Two and a quarter months since the army marched upon Hectval, the city felt different. A month was a long time. A year was a long time.
To Selys, it felt like it had flashed by in some senses. Dragged on after Erin’s death. But the war…
Liscor was changing. Not a day went by when she didn’t hear of some new enterprise like Liscor Hunted, or receive news from her friends across the world. The Meeting of Tribes, the King of Destruction not dying, Wistram, Ailendamus versus the Dawn Concordat…those were worldwide events. Everyone watched the news and learned, well, to stop worrying.
It had seemed, when the television news stories first came out, that when a war happened or a battle was broadcast, it was going on right next to you. Then you realized—it was Chandrar or Terandria. You’d never go there, most likely, and the repercussions were abstract.
At the same time, you got invested. In a very real sense, as Drassi put it—the audience of television learned how to be an audience.
Compared to that, some things were close to home. And that was Liscor’s war with Hectval. Not the army. The army had left their home. Compared to that, Hectval was a real threat. One that Liscorians felt more than a vague animosity towards.
However, time changed how people felt. The first shock of casualties coming in, hearing rumors of the carnage on the front…Selys had heard howling every time someone brought the casualty lists. She had seen people gathered around the [Criers], and later seen the lists appended to boards in the plaza because no [City Crier] wanted to deliver the news themselves.
She still saw it two months in, but the war had taken a different kind of space in people’s heads. These days she heard people arguing about it.
“Enlist? Are you mad? Do you want to end up with one less leg? Mom’ll hit you if you even say it.”
A pair of brother and sister Drakes were arguing fiercely. Selys turned her head as Drassi slurped Imani’s next incarnation of boba tea. The two friends listened in. The younger brother, perhaps eighteen, looked adamant.
“There’s a signing bonus. I’m not Antinium. I’ll survive and level up and then become a Bronze-rank.”
“A Bronze-rank? I’m telling Mother. You’re cracked in the head. You want to go into the dungeon? That’s suicide unless you’re Silver—no, Gold-rank. You’d be safer in the army!”
“Aha! So you admit signing up as a [Soldier] is safer.”
The younger brother looked victorious, as if he’d scored a profound victory in their debate. His older sister stepped on his tail. Unlike Humans and Gnolls, who learned how to pinch ears, the yelping Drake’s weak spot was his tail.
“You’re not doing it. If you really want levels, go sign up as an adventurer or [Guard]! Even Celum would be safer. I’m not waiting around one of the announcement boards to see your name on a list. Those poor Ants—what happens when they stop fighting?”
Those poor Ants. Selys watched the younger brother keep arguing as he backed away from the stompy boots threatening his tail. You’d have never, never heard that a year ago. Maybe ‘poor Senior Guardsman Klbkch’ in context with ‘did you hear what that idiot Relc just did?’, but never that.
Drassi commented out of the corner of her mouth as the two siblings left.
“I hear it’s going better. I think. Hectval is moving back.”
“Hm? When did you hear that?”
Selys looked up and saw her childhood friend, Drassi, finally stop sucking fruit-boba up a straw. Instantly, Drassi began talking, and the absence of sound had been an irregularity in Drassi-world.
Drassi Tewing talked like Selys breathed. It wasn’t even just that she wanted to, sometimes it seemed like she had to. Yet the Drake was as bubbly as her light yellow scales most of the time. Friendly—and cuttingly honest, which people were surprised by.
Drassi didn’t lie. However, the former [Barmaid] turned [Bartender] who’d also been a [Secretary]—and failed out of a lot of her jobs until meeting Erin—had a more professional look nowadays.
In fact, she even had an Amulet of Disguise on her that made her less noticeable. Drassi was the [Honest Reporter] of Wistram News Network; she often wore less of a dress than something like the business casual being pioneered by Lady Magnolia Reinhart and a few [Ladies], who’d begun vying with the other [Seamstresses] to occupy the market.
You could buy fashion from Invrisil that had that particular Earth-style vibe to the clothing, although only Selys knew it as coming from there. Something with less frills and adornments—the ‘modern’ style of Earth that went for that kind of simplistic design with few main colors.
Selys preferred more variety, but it was popular enough to have tags, like a ‘Sitil’-tag—after Lady Wuvren Sitil.
Funnily, there was also a new line of sports-wear that apparently came from House Ulta. Selys had looked into clothing herself, but she didn’t have an ‘in’ with anyone she wanted to work with. She’d been trying to get Bezale, the Minotauress, to give her a contact.
All of that was Liscor, but the war was the kind of thing people talked about. Selys and Drassi, in their bi-weekly meetups at the Drunken Gnoll, often exchanged news. Olesm sometimes sent news back to the Council, and Selys heard drips and drabs from Elirr and Tekshia, which she relayed to Drassi.
However, the irony was that Drassi didn’t cover Liscor’s war with the Hectval Alliance. Selys looked at her friend.
“How d’you know about the state of Hectval? Is Wistram News Network going to report it after all?”
The [Reporter] shook her head, stretching out her claws.
“Nope. I just talk with some of the wounded. I saw a group of [Soldiers] on leave—they told me.”
“They’re on leave? They can come back through the door?”
Drassi nodded, chomping on a spring-roll, baked until it was just crunchy but not hard, filled with a more meat-based filling for Drakes and Gnolls.
“Two lucky squads per week. Olesm must have talked the Council into allowing it. It’s a fair mana drain, but it seems like he thinks it’s good for morale, and the [Soldiers] loved it. Lottery. And no, Wistram refuses to let me cover it.”
“Still? Even with Manus…?”
Drassi looked around sourly and lowered her voice. She tapped a ring on her finger, and Selys blinked as Drassi activated a silence spell. Palt, trotting by, gave them a wounded glance…which was probably because he wanted to listen in. Selys massaged one earhole; it felt like it was filled with cotton.
“Sorry, Selys. Work. Anyways. I talked with Grand Magus Eldavin. He told me there’s no shot. It’s…Antinium. And when he says that it’s worth my job—it’s not like Relz or Noass. Speaking of which, something big is going down in Wistram soon. Eldavin has a big announcement in our television segment next week. No one knows what it’s about, and Noass and Relz are kicking a fuss up.”
“I hate them.”
Selys made a face. She didn’t care for either Drake herself.
“If they’re so bad…”
Drassi waved a claw, trying to swallow another spring roll in a single bite.
“I don’t hate hate them, but they’re just so snooty sometimes. Noass is actually a bit worse than Relz, but neither one’s evil. They just say the same thing Wistram does, though. Antinium bad. I wish I could introduce them to Garry or Pawn, but they won’t go to Liscor after the Rock Crabs incident.”
The famous one where both nearly got eaten by a Rock Crab on Liscor Hunted’s inauguration? Selys smirked. Then she stirred her cup of tea. Palt trotted past them, looking worried. Drassi lowered the [Silence] spell, and both heard Imani kicking up a fuss.
“What? What? Palt, get in here! Palt—”
“Yes, my unshod darling?”
The two Drakes waited as Palt vanished inside the inn. Drassi nodded after a while, apropos of nothing.
“Yeah. Poor Antinium.”
Olesm had decided to tell Liscorians how many Antinium died in battle. The numbers…well. A few years ago, maybe Liscorians would have felt vaguely shocked or bad, but now that Antinium had names, colors…if you dwelled on it, it made you ask some hard questions.
Some people wouldn’t dwell on it. Some did. Selys worried about Olesm and felt vaguely sick about the Antinium—when she focused on them. What would Erin have done? At the same time—she hoped Olesm got to one of those cities and knocked in a wall or two. They were the reason her first real Human friend was dead.
She turned her head as Imani burst out of her kitchen, and Palt caught her in a clatter of hooves. She was waving something that had just arrived via City Runner bulk delivery by way of Pallass, addressed to her. She shouted one word, and Selys’ instincts told her it mattered.
Drassi and Selys turned, and Selys began looking for another investment opportunity. That was all they said about the war as Drassi walked headfirst into an addictive drug perfectly suited for her personality. Neither one thought of Hectval’s war until the commendation began to be posted in the plazas, and the Council appended their own statement to Commander Olesm’s address. When Selys did read it, later, it was simple, and made her think of them again.
The war continued. The day after he saw a single Antinium holding off Manus’ finest, [Commander] Olesm Swifttail of Liscor debriefed Dekass, Zimrah, and every other officer who had witnessed Crusader 51’s last stand.
The Prognugator could not explain how a single Soldier—the Antinium’s one deserter—had come back and saved the Antinium. The Painted Antinium, who Manus had gone as far as to attack in camp, and even smash the mana stone to the portal door to stop from retreating, lived, thanks to him.
Olesm did not know Crusader 51’s story. He had never met or talked to that particular Soldier. However, he could not shake the image of the Soldier raising a sword made of light high overhead, standing against Lulv.
No Antinium could, he was sure. That morning, Olesm watched as Zimrah began the sermons that had ended with Theophilus.
Other people were listening in. Scout Leader Maksie, Dekass, even non-antinium [Soldiers] who’d been at the battle.
Ah, oops. One correction there—it wasn’t Scout Leader Maksie, but [Scouting Lieutenant] Maksie. Everyone called her by her generic title, but Olesm tried to use her class now and then. It was a source of pride for her. Olesm had personally granted Maksie the class.
One class. One officer class, unlike [Squad Leader], which was technically a civilian class. Maksie didn’t get it because she was 4th Company. She had made a fairly public break from her command.
She had gotten it from Olesm. The [Commander] had a new Skill.
[Officer Under Arms]. He had chosen Maksie for the honor after debating the others. Frankly, Olesm thought it eased her public rift with her 4th Company friends, especially because they were her family. In return, it brought her closer to the civilian-army. And the Antinium.
Right now, Olesm knew the Painted Antinium would be returning to the Free Hive with a letter from Dekass to the Free Queen, detailing the extraordinary…tragic…events of yesterday.
The problem with Olesm was that he was changing. Instead of feeling just sorrow and grief, he almost felt relief. Hope.
Instead of hundreds, a single Soldier had died. Olesm mourned Crusader 51, but he felt inspired as well. And that made him a monster, he knew. But that brave Soldier had saved his comrades from a massacre.
A single Soldier had died. So Olesm sent something of his own back with Dekass’ letter and the Painted Antinium. He had proposed it to Dekass, and so the Prognugator had written a short…commendation.
A public commendation from the commanding officer of the Antinium, Dekass of the Armored Hive, for the Antinium known as Crusader 51, Squad 5, Battalion 1. Olesm asked Lism to post it along with the casualty reports.
Dekass of the Armored Antinium wrote a posthumous commendation of Crusader 51 for valor in the face of overwhelming odds, engaging an enemy [Spearmaster] in a single duel, single-handedly saving hundreds of lives, if not thousands, slaying at least thirty of the enemy, and noted his dereliction of duty in flat terms. So flat that it was more effective than any flowery statements.
To Dekass’ own report, Olesm attached a simple missive to Liscor’s Council, the army, and the citizens of Liscor citing Crusader 51 as one of the most valorous soldiers under his command.
Such an impersonal, inadequate response for someone who had done so much. And the war continued.
Olesm drank his hot tea as he watched Zimrah preaching, repeating Crusader 51’s name. He was tired, but waiting for the Council’s response to one of his requests. It was another thing Olesm had thought of. Oh—it wasn’t a big secret. He had attached a note to Lism and the Council after his commendation and the rest of his report:
Councilmembers, in light of Crusader 51’s heroism, I would like to request the Council allot a budget to increase the squads on weekly break rotation to 3, instead of 2. I understand this means sixty [Soldiers] will be using the door’s mana, but given the circumstances, I would like to mandate one Antinium squad be given a break in the city with the other two non-Antinium squads.
Anticipating problems, I would welcome the Free Antinium’s willingness to coordinate any squad on break. However, I believe the other two squads on break may volunteer to lead around the Antinium [Soldiers]. I hope I can count on your support for this initiative.
He believed they’d okay it by nightfall. Another piece of tinder for the fire in the Antinium’s hearts. It wasn’t Erin’s kindness that made Olesm do it. It was good for them. It was kind. But that wasn’t why he did it.
The Drake was so caught up in listening to Zimrah and thinking of when to announce the lottery for vacation that he didn’t hear the [Soldier] at first.
“Commander Olesm, sir. Visitor for you.”
Olesm’s mood of awed contemplation turned into sourness instantly. His claw tightened on his cup of tea, and he didn’t look back to his tent.
“I will kill that [Slaver] if I see him. Not right now, Artur.”
The [Banner Leader], the nosiest Antinium who listened into all conversations, had become the camp’s unofficial [Messenger].
The Antinium holding his flag clicked his mandibles together in confusion, but he didn’t immediately leave.
“That is not who…”
A voice split the air, bright and cheery and completely foreign to Olesm.
“Yayde Re~! Is that Olesm of Liscor I see? Ah, greetings! Could we exchange words?”
The curious, warbling call made Olesm turn. He saw a peculiarly-armored Drake riding towards him, along with eighteen more on horseback. Their flag was…Olesm squinted at them.
He saw a curious Drake waving at him. Curious because he—she?—had oddly-patterned armor all over their head and neck, the most complete helmet that Olesm had ever witnessed, and shoulder guards.
It looked akin to a [Knight]’s helmet, but it was practically skin-tight, form-adhering, and it was stylized to mimic a Dragon’s head, giving the Drake and all eighteen [Soldiers] an odd, predatory look. The helmet even had tiny, tiny holes for their neck-spines to poke out of, and a few Drakes had even coated their neck-spines with iron barbs. If they turned their heads, you were in danger of being stabbed.
The helmet melded into the shoulder and neck-guards, forming a protective layer of metal or stone—some of the Drakes wore what looked like stone armor—all the way down to their shoulders. Like the upper part of a cloak or mantle fused into their helmet.
It was the most sophisticated armor Olesm had seen: scale armor, interlinking, smoothly-moving plates, which were not fun for [Armorers] to make; they preferred pieces, just like how obnoxious chainmail was because of all the links interwoven together.
The complex head-and-shoulders piece abruptly ended at the shoulderblades, and was replaced by the most dull, painted…iron armor that Olesm had seen.
The Drake officer waving at him had a sword at her waist, and she was riding a pony, not a stallion. Her other bodyguards had hatchets, simple longswords, spears…and a pickaxe? Olesm squinted at the odd mismatch.
“What are they…? Artur, who are they?”
“I do not know, sir. They identify themselves as emissaries of the Drake city of Yolden.”
The name vaguely rang a bell. Olesm started towards the [Soldiers]. They were hardly unwatched; Liscor’s army had two squads eying them.
With a bit of confusion. As Olesm neared, he saw a second oddity. These Drakes—and they were all Drakes, all nineteen—all had the same, complex helmet-shoulderguard.
And iron armor. Or leather. Their officer had what looked like a steel sword, although it was carefully sheathed, but Olesm didn’t even think they carried steel weapons. Oh—and he realized that, instead of bows, they had slings hanging by their sides and an overfull, bulging bag of ammunition.
Rocks. Only their commander, who was goggling at Olesm, had a bow, and it looked like an heirloom. She leaned over her saddle, then got down hurriedly.
“Yayde Re! Hello! Doine! It’s an Antinium! Hold your weapons, everyone! Commander Olesm, I’m from Yolden! [Captain] Voita, of the 22nd Command of the Yoldenite Army! Could I have a word?”
She was the most unusual Drake that Olesm had ever met. From her strange, yodeling cry, to an accent that seemed to be half-shouting at him, to her odd phrasing and armor…Olesm saw her gawking at Artur as he approached.
“Captain Voita? The Yoldenite army?”
Now Olesm recalled. Yolden. He had studied a map of the area. Wasn’t Yolden another Drake city in this region? Even higher up in elevation than Hectval.
Were they going to fight too? He felt a sinking feeling, but surely if so, they wouldn’t have announced themselves? And this Captain Voita and her squad were staring at the Antinium in a kind of horrified fascination…but fascination as opposed to simple horror.
Many Drakes would attack or flee. Olesm thought quickly.
“Artur, go find Wing Commander Embria if she’s near our camp. Tell her to report at once. Greetings, Captain Voita. I apologize. You’ve caught me at a poor time. We just finished a battle, and I’m—scatterbrained.”
“Ah, that mess back with all the flashin’ lights? We saw it from afar. Put our tails over our heads, so it did. Not that it wasn’t encouraging. Sent the Drishy-Luly-Heckies packing, did you? That’s the Commander Olesm I came here to see! And your Liscorian army looks sharp as Metal Dragonbreath! I hope you and I can talk. Greetings from Yolden! The Township Councils all send their regards, and I’m acting as representative.”
Olesm knew Drassi. He had experienced a wall of words hitting his head, and he had learned how to wade through a chatterbox’s offensive wave of dialogue. However, everything Voita said made his mind wrestle for a bit.
Voita’s helmet revealed her face; it was oddly lax in a face-guard, but heavily armored upwards. Not even a chin-guard…and she knew him.
“You have me at a disadvantage, Captain Voita. I’m afraid I don’t know Yolden’s…Township? But your squad is welcome into Liscor’s camp. You’re welcome to keep mounted, but we can see to it you get some feed for your horses or a break if you’re staying longer.”
“Oh! Don’t mind if we do!”
What looked like Voita’s second in command instantly dismounted, and the entire squad was on their feet and stretching before Olesm could blink.
“Got any good feed? Captain, where do we park?”
“Wherever the Commander wants you! I was hoping we could talk privately. Some of it’s command-level talk, sir.”
Olesm looked around, and every officer in range tried to duck. His claw found a [Tactician].
“Merraw, feed, food, and maybe room around one of the fires for the Yoldenites. I will see Captain Voita in my tent. Send up some refreshments. Captain Voita, would you like to follow one of my [Soldiers] there? I apologize. I will be with you in five, ten minutes at most.”
She nodded understandingly.
“That’s very kind of you, Commander Olesm. Don’t mind if I do. My girls and boys won’t be any trouble or I’ll make ‘em go back home without their helmets!”
She laughed as if that were a real threat and followed a Gnoll up the hill. Olesm rubbed at his head.
This was going to be weird.
Wing Commander Embria didn’t keep a superior officer waiting. She galloped back, and, to Olesm’s surprise, he saw Artur riding a horse after her.
“I got your message, Commander. What’s this about another city?”
She looked vaguely worried. Olesm gestured at the squad of Yoldenites talking with some [Soldiers] from Liscor all dining on some rations.
“We have…an officer from Yolden who wants to meet me. I thought you might know who they were. What am I dealing with?”
“A who from where?”
She knew most cities in this region, having campaigned across Izril. Olesm repeated the city.
“Yolden. You don’t know about them?”
“I don’t know…every city. Yolden. Yolden…Wikir! Vell! Get over here! On the double!”
Both [Captains] raced over as Embria barked a command. Artur had dismounted and was feeding his horse an apple, patting it as the two [Captains] rode in. It was a mark of the times that Artur stood with them instead of either Gnoll or Drake giving him the stink-eye. Vell stood away from Artur, but that was it.
“Yolden…Yolden…it rings a bell, yes? But where? Vell?”
“Aren’t they the ones who make great helmets? What’s the saying?”
Vell snapped her claws, frowning. Artur came over.
“I will take your horse, Captain Wikir? Unless you will ride back?”
“Oh. Thank you…Artur.”
The Gnoll distractedly handed him the reins. Vell did likewise, and Artur came back as she blinked.
“That’s it! Commander Embria, remember? Whenever we go by here, High Command always makes some unlucky bastards like 6th ride up to Yolden and commission some gear.”
“Right…and what’s the saying?”
“You can’t kill a Yoldenite from above.”
Vell began it, and Wikir and Embria finished the sentence. Olesm raised his brows.
“So this is a famous city?”
All three officers shook their heads instantly as Artur looked from face to face. Vell glanced at the Yoldenites.
“Look at that. Iron and leather armor, and that’s a command squad. Slings.”
“Nothing wrong with a good sling. You can knock on someone’s head with one.”
Wikir growled, amused. Vell glanced at him.
“Okay, want to trade your shortbow for one? We could take that lot with our eyes closed. Even the Ants would dice them two-to-one.”
“I believe we would, yes, Captain Vell.”
Vell jumped, then nodded at Artur.
“Er…right. See? Even our banner-guy could probably out-lead an officer in their army. This is a real border-city, Commander Olesm. Poor weapons, low-level…”
“Why are they here?”
Vell gave Olesm a blank look.
“Maybe they want to trade for gear? Or they’re worried we’ll come at them? I don’t think they’re on Hectval’s side.”
“Definitely not. Hectval’s not unified with all the cities. Hrr. I can’t tell you anything more, Commander. Liscor’s army doesn’t fight Yolden or other border cities…no profit. We’re hired for bigger battles. All I can tell you is that they have a weird city.”
“How weird? Commander Embria?”
The [Wing Commander] frowned.
“Something about towns…that’s all I’ve got. Should we socialize?”
“Please. I’ll send Artur for you if I need you, Embria. Be polite. No insults—no disparaging their armor, Vell.”
“Sir! I would never, to their faces. Oh, and when’s the lottery for…?”
Wikir elbowed them, and Olesm headed towards his tent. He distinctly heard Artur whispering to Vell and Wikir.
“It will be today. Commander Olesm will do a raffle of another two squads, but a third will be Antinium. Oh, and we are having a squash-based bread today because a shipment of squash was passed through the door…”
“I hate squash.”
“Vell, do you enjoy any vegetable at all?”
Olesm got a surprise when he entered his tent. He had his tent bodyguard ready…it had occurred to him this might be an ambush. But what he found instead of an attack was Captain Voita helping herself to the food he’d requested.
Oh, and she’d found a bottle that wasn’t meant for this moment and poured herself a cup.
“Yayde Re~. Lovely tent and army you have, Commander Olesm. And it’s an honor to meet you again. I didn’t want to spill over in front of my people, but I’d love one of those autographs I hear people talking about on the scrying orbs.”
“From me? Excuse me, Captain Voita…I’m glad you’ve settled in.”
She had pulled the chair out and loaded up a plate. The Drake looked at Olesm, then hesitated.
“Sorry, is this not good manners?”
Voita looked so worried that Olesm lied.
“…No, no. I meant that seriously.”
“Ah, good, good! I didn’t want to make a bad impression. They sent me because I volunteered—not that we have more than [Negotiators]! Plus, it was dangerous, even with our colors. The Heckies are jumpy as can be. You really rattled their heads.”
She seemed quite pleased by that. Olesm sat down.
“I think I need to start from the beginning. I confess—I don’t know much about Yolden, Captain Voita, so tell me if I make any mistakes. You came to meet me. You know me. An autograph? I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly noteworthy.”
She laughed, then looked at him incredulously.
“No? I saw you on the television—well, I also remember when everyone was talking about you. During the Goblin Lord’s advance, remember? Yolden was sending everyone to watch the Big Wall in case the Goblins came up in the mountains…and then we heard you shouted at Pallass! Pallass! ‘I outrank you!’ I loved it.”
Olesm turned scarlet as he realized she was referring to the very first time he’d been on the news outside of maybe chess. When he’d demanded aid from Pallass and other cities to hold Liscor’s walls.
“That was…a long time ago.”
“Only a year. Mind you, I never thought I’d meet you, what with Liscor being past the Bloodfields. Then we heard Liscor’d opened a road, and the towns debated sending someone—but Hectval got there first. Next we heard, you were cracking the Drisshia-Luldem-Hectval Alliance up. One versus three! We had to send someone, but the towns argued so much it took this long for them to send me. We’re here to talk about an alliance. I should’ve led with that.”
Olesm’s mind spun.
“You’re opposed to the Hectval—the Alliance as well?”
Voita gave Olesm a look over her food, which she was inspecting as if it were new and foreign to her, especially the squash.
“We hate ‘em. Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia? The Alliance members are the three biggest bullies around. ‘Course we came to you if it looked like we could team up and get even. You think you’re the only ones who hate them? We’ve hated them for years.”
Voita had reminded Olesm a lot of Drassi, an odd Drassi, but now the first bit of real Drake entered her tone as her tail curled up and she glared. Olesm sat back as his heart began to beat.
He hadn’t considered it, but the first officer, Voita, made him realize how blind he’d been. On a larger strategic scale than combat. Other Drake cities had obviously heard about Hectval’s war with Liscor. It just hadn’t occurred to Olesm to look for allies.
Liscor was so uniquely cut off that allies or enemies were a foreign concept to them. Now, Olesm’s world opened. Voita was only too happy to explain where she was from.
“You can’t see us from here, but we’re higher than Hectval. Truthfully, we’re closest to Drisshia, and they’re the city we feud with. All the time. They own the iron mines. You saw their heavies? Steel. It makes fighting them really hard. Not that Liscor’s behind! I saw your [Soldiers]. All of ‘em have steel?”
She gave Olesm an impressed look. He shook his head.
“That’s…standard gear for Liscor’s Watch. Leather too, but we bought up all our equipment, and the Antinium provided their own.”
“Huh. Where from?”
He was stumped.
“Celum, Liscor, Esthelm—Esthelm is a mining city. Invrisil, Pallass…”
She appeared frankly envious.
“We have to buy from Drisshia. Or hope a [Merchant] decides ours is a good trade route or sends a caravan out. They’ve got the monopoly. Hectval’s got their bows, Luldem has their magic…Yolden’s not the biggest tail around. I don’t know if you noticed.”
Olesm very carefully kept his face straight.
“Your [Soldiers] looked quite professional.”
Voita gave Olesm a toothy smile that told him she knew he was being nice.
“Doine, Commander Olesm, no need to be polite. We’ve lost enough battles with the Alliance to know we’re behind. Not that they get over the Big Wall.”
“Tell me about that. Big Wall? Is Yolden a…town?”
She shook her head.
“No, it’s a city—sort of. Big Wall’s the curtain wall around our towns. See? One big wall—we hold off foes there. And Yolden’s around Yodemite. That’s the name of the enchanted mountain. Throws off some magical stones…nothing like Salazsar. Ever heard of pumice?”
Olesm stared. Yolden was a city that, among its pastures and wide, wide land area, was more like a rural collection of widely-spaced towns behind a single, long curtain wall. They were nestled with their backs to a sometimes-unpredictable mountain filled with lighter stones.
Pumice, which was a stone so light it floated on water. Olesm had to see that. He saw a stone that was pale beige, so weak it was crumbly, with tiny airholes, come out of Voita’s pouch. She handed it over with a faint blush.
“It’s good for taking off dead scales. Put it in a cup. See?”
Olesm watched as the rock bobbed in some water. Voita shook her head.
“We wish! Just light. We’ve got it all lying about. Something about old Yodemite makes some stones float…there’s decent mining up there, but stones fall down all the time. You can get brained by one, and even pumice hitting from high enough caves in your skull. So we wear this. See?”
She tapped her odd headpiece, and Olesm realized why the helmets were so elaborate. It was a perfect shoulder and head-guard to ward off pieces of stone falling from above. Even children apparently had them, and the only times you took them off were indoors.
“This is…fascinating. So the Alliance isn’t friendly to Yolden.”
“Friendly? We’ve paid tribute to them…the Townships have to send a lot of our sheepies. No one likes them, but who can beat three cities all teamed up and close together? We’ve tried. Yolden joins up with Naughtl, and even Fillen, but we don’t trust them all the time…we hold our own. Then Liscor appeared, and we thought—we have to reach out, Antinium or not.”
Olesm glanced at Voita’s face. She had a big smile, perhaps because this was all so exciting to her, and an oddly metallic sheen to her scales, which were almost grey-orange. Metallic orange.
“You’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical, Captain Voita, but yours would be the only city I’ve ever met that didn’t treat the Antinium as a greater threat than anything.”
“Oh, the Black Tide? We know they’re nasty…but we hate the Heckies more. That was the big argument, see? However, Yolden didn’t suffer siege in the Antinium Wars, either one. We sent our girls and guys out, and some didn’t come back, but the Antinium never made it to us. They focused on Luldem! Hah!”
Ah, there was the pettiness. Olesm relaxed and offered Voita more of his Amentus wine. She was remarkably free with his things. It seemed Yolden was the kind of place where anything left out was fair game—so they hid anything they didn’t want guests to touch. Which was everything.
Drakes with a twist. Voita explained Yolden’s history in the Antinium Wars.
“They never came up this far. Yolden hasn’t ever seen an Antinium. We have a few heads mounted as souvenirs…er…”
She trailed off. Olesm gave her a steady look.
“I see. But the Antinium aren’t as much of a threat as the ‘Heckies’. Is this a formal offer or just an inquiry to see what we’re like, Captain Voita? I am pleased to talk to you, but I trust you’ll represent your entire city. Or do you not have that authority?”
Uneasily, she sat up and, though flustered, spoke professionally.
“No, sir! I can speak for the Township. However, I will need them to vote on agreement. But we’re prepared to vote fast. Frankly, sir, no one wants to lose the chance to get back what’s ours. I’m with 22nd Command; each town has their own force, and I’m from the last one.”
“Twenty-two towns? Go on.”
Olesm had learned the fine art of negotiation from Maviola and, to some extent, Chaldion as well. He was friendly…up to a point. But Voita deferred to him, which meant he had all his cards in his claw…and some of hers.
It seemed like Yolden really wanted a friend. And they really didn’t want to bleed much.
“See, we could hit Drisshia’s mines. Tie up some of their forces. They’ve got a big, fat one they’re practically leaving open. If your army ties up their forces…”
“Yolden gets to take a mine, and we bleed for it. I’m not interested in giving Yolden free real estate, Captain Voita. Why should my [Soldiers], who’ve been fighting and dying for two months, distract Drisshia long enough for Yolden to swoop in? If we take Drisshia’s mines, I’d rather collapse them or take control ourselves.”
“What? Collapse them? Take control?”
“Well…we fight over them! We could really use the iron.”
Olesm smiled and looked past Voita at a map of the region.
“So will Yolden fight Liscor?”
“No—Commander, we’ve gotten on the wrong foot. Clearly! Doine, we’re not proposing Liscor do all the work!”
“That sounds like what you just offered me. Let’s try again. Why hasn’t Yolden already attacked? My guess is that you don’t care to antagonize Drisshia in case this war ends and they turn on you.”
Voita nodded uneasily, trying to stay ahead of the conversation. Olesm knew what it must be like. She wanted him to like her, and she had to report back to her Township. He knew what it was like to be a young officer who suddenly ran into a grandmaster chess player or suddenly had to deal with the threat of war.
Now that he was on the other side of it, he felt vaguely bad for her…and did exactly what would have given him cold sweats, putting her tail over the fire.
“What can Yolden offer me? I mean real forces, Captain Voita. Enforced by a magical contract. I have to report back to Liscor’s Council as well, but I am [Strategist] for Liscor. Let’s say Yolden wants those mines. How much are they willing to pay to keep them?”
“In…a share of the ore? Gold?”
Voita looked uneasy. Olesm gave her an incredulous stare.
“No, I mean how many [Soldiers] are they willing to spare? How many for a mine? Because if you want Liscor to back you after the war is done, I want at least a thousand.”
“Convince me. How many [Soldiers] does Yolden have? What’s your distribution of forces?”
The poor [Captain] gave Olesm the standing number of Yolden’s army for free and realized halfway through him grilling her about their locations that she really should have held onto that. Olesm really did feel bad for her, so he signed her an autograph card. Then asked if she’d ever wanted to visit Pallass.
Embria, [Wing Commander]
“Ancestors, he’s hanging her out to dry.”
Wing Commander Embria was listening to the conversation in Olesm’s tent. He could have warded it, but he hadn’t, instead letting her listen in. She shifted, and the other person listening in nodded.
“Commander Olesm is quite unkind. He has Captain Voita on the back foot. He should press the charge. Unless that is not how you win verbal wars?”
Artur, the [Banner Leader], stood with his banner, almost invisible. He was conspicuous as a Worker standing behind a pole of wood, but he was so still that you forgot he was there. Embria hesitated. She looked at the Antinium and replied.
“I…er…she might back out, but I’ve seen the army negotiate. They tend to hang anyone trying to cheat us out to dry. You have to; small-time cities can be as bad as big ones.”
Artur nodded reasonably.
“In that case, I am glad he is being so mean.”
Mean? Embria listened. Olesm was offering Voita a chance to look at his Kaalblade.
“Steel? Liscor has steel. We also have access to two major cities, Human and Drake. Would you accept a gift? I have a fine, enchanted dagger. Perhaps you could show it to the Township as a symbol of relations…? Oh, and you should have one meal before you go. Liscor has its own delicacies.”
It was surprisingly mean. Embria had always thought of Olesm as somewhat of a nice guy. The war was making her rethink that.
She was actually a bit surprised Artur thought this was all fine. Embria frowned at him.
“You’re Artur, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Wing Commander Embria.”
“I thought Antinium liked being nice? I never saw those Workers and Soldiers at The Wandering Inn so much as curse. I thought you’d be all for hugs and kisses.”
Artur craned his head as Olesm poked his own head out of the tent to order a pizza—and Liscor’s own diplomatic core and Council to get in on this.
“If Yolden does not commit its forces, more of our [Soldiers] will die. So he should press her as hard as he can.”
“You mean, Antinium Soldiers?”
Artur gave Embria a look. She blinked because it could only be described as…withering.
“I mean, Liscor’s [Soldiers]. Do not be an idiot, Wing Commander. Sir.”
He gave her a three-handed salute, one hand holding onto his flag. Wing Commander Embria’s mouth worked.
The Antinium were changing. Wing Commander Embria didn’t speak much to Artur; she was busy meeting Captain Voita and watching Olesm impress upon her and her squad just how much she wanted to make this alliance work.
“We need to talk to the other cities, Wing Commander. I suggest [Message] spells rather than sending runners. I’ll put the Council on it. Stupid of me not to think of it.”
“Yes, sir. I mean—no, sir. I can pull 4th Company and see if they can glean any tidbits about which cities are trustworthy or useful.”
“Do that. Oh, and Wing Commander? I have a lottery for you to bring back to Bepol’s troops. Tell him I want him to take his rally point in the next two days or I’ll have his tail.”
Perhaps it was the directness. Olesm didn’t try to coddle people’s feelings. He could, and he had soothed Bepol’s ego at the start. However, these days he had a carrot and stick in either claw, and he’d smack you with both if he had to. Or feed you the stick.
That was how Embria had experienced command in Liscor’s regular army. She returned to her command with Wikir and Vell, and found three members of 4th Company were in trouble. And that Division Leader Bepol had personally come to sort out an altercation in her absence.
“They started it!”
Bepol glared but let Wing Commander Embria sort out Igessi’s squad. The Wing Commander saw Wikir walk down the row of [Soldiers], smacking them.
“You idiots. We’re 4th Company. You’re starting brawls with the army?”
“Not us, Wing Commander! They started it!”
“Oh, and someone wants to pick a fight with 4th Company. Who did?”
Vell raised a boot to kick a surprisingly battered-looking [Corporal], and the Gnoll burst out.
“The Ants! They jumped us!”
Embria unfolded her arms.
Bepol had two Antinium squads of ten placed among their ranks. Ostensibly to let Liscor’s [Soldiers] see them fight alongside them. Unofficially? Embria guessed it was a kind of reward for a lucky squad.
They didn’t get minced up with the rest of the poor bastards by Manus. Although Embria had heard a single Soldier somehow held off Manus and saved the Painted Antinium. That had to be a rumor, but she wasn’t heartbroken that they got away.
There was definitely a change in the Antinium. The [Corporal] looked uneasy.
“We were just talking, and one of them heaved over and punched Samul’s lights out! We nearly stabbed them, but they fought with their fists, and Commander Bepol himself stopped it.”
“Antinium punched you? Why? Did you provoke them?”
Vell was incredulous. The [Corporal] visibly hesitated.
“N-no? We were just, uh, talking…”
Embria’s eyes narrowed. Another [Soldier] confessed.
“We might have been saying something about the…casualties? Like how the Painted Antinium weren’t as good as everyone said? Then—bam!”
Wikir hesitated, looking at Embria. The Drake growled.
“So you badmouthed them, and you were surprised when one of their own decided to knock your face in? Corporal, if someone said the Gnolls on Chandrar deserved what they got, what would you do?”
The Gnoll [Corporal] protested.
“Yes, Wing Commander, I’d give them the Liscorian handshake, but they’re Ants.”
“I know. But…don’t do it again. Just don’t. And if any of 4th Company starts a fight that gets to Commander Olesm, I’ll let him kick you all into the latrine. Besides.”
Besides…Vell had her arms folded, but Wikir finished it.
“They’re getting chewed up and spat out, no? Stow it.”
Vell blinked. She looked from Wikir to Embria. The Wing Commander slowly nodded.
“Exactly. So shut the hell up and get ready to join the latrine diggers.”
Odd, odd, odd. Embria didn’t like it. Not the Antinium punching out anyone who bad-mouthed them. Or them getting more dangerous.
She didn’t like…knowing Artur’s name. Or feeling embarrassed when she said something stupid. She hated to admit it, but she had a vague uncertainty in the back of her head. She resisted it…like she would have resisted Olesm giving her an Antinium squad to command.
But part of her feared that her hatred of the Antinium? The dislike of them being in the army? She feared that one day, she’d wake up, or blink, and the reason would unravel like a piece of thread.
And if she thought like that…perhaps it was already undone. But the truth would come out later. Embria did not have to wait long for results after Yolden’s forces encountered Liscor. Manus kept coming at the Antinium lines, but with noticeable hesitancy after the mystery of Crusader 51. And elsewhere?
The stalled warfront slowly began to break as a second new force entered the mix.
Vess, [Arcane Warrior]
When he reached his class consolidation, Vess was Level 20. He’d reached Level 20 during the war, and Big Yam threw him a celebration.
“Prodigy! We have a real prodigy here!”
Velden crowed, and Vess grinned as they dumped a mug of beer over his head. This was allowed; the High Command had let Big Yam celebrate.
It was rare for someone to hit Level 20 so fast. Even in war! Vess heard people commenting about it.
“Another Zel. That’s what it is. You know how he got to that level? Before the damn Ants were fighting against us and the world was upside-down…”
His smile vanished, and Velden looked around with a glare.
“Hey. Shut up. Don’t go ruining the night with that. I don’t want to hear their name.”
Antinium. They haunted Vess’ dreams. Not just the sight of them in their armor, or the voices that sometimes called out to him. Everything.
Click. The way their mandibles clicked. They way they would swing all four arms when you only had two, how they refused to die. Even with the [Mercenaries] attacking them.
Everyone ‘knew’ they were from Manus. No one said it, but everyone knew. Yet there was no confirmation, and Vess wondered why a giant army of tens of thousands didn’t help beat Liscor. Velden couldn’t guess, only that Manus didn’t want to start another Antinium War. But they needed it.
An [Arcane Warrior] like Vess could channel magic through the sword he carried. He created a temporary enchantment—[Stored Shock]—and electrocuted anyone who clashed swords with him. He could throw multiple [Light Arrows] out of his wand and reinforce his shield.
Big Yam was now a veteran squad who could hit the soup and come out in more or less one piece. That meant, ironically, they were safer. They didn’t eat the horrific [Instantaneous Barrage] Skill that all of the Alliance had learned to fear.
Nor were they facing Liscor’s right wing. Some of Hectval’s forces rotated into Big Yam’s when they went to the center to help push against Liscor there. Luldem’s squad found themselves sharing tents with hollow-eyed [Soldiers] who jumped at every shadow.
“They’re in the ground. They’re in the ground.”
One of the Drakes whispered at Velden. She rocked back and forth, holding her tail like a child.
“They were in this cave. One second we thought we were safe—then we realized they’d squeezed into cracks in the wall. They waited for us, then crept out and…and the traps! There’s bear traps all over. You take one step and you lose a leg. And while you’re bleeding out—”
“Shut up. Don’t demoralize everyone with that shit!”
The [Sergeants], Velden and a traumatized Drake, were whispering in a corner. It made Vess’ scales grow cold. The other [Sergeant] from Hectval laughed, a touch hysterically.
“Look at you lot from Luldem! You don’t know what we’ve seen!”
“You think we’re having fun with the Antinium here? Guess you don’t know about the immortal sniper. Even Manus can’t get rid of it.”
The Hectval [Soldiers] looked up.
There was a killer haunting the Alliance. It appeared across the battleground—mostly on the left and middle, but almost always around the Antinium’s deployment. Nor did this [Archer] stick to battles, though every officer now kept their heads low, abandoning easy markers like plumes or badges to show their rank.
“[Sentries] end up dead with an arrow in their neck. Sometimes just one. Or a [Sergeant] gets shot mid-charge. Or…”
“And Manus doesn’t stop them?”
“Manus? They’re the ones who get shot at the most! I hear their commander’s hopping mad. They keep killing the sniper—or so they say. The next day? Someone else gets shot.”
“I hear they found the Antinium—a Worker—hacked it up, burned the pieces, and watched it all night. Then one of the crew guarding the pieces got an arrow straight through the back.”
Vess shuddered. This was one of the things that there was no way to fight against. The Alliance was fighting Liscor because, if they lost, so High Command assured the [Soldiers], the Antinium would slaughter their cities. They fought because the Antinium were allied with Liscor, those bastards.
However, morale was at an all-time low. The right wing had apparently near-daily mutinies. The immortal Antinium sniper was one of the legends keeping [Soldiers] up at night and scanning for a sight of a bow and a Worker.
But there were also…tangible things to fear.
Vess saw him appear in a battle the day after that. He charged down the slope as Liscor’s army came after him, ahead of the others.
A giant Minotaur—Vess aimed his wand, and eight [Light Arrows] bounced off the Minotaur’s hide. Arrows broke against his skin and armor. He raised an axe and roared.
“Beriad of the Free Antinium! Death before dishonor! Charge!”
Behind him, thirty Antinium streamed towards Drisshia’s [Soldiers]. This was no ordinary grouping. The Minotaur had begun going into battle with allies. Worse? They fought like he did.
He rammed forwards, head lowered, one huge arm raised. An axe as wide as Vess’ chest rose and came down towards a [Soldier] holding a shield.
The Gnoll’s will broke, and she tried to dodge—the axe fell, and no one survived that. The Minotaur pivoted, and the axe slammed into another [Soldier]. He kicked someone, shattering a leg, and that axe rose.
No defending. No hesitation or dodging. Stab me. Attack me. Challenge me! The Minotaur’s eyes were red, and he roared.
A blow for a blow.
The Antinium behind him all carried two-handed weapons. Battleaxes, greatswords, mauls…they charged in, trading a swing for a swing.
That was what they called themselves. Or he called them.
The Minotaur appeared in another battle before the lines met. Both sides were trading magic and missiles, and Vess saw the Minotaur holding the axe up as his squad waited on the front lines. Then, as they waited for the order to charge, he heard a strange sound.
Thud. Thud, thud, THUD.
A rhythmic boom. A heavy echo that ran through the ground. Vess looked up—and saw the Minotaur and Antinium, hundreds of them, stomping in unison.
A rhythm. The Minotaur was leading them. The Antinium struck the ground with their feet as one. They kept their weapons up, shields raised—yet this was a way to make sound, even while keeping their guard up.
The Alliance jeered and shouted curses, screaming at the Antinium, but the organized sound made their voices falter. The Minotaur was staring at them. And the Antinium…
The Minotaur walked in front of the stomping line of Antinium. They looked…angry. Fierce. There was something more in their insectile stare that made Vess shudder.
It hadn’t been there at the start of the war. Before, they had been…angry? Now—now. Vess thought they wanted to kill him.
It was his doing. The Minotaur turned his back to the Alliance’s lines. He walked forward, ignoring an arrow that cracked on the back of his head. The bits of wood splintered off the Minotaur’s horns, and he brushed a piece away from one ear.
The scars. He had as many scars on his back as his front. His fur rippled as his muscled arm rose. The axe rose into the sky, and the light was harsh.
Hot. The Minotaur’s fur stood out with sweat. His voice was a bellow, as if you had given a bull words. It shook as he addressed the Antinium.
Not in the throes of madness, though. There was something grave about the way he addressed them, as they stomped their feet, helmets raised, peeking out at him from behind their shields.
No mindless berserker. No raging bull-man. He spoke to them like a warrior.
“Antinium of the Free Hive! When a warrior of the House of Minos is judged worthy, in character, in might of arms, they are given leave to depart our shores. It is not just strength or the ability to kill that marks a true warrior.”
He walked down their lines. A bolt of lightning flashed across the ground, and every piece of him lit up. The [Minotaur] staggered. Turned his head.
Snorted. And went on.
“Those are the Beriad. It means, to our people, in our tongue—away. Away from home. They will fight and die from our shores. But they are of our home, and they will never forget.”
He aimed his axe at the Antinium as their stomping slowed.
“You are Beriad! You have left your Hive! If you die on these soils, or wherever you fall—you are true warriors. You are the Beriad of the Free Antinium. Give them no reprieve. Fear no end. You will not find your equals ahead of you. They stand at your backs. Now—”
He turned and aimed his axe ahead.
“For the honor of Hammerad and Liscor! Charge!”
The Minotaur’s feet churned the ground as he took off. Again, he lit up as a bolt of lightning struck him. A howling [Battle Mage] threw fire, engulfing the Minotaur, and the [Archers] focused on him as if he were magnetic. Bring him down! Bring him—
A howling Minotaur, mouth opened like a crimson red furnace, pounded towards the Alliance’s front. Behind him came the Antinium. Vess’ claw shook on his wand.
He wouldn’t die. He saw the first [Soldiers] begin to break and run. Too late. Too late.
The axe came down like the slowest bolt of lightning in the world and shook the earth.
When they took the Antinium prisoner, Big Yam was close to breaking themselves.
The Painted Antinium had entered the war. Painted Antinium. Who spoke. Who used Skills! Who—
Manus had gone through their ranks like a hot poker through a block of butter. Vess thought he’d seen that [Spearmaster] fight before, but it was nothing compared to the whirlwind the Gnoll turned into.
And the spells! Something was in the skies! [Mages]? Maybe…he saw Tier 4 spells hitting the ground. Tier 5 spells tearing the Antinium apart.
“Thank the Ancestors.”
Velden whispered. Big Yam looked up and saw Liscor fall back in disarray. Thank the Ancestors indeed. When Vess saw that, he thought they could win.
And he also wondered why Manus didn’t fight harder. Why those ‘[Mercenaries]’ didn’t fight every battle.
Vess didn’t know. His squad picked through the battlefield, taking some Liscor [Soldiers] captive.
No Antinium. No one even bothered; they never surrendered. You had to kill them dead. Instead, Big Yam occupied themselves with a grisly task they had fought for:
Looting the dead for weapons and gear.
Not just for themselves. Vess had pocketed a dagger with a jewel on it and tried to fence it with the [Quartermaster]. He’d gotten fifteen lashes for that, so Velden had helped him send it home with some ‘gifts’ to his family. It was good coin.
And an enchanted blade or weapon could save you. So even the Antinium were fair game, though you’d only get a steel weapon—that was still better than most could afford outside the army.
Vess had heard these Painted Antinium had enchanted gear, so he was rolling over bodies and staring at green blood. He heard someone from his squad exclaim.
“Hey. Hey, that Antinium who was shouting is over there. The one with robes on its armor. Look.”
Vess looked up and saw the Antinium who the [Spearmaster] had personally killed lying on the ground. Another Antinium was right next to it. Both had died in an odd posture.
One was propped against the other, mandibles still open, a hole through its chest—multiple holes, Vess realized. Green blood had stained the white robes and run down the steel armor.
The second Antinium, a burly Soldier with only two arms, had died…strangely. It knelt, two arms cradling the Worker, supporting it. Green blood painted its armor, and it had a mace lying next to it.
Dented, worthless. Vess walked forwards, staring at the glowing club in the Worker’s hand. He wondered how the Soldier had died. Then, as he reached out for the club, he saw something.
Did that mandible just move? Vess froze and stared at the Soldier. He’d definitely seen it…twitch. Then he saw, ever-so-slightly, the shoulders rise and fall.
It was breathing. It was—
“Ancestors! It’s alive!”
The [Arcane Warrior] shouted in horror. He leapt backwards, and Big Yam stumbled away, bringing their weapons up. Vess aimed his wand at the Soldier’s head and realized—it hadn’t moved.
It had raised the dented helmet slowly. The two arms on its left side were still holding the Worker, but the Soldier turned to stare at him. It didn’t attack.
“Blast it, Vess! Shoot it—”
One of the [Archers] was circling for an angle, and Vess lifted his wand. He hesitated. Was the Soldier mortally wounded? It looked like it had taken some damage, but it wasn’t attacking. It was…
“Hold on! Hold on!”
Velden roared. He yanked the bow down, and Big Yam turned to him. The [Sergeant] looked at the Antinium Soldier.
“It’s…take it prisoner.”
Big Yam stared at him incredulously. Yet the Drake looked at Vess and then turned.
“Someone get rope! Alert High Command! Tell them—tell them we’ve got an Antinium prisoner! The first one! Ever!”
Big Yam hesitated, but Velden was their [Sergeant]. Vess hissed at him.
“Are you mad, Velden? It’ll attack!”
He thought Velden had lost it, but then the Drake [Veteran] turned and whispered back.
“It could be our ticket out of the next battle if we’re guarding it!”
Vess saw the desperate gleam in Velden’s eyes. He realized this wasn’t about intel or novelty, just Velden trying to keep them alive another battle. Even so…
The Soldier was looking at him. Vess aimed his wand straight between its eyes. At his level and this range, he could blow a hole through its head. Velden watched Vess.
He wouldn’t stop the [Arcane Warrior]. Nor would Big Yam, none of whom wanted to touch the thing. They could run it through. Vess hesitated and saw the Soldier waiting. Waiting…
Vess lowered the wand and backed up. Ropes came, and Big Yam looped them around the Soldier, binding and rebinding it—then yanked it off its feet. The instant the Soldier was down, they resecured it, and began kicking it until Velden told them to leave it alive.
Vess didn’t join in. Nor had he killed the Soldier. Not because he bought into Velden’s plan to get them out of the fighting.
Simply because he didn’t kill unarmed soldiers. And he might have been persuaded there was no such thing with Antinium…but a realization had shocked Vess more than anything else.
The Soldier had been holding the Worker’s body. As if he were mourning him.
That was how Crusader 53 entered into Big Yam’s custody. And the end of the war—at least, for Vess—arrived.
A question ran through the Gnoll’s mind again and again.
Are we making a terrible mistake?
Not just in the Security Council’s supposition about the nature of the Antinium. Lulv had already doubted that.
He was a loyal son of Manus. Born and raised in the walls. He’d lived through the Antinium Wars, and he remembered when Nagas and the North were the enemies to fear. Lulv knew almost all of Manus’ dirty operations and dark secrets.
And their hope. Rafaema wasn’t just a Dragon for Luciva and Drakes. Lulv wanted her to become the Dragonspeaker of Manus. The leader who would treat Gnolls and Drakes fairly. For—while Manus made no distinction between the two as [Soldiers]—it was a Drake city.
Rafaema…he and Makhir believed she would change Izril for the better. However, the future grew more uncertain with each passing year.
What was that Antinium’s class?
No one knew. Some had speculated they had no class, but Lulv had seen that shining sword rise overhead, not magic, nor any ability the Antinium could feasibly create.
A hidden class. Perhaps it was some anti-appraisal gear. That was what Sokkel thought.
On an entire army? No. So the question that echoed in Lulv’s mind was—among other things—
Who was Squad 5?
Who was—who had been—Crusader 51?
It was that unease that followed him. Oddities in battle.
“The sniper’s back. We killed a Worker. We chopped it up, burned the body. Either it’s an entire unit or…there’s something about the arrows.”
Lulv met with his officers and inspected another one. Practically shrapnel.
“It went through the armor, [Spearmaster]. Back plate. [Hardening] enchantment—Grade II. Didn’t go through the front; didn’t have to. The shrapnel kept going and shredded the insides. The force behind it…it’s the same [Archer].”
“Then it’s something we’re not seeing. Body doubles. A Skill, a class…get a research team on it and put the [Mages] on [Detect Life] spells.”
“All the time, sir? They’ll reveal their position. And Strategist Olesm has advanced his class. [Delegate Skill]. That damn Drake scout can use his [Instantaneous Barrage] Skill. Our Wyverns are under threat.”
Sokkel protested. Lulv growled.
“Do it. You have authorization to take her out.”
A balancing act. Lulv was an aggressive [Spearmaster]. He had earned his class not by killing other [Spearmasters]—though he had done that—but originally by receiving the level just by virtue of his sheer ability in battle.
He practiced a Manus-style spear school that favored high mobility, rapid attacks, and thrusting stabs. However, a [Spearmaster] could adapt. Had to adapt.
If we crush Liscor, we weaken our frontline, and at this point, the city must stand. Manus had originally written it off as a casualty of the Third Antinium War given the Free Antinium’s Hive.
Now? Liscor was a liability and an asset. It provided unparalleled viewpoints into the Antinium—yet they were clearly benefiting from the relationship. At the same time, Tyrion Veltras’ near-conquest of the city proved it needed to be in Drake control.
And…well, Lulv’s vote went to making Liscor an asset rather than weakening it, because it had Gnolls on the Council. It could be a model.
Hectval was part of a trio of cities that didn’t add anything to the region. They forced Gnoll tribes out of their radius of influence, made war on Drake cities they could defeat. If Lulv had a side, it was Liscor.
The Antinium were the complication. So Lulv had stayed away from ordering Olesm sniped. If they could even manage it; he had magical protections. The world needed a [Strategist] of his level.
He was just…too good at his job. And at the same time, Liscor’s army was feeding Manus information as well.
“I have the full report. It took some doing to wrangle out of the Cyclops’ grip, but someone must have pushed Pallass hard. Sir.”
“Read it to me.”
Lulv snapped. Sokkel summarized the report for the [Spearmaster].
“Crusader 51. Squad 5, Battalion 1. A deserter who fled for about three weeks. The first Antinium deserter ever registered, apparently. Commander Olesm did not pursue him…let’s see. One of the original volunteers. Apparently gifted with the sword enough to have Calruz of Hammerad teach him personally. Uh…uh…mentions of the Antinium having that unique class. Nothing more.”
“Crusader 51. Where did the intel come from?”
“A ‘Division Leader’ Bepol. Pallass’ officer. Enlisted and commanding their center wing. He’s not happy about you, [Spearmaster]. It looks like he’s requested multiple times for Pallass to pull Manus out.”
Multiple agents of Walled Cities were in Liscor’s army, Lulv had no doubt. Manus got whatever the other Walled Cities deigned to share; since this involved the Antinium, even the Cyclops, Chaldion, was more open. Sokkel grinned as he paged through the document.
“I think there’s a note appended to us. Bastard wrote, ‘I hope Manus enjoyed that last battle. I have no idea how Crusader 51 did that, but say hello to the next one.’”
That was so striking for…anyone to say from a Walled City. Lulv still ground his teeth together.
“Crusader 51. If you had to rate those Skills and that class consolidation, what would you put it as, Sokkel?”
The Drake hesitated.
“It was highly subjective, and we didn’t know the entire level or class—”
“Give me a straight answer. Don’t dance. Answer.”
“…[Paladin]. Or if we’re putting it into classes we field? Eh…[Arcane Spear]. Rare, high-value class. Incredible abilities defensively.”
Lulv nodded. He saw the other officers look uneasy. The Antinium had a high-value class beyond [Soldier]? That was what you didn’t want to see in the enemy. And the most striking thing of all?
The Antinium thought so, too.
Free Queen, [Ant Queen]
Dekass’ commendation of Crusader 51 struck Liscor one way. His private summary of Crusader 51’s abilities and ability to hold off Manus’ finest hit the Queens of the Antinium like an explosion.
“Squad 5. Crusader 51. Is there anything interesting about this Antinium that you knew of, Pawn? Garry?”
Both Workers summoned to stand before the Free Queen shook their heads. Garry very nervously, for the Free Queen was not alone. Pawn answered for both of them.
“No, my Queen. He was a [Crusader]. He was…very brave. I believe he had some talent with the sword.”
“To what extent would ‘talent’ qualify? Inferior to the Custodium. Quantify that ability; does it have any bearing on this [Crusader] class?”
An authoritative voice. The Free Queen clicked her mandibles irritably; the Grand Queen was listening in. However, the Grand Queen was being permitted to listen in, and that was the Free Queen’s [Crusader] who had proved his value.
Her [Crusader]. Her Antinium were dying. It bothered the Free Queen more and more. She missed Bird, too. She stuffed her face with a triple-stuffed pizza as Pawn tried to explain, but another Queen cut him off.
“It would appear that Klbkchhezeim’s statements about the Free Antinium’s potential were not exaggerated at all. Although I had supreme confidence in his words, the proof is undeniable. Even if it is one among five thousand—that is a far more acceptable gain than even Prognugator-based creation.”
The Silent Queen was fascinated by everything and demanded constant updates. The Free Queen liked her, as a fellow student of Bessachidia, the last great Shaper Queen she had known. Even if the Silent Queen thought she was superior.
“Purely random. One instance is not a statistic but an outlier.”
“Except that a [Banner Leader] has been created. And the existence of the Painted Antinium. The loss of this Crusader 51 is unfortunate.”
The Armored Queen’s dolorous tones sounded next, and the huffing Grand Queen fell silent. What she didn’t say, what they were all realizing, was that the Free Antinium were passing even the Free Queen’s wildest boasts.
“The benefit is undeniable. I still weigh it as too costly considering Xrn’s injuries. Is she well, Free Queen?”
The Grand Queen managed at last, and the Free Queen clicked her mandibles with the other Queens. She could not deny that, but she resented the fact that the Grand Queen made it a point of comparison at all.
“She is…stable, Grand Queen. I believe she will speak to you privately.”
Stable. The Grand Queen instantly changed the subject, but the other two Queens seemed less focused on her, and more on Pawn, the report.
Crusader 51, Squad 5. The Free Queen had not known his name, but it was being read through all of Liscor. She wondered…
“Pawn. What would be appropriate for the commendation of this [Crusader]? I do not know how a military commendation is to be received.”
She muted the Grand Queen as she spoke to Pawn. The Antinium looked up.
“He is dead, my Queen. I would love to honor him, but I have nothing but his name to write on the Memory Wall. Perhaps though…”
He hesitated, and looked at Garry.
“Dekass did write, um, a request. Could Crusader 51 possibly be…returned? Via the Rite of Anastases?”
The Grand Queen had heard that. She stopped speaking, and the Free Queen’s feelers moved slightly. All four Queens moved their antennae, and the Silent Queen answered.
“Individual Pawn of the Antinium. Given the nature of your…rank, you are privy to Antinium secrets. This is one which you will not divulge. However, in the interest of preserving the Free Antinium’s war strength, is it acceptable to tell him, Grand Queen…?”
She answered shortly. The Silent Queen rubbed her top-most feelers together.
“The Rite of Anastases is a highly intensive process a Queen may undertake. It is costly in far more resources than are acceptable for all but Prognugators or fellow Queens…”
“Not that we could repair their bodies.”
“No. But it was considered—”
That was straying too close to where the Twisted Queen’s radical thinking had gone to. The risks…but having a mobile, small body? The Free Queen saw Pawn and Garry look from Queen to Queen.
The Silent Queen hurried on.
“…It requires more than simply one or more Queen’s efforts, however. The Drakes are not aware that to preserve a life, the Antinium who perishes must be within the authority of a Queen. Within the range of a Unitasis Network or…close to a Prognugator trained in linking with a Queen.”
Pawn digested that. His antennae drooped.
“Oh. Then Crusader 51 and the others were lost. I wondered if…”
He glanced at the Free Queen.
“Could Dekass and Tersk not have done it? They were on the front—”
“Their helmets block their abilities. It is a choice made to safeguard each Armored Antinium. I may adjust their helmets. Hither to this moment…I had not considered the need.”
The Armored Queen murmured. The Free Queen looked down at Pawn and Garry. So now they knew. The Rite of Anastases was not easy to perform…nor could it be done remotely, not without a link.
If Bird died far from the Hive, he would never come back. But she had told him that. And he went.
As for Crusader 51? He was dead. The Free Queen spoke briefly.
“I will ensure Squad 5 is accorded more safety if possible. It may be there is something unique about them.”
That had no basis in anything other than the correlation. But to Antinium minds—it made sense. If there was even the remotest possibility of any of Squad 5 having a fraction of Crusader 51’s abilities…the Armored Queen spoke.
“Their numbers have been thinned. My Listeners report oddities in the war front as well. Apparently, a new Drake city has entered the battle. And…what is the status of Squad 5, Free Queen?”
The Silent Queen was watching her. The Free Queen responded, a touch irritated.
“I have remanded their leadership to Prognugator Dekass, Armored Queen. And Commander Olesm. You would do better to inquire directly.”
“Just so. But you will send more reinforcements to the Antinium division?”
The Free Queen hesitated. She rubbed her mandibles together, like gritting one’s teeth.
“It…may be difficult. The losses are such that my Hive is struggling to replenish their numbers. However, I will make all arrangements necessary.”
The Grand Queen spoke, a touch smugly.
“I will send more resources to prepare further repopulation and expansion of your Hive, Free Queen. It seems your pact with Liscor and advancement into your Free Antinium’s leveling capabilities has stymied your Hive’s capabilities in other ways.”
The Free Queen twitched. She held very still as Pawn and Garry opened their mandibles wide, and one of Garry’s helpers scuttled further back into the kitchen. Deferred Sustenance, the Free Queen’s pet Rock Crab, snapped its pincers angrily from its hutch.
Slowly, deliberately, the Free Queen looked at the Grand Queen and inclined her head in a Drake fashion.
“You are eminently correct, my Queen. Garry, I would like to eat a triple-stack vanilla cake. With strawberry frosting. Prepare it for me. And a little cake for Deferred Sustenance.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
The Queens watched as the Free Queen calmly, and with all the poise of a [Lady] tripping her rival on the way down the stairs at the yearly ball, picked up the largest barrel of boba tea ever made and took a long sip from the straw.
Eugh. Garry was a good [Chef], but he really was sort of a baking-specialist. The fruit boba did indeed grow a bit manky if you let it sit. It really needed something firmer.
Gelatin. She wondered if the Antinium’s own gel-based creations would go well in it. Probably not. Food was such a non-Antinium thing.
Vess, [Arcane Warrior]
The Antinium prisoner was quickly a source of attention in the Alliance. Half the [Soldiers] wanted to kill it instantly, which meant Velden’s crazy plan worked.
Big Yam were put on guard-duty, which meant they had to feed the Soldier, keep it safe, and were pulled off the front. In some ways, that was more stressful than fighting.
“Is it going to eat?”
The Antinium had a cracked mandible, and it looked beat up. Big Yam had not been gentle with it, and it was covered in chains and rope. Which meant it had to be fed.
The longest spoon in the world contained a wobbling bit of jellied pasta and sauce. Not pasta and sauce.
Gelatin pasta and sauce. It wobbled like the screaming soul and faith in cuisine of many [Chefs] who saw it.
They just didn’t appreciate good gelatin. Luldem’s squad watched as the Soldier looked at it, then, quite nimbly, took a portion in its mandibles, flipped its head up, and let it slide into it’s real ‘mouth’, which gobbled it down.
“I’m going to be sick.”
One of the squad muttered, but Vess couldn’t look away. Antinium actually had two mouths! Their mandibles and that opening in their face. Horrific…but it ate the gelatin pasta with every sign of enjoyment.
“Stupid thing. We should feed it dirt.”
“And let it keel over? Shut the hell up, Coloz. Are you fighting them or sitting on your tail?”
Velden watched, a hand on his halberd, as Vess gingerly fed the Soldier more.
“What’re we going to do with it?”
“Dunno. Maybe trade it for one of our prisoners? Interrogate it, probably. I hear the mercenaries are interested. But they’re just sending one of their officers. High Command says it’s looking for someone to interrogate it, too.”
Vess looked up. That wasn’t encouraging. Then again, this was no officer so it made sense. If they’d gotten the Antinium who spoke, maybe.
He kept watching it. Once they’d pulled it away from the Worker, the Soldier had begun to fight. A bit. It had struggled, trying to break free, and bit at a few boots when the kicking started.
Now? It just sat there. It looked like it was…waiting.
To die? Vess knew they were monsters, mindless things that swarmed over the enemy. The Black Tide, one of Rhir’s dooms.
It just didn’t gel with the idea of the Soldier holding his comrade. It was something Vess had seen the Alliance’s [Soldiers] do. Holding someone bleeding out, calling for a potion, trying to stem the bleeding that poison or magic refused to let potions work on.
When he’d mentioned it to Velden, the [Sergeant] had just cuffed him.
“Don’t go imagining things, Vess. It probably just lost its direction or something. I hear they do that.”
Why…then why did they have voices? Why did he think they were glaring at him across the battlefield? Why had that Worker cursed them to…hell? Rhir’s hell?
Vess didn’t know, but he realized this Antinium was important soon enough.
“What is your unit? Unit. U-n-i-t? This thing’s stupid, [Sergeant].”
The Soldier stared blankly at one of Big Yam, trying to interrogate it ahead of the others. Velden snorted.
“And you’re some [Interrogator]? Soldiers don’t have units, you lizard-brained idiot.”
Big Yam was sitting around, relieved not to be in the soup. Apparently…it was ugly. The Antinium had taken a hell of a beating, that strange Antinium that had saved the last of the Painted Antinium or not.
However, another group had just entered the war, and everyone was talking about it.
“Yoldenites. Those idiots with helmets for brains are on Liscor’s side!”
Some of the Luldem veterans were swearing a blue streak. The Drisshians—the closest city to Yolden—were livid.
“Why is Yolden with Liscor?”
Vess had met a few of them, when they weren’t at war. Velden shrugged.
“Who knows? They’ve always been weird. They don’t have a proper city, they do that stupid call—‘Yaydee Ray’ or whatever. And they’ll help themselves to anything while walking about in their stupid helmets. Inbred idiots.”
Vess had the distinct impression the Soldier was listening to them. So they didn’t have to feed it, they’d instead chained the Soldier’s legs, torso, and neck. It could move its two arms on its left side and move about. Well, about three feet given how many different chains were on it.
It didn’t blink, and the antennae waved, but not much else moved. The Soldier didn’t have pupils, but Vess still thought it was looking at him. He shuddered.
“What’re they doing, the Yoldenites?”
“Yayde Re~! Hey Heckies! Have a taste of this!”
The odd warning call was something Yoldenites said to each other from afar. It was like saying ‘hello’, or simply, ‘I’m here’.
Three hundred Yoldenites on ponies all shouted it down at the Alliance—then began whirling slings and tossing stones down at the Drakes and Gnolls. The instant the Alliance pivoted to attack them, the Yoldenites were retreating, showering their pursuers with stones.
They were obnoxious enemies and had adapted their tactics to battle Drisshia’s heavy infantry. Worse—the Yoldenites put the same helmets on their ponies and turned it into full-body armor—from the top. They would cheerfully engage in any ranged warfare with their enemies, and as the saying went—you couldn’t kill a Yoldenite from above.
Some people uncharitably called them ‘mountain Lizards’ after the cheerfully obnoxious Lizardfolk of Baleros. The difference between Yolden and Lizardfolk was…Yoldenites were still Drakes.
They were unused to the intensity of the battle between Hectval and Liscor. The first time they saw a Hectval line of crossbows open up on them, the Yoldenites experienced fairly significant casualties. They also tried to take a group of Luldem [Soldiers] prisoner and ended up in a close-quarters fight as the enraged [Soldiers] refused to give up until half their number were down.
In response, the Yoldenites waited until the Alliance was marching down a pass and then collapsed an entire shelf onto them, burying over a hundred and fifty [Soldiers] alive.
Over two thousand entered Liscor’s war, mostly as skirmishers harassing the Alliance or appearing to flank their foes from hilltops, where their slings did the most damage. They were hardly the hammer, but they were distracting and, most of all, demoralizing. Apparently, they were threatening one of Drisshia’s mines, and their city wanted to pull back and fight Yolden, which prompted accusations that Drisshia was abandoning the real battle where the most deaths were occuring.
Vess and Velden were discussing the issue when the Soldier’s rock pinged off one of Big Yam’s helmets. It missed the Drake’s eye, and the [Soldier] recoiled, shielding his face.
Instantly, the squad began hurling everything in sight back at it. Velden had to yank people back, and the Soldier, covered in dirt and bleeding from multiple scratches, was re-chained at once.
“It tried to hit Dosel in the eye! You saw that! We have to kill it.”
“Just wait. The longer it takes to find someone to interrogate it, the more we sit around. Chain it back up.”
Velden panted, but Vess felt his scales crawl. There was something…cheerfully malicious about the Soldier. It seemed like it was hungry now, because it snapped its mandibles and turned its head to stare at the food tin.
“I’m going to—”
Dosel got up, and Velden grabbed his shoulder. Vess rose and picked up the tin and the spoon. He approached the Soldier.
“You. What’s your name?”
The Soldier stiffened. Vess offered it another spoon of gelatin pasta.
“You get food if you tell us something. What’s your name? Otherwise you can eat dirt.”
Did they eat dirt? Vess watched as the Soldier’s antennae waved wildly. Then he saw it try to wiggle.
The [Arcane Warrior] reached for his wand, but to his surprise, he saw the Soldier’s bound hands move.
It had stumpy ‘fingers’ more like stubs. They turned into terrifying, sharp fists, and could probably tear through dirt like miniature shovels. However, the Soldier slowly moved his arms and opened one hand completely—and raised three fingers on the other.
Five. And three.
Only Vess saw it. He frowned.
The Soldier’s antennae waved frantically and he shook his head. Vess tried again.
“Eight? Three and five. No? The other way around? Fifty-three?”
The Soldier went still. Then he nodded.
Fifty-three. Big Yam looked at each other, and Velden exclaimed.
“What kind of a name is that? Do they just give Antinium numbers?”
“I thought they didn’t have names.”
53 stared at Vess and opened and closed its mandibles. Vess offered it a spoon, and Dosel slapped it away. The gelatin pasta went into the dirt.
“Don’t give it anything.”
“Aw, come on. I was interrogating—”
“Wait for the interrogators. Don’t feed it. We’re chopping its head off anyways. You hear that? Come on. I can’t stand to look at it.”
Vess backed away, and he saw the Soldier staring at the tin of food. However, the squad was riled up, so Vess closed it and walked back. He saw 53 wiggle…then fall over. Happily, the Antinium began to eat the bit of food off the ground.
“Look at it. It doesn’t even think. I bet it doesn’t even know it’s going to die.”
Vess doubted that. He thought the Soldier knew exactly that it was going to die. That was why it had thrown the rock. Still, that one morsel of information didn’t mean much. 53? It was just a number.
What he didn’t expect was what that number did. Big Yam had custody of 53 for just over three weeks of blessed inaction while High Command sourced an ‘expert’. However, everything changed after one big battle. And 53’s name took on another, unexpected meaning.
Big Yam snapped to attention as a Drake strode into their camp. He actually beat one of the grim-faced Drakes from Hectval.
“Consultant Sokkel. We already have someone in place to deal with this…captive Antinium. I thought you said that it wasn’t of interest to you?”
One of Luldem’s officers was walking with the [Strategist] that apparently gave orders even to High Command. Vess saw the Drake snap back.
“That was the case this morning. Now I want to speak with it. Opinions change. Captain Yulre will want to speak with this Antinium too, once he returns from his engagement.”
Big Yam listened as Sokkel approached the Antinium. He peered at it, frowned around, and then cursed.
“…Or not. I thought you said you identified this thing as 53? Fifty-three…who was that?”
“Sir! Corporal Vess, Big Yam squad! Luldem command, sir!”
Velden barked, and Vess stepped forwards nervously. The [Strategist] eyed him, and one of the [Majors] huffed.
“We have an [Interrogator] ready to…glean any facts about the enemy front, [Strategist] Sokkel. Believe me, we’ll be thorough.”
He meant torture. Vess looked uncertainly at Velden, and Sokkel’s brows rose. He looked at the [Major], at the Soldier, and rolled his eyes.
“An interrogator. Ancestors save me. You, Corporal. How did you learn this Antinium’s designation?”
The Soldier was eying Sokkel. It had heard about the [Interrogator], but it still hadn’t moved. Vess gulped.
“I, uh, offered to feed it if it told me its name, sir.”
“You asked its name.”
Sokkel’s voice was flat. He looked at Vess like the younger Drake was an idiot. The [Major] glared, mostly because the [Strategist] was ignoring him.
The mercenaries and Sokkel were not well-loved in the Alliance, for all they won battles. They were elitist, kept to themselves, and, Vess was sure, looked down on the Alliance. So Vess bristled.
“I was just hunting for information, sir. I got its name. It was holding up fingers. It even nods and shakes its head.”
“Fingers…interesting. And it can nod or shake its head?”
Sokkel rubbed at his chin. He still regarded Big Yam as if they were a load of idiots.
“You see? There’s valuable intelligence to be had. Our [Interrogators]…”
Sokkel interrupted the [Major] briskly.
“Call them off. Captain Yulre will arrive as soon as he can, and we’ll take the prisoner.”
“You can’t do that! It is the Alliance’s prisoner. We will share any intelligence—”
“How? By torturing the Antinium with hot pokers? Giving it [Detect Truth] spells? Refusing to feed it? Asking it its name? You’ve never dealt with Antinium as prisoners, have you?”
The [Strategist] was so contemptuous that all the others looked at him. He shook his head slowly.
“The Walled Cities captured countless Antinium during both Antinium Wars. They refused to talk under extreme duress. This one…”
He glanced at 53, and the Soldier clicked at him. Sokkel raised his brows.
“This might be different. That’s on us for not considering it.”
“Ah, so you admit you were wrong. Gratifying to hear for once! Our vaunted [Strategist] can make a mistake.”
The [Major] snapped back, clearly at the end of whatever issue he had with Sokkel himself. Sokkel’s flat glare made him back up.
“Yes, well. Courageous as your squad was for capturing the Antinium Soldier, [Major]…I very much doubt any other unit from a city would try that. Much less try to interrogate an Antinium Soldier. They can’t talk. They’re physically incapable of it.”
Vess’ mouth opened. The [Major] hesitated.
The look Sokkel gave him as he strode off to head off the [Interrogator] made Vess convinced that the [Strategist] had better not walk around Luldem’s camps at night, especially Big Yam, or he’d find out just how much they appreciated his attitude.
However, all this meant that 53 was now even more valuable, and the angry [Major] told Velden to guard him and wait…for the Gnoll [Spearmaster].
Apparently, he was on another battlefield, so it would be tomorrow when he arrived. Big Yam grumbled, but secretly, everyone probably hoped they’d have to guard the Soldier all the time. It beat fighting for sure.
“I’ll feed it.”
Vess announced after they had enjoyed their supper.
“It won’t die if it misses a meal…oh, fine.”
Grumpily, some of the squad watched as he approached. This time, Vess just pushed the tin over and saw the Soldier roll over and begin awkwardly eating out of the tin.
“What’s important about 53? Why did that [Strategist] kick up a fuss? You can’t answer, huh? Why are the Antinium fighting in Liscor’s war? Why are they attacking us?”
Vess squatted by the Soldier, and 53 looked up at him. His antennae waved vaguely, then he went back to picking out bits of sausage.
“You started this war! Why are you—”
Vess wanted to kick the Soldier and knew it would be like kicking a rock. The [Arcane Warrior] balled his claws into fists. He saw the Soldier look up from the tin and click at him.
Just once. The Soldier did it again as Vess jumped.
“Think it’s swearing at you? Go ahead and kick it; we won’t tell.”
Vess ignored that. He glared at 53.
“You bastards did this. If not for you, we’d all be at home.”
Click, click. The Soldier did it twice, snapping its mandibles together. And then he shook his head, deliberately, side to side. Vess…hesitated.
53 just stared up at him. But the double-click sounded…deliberate. And he’d just…Vess hesitated, glanced over his shoulder. No one was listening.
“This is Liscor’s fault. You attacked first.”
53 shook his head back and forth repeatedly. Vess kept blinking at him.
“Is that…no? Did Hectval start it?”
Click. And he nodded his head once.
The Drake’s eyes widened. He looked towards Velden—then hesitated. The [Sergeant] and Big Yam weren’t very willing to investigate the Antinium. So he lowered his voice and went on.
“Wait. Liscor started it…maybe Hectval argued, but Liscor marched their army into Hectval’s lands first. Right?”
A shake of the head, impatient. The mandibles clicked twice. Was that code for ‘no’?
“Hectval started it.”
“Are you actually saying yes? Does one click mean yes?”
Click. Nod again.
“Uh…uh…your name is 53?”
“The sky is green.”
The Soldier turned his head up, stared at the orange glow among the High Passes and setting sun, and clicked twice. He seemed to enjoy that, more than shaking or nodding his head. Perhaps it was easier, trussed up as he was.
He also had a different kind of neck, so perhaps nodding or shaking his head was harder. Either way, Vess began…well, arguing with it. Interrogating it. Playing a game.
“Hectval did something?”
“But I heard…is that why the Antinium fought? Or is it because of something else?”
A long stare. Which question am I answering, stupid?
“Is what Hectval did the reason the Antinium fought?”
“What’d they do?”
Stare. 53 buried his face in his tin of food. Vess grew angry.
“What am I saying? You’re not people. You probably just fought because your Queen made you. You don’t know—”
Click-click. The muffled sound within the tin made Vess stop. Still munching on the gelatin, Crusader 53 looked up.
Vess breathed, and someone else murmured.
“Indeed. This is the most valuable find so far. And here I thought this wretched war wouldn’t have me send anything back to the Emir. A dead [Innkeeper], children guarded…but this is fascinating.”
Vess jumped, whirled, and saw a Drake standing there, with a bevy of Stitch-folk with collars around their necks and cloth armor staring at 53. The Antinium Soldier went still, gazed at Cubol the [Slaver], and then went back to eating. Big Yam got to their feet.
“I would like to buy that Soldier. I will pay you now for it.”
His name was Cubol. He was from Roshal. He sold [Slaves].
Vess had never met a [Slaver]. He’d heard some people owned [Slaves], but it was a super-wealthy thing. He wasn’t really comfortable with the idea.
However, he’d seen Cubol in camp and heard they were supposed to take prisoners for that—until High Command changed their minds.
It had caused a huge fuss, actually. A lot of [Soldiers] had been for it—and some vocally against. Cubol had left—or so Vess had thought.
This was his first time meeting the Drake, and Cubol was rich. He had a ring on every claw-finger, silk garments, and an odd tattoo of scales on his right claw. When he smiled, it seldom reached his eyes.
When the smile did touch his eyes, it was because they were filled with true, avid interest. Like someone staring at a valuable object.
That was the smile he had for 53. However, he wanted the Soldier now.
“I understand a commanding officer is going to look at him tomorrow, sir. You’ll have to go to him.”
“Ah, the ‘Mercenary Captain’, Yulre.”
Cubol’s smile turned into a frown, and one of the bodyguards, who was a [Slave], spat.
“I don’t believe he will be amenable…no indeed. I would prefer to take 53 now, [Sergeant] Velden. I will pay you handsomely.”
The [Veteran Sergeant] hesitated. He looked around, but none of Luldem’s officers were nearby.
“You’d have to speak to our [Major], Slaver…”
“No, no. Sergeant, I don’t believe you and your squad heard me. I would like to purchase the prisoner you have…now. And when the Gnoll comes, he will not find me. Or the Antinium. And I am prepared to compensate you all for this issue.”
That was when the bag of gold coins came out, and all of Big Yam caught on to what was happening. A handful of gold coins spilled into Cubol’s claw.
Fat gold coins. With Roshal’s insignia on them, the scales—but they weren’t balanced. They were weighted on one end, and there was a bag and…hand…on either scale.
But the gold was real. Vess knew that some currencies had different standards. These looked like they were a bit bigger than your average gold coin.
“I…think you are trying to bribe a [Soldier] of the Luldem-Drisshia-Hectval Alliance, sir.”
“I very much think I am. Before you do anything drastic, [Sergeant], let me do something.”
Eight gold coins, more pay than Vess would earn in the entire war, even as a [Corporal]—Vess and Velden and half the squad combined even at veteran pay, even for all of the fighting—fell into Velden’s claw. The Drake nearly tried to offer it back, but Cubol closed his claw around it.
“That isn’t a bribe, Sergeant. That is a gift. A gift such as Roshal tends to give out freely. That is a gift. Now—let us talk what I would pay for. And pay very dearly for, at that.”
He could retire on that. He could retire or give his family…he could quit this war tomorrow.
Vess’ mouth was open. Cubol looked around, and Big Yam all focused on him like a beam of light.
“Enough for everyone here, I might add. Or should I regretfully turn myself in to your [Major] for discussions?”
Vess whispered, but the [Sergeant] was hypnotized by the gold coins in his claw. He was not a bad [Sergeant]. He took care of Vess, taught him…
But that gold was like a magic of its own. The [Sergeant] put the coins into his pouch and looked around, a strange gleam in his eyes.
A Skill? Or was it just Cubol?
“Someone go make sure no officer’s on patrol. Why don’t we sit down? Less noticeable that way. We can’t just give up a prisoner, sir. That’d be obvious.”
Cubol sat down. Vess wanted to grab Velden, but Big Yam slowly spread out, hiding the [Slaver]’s entourage, the same gleam in their eyes as Velden.
It reminded Vess of his Hoarding years. He felt his own claw shaking. Gold. I’ve never seen so much—
He wasn’t a hatchling! He was a [Soldier] who had signed up to make money and fight the enemy. Vess clenched his claw, fighting with himself—and he realized he was the only one. Some [Soldiers] looked apprehensive, but Cubol?
Maybe it was a Skill. Vess was the lone magic-user. Maybe it was a charm spell? He would be resistant to that. His head snapped up, and he stared at the Drake’s claws.
But he couldn’t prove anything; he wasn’t good enough to identify what the Drake was doing.
“I don’t suggest you lose your command, [Sergeant]. I very much doubt I could compensate all of Luldem’s finest for the disgrace…but accidents happen. If, say, this Gnoll were to come tomorrow and find a Soldier in your command—tragically dead—he would be very upset. But if it were to have attacked you all, and you had to defend yourselves—”
“Velden, you can’t be thinking of this. We’ll be in so much trouble. The officers aren’t idiots—”
“Vess, shut up. I’m talking here.”
The [Sergeant] snapped at Vess. Cubol glanced over at Vess, and the Drake saw the [Slaver] smile.
“No, no. I realize I am asking a lot. Let me just…”
He leaned over and counted his coins. A flashing gemstone fell into his lap as he spilled more coins out.
“Gold is such a heavy thing to carry. But I find the value of certain objects is worth more. One must exchange them, but you can hide such things more easily. The worth of this opal, for instance…a hundred and fourteen gold coins.”
Big Yam stared at the shining gemstones with a core of glittering magic in each. Vess was transfixed as well—and he never realized that some of Big Yam were looking at him out of the corner of their eyes.
Cubol kept talking, and Vess realized too late that they should have called for a [Major] the moment he appeared. The moment he sat down, it had been too late. He realized the danger they were in as soon as Velden began asking where they might find a Soldier’s body, and someone got up.
He realized he was in danger far too late.
Crusader 53, [Maceman]
Crusader 53 was a Level 18 [Maceman]. And a Level 15 [Crusader]. There was a difference.
He liked to hit things.
It was not that he did not have wrath for Hectval, did not believe in Heaven, or did not weary at the horrors of war.
But he also liked to hit things.
Crusader 51 was different. He had liked bugs. He had been sad. Crusader 53 was also sad. Theophilus was dead. Jerimy was dead.
Hectval had to pay.
However, Crusader 53 had stayed with his squad. He had to. They needed him, someone who could hit people trying to kill them. Even angry little 57 and the others. Crusader 51 drew away because they died.
Crusader 53 tried to hug them with his two arms so they wouldn’t leave him again.
Now, he was going to die.
He knew it. It didn’t matter if it was ‘Vess’, the Drake with the wand, or this Cubol, or whomever was coming to interrogate him. He was dead.
It was fine. Crusader 53 had outlived everyone. Everyone except 51, and he was gone, now. He had seen Theophilus and the Painted Antinium and Jerimy die and…gone. 53 had seen something break.
He watched as the [Slaver] turned the squad. Convinced them to sell him. And kill Vess. Crusader 53 would have warned Vess if he had but words, but the younger Drake didn’t see it coming.
His [Sergeant] was no Calruz. Perhaps the older Drake might have stopped it, but the [Slaver] was smart. He had nearly convinced Big Yam, but for Vess, and he offered Velden a drink.
The Drake began getting drowsy at once. Maybe…some of the other [Soldiers] saw the powder one of Cubol’s bodyguards put into the cup for Velden.
But they never stopped him. They watched Vess as the [Arcane Warrior] shook Velden’s shoulder.
“I believe the [Sergeant] is tired. Do we have an accord?”
The [Slaver] rose, and Big Yam looked up. Vess rose too, a claw on his wand.
“You’ve poisoned him. You’re using some kind of charm on your ring. I’m not blind. I can see it. Everyone—”
He flicked his wand out and aimed it at Cubol, pointing the tip straight between the Drake’s eyes. The [Slaver] didn’t flinch. He just smiled, and someone clicked.
Crusader 53 saw Vess glance at him—then twist as one of his squadmates grabbed at his arm.
“What are you—no!”
A flash of magic. Just one flash—and he was down. Pinned. Cubol nodded and stood up.
“I understand this is very difficult for you all. If you don’t object—I will have one of my people bear this terrible burden.”
Big Yam were panting as one of his bodyguards unsheathed a sword. Vess began to scream, but someone had his jaw clamped shut.
Crusader 53 watched all of this.
You are are all bound for Hell. Theophilus was right.
He couldn’t move. He didn’t have [Faith is My Strength]. They had said the Painted Antinium had come…and been killed.
It was all so bitter. Cubol was watching him, not even paying attention to the screaming [Arcane Warrior] as the [Slave] strode over, blade poised. The Drake was smiling at the Antinium.
“I have so many questions to ask. The Emir will too. He may regard you as one of the finest…no, we’ll see.”
Crusader 53 smiled back. Wherever he went, whatever they did…he had no fear.
Heaven waited. And if he had his beloved mace, he would hit Cubol harder than anything had ever been hit before.
Vess looked up, and Crusader 53 saw his eyes go wide. A muffled sound escaped his lips, but his fellow [Soldiers] had lost their minds. This war had damaged them. They didn’t know why they were fighting, 53 realized. They had nothing to dream of but death.
He felt sorry for them. The Stitch-man raised his sword.
Someone clicked softly as the sword plunged down.
Crusader 53 looked up. Hm?
Who had said that?
The [Slaver], Cubol, looked around in the sudden silence. He turned and saw the [Slave] frozen, sword mid-stab.
“Goliepe, what are you…?”
The Drake trailed off as he saw the red, sticky strings and the…gap…in the Stitch-man’s torso. The warrior looked down with everyone as a thin, red line appeared, and a strange opening separated his chest and ribs from the lower half of his body.
The lower half dropped soundlessly. Everyone’s eyes locked onto the red blood as the legs of the [Slave] turned to cloth. Vess’ eyes were wide with incomprehension.
Something was there. Something had just snapped the Stitch-man in two. No—it was a perfect cut.
Two things whispered now, blood trailing off the delicate blades. A pair of arms uncrossed, and something shimmered.
Like the colors a rainbow made off a bubble of soap. That was what the entire Antinium’s body looked like. It shimmered—and the faint outline of a scuttling, camouflaged Antinium, perfectly melded with the landscape, scuttled sideways.
Only the moving flecks of blood gave it away. Its chitin morphed so perfectly it was like a chameleon.
The Silent Antinium clicked, and Big Yam’s shout of horror never came. A second pair of scythe-arms whispered, and the giant cross between mantis and ant swept a second deathly pair of scythe-arms together. It materialized behind another [Slave], and a third cut one of the Drakes on sentry duty apart.
Vess looked up as a Drake went down, split from shoulder to hip by a blade sharper than any sword he had ever seen. Cubol reacted faster than anyone else.
“Silent Antinium! Guard me! Sound the alarm! Sound—”
He ran left as Big Yam exploded into screams. Confusion! The [Slaver] leapt left as a wall of fire bloomed around him. He was reaching for a scroll at his belt—
When he slammed into something. The Drake bounced off and realized, as several shapes scuttled around him—
They were all around them. The confused screaming of Big Yam alerted the camp, but no one knew what was happening. A [Major] stumbled out of his tent.
“What’s going on? Where are the sentries? Night officer! Where’s…?”
No one knew.
Least of all Crusader 53. He recoiled as a giant, foreign insect materialized and scuttled over to him. He stared up.
What are you? What are you? Aaah! Aaaaah!
Only when a scythe-arm delicately descended and cut one of his chains free did he realize—
He was being rescued. And Vess?
The Gnoll knew something was wrong when Luldem’s forces didn’t challenge him. This was one of their permanent outposts well behind the front. He raised his paw, and the force of Manus’ [Soldiers] who’d ridden through the night slowed.
“No sentries. I smell blood. Guards up. Message High Command and Sokkel. Get me two Wyverns overhead.”
The Gnoll realized it was over before he got within a thousand paces of the camp. He could smell the blood.
He saw the carnage, and someone swore too-loudly in the quiet dawn.
Insects were everywhere. Not Antinium…but it had been them. Buzzing little creatures…
“So many fucking ants. Small ones, I mean. Damn it.”
Someone cursed as the Manus squad slowly advanced around Lulv. His hair was standing on end.
Slaughtered where they stood. This wasn’t a battle. This had been a one-sided ambush. He thought he knew…it was when he saw the razor-clean cuts that he was certain.
Everyone snapped up, and Lulv whirled his spear—lowering when he saw a Drake wandering towards them.
“They came out of nowhere. They…they wanted 53.”
Vess stumbled across the ground, looking blank and white as a sheet. The [Arcane Warrior] didn’t have his wand or sword. He just walked around, past the dead bodies. Everyone had been slaughtered.
They’d left the Drake as a message. Classic tactics from the last war.
Lulv saw Vess look blankly at them.
“They—they were invisible. The [Slaver] was going to buy 53. Then my squad tried to kill me. Sir?”
He was babbling. Lulv growled. He understood enough from that, though.
“They took the Soldier? Where? Where was the [Slaver]?”
Vess pointed aimlessly back to a hill. Lulv cursed. He turned his head. Then he hesitated as he looked around at his squad.
“Tell Sokkel…we’ve got Silent Antinium. Tell him the Dragonspeaker’s going to breathe frost out of both ends over this.”
One of the [Soldiers] lifted a paw to her ear where a little earring speaking-stone was pinned. Her eyes locked onto Lulv—
And she ducked the swing of the Silent Antinium’s scythe-arms. Lulv stabbed the one next to him.
Dragonspeaker Luciva breathed lightning, not frost. Forewarned, Manus’ squad exploded into action. They whirled—and the Silent Antinium materialized.
Dozens of them. Lulv speared another one, deflecting a slash from one arm. Their arms were equivalent to enchanted blades! But—brittle—
“Spear art! Run! Don’t stop! Engage your emergency spells! Run!”
Lulv shouted. Vess was screaming. He curled up as the Silent Antinium, who had been waiting to ambush him, swarmed the [Soldiers]. Lulv’s spear howled as the Gnoll stabbed left, right—
But he had to run. A cut almost took off one arm. Six [Soldiers] were already dead. He wanted to grab the Drake boy—but there was no time.
Manus’ squad broke free, running as two Wyverns dropped out of cover. Spells blasted the landscape, but the Silent Antinium were already retreating. And they had learned how to foil [Detect Life] spells. Lulv barked into his speaking stone amid the confusion of voices.
“The Silent Antinium have entered Liscor’s war! All forces, watch for ambushes! Get me a line to Manus.”
His worst fears were coming true. More high-value targets had entered the war…but more than that?
It meant the Antinium thought there was something worth fighting for. Lulv realized it later.
They’d attacked this camp not because it was a priority, but to rescue a single Soldier.
Then he began to sweat.
The return of Crusader 53 came on a day when Olesm’s senses as a [Commander], a [Strategist], hummed.
“Artur. Get Dekass. I need a word.”
He was looking around his camp. Olesm made a sign to one of his [Tacticians], and the Gnoll went pale. She silently began to raise the alarm—but over what?
It was just a feeling. Dekass reported in quickly.
“Yes, Commander Olesm?”
“Is anything…off today, Dekass?”
There was just the slightest pause. Olesm would have first guessed it had something to do with Captain Voita and the Yoldenites who had joined his forces, but his instincts said Dekass.
“Hm. I’m inspecting your camp. Anything eventful happen?”
“Our reinforcements have arrived as requested, sir. Four hundred and eighty-two, to replenish the losses.”
The bad battle after the Painted Antinium had been nearly wiped out had apparently taxed even Liscor’s Free Hive. Olesm was surprised that they’d mustered the numbers and gotten them here so quickly.
Then he was suspicious as he strode into the Antinium division. New Soldiers and Workers were filing into camp, being arranged into squads. Groups like Squad 5, who needed to replace Crusader 51, 53, and a few others welcomed the Antinium…sort of.
“Sit dOwN. You’re wearing your pack wrong, stupid.”
Crusader 57 roughly yanked a new Worker down and slapped their armor—but the other Antinium were doing the same. It was a thing [Soldiers] did, teaching the new ones.
Dekass reported to Olesm in person.
“Is something wrong, sir?”
Commander Olesm Swifttail glanced at Dekass. That settled it.
“Dekass, you lie as well as Mrsha. What’s…”
And then he saw it. Olesm’s eyes narrowed to points, he recoiled, swore, and looked at Dekass. The Armored Prognugator stared back at him as innocently as possible.
It would have fooled the Alliance—maybe. Or your average Liscorian. But even the regular [Soldiers] had realized it. Olesm? He studied the Workers and Soldiers.
They had armor. They were clearly new, clearly the next to fight in the Antinium division. However…their armor didn’t seem patched up. Their gear was noticeably different, not a mismatch of weapons to arm them.
These weren’t Free Antinium. They were Armored Antinium.
Indeed, the [Crusaders] mixing with the Armored Antinium realized it too, and there was a shock as Workers and Soldiers, almost mindlessly obeying orders, ran into the personality of the [Crusaders]. Olesm looked at Dekass. The Prognugator innocently adjusted his helmet.
“I would like to report that a missing Soldier has also appeared, Commander Olesm. Crusader 53 has miraculously escaped imprisonment. He is unable to give a report on how this happened.”
“Crusader 53? From where?”
“A Luldem camp behind enemy lines.”
Olesm’s eyes narrowed.
“He just…happened to escape an enemy camp, made his way here, and report to you?”
“Yes, sir. Please ignore all other reports or commentary on strange occurrences on the battlefield.”
The Drake and Antinium locked gazes until Dekass was fiddling with a helmet strap. Olesm smiled brightly.
“Take me to him.”
“Sir? That is not necessary. He is a Soldier. He cannot speak. Artur, do not—Artur?”
Olesm strode over to Squad 5. The new Crusader 51 sat, not sure why they were all staring so at him. In fact…Crusader 57 was snapping.
“You are not Crusader 51. He is dead. You. Pick another name.”
The Soldier froze. He was Armored Antinium. Name? Name? Did they just ask?
nAMe? hE wAs—
A hand slapped his helmet. The Soldier froze.
“hEY, mORoN. ShUt uP. Pick a name and deal with it.”
The Aberration hissed at him. Totally confused, the Soldier looked up as a Drake strode over.
Enemy? He began to rise, remembered his orders, and sat still.
A Soldier with two arms and a cheerful, brand-spanking-new enchanted mace raised two hands. Crusader 53 stood and saluted Olesm. The [Commander] eyed him as Dekass ran after him.
“Crusader 53 is very tired. He must rest. Nothing is wrong. You saw nothing, Crusader 53. Nothing, as you single-handedly vanquished an entire enemy camp and came here.”
Olesm ignored Dekass. He looked Crusader 53 up and down.
“It’s good to see you, soldier. I’m glad you survived imprisonment. I am going to recommend your squad for a vacation. Crusader 51…was a hero.”
Everyone nodded. Crusader 53 nodded as well, slowly. He lowered his hands and his head. Olesm looked at the others.
“He was. And I will make sure his sacrifice means something. The war is changing. Yolden’s on our side. It also seems we won’t lack for reinforcements, will we, Dekass?”
He pointedly gazed over his shoulder. Dekass hesitated.
“I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that statement, sir. Incidentally—and this is related to nothing—how well does Mrsha lie?”
“Poorly. Crusader 53? Just one question. Nod or shake your head. Do we have Silent Antinium?”
The [Crusader] nodded happily. Olesm sighed.
“I knew it.”
Dekass was trying to figure out how to lie his way out of this one, and then the Armored Prognugator seemed to give up. He tapped Olesm on the shoulder.
“Would now be a good time to tell you about our prisoner, sir? I believe the Silent…er, the not-Silent Antinium took him as food rations or because Crusader 53 said so.”
And that was how Olesm met Vess, shivering, waiting for death.
“I don’t want to fight. Please. Sir! I just want to go home.”
A young Drake looked up as the [Commander] eyed a patch of air, swatted at it, and recoiled. A Drake not much older than him, but somehow far older at the same time, knelt. He looked at Vess, and there was little kind about his gaze.
But his claw was gentle as he reached out and touched Vess.
“I know. Don’t worry. I’m going to send you home.”
Vess, [Arcane Warrior]
In the days after that, the war went on. The mercenaries under Captain Yulre received reinforcements, and the Alliance learned to fear the darkness, or even daylight when they weren’t fighting, as much as the battles.
It was coming to…an end. Or, at least, that front was. There was no front that stretched across three wings now. Instead, the Alliance was pulling back its lines because the right had been completely overrun, and Liscor had built a giant dirt-and-stone fortress where they could sally from.
Vess didn’t see any of it. He just heard these things, because the Drake [Commander] of Liscor’s armed forces, Olesm Swifttail, was as good as his word.
Vess went home.
Not immediately. Not right away. He actually spent one week in Olesm’s camp, even visited Liscor with Squad 5 and other Antinium and [Soldiers] on break.
Not with them, mind you; he was a prisoner. Yet Olesm took Vess on a tour of the camps, parts of Liscor. He had a long talk with Vess and nearly eighty other prisoners he gathered up.
Mostly young men and women. Gnolls from Hectval were figured among that number, and Olesm told them they were going to their cities.
“I’ve made a deal with your High Command. You don’t appear on the front lines again. You go home…and tell them what you saw here.”
That was how they left Lookout Lookout Hill, which was developing a new name as the bloody front of Liscor’s war with the Alliance. Vess had no idea of the battles between Liscor’s [Negotiators] or Olesm fighting for this result.
He thought it was kindness. It had certainly felt that way. Kindness and…
Luldem’s gates opened up to fanfare. Vess hadn’t expected that. People turned, some dusty from harvesting gickel roots, having hurried into the gates.
Gickel, the big farms of it, and the heavy amount of livestock, for Luldem’s gelatin. Vess smelled the thick, heavy odor like faintly edible chalk that clung to the roots before they were cleaned, dried, and ground up for the gelatin.
The air was so soft. The sky never looked so…beautiful.
And tragic. He would never forget Big Yam or Velden. The [Sergeant] had died in his sleep, a single stab wound in his heart.
He couldn’t forgive the Antinium for that. However…it was not them that Vess was angriest about.
“Our brave heroes from the front! Vess, a [Corporal] and [Arcane Warrior]!”
The Councilmembers singled him out because of his class. He saw them, adorned in their customary outfits of poofy clothing. Thick, like a comforting bowl of gelatin soup you had to work at to even get a slice of.
His Council was so unlike Liscor’s. He shook the claws of each Councilmember, and his family was crying and waving at him.
And Vess? He looked at Councilmember Saiyl and wondered if he knew that Hectval had assassinated an [Innkeeper] after they’d been kicked out of Liscor.
Or did they know?
Vess was burning to tell someone. He had to. This war—the Council had to call on the Watch to stop people from mobbing him, begging to know if they’d seen their loved ones. He wanted to shout it.
This war could end tomorrow if Luldem stopped backing Hectval. Vess realized that the Council might know, but no one else even knew that two more Antinium Hives were in the war. They had no idea that the front was a bloodbath—all they heard was what the army told them.
That was all Vess said to begin with. He kept staring up at the sky. And he wondered if the Antinium thought it was beautiful too. That was what the one who talked claimed. And why would he lie?
Relc, [Trusted Sergeant]
After three months, after he visited the inn and had a meal with his best bud, Klbkch, Relc Grasstongue heard about the war.
Or, to be more precise, the war found him.
“Guardsman…is that Senior Guardsman Relc? Hey! Hey!”
Relc turned as he and Klbkch were walking down the street. They weren’t on duty, but habits never changed.
A Drake was waving at him. A Drake in a squad.
Relc recognized it instantly. It was the walk. They moved together, unconsciously, just like they’d fought and died and bled together. They looked around Liscor like children, taking everything in again.
And like people who’d just realized everything bled and died. However, the smiles were real. A Drake whom Relc had never met before grinned at him.
“Jordes. Squad Leader Jordes, Significant Beavers.”
Klbkch tilted his head, and someone laughed.
“We’re not in the army, Jordes!”
“I get it. Nice squad name.”
This was not his army, but he knew it. They even talked like…Klbkch murmured.
“Ah, the war front. I must inquire about it too.”
Significant Beavers were on vacation. They’d drawn a lucky straw…which might have been less lucky since they were escorting a wide-eyed squad of Antinium with them.
Buying souvenirs, showing them around the city. It was the most striking thing Relc had seen. Squad 5 had minders and…
“You can return from the front? You lucky bastards!”
He feigned a punch at Jordes’ arm, and the Drake grinned.
“Perks of the magic door. I’m glad. It’s been…soup.”
Relc nodded at Klbkch. Another [Soldier] term. The Antinium was inspecting Squad 5 and Significant Beavers, and they were inspecting him. None carried their weapons aside from maybe daggers…aside from the Worker with a zweihander on one shoulder.
“That’s right. It’s good to see you, Senior Guardsman. Are you going to join up? I thought you left the city.”
“I did. I came back. I should…you should tell me about it. Listen, I was just catching up with Klbkch here, but you’re on the front? Do you know Wing Commander Embria?”
“4th Company? Of course! Wait, isn’t she…?”
Relc was more and more interested in talking with Significant Beavers, but, as always, the infamous Relc-Klbkch duo were causing trouble.
In this case, it was Senior Guardsman Klbkch who started it. He pointed at Crusader 57.
“Carrying that weapon openly is an act of aggression if not an adventurer or civilian moving about to a set purpose such as transport. Worker, you will stow that blade now.”
“FuCK yOu, Klbkch.”
Crusader 57 raised his middle finger instantly. Relc’s blood chilled at the sudden, familiar, warbling tones.
Klbkch drew his swords so fast that Relc barely saw them. He would have diced Crusader 57—except that all of Squad 5 drew their weapons too. A friendly Crusader 53 raised a mace, and Klbkch looked at them incredulously.
Relc grabbed Klbkch’s shoulder.
“Easy. Easy, Klb. They’re off-duty and jumpy. I pity the [Muggers] who go after a [Soldier] on break.”
Significant Beavers had moved just as fast, forming a defensive wall. Klbkch spluttered.
“But that is an Aberration—how have Dekass and Tersk allowed this?”
Crusader 57 offered Klbkch more rude hand-gestures. Klbkch looked at Relc as Jordes rapidly tried to de-escalate.
“Commander Olesm knows about it. Feisty guy, but he’s just—mad. You should see him fighting!”
“I’m better than you, Jordes. I’m not Aberration. I’m different. Aberrations are weak. Pick a damn name. Right, Toni?”
Crusader 51—Toni—shuddered as Crusader 57 punched his shoulder. Klbkch looked from face to face.
“I require another drink. And I must speak with Pawn. Now. Relc, our meal was enjoyable, but this?”
“I got you, Klb, buddy. Catch me later.”
The Antinium nodded and began striding off. Crusader 57 shouted after him.
“That’s right. rUN. You—”
At this point, Squad 5 grabbed him before he could get himself stabbed. And Relc found himself hearing about the war from the [Soldiers].
Jordes nodded as they all ate in an Antinium-friendly restaurant. All of Squad 5 were savoring their bowls of experimental beef udon. It wasn’t ‘right’, but Imani was doing her best.
The Drunken Gnoll. They were at the Drunken Gnoll. She had also stayed away from wheat for their udon.
Relc had barely touched his bowl. He felt sick. Manus’ elites led by…
“A [Spearmaster]? Are you sure? Is Embria alright?”
Jordes was speaking to Relc in confidence. The [Sergeant] shuddered.
“Know a ‘Lulv’?”
“…Fuck. What about Embria?”
“She hasn’t clashed with him—much. They stay away from each other, but she got chewed up in the first few engagements. Actually…it’s almost always the Antinium that get it. Poor guys. Squad 5 had this Soldier who…well, let’s start from the beginning.”
Relc listened to a familiar tale—only everything was different. But the bones were every war he’d ever known. Jordes kept eying him, and a Human who was flirting with the Gnoll [Servers] and striking out, Satel, looked at him.
“Are you going to enlist, Senior Guardsman? We could use a [Spearmaster]. Right guys—”
Utel kicked him under the table, and Relc stopped with a fork full of noodles.
“…No. I’m done with war. Sorry, guys.”
He waited for…condemnation? Insults? Joking, pressing that would turn ugly? Relc saw Significant Beavers glance at each other, and Satel shrugged.
“Damn. That’s fair.”
They weren’t Liscor’s army. Relc exhaled and looked at the Antinium, Gnolls, Drakes, Humans…and saw Liscor’s army. Their real army. The Drake smiled, felt at his belt pouch, and looked about.
He would not go there. Not where nightmares and death waited for him. Some part of him was always there, with 4th Company. With the men and women he had fought beside.
Yet he had left. They’d have to figure that one out too, some day. But that was an older [Soldier]’s war. Right now?
“Listen, you lucky bastards. My buddy Klbkch is coming, and when he does, you’d better pat yourselves on the asses because drinks and food are on me!”
They cheered. That was the greatest and most glorious gift any [Soldier] could get. Senior Guardsman Relc turned to Jordes.
“And in return, you can take a letter and see Embria gets it, right?”
The [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch] smiled. Huh. That weird chess-guy Olesm had turned out a pretty good army. In fact, he’d heard of a Crusader 51 on people’s lips.
It had been a long time since Liscor’s people had known the names of the [Soldiers] who fought and died for them. When had been the last time?
“Sserys, maybe. Or Zel.”
Relc rested his chin in his claws. Jordes glanced at him sidelong.
“I forgot you knew them, sir.”
“Senior Guardsman or Relc the Awesome, Jordes. I’m out of the army.”
“Right…well, I’m not calling you that. But if you had any tips—4th Company remembers that time, but an expert from the old days—any tricks to tell?”
Relc thought about it as Klbkch entered the inn, spotted Crusader 57, and the two began Medusa-ing each other across the room. Tricks like how to keep your socks clean? Or formations? He realized there was one thing that he could teach the army. Relc looked around.
“Relc? Is that Relc? I saw you coming in, but all the Gnolls were here and—”
Selys burst into the inn. Relc grinned. Jordes raised his brows.
He didn’t know about Cellidel. Which reminded Relc.
“Actually, you’re in luck, Jordes. You can bring more than just a letter back to Embria. We had an escort on the way to Liscor. Which means the other two might be reaching your lines about now.”
The Drakes’ eyes went round, and a cheer rose from Jordes as the [Soldiers] looked at him. But Relc was waving Selys over.
“Hey, Selys. [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch] Relc here. Klb’s back and there are off-duty [Soldiers] here. Want to pay for our dinners? I could—but you’re still rich, right? And one more thing. I just realized there’s something we can do. We could organize it.”
Selys put her claws on her hips, gazing exasperatedly and fondly at Relc. Then she blinked.
“Relc. You have an idea? Organize? What happened to you?”
The Senior Guardsman just laughed as Klbkch turned and poked an invisible Centaur trying to listen into everything. Eavesdropping was a crime.
“To me? I have no idea!”
Embria, [Wing Commander]
She learned her father was back when she got his letter and a gift from him.
Wing Commander Embria got the package from a very disheveled Drake Sergeant who had run it through the door personally. She unwrapped it to find a long letter from Relc…on top of an entire basket of odd-smelling fruits.
“What are these?”
“Prelons. I don’t know what they are. Er, I’m headed back to the city if that’s alright, Wing Commander. Everything alright here?”
Embria looked up, distracted, wanting to tear open the letter, and made a face.
“More or less. Have you heard? We have reinforcements. From the—from our army down south.”
Jordes looked around and heard the commotion.
“Fancy that! That’s a relief, eh?”
Embria didn’t immediately nod.
6th and 9th Companies of Liscor’s army had ridden in last night. Apparently another company had escorted Relc’s citizens home, and would have to do some riding to get up through the hills to this part.
Embria should have been celebrating with all of 4th, but it was strangely…subdued. More [Soldiers] meant this would feel like home, right?
6th Company were an all-mounted unit. The Bull Bastards. 9th Company, and the wayward 11th who’d escorted Relc, were like 4th Company, infantry-based.
9th was just called ‘Arrowstorm’—a group specializing in long-ranged archery. Ironically, 6th Company’s leader was female, Wing Commander Narkr. Wing Commander Xith of 9th was older than both Embria and Narkr by far.
The instant they saw Embria, their eyes lit up.
“So there’s the idiot who couldn’t handle one dungeon and needed to call in for backup! How dare you not defeat Tyrion Veltras and all the Humans yourself?”
Narkr, a Gnoll with two scars on her cheeks, loved to say things deadpan. Rumor was she’d taken the scar on one cheek and inflicted the other herself. Embria was fairly sure that was just a rumor, though.
“Wing Commander, what Narkr means is that we’re here to back you up. Sorry it took so long. None of us have long-distance mobility Skills, and Pallass wouldn’t let us skip four hundred miles.”
“Mana concerns or something.”
Xith and Narkr shook Embria’s claw as she smiled at them.
“I know Narkr was to blame. She probably kept you all waiting on her. 6th? Did they have to send me the slowest cavalry unit? 9th and 11th will move faster than them!”
It was true 6th was one of the slower groups, specializing in heavy charges, so Narkr threw a punch, and Embria deflected it.
“Still not a [Spearmaster]?”
“Alright, alright. I’m glad I don’t have to lead you two and you can hold your tails.”
Xith interrupted. The Drake looked at the other two Wing Commanders. As they were all of a rank, Xith would have priority command despite 4th being lower in number. Seniority. However, in practice, Wing Commanders were supposed to be able to work together.
“They didn’t send anyone higher? No [Majors]? I didn’t expect our [Strategists]…none of our field [Tacticians]?”
They were eating in Embria’s tent as Xith replied.
“Seeing as how this force is being led by a [Strategist], the brass decided to send proper leadership. When they heard he sensibly expanded 4th, they told us to just take over a wing. Not sure if we’re ruffling any scales, but you can tell us how green this lot is.”
“11th makes four companies. Enough to send Hectval packing. If Manus is in it—well, that’s ugly. But once we wrap this up, we’ll help you patrol, maybe even get another fighting force into line. Take the pressure off the Council so they stop enlisting bugs as [Soldiers]. I saw them coming in. Don’t know how you did it alone, Embria, but we’ve got your tail.”
And there it was. Embria realized why she felt vaguely uneasy. Xith almost went to spit before he checked the floor.
“Ants. Are they getting munched up by Manus? I hope so—how’s this ‘Commander’ Olesm? And how badly are the civvies getting destroyed?”
Embria looked at them. She saw two familiar friends from the army. Narkr and Xith weren’t the closest, but Embria appreciated Narkr’s dry humor, and Xith always spoke highly of Relc in private.
And…they were partly strangers. As both companies had ridden in, they’d glared daggers at the Antinium and come in like 4th Company had when they first arrived at Liscor.
Like they expected to take charge and set all things right. Embria recalled the numerous rude awakenings Zevara had given her.
What happened next? Well, Embria had a vision of her saying something—and remembered Maksie standing to attention as Olesm removed her from command.
She thought of her father, who 4th Company still didn’t speak to. She didn’t want that. Instead…Embria poured a full mug for each and pushed it over.
“Ah, well. It’s actually [Commander] Olesm. He got the class. Maksie’s actually a [Scouting Lieutenant].”
“What? That lucky…that’ll rattle up command. So he’s not all hot air?”
“Nope. [Instantaneous Barrage] is his best Skill. Nasty. Oh, and you’ll meet Bepol and Ramia, [Division Leaders]. Pretty sharp given it’s civilian-based classing. I bet you we’ll all be roving, though you’ll definitely take more [Soldiers] under command. Oh—and on the right, there’s [Combined Arms Strategist] Belgrade.”
Narkr choked on her drink of a flat Liscorian ale.
“They put a fucking Ant in charge of our right wing? How has no one mutinied? Or are they running off each day?”
Embria offered Xith a mug, smiled, and looked at them. Here it came.
“You’d have to ask them. But I’d watch yourselves. They call themselves Belgrade’s Ants, all of his command. And Narkr, Xith—tell 6th and 9th to watch their tongues. Because if there’s a brawl, Commander Olesm’ll send your forces back or discharge them from the ranks.”
Both Drake and Gnoll stopped drinking.
“You can’t be serious. Is that what you have to deal with, Embria? We can make a stand—”
The Wing Commander took a breath and looked as seriously as possible at them. If it were her, talking to her—how could she convince them?
Rattle them. Say it as if they were on the same side and she was reluctantly…
“I hate to say it, but he could discharge all three of our companies and 11th and still win the war. The army’s stacking up. They’re real [Soldiers], you two, and you should be careful.”
Xith and Narkr looked at her like she was insane. But Embria kept talking. She had to show them. The easiest thing to do was let them see the first battles with Olesm and compare that to the army. Even if they said—probably still accurately—that Olesm wasn’t as good as their [Strategists], a [Soldier] had to face facts. And Embria poured them a drink and told them…what they needed to hear before they could realize the truth.
[Wing Commander Level 29!]
Embria shot up in her bed, sweating and gasping. More terrified of that one level up than anything else. She waited for a Skill or—
[Combined Arms Wing Commander]. Or [Buggy Wing Commander].
It didn’t come. But would it? She lay in her bed. She thought…
Then came Relc Grasstongue’s little bit of brilliance, and she was proud of her father. After three days, Squad 5, Significant Beavers, and the other squads on break returned to the army.
They brought gifts.
Ishkr, [Head Waiter]
“Gifts? Of course. It’s so intelligent. Relc thought of it, yes? Relc?”
The Gnoll heard the idea from Drassi. The inn was so quiet and seldom-visited that he was one of the last to know.
It was a simple idea, and people laughed—as much at the idea as goofy old Relc had thought of it as…well. Embarrassment.
It was such a good idea, and so simple. Relc hadn’t thought it up from nothing. He had just pulled it from the past. Tradition and perhaps…Ishkr looked around the inn.
“It has to be small. You can’t address it to one group; you can send something to a relative, but otherwise just something small for the door.”
“What would be appropriate?”
The Gnoll saw Drassi pause, fiddling with a neck-spine ring—she was about to go on her television shift, but she’d come up to let him know when and where it would be expected.
“Relc said something edible usually works. You can send potions, books, anything else—but food is always welcome. I’m sending a song crystal. He says something like that would really lift spirits.”
“Hrr. I could send acid flies.”
“What, as weapons? Oh. Do you have any?”
“I maintained Erin’s traps. The Antinium come to collect them, sometimes.”
Drassi hesitated. She’d just had breakfast, but the [Gossip] had to know.
“I have begun filling barrels with them when they pile up. Sometimes a few survive.”
The Drake went pale.
“Ishkr, you are a credit to your class. I don’t know how you…”
She trailed off, looking around the inn. Ishkr looked at Drassi and spoke.
“She’ll be back.”
The Drake turned to him. She met Ishkr’s gaze and smiled, relieved.
The Gnoll said nothing more. Drassi had to run, and he had to think of a gift. Besides, those words could mean anything.
It was just…a feeling. Perhaps it was only his imagination.
Or, perhaps, it had something to do with a little Goblin appearing in his inn. A Cave Goblin, who handed him a little note.
He didn’t voice any suspicions to even Drassi. Ishkr just waited, wishing Silveran were here to do floorboard crack cleaning. He thought of a gift to send to the army. He thought of the Antinium, who had come to this inn to pledge to go to war.
The [Head Waiter] hesitated. He walked past the cupboards of preserved food, and he did roll out a barrel of acid flies. Anything to get rid of them. Apparently some acid flies survived the explosion of acid, and he had the horrible suspicion it rustled sometimes.
Then he went to fetch something else. Ishkr vanished for a little bit and came back with a very strange gift. One that Commander Olesm himself came to receive.
The Drake gave Ishkr an odd look, like someone who noticed Erin’s silent help for the first time. He realized that no one Erin employed could ever be normal.
Drassi was just louder.
“Do you think it will help?”
“I…think it’s a [Strategist]-level move, Ishkr.”
“Hrr. Too bad I don’t have the class.”
And that was it. Ishkr went back to the inn, sat down, and unfolded the note. He kept checking the windows. He had a hunch…because he had free time, in between cleaning the inn, to keep up on worldwide affairs.
Because he had heard about a certain kidnapping, as yet unresolved. He watched the skies. And he waited.
Keep the Potion of Regeneration close. If a blind man or someone else with officer classes comes, let them in. We are coming too.
The inn’s first Goblin was frustratingly short on details, and she asked a lot, but for her…Ishkr made a special reservation.
Service with a smile.
Ishkr’s gift went to the Antinium lines. Commander Olesm personally handed it over, and a group of Soldiers clustered around it.
But they shared it. Significant Beavers—other [Soldiers] went to stare. What a silent genius, that Gnoll was.
It was a classic Erin Solstice move. Perhaps that was why it was so fitting that it would be tonight.
Olesm Swifttail was surprised that he didn’t have to kick 6th and 9th company off a few cliffs. He suspected Wing Commander Embria had something to do with that.
“We’re getting movement all along our left flank. I think Manus is coming.”
Scout Leader Maksie had begun to pick up their movements by now. Olesm just nodded.
He didn’t say anything like, ‘it’s time’, or ‘just wait’, because that was the most idiotic thing you could say into a tapped line.
Nor did he inform Bepol or Ramia or even Belgrade of a change. He gave routine orders that might have made them think twice…but the proof of the pudding was in the surprise. Olesm sent a note via Liscor’s door, but aside from that, it was all here, in the army. Ishkr’s gift was a welcome surprise, but the rest?
It was all just them.
Antinium of Liscor’s Army, 1st Division
It was the best and only gift they’d ever received, most of them. A [Crusader] peeled an orange, sharing pieces around. An Armored Antinium gobbled down the peel because the bitter was oh, so tasty!
[Crusaders] of the Free Antinium, Armored Soldiers and Workers—and the Silent Antinium infiltrators.
They weren’t supposed to show themselves, as the Silent Antinium could not be part of Liscor’s war. However, the strangeness infecting the crusade had already done something to them.
A fat bag of barley spilled out next to Crusader 442. He hesitated, orange half-peeled.
That wasn’t a gift. He looked around and saw a faint outline of a familiar mantis-Antinium.
Only, this one he knew.
[Thief]! The rest of Squad 4, Battalion 6, edged over covertly. Fluffy Lancers had encountered this particular Silent Antinium before.
It—she? They were all she’s—was notable not because they often saw her, but because of one detail.
She’d lost a single scythe-arm. Those didn’t grow back, and the Silent Queen did not invest in regrowth gels since the scythe-arms weren’t regrowable via the same restorative gels a lucky Worker or Soldier could get. The Silent Queen considered that the Silent Antinium would not live long enough to justify that kind of investment of resources.
Therefore, this Silent Soldier had half the fighting potential of others. That was possibly why Thief had developed her habit.
Instead of killing sentries or ambushing patrols, she kept stealing food from the Alliance. She would scuttle back, and, in exchange, Fluffy Lancers would quietly boil it up or cook it, and she got to eat the food.
Now, Crusader 442 offered her an orange as she greedily devoured it piece by piece. Thief, the Silent Antinium, was one of several oddities.
“…And rise as a [Crusader].”
Zimrah, the last [Priest], had leveled up today. She no longer smiled as she inducted an Armored Antinium into their ranks. It was a choice—but many of their Hive wanted it.
She spoke sermons, she healed, and her faith was strong. But the Worker did not walk around with the same conviction as before. Theophilus and Jerimy were dead. Pawn had offered to let her return with the Painted Antinium. He had not expected her to take the offer, nor could Zimrah.
How could she go back?
There was something here. The army was alive. The army…there were things Olesm didn’t know and accepted about the Antinium command. He saw what was important, for all he could be so terribly cruel.
Yet look at them.
Zimrah saw…tragedy and glory. She saw gifts, kindness, anger in Crusader 57, confidence, selfishness in Shelly, a desire to be loved in Kevin. She saw bravery and wrath.
These were not all good things. But for the first time—they were Antinium things.
Manus was coming tonight. Artur had gone around the camp, telling everyone to get ready. It looked like a night attack on their camps, maybe. A fully-backed army.
“Drisshia’s heavies. Manus will sneak through them. Do not die. That is an order.”
He passed by multiple squads, and some Workers offered him parts of their gifts, but Artur declined. The flag flew behind him. He would fight with them.
[Raise the Standard]. The [Banner Leader] had leveled up. Those who lived—got stronger. If you lived.
Manus was higher-level still. So they won. It was a thing any Antinium who lived long enough understood as a reality of war. Manus had done this longer. Manus had enchanted gear.
It wasn’t fair. But they had more than just faith and Heaven to help them face it.
“From days of war and wrath we ran
Exiled from every land
Searching for our honor lost
And found the House of Minos’ sands.”
A song rose over the ranks of the Antinium, and some turned to listen. A Minotaur with one arm sat with the Beriad, the self-named group who followed him into battle.
It was Workers who sang, in unison, and never had Antinium sung like that before, together. Even Bird could not have dreamed of that.
Or maybe he could. Bird was silly.
However, the singing broke off as the Minotaur lifted a hand.
“That’s how we sing it. But this is your song. It would not be the House of Minos’ sands. Er…what rhymes with sand?”
“That’s line two.”
The Workers and Minotaur sat together, trying to compose new lyrics. This was good. These were good things.
It would not stop Manus from killing them, but it would let them go to their deaths as brave as brave could be. If Calruz gave it to them, that was well.
However…another squad sat together, calmly waving their antennae at one another.
Hectval, not Manus, weighed on their minds despite the impending battle. They were an odd group. Not one battle had passed recently without one of their number dying.
Or at least, that’s what the casualty reports said. Despite them being an archery group, they had a higher-than-average casualty rating, which Dekass had noted.
Archer B12 sat with the others, one of the originals from the first volunteers. They were still around, like Crusader 53, the old guard. However, he was currently engaged in waving all four hands around as all of Squad B sat in a circle.
Come on, come on…
Four hands per Antinium. Ten Antinium per squad. Twenty games of rock-paper-knife. It took a long time for a winner to be found, but that was fine. Antinium sat out, and then it was B12 versus Crusader 995.
He won. B12 went still as the other [Archer] lowered his hands. All of Squad B gathered around B12. Slowly, he rose, feeling calm.
Ah. At last.
A [Sniper] was dead among the enemy lines. It had been found—blasted from above by a Wyvern hiding in the sky. Manus hated that [Sniper]. It had killed so many of them, so many officers. So many [Soldiers]—even shot a Wyvern through the eye, though the Wyvern hadn’t died.
They had orders now, to try and capture the enemy. Manus just had one thing wrong in their speculations as to how it continued, though.
It wasn’t a [Sniper].
Archer B12 rose and went around Squad B, shaking hands with all of them. Good luck. Good luck.
They saw him off as he collected his bow, arrows, and trooped out of the camp. Archer B12 was ready. At last…
At last, it’s my turn.
Since Manus was coming, he found a good spot to set up and meet them. They were not Hectval, but they were on his list. Just like Bird had said.
An arrow for all of them. All of them. B12 took a little nap, and the class was waiting for him.
Just as promised.
The Antinium division was ready when the enemy appeared. Drisshia heralded their arrival with banging drums. They knew they couldn’t sneak up on Liscor.
So they didn’t.
“Yayde Re! Up and at them! Let’s kill some Drisshies!”
Captain Voita rode down the line of the Yoldenites, and they cheered, many having traded their gear up for plundered armor and weapons. Bepol was moving his lines up to engage Drisshia’s.
But everyone was waiting for Manus. They would attack from within Drisshia’s lines. As the enemy army moved closer through the darkness, someone swore.
“Selphid’s tits. There’s a lot of ‘em out there. I think those ‘reinforcements’ from Manus might have…doubled their numbers. Embria, you seeing this? I see multiple, multiple shadows in the clouds.”
Xith was reporting to the other officers via a speaking stone. Commander Olesm replied.
“We’re aware they reinforced, Wing Commander. Keep your squad back. Hit any Wyverns you can, but save those three Skills for my command.”
Wing Commander Embria listened to Xith, and the 9th Company’s leader sounded a bit leery—but he obeyed. Confidence went downhill just like crap, and Olesm sounded like he was in charge, so he was.
6th was waiting on the wings, but Narkr was watching Embria as 4th Company slowed, taking their position in Bepol’s lines.
Coincidentally, they were close to the Antinium.
“Hey! Who ate my chocolate? I know it was one of you Antinium bastards! I put it down, and you stole it! Chocolate. They said it came special from Imani’s kitchen, and there was one bag in the entire damn city! Who was it?”
Captain Vell of 2nd Squad was throwing a huge fit. The Antinium lines didn’t move. Then a familiar voice called out.
“Eat grass, Vell.”
“Who said that? Was it you, Crusader 57?”
4th Company sniggered, even Vell’s own squad.
“Order in the ranks! Are you children? Is that Significant Beavers? Good to see you. Want to join 4th?”
Wikir snapped. Significant Beavers waved at 4th Company and their expanded lines.
“No thanks! I hate heights!”
Embria saw 6th Company muttering and pointing at the madness of 4th. It hadn’t turned into outright disputes…yet. But, oh, the irony was that Maksie had come back to have a drink with them last night, and 6th and 9th were rumbling at 4th, who were angry that they were being called bug-kissing traitors when they—
“What’s that over there? Oi. Quiet.”
Wing Commander Embria saw something odd as Drisshia drew nearer. 4th Company instantly went silent, and she went to check it out.
Both armies were coming into arrow range, and shields went up. Soon they’d fight and die.
Something was up. She had noticed Olesm was here personally. She suspected he had a plan…but she had deliberately kept that to herself. Trust in the [Commander], after all. Fool the enemy.
She rode closer, breaking from 4th’s position. The others let her pass, and she rode straight into the Antinium lines. As an officer.
“What are you doing? Get into formation!”
She snapped at an Antinium squad who had not stayed in their columns and rows, but were clustered together, a prime target.
“Do you want to eat a [Fireball]? Spread out!”
Dekass had made his command immune to lightning, so whenever Antinium got hit by a [Lightning Bolt] spell, everyone called it ‘free mana’.
“They’re coming! Ancestors! Manus is in front! Six—eight hundred [Soldiers]! Get ready!”
Maksie was screaming into their linked stones. Embria whirled and heard one of the Workers speak.
“We have received a gift. Tonight is the night. We will die or they will. He walks among us. Wing Commander, do you want some?”
The Drake whirled back to him. Then she heard a roar go up across the Antinium ranks. She saw Spearmaster Lulv charging, and her scales prickled.
What was this? Why were they coming in so hot?
Then she saw him, standing amid a cluster of Antinum slowly emerging from the center. It seemed Olesm hadn’t disguised them well enough after all, or they had a mole. Embria looked up and whispered.
Lulv pointed at the Worker and the Painted Antinium around him. Yellow Splatters—he didn’t recognize any other high-value targets, but that was enough.
“[Mark Target]. Bring it down, no matter what!”
This was the battle. The instant he had heard Olesm had requested Pawn’s presence on the battlefield, he had known.
The Drake [Strategist] might have had a plan, but Lulv had one of his own, and it was simple: kill Pawn.
If Manus’ theories had any weight—the Free Antinium would collapse if that one died. At the very least, he was a leader on par with the others.
Pawn, Garry, Belgrade, Anand, Bird.
He had come with the best of the Painted Antinium, Lulv had no doubt. But that Worker had made one mistake:
This was a war.
Eight hundred of Manus’ [Soldiers] tore down the hill after the [Spearmaster]. Lulv raised his spear.
“[Intimidation: Spear of a Thousand Graves]!”
Manus’ [Soldiers] roared as the Gnoll leapt into the dark sky. They had seen him a hundred times. The Antinium didn’t flinch and lifted their blades.
The first ranks of Manus’ lines went through them without slowing.
Death. Those poor [Soldiers]. Embria whirled her spear up. The Antinium surged forwards.
“Protect Pawn! Hold your ground! Crab Battalion—advance!”
Dekass roared. The broken Battalion 3 charged. They had returned. Not one single Antinium had lived in the original five hundred.
Yet it was Crab Battalion who met Manus. They had inherited their name. Embria was about to ride towards her command when she saw the squad of Antinium unveiling their gift.
She stopped, and one turned to her.
“You are Wing Commander Embria, aren’t you? Do you want some? We are going.”
“You don’t have orders for that.”
A figure moved through the darkness, and something glittered as it rose. Embria looked up and saw a familiar flag glowing in the night. Arrows swerved around her as a Worker lifted it higher, staring at what they held.
Artur. He turned to face Embria.
“I order it. Squad 2, Battalion 6. Prepare to charge. There is no strategy in it. But we will break their lines or fall.”
They were going for Pawn. Embria hesitated, looking down. She could hear Manus’ [Soldiers] shouting, roaring—but there was something different this time. They sounded—determined.
[Lineholders]. [War Veterans]. [Vanguards].
Manus’ [Soldiers] had been replenished, their numbers doubled. The new lot were ready to slaughter the Antinium. It was the group that had fought them these last two months who held them back. Told them something like what Embria had said.
These are not the Antinium you know.
Now, one of their [Captains] was waiting to get to the front. The Antinium were fighting, trying to stop Lulv as he advanced on that Worker and the Painted Antinium. Yet—
The Workers and Soldiers were waiting for Manus as their lines closed. The ones behind the engaged front ranks? The [Captain] muttered.
“What was that, sir?”
A [Soldier] looked at him. The [Captain] said it again. The Drake hesitated and reached for his speaking stone.
“Strategist Sokkel, sir. Report.”
The [Strategist] snapped. The [Captain] hesitated. He said it again.
“…They looked like [Soldiers].”
“What? Have you taken leave of your senses? Get off the—”
Sokkel was bawling the [Captain] off until he realized what that meant. The Manus [Captain] didn’t know how to explain it.
They looked like [Soldiers]. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, fixated. Not pushing forwards, waiting. One of them held their mace grimly, and another was aiming his zweihander.
If I die, I will take you with me. They had always been Antinium. Lulv hadn’t taken anyone who mocked the Antinium’s ability to kill. Manus had taken them seriously. We know you are warriors.
These were [Soldiers]. There was a difference. The Antinium squad charged as some of their own fell back. Fell back to preserve their lives. Not a mindless attack until they died, like Dekass had first ordered.
“Squad 5, charge!”
They charged. Crusader 53’s mace met an enchanted shield, and the Drake holding it buckled.
Faith. Pawn was among them. He could not die. Squad 5 fought like lions. Too bad they were fighting Manticores.
Crusader 57 went down as Crusader 51—no, Toni—slipped, and a [Soldier] tried to run him through. The Worker charged into the way of the partisan spear. He fell back, and the Gnoll tried to tear the spear upwards.
Crusader 53 hit him on the head. The Gnoll’s head imploded. The [Soldiers] of Manus reacted as the mace crushed an enchanted helmet.
“High-level [Soldier]! Watch it!”
The Soldier whirled his mace up. It flashed, and a [Captain] turned pale.
“Oh shit. Mace arts. Take—”
A Soldier with two arms and battered steel armor lifted the mace up and rotated. Like a spinning top. The mace swung around—and then it was as big as a battering ram. A cluster of [Soldiers] vanished as it hit them like a gong.
“High-level Antinium! Mark it! Mark—”
The [Captain]’s last words were choked off by a crunch. Crusader 53’s mace smashed through the squad, scattering those who survived like pins.
[Mace Art: Big Hammer].
But he was marked.
“This is Aerial Team 1. We’re heading down.”
[Mages] on Wyverns. Dozens of them this time. Lulv roared amidst the sound of fighting.
“Watch out! That Antinium Worker is doing something. Watch for that [Scout]!”
“Taken care of, sir.”
The [Battle Mage] had a lock on Maksie, who was circling, trying to unleash Olesm’s Skill and dodge. He took aim, moving as the [Wyvern Rider] angled her beast in a dive.
“[Bound Spell: Hundredfold Light Arrow Volley]. [Piercing Missiles]. [Homing—]. Hey, we’re going too fast! Pull up.”
The [Mage] snapped at the [Wyvern Rider]. Instead of replying, the Drake lolled her head at him. And he realized there was an arrow through her goggles.
Archer B12 lowered his bow. He drew another arrow, put it to the string, and loosed it. A second Wyvern went down.
“We killed you!”
A scream from above. He looked up and saw an Oldblood Drake coming down at him. The Worker drew a dagger in one hand and loosed a third arrow. It went through a chest.
He wasn’t as fast as Bird. A falling Drake [Mage] shouted.
“There it is! [Sniper] marked!”
More Drakes were flying at him. B12 loosed an arrow from point-blank range at an open mouth.
Ice froze his body, but the Drake died before the breath attack could fully engulf him. The cloud of mist rose overhead as the body fell back, covering him.
The Worker ran out of the cloud and loosed an arrow through a second flier.
“How is it doing that? What level is it?”
The [Mage] pointed at Archer B12. The Drake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t expected to see anything, but the class—
Worker B12 saw three Drakes go down as a shower of arrows covered his position. He looked down and saw B-Team loosing arrows at his pursuers! He raised his bow, sighted on Lulv, and loosed.
The Gnoll tried to parry the arrow with the haft of his spear and grunted. It was—heavy! He still managed it.
“Kill that [Sniper]!”
“Sir! I have identification on the class!”
The [Mage] was screaming. Archer B12’s first arrow burnt away on the magic shield. The second cracked it. The Drake tried to take cover, but he kept screaming.
“It’s not a [Sniper]! Class is [Avenger]! Say again—[Av—”
The arrow went through his enchanted robes and out the other side. Lulv’s head snapped up.
[Skill – Arrows: Combined Weight of Our Wrath]
[Legacy – Long-ranged Shot received!]
[Legacy – Pinpoint Arrows received!]
One after the other. With each one that died, the arrows were heavier.
Never shall we forgive Hectval. Bird was right. They had all been at that inn, and the Drakes had taken it from them.
It didn’t matter if he died. B12 stood there, ignoring the arrows striking down around him. Die. We will never stop until we’re all dead. And we pass on the weight of this class to the next one.
Advanced classes. Lulv felt his skin under his fur crawling. He looked up.
Pawn. The [Priest] was watching him. But he was one of two targets shielded by the Painted Antinium. The [Mages] were preparing to destroy the entire Antinium force if they had to. If they failed, Lulv would do it for them. And he would make sure these two died.
An [Avenger] only had strength if there was someone to continue the class.
Yet the other [Priest] was raising her hands higher. Pawn held his censer.
Zimrah was bare-handed. Lulv had seen her before as well. He recognized the odd words. The chanting.
“You, Hectval, you, our enemies, are doomed to Hell. There is no salvation for you. You could have lived long—you could have lived in peace. You choose this.”
There was something different in the way she spoke. Theophilus had raged at them. But Zimrah’s voice…it was sorrowful.
“Look at what you have done. We seek Heaven, and you killed the sky. You have lost everything. You were given all that we dream of, and this is what you do? You are damned. Damned for Hell.”
Sokkel calmly pointed a finger at her.
Zimrah lit up, and Painted Antinium bearing shields moved in front of her. The [Priest] wasn’t done. Nor did she hide behind Pawn and Yellow Splatters, who moved to shield her. Both Antinium were looking at her. Zimrah’s voice grew louder.
“Do you think I fear death? I will never suffer in Heaven’s grace. You? YOU? YOU ARE BOUND FOR HELL. GO THERE.”
A trembling finger rose. She shrieked, and Lulv’s ears burned. Zimrah aimed a finger straight back, across Manus’ lines.
Straight at Sokkel. The Drake [Strategist] blinked as she screamed.
“[Marked For Hell].”
What? Lulv whirled around. Pawn and Yellow Splatters recoiled. But Sokkel just stumbled. He looked down. Something red, a mark, was inscribed on his chest. He brushed at it with one claw.
“Just a marker. I’m fine, [Spearmaster]. I’m—”
He stumbled again. Then clutched the arrow that B12 had punched through his armor. The Drake choked on his words. He clutched the arrow through his heart.
Then he began to scream. Lulv had been trained not to take his eyes off the enemy. But he couldn’t look away.
A void opened under Sokkel. Something reached up. It dragged him down, and he vanished, burning, his body twisting into wisps of agonized, terrified smoke.
A babble broke out around Manus’ lines. The [Mages] had no idea what they had just seen. But then that [Priest] pointed again.
A Gnoll clawed at her chest as a mark burned onto her. Lulv shouted into his stone.
“Get that [Soldier] out of there! Protective spells! All of them! Now! Kill that Antinium! Priority target!”
“HELL WAITS FOR YOU ALL.”
Zimrah screamed as Pawn grabbed her arm. The [Hellspeaker Priest] was shaking as she tried to use her Skill again, and the marked [Soldier] was covered by a line of shields.
Manus’ lines redoubled their fighting. They were prepared to die. But that?
That Worker had to die. Lulv snarled.
The skies lit up. Pawn looked up as dozens of Tier 4 and Tier 5 spells came screaming down.
It was not about Pawn. He didn’t recognize them. These [Crusaders]…Zimrah. They were changed.
His Crusade battled Manus around him. Pawn watched Antinium die.
“I sent them to this fate.”
One of his hands touched his heart, for a second, then lifted the censer once more. He had sent them. And he would have sent them again. Because Hectval would not stop.
It hurt too much to see. He had been forbidden to walk the battlefield, and he had obeyed Xrn and the Free Queen because he was afraid.
Afraid that he would die and never see Erin again. Leave the Antinium without first building Heaven on earth.
Simply afraid of dying. Afraid he was needed—
And most of all, afraid of who he might become. Hatred and wonder warred in Pawn’s chest, and both of them were him.
He had seen the depths of madness and a glorious warrior before. To his right, Calruz stood, roaring as he fought, swinging his axe down at Manus’ [Soldiers] as Antinium sang. To his left, Zimrah was still screaming, the most hopeful of his [Acolytes] condemning the living to something else.
Why fire? What hands were those? They were not Antinium hands. They were clawed and—
Pawn saw a glowing Worker emerge from the air. Then another. They leapt forwards, grappling, trying to slow that Gnoll. He slew them so fast Pawn barely blinked.
He was not meant for this battlefield. He knew that. His faith fell before steel, and it was a bitter realization. But he had not come here to win this battle alone.
The [Priest of Wrath and Sky] tightened his grip on his censer. Two hands were clasped together in prayer, and Yellow Splatters was watching Lulv.
Olesm had command of them. He had only asked for Pawn to come for one reason. There was something Olesm couldn’t defeat. So Pawn bowed his head in prayer as comets and fire rained down. He lifted his arms and looked up.
“…[I Walked Under Heaven’s Sky]. You cannot break us that easily.”
To combat Manus’ flying [Mages], Olesm had requested Xrn take the field.
He had gotten Pawn. For all her magic, there were things he could do that the [Thaumaturge] had never dreamed of. The [Priest] looked up and smiled.
The night changed to day.
Pawn thought he heard someone singing to him.
Across the battlefield, Antinium slowed in their fighting and gazed upwards in awe. Lulv threw up his paws as the sky turned blue. Daylight filtered down for one moment—then it hung in the air like the lights of the sky.
Sky-blue radiance mixed with the night. It threw the struggling armies into darkness.
“What is that? What is…? Where are my spells?”
They were gone. Confused [Mages] threw more spells, and they vanished into the glorious vision of the sky.
“What level of Skill is that?”
It made no sense! No ordinary spell could do that! Lulv snarled. He stabbed, his spear flurrying through bodies. He’d do it himself. That Skill didn’t stop his spear.
Pawn knew it too. He was retreating, his job done. Lulv felt it instinctively.
If he beat magic…Lulv could still kill him. Yet the Worker had one more trick. The Worker pointed, and Lulv twisted, but though he ducked the pointing finger—the Skill still hit him.
“[Bane of Luck].”
What? A luck-based—
Lulv struck the ground, and his feet slipped on a patch of mud. His boots were enchanted to stick—it must have just been the perfect angle for him to slip. He caught himself—and a Soldier charged into him. Two hands caught his spear, the other two began to punch at him.
Lulv headbutted Yellow Splatters, trying to wrestle his spear away. They slammed backwards—the [Spearmaster] was higher-level and far quicker. He reached for his dagger to stab the Soldier and felt the kiss of pain on his back.
“Spearmaster! I’m so—”
One of his [Soldiers] had run him through from behind when Lulv and the Antinium went crashing backwards! The Gnoll howled in fury.
“Advance and kill those Workers! Now!”
He looked left and right, but the charge had stalled out. Manus had slowed down? Then he heard desperate shouts from the officers filling Sokkel’s spot.
“Liscor’s 6th on the left! Intercepting! 11th is hitting us—kill that Worker!”
“4th Company, approaching! [Spearmaster]! Watch out! Something’s wrong!”
Lulv looked up—and the bright light of blue skies and dream of heaven over the battlefield grew brighter still.
Embria looked down as Ishkr’s gift flared to life. Artur lifted his banner higher, and the squads of Antinium around him turned.
“We will charge into the enemy. Have no fear. Look.”
The Worker pointed at something one of the [Crusaders] held. It was…something from The Wandering Inn. Embria recognized it.
It had first arrived as a simple little thing. A neatly shuttered contraption made of wood, carefully filled to the brim with as much fuel as possible.
Mere tinder. It was there to keep the spark burning. The fire glowing.
She looked down and saw Glory. That fleeting, bright pink flame, like the very essence of the feeling it contained. Something that would never last would come to [Soldiers] and the brave and linger in memory.
Bright. The lantern burned as the squad holding it gathered around.
But it had not remained as a lantern. It had caught fire. Perhaps Ishkr had packed it with too much fuel. Or perhaps—the Gnoll had known it would ignite.
It covered the Soldier who held it. And it was burning on more than just the lanterns. The Workers and Soldiers had tossed everything onto the blaze.
Now, it burned amidst the Antinium, and more squads looked at it. Artur approached, flag waving.
He did not, as Embria thought, lower it and set his flag on fire. That would be a waste of a good flag. However, the Worker looked at her.
“Squads. You will charge with me. Formation.”
Antinium were gathering around. And as Embria watched—she saw them lifting their blades.
A Soldier dipped his spear’s head into the fire, and it clung to the tip. A trio of Soldiers placed their blades into the fire, and they burned with Glory.
“Wing Commander Embria?”
4th Company was moving. The Drake looked down. The Worker helping hold the burning brazier aloft stared at her.
Offering it to…
“Oh, Ancestor’s tits.”
Wing Commander Embria raised her spear. She looked at it, as 6th and 9th Companies began to sortie. She knew her own command was watching her. Perhaps Xith and Narkr didn’t see—but Embria would never deny this moment.
She lowered her spear, and a Soldier raised a hatchet laid into the fire. The Antinium raising their blade touched it to hers. Just for a moment. Embria looked around as a company burning with magical flames looked at her. She raised her spear into the sky—then whirled her mount.
Artur charged. And 4th Company rode into Manus’ lines. Following a Drake whose spear burned with pink fire.
Did it do anything? Perhaps not. Glory wasn’t much of an effective weapon. But she held it. The Antinium following Artur raced into battle carrying the dream of every [Soldier]. Fighting, the flames flickering on their blades.
Burning out. Fading.
So brilliant before they died.
Embria raised her spear, fighting to reach Lulv. The Gnoll deflected her first strike, and second. He whirled his spear, taking her on, running her through the leg, slashing one of Yellow Splatters’ hands off.
He would not fall. And she did not have the skill to bring him down alone. Yet still—
The [Spear of Glory] fought, her class burning bright.
Manus was slowing down. Lulv looked right and left. It was more than Liscor’s companies coming to their defense. He sensed it.
The Antinium had too many levels.
A [Crusader] raised his [Reinforced Shield]. [Battering Charge]. He slammed into a Drake, angling his sword. [Quick Stab]!
Three Skills? Those weren’t even all of them! A squad was holding down one of Manus’, refusing to give ground.
Who? Who was responsible for this? Lulv looked around and saw a Drake sitting on a horse. He howled, pointing at the high-level Antinium [Crusader] forcing some of his people back.
“Mark that target!”
The shield-bearing Antinium went down. But another stepped up. And then—it happened.
At last. Olesm held the Kaalblade in his claw, but he had seen how you died.
He had been forced to watch. Feed the Antinium to Manus.
He had done it. Erin would never forgive him. Olesm had watched the Antinium march back, the wounded, the survivors.
And he sent them into battle again. While they burned out—
He saved the sparks.
Erin’s fire raced through part of the army. Olesm’s heart squeezed as he saw Ishkr’s gift. But Maviola’s legacy burned brighter still.
“High-level Antinium—mark target!”
“We have a [Scattershot] on our position. Marking squad for—”
Manus’ babble was perfectly audible through the pilfered speaking stone Olesm was holding. How stupid of them. Did they think Olesm couldn’t tap their lines? He looked at the squads they were marking.
It wasn’t just one Antinium or two. It seemed like dozens of [Crusaders] were suddenly manifesting high-level Skills.
Because they were. Olesm looked down and saw one of Bepol’s two Antinium squads on the front. Survivors.
Members of squads who’d been nearly wiped out. Veterans he rotated into back lines or safer engagements. Out of Manus’ crosshairs.
Because they couldn’t read the [Crusader]’s levels any more than Olesm could. Now, the Antinium who had waited so long ran straight into Manus’ ranks. Olesm lifted a claw.
The Level 21 [Commander] used his new Skill.
“[Our Suffering We Returned Twofold]. Antinium! Push Manus back.”
His voice boomed across the battlefield. He saw Lulv look at him. Olesm saw the first showers of arrows coming from Manus’ side and stepped back.
He took cover as he watched. This time—there was no [Lady] of fire to break Hectval’s lines. There was no need for it.
The [Crusaders] began to burn.
“Kill them all. No quarter until they’re all dead. Not one step back.”
Lulv was prepared to die on this battlefield. He’d run that Drake with the spear through and cut her stomach. The Soldier, Yellow Splatters, was moving back with Pawn under guard.
They all had to die. Even if Lulv died—he saw what Olesm had done.
“Counter-levelling. Not one escapes. Do you understand?”
Even if he sacrificed half of his command—the Antinium’s grand experiment here would fail. That was what Lulv believed.
Then he saw something strange.
A Worker stood in his squad, fighting with those pink, flaming blades. [Crusaders] died around him. Manus’ [Soldiers] went down too, but they pressed on.
The Worker was stumbling. Wounded. He raised his shield as a Drake came for him. The last Worker in his squad looked around.
Then his eyes flashed. Lulv’s spear twitched as he saw the Worker raise his shield and the [Pike Expert] trying to run him through recoiled in a blaze of light.
When Lulv saw him again, the Worker was a foot taller. Soldiers did a double-take as a giant Worker swung a sword, hatchet, and pair of shields, knocking down Manus’ [Soldiers].
The [Templar] lifted his sword to the sky and seemed really disappointed when a giant blade didn’t erase everything in front of him. However, he charged.
He ran into Lulv. The Gnoll took a heavy blow on his spear and then rammed it through the chestplate. He saw the Antinium fighting and twisted the spear.
No more of you! Not one remains! The Gnoll howled at the strange sky overhead.
Then he saw another strange Antinium appear. And another.
First it was one. They all remembered him.
Crusader 51 had been the first. Another [Crusader] reached the limit of his class. More. I call for more.
They had leveled. They had suffered. They believed.
Their classes began to change. The [Spearmaster] tried to kill them. Manus marked targets. But this time—there were too many of them.
“Hold the line! We fight alone.”
A Soldier strode forwards. He was not taller, but he spoke, and in such tones!
[My Noble Virtue: Speech].
Another Worker had grown like the one Lulv had killed. He pushed back a fighting Armored Antinium, running at the Manus [Soldiers] who backed up, visibly disturbed.
[My Noble Virtue: Stature].
A third [Templar] stood upon a bluff, fighting under a dome of light. It seemed like those around him could not die.
[My Noble Virtue: Protection].
The [Templar] of the Free Antinium began to advance. Lulv, snarling, looked left and right and realized—
They had flanked Manus. Liscor’s companies were cycle-charging their sides, and Olesm had neutralized the [Mage] spells from above. They had to descend and risk being shot or circle helplessly.
And there were Yoldenites, skirmishing with the Drisshians. Wait. Drisshia was pulling out!
“They’re fleeing! Spearmaster, we can’t stop their flight! Liscor’s right wing just overran their center! Spearmaster!”
They were—everywhere. Lulv’s spear killed everything he saw. But there were so many. Shining warriors. Sudden healing. That [Priest] aiming that mark of Hell at them.
Lulv went still in the fighting. He looked around and saw it all clearly.
A moment of calm ran over him. The fight drained out of him. He raised his speaking stone and calmly, in a relaxed tone of voice, even, breathed.
“Retreat. Retreat in good order.”
All the officers were silent a moment, then the order went down the lines.
“Sir? What’s our rally point?”
Someone asked after a moment. Lulv knew they knew. But he said it.
“Manus. We’re going home. We’ve lost this war.”
He stepped back, and the Antinium advance slowed as Olesm saw the retreat and halted the fighting. To preserve his forces. Lulv looked up at him and raised his spear.
Well done. The Drake offered him a rude gesture in return.
The Hectval Alliance objected to his pulling out of the front. Lulv ignored it. He was faced with speculation, officers trying to make sense of it all.
He ignored that, too.
The [Soldiers] of Manus were silent as they just…quit the front. Spearmaster Lulv walked with them, his spear on his shoulder. They would walk back to Manus. Or ride…Lulv was sure he’d need to catch a Wyvern flight to report directly.
However, he needed to walk with them. He had led them there. When the [Spearmaster] did speak, it was to all of them.
“I will make a verbal report, of course. But in my writing, which I think will be sealed to only the High Command of each Walled City—edited for the other ones, perhaps—I will write this.”
The soldiers and officers looked up and listened as the Gnoll spoke.
“To Dragonspeaker Luciva. I, Spearmaster Lulv, held my command in the fighting as long as I deemed the risks appropriate. In hindsight, I believe we engaged with the Antinium force too long. We have made three significant errors in our thinking.”
He counted on his paws. Three.
“Firstly. We do not understand the new classes the Antinium possess. They do not just ‘level’ as we do. They are capable of using a new type of Skill which is neither magic nor strictly a warrior’s Skills. I do not know its nature, but it is a highly powerful class and abilities I have never encountered before.”
More than just intimidation or [Fear] spells. Something about the way they talked…Lulv stared at his first finger. The most terrifying Skill he had seen on that battlefield had not been Crusader 51’s Skills.
It had been that Skill that Sokkel died to. Did it kill something more than his life? Lulv feared it. And he was sure that the other [Soldiers] feared it, too.
“Second, we have underestimated Liscor’s ability to work with the Antinium. They are not merely tolerant of the Antinium or see them as an asset. They are actively supporting and fighting alongside Workers and Soldiers. As…fellow [Soldiers].”
Manus’ forces stirred, but no one voiced any dissent as Lulv went on.
“Which brings me to my last point. Before thoughts about debilitating Liscor’s command or taking drastic measures against the city…I, Spearmaster Lulv, believe it is more beneficial to attempt to subvert the loyalty of the Free Hive. To study and learn what the Antinium are doing concretely. If necessary, to make radical steps to ensure that the Free Antinium do not join the rest of the Hives in a possible Third Antinium War. I suggest Manus employ every diplomatic angle we can.”
Dead silence. Everyone listened as Lulv went on, as if he stood in front of the Dragonspeaker. When he did—he would say the exact same thing.
“Failing that, my only other recourse is to ask if there is a…secret failsafe. Something beyond even the Security Council’s knowledge. A hidden Tier 8 spell. If we have one, I suggest we use it. If we do not, we must reconsider everything about the Antinium. Because I will swear on my class—the Antinium are either capable of this as a species, or their class enables it. I thought I could kill them all, but their greatest asset is not their new classes, abilities, or potential alone. In battle, they were counter-leveling without needing to sleep. If we learn how to do the same, Manus will benefit to no end. Otherwise? I mark the Free Antinium as the greatest threat in any Hive, including the Grand Queen’s.”
Spearmaster Lulv stopped. He looked around and waited.
No one had any. So he lowered his spear, saluted the other [Soldiers], and went to make his report.
[Conditions Met: Strategist → Eleleu Strategos Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Commander removed.]
[Eleleu Strategos Level 35!]
[Skill – War Cry: Eleleu obtained!]
[Skill – Battlefield: Galuc’s Tunnel obtained!]
[Skill – Army: Charred Spellcasting obtained!]
[Spell – Army: [Firebolt] obtained!]
Olesm woke up, listened to his Skills, and then rolled out of bed. He wrote a response back to the Council, who wanted all kinds of confirmations after his late report. Then Olesm went to brush his teeth, comb his neck spines, have a cup of ‘coffee’ from Liscor, and remembered.
“Damn. Gelatin. Maybe we can get some.”
And the war continued.
Oh, not in the same way. Manus was gone. Olesm had double and triple-checked, and he would keep his guard up, but he thought they were actually gone.
They’d seen a real defeat. After hitting Liscor for three months, Liscor had been able to hit back. If Olesm had needed to, he would have called in Belgrade and really hammered them. But the [Crusaders] were enough.
Yet the war wasn’t over.
The Alliance was gone. They’d retreated practically back to their cities. Now, Lism informed Olesm, they were negotiating for a cease-fire. Olesm wrote back, repeating his words in his bleary state so he was sure he had them all down.
“Liscor’s Council is free to handle its end. However, please bear in mind that the army will continue its advance, and we can discuss a siege of the cities. The Alliance’s terms…should be no less than exceptionally generous. Also, please, we must keep our promises to the Yoldenites. A continuation of this war may see a fracture between Luldem, Hectval, and Drisshia.”
Even if the war ended, Olesm suspected Liscor’s army would need to patrol the Yoldenites’ territory, especially if they wanted to figure out how to create a trade route.
He realized then that the army wouldn’t disband when the war ended. What happened when Hectval made alliances with other cities, or someone else attacked? He would be the [Commander]—no, the [Strategos]—of Liscor unless their main army came back.
Olesm sat there, blinking in the morning’s light, and realized he was the leader of Liscor’s army. He stared into the cup, took a sip of the coffee, and shuddered.
“Gah. That’s terribly bitter. Artur? Do we have anything to put in this? Maybe milk. How’s morale? Break out double rations for breakfast and pull me up a roster. We’re rotating everyone who just fought into Liscor on vacation. I don’t care if we’re marching them down instead of the door, everyone over the next month. Tell Belgrade I want to speak with him—and ask Embria if she consolidated her class. Oh, and Captain Voita after her…”
He got back to work. Olesm continued his war right up until he got word of the gigantic battles in the Gnoll Plains. Then he was racing, racing his entire army back to Liscor.
But that…was a bit later.
Author’s Note: Three chapters. 100,000 words. That’s a novella. Novel?
I don’t know book terms. Someone kept writing denouement and I sort of knew what it meant but I was too lazy to look it up.
Writing is odd. I wasn’t lying when I said I planned one chapter for all of this. Yes, I added more when I realized I had three chapters instead of one, but my brain can organize character arcs, details, a rough sense of narrative…
And I cannot tell how many words it is. Or how long a mile is. Or whether Niers is a foot or six inches tall. He’s six inches. I thought my hand was a foot long for some reason.
However, I am happy with this arc. It is a different genre. Much like the Wistram heist—it’s good to try and write in other styles. I doubt I ever want to try a mystery. I cannot solve any of them in books. I read Detective Conan and after 1000+ chapters, I never guess who did the murder or how they did it. Ever.
But I will keep improving! I hope to put out the edited chapter next, but we will see. Another arc down…let’s see if I can keep quality up as energy wanes. It was good that you voted for Hectval first; the first chapters after a break are almost always my strongest. Thanks for reading and look out for the Antinium! Especially if you live in Hectval. They’re probably not going anywhere.
[Like Fire, Memory] by McLoving96!
Take On Cara by Miguel!
‘Let me in’ by The Mepsir!