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Of the emerging forces in the world, the Unseen Empire was a fast-growing, fast-expanding proto-nation. It wasn’t fully large enough to call itself a civilization, yet. But it had unusual elements which were already testing the fabric of which it had been made.
Goblins, for one. Their separate Goblin-only area, or, as it was coming to be known, ‘the Goblin Lands’, were a sore point among Riverfarm’s people. However—the empire continued to expand because of the power of the [Emperor] as well as…other…considerations.
However, if you benchmarked the growth of the Unseen Empire to the average rate of expansion of other nations or peoples, it would not be the most impressive rise ever seen in this world.
For instance, the King of Destruction might not have qualified in the same way since he was in fact, retaking old lands. But he had amassed far more in terms of landmass, economic value, and both artifacts and allies in less than a year than Laken Godart.
Similarly—the Emperor of Sands, or Empress, as the mood suited them, had grown even faster. It was about perspective. And not to put too fine a point on it, species.
Some were better than others at creating, organizing, working together, or just reproducing. In that sense, the Empire of Sands, the Unseen Empire, and the King of Destruction’s former kingdom all paled in comparison to the fastest-growing, most unique ‘nation’ the world had ever seen.
Antinium. They had swept across Izril over twenty years ago and nearly toppled two species—Gnolls and Drakes. Arguably, they had become a world power in the shortest amount of time. And…lest it not be forgotten, they had left Rhir after overrunning all but one of the walls in an attack that had caught the Blighted Kingdom and the Demons off-guard. What kept some intelligent people awake at night was the question of whether any Antinium had remained in Rhir. And if so…what were they doing?
Erin peeked out of the kitchen. Kevin was absent, as befit the new icon of Pallass’ youth. Watch Captain Venim and the other Watch Captains were consulting with Zevara as the Assembly of Crafts breathed down their necks.
But it wasn’t about them. Or even the [Innkeeper]. She looked at Imani and Palt, her two resident [Cooks]. Imani was nervous…but not as much as usual. Which was odd, actually. Imani grew terrified of bumps in the night, Gnolls playing pranks, and Apista in general.
Yet the sight of Tersk, Dekass, and Belgrade all noshing at the bar didn’t bother her one bit. Perhaps because Imani had been told that Antinium killed Crelers like nobody’s business.
In fact, once you got to know her, Imani was quite interesting. As Erin peered at the two Prognugators plus Belgrade, Imani left the kitchen holding a plate.
Tersk and Dekass had eaten about eight silver’s worth of snacks, which was a lot. Belgrade was smaller as a Worker than the two Soldier-Prognugators, but he’d packed away a good amount as well. Into his bag of holding too.
“Yes, Miss [Cook]? We have not yet eaten all our appetizers yet. We will summon more.”
Dekass waved a lazy hand. He had gotten very used to the inn and the concept of being waited on. Imani held something out.
“This is a new recipe. Would you please try it?”
The Antinium turned with the speed of cuisine and stared at the object on the plate. Tersk opened and closed his mandibles.
“What is that?”
Imani shyly showed them the new foray into food. Erin snapped her fingers.
“How did she make that? I never figured out how! I barely did bagels!”
“It has some powdered sugar too. We worked hard on it.”
Palt looked proud. Imani held out the croissant, but Dekass wasn’t as interested as Tersk and Belgrade.
“Intriguing. If we do not need to pay for it, I will consume some after the fries.”
A fact Erin had observed about Dekass was that the Prognugator liked finishing each plate first. Down to the scraps. Only then would he eat from the second plate. He reached for a fry—and Imani tugged the plate out of the way.
“Try this. Palt and I worked hard on it.”
Dekass stared at Imani. Erin’s jaw dropped.
“I am eating that.”
“Try my new food. It’s a croissant.”
“I do not wish to. Give me my order of food.”
Imani lifted Dekass’ plate out of the way.
“Try my food or you won’t get your fries. And tell me what you think.”
The Antinium looked at each other and Dekass opened and closed his mandibles a few times. Erin felt the need to rub her eyes.
“Is…is that Imani?”
“Mhm. She can be surprisingly stubborn. You wouldn’t know it, but she’s been feeling better of late.”
Palt had some powdered sugar around his mouth. Erin blinked at him.
“Hey. How do you make powdered sugar?”
The Antinium tried the croissant. It went down as well as you could expect—which was very well. They began gobbling it, without fear of gluten. Xrn had given them all her special anti-food poisoning charm on a wooden amulet.
“So? What did you think? Is it too dry for Antinium palates? I noticed you don’t make as much saliva as other species.”
“I would like my fries. And I must now excrete excess nutrition.”
Dekass waved a feeler as the other two lethargic Antinium realized they had to provide feedback to the Imani-survey.
The point, to Erin at least, wasn’t that Imani was actually the kind of person who insisted you fill out the survey with your thoughts. Or that she was actually observant and pushy. Or that you could make powdered sugar out of…sugar.
The point was that Tersk and Dekass had regularly shown up every single day, eating food. Erin peered at Dekass as he waddled out of the inn.
“You know, I thought they’d be different. But they’re just…normal.”
She was aware the two Antinium were different. Not many people were, but Zevara’s fit over the other types of Antinium appearing in her city during the confrontation with Magnolia had been legendary. Ultimately, Erin hadn’t heard much because whatever was happening was going on with the high commands of cities, Liscor’s Council—bigwig stuff as she termed it.
The strange thing to Erin was how the other Prognugators and Antinium that Xrn had brought to Liscor had behaved. It had been weeks now. And Tersk and Dekass showed up like clockwork, ate like machines, and left. But…that was it.
“What do you think they’re doing all day when they’re not eating?”
Erin looked at Palt. The Centaur shrugged as Imani wrote down some notes and came back. Erin stared at Tersk. The Antinium looked content, bloated, and was casually talking with Belgrade. He was, in fact…not doing much of anything. And that was strange.
But only because it had been so long that Erin had forgotten what Antinium had been like.
The Antinium was standing when Xrn found her. It was difficult, even with her mental connection to pinpoint the Silent Antinium; she had blended so seamlessly with the dark loam of the barracks that she was practically invisible.
“Xeu. I require your presence.”
Only then did the Silent Antinium’s Prognugator move. Xeu, the mantis-like Antinium, did not walk on two legs. She was closer to the sensibilities of an insect than the more humanoid Workers and Soldiers. Only the Silent Queen had the expertise to make her subjects so perfectly hexapodal. Pivr had inefficiencies in his motion, for instance.
He was accompanying Xrn. The Flying Antinium’s Prognugator fluttered his wings in a slight challenge. Xeu ignored him.
“This one obeys, Xrn. What will?”
Her voice was soft, so high-pitched it was hard for any non-Antinium to hear. Another mechanism designed to allow Silent Antinium to communicate without the enemy hearing. Xrn pointed.
“First. We go to the dungeon. Second—socialization. I wish you two to communicate with the Painted Antinium.”
Pivr’s tone was annoyed. But he meekly lowered his antennae as Xrn looked at him.
Interesting observations of the Antinium of Izril. Well, to Xrn, they had long ceased to be interesting. The first was that the Silent Antinium, like their Queen, were very used to stillness. Pivr, by contrast, had more emotion in him than any other Antinium besides the Individuals—even if it was all reluctance and arrogance like his Queen.
But the two were similar in a strange way. A way Xrn barely thought of anymore. As she led the two Prognugators, she collected Tersk and Dekass, who had eaten their fill at the inn.
“Fall in. We go to battle.”
The Small Queen’s eyes shone like a trapped nebula. She led the Antinium of three Hives into the dungeon, with the Painted Antinium. And everything she met—died.
While adventurers conducted their war, and Liscor continued to expand, the Antinium were also changing. Xrn reached the first layer of fortifications. Belgrade was already there, relieving Purple Smiles.
“Not much, Prognugator Xrn. We have held this area well. I regret to say…eighteen of your thirty six bound spells have been activated. Purple Smiles deemed each use acceptable—”
Xrn regarded the scorched stones and hallways of the dungeon. A broken suit of armor lay with a huge, gaping vent in its armor. The azure Antinium shook her head.
“How many casualties?”
“Fifty six. However—”
Belgrade stopped as Xrn looked at him.
“Use all of my spells, Belgrade. I am capable of replenishing them at will. Magic regenerates. Workers and Soldiers—especially Painted Antinium—do not.”
The [Tactician] looked into the stern, green-blue eyes, mixing admonition with sorrow. He bowed his head.
“I am sorry for my failure.”
A gentle hand touched his arm. The [Tactician] started. Xrn had only two arms. She smiled.
“Learn. And protect your Hive, Belgrade. Hold this ground. We will advance. Pivr, Tersk, Dekass, Xeu. To me.”
Belgrade watched as Xrn marched down the hallway. The [Trapsetter Tactician] turned to a Painted Soldier.
“Two Thousand Five Hundred and Two Stars, prepare to move the fortifications forwards. Archer Squad E—prepare for counterattacks on the other corridors.”
The Antinium moved around him. Belgrade examined the fortifications. They were actually copies of the adventurer-tactics. Tall, metal-coated barricades, which allowed Antinium to funnel their foes and assail them from a height-advantage. Belgrade had happily stolen the idea. Anything that was useful, he stole.
And innovated upon. Xrn had enchanted these barricades. She was no master-enchanter; Belgrade didn’t understand the nuances of her class, but a [Thaumaturge] had interesting abilities. She had magic for every situation, but she was a poor specialist. Even so. Enchanted barriers meant that the Antinium had taken and held over forty tunnels within the dungeon, despite monster attacks and the dungeon attempting to retake the areas adventurers and Antinium held.
But the dungeon, which Belgrade regarded as a faceless, numberless foe, had failed. Due to the Antinium’s strategic fortifications as well as—
Xrn. A flash of light lit up the tunnel she’d gone down. Belgrade didn’t need to watch her. He’d seen her destroying entire hallways with her magic before. Unlike Klbkch, she was and had remained at the height of her strength.
Useful. More useful than Klbkch, especially in personality.
Belgrade did not say that part aloud. But his opinion of his former boss had changed as well. Belgrade liked Xrn.
Pawn liked Xrn.
Yellow Splatters liked Xrn. Purple Smiles loved Xrn. Xrn loved Chesacre and Thaina, whom she often employed as bodyguards on her dungeon battles. The feeling was mutual, as Belgrade understood it.
The Small Queen had brought many changes to the Free Antinium. She was conducting an aggressive expansion into the dungeon, forcing the other Antinium to adapt and mix tactics. Also: trying to safely level all of the Painted Antinium and create more.
She was the one behind the increased budgets for Pawn’s barracks. Enchanting Belgrade’s fortifications—even authorizing personal artifacts from the Antinium treasuries for Belgrade, like his bag of holding, for instance. Xrn was munificent, kind…
But there was one odd thing about her.
“Tactician Belgrade. Xrn is requesting an update. Your status?”
Belgrade got the request from a Silent Antinium, Xeu herself, after fifteen minutes. He nearly fell off the 3rd barricade in the tunnel he was commanding from.
The Silent Antinium’s Prognugator was the only one of them that talked. Same with Pivr; the other Antinium were in theory, capable of speech, but Belgrade had never heard them saying one word. They, like Workers and Soldiers, simply obeyed.
Xeu was also quiet. She waited, half invisible in the gloom; she had only appeared to speak to him. Belgrade caught himself before he could fall and replied.
“I—I am well, Xeu.”
The Silent Antinium had two scythe-arms rather than manipulable arms. She was meant for only one purpose; regular Workers had to even help her eat. But the blades were sharper than regular steel. She rubbed them together now, making a silky sound. She seemed…puzzled.
The [Tactician] looked around and scratched at his head, copying an Erin-gesture.
“We have…engaged on fifteen fronts since Xrn’s advance.”
“I will tell Xrn at once.”
Xeu tensed and prepared for her lightning-fast scuttles the way she’d come. Belgrade held up three of his four hands.
“No! They were minor battles. I took care of them. Two casualties. Unavoidable, regrettably. I am just overseeing the movement of barricades to cover Xrn’s advance. And collecting more traps. Oh—and I requested reinforcements. Another archer-squad is en route to supplement our forces along Hallway E11.”
The Silent Antinium regarded Belgrade without apparent emotion aside from her rubbing scythe-arms.
“What order was given?”
“Excuse me? None. I have done this on my own authority.”
The [Tactician] looked blankly at Xeu. The Prognugator opened and closed her mandibles a few times.
“I will inform Xrn.”
She left without another word. Belgrade scratched at his head. Then he went back to his project.
Of the original chess club, Belgrade considered himself the true acolyte of Erin Solstice in the sense that he had memorized more of her chess strategies than any other Antinium and not distinguished himself in any other unique way since.
For instance, Pawn was now a [Priest] and leader of the Painted Antinium along with Yellow Splatters. Garry was a [Cook] who brought wonderful delicacies to life. Bird was Bird.
And Anand had gone with Klbkch. Belgrade thought that Anand had a better claim to brilliance than Belgrade. He was a [Strategist] compared to Belgrade’s [Tactician]. He was able to adapt and overcome Belgrade 68.31% of the time, and that was only recent simulations.
However, Erin had reassured Belgrade that he was like her. Belgrade was not a genius. He studied chess obsessively and derived his abilities from practice, memorization—he was perhaps, too reliant on past patterns as Erin said, but he enjoyed stable battlegrounds.
Traps were easy. Traps were predictable. They worked or they didn’t. You could set up a hallway with traps and not have to worry about losing soldiers, just the material cost of replacing things.
Belgrade loved traps. He loved creating mazes the enemy had to struggle down and not lose a single Antinium as they reached death-zones with [Archers] raining down arrows on them from entrenched positions. He was fond of making traps that destroyed each enemy type.
Vast swarms, armored foes, clever Raskghar—the few that he saw anymore—Belgrade was no innovator in terms of formations or unit-tactics, but he had long since adapted acid-arrows into the [Archer]-Worker ammunition piles. For the really dangerous foes. Just a little bit of glass or ceramics containing the acid carefully attached to an arrow. Fire into the face for maximum effect.
But Belgrade’s new project had come about oh, three weeks ago when Gemhammer had stopped in the inn for a drink. He had, while waiting for a chess game with Erin, Olesm, or someone else, overheard them talking about digging up parts of the dungeon to sell. The fact that they took trap blades, enchanted sigils, and so on had fascinated him.
So Belgrade had copied them. He had bought one of Gemhammer’s pickaxes with Xrn’s allowance, and with her help, identified a trap rune in the dungeon that froze whatever walked on it. As an experiment, Belgrade had moved it into a tunnel which the foe came down and watched as it killed dozens before they realized it was there.
“Oho. Oho. I am told ‘oho’ is something you say when you are happy.”
The [Tactician] rubbed all four hands together as he watched a group of Workers, carefully, carefully extract some enchanted spikes out of a pit trap in the ground. It was very difficult; the stone of the dungeon was exceedingly difficult to break, even with an enchanted pickaxe. But the reward?
“We will mount these spikes on the barricades, perhaps. Or another pit trap. Or we could put them on a shield and have a Soldier charge into the enemy.”
Belgrade happily waved a spike at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] looked at the smaller Worker. He replied in a deep, bass voice.
“Perhaps. We have two teams of [Shieldbearer] Antinium. But will these…spikes run out of magic like the traps when they are taken out of the dungeon?”
“I do not believe so. This is just enchanted metal. If they are dependent on mana, they will simply be kept in the dungeon for use.”
Most of the magic traps needed mana to function and thus lost power outside of the dungeon, much to Belgrade’s disappointment. Although he was still trying to convince Lyonette to let him install some of the traps in the hallway. She had objected on the grounds that they might ‘activate and kill all our guests’. Which Belgrade supposed was a counterargument.
By the time Xrn returned, with two wounded Armored Antinium and no casualties, she had killed a fair number of monsters—most fled her approach—and allowed the Antinium with her to fight under her protection. She was also arguing with Pivr.
“—Safe leveling is preferable to endangering the Antinium with the capacity to level, Pivr. Now, you will take your Flying Antinium and participate in activities laid out by Pawn. Socialize. That is an order. Oh. Belgrade. Xeu tells me you have been—busy?”
The Small Queen stared at Belgrade as a pair of Workers tried to mount some of the enchanted pit-spikes into a wooden shield. Belgrade raised one hand.
“Yes, Xrn. I have obtained these spikes, which I am attempting to integrate into our armaments. I have also fortified the areas you have taken. I appreciate Xeu checking on me with regularity, but nothing of note occurred.”
She had, in fact, surprised Belgrade nearly a dozen times in the last two hours. Xrn studied Belgrade, looking somewhat…confused. But then she smiled.
“Well done, Belgrade. Your initiative is pleasing.”
“Thank you, Prognugator Xrn.”
The other Prognugators from the other Hives stared at Belgrade, looking very confused. And Belgrade had it. He looked at the way Xrn shepherded the other Antinium, ordering some to go with Yellow Splatters to eat at The Wandering Inn.
The most…unique Antinium, like the Flying Antinium and Silent Antinium were too different to eat at the inn, so Xrn had them socialize with the Painted Antinium. She even ordered them to do that.
“Read books, or have them read to you if you do not wish to communicate.”
And they obeyed. They did not ask questions. Nor did they disobey. For the next three hours, Xeu rested on her legs next to a group of Antinium listening to Pawn reading a story book to them. Pivr followed Belgrade about, asking questions.
“Why are you doing that?”
“What is the purpose of doing that?”
“That seems very inefficient. In my Hive…”
And his most constant refrain—
“Did Prognugator Xrn give you orders to do that? If not, why are you doing it?”
He was always mystified by Belgrade’s response.
“I was not given orders to do it. I chose to do it because I thought it would be useful.”
This was what Belgrade had observed, that Erin had picked up on after noticing Tersk and Dekass’ unfailing habits. The other Prognugators…did not do anything.
Or rather, they were excellent at following orders. Because they had been ordered and allowed to do it, Tersk and Dekass frequented the inn every day. They tried new foods. In fact, they had even tried combining foods, like ice cream and squash soup, to mixed results. They watched plays, asked questions.
…They never went to other establishments, in Liscor or anywhere. They might not have been allowed in, but they never tried. In the same way, Pivr and Xeu followed Xrn’s orders and explored the Hive, tried to learn. They did not take command except when she ordered it.
In battle, Xeu would lead Painted Antinium, Flying Antinium, Armored Antinium. But she did not ask to command them, only waited to be appointed. She was tactically proficient and could improvise to attack or defend. She did not create new strategies.
“Is that common of Prognugators, Xrn?”
Once Pawn had heard Belgrade’s conclusion, he had immediately gone to Xrn to ask about it. The Small Queen gave him a strange look.
“Of course. At least, among the Prognugators of Izril’s generations. They are not perfect. I understand your Ksmvr was like this, although I have never met him.”
“He was fairly autonomous to me.”
The [Priest] rubbed at his limbs, recalling when they had been severed. Xrn smiled and touched his arm lightly. Pawn felt his chitin tingling; Xrn was magic.
“He attempted to carry out Klbkch’s duties, Pawn. He did not think to do anything Klbkch did not. You are not like he was. You created the Painted Antinium. You have instituted your prayer room in The Wandering Inn. You are not like a Prognugator. You are something more.”
“Yes…but the other Prognugators are very intelligent. They are capable of making their own decisions.”
Xrn opened and closed her mandibles before shaking her head.
“In a way. Give Pivr an order to maintain the Hive and he will. He will do everything in his power to maintain the Hive. But that is all. Prognugators of Izril are excellent…task managers. But the Queens must still lead. That is why they are always so busy. But here, I see Belgrade, you, Yellow Splatters—all the Painted Antinium have what we need. Klbkchhezeim was right. I had forgotten how much I was forced to manage other Antinium—even Prognugators—until I came here.”
She looked thoughtful then. And Pawn wondered if she wasn’t overselling things a bit. Tersk seemed very autonomous to him. But then…perhaps not.
“Xrn, it occurs to me that you may be correct. Have I mentioned that Garry is attempting to open a shop?”
Garry’s Antinium Edibles was, by all normal business standards, a failure. It had opened up on the street that led to the Hive, already a bad move since most people avoided that place like the plague.
Second, most people didn’t want to eat…‘Antinium Edibles’. However, Garry stocked the shop with pies, experimental breads, desserts—none of which was making him a profit. The shop had been in the red every day since opening four days ago.
On the other hand—he was leveling. The [Chef] was benefiting from his sales. And he was selling everything in his stalls, even if it took a while. The Worker would hand a pie over for three copper coins to some starving Liscorian citizen and they’d find Garry could cook. Even if some of the feedback cards said ‘stop putting centipedes in the damn pies’.
“It is not about income. The Free Queen has given me a large food budget. Therefore, all of my profits are actually profits with no expense.”
Garry justified his prices to Belgrade and Erin when they heard about his stall. Lyonette nearly had a heart attack. Numbtongue bought everything in Garry’s inventory and shoved it all into his bag of holding.
“You see? I have made record-breaking sales each day. I never have anything left in my stock. That is good business.”
Erin expected Lyonette to explode, but the [Princess] actually took Garry’s side after she had a moment to think. She gave Pawn and Erin a rueful smile.
“You have to admit—it’s brilliant. People—especially hungry people—will buy a pie if it’s three copper coins, even if it’s made by Antinium. Especially children!”
“I never have any ice cream when I make it. Would you like to buy a non-insect pie, Miss Erin? They are my best-selling pies.”
The [Innkeeper] stared at a pie much like any prospective buyer did when they saw the section labeled ‘insect-pies’ sitting unhelpfully next to the section labeled ‘no-insect pies’. But Garry was happy and there were Soldiers helpfully standing guard who sort of discouraged any unpleasantness. And he was doing his own thing.
Someone else who noticed the change in the Hive was the Free Queen. She started as she realized she had spent three whole days in her laboratory, working on her creation projects.
The Free Queen was a huge figure, but she practically dragged herself out of the contained laboratory built into her quarters. In a Human mother—it would be the equivalent of running out of the bedroom where she’d been having a lie down, screaming ‘oh god, I haven’t fed the baby in three days and I left the stove on!’
Which it was, to be fair. Even with Klbkch or Xrn, the Hive could not survive without a Queen telling the Antinium to do such basic things as feed themselves. The Queen reached for her dying Hive—
And found nothing out of the ordinary. The Antinium were healthy. Even the creation pods were functioning as normal—the Listeners had been rotated out, all Antinium were fed…
“Did Xrn do all of this?”
The Free Queen was amazed. Even Klbkch would have struggled to maintain the Hive, even without his [Guardsman] job. But then she saw movement.
“Queen. Queen. Food.”
A little shape scurried out of the kitchen. Two shapes, actually. A pair of terrified Flying Antinium brought out loaded trolleys of Queen-sized morsels. The Free Queen stared at them.
Garry’s helpers. What were their names again?
“Pisca and…Runel? Where is Garry?”
“Shop? What shop?”
The Free Queen was confused, but the two helpers didn’t respond; she didn’t think they understood. But they had brought Garry’s food—actually, they had helped with the creation of the dishes.
“My Queen! I am sorry, I was tending to my business!”
Garry rushed into her room at her mental summons. The Free Queen was eating, having not ingested any food in her laboratory for three days; it was a bad idea to contaminate the sterile environment.
“Garry. This is good food. What is this shop? And who has been managing the Hive?”
“Xrn, my Queen. And Yellow Splatters. And Pawn. And Belgrade. And Purple Smiles and…we did not wish to disturb you.”
“You…managed my Hive?”
The Free Queen looked down at Garry in astonishment. He hurried into the kitchen to wheel out a huge fish he’d bought via Pallass—he put his request through Lyonette—and subsequently stuffed with acid-flies. A delicacy.
“Yes, my Queen. Should we not have?”
The Queen hesitated. On one feeler-palp, it was jarring. On the other—this was what she had wanted. This was how the Queens of Rhir had lived. Junior Queens and Prognugators did the work. She hadn’t ever known this since she was small.
“No. Carry on, Garry. This is good. This is…”
The Free Queen sampled Garry’s acid-fly fish and pronounced it amazing, much to the [Chef]’s delight. Somewhat off-balance, the Queen ate her fill. She asked about the update of the Hive and Xrn came to report. Nothing needed to be done; the Free Queen was astonished to see Belgrade’s new spike-shield and congratulated him on it. Then…she had time to work in her laboratory again.
The Free Queen felt like she was being treated like royalty. It was a surreal experience.
The Antinium of Izril had been the most fast-evolving nation in the world. The most dangerous, rapidly-advancing species to drive terror into the complacent races of Izril.
Two decades ago, that had been the case. But the Second Antinium War had broken out and the Antinium had been held back, despite deploying more of their specialized Antinium to the battlefields.
True, there had been a Goblin King and [Necromancer] mucking about. But it had not been their finest hour.
Their finest hour had been long ago, underground, in the heart of Rhir. Their darkest hour, too.
The Antinium of Izril had struck the continent like lightning. But they had maintained the battle lines since then. Something had happened.
The Hives had grown stagnant. They had become complacent. The Queens had turned to infighting. Some had given up on returning to Rhir.
They had forgotten how to create Queens. These were the first, the last, the only.
But to live, the Antinium had needed to change. That was why he had left, along with the dissenter. They had lived in exile, and he himself had despaired that they could bring about the miracle they so needed.
He had died before that dream had come to fruition. But as luck had it—death to the Antinium was something they had managed to cure under the right circumstances. Not for all. But he had come back and found his dream realized—even if it hadn’t taken the shape he’d imagined. But it was done.
Now, he was going home. And home—he had thought long and hard about the weakness in his people. It was the same as in him.
They had lost too much. But as Klbkchhezeim finally left the darkness of the tunnel and marched upwards into the light, he felt something else in his soul, the very core of his being.
Hope. He stood in a place he had not walked for over a decade. The lands to the southwest of Liscor, which had once been Drake territory. The high hills and plateaus, forever changed to be dry, arid, after countless weather spells. A dead land at first sight.
The home of the Antinium of Izril. The base of five Antinium Hives. The Revalantor of the Free Antinium, the Centenium, Senior Guardsman Klbkch, Klbkch the Slayer, strode onto the dry ground.
“Revalantor Klbkch, Revalantor Klbkch! Please wait for your escort!”
A voice from behind him, anxious. Klbkch turned his head and saw other Antinium. Anand and an escort of Antinium, both Painted Antinium and regular Soldiers and Workers, numbering just two hundred strong. The Revalantor suppressed a flash of annoyance.
“Anand. There is no need for an escort for me.”
“But Revalantor Klbkch—I was given to understand that counterattacks do occur, even in the Hivelands.”
Anand had dirt on his chitin from marching underground through the tunnel to the Hives for so long. And excavating parts of the tunnel that had been collapsed.
The Walled Cities had not been happy to learn about the tunnel. Multiple times, Klbkch had sensed the tremors and ordered the Antinium to band together. Once, they’d even been buried and had to dig their way out.
[Geomancers]. Collapsing the tunnel only for Antinium to dig it open again. That was the kind of stalemate that Klbkch remembered.
Raids now…Klbkch hesitated as Anand explained.
“Pivr told me before we left, Revalantor. The Hivelands is this area, and Drake forces will attack the Hives.”
They hadn’t used to do that. This area had terrified the Drakes and Gnolls beyond belief. Much had changed.
Klbkch looked around, and then leapt upwards. He landed on a large rocky outcropping as Anand exclaimed.
“Be silent, Anand. And use my name only.”
The Centenium didn’t reply. Anand’s presence on this trip had grated on his nerves. Which was an odd thought. Klbkch had chosen Anand because the [Strategist] was the best representative of the Free Antinium he could name.
Well, compared to Belgrade and Yellow Splatters, since Bird, Garry, and especially Pawn disqualified themselves. Purple Smiles was…odd as well.
Even so, Anand’s obsequiousness bothered Klbkch. He’d made an effort because Xrn had threatened to terraform him down a thousand feet through straight bedrock if he upset Anand. But Klbkch had been…testy of late.
Another odd feeling. Was he becoming Relc? Could that happen if you worked with someone that long? Klbkch surveyed the landscape.
“Anand. Take cover.”
The [Strategist] froze as he tried to climb up to where Klbkch was. The Revalantor checked himself.
Ring of Metal. Ring of Hops. Single-use Amulet of Dispel. Both blades—backup daggers enchanted with [Ignition] and [Pain] respectively. Three healing potions, high-grade. Two stamina potions, mid-grade. Tripvine bag, two explosive oil vials, one high-yield, one mid-yield. Potion of Swiftness. Potion of Vanish.
Not the most dangerous of equipment sets. Klbkch had left most of the artifacts behind to stay light and mobile. Also—a powerful artifact made him shine to enemy [Mages] without Xrn to shield him. Moreover, this level of equipment would create a sense of superiority in an enemy who appraised him. Klbkch’s new Skill would equalize any encounter.
[Recaptured Sublimity]. The Antinium didn’t use it now. It had a twelve-hour cooldown and that would kill him if he used it carelessly. Still—he held his ground and pretended to be surveying the landscape.
“Movement. Coordinates are around -43, 231, -6.”
Anand analyzed the numbers and peeked towards the spot Klbkch had seen the movement. The [Strategist] lifted something. An enchanted spyglass.
“…I see a Drake. One, no, two, watching you, Revalantor.”
Klbkch had seen it too. Drakes? Here?
“Evaluate them, Anand.”
“There may be more. But…[Quick Evaluation].”
The [Strategist] used one of his new Skills. He went hmm. It wasn’t the same as an [Appraisal] ability, but close.
“Analysis of their armor and weaponry indicates that this isn’t a unified force. My Skill estimates adventurers. A small team. Judging by the way they are investigating you, Revalantor, they have not seen the rest of us and were caught off-guard by your presence.”
What was happening? Klbkch looked around. He hadn’t notified any of the Hives of his imminent arrival; they didn’t use [Messages], anyways. He was sure they had Listeners and he had been planning on making straight for the Grand Queen’s Hive.
This changed things.
“Your orders, Klbkch? Do we…fight?”
The Antinium waited, and Klbkch hesitated. It was a strange word, coming out of Anand’s mouth.
Fight? That meant killing the adventuring team. Which was a felony under Liscorian law, punishment by death or exile depending on Watch Captain Zevara’s…
Senior Guardsman Klbkch shook his head. What was he thinking? These were Drakes in Antinium land. They died.
…But he hesitated.
“I will ambush them. Anand, send some Workers forwards. Distract them and prepare the Soldiers to fall back into the tunnel and collapse it if I retreat.”
“We could attack—”
“No. Adventurers are far too difficult for regular Antinium. If I must, I will—kill—the group.”
Anand nodded slowly. He investigated the group in his spyglass.
“They are not moving. With permission, Revalantor Klbkch, I will have the Workers pretend to excavate something as the ruse. When you begin combat, I will use my Skills to aid your attack and have the Workers with bows provide covering arrows.”
Klbkch hesitated. That was all…sound.
“Can you reach the adventurers from here?”
“Yes. I can grant [Long Range Shot] to the archers for four minutes.”
“Do it, then, if I engage. Now—”
The Antinium looked around from his perch on the rock. The Drakes ducked back, but he saw the glint of light on scales.
Idiots. They’d dirtied their armor, but kept their scales clean. Klbkch wanted to know what they were doing here. Hopefully, he’d be able to subdue them without killing. A death would cause irreparable tension between—
Klbkch had just picked out a route that gave him cover around some rocks in the dry terrain when he heard a sound. It sounded like distant thunder.
He held up a hand and turned his head. Thunder? Rainstorms and flash floods happened, if infrequently, in the Hivelands often thanks to the weather spells during the war.
But this was no thunderstorm. Klbkch heard a rhythmic quality to it. It sounded like…
Wing beats. Anand turned his head rapidly.
“What is that? That can’t be—”
In the distance, the Drake adventurers looked up. They pointed at something and screamed.
“Ancestors! Run for it!”
Klbkch’s head swiveled. And he saw them, then, coming over the cliffs. Thousands, tens of thousands of winged forms. They leapt over the cliff, gliding, green membrane wings allowing them to dive towards the adventurers.
Flying Antinium. A countless horde of them. Klbkch, Anand, and the Free Antinium stared as the enraged Soldier-type Antinium descended on the adventurers.
They were panicking. One of them shouted, and Klbkch was able to filter the voice out despite the drumming wings.
“—we’re made! We’re dead! Use the scroll! Use the—”
They blinked out of existence, all six of them, before the winged Antinium reached them. Klbkch heard a shriek of fury run through the swarm.
But they kept going. The Flying Antinium couldn’t really fly. But they landed, and powerful hindquarters carried them into the air. They leapt across the landscape, turning, gliding. Towards the Free Antinium’s party.
“Brace. Form a defensive wall there—”
Anand’s urgent voice made Klbkch tear his attention away from the hypnotizing sight. The Centenium looked at Anand. The [Strategist] was panicking in the face of the army.
“Anand. What are you doing?”
“We may be under attack, Revalantor Klbkch! Why would an army be in the open?”
Anand pointed at the Flying Antinium. The Centenium looked at Anand’s worried, waving antennae and at the swarm of Flying Antinium. And then he understood.
Klbkchhezeim smiled. He opened his mandibles and raised them.
“Anand. Desist. You are misinformed. This group is not here to attack us. Or to merely chase off the adventurers. They are here to welcome us.”
The [Strategist] faltered. And Anand realized the fallacy in what he’d been about to say. The same thing Klbkch had realized after a moment.
Out in the open? Wouldn’t that make the other species nervous?
And it would have, in Liscor. Even three hundred Soldiers was the most the Free Hive was supposed to have. But here—
The first Flying Antinium landed on the ground and rocks around the Free Antinium. The land bound Antinium stared at their strange cousins. The Flying Antinium regarded them, then they leapt. The others, thousands, glided around the small group. They clicked.
It was a sound of greeting. Their wings tore the air, and Anand and Klbkch looked up at the figures flying around them, a swarm of insects, only scaled up in size. Fearless of who might see them.
Because this land was the Antinium’s. And the Flying Hive had come to greet their lost relatives.
They weren’t the only ones. Klbkch stood amid the flying display until he saw a flash of sunlight, flashing on metal. He turned his head and saw a line of metal, marching across the ground.
Anand saw thousands of Soldiers, marching in the steel armor. A Prognugator was leading them. Klbkch turned.
“Ah. Silent Antinium as well. The Grand Queen’s forces.”
As the Flying Antinium, tired, landed around them, Anand saw a small group barely a thousand strong appear out of the dry landscape. The Silent Antinium’s elites. And larger than the other Hives—an army of Soldiers and Workers. Antinium of every type. And in front of them—two dozen figures who looked familiar.
Prognugators. They bore copies of Klbkch’s blades and walked like he did. The Antinium marched forwards, a full army nearly a hundred thousand strong. The ranks parted.
“What are they here for?”
Klbkch the Slayer walked forwards. And the Flying Antinium beat their wings. The Silent Antinium raised their scythe-blades. The Armored Antinium saluted, metal clashing on armor as they struck their shoulders with gauntleted fists.
And the Grand Queen’s Antinium knelt. Prognugators, Soldiers, Workers. Anand stared at Klbkch’s back as the Slayer walked forwards. The Centenium looked at four Hives of the Antinium, who had sent their warriors for him.
To honor him.
“How small we’ve become.”
Anand stared at Klbkch. The Revalantor shook his head. He walked on. And remembered—
The [Strategist] hurried after Klbkch. And he saw Klbkch look at him. The Centenium hesitated. Then he motioned to Anand.
The Worker scuttled forwards, barely believing it. He walked at Klbkch’s side, seeing the eyes of so many powerful Antinium so different from the common Soldier watching him. Klbkch glanced at him.
“Does it impress you, Anand?”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch. I knew there were so many Antinium. But the sight of them all—”
No wonder they were feared. Anand felt stronger just seeing so many of his kind. But Klbkch—just shook his head.
“No. Walk here, Anand. Look at this, the tribute to me. To the Free Queen and the Free Antinium. To…us. And remember that this is all that is left. Remnants of glory. Once—we were far greater. We came in so many forms and our numbers would have blotted out the skies. Look at this. And never let it be enough.”
He stopped, then. And looked Anand in his multi-faceted eyes. The [Strategist] looked at Klbkch, who had been so moody. So angry at Pawn. So…tired and perhaps even broken. He saw Klbkch reach out. And touch Anand on the chest lightly, with two fingers.
“When you walk among the Antinium, remember we were more. Remind them of that.”
Then he turned and walked on, glancing neither to his left or right. The Antinium gazed at him, the third of the Centenium. Smaller than Wrymvr. Less radiant than Xrn. Klbkch looked back and found them wanting.
The Grand Queen of the Antinium had set out a lavish welcome for the prodigal lost son, Klbkch and his Hive. Not only had she mobilized part of her Hive to give him a procession worthy of Antinium royalty—which did not exist—she had also prepared a feast of foodstuffs.
In this case, captured foods, none of it actually prepared. Nor was there an attempt at tables. The Free Antinium saw the food piled up on a carpet.
A looted carpet, Klbkch had to suppose, since the Antinium were about as good [Weavers] as they were [Cooks]. Actually—that wasn’t fair. They had once had amazing spinners who used web like thread…
And the Grand Queen was certainly effusive in her greetings. The other five Queens of the Antinium, including the Free Queen were visible on the mirrors she had mounted in her grand antechamber.
It was also like a throne, with a high dais or mound in the center of the room upon which she could command, communicate to the other Queens—the mirrors placed below her—and consult with her Prognugators.
Klbkch recalled seeing a version of this chamber before. However, experience in Liscor had given him the royal connotations of the room. Now, he looked up at her as she finished her speech.
“…and all the Hives shall once more benefit from Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium’s wisdom. The delegation of the Free Antinium shall prove its worth to the Hives. Klbkchhezeim, we would be pleased for you to act as Xrn’s replacement.”
The other Queens stirred at this. The Silent Queen especially.
“…Klbkchhezeim’s presence would be most welcome in my Hive. I believe my Silent Antinium are in most need of his guidance.”
“Or that of the Armored Antinium. We petition the Grand Queen for Klbkchhezeim’s guidance.”
“The Flying Antinium also! I have sent Pivr to the Free Antinium, as well as samples!”
It was notable that the Twisted Queen did not speak. For her part, the Free Queen seemed content to accept the Grand Queen’s thanks.
However, the Grand Queen’s good mood at her bickering subordinates and the entire affair ended as soon as Klbkch opened his mandibles.
“The Antinium did not welcome our own. Nor had we any need of processions or displays, my Queen. You have my thanks for the welcome, on behalf of the Free Antinium. However, it is on my Hive’s behalf that I must act. I respectfully decline your invitation; I will tour every Hive that is willing to host me.”
The Grand Queen had forgotten how much Klbkchhezeim could spoil her mood. In fairness, Xrn could be just as obstinate and Wrymvr had been…
But Klbkchhezeim had always been direct. Even before Izril, in fairness. The Grand Queen halted, feeling out of sorts.
“We had assumed you would take Xrn’s mantle, Klbkchhezeim. Xrniavxxel had indicated as much when she requested her absence.”
Klbkch paused, but only for a moment.
“It appears her statement was incorrect, Grand Queen.”
Anand nervously chewed on part of the cheese wheel as he watched Klbkch standing in front of the Grand Queen. She had dismissed Anand and the other Free Antinium in a moment. Now, the Grand Queen’s antennae moved. She sounded displeased. But after a moment, she glanced at the silent Prognugators, nearly three dozen of them, and brightened. A note of cheerful malice crept into her voice.
“Your dispensation is unwelcome, Klbkchhezeim. However. We are able to manage the Grand Hive and other Hives in your absence. Have you noticed the Prognugators of the Grand Hive?”
She indicated the line of Antinium. Anand looked with Klbkch and saw them again.
Copies of Klbkch. They made his heart flutter, because there was Klbkch. Not just the Revalantor as he was now, but as he had been.
Some were Worker-type Prognugators, mimicking the body Klbkch had worn for so long. They were armed with steel swords and two daggers, an exact copy of the fighting style he had adopted. Others were clearly based around Klbkch as he was now, or perhaps, had been. They were actually taller than the Klbkch of present, long-armed, carrying the two long blades.
They looked…uncanny, standing together. So many copies of Klbkch. And when their Queen looked at them, they stood and saluted her.
If Klbkch minded the obvious similarities, he did not show it. He calmly nodded to the Grand Queen.
“I see them. As I commented the last time I left, a dozen Prognugators is excessive. This many are unneeded.”
The Grand Queen’s mandibles clicked.
“They are quite capable of replacing you in both leadership and combat roles, Klbkchhezeim.”
“That is unlikely, Grand Queen.”
The Centenium had to be aware of how peeved his replies were making the Grand Queen. Actually, that was certain.
Another change was in how Klbkch had to speak his replies to the Grand Queen. Both were Antinium of Rhir, True Antinium and could share a mental link. They could even connect to the other Queens to create a Unitasis Network, however weak.
Klbkch could sense the Grand Queen’s emotions. But—she was out of touch, her mental connection weaker than his link to the Free Queen. Out of practice with sharing her mind with Xrn?
They spoke aloud for the benefit of the Queens watching through the magical mirrors. Even so—Klbkch picked up on the Grand Queen’s ire.
And he was also aware she had something planned. The Grand Queen did not rise to his bait a second time. Instead—her mandibles raised and opened in a smile.
“Perhaps you would care to demonstrate that claim, Klbkchhezeim? Your combat prowess is an example to all the Hives, as are both Xrn and Wrymvr’s. However—the Grand Hive has had a decade to improve. My Prognugators are a match for you in ability.”
“We have instituted a…trial to evaluate new innovations within each Hive’s Soldiers. Here.”
It was still in her chambers since the Grand Queen did not wish to move far. Klbkch saw…something else new. Strange. He hesitated.
An arena? Anand stared at the coliseum in miniature. It had nothing like seats or any concessions to the audience; the one watcher was content to sit on her hill and observe. But all the hallmarks were there.
From ancient times, across every species, they had had this type of contest. Two champions, or many, fighting in everything from a ring, a cage, a giant coliseum with the ability to flood itself for mock ship battles—to a circle in the dirt.
The Grand Queen’s exhibition arena was more like that last bit. But the fact that it existed was curious to Anand. And Klbkch.
“Each Hive has attempted to improve in its own designs. The Grand Queen instituted this practice to see the efficacy of each Soldier in practical terms. Thus far, the Grand Hive has been the most statistically viable.”
The Silent Queen explained. Klbkch just stared at the Antinium Prognugator—a Worker-type, bearing a copy of the weapons he carried, waiting for him.
“This is ridiculous. Antinium fighting Antinium presents only one kind of data. The Grand Hive also receives all the material and innovations of each Hive; the Hives share advances.”
“…Yes. Of course, Klbkchhezeim. But each Hive’s—focus—still yields different competencies.”
The Silent Queen’s reply said everything to Klbkch. But he had known that. It illuminated a lot of troubling things for Anand.
And of course, the Wistram [Mages] frantically recording everything they could see through the active mirrors. But no one knew about that so it wasn’t the point.
“Each Hive competes, Klbkchhezeim. We have found a distribution of resources based on competency a most efficient process. If you would care to demonstrate the difference between yourself and my Prognugators, we would all benefit from the observation.”
The Grand Queen sat on her throne. And everyone leaned forwards. You couldn’t have torn Feor off the scrying orb with a spell. Again, not the point.
“Revalantor Klbkch—this proceeding is unknown to me. Will the Painted Antinium be expected to partake?”
Klbkch looked at the Grand Queen. Then at Anand. He felt something in his chest. It was akin to the feeling he got after being on-duty with Relc all day and listening to the Drake complain about something. Or after talking with Pawn for five minutes. Or—as he recalled—the Grand Queen.
“I am sure that the Grand Queen would wish that, Anand. It will not occur. The Grand Queen has made an assumption. However. She is not aware of the changes within the Free Antinium.”
Anand opened and closed his mandibles. And then he looked at Klbkch, the Grand Queen, and the way the Free Queen’s antennae were waving frantically even as she herself said nothing.
They didn’t know. He had assumed Xrn would have informed the Grand Queen about…
“By your will, Grand Queen. I am Klbkch of the Free Antinium. May I assume it is acceptable to wound my opponent?”
“Refrain from killing. Prognugators are not to be wasted. My warrior will of course, refrain from a mortal wound as well.”
The Grand Queen was palpably excited. She watched as Klbkch walked into the arena of packed dirt and drew his swords.
“This is very reminiscent of gladiatorial combat I have read about in Chandrar. Do any of the participating Antinium have the [Gladiator] class, by any chance?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
The Flying Queen was surprised. She peered into the mirror, but instead of Klbkch—it was a strange Worker who was looking at her. She recoiled in shock and the other Queens stared at Anand. The [Strategist] nodded to himself.
“Fascinating. May I know their levels?”
The Flying Queen hesitated.
“No. What are you? A Prognugator?”
“…No. I am Anand, a [Strategist] of the Free Antinium. One of the Antinium sent with Revalantor Klbkch.”
“A…Worker? One is speaking to me?”
The stunned comment was left behind as, behind them, the Worker-Prognugator charged Klbkch. He lashed out with the swords, daggers ready to parry or strike. Klbkch’s sword flashed. He deflected the shortswords, stepped left—
And the Grand Hive’s Prognugator cut him.
Anand saw the dagger flicker in the lower-left hand. He saw Klbkch move back too slowly; a green cut opened up in his carapace.
There was a susurration from all watching. Klbkch stabbed back, calmly knocking down the blades.
[Extended Blade]. Anand had read a book that catalogued basic [Warrior] Skills, written by a former Named Adventurer. It was a basic Skill, but one any good fighter could put to use.
But he had cut Klbkch. And—as the fight progressed, Anand realized something.
Klbkch was faster. Stronger, thanks to the new body the Free Queen had given him. The Worker-Prognugator was also stronger and faster than any Worker that Anand had ever met—proof that the Grand Queen had upgraded him as well.
But Klbkch should have taken your average [Bladesman] to pieces. Even before his rebirth, he had been the 4th best [Guard] in the Watch despite his Worker’s body simply by virtue of his talent, regardless of Skills. Experience made him the deadly warrior he was.
However. Klbkch’s graceful sword arcs, the instinctual parrying, ability to use two swords at once without looking like an idiot—the other Prognugator had all of it. In fact—he fought exactly like Klbkch.
“It is a copy.”
Anand stared at the Grand Hive’s Prognugator. And he realized the Grand Queen hadn’t been hyperbolic. When she said her Prognugators were as good as Klbkch—she meant they literally were. She had copied more than just his look.
“How is that possible?”
The sentiment seemed to be echoed among the Queens as well. It was the Silent Queen who replied.
“When Klbkch died, we performed the rite of Anastases. His deaths during the first war resulted in our capture of his information. The Grand Queen’s distillation of his fighting abilities is…adept. Of course. We observed the competence of her Prognugators. I did not realize it was so—complete.”
The disturbed tone in her voice was audible even to Anand. The [Strategist] watched, practically vibrating.
“Inconceivable. If the Centenium were so easy to copy, we would have done so. There has to be more to Klbkch. Has he died again?”
The Flying Queen shifted nervously. But—their chatter was background.
Klbkch stepped around the other Prognugator in a slow dance of blades. Aside from his first cut, he didn’t take another. The shorter Antinium tried twice, using the [Extend Blade] Skill. But both times Klbkch saw one of the four blades coming at him and knocked it away or just dodged.
He only had one Skill, Anand realized. One active Skill, at any rate. Meanwhile, Klbkch had several. And…
Klbkch tossed one of his swords at the other Prognugator. The Antinium knocked it down with one dagger, but the motion caught it off-guard. Klbkch brought his second blade down in a two-handed arc.
The Worker-Prognugator blocked with two swords. With the other, it stabbed at Klbkch’s stomach. But the dagger was out of reach. And Klbkch lifted the sword up and brought it down.
A clash of blades. The Grand Hive’s Prognugator stumbled as its own twin swords glanced off its chitin. Klbkch slid left—caught a dagger with his free hand and swept a leg.
Down the Prognugator went, onto the Worker’s rounded shell of the back. Instantly, the Antinium tried to roll back upwards. Klbkch calmly planted his sword’s tip into the Sword Prognugator’s chest, as Anand was now classifying them.
The Sword Prognugator froze. The Queens murmured.
“We see your abilities have not declined in your absence, Klbkchhezeim.”
The Grand Queen was clearly displeased. And doubly so because it was evident that Klbkch hadn’t used one of his Skills. Still—it had been uncomfortably even compared to what Anand had expected.
To the other Queens as well. They regarded the thirty-plus Sword Prognugators with new respect. Copies of Klbkch. And he had fought the Worker-variant.
“One good [Flame Pillar] spell would eliminate the lot.”
“But with artifacts…”
“Be silent, you two.”
Feor ordered Viltach and Nailihuaile as they analyzed the combat abilities on display with an expert [Spellsword]. They were ranking the combat prowess of the Sword Prognugators as high-silver on sheer talent; Gold with artifacts. Not a pleasant thought.
But more was yet to come. Klbkch looked at the Grand Queen.
“Your Prognugators have a portion of my ability with swords, Grand Queen. However. I maintain that they are not my equal in leadership or combat. If you would allow me to challenge them—and allow me to injure them—I will demonstrate the difference between us.”
The Grand Queen’s voice was frosty.
“Name your opponent, Klbkchhezeim. But I maintain—any two of my Prognugators would be your match.”
“Indeed? Then I challenge all of them.”
The Grand Queen’s moving feelers stopped in midair. The other Queens looked up. Including the Twisted Queen, who had been distracted up until now.
The Archmages looked at each other. They saw Klbkch smile.
“Do not make foolish statements, Klbkchhezeim.”
Anand felt the air stirring. Or perhaps that was the sensation that ran across his entire body. Like electricity. The Grand Queen waited only a moment. Then she silently raised a feeler as large as Anand and pointed.
“My Prognugators. Do not kill Klbkchhezeim. The Silent Queen will oversee his repairs.”
The Sword Prognugators stirred. They did not ask questions. They simply drew their blades and spread out.
Thirty plus copies of Klbkch advanced on his position. He let the Worker-type roll upwards, retrieving its blades and backing away from him. Klbkch shook his head. What was this? Honor among Antinium? He would have expected that Prognugator to stab him in the foot.
He waited. Klbkch looked around the great chamber, the Grand Queen, the watching Queens in the mirrors. And he felt quite, quite…tired. The Antinium had changed. They always changed. And not for the better.
It annoyed him. But at least he had something of old. Klbkch the Slayer retrieved his second sword. He stood there, as the other Sword Prognugators spread out around him. He looked up, towards the ceiling of soil and rock. He had fought underground almost his entire life. Fighting under the sky had been the strange part.
No one had any idea how frustrating it was to move like he did. To remember how to fight, and to be swimming in water, in sand, weighed down every second of every action. To even think slower.
“Ah, my Queen. Watch me. [Recaptured Sublimity].”
Klbkch leapt up, light as a feather. Just a hop upwards, six feet or so, as high as his ring allowed him. The Sword Prognugators, seeing the incredibly stupid move since you couldn’t dodge in midair—charged.
“What did he s—”
The Slayer landed and vanished. Anand saw the first arm go flying. His head spun—faster than the confused Queens. Even so, he could barely track the blur moving across the other Prognugators.
They reacted fast, dodging the blur. But it did no good.
The [Mages] and Queens were still staring at the place Klbkch had been when he swept past the Sword Prognugators again. The other Antinium struck with their steel swords. Klbkch sundered one blade and cut another arm off at the elbow. The Prognugator went stumbling away, chest cracked. Anand hadn’t even seen Klbkch strike the chest.
“What’s happening? Is that a Skill?”
The Grand Queen saw the Antinium dashing about, abandoning the neat arena as Klbkch pursued them. Two of her Sword Prognugators lashed out at the blur, using a Skill. Their blades turned into a wall of slashing attacks. Klbkch battered the swords down, breaking the Skill and kicked both off their feet.
It was a slaughter, without deaths. Anand saw one of the Painted Workers put hands over its eyes and peek through the gaps. The other Prognugators were fast, skillful, and deadly. Klbkch outran them. He downed ten, fourteen, sixteen…
One of the Prognugators, the Worker-type which Klbkch had dueled was next. It attacked Klbkch with all four blades, lashing out at him in a furious attack as the Slayer paused to give him a target. Klbkch held his ground, deflecting the blades and knocking the other Prognugator back as it tried to close. Five seconds, nine seconds…
After twenty seconds. The Sword Prognugator stopped. It looked at Klbkch, then stopped moving. Klbkch slowly raised his sword and laid the edge at the Prognugator’s neck.
The Sword Prognugator didn’t move. The Antinium just waited. Anand peeked around. He knew what that meant. The warrior had—in the way of Antinium—concluded that there was absolutely no way it would hurt Klbkch. So it had given up.
Klbkch looked around. The other Prognugators had backed up, waiting for him to come to them. He raised the sword and looked around.
“Grand Queen. I believe that concludes the…exhibition.”
“How—has the Free Queen made so many advances? How? I was not told of this! This—this is unacceptable!”
The Grand Queen’s voice had a shrill note in it. Klbkch regarded her, and then bowed.
“My Queen. The difference in my abilities is not due to the Free Queen’s alterations to my form. I have simply gained a Skill.”
Klbkch looked around. The other Queens watched him. Each one now—captivated. Where once they had been simply admiring, or, in the Twisted Queen’s case, clearly disinterested in the proceedings.
But he saw it now. So did Anand. The Silent Queen’s admiration, even adulation. The Armored Queen bowed.
“The Armored Hive would be honored by your presence, Klbkchhezeim.”
“We as well. The Free Hive demonstrates its worth.”
The Centenium looked at the Twisted Queen. She looked at him, missing one of the mandibles on her face. And…part of her body. She sat in the shadows, twitching. She said only this:
“Wrymvr is. Waiting for you.”
Klbkch thought about that. And then he nodded.
“We shall see, my Queen.”
A lot could change in a moment. Klbkch understood that more than anyone. And—in the time that passed after his display of his new Skill, the Grand Queen’s demeanor went through a radical shift.
“Klbkchhezeim. Let us speak candidly. In…private. We value your guidance above all.”
The Grand Queen had looked at Anand before ordering all of the Antinium out of her throne chamber.
She was still paranoid. Still—Klbkch had left because he disagreed with her. As had the Free Queen. That memory was faded, though. And while she had not inspired him upon his return, he realized something.
He had inspired her. The Grand Queen looked down at Klbkch and the Centenium saw the same flicker in her posture and mind.
Hope. The last six Queens of Izril were True Antinium as well. Even they needed hope.
“Klbkchhezeim. Words fail to express my feelings. I have heard of…miracles. Only in the spoken language can I articulate what I see. A miracle. How have you recovered your strength?”
In private, the Grand Queen’s manner of speech changed. She bent down, to inspect him more fully. She was a giant, larger than even War Queens. Klbkch looked up at her and recalled the first experiments where the Queens had laid eggs with their bodies—a backwards concept that Antinium had done away with long ago. That was how desperate they had been and the effects were permanent; the Grand Queen moved slowly, her body too large for what it had been made for.
He bowed to her.
“My Queen. My new Skill was anything but a miracle. It was born of desperation. Of…failure. With my Skill, I may battle as I once did, at my greatest. For minutes.”
“I see. But that is—Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium’s power. With it, we have three of the Centenium’s strength once more. Truly. This is glad tidings.”
She sighed then. Klbkch looked up at the Grand Queen.
“You have changed, my Queen.”
“I know. If you would chastise me for my change—blame Drakes. This land has taught me of intrigue. Of failure and yes—politics. But Klbkchhezeim. You may unite us once again.”
He doubted that. Xrn had told him to leave because he could not lead the Painted Antinium. Because he was incapable of tolerating that they were Individual and yet—different still. Klbkch looked up at the Grand Queen.
“I am not Xrn. My nature is closer to Wrymvr’s, as you well know, Grand Queen.”
“This too, I know. But listen to me and understand, Klbkch.”
Now—in privacy, with the mirrors of the other Queens removed, the Grand Queen spoke.
“I am Grand Queen of the Antinium of Izril. But my role has been unlike any other Grand Queen before me. The other Hives are fractured. The Queens…do not obey.”
Klbkch glanced towards where the mirrors had hung. He clacked his mandibles open and closed a few times, so surprised was he.
“…That does not make sense. You are the Grand Queen. They obey. Did I not see the supplies and Antinium sent to the Grand Hive?”
The Grand Queen made a dismissive gesture. And her mind, now open to Klbkch, showed him a flash of insight. Emotion. Frustration-exhaustion-regrets.
She was telling the truth. Or the truth as she knew it.
“You see it. But each Queen pursues their own goals. Some are more loyal than others. I am aware of the Armored Queen’s works, and sanction them. But the other Queens reserve their own council. Klbkchhezeim. I fear we are splintering. Like the primordial Antinium of old.”
Before the First Queen, before even him—there had been Antinium. Each to their Hives, each obeying only one Queen. They had fought between themselves, like Drakes did, before the First Queen had unified them.
The thought that they had regressed so far was unnerving to Klbkch’s sensibilities. He looked at the Grand Queen.
“It has not gone so far.”
She clicked her mandibles and made a fluttering, laughing sound. Like insects chirping. Klbkch had forgotten that sound, until Xrn had come.
“You say so? The other Queens obey—for now. Even the Free Queen has sent you, Klbkchhezeim. Despite her long absence. But the Twisted Queen sends no envoys. She keeps her own council. And she wages war against the Walled Cities against my will.”
She waved an impatient palp even as her mind projected the undeniable truth into Klbkch’s mind. He had forgotten that as well; the True Antinium could not, did not lie to each other.
“Did you not see the adventurer team, Klbkchhezeim? The Walled Cities counter-raid our lands. Their [Mages] cast spells to shake the land, cave in tunnels, call floods—they have always done this, but it has increased since the Pallass incident. And they have been moved to it because of the Twisted Queen’s raids.”
“I will show you.”
The Grand Queen reached out. Klbkch saw—remembered—
A babble of voices. The Grand Queen’s body. Painful, her voice, irritation, trying to explain to the angry Drakes about villages destroyed. Deny? Yes, deny parasites attacking some cities. The Twisted Queen, silent in her refusal to speak. Frustration, frustration—
Klbkch lifted a hand.
“My Queen. Enough.”
The influx of memories and feeling stopped. The Grand Queen’s antennae stopped waving.
“I do. That is troubling. Disobedience in the Hives cannot be…”
He hesitated. The Free Queen was, even now, experimenting with the possibility of creating new Queens. He had countenanced that. The Grand Queen looked at him. And he realized she was reading him.
“Yes, Klbkchhezeim. I do not lead the Antinium, but keep each Hive from warring with the other. The Twisted Queen is independent; the Flying Queen bickers with the other Queens. We are limited in space. Conflicts…over resources have occurred more than once. I keep the Hives from failing.”
She believed that. Klbkch could only bow his head.
“My Queen. I have come from Liscor with discoveries of my own. The Painted Antinium are a step forwards to our goals. But—I believe they are not enough. We are Antinium, but no more Queens can be made. You have decided attempts should not be made.”
The Grand Queen nodded.
“The Silent Queen’s genius is unmatched among the remaining Queens, Klbkchhezeim. She labored for over a decade with all of us at the beginning to create more Queens. We could not. None of us are Shaper Queens of old. I will not waste resources on that battle.”
“The Antinium will die, then. That is our future. Even with the creation pods to create more Soldier and Workers—we will not continue as a species.”
Klbkch warned her flatly. They needed Queens.
Yet, the giant Queen anticipated Klbkch’s reply. She clicked her mandibles, once.
“This is true, Klbkchhezeim. But I have decided that attempting to create new Queens is a flawed goal. No. Far better to return to Rhir and hope that there are Queens remaining with the knowledge to create more of us.”
Klbkch had been shifting his balance, thinking. Now—he went still.
“Return to Rhir?”
But Xrn had said the Grand Queen wasn’t aware of her plans. Had she lied? The Grand Queen smiled.
“So surprised, Klbkchhezeim? It is the most logically sound choice. Return to Rhir. Have you never considered it?”
“…I came here to implore you to make that decision myself, my Queen.”
The Grand Queen opened her mandibles further.
“Yes. We must. We swore to return, with an army a thousand times larger than what was left. I did not forget. Neither have you. Nor have any of the other Queens. Even the Twisted Queen…”
A flicker of doubt in her mind. Klbkch had to know what had changed the Twisted Queen so much that the Grand Queen had such reservations. He inclined his head, feeling that same tantalizing flicker.
“My Queen. If we could return to Rhir and recover the knowledge for just one Queen, let alone bring one back to Izril—”
Everything would change. But the Grand Queen shook her head then, a slow, ponderous motion.
“No. That is where I disagree, Klbkchhezeim. We have no…ships.”
She spat the word. Klbkch felt a tingle running through his system as well. The damned vessels that had ended the Antinium’s hopes.
“Ships can be procured, my Queen.”
“Can they be properly…sailed? We failed once, Klbkchhezeim. But even if we returned to Rhir across all that water, how would we return home? Past the Blighted Kingdom and Demons?”
Klbkch was silent, then. The Grand Queen’s memories pressed on him as much as her words.
“We did not take the 1st Wall of Rhir because it was too dangerous. We overran the Blighted Kingdom because they did not know our strength. The Deathless of the Demons likewise fled our advance because they knew we could be their deaths. But if we return—with an army of these Soldiers? Do you think Rhir will tremble and allow our passage?”
Klbkch did not. And he knew the approximate strength of the Blighted Kingdom and Demons.
“If we reached the Demons, the pact might hold.”
“If, Klbkchhezeim. If we send a ship that can navigate the waters and the armies the world would surely send against us. If we could reach the Demons. If the pact holds, if the Antinium yet fight…too many ifs. I would not risk you. If you died at sea—we would be too far to restore you, even with the Rite of Anastases.”
All true. Klbkch felt a bitter taste enter his being.
“Then what, my Queen? Have you given up?”
She straightened. The huge Queen looked down at Klbkch, severely.
“No. I have weighed the options. I do not say give up, Klbkchhezeim. I say—destroy the Walled Cities. Conquer Izril. When we return—uphold our vow. Send not one boat, but a thousand ships so that one reaches our home. And when it returns—all of Izril will be ready to produce more Queens, true Antinium.”
Bold. Klbkch felt her visions assail him, saw Manus crumbling, Antinium overrunning and colonizing every part of Izril. A bountiful land, with resources to support countless millions of Antinium. His mind struggled against her certainty.
“My Queen! Your vision is—admirable. But how will we win a third war? Twice, the Antinium have fought. And twice we have lost. We have only six Hives, no means of producing more Queens. And our enemies have had a decade to prepare for a third war. They will drown us, destroy us by fire and use every means to defend themselves. What gives you confidence a third war will see our victory?”
He let some of his anger and frustration slip, then. While he and the Free Queen had tried to make leaders, Individuals, what had the other Hives done? He looked at the Grand Queen, letting her bear the brunt of his pent-up emotions. And then—Klbkch saw the Grand Queen smile.
In her mind as well. She bent down.
“Klbkchhezeim. We have not been idle. Have faith, Centenium of old. Have faith, Slayer. Come and see what I have built while you have been gone.”
Anand found himself alone when the Grand Queen dismissed everyone from her Hive. She even removed the magic mirrors. He peered into one, hoping to ask his Queen what to do, but she was gone.
And Klbkch was busy. So Anand looked around. The Sword Prognugators stood in one of the entryways to the Grand Queen’s chambers, each one perfectly still.
Injuries had been healed. With potions. And—Anand couldn’t help but note that each Sword Prognugator had some of the rare gel applied to their severed limbs, which had been bound to their bodies. With luck, they’d reattach the limbs. Without luck, they’d have to have them regrown, a process of at least a month.
…No one was doing anything. Oh, the other Antinium of the Grand Hive were going about their business, but most of the Sword Prognugators were just standing there. Doing nothing. Anand sensed a few giving orders, managing the Hive in the Grand Queen’s absence. Mainly just sending basic signals.
Go eat food. Fix that wall. Sleep.
Very basic stuff. The Grand Hive bustled. And it was an impressive place.
“Very nice walls.”
Anand commented to one of the Painted Workers. The Sword Prognugators all looked at the Painted Antinium as they huddled up.
“Yes. Nice walls.”
The Painted Worker ventured a reply after a moment. He stared about, noting the stone mixed among the dirt.
The Grand Hive was far larger than the Free Antinium’s Hive. There was no restraint on size, so the Grand Hive had increased to a huge proportion. The entire Hive was also built such that an invading army would never reach the Grand Queen’s chamber, far, far below the surface. They’d be cut to ribbons by the intersecting tunnels, some of them designed to allow Antinium to attack their opponents through hidden fake walls, collapse areas—
“Belgrade would have loved this. Is anyone hungry?”
The other Painted Antinium shook their heads, save for one. Anand stared at a Painted Soldier.
“Goat? Here. I have a cheese.”
He produced the cheese wheel he’d been nibbling on. Goat, the Painted Soldier who had a…goat…painted on his chest, took it and nodded.
They were Painted Antinium, mixed with regular Soldiers and Workers. But all of them were Antinium that Anand had hand-picked to accompany Klbkch. For instance, he’d sequestered his favorite [Archers], like Archer B3, or A21, who had seen fighting with Anand in the dungeon for this mission.
“Inform me of any hunger issues. I believe we are supposed to wait for Klbkch’s conversation to finish…”
Anand glanced around. It was a spacious tunnel, far bigger and nicer than those of his Hive back home. Although he missed the coziness of the Free Hive’s tunnels. But was there a waiting area or something?
There was no help for it. Anand walked over to the first Sword Prognugator, who was holding his arm to its severed elbow.
“Excuse me. My name is Anand. I am a [Strategist]. It is good to meet you.”
Anand held out a hand. He didn’t really know how to introduce himself to other Antinium. But he copied the things he’d seen at The Wandering Inn.
The Sword Prognugator…stared at him. It—he?—made no response. Anand hesitated. He lowered his hand.
“Ah, if you are on duty, I apologize for disturbing you. We—the Free Antinium—would like to rest and put down our burdens.”
He indicated the Antinium, some of whom had packs. Anand went on, looking at the other staring Sword Prognugators.
“Is this an acceptable place to rest?”
The Sword Prognugators looked completely caught off guard by the question. Anand saw their antennae waving frantically, for all they held stock still. At last, the one Anand had spoken to replied.
“The Queen has not given orders. She desires privacy.”
Anand waited for more.
“I understand that…but if that is the case, may we rest here?”
The Sword Prognugator hesitated.
“The Queen cannot be asked. Disturbing her is unacceptable. Therefore…”
The other Sword Prognugators communed silently. At last, they came to a labored response.
“Rest here is acceptable.”
“Excellent, thank you.”
Anand wished he had sweat glands just so he could wipe some away. That had taken a lot of effort for such an easy decision! He waved a hand at the waiting Free Antinium.
“Here is acceptable to rest. Do not block the tunnel.”
The Free Antinium promptly dumped their bags on the ground and sat down. The Sword Prognugators stared. One of the Painted Workers brought out a book with pictures. Goat broke up the cheese to share. Another Painted Soldier tried to do that string-game with a bit of twine that Pawn had showed them, despite his clumsy digits.
These were the Free Antinium, completely different from even the Grand Queen’s Prognugators. Anand himself decided he should learn as much as possible. So he went down the rows of Sword Prognugators, introducing himself.
“My name is Anand. May I know your name, if you have one?”
To his relief, this wasn’t a dire question among the Prognugators. They were…Individuals. Of a kind. They replied stiffly, unused to excessive communication.
“I am Klberein.”
“I am Krrechzzeim.”
“I am Kiskel.”
Anand noticed a pattern after the 8th Prognugator with a ‘K’ in the name. He stopped in front of ‘Beklr’, who was more interesting because of the name.
“Do you…socialize? Communicate with other Antinium?”
“We do not on any general basis. We guard the Grand Queen. Other Prognugators visit the Grand Hive on occasion. Communication is only needed then.”
Weird. Anand realized that the Free Antinium were very different from the other Hives. Even before Erin Solstice—they had been in Liscor, and a Worker would still have to talk to citizens—even if it was to tell them something was under construction, or so on and so forth. The Sword Prognugators stared at Anand. Eventually, one spoke.
“Is Worker Antinium Anand capable of combat? Specify combat abilities or significance.”
Anand looked at the Sword Prognugator, Kiskel.
“I am a [Strategist]. I lead Antinium into battle or direct them as need be.”
The Sword Prognugators looked at each other.
“Is Anand a Prognugator?”
“But Anand leads Antinium?”
“Yes, that is what I said.”
The other Antinium were silent for a long, long time. Then, one of the Sword Prognugators looked at Anand.
She led him with her mind out of the chambers. Down, through a tunnel almost abandoned. No Antinium save a few Workers performing maintenance were here. There was no need.
My project, Klbkchhezeim.
Her mental voice was stronger now. Klbkch saw the glowing sigil written on the door. It had no handle; it was meant to be pushed inwards. He did so now. And he saw more magical runes, written by the Antinium’s only spellcaster.
It covered the entire room. No—Klbkch looked down and saw…a silo.
Yes. A silo. He had seen such buildings before. And the Antinium had similar styles of storage. This was…a storage structure. Rounded, with multiple entrances that what was stored within could be swiftly removed if need be. But it was full, at the moment.
With food. In this case—the mossy growths that Antinium liked to cultivate underground that were so nutritiously efficient. Klbkch also saw edible mushrooms. And mixed in with the other plant matter—meat.
“…Is that a dead cow?”
Klbkch stared at the freshly dead animal, just lying amid the other produce. It wasn’t rotting, nor had any pests been allowed to eat the animal. This room hummed with magic discouraging such things.
“My Queen. What is this?”
Storage. Supplies for the last war Izril will know.
The Grand Queen’s mental tone was pleased at Klbkch’s shock. The Antinium looked down.
“How deep does this storage facility reach?”
She showed him, with her mind. Klbkch’s antennae went still.
“…The Grand Hive could not consume that much nutrition in a year. My Queen, what is the point of this?”
The point, Klbkchhezeim, is to provide for a vast army. The Hives as they are maintaining their numbers because we cannot feed more Antinium with the land we control. But for nearly a decade, Xrn labored in my Hive. Her magic created more of these storage areas.
Many more. See—Klbkch. I have had them created. Killing the underground monsters, creating these areas—it has taken time. But when war begins, each of the Hives will use their Birthers to create Antinium without limit. These ‘silos’ as you term them, will allow the Antinium to sustain an army twenty three times larger than our forces at the peak of the first war. For three months.
“Twenty three times…”
And counting. Klbkch saw it all in the Grand Queen’s mind, a neat, organized system in her Hive. This was her great project, what she had worked on over a decade.
Victory by numbers. Victory, so that they might take back Izril. When Klbkch returned to the Grand Queen, he looked up at her. Respectfully. He did not agree with all of her tactics. But he saw.
“So you see, my Slayer. I have not been lax.”
“I still believe we must return to Rhir sooner than war with Izril will allow, my Queen. Also…I do not know if war is the most expedient outcome.”
Klbkch thought of Liscor. Of Erin. Of…R—of the Free Antinium’s relationship with the city. The Grand Queen dismissed his concerns.
“Klbkchhezeim. You will soon see that I am right. Visit the other Hives. The other Queens petition me for your presence. But you will see—we are ready for war. This time we will win.”
The Centenium looked up at the Grand Queen. He opened his mandibles, closed them. He saw more of her now. Understood more of her now. But Klbkch—was still Klbkch.
“My Queen, I disagree. Allow me to make counterarguments.”
They stared at each other. The harmonious mental link snarled. They had never gotten on perfectly. Some Antinium were like that. A shame they were the last ones.
That night, the Free Antinium slept in the Grand Hive. They had been allotted a barracks when the Grand Queen stopped communing fully with Klbkch.
She had to give the order; the Sword Prognugators executed it. They found the barracks, provided Anand and the others with sustenance, and promptly returned to guard-duty. It was strange. They were quite efficient. Just…uncomprehending of Anand’s role.
The [Strategist] had tried explaining it, for an hour, but the Sword Prognugators had eventually dubbed him a ‘Prognugator-status Antinium who is not a Prognugator’ and left it at that.
The Painted Antinium didn’t fit in the Grand Hive. When they had walked through the tunnels, the other Antinium had stopped and stared at them, like they had with the first Painted Antinium in the Free Hive. Anand wondered if this was how Pawn had felt.
If so, Pawn had been confused and lost all the time. Anand regretted his dismissal of Pawn’s worth. Now—he sat in the hollowed out, dirt cubicle and tried to sleep.
…He failed. It wasn’t that the dirt cubicle wasn’t nice. It was! In fact, the soft earth of the Hivelands had a softer, more plush feel to it. Warmer, too. It was just…just…
Klbkch was frustrated after the conversation with the Grand Queen. After his shock about her grand designs, he had entered in a familiar argument with her. He placed far more value on the Individuals of the Free Antinium, despite his own reservations, than she did. She was completely uninterested in the potential of Anand.
A [Strategist]! And her strategic sensibilities clashed with Klbkch’s. She disagreed about making Liscor an ally…
Frustrating. And hopeful. It had been an eventful day, nonetheless. Klbkch was preparing to sleep in a separate area reserved for Prognugators when he sensed…something. He clacked his mandibles, irritably, but after a moment, he strode through the Grand Queen’s Hive.
“What are you doing?”
Klbkch strode into the barracks where the Free Antinium was housed. He saw the entire room flinch. Antinium, resting in their cubicles, looked at him.
“Why are you not all asleep?”
Klbkch had sensed that they were all awake, instead of resting. The Free Antinium shifted. Of course, they should be asleep. It was just…
It was a silly thing. But their cubicles, despite being nice—just weren’t the same as their sleeping spots back in the Free Hive. They’d grown used to sleeping outside. But this was their first time sleeping in a Hive that was not their own.
The Antinium couldn’t get to sleep because of the subtle differences. It…reminded them of home. Anand explained as best he could.
“I find myself recalling the Free Hive, Revalantor Klbkch. We are sorry. We will try to sleep properly.”
They were…homesick? Klbkch twitched. He opened his mandibles and the Free Antinium flinched. They waited for him to say something or grow angry.
—After a moment, Klbkch closed his mandibles. He looked around, realized chairs didn’t exist in the Hivelands, and sat down on the ground.
“I see. I had…not realized that different Hives would be odd to you.”
Anand stared at Klbkch. The Revalantor sat there. Klbkch was annoyed—but he remembered Xrn’s threat. He shook his head.
“You are not…no. Anand. In the past, Antinium did not live in one Hive. They travelled where needed. One Hive was like others. The idea that Antinium live in one place so long without travelling is—strange. Even in Rhir, they moved around more.”
Really? The Free Antinium stirred. They had not known that. Klbkch nodded absently. He looked past them.
He was old. Incomprehensible at times. That was why Anand liked Klbkch so much. The [Strategist] hesitated. But this was the most talkative Klbkch had been the entire march here. He couldn’t turn this opportunity down.
“…What was it like, Revalantor Klbkch?”
The Slayer looked at him.
“The other Hives? Will you tell us?”
Klbkch opened and closed his mandibles. He looked around. The Free Antinium, Painted and non-Painted, looked at him.
“Tell you? What purpose would that serve?”
He had never talked about the past to anyone but the Free Queen. Anand shrugged, helplessly, innocently. He didn’t have a good answer.
“We would like to know. I would.”
The other Antinium nodded. Klbkch, surprised, stared around at them. But then—he felt a compulsion, brought on by meeting the Grand Queen. They really didn’t know. He sat there for a moment, thinking.
“…Our Hives of old were not like this. In structure—perhaps. But not in substance. This kind of Hive is—weak.”
“Be quiet, Anand. I am recollecting.”
One of the Soldiers reached left across the narrow separating area between him and Anand’s cubicle and poked the [Strategist]. Anand guiltily shut up.
“Yes. Weak. A Hive like this is too vulnerable to seismic shifts, tunneling…stone and dirt is weak. It is also not made for retaining heat, as an Incubation Hive might be. Or preventing the flow of air, contaminated liquids—those were Shaper Hives, whose experiments and substances could poison the earth.”
He looked up at the dirt cubicles.
“…In one of the Hives near the front, a War Hive, the walls would be a…a type of chitin. There are no words for the substances we used. A shell. White, pearlescent. Workers and Soldiers would sit in cubicles like the ones you do. That is not different. But the walls would be reinforced. Even Crelers would not be able to assail the Hive so easily.”
Anand…thought he saw something. The dim, almost dark room, but pale white walls, so secure, and the Antinium, sleeping snugly. It came from Klbkch, a flicker—just for a moment.
“We built Hives out of many substances. Web, shell…types of treated earth, yes. Antinium would move to each Hive as needed. They would rest in such rooms. Not in the same way; they had all shapes and sizes, so the Queens, after much experimentation, found universal resting spots more efficient than dedicated areas.”
Klbkch smiled then, in recollection.
“The issue of housing Antinium took twenty nine years to properly organize. Efficiency in the Hives was of utmost importance. Even organizing the connecting tunnels so Antinium with the most speed, such as those with wings, could bypass slower Antinium was a difficulty that consumed the Queens…”
He told the Antinium more, of how the Hives had been organized by geniuses to make an Antinium take one less step to get to its destination. Organization, as valuable as talent in war because one tied to another. And the Free Antinium listened to their first story of old that night. They drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a Hive in which the pale walls of shell sheltered them.
The next day—they visited the Silent Antinium.
“Klbkchhezeim. My Hive welcomes the Slayer of the Centenium. Come, speak with me. Whatever is desired, I will procure it if possible.”
The Silent Queen of the Antinium was…fond of Klbkch. That was rather like saying that Ryoka Griffin sort of liked immortal beings. She was practically vibrating as Klbkch walked into her chambers.
Anand and the other Antinium were left outside. They had traveled to the Silent Antinium’s Hive, in the lower areas of the Hivelands, off the plateau and in the shade of the cliffs, the next morning. Not aboveground, of course.
The Hives were connected. And they were so large that they practically bordered each other; no sense in wasting space. Nevertheless—there was a distinct difference in this Hive.
The Silent Queen had, for one, opted to use a darker soil. She had a motif, and the dimly-lit corridors had caused the Free Antinium to smack into walls more than once. Her Antinium were adapted to the change, and indeed, the low-light areas would make attacking her Hive a nightmare.
Her Silent Antinium were masters of camouflage. Or rather, her elites were. There were Workers and Soldiers who bore the mark of the Silent Queen’s expertise in shaping forms. You noticed it in small ways. A Worker who could rotate an arm around the elbow to grasp more efficiently. Soldiers with reinforced mandibles, or an edge to their pummeling fists that could also lacerate.
But her elites were what Anand, in his way, had termed the Infiltrator Antinium. They were the six-legged scythe-armed Antinium whose shells could camouflage.
“I have improved their capabilities to match your fighting style, Klbkchhezeim. Their blades are not as strong as yours were, but they are capable of cutting even weak enchanted armor.”
The Silent Queen was second-smallest of the Queens, next to the Free Queen. Owing to her expertise in shaping, she had been spared the worst ravages of having to birth Antinium when they had first landed in Izril. She was actually able to half-scuttle along after Klbkch.
“I see. Their combat prowess is exceptional. But I understand each one takes two months to create.”
That was far, far more than your regular Soldier or Worker. The Silent Queen dipped her head in acknowledgement.
“Calibrating the Birthers is a task which complicates my designs, Klbkchhezeim. Adeptly spotted. My Hive is smallest of the other Hives here, but my soldiers are elite.”
Like you. Her mental sending was unguarded. Klbkch shifted. He was a bit…uncomfortable with the Silent Queen’s adoration of him. The Free Queen herself had admired Klbkch and they worked in synchronicity, but the Silent Queen took that to an extreme.
She had never been really able to contradict Klbkch or overrule him as a Queen should, hence Klbkch’s decision to partner with the Free Queen.
Klbkch had to pause as the Silent Queen visible shivered at the address. Klbkch sighed.
“My Queen. I have not come simply to inspect your Hive. The Free Antinium is my Hive.”
“I know this. Aid will be given to the Free Antinium. But what benefits one Hive benefits all.”
“That is not what the Grand Queen believes. She claims the Hives are fractured.”
Klbkch watched the Silent Queen slowly closed her mandibles closely, monitoring her thoughts. When she replied, the Silent Queens’ mental tone was frustrated.
“The Grand Queen leads us. But she is not infallible. Klbkchhezeim. It is my belief that we have yet to reach a fraction of the potential we had on Rhir.”
“That is an unmistakable fact, Silent Queen. However, our efforts have not yielded many results. You have attempted to master forms for a decade—your Infiltrators are proof of that.”
“But I could have done more! Klbkchhezeim! You understand Shaper Queens. The Grand Queen does not. I was only a student, along with the Free Queen, but we had access to the Antinium’s knowledge. And more importantly, resources.”
The Silent Queen led Klbkch into her laboratory. Well, her Shaping room. Klbkch observed the vats. Made of glass. Others were steel, clumsily welded together.
“The Armored Queen gave some of her aid to help fashion these. Klbkchhezeim. We lost more than knowledge. We lost all the substances which allowed us to make Antinium…Antinium. I have been experimenting with what we could gather. Synthesized out of our very forms. But consider—there is more. [Alchemists] have a wealth of ingredients.”
She showed him a clear vat that Klbkch recognized. It was one of the substances in the Antinium’s body; they had been forced to reverse-engineer the substance by creating Antinium who excreted as much of it as possible and harvested it from them. The Silent Queen gestured around the room.
“I have long petitioned the Grand Queen to—procure—more substances. I believe I could create far more with more material. But what I have obtained comes from monsters. Or chance.”
“I see. And the Grand Queen disagrees?”
“She…refuses to risk the Hive’s relationship with the Drakes. I have been forced to ignore her commands to obtain what I wish. At times. It was out of necessity!”
The Silent Queen rubbed her feelers together anxiously. Klbkch looked at her. He couldn’t deny that the Silent Queen was their best Shaper. Even so…her admonition troubled him.
“We are one people, Silent Queen. Disharmony hurts us all.”
“But my Hive is not True Antinium.”
The reply shocked Klbkch. The Silent Queen tilted her head left and right.
“I have not been able to restore our link, Klbkchhezeim. If I could…I am aware of our faults. These imitations are flawed warriors. But do not think that I have not done all for the benefit of the Hives. See what my experiments have created.”
She wanted to show him something at the back of the rooms. It was locked behind a…door? Klbkch saw light coming from the cracks. He looked at the Silent Queen.
“You have a project as well?”
“Of course. Did you think we waited on the Free Antinium to create? Look what I have made, Klbkchhezeim. Oh—and take this.”
She handed him…a helmet? Klbkch put it on and saw the Silent Queen clumsily putting on a huge version of his helmet. It was just…tinted glass? Or some gemstone. Klbkch could barely see anything. But why—
When the Silent Queen opened the doors to show him her project, Klbkch saw light. Light, that was so bright despite the dimming helmet. He stared at the glowing Antinium, the clear bubbles of light on its shell emitting the light.
“Silent Queen. What is this?”
The Silent Queen was pleased with his surprise. She spoke and explained mentally at the same time as the Antinium within raised its head to look at them.
“This is my answer, Klbkchhezeim. Long have I observed that my elite warriors caused the most damage out of any Hive. Yet they were so few in number—they still cannot be mass-created. So, in order to defeat our enemies, I have experimented further with my breakthroughs in regards to changing our shell-patterns. And I have concluded that other species are weak to optical effects.”
Like the camouflaging Silent Antinium, which even anti-invisibility spells couldn’t pick up. Klbkch nodded slowly. This…was the opposite.
“You intend to blind them.”
Her pleasure increased at his comprehension.
“I based my designs on Sii.”
The Glorious. One of the Centenium. Klbkch felt a flash of—
“I see. This is just one kind of light.”
“And while it shines, my Antinium will attack the blinded enemy. They will switch to a different modality to fight. There are other functions as well. Flash pattern.”
The Silent Queen ordered the Antinium within. The light began to flicker, on, off, changing colors.
A strobe effect. It made Klbkch vaguely nauseous, and it was certainly distracting. The Antinium performed the dazzling effects for a minute, and then had to rest.
“The design needs work and they will be very costly to create. But Klbkchhezeim—I would be pleased to give you access to my Infiltrators and this new Antinium. The Free Antinium would benefit from working with the Silent Hive.”
The Silent Queen fawned over Klbkch. And the Centenium looked up at her.
“Silent Queen…we are on the same side, all of us.”
She did not waver as she peered down eagerly at him.
“Yes, Klbkchhezeim. But we are not in harmony. Let us speak further…”
Once again, Anand found himself alone while Klbkch worked. At least the Silent Queen was far more interested in the Painted Antinium than the Grand Queen had been.
“I am Zai.”
The Silent Antinium’s Prognugator was female. A curious design change—but Anand understood from the Infiltrator-Prognugators that the Silent Queen had made had that distinction.
“Hello, Zai. I am Anand. It is very nice to meet you. What is the Silent Queen’s will?”
Like the Sword Prognugators, Zai visibly hesitated at Anand’s response. She studied one of her scythe-arms and Anand retracted his handshake attempt.
“Painted Antinium are to be tested. Measurements collected.”
The Prognugator ordered several Workers to laboriously take notes. Anand found himself and all of the Antinium—regular and not—sectioned into a series of tests. They had to do sprints to see what the effect of their levels or Individuality made on their speed, lift objects, give their exact levels and Skills—and Zai recorded all of it for the Silent Queen.
“So…so…what do the Silent Antinium do?”
“Do? Incomprehensible. The Hive creates. Fights. Obtains the Silent Queen’s resources.”
Anand was panting after a strenuous run to test the limits of his stamina. Zai looked confused as she oversaw the Workers painfully writing down their notes on large sheets that the Silent Queen could read.
“Er…does your Hive have any enemies? Any long-reaching goals?”
“The Queen decides. Be silent. Measurements of hearing are taking place.”
Anand sighed, which interrupted a test. He was beginning to feel very out of place. And worse—once more he was unable to speak with the Silent Queen. Not that he’d expected it, but…well…he didn’t know what he was supposed to do? Walk around and be measured and observed?
The big shock came after another hour. Zai checked the meticulous notes that had been taken, determined that all the tests had been conducted on every Antinium, and communed with her Queen. Then she turned to Anand.
“Revalantor Klbkch will speak with the Queen for the rest of the day. You will leave.”
Anand was surprised. And hurt! Zai gave him an impassive look; the shadowy hive of Silent Antinium moved quietly around her.
“Data is obtained. Revalantor Klbkch will discuss results. You are not needed. Return to Grand Hive.”
Zai raised a scythe-arm. Anand tensed, but she was listening to her Queen.
“New orders. Go to Armored Antinium for inspection.”
“But I have not demonstrated my Skills?”
“Unneeded. Skills were listed and noted.”
Anand felt annoyed. He wasn’t sure about the rules of hospitality, but Erin had never treated him like this. He raised a finger, pointed it at Zai.
“This is how I feel.”
She stared at the digit.
“I think it’s an insult.”
Anand stared at his middle finger. Zai ran her scythe-claws together.
She made them leave. Anand wasn’t about to cause an Erin-fuss, so the Painted Antinium marched out of the Silent Antinium’s Hive, towards the next Hive.
Without Klbkch. Anand had known, of course, that Klbkch was important. But he hadn’t realized how…little the other Queens valued the Painted Antinium. With some curiosity, as the Silent Queens’ tests had proven, but still. He almost felt hurt.
Klbkch found the Silent Queen more than accommodating. And at first—he truly enjoyed the helpfulness of Zai.
Now, here was a proper Antinium Prognugator. She did not ask questions. Or object. She had been ordered to assist Klbkch, and she was only too willing to demonstrate the Silent Queen’s adaptations to her Soldiers.
“11% increase in hardness. 16% in durability without more than increase of weight by…”
She recited a long string of decimals for weight-per-area. Klbkch nodded, as the Soldier demonstrated his increased lacerating capabilities of his knuckles by punching a dead pig’s carcass.
Ironically, the Hives had gone into more than just agriculture. Despite the terrible weather, they tried to cultivate some plant life on the surface—mainly to lure in animals which they added to their food supply. Or for tests like this.
“The armor design is more important to me than the changes to the Soldier’s fists, Zai. I am impressed by the Silent Antinium’s modifications.”
“The Silent Queen will be pleased.”
Zai nodded. Klbkch studied her.
“Your Infiltrators are also exceptionally different to the Free Antinium’s Soldiers. Do you believe a mixed force of Infiltrators and the Silent Antinium’s Soldiers would be able to deal with Drake or Human cavalry? What tactics would you employ?”
The Silent Prognugator hesitated. She raised one scythe-arm.
“I will consult with the Silent Queen.”
“…You do not have any thoughts of your own?”
“The Silent Queen is more proficient than I.”
The Silent Prognugator communed with her Queen, who was only too happy to speculate with Klbkch. He put that out of his mind.
“What about [Archers]? Could any of the Workers be adapted to an archery role with any improvements to their bodies?”
“I will ask the Queen.”
Klbkch stopped. He looked at Zai.
“I would like your speculation, Prognugator Zai.”
She gave him a very uneasy look and did the blade-sharpening rub with her scythe-claws.
“My knowledge is insufficient. The Queen…”
Klbkch found himself missing Anand. He twitched irritably. Or even…Relc.
“You don’t have an opinion? At all?”
He had forgotten already. Zai just shook her head.
“The Queen is wise. I will petition the Queen…”
The Armored Antinium’s Hive was the most original of the three Hives Anand had visited. The [Strategist] knew this because he was fairly certain the other Hives didn’t have a fortress built into the tunnels. If they had—he hadn’t noticed.
The Armored Queen had taken more than the idea of arming her Antinium with armor. She had, in fact, built her Hive out of stone and metal, much like an underground castle. And the Armored Queen herself had time to see Anand.
For a few minutes.
“If the ore has run out, have Sehr investigate another tunnel. I will assist momentarily. Redistribute eight units of food to the barracks for the Free Antinium. If the Silent Queen has Klbkchhezeim, have the Steelclad unit disarmed and wait.”
The Armored Queen sat on no throne. Nor was she able to move. She had built the fortress around her. And she never left this chamber.
No wonder. She was huge. The biggest of the Queens, by far. And this was not…a good thing.
The Armored Queen had birthed more Antinium to create the first Hives than any other living Queen. Anand understood that some had died from the strains and experiments.
Now, of course, there were Birthers, the pods of creation that took the place of the Queens. But the Armored Queen was huge, swollen.
And in pain. Her body couldn’t sustain her weight. Anand saw her painfully moving around, barely able to drag herself a tiny bit. She had Workers who needed to guide her movements. And there was no going back; insects didn’t just ‘lose weight’ like fleshy mammals.
For all that, the Armored Queen was the most pleasant Queen in that she was willing to speak with Anand. And she herself was very interested in him.
“And your level?”
As the Armored Queen ordered her busy Prognugators to help her manage her busy Hive, Anand explained his [Strategist] class. And level.
“I am a Level 27 [Strike Strategist], Armored Queen.”
The Armored Queen recoiled. She turned her head.
“Wrong ore type. Keep searching, Sehr. How is this possible, Anand the [Strategist]?”
Anand was very pleased by the attention.
“I have commanded the Hive’s battles with the dungeon along with my companion, Belgrade, Armored Queen. My advancement into [Strategist] is most likely because I took over the Hive’s functioning as a whole at times.”
He had actually reached the class before Olesm had, in terms of levels. The Armored Queen was equally impressed.
“The Painted Antinium’s capacity to level is impressive. Sehr is Level 12 in the [Armored Leader] class. Tersk, my foremost Prognugator—of those that are currently alive—is Level 16.”
Anand was astonished. That was low-level! The Armored Queen shifted.
“Prognugators are too valuable to waste. I do not have thousands of lives to spend as the Grand Queen does to create Prognugators.”
The Armored Queen looked down at Anand.
“Prognugators are made by combining the minds of thousands of Antinium. They are created by the sacrifice of personality, intelligence, and will.”
The [Strategist] stood there, poleaxed. The Armored queen turned her head, her massive antennae waving.
“Yes. Begin excavation. Move supplies from tunnels…”
She was so busy. More than the other Queens, or at least, that Anand had seen. The problem was twofold, actually. The Armored Queen explained—she was very accommodating.
“Armor blocks the signals from the Hive. Also, my Armored Hive works with metal, a task that requires Workers to be supervised intensively.”
“A-about the Prognugators…may I ask how they are made, Armored Queen?”
Anand was afraid. Klbkch wouldn’t…but the Armored Queen waved a palp.
“The Antinium are linked in creation. It is a laborious process used to create Prognugators. Ours are…flawed. Not as complete as those True Antinium. Even so, the process uses up many resources and time. I could use more Prognugators. But it is not necessary compared to the Grand Queen’s…numbers.”
The [Strategist] relaxed a bit, but he was still troubled.
“Yes, my Queen.”
“Good. Now, inform me of your Skills.”
Anand recited a list of his Skills. The Armored Queen was very interested about his tactics and demanded he tell her about fighting Crypt Worms and so on. And Anand enjoyed it! The Armored Queen was nodding when she stiffened.
“Forge break. I must attend. Stand there.”
She turned and began ordering Antinium elsewhere in her Hive rapidly. Anand heard only snippets from her mandibles.
“—move Workers back—contain f—redistribute—”
He stood there, obedient, waiting for her to finish. But the Armored Queen moved onto dealing with injuries, opening that iron vein they’d found, overseeing a change in the way they were making the armor that could be fitted onto any Worker and Soldier; hers were virtually identical to the Free Antinium’s, just a bit bigger and stronger.
The Armored Queen was so preoccupied with her work that she forgot Anand was there. As always, she devoted her all to managing her Hive such that when she slept it would keep going until she woke. It was hard work, but she had done it unceasingly. She was dedicated, loyal. She ignored the pain in her body until she needed a healing potion to restore the damage her sheer weight was causing her.
So, three hours later, as she stopped to ingest a healing potion, the Armored Queen looked around.
“Strategist Anand, continue telling me about your battle with enchanted suits of armor. Could they be repurposed to—”
She stopped. The space where the [Strategist] and the Free Antinium had been standing was empty. The Armored Queen looked around. But she had told them to stand right there.
“…Where did they go?”
Anand did his best. He really did. He stood there for thirty-seven whole minutes before he started looking about. The Painted Antinium waited behind him, but they were clearly…bored.
“Maybe we should go sit down.”
Anand whispered to them. He motioned and they went to sit over by a wall.
An Armored Prognugator stared at them. Anand waved at the Soldier-Prognugator in armor.
“We are just sitting down. Actually—is there anywhere we could rest? We have not eaten since this morning, as well.”
“The Queen is busy.”
The Prognugator’s reply gave Anand flashbacks to Zai. The [Strategist] opened and closed his mandibles. And then he had an idea. It was not necessarily a good idea. It was more like an…Erin idea. Or a Bird idea.
“Er…yes. The Queen is busy. However, I heard that there was a barracks and food units allocated to us. Revalantor Klbkch would appreciate—he wants us to rest there.”
The Armored Prognugator opened and closed his mandibles. He looked at Anand, but the Antinium did not suspect the [Strategist] of a lie. That was inconceivable.
“I will take you.”
He marched down the hallway. Anand motioned and the Free Antinium followed him. The [Strategist] was caught in a paroxysm of guilt for a few moments. Had he just spoken an untruth? No—no, he had done what Klbkch would have ordered. This was for the best.
“Thank you. This is a nice barracks. And this food is…”
Anand stared at the typical Antinium mush.
“…Acceptable. We will eat.”
He covertly waved at Goat, who had produced his half-eaten cheese. The Armored Prognugator turned to go. Anand called after him.
“What’s your name? And would you like to eat with us?”
The Prognugator turned back.
“I am to wait for the Armored Queen’s instructions.”
“Oh. But could you do that with us? She will want to know where we are, anyways. What is your name?”
“Ulssb. I should return to my Queen—”
Erin was the example to follow here. Anand smiled, put an arm around Ulssb’s shoulder, and steered him to the other Antinium.
“Sit and stay a while! Eat. We have food from the Free Antinium. That is a…order from Klbkch.”
This time Ulssb looked at Anand. He wasn’t an idiot.
“I did not see your Revalantor give you that order.”
“No? Well, he would want us to socialize. Have you had bread before?”
“My system is not adjusted to handle wheat—”
“This is Garry-bread. Eat, eat.”
Soon, the Armored Prognugator was gobbling the stale bread. It was a week old, despite being kept in Anand’s bag of holding, but the Armored Antinium was eating it like it was Pawn’s fabled mana from the heavens.
Anand felt really bad for Ulssb. He was like all the others, despite being a Prognugator. And he realized—the other Free Antinium felt the same way. They were pulling out their toys and showing Ulssb.
“Intriguing. Intriguing. Is this what Tersk referred to?”
The Prognugator stared at Goat’s cat’s cradle game, and a spinning top that one of the Workers had. He was so excited to try it himself that it hurt Anand.
“We have many things to show other Antinium. We did not get a chance in the Silent Hive or the Grand Hive, but perhaps we can here? Klbkch would want that.”
Ulssb looked up and thought about this.
“That would be…acceptable. I will inform my Queen this is an important idea when she is available.”
And there it started. Anand smiled hugely. He looked at the others, and then dug around in his pack.
“Oh. Oh! I have more to show you! We do not have an Erin in our packs to sing and do wonderful things, but we do have a chess and go board. Multiples, in fact! And—show Ulssb the book!”
One of the Workers pulled out his beloved picture book. Ulssb stared at the colorful illustrations. Then he nodded, without showing as much interest as Anand had expected.
“Oh. Those. We read those to understand how metal is formed. These have more pictures. The Armored Queen has many of those.”
“Books? Wait. She has a…library?”
Erin had told Anand about libraries. Glorious places with books up to ceilings. Anand had dreamed of entering one someday. He had bought his own books to read, like the one on [Warrior] Skills, but he needed to know more now.
“It is in the Armored Queen’s rooms. Many books. We read some to her and study them. It is…complex. That is how the Armored Queen learned the secrets of metal. It is next to the room of statues.”
“I must see them. Will you take me, Ulssb?”
The Armored Prognugator hesitated. Anand pleaded with him, cajoling.
“It will not be long! And the Armored Queen may be busy for hours, will she not?”
“If your Revalantor would give the order—”
“He would! Absolutely!”
Anand had carried the lying thing, or interpreting orders, a bit too far, and he knew that. But he persuaded Ulssb to lead just him to the library. The Armored Antinium did so, still chewing on the bread. With jam.
The library of the Armored Antinium was not as large as a modern library. Erin Solstice would have expected a normal library, a small public one for instance, to have at least 10,000 books. But that was her world.
The Armored Queen had four hundred and eighty three books. And that was a massive collection. Of course, they weren’t all the same subject; she had simply bought, collected, or taken any book she could find.
So she had everything from derring-do novels of adventurers to children’s books, a rare commodity, to manuals, including the ones about steel. Anand was agog.
“Books! Books! Books!”
He ran in a circle, throwing his arms up as Ulssb stared at him. Anand paused.
“I am showing my delight.”
“May I read a few?”
Again, Ulssb hesitated, but this time out of disbelief.
“You wish to read books willingly?”
“Why would you not?”
Anand was astonished. Books were amazing! He would have expected the Prognugators to love the books! Then Ulssb showed him the manual he read all the time.
A Compendium of Smithing Techniques of the Ages, by Celde Brightmetal, Dullahan, [Blacksmith].
It was the most dull and technical manual Anand had ever seen. Brilliantly useful of course, with illustrations and depictions of a lot of smithing techniques the Dullahan had observed. Not the really cool ones, like Naq-Alrama steel; this covered tin, iron, steel, and the basic metals.
But dead gods, was it boring. Anand was interested only for the knowledge it held. He shook his head as Ulssb helpfully pointed out useful bits of information.
“The depictions of metal heat by color are inaccurate for Antinium since we see in a different spectrum than Dullahans. That is important information.”
“Don’t you…read other books?”
“We were never ordered to.”
The Armored Antinium shook his head. Anand’s antennae drooped.
“You have missed so much. There are far more interesting books! See? This is ‘The Hungry Little Wyvern’. I know this book!”
Excitedly, he grabbed it and opened it for Ulssb. The two read it eagerly, staring at the bright illustrations.
“This is a good book!”
Ulssb was blown away. Anand handed it to him.
“You see? You should experiment and read other books. I myself have read over twenty books. That is a lot, by the way. But this library is amazing!”
He spread his arms to take it all in. Then, Anand had another thought.
“You know, I’m even something of a [Writer]. Belgrade, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, and I all collaborated on a book.”
“You wrote a book?”
“I did. It is about mating rituals among different species. It is very informative. I think Goat has the copy. Why don’t you go back? I wish to remain here and see what books there are.”
The other Armored Antinium wavered, but the call of books was too strong. The newly-created bookworm hurried off.
“Books, books, wonderful books…”
And then Anand was alone. Singing, he investigated the shelves, finding interesting titles and checking them out. He wondered if he could borrow a few? Or at least read them and bring them back. He was a [Reader]. Level 4, and had a few nice Skills…
Anand was circulating the vast room—which was so huge so that the Armored Queen could enter it and be read to—when he turned his attention to light coming from the room beyond. This library was the first room in the Armored Queen’s chambers. But there was another.
At first, Anand assumed it was the laboratory that Queens had. But…those were always sealed to prevent contaminants. And the room beyond was more like…a hallway?
What had Ulssb said? The room with statues?
Curiosity got the better of Anand. He put the book he’d been about to open back on the shelf and walked forwards.
He found himself in a long hallway made of stone. A bright sandstone. Yet—the hallway was shadowed.
And in the hallway were—alcoves. Pedestals, built into the wall. And standing on them—Anand saw figures.
He stopped in front of the first pedestal and looked up. Anand peered at the towering figure. He…stumbled. Passed a hand over his eyes.
“What’s…that looks like…”
He fell. The [Strategist] didn’t know why, but he lost strength in his legs. He fell onto the ground and lay there. Dead to the world. Just…staring up.
That was how the Armored Queen and Klbkch found him, nearly an hour later. A very worried Ulssb had told her of what had happened. Klbkch had arrived, having cut short his visit to the Silent Queen out of exasperation.
Now, she dragged herself into the library and saw the little Worker there. Klbkch made a sound of annoyance.
The Worker didn’t reply. He was sitting. Staring up at…the Armored Queen spoke.
“Strategist Anand. What are you doing?”
Her voice boomed with something like anger. But it subsided when she saw the little [Strategist] look around. His voice shook as he pointed.
“W-what is this? Who is this? Why do I know him?”
The Armored Queen looked past Anand. Klbkch strode forwards. Anand’s initiative was one thing he realized was important, but walking through the Armored Queen personal quarters was another. He—looked up—
The statue was massive. Also, plain. It had been made of sandstone, never painted, never given any other decoration but that with which the sculptor had done with chisel, feeler, and slow patience.
Yet—it had been created with the kind of intricate care that bordered on obsession. So carefully each detail had been wrought, to do justice to the image. And it had captured the Antinium—the Centenium perfectly.
He stood true to life, a giant three times larger than any Soldier. That was three times larger in sheer height. Yet—his body was unmistakably that of the Antinium of Izril. Four arms, a beetle’s shell on his back.
Galuc the Builder, one of the hundred Centenium heroes looked down on Klbkch. The Slayer felt his legs grow weak.
Anand looked at Klbkch. He did not know the name. The [Strategist]’s voice quavered.
“I know him. He looks like me. But how do I know him?”
It was the Armored Queen who spoke as Klbkch slowly looked down the hallway and saw the other statues. Nearly forty of them; not the full hundred. The last was in progress, the tools neatly set down in front of the unfinished visage.
“That is Galuc the Builder, Strategist Anand. And he does not look like you. You were made in his image. He died before coming to Izril. But the great Shaper Queen, Bessachidia, saved his form that we were able to make you all.”
“Galuc…? You mean, he was a Centenium…? And we are—”
Anand looked at Klbkch, but the [Swordslayer] was silent. Looking at Galuc. Seeing…oh.
She had captured him. The Armored Queen’s memory was perfect. And yet—she had changed Galuc from the being Klbkch had known in small ways. He was huge, imposing—if you didn’t know him. A terror to his enemies, but he hadn’t fought like the other Centenium meant for that role, like Klbkch and Wrymvr.
The way Galuc stood was so protective, even among the other Centenium. The Armored Queen must have known him thusly, that great champion who had constructed the fortress-Hives of Antinium of old.
Strange. In his view, Klbkch felt Galuc was…off. Perhaps because there was no smile on his face, just stolid, unmoving watchfulness. Gentleness, even. But Galuc had known humor. He stood also, with armor on his body. Antinium war-armor, removable chitin-metal with a name never pronounced by the common tongue.
Galuc seldom wore that. But he had when he died. The Armored Queen must have remembered him thusly, diving into the oceans to tear the Kraken’s tentacle off.
“Galuc. My great friend.”
Klbkch whispered. The statue did not answer him. The Armored Queen bowed her head.
“I did not mean to show you this poor place, Klbkchhezeim.”
The Centenium started. He looked up at the Armored Queen. She misunderstood and tried to explain.
“It is my way of remembering them. It…helped me pass the years. A small thing. I am not finished. I apologize, Slayer.”
“Do not apologize. I wish I had…”
Klbkch trailed off. He shook his head. Galuc. Memory paled before even the statue. Klbkch stepped forwards and hesitated. He did not touch the statue. Slowly, Klbkch turned away. And he saw the others.
“The Centenium. I did not know them all. Some are made only of shared memories. Stories. But this one—”
Klbkch recognized the Antinium at once. No two Centenium were the same. Some had the same image, or base. But the First Queen had made them all differently.
This Antinium—or rather, his true form, not the one lost at sea, like Klbkch’s had been—was that of an armored creature. Close to a scorpion in form; the stinger elongated. Klbkch saw that the Armored Queen hadn’t been able to fully sculpt it, nor would she have seen him fighting. He could launch a projectile at his foes or fight in close quarters.
He had lost his form and been more inhibited by the Antinium bodies they had given him than any other. But he had fought and died in the First Antinium war three times. At the last—
Slowly, losing track of the Armored Queen’s voice, Anand’s, Klbkch walked down the long hallway. And he saw his companions of old. His…friends.
There was Mellika, the only other female Centenium who had survived to Izril. Dead. Zel Shivertail had killed her at the last. And there was Devrkr the Glowing. He had brought terror to the armies of Drakes and Gnolls with his ability to conjure acid rain and mists that corroded all but the most powerful armors.
They were all there. Face after face. Klbkch walked among them.
“Each one died. You did not know them, little Worker. But they were our heroes. Our champions, made by the First Queen. None have been surpassed because she put everything into them. Prognugators were made of but thousands of lives. Each Centenium was made of millions. Countless minds and techniques, turned into one being.”
The Armored Queen spoke softly to Anand as the [Strategist] watched. Klbkch stopped in front of one statue and looked up.
The figure was closer to Xrn. But he had six arms. Klbkch saw the instrument in his hands.
“Not all are dead. Some may live. Here stands our memory, who stayed behind. He might be alive. Mirrex.”
“That looks like…an instrument. For making music. Not a weapon.”
The Armored Queen nodded.
“Of course it is. Mirrex the Bard sang. The Centenium sang in Rhir’s Hives. Xrn—I have never heard Klbkchhezeim sing. But even Wrymvr sang.”
Anand stared at Klbkch’s back. The Centenium walked on.
“I always thought the titles of the Centenium were things Drakes make up.”
“They learned it from us. The Centenium were unique, little [Strategist]. I…am glad the Slayer does not find this place lacking. I would have been too afraid to show it to him. The other Queens surely are.”
That made Klbkch turned back.
“The other Queens have a place like this?”
“Of course they do. To remember our Queens. Our Centenium. Do you think we could forget, Slayer?”
The Armored Queen sat there, looking down at Klbkch. He was able to say nothing to that. He realized, then, that he had been wrong to think the Queens were foolish, infighting.
They too had never forgotten. But the Armored Queen’s body was damaged from dragging herself even this far. She left a trail of green blood on the ground as she lifted a feeler.
“Klbkchhezeim. It brings me joy to see that you find this tribute worthy. Now, let me show you my future. My achievement. My failure.”
“My Queen. You are bleeding.”
“It does not matter. I will bleed more before my end. Come with me, Klbkchhezeim.”
They left Anand standing there. The [Strategist] looked up at Galuc for a while. Then he slowly walked through that hallway. And at last—he began to understand. Understand how much he had yet to learn.
How much they had lost.
“I am broken, Klbkchhezeim. Look at my body. It betrays me. Look at our Hives. You have found us wanting. I see this. That is why the Armored Antinium take up steel. We are not worthy of the True Antinium.”
The Armored Queen sat in her chambers as she was healed. Klbkch looked up at her.
“Armored Queen. You have given your body to the Hives that we could rebuild. I would never find you wanting, of all the Queens.”
She smiled slowly. Of all the Queens—he respected her most. Her, and the other Queens who had volunteered to be the first to birth Antinium eggs.
“We are all soldiers, Slayer. The war does not end. But I fear—more than the other Queens. I fear failure, Slayer. I see the weakness of our armies. The Grand Queen has her plans. So too do the other Queens. I am sure they show them to you.”
“They do. Have you a project of your own?”
“Yes. They are coming.”
Klbkch felt something moving their way. Heard the tread. But he waited as the Armored Queen spoke.
“Yet I have less faith than the others, Klbkchhezeim. I turn to you for guidance. What I create—I create to support the Hives. I do not know if war is for the best. If you say it is not—I listen. If the Grand Queen orders it, my Hive goes to war. I lack the vision to bring us home.”
“We will go home.”
He said it forcefully. The Armored Queen lifted one huge arm.
“I believe you. And I will fight and live until my last, Slayer. But I am no genius. I have not the faith in victory I did decades hence. So see: this is what I have made.”
They walked into the vast room and made it smaller. Klbkch felt the ground tremble. He looked up and saw them.
Giant Antinium. He froze.
They looked—no. For a moment, he thought they were copies of the Builder. That the Armored Queen had managed to do what no Queen had before. Then he realized.
They were just Soldiers. Soldiers, but encouraged to grow like the Armored Queen had. Oversized—giants. The shortest was thirteen feet tall. And they were garbed in armor. They walked slowly, steel moving as they bore massive shields and hammers.
“Armored Queen. What is this?”
“I grew them, learning to do what has happened to me. I worked with them. Clumsily, borrowing the Silent Queen’s aid. This generation is larger than the last. They continue to grow. There are few of them. But these—these are my Steelclad.”
The Antinium stopped in front of Klbkch. They moved slowly. They were huge, steel helmets covering their faces and mandibles. Not a single weak point shown.
And…they were disastrous. Klbkch stared up at the Antinium. He had seen how slow they were. They were giant, massive targets. He could imagine spells ripping them apart, siege weapons bringing them down. The Armored Queen had invested her Hive’s resources in this?
“My Queen. I—do not know how to say this, but your Steelclad are…”
The Armored Queen interrupted Klbkch.
He looked up at her. The Queen leaned down towards him.
“I am no fool, Slayer. Do you think I do not know they will be targets? That the other races will destroy them? Look upon them. What do you see? I see folly. Size does not make one stronger. I know this.”
She gestured at her ruined body. Klbkch hesitated. If so, then what—
Oh. He understood. The Armored Queen pointed. The Steelclad raised their shields. Massive, tower shields. And their armor was thick.
“The Drakes will see my Steelclad as giants. They will rain oblivion on them. If the Steelclad reach their lines, they will cause chaos. But they will not. That is their purpose.”
Klbkch…felt ill. The Armored Queen understood the psychology of other species. Give them a target like this and—he could just imagine the enemy [General] ordering all the best Skills used to bring them down. To demoralize the foe. And it would work on War Walkers, half-Giants.
But the Steelclad were expendable. The Armored Queen went on as the Antinium stood there. Klbkch could barely sense any intelligence from them. They were so vast they could barely function; unlike Galuc, they were just scaled up, unable to react quickly.
“I have designed them well, Slayer. They are resistant to death by heat, shock, and their systems are built to keep them moving, keep them fighting. They have lifespans of weeks at most. But they will advance and guard themselves and fight. They can survive underwater for eighteen minutes before their reserves of air run out. They are my greatest creation.”
Now, the Armored Queen rose. Her voice grew louder, and boomed around the grand room. She spoke, her voice a roar of emotion.
“They shall be the last of their kind. Each one will die that thousands of Antinium may live. They will live brief lives in ignorance and pain. Armor I shall give them and weapons of metal that they might live another second. They will die by spell and blade and poison! They will know naught of our greatness, but die that we may return home. They are my greatest sin. They shall be the fear of other races. They are the Steelclad of the Antinium and I grieve for their existence.”
The giants stood there, and Klbkch looked up at the Armored Queen and saw the depths of her despair. He looked at her creations and was lost for words.
That night, the Free Antinium slept in the Armored Queen’s Hive. It was different, again, in subtle ways. This time the tang of metal in the air made it hard to rest.
That, and what Anand had seen. He had told the other Free Antinium what he could, but words did not do it justice. Perhaps it was well then that Klbkch visited them once again; none of the Antinium could sleep.
This time, the Slayer said nothing as he sat there. Something had bothered him greatly after his meeting with the Armored Queen. Of course, Anand had seen the Steelclads. He was trying to factor how to use giants into his battle strategy without losing them. The idea excited him.
But Klbkch did not want to discuss the Armored Queen’s project. Instead, he just sat there. When he did speak, it was a surprise to all.
“Anand. I…have not understood the…competency you have displayed. It seems I have forgotten how the other Hive’s Prognugators function.”
The Centenium looked at Anand.
“I see now the perspective Xrn brought to the Free Antinium. It seems I was in error. Your—qualities are exemplary among the Hives we have visited. That is a fact. So…”
He hesitated. Anand and the other Free Antinium waited, not breathing or moving. Klbkch closed his mandibles.
Anand exhaled. He felt lightheaded.
“Could you…repeat that, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“What? It is an acknowledgement of success, Anand. Nothing more. I realize it is just words—”
“It is not.”
The force of the reply stopped Klbkch. Anand was quivering.
“It is as good as Miss Erin Solstice saying it. No. Better.”
The Centenium’s antennae twitched. He stared at Anand.
“You believe that to be the case?”
Anand had waited so long to hear those words, and it had been worth it. Klbkch hesitated.
“In that case—well done, Anand. Twice. You have done excellent work and I have not appreciated that until now. I will attempt to do so…”
He saw Anand quivering. Klbkch had no idea those words mattered so much to the [Strategist]. And—as important as Erin? That felt…good.
Very good. So Klbkch sat there. And after a while, he looked up and said one word.
The other Antinium looked at him, even the over-the-moon Anand. Klbkch looked past them. Then he stood up. After today—he had to say it. After seeing what the Armored Queen had wrought.
They were all going to die. But they should know, even if it was pointless, who he had been. If Klbkch died—they should remember. He had to jump to slash the wall with his sword. The other Antinium craned out of their cubbies to see the mark.
“He stood this tall. This wide. You are made in his image. But you do not know him. What you must know first is that Galuc laughed. Of all the Centenium, he possessed the quality of humor. Of…he was like Erin Solstice’s best qualities. But better. Less random. He was…”
They asked him questions that night. Klbkch answered them for a long time. Galuc had been one of many, and there were legends untold about him. Like the time he had tunneled into a nest of Crelers and torn them to pieces before help could arrive. Klbkch had forgotten so much—until he told the stories.
The next day, they breakfasted on proper food. The Free Antinium were running low on their supplies. So Anand persuaded Ulssb to let them at the raw materials before it was pounded into the nutritious paste. He obtained some slightly rotten goat—much to Goat’s horror—and fried it over a fire with the last of the cheese.
“You can cook?”
Klbkch stared at the toasted cheese-on-meat that Anand offered him. The [Strategist] shrugged.
“Garry taught me how to not burn meat when I do not want to. It is not cooking.”
But it was a substantial improvement over the regular fare. Indeed, the Armored Queen had been so taken with the gifts the Free Antinium had brought—which they had not been able to offer the Silent Queen or Grand Queen—she immediately demanded more.
In turn, that started a miniature war over Anand as the Silent and Grand Queen realized that among the things they had neglected to get from him, samples of Garry’s cooking were included. Anand spent the day running about showing the Prognugators and Workers how to grill meat.
But that wasn’t important. That was just food. So while Klbkch let Anand deal with that, he went to visit the Flying Queen.
It was something of an underwhelming experience compared to the Silent Queen and Grand Queen’s Hives. Oh, the Flying Queen was unlike the other two. Her Hive was made erratically, improvised, not as carefully laid out, but her drones were much faster. Their thrumming wings made the Hive constantly noisy as they moved at top speed then had to rest.
Indeed, the Flying Queen’s creations also spoke of her originality, but lack of focus. She had yet to get any of her Antinium to fly, but she assured Klbkch she would. Soon.
“Of course I have plans, Klbkchhezeim. I have many plans; my latest is to create a flying projectile in my Soldiers. They currently generate acidic bile; they will have the ability to shoot thorn-projectiles.”
That was her grand project. Or rather, flight was. According to the Flying Queen, it solved…everything.
“The Walled Cities will fall if we can bypass their walls. My Hive will be the one to do it. Also—flight will allow us to return to Rhir, a priority, I agree.”
Klbkch saw the Flying Queen stop fiddling with one of her experiments in the Birthers—the sacs growing new experimental Antinium, most of whom didn’t live long.
“Obviously, they will fly across the sea.”
“All the way across the sea. I see.”
The Flying Queen gave Klbkch a puzzled look.
“Of course. With wings, they will. It just takes one breakthrough and I am close, so close…”
Some Queens were idiots. Klbkch recalled why he had trouble with the Flying Queen. Well—she was certainly innovative. But he was disinclined to do more than encourage her to work with the Free Queen.
Especially because she wasn’t interested in Anand either. She didn’t see his worth. When Klbkch mentioned Anand, the Flying Queen brought over a Worker.
“Ah, yes. I have made my own experiments when I heard about the success of these Individuals. See? Look at this Worker.”
“T-this—this—this—I—I—I am a Worker, Revalantor.”
The Antinium stuttered as it presented itself to the Revalantor. It wasn’t an aberration—rather, the Worker managed to say ‘I’ after several attempts.
“Does this Worker…have a name?”
Klbkch examined the trembling Worker. The Flying Queen waved a palp.
“Not yet. But I believe I will create Individuals in time.”
Her antennae waggled as she looked at Klbkch. As if to say ‘huh, huh? Look at that shit. I can do it too!’ Klbkch stared at the Worker.
“I—I am a Worker, Revalantor.”
The Worker managed after another try. Klbkch studied it and the Flying Queen.
“…Good for you. Carry on.”
That was the Flying Queen for you. Klbkch spent as much time as he needed to humoring her, smacking a few of her ‘elite warriors’ around, and finding out that she too had been raiding Drakes for her needs, usually artifacts that enabled flight so she could experiment.
And that left only one Queen. One Hive. Klbkch had reservations about visiting her, though. All the Queens had warned him about her.
“She has gone rogue. She communicates seldom. I believe her sacrifices, brave though they were, have damaged her cognition.”
“Her advances are…disturbing.”
“She may not despair, but her creations are such that even I could not bring myself to emulate her. Efficient and terrible.”
“She—she—has Wrymvr. You should visit her, but my Antinium have clashed with her. It was not my Hive’s fault! Mostly. Her Antinium are…different.”
And Xrn had told Klbkch that she thought Wrymvr had gone insane. What did that mean? Klbkch didn’t know. And he was not apprehensive to visit one of the fellow Hives. It was just that he was…wary.
He brought Anand and a smaller group of Painted Soldiers with him at the end of the day. Anand was covered in flour, and he smelled of meat oils. He looked at Klbkch as they walked overland to the Twisted Hive.
There were no tunnels connecting the Twisted Queen’s domain to the other Hives. Apparently, there had been accidents. Accidents so bad that she had been blocked from the other Hives. Even her name spoke to the change.
Twisted Antinium. Who would call themselves that?
“Klbkch? What is…the Twisted Queen’s motif?”
“The last I recalled, she had made advances into changing her Soldiers into more destructive forms. Usually at the costs of their lifespans. I understand…her Antinium are now even further changed. There may be danger.”
“To us? But we are Antinium.”
The Centenium looked at Anand.
“Do not wander. Keep together and do not provoke anything. That is an order.”
The Twisted Queen’s Hive sat closest to the High Passes, highest in the Hivelands. Most remote. Anand felt a tingling as he approached. Something…in the air?
No. In his mind.
“I feel it too. Keep walking.”
Klbkch saw that the Twisted Hive was built into the rock. It had an entrance actually visible from a distance. A large opening; the Twisted Hive had been built into an existing cave structure and the opening had been widened.
To get there, they would have to descend through a rocky valley and pass through a basin with a large spire of rock. The area made Klbkch…antsy.
Something was off. He heard something in the air. Almost like another Antinium. But magnified—many voices.
Had she created True Antinium? But nothing was coherent.
“Follow me. Single-file.”
The Centenium led the way down the incline. He didn’t see signs of other Antinium, even ones scavenging for food. The sixteen Painted Soldiers and Anand followed.
The—buzzing—grew louder. Klbkch kept turning his head, trying to locate it.
“Strange. Does the Hive have no sentries? Surely we should have been challenged or sighted…”
“Perhaps we have.”
Klbkch had just reached the ground and realized there was sand amid the stone. He paused, staring down at it. Then he heard the buzzing in his head turn to screams.
Something was screaming. Screaming, without words. No—not one thing. Hundreds of voices. Klbkch grabbed at his antennae, muting the noise. A mental cry? Was something under attack?
“Klbkch! What is happening?”
Anand screamed. The other Painted Antinium grabbed at their heads, experiencing the howl but unaware of what it was. Klbkch snapped at them.
“Mental attack! Touch your antennae together or cover them! Assume something is using telepathy!”
The Antinium grabbed at their antennae. Klbkch drew his swords. Mental attacks were rare. Even Crelers were only capable of that as Adults—and weakly. This reminded him of Rhir.
Something was coming. Klbkch sensed the rage in the scream as he muted the sound in his head by sheer force of will.
“I am Klbkchhezeim the Slayer. Twisted Queen, I have come to visit you.”
The Antinium bellowed. But the scream didn’t stop. It was growing louder. Summoning something. Even a non-Antinium would have felt it now. Klbkch looked around. It was coming from near them. Where—
Then he stopped. The Antinium slowly looked up at the one thing that stood out in the basin and opening next to the Twisted Antinium’s Hive.
The spire of stone. It rose from the ground, a relative straight structure with crags of stone on it. Sand and grit. Slowly, Klbkch stepped closer.
He hesitated. Then struck at an outcropping of sand and rock. The screaming changed. Klbkch tore at the debris. And he uncovered something dark beneath.
Chitin. Shell. Like that of the Antinium. Anand stared at it, uncomprehending.
“Revalantor. What is…”
“It’s…a spire. It’s alive.”
Klbkch stared at the smooth surface. He looked up at it. It was one thing, just disguised. But it had no limbs. No other body parts. It was…he put his hand on the surface and jerked it away.
“Minds. Hundreds of brains.”
The Painted Soldiers backed away slowly. Anand stared at the spire.
“It’s just brains. Antinium minds. Why would—”
The ground exploded. The sand patches unearthed huge shapes, screaming figures. They screamed like Antinium and leapt at the Free Antinium.
“Desist! I am Klbkch the S—”
The first figure leapt at Klbkch and he cut it in half. It wasn’t Antinium! It was some—it landed and Klbkch spun. It looked like a cross between a spider and…
He turned again. A huge, bloated Worker was charging at him. It was screaming, and Klbkch felt the rage, pain, coming from it.
Klbkch raised his sword.
“I said, stop.”
It didn’t. Klbkch moved forward smoothly. He didn’t need his [Recaptured Sublimity] Skill to deal with a single Worker. Its belly and midsection was swollen, though. Was it infected with s—
Klbkch didn’t have [Dangersense], but his instincts warned him as his mind made the connection. The Slayer slashed and leapt backwards.
The bloated Worker detonated as he cut it. Something in it—some reaction exploded and the blast of air and gore made Klbkch stumbled. He turned.
“They detonate! Keep your distance!”
The Painted Antinium and Anand were backed against the rock. They were knocking other Antinium back, including the scuttling things. But the Free Antinium were terrified. They didn’t fight other Antinium! Klbkch looked around.
“Enough of this! [Recaptured Sub—”
He was about to destroy all the Antinium coming out of the ambush tunnels when something screamed. In his mind and in the air. The sound tore the air and made Anand look up. He saw Klbkch whirl. The Centenium lowered his blades and whispered a word.
He looked up—and the Centenium fell to earth from where he had been watching them. He landed and the Free Antinium stumbled as the earth shook with his impact. Klbkch looked up at the gaping maws. Dripping with black liquid that corroded the ground. The Twisted Antinium fled the Centenium’s presence. And there he was, unexpectedly.
Wrymvr the Deathless.
Anand froze when he saw the Centenium. Of course he did. Klbkch, used to the Antinium of Liscor as he was—had forgotten Wrymvr’s nature.
He had changed. The Centenium’s body had altered markedly since they had parted. But of course—that was his power.
Wrymvr was one of the oldest of the Centenium. They had not all been made at once, by the First Queen. Xrn had been one of the last. Klbkch one of the very first, hence his…simpler, most efficient of designs. Each to their purpose.
But what froze Anand was Wrymvr’s appearance, even altered. His base form. Each Antinium was different. And Wrymvr had been a masterpiece even among them. He had been based on one of their greatest of foes, the ones the Antinium had met in that dark place.
Anand looked up and screamed a word.
“Creler! Ad—no. Elder Creler! Attack! Attack!”
The Painted Soldier saw the vast form. The unmistakable cutting limbs, the open maws. Only one creature in this world had such a combative appearance. But this one was far, far larger than the Adult Creler that Anand had once seen. More deadly in shape.
The Painted Soldiers charged. It was that or die. They would die, even with levels. Against an Adult Creler?
“Hold! Antinium, hold your ground!”
Klbkch ordered them back. The Painted Soldiers halted with the force of his command. But Anand did not. They had to attack, so Klbkch would escape! The Hives had to bring down this monstrosity! He drew the shortsword he had been given from the armories and slashed at the giant Elder Creler’s armor.
His sword bounced off. Anand flailed at the Centenium as Wrymvr‘s eyes—some of them—turned to regard Anand. Klbkch cursed. Xrn had called him unstable and unchanging and rude and violent. And that was hyperbole because Wrymvr was all of those traits magnified.
“Anand, stop. That is Wrymvr of the Centenium! Wrymvr—”
Anand stopped flailing and attacking. He backed up. The giant Antinium looked at him.
Of all the Centenium—no, many would have fit the Twisted Antinium, like Devrkr the Glowing. After all, True Antinium came in all shapes and sizes. But Wrymvr fit this place.
His body reconfigured as he turned. Chitinous armor moving. Blades retracting. He had never died. Not even at the battle where Xrn had lost her life. That had been more chance than anything; even Wrymvr might have died if he had been closer. But it was true; his nature was to endure. He had survived the depths of the sea when no Centenium had.
And he had no mercy. Not to other Antinium. His role had been to accompany War Queens into battle and protect them. He opened one huge maw, exposing teeth as Anand backed up.
The Centenium screamed. It was a shriek from multiple mouths, unlike any sound other Antinium could make. The Free Antinium cowered as venomous toxins flew. The Centenium stopped screaming. And Klbkch heard a voice.
It was Wrymvr. The Slayer looked at the Centenium and saw a single eye staring back, glowing. And Klbkch relaxed.
“Wrymvr. It has been long. The Twisted Antinium have changed.”
So have you.
The Centenium looked at Klbkch and grinned. Or parts of his mouths opened in something like that. Klbkch nodded.
“Why did the Twisted Antinium attack us?”
Not attack. The spire of minds attacks all. These are broken Antinium. Guards. They obey nothing. Fear only I.
Anand looked back and forth between Klbkch and the huge Centenium. He heard only Klbkch’s voice as the Antinium replied.
“I see. I disapprove of that. But none of my Antinium were wounded. Wrymvr—does the Twisted Queen wait on us?”
Silence. Anand felt at his antennae. He still heard the spire of living Antinium screaming silently, but he swore he could have heard…Klbkch turned towards the Free Antinium.
“With me. We go to the Twisted Queen.”
Wrymvr could not speak. His mouths had not been designed for that. Speech was a waste of a body part that could be configured to attack better. He communicated only via the link all Antinium shared.
It had not mattered in Rhir. But here—there was only Xrn, Klbkch, and the other Queens that Wrymvr could talk to. Now, Klbkch strode ahead, with Wrymvr moving down the large tunnel that led into the Twisted Antinium’s Hive.
He knew Anand wanted to ask him questions. But Wrymvr was speaking. The [Strategist] heard Klbkch’s responses.
“Yes. [Recaptured Sublimity]. Xrn did not tell you? Hm. She warned me about you.”
“She called you insane. Yes. I wondered why.”
Both laughed at that. In Klbkch, it was an unnatural, fluttering laugh. Not the fake laughter he employed around Relc. Wrymvr’s laughter was different. It sounded like hissing and clicking and muted shrieks.
Anand wanted to say something, introduce himself, at the very least. But he was too afraid to raise his voice. The two lapsed into silence and Anand heard it again.
That buzzing. Was something wrong with his antennae? Or—were they communicating without words?
Wrymvr ignored Anand as thoroughly as a Queen. Although…maybe that was just his body. He had eyes. Anand…assumed they were eyes. Something, in the little ventral holes on his body that could have been ducts for oxygen to enter and leave—or eyes.
He felt like something in one of those tiny holes was staring at him. Wrymvr was a weapon. More than Klbkch. More than Xrn. He could attack from any direction. And fly. He was what the Antinium were, in a sense.
Weapons of war. And the Twisted Hive reflected that value. Anand walked into the Twisted Hive and saw stone, carven, tinged with green. The moss the Antinium cultivated, growing everywhere. And…something crunched underfoot.
Chitin. It was a mess! The Twisted Hive wasn’t being up kept. There was broken shell, places where fluids had congealed to give life to bacteria, and—
Shapes. They moved around the Hive, fleeing Wrymvr. Those little not-Antinium things that had attacked them. Larger, hulking shapes. To his relief, Anand saw actual Workers. But few of them. And some looked—wrong. Their heads were missing pieces. Or…or…
The terror got to the [Strategist] and he had to say something. Klbkch turned his head. Wrymvr did not, but he stopped and Anand saw something flicker underneath the first layer of shell.
“What is it, Anand?”
“This Hive is…what is this Hive?”
Anand heard more voices in his head. The other Painted Soldiers were holding onto their antennae, muffling the sounds. None of the voices sounded…happy. Could—how were the Antinium doing that?
Maybe…Anand’s brain suggested, maybe if you were in so much pain you could scream so loud other people could hear you. He didn’t know what could drive you to that. But he felt that the answer lay in these dark tunnels.
Klbkch looked at Anand and nodded slowly. He glanced at Wrymvr.
“Valuable. Yes. Not just suicidal, Wrymvr. This is Anand. A [Strategist]. You will appreciate his Skills. Anand, endure it. We will visit the Twisted Queen and then you will leave.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
The [Strategist] would have followed Klbkch into hell. Here…he hesitated for a while, but what else could he do?
The Twisted Queen sat in her laboratory. A vast chamber. She was not as large as Anand had assumed. She had volunteered for the experiments that had damaged the Armored Queen so. But they had taken such a toll that she hadn’t been able to birth more Antinium, so her size had remained smaller than the Flying Queen, Grand Queen, and Armored Queen.
Thusly, the chamber was large enough for her to move about. Vast—and the Birther pods sat around her. Incubating things that moved in the liquid. The living products sat there. Watching them.
“Twisted Queen. Your greeting was unwelcome.”
Klbkch was fearless. The Slayer walked up to the broken Queen. Anand and the Free Antinium just held each other in horror.
They had beheld their Free Queen, who was still their Queen, and the other Queens before. But this Queen—was broken. If the Armored Queen was broken in spirit, the Twisted Queen had endured the privations of the body.
One of her large mandibles was missing. Torn off. Parts of her body were…gone. As if something had eaten away at her. She had only one eye. She moved, spoke, jerkily.
“Klbkch. Hezeim. Apologies. Did not know you. Were coming. Wrymvr greeted. You. Our welcomes.”
The Centenium nodded slowly as Wrymvr waited in a corner of the room.
“I have visited every other Hive, my Queen. And found much to appreciate and much to improve.”
“Yes. You would. Other Queens. Projects. I. I. Wrymvr. Different. Plans, what are these? Your Individuals?”
“Yes. Anand, step forwards. This is Anand, my [Strategist]. The highest-leveled Antinium suitable to the Antinium’s ends. He is the achievement of the Free Antinium—”
Klbkch got no further. The Twisted Queen was missing limbs. But she still had her long feelers. She reached down and picked Anand up.
The Queen lifted Anand into the air, holding him in front of her. She regarded him.
“Ah. Then. Let me see what. Makes him different.”
Her grip tightened. She lowered Anand towards one of the empty sacs. A creation pod. A Birther.
“Twisted Queen. What are you doing?”
Klbkch had reacted to the sudden motion by striding forwards. Now, the Twisted Queen replied.
“To see is. To unmake. I will see what changes. His mind. Has made.”
Anand stared at her. Then he began to wriggle, heedless of the fall.
“No, no—I do not want to—”
He looked down. Klbkch hadn’t moved. The Centenium spoke loudly.
“Twisted Queen. Anand is the highest-leveled Individual I have brought. His death is unacceptable.”
“Very. Well. Then another.”
The Twisted Queen lowered Anand slightly, sounding annoyed. She reached down and the Soldiers fled.
It wasn’t an order from anyone. The Painted Antinium just ran the way they had come. They believed in Heaven. But if there was any place it wasn’t to be found…
Klbkch was as surprised as the Twisted Queen. She peered at the tunnel, then Anand.
“Interesting. Aberration. Or will. Then—”
She lifted the [Strategist] again.
“My Queen. Stop.”
The Twisted Queen ignored Klbkch. She was manipulating the pod, which was another living Antinium—in a sense. It was just designed to create, incubate life. Or—take it apart? Anand hadn’t known—he was struggling.
“No, no, no—Revalantor Klbkch! Revalantor—”
“Twisted Queen. Enough.”
Wrymvr was watching. The Twisted Queen ignored Klbkch, and he was far too small to even reach Anand. She lowered the [Strategist] and Anand screamed.
The word slipped out. A question Anand had asked Klbkch once. He heard nothing. His foot touched something that burned him—
Klbkch drew his swords. The sound they made in that quiet place of silent screams—it was like a song made of silver. The noise stopped. The Twisted Queen halted.
Anand looked past the huge, ruined face. He saw Klbkch, standing next to the Twisted Queen. He had inserted the tip of his sword in the Twisted Queen’s side.
“Klbkch. What. Are you doing?”
Wrymvr made a sound. The Centenium moved. In one motion, he was next to Klbkch. The Slayer ignored the huge Antinium. He spoke up, towards the Twisted Queen.
“Let Anand go. He is an asset more valuable to the Antinium than you comprehend, my Queen. You will not use him for your experiments…or any of the Painted Antinium.”
The vast Queen looked down at Klbkch. Wrymvr was waiting there. And Anand feared…the Twisted Queen’s voice was very soft as she dangled Anand over the open vat.
“And if. I. Disagree? I. Am a Queen.”
Klbkchhezeim the Slayer looked up at her. At Anand. He nodded once.
“This is true, Twisted Queen. And I am Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. You will put Anand down. Safely. That is an order.”
The two locked gazes for a moment. The Twisted Queen’s one good eye shifted. Her body moved. Slowly, she sat back and put Anand down. The [Strategist] immediately ran behind Klbkch. The Slayer removed his sword. It hadn’t even drawn blood, just gone into the outer layer of the Twisted Queen’s shell.
Anything could have happened then. Klbkch was prepared to offer the Twisted Queen corpses of Painted Antinium, or deal with Wrymvr. He didn’t know if the Centenium really was insane. Anand sensed the Painted Soldiers, watching, ready to charge out and fight.
But—the Twisted Queen sat back. And though one of her mandibles was broken, the remaining bit still rose with the unbroken other side and opened.
A smile. It caught the Free Antinium off-guard. The Twisted Queen spoke.
“Very good. Klbkchhezeim. This Queen obeys.”
The Slayer hesitated. He looked at the Twisted Queen and finally caught a fragment of her mind as it stopped guarding itself. Her mental mind was undamaged. And Wrymvr did the same. Klbkch sensed humor, laughter—a meeting of minds.
Anand was oblivious to it all. He just saw Klbkch turn and smack Wrymvr on the head with the flat of his sword. The [Strategist] stared as he heard them laughing. He tugged on Klbkch’s arms as the furious Slayer tried to make a sound.
“Klbkch. Revalantor Klbkch. May we leave?”
Klbkch looked at him. And then at the Twisted Queen and Wrymvr, in their silent hilarity. He clacked his mandibles.
“I think that would be for the best. I will speak to the Twisted Queen and Wrymvr alone.”
He turned to them. And sensed it. A Unitasis Network—only, made of two minds. They were in harmony. Perfect harmony. Klbkch envied them, even as he looked around the broken—twisted Hive.
The Centenium felt another tug at his arm. He turned to see Anand and the other Painted Soldiers. They were staring around. Anand meekly looked at Klbkch.
“…Can you come with us?”
After Klbkch had escorted the Free Antinium away from the Twisted Hive, he came back to find Wrymvr waiting for him.
That was all the Centenium transmitted. Klbkch punched him in the first maw he could reach. It wasn’t as satisfying as hitting Relc.
“I did not find that humorous, Wrymvr.”
As a reply, the Centenium struck out with an appendage. Klbkch was too slow to dodge in his body without [Recaptured Sublimity]. He stumbled backwards.
Speak with the mind. Why words?
Klbkch paused. Then he smoothly spoke in his head. Their thoughts flickered back and forth, infinitesimally faster than speech and carrying far more nuance, emotion, information.
(The other Queens were not adept at mental signals.)
(That is them. The Twisted Queen and this one are in synchronization. What one knows, the other too. It is more efficient.)
Klbkch sensed the Twisted Queen working, checking on her experiments. And she was behaving like a Queen. For all her Hive seemed in disrepair, there was food, supplies, organization—it was just that she had created so many flawed creations that wandered the corridors.
(But difficult. Wrymvr, I will be straightforward.)
(There is no other way to be.)
A buffet, mental and physical. The Centenium rebuffed Klbkch. Why be anything less than straightforward? They were Antinium.
Unlike Xrn, completely. She had adopted the other species’ modes of communication. But Wrymvr hadn’t changed, for all his body had. Klbkch staggered. Kicked at Wrymvr.
(You have changed.)
(I have not.)
Klbkch felt another sending. Wrymvr disagreed. And he had memories to prove it. He sent-showed Klbkch an Antinium arguing with the other Queens, refusing to bend. That Klbkch was…stiff. Unbending. He would have never kicked Wrymvr.
It was hard to argue with someone mentally. Which was why it didn’t happen. One side could prove it was right empirically. Klbkch had forgotten how he’d missed this. He opened up. And the thoughts flowed faster.
(Wrymvr, I acknowledge the Twisted Queen’s ruse. Because Centenium command Queens.)
That had been the point. Wrymvr acknowledged Klbkch’s hypothesis and it cleared that up. Klbkch went on.
(Innovations. The Twisted Queen seeks most combative-efficient-new forms. The other Queens disapprove because some are aberration-disturbing. Is it incorrect?)
Along with the thoughts, he sent more images and Klbkch understood. The spire of minds outside was a formidable attack weapon. Not only could it sense anything with a mind, including invisible foes, it was a proto-Prognugator that could order nearby Antinium to attack. Exploding Workers, those attack-bugs…they were all weapons.
What was wrong with that? The Twisted Queen was doing what all queens did. Creating weapons to assail the enemy.
But they screamed. Wrymvr reacted to Klbkch’s emotion.
(Anand? Curious. Emotion. You did not care.)
(Not until recently. But the Painted Antinium are based on their feelings. I met a Human.)
(Strange Human. Reminds this one much of Galuc, of Mirrex. And Xrn.)
Wrymvr downloaded a wealth of experiences, but that was his only comment. Klbkch nodded.
(She is special. Wrymvr. Why did Xrn call you insane?)
Humor. The Centenium fluttered his wings and sent another image.
Broken Soldiers, parts of their bodies showing the same holes as the Twisted Queen’s forms. Fighting—dying—but their bodies weren’t regular chitin. They were…
Even Antinium had failed to synthesize working versions of the armor. But the Twisted Queen had tried. She had created Antinium with even tougher armor—but hidden toxins and acids and parts of the armor had consumed her Soldiers. And Creler eggs in her material had caused an outbreak.
Xrn had condemned the suffering. But despite it being a failure, the Twisted Queen had tried countless times. Xrn and Wrymvr had disagreed—the Centenium transmitted a flash of pain. Xrn’s disagreement had come with magic.
(Xrn was made to love and grieve. We were not.)
The two Antinium sat there. There was so much to say. If Xrn had seen them she probably would have bopped heads, and given Wrymvr’s form, that would have taken a while. But she had made one error. And that was that the two Antinium, the two Centenium, were more alike than she was to Klbkch.
She had been made to lead. They had been created to kill. Wrymvr understood Klbkch’s frustrations. Of course, the Twisted Queen was listening to them as well. But she said only one thing. Her mental tone was pure and unbroken, showing Klbkch that her mind had not decayed.
(Klbkchhezeim. I apologize for tricking you. But Xrn is subservient. She acts as the Queens do, not ordering the Grand Queen directly. Wrymvr dissents. I dissent. We are of one mind. You have seen each Queen’s project.)
Information flickered through their link. Klbkch guarded the projects, refusing to share, but to his surprise, the Twisted Queen knew of all of them. Another flash of humor through their link.
(Secrets are not Antinium. But I disagree. As you do. This is not enough.)
She gave voice to the feeling in Klbkch. Each Queen had made great preparations for war. But none of it guaranteed victory. Not the new Antinium, or the stockpiles…
“What have you done, Twisted Queen?”
She raised her good mandible.
(A different perspective. Wrymvr knows all. You have time and he will tell you many plans. Many futures. But know this: I think salvation for the Antinium lies not in new weapons or numbers. I think we are trapped here. Wrymvr concurs. So my project is complete.)
“And what is that?”
The Twisted Queen delivered her conclusion elegantly. With speech and mind.
“The answer. To the flaw. Of our Hives. Is Queens. Remove. The. Queens. Look.”
She lifted the empty vessel she had nearly dropped Anand into. The Birther sac came up gently. It had no real consciousness. It was just designed to create and create and…Klbkch stirred.
“You are going to disrupt the chemical balance.”
The Birthers were incredibly fragile. Each one needed constant monitoring by the Queens. Lifting one would destroy new Antinium being gestated. But The Twisted Queen was less than careful. And Wrymvr looked at Klbkch.
(No, she will not. Understand?)
The Slayer sat there. The Twisted Queen gently placed the sac back.
(Klbkchhezeim. I know Xrn’s plans. I know the Grand Queen’s plans. I know plans. And I say this: we Queens are too large to move. Too dangerous. But to live…the Antinium must expand. My achievement is this—you do not need me anymore.)
She smiled. And Klbkch sat there. He looked at the brilliance of the last Queen of the Antinium.
They could have said so much more, then. And they did. In time. But Klbkch rummaged in his bag of holding then. And he interrupted this conversation about the future with a little object.
“Here. Wrymvr. You do not deserve it, but it is a gift.”
What was it? The Centenium peered at the jug. It was triple-reinforced, but the ceramic was already a bit stained. Klbkch pulled out something else. It was…a pizza.
The Twisted Queen investigated the pepperoni pizza, courtesy of Erin’s inn. And with it—a black liquid. Klbkch poured it into a cup. And then, since Wrymvr had trouble with cups, into a maw.
“Rxlvn. I would have brought the Minotaur’s Punch drink, but it can’t be stored. Twisted Queen—a drink?”
She took the entire jug and tasted it. The Antinium’s alcohol was strong enough to make even Wrymvr’s toxin-immune system hesitate for a second. Good enough. Klbkch didn’t waste more on him. He just took a shot and felt the room spin.
After all—what one Antinium enjoyed, they all enjoyed. The Twisted Queen tried her first pizza—literally the entire thing in one bite—and Wrymvr and Klbkch experienced her eating the food for the first time. They smiled and Klbkch transmitted the feeling of being gently sloshed.
In the end—between the plans for the Antinium, Klbkch found something he needed. It was lying on Wrymvr’s back, just…talking to his old friend while being intoxicated. Anand looked up to him. The Queens depended on him.
But here was a companion of old. Wrymvr and Klbkch lay there in the Hive, thinking alike. And that…was what Klbkch had wanted. He had learned this moment from Relc. Funny. Not funny, rather.
He…missed his friend.
Anand left the Twisted Hive fast. But when he was gone, and had healed the slight burn on his foot—he found himself at a loss.
The other Hives wanted him. They had seen the Free Antinium’s worth. There were books to read, Garry’s methods to impart. Change to bring to the Hivelands.
But first…Anand wanted something. The [Strike Strategist] knew few things in this world. But he knew this.
Today he was going to level up. Perhaps, like, eight levels. It was a certainty. He had made a plan on his own and told no one. It was just something he wanted to do.
“Excuse me, my Queen. I am looking for something. I believe it is near the Grand Hive. But I am uncertain as to the location. Can you help me?”
The Armored Queen bent low and listened. She knew, of course, what and where it was. But she was mystified.
“Why do you wish to go there?”
“I just do. It is for my class. Will you let me go? I wish to build something there. Then—I wish to show Belgrade. And…Olesm. I will need wood, if you allow it. Or stones or…I will make do.”
“All these things you shall have, Strategist Anand. But why?”
He took his time in replying.
“Because it is something I wish to do. Because it will make the world a better place and it is not hard. Because I believe it is something Erin would do, if she knew to think it. And because I respected him.”
A little later, there he stood. The place still showed scars of the battle. He found a bit of metal in the dirt. And the Antinium knew this place.
It was Ulssb and two of the Sword Prognugators who had brought him here. Now, they watched as the Painted Antinium helped Anand build something. They had wood, nails, stones…in the end, Anand opted for stone.
“But why? He was our enemy. Our great enemy.”
The Grand Queen spoke through her Prognugators. Anand shook his head. There was nothing left but the scrap of metal. So he put that there.
No sword. No armor. The Drakes had borne his body away long ago. But this was the place the greatest [General] that Izril had ever known had died. Besides Zel Shivertail, at any rate.
General Sserys of Liscor. Anand placed the bit of metal at the cairn made of colorful stones. It was large enough. The hard part had been the plaque. He answered the Grand Queen as he helped write it with a brush on the large piece of smoothed stone.
“He was your enemy, my Queen. But not mine. And he was a [General], a hero of my home.”
“The Free Antinium?”
“No. Liscor. I wished to pay my respects to a truly great [General], that is all. And this is the right thing to do.”
When he was done, Anand put the plaque at the base of the cairn. Maybe he should ask the Armored Queen for a statue. But this was good enough for now.
“Excuse me, Grand Queen. I need to use your mirror.”
Anand turned. And the mirror flickered. It revealed another room.
The Free Queen peered at Anand for a moment, and then withdrew her head. Anand waved at someone.
“Hello, Anand. Have you had a good trip?”
“Yes, except for the times it was not. Will you show this to Olesm?”
“Yes. One moment. Did you get to meet the Armored Queen? Tersk has been telling me about her.”
“Yes. She is a very gifted sculptor.”
The two Workers chattered as Belgrade had a few Workers carry the mirror up, out of the Hive. Anand waited, seeing Liscor reflected at an angle.
This is what he had built. It was a small thing. But Wistram’s Archmages were seriously considering sabotaging the connection because of what it meant. Did that damned Worker know?
Of course he did. And the [Strategist] waited in front of the mirror. It reached The Wandering Inn and Erin Solstice ran up to the mirror.
“Wait, Klbkch took Anand with him? So that’s why I haven’t seen him! Anand! You never said goodbye! Who else is missing? Where’s Elirr? Where’s Fals? Has Garia gone to Chandrar or something? Argh!”
She threw up her hands, then demanded to know if Anand was well, if he was eating, and where he was. Anand spoke into the chaos, seeing a blue-scaled Drake in the background, eating with a fiery-haired [Lady]. It was the day after Mrsha’s learning to write, and she held up a sign that said ‘Hello, Anand, good to see you!’
“Hello, Erin. Hello, Mrsha. I am in the Hivelands, outside the Grand Hive of the Antinium.”
His words brought silence to the inn. Anand saw Olesm’s head snap around so fast something went crick. But Anand’s next words brought the world into life once more.
Drakes went running into Liscor, shouting. Watch Captain Zevara fell out of her chair and went running, not even bothering to inform the Council. Drakes flooded out of the city, towards the inn, demanding to see.
They were not alone. Grand Strategist Chaldion had Grimalkin and officers of Pallass shove their way through the crowds. He found Olesm there, standing with Selys—with a crowd, looking at the waving Antinium.
The enemy. But Anand had called them with what he had done. Did he know what he had accomplished? Or what his casual explanations did?
Of course. He had learned how to change the world with chaos from Erin Solstice herself. Now—the Drakes looked at the little sign. A marker, for a tomb, which mattered more than the symbolic places in other cities.
It read thusly:
Here fell [General] Sserys of Liscor, who perished in the First Antinium War.
The greatest son of Liscor stopped the Black Tide.
Drakes do not run.
Anand waited for the voices to stop. He answered questions, decided a statue should be put here, and answered the Queen’s bewildered questions. He hadn’t done much since coming to the Hivelands. But he felt proud of himself for this little thing he had made.
He dusted his hands and walked off. He did level that night. But not eight times.
That was alright.
Author’s Note: And we’re done. This chapter was written because it won the poll and the theme was ‘building’. Do you…do you get the reference?
Anyways. I’m done. And I hope you enjoyed a mega-chapter like…the other ones. I had good rest this time, so I was able to do it without too much strain. But then again, this is always a challenge. I’ll leave you with some glorious art: a self-contained story by Lire of Ilvriss and Periss, and Falene by Plushie! Also, an amazing image of all versions of Crelers by Staugroan! Always incredible to see what your minds come up with and those are some cool Crelers!
Ilvriss and Periss by Lire!
Falene Skystrall by Plushie!
Crelers by Staugroan!