Sometimes it bothered him, the way others treated his kind. Pawn knew there was history behind the stares and frightened looks. And he understood that the Antinium looked…different, even from other species. But even so, it hurt a bit.
And Selys knew him! She was hardly a stranger to the Antinium. Was there really that much difference between Pawn and the Soldiers?
Standing in the inn, Pawn turned and looked up at the towering mass that was the Soldier standing nearest to him.
…Well, yes, actually. Despite Pawn’s alien appearance, he was still just a Worker, with hands and recognizable body parts. The Soldiers on the other hand looked like they were made only to kill, because they were.
Their hands were formless digits that were more suited to gouging their enemies and smashing skulls into the ground. Their carapaces were reinforced, made to act like armor. And their mandibles were quite a bit bigger, so as to give them another means of attacking.
They were frightening. But the Human girl who smiled at Pawn and the small, white Gnoll didn’t seem nearly as scared as Selys had been.
“I’ve got a ton of food for you! Just wait—I’ll cook up some right now!”
Lyonette was practically running around, trying to show Pawn her latest acquisition as Selys sat taking deep breaths and Mrsha ran about, sniffing at Soldiers and darting away when they stared at her. It was confusion, and Pawn wasn’t helping by trying to simultaneously apologize and explain.
“I am very sorry Miss Selys. I did not mean to cause alarm—”
Selys waved a claw at Pawn as she half-drank, half-choked on her glass of water. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the Soldiers.
“No—no I was—it wasn’t your—why are there Soldiers above ground? Ancestors, don’t tell me it’s war!?”
The Drake looked horrified. Pawn hastened to reassure her.
“Nothing of the kind. The Hive has merely sent out a patrol to…patrol the landscape. We will eliminate any monsters we encounter and attempt to improve the morale of the citizenry by our vigilance.”
“Improve? Our morale?”
Pawn nodded. That was the official line Klbkch had given him and Pawn thought it was a rather good one. Seeing Selys’ fish-eyed stare made him wonder how believable the explanation was, though.
“I see. I see. I’m uh, well, I’m glad for you. This is a promotion, isn’t it?”
“A promotion? Ah. Um. Yes, I believe it is.”
Pawn had never thought of his new job in those terms. But the idea seemed to be reassuring to Selys, so he went along with the idea. She stared at the Soldiers, still standing motionless in the inn, all waiting for Pawn’s next order.
“And they obey everything you do? Really?”
“That is their nature, sadly.”
Pawn wished it weren’t so. But the Soldiers really did seem to have little personality, or at least, the will to do what they wanted. Even less so than the Workers, to be honest.
A lot had happened since he’d visited the inn last night. After a rather…nerve-wracking conversation with Klbkch, Pawn had found his request to take Soldiers outside the Hive approved to his great surprise. He had also made a few attempts to inspire the Soldiers, to give them his perspective on life.
That hadn’t gone so well.
The first thing Pawn had given them was a chessboard. Even when he’d explained how it worked, the Soldiers had just stared at the pieces. When he’d asked one to play against him, the Soldier had begun moving the pieces, following the rules, but seemingly without any idea of how the game actually worked. Pawn had played five games and the Soldier hadn’t improved after the fifth game. In fact, he just moved the chess pieces forwards from left to right as Pawn slowly eliminated them from the board.
That was disheartening. But then Pawn had had the brilliant idea to give Soldiers names! Erin had done it for him. He’d sat with a Soldier—somewhat apprehensively as he knew what might occur—and given the Soldier a name.
Robert. But the newly named Soldier hadn’t even seemed to react to having a name. Pawn had noticed that happened when he and Klbkch had tested the Workers and some Soldiers as well. The Workers either became Aberration or Individual when given a name, but the Soldiers didn’t. They just acted like the name was, well…words.
It didn’t seem to matter to the Soldier that he had a name. Pawn had hoped it would spark something in him, some sense of ownership, but the Soldier had just obediently responded to the title just like he would if Pawn pointed at him and said, ‘you there’.
It was baffling to the Worker. How could the Soldiers not care about names? But then he’d realized—what use was a name if you couldn’t speak it yourself? The Soldiers had no voices, no speech. They couldn’t speak, and so what was a name for them? Just another word they would never say.
Pawn agonized. He’d given up in despair, realizing that he had made one smart decision. Within the Hive there was nothing to show the Soldiers. But outside—
Selys seemed like she was ready to go. She kept glancing towards the door, but she hadn’t moved, possibly because two Soldiers stood next to the entrance, as if they were guarding it.
Which they might actually be. Klbkch had told the Soldiers to protect Pawn, and Pawn had told them not to attack anyone. Which meant they only looked as if they were contemplating tearing Selys’ tail off and feeding it to her.
“Well, I’ve got to be going. I’m already late and there’s so many Humans to deal with in the Guild…shame I can’t stay and chat, Pawn.”
Selys stood up, tail twitching anxiously as she edged towards the door. She glanced at the ground and called out sharply.
“Mrsha, come on! Let’s go.”
The little Gnoll looked up in betrayed shock—Selys made a grab for her, but Mrsha dove under a table again. Lyonette paused and turned back to the Drake, looking anxious.
“You said she could stay!”
“I did. But now Pawn and his—friends have come, I’m sure it would be safer—”
Selys caught Pawn’s eye and looked away guiltily. He felt sad inside, and a bit angry.
“We will not be staying long, Miss Shivertail. I only wished to show the Soldiers this inn before we continued patrolling.”
“Mrsha will be fine here. And I can feed the Soldiers as well. I have more than just bacon and eggs.”
Lyonette looked confused. She hurried into the kitchen and came out with something on a plate.
“I just made this! It’s not as good as what Erin can do but—I found more bees!”
Pawn had been about to decline Lyonette’s offer for a meal. He didn’t want to impose, and he didn’t want to alarm Selys by having the Soldiers eat here. But all that changed when he heard Lyonette’s words.
“Did you say…bees?”
He’d had…one bee before. One bee. And like the acid flies, it wasn’t something Pawn forgot easily. He stared avidly at the thing on the plate. Lyonette had indeed just fried up the thing that Selys recoiled from and made even the Soldiers look twice.
A bee, legs curled, neatly sliced down the abdomen to let the insides fry on the pan. It now lay, wings folded, staring up at Pawn, making his intestines gurgle. It was steaming, and juicy with grease and honey. Pawn’s stomach sat up and begged for him to bite into the exposed innards that smelled…
Part of Pawn immediately wanted to eat the bee at once. But he stopped his hand as he remembered.
“Ah. Regrettably…I would love to sample this bee. But it would not be fair to the others, I feel.”
He was full of regret. But to his surprise, Lyonette just smiled.
“I have lots more.”
Pawn looked at her hopefully. The [Barmaid] nodded.
“Two huge jars, in fact. Enough for you and all the Soldiers. You should have this one first. You are their leader, aren’t you? And then when you all come back from your patrol, I’ll have enough for everyone.”
Pawn hesitated. A meal had been in his hazy plan for the day with the Soldiers, but bees? He had a bag of coin, but he didn’t know if it would be enough. But bees…perhaps Lyonette would open a tab? He looked at the other Soldiers and came to a swift decision influenced not at all by the delicious bee in front of him.
“I am afraid we number twenty one in all. Would that put too much of a strain upon your inn?”
He didn’t want to overburden the Human girl. Lyonette did indeed seem shocked. She swayed on her feet a bit, and gulped slowly.
“Twenty? I can…yes, I can do that.”
“Very well then. We shall patrol and be back…in two hours? Roughly that time. Is that enough?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely! And Mrsha can stay with me—”
The Gnoll was still evading Selys’ every attempt to get near her. Frustrated, Selys threw up her hands.
“Fine, fine. I’ve got to go! I’m so late! Just keep an eye on her, okay Lyon?”
“I will. And I’ll have everything ready for you in two hours, Pawn.”
The Antinium nodded, and after Selys had left, led his Soldier back outside. There they joined the other Soldiers who’d been waiting like statues outside and nearly given Selys a heart attack.
“As you may have heard, we will be eating a lunch at this location later today.”
Pawn addressed the Soldiers who stood to attention, listening to his every word. He’d already gotten over a lot of the awkwardness of commanding them. They were the twenty least-injured Soldiers assigned to him, and they had obeyed his every order flawlessly since leaving the city.
He wondered if they were getting anything out of this experience. Well, they’d only left the secret tunnel just outside of Liscor and walked here so far. And this was a good place to start.
Pawn gestured awkwardly to the inn. The Soldiers stared at a wooden wall and then back at him, expressionless.
“That was an inn. People go there to sleep and eat delicious food.”
They stared at him. Pawn coughed, and nodded a few times. He stared around. What else could he show them? It was the middle of winter, and there wasn’t a lot of…
He pointed at the ground. The Soldiers stared down at the snow, ankle-deep around their thick legs.
“This is…snow. There’s grass underneath. Grass is green and can’t be eaten, but it is worth looking at.”
They stared at the snow. One Soldier lifted a foot experimentally and crushed some snow underfoot. Pawn considered this a victory. He coughed again.
“I ah, will find a place for us to patrol to. We can walk and I can tell you…stories, I suppose. Show you the landscape.”
If only there were flowers and animals! Pawn agonized, but he was determined to make this outing a success. Somehow. The Soldiers might not be too amazed just yet, but he’d show them. And if he failed, which was likely, there were always the bees. The delicious, crunchy…
Pawn licked honey off his fingers. Well, he was the leader after all, and Lyonette had already cooked it. Besides, the bee had been small. Barely a mouthful. A delicious…savory…
The Soldiers stared at Pawn. He was thinking, and so they waited for him to give the next order. This is how they thought. Pawn was their commander. He had eaten something that was not mush, something that smelled good. That…intrigued them. Would they eat it later?
All of the Soldiers stood at attention, but they were not fully at attention mentally. In fact, all of the Soldiers were highly distracted by the scenery around them.
What was this strange place they had come to? None of them had ever left the Hive, ever gone to that mysterious place known as Above. Even when some Soldiers had been called by Klbkch to fight above, they had not been chosen.
But today, they had gone Above. They had emerged into the bright, bright world and found unending wonders waiting for them. They had seen…snow? Is that what Pawn had called it? And a Gnoll? Was that the fuzzy creature that stared up at them with huge eyes? And the fleshy thing? A Lyon?
While Pawn was thinking, some of the Soldiers looked past him. Up. Into the sky. They had never seen the sky before. Their sky was dirt and stone. But this sky—
Vast. Limitless. And so full of color. Some of the Soldiers felt weak at the knees, and not because something had bit their kneecaps off. They looked up and saw the sky.
The sky was blue. Deep blue, and the air was so cold. The Soldiers felt as though they would die if they stayed out here too long, and that was a fascinating thought. The Hive was never this cold. Chilly in some places, in deep tunnels, yes, but never freezing. And the sky.
It was so blue. It was a color they’d never seen, not once in their time in the Hive. Just the sight of it made each Soldier rejoice inside, and realize that there was something to rejoice. Just like when they’d heard the stories of a better place, when the Worker had come to them and offered them—
“Ah, we’ll go this way. It’s not so crowded.”
The Soldiers broke off from their dream-like thoughts and snapped fully back into the world. They had orders! Pawn pointed, down the hill towards a flat area of snow.
“We’ll look at trees. Trees are like grass, but harder. It turns into wood, like what this inn is made of.”
As one, the Soldiers stared back at the inn. That was from trees? They’d seen wood, but it grew out of the ground? Really?
“This way! I have so much to show you.”
Excitedly, Pawn set off down the hill. As one, the Soldiers followed him, some flanking the Worker to provide a shield with their bodies. They were going to see trees! What were trees?
Pawn was doing this to show them something. That was what he had said, and the Soldiers felt he had already delivered far past their expectations. They had only imagined another tunnel in the Hive, perhaps one bigger than the rest or with some unique feature like an interesting curve or mineral deposit in the walls. But this?
Trees. The Soldiers marched through the snow, cold and melting. They were going to see something new. Something they couldn’t even imagine. And they were grateful, of course. But the Soldiers could have happily stared at the sky and watched the clouds roll across that infinite void…
This was Above. This was a place their fellow Soldiers had never seen, a place where other Soldiers had fought and died long ago, in older wars. The Soldiers drank in every detail, from the face of the Drake to the furry thing called a ‘Mrsha’ that stared at them and made them feel so odd.
They knew they would remember this day for the rest of their lives. And they were all the more determined. They would fight with all they had, against whatever grave foe lurked Above. It would be a fair price for this moment.
For, surely there was a foe in the snow. The Soldiers watched the ground warily, not trusting the pretty ground any more than they trusted Pawn’s assurances that they wouldn’t actually do any fighting today. Normally they fought in three dimensions, where attacks could come from the ground, overhead—monsters could come bursting out of the walls or even shatter your stone footing to drag you into dark pits. What strange new enemies would come in a place where there was no dirt ceiling above you?
Their answer came when something white and soft flew out of the sky and smacked Pawn in the head. He stumbled and yelped as the Soldiers turned as one.
Sneak attack! From where? At first they didn’t see, but then they spotted it. Some creature—many creatures of snow and wood! They stood, lumpy humanoids throwing snow mixed with ice and bits of rock at the Antinium.
Pawn wiped away some snow from his head.
“Oh. Snow Golems. That scared me. You see, these are creatures of ice and magic. They’re not dangerous unless you are a child, not unless they grow to be truly huge. I believe we can simply av—”
The Soldiers charged as one. They thundered across the snowy plains at the Snow Golems, eight of them, who all paused as they saw a black mass of behemoths running at them full tilt.
The icy brains of the Snow Golems weren’t capable of much thought, but even such creatures could sense trouble. The Snow Golems turned and began to flee, some plodding along with clumsy legs, others rolling across the snow. They were too slow.
The first Soldier caught up to a classic Snow Golem, three orbs of ice placed on top of each other and twig-like arms. It even had a carrot for a nose. The Golem turned and slashed at the Antinium. Its wooden arms broke on the Antinium’s carapace. Then a shovel-like fist smashed through its face and it was gone.
Another Soldier leapt into the air, thrown by two of his companions. He smashed into another Golem, crushing the huge head with a knee. The Golem fell and the Soldier began to dig into its collapsing body, snow flying everywhere.
Realizing escape was impossible, the other Golems turned and fought. Or rather, they turned and had about a second to regret throwing snow before the tide of Soldiers rolled over them.
Standing in a state of shock about twenty meters away, Pawn watched the carnage unfold as his Soldiers tore the relatively harmless Snow Golems to pieces. They ripped the wooden arms off of Golems, pierced their snowy bodies with their fists, kicked Golems to bits and them trampled the remains.
It took less than a minute before the ground was covered with the…relatively ungory remains of the Snow Golems. Honestly, it just looked like a messed up patch of snow. The Soldiers marched back towards Pawn and he stared at them. They were covered in melted snow, and one of the Soldiers had a carrot in his hand. He offered it to Pawn.
“Oh. Thank you.”
Pawn took it, and then stared at the carrot. Why had the Soldier grabbed it? Then he remembered. Standard practice for the Antinium was to collect the remains of whatever they killed and turn it into food, much as the Goblins did. This being the only remotely edible thing the Snow Golems left behind…
“You can eat this, you know.”
The Soldier stared at Pawn blankly. The Worker handed it to him.
“Go on. It’s a bit cold, but it’s edible.”
And probably, far tastier than it would be when mushed with a thousand other bits of food for the gruel the Soldiers normally ate. Encouragingly, the Worker mimed eating it. The Soldier held the carrot up, seemed to hesitate, and then crunched into the carrot.
All of the Soldiers and Pawn watched as the expressionless Soldier ate the carrot. It took three bites, and when it was done, the Soldier stood at attention.
Pawn sighed. Well, what had he expected? He shook his head.
“I suppose…good job, everyone. Those Snow Golems…won’t be throwing snow at anyone else. Let us move on.”
The Soldiers followed him as the Worker marched on. Pawn stared at the bit of trampled ground as he passed and shook his head.
“Poor Snow Golems.”
For all they’d hit him with a snowball—filled with pebbles no less—he felt they hadn’t exactly deserved that.
A carrot! What had it tasted like? Was it really edible, just like that? The other Soldiers were agog, but they couldn’t interview their companion as they marched. And even if they could—they didn’t talk or use sign language.
Rather, Soldiers could vaguely sense what the others were feeling or thinking. It was more of a skill used for coordination in battle, but what they sensed now was that the Soldier who ate the carrot felt extremely…good.
Good, yes. It was a crunchy food, and it didn’t mush and taste…like what they normally ate tasted like. And it was cold!
The Soldiers marched on, listening to Pawn’s explanations of how Snow Golems came to life. It made little sense to them, mainly because none of them wore or needed clothing, but they enjoyed listening nonetheless.
Then they found the Shield Spiders.
It was a collapsed pit, one of the many lairs the Shield Spiders made to lure in prey. But the snowfall had been heavy, and the fake ground had collapsed, spilling inwards to reveal the nest. Already Shield Spiders were laboring to remove snow and repair their trap, but the Antinium had come before they could finish their work.
Pawn stared down into the hole as the Soldiers tensed as one. Shield Spiders! They knew this enemy. They looked at Pawn for his orders, since they were not under direct attack. The Worker hesitated.
“Oh dear. This is a menace. And Klbkch did tell us to remove minor threats…ah, I believe we should attack?”
The Soldiers hesitated. That sounded like an order, but it wasn’t phrased like one. And the Shield Spiders had noticed the Antinium. Several large ones in the pit turned to face the Soldiers and began to crawl up the dirt sides, fangs bared for the attack.
“Ah. They have noticed us. I suppose we must do this then.”
Pawn sighed. He sounded almost regretful. The Soldiers were vibrating with nerves and readiness for battle.
“Be careful. Do not take risks. And um—very well, now is probably the time. Attack?”
The Soldiers exploded into motion, charging forwards around Pawn at the surprised spiders. They leapt into the pit, smashing down on the many Shield Spiders, big and small.
One Soldier landed and crushed a Shield Spider with his feet. Then he turned and grabbed another one. It bit at his arm, tearing into his thick carapace, but he ignored the spider’s fangs. The Soldier smashed the spider repeatedly into the ground. The Shield Spider had an exoskeleton like armor, but after the ninth crushing blow the bulbous abdomen split and goo poured forth.
The Soldier let the Shield Spider drop and turned. By this point, the other Shield Spiders were long dead, trampled, kicked, and punched into shapeless forms by the Antinium Soldiers. Not even the smallest baby or egg was left alive. When Pawn peered into the pit he only had a few words to say.
“Oh my. That is quite…efficient.”
Then he saw the wounded Soldier.
“You’re hurt! Come here, quickly—I’ll try to stop the bleeding with…something!”
The injured Soldier moved back, scrambling out of the pit despite his lacerated arm. The other Soldiers merely braced themselves, prepared for a second attack. They waited. They waited for the ground to erupt, for a hundred more Shield Spiders to come digging themselves out of the soil. They waited for an ambush—perhaps from the side, or other spider variants to come at them in a horde as so often happened in the tunnels of their Hive. They waited and waited, until they realized there was nothing to wait for.
Slowly, confused, the Soldiers lowered their arms. Pawn was busy fussing over the Soldier’s arm, pressing at the seeping green liquid, not bothering to look around for other threats. Surely he wouldn’t do that if there were no more threats? The Soldiers stared at him, and then around in confusion.
Was that it? Was that…it?
It was far too easy. Shield Spiders normally came in nests of at least fifty, or as many as three hundred! And where were the other breeds? These spiders had been tiny, barely hatchlings! Was this really all there was to fight?
Eventually, the Soldiers scrambled out of the pit and formed a protective circle around Pawn as he fussed over the wounded Soldier’s arm. He seemed so concerned over the Soldier’s injury, inspecting the broken chitin and green ichor seeping out of the wound. The Soldier in question didn’t react to the damage and the other Soldiers knew he was fully capable of fighting on. The cuts weren’t that deep, and as for the wound itself, what of it? It was just pain.
In the end, the bleeding did stop, and the Soldiers expected Pawn to lead them on. But he didn’t.
“I think we should go back. None of you were meant to be injured. At the very least, you should rest.”
What? Did he really think that would slow the Soldier down? But yes, Pawn led the incredulous Soldiers back towards the inn. There he talked with the Human named Lyon or perhaps Lyonette and after a while, had the Soldier rest in the inn, sitting by the fire with a bandaged arm.
That done, Pawn led the Soldiers on again. They marched through the snow, staring at trees, crowding around to see the flower he unearthed. And they were ready for fighting and did fight now and then. But it wasn’t like the Hive. It wasn’t like the brutal, deadly warfare underground. None of them had died, which would never have happened if they’d been stationed on the front lines in the Hive. And they hadn’t even been hurt—well, not actually hurt.
This was so easy. This was so…enjoyable. The sky was blue, and the snow blew at them, melting and wonderful. They looked and saw color and listened to stories.
And they began to feel something else. A word they had no name for. All they knew was that it was mysterious.
The Soldier sat in the inn, watching Lyon work. She was a Human, an enemy at times but not now. She was rushing about, gingerly taking bees out of the large jar and bringing them into the kitchen where the wonderful smells were coming from. The Soldier longed to know what was inside, but he was trained far too well to actually stand up.
He’d been told to sit and rest here. In this chair. By the warm fire which was also so fascinating. Pawn had said that, and the Soldier would not move. No matter how distracting the small Gnoll was.
She had white fur. White fur. Fur. All of these things were new to the Soldier, and he couldn’t help but watch the way her nose wriggled as she sniffed at him. She was curious, as curious of him as he was of her. She’d dart forwards, snuffle at him, and then flee when he looked at her. When he wasn’t looking she’d sneak up again, and then flee when his head turned.
The Soldier was very conflicted about this. Pawn hadn’t said not to look at her, but was the Soldier making a mistake by interacting with the Gnoll? Perhaps he should just stare at the fire. It was amazing too. It flickered, full of bright colors and ever moving flames. He’d never seen anything like it. The sight hypnotized the Soldier, made him long to touch the flames despite the heat. He’d never dreamed such a thing could be possible. He knew fire of course, but this—this was gentle, magical. Hypnotizing—
Something poked the Soldier in the side. He whirled, fists clenched, and Mrsha bolted, her fur standing on end. It was just the Gnoll.
The Lyon-Human came by, scolding the Gnoll who fled from her as well. The Soldier watched as she chased Mrsha about, the smaller Gnoll nimbly dashing beneath tables and chairs to get away.
“Don’t do that, understand? Don’t bother our guests!”
Mrsha made a whimpering sound that did something to the Soldier’s chest. Lyonette sighed.
“I need to find something for you to play with, don’t I? Um…”
She wandered away, but stopped by the Soldier. She gave him a wide smile that looked…nervous? Was that the word?
“I’m so sorry about that.”
The Soldier stared at Lyon blankly until she backed away. Was she apologizing? To him? Why?
The Soldier had heard of apologies. They’d been explained to him and the others by Pawn, along with countless other ideas when he’d told them stories of God and other things. But he’d never dreamed of hearing an apology while he lived. And to him, no less.
The Soldier was very glad the Shield Spider had bit his arm.
As Lyonette searched for things to amuse the small Mrsha-Gnoll, the white creature scooted across the floor on its butt, tail wagging as it stared up at the Soldier. He stared at her. She stared back. She had big, round eyes that were brown with gold strata mixed among the depths. There was something in her eyes, the Soldier felt. Something beyond mere flesh.
The Gnoll and Soldier stared at each other in silence, the Gnoll occasionally blinking. The Soldier stared into her eyes. Something. Something was in there. Something else. Something he’d never seen before.
Eventually the Gnoll got bored and scooted away to see what Lyon was doing. The Soldier went back to watching the fire. He felt enlightened.
Protect, Pawn had told him. Protect. The Soldier understood protecting, or at least, he’d thought he did.
He fought to protect the Hive. And his Queen. And Revalantor Klbkch and the Prognugator, if there was one. But he also knew that Liscor was part of the things he was ordered to protect, even if it was at the bottom of the list and a secondary objective in most cases.
But protecting the city meant protecting the people. And the Mrsha-Gnoll was part of people. So he would protect her. The Soldier thought about her eyes and the way her tail thumped on the floorboards and knew that this order was right. And he wanted to obey this order.
It was good. It was all good. And then the Lyon-Human came into the common room with buckets. She stared at them, scratching her head.
“I think…is this something Erin bought?”
She sounded uncertain. The Mrsha-Gnoll stared at the cans and poked one with a claw. Lyon-Human found something to lever open a lid, and then the Soldier in his chair saw what was in the cans.
The Rock Crab was a giant of the plains. An apex-predator, despite the fact that Goblins occasionally made snacks of its kind. But it was nevertheless one of the more dangerous monsters around—at least, during off-seasons like Winter.
For who could match the fearsome Rock Crab, hiding until the moment it exploded from the snow with huge claws that could tear apart almost anything? Corusdeer were easy victims of Rock Crabs, as were sheep and goats and other animals.
True, the Rock Crab had learned to avoid disturbing the larger nests of Shield Spiders, and during the spring it usually hid from the predators that liked to eat it as a snack. And the crab would certainly have been easy prey for any Crelers if they came to this area. But sheep? Sheep were dead the instant the crab saw them.
Now the crab saw something strange as it hid, a snow-covered boulder conspicuously sitting in the middle of the snowy plains. It saw the Antinium, black, huge bodies, many of them, marching across the ground.
The Rock Crab considered this prey. It didn’t look too…appetizing, but looks could be deceiving. And the crab was hungry—it hadn’t found anything worth eating in a while. So it slowly raised off the ground and scuttled closer to the Antinium.
They spotted the crab almost instantly. But that was fine—the crab could run. It increased its speed, and then noticed something odd.
The bug-giants were getting closer. Rather quickly. In fact, they were running at the Rock Crab like a huge wall. Black bodies streamed towards the Rock Crab, and it was reminded of the horrible green Goblins, except that these Soldiers were a lot bigger.
A lot bigger.
The Rock Crab reversed direction. It turned and ran as the Soldiers charged.
The Corusdeer herd was mighty. Rock Crabs were no threat when there were so many deer together. They could incinerate even the most dangerous enemy in seconds. But when they saw the wall of charging black bodies they ran. They outnumbered the strange things, true, but the Antinium smelled of blood and murder. And they looked like a wall, a wall of chitin and muscle and death.
The Corusdeer didn’t fight walls. They ran too.
The Shield Spiders rejoiced when their pit trap collapsed inwards, drawing in food for the winter. Their rejoicing turned into dismay when they saw the huge black shapes of the Antinium and saw more leaping into the pit. But there was nowhere to run.
The dino-birds flew up in a huge flurry of wings when the Soldiers got too near the nest. Pawn wasn’t surprised by this point; the Antinium were hardly stealthy, and all the other monsters and animals he’d encountered on his eventful patrol with the Soldiers ran the instant the Soldiers attacked. They could tell when bad news ran at them with several hundred pounds of killing force.
“Those are dino-birds, I believe. Erin calls them that although I suspect they have a different name.”
The Soldier stared up silently at the fleeing birds, and then down into the nest. Pawn saw the eggs at the same time the Soldiers did. He marveled at the size of the eggs, and their speckled patterns, nearly invisible in the nest made in the snow. The Soldier nearest them raised a foot to smash the egg to pieces.
“Don’t kill it!”
Pawn intervened as the Soldier prepared to destroy the nest. One of the Antinium’s other doctrines was to completely obliterate any species they found underground, an essential tactic when it came to dealing with dangers like Crelers.
But these eggs—Pawn tried to explain to the confused Soldier.
“They’re just eggs. I mean, the birds are…they’re sometimes a threat I suppose, but they’re not too dangerous and if they all died, wouldn’t that be bad?”
The other Soldiers just stared at him. Pawn sighed.
“They’re innocent. Don’t smash the eggs.”
The Soldiers stared at the eggs, but obediently left them unsmashed. Pawn led them away, and as they began marching away, they saw the dino-birds returning to the nest, calling out anxiously. The Soldier watched the birds for a second before returning their gazes to scanning the landscape for threats.
Pawn trudged ahead of them, tired, somewhat dispirited. It had been a long two-and-a-half hours. In that time, he’d somehow managed to have his Soldiers crush two Shield Spider nests and chase off both a Corusdeer herd and a Rock Crab. Which was all good of course, and part of their patrolling duties. It was just—
Was this really teaching the Soldiers anything? All it felt like Pawn was doing was having them fight different enemies.
But he brightened up when they got close to The Wandering Inn. The patrol might not have shown the Soldiers anything special, but this—
The instant he opened the door Lyonette ran towards him, wringing her hands.
“I am so sorry. Mrsha was playing with some paint—I don’t know how she found the paint cans—and then she got some on…”
Fearfully, Lyonette pointed. Pawn looked and saw—
Color. It was splashed into the dark brown carapace of the Soldier, paw prints in white. They covered his front, his back, even his head. They stood out against his dull monochrome body and made him—
“I tried to stop her! But Mrsha wouldn’t listen and she’s very sorry, aren’t you, Mrsha?”
Pawn glanced distractedly at the small Gnoll who had even whiter paws who was hiding behind a table. There were pawprints on the floor as well, he noticed. Quite a few of them.
“Will the paint wash off?”
“I don’t—I think it’s really hard. This is the same stuff Erin used for the sign and I’ve been scrubbing but you need oil and a lot of work and I didn’t want to bother the Soldier so—”
Pawn just stared at the Soldier marked by the paint, along with the other nineteen Soldiers standing in the inn. Lyonette was apologizing again, but Pawn took no notice of her.
The paw prints. They stood out. The Soldier was marked by them. No longer could he be—well, just a Soldier. Before he had only been noticeable because of his wounded arm, but that would have healed soon. Now…
Paint that couldn’t be erased. Something to mark him, something that needed no words to make itself apparent. Why, it was almost like a name. In fact, it was better than a name, especially for a Soldier…
Lyon backed away from Pawn, eyes wide. He realized he was quivering with emotion and tried to modulate his shaking tone.
“I am not…not angry. Actually, I am grateful. Do you have more paint?”
“Me? Um, yes. It’s Erin’s actually. She bought a lot of paint, and Mrsha got into it like I said. I can give you a washcloth and water if you need—”
“I would like to buy your paint. All of it.”
“All of it?”
Lyonette seemed stunned. Pawn reached for his belt pouch and pulled out a fistful of coins. He put it on the table and she gaped at him.
“I would also like to postpone lunch for a half an hour. And if Miss Mrsha would like to help…we are going to do some painting.”
The Human girl stared at Pawn. Then she stared at the silent, faceless, identical Soldiers, and at the one who stood out. The one who had an identity. Her eyes widened. Then she looked at Pawn and smiled. He was already smiling, in his own way.
“Can I help?”
Paint. It was such a simple thing. Color, given form, something that could be added to almost every surface. It was just paint.
Just paint. Something the Antinium had no use for. Except that, as it turned out, it was the one thing the Antinium, the Soldiers, needed above all else.
Color. Identity. What could you give someone without a voice? A name? What good was a name if they couldn’t speak it?
But paint needed no words. All it needed was a brush, a paw, a hand. And it turned identical, faceless Soldiers into people.
They sat in the chairs around the table, eating the bees Lyonette had cooked for them. Two bees per Soldier, not nearly enough in truth for them to eat, but augmented by bowls of soup thick with butter and fat and insect parts and some actual meat. The Human girl and even the Gnoll had pronounced the soup practically undrinkable and indeed, only Mrsha had even tried it, but the Soldiers thought the soup was the greatest thing they had ever had in their lives.
Nearly as great as having an identity. Even as they ate, the Soldiers couldn’t help glancing at each other around the room. They had an identity now, an identity they had created themselves.
It was on their bodies. Dabs of paint, splashes, some Soldiers nearly covered in the stuff, others with only a dab or two. But it was enough.
A Soldier with a handprint in blue on his chest sat across from the Soldier with white pawprints all over his body. They were two separate Soldiers who could not be mixed up with each other. They knew that. And they were happy.
Happy. Happy was a word they knew now, a word they had experienced. Happy was having paint on their bodies, making them people. Happy was seeing the small Gnoll scamper about, and nodding at the Human as she buzzed around the room, serving bees and filling glasses with water. Happiness was a warm fire, and a bee on their plates, gleaming with honey.
What food. What delicious food. The Soldiers had no words, no frame of reference to even understand what they were eating. They’d always eaten the same mush, the only difference and interesting change being how rotten the ingredients were, or whether some parts hadn’t been stomped and churned into complete paste. That was what they knew. But the bee?
Each Soldier ate slowly, gently tearing pieces off of their bee, trying to make each crunch of their mandibles last a lifetime. They didn’t speak. Of course they didn’t speak. But they thought it, and knew the others thought it too as they sat in the warm inn while the Gnoll scurried around and Pawn talked with the Human.
This was surely Heaven.
And when they left the inn, the twenty Soldiers, covered in color, they wanted to go back. And Pawn promised them they would, later, but the other Soldiers had to have a turn first. And the Soldiers knew this was true. The others, their brothers, had to know of this. They returned to the Hive, marching with their backs straighter than they’d even thought possible, heads held high.
And when they came back into the Hive? They changed it as well. The Soldiers marched down the tunnel behind Pawn, walking down the empty tunnel and into the main thoroughfare of the Hive where all the traffic flowed. When the twenty Soldiers first emerged into the tunnel, something happened that hadn’t occurred in all of the Hive’s history.
The Workers, scuttling to their destinations, the Soldiers, marking to the next battle, all of them—when they saw the Soldiers, covered in color—stopped.
They all stopped. For one brief second, Workers and Soldiers both stopped. Their heads turned and they stared at the twenty Soldiers, painted in hues that did not exist in the Hive. Then the Workers turned and began to move in sync once more, and the Soldiers double-timed it to their next battle. But all had seen, and all remembered. And when the Soldiers got back to the barracks…
Red shoulder guards, crimson like Human blood but unpainted everywhere else. That was one Soldier who sat surrounded by his fellows. Another Soldier had white antennae and slashes in the same color running down his body. One more sat with a circle drawn in every color of paint Lyon had found, a multicolored ring on his chest.
They were not Soldiers. Each one was a Soldier, but each one was different. Special.
Unique. And they always would be. Forever. And the Worker who commanded them, their savior, the one who had given them identity and a soul looked at the other Soldiers and felt his heart stir.
Later that day, Pawn found himself in line at Krshia’s stall. The other customers—mainly Gnolls—gave him very odd looks, but his [Humble Presence] skill helped so none of them ran away or screamed.
Krshia blinked when she saw Pawn.
“I did not expect to see a Worker here, yes? But you are…Pawn. Is there anything I can do for you? The Antinium do not usually need to purchase things from the city, yes?”
“No. I mean, yes?”
Pawn wasn’t sure what to say. The Gnoll standing in front of him didn’t seem hostile, which made him feel good. But she did look—tired.
Tired, and poor, so much as that could be used to describe any person. But Pawn remembered her old stall, and her old array of goods. Krshia’s new stall was smaller, and she was clearly selling less. It made his heart hurt, but it hurt less when he told her what he wanted.
“Paint. As much paint as you have, in every color. Except brown or black. I will buy all of it from you.”
The Gnoll blinked.
“All? All is an odd word, Mister Pawn, yes? I have many friends whom I may sell goods on their behalf. How much paint do you need in buckets?”
“All. Everything I can afford.”
And Pawn put the bag full of gold coins on the table and Krshia’s mouth fell open. She blinked at him. He stared back.
“And paintbrushes. I only need around twenty of those.”
That night, Soldiers went to sleep in their barracks. They were Soldiers, but each one was different. Each one was unique. Painted.
In a Hive full of thousands of Antinium, Soldiers and Workers alike, these Soldiers stood out. They sat in their cubicles, for once too excited to sleep.
They were all painted. They all had identities. The paint was dry on their chitin and true, some had already begun to flake off around their joints. But that was the thing about paint. It could always be reapplied. But the meaning lasted forever.
And word had spread, in the Soldier’s own silent way, about what the twenty who had gone above had seen and experienced. A new world, new people. And so as the Soldier slept, or rather, didn’t, they wondered.
Was this what it meant to be a Soldier? They thought they’d known what being a Soldier was. But for the first time, they realized there was more. More they didn’t understand. More they wanted to understand. And so they began to think. They thought of themselves as people rather than tools. They thought of themselves as individuals with identities rather than a mass. They thought of themselves as [Soldiers] rather than Soldiers.
And they began to level.
That night, Lyon practically sang as she cleaned up the inn. The place was full of dirty dishes. She didn’t care. She’d been slicing and frying bees up all day, and there were insect parts all over her kitchen. She didn’t care. She was exhausted. She didn’t care. The floorboards were covered with paint. She didn’t—
Okay, she cared about that a bit. The paint Erin had bought was very, very difficult to get rid of no matter how hard Lyon scrubbed.
But she had done it. She’d earned money selling bees, and the inn had been crowded and full! Lyonette stared at the bag full of gleaming coins on one table and sighed happily.
She’d done it, hadn’t she? She’d really done it. And the best part about tonight, the best part was—
She wasn’t alone.
Mrsha happily jumped about the room, leaping from table to table like some horrible furry frog. Lyonette didn’t mind. She’d already cleared those tables of dishes, and truthfully, she felt much like Lyonette. Part of her wanted to leap about with the Gnoll, and maybe she would.
It was just how good Lyon felt. She felt younger again, freer. No—she felt more free and more happy than she’d ever felt back in the palace. She’d done something by herself, with her own hard work.
And she was no longer alone.
Mrsha would stay here tonight. It wasn’t as if Lyon didn’t have enough beds, and the small Gnoll didn’t seem adverse to sharing her bed. And Selys hadn’t objected to the idea after she’d seen how well Lyonette had done.
Okay, fine, Selys had objected a lot, even though Lyon had showed her all the coin she’d made. The Drake had been dead set on bringing Mrsha back into the city. She’d tried to chase Mrsha down and drag her out of the inn for the better part of twenty minutes before she’d collapsed in exhaustion.
So Mrsha would stay. Selys had promised Lyonette that she would keep an eye on Mrsha again. And Lyon would. Mrsha was…
The Gnoll belonged here. Just like Lyon did, in a way. And both Gnoll and girl were happy. That was how Lyon ate a messy bunch of slightly burnt crepes slathered with honey next to Mrsha as the Gnoll lapped at a bowl of milk, and the two laughed as Lyon fed the fire and cleaned up.
It was a perfect night. Perfect, even though Lyon had to pick up bug wings and legs and toss them far into the snow. Her hands were grimy from cleaning and she was covered in sweat. But Lyonette was proud.
And Mrsha was jumping around a bit too much.
“Careful, Mrsha! Why don’t you calm down?”
The Gnoll barely listened to Lyon. Okay, maybe she’d had a bit too much honey. Lyon could only let the Gnoll tire herself out as she kept washing dishes and cleaning up. This really was a lot of work, even if you had a Skill, which Lyonette didn’t. How had Erin done it? She’d told Lyon that she used to take care of the inn before Toren had…been created. How?
Lyon just shook her head wearily as she went back into the common room for the last stack of dishes. She looked to see if Mrsha had finally stopped jumping, and then raised her voice in alarm.
The Gnoll jumped guiltily as she pawed at a familiar chessboard sitting in a corner of the room. Lyonette ran over, good mood vanished by sudden panic.
“Mrsha! Don’t—oh no.”
The Gnoll leapt away as Lyon reached the chessboard. She looked down in dismay. The small Gnoll had scattered the ghostly pieces and tried to build a tower out of some of them. She fled as Lyonette anxiously reclaimed the board. In dismay, the girl stared down at the chess pieces.
“Oh no. Erin’s game!”
Of course Lyonette knew the chessboard was an extremely valuable magical artifact, if a relatively pointless one. And she knew Erin was an undisputed master of the game. And she knew…
That messing up Erin’s chessboard was a very bad idea. Not least because the [Innkeeper] would go ballistic, but because whomever was on the other side of the board would probably be upset too.
With that in mind, Lyonette frantically tried to rearrange the pieces. But she had no idea of how the game had even looked! So…she put the chess pieces back in their original places, ready for a new game.
She knew how to do that much, at least. Chess had just been spreading in her country when she’d run away, and she’d learned a lot from watching Erin play. Mrsha peeked up onto the table while Lyonette was resetting the board, insatiably curious and only slightly guilty.
Lyonette swatted away a curious paw as Mrsha reached for a knight. The Gnoll gave her a hurt look, and Lyon’s heart nearly broke.
“You little…okay, you can touch since it’s too late. But only touch! Don’t move the board, okay?”
Eagerly, Mrsha picked up the ghostly pieces and tried to gnaw on one. Lyon had to stop her again, but truth be told she couldn’t blame the Gnoll. The chess pieces were like frozen air, the purest expression of magic. And the game…
“See? This is how you play. Like this.”
Lyon showed Mrsha how the pieces moved. The Gnoll stared uncomprehendingly as Lyonette moved a pawn forwards and back, and the bishop diagonally. She sniffed at the board—
And jumped backwards off the table, hair on end as a piece on the other side of the board moved. Lyon yelped and nearly fell out of her chair. When she got back up, heart pounding, she saw a piece had moved.
Just a pawn. It had come out diagonally to counter the pawn she’d pushed forwards. The breath caught in Lyon’s chest in horror.
The other person. The unseen player, the one who’d sent Erin the chess board. They’d seen her moving the pieces. And they thought she was Erin.
And they wanted to play.
What should she do? Lyon panicked for a good minute before the choice was taken out of her hands. Having lost her fright, Mrsha peeked her head over the board and stared curiously at the two pieces on the board. Reaching the conclusion that this was some sort of game without actually understanding the nature of the game, she pushed another pawn forwards to see what would happen.
Instantly, another piece moved, a knight. Lyon stared at it despairingly. But it was too late now. The other player clearly wanted to play. And Erin wasn’t here and Lyon was…curious. So she played.
Why? Because it might be ruder just to leave the other player hanging. And this way, they would surely realize that it wasn’t Erin on the other end. Sure enough, after Lyon had lost both a knight and bishop in quick succession (which she was sure wasn’t a good thing), she sensed the player on the other end pause.
Had they gotten angry and left? No. After a minute, the play resumed, but differently. The moved were no longer lightning-sharp and too hard for Lyonette to counter. Instead, the pieces marched across the board, giving her a challenge, but not one she couldn’t figure out. Mrsha stared at the chess pieces, first fascinated, then bored. To make her behave, Lyon gave her some firewood and some of the leftover paint. The Gnoll happily colored the log with a paw while Lyon played first one game, then two. Three.
After the third game, which she won somehow, Lyon saw the pieces on the board quickly rearrange themselves. She waited—the white side was on the other end of the board—but no movement came.
The mysterious chess player was done for the night. And so Lyon stood up from the bored, feeling a bit ashamed. Surely the player was disappointed she wasn’t Erin. But…
She felt good. Was this what Erin liked about chess? It was so odd, having to think in such a way. But Lyonette liked it, strangely. It was different and new. How could she have lived here for so long without trying the game once? How could she have been so…small?
The girl’s head lowered. So much done wrong. So many things that were her fault. But she couldn’t wallow in misery long. She felt a wet nose on her leg and saw Mrsha had finished with her log.
“So colorful! And you have paint all over your fur. Oh no. We’d better clean you up.”
The Gnoll wriggled and tried to get away, but Lyonette had her washing her fur with oil and lye soap in hot water soon enough. It took many trips to the stream in the cold of the night to get enough water, but Lyonette didn’t care.
Mrsha was her responsibility. So was the inn. So she cleaned up what she could, got as much paint off of Mrsha and the floor, and went to bed, exhausted.
[Barmaid Level 8!]
[Skill – Basic Cleaning obtained!]
[Carer Class Obtained!]
[Carer Level 2!]
[Skill – Calming Touch obtained!]
[Tactician Class Obtained!]
[Tactician Level 1!]
[Skill – Lesser Intuition obtained!]
Across the world from where the [Princess] sat up in bed and shouted in surprise, making the small Gnoll sleeping next to her tumble away in fright, Niers Astoragon, the Titan, sat in front of his very small chessboard, a dark expression on his face.
He wasn’t smiling. Rather, he was staring hard at the pieces on the board.
“So. The mystery player is gone and someone else has found the board. Someone who knows chess but has barely played it, if at all.”
He mused to himself as he sat, staring at the board. He wasn’t in his command tent in the field now. No, rather he was sitting in the smallest room of the inn his company had hired for its officers on the way back to their personal lands.
It was the smallest room, true, and all of his students and lieutenants had objected. But to Niers, the smallest room in the inn was still a huge space. So he had told them to shut up and move his belongings inside. They obeyed. Even though he was small, the Titan in a bad mood was frightening to be around.
And Niers had been in a bad mood for over a week now. His students tiptoed around him and the soldiers under his command leapt to obey his orders or stayed far out of the way. Niers stood up and paced around the huge desk he’d put his belongings on.
There weren’t many. Niers passed by his arms, the magical items he carried into every battle, the artifacts any commander of Baleros carried, and stared at two things. The chessboard he’d sent across the world, and a letter that still smelled of lavender, edged with gold.
Two things, both tempting his loyalty. Niers closed his eyes. Magnolia didn’t interest him as much as the chessboard—although the woman still had a way of digging her words into his skin like barbs—but she was on the same continent as his missing opponent.
Maybe he could…?
That was what Niers said. He sat back at the chessboard, staring at it darkly. He could play this new opponent of course. Maybe he, she, or it would eventually give the board back or find its true owner. Maybe.
But for now Niers couldn’t bear to play such games. He sat in front of the board, scowling darkly as the one candle he’d lit flickered in the dark room. He sat, staring at the chess pieces, the letter, and then at the window. He had a job. A duty. He was the second-in-command of one of the four Great Companies of Baleros. He couldn’t leave.
He told himself that. But his eyes always strayed back to the chessboard.
On the same continent as Niers’ mysterious chess opponent and the famous Lady Magnolia, two hooded figures walked through blowing snow, keeping their cloaks wrapped tightly around them to protect them from the chill.
In theory, it was two people. In fact, the two travelers were followed by a rather large bevy of people, horses, and supplies that in theory were there to make their journey as pleasant and as safe as possible.
In truth, it just annoyed the Drake General walking in front to no end. He grunted irritably as his companion kicked up a small cloud of snow into his face.
“Did you need to bring all your attendants with you, Ilvriss? We could have been there by now if we didn’t have to wait for these stupid horses.”
The Drake walking in front of him cast a dark glance backwards.
“Be silent, Shivertail. Not everyone has a Skill to let them run. And unlike you, I’m a Lord of the Wall. My position demands—”
“Yes, yes, shut up. You didn’t have to come with me, you know.”
Zel Shivertail sighed and marched forwards. Ilvriss matched his pace, and the two Drakes walked forwards in the snow, silent, both of them disliking each other’s presence. Disliking, but tolerating the other out of respect as well. And after a moment, Ilvriss spoke.
“I did have to come.”
They walked on. After a few minutes, Ilvriss spoke.
“…Hard to see anything in this damn snow. We passed the Blood Fields a day ago. How much further now?”
“One more day, I think.”
“And you’re sure you can find this Human in Liscor?”
“No. But it’s a place to start, and as I’ve said, I have business in the Human lands.”
“Well, let’s keep on moving then.”
They walked on, silent, marching through the snow. And they were not the only ones headed towards Liscor.
They marched on a similar route, also north, but far from any road. It was out of necessity they did so; they did not want to be seen. Not for fear of being attacked, but rather of alerting those who would watch their every move.
Unfortunately, moving so far from the main road meant they were more likely to be attacked. The raiding force of Goblins had been a hundred strong. The last of them now gasped and died in the snow.
The group studied the dying Goblin dispassionately. He had worn tough metal armor, painted black, and even carried a slightly magical sword. None of it had done him or his friends any good.
That was all one said. He fanned his wings. The Antinium spat and acid melted snow into steam.
Another nodded. She had no wings, and her carapace was royal blue. And she held a staff in her hands and her eyes glowed with magic. She whispered a spell, and the snowstorm around them stopped.
“We are close. Continue onwards.”
The band of Antinium turned and marched away from the scene of their latest encounter without a word. Antinium, not the faceless Soldiers or humble Workers, but warriors far different from those in Liscor. Warriors from four Hives, marching in the snow.
North. To Liscor.
A woman made of bone walked through the snow, tireless, her eyes burning in the darkness. She was undead, a construct of death, a being of unimaginable power.
A dark shadow flowed at her side, something that moved without revealing its true form. The two moved through the snow, swift, silent.
They had been moving thusly for three days. And they had covered a lot of ground, it was true. But after the moon began to rise overhead the shadow seemed compelled to speak. She cleared her throat with a wet, squelching sound and spoke with a whisper that would have chilled the hearts of any living being that heard it.
But there were not living beings to hear, and the voice wasn’t quite so menacing as uncertain.
“Venitra. Are we lost?”
The woman, the armored knight made of bone, Venitra ignored the question. She and her companion, Ijvani, were on a mission to find the girl, the Courier, the Runner. They had been sent by their great master, Az’Kerash. Being lost was…not acceptable. It couldn’t be happening.
Many people were travelling to Liscor. It was just that some of them didn’t matter because they were roughly seventy miles off course and heading the wrong way.