7.16 L

(The author is taking a break! The Wandering Inn will resume updating on April 11th for Patreon readers. April 14th for Public readers!)

 

Frustration. Black despair. Rage and helpless…loss. The memories came more frequently, now. It was easier looking into a void. But seeing fragments, incomplete, broken reflections of what had been was far worse if you remembered…glory.

Perfection as it had existed in this wretched world.

Time had run out. There were no more excuses today. No more distractions, magical drinks, or misunderstandings regarding genitalia.

One of them had quit. QUIT. As if you could walk away from what you were, what you had been made for. And the rest were insubordinate.

Especially…him. Pawn. He had disobeyed all orders, not even bothering to make excuses anymore. Where the other ones tiptoed around the lines, he walked over them.

The True Antinium’s fury was directed at him. Fury. And the dark resolve to restore order. A kind of enmity born from frustration and—confusion.

Today was going to be a day of causality. Casualty. And it was Pawn to whom the enmity was directed. Pawn, upon whom Klbkch laid much of the blame for the state of his Hive, the failure as he saw it. Pawn, he abhorred for what he was.

He was not the only one.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was a peaceful place of late. Or rather, if there was madness, it wasn’t of the inn-destroying, monsteriffic kind. There really was a rhythm to it.

As the day began, early in the morning before even most of the guests were at work, Lyonette personally served people. Only a handful.

“Can I get a big meal of something pasta-heavy? I’m working all day.”

A [Laborer] Gnoll waved a paw at the [Princess]. She brought out lasagna after a moment, piping hot; it just needed to be warmed up. And it was fresh as the moment Erin had made it.

Western food. It was heavy on the stomach, but there was nothing like it for people who wanted it in a hurry, and needed the kind of energy it produced.

The kind of people who could metabolize an entire bowl of ice cream, a slice of cake, and pizza with no consequences because they were going to burn that much energy. They existed. Of course, most people shouldn’t ever copy that example, but The Wandering Inn had a small clientele of [Worker]-classes who rose at the crack of dawn and liked getting their food in a moment. And Relc.

As for the staff and other guests, well, Lyonette served them too. Erin Solstice’s face seemed glued to the table. She’d been playing chess all last night. Up into the daylight, with her mystery opponent. Lyonette hesitated before putting some oatmeal in front of Erin’s face. She had a feeling that if it had gone right under Erin as the [Innkeeper] put her face down, Erin Solstice would have drowned.

“Late night?”

“Mm. I stayed up laaaaate. But my opponent did too. They kept wanting to play so I…y’know?”

“And that makes it better?”

The [Princess] raised a brow. Erin looked at her blearily.

“Yes…?”

“At least you have [Twofold Rest].”

“Mm. Still doesn’t help if you only get two hours of sleep.”

Lyonette du Marquin, 6th Princess in line for the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, sighed. She gestured at the bowl.

“Eat. And then take an hour’s nap.”

“Yes, Mom.

The [Princess] paused. She adjusted her tray of food, which she balanced on one arm. Then she leaned over and poked Erin in the side.

It was a very Gnollish action. Erin yelped and sat up. She glared, but Lyonette was already walking away, smiling to herself. She stopped at a table with two diners. The [Princess] deposited her three mostly-identical plates on the table.

“Breakfast! Hamburger for you, Mrsha. And a little egg…whoops—without bread for you, Pawn. And here’s the ketchup…”

The two looked up. A little white Gnoll stared at her tiny hamburger on a bun, with an egg on the side. And the Antinium looked at his substantially larger hamburger, with three eggs. No bun.

Because of course, Pawn was Antinium. And Lyonette had for herself a copy of Mrsha’s meal.

“There’s a bit of sliced apple too, Mrsha. Don’t give me that look. You don’t need a big-person sized hamburger. That’s too much for your stomach. See? I have the same meal.”

Lyonette saw the little Gnoll child, her daughter, look pointedly at Pawn’s plate. And his hamburger was three times her size. Lyonette paused.

“Pawn can’t eat bread. And he’s a Worker.”

“Thank you for the food, Lyonette. Surely, Mrsha may have some of my meal.”

The Antinium Worker smiled at Lyonette. She smiled back, sliding in between the two. Mrsha nearly lifted her hamburger off the bun before she saw Lyonette’s warning look. She glumly stared at the fork Lyonette was nudging towards her. Mrsha nudged it back and picked up the hamburger and bun and chomped into it.

“Don’t spoil her, Pawn. Mrsha gets enough snacks from Gnolls anyways. I know she’s growing, but she doesn’t need to eat that much meat. Right?”

The [Princess] carefully ate her fried egg. Pawn nodded obligingly.

They were an odd trio. A [Druid], a [Princess], and a [Priest]. Of course, they were more than their classes. A white Gnoll, a member of Terandrian royalty, and an Antinium Worker.

…No, it was still an odd grouping. But they all had a connection. A strong one. Lyonette smiled as she lifted her fork towards her mouth. She saw Pawn eating with the Antinium gusto towards all food that wasn’t their horrible nutrient mush. But he was glancing at her, too. The two met eyes and paused to smile at each other.

One, a Human face, a young woman with red hair, a sign of royal blood in some parts of Terandria. The other, an Antinium, insect’s face. Waving antennae, multifaceted eyes. Two mandibles open, lifted in a smile. But their expressions were similar.

It was the expression, the exact same across two faces, of a nauseatingly cute couple in love. No one else in the inn really noticed. Erin was staring at the porridge, trying to remember how it worked. The other regulars were eating, chatting. Somewhere, Niers Astoragon was being poked by Foliana as he yawned into his bowl of soup.

But then again—someone was watching the sickening display. Someone, like Klbkch, harbored a grudge. A little Gnoll stared at Lyonette and Pawn. She stared at her food and folded her arms.

After a second, Lyonette and Pawn realized Mrsha was there again and went back to their meal. But they sat close to each other and they had that—new cadence to their dialogue.

“So…you’re going back to the Hive. Will Klbkch be angry with you?”

“Perhaps. But I believe I can mollify him with my new Skill. At any rate, I will try to come back tonight. With the others, of course. It makes no sense for us to avoid Erin’s inn.”

“Of course. I mean, it is silly for them not to come here. But Klbkch is angry?”

“Extremely so. But I will return. What—will you be doing?”

Pawn smiled again. Lyonette glanced around distractedly.

“Oh, I think I’ll go visit Krshia. Order some things personally—have our little chat. Then I’ll visit Zevara, and then I have to go back to managing the inn. Ishkr’s in charge so I can have the morning off.”

“Ah, that is very well. You deserve a break. But what about Mrsha?”

The two looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was eating, discontentedly. She rolled her eyes.

Yes, thank you, I’m here.

Lyonette missed the look. She patted Mrsha on the shoulder, thinking it was about the food.

“Mrsha’s going to visit Ekirra and Visma. They’re going to help Elirr, isn’t that right, Mrsha? They’re learning how to help manage the animals; he’s got his hands—paws, excuse me—full with that little Wyvern.”

“That is very good. And perhaps Mrsha will level up in her class? Druids manage animals, or so I understand. Klbkch has not rendered much information unto me, but the Antinium have notes on classes. Books as well.”

“Really? I never knew!”

The Antinium nodded as he ate. Mrsha was already done with her hamburger.

“Yes. It is one of the things the Hive has in secret. I will bring you some books, if you’d like?”

“I would. Thank you, Pawn.”

Lyonette smiled. Pawn was sharing some of the Hive’s secrets with her. In theory, this would have enraged a certain Antinium even more. But no one cared. Not Pawn, nor Bird, who was sitting in his tower, eating a squishy bird with worms in it.

Each to their own. And you couldn’t fault the two for liking each other, right? They had formed a connection. And their relationship, as unusual as it was, had—benefits.

“So—I haven’t tried my new Skill out. But I think it might work later. It’s not the best, but…well, I can’t be greedy, right? And it is an interesting one. I’ll ask Zevara to help me test it.”

Benefits. Pawn had leveled up. He was a [Priest]. Level 24. He had gained a new Skill. Well—not a Skill per se. Lyonette was very excited about it.

But she had gained a Skill too. She was Level 19 now, a [Worldly Princess], a rare class consolidation before Level 20, even. And her new Skill was called [Magnified Training].

“So, what do you believe the Skill does, Lyonette? Ah, you have something on your cheek.”

The [Princess] looked up as Pawn lifted a napkin. She let him clean it off her face. She shrugged.

“You know—it just increases how fast I’ll learn the sword, or maybe magic. It’s one of those basic skills—I have so many of them now! But that’s the focus of my class, and I’m still below Level 20, so I think it’s not bad. Just not special. Hm, no, wait. I have a brilliant idea. Later today, what if I…?”

She leaned over. Mrsha’s ears perked up as she determinedly stared at her plate. She heard a whisper.

“Oh, that is a good idea. But it is very strange that both of us leveled up.”

“Well, I understand my class, but yours? Why would that…? Anyways, it’s an incentive, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

The two looked at each other with that look again. Mrsha stared.

Lyonette and Pawn had leveled up since yesterday. An event had made that occur.

Sex. The Gnoll cub paused. It had definitely happened. There was no denying it. It had changed…everything. And if she didn’t know the sordid details, the comedy—Mrsha knew what had happened. She crossed her arms.

After a second, the two realized she was there again.

“Oh, Mrsha—you’re nearly done? Just the egg? You eat quickly! What did I tell you about scarfing? Hold on, let me get a refill—Ishkr isn’t in yet. Sorry, Pawn.”

Embarrassed, Lyonette scolded Mrsha, as if she hadn’t been distracted half the meal already. Pawn glanced at Mrsha. As Lyonette rose to refill someone’s waving cup, he tentatively cut a sizeable chunk of hamburger and offered it to Mrsha.

“Would you like some, Mrsha?”

The little Gnoll, lover of all foods, looked at Pawn. Her eyes narrowed as Pawn offered her some of the tender hamburger. Mrsha turned her head, picked up a fork, and with rather deliberate care and pointedness, began cutting her egg into pieces and feeding herself with the utensils.

Pawn was taken aback.

“Well, if you would like some…”

He put it to the side of his plate, for Mrsha to grab. The white Gnoll girl looked at him.

Yeah, sure, pal. Keep trying.

“Not hungry, Mrsha?”

Lyonette blinked as she came back and saw the Gnoll was eating slowly. Mrsha gave her a look too, but Lyonette still didn’t get it. She turned back to Pawn.

“Honestly, I don’t know how your class works, Pawn. It’s so—unique. Mine? I’m very glad about being a [Worldly Princess]. Otherwise, only royal acts would allow me to level. Which is why most of the royalty are under-leveled compared to everyone else. Well—we also level slower.”

“Really?”

Both Mrsha and Pawn looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] nodded.

“Don’t you know? I know I’ve taught you about class rarity, Mrsha.”

She had her little lessons with the Gnoll about things Lyonette had learned every few days. Mrsha nodded, but Lyonette explained it again for Pawn’s benefit.

“We level up more slowly the better a class is. You know the King of Destruction? My father said he was probably only above Level 50—not even Level 60. That’s just a guess, but it still makes him one of, if not the highest-leveled [Kings] in the world. The Blighted King would be around his level.”

“Could he be above Level 60?”

“Maaaybe. But no more than that. He’s the King of Destruction, but he doesn’t have to be high-level to have the ability to use his [Army of the King] or his Dreamers of Reim. Because he’s a [King], Flos Reimarch will have better Skills. I’d love to know how well a [Priest] ranks compared to say, a [Blademaster]. It does matter, you see.”

The Worker scratched at one antennae.

“I did not know that. But you have low levels, Lyonette. And you told me [Princesses] were mostly low-level, even if yours was particularly so.”

The [Princess] sighed.

“We level slowly, it’s true. Not just because our classes are some of the best in this world—we just don’t go into danger that much. And ruling a kingdom doesn’t let you level that much normally. There’s a list of monarchs and equivalent leader-classes above Level 40 that we keep. You know, dossiers on enemies and allies.”

Normal stuff. Mrsha and Pawn exchanged a glance, for a second in synch. Then Mrsha glared and turned her head. Lyonette went on.

“There are less than thirty rulers on that list. I think. A bit over thirty? Less than forty, in the entire world. Each one is a world power in their way. Only [Kings] and [Queens], by the way. [Lords] and [Ladies] don’t count, or anyone with a lesser class.”

“How inferior are they to your class?”

The young woman chewed as she thought about that.

“A Level 60 [Mayor] might be equal to a Level 30 [King]. Maybe they’d have a better city, but a [King]’s power extends across their entire kingdom. It’s about concentration of power. In her inn, Erin’s powerful. With her [Garden of Sanctuary] and her aura skill. She can suppress Gold-ranks from using their full abilities if she does it correctly and she’s not trained. She’ll get more powerful too, with her Level 40 Skills. But outside of the inn…?”

She shrugged.

“I’m not a [Queen]. There is a difference. But I’m close. I’ll get more powerful Skills than if I were a [Lady]. I’m Level 19. When I hit Level 20, I’ll get something…good. I hope. And when I do—I’ll be one of the most eligible bachelorettes in Terandria my age.”

She smiled, and her eyes lit up at the thought.

“I would be! Imagine that! Right up there with Princess Ozena of Ailendamus, or Duchess Greina of Noelictus. Or I would be, if I weren’t unfit. Ruined. Thanks to someone.”

She looked at Pawn. The Worker was nodding, and then he paused.

“Oh. Me.”

That was it. Mrsha decided she was done. She pushed her plate back from the table and smacked her paws onto the top, making the dishes jump. So did Pawn and Lyonette. They looked at her, saw the glare, and realized.

“Mrsha, don’t hit the—”

Lyonette faltered as Mrsha gave her a gaze that spoke volumes. She leaned over and whispered urgently to Pawn. She tried to keep her voice down, but Mrsha’s ears were too good.

“Pawn. I think she knows about last night.”

“Uh oh. Oh no. Is this bad?”

“Yes! I mean—I’m not ashamed. But Mrsha—”

“How does she know?”

Lyonette hesitated and turned red.

“I changed the sheets, obviously, but Gnoll noses—um, Mrsha? Honey, why don’t we talk…you see, Pawn. And I—and we—”

The Antinium paused.

“I am very fond of Lyonette, Mrsha. Last night, we entered into sexu—mghf.

He made a sound as Lyonette covered his mandibles with her hands. The little Gnoll stared at the [Princess]’ flushed face. She looked at Pawn. The Gnoll glowered.

Hmf! Adults!

She climbed down from the table, got onto her two legs, and walked off. Not padded off on all fours, but stomped away to go find Drassi or someone else worthy of her attention.

The two watched Mrsha walk off. Lyonette opened and closed her mouth, but she didn’t know what to say. At least Mrsha wasn’t going to tell anyone. She looked at Pawn.

“I’ll talk to her tonight, Pawn. Don’t worry. But—maybe let’s find another bedroom. I can reserve the one down the hall, now the Workers are on the third floor…”

She whispered to him and he nodded. The two smiled at each other, held hands, engrossed. But then—they did part.

They both had jobs. And this was secret. No one but Mrsha knew the truth in this inn. And they had to keep it a secret. Lyonette didn’t feel like being judged. Least of all by Erin.

Erin being Erin, she’d go ballistic at the thought of anything improper. Which was everything, apparently. As for Pawn—he kept it a secret because Lyonette thought it should be secret.

Affairs, clandestine meetings, secrets—all that was bread and butter to Lyonette, who had grown up in Calanfer. And Pawn naturally let her show him how things were done.

“I’ll see you tonight. Bring the other Antinium if Klbkch doesn’t stop you. And the books.”

Lyonette bade farewell to Pawn. And then she got back to work. The Antinium Worker walked out of the inn, a new Pawn. And he stretched his arms up to the sky, all four of them.

He had a new Skill. And the day—everything was different. Pawn smiled, because he understood more of what happiness was. And he was a [Priest] who worshipped only that. And heaven.

 

—-

 

“Ishkr, you have the inn. You can manage, right? Erin’s asleep, so she probably won’t start anything. You need something?”

“No, Lyonette. I’ll manage the inn.”

The [Waiter]—now a [Head Waiter] by virtue of a promotion—nodded to Lyonette. She waited. The Gnoll looked at her as the inn moved. The Players of Celum were coming in for breakfast and rehearsals, the staff were serving guests…

And Lyonette realized Ishkr had nothing more to say. He had that kind of…incredible, normal competence combined with the ability to not add to someone’s workload that made him so valuable. Drassi would have had opinions. Erin? Erin was chaos.

“Well then, thank you. I’ll be back!”

Lyonette left the inn and walked through the hallway towards the magic door. She passed by a wide-eyed group of teenagers, a few years younger than her.

No—her age, really. Lyonette blinked. They were her age, but they felt younger. She was eighteen. But she looked different than them, her hair tied back, wearing her work clothes. Indeed, they were staring around.

“Look at this place! And we’re in Liscor? Farmer Strongheart was telling the truth! We’ve gotta tell the others!”

They were from Celum. Just—[Farmers], or maybe [Farmhands], from a nearby farm. Lyonette smiled as they hurried towards the door and stared about.

“Hello! The Wandering Inn is open at all times! The door isn’t always set to the Strongheart farm, but if they’re willing, you can wait there to be let through. It’s never more than ten minutes, usually.”

The two teens jumped and stared at Lyonette. One of them ducked his head nervously. The girl curtsied.

“Thank you, Miss! My folks’d love to see this place! There’s a play, right? Can we come back through again? For…free?

“Absolutely. We might ask for a few coppers at some point, but we’ll put up a sign. And the Stronghearts are friends of the inn.”

The [Princess] smiled. Always good to put some thoughts in the heads of people. The two teens looked at each other. The Stronghearts were friends of the inn. They cautiously walked past Lyonette as she walked over to the door. She adjusted it for Liscor, and walked through.

It was another day. Another day, and yet—Lyonette felt like much had changed since yesterday. In more ways than one. And since it had—she had to tell someone about it.

Again, not Erin. Lyonette liked Erin Solstice, she really did. The young woman had saved her from death by exposure in the winter. She’d given Lyonette more chances than she’d deserved. She was a good person, even if she was slightly…Erin.

But Erin had flaws. Her good nature, belief in people, and willingness to accept anyone from Goblins to Antinium was also coupled with a stubbornness that a Minotaur would respect, a short fuse when it came to some matters, an inability to manage money or think politically…

And, recently, an aversion to anything sexual. Well, that had been a rather interesting day. But Lyonette wasn’t discussing Pawn with Erin. But she had to tell someone. So she went to her friends.

Lyonette du Marquin had friends in Liscor. Not many, but they existed. The first of them was running a stall down Market Street. And she was a Gnoll.

Councilwoman Krshia was still working her day-job, even if she participated in Council meetings regularly. They had a schedule. By day, the Council worked, by night they enacted laws, argued, and did what they thought was good for the city.

It was interesting, to see Krshia and Lism hawking goods and talking with their constituents. Both [Shopkeepers] had lines. Their regular customers and people who wanted to put a bee in their ear about some new law…metaphorically.

Lyonette had an actual bee. Apista was currently flying around the Garden of Sanctuary, pollinating flowers, drinking nectar, and getting high on faerie flowers. It was a good life, if lonely for her. She didn’t have a bug-mate.

Krshia Silverfang was hard at work and it was a long line. Mostly Gnolls went to her, and mostly Drakes to Lism, although there was crossover. But Lyonette was at the back of a line of Gnolls. Some of them stared at her, recognized her, and gave her hard looks. Lyonette ducked her head as she stood in the back of the line.

They knew her. The [Thief] who’d caused so much trouble. But no one said anything. Lyonette had been forgiven by both the Watch and Krshia.

“Next! Ah, Tirr, how can I help you today? And if you want to ban Gnolls who are shedding, you will have to speak to someone else, yes? Because that is not a law I am going to fight for…”

Krshia’s voice briskly drifted down the line as Lyonette waited. And it was a funny thing. As the queue moved forwards, Lyonette didn’t talk to the Gnolls who were chatting amongst themselves. She would have liked a book. But neither was the [Princess]…rude.

A certain crazy Human might have gotten by with marching to the front of the line, waving her hands and shouting about some crisis, but Lyonette waited. And when she got to the front of the line, she bowed slightly.

“Good morning, Krshia.”

“Lyonette! Ah, hello!”

Krshia smiled at the [Princess]. It was funny, to think of how they had first met and where they were now. The Gnoll paused, sniffed the air a few times, and then laughed.

No! And it is a most good morning, yes?”

Lyonette blushed as the other Gnolls in line gave her a sideways look. Some sniffed too and stared, perplexed. But Krshia gave Lyonette a knowing smile. The [Princess] coughed.

“Well—it’s not a bad one. Thank you for your help, Krshia. Can I get some of the goods on this list? I’m shopping, but if you have time, I’d be grateful if I could speak to you? After work?”

She dipped her head again. And if she’d had ears, she’d have lowered them. It was—subtly—a show of respect. The other Gnolls watching murmured.

They knew who she was. Even if what they knew was that she was a former [Thief], or that she was Lyonette of The Wandering Inn. But some knew, and Lyonette was being—polite. To Krshia. And because they saw that, it mattered.

Krshia for her part, smiled.

“Of course I have time for you, Lyonette! After my work, certainly. I am only working another hour; I will have my assistant take over.”

“Oh? You have an assistant now?”

Krshia grinned.

“The times must change, yes? Just to sell goods. I run my store as usual, but yes. Let us meet at my apartment then. I have some of what you want. For the rest—try Samikha’s Butchery. You know it? She has some fresh Corusdeer venison, very good. And there was some beef at…”

Lyonette didn’t waste Krshia’s time. She ducked her head again, thanked Krshia, and walked off. And the Gnolls murmured, and a few more resolved to greet her the next day.

Small changes in Liscor. The new construction zone had tons of [Builders] and [Workers] marching towards it, some grumbling about their Human co-workers. A group of rookie Humans in the Watch were marching behind Tkrn. Lyonette saw it all, perhaps more clearly than Erin. She was part of the city. Erin—had her inn.

After an hour, Lyonette had stowed her purchases in Erin’s inn and made the walk to Krshia’s apartment. The Gnoll was already waiting. She spread her arms as Lyonette came in.

“Ah, Lyonette Marquin. So you did it, hrm? And how was it? Did everything go well? Pawn, he came to my store and I gave him some…tips. Did they help?”

She gave Lyonette a wicked look. The Gnoll woman did not beat about the bush. Lyonette blushed again. She sat down on the couch as Krshia made them some tea.

“How’d you know? I thought there wouldn’t be an um—smell…”

“We can smell many things. But it would have been harder. No—you have the look. And I knew what was supposed to happen. Here. Tea. Something to eat?”

“Thank you, I’m fine.”

Lyonette sipped from the spicy tea Krshia liked. The Gnoll woman sat across from her, laughing and joking. But kindly. She was genuinely happy for Lyonette. She listened as Lyonette shared what she was willing to. When she heard about Pawn panicking at the sight of blood and casting [Minor Heal Wounds] she laughed herself off the sofa. Krshia was wiping tears out of her eyes when Lyonette was done.

“Ah, good for you! Now, we must only have Erin relax, yes?”

She nodded at the young woman. Lyonette rolled her eyes.

“Good luck, because I’m not helping you. Honestly, Krshia, I think Erin’s just…scarred from her experiences. Which have been bad, I think. She told me about the Hobgoblin Chieftain she met within the first month of coming here…”

Krshia sobered. She slowly sipped her tea, nodding.

“Yes. Erin Solstice has had many things to grieve. But I think, joking aside, that it is good for her, yes? Well, perhaps it is not something casual for her. But I am happy for you.”

“Thank you for…for talking with me about it. And helping me. I wouldn’t have known about the um—harness and…”

Lyonette turned as red as her hair a third time. Krshia just laughed softly. Lyonette raised her head again.

What was fascinating about their conversation was that even here—she was in a role. It was something Lyonette had learned, both from Krshia talking to her and from observation. Gnolls had a way of communicating like all people did. The way they moved, their ears, tails, their manner of speech…Humans had it in how you bowed, looked at someone. All races did, but Lyonette had learned Gnollish etiquette, or perhaps, body language was a better word for it.

And she was also acting it out, as the younger Gnoll might in a relationship between two females. Krshia was treating her like someone who was both friend and someone in need of mild guidance. It had changed the relationship between the two, made it more solid than a tenuous connection of Lyonette wanting to redeem herself and know more about how to raise Mrsha.

And Lyonette…loved it. She liked the experience, of looking up to a mentor, of being the inferior, the student. A [Princess] was never that. Even her [Tutors] back in Calanfer had known who she was. But Krshia was someone Lyonette truly respected.

“Ah, if you enjoyed it, despite all the awkwardness of a first time, what is there to say? He is not like most males—not at all! But that is good too. I would enjoy someone who doesn’t need to stop but when I feel like it! After Pawn, many males will disappoint you, sadly.”

Krshia laughed. Lyonette had to chuckle. The Gnoll had related stories of her youth and experience to reassure Lyonette. And it had been Krshia that Lyonette had asked for advice when the idea of her and Pawn getting intimate had even popped up.

“Hrm. Strange that love should blossom so. You told me at the beginning you saw him only as a friend. Can you tell me, now that you decided it should be so, why it came to this?”

The Gnoll woman mused. The [Royal Shopkeeper] eyed Lyonette and the [Princess] tried to put it into words. She hadn’t been sure, even until last night. At last, Lyonette nodded.

“I didn’t plan anything, Krshia. Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen—not with all the craziness in the inn. But we had our weekly chats—which turned into twice a week, and then three times—and I showed Pawn how to dance and…”

“You two grew closer?”

“Not just that. It was Pawn…being Pawn. How can I explain it? When the Antinium do something, they do it with everything they have. They don’t know how to be half-hearted. When Pawn loves me, he does. More than any suitor back home.”

All the artificial romance, the odes some [Poet] had written for the [Princes] and [Lords] and [Earls] and so on for her, the gifts or deeds—all of it was fake when you compared it to the genuine thing. And Pawn…he didn’t know deceit. That was why Lyonette had loved him.

It had started with a kiss on his cheek. Only—she hadn’t had to kiss a frog to undo a polymorph curse. Her prince had been right from the beginning.

“As it should be. I am envious. Truly, I wish for a connection like that. For youth, to find one for me. But I have had good relationships. And I can keep myself pleased.”

Krshia smiled at Lyonette. And while she was not mother to Lyonette, as Lyonette was to Mrsha, she was like an older sister or simply an older female friend. One willing to teach Lyonette.

She’d never had that from her mother or her sisters, not like this. Lyonette dipped her head again.

“Thank you, Krshia Silverfang. I’m in your debt again. If I can do anything…”

The Gnoll woman raised a paw.

“Ryoka Griffin paid your debt. And you gave me a class. Erin Solstice gave Brunkr hope—and you—his wish. You have done so much for one not of your tribe—and now yours. Mrsha. And you do me favors. That [Farmer], Wailant Strongheart, was a boon. So too will be Octavia. And the Gnolls who are learning to be [Actors] are grateful. We have no debts between us. We are tribe-sisters.”

The statement made Lyonette’s eyes go misty. She felt her eyes water and brushed at them.

“What? Krshia! That’s—are you sure? Oh no. I’m—”

Only a Gnoll or someone like Lyonette would have known what that meant. Krshia got up, laughing quietly, and put one arm around Lyonette, squeezing. Lyonette wiped her eyes, then cried a bit.

Such days. Who could have imagined they would be like this? Lyonette sniffed as she leaned against Krshia. No debts between sisters. Just give and give. Lean on each other in times of strife, support each other in days of plenty.

It was an honor. And Krshia had delivered it so casually. But how else would a Gnoll do it? She had stated fact and it had been so. Krshia had said this for no other Human. Not for Erin, whom she owed a debt and protected. Not even for Ryoka. She was a friend, but no sister.

Lyonette would have liked to have been a Gnoll. But she rested her hand on Krshia’s shoulder and saw the Gnoll woman’s eyes were a bit wet. And then Lyonette told her friend something else.

“Actually—I leveled up after last night. I think it’s related. But—”

Krshia started laughing. So did Lyonette. The two laughed as they went back to their seats.

“Truly? Give me your class and I will reach Level 50 in a year. Ah, how convenient! But—such is the name, yes? Worldly. Perhaps what you need is to experience all things. Not other men—but learning to bake as you have done. All things. You do have a love for it.”

Lyonette nodded. When had she discovered she loved leveling up? Learning? Growing? It did fit her. She glanced at Krshia.

“Pawn leveled up too. Think that’s related?”

The Gnoll choked on her tea. She coughed, snorted, and shook her head.

“I do not know what Pawn is. But—he is unique. I am just glad for you, Lyonette. When you reach Level 20, we must hold a celebration, yes? Gnolls and the inn. A party worthy of it!”

She patted Lyonette’s knee. The [Princess] smiled. Krshia knew about Pawn’s class. Just like she knew about Lyonette being a [Princess]. The young woman had told her secrets. And in turn—Krshia had told her little tribe-sister some of her secrets.

“I know the Meeting of Tribes is coming, Krshia. I…I’ll miss you.”

Krshia’s eyes softened. She flicked her paw.

“Ah, well, it won’t be long. We’d have set out earlier, but Erin’s door will save us so much time. Four hundred miles of it, and skirting the Bloodfields is the biggest boon of all. There is so much land between Liscor and Pallass. It still boggles my mind. You know, there are cities, Drake ones that are closer to Liscor. I wonder, when the road is done, if we might trade with them as well as Pallass.”

Lyonette nodded. She inhaled slowly.

“Krshia…about your gift to the other tribes. Well—my Skill from this morning is [Magnified Training]. Which does what you think. It’s a Skill for [Soldiers], [Students], you know? I was wondering…could I try using the spellbook?”

Across from her, Krshia Silverfang’s eyes widened. Her brown eyes fixed on Lyonette. And the [Princess] saw the Gnoll’s fur stand up slightly.

“You? Lyonette Marquin? But you are no [Mage].”

“No. But I know you have Mrsha learning from it now and then…”

Krshia had asked permission after the fact. She said it was only now and then, and Lyonette hoped that was true. The [Princess] hesitated.

“I can cast [Light] and a few minor spells. But I was taught in magical theory. Most royals are. So I was thinking…I could try learning spells. I told you, Mrsha’s too young to memorize full spells. But I can cast magic. So, if you’re willing…”

She waited. Even knowing about Ryoka’s gift was a sign of trust that had made them this close. Krshia drummed her paws on the armrest of the couch. And then she slowly nodded.

“For you, Lyonette? Of course. I did not say we were tribe-sisters casually. Come.”

She stood. Lyonette followed her into the room. The Gnoll cautioned her to stay back while she undid the traps and locks. And then—she brought out the tome.

The young woman gasped. She had never seen the book in actuality, just known it was there. But this?

“Calanfer would trade hundreds of thousands of gold pieces’ worth for this, Krshia. Even if it’s only spells from Tier 0 to Tier…what, Tier 4?”

“Tier 3 or Tier 4. I forget myself. I cannot read it. Can you?”

Krshia let Lyonette read it on her bed. The [Princess] squinted at the magical writing.

“…Vaguely. Most [Mages] learn Skills to help them. And to memorize spells. Someone who can cast magic without help, or something that enhances their natural magic is rare.”

“You can do it.”

The Gnoll woman looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] smiled, a bit sadly.

“Superior breeding, my parents would say. Marquin children have natural mana pools that are larger than most people. Let me see this book, though…”

She flipped through the pages. Indeed, Lyonette saw at a glance why Mrsha wouldn’t be learning new spells. This was complex. But at the same time…there was a flow to the instruction that made it seem simpler than most spellbooks. As if, indeed, this book was teaching the spell rather than just listing it without instruction.

“Forget Calanfer. You could sell this to Wistram for one of their Archmages. What are the bookmarks for?”

“Ah—spells Mrsha wanted to try to learn. You see?”

“They look…like nature spells. Hold on, I’m pretty sure that one’s [Stone Armor]. See? There’s an illustration.”

Krshia nodded.

“What do you think?”

“I think…this spellbook is organized by elements. No—wait—spell schools. And that would mean these are Tier 4—or Tier 3—attack spells. And these are…illusions…”

Lyonette was going through the book. Krshia made a quick note.

“And this section?”

“Enchantments.”

Lyonette stared at a page, which was both illustration and word. Magical writing. She paused.

“Krshia—can you let me try to learn this spell? It might be—it looks like it’s a spell I know from home.”

“Which one?”

“Here. If it is—it’s [Silverglow Enchantment]; it makes a sword capable of cutting spirits.”

“Really? That is useful. Against undead, yes?”

“I hear it’s good against Djinn as well. And non-corporeal foes. Or maybe—this one?”

Lyonette wavered. She’d spotted another spell as she went to attack spells.

“[Lightning Bolt]. That’s definitely it.”

“Another good spell. Do you think you can learn it?”

“I don’t know.”

If she could—and if she could, really, which was the best spell to try for? Lyonette stared at the spells again. And she began to get worried. Which one? Which…

Another spell caught her eye. Lyonette paused.

“…How about this one? I’ve heard of [Mages] using it. And it has a number of uses.”

“Hrm? Which one.”

“This. Right here. It’s wind-magic. [Razorwind].”

“…Seems much like [Lightning Bolt]. Except less useful, yes?”

“No, no. It’s Tier 3. But it’s not just sharp wind. It’s got utility. Let me try…learning it. You can compress the wind, use it as a shield. I can always try the other enchantments later.”

“Very well. If you can learn, it has some use here. Go ahead. Hrm. Perhaps a table? Mrsha takes a long time learning.”

“Okay. Here I go.”

Lyonette put the book on the table. She stared at the magical spell. Instantly—her head began to hurt. The magic was trying to embed itself in her head. And her mind was ill-prepared to accept it.

Even so—Lyonette realized the words made a lot more sense than even the Tier 1 and Tier 0 spells her [Tutors] had tried to teach her. Her Skill was working.

It was just that this was Tier 3. The [Princess] felt a trickle from her nose as she tried to memorize.

“Nosebleed. Here. Perhaps you should rest, Lyonette? It has been forty minutes.”

Krshia offered Lyonette a tissue. The [Princess] looked up.

“Forty…? It feels…no. No, I think I can do this. I’m going to try something else. Give another try?”

The Gnoll nodded. And so the [Princess] took a breath. She looked down and whispered.

[Flawless Attempt].

And her mind—focused. Krshia Silverfang saw the young woman’s pupils widen. And she felt something in the air. She looked at Lyonette. And in the closed room, the air began to move. The Gnoll stared at Lyonette. Time ran past the young woman as she read.

Her mind felt focused, as if she’d taken some kind of potion to enhance her concentration. And the magic was revealing itself to her. Imprinting itself in her brain. She raised her hand.

Yes. The wind can be as sharp as a razor. As mutable as thought. More than water. But it changes. Look. You can compress it; turn it into a shield, a weapon. But only for a breath. Concentrate. To know how to make a blade with air, you have to know what it is to cut—

“I need to cut myself. Where’s my sword?”

Lyonette found herself muttering. She felt someone shaking her. And she came to herself with Krshia’s knife in one hand. The Gnoll was holding her arm.

“No. Lyonette?”

She peered worriedly at Lyonette. The [Princess] blinked at her—and she came back into the world.

Two hours had passed. Lyonette let go of the knife, sheepishly.

“I—didn’t mean cut my throat. I just need to know how sharp a blade is. I’ll only be able to create a blade as sharp as something I understand. So the easiest way is to cut yourself. Lightly. I’ll heal it with a potion.”

Krshia stared at Lyonette. The Gnoll looked at the young woman, unnerved. And Lyonette wondered what she’d seen.

“Then—you learned the spell? Just so? Just like that?”

The young woman started.

“What? No. Of course not. I’m not even a tenth of the way there.”

“But then—you are partly there?”

For answer, Lyonette raised her hand. And the air in Krshia’s apartment moved. A gentle breeze touched the two for a moment. Krshia’s eyes went round. Lyonette smiled weakly.

“Told you. It’s utility. I understand how to move the wind weakly. But I’d need to study that at least a dozen more times. And—”

She realized there was something on her nose. She brushed at a tissue gently stuck there. Krshia pointed at it.

“Ah, you had a nosebleed. Just a small one.”

The [Princess] realized her head was aching. She suddenly felt stupid. She had to sit down for a bit.

“Wow. I’m exhausted. I can barely think—”

“But you remember the spell?”

Krshia had more tea and some stamina potion in Lyonette’s cup. The [Princess] nodded.

“I do. I do.

“Your Skill. It is unfair. Give it to me.”

The Gnoll woman held a paw out. Lyonette laughed.

“It’s a [Princess]’ Skill. But—Krshia, that book is incredible. You shouldn’t be able to learn a Tier 3 spell like that, even with my Skills.”

She looked wide-eyed at Krshia. The Gnoll smiled.

“A gift unmatched. One wonders…but that is Ryoka Griffin’s secret. And we shall thank the one called Teriarch. Even if no Archmage in living memory has that name.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Lyonette. She frowned.

“Could I…try to learn that spell again?”

“Lyonette du Marquin. What kind of fool would I be if I did not allow it?”

Krshia gave Lyonette a look over her cup, and snorted softly.

“What madness is this? All these young people, growing like grass about me. By all means, come back and learn.”

“Thank you. But you’re not exactly leveling up slowly yourself?”

The [Royal Shopkeeper] and [Councilwoman] stroked the fur around her chin, and chuckled.

“I suppose not. But still—I cannot help but be envious. I only wish that Mrsha could learn. But she must be the most low-level of [Mages]. As children are. A pity. Even so.”

Lyonette bit her lip, covering it with a sip of tea. The one secret she had was that Mrsha was a [Druid]. Krshia was her sister, but some things you didn’t tell even sisters. Like Erin’s exact level.

Tribe-sisters and Lyonette’s family. Well, they were so close. But the young woman wanted to keep a few of those secrets. Like Erin’s specific tales from her world.

“Enough. Too much for one day! Let us just celebrate. Both this new knowledge, your level, and Pawn. And do tell me—which one of my selection did you use?”

Lyonette laughed as Krshia steered the conversation back. She refused to answer, and after another fifteen minutes, she excused herself. She and Krshia had taken a long time with the studying.

 

—-

 

“Thank you for everything. And yes—definitely. I can take more time off, maybe meet in two days? Tomorrow? Come to the inn and we’ll discuss it—Erin misses you!”

Lyonette said goodbye to Krshia. The Gnoll woman wasn’t going back to her stall, but she had a discussion with some of her people before the Council meeting. And while she did that, Lyonette went to visit her second friend.

Not to talk about sex. She’d get kicked out in a second if she tried that. Watch Captain Zevara probably wasn’t as uptight about sex as Erin. But she could certainly use someone in her life. Sometimes, Lyonette thought that was why she was so grumpy. And—because she had to deal with Erin. And Relc. That couldn’t help.

“Hi, Ishkr. How’s the inn?”

“Fine. We’ve got some [Farmers] from around Celum.”

The Gnoll nodded to a group of people who included the two teens she’d met this morning. They were staring wide-eyed at the Players of Celum. She smiled.

“Any trouble?”

“Nope.”

Thank the throne for people like Ishkr. Lyonette collected some pre-prepared objects from the kitchen and headed out again.

“Excuse me, is the Watch Captain here? I’d like a meeting.”

The Desk Sergeant was a Drake. He eyed Lyonette, but he knew the score. He waved Lyonette up. She slipped him a tart.

Erin was good at sugary foods. Ironically, she wasn’t a huge fan of eating the stuff she made, but she knew her audience. The peach tarts were a bit pricey—mainly because of the peaches. But Pallass imported food from Oteslia, so it wasn’t as expensive as getting it anywhere else. And these ones were…

“Bribes again, Miss Marquin?”

Watch Captain Zevara stared at the little tarts on her desk. Lyonette had put them in a little wooden box; they couldn’t exactly be bagged.

“I’m just giving some food to a friend. And testing them out before we sell them. What do you think? See the box. I’m thinking about paying to have some made. Just a [Carpenter] engraving a bit onto it.”

“Hm. Well, I suppose you could sell them. Who did this one?”

“A…[Carpenter]. Pawn. He’s a friend.”

Zevara eyed Lyonette.

“Oh, the Antinium. I forget. Say—how’s it going with the Antinium at the inn? I only ask because Klbkch has been a bit off lately.”

Lyonette coughed on her tart. The Watch Captain paused in reaching for one and eyed her.

Zevara was, as always, writing at her desk. She spent a lot of time making reports; Lyonette gathered it was a Drake thing. They liked their paperwork.

“What? Pawn? He’s fine. Um—Klbkch isn’t doing well?”

“…No. There was that idiocy Relc cooked up. Well, it was fairly good for morale and apparently Klbkch doesn’t have—why am I talking to you about this?”

“Because you can’t talk to anyone else? Have a tart. I have more things to eat if you’d like some. Have you had lunch?”

The Drake [Watch Captain] looked resigned as Lyonette offered her a little shepherd’s pie. Lyonette smiled proudly.

“I made it myself. Without [Flawless Attempt], but I think it went decently.”

“You keep doing this, Miss Lyonette.”

“Well, I have to pay off my debt to the city to get my things back. And…we are friends, right?”

A [Charming Smile]. The Watch Captain eyed Lyonette as it bounced off her and sighed. But she did inspect the pie.

“I had lunch in the pris—already. You know, I disapprove of this. And if it comes to it, I’ll weigh my bias against any decision or relegate it to someone impartial. Either way, it won’t help you.”

Lyonette sighed. Straight-laced as usual. But she nodded at Zevara.

“Of course. This is just food. You know I’ll give it to Relc if you don’t take it.”

“Well, I suppose I could use it for dinner. I don’t get time to cook much…thank you.”

The Drake coughed, embarrassed. The two sat together, and eventually, Zevara relaxed a bit. It always took a little bit.

But here was Lyonette’s second friend in Liscor. She had two, by the way. Which was good. And Zevara was a contrast to Krshia. She was almost always at work. And she was strict, always assessing herself. Also—

“How’s your breathing these days?”

“Hm? Fine. That tonic that the Centaur, Palt, gave me, works well. I had to force the payment on him. Damn [Mages]. As bad as Terandrians with bribes. Stop pushing the plate towards me. I’ll have a tart if I want one.”

—She didn’t do small-talk well. But that was refreshing too. If Lyonette longed for someone she could look up to, respect, she also liked straight-talkers. She mentally reset herself.

“Right, sorry. So—anything new at work?”

Zevara stopped. And she abruptly put down the report she was looking over. And her face was grave. Serious.

“Yes. Bearclaw. I told you about the rumors about her last week?”

Lyonette’s smile wavered.

“Yes. What happened?”

Watch Captain Zevara paused. She looked at Lyonette, then cursed.

“Ancestors damn it. What’s in those tarts?”

“Peaches. Sugar. Why…?”

The Watch Captain grabbed the plate. Then she reached back, and came out with a bottle. And two shot glasses. She poured the Firebreath Whiskey into both.

“Here. It’s all I’ve got.”

She shoved a glass towards Lyonette. The [Princess] stared. This was unusual.

“Zevara?”

The Drake glared.

“If you’re tempting me, I’ll have some. And I’m also having a drink.”

“Isn’t that, um…discouraged on duty, Watch Captain?”

Lyonette had been teasing Zevara, but that was an unspoken game they played. The Watch Captain had never taken the bait like this before. But Zevara just grunted as she lifted the glass to her lips.

“It’s that or ordering the entire Watch to get out there, arrest Bearclaw, Mister Soot, and every gang member in the city and toss them into the dungeon. Or just find a long enough length of rope.”

“What happened?”

“Two Senior Guards are dead. Their bodies were found two days ago. I haven’t told anyone, but word is spreading. We knew they were missing for a week. But we only found their…remains now. 4th Company was clearing out a Shield Spider nest. They found the badges.”

The glass paused at Lyonette’s lips. The [Princess] felt cold.

“…Bearclaw?”

“Yes. I know it’s her. But—we hauled her in for questioning again. That Ancestors-damned—that slippery—she was smoking a cigar the entire time. And she lied. To our faces.”

Zevara slammed down a drink, filled her glass, and took another shot. Lyonette looked at her.

“How? I thought you told me Klbkch and Relc were investigating her—”

“They were. But remember the time when I had to put Relc in the inn?”

“No—”

“Yes. We put a second pair on her. They vanished within their two hour reconnaissance period.”

“But how? Did she…?”

“I. Don’t. Know. Best guess is that she ambushed them. They were new Senior Guards. But they were good. Just…Sheikhe and Laven. I notified their families yesterday. But we couldn’t get Bearclaw.”

“Why? You used truth spells…”

Zevara caught herself in filling the glass a fourth time. She grabbed a tart and ate furiously.

“Of course! But she evaded the spells. Told us to our faces she’d never even seen them. And she didn’t know where they died. If I could, I’d throw her in jail until she rots. But the law says I can do nothing but investigate. And I know she did it. Somehow, she lied. Twice now, that’s happened with our truth stones. This is good.”

“Thanks.”

Zevara didn’t make Lyonette feel as good about the world as Krshia. The Watch Captain went on.

“Serious criminals. First Regrika Blackpaw, now…it doesn’t help they’re Gnolls.”

“How so?”

Zevara shrugged self-consciously.

“Just me thinking on it. Feels like it’s confirming…in other cities Gnolls get hauled in more often. I’ve heard other Watch Captains say Gnolls turn more to crime than Drakes. I didn’t believe it; Liscor’s big names are all Drake, but these two outsiders? No—”

She sighed, rubbing at her brows.

“I’ve kept Liscor fair, which is why the Gnoll population is what it is and the Watch is trusted.”

“Can’t you ask anyone else if…sorry, I know I’m not helping.”

The Drake shook her head, but not in denial.

“We tried that. Of course, we did. Mister Soot was pinned at the same point as Bearclaw around the time she was unobserved. So we tried to grab him to ask what happened. But…”

“He’s dead?”

The Watch Captain blinked.

“If that happened, Liscor’s criminals would be in uproar. No. Mister Soot…has gone missing. He doesn’t want to be brought in. And that tells me everything I need to know.”

“So? What can you do? If you know she did it…”

Zevara clenched one fist.

“The law is the law. I’m doing everything I can, Lyonette. Between you and me—I know it’s her. But she’s protected. I go after her and break any law, and I’ll hear it. Just this morning, someone was complaining that Bearclaw was questioned twice. Already, they’re spinning the Gnoll angle. Bastard. It’s Soot, or someone else. They’re good at shouting loud. At least I have the Council on my side.”

Lyonette was nodding, her mind racing ahead of the conversation. They were both working at their jobs, and Lyonette sometimes talked to Zevara about this. She wondered if Krshia knew about Bearclaw. Surely so. What did the Gnolls think? Zevara went on.

“I have my best people watching her every step. Unfortunately, we can’t follow her into buildings. And there are rat warrens in the city, even if we try to get rid of them. I don’t know what she wants or when she’ll move. And when she does—if I’m too late, someone dies.”

She sighed. And looked tired. The [Princess] stared at Zevara.

“I’m sorry about the two Senior Guards.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry to burden you with this. Keep it quiet, obviously. The official word is the Senior Guards ran into a Hollowstone Deceiver. Three of them, so they couldn’t run. Freak accident. I had to tell their families that. And Bearclaw was offering condolences.

Zevara’s eyes blazed. She was also smoking. Lyonette coughed and Zevara looked up. She stopped.

“Enough. I’ll drink enough that my breath turns into flames if I don’t take my mind off it. You—what’s happened?”

She eyed Lyonette. And suddenly the [Princess] was in the hot seat. Zevara had been a [Guardswoman] and then a Senior Guardswoman before becoming Watch Captain. One of Liscor’s best. She had put away the Drake gang leader before Mister Soot—or rather, got him exiled.

She had a history. And she was sharper than Lyonette liked, especially about Lyonette’s past. She knew more than she had ever discussed with Lyonette. She’d had Lyonette’s artifacts appraised by Montressa.

“Well…I leveled up. And gained a new Skill.”

“Really? Which one?”

“[Magnified Training].”

Zevara’s brows bounced up.

Really? That’s useful. I wish I could slap that on most of my [Guards]. You still training with the sword?”

“That’s right.”

“Hm. Good. Anything precipitate the level up? I remember you saying how hard it was to level in your…‘[Barmaid]’ class. Which, obviously, has that Skill.”

The [Princess] winced. But only internally. She schooled her face into a polite, rueful smile and shrugged delicately.

“Well, I’m an [Inn Manager] these days. Didn’t I tell you?”

The female Drake’s face never moved.

“Ah, of course. You didn’t say. We should have celebrated. Which is why I heard about the celebration in the inn. Congratulations.”

“It was right after the Creler attack. Not a time to celebrate. But thank you.”

Both women looked at each other, Lyonette with her faint smile—Zevara not even going to false pretenses. It was a game both enjoyed. The Drake’s lips twitched a bit.

“Fine. But what precipitated you reaching…”

“Level 18.”

“Huh. I’d imagine that’s good for a [Baroness], right?”

This time Lyonette was ready. She didn’t move.

“Hm?”

“Nothing. So? The precipitating factor?”

“Oh. Um…nothing much.”

Lyonette’s hesitation made Zevara look up sharply. She narrowed her eyes.

“Really. Nothing?”

“…Do you want to know?”

The Drake’s eyelids flickered. She wasn’t an idiot. She opened and closed her mouth.

“Hm. That would imply…no. Wait. But…”

Lyonette found herself turning red as Zevara looked her up and down. The Drake was a bit drunk, but she had constitution Skills. She bit into a tart as she thought.

“That implies…but who are you seeing? It wouldn’t be…wait…didn’t you once hint that…”

“Zevara, it’s really—”

The Drake’s eyes widened. She choked on her tart.

“The Antin—Pawn?

She looked at Lyonette. Zevara exhaled a bit of fire, cooking the tart. She coughed as Lyonette spoke.

“Look, what happened was—”

“Stop. I don’t want to know. Stop. Right there. Don’t tell me. Don’t make excuses. I don’t want to…wait. I thought—”

“Actually…”

Zevara looked at Lyonette. She wavered between curiosity and…

“No. Don’t tell me. Ancestors.”

Her reaction made Lyonette a bit angry. The [Princess] cleared her throat, suppressing her blush.

“You know, it’s not something I’m ashamed of.”

“Of course not. How did Miss Solstice take it?”

“Er…”

“Mhm. Don’t tell me she—

“No. She’s actually against it in general. Sex, that is.”

Zevara actually laughed as she went to fill up her cup. She was doing it drip by drip, seeming to be trying to avoid from filling it up that high.

“Now that’s funny! For someone as open-minded as her, well…good for you. I suppose it’s not that odd. Klbkch has been propositioned more than once, you know.”

Really?

“Yup. Well, not recently. But he’s been here a decade and people still remember him fighting off the Necromancer. He’s intelligent, wealthy, a Senior Guardsman—and, well, the insect thing didn’t put off some Drakes and Gnolls. But still. He doesn’t have…don’t tell me he’s an exception…? Why are you making me ask this?”

“Actually, you can solve that with some of Krshia’s, uh, special goods. Do you know about…? Zevara…?”

The Firebreath Whiskey was overflowing onto the table. The Drake stared at Lyonette. Then she put the bottle back up, stared at the bottle. She shoved herself back from the desk.

“I’m leaving.”

“Zevara!”

The Drake wasn’t kidding. She walked out of her office, shaking her head. She headed down the stairs and Lyonette chased after her.

It wasn’t just theatrics. Zevara strode past the desk and into the Watch’s training yard. Lyonette, following, saw the Drake stalking past groups of training Watch recruits. Mostly Drakes and Gnolls, but some Humans were noticeably among the ranks of the rookies.

Watch Captain present! Salute!

The Drake on duty was Jeiss. The Councilman was also a Senior Guardsman and even if he had his other job interfering with his patrols, he could certainly teach. He was considered the best bladesman in the Watch—aside from maybe Klbkch and Zevara herself. Zevara waved a claw.

“At ease. I’m just here to train. How’re the recruits?”

Lyonette saw the Junior Guards were being drilled in basic combat. Those with combat classes were being taught the law or led on patrols, but Liscor’s Watch demanded a level of proficiency from most Guards in a fight.

Not necessarily too much; most Guards just had to hold their own in a fight. Subduing monsters and high-level nuisances were jobs for Senior Guards, who were specialists. The average competence of a [Guard] was dependent on the city’s standards.

And by the looks of it, Zevara had raised the bar. The Drake had a training sword and she was demonstrating a fight with Jeiss as Lyonette walked around the watching trainees and regular [Guards]. She didn’t recognize anyone but Jeiss and Beilmark; she didn’t actually know that many [Guards].

That was almost a failing, because the Watch numbered in the thousands. And many were watching as Zevara and Jeiss squared off.

“You look a bit off, Watch Captain.”

Jeiss had a glint in his eye. He looked angry—so did many of the [Guards]. Not at Zevara. The entire Watch had to know what had happened.

“Never mind me, Jeiss. I hear we have weights from Magus Grimalkin. Do you have the recruits on them?”

Zevara lanced out with her sword. Jeiss parried and slashed; she was already stepping back.

“Not yet, Captain. I’d prefer them knowing how to fight. By the way—”

He stepped in. Lyonette saw his blade flicker.

[Double Cut]! But Zevara actually blocked both cuts! One high, one low, simultaneously. She still fell back, shaking out her claw. The watchers murmured. Both Drakes were good!

“Point. Take notes, guards! It’s not all fancy fighting like Jeiss dishes out. Sometimes you’re fighting with less than a foot of space between you and someone else, behind a bar. And sometimes—”

She blew smoke straight at Jeiss. He coughed, swearing, backing up and slashing with the wooden sword. When his vision cleared, he leapt back, looking for Zevara.

She wasn’t advancing on him. Instead, the Drake had bent. She had a bit of the training yard’s grit in one claw. She threw it in his eyes.

Ancestors damn it—

Zevara poked Jeiss in the chest as he swore with the tip of her sword. She turned to the audience who was laughing at the sight. The Drake’s glower shut them up.

“That would be the end of Senior Guardsman Jeiss if I’d had a real blade. And yes, he was going easy on me, but be careful. Your enemies don’t fight fair. The fairest fight you’ll get is a monster. And even then, there are the Raskghar.”

The Watch sobered. Zevara turned.

“Sorry, Jeiss.”

“No, it’s a good demonstration. I have to watch my eyes around you, Watch Captain. Ancestors. Beilmark, pass me some water? The rest of you—we’re going to practice not getting blinded like I was!”

Lyonette heard groans from his trainees. Zevara for her part leaned on her blade. She was rapidly sobering, or she had a liver like a [Drunkard]’s. She looked up as Lyonette approached.

“Are you still practicing? Mind teaching me something?”

Zevara glanced at the practice sword the [Princess] was carrying.

“I never actually asked how good you were.”

“I learned from a good fighter. But it’s mostly practice. Yvlon taught me some tricks. But I could practice.”

“Then show me.”

The Drake leaned on her sword, not even bothering to move. Lyonette raised her brows. She lifted her sword, paused. She didn’t have [Flawless Attempt]. But Zevara was underestimating—

 

—-

 

“…Ow.”

Thirty minutes later, Lyonette picked up her sword again. Her wrist ached from where Zevara had slapped it with her sword. It wasn’t the only ache; Lyonette had bruises.

Zevara had none. She leaned on her sword.

“Not bad. But don’t try that in a fight.”

“Can you at least lie for me?”

“Hm. You’re pretty good with a sword. How’s that?”

The [Princess] scowled. But she had to admit—Zevara had trounced her hard. She hadn’t even used a Skill.

“I thought I could at least make you use one Skill. And you’re a [Warrior] class. Is there really that much of a gap between [Warriors] and non-[Warriors]?”

“I did use a Skill. Just one. The only one I need for most fights against civilians or criminals.”

“Really? But I didn’t see…”

The Drake snorted. The Watch was sparring or training—and some were indeed using the weights that Grimalkin had given the Watch. The Watch Captain nodded at Lyonette.

“[Lawbreaker’s Enemy]. It gives me an advantage in all ways against criminals.”

“But I’m not…oh.”

Lyonette blushed. Zevara looked at her.

“It doesn’t take into account your status, just—whether you break laws. It would be even stronger on someone else, but I’m faster and stronger. Against you. It works poorly on Jeiss. But he did break a few rules.”

“Thanks, Watch Captain. But Miss Lyonette isn’t that bad. She could be a [Guardswoman] with only a month or two’s hard work.”

The Drake grunted at Zevara. He’d been watching the exchange. The Watch Captain nodded.

“She might make the cut, Jeiss. She’s got [Magnified Training].”

“What a waste on her.”

“Thank you, Guardsman Jeiss.”

The Drake blushed slightly.

“Apologies, but it’s such a useful Skill. It enhances your training. You could probably try to learn a Skill with it.”

Lyonette paused in drinking from some water.

“Learn a Skill?”

She’d heard about that. Jeiss nodded and explained as Zevara took a draft of water.

“[Warriors] can learn a Skill. Like, say, [Power Strike]. Or a sword art, and so on. It doesn’t always manifest that way. But if you practice certain moves, it can happen.”

Really? Then why doesn’t everyone…?”

The Drake laughed.

“Leveling is faster. It’s more like a…perk for hard work. You could expect to learn a skill from years of hard work! I suppose you could…upgrade certain Skills from practice. That’s how my [Speed Slash] turned into [Double Cut]. But you could aim for a new Skill in a year.”

“True. Keep practicing, Lyonette. Come here and I’ll hit you with a sword. That cheers me up. Relc’s too slippery.”

Zevara nodded at Lyonette. The [Princess] bit her lip on the fact that Erin had learned her Skill in a day. But that was Erin. Normal rules were like butter to Erin. You could take it or leave it or put it on toast, but it wasn’t an impediment to her.

“…Maybe I’ll use [Flawless Attempt] to practice. In between learning magic.”

“Magic is also good. We could use more [Mages], Watch Captain.”

“I’m working on it, Jeiss. We don’t exactly have great teachers and the average recruit doesn’t have magical abilities or the time to learn. I’ve got options. Give me time.”

Zevara sighed. Jeiss nodded.

“Too bad we don’t have combination Skills either. That would be useful against a monster.”

“Oh. Combination Skills?”

Lyonette paused. Zevara looked over.

“It’s not something you learn. It’s more like—an accident. If four [Warriors] use [Speed Slash] in combat, for instance. They can trigger it. Like combination spells. Did you see those damn [Mages] during the battle with Belchan’s army, Jeiss?”

“Sure did, Watch Captain. That was a rainbow combination spells of some kind. Damn, but I’d hate to fight them. Let alone any of the King of Destruction’s monsters.”

“We did fight one, remember? Wait—you weren’t there.”

“Gazi the Omniscient.”

The people around Zevara and Jeiss stopped. The Watch Captain nodded.

“And she took us apart, and the Gnolls. Even Relc. Well—that’s an outside threat.”

“Not the only one. High-level bastards keep coming.”

The Senior Guardsman’s tone was dark. Zevara looked at him. And around at the other [Guards]. They went back to work, but they’d been listening. So, the Watch Captain raised her voice as Lyonette applied a bit of healing potion to her bruises. Otherwise Pawn would just worry and heal her.

Gather around, everyone!

The people in the training grounds looked up. They filed over, Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans, standing in their little knot. Amusingly, around Lyonette; they seemed to think she was one of them. The [Princess] listened as Zevara raised her voice.

“Listen up. I want to tell you all something. Everyone here. The Watch is growing. We’re getting new people in. Humans. Maybe even Garuda or Dullahans. Dead gods, I’d take a Centaur if he offered, even with all those damn puffers.”

“What about a Minotaur, Watch Captain?”

There was a laugh, a bit nervous. Zevara turned her head.

“Anyone, Guardsman Jeiss. Anyone. Because Liscor is growing. You all heard the [Architect] is on the way?”

There were nods. Zevara gestured towards the distant walls.

“Well, that’s just the start. We’re going to be a bigger city. Which means money, more people—hopefully something to say we built, with the Antinium, but because we were here. Together. But with that comes more people. More monsters. More crime. Some of it’s already come this way.”

Bearclaw. No one said it out loud. Zevara paused.

“We’re going to train harder. New recruits, Senior Guards—and everyone in between. No one dies on my Watch. Got it?”

There was a murmur.

“Yes, Watch Captain!”

Jeiss saluted. And Lyonette saw Zevara nodding to the other [Guards]. The [Princess] saw the Watch Captain speaking to new recruits. Stiffly, but—

There was leadership. Morale, of her own kind. Lyonette slipped away as Zevara got back to work. But—she looked at the Watch. And she saw it there.

Anger. Their city had been invaded. This wouldn’t stand. And she worried. And she should have been worrying.

Because today was the day Klbkch visited The Wandering Inn.

 

—-

 

The Watch knew. And their anger kept the streets quiet of crime. Casual [Thieves] lay low. [Thugs] hid from the storm.

But among the kind of people close to Bearclaw, there was no cessation. They had heard. Senior Guardsman died. And they laughed, and beheld the cracks in the system. The city.

And what slithered among the cracks, widening them? Bearclaw. She was being watched. Three Senior Guard pairings were keeping her under watch at all times.

Not this one. They walked down the streets on regular patrol. One was angry. The other?

Far beyond that. Klbkch’s body was still surprising to many who saw it. A slim Antinium, taller than all but a Soldier, and with two arms, a leaner body and compact frame compared to regular Antinium had replaced the affable Worker form.

Senior Guardsman Klbkch looked…better. More humanoid. And he was faster. Stronger. Not that many had seen him fight. Ever since his death, Klbkch had never been wounded. Not in any struggle. He had been Guardsman Klbkch.

And then, Revalantor Klbkch. Revalantor. One who had found the purpose of his Hive. Who ushered that purpose forwards. And he had found it in the Individual Workers. And then—the Painted Antinium.

It seemed that Klbkch’s star had only risen from the day he had died. But…then why did he stride down the streets, hunched, tense? Why did even seasoned criminals flinch away as they walked through the shadowed streets?

Perhaps because their [Dangersense] screamed at them. If they crossed him today, they died. The Antinium, usually the calm, controlled half of the duo, walked as if he wanted a fight.

And you had to remember. Always remember what Manus remembered. What Zel Shivertail had known. It was easier, these days, to look at Klbkch’s taller silhouette, the way his gaze moved, impassive, staring.

He was more than just Senior Guardsman Klbkch. More than Revalantor Klbkch. He was Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium. He had many names. And one was Klbkch the Slayer.

And angry? Who could remember seeing Klbkch in a fury? Few. That was why he had been partnered with the Drake who strode next to him. But they forgot, again. The other reason in those first days had been that Relc was the only one who could have stopped him.

“I just don’t get it. I wonder—why we weren’t put on watching Bearclaw? I asked Captain Z.”

The voice that echoed down the street was cheerful. Cheerful, deep—casual—but even Relc had an edge in his voice. He was angry. Klbkch turned his head. And his voice was flat.

“Because you would not have waited. You would engage Bearclaw without evidence.”

“Yeah. And?”

“And I would let you.”

Relc paused. He looked at his longtime partner, Klbkch. And he paused as the two turned a corner. There was no need for either to particularly keep a lookout. Any criminality was making tracks away from them. And [Pickpockets] five streets away were hearing of the two on patrol and deciding to replace the coin pouches. On a day like today, anyone caught would be losing teeth.

“I’m sensing a bit of tension, Klbkch. You mad about Bearclaw too? Or is this the ‘sorry-you-don’t-have-a-thing-party?’ I said I stand by it.”

“No. You are a fool, Relc. This isn’t about Bearclaw. This is a matter which concerns my Hive.”

“Oh. Right. The other Antinium. You said. I still don’t get the problem. They’re fine, aren’t they?”

Klbkch looked at Relc. He shifted his grip on his sword.

“They are disobeying my orders. They are leaving the Hive. Not just one. First the inn—”

“That was hilarious. I told you, Klb, buddy, it was just—”

The burly Drake paused. One of the Antinium’s swords had moved ever-so-slightly in its sheathes. And Relc felt a slight bell ringing in his head.

[Dangersense]. The Drake hesitated. Something was off. Klbkch didn’t act like this. Relc hadn’t brought up the issue before. But it occurred to him it might be important. Someone could get cut, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want it to be him.

“Klb, talk to me. We’re partners. What’s the problem? Insubordination. You know that happens. Like, what if we were in the army? You know [Soldiers] break the rules. Sometimes some of them get drunk. Liscor’s army, hah, well, we have a lot of hard-tails, but it happens. And you discipline them—hard—but it happens. What’s the issue?”

Klbkch stopped in the street. He turned to Relc, and his mandibles opened.

“The issue is that Antinium do not break rules! We are not Drakes or Gnolls. They are disobeying my orders. They need—discipline. And I do not know how to manage them. Teach them. All of them have flaws. Belgrade, Anand, Yellow Splatters—Pawn. I do not want to manage them.”

He slammed the blades further into their sheathes. Relc paused. Klbkch was angry. This called for a pep talk. Normally he got talks. But he had to do right by Klbkch. So, think. What would Klbkch say to…Klbkch?

“Look, maybe this is a new problem. But those Ant-guys, they’re new too, right? So they need a bit of teaching. You can do it. I believe in you.”

The Drake held up a thumb-claw and grinned. Klbkch stared at Relc. He went back to walking down the street. Relc strode to catch up.

“I am not their…instructor.

“You’re a good leader, Klb. What’re you talking about? Zevara’s given you more commendations than anyone else. Guards love you. You’re better at this guarding thing than me.”

The Antinium shook his head. Not denying the truth. That was objectively true.

“That is different. They are not Antinium. The Antinium do not need training. They should not. But these are not True Antinium. They are…wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The muttering bothered Relc. So too did discussing the Antinium. It was one of those things they had never brought up. What happened if a Third Antinium War began. The Drake hesitated. Think, think…

“What’s wrong, Klbkch? The Antinium look pretty good to me. I saw them taking back Liscor during Skinner and during the Goblin Lord. Heck, Face-Eater moths too. The Black Tide! Go! Whoo!”

Some of the people were giving them very odd looks. Relc shifted, awkwardly. Klbkch looked at him.

“They are not True Antinium. Just copies.”

“…Riiiight. Because they’re…worse?”

Relc felt in his belt pouch for something to write on. What had Captain Z told him? If Klbkch ever talked about his Hive, write it down. Not that he had in a decade. This was the first time. But Klbkch was definitely off. The Antinium paused, and muttered.

“They’re all defective. But they were supposed to be restored. Reconnected. But they just broke differently. Even the ones you think of as Antinium are wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong…”

That was five wrong’s. Might be a problem here. Relc cleared his throat.

“Um. How? Soldiers look good. Nightmares on the battlefield, right? I fought some, well, you know how it is. No hard feelings, right?”

He debated another thumbs-up and decided not to. Klbkch looked at him.

“No. They are inferior to True Antinium. Even Soldiers. Soldiers can…break. Flee a battle or lose cohesion. Due to fear.

Relc paused.

“Yeah. Imagine that. [Soldiers] running away because they don’t want to die? What’s the world coming to?”

They would never break if they were True Antinium. They would march into hell a thousand times. They were born of it. As was I. These ones would never have survived the corruption.

A whisper. Relc’s scales crawled. Ancestors, that sounded like an army of the King of Destruction’s best unit, the Dreamers of Reim. He looked at Klbkch.

The Antinium looked like he was breaking. But—his hands were so steady. He looked at Relc for a second, kept walking. The Drake took a second.

There was something dangerous there. Something close to the look Relc had seen in dying [Soldier]’s eyes who wouldn’t stop even when you stabbed them through the heart. The kind of monsters he had met on the battlefield. The reason he had quit.

Not breaking, then. Murderous.

“Klbkch, maybe we need a drink. Why not? You and I have done it a few times. Let’s relax. Take a load off.”

“I have work. Now—and then a patrol tonight.”

“Right, double shift. You took over for Sehsi. Well—er—”

Relc was really trying. But what could you say to Klbkch? His Antinium were all wrong. What could Relc say? ‘Tough luck, buddy?’ ‘Hope they turn out better?’

Maybe Klbkch just needed to cool down. Normally, Relc would suggest a drink. Or a visit to a brothel. Neither really was working out so he decided to drop it.

After some thought, Relc decided not to let Klbkch in on the big, amazing thing he was part of. Not that he didn’t want to do right by Klbkch. But making a bit of coin on the side didn’t seem to be the Antinium’s highest priority.

“Our break ends in ten minutes. We will return to the barracks now. I am going to visit The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice has invited me. I will listen to her. Perhaps she can allay my…reservations.”

That was all Klbkch said. He sounded more stable at that. But he liked Erin. They both did. Relc nodded, relieved.

“Hey, Klb, great idea. I’m going there myself. I’ll see you there, huh?”

“Perhaps.”

Klbkch marched off with Relc towards the barracks. The Drake exhaled. It was coming to evening. Problem solved! Klbkch would get to Erin, cool down, and maybe stop being so tense. Relc was trying, but it was hard being as considerate as he was.

The former [Sergeant] stretched as he signed off work. He didn’t have a night patrol. He looked at the [Guardswoman] on duty.

“Hey, Beilmark. You wanna hear how to make more coin?”

The Gnoll Senior Guardswoman looked up.

“Relc. You pitched your stupid thing to me yesterday on patrol. I’m not interested. It sounds like too much work.”

“What? Nah. You get returns! Hey, you were all with me on handing out copies of the Antinium sex story.”

Relc kept his voice low. Still, Klbkch twitched as he stowed his gear. Beilmark eyed Klbkch.

“That was different. This isn’t interesting.”

“Fine. I’ll go find some people before I visit the inn. Erin says there are peach tarts. Mm.”

“Hm. There are. Miss Lyonette brought some to Watch Captain Zevara. They smelled good.”

“Really? Damn. I’d better hurry up!”

Relc hurried out of the Watch House. Normally, he’d be already at the inn. Klbkch was certainly striding that way. But today—Relc had another mission. And he’d never have partaken of any extra-curricular work, but this was a special case. This was money.

“Hey, Kelli. Kelli! You’re off-duty, right? Give me a minute—no, five. I’ve gotta show you something.”

A Drake [Guardswoman] going off-duty sighed as she turned to face the Drake [Guardsman]. She turned, resigned.

“Relc. If this is the Antinium sex thing, I laughed at that once. It gets old. What is it?”

“Not the sex thing, Kelli. This is actually good. For everyone! How would you like to make some coin?”

The [Guardswoman] raised her brows. She looked quickly at Relc. But he wasn’t the kind of [Guard] to pursue illegal activities. Not only did Zevara make her Watch swear on truth spell that they weren’t criminal each month (a tradition among Drake City Watches), Relc just…wasn’t that kind of Drake. Lazy, rude, thoughtless, but never criminal.

“…Okay. You have me interested. This had better not be anything stupid, though.”

“Nothing like that. I’m serious, Kelli. Listen—this is…hold on. I have a brochure.”

Relc dug around in his belt pouch. He came out with a folded, colored bit of paper.

“Okay, so the way it works is—you give me money—”

“Hah!”

“No, wait! You give me money, and I send the money to this organization. They’re funding high-level adventurers.”

Relc waved his claws. Kelli paused.

“Wait, what? You don’t keep the money?”

“No. And the best part is—you get the money back.

“You’re making no sense.”

“Darn, I always get this part wrong. Let me explain. Here, read this. It says what I’m saying.”

Relc scratched at his neck-spines. He handed the colorful brochure to Kelli. She read, intrigued, as he went on.

“It’s ‘high-investment yield’—no, wait—‘high-yield investment’ in adventuring teams, [Mage] research, and so on. On other continents, even! You give money to the fund, and whenever there’s a breakthrough—and there are, trust me—you get money back.”

“What? A fund for…adventurers? Why do they need gold?”

The Drake looked blank. Relc grinned.

“It’s the newest thing. I know you haven’t heard about it, but it’s spreading like wildfire. Someone from Pallass set me onto it. This Garuda chick I knew. Not a chick, but…anyways.”

He coughed, and went on.

“Okay, so the way it works is that a lotta high-level people are making amazing stuff. Sage’s Grass? An [Alchemist] made that. New spells? [Mages]. Adventurers go into dungeons and get loot. But they all need money, right?”

“Right. Actually…that makes sense. I never thought about it that way.”

Relc was grinning and nodding.

“See? Mostly, they have to work to get to that point. But what if they were funded? At least, the good ideas? That’s what someone’s doing. And it doesn’t have to be one rich person! So a bunch of people are pooling their coin—just a bit from each person, and giving it to this big fund. And it’s being managed. It’s called…investment.

“…That word exists, Relc.”

“I know, but it’s this concept. Anyways—you get paid depending on how much you put in. I have contracts here…and it’s all recorded by [Scribes] and stuff. And you get money for signing other people up. It all adds up to your payout—and it’s monthly!”

“Wow. So—it pays?”

Relc was grinning, genuinely delighted to be putting people onto it.

“You give money, and you’ll get it back, especially if you help sign up more people. There’s actually an enlistment bonus—sign up eight people and your money’s back! And you get payouts from what you invested as well! Look! I’ve signed up thirty people and look how much I made!”

He reached for a money pouch and showed Kelli. Gold. She blinked at three, fat gold coins.

“Wait, you made that?”

“Sure did. It’s a gold coin per ten people, and that’s on top of the money I made back. And I’m getting a monthly payout of fifteen silver. I know, not a lot, but I’m going to add to the money I put in and get more back. So? Whaddya say? Sounds great, right?”

“It sounds amazing? But why isn’t everyone on top of it?”

Relc glanced around surreptitiously.

“To tell you the truth…I’ve only been sharing it with people I like. You know? Getting them a head start. Because the enlistment bonus is real. I mean, that gold? That was put in my claws by the Merchant’s Guild. They’re actually offering it. The Guildmaster was all over it.”

“Really?”

The burly Drake nodded. His tail was wagging with excitement.

“Believe it. I hear the Merchant’s Guilds around the world are getting on it, which is why I want to move fast. Get more gold, you know? But it’s gonna be great. Well, it’s a new concept. Brilliant stuff, you know? Imagine a Gold-rank team being…crowdfunded by people to buy the best gear available? Crowd funding, that’s what it is.”

The Drake woman was nodding with Relc. This was good. And—ironically, it was coming from Relc so she believed it. He could be a fool, but he was a Senior Guardsman. And if the Merchant’s Guilds were on top of it…

“So one group is doing this? Wait. Is this related to the inn?”

That made her nervous. You heard stories. Relc shook his head.

“Not exactly. I’m gonna get Erin in on this too. But I’m telling you, Kelli, it’s something you want to think about. Sign up—or sign up your friends! Say, if you know anyone else who’d be willing to contribute…the minimum is one gold coin. I know, steep, but…”

He jangled the three-coin pouch. Kelli grinned at Relc, coming to a quick decision.

“Well, if I’m getting paid, I’ll sign up my friends myself.”

Relc sighed.

“Aw. Damnit. That happens a lot. But can I get you on this since I told you?”

He gave Kelli a pleading look. She nodded, excited.

“Let me get my money from my apartment. Actually—can you come with me?”

“Sure, I’ll write down your details. Address, next of kin, payment—it’s all very organized. This is great, Kelli. Can I sign half your friends?”

“Nope. But thanks for telling me, Relc.”

“No problem. This is great, isn’t it? Exciting times, Kelli, my dude. Exciting times.”

“…I’m female, Relc.”

“It’s an expression.”

The two Drakes headed off to Kelli’s apartment. Relc was scribbling as he wrote, as neatly as he could. Kelli was reassured by the receipt he handed her, and his assurances that money would be coming as soon as she signed people up. Weekly payments and the monthly one. It only occurred to her afterwards to ask.

“I missed the name of the organization. They have one, right?”

“What? Oh, yeah. They’re funding all sorts. But the name of the group is—The Golden Triangle. Catchy, right?”

“Yeah, I like it.”

Relc was nodding, pleased. Good deeds, and coin in his pocket. It was too bad Klbkch was in a mood. But he would feel better, right? Relc strolled to the inn—he was going to get Erin in on this too. After all, he owed her a lot. He’d already gotten Embria, and some of 4th Company who was speaking to him…

And the Drake was too late. By the time he arrived—Klbkch had left. And Relc saw the frightened Antinium and Erin’s face. And he realized he should have been there sooner. If he could have stopped it. But all the things were coming together.

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes ago.

Evening in The Wandering Inn. It was a beautiful day, with birds singing—no, wait, screaming as they fled Bird—but Bird was singing. The flowers were blooming in the Garden of Sanctuary as a bee buzzed around like the largest guard-bee imaginable. On a day like this, good kids were indoors.

Watching a play. Eating peach tarts. Although the Antinium were gluten-intolerant. But the inn was noisy, crowded as it now was oft to be.

Mrsha was having fun, playing with Ekirra and Visma. She still stayed away from the Antinium, though. Or rather, Pawn.

He was sitting in the inn, with Lyonette. Rubbing shoulders. And the Workers and Soldiers were around them.

A regular patrol of Painted Antinium, Workers and Soldiers both, and—surprisingly—Anand and Belgrade. No Yellow Splatters; he was taking over for them. But Chesacre and Thaina too, another couple sitting with the other Antinium, but separate.

Pawn was smiling. The other Antinium were eating special peach tarts Garry had made with Erin, ones they could digest thanks to his Skill. And they were all disobeying orders.

Only Anand was super-worried about it. But Pawn was reassuring him.

“It is okay, Anand. Yellow Splatters has someone keeping watch. When Revalantor Klbkch returns to the Hive, we will all hurry back through the special tunnel.”

“You’re a regular [Scoundrel], Pawn.”

Lyonette teased the Worker. He smiled.

“I have learned subterfuge, from you, Lyonette. But we will take some food for the other Antinium. Bird has stockpiled some birds and his special ‘squishy birds’. I hear they are very good.”

The [Princess] paused. She knew what those were.

“…Don’t eat those, Pawn. I’m sure the Antinium can digest them. Bird seems to. But not you.”

“Why not me?”

The [Priest] looked puzzled. Lyonette leaned over and whispered to him..

“Because, I’m not kissing you if you eat maggots.”

Oh. Should I stop?”

The young woman was opening and shutting her mouth. She felt good, after meeting with her friends, sitting with Pawn. Erin was laughing, saying hi to Belgrade as they played chess.

“So Chesacre and Thaina are female? They told you? That’s so…weird.”

Her brows contorted. Belgrade shrugged.

“They say they are.”

“Yeah, but—that’s almost like—hold on. From my home…um…”

Erin hesitated. She vaguely knew something about this, but she didn’t at the same time. She opened and closed her mouth; she was still sleep-deprived too. Another night’s sleep would do her good.

And then the door opened. And Klbkch entered the inn.

On a day like today. Good little kids, good Antinium should not be here. At first, Klbkch didn’t even see them. Belgrade squeaked and disappeared, literally shooting out of his chair and into the kitchen. Erin turned to see what was wrong—

“Erin. I have been delayed. But I have come to speak. I would like to speak to you n—”

Klbkch was striding towards her. He walked past Pawn, Anand, the other Painted Antinium, who had frozen at their table. Along with Lyonette. For a moment, it was like one of those cartoons where the person kept walking until they realized the obvious and stopped.

Or a horror movie with the same premise. And then Klbkch halted, mid-step. Mid-word. He turned his head.

And he looked straight at Pawn.

“You.”

None of the Antinium moved. Klbkch was still. He did not move.

He was staring at Pawn.

Anand quivered. He shook, as he stood with the other Antinium. Pawn had gone still. The [Priest] had locked gazes with Klbkch.

“Revalantor Klbkch. We were—Miss Solstice invited us—it was just for…”

Anand’s voice quavered. Erin looked at them. And she realized—a beat behind the others.

The Antinium were not supposed to be here. Klbkch’s restriction on travelling outside the Hive was still in place. Erin had heard about it. But she had assumed…

They had lied. They were here without Klbkch’s awareness. Dissent in the Hive.

Rebellion. Klbkch made no sound. He was just looking. Around the room. He saw Belgrade poking his head out of the kitchen. The Painted Antinium at their tables. Chesacre and Thaina, sitting together.

And he understood. And it was Klbkch. The Senior Guardsman. The one who had saved Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at him. One of her oldest of friends. Her savior.

The kind Ant. And she couldn’t find him. The Slayer looked. The Revalantor saw.

Because it was him, he did not ask questions. He did not need to. He did not posture. He did not pretend. He did not say something silly, funny, like ‘is it war?’ He did not need to.

He was the oldest of souls. From beneath the hell of Rhir.

True Antinium.

Alone.

The Centenium moved. His right hand lowered.

He drew his sword. The silvery blade turned, and flashed in the light as he held it out, by his side. Klbkch walked forwards.

“Klbkch?”

Erin saw him walking forwards slowly. And her [Dangersense] was making a sound. It sounded like—death.

She stood up. The Antinium were frozen. All but for Pawn.

He stood up too. Lyonette looked at the Worker. The [Priest] put out one of his hands. He walked around the table.

Klbkch raised his sword with two hands. Walking past the frozen crowds.

Like a dream. You couldn’t believe what you were seeing. One part of you told you what was happening, and the rest wanted to deny.

“Pawn.”

Erin was moving. But she was moving in slow motion. She saw the world slow. Her [Inn’s Aura]—she tried to grab it. But then she just ran.

Nothing would stop him.

Klbkch was halfway there. Someone stood. Chesacre. She had been sitting next to Thaina. She slowly put one of her three remaining arms out. Blocking Klbkch.

His sword moved. Chesacre’s arm fell to the ground. The Antinium stared at the green blood, her arm. Erin cried out.

Thaina stood. Chesacre looked at Thaina and at Pawn as Klbkch halted. The Soldier paused for a moment.

And then she walked in front of Klbkch. Nothing more. She did not raise her two remaining arms on her right side. She just waited.

The silver sword swung.

Klbkch.

Pawn spoke. The Revalantor ignored him. He traced an arc through the air. Pawn raised a hand.

“Erin kiiiiick!

The [Innkeeper] smashed into Klbkch’s side. He moved a tiny bit. She bounced off and fell down. He was like a statue in more ways than one. The Revalantor looked at Erin.

Pawn, get behind me.

Lyonette pushed Pawn back. The [Priest] reached for her. Erin scrambled to her feet,

Get into the Garden! Now!

She pointed at Chesacre. The Soldier stared at her. It was Thaina who grabbed her partner and hurried her to the door.

Inside!

Erin was on her feet. She blocked Klbkch, holding her arms out. The Antinium moved in a rush. Klbkch stared at Erin.

“Move.”

His voice was so cold. Erin refused. But she was afraid. The Antinium was staring at her. And there was not a hint of familiarity in his eyes. She felt-saw his blade next to her head. If it moved—

She felt cut by the gaze as much as the blade. Klbkch walked around her. Erin tried to move with him. He put a hand on her shoulder and shoved her aside.

“Pawn.”

Lyonette was pushing him towards the door. The Antinium stepped through, the last to go. They were standing just at the barrier to the Garden and inn. Staring at Klbkch.

“You.”

Klbkch extended his arm. The tip of his blade drifted towards Pawn’s head. It stopped—in the invisible barrier in the air between inn and garden. Klbkch paused, and pushed.

Erin felt something…pushing. In her head. She knew it wouldn’t go through. But he was putting force behind it. Klbkch looked at Pawn, lowered his sword. Pawn opened his mandibles.

“Klbkch. I realize I am disobeying. This was my decision. But—this is necessary. I have leveled up. I have a new Skill. The value—”

“You disobeyed my orders.”

Klbkch’s voice was flat. He looked at Pawn. Erin looked down at the blood. Chesacre’s arm. She looked at Klbkch. No.

Who was that? The Antinium turned his head, looking at the other Antinium. Pawn replied, slowly.

“They were the wrong orders, Klbkch.”

“They were my orders. You. Disobeyed.”

Pawn spread his hands. The [Priest] paused, looking around.

“I am Individual. I disobeyed orders to become myself. This is what you wanted.”

The Antinium looked at him. Slowly, he shook his head.

“No. I see now. I was in error. You are not necessary. You are not what the Hive needs. You are Aberration. All of you.”

He looked around. The Antinium on the other side of the door shuddered. Pawn stared.

“You—cannot call us that.”

You are mistakes.

Klbkch looked at Anand. The Worker who wanted to call him ‘father’. Anand shook. Pawn reached out, as if to put his hand through the door. He hesitated.

“You are wrong, Klbkch. We are that we are. I will not obey wrong orders. I am of the Free Hive. But it is not you alone. The Free Queen disagrees with you.”

“You will never return to the Hive.”

The Antinium with the silver blades looked at Pawn. The Worker stared at him.

“…I do not fear you, Klbkch. Not anymore. You are not all-knowing. You do not know what we need.”

“I do not need your fear. I require your obedience. If you do not obey, you are worthless. No levels or classes will change that.”

“Klbk…”

Erin tried to intrude. But the two Antinium were speaking for only each other. For the Antinium. Two kinds stood there. And one, the old, spoke.

“Do not return to the Hive. Any of you. I will cut you down if I see you. You are not of the Antinium. You are not True Antinium, or even false copies. You are worthless.

Anand shook and fell down. The other Antinium were frozen. Pawn looked at Klbkch.

“You cannot deny what we are.”

He tried to walk through the door. The other Antinium dragged him back. Pawn struggled—and only then did Erin move. She shut the door. Klbkch looked at her. She looked back.

The old Antinium sheathed his sword. Erin paused. She looked at Klbkch. At the silent room. And she wished she had talked to him a day earlier. An hour.

Too late. Too late, too late. Erin looked at her old friend as some of him returned.

“Hi, Klbkch. Let’s talk.”

 

—-

 

They sat alone. Alone, in an empty inn.

No one else—well—other people. Talking quietly, as the blood and severed arm were cleaned up. Many left. The Antinium were secure in the Garden of Sanctuary. Erin refused to let them out until Klbkch was gone.

But Erin—sat in her room. With Klbkch.

There was no preamble. No asking ‘why’, or anything else. Just—talking. The talk they should have had. That Erin had neglected.

And the consequences were this. The Antinium faced Erin. With a different body. Erin missed the old one, the Worker. For all he was smaller, weaker. Because she had loved that Antinium. This new one was…harsher. Different. She wanted to go back to the Klbkch of then—or perhaps—simply the Klbkch she had not known.

He spoke abruptly, looking at her. Splattered green blood had dried on his shoulder and head.

“I was grateful to you, Erin. I am still. I rejoiced to see Individuals. I believed they were what I had sought. Thinking, growing Antinium. True Antinium.”

“But?”

“But they are not. They are insubordinate. Different.”

“Different is okay.”

The young woman saw the Antinium look at her. And her stomach twisted.

“No. The Antinium are not what they should be. I labored for over a decade to bring them consciousness. And—yes. This Individuality is what I sought. The capacity to level. Think. Decide. I could have tolerated them to my satisfaction—beyond my expected satisfaction—even if they were not True Antinium. But they do not obey.

“Look, they’re growing. It was a mistake. They love you. Anand—”

“They are worthless.”

The young woman felt cold.

“Don’t say that. They’re growing. They make mistakes. They’re kids. So what if they don’t obey. They all respect you. Even Pawn. He just wants you to listen—”

A high-pitched sound interrupted Erin. A chittering, scratching sound, high and sharp. Like a grasshopper. Unnatural. She shuddered and saw Klbkch’s mandibles moving. Only then did she realize.

He was laughing. Like an insect laughed. He looked at her, and his eyes were blank. Insectile. She had grown used to them, but now they looked completely alien.

“Mistakes? That they do not obey is to be accepted? Tell me, Erin. What good is a weapon that doesn’t cut where it should?”

“But they’re not weapons.”

Where was Klbkch? Senior Guardsman…? Erin searched. But all that stared at her was the Slayer. A Revalantor.

Antinium.

“They were never designed to be people. I am a weapon. One that thinks and lives and changes as I must. But I was made for one purpose. And I will fulfill it, even if it means laboring for ten thousand years. Even if it means my oblivion. I despaired until I met you, Erin Solstice. You gave me hope. Solved the puzzle I had searched for. Salvation for my people.”

He paused. Shook his head.

“But what you gave me is not Antinium. They are—children. Rebellious children. And I do not need them. Keep them if you wish. But they will not return to the Hive. If they do, they die.”

“Klbkch. Please. What’s wrong with…? What happened to you?”

The Antinium looked at her. And he was…moving. Trembling, slightly. His voice shook with it. Something beyond rage, mere incandescent anger. Something deep in him that had kept him alive, even through death.

“What is unnecessary is destroyed in Antinium Hives. The Individuals are still being tested. Assessed.”

He leaned forwards. And his voice changed.

“anD tHEy aRE fAilInG.

Erin stopped. Her hand crept towards her knife.

“Klbkch. Look at yourself. You’re becoming Aberration.

She wanted him to see. The Antinium laughed again. That foreign laughter.

“You do not know us. This is not Aberration in True Antinium. ThIS iS raGe.

He stood up. Erin looked at him. But the Antinium just walked past her, towards the door. He looked at her. And she sensed it. Sadness, despair. And a rage so fierce it terrified her. Directed not at her. At himself—and something beyond this inn.

“Thank you for hope. But there is nothing here for the Antinium. We must begin again. Tell them. Tell all of them. They have until I finish my night shift. And then there will be no Painted Antinium, no Individuals in the Hive. Warn them. No one can stop me. Not the Queen or anyone else. Not even you.”

She looked at his swords. The Antinium turned. And he walked out. A perfect Antinium. He was still going on patrol.

It was almost funny. Erin looked at him as he shut the door. He never looked back. She heard him going down the stairs. Erin felt water trickling down her cheeks. She buried her head in her arms. For a minute. Then she ran to find Pawn.

 

—-

 

The Antinium fled. They ran through their secret tunnel, to evacuate the Hive. All of them, even Pawn, despite Lyonette pleading with him to stay.

“I must go. It is our home. If I do not come back—know that there is Heaven.”

He didn’t say ‘I love you’. He didn’t know to. He just held her hands and then ran. Lyonette wept. The inn was full of silence as Erin stood at the hidden trap door, which she’d always known about.

“Come back. Bring them all to the Garden. Hurry!

She shouted after them. But she didn’t go. This was an Antinium matter. What could be done? Could Palt, Montressa, anyone stop Klbkch? Enter the Hive?

No. So Erin stood in her inn, wiping at her eyes, blaming herself for every mistake she’d made.

About a few minutes after that, Relc arrived. He strode into the inn.

“Hey, Erin! Have I got a thing to tell you about! Have you heard about…?”

He paused. The room full of silence. The grave expressions. The shaking Antinium Worker sitting at a table, rocking back and forth as Bird tried to calm him down. Relc slowly absorbed what had happened in fragments. As Mrsha hugged her two friends, who were terrified and shaking at the bloodshed. As Erin wiped tears from her eyes. The Drake was too late for all of it.

“I tried, Relc. But I couldn’t—I’m such an idiot. They’re coming here. They promised. They can stay here forever. W-what thing?”

Relc looked at Erin. He looked around the inn. He opened and closed his mouth and put the brochure back in his belt pouch.

“I’ll tell you about it another time. So, Klb went off the deep end? I’d never have…you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I have to wait for them. I’m gonna check…”

Erin staggered up. She went to the basement. Relc looked around.

No one was really moving in the inn. Lyonette was in the basement, waiting. Some of the Players were trying to go on. The show had to go on, distract the audience.

But what drew Relc were the other actors in this…horrible tragedy. A real-life tragedy. The kind that couldn’t be resolved in a three-act, or five-act, or even ten-act structure. He walked over to the table.

“Hey. You.”

Bird looked up. The shaking Worker, rocking back and forth, didn’t. Relc hesitated and sat down.

“Anand, right?”

The Worker hadn’t gone with the others. He had…broken most from Klbkch’s words. But not as Aberration. He looked up, and his voice was small.

“That is right. Senior Guardsman Relc. I am Anand. I am—worthless.”

“Huh. Is that what Klb said?”

“Yes. He is your fellow comrade, Senior Guardsman Relc. I do not wish to waste your time. I am worthless. Worthless…”

“Klbkch is stupid, Anand. He is wrong.”

Bird was doing his best. But his weren’t exactly the best or well-thought out words for Anand. Anand, who loved Klbkch more than the others. Who idolized…Relc knew all this vaguely. He didn’t really speak to many Antinium. They had their thing, he had his. He looked at the little Worker, curled up in misery.

“Seems like Klbkch really shook you up. But hey—Klbkch can be wrong, right? You don’t need him—right, Bird?”

“That is right. I am Bird, and I do not need Klbkch. I am happy here. But…Anand likes Klbkch. Anand is silly.”

Bird chimed in. Relc frowned.

“What’s Klb got going for him, Anand? Little buddy?”

The Worker shuddered.

“Klbkch is intelligent. He is the Revalantor. He is a superior Antinium. Centenium. He should be admired. His word is law. I wished to be of use to him. But I am not. I am worthless. I wished…”

He trailed off, shaking. Relc looked at him. Just looked. Slowly, he pulled a chair closer to Anand and sat.

“What’d you want that Klb didn’t give you, huh? He never talked about it. Talked about you sometimes. But he just said what you wanted wasn’t realistic.”

Anand shuddered. His voice was full of longing.

“He did? I wanted—I asked…to call him…‘father’. ‘Dad’. And to be hugged, later. I understand that request was in error. Arrogant. Wrong. I am wrong. Worthless.”

The Drake stared. Relc looked at Anand, and then at Bird, who shrugged, clearly mystified by Anand’s outlandish desires. But Relc…he sat forwards. And he thought. Just thought, for a bit. When he spoke, it was slowly.

“Huh. Call old Klb ‘dad’, huh? I can understand why he said no. Klb…Klb’s Klb. But you know something, Anand?”

“No, Senior Guardsman Relc, I do not know.”

Relc smiled a bit. He rubbed at his neck spines, then went on.

“You know, kid…I’ve met a lot of boys like you, back in the army. Did I ever tell you about it?”

“Boys like me? Antinium?”

Anand looked up. Relc shook his head. He stared pensively past Anand.

“Nah. Drakes, Gnolls. Kids. Come to think of it, I was one of ‘em. Lost my family in the Goblin Wars, see. Enlisted—I was just a brat. I could barely hold a spear, but the 4th Company—all of the army, really—took me in. That’s how it works. They’re not perfect. In fact, I left for a reason. But they do take care of you. Come to that—that’s what I never did with Embria.”

He stared past Anand. The Worker looked at him, not really comprehending, but listening. Sensing, perhaps. That it mattered to Relc.

“It was a bad day in Liscor. Well, I’d just quit the army. I was still…young. Embria, I think she missed it. Being part of a big family in Liscor. That’s the thing. There are a lot of boys. Just like you, Anand. In the army. Troublemakers, kids with wild sides, violent—but we straighten ‘em out. We don’t let go of you. Once you’re in the army, you’re family. That’s why they hate it so much when you leave. Feels like betrayal. I guess that’s a problem too.”

The [Sergeant] paused. Anand whispered, looking up, stopping his slow rocking.

“I wish I was part of that army. I would like a family. That is what I wish.”

“Yeah. Well—I’m a bad father myself. My own kid ran off to join the army. Thinks I’m a hero or something, even now. Klb…Klb…I don’t think he gets it. He’s never had one. How’d he take it when you asked him?”

The Worker looked up.

“He said no. I attempted to curry favor. By doing my best to reduce casualties in my daily battles against incursions from the dungeon.”

Relc looked at him.

“You…fight monsters? Every day?”

Anand nodded.

“Yes. That is what my duty is. I am a [Tactician]. I serve the Hive. But not well enough.”

Relc thought of the notepad and his orders. He ignored them.

“Well. It sounds like you work really hard, Anand. Really hard. But you know what? You don’t have to do that. Not to make Klbkch a father.”

“I don’t? How, then?”

The Drake paused. He felt…old. So old, as he looked at a child. Weeping without tears.

“He was always your dad, Anand. Old Klb. He just never admitted to it. But—you know what?”

“What?”

“I’d be proud to have a kid like you as a son. You’re a good kid, Anand. Klbkch just doesn’t know it.”

Relc reached out. He carefully patted Anand on the head, avoiding the antennae. The Worker looked at him.

“I would like to have a father like you, Senior Guardsman Relc.”

“Yeah. Thanks. I wish I was. Tell you what—you ever need to talk, you come to me. Any time. I mean it.”

Relc looked at Anand. The Worker stopped trembling. He saw Relc hold out a hand. Took it, and tried to shake. He was surprised when Relc drew him into a hug with clasped arms, patting him on the back.

“Thank you.”

“Any time. Sorry, I’ve gotta go.”

Relc stood up abruptly. Anand would have given him anything to stay. He looked up.

“Where are you going?”

The Drake paused. He looked at Anand. At Bird, at the inn. The place where green blood had seeped into the floorboards and Ishkr was beginning to mop. He shook his head.

“I wish, Anand, buddy. But you can’t choose your dads. Or maybe you can. But sometimes you get the ones that don’t deserve it. I’ll be back.”

He looked at Anand. The Worker stared back.

“Where are you going?”

The Drake walked towards the doors, his shoulders set.

“To have a chat with Klbkch. Dad to dad.”

 

—-

 

“Hey, Klbkch.”

The Antinium was on patrol. Tkrn was uneasily following him. They were passing down the street, having just signed into their shift at the Watch Barracks. The Antinium turned. His voice was flat. Emotionless.

“Relc, I am on duty. This can wait. I am not interested in your investment ideas or anything else.”

The Drake was strolling towards him, scratching the back of his head.

“Yeah, I know that, Klbkch. I just need a chat. This can’t wait.”

“Speak, then. We are on duty.”

Relc nodded. He looked at Tkrn.

“Yo, Tkrn.”

“Senior Guardsman Relc.”

The Gnoll tried to give Relc a covert look asking what was going on with Klbkch. But the Drake was just looking around. He patted Tkrn on the shoulder.

“Gonna need you to give us some space, Tkrn, pal. And keep the busybodies from interrupting us. This is just me, off-duty. Having a one-on-one with my man Klb. Got it?”

“Er…yes?”

The Drake nodded in a friendly way. He turned back to Klbkch.

“Heard about the inn. Crazy stuff, Klb.”

He spread his claws. He was indeed off-duty. He didn’t have his spear or armor on. Klbkch stared at him.

“I did what was necessary.”

“Yeah. Well, Erin’s upset, but you know how it is. Gotta do what an Antinium’s gotta do, right?”

“…What do you want, Relc?”

“Oh—I just had a chat with Anand. About fatherhood. You know, I didn’t know all he wanted was for you to let him call you ‘dad’. Not too hard, right?”

“I am not his father, biologically or otherwise.”

“Right. But you could have tried. And the other Individuals, the ones you’re always complaining about—I’m beginning to wonder if, y’know, they’re okay. I know they’re not ‘True Antinium’, whatever that is. But you’re just kicking them all out, like that? Or they die?”

The Antinium was still, his voice emotionless.

“Yes. This does not concern you, Relc. We are partners in our job as [Guardsmen]. Nothing more.”

“Oh, no. Totally agree. I don’t interfere with your Antinium stuff. That’s not why I’m here.”

Relc raised his claws. The Antinium looked at him.

“Why, then?”

He was Klbkch. Klbkch the Slayer. Revelator Klbkch. Senior Guardsman Klbkch. Klbkch of the Centenium. Someone of many faces.

And it was Relc, Senior Guardsman Relc, [Sergeant] Relc, the Gecko of Liscor, and…the last Relc who answered him.

“I’m just here as a dad. A bad one, to another bad one. To have a heart-to-heart. And to give you this.”

He’d been edging towards Klbkch. Now, Relc showed the Antinium a fist. Then he hit Klbkch on the chest.

The crack echoed across the street. Tkrn flinched. He saw Klbkch flying. The Antinium turned in the air, landed on the ground. He caught himself, stared down at the cracked chitin on his chest. Not broken; his body was new.

Relc.

His voice was quiet. Relc cracked his neck as he adjusted his stance.

“As I recall, you gave me a smack when I was being an idiot. I never thanked you for it. Thanks. Time for me to repay the favor.”

The Antinium saw the big Drake advance. The street of people at night stared as the two Senior Guards, each beloved in their own way, walked towards each other.

“Walk away, Relc. You will regret it.”

The Antinium was vibrating. He did not reach for his swords. Relc was taller than him. Bigger. But Klbkch was in his new body. And—Tkrn backed away as Relc looked at him.

“Yeah? Well, I regret a lot of things. I should have done this a while back. But I didn’t know how much of an idiot you were being. Hey Klbkch?”

yEs, rELc?

The two looked at each other. Relc tensed.

“Today, you kind of suck.”

 

—-

 

The shouting attracted Watch Captain Zevara. So did the pounding on her door.

Watch Captain! Relc and Klbkch are fighting!

What!?

She slammed out of the door. Of all the times for a silly—!

“What did Relc do? Just pull them apart and toss him in the Watch holding cells!”

She barked at Jeiss. Why hadn’t he handled it? But the Drake was pale. He looked at her and Zevara halted.

“Watch Captain, they’re fighting.

She looked at him, and then ran. By the time she got to the scene, just a street away from the Watch Captain, there was a crowd.

Wing Commander Embria was there. So was 4th Company. Some of them were shouting encouragement. But the street was unnaturally silent. Zevara pushed her way to the front, panting. And she saw something…

Wrong. Two Senior Guardsman stood in the street. Well—fought. Neither one stood still, really. Both were moving like blurs. Each time they intersected, there was a sound, like something hitting a piece of furniture, a huge, dull thump. Or a crack.

Chitin breaking. Zevara stared around. She looked at the crimson-scaled Drake.

“Wing Commander, Embria, what in the name of the Walled Cities is going on?”

“A brawl, Watch Captain. My f—Senior Guardsman Relc picked a fight with Senior Guardsman Klbkch.”

Embria answered slowly. Her eyes were locked on the brawl. Relc appeared. He grabbed Klbkch as the Antinium punched at him. He threw Klbkch at a wall.

The Antinium crashed into the stone wall and bounced off. He punched at Relc’s face. The Drake blocked, kicked. So fast. Zevara’s spar with Jeiss looked like kids fighting compared to the two. Zevara stared.

“What caused—break it up!”

“Can’t, Watch Captain. They hit anyone getting in the way. They’re too strong! Both have to be Level—I know Relc, but Klbkch?”

Jeiss looked at the two. There was another clash—this time, Relc stumbled back. He’d taken an uppercut to the head, but he just walked back in. His eyes were—burning. Zevara hadn’t seen him that mad in…

“What started it? Get nets if you have to! I’m not having them tearing each other up!”

Zevara demanded, but Embria held out a claw.

“Watch Captain. I have orders. Let the two fight.”

Her voice was flat. But it was just a façade. It quivered with…emotion. So many. 4th Company was shouting.

Go, Gecko!

Break that damn Ant to bits!

It was Antinium vs Drake, after all. They were furiously cheering on Relc, regardless of his past. It wasn’t that in Embria. The Watch Captain was about to demand what the hell she was doing—when she saw the scrying orb.

Embria was aiming it at the battle. Zevara stared…at flickering images. It wasn’t going through Wistram. This was a direct connection.

To the Walled Cities. And Zevara saw a Drake with wings, armor, a trident, staring back at her.

Dragonspeaker Luciva. Among others. The view was split. Chaldion stared at Zevara. He held up a claw to his lips. So were some of the others.

Ilvriss, and the protectors of Salazsar. The First Gardener of Oteslia.

Watching the petty brawl.

But it wasn’t a petty brawl. It had gone beyond that. Zevara realized as she stared at the two. There was the Gecko of Liscor. Maybe not part of the army, but…representative. And there—

Was the Slayer. Klbkch the Slayer. Getting—Zevara saw him stumbling back as Relc hit him in a blur of motion. Getting beaten in a fist-fight.

Of course. This was what the other Walled Cities wanted to see. Zevara opened her mouth. Part of her wanted to stop it. Regardless of Antinium. She knew Relc and Klbkch. She had her issues with them, Relc especially.

But—they were friends. A pair. They had been since the Antinium came to Liscor. This was wrong.

Zevara reached out—but Embria looked warningly at her. Helplessly, Zevara let her arm fall. She watched.

 

—-

 

“I’m sorry, Klbkch. But you’re an idiot.”

The words came. The blow thereafter.

Or before. They were moving so fast, exchanging so many, that the words and impacts were one and the same.

You’re wrong, buddy.

Relc dodged around Klbkch’s punch. He was—quick. The [Sergeant] hit Klbkch across what were supposed to be his ribs.

Chitin broke. Klbkch saw him moving left.

Kick to the side. He twisted—but the blow still caught him. Relc jumped after Klbkch, kicking.

“You’re such a smart guy. How are you so stupid? I’m supposed to be the stupid one. Well—not stupid, but—”

A punch. Grunt. Klbkch felt the blow. Heavy. But Relc’s head just snapped back. He shoulder-charged Klbkch. He didn’t stop.

He was the Gecko of Liscor. And without his blades, Klbkch only had his fists. Two of them. And Relc—another blow, and the Antinium rolled. He saw Relc waiting.

“Klbkch, buddy. You helped me. I’m trying to help you. This is the only thing I know. Because I’m sort of an idiot. Just a bit.”

Stop talking.

Klbkch didn’t know if he said it or thought it. He was shaking. His vision felt—clouded. For all it was clear. Look at him. Look at them, watching.

The cheering Drakes, enjoying him being hit. The ones watching through the orb. The pedestrians. Not all looked triumphant. But look. Klbkch saw it all.

They weren’t his. He just pretended to be part of this place. He wasn’t. They were his enemies. This was just an act. So much work. Decades.

To try to fix broken Hives. A remnant of glory.

Broken fools. Infighting Queens. Worthless. Klbkch lunged. Relc cross-countered him in midair. The Drake leapt back.

Too slow. His new body was faster than the last one, incomparable to the Worker’s flawed form. But still, too slow. Too slow compared to what he had been.

He had lost it all. Klbkch swung, saw a punch. Saw, knew where it would land. But he couldn’t block it.

Another blow, sending him sprawling. Relc said something. He was trying to talk to Klbkch. But the Antinium was just—

So weak. He had lost it all. His people. His true Queen. His body, his levels.

All of it.

Klbkch hit the ground again. And he raged. But it was dull. Even his anger, after all this time. He was a shadow.

And the shadow saw where he should move. He saw—but he was too weak.

He would never reach the center of the hell. Even in his glory, they only reached it once. When the First Queen had died.

He had died there. So had Xrn. The first time. All of them. That day, hope, the heart of the Antinium had been snatched away.

By it. Their enemy. And all of this? The Drakes? All—

Klbkch felt a fist, punching him down. He didn’t remember standing. He saw Relc talking again.

Shut up, shut up, shut up. You don’t know anything. You don’t know what I’ve lost.

But there they were again. All of them, Relc, the Watch, the Antinium—even Erin. The Free Queen. They pretended like they knew him.

But none of them had been there. None of them knew. None of them knew the depths of his rage. The despair. What he fought for. A dream. Vengeance, justice.

What had kept him living. He had despaired, once. And sought death at the hands of Goblins.

But—how he raged, now. Raged at the arrogant watchers. At Relc. You don’t know what I was. How dare you judge me by your rules.

Even her. He could sense her, talking to him. The Free Queen. Asking—but she was flawed too.

He was alone.

Lead them. Train these false copies. The imposters.

That was what part of Klbkch said. Learn from Relc, what the Drake was trying to say with his fists, from Erin. But the rest, the old him, screamed something else.

Make an example. Tolerate them? These flawed, pathetic things calling themselves Antinium?

They wore Galuc’s body. They did not know him. They did not deserve even the flawed copies of him.

And Pawn. Klbkch stood up. He fell down. Relc was pleading for him to stop. A [Priest]? A class made of the very thing they fought against. Why had he allowed Pawn to be an [Acolyte]? No, no.

Wrong.

Wrong.

Wrong. Wrong.

Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrong—

Wrong, it was all wrong. They should have been true. Should have known their destiny. Should have been together. But he was alone. He and the Free Queen, and she was a child who had to try and live up to legends. But she couldn’t. She didn’t even know what they were. Klbkch was the only one who remained.

He was alone.

Klbkch screamed, a sound coming from the very depths of his hopeless soul. He leapt. Berserk with fury, rage. But—it was the cruelty of it.

Rage did nothing. Look at him. Relc’s fist sent him sprawling. Sent green blood painting the cobblestones as the Walled Cities watched and rejoiced, vicious, victorious.

And now the Drake was pleading.

“Klb. Don’t make me do this. We’re pals.

Klbkch lay on the ground. And Relc’s voice, the word. Pleading. With that emotion.

That—at last, was what made him snap.

The Antinium stood. In the dark street, surrounded by the crowd. Facing the Drake. Illuminated by the glow of the scrying orb. And his voice—

“fRieNDS? yOU dOn’t knOW ME. NoNe oF YOu dO.”

He looked at Relc. The Drake closed his eyes. Then he looked at Klbkch.

“Well, come on, then, buddy. Show me.”

Klbkch charged. He moved, faster than he ever had. Leaping. He saw the fist coming down.

He struck Relc across the chest. The Drake staggered. Punch, coming up. Klbkch saw it. He jerked back.

He was a warrior of the True Antinium. Centenium. He had battled monsters this world had never known! Dark dreams of a sleeping god. Things as terrible as Crelers.

Worse. He had lived through wars that Relc had never known. He saw it all. The Drake, moving, for a punch from his left, then a kick.

Dodge. Leg-hook. Klbkch threw Relc and leapt on him. The Drakes roared as Relc hit the ground, trying to roll, took a kick. But—

The Drake took a blow with all of Klbkch’s weight to his face. And his scales tore and bled. But still—he stood. And when he punched—it was so fast—

Klbkch tried to dodge. And the blow carried him into the crowd. Broken, he felt his chitin cracking. And it was so unfair.

The Antinium refused to fall. Refused to stop, as Relc set himself, pleading. But he was so weak. Klbkch ran forwards, fell.

Fell again. And even the watching crowd began to feel for him. His helpless fury. The scream that didn’t stop. All but the ones who hated Antinium with no quarter. Who—rejoiced.

And that was all. As Klbkch fell and rose, there was no changing. No matter how he strained, his body wasn’t enough. His rage could not change anything. True Antinium never broke. But his soul far exceeded his flesh.

Nothing more. It would continue until Relc stopped hitting his friend. Weeping at the sight of the broken chitin and green blood. Continue, for Klbkch was—

Worthless. The Antinium could do nothing. Nothing to change. He had died too many times. Lost too much of what he had been.

As he fell. Klbkch could not have known this. He had not been there. But the [Princess] had learned it just this morning. It was just a fact.

As Zevara watched him fall, reaching out to call an end to it. As Relc stared at Klbkch, willing him not to stand. As 4th Company shouted, reveling. The leaders of the Walled Cities smiled, seeing the Slayer fall.

Just a fact.

Did you…

Klbkch’s head hit the pavement. Cracking.

Did you know…?

The Antinium stared at the sky. Despair.

Did you know? That you can learn Skills? Just from training? Just from combat?

And there was a voice. It might have come from above. From heaven, if he believed. But it came from below. From inside Klbkch.

From hell, where the First Queen had died. And it spoke to him. Like her voice, which he remembered. He had never forgotten.

 

[Skill – Recaptured Sublimity learned].

 

The Antinium stared up at the sky. And slowly, he rose.

“Klb, please…”

Relc was pleading, his voice hoarse from shouting. But he—stopped.

His [Dangersense] had been telling him about the fight. Yet, Relc had tuned out what he knew. Now though—it sounded. But more than that. He was a warrior. He felt it.

So too did Zevara. She stopped, one clawed hand out. And she stared.

“What…is that?”

The Antinium was broken. Beaten. Bloody. His green blood dripped down onto the cobblestones. But—suddenly—Zevara was afraid.

The crowd felt it too. 4th Company stopped chanting, abruptly. Chaldion, who had looked away from the meaningless end, turned back. The Dragonspeaker stopped smiling. Rafaema saw the Antinium look at Relc. He walked forwards, slowly.

A. Moment. A. Gift.

That was all Klbkch said. Relc hesitated. The Gecko of Liscor tensed, more serious than he had been any time before. This time, he struck first.

A leap. A punch, as fast as he could move. [Triple Thrust]. For the first time Relc used a Skill.

Three punches, simultaneously. The kind of blow even veterans might not block.

They never landed. The Antinium was inside Relc’s guard. The Drake saw a flash. Something even he couldn’t see.

So f—

A blow. Relc felt something burst in his jaw. His teeth nearly cut his tongue in half. He staggered, but he kept moving.

So—

A blow on his chest. Something that went through his armor Skills. Compressed his ribs. Blood—the Drake choked.

S—

He went flying backwards. Hit 4th Company. They stared. Embria turned.

“Dad…?”

The Antinium was advancing. The Drakes and Gnolls stared as Relc tried to get up. He stood, shakily—

The Antinium hit him. He punched Relc through the spectators, into a wall. And then—his hands were blurring. Embria heard the sounds before she realized what it was.

The wall was cracking as he drove Relc into it. The Drake was being hit in the chest, stomach—too fast for Embria to keep up.

For a second no one moved. Then Captain Wikir of 1st Squad moved. He leapt forwards at the same time as Vell, Pielt, and the other officers and [Soldiers] of 4th Company present. They surged at Klbkch, duel forgotten.

It was instinct. Something—Embria was moving too. She saw Klbkch grab Wikir. He swung the Gnoll into a wall.

Something went crack. Stone, and bone. The Antinium blocked a punch, hit Pielt so hard Embria thought she heard his jaw breaking. No—it was—

She had a spear in her hands. Embria realized she was stabbing as the [Soldiers] reeled backwards, taking blows she hadn’t seen. The Antinium turned.

He dodged the spear. As fast as Relc’s best attack. Embria saw him moving as Vell howled and attacked.

Unconsciously, the Wing Commander, the [Spear Hunter] moved her spear. Impacts. She felt herself flung backwards. She’d blocked—she saw the Antinium moving. A blow at her ribs. Embria felt—

 

—-

 

Watch Captain Zevara saw the last of 4th Company falling. Embria was lying on the ground. Klbkch stood amid the [Soldiers]. He had swung at the Drake’s ribs. But he hadn’t shattered them. Punched through her.

Someone had caught his hand. Just once. Relc was bleeding. But he’d stopped one punch. He looked at Klbkch. Then he sagged.

Fell.

Silence. The scrying orb lay on the ground, where Embria had dropped it. And the Walled Cities stared. And they saw him.

Klbkch the Slayer.

Centenium of Rhir.

For just a second. For just a moment he had been…something else. Now—Zevara saw the Skill fading from him. But he still stood. Unbroken. The soul had surpassed the body. He walked towards her and she flinched. He paused, staring at her.

She realized her sword was drawn. So was Jeiss’. She looked at Klbkch.

Wrong. All wrong. He hadn’t—Relc had tried—Zevara stared at the fallen [Soldiers]. Relc, lying on the ground, shielding his daughter.

It shouldn’t have been like that. If only—but he shouldn’t have been. He was foreign. A creature made, not born of this world.

Antinium.

Slowly, the Centenium lowered his head. He regarded the scrying orb lying on the ground. And he met the eyes of the Walled City’s defenders. Drakes and Gnolls. The Antinium laughed, a high, chittering noise.

His foot crushed the scrying orb. Then he turned and walked away. Leaving this gathering behind.

Going toward the Hive. The other Antinium, defects, were gone. And if they were not?

They died. Klbkch had hope. Or—perhaps the opposite. For a second, he could remember everything he had lost. What a cruel gift. Somewhere, a sleeping god laughed in the darkness.

 

—-

 

Death came for the Hive. But—the Antinium had left. They had fled, to a Garden where they would be safe. An inn. A tragedy had happened. But they would live.

That was how it should have been. But—it was not. They were all gone. Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile, Chesacre, Thaina, Anand—all of them.

But one. One, remained. The first. The last.

He refused to go. And Lyonette and Erin, held back, realized it too late. But the Worker sat in that beautiful, sad place where he had made a home.

The [Priest], the first of the Individuals waited.

He had not much to his name. Only a few things. His faith. A dream. A [Princess]’s love.

Memory. And this. He held a censer. Smoke drifted from it as Pawn stood.

A shadow of the past stood in the doorway. His sword was drawn. It shone, like silver and steel. But something else. A relic, forged from the past. Something that did not break.

Nor did the one who stood there. He spoke.

“You will not be brought back. The Rite of Anastases is not for you, failure.”

“I know. But I will not go. You are wrong. And I—will not run when I am right. Some things are worth dying for.”

Pawn spoke. Klbkch looked at him.

“Is that all you have to say?”

The Worker looked up at the dirt ceiling. He spread his four arms.

“I wish I could show you what I see, Klbkch. There is more than what you know. I see something glorious. What you call failure, I call a miracle. Can you not let us be? We are not enemies.”

No. You stand and defile all I remember. I gave you one chance. You did not heed it. So. Die.

He walked forwards, so gracefully. Like a dancer from another age. Even with his broken body—perfection. The sword floated across the room, born by the spectre of death.

Pawn stood. He lifted his censer with two hands as the other two clasped in prayer. And he looked at the death. He began to walk, and the smoke drifted behind him. Sweet innocence.

The two walked into the center of the room. Pawn stopped. He saw Klbkch raise his arm, tense. There was no perfection here, no memory of greatness.

Just a blade, aimed at a head. It swung down.

And bounced off the light. Klbkch stared. And then he raised his other hand. Shielding his face. Because the light was brilliant.

A warm glow. White, but not searing. Not to Pawn. A beautiful light, like the sun rising, shining through the windows. It enfolded him, a beam of light from the heavens. Invisible, but there.

Made of faith. Conjured by a…Skill.

Or rather, a miracle.

[Miracle – Holy Barrier]. A power not of magic. Nor Skill. Something old.

Something new. Made of sacrifices. Made…purely of love. Of faith. A miracle for the Antinium. And it changed reality. It changed everything.

“Do you see? Look. [Holy Barrier]. I leveled up. I tried to tell you.”

Pawn spoke to Klbkch. The Antinium was staring. He slashed—the light repelled his blade. It wasn’t solid, and it wasn’t just light either. It was something…undefinable.

Saved by belief. Pawn honestly didn’t know how long it would last. But he hoped. He believed. He looked at Klbkch.

Ineffable, intangible. The Antinium stared at something new. Something no Antinium had possessed before.

“You.”

“I am a [Priest]. Klbkch. This is mine. Please. Listen—”

Please, the Worker pleaded. Look. Listen. See. Even in despair, even underground, see the light. See—hope. Look upon it.

Believe.

And the old Antinium looked. He saw the [Priest]’s miracle. The impossible thing he had wrought.

He screamed. The sound was wretched, a howl louder than belief. It dimmed the light. It echoed through the Hive.

A sound of hatred. Of disgust. Horror.

Vengeance.

The sword lanced at Pawn. It stuck in the air. The [Holy Barrier] flickered. Klbkch stared at Pawn.

“You will stop me with a thing of faith? Of dead gods?

“Klbkch. I—”

Stop me? With that? Stop me? Me? Me? MememEMEmEmemEMe—

The Antinium vanished. The Worker, clutching his censer, saw a flicker. Fast—like a shadow. The Slayer moved.

A sword—piercing from behind. Pawn turned. Klbkch stopped in the air, straining. The barrier of faith blocked him.

“Klbkch—”

You cannot stop me. I will slay you. I will slay it.

The whisper became a scream. And then—the figure moved. Shaking, blurring.

The thing stabbed at Pawn, screaming. Speaking. The blade moved, stuck in the air.

“I will slay ___.

It leapt back. Moved.

The sword sliced through the air. Through the light. Closer. Through faith. Pawn saw it bury itself deeper in his barrier. The thing whispered.

“I will slay ███.”

Closer. Pawn saw the blade twisting, moving. It withdrew. And then—

Darkness in the light. Pawn lifted his censer—looked down.

The blade twisted in his stomach. Green blood flowed. The Antinium spoke, tearing the barrier of faith asunder.

“I will slay God.”

Pawn choked. The blade was cutting up. He reached for faith. For a miracle. But there was none. Just it.

Him. The Antinium who would cut faith. Cut divinity. It moved, whispering profane words. And Pawn—had nothing more.

He felt the cold blade. And—he tried to dream of heaven. But he thought of Lyonette instead. Pawn tried…to…

“Believe.”

The voice was not his. He heard a sound. And then—there was light.

Not the light of faith. Not the light of miracles. Mortal light. But—special.

Magical. It picked up Klbkch, and threw him across the barracks. The Centenium blurred, screaming, landed—

And there stood a Centenium. She stood, her eyes shining with the light of hope. Gold, and blue, and green, and red—so many colors, mixing and shimmering that they could not be counted. The Centenium lifted her staff as Klbkch stared.

X—

The light smashed him into a wall. Xrn conjured it, a prismatic ray that hurled Klbkch across the ground. Pawn, bleeding, fell to his knees.

“Klbkchhezeim. You are lost.”

Xrn, the Small Queen, stood looking down on the torn, broken body. She looked at Pawn. At Klbkch. And she shook her head.

“You despair. You forget. Look at you. You would slay the only good thing you have made. You would become what they call you. Klbkch the Slayer. But that is not who you are.”

She raised her staff. Klbkch looked up. And he saw her.

One of the last. Her body unchanged. Azure. Her eyes glowing with a mystery lost to this world. With love. Another, who remembered. Xrn smiled. With pity. Kindness. Anger, yes. But—her voice was kind.

“You have worked so hard, alone, dear Klbkchhezeim. Rest now. You have delivered us hope.”

She lifted her staff. Pawn stared. He felt magic touching him. Magic, not miracles. But—the green lifeblood running from him halted. He saw Xrn point her staff up.

The ceiling fell on Klbkch. The Small Queen shook her head.

“Fool.”

The earth moved. Klbkch was thrown out of it, at her feet. He stared at her. His voice was—cracked. Disbelieving.

But you see. Look at him, Xrn. lOoK aT HI—

She smacked him with her staff. Klbkch shut up. Xrn shook her head. She gestured at Pawn.

“Look at what? Our enemy? Can you not see the difference? I see with eyes not filled with despair or frustration, Klbkchhezeim. And I see something new. The past remains in Rhir, Klbkch. But this? This is glorious. Let us use the new to carve a path back to our home.”

“But they are—”

Whack. Another hit from the staff.

“Insubordinate? When did you turn into Wrymvr? Look at you. You despair, and see only shadows. But look. Look at the sun!

She pointed her staff up. And Pawn saw a light. So brilliant it ate every shadow. Fire. It rose above Xrn, a second sun underground. The Small Queen spread her arms. And Pawn saw a miracle of another kind.

“Do not despair, Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. Not now. We are so close. And you have done it. You are lost. But I will help you find yourself. We all will. You are no longer alone.

The Antinium pointed. And the second of the True Antinium looked at her old comrade. And he felt it.

The broken insect looked up. And he heard the sound. Marching feet. The beating of wings. Armor, moving. You couldn’t hear the soundless ones.

But there they were. Antinium. They marched into the barracks. Columns of them. And Klbkch saw the first, adorned in armor, and realized—he hadn’t seen Tersk or Dekass lately, had he?

But there they were. The Armored Antinium marched into the barracks, a full hundred. Led by Tersk and Dekass. They knelt. And flying around them, above them in a chaos were flying shapes. Gliding, jumping. Pivr and the Flying Antinium alighted and chittered in delight.

At their side were shadows. A smaller group of Silent Antinium stood, camouflaged, led by a single Prognugator. The Antinium knelt and bowed.

Three Hives. No—four. More Prognugators. Guards, fashioned by the Grand Queen herself, in his likeness. They saluted him with blades made of chitin, four.

Wrong again. Five Hives.

Klbkch jerked. The voice in his head was familiar. It was—Xrn. She stared at him, and her eyes flashed. A wink. He was confused—and she put the answer into his mind.

There they came. Marching among the new, staring. But the other Antinium stared at them. The Painted Antinium, led by Yellow Splatters. By Anand, Belgrade, Garry, Purple Smiles, even Bird.

“I came back because it was interesting. Hello. Ooh, Klbkch looks bad. That is good. Probably.”

Bird waved around. He froze when he saw the Flying Antinium and a group of Antinium ran into him.

“Are those wings?

They were there. All of them. They looked at Xrn. She spread her arms.

“We have come. Hope, Klbkch! Hope, you fool! Believe.”

And he did. He was no longer alone. The broken, tired, despairing Antinium lowered his head. And he wept, in ways only she could ever know. Xrn knelt by him. And the Free Queen wept too.

They were whole again.

 

—-

 

That night was filled with many things. But—among them. Was this.

Watch Captain Zevara, listening, fearing…had a visitor in her Watch office. It was past the hour any sane person should be awake. Into dawn, really. But he knew she’d be there.

She flinched at the sight of Klbkch. But he wasn’t…that broken. He’d taken more injuries, but someone had healed him with both potion and [Heal Minor Wounds]. And the Antinium looked…

“Watch Captain Zevara.”

“Klbkch. I—have to say. Despite Relc starting it…”

Zevara struggled for words. Klbkch beat her to it.

“I am taking a leave, Watch Captain.”

“Huh?”

The Antinium carefully put his badge on the desk. He saluted. And he seemed happier than Zevara had ever known. He was smiling.

“I am taking a break. I believe I have a decade’s worth of time off saved up. For a week or two. Perhaps longer. It is for my rest and recuperation. Will you grant it?”

Zevara looked at him. She looked for her jaw. At the badge. Eventually, she nodded.

“Um. Granted.”

 

—-

 

That was all. Klbkch had so much to say. To do. More smacks to receive. But—look.

“So this is your barracks. I remember when it was small. But I had to leave. I will not leave so easily again. The Hives will have to come here. But we may travel. There is need for the Painted Antinium. Fighting—growth. We are connected. The tunnel is complete.”

Xrn was turning, inspecting the Hive. Pawn and the other Antinium stared at her. The Centenium was so…different. Anand peeked at her from over Belgrade’s shoulder. The Small Queen exclaimed as she looked around.

“So much to see. And do! I must meet this Erin Solstice in truth again. And what is this?”

She looked at Chesacre and Thaina, and they stared in awe at the female Centenium. The…definitely female Centenium. Without question. She’d smack you with her staff if you objected. Xrn’s eyes shone as she looked at them.

Happy to see them. To see them something new. Rejoicing in it. And Pawn—believed. He believed in her. In the future.

That was all. What more could you ask for? Perhaps only this. For the future—Anand sidled up to Xrn. He hesitated. But you had to try.

“Excuse me, Xrn. But…may I…call you my aunt?”

The Small Queen stared at him. Surprised. And then she smiled.

“Yes. Of course. And what would you like me to call you?”

She looked at Anand. And then—she felt something from Klbkch. The Small Queen resolved to smack him again, and he flinched. But she reached out.

And she hugged Anand.

 

Author’s Note:

Do you feel betrayed by a lack of…horrible tragedy? Perhaps the unrealistic thing about this chapter is the good things.

I wrote a lot. This is all I had left. I’m so tired. But this is fitting for the break. And now—I rest. For 2 updates. Shorter than I need, but I’ll appraise my condition, take another break in May, or sooner if I need to.

And I’m happy to write. Just—the body is weak. The spirit stronger. But both a lot weaker than Klbkch, let’s be real.

Two more artists for the break. There are a lot of amazing pictures, but mg and brack both deserve this one. For the Antinium. We have Chesacre and Thaina (very lewd), and art of Purple Smiles and so many characters…I love it. Truly, it makes me smile.

With all that said, I’ll be back in a bit. But I need a vacation. Just for a moment. Thanks for reading and see you soon.

 

Art by mg

 

Chesacre and Thaina by brack

Chesacre and Thaina2 by BrackChesacre and Thaina by Brack

 


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132 thoughts on “7.16 L

  1. Leave a typo for vacations. Well-deserved and undeserved.

    (Vacation readers: Grimmend, aretae, Gorexn, whowaits, lhans, Andrew Hyer, Shamiam, whowaits, Vento, afkcuzbookiscool, Aoxz, CarpDM, belthanyl, MrWiggles, Maladal, Eve, Gecko13)

    • A sad, hard, memorable chapter. The start of this Volume has gone very well. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

    • Great. A typo in my correction. ._. (I merely wanted to point out that there is a period missing.)

      the Drake choked -> choked.

      • “But seeing a fragment, incomplete, broken reflections of what had been…” In this passage, “…reflections…” should be “…reflection…”

        “…there was nothing for it for people…” should be, “…there was nothing like it for people…”

        “No one but Mrsha knew the knew the truth in this inn.” should read, “No one in this inn but Mrsha knew the truth.”

        “The cautiously walked past Lyonette…” should be “They cautiously walked past Lyonette..”

        “…decided not to let Klbkch on the big, amazing thing…” should be “…decided not to let Klbkch in on the big, amazing thing…”

    • The sword floated across the room, born by the spectre of death.

      Should prob be borne, klb is carrying the sword, not birthing it.

    • “Any time. Sorry, I’ve gotta go.”

      Relc stood up abruptly. Anand would have given him anything to stay. He looked up.

      “Where are you going?” >> “Where are you going?” repeated. First time doesn’t make sense

    • Relc stood up abruptly. Anand would have given him anything to stay. He looked up.
      >>> “Where are you going?”
      The Drake paused. He looked at Anand. At Bird, at the inn. The place where green blood had seeped into the floorboards and Ishkr was beginning to mop. He shook his head.
      “I wish, Anand, buddy. But you can’t choose your dads. Or maybe you can. But sometimes you get the ones that don’t deserve it. I’ll be back.”
      He looked at Anand. The Worker stared back.
      “Where are you going?”
      The Drake walked towards the doors, his shoulders set.

      “Where are you going?” repeated twice. First one should be like “Don’t go, stay, etc.” I think.

    • Western food.
      Anachronistic, also, Western is a very nearly vague term.

      that they weren’t criminal each month
      werent a criminal

  2. “Normal rules were like butter to Erin. You could take it or leave it or put it on toast, but it wasn’t an impediment to her.”

    This is a magnificent phrasing.

  3. So Klbkch committed suicide by Goblin way back when? Ouch. Explains why he died, though, if he was supposed to be strong.

    Love the Antinium action in this chapter.

    Enjoy your break. :)

  4. And it comes out that Laken’s quick leveling is even more unlikely than first suspected. From what we learned today [Emperor] should be the slowest leveling class out there.

        • That was very recent, right until that point he was doing a lot of things to improve his domain. Starting by actually creating an Empire from scratch.

          Plus, his participation on that expedition was actually out of his control. He was forced to participate due by Lord Tyrion.
          AND it wasn’t an illegal war, Drakes and Humans are officially at war, even if it’s subdued. That’s why they still fight on the Blood Fields every couple of years, even if in practice they are living in a tense peace while most of the leaders of both sides plot and prepare for a large scale war against the other side of the continent.
          Also, it started as a Goblin Subjugation army, which was necessary because from those Goblins being herded by Tyrion’s allied troops only Rag’s Tribe wasn’t acting like the monsters everyone thought they were (Goblin Lord Reiss’s Tribe was destroying everything on their path and reanimating them as undead, while Tremborak’s gathered tribes raided villages and raped women).

          The only real mistake Laken did was misjudging Rags’s Tribe, but that was an honest mistake made with the knowledge he had available to him at the moment. It wasn’t made out of malice nor incompetence.

      • With the concerns of a few hundred people, and he hasn’t exactly done a fantastic job of it. If a few weeks of that is enough for twenty levels of [Emperor], then every [Lady] of any substance should be in the 60s even if all they’ve done is spend twenty years managing the estate’s maids, and Flos should have hit the cap a long time ago.

        • He has done a great job.
          Really, the only thing you can hold against him is attacking the Goblins of Rags’s Tribe, which was an honest mistake born out of ignorance, not incompetence.
          For the rest, Laken’s domain has passed from being a tattered cottage to being a growing city in the making and a prospering young Empire spanning hundreds of miles around Riverfarm with hundreds of people swearing loyalty to him and even the established Nobility of Izril recognizing it and starting to negotiate with the Empire.
          He has brought prosperity and safety to hundreds of people, changing their lives for the better in their time of need.

          It’s a whole order of magnitude harder to build a nation from scratch than inheriting a noble title and wealth from a family line that’s hundreds of years old.

          And he is only level 20. If anything he should be higher, considering the huge list of things he has needed to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lady Rie is leveling like crazy just helping him and [Steward] Prost out with the management of Riverfarm.

          • The witches situation was because of one of his mistake.
            His chain of command being infiltrated during his war with the goblin was another. Nearly losing the war with the goblins another (he’s alive thanks to Tyrion). Attacking Liscor without reason while being bossed around llike a lackey by Tyrion an other.
            In fact, nearly everything that isn’t the direct effect of his skills and comes from a decision he made himself was a mistake.
            Hell, he didn’t even manage to buy food for the village by himself, Ryoka had to do it for him.
            Everything he is due to his skills, he wouldn’t even have been able to do anything without it and he doesn’t add any additional value to it.

            • Wrong and false.
              1) The Witches went to Riverfarm seeking asylum after refusing to work for the Circle of Thorns. Belavierr’s actions are her own blame, no one else’s. What you are referring to must be the sabotage brought by Manus’s Drakes, no? But that would have come regardless of the Witches, as that was the Drakes’ retaliation for killing the daughter of the Dragonspeaker, not even for almost invading Liscor, that was just the excuse Manus’s leader used to gain support from other Walled Cities.

              2) “His chain of command being infiltrated” was outside of his control, given that the 2 suspects, Magnolia and Rye, are respectively one of the most powerful nobles with a vast network of connections, spies and assassins, and the other was the one responsible for the communication in the first place. Getting betrayed is not a mistake you can blame on Laken.

              3) “Nearly losing the war with the goblins (he’s alive thanks to Tyrion)”.
              A) He was kicking their asses up until his communications were compromised and gave false orders to the army.
              B) The reason his armies got so heavily damaged by Rags’s Tribe was that the Goblins were suddenly able to copy the Trebuchets less than an hour after simply glancing them from afar, which was ridiculous and plot armor. Even if you want to say Goblins are talented at construction or a bunch of genius engineers were there, it’s ridiculous.
              C) Losing a war is not necessarily due to a mistake by the leadership of one side, there are lots of factors involved in a conflict, one side can lose even if they make no mistake, simply their opponent being better than them.

              4)”Attacking Liscor without reason while being bossed around llike a lackey by Tyrion”.
              This was due to Tyrion saving Laken, and because Tyrion allied armies vastly overwhelmed Laken’s Empire. That was a huge army composed of many [Lords] and [Ladies] when they made a demand, Laken simply was in no position to refuse. Laken did the only thing that he could have done.

              5) You can read chapter 3.37 and see about your claim that Ryoka got the food for Riverfarm instead of Laken. She helped, yeah. And Reynold helped Laken get the best deal in the Merchants’ Guild thanks to Ryoka pushing him. But Laken was the one who had to sit for hours negotiating with the Guild. Then he sent Ryoka with a part of the supplies to Riverfarm, while he returned a couple of days later with the rest of the supplies and the adventurer teams to guard the village. You can’t say that Laken did nothing.

              The problems that Riverfarm has faced ever since becoming Laken’s Empire are not Laken’s fault. He has brought hope, prosperity, and protection to the hundreds of people in the region, he has saved them from monsters and criminals.
              Ryoka has helped a lot by giving Laken ideas to improve their lives, but it was thanks to Laken’s leadership and the clever and responsible use of his Skills that has allowed for the sheltering of so many people and the growth of Riverfarm.

              • the goblins, on average, were a lot stronger than the army Laken gathered. the only reason for his success was the surprise gassing and then hounding them, ambushing them and targeting their weakest points while Rags was out of action. When she recovered she completely outclassed him. Taking the city, giving her tribe time to recover and then working to recreate the trebuchets was because of her leadership. Then pyrite broke the army and nearly killed durene. Laken lost the war with rags, and if it wasn’t for veltras, he’d have been killed, regardless of his ordering his people to a slaughter at the hands of the redfangs.

    • I think Laken is an exception because of his relatively small domain and how everything he is doing is having a strong impact on his subjects. Generally, it is difficult for rulers to significantly impact their entire domain to the extent he is. Levels come from strife and large, stable states won’t have problems on the same degree as a fledgling state. Laken’s empire is struggling to survive so it would make sense for him to level quickly.

      • I think it is also important to note that Earthers level much faster than anyone else, as we’ve seen so far. So Laken is likely benefiting from his small, self-created domain and his Earther bonus

    • I’d guess that most ruler classes inherit at least some measure of their autority.

      Starting for absolutely nothing means more potential for level-up. I also wouldn’t be surprised if being blind also adds up an “exp. modifier”, it’s all about the hardships.

    • Well, he has done a lot of stuff and is still barely Level 20.
      Riverfarm has gone from being an impoverished village destroyed by an avalanche housing less than 100 people, to be a prospering and growing town soon-to-be-city with a militia, walls, an effective government, planified construction, teams of engineers, lots of food and hundreds of people working together.
      His actions have impacted hundreds of lives and changed the structure of many villages, he even enabled the formation of many new Classes in the population, like [Engineers] and [Cataphracts]. All while facing one challenge after the other, and troubles of different nature (politics, administration, raiders, monsters, schemers, spies, etc), so it’s actually a wonder that he isn’t higher-leveled.

      It is a young nation, a growing Empire. With a lot of potential, and if the Empire of Sands is any indication, [Emperors] are very OP. The Empire of Sands is about 8 years old, and it’s already swallowed many countries in Chandrar.
      No wonder Magnolia was so freaked out when she found out about his Class.

    • My take on this is, those who inherit titles levels slowly because they don’t have to go to so much trouble to create their own kingdom. It’s already there, they just have to go with the flow and make sure it keeps running. Laken on the other hand and others like the young Flos, had to build their empire from the ground and overcome lots of hurdles and challenges, and in doing so gives them a lot of opportunity to act their [Title] and thus fast leveling.

  5. Awesome, it’s about time Klb got sorted out! Enjoy your well earned rest pirate, can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store next.

  6. How did the earth kids already get down to the farm. Honestly last couple of chapters something has just felt off, I am happy were getting so much plot and development but seems like everything is suddenly just teleporting around. How is it that the horns have not made it but the earthlings have. Only way I can see is from the carriage but still how have the horns not arrived yet. There just to many balls in the air right now.

    • Those aren’t the earth kids just normal farmer kids. Those kids are at Invisril. Also the Horns got distracted by quests. Having a [Necromancer] and an Antinium is probably slowing them down even more.

      • I am actually wondering when the Horns of Hammerad survived the adult Creler and Pisces had an different aura of power but what happened to him was not touched on, if he had a class change to [archmage].

        • Doubt it. He hit lvl 20 [Mage] again and gained two levels in [Necromancer] which was already at or over lvl 30. So those levels were probably where the quality changes came from.

    • When the five of them had the conversation and truly became a family. Erin told them she was from Earth. Lyon told them she was a princess. Mrsha told them she was a druid.

      • She showed them she could do magic and Lyon called her an adorable little mage to which Mrsha thought close enough because she couldn’t articulate [Druid]. I think it was clarified off screen, but it seems silly not to mention it while she is trying to learn magic if mages and druids have different magic learning limitations.

  7. > if she’d had ears

    I am pretty sure that humans have those too.

    I understand what you were waying there, humans don”t really have large mobile ears like gnolls, but this is still somewhat strange when you stop to think about it.

  8. “Evening in The Wandering Inn. It was a beautiful day, with birds singing—no, wait, screaming as they fled Bird—but Bird was singing. The flowers were blooming in the Garden of Sanctuary as a bee buzzed around like the largest guard-bee imaginable. On a day like this, good kids were indoors.”
    ‘It’s a beautiful day outside. Birds are singing, flowers are blooming… on days like these, kids like you…’
    Is this an Undertale reference or just a very strange coincidence?

  9. This ending was even more glorious than the glory fire. And not at all a diabolical cliff hanger 2 weeks, Thanks, I loved it.

  10. Thank you for this chapter, especially its upbeat finish. I was terrified at what could happen, and very pleased with how you saved Klbktch and Pawn and, in truth, i think, the Antinium and, through them, all of the races of the world. That was great. I am going to loathe not having anything to read from you for the next 2-4 weeks, but, I don’t know another who deserves it more. Rest, know that your works are loved.

    • Rejoice. Pirateaba said it is a two release break which makes it a week. On patreon it says the story will continue on April 11.

    • I agree. I was reading in terror for the entire chapter. I LOVE Relc, trying to be a good father and partner, through violence. I love Relc. thank goodness Klbch was saved, and with him, Pawn, the Antinium, and possibly all of Innworld. Thank you for this spectacular work. Klbch really needed not to have the entire weight of the survival of the species on his shoulders.

  11. Huh the First Queen died against the sleeping god so she did undergo the Rite at least once before since she was also lost at sea. I wonder if the death against the sleeping god was when it took/she lost her other unknown Class that Klb could barely remember.

    • The queen you are thinking of that died at sea was the Free Queen’s teacher. She was not the First Grand Queen, but she was an very strong queen.

  12. Sometime we forget that the ants are just like people… And sometimes they fall, they forget, and they despair. Kib had been alone for a long time trying to reach for a dream very few can remember.

    SOmetimes… Sometimes he forgets what it is not to be alone. Also loved that the small queen came and helped knock some sense into him.

    Also did anyone catch the name of the god up in demon land?

    • We have the three Gods who visited Erin on Midwinter’s eve (who are implied to be dead but not quite gone), but there is also the sleeping God in Rhir, who is implied to be the source of all the new evils that pop up over the Millenia, like the Crelers, and possibly Demons.

      • Those that visited Erin during the Solstice don’t seem like Gods, they were closer to Demons (real soul-trading demons, not the so-called demons of Rhir, which are more like simple mutants). And considering Teriarch curses saying “Tamaroth’s beard!” I doubt they are among the dead gods of the Innworld.
        They could just be entities of supernatural power, too.

  13. “Where are you going?”

    The Drake paused. He looked at Anand…”

    -Where are you going is repeated at the end of the segment and is this supposed to be a question regarding what Relc says about not choosing your dads?

    • This would be a typo, there’s a Pirateaba’s comment up there that is for readers to leave the typos (the first comment of the chapter). I suggest copying this typo there, so it is more likely to be seen by Pirateaba.

  14. Klbkch clearly needs heavy counselling. He was a high tension wire that snapped.

    Interesting discussion about relative class power that ends a lot of arguments. Technically, Laken with his [Emperor] class at level 22 is probably greater in power than Erin’s [Magical InnKeeper] at level 41. [Emperor] is consider higher royal class compared to [King] in InnWorld.

    • “Interesting discussion about relative class power that ends a lot of arguments.”

      Only if you believe that the Terandrian nobility have got the system sussed. It’s awfully convenient for their fantasy Nazi ideology that the world says they’re objectively better than everyone who doesn’t have the right ancestors and there’s nothing you can do about it.

      I suspect that attitude is at the root of why Archmage Chandler wants to kill them all.

      • It’s actually pretty right with how self-interested the leveling system is. Not to say it’s a good thing but definitely fits the bill.

        Now what isn’t mentioned is that objectively worse Classes can evolve into something better than the base ruling Classes and possibly even better than their upgrades. Take actual [Archmage]s as an example; Wistram’s last one apparently caused an age of war golems so bad that the world all the leaders agreed to ban Truestone golems from even being made.

        Currently leaning towards that Chandler was framed as a monster cause he was becoming to influential in the noble world. Then Wistram’s Archmages kicked him out for influence in Wistram and/or they didn’t want to deal with the Terandria fallout.

        • If no one realised it, Lyonette can now become an [Archmage Princess] if she puts her head to studying.

          I mean being able to learn a T3 spell in a dozen study sessions beats ALL the Wistram geniuses. All she needs are spell books

      • I’m pretty sure this class and leveling system not only a systematic and fantasy approach on how inherently varied and different our real life jobs are, even with this system. Some jobs earn more than others, and some are just situation and luck based. It’s also a take from many many other game leveling and class systems too.

        There’s nothing ‘Nazi’ about it. In fact it’s a lot fairer, game wise and reality wise. Since even some ‘blind’ guy could also become an emperor if he wants to, and There’s Actually something you can do about it, instead of having the ‘need’ to have the ‘right ancestors’ like many other medieval novels.

        You should already have expected this kind of thing the moment you read a novel that talks about levels and classes. Instead of complaining about it the wrong way and up the wrong tree now.

  15. You are the da vinci of writing. I loved this chapter. I love the world you have created. It is an amazing feat. PLEASE do not take too long off. We need you.

  16. The thing is, Klb’s right. Pawn and the rest aren’t what he was hoping for, what he needs if he wants to go back home. The Individuals are very useful if you want to conquer Izril with limited Queens and Centenium, and an outright liability if you want to cut your way into the bowels of hell on a suicide mission and kill a fallen god. Even if the sleeping god doesn’t have psychic attacks that Individual Antinium are uniquely vulnerable to, they’d break from the stress. We’ve seen them break from less. And what you get in exchange for that weakness isn’t enough to make up for it; not nearly enough, even if you had thousands of them.

    • That’s what makes him a bad dad. He’s like a guy pushing his kids to be good, then punishing them even when they succeed because they’re not what he wants them to be. I mean so what if they can’t retake his homeland? Neither can most Antinium, is he gonna kill all of them too? Thank God for Aunt Xrn.

      • Yep, another big problem is their lack of communication.
        Most of the Antinium in Izril don’t really know what their mission is, only the Centenium and the Queens do.
        Kblkch should talk with them, tell them what they must aim for, what they must be capable of, and what they need to be prepared for.
        How does he expect them to accomplish a quest they don’t even know about?

        Kblkch is right that they shouldn’t disobey; plus they went against direct orders for selfish and petty reasons too, as they basically left the hive to party, have fun, and fuck, so he is completely justified on being angry at them.
        But he is also wrong at thinking they are failure due to disobeying. They are still learning, still growing. So Kblkch must do what Xrn does, and look at their potential.

    • Thats false. They wont do stupid suicide missions, that’s right, but they didnt break when they charged for Erin, and they are vastly more powerful than regular workers/soldiers. They just need a cause, and talking back their motherland would be a good one. Add to that a little religion (the false god want to destroy/corrupt our heaven), and you are set.

      • >they didnt break when they charged for Erin

        Yeah they did. That’s the best example of why they’re not enough. Splatters gave up on the mission to save Pawn, then Pawn spent the rest of the battle wandering around the field practically in a fugue state, and they didn’t do a damned thing to save Erin. The Redfangs got to Reiss, forced Az to take over, not the Antinium. Now imagine if they were going against crelers. They just got the whole hive killed.

        >and they are vastly more powerful than regular workers/soldiers

        Only than these sad copies, and only when those copies aren’t under the direct command of one of the remaining proper Antinium. Remember when Klbkch was trying to train Anand and Splatters? How the Workers and Soldiers went through a horde of Flesh Worms and undead like tissue paper when Klb took control? Impossibly precise, impossibly well-coordinated? That’s what all of them were like when they were True Antinium. Like I said: the Individuals are great if you want to make the most of what you’ve got on Izril, but they’re not even close to replicating the capabilities the Antinium used to have, let alone exceeding them.

      • Oh, and I suspect the religion is another liability. We know that the god’s an infohazard. Telling a bunch of people who are already primed to be susceptible to that way of thinking about him and then sending them into areas under his influence is a recipe for disaster if I’ve ever heard one.

        • I disagree. While fighting god, having your own faith, or even your own god can be really good. What you even mean by “primed to be susceptible to that way of thinking about him”? They gonna start praying to him just because they know what prayer is?

          • More complicated than that, but yeah, basically. If you’re a malevolent supernatural entity trying to get into someone’s head, I would have thought it’s obvious that it’s much easier to get inside the head of someone who thinks that non-malevolent supernatural entities exist than it is to get inside the head of someone who thinks that everything supernatural needs to burn.

            Think Chaos corruption in 40k, if you’re familiar with that.

    • The thing is, True Antinium, Centenium and the First Queen failed. When they were at their peak. So even if, by some miracle, they will recreate True Antinium in their full glory and even somehow create new Centenium it’d be useless. Because True Antinium and Centenium are not enough. So for their endgoal they need something new. Klb is totally wrong about Individuals. They are exactly what Antinium need. Maybe they are also not enough, but trying something new is still better than repeating mistakes of the past.

      • Exactly this. The True Antinium and the [First Queen] failed. So what’s the point in repeating the failed strategy ? Sure, their loss is painful but it is not the end of the Antinium.

      • Then they might as well give up, because if a hundred Centenium at the level of peak Klbkch under the direct command of the highest-levelled character we know about, all of them prepared to charge willingly into death if necessary, weren’t enough to kill the mega raid boss, then no amount of level thirty Painted Soldiers led by casualty-averse level forty [Strategists] is going to get anywhere close. Combat capability doesn’t scale linearly with level, remember; someone like Mars or old Klbkch is worth an effectively unlimited number of even quite high-levelled soldiers. Oh, and numbers don’t matter underground; you can only fit so many people in a cave at any one time. The Individual program looks like it will get them large numbers of good-enough fighters and commanders, but good-enough is not good enough to go fight things worse than Ancient Crelers; they need heroes, and lots of them.

        They need Az, Rags once she’s finished becoming, and as many Named adventurers of roughly Saliss’s calibre as they can find.

        • Well, Grand Queen show some signs of giving up. Why do you think that “level thirty Painted Soldiers led by casualty-averse level forty [Strategists]” is maximum? Why do you think that Individuals and Painted Soldiers can’t become heroes? It’s been less than year since original Individuals were created. Even less for Painted Soldiers. Do you think someone like Mars, Klbkch or Xrn can just pop out of nowhere? As said in 6.62L “The Centenium were created out of the deaths of millions”. And 6.62L is the chapter where Klb and Queen started serious training of Individuals. How long it been since? How much resourses was invested in Individuals? And still we have Bird, who can kill wyverns with simple arrows. We have Pawn whose abilities not that powerful yet, but completly unique, something that noone had in thousands of years. We have Yellow Splatters who is as good as lvl 30+ warrior and decent commander. And it’s only after this chapter Hives and Queens will invest big amount of resources in Individuals and Painted Soldiers.
          And I fully agree that Antinium have no chances without other races help. But, oh wait, Individuals and Painted Soldiers are the best Antinium for contacting other races.
          P.S. Numbers matter underground. It’s not like you can’t fight in multiple caves simultaniously, or you don’t take loses.

          • Because that’s the effective maximum of all the other races. Not even the Blighted King or Flos has armies of 40+s running around, and being a level 50+ [Strategist] makes you Chaldion. When you decide to play by the same rules as everybody else, which is what the Individual program is effectively doing, then you’re bound by the same constraints.

            >Do you think someone like Mars, Klbkch or Xrn can just pop out of nowhere? As said in 6.62L “The Centenium were created out of the deaths of millions”.

            Yes, that’s the point. You can do that when you’re dealing with a hivemind. You can’t sacrifice millions of Individuals to create one guy of Klb’s calibre. They’d refuse, they’d probably mutiny, and this again isn’t speculation, because we’ve already seen Splatters and the rest come to the brink of mutiny over much less.

            The smart thing to do right now is take all the Painted Soldiers and throw them in an utterly hopeless situation, then swoop in at the last moment and save a couple of survivors. You’ll lose all the level 10s and 20s you’ve got, but those one or two survivors will have explosively levelled and more than made up for that. Basically you want to artificially reproduce the situation that created Zel. Facing impossible odds is what makes heroes, and the thing about facing impossible odds is that almost everyone dies. Now, what do you think Pawn and Splatters would do if Klbkch tried to implement such a plan?

            • No one has armies of 40+s running around, true Antinium is no exception. Actually, true Antinium have problems with leveling.

              Chapter 5.39: “The irony was that the Individuals, the five Workers, Pawn, Belgrade, Anand, Garry, and Bird, were actually better than the true Antinium Workers of the past. They could level exponentially quickly by Antinium standards—they were, in a way, closer to the Prognugators, rare autonomous Antinium destined to be leaders.”

              I think you can easily add Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile to this list. Perhaps few others of the best Painted Soldiers. Individuals already leveling almost as fast as true Antinium Prognugators, but without spending enormous amount of resources. And, I think, Centenium leveled slower because of their superior form.

              IMO you highly underestimate Individuals and Painted Soldiers. And that even without taking into account their diplomatic value.

              >The smart thing to do right now is take all the Painted Soldiers and throw them in an utterly hopeless situation, then swoop in at the last moment and save a couple of survivors.

              And you will lose all Painted Soldiers for couple of them gaining a few levels, which is stupid, not smart. For fast leveling you need to be a winner, not a saved survivor.

              You mixing two ways of leveling. Antinium chose someone who they want to level up and train them by throwing them into difficult, but controllable situations, and sacrificing less valuable Antinium for their failures. It’s highly resource intensive, not very fast, require high morale (not absolute, because current Antinium are capable of this kind of training) but it’s reliable and repeatable. It’s grinding.

              Other way is overcoming, surpassing your own limits, continue when anyone other would stop. And Individuals can do this, while true Antinium are mostly incapable of this kind of leveling. If you have absolute morale and resolve, then fight with everything you have and never stop no matter what is not overcoming, it’s being yourself. It’s like with Gazis armor.

              >Basically you want to artificially reproduce the situation that created Zel.

              If you want super fast leveling, than yes. But it’s impossible to control this kind of situations. and almost impossible to reproduce them. Because you need not just put someone into impossible to win situation, you need them to have reason to win strong enough for them to break their limits.

              And as I already said, Centenium were not enough, so it’s wrong for Antinium to throw away everything they have now for a chance to get another high level ASAP. Even if they succeed it will be useless repeating of previous failure. Antinium need new heroes, but what they need even more is to change, communicate with other species, learn from them, and in perfect scenario ask their help.

              >Now, what do you think Pawn and Splatters would do if Klbkch tried to implement such a plan?

              Ask Xrn to smack him with her staff?

  17. I laughed at a few lines in this one.

    “At least Mrsha was not going to tell anyone.”
    “Erin’s asleep, so she probably won’t start anything.
    “She didn’t have a bug-mate.” (Apista)

    Thanks for the chapter!

  18. I think it might behoove Klbkch to hold a wake for the First Antinium, so that the Second could properly mourn what was lost.

    And then perhaps to write and draw and record what he remembers of the Antinium of Rhir, so that the Antinium of Izril might know where they came from.

    • Indeed.
      They really need to know what their mission is, what their past is, what the Antinium of old are like, and what the thing they are going to face is like.
      They need to know, because that is the only way for them to be ready. At the very least they wouldn’t be stumbling in the dark trying to live up to standards that only Kblkch knows about.

  19. You know i would like to see an interlude of either the eldritch horror in the desert of the god of rhir.

  20. Slog of a beginning where we get to be told more about a relationship than we were ever shown. Then comes the realization that to pursue the romance Pawn was instructed by Lyonette on the best way to break Klb’s rules that were put into place to reign in the individuals to prevent political backlash in the form of continental war (a sensible move on Klb’s part considering the incident with Bird).

    The Mrsha bit was fun and the entire middle was solid. Getting a look into Klbs, head and all his issues was phenomenal. Then comes the fight where Relc decides that Klb is responsible as a father, despite the fact that he is more like their boss, which implies that the Individuals are childlike and needing adult guidance, which once again makes Lyonnette’s grooming of Pawn creepy (she told him what his feelings meant, taught him about sex, and had him pleasure her when she was ready). We see a city that Klb fought for and protected dutifully for 10 years betray him, in allowing an off duty officer to beat him down in front of a watching, cheering, and jeering crowd of Liscorian soldiers, citizens, and Klb’s own boss.

    All of this results in everyone telling Klb he is an asshole for not treating the Individuals better. Despite the fact that he had slowly given all of them, more freedoms, pay, educative moments, his personal attention, and leeway for gross negligence, over the course of their development. His lenience is rewarded with mass betrayal of an order designed to protect the hive (which is is primary job) for sex and inn food, and then when one of the main perpetrators (Pawn) is nearly punished for this, Xrn comes out of nowhere (yes it was set up she was in the hive, it was still fairly abrupt and jarring) fixes everything and everyone is happy and accepting yay. Total dismissal of how Klb acted without acknowledging the responsibility of the individuals to have responsibility for their actions as individuals if they want to be treated as such. This all despite Klb letting them all have time to vacate the hive (which he admittedly only did after being rebuffed, but he still didn’t immediately return to kill them, giving them more than enough time to leave since they refused to listen).

    Klb’s decisions were overboard yeah. But honestly not by as much as the chapter implies. Luckily he’s fine now after a good cry and Xrn booping him. Eh.

    • gotta agree with most of your points except the one about the fight with Relc

      Antinium are still feared and hated by many many Drakes and Zevara / Embria were forbidden from stopping it by the the ruling Drakes (who either wanted some Data or feel good about about beating the Slayer)

      gotta add aswell. Pirate, stop comparing the Individuals to children or dont let them have sexual relationships, cause the combo got really wierd with pawn.

      • To be fair: Saying “(x) is like a child” doesnt mean that “(x) is a child”. And even if we disregard that: The concept of childhood and reaching adulthood is somethign that works with mammals for example, but hardly with insectoids like the Antinium, seeing as their actual “childhood” wouldve been either a larvae stage before becoming fully conscious (which we have been given no reason to assume) or they are fully matured once they get thrown into the world. Pawn would in that szenario be the equivalent of an “adult”, albeit with very little actual life experience, and there is no reason for it to not have its first sexual relationship. And if that is distasteful, then the fact that Pawn and every other Antinium has had to fight since the moment they have become conscious would be equally bad, seeing as that they would all be “child soldiers”.

    • Yep, I mostly agree with you. The Individuals were absolutely in the wrong, as they were basically soldiers sneaking out of the barracks to party and have sex.
      But Kblkch was wrong in thinking that they were worthless failures because of it. Though I understand that this was simply him snapping in anger after lots of little stuff piled up.

      At least he got some sort of Devil Trigger (DMC reference) out of the experience.
      That temporal transformation into his original form is really OP. Even if it’s not real transformation and it’s more like “for a while he can do with his new body as he did with his original”

  21. I really liked that one! Thank Goodness the small queen showed up. So the Antinium were weapons designed to kill God. Or a god.

    • The Antinium were dreamed up by the sleeping god. Just like the Crelers before them and the Demon Folk after them. The first queen decided that killing the god to secure their homeland would be a good idea, that is why the Centenium were made.

  22. where to start.. first the good.

    Klbkch is very well written, whenever you go back to the original nature of the Antinium its becomes engaging and interesting. seriously, you were great with Klbkch

    now the other stuff. the relationship with pawn was always .. wierd. the individual Antinium are often described as children and lyonette is having him go to town on her with a strap-on? there is several levels of wierd

    1) pawns mental age, if they arent children then dont keep describing them as such, cause it makes this sexual relationship .. unsavory
    2) I never really got how they fell in love with each other it just seemed to happen by writers fiat, especially on Lyonette’s part (I accept that might be subjective on my part, but I doubt I am the only one)
    3) oke they have feelings for each other. I am willing to entertain an emotional platonic relationship, but seriously how many woman get sexually excited by a giant ant with a big strapon, and then that gets portrayed as completely normal? someone please direct me to that subsection of the internet

    4) I am really tired of Erin turning the Antinium into funny looking humans and when they arent allowed to think and act like humans then the Antinum are the bad guys

    this is especially aggreviating since you write them so well when they are that alien race. Far far more compelling and captivating then the human children with chitin coverings that the individuals seem to be.

    5) klbkch is trying to restore his race and Erin wants to brainwash them into humans
    and Erin still doesnt get any blowback/consequences for colluding and helping with that “Rebellion”

    she should have seen with Bird in Pallass that there are areas where she should tread carefully…
    and then this! and the author lets her get away without consequences for her or anyone close to her
    she pulls this shit and Klbkch get the head whacks?
    Erin getting off scot-free so often with the crap she pulls can be infuriating.

    no seriously is a giant ant with a strap-on sexually exciting for women? cause this seems way outside of even the dangerous furry chart. Also I am not dissing the imagery, it gave me a laugh if nothing else but its about the believabilty and plausabilty, and that left me there entirely.
    still I had a chuckle

    • Well, about the believability of anyone having any fetish, well, there is porn (mainly in the form of literature, drawings and animations in 2D and 3D) involving insects and humans, and most people who make pornographic material repeat a theme because they are being paid, which implies that there are people who want to read porn about insects and humans.

      Long story short: Never underestimate the capacity of the human species to have strange fetishes. And kinkshame is rude.

      • xD
        well its not so much about kinkshaming but selling it to me in a believeable way

        a human sized ant of a race thats still feared and reviled among the continent that doesnt have a gender, only formed an ego in less then a year ago and didnt know what was sex since a few weeks before, went on a Terandrian princess to town with a dildo strap-on in a relationship thats been barely described until now and when Lyonette talks with Krishia its treated as the most normal thing that could possible be and definately more normal then Erin not having sex for a year..

        that just wasnt believable to me xD, dont care the kink but make it fit the character and the world

    • 1/2.) From what I can tell it is mainly Erin that infantilizes the Individuals by calling them Children. They are not referred to as children because of a lack of maturity in a bodily or emotional sense but for their short life and unawareness of the world. They are like extremely sheltered people that have never interacted with other people before. And they haven’t really done that. Relc treats Anand similar to a teenager that doesn’t get the approval from his father he so desires. No one else in Liscor treats the Individuals as children, but more like people where you don’t know what to expect from. I do agree that the relationship between Pawn and Lyonette is weird, but I’d say this mostly stems from the fact that we didn’t see a natural progression but where simply confronted with a very intimate act. It was like asking someone to have sex that doesn’t know what sex is. How are you supposed to answer a question you don’t even understand? If we were shown how Pawn learned about intimacy and then formed a conscious decision there wouldn’t nearly be as much to object to. After all, sexual education isn’t really a thing in Liscor, and Chesacre and Thaina managed to discover intimacy by themselves. This also makes me question how things like consent where handled in the Medieval Period….

      3.) Are you really sure? Be careful what you wish for. If you really meant that go to “nhentai.net “ and type in “english insect -girl” in the search bar. I wouldn’t advise you to actually do that tho, especially not after eating. But if there is commercial porn of it that means someone thought that enough people would be willing to pay money for that to be worth it to produce and the people that published that stuff even agreed…. Not gonna say more to that.

      4.) Totally agree here. But I believe that this is a deliberate fault Pirateaba wrote Erin to have instead of an accidental reflection of the authors believes. It would probably be best for the health and well-being of everyone if Kilbkch an Xrn sat Erin down and talked to her. But this can only really be done when the Individuals understand the purpose for which they were made. Only if the Individuals accept that they are not just random occurrences but a product towards a specific goal and Erin hears that from their mandibles in their words would she truly believe it.

      5.) To be fair, Erin didn’t know that they were breaking the rules. It says:
      >Erin looked at them. And she realized—a beat behind the others.
      >The Antinium were not supposed to be here. Klbkch’s restriction on travelling outside the Hive was still in place. Erin had heard about it. But she had assumed…
      >They had lied. They were here without Klbkch’s awareness. Dissent in the Hive.

      I hope that Erin gets held to account in this regard. Getting away with things can be funny but if is the modus operandi it quickly becomes dull and unbelievable.

      • 1/2) hmm its Erin and the author, its a theme that threads through most of the Individuals

        Erin seen as a sort of Mom, Klbkch a Dad, them disovering sex and being told nonsense about it by the “older” ones, being rebellious and defying orders (oh hi teenage years) its woven in again and again as a theme

        the ants are 3-4 years biologically, less than 1 year of forming an ego, and only a few days/weeks? know what sex is and even then I am not sure they fully comprehend it

        others might see less issue with it but for me it just feels wierd
        tough I admit thats highly subjective

        3) XD I do know,
        really what I couldnt “buy” was that it was seen as utterly normal, more normal then Erin not having sex for a year. I still cant believe thats even a big issue

        5) fair enough, I oversaw that she wasnt actively evolved this time
        but if she had realized it earlier I bet she would have been a quick coconspirator

        Erin doesnt think about things she leaves it tot the Author to resolve them in her favor xD (mostly)

  23. Sometimes, when I read this novel I wonder what goes through the author’s mind. Sometimes, I felt that the author is trying to impose a bunch of idealistic naive situations with ridiculous plot conveniences and plot armors but sometimes, I can see that the author knows how to tell an emotional and caring story.

    I can see a lot of similarity going in this story as compared to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings where they try to balance between being wholesome and serious at times, especially recently with it’s serious moments and not.
    But when the story needs to get really dark, the story can be as brutally honest and honestly direct as Game of Thrones, The First Law or some Warhammer novel series, which I’m sure the author had taken notes from some of them or not.

    I don’t mind which ever direction the story is going actually, I just hope it doesn’t devolve too too much into the point of cringe fan service and pointless stories yet high earning novels like Hunger Games or Divergent, or even worse, Twilight. And somehow, those are what came to my mind when reading these chapters recently or something of the sort along those lines. But then again anything is better than Twilight these days.

  24. “Plus, his participation on that expedition was actually out of his control. He was forced to participate due by Lord Tyrion.”
    No. He wasn’t forced at first. He was played like a fiddle by Tyrion and joined up willingly.

    Once he figured that out it was far too late and THEN he was forced to follow along but never forget he went along with it willingly at first.

    Or IOW he screwed up biiiiiiiiig time.

    “AND it wasn’t an illegal war”
    The war was carried out over false pretenses. Normally armies that are going to attack the Drake cities bypass Liscor and head straight to the Blood Fields or another Drake city remember?

    Tyrion was supposed to be stopping the Goblin Lord’s army remember that too????

    Technically there was no higher power or law to hold Tyrion to justice over that but the false pretenses was the part that would be illegal if there was.

    “Also, it started as a Goblin Subjugation army”
    LOL no. You’re getting suckered by the obvious false pretense.

    It was always part of Tyrion’s plan to use the anti-Goblin force to his ends. That is why he allowed Magnolia’s city to get attacked without lending any support and in fact drawing support from her to make it easier for the Goblins to siege her city as well as provide propaganda to bolster the bona fides of the danger of the Goblin Lord’s army.

    “The only real mistake Laken did was misjudging Rags’s Tribe”
    Nah. Trusting Tyrion was another huuuuuuuge mistake in that arc on his part.

    All he had to do apply some critical thinking skills and actually verify things and he would’ve clued into something being up with Tyrion but since he was just reacting emotionally he got played easily like a fool which is definitely a competency issue.

    Competent leaders don’t react with only their emotions engaged and will indeed clue in to anyone trying to apply high pressure emotional tactics as an attempt to manipulate them.

  25. The first half feel like authors attempt to incorporate that fan service chapter MR2 with the rest of the story. I really think you need to stop trying to make the antinium look like children if you are going to do the sex acts. Coz having a sex scene with supposed child is kinda disturbing.

    Well. You can’t have individuals and have them obey without question like drones Klbkch. I also don’t think they can be ever comparable to true antinium but they are new. You shouldn’t just completely right them off as failures with only few mistakes except for the fanatic. Good thing xrn smacked some sense in to him. But I wish she should have come a bit later after Klbkch killed that fanatic Ant. Oh well.

    While I think klbkch went overboard with banishing them for good they do need to be punished. As much as I like bird he did nearly start a war by disobeying everyone and entering Pallas. He did quit so he is out of hives laws I guess but others aren’t. If no punishment is given for disobedience they will keep break rules and eventually the war will start as a consequence.

    the pictures are quite hilarious. Specially the one ksmvr doing ballerina. Lol. Also that stoner palt has a sword? Shouldn’t he has a wand instead?

  26. Don’t know if you are a parent but I am and the hardest thing is knowing that you are going to fuck your kids up. It didn’t hit me until about a week after he was born and I realised that at that moment he was perefect. Completely, unassailably perefect and I knew from that moment on it was all down hill. Worse than that was the knowledge that most of the character flaws would be my fault because he learnt them from me. I feel for klb because you teach what you know and although you may learn differently later in life it is bloody hard to consistently change the fundamentals you learned early in life.

    This was a fantastic chapter

    Thanks

    Cynthia

  27. One thing I find very telling about the general quality of TWI as a whole is that for us, the readers, it is sufficient to say “In this chapter, Klbkch goes to Zevara and requests personal time” to know just how heavy the chapter is.

    Thanks for the chapter, it was great. As always.

  28. So a lot of people are making super uncomfortable comments about how pirate is conflating children with sex through the antinium. Which is itself, is super uncomfortable to think about, pedophilia is abhorrent and disgusting, and just ew, gross, no, just no.

    And I while I can SORT OF see why people are saying this in comments, I think they are more based on a vehement gut reaction to even the hint of such a disgusting idea. If the story was going the way they imply or outright say, I would be saying the same thing or honestly just drop the story entirely myself. But I don’t think what they are claiming is actually what is being stated or even represented in the story. Honestly, i doubt pirate even thought about that aspect of it. I doubt the majority of people would, its not a place most minds go. I know I didn’t see that connection until i read those previously mentioned comments bringing it up.

    In the story, It is ERIN, and her alone, who says the Antinium are children. Of course, Erin is the protagonist most people identify with and who we see the story through, but the antinium themselves don’t identify or see themselves that way. Yellow splatters himself talks about how they come out fully formed in pods, and see himself as an adult. They all do. It is the exact same with goblins, who as a species start procreating relatively soon (a few years) after birth, similar to most fast breeding animals like dogs, cats, mice ,etc. Any thoughts along the comments mentioned above comes from us projecting our own HUMAN identities on them. By that I mean in the same way we anthropomorphize our pets. We assume our cats and dogs love us the same way we love them because we include them in our families, but they don’t. They care for us, sure, but in the framework of how a dog cares for dogs, not in the way a human does. There is an entire field of study based on this, its called comparative psychology and Ethology.

    From MR2, we see that they are ignorant of sex, not because they are child-like, but because it is alien to them. They literally were born without gentiles. Their SPECIES is this way.

    So basic take-away. If you felt uncomfortable, that is a totally normal reaction to a disgusting thing, I don’t want to disrespect how you feel, or diminish your reaction in any way, it is the correct reaction to have to just a disgusting thing. However I don’t think that is what Pirateabe intended, or more importantly, what the story is saying in any way shape or form.

    • To add to this: Erin herself is aware that Antinium aren’t “children” in the human sense. She made that clear herself in earlier chapters, once during the interlude where Bird and Bevussa talk and then again when Bird is berated for his actions in Pallass. I think it’s just a way for her to simplyfy a complicated and abstract situation.
      The first time she states that the Antinium are “young and old” at the same time. She is aware that they have a lot of knowledge floating in their heads, but is also aware that they don’t have context for that in many ways. So while Anand, Belgrade and Pawn can accurately calculate percentages of whatever, direct armies and go deep into phlosophical contemplation, they don’t understand sex. They know what it is, but lack the context to understand it. Same with many other things that concern life outside the hive.
      The scond time during Bird’s berating she states to herself that Antinium where “not children. Never that.”
      So what Pirateaba seems to try to present us with is not children being led to have sex, but people who are a very alien and difficult to understand mix being born very adult but being very inexperienced in terms of really living.

  29. So, something I’ve been thinking about is how episodic chapters have been for a little while, often introducing and then resolving a primary conflict within a single chapter. Because you’re a single person writing mass quantities of material at a breakneck pace, I don’t think it always quite works — the conflicts can sometimes seem like they come out of nowhere, or the resolution might feel abrupt.

    If you made updates shorter and less self-contained, then I think there would be a greater sense of continuity, conflicts could be introduced less abruptly, chapters could be more polished and well-resolved, and most importantly, you wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much time and energy on every chapter.

    Just my own two cents.

    Enjoy your break!!

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