[I am delighted to shout out fellow author Selkie Myth for winning the most prestigious and deadly award ever—the Stabby for their web serial! Go and check out their stories here, consider supporting them on Patreon or buying a copy of their stories if you enjoy what you read!]
Vess, [Magic User]
The class of [Mage] could be [Magus] as well, but the two were not interchangeable. [Magus] had other connotations that sometimes indicated royalty, a bent towards academia, and so on.
There were many magic classes. From [Witch] to [Wizard] to [Hedge Mage]—and those were only the base classes. The chain of evolving class titles and combinations rose beyond [Archmage]—and [Archmage] was what most people aspired to be.
However, if the ceiling rose past the sky…the ground floor had a basement. Below [Hedge Mage], below [Spellslinger] or [Apprentice Mage], existed a class that sucked scum off the underbellies of slugs.
And that was [Magic User]. A companion class would be—[Wand User]. There was only one class lower, and that was [Magic Gifted], as far as Vess knew.
It didn’t bother him. Much. [Mages] weren’t around enough to make fun of him, and he didn’t exactly wave his class around at the Mage’s Guild. In fact, it was a slight mark of pride.
He had taught himself magic. Not ‘he had read from a spellbook and become a magician’, or ‘he self-taught himself after a few lessons’. Vess had mastered the rudiments of magic by waving sticks around as a little Drake boy.
Not that it had been that long ago. Four years since he’d first created a spark with his wand, and Vess was sixteen.
Also, in the army. When the [Recruiter] asked his class, they raised their brows into the sky but issued Vess with an unusual item for a recruit: a wand of [Light Arrow].
[Light Arrow] was one of the weakest attack spells in existence. Depending on the mana and control of the [Mage], it could hit you like a sledgehammer after doing a terrain-following attack pattern over a mile, but that was only if someone like Archmage Valeterisa cast it.
Vess could make his pierce at about…one third of the actual damage potential of a regular arrow from a decent bow. The benefit was that he could throw [Light Arrow] by just pointing his wand and concentrate on dodging and moving.
His squad was called ‘Big Yam’. The Drakes in it were a mix of new recruits and three veterans.
“Just make sure you point that thing at the enemy. We stick together. The Commander’ll have his orders; you just follow someone in front of you. Got it?”
Velden was the [Veteran] in the group. He treated the others roughly at first, but he drilled it into their heads along with the basic training. When the shit hits the [Gust of Wind] spell—stick together.
The thought of battle made Vess nervous, but he needed the money, and you got paid by the week. He was hoping for light action, maybe a few levels, but when he heard he’d be rotated to the front, he pretended that was what he wanted.
The army, or at least, his command, set off to a parade and cheers. Vess looked for his sister or parents in the crowd. They said they’d be there, but he didn’t spot them. Gnolls and Drakes lined the streets, waving, shouting, as Velden led the squad out.
“I bet you we’ll get to the enemy’s gates within the month. And I’ll gain ten levels and make [Captain] as well!”
One of the Drakes, Shain, joked. Velden turned his head and snorted.
“Don’t say hatchling stuff like that.”
“Why? It’s just good fun.”
Shain protested, and some of his buddies backed him up. Velden looked at him squarely.
“Don’t say it. If you’re saying it even as a joke, you believe it.”
One of the other [Soldiers] who’d seen a battle or two roughly elbowed Shain.
“People who say that die first. Velden’s right. Keep together. Don’t try and be a [Hero].”
They had such a serious attitude that Shain blustered and walked back to complain softly, but didn’t refuse. Vess, for his part, stayed meek and quiet. It seemed to him that Velden knew what he was talking about.
Perhaps that was why Velden took Vess under his wing. It might also have to do with their names…as ‘V’s’, they lined up close together under company musters, so they saw each other more than most.
“Listen, Vess. You’ve got a shield—keep it raised. Until the enemy’s on you, keep it raised. Even if you see the whites of their eyes or whatever—that’s when I see most idiots lower their shields to block. And that’s when the arrows hit you. [Strategists] are bastards. I’m glad we have some on our side, but remember that.”
They were enjoying a hearty meal of Telgas spread after a hard day of marching. Vess’ legs ached from marching in light armor up the hills. He was a proper Luldem boy and had roamed the rocky terrain, but he dug into the gelatin dish with most of the components of a soup dish—solidified.
“What’s this about, Velden?”
“Keeping your little head on your shoulders so you go back to your family. What else?”
Vess chewed on the gelatinous meal. It was a popular staple among Hectval and Luldem, part of the Alliance. That was what people called it, although it was properly the Luldem-Drisshia-Hectval alliance. Drisshia, full of smoke and, Vess had heard, foundries from their iron mines, were all about smoked foods. He’d seen some of their units linking up with his, and there were good old jokes about Hectval, [Soldiers] asking if they’d brought the Gnolls to do Hectval’s laundry for them.
However, it occurred to Vess he didn’t know why the war was going on. Obviously, he knew what everyone was talking about. Liscor, that Liscor, was going to war. They’d sent Antinium and everything. They might be on the news, but they were warmongering bastards who’d kicked out Hectval’s Council or somesuch.
But the rest…?
“I hear it’s about the Antinium. Top brass says that, but sometimes I hear rumors…they say it’s also about an inn. Or something.”
The rest of Big Yam gathered around.
“An inn? What inn?”
Velden scratched at his jaw scales.
“Dunno. I just hear it’s about an inn. Some of the [Soldiers] who fought off Liscor the first time said that was all the prisoners said. We burned an inn or killed an [Innkeeper].”
Vess was incredulous. Velden shook his head.
“Eh, war starts for many reasons, kid. Don’t think too hard on it. And get some sleep, everyone. Don’t stay up dicing. We might see battle tomorrow. We’re heading up. Seems like the army’s at Lookout Lookout Hill.”
“Only there? I thought we’d be closer to Liscor.”
Shain commented as Vess scarfed his food. This was good eating; he’d have gotten less if he was a day laborer mining for Magicore. Velden grunted.
Lookout Lookout Hill had two ‘Lookouts’ in the name because someone had apparently not heard the first warning and gone off one of the cliff faces dotting the area. Hence, the name.
“Seems like we pulled back to hold it.”
His voice was neutral, but Vess had a good look at Velden’s face. The Drake looked…concerned. He caught Vess’ eye as the others rolled up.
“Is that bad?”
“…I think Liscor being there isn’t good. We were going to hold them at Seventeen Fingers. The ridgeline?”
Velden pointed up, across the hills. Vess nodded. Velden went on.
“Good, defensive spots. They didn’t come up the road…so the Alliance moved to block them there. If they’re at Lookout Lookout Hill…”
He trailed off. Vess waited, but Velden rolled over. Vess thought about it. Sleepy and full as he was, it only occurred to him right before he slept.
If they were there, the Alliance must have failed. And if Velden didn’t want to say that directly…Vess began to wonder just how bad the war was. Come to that…
This was the second round of recruiting. They had an army. How big was Liscor’s?
Velden’s words quickly became more than a single [Soldier]’s hunch. By the time Luldem’s reinforcement company got to the front, the word was out.
The battles with Liscor were not going well. In fact, they were so not well that the regular army holding the pass had sent everyone they could to hold the line here.
“This is where they stop. Remember it! The Alliance is making a stand. I don’t want any dissenting talk or negative tail wagging!”
An officer walked through each squad’s tent ground the second night, and Vess felt better as the confident Drake strolled along. He even stopped at the Gnoll tents. Velden just grunted.
Vess’ spirits slipped when he realized it was a Skill.
Velden was silent, tersely speaking with other [Soldiers] who knew something. Vess listened in, but Velden and the others tended to do a lot of talking when no officer was watching. Velden told Vess only some of what he heard.
“…It’ll be intense. Antinium are fighting.”
“The Black Tide?”
Velden nodded. Vess tried to appear calm, but the Drake [Veteran] just hefted his halberd.
“They die like everyone else. We beat them two Antinium Wars running.”
Vess nodded hurriedly.
“But if Liscor’s fielding them—are they allied? Why would Antinium and…”
“They have a Hive. Listen, Vess. Don’t spread it about.”
The older Drake’s injunction didn’t matter much. Everyone was whispering about it. The Antinium were fighting, and they were tearing holes in the Alliance’s forces.
“I heard that the enemy commander’s some high-level [Strategist]. They sniped three officers. They can conjure a hail of arrows. And Liscor’s army sent a company to fight. Veterans.”
“I thought their entire army was Liscor’s?”
“Their mercenary army! The actually dangerous ones!”
Shain snarled at Vess as the other [Soldiers] gossiped. Vess’ stomach dropped even more.
So there were professional soldiers—at least a company of them, though some rumors said four—Antinium who could speak, survivors said, and a high-level [Strategist]. Liscor had fielded Drakes, Gnolls, in surprising numbers, and Humans.
There were more outlandish rumors still, saying that Gold-ranks had joined the forces, but the [Sergeants] and officers came down on any gossip hard. Vess actually got two lashes with Shain, and the welts on his back made him shut up.
None of this made the impending battle at the hill any better. The only thing that cheered Velden up, and kept him from telling Vess to stay behind him and keep his head low and shield up every fifteen minutes before the day of the battle, was some unexpected news.
“There’s some hotshot Drake ‘consultant’ in High Command. I saw him arguing with the brass, and three [Strategists] went storming out of the tent. Also—there’s a group of [Soldiers]. Snooty bastards. Didn’t want to swap stories or anything.”
Vess’ neck spines perked up since he had no ears, and he listened in as Velden gossiped with some other soldiers.
“Really? [Mercenaries]? How’d they look?”
Whatever that meant, Velden just nodded and seemed encouraged. Vess almost went to see this new group, who’d marched in and made camp away from everyone else. It seemed top brass needed them, but didn’t like them, if the [Company Captain]’s grousing was any indication. They passed by Big Yam’s tents the eve of the battle.
“Not under our command? What do I do? Just ignore them? They’re being led by some Gnoll with a fancy spear. Listen, [Major]. I at least need to tell them where to go. I won’t have some cowardly [Mercenary Captain] running off if…”
Vess didn’t have that much of a problem with Gnolls. Sometimes they caused fights in Luldem, and he heard tales…like the Meeting of Tribes had violent, warmongering tribes, but they were a generally peaceable lot from his time working in the mines. They weren’t all [Thieves]. Hectval seemed the most outraged, though they had the most at stake in the war.
In fact, Luldem and Drisshia’s soldiers got into arguments with Hectval’s as it was ‘their fault’ the war began. Officers stopped them from becoming brawls, but it also seemed like an issue around Gnolls?
Vess didn’t know. He went to sleep and slept for maybe thirty minutes, or so it felt. When he woke up and assembled with Big Yam’s squad, behind Velden, he was afraid. Petrified. When he saw Liscor’s army and the Black Tide wearing armor, he almost ran. He braced himself for the fight, the wand in his sweaty claw. It had sixty shots; then he had to use the shortsword of cheap iron.
Vess didn’t fight in the first battle, just past midday. The Alliance retreated too fast. He saw the officers try a complex attack where wedges of [Soldiers] in squads attacked Liscor from all sides.
It looked like a nest of angry hornets striking the rough dome formation from all sides. Vess was about to go in when someone began blowing a horn. Velden looked up.
“Ancestors. We’re falling back!”
Vess looked at him in shock, but the Alliance abandoned the field after less than twenty minutes of fighting. Not for no reason; Liscor’s army was cheering as the Alliance left twice or three times as many dead as Liscor’s.
The Antinium broke Drisshia’s armor. That elite company kept charging the squads attacking, and Vess saw a flight of phantom arrows, glittering with magic far beyond any he had mastered, with his own eyes. He stood with Big Yam’s squad in a state of shock.
Vess noticed the Gnoll with dark armor and that spear watching the battle and talking with the Drake consultant as the high command’s tents erupted into a flurry of shouting. He looked calm. In fact, his eyes were locked on the Antinium.
Vess could hear Liscor’s army cheering as the Alliance’s forces fell back. One group of Antinium in particular were waving their weapons. The Drakes and Gnolls were cheering, those traitors! They were shouting…
“…battalion! Crab Battalion!”
Nonsensical. Inane. The thought that anyone could cheer Antinium was…Vess felt sick. He marched back to their camp, as limp as a rag despite not having fired a single spell. When he heard they would be doing a night attack, he almost ran. But if he was caught, they’d give him a deserter’s brand or hang him or…
He was afraid, but he couldn’t let Velden go without him. So Vess didn’t sleep. When they went into battle, the [Magic User] was ready to die. He had no idea what was coming next.
A storm of darkness covered the sky. Vess shouted, but the [Sergeant] roared.
“It’s the plan! Go! Go! That Gnoll—”
The Gnoll with the spear raised it overhead and howled, and Vess saw Liscor’s entire army shudder. He felt nothing but a sense of excitement, pants-wetting terror, and the juddering of blood in his veins. The Alliance’s army charged down the hill. Big Yam was on one wing of the fighting off-left from the vanguard.
They entered the fray amid swirling black mist, which revealed foes and allies only when you got close. From then on?
It was like a dream. Vess followed Velden. The [Veteran] followed the [Sergeant], and Big Yam shouted at each other to stay together.
“Shain! Keep up! Vess, you with me?”
“Here! We’re over here!”
The Drakes of Big Yam jogged forwards and saw a Drake waving at them. The Drake looked relieved.
“Where’s Commander Olesm? What are the orders? The cloud just came over us!”
“I don’t know! Stick to the plan! Attack the…”
The Drake [Soldier] and Velden looked across the gap, and Velden’s teeth parted. The Drake, wearing an armor with an insignia that Vess didn’t recognize, recoiled into her comrades. Both groups realized they were the enemy at the same time.
Velden roared as the Drake raised her voice.
“The enemy’s here! Attack! A—”
Vess didn’t think. He raised his wand, triggered the spell, and the [Light Arrow] went through her mouth. The Drake toppled over, and he looked at the wand in his hand.
I killed her. The arrow spell was weak, but it cut deep even at his level. He looked at the wand, then Velden grabbed him.
Vess raised his wand and…fought.
A struggling pair of Drakes, grappling over a spear. A Gnoll hacking at an opponent, not realizing the enemy was leaning on him, already dead, sword grasped in a dead man’s grip. A charging Drake, running onto a spear thrust from the side, never seeing it.
Vess fired a [Light Arrow] into the head of the Drake fighting with Velden, then turned. The wand blasted another arrow into a Drake’s armor, and the enemy barely flinched. It was a weak spell.
“Faces or skin! Big Yam! With me! With me!”
Velden whirled his halberd, and Big Yam fell in. They clung together in the fighting, advancing slowly, meeting the enemy in the chaos.
Twice, they nearly attacked the Alliance’s own. However, Hectval was more coordinated, and Liscor was falling back. In truth, Vess fought only three times.
The first, panicked encounter. Second? When a group of Gnolls and Humans ran into them, fought for one second, then fled backwards, shouting to regroup. Big Yam had taken no casualties so far, thanks to potions.
The first casualty was Shain. Someone realized he was gone. Velden backed them up—the [Sergeant] had never returned—and they found him lying on the ground.
An arrow was through his neck. Vess looked down at Shain.
“He didn’t raise his shield.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered. It went through the back of his neck. Was that friendly fire? Damn them. Shields up!”
Velden cursed. Vess raised his shield—and they ran into the Antinium.
Just four of them. Big Yam saw them marching through the mists and froze. The Antinium were staring around. They didn’t see Big Yam until Vess blasted one in the face. The Antinium didn’t fall—but Velden stabbed it in the legs, and another [Soldier] stabbed it repeatedly in the head.
It was a short fight, and two of Big Yam went down screaming as an Antinium shot a crossbow through one of their legs, and another slashed too fast to block. But they were outnumbered, and armor or not, it was four against one.
“That was [Quick Slash].”
Velden muttered after the battle. Everyone stood over the dead Antinium, and Vess didn’t stop shaking. One of the fallen Drakes got up; the other was dead. He’d bled out from the bolt in his leg.
“What do we do? If we’re near their lines…”
The other Drakes were afraid, but Velden raised a claw. He listened.
“Hear that? Someone’s blowing our signal. I say we fall back, find an officer.”
“What about the Ants?”
Someone had found a shield. Velden slapped it.
“Don’t take their gear! You want Antinium weapons?”
“We killed them. No one’ll believe it! We got them!”
But the Drake abandoned the shield. Velden hesitated. He looked down.
“That’s a good point. Hey—those things have…antennae. Someone cut them off.”
Big Yam looked at Velden, but the Drake pointed.
“Like Goblin ears. We’ll prove we got them. Hang back. Vess, you do it.”
“Velden! I don’t want to touch—”
The Drake protested, but Velden shouted at him.
“You want to advance into their lines? Do it! This way we can head back and prove we fought, instead of abandoning our officer!”
So it fell to Vess to hack off the antennae with a dagger. He stared at the Antinium as he did. They wore similar steel armor, and they hadn’t any eyes. They were giant bugs and horrific. That was his first encounter with the Antinium, and he held the bits of chitin until Velden let him put them into a bag. The [Veteran] patted Vess on the arm.
“You did good, kid. How many’d you take down?”
“Huh? I don’t know.”
“I saw at least six. You were a crack shot with that wand.”
Someone else in Big Yam piped up. Vess realized he had taken down at least…Velden clapped him on the shoulder again.
“You’ll level tonight. Maybe even get an award. No one else took down six. Let’s go.”
The rest of the battle saw no fighting for Big Yam. They retreated until they found the rest of the army in the darkness, and by the time an officer came to see the Antinium antennae, command had announced for all groups aside from the embattled ones to hold; they’d done their job.
Liscor was falling back. The Alliance had won.
Vess was the hero of Big Yam. Not only had his squad taken out the Antinium, they’d done a great job. Even their [Sergeant] returned! He’d apparently lost his squad and taken charge of another.
There was a round of good Luldem beer for everyone that night, and Vess rolled over and heard the voice.
[Magic User Level 12!]
[Skill – Recharge Minor Wand obtained!]
[Skill – Intensify Spell obtained!]
[Spell – Light Arrow obtained!]
Vess sat up with a yelp. He’d gained five levels, broken his capstone, and gained a Skill to recharge wands in a single night! Velden groaned when Vess shook him, but then he beamed.
“That’s great news, kid. Let me go to sleep.”
Vess’ chest was as puffed as could be the next day. Until he heard they were continuing the battles. That made him worried, but the excitement of five levels in a single day, more than he’d gotten in any one year, made him accept it.
Velden himself looked reassured.
“That new group of [Mercenaries] are all they claim to be. Apparently they killed a thousand Antinium in one go. Who are they? I’ve never heard of…what was their group even called?”
A thousand? Vess’ jaw dropped. That Gnoll with the spear had changed the Alliance’s fortunes with one attack. Even the top brass went to visit his tent, though they seemed disappointed as they left. However, that was Vess’ entry into the war. With the mysterious Gnoll, the mercenaries, it seemed like Big Yam had gone into the fighting just to see it turn around.
The worst losses were taken on the first engagement. Unacceptable losses, to Lulv.
Five, for a thousand. Not a bad exchange rate…in anywhere but Manus’ army.
“Any accounting for it?”
The officers under his command made no excuses. Lulv trusted each one of them. He listened as all five’s deaths were accounted for by eyewitnesses.
“No one can stop an arrow to the head. That might have been when Liscor volleyed on its own ranks. Brutal—but efficient.”
Lulv nodded. That was one of the few reasons his command hadn’t killed one of the Prognugators. He wasn’t risking a [Soldier] for that when he could try again. Someone in Liscor had cooler blood than he thought. Perhaps Olesm? He did graduate from Manus.
“Another was killed by 4th Company. We took a number of wounded there. Last one was a run-in against a lot of Liscor’s own before the squad got out. Lucky thrust from a spear.”
That was all understandable. Three was…well, casualties occured. If Lulv had hand-picked every single one of the four hundred out of Manus’ best, one or two dying would make sense.
However, those last two hadn’t just died—a single engagement, a single Antinium had apparently taken them out.
“Even Hensi? She had [The Veteran’s Second Chance]. So she got killed directly.”
[The Veteran’s Second Chance] was a Skill that meant the Manus [Soldier] should have walked away from anything but a direct, mortal wound. Even if she’d been hit in an artery, they might have dragged her away. At her level? She could have lost a leg and maybe survived ten or twenty whole minutes, even without a tourniquet.
“I think I saw that Antinium. With a sword? One looked sharper. I’m not sure if it died.”
Lulv growled. He shook his head as the officers went to corroborate that detail.
“We’ll aim for it. Maybe it was a higher-level one or…experimental. Alright. Pull fifteen.”
“From the city? Filter them in as [Recruits]?”
“You can pick from Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia—their damn Alliance if you want to. Make sure they’re decent, but favor trustworthiness over anything else. Mercenary outfit. Put them in a squad. Give them a minder and two regulars.”
That was how Lulv would return with an equal or greater amount of [Soldiers]—assuming those who joined up wanted to stay with Manus. They probably would, and they’d level or die.
Lulv thought about his next assault. Obviously, he wasn’t in charge, but Sokkel would help him get where he needed to be. He didn’t know if their [Sniper] had taken out ‘Belgrade’, but ‘Tersk’ and ‘Dekass’ were both priority targets. Unfortunately, they had actual amulets and officer-grade armor. So it would be tough.
Aside from that? Erase their forces. Erase them…and see just what they were made of. Lulv didn’t have to take part in every battle. But this special group of Free Antinium? They died.
When Lulv got word a thousand more Antinium had rejoined the army, he frowned. He didn’t take part in the next battle with Hectval; although, he let them have his archers, who calmly sniped Antinium. A thousand new Antinium.
Were they regular Soldiers and Workers wearing armor, or special? He hadn’t seen that much aside from a few Skills from the Free Antinium, but even one Skill made their Antinium unique, like every other specialist element a Hive had. Time would tell whether the Free Queen was willing to commit this finite resource to the war or not. Especially after the second assault’s casualties.
Lulv waited through two battles until Liscor dropped its guard, then had his forces assault the Antinium from a cliff with enchanted arrows. He watched as the enchanted arrows tore their lines apart and threw eighty javelins until they were out of range.
The next time, he attacked in the next battle and cut straight through one squad of Liscor’s own into the Antinium. Lulv used two [Spear Arts], went for Prognugator Tersk, and saw the [Strategist], Olesm, point at him.
The [Spearmaster] deflected the wave of arrows, took eighteen on his armor without damage, and his Wardstone Amulet took the last six. He retreated, cursing, watching his forces wipe out an Antinium battalion and fall back fast. Lulv debated throwing a javelin through Olesm; the Drake was unguarded. However, Hectval didn’t need to win this war, so Lulv fell back.
Four assaults later, Lulv frowned at the casualty reports.
Two deaths and four major wounds. That was two more than he expected, honestly. Manus’ [Soldiers] went in and got hurt, but…he eyed both reports, neatly noted down.
Arrow shot to the head. Both times. Neither one from the front. And Manus’ [Soldiers] wore helmets.
So eight dead. By now, Lulv counted another thousand Antinium in their graves. When the third wave of reinforcements came, he began to wonder if these Antinium were special at all. Until he saw the first Painted Antinium.
When a thousand Antinium died, the Hive did not just replace them. It was not that easy. A thousand deaths was a terrible thing.
However, the [Crusaders] had already been budgeted for, their replacements grown in the Grower Vats, and that was because Belgrade had reduced the Free Hive’s casualty numbers enough that there had already been a surplus.
A thousand more? That was not…easy. But the Free Queen had anticipated the need.
The cost, spiritually, emotionally, was greater. When Pawn had heard of the deaths, he had knelt in front of the Promise of Memory, as the wall of Painted Antinium’s markings was known, and looked up.
“Each one. I do not know their colors. They had no names. They were just…I sent them to their deaths.”
Theophilus and the other [Acolytes] had heard his pained whisper. The greatest Individual of their Hive, Pawn, the one who had discovered Heaven, who had known her, who had revealed the sky and the Painted Antinium…he had looked up.
“I wish I could weep. I wish I could. But when Bird does it, it sounds so silly. And I…I may be bound for Hell, if it exists, after all.”
That had made Theophilus shiver. For it was his first time hearing the word from Pawn’s mandibles, as an idea of something more than Rhir.
The [Priest] turned. Theophilus was one of his first acolytes. The Worker looked weary.
“It is only a feeling, Theophilus. I do not mean Rhir.”
“Why would this be, though? Are not all Antinium bound for Heaven?”
Pawn’s mandibles clicked softly as he touched Theophilus’ hands with his own. Two more [Acolytes], Zimrah and Jerimy, joined him.
They were named not as Painted Antinium, but based on one of the other stories Pawn told. Each held one of Pawn’s hands. They were [Acolytes]. Only Zimrah was a Painted Worker. She had gold butterflies on her cheeks.
She had Pawn’s kindness. Jerimy had learned almost all of Pawn’s stories. Theophilus? He had less of either, but he had been with Pawn when the [Priest of Wrath and Sky] had cursed Hectval. Had first summoned the guardians from beyond. Theophilus saw these things and believed.
It was easy.
Heaven was real…but the [Priest] murmured as he looked up from his disciples’ faces.
“Heaven is for all Antinium. It is promised, do not worry, Theophilus. Heaven is for any Antinium who was good, or just was. However young. The only Antinium who might not ever go there…it is an idea, but there is a place that is the opposite of Heaven. That would be Hell. Only an Antinium who did terrible things would go there.”
“Like an Aberration?”
Zimrah asked. Pawn shook his head instantly.
“What is an Aberration but a Worker or Soldier who sees the pain we are going through and rebels? They do terrible things, but they are suffering. That is what I believe.”
Heretical words—until now. Yet Pawn preached that Antinium were in need of something, that life was not good…it could be better. The other [Acolytes] had nodded.
“So if they do not go to a Hell…who would?”
Pawn’s antennae went still. He turned to Theophilus.
“That would be an Antinium who harms their kind deliberately. Who does…bad things that have no excuse.”
“Why would you be one of those Antinium, Pawn? Perhaps…Ksmvr might be one of them? Or Klbckh?”
Theophilus suggested, and Pawn smiled wearily.
“Perhaps. But I feel hellbound.”
The [Priest] knelt there, and his voice was leaden, resolved, and…bitter.
“Because I must send more Antinium to die. Or at least, I will ask it of them. And it seems…”
He checked Belgrade’s desperate missive, which had been handed to him after Xrn and the Free Queen read it.
“…I must ask it of you, my disciples, too. I cannot go. I must remain. To give Antinium a place. And…to pray.”
Prayer. Pawn prayed every day. He used to pray simply for Antinium to live and be happy. Now?
Now he prayed for Erin to live. He tried to level. He believed, Theophilus understood, that if he leveled, if he gathered enough faith…he might bring her back.
He apologized when he asked them for three volunteers to heal Antinium and lead the [Crusaders]. As if it didn’t make perfect sense for them to risk their lives while he remained.
He was important. Theophilus understood he was too, as an [Acolyte]. He could cast [Heal Minor Wounds], which was a miracle beyond spells.
But he was not Pawn, or Belgrade, or Anand, or Garry, or Bird. It was right that they not die.
The world made sense to Theophilus, that way. The Antinium who died were a tragedy that cut Theophilus until he felt like he were the sky when the sky was overladen with wet clouds of rain and they opened up and showered down. What a glorious sight. That was the fount of his faith; that such things could happen. As well as the sheer fact that Pawn had to live. That Heaven had to be guarded and created, on this world as it was beyond.
That one day, Erin Solstice would return.
Oh, and Hectval be punished. The anger Theophilus felt towards that city was a real thing, so he rejoiced when he was sent to lead the [Crusaders].
It was a very strange thing, going to the rocky, barren highlands, seeing so many [Soldiers], and following orders from Belgrade, who told them not to reveal their class. In a way….the highlands felt comforting. If only they could dig into the soil, Theophilus would feel safe.
Yet his duties were simple. He went among the wounded Antinium and murmured.
“[Heal Minor Wounds]. Heaven is real. Reinforcements are coming. I am Theophilus. That is Zimrah and Jerimy. Please, I have a little of Garry’s bread. Eat, in no particular expectation of anything but food tasting good.”
Zimrah used the same miracle and then touched a shaking Soldier with a third hand.
“[Touch of Gentleness]. You are brave.”
Jerimy and Theophilus turned to her. She had a Skill beyond theirs—and what a way with words! Neither one had thought to say that, but the Soldier stilled. Zimrah looked at him.
“What is your name?”
There was no answer, but then the [Crusader] tugged off his metal helmet and they touched antennae.
“Crusader 51. You are brave. Thank you for fighting.”
“Thank you. You are brave.”
The two other [Acolytes] echoed her, and Theophilus admired Zimrah and envied her way with words.
Zimrah. Of all of Pawn’s acolytes, she was the only female one. And the fifth female Antinium in the Hive besides Xrn.
One day she had said her name was Zimrah. She had taken a name and identity with the butterflies, but when Pawn asked, she had told him she was actually Zimrah. It was the first time a Worker had done that, changed identities, but Pawn had thought about it and said it was obvious:
You could get your name wrong. The same with everything else. Antinium were new at identity, so Zimrah was Zimrah.
“It is such a terrible thing. So many dead Antinium. We must do as Pawn would do.”
Zimrah, Theophilus, and Jerimy sat together, and all three Workers nodded. Theophilus had given out all of Garry’s fresh bread to the [Crusaders] and thought it had helped. They had healed until they were exhausted.
It was not like mana, what they used up, but it did tax them to use their miracles so often. It felt…draining. When Theophilus was out of the power, he felt as though the world lost its color. That all was grey and meaningless…until his faith rekindled itself.
He had a sea of faith, so he had healed at least forty Soldiers and Workers.
“We will heal as many as we can, every day.”
Jerimy agreed. Zimrah turned to both other [Acolytes].
“Yes, but Pawn would do more.”
Theophilus instantly agreed. Pawn would do more. Exactly what should they do? Well, after some thought, the [Acolytes] had a revelation.
That was how the ritual of morning prayer began.
Theophilus was nervous as the [Crusaders] knelt as one. Tersk and Dekass watched as the morning gruel was digesting in every stomach. The day after the battle, the first thousand reinforcements had yet to arrive, but already the [Acolytes] were doing what they could.
They would not fight; they were a valuable resource, and Belgrade decreed they stay back. They could help mend armor, do chores, and tend to the wounded in the meantime.
However, the one true thing they could do was spread the good word. Reinforce the knowledge, the faith of Heaven within the [Crusaders]. Give them hope, a fraction of what Pawn had given to the Painted Antinium.
Theophilus had been chosen to do the speaking. Jerimy said that he had a speaking disorder in his vocal chords that acted up even back in the Free Hive whenever he tried. Some kind of terrible birth defect in the Growing Vats. Zimrah had suggested Theophilus was older and had seen more of Pawn’s miracles, and thus was more qualified.
He had labored for a long time on his first sermon. Theophilus stood on a bit of raised dirt, robes swishing nervously, as Jerimy and Zimrah walked down the rows of [Crusaders], spreading sweet cinnamon incense with their censers. He clicked his mandibles together a few times, and then spoke with all the conviction and power in his voice.
One hand rose and pointed upwards at the blue, blue sky, filled with little clouds high overhead, which gleamed white as the sun shone down. Every [Crusader] looked up.
Theophilus stood there as they all drank in that effervescent sky. Slowly, he brought down his hand and clicked his mandibles.
They all looked at him. Theophilus went on.
“So does Heaven.”
He saw a slight stir run through the Antinium. Theophilus raised his arms and clasped all four together.
“Believe in it. Let us pray.”
His first sermon was a huge hit. Zimrah and Jerimy congratulated him when it was done. Theophilus felt a lot of pride in his words.
True, it was no Pawn, Upon the Hill, Cursing Hectval Unto Death and Decay a Thousand Times, but it had clearly moved the [Crusaders]. They looked up at the sky. Yes, look at that.
Theophilus swept up the camp, helped lay hands on a few confused non-Antinium [Soldiers], and felt good about himself.
Until the army came back, and he saw the gaps in their ranks. The dead. He ran forwards and laid his hands on wounded Soldiers and Workers. And Theophilus saw their heads turn to him as he spoke.
“Reinforcements are coming. You are brave. Very brave. Rest. Be healed.”
And he realized…tomorrow, he would need different words.
[Acolyte Level 17!]
[Skill – Sermon of the Believer obtained!]
Olesm wrote a letter to Liscor’s Council every day and posted it via the door. He held a war council with his officers. He was at every major engagement, but the front was spreading out across the hills.
However, no one, not Selys, who sent him a gift of more potions, not the Council, nor even the other officers saw the entirety of the war. They saw parts.
Olesm saw all the dead. And what he saw was Antinium dying.
Not Liscorians dying. Not them losing the war. Antinium. Dying. He made the distinction in his mind, because if he said one Liscorian regular died for every ten Antinium, that was not hyperbole.
“Manus has entered the war. I can’t prove it, sir, but they’re in it.”
Wing Commander Embria was frank with Olesm the day after the first disastrous battle. He took counsel with her, Belgrade, and some of her senior officers. Olesm turned to Wikir.
“First Captain, you’ve been with Liscor’s army the longest, haven’t you? Can you corroborate that?”
Wikir growled, shifting from foot to foot.
“I was not with the part of 4th that clashed with them, but this would not be the first time, no. Manus does interfere in wars. Like every Walled City. This…this sounds like a bunch of their best operatives.”
Olesm’s scales went cold. He too knew the practice.
“I’ve heard of that. They want to quietly tip the odds—so they send a group in. Or fund an army, or hire a group like, well, Liscor’s army. I just never thought I’d see it. Wing Commander, are you sure that was…a [Spearmaster] you met? Not that I doubt you. You would know.”
Relc’s daughter inclined her head, and the command tent went through a simultaneous clenching of apprehension. A [Spearmaster]. If Olesm had seen one, he would assume it was Hectval’s champion.
Manus’ [Spearmaster]? Leading a group of veterans with magical gear? Even worse.
“What can we do?”
Ramia asked desperately. She had a bandaged arm, but she, Bepol, and Belgrade had all survived. In fact, they stood with Belgrade, rather than notably apart. If there was one gem amidst the filth of yesterday, it was that Belgrade had become part of the army for holding the line, even when seemingly mortally wounded.
4th Company still stood apart, and Olesm felt a flash of anger at seeing that. A thousand Antinium were dead…but he held his tongue.
“Let’s simplify the issue. The Mithril Razor, everyone. We can either retreat or fight on. Given the options? I choose to fight on. So the issue becomes dealing with Manus. Either we combat them, force them to retreat, or do it in a way other than warfare. I’ve already asked the Council to make a loud, public objection to Manus—and they’ve apparently denied it. However, it might force them off.”
His officers looked at him, and Embria grimaced.
“No proof. Manus probably won’t back off.”
“Then, we have to win. They’ve sent four hundred. It’s…a lot, but Hectval was on the back foot but for them. We collect ourselves, fight back, and account for their numbers. Especially if we can flank them or ambush them with [Archers].”
Elites or not, no one liked an arrow in the chest. Why…even a Level 40 individual died without Skills. In fact, even a [Lady]…
Olesm stared blankly at the table. He blinked when he realized he was drifting and spoke briskly.
“I also have to congratulate Belgrade on his class consolidation. I’m sure he’ll be an asset to the right wing. [Combined Arms Strategist] Belgrade…we’ll have to give you a party later.”
Belgrade lifted an arm as everyone turned, and a few officers applauded politely.
“When I am able to metabolize food without pain, I will gladly partake. My stomach was nicked by the poison arrow.”
“[Combined Arms Strategist]. Wonderful.”
A somewhat weak Captain Vell growled under her breath. She’d hauled herself up to participate in the discussions since she was out of fighting for at least a week. Olesm eyed her.
“Belgrade will now be making use of his new Skills in his command, and I’m leaving the right wing to him, not just one division. Ramia will serve under his forces. I trust Liscor’s 4th will do the same.”
Vell looked up and didn’t reply immediately, so Embria spoke for her.
“Absolutely, Commander. We’re ready to dig in. Now that Manus is here, we all have to curl up our tails and get to it. We’re in the soup now.”
Yes, they were. Olesm briefly nodded.
“In that case, let’s talk tactics. Captain Wikir…just how does Manus operate in groups like this? I’d love to say I can pull out a counter-strategy out of my pocket, but Manus studies strategy too. Let’s assume they’re coming at the Antinium. Now, how are we going to stop that from happening again?”
He was full of anger after the first defeat. He wanted to punish Manus for entering the war on Hectval’s side. Angry on behalf of the Antinium. Guilty, too, but angry. Olesm sent for Calruz. He stocked [Archers] up, creating a fast fire-group, and saving his barrage Skill for when Manus came at them. They could chew on arrows and see if the famous City of War had an antidote for that.
He didn’t even see Manus for two battles after the first. Hectval’s army was back on the attack, and they were feeling feisty after being bailed out by the City of War.
Olesm sent them packing in the first battle. The Antinium smashed a wave of Drakes, 4th Company led a daring charge into the center of enemy lines to snipe an officer, and Olesm gave the charge order as their entire vanguard fell apart. They ran, and only the surrendering prisoners stopped Olesm from taking a vast swathe of their army.
The second battle was more of a running engagement with mounted Drakes skirmishing with Olesm’s [Riders]. 4th Company got a bit battered, but he let the Antinium happily shoot arrows until the Alliance peeled off.
In the third battle, Olesm realized Hectval had adopted a new strategy. Instead of one battlefield…he had four.
“They’re coming from four vectors of attack and split up their army almost equally. We could hold in one giant formation…”
“…And be pincered.”
Lacking the ridgeline to put their backs against a wall, Olesm only had the sloping terrain. He hadn’t realized this would be a defensive battle, so, cursing, he divided his forces up as well. He put an Antinium force with Bepol, took command of one army, let Belgrade have a third, and put Wing Commander Embria in charge of the fourth. Olesm was halfway through watching his forces slam into Hectval’s when Manus struck the Antinium under his command.
The first thing Olesm saw was a shower of frozen spikes of ice, like Ceria’s spell, explode among [Crusaders]. It showered off their armor and carapaces, but didn’t seem to do much damage.
More frozen ice exploded amongst them, then blooms of fire. The steam rising from their armor, the Antinium [Crusaders] lifted their shields as Olesm saw a force on a hilltop loosing arrows at extreme range.
His [Archers] tried to return fire, but they had elevation—and there weren’t more than…fifty?…with bows. But each one had an enchanted arrow. Olesm saw the ice melting to water around the [Crusaders]. He began to shout.
“Scatter! Scatter formation!”
The Antinium got the message and moved apart, but the third volley of lightning arrows struck the water and Antinium as Olesm watched.
Bodies fell to the ground as Hectval pressed in, cheering. Olesm saw them shouting gleefully, pushing past the gaps in the Antinium’s lines, and raised a claw finger. He aimed it at the first rank and spoke.
“[Instantaneous Bombardment]. Pull the Antinium back.”
A hail of arrows cut down Hectval’s front line and stopped the cheering. The Antinium fell back, and after more fighting, so did Hectval.
Olesm lost over a hundred Antinium.
After that, Olesm began digging fortifications, creating forts of dirt using the Antinium. Just in time, too; he realized Hectval was spreading out further.
“Some groups are even trying to get around us. Not big. We could ignore them.”
Ramia growled as they studied Scout Leader Maksie’s reports. Bepol shook his head.
“They’ll hit us from behind in raids or our supply line. Or maybe just go after Liscor. I think we need to move out.”
“…That’s what they want. No. That’s what Manus wants.”
Olesm saw it, clear as day. The spreading out of forces could only help Manus in their goal to fight the Antinium. Bunched up, Liscor’s army was far more of a threat. Spread out…the Antinium were on their own.
It fell to him to make a choice. Olesm pointed at the map.
“Bepol, you and Ramia have the left, Embria’s roaming. Belgrade has the right.”
“And what will you do, Commander?”
Surprised, Ramia turned to him. Olesm bared his teeth.
“I’m going Manus-hunting.”
He did his best. He saw Manus coming. He saw the Gnoll.
Spearmaster Lulv. If Olesm had to guess who held that adamantium-tipped spear…he was no fool. He could guess based on the number of [Spearmasters] in Manus.
The Gnoll leapt down a steep cliff face, so steep that the infantry looked like they were charging almost straight down. Olesm hadn’t expected that, but he instantly assumed a Skill.
“Got you. Antinium! Turn and brace! [Archers]! Prepare yourselves!”
Olesm rode towards Manus’ lines, and Hectval’s forces saw a group of nearly two hundred mounted archers join the ones already under Bepol and Ramia’s command. He had been waiting to ambush them. Olesm’s claw aimed straight at the [Spearmaster], wavered, aimed towards Manus’ lines.
[Spearmaster] or regular [Soldiers]? You don’t try to snipe high-level [Warriors]. Bad idea.
Olesm pointed towards Manus’ regular forces.
And his claw jerked right towards Lulv. Olesm’s Skill attacked Lulv! A decoy Skill! A taunting Skill?
The arrows shot towards Lulv, and the [Spearmaster] blocked them. His spear whirled, deflecting the phantasmal arrows, and the rest struck his armor and bounced off or vanished as a charm flashed. Olesm howled curses as his [Archers] loosed a second volley, but then Manus was attacking the Antinium.
It was so fast. Lulv’s spear howled, and twin fangs smote Antinum down. Olesm saw [Soldiers] using Skills too.
A long slash from a sword. Four arrows, nocked and loosed in quick succession. A flickering figure that turned into a wavering mirage as the real body struck home.
A sword set an Antinium ablaze. A hatchet was deflected by a shield—but the Antinium began bleeding as the blow struck through the metal and into the arm. A spear passed through armor into the body beyond.
Enchanted weapons. Lulv was retreating with Manus’ forces after one clash. That was all they needed. They unloaded their best Skills and fled.
Good tactics. Simple, effective…Olesm looked past them at the Hectval Alliance’s forces. They came at Bepol and Ramia in an enveloping wave, once more taking advantage of the Antinium’s losses. Olesm shook his head.
“[Riders], on me! [Attack Formation]!”
He led them in a charge along the sides, not following Manus, but heading left. A group of [Riders] came to stop him, and the mounted archers knocked them from their saddles. Olesm drew them to a standstill and parked them behind Hectval’s lines.
“Volley! Volley—break away!”
The [Soldiers] ate two volleys of arrows to their backs. More than the losses, it was demoralizing. Hectval’s commander turned on Olesm in a flash, trying to box him in. He just raised a claw.
“[Rapid Retreat]. 4th Company, your position?”
“Inbound. Keep them on you for just six…”
Olesm cut the overeager pursuers to shreds when Embria came out to attack them. And that was how he felt it went.
Hectval’s Alliance stalemated or lost. Manus won.
They had some kind of intelligence. Olesm suspected aerial scouts that Maksie couldn’t see, or just plain [Scrying] spells. They were fast, hard to keep track of…and they made gaps or openings even when he tried to counter them. In desperation, Olesm resorted to a new formation in the next battle. He placed Antinium companies among Liscor’s, such that there was no one unified body of Antinium. They were scattered like a patchwork among his command, inefficiencies or not.
In response? He could only describe it as Manus punishing Liscor. Olesm’s casualty list after that battle listed ninety-eight dead among the non-Antinium. Three times that wounded.
The officers rebelled. It was a quiet, polite rebellion, but still. Olesm woke up and found a gathering outside his tent.
“I’ve asked for Wing Commander Embria to help settle the matter, Commander Olesm. But they were insistent on talking to you.”
Bepol’s voice rose slightly, to tell Olesm she was aware of the issue. However, the officers didn’t budge. They stood with the lower-ranked non-commissioned officers, sixty in total.
It was a Gnoll who spoke for all of them. One of the Battalion Leaders.
“Commander Olesm, sir. We don’t intend a coup or anything like that. Have the Wing Commander listen…we’d just like to say our piece. We can’t—won’t have the Antinium in our ranks, sir. It’s not us hating them. It’s just—we can’t. If we go into battle like that again, we’ll fall back. Not desert. We hope you won’t call it rebelling. But I hope you understand.”
Olesm looked at the grim-faced Gnoll, then around at the others. Embria rode up, casually holding her spear, with two of her squads ‘casually’ jogging up.
“Commander Olesm. Problem?”
He saw the Gnoll warily eye her and shook his head.
“No, I think, Wing Commander. What’s your name, Battalion Leader? It’s early, and it’s escaping me.”
Olesm nodded grimly.
“Come on in, Podk. You and…six more. The rest of you can wait outside. Let’s settle this. Someone get me breakfast.”
In another army, Olesm might have tried this as a mutiny, because it technically was. Embria was glaring daggers, but Olesm had counted how many officers were there. He had a feeling they spoke for the group.
That was what Podk claimed. He looked awkward, even ashamed, but he spoke.
“Is it Manus that’s fighting us? That group led by the [Spearmaster]?”
Olesm had issued a clamp order on discussing that with the lower ranks. He stirred, but Podk went on.
“That’s what everyone’s saying, sir. No one had to tell me. I have eyes, and it’s not like I think they’re Hectval’s best, no. They’re after the Antinium.”
That too was obvious to anyone who had seen…the battles. Olesm gave a grudging nod.
“I understand you refuse to mix ranks with them. Can you reiterate why?”
“Not because we hate them!”
A Human spoke up. She clasped her hands behind her back, and all the officers nodded, some faster than others.
“It’s just that they killed nearly a hundred of us. Today. Tomorrow? If the Antinium aren’t…apart? They’ll do the exact same thing.”
“That’s war, soldier. They’re on one side, we’re on this one. Grab your tail and kiss it if you want, but figure out how to stab them if you’ve got time, not your own side!”
Embria barked, and Podk turned red, but he held his ground.
“It’s not cowardice.”
“Explain it to me, then.”
Olesm saw the Gnoll look around for support and get slow nods. He flexed his paws.
“It’s…I know the Antinium got a thousand reinforcements, sir. Saw them marching up myself. Brave Antinium. We got what, a hundred?”
“Mostly volunteers. Two days ago, yes.”
“Right. If the Antinium took…more casualties. Not that I want it—if they did, would a thousand more come?”
Olesm had a terrible feeling he knew what Podk was getting at. He put aside his rations and looked at the Gnoll.
“Are you putting the Antinium’s lives below yours, Podk?”
The Gnoll met his gaze, unwaveringly.
“Yes, sir. I am. I know they’re Antinium, and I don’t hate them. I saw them save Liscor again and again. But if a thousand of them die, the Hive comes up with more. Somehow. I’ve lived for thirty-three years. If a thousand of us die…Liscor will have more trouble coming up with us. And we will die, with Manus on the attack.”
His paws were clenched so tightly. Yet he said it. Olesm gave him that. If he danced, Olesm would have been tempted to ignite the Kaalblade hanging from his waist.
The [Leader] sat there and calmly picked up a biscuit. He began eating it as the officers watched until they were just uncomfortable enough, not assuming he was mocking them. Make them wait was Maviola’s advice. Even if they have you naked and are looting the mansion, make them wait.
Experienced advice. Olesm nodded.
“I’ll take your words to heart, Podk. Make no mistake—I’ve heard you. You’re dismissed.”
The officers stood at once. A scowling Embria let them leave, but Olesm called out.
The Gnoll turned in the doorway with the rest, theatrically. It was about…Olesm sat there, looking up at him calmly.
“The next time you all decide to do this? Send Podk, and I will hear him any time. If you do it again like this, I will have the Wing Commander arrest and try you all as mutineers. Have a fine day.”
They left fast. Embria stomped out to shout at 4th Company to disband and turned to Olesm.
“That was handled as well as I could ask, sir. We’d send that lot into battle naked, but it might have gotten…difficult if we tried them all. Nasty business. What’s the plan?”
Olesm scrubbed at his face with his claws. He sat there, and the [Leader] thought he could see Erin staring at him. He looked at an [Innkeeper], a genius chess player, someone who could speak to Drake [Generals] and rub shoulders with famous people and Gold-ranks without blinking.
He wondered if she would have been a great [General]…or a poor one. Because he had always thought she would be the world’s finest if she had changed courses. Now? He wasn’t sure.
Because he was about to do something Erin Solstice would never do. Olesm looked up at Embria.
“Do? I’m going to put the Antinium division back, Embria. And let Hectval at them.”
He waited for her to smile, one hand on a fork. If she smiled, he stabbed her, and she probably cut off a limb.
To her credit, she never did.
[Leader Level 15!]
[Skill – Preserve Morale (Casualties) obtained!]
[Skill – Bloodthirsty Engagement obtained!]
[Skill – Detect Disloyalty obtained!]
[Skill – Hundredfold Arms Repair obtained!]
It touched him, slightly, that his officers did not take part in that mutiny. He had no doubt they took part in the clandestine meetings he was aware they were trying to hide from him, but they did not join the group outside Olesm’s tent.
Still, they requested it. And still, Olesm acceded. And Belgrade?
He understood, on the level a [Strategist] could, why Olesm did that. It was simple: the Free Antinium could replenish their losses. Just as was pointed out to Olesm, if this was a war of attrition, Liscor’s morale and soldiers could not withstand the losses that the [Crusaders] could.
The Antinium died. The Antinium were reinforced. The survivors wore the dead’s armor, picked up the weapons of the fallen or captured arms.
It was a cold-blooded maneuver. Belgrade wondered if Olesm had leveled from it. Certainly, the Drake had quietly informed Belgrade that there would be no need for him to order the [Camp Smiths] to repair a hundred of the damaged mundane weapons each night.
Such a useful Skill.
Belgrade hated Olesm. But he did not mutiny. He did request permission to take over the Antinium command and was denied. Again, for entirely salutary reasons.
“You are a [Combined Arms Strategist], Belgrade. It only works if you have a mixed force to command. Moreover—you’re an excellent defensive-line specialist. Hectval is taking the battle into a wider and wider front. I need you to handle the right. Can I trust you to do that?”
Belgrade saluted Olesm with perfect posture, as he had seen Embria doing.
“You can trust me impeccably, Commander Olesm. I will do my duty to my utmost.”
He meant every word. Olesm was right. He was also wrong, but he was right in every order. Just like shutting the gates on the Goblins.
That kind of right.
Belgrade did not see his fellow Antinium dying. Oh, to be precise, he saw one die.
Exactly one. He had a bodyguard of twenty [Crusaders] that he had requested. One died when an arrow struck him during the fighting that followed in the next month and a half. The rest didn’t fight that much. They were bodyguards.
Belgrade was a [Strategist]. He had been apprised of assassination attempts by Tersk, and the Hive had sent more artifacts. Belgrade already had officer’s gear, but he had donned a strangely made torc, a segmented necklace of solid metal with a rune drawn on each side.
It had been made by Xrn to protect him. Belgrade was an asset. He had command of the right wing of the army.
He did a good job. Belgrade read each casualty report, heard of the Antinium under attack by the Manus forces. It became routine to see a column of Soldiers or Workers heading up from the rear, sometimes bearing supplies.
He focused on the fighting men and women of Liscor’s right flank. He saw Olesm implementing tactics on the left with the Antinium division and wrote Olesm his own. They didn’t seem to have a noticeable effect. Belgrade could not save his people, nor was his class advancing in the right way to help them the most as of yet.
However, over the next month, the right flank of Liscor’s army drew Hectval and their alliance into hell.
Belgrade was now a [Combined Arms Strategist]. He assumed being a [Trapsetter Strategist] was inherently implied to be part of that.
He had only four new Skills after his consolidation, but Belgrade found each one was strong. As any good [Strategist] did, he experimented and made sure he knew what they did before testing them out in battle. He made a mental list and wrote a note he instructed a Worker to personally hand to Xrn, Pawn, or the Free Queen that summarized his findings.
Firstly, and simplest. [Army: Springwood Supplies]. Belgrade had wondered if they had some kind of supplies from a ‘Springwood’, which sounded very much like Ceria’s home forest. If she had a home forest? Had he committed a racism?
He would ask Ceria if she ever returned from Chandrar. News from Liscor and thus the world was sparse, but Belgrade had heard she was alive. Good for her. She ate bugs, he ate bugs. They had a connection.
[Springwood Supplies] did not give him the half-Elven forest’s bounty per diem. Instead? It made all the wood material under Belgrade’s authority…springy.
Belgrade had bent a simple piece of cheap wood almost in half before it began to snap, and it was more…elastic in that it didn’t break as easily. It was springy.
He told his troops to make bear traps out of it.
Bear traps were an item used by [Hunters] and adventurers. A Silver-rank team had used them in Liscor’s dungeon. They had not worked, but Belgrade had seen some Goblins pulling a steel-jawed bear trap off Skinner when the monster had finally been brought down.
The silly Goblins had broken it down for weapon parts. A loaded trap that snapped shut and debilitated you when you stepped on it? That you could reuse if it was not broken?
That was the foundation of how Belgrade saved his Antinium in the Hive. He loved traps.
Springy wood? Belgrade demanded all of it he could get. It was a shame Liscor was so wood-sparse…so they imported it from Celum and sent it to him.
Springy wood didn’t just make traps. A simple trigger, some hard work wrestling it into place, and a boulder would conveniently fall and roll and kill everything in the way if you set it up right.
Pits? All you needed for a pit was some wood, or pointy rocks, or the drop, and all you needed for that was some time and effort and your hands.
Or a shovel, if you weren’t Antinium. That actually would have been a problem, as the Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans weren’t natural tunnelers. However, that led Belgrade to his second Skill:
[Antinium-Expertise Command]. It took effect as the Alliance’s army spread across the foothills. While the left side suffered Antinium attacks, and the ‘mercenaries’ inflicted their equally grim toll on Antinium lines, the right side feared to advance. They began to mutiny rather than pursue their foes into the caves, cliff faces, and valleys that were technically their homeland. Mainly because…
The Hectval patrol were trying to keep their voices low. An entire army was moving forwards at a snail’s pace, but they couldn’t help it.
Their [Scouts] and regulars kept stepping on bear traps. Just yesterday, an entire patrol had fallen into a pit trap and then been buried by rubble.
A ghastly way to go.
“How’d they dig it? Are there more Ants around?”
“Bastards. I haven’t seen them in a week. I’d rather be on the left flank. These cowards have their tails between their legs. You hear me? You hear—”
A [Soldier] raised his voice to shout to the darkness beyond, but his buddies shushed him. Another [Soldier] shuddered as she stood watch at the entrance to their camp. She kept staring at the cliff face beyond.
“They could be in those caves.”
“We’ve been here for a week. They’re not in those caves.”
A [Sergeant] snapped at her grumpily. He was watching the sentries every now and then, counting them. All was good. They’d held this place, fortified it…the cliffs might be a source of attack if they held enemies, but they’d been scouted. He relayed this to his command, and they relaxed…until the nervous [Soldier] pointed up at the caves.
“You can’t check all of them!”
“You can check most of ‘em. Trust me. We went all the way until you could barely fit in. There might be a few dozen, but that’s all. Get some sleep.”
The group did, but uneasily. The [Soldier] kept watching the caves and muttering about how they might be in there. Which showed she had a paranoid streak in her and some imagination, which might be officer material?
Squad Leader Kerone still thought it was hilarious, and he kept shushing the giggling Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans under his command. Not that they made much sound. They carefully marked the place where the soldiers were.
…Above their heads. The [Soldiers] marched through the narrow tunnel. So narrow, in fact, it was shoulder-to-shoulder wide, and the dirt almost scraped their heads.
Claustrophobic? It was a nightmare come to life, and yet each [Soldier] breathed easily. They also picked their way down the network of tunnels with ease.
“Huh. Ceiling needs another brace here. Get one of the dig-crews on it.”
Kerone noted a point where the ceiling showed danger. He didn’t know how, but he saw it. The other [Soldiers] agreed.
“Yep. What d’you reckon? Another day?”
“Sounds about right. Charges in place?”
Someone jogged up from the back lines. Their [Alchemist].
“Jars set. I think it’ll collapse the shitty loam they’re camped on, but, if not, I guess we’ll find out when we use the exit ramp. Idiots are right over an empty space. Who does that?”
It was hilarious because none of them would have known an empty space below their feet from bedrock two weeks ago. Now, though? Kerone felt like he had a good five feet of room in every direction, although he could have concussed himself by jumping too hard.
Antinium-expertise. Not only that, they dug like fools. Was this what it was like being Antinium? He had to admit…the upsides were up.
Kerone muttered, and the [Soldiers] sombered. The Squad Leader caught himself.
“Let’s give Hectval a really nice night. Just to thank them for it.”
They all nodded with grim satisfaction.
Belgrade’s new army of sapper-capable forces aside, his third Skill meant that if Manus had gone for him, or Hectval, when they were desperate enough to advance just to fight something, they had a bad time no matter how fast the battle began.
“[Prepared Battleground: One Hour].”
The army charging across the flat ground at Belgrade had seen little in the way of fortifications as he mustered a counter force rather than the guerrillas he’d hidden all over the pass. They saw one pop into existence now.
One moment Belgrade was staring across flat ground as Kerone and the others moved into formation—the next, he was slightly elevated, on carefully-piled dirt. The first rank of Hectval’s forces saw a ditch appear, and in it—
“More bear traps! Stop, st—”
They ran into the ditch as the carefully-positioned pikes speared them, and Belgrade watched his attack channels clear of traps let his forces advance. [Archers] shot down at their counterparts from behind makeshift barriers formed out of the camp’s supplies.
And still, this would not defeat Manus. It was a Skill dependent on the quality of his supplies, the Skills of his forces…would it have stopped the Humans or Goblin Lord?
It would have helped. Belgrade watched, directing his pieces in prepared moves, improvising only when needed. He liked this kind of battle, where he had all the time in the world to prepare.
“Come closer. Die for me. I am still angry. How will I stop being angry? Until you are all dead? Until your city is dead?”
The [Strategist] wondered aloud. A group of his soldiers cut off by a daring charge formed a ring. A last stand…and they did die. But sometimes they were rescued.
Belgrade would report, later, that over that month of fighting his divisions and [Soldiers] achieved the highest kill ratio in all of Liscor’s army. However, his wing would go on to earn a lower casualty rate than the left wing or center…because Hectval’s armies would begin to mutiny or retreat rather than enter his battle zone, leading to Belgrade’s steady advance over the right side of the battlefield, whereupon he threatened the center and even rear lines.
A perfect [Strategist]’s move. He played his part to perfection and leveled.
However, that was Belgrade’s part of the war. He did not bleed with the Antinium crusade. He led his [Soldiers] to victory, until their division even named itself ‘Belgrade’s Ants’ in his honor.
His soul marched with the other Antinium.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
He had bad dreams. Nightmares.
They didn’t always come in the day. Sometimes, they were at night, too. Fighting where even Antinium couldn’t see. Arrows raining down. Spells and shouted commands and death.
A lot of death. Crusader 51 would swing his sword, block spells and blades, and sometimes see the harbingers of death falling upon a squad or a battalion. Drakes and Gnolls following a [Spearmaster]. He would wait for the end while fighting, struggling, flailing to prevent his death.
Then he woke up. Crusader 51 would march back to the camp, one of the fortified thoroughfares that Commander Olesm was building, or an emergency camp, or sit down and wait for someone to find his squad.
He would hear people, not Antinium, talking about the losses. Or Tersk and Dekass conferring. For a while, Crusader 51 would walk about, eat, sleep, listen…poke little bugs as they crawled past him.
But, inevitably, he would have the nightmare again.
Crusader 51 knew they weren’t really dreams. It was a way of thinking about battle so the world could be understood. He didn’t know how the rest of Squad 5, Battalion 1 thought of it.
He had a squad again. He was still Squad 5, Battalion 1, Acid Jars. Crusader 51 was still in the war. However, the Antinium who came into the army, into his squad, kept changing.
That was because they kept dying.
It was luck. If you were lucky, you didn’t fight at all. You just marched, shield up, following Tersk or Dekass’ orders or Commander Olesm’s, and you weren’t ever rotated into the front. Or you shot arrows and never met the enemy.
But if you were unlucky…they came for you. The Gnoll with the spear. [Mages] casting spells you couldn’t block. Archers.
Antinium would die, regardless. The question was…was it your turn this battle? They would die, and Tersk and Dekass would walk down the ranks. That was when Crusader 51 saw the Antinium he recognized and those who were new.
And the gaps.
“Squad 4…six casualties. Squad 5! Two. Squad 6!”
That, too, was part of the dream. But the dream…Crusader 51 didn’t like remembering them. He tried not to; let it slip away. If he thought hard…he remembered slitting a Drake’s throat.
Running a Gnoll through from behind.
Watching someone kill Crusader 50 again.
Waking was better. The waking world was not glorious or fun or beautiful. The sky had begun to lose its meaning to Crusader 51. But he had…food. A reprieve from battle.
And Crusader 53. Even some of the other Antinium he recognized. Not necessarily Squad 5.
Crusader 51 had met multiple replacements for Squad 5. The first time, he had fist-bumped every Soldier’s fist once. All eight of them, they had worn patched up armor, and he’d promised that they would never all die again.
The second time, he’d fist-bumped them all again. And the third.
By the fourth round of reinforcements…Crusader 51 still fist-bumped the new Soldiers, but didn’t sit with them or show them how to adjust their packs. Crusader 53 and some of the Soldiers who’d survived a few battles did.
However, there was one member of Squad 5 who didn’t receive a fist-bump from Crusader 51. Not because Crusader 51 hated that particular member. Their designation was Crusader 57; they wore the same patched-up armor, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the weapon they carried.
It was cursed.
Crusader 51 realized it was a curse. Each Antinium marched around with it on their shoulder, propped up because there was no holster or sheath big enough; they had to carry it much like a pike.
It hadn’t been in Squad 5’s first inception. However, in the reorganization of the [Crusaders], Tersk and Dekass had passed out weapons and messed with the unity of each squad. So this weapon had appeared, and its curse meant that no Antinium who carried it into battle came back. The longest Crusader 51 ever saw was two battles.
The cursed weapon of each Crusader 57 was a giant sword. Not wide, but long. It was called a ‘zweihander’. Crusader 51 had no idea where the name came from or who invented it, but it was a long greatsword. A five-foot-long blade meant for the biggest warriors to strike and attack with all their strength.
Doubtless, the Free Hive or Armored Hive had somehow acquired the weapon and decided to arm the [Crusaders] with it. Crusader 51 bet that whomever had found the weapon hadn’t known it was cursed.
He didn’t see any obvious effect, but no Soldier carrying it came back. It was like…a giant target on them. Enemy soldiers saw the zweihander and sought Crusader 57 out. [Archers] shot him. Officers marked him as a target.
So Crusader 51 didn’t greet the new Crusader 57. There was no point.
Crusader 53 did. He was still fighting, despite only having two arms on his left side. Tersk and Dekass had debated sending him back, but they had decided it was a waste of resources to organize.
However, the mace-wielding [Crusader] lived. Crusader 51 watched his back. Crusader 53 wouldn’t die.
He was gifted with his mace, one-armed or not. He could make the heavy weapon dance, swing it from target to target with as much grace as the crushing mace could have. He would cheerfully let Crusader 51 guard his right side while he smacked his opponents with two maces held by his left two hands.
Crusader 53 was cheerful. He went around fist-bumping all the new Soldiers and Workers, even in different squads. He was a silly Ant.
By now, Crusader 51 knew more things. Like, Antinium were ‘Ants’. That was what some people called them. He knew they were ‘in the soup’, which was heavy fighting. He understood you had to change your socks or your boots got bad.
Crusader 51 didn’t have socks, but he was close enough to the rest of Liscor’s army that he heard these things. Indeed, though he didn’t want to…he got to know some of the [Crusaders]. He did not want to know any but Crusader 53 because the rest would die, but he kept seeing their faces.
And it seemed as though the war made some of the Antinium…odd. Crusader 51 began to make a list in his head as he played with pillbugs. The silly little things curled up as if that would save them. But they uncurled if you held perfectly still for five minutes, and then they’d nibble at some of his rations, just a little smudge of it.
Crusader 51 had seventeen he kept in a little pouch meant for the healing potion he’d never gotten re-issued. Crusader 53 thought they were rations. Crusader 53 ate every bug he caught.
Crusader 51 did not. He was apparently an [Insect Feeder]. But that wasn’t anything special. The really weird Workers and Soldiers who survived battles? Well…some were bad Antinium.
They were locked together, he and the Gnoll. They had both stabbed each other through their armor.
[Faith is My Strength]. Crusader 51 tried to shove the Gnoll back, but he wasn’t much stronger. Just a bit. And the Gnoll was big.
They were cursing, trying to pull the blade out and angle it for a better cut. It hurt. Crusader 51 realized the Gnoll was going to pull the blade out and run him through. So he twisted the sword in the Gnoll and heard the scream. He kept twisting…kept sawing into the bloody flesh as the Gnoll did the same.
He was faster. Crusader 51 yanked the blade out and turned. He looked around. Where was Squad 5? Crusader 57 was dead again. Crusader 53 bashed in an opponent’s head as Crusader 51 heard Tersk shouting for them to advance, adva—
The Liscorian [Soldiers] were sitting around, chatting. Humans, Drakes, Gnolls. But they were not just their species. One Human was trying to cook his food over a fire even more than it was already.
“It’s not crisp enough.”
“Any more crisp and it’ll be charcoal. Listen, I’m a Drake. We invented Firebreath Whiskey and Fire Shots. You’re burning your food. It’s broccoli.”
“All the more reason to burn it.”
The Human retorted. He had a flaxen hair color and walked and moved with a kind of begrudging swiftness, except in battle. As if he had to force himself to do everything—but he did it just to keep up with you.
“Alright, Mister [Chef]. Satel, right? Does everyone in Esthelm burn their food?”
Satel glared as the rest of the squad, Significant Beavers, heckled him. He folded his arms.
“When you’ve got a city that makes a lot of metal, you learn how to properly cook stuff. Coal-fired ovens. It’s got a taste, you know.”
“I just bet.”
One of the Gnolls snorted. She shuddered.
“Remind me not to settle in Esthelm when I finish the war. I’ll go north.”
Everyone looked at her. Utel Silverfang was one of the many Silverfang Gnolls from Liscor.
“What’re you doing? Leaving after this campaign? Just in it for the money?”
Satel eyed her. Utel nodded instantly.
“It’s just for the money, yes? It’s good pay.”
“Assuming you can collect it.”
One of the Drakes, Jordes, commented sourly. He amended his statement when Utel looked worried.
“I just mean that if you’re dead, it’s not in your pockets. It’ll go to your family, don’t worry.”
“Hrr. That’ll be Silverfang’s tribe, then. Honored Krshia or Honored Elirr will figure it out.”
What did that mean? Satel was nearly done with his broccoli and chewing on it. He had [Tough Mouth]…which was the Skill that everyone made fun of him for. On the other hand, he could eat steaming broccoli and not blink twice.
Utel did not explain. She just cast her eyes northwards.
“I’ll go north with the money from this campaign, yes?”
“And do what? Travel? I’m planning on taking my money and putting a stake in one of the mines. With Pelt in Esthelm, I could be rich…if I get a good [Prospector] and find a seam. We get a mine, I buy the rights to it…then I retire early and have three kids. I want a family.”
Satel had his own plan. Jordes laughed.
“Wait, where’s the female Human coming from?”
The Esthelm Human hesitated.
“…That comes with the success of the first mine.”
“Doesn’t have to be Human. I’m not picky. I’m desperate.”
More chuckles. Satel grinned, but Jordes just started laughing…because that was a bit too honest.
“Maybe you’ve got a shot in Liscor. I’ll take you around if we ever get a break. There’s got to be someone who enjoys toasted broccoli. Me, I’m taking my levels and going to enlist in Pallass’ army.”
Everyone in Significant Beavers chorused. Jordes lifted a claw.
“Think on it. Pallass treats their [Soldiers] well. You can get citizenship in a Walled City if you serve…thirteen years, I think, for Pallass? If I’m Level 15, I can pretty much guarantee I’d get enlisted. Normally, it’d be too hard to get into Pallass, especially for a Liscor lad. But guess what we have?”
A magic door. Jordes had an entire plan that revolved around getting posted to one of the armies that didn’t see much action, spending thirteen years, and retiring on a fat pension. Utel was upset.
“Shut up. Shut up. You didn’t let me finish! I’m not going north just for the sights, scales-for-brains. I’m going to get a big job in my tribe’s specialty.”
Jordes saw Utel Silverfang fix him with an exasperated look. She growled under her breath as the squad chortled. They didn’t think they were going to die, you see. Antinium were different.
Like the Antinium watching them. The evil one.
Crusader 51 had been listening in, and he saw the bad Antinium waiting for his moment to strike. But he was waiting to hear what Utel was going to do.
“Silversmithing. I get my pay—there are other Silverfangs in the army. Maybe some of them want to join up. Maybe some Gnolls from the city. We pool our money, join on with a caravan…and go north. All the way to House Byres.”
“House Byres? Where have I heard that one?”
Satel glanced up, frowning. He was toasting more veggies; Significant Beavers was savoring their lunch, so they weren’t through their rations.
“It’s a noble house. They have a big silver mine. You want to work for Humans?”
Another Gnoll frowned at Utel. She shrugged.
“We have Gnoll techniques and styles. I can ask Honored Krshia for all our knowledge. Silver has lots of uses. Yes, my tribe has access to silver mines too, but what about the north? If we have even one thing Humans aren’t used to, we’d boost production and demand. I’ll form a group of Gnolls up north.”
“What do Gnolls have that’s silver-related that the north doesn’t?”
“Ever heard of a Purity Seal? It’s where you take a lot of silver and a [Shaman] and create this structure that helps deal with bad poisons or other problems. Some monsters hate it, too. I bet Humans don’t use many [Shamans], right?”
“Huh. And you want to…”
That was when he struck. Crusader 51 saw a Worker walk forwards, and Significant Beavers all stopped as one. They looked up, surprised, as a Worker in armor with his helmet removed walked forwards. He had an odd, casual walk, even with shoulders not perfectly straight.
He was doing it again. Every Antinium not busy or napping looked over as Significant Beavers stirred.
That was the only reason an Antinium would bother the Liscor regulars, right? Jordes muttered.
But it was only a murmur from an old Liscorian. No one really tensed, but Satel hesitated, mid-roast with his skewer. The Worker faced the others. Then he opened his mandibles, not in an Antinum smile where he would raise them, but almost mimicking a Human one. He lifted all four arms in an odd, expressive gesture.
And he spoke.
“Hey, I’m Kevin.”
Significant Beavers all stirred. The Worker walked forwards, hand raised in a casual greeting. He stuck two hands out for Jordes and Utel. The [Soldiers] looked at each other.
“That’s right. I’m Kevin. ‘Sup?”
It was the most odd thing to hear an Antinium say, but the Worker had perfectly memorized his intonation and even his way of wandering about, at ease, chill.
Not that Crusader 51 had ever met Kevin, but the other Workers and Soldiers who had known him agreed it was a perfect replica. However, ‘Kevin’ was a bad Antinium.
“Mind if I sit down?”
Jordes glanced around. It was an Antinium. Significant Beavers didn’t mind them. Poor saps. Getting chopped up. But they were still…
Satel looked extremely uneasy, as did the non-Liscorians. For that matter, Jordes wasn’t at home with them that much—but Kevin shook his hand and kept speaking.
“Don’t worry, I’m chill. You’ll like me. I’m Kevin.”
That confidence! There was something so…engaging about it, and the way Kevin just sat down. He glanced at Satel.
“Got anything to eat?”
That bastard. Crusader 51 watched as Crusader 53 shook his head. Satel gingerly offered Kevin a taste, and the Worker accepted the food. He cracked a joke.
“So listen, guys. I’m an idiot H—Antinium. I made this mistake one time where I didn’t know Drakes were, y’know, Drakes. So I said something about Lizardfolk, and man—”
Significant Beavers listened, and, within moments, they were laughing and heckling Kevin. Line for line. He took Kevin’s energy! His jokes!
He took Kevin’s…Kevin-ness. Just to steal food. They offered Kevin-Worker more of their food, amused and perplexed by the Worker.
The other Antinium watched disapprovingly. This Worker had no morals. Kevin-Worker did it every time. He just sidled over, made the other squads laugh or found ones he’d already ingratiated himself with, and stole food.
That was so wrong. Those poor Liscorians! But Kevin had no morality. He was evil. Crusader 51 folded his arms, feeding his pillbugs some of his rations. Kevin even went back with two links of sausage and handed them out among his squad. He went back to Significant Beavers over breakfast too.
Kevin. How dare he besmirch the real Kevin’s good name?
Kevin-Worker found Significant Beavers in the smoking crater of a [Fireball]. The squad halted as the Antinium wandered out of the chaos.
Utel whirled, raising her bow.
“Hey. Mind if I sit down?”
The Antinium sat down without asking, again. He was still smoking. Jordes looked around.
“What happened? Where’s your squad?”
They all looked past Kevin at the crater where the [Fireball] had detonated. Kevin didn’t say anything. He just sat there as Significant Beavers closed ranks around him.
“I’m tired. I’ll just sit here a second, okay?”
Crusader 51’s head was ringing. He saw Significant Beavers clustering around Kevin as Squad 5 picked themselves up. [Fireballs]. Tersk was reporting the location of the [Mage] to Commander Olesm and Maksie, demanding they be taken out…
Kevin just sat there.
“I’m okay, guys. I’ll just sit here. Okay?”
Another bad Antinium was Shelly. This Antinium actually got no less than Scout Leader Maksie involved.
Maksie might have been only a Scout Leader, but she actually had [Aerial Scout] and [Lieutenant] as a class, being from 4th Company. So she had a quasi-rank above her station.
“Why can’t Tersk or Dekass handle it?”
She didn’t like Antinium, but the Squad Leaders with her watching Shelly and his evil criminality shook their heads.
“We can’t talk to them. They’ll execute the Ant buggers or something. Besides, it’s…”
Well. It was embarrassing. Maksie folded her wings as she glared at the Antinium. Then frowned and peered at the group of complaining [Soldiers] and the jingle of coins. And…
Shelly had one trick. Every time they made camp, the Antinium would wander over to the Liscor tents and sit down. He and another Antinium would wave their arms, and Shelly would produce three bowls. He would also place a single coin down.
Sometimes copper, sometimes silver. No gold; he didn’t have gold. [Soldiers] would see. Oh! A shell game!
They’d walk up after some hesitation and ask to play. Shelly would look at them, then wave a coin. One coin to play? No problem…they had some back pay. The [Soldier] would hand it over and get the three bowls in return.
“We have to do it?”
A Drake laughed as Shelly patted his knees. He watched as the Drake, amused, looked around.
“Who’s got the fastest claws? Let’s teach this poor Ant a lesson.”
Shelly didn’t prey on Liscorians who liked him. He chose the ones who didn’t or were greedy. So the Drakes would whisper, and one would put a coin under a bowl.
“Okay, Ant. Watch it closely…”
They were cheating. Maksie’s eyes narrowed. She saw the coin vanish from the first bowl, and a second Drake subtly slid it into the second. So everyone focusing on the middle bowl was wrong. It was the bowl on the right…and you could follow the rotations. The Drake was doing it just slow enough so that Shelly wouldn’t get confused and pick the right one on accident.
“Okay? Which one is it?”
Shelly’s antennae waved. The audience of Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and a few other Antinium waited. Then he pointed towards the bowl in the middle.
The Drake’s jaw dropped as Shelly revealed the right coin. He looked accusingly at his partner, and the other Drake shrugged.
“Another round! Damn it—”
Maksie’s brows shot up.
“I’ve never seen an Antinium gambling. What’s the problem?”
“That Antinium does it every night. It’s not…they seem to enjoy it, but that Antinium wins almost every game.”
Maksie blinked at the other Squad Leaders. But that Worker was letting other [Soldiers] do the game. And they were cheating; some were honest, but most cheated.
“Wait, he wins?”
One of the Sentry Leaders growled. The Gnoll shook her head.
“Yep. And guess what he does with it?”
As Shelly’s winnings piled up, he took a handful of copper coins and approached one of the [Soldiers] chewing on half their ration. Maksie watched as way too many coins traded hands for the half-ration, but Shelly and two other Antinium, a Soldier and another Worker, gathered around and gobbled it down.
The Shell Gang. The most hated Antinium besides Kevin! Crusader 51 watched them. Food.
It was all about food. Most of the bad Antinium had found a way to get more. Maksie figured out what they were doing after two more shell games. She rolled her eyes.
“Oh, Ancestors. You morons.”
The Squad Leaders looked at her. She pointed out how Shelly was doing it. The Antinium was watching the moving shells. But even when the Drakes tried to trick him? Even when they slipped a coin out or even hid it behind their backs?
Shelly 2 and Shelly 3 in the crowd were watching them. Their antennae waved energetically. Ironically, the honest player who moved too fast for all three Antinium to spot was the one likeliest to win.
The Squad Leaders exclaimed. One went to break up the gathering, and Shellys 1-3 scurried away, abandoning their winnings. Maksie watched in satisfaction, but she had to admit—an Antinium conman was really funny.
The Worker was a [Cheater]. Crusader 51 stared daggers at Shelly as the Worker went to sit with his squad. He was clearly biding his time till the next group came by that didn’t figure it out. Well, Maksie often saw other squads. She could point it out to them and that was that.
Shelly lay on his back. [Spearmaster] Lulv lifted his spear and cursed.
“They’re bombarding their own lines again! Fall back! Fall back!”
Manus’ soldiers ran back as arrows rained down around them. One—just one—was dead. An arrow through the Drake’s earhole. Lulv bent down, frowning.
He ducked an arrow and whirled.
“Sniper! We have a sniper! Find it!”
He ran off. The [Cheater] lay on his back. Dead. After a few seconds, one of the Antinium lying next to him sat up.
A Soldier. Shelly 2. He was alive. He’d lain down after taking a glancing blow. He looked around.
[Cheater]. He’d done it! He went to find Shelly 3 and Shelly 1. They had…had…
Shelly, the original, lay on his back, a bleeding green hole in his chest. Shelly 2 stood over him and saw Shelly 3 was dead, too, headless.
So. They hadn’t learned how to [Cheat Death] yet. The Soldier stood there and then bent down. He placed two coins on each of the Antinium’s eyes and then lay back down. Curling up.
High overhead, Scout Leader Maksie looked down at another dead squad. Every single battle she saw it. She saw that Antinium lie back down, and that—
That rattled her.
The next day, Shelly was back. Only, it was a Soldier and two new Workers instead of the original. A new group of Liscorian soldiers who hadn’t heard about the cheater were complaining about the Antinium’s luck.
“What do you think it is? Maksie? I think it’s cheating, but I don’t know.”
Wing Commander Embria had noticed the odd behavior. She turned to the Scout Leader. Maksie looked at the familiar Soldier.
Embria eyed Maksie. She drew her aside.
“You alright, Maksie? Is it…getting to you?”
Even veterans could snap. However, the soup wasn’t that thick. For 4th Company, at least. Maksie blinked. The Oldblood Drake fanned her wings, and the [Aerial Scout] looked at Embria.
“No. Not me. It’s the Ants.”
Embria hesitated. The Antinium? Maksie shook her head. She kept looking at them.
“Don’t tell me you’re feeling bad for them.”
Embria half-joked, a smile on her face. She half-meant it. They were getting torn up, but she wasn’t prepared for the silent look Maksie gave her. She couldn’t even joke about it. Embria’s face grew somber, surprised, as Maksie jerked her head.
“Listen, Wing Commander. I don’t like Antinium. I listen to the old guard. I know Sserys got…listen. I didn’t feel bad even when they were wiped out. We’re on the same side, but I know they’re Ants. I saw them getting minced by Manus. I see it up there.”
She jerked her head up at the sky. Embria nodded, uncomprehending, and Maksie went on.
“It’s not when they die—just when they die—that gets me. I’ve seen last stands. They go down fighting. You have to be able to survive that or you quit scouting. Give away your position.”
It wasn’t easy, being the observer who called in data. You couldn’t break cover. So…Maksie looked Embria straight in her eyes, and her wings fluttered like her breath: quick, pained.
“It’s not that. What gets me is when they run away. The Ants. Or pretend to be dead. Or don’t move and just grab a buddy. When they break and run.”
She looked past Embria at Shelly. The Wing Commander thought of something to say. What she didn’t say, what was illegal to say…Maksie muttered.
“They look like Drakes.”
That comment would later cause a fight in 4th Company’s private tents with the officers, after which Maksie would stop showing up. As for Shelly? He kept stealing coins and exchanging them for food.
Crusader 51 wondered why other officers didn’t stop him.
He was not strong. [Faith is My Strength] only made him stronger. He believed when they heard the sermons. Heaven…Heaven…
But he was not strong. Just stronger.
Crusader 53 was strong. They ran into an officer leading Hectval’s [Soldiers]. He cut down Crusader 57 again. A sweeping flamberge. Enchanted. Another piercing, too-sharp blade.
It met Crusader 51’s own enchanted sword, and the Drake backed up, cursing.
“Take out that Antinium!”
Crusader 51 fell back as spears jabbed at him, glancing off his armor, and he whirled his sword, slashing at the other weapons. But that left Crusader 53 exposed! The officer saw the lopsided [Crusader] and charged, his sword sweeping out for a cut straight through Crusader 53.
The [Maceman] turned. And his mace swung at the enchanted flamberge. The two weapons met—and the officer’s weapon went bouncing away.
The Drake looked flabbergasted at the flamberge as it nearly juddered out of his claws. How? The mace was not enchanted! And yet…did it glow as Crusader 53 lifted it? How had it done that? How—
[Weapon of Faith]. Crusader 53 brought it down on the helmet, and the Hectval troops broke and ran. The Soldier happily patted his mace as Crusader 51 stared down at Crusader 57 again.
“Enchanted flamberge. We will send it back to Liscor.”
Tersk announced the moment Squad 5 presented the weapon to him. Dekass agreed instantly.
“This is an enchanted weapon of acceptable grade. Too valuable to be lost.”
He looked at the squad of Antinium. You could not lose enchanted items. Those were in short supply. The same with valuable Antinium. Everything else?
He spotted Crusader 51’s sword and pointed at that.
“Tersk. That Antinium has an enchanted sword as well. A potent one.”
Crusader 51 saw Tersk focus on him. The Armored Prognugator clicked his mandibles.
“Ah. You are right. I had seen it, but Dekass, as someone who has been a Soldier without armor, I considered Squad 5 might benefit from it, as that is a weapon they use.”
Tersk tapped the side of his head knowingly. Dekass nodded but twiddled his thumbs.
“Yes…but would that sword not be lost when this Antinium dies? I suggest, Tersk, that we return both blades to the Free Antinium. They have already accounted for more worth than one squad…given their turnover rates.”
Tersk reluctantly looked at Squad 5.
“You may have a point. Crusader, hand over your gear. We will replace it. I will send it tonight via door.”
His sword? Crusader 51 slowly lifted his sword up out of its sheath. Tersk reached for it impatiently.
A giant hand fell on the Prognugator’s shoulder. Tersk went still, and the specialist assigned to their division rumbled.
“You will not.”
Calruz the Minotaur, with his one hand, regarded Crusader 53. And Crusader 51. He nodded to them as Tersk began to argue. The Minotaur had one huge axe strapped to his back. He did not have his little rats, but he was Calruz. Crusader 53 stared up at the Minotaur as he snapped at Tersk.
“You do not understand your soldiers. I thought you were beginning to learn.”
Tersk’s mandibles clicked shut. He took a step back, regarded Squad 5, and abruptly nodded.
“You are right. They should keep the blade. We will even give another squad the flamberge.”
“What? Inconceivable. Tersk, this conclusion is nonsensical!”
Dekass protested, but Tersk and Calruz were inspecting each other, and the Minotaur jerked his head. Tersk slowly nodded back.
“Dekass, it is a lesson Pawn taught me once. I will explain it to you many times.”
Squad 5 watched as he marched Dekass off. Then they looked to Calruz. He nodded at Squad 5. Calruz eyed the zweihander the new Crusader 57 held.
“Huh. That’s oversized. Someone made that for a truly large form. Even a Soldier would have trouble with it. I’d think twice about using it with two arms. Give it to me. We’ll replace it.”
He reached for the blade, and Crusader 57 smacked Calruz’s hand down. All of Squad 5 recoiled as the Minotaur blinked.
“Give that to me. I will replace it with—”
He reached out again, and Crusader 57 bit at him. Two mandibles clicked, and Calruz jerked his hand back. He and Crusader 51 stared at the new Crusader 57. Who was this?
Another bad Antinium. The Worker with the zweihander on its back refused to let Calruz take the blade. And when they were dismissed for food, he elbowed his way to the front of the line.
Crusader 51 disliked him instantly. What was a Worker doing with Squad 5? When Crusader 51 sat down to feed his pillbugs, Crusader 57 took one look at them and tried to eat one! When Crusader 51 grabbed his arm, the Worker didn’t hand the pillbug back, but flicked it into the distance.
Crusader 51 punched him in the face. The Worker bit his arm. Every Antinium halted as the two began to punch each other and roll around fighting. Crusader 51 saw Crusader 53 get up to help, but the smaller Worker should have been easy for Crusader 51, a Level 14 [Crusader], to beat.
However, he was so strong! And he punched and bit—Crusader 51 had used his mandibles as a weapon, but he had never encountered an Antinium who tried to bite as a tactic. He was pinning Crusader 57 down when the Worker suddenly spoke.
“oFF. GEt oFf ME.”
Every Antinium drew back in horror. Crusader 51 leapt away, and Crusader 53 raised his mace.
The first Aberration appeared in their ranks as a survivor of one of the decimated squads. Crusader 57 with the cursed zweihander. Worst of them all.
Calruz, [Honorbound Prisoner]
“It must die. I will execute it at once.”
Tersk drew his sword and advanced on the pinned Worker. Once again, Calruz barred his way.
The Prognugator looked at Calruz with pure astonishment. Calruz did not know what to think of Tersk. He was intelligent, sharp, a gifted leader with a mind for strategy, and had a lack of fear, even when Manus, a Walled City, tried to kill him battle after battle.
At the same time, he was arguably less intelligent than Rhata or Haldagaz. Calruz missed his pets.
They were with Selys. He would not take animals to a front. Calruz had not trained them for battle or subterfuge…if you would even train common rats to do that. He did have a class.
[Pet Owner]. It had surprised him that he could gain a class as a [Prisoner]. Perhaps, though…he was not one.
Calruz was fighting with no chains on him. He did have a tracking spell and a bracelet sealed onto his right leg. But Olesm had let him fight.
He did not lead forces. Calruz did apprise Liscor’s officers of impending attacks, but he was not permitted to lead.
He fought alone, from front to front. The Minotaur took no joy in it, but he did find a certain satisfaction. This, at least, mattered. One-armed or not, the Hectval Alliance had learned to fear a Minotaur with an axe coming at their ranks.
The House of Minos would look at me like a fool, the way I fight. All of the Beriad would call me insane, even the most foolhardy of them.
One-armed warriors were not unheard of. Calruz had no prosthetic, but even then, he could have taken his position in an honorable rank of warriors if he were in the army. Yet he fought alone, charging into pikes and spears, trusting to his Skills.
[Steelbound Hide]. A relic from surviving Skinner, falling into the dungeon, and taking command of the Raskghar there. He had possessed [Thick Skin], then. When he charged the Crelers, it evolved.
Drakes would stab into him with mundane weapons, expecting him to defend—but his axe would crash into their ranks. Faster than they could attack.
Offense. Calruz didn’t think of it as a fair battle. Simply war. He would have challenged Manus’ forces for his honorable death…
If he thought he could kill any of them. They would shoot him before he got close. And besides…
The [Honorbound Prisoner] had realized he had to live. At least in this war. Not just so that Hectval would be punished.
For the sake of these poor warriors. For Tersk’s own honor.
“Why must that Worker die?”
“He is Aberration.”
Dekass said it as if it explained everything. Calruz frowned at him. Yes…if he thought of the two Prognugators in terms of his rats, Rhata was Dekass. She was a simple soul. Strong…Calruz had gotten a rare Skill as a Level 11 [Pet Owner]. He hadn’t expected to level so fast, but all he did in his cell was pet them, exercise, speak with Zevara, construct a miniature climbing gym out of scraps for the two rats, sleep, and so on.
[Pet: Best Quality, Refined]. A Skill for the House of Minos’ warriors to be proud of…for rats.
It was ironic, but it fit Calruz perfectly. Let them have a Skill most Minotaurs would be proud to receive. Rhata could drag a ten pound weight around when he tied it to her. 🐀
Dekass was Rhata. He was a simple leader. He did not understand nuance, but he was capable. Calruz even suspected he was better with his sword and shield than Tersk, who handled it less confidently. The Antinium did not seem to realize each warrior had their own best weapon. Or none, in the case of Artur, the [Flag Bearer].
However, Tersk was unto Haldagaz. Calruz’s white-furred little rat would sometimes sit on Calruz’s head, and the Minotaur would read a book to him. He almost thought Haldagaz understood; Rhata just ate while they read. Tersk was like that. Almost. Almost, and Calruz thought they would be warriors of different species, but on the same level.
Tersk was looking at Calruz like Haldagaz, trying to understand. Aware there was something he was missing. His mandibles clicked slowly.
“It…the appearance of an Aberration means they are a defective Worker or Soldier, Calruz. They must die because they will kill everything they see. They are not of the Hives.”
Calruz raised his brows.
“Do you see that Worker killing anyone?”
“He attacked Crusader 51.”
How could they tell them apart? Calruz recognized the sword-wielding Antinium, but the name? Crusader 51. He eyed the Soldier pinning the angry Worker with three more of the others.
“He also bit at me when I tried to take his weapon. But he did not try to kill anyone.”
“Ah, but he will. You are not Antinium, so you are unaware. We must execute the Aberration. The madness can spread.”
Interesting. Dekass was raising his sword, but the Worker thrashed.
“yoU. YoU. sTUPid DEKass. I AM [CruSAdeR]. i FIGhT.”
Calruz saw Dekass recoil and grabbed the Antinium.
“He speaks. This seems less like madness or…it seems more like an out-of-control [Warrior] to me, Tersk. A [Berserker] who has lost control of reason. Not desirable—but not deserving of death.”
Tersk turned to face Calruz.
“That is an interesting…idea, Calruz. However, my Queen’s orders are clear. I must kill any Aberration I see.”
“Do you know it to be an Aberation?”
Tersk was stumped.
“It clearly is one. It has behaved like every other Aberration I have slain.”
Calruz gritted his teeth.
“Yes…but do you know it is an Aberration? Tersk. Is there a way you could be wrong? Because listen to me. This Worker was a survivor of a squad that perished, all but one, yes?”
“Yes…we rotated them into Squad 5.”
The Antinium was very hesitant. Crusader 57 had gone still as Calruz tried to drip-feed Tersk an idea.
“Perhaps it is not an Aberration. Perhaps, if you are not perfectly certain, the honorable thing would be to let Crusader 57 be.”
Dekass laughed, a fluttering sound. Tersk was frowning at Calruz, his mandibles drooping. Calruz looked around. All the other Antinium were watching him.
“Because it is a poor precedent to execute a warrior in front of their fellows. It is not uncommon; the House of Minos has known the like, but not in modern day. The offense must be grave indeed, and we pride honor above all. We know there are reckless warriors, those with poor temper. We do not kill them for that, Tersk. What serves the Antinium, or Liscor’s army, in killing this Worker?”
“It would…eliminate a threat.”
“If this Antinium was going to kill, surely it would have already.”
“It disrupts Squad 5.”
Tersk countered, but his tone was…thoughtful. Dekass looked incredulous as Calruz knelt.
“Worker. Or…Crusader 57. You have caused a disturbance. If you refrain from doing so, will you fight and obey orders?”
The thrashing Worker slowed. It looked up at Calruz, and the strange, oddly quavering voice actually calmed down. Although that was saying a half-screamed warble turned into a molten hiss of unsurpassed rage.
“I…am obeying. Even your stupid orders. I fight Hectval.”
Calruz rose. Tersk looked struck.
“I…that is not what Aberrations do. Or say.”
“What is normal?”
The Minotaur was curious, not that he would ever return to Minos. But perhaps he could report it? Tersk shrugged.
“Curse the Queen. Swear to kill everything. Rebel. ‘I will not obey.’”
Calruz’s brown eyes fixed on Tersk, and the Minotaur felt his palm grow suddenly sweaty. Did the Antinium not know how it sounded? It didn’t sound like madness. That sounded like…
“Tersk. Will you let this [Crusader] live? His squad might watch him.”
“It is a risk to them and our division. Persuade me, Calruz.”
Tersk tilted his head left and right. Calruz met his gaze.
“I cannot give you a logical argument based on your Hive’s orders or history. I can only suggest this, Tersk. It would be dishonorable to kill this Worker. That is what I believe.”
Dekass rotated from Tersk to Calruz as the Armored Prognugator went still. He drew his sword.
“Alright then. Let us kill—”
Tersk grabbed Dekass.
“I see. Then we will let Crusader 57 live.”
Dekass looked as flabbergasted as any Antinium Calruz had ever seen. Yet Tersk just nodded.
“Come with me, Calruz. We will dine as I believe is customary. You must explain more.”
The Minotaur agreed. They headed towards Tersk’s tent as Squad 5 stared down at Crusader 57. The Worker watched the Prognugators go, then tried to bite Crusader 51’s hand.
“Let go of me. Idiots.”
Crusader 51 jerked back. He rose and stared after Calruz as the Worker stomped back to his zweihander and sat down. He almost hoped Crusader 57 would die to the curse next battle. An Aberration was…?
Crusader 53 just watched Calruz, one-sided like him. The [Maceman] had seen Calruz nod at him. Thoughtfully, Crusader 53 sat down and began toying with his gear.
The next time Calruz saw Squad 5, the angry Worker was still alive. Oh—and the Minotaur did a double-take when he saw Crusader 53 had glued two makeshift horns to his helmet.
Poor little warriors. Calruz tapped one of Crusader 53’s fists with his own, looking in his eyes. He missed Rhata and Haldagaz. 🐁 But he fought that these children might live. Yet he—Olesm—they could not stop Manus.
Calruz could endure the losses of the Antinium because he had lost his team, his comrades before. He had lost his mind and honor. Rather than stop under the weight of it all, he fought harder.
He did not know how they dealt with it. Crusader 57 was a symptom, not an aberration. Even Antinium broke. And these…these weren’t mindless Soldiers or Workers.
They had a cause. That would make them weaker and stronger than any of their kind had ever been. But the suffering. You could grow numb to it. And that was the worst of all.
Artur, [Flag Bearer]
He saw it all. Like Maksie, like Crusader 51, he was there. The difference was that he did nothing.
Brave Soldiers like Crusader 51 fought. They survived and risked their lives on the front. Calruz jogged off alone, to fall on the enemy, one against a hundred.
Maksie flew through the sky, dodging spells and arrows, to call for reinforcements for the dying and wounded, to make sure their end was watched.
But Artur just held the flag. A useless Worker with no ability to fight. He held the flag he had been so proud of. It had the insignia of every single battalion he served with.
Even Liscorians. Even squads like Significant Beavers. They came up to him, the Worker with the flag.
“Er…we have a patch. If you want, we could sew it on?”
“Yes. That is good, please.”
Jordes recoiled as the Worker carefully retying the banner to the shaft of wood spoke. But then he handed the Fortress Beaver logo over, and Artur produced a needle and began to stitch it onto the flag.
It made the symbol of Liscor’s city look less…well, magnificent without detail, the icon of the city. Instead, the flag had dozens of little insignia, from cute to meticulously drawn. Like a children’s drawing.
Perhaps that bothered some of the people who saw it, because Artur had heard Olesm receive a petition that the Antinium not carry the banner. Or rather, that banner.
“Why in the name of the walls would I entertain that?”
He snapped back in a discussion with Bepol, who’d brought it to him. The Pallassian-trained Drake looked uncomfortable as Artur listened in.
He could get near the command tents. In fact, Artur alone could go wherever he pleased if he was in the right camp.
He was the [Flag Bearer], and as such, Tersk and Dekass rotated him from battalion to battalion. In fact, Olesm even sometimes requested Artur join a Liscorian section.
Because Artur had a Skill. Well, multiple Skills.
He could repair scratches and other small damage to the flag just by willing it, which was very important so that the patches didn’t need constant replacing. Nor would the flag get muddy or bloody; even water slid off the fabric. However, the Skill that mattered to all the officers was Artur’s first flag-Skill.
[Flag: Inspiring Sight].
He held the flag, and [Soldiers] saw it and didn’t break. They gazed at the flag and fought on. Weary limbs too leaden to move would rise—because they saw their patch flying on Artur’s flag. That was Artur’s first Skill, and it alone had made Olesm seek him out.
In that first battle when the cloud of darkness descended, Artur had stood petrified as Manus’ forces attacked. Liscor’s regulars and the Antinium crusade had looked for orders amid the chaos—and the flag had kept them rooted. When death surged around them and all was chaos and every officer shouted an order—
The flag flew.
What they didn’t understand was Artur’s guilt. He watched them die, sometimes right in front of him, sometimes from the rear. He was just a single Worker. Holding a flag that Bepol or someone found objectionable.
“It looks like a child made it, Olesm. There are laws in Pallass about disgracing flags.”
“This isn’t Pallass, Bepol. Besides…what’s the problem with it looking…”
Olesm looked around and didn’t notice Artur. Oh, the Worker had a giant flag, but he was standing with Liscor’s regular one. So it just looked like two flags were flapping in the breeze.
“…like children made it? Commander!”
“Children did make it. Do you know how old Antinium are?”
“Do you know how old Antinium are? By any definition, Bepol…”
Artur watched as the argument turned into Bepol quickly exiting Olesm’s tent. The Drake looked patently uncomfortable with the idea Olesm was suggesting. Olesm emerged from the tent and saw Artur holding his flag. He eyed the Worker.
Artur held the flag.
The worst part was, Artur didn’t die. And yes, it was the worst part in a way. It meant he lived with the guilt of it gnawing at him each night.
Why? Well, even when Manus assaulted their lines, or Hectval attacked and the Antinium fell back and it was time for Artur to die…
They avoided the flag. It wasn’t that Hectval or the other [Soldiers] from Manus didn’t see him, it was that if they spotted anyone else, they went for that foe first. Because Artur held a flag and no weapons.
And because a flag wasn’t much of a target. At first, Artur suspected the very patches on the flag saved his life. It looked…less like an icon of hated Liscor, and more like that children’s flag Bepol suggested. So it just wasn’t a priority.
That was, until the other flags started getting destroyed.
Olesm Swifttail had a hundred thousand problems to juggle, and Artur sometimes observed him doing his [Leader] job. A lot of it was around managing the army as much as the strategy.
“He led us into a suicide charge. Commander…”
“He is your superior officer, and he thought it was an opening. I understand your reservations, Squad Leader. How open is the dissent?”
“I…kept a lid on it, sir. But I came to you as soon as…”
The Drake saw Olesm point at her.
“Keep a lid on it. That is an order. Bepol will transfer your squad across commands since you were chewed up. But I don’t want to hear any scuttlebutt. Any rumors. Is that clear, Squad Leader Nellb?”
The Drake looked relieved. Olesm was left cursing, trying to figure out how to arrange it so that Bepol didn’t see that the squads were being transferred out of his command because they’d lost faith in him. His eyes alighted on Artur as the Antinium stood in his favorite spot—next to the main flag in the command area.
“[Flag Bearer] Artur. You’ll be heading to Ramia’s command, and I’m assigning some squads to join you.”
Artur was a valuable excuse. The Antinium found himself marching with three battered squads, who didn’t exactly curse Bepol to hell and back…and he found Ramia’s forces as the Gnoll perked up upon seeing him.
“Three squads? Ah…not at full strength, no. But Olesm’s sent a flag? Wonderful. Er…what is his name?”
She whispered to one of the Gnolls, and Artur spoke.
“I am Artur. I have a flag.”
Ramia jumped and looked at Artur.
“Er—ah! Yes. Good to meet you, Artur. I knew we had a [Flag Bearer]…why don’t you tour our camps? Are you a non-combatant?”
“No. I am present in battles.”
Ramia looked relieved as she nodded.
“We will stick you with…Pricegougers. That’s Battalion 3. At the rear. You do have a morale Skill, don’t you?”
Again, Artur nodded, and Ramia exhaled.
“That will be very useful. Very useful. I will have one of our Squad Leaders show you a tour route. Squad Leader Nellb? Tell me—is there another, ah, reason you were assigned to escort our flag here…?”
The Worker left and toured the camp. [Soldiers] looked up, and a few pointed at him.
“Look at that. That’s the Antinium’s flag bearer.”
“Are there more Ants coming to our area…?”
“No idea. Hey, Squad Leader Kerone! Do we get more reinforcements?”
The Drake escorting Artur shouted back.
“You want more? Belgrade’s already hammered his side flat. Do we all have to come over and do your job for you?”
The [Soldiers] under Ramia’s command jeered good-naturedly. The Squad Leader looked more comfortable around Artur. So comfortable, in fact, that Artur spoke.
“Is Strategist Belgrade sending reinforcements to the center?”
Kerone jumped, like many who heard Artur speak. He hesitated, coughed into a fist, and replied.
“My squad’s part of a company that came to help fight, yes. The right’s going well. We destroyed an enemy camp, and they’re retreating hard. Division Leader Ramia’s forces requested some support, so Belgrade sent us over. Not that they needed us that much!”
Artur accepted this lie as a lie. He hung around Olesm. He knew Belgrade was doing better than any other part of the army.
Ramia’s forces…weren’t dying. Not like the Antinium. But the Alliance was showing its backbone, and she was not Olesm or Belgrade.
So it was the soup. Artur knew all that. What he didn’t realize was something trivial. Well, two things:
Firstly, Ramia’s forces had no flags left, aside from one standing outside her tent.
Second? There were no [Flag Bearers] but Artur.
It wasn’t as if [Flag Bearer] was a class Olesm had dedicated himself to creating. He had assigned [Soldiers] to carry a flag, but Hectval burned every flag they captured, just like Liscor would do to all three cities in return. They were not a critical resource, nor did Olesm request more flags from Liscor.
So Artur’s flag began to become a rarer and rarer sight. Indeed, he realized his Skill was one of a handful in Liscor’s army.
[Flag: Inspiring Sight]. As Kerone led him around Ramia’s command, [Soldiers] spotted it and some approached.
“Hey, is that the Antinium flag? What’s going on? Is the Antinium side sending Ants here? Or is it going so well we’re getting their flag? Can anyone add to it?”
“I don’t think so. Commander Ramia’s gotten three squads. A bit beat-up. The flag’s on tour for morale.”
A few Drakes, all of whom had an odd, strutting walk and an odd badge one offered Artur, frowned.
“Morale? It does feel…well, I feel a bit better looking at it. Fancy that. So no news from the other fronts?”
Kerone shook his head. Artur looked at him, then clicked his mandibles.
“We have received a reinforcement of two hundred and thirteen Antinium. Commander Olesm has also won a protracted battle on Division Leader Bepol’s side. We are also receiving a shipment of Corusdeer steak as premium rations, to be divided up per command tonight.”
The Drakes recoiled, and Kerone blinked at Artur.
“How do you know that?”
The [Flag Bearer] gave him a blank look.
“I heard it?”
He did not tell them about the bad things, like Crusader 57’s squad being wiped out. That was bad for morale. Or Bepol’s failed charge.
However, the [Soldiers] perked right up at the news about the steaks. One looked at Artur, and, to the Antinium’s astonishment, held out a claw.
“Do you shake hands? We’re from Liscor’s Players.”
That explained their badge, which looked like a stick-man with clothing. Or stick-Drake? Kerone was fascinated.
“You’re Liscor’s Players? Nice name. My squad’s Friendly Mold. Any relation to the actual thing?”
One of the Drakes chuckled, but with that note Artur had learned to hear.
“Any relation? Half of us are Liscor’s Players. Not the main cast…well, one of us was. We signed up after the first attack.”
Kerone didn’t know the connection Liscor’s Players had with…Artur kept looking at them, even as he toured on.
Each [Soldier] had a reason to be here. Sometimes it wasn’t much of a reason beyond ‘getting paid’, or that they didn’t know what else to do.
Sometimes it was a reason that had roots back to the inn. Artur kept repeating his news, because [Soldiers] asked and Kerone prompted him to.
“Corusdeer steak…a victory on our left. Yes, I believe they will soon become regular rations as Commander Olesm did not want them to go bad.”
That cheered them up. In that sense, the Antinium and Liscor’s soldiers were alike. Good food…just saying it made them smile, as if it were as large as a victory. Artur’s feet hurt from walking.
[Flag Bearer Level 12!]
He saw two battles under Ramia’s command and leveled up to Level 14. A level per battle.
Artur thought he encountered more arrows as two arms held a shield up. Ramia certainly told him to go back towards the [Archer] lines twice.
“Bastards are shooting flaming arrows at us. Keep that flag raised! Move Squad 9 up! There’s a gap…”
One hit Artur’s flag in the second battle. His flag caught fire and he had to put it out—but then he raised it again as the tear mended. That was all he did, and five arrows rattled off his steel armor, but Ramia sent him back to Olesm with a personal commendation and a request to have Artur return.
Olesm read out the note and glanced at Artur.
“Any new levels and Skills related to that flag?”
Artur had gained a new Skill—[Indefinite Marching]. He shook his head.
Olesm drummed his claws on the table.
“Well, I’m placing you back with Bepol and the Antinium. Report to Tersk. Oh—what now?”
A [Soldier] was waiting for Olesm even as Artur marched towards the tent opening.
“Someone to see you, sir. Not one of ours.”
“An enemy? Someone from Liscor?”
Olesm looked up sharply. The [Soldier] hesitated, and Artur marched out of the tent.
And almost into a strange fragrance in the air. An odd perfume…and a head that recoiled, and a look that made Artur’s chitin crawl.
A Drake man stepped back as a dozen odd warriors wearing cloth-type armor over their metal gear put their hands on their weapons. But he lifted a claw. He had an odd…tattoo…across his clawed hand. Artur stared at him as the group stood well clear of him.
Olesm’s voice sounded from the tent, and the Drake turned. He walked to the tent, and two of his bodyguards went to follow, but he lifted a claw as the [Soldiers] guarding Olesm bristled.
“I will enter alone. Here is my weapon…you may, of course, search me.”
The [Soldiers] nodded, and one of the guards protested.
Artur’s head turned as he watched the Drake consenting to a thorough inspection via magic and simply being patted down. In the tent, Olesm’s head rose, and his eyes narrowed as he saw the [Slaver] of Roshal smile politely at him.
Artur saw no more of that. However, it was glimpses such as these that gave him an insight no one else had into the war. Front lines and back.
He also got to see how people were changing. There had been no room for a [Flag Bearer] in Tersk’s understanding of how war was fought at first. However, when Artur reported his commendation from Ramia, the Prognugator paused.
“It seems you have a positive effect on morale? This is…problematic. Antinium have no morale. We do not break and run. Perhaps it would be best to place you in a position where you can aid Bepol’s command.”
He was learning. But he still didn’t understand. Artur nodded.
“I will do so.”
Behind Tersk, Calruz rubbed at his face.
“I believe we need another chat, Prognugator Tersk. A [Flag Bearer] is not a worthless class. It is a leader—of sorts.”
Tersk turned back to Calruz, and Artur tilted his head. The Minotaur did not meet with Olesm. He wrote notes and had a speaking stone, but most of Liscor hated him.
However…Artur had noticed Calruz, after the heavy fighting, would come to Tersk’s tent more and more and dine with the Antinium. So that he was not alone.
Artur learned there was a shortage of flags on his side as well. The Antinium had brought exactly one. And unlike before…this time, the flag was a target.
“Arrows incoming! Take cover!”
Artur crouched, shield raised, as arrows pinged off metal. He wore full armor—but with the right elevation and range…
Something pierced the metal on his side, and he felt a flash of pain.
“Wounded! Get them out of here! [Counter Fire]!”
The officer leading the [Archers] spotted Artur, but the [Flag Bearer] shook his head and produced his healing potion. He gulped it down, half-rising to peek across the battlefield as the officer stormed back, exchanging arrows with Hectval’s forces.
Hm. It was not good. The archer-duel was one thing, but Bepol was making the same mistake Olesm had chided him for once before in private. Artur had heard Bepol was fond of the line-breaking charge, and it had worked the first dozen times.
However…Significant Beavers were bogged down in the middle of a reinforced second line. Satel was covering Utel, who had a hole in her leg, as Bepol roared.
And while he was focused on saving his charging soldiers, Hectval would…Artur looked up.
There. The [Riders] were coming. Hectval’s Alliance didn’t have many in the mountains, but the ones they did cut in, just like Olesm had warned Bepol. But the Drake had tunnel vision. The [Riders] nipped in, distracting one of the engaged squads, and forcing them to fight on two sides.
No! They retreated, and Bepol regained control, but Artur saw good Drakes and Gnolls fall. Then another arrow struck him in the shoulder but lodged in his chitin. It still hurt a bit.
[Flag Bearer Level 15!]
[Flag: Lesser Missile Defense obtained!]
After that battle, Artur spent three hours mending the holes in his flag. But he got a new Skill. The instant Bepol heard about it, he and Tersk began arguing where to put Artur.
“I need him with my [Archers].”
“The Antinium would benefit likewise from archer protection.”
“Ah, but it’s only lesser missile protection. Better to have it away from a direct volley. Is it permanent? That’s…not bad. Can we test it?”
Artur ended up standing with his patched flag as a group of [Archers] shot headless arrows at him and watched them swerve slightly. The Skill couldn’t block a direct shot, but it turned a lot of hits into grazes or misses.
An inch or two could be the difference between life and death. Tersk ceded Artur to Bepol…mainly because the Drake had taken some bad losses.
“It’s those damn [Riders]. They’re invisible or sped up. I know Commander Olesm claims he can see them, but I need 4th Company or something to handle them.”
Artur nearly fell over his flag when he heard that. Did Bepol not see the [Riders] coming at him, straight as day?
No…he didn’t notice. He was not infallible. Artur watched Bepol uneasily, because he didn’t like the Drake’s lack of vision. But did he say something?
Artur did not. He was only a [Flag Bearer].
The next day, Artur watched a repeat. Bepol didn’t charge the front; instead, they charged him.
“We’ve got them. Surround them—I want a [Shieldline Wall] there. Get me Archer Squad 2. Oh! Someone just shot their officer! Lucky!”
The Drake crowed as a fluke arrow nailed one of the officers through the eye. Artur watched as he eagerly set up a killing zone, funneling the unlucky vanguard through two [Shield Walls] in a V-formation while archers shot straight down the center.
And he never saw the [Riders] on the left. Bepol had a far larger group to deal with, and he might win the battle if he ate enough of Hectval’s own or made them surrender.
Artur’s gaze strayed left. He saw Significant Beavers on the flanks. They hadn’t spotted the [Riders] using boulders as partial cover either. They were locked on the warriors ahead of them.
Of course they were. Everyone had tunnel vision in a battle where death came one way. But Artur saw it. He could only watch and defend himself.
“Commander Bepol. Commander Bepol. The left…”
The Drake didn’t hear him. Artur raised his voice—looked down the hill. Bepol was surrounded by his people. He didn’t hear! Artur’s flag wavered.
Significant Beavers was skirmishing with Hectval’s [Soldiers] in a scrum. Some bastard was flicking [Light Arrow] spells at their ranks, so everyone had their shields up, guarding their faces.
“Someone get me a javelin. I’ll nail that bastard!”
Utel was growling. That was the same Drake who put a hole in her leg yesterday! Satel was passing one up when they heard a shout.
It was a loud roar, not from their regular Squad Leader, but off and to the left. Satel had never heard the voice before, but it called to them by name.
“Significant Beavers! Flanking charge! On your left!”
The squad whirled. The front line with Jordes began to disengage, but the voice shouted.
“First rank, hold! Second rank, pivot! Javelins! Third rank, forwards after the javelins and brace! Spears up!”
Who was shouting that? No time for questions. Satel tossed the spear, and Utel whirled. She hurled a javelin, and one of the [Riders] went down.
“That poor horse—”
She growled in dismay, for she’d hit the screaming animal. But then the [Riders] were charging. Satel anchored his pike, and the [Riders] tried to swerve. They were peeling off! So the voice roared.
“Arrogant Wyrms, cut them off! [Archers], loose!”
A squad behind Significant Beavers cut across the [Riders], and then the fighting caught the charging horses off-guard. A volley of arrows and over half the riders were down. Satel ran forwards to mercy-kill a screaming horse, but Utel yanked him out of the way.
“Hold on! Hold on! Healing potion!”
She got kicked for it, but the horse saw the arrows in its side yanked out, and stood up, shakily, as the Gnoll held its head and stroked its flank.
Significant Beavers fell back from the front as Bepol saw the disturbance and rotated them out. However, Satel kept looking around for who had spoken.
“Which officer was that? I’ve never heard that voice. They were right on the money, though.”
Jordes was nursing a cut on his arm. He looked around, frowning.
“I don’t see anyone else…maybe it was one of 4th?”
There was no one about. The only other person was…Satel blinked.
“Artur? What are you doing on the front? Get back behind the lines!”
The Worker with the familiar flag looked at Satel and nodded. He marched back as Utel frowned at him. Satel looked at her and then Artur and frowned.
“It couldn’t be…”
[Conditions Met: Flag Bearer → Banner Leader Class!]
[Banner Leader Level 17!]
[Skill – Unit: Moment of Frenzy obtained!]
A minor consolidation. A useful Skill. When Olesm heard Tersk’s report he put two-and-two together. His eyes narrowed, and Artur looked away as Olesm checked his reports.
“So that’s who saved Bepol from eating another side-charge. Artur. You issued orders in battle?”
“I did not mean to. I am sorry. It is just that he did not notice the charge and there was no time.”
Artur quivered as he held the flag, but Olesm just shook his head. He looked at Artur, almost wonderingly, then strode from the tent.
“Is that [Slaver] hanging around?”
“Get rid of him. Get me Bepol and Tersk. I have a new position for Artur.”
That was how the Antinium found himself receiving his officer’s rank, a personal tent…and permission to command any forces as he saw fit.
The first Antinium to receive a promotion. The Antinium a lot of Liscor’s [Soldiers] could point out.
The Ant carrying their flag. Artur. [Banner Leader]. It left an impression on Liscor’s army. It left a larger impression on Manus’ forces the instant they heard an Antinium had been appointed as an officer. Artur was added to a list.
However, the one it left the largest impression on was…
He’d gotten good grades in Manus. Not that he’d gone through officer-training. He’d passed through their [Strategist] courses and come out as a [Tactician] spoken of well by his teachers.
They didn’t rave he was the talent of a generation, but Olesm had been proud of it. More importantly, Lism had been proud of it. The fact that Olesm had gotten a job as the [Strategist] of Liscor was a combination of his predecessor joining the army in solidarity when the Free Antinium arrived, retiring, and being hired for another post at better pay.
Even so…that was sort of Olesm. A handsome lad. Gifted.
‘A good young man.’ People, especially Lism, said it until Olesm began to believe it. He forgot, sometimes, that it was not usual for your uncle to raise you because your actual parents didn’t want you. He had been fairly confident he was doing everything right.
Then Erin Solstice came along. Olesm ate humble pie—and then spent a week lying in a stone coffin after an undead monster nearly sacked his city, all because he went to play adventurer.
More incidents after that. He became a shadow to a real icon who united Goblins and Antinium, who did the things he, a [Strategist], didn’t conceive. However, Maviola El came through Liscor like a burning fireball. Changing everything in her wake.
You just need a spark. She was of the opinion the world was tinder, waiting to burn. Olesm had learned as much from her as Erin. Possibly more.
War taught Olesm one more thing about himself. And it was this:
Olesm was not a ‘good boy’.
Every night, he did not dream the same dream. He was no [Dreamer] or whatever class you might get. But he had a daydream, which was a night dream but not a dream…
He imagined Hectval burning. Olesm had a rough description of their city, and he wondered how long Antinium might take to break down an enchanted wall from below. Even with a fortified base, if you dug away an entire pit…Drake cities had fallen to Antinium Hives before because no one had met a species this good at digging.
If he had a single hill, or could build a tower, and put a squad of [Archers] on it while tying up the walls? 4th Company was specialized at taking walls and other vantage points.
Just put a squad of [Archers] on the walls for eight hours. Flaming arrows. He imagined the citizens might put up a defense. And he wondered how many would die.
Sacking Hectval was not Olesm’s goal. His goal was to reduce the Hectval Alliance’s strength until they signed a treaty of non-aggression. If they didn’t? He’d have to make sure they were not a threat.
He wanted them to fight until they came to those gates. The vengeful dream came to Olesm wondering, realistically, how he would deal with casualties among children. Among truly innocent people—and he stopped.
Because he didn’t like thinking about innocents, even though he knew many were. Olesm wanted Hectval’s people to suffer as much as he and Liscor had. A hundred times more. He hated them in a way he hadn’t even hated Skinner, a monster. A monster was just a monster. Those were people who’d done things he would never forgive.
That was why it was so hard to turn the [Slaver] away.
The [Slaver] of Roshal was a Drake. He had a tattoo of his city on his claw. To Olesm, it looked like a set of scales…but they seemed to change every time he looked at them. Never on one side. Never balanced.
Magical. Also, the [Slaver] was a Drake, though he had [Slave Bodyguards] of other species. In fact—no [Slave] was a Drake, and the [Slaver] was one.
That was just a kind of mental trick. Drakes would be more receptive to seeing that. Olesm knew Roshal did not have that many Drakes. But their agents in Izril?
“I am not selling any prisoners of war as [Slaves]. Liscor does not keep slaves, Slaver Cubol.”
The Drake offered Olesm a fine vintage of wine. Olesm pointedly ignored the proffered cup until Cubol sipped it. He never broke from his smile or took offense. Which made Olesm warier of him still.
“Liscor does not explicitly ban [Slaves], does it, Commander Swifttail?”
“We don’t keep them.”
Olesm frowned at the [Slaver]. Cubol raised one brow.
“Ah, but you don’t have a law in your charter banning them. Perhaps the sale or taking within your city, but certainly not the existence. That’s not a violation of your conduct of war either. I merely mention this as a fact.”
That was such a…Olesm put in an information request and did some reading himself. By the next time Cubol arrived, Olesm snapped at him.
“How did you know that?”
Roshal’s representative didn’t have a gift for Olesm to turn down. This time, he offered Olesm some news.
“Newspaper? Chandrar International. By a Rémi Canada. I order it from home. It is always nice to have another point of view, don’t you think?”
Olesm glared, but he let Cubol leave the newspaper because he wanted to know if it contained anything about Ceria. He was tempted to throw Cubol out of his tent and bar him from the army.
However, Olesm couldn’t arrest him, free the slaves, or touch Cubol in any way. Roshal was a foreign power, and they were notoriously protective of their [Slavers]. So why did Olesm listen?
Well, at first it was to argue over Liscor’s laws. Cubol had hit him with that before Olesm could tell him ‘no, and don’t bother me again’.
“How did you know Liscor has no anti-slave laws about them passing through the city?”
It was a notable lack. Cubol smiled.
“It would have been something I was briefed on. Few cities have that charter, Strategist. That would make them opposed to Roshal—whereas we can at least move freely. I believe Roshal does negotiate for that simple right.”
Olesm’s scales prickled. Did that mean almost every Drake—or most cities had that kind of opening in their laws? How long and how much had Roshal lobbied to do that?
He picked up the newspaper and flipped through it before he cursed and tossed it down. It was hard to tell Cubol just to get out, etiquette aside.
Am I under a Skill making me listen to this?
“I’m not interested in selling [Slaves].”
“Liscor could benefit very greatly from the sale thereof. I happen to know this war is not going…perfectly. A hundred enchanted weapons would turn the tide.”
That was why Olesm hated Cubol. If it were simply about [Slaves]…Olesm pushed aside the idea of buying a hundred Kaalblades and handing them to the Antinium. Wasn’t that fair? The problem was…Cubol looked at Olesm.
“I understand this is no normal war, Commander Olesm. I don’t visit regular city skirmishes. They do not tend to sell each others’ [Soldiers] into slavery. But this? Hectval? I don’t know all the details, but let me ask you one question before you throw me out. Your stance on [Slaves] or not—we don’t need to argue. If you hate my class and everything I stand for? All the better. Ask yourself this, Commander. How much do you want Hectval to suffer?”
He was good. Olesm looked up at Cubol and calmly picked up the newspaper. He had a magical lamp that he could use at night for steady illumination, but everyone had backup candles. He lit one, held the newspaper over it, and watched it catch fire.
Cubol watched calmly…until Olesm was holding a flaming bundle of paper in his claw. The [Strategist]’s face changed as he held the fiery bundle. It singed his scales. But he didn’t let go.
The [Slaver] watched as Olesm, in clear pain, stared into the heart of the flames. When the fire went out, he was holding ashes and his hand was burned. However—when Olesm looked up, the slight sweat on his brow rolled down around sharp eyes.
“That was a Skill. I’ve been taught how to break them, even adept ones like yours, Cubol. You are banned from Liscor’s army. Get out. If I want you, I’ll contact you. And I will never contact you.”
The [Slaver] frowned at Olesm, the polite veneer slipping away for the first time. Then he smiled ruefully and rose.
“I suppose the [Strategist] taught by the matriarch of the House of El would say no less. Although House El has sold [Slaves] to us before, you know. Even Maviola El had dealings with Roshal.”
Olesm’s head snapped up, but Cubol was already stepping out of his tent.
That was bait. Olesm refused to take the bait, but he was shaken by how much he wanted to.
Too competent by half, that [Slaver]. Olesm tended to his burned claw. He had more important things to do. Like realize that Artur had a talent for leadership.
Being a [Leader].
The morale of the troops was something Olesm worried about. He was no Zel Shivertail, and Olesm wished he could have taken lessons from the Drake. Each army was different, and each [General] had a different style.
For instance, Zevara was a leader who kept to her office, delegated to her trusted officers—but came out whenever it got hot. She inspired by competency but made a clear distinction between her and her command.
Olesm knew that Liscor’s army was more rough-and-ready, and high command would come down now and then. Zel? Zel would probably walk the camps. Ilvriss had been one of the delegators, the inspiring archetypes who [Soldiers] trusted by weight of his reputation.
Olesm…split the difference. He didn’t walk around clapping weary Drakes, Humans, and Gnolls on the backs, telling them to ‘keep their chin up’ or ‘fix that shield, son’.
He was young. It was a stupid look. Moreover? He didn’t think a lot of the army needed that. It was rough fighting. They were in the soup. But Liscor won more than it lost.
He went where he felt, instinctively, morale was hanging by a thread. Even when they won, it felt like they lost.
Olesm spent his time among the Antinium.
“I have eaten of the Rock Crab soup. It bleeds blue. The soup is filling and hot, and it tastes sour, such a deep sour as it makes your antennae wave, left and right. But the meat is so tough. So chewy. Some, I have heard, call it bad meat, but I have eaten of the Rock Crab soup, and my bowl was filled four times before I was sated. That is a soup you will one day have—if not here, then in Heaven. Believe that. Fight for that day and believe.”
Olesm listened to one of the [Acolytes] preach. Preach…it was an odd word, but it fit the odd style of address.
Nor did he quite understand what the Antinium was doing. Which one was it? He wore robes like Pisces’, white, trimmed with green, and all four arms were raised.
Theophilus? Olesm didn’t care about the words…he cared about the reaction of the [Crusaders].
They listened. However, Olesm saw a few staring more at the sky or at the food other [Soldiers] were noshing on than the [Acolyte]. It seemed Theophilus realized that too, because he had begun praying in more than single-sentence litanies.
Tersk, Dekass, and, to an extent, the three [Acolytes] and Calruz were the officers of the Antinium division. Olesm had far more than two main officers in every other division, but Antinium had no leadership, historically. A single Prognugator might command an entire army.
That needed to change. After the first bloody battles, Olesm walked around the camp and found himself…disconcerted.
The new Soldiers and Workers looked like they were settling in fine. They sat around, doing nothing but staring at the ground, plants, the sky…other [Soldiers], but the ones who’d been with the army from the start were more animated.
One lay on his back, just staring up at the clouds. Another was playing a…shell game? He seemed to be working it out with two other Antinium. Two Workers and a Soldier, squatting around.
Personality. Olesm thought that was a good thing. He scanned about and saw Squad 5, sitting around, idly watching pillbugs crawl about. One of the members caught his eye and earhole.
“…fUck. EAt pOOp. SEVer yOUR taiL. diE, DiE, DIE…”
“What is that?”
Dekass halted on Olesm’s tour of the camp.
“Ah. That is the not-Aberration, Crusader 57. We are watching him, Commander. Tersk has not allowed me to slay him, but if you would like to overrule that, I will be happy to oblige.”
Olesm had seen and heard of Antinium going insane in his tenure as a [Strategist]. Workers going berserk and killing Liscorians…but mostly other Antinium. It was rare, but he knew how dangerous they were.
Yet when Dekass explained Calruz’s reasoning, Olesm looked around, glared at the Minotaur, and nodded.
“If he’s being watched…that’s your discretion.”
“Yes, Commander Olesm. I am pleased to report morale is high, as you can see.”
Dekass snapped his mandibles together happily. The [Acolytes] nodded, and one, Theophilus again, hastened to speak.
“We will fight and die to defeat Hectval, Commander. We will not mutiny or flee. Your concerns are unnecessary.”
Olesm looked at the Antinium, Tersk especially. He cast his eyes across the Antinium camp and shook his head.
“You’re wrong. Something is very wrong.”
Dekass looked puzzled, and the [Acolytes] snapped their mandibles together, worried. Tersk came striding up, putting on his helmet.
“Apologies, Commander Olesm. I was writing my own report to my Queen. Are you inspecting the troops for emergence of Painted Antinium or significant levels? They have not appeared yet, but my hopes are high.”
Painted Antinium? Olesm glanced at Tersk.
“Is that what your Hive wants? More Painted Antinium, Tersk?”
Dekass and Tersk spoke at the same time. Tersk glowered at Dekass until the other Armored Prognugator clicked his mandibles.
“Oh. I was employing, ah, sarcasm. We do not want that at all. That would be entirely distressing and not our goal.”
Olesm rolled his eyes. He turned to Tersk.
“I’d like that too. But I was just saying to Dekass—morale seems terrible in the camp.”
Tersk peered around as Dekass muttered, ‘subterfuge successfully employed’ to himself.
“…I do not understand entirely, but I also comprehend your meaning, Commander. Calruz has expressed similar concerns. Can you elaborate? This is my failing as a leader to grasp. Your perspective as a non-Antinium is entirely valuable.”
Olesm raised his brows. Tersk was changing. He nodded around the camp and illuminated it all. It was so simple.
“They’re not angry.”
The [Acolytes] and Prognugators looked at Olesm. Tersk’s mandibles opened wide, but Dekass laughed.
“Why would they be?”
Olesm didn’t answer him. He turned to Theophilus.
“I am not an [Acolyte]. That class does not exist. I am a [Healer]. You cannot read my class.”
The Drake was getting sick of Antinium lies. He ignored that.
“When you…spoke to the Antinium this morning.”
“A morale-building exercise. It has nothing to do with—”
The [Acolyte] fell silent, and the Commander glared at him. He spoke crisply.
“Why aren’t the Antinium angry? Why aren’t you angry? A thousand Antinium were killed. By Manus—or Hectval, if we want to go down the official line. Those Soldiers and Antinium? They lost their comrades. That Worker is the only one having a normal reaction.”
He pointed at Crusader 57 and saw the Antinium look up. Olesm received four middle fingers, but it just illustrated his point.
Theophilus looked at his two other [Acolytes]. It was Zimrah who replied in a lighter tone than Theophilus. She? She spoke to Olesm.
“Antinium die in the Hive every day, Commander. It is a terrible thing. I weep for it, though I have no tears to shed. I weep in my heart and pray for a day when no one will die again. However, even a newly-born Soldier and Worker knows it is coming. That is our tragedy, and why we dream of better days. We are not angry; this war is terrible, but no worse than how we live normally.”
Jerimy nodded, and Olesm recoiled. He had never heard an Antinium talk like that! Aside from perhaps Pawn. Yet he replied just as quickly.
Zimrah’s clasped hands unclasped for a moment, and Jerimy raised one hand.
“Respectfully, Commander, this is what Pawn teaches.”
“Not anger? He tells you not to be angry?”
The others hesitated. They conferred, antennae waving, and Theophilus replied.
“He is angry at Hectval. That anger is in us all, without a doubt.”
“But not towards the [Soldiers] who killed the [Crusaders]. Because Antinium expect to die. You’re not angry. You should be. They’re out there. Don’t you want revenge? Don’t you want justice?”
A few Antinium were listening in, Olesm knew. Zimrah opened and closed her mandibles.
“We cannot think like that, Commander Olesm.”
The [Acolytes] conferred. It was Theophilus who raised his head slowly. He looked at Olesm, and the words were dragged out of him with less confidence than anything else he had said.
“Because…because if we were angry about our people dying. If we were angry that we were killed, that so many die…we would be too angry. We would be…so angry.”
There was a warble in that last sentence. Tersk and Dekass turned to Theophilus, and Olesm bared his teeth. It was not kindness. He looked around at the Antinum and saw them eating their horrible paste.
“Don’t you award a ration to surviving battalions, Tersk?”
“As per your orders, Commander. We commend a battalion after every battle.”
“Huh. That bastard offered me enough gold to arm everyone. And food supplies. We don’t have a food shortage. We’re close enough to Liscor and the door…”
Olesm stared blankly at the Antinium slowly eating the paste. Tersk waited.
Theophilus was waiting for a reply too. Olesm turned back to him. He gazed at the [Acolyte] and looked around the camp.
“Be angry. They did this to you. Not monsters. Not fate. Hectval’s [Soldiers]. You’re here, fighting and dying, because they killed Erin Solstice. Because of them. You’ll meet them on the battlefield. Think of that.”
Every Antinium in earshot had gone still. Their heads turned to Olesm, and he saw Theophilus step back. Zimrah looked anxious. Tersk? Tersk tilted his head and watched the other Antinium thoughtfully.
That was Olesm’s first change among the Antinium.
[Leader Level 17!]
Levelling like an adventurer. Almost none as a [Strategist]…but as a [Leader]?
He leveled. His [Soldiers] died. Was it because Manus was in this war too? Or the sheer losses?
Olesm didn’t know. But he did know his orders had some effect on it.
He leveled again after he instituted a new command.
“All Antinium are to now receive standard Liscorian army rations. Moreover—each new reinforcement of Soldiers and Workers are to be fed, regardless of the time, before entering battle. I would also like to request any supplies of easy-to-read books or other materials from Liscor’s Council…with consultation from Pawn for the objects Painted Antinium use.”
He finished muttering and signed the order. And again, it was not kindness that dictated it, but that dark thought that this would make them stronger.
His officers objected. Wing Commander Embria brought it up with a frown.
“We’ve just shortened our supply line from weeks of reserves to a single week or less. We’ll need to demand far more supplies—which costs coin.”
“We’re ransoming prisoners to the Hectval Alliance. Someone get me Artur. Artur, tell Tersk…”
Olesm summoned the [Banner Leader], who was coincidentally hanging outside of his tent, and the Antinium trotted off. Embria, Bepol, and some of the other [Tacticians] and officers saw Olesm get up.
“Commander, this is a matter of morale.”
Olesm met Embria’s gaze.
“I’m sure. Why don’t we walk over to the Antinium camp? Tersk has agreed to show us something.”
“What? Which is…?”
Embria followed Olesm. The Drake steeled himself. He was not going to enjoy this.
“…Have you checked the supply listings of the Antinium? They never ship more of their food with their reinforcements. Somehow, amazingly, it doesn’t seem like they consume any of their inventory of food. In fact, I think they’ve added to their stock.”
Wing Commander Embria’s brows rose. She had not checked the roster. She and the other officers walked straight into Olesm’s trap. The Drake hadn’t had lunch yet.
He didn’t have dinner, either.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
She did not write this down, even as an imaginary letter to her father. She could not—she summarized it to the rest of 4th Company like this.
“I just watched Antinium make their food. They had some of their dead. Stripped them of armor—and then began stomping them into paste.”
Captain Vell stopped eating. Maksie was not present; she had stopped showing up at 4th Company’s barracks.
“Ancestors. Do you mean…”
Pielt gagged. Wing Commander Embria wiped at her mouth. She had not thrown up—with effort.
“Not just that. They had grain, edible plants…bugs…and some of the enemy dead. I wondered how the Antinium cleaned up the battlefield. I never saw them burning…”
Lieutenant Kesa looked ill. Embria stopped, if for her own sake as much as anything.
“And they’ve been doing that all this time? That’s what they eat? I—there’ll be a revolt once the soldiers hear that.”
Wikir growled. Embria shook her head.
“No, there won’t. We’re switching over to full rations for everyone, remember? And I can’t say I objected after that.”
Commander Olesm had gotten no objections. Rather, when Dekass had objected to the waste, Olesm had told him that Liscor’s army might suffer an outright mutiny if they didn’t switch.
So that was what the bugs ate. It made them more monstrous to Embria.
More monstrous. Cannibalistic things that ate other people.
“Scout Leader Maksie. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
It was rare that Embria had to go to a superior to sort out discipline in her company. She was a Wing Commander. If she needed help, that was a failing on her part.
However, Maksie had gotten into a second fistfight with Vell, and this time it had attracted the attention of the regulars, rather than being a quiet brawl in the tents. Olesm looked at the black-eyed Maksie.
“Well, then, I am transferring your tent and command out of 4th Company. We’ll assign you with the rest of the regular [Scouts]. You are docked half a week’s pay. As is Captain Vell. Wing Commander Embria, your discretion for anything within your command.”
“Very good, sir.”
Embria saluted, and she and Maksie strode out of the tent. Neither Drake looked at the other until they were well out earshot. They stopped next to two flags flying in the center of the camp and began to argue.
“You’ve been with 4th for years, Maksie. What the hell has gotten into you?”
“What’s gotten into me? What’s wrong with you, Wing Commander? You and Vell and everyone else? Are you blind, or do I need to give you a lift up so you can see everything?”
Maksie was red, quivering—and it was a shock from the cool-as-glass [Scout] that Embria remembered.
“I’m not hopping in bed with the Antinium. But if Vell wants to run her mouth off, I’ll hit her again. I’m off.”
“You can’t leave. I’ll grab Vell. You meet us tonight and keep your fists at your sides. We’ll talk this out. 4th Company doesn’t split up. After the war…”
Maksie pulled away from Embria.
“After the war? I don’t know if I’m staying with 4th.”
Embria felt poleaxed. She staggered—someone leaving their company, Liscor’s army, was unheard of! It was so rare that only honorable discharges like Menolit or dishonorable ones were common.
Maksie looked like she’d stabbed herself as well. She faced Embria, breathing hard, and in a low, pained voice, hissed.
“I’m one of the army, Wing Commander. But they’re wrong on this. Can’t you see it?”
Wing Commander Embria had been a regular [Soldier] when she’d run away from home to join up. Liscor’s Army beat a lot out of you, like being an idiot, thinking you were the next Gecko just because you were his daughter…and they beat things into you.
Like Sserys’ history. Greatest [General] of their age! The veterans would tell stories of campaigns, give the newbies tips, even try to teach them weapon Skills.
“What are tail-signs?”
Olesm poured Embria a cup, and she took a sip. She was talking with Olesm. Not because they particularly liked each other, although there was enough respect now. He wasn’t far behind one of Liscor’s [Strategists], and he was pulling double-duty as a commander.
But Embria had no one else to turn to. There was Ramia, Bepol, and arguably Belgrade. However, Embria could only visit one at a time given how they were split up. So she tried to resolve her issues with Maksie.
“Haven’t you heard of them? It’s when a [General] might be standing at the front, shouting…well, shouting whatever he wants. But everyone watches his or her tail. Sserys used to do it. It’s a simple feint.”
“I think I recall…no. No, actually, I don’t think Manus teaches that. It sounds easy to break as an enemy [Strategist].”
Embria rolled her eyes. [Strategists] always thought of it in those terms.
“Maybe, but it could be a few seconds of difference when the enemy regulars hear you say ‘we’re charging down the center’—only for an entire army to go left. That’s the kind of thing we used to do.”
“Well…they caught on. Besides, High Command is good. But we lost a lot during the First Antinium Wars. The core of the army Sserys took to end the war was Liscorian.”
Olesm nodded. Embria played with her cup.
“The old guard tells you about that. The bastard Antinium. Of all their horror stories—Crelers and Antinium were some of the worst. No one from that era doesn’t know a dozen people who died to them.”
There were more things the old guard told you. Things you didn’t reveal. Things the army did or had done—or just secrets about other commanders. Like…ah, well. Sserys was their hero, and that had never changed. Antinium? If Maksie had gone back to the rest of the army and said what she said, it would have been dangerous.
“They’re soldiers. Do you think it’s wrong for us to feed them regular food?”
“No. I agreed the instant I heard what they ate. But you’re feeding them before they go into battle.”
The Commander stretched out his claws, as he worked a cramp out of one.
“Absolutely. I didn’t realize it but…the reinforcements might not have eaten regular food. That’ll be their first and last meal. Oh—and I’ve told Tersk to announce the next meal to them.”
“Like beans. Or fish stew.”
Embria sat up, glaring at Olesm. She felt something and struggled to give voice to it.
“Even I can say that’s a kind of foul, Commander. Liscor’s army does something like that if we think we’re going into the soup tomorrow, but telling them what they get if they come back? Feeding them up before you send them into the blade trap? I wouldn’t treat cows or pigs like that!”
He was treating them like a [Farmer] treated livestock. Olesm raised his brows.
“I thought you weren’t on Maksie’s side.”
She recoiled instantly, but Olesm just leaned on his desk.
“I’d rather give them something than nothing. And they’re in this war because if the Antinium division pulls out…we might not be able to win. And Manus is assailing them time and time again, and they’re dying. If they were Gnolls or Drakes, what would you do?”
“I’d tell them to pull out and tell you this war wasn’t worth it. Not if we’re going into the meat-grinder. I’d expect the rest of the army to mutiny—unless they were war criminals or there was some other reason.”
Olesm gave Embria a bright smile.
“Amazing what being a different species does. How about Humans?”
She pushed herself back from the table.
“It’s Antinium. They’re the exception! They wiped out cities to the last Drake, killed Sserys, and would have butchered us all.”
Olesm nodded. He lifted his cup.
“Then should I send you a bottle each time we take over a hundred casualties? Why do you look so upset? I care about them, but I’m sending them to their deaths. What’s your problem, Embria?”
He was needling her. The Wing Commander refused to answer. She put her claws on the table, too upset to drink.
“Just tell me why. Not about me. Just…you. You don’t think like 4th. You grew up with them, but you’re willing to employ this strategy? Explain it, Olesm.”
The Drake toyed with his cup. He hadn’t drunk much either. He looked up at her, and his eyes shone by the candle’s light. Not his magical lantern, a more susceptible, flickering glow.
“When I told Calruz I was going to continue sending them forth, he was not happy. But he didn’t stop me. Pawn knows what I’m doing, and he could probably stop the reinforcements. He doesn’t. I am requisitioning books, toys, whatever they could use in their spare time, and I’m even thinking of putting one squad with other divisions. Just…one squad, because Manus might retaliate to the rest. But when the new reinforcements come, they’ll eat good food and be promised more. I told Tersk to plan out bedding. A blanket or something.”
Doomed [Soldiers]. Olesm looked at the candle.
“Strike a spark. Light a fire. Do you know, Embria? This tactic was used once before. Just once, and the [Lady] who told me it said that it was one of the bitterest blazes she ever saw. It wasn’t Antinium. The regular [Soldiers]—they weren’t even [Soldiers], some were [Militia] or conscripted. They would have mutinied, but the [Lords] and [Ladies] went right with them. They were butchered, but a few embers caught. And the Goblin King never took the north.”
The Sacrifice of Roses. Wing Commander Embria rose and saw the scope of his plan. Very simply. She walked away from the desk and stopped at the tent flaps.
“Some day, there will be a Third Antinium War. You know it. I know it. Liscor’s army doesn’t go back to the city. We don’t go back, and we left you hanging to dry…even to the Humans. Because one day, Liscor will vanish and the Free Antinium’s Hive will be there. And High Command will send us marching back to burn it out of existence.”
That was what they believed. Olesm looked up.
“We begged the Council not to do it. You’re all sitting on a Tier 7 trap spell, and you won’t move. That’s how they always described it to me.”
Embria repeated the sentiments of Liscor’s army, word-for-word. Olesm just laughed at her. He raised a glass.
“Some day, Wing Commander, there will be a Third Antinium War! I think so too. The difference is? Liscor’s Army will march against the Hives. And when they do—the Free Antinium will be marching right with them. That’s what I believe.”
Embria whirled and stalked into the darkness. What a fine mess this was. He was employing the oldest tactic in the world. The one that had made the Tidebreaker. The simplest command—if you had the stomach for it.
Counter-levelling. A single spark for every hundred that went down. She hated him for it—and realized he’d won, maneuvered her right into his trap. Because to believe his strategy was working?
She had to believe the Antinium could actually level. And that meant…
At first, he spoke of the sky. Then, he tried to tell them of the good things they had yet to see. Theophilus realized he was failing when he began falling behind Jerimy and Zimrah. And when he saw that they did not believe.
There were some Antinium he had learned to recognize. The agony of watching them disappear and come back wounded and hurt? He clung to the ones he recognized.
Like Crusader 51, with the magic sword. The Soldier lined up each day with the others and listened to Theophilus’ sermon.
…And Theophilus did not touch him.
[Acolyte Level 18!]
[Skill – See Conviction obtained!]
One level over a week. Fast leveling, far faster than in the Hive. Slow, compared to Zimrah and Jerimy, both of whom were almost at his level—and he had been six levels above both!
Each one had a talent. Jerimy was the Antinium who was the most involved. Of the three [Acolytes], he would share his food ration with other Workers and Soldiers. He also read stories to them, from the book he’d taken from home, and he spent time in their company.
Zimrah? The most selfless. She would heal until she curled up and lay down. Healing was her forte, and she would even run to the squads coming back from the front to try and save another life. She had even asked for [Healers]’ bandages and such, for when her faith ran dry.
Theophilus was the preacher, the copy of Pawn.
…And he was failing.
Crusader 51 had a Skill, like most [Crusaders] who reached Level 10. [Faith is My Strength]. He was not…that much stronger. Some [Crusaders] seemed to react to Theophilus’ sermons, to the crucible of war. A shield that was unbreaking, or even, Theophilus had seen, an Antinium who could heal others, like the [Acolytes].
He used that as his example in his next sermon. Theophilus pointed from his pulpit, and every Soldier and Worker turned.
“Crusader 334 is my topic for today. Crusader 334 can heal. They have fought, and I have personally removed no less than eight arrows from their armor. Hectval attacked them and hurt them, and yet Crusader 334 lives. They stand against Hectval, for Heaven, and they are my example. If they still fight—so can you all!”
That moved them. Theophilus could see their conviction gathering. To him, his congregation was a sea of stars. Some faint, some barely glowing at all, like Crusader 57, the angry Worker.
Some blazed with faith, like Zimrah and Jerimy. Crusader 334 was one such, yet all the Antinium seemed to shine for a moment, as Theophilus’ sermon worked its magic.
[Acolyte Level 19!]
Theophilus smiled and slept the sleep of someone on the right path. He called out Crusader 334 again the next day, lauding his example, though it was not as effective…but Theophilus had thought he was on the right track.
After the second day, Crusader 334 was dead.
Theophilus stared down at his meal, untouched. Jerimy, handing out food to the others and speaking with them, looked at Theophilus.
“Theophilus? What is wrong?”
“Share my food ration, Jerimy. I am unable to eat.”
The [Acolyte] sat there, head lowered. Crusader 334 was dead. Manus had killed him. The [Spearmaster] himself.
Yet Theophilus could not make that sound good, no matter how he tried. The [Crusader] was dead. He had been brave, fought for Heaven, all the things Theophilus told them were right.
Yet he was dead. He had known [Heal Minor Wounds]. He could have healed Antinium and made them well as Theophilus, Jerimy, and Zimrah did. But he never would.
He was dead.
Olesm had told Theophilus to be angry. Zimrah was weeping quietly. She had clasped two hands together, and the other two hands were pattering down her upper arms, fingers tapping.
Like raindrops. Some of the Soldiers and Workers watched her. They had no idea what she was doing.
“It is Mrsha-speak. Of the Painted Antinium. I will teach you.”
Jerimy was telling a Soldier. Zimrah wept. Jerimy shared. Theophilus and Jerimy did not see where Zimrah went after that—if Theophilus had, he might have stopped Zimrah. But he was blind and deaf.
The [Crusaders] stood in ranks when Theophilus stumbled up to his podium, and their conviction was weak. It was not a darkness of unbelief…just the cold, grey mundanity of a world where Heaven was distant and death waited.
Theophilus tried. The [Acolyte] spoke.
“Today. I regret to tell you what you may know. Crusader 334, who was blessed with healing…perished in battle.”
The Antinium stirred. Just a slight movement. Crusader 51’s head was bowed low. He did not look up as Theophilus went on, speaking automatically, the words rushing out of him like blood from a wound in his face.
“The [Spearmaster] slew him. I am told Crusader 334 fought bravely. He was brave. Now he rests in Heaven. Believe that.”
He saw a few Antinium looking at him, clinging to his words. Many—too many—listened but saw no Heaven.
Heaven was hard to believe in. Even Pawn said that. You could not touch it. You could not see it. Yellow Splatters had died and told them Heaven was real, so Theophilus was filled with faith in his presence.
But Yellow Splatters was not here. The [Acolyte] went on.
“Crusader 334 was an example to us all. Despite the odds, he did not run or retreat. He was here to punish Hectval, to fight them. To protect Heaven and the Hive. He…he…”
The words did not come out. He could not glorify Crusader 334 enough. Theophilus believed he had been glorious. Yet…yet…
The [Acolyte] stopped upon his pulpit. The Antinium Crusade watched as Theophilus leaned on the podium, and Jerimy hesitated, hurrying up to perhaps pull Theophilus away.
Then Theophilus spoke.
“It is not right. He should not have died.”
The Crusade…stirred. Theophilus spoke, half to them, half to himself, in a muttering voice. Not projected with hope, but with something else.
“They killed him. That is what they do. Hectval. It is always Hectval. Some say Manus. But who took away our sky? Hectval. If not for them, we could be in the inn. She would be there, laughing. She would take my hands, and Pawn would laugh and smile. We should all be there. Instead, we are dying here. Crusader 334 is dead. Because of them. Hectval.”
Something was rising in Theophilus’ stomach. A kind of bile, but worse. Dekass and Tersk were used to his minute-long speeches, so they were hesitating as Theophilus went on. Jerimy had stopped, and, like the others, he was looking at the [Acolyte].
Every eye on him, Theophilus grasped at the podium.
“Hectval is bad. Hectval is wrong. Hectval is…”
He had talked about needing to fight Hectval but…now a word came to him.
The [Crusaders] looked at each other. Evil? They knew the word, but they had never applied it to anything. Not Flesh Worms. Not Furfur. They had things that they disliked, even hated. But this?
The [Acolyte] on his podium looked around.
“Evil. Yes. Do you know what evil is? You do not. You, who have been in the Hives—we slay monsters. Facestealer is evil. It comes and kills us. Monsters? Monsters are bad. Hectval is evil. As evil as Facestealer. Why? Because you should not be here! Because you die! Because all of this suffering would not be if Hectval did not exist! That is what they have done!”
He struck his podium in a rage, cracking the wood slightly.
“Crusader 334! Your squads! It is all Hectval’s fault! That is why they must die! They are worse than Facestealer. That thing is a monster. They? They were born under the sky. They had lives, and they still killed her. They kill us. They have a choice. They…”
His breathing was disjointed, as if he were ill. The [Acolyte] looked up and hesitated. Faith shone in his gaze, brighter than ever before. He saw Crusader 51 gripping his sword tight. What was he saying? What was he doing? It came out of his mandibles in a flash.
“They will never go to Heaven. There is no Heaven for them. They are bound for nothing. Worse than nothing. They are…hellbound.”
Hell? The [Crusaders] looked at Theophilus, and he raised his arms.
“Hell! I have heard it spoken of! It is more than Rhir! It is where they will go. It is—”
He searched for what it surely was.
“—It is a place of suffering. It is a place where they will go when they die. The Humans have their Heaven and Hell. So do we. Ours is a place for our enemies to sink into. A watery grave. A place where they die and feel pain. They are hellbound, and you will deliver them to a place where they will be punished for every [Crusader] who falls. They are all cursed. Cursed! I mark you all for Heaven and they for Hell. Go! Send them there.”
His arms rose in a paroxysm of rage, twitching. Theophilus screamed at the Crusade—and then slowly toppled over backwards, onto his back. He did not hear or see what happened next, he just collapsed into a dead faint.
[Conditions Met: Acolyte → Cleric Class!]
[Cleric Level 20!]
[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Club obtained!]
[Skill – Lighter Armor obtained!]
[Miracle – Cursed Hands obtained!]
It began. When Theophilus awoke, Tersk was standing over him.
“At last. I see it again. Pawn’s strange class.”
The Armored Prognugator looked down at Theophilus. He could not read the [Cleric]’s class.
[Cleric], not [Priest]. A class meant for…battle. Yet somehow, Tersk knew. He spoke, as Theophilus realized he was lying in the [Healer]’s tent.
“Your fellow [Acolytes] have advanced their class. They have fought on the front. Dekass does not understand. He will.”
Fought? On the front? Theophilus stood up and saw Jerimy.
The Worker had a flail. He also had two deep scars on his armor. And a new Skill. He was shaking with a fury, like many of the [Crusaders]. Theophilus hesitated as he saw Liscor’s regulars staring at the Antinium.
What had happened when he was out? Significant Beavers were pointing at the Antinium.
“Did you see them go into the fight this time? I thought they fought hard before—they were vicious. That little Worker with the huge sword bit someone’s face off!”
“Not the only ones. I thought they were going to chase Hectval into the Bloodfields. I’ve never seen one of the Prognugators—Dekass—have to order them to stop. Who was…she? The one who saved Satel?”
She? Theophilus looked around. He stumbled through the camp, as [Crusaders] stood about, the light of something shining in their gaze.
Crusader 51 was rolling a boulder half his height along, exposing a multitude of centipedes for his collection, marveling at his strength.
He believed. He believed or longed for Heaven, but what Theophilus had told him struck a chord even deeper. There was Heaven for him. And Hell for his enemies. That was justice. That…felt right. He wanted to believe in that.
Theophilus himself was grappling with what he had said. His new miracle, and the realization he’d had at the pulpit. He would fight. He was angry, just as Olesm had said. He would fight tomorrow, and levels had given him the Skills to do so.
Jerimy had felt his rage. He understood something that perhaps Pawn himself had not yet fully realized. Theophilus longed to speak with Pawn and hear his words, but there was something else.
For every dark mirror, there was a light side.
She stood among Workers and Soldiers—and Liscor’s regulars. Drakes were taking her hand and shaking it. Thanking her. Asking her questions.
Zimrah. The [Cleric] stopped when he saw the [Priest].
She had run into battle with the other [Crusaders], wearing only her robes. The unbearable wait had been too much for Zimrah, so she had found the wounded as they fell. And she had leveled in the battle itself.
Squad 5 was among those who had seen her appear. Crusader 57’s shaking had stopped. He looked up at Zimrah, holding one of her hands as she spoke.
What did you expect from her?
The [Crusaders] were hurt. Some were dying.
They had thrown themselves into the fighting, so intensely that some fought surrounded. Hectval was not Manus—but their blades were sharp.
A mortal cut ran down Crusader 57’s abdomen, nearly splitting him in half. Crusader 51 and 53 were leading the squad defending him, but they had no more potions!
The cursed zweihander lay across Crusader 57’s front. Though it had been a Skill—[Sundering Slash]—which had cut through armor.
That was when she appeared. A [Priest], her class’ name still ringing in her ears, running across the battlefield.
An Antinium in robes. Hectval’s [Soldiers] spotted her, and some marked her—but the [Crusaders] charged into them rather than let Zimrah die.
“Wounded? Where are—”
She saw Squad 5 and ran towards Crusader 57. The Worker was spitting.
“dyING. I’M DyinG. caN’t sAvE ME.”
He shoved her hands away. He knew her Skill. [Heal Minor Wounds].
“I am a [Priest], now. Hold still.”
He laughed at her. Crusader 57 knew Skills. So she had consolidated her class, right? Good for her. What did she have now?
[Heal Moderate Wounds]? He felt death eating him up from the center. The Worker began to curl up as Zimrah reached down for him. He looked up—and saw her dark brown-black eyes begin to shine.
They shone bright, a flash of color like the first beam of sunlight that Crusader 57 had ever seen. She grabbed his hand, and in that moment, as she spoke her new miracle, the Worker realized he had made a mistake.
He thought faith obeyed rules. The [Priest] grabbed him, and Hectval’s [Soldiers] saw a flash. A Drake boy, Vess, stumbled back as his squad retreated.
“Someone report this to command! Back! Back—”
Yet the Drake watched as the Antinium with the robes spoke in a…feminine voice? He thought he heard the Skill, but that couldn’t be. Because if he’d heard right, she said—
“[Cure Mundane Wounds]!”
Dekass slapped himself. Then he turned his head to hear again. Tersk repeated it.
“[Cure Mundane Wounds]. That is her new Skill. I am apprised of two Skills for combat that Theophilus and Jerimy have learned. They will employ them in the coming battle.”
Dekass just stood there. He knew how the world worked. He knew the intricacies of armored combat and the capabilities of his foe.
Nothing in his tutelage had prepared him for that Skill.
“Let us revisit Zimrah’s new ability. It sounds as though that would cure…mundane…wounds, Tersk.”
The Armored Prognugator clicked his mandibles together a few times. He wondered if another good slap would help.
“Clearly my hearing faculties have stopped working. No, we are all under a [Confusion] spell. We must employ anti-illusion tactics. Tersk. That would imply she could heal all wounds that are mundane.”
“That is what mundane means, yes, Dekass. Hmm…yes.”
Tersk had a dictionary open. He tapped a word.
“Mundane. She insists on fighting, so I may put her in armor. She must be guarded. I have already told the Free Antinium to send artifacts to protect her and the other—”
Dekass walked out of the tent. He stared at the ground and tried to find the runes or hidden spells on him. He checked himself into the [Healer]’s. The Gnoll stared at Dekass and gingerly took his temperature. She felt at the cold chitin and hesitated.
“What is wrong with you, yes?”
“I am sick.”
“I do not know. It is your job to tell me. If I am infected, kill me quickly. Have my sword.”
The Gnoll had a problem with taking Dekass’ sword. She’d never be a proper Antinium [Healer]. Olesm came to ask why Dekass was bothering her, and Dekass realized he couldn’t tell the Commander because it was a new Skill in a class he was supposed to keep secret. So he employed subterfuge.
“Nothing is wrong, Commander Olesm. I am coincidentally sick and nothing else of note has happened.”
The Drake gave him a long look as Dekass decided he might actually not be under a spell or sick. The Armored Prognugator walked back to Tersk.
“We must test this at once. I do not believe.”
Tersk opened his mandibles in a smile.
“Neither did I. But I am beginning to. That is the point. It is happening again. This is the potential of the Free Antinium.”
Dekass…had never quite understood what Tersk was raving about when he reported to the Armored Queen. The Armored Queen, in her graciousness, had opined that the Free Queen had a chance, and that the other Queens had been less than welcoming to her, but she had expressed reservations that the Free Antinium could survive with their enemies using the city against them.
However, she had sent Tersk to see. When Tersk reported to her, she had sent Dekass with him. The Armored Prognugator had considered food the Free Antinium’s real asset; their leveling Soldiers and Workers had not impressed him as much as the Grand Queen’s secret project or other specialist Antinium.
After that day…he saw wonders.
Three Antinium walked the battlefield and did something that no one could believe. Observers from Manus’ divisions watched, rubbed their eyes, and raced back to report to their [Spearmaster].
Most of the Alliance’s soldiers just laughed in the faces of those who claimed to witness it. Or nervously checked if they were going up against the Ants tomorrow.
On Liscor’s side, Belgrade looked up at the sky and smiled. Liscor’s [Soldiers] whispered about it, doing much the same thing as Hectval, but encouraged by something.
Yet all those who saw it with their own eyes? Saw…
Zimrah raced forwards, and Dekass watched as an Antinium with nine cuts across their body jerked. There was a flash, and they rose.
The light looked like the sunlight upon the Grand Queen’s beautiful form the first time Dekass had ever stood in her presence. The Antinium did not know what it was, but the Soldier rose, wounds healed.
It was not a perfect Skill. Poisons—more advanced poisons, anything from a spell or enchanted blade, stymied Zimrah’s power. Yet it did not matter how severe the wound.
It closed. It healed in a flash. Other times, Zimrah would use a lesser Skill, because she could use this…miracle…all of twice before she fell over.
The other two Antinium were easier for Dekass to understand, but their powers were…weird. If he wrote to the Grand Queen now—a foolhardy task given that it would be intercepted—Dekass would say that the Antinium might have developed their own [Mages].
But what odd magic.
Vess, [Magic User]
“[Cursed Hands]. Suffer, Hectval’s [Soldiers]! You are evil! I curse you! As Pawn cursed you, I curse you with bad luck and gangrene! With a lack of cats! With death! Hell! You are bound for—”
The screaming Worker was scary enough. He had a flail and was wearing armor like the rest, but then Vess saw a hand reach up from the ground and try to drag one of the [Soldiers] in his squad down.
The screaming Drake hacked at the hand, but his sword passed through the long, spectral arm. It was semi-transparent, like a shadow come to life. Vess aimed an arrow and blasted it apart.
“Magic works! Get back! Get back!”
Velden bellowed, and Vess backed up—until he felt a cold touch on his leg. Something pulled him down hard, and he felt one boot trying to sink into the ground. He looked down and screamed.
He pointed his wand wildly as more hands reached up. They were everywhere! In a circle nearly thirty feet wide, hands slowly reached up and tried to pull down every [Soldier] in sight.
It was not the most dangerous spell ever. In fact, the hands moved about as fast as a zombie’s, a slow grab. But when they grabbed you?
“My leg! My—”
A Gnoll was screaming as he tried to pull free—and he looked up as an Antinium ran him through with a sword. The hands were strong. Vess’ leg hurt, and someone broke a leg before they pulled free.
They were trying to drag them into the earth. Was something down there? Vess aimed his wand, shot an Antinium through the face, and backed up.
He was levelling up. Now he could throw over a hundred [Light Arrows] per battle, and his squad, Big Yam, were the one of the most successful in the Alliance.
Aside from the mercenaries. Where were they? Watching again? Vess took down another Antinium and then saw the third strange one.
He had armor like the other two, and a club in one hand, a shield in the other. But he pointed a finger at Vess as the [Magic User] whirled. Vess shot an arrow and hit the Antinium on the cheek. It tore chitin, but the Antinium pointed at Vess…
And shot an arrow back.
An odd arrow, a twisting crackle with an eerie, crimson glow, hit Vess in the chest. The Drake stumbled, gasping, and felt at his chest.
It had gone through his armor. Velden whirled and put up his shield. Two more arrows struck it, and Vess thought the magic went through the shield. Velden grunted.
“What was…? Back up! Back up!”
The Alliance was retreating. Velden, the newly-minted [Sergeant], ran back with Vess, but the Drake was still firing [Light Arrows].
“We have to hold them. Get ready for another charge!”
Vess felt hot. He nodded and then stumbled as he turned. He was sweating. What had that Antinium said when he used that…he didn’t have a wand. What was…?
“Vess? What’s wrong?”
One of Big Yam looked at Velden. The Drake was…wobbling. Velden, the [Veteran Sergeant], looked at Vess.
“I think we got hit with something. I’m…”
He was pouring sweat. Vess leaned over.
“I don’t feel well, Velden. I…”
The Antinium had said something. Vess recalled it as he saw Velden slowly collapse, and Big Yam explode into chaos as the squad fell back. Another Gnoll who’d been struck was so bleary on her feet she stumbled forwards until her friends yanked her back. What was wrong with them?
“[Arrow of Fever]. Are you sure that’s what the Antinium said?”
Spearmaster Lulv stood well back from the Drake boy with the wand, upwind, listening with his keen hearing. The fever wasn’t contagious, or so it seemed.
It had broken merely an hour after the Drakes and Gnolls had collapsed, but that Antinium had fired nearly three dozen off. The arrows went through ordinary armor, and they made those struck feverish.
“I have never heard of that spell in my life.”
Sokkel, Manus’ representative, muttered in Lulv’s ear. The [Spearmaster] growled back.
“Neither have I. Three Antinium. Do you have marks on them?”
“Yes. Each one’s got amulets and rings, though. Our [Archers] took potshots…nothing. The one that was screaming insults even has a diffraction barrier.”
“Huh. They’re definitely on the list, then. Speaking of [Archers]…I have to investigate that, later.”
Someone was calling Lulv’s fake name. He grunted and saw an officer of Luldem approaching.
The Drake wasn’t as insulting as Hectval’s officers could be, but he was smiling a bit too-wide.
“I trust our consultant and your troops heard that? More…irregularities.”
His tone lingered on the word. This entire war was one big irregularity to the Alliance. Liscor didn’t go for surrendering nearly as much. They fielded Antinium. They were out for blood.
“Yes, sir. My forces are considering the issue.”
“Ah. Then you’ll be deploying with us the next battle?”
Lulv kept his face blank as the officer looked at him.
“We are debating our best plan of attack.”
“I see. I see. But you will be fighting with us? In some capacity? High Command would look askance, given the circumstances, if we didn’t have—”
Sokkel interrupted before Lulv could snap.
“I can relay your question to High Command, [Captain]. I will be apprising them of my thoughts. Rest assured, Mercenary Captain Yulre will be engaged in the best position for his forces.”
The Luldem [Captain] looked at Lulv and then smiled helplessly at Sokkel.
He walked away, and Sokkel leaned over.
“Idiots. They don’t like [Mercenaries], but they come to us whenever they run into trouble.”
“Hrr. Can’t blame them. I’ll let you know where I want to go.”
Sokkel nodded. Lulv didn’t miss the frustrated look Luldem’s [Captain] and the other officers gave him as he strode off.
He was an annoyance, he knew. Lulv was turning the Alliance’s battles around by his presence, but he did not fight in the most advantageous spots for the Alliance. He only engaged the Antinium in numbers, and when, twice, a commander had tried to order him to follow their orders, Lulv had ignored it, and then, faced with court martial, offered to quit.
Wytel’s Blades, as his unit was posing as, was too valuable, so High Command put up with it. That was standard [Mercenary] stuff, and Lulv felt this could pass as standard. The problem came when he heard about the [Slaver].
“No [Slave]-trading. Where did that bastard come from?”
He snapped at Sokkel. The [Strategist] had reported to him the instant he’d heard. Sokkel grimaced.
“Liscor’s lines. He made the offer to them first—then came over here. The Alliance went for it. He’s promising a lot of gold, and he wants Antinium.”
“I bet he does. The answer’s no.”
“That’s going to be a real problem, Lulv. I can lean as hard as I can…”
The [Spearmaster] put his arms together.
“Liscor will never quit the field if their people are ransomed as slaves. We don’t know if the Queens can see through each Soldier and Worker’s eyes. If one is Twisted Antinium…and Manus doesn’t hold with it. Tell them my company walks off the field if they engage this [Slaver]. I don’t care if they have an agreement.”
The very idea made him want to spit. Of course, that didn’t help relations at all, but did Lulv care?
No. He was considering, after a month of fighting…giving up.
Not because Manus had lost too many troops. They’d kept their casualties almost non-existent, playing each battle safe. They killed enough Antinium to make anyone happy.
But are we doing any damage? Manus’ Security Council had had a theory when they sent Lulv into battle.
Those Antinium were Free Antinium specialists in some ways. Non-replenishable. Capable of levelling. Well, Lulv had seen some levels, but the Antinium had sent thousands of reinforcements.
And either they’re just regular Soldiers and Workers we’re killing or…
Or…Lulv had a dangerous thought. But it would be inconceivable to Manus’ understanding of the Antinium thus far. He hadn’t witnessed any direct evidence to suggest these Antinium were all leveling. But he had spotted more unique Antinium than he cared to count.
Belgrade the [Strategist]. Tersk and Dekass, Armored Prognugators. That damned, flag-waving Antinium. Now, three unknown classes. More Prognugators than any battle save for the first ones at the start of the First Antinium Wars had ever contained.
Lulv had to eliminate a few, but each one had artifacts, and he had let his [Archers] try and snipe them again and again, only to fail. Truthfully, Lulv had already known he needed to risk his forces and had been choosing which one to take out; the others might flee back to their Hive. That was when these three new Antinium popped up.
However, Manus’ forces hadn’t suffered from any of these individuals directly. Hectval’s Alliance did. None of the unique Antinium got near Manus or were dangerous enough to make Lulv nervous.
What did bother him was the [Sniper].
Manus had taken less than ten casualties in every engagement. Less than five in most. However, it seemed like they took one or two more than necessary. Lulv could have seen less than three deaths on average.
The same for the Alliance’s officers. Manus had statistics on battles and the average death counts for front and backline officers, and this war had a higher-than-average ratio. You could blame that on Antinium and a [Strategist] and 4th Company.
But arrow-related deaths?
“Standard arrow. Liscorian local fletching. No enchantments, nothing beyond steel arrowhead. Which is good-quality. Not every Drake city affords steel.”
One of his officers showed Lulv a bloody arrow pulled from a dead [Soldier]. It was grim, but Lulv inspected it carefully with gloves, looking for tricks to the arrow, as a [Mage] and [Alchemist] went over it.
“Looks regular to me.”
“Us as well. No telling what bow it came from, but they’re not always straight.”
Lulv nodded. The conclusion was clear, at least to him.
“We have a [Sniper]. Why isn’t it dead?”
He had spotted one a dozen battles ago, and Manus had met [Snipers] before. Oldblood Drakes, Gnoll [Hunters], Human [Rogues], it was a common tradition to inspire fear and yield high-value kills.
Yet, for some reason, this one kept coming back. One of the officers who had experience growled.
“I could swear it was a Worker, sir.”
“And you let one kill two of your men and just ran back?”
The Gnoll flushed as Lulv looked at him.
“No, sir! I ordered volleys on the target and magic the instant I saw it! I could swear I hit it…it must have healed up.”
“Me too. I didn’t let it walk away. I thought I killed it.”
Another officer opined. Lulv scratched at his chin.
“Always from range, though. I suspect some kind of survival Skill. It needs a close-range kill. It’s not Bird the Hunter…”
They had looked and the Prognugator wasn’t present. Moreover, Lulv suspected that Antinium would have shown itself. He shook his head with a growl.
“I will personally keep an eye out. Let’s focus on those odd Antinium. I want at least one dead. And given that Belgrade is on the right wing…here’s my list of targets.”
He was bending over a map with his officers. He’d seen enough. Lulv still had that odd sinking feeling in his stomach that told him he was missing something, but he was preparing to go in. That was when Sokkel burst into his tent.
“Code names and stay clear of the camp! You’re an attaché, you idiot!”
Lulv roared, whirling on the [Strategist]. Sokkel came to a stop, but he was vibrating. Lulv felt a moment of apprehension. Something about the way Sokkel looked…
He could sense new twists and turns in the war like any veteran. Lulv straightened, hand on his spear.
Sokkel was panting. He’d run to get here.
“The Antinium have more reinforcements! Two hundred just came in.”
Someone asked the dumb question. Lulv just waited. Sokkel looked at him, wide-eyed.
“They’re all Painted Antinium. They’re moving onto the left flank, and it looks like they’re bound for the next battle with the Alliance.”
The [Spearmaster] held very still. Then…after one long moment, he began to grin.
Crusader 51, [Crusader]
It had all gone so well. Until the Painted Antinium arrived.
There was something in Theophilus’ speeches that called to Crusader 51. After that day, the [Cleric] spoke differently. No longer did he speak just of Heaven or the good things in the world. He began to define…
“Hell is a place of suffering. There are no cats there. No dogs. Hell is…a wet place. Underwater. Hell is water and Crelers. And they eat paste. No, they don’t eat at all!”
He described a horrifying world of water where the bad people went. Where they would pay for killing [Crusaders].
And Crusader 51 listened and leveled.
[Crusader Level 17!]
By the time the Painted Antinium arrived, Crusader 51 and Squad 5 had stopped dying as much. Manus had gone…silent.
And Theophilus, Jerimy, and Zimrah were the icons around which the [Crusaders] fought. Not just because they had a place to send their foes.
Because…each one mattered.
Zimrah healed. She was so kind. Jerimy sat with them and gave his food until they made him eat, and he fought side-by-side with the others.
Theophilus was their voice. He condemned Hectval to wrath and suffering and named the dead. The sermons went from one minute to an hour each morning.
It was not that the nightmares ceased. However, Crusader 51 felt hope. Even Crusader 57 broke the curse of the zweihander. Crusader 51 hated him, because Crusader 57 cursed him and shoved people, but he survived battle after battle—probably because he was so mean.
The only mad person was Dekass. He lined up the poor Workers again and shouted at them. Crusader 51 recognized them.
‘B-Squad’ was their nickname. Crusader 51 recognized Archer B12 from Calruz’s training as the Worker lined up with the other Workers, their heads cast down. Dekass paced back and forth in front of them.
“Your numbers do not add up to your casualty lists! One of you is absent. I see it. I count your ranks in battle, and there is one missing. Is it mutiny? Desertion? We have rebellion in the ranks! Who is it? Who!? You? You?”
He pointed four arms at different Workers until Calruz stomped over to tell him to knock it off. Aside from that, even Tersk went around more and more, sometimes offering spare rations or listening to the sermons.
Then the Painted Antinium arrived.
The first indication of their appearance in camp was a sound. Crusader 51 was gambling with his squad. He put five pillbugs down and let Shelly roll the dice, watching the [Cheater]’s hands carefully.
All of them stopped and raised their heads when they heard it.
It was a unified sound. The snapping of two hundred mandibles at once. Crusader 51 looked up…and heard cheering.
The Painted Antinium marched into camp, and no less than Commander Olesm himself came to greet them. He looked for Yellow Splatters, or Purple Smile, but the Painted Worker who presented himself was neither.
“I am Starfold, Commander Olesm. In light of the new developments, the Free Queen, Pawn, and Xrn collectively agreed to send our forces to the front. We will fight and defeat Hectval. For Erin.”
He spoke. Starfold had a carefully-painted back and shoulders, like he was wearing a night-blue cloak of velvet, mixed blue and dark and painted with bright silver stars. It was the most advanced Painted Antinium that Crusader 51 had ever seen.
They were getting better at it. The Painted Antinium had armor, weapons, although some eschewed them to use their fists. Crusader 51’s mandibles softly clicked as he saw Starfold had a spear. An enchanted spear.
It was about the lowest grade imaginable, but it was enchanted. More of the Painted Antinium had such weapons and they didn’t stand in squads, but something more akin to how Free Antinium fought in the Hive. They were all so…animated.
Some waved at the Liscorian [Soldiers], who waved back, laughing. Others were peering at the [Crusaders], who’d all turned to see them. One was reading a book while he walked. The Painted Antinium marched into the camp as Olesm welcomed them, placing them under Tersk’s command. They walked over, introducing themselves to the other [Squads], offering gifts from home. Garry’s bread, some shaking hands, the Workers speaking freely.
Squad 5 hated them on sight. At first, they didn’t even realize they disliked the Painted Antinium because that was so foreign. But the longer Crusader 51 watched them, the more he realized how wrong they were.
They talked. The first time he saw it, a Painted Soldier walked up, and his arms flashed, his stubby fingers tracing a quick smile over his chest before a hand pointed at the dice cup. Four arms meant he could communicate multiple things at once, so he greeted them, asked if they were playing dice, and could he join?
The [Crusaders] looked dumbly at him. They had never known you could speak if you were a Soldier. Yet this Painted Antinium, Overstone, had learned how to.
“Mrsha-speak. We must teach you all how to do it. Here. Garry’s bread and some Ashfire honey. There is not much. The bee colony vanished, although one of our jobs is to resupply each week with sugar water. We get no honey, though.”
Starfold himself sat with Squad 5, talking easily with Theophilus and Zimrah, who sometimes came to calm Crusader 57 down. The [Cleric] eyed Crusader 51 and the silent Squad 5 playing dice with Overstone as he replied.
“I did not know this was a function of the Painted Antinium.”
Starfold smiled, and Overstone brought out something as he lost his game, and the pillbugs he’d been loaned were swept away by Shelly. He produced copper coins and offered them around. How much are these worth?
“We take jobs. Silveran employs some of us. This job was paid for by Mrsha herself. However, when we heard of the tragic battles on the front and Pawn asked who would fight, we all volunteered.”
The tragic battles? Crusader 51 looked at Starfold as Theophilus clicked his mandibles.
“Pawn is well, then.”
“Yes. He sends word for you to visit if you are able, Theophilus. We will help you end this war as quickly as possible.”
Squad 5’s heads rose as one, and they looked at each other. Overstone watched them politely, but funnily enough, the Painted Antinium could not understand the [Crusaders].
Since they wore helmets, their natural ability to sort of sense things was muted, and Squad 5 had a different sort of link. But they were alike in this.
End the war quickly? The Painted Antinium rose as Tersk demanded they show him how good they were. Crusader 51 watched as the Painted Antinium rose—and outperformed every battalion.
“Incoming attack. Left.”
The Painted Antinium pivoted as one to meet a charge from Drisshia. They barely needed Starfold’s verbal words; they signaled each other with sign-language, and they were so in-tune that they moved together.
But any squad who’d fought long enough could do that. The difference was…when the angry Drakes in armor came at them, the Painted Antinium opened up.
A Drake went over as a Worker threw a punch. One of the Soldiers threw a javelin and called it back. A third calmly blocked a sword slash with gauntleted arms; the impact left no mark on the steel.
They had levels. Some were higher than Crusader 51’s level. Not [Crusaders], these, but regular [Soldiers], [Warriors]—even a few [Skirmishers] copying Ksmvr of Chandrar.
Because they watched television.
The Painted Antinium sent Drisshia packing. A wounded Painted Antinium was nearly run through, but five Painted Antinium jumped on the Drake trying to finish him off. Crusader 51 watched as the Painted Antinium lent their voices to the fleeing Drakes.
“Run! You must suffer for what you have done!”
“Flee to Hectval! Cowards!”
What made it worse was that they had morale through the roof, fought in perfect sync beyond even the regular [Crusaders], were beautiful in their colors…and had levels beyond all but the best [Crusaders], and they weren’t doing it on purpose.
They didn’t know they came across to the rest of the crusade as…arrogant. Perhaps the Painted Antinium realized they weren’t liked, so they went around sharing their possessions, even gifting them the last of the provisions they brought. They didn’t realize why that made it worse.
Nor…nor were they ready. Crusader 51 hated Starfold and his people. He hated them, simply because of what he knew was coming. The Painted Antinium were not fools. They knew death. They had come here ready to risk their lives.
But they did not know what waited for them. It was one battle. When they struck—Crusader 51 had the same nightmare as the first day.
A howl went up from Hectval’s lines. The Painted Antinium looked up, and a figure emerged past the wavering front line of ordinary Drakes and Gnolls.
A figure in black armor. The Painted Antinium rotated, pivoting to face him, and Theophilus shouted.
“Manus! Sound the alarm! [Archers]!”
“Bring that Gnoll down!”
Starfold pointed, and Painted Antinium [Archers] loosed arrows at the Gnoll. Two curved, and one split into two arrows, but the Gnoll knocked them down.
Was he grinning? Crusader 51 looked up as the two [Clerics] and the [Priest] pivoted. Tersk was roaring.
“Fall back, Zimrah, Theophilus, Jerimy! Olesm, volley on my front lines now! Starfold, hold! Hold!”
The Painted Antinium heard him, and they formed a line. The [Spearmaster] howled as he raced forwards, and four hundred of Manus’ [Soldiers] breached the Alliance’s line like a wave of shadows. They charged straight into the Painted Antinium as the skies opened up.
“Antinium! Break formation! Break formation! They’re in the sky—”
Maksie came screaming down from the heavens. The Scout Leader pointed up—and Crusader 51 saw a flash of light.
[Valmira’s Comet] hit the ground with an explosion. Crusader 51 lowered his sword as he saw more bombardment spells coming out of the sky. The [Spearmaster] charged Starfold, ducked an arrow that would have gone through his brain, and whirled.
“There. Kill that Antinium.”
A Worker with a bow on the cliffs lowered it. He whirled—and four Oldblood Drakes shot out of their hiding place higher up. They landed. The Worker drew a dagger—a Drake ran him through, and the corpse froze and fell off the cliff.
It happened so fast. One second the Gnoll was pointing, then Overstone raised a mace crackling with sparks and two more Soldiers leapt for him. Tersk had told them how to kill high-level enemies. Hold them. Drag them down and keep them from swinging their arms.
Lulv twisted, and his spear flashed up. Overstone fell down with a hole in his head, and the other two Soldiers dropped. The [Spearmaster] raised his spear.
An Antinium threw themself forwards. One of the [Acolytes]. Crusader 51 lifted his sword, and Squad 5 charged forwards, breaking out of line.
Lulv grinned. He ran the Worker through and then pointed.
“Target down. Now!”
A [Mage] ran past him as the Painted Antinium, stunned, fought with Manus’ [Soldiers]…and lost. A crackling bolt of [Chain Lightning] flashed down as Commander Olesm pointed at the sky. It struck their back lines. Another struck Battalion 4.
“Wyverns! Kill those [Mages]! Kill those—”
The [Mage] pointed down at the fallen Worker.
A glowing orb engulfed the remains. Just in case. The [Spearmaster] whirled. Tersk was bellowing.
“Move formations apart! Battalion 1, split by squad! Battalion—”
He raised his shield as Lulv tossed a javelin, which exploded. One of Tersk’s amulets flashed. Five more arrows swerved out of the way. He blocked a second javelin, and his enchanted shield dented.
Lulv leapt. Olesm was riding at him—until a [Fireball] engulfed him. The Drake was flung from the saddle, saved only by Hedault’s charm. When Crusader 51 could see, Tersk was lying down. Lulv tried to behead him, but a dozen arrows made him dodge away.
“Target down, not necessarily dead.”
He leapt, and Crusader 51 looked up. A grinning Gnoll soared through the sky as the Painted Antinium began to fall back. Manus’ [Soldiers] were falling too, but the Painted Antinium…
They were dying. Starfold raised his spear, and Spearmaster Lulv calmly deflected it. He landed. Looked around and spotted a second Antinium. The entire division was falling back, but Crusader 51 saw the Gnoll raise his spear—
And throw it.
“Target down. Two, three out of four? [Sniper]?”
“Good. Fall back. Hit those Painted Antinium.”
The [Soldiers] retreated, calmly disengaging as [Archers] with enchanted arrows aimed them at the Painted Antinium. Crusader 51 looked around and saw one of the former [Acolytes] left, kneeling, staring at the dead. The Painted Antinium fell back, dragging Zimrah away.
The next day, the Painted Antinium, less than sixty of them, left. And Crusader 51 lost hope.
“How good are they?”
The [Spearmaster] asked one of his officers as he watched the Painted Antinium’s first battle. His forces didn’t participate.
They watched the Alliance getting battered. Lulv was looking for important targets, but he didn’t see ‘Yellow Splatters’ or ‘Pawn’ in the mess.
“Sir. They remind me of Oteslia’s Wildfriend Scouts.”
One of his officers answered. It was an appraisal that few would ever give, especially a Drake from a Walled City. Normally, the line was that Antinium were rabble; dangerous, but more like beasts.
Lulv would have kicked whoever said that off a cliff. That comparison wasn’t an insult, either.
Scouting elites were dangerous and scary.
“Wildfriend? I remember them. Give me a comparison.”
The Drake shrugged, chewing on her lip.
“They’re…unified. See how they react so fast? Makes me feel like they have eyes in the back of their heads. Every damn bird is an eye for the Wildfriends. Let’s say less mobility, more numbers, and more toughness. But that kind of feeling.”
She had just said they were as good as one of the veteran scouting groups from a Walled City. Lulv took it and agreed.
“They’re decent warriors. I want bombardment spells.”
Manus’ [Soldiers] watched as the Alliance sent a first assault in, and the Painted Antinium tore them up. The Luldem officer was screaming insults at Lulv, and he ignored him.
First wave tires them out. The hidden [Mages] were preparing to strike. When Lulv went through the enemy lines, he was grinning.
The Painted Antinium were the Free Hive’s best. Manus’ [Soldiers] came after him, roaring, their blood up.
You are warriors! We acknowledge you!
The first bombardment spells hit the Antinium lines as Manus went in. Bombardments, using the Alliance as a screen—
We know you’re good. So we’ll fight you with everything we have.
Two dozen [Soldiers] under Lulv’s command went down as the Painted Antinium threw their Skills against his. That damn [Sniper] died. Lulv threw himself into the fighting, ran through Tersk.
Killed two of those strange Antinium. The Painted Antinium didn’t seem to realize why they were losing. They were strong, high-level…
Manus just had more levels, more gear, and more numbers. This was what Lulv had come for. Send me more Painted Antinium! They were a threat if you could field a thousand. Or ten thousand. A hundred and forty less walked the world.
Next time, he hoped they’d field all they had.
He survived the [Fireball]. Tersk lived.
Theophilus was dead. Jerimy was dead. A hundred and forty of the Painted Antinium were dead and just as many of the regular ones. The rest were leaving, and Olesm couldn’t blame them.
It was something Tersk said, as he lay on the bed. He was wounded still.
“I am poisoned. I will live. I cannot command. Dekass will command. They are weaker. Weaker…you cannot let Artur or Zimrah near the front. They will die. He came for me. It hurts.”
He was mumbling as Olesm trudged into the tent. Tersk stared up at the ceiling, but he turned his head to Olesm.
“I do not know. Maybe I thought they were stronger.”
Tersk was holding the hole in his abdomen. Olesm just looked at him.
“Get some rest, Tersk. You did…all you could.”
Morale in the army was as low as it had ever been. That was the problem with hope. The Painted Antinium’s arrival had been turned into a resounding defeat.
Damn Manus. Olesm punched the nearest post and had to go back to the [Healer]. Was there no hope? Was there…
Zimrah was sitting in the [Healer]’s tent. When she saw Olesm clutching his split claw, she tried to heal him.
But her Skill or whatever it was didn’t work.
“Why was it them and not me?”
The [Priest] looked at Olesm. He shook his head.
He had to know how many they’d lost. Dekass was counting the Antinium when Olesm walked towards him, claw bandaged rather than healed.
“Squad 5! Muster! One, two…nine. Who’s missing?”
He looked around. Crusader 53 was gone. Crusader 51 was shaking as he stood in line. Olesm found Dekass.
“Commander Dekass. Tersk is unable to fight. I need you to count casualties…but you are a marked target. Please remember that. Keep Zimrah away from the fighting. I’m sending Artur to Belgrade’s side to be protected.”
Dekass turned. The Armored Prognugator looked at Olesm and nodded.
“I am not afraid to die, Commander. I will attempt to survive. But someone must lead the Antinium. We are bound to die, it seems. I request placing Tersk with the wounded in your camp. He has leveled over the course of this war. One of us will return to the Armored Hive.”
He turned back to counting. Olesm looked at Dekass. It was the most he’d ever felt for the Armored Prognugator. Not a hint of running after what he’d seen? Then he realized Dekass was counting each squad out loud. He normally did it just by looking.
“Come to my tent later. We’ll figure out how to stop this. And have a drink.”
Dekass paused, but Olesm walked onwards. He walked past B-Squad, down a Worker, silent, past the Painted Antinium who looked at that battlefield where their beautiful colors meant nothing. Starfold sat there as Olesm passed by.
“It is more horrifying. Did our levels, our identity mean nothing after all?”
Olesm turned. He addressed the Painted Antinium curtly. With all the pain in the world, but as a [Leader]. As…a [Commander].
“No. It matters. You are all Individuals. You level. You have classes and Skills, and you are each one of you a treasure of the Antinium.”
The Painted Antinium looked at the Drake. Olesm nodded over his shoulder bitterly.
“The problem is that you ran into people just like you. And they’ve been alive twenty, thirty, forty times as long as you.”
Starfold listened, then bowed his head.
“War is unfair.”
Olesm walked on. Yes, it was. The Antinium realized it at last. And still, some fought. That night, Dekass reported the first and only Antinium desertion in the history of warfare.
Crusader 51, [Bug Collector]
He ran away. He put his sword down around the blanket he’d been issued and was going to go to the latrine when he saw Squad 5 looking at him.
Crusader 51 froze. He knew they knew, and so he waited for them to shout for Dekass or grab him. But none of them did.
They were not the original Squad 5. He was the last one. Crusader 51 saw Crusader 57 spit at him.
“Go. gO, cOWard.”
That hurt. But he didn’t raise the zweihander. Crusader 51 felt a tugging at him, to stay, to fight with them. But Crusader 53 was dead.
And he was just…tired of it. So he walked away. No one stopped him. Antinium did not desert. He walked past their sentries, who frowned at him, calling out as they saw him walk into the darkness, with his rations on his shoulder. He’d left his armor behind, too.
Every step he took, Crusader 51 longed to go back. He thought of Squad 5, who would get replacements, but not him. He thought of Crusader 53. He’d seen the Antinium trip and fall, but not who killed him.
Crusader 51 just walked on, eating his rations, and then collecting edibles that Tersk and Dekass had identified. He walked and he walked, towards the ridgeline where the army had first passed through.
It wasn’t far. They hadn’t advanced that much, so after less than a day—a day of walking, and that was how far they’d come in a month—Crusader 51 stopped.
He had found a spot perfectly, from memory. He sat down and looked about. There was water nearby, a spring, and some food could be scavenged.
He sat down in front of a little anthill, and big, black ants spilled forth, biting at his legs, then deciding he wasn’t a threat and going about their business. Crusader 51 placed a bit of stale sandwich in front of the hole and watched them swarm over it.
[Bug Collector Level 8!]
[Skill – Bugfriend obtained!]
The little ants were one small hive in a world of dangers. Like anteaters. The first time Crusader 51 saw it, he’d gone for water. He came back, and the armadillo-thing was licking up ants with its sticky tongue, dozens at a time as they helplessly scurried about.
Like Manus. Crusader 51 kicked it so hard it went flying over a cliff. He sat back down, and the ants calmed. They needed water, too, so he brought them handfuls and watched them lap it up.
They could use a pond or something. Something to gather rainwater. He dug a hole greater than their entire colony to the side, and the ants…seemed to watch him.
[Bug Collector Level 9!]
[Skill – Vague Directive (Ants) obtained!]
By the end of the third day, Crusader 51 realized there was a queen in the Hive. He gave her orders.
The ant hive was intelligent enough to gather food, resources, defend their eggs and larvae, but they had no vision. They came out in a rush.
He made them into squads. Sent them exploring, organized a fighting group that rested rather than move about.
[Vague Directive] worked to also let them stop doing things he could do. Like expanding the potential area of their hive by breaking up the dirt with his hands. Crusader 51 killed an anteater and spared their hive the need to find food for two whole days. His big levelup came when rain fell, and he realized their hive was at the mercy of the water table and spent all day digging a drainage system as water rained down around him.
[Conditions Met: Bug Collector → Ant Farmer Class!]
[Ant Farmer Level 10!]
[Skill – Minor Telepathy (Ants) obtained!]
[Skill – Doubled Collection (Ants) obtained!]
…What was an [Ant Farmer]? Crusader 51 didn’t know, but it was honest work. He felt like the Skills were a bit…off, though.
For instance, he doubled the collection of the anthill. But what would a hypothetical farmer of ants want? Well, if they produced something, he could take it.
Instead, what they collected was other insects, plant matter. And they pulled nearly twice as much of it as Crusader 51 doubled their ant farm. In fact…was the queen pregnant? She always was, but was there something…special about this one?
The first ant with wings was born, and Crusader 51 stared as a new queen emerged—and promptly started trying to fight the first one to the death. He separated the impending bloodbath, and, bewildered, the ant colony split into two colonies…side by side.
They kept trying to fight each other, the silly things! He made them work together. Two hives were better than one! His real relief came when he leveled up again shortly after his ants killed a roaming Rockgnaw Goat, a relative of the feared Eater Goat. It wasn’t ready for thousands of big ants to swarm him—or one of the pit traps Crusader 51 had begun to have his ants dig all over.
[Ant Farmer Level 12!]
[Skill – Abler Bodied Animals (Ants) obtained!]
Yep, there was definitely something odd about his Skills. He felt like the notifications sort of…hesitated. Then added the (Ants) bit.
Sometimes, Crusader 51 thought back to his command. He felt like he could feel them, but that was probably just the sensation of being linked to three hives by now. They were simpler creatures than he.
However, his Skills were empowering them. By two weeks, Crusader 51 was Level 16, and his ants could drag a Corusdeer to their lair.
The local wildlife objected, naturally.
The ant-war made Crusader 51 sick. He walked away from stomping large centipedes, snakes, and watched the smaller Black Tide cover their foes, who’d joined up to stop the ant hegemony.
Was this what I wrought? Crusader 51 looked at his tribute, a pile of skinned snakes. Four queens directed their hives, letting their foes enter into kill-zones, as squads of bigger soldier-ants scurried out and the worker-ants retreated.
They were…getting bigger. He had [Larger Livestock], but perhaps these ants were evolving? Crusader 51 had seen them feasting on two slimes, even the mana cores, and other magical animals had fallen prey to them.
The ruler of the anthills sat, fed. The ants hadn’t learned how to start a fire yet, but they were getting close. They could do almost anything, pile up bits of wood, transport huge objects…
Just not create enough friction for a fire. He didn’t mind. He could lie on his back all day and never have to do anything again. But since he was restless, and the visions kept coming…he dug, and fought, and dreamed of them.
He could see Crusader 57 fighting, in his mind. Hear the Worker shouting insults. Squad 5 was still out there. They took losses, but they kept going onwards. Commander Olesm had gotten unexpected reinforcements.
Crusader 51 had been declared dead, and Squad 5 had refused to tell Dekass where he went. So the Prognugator and Olesm had given up on him since no one else had deserted.
Did he know that, or was it just a dream?
[Minor Telepathy (Ants)].
He was an Antinium. Had someone made a stupid mistake? Crusader 51 felt like these…dreams…were too real.
Zimrah had changed. She tried to fill Theophilus’ role, but she wept. The Painted Antinium were gone. The Crusade was in jeopardy.
Crusader 53 was alive.
No. No, he was imagining it. Just like he imagined Manus redoubling their assault, trying to cut off Dekass, kill the Painted Antinium. They hadn’t even managed to escape. Manus had attacked them as they retreated, and there were only thirty left.
Just his imagination. Just like he imagined a Crusader 53, sitting while Drakes in Luldem’s uniforms argued what to do with him and someone offered him a tin of jellied raspberry.
[Minor Telepathy (Ants)].
Stop it! Stop it! Crusader 51 sat amid a world of little ants, who created effigies of him. The queens scuttled around, and he heard the tiny thoughts of rebellion.
Why do we have to feed this giant ant? They were definitely getting smarter. Crusader 51 watched as the ant collective now spanned a thousand feet—under ground, at least. Lesser ant colonies joined the swarm, red ants, black ants, blue ants, yellow ants…there were a lot of insect-kind!
Aphids. They were tending to aphids. Crusader 51 had decided they needed a permanent food source, so the ants were tending to different plants.
Squad 5 was under siege. Manus was coming. Zimrah fought, ignoring Dekass’ orders and the Painted Antinium had received a group from Liscor via the door. It wasn’t enough.
Crusader 51 looked at his ant hive when the first rebellions began. A hive of ants poured over him, biting, tearing at him as a queen battled with the others for full control. One would rule all kinds of ants!
…The ants couldn’t hurt Crusader 51. He looked down, picked up the ant queen. The other ants, even her hive, scattered.
The Titan has declared wrath upon them! A queen was no match for the hand of __! Flee! Flee!
He looked at the terrified little queen. He could squish her. She would probably keep trying to usurp the others. All this death…all he had to do was…
Crusader 51 flicked her, and she went flying into the distance. Perhaps to start another colony; some of her hive went with her. Crusader 51 went back to listening for his people.
Faith. He hated Hectval. He believed in Heaven. Crusader 51 killed a Corusdeer with his bare hands. It tried to scorch him, antlers igniting, but he was so strong he tore the antlers off the head and snapped the neck.
He believed that Theophilus, Jerimy, and Zimrah had power. He believed in Heaven.
He also believed he would die.
The ants of sixteen hives scurried about as Crusader 51 put the deer down, and they cleared a space and then swarmed it. He did not tell them to leave any for him.
There. That was enough food for now. He’d completed his little bypass, and a spring ran close enough to the ant hives for them to collect water. Enough for them to grow, thrive, and create an ecological disaster.
But that was all. Food for a day, and Crusader 51 rose. He dusted off his hands, patted a queen on the head, and walked off. The ant hives watched him go.
A lonely colossus, heading back to the world of the titans. Crusader 51 followed the thoughts in his mind. Until they were louder. He walked, then jogged, then ran. He had left Squad 5, Battalion 1 behind. Left his friend, Crusader 53.
But deep down, he had always known he would never be able to leave while they were there. His people needed him.
What could one ant do? Crusader 51 prayed. He had never prayed before, not truly. As he ran, as he found the camp, snatched up a familiar sword as bewildered [Soldiers] looked at him, as he charged forwards, he prayed.
Not for Heaven. Not for the condemnation of his foes. Certainly not for the forgiveness of sins. He prayed for something else.
And the world answered him.
The Painted Antinium were gathered up on the hill as the [Spearmaster] watched the last push begin. The [Strategist]—no, the [Commander]—had done his best.
He had placed Dekass and that other Worker behind their lines. However, he couldn’t hide them. Manus had struck their camp. Olesm had managed to threaten the skies—even down a Wyvern, damn him.
But the Painted Antinium died. Forty, counting the reinforcements, were making a final stand. No [Fireball] targets unfortunately; [Mages] were blowing every spell out of the air.
Lulv himself was watching his forces press in. He was waiting for a final trick, a teleportation spell. That was how he saw the Antinium.
“No class. Just like the others.”
One of his [Mages] pointed it out as it charged into Hectval’s lines from the side. Lulv turned his head. He frowned.
“I know that one.”
The other Drakes and Gnolls looked around. Lulv had thought it was dead, but there was no mistake.
Of all the Antinium fighting, even the squad rallied around the Minotaur with the axe, none of them were that…graceful with a sword.
It was no [Blade Dancer], but the sword parried a Drake, slipped through a gap, and sliced through bone. A single Soldier. No Painted Antinium.
“Mark it. Kill it.”
A dozen [Archers] pivoted and one gasped. Lulv turned and snarled.
An arrow protruded from a chest. It was all chest-shots now. Lulv roared, searching around for it.
“Kill it and this time burn it to make sure it’s dead!”
A kill-team raced off, and Lulv turned back to see the Soldier swing his sword and chop a Drake in half.
One of the officers muttered. He had a blade from Manus’ armories. Even so…was that [Greater Strength]? Lulv would never know; something about these Antinium meant you couldn’t read their classes.
“Alright, kill it. Loose!”
Eleven arrows shot at the Antinum. It was good; it ducked, but three curved and struck it. Deep wounds along the chest and stomach. It staggered…and seemed to look up at Lulv.
The [Spearmaster] saw the [Archers] nocked another arrow. He almost felt bad for it. A good warrior. But that was all. He was a Level 43 [Spearmaster]. It was probably Level 20 at best, a Painted Antinium-quality [Soldier].
If it had two dozen years…or just ten…? That was his job, to make sure they never got them. Especially the ones like that Worker trying to heal and failing.
The Alliance’s [Soldiers] charged, surrounding the Soldier and fouling Manus’ shots, the idiots. Lulv watched. One stabbed the Soldier in the side. He beheaded the Drake, whirled the sword up, stabbed a Gnoll through the chest, swept it through a spear, brought it down on a helmet—his shield deflecting a maul and axe.
“Dead gods, that one’s not bad.”
“Yep. If you have a [Guaranteed Shot]—loose!”
Carefully, two arrows flew. Leg hit, shoulder. The Soldier was bleeding, now. Staggering as the Alliance’s [Soldiers] hung back.
Yet it continued. Lulv had seen that, too. Heroes who kept fighting even when stabbed through the heart.
“Get me a javelin.”
He was going to end its suffering. Lulv grabbed the javelin impatiently and turned. He drew back—the Soldier looked up at him, and the [Spearmaster] threw.
The spear had such velocity that it punched through the Antinium’s left shoulder. It had partially dodged.
“Good shot, Commander.”
Lulv grunted as the Soldier fell back, pinned. An [Archer] took aim and stopped as a [Pikeman] lifted a spear to run the Soldier through. Lulv kept watching it as it lay, dying. He watched as it looked up, raised its mandibles…
And tore the javelin out of the stone. The pike struck the armor and glanced off. The Soldier rose, beheaded his opponent, and Lulv’s eyes widened.
The Soldier raised his sword and slashed. A brilliant arc of metal struck every [Soldier] in front of him, ten feet across.
Had it passed out? Lulv turned.
It flew into his paws, and he took aim again. Consolidation? It had to be. But—it was one class—a handful of levels—
The javelin flew down, with enough force to splinter plate mail. The Soldier turned. It raised a shield and blocked the javelin. The sound was like thunder. Lulv looked down and saw it raise a sword. He didn’t know what it said—but then he felt something on his fur. Lulv looked up.
The clouded skies overhead split. A beam of light shone down. The kneeling Worker, the Painted Antinium, the regular [Crusaders] gazed up.
The Alliance’s forces threw their claws up and shouted. It was blinding! Lulv himself shielded his gaze.
“Light tactics! Special Antinium! I’m going in!”
He hefted his spear, blinking spots from his eyes, and saw the Soldier on the battlefield. He was impossible to miss, now.
Did his armor shine like it was some precious metal? Was it his Skill? Was he taller?
He stood alone as the Painted Antinium and Soldiers and Workers began to fall back. No one had given the order, but they all heard…a voice. Even through their helmets.
Zimrah rose slowly, looking at him as the Antinium turned. He was still wounded. The new class had cured none of his wounds.
“Let me heal you! Please!”
Dekass dragged her back. He was staring at Crusader 51. How did they all know his name?
“Run. We must retreat. He will hold them off.”
Manus’ [Soldiers] surrounded him. The Antinium whirled his sword through a helmet. He was so strong. He punched with his shield and shattered a skull.
Their magical weapons rose. One [Soldier] darted around Crusader 51 and aimed a sword straight at his unguarded back. The tip of the claymore met his armor.
Magic met faith. The weapon skidded off the armor, and Crusader 51 lifted his sword again.
Skywards. The pillar of light shone down around him. He lifted his blade higher, and it seemed like the light itself coalesced around his sword. Drakes and Gnolls looked up as a giant blade, far larger than Crusader 57’s zweihander, formed.
[Holy Blade: Sword of Judgment].
It crashed among their ranks, and even Manus wavered. How many Skills did he have? From one class consolidation? Even for counter-levelling—
They couldn’t hear it. The Soldier laughed. He knew his people were running. Listening to him. One of them whispered. Dekass.
“A Unitasis Network. You must live. Tell us how. How…?”
Yet they were all fleeing. Crusader 51 stood alone, and the enemy lines tried to force past him, chase after their quarry. They ran into a barrier made out of swords, glowing blades.
He kept hearing it, between the blades striking his armor. As arrows rained down around him. Crusader 51 lifted his head as he heard a familiar howl. He turned to greet the [Spearmaster].
[Crusader Level 24—]
[Crusader Level 25—]
The [Spearmaster] struck him like a bolt of furry lightning. Faster. Crusader 51 whirled his blade. He was no master of thousand battles. Just one war.
He saw the Gnoll duck, spear sliding sideways. His thrust dented Crusader 51’s armor, and the Gnoll cursed as the shield clipped one side of his helmet. He rolled, and the shining blade split the [Soldiers] above him. Up, the spear exploded, stabbing Crusader 51, cutting off his upper right arm.
Lulv leaned out of the way of the blade, and Crusader 51 smashed his jaw with the hilt of his sword.
The [Spearmaster] grimly planted a dagger in Crusader 51’s neck, and the poisoned blade ate into the [Crusader]’s life. Still, Crusader 51 stood. He turned away from Lulv.
A sword obliterated Manus’ front ranks. [Soldiers] backed away from the gigantic blade and Lulv cried out.
“[Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf]!”
The first fang destroyed Crusader 51’s chestplate. The second ran him through. The [Crusader] raised his sword, a spear through his beating heart, and Lulv caught it. The Gnoll’s arm trembled as the [Crusader] tried to bring it down.
“What are you? Where is that power coming from? Kill the Painted Antinium! Don’t let them get away!”
Manus was hammering on the golden barriers. Crusader 51 tried to bite Lulv in the face and the Gnoll jerked his head back. The [Crusader] was laughing. One Soldier watched as Manus’ army lost their quarry.
If one can do that—he saw Lulv break away and felt an emptiness as the spear yanked out of his breast. The [Spearmaster] whirled. He raised the spear to throw. Sighting on Dekass’ back.
Crusader 51 reached for him, but two dozen [Soldiers] grabbed him. He fought, but they held him down, stabbing. Crawling over him. Sacrificing themselves against a high-level warrior.
One look. Lulv turned a snarling face to the [Crusader] and saw the Antinium smile. Strength beyond fairness? No. Well, maybe. It occurred to Crusader 51 he’d been onto something. Perhaps someone hadn’t thought things through?
But this was fair. This was just…a miracle.
If you believed, if you were willing to sacrifice everything and you were the right one—he could do it. The [Crusader] tilted his head back and listened.
[Conditions Met: Crusader → Templar Class!]
[Templar Level 25!]
[My Noble Virtue: Sacrifice declared.]
The world turned white. Lulv went blind. Everyone saw nothing…and everything.
He saw the first glimpse of a cloudy sky, the light peeking around a cloud, revealing the sun, brighter than—
When the light cleared, the Antinium were gone. The [Templar] lay, body ruined. Arms folded, at peace. Lulv, arm shaking, lowered his spear. He saw someone raise a hand to destroy the body and caught the arm.
“No. No…don’t touch it. We have to know. We have to…”
He looked around, rattled. For the first time in this conflict…
Spearmaster Lulv felt afraid. He had witnessed something he had no name for. Something different from magic. If he could have named it, it would be—
Author’s Note: …Eek. This is 40,000 words. But I am on-track for an easier…shorter…third chapter to conclude this arc. I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did—assuming I kept everything and didn’t save it. So third chapter might be shorter and easier on me to write!
Please stop laughing. I know we are racing, but three chapters is the shortest I can do the arc justice with…and I hope you find it entertaining. It is a genre apart.
However, I will leave it at that. There are two secrets in this chapter. Also, I congratulate Selkie on their Stabby! Everyone go check out a fellow web serial author, and read their story! For now, I will rest, but I’ll be back next chapter. Have faith.
Skinner by twerkzoncatz!
Venaz vs The Crimson Soldier by pkay!
Starving Duck by Brack, commissioned by Dado!