9.13

The Antinium really knew how to ruin someone’s day. And by ‘someone’, that was everyone. There was something sobering, in a truly unpleasant way, in seeing the distant Antinium threat on the wrong side of the High Passes.

It told men like Calidus Reinhart that the Antinium had a route to the north. Not just that; they’d probably had one for a while. And that now, something, some confluence of factors, had made them bold enough to ignore any reactions of the north. He sat, wine spilling onto some briefs, as an [Assassin] gave him a side-eye at breakfast.

Even for the famous Assassin’s Guild, there was something odd about a [Lord] who invited a trained killer to breakfast and showed up without any clothing, chugging wine out of a bottle.

 

——

 

If Calidus’ reluctantly-trained mind was going a mile a minute, well, his wasn’t the only one. The problem was—for the logical, the purely empirical observers with no grounding in Antinium culture, the actions of the Antinium were hard to predict.

They had always been a foreign species, but why assist the north by saving a city? To level up their army? However, they had made what seemed to be numerous strategic errors. Unless…

“They’re onto us. This is a clear provocation, but I suggest the Walled Cities do not react instantaneously to the Antinium presence, Dragonspeaker, Security Council. May I present my theory in full?”

A [Strategist] was giving a hurried report as Spearmaster Lulv, Wall Lady Rafaema, and the rest of Manus High Command listened. Rafaema was watching the Antinium in the scrying orb and listening with half her attention.

“Proceed, Strategist Rollend.”

The Drake nodded and began to point out a very specific map that had recently been added to with Magnolia Reinhart’s unprecedented intelligence boon.

“We have always known the Antinium likely had passages to the north. In fact, we placed one of their exits in roughly the area they emerged from. It’s clear now that the Antinium were aware of our surveillance. They revealed the exits as part of a complex mind-game. The Queens have been notably cunning in this respect. As for the army, this ‘crusade’ of the Free Antinium, I believe it to be bait.”

“For the North or for us?”

A growling voice from the side. The [Strategist] adjusted his pointing stick as he gazed around solemnly.

“Likely both, Spearmaster Lulv. As you yourself observed, the other Hives were waiting for your entry into the Hectval war. I propose that they are hoping for a series of protracted conflicts to level up their soldiers, despite heavy losses.”

“Counter-levelling one for a thousand. Antinium strategy at its finest. They can attack monsters, and if they’re attacked—they still win even if they pull a hundred troops out at Level 20. But what about that Antinium who’s stolen General Sserys’ Skill? [Company, On Me]?”

“Another mind-game, [General]. And a clear warning; these are not low-level Antinium anymore.”

Solemn nods around the table. Rafaema rubbed at her forehead. It could well be that the Antinium were playing a game on par with the greatest strategists of the south. Unfortunately, the [Strategist] had missed something when Lulv asked who the Antinium were baiting.

The Gnoll had been speaking ironically. Right now, he was giving Rafaema a side-eye, and Luciva had noticed. She was thus politely listening to one of their [Strategists], and Lulv would have his moment after the Drake had his say.

 

——

 

The thing was, the logical inferences about Antinium actions were sometimes wrong. It was like looking at a Lizardfolk army that disbanded on Pallass’ borders during the Naga incursions.

“Not to be too antiquated, but I was young enough to remember those conflicts. Not the battles themselves, mind you, but they were still being taught when I was in Manus’ academies.”

Archmage Zelkyr had been alive back then. That reminded Chaldion’s audience exactly how old the Drake was. He waited for a few chuckles as he went over the latest incident to give him a churning pool of acid in his stomach.

The [Grand Strategist] had his own council, but he’d actually pulled in junior [Tacticians] of Pallass as well as General Shirka and the other top brass. General Edellein was clearly annoyed by the ‘lesser’ officers being present, but how else were they supposed to learn? Chaldion was pointing out the same message he’d sent to Manus’ High Command, and it was this:

“In the Naga Incursions, a lot of [Strategists] assumed that the Lizardfolk knew something we didn’t. Pallass was vulnerable to having some of its cities lost or suffering a direct siege, which would have taken us out of the war until it could be broken. Yet the Lizardfolk forces disbanded within a week of marching into our territories. Why? [Strategists] assumed they had foreseen some kind of counter or danger; Ancestors, we were even scouting for Adult Crelers. Perhaps a Drake city had come to the defense? The truth was far simpler.”

Chaldion’s eyepatch was in place, and he paused, his grey scales flexing as one hand lifted the stomach medication that Saliss had brewed up. He took a long draft, and then one of the new coffee stuff. It had been a long night. An early dawn’s light shone through a window, and it seemed like blood. He could almost smell it.

Damn Antinium. Yet he went on, because this lesson had to be learned.

“…It turned out none of that was the case. The Lizardfolk army that disbanded? It had nothing to do with their strategy or a threat or anything else. It turned out they’d run out of food because someone had miscounted how much supplies they’d had left, and the Lizardfolk had been forced to retreat.”

Chuckles among the audience. Chaldion looked around sardonically and then nodded to something he had commissioned that Manus lacked. An important element of their strategic understanding of the Antinium could not be logical because a logical enemy never did anything surprising. People were harder to predict, and damn that Human, because she’d created uncertainty in what Chaldion had thought he’d already analyzed as a threat.

Every eye swung, some affronted, others amused, to a huge illustration of an Antinium. It was, in fact, Bird the Hunter. The famous ‘Prognugator’, the Antinium to stand on Pallass’ walls, a dangerous threat to Drakes and a formidable foe with his unprecedented archery abilities.

The illustration was not of him standing upon the corpse of a Wyvern, offering war. It was, actually, a picture of Bird trying to fly off the roof of the inn with two ‘wings’ made of feathers. He was mid-leap as an [Innkeeper] waved her arms, trying to get him to stop.

“The Wandering Inn. Have a drink there. In fact, I encourage every officer to go there and witness the Free Antinium in a natural element at least once. I am minded to believe that this event, if not directly the fault of Erin Solstice herself, is in line with the changes in the Free Hive I have personally witnessed.”

“Meaning, Strategist Chaldion?”

The old Drake sighed. Edellein really was as stupid as half a brick coated in butter. Why half a brick and the butter? He couldn’t even get to full-brick. Thrissiam had been sharp.

“Meaning, General Edellein, this might not have been an action condoned by the Free Queen. In other words—the Antinium are beginning to take independent action. They are levelling. But this might well have been…”

Chaldion’s lips twisted, but he said it anyways.

“A simple mission of mercy.”

His audience gave him the blankest looks in the world, and the Grand Strategist had another sip of the bitter coffee. It needed sugar, he decided. Or something else? What did that note say? Milk?

 

——

 

There was a reason why Chaldion was considered the Grand Strategist of the Drakes. His insight was unique among a lot of strategic meetings taking place. However, it was not impossible for other people to reach this conclusion, even if they were not visitors of Liscor.

Niers, for instance, had already factored in a Bird-like element into these moves. Calidus Reinhart might worry, and so might Regis Reinhart and any number of other nobles, but at least one prominent member of the Five Families had insights about the Antinium beyond the war machine.

Well, Ryoka thought Magnolia Reinhart did. She, herself, was currently trying to impart some understanding to no less than Tyrion Veltras.

Tyrion Veltras and—Ryoka felt like peeing a bit and had gone to the restroom twice—Ulva Terland. Ulva Terland and Captain Etril Wellfar and, Ryoka suspected, the [Lady] of House El might be reporting back to Lord Deilan El himself.

Which meant that she was sitting and speaking by proxy to three leaders of the Five Families. Not bad for a brunch, eh? Ryoka would have preferred to be anywhere else.

Unfortunately, she’d done this to herself. Lord Tyrion had been getting into his saddle to begin racing south and muster an even larger army than the one going to fight the monsters to repel the Antinium. Then, Ryoka had told him there were facts not in his possession, and the idiot had listened.

Quite how she had ended up with Ulva Terland at brunch was probably due to all of First Landing having long ears. The invitation, strongly-worded, had come within ten minutes, and Tyrion had dragged her here.

Now, Ryoka was looking around and sweating as she kicked her bare feet against one of the mansions belonging to House Terland in First Landing. A [Servant] stared at the barefoot Courier with a vague horror—and at Sammial Veltras, who was currently harassing the help.

Not the mundane help. Rather, two permanently-smiling Golems were following him around as he wandered Terland’s halls, staring at serving and security Golems. Sammial reached out to poke a statue-knight Golem with an incredibly sharp sword that Ryoka suspected wasn’t ornamental. Jericha caught his hand.

“Why don’t we proceed somewhere else, Lord Sammial? There are Golems for the entertainment of Terland’s folk.”

“Indeed, Lord Sammial. Would you like to have a bout with a Fencing Golem?”

Would I?

Sammial instantly brightened up, and Jericha closed her eyes, because that meant he’d be holding a sword. Ulva Terland’s lips twitched.

As before, she was ensconced in magical protective spells, and she sat at the ‘intimate’ table for brunch with a selection of rich foods no one had really touched. Ryoka saw Etril inspecting some huge shrimps filled with a pilaf or whatever, but what she noticed about Ulva were, uh, her bodyguards.

Two Golems, one with an enchanted sword and shield, another with a staff, both porcelain, both standing right behind Ulva.

Paranoid was about the right word when it came to her. It was more amazing that the other nobles barely reacted. Tyrion himself sat like a piece of wood—no, wait, the empty chair across from him had a bit more personality, since it was a half-Elven heirloom from Terandria. As far as Ryoka could tell, everything was an heirloom, including the table itself; it was one piece, long enough to seat fifty people, and cut from some gigantic tree she was sure would have upset any [Druid] to gaze upon.

Never let it be said that the Five Families lacked for personality, though. As Ulva watched Sammial go, she leaned over and murmured out of the corner of her mouth.

“That son of yours may well enjoy the Fencing Golems, Tyrion. He had better not break any like you did when you were a boy.”

Tyrion twitched slightly.

“Sammial has not been trained in swordsmanship, Lady Ulva.”

“No indeed? I am sure he will find a way. Not for fondness or politics did I suffer your presence and lift the ban on you, Tyrion. Your other boy, Hethon, would have been a better guest. Far more polite.”

Tyrion hesitated, and the [Lady] of El moved a fan over what Ryoka was sure was a smiling mouth. Etril didn’t even try to hide a grin as Tyrion replied.

“I was not aware I was banned, Lady Ulva.”

The other [Lady] gave him a long look.

“We have not invited you to the Terland estates in eleven years, Tyrion.”

“I do not make a habit of social events.”

“Quite apparently.”

Ulva rolled her eyes, and Ryoka couldn’t help but hide a smile. Ulva noticed, and she lifted one hand. Instantly, a serving Golem moved.

“The rolled hibiscus.”

A beautiful red roll of what Ryoka had almost thought was ornamentation rather than food appeared on a plate in front of Ulva. She produced a fork and knife and cut away a cross-section to reveal a neatly-packed roll of very floral, bright ingredients. She nodded to it as she lifted it to her mouth.

“It may not suit your tastes, Courier Griffin. Some of these dishes are made for my enduring health. Perhaps you might enjoy it? These ‘spring rolls’ come from Drath, as I understand it.”

Ryoka blinked at the now-familiar dish, albeit instead of an outer shell of dough, it was…the hibiscus flower? Some kind of ultimate health dish, possibly even vegan if it was really made from plants.

Then she glanced at Ulva, because while there was no formal head of House Wellfar, the sailors and seafolk, Ryoka had met Tyrion, Magnolia, and Deilan. Ulva was the most mysterious, for all she had been at the Summer Solstice party.

History had her as the only living member of the Five Families who had been entrenched in power during the First and Second Antinium Wars. Unlike Tyrion and Magnolia’s rise to fame and Maviola’s passing this year, Ulva was a relic from that time.

And yet…she was not old. Oh, she had an age to her. To Ryoka’s amazement, the [Lady] had faintly green hair, sparkling brown eyes dotted with bright motes of yellow, and she could walk swiftly or ride without need of an enchanted chair.

Yet the lines on her face gave her an age far beyond what Ryoka realized was barely sixty years—and that was filled with so many alchemical ingredients for health and wellbeing that she seemed in very good shape.

Lines, wrinkles from fear, a paranoia that kept her ensconced in bodyguards. She had once had a twin sister, Petria Terland, and they had been two powerful leaders of House Terland.

No longer. Still, Ulva was the leader of her house without question and sharp enough to call on Ryoka and Tyrion. Ryoka delicately inspected a bit of flank steak and took a nibble.

Lemony. No wonder Lady Buscrei had put some on her plate then pushed the plate away. Although some of the other Terlands were clearly savoring it. No accounting for taste.

Ulva noticed the reactions from Swey and some of House Veltras. She crooked a finger, and Ryoka was amazed by the responsiveness of the serving Golems. One leaned over, and she spoke quietly.

“Order the chef to amend his menu. Find a fresh piece of meat and serve it barely cooked past bloody. Medium rare or rare. No garnishings; provide them on the side. That should satisfy Veltras appetites.”

She glanced up at Ryoka and spoke conversationally.

“The cooking Golem is quite adept, but it must learn each recipe and be tailored to its guests.”

“You have a cooking Golem? Um, Lady Ulva?”

Ryoka saw Tyrion shift slightly. He replied for Ulva.

“A terrifying sight. It has eight arms and can mince foes in every direction at once. It propels itself on a crab-like construction and has no less than five orifices which it can use to rip and tear its opponents apart—”

“For processing food. Mincing garlic. Yes, Cook Garneis—that is his nickname—can be a fearsome sight, but he is well-programmed such that even a little boy who wandered into the kitchen for a midnight snack might only be traumatized as Garneis works around him. So petrified, in fact, that he was only found two hours later in the morning after Garneis prepared an entire feast. Hiding in a cupboard.”

If it was possible, Tyrion turned into even more stone, but a kind of red sandstone. Buscrei chuckled, but Swey just shuddered as if he too had had an experience like that.

Ryoka listened to all this with an increasing sense of…familiarity. And a desire to do something impolite because she knew this. Her family—well, they weren’t a quarter as noble as this gathering, but this was literal landed nobility.

Some old version of her swelled up, about to point out the irresponsibility of owning Golems, comparing it to slavery, or just making a statement about excess. Ryoka kicked it in the head and went the other way.

“With all these Golems, are there many activities for House Terland’s children, Lady Ulva? I have seen Lady Buscrei’s family hunting as a major pastime. What about Terland?”

Ulva leaned on one hand, eyes fixed on Ryoka.

“We are hardly as athletic as House Veltras, if that is what you are asking. Few of the Five Families are. Terland does indeed enjoy tireless, ageless servants. Unlike El, which I understand encourages apprenticeships much like the ships that Wellfar crews, we do tend to certain hobbies. Chess, for instance, was a major pastime when it was first introduced. However, most Terlands can play Kraken’s Poker, Gnollstones, and other such games.”

Ryoka could just imagine someone playing with life-sized chess pieces. Kraken’s Poker was something she knew, but Gnollstones? Ulva went on, nodding to one hallway Sammial had gone down.

“We have an extensive library if you would choose to visit it later, but I find most books our children and folk read have to do with Golems. The building, the shaping—we do not have Illivere’s fine traditions of creation, but it is an obsession. Often with less fruitful results. I have limited the budgets for those wishing to try to those who can successfully create even basic Golems. I wonder, have you similar interests now or as a child? In your home nation?”

Oh, Golem-lovers. It checked out. Ryoka searched for something to say, and it seemed hard at first blush.

Golems? I too have owned pets. Or—Golems? Yes, I afforded them with the thousands of gold pieces my family has. Golems? You mean, [Slaves]?

No, bad Ryoka. Then the Wind Runner had an interesting thought and actually smiled in reply to Ulva’s question.

“—No Golems where I grew up, Lady Ulva. However, I did quite enjoy building and constructing little—settlements. Toys of my own. I had these tiny interconnected puzzle-pieces which you could configure into anything you wanted. You could build a person, a tree, even a model of a city with them. They were called, oh, Legos. Have you heard of them?”

Ulva’s brows shot upwards, and Ryoka heard, in the back of her mind, an unseen version of Cara O’Sullivan slapping her forehead. But she deployed this idea into Terland’s household like an [Archmage] throwing a Tier 8 spell.

“Legos? What is this?”

Ryoka described the building blocks of a thousand glorious creations and the agony of anyone who stepped on one in the middle of the night. Ulva tapped her finger on the table in urbane amusement.

“What a funny concept. Puzzle pieces with no set puzzle?”

“There are many things you can make, Lady Ulva. I used to have a house or—or castle I’d build because all the pieces were there, but if you had the imagination, you could build anything. Why, people have built actual houses you could walk through. Gently.”

Fascinating.

The [Lady] from the House of El murmured, and Ryoka felt a prickle as one of the Terlands whispered with clear interest. Did she have some guilt? Oh yes. Here went another secret of Earth, out Ryoka’s mouth as if she were dispensing them like candy.

—But it worked. Ulva actually asked Ryoka to sketch a model brick so she could see what Ryoka meant by interconnecting. The instant she saw how the socketed molds would click into place, she sighed.

“Ah, like Golem arms into a socket. What a clever idea. And they play with that in Drath?”

“I wouldn’t know about all the islands, Lady Terland. Drath is quite large, even for an archipelago.”

Ryoka replied blandly. Ulva Terland gave Ryoka a brief smile and then nodded. The design was swept away, and she sat back. Ryoka had won some kind of implicit approval; the bodyguard golems took two steps back and stopped holding onto their blades quite as tightly.

“The Antinium. You claim they are not the pervasive threat that should warrant our armies pivoting on them? It is apparent they have developed more types of Antinium of late. Those abilities…strange classes.”

Ryoka smiled, but it was a bit waxy as Tyrion, Etril, and the other nobility looked at her. She hadn’t exactly been happy to see that either. Because unless she missed her guess, that wasn’t just a crusade like [Knights] meant it.

It was an actual damn religious crusade. And they were using abilities of faith. Literal swords popping out of the sky! Healing each other!

Ryoka didn’t have to be a ‘gamer’ to recognize the archetype of a paladin or other holy warrior. Yet she was compelled to speak in the Antinium’s defense.

“I’m aware of their impact on Izril, Lady Ulva, Tyrion. I’ve met them myself. They’re certainly dangerous, and I know my history. However, not every Hive is the same.”

“I had heard the Free Antinium were somewhat different after infesting Liscor. Yet not markedly. Magnolia Reinhart keeps track of them, and she has told me they diverge little from the mold.”

“When did she say that, Lady Ulva? Because their changes have been very—very recent. The Free Hive has split from the other Hives, and they’re more, oh, personable?”

“Personable. No Antinium I have met has ever so much as spoken.”

Tyrion spoke flatly, his tone of pure disbelief. Ryoka shrugged and tried not to sound annoyed.

“But you didn’t fight them during the First Antinium War, much, did you, Lord Tyrion?”

He shifted in his seat.

“No. House Veltras marched with Magnolia Reinhart, but I did not attend, as we viewed it as largely unnecessary. And in the Second Antinium War, the Goblin King took precedence. However, I have encountered them in battle, and they appeared to be as monstrous and unfeeling as Golems.”

Ulva scowled for the comparison, but Ryoka nodded, hoping she looked understanding.

“Then you might not know, Tyrion, that you fought Antinium Soldiers and very few Workers. Also, they were at war.”

“I fail to understand the distinction, apart from their size.”

Ryoka coughed into one fist.

“…Soldiers can’t speak. I think they’re physically incapable of speaking, Tyrion. Even if they wanted to—most Soldiers never see daylight in their entire lives. They live in their Hives, and only the Free Antinium have let their Antinium up on the surface and mingle with people. They probably find you as alien as you find them.”

Tyrion digested this amidst the titters and murmurs. Ulva Terland’s eyes sharpened.

“I see. And what did you think of these Free Antinium, Ryoka?”

Humanize them. Or well, peoplelize them if you wanted to be more species-inclusive. But the term worked well here. Ryoka took a breath. She had not met many Antinium, not like Erin, and certainly not many Goblins, but she had met a few, and Erin told her stories. She looked around and found her best representative.

“Well—apropos of Cook Garneis, I know an Antinium Worker who apparently operates a kind of bakery. He makes bread, and his name is Garry.”

The nobility gave her to the blankest of looks, then Swey began chortling. And that—was something. Ryoka kept glancing at the crusade in the scrying orb, and Ulva Terland herself passed a hand over a smile as she glanced at the images of the Antinium.

“So you do not find an army of the Antinium worth battling? Or these Goblins?

Tyrion glanced up, and Ryoka hesitated. Was that the same wretched Goblin who’d tried to mug her? Rags? She almost thought it was. Oh, if Erin were here to be more genuine about it. But Ryoka had her angle, and it might be one that the Five Families found more palatable. She took a breath and looked around.

“Say rather, Lady Ulva, what would be the point? They have killed monsters plaguing Orefell when any relieving armies were too far away to help. Even the Goblins.”

“But they’re monsters, Courier Griffin!”

A [Lord] of Terland sounded scandalized as Tyrion gave Ryoka a blank look. The Courier bared her teeth in a smile. She gazed around the table.

“There are worse things out there than Goblins and Antinium. Believe me. Both belong in the High Passes. If they’re not attacking you—”

She hesitated, then shrugged lightly.

“—do you want to do the Drakes’ job for them? Because I guarantee you, they’d love it if you wiped out both armies.”

Sorry, Erin. And Selys and Relc and every Drake Ryoka knew. But it worked.

Lord Tyrion’s face frosted over, and Ulva Terland nodded thoughtfully. Even the other [Lords] and [Ladies] nodded and began speaking about the battle at the Meeting of Tribes and the new lands. When all was said and done, hating Drakes was something they could get behind. Ryoka exhaled…right until Ulva Terland fixed her with another look.

“So. While it embarrasses me to ask, I fear I have become the poor host. Where do you hail from, Miss Griffin?”

Tyrion Veltras swung his eyes to Ryoka Griffin, and she beamed. Beamed and tensed to run for it—right until a crash was followed by a screaming Sammial running into the room. She had never been happier to see a berserk fencing Golem with a sword in her life.

 

——

 

Politics. You could do that all day. Discuss what it was that made the Antinium tick. Worry, inform yourselves with a weird Courier’s testimony.

But what about the Antinium who were there, in the open?

The crusade. It was dawn, but the camps around Orefell were in a flurry of activity. Some people hadn’t slept. Even now, people were heading back to the city, reclaiming the abandoned buildings, trying to sort out the abandoned belongings, the looted infrastructure.

Even if Orefell had not been sacked by the monsters, the people had done a pretty darn good job. Yet the people were mostly alive.

It was a great victory*. That asterisk was the size of one of the moons, but it was still a victory.

And the biggest victors were arguably the Antinium and Goblins. Because there they were. Separate, watched by the soldiers, targeted by the powers of Izril—but there.

Rags knew it might be disastrous for her tribe, but she had her reasons for being here. Firstly, she had reasoned that at least a few powers like that scary Drake from Pallass knew where she was. The Humans had every reason to hate her after Tenbault, and frankly, if that was so, why not risk this on garnering some goodwill?

Or…playing an angle she’d thought about. Plus, there was the <Quest> to consider. And Erin. And the Antinium were a kind of ally that she had sympathies for.

Mostly? She just hated that damn goat. It was a menace, and if it had only tried to destroy Goblinhome once, well, that was more than enough. The gambit had already paid off in her mind.

In the morning air, Rags took a slow bite from a new concoction made by Calescent as the other Goblins held their breath. Normally, this was an act of huge heroism, but even the [Spice Chef] had changed when he’d heard Erin put out a call for a [Chef] and other Goblins.

Rags had told him, in no uncertain terms, that Erin wouldn’t hire a [Chef] who would burn your mouth off, even with his Skill, [Hot Enough For You]. Now, she bit into a mildly spicy, extremely flavorful…quiche.

It had eggs. Razorbeak eggs, big and luscious, making the batter fluffy. It had cave mushrooms, chopped fine, and seasoned with wild leeks. It had cheese—and it was the cheese that Rags liked.

Oh, this was good! Vaunt had fine cheeses, and whatever Calescent had added with a pinch of his signature death-spice made Rags smile.

“Is good, Chieftain?”

The [Chef] hovered there, his hat in his hands like someone awaiting a panel of judges. For answer, Rags took another bite. The Goblins sighed, and Calescent smiled.

Then he produced a steak quesadilla, cheese, meat, and spices and nearly murdered the poor Goblin who went for it. The other Goblins laughed because one out of the ten had been spiced up. Calescent winked as Rags gave him a long look.

“Is called my ‘death-spice gamble’. One out of ten is super-spicy. Redfangs love. Eat all the time.”

Rags rolled her eyes. But she had to admit, Calescent was in his element here. And why not? The steak quesadilla he’d made? All he’d needed was some pre-prepared, thin dough and a skillet to fry up everything.

The cheese came from Vaunt, who apparently sent their soldiers with tons of their signature food as travel rations. And the meat?

The meat was everywhere. Not that the other species were eating the Gargoyles. However, the Eater Goats had become food, and if some of the Humans were a bit queasy and wary of cross-contamination, the Goblins loved a good goat.

Mind you, everyone was noshing down. Calescent frowned as he hurried over to a skillet where one of his [Cook]-apprentices was about to casserole some meat.

“No. Fry longer.”

“Is good fry! See?”

She showed him some meat that House Veltras’ folk would approve of, but Calescent frowned at it.

“You cook twice as long. Might be bad meat. Goats eat worms and bad stuff.”

It was an odd instinct, but the grumbling Goblin obeyed. Rags herself frowned at Calescent and beckoned him over with a finger.

“You think goats have bad meat?”

He shrugged.

“Feeling.”

She trusted his feelings, so Rags looked around.

“Hey! Poisonbite!”

The officer looked up as she carved at the goats. Rags pointed at her.

“After cutting and getting hides—wash hands. All Goblins wash hands. With soap.

“Soap?”

The Goblins groaned, but Rags glared, and instantly, a ball of lye soap was produced and grumbling Goblins did as they were told. Ironically, that made Rags’ entire tribe the most hygienic of all the species, because she brooked no arguments.

Even so, the entire event was going to go horribly wrong in time. An unstoppable force could be mitigated with soap and hot water and grilling the meat, but it was still a powerful plague. A plague! A—

Zimrah kept putting her hands on people and curing them. Rags watched the Antinium with fascination, because she had seen her own Ogres working their magic, but she hadn’t ever seen this. She wondered what they’d make of the Antinium [Priest], because her magic was not like theirs, hard-won via mana potions. Zimrah, the Antinium Worker with robes and a censer, just put her hands on an Antinium who felt a bit ‘off’.

“[Cure Ailments]. You are done. Pat, pat.”

She patted the Antinium on the head, and the Soldier trundled away. Zimrah turned and stretched.

“I am getting tired. Artur, I may need to rest. Can you tell Crusader 445-2 to take over? I am unusually…tired.”

The [Banner Commander] walked over.

“You have never been so tired. Most Antinium were not wounded.”

Zimrah nodded, puzzled.

“I know. But I feel exhausted. If someone is hurt, please wake me. Otherwise, I must sleep.”

Artur agreed instantly.

“You have worked enough, Zimrah. A Fortress of Fluff has been prepared there.”

He pointed, and Rags saw the curious mounds where Antinium sat were being made out of pillows and blankets. Zimrah walked over, sat down, and began snoozing.

…For about five minutes. Then she stood up.

“I have leveled four times! Why!?”

To her credit, while Artur hurried over to hear Zimrah’s new levels, this was hardly the only person counter-levelling hard. Rags wandered over, still eating her breakfast, and listened to Zimrah speaking. The thing Rags loved about the Antinium was that they were not private. They didn’t whisper, and she got a perfect earful.

“Level 28! Four levels. This is statistically improbable, Artur.”

“It may be. But you did survive the Void Eater Goat as I believe it was called. Perhaps you are being rewarded for healing all the colds?”

“Perhaps. Or maybe other species. Some came to me and asked for me to heal them. Should I heal them when I wake?”

“This would be wise, and I believe Commander Olesm would agree. What Skills have you learned?”

“Oh. Um. [Icon of Faith: Unclaimed]. And [Minor Radiance of Healing].”

Rags was fascinated. What the heck were those Skills? Radiance of healing? Did that mean…? On a hunch, as Artur speculated what kind of icon Zimrah needed, Rags produced a dagger and cut herself. Just a jab to her hand. She stared at it and narrowed her eyes.

It took nearly fifteen seconds before she noticed a change, and the wound began to scab. That was fast. It was a very slow scabbing, but on the other hand, Rags wondered how fast that was compared to normal.

“[Priest]. [Priest]. Got to get one.

The Goblin muttered as she stared at Zimrah. The Worker was snoozing, but she was hardly the only Antinium who had the unique power of faith.

 

——

 

It was just that only two Antinium had cure Skills. Or rather—Miracles.

There was a joke in The Wandering Inn that if someone had a notepad and was writing, they were either Mrsha or pulling a Grimalkin. However, more than one person outside of Orefell was doing a full Grimalkin, because the Antinium were talking.

Talking. Gershal of Vaunt watched as one of the [Templars] placed his hand on a nervous horse’s back. The animal nearly reared, but the Antinium spoke.

“[Heal Damage — Strike]. I am done.”

He stepped back, and the torn flesh along the horse’s foreleg mended in a glow of light.

“That is not what the [Priest] did.”

The difference in how the Skill was worded was not lost on some of the observers. Gershal saw the [Templar], an Antinium Soldier with a voice, turn and elucidate to a curious Dwarf, female Garuda, and even Brigadier Forount. He nodded and replied slowly.

“I am not a [Priest]. Zimrah is capable of using [Cure Mundane Wounds] a number of times per battle. That cures any wounds not inflicted by magic.”

Any?

Someone made a choking sound. Peki was nibbling at some grapes that Forount had shared from her rations—everyone was sharing food, and Gershal had given out Vaunt’s cheeses with liberty. To Antinium, no less! The [Templar] had a piece of brie on a toothpick, and he nibbled at it as he spoke; with four arms, he could pretty much eat and talk.

“Indeed. Any non-magical wounds. I am not Zimrah. I am capable of using the Miracle [Heal Damage] twice per battle.”

“What was that part about ‘strike’, though?”

Rlint, the [Field Captain], the Dwarf, pressed the [Templar], whose name was Theogrin. An Antinium with a name.

Gershal had avoided saying ‘dead gods’, or ‘this is incredible’, or ‘impossible’ thus far. He felt like it made him look like a fool since this was clearly happening. Besides, he had once served under the Tidebreaker, Zel Shivertail, and he had seen at least one improbable event take place.

“That means I can cure exactly how much damage I could inflict. Or close enough. A deep cut, a broken bone. No more.”

Fascinating. Rlint looked at one of the other Dwarves, and the [Stone Magus] shook his head.

“Nothing like [Restoration], Captain. Not at all. There’s no…mana cost to these ‘miracles’, are there?”

The Dwarf addressed Theogrin, and the Antinium tilted his head. His antennae waved wildly, like Gershal had seen tiny ants do.

“No. This is a Miracle, not a Skill. The cost is faith.”

“Faith?”

“My conviction wanes. I feel emptier. Weaker. If I was Crusader 51, I would never lack for faith. Or Pawn.”

Pawn. Gershal had heard that name before, along with Crusader 51. Many of the Antinium referenced them when they spoke.

And how they spoke! Skills, classes—Gershal was hardly an important [Lieutenant of the Line], but even he had a few secrets and tricks he only told his closest friends. Like how his [Piercing Leap] had been a move to carry him off his back and onto his feet; that was a valuable little trick.

But the Antinium were sharing huge information, even a kind of—of spell-Skill without hesitation! Gershal felt a bit bad about stealing this knowledge, but he listened as the [Stone Magus] tried to understand.

“It is not a spell or a Skill, then.”

“No. It comes when Skills do, but it is clearly labeled. That is how we know.”

“So it calls itself a miracle?”

“Yes.”

The Dwarf tugged at his beard hard. He looked around with a kind of hilarity and disbelief on his face.

“I haven’t studied at Wistram, but I have graduated from a magical academy! Not in any of the books—not once have I heard of a miracle. Nor anything that heals so easily! There are regeneration-type Skills and spells, but they are rare beyond belief!”

“A potion can heal. Our Miracles heal. It is handy, but not unique. If you would like to gain the ability, you should have a few warriors of faith in your armies.”

Theogrin pointed out reasonably. At that, Peki tilted her head.

“Faith. I have faith I can punch people. What are ‘warriors of faith’?”

And that led down such a rabbithole of confusion that all the listeners needed Theogrin to explain what he was. Again.

 

——

 

[Templar].

Even the word was provocative. [Templar] and [Crusader]. These were not unknown classes. Far from it.

[Crusader], like the idea of a Crusade, was intrinsic to [Knights]. A [Knight of the Crusade] was a known class, but the class by itself hinted at something. [Templar]…that was like an itch. Like [Paladin], it was an esoteric class. But it bothered Ylawes Byres because it sounded…unique.

Even more so than a [Knight] was. Why should Antinium have it? Why did they have abilities that overshadowed even his? He could, by virtue of his levels, training, and class, create a shield that could block countless foes in battle.

They could call a shield of faith. Even a sword! The Human man watched the Antinium with arms folded, at a remove from the other officers. It was safe to say there was some animosity there.

Or was it respect? Because Ylawes’ huge scowl was only matched by a kind of grudging envy. He had ridden from the coast after being rescued from the disastrous Wistram breakout by the Drakes. They had graciously stopped at a Human harbor to let the Silver Swords disembark, but the Earthers had stayed. Ylawes had gone to the High Passes instead of to Liscor like he’d planned.

He had known the odds were bleak, but the [Knight] had been determined to make a stand. For that was what was right and righteous. It was just…he’d done his best and had accounted for a number of monsters.

Yet the Antinium had, without question, saved them all. They stood, warriors of faith in armor, and there was a level of—of—shine to them that even the [Knight] lacked.

A purity of intent. Ylawes watched. Look.

A line of insects wearing armor knelt in the grass. Away from the bloodied corpses of Eater Goats and Gargoyles attracting a storm of insects. Some of the [Mages] had cast spells to keep away the insects and scavengers, but the harvesting of flesh and other parts had sped up. Soon, the rest would be unusable.

Grisly work, and the blood was not dried on many pieces of armor fully. Ylawes himself had mud in his socks and grit ground with every move of his silvered armor.

The Antinium were no less dirty. It stuck to their brown carapaces. Some still had traces of green blood, though their wounds had closed. Yet they knelt in a patch of soft grass, under a tree. At peace.

No—more than that. Proud. Their heads rose as one as an Antinium passed by. Some [Acolyte], another odd class, wearing robes of pale blue cotton. A Worker, chosen to hold the censer that leaked faintly with the smell of cinnamon.

Gently and carefully, the Worker passed each kneeling [Crusader]. The smoke drifted across their still antennae, over their mandibles, and a second Antinium spoke.

The [Templar] was a Worker. Yet he seemed, in his armor, as large as any Soldier. His voice was confident, as Ylawes had never heard from their kind.

“Look up.”

The Antinium did. The [Templar] corrected them gently.

“Not at me. Look up. There. Do you see the sky?”

They gazed upwards, and Ylawes’ head rose. He saw a clear dawn light, turning the sky from a blackness to a faint yellow, and brighter, until the blue reclaimed the fall air. It was a beautiful sight, and some part of him smiled at it.

But the Antinium had a wonder in them that he envied. They stared up at the sky, and there was such a reverence in them that Ylawes began to understand. There was more than just…enjoyment there. There was an intensity of the emotions that made him feel almost voyeuristic.

This was faith? The [Templar] resumed speaking, and Ylawes listened like the quiet Drowned Man leaning against the tree.

“You are no longer Workers and Soldiers, who will sleep and wake underground in the Hive. You are [Crusaders]. We are called forth for battle. We march to our deaths. But we do it under glorious sky. Soon, we will tell you how it all began, at an inn. With her. Know this, before even that. When you die, when you fall—Heaven awaits. It is not something to covet. Nor to go towards. However, we are Antinium without fear of death. When you are outnumbered, alone, believe. Pray and believe—and in the darkness, underground, before monsters—the sky will follow you.”

He raised a hand, and Ylawes thought the Antinium cast no spell. From Falene’s reaction, she sensed no mana. Yet the two Silver Swords saw the [Templar] raise a hand—and it was no [Light] spell he cast.

He held a sliver of something wrong. Like he had cut a triangle, a piece of bright blue glass and sunlight straight out of the world above. The [Templar] lifted the miracle of light as the [Crusaders] looked at him.

Faith is your weapon.

Faith. What was it? Ylawes trembled, gauntlets clenched, and perhaps it was mistaken as rage by some. But it was, in truth, like a man who realized he had only been using one hand all his life. The [Knight] saw a completeness there, an answer to the gift of magic that sometimes seemed overwhelming and superior to the sword.

How could he obtain…that?

 

——

 

If the Humans, Dwarves, and others who watched the Antinium had found something to obsess over, well, the same was true for regular Antinium.

The [Crusaders] were listening, witnessing what they could be. But the higher ideals of faith and salvation were also mixed with mundane pleasures.

Like the simple act of eating food. These were Workers and Soldiers of the Free Hive, not even Painted Antinium or ones taken on patrol. They had eaten some rations on the march here, but today, an Antinium held a piece of wood in its hand.

Just a long, straight stick. With pieces of carefully-seared meat stuck onto it, amid globs of brie. Globs, running with the heat it had been exposed to. Antinium mandibles were ideally suited for the kebabs which they could tear pieces off of. To add to the entire glorious mess were huge bits of bell-pepper, blackened with char, but no less tasty. In fact—more, because the dish was hot.

Hot. The Antinium Worker tore a bite free and then raised his other hand. It held a mug. Of mead. He took a deep draft of mead, and the frothy, cool beverage was another moment of—clarity.

Now, contrast this to the Antinium’s food in the Hive. They got paste.

Room-temperature paste. Never warm, never cold. Their water was sometimes cold, but often lukewarm. You never needed to worry about starving, but no Antinium ever went back for seconds. The portions were perfectly calculated, but even if they’d been allowed to…no one wanted seconds.

Sometimes the paste was green. Sometimes it was brown. Sometimes it was black or grey. There were bits in it, and it tasted like…like…

The Worker began screaming as he had another bite. He stood, legs spread, waving his other two free arms as he shouted.

Hot food! HOT FOOD. Beer! Is this what I have been missing? I am never going back to the Hive! Never! Damn the Hive! Damn the Queen and dying there! I am eating hot food! Cheese!? Is this cheese? What is that? Give me that!

He began running around, snatching more treats and stuffing them into his mouth.

“Dead gods. Crusader 57 is going crazy again. Even for him.”

A few amused [Crusaders] from Battalion 3 were sitting around. They knew what he meant, but a few affected to be more like the other [Soldiers]. They even had begun picking up expressions like ‘dead gods’.

Squad 5 glanced up for a second, and one of their number who was napping sat up.

“Who’s calling my name, asshole? Hey. What’s up with that weirdo?”

Crusader 57, the real Crusader 57, turned and pointed to the Worker running about. The rest of Squad 5 looked at each other.

Oh yes, there were some real changes coming over the new [Crusaders]. Crusader 53 was polishing his mace, and that was no euphemism. He noticed someone was watching him and turned.

A Dwarf waved at him. Crusader 53 hesitated—then waved back. He waited a second, but Dawil stomped over with a mug in hand. The Dwarf hesitated.

“Er—morning to you. Anyone care for a drink? They’re still rolling them out from Orefell’s distillery.”

The Antinium looked around. Crusader 57 sat up with interest, but after a second, Crusader 53 shrugged.

“Fair enough. The name’s Dawil. Silver Swords.”

Oh, the adventurers. The Antinium looked interested as the Dwarf crouched down.

“Would you mind me taking a look at that? What’s your name? Is that a Dragonbone mace?”

Crusader 53 needed one of the other members of Squad 5 to speak for him, but he was quite pleased Dawil had noticed. He let the Dwarf inspect it. Look what I found in battle!

“Dead gods. And I thought that Vaunt fellow had gotten lucky. I, er, don’t suppose you’d consider an offer for this? I could muster a lot of gold up.”

Crusader 53 gently tugged his mace free, and Dawil sighed.

“Yeah, thought so. Here. Want to see my hammer?”

No euphemisms. Yet. But it was true that there were a number of…interesting items that had appeared since the completion of the <Heroic Quest>.

Items and levels. Most of the Antinium had barely known that a quest existed, but if they had, a few things would have made sense.

Like some of the rewards, but especially something that had been part of it being posted.

Experience in <Combat>, <Aid> class categories.

What that meant was that, although some individuals with high-levels did not level, almost every single [Soldier] on the field had gained at least one level. Usually more.

That wasn’t unusual either, for a big battle. What was unusual were the magic items.

Gershal of Vaunt finally got to hold the magic longsword that had appeared nearly nine hours later. Falene Skystrall handed it to him, holding the plain steel blade with a bit of cloth. It was a plain blade, yet Gershal still felt a chill as she presented it to him.

For, the hilt was made of a strange, faintly green metal that looked at first to maybe be copper if it was exposed to the air. It certainly had a bronze tinge, but there was a luster that belied that notion. The handle had a kind of twist to the metal such that it looked like a [Smith] had twisted a straight handle with a wrench.

However, that was not the strangest bit. The strangest bit was that at the base of the steel was an equally curving etching on the blade. Normally, this was a bit of acid-work done to show a name, a crest of a city, a noble house, and so on. This…was more like a work of art.

Waving lines, much like the currents of a sea imagined upon the steel, rising upwards. It was beautiful and occupied the bottom third of the blade. It was also—frankly—confusing as heck.

The art of the handle and sword blade made sense. It was a fine blade and clearly magical, because it had that faint shine that was too-bright. [Detect Magic] also clearly showed the sword was magical, but Falene had ascertained a few things when she’d taken it.

“There was no magic sword listed in the entire quest rewards. Not once. Secondly, this…blade is of no style I can imagine. Most [Smiths] have some kind of subtle signature. None for this one. I do not know what the metal is; the Dwarves suspect it’s some kind of alloy that involves Treecopper.”

“And the enchantment, Adventurer Skystrall?”

She sighed and fiddled with the glasses she wore.

“…Inconclusive, but the sword has some kind of—strong gravity-grip spell. It’s strengthened and has a sharpness enchantment, but the main effect is, ah, odd. You could try it on an opponent, but I caution you not to try to strike them. Just have them try to parry a blow.”

Gershal held the blade up, and to his profound disappointment, he felt like the balance was off. It was a bit top-heavy. Not a blade you could perfectly balance mid-way on your thumb.

Yet it was his. It had appeared, given him a bruise on his jaw, and it seemed to be a random reward. One of his [Soldiers] offered to let him take a few swings, and Gershal gingerly cut the air a few times, then pretended he was on the attack.

One swing as the grinning [Soldier] raised a sword to deflect, and Gershal saw and felt what Falene meant. As the two swords connected lightly and the other blade made to sweep it away, he saw the other [Soldier] flinch. They had [Dangersense] and tried to pull the blade away, but too late.

The instant they touched, the magical sword twisted the other one. The second blade—and arm of the [Soldier]—rotated, and Gershal’s sword slipped under the blow. He could have brought it down and hacked through his opponent.

Of course, he didn’t, and the other [Soldier] rubbed at his hand.

Dead gods, sir! What was that?”

“A kind of gravity spell. It grabs and twists whatever it runs into. Shields are harder, but I imagine it is quite a potent weapon for a [Swordsman].”

Falene observed. Gershal was astounded and delighted. Just the thing for a [Soldier]! It didn’t work well on a shield; the [Shieldsister] grimaced when it struck her shield and reported a heavy pull, but on anyone with a good grip, it had little effect.

“Some reward! I say, is this the quality of item one gets from a <Heroic Quest>? I’d wager anyone would want to take them on if this is what’s received!”

“Just imagine what a <Mythical Quest> does, then. Hey, is that a [Mage] galloping into camp?”

Everyone turned, and Gershal put up his new blade as he saw someone emerging from Orefell. The [Governor] and—what was now a familiar sight—a [Mage] with a scrying orb. Instantly, everyone began checking their hair, and Falene produced a comb and two earrings.

They were going to be on television! Gershal wondered if the [Mage] would interview one of the first forces to show up. What should he say? Could this day get any better? It was strange, marvelous, and—

 

——

 

“Disastrous. This is a disaster, and I hold you accountable, Free Queen. We have exposed our tunnel to the north, ruined relationships, and I was not informed about any of these actions.”

The Grand Queen of the Antinium was not happy. Nor was Klbkch the Slayer. He stood in the Free Hive as she shouted at the Free Queen, and only after twelve minutes of ranting could the Free Queen even respond.

“As I have reiterated 35 times, my Queen, I gave no orders for the crusade to march. This event was spontaneous and unplanned by me or Klbkchhezeim.”

“Impossible! Antinium Soldiers and Workers do not make autonomous decisions! It was your Prognugator, Bird! Or another of the Hive’s Prognugators. I will not accept excuses! Antinium make no decisions of their own—”

“—Unless they are True Antinium.”

The Free Queen’s retort silenced the Grand Queen. Klbkch twisted his head around and stared at the Free Queen. She sat there, feeding her tiny Rock Crab, looking as pleased as could be.

Not furious? Not worried? Klbkch and the Grand Queen were not often on the same side, but he was so upset his hands were clenched on his swords’ hilts. The Grand Queen stopped speaking, then replied with a slow click of her mandibles.

“They are not True Antinium. Any statements to that effect would be incredibly misleading, and I would order the censure of such to other Queens. Especially in Klbkchhezeim’s presence.”

She glanced to either side, as if worried other scrying mirrors would come alight. However, this private chastisement was between the two of them. The Free Queen nodded slowly. Yet the triumphant note did not vanish.

“Say rather, then, that the Free Antinium have demonstrated one quality of the Antinium we were, my Queen. I did not authorize this mission. I understand there are dire consequences, but it is still proof that my Antinium are changing.”

The Grand Queen hesitated, and Klbkch knew she wasn’t going to give the Free Queen credit so easily.

“That is debatable. I still, currently, view their actions as a net-negative. What benefit to the Hives were obtained besides a few levels? No—before you answer that, Klbkchhezeim, Free Queen—how were you so lax that the crusade could leave your Hive without your knowledge?

That was fair critique, and Klbkch answered for the Free Queen.

“Grand Queen, I regret that both the Free Queen and I were occupied by our duties and did not sense the change. I was above, and the Hive’s signals are blocked by Liscor’s sewers.”

“And the Free Queen?”

“I was asleep, a necessary function for my continued existence and fulfillment of my duties.”

The Free Queen sounded a bit too snide, there. Like one of Elirr’s cats. Catty was a good word for it. The Grand Queen rumbled.

“Yet they armed themselves. I have a report from Prognugator Maev that stated she was overruled when they began this action. Why were they allowed access to the armory?”

“For that, my Queen, you must credit Prognugator Pivr, who authorized that action.”

Pivr? The Flying Queen’s—we will now address that issue with her. Hold while I summon the Flying Queen.”

This looked like it was going to take hours of arguing. Klbkch shifted—then made an authority call.

“My Queens, I must leave you to discuss the issue. My business as Revalantor demands I be elsewhere.”

“As you will, Klbkchhezeim.”

The Free Queen waved a feeler. Garry hurried forwards with a snack, but the Grand Queen was enraged all over.

“Klbkchhezeim! I did not give you authority to leave! Where is Xrn? She must also be an instrument of my will! Klbkchhezeim, I am the Grand Queen.

He nodded and felt a twinge of real irritation in him. Klbkch responded succinctly as he strode away.

“Yes, my Queen. I understand this, but Xrn is apparently conducting her own business. We are Centenium. You are the Grand Queen. Perhaps recall how they are supposed to act.”

He left before she could find the words to respond.

 

——

 

In truth, Klbkch reflected that the Grand Queen had organized the Queens by force of will after their calamitous landing. She was not incompetent—it was just that the years had changed her. Even among the True Antinium, there were Queens who proved to be less-suited to their positions, and it was dealt with.

The difference was that among the True Antinium, such issues had been full of far less strife in most cases and resolved faster, more efficiently, and with understanding among all.

There had been a time, he remembered, when the Antinium had been much like Drakes. They had squabbled, fought, and occasionally, Queens had even had to eliminate other Queens despite their common goals.

To fix that, the First Queen, creator of the Centenium, the unsurpassed, had created what later Antinium called the Unitasis Network. The telepathy that made the First Antinium so dangerous and so connected. Each Hive had been semi-linked, but this had made all the Antinium surpass their foes and become the dominant force in Rhir’s soil.

Even now, it was the power that allowed Antinium armies to fight with armies that had levels and magic and come out on top. It was their trump card and exceptionally difficult to employ, because not only did the Antinium have to be in range of a Queen, the Queens needed a proxy like a Prognugator, the closest thing they could make to a True Antinium.

However. That might all change, and Klbkch thought about that. Who would have known that out of all the Antinium in that original batch. Out of all of them, the one he had thought was the worst failure, the most annoying, the most…random, would prove to hold the key to salvation. And yet, what a curse.

For Bird was Bird, and if every Antinium must become Bird to use the power of the Unitasis NetworkKlbkch feared for them all.

The truth was that Bird was now the most valuable Antinium in all the Hives. Bar none. If he possessed the ability to change all Antinium, his worth outstripped even Wrymvr’s.

And the Antinium knew it. There was a reason that Bird had not left on the crusade, despite the Gargoyles having wings and therefore being a very bird-like target. Even if the [Crusaders] had wanted Bird to go with them…there was no chance they would have been able to smuggle Bird on their quest.

After all, she was watching Bird. In Klbkch’s experience, she always got what she wanted in time. Wrymvr was direct and acted as the Hives needed, as he saw it. His relationship with the Twisted Queen was at odds with the rest of the Antinium on Izril. By contrast—Xrn had always been much like the [Crusaders]. Which meant Wrymvr was, by that theory…more like Erin?

Klbkch’s head hurt. He decided to drop the metaphors before he began feeling the urge to hug Wrymvr. Then his stomach began to hurt, because he was listening to a conversation deep within the Hive. The Antinium had left the Queen’s sanctum, travelled down, down, and because so many [Crusaders] had left, the Hive was emptier, allowing him to swiftly bypass Antinium on patrol or carrying loads of dirt or resources elsewhere.

These tunnels were barely used. Normally, the Hive had little ‘empty space’; everything needed to be patrolled, but since Xrn had been wounded by Facestealer, she had needed to convalesce and requested her own area.

It had been granted to her. Klbkch had not come down here more than a few times. Xrn had been…unhappy. And dodging lightning bolts was still not fun, even in his new body.

Months after her injuries, it was clear that her very presence and magic had begun to warp the area. Klbkch halted as he heard two voices echoing up from below. The Hive had no doors in most cases, so sound travelled, but the compacted dirt walls and occasional stones were not generally prone to letting sound echo.

These walls, and even the ceiling, were different. Klbkch passed his hand over craggy, blue stone and stared at the glassy streaks on the walls and floor.

“Glass? Is she terraforming…”

It was disconcerting. Not because he thought it impossible of Xrn; she could turn any corridor into glass with pure heat and magic. But it wasn’t consistent. Streaks of glass ran crazily along the corridor at odd angles. Blue, green, and even violet stone had replaced the dirt in places.

Some kind of transformation spell? Klbkch had never been too interested in Xrn’s magic aside from its utility. But again, this was a patchwork change. Like an avante-garde art show piece, the entire tunnel stretched downwards, replete with such colors that a few Workers kept staring as they hurried by.

It was extremely unsettling for Klbkch, because the Antinium did not do art. Nothing like this. Even the statues of the Centenium each Queen made were accurate, not exaggerated. He hastened his footsteps; he could hear two voices below.

One was bright, sing-song, and chirped in a way that was sometimes deliberately annoying, other times as innocent as Mrsha could be. The second was deeper, and it had—strains like each emotion reflected in her eyes. So much power it altered her voice. It was annoyed and dangerous.

“You are refusing my orders, Bird? I told you. You are not permitted to return to the surface. Stop running away. Chesacre and Thaina keep retrieving you. Their patience is infinite. Mine is not.”

Klbkch halted dead in his tracks. What in the name of Rhir’s hells was that? He thought he actually tasted one of the words. It crackled through the air, and he actually inhaled ozone. He rounded a corner as the streaks of glass and colors grew brighter. There she was.

Xrn, the Small Queen. Azure chitin body, the most ant-like of all the Antinium, ironically. She had never been made in Galuc the Builder’s image, and she had an abdomen like an actual Antinium, no shell. Her arms were only two, and one held a staff while the other gesticulated to a bouncing little Worker holding his bow.

That was Xrn, wondrous, the [Thaumaturge] who inspired even other Queens to action. Or—it had been.

For the glowing radiance in her eyes, reflecting her emotions and constantly changing like a kaleidoscope of magic—was torn. Possibly forever by that monstrous guardian of the dungeon.

Facestealer. In her battle with Belavierr, he had been summoned and tried to tear off Xrn’s head. He had ripped apart one eye, part of her very head—

A killing wound that had torn into her mind. It should have been her end, but Xrn’s magic had saved her. Its radiance, like her eyes, was a shifting rainbow of colors. Only—it now leaked from a glowing wound in her face.

It was a miracle she had two arms, even. But at least she had managed to reattach the other limb since it had only been torn off. If Klbkch looked very closely, he saw a hairline fracture where it had been detached, but the Free Queen could reattach a limb. Not fix…the rest.

Klbkchhezeim halted, and Xrniavxxel turned. He knew he looked nothing like his old self, even with his new body. Only his swords were the same. He had long since resigned himself to walking around in a Worker’s pitiful form, the helpless feeling of decay.

But it was one thing to see his reflection and see her wounded like this. If they were back among the True Antinium, her body could be repaired! But none of the simple gels they’d recreated or saved would mend that scar.

“Klbkch. There you are. Good, the Grand Queen has not distracted you too long? We shall speak of this Crusade. But first, deal with Bird. He is insubordinate.”

Again, there it was! A flash of color in her words, and correspondingly—Klbkch saw the radiance emanating from Xrn’s head change.

A flash of gold, like inspiration or pride or the very light the [Crusaders] summoned. Happiness? Yet it flashed outwards, uncontrolled, and left a golden patch of glass on the domed chamber Xrn sat in.

Now, it made sense. No wonder she had requested space away from anyone else. Xrn’s magic had always been powerful, but her control had been legendary.

She had lost it. Or perhaps she could control it, but chose not to, here. Klbkch was so stunned that he barely noticed Xrn’s two followers before one moved.

Chesacre and Thaina. The Free Antinium’s two female Soldiers had vanished from the ranks of the Painted Antinium into Xrn’s custody one time. Klbkch had not inquired, much, nor seen them again. Their appearance was as shocking as Bird’s.

Their armored carapaces had changed color. The brown-black chitin had mottled, turned red like a rose, green as an emerald, a grey-white—a patchwork just like the walls. They were a discordant mix of colors, surely the product of proximity to Xrn’s magic.

But that wasn’t what made Klbkch do a double-take. What made him halt and truly look at them were their eyes.

Antinium eyes had no pupils nor glow or any other quality to them. What unsettled other species was the lack of any whites, any facsimile of eyes. They were just a bug’s eyes, which saw a compound picture. But Chesacre and Thaina’s had turned…

Transparent. They looked like glass and reflected far more than most eyes. There was still no pupil, but Klbkch felt a sheer unease as one of the Soldiers waved at him. It reminded him of Xrn’s gaze, but unlit. Yet with each flash of Xrn’s light, he almost felt like he saw an echo in their gaze.

Magic. This was not a place for a warrior like Klbkch. He felt uneasy here; the rules were different. Not that Centenium ever fought but to train and test new concepts, but he hated enemies where a swing of the sword did worse than nothing.

Not that they were going to fight. But Bird was excited when he saw Klbkch, and he waved his hands.

“There he is! I told you someone would come, you mean—mean Xrn! I am free! Although I did think it would be Erin. Or Ishkr. Or Pawn. Or Garry, before Klbkch. Klbkch, I have been captured! Free me!”

“Bird. You have not been captured. Xrn—I wished to speak, and I noticed Bird was present. You appear to be—well.”

“Is that small talk, Klbkchhezeim? It is not an Antinium thing. You have changed as much as Bird. Your body is somewhat better.”

Xrn’s voice was still leaking colors. Klbkch shifted slightly and deliberately folded his arms. She was definitely upset.

“You enjoyed it last we spoke. What is this about Bird being kidnapped?”

“I have been restrained here for three days against my will! Fed horrible treats from Garry’s kitchen! Including all the bird-related foods I could want! Which wasn’t so bad. But I was not allowed to leave.”

“Three days? Nonsense. I saw you in your tower yesterday on patrol.”

Bird gave Klbkch a highly offended look.

“No, you did not. I was here.”

“I saw you, Bird. Do not lie, even if that is your class. I saw…”

Then Klbkch hesitated, and Xrn turned her head and opened her mandibles.

“You see, little Bird? No one noticed. Not even Klbkchhezeim. A simple Worker fooled even the inn’s guests. You have no place there you claim.”

Bird glowered, and his antennae waved furiously.

“That is because you did not ask Ishkr! He noticed! Probably. Erin was not there, so it does not count. She would notice the moment she saw that fake!”

“It does not matter. You will stay here. Klbkch, I have summoned Bird repeatedly to study his abilities. The Free Queen has done likewise. He refuses to stay.”

Xrn calmed down a bit, and Klbkch sensed less of the colorized words that seemed to hover in the air. He stepped forwards as she beckoned him over, and Bird indignantly moved. Only then did Klbkch see the shackles of light keeping Bird from getting up and running.

Alright. At this point, if Klbkch had been on patrol and he had come across a similar scene, he would have called in backup. Since there was no backup besides the Free Queen…he relied on his familiarity and long acquaintance with Xrn as fellow Centenium.

Then he remembered she’d tried to have Wrymvr killed to reset his personality.

“What is so problematic about Bird returning to the inn, Xrn?”

I told him not to. He disobeyed me. He is capable of maintaining a Unitasis Network, Klbkch. Not just maintaining one like a lesser Prognugator. Generating one. The Queens have never been able to do that as far as the Great Plains, but he generated one.”

“With all the Queens’ help. I was there. And Wrymvr.”

Klbkch pointed out, slightly hurt. Xrn stared at him, and the lights emanating from her head changed with her eye to a vexed grey.

“Yes. You were there. Shut up.

Klbkch shut up. Bird bounced in his seat as Thaina offered him a drink. He sipped furiously from a straw.

“I left because I have a duty which supercedes creating a Unitasis Something for all the Antinium.”

“Which is?”

Xrn turned and glowered at him. Bird replied happily.

“Hunting birds, teasing Mrsha, and enjoying myself at the inn. I was appointed by Revalantor Klbkch. Who is sitting right there, incidentally. And the Free Queen. You are merely Prognugator Xrn of the Grand Queen. Therefore, you are outranked, and I should go back and sit in my tower and have fun. Tell her, Klbkch.”

“Bird. Shut up.”

Klbkch whispered. Xrn’s bright gaze flickered in colors so fast that Klbkch was sure this was not the start of their argument. He wondered what three days of speaking to Bird felt like.

“I am Xrn, The Small Queen of the Antinium. Centenium of the First Queen.

“Yes. And?”

Then Klbkch ducked. Chesacre and Thaina had already taken cover, but he saw the second effect of Xrn’s wounds aside from her personality. The Small Queen twitched—and the light from her head turned into a spell.

It looked like a snake made out of lightning. It flashed, curving upwards, and blew a chunk out of the ceiling. Stone, glass, and debris showered down as Xrn made a kcrching sound of fury. Bird twitched a bit in his restraints.

“Ooh. Pretty.”

For some reason, that seemed to calm Xrn down again. Or maybe it was the output of power. Klbkch got up and saw Chesacre edge over, behind him. She had a wand, and the Soldier bumped into him. Klbkch moved her away with one arm as he sat back down. He stared down at his hands as Xrn spoke.

Calmly.

“Bird, what do you want? Do you want to hunt a Roc? I will find one for you. Do you wish to have a better bow? One is surely in the armories of the Queens. Speak what you wish, and I will give it to you if you cooperate.”

Bird thought hard, and the little [Liar] chirped as he spoke. Unfortunately, he often told the truth, which made the lies even harder to detect.

“Me? Well, thank you for asking, Xrn. My answer is…I want to live in the inn forever.”

Klbkch slapped his forehead so hard he nearly dropped the bit of paper Chesacre had handed him. He caught it quickly as Xrn stared.

“What else?

Bird replied.

“Nothing else. I will be there until I die. That is my happiest outcome.”

Xrn laughed, and it was a fluttering sound, like another insect. Klbkch stared down at the note Chesacre had given him. He had no idea Soldiers could write, but she must have learned. It was still clumsy, but legible.

Scary Xrn. Want to leave. Us. She will kill him.

Klbkch’s head snapped up. He saw Xrn lean forwards.

“Bird. You do not know this, but True Antinium have never feared dying from long lifespans. We know how to rejuvenate bodies, replace limbs. If you were made correctly—if the Queens treated you, you would only perish in battle. But you were not. You were made for a shorter lifespan. You will never see the rest of that inn grow old, Bird. You will not live longer than a mere Goblin.”

Bird listened to Xrn as Klbkch glanced around. The two Soldiers were watching him. Bird replied as Klbkch got up slowly.

“That is not a problem so long as I am at the inn. Even if it is tomorrow. If I saw everything there was to see, if I was there, I would be happy.”

“Is that your final answer?”

Xrn’s voice was soft. Bird nodded.

“Xrn—”

She lifted her staff and, ignoring Klbkch, aimed it straight at Bird. The jeweled tip, normally a gemstone hovering in place, was instead a spear of glowing light. Bird leaned back as it aimed at his chest.

“Um. I do not believe killing me is allowed. I can make a Unitasis Network. You should not kill me. That is not a lie.”

His cheerful voice grew uncertain as Xrn ignored Klbkch standing right behind her. The Small Queen was smiling, and Klbkch saw the light warping towards him. He had a hand on his sword hilt.

“You are not the basis for True Antinium. But your power is essential. I will take the risk that your corpse will be that basis. If you will not cooperate—I will kill you. Klbkch, do not be a fool. Or the Silent Queen will be forced to make you another body.”

Her voice was light, even filled with levity. Klbkch spoke as Bird froze.

“If you slay him, my position in Liscor will be in jeopardy. Bird is too valuable to kill.”

Xrn never turned her head.

“I am offering him an ultimatum. As for your position—your social ties will be in jeopardy. Which is more valuable, Klbkchhezeim? The Antinium or your friendships?”

He didn’t answer. Klbkch just thought of what Erin would say. What her face would look like. But he felt a creeping paralysis running up his arms. She’d already begun casting a spell.

Or was she thinking it? The stalemate between the two was broken as Bird suddenly raised his hands.

“I understand. I understand. I do not wish to die. I will cooperate.”

Klbkch and Xrn’s antennae both twitched. She looked around, and the spear of light abruptly ended. She peered at Bird, and the restraints vanished.

“You agree?”

Bird nodded. He dusted himself off. Then he looked at Xrn and threw her a salute, like one of Klbkch’s [Guard] colleagues. His voice was suddenly, abruptly, serious.

“You have made the dilemma clear to me, Prognugator Xrn. I understand that I have no choice. Very well. I shall therefore collect my possessions from the inn. I will be back shortly.”

Xrn tilted her head. Klbkch’s mandibles opened and closed. Bird was going to obey? Well then—he was halfway through sheathing his sword when something tingled the back of Klbkch’s mind.

Wait a second, Bird would hate going to the Hive. He’d sworn never to go back. Was he—?

The [Convincing Lie] worked on the two Centenium for about six seconds after Bird marched out of the room. Klbkch and Xrn both held still for another second, then Klbkch coughed into his mandibles and muttered.

“…He’s running away.”

Xrn sat in her chair another heartbeat, then the light coming out of her head turned black. Like a storm deep in the ocean twisting with green blood of the Antinium. Klbkch drew his swords and swung for her staff, a second blade going f—

 

——

 

Someone shook him awake. Chesacre and Thaina bent over Klbkch as he jerked upright. He looked around and then realized he was on his back.

Also, there was a hole in his chest. Klbkch stared at the still-smoking crater and spoke.

“Ow.”

He looked around and saw one of his swords embedded up to the hilt in the ceiling of the room. The second was lying on the ground. Klbkch got up slowly as Xrn floated back into the chambers.

With Bird. He was wriggling in another series of magical chains. Xrn tossed him down, then raised her staff.

“Uh oh. Uh oh.”

Bird was trying to get at his bow. But Xrn’s voice was now filled with wrath. Like an Aberration—Chesacre and Thaina fled as Klbkch saw her one good eye flash at him.

“i hAve HAd eNouGH oF wAIting. Enough of that [Innkeeper]’s little lies and delays. I will freeze your head and have the Silent Queen copy your brain a hundred thousand times if I must! You are worthless by yourself.

“I am cooperating! I will cooperate 110%, and you cannot go higher than that! Tell her, Klbkch!”

Bird shouted frantically. Xrn ignored him.

“Xrn—you are behaving irrationally. Bird is too valuable to destroy.”

“The Klbkchhezeim of old would never say that. You have grown weak in spirit as well as body.”

She stared down at him. Then she rotated the staff, and a blade like a guillotine, blue and curved, formed in the air. Klbkch had to—do what? Stab her?

She would not desist nor quit once she saw something. And if he killed her—

The Rite of Anastasis could restore the soul at a cost. Was this Xrn being affected by her wounded mind? Klbkch’s hand closed around the hilt of his sword. Bird cried out as the blue blade poised, and Xrn aimed a finger down at him.

Klbkch, tell Erin—no, tell the Titan this was all his fault! I knew I should have kept refusing that Skill!”

The blue blade shot downwards, then halted, quivering, a foot from Bird’s face. Klbkch paused mid-lunge, or tried to. Xrn flew sideways, and he swiveled in midair, landed on his feet, and stared at her pointing staff, but neither Centenium moved. They both slowly turned their heads.

“…What was that, Bird?”

Klbkch couldn’t believe what he had just heard. If he had ears, he would have yanked one off or whatever Humans did. It had to be another lie, but…Xrn turned her head sideways, and the light coming out of her head was suddenly blue tinged with pink, wondering and excited.

“…Unitasis Network is a Skill?”

Bird looked between the two Centenium, as confused as they were. He stared at Klbkch, Xrn, as Klbkch strode towards him.

“You can learn the Unitasis Network as a Skill, Bird? Acquire it on a level-up?”

The [Liar] was so confused because he’d used the truth again. Bird’s mandibles opened and closed.

“Well, yes. H-how else are you supposed to do it?”

Klbkch was lost for words. With your head, obviously. It was as intrinsic to True Antinium as breathing. It was like getting a Skill called [I Breathe in Air]. But now that he thought of it…not everyone could breathe Dragonfire like Drakes. Could you, then, get a Skill to mimic that ability?

Could an Antinium gain a Skill that replaced what they’d lost? He felt like a fool, but then he realized this was a lie. After all, Xrn was the only spellcaster that the Antinium had. She’d surely cast—

“—praisal].”

Klbkch heard the whisper from behind him. He turned his head slowly as Bird sat up, and Xrn stared down at Bird. Then she put her hands behind her back, slowly floated downwards, and walked away.

“We will revisit this later. Let us discuss the Crusade now, Klbkchhezeim. What has the Grand Queen said?”

Bird stared at Xrn’s back in pure, furious indignation as Klbkch slowly let him go. He got up and looked around. In the end, he threw a cup at Xrn’s head.

You big dummy! I hate you! Come on, Thaina, Chesacre. Let us go find Garry.”

 

——

 

Xrn’s change in personality was not lost on Klbkch. Nor anyone else. Her wound, while not fatal, had decreased the Antinium’s war potential as a whole.

That was how much she mattered. And that was how distressing it was for her to abandon her role as the trusted instrument of the Grand Queen’s will.

It distressed the Grand Queen a lot. In fact, this entire affair had changed how each Queen saw their continued existence.

The Free Queen was obnoxiously happy. The Grand Queen knew it was to spite her. She did not believe the Free Queen had no role in this, and if Xrn were still faithfully reporting in, the Grand Queen would have had her investigate the matter and assign punishments.

But Xrn was hurt. Possibly never to recover. Xrn was hurt, and so the Grand Queen had no great subordinate except her Custodium, and Klbkchhezeim had proven he was still superior to all of them combined. Even so, she would have rested upon her laurels if it weren’t for the Free Queen’s damned levelling Antinium.

They made her Hive more valuable than even the Grand Queen’s Custodium. They proved she had been right and, therefore, the Grand Queen wrong. It was an attempt to destabilize her power!

This was how the Grand Queen thought. She knew the other five Queens were devoted to the cause, to going back to Rhir after conquering Izril. But she also knew none of them could do what she could.

Someone had to lead them. They all had their qualities, even the Twisted Queen and Free Queen, but only the Grand Queen could do it. The Armored Queen was a follower, the Silent Queen was too arrogant and too much a perfectionist, the Flying Queen a scatter-brained radical.

This was not how the Grand Queen used to think. She had once been a young ingenue in the corps of Antinium Queens assigned to overseeing supply lines and distribution. But the terrible battle at sea, the landing, had forced her ever into a position of command. Perhaps not even the great War Queens and Shaper Queens of old had known her burden.

Now, Xrn, her trusted Centenium, was gone. The Grand Queen ruminated as she sulkily ate mundane stores of food looted from the Drakes. Nothing like that Garry’s…foodstuffs. She had suggested, hinted many times that he would best serve all the Queens in her Hive, but the Free Queen had refused. To her face!

She needed to do something to prove the Grand Hive’s superiority. She needed to create…high-level Antinium of her own. Yes, and credit the Free Queen, but maintain the superiority of the Grand Hive.

After all, the Grand Hive had the most Antinium, resources, and knowledge of any Hive because the other Hives sent it material. Why couldn’t her Antinium level?

It was so frustrating. She had made an entire ‘town’ where they bought and sold goods, to emulate Liscor, but all the Workers and Soldiers did was stand around or constantly perform basic tasks without derivation. They were not like Anand.

She needed insight. But Xrn was hurt, and so the Grand Queen needed a replacement. She could probably requisition any Prognugator or Revalantor the other Queens had. They’d argue, but she could do it. Yet if she thought of requesting Pivr or Xeu or…no, there were only three Antinium worthy of serving her. Intelligent enough for her to listen to.

Klbkchhezeim, Xrniavxxel, and Wrymvr. True Centenium, who had served the First Queen. The problem was…

Xrn was eminently the best choice to serve. She was unique, had wide-ranging abilities, and she was ever-polite, if sometimes firm in her opinions.

Contrasted to her, Klbkch was…erratic. He fiercely disagreed with the Grand Queen during the levelling arguments that had seen the Free Queen join Liscor. He was opinionated and, unfortunately, had lost his body and was weaker. So she had regretfully let him go.

Even now, he was the Free Queen’s Revalantor. Which left…the final option. The Grand Queen didn’t like it, but she had to have a high-level servant. So she reached out and telepathically summoned Wrymvr.

Wrymvr the Deathless. Even before the Antinium had reached Izril, that had been his identity. A bodyguard for War Queens in battle. Modeled after Elder Crelers and other great foes.

His scream sent the Grand Hive into a panic as he descended, wings beating. The largest Antinium besides the Queens, an immortal warrior. The Grand Queen received him in her throne chambers as he flew in and perched. Even she feared him. A tiny bit.

His voices were succinct in how they spoke. His mind…closed off. He communicated very little, and even now, she did not understand why he had gravitated towards the Twisted Queen, that poor, wounded being filled with a madness like the one Xrn was developing.

Yet the Grand Queen raised her mandibles in a smile and gestured grandly as she sat on a throne modeled after the ones she had seen.

“Wrymvr. It is good of you to enter our presence. Sit. Will you refresh yourself with foodstuffs we have acquired?”

The great Centenium, his body ever-changing, ever-evolving, had nineteen legs today. Some stabbed into the dirt floor as he shuffled forwards. Six mouths on various parts of his body spoke, some drooling acid onto the floor. Another produced wisps of terrible cold. Wrymvr spoke as the Custodium eyed him, hands on their blades. All of them could attack him all day, and he would not take a wound, even if he lay there. He regarded the Grand Queen’s feast of goods and replied.

No.

The Grand Queen rubbed her feelers together anxiously. Communication. That was one of her fortes, and she felt like Wrymvr was, uh, weak in this area.

“No? Er, very well. If you are not in need of sustenance, let us cut to the point. Wrymvr, as I am sure you understand, ah, as we understand it, Xrn has become injured. Nevertheless, the Grand Hive is the Antinium, and we must have an instrument of our will. As Klbkchhezeim is working for the Free Queen, we have elected you to replace Xrn until such time as she recovers, if ever. I trust that is clear?”

The Centenium rubbed his own feelers together and made much the sound of metal screeching on metal. Some of the Custodium shifted.

“It is understood.”

Excellent. Then you shall report to me tomorrow after making such arrangements to leave the Twisted Hive and convey the necessity to the Twisted Queen. Is that clear?”

“Respectfully disagree, no.”

The Grand Queen sat there, wrestling with the limited issues of speech as opposed to telepathy. She tried again.

“Am I…are our orders not being conveyed clearly, Wrymvr? I have given you instructions as the Grand Queen.”

“Yes. Respectfully disagree.”

Now that was different. The Grand Queen tried to put her feeler against her face as if she was resting her head on her chin, although her body was far too big to do that like a more humanoid figure.

“You respectfully disagree. What if I were to order you, right now, to become my Revalantor?”

Wrymvr’s wings fanned out.

“Would respectfully disagree.”

“And if I asked you for an affirmative or negative?”

The Grand Queen snapped back, losing her patience. Wrymvr shifted, and one eye peered at her from within his armored body.

“Then. I. Would give an affirmative or negative.”

The Grand Queen sat there, and ‘miffed’ was not enough to describe how she felt. But Wrymvr was being…careful, and she realized that the mighty warrior did not want to push the issue. Nor did she.

“Very well. Begone.”

She turned her head, and he flew out with another, quieter, screech. The Grand Queen sat, fuming, on her throne.

Am I losing control of the Antinium? Impossible! Inconceivable, and it was—or had been. Yet maybe they were taking lessons from the Drakes. Perhaps their loyalties were wavering? Paranoia warred with fear in her mind.

I must have powerful Antinium. I must. The Free Queen’s methods to levelling are still incomprehensible. 

It was clear that was what separated the Antinium from becoming the dominant force in Izril. However, as the Grand Queen sat there, mulling over the issue, she tried to break it down into component parts. Like someone solving a logistical issue, she focused on the dilemma, broke it into pieces, and reassembled the criteria parts. That was how she thought. And it occurred to the Grand Queen there was something interesting.

I must have powerful individuals with high-levels. There was that issue and the issue of the Grand Hive’s superiority. But if you eliminated one criterion, suddenly the issue was phrased differently.

I must have high-level Antinium.

I must have high-level subordinates.

Two completely separate concerns. Hither-to, the Grand Queen had never considered any non-Antinium species as worthy, but now, she reconsidered. It was true that any normal species—Drakes, Humans—were inherently dangerous as they represented their own species. But what was that place she had seen in the news? She rumbled to herself as she looked around.

“Custodium 1. Fetch me…fetch me that object we took from the caravans. Documents about a certain city. Called, uh…Roshal.”

Loyalty was the most important thing of all. Loyalty to the Grand Hive. The Antinium as a whole, but the Grand Queen was thinking. Thinking about all the artifacts and gold in her vaults. She had never needed to employ them to excess, and the Antinium were wealthy on spoils of war. She found a catalog and began to browse it.

“Oh.”

She loved numbers, and when she ran the values against her personal stockpiles of wealth—the Grand Queen was very pleased. Oh, how interesting. You could hire more than just one or two. You could buy entire armies. But how loyal were they?

That evening, the city of Lailight Scintillation received the most interesting message it had received in, well, perhaps ever. Such that even the Emir Yazdil sat up and took notice.

 

——

 

Each Queen reacted to the Crusade in different ways. The Grand Queen saw a threat. The Silent Queen saw a puzzle.

“Recall Xeu. I must have an accounting of what motivates these…Antinium of faith. The Free Queen is distressingly silent when it comes to the exact methods of reproduction.”

Like a scientist presented with insufficient data, The Silent Queen sulked, wishing Klbkchhezeim were here. She felt undervalued, especially because her Silent Antinium were the most unique, valuable, and extraordinary creations of the Antinium, having rediscovered the camouflage carapaces.

She had done that. The Flying Antinium hadn’t even gotten flying right. But the Free Queen was so…erratically successful. None of her Antinium’s successes could be reproduced consistently, but they were consistently valuable.

“Unfortunate. Unfair. Tell Xeu to bring back methods of generating more levelling Antinium, Maev. Even if she…even if she must take a few Antinium with her.”

The Silent Queen thought long and hard about that second order, but she did give it. She, unlike the Grand Queen, still believed in a shared conscience of all. The Shaper Queens hid nothing from each other. Oh, some were better than others, but the other Queens hiding their projects, their knowledge?

It was wrong. As the Silent Queen saw it, a few of the Free Antinium would not go amiss, and she could make excuses to the Free Queen. But she wanted whatever the Free Queen had. Klbkchhezeim, the levelling…the Silent Queen despaired slightly.

Oh, how we have fallen. If only she had the knowledge to make real Antinium of old. They would sweep this continent in a year. So she waited, telling Xeu to steal a valuable Antinium for her. All she needed was one or two.

 

——

 

By contrast, the Silent Queen’s sulking and the Grand Queen’s paranoia seemed wrong to the Flying Queen. She was excited.

“This is unprecedented. A crusade in the north? These new abilities. I wish to learn them. But why did you authorize this? Pivr? Speak to me, Pivr?”

She was so excited the words spilled over her private speaking stone with him. Xrn had told her it was ‘warded’, so the Flying Queen had no fear of eavesdropping.

“My Queen, this was an issue of command. I was not aware of the Crusade. The Grand Queen was unhappy, but I believed it was a way to endear myself to the other Antinium.”

Pivr was anxious, but he needn’t have been. Her greatest creation could do nothing wrong. The Flying Queen assured him airily of this fact.

“The Grand Queen is always upset, Pivr. Fear not. This is clearly a net benefit. Let the other Queens complain. The Grand Queen and I see the value; even the Twisted Queen. 4-2 majority, dissent to approval. Clear benefits for Antinium. Can you manifest these healing abilities?”

“No, my Queen, but my stay in Liscor has had many benefits. I have two friends among the Humans.”

“Friends. Fascinating, fascinating. How much combat potential do friends have? Will they fight for the Flying Antinium?”

Imagine it! Irregular Humans or Drakes serving alongside Flying Antinium! The Flying Queen grew excited, but Pivr’s cautionary tones tempered her. He was always the voice of reason to her high-flying ideals.

“I do not know if they will leave Liscor or betray their Hives, my Queen. They are simply…nice to have.”

“I see, I see. Emotional benefits, and you are levelling?”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“Then your visit to Liscor is a great positive. So. When will you return? Tomorrow?”

She was excited to have him back and to implement his lessons in the Hive. But Pivr hesitated. His enthusiastic tone, oddly, became somewhat subdued.

“T-tomorrow, my Queen?”

“Of course! You have been gone months, Pivr. I am anxious to have you back. Two days?”

The Revalantor was silent a while.

“I…but Alcaz and Normen…I cannot take them to the Flying Hive.”

“Why not? Oh, they will not go? That is too bad, but we shall procure more ‘friends’ at a later date, Pivr.”

The Flying Queen waved this off, but Pivr’s hesitation grew longer.

“Yes. I imagine this is the case. So you wish to have me back instantly, Flying Queen? I ask purely so I know your will.”

He was so precise. The Flying Queen sighed and rubbed her mandibles together, but happily, as her Hive buzzed around her. Some of the other Prognugators listened in, fanning their wings as she spoke.

“Understandable! Yes, Pivr. It is my will that you ret—”

She heard a loud crkching sound on the other end and paused.

“Pivr, what was that?”

His voice came through, sounding confused.

“My Queen, what are you talk—crkch—crkch—did you hear that, my Queen?”

The Flying Queen was surprised—and confused. She had never heard this in the speaking stone before.

“I hear it too, Pivr. What is that sound?”

“I—crkch—don’t know, my Queen. It may be interference. Some magical activity?”

“Odd. Well, Pivr. I was saying—”

The sound grew louder, and the Flying Queen actually held the speaking stone away from her head.

“Pivr, can you hear me?”

“—crkch—can’t hear—krchch—will talk to you tomorrow—”

“Pivr, I would like you to return! Pivr? Hello?”

The Flying Queen spoke loudly, but the sound just intensified, and then the speaking stone went dark. The Queen stared blankly at the stone as some of her Prognugators fanned their wings.

“How distressing. Perhaps Xrn’s magic is failing along with her injuries? I will contact Pivr tomorrow to recall him, then. Back to work!”

She clapped her feelers together lightly, and the Hive moved into action. The Flying Queen had faith whatever the issue was would resolve itself, but to her amazement, Pivr could barely speak to her the next day before the interference grew so loud it forced the call to end. Or the day after that. Or…on the third day, she made one of her Prognugators rub their blade-talons together and listened to the sound. Then the Flying Antinium really came home to roost.

But that was a story for later.

 

——

 

The Armored Queen found the crusade good. She found the crusade right. And to her, it proved the logic of her Hive.

They wore her armor, after all. She was a soldier, a poor one, but one of the few who remained in the Antinium’s war, and she had never stopped fighting. That she had trusted in metal over chitin was simply adaptation to a new world.

And it worked. She had summoned Anand the instant she saw the crusade in action. He was fearful she would chastise him for his ‘failures’ with the boats or the crusade. But the Armored Queen saw no failure, and how would it have been his fault, anyways?

“Strategist Anand. How can I, or we, support this effort of the Free Antinium? Higher-quality armor? Weaponry? They must not perish. I will also petition the Free Queen to send representatives to train and inform my Armored Antinium—unless sending my Soldiers and Workers to her is more acceptable?”

He was confused and gratified, as if this action of support was not immediately logical.

“I do not know, Armored Queen. Anything you would give is surely useful; the armor has allowed so many [Crusaders] to survive where they would not, according to Belgrade.”

This pleased the Armored Queen greatly. It was a finer balm than any healing potion for her never fully-healed wounds, self-inflicted by changing her body to lay so many eggs. She bled, but she smiled. Then her mandibles fell.

“If only I could provide enough armor for both Hives. I cannot. Nor can the Armored Hive support this crusade as best it could. Our funds—material, gold—are low.”

This surprised Anand.

“I was led to believe that the Hives had a great surplus of coin and material, Armored Queen.”

She flicked a feeler as she watched the crusade celebrate their victory.

“Other Hives? Yes. The Grand Hive especially. The Armored Hive is, to my knowledge, in possession of the least amount of gold or other values of currency. We have traded and bought through various channels all the knowledge and metal you see here.”

Her wave took in the pounding of distant foundries, the foreign creation of steel and other productions. Anand nodded respectfully as the Armored Queen leaned forwards.

“To my shame, I cannot offer gold if gold is useful. I will acquire more and devote some of it to a stockpile if necessary, but the Armored Hive uses what it intakes.”

She saw little value in acquisition for acquisition’s sake, and she had devised ways to spend all that came into her Hive to benefit the Hives. It was, then, the Armored Queen’s willingness but lack of means that held her back. And Anand saw it. He bowed deeply and looked up at her.

Of all the Queens, she was the one which his Painted Antinium visited the most. Her Hive, and the Armored Queen, was his favorite, aside from the Free Queen, obviously, whom he did not really know. Anand looked up at her.

“If this is so, Armored Queen, then perhaps it is time for the Free Antinium to repay our debts.”

He began composing a [Message] back to Pawn and Belgrade and the others on the spot. And he would have done so regardless, but the Armored Queen smiled and raised her mandibles.

“Anand. This is not necessary. Debts? Obligation? You speak like a Drake or Gnoll. We are all Antinium.”

She said it like there never could have been any other point of view. Anand bowed, but nevertheless, he sent his [Message]. Painted Antinium and [Crusaders], even one of Pawn’s [Priests], arrived by the end of the week.

 

——

 

Armored Antinium. Silent Antinium. Flying Antinium. The Grand Hive’s mismatch of all of them. Free Antinium.

The Twisted Queen, of all the Queens, had a simple reaction to the crusades. Like Xrn, she was wounded, a permanent scar across her body. Many, from experiments and when the Drakes had reached her Hive during war. She could barely speak, and so only Wrymvr and Antinium truly understood her in her network of telepathy.

Her Hive had no Workers or Soldiers. Or at least—no unified body. They were the antithesis of the crusade. They were, in many ways…not even Antinium.

She had a clarity of mind that informed her actions, and Wrymvr concurred. It was at odds with Xrn. The Twisted Queen had never pretended to greatness, or even to being a soldier or revival of Antinium ways.

She made weapons. She unleashed weapons. Their promise to Rhir was all. The other Queens moved according to their natures, but they were still fairly direct, even at their most cunning.

The Twisted Queen was, like her name, unpredictable. She had been censured more than all the other Queens combined for actions taken against the Drakes. Her greatest project, unlike the others’, was no stockpile of war assets, no new type of Antinium.

The autonomous Birther Sacs designed to produce Antinium were her creation. A replacement for the inevitable demise of Queens, which she foresaw. But as Wrymvr returned and informed her of the Grand Queen’s pique, the Twisted Queen was busy.

Her talents were not as pronounced as the Silent or Flying Queen’s, but she was good enough. Good enough to see the interplay between muscle and movement; that was basic. Good enough to grow new forms, experiment—but she cheated.

Why bother developing flesh when you could copy it? Culture skin from a graft? In the same way, let’s assume the Twisted Queen needed an arm. A body. A host for a new type of Twisted Antinium.

She just asked Wrymvr to procure it or had her Twisted Antinium find some. An arm was not hard to find.

Of course, keeping the arm from rotting? Harder. Manipulating it? Harder still. You had to splice into the nerves, figure out how to move it with a reasonable level of control.

And that was just an arm. But the arm was arguably the hardest part since you could find a torso and a head, and as long as the scales or fur looked reasonably similar…

It wasn’t like a puppet. She’d tried that, and they were often identified. Infestation of hosts? Difficult to subvert them. But this was just an arm, a head—carefully preserved, and all the arm had to do was hold up a tiny little sign.

The rest was easy. They made it so easy. Drakes, Humans, even Gnolls all desired privacy. Money talked. You could bounce a [Message] spell across numerous places, obfuscate its origins, and Xrn had helped the Twisted Queen with that.

So the arm stayed on the little wooden chair as the Twisted Queen sat there, listening and watching something on a scrying orb. Now and then, the arm would raise and hold that little sign up. A sign with a number, whereupon someone would shout.

—teen thousand gold! Going once to 43, going twice to bidder 43—seventeen thousand gold!”

Hm. Damn. Do not get in the way, Wrymvr. I am being outbid.

The Twisted Queen’s thoughts were as complicated and as beautifully ornate as her speech was not. The same for Wrymvr, who thought-replied in equally amused terms.

“The adventurers’ gear from the Village of the Dead? Buy that scroll.”

“I am trying. Everyone wants it.”

The Twisted Queen was peeved. There were three such scrolls of the same kind on display, but the last two had gone for exorbitant prices. Even with an entire Hive’s worth of gold—she made that poor arm rise constantly as she vied with the others.

Artifacts were useful, but an army could do what an individual could not in most cases. The Twisted Queen was well aware of the Free Antinium’s potential, and she lauded the Free Queen’s foresight. Yet she was up to her own ideas. Why bother pushing the Free Antinium forward when they could clearly march?

She bid and bid again, hoping that the gold she had funneled into her account with the Merchant’s Guild would outlast the others. Wrymvr anxiously fanned his wings until she told him to stop blowing at the ‘mysterious Drake’. If the curtain moved and showed the actual body and contraption she’d set up—well, she doubted Bidder 42 would continue to have their account at the Merchant’s Guild.

The Twisted Queen won her scroll and spent two-sevenths of the Twisted Hive’s entire gold-based economy in the process. She was so pleased by the act that Wrymvr actually flew around her as she raised an antennae in victory.

What mattered was progress. Strike the enemy where they least expected it. She let Wrymvr land and spoke to him seriously.

Our great plan moves forwards in leaps and bounds. Alert Klbkch. We require preparation. Forces.

“What about the crusade?”

The Twisted Queen rubbed her feelers together. That was a separate, visible affair. She pondered for a long while, then spoke out loud.

“The Antinium. Are. Changing. This is. Well. The Crusade is. Good. So I shall send. Them. A gift.”

 

——

 

Six schemers, planners, plotters, visionaries, thinkers, and supporters were the Queens of the Antinium of Izril. They were intelligent, gifted, and despite their terrible losses, they were a force that were akin to the Walled Cities and Tribes of the Great Plains.

Or had been. The balance of power was shifting. The Gnolls had suffered from their infighting and the Drakes’ assaults, and were the Antinium rising in power now?

It seemed so, to many worried powers. Even if Chaldion understood that the Antinium were not a cohesive whole, that chance and personality played their parts in the new [Crusaders], he feared them.

Feared them as someone witnessing classes so old that only their names survived. Feared them as [Mages], uncontested in their magical might, witnessed acts of faith that they could not copy nor understand.

Antinium and Goblins. That little Chieftain, wearing a fur cloak over her tailored armor, cut an impressive figure. Impressive, to some eyes. Others might look at her height and find her cute or unthreatening, but if you thought about it, that just made it more impressive that a girl, a child, could lead a tribe.

She was all the more dangerous because she was no looming figure like Tremborag the Great Chieftain or Garen Redfang. Oh, and she was giving an interview.

Why Wistram allowed it was a mystery. Curiosity, most likely, and an addiction to the views. Then again, the Goblin Chieftain had come striding up as the [Mage] tried to interview Artur the [Banner Commander] at a distance.

“So, er—the Antinium fought the monsters as an act of cooperation with the north, [Banner Commander]?”

Sir Relz was craning his neck and pitching his voice because the camera was very far back from the Antinium. Drassi was fighting with Noass off-screen, and the entire event was hilariously chaotic. Yet Artur replied calmly, doing more damage to the Drakes’ perception of Antinium in a few words than you could do with a hammer and a decade’s worth of time.

The scrying spell was already being cut in major Drake cities, but fortunately, the viewer had an uninterrupted feed. Artur replied cheerfully.

“No, Sir Relz, it was not an act of cooperation.”

“Aha! Then what was it?”

“The right thing to do. Monsters should not be allowed to kill people.”

Sir Relz looked like he was going to be sick. His lips twisted, and he was about to respond when Rags strode into frame.

A Goblin?

The horrified exclamation came from back-stage in Sir Relz’s picture. Drassi shouted.

Rags?

Chieftain Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe marched up to the [Mage] holding the scrying spell and stopped. She grinned, but carefully, showing only some of her teeth as a Carn Wolf slunk into frame behind her. A magnificent animal who was in fact Thunderfur, posing for the scene.

“And here’s the Goblin Chieftain. Another do-gooder fighting monsters purely for the altruistic benefits, I suppose? If you’re tuning in, folks, I am Sir Relz, and this is an unprecedented broadcast. Who are you, Goblin? I warn you—the [Mage] in front of you is under Wistram’s direct protection and the protection of Pallass!”

Relz glared down at Rags, and she eyed the [Mage] unseen with a grin that never changed. At this, by the sounds of it, Drassi began to kick Noass harder off-stage, but Sir Relz was the better interviewer.

After all—his opinions directly matched up with what the rest of the world felt about Goblins. Drassi was, for once, the wrong [Reporter] for the task.

What would Rags say? She stared into the camera with all the deliberateness Artur had lacked. She knew she was putting her tribe in the crosshairs of countless foes, so why?

In this moment, Rags had the attention of the world, and the little Goblin, perhaps, wanted to say something entirely silly like, ‘we are a people’. ‘We are not monsters’. ‘Please don’t kill us’.

It would be the wrong thing to say. It was the right thing to speak, but it would land across countless deaf ears. The little Goblin was too knowledgeable, by now, to do that. So her grin never changed as she looked Sir Relz in the eyes.

“Do good? Hah! My tribe fights for good gold. Lots of gold. And food. Big <Heroic Quest> got posted, stupid Drake. Everyone know that. Even Goblins.”

Sir Relz’s jaw dropped as Rags spoke in, well, Ulvama-speak. Which was harder than proper language, but entirely in character as she posed with the giant crossbow on her back.

Goblins know about the <Heroic Quest>?”

“Duh. Drake have bad hearing? Good gold, shiny weapons and armor. We take food, too. You pay us, we hit enemies. Like Ants.”

She jerked a thumb at Artur, and the [Banner Commander] opened his mandibles, but he hesitated. Sir Relz was fascinated.

“Are you telling me your tribe…”

“Flooded Waters.”

“The Flooded Waters tribe is fighting for coin? Who are you, Goblin Chieftain?”

She bared her teeth even wider.

“Rags. I am Chieftain Rags. Mighty tribe in High Passes! But I fight for whomever pays me, not kill Drakes or Humans or Gnolls.”

Sir Relz’s eyes narrowed, and he consulted some notes Noass thrust over to him before hurrying to shoulder-check Drassi out of frame.

“Wait a second. Are you the Goblins who kidnapped the famous Healer of Tenbault months ago?”

Rags narrowed her eyes.

“No…maybe.”

The Drake looked around triumphantly, and the camera zoomed in on his face as he sat forwards, suddenly on high-alert, sensing even more drama.

“You’ve made an enemy of the north, Chieftain Rags. What do you say to that? Are you even aware the Five Families are out to find your tribe after what you’ve done?”

The image zoomed in on Rags’ face and then zoomed out hurriedly because she stuck a finger up her nose and began to pick it. The Goblin flicked something off to the side and spat. She was hamming it up a bit, but it was working.

“What, stupid healer? We brought back. Is just job.”

Job? Wait, say that again. Are you implying someone hired you to—

There were truth spells now part of Wistram’s broadcast as a matter of course, but they flashed an undecided amber at Rags’ statement. And the Chieftain began to look bored instantly.

“Psh. You is boring. You have big job for my tribe? Beat up Drakes? Fight monsters?”

“No, but did someone hire you to—”

Boring! You want to talk to me, you pay! I have Wyverns, Carn Wolves, Goblins with big hammers! You pay me, and I kill foes. Got it? Chieftain Rags. Greatest Chieftain ever.”

Rags jerked a thumb into her chest. She smiled around proudly, and some Goblins off-screen cheered and held their sides, trying not to laugh. Rags turned to the camera, and if you were Drassi, looking close, or someone who knew her—Rags’ eyes softened slightly, and she spoke possibly the only true words in the entire interview.

“I do not kill people without reason. I promise.”

Sir Relz saw her turn away, but the Drake was not about to lose this interview. He lunged, and the [Mage] holding the scrying orb pursued Rags a few steps as if Sir Relz had reached across the world and pushed them forwards. The Drake scrambled over the desk and came so close to the scrying orb you could see up his nose-holes.

“Wait! How did a Goblin Chieftain learn how to speak the proper language? How did your tribe come to be? Do you have any relationship with the Redfang Tribe? With…any individuals who taught you to interact with people?”

He had a name in mind, and Rags slowly swung back towards the camera, looking wary for a second. Now—now Chaldion of Pallass was sending one of the Eyes to cut the feed, but it was too late. Because there was a name on Rags’ tongue, and a lot of people knew it.

Erin Solstice. But if she said that—how much trouble would Erin be in? Even if she could deny sending the crusade, Goblins and Antinium?

If she said it, did Hectval’s assassination repeat itself? Yet she had to say something. It was funny, but no one would believe Rags if she told them she’d taught herself. A Goblin wasn’t that smart. So she needed a name.

A true one, unfortunately, because of those damn truth spells. Rags had a lot of names that might work well enough. Unfortunately…each one had consequences.

Reiss, the Goblin Lord? Not a good look. Garen Redfang? The same, and it put the Halfseekers into the spotlight. Tremborag? Forget about it. P-Pisces? He was not going to thank her for that.

Erin Solstice. She could say it, but Rags hesitated because she felt it was not the time. Not yet. Like telling everyone she was just a person and…and wanted to be left alone, it was not a message that Sir Relz or the world was ready to hear.

Then Rags had an idea. She had the perfect name, and she smiled crookedly. The truth spells flashed blue with truth as Rags spoke.

“Me? I learned from a famous Goblin. You called him…the Golden Goblin. Pyrite, the Goldstone Chieftain.”

“The Golden Goblin?”

Sir Relz blinked, and someone began to research the urban legend of the north’s Adventurer Guilds. He began to demand more answers, but Rags was already leaping onto Thunderfur’s back, and the Carn Wolf padded off.

An enigmatic, less-threatening Goblin Chieftain mercenary. The legacy of the Golden Goblin of the High Passes. Rags kept her head high as the camera followed her. They didn’t need to know the truth. This was the best truth.

For now.

 

——

 

The entire interview was wonderful. It was well-done, to the point, and it left an impact on the memory. The young Goblin was a natural, and there was also something about the Antinium that just—caught the eye.

Faith. The way they spoke with such disarming innocence, like Artur being interviewed by Sir Relz, who patently did not believe that an Antinium army would risk their lives fighting monsters because it was right.

Despite the Silver Swords being the embodiment of that very ideal. To give Sir Relz some credit—no one else believed it either.

We must destroy them at once. Someone retrieve the Crown of Flowers! Why is House Veltras not advancing? Those monsters are one thing, but this requires an army!”

Even House Reinhart, the famously aloof member of the Five Families, was alarmed by all this hubbub. But the [Lady] who had just watched Rags’ interview, who had, in fact, watched the entire affair from her mansion in Oteslia, spoke crisply into the scrying orb linking the many representatives of House Reinhart together.

Few were in the same room; Reinharts didn’t get along with each other. Oh, they were loyal to the family, but vipers recognized each other, and she was uncertain whether or not she should feel happy so many of her family were attending the group chat.

Even Calidus had pulled himself out of the bottom of a beer barrel to join in. He seemed relieved by her presence, but the rest of her family was spitting demands for her to muster an army.

As if she had one. Magnolia Reinhart sighed and spoke.

“Maid Calte? Do slap Tourois if he doesn’t shut up. Thank you.”

The [Lord] of House Reinhart spun and backed up as one of her maids calmly bowed to the camera. Calte didn’t raise a hand, but the rest of the unhappy Reinharts fell silent. Ressa twitched beside Magnolia.

She would have loved to do that. Alas, she and Magnolia were in Oteslia, and to judge by her family’s expressions, they not only held a grudge for her ‘Drake affairs’, but also her lack of action on the Goblins and Antinium.

As if they’d so much as bestirred themselves when the monster horde had come down from the High Passes. Magnolia had been the one making arrangements, as few as she could at this remove, and her smile was…well, not vexed.

In fact, to the surprise of many, it was pleased, delighted, happy, even. Rare emotions when she had to look at any of her family members.

“Tourois, my extended family. It is a delight to say that I have not had the pleasure of seeing your faces for quite some time.”

A few of her family scowled, but only the ones with working wits. The others just looked blank until they caught on. Calidus laughed and fell silent as glares went his way. Magnolia went on, pressing two gloved fingers together.

“Rest assured, I have seen the Antinium and Goblin ‘threat’ along with everyone else. In fact, I was aware they were on the march before they encountered the monsters. So before someone accuses me of not raising an army and marching to the defense of Orefell—I remind you how well that worked at Invrisil.”

A short silence as her family remembered that incident, although judging from a few smirks or looks of triumph, they regarded Zel Shivertail’s death as a net boon to all. Magnolia looked from face to face and got an unpleasant surprise.

Even the old man was here. Regis Reinhart was pretending to be a somewhat pale member of the family in his corner of the group scrying spell. She locked eyes with him, and he seemed worried and vexed. So no worse than usual. But he listened.

Calidus, Regis, a few other members of her family were the ones Magnolia was addressing. They were the ones who could think. The others just needed to stop panicking. Magnolia went on, and her smile didn’t change.

“The Goblins are, by their own words, entirely mercenary. They are the same ones who kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault—”

“Under your authority. We nearly lost the greatest healer in the north, and you did nothing, Magnolia!”

That was dear old Aunt Cecille, breaking in with her classic bad timing. Magnolia paused and, without looking at Cecille, lifted a finger.

“Someone silence dear Cecille, please? I don’t have the time to deal with any interruptions, and I will happily have Wistram eliminate you from this discussion if you break in again. Thankyousoverymuch. Now. If I had lost our great Healer of Tenbault, I would shed no tears. As you may recall, I helped her rise to her position. It is to my discredit that she is so objectionably greedy that paying for her services costs tens of thousands of gold pieces. She is a separate matter from the Goblins. Yes, they are here, and yes, they have Wyverns. I don’t believe even our dear Veltras cousins would want to chase them into the High Passes. If they continue attacking cities in the north, we deal with them. The Antinium are the true threat. As we speak, I am sending an agent to deal with them.

Calidus relaxed at once and beamed as he uncorked a bottle of champagne, but the rest of the family were less willing to take her on credit. Regis himself interrupted, as if daring her to kick him out of the call.

“A single agent? How do you intend to deal with our breached borders, Magnolia? Much less the threat of levelling Antinium and whatever classes they h—”

His face vanished from the group call, courtesy of Wistram’s new network spells. Magnolia’s smile widened as the rest of the Reinharts burst into nervous whispers. Magnolia waited, and a furious Regis reappeared less than ten seconds later.

“Silence, dear family. As I said, I am dealing with it. Would you have an issue if this were just monsters? Would you even know of the issue?”

They glared at her, but they did listen as Magnolia put her hands behind her back. She was still smiling.

“You have left the Antinium to me since the First Antinium War. So, do try to understand the following statement I am about to make. Sleep on it. Consult a [Strategist]. Drink a Potion of Wits, but listen to me when I say: this is the greatest boon we could ask for. This is a moment to claim for our advantage, and the first idiot who spoils my moves by attacking or paying for a hired killer, I will personally hang.”

Silence. The Reinharts gasped in outrage or shock, but Calidus thoughtfully stopped drinking, and Regis’ burning gaze turned to confusion. Magnolia Reinhart kept smiling as Ressa held up a second scrying orb cued to a racing saddle and a rather woebegone [Assassin].

Oh, excellent. Theofore was almost there. Magnolia could actually see the Antinium. She waved at the rest of her family.

“You are free to try and scry my conversations, but bear in mind what I said. I must bid you farewell, everyone. Business awaits.”

She cut the feed as the outrage began and the voices began calling for her to explain, but Ressa turned off the scrying orb and held the other one up.

“Regis will be demanding answers, Magnolia.”

“Let him. He’s canny enough to know these aren’t the days when Reinharts could march behind Earth Elementals and Golems. I was surprised Calidus was sober enough to join in.”

“He’s not an idiot.”

“No, and that’s why he’s the most dangerous and helpfully useless of the lot. Have someone check in on him.”

Magnolia sighed and pressed two fingers to her temples. Oh, she hated dealing with her family. And it was harder now that she had ‘fled’ the north to deal with problems like this.

Money only went so far. She had been gratified, in a way, to see Erin’s <Quest>, but the girl was still new to using her influence. She was a hammer, and while a hammer solved a lot of problems, it did not solve, say, a leaking wall.

But then, Erin Solstice didn’t see the Antinium as a threat. Magnolia cordially disagreed with many points of Erin’s beliefs, but she listened enough to understand where Erin was coming from.

She listened to Erin and Ryoka Griffin, which was why she, of all the Five Families, did not need to be told how the crusade had come to be. She waited as Theofore rode straight into the camps, bearing her banners.

He was challenged, which told Magnolia at least a few commanders were canny enough to know that they needed to secure their borders. Magnolia saw Ressa was taking notes as Theofore disembarked and met a [Lieutenant] riding up the road.

“He’s familiar. Who is that, Ressa?”

“Mm. Gershal of Vaunt. He fought with the Tidebreaker.”

“Oh my. Flag him. Vaunt was brave enough to ride in Orefell’s defense? Make a note. I should be nicer to them, cheese-freaks as they are.”

Ressa made a few quick notes as Theofore confirmed his identity. Magnolia waved at the [Lieutenant] as Theofore held up the scrying orb, and the poor fellow nearly fell out of his saddle in shock.

“Hello, hello! Lieutenant Gershal, isn’t it? I believe this is twice we’ve met! I shall send all the approbations to your city for your bravery later. But I would be exceptionally grateful if you would find the Antinium or Antinium—plural—in charge and convey my man, Theofore, to them?”

“At once, Lady Reinhart!”

It was never that simple, of course. Magnolia had some coffee with sugar and hummed as Ressa took some of the new beverage herself. She still liked tea more, but Ressa loved the stuff, drat her. And she’d begun hiding the sugar bowl.

A few people had to stop Theofore on his mission. They always did when Magnolia announced herself, only this time, it was quite germane to meet them.

Especially the mustached [Brigadier], Forount. The woman came riding up, twirling her mustache, and Magnolia actually laughed.

“Brigadier Forount of Wales! Good day to you!”

“Lady Reinhart, it is an honor! I wished to convey my personal respects to House Reinhart—and the hopes that you’ll look kindly upon these, ah, outsiders. They did pull us out of the fire at the last moment.”

Magnolia nodded graciously to the [Brigadier]. She had a soft spot for Forount of Wales. Why not? She had helped fund the [Brigadier]’s education as an officer.

“Your heroism notwithstanding, of course, [Brigadier]? Wales was an inspiration to the local cities—but I do wish you’d waited for more backup. It was a close battle.”

The woman puffed up even further.

“The lances you sponsored for Wales’ armored core need a target, Lady Reinhart! It was a close-run thing, but better to strike first than let the enemy do the same.”

“Quite noble of you, Brigadier.”

She might die saying those same words. But at least she had some support, and if Magnolia had to pump more aid into Wales to give the [Brigadier] a proper army in the south—there were worse candidates. Forount had proven herself, and that was a rare quality.

Magnolia was less pleased by how few Gold-rank teams were present. She had personally reached out to a number, and while the Silver Swords were a constant, Invrisil should have sent five times this number.

Theofore had reached the Antinium by this point, and Magnolia was telling him to find Yvlon Byres, and Ylawes too, in order that they might meet. Yet all those thoughts left her mind the instant she saw the Antinium.

Artur, the [Banner Commander], Embraim, the [Battalion Leader], and two [Templars] all stood, waiting for Theofore with Lieutenant Gershal. Theofore came to a halt, presented Magnolia to the Antinium, and had everyone move back as he deployed the proper privacy spells.

“Good evening, Banner Commander Artur. Battalion Leader Embraim, who I believe is Templar Theogrin, and I don’t know the last of your number.”

The Antinium jerked in surprise as Magnolia Reinhart greeted them smoothly. They exchanged glances, and their antennae waved, then Theogrin replied.

“This is Priest Zimrah.”

“Hello.”

The [Priest] wore armor, which was why Magnolia had mistaken her for a [Templar]. She sounded…sleepy. Magnolia clapped her hands together, feigning delight.

“My! A [Priest]! What an interesting class! And you are the commanders of this crusade, I take it?”

“We have no formal commander, Lady Reinhart. It is good to meet you. May I ask why you desire to speak with us? If Orefell is part of your lands, we wish to assure you on behalf of the Free Hive of Liscor that we are not here as enemies.”

Artur spoke carefully and with the most understanding of who she was. Magnolia’s heart was beating fast, but Ressa was a steadying presence.

“Ah, yes, well. I imagine it is something of a surprise that I might reach out. I am Magnolia Reinhart, leader of House Reinhart of the Five Families. Do forgive my late introductions. May I ask if you…know me?”

The Antinium glanced at her and Ressa in the scrying orb. They exchanged a look, then—as one—they shook their heads.

Even Artur.

“We know House Reinhart, but I have never heard your name, Lady Reinhart, except in passing.”

Magnolia’s smile wavered.

“Really. Not once? The Antinium do not remember me? What about Zel Shivertail?”

“The Tidebreaker? Yes, we know him. Hero of Liscor.”

Hero of Liscor. Magnolia sat back, and Ressa’s brows rose so high that they almost escaped into her hairline. Well now. Was that humbling or did it make her job easier?

Easier, most definitely. Magnolia nodded thoughtfully.

“Well then, I can tell you that I have been an enemy of the Antinium during the First and Second Antinium Wars, but I would like to discuss the affairs of state with this crusade peacefully, without the shackles of history. Would that be acceptable?”

Another moment of palpable confusion before the [Priest] stepped forwards. She—and it sounded like a she—spoke.

“We do not hold grudges for the Antinium Wars, Lady Reinhart. None of us were there. Are you…upset by our presence in the north? We are aware many would be. Already, we have been recalled by the Free Queen to Liscor.”

“And by Revalantor Klbkch. For punishment.”

Embraim broke in, and this time, Magnolia noticed how the four Antinium shifted and looked at each other. This…this was everything she had hoped for.

“Punishment? Oh dear. I understand this crusade was somewhat impromptu, but do not tell me the Antinium who fought to save Orefell from a terrible slaughter are to be punished?”

“Some of us may be declared Aberration. Or removed from command.”

Artur spoke slowly, and from the way all eyes swung to him, it was clear what that was. Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes opened wide. Her lips moved, and she spoke, a touch breathlessly.

“As I understand it, being declared Aberration is somewhat permanent.

“It will not happen.”

Zimrah spoke up suddenly, and Embraim tried to put a hand over her mandibles. But she slapped it down.

“No one will be Aberration. I refuse.”

“No one.”

The [Templar], Theogrin, nodded, and Magnolia saw Embraim and Artur glance at each other. They were so—unguarded. But this was what Magnolia had expected.

From the outset, the instant Ressa had told her the Antinium were marching, Magnolia had guessed, had hoped none of the Queens had ordered this crusade. The rest of her family, Tyrion, no one saw what this was. The greatest of opportunities.

“Excuse me, Antinium. Am I to understand your crusade was an independent action for which you may well be punished upon your return to the Hive?”

“Yes. This is so. We did not march north to invade, only to stop the monsters. Someone had to. No one else would get there in time.”

Artur replied, and Magnolia Reinhart herself ducked her head.

“It is embarrassingly true. My arrangements would not have made an impact until today—or later. Sadly. The bravery of Brigadier Forount stands at odds with the north’s inaction, and you have my gratitude. Which is why I have come to you with an offer. For your crusade.”

The Antinium stirred. Embraim clacked his mandibles together uneasily, and Artur hesitated.

“We have orders to return at once, Lady Reinhart. With respect—I am a member of Liscor’s Second Army, pending my removal from the ranks. Our loyalties prohibit us from taking actions for House Reinhart.”

She put her trembling fingers together.

“Oh, I understand that more than you would think, Banner Commander. But it has occurred to me that Orefell is not out of danger yet. There are still remnants of the monsters being eliminated, and the city is vulnerable. Why, the potential for undead to rise from the dead monsters is extreme.”

Artur nodded slowly.

“This is true. Yet we have definitive orders.”

“Indeed, indeed. Which is why, I, Magnolia Reinhart, am offering your crusade a substantial sum, be it in food, coin, or even Orefell’s productions, for you to…delay your departure. I understand the Free Queen or Revalantor Klbkch has given you an order. Could I pay you to ignore it?”

It was the most bald-faced attempt she had ever made, but Magnolia suspected the Antinium would not get a less-direct ploy. They stood there so silently she saw Theofore, holding the scrying orb, tense.

Ready to run. But the Antinium broke the frozen moment without reaching for their blades. After a long, long silence, one of them spoke. Zimrah.

“…We can do that?”

There it was. The first chink in the most united force to threaten Izril. Magnolia began speaking at once.

“Don’t think of it as disobeying exactly, Priest Zimrah. Consider it my counteroffer. Do your Antinium need better armor? Potions? Orefell has a lot of jade, very beautiful material. A single day’s delay, perhaps more? And might I add that it seems unreasonable for a single Antinium to be executed for your noble actions.”

“It does.”

Theogrin murmured. Magnolia nodded repeatedly.

“Let me simply say this, Antinium of the Free Hive. Nay, Crusaders of the Free Hive. If ever you should feel that your lives are in jeopardy upon return to the Hive of Liscor, there are alternatives. You may politely refuse such impossible commands, and I personally will offer you support. At the very least, enough food to maintain separation from the Hive without issue! Let us discuss the issue, and I will leave each of you with a token that you might contact me or my people at any time.”

She settled back as the Antinium nodded, and Ressa squeezed her shoulder hard. The army of Antinium would create problems; they could not stay around Orefell long, and the risk of a Human force taking shots at them was high, but if they could stay intact, even diminished—Magnolia locked her eyes on the Antinium. The first group of disobedient Antinium to the will of a Queen.

 

——

 

The day was full of strange events. Pisces Jealnet had known, the moment the Antinium showed up, that the world would never be the same.

He hadn’t expected Magnolia Reinhart. Or for Rags to become a Goblin [Mercenary]. Or for the crusade to stay around Orefell, but then again—what was the [Governor] supposed to do?

She had a city full of people who’d lost possessions or abandoned their homes, now looting, the stragglers returning, arguing, blaming people who’d fled their posts—she had already asked Gershal and the [Brigadier] to help restore order.

Worse, there were Eater Goats and that damn Void Goat on the loose. Heck, five Gargoyles were a Gold-rank threat. So when she accepted Magnolia Reinhart’s offer to keep the Free Antinium here, only the rest of the world was surprised and outraged.

It turned out the Antinium crusade was willing to be paid to hang around and slay monsters. In fact, their Workers could even help repair and build. What they ended up doing all this for was amusing, though.

“Four wagonloads of jade? What do Antinium want with jade?”

It was a handsome sum. Uncut, unpolished jade panned from the rivers was one of Orefell’s exports. When Pisces heard it via Ksmvr, he was confused. It was worth a lot—but Ksmvr had to explain the idea.

“The [Crusaders] believe the Free Queen and Liscor may accept it in return for their actions. There is a precedent.”

“…What precedent?”

Yvlon Byres was eying the black-clad [Assassin] carrying Magnolia Reinhart’s scrying orb on a tour of the Antinium camp. Ksmvr replied as if it were obvious.

“Each time Liscor’s army has marched, it traditionally sends back the spoils of a large campaign to the city.”

“You mean…Liscor’s mercenary army?

Yvlon’s mouth opened, and Pisces snorted. Ksmvr just nodded seriously.

“Commander Artur has claimed that as he is an officer of Liscor’s army, he is technically Liscor’s army as the Antinium have been accepted as a fighting force of Liscor. He…hopes that will prevent their censure.”

Antinium logic. It might even work. Pisces just wondered why Magnolia Reinhart of all people was being so helpful. Then he wondered if Erin had anything to do with this.

Then, Magnolia Reinhart came their way, and the [Necromancer] nearly fell into the campfire. The [Assassin] walked over, and Yvlon rose, and Ksmvr poked Ceria awake as the half-Elf rolled out of her sleeping bags.

“Wh—is it time to eat? Magnolia Reinhart?

“Hello, Horns of Hammerad! Ksmvr—am I pronouncing that right?—Pisces, Ceria, and dear niece Yvlon! It has been a while! You’ve grown up. And you, dear child, your arms! You should have told me you were in need, but you leveled out of the problem. Classic House Byres. Is Ylawes avoiding me? I thought I saw him running to the side.”

“Aunt Magnolia?”

Yvlon stuttered. Out of all the people, Magnolia Reinhart had singled out their team! Pisces remembered Ressa collecting Ryoka, but Magnolia Reinhart was now staring at him.

He didn’t like it. He bowed, and Ksmvr copied him as Ceria scratched at her head, then dipped a bow. Yvlon spoke slowly.

“It’s—wonderful to hear your voice, Aunt.”

Call me Magnolia, Yvlon! And I insist on doing likewise! I must say, it is such a treat to meet such a rising Gold-rank team. Much less to see my little niece as a fine adventurer! If I was in Celum or Invrisil, I would have to have you at my estates. Alas, you might have heard I’m in Oteslia.

“The entire continent knows.”

Ceria muttered a bit too loudly. Magnolia focused on her, and the half-Elf jumped.

“Pardon me, Miss Springwalker. I know, I made a fuss. I just wanted to introduce myself, especially to Yvlon, and convey my personal thanks for your bravery today. It will not go unnoticed, I promise. Spoken Vow, the Pact, the Halfseekers, and the Silver Swords are all credits to your rank.”

“Thank you, Lady Reinhart.”

Ceria blushed faintly, and Pisces couldn’t help but interject.

“This gratitude would not happen to be material, would it, Lady Reinhart?”

Yvlon kicked him, prompting Ksmvr to do the exact same. Magnolia glanced at Pisces and put a finger to her lips.

“Adventurer Pisces. Rather forwards of you.”

“Er, I apologize for—”

“—Fortunately, forwards befits a Gold-rank adventurer. And you are quite right. How about this? I can’t tell how much of that new <Quest> bounty you were paid, but in honor of your deeds, I will have a word with the Mage’s Guild and Wistram. I believe it’s two thousand gold pieces on your head, Adventurer Pisces? I will have it removed by the end of the week, regardless of the price. I can do nothing about Roshal; they do not bandy words with me, but that bounty will be cleared, and I will have the [Mercenaries] of Izril aware of that fact.”

Pisces blinked and stuttered.

“The—the bounty? You can do that? But it was posted in Terandria and—”

“—And this is Izril and the Five Families hold some sway. I am aware of Wistram’s…shenanigans. Frankly, if Archmage Nailihuaile were still alive, it might be harder, but she is not, and I would like to prove my sincerity. I hope you will remember it if I should be in need of competent service in the future.”

“Of course, Lady Reinhart! I mean, Aunt—Magnolia. Thank you!”

Yvlon nodded again, and Magnolia smiled and raised a hand.

“I won’t keep you long. I know how tiring it is to deal with the nobility—well, the boring nobility, pardon me, Yvlon. Do remember me to your mother, and tell Ylawes I am not some ravening beast.”

“Except for sugar.”

Who said that? Magnolia looked peeved, and Yvlon choked as the [Maid] leaned over. The [Assassin] bowed, and, giving Pisces a look of long agony behind his masked expression, trotted off to meet someone else.

“Whew. That is one crazy [Lady].”

Ceria exhaled after a moment. Yvlon went to kick her, but the half-Elf skipped out of the way.

“Ceria! She’s got ears everywhere!”

“So? She’s speaking to us. We’re on her list, Yvlon. We just talked with one of the most powerful [Ladies] in the north. She was headhunting us for requests in the future.”

Ceria rubbed at her head, somehow the least astonished of everyone. Pisces blinked. That was what she’d done, wasn’t it? Done them a favor—removed his bounty? Ceria shook her head.

“This is wild. The north’s never going to be the same. Magnolia in bed with Antinium and Goblins?”

Ceria, I swear to Silver Dragons—

A peal of laughter came from the scrying orb in the distance, and Ceria actually ducked behind Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] put a warning fist on Ceria’s head.

“Someday, your tongue is going to get you into trouble, Ceria.”

“And your fists don’t?”

Yvlon began to chase Ceria around, and Pisces exhaled. It was becoming night again, and where had the day gone?

Chatting to [Crusaders], watching the news, watching people file back into Orefell and thank him—him!

…And catching up with the other teams. But through it all, the Horns watched Pisces, their friend who had suffered in Roshal. Case in point, even now, while Yvlon chased Ceria into camp, Ksmvr stayed with Pisces. His people were all around him, but he followed Pisces around as the [Necromancer] looked about for someone else to talk to. Perhaps the Dwarves.

“Ksmvr, you can go elsewhere if you wish.”

He turned his head after two minutes of Ksmvr following his steps perfectly, like some game where you copied someone. It was so entertaining that two other Workers and a Goblin had followed Pisces like a living centipede.

“I cannot, Comrade Pisces. If Roshal attacks you, I must kill them. I will not let them grab you again, I promise.”

Pisces turned to look at the [Skirmisher]’s serious face. He halted and patted Ksmvr on the shoulder.

“They won’t attack here, Ksmvr.”

“They could. I should be vigilant.”

“I appreciate it…but you should relax.”

Ksmvr hesitated, then patted Pisces on the head. The [Necromancer] scowled, but lightly.

“Ksmvr, stop that.”

“May I scratch you under the chin?”

“I am not a cat.”

“You may still enjoy it.”

The [Necromancer]’s lips twitched, and then he was off, striding through the crowd. He had, of course, met countless people over the course of the day. The [Brigadier], with her mustache, the [Crusaders], including the one who had Erin’s glory fire. But it was, as always, home which sometimes called to him.

The Dwarves of Deríthal-Vel were packing up to leave. The few hundred that had come had collected their dead, and Pisces’ smile sombered as he saw a cart loaded with bodies. In fact, two adventurers were hanging around, helping the Dwarves load up and prepare their dead.

Selphids. Jelaqua was gently spreading something over a face.

“It’ll keep them. Watch out for carrion, but we can’t do much about death magic. Maybe Pisces can…?”

Field Captain Rlint glanced up. It said something about the Dwarves’ armor and tactics that there were only two wagons—but it was two too many. Many Dwarves had their helmets under their arms, and Pisces saw tears.

And Dawil. That Garuda, Peki, too. The [Field Captain] gave Pisces a slow nod.

“Adventurer Pisces. I know you. We’re transporting our fallen back. If we were pressed for time or safety, we’d take possessions, but there are wagons, and Orefell’s granted us some horses. We hope to send them all the way to Dwarfhome, but it’s a task.”

“That’s a long way. Can you…put them in bags of holding?”

“That’s what I said. The problem is they have so much armor on—and asking them to strip the bodies is, um…”

Jelaqua whispered to Pisces. Rlint nodded somberly.

“We won’t do that here. Better to march to Dwarfhome, with respect. We have some gel Captain Jelaqua was kind enough to give us, and there are customs our people in Dwarfhalls Rest can perform; some will meet us on the road.”

“You’re leaving now?”

The [Field Captain] nodded. He chuckled into his beard tiredly.

“We are on a time limit. The sooner we can get to Dwarfhalls and properly settle it the better. The Goblins…”

He cast a glance at Rags and her tribe and shook his head.

“…Have mostly abandoned the mountain, as I understand it. Some might be there, but that Chieftain Rags has told us they’ll likely flee, and there is no powerful tribe remaining. I have orders to return. But if you knew how to suppress the death magic and the chances of undead…”

That would be the worst thing, and Pisces hesitated. Splitting up the bodies was better, but he thought quickly.

“There has to be at least one [Gravetender] in Orefell. They’ll have gravesalt. Or ask—Ylawes Byres.”

“The Silver Swords’ Captain?”

Dawil glanced up, confused, and Pisces nodded.

“Gravesalt is salt, ash, silver—it suppresses death magic. Ah—you could get some potted plants. Put them in the center of the wagon.

“Potted plants?”

Even Jelaqua hadn’t heard of that, but Pisces elaborated.

“Living beings and the earth make it harder for undead to rise. Plants eat death magic.”

“A [Gravetender], gravesalt, and plants. That’ll work. Thank you, Adventurer. Do you hail from Noelictus? I heard you were from the home continent.”

Rlint nodded at Pisces as he flagged someone over to find the materials. The [Necromancer]’s smile wavered, but—he had already talked about Roshal. Ksmvr patted Pisces on the head and got a mild swat.

“Not Noelictus, Field Captain. As a matter of fact…I come from Ailendamus. Not that I have strong ties to the Kingdom of Glass and Glory.”

It was the first time he had ever said that. Even Jelaqua looked surprised, but Rlint just nodded thoughtfully.

“Not a home for [Necromancers].”

“No indeed. Nor was it Ailendamus proper; mine was a province absorbed in recent years.”

“Ah. That explains it. Well, you are a friend to Dwarves, Adventurer. This has been a striking meeting. I am sorry to leave, but I will remember it. Nor do I think marching to fight at Orefell was wrong.”

The Dwarf said that even as he stood before the lines of bodies. Pisces nodded slowly, and Rlint looked at the Antinium.

“Goblins. Antinium. The kindness of Selphids, and a [Necromancer]’s wisdom. We even had that [Priest] of the Antinium come here and bless our dead. I don’t know what their ‘Heaven’ is, but if it’s the opposite of Rhir, may our kin rest there.”

Strange times indeed. Pisces nodded and stepped back, but only after shaking hands with a number of Dwarves. Peki did likewise.

“I will tell Merrik I met you all. He was crying. Which is why I came.”

Rlint actually laughed at that.

“Tell him to visit, and we’ll all buy him a round! Dwarfhalls Rest will be sending Dwarfsteel before winter’s first snows, my oath on it! All of you are welcome to visit!”

“And you to visit Liscor! Or Invrisil or Celum—it’s all connected. Just mention you met us at The Wandering Inn, and I promise you, you’ll get a warm welcome and a free meal.”

Jelaqua grinned, and the Dwarves looked up. Rlint’s gaze sharpened.

“Ah, there’s a name I’ve heard. I promise we’ll do that. For now—Adventurer Dawil, an honor. Get that axe looked at by Master Pelt. If anyone can mend it—it’s him. Otherwise, you may need to go home.”

“That I know.”

Dawil spoke solemnly, and all the Dwarves filed past him. Pisces was curious because he knew the axe they meant, but Rlint just shook his head.

“A sign of the times. Not your fault. But a sign…well, you are a Gold-rank adventurer. You’ve earned a meeting and a tale. Grandfathers’ blessings on all.”

Then, one more round of handshakes and they were marching off.

“Poor bastards. They came, fought for Orefell, and now they’re leaving without so much as a wagonload of jade. Dwarves are too nice. I’m gonna cry.”

Jelaqua was quieter than Ceria. She produced a handkerchief and blew her nose into it.

“Did someone offer…?”

Pisces wasn’t sure if they’d missed their opportunity, but Dawil walked over, hands in his pockets.

“Nah, they refused it outright. It’s a bit of politics; shows they want to be good neighbors. But the rest is pride. They can call every Dwarf who fell here a hero who went without reward to fight the monsters. They’ll go home upon the shields. But yes. Thanks for helping, Jelaqua.”

“Don’t mention it. At least we gave them some of the skins.”

That caught Pisces’ ears.

“Skins?”

“Gargoyle hide.”

Jelaqua clarified. She pointed over to the battlefield where the insects and carrion had finally descended, and Pisces saw Humans with masks, Antinium, and Goblins all performing the nasty task of working with rotting flesh.

“A bunch of Bossel hides. That’s the toughest of the lot. It might still lose to Dwarfsteel, but it’ll be a bit lighter, and they know how to tan it. So do the Goblins.”

Pisces knew each monster had its value, and while the Eater Goats weren’t worth much aside from their teeth and hides like regular goats, Bossels and Gargoyles had hide that made armor better than leather.

Speaking of which, it seemed like Orefell was reclaiming some of its losses from the Gargoyles. They left the flesh alone, and the bones, but the hides were being carted to Orefell for tanning. Though it’d be a high-level [Tailor] or [Armorer] who could work it.

That gave Pisces a thought. Amidst the falling night, he gazed at the battlefield and stared at all those…bones.

Lovely bones. In fact, Gargoyle bones, which were notoriously tough. Pisces had always suffered from a lack of good bones. The Mothbears were still a mainstay of his collection, and he’d left an entire Warbear with his Skeleton Lord back on Chandrar.

They were still active. But Gargoyle bones? Pisces glanced around innocently, then two things happened.

The first was that someone spoke in his head. A telepathic voice of a great, dangerous being that made goosebumps ripple down Pisces’ spine.

The second was that someone spoke out loud. A shivering shout coming from the north of outrage, malice, and fury.

The Necromancer, Az’kerash, spoke to Pisces alone.

Young Pisces. I have seen your battle against the monsters of the High Passes. You have done well.

He sounded almost pleased. On the other hand, the Named-rank Adventurer—who roared so loudly everyone flinched and Jelaqua groaned—was decidedly unhappy.

GOBLINS.

The Selphid put two fingers in her ears.

“Oh, dead gods damnit. Who invited him? It’s Merdon!”

“Who?”

Then Pisces realized who it was. The Named-rank adventurer. Crowdcaller Merdon was coming from the north, and he had recognized some old foes.

—personal congratulations. Did you fare—THE DAMN GOBLINS—Bossels quite handily? I—PREPARE FOR BATTLE!—return to Izril.

Pisces simultaneously got both people speaking in his ears and heard exactly none of both conversations. He spoke, half to Jelaqua, half to Az’kerash.

“It’s Crowdcaller Merdon! He’s going to attack Rags’ tribe?”

Crowdcaller Merdon? One second—

Pisces thought he actually heard the Necromancer get a bit of the operatic voice raging—it sounded like an echo of Merdon’s shouting. So now deafened physically and mentally, Pisces was turning to what might be a bad battle.

Bad, because Merdon was the best person to attack a huge number of people. Even armies feared his voice, and it might have been why he had come to fight the Gargoyles and Eater Goats.

If so, he was two days late. And the Goblins were not a threat. Worse—he might go after the Antinium!

“We have to stop him. Dawil—come on.”

Jelaqua pounded ahead, and Ksmvr followed as the Necromancer spoke testily.

“I see. This is an opportune time. Do you know any [Hush] spells, Necromancer Pisces?”

“Only paltry ones, Archmage. [Silence]—”

Merdon’s next shout blew through the entire spell. Az’kerash’s whisper cut through the voice.

“Yes. A Named-rank adventurer can defeat basic spells. Try this. [Hush].”

And then there was silence. Pisces looked around, rattled. He still heard Merdon’s voice, but dimmed. It wasn’t perfect, but—

“Did you—cast that through me, Archmage Chandler?”

The Necromancer’s voice was amused.

Hardly. You and I are not linked. I merely cast a long-range spell centered upon your location. Even the Archmages of Wistram can perform this trick.

He said that as if it were normal, and Pisces suspected Archmage Feor would have to do more than just…speak a spell to have it done so quickly. He dipped his head and hesitated.

He was afraid of Az’kerash. It occurred to Pisces this altercation was the perfect excuse.

“I fear I may be needed elsewhere, Archmage. I, ah, must support my team, and an altercation would be dangerous to all.”

Hm. Perhaps. Hold one moment. It may not come to that. Named-rank or not, it seems this Crowdcaller does not want to die.

Pisces hurried in the direction of Merdon and saw the Named Adventurer had stopped screaming—and stopped his assault on Rags’ tribe.

Mostly because he was facing an army of annoyed [Crusaders] who were getting tired of his shouting. The Named-Rank adventurer and his Gold-rank supporters were a tiny knot compared to thousands of Antinium. Even if they thought Merdon was a match for them—he was quailing in the face of someone else.

Crowdcaller Merdon, you are late, and this shouting is hurting my ears! I have paid you your fee for your efforts, but there is no more fighting to be done. Much less here!”

Magnolia Reinhart’s voice was coming out of her speaking stone as her [Assassin] trotted forwards. A furious adventurer wearing armor strode towards her, and the two embarked in a heated discussion.

“She must have hired him to assault the horde. Predictably, he dragged his feet for what he assumed was a grand entrance and a weakened force. Or perhaps he was simply incapable of moving this fast from Tenbault.”

Az’kerash was both urbanely amused and disdainful. Pisces couldn’t fault the analysis either; if Ylawes and his team had made it, Merdon could have roused himself to join the battle. Nevertheless, it seemed like the Goblins, already moving towards their Wyverns, weren’t in as much danger with Magnolia Reinhart present.

Still, Pisces saw Rags mounting up and suspected she wouldn’t risk it. Which meant Dwarves and Goblins were heading away from the fighting. Pisces realized this was the perfect moment to sidle back to the battlefield.

It was dark, and the people working on harvesting the Gargoyles paid him no mind as Az’kerash discussed the battle with Pisces.

“Your team was, as ever, at the forefront of the fighting. I took some small note, as a Void Eater Goat is an interesting monster.”

Was he mocking Pisces? The [Necromancer] had been in the fighting, but he had felt like part of the effort, not the center.

“We were…less adept against so many monsters than we could have hoped, Great Necromancer.”

Pisces subvocalized. Az’kerash laughed quietly.

“Your team stood out nevertheless. As for the Void Eater Goat…that was a dangerous threat. They have been known to eat even Level 50 adventurers, although that is the required level range to handle them. You observed the weakness in their ability to generate their void spell?”

“Is it possible to circumvent that ability when it’s active, Archmage?”

Pisces wavered as he bent over the remains of a corpse. Probably a Bossel. He bent, and bones emerged from the bloody flesh. Despite his reservations, the great Necromancer was a fount of knowledge, and in their brief talks, Pisces learned a lot.

“Of course. Exceedingly difficult, but the goat cannot eat everything. Although I might note that even if your [Cryomancer] tried to freeze it—she might fail. It can swallow temperature, it is highly resistant, and it can hurl the contents of its stomach as a last-ditch resort. When facing one, it might behoove you to learn a spell rather like the Crowdcaller.”

“Sonic-based attacks?”

“Just so. [Death Wail]. Do you have the requisite spell among your studies?”

Pisces thought of the Djinni’s spellbook and shook his head.

“No, Great Necromancer.”

“Hm. Intriguing. I may have the time to locate a scroll. And I note you are collecting Gargoyle bones. Most perspicacious. Have you advanced past your Bone Behemoth attempts?”

“As a matter of fact…”

Pisces had not discussed Ivery and the Skeleton Lord mishaps, but when Az’kerash heard about the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones], he actually chuckled. Pisces was so astounded that he stopped stuffing bones into his bag of holding like a thief in the night.

“Great Archmage?”

Ah—it is nothing. It is simply that the, ah, ritual failing is a common mistake most [Necromancers] make. There are no instructions, and more than one [Necromancer] has fused a lot of valuable gemstones into their Skeleton Lord or bound less-than-helpful objects to them. I knew quite a few who did the exact same thing as you.

Pisces was fascinated.

“Really?”

“Oh, quite. It used to be a joke in Silvaria that a [Necromancer]’s first Skeleton Lord went into battle with an empty mug of beer or a quill. Armed with whatever pastimes they were about when they snatched the nearest object at hand. One Skeleton Lord was once sighted wearing some pantaloons by a young [Necromancer] caught in a romantic fling…”

Pisces was trying not to laugh. He was so caught up in the story as he took Gargoyle bones that he didn’t notice the patrol before Vaunt’s [Soldiers] were shining a lantern at him.

Halt, thief!

The [Necromancer] froze, and Az’kerash cut off as a squad of Humans with spears surrounded him.

“I’m—just walking around at night!”

He hid the bag of holding behind him as an old, familiar panic crept up. Oh, dead gods! Why hadn’t he gone invisible? Idiot! You idiot—

He was about to run and deal with the consequences later when something unprecedented happened. One of the [Soldiers] saw Pisces and called out.

“Wait! Wait, it’s Adventurer Pisces! The Horns!”

“Oh. Sorry, Adventurer Pisces! Of course, he’s a [Necromancer]—

The shining lantern light dimmed, and a somewhat embarrassed [Sergeant] saluted.

“Just checking that no scavengers or [Rogues] are stealing the monster parts, sir! We forgot a [Necromancer] was about. Uh—taking bones? Bodies?”

“Just—just bones.”

Az’kerash was silent as Pisces felt as flustered as could be. Stealing from graveyards or battlefields was a very [Necromancer] thing to do, and it earned them a terrible reputation, but the awkward soldiers just nodded.

“For that Frostmarrow Behemoth. I should imagine you need more. We actually have a pile of bones from the harvesting, sir. Hundreds. We could direct you to them?”

“Really?”

What.

Az’kerash was as stunned as Pisces. The [Necromancer] actually found himself walking with a squad who were too keen to offer him the largely useless bones.

“Some [Alchemists] want them, and the dogs’re slavering over them, but bones aren’t good for much, sir. And if it’s between them and you—help yourself. I apologize if we startled you.”

“Er—not at all, good [Sergeant]. I quite understand.”

Pisces felt off-kilter, and the [Sergeant] smiled, then he coughed.

“Speaking of which, if those were your undead, we apologize for destroying them. Just when we see any zombies rising, goats or Gargoyles…”

The adventurer was rapidly warming to the [Soldiers] of Vaunt. Not only was the [Lieutenant] a brave fellow, they were quite decent folk. So he was only too keen to smile around.

“Oh, not at all. Those would be natural undead. Direct them to me if they are dangerous, by all means. I would put them down as quickly as you.”

The [Sergeant] nodded, clearly relieved.

“As we thought, sir. But those Gargoyle zombies were rising fast. And some were even coming out of the bone pile. We almost burned the lot.”

“That is quick. Then again—it was a bloody battlefield.”

Pisces frowned, but as they reached the bone-pile he’d been promised, the [Sergeant] cursed.

“Dead gods damnit! There’s another one! Spears up!”

Pisces caught sight of a skeletal Gargoyle, still glistening with bits of flesh, stomping away from the pile of bones. A few [Soldiers] were racing away, calling for backup, but the undead skeleton didn’t pay attention to them. A glowing red flame in both sockets, it was walking towards the distant hilltop and forest. And Pisces…froze.

“If you want to do something, Adventurer, sir, now would be a great time! Not that we can’t handle one, but they are big.”

Indeed, the Gargoyle was still nine feet tall even without flesh, and it had thick bones. It was a powerful minion for even Pisces; if he summoned skeleton Gargoyles instead of regular humanoid skeletons, he’d have a powerful fighting force.

And it would be just the thing for a low-level [Necromancer]. Which was why Pisces stared at the animated Gargoyle skeleton, and his eyes slowly narrowed.

That wasn’t a natural animation at all. Normal skeletons didn’t rise this fast, not on a patrolled battlefield. Even if they did, they’d be attacking the wary soldiers at once.

“Just how many skeletons did you see rising, [Sergeant]?”

Pisces murmured, and the [Sergeant] scowled.

“No less than sixteen today and yesterday! Popped up like flies, but I heard the Antinium were knocking them down constantly. We took over, and it’s been nonstop. Caught a few people running around too. Stealing hides and the like.”

It was entirely possible that some of Orefell’s unscrupulous citizens were doing just that, but Pisces had another, sudden suspicion. Ironically, it was Az’kerash who didn’t get it.

A poor animation spell. Simple, and it is bound to a distant location. Long-range, no doubt. I sense multiple sources. Could this be…?

Pisces reminded himself that Az’kerash had been born and raised in Silvaria. Even if he had become the terror of Terandria, he had never been a [Necromancer] in the modern era.

In other words, he didn’t know that most [Necromancers] were famous carrion-scavengers of graveyards instead of being awarded bones. Pisces gazed at the animated skeleton and felt nostalgic.

Oh, the old raise-and-run. And a few idiots probably had a cheap bag of holding. If they made it in and out, they might have a free Eater Goat zombie or Gargoyle—but they probably hadn’t realized their bags of holding were too small to hold an entire Gargoyle corpse. That was why you went for bones, you idiots. Far more portable.

He pointed at the Gargoyle moving away and casually crooked his finger. The neck-bone cracked, and the entire skeleton dropped into pieces.

A perfect move for someone who understood how animation spells worked. Pisces sensed the magic flee, and the [Sergeant] jumped.

“That’s amazing, sir! Makes our efforts look way too hard!”

He only sounded a bit begrudging. Pisces coughed into his sleeve.

“Purely a [Necromancer] ability, I assure you, [Sergeant]. My teammates would have to hack or blast it apart.”

“Well, if you wouldn’t mind doing that for a few more…?”

The [Sergeant] sounded hopeful, and that was how Pisces found himself on defense-duty for the corpses. By now, he’d realized there were at least a few [Necromancers] trying to steal powerful bodies for their work, but Pisces didn’t realize how many there were until he concentrated.

“…Eight. Eight of them. You sense them too.

“Yes, of course.”

Pisces murmured as he put down another Gargoyle with a point of the finger. No less than eight [Necromancers] of various lower levels seemed to be out there. A few fled Vaunt’s patrols as they noticed more figures skulking around, and Pisces hit one of the fleeing figures with a [Sticky Webs] spell.

But that just turned out to be a [Thief], who was quickly dragged off for trying to cut some Bossel hide off in the dark. Not an easy task for an amateur.

Nevertheless, so many [Necromancers] was odd. One or two? Definitely, for this region. But eight wasn’t a mistake. It spoke to Pisces of an organized group.

A cabal. A term for a group of [Necromancers] or [Cultists] or a mix of the unsavory classes working together. Pisces had met a few in Izril on his way south, but they didn’t tend to last long. He suspected this group would run off, but to his surprise, they only got bolder. In fact—the first undead attack began no less than thirty minutes after he began helping Vaunt.

Skeletons! Zombies! Ten of them are attacking!

Pisces heard the [Sergeant] curse, and he ran to find ten undead Gargoyles and a bunch of Eater Goats biting at some [Soldiers]. He put them down fast as an Antinium ran into the fighting and swung a mace.

Crusader 53’s [Weapon of Faith] blew apart a skeleton’s head as if it were made of paper. Pisces blinked, but then saw more undead rising.

“What’s going on? Some kind of undead horde?”

The [Sergeant] glanced at Pisces, but the [Necromancer] was wavering. Did he play it off or let those idiots kill some of these soldiers? He was angry, and he realized why.

Az’kerash put it best.

A [Necromancer] is no monster by definition, but these scavengers threaten to injure brave warriors at rest. They are a disgrace to the class. I am tempted to…rectify their presence.

That was it. They were causing trouble, raising undead that could hurt or injure people, even if they were Zombies, just to gather their bones. Pisces’ brows snapped together, and he began snapping necks left and right. The undead tumbled down as the [Sergeant] and Crusader 53 stared at Pisces in respect.

“I believe we have a confluence of death magic, [Sergeant]. Permit me…access to your bone pile? I believe I can solve both issues at once.”

What’s the second issue? The [Sergeant] was only too grateful to pull back his forces. Pisces stepped over to the bone pile and busied himself for a second. Then he stepped back and calmly lit the rest of the bones on fire.

It wasn’t hard to get them burning. A sustained [Flame Jet] spell and they began to crackle and smoke. The marrow and other grease lit fast enough. Pisces kept pouring on the flames until the entire pile was alight, and he turned.

That should do it. Their target was gone, and while there were bodies, it was a clear message. He was about to make some excuses and head out when Pisces’ head snapped back around.

“You arrogant, petty little—

He shouted into the night to the confusion of the Humans and Antinium when something charged out of the darkness. Pisces saw an undead coming straight for him as some enraged [Necromancer] or cabal of them directed a foe at him.

Pitiful.

Az’kerash’s voice was filled with disdain. Pisces didn’t know what it was, but he felt an actually dangerous undead coming at high-speed towards him. Something on the level of…a Bone Horror. Maybe with more magic in it, a custom-built undead.

It would have pressed him if he were at the level when he first met Erin, but right now, Pisces was about to throw a [Shatterbolt] and kick the rest of the bones apart with his shoes. He was so angry at whomever these rogue [Necromancers] were because they reminded him of, well…him.

Thoughtless. Greedy. And uncaring for the sacrifice of Vaunt and the Dwarves and the others. Pisces leveled his ring, and then he blinked. He said something at the same time as Az’kerash repeated it in his head.

“A…cat?”

Cat?

Pisces saw the undead burst into the firelight as the [Soldiers] cried out. He looked at a loping beast, six feet tall along its arched spine, its skull perfectly configured not to resemble a skull, but the actual features of…a housecat.

A giant bone housecat bared its fangs and leapt towards Pisces. The [Necromancer] blinked, [Flash Stepped] sideways as it whirled, and hesitated.

“No way.”

The animal leapt—and he snapped its neck. The entire bone creation went down, and Pisces stared down at the carefully-shaved bone. The articulated ears. Dead gods, someone had even carved whiskers into the huge head.

“What is that, sir?”

“An…a spontaneous cat undead. Very common in some parts of the world.”

“A what?

The [Soldiers] gave Pisces a long look, but he bent down and then glanced up into the distance.

 

——

 

The [Necromancers] were throwing a fit. Not only had they lost most of the bones they’d hoped to loot—their best undead was gone.

She was going berserk, and the rest of the cabal hunkered down.

My personal undead! Who is that bastard down there? I’ll kill him! We’re raising Ghouls!

“Come on—they know we’re here, and they have horses. Let’s go, Ama.”

One of them whispered, but three of the newest members were hesitating. Death magic from below. It could be those Ants or an adventurer, but they thought it might be someone else using death magic. They weren’t good at sensing; no one here had been to Wistram, but if so—hadn’t a certain team gone to Orefell?

It was rare any of them got in range of a scrying orb, so they only knew of the battle from people fleeing, and they’d obviously come for corpses. Whose? It didn’t matter. But their angry leader had lost her temper.

Link up! We’re raising a Ghoul, and you three are grabbing corpses. We—wait a second. What’s that?”

All eight froze as, below, the empty grass of the night began to move. Just once, a flattening—but then another one twelve feet distant. It was faint, but the moonlight was good, and their already-paranoid instincts flared.

Invisible adventurer! Run!

The [Necromancers] leapt to their feet in a terror. They were made! They turned—and Pisces appeared, a [Light] spell in his hands.

He had a rapier in one hand, and he caught all eight, wearing robes of various hues of black, skulking in the grass. One of them leapt for cover and tripped and face-planted into the grass.

“Adventurer! Run and meet at the hideout!”

A scream, but then one of the youngest [Necromancers] actually tore the mask from her face.

“Wait! Stop, stop—Adventurer Pisces! It’s us! Remember?”

One of the three [Necromancers] who’d gotten his autograph in Invrisil held up their hands. Pisces stared down at them, and his rapier lowered. Not that it had ever really risen. He looked down at the cabal and sighed.

“I knew it.”

The eight frozen [Necromancers] stared at the most famous [Necromancer] of Izril. Pisces rubbed at his face.

“If it was anyone but me, you would be dead. Ylawes Byres wouldn’t even wait for a [Guardsman]. Raising undead to attack soldiers? Are you—? Nevermind. I was a young [Necromancer] too, but this is ridiculous. Leave.”

He pointed at them, and the eight [Necromancers] looked at each other. He, a Gold-rank adventurer, executioners of their class, had spotted them and…?

“Pisces?”

One of the masked, hooded figures whispered. Pisces was fumbling around in his bag of holding. Then, to their astonishment, he dumped a pile of huge Gargoyle bones on the ground.

“There. Half. Try not to cause trouble, will you? Who made the giant cat? That was halfway artful.”

He glanced around, and the three fans of his looked around. Then—Pisces Jealnet saw the leader of the coven slowly move. She stepped forwards and tugged the hood off her face. The mask fell, and Pisces blinked as someone scowled up at him.

Pale, virtually bone-white features from the chalk on her face. She’d even colored her nose black to mimic a skeleton. Pisces nearly dropped his rapier as the leader of the cabal, the owner of the giant cat undead, spoke with a snap.

“You—you call that halfway artful? If Gewilena or Feren had done that, you’d call it a masterpiece. You—you—”

His eyes bulged. Pisces’ mouth opened, and he gobbled as he pointed at her. He was as shocked as she was—although everyone had told her it was Pisces, she had denied he could be alive. It was someone else. She was the only survivor from the massacre aside from Feren.

Pisces pointed at a completely different face, far older, years apart. But the makeup was the same, and the artistry in bone?

He whispered a name from his childhood. From the first cabal he had ever joined as he looked her in the eye.

“Ama?”

A stranger’s face peered back at him, just as uncertain. Someone Pisces had never thought to see again, framed in nostalgia and grief and…

A complete stranger. A woman, not a girl, far changed from sneaking out of her mother’s shop with alchemical supplies to put on makeup with Gewilena that her village and family wouldn’t approve of.

She looked at Pisces with much the same expression. How had she come here, to Izril, stealing bones? And he…how had he become a Gold-rank adventurer, defending soldiers from the undead?

He wanted to reach out and hug her, but she was just as tense as the cat-skeleton she’d always carried with her, that silently-hissing menace that scratched everything, a barely-controlled housecat she’d loved to death. But when Pisces saw her—

“You’re alive. Everyone else was executed. I saw Gewilena’s…”

“Yeah. I heard they got you.”

“Did anyone else—?”

Suddenly, the question was red-hot on Pisces’ tongue. All his certainties were gone, and Ama hesitated.

“I don’t know where they are. How are you here? A Gold-rank adventurer working with House Byres and an Ant?

The rest of the [Necromancers] were silent, watching, and Pisces was aware of the unseen Az’kerash in his head. He tried to speak through a dry throat, and behind him, he heard a voice.

This isn’t right!

For a second, Pisces thought it was his inner self shouting it. Then he realized it was that odious fool, that poor excuse for a Named-rank Adventurer.

Crowdcaller Merdon. Despite the late hour, he was kicking up a second fuss. Pisces whirled as the [Necromancers] flattened themselves, but it wasn’t them.

Merdon had heard the Antinium were getting a huge bounty of jade and a guard-contract. Pisces snapped back at Ama.

“We’ll talk later. Hide before they see you! I’ll find you later—”

His voice was met only by eight hooded figures running for the hills. Ama shouted back.

“I’ll find you.

Then she was gone. Cursing and determined to shove his rapier somewhere Merdon would find objectionable, Pisces stormed down the hill. He saw Merdon face-to-face with an unmoved Theogrin. But his voice was rising, and Pisces was well aware that if he couldn’t take on an army, he could probably blow out everyone’s eardrums in a mile’s radius.

“I could lend you a [Complete Hush] scroll to reprimand that fool, young Pisces.”

Az’kerash sounded as annoyed as Pisces. But Merdon was, well—brave or foolhardy if nothing else. And as Shriekblade had said, that made a Named-rank Adventurer.

“Merdon, calm down!”

Ylawes was remonstrating with the man, but Merdon shoved the [Knight]’s arms away. He struck his huge shield with a mace, creating a tremendous clash of metal that made everyone wince.

“Calm down? The Antinium are infesting our lands, and you want me to tuck my tail behind my legs, Byres? An army’s right here! If none of you have the stones to take them on, I’ll do it myself! Any true Humans of the north will have my back. Do you think I fear a thousand Antinium? Ten thousand? I am Crowdcaller Merdon.

Ah, hells. His voice was getting louder. Pisces looked around for his team and saw Yvlon clenching a fist. Ceria was sidling around Merdon with what looked like icy earmuffs, lifting a wand casually. But all he had to do was shout.

The stalemate was about to turn ugly. All it took was someone casting a spell, and the Antinium would charge or defend themselves. And a Named-rank Adventurer was a hard foe. Pisces was about to take Az’kerash up on his offer when the Necromancer said something.

Ah. That is concerning.

Pisces bit his tongue. Then he looked up and agreed.

“Oh my. That is very concerning.”

Merdon’s howling voice was still growing louder as he watched his corners, his team silently pleading with him not to get them into a bloodbath. But he was canny enough to notice Ceria on his side and other adventurers and Antinium watching him. He was so busy looking around, it took him a split-second longer to look…up. Straight up. It wasn’t a direction most threats came from.

“Shit.”

Then the flying Antinium pointed down, and Merdon’s entire body flailed as his feet left the ground.

“[Reverse Gravity].”

Xrn, the Small Queen, watched Merdon go flying past her. The Named-rank Adventurer began to shout—then he realized he was falling. Falling into the sky.

“Go ahead and shout, Crowdcaller Merdon. I might drop you.”

The Small Queen called out as he fell past her. The man’s eyes were rolling wildly.

Merdon!

Ylawes shouted, and then he focused on Xrn, and the cry went up.

The Small Queen!

It was—uncertain. Unlike Klbkch or Wrymvr, Xrn was not as immediately dangerous looking. Immediately…until you realized how she’d gotten here. She had probably used the door to Celum or Invrisil, but the rest?

Only she could teleport and fly to this spot. Let alone with passengers.

Chesacre and Thaina were hugging the ground as some of the [Crusaders] stared at their mottled, colorful carapaces. The Small Queen glanced up as Merdon began to shout in alarm. He was currently a thousand feet up and flying higher.

“[Defy Gravity].”

He stopped, like a flailing balloon, high overhead. Xrn pointed up at him and then glanced down.

“If he shouts or you move, I will [Disintegrate] him. Then every single adventurer with a weapon raised.”

Instantly, everyone from Ceria to Merdon’s team lowered their weapons. Pisces himself hastily put his rapier down. Az’kerash was silent in his mind as Xrn spoke, and that glowing radiance coming out of her head was mirrored by her eyes.

They were bright. They found Pisces, found Magnolia Reinhart, staring up with hostility and nervousness from Theofore’s shaking grip. They found Ceria, even the distant, fleeing [Necromancers]—but they fixed on only one spot.

The Antinium. The [Crusaders], the [Templar], Embraim, Artur—all of them, watching with fear and a kind of resignation. Here came the consequences, and unlike Klbkch…even Zimrah seemed uncertain how to stop her.

The Small Queen smiled. Magic crackled out of her mind, unformed, as she looked around. The Queens were in total uproar. So followed the north and south of Izril. But the Small Queen was smiling.

Smiling, as Klbkch watched her float there on the scrying orbs. He already knew what she would say, yet it still came as a shock. The Twisted Queen laughed, once, as she plucked a single Birther Sac and prepared it for transit.

A gift. A gift for…

“I am the Small Queen of the Antinium. Xrn, you call me. I declare myself the Queen of the Seventh Hive of the Antinium. I will lead this crusade of the Antinium. Send to me your Soldiers and Workers, arms and supplies. This army will have no home below ground. It shall take every cause it finds righteous. Do what you will, [Crusaders]. Live, level, die as you see fit. I will answer your foes with the fury that broke Rhir’s walls.”

She floated there as the [Crusaders] looked at each other. The Small Queen’s gaze brightened until a second sun of a hundred colors seemed to be floating just above the treetops. Slowly, Pisces looked up and realized what Az’kerash had.

The Crusade of the Antinium was here to stay. Faith and steel and magic, for hire. Liscor’s famous army had competition.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It’s going wrong. I said, I’m writing these in two parts. Which I did. But the word count is not…going…down.

It’s going to tire me out. But I did edit two chapters as well, so this change in the writing schedule is working. With a huge asterix. Almost as big as Merdon flying through the sky.

Hope you enjoyed this chapter. Processing a battle is important. You can’t just haul off to the next one without some kind of understanding. As for the other parts…well, we’ll see if we get back to it.

Witches, [Crusaders], and the side story poll oh my! I think I’m good for at least two more chapters, but we will see how my energy holds. I would like to take my break earlier in the month to recover lost energy, but I’m not feeling too bad so far. I just hope it can keep up.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the colors! It’s so…so hard to edit in when I post. Sigh.

 

Khoteizetrough by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 


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62 thoughts on “9.13

  1. Leave a typo for the power of faith! Or Xrn. Or cheese. I like cheese a lot. Just not blue cheese. Author fact.

    (Vaunt fans: Quynin, Gorexn, Litwickee, MrWiggles, Mqrius, ChronoMager)

    • Ok, I feel like this really does need to be said, but the word is Lego, NOT Legos. The plural is ‘Lego Bricks’. It’s not even an ‘it’s up for debate’ type situation – the company has literally gone on official record stating that they 100% do not approve of adding an s to their brand name. It’s grammatically incorrect, in much the same way as someone referring to all the moneys they made, the airs they breathed, the sands they used to build their sand castle, or the Microsofts they purchased.

      • Not all Legos are bricks. Such as the axle pieces. Those are still legos. As well as the arts that slide onto them. You do not call Lego wheels, “bricks”, do you? No, no you do not.

        Legos is a perfectly normal way to make the word Lego plural. Many people use it.

        Only the Lego company itself wants you to call it “LEGO Bricks” or “LEGO Sets” for the plural use.

        Sadly they don’t have a say.

        Legos has been used in the newspaper over a dozen times. Legos can be found in multiple dictionary sites. Even used in their examples of proper sentences.

        The word is out there. No matter how the company may whine.

      • Isn’t this just character speech? I know Ryoka is rather smart but she is automatically all knowing about the pluralization of the word Lego.

        • Eh, true enough. No-one I know IRL uses the term Legos – I’ve honestly believed for most of my life that it was just internet trolls being trolls, but if there are some people out there who do, it’s not out of the question Ryoka might be one of them.

    • I think it’s a mistake so I’m putting it here: Zimrah only earned her 4 levels when she rested, while we know that Antinium doesn’t need to sleep to level up.

      • I wonder if it might be that some Antinium simply count as being asleep all of the time? We know that the system responds a whole lot to how you perceive what’s going on, which would be part of why the Antinium don’t level at all when they don’t have identities, so it follows that the system rules might well apply differently to different Antinium.

      • Counter Leveling is also a thing. Which goes to show that you don’t need to sleep to get your levels. Or else you wouldn’t be able to power-up like that in a fight (even if sleeping to get the level ups is the standard).

        • Counter leveling is normally a matter of days tho, The King of Duels was only leveling mid fight b/c Flos was technically knocking him unconscious with his heavy blows. The system will apply the level during ANY loss of consciousness, not just sleep. I think the antium normally level up b/c the basic drones likely only do the torpor of actual ants which is sleep adjacent, but once they become Individual they do seem to actually sleep.

    • The Grand Queen is always upset, Pivr. Fear not. This is clearly a net benefit. Let the other Queens complain. The Grand Queen and I see the value; even the Twisted Queen.

      I think it shouldn’t be the grand queen, I believe she was opposed to the crusade.

    • I gotta say, I could only imagine the ants singing ‘heaven is a place on earth’ I’ve had that scene stuck in my head since I read this a few days ago.

  2. Awesome chapter! Lol at Xrn trying to kidnap a whole crusade. I can see Artur now “Um, we have to return to duty under Olesm, and want to go home to liscor” “No! Crusade and level! Get dat unitasis skill!”

  3. so many adorable ants and the queens!

    Pisces having a chat with his teacher and met his old group was a surprise and the small queen made a hive with the crusader!

  4. “Which meant that she was sitting and speaking by proxy to three leaders of the Five Families.”

    Shouldn’t this be 4 leaders?
    1. Tyrion Veltras
    2. Ulva Terland
    3. Captain Etril Wellfar
    4. the [Lady] of House El might be reporting back to Lord Deilan El

  5. Just wanted to say, for whatever little it may be worth, this chapter was amazing. Your writing continues to improve and it shows. You had no need to justify this chapter. It was perfect and I can’t wait for more! Keep it up Aba just don’t drain yourself too much =).

  6. I think we’re seeing the seeds of the 3rd antinium war here. Only, I think it’ll be a civil war. Clearly we will see the Free Queen on one side and the Grand Queen on the other. I imagine the Twisted Queen will side with the Free Queen and the Flying Queen will side with the Grand Queen. The Silent Queen could go either way. She could side with her sister-shaper-queen or the jealousy she holds could make her an enemy.

    Ultimately, I think the Grand Queen buying into slavery will seal her fate. We already know that Roshal will need to be dealt with at some point and I’ll bet that their slavers would love to sell an antinium queen. I bet when the third antinium war ends, the slavers of Roshal will offer to help her escape from a losing situation in exchange for her enslavement, or they’ll just betray her and the slaves they sell to her will have orders to capture and kidnap her.

    A great chapter. I was mildly bummed that we didn’t see Pisces and Rags talk since Pisces taught her the basics of magic, but other than that, it was all I could have asked for.

    • Yeah, that part really worried me. The Grand Queen is setting out to be the Antinium villain. Such a pity, but a good idea, to show that not even the Antinium are united.

    • We will talk later.

      That was the line he gave and probably wanted to let them know that Licsor at least is a safe place for [necromancer] so long as they check in with Erin.

  7. The small Queen made a rather surprising. Yet understanding mistake as this is technically the best move to get the [Crusader] Ants to level the right way.

    Bird and one of the Crusaders had obtained the skill they needed and if killing monsters is an easier way to level up that fighting an army with outside interference… Then copying the Licsor Army (original) is the best way to go.

    Also she might need to explain her actions to the queens as this could make things quite messy for their own status amongst themselves.

    Though a civil war being the third war might be possible if things go badly… As the Grand Queen might give the [slaves] A better life or chance if she is just trying to copy a city to have her ants level… Which might be a benefit since it would allow more ants to interact with other races in a controlled environment.

    Or she might go down the deep end and become a [Slaver] who wants to ensure people are loyal… No matter what. Possibly even expanding upon the class making her own ants [Slaves] to level up faster.

    Just ignore the side effects, confusion, and destruction it could cause.

    Such a risky chance even if it makes sense in a naive way if you also remember to ignore morals.

  8. Necromancer has turned from a intimidating, heartless monster who had to be stopped and felt like the midway story boss, to a weird ,stay at home dad with no agency except when helping Pisces; and I don’t know how to feel about that.

    Besides that.
    This chapter being dedicated to the aftermath of the battle was fun. Now we might see some more necromancer and dwarves at the inn.

    • It seems that Az’Kerash and Perril Chandler are almost 2 different people at this point. Maybe it’ll be a plot point later? I think that Eldavin hinted in the “paradigm shift” chapter that the death magic used to revive Perril Chandler had twisted his heroism in life to resentment in death, so maybe they literally are 2 people or maybe the magic is wearing off and the resentment with it? It’s too early to say.
      I for one enjoy the idea of a midway story boss being a nuanced character. He’s got pride in his apprentice and a legendary evil queen to worry about at home.

      • I had a lot of fun with the necromancer when he was the villain of the story. I’m ok with him having humanity and nuance. I’m cool with him tending to his dysfunctional family and caring about Pisces, (his only real connection to being a person and not a monster).
        But I still want him to have agency, goals to accomplish of his own that make him dangerous. Because without agency, he is kinda just there. Not the villain anymore, but not really anything else either.
        It might just be a case of pirate saving the necromancer and development that centers around him for a later part of the story. But until that comes around. I have no clue what to think of him.

        • Ah. I get what you’re saying. You’re totally right. Early into the story his motivation was clearly to kill everyone in Liscor and make it a personal base. Ever since he was thwarted, his role has definitely taken a more passive role.
          I also think you’re right and that Paba is saving him for later. It definitely seems like he just has things at home that are keeping him from being an active player, and so it definitely comes off as a lack of agency. Perhaps a better way to word it is that he has become TWI’s equivalent of Piccolo. Though I do think that it’s a temporary position XD
          Does that make Pisces Gohan? I don’t know how well the analogy holds.

        • I feel like he was never that serious of a villain? He always came across to me as more… chaotic and misguided, rather than purposefully evil. Paba had done, in the early parts of the story, a good job of making sure none of the evils were truly evil and none of the goods truly good, and I’d always sort of assumed that AK was going to wind up as one of the good guys when the final climax hit.

          Now at this end of the story, the true evils – Nerrhavia or Emir Yazdil, for ex – are a whole lot more black and white. I still think AK is going to fight against them when the real shit goes down.

          • Never a serious villain?
            A. The destruction of a kingdom. He destroyed an entire kingdoms and killed tens of thousands of people. It’s been directly said in the story that it was his actions as the necromancer that caused the world to fear them. It’s why Pisces had to hide his craft and was hunted.

            2. The hunt for rokya Griffen. As soon as someone found out he was alive, he sent his own servants to kill rokya and make her shut up. It ends with the deaths of over 30 people and rokya herself. (Revived by a dragon and was guided by a fae) his actions caused suffering for everyone in the wandering inn and liscor.
            He showed here that he didn’t really care how many people had to die, as long as his survival was kept secret.

            3. The death of Zel Shivertal. He literally killed zel because he was interfering with his plans. He killed a good person, so he could continue to plot and plan.

            4. The enslavement of the goblin lord and the attack on liscor…. Do you remember the end of book five? It couldn’t have happened without the necromancer.

            Through the early story he was presented as a monster, one with interesting traits and quirks. But something that caused tragedy with its every action.
            A manipulator that made monsters to do his bidding, to achieve its simple goal of death for all of Irizil. He was a serious villain. And only gained more humanity and morals after volume five.

    • Actually, for me personally, i find that the Necromancer is now experiencing, vicariously through Pisces, the gratitude and good will a mage of the magic (Necromancy or otherwise) school (when used with purpose and for a good cause, since all magic is as good and evil as the one casting it) should be given for their skill and effort. And while it could of possibly made him resent Pisces, it seems it has made him into a fatherly/good mentor persona for Pisces, a person who, while he knows its far to late for his own redemption to come, may offer Pisces advice and help to avoid his mistakes from the past and become a truly powerful and liked Necromancer, possibly even changing the Wistram view of the Necromancy school. Who knows, we MAY be looking at an actual future [Archmage] of Necromancy in the making, one that will take Chandlers place and be remembered for the good he did. You never know…..

    • Honestly, i find the change in Chandler to be somewhat promising. He meant to upbring Pisces as just your run of the mill Necromancer, someone who will be feared by everyone. But when he witnessed how his team fought for him/beside him, how the people accepted him for his DEEDS and not the general perception of Necromancers, and even going so far as to be world famous as the killers of an Elder Creller, perhaps his views of his past deeds made him more into someone who might become a valued mentor for Pisces, in not only Necromantic knowledge, but to help him navigate the traps and mistakes he him self did.
      Who knows, if Chandler continues in this course, we might be seeing the birth of the new [Archmage] of Necromancy. We may even witness the restoration of the Necromancy school in Wistram.
      Lets not forget, the magic is only as good or evil as is the person using it. Pisces just might be the person that reintroduces Necromancy magic to the populus (aside from Rhir).

  9. Oh Xrn, haha. What a move.

    An unstable dictator took control of a religious military company, declared independence and will soon have access to a birther sack to create her own child soldiers that will be indoctrinated by the previous generation. I wonder if the Laken = Hitler crowd will gloss over this because it makes for a good story or start going Xrn = Boko Haram.

    • Wasn’t that crowd very small to the point of like a few people? It’d be more accurate to say they’re the crowd that objects to Laken’s existence rather then the crowd who think Laken is a Hitler analogue.

    • I think only Ryoka openly equated him to Hitler. At this point I think Laken does his best to atone for his past mistakes. Unfortunately (through trickery or not, willingly or not) he is now effectively Tamaroth’s minion.

  10. Great chapter. The grand queen is going to give me stress headaches. Xrn getting her personality shifted to chaotic neutral is interesting but darn if I didn’t miss her ‘aunt xrn’ shenanigans.

  11. Top 25 chapter. Maybe better. I really enjoy the Pisces section, and Magnolia is back to doing what she does best, read and react (instead of making plans and trying to force them a little too much).

    The necromancer (HC) is interesting. Unlike characters like Tyrion and Pursua who seem to be purely monstrous, HC seems to be a warning of what can happen when someone is isolated and treated unjustly, while also seeming to be beyond redemption… but maybe he’s not depending on what the act is. He still needs stabbed for his past, but ill at least feel a little bad if/when he goes.

    • I wrote this in an comment above. Chandler may use his past deeds as refrences for Pisces what NOT to do and to learn from his mistakes. He may also give Pisces valuable information to progress in his class. Far from it that it in any way redeems him for his past crimes, but with this, he MAY find some redemption, even if it is just in his own mind.

  12. Rags fucked up bad there.

    last time a goblin leader was taken at his word on just wanting to be a mercanery and make a living for his tribe was valen the kind.

    any good will she might have gained is probably gone from the inevitable comparison and how it would effect drake and human response.

  13. I like how Liscor gets more progressive as the volume rolls by. We started with speciest Drake city who only tolerated Gnolls to getting Antiniums aboveground, Humans moving in, Gnolls in council, and now, Antinium army for hire. Man. It might not yet be the Goblin city Reiss dreamed of but it sure is becoming a city that will welcome all, even Goblins someday.

  14. Epic

    Most epic, was the perfect political understanding of Rags, and how she needed to be understood as a known quantity first – mercenaries, before the transition to being seen as people could happen. Brilliantly done.

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