7.19

“…Yerra?”

The question lingered. And that moment, the culmination of an adventure at sea, and the powers that claimed they ruled the waves clashing—all of it ended. Or took an interlude.

Until the next time the world deemed the events worthy of notice. And many who heard the question, whether directly from the scrying orb broadcasting The Emerald Signet from the decks of a Drake ship, or thereafter—reacted.

Wil’s sister, Talia, and his family. Yerranola’s family and fellow Selphids. The students of Niers Astoragon’s class and the Titan himself.

So many more. But on another day in the summer, someone who didn’t listen and had no idea that there were [Strategists] at sea sat in her inn. And she had a different kind of thought that had nothing to do with poison or Selphids or the ocean—well, one thing was related, at least.

“I think today I’ll try brewing some alcohol. I mean. I can. And that’s how alcohol works. Brewing, right?”

Erin looked at Lyonette for confirmation. The [Worldly Princess] raised her head; she was reading something.

“How much of a profit should I expect? Also—do it in the basement.”

The young woman scowled at Lyonette as the papers rose. Not your traditional book, but a cheaper, rather less sturdy substitute. But it could hold ink and someone had carefully scrawled on it.

The Pallassian Times. It was very familiar. Palt had brought a copy into the inn. And it was, to Erin’s knowledge, a written and curated account of worldwide events. The [Innkeeper] hadn’t read it; Lyonette had hogged it. Along with Drassi.

“Wow. There was a battle at sea.”

Erin read from the back of the newspaper. Lyonette glanced over it and scowled. Somehow, she had managed to emulate the classic newspaper look without having ever seen it before. That of a father, scowling at a child bothering him over the morning’s breakfast.

“If you need to use any of the gold or supplies, please make a list, Erin. I’ll calculate the efficiency later. Also, try not to make a mess? Do you even know how alcohol is made?”

“I have a Skill! Why, do you?

“I know it ferments. So good luck with your [Field of Preservation] Skill.”

The newspaper rose. Erin opened and closed her mouth. Then she looked around.

“Well, someone’s getting their [Sasser] class.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing!”

Erin innocently got up. Mrsha hopped off the table as Erin rose. Sunlight poured through the window where she’d been napping on a table. It was a beautiful morning. And Lyonette’s increased backchat aside, Erin felt good. She stretched.

“Hey Mrsha, want to help me make alcohol? You can’t drink any, but it’ll be fun! Probably! We’ll do it outside or something. Maybe that [Fermenter] dude in Liscor could help? Um—Ushel! Hey, Mrsha, let’s go for a trip!”

The Gnoll cub sat on her butt on the floor and quickly raised her paws. She signed to Erin.

“Don’t…like…is that your word for alcohol? Stinky? Don’t like stinky alcohol? Gotcha! Well, I’ll pay you in stinky cheese howzabouthat?”

The young woman laughed and Mrsha laughed too. Erin looked around. Lyonette sighed.

“I suppose I’ll handle breakfast, then.”

She turned a page, frowning at an illustration of a battle at sea. Drassi was cleaning up and serving food to Temile; few of the regulars had come in.

It was early. And the [Actor] was blinking at his food as if he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it. Numbtongue hadn’t even woken up yet. Erin smiled.

As she thrust open the door and Apista fluttered out of the Garden of Sanctuary, high once again, Erin Solstice inhaled the fresh morning air. She opened her mouth to shout a greeting towards Liscor.

And then she saw it. A flash of azure. A gleaming body, walking up the hill towards the inn. Mrsha sniffed the air and Erin froze.

“Oh no. It’s her again!”

Lyonette glanced up as Erin slammed the door shut and ran. The [Princess] glanced up as Mrsha opened the door and peeked out. She waved one paw and the figure waved back.

The inn was silent for a few more seconds as Lyonette debated getting up. But she was invested in the dramatic retelling of the battles at sea—the fate of the [Strategists] and The Emerald Signet still unknown. They had been lost in the storm for days! She kept reading.

And a Hobgoblin walked down the steps. Numbtongue scratched at his side and yawned. He walked into the kitchen and waved at Lyonette. She smiled at him, far more cordial than with Erin.

“Morning, Numbtongue. We have a newspaper today.”

“A what?”

He paused on his way to the kitchen. Mrsha raced over and gave him a flying kick to the leg. The [Bard] barely noticed, although he winced slightly. Lyonette glared, but the Hobgoblin never objected; you got hit far worse in spars and Mrsha enjoyed it.

“A newspaper. It’s this new Pallassian thing. Well, new for…Pallass. Palt brought it in last night. You can read it over breakfast; I’m nearly done with it.”

“Morning, Numbtongue! Want today’s menu? It’s, uh, eggs benedictal.”

Lyonette corrected Drassi.

“Benedict. On Erin’s weird muffins.”

English muffins!

Someone called from the kitchen. There was a crash, and a few scuffling sounds. Numbtongue glanced towards the kitchen, but accepted whatever was happening wordlessly. He shook his head.

“I’ll find food.”

“Alright, then.”

The Hobgoblin went into the kitchen and poked around in the cupboards as Mrsha peeked out the door again and waved once more. She got another wave.

Numbtongue hunted around in the cupboards for what he wanted. No eggs, thanks. He was in a fishy mood today. He liked fish. He pulled out a rather magnificent flatfish, drizzled with Gnollish fish sauce. Salty, fresh.

Delicious. All it needed was heat. The Hobgoblin hummed as he turned to one of the ovens. Stone ovens of course, although Lyonette and Erin wanted to upgrade it. He had to light it; when he did he heard a yelp.

From within. The Hobgoblin stared. He opened the oven’s door slowly. And saw a young woman squeezed into the massive oven.

“I’m not here.”

Erin Solstice informed Numbtongue. He met her eyes. Slowly, he closed the oven door.

“And please put the fire out!”

The Hobgoblin went for the lower oven. He warmed up his fish…took the hot plate, cursing as he burned his fingers. Then he edged out of the kitchen.

By the time Numbtongue had made his food, the guest had entered the inn. She’d walked; the staff didn’t begin checking the magic door until a bit later. So, Xrn, the Small Queen, Centenium and [Thaumaturge], was relatively alone in the inn. The Wistram [Mages] hadn’t come down yet.

She stood in the middle of the room as Numbtongue stared. But—he had met her already. So he just edged over to a table and began to eat his fish. Lyonette glanced up as Drassi hurried over.

“Miss Xrn! How can we help you today?”

The Centenium’s mandibles opened and rose. And Xrn’s eyes shone bright yellow and green. Mrsha sat and stared up at her. For the azure Antinium was pure magic. And the staff she used to walk with shone with it. Even Lyonette could see that.

But they’d already been introduced. Xrn nodded to Drassi.

“I would like to speak to Innkeeper Erin Solstice, again. Drassi of the Drakes. Is she here?”

Drassi looked around.

“She just was. I think she’ll be about.”

“Hmm.”

Xrn swept her gaze across the inn. She stared into the Garden of Sanctuary and Lyonette saw her eyes flash white for a moment. The gemstone of her staff glittered. It was some fine-cut, purple-and-green gemstone that shifted from color to color. It hovered in the center of floating fragments of wood, forming a loose circle around it.

The Antinium turned her head, inspecting the Garden of Sanctuary although she made no move for the door. Searching.

The [Princess] folded the newspaper, and handed it to Numbtongue as she made her way into the kitchen. She looked around, heard the breathing from the oven and opened it.

Erin stared at Lyonette. She had folded herself into the oven. She slowly raised one finger and put it to her lips. Lyonette put her hands on her hips, exasperated.

“Are you hiding in the oven?”

“Yes. Is she gone?”

“No. She wants you. Erin.

The young woman waved her hands urgently.

“Don’t say my name! Don’t—”

“Hello, Erin Solstice. Is this some new game? Or custom? You must show it to me.”

Xrn the Small Queen appeared in the kitchen’s opening. Lyonette turned. Erin slowly pulled the door of the oven up.

But it was no use. In moments, Erin, a bit sooty and cramped, sat nervously at a table as Drassi put down a plate of benedict eggs in front of Xrn, on an English muffin. The Antinium’s eyes lit up with pleasure, which was pink in this case. She ate, happily chewing the eggs.

“Oh, they are different than normal eggs. How wonderful.”

“That’s the sauce. Glad you like them…Xrn?”

Erin watched the female Antinium eating the muffins, gluten, without issue. Xrn spoke as she savored each bite.

“I have come once again. Have you given any thought to my offers?”

The [Innkeeper] squirmed in her seat. The Small Queen regarded her.

Well…I mean, I’d like to, Xrn. And you helping with the, um, Hive is great. Klbkch was really mad. And I get you’re in charge, now, but…”

“Is there some issue with my requests?”

Erin twiddled her fingers.

“…No? But it’s just sort of…big. I mean, I’ll totally agree to the stuff with the food. But everything else?”

She looked at Xrn. The Small Queen had come three days ago. And she had changed the Free Antinium. Klbkch, who had been driven to a rage Erin had never seen before was—dealt with.

No one had died. The Antinium had been welcomed back into their Hive. Klbkch had even taken a vacation from the Watch; he was no longer in charge of the Free Antinium, and Erin understood that this was only the beginning of the changes to the Hive. Big ones had begun.

And Xrn had sought Erin out. Not in an aggressive way, but she had come to the inn over the last three days. And but for the moment with Saliss, she had been welcoming—even playful with Mrsha. She was respectful, loved Erin’s food and seemed to appreciate all of the Antinium.

And yet—the Small Queen regarded Erin over her food as she raised another bite to her face.

“What will you refuse, Erin Solstice? By all means, tell me any objections and I will do my utmost to rectify them. Is cost an issue? I will double your price.”

Lyonette’s head snapped up. Erin winced.

“No, it’s not that. It’s so—sudden? I mean, some of it—why me?”

The Centenium folded her two arms. And she had only two. She smiled again and her eyes lit up with a multitude of colors. She was fascinating to Erin. And yet.

“Because you are Erin Solstice. And we have need of you. Will you not take more Antinium into your inn? Allow them to live here? At least Pawn, and a few others. They may even share a room. Or do you object to teaching the Antinium? Apprenticing Garry? Allowing them to eat here regularly? Is instructing the others and allowing them to play games in your inn an issue? We are quite willing to pay for more buildings. I would prefer to quarter as many as three hundred Antinium in proximity of the inn.”

The young woman opened and closed her mouth

“Um—the lots of Antinium nearby is the big thing. And…teaching them? I mean, sure! Let’s have them have patrols in here like normal. And eating! And I can have some of the rooms with Antinium in them! Definitely Pawn! Lyonette was saying we had rooms for him and a few others—”

She saw Lyonette nodding. Mrsha glowered as she poked her head over the table. Erin glanced at her. Xrn however just smiled. She offered Mrsha some of her muffin and the Gnoll took it.

“That is all well. And it is enough. But you seem to have reservations?”

She looked at Erin. The young woman hesitated.

“Well—it’s just so generous. I mean—why do you want me to do all this? The Antinium are paying a lot. And…I just don’t know what the Antinium get out of this.”

Xrn smiled.

“It is not something I can name in words, Erin Solstice. Or if I could—it is only your kindness. I have not been here long. But I hear it in all the Antinium’s words about you. Pawn, Belgrade, Anand, Garry—and the others. Give them all that you have. Even if it is but laughter and love. Give them Individuality. Give them your magic. If you will not allow hundreds of Antinium to wait upon you—or enter the Hive to train my people, I will be content with the rest.”

Erin found herself nodding. She agreed completely with that. Give the Antinium love? Xrn was great. Amazing, really. If it was just that…

“So…Klbkch isn’t in charge?”

“He is learning to feel. He is a fool. I have hit him with my staff multiple times, but he only understands war. Klbkch the Slayer is an apt term for him. Also: flawed beyond belief because it is incomplete. He is more than a weapon. But he is a poor leader. He does not appreciate what you can do.

The Small Queen looked at Erin. The young woman found herself nodding.

“Yeah. You’re so—caring, Xrn. Pawn was saying that when he came in. Why are you so—not Klbkch?”

The Antinium loved Xrn. The female Antinium’s eyes lit up with pleasure.

“Indeed, I am not Klbkchhezeim. I fully appreciate many things he was never meant to. I was designed to lead. To inspire. To foresee the future of what we might be. To cast magic, as well. Klbkch was ever meant to slaughter our foes. To pile the bodies of the dead into walls around our Hives. He has learned leadership. But part of him is still the lone warrior who would walk into an army of foes without fear of death. I am glad he has recovered some of his power, but he is a fool.”

Erin half-smiled. But then Xrn went on.

“And yet—he learned some of his empathy from you. I hope you will allow him back into your inn. He must learn. And so must the Antinium. He is our fool. Please, teach him more. And give him—give the Antinium some of your magic. Perhaps Klbkch should stay in this inn. Although Pawn did object.”

“Are you finished, Miss Xrn? Can I get you more?”

Drassi went by to take the plate. The Centenium shook her head. She stood.

“I am finished. Miss Erin Solstice, would you do me the courtesy of allowing me into your garden?”

“…Of course.”

Xrn even asked. She walked into the garden. And her eyes shone as green and vibrantly as the grass, mixed with the clear blue of the skies. Like magic.

“How beautiful. Look at the power of it. And you have shown me your magical fire. It is, like my magic, a power not known to [Mages] or Antinium. A different sort of power. Please, Erin Solstice. I will send the Antinium to you. Give them your strength. We have need of it.”

The young [Innkeeper] saw Xrn glance over her shoulder. Even in this—Erin felt so strongly for Xrn. She whispered.

“I’ll try. But I don’t know what I do. I just—care.”

“Yes. You, among others, care when the other species do not. And that makes Antinium Individual. Do so. I will send the Silent Antinium, the Flying, and Armored Antinium to you. Excuse their faults. Even Pivr’s. And in return—give them Individuality. Allow them to level. Give them your power as Pawn and Belgrade and the others have. They must have it.”

The Small Queen stood in the garden. And she raised her staff towards the sunlight streaming through the ceiling. Her voice was so fond, so—almost motherly, or perhaps like a big sister’s, so affectionate, Erin nearly forgot. But then—the Small Queen went on.

“And I have heard of your power. The—coincidences. Can you find me a ship? Allies to crew it, perhaps?”

“A ship?”

The Small Queen looked at Erin. She nodded.

“If it is within your power. The people you know. Find us allies? I will reward every endeavor, every action of good faith, Erin Solstice. As I told you, here—you may name your boon. Will you not take the Free Antinium’s gold? We have enough to build your inn a hundred times over. I would give you ten thousand gold pieces if you would accept them.”

Her eyes glinted. And a bit of red, purple, and black—the color, swimming amid her eyes.

“A hundred thousand pieces if you can create in one of the Antinium a change like that of Pawn’s. He will be a glorious leader. He can heal. Even block Klbkch. Yes, we need him. We need your power. The Antinium must be powerful. Our foes are mighty. I would have an army of eight hundred thousand Painted Antinium at the least. And they would be unmatched save for  the True Antinium’s power.”

And there it was. Darkness floating amid her eyes. She turned her head.

“War is coming, Erin Solstice. Turn the Antinium into a blade. You have reservations—but I will give you what you wish. Do you wish me to enchant your inn? I have the magic for it.”

Erin Solstice looked at her. And she saw it in Xrn again, the same as when she’d met. And every time Xrn had visited.

Klbkch was one thing. Flawed, kindly—somehow a dangerous killer and her old friend at the same time. But Xrn?

She scared Erin out of her wits. Because she didn’t hide what she was. Erin licked her dry lips.

“Enchant my inn…?”

“Of course. I am Xrn. My magic is not the same as that of the three [Mages] under your roof. But I have my own enchantments. I will render each you require. Ask. If you wish me to enchant your walls—I will do so. Would you like them stronger? With the power to attack back?”

“You can do that? Just do that?”

The Small Queen turned her head.

“Naturally. I am unique as all the Centenium are. I was made for magic. And unlike Klbkch, my form remains. I am specialized, Erin Solstice. Ask and if it is within my power or that of the Antinium, it will be done.”

Erin did not. She looked at Xrn. She took a breath.

“I’m happy to have the Antinium here, Xrn. But—can’t you—I don’t want the Antinium to become a blade. Can’t you talk to Saliss? Or Chaldion? Well, he’s in the hospital. But the others…you scare the Drakes.”

The Centenium paused. She looked at Erin, kindly. And Erin sensed how old she was. Xrn smiled. But the creeping blackness in her eyes shone. Laced with silver.

“There is little to say to the Drakes, Erin Solstice. They continue to war against us, even in ‘peace’. They would not believe anything we say. And they are right to fear us. But our foe is greater than you can imagine. And I bear you no ill will. Just all the gratitude I have. But I cannot give you either reassurance.”

“Even about the Antinium turning into weapons? Pawn isn’t a weapon.”

The azure Antinium looked at Erin. She smiled. Amused.

“Ah. Erin Solstice. You see what Klbkch does not. And perhaps that is why you are so…important. But we were all made to be weapons. For victory, we will charge into slaughter itself and die. Give us what you can and perhaps some might be saved. I implore you.”

She bowed. Erin had nothing to say to that. The Antinium spoke, and Erin listened. Some things she agreed to. But the rest?

At her heart, Xrn was a warrior. She was a kindly, caring, empathetic big sister. And she had killed her enemies by the millions and walked through their blood. She would again, in a heartbeat.

That was what Erin saw. And Xrn didn’t press. She offered everything. Gold, power. And Erin took only what mattered to her. In some ways—she and Xrn had little to offer each other.

When Xrn was gone, Lyonette turned to face Erin. She hadn’t heard all of it. But she saw Erin’s face. And it was…unsettled. Few people had ever done that to Erin Solstice, so the [Princess] revised her opinion of Xrn.

“Did she ask if she could build an apartment for the Antinium again? Three hundred of them?”

Erin nodded.

“And she offered to give me thirty regular Soldiers and Workers like Bird for the inn’s staff. To do with as I pleased, for a year. My own army, because she’s sure they’ll level. She’s intense. I thought Klbkch was intense! But he’s like…soft cheese!”

Lyonette looked at Erin. And she bit her lip on how useful thirty free staff members would be, even if Erin insisted on paying them. Erin Solstice stared after where Xrn had stood.

“Why me?”

“I think she understands what you can do.”

The [Innkeeper] turned her head. And she looked tired.

“Yeah. I probably could…but I don’t want to turn them into weapons. And Xrn?”

She saw Xrn, through the doorway, standing in the inn, squatting to speak to Mrsha and stroke her head. The kindly one. Erin didn’t know who Xrn’s foe was. The Centenium had offered to tell Erin everything if Erin would swear to her cause. But it would take Erin swearing an oath. To be committed to the Antinium forever.

The cause of the Antinium. To war. Erin shook her head.

The Wandering Inn was not a place of war. It was an inn. But—if you looked at Klbkch, you saw Senior Guardsman Klbkch, Revalantor Klbkch, Klbkch the Slayer. And only one of those was the monster of war.

But Xrn was all death. She saw the Antinium for who they were, with their personalities and feelings. And she cared. But she had told Erin they were meant to die, and that the cause they would die for was just, right. Unavoidable. Worth burning all the Walled Cities down for. Worth waging war against the entire world for. Something Xrn feared and hated more than her love for her people.

Erin wondered what that was.

 

—-

 

Still—Xrn got her way. The Antinium would come to Erin’s inn. Each night, in fact. They had a budget. And it was large enough to make Lyonette smile all day—and that was aside from the news that Pawn and at least a dozen Antinium would have rooms in Erin’s inn as the second and third floors were constructed.

Xrn had paid in advance. And they might double or even go three to a room, but they’d be here. Heck—she was doing great things.

And terrible. And it wasn’t like her presence didn’t affect Erin. It did—it made Erin worried. And thoughtful. Just not predisposed to support Xrn wholly.

So Erin amended her plans.

“I’m not gonna make alcohol. Too much work. I’ll just roll into phase two of my plan. It’s all related. I’m gonna borrow the kitchen, okay, Lyonette? I’m making stuff for Palt.”

The [Princess] could never follow Erin. She eyed the young woman.

“How is alcohol and the kitchen related for…oh.

Her eyes widened. Erin blinked.

“Oh, sorry. Not Palt. Pelt! Those names are so similar, it cracks me up each time.”

She grinned. Then she pointed.

“Door! Kitchen!”

Erin walked into the kitchen. Lyonette followed her, sighing. She walked into the inn and began serving clients.

The Wistram [Mages] came downstairs. Palt, as always, had trouble navigating the stairwell.

“Move it, Palt! I’m hungry!

Montressa complained. Beza reached out and Palt nearly bit at her.

“Push me and I’ll kick you, Bezale! I’m hurrying!”

“What’s for breakfast?”

Eggs benedict! Get them while it’s hot! Can I borrow the newspaper when you’re done, Numbtongue? I want to share it with my friends. Isn’t it amazing?

“Mhm.”

The Wistram [Mages] exchanged a knowing glance about the newspaper. But Palt was heading over to a table.

“I think we’ll be investigating this um, Golden Triangle thing. We’ve got orders from the top, Palt. You?”

“I’m off my leash. The Golden Triangle?”

“Yup. In Pallass. Apparently Naili wants us on it now. Something to do with, you know? The guests? Sounds like trouble, but what do I know?”

Montressa rolled her eyes as she took her plate. Beza was nodding.

“We will look into it. Quickly. Apparently, some [Lords] have joined the movement. And nations. Thousands of gold are being turned into profits.”

“I did hear about it. It sounds lucrative. Only…”

Palt’s eyes narrowed. He glanced at the kitchen and Montressa sighed.

“You do your thing. We’ll do ours.”

“Maybe I’ll just see if Erin wants to chat. Or—if she needs help. Is she cooking, Lyonette?”

“Something, Palt. If you want to help, be my guest. And if you could make some more of your saffron rice tonight? It always sells!”

Lyonette smiled gratefully at the Centaur. He trotted into the kitchen.

A few seconds later he trotted out. Beza and Montressa looked up as he went back to his plate.

“What’s wrong, Palt? Not gonna help Erin out?”

Montressa gave the Centaur a suspicious look. The [Illusionist] pulled out a smokeless cigar—he was running out—and shuddered.

“Not this time. I would, but…I can’t help with construction or tasting. Not my field.”

“What?”

Beza looked incredulous. But Palt just nodded to the kitchen. A young woman edged out. She was holding something. She lifted it and the Minotauress’ jaw dropped.

“Can I get anyone to help me taste test this?”

Numbtongue, Mrsha, and Beza all stared at what Erin was holding. Mrsha fainted onto the ground. Numbtongue slowly raised a hand. Beza looked at Montressa and grinned.

“I knew I liked this inn. I’ll help! Is it free?”

“Erin, what is that?

The young woman grinned. Her creation, made of sin and gluttony, dripped onto the floor. Mrsha raced over like a shot out of a cannon, begging and drooling.

“A gift! I’m going to Pallass. Once I perfect the recipe.”

 

—-

 

Pallass. The City of Inventions. A glorious land that was a type of heaven for the [Engineer], the aspiring [Alchemist] or [Inventor]. A place where you could be funded to follow your passions.

Because that was what happened. Small or large, new inventions and recipes came from Pallass. And you could be granted a stipend depending on what you did.

Of course, a Walled city had so many other industries and things it supported that was only one aspect of it. But Pallass was the City of Inventions. It specialized in forging weapons, in alchemy.

Just like how Oteslia was an agricultural giant, or how Salazsar ruled the gem trade. Each Walled City specialized in a trade.

Just look at Saliss of Lights, simultaneously one of Pallass’ treasures and their disgrace. The Named Adventurer wasn’t causing trouble today. He’d sequestered himself away to teach his new apprentice some tricks. And because a strange female Drake had smashed another raid on an illicit bar the other night.

But that wasn’t the topic on everyone’s tongues. That was the [Strategists], who were right now in Zeres. And amid the hustle and bustle of the city came…poison.

Or perhaps, a kind of madness incarnate. A manifestation of chaos, like Saliss was. But if he was a known force, born of Pallass, she was an unknown quantity.

An omen you listened to by the shouting or screaming. A harbinger of doom. Had she brought the Wyverns or had the impending event drawn her? And who watched for her?

Only the wise, who had seen what might be and could be. Was that all just exaggeration?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Sergeant Kel eyed Erin as he checked her, Montressa, and Beza through the gate that led from the magical door to the rest of Pallass.

“No trouble, Miss Solstice?”

“Whaaaaat? Me? And you didn’t have to search my stuff! It’s just food! Hey, want a snack?”

Erin pouted as she hefted her rather big basket past the guards. A Gnoll was sniffing and licking his lips. Kel eyed Beza. The [Spellscribe] was walking while holding her stomach.

“I can’t believe you ate all of it. I felt sick watching.”

Montressa covered her mouth. Erin reached into her basket.

“I’ve got extras! Not the thing, but want some cookies?”

The Watch brightened. Kel, on the other hand, had heard the devil’s whispers. He looked chaos in the eye and denied it.

“No. We are on duty, Miss Solstice. Stop feeding the Watch.”

“Aw. You’re no fun.”

Erin stuck out her tongue. Some of the [Guards] grumbled under their breath, but stopped as Kel glared at them. He made a little note and sighed.

“Someone run this to the Watch House. Tell the Watch Captain on duty Miss Erin Solstice is in Pallass.”

One of the junior [Guards] looked incredulous. He, a Garuda, saluted Kel.

“Sergeant, surely we don’t have to tell the Watch Captain one Human…”

He fell silent as Kel glowered.

“Take the note. Or do you not remember the Antinium and Wyverns? She was there.

The Watch fell silent. And they were learning. But was this force friendly or dangerous? She had toppled cities, brought low the ambitions of [Lords]. What might she get up to? But the law let her into the city. So, thus, Sergeant Kel reflected gloomily, the law was not infallible. And you wouldn’t know what happened until…

“I’m gonna go do my thing. Have fun!”

Erin Solstice waved to Montressa and Beza. The two [Mages] nodded and walked off, already headed for the Merchant’s Guild.

The [Innkeeper] on the other hand? She went about her mission. And yes—she was pulling a Xrn in her own way, but Erin didn’t like thinking of it like that. She just had her…network.

“Hey, Lorent! How’s my favorite [Sharpener]? Want a cookie? I keep meaning to thank you for finding my knife…”

Erin paused by a familiar stall and chatted with a Dullahan. He was only too happy to run her kitchen knife across his sharpening stone and chat for a moment. Just for a moment, but she headed onwards.

The young woman was beginning to know more of the city. She had plans to explore even further—but for now she headed to the nearest elevator.

“Ninth floor, please!”

She cheerfully called out with the other people waiting. The elevator attendant  glanced at Erin. His eyes widened.

“Are you the Human? The one with Bird the—”

Nope! You must have me confused! Us Humans all look alike!

Erin waved her hands urgently. And soon, she was strolling across the 9th floor. She passed by forges and [Smiths] called out to her. Somehow, in a city of millions, they knew her. Even, or especially the high-level ones! Waiting clients and Street Runners blinked as Erin waved and crossed the hammering forges.

“Is that Bealt? Have a cookie! Sorry, special delivery. Is Pelt working today? He is? Where—oh, right by Maughin again! Thanks!”

Erin trotted over to the safety-line and then hurried over to a forge. She saw a huge Dullahan look up.

“Miss Solstice? What brings you here?”

“Maughin! Hey! Want a cookie?

That was Erin’s line for the day. The [Armorer] was only too glad to chat, but he was a bit busy so he only gave Erin the briefest of greetings.

“It’s a busy day. I will have to work hard to make it back to spend time with Jelaqua, Erin. So forgive me my brusqueness.”

“She’s back? That’s great! You lucky dog, you!”

The Dullahan gave Erin a blank look as one of his apprentices held out his head.

“I am not a dog. But yes, I am happy. The Halfseekers were on the television, actually.”

“What? What? Seborn? No way! I’ll ask Rufelt and Lasica to show me! I should buy a scrying orb! Wait. Who’s calling it television?”

“Wistram. Why are you here, Miss Erin?”

The young woman gestured at the basket, warming in the heat from the forges.

“I’m looking for Pelt. Is he here?”

“Right there.”

Maughin pointed left. Erin blinked.

“But that forge is full!

Indeed, the forge had no less than six people working in it, none of them Dwarf-sized. And they were busy moving the anvils, clustering around…Erin squinted. She walked over and stared.

“No way. Pelt?

The Dwarf looked up from the circle of apprentices and junior [Smiths] hanging on his words. And ‘junior’ was a relative term. Erin saw a [Blacksmith] in his forties hurrying off with Pelt’s apprentice, Emessa. Erin blinked after them. And then she saw Pelt.

He scowled at her.

“It’s you again. Grandfather’s beards, what do you want? Stay away from my fire! And stand over there! They’re moving the anvils and if they drop it on your foot, I’m not paying for it!”

He waved his hammer at Erin. She backed off obediently and saw a group of [Smiths] lugging over an anvil. Which was impressive given that anvils at their lightest were nearly a hundred pounds and could go up to five hundred pounds in an ordinary forge.

And Pallass did not have ordinary forges. These anvils needed special stands to even withstand the impact and weight. But Pelt was moving his.

“That’s right! Into this section—here! Damn it, don’t touch the circle or I’ll pull your intestines out with my tongs you clod-footed idiots! And the other one in the sealed space, there!”

“But master, there’s no ventilation!”

Emessa protested as she pointed to a cordoned-off area. Erin saw black curtains hanging, and a stand for the anvil. The Dwarf turned purple.

Ventilation? Don’t backchat me—apprentice!

“Emessa.”

Erin whispered. Pelt glared at her. He bellowed at the Drake.

“You can debate with me when you’re twenty levels higher! Move those anvils! And get me my prepared tools and ingredients! And if I catch one of you walking off with them I’ll cut off your right hand! A Dwarf’s oath on that.

The last line was delivered deadly serious. The [Smiths] shuddered as Pelt bellowed. They got to work. Erin stared at Pelt.

He seemed…energetic. The Dwarf turned and glared at her.

“What do you want, Human?”

“I…just thought I’d bring a sorry-basket. Lunch.”

Erin offered her basket to Pelt. The Dwarf sniffed suspiciously.

“Why would I want anything you made? And why are you here? The last time we met in Pallass the sky was shitting Wyverns—after you got arrested and wrecked a good forge!”

Erin winced. That had been a day. She smiled as she hefted the heavy basket; even with [Lesser Strength] she was getting tired of holding it.

“Because…I’m an [Innkeeper]. And I made something good. Promise!

The Dwarf eyed her with deep distrust. But he nodded to one side.

“Alright. Put it down there. I need to check on the magic circle. Stand there and don’t conjure any magic fire! Or I’ll—”

“Pull my guts out with a tong?”

“—kick you off the side of the 9th floor.”

The Dwarf glowered and stomped off. Pelt inspected his forge, snapping at his apprentices. And it was—different.

Especially from Maughin’s forge, or the other smaller forges catering to individual blacksmiths they could use. This one looked—

Magical. It spoke to Erin. Especially the glowing circle traced in what looked like powdered gemstone in the floor. The diagram was etched around the circle, giving the smith room to stand in. There was a dark room to forge in, another with a hole cut in the ceiling—even the forges were being remodeled.

“This one needs to burn about ten times as hot as a charcoal forge. At least. If we need to, we’ll get an [Enchanter] here to work on it. But we won’t be able to melt Dwarfsteel with this shit flame.”

Pelt kicked at the forge, which would get to temperatures that would melt steel. His apprentices were cluttered around. Erin peeked over as Pelt cursed.

“Don’t ask me how! I’ll build it myself if I need to! Just get to work on today’s orders! I’ll handle the Dwarfsteel and higher metals. You—take the mithril crap. Apprentice—”

“Emessa—”

Shut up, Human! Start with the silver. The rest of you, the steel orders! I’ll do the embellishing—just get it in a workable piece! Don’t ask questions! If you forge shit, I’ll see it and stop you. Any imperfection I will catch. And I’ll only break one finger per flaw! Get to work!

The Dwarf howled and his crew got to work. They didn’t use either of the special forges, opting to use the regular anvils. Erin saw Pelt stomp back towards her.

“Sorry about that. Rookie smiths. Idiots think they know what steel is. You got them all the time in Deríthal-vel. Dwarfhome. What’s in the basket?”

He seemed calmer now. Erin stared at Pelt. She looked around.

“Sorry, I’m in the wrong place. I’m looking for a rude jerk. Always drunk? You’re nearly him, but you’re too awake.”

Pelt glowered.

“Human. I’m working.

Really? You? I mean…”

Erin bit her lip. She remembered Pelt hammering on the Grasgil bardiche. After her fire—but this wasn’t that Pelt. Torn by grief and pride. This was—a mix between the Pelt she’d known, the grumpy alcoholic, and a working Pelt.

He wasn’t happy. But Pelt’s scowl indicated his entire forge.

“Have to earn money somehow, don’t I? And yes, I hired more apprentices. Less work for me, I realized. They do the hammering and so long as they don’t overheat the metal—

He bellowed and all the [Smiths] jumped. They snatched their billets out of the fire and inspected them. Pelt looked at Erin.

“—I can do the finishing touches. Most metal—you don’t need to put a Skill into if the metal’s right. You just need to forge to shape, and even an idiot can do that. Well—probably.”

He glared at his team again. Erin put down her basket on an anvil. She began to unwrap her present.

“Uh huh. So…did you sell the Grasgil axe?”

“Of course. It got enchanted. Waste of potential; the idiot just added to the freeze. It’ll be a low Gold-rank adventurer’s weapon. But that’s how it works. Anyways, the city gave me some drinking funds. Idiots. But I spent some of it and this is the result.”

Pelt spoke briskly. He watched as Emessa brought back her billet and began to hammer it carefully. He glanced at Erin—one of his apprentices sniffed. The Dwarf, who had seen a lot of marvels of steelwork, stopped and stared.

“What is that abomination, Human?”

The—thing that Erin held was in theory, a sandwich. But it was mainly meat.

Meat, the best cuts she could find, some fried, others prepared in different ways. Bacon, salami, cuts of beef, pork, chicken—layered with mustard, mayonnaise, other condiments—and some onions and pepper too. Vegetables hadn’t been entirely banned from this concoction.

But it was madness. Heavy, too. A carnivore’s dream. Erin hefted it up and showed it to Pelt.

“I’m calling it a ‘Meat Supreme Sub’. Because it’s a lotta meat. I thought you’d like it?”

The Dwarf stared. The Drakes, and Gnolls both stared. One of the Dullahans gagged. But Pelt licked his lips slowly.

“You…made that?”

Erin beamed.

“Yup! Well—I thought of you, and Relc, and a few others. Most people shouldn’t eat this. Ever. But [Smiths] use up a lot of energy, right? Dawil loved meat stuff. So…want some? I know I’m not as good as Lasica is, but I can do food like this.”

She had cut the sandwich in half. Whatever that meant; you couldn’t bite it. Well—Beza could. But only just.

So could Pelt. The Dwarf picked up the sandwich, inspected the contents, and bit gingerly. He chewed as Erin watched. And chewed…and chewed…and swallowed.

“I think I will be sick.”

Maughin announced. But Pelt took another bite. A drooling  Gnoll—Bealt—came over.

“Hey, Pelt. You’re getting Miss Erin to hand-deliver you food? Mind if I take a—”

Pelt kicked at him without a word. The [Farrier] retreated. The Dwarf kept eating as Erin watched. After a while, he stopped. The Dwarf eyed the sandwich, and then Erin’s smiling face.

“What?”

“You’ve got some on your beard.”

The [Blacksmith] snorted and kept eating.

“You’d be welcome in Dwarfhome, girl. Even the old Grandfathers would love you. What’s this, a bribe? It’s not worth a knife. If you want, I’ll smith you a set of those crap steel knives. But nothing made of a better metal. I want payment.”

He nodded at the ones on Erin’s side. She sat on a desk and kicked her legs.

“I don’t need another knife. I was just giving this to say sorry, honest. I’ve got something else, but I’d bother you with it, anyways.”

The Dwarf nearly snorted some of the sandwich out his nose. He coughed.

“Least you’re honest. So—what?”

“Mm. Tell me about your forge, first. This is amazing.

“Why? I’m hiring apprentices and I added a few new additions. What—the anvils? That’s just protective magic and to help with the forging. These idiots—Pallass knows how to do a lot with steel, but they don’t know magical forging. I’d have been better off going to Chandrar or Baleros for that.”

The Dwarf’s voice carried. Bealt frowned as he investigated the other half of the sandwich. Pelt raised a hammer.

“I don’t think you can eat it all. Maybe share?”

Erin opined. The Dwarf eyed the sandwich and his stomach.

“Generous, aren’t you? Fine, give the food away. It’s not mine and it is…good.”

A grudging compliment. Erin beamed. Bealt grabbed the sandwich half and raced off with it. Half a dozen Gnolls pursued him. Erin idly watched as Pelt kept eating.

“So—do you feel better, then?”

“After you shamed me into remembering my craft? Guess. I’d rather jump off the 9th, but since I already thought about that years ago, I guess I have to actually work.”

The Dwarf put down his sandwich. Erin stopped kicking her feet.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? If I wasn’t ashamed, staring at your little cold flame wouldn’t have done a thing. Nor will I thank you. Since that damn cold flame might have lured all the Frost Wyverns here.”

The young woman paled. The Dwarf laughed and slapped his chest at the expression on her face.

Hah! Got you! Anyways, if you’re just guilty, you can fuck off. What else did you want?”

He was rather like…Ivolethe. That was what Erin thought. And Pelt was still Pelt. Rough around the edges didn’t begin to describe him.

And yet, Erin liked him. His wounded heart shone brighter to her than Xrn’s deathly convictions. And—she took a breath.

“So you’re forging magic? Magic metal, I mean, like Grasgil?”

“That’s right. I have the knowing and I was banished, not forbidden. Hah—as if they could forbid us. Better slaughter us all. Pallass has a lot of steel-knowledge. Little of adamantium or greater metals. I’ll be forging magical blades. If I could stop these idiots from stealing everything!”

The Dwarf cursed and pointed. Maughin ducked his head back into his forge. So did half a dozen other [Smiths]. Erin grinned.

“Well, they’re curious. And you are a master?”

“Thieves is what they are. I’m almost tempted to smith one of the alloys and watch them kill themselves as it explodes on them. Or melts through their anvils. But—ah. Why am I telling you this? I’ll manage. And if I can’t go home, I can at least rule Pallass. Is any of my metal ready?

The Dwarf snatched up a hammer. Emessa hurried over with a rough shape forged out of silver. Pelt eyed it and, with his hammer alone, began to delicately refine it. Erin realized he was looking at—a horn? But not a horn as in warhorn. A…

“I’ll live on damn mundane craft. Like this. Some Wistram nonsense. What’s this, a brass horn, only silver? Get me the drawing!”

Emessa already had it. Erin stared at a euphonium. Pelt scratched his head as he stared at the inner workings.

“Yeah. It’ll be a pain to shape. Appr—Emessa! Get me tubes this big. I’ll refine.”

He held up his fingers and his apprentice hurried back to continue work. Casually, stopping to heat the silver or whatever alloy he was using, Pelt continued working as he shouted at Erin.

Thieves are the worst! But magic-forging isn’t easy to steal! Besides—Pallass is paying me, so where else can I perform my art?”

The young woman looked around thoughtfully. She saw some [Smiths] glancing at Pelt, but they were indeed more curious about his anvils, yet untouched. One of his apprentices kept glancing at a group of cases. His metals? The Dwarf cursed, shaping the metal. A master, pride at least regained.

And that was when she struck. That snake in the grass, the temptress in some proverbial Garden of Eden. The young, Human woman leaned over and whispered.

“You know…Liscor’s small and out of the way. And we have forges. I think.”

Pelt stopped hammering for a second. A few of the Gnoll [Smiths] glanced up. And Kel’s warning to the Watch Captains were too little, too late indeed.

The poison had taken root. The Dwarf narrowed his gaze and stroked his beard. He returned to hammering without a word. After a while he spoke, idly.

“Peh. And what would I get, anyways?”

“I dunno. But I have lots of alcohol. And it’s cheap. Plus—you could probably get your own forge. Liscor’s expanding. I bet they’d give you room.”

Erin Solstice smiled. And the [Smith] glanced up. He said nothing more. As alarm and a kind of anticipation spread across the 9th floor.

A harbinger of change. And more. Because Erin Solstice slowly dug in her pocket and pulled something out. Something she’d been meaning to ask about. And here was an expert. The expert.

“Say—this is the real reason I dropped by. Can you tell me what…this is? Someone gave it to me and I don’t know what it is.”

She handed Pelt a coin. Made of…a gleaming white-silver metal. Mithril, she’d been told, by another Dwarf. Erin relayed that to Pelt, but not the strange dream of a night when she had been given it. The Dwarf snorted as he put down the finished horn for the euphonium—it only needed some polishing to remove the scaling, but it was nearly perfectly shaped!

“Do you just ask every Dwarf you meet about metal, girl? Well—I suppose we know more than most. What…is this?”

Slowly, he turned over the coin in his hands. It was far larger than the coins of today. The size of her palm. And so delicately inscribed…but faded. Erin had always puzzled over it, wondering what the faded lettering and sigils on the coin were.

It was just something in the back of her head. An idle curiosity, and she had many. Like bikes. But Pelt held it now.

“I don’t know. I was hoping you knew. Dawil thought it was some old coin. Maybe a medallion or something fancy from another age?”

Pelt snorted.

“That idiot [Axe Champion]? He’s no [Smith]. But—this is monetary. I’d bet my hammer on it. You can tell the intent. Big—might have been worth a lot.”

“Might have been? You don’t know either?”

Erin was vaguely disappointed. Pelt flipped the coin over and eyed it.

“What am I, a [Historian]? You should have asked one of them. No. I have no idea what it is. Only—that it’s very old. So old that I doubt Humans lived on Izril in any numbers when it was made. No—older still.”

Erin held her breath.

“How old? Can you guess?”

The [Smith] cast her an annoyed glance.

“It’s a guess! Mithril doesn’t age like other metals. And as I said…the oldest of us might have identified it, but not me. Sorry, if you think it’s worth a fortune. Still…”

His brow furrowed. And the Dwarf slowly turned the coin over and over in his hands. And his face grew troubled. His voice dropped, and he spoke half to himself.

“Odd. Mithril shouldn’t wear like that.”

Erin frowned. And she felt a slight tingle on her arms. Because the more he looked at it, the more confused Pelt seemed to get. And—slightly unnerved, he put the coin down.

“I don’t know. I don’t know who made it. Who…gave you this?”

He looked at Erin. And she stared at him and realized. He had seen it before. Something had flashed across his face.

Distant recollection. A passing memory. But no more. Still—

She kept her voice neutral.

“A traveller. He wasn’t sure what it was worth. Why?”

“No reason. Hm.”

The Dwarf stared at the coin. He glanced up at Erin and casually turned as Emessa presented something that would become a valve for the euphonium.

“Leave it with me. I’ll work on it.”

“Work on it?”

Erin started. She stared at the Dwarf’s back as he got to work. He nodded, barely glancing at the mithril.

“It’s pure mithril, girl. Could be worth a lot. And I may not know what it was—but I can restore it. Whatever design and lettering it was—I’ll reveal it. Might lose a tiny bit of metal, but I doubt it. Come back in a few days and I’ll give it to you.”

“Really? Thanks!”

The young woman smiled. The Dwarf nodded absently.

“Are you done? Then get lost.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

The Human grinned at him as she took her basket. The Dwarf glanced up at her.

“So—this Liscor. If your inn’s nearby, that’s free alcohol, right? And what else do they have that’s worth it?”

Cheap. And uh—well, Esthelm mines stuff. It’s connected to my inn. But it’s mostly just private, y’know?”

“Hmm. Interesting.”

The Dwarf turned away. Erin Solstice lingered a moment longer. And then she left. After all, this was just a small visit. An ordinary day. Not much happened on ordinary days.

 

—-

 

After a while, Numbtongue finished eating. He felt…bloated. Too much rich food. And Erin’s Supreme Meat…Meat Supreme Sub…hadn’t helped.

He was gaining weight. Which, for a Goblin, was a sign of status. Safety.

And still, the [Goblin Soulbard] was discontent. Not in general, or out of some longing to find more of his kind. He had decided to stay.

No, if anything, it was a bit of—jealousy. The Hobgoblin wandered out of the common room and into a hallway. There, he walked past Erin’s weights room, her rec room (now being filled with some kind of odd table she insisted would become a ‘pool’), and down the corridor.

There was a door at the end. It had not existed, oh, a day ago. But Antinium did good work. Numbtongue appreciated the door. The door had done nothing wrong to him. Doors were excellent, in fact. Cover, improvised weapons, magical portals—

A sign hung over the door.

Octavia’s Stitchworks. Numbtongue slowly opened the door. He looked inside. And sighed.

The [Alchemist] was out. But her shop was nearly complete. At least—it was a room and he, Numbtongue, had helped the Stitch-Girl move her equipment inside. Again, just the other day. Octavia still needed a few more shelves and places for her weird equipment.

But it looked like a store. Her new shop, just as promised. And Numbtongue expected the place would be full of smells and strange sights. Mrsha was banned from entering, incidentally.

And yet—Octavia was not. And the [Alchemist] usually lived in her shop. But she was gone. She was now an apprentice to Saliss of Lights. Saliss the Naked. Saliss—

Who wasn’t bad for a Named Adventurer. But still. Numbtongue idly sat on a counter. Octavia was a friend. More so than Drassi, who would talk with Numbtongue and not stare or be nervous.

Octavia was in the ranks of Erin, Lyonette, Yellow Splatters, Bird, and Mrsha. A group the Goblin could trust. And that she was gone was just annoying. Because Numbtongue found it was easiest to hang around her.

Lyonette was always bossy. Erin? Lovely, talkative, friendly—but she would ask to play chess. Numbtongue was sick of chess. And Yellow Splatters had his Hive. And Bird started going insane without a bird every few hours.

“Hm. Stupid Pallass.”

Numbtongue sat on the counter. He idly wondered what he’d do today. Pyrite, in his head, opined for mining rocks. The [Magestone Chieftain] could and had mined in the mountains for days at a time.

But the [Bard] was a more social creature than Pyrite. He sighed. If he had to do it, he had to do it. Pyrite had found a vein of rubies or something. He kept finding them. The High Passes were lousy with the stuff.

And just as Numbtongue was rising, he saw something. A little basket, on the counter. The Goblin paused. He saw a note. And it was addressed to him, on Octavia’s neat scrawl. The only neat thing about her, really.

Hi Numbtongue, sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m actually leveling and learning so much from Master Saliss! Ten times more than I did in a year in Celum. So, these are for you. They’re all made by yours truly, with ingredients your stones paid for. Let me know how they work! I can make more!

–Octavia

And included in the basket were six vials. Numbtongue picked them out and sniffed at them. They were all stoppered with corks, and neatly labeled. He read from one label. Then another. And he began to grin.

Barkskin potion. Quickened Body potion. Vanish potion (14 seconds). Bat’s Ear potion (No loud sounds!). Potion of Jumping. Blast Vial (Do NOT drop).

Potions. Each one a lesser effect. Of the lot, Barkskin and the Vanish potion were the most powerful. Not very powerful. And that was because Octavia had made them. They even had times of how long each effect lasted.

And yet—it was a treasure trove to a Goblin, especially a Redfang Warrior. Numbtongue was grinning like a child as he put them on his belt for easy use. Because his dreams had come true.

Not even Silver-ranks could afford this kind of equipment. Some, the best-geared, could. And it was always nice when you looted their corpses and found potions like these. But this right here was an adventurer’s spread.

Octavia had fulfilled her promise. The Hobgoblin patted the blast vial, which had reinforced glass. You could do so much with these potions. A Vanish potion alone was worth everything to a Goblin. A single use of that and a Level 5 [Skulker] could, at the right moment, drop a [Mage] in the middle of casting. And Blast Vials?

Relatively weak if thrown—except if you made a Level 30 [Warrior] swallow one. In a sense, Numbtongue and his tribe were the most efficient potion-users in the world. You had to be, when your species couldn’t manufacture these things.

The Goblin happily reminisced for a moment. But then he was bored again. Now-equipped, he supposed it was time to go into the mountains. He would have liked to take Octavia. But maybe Bird…?

The Hobgoblin walked back into the common room. And there—his adventure in the mountains died, like Erin’s dreams of brewing alcohol. Because, lying on the ground, arms and legs splayed out, on her back, was a white Gnoll.

She stared up at the ceiling as Numbtongue paused. Lyonette tsked as she tried to nudge Mrsha.

“Mrsha! Stop lying there! You’re going to be stepped on! I know you’re bored, sweetie. Why don’t you play in the garden?”

The Gnoll turned her head. Garden? But what about people to play with? She stared up at the ceiling.

No Relc today. No Ekirra or Visma; they were too busy helping their parents. No Selys. Mrsha stared up at the ceiling, willing something exciting to happen.

A green face appeared in her line of vision. Numbtongue leaned over Mrsha thoughtfully. The Gnoll stared up at him.

Her tail began to wag. The Hobgoblin looked thoughtfully at the bored Gnoll. Then he reached down.

“Hmm?”

She stood up and grabbed his hand. And thus, Mrsha the Great and Powerful, found the Great Goblin Bard, Numbtongue had come to rescue her from her prison of boredom!

“Oh—Numbtongue. Will you take care of Mrsha? That would help out so much!”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin grinned at Mrsha. She grinned back and happily pointed. They ran into the garden, playing tag. Mrsha raced around, and saw Numbtongue sprinting after her. She raced off, delightfully terrified. And the Goblin dove after her. He didn’t play games when he played games.

The two crashed through the jungle section. Mrsha dodged and Numbtongue slammed into a tree, full-force as she swerved just in time. The Goblin cursed and something fluttered down from the tree.

Apista, stinger ready to attack, saw the big green thing just in time and aborted her vengeful dive. Numbtongue ducked as she zoomed past his head. And Mrsha, coming back to check on him, saw the bee flying.

Upside-down. She zoomed around lazily; she’d been taking a nap in the tree. And Mrsha saw/smelled the odor in the air.

One of Palt’s cigars. She folded her arms disapprovingly as Numbtongue sniffed the air as well. Apista was weird. Again!

The bee had a problem. She’d sip from the faerie flower’s nectar, or steal a Palt-cigar. Or just steal alcohol from a mug after chasing away the owner. Lyonette told Mrsha it was probably Apista being…Apista.

But Mrsha wasn’t so certain. She was a [Druid], but she’d also been a [Beast Tamer]. For a level or two! And she followed Apista as the bee flew around lazily. Numbtongue climbed up into the tree and retrieved the cigar. He began to puff on it—to make sure Apista wouldn’t get high again. He was very helpful like that.

Apista let Mrsha scoop her up. Her antennae were moving around lazily. And her thoughts were—muddled. Mrsha peered down at her.

Something was wrong. Mrsha had felt it before. Beneath Apista’s hazy thoughts, the young [Druid] sensed—something. Apista could not speak. But then, neither could Mrsha. And her class was giving her another sense. And because Mrsha could not speak, she listened more.

Apista was unhappy. That was why she was always going away in her mind. The realization made Mrsha’s eyes widen. Something was wrong. She lifted the bee up, put her on top of her head to better commune with nature.

Numbtongue, puffing away on the remains of the cigar, watched Mrsha communing. She stood on one leg and raised her paws to the sky. It looked entertaining, so he copied her. Apista tried to do the same.

Mrsha scowled at the mockery. But then—she felt the flash again. Something…she concentrated, going serious for once.

This wasn’t like the magic book which Mrsha hated so much. This was her class. This was Apista, her friend. And—slowly, she began to feel something.

Sadness. Pain. Worry. A bee’s thoughts, so distant. Alien in her way.

Mrsha asked. Why? A picture appeared in her head.

A cave. Sealed with stone. Darkness. Lack of good air. Hunger. Hunger in the darkness and the knaves from below. Danger.

Danger.

Mrsha’s eyes opened wide. She knew what Apista was trying to tell her.

The cave. And Apista could do nothing. That was why she was upset!

The bee fluttered up. Mrsha watched Apista attacking Numbtongue for his cigar. She needed her fix. He fended her off, cursing as she threatened to attack him with her enhanced stinger. But Mrsha waved her paws for the Goblin’s attention.

“Bad thing! Bad thing! Must help!”

She signed with her paws. Instantly, the Goblin stopped avoiding the bee. He handed the cigar off and squatted down.

Erin and Lyonette weren’t good at Mrsha-language. But Numbtongue and Bird were.

“What bad thing? Monsters?”

No. Apista sad. Bad cave. Go. Fix!

Mrsha pointed urgently at the bee. Numbtongue frowned.

“Bad cave? Oh. Bees. Sealed inside. Dying?”

She nodded urgently. And something else. Numbtongue hesitated. He glanced at Apista.

“Bees are dangerous.”

And yet—both looked at Apista. She had lit the cigar, turning her body to flame for a moment. And the bee sadly smoked as she carried the cigar butt through the air. Look at her. And Mrsha looked up pleadingly at Numbtongue.

The Hobgoblin thought. Then he looked around. He made a quick calculation, and then nodded surreptitiously.

“Make the Garden door go to my room?”

Mrsha raced over to the door. She was best at using it besides Erin. The doorway’s entrance appeared in Numbtongue’s room. He walked into it. Came out with a pickaxe, and shovel. Mrsha watched, anxiously.

Numbtongue nodded to himself. He began to walk towards the door and stairs—and then he looked back. He saw Mrsha anxiously holding the smoking bee in her paws.

And this was where the Hobgoblin differed from Erin and Lyonette. He walked back over to his window instead. Opened it. He climbed out onto the roof. And then he waved at Mrsha.

“Coming?”

The white Gnoll grinned. She leapt out the window and onto the roof. The Worker Antinium saw the Hobgoblin sliding down the roof. He leapt off, and then caught the Gnoll. They ran for it, out of view of the windows.

And thus, the Bee Rescue Team was formed. They had one mission: rescuing bees. They charged down the hill, Apista flying overhead, leading the way. And Mrsha felt the bee’s joy. Because she sensed Mrsha’s intent. Numbtongue jogged after them, carrying his guitar on his back, the pickaxe, a sword at his side, a shovel as well—he’d forgotten his armor. But it was heavy.

The bee cave was a ways away from the inn. At least an hour’s walk. Lyonette used to have to tromp through the snow for ages with the sled. Mrsha soon grew tired of galloping up and down hills.

Also—Numbtongue made her walk with him.

“Watch for spider nests. See? There. There. And Rock Crabs over there.”

The Hobgoblin was a good teacher in things that needed to be taught. Like Relc, he didn’t believe in safety. Safety was an illusion. So he showed Mrsha as they walked how to best spot the pitfall traps the Shield Spiders made. And he showed Mrsha how to look.

She thought she knew how to look. She was a Plains Gnoll, after all! But she was a young one. And Numbtongue was like a seasoned [Hunter]. He kept his head on a swivel, and Mrsha copied him. He even spotted the skunk den before she smelled them and led her well away from them.

The bee cave was like the image in Apista’s head. Only—different. The bee had flown around it many times from the outside. Mrsha, with her different eyes, saw it as the cave opening—blocked by a wall of sheer stone.

Moore’s work. He had sealed the cave to save his friends. And in doing so—he had condemned the Ashfire Bee Hive within to death. He had not thought of it that way.

But Mrsha was a [Druid], not a [Green Mage]. She sensed them within.

Bees. But—reduced in number. Angry. The Gnoll solemnly placed her paw on the stone and looked at Numbtongue, pleadingly. The Hobgoblin eyed the stone. His posture changed.

“Magic wall. Not bad.”

Pyrite authoritatively knocked on the stone. He looked at Mrsha.

“Angry bees. Need to prepare this. Here.”

He scaled up the cave’s entrance. In his precious time, the [Chieftain] analyzed the stone cave. He dismissed going through the front at once; the stone was too thick. He found a weak point on the roof of the cave, instead.

“Here. Dig. And here—

Dirt and stones flew as the Goldstone Chieftain dug like a maniac. He was fast! And he had allotted all of his minute and five seconds to the most efficient work.

When he vanished, Numbtongue found himself patting Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll was covered in dirt. And she was grinning. He hefted his shovel and kept digging.

Pyrite was smart. He had a plan. And it involved two things.

First—he’d marked the hole in the cave’s roof for Numbtongue to tunnel through. He’d even estimated the time it would take to breach a hole. And when that moment came—the bees would be angry.

So he’d also begun digging a hole for Mrsha and Numbtongue to dive into. They’d be shielded from bees and even be able to breathe. Now that was smart work. Numbtongue put his back into the digging. When it had met Pyrite’s internal standards, he waved to Mrsha.

“Get in hole.”

She refused. She clambered up onto the cave’s roof. She was the [Druid]. Obviously, she had to be there. She could make the bees—less angry. Numbtongue scowled, but he could toss the Blast vial into the ceiling or use the potions Octavia had given them if he couldn’t dive with her to safety.

“Fine. You stand there.”

He raised the pick and brought it down into the loose stone and dirt. It was hard work, but in between the [Bard]’s swings, Mrsha would scramble forwards with Apista and clear the rubble. She even tried to dig with him. She made a magical thorn on her paw and hit the ground energetically, if not exactly helpfully.

“New spell?”

Mrsha shrugged. She watched as Numbtongue dug lower, creating a breach in the cave’s roof.

She could hear the bees. In her head. They had sensed the tunneling. And they were very angry. Mrsha began looking at the emergency hole. Numbtongue wiped sweat from his brow.

“Two more strikes. One—two—

The ceiling caved in a bit. Apista fluttered forwards. And Mrsha saw darkness. Light streamed down into the bee’s cave. They looked up.

And then Mrsha heard the thrumming. Numbtongue paused, pick poised to widen the hole. He backed up.

The cave was filled with beating wings. Like distant thunder. And rage—Mrsha saw the Hobgoblin whirl. His hand went to his belt as, inside, hundreds of dark shapes moved, streaming for the hole.

Yet—no! Mrsha leapt. She tackled Numbtongue’s belt as the Goblin poised to throw. He cursed, grabbing at her, preparing to dive off the roof. And then he saw them.

The bees! They swarmed upwards, pressing against the small hole in their prison. Freedom. Freedom.

But—Mrsha and Numbtongue, about to leap, saw something. The bees were pressing against the roof of the cave. Pulling dirt and stones upwards.

Blocking the hole. Numbtongue stared. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Didn’t they want to be free? Apista flew around the hole, urgently. And Mrsha—sensed something.

 

Fury. Thousands of minds, working in concert. The queen of the Ashfire Bees was raging. They all were. But not against Mrsha, or Numbtongue, or Apista, or their prison.

The intruders. They came from below. The knaves. They were wrong. Squirming. Wretched things, preying on the hive in the darkness.

Thinking to conquer. Thinking them weak.

They could not escape. Slaughter them. Tear them to bits.

Suffer not the invaders. By the will of fire, kill them. What should not exist. Like the Crelers. Rip them to shreds. They could not be allowed to escape.

Better to die than to give way. Seal the light. Kill and kill again.

No escape. Slaughter the knaves.

Kill them all.

 

The thoughts beat against Mrsha. She could feel/hear/see them in the darkness. The foes! Kill them! Do not let them out!

The bees were sealing the breach in their cave. Blocking it—generating wax along with the dirt. Numbtongue stared. He didn’t know what was happening. Or why Apista was suddenly jabbing at the air, furious. He heard a rumble and looked down.

Mrsha was snarling in his arms. The Gnoll growled making a rumbling noise in her chest. Slowly, the [Bard] backed up.

“What? What?”

For a moment, Mrsha was lost in the bee’s thoughts. They lessened as she drew away from the cave. She looked around, blinked a few times, as Apista flew after her.

The bee’s thoughts were different. Mrsha no longer sensed Apista’s sadness. Like her—the other bee had picked up on the trapped Hive’s thoughts. Now—Apista was angry. Worried, but angry.

Bad things. Bad things in there.

Numbtongue looked at the cave. He reached for his sword.

“Crelers?”

Mrsha and Apista shook their heads—well, Apista shook her entire body. Something else. Numbtongue felt a tingle running down his spine.

“Not opening cave, then.”

No. Mrsha shook her head. And yet—she looked at the cave.

The bees were hungry. She had felt that too, beneath their all-consuming loathing of their foes. They were reproducing in the darkness, to replenish their losses. They could do that—fight in the dark, maintain their Hive. They had been hundreds strong, and they were big bees. They could slaughter a Silver-rank team in seconds if not prepared. They were killing all the…things coming up.

But what they lacked was food. The Hive had possessed deep honey reservoirs. But it had used up all of its reserves. They would have to start letting the weaker bees die, soon. They could not hold forever.

Apista felt her comrade’s pain. So did Mrsha. Her eyes watered as she looked at the Hive, felt the cold resolve. Nor did she question their will. It was a certainty. Their foes were unnatural, like the Crelers. Not meant to exist or move under the sun.

Yet—they had to be helped. Mrsha felt that too, strongly. She tried to communicate this all with Numbtongue. He, ignorant of all of it, tried to understand.

“Something bad in the cave. Not Crelers. Very bad. Seal the cave. But—hungry bees?”

She and Apista nodded. Numbtongue sat on his haunches and thought. After a moment, he grabbed Mrsha.

“We leave.”

The first thing Pyrite had shouted into his mind was that anything that animals were afraid of was not something you wanted to be nearby. There were a few candidates on his list. And they were all bad. The Hobgoblin picked up the protesting Mrsha and towed her away.

Then he and Mrsha had a think. The bees were in danger. But even they thought they should be in the darkness. What did you do? Tell someone?

Mrsha was pretty sure the bees would kill anything in their cave. Even Numbtongue, or an adventuring team. And she didn’t know what was in there. Numbtongue, with a Goblin’s practicality, refused to open the cave.

So? Where did that leave them? Mrsha didn’t know. She watched Apista sadly float down to a flower and suck up the nectar. Without the Ashfire Bees, smaller breeds of bees and butterflies were occupying the Floodplains. If only Mrsha could put the flowers in the cave. Then the bees would have food!

Wait. That was it! Mrsha raised her head! Put the magic door to the Garden into the cave!

Numbtongue looked at Mrsha.

“No.”

How would that even work? Mrsha had to admit, putting the magic door into the cave would allow whatever was inside into the garden. And Erin’s Garden of Sanctuary wasn’t the portal door.

They thought again. Both Goblin and Gnoll stared at Apista. She floated to another flower. She wasn’t really hungry—she was storing the liquid, Mrsha felt. She got enough food each morning. From…

The Gnoll urgently pulled on Numbtongue’s arms. She pointed at Apista. And then she signed.

What if—

The [Bard] looked at Mrsha. He snapped his fingers, and then grinned. Mrsha anxiously pointed towards the inn. The Hobgoblin thought.

“No problem. Tricky thing is Lyonette. We’ll make a plan. Not too hard. Let’s go.”

They hurried off. And about an hour later, in the inn, Lyonette du Marquin was distracted.

Bee attack! Oh dead gods!

Apista zoomed through the air, attacking guests like an avenger of the skies. Lyonette saw her dive-bombing the regulars, landing in a mug—the [Princess] raced after Apista.

Apista! Stop! What’s gotten into you!?

The bee refused to calm down. The [Princess] was so busy shouting and chasing after the bee as the patrons scattered that she never noticed Numbtongue and Mrsha stealing into the kitchen and basement respectively.

Got it?

Numbtongue panted as he raced outside with the wheelbarrow. Mrsha nodded; she’d used the Garden of Sanctuary to spirit her goods outside. Now, she helped Numbtongue load the wheelbarrow with the sacks of sugar.

They’d brought one of Erin’s spare portal doors to the cave entrance. Numbtongue adjusted the magic door as he looked around quickly. He rolled the wheelbarrow through, and then two kegs of water that were now kept topped up from the well the Antinium had dug.

Mrsha followed as Apista was finally captured. The bee waved her antennas furiously, wishing the best of luck to the Bee Rescue Team. It was in their feelers now.

Numbtongue got the barrels of water onto the cave’s roof via the magical portal door. Mrsha kept watch, turning the magic door back to Liscor.

“Oh, are you helping, Mrsha? Good job!”

The Gnoll waved at Drassi as she let through some Liscorians, and then a group from Esthelm who requested transfer to Wailant’s farm—they were buying produce. Then she switched it back to the secret bee-cave entrance.

Numbtongue had a barrel of water open. He was pouring sugar into the water, sacks of it. The costly sugar was being mixed with the water to create—Apista food. Bee food. Mrsha nodded to him as he carefully rotated a barrel over to the opening in the cave’s rooftop.

She leapt through; they had ten minutes before Drassi checked the door again, and that was if no one wanted to go through! But Apista had bought them time with her chaos.

Numbtongue grabbed the pickaxe and began smashing the hole he’d made, widening it. Mrsha sensed the bees growing furious again. Urgently, she waved a paw. Tried to think her message.

Not bad! Friends! Friends!

The Gnoll shouted with her head. The bees—hesitated.

[Peace of the Wild]. They felt Mrsha’s intent. And shot out of the hole. Numbtongue backed up fast as they descended on the barrel. The bees began to feast on the sugary water. But there was too much of it for them to carry.

“Pour it into the cave? No good.”

The [Bard] cursed as he saw the bees trying to lift the incredibly heavy barrel. They did not want the hole in the cave to remain long! Already—the enemy was coming, sensing the opening.

Mrsha stared into the cave. She saw something moving—a flash of light as an Ashfire Bee ignited and burned it away. Cracks in the cave. She shuddered, then pointed.

“Barrel? I can’t lower it. With a rope?”

The Hobgoblin frowned. Mrsha looked at the bees, covering the barrel. She slapped her forehead with one paw.

Another barrel! They’d pour it into barrels from the ceiling! The Hobgoblin cursed as he realized she was right. He ran back into the inn as Mrsha anxiously stood guard.

“Numbtongue, where are you going with that barrel…?”

Lyonette spotted Numbtongue as he rolled one out of the basement. The Hobgoblin froze.

“…Need it for mining?”

“Oh? Well…have you seen Mrsha? I’m wondering if she’s up to mischief—”

The [Princess] saw a white shape flash into the common room. Mrsha, panting, smiling innocently, grabbed her magic ball. Lyonette saw her raise it.

“Mrsha…don’t you dare throw—”

The Gnoll hurled the ball as hard as she could. She brained one of the Players of Celum. Lyonette chased after Mrsha.

You’re in big trouble, missy!

Apista took to the air again. Now, two of the Bee Rescue Team were down. And the third pillar of the team, Numbtongue, lowered two barrels into the cave. The bees actually moved them upright. And Numbtongue poured the sugar-water into the opening.

It was done. Messy, disorganized, and with two timeouts—but it was done. Numbtongue lay, panting in the hallway as he switched the magic door back to Liscor. Mrsha, pretending to apologize and be sorry, raised one ear as the Hobgoblin poked his head into the common room.

He raised a single thumb and nodded at them. Apista, tethered by a piece of string to the windowsill in her timeout, saluted with one antenna. Mrsha beamed, and then went back to being scolded.

Mission accomplished. The bees had their food. The queen was already making room for more larvae. And the brave Bee Rescue Team’s heroics might go unnoticed by all but the bees, but that was their job.

“Honestly. I don’t know what gets into you all sometimes.”

Lyonette sighed. Erin Solstice walked back into her inn and yawned.

“Hey, I’m back! What’s with all the fuss?”

“Erin! You just missed Mrsha and Apista making a fuss. I think we need to send them to the Strongheart’s farm to run about. Can you take them?”

“Sure! I delivered my sandwich.”

“You mean, that abomination? Wait—do you think it’ll sell tonight?”

“Sure! I’ll make another. Relc’ll buy it. Hey, Numbtongue. Why are you all sweaty?”

“Barrels.”

The Hobgoblin sat at a table. He wanted lunch. Erin looked at him.

“Barrels? Uh—okay then. Barrels to you too. What did you do, Mrsha? Let me just make some cookies to replenish our stocks and then I’ll take you to Wailant and Viceria’s! You can run about all day there!”

She walked into the kitchen. The Bee Rescue Team heard Erin rummaging about. Then she went into the basement.

“Lyonette? Why are we out of sugar?”

The bee, the Goblin, and Mrsha looked at each other. They casually got up and strolled, or flew into the Garden of Sanctuary. If they had sunglasses, they’d have put them on.

Their work here was done.

And in the darkness, the bees fought against the things coming up. The things that did not belong. They came, squirming through the cracks.

From the dungeon.

 

[Druid Level 7!]

[Skill – Ambient Mana Gatherer obtained!]

 

—-

 

The Free Antinium’s Hive was in the midst of change. And that was not a superficial word.

“For me?”

Belgrade stared at the necklace. It shone. And when he touched it—his body blurred. A few fake Belgrades appeared.

“A Locket of Mirror Images. Yes. This is yours. And you will take other artifacts as needed. You, Anand. This wand is for you. And for you…”

Pawn stood in the Painted Antinium’s barracks. He was handing out magical items. The other Antinium were staring in awe at the illusory Belgrades. But Pawn had more magical items.

“They are for us? And this ring…”

Yellow Splatters tried it on. The ring should not have fit his hands; it had been too small. But it fit on, perfectly.  Pawn nodded.

“Two artifacts for each Individual. That is what Xrn has promised me. You are all allowed one defensive artifact and an offensive one. Good ones, not disposable wands like before.”

“For us? But the cost of each item must be…”

“What cost? You are all Antinium capable of leveling. This is the least that should be afforded to you.”

A voice. The Antinium turned. And Xrn stood in front of them. Her eyes shone with pleasure. Pawn looked past her, at a figure who stood at ease.

Klbkch. He didn’t object to Xrn passing out the Hive’s treasures. A few of the other Antinium following Xrn did, though.

“These are not Prognugators. This is a waste of resources. I object, Prognugator Xrn—”

The azure Antinium raised her staff threateningly. Pivr flinched. He and the other foreign Antinium watched as Pawn handed Purple Smiles his necklace. The Small Queen smiled as the other Antinium looked at her.

“Be silent, Pivr. The power to level was rare even among the Antinium of old. It is worth safeguarding. And each one is precious. Not that someone seemed to understand this.”

She looked at Klbkch and raised her staff. The other Centenium didn’t flinch.

“It was my determination, Xrn. Erin Solstice was capable of making more, and the discipline issues—”

Fool.

Xrn brought down her staff on Klbkch’s head. She shook her head.

“We cannot expect the same Antinium. Discipline? Perhaps that is what makes Individuals. They are closer to Centenium than regular true Antinium. The Centenium disobeyed because they were made to think autonomously.”

Klbkch stirred at the comparison.

“They are not—

His mandibles snapped shut as Xrn threatened to hit him with her staff again. The Small Queen turned her head.

“Erin Solstice will accommodate some patrols. And all Antinium will visit her inn. We may have to bring the Silent Antinium and other varieties to her inn…carefully. Perhaps with illusion spells. The Armored Antinium will serve for now, without their armor. Dekass, Tersk, you are in charge of that.”

She nodded. The two Prognugators bowed. Pawn stared at Xrn. She was radiant. And she was giving the Hive everything he had wanted.

“Prognugator Xrn. What will we do, the Painted Antinium?”

She smiled, raising her mandibles.

“Some will go to other Hives. They will be needed. Perhaps you, Pawn. As emissaries in turn. But the Hives are joined. There are—issues affecting some. Battles to be fought. You will be deployed, but you must live. To level. To become stronger.”

The Antinium stirred, hearing her words. Seeing Xrn look at them. For the Small Queen was inspirational. She cared.

And still—Klbkch watched. He felt as though a weight he had not known was there was taken off his shoulders. Xrn could lead the Antinium. She was generous; he would never have given artifacts to ordinary Antinium except in times of war.

But Xrn would. And if she had a single flaw, it was that she didn’t know other species as he did. He had heard of her trying to convince Erin. Everything Klbkch understood of Erin told him Xrn’s offering thousands of gold pieces to Erin wouldn’t work.

Yet here they were. And more Antinium stood in the Hive.

Silent Antinium. Their forms were the most alien, along with that of the Flying Antinium. They had scythes for arms—their cutting power unmatched. And their bodies were blending with the dirt walls, camouflaging automatically.

The Free Antinium stared at these…strangers. As foreign to them as Antinium were to regular people. They had no idea that Antinium could be like this. That they were the same people was…odd.

“Yes. It will take some getting used to. The Antinium must fight together. The Hives are always separate. But this will be a beginning. I have a plan to strengthen the Free Hive.”

Xrn struck the ground lightly. And Tersk shifted. Pivr moved his wings, uncertain, and the Prognugator of the Silent Antinium adjusted her posture. Xrn was supporting the Free Hive. It was unsettling the other Hives.

But the Free Antinium had much to offer. Xrn waved her staff.

“Come. We do not have time to waste.

 

—-

 

A few minutes later, the Free Queen inspected the pair of Flying Antinium standing before her. And the collection of bodies on the floor.

“Armored Antinium. Two corpses of Silent Antinium. And—a variety of forms from the Flying Queen.”

Corpses. They had been brought via bags of holding. And they were neatly arranged.

Pivr, Tersk, Dekass, and the Silent Antinium’s Prognugator, Xeu, stood in front of her. They were presenting their offerings. They had come once before—not Xeu, but just a few of the regular Silent Antinium to inspect the Hive.

That time they had been rude, condescending. This time—they offered gifts. Oh, how the fortunes changed. And partly, mostly, because of Bird.

“Gifts, Free Queen of the Antinium. These forms the Silent Queen presents. For your study. Dissection.”

Xeu spoke. She was well-crafted. The Silent Queen, the best shaper among the Queens, had put a lot of effort into her form. The Free Queen saw any number of improvements. She nodded slowly.

“The gift is well-received. And the corpses from the other queens?”

For her to study and learn from. Tersk and Dekass bowed their heads.

“Likewise, Free Queen. We also present armor for your Painted Antinium.”

“Yes. For the Soldiers. It will be used. The Armored Queen is generous. But what of these living Antinium? Pivr. Speak.”

The Prognugator of the Flying Antinium spoke.

“These are her Majesty’s exceedingly generous gifts—”

He broke off as a cart trundled past him. The Flying Antinium, his body elongated, closer to quadruped than bipedal, with long wings—recoiled as a Worker slowly moved forwards.

Garry. He was pushing a cart.

“I have snacks for the guests. Acid fly tarts, a sour soup—”

“They may partake of it later, Garry.”

The Free Queen saw all the other Prognugator’s heads turning as Garry nodded and began setting up a table. Xeu’s mandibles opened and closed. Tersk and Dekass looked excited. Pivr just stared. After a moment, he went on.

“The Flying Queen has sent not only her numerous forms to study, Free Queen, but two of our brood. Here.”

He pointed at the two Flying Antinium standing with the dead. The Free Queen hesitated.

“For what purpose?”

“Live vivisection, of course. Corpses only have so much merit in understanding their function. It is a sign of the Flying Queen’s will.”

The other Prognugators stirred. There was a crash as Garry slipped in setting up his dishes. All heads turned again. And the Free Queen looked at the two Flying Antinium.

Vivisection. Of course, that was how she would learn more from living examples. It was generous—although tainted by the Flying Queen’s self-importance. She had so many different forms for her Antinium because they were all flawed. Even Pivr, one of her best works, couldn’t fly so much as jump and glide for long stretches.

Still—there was achievement in her numerous experiments. The Armored Queen didn’t do any modifications by comparison. Her Soldiers were almost identical to the Free Queen’s. But she had so much armor and weaponry; she had invested in that instead.

The Silent Queen had few Antinium, but each one was a masterpiece. The Free Queen knew she would learn the most from her peer. Yet—something bothered her.

“Vivisection?”

Garry stared at the two Flying Antinium. The [Chef] was already nervous in the presence of the foreign Prognugators. But he couldn’t help but let the word slip out. They would be—killed? Torn apart to see how they worked?

He had been in amazingly high spirits. The Free Queen had been kind to him of late. She had learned his name, given him vacations—even if he’d eaten the sour cheese and wasted some gold—and with Xrn’s return, he had truly felt things were better.

He would even be allowed to study with Erin and help with her cooking one day each week so long as he stocked the kitchen with food for the Free Queen to consume while he was gone. What more could you ask for?

But this disturbed the [Chef]. The other Antinium would die. He looked at the Flying Antinium that Pivr had so casually offered to death. Wondering what they thought.

They barely moved as they stood at attention. Like Pivr, they were more like…flies, than ants. Both were made for war. One was a Worker-type, the other a Soldier-type. And yet—while they lived and they were both functionally capable of thought and action, even without direction—Garry saw nothing.

Not brain-death. Just—emptiness. Nothingness. A resignation. They would die. It was the look he had seen in other Workers sent to fight when the Hive was invaded.

It hurt Garry. Because he knew that feeling. Before he had met Erin, he had lived it. A life without hope. You could walk into a storm of arrows because there was nothing to fear. Nothing to live for, but the Hive.

And they were going to be killed. For knowledge. To benefit the Hive. All of that made sense. But it was wrong.

The [Chef] looked at his Queen. And he saw she was troubled. A month ago, she would have happily picked apart the two Antinium right there and then.

But a change had come over the Hive. And perhaps—perhaps, yes, none more pronounced than the Free Queen herself.

For she looked at the two Antinium she would vivisect. And for a moment—they both looked like Bird. And she wondered if, given the chance, they could sing.

It was a terrible thing for a Queen to have. Compassion for her Workers and Soldiers. But it was there. Still—the Free Queen was a soldier of the Antinium.

“I thank you, Pivr. I will begin my studies.”

She felt the two Flying Antinium under her control. Pivr rubbed two feeler-legs together, smiling. And Garry could not bear it. He stumbled forwards.

“Um! My Queen! Might I ask that they be given to me? Not killed? Vivisected?”

All heads turned. Pivr’s mandibles opened and dropped at the effrontery. Xeu stirred.

“Aberration…?”

One of her scythe-blades moved and Garry froze in fear. The Free Queen raised a feeler.

“No. He is permitted to give his opinion. His rank is…unique. Speak, Garry. You would take both Flying Antinium? Why?”

So that they would not die? Garry’s mind raced. He looked around desperately.

“I could—use them? My Queen, they would be invaluable in…cooking.”

“As food?”

Pivr stared. Garry shook his head rapidly.

“No, as assistants. I am sure their live…dissection…would provide much benefit to the Hive. But perhaps they might aid cooking more. I’m uh, uh—I am working on a vertical storage system and—height-based cuisine! Like layer cakes. So high I cannot reach them myself. These…samples would be exceptional aides to me.”

“I see.”

The Free Queen sat back. She looked at Garry thoughtfully. And then she waved a feeler.

“That is indeed a very important task, Garry. And as Free Queen, I accept. The Flying Queen’s gift will be put to invaluable use. You have my thanks twice, Pivr.”

“But—”

The Flying Prognugator looked uncertain. So did Garry. The two Flying Antinium looked at him. Their…boss. And he had no idea how he would use them.

But he saw something in their gazes. And it too was familiar.

In the darkness, there was a light. Hope, such as what Erin had once given him with a chessboard. Garry bowed to his Queen.

Only Pivr was uncertain.

“But is this food—layer cakes? Is this truly better than their use as my Queen intended? I may disagree—”

Dekass looked at Pivr. Sternly, the Armored Prognugator raised one finger and shook his head.

“Be quiet. Food is very important. You do not fully understand. Yet. We must show you.”

He pointed at Garry’s spread of food. The other Prognugators looked. Pivr scuttled over to the table, grabbed a tart and nibbled. He froze and then began to gobble. Xeu appeared at the table and stared at the sour soup. She picked up a bowl cautiously.

And Garry found his first apprentices had wings.

 

—-

 

In the darkness of the dungeon, Earlia of Gemhammer lifted her lantern and gasped. Her heart was pounding. She held the warhammer in both of her hands.

She was sweating. She’d been cut twice—deeply, by claws. But her armor was thick and the cuts weren’t deep. The combat had been fierce. But brief.

The rest of her team was panting as well. They’d charged their foes—and the team of former [Miners] all had strength Skills and heavy weapons. They hadn’t been unprepared however; their opponents had arrows buried in their fur.

Nailren’s team. The Pride of Kelia had joined with her team for the dungeon explorations. The two Silver-rank teams couldn’t advance as fast as, say, the Wings of Pallass, or the Flamewardens. The other Gold-ranks teams were securing much more of the dungeon day by day.

And fortunes were being made down here. Bounties for monster parts—even some treasure was being found. At last.

At last, the risk was paying off. And Earlia saw—from the glow of the mining lantern at her side—something that made her heart pound wildly.

An adventurer’s dream. The dead Raskghar team that had run into the two adventuring parties had been hard to put down. One of Earlia’s companions spat.

“Dead gods. They stink! This one—eurgh! It’s all ragged. Fur’s falling out! Are they sick? Keep back from the bodies! Shield your faces! I heard someone in the Lifwail Blades got ill after a fight with them.”

The other adventurers nodded. The Raskghar, one of the threats of the dungeon hadn’t been completely wiped out after the battle with them. But they’d been forced back. At first, the adventurers had suffered counterattacks on full moons.

However, the Raskghar patrols had become far weaker. And these ones—

One of the Raskghar had a festering wound it hadn’t taken during the fighting. Earlia felt her nose and stomach protesting as she got closer.

“Hey, Captain! I said—”

“I heard you, Timgal. Shut it. I think…I think I just found some treasure.”

The rest of Gemhammer looked up sharply as Earlia bent. On the Raskghar’s finger, amid the fur was a glint of metal.

A band of gold, and something shining blue. Earlia recognized it.

“Damn me. That’s high-quality sapphire right there.”

Someone had expertly inlaid it with the gold. Earlia’s heart pounded as she reached down.

“Knife.”

Instantly, Blaik produced one. He put it into her hand and she sawed at the finger. Grisly. But the finger came off.

So did the ring. Earlia was almost sure it wasn’t cursed. Her team stared.

“Is it enchanted, Captain?”

“I think so. Remember how this one came at us? It had something on its fur. Like armor made of water. This might—be an armor enchantment. We’ll have to get it tested, but—search the other bodies!”

A magic ring. The others instantly investigated the corpses. Carefully—holding cloths over their noses and avoiding touching the sores or other marks of infection. Earlia was going to wash herself three times when she got out of the dungeon and make her team do the same. She pulled at the ring.

There was another exclamation.

This Raskghar has a bunch of gemstones in the bag! Captain!

What!?

A woman turned. Fea waved the bag at the others.

“All of em cut! It looks like they pulled them off the walls. See? It’s got a bit of masonry here. And—dead gods! They’re high-quality!”

“Nailren! We’ve found treasure!

Earlia shouted eagerly. The Gnoll team covering their backs while the dead were searched turned. Nailren called out.

Really? What?

“Magical ring! Bag of gemstones—”

“And a knife! Looks enchanted!”

Shrapnel found a knife in one of the Raskghar’s hands. Earlia whistled. If they hadn’t been so uncharacteristically weak, they might have done a lot of damage.

“That settles it. We’re getting out of here! We’re making for the entrance! Nailren, we’ve hit the jackpot!”

A quiet cheer went up from both teams. Earlia was grinning—until she heard one of her teammates cough. She whirled—and saw Blaik grinning.

“Just a prank, Captain.”

“Stow that shit! Or we’ll leave you behind! We’re going to scrub ourselves clean with soap and get checked at the [Healer]!”

The rest of Gemhammer punched the former [Miner], enraged by the prank. Blaik threw up his hands.

“It’s just a joke!”

“Quiet! We’re not behind the barricades yet.”

Nailren had to order Earlia’s team to be quiet. But his Gnolls were excited too. Earlia shushed her team as he took point, leading them back the way they’d come. This was amazing. Her heart was pounding. It was actually the gemstones that were worth the most at the moment. The ring might be valuable, and so might the knife, but they were two objects and Earlia’s entire team—and Nailren’s—had a claim to the treasure.

But those gems were fat and high-quality! They’d more than justify a week of adventuring. And—

The two teams were nearly back at the barricades. And perhaps they’d let their guards down. That was when most adventurers died. It wasn’t the first ambush that got you.

It was always the one you weren’t prepared for. They were turning a corner and walking down a tunnel that had been cleared; the two traps were clearly marked. That was when Nailren held up a paw.

“Oh no.”

He whispered. The other Silver-rank adventurers froze. They stared ahead. Earlia, grabbing at her warhammer, saw nothing at first. Until—she saw the little head peeking around the corner.

A Goblin’s head. It was staring, wide-eyed—far away. Unblinking. Earlia felt her mouth dry up at once.

If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just a Goblin. Until you realized the head was unnaturally placed. Low to the ground, peeking out, shaking a bit.

The Goblin’s eyes never blinked. Because the head was dead. It was on a stick. And what was holding it was—

“Oh no. No, no. Not now. Dead gods.”

One of the Gnolls in Kelia’s Pride began to moan. Nailren aimed his bow.

Facestealer.

The adventurers whispered. A name that had circulated through their ranks. And Earlia felt something walking on her grave.

A guardian of this dungeon. It had only ever appeared twice. Both times—the team had been found headless. Once, a Silver-rank team. The second, a Gold-rank duo.

“No, no, no, no—”

“Quiet! Spread out! Retreat along the corridor we just came down! Send an emergency [Message] spell at once! To all Gold-rank teams!”

Nailren ordered. Both Silver-rank teams ran back down the corridor. Nailren loosed an arrow and then turned and ran.

The corridor they’d come down was long, and wide. A perfect place not to be trapped in. The teams spread out as far as they could.

“It paralyzes everything in range. That’s what the notes say. We just have to buy time. Help is on the way.”

Earlia gritted her teeth. Her team looked at her. No one believed her.

“Eyes forwards and back! Loose an arrow—slow it down!”

Nailren was shouting, ignoring the rule for silence. Other monsters might be a blessing at a time like this. The other adventurers peered around.

“I see it! I see it!

Earlia whirled as someone shouted. She saw a head disappear around a corner as a Gnoll [Archer] loosed.

Then—two heads popped back. One was a Raskghar’s face. The other—Earlia recoiled.

Human. The face stared at her.

“Is that—Tessa?”

Shrapnel whispered. The other adventurers stared at the Gold-rank adventurer’s face. Someone began to moan.

“Fea! Shut up!

Earlia ordered her friend, but Fea’s fear was contagious. The heads bobbed. Then a third face joined it. The Goblin’s.

They wiggled, moving up and down. And then—something leaned around the corner.

Facestealer had no face himself. No head or neck. The huge, lumpen figure had two indentations in its chest. Nothing above it. It held the heads on crude sticks as it peeked at them.

“Tribes save us.”

Nailren whispered. He aimed his bow, loosed an arrow. Facestealer disappeared before the arrow could strike it.

“It’s fast.

“Don’t retreat! Spread out. Buy time. Send another [Message]!”

Was anyone coming? Had they—left them for dead? Earlia’s hands shook as she lifted her warhammer. She remembered the ring and fumbled for it. Maybe it would help? Better to be cursed than die.

“It’s coming.”

The heads were wobbling as they appeared around the corner. Moving faster and faster. Jiggling obscenely. Earlia could sense Facestealer building momentum. Faster and faster they moved. Then they vanished.

I don’t want…

Earlia found the ring in her cold fingers. She stared ahead as a shape blurred around the corner. It was too fast. Too big—

 

—-

 

The woman opened her eyes. She was lying on the ground. She didn’t understand at first. But then she realized.

She was lying on her side. Her team lay around her. Scattered though they were around the corridor, it hadn’t mattered. Earlia saw Nailren, staring, eyes wide, next to her.

Both teams had been paralyzed. And behind Nailren—Facestealer. It had stopped after catching them with its magical effect.

It was standing over them. Huge, powerful arms. Clawed…fingers? No head. Just a rounded hump on top of its body. The two gaping pits in its chest.

And a bag. Stained with blood and grime. It was looking at them. At their heads.

No. No! Not when they were so close! Not now.

Someone was sobbing. Crying like a child. Earlia realized it was her. And more voices joined hers. Fea was crying too. Someone was pleading for their lives. Facestealer walked among the adventurers. Bending, looking.

Choosing which one to pick. It was bending for Nailren as the Gnoll snarled. Then Facestealer paused. It turned. And Earlia felt something running through the floor.

Thwoom.

The explosion ran through the dungeon. An impact so loud it drowned out her racing heart. Facestealer hesitated. And the guardian of Liscor’s dungeon felt it.

Deep within the dungeon, a figure made of metal held eternal court. Suits of enchanted armor, ancient guardians, moved in the darkness. Leading patrols, repairing their broken comrades.

The Armored General led them. And it too felt the tremor. Slowly, it turned its head. Cobwebs and dust moved as it changed its posture. The enchanted armor turned. Slowly, they began to march in the direction of the attack.

So did Facestealer. It abandoned the adventurers. Something was blaring a silent alarm only it and the other protectors of this place could hear.

Invasion. Not one adventurer, or even a few. And on a scale that had only occurred once, nearly eight years ago. The dungeon woke up. Monsters streamed towards the enemy, ordered to battle.

They died. The shadows themselves hacked them apart. Rows of armored foes crushed them. And flying, winged figures leapt through the tunnels. And the Antinium flooded over Flesh Worms, tore apart the enchanted patrols of armor.

Thousands of them. It was a full-scale attack! The dungeon threw wave after wave at the Antinium. It had crushed them before! And even the thousand-strong attack waves only killed monsters. The Antinium would die. They would—

…They weren’t stopping. Nor were the traps or monsters holding them back. Something was wrong. Silent Antinium were moving ahead, finding the concealed traps both magical and mundane! And the Armored Antinium were fighting equally, no, better than the enchanted suits of armor. The flying Antinium were too fast, flanking and overwhelming their opponents.

And Painted Antinium were marching with the regular Soldiers and Workers. As a group of exploding caterpillars swarmed down a tunnel, a [Priest] raised his censer. And a wall of light blocked the monsters as they detonated.

Advance! Injured Soldiers, fall back!

Yellow Splatters ripped off the head off a Face-Eater moth. Anand was rotating Antinium out, predicting attacks and saving lives as Antinium retreated in the face of ambushes and attacks. Ahead of them, Tersk was leading a squad of Armored Antinium with shields.

They calmly advanced through a party of undead skeleton archers raining arrows on them. The Antinium were covered in steel from head to toe; when they reached the skeletons and ghouls they demolished their opponents without so much as a scratch. The Flesh Worm snatched at them, but it couldn’t tear their chitin off with the armor in the way. And the Armored Antinium had blades.

Spit acid! Wear them down!

Pivr chittered as his group swarmed forwards. Some of the Flying Antinium were spitting venom or acidic liquids. The globules burst among a group of Face-Eater Moths filling a tunnel. And the Silent Antinium had beheaded a group of Raskghar without the powerful not-Gnolls even so much as striking a blow.

Tactics. Utility. Yellow Splatters saw how each Antinium group filled the weaknesses of the others. And the Painted Antinium—Pawn was healing one of the wounded Soldiers who had a chunk missing from his armor. And Yellow Splatters himself ran at a suit of enchanted armor and knocked it flying.

However, even this wouldn’t have been enough. The dungeon was coming alive. And a wave of Shield Spiders barreled down one tunnel. So many that they would have smashed even the Antinium. But today, the Antinium weren’t alone.

“[Motionless Vortex]. Klbkchhezeim. Will you take care of them?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

The Shield Spiders hit something in the air. Something that stopped their momentum, even the giant Shield Spider pushing the rest. And the Shield Spiders saw a figure, standing in the tunnel.

Alone. Slimmer than the rest. And he had two silvery swords. Klbkch spoke.

[Recaptured Sublimity].

He disappeared. The first ranks of Shield Spiders did too. Klbkch’s swords flashed in an arc. Silver afterimages. He began cutting the Shield Spiders apart. The floor began to run with yellow ichor. And the Shield Spiders realized the flaw in their wave-tactics.

They couldn’t run.

“How beautiful. He has something of his past power.”

Xrn watched as Klbkch advanced and the Shield Spiders began to scream. She turned her head as a [Tactician] spoke timidly.

“Centenium Xrn—we have secured eight tunnels so far. Your orders?”

“Begin your fortifications, Belgrade. Set up your traps at the choke points, as we discussed. I will continue leading the advance.”

The Small Queen raised her staff. Lights bloomed along the tunnels, dazzling her enemies. But her allies just saw the gentle light, illuminating the darkness.

She had ordered the attack into the dungeon. The Small Queen walked forwards as another Antinium found her.

“Centenium—”

“You may call me ‘Aunt’, Anand.”

The azure Antinium corrected the [Tactician] mildly. Anand hesitated.

“There is a push from the west. Facestealer and hundreds of the enchanted armor. They are filling two tunnels. Should we fall back?”

“Why? Belgrade must set up his traps. After all—I intend to set up our fortifications in the dungeon. Far better to fight on enemy grounds. And the tunnels are impossible to breach. All we must do is push them back.”

The [Tactician] knew this made sense. But Anand opened and closed his mandibles.

“Yet the dungeon’s opposition is powerful—”

“And? Stay here with Klbkchhezeim. I will deal with this Facestealer. And the armor.”

“Alone?”

The Small Queen walked past ranks of Antinium. She smiled. And her eyes lit up. Rosy red and blooming silver.

“I am never alone. And there is one thing you do not understand, Anand. Klbkchhezeim has lost his levels and his form. We Centenium were never of the highest level to begin with, though.”

“Why?”

Anand saw Xrn turn. And her staff began to glow. The Centenium replied as she walked down the hallway.

“Because our bodies were made too well. Our foes were too easy. I was made for magic. Do you think the Centenium were just a word? Watch.

She came to a corridor that split into two. And there, coming down the hallways was a line of metal. Hundreds of suits of armor, animated to defend this place. Overrunning the Antinium falling back.

And Facestealer. Plucking the heads off a squad of Painted Antinium and regular Soldiers who lay helpless.

Xrn’s eyes flashed. Facestealer looked up.

“So. You are this Facestealer who has killed so many of my people. And you are the defenders of this place. Come. You pathetic things.”

The guardian of the dungeon straightened. It walked at Xrn. The suits of armor began to charge. The Centenium held her ground. She pointed at the hallway filled by the army of magical constructs and spoke a spell. Then she turned and looked at Facestealer.

“[The Bindings of Belavierr].”

Glowing lines of light burst from the ground and walls, the ceiling. Black thread. They engulfed Facestealer, wrapping around his arms, legs, torso—

The monster halted. Xrn studied it, disappointed.

“Is that all you can do? Show me.

Pawn, sprinting forwards to reinforce Xrn, with the Painted Antinium, including Chesacre, Thaina, and Purple Smile, suddenly fell flat on his face. He realized something was immobilizing him.

“No—Facestealer! [Heal Minor Wounds]!”

The [Priest] desperately tried to rise. None of the other Antinium were moving. He sensed something moving in the darkness.

Undead, coming down another corridor. The [Priest] whispered. A prayer. It came from the other Antinium, silent though they might be.

Please.

The binding on him—faded. It was a magical thing. But Pawn felt a different power enveloping him, forcing the effect back.

He rose.

The Ghouls descending on the helpless Antinium saw the [Priest] holding his censer up. And there was light.

“[Holy Radiance].”

The undead saw the light blooming. And as it struck them—they screamed. Retreated, fled, as their flesh began to vaporize. Burst into flame. They ran. Pawn shakily looked around.

The Antinium were still frozen. But—the paralysis was waning? He saw Chesacre moving her two good arms. Pawn looked around.

“Stay there! I’ll find Facestealer! Stop it from advancing!”

He ran. Purple Smiles, lying on his front, observed in his head that Pawn’s instructions to them really weren’t necessary. Pawn ran to the next corridor. He saw a familiar person standing there.

Xrn. She was regarding a figure, struggling amid black bindings. Facestealer tore one arm free, ripping loose half a dozen of the black lengths of thread ensnaring his arm. But more wrapped around him.

“Is that really all? [Paralysis]? How weak. How insignificant.”

The Small Queen raised her staff. Pawn saw a flash. The radiance and explosion was followed by a kick of force that blasted behind Xrn with a rush of air. The [Priest] went skidding down the corridor.

“[The Light of Shali’vere]. My spells have no form. I create magic.”

The Small Queen was aiming her staff at Facestealer. It was writhing—the explosion of light had blasted off its first layer of…hide. Pawn saw yellowed bone beneath. Blood. He stared.

Facestealer tore more bindings away, desperate, enraged. Xrn saw it making its way at her, snapping the bindings. She tsked.

“Mindless. Klbkchhezeim’s body would make fighting you a challenge. But Wrymvr would enjoy the brawl. I would not. [Lesser Teleport]. [Acid Wave].”

The monster blinked out of existence. Pawn saw Facestealer appear fifty paces back down the corridor. The bindings raced at it again. And green acid surged down the hallway.

It steamed where it came into contact with the guardian. Xrn waved her staff and the magical acid, rather than obeying the laws of gravity, surged around the monster. Enveloping it.

“You are difficult to kill, aren’t you? [Ailendamus’ Lancearrows].

Long, magical arrows appeared in the air and blasted down the corridors. Copies of power. They struck Facestealer. The guardian rocked. Its bones refused to crack, but it stumbled.

And it tore at the acid surrounding it. Tore at the bindings. Flailing. Xrn blasted it with another spell. And she was smiling. Pawn saw the lights in her eyes shining.

But what about the armor? An entire army of—the [Priest] whirled. And he saw, as his squad rejoined him, what had happened to the corridor full of enchanted suits of armor.

The hallway rippled with heat. The very air was distorted. But there was no flame. Just pure heat. Perfectly contained. Pawn saw a melting suit of steel staggering at him. The thick metal was…dripping.

Running down the construct’s body, as it melted. And it was so hot the steel was vaporizing. Pawn stared.

The hallway was filled with melted metal. Hands, reaching out of the pools of metal—helmets, glowing, deforming. He slowly reached towards the rippling air.

“Do not. Your hand will burst into flame. Or simply melt.”

Xrn stopped Pawn. He whirled. The Small Queen stood behind him. Smiling.

“Facestealer. Was it—”

“Gone. It was difficult to kill. And it tore free of my binding spell. A pity. It is not a threat so long as I see it, but it is stubborn.”

The Small Queen nodded down the corridor. Pawn saw dissolving black bindings. Xrn regarded the corridor filled with metal.

“Perhaps the Armored Antinium can do something with this. Oh well. Was that the best the dungeon has to offer? Perhaps it grows more dangerous further in.”

She waved her staff and the heat spell vanished. Pawn saw the glowing pools of metal slowly cooling. And he felt the incredible heat.

Xrn stood in the corridor. The squad of Antinium who’d come to…help, stood a bit uselessly. The Painted Antinium, Purple Smile, all of them looked at her.

“I think we have claimed enough of the dungeon. We will advance. Slowly. I am not incautious. And this dungeon is vast. My seeking spells tell me there is far, far too much ground to cover. The adventurers have claimed a good portion as well, but there is so much more to occupy. And my magic is not infinite. I am tired.”

Xrn kindly told the others. Pawn nodded slowly.

“Centenium Xrn—”

“You may call me Aunt, Pawn. If you wish.”

The Small Queen smiled. Pawn did not wish. He looked at Xrn’s shining eyes.

“…Centenium, why do you need us? We have nothing like your power.”

She was worth ten thousand Antinium. More. What were the Painted Antinium compared to her? What was anyone? The Small Queen laughed, a fluttering chirp.

“Oh, little Pawn. That is true. But I was created to be the world’s finest. And—I am only one. There are so few of us left. I can still die. Klbkch has died and lost his power. Think of it. I can destroy one army of Drakes. But they have more than one. I need you, little Antinium. You must be stronger. Because only together can we triumph.”

She looked around fondly. And then the blackness surfaced in her eyes again.

“Small as you are, weak as you are. Together, we might triumph. We need millions of the Painted Antinium. A flood, to traverse the seas. To fight our true foe on Rhir. So do not think I can triumph alone. I have died once.”

She touched her chest. Pawn saw her eyes flicker darker still. And her head turned to him. She stared at the [Priest].

“On that day, over half of the Centenium marched with our First Queen, who created us. The closest being to perfection in this world. The highest level any Antinium ever achieved. Over half of us, and I was strong then as I am now. And we were wiped out to the last.”

Her eyes were swimming black. A single spark of silver shone in the depths, like some moving pupil. Xrn looked up. And her staff rose and the dungeon’s ceiling shook as she cast a spell upwards.

“So level. And let us take back our home. That is why I am here. Level—and—”

She looked at Pawn. And her eyes began to return to normal. Something like playfulness emerged in her voice.

“Perhaps we will find the key to the death of our foe here after all. Let us go back, Pawn. And you will conjure more of this delightful bread for me.”

The Small Queen turned away. And the dungeon shook. Facestealer fled. The armored guardians had been humbled. But they were just guardians.

Lesser ones.

Yet, the Small Queen walked in radiance and remembered glory. Bringing change to the Antinium. Preparing for the war that had never stopped for her.

 

—-

 

That was the end of the most ordinary, uneventful sort of day. With nothing but the quiet boredom, the passing of days.

It was not as interesting as the events the world took note of. And it passed into evening. The end, with nothing to remark on.

The Dwarf turned over the mithril coin in his fingers and thought of how hard it would be to move, the benefits of such things.

The Ashfire Bees fought in the darkness, given life by the little Druid.

Apista got high just because she wanted to, and not because she was depressed.

Montressa and Bezale discovered just how much gold was going to the Golden Triangle and got a bit more worried as they filed their reports.

The Antinium followed the Small Queen as she sat in Erin’s inn and introduced some of the Armored Antinium to the young woman. Erin in turn introduced the Meat Supreme Sub to the world and Relc.

Bird daydreamed of the time he’d flown.

And Garry had two new assistants he was teaching how to mix dough to, who followed their savior, their champion, and looked at him like he looked at Erin.

Small things. And the last of these unrelated events began with a horse, carrying a young woman. Her hair was black and red, like embers amid darkness.

She had reached a city. And the sprawling metropolis made her smile, as she dismounted. People stared, for the young [Lady] caught the eye.

She burned, like the last spark in the darkness. Brightest, before it went out. Lady Maviola El fell into line with the people entering Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. She had little gold, only a few possessions, and three vials of worth beyond compare.

On a last adventure. As she waited, along one of the many gates leading towards the city, she wondered what the future held. She saw a [Farmer], bringing in food for the city’s many shops and places of business. And a group fell in behind her, arguing noisily.

“They’re going to shoot all of us. Ksmvr, don’t you dare say anything. Leave the talking to us.”

“Yes, Captain Ceria.”

“Leave the talking to me. You mean, oh glorious Captain.”

“No way. Remember what happened last time?”

Last time you said ‘let’s all have a second helping of eggs! It can’t hurt!’ Which is why we’re so late!”

“Pisces. Don’t talk to me about the eggs. Otherwise it’s gonna come out again. I still feel sick. And I don’t know which end it’s coming out—Ksmvr, hand me your Amulet of Food Poisoning.”

“Yes, Captain Ceria.”

“All three of you, stay away from me. You’re all a disgrace to adventurers.”

Maviola’s lips twitched. She turned her head and then stared.

A half-Elf was grabbing for an amulet being held out by an Antinium. One of her hands was skeletal—just bone. A [Necromancer] was sniffing haughtily. And a woman with metallic arms was rolling her eyes.

Maviola blinked at the half-Elf and Yvlon Byres, and then smoldered at the Antinium. The adventurers took no notice of her.

They were sitting on a wagon. And on that wagon was…a door. The arguing team, the Horns of Hammerad, had the door propped up. Maviola eyed them.

“At least we’re here. Say, do you think we’ll be able to get to The Wandering Inn today?”

“Probably not. You know how that door is. Only two of us will probably be able to go through, at most. Dibs.”

“Dibs.”

“Damn it, you two.”

Yvlon scowled. Ksmvr raised one hand.

“I am ‘dibbing’ disqualifying myself to allow my teammates to go and visit the inn before me.”

The other adventurers blinked at him. And they slowly drew closer to the city. The [Lady] eyed them as Ceria wrinkled her nose.

“What’s that smell?”

Every head turned. And—somehow you missed this, but everyone else who had passed this way had seen it. The adventurers and Maviola saw a huge, rotting…pile. Of flesh. It was being burned.

“…Is that a Flesh Giant?”

Pisces blinked. And then the line moved, and Maviola El, and the Horns of Hammerad saw the gates of Invrisil waiting for them. The City of Adventurers awaited.

At long last. On an ordinary day—Ceria Springwalker raised her head. She saw the [Guards] at the gate calling out.

Nightfall! Locking down the gates! Invrisil is under curfew! Come back tomorrow!

The portcullis slammed down. The travellers stared up at the gates. Ceria’s mouth opened. She inhaled the smell of burning, rotting flesh. Looked around. Yvlon looked just as startled. Pisces blinked a few times as people at the gates shouted indignantly. Ksmvr nodded to himself.

“I believe the [Guardsman] forgot to say ‘welcome to Invrisil’.”

 

Author’s Note: This wasn’t a short chapter. I mean, it was shorter. But I’m still tired.

Hi, this was my attempt at an easy chapter. I believe I’ve failed, but I’m going to write another ‘easy’ chapter next update so I can recover from that long interlude. It won’t have much in it. It will be boring as…this chapter.

Heh. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading! And if you participated in the Fantasy panel, thanks for sending in your questions! I didn’t get to all of them, but it was a lot of comments! Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Today’s art is by Enuryn the [Naturalist]! It’s very fittingly of Liscor’s dungeon—the fortified entrance, not the other one. Amazing artwork and a beautiful scenic shot! Just uh, don’t actually go inside to take pictures, okay? Thanks for the amazing art!

(Full-size Version Here!)

Liscor's Dungeon by Enuryn

 


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72 thoughts on “7.19

  1. Leave a typo for ordinary days where nothing happens!

    (Ordinary readers: Gorexn, Aoxz, MrWiggles, afkcuzbookiscool, Maladal, ELL, Tarun Elankath, Qwiliman, amit27592, Vento, hougi123, LostAndContent, Cinny, asdf)

    • I don’t see a nerf. It was earlier mentioned that both goblins and antinium were naturally good at sign language. As for Erin I only recall it being mentioned that she had introduced the concept of sign language to Mrsha. Given that Mrsha uses it primarily with the people around her (and maybe with Lyon the most?) I don’t see why there is a problem in Erin and Lyon being compared. They both get daily training. :-)

    • possible error: (In Vol. 3+4) Pivr was a Revalantor, although he might have been degraded to Prognugator after ch. 4.13 ?

    • “Mrsha raced over like a shot out of a cannon, begging and drooling.”
      She just fainted two sentences earlier.

      “The elevator attendant  glanced”
      remove extra space between last two words

    • > She was sweating. She’d been cut twice—deeply, by claws. But her armor was thick and the cuts weren’t deep. The combat had been fierce. But brief.

      Either she was cut deeply, or the cuts weren’t deep. You get to decide!

  2. Well those ‘spell’ names that Xrn used are certainly interesting. She should not have met any person who could cast those meaning they are likely from the system.

    • Xrn is a [Thaumaturge] her Class revolves around making up Spells on the fly, I doubt she gets Spells so much as Skills that improve whatever concoction she wishes. [Cow’s Stomach] was made up on the spot to eat whatever she wanted the first time, all or most her Spells are her originals.

  3. One thing is pretty clear in Innworld. Any spell or skill you learn or derive by yourself is “copied” to the “system knowledge base” of the world and likely granted to others when they level-up. No patent fees.

    I assume the only ones who are free from this are folks like Ryoka who rejected the class system. Erin’s [Immortal Moment] was granted to Belavierr. Belavierr’s spell was granted to Xrm. Thanks to her class, Xrm seems like she excels at reproducing or obtaining masterpiece spells. The scrying orb must just be a wonderful power boost for her.

    • Something interesting someone on reddit brought up was that Val Godfrey had the Skills [Quick Movement] and [Double Step], and Persua should have gained both those Skills around the time Val died.

    • This is one possible explanation – we’ve seen that Skills or spells can be named after their inventor/ originator (Valmyra’s Comets; Relc Punch). Alternate explanation: since it says in this chapter explicitly that Xrn’s magic is essentially different from all other mages’, it’s possible that she’s heard about things Belavierr did, or something practiced in Aliendamus, and went about reproducing the effect *in her own way*; then the system grants her the Skill/ spell with Belavierr’s/ Aliendamus’ name *because that’s how Xrn things of it*. Makes me wonder if Erin’s old skill Minotaur Punch had really let her punch with the strength of a Minotaur, or what *Erin* thought of as being punched by a Minotaur.

  4. Some days are calm. Some days have little things building to bigger things. Some days are just days where hope can flourish…

    Today was a good day.

    Yet I think that what lies at the heart of the dungeon was meant to keep it locked away… As a real dungeon instead of a place to loot. The thing that was locked away has been slowly trying to find a way out… And now we just what will happen when they find it… Or when it comes to them.

  5. Thanks ! I enjoyed it!
    I just have one question…out of al the things offer to Erin by Xrn she picked money? It just seems odd bec Erin rarely cares about money. Does anyone have any thoughts to help clarify this for me?

    • As evidenced here:
      “And if she had a single flaw, it was that she didn’t know other species as he did. He had heard of her trying to convince Erin. Everything Klbkch understood of Erin told him Xrn’s offering thousands of gold pieces to Erin wouldn’t work.”

      Xrn doesn’t really understand other species and how to interact with them. She doesn’t have dealings with them so she’s a bit of a novice in that regard.
      So she’s offering to Erin the only think she can think of, she doesn’t know what else to offer as she doesn’t know Erin.

      And she has seen that other species usually have an attraction to gold, which actually is useless to the Antinium.
      She also tried to give erin other things in her power, like offer to enchant her inn, whatever she needed.

      I think Xrn needs to take some lessons from Klbkch regarding communication. Maybe join the City watch?

    • Klb summed it up in the chapter, Xrn doesn’t know other species that well much less Erin.

      “And if she had a single flaw, it was that she didn’t know other species as he did. He had heard of her trying to convince Erin. Everything Klbkch understood of Erin told him Xrn’s offering thousands of gold pieces to Erin wouldn’t work.”

      As for why she picked money specifically, well the Antinium have no use for the crap ton of gold they have and she should at least know that in general humans crave it.

    • On second thought though, there does seem to be a minor discrepancy here. As Xrn was the one who came up with the well thought out Antinium Plan during the Human/Goblin Invasion. That also relied a lot on the behavior of Drakes & Gnolls during the siege. So she has already demonstrated a bit of knowledge of other species.

      This seems like a bit of regression. Not impossible mind you, but hard to get your mind around it,

      • Flawed behavior. They would never have actually gone for it so the plan would have to be changed by the free antinium last minute. “We just want to have a say in how things go” instead of you will all be serfs.

        • Also there is a difference between knowing how someone reacts during war… and how people act during peace. Xrn knows them through the lens of war, but she isn’t a diplomat who understands how they fully work when they aren’t fighting. Sort of like a Fisherman who knows who to fish might new a few details about them… but not how the fish actually live.

          Also she knows Erin is a human, but she is basing her information on the humans she has previous dealt with… which isn’t Erin. She knows this, but doesn’t know how to make a deal or transition with her.

          As for the offers? Erin is so far the only friendly human who is willing to work with them without any strings seemingly attached as she is just being nice.

          Xrn is also going through the same thing Klbkch did in trying to mass produce individuals. She has a slightly better head, but also less of an understanding on how everything works as she thinks the Inn is built for profit so giving profit would fix any trouble caused by the sudden influx of guests.

          Especially since Xrn doesn’t have place too much of a value on gold as she wants to head back ‘home’ since most of the other queens are content at trying to conquer what was supposed to be a temporary place. If spending a bunch of money to get what she wants (individuals, allies, ships with captains who know how to sail) then she will spend the money before the other queens screw up her plans.

      • I’m not sure it would have worked and even if it DID work. It is possible the drakes would have preferred to take the city back on their own despite the difficulty.

        Also the plan has a striking similarity to how she dealt with Erin. Offer the biggest carrot you can find. With Erin she just shotgunned out offers of what someone might want. Magic. Servants. Money. Buildings. Etc. In the Liscor plan she would be offering them their lives and a partial return of the city.

        Finally, the defect she had with Erin is one of tuning her understanding on an individual level. Money, magic, enchantments and servants would work for most humans and drake.

        As for the behavior of Drakes & Gnolls during the siege all she needed to know is that they would want to live. She probably knew the human plans from listeners.

    • The Inn reconstruction has yet to be completed/fully paid. As I recall, the core building only just got completed, and they still need the auxiliary buildings Lyonette had planned for the inn.

      Also, if she ever decides to go through another round of magic food experiments, money usually helps.

  6. Mrsha putting Apista on her head to better commune with nature was the cutest thing ever.

    All kinds of frightful rumblings in this one.

  7. Awesome chapter pirate!

    Erin is surrounded by so people who covet the things that she has.

    Saliss used her to connect with Chaldion.
    The Wistram mages want her knowledge & magic door.
    Xrn wants Individuality for the Antinium from her.
    Xif & Palt want her magic flowers.
    Xif & Saliss want her flames.
    Lyon wants her to make money.
    Grimalkin wants her knowledge.
    Pelt seems to want her Mithril Coin.
    Olesm wants to level using her skill at chess.
    Octavia seems to want…well..everything. (But she’s kinda on a redemption arc)
    Ryoka is…Ryoka.

    I feel like the only innocent people she’s surrounded by are Bird and Numbtongue.
    I’d like erin to have one true adult friend that gives to erin instead of taking. Saliss was my hope but that was dashed in the last chapter.

    • Serys is a friend who gives to Erin and never really asks for anything in return. The only thing she has ever asked of Erin is her help in the election. Which was more Krshia asking Erin with Serys already helping Krshia.

    • You managed to articulate what bugged me about some of the people around Erin, in particular Lyonette. You could add Krshia who wanted Erin’s help as well during the election, and kicked her in the face afterwards.

      In think Pisces is appreciative of Erin, in his own way. And Rufelt and Lasica do give rather than take, even though they are patronizing her.

      • Putting Lyonette on a list of people “taking” from Erin is nuts. Lyonette has basically devoted herself to making Erin’s business work, making more money for Erin, even though Erin doesn’t care about it (until she needs money to help friends, buy emergency supplies etc.) Ever since Lyonette decided to really try to work for a living, she’s done everything she can to make Erin richer and does almost all of the most difficult parts of running an inn. She gives Erin WAY more than she takes. This saves Erin from herself, since she has no mind for business, and allows her to focus on Erin things without anything falling apart.

  8. Wait a second..Mrsha is Druid Level 7 now. And she could only learn 6 spells till now. Is her ability to learn spells a function of her level? What do you guys think?

    • I think Druids just learn spells differently than actual mages. Mages specialize in studying and get skills to expand their brain power while Druids largely draw power from nature. Druids can still read and learn, but I guess it’s less efficient than a Wistram mage this spent years studying magic. She also is still a child and doesn’t have a formal magical education so it’s kinda like giving a child an advanced calculus book and saying learn all this…only the words are magic and rearrange while you look at them.

  9. Love chapters like this. I think one of TWI’s strengths is that its low-stakes sections often feel just as meaningful and satisfying as the high stands. You do a great job putting bits and pieces of plot and foreshadow in without saturating it to the point that it’s a veneer of fluff over tension, something that happens in a lot of stories imo. That tension truly is on hold here, I’m not holding my breath thinking about the big bad.

  10. If the Antinium settle in the dungeon, they’re at risk of ending up like Calruz if they drink the water. Xrn going mad with an army at her back would be a sight to see. Who would believe that it was the result of environmental effects instead of some deliberate plot by the queens?

  11. In the antinium dungeon portion, you wrote face stealer moths, not face eater moths. Really enjoyed this chapter, both how you stated and ended it and set up stuff for down the road. I have to say, I like Xrn.

  12. Huh Pelt had a slight recognition of the mithril coin. Between this, the height, and beard, Tamaroth is looking towards being an old Dwarf god. That makes the others likely a human and an elf/half-elf gods given their descriptions and Terandria’s current species population.

    • Gods who came back to check up on the world they left behind? Ones who wanted to make a bargain for her soul to see what she would do?

      Or just curious what a human not from the world is doing there since everyone else thinks the gods are dead.

      • The Fae called the gods of the Innworld dead and rotting. The ones Ryoka met were shown to be dead and rotting things when in the dark. All of them we’ve seen seem to be fading (just like the inscription on the coin) so they probably are actually dead rather than just paying a visit.

        • Probably «dead» but won’t vanish until every specimen of their species dies! And can actually still come back to life if they pray enough. But that dark matter or evil god is eating the dead worshippers so they got like zero powers at the moment. Call it farfetched but they could be getting nourished by the life their people live contained in the soul!! So they wipe the soul clean and send them back for reincarnation. Now though… they’re not doing good. Which is why they offer items now and a while too. So that the souls when the ones taking the bargain die, don’t get lost or taken on the way ;)

          • Also, I remember we were told that something is taking the souls of the dead from Innworld. It was mentioned that powers which rely on those souls existing no longer work as they once did. Possibly also the powers that [Witches] use to a certain extent? This was all in one of the Lakan chapters IIRC.

  13. You know what would be an interesting interlude to read? A chemist from our world studying alchemy, but applying his chemistry education to the class.

    • I think they’d go crazy haha. How do you measure magic in a pipette? How can you titrate something like ritual or meaning? How do you even produce consistent results when the act of measuring the makup of an ingredient fundamentally alters its nature?

      • Judging from what we saw Octavia do, alchemy seems to handle magic in a quantifiable way – “X stalks of sage grass will produce a healing potion of Y quality.” Mages in general seem to handle mana in a quantifiable way, too – “It takes X amount of mana to charge the door enough to move a person Y miles” – even if understanding how to cast spells seems to be more of the vague “concept that cannot be explained, only felt” type.

        Yes, there are a couple of “old magic” rituals that are just straight up “reality is fake and you can do anything if it makes a good story,” but there’s definitely enough concrete stuff in alchemy for a chemist to work with.

  14. I’d like to see a scene in which Erin tries to explain to Relc what a pyramid scheme is, only to interrupt herself halfway to argue with herself over the merits of creating a legitimate stock exchange, or maybe just a kickstarter.

  15. Why is gem hammer only now thinking they made bank? Weren’t they making hundreds of gold from harvesting the trap room components? They said one blade alone from a blade trap was worth 600 gold. They must have made a mint even before they found that treasure.

  16. I first thought Erin was experimenting with Wondrous Fare when she went into the kitchen , talking about refining the recipe.
    So in both our universe and Innworld, the super meat does actually provide a lot of energy for hard labour workers ,yes?

    It appears Maviola has found a group that has caught her fancy ,being the incarnation of adventurous chaos , if she stops smoldering with intensity at Ksmvr.

  17. I love this chapter for giving me the Erin fix😁

    And glad to see the Horns again. Hoping they get a meaty chapter soon. Loved Mrsha and Numbtongue’s bit of the chapter; it’s fantastically written.

  18. Hm. My first comment didn’t appear to post, so hopefully this isn’t secretly getting posted twice.

    I really liked this chapter! It didn’t try to do too much at once, and it was a nice balance of resolving old things while introducing new ones. More chapters like this would be really great.

    Also, Mrsha and Numbtongue’s antics were as delightful as ever, I really enjoyed that section :)

    Excited to see what the thing the bees are fighting is!

  19. Great chapter. I loved all the little callbacks, the remains of the flesh giant, the bee cave (I wonder if the things they’re fighting are whatever infected the zombie drakes?) the corpses in the bag of holding. Seeing those threads carried on is satisfying in itself and makes me care more about new threads too. Actually still kinda miffed at Montressa for sidetracking what was clearly going to be an awesome Horns adventure to go reclaim more of the heartflame armour from that creepy village I still want to know more about.

    Pelt is great fun, I hope we see a lot more of him. I wonder if he’s related to Gazi’s equipment. I miss Ryoka, she and Xrn having a conversation would be fantastic. Maybe about magic too. Xrn’s magic obviously works more like that of dragons and fairies and witches than it does like mages. Like she knew Belavier’s powers could like bind facestealer that way so she just imagined that concept and it happened.

  20. Now that we have both the Golden Triangle and The Pallasian Times, it seems like another Earther is actually operating in Pallas, not merely targeting it from abroad with a scam. I assume both ventures are from the same person. Wistram seems to know what’s up and is investigating the leads.
    I foresee major fireworks when that person is caught.

    • Ah, wasn’t the Golden Triangle a thing from Terandria? Or at least it claimed to be, haha. I assumed the Pallasian Times was simply the extension of their having their main news anchors living there, and the fact that they’re already using the Pallasian engineering division to produce their Earther technologies.

  21. I would believe cut gems etc. are very small, very light, easier to carry and sell than components, and just worth a lot of money as well.

  22. It would be incredibly funny, if Erin had a few rooms without doors. She could visit the rooms with her Skill through the garden, but people who don´t know about the special rooms would never know about it. Like a secret room behind a safe room.

  23. Most definitely not the most boring chapter. I really enjoyed it. The chapter a long time ago introducing all those kingdoms on Flos’s continent was super boring and I very much doubt can ever be beaten for boring. This chapter is amazing compared to that one. Keep up the good word. I will send you some of my energy ;)

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