability. She slowly traced Bird’s very steps.
Here, from the door, all the way to this wall. But there was nothing here. Mrsha stared up. She could smell even where Bird had stood. And then—a faint smell of Bird. But hidden.
Mrsha stared up at the wall. In the gloom, her eyes narrowed.
What’s this, then? There was something odd about this part of the wall. Very odd.
No—wait, there wasn’t. Mrsha was just imagining it. There was no secret lever. She sighed, sat down—
And noticed the concealed, tiny stone ring in the floor. Mrsha’s eyes went round. She stared at the ring. And then she slowly grabbed it and heaved.
Part of the stone floor came up. The hatch was perfectly balanced so even Mrsha could slide it open. And there, sitting in the secret tunnel was Bird. Eating a bird.
Mrsha stared. Bird jumped as he dropped his bit of filched chicken. He stared up at Mrsha. Then his mandibles opened.
“Aah! You found me! But this is my best hiding spot! You are not supposed to know about it! Or Erin! Or anyone!”
Mrsha grinned, wagging her tail and signing victory. But Bird seemed genuinely nervous. He stood up and waved all four hands.
“I lose, yes. I am a bad hider. Let us go. Do not tell Erin about the bird, please? Or she will make me not-hunt even longer.”
The little Gnoll had no intention of tattling on Bird. But the tunnel on the other hand was fascinating to her. Someone had built it! And Bird had known about it! She stared at the incredibly concealed hatch—so well hidden that she and the other Gnolls had never spotted it even with their keen eyes all the time they’d been down there.
“I will just close this—no, Mrsha. You cannot go in. It is very secret. You should not have found me. But I wanted to win—”
Bird was reaching for the trap door’s handle. Mrsha ignored him. She leapt down into the tunnel. It was dirt. Hard, and compact. Bird froze.
“Mrsha! Do not go down there!”
The little Gnoll saw him rush down the hatchway. She took off as Bird ran at her, trying to grab her. Where would this lead? How had it existed and she never knew? Numbtongue would never find her!
Mrsha darted ahead as Bird ran after her as fast as he could. But the Worker couldn’t catch the speedy little Gnoll. Bird’s voice was loud. And, for once, anxious.
“Oh no. Mrsha, come back. It is bad to go down that tunnel. Come back!”
The Gnoll ignored him. This tunnel was long! It was almost completely straight, but it was curving ever-so-slightly, and going down and down! It was also almost pitch-black, but there were points of luminescence tactically scattered on the walls. Glowing moss?
“Mrsha! This is not part of the game! I will be angry! Please come back!”
Onwards, downwards! Rushing, stale wind! And up ahead—a drumming sound, coming through the earth. Mrsha ran, fast and free. She didn’t fear Bird being angry. He never got angry. He was the nicest—
“Mrsha. Come back!”
The Antinium Worker shouted. Mrsha slowed. She turned back at the real note of alarm in his voice. And then—
The walls moved. Six huge Antinium Soldiers stepped out of the concealed alcoves they had been standing in. Mrsha froze as they raised their fists. Advancing on her. And she realized—
This was no secret tunnel to some magical place. Bird had not built it. The Antinium had.
And this was their Hive.
Ahead of Mrsha, the thrumming noise resolved itself into countless footfalls. Antinium, moving in Liscor’s Free Hive. They had dug a secret passage to the inn, a secret tunnel, like the one they had used to invade the inn during the Creler attack. Everyone had assumed they’d dug it fast, but it had always been there.
They’d made another one. Of course they had. And Bird knew about it because he was one of them. And he had been afraid.
Because Mrsha was not supposed to be here. She was trespassing. The Soldiers were not Painted Soldiers. They did not know Mrsha. They saw an intruder.
One of them punched. Mrsha dove and the fist hit the earth. Another kicked—they charged after Mrsha as she fled. Not towards Bird. The Soldiers were in the way!
Ahead! The Soldiers raced after her, huge stomping death. They were trying to kill her. Bird was shouting something—Mrsha ran and ran—
And appeared in a tunnel. A grand causeway hollowed out of the earth. Hundreds, thousands of Antinium were marching, moving in complicated lines such that they were always in motion, never stopping. Workers and Soldiers. Nameless, identical.
Mrsha tumbled through the secret tunnel’s entrance into the causeway. And as one, the Antinium stopped. They turned, as one. And they stared at her.
Sound stopped. The black bodies froze. Every head was looking at Mrsha. Even those too far back to see her. The white Gnoll froze, even as the Soldiers ran after her.
This was not the friendly Antinium who came to the inn. This was a Hive. And she was the intruder. Foreign. An invader.
The Free Hive had suffered few invasions. Once, there had been Erin. But Klbkch had been with her. She had been expected. Mrsha was not.
She had been here once. Last time they had chased her, but she had been running, sad, heedless of the danger. Now she knew it. And there were so many Antinium. A sea of them, all aware of her.
The Antinium were still. Then, suddenly, as Mrsha tensed, looking backwards as the Soldiers rushed after her, she saw all the mandibles of all the Workers and Soldiers open at once. And they made one sound.
It was a snap of their mandibles, a loud, predatory, hostile sound. They did it again.
Then, they ran at her.
Mrsha bolted. She tried to run back, but the Workers and Soldiers charged at her. One mind, many bodies! She saw Soldiers coming down the secret passage, but that was her only hope. Mrsha dove—
One caught her. Mrsha felt four crude hands gripping her, clumsy digits meant for tearing. And that was what they were trying to do. Two hands were squeezing her chest and head with terrible force, and two more were pulling at her right and left leg. The Soldier was trying to pull her—
The pain was blinding. For a second. Then—there was a sound. Mrsha felt a thud. The grip loosened. A voice.
“Stop. Or I will kill you.”
The pressure relaxed. Dizzy, unable to see for a moment, she realized the clicking had stopped. The Antinium were frozen.
When Mrsha could see, she saw this: the six Soldiers who had been on guard duty, surrounding her. One held her, but it had stopped trying to pull her apart.
Because a Worker stood there.
Bird the Hunter. He had struck the Soldier. With a blade. Mrsha saw the handle protruding from a shoulder, right next to her. She stared at the green blood. Then at Bird.
Slowly, the Worker pulled out the blade. He raised it, staring at the Soldier holding Mrsha, the other six. The army of Antinium at their backs.
“Let her go.”
There was no playful tone in Bird’s voice. He did not have his bow, just a single hunting knife in his hand. But somehow, the smaller Worker was no less threatening than the six Soldiers.
The Soldier didn’t move. He stared at Bird. Perhaps only shock kept him from tearing the Worker apart. All the Antinium were staring. Stock-still. This wasn’t the shock and hostility they had felt when seeing Mrsha. She could almost feel their emotions, in some invisible stream in the air.
A Worker had attacked a Soldier. An Antinium had attacked another.
A Worker had disobeyed orders.
The world stood still. The Hive froze in this area. Bird looked at Mrsha. He smiled, raising his mandibles, but it was not a smile.
“Do not worry, Mrsha. You will be okay.”
How long they stood there, Mrsha didn’t know. How many heart-pounding seconds, as the hands held her, as the Antinium stood still? Then—there was a voice. A sole point of movement, and then all the Antinium moved backwards, rippling away from the figure, the voice of authority.
Anand strode through the crowd of Antinium. It was Anand; Mrsha knew him at a glance. Not only did she know the slight nuance of his voice and his smell—he’d also changed.
The [Tactician] now wore chainmail, altered to fit his form. Or rather—it was a chain vest; Mrsha saw it was in fact a length of chainmail that had been wrapped around him. A strange thing, perhaps intended for a creature not built to any one standard.
Like Anand. The chainmail glinted a faint purple, and it glowed magic in Mrsha’s sight. Anand also carried a hatchet and wand. And he had a belt. He was as unique among the Antinium as Mrsha. Or Bird.
“Anand. Hello. There has been a bad thing. Tell them to let Mrsha go.”
Bird sounded relieved. Anand gestured; instantly the Soldiers stepped back. The one who had been stabbed put Mrsha down and she ran behind Bird. Anand stared at her.
“Mrsha? Bird, what is happening? Is the inn under attack? You did not call an alarm!”
Bird studied his feet.
“No. We were playing. I opened the tunnel because I wanted to hide. Mrsha ran down it.”
For a second Anand stared at Bird with that way Lyonette and Erin sometimes did, just processing. Then his mandibles snapped together and went down.
“This is unacceptable, Bird!”
“I know. I am sorry.”
“Sorry is not enough! You are very lucky I was the one who found you. If Revalantor Klbkch had—he is still furious at you! As am I. If he had found you—”
“I know. I made another error in judgment. I was playing with Mrsha. It will not happen again.”
Anand paused. Mrsha saw him struggling—and she could read his emotions, like he was any of the other species in the inn. Anand had been one of Erin’s best chess pupils out of all the Antinium who had played with her. And he had learned more than just the game.
“Bird, I do not think you comprehend Revalantor Klbkch’s wrath. He has not allowed more than the necessary Antinium aboveground. Pawn and Yellow Splatters have not been granted the right to patrol. Revalantor Klbkch is—angry. We have all erred. You especially. And the other Antinium are coming. There must be no mistakes in the Hive, Bird. I would not wish to disappoint Klbkch.”
“I know. I am sorry.”
The [Tactician] paused, and shook his head brusquely.
“It is not enough. You must go. Before the disturbance is noticed. I will inform Revalantor Klbkch that there was an—accident. But go. Do not allow Mrsha to come down here again. Next time, she may die.”
“I know. She will not.”
Mrsha nodded frantically behind Bird, staring up at the silent Soldiers. Anand opened and closed his mandibles.
“I do not understand you, Bird. We share a connection. But this? This is beyond a mistake.”
Bird was silent as the other [Tactician] berated him. Anand shook his head and turned.
“Anand, do not be angry at me. I am sorry.”
Bird called after Anand, sounding heartbroken as the other Worker turned. Anand swiveled back to Bird.
“I am not angry at you, Bird. No. I am, but that is not all of my feelings towards you. I…I do not know how you can be so different, Bird. Even for one of us. Is it a flaw that made you special, or are you simply exceptional?”
The [Bird Hunter] shrugged his shoulders as Anand stared at him.
“I am Bird, Anand. Why ask these questions?”
The [Tactician] shook his head.
“I must. I do not understand much. And Revalantor Klbkch—I must be worthy of his satisfaction. I am not. I am substandard, subpar. If I fail, I will be discarded. As…you were. You should not come back, Bird. I fear what Revalantor Klbkch may do if he sees you in his anger.”
The reply froze Mrsha. Did Anand mean…? Bird paused.
“You do not seem happy, Anand. You should be happy, even if I am silly and make you angry.”
The other Antinium tasted the word. It was a short conversation, but Mrsha felt like they were saying more. In the air. She stared at their swaying antennae.
“I am not you, Bird. I do not know where your happiness comes from. I envy it. But I seek Revalantor Klbkch’s affection. And he—he has told me I cannot measure up to his expectations. I am defective. But I serve, until I can be replaced. That is what you, and Pawn, and the others forget. Or perhaps you have other places you fill. But I have one. And I do not fill it properly.”
The [Tactician] seemed to shrink with each word. He said each sentence more quietly than the last, until he whispered. Mrsha saw him drawing in on himself. And she felt—so sad she would have cried.
But the Antinium did not cry. They could not, except for Bird, who had learned. And he looked at Anand. They had both learned chess at the same time. They were Erin’s chess club, once. But they had changed so much. And as Bird looked down at Anand, garbed in magical armor, commanding other Antinium, a small Worker whispering about defects, he…changed.
Mrsha saw him stand taller. Which was—strange. Normally, Bird was hunched, his domed back shell letting him roll onto his back, or pluck feathers from a bird he’d shot; even when he played Erin, he was hunched over just a bit, because that was the natural shape Worker’s bodies took. He stood straight, unwavering.
When he stood like this, he seemed taller than Anand, for all they had the same body. Bird looked at Anand, who was sad, for all he walked with authority. And he spoke. To Anand, and the silent Antinium, waiting.
“Revalantor Klbkch is stupid.”
Mrsha looked up. And she felt the Hive rustle. Anand jerked. He drew back, as if Bird’s words were a physical thing, made of poison.
“Bird! There is a limit to how silly you can be. Do not say such things! If Revalantor Klbkch hears…”
“Klbkch is stupid. I have said it again. This is my opinion, Anand, and I am right. He is not right to call you ‘defective’. He is stupid.”
Anand stared at Bird. And Mrsha looked up at Bird. The Worker stood and looked Anand in his eyes. The [Tactician]’s voice wavered, with nervousness. Fear. Indignation.
“He is the best of the Antinium.”
“Erin called him stupid. She called him mean, and wrong. Klbkch is strong. He is smart. He is good at fighting and he knows things. But he is also stupid. This is a fact.”
“I do not think you know what a fact is, Bird.”
The [Bird Hunter] looked at Anand.
“No? Then this is a fact, Anand. I am sometimes silly. But I am also Bird. And I know what I know. Klbkch is stupid. And he is not your father. He will not be, no matter how much you want him to.”
The [Tactician] froze. Bird looked at him. And his playful voice was serious. Mrsha listened. She did not know this Bird. But it was still him. Just—focused.
“Anand, you like Klbkch. But he is not your father. Erin explained how fathers work. And Klbkch did not make you. The Queen did, but she is not your mother. But that does not matter. What matters is that fathers and mothers love their children. Erin is a mother. Lyonette is a mother. Numbtongue is a nice uncle. Klbkch and the Queen are not.”
“You cannot say this. They are ours. They lead us. Do not say such things, Bird. Where do they come from? These thoughts are like Aberr..”
Anand’s voice was shaking. He was quivering, like a leaf before a storm. Bird looked at him, and shook his head.
“I have been thinking on it, sometimes. When there are no birds and I think of others. On the hill. You should see it. Come. I will show you.”
He held out all four hands. Anand stared at them. He backed away.
“To where? Bird, I cannot. I have duties. I cannot be silly like you.”
Silly. Was that how the other Individuals saw Bird? Mrsha would have agreed, if she hadn’t seen Bird when he was serious. She looked up at him, leaning against one of his legs as he spoke.
“It is fun, being silly. You should be silly. Life should be fun. Come, Anand. Follow me. That is my order as Bird.”
Anand was shaking his head, flinching away. Even the other Soldiers and Workers were. They were just words, but Bird shot them like his arrows. Each one finding a mark.
“I—am of a higher rank than you, Bird. I outrank you. You cannot—where? To the inn? I would go, but Klbkch will be angry. Furious.”
Bird spread his arms. The same way he had as he challenged the Walled City of Pallass. Unafraid. And his voice was louder.
“I do not fear Klbkch. I am Bird. If I had not played chess with Erin, he would have killed me for being me long ago. Come with me, Anand. You and everyone. Come.”
He reached out and took Anand’s hand with his own. The [Tactician] jerked, but Bird pulled at him.
“You too, Mrsha. Come. Hold my hand.”
Mrsha did, getting up onto her two feet. On one side of Bird, Anand on the other, she let him take her into the Hive. The [Tactician] was staring at Bird. He could have pulled away, ordered the other Antinium. But they moved aside as Bird walked.
“Who are you?”
The Worker smiled. And he sounded playful and serious at the same time.
“Me? I am Bird. That is what I have always been. Sometimes I am serious. But you knew that.”
The Hive of the Free Antinium had stopped only a few times. Once, for the resurrection of their leader by the Rite of Anastases. Another, when a young woman had entered the Hive.
Once, for the march of the Painted Soldiers. A Worker with a censer. For faith alone.
But now, they stopped for another reason. A Worker walked through the Hive. He did not march in step with the other Antinium. He was out of place. But not Aberration. He held a little Gnoll’s paw, and the Workers and Soldiers stared at her.
Anand walked on Bird’s other side. The [Hunter] took them down, through twisting corridors, past large rooms in the earth. To a place where a sanctuary of another sort had been built. But one made of faith as much as dirt and paint.
The Painted Antinium were relaxing. Reading. Sparring lightly, resting, eating. Being something other than Worker and Soldier. They paused as Bird entered the room.
They stared at him. At Mrsha. And Anand. There was something different about Bird. The way he stood. The way he walked. If Mrsha had to put it to a name, it was…proudly. A new thing, in the Antinium.
“Bird. Anand? Mrsha? What is this? Is something wrong?”
Pawn got to his feet in alarm as the three walked forwards. So did Yellow Splatters. Pawn had been giving one of his communions. Bird walked past the Antinium to him. He held out a third hand.
“Hello, Pawn. You should come with me. And you, Yellow Splatters. Hello. And Belgrade. And Garry, too.”
All the Antinium were there, minus Garry. Klbkch had forbidden any of them from leaving the Hive. That included the two armored figures observing.
“What is this? Do the Free Antinium allow…intruders into the Hive? This is a breach of security, Tersk! Pawn, explain!”
Dekass exclaimed as he and Tersk of the Armored Antinium stared at Bird. Bird tilted his head.
“Oh, hello Tersk. You may come too. And you. Hello, you.”
Dekass stiffened as Bird waved with his fourth arm. Pawn was just staring. Dekass glanced around and then opened his mandibles stiffly.
“You are addressing a Prognugator of the Armored Antinium! Prognugator Tersk is his title.”
“And Tersk is his name. I forget yours.”
Bird turned away from Dekass. He looked at Pawn.
“Come, Pawn. There is something you must see.”
“I do not understand, Bird. Erin told Belgrade there was something special at her inn, but she wanted all of us to visit.”
“Yes. The hill. You must see it. Come.”
Bird gently tugged at Pawn’s hand. The [Priest] hesitated.
“But Bird, Klbkch has forbidden it. Anand?”
He looked at the [Tactician]. But Anand was frozen. Bird smiled.
“I do not care what Klbkch says. You must come now. Let us get Garry, too.”
He pointed. And he began to walk back towards the entrance to the barracks. Pawn stared at Mrsha. She waved a paw at him. And he began to follow.
Yellow Splatter’s deep voice interrupted Pawn. The [Priest] looked at the [Sergeant].
“If Bird says so, Yellow Splatters…he has never ever asked something of us. Let us go.”
The Painted Antinium looked at Bird. He turned his head. And they looked at Pawn, and Yellow Splatters. And something happened. As one, the Painted Antinium, Workers and Soldiers, began to follow Bird. Though Mrsha was certain Pawn and Yellow Splatters had not told them to.
They all followed Bird. Some objected. Belgrade asked questions. Pawn did too, but he fell silent. Yellow Splatters was speaking about Klbkch being on duty, but if—Bird ignored them all.
“Do you have permission to do this, Individual Bird?”
Tersk looked at Bird as they walked through the Hive. The [Hunter] nodded.
“I have my own.”
Now an army of Antinium followed Bird, Mrsha, and Anand. The Painted Antinium, those who had been chosen. Who believed. And Bird. There was a difference. The other Antinium watched them. And they looked at Bird.
Because he wore no paint. Bird made one last stop in the Hive.
“Hello, my Queen. Can Garry come with us?”
Mrsha saw a group of Antinium Soldiers barring the way as Bird spoke to a huge figure in a giant room beyond them. They stared at him. The huge figure shifted. And Mrsha heard a deep, female voice.
“Bird? Why are you here?”
“I have come for Garry. He should come and see.”
A Worker froze as he wheeled out some chocolate treats he’d bought from Erin. The Free Queen stared down at Bird. At Mrsha. At the Antinium behind him.
“What are you doing, Bird?”
“I am being me. I know you said you would kill me if I saw you again. But I wanted to say goodbye. Goodbye. And thank you. You are not my mother. But you might have been a good one. I wish I could have heard you sing. May Garry come with us?”
Mrsha heard an intake of breath. The Free Queen looked upon her, and Mrsha beheld one of the last Queens of the Antinium. For a second, the Queen paused. Then she lifted a feeler.
“Go, little bird.”
Garry came with them. Staring. And Bird led them back. Out of the Hive, through the main entrance. Not the secret tunnel since they wouldn’t fit.
The Antinium walked through Liscor. And Drakes and Gnolls stared. Humans backed away, pale-faced. But then they watched. Bird led the Antinium out of the Hive. Painted Antinium. And—Antinium with no paint.
They followed him. And he led them through the streets, out the gates, past the [Guards] who shouted questions. But everyone knew the answer.
They were going to the inn.
Bird walked through the hallway, past staring guards. He walked past Grimalkin, who slowly turned his mirror and nearly dropped it. He walked past the adventurers, past Wailant and Viceria having a drink, past Hawk, who backed up.
“Bird? Pawn? What’s going on?”
Erin’s eyes widened as she walked out from behind the counter. Palt nearly moved to block her, reaching for his wand. Montressa and Beza grabbed their weapons. But the Antinium had only eyes for Erin.
“Hello, Lyonette. I do not know why Bird brought us here.”
Pawn spoke to the [Princess]. She smiled at him, but then she looked at Bird. Everyone did. And Bird smiled.
“I am taking them to the hill, Erin.”
There was no ‘may I’, or other explanation. Just a statement. Erin opened her mouth. She looked at Bird. And she nodded.
Bird led them through the door, into the garden. The Antinium stared around the sanctuary, and Bird led them up.
Onto a hill with bright yellow flowers. Where the statues stood. The Antinium, hundreds, stopped, filling every part of the hill. And they beheld the circle of Workers, protecting the young woman who had lived that night.
And more. More statues filled the grass. Antinium. Caught in poses, one playing chess with Erin, nameless, another group of Soldiers standing together, fighting.
There was no Yellow Splatters. But the [Sergeant] looked at his glorious company, the hundred who had died. And he shook and said nothing.
Garry looked at Anand. Belgrade held Anand’s hand. Slowly, the four Workers completed the ring of bodies. They stood there, facing outwards, each in a different pose. As still as the statues.
Mrsha sat in the middle. There was nowhere else in the sea of Antinium. And in a way—it fit. Not even Erin was here; there was no space. This was a time for Antinium. And the little Gnoll, a privileged witness.
“There is no paint. On any of them. They are just stone.”
That was what Pawn said at last. He turned his head. The Antinium statues were indeed blank. They had every line and detail of them correct. But they had no color.
Mrsha was glad of it. It would have made them too real, or a mockery. But it mattered to the Painted Antinium. Bird shrugged.
“It does not matter. Erin remembers them.”
Each Soldier and Worker was different. Each one caught a different way. It was proof. Pawn’s voice shook.
“Bird. Thank you for showing us this. But you broke your orders to do it. We could have waited—Klbkch will be—”
He got no further. He was trembling. So were many of the Antinium. Anand looked at Knight. He reached out to touch his friend and halted.
But Bird was calm. He shook his head.
“I came to show you this because you must see it now. Not when Klbkch says. Because this is what made us.”
He looked around. The Workers, the chess club, stood in silence. And Anand looked at Bird. They all did. Mrsha waited, listening, learning something she’d never had put into words, even with a voice. Bird spoke. Loudly, to the gathered Antinium. Painted and not, Workers from the roof, Soldiers. All of them.
“Klbkch made a mistake. He made many mistakes, but this is what I thought when I was sleeping here. What makes us we is not Erin. She can do it, but she cannot do it. Without her, we would not have taken names or become Individual. But Erin cannot do it easily again. Not to other Antinium. Which is why they are Autonomous. Or something.”
The Antinium stared up at Bird. Then they looked at each other. Mrsha wrinkled her brow. Bird went on.
“To be me, all I had to do was want to be me. To say ‘I’. To believe I could be free. That is what made me Individual. Not Erin. But also Erin. Do you understand? That is why it does not happen again. Because this never happened. Except when it did.”
He pointed at the circle of the chess club. And then, at the Soldiers standing with Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] looked at Bird. And the Worker nodded.
“That is what it is.”
Yellow Spatters spoke.
Bird looked at him for a moment.
“No. Bravery is not being afraid. Courage.”
The [Sergeant] paused. And his voice shook as he pointed at the sky, the light coming through the dome. The sky.
“Heaven exists. Let all Antinium who perish believe in that. It is there.”
Bird’s voice was calm.
“Maybe it does. I have not seen it. But there is a better place than wherever heaven is. Here.”
He swept his arm around the hill. And the Worker shouted.
“Here! Because we will never be forgotten.”
He stood in the roaring silence. Bird paused, as the Antinium stood, looking at him. The two Armored Antinium knelt, and Bird looked at them, his fellow Workers and Soldiers. And he spoke cheerfully, but seriously.
“I have been thinking, Tersk, Pawn, Anand, Belgrade, Garry, Yellow Splatters, Archer B12, Purple Smile…and everyone else. I have been thinking of what I am. And what I want to be. And I do not want to be hit by Klbkch. He is stupid. And he is not my family.”
Sacrilege. Bird went on.
“I do not know what Heaven is. I have not seen it. If there are angels, I would very much like to meet them. Because they have wings. But I do not need paint. It is fine if you do. But I do not like Klbkch. So I have decided.”
He spread his arms.
“I am Bird. Not of the Free Antinium, but Bird. I like the Hive. I like Pawn, and many others. Not Dekass. Tersk is okay. But I like here more. Here, I am free. Klbkch is not my father. He is not my Revalantor. And Erin is not my mother. She is like a mother, but she did not make me. She is my family, though. And I will protect her. She has no heaven for me. But she is good enough without it.”
Mrsha looked at Bird. The Worker smiled. He lifted his arms and shouted the last.
“I am Bird of The Wandering Inn. This is my home. I am quitting my Hive.”
Look. Look upon them, the confused, the…worried. The lost ones, searching for a purpose. A flock, outsiders garbed in armor. And look at him. And see the flaw in the grand plan of Klbkch and the Queen. The poison of freedom, as the Workers and Soldiers look up at him.
Bird stood alone. Hiveless. And he spread his arms as cheerfully as could be. He spoke more words, like the ones that had shook the Free Antinium. More radical than even a Worker who dreamed of Heaven.
“Klbkch does not rule me.”