Crusader 51, [Crusader]
There was a place in The Wandering Inn few people knew existed. Few people went there, even if they did know it was there.
Down the hallways that led up to the second floor, past the game rooms, the rec room, and yes, Erin had decided she needed both, the weights room, and even the bathing room, the wooden hallway branched right. If you kept going, you got to one of the private rooms, one of several entrances to the basement, and a closet, which held brooms and an emergency knife Numbtongue had placed on one of the shelves.
Walk a bit further, and you’d come to a suspiciously blank patch of wall that extended further than it should, with tiny ventilation holes. But there was no door, not even a hidden one, and there was only one room at the far, far end.
Even the drunk patrons of The Wandering Inn didn’t bother trying to explore that door, because it was locked and only a few people had the key. The door had a simple, chalkboard nameplate, which someone had neatly written an odd pair of words onto.
Inside, the wood flooring had been covered by a carpet which trailed up to a little platform, upon which was placed a pair of candlesticks. A few dressers had been installed to the walls of the room, but the main ornamentation were the chairs, filling the room for a congregation to sit in.
Of course, the imagery it evoked in layout had been changed for the true owners. The Antinium, when asked if they wanted a nice red carpet, had instead elected for a green one with little flowers sewn onto the fabric. Also, since giant, long-but-not-too-wide carpets weren’t in huge market demand, someone had bought three of the same color and put them together.
The altar was a coffee table. Someone had added a longer set of legs such that it was waist-high. That someone was actually the owner of the room, the very Antinium who it had been created for.
Pawn was no great [Carpenter], but he could do something as simple as add longer legs to an existing table. In other times, he would come here after a meal with the patrol he led up to the room. After they had taken in the common room, they would come here to sit, and he would tell them stories.
True stories. Parables. Complete and utter fiction. It varied from tales of actual events—embellished as Pawn saw them—to tales from another religion, or simply children’s stories. The Antinium who came with the [Priest] would listen, and then they would pray.
The Soldier who knelt in front of Pawn today understood all of what was normal. He had heard tales, though Antinium did not often speak, of how it happened.
You would likely be lucky enough to join the Painted Antinium after that. A meal of something other than the mushed paste that every Antinium ate, a chance to see the sky…and meet someone called ‘Erin’. Why this was a good thing, the Soldier had never known.
Yet he had wanted it. He had never wanted anything in his life of just over a year, but the day he had seen the first Painted Antinium…he had learned what ‘want’ was. What it was like to be jealous. And when he had seen the Painted Antinium walking behind the Individual holding the censer that wafted sweet incense through the dark Hive, seen the light of more than mere flame or magic…
He had felt something he could not name. It had no words. Nor was it even a good feeling, like sleep. It pushed at him. It was uncomfortable, even. A strange yearning, a sense of something that chilled and even scared him, like his first glimpse of the sky.
A void so vast and open he thought he would fall upwards into the fading orange beyond.
The Soldier beheld the Altar Room, and it was just as he’d known it would be. Yet…not the same.
There was no good food. No smiling young woman. The inn was dark. A Terrible Thing had happened.
Someone had hurt the [Innkeeper]. The person who made Painted Antinium possible, who had made this place.
The Soldier had never known her. But for all that he didn’t have…all that he had never known he wanted—he had volunteered for this.
The Soldier was the fifty-first Antinium to kneel in front of Pawn. When he looked up, he didn’t see much to set the [Priest] apart from another Worker. Oh, he had clothing instead of a loincloth and a few more scars on his chitin than a new Worker. The Soldier was almost disappointed—until he heard Pawn speak.
“Will you take up arms to defend the Hive? To do battle against our enemies? To become more than a Soldier? We are all bound to fight and die for the Free Hive of the Antinium. This is something else. When you march, you will march away from these walls. You may never return. But you will fight, and struggle, and die for something that belongs to you and all of us. Heaven. In this life and beyond. If you do not have that will, if you do not believe, go.”
It was the same line he had heard for the last fifty Soldiers and Workers in front of him, word for word. But when he looked up, the [Priest] looked at him.
No one had ever looked at him like that. The Soldier looked at Pawn and remembered the word.
Somewhere without fighting. Without dying or pain. Where food was good and everywhere. Where the little fuzzy things roamed about and no one would order you again. Incomprehensible, but what he had understood…called to him. As well as the rules.
You could not enter Heaven by dying alone. It was something Pawn had found, and it came to Antinium—but you had to wait. Wait in the darkness, fighting things, eating the same food…all for the reward that arrived only when you died. That was intolerable.
That was why you dreamed of joining a patrol, seeing the sky, and eating a bowl of soup.
Someone had shot the sky with six poisoned arrows. Someone had stolen the Soldier’s bowl of soup. He had not known Erin Solstice. But for a bowl of soup he never had, for the first moment of anger, the feeling that someone had taken something good from him, the Soldier looked up at Pawn.
For a dream of Heaven, a Soldier of the Free Antinium knelt.
A [Crusader] rose in his place. He turned and walked past the line of waiting Antinium, feeling…odd. The Workers and Soldiers looked at him as if he were different, and he was.
He was a [Crusader] now. A warrior of faith.
He had no paint.
He had no name.
But since he was a [Crusader], the Soldier decided he was Crusader 51. It would do, like Archer B12 or the other not-quite-named Antinium.
51. It was not 1, or 5, or 10, or even 50, which were bold, round numbers. Iconic. 1 was the first. 2 was second, which was almost as good. 3? Three was a trinity. Four was a quadruple number. Five? Five was half of ten and quintuple of one.
…You could do that for a lot of numbers, incidentally. Fifty-one? The Soldier had no notion of its intrinsic value. But he decided it was the number to have. Fifty was good, but he was one after that.
Fifty one. He liked it. Then he realized seventeen went into 51 three times and felt special.
Crusader 51 returned to the Free Hive through their secret tunnel in the basement, walking past lines of Antinium waiting for their vow. Pawn had asked for volunteers, and he had gotten more than enough.
The rest of his day was a blur after that. Crusader 51 got his armor from a Prognugator, but not Bird or Klbkch or Ksmvr. Rather, it was an Antinium wearing armor, who showed a room of a hundred how to put the armor on and gave them weapons of steel.
Prognugator Tersk. There was also Dekass, two of the Armored Antinium’s Prognugators. They were like the Free Antinium…but also vastly different. For one thing, they wore armor. The Free Antinium had thought it was strange, wearing a second skin.
Now Crusader 51 wore armor, and it was heavy. He was given a sword, a shield, and a bow and quiver of arrows.
“You have thirty. Don’t lose them. You will participate in training cycles along with Liscor’s army. Follow your squad, which will be assigned to a battalion and serve under the Antinium division fighting in Liscor’s army.”
Prognugator Dekass was making sure the Antinium receiving weapons understood their role and how to holster their gear. This was far more complex than mere armor; the Armored Queen had sent many suits of armor, but the Free Antinium had provided a number of the armaments.
So—for once—when Crusader 51 looked around, he didn’t see identical Antinium. They were given shields, most of them, but they weren’t the same shields! Some were round, others kite-shaped, and they didn’t get the same weapons. One Antinium to his left was holding a big iron mace with beveled metal making odd raised hexagon patterns across the head of the round weapon.
The Antinium to Crusader 51’s right? He had a spear.
The oddity of weapons had Crusader 51 nervous—and that was before Dekass told him he was assigned to new duties. The Soldier froze.
Squad? He didn’t go with his regular Soldier grouping? Did that mean he had to wake up differently? He didn’t know these Soldiers and Workers! And—and—battalion? Division?
Crusader 51 didn’t know these terms. They sort of made sense, but if someone asked him what they meant? He began to panic.
The way Crusader 51 panicked was to freeze up. He locked into place, looking for something to hit in case that solved his problems. And he realized—the other new [Crusaders] looked much like him.
Uncertain. Which was dangerous. One, the one with the mace, was even trembling. Was he becoming Aberration? Crusader 51 had seen an Aberration, once. It had spoken, and it had been shaking and—
Dekass seemed to notice the Antinium’s uncertainty, because the Armored Prognugator spoke, and his tone was laden with impatient authority. The Armored Antinium—whose armor was painted, far nicer-looking than the armor Crusader 51 had gotten, and possibly even enchanted from the way it glittered mesmerizingly if you stared at it long enough—snapped his mandibles together.
“You are Squad 5 of Battalion 1! Bow-armed. Battalion 1 will carry bows and a one or two-armed weapon along with a shield. Keep moving. You will follow Pawn to the surface.”
The world righted itself. The Antinium in the room, all ten of them, looked around at each other. Squad 5 of Battalion 1?
Crusader 51 realized that was his name. 51. It was special! He straightened and, stowing his weapons as he’d been shown, began to walk after the first Antinium closest to the door.
Heavy. But not impossible to walk or even run in! The Armored Antinium had balanced the armor for Antinium, and while the weapons were heavy, the armor was sturdy, and Crusader 51 found himself liking it. If the angry suits of enchanted armor fought him, they wouldn’t tear his arms off as easily!
Squad 5, Battalion 1. That was who he belonged to. That was who he was. Crusader 51 of Squad 5, Battalion 1.
His entire identity had changed. But now he knew what it was. It was all the new warrior of faith knew. He didn’t entirely know what he had signed up for. He didn’t know what his enemy was or what it looked like, only that it was called ‘Hectval’. He didn’t know what Liscor’s army was, or his new role.
But he had a name, an assignment, and that was enough for now. He followed the other Antinium in his squad as they lined up behind Pawn. When they marched into the streets of Liscor to line up in a plaza and swear to go to war against Hectval, Crusader 51 was there. When they trained, he was there. When they marched out of the gates past a crowd that cheered and shouted—even at him—
He was there. When they marched out of the Floodplains, down a long road, and towards the hills where Hectval lay—
Well, by that time, Crusader 51 had learned there was a lot more to the world than his small little Hive.
By the time news broke that Archmage Nailihuaile was slain, and the Archmage of Chandrar, Amerys, was freed, the war against the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem Alliance had gone on for over three months. At the start, it had seemed simpler, even to non-Antinium.
“Do you…no, I suppose you think you have to do this. Sorry, that’s a stupid thing to say. So you think you can win? Are you ready?”
The question caught Olesm Swifttail off-guard. He looked up from his last meal in Liscor.
Which, as it turned out, was a drink. Nor was it the lavish meal with Lism, his uncle, set with all his relatives in the city and friends in Wishdrinks, one of the fanciest club-bars, and all comped by the owner.
It was at an open-seating spot at The Drunken Gnoll with Selys Shivertail, and his last ‘meal’ was a drink.
With little pieces of something odd at the bottom. Olesm took a sip and nearly choked on the strange, squishy stuff.
“Gah. What is this?”
“Something tea. It’s experimental. What did Imani…? Palt. Palt, what did Imani call it?”
A passing Centaur serving more drinks to the new clientele of mostly Gnolls stopped and turned. He was wearing a matching apron with the [Chef], who was hard at work at Timbor Parithad’s new inn.
“Boba tea. Well, experimental boba.”
Olesm stopped trying to suck another object out of his sweet-tea, and Selys stopped with her own wooden straw in her mouth. Both had…associations…with experimental drinks from Erin’s inn. Palt saw their looks and hastily clarified.
“All entirely healthy! It’s a sweeter flavorful tea, milk, and frozen fruits. It’s not quite there yet, though, hence the discount.”
He waved at the sign which had ‘Boba Tea’ carefully marked for nine coppers a drink. A bit pricy for a drink—and Olesm put that down to Timbor actually knowing how to price a menu—but it was nice and sweet.
“It’s not bad. I like the idea of having little bits of fruit in my drink.”
Selys chomped down on the cold square of what Olesm now realized was fruit. He took another sip and found he had strawberry? Palt grimaced.
“Yes…it’s not bad if you have it quick. But Imani won’t stop complaining.”
“About something you’ve done or the drink?”
Palt looked highly offended and swished his tail as he trotted over to argue with Selys.
“I’ve done nothing wrong! I even freeze the fruits, and believe me, you need some finesse to freeze them right without making them too hard or too soft. The problem is that Imani needs more of a jello-like bubble, rather than just fruit. It goes mushy, so we have to prepare them specially, even with preservation or cooling spells…”
“Ah. So it requires more effort. What’s jello? I’ve heard Erin talking about it.”
Olesm stiffened up at his table. Selys noted it and hesitated, but Palt was engrossed in the culinary issue.
“Some kind of gelatin. Think pudding, but more…jiggly? Water in a semi-solid state.”
“And people eat that?”
Selys shuddered. Palt shook his head.
“I’m assured it would be a huge hit. There are gelatins in other dishes…they’re just not what Imani wants, and she’s searching for a jello-expert. Anyways, enjoy your tea. Olesm, are you heading out today? I saw the army moving, and I thought…”
Olesm looked up and caught the position of the sun in the sky. He straightened, and the scalemail armor he was wearing flashed in the light.
It had Liscor’s symbol, the city over water, emblazoned onto a badge he’d attached to a clasp around his neck. The clasp was connected to a crimson cloak, dark, enchanted, and covering his sidearm; a wand on his left, and a strange artifact on his right.
A Kaalblade. One of the House of El’s inventions, and a gift from a dead woman.
Selys looked at Olesm as he nodded.
“I’m heading out with 4th Company in under an hour. I was just saying goodbye to Selys.”
“I see. Well…I wish you the best. Stay safe out there. Don’t do anything stupid. If it’s alright, I think Imani would like to say goodbye.”
“Oh—of course. I can…”
Olesm began to rise, but Palt bade him sit.
“Afterwards. Enjoy your meal. Anything else? No? Just don’t run off.”
He trotted backwards a few steps and nearly bumped into a Gnoll server. Olesm realized Palt hadn’t been at his farewell party, which Lism had determinedly called a ‘Prelude to Victory’ party, and that he hadn’t seen Imani, Kevin, or many of the other inn’s regulars either.
Well, some were gone, and Olesm hadn’t seen Kevin anywhere—he was probably at Esthelm. Even so, he felt that if someone were here, he would have seen all of the inn’s guests. Been there, rather than sitting with Selys at the outdoor cafe-section of Timbor’s inn.
But Erin was dead. And that was why he was going.
Erin Solstice and Maviola El. Selys frowned at Olesm.
“Are you ready? You’re leading the army. Listen, Olesm. I’m not one to put bugs in anyone’s earholes, and the only one I could do it with is my grandmother—and she’s not going to listen—or Elirr. But Zel was my uncle. He always said [Strategists] leading armies was a risk. Not impossible—but have you rushed it? You can always call it off.”
Olesm looked at her. He felt a flush of anger creep into his face at her suggestion.
“Call it off? We’ve been training for weeks. We’ve mustered supply lines, sent the army ahead—we’re at war, and you’re wondering if we should call it off if I don’t feel ready?”
Selys, the [Heiress], gave Olesm a flat look like he was an idiot Bronze-rank and she were still tending the front desk of the Adventurer’s Guild.
“Yes. If it matters, you can call it off. It’ll take time, money, and be embarrassing, but I’d rather you do that than lose a battle or be dead, Olesm. What’s my answer?”
Olesm’s flash of anger turned to chagrin. Selys could do that, of course, but he realized he’d snapped because he was…nervous. Stressed.
He took his time replying.
“We’re…as ready as we can be, given how much time we’ve had to prepare. We put all the new [Soldiers] through the Watch and Embria’s crash training, and it works for the army. The Antinium aren’t integrated into our forces, but Belgrade’s leading them and they’re armed. Three thousand Antinium plus our five thousand regular soldiers.”
“Seems like a small army.”
Selys couldn’t hide her worry. Olesm frowned.
“It’s huge! For a city of Liscor’s size of a year or two ago? It would be massive. But you’re right…we are up against three cities. Hectval, Luldem, Drisshia.”
“And you convinced the Council to let you go to war because…?”
Olesm took a gulp of his tea and chewed furiously. The fruit was going a bit mushy, so Selys sucked on her straw.
“I don’t like this tea. I don’t eat soup with a straw.”
“Eh, it’s not cookies for me either. The war?”
Olesm curled up his tail around a chair leg. He tried to be impartial, but he kept thinking of their last battle. All the mistakes he’d made.
The fire as Maviola El burnt away. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly, but…he looked up and met Selys’ pale yellow gaze. Olesm’s own blue raindrop irises, which matched his sky-blue cobalt scales, were collected.
“They won’t stop. Twice now, they’ve attacked. First with a raiding party. Second with an army.”
“We did march on them.”
Selys pointed out. Olesm growled.
“Yes, and we retreated before we even got within sniffing one of their cities. They put an army at Liscor’s gates with the express intent of bombarding us. They won’t stop. I’ve studied inter-city conflicts. I never thought I’d need to use that knowledge in Liscor, but Hectval will keep raiding caravans, harassing our new villages…now is the time to attack. They’ve lost chunks of two armies. They’re weak. Normally, it would be three cities versus one. We could beat Hectval one-on-one, I’m sure of it, but without the Free Antinium or this moment…so it’s now.”
He expected Selys to argue longer, but she nodded.
“If only uncle Zel were here. He’d…well, he’d probably try to stop the war, but I doubt he’d take their side. And he could have won the war fast. How long do you think this’ll take?”
Olesm cleared his throat. The cold tea was making it a bit sore.
“I didn’t put a time limit on it. Nor am I set on any one goal. It seems like a bad idea. I hope to reach Hectval and have their alliance sign a formal magical treaty within four months.”
Selys raised her brows.
“That’s fast. Uncle always said it took half a year even with the fastest campaigns.”
“Well, we’re close, and they’ve taken losses already. Don’t…don’t keep bringing up the dead.”
Selys’ brows snapped together. She looked at Olesm.
“Why? He’s my uncle. Zel, Erin, Maviola…we say their names to honor them.”
“Erin’s not completely dead.”
Olesm muttered, but the last of the three names struck him the most. Selys glanced at Olesm, and her face fell.
“Here I am making it worse. Argh. Ancestors! I should have just done it the way Uncle says to do it. Fast and quick. Here.”
She slid something across the table. Olesm blinked as he picked it up. A strange, metallic cube dangled from it with a symbol emblazoned on each side. They looked like stylized versions of elements. Fire, a bolt of lightning, an arrow…he raised his brows. It didn’t seem cheap, but it was made of bronze as far as he could tell. And it was clearly magical.
Selys huffed as she fished for her purse of holding.
“A ‘going-to-war’ gift. I’ve got two potions in here too…one second. I have beavers in my home, and they keep messing up everything.”
“Beavers? Wait—Selys, I have potions.”
The [Heiress] rolled her eyes at him.
“I know, and it’s cute that you think I buy the same quality as the city’s paying for. The cube-thing is from Hedault. Each symbol is one attack it’ll eat or block. Here.”
She pushed two bottles at him, and Olesm blinked at the colors within. He could recognize high-grade healing potions, and he looked at the Drake.
“Just come back, alright? Don’t let those Creler-kissing monsters go easy. But don’t die.”
She reached across the table and gave him a one-armed hug. Olesm hesitated, but before he could return it, Palt and Imani came out to say farewell, and Timbor himself.
The [Innkeeper] shook Olesm’s claw, and Olesm recalled the man had marched on Hectval the first time, in the angry mob-army.
“Best of luck, Strategist Olesm. Here’s hoping it goes better now you’ve planned it out, eh?”
Olesm nodded slowly. Good people had died in that first group. He met Timbor’s gaze and looked towards the city, where people were cheering and waving goodbye to the [Soldiers] marching out. He looked for his horse and gave Selys, Imani, Palt, and Timbor a last look. He wanted to be reassuring, to say something like fire and wrath, that would be written down and underlined by [Historians] in years to come, even the unbiased ones.
All Olesm managed was a nod and a croak.
“We’ve prepared a bit more. We’ll see what we see. I’ll report back and see if our strategy’s viable. If not, I’ll reconsider.”
He mounted up, and the words burned in his head…and earholes as he rode off. They watched him go, not cheering, and with a kind of silence that weighed on him as he left. Olesm was glad they didn’t see his blushing face.
Selys rubbed at the side of her head with one claw and turned to the others as Olesm rode off.
“He fights better than he talks. I think.”
It was such a strange feeling leaving Liscor. Olesm didn’t join the procession to hear the cheering. He just caught up with Embria’s 4th Company, who were riding and singing a soldier’s song, My Broomstick’ll Level Faster Than Me, as they headed out. The cavalry and mobile forces were catching up with the infantry, hence the delay. 4th Company led the way.
Veteran [Soldiers] from Liscor’s famed mercenary army. Wing Commander Embria was still under Olesm’s command, though. She hadn’t argued hard, perhaps because Olesm was Liscor’s [Strategist].
Even so, as Olesm rode up and caught his breath, he felt a surreal feeling like the last time they’d done this.
“Off to war.”
It wasn’t far to Hectval’s ‘borders’, just past the Bloodfields, but the Drake city and alliance of three city-states were up a lot of rugged terrain—or some roads that Olesm was sure were fortified. This was no month-long campaign just to get there, and their forces could be anywhere from hiding in the Floodplains to waiting at their city for a siege.
His nerves hummed, and he turned to Embria.
“Ready for the fight, Wing Commander?”
The crimson-scaled Drake blinked one eye as she turned from watching the Antinium marching out of the gates with a frown.
“It’ll be a while before that, I think, Strategist.”
Olesm wavered. He looked across the Floodplains, towards where the High Passes began to shrink into hills and Izril’s south beyond.
“…You think so?”
That was the problem, for all he assured Selys he knew what he was doing. Olesm had been in battles, led defenses, seen fighting close up, and arguably encountered more high-level threats than most [Strategists] twice his age.
However…he had never been on campaign before. It took Liscor’s army eleven days before they even heard of the enemy.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
We have embarked on our campaign against Hectval. It feels odd to be on the campaign again. I’ve missed it. I know you won’t like to hear it, so I guess this letter is a failure.
…I’ll keep writing even if I don’t send this because I have to tell someone. I can’t tell Wikir or Vell, Pielt, or Igissi, even if they are [Captains]. Wikir wouldn’t talk, but Vell’s a hothead, and it’s just not something you do.
Not that you were an officer, but you get it. The old guard always said you could lead a squad as well as any [Captain] and you did—just that you were too good at being a headhunter.
I wish you were here. We need someone like you against Hectval. It’s not just that we don’t have Liscor’s officers or the Antinium—and the Antinium are one thing. It’s…
This is a new army, Dad. You know what that means? I look around and wonder who’s going to die, because they’re so green it hurts. Even Olesm. He’s got the levels, but he’s not experienced. I almost wish I were in charge, but I don’t have experience in command either. I don’t think we should let Hectval be. I just wish either High Command or Liscor’s Council could have approved the army coming back, even a portion of it, and doing it right. But then the Antinium wouldn’t have joined.
It’s been three days and we’re climbing into the foothills around the Blood Fields. Rocky terrain. You know? The worst part, though, is that we’re still getting used to our chain-of-command, and I’m solid in 4th Company, but I think Olesm’s sub-commanders just aren’t good enough. They’re sharp, eager to fight…and not high-level enough. Former [Guards], mostly. Only a few Manus graduates, and they’re young.
So I’m a bit worried, Dad. Just a bit. The new [Soldiers] can’t even hike up hills at good speed. But I guess they’re levelling. I’ll write you something else instead, if we can send letters back to the army. Hope you got out of Cellidel.
She rolled up the bit of parchment and wished she could breathe fire so she could set it alight. Instead, she put it back in her pouch and rubbed her shoulder.
Olesm wasn’t that bad. For one thing, he might not have had the field experience—
But he could move an army from A to B. And that was a talent even graduates of Manus’ war schools messed up.
Columns of [Soldiers] were climbing up the first series of steep, rocky terrain that was Hectval’s territory…or the border along the Bloodfields. They struggled up the hard, slightly reddish soil, swearing, carrying packs along with their armor and weapons, and generally trying not to slip and crash into the [Soldiers] behind them.
Liscor’s army had marched past the Blood Fields with no incidents, much to everyone’s relief, and had decided to take a route like the first army—climbing into Hectval’s territory.
It was that or take the known roads, and Olesm’s maps of Hectval along with knowledge from 4th Company told them there were enchanted towers emplaced there. Real pain-in-your-tail towers that some [Archers] would lounge in, taking long-range shots at you from behind magical barriers.
You could knock them down. Embria knew Liscor’s army could take one down, especially with the Antinium. She hated to admit it, but lacking any siege weapons, the Antinium were their best sappers.
However, breaking one of those towers would be hard, because an army would doubtless be dug in around them, just hoping you broke all your teeth on their fortifications, fighting uphill with enchanted towers and all the lovely traps they had to have placed waiting for you.
Slightly better to take a route Hectval couldn’t predict. They’d be waiting up in the hills, but assuming Liscor’s army got up there, there were too many ways to maneuver, and while the area had its share of narrow passages, there were entire plateaus; perfect for styming any defenders’ hopes of choking an advance.
The trouble was just what Embria had written. Liscor’s army was green. She rode her horse past the struggling infantry and sighed. Her war-trained horse carried her up the slope with ease, but 4th Company’s patrol past the [Soldiers] wasn’t just due to that.
Embria was the only member of Liscor’s 4th who had a horse. Wikir of 1st Squad, Vell, the other officers and [Soldiers]? No horses. Skywalker’s Company, as they were nicknamed for their use of the [Light Bridge] spell, were foot-sloggers, and Embria often fought on foot as well.
They looked like they were strolling uphill compared to the [Soldiers]. Vell stopped as a Drake windmilled his arms, cursing. She reached out, grabbed the [Soldier], and shoved him forwards.
“Put your pack lower down, idiot. Center of gravity! You’re so back-heavy no wonder you’re falling over. Dig your claws into the soil! You look like you’ve never climbed a hill in your life!”
“I have! I—well, the hills around the Floodplains aren’t this bad!”
The [Soldier] caught himself and tried to climb faster, but Vell snorted, and her squad marched past the [Soldiers], jeering—and giving out advice like that.
“It’s not just equipment, Commander. They don’t know anything. It’s like looking at babies. They can’t even adjust their armor, they can’t march, they get blisters…”
“They’ll learn. Faster, with us giving them tips.”
Embria had been writing in the saddle. Now, she addressed Pielt’s complaint out of the corner of her mouth. 3rd Squad’s [Captain] grunted.
“Fair, Commander. I just wish those bastards had more. Mind you, it’s hilarious when they fall down. So much for Antinium being good on any ground.”
He jerked his head, and Embria turned to look. She saw a tumbling shape rolling downhill, a flash of armor and a lot of clicking, and smirked.
The Antinium were having trouble too. The new, armored soldiers, which had chilled her to the core, were imposing with all their gear—but they rattled when they walked, and, like Liscor’s [Soldiers], they had trouble going uphill with all this new weight changing how they moved. She saw another Antinium racing downhill after the fallen [Crusader].
“Heard we’ve got a [Strategist] in their group.”
Embria saw Pielt and the [Soldiers] around him tune in with interest. Embria had already written her report, of course, and she nodded to the Antinium waving all four arms in distress.
“That one. Belgrade. Some kind of [Trapsetter Strategist]. Never heard of…well, I suppose his name came up. In the inn.”
4th Company looked at her, but no one brought up her father. They nodded—cautiously.
The inn was a sore point with them, as the soldiers of Liscor’s real army hadn’t liked what their city had become, and many had pointed to that [Innkeeper], as she’d been known, as one of the culprits.
However, she’d been killed by Hectval, and even the rowdiest member of 4th Company didn’t feel like insulting the dead. Especially when the commander of all these forces and a lot of Liscor’s citizens might overhear.
“At least they have a [Strategist]. What are we, a Baleros-led company? They should have put you in charge, Wing Commander.”
“Stow it. And shove your compliments back up your tailhole, Barkus. You all know I’m not about to take charge of an army. When I want pandering comments—I’ll go to Salazsar.”
Barkhus, whose name was adjusted for obvious reasons, laughed with the rest. They watched as another Antinium turned into a pillbug and rolled down the hill—and winced as a Gnoll did likewise.
“Hoi there! Commander says we’re breaking after the next hill! Get a move on and stop falling over!”
A voice from above. Embria saw an Oldblood Drake floating downwards.
“Huh. Hey, Maksie! You might be [Scout Leader] for an entire army, but give me lip again and I’ll poke holes in your wings!”
The Wing Commander shouted at one of 4th Company’s former members appointed to a larger role. The Oldblood Drake cheerfully made a gesture to the Wing Commander and flew on. She had wings—but no breath.
Stopping after only…? Embria saw it wasn’t past midday. Then again, the maddening hike uphill with all the falls and injuries must have been driving Olesm insane. She nodded to 4th Company.
“Double time up the hill. Let’s talk to Commander Olesm. And show these idiots how it’s done.”
A group of tired Drakes and Gnolls sat around on top of the steep hill they were climbing. Some were stretching or drinking water, but most were just sitting around. A few had even pulled off pieces of their armor—until one of the officers snapped at them to put them back on.
“Yeah? The sky’s blue. Eat my tail.”
One of the Drakes snapped at a Gnoll. They were both young, below twenty, and the Gnoll growled back.
“It’s hot. You’re not wearing fur under your armor!”
“Yeah, well…I…you’ve never had to shed dry scales!”
“Oh, and that’s worse than split hair? Shedding fur? Lice? Why do Drakes have to always suffer worse? Just admit it, it’s hot for everyone.”
“Yeah, but it’s hotter for me because my scales are dark, and the sun—”
A helmet flew through the air, and the Drake ducked. It bounced along the ground and struck the feet of a [Soldier] who was bending over, inspecting something. She jumped and whirled.
“Gah! I nearly stepped on a fortune! Don’t do that!”
The other [Soldiers] looked up.
“Back off, I found it!”
The Drake waved her claw at the others. She plucked something from the ground and showed it to them.
“Look! I found a rare mushroom!”
She showed them all a mushroom with giant, vivid, rounded spots on it. It was purple, and each spot was a bright tan color. The Drake [Soldier] was delighted.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I bet it’s a rare mushroom!”
“Could be worth something!”
Instantly, the other Drakes, Gnolls, and two Humans had gathered around. One of the Humans opined, backing away.
“Don’t touch it with your bare claws! Put some gloves on! It could be poisonous!”
“Yeah, but that’s still worth something to [Alchemists]. You know what? Don’t sell it. If it’s worth something, get it appraised and then culture more mushrooms.”
The squad of [Soldiers] stared at the purple shroom. One of them, a Gnoll without a helmet, pointed.
“Do we get a cut if it’s super valuable?”
“Hey! It’s mine!”
“We’re all in the same squad. Uell, don’t be stingy…”
“How’ll you even get it appraised?”
The Drake peered around furtively as she protectively held the mushroom to her chest.
“We have [Mages]. Maybe one of them knows how it works? Or I’ll put it in a bag of holding. Look, no one takes it from me, agreed? I’ll give you something if it’s worth it…does anyone have a container? It might be poisonous; look at those spots!”
“You can use my helmet. We’ll put something over it.”
The Gnoll eagerly offered. The squad was just about to look for more mushrooms when Wing Commander Embria rode past them.
“That’s not a rare mushroom.”
The [Soldiers] froze, and the one holding it tried to hide it behind her back. Embria sighed as she dismounted and looked around for Olesm.
“What, officer? What mushroom? We were just talking about, uh, a mushroom we dreamed about! A—”
An amused Captain Wikir cut the protesting [Soldier] off.
“That’s not a valuable mushroom. It’s just an ordinary purple one, yes?”
“Ah, but this one has spots!”
Wikir and Embria exchanged a weary, weary look. Embria sighed, and Wikir’s entire squad began laughing themselves sick. The new recruits looked uncertainly at the mushroom, and Wikir broke it to them.
“Those are insect eggs, you idiots. Haven’t you ever seen…?”
Embria saw the mushroom go sailing over the side of the cliff and rolled her eyes. But she had to confess…she’d done the exact same thing back in the day.
Everyone thought a mushroom with dust on it was the next big alchemical ingredient.
“Commander Olesm! Sir!”
She saluted and came to a stop as a Drake jumped and stopped arguing with two newly-instated [Division Leaders].
[Division Leaders]. Not [Division Captains] or [Marshals] or any combination of any military rank. This was derived from the [Leader] class and it meant…
Well, it meant the army wasn’t in the right shape to field a [General], much less most officer ranks. Liscor had an army, and they had countless officers. However, in lieu of such classes, or to make room, you had the [Leader] line.
[Wing Commander] Embria saw the Gnoll and Drake turn to her, and Olesm raised his head.
“You don’t need to stand on formality, Wing Commander. You’re second-in-command if need arises; speak to me.”
Embria glanced at the sub-officers and tried to be as diplomatic as possible.
“With respect, sir, is a halt a good idea now? We’re three days into our climb, and we were hoping to reach the fighting highlands yesterday.”
She glanced up towards a summit yet higher overhead, which marked more flat ground to maneuver around. To fight here, with an enemy occupying the high ground, was a nightmare, and her company would have already been lounging at the top.
But Liscor’s army was having trouble even getting into position. Olesm gave Embria a grimace that said he knew it too.
“The [Soldiers] are having difficulty climbing. Not yours…can I hope it’s due to a Skill? Do you have a terrain Skill, Wing Commander?”
She coughed into one claw.
“Er, [Mudgrip Boots] is the only one I have. I know one of my officers has [Climbing Expertise] as a unit-based Skill, but we have not had to use it, sir.”
Because it’s not hard to climb a hill. Olesm read between the words.
“Could he or she…use it to move a large body of soldiers?”
“The limit is forty, unfortunately, commander.”
Olesm rubbed at his temples.
“…We may still need that. I’m debating having someone cut stairs or some easier way of climbing up. Could we use your [Light Bridge] spell to…?”
Embria didn’t feel like wasting a scroll on getting [Soldiers] uphill. She looked around and raised a claw.
“A quiet word, Commander Olesm?”
He looked up, nodded, and abandoned his map to step closer. Embria whispered to him.
“It’s not bad for the [Soldiers] to learn climbing, sir. However, if we’re caught out—”
The Drake looked up at the summit and nodded, his face one of frustration as he observed the [Soldiers] arguing whether insect eggs were valuable to [Alchemists].
“That’s my thinking too. I’d send 4th Company to hold the top of the plateau, but 4th Company is an asset, and if they have to fight an entire squadron…”
Embria was glad to hear Olesm was thinking of their wellbeing—and a bit insulted by the suggestion they couldn’t hold the ground alone. Then again, one [Fireball] landing before they could dodge and Olesm lost his best [Soldiers].
“We could drag up some other recruits, Commander. Frankly, they’re wet Amentus fruits, but I’ve seen worse.”
Olesm brightened up a bit.
Embria felt the need to encourage him.
“They’re not worse than…well, a lot of rookies we get in Liscor’s main army. The difference is, we seperate ours, make sure they’re trained under a squad with enough veterans. They wash out or train up—and we fight with large numbers of green soldiers all the time. We’re famous for it, as you know.”
Liscor’s army used their officer-classes to turn even a Level 5 [Soldier] into a fighting whirlwind. Olesm rubbed at his chin.
“That’s true. Frankly, I was wondering if they were all somehow poisoned. Even Bronze-rank adventurers do better.”
He looked at the [Soldiers], and Embria murmured.
“A week ago, they were [Cobbler Apprentices], [Thugs], [Hunters], or any other civilian class. They’ve gone through training and can swing a sword, but it’ll be a bad first battle, too. However, they’ll level after tonight.”
Olesm nodded again. The first ten [Soldier] levels, or so they said in the army, were practically free. In that you could march, eat, dig latrines, use latrines, and complain about your pay and food and get to Level 10 without so much as sneezing at a battle.
When they went back to the table, Olesm took a breath.
“I think we need to restructure. Wing Commander, you’ve met our two [Division Leaders]? Bepol and Ramia, one from the Watch—[Guardsman], almost at her Senior Guardsman rank—and the other studied in Pallass’ academy.”
The Drake and Gnoll saluted Embria, and she saluted back.
Oh dead gods, a former [Guard] and an officer from Pallass’ academy. She knew Pallass graduated their officers at least Level 15, so they had a Level 15 [Trainee Officer] and a [Guard] who might be used to large-scale brawls or fighting since she had seen Liscor’s battles, but not a war.
Olesm read her look. So did the officers, unfortunately. Bepol’s tail twitched.
“I’ve served with Pallass’ 5th Army, Wing Commander, and you can rely on me to keep my formations in order. Frankly, I think we have more expertise than some Drake border cities.”
Embria opened her mouth to address the officer, bit her tongue on her words, then snapped back because she couldn’t help it.
“More experience than a border city…? Liscor is the most border-city of them all. Hectval, Luldem, and Drisshia might not be individually as large as Liscor, but they fight other cities constantly! The officers might not be Level 30 veterans all, but they will tear your tail off and feed it to you if you underestimate them!”
She regretted the outburst the moment it happened. Not because everyone had heard; the other [Soldiers] were too far away to hear, mostly. Mainly because it was unprofessional, and this army had to have discipline.
Bepol’s scales turned pale, but he threw a salute that said that he had been taught enough of when to shut up. Olesm was looking between Embria and Bepol, searching for something to say. He eventually snapped.
“Wing Commander Embria. A bit too frank. Division Leader Bepol and your company will serve together. Liscor’s army is inexperienced, but I’m sure you trust them as much as I, if you’re willing to fight alongside them.”
Embria’s cheeks darkened and she saluted, staring at the sky.
“Yes, Commander. I apologize for the outburst.”
Olesm exhaled. Then he heard a confusion of voices, and Embria was relieved to look sideways and see…
“Commander Olesm. Commander Embria, and Division Leaders Bepol and Ramia. I apologize, but my Antinium division has summited the hill and we are out-of-place. I apologize for preceding the other [Soldiers], but I did not realize we had moved ahead of them. Should we go back down and wait?”
Belgrade, the Antinium [Trapsetter Strategist], hurried over, looking distraught and embarrassed. Embria turned and saw his two fellow commanders, the Armored Antinium’s Prognugators, Tersk and Dekass, ordering the Antinium into neat ranks as they stood, some a bit dusty, but on the summit.
All of them. Well, most, and the rest were appearing so fast 4th Company looked startled at their speed.
“How did you…? Er, Strategist Belgrade? You’re not out of place. If anything—how did you do that? Did you dig your way up?”
The shorter Worker was wearing chainmail, and he had a sword, but he was a [Strategist] to his core. He was confused for a moment, then moved his mandibles up.
“Ah, Olesm. I apologize, Commander Olesm. That is a funny joke, ha-ha. Antinium cannot dig as fast as that. I saw that the Antinium were performing below-average in climbing the hill due to the weight of their armor. So I remedied the problem.”
Olesm, Embria, and the two [Division Leaders] all exchanged glances. There were a handful of [Tacticians] and other lower-level officers, and everyone trooped over to see what Belgrade meant.
What they saw was simple, known to Embria—and still impressed her.
In the short time since she had lost sight of the Free Antinium’s group, a simple structure had appeared in its place. The Antinium climbing the hill and passing the other [Soldiers], who looked enviously onwards, were all climbing, securely anchoring themselves to…
Ropes. Someone had hammered pitons and anchored ropes from the top downwards, letting the [Crusaders] balance and climb up. Not more than four per rope, and only the sturdiest lines at that, but it made it exponentially faster—especially because a slip was far less likely with Antinium holding the ropes.
“We do that all the time with tough terrain.”
Vell muttered, folding her arms as if the Antinium were doing nothing new. Embria bit her lip. They did do that in Liscor’s army—but she hadn’t thought of it. Nor was it her go-to idea.
She was a Wing Commander and had looked at her wing and seen they had no problem and stopped there.
Belgrade? Olesm’s eyes lit up. Belgrade was a [Strategist]. The Antinium stood there humbly as Olesm turned to him. He looked at Embria, and the Drake saw Olesm come to a rapid decision.
“It’s quite clear that the Antinium work well under you, wouldn’t you say, Belgrade?”
“They do not need much help, Commander Olesm. The Antinium will fight and are good at fighting. Tersk and Dekass have led armies before.”
Olesm was nodding.
“And your 4th Company is an exemplar, Wing Commander. I imagine they stack up with any one of our army’s other companies?”
“Any one of them, Commander!”
Embria didn’t bristle at the suggestion her company would be worse, although rivalries were real. She knew Olesm was onto something, and she was curious. Belgrade tilted his head left and right as Olesm nodded.
“Then…in light of the need for officers with experience to take the field, I am changing the structure of our forces. I will draw from our two main Gnoll-Drake-Human battalions. Belgrade, you will take charge of a third of our non-Antinium forces. Wing Commander Embria? I would like you to take three hundred recruits as whole squads and fold them into 4th Company as our shock force. Also—however you did it, Belgrade, please deploy ropes for all of our army.”
The other officers stared at Olesm, and then they began to argue—none faster or louder than Belgrade. However, Olesm looked straight at Embria and realized the same thing she did, however reluctantly.
Of the people leading or part of the army, the officers with the most experience in battle were Olesm, Embria, and Belgrade.
Calruz, [Honorbound Prisoner]
Though he was a prisoner, it was an odd thing. He had requested death, honorable or not, many times. If not death, he would settle for freedom because he would have the freedom to choose.
But it was not possible for him to be found guilty or innocent—at least as Watch Captain Zevara ruled it. His crimes were indisputable. The reasons behind them…?
So instead, she had come up with a solution based on his homeland. Trials. Calruz had eliminated Shield Spider nests with his bare hand. He had waded through Liscor’s sewers and slain everything that moved.
And he trained Liscor’s [Soldiers].
At first, the Council had argued, but Olesm had demanded Calruz’s help in no uncertain terms. Calruz had even heard him bluntly addressing the Councilmembers and people gathered to protest.
“I am aware Calruz of Hammerad is a convicted criminal. However, Watch Captain Zevara has engaged him as an asset to the city before, and this is no different.”
“You want a murderer to train our troops?”
Olesm’s lower left eyelid twitched.
“Frankly, I’ve heard worse ideas.”
“What if he trains them wrong? Teaches them to…”
“To what? Stab wrong?”
Olesm’s sarcasm provoked a furore, and, in truth—there were lots of poor ways to train someone. However, the Drake overruled the arguments with a simple one of his own:
“We need weapon experts. We have a few adventurers who we have paid to demonstrate their abilities. Guildmistress Tekshia is a [Spearmaster].”
“So why can’t we use them, Nephew—er, Commander Olesm?”
Lism was frowning at Calruz. The Minotaur waited. With one arm missing, he was hardly a good example of fighting acumen compared to, say, the four-armed Antinium, but that was only if you were armist.
Put another way, Calruz had more muscle mass than three of Liscor’s citizens put together thanks to the weight set in his room. He had more scars than any six. He was high-level, but if that were all, Tekshia would have been a better pick.
The truth was simply that Calruz was best because Tekshia Shivertail was a terrible teacher.
So were most adventurers. They were self-taught, or impatient, or they couldn’t explain what they intuited, or they didn’t know how to fight in groups compared to one-on-one, or all of the above and more.
Calruz? Calruz had trained in Minos. That was how he ended up giving lessons to Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans, but even if they hadn’t seen him directly or been in Liscor when he had attacked them with the Raskghar, most of the [Soldiers] knew what Calruz was.
They did not like him. So Olesm had Calruz teach a few classes, made sure Embria and her 4th Company took what lessons they could, and put him with the one group who wouldn’t complain.
They were a curious lot. Calruz had to admit, he had never known Antinium well. He had known Pawn and a few others, but he had never interacted with them closely.
Let alone seriously considered how they fought with four arms, much less how to improve them. He learned what The Crimson Soldier already knew within the first day of watching and training them.
Antinium couldn’t coordinate all four arms perfectly. At least—it was like someone who picked up a sword and shield trying to use them for the first time, only multiplied.
Everyone thought they would become a swordmaster within a moment of holding a sword. That they could just copy what they saw. They could not, and Calruz saw the same problem with the Antinium’s four arms.
They got in the way. They were, in fact, cumbersome, especially if an Antinium tried to chop, block, or reach for something and tangled two arms together. So Calruz improvised.
“You will move two arms together! Left side! Right side! Stab with your left! Block with your right! On my mark, stab! Block! Stab! Block!”
He had them in lines, performing a basic stab with a dagger and spear in their left hands, and a shield or even two shields in the others. The Antinium moved in sync with one another, learning how to alternate arms.
In theory, they could use all four arms independently, but Calruz was more worried about making them functional in combat. So he strode along their ranks, eying them as they stabbed, blocked, and progressed into a set of attacks. Even if they moved either side of their bodies in tandem, an Antinium could stab high and low at the same time. Terrifying for a regular [Soldier].
However, the Minotaur realized something else and began picking out Soldiers one-by-one. Strange. He hadn’t realized this earlier, though it was obvious now he saw them together. The moment he had seen Pawn, it should have been obvious. It threw the idea of ‘the Black Tide’ into the gutter.
The Antinium were not all equally talented. Some…were gifted.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
He wasn’t sure why the Minotaur made him stand away from the rest of his squad and three thousand practicing Antinium. Had he done something wrong?
If he had, the trembling, mace-carrying Soldier had also done something wrong, as had two of the Worker-archers and a [Crusader] with a shield and sword, like Crusader 51.
By now, Crusader 51 knew the names of Squad 5. Each Soldier in the group was Crusaders 50 to 59.
The one carrying the mace was Crusader 53. Calruz, the Minotaur with one arm, stopped in front of their group and spoke.
“All of you are different from your peers. You…do not have the same awkwardness, or you have some quality I have identified. It may not be customary among the Antinium to do this, but I have selected you for training. Do you understand?”
Silence. The [Crusaders] looked at Calruz, and he exhaled slowly.
“I will take that as affirmation. You—Worker. What is your n—”
He hesitated. Calruz had been told not to ask an Antinium’s name, but the Worker volunteered it.
“I am Archer B12. I am a [Crusader]. [Archer]. Archer B12, Squad 1, Battalion 4.”
Like Crusader 51, he knew who he was. Calruz grunted.
“You speak as if you are one of at least twelve.”
The Worker hesitated, unsure of what to say. He replied slowly.
“I am one of ten in my squad. I am one of five hundred in my battalion. I am an [Archer]. I was one of Archer Group B in the Free Hive.”
Archer B12 stared at Calruz as he snorted and glared down at him.
“That is not what I meant. You…you are not like the others.”
“I am Archer B12.”
“Yes, but you are not like the other [Archers]. I have seen you shooting. There.”
Calruz pointed at a target. Every Antinium turned and saw a neat cluster of arrows in the center of a bullseye.
The other Antinium didn’t have a spread nearly as good. Archer B12 looked at Calruz as if he had done something wrong.
“I will copy the others.”
Calruz stopped him as he raised his bow.
“No. You are extraordinary. Do not aspire to copying your peers. You stand out. You—”
He pointed at Crusader 51, and the Soldier felt a jolt run through him. Calruz pointed at the other two Antinium.
“You have a coordination about you. You understand posture. You handle your sword like a master. For some reason, you use that mace as if you were born with it in your hand. Though you picked it up…what, yesterday?”
He pointed at Crusaders 51 and 53, who looked at each other in silent shock. They did? Crusader 51 had to admit…it was easy, copying the Minotaur. You just held the sword like he showed you.
He didn’t know why the other Soldiers held it crookedly. Calruz addressed his trainees.
“It is a lesson I am not sure you will understand, but I will repeat it to you. In the House of Minos, warriors are told to understand their strengths. If they are higher-levelled, more skillful, better than other warriors, they should know it and apply their strengths. Obeying orders is a virtue, but there is a time when every warrior must decide how to act. It is not arrogance or bravado, but understanding one’s strengths and limitations. You all have a gift. So you will train with me and show your peers how to fight.”
Crusader 51 had two weeks of training with Calruz directly. In that time, he learned Calruz was right.
The sword was simple. He held a dagger in his off-hand, a long dagger he could stab with, but he only did simple poking motions to threaten an opponent’s face. The same with the two shields on his right, both light and overlapping.
He didn’t…understand how to use all four arms independently. The arm that moved, swung, and changed with his body was his sword-arm.
And that arm slashed down and flicked up and nearly tapped the Minotaur as he leaned back. Calruz grunted.
“You cut well, but your footwork is lacking! There!”
He spun, kicked, and Crusader 51 staggered back, despite trying to cut the Minotaur’s leg. He was good.
The other Antinium? Less.
The five hatchet blows were all easy to parry. Crusader 51 saw each one, and the shield bash coming at his face, and deflected them all, just as he was supposed to do. Then, since he was allowed to attack, he feinted at the face and let his sword swish lower. The shield rose as if his opponent didn’t see it was such an obvious feint.
Crusader 51 poked the tip of his sword gently through another [Crusader]’s armor, in a weak spot under their elbow, and the Antinium froze. In the other duel, Crusader 53 sounded like he was making music.
The metallic thud of metal on metal was like drums. Crusader 51 looked over and saw the Antinium with the mace swinging two in both arms while his shields cheerfully blocked the spear jabbing at him. Three shields were not enough, and Crusader 53 brought down his foe with less aplomb, but almost as quickly as Crusader 51.
“A gift. Mace and sword. You two are skilled—but do not mistake that for being superior. A warrior harnesses their talent, but it does not define their ability. Even so—you two have a rare gift. More than mine.”
For some reason, the Minotaur smiled oddly as he faced them and the rest of his special trainees. Archer B12, Crusaders 51 and 53, and a dozen others were rare talents among the Antinium. It made them feel…odd.
Wrong, that they should find this easier than some of their brethren. In fact, one of the Workers assigned to archery was staring at his target. He had initially been given a spear, but he had been unable to coordinate all four arms enough to make Calruz happy. So the Minotaur had given him a bow.
Then a crossbow. Calruz looked over, and Crusader 51 stared at the most pristine target he had ever seen.
Every single bolt had missed. Calruz stared at the trembling Worker.
“…That is, in its way, extraordinary too. What do I do with…?”
He scratched at his head, genuinely perplexed. Tersk marched over with a row of pike-wielding Antinium.
“Is there a problem, Trainer Calruz?”
“That Worker, there. He…would be an unwise [Archer] to position near your back lines. I thought it was a fluke or deliberate, but if it is not? The same with spear and shield. He would die in the first clash.”
Tersk looked blankly at Calruz as Crusader 51 listened. He couldn’t help but watch the poor Worker. Was he going to die?
“Is that a problem, Trainer Calruz?”
The Minotaur gave him a sharp look.
“Not if you consider the Antinium expendable. Is that the case?”
Tersk thought about it. He opened and closed his mandibles, then replied happily.
“I do. Therefore, I have little issue with changing the Worker to spear and sh—”
Calruz slapped Tersk. Crusader 51 saw the hand come up and slap the Prognugator across the face so hard the crack sent Tersk sprawling. Instantly, Dekass whirled.
He drew his sword, and some of the watching [Guards] surged to their feet, reaching for their weapons. But Calruz did not move.
Tersk rose, shortswords drawn, but eyed Calruz as the Minotaur stared down at him. He had two hatchets, two shortswords, and Calruz had one arm. Tersk…lowered the shortswords.
“Why did you hit me, Trainer Calruz? I do not think this was a friendly blow.”
The Minotaur snorted.
“It was not. You will not say that again, in my presence or on the battlefield.”
Tersk’s mandibles opened and closed.
“Is that an order, Trainer Calruz? The Armored Antinium do not listen to orders.”
Calruz shook his head. He looked at Tersk, and Crusader 51 saw him glance at the Antinium who had gone still. Calruz raised his voice and addressed them all.
“You will not. Not because I say it, but because a leader who speaks in that way deserves no loyalty from those he commands. If you ever wish to level—understand why you were wrong. I am not in the House of Minos, but if I heard that from any superior officer, be it [General] or anyone else, I would strike them or resign from my post. If you do not respect those who will fight and die for your words, you do not deserve to speak them.”
Tersk’s antennae were not visible under his helmet, but the Antinium backed up a step and stared at Calruz.
“I will…take that under advisement. What about that Worker, then?”
The Prognugator pointed at the trembling Worker, and Calruz frowned mightily.
“He should not be fighting. Sometimes there are those who cannot, by birth—or sheer…talent…”
“…It is not their fault. Can that Worker not return to the Hive?”
Tersk shook his head instantly.
“He is a…special class. We have already allotted him to the war effort. What then?”
Calruz scratched at his head. He looked around and then had it. He snapped his fingers, and a little rat poked her head around his horns to see what he was pointing at. So did all the Antinium.
That was how, as Crusader 51 pitched camp on the fourth night, after climbing the hills, the Antinium making camp around him—which was really just them sitting down and leaning against their packs since they had no need for bedrolls or the like—were marked by a single flag.
An Antinium Worker holding the flag aloft nervously held it with all four arms. He had a simple job.
Do not drop the flag. It was one of Liscor’s, the only one attached to their division. The Worker, incidentally, was a Painted Worker who had volunteered for the army, but had been woefully unable to hit a target. His name was Artur, one of the ones taken from famous chess players. Crusader 51 was, by now, a Level 4 [Crusader]. The Soldier went to sleep since no one had orders and heard a voice.
[Swordsman Level 8!]
[Skill – Feint Slash obtained!]
[Crusader Level 5!]
[Skill – Lesser Endurance obtained!]
He started and awoke. Across from him, Crusader 53, who was holding the mace in his lap, raised it, but Crusader 51 waved a hand to show him all was well. He sat back, amazed.
He never leveled before this. But now he was. So strange.
In the distance, the Worker holding the flag aloft sat there, with it drifting in the night’s breeze. Someone marched by, inspecting his soldiers, and paused as he came to the hapless Worker.
“You are aware that you may remove the flag when not marching?”
Prognugator Dekass stared down at Artur. The Worker stared up at him and kept holding the flag as straight as an arrow. Dekass stared at the flag. He stared at the Worker.
“Very good. Hold that flag.”
He marched off. The Worker lowered his head. After a while, he fell asleep, still holding the flag.
[Flag Bearer Level 7!]
[Skill – Repair Fabric (Minor) Obtained!]
The Worker was just a bit pleased by that. He was a poor [Crusader]. So he did not level up as one. But the Minotaur, Calruz, had told him that a flag was important.
It meant something.
She had held the flag. A white one. This one was different and had a different sign, but it meant home, or so the blue Drake told him. Belgrade had told Artur that the flag was important too. So the Worker held the flag because that was what he could do. He held it as he marched. He held it as he ate.
He did not hold it when he excreted, but he made someone else hold it and washed his hands because that was what Miss Erin had told them to do.
He missed Miss Erin.
For her, he held the flag when battle was joined. When arrows fell, when swords clashed on metal…the flag flew overhead. That alone was what Artur could do.
The first fighting occurred eleven days in, and it was brief. By then, Olesm had already gained an unwelcome notification.
[Leader Level 6!]
“Oh no. Ancestors damn it. It’s [Strategist]! Get it right!”
He emerged from his tent shaking his fist at the sky. But the class remained. Worse, Olesm couldn’t find it in his heart to deny it—not that it was fitting.
Was he being a [Strategist] or a [Leader]? Well, it seemed to him like the answer was obvious. Olesm had drawn up the supply lists himself. He had plotted their course, checked for traps, briefed officers, done everything a [Strategist] might.
But he also settled disputes, or rather, found solutions to problems. Or just told people when to shut up. And one of the biggest problems he had?
“Squad Leader Holls, you are relieved of duty in Belgrade’s division.”
The angry Drake and small cluster of protesting officers relaxed slightly. Olesm looked up as he pulled a roster out.
“Thank you for understanding, Commander. To whom am I reporting now?”
“That would be…I will place you under Squad Leader Joit.”
Holls’ face went slack for a moment.
“Joit? But I’m a Squad Leader. Sir?”
Olesm looked up. His stare wasn’t hostile; he had learned hostile meant they thought they had something on him. His was cold. Flat. Maviola had told him to do that.
Which was ironic, given that Maviola and cold or collected were oxymorons when put together, but the [Lady] of the House of El had taught Olesm that there was a time for fire and a time for authority, and while the two could mix…
“You are relieved of command, Squad Leader Holls. If you cannot obey a superior officer and insist on protesting to the commander of your army, you will get your wish.”
The Drake went pale. He began to protest, and in Olesm’s experience, getting to protest was also something he didn’t have to deal with. Maviola had said…oh, what had she said?
“When I lay down orders for the House of El, do the [Lords] and [Ladies] protest? Surely they do! They always do, because they are [Lords] and [Ladies] and I am not better, simply the matriarch. What they learn is that they may protest anywhere but to my face, for I am—was—the law of El. I do not have to listen to them. So I do not.”
“You are dismissed, Holls.”
Wait for it. Please argue, please argue…
Holls did. He began to splutter, and Olesm cleared his throat. A pair of [Soldiers] from 4th Company appeared, and the Drake found himself unkindly picked up. Then tossed.
Olesm looked up at the rest of the officers who had come to support, but not join, Holls.
“If you would like to resign your commission, please let me know now or privately if you wish. This is an army, not a nursery. I expect you to obey orders. Dismissed.”
They left fast, and Olesm sat back, glaring at nothing. Belgrade hadn’t even done anything wrong, but some people had a problem with him.
More than I thought. Did Erin not show them…? No, the issue wasn’t that the Antinium were fighting. Even 4th Company seemed to be grudgingly at peace with the Antinium fighting alongside them in this war. Every hand needed and all that, and Antinium had four.
The problem was that Belgrade was in charge of them.
Olesm happened to know how good Belgrade was—not from chess alone, but simply from seeing him direct Antinium during Liscor’s all-too-frequent battles. He had heard from Pawn, Garry, and Bird how Belgrade had cut down the Free Antinium’s casualty rate by an unbelievable number.
Did that mean he was ready for pitched battles with soldiers outside of his species? Olesm hated the niggling thought in his head, but the officers’ doubts put it there.
During the practice simulations, Belgrade moved each piece of his command adeptly. He had his own command Skills, so even with all the shouting, individual groups could maneuver. The question was…
“How’d an Ant get so good at strategy?”
Division Leader Bepol couldn’t hide his clear unease, watching Belgrade outflank Ramia. The former [Guardswoman] knew small-unit tactics, and her face said how flabbergasted she was as two lines of [Soldiers] neatly folded up her advance from both sides.
Olesm was impressed. He turned to Embria. The Wing Commander was scowling as she watched Belgrade’s [Soldiers] beat on their opponents.
Only a handful of troops were taking part in these exercises because of the clear danger of a Hectval attack, but Olesm had authorized it to prove Belgrade was good enough. Besides, they had time; they were approaching the first network of ridgelines.
If Olesm gazed across the hills in the shadow of the High Passes, he could see a pass in the plateau they had entered. Not up, but more like through a network of twined tunnels, like fingers on some overly-digited hand.
No way to go around, not without going down a lot of cliff faces and up more. However, the passes were wide enough for a huge column of [Soldiers] to pass through.
If they collapsed the passes, that would be a huge danger and problem, but Scout Leader Maksie had done several passes and hadn’t seen any magical traps or hiding figures up there. If there were lurking forces, they were in underhangs or within the ridgeline she couldn’t spot.
Olesm bet there were. He half-hoped Hectval would attack during the simulations, so they could bring all their forces to bear. 4th Company was slyly positioned on the outside, just waiting to greet any surprise attack.
None came. Olesm watched as Belgrade trounced Ramia and Bepol. The Pallassian-trained officer was better, but he ended up being flanked as well.
“How is he doing that?”
Ramia growled, dismayed. Embria broke in with a sour note in her voice.
“Harassing fire. My guess is it’s [Harassing Fire: Arrows of Slow]. He’s one-Skilling you both.”
It was lucky Bepol was still conceding defeat to Belgrade, because that might have started another fight. Olesm winced.
Ramia eyed him and Embria.
“I take it that’s a term I’m unfamiliar with?”
“Manus expression. It means he can hold down his opponent with one Skill. [Strategists] or [Generals] will do it in battle to…preserve Skills for the real opponent later on. It’s not necessarily an insult.”
Olesm saw Ramia bristle a bit, but Embria was looking pointedly at him and watching the Antinium—who was good. Olesm murmured as he scratched at his helmet.
“I’ve heard of General Shivertail one-Skilling [Strategists] like that. The same with Chaldion. [Steelscale Advance], you know? How does a Level 20 [Tactician] beat that? Belgrade’s using it to buy time to get his formations around you.”
Like chess pieces. There was something oddly static about the way Belgrade fought that Olesm thought was a weakness, but on the other hand—he issued orders so fast that it seemed like he wouldn’t ever flounder with a hundred things to watch.
Ramia ruefully shook her head.
“He should be commanding a larger share of the forces. No one’ll argue after today, I think, yes?”
Olesm nodded. If there were dissenters, well. They could grumble about the defeat, but then they had to call Bepol or Ramia’s talents into question. Which was another problem…
And that was why Olesm was leveling as a [Leader]. His first Skill?
As Bepol stomped back, Olesm gestured to him.
“Fine work, Bepol. Belgrade’s wrapped me up in chess games quite a lot. I’d give him a shot, but I think that proves he’s on-par with you two. Let’s move out. We’ll crack open a bottle from Liscor. Officer’s tents; Wing Commander, you’re on night duty. But I’ll, uh, send you a goat’s milk?”
Laughter. Embria rolled her eyes.
“Either spike it with Firebreath or I’ll go thirsty, Commander.”
However, there was no rancor in her tone, and she gave him an approving look. Just a flash—and Bepol relaxed almost magically.
[Soothe Ego]. Olesm didn’t have to touch him, but it was still a deft touch. The Drake sighed and Belgrade came over. At least he was levelling.
The rest of the day was spent marching towards the ridgeline. That first scouting party proved there were Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem [Soldiers] about, so everyone had their guard up. Contact came at dawn as the [Soldiers] were moving into the pass, and it was there that Olesm got to see the Antinium’s strength in battle again.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
The lowly insects looked up one day and beheld the sky. It was the first time they had looked up since leaving their home.
The first notion they had was that the world was vast beyond the cramped darkness. They gazed upwards and beheld…
Giants. The ants quavered. They froze. Look up! Look up and see a face like theirs, hovering in the sky!
___s! For even the ants couldn’t articulate it. Giant effigies in their image! Titans walked among the heavens! It was a sign! It was—
The [Crusaders] of Squad 5 were squatting around, staring down in awe at the busy anthill. They were so still that only their twitching antennae gave them away as being alive.
What was this? Ants?
Yes, big, black ants, the kind that most other species would stay away from because they were big. Longer than a Human’s toe, if not all Drake claws. Step in that anthill and they’d be all over you.
However, the Antinium were fascinated. So these were ants. How strange.
Obviously, they occasionally found actual ants when tunneling around in the dirt of Liscor, but they were instantly destroyed or harvested by Workers. This was just…an anthill.
Crusader 51 stared at a little ant scrambling around near his foot. It bit his armor, decided he was actually inedible, and scurried away. Unlike other people or objects, the little ants seemed to know the Antinium [Crusaders] were real, and they were wavering between terror, awe, and a desire to defend their colony.
Now, how did he know that? Oddly, Crusader 51 thought he understood something about the little ant he was staring at. It had one mangled leg, still navigating the terrain nimbly. And it…was a she.
Female. Were all these little Worker ants female?
So odd. Crusader 51 had always vaguely assumed he was he, mainly because something told him that. He was based off of someone who had been male; ergo, he was.
However, it seemed like actual ant colonies had a lot of female ants. Crusader 51 debated what to do.
Destroy the Hive? They were by way of spoilage to foodstuffs, and one of the things a Soldier or Worker might do. However…none of the Antinium in Squad 5 moved.
Crusader 53, with his mace, kept raising it overhead to smash the opening and hesitating as the other Soldiers looked at him. He was clearly thinking the same thing.
They had to remove pests. Shield Spiders? They’d be paste in a second. Crelers? Sound the alarm!
But this wasn’t the Hive. Crusader 51 kept staring at the anthill. So…what did they do?
It never occurred to him that nothing was an option. The Crusaders squatted around the anthill during breakfast for over an hour, until Tersk spoke.
“Squads, assemble. March! Battalion 3, to the front!”
The [Crusaders] shot to their feet and strode away. Yet the petrified little ants realized not one had been stepped on or squished. The Titanomachy was over. Were they saved or spared?
They might never know. Crusader 51 marched smoothly into his squad’s position in Battalion 1. His squad of ten was boxed into a battalion of five hundred in an odd pattern, at least to Crusader 51.
The Antinium Soldiers were used to moving in a tightly-packed wave of bodies that surrounded foes and dragged them down. However, under Tersk and Dekass, the Antinium moved and fought in the Armored Antinium’s style.
In ranks. Spaced out to give each warrior room to swing a weapon, with a second rank buried behind the first.
In that way, Squads 1-5 might face the foe while Squads 6-10, armed with longer weapons like pikes or halberds, would thrust and stab through the gap or move in.
It was neat, orderly…and odd to Crusader 51. However, as part of Battalion 1, he was ready to fight. Which was why he was entirely confused when Batallion 3 marched ahead of the others into the first ridgeline pass as Liscor’s army cautiously advanced.
Why Battalion 3? Crusader 51 didn’t feel unhappy. Just confused. The battalion in front might get hurt. Die. It wasn’t that he pitied them either; he just didn’t understand the logic.
Some battalions in the Antinium division were armed with bows, or different assortments of weapons, but Battalion 1 and 3 were functionally similar. The main difference…was that Battalion 3 had crossbows instead of bows on their backs.
Crusader 51 had been issued with a Soldier-bow, which meant it was designed so even he could put an arrow on the string with his clumsy digits. The crossbows of Battalion 3 were in even shorter supply; they had oversized triggers so a Soldier could pull them. They were so cumbersome to reload you got one shot unless you had a break from the fighting.
One shot, as Dekass would happily point out, was more than zero. Math.
It was he who led Battalion 3 into battle. From the rear, but still ahead of the others. Crusader 51 had mixed feelings on that, too.
If Tersk and Dekass were new, they were still Prognugators and to be obeyed. Yet if Tersk, for all Calruz had struck him, was more like Pawn, then Dekass was the Ksmvr or Klbkch. Why, exactly, Crusader 51 couldn’t say. It was his…reputation?
These things spread through the Antinium without much verbal exchange. In Crusader 51’s mind, it simply was that Tersk was probably better to lead than Dekass. Dekass ate too much food. Dekass was greedy. Dekass was less intelligent. And Dekass was still better than Pivr, who Crusader 51 had never met and didn’t want to.
The Antinium advance ran into an attack in the first hour of marching. The [Crusaders] came to a stop as Dekass spotted movement down the pass. Then a line of Drakes and Gnolls advanced, and the first [Fireball] spell exploded among their ranks.
Contact! Battalion 3 was engaged!
“Tersk to Commander Olesm. One [Mage] capable of [Fireball]. Dekass is holding ground. Battalions 1 and 2, advance! Cover Battalion 3’s flank! That position! [Precise Orders]!”
Tersk was booming, and Crusader 51 marched forwards—not to join Battalion 3, which was fighting the Drakes and Gnolls, but to their left flank.
They had been attacked in a V-shaped intersection, and while fighting had engulfed the right, Tersk clearly thought another attack was coming on their left. Crusader 51 had his sword drawn, his long thrusting dagger, and two shields on his right raised.
You do not have the room to maneuver. Do not disrupt the fighting line if possible! Make economical strikes! Defense is paramount to offense; the enemy will tire and give you a weakness!
Calruz’s words bellowed in his mind. Crusader 51 was ready. Stab through the gap, raise the shield to cover his face like so, angled such that only an arrow from dead ahead would even find the narrow gap between helmet and shield cover.
And realized the enemy was fighting Battalion 3. Crusader 51 hesitated. He saw Crusader 53 turning his head to check the enemy. The other Soldiers in Squad 5 shifted ever-so-slightly.
What a strange way to fight! This wasn’t like the Hive. In the Hive, they would be engaged now and fighting, sometimes surrounded by the foe.
Hundreds of swarming insect-monsters, or surrounding a whipping Flesh Worm. Or—Face Stealer would be there, and every Soldier would be falling over.
If the armored foes attacked, they would fill the tunnels after passing Belgrade’s traps. And each Soldier not resting or retreating would be moving to a new hotspot; when the dungeon attacked, it was fighting, sometimes for hours—until it was abruptly done.
Battalion 3 was fighting a rank of Drakes and Gnolls, who very politely weren’t exploding through the stone to grab Antinium and drag them into the darkness. Nothing was scuttling on the ceiling, and there weren’t any fliers.
When an attack did come, it was from the left as Tersk had predicted. A second group of Drakes and Gnolls charged down the pass, shouting.
“Drisshia! Drisshia triumphant!”
They had long pikes and heavy armor. Battalion 3 was advancing as their opponents peeled away; Crusader 51 was aware of Tersk bellowing.
“Battalion 3—hold! Hold—”
They met in a clash. Crusader 51 saw a pike aimed at his chest and side-stepped it. The tip skated off his shield, ran into an Antinium behind Crusader 51, and stopped as the Antinium blocked it. The Drake holding the pike slammed to a stop, and one behind him darted forwards with a sword and shield of his own.
He lunged, stabbing at the only spot he could see; Crusader 51’s face. The Antinium parried the sword.
The Drake’s eyes bulged, and he swung his shield across his body. Crusader 51 saw the Drake stumble backwards as Crusader 53 brought his mace down on an arm and someone screamed.
Still less noisy than hearing a Flesh Worm shriek. And…Crusader 51 saw the panicked [Soldier]’s shield blocking his face and chest.
So he stabbed the Drake in the inner elbow of the sword arm. Not deep enough; the sword didn’t slice the arm off, but the Drake screamed.
“Miuss! Get back!”
The pike-Drake thrust his friend back and the Drake retreated.
“Potion! Get a potion—”
“Fall back! Fall back! Allies away!”
Another Drake came at Crusader 51, and he blocked a sword that bounced off his shield. When he went to riposte, his opponents were running. Crusader 51 found himself, sword poised for a thrust, with no one to thrust at.
The attack had just come to test Battalion 1’s defenses, or let the other force fall back. Either way…Tersk hesitated.
“Hold ground! Bows!”
Crusader 51 fumbled for his bow and raised an arrow. He loosed as Tersk bellowed; he watched his arrow fall short and two Drakes fall. One got up as his friends pulled him to his feet. The other did not.
And then the battle was over. Crusader 51 was left with blood on the tip of his sword, a miffed feeling…and the Antinium’s first victory spreading across Liscor’s army.
However, it wasn’t Battalion 1, Squad 5’s victory. It was Battalion 3’s.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
When the first contact report came in, Olesm snapped an order through her speaking stone.
“Wing commander! To Tersk’s position! Be ready to assist!”
“Damn, damn, damn. We have to help the Ants?”
Vell shouted, but Wing Commander kicked her mare into a gallop.
4th Company didn’t waste time. They shot towards the pass where the Antinium were engaged and that was when Embria—and the rest of Liscor’s officers and Olesm himself—got to see how the Antinium did.
Embria had seen the [Crusaders] breaking the enemy morale before, but this was the first time these Antinium had gone into combat. She had to confess, aside from knowing the enemy, she was curious to know how they did.
Tersk and Dekass had been informed they should leave a passage for reinforcements like 4th Command to maneuver in the tighter passes, so 4th Company came to a halt behind the engaged battalions. Tersk was holding an intersection on one side, Dekass on the right.
“Idiots think they can take a two-pronged attack? Why not just pull back?”
“Can’t see what’s coming if they do. This isn’t bad strategy.”
Vell and Pielt argued the soundness of the two Prognugators’ strategy. Embria didn’t interject; she was watching the battalion who’d met the enemy in force.
It looked like these [Soldiers] were Drisshian. Embria knew the alliance, and Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem were a mixed army. Each city had a specialty. Hectval? Archers. Good fletching. Luldem had magic. Drisshia?
Armor. Their heavy infantry were decent. 4th Company could chew them up and spit them out, but they stacked up well against average groups. By the looks of it, their commander had known Antinium were coming and decided to try an old standby of the early Antinium wars on them.
Which was the armored charge. Pikes, longer weapons, ram into them, cut them up, and fall back. Superior damage and potentially no losses if you erased them.
…It was a solid Antinium Wars-era tactic, and Embria would have personally kicked anyone who suggested it on this group. That tactic worked because you were facing massed Antinium. It did work if they were boxed up in a narrow pass.
But these Antinium? They had armor.
You idiots. She growled at Drisshia’s forces as they slammed into Battalion 3 and it became a melee. Was she rooting for the enemy? No! But…
The Drakes and Gnolls slammed into the Antinium, and their long weapons failed to down their foes. The ones armed with swords and maces and whatnot charged forwards and ran into a line of Antinium. It was then that Embria recognized the tactics Dekass employed.
Armored Antinium fighting.
Each [Crusader] blocked and swung their weapons in a rhythmic pattern, fast, hard cuts or slashes, just like Calruz taught them. They hunkered behind shields and their armor, and their foes found themselves battering against foes with just as much armor as they had.
Few figures fell on either side. About six Antinium were down after that [Fireball], but they were stumbling up.
“To the rear! Squad 3, advance!”
Dekass smoothly let the wounded retreat, and another squad rotated in. The Prognugator was doing something…odd. Embria didn’t feel the need to charge and advised Olesm as much.
“We’re watching a punching match, Commander. Antinium…might be winning. Check that. They are.”
“Hold ground, then, Wing Commander.”
The Drakes and Gnolls were getting the worst of it. Drisshia might have veteran soldiers, but they did not like four arms. They were hesitant, watching for more attacks and struggling to deal with the simple fact of two blades coming at them when a [Crusader] struck.
However, armor was armor, and the truth was…neither side was hurting the other. Embria didn’t see any amazing bladework, so Liscor’s and Drisshia’s forces just hit each other as hard as they could. If one side dropped a shield or fell, then they were likely to die, especially as heavy as the armor was.
Enchanted weapons could cut through armor. Veterans like 4th Company could aim for gaps. Skills changed things, or a charge…this was good, old-fashioned Golem boxing.
Golem boxing, a term for heavy infantry fighting. Embria watched for a minute, then two, as neither side gave in. Then that peculiar thing happened.
Dekass had been doing something odd, standing behind Battalion 3, his enchanted shield raised to cover his face in case of spells or attacks. He had made the Workers with bows shower that [Mage] and other [Archers], but no Antinium were dying as some arrows rattled off shields and helmets.
However, Dekass had been…head bobbing? Ever-so-slightly, his head had been going up and down, up and down. Embria had wondered if he were sick, but she now knew what the Prognugator was doing.
“Squads 1, 3, 4, fall back! Squads 5, 6, 7, advance!”
The [Crusaders] fighting Drisshia’s front line…disengaged and stepped backwards, and the Drakes and Gnolls, surprised, watched a second squad advance straight into them. Fresh Soldiers hammered down Drisshia’s front as the Drakes backed up.
“Huh. What was that?”
Vell blinked at the odd tactic. Embria heard a grunt. Captain Wikir was glaring at Dekass.
“That’s Armored Antinium tactics. They’re rotating [Soldiers].”
4th Company murmured. Embria was familiar with the tactic; you simply rotated in a new line of fresh [Soldiers] every so often. Liscor’s Army didn’t use it; they had Skills that made up for exhaustion, and that took a lot of numbers and training.
It made sense to do with the Antinium, though. She watched Dekass head-bobbing and realized—he was counting.
Two minutes of fighting and he’d order a change. Drisshia’s own began to fall as their commander was unable to pull off the same maneuver and the exhausted front fell back in disarray.
Whoever was leading Drisshia’s forces tried to retreat. Embria saw the heavy infantry turn—and then saw Dekass raise an arm.
The snap of Crusaders in the back ranks firing their crossbows made Embria and all of 4th wince. Now she understood why the Prognugator hadn’t ordered them to fire during the charge.
More screaming [Soldiers] went down. Drisshia turned, bringing up shields to try to cover their retreat, which slowed them down. And Dekass?
He rolled Battalion 3 at them in a slow onslaught as fresh [Crusaders] marched on the retreating Drisshian forces.
“Flanking charge. Looks like they’re bailing their buddies out.”
Pielt pointed, and Embria saw a second charge coming down from the left. It did about as well as the first one, but both groups were fleeing. Dekass continued advancing until a wall of flames burst from the ground.
“Magical attacks. Commander, permission to follow?”
Olesm had followed the entire battle with reports through the speaking stones, and so Embria found herself riding back with 4th Company as the victorious Antinium checked wounds, and then prepared to continue their progress.
She broke the silence as 4th Company trudged back.
“It’s the Armored Antinium fighting style. Textbook. I saw it during the Second Antinium War. They haven’t changed. Makes my fur stand on end.”
Captain Wikir growled. A few of his squad spat but said nothing else. Embria looked at Vell and the others.
“How do they stack up?”
“We can take ‘em, Wing Commander.”
Lieutenant Kesa opined. She kept chewing on some long-bladed grass from the Floodplains back home. Always some of it in her mouth.
“Obviously, but how do they stack up otherwise?”
Embria had her opinion, but she wanted them to say it so she knew she was right. Igissi looked at her fellow [Captains] and gave a reluctant answer.
“…They’re pretty good, Wing Commander. Not veterans, but for a first-time unit? They just flipped up Drisshia’s tail and gave them a spanking. Not that they ran into Drisshia’s best, but…”
But that’s what happens when you give average Soldiers armor? Vell spat, and Embria nodded. She felt a twinge of unease in her stomach.
“Just so long as they win the war…let’s head on back.”
“Glad we didn’t have to bail them out.”
Pielt muttered. No one particularly argued with that.
The first battles in the ridgeline were messy, and Olesm hated them. He couldn’t see any of it. He was stuck coordinating the attack, and his training had prepared him, but this was the first time he was coordinating a battle where he didn’t see the attacks and maneuvering.
It threw him off, but he had officers on the ground who were supposed to deal with that, so Olesm’s biggest move was keeping an eye on the entire battle.
One of the things he did was to check each group’s advance as they clashed with the Hectval alliance’s forces hiding in the ridgeline. They were skirmishing, trying to bait groups into following them and getting lost and surrounded. Olesm refused to let it happen.
“Ramia, slow down. You’re coming to another intersection—Belgrade, prepare to link up. Scout Leader Maksie, do you have eyes?”
He waited and then heard three voices in quick succession.
“Slowing down. I see movement on the far end.”
“Commander Olesm, my forces are moving to meet Division Leader Ramia’s. Pausing two hundred feet from intersection. Please give word to advance.”
“Commander, I am moving into position. Forty seconds to eyes.”
Each one had a different style and cadence. Olesm waited, listening to more reports filtering in. He was timing them so that if an attack came…they wouldn’t be unsupported.
Advance and secure each pass. It was like a puzzle. Some [Strategists] wouldn’t try this for love or money, but Olesm had guessed that Hectval hadn’t put as many troops here as the passes. They probably wanted Olesm to slow down so they could turn this place into an impassible barricade.
Olesm wanted to take the ridgeline as fast as was safe. But the real test, the real fighting?
He didn’t see it. He heard it, and it was obvious to Olesm that one group was under attack the most.
“Prognugator Dekass. Reporting a second attack. Battalion 3 is holding.”
“Commander Olesm to Tersk. Slow your advance. I want you to prepare to reinforce Dekass’ lines.”
“Prognugator Tersk. Acknowledged, Commander.”
Olesm was overseeing Ramia and Belgrade’s link-up when another voice came down the line.
“Prognugator Dekass. Forces are retreating. Harassing fire from cliff face. Minimal casualties.”
Olesm snapped around.
“Someone get me a [Scrying] spell on Dekass!”
The [Mage] capable of the spell hurried to a scrying orb. It took five long minutes before Olesm saw another line of Drisshia’s soldiers clashing with Dekass and archers on the cliffs.
“Dekass, hold out. Pull our sharpshooters and take those [Archers] out. Pull one lightning-bolt [Mage] as well.”
If only he had fliers! Olesm saw the order go out and one of his specialist squads move in. [Hunters] from Liscor, experts with the bow…the cliff-[Archers] fell back as one took an arrow and fell—Olesm looked away with a grimace.
It wasn’t bad so far. He couldn’t detect anyone intercepting their messages, nor was this a full army in the pass, clearly.
But Ancestors, they had it in for the Antinium! Or maybe just Dekass’ battalion? No sooner had the infantry pulled back again than Olesm heard Maksie shout.
“Commander! I just saw a magic flare high up! All stop! All stop!”
“All troops, halt and watch for collapses!”
Olesm shouted. This time he heard the distant thump and crumbling groan of rocks collapsing. He whirled, ran out of his tent, and saw dust rising from above the ridgeline.
“Where was that?”
“Antinium got it. Looks like…Battalion 3!”
Maksie reported in, breathless, flying over the collapsed passage. Olesm’s stomach churned. He’d thought they hadn’t had time to do that!
“Was that a prepared spell?”
“Nope. Looks like they put a [Mage], Commander. I’m watching three—and two are puking their guts out. They’ve overdosed on mana to pull that. Want me to try and take a shot?”
Olesm hesitated. He dearly wanted to, but Maksie was one of his only fliers.
“No…no. If there are any of your [Scouts] up there, or [Archers] on the ground with an angle, have them take down those [Mages].”
Olesm turned back to Battalion 3. He tried to raise Dekass.
“Dekass? Prognugator Dekass, status?”
Silence. Olesm heard Tersk snapping into the stone.
“…assault on Battalion 2. They are engaged with a Drake force which has flanked them in Battalion 3’s absence. Battalions 1 and 4 are pulling back to support them.”
“Wing Commander, get to the fighting. Maksie, watch for more [Mages].”
“Two dead. Last one is surrendering.”
“Make sure they don’t cast a spell. Wing Commander?”
“On it. Three minutes.”
Olesm stared at the map as a [Tactician] fumbled to try and put the little painted pieces in an order showing what was happening. He heard Bepol speak up nervously.
“Commander, I’m looking at more forces headed my way. Not armored, but a lot of them.”
Olesm’s head snapped up.
“In that case, pull your riders forwards and prepare for a charge with your infantry. Your discretion, Bepol, but prepare one volley with all your [Archers]. Give me a mark and three countdown.”
The Division Leader paused, but his tone was suddenly exceptionally relieved. He knew what Olesm was doing, but the [Strategist] didn’t say it out loud—just in case they were being monitored.
“They’re raising shields.”
“Aim up—then straight ahead. Ready?”
Bepol was giving orders. Olesm heard him exhorting the [Archers], then the Drake spoke.
Olesm heard the snap of bows and gave it another second, then he shouted.
He didn’t get to see the second volley of arrows appear and hit Hectval’s forces, but Bepol’s tone said it all.
“That got them! Charge! [Victor’s Push]!”
He was good on the attack. Olesm switched back to Tersk as the Prognugator began speaking rapidly.
“Coordinated attack. 4th Company arriving. Commander, Drisshia in retreat. Battalion 2 engaged. Battalion 3 engaged. Pincer on three sides. Enemy falling back. Surrendering.”
Olesm snatched up the speaking stone.
“What was that?”
Then he heard a crackle from Dekass.
“Prognugator Dekass. Communications restored? Commander, Drisshia forces are retreating or have surrendered. Orders to engage?”
“We can wrap them.”
“I—yes! 4th Company, Tersk, advance! Dekass, what happened?”
The Prognugator of the Armored Antinium was calm, but ever-so-slightly smug.
“We were buried by falling rocks, Commander. However, the burial was ineffective. Mostly dirt. Poor collapse of tunnels. Battalion 3 is continuing to dig itself out; however, I ordered an attack on the enemy’s rear.”
Olesm exhaled hard. Battalion 3 was alive! Not only that—they’d dug their way out?
Nothing like Antinium to thwart collapsed passages. Olesm sat back as he heard Embria routing the rest of the attackers.
“First prisoners of war, Commander. Battalion 3’s looking battered, but they really didn’t expect their attack to go south. Permission to advance?”
“Pull Battalion 3 back, and yes, Wing Commander. Tersk? Full advance.”
That was the largest engagement on the twelfth day by far. By nightfall, Liscor held over half the ridgeline at secure defense points, and Olesm counted several [Mages] taken out, all with Luldem’s insignia on their armor, as well as over eighty prisoners and an estimated hundred casualties on the Hectval alliance’s side.
Not huge numbers, but the battles had gone one way, mostly. The probing attacks on the Antinium and aggressive assaults had all been foiled, and he guessed three times as many of the enemy had been wounded, forcing costly potions or treatments.
If there were a star of the hour—it was certainly down to one group, who had not only fought in four successive clashes, but survived an avalanche and then dug themselves out to flank the enemy from behind.
“Battalion 3 of the Antinium division deserves a commendation.”
Olesm was sitting in the command tent, relaxing, when he suddenly came to an understanding, as if someone had snuck up and poked him with a Wand of Jolt.
Bepol stopped sipping at his brandy from a cask he’d somehow brought from Invrisil. He was a bit off-guard, but he blinked at Olesm.
“They did well, I suppose.”
The Drake admitted grudgingly. Even Embria nodded, and Belgrade leaned forwards as he broke away from playing chess against Ramia.
“I believe they may experience higher-than-average leveling tonight, Commander Olesm. Perhaps if a commendatory speech is read out loud they will level even more? This is a good idea.”
“No, no. I’m not familiar with all army traditions, but Wing Commander Embria, isn’t rewarding the best unit a tradition in the army?”
Olesm turned to her and saw the Wing Commander blink uneasily.
“I…yes, of course. The [Sergeant]—er, soldier who takes the most heads of officers, the best fighting unit, or one that got thrown into the thick of it. Everyone knows, but sometimes High Command does something like give them leave when we get to a city first.”
“We can’t do that for the first battle.”
Bepol pointed out. Olesm waved a claw; he himself was sitting at the mess table, though he’d dearly have loved to pull up a chair and play chess. But he sat with the [Tacticians], [Lieutenant] Kesa, and a few other officers. He eyed Kesa dipping a blade of grass into a bowl of sauce and then sticking it into her mouth. Embria mouthed at her.
Kesa, embarrassed, took the grass out of her mouth.
“Well, we can certainly draft some kind of statement. Battalion 3 fought valiantly and against superior odds…”
Ramia began. Bepol interrupted.
“Not superior. Significant. It’s in the wording. In fact, we might want to not use that at all. That implies we think the foe is significant.”
A Drake raised her claw.
“How about, ‘Battalion 3 triumphed in the face of adversity against Hectval’s numerous attempts to overwhelm them?’ That implies numbers, but…”
“Ooh, I like that.”
The others present began debating the way to phrase it. Olesm turned to Kesa, Embria, and the rest of 4th Company.
“In your experience, how well-received are High Command’s…verbal…addresses?”
“Permission to speak candidly, Commander?”
Embria glared at Kesa as the Drake raised her claw eagerly.
“Permission denied. Not that effective, unless it really mattered, Commander. Something…tangible would be better. Words won’t hurt, though.”
“Maybe…do we have anything in the rations we could give? Say, a half-ration of something Antinium like? Belgrade, what would that be?”
“Anything but wheat-based products.”
The [Strategist] replied instantly. Bepol frowned.
“Yes, but dates, fruits…”
Olesm smiled slightly.
“Belgrade means anything, doesn’t he? Antinium don’t eat anything other than their rations…wait. How much of their…food…are they eating?”
The [Trapsetter Strategist] considered the question.
“Enough for eighty-six protracted days of battle, Commander. It is highly storable, highly difficult to rot, and highly…nutritious.”
Olesm shuddered. Embria raised her brows, but she had probably never seen the Antinium’s food-paste. It could be green. Grey. Brown. Orange…but these colors were, in and of themselves, not offensive. Something about the paste…and those colors being dominant and speckled in with things Olesm thought he recognized, like a tooth or…
“Let’s give them a half-ration of other food. And a commendation to Battalion 3’s fighting spirit. We’ll do that every day there’s major fighting or someone to celebrate. It seems like a good tradition so long as we’re not low on supplies.”
The other officers nodded, even 4th Company. Olesm felt that alone was good, but something was bothering him. This was good, old-fashioned leadership. Manus’ teachers would have approved and probably given him examples of ways military leaders encouraged or chided their soldiers effectively.
So what was he missing? Olesm sat there as Bepol began to do a draft and Ramia lost a game of chess to Belgrade, prompting Kesa to try and then lose in eleven moves. Something was missing.
…Erin’s inn? Olesm thought of her inn. Here he was, at war. There was little of what Erin did or her inn—save for the Antinium. She hated wars, for all he thought she was a brilliant [Strategist] who hid it only as a love of chess. What would she do?
The blue-scaled Drake brushed at his armor, free of any blood or gore, and looked up at Belgrade. He remembered the Painted Antinium and Belgrade…
Belgrade. The [Strategist] glanced at him as Olesm blinked. He rose to his feet and exclaimed.
What they needed, as much as commendations, as much as a little gift? Olesm saw the other officers look at him and glanced at Embria. He couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it, being in 4th Company. But perhaps she had and just hadn’t volunteered it, or she didn’t think of it as something Antinium would do. Olesm took a breath.
“Battalion 3 of the Antinium division is faceless. No one knows Antinium. No offense, Belgrade, but they look alike.”
“This is very fair.”
Olesm looked around. He saw Embria raise her brows.
“They need…a name.”
[Leader Level 9!]
[Skill – Bird’s Eye View obtained!]
[Skill – Boosted Morale (Unit) obtained!]
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
Thus was born Crab Battalion.
At first, Crusader 51 had no idea what they were talking about. The other Liscorian [Soldiers] camped next to the Antinium, but there was a bit of a divide. The Antinium did not speak, and Liscorians were trained not to ask their names or really interact.
There was a lot of staring that went on, but after the first battle, the [Soldiers] were celebrating, even the ones who hadn’t fought. A number of petitions were made for the officers to treat everyone for a few drinks…which Crusader 51 understood not to be water, but it was denied.
However, that night, Commander Olesm Swifttail himself gave a little speech to the [Soldiers] and Antinium [Crusaders].
“…and in recognition of their feats, I have awarded them a half-ration of supplies for their enjoyment and personally certify Battalion 3 of the Antinium with a new moniker.”
Murmurs of interest among the [Soldiers] standing to attention. They hadn’t really enjoyed the speech about the ‘valorous conduct’ of Battalion 3, for all it was true. Those were words.
But these words? Crusader 51’s antennae waved in the night air.
“What’s a moniker?”
“A monkey? From Baleros?”
“No, it’s monetary. He’s giving them a bounty?”
The whispering [Soldiers] were silenced by Division Leader Bepol’s glare. Olesm raised a claw.
“A moniker—that is, a name. In the future, each battalion may decide on theirs or find a nickname. However, in this case, given their stubbornness and ability to sneak up on the enemy by surprise, I declare Battalion 3 to be named…Crab Battalion. After our own Rock Crabs of Liscor and Little Crab football teams!”
Surprised murmurs and even chuckles. The [Soldiers], looking so bored or inattentive, came alive. They looked around, and Crusader 51 turned to the surprised Battalion 3. Who were now…
Crab Battalion. They looked at each other, much like Crusader 51 had done after he’d become a [Crusader]. Changed. Redefined.
And they got snacks. Crusader 51 watched as the [Quartermaster] carefully had a bundle of food remanded to Dekass’ care. Each [Soldier] in the five hundred stood up, collected a half-portion of food, and looked at it.
The exigencies of Liscor being so close to the front, as well as holding spells, meant that yogurt was not impossible to store and carry. In addition, these were in handy pots. The [Soldiers] had been issued utensils designed for their hands, and the Workers had spoons. They stared into the pots as Crusader 51 looked at the food. Crab Battalion, thus named, had food and a moniker.
An odd feeling stole into Crusader 51’s chest. He had felt it before, but never as strongly. That unpleasant, possessive anger. Irritation too deep under his shell to be removed.
Artur, [Flag Bearer]
He had not fought. He had carried the flag.
He might level for it, even so. However, before he slept, Belgrade found him.
“You must amend your flag. Crab Battalion is now a battalion. Therefore, they have a sigil. I have suggested they paint it on their armor.”
Artur looked up. The [Strategist] appeared quite happy, and even Tersk and Dekass, who had somehow allotted himself one of the yogurt rations, also looked pleased.
“This is a good endeavor. I may copy it among the Armored Antinium. What sigil will Crab Battalion have?”
Belgrade clacked his mandibles as the two Prognugators stood with him. He looked at Artur.
“…A crab? I do not know. Someone should draw it.”
Dekass delicately took a huge spoonful of yogurt and inserted it between his mandibles.
“Who? Who draws the Painted Antinium’s colors?”
“Then who will do it for a battalion? You?”
Belgrade frowned, twitching his antennae slightly.
“I cannot draw. Dekass, you command them. You should draw.”
“I do not draw. I recommend Tersk.”
“I have never drawn anything except military-oriented maps.”
The three Antinium looked at each other helplessly, and then, as one, seemed to recall Artur. In a flash, Belgrade developed a true trait of command.
“Artur, you draw Crab Battalion’s new sigil. Yes. This is a good idea. I will go over here now and find something else to do.”
He hurried off, and the [Flag Bearer] stared at the flag he was holding and around at Crab Battalion. He looked around.
Draw? With what?
The Painted Antinium did have paints. Artur found some; the ‘quartermaster’ let him have some. After all, he was Antinium, and the Worker assigned to their supplies assumed he had orders. Which Artur did. So he could take anything he wanted. So he did.
He was finger-drawing a little orange crab onto a stone as a bunch of Antinium stared at him and trying to figure out if it was appropriate when he heard an argument.
“Belgrade. Belgrade. What are Battalion 3—Crab Battalion doing?”
Artur listened as Belgrade and Olesm stepped aside to talk in low voices next to him. He carefully put the flag in front of him and dipped his finger in the orange paint. Artur was so busy listening and working, he didn’t see one of the [Crusaders] in Crab Battalion edge over and dip a finger in the paint and watch Artur.
“They are sharing the food, I believe, Olesm.”
“With other battalions?”
Belgrade inspected the other [Crusaders].
“…Yes? Is this a problem?”
Artur glanced up. A lot of the [Crusaders] were offering spoonfuls of their rations to other Soldiers, who were lining up. The Liscorians were watching with fascination. Olesm made a sound.
“No, but—it’s their ration. I know it’s a virtue to share, but some of those Antinium didn’t even fight!”
Belgrade nodded reasonably.
“Yes, but it would be unfair for the others not to have a taste.”
“They can hardly share a bowl of yogurt among…six Antinium! That’s barely a mouthful each!”
“Ah, but the other Antinium would not get to experience it if it was not shared, Olesm.”
The Commander caught his breath. The blue-scaled Drake looked at Belgrade, not blankly, but thinking hard. He knew what Belgrade was getting at, but Olesm’s response surprised Artur and Belgrade.
“Perhaps that’s fairer.”
Belgrade stopped, and Artur glanced up. He saw the [Strategist]-[Leader] looking at Belgrade under the moonlight. For the first time, Belgrade looked uncertain.
“How would that be fairer? The other Antinium may never taste the yogurt again.”
“Yes, Belgrade. But Crab Battalion fought, and some of them died. That’s their reward. It’s not even much of one, but it’s theirs. That’s…the point. It’s unfair. It should be. They did something exceptional, so it’s theirs. I’m not saying they can’t share. But they don’t have to. Just…make sure they know that.”
He walked off, and Belgrade looked uncertainly at Crab Battalion. Artur ducked his head when Belgrade turned towards him, and lifted the flag.
A little, orange crab with a rocky, grey shell rose on Liscor’s standard. Artur held it high up, and later saw that little symbol appear on every member of Crab Battalion’s armor in some location over the next day. He also noticed that the yogurt didn’t get shared around as much. He never got a taste.
But he had not fought. Was that fair? Artur didn’t know, but when he saw the other Antinium looking at Crab Battalion, who walked as one, who the Drakes, Humans, and Gnolls pointed out as…Crab Battalion, he thought that was already unfair, so the yogurt was fairly unfair.
In the coming days, Crab Battalion would enter combat five times out of six days and receive commendations three times.
[Flag Bearer Level 10!]
[Skill – Flag: Inspiring Sight obtained!]
[Skill – Stainless Fabric obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Drawing obtained!]
…That last one felt like an insult to Artur.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
On the fourteenth day, he never saw the arrow that killed Crusader 50. He was fighting forwards, trying to cut a screaming Gnoll who was running back, when he sensed a gap on his side. He looked left, and Crusader 50 was lying on the ground.
Each Antinium was issued with a single low-grade healing potion. Crusader 51 reached for it and turned Crusader 50 over and saw the arrow sticking out of his head.
He must have knelt there for a while. Long enough to see green blood running into the rocky soil. Long enough to see a tiny little beetle climbing on Crusader 50’s shoulder.
Someone tried to behead him. Crusader 51 heard a scream and saw Crusader 53 bring his mace down on a Drake’s head and leave a dent as the [Soldier] fell back, dead. The other [Crusader] had green blood on his armor. Someone had slashed through his chestplate, and he was leaking green.
The two Soldiers looked at each other for a moment, and Crusader 51 stood up. They turned and heard Tersk bellowing.
“Squads 5, 7! Fall back.”
So they did. Crusader 51 saw Soldiers running past Crusader 50’s body. A Worker with a halberd chopped down on a screaming figure. A Drake, who had been screaming and filling the air with sound as he blasted spells from a wand.
Crusader 51 hadn’t heard it. He looked up as Tersk bellowed.
All the [Crusaders] ducked, though the magic would run through them. Some raised their shields as if to block it. The spell arced across hundreds of fighting Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls—and exploded in midair as a [Mage] countered it.
A shower of ghostly arrows traced back the path towards the [Mage]. Commander Olesm’s [Instantaneous Barrage] Skill. Crusader 51 saw a Drake with a nimbus of crackling magic and two raised arms fall backwards as the arrows overloaded the barrier. The [Archers] in the formation dove for cover, and someone began to blow a horn.
“4th Company incoming! Move, move!”
Crusader 51 looked around and moved left—just in time to see a Drake riding past him, a spear raised. She surged past the [Crusaders] in front and rammed it into a Drake’s throat, whirling the spear.
The flash of red made Crusader 51 flinch. Some of it landed on him. He didn’t have a nose, but it smelled like iron.
That was what Hectval’s blood smelled like. Drakes and Gnolls.
Antinium blood smelled different. They smelled like insects, foreign to mammals when they died. Drakes lay staring blankly at the sky. Gnoll fur clotted with blood, but they lay like puppets.
Antinium curled up into little mounds of shell and limbs. Crusader 51 looked around at Battalion 1, Acid Jars, and realized he had made a mistake, somewhere.
Crab Battalion. How Crusader 51 had disliked them.
After the first day, it hadn’t been more than envy. Crusader 51 had not gotten any yogurt. Nor had he gotten something to draw on his armor.
They had. However, Olesm had been more cunning than anyone had known. He had created in the Antinium, for the first time…a sense of competition.
The fact that Crab Battalion had a name and award made them stand out. So had Olesm’s promise to commend the best fighting force. Naturally, the [Crusaders] decided that if you were going to get yogurt instead of your paste, they would fight for that.
Try hard. Not that they didn’t try, but there was an extra…keenness when they went into the fray tomorrow.
Passage-fighting. Narrow spaces to large areas for multiple squads to fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Dangerous if you ran into spells, but armor could save you.
Crusader 51 was ready. He and Crusader 53 were both Calruz’s students, and they were in the same squad. No other squad had two gifted Antinium. So naturally they would do better and receive the reward today.
…They did not. Mainly because they were both ordered to loose arrows as the first ranks of Battalion 1 repelled a few charges from [Riders]. The enemy did not attack Battalion 1.
They attacked Battalion 3 instead. That was—
Crab Battalion. As if Dekass were a lodestone, or for vengeance, the second day saw [Mages] taking potshots at Crab Battalion at range. Lightning spells. In response, Olesm mounted archers and had Maksie call out targets. [Mages] were an asset, and a limited one at that; if one of them cast a spell, they had better be ready to eat an arrow in return, and few [Mages] were of Magus Grimalkin’s caliber or even his students.
“For heroism in the face of an onslaught of spells, Commander Olesm has awarded Crab Battalion another commendation. News of their advance in the face of a storm of spells has reached Liscor, and the Council has commissioned an illustration of the advance.”
Tersk read out the announcement, and Crab Battalion was given pork tenderloin.
Crusader 51 had never known pork had a tender loin. This time, it was not shared. The scorched armor of the [Crusaders] still bore their crab symbol, and they ate slowly, savoring the meal while the other Antinium smelled it.
The next day, Dekass proudly strutted across the ground and announced to Tersk he had levelled up.
“My unit is now resistant to electricity. I therefore request permission to lead our advance. I also cite the increased levels among my command. The average is now 9, with many [Crusaders] having achieved their first capstone.”
Crusader 51 had never heard of the snowball effect, but he would have understood the dirtball analogy. Crab Battalion was leveling up. You could see there was a difference. Not just in levels, the Soldiers and Workers held their shields more confidently, and when they clashed, they looked—sharp.
Therefore, they got into the fighting more often as Olesm recognized that. Not that it was one or two skirmishes in the following days.
Liscor’s army took the ridgeline and emerged into what would become their main battleground: a series of gentler hills that nevertheless extended into a large network of caves and unexpected valleys.
Much like the Floodplains, but on a larger scale. The garrison force that had tried to slow Liscor’s advance fell back—and linked up with Hectval’s real army. That was when the first big engagements occurred.
Crusader 51 stabbed nine opponents and executed a slash that injured six more on the first day Battalion 1 saw massed combat. Squad 5 entered into pitched battle as the Antinium [Crusaders] met Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem in force.
He didn’t know the numbers, and he didn’t see the strategy at play. What Crusader 51 saw and heard were Drakes and Tersk’s orders.
“Antinium! Get them!”
“They’re wearing armor—don’t waver! That one’s a Prognugator! Get—”
“Traitors! You Lizardfolk traitors! Antinium and—”
They were angry. The forces of the Hectval alliance shouted insults and raged at their counterparts, but they were also afraid.
Afraid of the Antinium. This was the first time they met the [Crusaders] en masse, and that was when they experienced what their forces had felt before.
[Combined Skill: Wrath of the Righteous].
The sky. The sky!
Voices that echoed in your head, in your very soul, that you couldn’t drown out. Voices from a group that had no tongues. What terrified the Drakes and Gnolls more, perhaps, was how the [Crusaders] expressed their fury. No great oaths, no litany of curses.
That. Crusader 51 saw Drakes go pale, back up, and run, even when they weren’t losing in the first few encounters. Even Drisshia’s heavy infantry did not want to fight the Antinium. A Drake would block a sword thrust—and the second dagger would bounce off their armor, slash, catch their weapon on a shield, open their mouth to call for help—and see a crossbow aimed at their face from the fourth arm at point-blank range.
Battalion 1 got their moment in the sun after that battle. And their name.
“They melted through their opponents. Acid Jars. That’s what we’ll call them. Acid Jars.”
Olesm excitedly commended Battalion 1 in the aftermath, along with three other groups. He had elected, given that there were four main divisions in his forces, to commend four battalions per day, one under each main commander.
The Acid Jars got their first meal of food, and it did not disappoint. Crusader 51 had never had the goat’s cheese and salsa before, yet he thought that when he took a bite of the loaded potato—it would have never tasted as good if it weren’t Battalion 1’s triumph.
He saw the other [Crusaders] watching him and almost went to share.
Almost. Then he remembered that Crab Battalion had eaten twice and not shared, so he did not.
A strange thing passed over Crusader 51 after that meal. He had never felt…hungry…after eating. Nor was he now, since the half-ration was in addition to his regular nutrients. But he wanted more. He wanted another day of victory.
[Crusader Level 9!]
[Skill – Enhanced Edge obtained!]
[Skill – Resistance: Sleep obtained!]
All was well. Crusader 51 woke up on the fourteenth day excited for battle.
Then Crusader 50 died. Crusader 51 wondered if his shield hadn’t been high enough. H-had it been his fault? Maybe he had moved out of line trying to kill more opponents so Battalion 1 would be commended again.
Battalion 4 got their first commendation and a nickname—Razorbeaks—that day. Crusader 51 didn’t care. He sat in his squad of nine and looked at the others. He looked left, and the [Crusader] who had stood in front of him and knelt before Pawn was gone.
Soldiers died, but Crusader 50 had been…Crusader 50. Crusader 51 hadn’t known him to do anything iconic. He hadn’t been in Calruz’s class. But he’d been there. Somehow, Crusader 51 had forgotten, with his armor and the sky and everything else, that they could still die.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
We’re in the soup now. You know how it is. Though we never talked about it. Everyone told me that Sergeant Relc, the Gecko, always laughed going into it. That he would charge in and come out whistling and telling dumb jokes.
I can’t. I wonder if that’s a lie, like how they said old Durrell never flinched even when arrows struck him. He flinches. He just—doesn’t scream.
It’s the soup. It’s not hot as some fronts. We’re better than they are.
Ants Antinium fight well. It scares me. I know they’re green as new grass, but they’ve been fighting Drisshia since they’re both heavy armor, and I think Drisshia loses. They’re regulars, and the Antinium fold them up. Not that we haven’t taken casualties.
Barely over a hundred dead across the entire army after…I want to say a week of real fighting. I’m watching Hectval’s alliance fall back now. Potions did it, but the truth is they’ve got a bit more magic, maybe, more [Mages]. Roughly equal numbers…so we won.
4th Company must have sniped four low-level officers and three [Mages] along with a few battalions. Hectval probably lost some of their best attacking Liscor, or they really thought Olesm would be worse than whoever they sent. He’s got…a few big Skills.
Remember [Instantaneous Barrage]? I can’t imagine how much they hate it. He’s also got [Vigor of Champions], so 4th Company goes in and doesn’t stop unless we need healing. So we got them.
It’s still the soup. But we’re winning. The question is—what does Hectval do next? They can maybe try to out-spell us, but [Mages] eat that [Instantaneous Barrage] or get sniped and they’re gone for good. They can’t out-shoot us. All those Workers with bows plus Liscor’s archers mean we tend to win.
Either a cunning strategy or…
Hey Dad, I fought in another battle the next day. Idiots tried the Mellian Cascade. I really think they thought it would work. Liscor’s army might be green, but 4th Company just walked over and blocked each wedge when they went in, and they surrendered or got chopped up. Strange thing though—
There’s something off about those Antinium. I’ve heard that [Strategist]—Belgrade—and those two ‘Prognugators’ call them a strange class. I keep trying to get it right so I can report it, but I think it’s—[Crusader]? I’ve never heard of it. And they have weird powers. I’m beginning to think Hectval isn’t just incompentent.
Though they’re that, too. Either I tell you we’re at Hectval’s walls in a week or they surprise me, because we just took about eight hundred prisoners.
The Mellian Cascade was an old tactic that originated from Manus. The theory was that you formed multiple spear-wedges and sent them into the enemy from multiple oblique angles while your hammer pinned them down from one angle.
Hit them hard enough and you popped the enemy formation. It had been famously unraveled by Chaldion when he was a young [Strategist], and the Antinium Wars had never seen it work that well.
It was what some thought of as a useful gambit against [Strategists] or [Commanders] who had never seen it happen to them.
“They tried it on the Antinium. See how they go in, there? Antinium turn—eat them. Same with Liscor’s army. There’s a shock—then that group of five hundred splits, hits two wedges, and they start crumbling.”
“4th Company. Liscor’s own. Looks like they’ve augmented it, but you can tell they’re veterans. They’ve seen the Mellian Cascade. Idiots.”
The ‘idiots’ were for Hectval’s commanders. Lulv agreed, but the Gnoll resting his paws on the table didn’t voice an opinion right away.
“I see…well, I see a lot of mistakes. See how they’re boxing in their opponents? They know this isn’t a border-conflict with Cauldus or another city, but they fight like it is. That’s a classic surrender pileup. Only, Liscor doesn’t surrender, and they eat a boosted charge from 4th Company. Again. And those were their veterans. Meanwhile, the Antinium just keep chewing up their left side.”
“Three battles. There’s some kind of morale-Skill at work; they’re not just running because they’re outmatched. Lulv, do you need a changeup? Lulv?”
The [Spearmaster] of Manus looked up. He focused on the High Command of Manus, the security council, and growled.
“No, Dragonspeaker Luciva. Apologies. I was thinking.”
The Dragonspeaker wore her armor like a second skin. An old, old sigil of Manus traced a line across her breastplate and helm; what was new was the feather. She added a feather with a blue plume, to match her scales purely as ornament.
The leader of Manus, Dragonspeaker Luciva, nodded as General Milka continued her breakdown of the last battle. She approached, and Lulv straightened.
“Hectval has accepted the mercenary offer for Wytel’s Spearlance. They were insisting upon direct leadership under one of their officers…until yesterday.”
She saw his grimace and grinned.
“We’re passing an attaché to them as well. A consultant for hire.”
“Do I know him?”
“Sokkel. He served in the Cyles Plains battle…”
Spearmaster Lulv looked at Dragonspeaker Luciva, armored almost like a [Knight]. To many of her kind, she was an example of her people. She had higher cheekbones, and her scales were predominantly blue, but mixed with white and yellow, a rare, tricolor blend. When she stood in the light from one of the crenelated windows, she looked like she held up the entire keep, sun playing off ancient armor.
Manus, the City of War. However, she had lost too much to be the young heroine to be cast in poetry. The notch at the edge of her lips dropped, where once it had just made her look battle-hardened. She had lost her daughter recently, and she walked heavier, spoke more deliberately.
Compared to her, Lulv knew, he looked far plainer. He wore dark armor, a rare lacquered wood rather than anything else, over dyed-black Wyvern hide. Lulv was lean compared to other Gnolls, but he had always been lean. When he walked, it was more like he stalked forwards, never fully tall, always slightly slouched—and he almost always carried the spear Luciva herself had given him.
Ashwood from Noelictus, written with Lulv’s name and title, and on the tip, the very finely-ground point of a dark red metal, crossing to a lighter pattern of off-gold. A near-perfect conical tip, not flattened or a teardrop or other type of spear. This one was almost like the tip of a lance, though he could cut with it if he had to.
Adamantium-tipped over Lord’s Bronze. A [Spearmaster]’s weapon.
That was the only thing immediately flashy about Lulv. He looked his part and admired Luciva for looking hers. Her ancient armor and the weapon she carried, the Fang of Manus, or Parentkiller, its true name, the glaive that permanently crackled with electricity, was just as showy.
And neither she nor he truly cared how they looked, only how they were seen. Lulv to skulk around in battle, Luciva to inspire. They both passed by the other’s attire as something they had seen a thousand times, the same with their faces.
If there was someone they would always scrutinize, to see if she was upset, bored, or anything else, it was the individual who wasn’t here. Wall Lady Rafaema.
Luciva was half-distracted, even now, speaking to Lulv. She was thinking of Oteslia, and Lulv had wanted to volunteer for that assignment. But this needed a [Spearmaster].
“Frankly, Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem have the numbers, but they’re worried about other attacks or a feint. Sokkel can improvise, but I think Milka will agree; they need to bring it to bear. They cannot trade equally against Liscor. I’ve identified three main assets: their [Strategist], who outlevels theirs, 4th Company from Liscor, and the Antinium. Do you want to amend that or requisition anyone else?”
The Antinium. Lulv focused in a heartbeat. He dipped his head for a second, thinking.
“No, Dragonspeaker. I’ll play it by ear, but I have my line of attack and fallbacks. Air support?”
“Six Wyverns. Although if we show them…”
“All I need are bombardments. I’ll head out within the hour.”
“Then I will wait on your report. Manus waits for you, Lulv.”
“Manus waits upon no foe. Thank you, Dragonspeaker Luciva. Before I go…is there anything from Makhir?”
Lulv turned once before he exited the security council. He saw Luciva’s commanding smile turn to a frown.
“Rafaema is withdrawn. She’s keeping time with Cirediel, and Makhir doesn’t cite him as a positive influence.”
“Has he ever?”
The Dragonspeaker tried to smile, but she flicked to their ongoing projection of the Oteslia-Zeres siege.
“We’ll make sure she’s safe. Get us a gauge on this new threat, Lulv. Or remove it.”
He picked up his spear and saluted her.
“With Dragon’s will, you’ll never know how good those Antinium are as a war asset. Spearmaster Lulv, sortieing.”
Then he left.
Lulv found his command waiting for him, ready to go by the time he reached the outer walls and the mustering point for them. He saw four hundred Drakes and Gnolls, packed and ostensibly wearing gear of [Mercenaries], albeit battle-trained ones.
No insignia, no other markers to show they were from Manus. However, subtlety tended to end there.
If Liscor’s 4th or any veteran group saw this lot coming at them in battle, they’d signal for reinforcements or retreat. It wasn’t hard to spot the faint…glimmer on weapons or armor that said that everything these [Soldiers] carried was enchanted.
Most of it wouldn’t be noticeable until it came out of its sheath, but this was not an infiltration group. The lowest-level [Soldier] here was Level 20.
“Officer present! Attention!”
The soldiers snapped to attention. Lulv addressed them quickly. He didn’t have a speech prepared, and he didn’t speak one now.
“Our designation is Wytel’s Spearlance. We are fighting for the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance, but our target is not Liscor’s general army. We will be fast-travelling via Wyvern to forty miles outside of Hectval’s war front and entering the engagement on foot. We will engage and decimate the Antinium contingent before withdrawing. If you are captured, you will be ransomed.”
He debated reinforcing the order not to identify themselves, but decided against it. These were not children. The [Soldiers] listened as Lulv rested his spear next to him.
“These current Antinium are Free Antinium that seem to have adopted Armored Antinium fighting styles. Do not assume they will stick to that strategy. Expect Skills. Mark any targets with unusual…abilities. I repeat, expect levels. We estimate most are still below Level 15. That is where they stop. Understood?”
A few quiet murmurs. Antinium with levels. That was one of Manus’ worst nightmares. Lulv heard a faint laugh amid the murmurs.
“So they’ve already out-levelled Hectval?”
Because they were veterans, Lulv didn’t expect or enforce silence, and he grinned along with the others.
“Our job isn’t to bail Hectval out. They started this mess; they can burn on it. Don’t let yourself get stabbed, but don’t clash hard with non-Antinium if you don’t have to.”
A Gnoll raised her paw. Liscor’s army was a well-known outfit. Lulv shook his head.
“Only Liscor’s 4th. Our target is Antinium-only.”
“Sounds like we’ll be having a vacation. Level 15 Antinium? I thought this was a volunteer mission, not garrison duty.”
That wasn’t a comment to the group as a whole. Lulv’s ears perked up, and the Gnoll turned his head. The [Soldiers] recoiled instinctively as he grabbed his spear and pointed it.
A Drake froze as Lulv singled someone out in one of the columns.
“Out. Get me a replacement. If any one of you thinks this is going to be an easy job where the hardest thing will be holding your tails out of the mud—step out now. The Antinium have deployed their newest combat unit. Free Antinium. Underestimate them and you’ll get your entire squad killed.”
The [Soldiers] went somber in a minute. Face burning, the Drake stepped out of line and retreated. Lulv went on.
“Don’t treat this like Armored Antinium. Think of this like a Twisted Antinium raid. Be prepared for anything, and if you slip up, you have something crawling out of your face. Report any oddities—and your officers will be debriefing me hourly, but report it to my face if you have to. We are not playing games here. I want those three thousand Antinium gone, and I will make sure that happens if I have to stab all three thousand myself. Since my arm gets tired, are you the [Soldiers] to back me up? Or do I have to get another group to—”
They shouted and roared too loudly for Lulv to continue. He raised his spear and nodded.
“Alright, then. Dragonspeaker Luciva is counting on us. Muster up—oh, and try not to antagonize Hectval. I don’t care what the Drakes do. If I don’t take a swing at them, you don’t.”
The cheering died down, and the [Soldiers] moved forwards to the waiting Wyverns. You needed a lot to transport even four hundred [Soldiers], but Manus was the City of War. If they needed to, they could have requisitioned [Mages] for teleportation or used horse relays.
Lulv climbed onto his Wyvern-transport, and the [Rider] shushed the unhappy creature. Shame these ones didn’t spit frost, but elemental Wyverns were notoriously even worse to train. Lulv sat back and waited. Just…waited, as the Wyvern took off. It would be a long flight, landing, forty mile march, introductions to whomever was commanding him, and then…
Then he’d see where to strike.
The [Spearmaster] waited, eyes half-closed, until it was time to move.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
Not one level.
They said adversity built character—and also raised your level. Well, Embria feared the war wasn’t adverse enough.
…Or she had her father’s problem, and that was that she was fairly high-level in two main classes. Not as much as the Gecko of Liscor—but enough such that leading 4th Company through so many victories wasn’t enough to guarantee her levelling, even in a warzone.
Embria was a Level 28 [Spear Hunter], having leveled twice after coming back to Liscor and training with her father.
She was a Level 28 [Wing Commander] too. Double-classed, same level.
Even one of those was enough to make her close to a prized veteran in Liscor’s army. Wikir, for instance, was one of the old-guard, and he wasn’t a Level 30 [Captain].
It was hard to pass your capstones. Mind you, Wikir had started from the ground and was old enough to remember the Antinium Wars, but he hadn’t always been in Liscor’s 4th. Pass Level 30 and Embria would be…
Well, she might be a [Spearmaster]. And if she also passed Level 30 in [Wing Commander]—she’d have passed Relc when he first began being called the Gecko of Liscor.
It was an odd thought. Embria was sure Relc was higher-level. But she’d gotten to where he was…faster? Around where he was?
She wanted to level. Frankly, if she could have traded two classes for, say, a Level 32 in one class…
Well, she wouldn’t do it, but she’d give it a damn good thought. Because your classes gave you variety, but the height of your levels dictated the power of a Skill.
Take Olesm, for example. He was new to leading armies, but Embria saw his [Instantaneous Barrage] Skill, which could launch hundreds of arrows in a free volley attack at least once per battle, and she saw what Level 30 meant. As a [Wing Commander] and [Spear Hunter], she could help take down a dangerous group, battle an enemy officer, and slay them.
Olesm could change the entire battle around, especially if he pointed at a high-level opponent.
Anyways, she wasn’t leveling today. Embria sighed. She scowled up at a hill as Liscor’s army advanced over the last battlefield. The confusing terrain behind them meant their army had kept moving from battlefield to battlefield, trying to box their foe in, and Hectval kept fighting back—then retreating.
Right now, she was overseeing the inspection of all the supplies they’d taken from eight hundred prisoners of war, who would be ransomed off or held in a prisoner train. Olesm had learned from last time, and they wouldn’t be breaking out any time soon. Nor would Hectval launch a sneak attack to free them.
“Nice arrows. Unenchanted gear, unenchanted gear…personal possessions…”
Vell, Wikir, Pielt, and Igissi were all present, showing other officers how to efficiently sort and strip enemy combatants. That was the kind of thing this new army didn’t know. Everything from how to organize your pack to how to loot properly.
“Is this…are we going to wear the enemy’s armor, Wing Commander? It seems a bit off.”
That was from Division Leader Ramia. The [Guardswoman] was patently uncomfortable with the idea of battlefield acquisitions. Embria turned to her and tried to explain as Vell made her squad sort the gear.
“It’s not theft, Ramia. Nor would I advise tossing on armor without checking it; there’s lice as well as all the crap enemy soldiers will put on their gear if they think you’ll get it—including crap. But if you’ve got a hole in your armor and you see some new chainmail…I advise you not to crack down on that so long as a [Soldier] trades their gear. Now, looting is different. This goes straight to command to divvy out. We’re not [Pirates], but we’ll definitely take healing potions, eh?”
Ramia nodded, a bit relieved by Embria’s reassurances. Wikir chipped in with a reassuring growl.
“Don’t worry, the fact that we have so many prisoners is a good sign. Taking eight hundred in one engagement—Hectval’s probably tearing their fur out over it. Look at them.”
He nodded in the distance to where the other army was camped on the hilltop. In theory, they had the high ground.
In practice, they had lost every other area of ground, and while they had the numbers, Liscor had beaten them again and again. Embria nudged Wikir.
“Don’t say that. They can probably conscript if they haven’t done a round already. Plus, they’ll empty their garrisons.”
“More loot, more levels, more prisoners, Wing Commander. Liscor’s army loves it all. Give me your best! I’ll sell your helmet with the rest!”
The Gnoll replied cheerfully, quoting one of Liscor’s army’s adages. The other members of 4th Company laughed and cheered, and Embria smiled. Ramia glanced at them.
“Liscor’s Army. I haven’t seen it in…ten years. I forgot how much I liked hearing the [Soldiers] on leave shouting that.”
Embria glanced at Ramia and then looked around for those familiar insects in armor. She saw Wikir frown, and Pielt looked up with a glower.
“Yeah. We miss the city too. But you know how it is. Always another front. We never came back too regularly.”
Ramia nodded uncertainly and brushed some fur out of her helm.
“But once every few years. Is it just…the Antinium? I wasn’t comfortable with them myself, but I’ve met some of them. Senior Guardsman Klbkch—everyone knew them, and they aren’t…monsters. Belgrade plays chess. Is it just that?”
Wing Commander Embria found she was suddenly very uncomfortable with this line of questioning. She coughed.
“Of course they’re not. But High Command and a lot of the veterans…fought against them. Sserys? General Sserys? Hero of Izril and Liscor? You know what they did.”
Twenty years ago. She was too young to remember that, not really. She just remembered Relc being really upset whenever she asked how he died later on. Liscor’s army had been with Sserys, a great number of them.
None had come back.
Ramia nodded, looking conflicted. Embria was grateful she was interrupted from another question.
“Speaking of adding to provisions, make sure you get it all checked for rot or poison, obviously. But if you take out a commander’s tent, you can find good eating. Let’s see what we eugh! Wing Commander!”
The Wing Commander and Ramia turned, and Vell nearly dropped what she was holding. She’d been going through Hectval’s rations, and she lifted a tin can in outrage.
“What, Vell? Is it asparagus? Grow up. Until you see an Asparagus-monster, I’m not convinced there’s a problem!”
Embria shouted and the other [Soldiers] laughed. Vell glared back, waving the tin.
“It’s not that! Wing Commander, take a look at what these Hectval bastards eat! If there was ever a good reason to go to war—this confirms we should wipe ‘em out!”
Curious now, Embria trotted over. She expected something revolting, although she couldn’t imagine what was worse than the Antinium’s paste. Not that they ate bugs. Did Hectval eat…?
She stared down into the tin perplexed for a moment. Ramia gave a huge sniff.
“Doesn’t smell bad. What is…”
The two women stared down into the tinned can of Hectval’s rations. They looked at Vell’s face, and Embria gingerly poked the half-eaten ration of…
“Is that…is it…pudding?”
The entire object wobbled from Embria’s poke. She saw Wikir crack open another tin and make a face.
“Eugh. It’s all of this. What is it?”
“Some kind of gelled…it’s not pudding. It looks like sausage mixed with congealed…what is this? Someone get me a prisoner!”
Embria was mildly revolted. Ramia was outraged. When one of the bruised Drakes was hauled up, he stared blankly at her when she thrust the tin into his face.
“What? You gonna feed us to the Ants? You’ve got our food—”
“Shut it. What is this?”
He went cross-eyed as she thrust the wobbling dish in front of his face.
“…Food? You gonna eat that?”
He looked hungrily at the can. Vell, Embria, Wikir, and Ramia traded glances. The Gnoll pointed a paw down.
“This is food? What, exactly, is it?”
The Drake considered the question.
“Looks like…beef stock sausage gelatin. Bit of boiled corn mixed in, and, uh, might be a lobster gelatin on the side. Nice. I remember eating that yesterday. Can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t finish it up.”
Embria stared down at the wobbling not-liquid stuff. Beef stock, sausages, bits of boiled corn, all contained in a…gel. Like a slime, but less viscous.
Hard soup. That was what they eventually got out of the prisoner. Hectval, as it turned out, made gelatins.
The horrified 4th Company found, as they opened more tins, that the preserved rations were all like this. Apparently they had something that helped make gelatins, or just specialized in it, because they didn’t bother with canned soup or even sandwiches.
Why would you, when you had the glorious slice of gelatin with a hard boiled egg, pieces of turkey, carrots, and other components of a fine soup…frozen and turned into a slice of gelatin?
Mm. Spread that on some toast. Oh, wait, Hectval didn’t believe in toast. They believed in gelatin.
If one of the people of Earth could have been there, it would have answered one of the dark questions they lay awake at night pondering. Which was—would any other culture outside of Earth’s organically come up with a creation like spam?
Yes. Yes, and it was Hectval.
Why have a fish when you could have an artful bit of gelatin shaped like a fish, with fish-colored gelatin flavored with fish…matter…concentrate? Speckled within with juicy goodies—because the gelatin was going to be juicy, and soft, and you ate it with a spoon—or perhaps a giant, wet, pink blob of what turned out to be tuna-flavored something?
When Embria showed Olesm the objectionable goods, his face said it all.
“…I don’t think we need to replace the [Soldiers]’ rations with that. Will it keep?”
“Probably. I honestly think we can’t use it, unless we want riots or hungry [Soldiers].”
Olesm agreed. He rubbed at his face as the officers encountered true culture shock. Bepol couldn’t stop poking a wobbling tower of three kinds of gelatin he’d stacked together.
“Just insane. Who would do this to good food?”
Olesm almost agreed, but something bothered him. He remembered a conversation he’d had…with Selys? He was staring at the gelatin, trying to remember, when everyone heard a slurping sound.
Slowly, Embria and Olesm turned to see Belgrade slowly, and noisily, trying to suck bird-poultry-spam off a spoon. The [Strategist] looked around and slowly put down the spoon.
“It is tasty, though.”
“You…enjoy this, Belgrade?”
Vell gagged as Belgrade took another wobbling bite with every sign of delight.
“I find the texture very palatable. Nostalgic. It reminds me of the Free Hive’s paste, but tastes impeccably better. In texture as well. Hectval has lessons Garry must learn.”
Olesm wavered, but his personal horror aside, it simplified a lot of issues to feed the prisoners their own food. And to let any excess be quietly given to the Antinium for…disposal.
That was one event Embria remembered vividly, even as she wrote an actual letter to her father—then to High Command—and sealed both for delivery. She didn’t include war talk to him, nor did she know if he was getting the letters.
However, it wasn’t as if the Runner’s Guild wasn’t making an effort.
Liscor’s army was not stranded from home, nor did they have to rely on [Messengers] or the long supply chain. It was late at night, and Embria was waiting in front of the odd door with a glowing purple gem set in the top when someone else stopped.
“Ah, excuse me, Wing Commander.”
She turned and nearly touched the spear on her back, but relaxed…slightly.
“Strategist Belgrade. Not joining the officers playing cards?”
They had a habit of doing that, those not on duty, and Embria knew Olesm abstained, but she occasionally went there to talk. Belgrade tilted his head. He had a bundle of letters too.
“Excuse me, Commanders? We’re opening in one minute by our count, and it’s fast. Transit? Supplies? Messages?”
“Just letters. Here. Thank you.”
“I, as well. To Pawn. My report is also meant for Xrn. I have labeled both.”
Belgrade handed the letters to the [Mage], who nodded a bit warily. Embria eyed Belgrade.
“…You report back regularly?”
The two stepped back as the [Mage] counting down with a flashing timer-spell decided it was time. She threw the door open.
“Letters. Three wounded! Detritus—”
She passed letters through first, then three [Soldiers] were helped through, and then crates of trash or things meant for Liscor. Briskly, some muscular folk of all species dragged them through on the other end.
“Damn, mana’s going down. Refill! Damn door…”
A weary official on the other end was complaining, but a crate of supplies was pushed through—just potions, nothing heavy. Everything cost magic, and the line of people behind the door were clearly waiting to go through.
“Hey, is that the army? What’s the news?”
“We won again! Obviously!”
The [Mage] shouted, to general cheers. Embria cleared her throat meaningfully.
“Don’t leak information.”
The [Mage] looked abashed. Embria stepped back as the door quickly closed with an agreed-upon time on both ends. She turned to Belgrade and found he hadn’t left.
The two leaders looked at each other, Embria far more uncomfortable than Belgrade.
“Well…it’s good to see Liscor. I shouldn’t keep you from the officer’s tent. I don’t see you playing card games, but, er, it’s open. Nightly.”
She wished she hadn’t suggested he come, but Embria was already edging away. Belgrade glanced at her, and replied in a fairly cheerful tone of voice.
“I do not attend. I am aware the other officers do not care for my presence. Yourself included.”
Embria swung back.
I don’t mind your presence…was a lie she didn’t utter because it would probably set off [Detect Lie] spells back in Liscor. She coughed instead.
“I, uh…apologize you’ve gotten that impression.”
“You attempt to hide it. But you are poor at subterfuge. I take no offense. I was told that Liscor’s 4th would not be hospitable or other elements of the army. I joined anyways.”
Embria did a double-take.
“…Why? You signed up?”
She had assumed the Antinium had joined because they had been ordered to. Belgrade looked at Embria oddly.
“Every Antinium in the army volunteered. We will hurt Hectval. For Erin.”
For…Erin Solstice? Embria blinked. Belgrade nodded at her.
“You see, they took a good thing away. Bird did not go to war; he must chase after Mrsha. Pawn stays with his people. Anand is elsewhere. Garry is a [Chef]. So I had to. One of us had to.”
“Is…there something about you five that makes that so important?”
Embria was wavering between the oddity of having a conversation with an Antinium—which she had never done, even with Klbkch, really—and finding out info on the Antinium. High Command had given her orders, but she had never thought to…ask.
Belgrade looked straight at Embria. He was like every other Worker, nothing visible in his insectoid eyes. They never moved. They had no pupils, and no eyeballs to rotate, and in that sense it was like talking to a statue. Creepy.
However, Belgrade’s tone was too…personable. He was cheerful, but there was a kind of edge to it that would have made Embria eye someone who said it at a bar. Or under her command.
“We were there at the beginning. We should have died before she did. Failing that…we will take revenge. Even if she comes back, someone will suffer.”
“Why Erin Solstice?”
Belgrade gave Embria a look like she was a [Recruit] and he was a [Veteran Lineholder] being asked why he held his spear like that.
“Because she fed us. Because she played chess with us. Because these things have never happened to us. You do not like Hectval’s food? You find it disgusting?”
“I—er, yes. Revolting.”
Belgrade nodded peaceably.
“It is the finest food I would have ever tasted had I not known Erin.”
“Do you mean you eat that paste every day?”
Embria was revolted by it. Belgrade looked her dead in the eyes.
“But you don’t like it.”
The Drake tried again. Belgrade gave her another one of those looks.
“…Why would we enjoy it? Do you wish to have some?”
She raised her claws defensively.
“No, absolutely not!”
The [Strategist] nodded.
“Then why would we want to eat it?”
“Er…because you’re Antinium. I just thought…”
Well, that was it. Belgrade raised his mandibles, and Embria wondered if that meant he was angry.
“You are very funny, Wing Commander Embria. Do you think Antinium are…happy? That we are, on average, happy? Or that we do not feel?”
“…If I had to guess? I wouldn’t assume you were feeling much. Or that you’re happy in your Hive.”
A strange fluttering sound emerged from Belgrade’s mouth, like some vast moth making a weird noise. Embria jumped and put a hand on her sword, but Belgrade just shook his head.
“So funny. You are wrong, Wing Commander. Even about us not feeling anything. I did not know I was sad until I learned what happy was. Have a good night. If you find any bed bugs, give them to me, please.”
He turned and walked off, leaving Embria alone with mixed feelings in the night.
The Hectval army came at them an hour later. There was plenty of warning. Horns had Embria out of her tent and swearing. She had her armor on in a trice and saw Vell stumbling towards her, yanking a boot on as she cursed out Hectval.
“Those idiots want a night attack? Do they think the Antinium don’t see in the dark?”
“I bet they do! I’m wiping my tail with a hundred of those [Soldiers]! 2nd Squad, with me!”
Angry 4th Company [Soldiers] formed up. They weren’t nervous—just pissed they had to fight sleepy. Even the regular Liscorian [Soldiers] looked more grumpy than nervous.
Morale was high, and Embria saw Olesm forming up a broad defensive line. Like always, the Antinium were on the left, and Embria saw Belgrade on the right while Bepol and Ramia, under Olesm, took center.
“4th Company! We’re maneuvering! Maksie, you see why Hectval’s in the air?”
The [Scout Leader]’s voice took a moment as Embria called into her speaking stone. Embria was marching her five hundred briskly, ready to hit targets of opportunity. Wikir had command of the other half of her forces and began to split off so they could hit more areas.
“I…I see a new group in the middle. Not big. I can’t tell anything from this high up. I’m…hold on. I feel like I’m being watched. Is there something up here with me?”
The uncertain note in Maksie’s voice made Embria hesitate. Olesm tuned in instantly too.
“Oldbloods? Watch for enemy [Scouts].”
“Yes, sir. It’s not that. I feel…no, I can’t see anything and cloud cover is nonexistent. There’s something off about this, though. Wing Commander, you feel that?”
Embria did. Whether it was Maksie provoking it or intuition…something like [Dangersense] stole over her. And in fact—Vell grunted.
“Wing Commander. My [Dangersense] just pinged me. Hard.”
Embria twisted in her saddle. She looked at Vell, then called out to Olesm.
“Commander, we’re getting…warning signs. Be advised, I’m expecting an ambush or something new.”
“Understood, Wing Commander. We’re braced. It looks like Hectval has called in reinforcements.”
It did indeed. Embria scanned the forces in the darkness for that odd group Maksie had spotted, but all she saw were [Light] spells, torches, and a lot of [Soldiers].
“Major push. It’ll be tight fighting.”
“I’m putting in a request to Liscor for our door and emergency forces. Just in case.”
Olesm’s voice was tight. Did he sense it? Embria sat up in her saddle, though she was watching for arrows. They were out of range as of yet, but…
What was that uneasy feeling? She shifted her grip on her enchanted spear. Something was out there.
“Charge! For Hectval!”
They didn’t even shout the same thing. Embria saw dull glints of metal as figures raced downhill, their armored tails skating across the ground. Looser formations, trying to keep pace. Scared faces behind the helmets.
Boys and girls. Gnolls in the front. They slammed into Liscor’s shields, and then she saw a line of figures, flailing, struggling to heave each other forwards, shouting…
Blood in the darkness. But once more, the attackers lost.
It was on the left side where their charge was forced back a step almost before it had come. The spectral arrows that landed among their ranks; the right side where screaming figures were tripping up their comrades, shouting about traps. Bear traps?
Wing Commander Embria wasn’t searching for a point to tear the charge to shreds, though. She was looking up at the hill.
The entire damn army’s coming down.
“They’re going in for a full attack. Commander, you seeing this?”
“They can’t even bring that to bear! They’ll be massed up!”
Bepol shouted in confusion. Olesm replied tersely.
“I see it. [Mages] will begin throwing [Fireballs]. Watch out.”
The army was clustering up, beginning to try to spread left and right around Liscor’s entrenched lines, but they were all heading down, save for their archers and mages. Embria’s eyes narrowed.
These are Antinium tactics. It was ludicrous, too. Their front ranks could fight Liscor’s forces, but everyone else would be bunched up, not fighting, and at risk of one [Fireball] exacting devastating losses.
Where is that group Maksie mentioned?
“Wikir! Take your side past the attackers and chop up their rear lines! Wipe out everything, including their command.”
“Aye, Wing Commander.”
He peeled off. In another battle, Embria would have elected to follow him and do as much damage, possibly even take out their commander.
However, she was growing more worried by the second. Where was it? It was out there. She had an instinct.
Relc, the Gecko of Liscor, had never talked about being a [Soldier] to his daughter when they went back to Liscor. Only as a girl while they traveled with the army did he tell her stories. One of the things that had kept her up at night was his comment about headhunters beside himself. Ambush teams.
“It’s like a feeling on your scales. They’re out there. They could be an innocent [Archer] or a green-as-grass Drake kid. Then they turn, and you see that you’re dead. They’re waiting for you. So you have to wait for them, even when you’re fighting.”
Embria had felt that a few times in battle. She waited, riding back and forth, as 4th Company watched her uncertainly.
“Wing Commander. We going in or…?”
Lieutenant Kesa began, but Captain Vell snapped at her.
“Shut up. There’s something in the air.”
She felt it too. Embria saw the [Soldiers] fighting the Antinium moving backwards. Once more, the massed voices of the [Crusaders] hummed in the air. Embria heard it.
…the sky. The…
Wrath and righteous fury. It made her scales tingle uncomfortably.
Hectval was pressed up against Liscor’s army, and Liscor was refusing to flinch. The alliance’s forces looked like they were going to break. Embria, watching the [Crusaders] fight, saw a strange group emerging from the retreating [Soldiers], disobeying their officer’s orders to keep fighting.
A panicked Drake was stumbling backwards when another [Soldier] knocked them aside. This Gnoll was bent over, hunched, and knocked another [Soldier] out of the way with his free arm.
He didn’t break stride. He was moving through Hectval’s ranks with a number of other [Soldiers], all of whom had a certain glitter about their armor that made Embria focus on them with alarm.
“Wing Commander! The left flank!”
“I see it, Maksie. 4th, on me!”
Embria began to ride towards that spot. Olesm was speaking into her earpiece.
“What have you seen? Scout Leader?”
How could either one describe it? It was something about the way those [Soldiers] moved. Too confidently. People were dying around them, and they were just alert, not panicking. They didn’t break formation, even with other [Soldiers] shoving them.
They had enchanted gear. Then, Embria saw their leader.
She picked him out like any other officer could have picked her out. He wasn’t at the front of the formation, but he led them. A Gnoll in black armor, stalking along with a spear held low.
That’s a [Spearmaster].
The [Spear Hunter] realized it in a flash. He had nearly reached the Antinium’s front lines. About three ranks separated his group of strange [Soldiers] from theirs, and the Antinium were calmly fighting. They had no idea—
“Tersk! Dekass! Elites incoming! [Spearmaster]!”
Embria shouted into her speaking stone. She saw the Antinium lines changing, maneuvering to bring their veterans to bear, angling their bows and crossbows down.
Too late. The [Spearmaster] saw the movement. He raised his paw and shouted something. Around him, the [Soldiers] charged. They knocked down the alliance’s forces in front of them. The Antinium in the front ranks looked up and saw the new threat coming.
The Gnoll shot past the others. Embria saw his spear raised, aiming at the first rank of [Crusaders] who pivoted, steel armor and shields gleaming.
Embria rode at the Gnoll, 4th Company accelerating.
Vell, Pielt, and Embria all began using their Skills to make the [Soldiers] following them as strong as could be. They were going to miss the first attack, but Embria was galloping now, racing ahead of the others.
“[Daring Charge]! [Piercing Arms]!”
“[First Strikes]! [Formation: Accelerate]!”
“[Blades of Glory]!”
The Gnoll reached the Antinium lines. Embria saw him jump. Jump? Why—
She saw his spear twist in the air. The glittering red tip of metal and dark shaft of ashwood twisted in the air. Curving impossibly, the spear’s tip striking down.
For a second, Embria saw something like a giant beast’s fang slice through the air. Left—right. So fast she nearly missed it.
Like a flash of lightning, it went through the Antinium in front of the Gnoll. One rank, two—
An Antinium Worker in the third rank lowered the bow he was carrying. He stared ahead, confused, at the collapsing Antinium in front of him and then at his third arm. He only saw green blood leaking from his torn armor. Where had his arm gone?
The Gnoll landed. Embria’s blood chilled. She pointed at him.
The [Spearmaster] raised his spear as the Antinium turned incredulously towards him. The wavering lines of Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem’s alliance clashing against Liscor looked up as something dark filled the night sky. Drenching torches and the light spells. Embria looked up as the Gnoll raised his spear overhead. She felt a dread creeping up inside of her.
Then everything went dark.
The Antinium looked like they always had.
Armored Antinium. He had fought them in the Second Antinium Wars, and after that in quiet skirmishes.
These ones were different. Not in arms. Lulv heard a voice.
Some kind of intimidation Skill? The Gnoll didn’t stop his advance, though it made his fur stand on end. A voice was still just a voice. He had seen far more terrifying things.
So these are Free Antinium. He caught a glimpse of their front rank. This was the battalion that had done so much damage to Hectval’s alliance? He could see why.
Heavy armor. Tight formation.
No gaps to exploit. The [Spearmaster] hadn’t expected any.
Sokkel was waiting for his signal. Lulv chose a spot. Someone had seen Manus’ advance. He felt a prickling in his mind. Threat incoming.
However, Manus’ forces needed a hole. So the [Spearmaster] leapt. His legs crouched on the rocky ground and then the Gnoll flew.
He saw the Antinium in the front rank raising their heads to stare at him. An armored Antinium calling orders.
Antinium on the right flank. Belgrade the [Strategist]?
[Covert Target Mark]. Both glowed in the split-second Lulv saw them. Then he used his Skill.
[Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf]!
His enchanted spear struck twice, twin flashes through the Antinium’s lines. Lulv landed and saw bodies collapsing. The Antinium recoiled, looking right and left.
Dead? Just like—?
The spear had gone through armor and bodies without stopping. Unenchanted steel couldn’t stop Lulv’s spear. Nor low-level [Soldiers].
An officer of Manus roared. [Soldiers] streamed around Lulv, and he raised his spear overhead in one paw.
The signal. The flash of surprise in the Antinium’s ranks wouldn’t last. The enemy commander had eyes on him.
So Sokkel closed the eyes. The sky began to turn dark. The clouds gathered at an impossible speed—but not regular grey ones, or even dark thunderclouds. Pitch black mist streamed down from the heavens, engulfing both armies. Liscor and the Hectval alliance were thrown into darkness, but one side had been expecting it.
[Storm of Clouded Darkness]. Now was the time. Lulv shouted as his spear rose.
“[Intimidation: Spear of a Thousand Graves]!”
And fear ran through Liscor’s army. Lulv pointed his spear straight ahead.
Manus’ veterans ran past him, towards the Antinium who’d held their ground. Lulv saw a Soldier swinging a sword and hatchet with decent coordination at one of Manus’ [Soldiers]. The Gnoll swept his own sword up and took one of the Antinium’s arms off. The Soldier staggered, brought up a shield, and the Gnoll whirled. The slash took off the Antinium’s head, armor or not.
“Split their lines.”
“[Lance Formation]! [Steelsundering Blades]! Go, go!”
One of the officers roared, and Hectval’s forces created a wedge along Liscor’s lines, through the Antinium gap. Surprised Drakes and Gnolls found themselves flanked.
Not his job to win this battle. However, it kept Liscor’s army off them. Sokkel had advised Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem’s command to split Liscor’s army in a charge. He had promised the Antinium wouldn’t stymie them.
Of all the groups fighting in the darkness, the Antinium were the most cohesive. They pivoted and fought—but they had no idea what they were fighting. They had never met high-level enemies.
Lulv ran forwards, his job done, as he heard screams of panic, chaos in Liscor’s ranks. He saw an Antinium Worker with three arms raising a shield to block him. He stabbed through the shield and the Antinium with the adamantium-tipped spear, drew it out, and turned.
[Hurricane Stabs]. [Ten-foot Reach]. His spear shot out, six, twelve, fourteen times, ramming through Antinium, creating another gap that Manus’ [Soldiers] streamed into. Enchanted blades cut through armor. They didn’t panic under the darkness cloud; they could see each other, so each soldier followed the other forwards, listening for orders in the chaos. Lulv was looking around.
Where’s that Prognugator?
“Spearmaster! Enemy charging!”
Lulv whirled and saw a single [Rider] leading a group of infantry straight at Manus’ forces. He growled.
“Liscor’s 4th! Anti-Liscor tactics! First Assault, turn and repel with me!”
Manus had met Liscor in combat. Drakes and Gnolls turned and set themselves as 4th Company rode in. Fast. Hard. Each [Soldier] must have had a dozen Skills boosting them.
One of Manus’ [Soldiers] raised his axe calmly. He looked at the first [Soldier] of Liscor’s 4th coming at him and spoke.
“[I’m As Good As You Are].”
He brought down the axe on the shield, knocked the charging [Soldier] flat, and another of Manus’ soldiers speared the downed warrior in an instant. Lulv murmured.
“[Spear Art: Scythe of the Field].”
This time his spear was a horizontal crescent sweeping across the [Soldiers]. It would have decapitated the front rank—but then Lulv saw the pinpoint of death and twisted out of the spear art. He flicked his spear up, deflected the thrust at his head, and aimed a killing thrust at the horse.
His spear bounced as the Drake holding it knocked his thrust astray. She turned, riding her mount left, and Lulv saw another expert with the spear.
No [Spearmaster], though. Liscor’s army used to have a famous one. Lulv advanced.
[Ricochet Stabs]…his spear tip shot towards the ground and then seemed to bounce upwards, aiming at the rider’s legs and the horse’s unarmored belly. She cursed, deflecting them, then leapt from her saddle.
Lulv could have killed the horse. He did not. The Drake landed, wise enough to know that the horse was dead weight.
She was not prepared for his charge, a single leap like a [Duelist], that carried him across the two dozen paces to ram his spear through her chest.
Almost. Lulv turned as a sword threatened to cut across his chest. He took a slash against his armor. A Drake [Captain] had saved her Wing Commander.
“[Spearmaster]! [Captains], on me!”
She was roaring. The Drake Wing Commander hesitated, but then the red-scaled Drake advanced with her [Captain]. Lulv saw more figures coming his way.
They didn’t need to fight Liscor’s 4th. He blocked the slash from the [Captain] with his spear, whirled it, and knocked the [Spear Hunter]’s stab away. She tried to cut low; he stomped the tip of her spear into the mud as she swept it towards his legs. The Drake with the sword was waiting, though, and lunged.
Lulv’s spear knocked the sword aside, so hard it would have gone flying but for her claw locking it into place with a Skill. The [Captain] stared up incredulously at Lulv as he whirled, parrying a crossbow bolt at close-range. An Antinium Soldier tried to reload as one of Manus’ officers ran him through with another spear.
The Drake [Captain] looked at Lulv, and her eyes focused on his spear. She gasped.
“Oh shit! Man—”
Lulv ran through her stomach with a grimace. The Drake fell backwards, holding at her guts as the Wing Commander slashed her spear up in a flurry of strikes.
“Vell! On me! Fall back! Fall—”
Someone lunged at Lulv, and he choked up on his spear, slashed across a throat, and fell back as well. Liscor’s 4th was retreating from Manus’ blades. Lulv whistled, and the soldiers around him retreated.
“On me. Take out those Antinium.”
He turned back to his target. The cover of darkness wouldn’t lift all night or until it was dispelled. In that time…Lulv saw the Antinium retreating, disorganized. He nodded.
“[Each Death, Another Breath].”
The [Spearmaster] formed a wedge with the soldiers under his command and advanced.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
The strange soldiers were killing them. Battalion 1, Acid Jars, had been ready to fight. Not eager for a commendation, but ready.
Then Dekass had said ‘elites’, the sky had gone dark, and…
They’d begun dying.
The first [Crusader] who died took an arrow through the chest. It went through their armor, and five of the other Crusaders tried applying healing potions, because it wasn’t a fatal wound.
But it was poisoned, and the Worker stopped twitching as the Antinium waited for orders.
Tersk was out there, but his voice was distorted. Battalion 1 waited for their name, but they didn’t hear anything. Only shouting, howls…and a kind of eerie lack of noise.
The clash of metal-on-metal was normal to Crusader 51, by now. He didn’t hear it. Were they not fighting Drisshia’s heavies? He looked at Crusader 53, who had raised both his maces, confused, waiting.
The Antinium of Battalion 1 saw nothing through the darkness. Nothing, nothing…a hint of movement?
Then the Drakes and Gnolls were on top of them. One swung a sword through one of Squad 4’s pikemen without a sound. The blade cut through armor, left a green trail—the [Crusader] died as Crusader 51 jerked. He began to advance and saw a blade coming straight at his face.
Parry! Calruz’s roar was an echo of Crusader 51’s desperate instincts. He parried the blade and felt his sword…tear?
The steel was cut from the contact with the enemy blade, but it missed his face. The Drake cursed; he had a buckler in one hand, and Crusader 51’s stab with his shortsword bounced off it.
And Crusader 51’s arm went numb. The shortsword dropped from his arm as the enchanted shield rose. His sword jerked back from a slash, and the Drake raised his arm for a thrust. Crusader 51 raised his own shield and realized—
It wouldn’t stop that enchanted blade.
Inexperience. The Drake thrust his sword forwards, and Crusader 53 brought his mace down on the arm and snapped the bone.
It was an armored arm, with some thin scaled armor, but the descending mace caught the arm on the downswing…at the same time as Crusader 53’s other mace caught it on the upswing from the bottom.
With nowhere to go, the arm snapped, and the Drake screamed.
He leapt backwards. Crusader 51 ran forwards to stab him through the face, and his blade vanished as a Gnoll parried the blade off the sword. She whirled her own shortswords around.
“Injury! Fall back!”
“Watch out! Those two are better!”
The Gnoll woman turned, and two more of the strange soldiers moved to face Crusader 51 and Crusader 53. But by now, the rest of Squad 5 had seen them.
Multiple squads were engaged, and one of Squad 5 turned to thrust a spear forwards. One of the strange soldiers knocked the spear aside, lunged with a spear, and tried to stab Crusader 58 through the chest!
Crusader 51 and Crusader 53 saw it and reacted instinctively. Crusader 58 hadn’t realized they were enchanted blades, but the two Antinium knocked the blade down and stabbed forwards—only to nearly dissect themselves on the other two [Soldiers]’ blades.
“Huh. They are better.”
The spear-wielding Drake commented. The strange [Soldiers] pulled back, counted the nine Antinium, and, to Crusader 51’s surprise, backed up. They joined another group of their own, cutting into Squad 2.
Did they attack? Squad 5 didn’t know. Tersk wasn’t here. They had to attack. Did they fire arrows? Crusader 51 stared at his severed sword tip. He had no sword.
“Continue fighting! Assist other squads! Do not retreat!”
A voice broke through the stifling darkness. Dekass! Crusader 51 had never been more relieved to hear his voice.
Squad 5 instantly advanced. The enemy turned to face them, dividing themselves up, and Crusader 51 swung his shortsword in place of his regular one.
Strike—parried. Shield block—one of the Drakes took a piece out of it. Slash at an arm and a wince, but no blood because the armor was too tough—
Then Squad 5 was backing up. Crusader 53 was bleeding. Crusader 58 was dead.
Their weapons. One of the Drakes whirled his sword through an Antinium’s arm. He severed Crusader 51’s shortsword as their blades met and turned to stab Crusader 53 in the stomach. The Antinium wavered, falling back, and Crusader 51 planted the jagged end of his sword in the Drake’s eye.
The soldier dropped, and the others spun. Crusader 51 backed up, grabbing for something, and Squad 5 fell back.
One of the Drakes announced with a calm bite to his tone. The others checked the fallen Drake, but the sword hilt was buried in his skull.
Crusader 53. Was he alright? Crusader 51 kept his guard up—and saw the other [Crusader] pouring his healing potion onto his stomach. The wound closed. He would live.
“Do not retreat! I demand reinforcements. Tersk, to me! I must have ranged support! They have enchanted weapons.”
Somewhere, Dekass was shouting at the top of his lungs. Squad 5, in the chaos of it all, found themselves holding with Squads 2, 4, and 9…what remained of them. The enemy advanced, confidently sundering blades and armor. A Drake used a Skill that made his blade set one of the Antinium on fire.
Another drew an arrow and loosed it through a shield. A third raised his shield, blocking a barrage of strikes from three Soldiers, including Crusader 53! A fourth drew his sword in a glittering arc, and Crusader 51’s [Quick Slash] took off his arm.
The Gnoll blinked at his arm, and Crusader 51 ran him through. The other soldiers looked at Crusader 51 and spotted what he was holding.
The enchanted sword. One of them cursed, and Squad 5 backed up, leaving their dead behind—and another one of theirs.
“Three casualties. Back it up.”
One of the officers spoke quietly. The enemy glared at Squad 5, but they didn’t advance. Squad 5 let Squad 2 go for their bows, and the soldiers…retreated.
Crusader 51 hesitated, but Dekass had said to hold their ground. And besides…but for Crusader 53 saving him and the enchanted sword, they wouldn’t have had a chance.
Squad 5 looked at one another. One of them, Crusader 52, broke from 53 and 51 to see if any of the others were alive. Crusader 51 and 53 decided to help turn over the still bodies.
Crusader 51’s hands were green with blood. He stared at them and then the sword he’d picked up. Magic. He had never seen a magic sword. Did he put it back? It wasn’t his.
No. I need it.
The [Crusader] realized it was the only thing that could help him kill the enemy. How many were there? Where was the rest of Battalion 1?
Something whispered over his head, and Crusaders 51, 52, and 53 flinched. They looked up—and then around. Crusader 51 froze.
Where was Squad 5? Where was Squad 2, 9? He saw a few figures staggering—and then the Gnoll appeared.
He had a spear. Just a spear, but the tip glittered. He thrust once, such a simple move that looked so easy.
It was beautiful. Concise, economical.
He killed one of the [Crusaders] with it, turned, stabbed another, and looked around.
Every other Antinium was dead. Something had cut through them at chest-height. The spear?
Crusaders 51, 52, and 53 rose as the [Spearmaster] spotted them. He said nothing, but the Gnoll raised his spear. Crusader 51 lunged, sword slashing low, as Crusader 52 fumbled to stab with his spear, and Crusader 53 darted left, maces swinging hard.
The [Spearmaster] parried Crusader 51’s sword, ran the Antinium through the belly, tore it left, took one of Crusader 53’s arms on his right, then the other, and beheaded Crusader 52. He looked at Crusader 51 as the Antinium fell, and turned to the staggering Crusader 53. He frowned, raised his head, and blurred away as a hail of arrows struck Crusader 53’s back and armor and the ground around him.
“Volley! Volley on my target! Advance!”
Dekass led more squads forwards as Crusader 53 sat down, staring at his arm. The [Spearmaster] blocked more arrows, leapt forwards, stabbed three Antinium in a moment, and then went for Dekass.
Crusader 51 didn’t see what happened next. He was curled up in pain. It hurt. It really hurt. He wanted his potion. Where was his potion?
It was broken. The shards broke against his hand. Crusader 51 didn’t know what to do. It was going dark. He…
He didn’t want to die. He lay there, and the world grew fuzzy…
Something wet poured over his stomach. Someone yanked his hands away, and it hurt, so Crusader 51 fought to put them back…but then the pain went away!
The Soldier uncurled as he felt the hole in his stomach closing. He felt the world focus and realized someone was kneeling over him.
Crusader 53. He’d found Crusader 52’s potion and was pouring it onto Crusader 51. The two Soldiers looked around. Squad 5 was gone.
Crusader 53 fell over onto his back. Crusader 51 saw his two severed arms bleeding weakly and scrambled to his feet. He ran over to the bodies, searching for a potion, and ran back to him. He knelt over Crusader 53, who didn’t rise, even when his wounds closed. But his antennae twitched when Crusader 51 tore off his helmet.
He was alive. Crusader 51 knelt by him, the enchanted sword raised, terrified the Gnoll would come back. Antinium ran around him. Drakes and Gnolls shouted, ran past him—some looked like enemies, but neither paid attention to the two still Antinium.
Crusader 51 knelt for a long time, holding Crusader 53. By the time his friend woke up, the cloud of darkness was thinning, and light was rising.
They had survived. But neither [Crusader] felt anything like warmth or happiness, though every squad who survived was commended that day.
Squad 5 was gone. Crusader 51…
Who was he now? He looked around at the dead Soldiers and wondered how this was fair.
[Crusader Level 13!]
[Skill – Blinding Flash (Sword) obtained!]
[Skill – Faith is My Strength obtained!]
Crusader 51 clenched and unclenched his hands.
He felt as weak as a bug.
The instant the darkness descended, Belgrade knew they were in grave danger.
His first hint was the speaking stones.
“Commander Olesm. Please come in. What are your directives?”
He heard nothing. Belgrade tried again.
Then the [Fear] effect struck. Belgrade felt a terrible terror seize him. Something was coming to kill him! He was going to die!
The Antinium wavered—but wait. He had felt like that many times.
The Antinium resisted the fear. The same could not be said for his forces.
“Run! Run! They’re everywhere!”
“They’ve broken through our ranks! Fall back!”
“Hold! Hold your ground!”
Some of the officers tried to stop the panic, but Belgrade raised his voice.
“No. Retreat. Fall back!”
He had seen Hectval piercing Liscor’s lines. The enemy might be flanking them. The [Soldiers] began retreating as Belgrade tried to raise Olesm. They had a backup system if the [Messages] and speaking stones went down.
“Get me our runners. I need to speak to Olesm.”
The problem was…they had never needed to use it. And either the designated messengers were dead or they’d fled.
All Belgrade could do was fall back and try to rally his forces. So the Antinium retreated and felt it was…
Kerone, [Squad Leader]
The officers were on the verge of running. Squad Leader Kerone was no hero; he didn’t even have a true military class, just [Squad Leader] rather than [Captain] or [Sergeant] because this wasn’t Liscor’s army. If he held and told the others to do the same and listen to the Antinium, it was because he knew they had no chance if they scattered.
However, their leader wasn’t Commander Olesm—it was Belgrade.
Kerone hadn’t been one of the officers who’d vocally objected to an Antinium leading them, but he had held his doubts. Now? He heard a babble of arguments as the Antinium surveyed the fighting in the darkness.
Where were they? They could barely read maps—and this was surely not the time to try! Hectval was everywhere, and they were fighting around…what? Caves? One of the hilltops?
Belgrade seemed to know. He was trying to give orders.
“Squad Leader Messk, move your forces to hold that position, there. I require a runner to the embattled squads…there.”
He pointed at fighting and shouting down the hill.
“They must retreat to this location.”
“You want to send us into that?”
“Yes. I must.”
A panicking Drake shook her head rapidly.
“No! No! I won’t let you send me to my death like some Antinium! We’re people, not—”
Belgrade clicked his mandibles together.
“We must fight or die. You will not be safer hiding here. Order. I must have more Skills to tell them from afar. These are not Antinium.”
“No, we’re not!”
The [Strategist] turned to the officers. He twitched visibly.
“That is not an insult. If you were Antinium, I could save your lives. Our forces cannot hear me. If we lose our cohesion, we will be routed.”
That brought some sense back into everyone, Kerone included. He stepped forwards.
“Messk, you heard the commander. Get down there! I can divide my squad up into runners.”
Messk hesitated, but then she obeyed. It was that or…or what? Belgrade at least had a plan.
Kerone had to admit—it was cowardly, because dividing up his squad meant he would stay here, coordinating them. Belgrade glanced at the Drake.
“Good. You are Kerone.”
“Yes, sir. They’re pushing.”
“Yes. But Hectval is equally uncoordinated.”
“…Are you sure?”
The Drake could see virtually nothing in the darkness, but either Belgrade had Skills or simply vision he didn’t…or he understood more in the flurry of shapes below. The Antinium pointed.
“I see multiple squads engaging each other, not battalions. Hectval has scattered its troops as much as we. This was an intelligent plan—poorly executed. We must draw together.”
Strength in numbers. Belgrade wasn’t saying anything Kerone disagreed with. The [Strategist] pointed down.
“Get me those squads. We will reform a defensive line around the hill. Deploy traps and wait for Olesm to contact us or find a point from which to strike.”
He was a defensive, organized leader. Kerone sent his [Soldiers] down into that darkness to pull back the squads.
…And they never came back.
Some tried. He saw groups heading towards him, but many ran into the enemy—or even attacked each other. Belgrade kept giving rapid-fire orders.
“Reinforce those squads, there. Squad Leader Itr, direct your [Archers]…there.”
However, he was trying to yank his command together and struggling. Kerone shifted from foot to foot. He saw Belgrade standing and looking down into the fighting. He didn’t know how long had passed. Thirty minutes? An hour? Belgrade seemed to be coming to a decision.
“We must go down there ourselves.”
The other officers gaped at Belgrade in shock.
“Down? Are you mad? We have a position!”
The [Strategist] calmly glanced around.
“We cannot inspire and unite the squads. Either we risk ourselves or…it’s familiar. They’re scattered. Someone used a [Fear] spell.”
Familiar? Kerone frowned at him. The Drake had heard of Belgrade. One of the Antinium, whatever that meant. Like the Yellow Splatters who was in the Watch. He knew there was a story there.
It revolved around…the inn. The [Innkeeper], who, depending on who you heard it from, was a menace, a strange miracle-worker, a blood-spewing maniac who went around stabbing people.
A friend to Goblins and Antinium.
He didn’t know which, but one of the reasons people would follow an Antinium at all was because Belgrade was part of that story. The [Strategist] drew an enchanted shortsword.
“We will go down. Squad Leader Kerone, form a bodyguard with me. Our app—”
Kerone saw Belgrade stumble as he walked towards them. The Squad Leader waited.
“Sir? Our approach?”
The Antinium felt at his side. He grasped something and turned. Kerone saw, in the magical darkness, the [Strategist] grasping at a feathered shaft.
“I have been sniped. Take cover.”
Everyone dove as Belgrade stumbled forwards. Kerone reached for him, and the Antinium collapsed behind a boulder. They looked for more arrows, but none fell. It was as if someone had aimed for Belgrade, through the darkness.
Kerone fumbled for his potion.
“We’ll get you on your feet. Just one…why isn’t it…”
He poured the glowing liquid onto Belgrade’s side. The arrow was buried deep, and the Antinium caught his arm as Kerone went to yank it out.
“It is barbed. My wound is not healing.”
He looked up at Kerone’s terrified face as the Drake shook his head. The Antinium clicked his mandibles. So softly.
“Poison. Of course.”
That was all he said. It was hot.
He was dying. The poison was trying to kill him, but he was Antinium. He had been engineered to resist poisons.
However, it also stopped him from healing, so in that sense, the poison had done enough.
The arrow had hit him in the guts. Not the chest or head. In that sense, it was a…poor shot. Belgrade was in no position to feel fortunate.
The churning pain in his stomach had already turned into a feverish haze. That was a bad sign. He was lying propped at the top of the hill, as the officers panicked.
“Hold the line. [Deploy Trap: Bear Trap]. I needed more traps.”
He was speaking to Kerone and the others, trying to keep them from running. They would die, running about in the dungeon.
“We’re not in a dungeon, sir. We’re at war in Hectval’s foothills.”
The Drake addressed him. Belgrade’s mandibles opened and closed.
“Did I say that? Similar. You will die uncoordinated, alone. The squads must reform. Form a fighting line. Hold choke points. It is easy. If I die. You do it.”
The Drake paled at the thought.
“We can’t get the squads. They’re lost out there. Belgrade, commander. Don’t die on us. Olesm—Commander Olesm. Someone try to raise him!”
“You will not. They have jammed our spells. We are cut off. Surrounded. A fear-Skill was used. Or spell. That…that is familiar.”
Belgrade could see the fighting from where he was propped up. Someone had tried to compress the arrow to slow the bleeding. The bandage was already green with his blood.
Belgrade wanted to point, but his arm was made of lead. He ordered Kerone to save that squad, but the Drake refused.
He knew what to do—but his limbs, his command, were unwilling to listen. Or unable?
They were not Antinium. Olesm had made a mistake. If you could not have your commands obeyed, your level was meaningless.
They were afraid. Which was fair. Everyone was afraid. This—this reminded Belgrade of the past. Yes. The day they had all died.
“You’re alive, sir. Keep awake. Where do we go? What do we do?”
Belgrade’s mandibles clicked together.
“Hm? There…they’re coming up the hill. Just like last time. There’s one of them out there.”
A gasp. They knew that name, too. That monster. Belgrade mumbled.
“I was there. I saw him die.”
It felt like he was dozing off. He would say something, then snap back to dreaming. Remembering? The [Strategist] heard something talking.
“The inn? You were at…”
The officers were around him. More or less? Were others listening too? Belgrade nodded. Poor little soldiers, dying out there.
“I was there. Very familiar. There weren’t many of us. Barely a few squads. Workers. Low-level. We fought. Knight. Bishop. Good names. Garry. Bird. Magnus. Belgrade…”
Yes. There he was, standing, fighting with the others. Around an inn with undead swarming at the windows. Leaping ghouls.
“Stand and fight together. Dying. Until the end, until the end, he said. Then I was still there, but they were all dead. I regretted it.”
“You’re alive. You’re still alive. Belgrade…Belgrade…stay with us.”
Someone was shaking him. Belgrade wanted to sleep…and knew he couldn’t.
“If I could go back. I could kill Skinner myself. With traps. With Skills. You can never go back. I should have been there. Six crossbow bolts. I could have taken one.”
Something was calling to him. A warm fire. A quiet inn. A smiling [Innkeeper]…but if he slept, he would never see it.
Perhaps in heaven?
“I do not believe in Pawn’s Heaven. I cannot see it. I want it. But I was there. We are all Knight.”
They were like him, in the end. They panicked, and they couldn’t think together, in that rare, wonderful moment. They had lived under the sky and ate good food and took it for granted, and they did not like him, but that was what he saw.
Squads of Antinium. Standing and dying together.
“Yes. Do that.”
“Do what? Sir? Sir…?”
“Stand. All you can do is…”
Belgrade tried to move. He could not, so he spoke. Below him, each squad, fighting—his voice could not pull them past their foes. But perhaps…
Stand. Back-to-back, in a ring. Around an inn. They didn’t have the number for grand strategy. They were not pieces on a chessboard, even if they named themselves after the game.
Stand, until the last one fell. A little chess club, fighting for each other. They did not have to be there. But they had to. And each one fought so the other wouldn’t fall. For one more second.
A hundred little chess clubs appeared in Belgrade’s vision. He smiled.
Yes. Someday they would kill Skinner. Then…then came Goblins. The [Innkeeper]. Join together. Reform the [Archers]. Send a light upwards.
We are here. Until Klbkch came from the Hive.
“We’re doing it. Sir? Sir…!”
“Hm? I’m awake. I’m awake. I’m…”
His voice trailed off. His side truly hurt, but it was a receding ache. Belgrade clung to something. As if he had eyes weary to close. He wanted to drift off, but not yet.
“One after the other. But not yet. We will be with you until the end. Which is now.”
His waving antennae slowly stopped moving. Then…Belgrade sighed.
“Yes. Bird was right.”
Kerone, [Squad Leader]
Delirious. The Antinium was delirious. He was alternating between strategy, telling them where an attack was coming. Promote the pawn. Bishop coming.
The inn. He kept talking about the inn. Below him, the squads had adopted a strange formation. The Hectval soldiers fighting with them saw them forming rings, slowly trying to link up with each other.
Squad fighting. Slowly drawing together. It was working.
But the [Strategist] was fading away. The officers were kneeling, listening. Almost…hypnotized by the story. They would get up and go, but the [Soldiers] healing, resting—heard the Antinium murmuring that oldest tale.
“It is such a strange thing, fear. I was afraid. She was afraid. But there are things worse than dying. Skinner was scary. When I woke up and everyone was gone but Pawn, Garry, Anand, and Bird…worse.”
This was Belgrade? The [Strategist] didn’t see the [Soldiers] listening. Nor…he was feverish. He spat out the water they gave him. He trailed off.
“One after the other. But not yet. We will be with you until the end. Which is now.”
“Not now. Stay with us. Belgrade? Strategist?”
He heard nothing. The Antinium looked around, and the sodden arrow in his side leaked more blood despite the claws, hands, and paws on it.
“Yes. Bird was right.”
He went still. For one second, his antennae dropped. Then Belgrade stood. He pushed himself up and stood.
Swaying, bleeding, heedless of everything else. The Antinium hunched with the effort. But he moved his feet, angled his body…how? Where?
“I was right here. I was always here.”
There was no context to it. None at all, unless you had listened to his story. After all, he was one. Alone, he was a single statue in a ring.
Right here. Below him, squads looked up and formed their own rings of bodies. They pointed. There. The [Strategist] stood on the hill as the clouds of darkness began to break, so Liscor’s forces fought towards it.
I was always right here. Squad Leader Kerone had never thought to ask for an Antinium’s past. He had never cared, though he wouldn’t throw stones at Workers, and regarded them as strange but not necessarily evil.
He stood, propping Belgrade up, and looked at the [Strategist]. He knew his story, now. At least, one part.
Silently, Kerone promised himself one thing: if he should survive this day and this war, he would go back to Liscor. Walk out the gates and head up that hill. Go visit that ruined place where the inn had burned before being rebuilt elsewhere and see…
Where Belgrade had stood.
The Antinium was cold. He was always cold to the touch, but as the sun shone down on his armor and head—as Olesm’s banners came to view and they saw Hectval retreating, and the losses.
The officers were silent, but Kerone looked at Belgrade.
The Antinium said nothing. Kerone’s grip loosened. The other Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans slowly looked around, and began to lower Belgrade down. They gathered around him, and Kerone went to unclasp Belgrade’s arm from the arrow and fold them across his chest.
The Antinium slapped Kerone’s claw away.
The [Squad Leader] jerked back. He saw Belgrade’s head move. The Antinium clicked his mandibles.
“Every time I try to sleep, the voice speaks to me. It is annoying.”
Kerone shouted. He turned and waved his arms.
“[Healer]! Get a [Healer]!”
Belgrade sighed as Kerone grabbed at him. But he listened to the voice that told him he wasn’t dead. If he were, he would hear Erin saying something about popcorn with yeast.
All he heard was…
[Trapsetter Strategist Level 33!]
[Conditions Met: Trapsetter Strategist → Combined Arms Strategist Class!]
[Skill – Antinium-Expertise Command obtained!]
[Skill – Prepared Battleground: One Hour obtained!]
[Skill – Army: Springwood Supplies obtained!]
[Skill – Squad: The Chess Club’s Stand learned.]
There was no celebrating the day after the new element entered the Hectval War. Every other time Olesm had sent a report through—he declined to waste the door’s precious mana—Lism had brought a bottle of something to pop, drink, and toast with.
The bottle of Amentus wine sat unopened on the table. Elirr could have used it, to be honest.
Anything to tell him the world wasn’t as it was, and he wasn’t reading the casualty numbers right. The rest of the army had taken terrible losses, but it was the Antinium’s numbers that made him read it again and again.
Antinium killed, estimated: 938.
Antinium wounded, estimated…
That one number.
“A third of the Antinium division. How? This is more than they’ve lost in the entire…”
The Council sat in a state of shock. Lism was hunched over, staring at the numbers. All of the forces had bled. Belgrade’s division had been cut off, in particular trouble, but the [Strategist] had apparently inspired them to keep fighting rather than be wiped out.
That number. Wounded lists were far, far higher. But the wounded tended to walk away because a potion was so powerful. So the real loss was the damage to armor, morale, or the loss of the potion.
The Antinium had been issued with potions and still. Elirr rubbed at his brows. It didn’t seem quite…he didn’t believe it, but he had seen the wounded being escorted through the magic door until it was shut down to be resupplied.
“We cannot move reinforcements through. We must advise Olesm that we don’t have the mana to do that. Potions? They need potions.”
“How many? I thought they had plenty, even…”
Guildmistress Alonna looked up. Elirr pointed.
“Down the page. Hectval went for their supply lines. We now have a shortage of potions.”
The council stirred. Tismel sat up.
“We can replenish them, though. Right?”
Lism glared, directing his vacant stare onto a familiar target for wrath.
“Oh, naturally. We can suddenly produce thousands of healing potions. A shortage is…we will issue an order to all [Alchemists]. Send for Celum, Invrisil’s stocks. Someone find our budget. But—we should make an announcement.”
“Surely not. That would be admitting we lost.”
Zalaiss spoke up. Elirr muttered.
“It will spread, regardless. Everyone talks.”
“We could order them not to—”
Lism closed his eyes.
“Zalaiss. Please don’t say anything stupid for one moment. Please.”
A terrible silence fell over the room. And they were not the ones fighting. Elirr looked at the lists. The army remained. The Antinium had lost a third of their forces, but it was mercifully—no, incredibly lighter on casualties, even though the loss of many supplies was a terrible thing. The rest of the army had taken a tenth of the losses per division.
Why was that? Olesm hadn’t written out anything definitive. But he had suspicions, and Elirr’s hair rose as he read them.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
She knew exactly who and how it had happened. It wasn’t hard. Embria had almost known, but Vell, lying in the [Healer]’s tent, had croaked confirmation to her.
“It’s Manus, Wing Commander. It’s Ancestors-damned Manus. That was their veterans. I’ll bet my tail on it. And I think that [Spearmaster]…that might’ve been him.”
Vell’s eyes flickered as she held her stomach. The enchanted spear’s wounds were not…easy to heal.
“You know him?”
“Reputation. His Skill made me suspect.”
“How many Ants did they kill?”
“Nearly a thousand.”
Vell put her head back. Embria didn’t know what to think. She had heard Belgrade had saved his entire division. And even if she bore the Antinium no good will…
Even she had trouble watching the remnants form up. Embria needed to talk to Olesm, though. Manus was in this war. They would probably deny it; that was their standard operating procedure, and there was no proof. But they had sent some of their best to kill the Antinium. She walked out of the tent and avoided looking at Tersk and Dekass. Both had survived, although someone had tried to snipe both with enchanted arrows.
Their armor had protected them, so the Prognugators were counting their forces.
Artur, [Flag Bearer]
Artur had been jealous of Crab Battalion. He was assigned to Battalion 4, Razorbeaks, and everyone had been envious of Crab Battalion, with their four commendations.
It felt so…wrong. Artur felt dirty, though his armor was still pristine. He had hung back in the fighting, holding the flag.
Doing nothing as Crab Battalion and the others died.
Crab Battalion…was gone. Tersk and Dekass looked at four squads, each with less than half their original number.
And that was it. The unknown soldiers with their enchanted blades had targeted Crab Battalion. Battalions 1, 3, and 5 had endured the worst fighting.
There were only two [Crusaders] left in Squad 5, Battalion 1. One had two arms missing. The other? The other had an enchanted blade, which Tersk inspected.
There was no counting how many of the enemy had died, but it was a low, low number. In fact, Tersk had reported to Olesm in Artur’s earshot that he could confirm six dead. And that had been with Dekass calling in volleys of arrows onto the [Crusaders]. In fact, that was the only thing that had made the enemy retreat. They had healed all wounds, retreated rather than stay and risk losses.
Artur could see other [Crusaders] looking at him and his flag. Perhaps it made them feel better. He hoped it did.
Artur felt so useless. He had been in the darkness, and if only…if only his flag could have done more. But he had seen Crab Battalion fighting against [Soldiers] three times their level at least. The difference was just that.
The Council of Liscor drafted a somber announcement to go out across the city. From their rooms, Elirr had a view of it from the windows. He heard the howls of Gnolls fearing their loved ones were lost as well.
“So what happens next? Do we retreat?”
Alonna sat wearily at the table. The first hour of their day had exhausted her, and Elirr just wanted to go to Jeckle, the Ice Wyvern he was training, and pet him and feed him.
However, Lism shook his head.
“Olesm hasn’t written that.”
They all looked at him. The purple-scaled Drake glanced around.
“I’m not being his uncle. I’m being realistic. You don’t surrender and roll over after one bad battle. He thinks there’s a chance. Maybe they retreat and fortify. Hectval is still out there.”
“But if Manus is in it…”
Jeiss had come back from delivering the news to Watch Captain Zevara. He had also run the news to the Free Hive. He closed the door to the Council’s chambers.
“That’s our job. If they are in it, we scream it as loud as possible and throw every accusation. Manus is interfering in other city’s battles. No Drake city likes that. I just told the Watch Captain; she got a copy anyways.”
“Smart of Olesm. What did she say?”
“She’ll take a muster of volunteers, make sure we’re ready for any Hectval groups sneaking around the Floodplains. Oh—and she’s answering one of his requests. But also…I have this. The Free Queen has written us a letter.”
The entire Council looked up sharply. Tismel blurted out.
“The Free Queen can write?”
Jeiss laid the letter on the table. It was unsealed, and he offered it to Alonna, who hesitated.
“Dictate, I think. Want to read it out loud, Alonna?”
The Guildmistress cleared her throat.
“The Free Queen…is she speaking in third person? It’s like a royal announcement. Er, let me…The Free Queen has been apprised of the casualty reports in Engagement #11. She congratulates Liscor’s army on its survival.”
Lism mouthed, but Alonna went on.
“The numbers of Antinium deceased are acceptable, the Free Queen feels, for a wartime scenario. She is prepared to resupply Workers and Soldiers in the same quantities, provided Liscor will authorize transit and aid in rearmament. She suggests the Antinium dead may have weapons or armor that can be repurposed for—does she not care?”
Alonna nearly tore up the paper. She whirled.
“Nearly a thousand Antinium die and she’s ready to send another thousand in!”
“They’ve seen worse battles. She might think it’s acceptable. But check the signature.”
Jeiss murmured. He’d already read the letter, then. Elirr saw Alonna go down the letter and blanch.
The [Mage] pursed her lips.
The Council looked at each other, and Elirr felt that familiar prickling on his skin and fur. Well, that was one person who might not look at a thousand dead as a problem. But a thousand…
Was Belgrade alive? Elirr thought of Pawn, or Silveran, who cleaned his shop and would have done it for free just to pet the cats. The Gnoll put his head in his paws.
“Yet the war will continue. We can’t move the Soldiers and Workers through the door. On foot, then. And that replenishes the Antinium’s losses completely, doesn’t it?”
Tismel broke the silence, sounding almost cheerful. Even Zalaiss slapped his arm, but the Council began to break from its stasis.
“We need to send supplies. That damned door sucks more mana than a [Sailor] sucks down seawater. How did Erin ever make it work properly?”
Jeiss muttered. Alonna sighed.
“Her inn is a leyline. We could move the door…”
“It’s disrespectful. And we can’t ship everyone through it.”
Alonna threw up her hands.
“Well, let’s prioritize! Send the [Healers] and any specialists. We have a few Olesm wants.”
“Anything. How many?”
“Just the [Healers] who we’re shuttling through. A poison-expert for Belgrade. Um…one from Zevara, and it looks like…three Antinium ‘specialists’ from the Free Hive. Huh?”
Alonna caught sight of the names on the list and stared down. Jeiss sat up, and Elirr leaned over. His face turned dark, and Jeiss looked at him.
“You okay with it, Elirr?”
The Gnoll hesitated, then nodded.
“Better Hectval than us. I won’t object. Who are the specialists from the Antinium?”
Olesm had leveled after that night. As a [Leader]. He had heard that you did, even if you lost a battle, but he felt disgraced.
He waited for the reinforcements. The Antinium had to march, but Belgrade needed the poison-specialist, even though he’d survived the worst of it.
However, Olesm had written to Zevara the instant he’d learned Manus was on the attack. They were now low on potions, but more would come, and they’d have to make do.
Strangely, when he’d told Belgrade that, the Antinium had begged for him to write a request to Pawn. The [Strategist] had insisted on being carried to greet the visitors as well.
It did move Olesm, seeing that the Antinium had some volunteers from his division to do it. The maligned [Strategist] had won over his command in a single night. Olesm wanted to ask him how.
“Who are we expecting?”
“Help for…healing. They did not come with the other Antinium. But if they are needed, they will come. They are an…asset. I am not allowed to say their classes.”
“I see. But they can help heal?”
“Yes. And the Antinium will benefit from them in other ways. They are like Pawn.”
Olesm’s brows sharpened, but he saw the door open.
“Crates coming through! Stand clear!”
The first supplies of potions were shoved through the door, and the most wounded, who needed to get to Liscor, went through next. However, Olesm and Belgrade were waiting for a few people.
“Antidote specialist? Who am I treating?”
A cautious Human came through the door, spotted Belgrade, and hesitated. Olesm waved him over.
“Check with our [Healers], please.”
“I am allergic to wheat.”
Belgrade called out as the toxin-expert hurried past him. However, the two were waiting for the last specialists.
There were four of them. Three came in a group. Olesm frowned.
They were like Pawn indeed. He had never particularly noticed them, mainly because Pawn was odd enough. Nor did he know their names.
However…the Antinium who walked forwards, three of them, all had robes over their chitin. They were Workers, not Soldiers. They carried simple clubs—but that was not their weapon.
At first, Olesm thought they were like Jelaqua. Until he realized what they held was not a flail, but…that object Pawn held.
A censer, Erin called it. Something meant to hold and burn incense. The three Antinium looked at Belgrade, and one stepped forwards.
“Strategist Belgrade. I am [Acolyte] Jerimy—”
“Shh! Shh! No classes!”
Belgrade waved his arms and winced. The [Acolyte] fell silent as Olesm stared. A what? However, another of the Antinium saw Belgrade’s bandaged side.
“You are hurt.”
“Yes. There will be fighting. You might need armor. I will speak with you…”
The [Acolyte] didn’t listen. He walked over, touched Belgrade’s side, and whispered. Olesm saw Belgrade stiffen…then relax. He didn’t understand what had happened until Belgrade slowly sat up and, to the amazement of all, hopped out of his stretcher.
“You should not do that openly. There is secrecy to discuss.”
His wounds were healed! Olesm had seen—he gritted his teeth, trying to piece it together. And wondering, more importantly, how to use that.
Despite their unique classes and abilities, Pawn’s disciples entered the Hectval war with little notice or fanfare at first.
Mainly because you could not [Appraise] what they had. Also, because the last specialist Olesm had called for made a larger impression. Olesm watched as they undid the specially-made bindings. He stepped through, and some of the Gnolls growled and the Drakes glared, but Olesm was certain.
He had written to Watch Captain Zevara only one thing when he had learned Manus had sent their best. If they wanted to enter the war…he would send someone right back at them. Manus was the Walled City of War. Perhaps, at last, the prisoner would get his wish. Either way, Manus and Hectval would regret it first.
Olesm had written to Zevara simply:
Send forth the Minotaur.
Calruz of Hammerad stretched his arm out as he looked at Olesm. The [Strategist] glanced back, towards his forces.
Crusader 51. Artur. Embria. Belgrade…the fighting Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans of Liscor’s army.
The entrance of Manus into the Hectval war took place nearly twenty days into the fighting. Liscor’s advance would stalemate in the foothills for the next two months, and see the bloodiest fighting by far in that time.
Author’s Note: It’s 3 chapters. I think. And they might be big.
But that’s timelines for you. I am still heading towards the end of Volume 8, but it turns out that rather than the goalposts being moved, I just can’t tell how long a mile is.
However, there’s also danger in rushing. Taking a break is so important…I can’t write this chapter nearly as long, nor as well without rest.
I think you can see that it’s improved? I can always do better, however! And I will continue to do so. But you have voted, and I am writing our Hectval arc. Look forwards to the next part or not. It is a genre, and I think people familiar with it know enough of what might be coming.
Always in The Wandering Inn’s style, though. Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next chapter. Pray for Hectval. Not necessarily good things, but prayer abounds.
Oteslia, the City of Growth by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!