9.57 B – The Wandering Inn

9.57 B

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Ballista. Based on the root Latin word of ballein, or ‘to throw’, at least on Earth. A huge, crossbow-shaped weapon that functioned off a similar concept to a crossbow, but actually had a completely different design when it came to the storage and release of energy.

If you were staring at one, say, in the snow, just outside Liscor, on a bed of wooden planks laid there to keep it from getting wet, with a shiny little pink bow on top of it, you might see a long, gleaming length of wood an arm span and a half across with a huge groove running down the center.

That neat groove was, like a crossbow, meant to hold the bolt and provide a simple launching point to send an object through the air and into a target with extreme force. Where a ballista differed from a bow or Greatbow was that, unlike the bows which you had to pull back and hold in place, crossbows and ballistae stored all the force, letting you hold your fire rather than demanding exceptional arm-strength.

However, where a crossbow would use a bow-design and pull a string back then lock it via a simple trigger mechanism, a ballista was more complex.

For one thing, Rags’ Thunderbows, which a Hobgoblin was propping up next to the ballista for comparison—even the emplaced, giant crossbows strung with Wyvern-fiber thread were tiny compared to this object.

Thunderbows had a tripod-like design to absorb the shock of firing. The ballista was mounted on a huge dais of wood that allowed it to swivel, then lock into place via gears. In fact, the astonished Drakes running around it and Riverfarm’s [Engineers], who’d come pouring out of the doorway and were being chased by an [Innkeeper] with a broom, had been trying to copy the impressive gears that few species could manufacture.

These, combined with a number of wheels that you could hand-crank, let the ballista move in every direction. Older models were more primitive and just had a simple support structure, but this one was new.

Polished. Each piece of wood was hand-cut and polished by Minotaurs, the trees selected for their strength and durability. Banded steel gleamed alongside rivets of metal that held each part together.

Oh, and it was huge.

This is too big! Pallass’ ballistae aren’t—”

Watch Commander Venim was shouting as a single Antinium sat on top of the ballista. Which he could do because this was no two-man ballista from the days of the Roman Empire, again, on Earth. Smaller ballistae had been made such that you could port them around and set them up. This one, too, could move, but you’d need oxen, a bag of holding, and definitely [Engineers] to tear it down and set it up.

The huge, box-like ‘head’ of the ballista had two gigantic spindles of thread, like a bobbin, that were oddly twisted together like muscle fiber. In fact, the original inventors of the ballista had come across a technique known as ‘torsion’ wherein the bundles of fiber could be wound tighter and tighter together. Unlike a crossbow or bow which just pulled back, you tightened both spindles, and they stored the energy without the need to project all the force across the bow’s front.

That was what Rags, taking notes with her Goblins, had been trying to master and Kevin had told her about. Thunderbows, using Wyvernbone, had a set limit to how much force they could handle because they had to store it in the single ‘bow’ part of the weapon. But ballistae could store more force without needing to rely on one part to take all the stress.

Thus, the head of the bow was heavy, a giant rectangle of wood with two bow-limbs jutting out from each side, and when the ballista bolt—huge, iron-tipped, made of light balsa wood shafts, each one stamped with the House of Minos’ sigil—was placed in the rail, the ballista was ready to fire.

This was one of the largest products the House of Minos made. And they did not make these for sale, by and large. This ballista was the kind Rasea Zecrew had stolen for her Illuminary—a warship class ballista that had…

“—Effective range of two thousand feet for direct fire! Maximum range eight thousand! Artillery capabilities—nineteen thousand! That’s impossible!”

Someone was reading off the manual that came with it. Troydel raised his head in disbelief.

Impossible? No. This is the House of Minos!”

Bezale roared with pride. She strode over and pointed to the gleaming contraption so they could see the varnished wood, the metal and painstaking work that had gone into making this device capable of taking the force of firing. It had to be two tons of weight! How had Magnolia even gotten it outside the inn!?

Well, the [Spies] had been watching her [Maids] setting up the foundation and then assembling it all evening while the party began. Bezale put her hand on the wood.

“This isn’t your Drake siege weapon, which they make with cheap lumber and magic. Each weapon from the House of Minos is meant to serve for decades—at least! Nations can buy one or two—if they’re approved! There is no finer weapon in all of Izril than this.”

“Hah. Now that’s where you’re wrong. Pallass has better.”

Someone, Chaldion, shot back. But even he couldn’t conceal the gleam of avarice in his eyes. The [Emperor], Laken Godart, was folding his arms, face mixed between a scowl and smile.

After all, this weapon put his newly-made trebuchets to shame. True, his trebuchets could fire farther, but this one could be aimed and didn’t need intensive calculations. It was a weapon for an archer, and the construction and expertise that went into it outstripped anything but a Walled City’s weapon with enchanted munitions.

The smile was because he was going to steal the designs. The House of Minos was one of a very small number of people who actually studied how things were made. Like the Drakes, they could reproduce siege weapons without relying on a class like [Engineer] and needing Skills.

But Laken’s people also believed that Skills were a crutch you could lean on—but not necessary. It would take time and effort, but Goblins, the Unseen Empire, both were learning just from observing this device.

And all of it, all of it was because Magnolia Reinhart had somehow managed to buy a Minotaur-made ballista and placed it here. She knew exactly what she was doing.

In fact, she really did know what she was doing. Right now, Lyonette du Marquin was screaming curses.

Magnolia! You snake! You treacherous—you don’t give him what he wants! Bird, get off it! Bezale, tell your people to take it back! We cannot have this in the inn!

“The inn can’t even support its weight. You put that on your roof and you’ll cave it in. Even with Erin’s Skills—that thing needs a foundation the kind this inn was never made in mind with.”

That was a warning from Hexel. Lyonette covered her face.

Yes, just firing the ballista had so many warnings attached in the manual that Felkhr, who was from the Engineering Guild, realized that this thing could shatter bones if you were too close. He flipped through the manual, which had come in triplicate.

Never fire this thing without something to hurl. Never aim it at anything you didn’t want to disappear. Maintenance routines alone had nearly a hundred pages of exacting notes.

The fact this ballista was here meant something. While Chaldion thought of the effective range of the weapon and how dangerous this might make Liscor’s ‘reach’, someone else thought about Magnolia and the House of Minos’ politics.

That someone was actually Archmage Valeterisa. She didn’t really care for machines. This one wasn’t even enchanted. But as the Archmage of Izril, she had a passing understanding of the principles that had gone into getting this here.

Forget the transport. Or the issues of cost. Magnolia Reinhart would find a way. The real challenge that should have stumped even her was…

The Minotaur King. The House of Minos had a working bureaucracy, but for matters like this, especially what had to be a custom-order and given the recipient, Valeterisa had no doubt that the Minotaur King herself, Inreza, would have had to approve this.

Which meant Inreza knew Bird was getting a ballista, and it also meant that some of the choices here were deliberate. Bezale, for all her posing as a Minotaur-expert, had missed the obvious. She was frowning at the bolts as if something in her mind had picked out an oddity, but she had probably just walked past the ballistae on the shores of the House of Minos, never operated one.

She was a [Mage], after all, and even if she had passed the trials of the Beriad, artillery-specialization was not part of that.

Chaldion noticed. Valeterisa noticed. Even Nalthaliarstrelous and Shassa noticed. Tyrion Veltras was looking towards Jericha with an unspoken question in his eyes, but no one said anything.

How interesting. Bird was lying on his backshell on top of the ballista, arms spread wide. He was laughing up at the snowy sky.

“This is the best Christmas ever! I have it! I have it! I will shoot every bird there was and ever will be! I am Bird! Ha! Hahaha—HAHAHAHAHA—

He might have been going slightly insane with glee. Everyone else looked greatly concerned, from Liscor’s Council to Zevara, Venim, Lyonette—people who were responsible or might be affected by the ballista felt true fear on this great holiday.

As for Garuda? Bevussa Slenderscale slowly drank from a milkshake. Then she turned to her team.

“No one’s flying around Liscor for the near future.”

What a day. What a gift! People were still staring; others were going nuts, like Mrsha, who knew her best little brother would definitely let her fire that thing. Some, like Ryoka, were thinking of the Winter Solstice and wondering if that ballista would be overkill, needed, or worse, not enough.

And what did Erin think of all this?

Erin Solstice finished chasing away the [Spies] and [Engineers]. She turned and saw the massive contraption that she bet half a dozen Antinium or more would have to work together to even rotate, and her mind lit up a second with something like understanding.

Oh. Maybe…

She didn’t say what she thought. Rather, Erin walked up to the ballista the wrong way, facing the empty groove. Visma and Ekirra were trying to load a ballista bolt into it, and Erin asked one question to herself.

“I wonder if I’m immune to this?

She decided not to find out. Tonight, at least. But Bird refused to go inside, even for cake, for over an hour. His ballista was here. He had willed it into existence.

This was the tale of a Bird and his new ballista as it happened up until the Winter Solstice.

 

——

 

His name was Bird, and he was the happiest Antinium in the entire world when he woke up. Bird was sitting in his Fortress of Fluff, a very good place to be.

The layered blankets and pillows were designed to be as comfy as possible. He had all kinds of comfy things around him; Antinium didn’t lie down to sleep, so the best ‘bed’ for them supported their shell as they passed out. He would pull a bolster of feathers in front of him and lean on them as he slept.

He even had a doll of himself that Visma had given him as a Christmas present, and so Bird had put the doll on his head to sleep. Sometimes, he would have company.

Mrsha would curl up next to him until Lyonette came in and tried to remove her, or Apista would land on his fortress and take a nap. Often, Bird found Reagen snoozing on his back, much to Numbtongue’s hurt, as Numbtongue’s cat liked Bird more than him on the grounds that Bird provided a more stable sleeping surface.

Bird liked life. He was first of the new Antinium: an Individual, and even more than that, he was one of the original chess players that had long ago met a strange [Innkeeper] and been granted a chance to become something more than what they were.

He, Bird, was even more different still, because he had quit the Free Hive entirely. He still visited, but Bird was a self-proclaimed Prognugator, known as ‘Bird the Hunter’ by the Drake cities. He was a [Bird Hunter], a [Liar], a [Revalantor], a [Singer], and a [Tactician].

He had hidden Niers in his hat. He had survived Liscor’s dungeon alone. He had killed giant Face-Eater Moths and Wyverns with arrows.

Sometimes, it amazed Bird the things he’d done, and he wondered if he’d dreamed it all. Today, he rushed to the window and put all four hands on the glass. His breath frosted the glass, and he wiped it away and saw—

It’s real! I didn’t dream it! Huzzah! I am the happiest Bird ever! I have a ballista, and it wasn’t a dream! Lalala, Magnolia Reinhart is the best! Everyone else hates her, but I love her! Now I can shoot birds even in their nests! I wonder if I can hit Pallass from here? All birds must feel fear!”

He ran around in a circle in his room, arms raised, until someone shouted and rapped on his door.

Bird! It’s barely past dawn! Stop shouting!

That was Lyonette. She was a grumpy person. Bird opened the door meekly and beamed at Lyonette. She had a bushy head of red hair and looked bleary. Doubtless, she’d been up late for the party, and while she woke at dawn, she clearly regretted it today.

“I am sorry, Lyonette. But my ballista! Huzzah?”

He lifted his arms hopefully, and she made a half-hearted attempt.

“Huzzah. Bird—you can’t go outside and fire it.”

He was jogging down the hallway, but he slowed, reluctantly, as Lyonette called out.

“Why not?”

“We have to have a proper discussion about it. Bird, no. It’s dangerous, the Council and Zevara are both worried, and Erin—well, even she knows how insane it is! Magnolia Reinhart has lost her mind. You’re not to touch it until we set down a lot of ground rules, understand?”

Bird’s raised arms stopped waving. He lowered them.

“But—but it’s my present.”

His feet edged towards the hallway, and Lyonette glared.

“Bird! No breakfast if you touch it!”

The Worker thought about that. He was halfway downstairs when Lyonette chased after him.

Bird! It’s a dangerous weapon! Plus—”

She seemed to have a thought. The thing was, you couldn’t threaten Bird like Mrsha. But you could reason with him.

“—It’s loud, Bird. You don’t want to wake up Erin, do you?”

The Antinium was almost at the common room door, and he paused. His entire body tensed up, and he hunched his shoulders.

“It’s not that loud. If I fire it once—”

“Erin will wake up, Bird. Plus, everyone else will get sad because they have no sleep. Remember how mad you were when Mrsha kept waking you up?”

Lyonette coaxed him, proving that she had lived with Bird for almost a year. The Antinium rotated slowly.

“But my ballista. What if I only sort of fire it?”

“How about after breakfast, Bird? And we have to make the rules. Come on, I’ll ask Calescent to make you some spicy bird nuggets. Breaded!”

Bird’s antennae drooped.

“What if someone steals it though, Lyonette?”

She rolled her eyes as Ser Sest relayed her order to Calescent, who was cooking with a new spatula Pebblesnatch had gifted him, yawning but smiling. Lyonette rolled her eyes, exasperated.

“Bird. It’s a giant weapon. No one’s going to steal it.”

He reluctantly sat at a table, kicking his legs. Oh well. He was going to get to fire it soon. This was the life of Bird, after all. He had gotten his ballista. He was a liar and a clever Bird. There was surely nothing he couldn’t do. He wondered if he could hunt a Gargoyle. Sometimes, he saw them in the High Passes.

Calescent could cook a Gargoyle, right?

 

——

 

“Someone tried to steal Bird’s ballista, Miss Lyonette. I ran ‘em off with Dame Ushar. But that makes three. Most didn’t know where to begin, but I reckon a guard is going to be needed.”

Lyonette nearly spat out her breakfast, and Bird’s head rose. Before he had even touched his ballista!

Alcaz delivered the report in the morning. Alcaz was a nice man. Ballistae aside, Bird had a nice family, a nice inn, and his mornings were often with the rest of the family at a big table.

As he understood the inn, there was Erin, who was like…an Erin. She did things. Sometimes, she died and was frozen and everyone was sad. Other times, she did crazy fun things. Or sad things. But the one who ran the inn was Lyonette.

She was the boss. Erin was like a mascot. Bird had once said this, and Lyonette had laughed until she fell over. Mrsha was the mini-mascot and troublemaker. She was the kid. Bird was also a kid, but he had a job and got paid.

While he sat in his tower, Mrsha had fun and did kid things. Lyonette ran the place; Peggy, Rosencrantz, Calescent, and the Thronebearers were all mini-bosses who did bossy things and kept things running.

Then there was the staff. There were two pets, Apista and Reagen. And the bone rat in the basement. Bird had named him ‘Weirdo’. No one else believed he existed, even Mrsha, and Mrsha believed all kinds of silly things.

Now, there were lots of guests, but those were guests. Even the Horns were guests when they were here. Kevin and Joseph were sort of guests still; they had jobs outside the inn. But the two wildcards in the inn were Numbtongue and Octavia.

Octavia had been sort of like a separate person in her shop for a long time. Now, she was more like the family, but sometimes she wasn’t part of the group. And Numbtongue was like…an older brother type guy who played in the inn, sometimes helped, but often just had fun or kissed people in his room.

Bird had tried to define his role, which wasn’t Mrsha’s, and he had settled on the facts. Numbtongue played music. He ate, sometimes helped, but mostly just was having fun.

Numbtongue was the vagrant bum hobo. The Hobgoblin got mad whenever Bird mentioned his job. But since he didn’t have a useful role, Bird didn’t care.

Obviously, Alcaz was the security. He was reporting on the attempted thefts, and Lyonette massaged her head.

“No one could fit that in a bag of holding, right, Alcaz?”

“No, Miss Lyonette. But I bet someone could try. And as I happened to understand it—if you can disassemble the ballista…”

“We’ll have to secure it. Oh, dead gods! What are we going to do? Erin, we have to meet with the Council! They’re afraid Bird will hit the city! And he could! If he aims up, the bolt could come down and level a house! And what if he misses? Magnolia’s going to ruin us all!

Erin Solstice opened her mouth as she took a bite of her breakfast roll. She looked blankly at Lyonette.

“I don’t wanna meet the Council. How about you—”

No! Or you can tell Bird the rules! He was going to fire it at dawn!”

Bird kicked his feet at the table happily, and Erin stared at him.

“…I’ll go talk to the Council. You tell Bird the rules. Uh, what’re the rules?”

Everyone turned to Bird, who was beaming. He glanced over at where Normen and Jewel were sitting. They were now [Knights], so he supposed that was their role in the inn. No longer security and funny adventurer that people made fun of.

Things changed, but Bird did not. He bounced up and down in his seat, vibed from side to side, and sang. Ever just Bird.

That was what worried his caretakers, of course. Lyonette looked far older than the girl who’d come to the inn, calling everyone peon. Mrsha was super tall compared to the white rat she’d been when biting people and hiding under the tables. Numbtongue…Bird supposed he hadn’t grown in height, but he was different from the naked Hob hiding in Erin’s basement.

And Erin also looked older. She was twenty-seven and had aged, like, eight years in a single year. But Bird? No thank you.

“Do not worry, Erin, Lyonette. I never miss. Well, sometimes I miss, but I never miss badly. I will promise to shoot only birds. And bad people. And things I want to shoot for fun. Okay? Good talk!”

He got up, and Erin had to call him back.

“Bird! I know you want to use your ballista, but it’s a big responsibility. Magnolia gave you a huge gift. So you should thank her. Maybe write her a letter? And you will have to follow more rules about firing it.”

“B—but it’s my gift. You do whatever you want.”

Bird pointed accusatorially at Erin, and Mrsha snorted. Erin sighed.

“I know, but I don’t have a siege weapon, Bird. We don’t even have a place to store it! I need to talk to Hexel.”

As it so happened, the Lamia was breakfasting at Erin’s inn.

“I thought you’d need my services, Miss Solstice. I think we had better begin cashing in some of your gifts from your admirers. Thankfully…the Merchant’s Guild confirms I have access to some of the funds already.”

Funds? Bird’s antennae waved, and his mind connected the dots. Sometimes, he was a silly fellow, he rightfully admitted, but he was still part of Erin’s inn.

He bet Fetohep and Niers and maybe Altestiel and the others had paid for her inn behind her back. It was a very Fetohep thing to do, and Erin probably needed money for the Solstice. The [Innkeeper] looked resigned.

“Big day, guys. Okay, I’ll meet with Hexel, Lyonette to the Council. But we make rules for Bird now and tell everyone what’s what. So no one worries…much. Got it? And if you so much as touch the ballista or break any rule, I’ll send it back to the House of Minos, Bird!

She pointed at him, and he shouted in horror.

“No! You can’t! It’s my gift! You couldn’t even send it, anyways!”

“I know like half a dozen Couriers! I’ll find a way, Bird. No. Touching. You can fire it, but after we agree to how it’s used. Got it?”

She met his eyes with hers, and he knew she was serious. Bird slumped in his chair.

“You used to be more fun, Erin. You look twenty-seven today.”

He was pleased by the way she clutched at her heart. Bird beamed—right up until he noticed Mrsha trying to nab one of his chicken nuggets. Then he stared at her, so hurt that she put the nugget back on his plate and gave him half a fried egg.

All these minor things were okay. Because in the end—it always came up Bird. That was the ideal way to live, you know. Bird all the way down. All your chips on Bird. Then at some point, a monster ate you and you died.

It had worked so far for Bird.

 

——

 

There was someone Bird had missed on his internal categorization of the inn’s inhabitants, and it was Ulvama.

He’d thought she was just a guest. Then she was a layabout like Numbtongue. But he was beginning to fear she was becoming a new boss like Lyonette.

The problem was, he had a feeling she didn’t have the same problem dealing with him as everyone else. As proof of that, he and Ulvama had never quarreled. She ate food, he ate food. She never lectured him or told him something he didn’t want to hear. That suggested she understood him.

Rather, she told Lyonette or Erin to do things. Bird saw her come over while Erin was pulling at her hair over the ‘ballista rules’. Erin was consulting with Selys, Lyonette, Ser Dalimont, Ulvama, and Halrac over the rules, and when Bird noticed the [Shaman] eying him, he eyed her back.

“Bird. We have a list of rules for you, okay? It’s not…the worst.”

How is the list so short?

Lyonette was half-screaming as she leaned on Selys’ shoulder, and the [Heiress] was patting her hand.

“It’ll be okay, Lyonette. It’ll be okay. I have to go. I’ll come back tonight if the inn’s still standing.”

Bird sat there as Erin came over to tell him the rules with Lyonette. He instantly stopped listening. Ulvama was watching him, and Bird’s head moved left, right, in every direction but the list of rules. Erin snapped her fingers, and he pretended to pay attention, but he just watched the other guests.

Oh! Oh! Here was another another person he hadn’t thought of! Yelroan!

The Gnoll hadn’t been anywhere during Christmas, and only Bird seemed to have noticed in the commotion. He wasn’t part of the inn yet, that was the problem. Even Ulvama had worked her way in, but Yelroan acted like he didn’t matter, so people treated him like he didn’t.

He was heading upstairs, eying Bird and the others, yawning. His fur had snow in it. Bird bet he’d been with the Silverfang Gnolls. He’d seen Yelroan heading out before showing up when the presents were being opened.

He waved at Yelroan, and Erin snapped.

“Bird! Were you listening?”

Bird turned. And to her surprise, he nodded.

“Yes, Miss Erin. Rule #3. Never point the ballista at Liscor at all excepting in times of extreme crisis or with the express permission of Watch Captain Zevara. I am listening, see? Hello, Yelroan!”

He waved again, and the Gnoll waved back as everyone looked at him.

“Hi, ah, Bird.”

The [Mathematician] escaped, and Erin gave Bird a suspicious look. She knew he hadn’t been paying attention. Bird knew he hadn’t been paying attention. But he had the ability to remember anything he wanted. Usually. Mostly.

He did not want to remember these stupid rules, but with a sigh, Bird committed them to memory. He ignored the stupid ones. Basically, he summarized them up.

“I am not allowed to shoot people. I cannot aim my ballista at Liscor or anything else like the inn. I should not shoot the ballista into the air if I do not know where it lands. I cannot fire the ballista at night or in the early morning or evenings. I must not do anything dangerous with the ballista. Only I can fire the ballista, or someone Miss Lyonette or Miss Erin has approved. No Mrshas are ever allowed near the ballista. All of these rules are stupid, and I will ignore them if there is an emergency. Is that right?”

Lyonette had a headache. But Erin gave him a long look and nodded.

“That’s mostly it.”

Mrsha was protesting the rule about her, but the rest of the guests, even the silly ones, seemed to think the rules were good. Bird supposed he could accept them.

After all, he could still use his bow. He hopped out of his seat.

“Now I get to fire it!”

“No!”

Lyonette screamed, and he looked at her.

“What now?”

“I just—is this real? Is this reality? Calanfer doesn’t have a ballista! And Bird just has a weapon of war, and we’re letting him use it?”

Selys’ patting of Lyonette’s shoulder intensified. Bird chirped happily.

“That is because Calanfer is a backwater, primitive kingdom unlike Liscor, which is far better now that it has a ballista. The world can be divided into two kinds of places. One has a ballista. The other does not. Liscor’s walls are better than the Eternal Throne’s.”

She got so mad at this it was worth it. Erin just gave Bird another look that was mildly unsettling. It was her serious stare that made him think she knew something he didn’t.

“Lyonette, Magnolia knows what she’s doing. Take it up with her. We can’t stop Bird. If we forbid him from using it, he’ll fire it behind our backs. Let him try. But Bird—”

She held up a hand, and he decided one more injunction and he’d ignore everyone. Bird turned his head.

“Whaaaaaaat.”

Erin’s eyes were serious.

“Read the manual first, Bird.”

The [Bird Hunter] stopped. And remembered there was one. He stood there a second. He’d never had a bow that had a manual. He supposed he could read it.

 

——

 

Two hundred pages almost exactly. Bird flipped a page, then stared at a diagram of how the ballista was cranked up and down with one of the levers. Kevin oohed.

“Dude. These Minotaurs made something amazing! They don’t really have heavy industry, but they have gears on the level of Pallass. This is—”

Bird flipped the page. Kevin shouted.

“Hey! Bird! Erin told you to read it!”

“I am reading it. You are slow, Kevin. That handle moves it up. That handle moves it left to right. This is very easy.”

Bird was flipping through the manual at about a second or two per page. He memorized the things he thought he’d need to use later; most of it was simple. The ballista moved! It could swivel around, come apart, and there were cranks you turned to make it pull the lever back to cock for firing.

It wouldn’t, shouldn’t, be able to fire without being fully drawn and loaded, and even then, you disengaged a safety first along with another one to prime it to be fired to begin with. Obviously, in battle it was faster, but Bird saw four handles for four people at once to crank the ballista back.

Too bad he couldn’t do all four with one hand each. The other complex levers and such allowed precise movement, and it even had ways of calculating how to hit a target with some measurements on the ballista’s front. You would line up a tiny crosshair with a magnifying glass lens and then calculate how far away the target was and adjust.

Bird did that all with his bow, so this part didn’t interest him. He flipped through the handbook and stood up.

“All done! Time to shoot it!”

And like that, guests hurried out of the inn to watch from a safe distance. Lyonette screamed into her apron, and Mrsha went running only to be caught by Ser Sest.

“Holy shit. This is going to be awesome.”

Not everyone was as worried as Lyonette, by the way. Someone came jogging out, barefoot save for her footwraps, and Ryoka shivered as her bare feet made contact with the snow.

Agh! Agh—

She ran inside and got some slippers. But then she, all the Goblins, Antinium, and more were gathered around as Bird ran up to his ballista.

It was still there, a huge, gleaming mass of machinery. Bird stopped, ran a hand along it, felt the wood, and hugged it.

“This is the greatest day ever.”

“Whatcha going to shoot at, Bird?”

Erin called out as she walked out of her inn. Bird looked around and stared at Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked puzzled until Lyonette shouted.

Bird!

“I wish to practice with it. I wouldn’t hit anything. Maybe I will hit a bird today.”

Bird craned his head back, but it was winter, so few birds were around. He sighed. Maybe a Rock Crab?

Teriarch was striding past Bird and half-dragging a pleading Drake that Bird didn’t know behind him. He paid attention because she had wings.

“Another day? Come on, Teriarch—”

“You got your day off. The wilds wait for no one. We will see you in a week, Master Lulv.”

Teriarch dragged Rafaema through the door, and the Gnoll tried to go after them. Bird hoped Lulv would trip on his spear. He decided now was the time.

“I am going to fire! Everyone stand back! Especially Mrshas!”

Everyone took a generous step back. Bird grandly found the sheaf of ballista bolts and hefted one. They were lighter than he thought. A bit topheavy, but he knew how to compensate for the drop. He loaded one into the ballista, or tried to.

“Oh. I have forgotten this is wound up. One second. I wind with these…”

Sure enough, there were four huge wheels you spun around to draw the ballista back and wind up the spindles of thread. Bird began to rotate one around and found it was a fairly intensive process. It wasn’t impossible, but he doubted Mrsha could move the lever. The hand-crank was big enough to put both hands on to spin; it was hollow, and you could attach these metal rods so you could use your height and weight to spin it with additional leverage.

Bird could move the wheel without, so he did. The physical challenge was nothing in the face of his good mood.

He ended up using two hands, and when his audience saw the ballista slowly moving, Numbtongue, Garia, and even Ser Sest volunteered to help. Lyonette shouted.

“Sest!”

They got the ballista pulling back at quite good speed, and apparently, it only took two minutes and thirty seconds if you were really fast, without Skills, for a team to load the ballista.

Which was silly slow. But Bird supposed, for such a big weapon, it was fast. It might have taken longer; he was admiring the click of gears and how the complex things inside the ballista turned.

“What are you doing, Sest?”

Lyonette was outraged, but the charming Thronebearer shot her an embarrassed smile.

“I’m sorry, Miss Lyonette. But I am a lad at heart, and I’ll wager any lad wants to see this thing fire once.”

Certainly, it looked like everyone standing there wanted a turn, boys and girls and Mrshas. Even Lyonette fidgeted.

“Well, of course it looks fun, but—we’ll all have a go after Bird is done. However many days that is.”

Bird heard a tremendous click as he realized it was done. He stepped back, and Garia wiped her brow theatrically.

“That’d be a good workout, like your gym.”

“Yup. All set, Bird?”

“I am. Please step back, Numbtongue! Side effects of being too near the ballista include death. If you are not standing where I am.”

Bird drew a line, and the others stepped back hurriedly as he slotted the bolt into place. Perfect! Then Lyonette called out again.

“Bird! Don’t aim that at the city! Understand?”

Wow. He was getting tired of her pointing out things he knew. Bird twitched his antennae expressively.

“I am going to aim it at something else, Lyonette. That Rock Crab, maybe.”

He’d spotted an innocent Rock Crab slowly meandering across the Floodplains. They usually hibernated, but this one might have been cold and looking for more warmth. It was well away from any farm, and Bird reckoned it was maybe a thousand and four hundred paces away.

Perfect. The ballista’s shots could curve, but anything in two thousand feet could be hit just by pointing and firing. He heaved on the ballista, and nothing happened. Then Bird slapped his forehead.

“Oh. Silly me. Lever.”

He had to find a hand-crank and turn it. Slowly, the ballista began swinging left, towards Liscor’s walls. All the Watch had been on the walls, staring at the ballista, and half took cover behind the battlements. Bird stopped, reversed the direction of the wheel.

“Oops. Haha. La, la, turning right. I should not have loaded this right now. I could fire it just by pulling this lever.”

He pointed at it. Lyonette did not continue screaming; she seemed to realize she was the one occupying that role, but she gave Erin a significant look.

The lever was, in fact, sort of odd to Bird. He’d seen crossbows work, and while he didn’t like the trigger mechanism, he could see pointing and aiming it. He wished the ballista had one, even if it would be comically huge or tiny compared to the thing. A lever was so…funny for a ranged weapon.

Oh well. He kept moving the ballista right…and right…and right again. After about a minute of watching it turn, Numbtongue called out.

“You going to take all day, Bird? I want a turn!”

“It turns slow. Help me turn that wheel. No, that one.”

Again, two people could manipulate the ballista at a time. Bird let Garia and Numbtongue take over and began fiddling with the base.

“Stand clear of that thingy or it’ll mash your feet.”

Since she had no feet, Charlay the Centaur peered around the ballista.

“Psst, Antinium fellow. What’s that lever do?”

“Up-down, strange Centaur lady.”

The ballista was aimed up. Bird had to dial it down…and down…and after a while, Sest joined in.

It was more fiddly than he thought. With enough people, he knew you could disengage the gear-system and move with brute force, then re-lock it, but this was fine. Bird shouted.

“Okay! We’re ready!”

About sixteen minutes had passed since he began the loading, and he finally had the Rock Crab in sight. Bird disengaged the safety-lever as everyone sprang back.

“Now, crab, is the day of your discontent. With life. Because I have a ballista. Heh.”

He put his hand on the firing mechanism and stared at the crab from the back end of the ballista. Then Bird paused.

“Oops. You moved.”

He began twirling a hand-crank and making a more minute adjustment to the right. Mrsha and the kids were dancing up and down. Ekirra had his paws half over his eyes, but he was peeking every two seconds. Erin was munching on some chips Ulvama had in a bowl, and the Hobgoblin was poking Erin because they were her chips.

Ser Sest was holding up a scrying orb to show someone, and Bird paused.

“Eat crab, Rock Crab! No, wait. Eat ballista…”

He paused. He needed the right words for this.

You are not a bird, but my ballista doesn’t care for—hard shell? Meet bolt! No.”

“This is going to be crab-solutely amazing to see?”

Kevin shouted, and Bird gave him a long look, then a thumbs up.

“Yes. Good job, Kevin!”

He turned, and everyone tensed. Then Bird sighed.

“Stop moving!”

He fiddled with the controls and spun the ballista up—then down. Then it was moving left. Bird paused. Cranked the handle. Up, down…

The stupid Rock Crab didn’t have a deathwish or something! It was rushing around, likely chasing a rabbit or something. And unlike his bow, each adjustment meant Bird had to reach over and turn a crank. At least he had four hands; it was as if this mechanism had been designed for him, but it was annoying.

“Bird, just fire! It’s cold.

Erin shouted, and Bird snapped back.

“I’m trying!”

“Curve the bolt! Don’t you have a—”

Bird didn’t dignify that with an answer. He had [Homing Arrow], which would work on the ballista, but obviously this one was going to travel so fast that he wouldn’t get much curve on it. If it was longer-range…

At last, the Rock Crab halted, raising two claws in victory, and Bird exhaled. Now! He stopped, pulled the lever, and the ballista fired at last.

How did you describe the ballista firing? Well, in a sense, it wasn’t the dramatic thing you expected.

The ballista barely moved, and there was no huge blowback; if there were, it’d be dangerous to the operator. In the same way, the sound of the two wound spindles of thread unleashing their energy was not the loudest sound in the world.

And yet—the arms of the ballista moved so fast from their taut position to spreading out, releasing the energy and dragging the string up to launch the bolt, that even Bird barely saw them move.

All that force propelled one single bolt, as tall as Bird, through the air. Enough power to send twenty, perhaps thirty pounds of metal and wood through the world and through anything it wanted.

The bolt travelled across the Floodplains and hit the ground with such force the whump of impact blew the top off a hill and created an explosion even the audience could see, dirt and snow flying everywhere. Mrsha’s mouth dropped open, and a huge cheer rose—then dwindled in confusion.

Bird himself had flinched from the force he felt in front of him. But as his eyes found the ballista’s trajectory, he stopped. And stared.

A Rock Crab was frozen, a claw raised, staring at the ground juuuust in front of it, which was now a crater. The splintered ballista bolt had hit the ground, torn out a massive chunk, and gone flying, sending shrapnel and dirt spraying for the next hundred feet. The Rock Crab stared at the hole, touched it with a claw, then went scurrying fast as it could in the other direction.

“Bird. You—missed?”

Erin blinked, then chuckled, and good-natured laughter arose. Ser Sest leapt up with a whoop.

But the force of it! Did you see that, Your Majesties? Er, apologies.”

“I guess even Bird can miss with a new bow.”

Numbtongue commented to Garia, chuckling. Bird, though, frowned and realized he must have been a tad right. He bent over and went for another shot—only to realize he needed to reload. And the Rock Crab was running for its life. Bird stood there as Mrsha ran up, begging to try, and Lyonette let out a breath and decided Bird’s aim was good after all.

“Me next!”

Sammial charged forwards, but Ryoka caught him.

“Hey, Sammial, let Bird have his fun. We’ll be hours waiting for him—unless he wants to share before?”

She gave him a hopeful look. Everyone was excited, and Bird still felt the impact and shot, which had been everything he wanted. Even a Wyvern wouldn’t survive that…if you hit them in the head. Even that Wyvern Lord would be dodging those arrows.

He could hit the High Passes with this! Bird smiled. And yet there was some part of him. A small voice in the moments before he demanded a new target and for people to help him. And it said…

Huh?

Something was wrong. But he couldn’t put his finger on it just yet.

 

——

 

It was often said that Erin Solstice was the Human who was friends to Goblins or Antinium or just people in general.

And that was a stupid statement to Bird, because the truth was, Erin wasn’t friends with those people. They were friends with her. No one liked being condescendingly friended to. But they liked her and helped her and vice versa.

Erin unified people. But for all the [Innkeeper], the Goblinfriend, was said to be some grand link between species, she was half-baked. Second-rate.

What really unified people was a giant siege ballista. Or a soccer ball. Bird quickly realized that the ballista was unfeasible to load on his own.

The cranking took effort, and without multiple hands adjusting it, it sucked to aim. Happily, he knew how the ballista worked, and he had no shortage of people willing to help him load for a chance to fire.

In fact, the first group to appear was, predictably, the Antinium. Not just any Antinium, but the Workers who’d labored so long on the inn’s roof. Under Bird’s direction, they cranked the ballista’s arms back, wrestled the huge thing into place, all without begging for a turn in the line of people wanting to try it.

To these Workers, it seemed like just watching the giant contraption fire was enough joy. Indeed, more than one person just sat out watching the ballista fire for a good few hours, cold or not.

It was just as well Magnolia had installed the ballista on a heavy wood base. She’d known what she was doing. Hexel himself came out to observe the ballista with an [Architect]’s eye for it, and he pointed out what Bird had realized.

“This thing is going to need a heavy foundation. I can make a temporary tower, but it won’t be in the inn. How about here?”

He pointed to a place where the hill began to slope on the exact opposite side of The Wandering Inn from Liscor.

“I’ll need a lot of dirt moved, but with Antinium and an Archmage…give me three days, and I’ll get it done. [Rush Construction: No Mistakes]! Don’t worry, even if it’s a rush, I’ll get it done, and I have a [Head Builder] with [Instant Drying]. It’ll just be a huge platform on stone. Nothing fancy.”

The extra elevation would mean Bird could fire down as well as up, helpful for anyone sneaking up on the inn. It wouldn’t be as tall as his tower, so Hexel chose a spot that let Bird cover any spot but Liscor, on the assumption that Bird would not want to turn and fire at the city—or at The Wandering Inn.

“Go ahead!”

Erin had to shout because the crack of the ballista firing was followed by another cheer. Instead of Rock Crabs, which everyone agreed was slightly cruel to target when Mrsha pointed it out, Numbtongue had just taken a pot shot at a target they’d set up three thousand feet out on a hill.

“You do that, Hexel! I’m sorry—something’s on the news.”

Erin was distracted with Drowned Folk, and a few people peeled off when they heard something was going on. But Bird was busy managing the ballista, and it was management.

“No, no. You haven’t locked it into place! It doesn’t fire if you don’t. See?”

He slapped a lever and pointed out why the Workers were unable to reload. His skimming of the manual was important after all. In the same way, Bird stood back as the others wound the ballista up. It still took three minutes, even with energetic Workers hauling on the levers with all their might. They’d begun using the levers to put more weight onto the ballista.

“They’ve got a good rhythm going! Bird! Can I try?”

“Oh…sure, Joseph.”

“Don’t take Bird’s time, everyone! That’s fourteen shots, and he’s only fired it three times!”

Now, Lyonette was scolding everyone else, glancing at Bird to make sure he wasn’t too upset. But Bird waved a hand at them.

“I do not mind, Lyonette. I am figuring out the aim.”

He stood there, hands behind his back, proud as could be as people obsessed over the ballista. It was harder to aim than he’d thought. The ballista could be slightly calibrated, and he suspected the sights had been moved slightly in the long transit; when he’d adjusted it, he’d nailed the target, albeit just barely, on the third try.

Shot fifteen missed the target wildly, but the puff of snow made everyone laugh, and Joseph stepped back, patently sad about missing.

“You’ll get another try—after fifty more people! Let’s get those ballista bolts soon. How many do we have left?”

Lots! But go ahead—no, wait, point it away! I’m not going out there and getting them until it’s not loaded!”

“We won’t load it until you come back!”

Fals jogged out as Kevin hollered at him. Bird didn’t really care if they loaded it or not; he had engaged both safeties anyways and confirmed it was impossible to actually fire the ballista without both being turned off. Yes…he stood there.

Life was good. Right up until Fals came back shrugging. He held up a deformed piece of metal attached to some wood.

“Sorry, Bird. That’s all that’s left. Wow, those things fire hard. The others were dug so deep in the dirt I only found this one.”

“That is alright, Fals. Would you like a turn?”

“You bet! Can I aim and see how far we can go?”

Bird nodded and watched as another ballista bolt was loaded in. He was feeling magnanimous today. It was only after they had gotten to evening—and people were still begging for a turn—when he realized the first problem.

 

——

 

Someone else who realized the truth of the ballista the moment he heard about it was the only Minotaur around Liscor with actual military training.

“Bird has a what? Dead gods. Which idiot gave him that?”

Calruz was eating at the army’s camp amid a flurry of activity. They were still stalled on the Hectvallian front, as the new Liscorian army thought of it.

Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans were bustling around, and he’d been joining the digging for the last two weeks.

Commander Olesm should have been back at the inn, but he had elected to stay. Even his officers had encouraged him to take a break, but he seemed to be worried the Heckies were up to something.

Liscor had been moving in stealth for a while now, and Calruz had approved of the idea, even if he wondered if Olesm knew something they didn’t. As the de facto commander of the Beriad, even if his title was ‘prisoner’ serving his sentence as a soldier, he had been fighting here since the war began and Liscor’s army was mustered.

He looked impeccable compared to the miserable, scarred Minotaur in his cell. He had already been working out; now, he seemed like he was in better shape than he had been before he entered Liscor’s dungeon. His muscles stood out, and his fur looked tougher than steel, which it was. He was lightly armored and carried his battleaxe on his back.

His one good hand wore a new glove that the Beriad had bought for him, and the army had been exchanging gifts or getting them from home. Olesm had gotten an enchanted chess set from Erin so they could play remotely, and Calruz had gotten his own gifts. Even a healing potion from ‘Haldagaz and Rhata’, which was an expensive gift when potions were no longer being made.

Selys had an odd sense of humor, and he was meaning to write her back to thank her since she’d gotten him a gift under her own name as well.

This wasn’t about Calruz. This was about Bird, and Calruz looked up as the report was delivered. It came from one of the Beriad, who had been on holiday.

“Yes, Captain Calruz. The House of Minos sent it.”

“…What?”

He stopped chewing and looked up. Now intent, Calruz leaned over.

“Tell me more. Describe as much as you can remember, Beriad 75.”

The [Crusader] did, and Calruz resolved to help the others choose names. Many were taking good, Minotaur-style names, and any member of Battalion 6 tended to drop their Crusader designation and rename themselves. The other battalions, those not part of the 7th Hive exodus, were doing likewise.

“The House of Minos sent it? Magnolia Reinhart paid for…huh. Wait a second. Does anyone have a picture of it?”

The fact that Bird couldn’t just point and fire the thing himself didn’t surprise Calruz. Minotaurs drilled on the siege weapons for months before they were ready for battle. They took a team to operate.

“Wait a second. That is a Wallbreaker-class weapon. The kind we pull for cities, not conventional combat. Even the ones we placed against the King of Destruction were smaller. Bird doesn’t need anything larger than a Field-class ballista. One of those with his Skills could still hit any spot in the Floodplains. Why…”

Calruz knew that the House of Minos wasn’t stupid. He began to cotton on to what might be going on. Then Beriad 75 mentioned the bolts, and Calruz glanced up.

“…How many bolts? What color is the wood?”

“Um. I do not know, Captain Calruz.”

“Is it pale brown? Light?”

The Soldier, one of the new types with a voice, thought.

“Yes. And there were seventy of them.”

Only seventy? That’s balsa wood. Balsa…and iron?”

The Minotaur rested his head on his fist, staring ahead. The other Antinium had no idea what was so odd about that, and one raised a hand.

“What is the matter, please, Captain Calruz?”

He smiled at their nervous looks and explained.

“Wallbreaker-class ballistae are a lot harder to aim than Field-class ones. Think about it. A weapon used in actual sieges has to be larger. A Field-class ballista can be operated by two people; optimally four or even eight. But Bird could swing one of those around, and with [Automatic Reload] or [Delayed Reload], he could conceivably use it. But that’s impossible to do with a larger ballista. He’s no [Artillerist].”

“Oh.”

Calruz nodded to himself.

“It could be a mistake, but the House of Minos always considers what weapon goes where. They’ve seen ‘Bird the Hunter’. The real clue is the balsa wood and iron tips. We don’t make those. They have to be custom-made.”

“Why, Captain Calruz? Sorry for my idiocy.”

The Minotaur looked over.

“Don’t insult yourself, Beriad 75. Ignorance is not idiocy. How could you know that balsa wood is light, flies far—it’s an excellent material for arrows. But it breaks no matter what it hits. We do use it for our ballista bolts! But not for training. And iron? Iron is heavy. A balsa-wood bolt is often enchanted or uses a lighter arrowhead. If this was someone else, I would expect steel tips. If it was a training bolt? A far stronger arrow wood. Cedar, maple, ash. Seventy shots? That’s criminally undersupplied.”

He sat back, smiling to himself.

“So that’s what our King did.”

The Beriad looked at each other, and Calruz began to explain with a smile. Because as he now realized, and the [Druids], Chaldion, Tyrion, and more had realized—

Bird was going to start running into problems.

 

——

 

He ran out of ballista bolts within six hours of using the ballista. Or rather, when they got down to six, his audience decided not to waste the last ones and asked if he had more. Bird investigated, but seventy bolts was all that had been delivered.

At first, he didn’t see the problem.

“Okay. Let us buy some more, then. Those ballista bolts were very fragile. The wood was. I will pay for some more from Pallass.”

“From where?”

Grimalkin was still at the inn, having his beach house to consider. He stopped mid-drink of a new protein shake, and Pryde stopped trying to gag down hers. Bird looked at him.

“Ballista bolts. Pallass has some, right?”

“We do manufacture them, but they’re not for sale, Bird.”

Bird tilted his head.

“Why not?”

Grimalkin scratched at his neck spines.

“…Because they’re not being commercially made, so no [Merchant] will sell them, Bird. There’s no market for them because only a major city has them. Manus has the largest manufacturing capabilities. They supply other cities. But to buy any, you would have to purchase them from Pallass.”

“Okay. How much?”

“They’re not going to sell them to you, Bird.”

Lady Pryde chimed in, looking awkward at even addressing him. Bird got mad. He slapped the table with his hands.

“Why? Because I’m an Antinium!?”

Pryde stared at him.

“Yes.”

Bird the Hunter hesitated. He lifted his hands, sat back.

“Ah. I see. This makes sense. Uh oh. Well, I will just have to make them myself.”

The Sinew Magus and Pryde stared at Bird as if he were crazy, but he was not. He made arrows all the time. He knew how it was done. Glue, feathers, wood; with a few tools, he could make decent arrows!

 

——

 

Bird could not make ballista bolts as easily as arrows. He realized that after about an hour.

For one thing, bolts were made differently than arrows. There were no feathers needed; they had fins on the back made out of wood for flight.

Second? Let’s assume Bird had a glue strong enough to secure a head to the ballista bolt’s shaft (he did not). He had a few pieces of the iron boltheads that hadn’t deformed too much.

…Where did the wood come from?

“You need a straight, pure piece of wood six feet long and how wide?”

“Only a hand’s width, please. And if you could make it perfectly round and smooth so it flies straight, I will be very happy.”

One of the few fletchers in Liscor stared at Bird. He stared at the diagram. He beckoned Bird over. The Drake leaned over and lowered his voice.

“Listen, fellow. I like Antinium. You’re decent people; saved me during the undead attacks twice now. You may not know this…Liscor doesn’t have trees.”

“I did know this.”

Bird listened as the Drake stared at him. The [Fletcher] scratched at his chin.

“Right. But how am I supposed to get the wood for this…this isn’t even an arrow. I don’t make arrows that big. Here’s my carving knife.”

He showed Bird a tiny knife. Waved it at the fragments of the ballista bolt.

“It’d take me a day to make—it’d take days. I’d need the wood cut specially, and—where are the trees? The cost! I’d charge you two gold coins per, not even with materials, just for the time!”

Bird stared at the Drake.

“That is very expensive. I would like to renegotiate the costs, please.”

I don’t have a cost! I don’t even have the wood!

“Please find the wood, then. No cost is very good, though. I will take two hundred at no cost. Thank you!”

At this point, Ser Dalimont and Mrsha took pity on the poor [Fletcher] and pulled Bird away. But no matter who he asked, the problem was the same.

“Ballista bolts? Sure, we have…say that again?”

Ser Dalimont was speaking to a Human man in Invrisil, a [Carpenter], as Bird stood behind him. The man stared at Bird.

“I’ve never made one in my life. I could make a round piece of wood, I guess. Perfectly round? That’s…I’d want to make a frame or something if you want lots.”

“Frame, sir?”

The [Carpenter] tried to explain.

“A piece of metal or wood so I know how large the object I’m making is when cutting and whatnot. You can size the wood to that, make sure it’s perfectly round. That’s metalwork, though. If you want, I can commission it…but that much timber? Perfectly round, a hand’s diameter, and six feet long.

He stared at Dalimont to make sure he had it right. The [Knight] nodded slowly. The [Carpenter] wrote on a piece of paper.

“Here’s the cost per ‘bolt’. Can’t do the head or whatever that is. You want me to make up a wooden one?”

Bird stared at the number on the paper. He turned it upside down. It didn’t make him feel better.

“I believe I am not rich enough for that. Mrsha, give me your allowance.”

She glumly began to count coins into his palm when the [Carpenter] spoke.

“We don’t have the time to make it—if you put in an order, I’ll try to set up our workshops, but it’ll be two weeks.”

Two weeks? Mrsha and Bird stared at him. And the cost!

“Excuse me, but this is for two hundred bolts, isn’t it?”

Bird pointed at the number on the paper. The [Carpenter]’s mouth opened as Dalimont, despite his sympathies for Bird, tried not to smile.

Two—two hundred? To begin with, who has a ballista?

“Me.”

Bird stared at the man. The man stared back. After a second, Bird pointed down at the paper.

“This is very expensive, but if you can do it in two weeks, I suppose it is worth the cost.”

He slapped down gold and silver.

“I will send someone to pick up all two hundred. If I do not get them, I understand. It is only war.”

Bird began to hurry out of the shop as Dalimont tried to stop him. He knew the [Carpenter]’s price was for one bolt, not two hundred. But he was starting to get a tad bit upset.

 

——

 

“Bird, Bird. It’s not the end of the world. Please don’t drink that.”

People liked Bird. Bird didn’t know why, but they were nice to him. Even people that weren’t always at the inn, like Montressa du Valeross.

He was staring at a bottle filled with pitch-black liquid.

Rxlvn. Montressa knew of the drink by reputation and was trying to save him.

“Where did you even get that?”

“Klbkch gave it to me when he was trying to sell it. I am not trying to drink it, Montressa, thank you. I was going to sell it to raise money.”

“Oh. That’s clever. Bird, I’m sorry we wasted your bolts. I tried to help. I think I got sixteen back!”

“Really? How?”

Bird’s head rose, and Montressa smiled wearily.

“I went out and found as many parts as I could. Lots of them were lost—but I cast [Repair]. See?”

To his delight and gratification, he found sixteen of the bolts had been salvaged. Bird hugged Montressa and handed her the Rxlvn.

“You are a good person, Montressa. You may have this. It will kill you if you drink it! Do not drink it.”

She blushed a bit and told him it was nothing, but it meant a lot to him. Whew! Twenty-two bolts was a lot more than six.

He could buy more ballista bolts. It had occurred to Bird that the best place to ask was Riverfarm. They had the most loggable wood, their rates were cheaper, and if he got a wooden shaft, he reckoned the arrowhead could be wood too.

At the speed it hit most things, metal wasn’t even necessary. If he rationed his shots, Bird could order more and find the money somehow.

He wasn’t…pleased by realizing how expensive the ballista was. That was the real problem. But! He thanked Montressa and decided to spend one shot on a bird.

Maybe even that sad, yellow Wyvern he’d seen roaming the High Passes. It was back again; Bird had spotted it trying to start a fire outside its ‘camp’. Which was mostly a hole it had tried to pile branches up in front of.

He didn’t want to necessarily kill it, but Wyverns were worth lots of gold. Did he have to go out and haul it back? Then he needed Erin’s door…

His head hurt as he stomped back outside and found the Worker crew who’d been reloading clustered around the ballista. They weren’t firing it, but they were aiming it right and left and making ‘boom’ sounds.

They stopped when they saw him.

“That is okay. You may play with it. Just do not fire it, okay? I will let you all have one shot…once I buy more bolts.”

Bird promised the group of eight, and they clacked their mandibles happily. He hesitated and felt bad; not one had gotten a chance to fire it, but if he let them, he’d waste over half his supply.

“Um! You may all have a meal inside. I will pay for it.”

He thought Lyonette wouldn’t get mad if he did that. The Workers brightened up and began to file inside. Bird stood there a second.

“It is a good gift. All I need are lots of ballista bolts. Maybe I can make them cheaper? Out of…of…”

He scratched at his head. Dirt? Could you make a dirt…no, wait. Hadn’t Rags been muttering something interesting about her old crossbows? Yes, that’s right! She’d said she’d used clay and fired balls, which would probably fly if you launched them out of a ballista!

Bird decided to go find her. But before he could, some people found him.

Councilmember Lism, Zevara, and Elirr! Bird raised all four hands and made chopping gestures.

“Back! Back! I will not stop! It is my ballista! Hah! Hah!

He chopped at them, and Zevara spoke.

“Bird—”

Hiyah!

Bird chopped Lism on the forehead. He’d sort of expected the Drake to dodge. Lism swore.

Ancestors damn it—

“Bird, can we have a word?”

Elirr tried, but Bird fled and tried to shield the ballista.

“No! You cannot take it! I will never stop! I’ll shoot holes in Liscor’s walls if you try to take it from me! It’s my gift! You cannot steal a Christmas present!”

He began shouting, waving all his fists. He was so angry and worried he almost pulled out his bow, but Lism shouted, rubbing at his forehead.

“This idiot—we don’t want to take it away, Bird! We want to hire you to use it!”

“Huh?”

Bird stopped flailing. Numbtongue, who’d been walking over to help defend the ballista, kept walking, tripped, and went tumbling down the hill with a shout. Even Lism seemed horrified by what he’d said.

“Dead gods. Has it come to this? Who am I?”

He stared at his reflection in a window and pulled himself together. Elirr took over.

“In truth, this was a long time coming. The Watch has asked you to help guard the road and shoot Garbichugs before, Bird. But some of us were resistant to offering you more.”

“Tismel.”

Lism ignored Elirr’s pointed glare. He brushed his claws on his coat, and Zevara cleared her throat. She, of all of them, looked the most resigned, but she gave Bird a searching look.

“Bird, with that ballista of yours, you could cover most of the Floodplains. If Hexel builds that tower or he makes the one I overheard him describing to Erin—”

She hesitated, fidgeted, and burst out with it.

“Liscor has no emplaced defenses. We have wall spells, but those are non-recharging, expensive weapons only to be used in battles. But a higher-grade city does have one or two siege weapons! Even with our development and Hexel, Liscor wouldn’t be approved by Manus for one for a decade! You having one…would be tremendous to the city’s defenses!”

He blinked at her.

“You like ballistae too?”

Zevara sighed.

“Any Watch Captain would love one. They’re a lot cheaper than wall magic! I don’t intend to steal yours, Bird. But we have to patrol to multiple farms and new buildings outside of Liscor. The Watch is fast, and we have [Riders] now in training, but that ballista is faster. Just seeing it will make a [Bandit] think twice. We’re here to discuss you taking on a contract. If you do, you’ll help clear the roads and take out hostile monsters.”

“At a reasonable fee!”

Lism added hurriedly. Bird looked at him, Elirr, and Zevara, and Lism gestured to the inn with a weak smile.

“May we discuss this, Mister Bird? I’m sure the funds would help the inn or you in your…aspirations. I can’t imagine this will be easy to maintain.”

Money for his bolts. And a license, nay, a need for him to shoot it? Bird stared at Lism as the Drake walked over. Then he pinched the Drake.

Ow! What was that for?

Lism roared, and Bird shrugged.

“I was checking if it was a dream. You are not dreaming.”

But maybe he was? He began smiling. Bird puffed out his chest as Zevara covered a snort, and Elirr laughed. By the end of the day, he had signed a contract that gave him full authority to fire the ballista and Liscor had promised to help with making more bolts! Things were turning up Bird after all.

 

——

 

Two days later, Bird was the unhappiest Antinium in the entire world. Even more than the ones who’d drowned at sea.

He was hiding in his room, under the desk, when Mrsha found him.

Bird! Bird, Watch Captain Zevara has a message for you! They want you to—

“No! I am not doing it! You go fire it! I hate the ballista! Tell them I died!”

Mrsha stared at him. She scribbled for a few seconds, then held up a card with an open mouth to convey her emotions.

How can you hate the ballista? You fool!

“It’s not fun! I don’t like it! It’s the worst gift ever!”

And he meant that sincerely. Magnolia Reinhart was a bad person. She had known what she was doing and granted him his dearest wish.

Only a twisted maniac could, in the giving of his dreams, twist the knife and plunge him into the cold reality of responsibility. Two full days of owning a ballista and Bird had realized that it was the most miserable experience of his entire life for three reasons:

One. Owning a ballista meant Bird had responsibilities. Unlike sitting in his tower, when he was manning the ballista, everyone suddenly decided to talk to him.

Random [Farmers] came by to the inn over the next two days to introduce themselves. There was the Gnoll [Farmer] who gave Bird some goat’s cheese under the misguided assumption that Bird wanted anything to do with cheese.

If it didn’t come from a bird, then Bird could take it or leave it. He gave it to Calescent.

Himilt came by with Colfa. A Drake [Pig Farmer] tried to tell Bird all about how raising pigs around the Floodplains was not only profitable, but doable because pigs were smart enough to notice Shield Spider pits by and large. The issue of quality pig feed was something that Bird had never thought of…and wished he could unthink.

They were only the locals. Zevara had more time since Venim was taking over a lot of the paperwork and such, so she came by sometimes just to stare at him. Every time he turned the ballista, someone came out of the inn to ask what he was shooting at.

Bird had never had backseat archers before. In his tower, he fired arrows, and that was that. But the length of the ballista’s loading and turning time meant that he got…critiques.

“Sure you’re aiming right? Looks low to me.”

Numbtongue was munching on an ice cream cone as Bird aimed the ballista at a Rock Crab scuttling around the val Lischelle farm. Bird ignored him. When he fired, the bolt passed just under the crab’s shell and hit the ground, making it scuttle away in terror.

“Ooh. Shame about that.”

“I was aiming for its legs. Killing Rock Crabs just makes spiders come out and eat them.”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

The [Bard] didn’t sound convinced. Bird slowly turned his head.

“Go kiss dirt, Numbtongue.”

“I’ll go kiss Octavia.”

Bird shook his fist as Numbtongue walked off.

“She’s too good for you. You are a stupid, jobless [Bard]! Every Goblin is better than you!”

 

——

 

Other [Archers] like Halrac, Badarrow, and so on knew better than to critique Bird’s aim. However, it was true that Bird had to now guard a substantial amount of land. Every [Farmer] had opined that it would be nice to have Bird chase away monsters like the Rock Crabs. Bird had a very limited selection of bolts, but the city and Laken had promised to help make more. The [Emperor] had lumber, although getting a straight section of wood the size of the bolts was still prohibitively hard.

However, Bird’s second problem was this:

He was having a hard time hitting things with the ballista.

It didn’t…fire right. He complained until Laken actually sent some [Engineers] to check the performance of the ballista and consult with the House of Minos, but they claimed it was calibrated right.

It was because Bird was using a device, rather than a bow. All of his intuition on how an arrow flew was off. The ballista required precise adjustments, so keeping up with a target in real-time was impossible.

He couldn’t hit a bird with this. Nevermind that he’d never get a carcass—the birds were far too fast! Bird went up into his tower and shot a Garbichug skulking around the plains; it had been trying to eat the bolt he’d shot over the top of its head. The stupid bird just pulled his arrow out of its side and ate that, too.

None of this was the worst. Okay, it wasn’t pleasant to have people annoying him, but Bird could have taken the long view that they’d get bored of his ballista and he’d improve his aim. Yet there was one real problem that outweighed the other two by far:

Three. The ballista could not be run by Bird alone.

 

——

 

It took four people, minimum, to operate the ballista at anything like a regular pace. By himself, Bird could laboriously load a bolt, wind the ballista, and turn it. If he worked hard, maybe he’d get a shot off every ten minutes.

Ten. Minutes. That was how long it took to wind the gigantic mechanism, and Bird got so tired that he could only do two windups by himself before he had to take a rest. Thankfully, he had help.

The same Workers who often came to listen to him on the tower, and had built the roof so long ago, had become an unofficial pit crew for the ballista. Every day, they’d loiter around, clearly hoping he needed to fire it, and scurry around and move it for him.

They already knew how to shift the ballista and would wind it up without complaint. That was good! But Bird hated it.

His tower was a wonderful place to be alone. This? Even when he wasn’t doing anything, just standing there, he was conscious they were all there. Not that the Workers were impatient—they would stare around, antennae waving, brush snow off the ballista, or join the work on the new tower that Hexel was making.

They were an odd lot. Now that Bird thought about it, they were fairly old faces at The Wandering Inn. Of course, when he said that, Hexel gave him an odd look.

“Those eight Antinium? I’m sorry, but unless they’ve got paint or something unusual like Silvermop, it’s hard to tell them apart.”

He nodded at the Antinium milling around his worksite. Bird supposed that for non-Antinium, it was hard even for Hexel to tell them apart.

“It is very simple, Hexel. You just look at the things that are different about each Worker. Like that one has a notch on his shell. There. See?”

He pointed to a tiny chip out of one of the Workers’ shells near his leg. The Worker waved. Hexel hesitated.

“Ah, of course. And does he have a n—”

Bird nudged him quickly. These Workers were neither Painted nor [Crusaders]. Hexel remembered the rules and shut up, but the Workers didn’t look like they were that worried by the question. In fact, Bird leaned over.

“They do have names. Nicknames. This one is Chippy. And that’s Ringy. And that’s Splashy.”

The Lamia’s face was colorful as he realized Bird had definitely nicknamed them. Chippy was obvious, but the other two?

“That one has a ring he made out of wood. And that one splashes paint and tar everywhere.”

The fumble-fingered Antinium shyly turned away and put his hands over his face, despite everyone liking him, and Ringy showed Hexel a little wooden ring around a pinky he’d made himself. The Lamia stared at them with a newfound appreciation, as if he hadn’t seen them before.

“I confess, Bird, I still never would have recognized them without you pointing that out. I’ll try to remember…”

Bird scolded the [Architect] gently.

“You must do better, Hexel. Everyone at the inn can do it. Right? Mrsha, Lyonette! Come over! Do you know these Antinium?”

He shouted, and a [Princess] sighed as she and Mrsha came over. The little [Druid] waved at Hoppy, who did a hop and waved back, his trademark, and Eclaircissement.

Eclaircissement had a dictionary. He might have been one of the reasons why Mrsha knew so many big words; he showed her his word of the day as Lyonette sighed.

“I recognize them, Bird. Please tell me you’re feeding these poor Workers who are helping you with your gift? I’ll make sure of it. Hello, Hoppy, Splashy, Chippy, Ringy…Eclaircissement…er, is it Nappy?”

She peered at the sixth Worker, and Bird put his hands on his hips. It was true, some of the Workers had no features to define them, but Lyonette should have picked up on his sleepy vibes!

“I suppose Lyonette is a bad example, Hexel. But Mrsha is perfect. See?”

She knew them all! Although, as Ser Sest pointed out with a cough—

“I believe Miss Mrsha cheats, Bird. They likely smell different, and Gnolls are very good at identifying one via their personal odor.”

Mrsha gave him a betrayed look, and sure enough, when Bird made her cover her nose, she had no idea who most were. He looked at the shamefaced [Princess] and [Druid] and stomped away.

This is a racism!

He went to watch the tower as the ballista crew went back to vibing. They were definitely not working, but standing to attention. After a second, one of them passed around some sticky molasses, and they began to chew it. Now that Bird thought about it, they often sat on the roof and listened to him. Maybe they were just all [Layabouts]. They certainly didn’t do much unless Erin needed repairs.

Compared to that, the Workers around the tower were nonstop in motion, and Bird grudgingly had to admit it looked nice.

The temporary tower was going up fast. The Lamia knew his work; he’d had dirt piled up by Antinium to elongate the hill while laying a thick foundation of stone. Antinium followed his blueprints without fail; by the time the first day had passed, he’d already set four massive stone foundations deep in the earth and begun working on the tower. It would be a very simple hexagon that you could climb with stairs on the outside; at the top, the ballista would be mounted, and a thin guardrail would keep people from slipping off.

Bird wondered how Hexel would get the ballista up there. He glumly reflected he’d have to teach people how to disassemble and reassemble it.

After two days, Bird had fired four ballista shots, three misses, one graze. Two at Rock Crabs, scaring them off from a farm and the road, one at a Garbichug, and the final shot had been for fun at some trees far, faaaar away.

The ballista could fire up, and Bird had actually grazed the copse of Boombark trees—though they had refused to blow up because it was winter. He had quite enjoyed that, and all the Workers had clapped. Right up until Zevara sent a trainee [Guardswoman] to ask if Bird had seen anything. Did he think the trees were a danger? How many ballista bolts did he have left, again?

 

——

 

“I’m sorry, Bird. But you got your wish. It’s a very expensive…a ludicrously expensive…Watch Captain Zevara is right to be concerned.”

“Watch Captain Zevara is a butt.”

Bird muttered over breakfast on the third day. Lyonette frowned at him.

“Bird! Mind your manners!”

“You’re a poo-face.”

Bird—

“I am sorry. Do not punish me. Aaaah!

He slapped his hands on the table, knowing that Lyonette was about to explode. She opened her mouth, ready to revoke some right, when Erin nudged her.

“Give him one more chance, Lyonette. Bird, don’t be mean. You know Zevara has to do it.”

The [Princess] looked exasperated, but she desisted. Bird poked at his eggs sullenly. He was relieved he hadn’t been punished, but he was mad. The ballista was no fun.

“At least Hexel’s going to finish the tower tonight. Your Workers are already disassembling it. They work hard. You want to call them in for breakfast, Bird?”

“They’re what?

Bird ran outside and found the Workers hauling the ballista over to the new tower. It was made largely of wood and a cobblestone design, the cement the Lamia had laid already set and dried. Bird stared at the Workers, and one of them froze guiltily.

“Hunter Bird. We were just moving the ballista.”

“You know how to disassemble it!?”

Bird was astonished. One of the other Workers hid something behind his back. The manual. They’d read it. Bird stared at them.

“I don’t care. Go ahead and move it. Thank you.”

He stomped back inside. At least someone liked the stupid thing. Because it seemed like it’d take a while for the Workers to finish moving the ballista, Bird sat in his tower instead. There, he had a long think as he stared across the Floodplains. He didn’t shoot many birds; there were few given the cold, and frankly, he wasn’t in the mood.

Four days. The Solstice was coming up. In truth, the reason Erin hadn’t had a word with Bird and the ballista hadn’t had much action was because…this wasn’t the biggest thing happening around Liscor right now.

Everywhere Bird looked, he could see more activity on the Floodplains than he remembered since the Goblin Lord’s attack. He stared ahead towards the tiny copse of Boombark trees that he’d located, and across the Floodplains, he saw campfires, marching figures, and lots, lots of people with shovels.

“Damn Drakes. Get off my Floodplains!”

He shook a fist at them. In truth, it was Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, and even some Garuda. The Garuda could stay. But mostly Drakes.

Pallass had arrived. They’d come down out of the hills surrounding the High Passes, to the surprise of everyone but Bird, Rags, and Erin. Bird, like Rags, had spotted the fires. He saw everything from his tower, and the sight of Pallass fortifying the ground past the inn meant the local monster population was, by and large, quiet.

They liked his ballista about as much as the idea of having to defend an Antinium-allied city. But the [Soldiers] had orders, and apart from a few officers coming to The Wandering Inn and receiving an Erin experience—which included a free pan to the face if they spat at a Goblin—things were surprisingly peaceful.

The sight of them made Bird’s stomach hurt. He tried to sing it off.

“La, rah, bah. Soldiers on the grass, soldiers are a pain in the ass. The Solstice is coming, it’s already snowing. We could all be dead, but hey, at least it’s not…blowing? Windily. This song sucks.”

Even his singing was off. Bird leaned on the tower and heard a scratching sound. He peered over the lip of his tower and saw Nerry hiding there, scribbling on a piece of paper with a piece of charcoal in her mouth.

She stared at him and ran away when she noticed him looking. Bird sighed.

“Even the pets are getting too smart. This sucks.”

He stared around and realized he could see his tower and the Workers setting up the ballista with a will. Bird wondered…what they got out of it. Not a single one had fired the thing. He would have let them if he had bolts to spare. Bird looked around and wondered when the Centaurs were coming.

“Centaurs. Rags’ Goblins. Tyrion’s stinky [Soldiers]…Liscorian soldiers. Antinium, I guess. Who else?”

Bird counted on his fingers. Then he wondered if anyone had actually told the Free Queen that there would be a huge battle on the Winter Solstice. Klbkch was gone, and Xrn wasn’t very talkative after she’d nearly had her head ripped off.

He was sure she knew. Bird sat down on a stool and kicked his feet a few times.

“Life was simpler before Erin had to go and die. I didn’t own a ballista. I got to sit here and shoot birds. Now, [Druids] lecture me about how many birds I shoot. And Zevara bothers me. Why did Magnolia have to make my dreams come true? No wonder nobody likes her.”

It was like the Free Queen, who wanted to make him practice the Unitasis Network. Because it would ‘save the Antinium’. Bird folded his arms, rocking back and forth.

“No one asked me if I wanted to be the salvation of the Antinium. No one asks how hard it is to be Bird. Well, sometimes it’s hard.

He slapped the lip of his tower a few times. Everyone liked the cheerfully silly Antinium. Well, guess what! He wasn’t having a good day!

There was snow on the lip of his tower. Bird made a snowball, hurled it off the top, and beaned Kenva on the back of the head as she went skipping out the door with Mrsha and Visma. A wail arose, and Bird reflected indirect fire was a tricky thing to get right. He ducked down and pretended he wasn’t there until Lyonette stormed up the stairs.

Then Bird had a thought and realized he hadn’t seen the Free Queen for his regular Unitasis Network practice yesterday.

 

——

 

—and then she took away my bird-eating privileges! As if I’m a Mrsha! I’m not. I can do whatever I want. Like go into the city and buy chicken. She treats me like a child!”

“Bird.”

The Free Queen, Xevccha, was trying to get a word in edgewise. She had a new trick today: a Worker would read from a book, and Bird would repeat what the Worker was reading.

In theory, at least. But Bird was ranting, and it had been about twenty minutes since he’d come down. The Free Queen checked an hourglass as Garry gave all the test-Antinium a drink. Bird stomped about.

“I am not a child. If I was a child, I wouldn’t have a gigantic damn ballista that I have to pay for! Mrsha’s not allowed to touch it, but she grounds me. She doesn’t ground Numbtongue even though he’s silly and hurts people’s feelings, like Octavia and Garia.”

“This sounds like an issue you might wish to bring up with Lyonette. Or…Erin Solstice?”

The Free Queen was doing her best to give advice. Bird paused mid-stomp.

“…Erin’s busy. She’s practicing for the Winter Solstice and meeting with Niers and other people. Because the Titan is so smart. He’s not smart enough to avoid a door. Harumph!”

He folded his arms and sat down. The Free Queen waved an antennae.

“Yes…do you know why Pallass is here, Bird? Xrn assures me they’re not searching for our Hive—much. A few sensor spells, but she has warded us.”

“They’re here for the Solstice when we all die.”

The Free Queen lifted a milkshake up and sipped through a gigantic straw.

“Yes. Yes…why are we all dying this time?”

Bird paused, turned to stare at her, and realized his intuition was right. Without Klbkch, there wasn’t someone to explain things to the Free Queen. For all that she ran the Hive, Klbkch was her only link to the above. She only talked to him, Xrn, sometimes, and Bird, he supposed.

“Ask someone else. Garry. Or Pawn. It’s just another thing where we all die horribly due to something if bad things happen. Or nothing happens.”

The Free Queen rubbed two palps together somewhat nervously.

“…What kind of bad things exactly?”

“Death. War. Ask them.

Bird rolled over onto his side, and after a second, the Free Queen gently patted him with one gigantic feeler.

“I shall, Bird. I understand your frustrations. I often see little. Will you try to open a Unitasis Network again? In the past, I would know far more, but I can only give orders and receive basic knowledge from the Workers and Soldiers of the Free Antinium. When I was first created, I would wait for Klbkch to return in my hatchery with the other Queens under training.”

“…Why? No one likes Klbkch.”

Bird sat up a bit, and the Free Queen rubbed at some of her cracked chitin where she sat. She sounded surprised. Her pet Rock Crab, Deferred Sustenance, scuttled out as she petted it. The other Workers and Soldiers nodded as the Free Queen glanced at Bird. But the gigantic Antinium of Rhir seemed just as perplexed by the divide in opinions as the new Antinium of Izril.

“Why? Because each time he returned, his mind would join the Queens. War Queens at first, of course. We Shaper Queens and Queens-to-be were not the most important. Yet within a day, each Hive connected to the others, and soon, the ones out of direct link with the Unitasis Network would know where he had been and what he did.”

“Oh. Because you shared memories?”

Bird tried to imagine it. And he could sense the Free Queen’s pleasure and nostalgia and regrets. If he concentrated…or rather, stopped concentrating…he could feel her presence.

But too much, normally. Still, Bird tried, and he tuned out the other voices, the countless thousands, and felt a tinge of it. The Free Queen was happy as she remembered.

“Yes. The Silent Queen was part of my very crèche. She and I would feel Klbkch’s adventures. Not just memory; the Queens had a trick to it so we would see him as if from afar.”

“Like a movie?”

“Hmm. Yes. Just like the movies you and Garry describe. You see, we need not feel his pain. But we would sense his triumphs and know the many exotic places he had walked. That is why the Silent Queen loved him so. I miss that. Even if not him—I wish I could see this ‘sky’ that fascinates the Painted Antinium. It is the least of the Unitasis Network’s powers, but with it, even True Antinium who never moved from the spot they were created could feel like they had gone everywhere, fought side-by-side with other Antinium, and triumphed and failed together.”

Oh. That did sound nice when she said it like that. The other Antinium were transfixed as they always were when Klbkch or Xrn spoke of the past. Bird sat there a while, then pulled himself up.

“I wish I did not have to be the one to do it, Xevccha. It is too hard for me. It hurts my head.”

And my heart. The Free Queen bowed her head, and her antennae went still.

“—Then let us not do this today. You seem tired, Bird. Garry, bring him more to eat. If this ballista is so difficult, perhaps rest. Go through the Hive, Bird.”

She waved the Workers and Soldiers away, and Bird felt a bit bad. The Free Queen was nice to him. She had once tried to kill him, but she was lonely. And Bird?

He hesitated as she waved the Workers and Soldiers off. Instead of leave, he sat at her feet as Deferred Sustenance scuttled over. The Rock Crab tried to nip at his leg with a claw, and he slapped its tiny shell.

“Bird. Stop that! He is my pet.”

Xevccha got mad, and Bird shooed the Rock Crab back.

“I thought you were going to eat him.”

The Free Queen nodded, stroking the Rock Crab’s shell.

“I was…until I recalled that we had pets among the True Antinium. Of a kind. If not pets, useful non-Antinium. Allies, even.”

“Is this a story? Klbkch tells stories, or he used to until someone stole his sword, then he ran off. But they always revolved around himself.”

The other Antinium were loitering around the entrance as Bird sat with Xevccha, and she sighed.

“You should respect Klbkchhezeim more, Bird.”

“No. I do not like him.”

“He is a hero.”

“He is a meanie. And he thinks he knows what’s best even when he doesn’t. And he acts stupid and thinks he can get away with it because he has swords and can kill people.”

Bird sulked until the Free Queen gently pushed him over, and he lay on his back shell and wiggled.

“Meanie! You’re mean too!”

“Yes, very. He is the ancient hero, and you will respect him, Bird. Or else.”

“Or what? I am not part of the Free Hive. You can’t boss me around. I’ll leave.”

Bird scrambled back defiantly, and the Free Queen glanced at him. She could swat him across the room—but instead, she just tilted her head.

“Or else I will not teach you a True Antinium song, Bird. You like singing with me, don’t you?”

He hesitated.

“M-maybe. But I have lots of songs. Cara has many songs, and they are nice.”

“Yes…but you are not a good singer. I should teach you how to sing.”

The [Singer] stared at her, mandibles open in horror.

“You are mean!”

“I am truthful. If you wish to sing as True Antinium did, keep practicing, Bird. You must earn it. Now sit. Be kind to Deferred Sustenance. Sit, and Garry will read us a book. Or you may go visit the Hive.”

Bird hesitated and, after a long moment, sat quietly and patted Deferred Sustenance and scratched the Rock Crab as it scuttled over. Both sat, and he decided not to cause trouble. The Free Queen wasn’t like Erin who got shouty or mean, but sometimes he thought she had as much authority. Garry came out, and he had the book that made Bird groan.

“Not again. I don’t want to read—”

Hush, Bird.”

The adventures of Thivian Stormless had captured even the Free Queen, and she had made Garry buy the entire set. Bird sighed, but he leaned against the Free Queen’s leg and listened for a while.

Then he got up and began to wander the Free Hive. Despite the nice storytelling and Xevccha’s kindness…his thoughts were running together unhappily.

Bird liked Xevccha. He didn’t like his ballista or the training, though. He didn’t want to be Erin. Erin had all kinds of people who wanted things from her. Bird enjoyed his tower because, when he was up there, he was free. No one wanted anything from the silly Antinium. Now, he sensed things changing, and he didn’t like it.

The Solstice made his stomach so upset he had to use one of the Antinium’s versions of a toilet. He didn’t want to think of it. What happened would happen. If it happened like last time, and Erin was frozen…no, there weren’t any second chances.

If it happened—it happened? Bird ducked his head and scuttled around the Free Hive. He was just Bird. He’d shoot arrows, and if Erin died, he had died first. That was how it would be. He’d make sure Mrsha was safe.

He’d…

 

——

 

Bird went to see Pawn. Pawn worked great wonders. But the [Priest] was showing up less and less around the inn. Probably because Lyonette had broken his heart. But also because, Bird thought, Pawn was being silly.

“Ooh. You made it nicer this time.”

When Bird walked into the ‘barracks’ where the Painted Antinium had first begun, he looked up and stopped.

The murals of the dead Antinium on the wall were still there, but they’d added a ceiling. The most vivid colors swirled above his head, so bright that he suspected the magical paints that Erin had given Pawn had already been used. But the colors were so bright, purchased in every pigment Pawn could find, that they created a glorious picture that was like and unlike any sky Bird had ever seen.

Unlike the sky because it had mottled greens, glowing yellows, and all the colors like the phantasmal purple of a sunset mixed with the vivid blue of a summer’s sky—conjoined into one experience overhead. Yet it still captured the wonder Antinium felt.

“You should take a picture of that. It’s like the silly art Lyonette loves to look at in Pallass.”

Bird hopped around the barracks, and a [Priest], adorned in robes, surrounded by his congregation of Antinium, looked at him.

Unlike Garry, or Belgrade and Anand, Bird always felt out of place around Pawn when all the Antinium stared at them. He was just Bird, but Pawn had become something else.

“Perhaps we should, Bird. But this is meant for us. I am glad you enjoy it. It is rare that you do visit. Have you come to pray?”

“Nope! I’m wandering around because I’m sad, and Lyonette is a bossy jerk, and I don’t want to practice or be bothered.”

Pawn digested this a second and dipped his head. He lifted a hand.

“I am going to give my sermon, but after that, we could play a game of chess?”

“If you like. Do I get free bread if I stay?”

“Yes.”

Bird decided to stay. He listened to Pawn’s sermon, only rocking back and forth a bit, and he hummed once—then stopped when everyone stared at him. There was something about Pawn’s speeches that Bird didn’t care for.

Then again, there was something about the solemnity of the barracks—which was now a ‘temple‘ according to Pawn—that Bird didn’t need. Everyone was so silent here.

“What happened to the sparring ring? The books?”

“Elsewhere. The Free Queen has allowed us to expand; this will be for prayer and reflection. The other rooms are more lively.”

The [Priest of Wrath and Sky] occupied one-third of the Free Antinium’s new distribution. As Bird thought of it, one third was the Free Queen and normal Workers and Soldiers. Another third was Pawn and his Painted Antinium. The third third? The [Crusaders] and Belgrade.

That wasn’t the actual distribution of the population of Antinium, of course; the [Crusaders] and Painted Antinium were still a minority by far, although their numbers swelled by the day. Yet Pawn had countless Antinium who flocked to him.

“When Erin is in danger, we will fight. I have been thinking, Bird. About our future. I do not see it here. At least, not under the Free Queen. She is respectful to us…but what are we?”

“…Workers?”

Bird nibbled on his free bread from Pawn’s Miracles, and Pawn paused.

“Yes, but we are also citizens of Liscor. I think we should all be above, under the sky.”

“Oh. Are you getting jobs, then?”

“I think so. We should be amidst the citizens. Not just laboring, but living. Many still do not like us.”

“They never will.”

Pawn nodded grudgingly.

“But we will become more if we have incomes, work. That’s what Erin has taught us. I want the Painted Antinium to all be like Garry. Those that don’t go to fight under Belgrade or Xrn. Anand…Anand keeps in contact, but he describes the Hivelands, and I don’t think our future is there, either.”

He seemed heavier to Bird, recently. Not that Pawn had put on weight—Bird poked him a few times to make sure he wasn’t getting heavy until Yellow Splatters glared at him. But he had what Bird would probably have called ‘gravitas’ if he had a dictionary and spoke like Mrsha.

“Seems like it needs lots of money. And food.”

“The Antinium make money. As for food—I was looking into buying farmland. Liscor will approve a huge sale soon. Many of the investors have outbid us, but I have secured a large spot. We will start farming after the rains. You’ve seen the apartments, haven’t you? This is all part of the plan. Antinium in the city. Antinium outside the city.”

That was interesting. Bird patted Pawn on the shoulder.

“Good. For you. It seems like too much work for me. Why do you do this, Pawn?”

The question flummoxed the [Priest] where his faith had stood firm before Facestealer and everything else in the world.

“Why? Because the Painted Antinium need hope. Because Erin is the sky, and this is our chance.”

“So you did it all by yourself? It seems like too much work.”

Now it was Pawn’s turn to have his antennae wave in disbelief as he eyed Bird.

“…Bird. Don’t you want to do more? I would have thought the ballista made you happier.”

He was just like Lyonette! Bird said so, slapping the table angrily.

“You and Lyonette are too responsible! The ballista sucks! I have to do too much when I want to be free! Why should I do more? This is why Lyonette broke up with you, Pawn. No, wait.”

He thought about it.

“She probably broke up with you because you were also boring. Or was she too boring? Maybe you’re just not a good person to love. You had your Painted Antinium and her, and you spent more time with them. She chose Mrsha and the inn over you.”

The Worker tried to think about it as Pawn sat there, trying to ignore Bird’s repeated stabbing attempts. After a second, the [Priest] managed to find his voice.

“Some might say you have faults, Bird.”

Me? Sure. But I don’t have any responsibilities. Except the damn ballista.

He was immune to Pawn’s comebacks! The [Priest] lowered his mandibles and closed them for a second in a scowl.

“What about your Workers?”

Bird paused.

“…I don’t have Workers.”

Pawn stared at him. Bird stared back. Pawn turned his head.

“Yellow Splatters. Does Bird have Workers?”

“Yes.”

The Soldier nodded. Pawn looked at Bird, and Bird stared.

“No, I don’t. Garry has no Workers either, aside from his two Flying Antinium helpers.”

“He does. Pisca and Runel are his assistants. But his followers often reside here. They’re part of the Autonomous Workers and Soldiers who haven’t yet become Painted Antinium, [Crusaders], or anything else. Your Workers are the most troublesome.”

Pawn had a hint of disapproval in his voice. Bird kept staring.

What Workers? You mean Chippy?”

“No, Bird. Your Workers.

“…What Workers?”

 

——

 

What Pawn meant was Bird’s followers. In the Free Hive, there were a number of factions, largely devoted to following one of the original Individuals.

Pawn’s Painted Antinium.

Belgrade’s [Crusaders].

Anand’s students had largely followed him to the Hivelands, and apparently, he was gaining in popularity there.

Even Garry had adherents. And then there was Bird.

Bird recalled, vaguely, announcing he had quit the Free Hive. He hadn’t realized that the Workers and Soldiers who’d followed him had developed an admiration and professed that he was their role model.

When he saw the Bird-aligned Workers sitting with copies of his bows and recognized the ballista crew, Bird stopped. He realized why they had appeared and were so willing to man the ballista, now. Pawn gave him a significant look as Bird stared at them and the other Workers and Soldiers following a ‘path’.

There were even the 7th Hive’s Antinium, a mix of [Crusaders] and Antinium, some chewing on Sage’s Grass and professing to magic. They talked more, now, too. There was even a discussion going on: someone had written on one of the walls in chalk.

Beef. Or? Fish.

There was a column running down the center, and Antinium had scratched a little ‘1’ tally to indicate which they voted for. There were over a thousand votes, and the distribution was leaning towards beef, but barely.

Bird heard a conversation between Autonomous Workers, where it would have been inconceivable last year. Even a new Soldier with vocal cords!

“Have you pet a cat?”

“I have pet.”

“This is good. You didn’t hurt the cat?”

“I did not hurt the cat. It meow rumbled.”

“…Meow rumbled? What is this? Please, explain.”

“In its chest. It is very nice.”

“I would like this. How did you do it?”

“Ksmvr taught the secret to a Worker. It is now mine. I will share it because I like you.”

“Thank you. I am grateful.”

It was still—off, at least to how Bird could talk with Pawn, but it was a conversation. The Soldier seemed to think he had to speak and uttered in a nervous voice.

“I. Like. Puppies.”

They turned to him, and he froze up, then both Workers agreed that puppies were also very nice. Indeed, Bird saw a little cat on a leash being held by a Worker. It wandered from table to table, but it had a handler. He peered at the holder.

“That’s not Furfur the Hated. Who is that?”

“One of Furfur’s followers. Silveran has a presence here.”

“So Workers and Soldiers follow the Antinium they like and copy them? Those are mine?”

Bird pointed to the Workers, and Pawn nodded.

“Yes. They argue you are superior. Often. And loudly. They seem to think it is also appropriate to sing even when other Antinium are resting.”

“Oh. I see.”

Bird stared around the room of Antinium. He nodded to himself a few times and backed up.

“I hate this place. I am now leaving.”

 

——

 

He didn’t manage to leave. Pawn insisted he stay and ‘guide’ his Antinium. He even put up a holy barrier to stop Bird. The [Bird Hunter] was tempted to try and shoot through it or run another way, but he eventually decided to watch.

The idea of Antinium copying another Antinium was familiar to him, of course. It reminded him of the Redfangs. Rabbiteater, Badarrow, and Numbtongue would have instantly recognized this and probably approved.

Bird thought it was a bad idea and said so. This was stupid. 

“We’re not Goblins. They should be them. Not copy me. Pawn didn’t copy anyone when he became Pawn.”

“It isn’t wrong to admire you, Bird. Even if you are silly. They do not know who they are.”

Yellow Splatters opined, and Bird poked him and got a swat for it.

“No one should admire me except me. If they admire me too much, how do they admire themselves?”

“Vanity is sinful. We must learn from other religions. That is the only way to make a proper Heaven.”

Yellow Splatters rumbled. Bird stared at him. Bird had forgotten how Yellow Splatters was one of the first believers. He threw up his hands.

“What does that mean? You don’t even know what that means! A vanity is a dresser! It has a mirror! Everyone looks in a mirror, or they don’t know if they have something on their face!”

The [Captain] ignored him. And yet, it seemed like the other Antinium were listening to this kind of debate, and it also seemed very common, here.

Garry might have only had two employees, but a lot of Antinium had pieces of food, even pans and pots, and were trying to learn to cook for themselves. Or make things. One was arguing with a Painted Worker as Bird turned and looked around.

“Food is better than praying.”

The two had an audience, and heads swung to the Painted Worker, who had the power of faith on his side. And blindingly good rhetoric.

“No.”

The Garry-follower paused, caught off-guard by this strong argument. He went for it again.

“It is. Or else how would you live?”

The Painted Worker thought about this.

“Praying makes bread.”

Got him. The audience susurrated, and it seemed like the Painted Antinium had won more converts. Distressed, the Garry-Worker backed up—and at the last moment came up with a trump card.

“Ah, but cooked food tastes better.

What a comeback. The Painted Worker wavered, then almost ran to ask a more senior Worker, an [Acolyte], what to do. And the Garry Worker basked in victory. Bird’s mandibles opened, and he spat crumbs out.

What.

Yet then he realized his Workers were doing their best to shill for the way of Bird! One was pointing at him.

“Bird is the best.”

“No. Painted Antinium are the best. We have colors.”

A group of representatives from each faction appeared, even an Armored Antinium. No, wait, a Worker with self-made pot armor! The Worker folded his arms like Tersk.

“Armor is tougher. Armored Antinium have a nice Queen.”

“Silveran’s Cleaners get paid. We earn money.”

“Painted Antinium will soon earn money. And we have the power of faith.”

“No. Garry’s Workers will make food and make others happy. This is best.”

“Crusaders get free food in the army and armor. And faith.”

It was a tough debate, and Bird saw his lone representative hopping up and down and then shouting to get attention.

“Bird is free! Bird has freedom and happiness and—he doesn’t need to be part of the Hive!”

All the other Workers and Soldiers turned to stare at him and scoffed.

“But he has nothing. You have nothing for following him. Garry made me a whole pie.”

The Painted Worker nodded.

“I have my paint and faith. What do you have?”

The Bird-Worker stared around, then at Bird. He backed up and fell silent, and Bird nodded.

“Yup. This is why you shouldn’t follow me.”

He said it loud enough that all the Bird-Workers surely heard, and the ballista crews too. Bird stared at them, and they stared down at their bowls of Antinium food-paste. He noticed Pawn staring at him, and Bird had the urge to throw a snowball at him.

It had never occurred to him, but Pawn sometimes acted superior.

 

——

 

For some reason, despite not having to work on the Unitasis Network, Bird was even more upset after returning to the inn.

He found the ballista assembled and the Antinium Workers standing out with snow drifting down around them. They sometimes jogged around the tower to keep warm, but they stirred when he approached.

“I am not shooting anything. I am not paying you. I only have eighteen shots left, so I cannot let you fire that. There is no reward for being here.”

He called out, and they looked at each other. None of them moved. Bird stomped inside.

“Bird!”

Lyonette was there. This time, Bird thought he would lose his temper, but for once, the [Princess] wasn’t nagging.

“Bird, those Workers outside—”

“I did not tell them to be there!”

She flashed him a smile, if slightly harried.

“I know that, Bird. But they must be hungry! And cold!”

“It’s not my fault!”

He hunched his shoulders, and Lyonette took his arm and looked him in the eyes with her blue ones. The bossy [Princess] spoke gently.

“I know, Bird. I know it’s stressful but—I was just asking if we should give them a cloak and some soup? I’ll have Mrsha do it.”

“Oh.”

Bird relaxed slightly. That was when Lyonette was her most helpful: when she was thinking of someone else or momming. She did it well.

“That would be good. But how will you get Mrsha to do anything? She is a rapscallious rapscallion.”

Lyonette’s eyes twinkled.

“Like this. <Post: Basic Quest>! Mrsha! If you don’t do it, one of your friends will!”

A loud groan came from the common room as Lyonette posted a quest to all the children present. Ekirra was running for the kitchens like a shot to get a pail of soup and bowls and spoons. Mrsha charged after him. If anyone was getting a title, it was her! Mrsha of a Thousand Quests!

Bird had forgotten how valuable titles were. No wonder Lyonette could get children to do things. He patted her on the shoulder.

“I approve of your child labor skills, Lyonette. Thank you.”

He’d meant it as a compliment, seriously. He did not understand why the [Princess] looked funny or why Kevin started laughing. Kevin was an unserious fellow, anyways.

Actually, even Kevin had once been more carefree. Bird stared at him as he got his own soup for lunch. Kevin was pouring over an inventory, and he looked up as Bird put his food down.

“Bird. What’s up? Sticking it to the man?”

“I have let down the Free Queen.”

“All right. High five! That’s what we’ve gotta do.”

Lyonette rolled her eyes as Kevin grinned. Bird stared at Kevin’s notes.

“You are working hard.”

“Solar Cycles, Bird. It’s just inventory reports. We’re trying to upscale, and it’s hard—I’m coordinating a bunch of [Blacksmiths] in multiple cities. They’re all doing parts of more mundane bikes. Pelt is worried about quality control, but the Dwarves in Dwarfhome are going to eat our socks! They’re actually copying our blueprints! Damn Dwarves.”

Kevin looked exasperated, and Bird nodded wisely.

“Ah, you have been hamburgered.”

The [Mechanic] looked confused until Bird relayed the story of how Erin’s hamburgers had been copied instantly. Kevin laughed.

“Yeah, well, that’s how it goes, and copyright doesn’t exist outside of, like, Fissival. It’s fine. I just have to get this done. Did you need something?”

Bird ate hungrily and nodded.

“Yes. I wish to know how terrible you feel now that your freedom is gone. You used to be a carefree Kevin. Now you have so much work. Do you cry at night?”

Kevin choked on his food. He looked at Bird and then laughed.

“Cry? No! I mean, yeah, it’s not always fun…but it’s fulfilling.”

Bird gave him a blank look.

“Fulfilling like what? Food?”

“No. Doing something, man. I was more likely to cry before I came to the inn, or when I was here and Joseph was getting drunk and I didn’t do anything and I knew everyone hated my guts.”

“Including me. I hated you. Until you told me about birds. So I hated you for a few minutes.”

Bird wanted to reassure him on that point, and he saw Kevin grin ruefully.

“We deserved it. This is a lot better.”

“Even though you work so much?”

“Totally.”

The Antinium stared at Kevin. Then he put a hand on Kevin’s forehead to make sure the young man wasn’t sick. Then he got up and left.

 

——

 

It was a Lyonette mentality. The [Princess] worked and worked and complained about being busy, and then when she was out of work, she complained she had nothing to do.

Bird hated it. But he had to admit, Kevin looked sort of happy. And there was someone he did like, you know, who was always working. Yet he also seemed free.

Yelroan glanced up in his room as Bird poked his head in.

“Bird. Can I help you?”

“Yes. No. I am very sad, Yelroan. May I bother you?”

“You’re no bother.”

The Gnoll smiled politely as Bird walked in and sat down in a chair. Bird rocked back and forth a second, then burst out.

“Life is too hard!”

“The ballista giving you trouble? Has no one made a ballista bolt for you?”

“No! And the wood is expensive. And carving it is hard. And I hate people talking to me!”

Bird shouted, then lowered his voice, and Yelroan seemed sympathetic. He was doing something complex involving paper and writing. Bird stood up and stared at his desk.

“…Why are you calculating how many eggs to buy?”

Embarrassed and surprised, Yelroan showed him the ledger.

“It’s me attempting to tell Lyonette how many groceries to buy. There are thousands of [Soldiers] coming in, and the inn could sell at a huge profit. I talked to Calescent about foods he can mass-produce. Quiches.”

“Quiches. This is very boring work, Yelroan. Working with numbers.”

“I enjoy it. And someone has to do it.”

The [Mathematician] didn’t seem bothered by Bird’s comment. He had doubtless heard it before, and Bird sat down in front of him.

“But why you?”

“Excuse me?”

Bird nodded at Yelroan.

“Someone must do the boring things. But why you? Did you want to do the boring things?”

Yelroan coughed and turned red under his blonde fur. He adjusted his sunglasses, which he wore even indoors for the look, which Bird rather approved of.

“Well, not like this—but it’s what I’m good at, and I enjoy it. I like making Erin’s inn run behind the scenes. I hope you had a good Christmas?”

“Yes, until I had my wish come true, I enjoyed it very muchly. Did you have fun with the Silverfangs?”

The Gnoll’s hand slipped slightly, and he corrected his mistake with an ink blotter.

“I didn’t realize anyone had seen me slip out.”

Bird smiled.

“I did. Because I paid attention to you leaving. You do not celebrate with the others, so Miss Erin sometimes forgets you exist. Even Tessa she pays attention to more. Although that is because Tessa is dangerous and sad. But you hide.”

Yelroan was fully red now, and he muttered as he wrote faster.

“I—I’m new here, Bird, and I have a mountain of debts to repay. It’s less of me not wanting to be part of things, and more of me not wanting to become a burden.”

“Erin likes burdens. She likes you. I think. Mrsha likes you.”

“Mrsha shouldn’t.”

Yelroan’s paw stopped, and he looked entirely sad. So much so that Bird patted him on the shoulder.

“I like you.”

The [Mathematician] blinked. He stared at Bird, and the Worker went on.

“I like you. This is why I invite you for breakfast and share tomato soup with you. You must not run away for Christmas. I got you a special quill with a big green feather, didn’t I?”

He noticed Yelroan wasn’t using it. The Gnoll turned.

“Yes. I did like it. I don’t want to wear it out—”

“I will get you another if you do. If you do not like the gift, tell me, Yelroan. If it was a bad gift, I will take it back and give you money.”

Now, the [Mathematician] looked alarmed and hastened to assure Bird he did.

“No, no! I like it! Truly, Bird. It means a lot. I know how much you like feathers. If anything, I might get a silver nib so I can use it often!”

Bird relaxed slightly.

“This is good.”

After a few seconds of silence, Yelroan began writing, but seemed distracted. So he put down his quill.

“…Why do you like me, Bird? I appreciate the gift, but you don’t need to go out of your way for me. Truly, a roof over my head—Lyonette listens to and respects me.”

He smiled about that.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted. Managing Erin’s inn isn’t as hard as a Great Tribe, but it’s more of a challenge than I thought, and the math that Kevin and the others show me—if you’re worried about me, I am fine.”

Bird shook his head.

“I am not worried about you, Yelroan. I wish to be friends. I do not have many friends, and I am worried you will not be mine. Numbtongue is a friend. Mrsha is a good older sister. Erin is Erin, and Lyonette is sometimes nice, but I have…”

He held up his fingers.

“Kevin. Apista.”

He stared at his hand.

“Halrac? Bevussa? Badarrow? I need at least to use all my fingers. But not many people really like me. Because I am Bird and strange. But you do math. I like math, sometimes.”

The Gnoll was giving him a sympathetic look. One that said he understood something, but Bird didn’t want his sympathy. He wanted—

“I’m sure we will be—aren’t we friendly?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Are we?”

Bird folded his arms challengingly, and it threw Yelroan. The Gnoll scratched at his head and pushed his sunglasses up.

“How would we know if we were friends?”

That was easy. Bird smiled.

“If we were friends, then I could sit by you and give you a big hug. This is the friend I would like to be. But I am worried you do not want to be my friend, so I have been afraid to ask if you will be.”

Yelroan looked at him.

“I don’t think you need to ask to be my friend, Bird. You’ve been very—you know, I used to think like that. I thought you asked someone to be your friend. And it, uh, never worked out. With one exception.”

He looked incredibly pained and embarrassed, as if reliving some kind of memory. Bird just tilted his head.

“That’s stupid. Why do you not ask to be someone’s friend?”

Yelroan hunched his shoulders.

“Apparently, it’s something you know. You get a feel for it. Then you confirm it, when you’re sure. Relationships are hard.”

Bird knew that.

“But couldn’t I just ask you if you wanted to be my friend? If you were silly, you would be confused. But you understand me. Which is why we want to be friends. Then we would know, and it would be easy.”

He paused.

“I need people who understand me. Erin does, but she cannot always be here.”

Yelroan gave Bird a long look, then a smile did light up his face. He lowered the sunglasses, then adjusted them so they caught the light. A distant Pallassian [Soldier] threw up his hands to shield his face as he stared at one of The Wandering Inn’s windows.

“I suppose you could ask.”

Bird turned to him and smiled.

“Then, Yelroan, do you wish to be my friend?”

“I would love to, Bird.”

Both Antinium and Gnoll smiled, and Bird sidled over. He hesitated, then gave Yelroan’s shoulders a squeeze. The Gnoll grinned, and this was good. Bird added something else.

“But we must try…try to be best friends, alright? Which is a superior kind of friend.”

“I’ll definitely try.”

 

——

 

Bird felt better after that. And as it turned out, Yelroan had also been thinking of his problem. He told Bird to consult with one group about his ballista woes that Bird wouldn’t have thought to go to: the Silverfang tribe.

They were still camped out around Liscor, but a lot had decided that, given the Walled City’s armies, they were not keen on being here. In fact, many were heading north, not south.

“Well, the Bloodfields are in the way south, no? We would have to march too far to find a nice spot with that there. I would rather head north past Esthelm. Or maybe a bit further.”

They were very casual about the fact that a Gnoll tribe was moving past Liscor, but Bird didn’t care because he wasn’t a Drake or Human. He sat in one of the Silverfang tents, nibbling on some silkap, as they consulted with him about the problem.

“I know Gnolls do not have ballistae, but the problem is very hard, and Yelroan says you can help. Since he is my new friend, pending best friend, I will believe him.”

The Gnolls were rather amused about this and grinned. And as it turned out, they had a solution!

“I cannot believe Pallass does not understand the answer. Perhaps they do and do not wish to help an Antinium. Humans, it makes more sense since few would think of how to make such gigantic bolts, and they have access to good woods. But the Great Plains are hard to get fletching material; it is one of the weaknesses of the landscape. We have learned to make do. Your bolts we cannot make out of steel or other metals, but the shaft, at least, is far easier.”

“How? Share with me your wisdom, please.”

The Silverfang [Shaman] grinned.

“Why, if you have the glue—and I am told Shield Spider parts make wonderful glue, yes—simply laminate pieces of wood together. You need not cut it all properly if you can shape it, hrm?”

Bird sat there and then perked up.

Aaaaaaah!

 

——

 

Wood lamination. If you lacked for arrow shaft materials, you could still glue together pieces of wood and sand them down or carve them to fit! Bird ran back to the inn so fast that the Gnolls had to catch up to give him an arrow so whomever he hired could do the work properly.

They were willing to give it a shot—if he had good lumber and gave them access to a proper glue. And as it happened!

“Rhaldon said he made a Shield Spider glue, Bird. He’s still about, I think. We’re working on his room and new cart.”

“Yay! Erin, can you get me glue? And wood from Emperor Laken and pay him for it? Maybe if I cut down a tree he will not notice. Because he’s blind. I have money.”

Erin laughed as Bird offered her his coins. But then she grew serious.

“Bird. This is your ballista. I think you’ve gotta do all that.”

“Me?”

“Bird? Erin, I’ll handle it.”

Lyonette had bossed up, but to help this time, which Bird was grateful for. Yet Erin put her foot down.

“Bird has to. It’s not hard. Just go talk to Rhaldon; he or Octavia can probably mix the glue up, Bird. And go ask someone in Riverfarm. Probably Mister Prost since Laken’s always busy.”

Bird stared at Erin. Then, with a sigh, he trudged into Octavia’s shop and found Rhaldon working on his new cart design and laboratory layout with her as Numbtongue played on his guitar, looking bored. It wasn’t hard to ask Rhaldon for glue, and the [Alchemist] cut him a great deal.

And it wasn’t that hard to go to Riverfarm. The instant someone saw him, they got Lady Rie, anyways, and she agreed to deliver the lumber to the Gnolls, who agreed a [Fletcher] would stay and work on the project for gold and deliver his creation to the inn.

None of this was as hard as Bird would have assumed. Everyone knew Bird, and he stood there, asking when they could deliver, how much, and thanked them.

But after he was done, he went to his room and lay on his backshell.

Too much work.

Once more, he resented his gift. Even if he did feel happy about the ballista bolts. Now he’d have enough to let the Workers fire s—

The Workers. Bird poked his head up and stared out his window and groaned. Now, the eight Workers had cloaks on, and they were sitting outside. They looked like they were playing cards. Bird decided they’d come in when they got cold. And it was probably their day off or they had dispensation to do this.

It was more fun standing in the cold with nice inn-food than digging in the Hive. So they were fine, and Bird owed them nothing.

He was not a Pawn with his…Pawn…ways. And yet, Bird thought about the Bird-Worker who had nothing. He went to take a nap in his Fortress of Fluff, but he was so restless he ended up remaking it twice. Then he grumpily got up and counted his coins.

He had lots of them from his allowance and selling his arrows back when he had been preparing to attack Hectval. Plus, he’d gotten a stipend from Liscor for the damn ballista costs. Bird separated out some coins and got up.

“I am only doing this to spite Pawn!”

 

——

 

An hour later, a cold and tired Bird came over to the Workers standing around the ballista. They stood to attention, and he shoved something at the first Worker.

“Here. You. And you. And you—and take these to the other Workers. I do not have lots, so this is what they get. Do not pretend to be me.”

They stared at the floppy things he had given them. Then a Worker nervously put one on his head. The hats were floppy with a semi-wide brim, and upon request, the [Tailor] had cut holes in them for Antinium. It had a band around the hat’s base, though; that was the real value.

“You put a feather there. Or anything you want to hold. Like a snack. Here.”

Bird handed them all one of his lesser feathers too, and the Workers instantly donned the hats with every sign of joy and put a feather in their caps.

He had to admit, they looked sort of cool like that. Bird stomped away as the Workers looked at each other in delight.

 

——

 

He was so tired mentally after all that that Bird was ready to sleep. He hadn’t worked so hard since…since…

Even fletching ten thousand arrows wasn’t this bad. Bird hated it.

“Responsibility. Hiss. Hiss.”

He muttered in his room. But he decided he’d have fun and responsibly fire the ballista when he woke up. He’d spotted that grove of boom-bark trees, different from the one Erin had once used to make her inn. This new grove was small, but he bet if he hit it right, winter or not, the entire thing would kaboom in a funny way.

Plus, the yellow bird was on the mountain! The lightning Wyvern seemed to be having a bad time every time he looked out the window. Bird had angled his Fortress of Fluff so he could watch her; she looked very sad.

Also, the Void Eater Goat kept trying to eat her. It seemed to think she was good food, and Bird couldn’t deny she’d be a nice mouthful. He wished she’d survive, though.

She’d gotten a brief respite over Christmas; he hadn’t seen her then, and then the Void Eater Goat had found her lair. He winced as he watched lightning flare, tiny on the distant mountain.

“Poor yellow bird. It’s eating your lightning. Now you’re running away. Fly faster! It’s sucking everything in! Go, go!”

The yellow Wyvern was flapping hard and just managed to escape the gravity well the goat opened. Then it spat out the contents of its stomach, and Bird winced again.

“Ew.”

Someone else was having a bad day too. His gaze found the yellow Wyvern as she flew up, shooting more lightning, and tried to bury the goat in an avalanche! But it just sucked up the boulders and began shooting them back!

“That is one mean goat. Maybe it’s like me. I see a bird, I shoot it. It sees a nice yellow Wyvern doing nothing but trying to start a fire and crying and it eats it.”

Bird fell silent a second. He didn’t like that comparison.

“I am not a goat. I would not kill that bird. It is too smart. It was trying to make soup the other day.”

He thought and spoke after a second.

“…I probably wouldn’t kill that bird.”

Now he was second-guessing his reason to exist. Bird felt more tired. Was he a Void Eater Goat? That yellow Wyvern was special, he could feel it. He was almost sure it cried. When it stared at the sky or flew around in great loops, it looked free and happy. When it was sad, he saw it weep, and yet it was trying hard.

He had never seen a bird so inept before. Maybe that was why he liked it. It was a bird trying to figure out what being a bird meant. Sometimes it was hard.

“I would never kill that bird. But maybe I have. I love birds, and I shoot them. This is the duality of Bird. I’m tired. Stop thinking, brain.”

He began smacking his head lightly, trying to make it stop. He wondered if he could hit the mountain from here. Maybe—

Someone knocked on his door just as Bird was on the verge of something. Bird froze—and then huddled in his Fortress of Fluff.

No. No! Evil had come. And her name was—

“Bird? Do you have a moment? I’d like to consult with you about your ballista.”

He didn’t reply, but Watch Captain Zevara was cunning.

“I know you’re here. Bird? You’re not in trouble. If anything, the Council’s approved all your actions, and you’ve been quite responsible. I’d just like you to intercept some Snow Golems—large ones. Even Pallass doesn’t want to have to tangle with them, and we have reports of a twenty-foot ice one and a fifteen-foot snowman some idiot made. Can I review a few things with you? It won’t take more than twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes! Bird wondered how badly hurt he’d be if he jumped out the window and fell off the roof. He tried to use Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary], but she was probably using it because it didn’t open. So he did the next best thing he could think of.

“Bird is not here right now. Please leave a message and go away after the beep.”

He called out, and Watch Captain Zevara hesitated. She knocked again.

“Bird, it’s not—”

“Beep!”

“Bird, if I read out the—”

BEEP! BEEP! What part of beep don’t you understand?”

He threw one of his pillows at the door. Zevara retreated after a few minutes. Then someone else knocked on the door.

“Bird? Zevara’s waiting downstairs for you—”

Argh!

 

——

 

The worst part was that none of it was, by itself, arduous. That was why everyone told Bird it wasn’t ‘a big deal’ and it was ‘just a little thing’.

But Bird was intelligent. He knew the little things would become big things. Zevara would never quit. She would always come back with…something else.

He spent the next two hours taking pot shots at the Snow Golems until he gave up. He was trying to conserve ammunition by using round pieces of clay, essentially what Kevin called primitive cannonballs.

They actually flew if he made them just right, but they had to be baked, didn’t do much damage, and flew unpredictably.

To Bird’s intense annoyance, he lobbed three ballista bolts at the Snow Golem made of ice, and two missed and he shattered the third on its tough head. The huge block of ice given life lurched around, searching for who’d hit it.

“Can I try, Bird?”

Yelroan had come over and looked sheepishly interested in it. Bird nodded as he waited for the Gnoll to load the thing.

“I hate this stupid ballista. It doesn’t aim right.”

“Really? Oh—I see the problem.”

Yelroan was fiddling with the controls, and Bird nodded. In his mind’s eye, it was so simple.

“I missed. See where it is? It needs to go left—and hit that stupid crack in its neck.”

He had spotted it, and he pointed to the distant shape. Yelroan had to squint and pull out the glass magnifying sights, and he blinked.

“You spotted that?”

“Yes. And you aim right here if it’s here—

Bird made a gesture, showing Yelroan where his intuition said to place the bolt. However, his aim was off when the ballista actually fired, and when the Gnoll excitedly took a shot, it went too high and to the right. The Snow Golem began to chase after the bolt and punch the dirt. Yelroan grunted.

“Oh, I see. How far off was I?”

“Ten feet. Eight up, six right.”

Bird muttered glumly. The Gnoll and Workers gave him an impressed look.

“You can tell?”

“That is my power. I see things and shoot them. But not this. Ow!”

Bird kicked the ballista and hopped on one foot. Yelroan, meanwhile, was doing rapid math on a napkin.

“…There’s even degrees on here. So one degree up and point six right…no. That’s not right.”

Shoot and miss. Fourteen bolts left. Bird knew the Gnolls were confident they’d be able to cobble together a bolt that would fly, but they’d told him they would have a bad wood head, or he needed to buy metal.

Buying a giant ballista arrowhead? Expensive! Even his stipend wouldn’t cover more than a dozen per month. Bird stared around.

“And it’s hard to hit things with this stupid thing.”

“Most ballistae have enchanted munitions if they’re not being used to crack walls. You know, explosive magic?”

“Oh. Really.”

Bird stared at something in the distance. He scratched at his head.

“…How mad would Erin be if I blew up her inn?”

Yelroan was half paying attention as he did figures. He had noticed that the intricate aiming calculations got into terminology even he hadn’t heard of.

“Half degrees…and arcminutes? Fascinating! I see. One arcminute is 1.536 feet at one mile…which means—okay. I need the distance to my target, and then it’s just as simple as…”

An Antinium carefully rotated the ballista using the smallest of dials as Yelroan called out improvised coordinates. Bird eyed the ballista.

“Yelroan, what about Erin’s inn?”

The Gnoll was having fun and scratched at his head as he double-checked his numbers.

“Hm? Well, she needs a new one, but we’re living in this one. I don’t think she’d be too impressed. Do, uh—do you want to try?”

He offered the lever to one of the Workers. Then corrected the sights left a bit as the Snow Golem moved. Bird stared into the distance.

“Yes, but it’s cold, so maybe it wouldn’t explode right away. Making it explode on purpose and not killing us all is…”

Whumph. Bird jumped as the ballista thumped and spun. Then his mandibles opened, and Yelroan peeked his head up. The Gnoll’s jaw dropped, and the Worker who’d pulled the lever fell over.

We hit it!

Square on the neck crack! Well, almost! Bird saw the Snow Golem trying to pick up half its body before it fell over. He stared at Yelroan, and the [Mathematician] beamed. He patted the ballista.

“Math wins once again! Minotaurs do respect it.”

Everyone was patting the Worker’s shoulder, the one who’d fired the ballista. Then they were clapping—and someone was cheering from the walls of Liscor. The Watch had seen it! In fact, they were already calling for a Silver-rank team to recover the snow and keep the Snow Golem from turning into mini ones! And there was a bounty, and Bird?

Bird got even madder, happy as he was for Yelroan.

 

——

 

It was evening, Erin was congratulating Bird on ‘his’ first successful shot, and Bird was accepting cupcakes. But he was dragged away from the party by, of all people, Yellow Splatters.

“Bird’s Workers are causing trouble in the Hive. Pawn wishes Bird to come.”

“My Workers? But I didn’t do anything!”

The [Captain] gave Bird a reproving look.

“Yes you did. You bought them hats.”

Bird stopped and then raised his arms overhead in sheer frustration.

You say that like this is a bad thing!

 

——

 

The Bird-Workers were bragging about their new hats—and the ballista shot. Bird caught the end of one of the arguments.

“I am a [Crew Operator]. I have a class.”

“It is not better than faith.”

“I have a hat.”

“It is not better than faith.”

“…It is.”

Two Workers began fighting as one went over the line. They punched and slapped each other’s chitin until they had to be dragged back. Pawn gave Bird a long look.

“You gave them something. So you do care. Cease fighting! We do not need to quarrel, and we are all rewarded in our own ways. Bird has given a gift to the Workers who helped him; there is nothing wrong with that.”

Bird had put his foot in it now. Pawn broke up the fight, but his Workers—and more, Soldiers and Workers without a hat—were looking at Bird expectantly.

Why did Pawn seem slightly triumphant? As if Bird had begun playing his game and it was clear that Bird didn’t have the money or time to outfit all his Workers. Pawn had prayers, books, the barracks, and his Painted Antinium would become a society.

Bird had bought eight hats. Bird was getting mad.

Bird was beyond mad, actually. Pawn was treating him like he was deliberately not doing anything for ‘his’ Workers despite Bird never asking for anyone to idolize him. Well, if he was going to be someone’s role model…Bird waited until Pawn was gone and then sidled over to his Workers and Soldiers. He counted.

“Fifty-three. Okay. Come with me.”

They looked worried, and Bird rubbed his hands together sinisterly. He tip-toed away as all the other Workers and Soldiers turned to stare at him. Pawn got word of what Bird was doing about forty minutes later, after one of his sermons, and lost his temper.

 

——

 

Bird! What are you doing?

Pawn came storming into The Wandering Inn with a host of Painted Antinium and nearly scared the Pallassian and House Veltras [Soldiers] out of their seats. But his attention wasn’t on them or establishing dominance. It was on Bird.

Bird, who wasn’t in the common room. Rather, he was in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. That massive room, which could have sat an entire movie’s audience, was being occupied by Bird and the Workers and Soldiers who’d declared their admiration of him.

Right now, his dinner consisted of popcorn, a lasagna slice, and blue fruit juice. Bird had spread out his plates, and he was sitting apart from the other Workers and Soldiers, who shrank back when Pawn looked at them.

But they weren’t the only ones. Mrsha hit ‘pause’ as the movie overhead froze. And Bird stood up.

“Hello, Pawn. I am being insolent and smarmy. What are you so mad about?”

Pawn looked around at the Antinium that Bird had treated to dinner and a movie. Bird waved a finger at him.

“Before you say anything, I paid for all of it myself.”

“You took them to a movie? I was going to ask Erin to borrow her theatre for one night! This—even her regular guests don’t come here!”

Pawn was appalled. Bird just brushed a crumb off his mandibles.

“So? She doesn’t use it all the time. Mrsha was going to watch a movie, and I asked if I could join in. It’s Hercules. Want to watch?”

He patted a chair, indicating the ample room. But Pawn just got madder. He hesitated as Erin came over.

“Hey, Pawn. What’s wrong? Bird asked if his group could come and watch a movie…did you want to join in and Bird didn’t invite you?”

She gave Bird a suspicious look, but Pawn bowed to Erin.

“No, Erin. It’s just—may I speak with you, Bird? Privately?

That meant just the Antinium. Bird stepped to one side, but everyone listened in, including Erin, who looked at Pawn with a puzzled frown as he hissed at Bird.

“Bird! You are doing too much! The other Antinium will feel they’re being left out.”

“But aren’t they? These are ‘my’ Antinium. I have given them movie night, and they can come back every single night so long as Erin isn’t busy.”

“No! Bird—what about equality?”

Bird folded all four arms as he faced down Pawn. He did not like arguing with Pawn. But he was annoyed, and like with Klbkch…

“What about it? Maybe I will not do every night, but this was fine. Erin likes Antinium, you know, Pawn. I am not sure you realize this, but she is very happy to let them eat here or watch a movie.”

“That’s right. Pawn, it’s all cool by me. Whenever you Antinium want to watch a movie—feel free! It’s not like I can use the theatre all the time. Too much TV melts your brain, at least according to my mom. But what does she know?”

Erin called out, and Pawn hesitated, at a loss for words. Bird leaned forwards.

“I am not wrong, Pawn. You did not ask, and you come by less often. You know why? Not one of your Antinium thought to ask Erin. Because she’s the ‘sky’. She’s only the sky to you?”

“Bird—what do you mean by ‘only’?”

Pawn’s voice was getting dangerous, but Bird didn’t care. He was dangerous. They all were. He hopped over to Erin as the Painted Antinium slowly turned.

“I said only because I mean only. Erin, hold still.”

“Bird. Be nice.”

She looked warningly at him, but uncertainly at Pawn. Erin had always been bad with people who loved her unconditionally like Pawn. And Bird looked Pawn in the eye and raised his voice and knew this would be repeated throughout the Free Hive.

“If you only see a sky when you see Erin, you won’t ever be close to her. Just staring up from a long way away. The sky is bigger than you can imagine, Pawn. She’s only the sky to you. But she’s Erin Solstice to me. I can do this.”

With that—he reached up and ruffled Erin’s hair, messing it up. Erin yelped and then giggled.

“Bird! Stop that! My hair! I even undyed it—Bird!”

He kept giving her what Kevin had taught to Bird as the art of noogies, to be used to great effect on little Gnolls, and Pawn’s mandibles opened in horror. The Painted Antinium stared at Bird’s blasphemy, but Purple Smiles looked at Bird as if he understood something.

Bird laughed. Right up until Pawn pointed a shaking finger at him.

Bird!

Something struck Bird, and he went stumbling away from Erin. Then Pawn charged into him, and they went rolling down the theatre, fighting. Both sides of Antinium joined in until Erin stomped her foot, and the inn shook. All the while, Bird thought—

This is all Magnolia Reinhart’s fault.

 

——

 

“Bird. You shouldn’t tease Pawn.”

That night, Erin sat Bird down to have a word with him after she’d talked to Pawn. Bird was sitting, hunched over, all his arms folded.

“You shouldn’t not tease Pawn, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] paused, then looked guilty. She ducked her head.

“You’re right. I guess there were so many things going on that I didn’t focus on him. I never asked him to call me…the sky is weird. You’re right. But you hurt his feelings on purpose.”

“Yes.”

Bird stared down at the ground. Then he added the part that made him stressed, a huge roiling pit by now.

“And I have to let the Workers and Soldiers have movie night again. I did it once, and if I don’t invite them regularly, I’d be a bad Bird, wouldn’t I? A hypocritical one.”

Erin covered her mouth and laughed. But she gave him a look of understanding and squeezed his hand.

“Yeah. But you’d never do that because you’re thoughtful. That’s a good idea. Yelroan proposed a schedule so the Antinium can come by. Which means…I have to use Lyonette’s calendar. She always wins. You should have seen her face.”

She made a silly face, and Bird smiled. But he felt the same thing as Erin. He spoke, slowly, as he sat there.

“Four days left, right?”

Erin’s smile flickered out. She took a breath.

“Yep. I’m not sure when the Solstice will—yeah. Three days starting tomorrow. Niers says his people will be coming any day now. They’re Centaurs. Like Charlay, but less silly. I hope. It’ll be cool seeing them, won’t it?”

She looked so stressed out and nervous, even with her smile, that Bird went over and hugged her. Erin gave him a tight squeeze, and her hat burned dimly in her inn. He reached up for it, but it didn’t burn him. It felt like her hand the day he said goodbye.

There was something Bird wanted to say to Erin. But he didn’t want to give it voice at the same time.

Four days. Erin looked at Bird.

“Try to get along with Pawn, Bird. Please?”

“If he tries to get along with me, I will. But not if he makes me get along with him. I am sorry for fighting, Erin. Lots of things are happening, aren’t they?”

“Yep. But I’m glad you’re managing your ballista problem. Magnolia sent it like that on purpose, you know. Or the Minotaur King. Both, probably.”

Bird scowled.

“They are both bad people. What kind of person teaches someone a lesson rather than writing it down so they can just read it and understand it?”

Erin began giggling so hard she almost fell out of her seat. She wiped at her eyes.

“I think the kind of people who tried writing things down and telling people and realized no one ever learns that way. Not you, or me. I get why they did it. I respect her more than I used to, you know.”

She looked older when she said that. Twenty-seven? Older, maybe. But Bird didn’t say it out loud this time, even though it was more true. He nodded.

“I am managing my ballista. I can make it work. I even know how to make the ballista bolts, and I have an idea for the head. I will even ask Montressa to make sure we don’t all die horribly.”

“Ooh, smart, Bird! Especially that last part, whatever it is.”

Erin’s eyes twinkled. But she trusted him. If he never begged for help, she’d let him do it. Erin sighed.

“Zevara really is making you take charge of it, though. I had no idea the Watch was so many places!”

Bird had heard from her too. Apparently, some Carn Wolves had been preying on a flock far to the west—he hadn’t even known there was a village out there. But if he saw a wolf, would he mark it for adventurers or consider taking a shot? But they could only pay him at the base rate per monster, so it was up to his discretion.

He thought about that until Erin let go of him and told Bird that he wasn’t in trouble, and that she hoped he’d make up with Pawn soon. And Bird had a meeting with the Free Queen tomorrow for Unitasis practice and could he explain to her what was going on? Someone had to, and if he couldn’t, she’d send for Rosencrantz.

 

——

 

That night, Bird got up in the middle of the night and walked outside. He found something and got to work.

After about eleven minutes, Erin Solstice appeared out of her [Garden of Sanctuary], holding a knife and acid jar.

“Bird! You scared the poop out of me! What are you—Bird, stop!

Bird had a hammer in his hands, one of the ones that Hexel’s [Builders] had left. He was trying to smash the ballista. He ignored Erin and kept hitting it.

Don’t stop me! This is the only way! I have to do it before it’s too late!

He was hitting it with all his strength. Trying to earnestly break it to bits. However, the altercation had attracted attention, and Normen, on night patrol, had been wavering between stopping Bird to begin with.

Even so, it took him, Numbtongue, Calescent, and Dame Ushar to finally wrestle Bird away. He really had tried to bust the ballista; one arm was badly damaged, and he’d messed up the pulley system.

Unfortunately, Valeterisa had it repaired by morning.

 

——

 

“Some days, I don’t know what goes through his head.”

Lyonette confessed to Mrsha as Bird sat in a corner of the inn, nursing a cup of coffee and looking more miserable than his family could remember him looking for ages.

Forsooth, he has experienced the pains of adulting. I would cry if I were him or had to be you, Mother.

Mrsha held up a card, and Lyonette sighed.

“Mrsha…maybe that’s true. I honestly expected Bird to throw a tantrum and give up halfway through finding the ballista bolt replacements, but he really stepped up. Erin was right. He did such a good job, despite the fight with Pawn! So why did he crack now?

Silly Lyonette. The [Princess] understood so much and so little. Bird sat in his chair and knew exactly why he had tried to destroy the ballista.

It would have been better if he failed and Lyonette or Erin had needed to rescue him. He was tired. But not tired enough.

Did that make sense? Only Bird understood Bird. And he was fighting not to head to a conclusion he knew was inevitable. The worst part, though, was that, because he was Bird, the other part of him was fighting even harder. For better reasons.

He hated that.

Bird didn’t know what to do. Or rather, he did. He saw two roads in front of him, and one looked like how it had always been. But suddenly, it wasn’t the good road. But the other was terrifying.

So he did the only thing he could think of. He sat in his tower and pretended his problems didn’t exist. But they were even there.

“Poor yellow bird.”

She was running for her life. An army of about a hundred Eater Goats were boxing her in, throwing themselves off cliffs as the Void Eater Goat followed. Bird was sure she’d make it.

After all, the big bronze bird sometimes watched out for her. But he was a lazy bird and looked fat. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention? She’d make it, even so.

Unless she didn’t. Bird bowed his head and began hitting his head into the tower’s supports. Until someone caught his shoulder.

“Bird. Stop that.”

There she was. He had expected her to find him. After all, Erin Solstice saw people’s hearts like he could see tiny objects and birds.

The [Innkeeper] had come up the stairs quietly. She looked brighter, now. She wasn’t winded or panting from the effort of standing. She looked more energetic. Perhaps more than she’d been before she died. She did a little jump as he poked her.

“Bird! Are you okay?”

“No, Erin.”

The young woman with her hazel eyes still had a trace of red in her hair from Ulvama’s hair dyes. She was shivering in the cold breeze; she only had on a shirt and pants. Pajamas? The pants were silver, and the shirt had a huge fang.

Oh. Silverfang. Bird saw her lips curve upwards, and she lifted a hand.

“Well, then. Why don’t we have a talk?”

She turned, and a door opened into a warm garden. Erin leapt through, and Bird followed. She could dance now.

She could dance a month ago, but this time, Erin seemed to know it. Sometimes she would skip, getting out of bed, or do a little jig. This morning, she’d come down the stairs bounding and twirling off each step like she had feet made of rubber until she saw the guests watching her and wiped out on the bottom step.

In a way, Erin was Bird’s answer. She had changed. Ever so slightly, from dying. And also afterwards. But he didn’t know…

“Do you want to go up the hill?”

“Sure.”

They climbed the hill, as Bird did so many times, and they were there. They were always there.

The statues. Bird saw them standing in a ring just like they always had been. And when he walked forwards, forgetting Erin existed a second, he fit right in. Back to back with the others, staring down the hill as Skinner came up.

Not afraid. Not really. Knowing I was going to die and hoping Erin would live.

He still fit right there. Bird didn’t think Garry did anymore. Belgrade and Anand? No. They’d be too tall, even if they were physically the same height.

Pawn had never been there, but even if he had—the Worker would never be able to stand right here.

Bird could. He was sillier than the first Bird that Erin had ever met, but he could still be right here. And that…that was the problem.

Erin Solstice watched Bird step away from the statues. For the first time, he didn’t linger there, unmoving, but turned to face them. Then he slowly walked down the hill again.

“Can we…talk somewhere else, Erin?”

“Sure. How about—this garden?”

She chose the one that had been used by a Garuda. The dry, windy garden with the huge nests above. Apista was buzzing around, jetting using her wingflames. She stopped, as if embarrassed they had seen her training montage behind the scenes. She buzzed off as Bird lay on his backshell.

“I’m tired, Erin.”

“I often get tired, Bird. But I’ve never heard you say that. Is it hard running a ballista?”

He sat up slowly.

“Ballistae get moldy. The strings break. Even with [Repair], I’ll need to recalibrate it. The ballista bolts cost money. Oh, and I should pay the Workers. They’re gaining levels as [Crew Operators], which might turn into [Artillerists]. But I can’t use the ballista properly. And now I’m responsible for all the farms and Floodplains. If a monster eats someone, it’s my fault.”

“It’s the Watch’s fault. You’re not responsible for all of it—”

Bird flicked some dust at Erin.

“It is my fault because I said ‘yes’. Do not be silly like someone who uses words stupidly. You know what I mean.”

Erin ducked her head.

“I do, Bird. Sorry. If it helps—it’s a stressful time. After the Solstice, things will be better. I promise. Everyone’s getting ready, and I’m not counting—no, I’m sure the ballista will help. But if you think it all relies on you, don’t. This is my fight. I picked it up.”

She made a fist, staring ahead at a bad person that only she could see and know the name of. Bird was too weak. He was just a [Bird Hunter]. He wasn’t Level 40. Not yet.

“…I’m just a silly Bird. I’m a [Liar], Erin. I lie about everything. Including being a silly Bird. I’m such a talented liar I forgot where the lie started.”

“I bet you don’t fool Chaldion. He knows you’re talented. He never forgot you. He asks how you’re doing, you know.”

Bird sighed.

“No, I fooled him because he thought I was more than I wasn’t.”

Erin tried to work this out, and Bird tapped his head with one finger.

“See? He can’t know me if I don’t know myself. A fool is he. He thinks everything has an answer. That’s why the faeries laugh at him.”

Erin did chuckle at this.

“That’s fair. But Bird…tell me what you’re thinking.”

He looked up pensively, and his antennae waved until he grabbed them. Bird whispered.

“I am a great liar. I have been trying so hard, Erin. Oh, so hard. But I cannot lie to myself much longer. May I tell you a story, please? It is of a dream I have. No. First. I will ask you a question, and you must answer honestly. Swear, please? And then if I do not like the answer, I will tell you a story.”

Erin cocked her head to one side. She looked puzzled, but serious.

“Go ahead, Bird.”

He lifted his hand as some of the evaporated snow dried on his carapace. Apista buzzed by, pretending she wasn’t eavesdropping, and Bird could imagine this was a warm day, not winter. He waited until all was silence, then looked Erin in the eyes.

“Time’s stopped.”

Apista’s wings faltered mid-buzz. She checked herself, then buzzed around and flew through a little door and checked a timepiece, then buzzed back and gave Bird a suspicious stare. Erin raised her brows.

“You mean you stopped it? I didn’t.”

Bird nodded, lying.

“Yes. I have the power to stop time. And I have the power to teleport. I have, um…[Greatest Teleport]! [Super Teleport]! And because I do, you have all the time in the world, Erin. And you can go anywhere.”

“Neat! Then let’s go bother Fetohep. I want to hug him—”

Erin rubbed her hands together, and Bird held up a hand.

“No, wait. I don’t want to waste—you can’t go anywhere. Time’s stopped, and I can teleport you anywhere. Not just anywhere here—anywhere ever. Even back home. To Grand Rapids.”

The [Innkeeper] stopped rubbing her hands. Bird took a huge breath.

“There are three days left till the Solstice, Erin. You could run away. If you do, I’ll help you. Or—or hide here! If you never open the door on the Solstice, nothing can get in. Probably. Even if your inn blows up, maybe you’ll just be here, right?”

He stood up, spreading his arms. He looked around the dry garden. True, there wasn’t much, but—

“You can grow fruits in the other garden. And make a home. Pooing in a corner will be gross, but only for a bit. You can live here. And never come out again. And then you won’t have to face whatever is going to try to kill you.”

He looked earnestly at Erin, and her face was frozen over with something like fear. Like fear, but not quite. She gave him a grave look and seemed to grow more serious as she sat up. Now, Bird did feel it. An [Immortal Moment] passing over him.

These moments had changed his life. He pointed at her urgently.

“You can run away, Erin. Far away. Out of this world. Or hide here, can’t you? I can move in here. I don’t mind losing my tower. I’ll build another.”

She didn’t say ‘silly Bird’ or laugh at him. That was how he knew she was being serious. Erin’s mirth faded, and she looked around, but only once. For she had surely thought of this. She ducked her head, took a deep breath of the dry air, and coughed.

“I—could Bird. I probably could. But sanctuary can’t hold everyone.

Something about how she said it…Bird hurried on.

“Then you can run away. Go home to Earth. Go home with Ryoka and Kevin and Joseph and Imani. Even Troydel. We don’t need him. Can’t you?”

He wasn’t sure if it was possible. Erin stared down at her feet. She seemed to waver, then admit something she was afraid to tell anyone else. Only him.

“I could run farther than that, I think. If I asked—Ryoka told me every single door is closed. But I think they’d let me leave. Maybe as many people as we could fit. I can imagine someone would hold a door open for me to take the Earthers. You. Maybe they’d be so brave they’d even hold it open long enough for me to grab Rabbiteater. To ask the ones like Fetohep and Niers and Elena to come with me.”

A week. A month. Maybe a year. She looked up, and Bird grew excited.

“Yes! Yes! Even if it takes longer—you can do that, right?”

“Maybe. And everyone I know would come with me. Then it’d be just ghosts I left behind. And everyone else in the world I haven’t met.”

Erin traced on the ground with one finger. Bird stared at her, then kicked dirt onto her.

“You don’t know them! You’re not their friend!”

“Yet.”

“You’re not that charming.”

He snapped. Bird went stomping away, and Erin got up.

“Bird. I made a promise.”

I know. And I know you will never go. Which is why that was a stupid thing to say. I knew you wouldn’t. Take me back to the hill. Please?”

The Antinium came back, despairing. He felt like a bird, flying left and right, soaring in every direction, avoiding an arrow he knew would always catch him.

He knew Erin. She took him back to the statues. The ring of grey stone capturing Antinium perfectly. Capturing something of them—but the rest was gone forever. Bird knew that, and yet he pointed to the gap.

“Pawn is different. But Garry, Belgrade, Anand, and I? This is the moment we became us. I lived for years before this, but this moment made me Bird.

He turned to Erin, and her eyes were wet. But Bird spread his arms defiantly, not wanting her to cry. She had to understand. He was sure she did.

“We are always right here. Every single second when I am singing or eating or laughing or crying. There is a part of me that is always right here. This is where it began.”

He thumped his chest with one hand.

“I am a silly Bird. I was always sort of silly and wrong. But I became sillier on purpose, afterwards. Just a bit, though. The me of now is still the me of then. See? I fit!”

He posed there, and Erin shook her head, not to deny that he was still the Bird who had fought for her.

“You were never wrong, Bird.”

The Antinium smiled.

“Maybe not. But I am happy to be that Bird, either way. I am happy in the inn. I am happy, even if Numbtongue is sometimes mean and Mrsha is silly and Lyonette is bossy and you are lazy. I am happy when bad things happen and when good things occur. But I am afraid, Erin.”

“Of what?”

Bird stepped out of the line and turned to face the statues. He reached out, took Knight’s hand, and looked at Erin.

“If I changed enough, would I no longer be me?”

She let out a silent breath. Oh…so that was it. Bird looked at her. Earnestly, not lying for once.

“Now here is my story, Erin. It is a good story, and I believe it is true even though I cannot prove any of it, and I made it up.”

He stared up at the sky, the winter snow coming through the dome, and almost on instinct, stepped—and walked into the hot garden again. Bird spread his arms slowly and looked up, up at a fake illusion of a sun, bathing in the light as it fell over him. Such a blue sky.

This is what he said:

“It’s a hot, summer day.”

He lied so well, because he believed it. An [Innkeeper] and a bee watched, and what the two saw…Erin shaded her eyes as Bird spoke upwards.

“—And I’m a young man in another world. I have a funny hat, and I love birds. And a stupid face with a nose. I think I’m playing baseball. I’m good at aiming.”

It felt right to say. He could almost see it. A hand with fingers wrapped around a ball, throwing it. He’d like baseball more than football. Baseballs flew. Bird went on.

“That’s where I am. I’m having fun at a game in some kind of…place where you play baseball.”

“A baseball stadium, Bird. No—a field outside a school I bet. For students in, what, middle school?”

“Yes.”

Bird saw it. A young man, a boy, really, looked up, and for a second, he stared upwards as a stand full of people waited for him to throw the ball. A hot day with a bird passing overhead and a hat filled with sweat. A perfect moment. Bird spoke as he stared up at that image of himself in his head.

“I’m right there. Then—time stops. The moment freezes. That moment goes on forever because if I get a second older, I’ll never be that happy again. Life will never be so simple. That’s the moment before something bad happens, when I’m young.”

He looked down at Erin, and she whispered.

“That’s your [Immortal Moment]?”

Bird nodded.

“Yes. The one I want. I never had that life here. It was easier for me. When I became three, I’d die in a collapse or a Crypt Worm would kill me or Klbkch would notice me singing and kill me. But that is the moment I would like, please. It is the moment I want and can never have, and…it is now.”

He pointed down, at the ground, and looked at Erin.

“Time’s stopped.”

Do you understand? She surely did and looked down, closing her eyes. Bird went on urgently.

“Can’t you run away? Then we could play baseball in another place. And someone would be mean to me, and you would save me. You would get into trouble, and I would be there…”

He could imagine it. He’d shoot arrows and get into trouble, and Erin would have to do something stupidly amazing, but it would work. Just like it had. Bird went on quietly.

“It would be the same story, only smaller. And I’d know the ending would be happy. I don’t know that here, Erin.”

She looked at him with eyes filled with heavy courage and remorse and fear. He saw the fear and uncertainty.

“Neither do I, Bird. I can’t run, though. You could do it.”

Her voice was tentative, and neither he nor she believed it. Bird hunched his shoulders sadly.

“I could. But I couldn’t without you. Either way, I wouldn’t be Bird. Erin. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to get older. I don’t want to ever not fit in that place.”

He meant the statues. Erin whispered.

“I’m sorry, Bird. No one is asking you to change.”

“No. No one but me is.”

No one would ever tell him he had to. Not Lyonette, not Erin, not Mrsha or Numbtongue or Yelroan or Nanette…Bird could do this forever. And the only person who would ever be the most guilty was him. He turned to Erin.

“I have never wanted to change, Erin. I only almost did it once. When you died. I was ready to change and never come back. I was going to kill all of Hectval.”

Her breath caught. He had never told her that. Erin searched for words.

“I’m glad you didn’t, Bird.”

The Worker nodded.

“I am too, now. But then? I was okay. I knew that I would be able to walk anywhere I wanted, afterwards. But the me that left wouldn’t be back. Even if he called himself Bird. I didn’t care because you were dead. I was okay with that until Selys made me wonder how you’d feel. She is a terrible person.”

“Yeah. She’s great. Thank goodness for her. I’m glad you didn’t leave—like that.”

Erin was rubbing her eyes. Bird could not cry, at least in her way, and he didn’t want to. Not now. He turned, kicked at the dirt.

“Now. Today. I would like you to be selfish. But you couldn’t, or you would not be Erin, and I would run away with a stranger. I would like to remain Bird forever. But if I remain, maybe that Bird is also fake. I am standing in the sun. It’s a hot day. Time has stopped, but I feel it moving.”

He held up his hand and tried to see it again. But the dream was gone. A boy stood under the heat of the sun, and a bee buzzed past his face. He looked around, and he was older and felt ashamed and hung his head.

“…I am sorry for being silly, Erin.”

At last, the [Magical Innkeeper] came over and hugged him fiercely. She squeezed, and he felt like the world could be alright. What a beautiful lie she told, even without the class, with just a hug. Erin muttered into his shoulder.

“No, Bird. It’s not silly. You understand what—what innocence is. Being young. Being—what this means. More than all the people who take it for granted, even me!”

She looked mournful, as if she could remember her own moments only now. Bird patted Erin on the head gently.

“Of course I do. Because I never had it to begin with; I had to earn it. You got yours for free.”

Erin Solstice’s laughter was rueful, regretful, amused, and filled with quiet wonder. She took hold of his hand, and Bird asked her his real question.

“I want to go back, Erin. Back, before I had anything to lose. Can you do that for me?”

She turned, and all the magic in her eyes sparkled sadly.

“Maybe someday, Bird. But I can’t right now.”

Maybe someday. Good enough. Bird sighed.

“I will wait, then. And I’ll give Knight my turn, then. Or Magnus. I am sure they will do it better. Or more interestingly.”

He stayed there a long time as Erin leaned on him. An [Immortal Moment] could last as long as forever, and it was so damn short. Bird looked up. And when, at last, he left the [Garden of Sanctuary]…he wondered who he was.

Then he looked in a mirror and knew he was Bird.

 

——

 

The Worker who left the garden in the morning looked a bit odd. He was Bird—but he gave orders to the Antinium Workers standing around the ballista.

“I have a job for you. You may say no, but it would be useful.”

They looked at each other. Bird had a job for them? One of them nodded.

“We will do anything you want, Bird.”

The [Hunter] heaved a huge sigh.

“That is what I was afraid of. Then can you get an axe and follow a silly [Mage] I trick into going over there?”

He pointed, and they stared into the distance. One of the Workers could just barely see the outline of some trees.

“What is over there, Bird?”

“Exploding trees. If you freeze the bark, they only explode when they get hot. Tie it to a ballista shaft and you get…something that explodes. Hurry up. I need them in…”

Bird stared up at the High Passes.

“…Now.”

Maybe he was too late. The Workers looked at each other, then Bird turned and raised his arms.

Run! Someone help! I need more bolts! Montressa! Montressa! APPRENTICE!

He was loading one into the ballista, turning it, swinging it around, and the Workers rushed off with axes towards the trees as Montressa came running.

“Bird! What’s wrong?”

“Go with them! I need to fire this thing!”

He pointed, and she hesitated, but he was already working on sighting. Bird realized he’d have to aim higher than he had ever thought before. He’d never tried indirect fire, and he had…thirteen bolts?

“I might fail. [Long-Range Shot]…[Homing Shot]. [Swallow’s Arrow]. If I fail, though, it’s my fault. Wonderful.”

He aimed high, pulled the lever, and the ballista fired. In the inn, someone dropped a plate, and everyone on the walls of Liscor ducked. But Bird just stared up and up, tracking something flying so far and fast through the sky that every single shot the ballista had fired seemed short. And he watched it fall and cursed.

“Poo. Four miles down. Four hundred and fifty-two feet left.”

“Bird! What are you doing?”

Lyonette shouted as she came out. The Watch was demanding answers, but Bird ignored her.

I’m firing the ballista! Out of the way! It’s dangerous!

“With what crew? Your Antinium went running off that way! Bird—”

“The crew’s coming! They’re two minutes away!”

Bird didn’t even look at Lyonette. His antennae were waving wildly, and the [Princess] stared at him. Two minutes—

Bird gave up winding the ballista. He just adjusted his aim and grimly stared upwards. He didn’t even look around as eight more Workers came rushing out of the basement and leapt into action. By this point, Liscor was fully alert, and the Pallassian army was taking cover. But the smart ones were staring at…

 

——

 

“What’s he firing at?”

Even with a spyglass, Yelroan couldn’t tell. Lyonette was putting Mrsha and everyone else into the garden, just in case. Several officers wanted Bird to stop; Jericha and a Pallassian [Major] were complaining, but Erin refused to let them interfere.

She might not have known what was going on, but she knew Bird. Yelroan looked around—then ran outside as Bird launched the third bolt and began screaming insults.

Too low! Too—curve up, stupid arrow! I can’t hit it!”

“Bird!”

Yelroan charged towards him. The Antinium turned, and his mandibles opened.

“Yelroan! Help me! I am a mile down, a hundred and twelve feet right! It’s so far that every time I move this thing—”

He gestured at the controls, and Yelroan scrambled to understand. He might not have known where or what Bird was doing, but the math was solid.

“I can’t pinpoint what you’re targeting—”

“All I need is within fifty feet and the [Homing Arrow] works. Moving up—fifty feet up. Make it a hundred feet higher. Now twelve more feet left…”

Yelroan wound smaller cranks, making the most minute adjustments as the panting Workers looked at Bird. He didn’t even touch the ballista, just shaded his eyes. Then he shouted.

Now!

Yelroan pulled the lever, and the ballista fired.

 

——

 

She was going to die. 

Rafaema was panting, trying to fly away. But no matter how fast or far she flew—the goat followed.

That cute, black-furred animal with its strange eyes, like a vertical line, glowing faintly yellowish-orange shouldn’t inspire such fear. But then it opened its mouth and ate everything.

At first, she had taken the run-ins as coincidence. Bad luck. She had had a string of bad luck. Trying to hunt to feed herself, build a shelter as the High Passes thundered and there were avalanches, mudslides—

Ants had eaten her food stockpiles. Ants. She had fought Gargoyles, not to kill them, just in territory squabbles. And just when she thought she was learning, the goat arrived.

It had been hunting her. She realized that now; she’d been in denial that anything could hunt her. But while she had lost it during the Christmas party, it had lain in ambush.

Eater Goats had been trying to chomp off her wings. The Void Eater Goat had been trying to down her with boulders it literally spat into the air like a living catapult. She might have escaped all that—but the Void Eater Goat, hungry for a meal it had never had before, had adapted in the worst of ways.

Manus guard me!

Rafaema turned her head as she heard a terrible roaring sound. A crack of air—and a thunderous feeling of air moving. She looked to the side and actually saw dust and debris kicked behind her pursuer. She was flying—

But so was the damn goat. Or rather, it had taken the largest gulp of air it could, turned, and spat the air behind it. Turning itself into a grinning cannonball that opened its mouth and—

A yellow scale ripped off her side. Her side was bleeding, torn by the intense gravitational pull the Void Eater Goat was projecting. Rafaema, panting, tried to dive, but gravity was no longer on her side. She had to fly down and cling to the ground, crawling away.

Teriarch! Help!

Either he couldn’t hear her, he was busy, or—Rafaema turned and did the only thing she could do to ward it off.

Die!

She exhaled lightning. Bolt upon bolt, crackling energy dissipating into that maw. As much as she could produce; quantity over quality. The goat sucked it up and up—and then finally the mouth closed, and it hopped back, landing hard and making a belching sound.

Smoke was rising from its maw. It looked slightly peeved, as if swallowing that lightning hurt. The Lightning Dragon tried to get away.

The goat hopped after her.

Every single species that saw the two coming ran for it. Rafaema had seen a two-headed Ogre, an Ettin, take one look at the goat and run screaming. Even the shapeshifter-thing had left; she hadn’t seen it in over a month.

I’m not going to make it this time. The goat refused to give her time to regroup. She’d tried burying it in an avalanche, blowing it off cliffs—it ate everything that came at it. Even magic!

An odd cracking sound made Rafaema spin, wary of an Eater Goat attack, but she saw nothing, just a gigantic anthill of thousands of yellow ants. They ignored her, but swarmed the goat, and it happily vacuumed them up.

The distraction let Rafaema gain another hundred feet—until she heard that terrible explosion of air, looked up, and reversed.

Too late—the goat landed on its hooves in front of her with a stylish clop. It did a happy backflip and grinned at Rafaema. As if to say:

Look what I just figured out. 

She snarled at it. Both she and the goat inhaled—and lightning met void. Rafaema’s Dragonbreath had grown immeasurably stronger just from having to match the goat.

Back up—her legs were moving. She was retreating away from the pull, exhaling as long as she could. Ten seconds. Fifteen…her claws slipped on the rocks, and she felt herself sliding forward.

The goat had a far larger lung capacity than she did. She wasn’t going to make it! Rafaema closed her eyes a second, then tensed. If it got her, she’d slash it once before she got eaten. Maybe there was a way out! She snarled—

And something smashed into a rocky cliff about fifty feet overhead. Both the Dragon and goat, trained from the High Passes to be alert to new threats, whirled. They looked up—and rocks showered down. Rafaema’s eyes saw something go splintering across the rocks.

What the hell was that? Both she and the goat looked at each other, and it opened its mouth again. Rafaema turned and leapt down the slopes. The goat hopped up to inspect the broken rocks, then seemed to shrug and followed her downwards.

 

——

 

Fifty feet too high! Almost dead on!

Bird was shouting. A sweating crew was reloading the ballista, but the happy-go-lucky [Hunter] wasn’t content.

Faster! Go faster! Yelroan, you missed!”

“My calculations were—”

Calculate the wind!

Bird screamed at him, and Yelroan cursed. He was pulling numbers out of midair now, trying to calculate on the fly what wind speed was doing to the trajectory of—

Didn’t I have a paper on [Aeromancers] once? [Locate Number]! [Pragmatist’s Extrapolation]—[Check Sum]—

“Two arcminutes up, half a degree right—”

Down a hundred and fifty feet! Twenty feet right!”

It was a flurry of shouts, and Bird was down to five bolts. He glanced over and saw Workers running back with a terrified Montressa.

Where’s that laminate bolt? Someone get me glue, or twine, and Mrsha!”

Every head turned, expecting to see a [Princess] guarding her daughter with her life. But when Bird shouted, Lyonette stopped only one second—then dashed into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She tossed a white ball of fur, who exploded out of her arms like a shot and went running to Bird. Then she went running to get the twine. Ishkr was already lugging all the glue Rhaldon had made out with Liska.

There were hundreds of people trying to see whatever Bird was firing at. He was shooting at something that Chaldion could barely see, and the [Grand Strategist] believed that Bird’s eyes weren’t that good. He was aiming half on pure instinct at tiny moving blobs.

And he was scaring the hell out of a certain group in Liscor. They weren’t here for the Solstice. But they were present and had a Walled City’s full company. Ferris had been trying to convince Aldonss and Lulv that there was no way that Bird could be aiming at what they feared.

But when Aldonss finally spotted the teensiest yellow dot on the side of the mountain, Lulv went tearing out of the Tailless Thief. Someone sounded the alarm, and Senior Guardsman Relc went tearing down the street, swearing, calling an alarm up to The Wandering Inn.

 

——

 

The second ballista bolt landed as the Void Eater Goat leapt at Rafaema. She and the goat saw it this time. She was rearing up, slashing at the goat with her claws, and the goat tore a chunk out of her right foreleg, making her scream with fury.

Both were panting, recharging their breath attacks. The goat landed with a triumphant bleat, spun—looked up, and tried to hop out of the way.

The bolt struck it dead in the flank. Rafaema, wings raised to shield her face—jerked back, and her head spun around.

What was that?

There was no way! But she saw the unmistakable signs of a bolt before the wood shattered into a thousand pieces! The goat screamed—and lay on the ground, writhing.

It was hurt! Rafaema flew backwards, hoping it was dead. But her elation lasted about five seconds. Then she saw the tiny goat get up, inspect its side, and snarl.

It looked like the ballista bolt had hit it hard enough to bruise, but that was about it. The wind wasn’t even knocked out of it! It spun, then ran at her with an open mouth, no longer having fun.

“Ancestors take you!”

She dove down the cliffs, and now she was aware of it, she realized that the cracking sounds had been more bolts! Whoever was firing—she had to assume they were helping.

Is it those Goblins? I’ll make sure Manus never kills a Goblin again if it’s them! Yet the trajectory…wait.

The ballista. But how had the Antinium seen the goat? Her? Would one even reach this far with Skills? The aim!

It wasn’t a lucky shot that had hit the Void Goat. Rafaema landed on some flat ground and backed up. She blew apart the rock face with lightning, and the Void Goat stopped and sucked up the debris. It had to stop to do that, and Rafaema tried to keep it back with more breath attacks.

If only she had more tricks like Teriarch kept telling her! Dragons used magic! But here she was, like some kind of primitive lizard, only fighting with her claws, teeth, and the ability to spray lightning! Her frustration and helplessness grew as the goat advanced.

Then Rafaema heard the whistling sound, and another bolt came straight for the goat. Yes!

The goat twisted its head, gave the ballista bolt the evil eye, and backflipped over it.

“No! You damn monster!”

It could dodge? The bolt had lost some momentum, but the goat’s reflexes—Rafaema backed up again, and bile and outrage rose in her throat. The goat made a shrieking sound, and this time, she spat—

 

——

 

“…Was that a thundercloud?”

Bird, did we hit?

Yelroan’s fur was ruffled, he was sweating, and his sunglasses were askew. Bird just shook his head. He thought he had seen a thundercloud appear—before it vanished. And if that tiny dot was the goat, it had gotten a few shocks before it vanished.

The yellow bird was full of surprises! But he had one bolt prepared, and Bird had just seen the goat dodge his shot. He was standing there, as Workers lashed bark to several bolts. They were ungainly, top-heavy, unbalanced, and he pointed them out to Yelroan.

“We’re firing! When we put them in, they have to hit! Or else it’s too late! One shot every two minutes!”

“Is hard.”

A Worker informed him. Bird shouted back.

“I don’t care! When the bolt goes on, light it! Use that ember!”

He pointed at a lantern a little Gnoll had finished making, and it glowed with pink flames. The Workers looked at the fire, then the frost-covered bark. Erin Solstice was screaming.

Bird! That’ll blow—

“We load it, light it, and fire. If we do it wrong, we die.”

“For what?”

Yelroan was panting, looking at Bird, and at this point, even the Gnoll looked in fear of his life—for what? Bird stared up at that mountain, and he spoke.

“For a cute yellow bird. For levels! For a stupid ballista to earn its keep. Load!”

The Antinium loaded the bolt as a [Mathematician] closed his eyes and began to pray. Then he opened them wide and realized there was no dead god of math to pray to. The numbers would never lie.

“Something’s wrong in my calculations! Are we on target distance wise?”

“…No! It’s twenty-seven feet closer! It’s going to charge! Twenty feet left as well!

Move the ballista—

Yelroan spun a crank up, desperately adjusting it. A Worker lifted the lantern.

“Light!”

The pink flames covered the bolt. Bird screamed.

Loose!

The ballista fired. Bird stared into the sky, and this time, a few people saw the pink explosion. Bird shook his head.

“It blew too early! More cold! And it was off! Over eighty feet too low and to the left! Reload! Faster!”

They were staring at him as he screamed at the Workers and Gnoll. He had an audience, and he didn’t care. He could see where the target was. But the ballista crew was firing blind. Even with Yelroan’s help, the adjustments…

He was squatting, his hands over his earholes, the other two holding his antennae so hard that they quivered. Yelroan put a hand on his shoulder.

“Bird. Are you alright?”

“No. No!”

Bird shouted it at the other Workers, Soldiers. Even the guests. Erin Solstice was there. Mrsha was in Lyonette’s arms, and he even saw Tyrion Veltras. Lord Xitegen. Chaldion.

But it wasn’t them he was screaming at. The Free Queen. Xrn, asking what was going on—confused, worried [Crusaders].

Stop thinking!

He screamed at them, and all the minds recoiled. Bird couldn’t hear himself think! He needed—

A Worker spun a handle on the ballista, then stopped. It looked up, hit the disengage, pulled the ballista left manually, and seven other bodies joined it. In perfect sync.

That was what they were firing at? A goat? And it was moving—Yelroan’s eyes widened, and he stepped back as, in dead silence, the Workers moved.

Bird’s mind was open, but it was filled with a thousand voices. He clutched at his head. Calmer, now. He could sense a thousand things at once.

Including the Gnoll charging up the hill with his spear. Lulv was howling, and Bird knew he was an idiot. He pulled his bow out, relieved. He was, after all, a [Hunter]. He spoke to the air, them all, and himself.

“My head hurts. Your souls are too loud. You all scream too sadly. I have to sing to stop hearing it.”

 

——

 

In the depths of the Free Hive, Xevccha, the Free Queen, looked up. Her mandibles parted.

“All along? From the day you were made?”

And she heard the truth in the [Revalantor]’s mind.

From the start.

She saw him/felt him turning. His aim was perfect. He loosed an arrow, and a Gnoll deflected the first. Then the second. He pulled two arrows out, loosed them one after another.

 

——

 

I’m helping the yellow bird, you idiot!

Bird screamed at Lulv, and the Gnoll hesitated. He drew his spear back to throw as the Gecko charged at him. Bird drew an arrow back as Lulv hesitated. And it was all so clear.

He was a good liar after all. The truth? The truth was just silly and stupid, and he didn’t understand why Klbkch and the Free Queen had never gotten it. But he had never known how True Antinium used the Unitasis Network.

“We always had the power to be True Antinium. At least, I did. Maybe there were others. But we were so sad—who would ever want to be sad together like that? One drop of hope fell into our Hive. Then we stopped dragging each other down and held each other up.”

Bird whispered. He thought he heard a gasp, but maybe it was just in his head. He closed his eyes, and both bow and ballista aimed.

Fire!

A bolt streaked into the air. Bird fired, and the Gnoll dodged—and Relc charged into his side. Bird turned and stared.

High, high—and falling.

 

——

 

The Void Eater Goat dodged the third bolt as Rafaema tried to exhale another storm over it. It was burnt, angry, and it practically spat at the ballista bolt that crashed down next to it. It ignored the projectile—then turned its head.

Rafaema blinked. Was that pink fire? What was—

Whumph.

The explosion kicked her in the chest, but it was nothing compared to what happened to the Void Eater Goat. Rafaema shielded her face with her wings. When she lowered them, she heard a scream and saw it bleed.

Black blood ran from a disbelieving goat’s side. It tasted its own blood and looked up at her. She blew a storm at it, laughing as she prayed for thunder.

You or me, you wretched thing!

 

——

 

He was standing there, and he didn’t have a minute to wait. He told them to reload it now. They told him it was impossible, that they were going as fast as they could.

But the Bird didn’t care. He shrieked at them, like a thousand voices. And his voice rose until a man heard those words.

Lord Xitegen Terland had been watching with urbane amusement, then a grudging respect. Then a kind of wary alarm. But his eyes opened now, and the [Lord] saw Bird raising a finger.

Again, again, and ever again! Covering fire!

Bird’s eyes glowed with a strange light. That genius of an archer. His mind was calculating an unimaginable trajectory that even a Golem would fail at. His voice rose, and Spearmaster Lulv, Lord Xitegen, and a Hive of Antinium heard Bird scream.

The [Lord] of House Terland looked up, shading his eyes, and thought he saw a shadow he recognized for a second. A figure standing upon a tower, daring a sea of green bodies and red eyes. He blinked—and the vision faded, but the archer remained. Bird pointed a finger upwards and howled those words.

“[Covering Fire]!”

The ballista fired—reloaded as Antinium combined their strength—and fired again. A curving, burning streak of pink fire that landed so far distant that the naked eye couldn’t even see what it struck. Yet they were sure it hit its target.

The hoarse Antinium had no confidence in the future or if he was changing. But he knew this was something only he could do. Perhaps…he was meant to do this.

Defend a bird.

And a Grand Design rejoiced and noted his every victory. His mind was open, and instead of hearing a Hive’s screams of misery, for once, they listened to him and saw his every triumph. Amidst it all, an [Innkeeper] stood outside her inn. She threw back her head and took off her hat and laughed and laughed. An endless cackle of delight.

Like a shooting star, Bird the Hunter struck the High Passes, and a Dragon lunged. She closed her jaws over a stumbling goat’s head and bit. Then she raised her head and roared. The Antinium threw up his arms, and a Hive exploded in cheers.

Victory.

 

——

 

A Brass Dragon and Unicorn kept staring long after Rafaema had finished kicking the corpse of the Void Eater Goat around. After she’d made sure it was dead, she had come to her senses and collected the fur and organs. She was flying wearily towards Liscor, and doubtless, she had a bounty in both experience and whatever she could use the body for.

But Teriarch’s and Taletevirion’s mouths were still open a good forty minutes later. After a second, Taletevirion spoke.

“Did she actually kill it?”

“She—she did! I thought—”

Teriarch had five Relics ready to toss at the damn goat. Taletevirion had been choosing his moment with the rapier. Both looked at each other. The Unicorn coughed.

“—Well, obviously it dies.”

“Absolutely. And she had help. When I was a lad…that is to say…”

“I mean, I’ve never had to kill one.”

“Me neither. But—”

They turned and stared at the bloodstain. Teriarch swallowed.

“Dead gods. What do you think it tasted like?”

 

——

 

Afterwards, he remained there. After all the shouting and confusion had ended, after Erin had shooed people demanding to know what had been done away, Bird went in the inn, then snuck back out in the night.

The Workers were gone. They had been celebrated, and everyone had stood around as Yelroan took a bow, and Bird had refused to even speak.

You see, he really was a good liar. Sometimes, you lied with words or by deeds. In this case, Bird pretended it was over.

He stood there in the night, patting the ballista now and then, waiting. And with each passing second, as he stared out across the Floodplains and saw a tiny shape growing bigger, his heart beat faster.

Silly people were running at it—her. A stupid Gnoll with his spear, some Wall Lord, soldiers, but she barely slowed. She kept coming, and Bird worried someone would see—but a strange thing was happening.

All of Liscor was under a heavy snowstorm, so thick it made seeing anything, even from the walls, impossible. Strangely, it didn’t really blow around the tower. All the scrying spells weren’t working either; it looked like a gigantic shadow of darkness had covered the area.

At last, she stopped and landed wearily, and he saw her scales were torn and had blood caked into them. She was filthy and weary, and the yellow Wyvern had too much intelligence in those mismatched eyes.

Manus behind her, warily staring at him. But the Wyvern lifted a wing to silence them, and Bird beamed at her.

“Hello. You are the prettiest bird I have ever seen.”

“Ah. Hello.”

She spoke! She spoke, and Bird did a dance of happiness, waving his arms around as Rafaema stared at him.

“I knew it! I knew you were no ordinary bird!”

“I’m not. Thank you for saving me. I wanted to meet you, even if—”

She half-turned her head, coughed, and looked at him.

“Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. Unless you already know…who I am?”

The yellow bird made it sound important. Bird paused and knew he might hurt her feelings, so he answered honestly.

“I don’t think you’re really a Wyvern. I have seen yellow ones, and your scales look fake. Also, you fly wrong in the air. All your balance is off. You’re probably heav—grander.”

He remembered Lyonette had once said not to call ladies heavy and use better words. The yellow bird grinned.

“I should have known Bird the Hunter could tell. But you know…me? The Queens? I am Rafaema.”

She was searching him up and down. Bird tilted his head.

“And I am Bird. Hello, pretty bird. I don’t know you. But maybe the Queens do? I only speak to the Free Queen. The others do not like the Free Antinium.”

He paused as she digested this. Rafaema nodded slowly, eyes on him. She had something in one foot, which she dropped.

“You helped me kill this.”

“Oh. The goat. Yes. It was very nasty. I don’t like goats. One killed a friend of mine that never was. His name was Bugear. I am glad it died.”

Bird studied the bloody carcass and black fur under moonlight. He looked up, and because he was a clever Bird, he met her mismatched eyes.

“Are you going to try to take me away, now? I accept your thank you. I am sure you would not be mean because I wanted to help. This is my home.”

He pointed down at his feet, and Rafaema hesitated. The stupid Gnoll hefted his spear, and Bird smiled and raised his voice.

“If I promise to keep your secret, will you be my friend? You cannot kidnap me because Erin will be mad. And you cannot kill me because I’ll be back.”

Probably. Rafaema exhaled slowly, and Bird waved away ozone from his face. She sounded amused.

“That’s what I said. There will be a lot of unhappy people that my city doesn’t want to anger. But they’re afraid.”

“Silly people often are.”

Bird observed sagely, and Rafaema grinned as her people stared at him. But then she rested, oddly, and he thought he sensed two limbs that were invisible, supporting her weight. He saw the depressions in the snow.

“Will you tell me something, Antin—Bird? What do you want? Do you have wants?”

He was glad she asked. Since she came from Manus, he didn’t think she was necessarily very smart. Bird nodded a few times, and spoke slowly.

“I am Bird. All I want is to sit in an inn and watch a silly Goblin, [Princess], Gnoll, [Innkeeper], and a hundred other people get older. I do not know about anything else. I am sure things will happen, but that is what I want. It is a very difficult dream. What’s yours?”

Rafaema stared at him and lifted her head to the sky.

“…Making sure my city endures. Making sure it is better. Answering hope for one, no, two peoples. Learning who I am.”

Some of that sounded like lies, or half-truths. Bird sat on his ballista, since his legs were tired from standing so long, and kicked his feet happily. He wondered what she would tell him if she was alone.

He stared at the lying yellow bird and thought she was learning, but she wasn’t as good as him. Her real hopes lay in those bright eyes, and he was reflected in them; things she had never thought to imagine. The little [Liar] chirped back.

“That is a nice dream. It is almost as ambitious as mine.”

She looked insulted, and Bird laughed at her. Rafaema bristled…then just looked at him.

“Why did you save me? You killed Wyverns at Pallass. Why save me? Was it because I was a beautiful bird you wanted to kill yourself?”

Bird shook his head instantly.

“No. I did a lot of thinking when I first saw you, a month ago. I saw you, the big, fat brown one—”

She snorted and choked. Bird nodded happily.

“—And many more. I have killed thousands of birds. And I thought about it. Then I saw the goat trying to eat you, and I wondered if I was like the goat. I thought…I was a silly Bird and didn’t help. But I had to.”

“Why?”

“Because if you vanished, there would never be a bird like you again.”

Rafaema’s eyes widened slightly, and Bird patted his ballista.

“If you are in trouble, I will try to help. That is my promise to you, pretty bird. And I would like it muchly if you wanted to talk to me. Now I remember you. You look prettier like this. I wonder what you really look like.”

She was staring at him as if she had expected something else, even knowing who he was. Rafaema hesitated.

“…Perhaps. I have much to learn and more to do than I initially thought. So that’s what he meant.”

“Who?”

She turned her head and picked up the bloody corpse of the Void Eater Goat.

“—Nevermind. I just wanted to thank you. I’m going. Thank you, again. I mean it. Oh. Do you want some of this?”

The yellow bird indicated the goat’s body, and Bird eyed it.

“Since it is not a bird, I do not want it. Thank you.”

She laughed in bewilderment. Then ducked her head one last time. Bird waved at her and the anxious Drakes and Gnoll with two of his other hands. His last hand held an arrow. He only put it away when they had all left.

Then he felt like that moment was over. It had taken hours since flying was slower than he thought, but he finally let out the breath he was holding.

But he had more to do. The night was long, and Bird was weary.

“…But I must fly before I sleep. And lie to the sky I’ve grown wings. These are the decisions I make. Very adult-like things.”

He hopped down the tower, step by step, and went inside to the inn. It was mostly quiet, but he realized they were waiting for him.

Erin, Lyonette, Numbtongue, Nanette, Mrsha, Yelroan, Ishkr, Ryoka, the Thronebearers, the staff—Peggy sheathed a sword, and Liska lowered a crossbow she really shouldn’t have been holding.

“Bird. Everything okay?”

Erin looked at him with a faint smile, and Bird took a second to think about it. He looked seriously around at the others and shook his head.

“No. I have come to a decision, and I wish to tell all of you about it first because you are my family.”

He heaved a huge, melancholy sigh as they looked at each other.

“…I’m going to stop hunting birds. At least, the ones I like. They taste like lost moments and never agains.”

“What.”

Numbtongue’s mouth opened. Mrsha fell backwards in horror, and no one caught her. But Nanette just gave Bird a small smile as if she understood.

“Bird! What is this about?”

Lyonette was incredulous, and Bird took a weary seat. He looked down at Mrsha and shook his head.

“I got old. Just like you, Erin. I knew it would happen.”

Bird stared at his hands as the [Innkeeper] made sounds of outrage. Ryoka laughed until Erin elbowed her. Mrsha crawled over to Bird’s legs. What happened to him? He looked down at her and ruffled her head.

“Look, Mrsha. Even me. Someday, it’ll happen to you, too.”

He pointed to his face, and Mrsha recoiled away from him and ran as if afraid the infection were spreading. Bird sat there and looked up at Erin. She seemed startled, understanding, and sort of sad. But Bird just smiled.

“Now. I have somewhere to be, and I will be back later. In the morning. Please have a cake for me when I wake up, Erin.”

“Okay. But where are you going, Bird?”

He got up, stretched, and yawned, spreading his mandibles.

“To do something I have been afraid to do.”

 

——

 

The Free Hive of the Antinium was waiting for him. The Free Queen had not sent Workers or Soldiers out to get him.

She knew where he was and was waiting. She knew he would come by as soon as he could.

Probably, she understood more of him now than she ever had. They all did.

When Bird set foot into the Hive, the Workers and Soldiers had already stopped. They had sensed him coming. It was familiar.

Like so many other times when a silly Worker made a clicking sound or hummed and disrupted everything. Only, this time, they weren’t looking at him as if he were wrong. They gave him the same stares he imagined he gave to Rafaema or any other bird. It was strange how similar it could be.

Part of Bird wanted to run away from those stares. Run and run. Go with the yellow bird or back to the inn and his tower and never return.

“But I have to be here.”

Slowly, Bird walked through the largest tunnel in the Hive, surrounded by countless Antinium. He knew, below his feet, the Free Queen was waiting with Xrn, Pawn, and all the other important Antinium like Garry, Yellow Splatters, and so on.

Even Pivr was there. But Bird didn’t go down. He could sense them there.

His head was overfull. His antennae kept twitching; he touched them and felt the minds about him. Too many emotions. Too many thoughts, even as quietly as they sometimes thought.

But they weren’t sad. There weren’t the screams of Antinium who didn’t even know how to scream properly. Was that what Aberrations had heard? How many, Bird wondered, were like him, pretending they couldn’t hear?

“It could be you. Or you.”

He pointed, and a Worker flinched. A Soldier stepped back, and Bird looked into their eyes. Then he sighed.

“You could do it. But it must be me. I am afraid, you know. But I feel better. This feels right. So this is how she feels.”

He stopped, spun, arms spread wide, and took in those silent souls watching him. Bird felt terrified. He was afraid and elated, and he was sure he was right—and some part of him wondered if he wasn’t. But he was also glad, because he understood what it was like to be Erin.

“Ah. Perfect. Now…how do you do it, again?”

The Worker realized he had no idea. Bird stopped, scratching at his head with all four arms. Oh. Darn. He should have asked Erin for tips. He decided to give it his best shot. So he raised one hand and made a fist. Bird planted his feet in the middle of the Hive, and those silly Antinium were probably waiting for him with the Free Queen.

But he hadn’t come for them. Bird thrust his fist higher into the air and raised his voice.

“Riot. Riot? Riot!

The Antinium stirred. They heard Bird’s words, and then his voice rang throughout the Hive. Through the minds of the two Queens, the Painted Antinium, whose mandibles opened in horror, and the entire Free Hive.

It was the voice, cheerful and bright, that came to all monarchies and governments in time. Those words that were the nightmare in every absolute rule. They echoed. And the idea took the Free Antinium by storm.

Workers threw down their tools. Soldiers moved from their posts. They hesitated, and some stopped and went back. Some were afraid.

But for every one that held still, three, four, went running towards that mind calling them with the authority of a Queen.

Upwards.

 

——

 

“So this is it? I always knew it would be Bird. Alert the Queens. Prepare to hold this place.”

Pivr and his delegation of Flying Antinium were ready. He felt a moment of regret as he rubbed his feelers together. But the Free Queen refused.

“No.”

“My Queen, he cannot slay—”

The Free Queen nearly swatted Pivr. She was turning, raising her great head, and Xrn’s eyes were shining with a brilliant pearlescent white of surprise, disbelief, and exhilaration. She spoke.

“Can’t you tell? They’re not coming here.

There was no malice, Pivr realized, in Bird’s words. Then he raised his head, fanning his wings uncertainly.

“But then—where—

He began scuttling out of the throne room of the Hive without a word. And the Painted Antinium uncertainly followed. Not a single one had followed Bird’s orders. But Pawn was running, now, and they joined him. Pivr was gasping as he realized where they were going.

Wait! Wait! Does he know what he’s doing? It’s almost the entire Hive—

“He knows.”

Garry overtook Pivr, dashing upwards, joining a flow of Antinium heading towards Bird. And he? Pivr fanned his wings and leapt over the heads of the other Workers and Soldiers. He burst out of the tunnels, and his carapace froze with the cold. But then he halted.

And there was Bird.

 

——

 

The sky was filled with stars after the snowstorm ended. They glowed in every color. Even if they were fake, as Ryoka said, Bird craned his head back and thought they had been made of something real and true.

Copies of another brilliant sky. He spread his arms as he stood on a hill just past The Wandering Inn. One filled with flowers in the spring. Quiet, now. This place alone was untouched, and he alone stood there.

But the Floodplains were filled with Antinium. They ran out of their hidden tunnels. Emerged from the streets of Liscor and scared the poor Drakes and the armies. But the Drakes watched as Workers and Soldiers paused a second.

For many, it was the first time they’d seen the sky. A real sky, not Pawn’s. Bird knew Pawn had emerged from the Hive as well.

Someday, Pawn? Today is nice.

Bird’s arms were raised, and he was laughing almost innocently. But he knew what he was doing. He had always known he could do this. But he had been afraid of the idea.

Pivr buzzed around him, asking the same questions that silly people did. Bird, what are you doing? Nothing would ever be the same. Do you understand the consequences?

“I am Erin’s family. Of course I know.”

Bird spoke to the sky and sighed. Then at last, he looked down, and they scared him.

All those Workers and Soldiers. Thousands upon thousands. Tens of thousands. The Free Hive had always been bigger than they said. Because the Free Queen was also a liar.

They were all looking at him. Bird felt their wonder, and he showed them something in his head.

It was his first bowl of Acid Flies. His first taste of blue fruit juice. It was playing chess for the first time. It was seeing a bird.

As one, their heads turned, and they saw it standing there. An [Innkeeper] was standing in the open doorway, a pan raised to hit anyone bullying her Antinium. Bird waved his antennae, and they understood.

“That’s right. It means that much. Now, listen to me.”

He raised his voice, and his mind expanded, and they listened. The Free Queen below and Xrn, two great minds, hearing him and at least one approving. Bird looked about, and through a thousand eyes, he could see Pallass’ army encamped, wary. He could sense the walls of Liscor and the other defenders.

But what about the ones who had mattered? What about…

“Us? We’re the silly ones. We don’t come at the last moment. The last moment is too late. We are Antinium. We dig and build, and most of you have never met her. Most of you have never seen the sky or tasted blue fruit juice, which is sometimes more than it’s made out to be. Because we scare people. Sometimes, they should be scared.”

Bird told them all the truth. He looked at the inn and knew the Solstice was coming. He would be there, of course. But what could he, Bird, do?

This. Bird pointed at The Wandering Inn and spoke to the Free Antinium.

“We’re going to protect this inn. Okay?”

The Free Antinium looked at him and agreed.

 

——

 

It wasn’t even morning yet, and Erin didn’t have a cake. But Bird forgave her; he was yawning as he stood on that hill.

People were panicking. They always did. Maybe it was the sight of thousands upon thousands of Workers and Soldiers furiously digging. Bird knew that even the Free Hive had seldom engaged in a project of this magnitude.

But they were doing it. Hills were vanishing as Antinium moved dirt, making that flat plain that a certain Centaur had requested. More dirt was being pushed up, added to stones and compacted into walls.

Walls. Moats. That sort of thing. They were surrounding a certain inn, an ever-expanding network of defenses. It might just be dirt, but no [Geomancer] could come close to that many Antinium digging.

“Ants make anthills. Is this one of Ekirra’s racisms, Erin?”

That was the first question he asked her, but only because it was silly and made her laugh. The [Innkeeper] looked at him with wonder in her eyes. Even she hadn’t expected this. Erin put an arm around Bird’s shoulders and squeezed.

“You are amazing, Bird.”

“Whatever that means, I will take it. I realized I was not doing what I could. So I did. It was…very hard, Erin. Harder than I thought, and I thought it would be too hard for me. But I did it, so I think I was wrong. Or I’m not Bird. I still feel like him, but maybe he’d disagree if he was yesterday.”

Worriedly, Bird poked himself, remembering their conversation. Erin bent over, and her brown hair hid her face a second. Her arm tightened on his shoulder.

“Bird. You’re the most Bird I’ve ever known you, today. More amazing than yesterday, but, I think, the same.”

He beamed.

“That is good of you to say, Erin. But I will keep checking I am Bird, because you are a biased opinion. Do you like the walls? I miss the hills.”

All this flat ground looked silly, but he supposed it would help. Erin turned her head and smiled ruefully.

“Me too. But you’ve lit a fire under Pallass and the others. Did you see Tyrion Veltras’ forces getting here?”

“I thought about scaring them.”

Bird admitted. He saw Pallass’ army had grown in number, and they were setting up their area with a will. A fire had been lit under their tails, and Bird shook his head.

“Silly Drakes. But then, we were not working hard. Now—we are. You’re allowed to work hard even if no one else is. That’s what Pawn forgot. He is mad at me.”

“I think he’s jealous, Bird. Uncertain. You’re not seeing the same thing as he does.”

Erin looked at Bird, and the Worker stared around.

“No. But now, at least, he can know what’s in my head.”

They were connected. It ran through him and the Free Queen, but they were learning. It wasn’t as bad as Bird feared either. He could still keep himself amidst sharing. He didn’t have to become one of all.

It was more like being able to smile at someone and have them understand you meant the smile. That sort of thing. Erin looked at the Antinium and muttered.

“I’d better get back to giving out food. They are rotating out, Bird, aren’t they?”

“Yes. I am making the cold ones warm up. I am not that silly, Erin.”

Her eyes twinkled.

“I never thought you were. Do me a favor? Leave me an opening, Bird. Don’t surround the inn entirely. Give me a line of sight in every direction.”

“I can do that.”

In the distance, Workers were already adjusting their plans. Erin stared in marvelous amazement, and Bird yawned again.

“I must sleep, soon. But the consequences…”

He swayed on his feet. Oh, there was one last thing. Erin turned.

“Do you want me to go with you?”

He thought about it, then shook his head.

“No. I think they’re good consequences. And even if they’re not…they’re mine.”

 

——

 

So, the final thing Bird did was descend into the empty Free Hive and marvel how strange it was to walk down almost deserted corridors into the Free Queen’s chambers.

Xevccha was waiting. Patiently, a smile in her mind. She was not angry. She was happy, he realized, and very sad. Sad, like someone who saw a dream coming true. That kind of beautifully, painfully, happily sorrowful.

“Bird.”

Bird. Her mind thought at him, and he shyly waved at her and shuffled his feet.

“I am sorry, Xevccha. I am a [Liar]. I did not want to tell you or the other Queens…because it was a lot of work. And I thought one of you might take me apart.”

She didn’t lift him up as she had before. Instead, the Free Queen leaned forwards, and her mind was more honed than his, older by far, and her voice was very clear. Her tone echoed through the Free Hive, and the Antinium halted one last time.

“You are not a Prognugator, Bird. Nor a Revalantor.”

He had, after all, quit the Hive. Bird ducked his head as he felt the class vanishing. He waited nervously. A giant feeler touched his head, and his mind sparked as he felt the Free Queen’s joy and hope. A blossoming sky of respect and dreams.

This is what the Free Queen said:

“I, Xevccha, designate you as my replacement to lead the Free Hive of the True Antinium. You are Bird of the True Antinium of Izril. Second Queen of the Free Antinium’s Hive.”

Bird rocked. He felt the Antinium shake. He fell over on his back and lay there a second, stunned. The Free Queen offered him her feeler, and after a minute, Bird sat up and took it.

He didn’t know what to say. At last, he said a silly thing.

“I always knew I outranked Lyonette.”

She laughed. The Free Queen laughed, because she understood the joke! Bird sat there and decided that was too silly. Even for him.

“Is this a secret?”

“Oh, yes. But I am tired, and I need someone to guide this Hive. No Hive of Rhir was ever run by one Queen alone.”

“I was afraid you would say that.”

Bird glumly sighed, and then he got up fully. He dusted his butt off and thought for a second. The Free Queen waited as they had a silent conference. After a moment, Bird nodded.

“…Every single Worker and Soldier will see the sky before the Solstice. After that, we’ll declare independence from the Grand Queen.”

The Soldiers guarding the doorway turned, and the Free Queen raised her antennae.

“Truly?”

The [Liar]’s gaze twinkled.

“They’re just words, but someone will think they matter.”

She began chuckling again. And her approval flowed even stronger, and Bird stretched. So this was what would happen. He was so tired he thought he’d pass out and knew that if he did, she’d make sure he slept and got back to his inn.

But Bird had one more thought before he passed out.

“Oh. I remember now.”

He realized why he’d been so afraid of this. And why the Free Antinium would suffer more than they ever had before. Xevccha was curious, so Bird explained what was obvious to him.

“Before this, I could never dream of the past or have a memory that made me want to cry. I had nothing to lose. That’s what levelling is.”

His great fear might come true after all. But he would fight for it. Bird sat down, and he was drifting off. The Free Queen had lost so much it made him sad enough to cry. Those days had come and would come again.

Xrn. Pawn. The Free Antinium’s minds ran through Bird, and he spoke, dreamily, of the future. His greatest lie, and the truth that belonged to Erin and her garden and defined her inn to him:

“Everything we know and love will stay the same forever.”

Then—

Bird slept.

 

[Conditions Met: Bird Hunter → Bow-Warden of the Songbird Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Singer removed.]

[Bow-Warden of the Songbird Level 42!]

 

[Skill Change – Swallow’s Arrow → Lesser Dragonbreath Arrow (Lightning)]

[Skill – Lesser Dragonbreath Arrow (Lightning) obtained!]

[Skill – Ballista: Covering Fire learned!]

[Skill – Synced Aim: Ballista learned!]

[Skill – Song of the Clear Skies obtained!]

 

[Queen Class obtained!]

[Class Consolidation: Tactician removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Revalantor removed.]

[Queen Level 10!]

[Conditions Met: Queen → Antinium Queen Class!]

[Antinium Queen Level 18!]

[Conditions Met: Antinium Queen → Queen of Freedom]

[Queen of Freedom Level 22!]

 

[Skill Change – Unitasis Network → Unitasis Shared Skill: Flawless Shot!]

[Skill – Unitasis Shared Skill: Flawless Shot obtained!]

 

 

[Conditions Met: Bow-Warden of the Songbird → Bow-Singer Queen of the Free Antinium Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Queen of Freedom removed.]

[Bow-Singer Queen of the Free Antinium Level 40!]

 

[Legacy Skill – Wings of Escieda obtained!]

[Skill – Royal Robbery: Birds obtained!]

 

[Conditions Met: Liar → Amazing Liar Class!]

[Amazing Liar Level 17!]

[Skill – Truth is Never Certain obtained!]

 

[Title – First of Izril: True Antinium obtained!]

[Title Reward – Bow of Thiypc’s Promise assigned!]

 

A bow of silver fell from the air as Xevccha watched. It looked like silver, but her breath caught as the gleaming bow appeared. Clumsily, she reached for it, but a little Worker woke up, and his hand caught the bow.

He lifted it up, and it flexed in his hand. Bird ignored the scroll that fell next to it.

Chitrx? It’s made of…”

Xevccha’s voice trembled, but Bird just sat up and held the bow in his hands. A material from Rhir itself.

A promise indeed.

He left the Hive, but the Free Queen saw him step into the light of his inn and walk towards it. She was there, as his family ran around him, and understood why he could never live in the Free Hive. Not with his tower and family.

Bird raised his bow as the Antinium turned to him, and he looked to the ballista. Somewhere, the King of Minotaurs and a certain [Lady] were smiling. They saw Bird bend down and tentatively accept something.

He had no arrows…but a little Gnoll girl solemnly held something up. Questioningly, Bird looked at it. Then he slowly took the feather of a Creona Flashbird, huge and blue, and lifted it up.

No one could see when the feather changed, but he pulled the bow back, and when he let go—

An arrow streaked through the skies. It was blue and shining, and it seemed, to the citizens of Liscor who looked up, to the many observers, that it flew like that brilliant bird. The arrow arced through the skies, and Bird looked up, his mandibles open wide as birds rose above the Floodplains, taking wing.

“It’s perfect.”

That was all Bird said. He lifted the bow high overhead and saw something that no Bird before him had ever dreamed of.

Then he smiled.

 

 

Reward Item: Bow of Thiypc’s Promise.

Type: Chitrx-chitin bow enchanted with [Arrowform: Bird].

Description: Any feather placed upon the bow will become a magical arrow taking on the qualities of the bird it came from. This bow is made with Chitrx of the True Antinium, similar to the bow used by Thiypc the Spiteful, fallen Centenium whose arrows would pierce the shells of enemies from countless feet away. They swore to return to Rhir with an army to avenge the First Queen, a promise the Antinium of Izril may one day fulfill.

 

——

 

And lastly, Magnolia Reinhart poured syrup into a cup of Rxlvn and sipped it delicately. The clash of intense sweetness and diabolical alcoholism was as subtle as someone shooting her with a ballista.

But not even Ressa had the heart to stop her, and a Reinhart was proof against poisons. Magnolia lifted her cup, and the Minotaur King, Inreza, eyed the drink before sipping her own cup filled with a clear, heady liquid made of Minotaur-grown oat grains.

“Lady Magnolia Reinhart. It amuses me to speak to you plainly after so long trading deeds unspoken.”

Inreza spoke at length after sipping her drink, and Magnolia exhaled.

“One finds the strangest of allies, King of Minos. There was a time when I thought you and I would see eye-to-eye. Then we found ourselves squabbling over the most consequential of things, but for the silliest reasons in hindsight.”

“Yes. The finest and deadliest flower of Izril and the young Minotaur King. Times change. I take it, from your smile, you are as pleased as I? It was well done.”

“It was. It was more than I had hoped, but I did think that of all of the little Antinium, he might surprise us most. I never thought it would happen that way! Do you think that bow was a reward?”

Inreza was coy as she swirled the drink around, musing.

“The nature of levelling changes. Titles have sprung up across Minos and invigorated my people fiercely. They clamor to see the outside world and join the Beriad as never before thanks to the television, and my cousin, Prince Khedal, sees a thousand wrongs to right.”

Magnolia was savoring her own cocktail, but she crooked one eye open.

“Would that include the Free Antinium after today?”

“His eyes are poor. But he may learn to see, even so.”

That was all Inreza said. And Magnolia Reinhart laughed lightly.

“Oh, one can hope for anything. My dear cousin looks younger, head-over-heels, and I dare hope even stone can grow a brainstem. But allow me, please, King Inreza, to be a tiny bit smug. Slightly delighted.”

“It is warranted.”

So the [Lady] of Reinhart laughed and took another sip of her drink, and Ressa rolled her eyes at Magnolia’s face, but she smiled—when she thought Magnolia absolutely couldn’t see her.

Some days you felt like you were winning.

 

 

[Flower of Izril, Lady of the Dragon’s Promise Level 57!]

[Skill – Employees: Species Perks obtained!]

 

[Title – Triumphant Schemer of Izril obtained!]

[Title Skill – Assign Title (Reinhart Family) granted!]

 

[Virtuous King, Arm of Giants Level 61!]

[Skill – Kingdom: Verdant Growth of the Fields obtained!]

 

[Title – Meddlesome Interventionist of Four Continents obtained!]

[Title Skill – Recruitment: The Honorable Shall Seek Me granted!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Reflecting on Volume 9 so far, I think I’ll have a more nuanced conclusion after it ends. But the observation I might make is that I need more chapters that are sort of like this.

Maybe not as grand, but focused to a specific part of the world without needing to advance the plot. That was something that’s carried over from Volume 8 that arguably corrects the problems of Volume 7. But you can overcorrect, and that’s a very Human thing to do, I think.

Improving isn’t a continuous push upwards, but sometimes watching yourself slip back into bad habits or make new ones.

Nevertheless, sometimes I think I’m writing decently, and that gives me hope. It’s always a long chapter, though. Ambitious…did you know what you were voting for, Bird readers?

Well, I knew. I just never know if it’ll land. After this month, I think I should plot out the last chapters and maybe even tell you how many I have left so I stick to it.

But I think the next arc should be Orjin. If I can do it in two chapters…they might be big. I might fail, but I’m going for it, said the scorpion riding the toad across the river. (I never really got that story. It might be a bad parable.)

I’m scattered, and playing Starfield, which is fun, yet somehow maybe not as fun as Fallout 4 or Skyrim was for me? We’ll see. Maybe I just don’t like being an explorer in space. That’s all from me. Gotta keep chasing the waterbird. When the spark vanishes, I’m done. But I think I saw it this chapter.

pirateaba out.

 

 

Incredible Stream Art by BoboPlushie of Bird! Perhaps the duality of Bird?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Silvenia by Maxswell, Shila, dreamcharlie, and Chris, commissioned by Linu!

Maxswell: https://max-art.carrd.co/

Shila: https://twitter.com/DariaShila

dreamcharlie: https://twitter.com/dreamcharlie_

Chris: https://twitter.com/Partaytoes

 

Ceria by Yootie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/yootie_c/status/1699767355918922150

 

TWI Talks – Chapter 9.56!

Discord for TWI Talks (be warned, this server is for discussing chapters when they’re released to the Patreon, spoilers abound!): https://discord.gg/6Vd62xPbNt

The Wandering Inn’s Discord (#stream-spoilers when I live-write): https://discord.gg/twi

 


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