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Because she woke up early, Erin decided to make gravy. Everyone else was still asleep, anyways.

Ryoka and Mrsha were upstairs, but Erin had had too much trouble trying to drag Klbkch and Selys up the narrow staircase, so she’d left them in the common room with a blanket and pillows instead.

It was easy to make gravy. Erin got a pot out and fished around in her cupboard for supplies. She got out some flour, and found some of the bacon fat she’d chilled thanks to some snow she’d packed into a cauldron. It was mostly melted, but it kept the food she put in nice and cold, if a bit wet.

By the time Ryoka stumbled downstairs with Mrsha in tow, they found Erin putting out gravy on the table in a huge bowl next to steaming biscuits and mashed potatoes. That coincided nicely with Selys and Klbkch waking up on the floor. Erin beamed at all of them as her guests rubbed their heads and moaned.

“Morning!”

Selys clutched at her forehead.

“How much did I drink last night?”

“Um…four mugs? No, wait…six? Eight?”

Erin had lost count. She’d kept serving everyone the faerie flower alcohol until they’d started to pass out. It had been a long, anxious night for her. Everyone would just take a drink, stare off into the distance for ten minutes, and then keep drinking. In the end, they’d all just gone to sleep—except for Halrac. He’d left for the city, staggering slightly. Erin had been worried, but he was a Gold-rank adventurer.

“Ancestors.”

Selys groaned and clutched at her head. She tried to stand up and sat back down hard.

“My mouth tastes like…dead gods, that was some awful ale, Erin.”

“Hey!”

Erin opened her mouth, and then closed it.

“Well…I’ll buy some better stuff next time, okay?”

“There shouldn’t be a next time.”

Ryoka lurched over to the table as Klbkch dragged himself upwards. Mrsha yelped and scurried away at the sight of the Antinium. He looked worse for wear. Even though his appearance was mostly unchanged—the Antinium not really having skin or clothing that could get rumpled—he looked…disheveled.

“Good morning, Klbkch!”

Erin smiled at Klbkch. He looked around at her, somewhat slowly.

“I have failed to return to my Hive. That has never happened before.”

“Oh no. Is that bad?”

Klbkch nodded slowly.

“I must…excuse me.”

He put a hand to his head and paused. He had no eyelids, but Erin sensed that he was concentrating. After a moment, he nodded.

“I have informed my Queen. She has recalled the search parties.”

“Search parties?”

Klbkch shook his head. He stared at the food on the table as Mrsha tried to grab a biscuit with her hand. Silently, Ryoka grabbed a plate and spooned potatoes and biscuits onto it, and slathered everything with the thick gravy. She put it on the table and handed Mrsha a spoon. Clumsily, the small Gnoll tried to inhale the entire thing.

“So. Um.”

Everyone looked at her. Erin smiled nervously.

“How was it last night? Was the faerie flower drink really that good?”

Erin didn’t really understand Halrac’s fascination with it. When she’d tried some, she just remembered happy moments, but that was all. And yet, between the four people in her inn (not counting Mrsha), they’d downed an entire keg’s worth of her ale.

Ryoka, Selys, and Klbkch exchanged a long look. As one, they shook their heads.

“That was a terrible drink.”

“Awful.”

“Please do not serve it again.”

Erin’s jaw dropped.

“What? Why?”

Selys was still rubbing at her forehead as she nibbled at a biscuit. She drank deeply from a glass of water and grimaced.

“At first, I thought it was wonderful. I was remembering having fun with my uncle when he used to visit. And I was so happy—but then the memory kept going and going, and I felt the need to keep drinking. Every time I woke up from the…dream, I just drank more and went back.”

“So? What’s the problem?”

“Remembering a bit is fine. But after a while—there’s such a thing as too much nostalgia, you know?”

“You can get lost in the memories.”

Ryoka nodded. She stared at her gravy, ignoring the smacking sounds Mrsha was making next to her.

“It’s like an addiction. You keep wanting to go back. Put another drink in front of me and I’ll keep drinking it, again and again.”

“To remember.”

Klbkch was silent. He hadn’t even put anything on his plate. Ryoka looked up at Erin.

“Dilute the drink. Maybe offer the full-strength version once in a while, but don’t keep serving it to us, damn it!”

Erin shrank under the strength of Ryoka’s glare.

“Oops. Sorry.”

The three diners turned back to their breakfast in silence. Mrsha ate happily, scarfing down the rich gravy until she had a round belly. She at least, had had no ill effects from last night, having only imbibed a few mouthfuls of the magical ale.

Erin scratched her head. She’d wondered about the drink, but then of course the faeries had come in and she’d given them several pints before chasing them out. She remembered them flying into walls and laughing before she’d managed to get them out the door.

“So…can I get you guys anything else?”

Klbkch shook his head. Selys put her head on the table and moaned softly. Ryoka was rubbing her eyes.

“I’m uh, oh! Lyonette!”

The possible princess walked down the stairs and paused when she saw Selys and Klbkch. She sniffed.

“I am awake. What is for breakfast?”

“Mashed potatoes and gravy. And biscuits!”

Ryoka eyed Lyonette silently as the other girl helped herself to food. Silently, Erin’s guests ate until Selys looked out the window.

“I’m really glad I don’t have work today.”

Klbkch nodded slowly.

“I believe I shall…abstain from my duties as well. It is necessary.”

“Oh, uh, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

Both Drake and Antinium stared silently at Erin. They looked melancholy. And so did Ryoka. She was just staring at her food.

It was like…it was like everyone had depression suddenly. Erin’s eyes darted around until she saw Mrsha was fidgeting on her chair.

“Hey Mrsha, what’s wrong?”

The Gnoll child was squirming, in a very familiar fashion. Erin realized what the problem was.

“We have a bathroom right outside. Come on, let me show you.”

She took Mrsha’s hand and the Gnoll eagerly leapt off her chair to follow Erin. They’d made it to the door when Erin felt a familiar sensation, that of someone approaching the inn. She stopped, and then the door opened.

The early morning sky was gray, but light still flooded into the inn. It flowed around the figure that entered, and despite the bright sky, the gaping sockets of Toren’s skull were still dark, illuminated only by the two burning purple flames that stared at Erin and Mrsha.

The skeleton was wearing the battered bronze armor he’d found, only it seemed even more battered and torn up than before. In his hands he held a notched sword and shield, and faint streaks of blood covered his blade.

“Toren! There you are! Where have you been!?”

Erin scolded the skeleton as he stood silently in the doorway. He stared at her, silent as always as Erin frowned at him. Then she felt a tugging at her hand. She looked down.

Mrsha was trying to pull away from Erin. All her fur was on end, and she was scrabbling at the floorboards as she tried to run.

“What’s wrong, Mrsha? Oh, is it Toren? You’ve never really met him, have you? Well, he’s really nice—”

Erin broke off. She sniffed. Something was smelling. That’s when she noticed the puddle around Mrsha. It seemed the skeleton’s arrival had affected Mrsha’s bladder control.

“Aw, Mrsha!

She let go, and the Gnoll scampered back towards Ryoka, whimpering in fright. Ryoka slapped her forehead as Erin stared at the puddle. She looked around and smiled sheepishly at Toren.

“Hey Toren. I’ve got a job for you.”

 

—-

 

Some days I just want to punch Erin. I’d probably get my ass kicked, but I’m still tempted*. It takes me nearly half an hour to calm Mrsha down after Toren appears, and even then, she won’t go anywhere near the skeleton.

 

*How strong is Erin, anyways? I know she has [Minotaur Punch] as a skill, but is there a set limit on how strong the Skill is? And if it depends on her hitting her target, that’s not too reliable in a battle. Plus, if she hits armor wouldn’t she break her hand?

 

Not that I blame her. Toren freaks me the hell out too, and I don’t understand how Erin’s so cavalier about having him around. She’s busy ordering him around even as I finally finish breakfast.

“Thanks for the food, Erin.”

“Oh, no problem! How did it taste?”

“Good. Was that roux you made?”

“What?”

“Roux.”

“No…it was gravy.”

“But—Erin, do you know what roux is?”

“…No.”

I rub at my face.

“Never mind. I guess your skill told you what to do, right?”

“Yup! I’ve got [Advanced Cooking] now. Isn’t it great?”

Erin puffs out her chest and looks proud. Selys looks impressed and Klbkch nods. I shrug.

“I guess. It’s an important skill, right?”

“For an [Innkeeper], it’s great! Most [Cooks] and [Innkeepers] in the city have [Basic Cooking], but [Advanced Cooking] is even rarer.”

Selys explains as she finishes her plate. I rub at my head. It still aches, but it looks like it’s time for me to get to work. Time to think, and plan. Selys is a native here, and she knows a lot of common-sense things. So I ask her the obvious questions.

“If that’s the case, there’s presumably an [Expert Cooking] skill, right? How many people would have that?”

“[Expert Cooking]? Well…no one in this city has it. You’d have to be a really high-level [Chef] to have that. I’ve heard some of the Walled Cities have people with that skill. They’re always hired by the nobility.”

So. You can rate skills by their rarity, which generally corresponds to a level. Makes sense. And I guess it’s still a parallel to our world.

“What level would you say that skill appears at?”

“Um…Level 40? Maybe Level 30, if you got lucky. There are better skills—or so I’ve heard, but it’s still rare.”

“Right. Because most people don’t usually get to Level 30?”

“That is correct.”

Klbkch nods as he delicately slurps up some gravy. I try not to look at him eat—I try to be open minded, but the Antinium creep me out in a way the Gnolls and Drakes don’t. Hell, even Selys is still sort of disturbing to me. I don’t know how Erin is so natural around all of them.

But here I am, sitting with Klbkch the Slayer and a Drake [Receptionist] of all people, talking as if I’ve known them for a long time. They’re so friendly.

“I still can’t believe you don’t know all this. Is it because you don’t have levels?”

Selys stares at me, and I tense slightly. She doesn’t know I’m from another world. But hell, I have to know how levels and classes work. I might not use them—and possibly can’t anymore—but not knowing how this world function is only inviting trouble. So Ryoka, lie your ass off.

“That’s right. I’ve never paid attention, I guess.”

“Erin was like that too, you know. Are you both from the same nation? You seemed to know each other.”

“Something like that.”

Klbkch nods.

“I am familiar with the country they originate from, Selys Shivertail. Their people have customs unlike ours.”

That makes me stare hard at Klbkch, even though Selys accepts his statement at face-value. He just covered for me, didn’t he? Erin did say Klbkch knew she was from another world. And now Erin’s coming over. I try to signal her with my eyes to play along, but she’s oblivious.

“Oh yeah, this is a lot like…uh, where we come from. I mean, there are some big differences, but there’s actually a lot of stuff in common, right Ryoka? Like, this is totally like Dungeons and Dr—”

“It’s sort of similar, but I wanted to be sure about all the details.”

I cut Erin off and glare at her. She returns my look blankly.

“What? I’m not a gamer, but you told me you understood something about the system, right? It’s like Diablo, you said.”

“Diablo?”

“Selys looks between us. I shake my head.

“It’s just…nothing. It’s a game from where we come from.”

“Oh, I see.”

I am going to kick Erin’s ass. As Selys and Erin start talking about Mrsha, I cover my face for a second. Then I look up and see Klbkch is staring at me.

Oh shit. Did he…how much did he get from that? Erin says he knows she’s from another world. What about me?

Kill Erin. But watch him. Klbkch the Slayer. I read the history of the Antinium Wars—damn it, I wish I’d read more than the first section now. They didn’t mention much about the Prognugators, but this guy was around thirty years ago. He dueled General Sserys—he’s dangerous.

But the Antinium in front of me is sitting in Erin’s inn, eating gravy. And he was killed by Goblins, or so Erin said. Weakening Prognugators. Hmm. And Erin’s involvement with the Antinium is also special. She can make unique Individuals, which could mean…

Gah. My head hurts already, and not just from the alcohol. I thought my life was complex, but Erin’s is ten times more convoluted. Not only is she involved with the Antinium, she’s attracted Lady Magnolia’s eyes, and she’s on the receiving end of a Gnoll debt so massive it can only be settled with death—unless one of us has fifty thousand gold pieces lying around.

Holy fuck. I close my eyes for a second. What should I do? What can I do? Normally I’d be running off to collect my payment from Teriarch, but—

No. I look over and see Mrsha, crowding around that Lyonette girl for some reason. She’s feeding Mrsha scraps from her plate and scratching her behind the ears.

Oh yeah, and Erin’s got a princess or some high-ranking noble’s daughter in her inn. God damn it.

I massage my temples. Selys looks at me sympathetically.

“Head still hurting? A healing potion will get rid of that. I know a shopkeeper who sells cheap ones.”

“No—thanks. I’m just really busy. There’s a lot of shi—a lot of stuff I need to deal with.”

“Like what? I’m free today, if you need some help, let me know. A friend of Erin’s is a friend of mine.”

Selys smiles at me. I hesitate.

“Nothing too important. I wouldn’t want to bother you.”

“As you like. I’m going to see if Erin wants to relax in the bath house. You’re welcome to join us.”

“…Thanks.”

Selys gets up to chat with Erin. I stay at the table, thinking. People move around me. Klbkch is still sitting—he’s not eating, but I suppose the Antinium have to sit to digest? I put him out of my mind and think.

I’ve really got to think, because there is a lot of crap for me to deal with at the moment. I won’t say that this is a terrible situation but—no, aside from moments where I’m actually in danger of being killed, this is probably one of the worst.

Fifty thousand gold pieces. Let’s just focus on that. Yesterday I made a claim to the Gnolls that I would pay Erin’s debts. There’s multiple reasons why I did that.

First, it’s pretty clear the Gnolls have power. Erin’s been helped by them in the past, and they might be an ally. If there are any groups she and I can trust, that is. But Krshia seems intelligent, and it’s better to have someone on our side than against us. Which leads me to the second point.

We need the Gnolls to cancel the debt, or else Erin and Lyonette are in danger, and so is Mrsha if she’s staying with them. Is this even a place for a young Gnoll? How can Erin raise her? I can’t…I can’t stay with her. But she needs a home. A family. If Krshia could—

Third point. Krshia might be able to mitigate the stigma associated with Mrsha’s fur, but not with her authority contested. The debt of Lyonette’s is sapping her influence as long as it remains unresolved. That Brunkr idiot seems to be trying to usurp her position, and he would be a danger if he took control. All in all, that means resolving the debt is really damn important.

The only question is…how? I have some ideas. I could give the Gnolls a technology—that was what I claimed, but now that I think of it…

Fuck. I am so screwed.

Let’s put this in perspective. I need to give the Gnolls a technology worth 50,000 gold pieces. At the same time, I can’t destabilize the world by giving them gunpowder.

No.

All flesh is grass.

No.

So what do I do? It seems simple, right? But what can I physically give the Gnolls besides weapons? The industrial revolution? What the hell would a nomadic society need that kind of infrastructure for? And they wouldn’t be able to make use of it, anyways.

No, think. It has to be something simpler. A practical technology or revolution. Think, Ryoka.

Hm. Trebuchets. But damn it, that’s a siege weapon—not something roaming tribes need! First off, wouldn’t trebuchets exist in this world? They were a medieval invention, and this world has renaissance-era technology at times.

For instance, they’ve got glass. Hmm. Lenses? But that technology is dependent on glass grinding to focus the lenses properly, and I don’t know how they’re made.

Damn. So telescopes are out. What else?

Radios…? Hah. Even if I had the ability to work with wires and metal to that extent, who needs radios when you have mage spells and the ability to howl? Long-distance communication isn’t a problem for them.

Bows. Gnolls use bows. I’ve seen them use composite bows and short bows so…fuck. They don’t have compound bows, though. But could I make one? Nope. I’d need industrial-era technology.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Okay…steel. But this world has steel. On the other hand, I never saw steel in the Gnoll tribes which means only a high-level [Blacksmith] can probably make it. It’s no revolutionary technology, though.

I wish I knew how to make Damascus steel. There’s the Bessemer Process of course, but that requires industrial era technology, again…

A printing press? This world still has handwritten books in many cases, but…

Two reasons why I can’t give the Gnolls that. No, three. One, I don’t know how to make a printing press. With screw-based technology, of course, adapting from the wine press…but hell, I’d need months to figure out the exact way to set one up. Second, the cost in resources and space isn’t practical for Gnolls again, and third…

You can’t copy magical spell books with a printing press. That’s obvious. I’ve seen spells, and if they exist on paper, it’s not just in the two-dimensional sense. My guess is that it would be impossible to copy one with any kind of printer, so that already makes one of the greatest revolutions of our world fairly useless to the Gnolls.

What they need is something immediately useful, but the more I think, the more I don’t have any good idea. None except for weapons, and I won’t give that to anyone.

“Fuck.”

I hold my head in my hands as I sit at the table. Then I hear someone clear his throat delicately.

“You appear to be in a state of distress. May I inquire as to your predicament?”

I look at him. Trust no one.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

Klbkch pauses.

“Does your issue relate to the Gnoll debt towards Lyonette du Marquin?”

What the hell? Klbkch is just staring at me. My heart rate picks up, but I keep my face straight.

“How do you know about that?”

“The Antinium know much of what occurs within Liscor.”

“…Were you listening to our conversation yesterday?”

The Antinium shakes his head.

“No, but there are a finite amount of topics which would necessitate such discussion. And the Gnoll’s issue with Erin and Lyonette is a pressing concern.”

“To you? Why the hell would the Antinium care about something like that?”

“Erin Solstice is…important to the Hive. And to me.”

What an odd thing for an Antinium to say. I stare at Klbkch.

“What do you want?”

His multifaceted eyes are fixed on mine.

“I wish to speak with you, Ryoka Griffin. I have desired to speak with you for some time. My observations of your behavior lead me to believe I can trust you.”

He’s been…waiting? To speak with me? And watching me? I’m naturally paranoid, but this makes every instinct I have scream out warning signals. I shrug, carefully.

“I’m free to talk. What…did you want to talk about?”

“I would like to speak candidly, Ryoka Griffin. You are wary of me; that is understandable. But I do not wish to cause you or Erin Solstice any harm. I would like to assist you, and I hope you will regard me as an ally, not a potential foe.”

I…fuck. This is coming out of left field. I thought I was in left field already, but this is catching me totally off guard. I scramble for a response. Test him.

“Are you trying to say we’re on the same side?”

Klbkch tilts his head slightly.

“Are there sides, Ryoka Griffin? The Antinium are not your enemy.”

“I disagree.”

“As do I. If the Antinium were your enemy, Ryoka Griffin, you would be dead. You do not matter to the Hive or my Queen. Erin Solstice is only a tool to be used. So long as that is the case, any interaction with either of you falls under my purview of responsibilities.”

I pause. Klbkch is speaking carefully, and if I read between the lines…

“You’re offering to help. Why?”

“Because Erin Solstice must survive. She must live to help the Antinium. And you are attempting to protect her because you both come from the same world.”

He knows. My heart stops dead in my chest for a second. He knows.

I glance around, but the inn is empty. Where has everyone gone? And why is it daytime all of a sudden?

Klbkch says nothing. He just looks at me. Watching. He’s seeing how I react.

Can I take him? He’s got two swords and classes. So…no. My right hand is still injured and I’ve got no weapons.

“I would prefer this discussion remain civil. Rest assured, I will not harm you or Erin. That is the last thing I desire.”

Fuck. But at least I might not die this instant. I try to keep my voice level as I reply. Focus. This is…the Antinium are as bad as Magnolia. If they know…

“Why bother with the niceties? Are you trying to get us on your side so we can help your Hive?”

Klbkch’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“So long as Erin lives, she will help my Hive. But to answer your question: my Queen is not aware that your and Erin come from another world, Ryoka Griffin. If she was, you would be captured and quickly interrogated.”

I feel a chill. But, wait a second. Klbkch is saying—he’s saying he’s lying to his Queen? For us? No. For Erin?

“Aren’t you supposed to be the right-hand of the Antinium Queens, or something? I thought Prognugators were loyal.”

“I am. But loyalty takes many shapes, and I have grown to question the direction the Antinium are taking. I believe leaving you alive is preferable to your deaths. No—I know this is the case.”

My god. Is this…is this Erin’s effect? She created individual Antinium, but affecting the allegiances of a Prognugator? Or is this something already occurring? I reach for a mug to take a drink. My hand is shaking. Klbkch nods, seeing my reaction.

“I have not informed Erin of this because of the dangers involved.”

“But you’re telling me? Why?”

“Because you can keep a secret. Let me be clear, Ryoka Griffin. Your status as a traveler between worlds is not important to me. If my Queen knew of this, she would interrogate you mercilessly. But I only care about Erin Solstice. She is the valuable one.”

“The Individual Antinium.”

“Just so.”

Klbkch nods.

“Erin Solstice must not die. She must live, and help my Queen change the Antinium from within.”

“But—you want to help us. Help her.”

“I will assist you to the best of my capabilities and inform you of the dangers of which you are not aware. I will reveal secrets of my Hive. I will use my command over Soldiers and Workers to defend this inn and your persons, if need be. I will even lie to my Queen for you.”

“Because Erin is important.”

“She is everything, Ryoka Griffin.”

“Why haven’t you told her this? Why haven’t you offered to tell her…all of this?”

For the first time Klbkch looks uncomfortable. He pauses and clicks his mandibles together delicately.

“I had considered that option to begin with, but it grew apparent that Erin Solstice cannot keep a secret. Anything I tell her will inevitably be repeated to all our costs. You are more discreet.”

So because Erin has a big mouth and doesn’t think he can’t trust her. But he trusts me?

Or does he? Is this all some ploy? I have to test him? Hah, as if I’ve got a choice. Here’s an Antinium Prognugator or—Revalantor or whatever the hell he is now, offering to tell me all about his Hive. I can’t turn my back on this.

Take a breath, Ryoka, and plunge in. I don’t know how far these murky waters go, but if this is the case—I look at Klbkch.

“Fine. Tell me what you know. About the Gnolls and their debt, for instance. You said you know something?”

He nods.

“The Gnolls in Liscor are led by Krshia Silverfang. Ostensibly, they arrived nearly a decade ago to facilitate trade, but their true purpose was to acquire information or objects of value to improve their tribe’s standing. The decennial gathering of Gnoll tribes involves bringing a gift to be shared with all Gnolls, and the Silverfang tribe hoped to gain something of true value to improve their standing and influence at this event.”

Holy fuck. I stare at Klbkch.

“You were planning this all along, weren’t you? You wanted to tell me this.”

He pauses.

“My goal is to keep Erin Solstice alive. It is only fitting that I inform you of all dangers to her, and the Gnoll situation has been studied closely by my Hive.”

“Okay, okay, go on.”

I listen with rapt attention as Klbkch continues.

“Under Krshia’s influence, the Gnolls began pooling their profits and purchasing magical tomes from every shop they could find. They gathered many spell books together—most containing Tier 1 to Tier 3 spells—in the hopes that they might offer them as a gift to the tribes.”

Gnolls learning magic? I’ve never heard of a Gnoll [Mage], just [Shamans]. But wait—didn’t Erin mention the Gnolls had a feud with Wistram?

“So the Gnolls wanted to train their own [Mages].”

“Correct. The spell books were hidden in Krshia Silverfang’s shop, to avoid detection, and, I suspect, to enable them to transfer them easily. A few weeks ago, Krshia Silverfang sent word to her tribe requesting warriors to transport the books out of the city. I believe they were also arriving to help guard Erin Solstice, whom the Gnolls had identified as potentially valuable. However, Gazi the Omniscient slew the first party sent.”

The Gnolls on the road. I remember.

“The next group sent arrived too late. Before the spell books could be transported, Lyonette du Marquin destroyed Krshia Silverfang’s shop using a powerful magical artifact which bypassed the normal magical protections on the books.”

“…Shit.”

That’s even worse than I thought. Klbkch nods.

“It is an unfortunate circumstance, but without any gifts for the Gnoll tribes, the Silverfang tribe will lose much of its standing.”

“And that’s why the debt is around fifty thousand gold coins, isn’t it?”

“A considerable sum was spent accumulating the spell books over the years. I believe the Gnolls were ignorant of the dangers a powerful spell could pose to such books. Most spell books are immune to conventional harm, but sufficiently powerful magic will destroy them.”

I close my eyes.

“Damn it.”

“I surmise that you have accepted the responsibility for this debt along with Erin Solstice. She is aware of the issue, if not the cost, but she will be unable to resolve it herself.”

“And I suppose the Antinium won’t help?”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“Erin Solstice is certainly important to the Hive, but my Queen would never authorize such an expenditure of resources for any individual. At the moment. She does not understand how important Erin is.”

“Which is extremely. You think different from your Queen. Are you rebelling against her?”

“No.”

The word comes out fast and flat. Klbkch stares at me and I’m suddenly aware that he’s armed and I’m not. Then he seems to relax, and I’m able to as well.

“I would never betray my Hive, or my Queen. But I believe she makes mistakes. One of them is not trusting others. My Hive, my Queen, we need allies if we are to change the Antinium.”

“Change the Antinium? How?”

Klbkch hesitates. He holds up one finger.

“Allow me to reconfirm that we are alone.”

I twist in my chair, but that’s an idiotic move. Klbkch is clearly doing something. He looks up after a minute and nods.

“The inn is vacated, and there is no one within two hundred meters of our location. I have reconfirmed that the [Assassins] and [Scouts] sent by Lady Magnolia are hidden several miles to the east of our position and possess no listening artifacts or spells. Selys Shivertail is with Mrsha in Liscor—”

Wait a second, what did he say?

“What? She’s with Mrsha? Where’s Erin?”

“She is exploring the wilderness with Toren and Lyonette. I believe she informed you of this.”

I…vaguely recall something like that? I was thinking about the Gnolls and remember Erin saying something. I should pay more attention to my surroundings.

…Was Klbkch sitting there the entire time? Watching me? Then another thought strikes me. I pause and stare hard at Klbkch.

“You…know where she is? Both Erin and Selys? At any given moment? Are you having them watched?”

I can’t believe Soldiers and Workers are that good at hiding. Unless…is the Hive that spread out underground? Klbkch shakes his head.

“There is no need for physical scouting. A specialized breed of Antinium developed within our Hive is able to listen to movements and sounds at extreme range. They are able to monitor individuals, if given instructions and time.”

‘There are more Antinium types than just Soldiers and Workers.’

“You have more than Soldiers and Workers?”

“They are known as Listeners. A few were allocated to our Hive. Their existence is not a secret; they were revealed during the Second Antinium War along with a few other types. However, only Soldiers and Workers are allowed within the Hive in Liscor.”

“Why is that?”

“Because my Queen stands lowest among the six Queens under the Grand Queen. Her work here is experimental, as are her ideals. And so she is restricted from utilizing the Hive’s full potential, denied certain resources and equipment.”

A power struggle between the Antinium? No way. But that means—

“Are the Queens competing with one another? Are you at odds? Do the Hives fight each other?”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“Competition is strictly based on achievement. The Queens and the Antinium have one goal, but viewpoints differ between Queens as to best achieve that goal.”

Like having multiple CEO’s working towards one end. I nod, slowly.

“And you want your Queen to succeed.”

“I believe in her mission.”

“Which is to create Individual Antinium capable of leveling which will make the Antinium stronger.”

And deadlier. They would overrun the continent. Klbkch simply nods.

“Astute. My faith in you was not misplaced.”

“But if Erin helps you, we all die. We make the Antinium stronger, and you’ll still kill us all in the end.”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“My Queen is alone in seeking to gather allies and forge relations. Yet even she is limited in…vision. She treats other species as pawns; I would have her see them as people.”

So the Queen in Liscor is more progressive than the other Queens, and her Prognugator is even more so. I think I understand.

“You think you can talk your Queen around. But either way, she has to have more influence.”

“Just so. And the proof of her labors rests in the Individual Antinium.”

“Which is why Erin Solstice is essential.”

“Correct.”

My pulse is racing. I have to calm myself and drink more water before I can speak.

“Okay. Okay, let’s say what you’ve said is all true. What happens when  your Queen proves herself? She gets special Antinium?”

“She will gain access to the…tools to create such Antinium if she desires.”

“So the other Hives have special Antinium already.”

The ones who killed General Sserys during the First Antinium Wars. Klbkch nods.

“Each Hive’s Queen has special dispensation to create their own unique type of Antinium. The Grand Queen is privy to every Hive’s secrets, but besides her, each Queen hoards her own unique type of Antinium and method for improving our species.”

Bombshells. That’s what this day is filled with.

“So what you’ve told me is that the Antinium aren’t united. Or rather, there’s a power struggle in the Hives and factions for how the Antinium should evolve.”

Klbkch glances at me.

“If any of the Queens—or other Prognugators—learn that knowledge has come from either you or I, we will both die.”

A moment of silence. I read the unspoken words.

“Does that mean you want me to tell someone? Lady Magnolia?”

“I would prefer my Queen to rise in status. She has worked long without permission to create her own types or deviate from the normal Soldiers and Workers.”

“Because she’s a renegade? Because she’s in disgrace?”

“Because she wants to create Individuals, yes.”

“What happens now that she’s succeeded? Or rather, Erin has? Does she need to prove this to the other Queens, somehow?”

Klbkch’s sits very still. He barely moves, even when speaking or gesturing. He’s an entirely different kind of person, more like a robot than a human being. Yes, a robot. One made from chitin rather than metal. A tin man, a bug man. With a heart.

“A delegation of Antinium will arrive shortly. They will assess whether or not Pawn and the other Individuals are truly Individual. Then the Queens will debate and the Grand Queen will decide what to do with the information.”

“And then?”

Klbkch shrugs.

“It will change everything. Or nothing. The Grand Queen will decide whether Individuals will make the Antinium stronger and move from there.”

“And why do the Antinium need to be strong? To conquer the continent?”

“If necessary.”

The cold-blooded response ties my tongue. Klbkch looks at me and shakes his head.

“The Grand Queen is more minded to pursue peace at the moment, at least until she is certain victory would not weaken the Antinium. Moreover, I believe I can convince my Queen to speak against such an action. This continent is not what the Antinium seek. We require strength to take back our home.”

“Your home? Someone chased you out?”

My god, the book—I need to read the second part. What he’s saying changes everything. Klbkch nods.

“It is why we fled Rhir. And why we continue to attempt to build our forces. We left because we were losing, Ryoka Griffin. And now that we are gone, the enemy will soon emerge above-ground again. This Blighted King is strong, but he is unprepared.”

“Unprepared for what?”

“We must be stronger. I must be stronger.”

Klbkch looks at me. I’m transfixed. For a second, he seems huge. Ancient. I’m like a bug—in his eyes.

“That is why you must help me. Why I know you and Erin must be protected. The Antinium must change. Or the Antinium will be wiped from the earth.”

“What. Happened?”

Klbkch pauses. He stares into his cup. And then he looks at me.

“The Antinium Wars? What Drakes and Humans and Gnolls fear so? They were setbacks. Dust. The true disaster occurred on the oceans when we lost our entire people. Even now, we are a fraction of what we were.”

I take a breath. Heart. I can hear my heart and his voice. Nothing else.

“If that’s the case, why did you run? What was so terrifying that you had to flee rather than fight?”

Klbkch pauses. He sits in Erin’s inn quietly, but his eyes reveal what he is. There’s something timeless there, something akin to Ceria’s gaze. Or Teriarch’s. Don’t look at Klbkch and see a bug. See him for what he is. A creature from centuries ago. An old hero of the Antinium, maybe. Something ancient. Only now do I realize how terrifying what’s he’s saying is.

The Antinium. Creatures numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Millions, even. Why did they ever run from Rhir? What could have caused them to flee?

Klbkch’s voice is the only thing in the world. Soft. Yet the words he speaks are so loud I can feel them shake my soul.

“We fled from a God, Ryoka Griffin. There is a God buried in Rhir. And it is trying to wake up.”

 

—-

 

It—it’s almost funny. I feel like puking, or screaming, or asking a thousand and one questions. But that issue with the Gnolls and the fifty thousand gold coins’ worth of debt? Not a problem right now.

“Again, I regret that I cannot assist directly with the issue of the Gnoll’s debt. But I agree that their aid would be invaluable to both you and Erin Solstice. The Gnolls possess a wide degree of skills and knowledge the Antinium have not, and they are steadfast allies to those who have assisted them.”

Klbkch and I sit in Erin’s inn and talk. Calmly. He’s calm. I—well, I’m still trying to calm down.

I had a…freak out after his revelation about the God. Just a little one*. But now we’re all calm. Klbkch is speaking about the future, and frankly, I’m inclined to listen to him.

 

*It was something. I may have become hysterical, for the first time in my life.

 

The Antinium. I had no idea—what he’s told me is hopeful, strangely enough. True, there are five other Queens who want to kill all other species, but there’s dissent among the Antinium. Hope for change and peace. But do I share that information? Do I help Klbkch overtly or just keep Erin safe?

“May I ask what you intend to do to settle the debt?”

I blink, and refocus on our conversation. I need to think. I can’t be useless, not now. Too much is at stake, although again, Gnoll debt? Small potatoes.

“I’m not sure yet. I’m weighing my options, but I don’t have that many things I can really offer the Gnolls at this moment.”

“From what you have said, there are many technologies available to you, but few or none that you are able to reproduce at the moment. My Hive could assist with the collection of resources, but the Antinium do not shape metal—at least, most Hives do not.”

“One does?”

“I believe so.”

There’s an information lockdown between Hives? Hm. That’s more rivalry than competition. Good to know.

“Yeah, there’s not much I can really make. Hell, I know all kinds of useful technologies and advancements in metallurgy, medicine, construction…but you need an existing framework to build all of it. Titanium, for instance is a metal harder than steel, but it’s impossible to smelt without…well, damn, I guess a Tier 6 spell might do it or something…”

“Impractical for the Gnolls, in short.”

“Yeah. And things like mathematics—well, it would change the world, but it’s not immediately useful.”

“Indeed.”

I sigh.

“Fuck. I think it has to be an artifact. A magical one. I’ll have to ask Lady Magnolia—or Teriarch.”

I told Klbkch a lot. Not everything, but quite a lot of what I’ve seen and done. And what I know. The Antinium nods.

“A dangerous choice. Both individuals are quite powerful and you may risk much by approaching either one. Despite Teriarch’s abilities, I would encourage you to view Magnolia Reinhart with the same amount of caution.”

Another surprise. No—I really shouldn’t be surprised, should I?

“You know him? Teriarch?”

“We know he is a Dragon. He incinerated two armies sent against him in the Second Antinium War. It was a mistake to attack him. I advised against it, but the Queens did not listen.”

Get the book. Read the book. Unless that’s the part of history that no one knows about. Yeah, I think people would know if a Dragon lived on the continent. Another secret to keep.

“If you are able to convince him to part with one of his treasures…yes. That would no doubt satisfy the Gnolls.”

“If. Any tips?”

“Do not attack him.”

“Thanks.”

I eye Klbkch. He sits calmly in his seat, watching me. If only I could read Antinium and tell what he’s thinking. Is he really that calm? He must be nervous. But his face is an insect’s face; impossible for me to read.

“I’m surprised you don’t want me to tell you how to create weapons from my world. Not that I would.”

“Despite the advantage it would bring, I fear it would work at cross purposes to my goal. A superior type of weaponry would only impel my Queen to abandon her current plan and use such arms to begin a third war. I would not wish such bloodshed to occur. I…do not wish to see the inhabitants of Liscor die.”

A tin man with a heart. Part of me actually wants to hug him. The other half wants to sit in a corner and gibber for an hour.

“So. What’s the plan?”

Klbkch tilts his head.

“I will provide you with information, resources, protection. You must assist Erin Solstice in your own way. And if you have a means to help my Hive—”

“Right. I get it.”

I stand up. I start to pace. I have to move.

“But there are so many questions I want to ask. All the things the Antinium know—”

“I will share what is necessary. But some secrets must remain so. If you are caught and tortured or charmed—”

“Right. Right.”

He’s no idiot. I eye Klbkch. No, he’s no idiot at all. He’s a Prognugator, one of the Antinium Generals. He’s probably smarter than I am. But then what can I ask?

“If you can’t give me something to give the Gnolls, all we can exchange is information.”

“Just so. I believe that is extremely valuable in itself.”

He’s not wrong there. I spread my hands.

“Is there anything you want to know about my world?”

“Many things intrigue me. But if I may—earlier today, Erin mentioned to you that our system of leveling is similar to your world?”

“Ah.”

I make a face. Erin and her big mouth. How can I even explain that to him?

“We…don’t level up in our world. Not at all. We can become better at things through practice, but we don’t level.”

“Not at all? Erin mentioned a game in conjunction with this fact. ‘Diablo’.”

It feels completely strange for an Antinium to start mentioning video games. I shake my head.

“That’s…it’s just a video game. A thing people play for fun, like chess. It’s not…”

I hesitate. Hold on, now.

“It has parallels to this world. Erin and I have both noticed it. The way this world operates with people leveling up—it has parallels to a game. But many things are different.”

“I see. But are the mechanics similar?”

“They are. I know the game—”

Hell, I lived Diablo III for a while. I was addicted until my damn parents made me quit.

“—But I couldn’t compare it to this world. I don’t know how the class system works or how leveling works.”

“It is considered a mystical element of our world as well. Most people understand the mechanics, but there is no consensus on the reason behind our leveling or advancement.”

Really? I frown.

“Can you explain some of the mechanics to me? From your perspective—a native’s perspective, that is.”

Klbkch nods. He taps a finger on his arm a few times, a dry, clicking noise. Then he speaks.

“Leveling is a means by which we grow stronger. As we take interest in certain activities, we gain classes. By pursuing these activities we gain more levels in a class. However, gaining levels grows exponentially more difficult as time goes on.”

I nod. That all squares with what I understand.

“Most people will end up around Level 20 in one class over the course of their life. Few individuals reach Level 30. A handful in each town; a few dozen in a city. Few will ever reach Level 40; those who do are considered famous in their own right. Those who pass Level 50 in their class are generally known throughout the world.”

Again, more information I know, but Klbkch saying it still useful.

“Is there anyone who’s ever hit a…maximum level? Level 100, for instance?”

Klbkch seems to frown. He has no eyebrows but—is it just my imagination? That’s the sense I get from him.

“I know of no individual with a level approaching one hundred. Legends speak of individuals with levels above eighty and ninety, but why would there be a limit of one hundred levels?”

“Because…”

I pause. Well, because it’s a round number? No; there’s a reason for it.

“Hold on. This is a concept from my world. Where I come from—video games usually have a level limit. Level 100 or 99 is usually that limit.”

“Video games? What are those?”

“Games from my world played for fun. Like chess.”

“Ah.”

Diablo III didn’t have that system. The level limit there was Level 70 with Paragon levels, but in this case it sounds like Level 100 would be the closest match. Klbkch shakes his head.

“That is odd, but intriguing. I have never known any individual with such a high level in any case. Most grow too old to continue leveling in time to pass Level 60 in any case.”

“Hold on. Old? What does age have to do with levels?”

I frown. Is leveling…age gated? That doesn’t sound quite right.

“Age is a known factor in leveling. Those who grow older level far more slowly, independently of their actual class level.”

“That doesn’t sound like any game I’ve played. Are you sure that’s what happens?”

Klbkch nods.

“I am one example of this occurrence. I have…declined in ability much over the many years I have been alive. I have lost levels, which is an occurrence that only occurs among the Antinium.”

“You lost your levels? Because you died, right?”

“Correct. During the First and Second Antinium Wars—and even before that—I have experienced death many times. I am able to be resurrected thanks to my Queen, but each time I lose ten levels from my classes.”

That sounds exactly like a video game. Resurrecting and losing levels? I scratch at the table with a fingernail.

“And you’re saying you’ve having a tougher time regaining your levels because you’re…older?”

Klbkch nods again. He seems to hesitate, and then he speaks.

“This is secret information. At the moment, I am a Level 21 [Swordslayer], a Level 18 [Commander], a Level 11 [Diplomat], and a Level 14 [Assassin]. However, at my peak I was a Level 44 [Swordslayer], and a Level 26 [Assassin].”

My jaw drops. If you add up the levels, Klbkch is saying he once had seventy levels altogether! Isn’t that on par with a legendary hero? No—a Named Adventurer is only around Level 40. He was stronger than that? Wait a second, if you add up the levels he has now…

“That’s…incredible.”

Klbkch nods. It’s not arrogance.

“My abilities were quite useful. However, you will note that my current self is far weaker than I was. Recently, I have struggled to regain even the levels I have lost, and I find it increasingly difficult to level up my [Swordslayer] class.”

“Right, but you still have over sixty levels total, don’t you?”

“Correct. But that is only cumulatively. As I have said, I am leveling slower due to my advanced age. I am quite old, and it is an established fact that older individuals gain levels slowly.”

Wait, but what Klbkch is saying doesn’t make sense to me. I tap the table as I speak.

“What about your cumulative levels? I mean, you were Level 70 in total, and now you’re Level 64 in total. Wouldn’t that explain the slower growth you’re experiencing?”

Klbkch pauses. Again, I get the impression he’s frowning at me.

“Why would cumulative levels affect my growth?”

“Because you’re nearing the level cap of one hundred. If it exists in this world. Look, in a video game leveling up requires more experience the higher level you are, right? Just like this world. But that cost is based on your total number of levels, not just a single class’s level.”

Do they really not know this in this world? Does that explain lower levels? Gods, it might. The Antinium stares at me across the table skeptically.

“That conclusion requires a number of suppositions that cannot be substantiated. I am not sure your belief that there is a maximum level in this world is correct. Moreover, why would each class count towards this total?”

“Why does age count towards leveling?”

I shoot an answer back at Klbkch. Okay, it’s a cheap debate trick, but I feel like I’m on to something.

“The problem I’m hearing with your world is that everyone assumes you slow down in leveling due to age. But what if that was just because older people have a lot of other classes?”

The Antinium is silent for a long moment.

“Most individuals do not level past Level 20 to begin with. Few attain a cumulative level past fifty, even with other classes.”

“Because it gets harder to level up! And people think it’s age, but—okay, let’s say you’re a Level 20 [Butcher], but you have ten other levels in…I don’t know, [Dancer]. That means that the system would treat you as a Level 30 person when it comes to leveling up, slowing your growth. And that also means that adventurers, generals…everyone is stunting their growth and maximum level by taking on needless classes!”

I point at Klbkch. My heart is racing with excitement.

“You aren’t leveling up because you have needless classes. You were stronger when you were younger because you only had two classes, and you focused on one more than the other. Think, Klbkch. Can you name any other individuals who only had a few classes?”

He’s silent for a long time. Then Klbkch looks up.

“The first Grand Queen. She…she was Level 79. She was a [Supreme Matriarch] – a special class gained from advancing in the [Queen] class for centuries. She…she was extraordinary among my people because she continued to level even in her later years.”

“My god.”

I have so many questions. But I have to continue.

“Okay. Then—damn, we need more information. Do you know if your Grand Queen had stopped leveling? Or was she continuing to gain levels? Did she have any other classes?”

Klbkch pauses. He lowers his head, as if he’s in…pain? As if the memory hurts him.

“She was focused. She only truly desired one class, and never took any other. She was so dedicated to leading us that…yes; she had only one other class, although I barely recall it.”

“That’s why she got to such a high level. The exponential difficulty of leveling was working against her of course, but she would never have gotten to that level if she didn’t focus on one class.”

I think I’m smiling. I don’t have levels—I might not ever have them anymore—but we’ve figured out something huge. This information—could I give it to the Gnolls? Hold on, it’s not that useful unless you have people who can actually get to a high level, but…no, it’s still frickin’ big.

All at once Klbkch stands up. I flinch, but he’s not looking at me. He stares out a window.

“I…we must confirm this. This information—if it is true, it changes much. That it was not discovered—”

“I guess if most people never level up as much, it wouldn’t be an issue. And someone who’s high-level might not realize they’re nearing their level cap. Plus, it might be a softcap.”

“Softcap?”

“It’s another idea from my world’s games. It means that there’s no hard stop when you get to a certain point, like Level 100, but afterwards continuing becomes impractical. So let’s say there’s a softcap on Level 100. It means that after that point you can continue leveling, but advancement will be even slower.”

Klbkch begins to walk back and forth, like I was doing. I watch him move—he’s got to be agitated.

“That adds credence to your statement. In advanced years, leveling is often cause for celebration.”

“Is there any way we can corroborate this information? Prove it, somehow?”

“My situation is unique to my nature, and I do not have access to information about other Prognugators and Queens.”

“Why not ask a local, then? You said Selys was in Liscor?”

Klbkch nods.

“She is in the park with Mrsha.”

“The park? Well, can we talk to her?”

“Let us go at once.”

 

—-

 

When Klbkch opens the door for me, I blink at the snowy landscape. The snow is knee deep outside.

“What the hell happened out here?”

The Antinium walks out with me, striding through the snow as I shut the door to Erin’s inn.

“I believe the effects of alcohol on the Frost Faeries led them to increase the amount of snow that fell overnight.”

“Goddamn it, Erin.”

“I would appreciate it if you did not use that expression.”

I hesitate, and look at Klbkch.

“Oh, right.”

Gods are real. When I think of that—it makes the revelation of leveling seem pale in comparison. I still can’t believe no one in this world realizes there’s a level cap. But if most people never level that high up, and the few who do just think they’re ceasing to level due to age…

“What can you tell me about the God?”

“Very little. I only know what my people know. And I would prefer not to speak of it in any case.”

“Why?”

Klbkch looks at me.

“Because even speaking of Gods gives them power.”

American Gods. Neil Gaiman. Or—alternatively, Small Gods, Terry Pratchett. My mind races. I—I close my mouth and walk with Klbkch in the snow, thinking.

It’s only a few minutes before we reach Liscor’s gates, despite the heavy snow. The guards recognize Klbkch in sight and call out to him. He waves. We walk on. Klbkch leads me down the streets of Liscor, and I look around at the bustling city.

You’d never imagine it was just attacked a few weeks ago. While this place isn’t New York, it’s hardly a small town either. The city feels…well, it feels big. Populated. Liscor is bigger than Celum or Esthelm, despite being enclosed on all four sides by those massive walls*.

 

*Talk about fortifications. Apparently, all Drake cities have these gigantic walls, although Liscor’s are second only to the famous Walled Cities. If the gates hadn’t been left open during undead attack, I can’t imagine even a hundred thousand of them would have been able to break into Liscor. Not without siege weapons. Undead siege weapons…? A giant?

 

It’s either because he’s an Antinium or because he’s a Senior Guardsman—probably both—but Klbkch and I walk in a circle of space even on the most crowded of streets. Surprisingly, not all the looks he gets are unfriendly, either. Some Drakes and Gnolls nod to the Antinium, and Klbkch exchanges greetings with several people he knows by name. It’s actually me that gets more dirty looks.

The Antinium turns down another street.

“Where are we going?”

“To a playground, I believe. In the park. Selys has taken Mrsha there.”

Sure enough, the street widens and then I find myself staring at the oddest of sights. In the center of the city is…a park. A big one, at least, for an enclosed city like that. And there’s a playground occupying a part of it as well.

“What the hell?”

It’s a playground. And those are…trees. And grass, growing right next to the cobblestones that line the circular perimeter of the park. That’s normal. Yeah, parks, trees in a city with walls. I can see that.

But the playground catches my eye. Because it is not like a Human playground. Human playgrounds aren’t this cool.

It’s a…jungle gym. AT least, that was what it was. But some mad architect took one look at the plans and decided to make a playground for children that would give any anxious parent a heart attack.

Long tunnels of smooth, polished wood connect towers that spiral upwards like a miniature castle. Monkey bars are set twenty feet in the air, above a floor that you have to climb up a long rope just to get to. Even as I watch, a Gnoll cub slides down a slide that curves downwards over thirty feet, dropping the kid down towards the ground in a long, spiraling journey.

The towering construction of wood and stone goes up four stories high. It has separate rooms with glass windows for children to occupy and play in—walls with grips that any climbing gym in my world would envy—even a huge rope bridge which sways and wobbles high over my head.

I know my mouth is gaping. I stare at the giant tower and I want to climb it. But while the child in me dreams of swinging and jumping around high up there, the practical part of me wonders what the hell happens if someone falls? There are so many ways to topple off—that damn rope bridge has huge gaps in it! A fall from that high ends up in death no matter how soft the grass is.

And then, just as I’m imagining that scenario—a kid slips. I see a Drake child overbalance and tumble off the side. I open my mouth to shout and I dash forwards, but I’ll be too slow, I know it.

But then—the young Drake’s body pauses as he falls through the air. I watch in incredulity as the air around the kid seems to freeze, and he slows down to a crawl. He softly lands on the ground and laughs.

I stare, and then hear laughter. Some Drakes are laughing at me, not the kid. I guess the look on my face must be hilarious.

“Please do not be alarmed. The magical spells on this playing area are cast by a Wistram mage and checked upon each year.”

Klbkch walks over to me and I stare at him. He nods at the playground and the Drakes and Gnolls walking around and enjoying this natural retreat in the center of their city.

“It is an expensive construction, but one the city council devoted funds to over as a matter of public benefit. I am told the Walled Cities have similar constructions with an even greater degree of magical enchantments.”

“Why the hell do you need something like this?

I point at the playground. One of the Drake parents gives me a dirty look, and I watch my mouth.

“Due to the unique geography of this landscape, the residents require a place to relax and enjoy themselves when confined to the city during the spring months.”

“Right, I read about that. But…huh. It’s just like my world. We have parks in our cities as well. If not so…close to other buildings.”

“Indeed? That is interesting. Ah, there is Selys.”

Klbkch points to a familiar Drake and a bundle of white fur. Mrsha is swinging on some bars way too high for me to feel comfortable about, laughing with a bunch of other Gnoll kids. Two groups of parents are watching their offspring play with Mrsha without any worries—I see the Gnoll parents eying her fur, but they make no comment.

“Ryoka! Klbkch?”

Selys greets the two of us with some surprise.

“Did you come to check up on Mrsha? I told you I’d take her out for the day. Unless…Erin’s done with her exploration?”

“No, not yet. Actually Selys, we wanted to talk to you.”

“To me?”

Selys looks at me, surprised. I nod.

“Can we sit somewhere?”

“Oh, of course. There are some benches over there. Mrsha? We’re going over there?”

High above us, Mrsha lets go of one of the bars and waves a paw. She looks so happy up there, just like one of the kids, immersed in the adventure of a life time. Like any other Gnoll cub—except for the fur.

I leave her behind and sit with Selys and Klbkch. It’s a cold day, but at least there’s a bit of sun coming through the clouds at the moment. Funny, it seems warmer in this park. Must be all the kids running about or…an enchantment over the entire place? Maybe it’s just my imagination.

“So, what can I help you with?”

Klbkch looks at me. I guess he wants me to explain. All of this makes sense to me, but to a native of this world, this must be like finding out the earth is round, or…or that the planets revolve around the sun.

Hell, I didn’t know I was going be pulling a Galileo today.

Slowly, I explain my theory about leveling to Selys. She stares at me with increasing incredulity until she guffaws as I get to the part about cumulative leveling.

“What? Are you serious, Ryoka? Levels don’t work like that! Everyone knows you level slower as you age—it’s because we’re running out of energy, not some weird limit!”

She waves a claw at me, still chuckling. I frown at her.

“How do you know? What makes you so sure?”

“I know because—well, look, just because people don’t level when they’re older doesn’t mean there’s some limit!”

Selys frowns as she tries to explain. She frowns, and then brightens.

“Take old Peslas, for example. He’s an [Innkeeper], like Erin. Have you heard of him?”

A bit of memory flares inside my head.

“He’s the one who runs another inn, isn’t he? The one the Gold-rank adventurers are staying at?”

“That’s right. Well, he’s above Level 30 in the [Innkeeper] class, so his inn is one of the best in the city. But he hasn’t stopped leveling because he can’t! He’s old, and he just doesn’t want to work harder.”

“What do you mean?”

Selys rolls her eyes and wraps her tail around one leg of the bench.

“Not everyone wants to work their tail off until they can get to a higher level, Ryoka. Some people decide they’re at a good level and stop. For instance, Peslas has a nice inn and lots of guests, but he doesn’t work that hard. And he’s old. So he levels once every couple of years. He leveled up six years ago and threw a huge party. My grandmother and I were invited to it.”

“But he could be leveling slower because of his total level as well, not just because he’s taking it easy and he’s old.”

“Yeah, but…well, he doesn’t have that many levels in other classes.”

Selys looks uncertain. I shake my head.

“But every level counts, Selys, don’t you see? Someone who has only one class that she levels like Erin will level up fast. She told me she only has a few levels in [Singer] and [Warrior], but how many do you have? How many does Peslas have?”

Now the [Receptionist] frowns to herself. She mutters as Klbkch and I watch Mrsha running around with another Gnoll kid.

“Well, I know he was bragging—he talks a lot about his classes—I know he said he was a [Warrior] when he was younger. He got to Level 16 while serving in the army, so there’s that. And he has levels in [Cook] and [Bartender] because he used to do that before he became an [Innkeeper]…but he doesn’t have many in each. Just a few levels.”

“Does he have any other classes?”

“Oh! I remember! He’s got a few levels in [Singer] and [Dancer] too! He was so happy about that—he got a good Skill that helps him sing…”

Selys’ face turns pale. I nod, and Klbkch nods too.

“One or two levels here and there. In this world, it’s not that much. In fact, people like to level, don’t they?”

“It’s so useful. And we get Skills even if it’s one or two levels.”

Selys mumbles the words. I nod.

“But that slows you down. It takes away from the maximum level you can achieve. It hurts you, but no one realizes it because everyone thinks it’s due to age.”

“And few people have the desire to reach higher levels in any case. So the issue is never noticed. In any case, why would anyone assume there is an artificial limit?”

Only someone from another world would assume that, and only because older video games like Pokemon had hardcoded limits to their system that prevented them from going past Level 100. Why would a system in this world have that kind of limit? It would only make sense if someone created the system…

Klbkch looks at me. I nod. My heart is racing.

Selys shakes her head repeatedly, as if dazed.

“This is huge. This is…do you know what this means if this is true?

“It will affect all in small ways, and affect few in huge ways.”

Klbkch said the words softly as Mrsha nipped at the Drake’s tail and elicited a shout from the Drake and her parents. I consider what he’s saying.

For many, I guess this information wouldn’t be too useful. Not if they don’t have the ambition to level up faster. But maybe it would allow everyone to reach Level 30, rather than waste their early levels on usless classes. It would lead to specialization—but most importantly, it would allow the people who reach the high levels in their classes to become even stronger.

“This information could change the world.”

I look at Klbkch. He looks at me.

“Fifty thousand gold pieces?”

“Perhaps.”

“What are you talking about?”

Selys looks between us. She’s trembling. Her world must be shaking. I feel sort of bad for her, but this information helps her as well.

Klbkch nods. And then he nods again.

“What Ryoka Griffin describes is exactly what I am experiencing. I had feared it was due to my age—or that I was becoming weaker—but I have ceased to level in my main class because I have too many other classes. It may be age, but Ryoka’s theory is equally sound, perhaps more so given…certain factors. I believe she is correct.”

Dead gods.

Selys breathes the words like a prayer, only no one prays in this world because the gods are dead. Except there is one.

Klbkch nods one last time. He’s like a creepy bobblehead.

“I must confirm this. There is information in my Hive which I am able to sort through. Data on warriors, people in positions of note, unusual classes, and so forth. I will review several hundred individuals and see if the results match your conclusions, Ryoka Griffin. If it is correct, this secret you have uncovered will be valuable beyond belief.”

I nod. My heart is pounding. Information that could change the world. Klbkch glances at Selys.

“This knowledge must not spread until it is certain, and even then, should be kept quiet. For now. Are we in agreement?”

Selys nods vigorously.

“Lips sealed. Completely.”

But then her face falls.

“Ah! But I’ve got so many classes! I thought—everyone gets a few levels in one or two classes but no one cares about that! No one—does that mean I’ll never reach a high level?”

Her face is stricken. Klbkch nods slowly.

“It will be…difficult for me as well. If I am unable to reach the same heights, it would be best for me to rectify the situation.”

I eye Klbkch. He’s the only one who can lose levels, but if he’s suggesting what I think he is, that’s insane.

“For now, just don’t level up if you don’t want to. You can refuse to level up or take a class.”

Selys shakes her head distractedly.

“I never understood why that was possible. I thought you’d have to be crazy to turn down a level or not gain a new class.”

I nod. It’s not a conclusion anyone would make if they didn’t understand games. Is it a trap for the people in this world? Or just an oversight? Does anyone know this secret? Some people must, but they would hide it because it’s so valuable, wouldn’t they?

“I think—yeah, I think if my suspicions are true, it’s for this exact reason that you can refuse to level up.”

A system based on a game, except no one knows the rules. My spine tingles. Gods. One is still alive.

We don’t say much after that. Selys and Klbkch just stare at each other and she mutters about classes while he…goes through his Hive’s information. I’m not sure how he does it. Is it stored in some location, or are the Antinium all carrying bits of the data?

For now, I don’t ask. But after half an hour Klbkch looks towards one of the walls.

“Something is happening.”

People—Drakes and Gnolls, and even some of the Humans—are pointing and walking in one direction. I stare at Selys and Klbkch.

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. Do you want to see?”

Klbkch and I look at each other. We’re thinking the same thing without saying  it out loud. If there’s a crowd and something going on which attracts attention, there’s probably one person—one girl at the heart of it.

People are clustering around the southern gate, and I hear people exclaiming and laugh. Klbkch, Selys, and I make our way through the crowd, Selys holding Mrsha so the small Gnoll doesn’t get lost. We get close to the southern walls—close enough to hear the laughter and exclamations—but the people are packed so densely around the gates that there’s no way through.

“Up there.”

Klbkch points towards the battlements. The citizenry aren’t allowed up there, but his position as a Senior Guardsman gets us up there. And that’s when we see it.

“Oh my god.”

At first, it’s just an odd shape moving around in the snow. You can see from a long distance on the battlements, and that’s how I see Erin. And Toren. And then, when you look closer, you see it.

The [Guardsmen] on the wall are laughing so hard they can barely stand up straight. I stare down at Erin and Toren as they…traverse the snow. Yup. Just when I think she can’t get any stranger, Erin does something like this.

I look at Selys. She’s covering her mouth as she tries not to guffaw. Klbkch is just staring. I think he’s in shock.

Someone has to say it. I stare down at Erin and shake my head.

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

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A note from pirateaba

A lesson in humility. Today I got my butt kicked by a chapter. And this is a good thing to happen.

I got too proud. I took writing too lightly. For the first time in over a year, I had to rewrite a chapter, so I’ve stayed up until now finishing it, and I’m publishing it early because I’ll probably be asleep much later than usual.

The first draft of this…had errors. And that’s a big problem, because as you know by now, this chapter was IMPORTANT. It might even beat Magnolia’s chapter in terms of earth-shattering stuff. But is it good? I’ve just finished it, so I don’t know. But I hope — no, I know it’s better than it was.

So there’s that. Let me know if my explanations made sense, if anything seems too off…all of that good stuff. I know I worry a lot, but that’s just because I am 68% committed to making the story as best it can be! 14% of me just wants to sleep, and 18% lives for video games.

That is all. Thanks for reading, and never become arrogant! You never know which chapter will be your downfall.

https://www.reddit.com/r/WanderingInn/


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Lazytophat @Lazytophat ago

WHAT IS IT, DAMIT I NEED TO KNOW

Hexwolfx @Hexwolfx ago

I guess comes next grinding for LVs

ardent_sneider @ardent_sneider ago

A nice setting on classes and levels, it would be great if they can fuse or delete classes, if not the antinium would keep another advantage over the other races for a long while.

    Genisyn69 @Genisyn69 ago

    idk, the Gnolls already know (in my opinion) why? they hear everything... (i blame Klbkch for overlooking this)

    Plus Selys knows, and she works for the Adv Guild, and is a Drake. 

wayfarer @wayfarer ago

Thanks, this chapter wasn't that surprising, I believe we all had our suspicions haha, but great way of slowly explaining the enormity of this reveal

Ghostman @Ghostman ago

I shall admit to being surprised that the people of this world didn't know about a level cap but the way the story was written made it seen sensible why they would not know. To us, it's a given. A lot of players start a new game in a rush to get to the cap but if no one ever told you there's a cap, why should you assume there's  a cap and all the levels you have counted total? Good work.

Deltaxsniper @Deltaxsniper ago

Thanks for the chapter! And damn some of those revelations sent chills down my spine 

ascus @ascus ago

I think the conclusion that there is a level cap is flawed.

It could just be that you need more exp for each level, no matter the class...

So after x levels it needs too much experience to be easily leveled

    Shockspore @Shockspore ago

    If, you noticed, Ryoka also entertained the possibility of a soft cap. If you don't know, a soft cap is where, past a certain point, leveling becomes nearly impossible, while still being achievable with a ridiculous investment of time/energy/effort

    Myuym @Myuym ago

    They mentioned Dungeons and Dragons before they mentioned Diablo. 

     

    Then it could be a multiclass penalty instead. 

Darkhaert101 @Darkhaert101 ago

Thanks and again another great chapter! I am amazed on how good and talented you are in incorporating different elements in your story from music, stories, myths, games and other. And you do it in a way that seems so natural in this story.

Kudos to you Pirateaba!!!

Quasieludo @Quasieludo ago

I have to poop but I couldnt stop halfway throuph the chapter. Goddam why couldnt i be reading this on my phone.