It was still dark, still quiet, when the door of the inn opened. It was not night. But it was not day either. This was the brief moment before dawn, the quietest, most empty time. The sun had not risen, but the sky was no longer quite as black.
The door to the inn slowly opened, and someone came out. They moved very slowly; the rest of the inn was completely asleep at last, an hour after all the magic had occurred. As it turned out, even something as dramatic as an inn becoming a magical inn couldn’t keep people awake that much longer.
But the lone figure was still up. It closed the door and then peered upwards at the side of the inn.
This is what someone would have witnessed if they were waiting outside. A slight scraping sound, the sound of indrawn breath, scuffling. The figure climbed up onto the roof of the inn, muttering as snow cascaded down around them. But in the end, they were on top, and then quiet crunching followed their slow movement across the top of the inn.
A small flurry of snow swirled downwards as a small patch on the rooftop was cleared. After a few more seconds, the figure sighed as she took a seat, letting her legs dangle over the edge of the roof. Only then did she speak.
“Oh, hey Klbkch. I didn’t see you down there.”
Klbkch stepped out of the darkness and away from the wall he’d been standing next to. He nodded up at Erin Solstice.
“Good morning, Erin. I hope I did not alarm you?”
“I was about to scream, or throw something. I nearly had a heart attack. But why are you out here?”
“As a matter of fact, I was hoping to speak with you. But I did not anticipate you coming out here so early in the day. Or rather, late at night.”
The two spoke very quietly, their voices swallowed up almost immediately by the snow and night. But now Erin’s voice was filled with quiet amusement and astonishment.
“What, you were going to wait outside all night? That’s so weird. Why were you waiting? Come on up!”
It took Klbkch only a few moments to leap upwards and pull himself onto the rooftop. He was far more agile than Erin and stronger, too. She moved over and he sat next to her. Erin was still warm from the inside; Klbkch seemed like a cold block of ice.
“Was it something really important? You could have just woken me up.”
“No. That would be discourteous. And my issue was not so pressing…I simply found talking to you last night to be difficult, so I decided to wait outside while I determined what exactly I should say.”
Erin fell silent. She turned her head and looked at Klbkch. He sat still, not shivering, more like a statue than a living thing.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk. I really am glad to see you. It’s just I had so much to do…”
“I understand. And the fault is mine for expecting complete attention.”
“No it’s not. We’re friends.”
“…It is good that you are well, Erin. Your departure was alarming as it was mysterious.”
“Yeah. It was.”
Erin exhaled slowly, letting a small trail of vapor fly upwards. Klbkch watched it dissipate.
“I am told your skeleton was the cause.”
“Yeah. He was.”
“That is regrettable.”
Klbkch was used to maintaining both sides of a conversation. He had worked with Relc for years and was used to the Drake’s moodiness. But with Erin, he found it was easiest to wait. Or rather, he wanted to wait and hear what she had to say rather than talk.
“You know, I was surprised by Lyonette. She really changed while I was gone.”
“It was dramatic, certainly. I was not aware of her transformation until this point.”
“She really did do a whole lot. She helped save Mrsha, took care of the inn—she even learned how to steal honey from those evil bees. By herself! And she got me new guests to stay at my inn.”
“The Gold-rank adventurers are certainly a boon.”
“Yeah. I’m glad they’re my guests. But that Zel Shivertail guy? He’s important too, isn’t he?”
Erin’s face turned to Klbkch. He couldn’t see her exact features in the dim light, but he saw her eyes meet his. He knew what question was coming, or thought he did. If it were anyone else, Klbkch might have hesitated or considered an untruth or partial truth. But with Erin he just nodded.
“Yes. He is a Drake [General]. A famous one.”
She shrugged as if that made no difference. Erin stared out at the walls of Liscor to the west. They were gray, imposing, a darker blob of color amid all the snow.
“He doesn’t like me. He thinks I’m irresponsible, silly, and sort of a jerk. Which is fair. But he hates you, Klbkch. I mean, really hates you.”
Klbkch stirred, looked at Erin.
“You could tell?”
She just smiled a bit.
“It was obvious. I saw him look at you a lot while I was serving food and chatting. The innkeeper sees everything, after all. Just like the butler, the maid, and the kids. It was obvious he didn’t like you—or Ksmvr or Pawn. And you—were the two of you enemies? In the war, I mean?”
The two paused, and then the conversation moved on. Klbkch looked at Erin, but saw very little behind her calm, somewhat tired expression. He didn’t know how she felt and was…afraid…to ask.
“There were many guests in your inn. I take it these were all acquaintances?”
“From Celum, yeah. It was good to see them, although they did get a bit crazy and trash Octavia’s shop. I was happy to see they were all doing well.”
“Yes. Jasi’s doing well. So is Grev, which is great. I mean, he’s not stealing anymore and he looks halfway cute now that he’s cleaned up. Even if he has a big nose.”
“I see. Will you tell me who Jasi and Grev are?”
“Oh—right. You don’t know.”
Erin looked sideways at Klbkch. He stared back. She smiled, and the night lit up a bit.
“There’s so much that happened. I mean, I know there’s a lot that happened with you over here—adventurers and dungeons and new Antinium and stuff. But would you like to hear what I did?”
“I believe I would.”
The two sat on the roof and talked for a while. It was the first conversation they’d had that was really between the two of them just catching up. Talking. Briefly, Erin told Klbkch the story of how she’d started putting on plays in Celum. Klbkch listened, nodding a few times and trying to imagine this strange activity Erin was performing.
“Such performances sound quite extraordinary, not to mention profitable. I would like to witness one if the occasion permits. Indeed, the city of Liscor may be receptive to such activities as well.”
“Would your Queen like it, do you think? Would that be one of the things which helps your Hive—putting on a play for her?”
He paused. And then he shook his head.
“I do not believe she would care to view a play. And if she did, I do not think she would understand it.”
“There are many things my people do not understand.”
“Friendship. Laughter. Happiness. Ambition. Joy. Tears.”
“Really? You don’t understand tears? I mean, I know the Antinium don’t cry, but you don’t understand them?”
“I understand it is an action meant to express sadness. I do not understand why those who weep feel better after having done so.”
“I guess it’s because being sad helps. And crying is very sad.”
“Isn’t it? Us Humans are so intriguing. Except that I think Antinium are way more interesting.”
“That is a rare perspective.”
“I know. A lot of people don’t like the Antinium. Well, everyone, really. When I was in Celum I heard terrible things. And I’ve been told you guys are evil by all kinds of people. You know Lady Magnolia?”
“I know her, yes.”
“She doesn’t like you.”
“I am aware.”
Klbkch felt Erin looking at him again.
“Klbkch, will you promise me to tell the truth if I ask you an important question?”
The Antinium closed his mandibles slowly. He gripped the tiles on top of the roof, hard enough to crack one slightly as Erin stared at him. At last, she asked.
“What do the Antinium want? Really want, I mean?”
“To live. We want to live.”
The two sat in silence as the sky grew a bit brighter. Just a bit. Erin shivered and mumbled about bringing a blanket. Klbkch sat in the cold, feeling it chill his entire body.
“If you guys want to live so badly, do you think you could live in peace? Not go to war, I mean? Be…nice to other nations?”
“It is doubtful.”
Klbkch shifted in his seat, dislodging more snow.
“Understand I speak of all the Hives, not just my own. I may be unfamiliar with recent events that have transpired, but I understand the way the Queens think. For them, peace is a strange concept. We do not think in terms of peace and war. We simply build up to wars, the next conflict. We have only known war, never peace.”
“So this isn’t peace. You’re really planning on going to war?”
“Some Queens are. Others think we should ally against our true enemy.”
“Who? Wait, what about your Queen? Would she be friends with the Drakes and Gnolls and Humans?”
“I do not believe she knows how.”
“Yes. She does not understand friendship any more than I do.”
“But you’re friends with Relc, aren’t you?”
“I am his partner. And I have been so for years. I have accompanied him on many occasions, and yes, I consider myself his friend. But I do not understand how I came to be one. And my Queen has no friends.”
He heard Erin take in a slow breath.
“Not even you?”
“Not even me. What we have is different.”
It was more than five minutes before anyone spoke next. Klbkch could see Erin’s eyes and head drooping. She was tired. So was he, but neither moved to get out of the cold. At last, as the sky grew brighter, foreshadowing the dawn, Erin stretched. Then she stood up. She stood on the roof of her inn and stared around the wide, open plains filled with snow. Everything was motionless, as if she was looking at a painting rather than reality.
“The world’s gotten a lot bigger, Klbkch. I know it’s usually the opposite way around, but I feel like every time I think I understand things, it turns out I don’t really get anything at all.”
Erin paused, and stared at the cold, pale snow stretching in every direction around her.
“…Or maybe it’s that I was looking at the wrong things to begin with. Does that make sense?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“Not at all. Your statement was quite incomprehensible to me.”
“Well, good. I don’t think I understand it well myself. What I’m trying to say is—did you know I leveled up last night?”
“I noticed an odd phenomenon around your inn and surmised this was the case, yes.”
“I got to Level 30. I’m a [Magical Innkeeper] now. My inn is also magical, or it has a lot of mana in it.”
“Congratulations. This is a great accomplishment.”
Klbkch inclined his head to her. Erin smiled a bit, and then grew serious.
“Yeah. It’s great. But—it’s strange.”
She spread her arms wide, turning to take in her inn and everything around it.
“Just look, Klbkch. I’ve got so much now. A new inn, a magical inn, a helper, friends, guests, a lot of money—even a magical portal door. And that’s great, it really is. But it’s not as important anymore as it used to be. Money’s just…money, now. What’s important is something else.”
“And will you tell me what that is?”
“People. We went past Esthelm on the way here, did you know? It was attacked by Goblins.”
“I am aware. But the city repelled them and retook the walls, did they not?”
“They did. But they’re hungry, Klbkch. Hungry. A lot of people died and they’re afraid the Goblins will come back. They’re going to fight to the death if they do, but this Goblin Lord is hurting everyone.”
“Yes. Over fourteen villages have been destroyed and a Drake city took heavy casualties fighting off a Goblin army to the south.”
“I didn’t know about that.”
“It is not a pressing concern. Such occurrences are common during calamitous events.”
Erin frowned at the sitting Antinium.
“No, you don’t get it. I didn’t know, but I wanted to know. I need to know.”
“Why? It does not impact your life here.”
“But people died. People are suffering. What happened to the survivors? Did anyone survive?”
“I did not inquire. Such information would be obtainable I believe. Again though, I must ask why you wish to know.”
“Because I care.”
“You care about Goblins.”
“I care about a lot of people. I’d like to help them, if I can.”
Erin stared at the distant mountaintops, where something bright was rising.
“Before I went to Celum, I was really only concerned about surviving. But now—now I care about my friends. I care about people, Klbkch. I care about whether they live or die. I care that Jasi couldn’t find work and that Grev felt he had to steal to survive. I care about Rags and why people hate Goblins. And I care about the people in Esthelm, how they’ll do, and about Krshia and her shop, about Mrsha and Lyonette and you—”
“I guess because we’re friends? Or—no. Because they’re people. Because caring is important. Because I think I can help. Look at my inn. I’ve got money, friends…why shouldn’t I help?”
Klbkch stared at the young woman standing on the roof of her inn. He stood up and tried to see from her perspective.
“I do not understand, but I find myself admiring your perspectives. And yet, I must point out that aiding strangers has no benefit.”
“That’s a very Antinium thing of you to say, Klbkch.”
“Who cares if it doesn’t help me? If it helps them then I’m doing a good job. And then we might be friends.”
“Friends. How are friends created? How does friendship work? How do you make friends?”
Klbkch stared at Erin, wishing there were an easy answer. Something he could tell his Queen, tell the others, so he could change them. He did not expect a reply. But to his astonishment, Erin Solstice smiled and laughed out loud in pure amusement.
“Friends? That’s easy!”
She reached out and tapped Klbkch on the chest, right where his heart would be if he were Human. Erin smiled as dawn broke.
“All you have to do is give.”
“Give? Give what, precisely?”
“Something. Anything. Give your time to someone else to talk, give a bit of trust, or a helping hand. Give them a second, and maybe you’ll get something back.”
“But what if you do not?”
“Then you don’t. Maybe you’ll never get anything no matter how much you give. Maybe you’ll never be friends. That’s how it works. But to make a friend, you have to try. Just try.”
The Human and the Antinium stood on the rooftop for a while staring at each other. Klbkch stared at Erin, and then nodded.
“I believe I understand. If that is the case, anyone may be your friend. So then you care about everyone.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because they’re people too. Because I can.”
“I have not heard that perspective before.”
Erin turned and looked around. She walked towards the edge of the roof and stared back at Klbkch, perplexed.
“Why wouldn’t you think like that? Where I come from—well, some people think like that. We’re all people, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we help each other?”
“I have heard it said Humans help only Humans. I have seen Drakes help only their relatives. Gnolls help their species, but seldom others. Each race has their enemies, their rivals. The Antinium see nations and politics as a competition for resources.”
“Well, I don’t.”
Erin stepped off the roof. She landed on the ground and looked up at Klbkch.
“Come on. I’ll make breakfast, and then you can help me.”
He leapt off the roof and landed next to her.
“Do what, exactly?”
Erin smiled. It was a big smile, open and without guile. It was her smile, and it lit up the world.
Lyonette woke up as dawn broke. She got out of bed, feeling her muscles aching and exhaustion on every line of her body. Mrsha was sound asleep next to her, snoring gently. Lyonette would have liked nothing better than to go to sleep, but she had to get up now. She had to feed all her guests, get ready for the day.
She trudged downstairs, automatically reciting the list of chores for the day when she heard the pop and sizzle of meat frying. She poked her head into the kitchen and saw Erin, frying and cooking away a storm in her kitchen while Klbkch sat on a stool next to her and peeled potatoes.
“Morning, Lyonette! I’ve got breakfast started and Klbkch got us a lot of water already. Do you want to bring in the rest of the dishes and help me wash them before everyone gets up?”
Lyon blinked at Erin a few times. Then she nodded and got to work.
“I can’t believe it. Can you sense the ambient mana in the air, Pisces?”
“I can and do, Ceria. It is simply astounding—when I consider the ramifications of such a Skill—”
The next morning, the inn was in an uproar. Well, a quiet uproar. Mainly confined to all the mages, really. The other adventurers just stared at their magic-using comrades when they exclaimed over Erin’s new Skill. Ulrien blinked constantly as Typhenous raved about the mana in the air, Halrac ignored Revi, and Yvlon plugged her ears rather than listen to Ceria and Pisces discuss what had happened.
To show solidarity, Ksmvr put two of his hands over his earholes. Jelaqua and Seborn listened to Moore out of politeness, but the Selphid’s eyes kept wandering in different directions.
In the end, the mages congregated at one table where they could properly express their amazement and get back more satisfactory responses.
“So? What’s the verdict? Is my inn cool or is it magical?”
Erin smiled as she brought over a basket of rolls to dip in the honey. Typhenous levitated the soft butter up and sliced some off. He accepted a roll with a smile for Erin.
“My dear, your Skill is nothing short of extraordinary. Why, I consider it quite an achievement to have created for all intents and purposes a magical leyline in your own inn. When I think of the positive applications…”
“Yeah, it’s cool, but I can’t do magic. Does this mean all your spells are super-powerful now?”
Erin propped her hands on her hips as she regarded the mages with amusement. Ceria shrugged.
“It’s not as if they’ll become that much more powerful, but we could cast the same spell almost twice as many times here. And like Lyonette found out, if no one else is using the magic here, it can accumulate and boost a low-level spell to a great degree.”
“That’s super-powerful. Well, I’m glad it helps. I just hope it’ll recharge my door faster.”
“At the very least it will!”
Pisces seemed outraged by Erin’s lack of enthusiasm. He ripped one roll apart and dipped both ends in the honey, glaring at her.
“Do you understand—mph—what this—nmf—could mean? You could use the mana supply here to power any number of enchantments—”
“Ew. Don’t talk when you’re eating. You mean, like the [Field of Preservation] Skill?”
“It certainly seems that way.”
Moore smiled as Erin presented him with a roll that was more like a loaf. She thought about this as the mages’ conversation about what they might use the mana source for devolved into an argument over who would get how many rolls. But their conversation had given Erin an idea.
“Hey, Lyonette! Want to try an experiment?”
She called the young girl over and brought out an apple. It was a small one, and slightly wizened—not to mention expensive! Erin sliced it open and both she and Lyonette stared at the pale slice of apple.
After a while Lyonette coughed.
“Um, shouldn’t we come back later?”
Erin slapped her head and left the apple. She bent down to catch Mrsha before the Gnoll could leap onto the table and grab the apple for herself.
“Hey there Mrsha, how are you doing on this fine day? Do you think my new Skills are cool?”
Mrsha licked at Erin’s face frantically, making the young woman laugh and let go.
“Hey! Stop that!”
“Mrsha, don’t bother Erin! You can play after breakfast.”
Lyonette pulled Mrsha back. As she put the reluctant Gnoll on the ground, she saw Erin giving her an appraising look, far different from yesterday.
“You’re pretty good at handling Mrsha, aren’t you?”
“Well…I suppose I have had practice.”
“Good! Actually, that’s great.”
Erin smiled at Lyonette, and the girl flushed with pride. Erin turned and frowned around her busy inn.
“Last night you told me you stole something else from those evil bees, right? Honey, dead bees, and…uh, what was it? A larva? Where is it?”
“Oh! I put it in my room so it wouldn’t bother anyone. I can go get it—”
“Why don’t you show me?”
The two Humans went up the stairs, Mrsha right on their heels. Erin peered at the fat, yellowish-white grub sitting in the bowl of slightly congealed liquid and shuddered.
“Aw. It’s so…gross.”
“Isn’t it? I was going to feed it to Klbkch, but then I got a [Beast Tamer] class! Um…”
“You want to keep it?”
Erin gave her the fish eye. Lyonette nodded.
“It grows on you. And it’s not hard to feed—I keep adding more royal jelly to the bowl. Actually, I’ll need a bigger bowl; it keeps getting bigger.”
Erin studied the slowly wriggling grub. She frowned at it pensively.
“Have you named it?”
“You’ve gotta give it a name. How about Pudge?”
“Well, it sort of looks like Pudge, don’t you think? No? Okay, what about a bee name? It’s going to turn into a bee someday, so how about…Buzz?”
Lyonette frowned at Erin.
“I don’t know. Those names sound a bit…”
“Wait, I’ve got it! Beeyonce. That’s perfect! No—wait, that’s horrible. Let me try again…”
“It’s just a grub. You don’t have to name it yet.”
“Apis? That’s the word for bee in uh, Latin. I think. Buzzana? Buzzany? Is it a boy or a girl bee?”
Lyonette just stared. Erin tried out several more names, and then realized she was getting a funny look from Mrsha as well. She threw up her hands and walked away.
“Fine! You can name the bee whatever you want when it gets big. But for now I’m calling him Mr. Ugly Fat Worm. It is a him, right?”
Lyonette and Mrsha exchanged a glance. The Gnoll reached out to poke the big larva and Lyonette smacked her paw away.
“What are you planning on doing now that you’re a Level 30 [Innkeeper]?”
Jelaqua asked as Erin went around the room with a pitcher, refilling cups. Erin paused and then shrugged.
“I’ve got some ideas. I mean, I’m not going to expand or anything; this is plenty for me as it is. But I might do more with what I have.”
The Selphid raised her eyebrows.
“Oh? Such as?”
“You’ll see. In fact, you’ll see in five minutes if you wait. I might need your group’s help for something I have in mind.”
“Really now. In that case, I think I’ll have a refill.”
Jelaqua smiled and leaned back in her chair as Erin filled her cup and moved on. Seborn leaned over to her.
“What do you think she has in mind that involves us?”
“No idea, but I’m curious, aren’t you? I heard stories all over Liscor about the crazy innkeeper, but we missed all the action. I want to be up close and personal for this one.”
One table over, Zel turned his head to frown at Erin’s back. He wasn’t so positive as the Selphid, and his premonition only got worse when Erin marched back over to the table full of mages.
“Hey, can I ask you guys to do an estimate for me?”
“Of course. About what?”
Ceria frowned as Erin pointed to the door.
“Now that I’ve got mana coming out of the walls and stuff, how much do you think I’d be able to transport through the door? I mean, in pounds? Or is it kilograms?”
The mages glanced around the table and began to speak. Pisces was the first person to come up with a response that wasn’t immediately shot down.
“I would wager the door could transport, oh, sixteen to thirty bodies between Celum and Liscor on a daily basis. I say sixteen as a lower estimate given the increased costs based on weight and mass, you see. If you had a group of armed warriors, sixteen would indeed be…”
“Okay, that’s not bad. But what if you all added your mana to it? How many then?”
Pisces broke off, looking confused. Revi exchanged glances with Typhenous.
“Well, we could add a lot. If you mean like last night, to bring a lot of people through—”
“No, I mean as much as you can. What if you drank mana potions, and put in everything you had into the door? How many people could you transport then?”
“At least a hundred. But why? Erin, you aren’t planning on actually turning your door into a big shortcut between the cities, are you? Because mana potions aren’t cheap, and neither are mages. We could do it once or twice, but adding our mana to the door isn’t that easy.”
“No problem. You’d only have to do it once. And I guess one hundred people is good, but not enough. What if you went and got more mages?”
Erin leaned forwards and put her hands on the table as she stared at the astonished mages. The other Gold-rank teams had stopped eating and were listening closely. Klbkch, sitting alone at his table, raised his head and waited, uncertain of what was coming next, but certain that it would be ‘awesome’.
“Mister Typhenous and Miss Revi—can I call you guys Typhenous and Revi? You’re big shot adventurers, right? And so are you, right Moore?”
“I’d say so.”
“By some standards, yes.”
“Among local adventurers, we are somewhat well known.”
Erin turned to look at Pisces and Ceria.
“And you two guys are Wistram mages, right? That’s important too, isn’t it?”
The two Silver-rank adventures fidgeted. Ceria coughed, blushing slightly.
“Not as important as Gold-rank, Erin—”
“That’s fine. But if I asked you to, could you get all of the mages in Celum and Liscor to come here and charge the door?”
Everyone looked astounded, but Erin just grinned.
“I want to bring in supplies. And people! Adventurers, [Guardsmen], [Guardswomen] too—I know there are some in Celum, food, clothing, blankets, pillows…I want as much of it as this door can teleport, today.”
“Why? What is this all for? And where would you put it?”
Revi looked exasperated as she asked. Pisces’ mouth formed an ‘o’ of comprehension as Erin smiled at the Stitch-mage.
The room fell silent. Halrac blinked, and Ulrien sat up at the same time Jelaqua nudged Seborn with an elbow. The Selphid’s whisper was quite audible.
“See? What did I tell you? Isn’t she great?”
“You want to send aid to Esthelm?”
Erin turned and met Zel’s eyes confidently. Revi frowned.
“No offense Erin, but why would you want to do that? Esthelm isn’t your home, is it? Why would you waste your coin and energy helping them out? I heard they already had control of the city, anyways.”
“But they need food. I went through there the other day—they might be in control, but their walls aren’t great, and they need blankets, supplies—more people. If Celum and the other cities are too afraid to send help down the roads, why not come up from Liscor instead?”
“There’s still danger on the roads, though. The area around Liscor isn’t safe from Goblin attacks.”
“Yeah, but what if we sent a huge Antinium army and a bunch of Gold-rank adventurers with all the wagons to protect them?”
Halrac and Jelaqua said it at the same time as Zel. At opposite ends of the room, Ksmvr and Klbkch sat up.
“My Queen would never allow—”
“Erin, I do not believe I could persuade my Queen to—”
Both Antinium broke off. Ksmvr shrank down in his seat while Klbkch stared, until the Antinium looked away. Erin stared around the room, frowning slightly.
“Well, why not?”
“Erin, you can’t just ask an Antinium army to go marching—and you want Celum to just hand over all the goods? Your idea is…I mean it’s crazy…”
Ceria shook her head, frowning. But to her surprise, Yvlon stood up.
Everyone looked at her. Yvlon looked at Erin.
“I think it could work.”
Revi raised her eyebrows incredulously.
“You do? Because I think it’s crazy too, like Miss Half-Elf said.”
“I think it can be done. Celum has the supplies and manpower to send—it’s just a matter of convincing their leaders to act. And if Ksmvr and Klbkch talk to their Queen—”
“Um. I am technically banned from entering my Hive—”
“And I do not know if I can convince my Queen.”
Erin stared at Klbkch. He was giving her an odd look. She walked over to him.
“Are you sure?”
He stared into her eyes. Klbkch’s face was inexpressive, but Erin could tell by the way his mandibles opened and shut repeatedly that he was troubled.
“I…could try. But I do not have high hopes of convincing my Queen.”
“And are we just going to ignore the part where you get an army of wagon drivers to take everything to Esthelm? Where are you going to get that? And are you going to pay for all of this, or do you expect Celum to foot the bill? I don’t think Liscor would pay to help Humans.”
Revi kept talking, determined to point out the obvious. She indicated Typhenous, Ulrien, and Halrac with one hand.
“And what’s this about volunteering us to guard the wagons? We might be guests here, Erin, but we don’t work for free.”
“I’ll let you stay for free if you help. And I can pay.”
Erin turned back to Revi, putting her hands on her hips. She stared challengingly around the room.
“Why can’t this work? Okay, it’s sudden, and okay, it’s crazy, but so what? There’s a city that needs help, thousands of people that could starve if someone doesn’t do something? Why not us?”
“Why should we do it?”
That came from Ulrien. Jelaqua glared, but Ulrien’s face wasn’t hostile. He was impassive, questioning. Erin stared at the big man without flinching.
“Because it’s the right thing to do. And I’ll make you a huge lunch for the road. Plus, you’ll be famous if you help.”
Ulrien thought about that for a few seconds, and then glanced at Halrac. The [Scout] nodded. Ulrien looked back at Erin and gave her a slight smile.
“We’re in. We’ll help—free of charge.”
Revi cried out in shock, but Typhenous smiled and stroked his beard.
“Don’t fuss, Revi. This is for a good cause. Besides, I think this might prove to be quite an entertaining diversion.”
“We’re in too!”
Jelaqua shot to her feet, visibly disappointed not to be the first to offer. Moore stood up as well.
“This is a big undertaking for one day. Are you sure we can do it in the time given?”
Erin smiled up at him. Moore’s lips curved upwards in reply.
“I think we can do it. And if we split up, why not? All we have to do is get someone to yell at the Mage’s Guild in Celum—why not Revi and Typhenous and you? I bet you could scare the socks off of them. And if Halrac, Jelaqua, Ulrien and Seborn all go to visit the Council—”
“Do you think they’d listen to a few Gold-rank adventurers?”
Jelaqua frowned, but Ulrien nodded confidently.
“We’ve talked with city leaders before. It can’t be worse than persuading them to evacuate a neighborhood or muster the local army.”
Halrac was decisive. He seemed to be the most passionate, if his scowl was any indication.
“We can do it. Gold-rank adventurers have the pull, and this is an issue that the city-states agree on. They support one another or they all fall.”
“Huh. Using our authority and good name to influence others. Well, it’s never worked for our team, but I’ll try and help.”
Jelaqua grinned as she pushed her plate back. Erin turned to Klbkch.
“Can you go and talk to your Queen? If she can send, I dunno, some Soldiers and a lot of Workers to help, that would be great. And if your Hive has supplies they can spare like wood and stuff…”
Klbkch seemed torn. At last, he nodded.
“I will speak with her. I cannot promise you she will agree, but I will try, Erin.”
Erin smiled at him.
He stopped, wavered. And then Klbkch nodded firmly.
“Forget my last statement. I will obtain what is needed.”
“Thanks. And uh, I hate to ask, but I guess we need to talk to someone in Liscor. Do you know if Watch Captain Zevara could…?”
“Leave the Watch Captain—and the city leaders—to me, Miss Solstice.”
Zel Shivertail walked forwards. He didn’t look at Klbkch as the Antinium stood aside, but he smiled a bit as he stared down at Erin. He seemed bemused, but he too was smiling.
“I think I can get them to pay for a few wagons, at the very least. I’ll head down and talk with them now.”
“Oh, would you really? Thanks so much!”
Erin was full of gratitude, but Zel just shook his head slowly.
“I—it would be my pleasure, Erin. This is a good idea, and a good cause.”
He headed towards the door, catching Lyonette’s eye on the way over. Zel shook his head as she beamed at him.
“What about us, then, Erin?”
Ceria stood with Yvlon, Pisces, and Ksmvr. Erin turned to them, full of excitement and energy as the adventurers began to argue about how best to approach things.
“I need you guys to coordinate Liscor’s Mage Guild. They do have one, right…? Okay, so you guys can charge the door up as much as you can here—Pisces and Ceria, you know how to do that, right? And Yvlon and Ksmvr can help me organize the wagons. There’ll be goods coming through that door fast, so we need a lot of people to haul stuff away—”
“What about us?”
Lyonette came over, excited, Mrsha leaping from table to table as she did. Erin laughed as Moore snagged Mrsha out of the air and put the Gnoll gently down on the ground.
“You can help me clean up and cook more food!”
“Cook? But what about helping…?”
Lyonette’s face fell. Erin shook her head.
“We’ve got to feed everyone, right? All the people hauling food through from Celum and the wagon drivers—not to mention the Antinium and adventurers—we need to make food for all of them!”
The [Barmaid] paled at the thought and Erin laughed again. She turned to the others.
“Okay, let’s get to work! Spread the word if you can—we need all the help we can get! I mean, these are a lot of wagons, right? Even with the Antinium Klbkch can get, we need protection in case of monsters or Goblins or…Rock Crabs.”
Jelaqua raised her hand.
“Why don’t we go to the Adventurer’s Guilds instead of the city leaders? We could probably talk a good number into some easy guard duty, especially if the cities will hire them for a day.”
Yvlon nodded towards the door.
“And I’ll go find Termin. He’s sure to know all the wagon-drivers in the city.”
“In that case, why don’t I go find Garia and Fals? A few dozen [Runners] could carry quite a bit, especially if they made several trips.”
Ceria nodded towards the already open door as Halrac, Ulrien, Revi, and Typhenous walked through. Erin spotted Octavia trying to intercept the Gold-rank adventurers and nearly ran the [Alchemist] over. The Horns of Hammerad headed towards the doors, the Halfseekers split up and in moments, the inn was empty save for Lyonette and Mrsha.
The girl and Gnoll stood together, staring around the room. Lyonette stared at Mrsha; Mrsha stared at the open portal door, and then at Lyonette.
“I guess we’d better get to work, huh?”
Mrsha nodded, and stood up on two legs to help carry plates. Lyonette smiled, and stared towards the door Zel had walked out of.
“I told you she’s weird. In a good way.”
The city was in an uproar. Which city? Well, Celum was mainly full of chaos, as all the normal day-to-day foot traffic and vehicles found themselves blocked off by [Guardsmen] who escorted rumbling wagons down the street. There was a lot of shouting and confusion. What was happening?
Word spread throughout the city. Apparently, aid was being sent to Esthelm! That news amazed all those who heard it. So soon? Of course, Esthelm needed help, but the roads were not safe! Had something changed?
But the wagons weren’t going towards the gates. Rather, they were going to a small but well-known [Alchemist]’s shop that looked like it was under siege. Countless people were going in and out of the doors, [Laborers] bringing in bag after bag of grain and crates of goods and [Runners] going into the shop but never going out.
In fact, as the day wore on someone created a second door in the shop, and then just knocked the entire wall in, much to Octavia’s displeasure. People streamed towards the shop, not just adventurers and workers, but [Mages] as well!
Something was happening. Something big. People could feel it. Why else would the newly famed [Actors] all rush over to the shop and disappear there? Why would Miss Agnes suddenly throw open her doors to her inn and announce drinks were on her for all the people helping to unload the wagons?
And what, in the name of the Five Families, did an [Alchemist] have to do with sending aid to Esthelm?
Some people knew, but most were out of the loop.
And that was only in Celum. In Liscor, the uproar was more like a furor in truth. The city had not turned out its warehouses to support a Human city, but it had commandeered every Runner, [Wagon Driver], [Rider], and transportation-based class that could be spared, all under the orders of the legendary Zel Shivertail himself.
Mages, drivers, runners, and a gaggle of adventurers milled about outside the city, shouting and being shouted at by a young woman who had developed quite the reputation in the city by now. A lot of the Drakes and Gnolls just resigned themselves to it; it was that crazy Human doing something weird again. But more stopped their work to watch the fun, and more still found themselves joining in when they heard what was going on.
Some were friends of Selys or part of Krshia’s clan, and found themselves lending a paw, claw, or hand to help. Others were more impressed by the legendary Gold-rank adventurers and Zel Shivertail, and helped because he was lifting supplies effortlessly into wagons. Some just cared about Humans, as odd as it was.
But all that was a backdrop, meaningless babble to what was going on below. The Queen of the Free Antinium under Liscor sat in her throne room, staring down at the strangers standing before her.
The Antinium of four Hives stood before her, each one in their own group. The Prognugator Tersk, leading the three Armored Antinium who had come with him. Revalantor Pivr of the Flying Antinium and his cohort of six. Two soldiers of the Quiet Antinium, almost invisible in the darkness. And Xrn, of the Centenium, now a Prognugator to the Grand Queen with her six bodyguards.
Of this group, it was only Xrn that the Queen of the Free Antinium was interested in, and only her that she respected. But annoyingly, it wasn’t Xrn who was speaking right now.
“…And after my extensive surveying of your Hive, I have found only four of these so-called Individuals who have obtained formal designations. Moreover, they have not obtained any significant levels, Skills, or classes as of yet. In my role as Revalantor for my Queen, I must ask whether this is truly an accomplishment that merits the attention of the Hives.”
Pivr’s voice echoed throughout the Queen’s chambers as all the Antinium stared at him. It was hard to read the other’s expressions, but the Queen felt they were getting annoyed by him. She certainly was.
His voice was higher in pitch than the other Antinium, and he moved about restlessly, fanning his wings when he stood still. Was he showing them off? The Queen had seen the true winged soldiers of the Antinium, long ago. She wasn’t impressed by the Queen of the Flying Antinium’s half-baked copies.
“So you have said. Repeatedly. But my achievement is extraordinary regardless of number. In fact, the rarity of such Individuals proves their worth. How many Prognugators does your Hive have, Pivr? How many Individuals has your Queen created?”
He ignored that question, as he had the ones before. Pivr seemed uniquely gifted at ignoring things he or his Queen didn’t want to see. As the Queen, so followed the Prognugator.
“I must simply ask how feasible the use of these Individuals is. Surely, if their creation is a workable method, you would seek to convert the entire Hive thusly? I ask, on behalf of my Queen, what formal plan you would put before the Hives.”
She had no formal plan, just this one accomplishment as the Queen of the Flying Antinium very well knew. The Queen of the Free Antinium tried to keep her temper, but it was hard.
She was angry the other Queens could not understand what they were doing, that they doubted her commitment to the Hives. She was angry that not all of them had sent their Prognugators to witness what she had done, that they questioned, or at least, didn’t trust that what she was doing was significant. She was also angry that Pivr was a pus-filled sack, and she was trying to restrain herself from ordering him killed—or just picking him up and crushing him herself.
The Queen tried to come up with a reply that didn’t include some form of violence, but she was distracted by another matter as well. Klbkch. Why wasn’t he here?
She knew he had returned to the Hive thirty minutes ago, but he had not come directly here, despite her mental summons. What was so important that he would not help her get rid of Pivr, preferably by shoving a sword through the other Antinium’s head?
To mask her irritation, the Queen turned her massive head towards Xrn. The female Antinium—the only one in the room besides the Queen—was standing still, her blue carapace shimmering slightly from the swirling lights reflected in her eyes. How beautiful.
The Queen knew she was the height of creation, an untouched remnant of the original Centenium forms, but she couldn’t help but feel envious. She was so graceful, so perfect. She had been created to embody true perfection, not the flawed shells all the other Antinium here wore.
“What say you, Xrn of the Centenium? What opinion do you have of what has been created here?”
Pivr make a choked clicking sound from the side. But the Queen had addressed Xrn by her old title. It wasn’t exactly correct, but that definitely put her authority far above a Revalantor’s.
Xrn nodded slowly.
“I believe my Queen, the Grand Queen, will wish to explore what you have created a great deal further, oh Queen of the Free Antinium. At the very least, we will request one of the Individuals accompany us back to the Grand Hive to be appraised there. There is significance in this, even if the Individuals cannot be replicated on a large scale as of yet.”
That sounded quite nice to the Queen of the Free Antinium. But she could sense Pivr getting ready for another comeback, probably to discredit her. She was just about ready to tell him he could go back to his Queen and tell her to eat all her eggs when she felt Klbkch approaching. She cut off Pivr with one feeler.
“Ah, I sense my Revelantor returns. Klbkchhezeim will answer any questions you may have, Pivr.”
All heads turned towards the entrance. The Queen waited, hearing the faint footfalls growing louder. Klbkch strode into the room, twin sheathed swords swinging at his waist, light on his feet, slim.
So close to how he used to be. And yet, indescribably far away. The Queen watched Xrn react to Klbkch’s presence. Tensely, and then relaxing. Yes, she felt it too.
This was more like the old Klbkch, the Slayer. But ah, it could never be him, not fully. His form was lost. Lost…
But he was hers, now. The Queen felt satisfaction in that. Klbkch stopped in front of the gathered Antinium and bowed to his Queen first, before nodding to them.
“My Queen, Antinium of the Hives, I must render you all my apologies. I was unavoidably detained last night, and was not able to meet with you as I had hoped.”
She could never be angry at him, not for long. The Queen waved a feeler graciously.
“Your absence was noted, but as always you work for the Hive’s greater good, Klbkchhezeim. All of the Hives.”
The Antinium nodded. He looked up at his Queen, and she felt the slightest thought pass between them. The Queen went still. What was he….?
“This is so. And I am aware of the scrutiny of the other Hives at this instance, so I have attempted to reveal much of where the true effort of our Hive has gone. In fact, I hope you will join me on a small expedition to demonstrate the true value of the Free Antinium of Liscor.”
What was this? The Queen didn’t speak to contradict Klbkch, but her mind was awhirl. Pivr turned to Klbkch, ready to pounce on any imperfections.
“Indeed, Klbkch? Your absence speaks to a lack of resources in the Hive. Could not an Individual have performed such tasks? What is this errand which will occupy a Revalantor of the Hive when he is needed elsewhere?”
Klbkch gave Pivr a look that made it clear the other Revalantor was not worth the syllables in his name. He turned to face the others, especially, the Queen thought, Xrn.
“The nature of the upcoming mission at hand is simple. I, as well as a group of one hundred and fifty Soldiers and twice that number of Workers, are travelling north to the Human city of Esthelm, escorting a convoy of supplies. We will be staying in the city for several days to provide aid to the citizens there.”
The Antinium did not waste time on shocked silence. Instead, they all spoke more or less at the same time. Pivr was the first. He exclaimed, spitting a bit of venom in surprise.
Xrn next. Her voice was flat.
Tersk, spreading his arms, open, honest.
“I do not understand.”
And the Queen. She couldn’t help it. The word slipped out.
Fortunately, no one noticed. Tersk addressed Klbkch, speaking for the others.
“Revalantor Klbkch, I would ask that you explain your Hive’s reasoning for sending aid to this city. I see no immediate merit in such an action.”
Klbkch nodded. He ignored his Queen’s furious mental probes and explained to the other Antinium calmly.
“It is true that the benefits of such an act will not provide us with any immediate benefits. However, there are intangible benefits to such an act, and it costs the Hive very little in terms of resources. What we give will be repaid in the form of goodwill, trust, and friendship. Concepts which mean little to the other Hives, but which I…and my Queen…have grown to understand.”
She could sense the Workers and Soldiers in the Hive moving already! So that was what Kblkch had done! The Queen fumed, but she couldn’t gainsay him, not in front of the others. Why was he doing this? She didn’t understand, not one bit. Rendering aid without reward to a Human city not affiliated with the Hive? Why?
“I see. In that case, I will follow and observe, if you will permit it.”
Tersk nodded. The Queen supposed that was a victory, but she dearly wanted the Antinium to clear the room so she could have Klbkch explain to her what was going on. But Pivr was already talking again, refusing Klbkch’s offer.
“I will not. I will stay and observe this Hive, and perhaps see what dangers lurk in this dungeon which consumes so many resources. An expedition is not what I came here to witness.”
A pity. But, the Queen thought to herself privately, she might be able to organize it so a monster broke through and slaughtered Pivr by accident. The Crypt Worms were quite lethal, even when she deployed many Soldiers to counter them.
“I will go as well.”
Xrn spoke up, and the Queen saw Klbkch’s mandibles part and raise in an Antinium smile. She really didn’t like that, but it was too late to stop any of them. She stared down at Klbkch.
“I wish you success on your task, Klbkch. Do not take too long, however. We have much to do…and discuss…when you return.”
He didn’t so much as flinch at the tone in her voice. Well, he wouldn’t. Klbkch bowed and left the room, leaving the Queen in the darkness to think.
“So tell me, is this what made you abandon our discussion last night and not return?”
Xrn’s tone was slightly acidic as she and Tersk—and their escort of lesser Antinium—followed him through the Hive. Klbkch nodded.
“There is merit in this, Xrn.”
“I understand that, even if your Queen and the others did not seem to. But I do not understand why you of all beings would see it.”
Klbkch made no answer. He clicked his mandibles together in embarrassment, the Antinium version of clearing his throat—although he could do that too.
“We will join up with the Antinium escort shortly. I have been specially approved by Liscor’s Watch Captain to take the force out of the city.”
“Oh? How exciting.”
“Yes. It is, in fact. As you will soon see. For this mission, I have chosen one of our newest Soldier units to escort the convoy. They are…uniquely prepared to foster goodwill and reduce alarm among the other species.”
That made Xrn pause, but she followed Klbkch out of one of the secret tunnels in the Hive and onto the snowy plain. The instant she and Tersk entered the sunlight they stopped and gasped.
All of the Antinium did. For a second, they paused and stared. Not because they hadn’t ever seen Soldiers before, but because they had never seen Soldiers like this.
Painted. Colorful. Some with every color of the rainbow—and several colors not of the rainbow—on their bodies, and some with only a few markings. But each one was unique. Distinct.
Klbkch stopped next to Pawn, Belgrade, Anand, and Bird. They stood at attention, nervous, silent, in front of the ranks of Soldiers and Workers. Tersk and Xrn came forwards to inspect them.
“These are the Individuals? Well met.”
Tersk greeted the four. Belgrade, Bird, and Anand didn’t speak, but Pawn opened his mandibles until Klbkch shot him a look.
“These are Anand, Belgrade, Bird, and Pawn.”
“You did not introduce me to this Pawn before.”
Xrn spoke as she observed the Soldiers. Tersk had already moved past the Individuals, much to Klbkch’s relief. The armor-wearing Antinium’s voice was puzzled as he turned to Klbkch.
“Revalantor Klbkch, I am uncertain as to the reason behind decorating these Soldiers so. It seems to be a waste of resources.”
“Are you? I would assume the reason is obvious. They are Individual. Unique.”
Klbkch nodded to the Soldiers, not sure if he was lying or only telling a partial truth. Tersk’ breath caught and he closed his mandibles slowly.
“I see. I see. This changes much.”
Xrn walked past the Soldiers as they stood in perfect ranks. Klbkch knew their attention was on her; the azure body of the Small Queen was as striking as their paint. She too was like them; completely separate from the nameless mass of other Antinium.
“I take it you approve?”
“I love it.”
She turned to him, and Klbkch saw the swirling colors in her eyes grow brighter. He opened his mandibles in a smile.
“I shall appraise you of the decision to paint the Soldiers as we march. We shall proceed, unless there are objections?”
She shook her head.
“None. Let us go see what defines the Free Antinium.”
Later that day, the road leading from Liscor north to the Human lands was empty. Empty, that was, except for one vehicle.
The lone wagon rumbled slowly down the road. It was a familiar group sitting in it. Ceria, Erin, Yvlon, Ksvmr, and Termin all sat, eating a quick mid-day lunch as they headed north through the snowy landscape. Well, Erin, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Termin sat. Ceria and Pisces were more comatose bodies slowly chewing their food at they lay in the back of the wagon on some crates.
“I’m just saying, it makes no sense! Why wouldn’t you want to go see your brother at all? I get that you don’t want him to be annoying and fuss over you, but you don’t ever want to see him?”
Yvlon sighed and brushed away some crumbs Erin had accidentally spat on her.
“The instant he finds me, he’ll try to take me back to our home, no objections. He’s not just protective. He’d never accept me being—crippled and continuing to adventure like this.”
“Oh. But he’s got your best interests at home. What if your family could help? I mean, with your arms…?”
Erin gingerly indicated the fused metal and flesh on Yvlon’s forearms, but the woman shook her head.
“If our family had a potion or artifact that could regenerate bones or limbs, we wouldn’t be a minor house in Izril. We’re known for having an adventurer or warrior in each generation—and having the first letter in our names be ‘y’. That’s all.”
“Well, I guess I understand. But you can’t run from your brother forever.”
“I don’t need to. As soon as he gets word of a village in trouble he’ll drop everything and run off. He is a [Knight].”
“Hold up, you lot. There’s something on the road ahead.”
Termin suddenly called out in alarm, and Erma and Fox stopped in their tracks as he halted the wagon. All the adventurers immediately sat up, but they relaxed when they saw what it was.
“That’s not a monster!”
Erin chortled as she pointed at the creature that had caused Termin to stop his wagon. It was a beaver, sitting in the middle of the road.
“It’s a beaver. Why are you afraid of a beaver, Termin?”
Termin glared at Erin as he pointed to the beaver.
“That’s no ordinary beaver, Miss! It’s a Fortress Beaver, not one of your cute little rodents. See how large it is, even from here? It could bite my wheels in two in one go and probably take your leg off if you angered it. And where there’s one, there might be more. I’m not risking my wagon or my horses if I accidentally agitate it.”
Erin looked again, frowning. Now that she thought about it, the beaver certainly did look…big from so far away. It would be up to her chest—maybe up to her neck if she got close. She gulped.
“Okay, don’t pet the beaver. Well, can’t we get rid of it?”
Both she and Termin turned to look at the adventuerers. Yvlon shook her head.
“I’m not killing a beaver.”
Erin hastily pushed down Ksmvr’s hand and turned in her seat. She poked the person lying behind her.
“Ceria. Hey, Ceria.”
One of the two comatose bodies raised its head. Ceria looked pale and exhausted, drained from using up all her mana, but she managed to get up to stare at the beaver.
“Can you get rid of it? You can talk to animals, right? Can you get it off the road so Termin can keep going?”
The half-Elf glared in outrage at Erin.
“Dead gods. Erin. Just because I’m a half-Elf, doesn’t mean I…well, I do, but why do you always turn to me to—”
She looked around the wagon. Everyone was staring at her. Termin cleared his throat.
“Well, do you or don’t you? I don’t speak beaver.”
Ceria growled, and pushed herself up. Grouchily, she stood up and moved to the front of the wagon, grumbling under her breath.
“It’s not like I want to learn this stuff. Fine, I’ll get it to move.”
She cupped her hands and took a deep breath. Erin was expecting her to chitter to the beaver, or make whatever sound they made, but Ceria just started shouting. The beaver’s head turned as she yelled at it.
“Hey you! Yeah, you! Piss off!”
The Fortress Beaver stared as Ceria shouted at it. It seemed to think about what the half-Elf had said, and then waddled off of the road.
Ceria let her hands fall and turned. Everyone was staring at her, Erin with a betrayed look in her eyes. Ceria shrugged defensively.
“What? That’s how you talk to animals if you want them to move.”
She sat back down and Termin flapped his reins, shaking his head. Erin felt a rumbling on the ground and looked around.
“Hey, hurry up Termin. I think the others are catching up.”
The Fortress Beaver, which had considered going back to take a bite out of the wagon anyways, felt the rumbling and made itself scarce. A good thing too, because the army of marching Antinium would have squashed it flat if the sea of wagon wheels didn’t do that before them.
As Termin got his cart moving, carts appeared in the distance behind him. Carts driven by Humans, Gnolls, Drakes, and in one case, driving itself since the driver had fallen off but the horses kept going. Each one was loaded to the brim with food, supplies, and people. There were more than a hundred adventurers, [Guardspeople], and other experts such as [Healers], [Masons], [Hunters], and more who had come to aid Esthelm.
And marching to one side of the road came the Antinium. Rows upon rows of Workers, dragging primitive wooden sleds loaded with materials of their own—nails, wood, hammers, but no food since what they ate was disgusting—led by a group of Antinium including Pawn at the front.
Erin beamed as the massive group began to catch up. Termin had left with a good lead on the others, but everyone was moving fast. It wasn’t evening yet, and they were nearly at Esthelm!
“You’re lucky so many of these wagon drivers have movement Skills.”
Pisces commented to Erin as he raised his head from his bed in the wagon. Termin cackled.
“Luck’s got nothing to do with it, necromancer. Around here you either move fast or you get eaten by something sooner or later. A Skill like [Continuous Rolling] is common for all us folk.”
The necromancer sniffed.
“Well then, she was lucky you all decided the roads were safe. Why did you decide to take the journey, pray tell Mister Termin? Surely you are aware such a convoy would be at risk of being attacked? Why not travel with an army from Celum?”
“Hah! Any army the Human cities could put together wouldn’t be half as powerful as an army led by Zel Shivertail himself! Add two groups of Gold-rank adventurers to the mix, the famous Horns of Hammerad—not to mention the Antinium Soldiers, and the Goblin Lord himself would look twice before taking us on!”
Before Pisces could open his mouth again, Erin leapt up in her seat and nearly fell off the wagon.
“Oh look, look! I can see the city from here! Wow, it still looks terrible!”
Esthelm came into view, and as soon as their wagon approached, Erin heard people on the walls shouting. But as more wagons were spotted, the shouting grew confused, and then jubilant. People began cheering and streaming out of the gates before Termin’s wagon had gotten close—then they saw the Antinium and ran back into the city.
In the end, Erin drove up to the gates. The people of Esthelm didn’t exactly shut the gates, but they met her and the wagon at them. The [Soldier] who had met Erin and the Horns of Hammerad two days ago was there, with a group of armed men who looked incredulously at the approaching force. Erin waved down at Umbral excitedly.
“Hi! Remember me? Well, I came back and I brought a lot of stuff to help! And a lot of people!”
His jaw dropped.
“You? You’re that [Innkeeper]! But how did—”
“It’s supplies and a relief force! From Celum and Liscor! And the Antinium! They’ve come to help fix your walls and guard your city!”
“The Antinium? Here?”
He seemed unable to process it all. Erin jumped down from the wagon and then sat down hard. Her legs had gone to sleep.
“Ow. Um. Well, it’s a long story, but these Antinium are really nice. They’ve brought a lot of stuff, and we have food, blankets, pillows, and so on. We even have—”
She got no further, because Umbral pulled her up and into a hug. Erin heard the cheering begin again as word began to spread.
“Aid has come to Esthlem!”
“Liscor! The Drakes have come to help us!”
“Esthelm is saved!”
Everyone was being thanked, except perhaps the Antinium. But Pisces summed it up best. He smiled, perhaps arrogantly, but with genuine pleasure at Umbral as the man let go of Erin. He nodded to the huge convoy and then at Erin.
“You may attribute this delivery to Erin Solstice, proprietress of the Wandering Inn. We can discuss remuneration for goods and services rendered at a later—”
He got no further then that, because Erin kicked him.
The city of Esthelm was saved. Only, it had already been saved. In a sense, you could say it was saved again, at least from the pressing needs of hunger, thirst, and the need for shelter. Pawn considered that this was less glamorous than saving the city from invading monsters, but no less necessary.
He stood in the ruined center of the city with his group of painted Soldiers, staring in awe at the buildings, the people, and the broken sewers that stank beyond belief. It was all new to him. He had never gone beyond Liscor, never seen so many Humans, or seen a city this badly destroyed. He knew his Soldiers hadn’t seen anything like this either, and he was glad to have shown it to them.
And yet, Pawn was also uncertain. Because while the others who had come seemed to know what they were doing, he did not. And that was a problem, because he was in charge of the Antinium here.
Klbkch had explained it to him quickly, which was to say confusingly, a few moments before they had left. Pawn was in charge because Klbkch had to deal with the Antinium from the other Hives. He had to speak with the Antinium in armor and the beautiful blue, female Antinium for reasons unknown to Pawn. Thus, Pawn was in charge.
Which again, would be fine if Pawn knew what to do. But he didn’t. Oh, the Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans seemed well-organized enough. They were already unloading the wagons, the soldiers and guardspeople keeping order while carpenters, masons, and other groups split off to help aid the city. But Pawn was standing with over a hundred Soldiers and three hundred Workers in the middle of the city with not a clue of what to do now.
He badly wanted to go find Erin and ask, but Pawn realized that might not be an option right now. He had to do something. So he cleared his throat and looked around.
What could be done? Well, what couldn’t be done? Pawn was no expert on cities, but he felt sure that walls shouldn’t be falling down, there shouldn’t be exposed sewers, and that Humans preferred a roof over their heads as they slept. He pointed randomly at a particularly bad section of the wall and turned to his sub-leaders, Belgrade and Anand.
“Our job is to assist in repairing this city. Thus, I think that wall is…a good place to start? Belgrade, Anand, if you will take that wall and uh, effect repairs on it? Reinforce it? Make it taller or something?”
“It will be done.”
The two [Tacticians] nodded immediately and began walking towards the wall. Workers and Soldiers both streamed after them, making Pawn jump. Belgrade and Anand needed no spoken instructions to command the Soldiers. Somehow, they’d learned the trick of Prognugators, to command without speaking, mind-to-mind.
Well, that was easy. Pawn turned and nearly had one of his hearts stop when he found Bird standing right in front of him. The Antinium seemed…focused as he held a bow in his hands. An arrow was already nocked.
“There are many birds here. I must go hunt them.”
“Oh? Certainly, Bird. Go ahead. Ah, be sure to bring the birds back so they may be eaten, alright?”
Bird hurried off, already staring at the sky. Pawn turned around, and then around, and realized everyone had left. Belgrade and Anand were already having Soldiers clear the rubble while Workers moved about preparing tools and forming neat rows to expedite the work flow.
Now Pawn felt lonely. He thought about what he should do next, and remembered something Erin had told him last night. He looked around, saw a familiar tail, and hurried towards it.
“I see what you mean. I see it.”
Zel Shivertail muttered to himself as he walked through the city of Esthlem, gazing at the destruction. He felt a small pang in his heart as he saw how much devastation had been done, but the rest of him just felt mystified.
Why was he here? How had he come to be here, in Esthelm, helping to distribute aid to the citizens? He could have sworn he was eating rolls with honey just this morning.
It was all because of that girl. Erin Solstice. It hadn’t been a unique idea, to help Esthelm. Anyone with at least one heart would have thought of that. And it wasn’t hard to think of a door being used to transport things like goods. That was an obvious use. But convincing two cities to send supplies and help, and asking the Antinium, the Antinium no less to render assistance?
“…Who is she?”
That was what Zel Shivertail asked himself. He could admit when he’d misjudged someone. He’d done that with Erin Solstice. He still kept part of his original opinion, but now he revised the rest. Something was off about that girl. Something was extremely off, in a way he could only attribute to one other Human before…
“Excuse me, General Shivertail?”
Zel turned. He expected to see one of the Drakes, asking for him to sign his tail or something silly like that, or a Human, asking for help. But he froze when he saw the Antinium standing meekly in front of him.
Instinct told Zel to rip the Ant’s head off. He restrained himself—with effort. Zel growled as he took a few steps back.
“What do you want?”
The Antinium nodded politely.
“My name is Pawn.”
“You have a name?”
Zel was incredulous. But he caught himself—this was one of the new Antinium, the ones all the damn Drake politicians and leaders were telling him to find out about. Pawn nodded.
“I am. I ah, have been sent to aid in restoring Esthelm.”
“Good. For you.”
Zel didn’t want to talk with any Antinium, even a new one. But Pawn clearly wanted to talk with him. The Antinium cleared his throat nervously.
“I was hoping I might converse with you, General Shivertail. I understand you are a famous General among the Drakes—”
“I fought in the Antinium War. Both Antinium Wars.”
The two stared at each other. Zel forced his fist to unclench. Pawn studied him carefully.
“I am not hostile towards you, General Shivertail. I do not wish to offend you either. I simply wish to talk.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t want to talk to you.”
Zel forced himself not to shout. Pawn tilted his head sideways.
“May I ask why?”
“You’re an Antinium. I saw your kind ravage my continent. You still do. You infest part of my home. I saw your Soldiers slaughter thousands of innocents.”
“Yes. They did. But I was created long after those wars. I am not like my people. I am not like anyone.”
There was something in the Antinium’s eyes—Zel looked away. He controlled his voice, spoke levelly.
“Look, An—Pawn. I came here to help the Humans here, because it was the right thing to do. Because it was a good cause, understand? And I tolerated your Hive sending an army here, though I’d rather kill you all, because you lot are helping too. I won’t pick a fight with your kind, but it doesn’t mean I have to like you, or talk with you. I lost too many friends, too many comrades to your species to ever think of you as anything but the enemy. Understand?”
Silence. And then Zel saw Pawn nod out of the corner of his eye.
“I understand. But I did not come here to be friends. I came to ask—you see, I have been placed in command of my own force. I am a…leader. But I do not know how to lead.”
“So? The Antinium lead themselves, or the Queens do, don’t they?”
“Yes, but she has entrusted that role to me. I must lead, but I do not know how. That is why I have come to you. You are a Drake [General], one of the greatest leaders on this continent.”
Zel Shivertail stared incredulously at Pawn.
“You want me to give you…advice on how to lead an army?”
“Why in the name of the Ancestors would I do that?”
The Antinium shrugged. He seemed at a loss in front of Zel’s questioning stare.
“I do not know. I simply hoped you would. Because you understand the burdens of leadership.”
Zel turned away in disgust.
“I’ve never taken on a pupil. If you want to ask for training, go find Niers Astoragon, or some Human [Lord] like Lord Tyron Veltras.”
“They are far away.”
“I don’t care.”
Zel turned to go. Pawn called out behind him.
“One question, please. Answer me one question, General Shivertail.”
General Shivertail gritted his teeth and lashed his tail.
“If I do, will you go away and stop bothering me from now on?”
Pawn was silent for a moment. Zel was about to snap when the Antinium spoke.
“What do you tell a soldier under your command when he is dying?”
The world paused. Zel turned back. Pawn went on.
“You see, I do not know what to say. I can only hold them, but I do not know what is supposed to be said. But there must be something. What do you say?”
The Drake stared at the Antinium. Down at the Antinium. He realized that Pawn was small. He wasn’t a Soldier. He was a Worker, no fighter. He didn’t even have a weapon at his side. For a second, Zel wrestled with himself, and then one part won. He sighed, and gingerly beckoned Pawn.
“Come on. Walk with me.”
Pawn hesitated, but then followed Zel. The Drake stared up at the sky, at the Antinium swarming over a wall and putting it back together bit by bit, and at the Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls all working together in this city. Because of a girl. Because of an innkeeper. And he walked side by side with an Antinium and told him what to say, what you could say, what you had to say when you held a soldier in your arms.
“You tell them this. You tell them they did a good job, that they can rest. That you’ve never seen anyone fight that hard, that it’s only a scratch. That it’s going to be okay—”
“Even if it is not?”
“Especially then. You tell them what they need to hear. And sometimes, what they need to hear is nothing. Sometimes you just hold their claw and say goodbye. Sometimes…”
Klbkch saw Pawn walking next to Zel Shivertail and couldn’t believe his eyes. He almost didn’t believe Xrn’s, but she had seen it too.
“What a strange thing.”
That was all she said. She hadn’t said much, just taken in everything on the march to Esthelm. Klbkch got the impression Xrn was saving up all her words for when she’d sorted out her feelings. Guiltily, he was looking forward to her reaction when it all came out.
But for now, Klbkch just walked with Tersk and Xrn through Esthelm, explaining things for the other two Antinium, but Tersk mainly. Klbkch kept having to pause and stare at the people working, though. He felt a little twinge in his chest every time he saw a Human look up, jump at the sight of him, and then gingerly wave, or at the very least, not flee screaming.
They came to an open square, where the smell of cooking was making Klbkch long for dinner already. He had already explained to the others that they would be eating Human, Drake, and Gnoll foods on this expedition—this seemed to have raised their morale quite a bit.
But now Klbkch saw Erin, standing in the center of the square, next to a grave blooming with flowers and a rather tall stone marker, speaking energetically to a small group of Humans, two Gnolls, and a Drake. She had found a [Flautist], a man with a crude bell that was probably used to sound the alarm, a man holding a harp, and a group of people who could sing.
“Revalantor Klbkch, what is that group of people doing?”
Klbkch paused. He was unsure, although he thought he knew.
“I think they’re—”
All at once, Erin broke into song. She sang loud and clearly, startling everyone around her. They stared at her as the girl started singing a song that Ryoka Griffin would have recognized instantly.
“Dashing through the snow, in a one-skeleton open sledge, o’er the fields we go, screaming all the way! Bells on Gnoll-tails ring, making spirits bright…”
She gestured, and the man with the bell began hitting it rhythmically. The Antinium watched as Erin tried to teach the rest of the appropriated lyrics to the others. He could hear her shouting.
“Come on, you don’t know this song? It’s famous! Don’t tell me you guys don’t have Christmas!? I’ve got so much to teach you all! Alright, on three, okay? One, two…”
“Revalantor Klbkch, I do not understand. What is the purpose of this?”
Tersk whispered it to Klbkch as the group began to sing. Klbkch heard the melody drifting throughout the city, caught by a breeze of wind. It was such a simple song, and yet it had a power of its own. People began to hum the song, or join in after a few repetitions.
“What confuses you, Prognugator Tersk?”
“What is the purpose of such an activity? Could not these people aid in some other task to better effect?”
“Perhaps. But this is important too. It will inspire others to work faster. And…it has a value of its own.”
Revalantor turned his face up to the sky as the music began to spread. He smiled, and wished he could close his eyes. He could not, so he just said one word.