Beneath Liscor, the war continued. It was a quiet war, one that the Drakes and Gnolls living above were unaware of. It had gone on for years; it could rightly be called a war of attrition, although neither side truly viewed it as such. How could a war of attrition take place when both sides were functionally inexhaustible?
The Hive of the Free Antinium versus the monsters of Liscor’s dungeon. Both groups were able to reproduce at speeds that allowed them to continually clash with one another. The monsters in Liscor’s dungeon were numerous and had established vast nests within the dungeon. The groups that continually assailed the Antinium Hive were a drop in an ocean of bodies. So long as they were not purged in their homes, they would keep coming.
On the other end, the Antinium were adept at repopulating themselves. They had developed it into a science, such that they could weather any number of losses with few issues. After all, so long as their Prognugator and more importantly, Queen survived, what were the deaths of a few hundred Soldiers that died to stop a group of Flesh Worms, or the Workers who perished each day rebuilding their tunnels and fortifications?
Neither side cared. Not the Queen and certainly not the monsters. But if anyone had bothered to ask the Workers and Soldiers, they would have said…
Nothing. Soldiers did not speak and Workers had few opinions of their own. They were born loyal to their Hive and fought and died in service to it. What was despair to a being that had been alive for hours? New Soldiers hurried to the front lines, fighting monsters with the fluids of their creation still wet on their carapaces. They were faceless, voiceless. And alone. There was no one to champion them.
In a section of tunnels adjacent to the dungeon, a group of Soldiers struggled alone. They fought desperately against an equal number of enchanted suits of armor. These metal guardians were the equals of Soldiers; incredibly tough and difficult to kill, they cut down the Antinium one by one as the Soldiers hurled themselves desperately against their foe. The newly born Soldiers fell back, desperate. Fighting. Dying.
And yet they fought on. Because if they fled, who would fight? The Soldiers ignored the wounds on their bodies, and yet despair crept into their limbs, weighing them down. They cried out, silently, without a voice to speak, without words or knowledge of what they wished for. They needed someone to give them hope, to give them a reason to fight. Someone, something they could believe in. In their darkest moments the knowledge of their Hive was not enough. They needed—
One of the suits of armor bashed a Soldier down with a mace. It strode forwards, red light leaking through the slits in its visor as the enchanted guardians approached. A Soldier raised a broken arm as the other three battered the armor of its foe futilely. He knew he was going to die and the knowledge was bitter and cold. But then he heard a different sound.
It was thunderous, collective, a sound made of many parts. A hundred mandibles snapped together. The enchanted armor paused, and the Soldier heard it again.
This time the echo was louder, and there was a drumming noise, the sound of heavy footfalls. The Soldier stumbled backwards through the tunnel and saw something running towards him.
A foe? No. Another Antinium. But this one was different from the Soldiers and Workers, the faceless multitudes. It was…bigger? Bigger, yes, a bit. But what set this Antinium apart was the color. The young Soldier with the broken arm stared.
Yellow splatters of paint covered the Soldier who ran down the tunnel towards the enchanted suits of armor. They turned, weapons covered with green Antinium blood. The mace-wielding armor turned towards the Soldier, weapon ready. It swung and the young Soldier tried to look away rather than see this new Soldier cut down—
The mace struck the Soldier with yellow splatters on one raised forearm. The chitin cracked under the force of the mighty blow, but unlike the other Antinium who had broken from the crushing impact, this Soldier’s body was tougher. Two of his arms shot out, pinning the arms of the enchanted suit of armor. The other two began to pound it, making the ancient steel ring with the impacts.
The other Soldiers stared. The enchanted suits of armor abandoned their foes to help their comrade, but now more Soldiers were streaming through the tunnels. The Soldier with the broken arm stared. These Antinium were like the one who had charged into battle. They were all painted, all colorful! One had a star on its forehead, another a rainbow of droplets all over its body, like rain.
They were all unique, all—all different. And as they charged down the corridor, the young Soldier saw an Antinium holding a strange, object that released plumes of sweet smoke every time he shook it. The Worker pulled the Soldier with the broken arm out of the battle, shielding them as the colorful Soldiers charged ahead. And the young Soldier now had an image, a name for what he had cried out for in his last moments.
He stared at the Soldier with yellow splatters as he pointed and the other Soldiers charged ahead. Yes, that was what he’d wanted. Someone to lead them, to show them—hope. He had no words for what he felt, for what the other Soldier was. But if he had heard the word, he would have agreed with it immediately. The other Antinium were different, braver, more certain, and they fought for something rather than because they had been told. They were unique. They were hope.
They were heroes.
Yellow Splatters ran down the tunnel, his legs pumping as his arms rose. He didn’t feel the cracked chitin on his arm. He was alight with battle fury. And each second he ran was another second, another life he could have saved. He charged into the backs of the second group of monsters on the front lines and caught a suit of armor with a two-armed lariat. He flung the hundreds of pounds of armor to the ground and began stomping on the metal guardian, ignoring the other suits of armor as they turned towards him.
Enchanted armor this time. At least they didn’t seem to be accompanied by any other types of monsters. Yellow Splatters had learned to dread monsters working in tandem with each other. At least the enchanted suits of armor were few in number.
But deadly. This corridor was filled with the bodies of Soldiers and Workers alike. Yellow Splatters had arrived too late. He gave vent to his fury as the other suits of armor assailed him. They cut at his body, struck him with metal fists and tried to bear him down. But Yellow Splatters refused to fall. He couldn’t.
He was a [Sergeant]. The Soldier felt another part of his outer layer of chitin crack as something struck him in the shoulder. But the blade that cut into his side, the fist that smashed him in the side of the head, none of those blows could fell him. He had a Skill. [Tough Carapace].
One Skill, but it made so much of a difference. And another—Yellow Splatters turned and his fist sent a metal suit of armor flying with a dent in the chest plate.
[Power Strike]. The other suits of armor closed in, fearless. Yellow Splatters raised his arms to guard his body and saw one of the suits of armor disappear. A Soldier had crashed into it with a running tackle. This Soldier had white wings painted on his back and he rolled around on the ground, bashing the armor’s helmet in.
The other Soldiers had arrived. Yellow Splatters abandoned his guard and leapt into the attack again. He and another Soldier tore the arms off a suit of armor, and then he found himself bashing at another suit with the arm he’d ripped off. And then?
It was all over. At least, for now. Yellow Splatters rose, breathing heavily, and heard a voice.
“Sergeant Yellow Splatters, we are ordered to take Tunnel E4J!”
He turned and saw a smaller Antinium standing at the back of the group of Soldiers. Pawn, censer in hand, was bending over a wounded Soldier. Yellow Splatters rose and immediately pointed. The Soldiers under his command—forty of them—raced down the tunnel.
War. That was what he fought. Yellow Splatters slammed into another group of monsters—large maggots that spat acid at him, and then found himself fighting a horrific moth that was so large it had to crawl down the tunnel. The Face-Eater moth, one of the large insects that the dungeon housed, ripped off a Soldier’s arm and buried its mandibles in another before it died.
Both had been marked. After the giant moth was dead, Yellow Splatters stood over the dead Soldier. His body had been shredded, but Yellow Splatters could remember what had been drawn on his chest. A white circle with a question mark drawn on the inside. In black paint. Yellow Splatters didn’t know what it meant, but that wasn’t important. It had defined that Soldier.
And now he was dead. The symbol would be redrawn on the walls of the barracks. He would be remembered so long as the walls and the Soldiers living within remained—but the Soldier was dead.
In the aftermath of the battle, as the remaining monsters retreated back to the dungeon or were finished off, Yellow Splatters found Pawn again. The Worker was standing with two other Workers, both of whom were poring over maps of the Hive’s tunnels. These maps were a new thing; all Antinium knew the layout of the Hive through the collective mental link they shared, and their Queen knew all, so what would be the purpose of maps? But these two Antinium were [Strategists], and they had insisted on the need to make them.
Belgrade and Anand, the two coordinators of the Hive’s defenses, were speaking with Pawn as Yellow Splatters waited to be given orders. The fact that they were Workers and he was a Soldier was important; they could talk and he could not. Thus, they gave orders to the Soldiers, and Yellow Splatters, the highest-level and only leader among the Soldiers was often tasked with implementing commands.
He led the Individual Soldiers, the ones who had distinguished themselves with paint and begun to level within the Hive. They were a small unit assigned to Pawn, but they were growing and they had distinguished themselves in battle, holding ground and defeating monsters with far fewer casualties than regular Soldiers and Workers.
But the casualties did occur. Each day, there was usually one death. On bad days, there were more. And of late—Yellow Splatters ached inside, remembering the deaths. Holding the dungeon against the influx of monsters who attacked regularly was difficult, but it had been harder of late as well. In fact, the Workers were discussing that very issue now.
“We have held the tunnels nearest the lowest southeastern breach into the dungeon. Casualties were…minimal given the attack. I regret that my static defenses were overwhelmed. Thankfully Anand had already redirected your division, Pawn. And there have been no other attacks today.”
Belgrade was pointing to a map. Yellow Splatters knew he was pointing to the location he had just been in. He stared at Belgrade.
It was a new idea, to think of each Antinium as separate. A few weeks ago Yellow Splatters would not have been able to understand the concept. But now he did, and he had already begun to appreciate the difference between Belgrade and Anand. Both had taken over for Klbkch and the Queen in leading the defense of the Hive, usually from the dungeon attacks. And both had different styles.
Belgrade was a fan of fixed formations, of chokepoints and static groups of Soldiers who would hold a particular tunnel while he reinforced areas at risk at need. By contrast, Anand seldom kept Soldiers and Workers under his command in one place. He preferred to send roving strike forces out to attack monsters, usually choosing to ambush them or attack from all sides with superior numbers.
Apparently, that preference for strategy was derived from the games of chess both played, and Yellow Splatters understood that Anand was considered the better player—and [Tactician]—of the two.
He agreed. Yellow Splatters had developed opinions in the time since he had become [Sergeant], and one of his opinions was that Belgrade’s method of defending was too costly. If a powerful monster—like one of the giant Face-Eater Moths, or a Crypt Worm—attacked, regular Soldiers would be quickly killed. By contrast, luring the enemy and setting up tactically advantageous situations was infinitely better and saved lives.
That wasn’t to say that Yellow Splatters didn’t appreciate the need for Belgrade—he was efficient at intercepting smaller monsters or ones that tried to dig into the Hive. But wherever possible, Yellow Splatters would prefer Anand to lead. And that was often the case when both [Tacticians] were on duty and neither one was injured.
So why had today’s battle seen Belgrade take the lead? Two tunnels had been overrun by monsters, two tunnels that were practically entering into the dungeon. They were not the usual areas of conflict.
“It seems like the radius at which monsters will begin to attack each other is indeed around four thousand paces from the dungeon’s outer walls. As you said, Anand.”
Belgrade turned to the other Worker, who nodded. Anand’s voice was different from Belgrade’s. While both had the same body, Anand spoke more confidently to the softer voice Belgrade had.
“Indeed. Holding these areas—”
He touched on four spots on the map, each one indicating an entrance from the dungeon into the Hive through a collapsed wall or open breach in the dungeon.
“—is far more costly than if we pulled back. Redirecting the monsters into kill zones where they become aware of each other and reduce their numbers is the most expedient strategy.”
Precisely put. Yellow Splatters shifted from one foot to another. His upper right arm—the one he’d used to block a mace earlier—was dripping blood from between the cracks. Since it was the only wound he’d taken and very minor, he ignored it and the pain. He waited, trying to understand why no one was listening to Anand’s sensible advice. Why were they so close to the dungeon, taking casualties? Was this Belgrade’s idea? It was foolish. Stupid.
Wrong. Yellow Splatters thought the word deliberately, although he couldn’t speak it. Belgrade nodded.
“I think it will be difficult to hold this area. But of course, we must. For now, I recommend doubling the Soldiers guarding each entrance, and keeping Colored Antinium in reserve. Pawn, how many of your Soldiers can you spare?”
Pawn hesitated and glanced at Yellow Splatters for the first time. The [Sergeant] willed Pawn to give the correct answer.
Colored Antinium. That was what the two [Tacticians] had begun calling the Soldiers with paint. As if they were…different. And they were. They were elite warriors, in a Hive where there had been only uniformity before. They were few, though. And growing fewer. It was hard to show a Soldier what it meant to be Individual, and daily losses meant they were slowly losing more than they converted. Yellow Splatters thought on that often.
“…I can spare twenty, I think, Belgrade. I would like to rest the injured, and if I am not here to pray for the wounded, casualties seem to—”
Belgrade was already nodding his agreement. Neither he nor Anand ever really contradicted Pawn, except in matters of strategy. The sole [Acolyte] and first Worker to become Individual was deeply respected by all of the Antinium. Yellow Splatters considered Pawn a fine helper. But he was not a leader.
At least he had given a good number. Twenty. Yellow Splatters had a running tally of wounded Soldiers under his commands and the ones who were tired from battle. Twenty to be sent for active duty left a margin of around…sixty three for emergencies and tomorrow’s combat. Acceptable.
“Agreed, then. Send them here and I will keep them in reserve. No sense losing any if it can be avoided.”
Belgrade was speaking to the others. His words made Yellow Splatters…hurt. What he said was of course correct, but by preserving the lives of the valuable Individual Soldiers, he was sacrificing more regular Soldiers instead. To Yellow Splatters, any Soldier’s death was unacceptable. He had been a regular Soldier, once. Now he was a leader, the leader of Soldiers. He would save them all if he could.
And indeed, as the Workers turned they had to look up at him. Yellow Splatters was a Soldier and taller than Workers, but he was actually taller than other Soldiers as well. Just by an inch or two, and his body was a tiny bit larger, but it was noticeable given the uniformity of other Antinium. Pawn had speculated that it was a product of his leader class. Yellow Splatters felt it was a mark of rank.
“Sergeant Yellow Splatters, thank you for your efforts. I believe today’s wave will be all for the next four hours at least. The dungeon seems to influence monsters to attack at semi-predictable intervals…you may rest for now.”
Yellow Splatters nodded his head towards Anand, deliberately shifting his body so he wasn’t nodding at Belgrade. If the other Worker noticed it…no, he did not. He was still looking over the maps.
Holding the tunnels closest to the dungeon. Why? They should be fighting in the more distant tunnels and blocking these ones with dirt to slow the monsters as they burrowed to the Hive. Yellow Splatters fumed as he marched back with Pawn towards the other Soldiers. They were all waiting for him and all, save for their one fallen brother, relatively unharmed. There would be no need for the precious few healing potions that Pawn had been given by Klbkch.
“Yellow Splatters, let us return. I would like to speak with you in the barracks.”
Pawn deferentially let Yellow Splatters proceed in front of him. Yellow Splatters pointed, and the Soldiers formed up into a double line and marched out of the distant tunnels and back towards the heart of the Hive.
The [Sergeant] tried to grapple with his anger as he marched down the main tunnels, letting Workers move quickly out of his way. However, emotion was a rare feeling for him. It was practically unheard of among Soldiers. But Yellow Splatters had begun having opinions. Again, it was probably part of his class, but those opinions made him question things.
Things like his place, orders he’d been given, and certain things Pawn said. Of course, it was necessary for Soldiers to fight, and guarding the dungeon was essential to preserve the Hive. Yellow Splatters was loyal to his Queen, despite never having seen her. But orders that wasted lives, like the ones Belgrade had given and continued to give? Hold the entrances? Why? Yellow Splatters disagreed with those orders.
And sometimes, with Pawn. Yellow Splatters turned his body as he walked to look back at Pawn. The Worker was maintaining the censer he’d used, cleaning it of incense as he walked. He was important. He had given Yellow Splatter identity, promoted him to [Sergeant]. But he did not understand war and battle by his own admission. And yet, he commanded the Soldiers?
Was that wrong? Yellow Splatters turned forwards and noticed the staring. Soldiers and Workers alike had paused in their endless commute to stare at him and the other Colored Antinium. They usually did, but today Yellow Splatters sensed that most of the gazes were on him.
Because of his height. Of course. It was probably less than an inch—more like a few centimeters. In a crowd of Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, or any other race it would have been completely unnoticed. But among the Antinium it was like someone was shining a beacon on Yellow Splatters.
He stood tall as he marched towards his barracks. He was not proud; that was a foreign emotion to him when Pawn had explained it to him. Rather Yellow Splatters was dedicated. He fought enemies. He killed to save as many of his fellow Soldiers as possible. He mourned the deaths of his comrades and strove to level up further, to become stronger in order to save more. That was all that there was to live. All that was meaningful.
The barracks of the Individual Soldiers had changed in several ways since Pawn had first wandered into it. It had been expanded and given several access points for convenience and a speedier connection to the front lines in the Hive. Space had also been cleared on one wall for a…mural of sorts.
Symbols decorated the wall, each with their own space, but each close enough so that it seemed they formed a pattern. The marks of fallen Soldiers rested there. Yellow Splatters looked up and saw patterns he recognized.
A paw print in white. Eight lines and a curvy wave. A golden quartet of stars. So many already. And a Soldier was already dipping his finger in white paint, drawing out the circle and question mark onto the wall.
It hurt. But Yellow Splatters embraced this pain. It was right that the wall be here, reminding the Soldiers of who they had lost, who they had sacrificed. This is why they fought. For the Hive, for the Queen, but for each other above all else.
A few more details of the changed barracks caught Yellow Splatters’ eye as he turned from the mural. There was now a storage area in the barracks, a place where a small crate of healing potions had been placed, a stockpile of bandages and other healing agents usually reserved for the most wounded of Antinium—
And in one corner, slightly dusty from lack of use, a pile of books. They had been Pawn’s latest addition to the barracks.
No one had touched them. Yellow Splatters stared at the books. He considered them a waste of space. He understood—vaguely—that these books had images in them and were meant to tell stories like the ones Pawn told to the Soldiers each night. However, what was the point?
Stories were fine for helping new Soldiers become Individual. But they were not practical, not useful for Soldiers who were already Individual. If a Soldier had realized his potential, it was more important to do other things.
Like train. Yellow Splatters strode over to a cleared area in the barracks where several Soldiers were already sparring. It was an unheard-of idea for Soldiers, but once Pawn had suggested the idea, Yellow Splatters had immediately seen it was one of the Worker’s good suggestions.
The Soldiers were fighting in pairs and sometimes in groups. It could be a duel between two Soldiers, but since battle was rarely that fair, sometimes there were as many as five Soldiers beating on one. Not hitting with full force of course; that would be too dangerous. But they swung fast and hard enough to sometimes crack chitin, dodging, punching, learning to fight more efficiently.
A Soldier approached as Yellow Splatters walked into the sparring area. He was a new Soldier, one with a pink stripe on either side of his face. Pink Stripes raised his four fists, each one a bludgeoning tool that could gouge, grab, or bludgeon as necessary. Yellow Splatters raised his own arms and the two Soldiers charged towards each other.
At first, Pink Stripes went to grab Yellow Splatters, but the [Sergeant] punched him back. Pink Stripes circled, lashing out with careful punches and keeping two arms back for a guard. Yellow Splatters ignored defense and went for a full-out assault. He—gently—hammered Pink Stripes, dominating his opponent. Despite that, Pink Stripes kept fighting, doggedly avoiding blows and blocking where he could until Yellow Splatters decided it was time to rest.
Exhausted, the new Soldier lowered his guard. The exchange of blows had been intense, and the carapace on his upper right arm and shoulder was slightly cracked. Nevertheless, he was ready for Yellow Splatters to continue.
Good! Yellow Splatters radiated approval and the other Soldiers sensed it. This is what was important. Not books, not stories—this was practical. Aside from rest and food, this was all a Soldier needed. Because the next battle would be upon them soon, and when it occurred, Yellow Splatters wanted his unit as prepared as they could be for it.
…Oddly, it seemed fewer of them were leveling up as fast as they used to be. Of course, higher levels meant they slowed down, but even Yellow Splatters was only a Level 12 [Sergeant]. The other Soldiers should be leveling faster, not slower.
He wondered why that was. Maybe the training was too light? But full-power blows were too dangerous. Well, at least the Soldiers were learning to fight in their off-time. Yellow Splatters beckoned to three Soldiers, wanting to increase the intensity of his sparring when he heard a voice.
Pawn. Yellow Splatters paused and reluctantly turned. The Worker was waiting for him next to the pile of books. The Soldier trotted over and noticed Pawn carefully dusting the books off, arranging them to face the barracks. He stared at the books and then at the Worker, impatiently.
“I mourn the loss of one of our Soldiers. I prayed…but my prayers do not always work. Nevertheless, thank you for fighting as you did. Those Soldiers might have been slaughtered had you not charged in.”
The Worker looked up at Yellow Splatters and he nodded. Pawn always thanked Yellow Splatters and the other Soldiers after a battle. However, this time the Worker hesitated. He clicked his mandibles lightly together and made a weak clicking sound—the Antinium equivalent of clearing his throat.
“I wonder, though, if you are not becoming too brave, Yellow Splatters? It was a very risky maneuver you made. Brave, yes, and it did save lives, but it put you in great danger.”
The [Sergeant] stared at Pawn uncomprehendingly. Of course he had been in danger, charging ahead of the others. Shouldn’t he risk his life?
Pawn seemed to understand his point. He usually did. The Worker nodded his head, clutching the censer with one hand to his chest.
“It is important. I know. But I worry about you. If you should fall—”
The other Soldiers would lose their leader. Yellow Splatters understood at last. That would weaken them, possibly leading to more casualties. Already, he was able to influence his unit as a whole in small ways, like leading a charge with his Skills and so on. He readjusted his view of his usefulness in combat. He was a leader and care was important. Still, Yellow Splatters couldn’t fault his actions. Saving a Soldier’s life was paramount.
Pawn seemed to agree, because he dropped that line of conversation. He looked to the books again and opened his mandibles, then hesitated.
“I ah—notice you have put yourself on combat duty every day for the last two weeks.”
Yellow Splatters nodded. Pawn reached out and touched at Yellow Splatter’s arms. The blood had stopped, but Yellow Splatters had broken chitin on multiple places on his carapace. Pawn looked distressed.
“It is important to have a [Sergeant], but it is not necessary that you fight every battle, Yellow Splatters. You need rest.”
Not yet. The Soldier stood tall, disregarding this suggestion from Pawn. Once he had agonized over everything Pawn said; now he recognized the Worker spoke out of ignorance at times. Misplaced worry and concern for his wellbeing, true, but ignorance all the same. He had to fight, to keep fighting. The battle was all that mattered. So long as his people were dying, he had to fight.
If Pawn understood that, he didn’t show it. Rather, he looked down at the censer and then up at Yellow Splatters.
“I believe you need rest. Or rather, a different kind of rest in addition to your regular sleep, Yellow Splatters.”
Sergeant. Yellow Splatters had no eyes to narrow, but he stared hard at Pawn. What did he mean?
“I am assigning you to tonight’s surface patrol, Yellow Splatters.”
The Soldier recoiled. A surface patrol? That was…ludicrous. He didn’t need to go above!
Above was different from below. Below was real combat, dangerous fighting. Whereas above…Yellow Splatters could remember the joy of first seeing the sun, of walking around and staring at the strange Drakes and Gnolls and people and buildings and…everything! But that enjoyment had become a distant memory. Now he only cared for what really mattered, which was doing his duty.
He wasn’t some new Soldier who needed to become Individual. But Pawn clearly disagreed. He rested a hand on Yellow Splatter’s arm, speaking softly.
“Some food and different scenery will help, or so I believe. And I would like you to meet the Soldier in charge of leading the patrols aboveground. I am considering making him the next [Sergeant].”
That got Yellow Splatter’s attention. He stepped back, letting Pawn’s hand fall off his arm. Another [Sergeant]? Yellow Splatters would be only too willing to see another leader to help protect the Soldiers, but who? Of course he shared the barracks with all the Individual Soldiers, but he was not familiar with the one Pawn mentioned. He had not gone aboveground since he had been promoted.
“The Antinium in question is named Purple Smile. I believe he is taking some Soldiers and new Individuals up in a few minutes. Over there.”
Pawn pointed, and Yellow Splatters saw a group of Soldiers gathering to go to the surface. Among them was Pink Stripes. Yellow Splatters strode over, cutting the rest of what Pawn was saying off and saw the Soldier in charge standing by one of the exits to the barracks.
He was a Soldier. And in that, he was like the others. Only, this Soldier struck Yellow Splatters as somewhat odd instantly. He had paint markings on his body of course, but instead of putting them on his arms, legs, chest, or back, he’d put them on his face.
In fact, he’d carefully painted a purple ring around both of his insectile eyes, and drawn what looked like a smile across his mandibles and lower face. The effect was well, horrific if you weren’t another Antinium. But it was a smile on his face, and his posture wasn’t the military-straightness of most Soldiers either. He leaned against the dirt wall. Since Antinium had problems bending backwards—their carapaces got in the way—he was doing a crazy tilt with his body, leaning his head back against the wall.
It looked ridiculous to Yellow Splatters. However, Purple Smile seemed to be enjoying the activity, and two other Soldiers had already tried to copy him. Yellow Splatters marched over and Purple Smile propelled himself off the wall. He nodded and Yellow Splatters nodded back.
The Soldiers had nothing as elaborate as hand signals. In battle, Yellow Splatters could direct other Soldiers with his mind to a limited degree, which is why pointing is all he needed to do. By contrast Purple Smile pointed, waggled his fingers, and walked them in mimicry of what they were supposed to be doing already. He led the way out of the Antinium Hive at a relaxed, slow pace.
Yellow Splatters already disliked him. And he could not understand why this Soldier of all Soldiers was being considered for a [Sergeant] position!
They went above. Yellow Splatters strode out onto the cobblestone street, not pausing to stare up at the sun or around at the city like all the new Soldiers were doing. Even the ones who’d been above once or twice, like Pink Stripes, were staring.
Purple Smile let them do it. In fact, he kept staring up at a cloud so long that Yellow Splatters had to click his mandibles to get him to move. At last, the other Soldier led them down the street, towards the western gates and the inn that was their regular starting point for each patrol.
It was a mark of the trust Liscor had in the Antinium that a patrol could now be led by one of the Soldiers and not by Pawn himself. Yellow Splatters marched, staring directly at Purple Smile as he meandered down the street. Of course, non-Antinium still got out of the way for their patrol, but Yellow Splatters appreciated that.
What bothered him was the clear awe the other Soldiers held their surroundings in. Every now and then Purple Smile would let them stop to stare at a passing Drake, or at a brick wall, or—or a patch of melting snow!
It hurt to see Soldiers like Pink Stripes, who were pathetically grateful to see the sky, who stared upwards with awe. It hurt because Yellow Splatters understood how mundane the sky was. These other people, the Drakes who passed by on the other side of the street, the Gnolls who sniffed the air and sneezed as they passed by, they saw the sky every day! But most Soldiers would die without this smallest of privileges.
Yellow Splatters snapped his mandibles together irritably and Purple Smile turned to look at him curiously. Pointedly, Yellow Splatters looked ahead and Purple Smile reluctantly picked up the pace.
At last, they marched out of the city and through the wet snow to the inn. There Purple Smile knocked on the door. It was some time before it opened, and when it did, he heard muffled voices and a lot of shuffling sounds.
“Hi, hi! Sorry for the delay!”
The door opened and Erin Solstice opened it, smiling widely. Yellow Splatters stared at her, and saw Purple Smiles open and raise his mandibles in a smile. Erin peered at him and then smiled back.
“Hey, it’s you! Scary-purple-smile-guy! How’s it been? You’re here for food, right? Where’s Pawn? Not with you this time? Well, come on in and—”
She opened the door wider and Yellow Splatters froze. Inside the inn were monsters.
Goblins. Five of them, sitting around a table, eating. They froze when they saw the Antinium. One reached for a sword until another grabbed his arm. Yellow Splatters was quicker, though. He raised his fists and the Soldiers around him stared. Belatedly, copying his example, they raised theirs. Erin’s eyes went round and wide.
“Wait, what are you doing?”
The Goblins in the inn reacted to the threat. They surged upwards, pushing their chairs back and now all of them did draw their weapons. Immediately Yellow Splatters and the other Soldiers tensed up, grouping together, getting ready to rush in.
Goblins! Yellow Splatters buzzed with anticipation. So, there was real fighting to be had above, was there? He hadn’t ever met this kind of Goblin before—they were far larger than the pallid, small Goblins who sometimes rushed the tunnels, but he’d take them down anyways. He began to charge when a set of four hands grabbed him.
Purple Smile yanked Yellow Splatters back and barred the way into the inn. He pointed at the Goblins and shook his head, to the surprise of all the Soldiers. Meanwhile, Erin was yelping, waving her hands and saying the same thing.
“Don’t attack! They’re friendly! I thought Pawn told you—these are good Goblins, okay? There’s no need to fight! Does anyone read the sign?”
Erin looked exasperatedly towards Purple Smile. He raised an authoritative hand and Yellow Splatters realized that Pawn had said something of the kind, only he’d walked away too fast to hear. Slowly, reluctantly, he lowered his fists and the other Soldiers copied him.
“That’s the first time I’ve had to—who’s the big guy? Wait, we’ve met, haven’t we?”
The [Innkeeper] stared at Yellow Splatters curiously. He returned the look for a second and then glanced at Purple Smile. The Goblins sat down cautiously and Purple Smile walked into the room as if nothing was the matter. Warily, Yellow Splatters followed.
The other Soldiers entered the inn, sitting at a group of tables far away from the Goblins, staring at them curiously. Those who’d been to the inn before were clearly eager for food. Yellow Splatters sat in a seat with a good view of the Goblins—just in case—and focused his attention on the young woman rushing in and out of the kitchen, calling for help.
“Sorry, sorry! I was feeding Mrsha—oh! The Antinium are here! I’ll be right with you all with your orders!”
Lyonette rushed downstairs, smiling as soon as she saw the Antinium. She seemed to know Purple Smile too, and waved to him as he hurried into the kitchen. Yellow Splatters continued staring at Erin every time she came out.
He couldn’t understand why Pawn held Erin in such high regard. He had taken Yellow Splatters to see Erin, and told him about how he had become Individual thanks to her. And yes, Yellow Splatters acknowledged she was willing to cook for the Antinium and had taught Pawn to play chess. What of it? Could she help save Soldiers’ lives?
Her soup could. But the food that was placed in front of the Antinium wasn’t the enchanted mixture they sometimes ate before battle. Rather, it was a scramble of eggs, bacon, and cheese, a hot bowl of filling food. It was ideal since Antinium couldn’t handle gluten. And it was also useless.
Useless. Yellow Splatters felt his innards gurgling as he stared at the food and inhaled its aroma. He wanted to eat it, and yet something stayed his hand. Purple Smile was already munching down his food with gusto, as were the rest of the Soldiers, but the longer Yellow Splatters stared at his bowl, the angrier he got.
It was hard to explain. Yes, the food smelled wonderful. However, Yellow Splatters couldn’t focus on it. His thoughts were below, with the Soldiers whom Belgrade had assigned to the dungeon’s entrance. How could he eat while they were suffering? There were Soldiers dying in the Hive right now. Soldiers who would never taste this food. And here he was being served this—while his people might never have such luxuries!
Yellow Splatters didn’t know what he was doing until he was on his feet. Erin had paused as she was coming out with hot honey milk for all the Soldiers. Yellow Splatters lifted his bowl. Deliberately, staring at her the entire time, he overturned it, letting the hot food fall to the floor.
Erin blinked. The Soldiers sitting around Yellow Splatters froze. He folded both sets of arms, looking around challengingly. The Goblins had paused in eating and they were poking each other and staring at him, muttering. But Yellow Splatters didn’t care about that.
He looked at the other Soldiers. They were free to eat if they wished, but Yellow Splatters wouldn’t waste the Hive’s resources purchasing food when there were more important things to do. He received enough nutrition from the food in the Hive. This patrol aboveground, paying for food, eating with monsters—it was all pointless!
The other Soldiers stared at him, and then at Purple Smile. The Soldier had paused when Yellow Splatter overturned his bowl. He looked at the splatter of food on the ground and bent. He scooped up the fallen eggs and cheese and bacon and slopped a handful into his bowl.
“Oh don’t do that—I can make more. If you don’t like it, I can uh—what’s the matter?”
Erin raised her hands, looking uncertainly at Yellow Splatters. But then the other Soldiers moved. As one, all except for Purple Smile, they pushed back their bowls and stood up. Yellow Splatters saw Pink Stripes hesitate before pushing back his bowl of eggs, untouched.
Erin stared around, and Lyonette poked her head out of the kitchen, disbelieving. Purple Smile stared around in silence, and then clicked his mandibles together softly and got up without a word. Yellow Splatters looked around the inn, at Erin, at the Goblins, and then turned.
The Antinium left the inn as one. They marched quickly back into the city and into the Hive. Once there, they began to train. Or rather, Yellow Splatters did and the others followed his example. Yellow Splatters worked his arms and legs, trading blows, pushing himself harder. Pawn wasn’t there—probably thinking he’d be out of the city for several hours.
Yellow Splatters didn’t mind the patrol with Purple Stripes after an hour of sparring and then eating brown paste at one of the mess halls. He felt good about the entire affair, actually. He had established what should be done and the other Soldiers had followed his example. Hopefully, now they’d stop going above altogether and they could focus on what was really important.
Fighting. Fighting in order to save lives. Compared to that, eating, seeing the sky…it was all pointless.
“You did what?”
It was perhaps the first time Pawn had ever raised his voice when speaking to a Soldier. He stood in front of Yellow Splatters, his mandibles opened wide and lowered in disbelief. Yellow Splatters looked ahead, waiting for Pawn to finish talking.
“The patrol is what Soldiers look forward to each day! The food was already paid for—why waste it?”
Yellow Splatters didn’t bother trying to explain to Pawn. He was a Worker. That was becoming more obvious. He glanced towards the pile of unread books and then away. Yellow Splatters turned.
“Sergeant! I am not done speaking with you—”
But he was done listening. The Soldier marched back to the sparring area and raised his four fists. The other Soldiers stared at him uncertainly, looking back towards Pawn. Yellow Splatters ignored them and gestured.
They’d have to expand the fighting area soon. It was too confined to allow more than a fifth of the barracks to practice at once. Too, they needed a larger barracks. More Soldiers should become Individual. Yes, a lot more. Pawn could take them on patrols to the surface rather than waste time here.
Yellow Splatters looked around for a partner since none were coming to him. He spotted a familiar Soldier, punching weakly with another one in a corner of the sparring area. Pink Stripes wavered as Yellow Splatters approached, but he put his fists up and tried to spar.
This time Yellow Splatters made Pink Stripes go on the offensive, blocking blows, thrusting aside weak punches. He put force behind his blocks, making Pink Stripes work hard for every hit he landed. He kept the spar going until someone thrust himself between the two Soldiers.
Pawn again. The Worker pushed Pink Stripes back since Yellow Splatters wouldn’t move. He clicked his mandibles together repeatedly, looking angrily at the [Sergeant].
“Enough. He is exhausted.”
The Soldier looked towards Pink Stripes. Yes, he was wavering on his feet. So what? That was the point. Soldiers had to fight when they were tired. Sparring like this was the only way to level up, to become stronger. He tried to push past Pawn, but the Worker barred his way.
“I said, enough! I am your leader—I order you to stop, Yellow Splatters!”
Yellow Splatters stared at Pawn. Then he carefully put one of his spade-like hands out and pushed the Worker out of the way.
The barracks, never loud to begin with, went completely silent. Every Soldier stared at Yellow Spatters and at Pawn, frozen where they stood. They stared at Pawn. The Worker seemed as stunned as the others. He looked to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier turned his back on the Worker and raised his fists.
Every Soldier in the room stared to their [Sergeant], and then to Pawn. They hesitated. They looked back and forth, and then, silently, chose. They turned their backs on Pawn, looking to Yellow Splatters instead. He smiled, and turned to Pink Stripes. The other Soldier was looking at Pawn, but he jerked back towards Yellow Splatters. He too raised his fist and Yellow Splatters beckoned. He lashed out and Pink Stripes dodged back wearily.
Helplessly, Pawn stood, watching the other Soldiers. Now they were all sparring, all carefully not looking at him. He looked around, but none of the other Antinium would meet his gaze. Guiltily, they looked away and followed their leader, Yellow Splatters. He smiled as he continued to spar.
Yes, this was how it should be. Pawn was a…Worker in the end. He had his role, but that was only to assist the Soldiers. They were doing the important job. Fight, train, and die. Fight to make sure the other Soldiers would live longer.
Wasn’t that all that mattered? Yellow Splatters looked into Pink Stripe’s multifaceted eyes and saw his reflection looking back. Yes. It was the only thing that mattered.
The inn had never been so quiet, never been as empty as these last few days. Lyonette sat at one of the tables, cleaning up bowls of food, barely touched. She poured some lukewarm eggs from one bowl into another and paused.
“It’s so much. We can’t waste this, can we?”
Drassi shrugged, looking concerned. She had arrived a few minutes ago to help with what should have been the evening rush. Instead, she was helping clean up from the Antinium after they had left abruptly. Lyonette had no idea what had happened there, only that it had something to do with that strange Antinium with the yellow splashes on his body.
“I know the Antinium have eaten some of it, but it seems a shame to waste. Couldn’t we…feed it to someone? Give it away somehow? I mean…”
She didn’t really want to eat food the Antinium had been nibbling on, but it did feel like a shame. Drassi paused and eyed the table.
“What if we scooped it all up and found some pigs to give it to? There’s at least one [Farmer] around here who keeps pigs. Or goats. We could give it to them. I know this old Drake who raises these huge pigs that taste really great—I could ask him if you want. I don’t think the pigs will mind the bacon, I mean, they eat everything and I mean everything.”
“That’s a good idea, Drassi!”
Lyonette smiled. The talkative Drake [Barmaid] grinned at her and emptied another bowl into a larger container. Then she froze and her scales turned pale as she looked up. Lyonette turned her head and froze.
A Goblin stood in front of their table. He was just standing there, but the Hobgoblin was taller than either Drake or Human, and both their eyes were drawn to the sword hanging at his belt. He was wearing pants and a belt—awkwardly, but that didn’t disguise his Goblin features, only emphasize them.
Drassi trembled and took a step back. Lyonette made herself stand taller and smile at the Hobgoblin, although her heart was pounding.
“Hi there. Headscratcher, isn’t it? Can I help you?”
The Goblin nodded. Gingerly, Headscratcher pointed to the bowls of eggs and mimed eating them. Lyonette blinked.
“What, you want them? Don’t you mind that they’ve been eaten?”
Headscratcher shook his head. Lyonette traded glances with Drassi.
“Okay then—uh, let us bring them over.”
She waited until Headscratcher retreated to the table where the five Goblins were sitting. They were already eating a pile of greasy bacon—and several loaves of buttered bread, but Lyonette knew their appetites were endless. She turned to Drassi and the Drake gave her a pleading look.
“You just collect the bowls here, and I’ll bring them over, okay?”
The Drake gave her a pathetic look of gratitude. Lyonette hurried over to the table. The Goblins cleared a space and the one called Badarrow grunted in what might have been thanks. He was definitely the grumpy Goblin of the five. Not that Lyonette had gotten to know them that well; they kept to themselves.
They kept eating, and Lyonette finished putting the last bowl on their table. She retreated to finish cleaning up with Drassi. Both [Barmaids] got out rags and soapy water and began to scrub, chattering amongst themselves.
“That scared me. I mean, I’ve been here two days with them and I know they’re…okay. But I just come in and—”
Lyonette sighed as she looked back towards the Goblins. She caught one of them—Numbtongue—looking at her and both Goblin and Human quickly glanced away. Lyonette grimaced.
The Goblins. Of all Erin’s ideas, and she had had many good ones, crazy ones, and extraordinarily bad ones, this might be the worst. Not that Lyonette didn’t have sympathy or understand why she’d done it. It was just that the consequence of her actions had really sunk in by now.
The inn was deserted. No one had come in today, from Celum or Liscor save for the two adventuring groups staying here. Added to that, the one employee who came by—Ishkr still hadn’t returned after Brunkr’s death—was scared stiff of the Goblins. If it came to that, so was Lyonette.
How could she not be? They were Goblins, no, not just Goblins, but Hobgoblins, the terror of little children’s dreams! You heard stories of Hobs sneaking into houses to kidnap children, and the way they could kill Silver-rank adventurers. It was all very well for them to sit around and just eat, but every time Lyonette saw their crimson eyes or caught them staring at her, she felt afraid.
And she never knew what they were thinking, either. The Goblins rarely spoke, just poked each other and grunted. And if they did speak, it was in their own guttural language. She couldn’t tell if they hated her, if they liked what was going on or anything. Whenever they came out of the cellar Lyonette felt like she was walking on eggshells.
Drassi clearly felt the same way. She was chattering, as usual. And whenever Drassi was upset, she chattered more than usual. Lyonette had gotten used to it and tried to tune most of it out.
“It’s just, I mean, I’m cool with Gnolls. Grew up around them my whole life, dated two—not that fun, let me tell you. Gnolls get so serious when you’re in a relationship, talking about the tribe, never wanting to just have a fling—and they’re furry. Hair everywhere, especially in beds. Scales I can handle, but hair? I don’t know how you Humans stand it. But then, you don’t have much hair, do you? But Gnolls…and the Antinium are fine. I don’t see them much. Klbkch has been around ever since I was young, so I’m totally used to him—”
“And Humans? Hah, totally cool. Okay, every year there are drills and alarms when the Humans send an army to the Blood Fields and we’re not supposed to like them and ancient history and all that but, Ancestors, at least they’re fun to party with! That door to Celum is great—and the plays! I liked them, I really did, although a bunch of my friends hated the Juliet and Romeo one. You know, because of interspecies relationships? I dunno, I don’t mind, do you?”
“Exactly! So Goblins. Totally get what Erin’s saying. I think. No killing Goblins. They don’t kill us, we don’t kill them. Easy. Except for the Goblin Lord. And Goblins who steal. That’s a problem. But I wish they’d talk, you know? Raise their voices? It’d be better than scaring my scales off—I might go bald! At my age! If they just said something—”
Too late, Lyonette realized where Drassi was going and saw a Goblin moving. One stood up from his table and Drassi shut up quick. She backed up and Lyonette stepped in front of her. The Goblin who was walking towards them was…Numbtongue. She smiled at him, remembering where Erin had told her all of Octavia’s alchemy weapons were hidden.
“Hi, sorry about that. Drassi was just talking.”
He narrowed his eyes are her. Lyonette could feel Drassi shaking. She smiled, and then, amazingly, Numbtongue grunted and spoke.
“No offense. Clarify. To Drake. Why Goblins not speak.”
She gaped at him. Behind him, Drassi had frozen.
“You can speak?”
Numbtongue gave her an exasperated look and nodded. The other four Goblins were leaning out from their table, peering at his back. They looked away as Lyonette’s eyes slid towards them. Numbtongue grumbled a bit, and then looked at Drassi. He narrowed his eyes at her and spoke again.
“Goblins can speak. Speak all kinds of word. And can hear. Can listen. Don’t speak because we don’t need. Understand?”
The Drake quivered and nodded repeatedly.
“Y-yes! I totally understand! You’re good? That’s good! I’m glad everyone’s good! Please don’t get mad! I was only—”
Drassi shrank back against the wall, serving platter clutched in front of her like a shield. Numbtongue looked at her, snorted, and then stomped away. Lyonette wavered between going after him and comforting Drassi. She chose the latter.
“Don’t worry! He was just trying to—to well, explain, I guess. Goblins can speak, they just don’t want to. And they can hear us, okay?”
“Got it! Got it. I was just—I was talking and I didn’t mean—”
“I’m sure they’re not offended.”
Lyonette peeked at the Goblins. Badarrow rolled his eyes and shook his head. Shorthilt looked up, halfway through inhaling a rash of bacon, and waved a hand. Drassi relaxed a bit.
“But why don’t we talk about something else instead? Or not talk?”
“I can do that, I think. Not talk. I did that for an entire day once, on a dare. Selys bet me two silver coins I couldn’t do it, and it was worth it seeing her face. And I don’t talk all the time, I just like to talk, you know? Who doesn’t talk to people? It’s better to talk than not talk is what I say, which is why I thought about being a [Receptionist], but Selys said that if I applied she’d quit, so I decided—”
Smiling, Lyonette rolled her eyes and turned around. She frowned as she saw a flash of white by the stairs.
Every head downstairs turned. The Gnoll cub froze as she crept downstairs, the wand she’d stolen from Pisces in hand. Her eyes went wide as she saw the Goblins looking at her. She looked to Lyonette.
“It’s okay. They’re just eating. Sorry—”
Lyonette looked at the Goblins and they turned back to their food. Erin had explained to the Goblins that Mrsha was afraid of them, although they hadn’t brought up the details of Goblins actually slaughtering her tribe. Lyonette approached the stairwell, holding her hands out. Mrsha was trembling as she stared at the Goblins’ backs.
The Gnoll looked at her, made a hissing sound, and fled back upstairs. Lyonette nearly went after them, until she heard Erin’s voice.
“Okay, I am done making bread! I’ve made enough bread for an entire month, so if we need it—bread’s done! Whew!”
She emerged from the kitchen in a small cloud of flour, dusting her hands. Erin had been cooking a lot in order to keep up with the Goblins’ appetites. She spotted the Goblins and waked over to them, smiling carefully.
They looked up at her warily. Erin paused a few feet from their table and raised her voice. She was trying a bit too hard to be friendly, Lyonette thought.
“How are you guys doing? Good? Sorry about the Antinium. Don’t know what was up with that. You liking the food?”
They nodded. Erin stared at them.
“How’s the bacon? Good? Anyone want more?”
They nodded, and then shook their heads. Lyonette stared at Numbtongue, but he didn’t seem inclined to say anything. Erin hesitated. Clearly she would have preferred conversation.
“You’re cool? I mean, you don’t want more food?”
The Goblins nodded. Erin stared helplessly at them.
“Okay, then. Let me know if you need…anything.”
They did not. And when they were done eating, they got up, went to use the outhouse, and then opened the cellar door and went into the basement without a word. Lyonette collected the bowls and utensils. They’d been licked clean.
“I guess you can wash these if you want.”
She suggested that to Drassi. The Drake nodded, and then looked anxious.
“Lyonette, look…I haven’t been doing much, and there’s not a lot for me to do right now. Are you sure I should be here? I can work less time if you think—”
Lyonette forced herself to smile at Drassi reassuringly.
“What, and rob you of your pay? Don’t worry about it. Erin tells me we have a lot of money, and I don’t want to wash all these dishes.”
“Still, wiping a few tables and washing dishes isn’t exactly a lot, you know?”
She had a point. Lyonette thought and replied carefully.
“If you want to take care of the Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers when they come by, I could use a break. How about that?”
Drassi beamed in relief.
“Oh, yes, thanks! I can’t just go back and not do anything; I’d feel like a total sponge, just like Wessa! Have I told you about her? Dreadful. She’s got no class—or classes! I think she’s what, a Level 2 [Laborer]? She sponges money off of everyone. Now, I try to talk to her, but she never listens. Do you know what she told Selys one time? Selys nearly decked her for saying it. Okay it was—”
Lyonette listened to her for a few more minutes, nodding mechanically, and then excused herself to go into the kitchen while Drassi wiped the Goblin’s table down. Erin was sitting in the kitchen, in front of about forty loafs of pristine bread. Lyonette stared at the bread pile and then looked at Erin.
Erin stared at the bread she’d baked all day, looking glum. She turned towards Lyonette.
“No. It’s the Goblins.”
“What…precisely about them?”
The [Innkeeper] sighed.
“I don’t know if they like it here, Lyonette. I don’t know if I’m talking with them or if it’s all pointless, you know?”
“I think I do.”
Erin nodded, ticking off problems on her floury fingers.
“They don’t like chess, other games, talking, or hanging around upstairs, Lyonette. I guess I can’t blame them, since no one likes them. And no one will come here until they’re gone, which I know might not be a bad thing, but if they go now—”
“You want to be friends with them first?”
Lyonette rested her backside on the counter. Erin looked at her, shrugged, tried to laugh, and gave up.
“Not that. I don’t need to be friends with them, but I want them to understand me. I want to understand them, just a bit. Or—or I want them to leave and know how I feel about them. I’m just trying to tell them—I don’t know.”
Erin sighed, her shoulders slumping. She looked at Lyonette, worry in her eyes.
“If they disappear in the middle of the night Lyonette, or decide to try and find Rags or—or do anything, I think they’ll be killed. Zevara’s watching the inn—I can feel it. And I’m not sure the Halfseekers wouldn’t follow them either. And if they got around all of them, if they go back north—the Goblin Lord’s soldiers will kill them, right? They’re the enemy tribe.”
“Maybe. But they’re used to living alone, aren’t they? Don’t you think they’d prefer to find their own people?”
Carefully, Lyonette peeked at Erin. The young woman sighed.
“Probably. It’s just that I don’t think they know where Rags is. And…they’re lost, Lyonette. Lost. That’s what I get from them. I want to help them a bit. And I just don’t know if I can, or if they’re willing. I can’t understand them.”
“I think they understand more than they let on.”
“Yeah. Probably. But even if they do, that’s not the same as connecting with us, as liking us or—or getting to really know us.”
“Mm. Maybe they don’t want to. Have you thought about that?”
Erin looked up. Her gaze firmed a bit as she met Lyonette’s eyes.
“I have. And I don’t believe that. Rags wanted to know. I think these Goblins are just—afraid.”
Afraid? Only Erin would characterize them that way. Lyonette sat with her, not knowing what else to say.
“They’ll have to do something sometime. They’re already starting to eat less.”
“Yeah. I think it’ll end soon, one way or the other. Thanks for putting up with this, Lyonette. I know Mrsha’s…”
Mrsha. She refused to eat downstairs anymore, and she had grown increasingly agitated as days went by. She refused to play with Lyonette, refused to give back Pisces’ wand—not that he’d tried hard to recover it—and Lyonette knew she was growing more upset. She might have tried to get Selys or Krshia to look after her, but Mrsha refused to go. She refused to leave and she refused to go anywhere near the Goblins.
Both girls were silent for a moment, and then Erin looked up.
“Thank you for all the help, Lyonette. Can you bear with it for a while longer? I think it won’t be long.”
“I can, don’t worry about me.”
Lyonette smiled. And she was telling the truth. But as she left Erin to sit by herself in the kitchen, she thought that she wasn’t the one Erin needed to be worried about. The inn had been empty for days, Drassi was afraid, Mrsha wouldn’t go downstairs or interact with Lyonette, and the Goblins were growing restless.
The Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers barely came back except to eat and sleep, and sometimes not to eat. And the Antinium had been acting very odd lately. Especially the one who’d refused to eat his food. If they all started refusing to eat at Erin’s inn, how long could it stay open with almost no revenue?
Yes, she wasn’t the one Erin should be worried about. It was everyone else.
Night fell. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. Yellow Spatters knew the dungeon sent monsters to attack be it day or night, so he took the first rotation on the front lines. They had been pushed up right to the dungeon’s entrance, so he took nineteen Soldiers, including Pink Stripes, to be on alert.
They clashed with monsters twice, both times smashing the enemy—a wave of Shield Spiders and then giant centipedes—into pulp. Yellow Splatters kept the Soldiers at their post for four hours, and then brought them back to the barracks.
He was tired now, but he still had enough energy, so Yellow Splatters began to spar with the Soldiers on the night rotation. Train, train! He wanted to get to Level 13 today or tomorrow. He was so engrossed in his mock combat with the two Soldiers that he only noticed Pink Stripes when he walked into the sparring arena.
The new Antinium Soldier was battered from his day’s activities. The cracked chitin from Yellow Spatters’ blows, the fatigue of going above and then patrolling with the other Soldiers—he was clearly tired, but Yellow Spatters appreciated his willingness to spar. He stepped towards Pink Stripes, ready for a bout, when the other Antinium began to suddenly shudder.
Yellow Spatters stopped in surprise. Pink Stripes was trembling in place, in the center of the sparring area. He was shaking, bending to clutch at his antennae, backing up from Yellow Splatters. His mandibles clashed together wildly, and then his body convulsed.
His head lowered, and then it rose. All four of Pink Stripe’s hands clenched into fists, and as he looked up, towards Yellow Splatters, there was something different about his gaze. His mandibles opened as wide as they could, and a strangled, half-scream emerged from his mouth.
The Soldiers in the barracks froze. Soldiers didn’t speak! They couldn’t make real noises, but Pink Stripes—
There was madness in his gaze. No, not madness. Something worse. He trembled as he lurched towards Yellow Spatters, and the [Sergeant] Antinium realized with a cold chill what had happened.
Aberration. Pink Stripes had become an Aberration.
But how? He was Individual! He shouldn’t become—Soldiers almost never became—
It was too late for questions. Pink Stripes lunged at Yellow Spatters, hands reaching to tear him apart. He bit, his mandibles trying to pierce Yellow Splatters’ body, his fists pounding on the larger Antinium.
Other Soldiers rushed forwards, yanking Pink Stripes off Yellow Spatters. There were over a hundred in the barracks, but Pink Stripes fought with possessed strength, throwing Soldiers off him, battering the ones who tried to hold him down, all the while trying to attack Yellow Spatters.
In the end, Pink Stripes was contained, bars of iron bent and hammered into crude restraints to prevent him from attacking anyone. He still thrashed around on the ground though, staring at Yellow Splatters. With…hate in his eyes.
It was incomprehensible. Yellow Spatters lay where he had fallen, even when Pawn and Klbkch rushed into the barracks, demanding answers. He stared at Pink Stripes, as the Aberration gazed in fury at him and was taken to a holding cell. A holding cell that had to be constructed before he could be taken there.
Yellow Spatters lay on the ground, seeing Soldiers look at him, avoiding Pawn’s despairing gaze and sensing Purple Smile staring at him across the room. But all the while, he was looking at Pink Stripes, at the Soldier who had abandoned who he was. Why? For what reason? They were doing this for Soldiers like Pink Stripes. Everything Yellow Spatters had done—the war was still continuing. Why had Pink Stripes become Aberration?
He did not understand.
Miles from where Yellow Spatters lay, far higher and aboveground, a young Gnoll was awake. Mrsha had not slept, though Lyonette was already wrapped up in her blankets in the room the two shared. No, Mrsha had been awake. Her nose twitched as she padded past Lyonette’s head, tail tucked between her legs. How could she sleep when there were monsters, killers, murderers in the same building?
She crept around in her room, her nose full of the smells of the Goblins slumbering below. She could smell them throughout the inn now, no matter how much she buried her face in the comforting smells of Lyonette’s pillow or opened the windows to let the cold air in.
Killers. Tribe murderers. Monsters. Mrsha could remember them streaming through the snow, cutting down her friends, family. The Stone Spears tribe, everyone—
The memories tore at Mrsha. Mrsha, the [Lone Survivor]. That knowledge weighed on her hardest of all. She sniffed, and knew the Goblins were sleeping. They were right below her, right below.
She prowled, and her teeth ground together as her claws clicked across the floor. The wand she’d stolen from Pisces was grasped awkwardly in her paw. Mrsha swung it again, but it didn’t do any magic.
They were here. And they would be in the inn, eating, laughing, living, while her tribe was dead. Not right. It was not right. Mrsha growled, and Lyonette stirred. The Gnoll quieted, but the feeling remained in the silence. She sat up as the night grew longer, her paw gripping the wand tightly, smelling the Goblins.
Hating, hating, hating.