Yellow Splatters woke up a few hours after dawn for his shift. He got up, ate the pinkish-brown paste he was served, and marched at the head of his unit of Soldiers to the front. Pawn was not there. Neither was Twin Stripes.
It felt wrong. And yet, this is what Yellow Splatters had wanted, wasn’t it? The thought threw the [Sergeant] as he set a quick pace down the tunnels. Yes. No. It was…different from what he’d wanted.
He hadn’t wanted Twin Stripes to become an Aberration, obviously. That was simply an anomaly, something Yellow Splatters couldn’t explain. Weakness, perhaps. As for Pawn, he just wanted the Worker to know his place. And that place was helping Soldiers, not—not running off!
“Ah. Yellow Splatters. You’re here.”
The Soldiers stopped and the thirty Soldiers he’d brought paused behind him. Anand, Belgrade, and Pawn were all standing around the command ‘table’, which was really just a folding table made of wood they could put a map on. Pawn met Yellow Splatters’ eyes as the Soldier approached, but said nothing. Yellow Splatters did his best to pretend he didn’t exist.
If Anand was aware of the situation he didn’t show it. The [Tactician] was rapidly giving out orders to Soldiers and Workers around him. The dungeon’s attacks weren’t exactly like clockwork—not that the Antinium were familiar with that concept anyways—but they could be predicted with a good deal of accuracy. And right now it was about to get dangerous.
“I’m already receiving reports of movement around two of the dungeon entrances. I want to be ready when they hit. Yellow Splatters, divide your command into three equal groups for today. I will be using them to strike targets of opportunity while you engage the most dangerous foes that appear.”
Yellow Splatters snapped to attention and turned. He gestured, and the Soldiers moved with mechanical precision. Gone was his indecisiveness of earlier, his worries. This was what he was made to do. War. It was so simple.
Anand nodded in approval and immediately sent Yellow Splatters towards the nearest signs of monster activity. The other two groups were assigned to Pawn and a Soldier as Yellow Splatters left. He didn’t like Pawn being in charge, but there was no time to dwell on it.
The monsters were coming.
Trivipers, a group of armed Raskghar and Cave Goblins, a small horde of Shield Spiders and worst of all, a Bagrhaven. The monsters seemed unusually agitated today, or perhaps there were just more of them than usual. Yellow Splatters didn’t care. His group of ten Painted Soldiers smashed into each new threat, sometimes accompanied by other Soldiers, sometimes not.
It didn’t matter. They won each time. Yellow Splatters fought as hard as he could, relishing the simple brutality of it. He didn’t have to think when he was in combat. Actually, he did—but it wasn’t about difficult things.
Like Twin Stripes. Or Pawn. Yellow Splatters couldn’t get his mind off them, no matter how hard he tried. It wasn’t his fault that Twin Stripes had become an Aberration! No. No it wasn’t. Twin Stripes had…done something wrong. Or maybe he was wrong from the start. But Yellow Splatters had shown him what to do, what was right and he’d become an Aberration on his own. That was all there was to it.
The Soldiers under Yellow Splatters’ command retreated after slaying the Bagrhaven, their carapaces damaged by her long claws. Personally, Yellow Splatters thought they could fight longer, but Anand had given them the order to pull back.
The [Tactician] was leading the fighting around all three dungeon entrances today. Belgrade was giving no orders, which both puzzled and relieved Yellow Splatters. He would have been happy if the Workers had left everything to Anand, but distressingly, they were still holding the ground around all three entrances, far closer to the dungeon than made sense. Anand’s mobile strategy was far more difficult to employ in the few tunnels they were holding.
The [Sergeant] marched his unit back behind the lines of Soldiers and Workers flooding ahead to hold the breach and clear away monster and Antinium bodies, thinking hard. Was it because Anand was worried monsters might slip through into the rest of the Hive? Or was it Belgrade’s stupid ideas taking hold in him as well? He wasn’t sure, but he was angry. And he got angrier when he saw the stone.
In the tunnels where his unit had been pulled back to rest in was a sea of Workers, far more than usual for the front. Workers were poor combatants compared to Soldiers and usually only repaired tunnels or hauled away dead bodies. But these ones were here for a different reason. They were hauling blocks and chunks of stone towards the dirt tunnels, deconstructing walls, opening the area up. Yellow Splatters stared in disbelief.
What were they doing? They were removing the tunnels he normally fought in with his Soldiers—the area in which monsters would begin to attack each other if given the chance. And worse, they were using stones! Stones? Who used stones?
In the Hive, construction began and ended with dirt for the most part. The Antinium could pack dirt so tightly together and create support beams out of the stuff. Only rarely did they need to use wood, and stone they left alone unless they had to dig through it. It was too cumbersome to use and unnecessary since a group of Workers could excavate a tunnel or rebuild one in less than an hour.
But for some reason, stone had been ordered and here it was. And of course, one [Tactician] was supervising it all. Belgrade was overseeing whatever construction was going on here. Yellow Splatters stared at him with distrust and suspicion until he was ordered back to the front.
This time it was to stop a group of Crypt Lords that were rampaging forwards with a small army of zombies. It was a huge push, and Yellow Splatters arrived at a run to find that one group of the Colored Antinium was already fighting the undead with every Soldier and Worker in the area.
Purple Smile led a group of ten Painted Soldiers, smashing zombies down and stomping the corpses to bits. Yellow Splatters froze when he saw the other Antinium. Anand had put him in charge of the other soldiers? His soldiers? Why?
But there was no time to wonder. A Crypt Lord charged into a group of regular Soldiers, a gaping mouth spewing black poisonous blood everywhere. Yellow Splatters ran at the hulking monster and began tearing it apart with his Soldiers.
Advance, tear, punch, rend. Rip. The way Yellow Splatters fought was simple. He trusted to his [Tough Carapace] Skill and used his other abilities to inflict as much damage as possible. The Crypt Lord went down after knocking one of the Painted Soldiers into a wall and spitting black blood over the second.
Yellow Splatters immediately sent the Painted Soldier running back towards the command area for an antidote potion and turned to see how Purple Smile was doing. He was a Soldier, after all. That meant he had to be good at fighting, right?
To his outrage, Yellow Splatters saw that across the wide tunnel, Purple Smile was running away. The Colored Antinium had all of his Soldiers in full retreat as two Crypt Lords lurched towards them. Why was he running? They had to hold this place! Yellow Splatters ran forwards as the Antinium withdrew. He only froze when he heard a voice shouting at him.
It was Anand’s voice. The [Tactician] had come to the front himself. The Antinium had fallen back as the Crypt Lords moved further into the tunnel. The zombies were nearly all destroyed, and as Yellow Splatters watched, he saw Purple Smile and his Soldiers moving around the Crypt Lords, flanking them from behind. Anand raised his hand and bellowed an order.
“Charge! [Decisive Blows]! [Evasive Tactics]!”
The two Skills immediately took effect and Yellow Splatters charged into the first Crypt Lord. Every time he swung into the rotting undead’s flesh he felt like he was punching as hard as he could. And when the giant monster swiped at him, Yellow Splatters and the Antinium around him were forewarned and already moving out of the way.
The battle ended with both undead torn to pieces. Not a single Soldier or Worker had been hurt or even wounded. Yellow Splatters looked at Anand with appreciation. This was real tactics! The Worker nodded at him and pointed back down the tunnel.
“Pull back your Soldiers for now, Yellow Splatters. I think the worst of it is over. We will discuss the after battle reports with Belgrade and Pawn.”
Yellow Splatters nodded and raised a hand. All twenty Soldiers in the tunnels fell in behind him. He felt proud, tired, but exhilarated with the combat. This was right! And none of his Soldiers had fallen in battle today. That proved he was doing the correct thing! His satisfaction lasted all of two seconds, until Anand turned to Purple Smile.
“Good work, Purple Smile. Your tactical decisions were most astute.”
The other Soldier nodded as Anand turned. Yellow Splatters turned to stare at him. His heart began to beat faster and his mandibles snapped together angrily. Purple Smile had done a good job?
“Work is proceeding smoothly. Today should be the end of it, unless I run into an unexpected situation.”
Belgrade was addressing the other two Workers at the table while Yellow Splatters stood at attention, fuming. Partly because he was being ignored, and partly because he had company. Purple Smile stood more or less at attention; he was slouching and rubbing at a cut in his armor with one hand. Yellow Splatters stared at him and clicked his mandibles together sharply and quickly until Purple Smile reluctantly straightened.
The other three Workers always discussed casualties, unexpected monsters and so on after each attack when they were together. It was sensible, but today Yellow Splatters didn’t want to be here, especially since no one would ask him his opinion. He was impatient and determined not to show it. Anand nodded to Belgrade as the first [Tactician] bent over the map.
“In that case, we will plan for the worst and assume another day of fighting. We are certainly able to keep the containment for another day at least. Casualties were higher, again, than usual, but thanks to the Colored Antinium we were never in any danger of being overrun.”
“Is that so?”
Pawn glanced at Yellow Splatters as the Soldier stood straighter. Anand nodded, glancing over to him. Then he looked at Purple Smile and lifted his mandibles.
“Yes. Actually, I was delighted to see how Purple Smile reacted today when the Crypt Lords attacked. Your group was efficient, Pawn, and Yellow Splatters subdued more threats than any other, but Purple Smile retreated when the Crypt Lords first attacked, choosing only to fight zombies and buying time for me to send reinforcements. Indeed, his defensive strategy may have saved more lives than if he’d attacked blindly.”
It felt as though Anand had taken a stick and jabbed Yellow Splatters in the insides. He stared at Purple Smile as the other Soldier lifted his own mandibles and waved with two hands at the Workers. Anand bowed slightly towards him, and Belgrade looked approving as well.
“That is fortunate. Indeed. No wonder you suggested he become a [Sergeant] as well, Pawn. I have witnessed Purple Smile’s efficiency in combat as well. He is not as powerful as Yellow Splatters of course, but his lateral thinking is very impressive. If I may compare it to chess…when I command Yellow Splatters I am reminded of a Rook. Direct, powerful, but limited in that sense. Whereas Purple Smile might be more like a Knight. Less useful in all situations, but able to maneuver around the enemy in many useful ways. In many ways, he fights like you, Anand.”
That last remark threw the [Sergeant] terribly. He had been getting angrier and angrier at Belgrade’s praise, until he’d heard that. Purple Smile? Like Anand?
Inconceivable. And yet—a part of Yellow Splatters pointed out that pulling back to strike a decisive blow later was a classic move Anand liked to use. Was he really as good as a [Tactician]? Purple Smile?
Yellow Splatters turned to look at the other Soldier. Purple Smile was trying to wipe a bit of liquid off his carapace with his hands. He didn’t even appear to be listening! Yellow Splatters’ mandibles ground together angrily.
No, he wasn’t like Anand at all. It was…different. Yes, it wasn’t right because Purple Smile was neither a [Sergeant] nor a [Tactician]! What right did he have to give orders like that, or make decisions on his own?
“Yes, it is useful to have different types of units at your disposal. Our Hive is sadly uniform, so it is difficult to respond to individual threats with specialized counters, as the other Hives seem to possess. Had I some Antinium in armor—or better, one of the Silent Antinium, I would feel far better able to eliminate threats with less casualties.”
The other Workers had kept chattering away as Yellow Splatters stewed. Anand sighed as he stood over the map, playing with one of the chess pieces he and Belgrade were using as markers. He lifted a rook and showed it to the others.
“The problem is that when we speak of units with self-preservation instincts, the autonomy to make their own decisions and so on…the chess analogy falls apart. While I appreciate the game, it really does not reflect the battle I have been through, Belgrade.”
The other Worker nodded hesitantly.
“And yet, Anand, it is still important because it teaches strategic thinking. Why else would so many [Tacticians] and [Strategists] play the game?”
“Because it makes one level. That is self-evident. My issue is that I do not understand why [Strategists] level because of the game.”
Anand frowned, the Antinium equivalent of lowering his mandibles and drawing them together slightly.
“I could understand a low-level [Tactician] benefitting from the game, but earning more than five or six levels seems incredibly suspect. That a high-level [Strategist] could level up by playing a game with set, finite rules that is so far removed from a real battle or war is…odd. I would almost suspect an error in the way we level.”
“An error in the way we level? That means an error in the world.”
Belgrade stared at Anand. The other [Tactician] merely shrugged.
“I only state what is apparent. Regardless, exploiting this benefit is useful to us and the Hive as a whole. Shall we play a game once you are done with your duties?”
“Yes. Pawn, would you like to join in?”
“Hm. I do not know. I have things I should be doing…but chess is a tempting offer.”
Pawn glanced hesitantly at Yellow Splatters. He tried not to shift from leg to leg in impatience. He wasn’t interested in chess at all. Why was he still here?
Someone apparently agreed with him. Purple Smile raised a hand and all four Antinium stared at him. When he was sure he had their attention, Purple Smile faced the Workers and pointed with two of his arms down the tunnel. With his other two arms, he mimed walking with his two spade-like hands. It was clumsy, but it got the message across.
“Oh, I apologize. We did not mean to keep you, Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile. You may go of course.”
Anand straightened, twitching his antennae apologetically at the two. Yellow Splatters stared in disbelief. He didn’t feel relieved to be dismissed. He was angry. Again.
Purple Smile had no right to—the effrontery of—why hadn’t Yellow Splatters—he stomped after Purple Smile as the other Soldier wandered off. Yellow Splatters pointed, and the other Soldiers hastily fell into a line behind him as he marched back to the barracks. All the while his mind was racing.
Purple Smile. Pawn. The Workers. They were all so, so…shortsighted! They didn’t appreciate Yellow Splatter’s opinions, didn’t care, didn’t ask—and Purple Smile was inferior to Yellow Splatters! He was the [Sergeant]! He knew what was best! He had done everything right. Soldiers had to fight. They didn’t retreat, they didn’t run—and yet, Purple Smile had been praised. He was being considered for [Sergeant] as well, as an equal to Yellow Splatters!
Unacceptable. Why? And why had Twin Stripes become Aberration? Why was he locked up? Was it his fault? Why did Pawn look at him like that? Why were they fighting near the entrance? Why did he feel like he was losing control? Yellow Splatters’ mind was confused. He marched, not seeing the Workers he nearly ran over, or the way his Soldiers hesitated as they followed him—the wrong way—through the Hive. He was too preoccupied, too caught up in his anger and frustration.
He did not understand.
It was all going wrong. Lyonette had felt everything going south the last few days, but the final confirmation was seeing the Goblins smuggling some of their breakfast into the basement. That meant one thing. They were planning on leaving soon. And meanwhile, the tension in the inn was so thick that even a knife could bounce off it. She had to talk to Erin. Unfortunately, after an incident in the morning, that meant doing it as she slowly poured a healing potion over Erin’s feet.
“Ow, ow! It hurts! Do you have anything to get the shards out with, Lyonette? I can feel one stuck in my foot!”
Erin moaned and winced as she sat in a chair, her bare feet pointed towards Lyonette. Blood dripped onto the floor, but Lyonette could still see the shards of porcelain that had buried themselves in the sole of Erin’s foot.
“I see it, Erin. It’s big. I’ll try to get it out. Hold still.”
Lyonette had a handkerchief in one hand, a healing potion in the other. She gently tried to grasp the bit of pottery, but it was slippery with blood and she didn’t want to break it and leave it in Erin’s skin. Neither did she want to use the healing potion right away; that might mean flesh growing over the shards and that would be bad. Erin whimpered as Lyonette concentrated; Mrsha sat anxiously by the table, eyes wide, watching.
It had happened this morning. Someone had broken an empty cup on the ground in front of the trap door leading to the basement and sprinkled the shards around. The porcelain was sharp and would have cut the Goblin’s feet badly if they had stepped on it. Unfortunately or perhaps, fortunately, Erin had tried to go to the basement first and gotten several shards through the light soles of her shoes.
“Stop wiggling, Erin. If I slip—”
“I’m trying, but it hurts! Ow! Okay, do it.”
Erin gritted her teeth and stopped moving. Lyonette took a deep breath, then grabbed the largest shard with her handkerchief and pulled. It came loose with a horrible, tearing sensation and she saw Erin bite into her lip, drawing blood. Lyonette pulled the shard out and immediately poured healing potion on the spot. The wound closed and she saw Mrsha’s wide eyes going to the bloody shard.
“Do you think the Goblins did this?”
“No. There’s another piece—”
“I see it.”
Neither girl looked at Mrsha as they spoke. The Goblins had been the first to hear Erin scream, and Headscratcher had carried Erin to the table. They’d let Lyonette take over, and, because Mrsha was there, they were in the basement now. Lyonette could only imagine what they thought of all this.
She glanced at Mrsha and saw the Gnoll staring with wide eyes at the blood dripping to the floor. Lyonette felt her chest twist and saw Erin looking at the Gnoll as well. Both paused for a second, and then kept talking about the Goblins because that was easier, for the moment.
“I think they’re leaving, Erin. I saw, uh…Shorthilt hiding several biscuits in his pants when he was going downstairs. And Badarrow had several sausages—he wasn’t trying to hide it. They’re going, Erin.”
“Biscuits? But those pants aren’t large enough to—where were they hiding—never mind. Look, if they go…they go. But I’m going to have them upstairs and having fun today Lyonette, if it’s the last thing I do!”
Erin gritted her teeth as Lyonette’s fingers slipped on the second shard. Lyonette stared at the [Innkeeper].
“Why are you doing this, Erin? Really? Do you want them to stay? The Halfseekers haven’t eaten dinner here the last few nights, and no one’s coming in. We can’t keep doing this.”
“I know. I’m just—ahh! Just trying to get them to talk to me, Lyonette. If I can do that, I think it’ll be okay. I just want to talk to them, to understand them before they go. But it’s not happening no matter how hard I try.”
Erin closed her eyes as the second shard came out. Lyonette stared at it, pulled sliver out of Erin’s foot, and then healed the rest. Some of the color rushed back into Erin’s face and she got up very gingerly.
“Don’t mention it. Okay, look, talk to the Goblins. I’ll—clean up I guess—”
“I’ll do it!”
Drassi had been hovering by the two Human girls the entire time, wringing her claws and looking horrified. She had already swept up the other fragments. Lyonette nodded gratefully.
“Okay. You do that Drassi. Erin will serve the Goblins breakfast and I’ll—go upstairs with Mrsha and have a talk.”
Erin paused as she looked down at the white Gnoll sitting by her feet. Mrsha wasn’t looking at anyone and she was trembling slightly. She looked at Lyonette and nodded.
She stepped gingerly towards the trap door, keeping an eye out for fragments as Lyonette washed her hands in a bucket of water and then looked at Mrsha.
“Come with me, young lady.”
The Gnoll flinched and followed Lyonette upstairs to their room. Once there, Lyonette sat, heart pounding, as Mrsha sat near her bed and pretended to be very interested in the covers.
How was she supposed to do this? She didn’t remember her mother ever sitting her down like this. Her father—his disapproval had been frightening, but he’d never really talked to her one-on-one before. And yet, Lyonette had never done something like this. She’d caused trouble, but it had been her [Tutors] and other guardians who had taken her to task for it. But this?
She did what she could. Lyonette spoke, voice trembling but trying to sound stern rather than heartbroken.
“That was a very bad thing that happened to Erin, don’t you think, Mrsha? She looked like she was really hurt.”
The Gnoll glanced up at Lyonette, and then away, swiftly. Lyonette paused.
“It looked like it hurt. It was very bad. Wasn’t it?”
The Gnoll nodded slowly. She still wouldn’t meet Lyonette’s gaze. That was what broke the girl’s heart. Oh, if only she could blame it on the Goblins or anyone else. But Mrsha was a poor liar. She folded her arms and tried not to let the stinging in her eyes become tears. It wasn’t right what she’d done. It wasn’t right, but Lyonette understood it.
“Do you know anything about this?”
The Gnoll shook her head half-heartedly. Lyonette paused, gulped, and raised her voice.
“Mrsha, look at me.”
Reluctantly, she did. Lyonette met her gaze, her fingernails digging into her arm.
“Do you know anything about this?”
The Gnoll looked away. That was an answer. Lyonette paused.
“Erin was in a lot of pain because of that, Mrsha. She could have been hurt worse. What if she’d stepped on the shards and one broke off in her foot? She’d need a [Healer] to cut it out of her, then.”
Mrsha began to tremble in place. Lyonette felt her heart breaking and stopped because she couldn’t go on.
“Maybe it wasn’t meant for her. Maybe that—trap—was meant for someone else. Like the Goblins. Well, if it was, it still wouldn’t be nice, understand?”
Something changed. Mrsha’s head slowly rose. She stared at Lyonette, and the guilt and sadness in her eyes dried up. Lyonette realized she might have chosen the wrong words.
“Mrsha. Hurting the Goblins isn’t right. Understand? You can’t—”
Mrsha’s hair was rising. She sat up straighter, and glared at Lyonette. The Human girl hesitated.
“I know how you must be feeling—”
Wrong words. Mrsha looked away from Lyonette and the young woman snapped.
“Mrsha! You can’t harm the Goblins! These are Erin’s guests and they’re all Hobs, understand? If you cause trouble, I will punish you. In fact, I’m already punishing you—no lunch!”
The Gnoll looked back towards Lyonette and now her eyes were glaring. Lyonette glared back.
“No lunch, and it’ll be water and bread for dinner unless you go to Erin and apologize, understand? And if I ever catch you doing that again—are you listening?”
Mrsha reluctantly turned back towards Lyonette. Her ears were flat, her eyes alight with anger. The Goblins. Lyonette wavered between compassion and anger, and lost.
“Look, Mrsha. You don’t have to go near them. You can go to the city if—no? You don’t want to stay with Aunt Selys? Okay. But Erin’s very hurt, even if she didn’t say it. You know it hurt? Don’t cry. Don’t—come here.”
She reached out and gathered up the Gnoll into her arms. Mrsha wept silently, big tears rolling down her furred face. Lyonette hugged her, as her mother never had, and tried to say the right things. Only, she’d never heard them herself.
“It’s okay. I know you’re sorry. You can apologize—we’ll do it together. Its okay, Mrsha. You’re not a bad girl. It’s just—”
She didn’t have the words to express it. Lyonette held Mrsha for a long time, until the tears had stopped. Then they went downstairs.
Erin was cleaning up the tables, and the Goblins were finishing their breakfast. Lyonette froze and Mrsha’s claws dug into her clothing, but she made herself go downstairs. Erin met them by the stairs, smiling, and Lyonette had Mrsha apologize there, while both girls shielded the Goblins from view. Mrsha still smelled them, though. Her nose kept twitching even as she licked Erin’s face and hugged her and was hugged in return.
“Hey, at least I can get Drassi to buy some more cups. We need more—specially designed ones, I think. The Soldiers can’t hold the regular ones, and I’d like them to have better bowls, too.”
The tone Erin used was light and playful as she spoke to Mrsha, but from the disappointment in her eyes, Lyonette knew she hadn’t gotten through to the Goblins today either. She’d seen Erin sitting at the table, trying to get them to talk to her, telling bad jokes, showing them how to play chess—there was no real connection there, and no one else was trying. Lately, Erin had gotten desperate and inventive.
“I’ve got a guitar that no one needs, now. I saw it in the market and I thought it would be so cool to play, but—I don’t know how.”
Erin showed Lyonette and Mrsha a strange instrument that reminded Lyonette of a warped lute. Mrsha plucked at a string and her ears perked up at the sound. Lyonette stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] tried to play something, and the guitar made a strangled noise.
“That’s a what, Erin? A gui…”
“Guitar. It’s an instrument. Don’t they have them where you come from? The Gnoll said it’s not very popular, so he sold it to me cheap!”
“I can see why.”
Lyonette looked at the guitar, at Erin, and then back at the guitar.
“Why did you buy this?”
“Oh, you know.”
Erin made a face and nodded covertly towards the Goblins. Lyonette saw and felt Mrsha tensing up. She shifted with the Gnoll cub in her arms.
“I know. Look, if I could play it—turns out they don’t know how. I think they thought it was a weapon. I guess music isn’t…never mind.”
Erin turned towards the Goblins, smiling, and they all looked away from her. They had been looking, Lyonette thought, but she was distracted by Mrsha’s claws digging into her arm.
“Ow! Mrsha, honey. You’re hurting me.”
The Gnoll withdrew her claws, but she remained taut in Lyonette’s arms. She was shaking, and Lyonette thought it was time to go back upstairs. The Goblins were glancing their way. She saw one of them, Headscratcher, looking furtively at her. Lyonette looked away and realized he’d done the same. And like that, in a flash, she realized the Goblins knew she was afraid of them. It was obvious with Drassi—but they could probably tell that Lyonette was too.
“Erin, I’m taking Mrsha upstairs. Sorry, but I won’t be down for a bit.”
“That’s okay. Drassi’s here and it’s not like we have much business, right?”
Erin gave her a strained smile. Lyonette thought about returning it, and didn’t. She turned towards the stairs as Erin went back towards the Goblins. The girl sat close to them, but not close enough to touch. The Goblins stared back, and there was that invisible wall between them that Erin couldn’t breach.
“Hey…so, sorry about that. I uh, have I showed you this guitar? Yes? Okay. Um—”
It wasn’t working. Lyonette didn’t know if it was something Erin lacked, or something she wasn’t doing, but as it was, she thought she’d wake up tomorrow or the day after and they would be gone. And would that be such a bad thing?
Part of Lyonette wished they would leave. Maybe it was for the best. Mrsha stared at the Goblins as Lyonette carried her upstairs. Her eyes narrowed and she growled. She still hated them. Erin getting hurt had done nothing to change that, and so Lyonette resolved to watch the little Gnoll until they were gone.
It was all going wrong. And that was before the Antinium came again. Then it went wrong and got worse.
Yellow Splatters decided that Purple Smile was unfit to be a [Sergeant]. He might be unfit to be a Painted Soldier. Could he stay somewhere else? He was so…so different! He didn’t spar when all the other Soldiers were copying Yellow Splatters’ example, he liked going aboveground, and he didn’t fight like a proper Soldier.
He didn’t belong in Yellow Splatters’ unit. And that thought was incredible and troubling. So Yellow Splatters didn’t think about it. He stared at Purple Smile as the other Soldier wandered around the barracks, following…what? He’d rolled up a ball out of dirt and wet it with some water. Now he was rolling it around, following after it, picking it up and tossing it, and following it again.
He was too strange. Yellow Splatters didn’t know how to address it, but he was working up to some good ideas when Pawn walked into the barracks with eight Workers and spoke.
“Purple Smile? Your patrol for this morning awaits. Please take these Workers above as well with the regular group of Soldiers.”
Purple Smile turned and nodded. Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn in astonishment. Hadn’t he made it clear what a waste that patrol was? But then—Workers. They were…acceptable? Yellow Splatters was undecided. But he froze when he saw the two Soldiers standing behind the Workers and saw eight more of the Painted Soldiers, his Soldiers coming forwards.
They stopped when he looked at them. Yellow Splatters struggled internally. He’d made it clear—but if they wanted to eat—but he had shown them—maybe it was only for security? Pawn stared between Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters, and then nodded to Purple Smile.
“I have no objections to you taking Painted Soldiers. Go. And remember what I told you.”
Purple Smile nodded to Pawn, and pointed. The regular Workers and Soldiers lined up meekly, and the eight Painted Soldiers fell into line behind them after a moment’s pause. None of them looked at Yellow Splatters. He stared at them and felt an emotion rising in his being. He had to struggle to find the word to express it.
Disobedience. Betrayal. He raised his head and stared at the Soldiers, and then at Purple Smile. This was his fault. But what could he do? The other Antinium was already leading them out of the Hive—
The convoy of Antinium jerked as Yellow Splatters strode towards them. But he fell meekly into place behind the last Soldier. Purple Smile stared at him for eight seconds, and then slowly moved the procession forwards again. Yellow Splatters raised his mandibles. He was just coming along, that was all. Just to remind the other Soldiers, remind Purple Smile who was in charge.
They made it to the inn just past lunchtime. The Goblins were eating, and the Horns of Hammerad had found their way into the inn as well. The Halfseekers were silently talking in one corner of the room and eying the Goblins. A Gnoll had come from the city for the first time in over a week, and Mrsha had crept downstairs with a wand in her paw without anyone noticing.
Apista was napping by the faerie flowers blooming on the windowsill. The Horns of Hammerad were arguing, covered in mud after hunting a pack of regular, hungry wolves. Erin was hugging Ishkr. Lyonette smiled as she wiped a table and listened to them talk.
“I’m so glad you’re back! Are you okay? If you need more time off, I understand. I just…”
The Gnoll looked embarrassed as he stood in the inn, his red-brown fur engulfing Erin as she hugged him. He growled apologetically.
“I am fine, Miss Erin. I apologize for my absence. It was inexcusable. If you wish to dock my pay—”
“Don’t be stupid! How could I not get it? I know—I can’t believe Brunkr—”
Erin wiped her stinging eyes on Ishkr’s fur. The Goblins stared furtively at the Gnoll and he looked at them.
“I see we have new guests. I did not believe it when I heard the rumors, yes? Miss Erin would you like me to serve them? Miss Erin? Would you let go of me?”
Erin let go of Ishkr and smiled with genuine pleasure for the first time in days.
“We’re getting lunch out. If you don’t mind serving that’d be great. And we could use some more water, although it’s wet.”
“I can get it! Nothing like wet Gnolls to stink up a place. Hi Ishkr!”
Drassi smiled and waved at the Gnoll. He smiled back, not seemingly bothered about the wet Gnolls comment and began serving the Goblins with only a moment of hesitation. Ishkr was quiet, but he seemed resolved to do his job today.
That was all Erin and Lyonette wanted right now. The Antinium had come back as usual, only, Lyonette was sure it wasn’t like usual this time.
“Erin, that Soldier with the yellow paint is back. And I think he and Purple Smile are not getting along.”
Lyonette hissed at Erin as the Antinium took a table close to the doors. It was a mark of how the relationships in the inn were different that when they sat, it was next to the Horns of Hammerad while the Goblins sat on the other side of the room. Add in the Halfseekers, and there were three zones of tension and a very narrow pathway down the center of the inn that was in theory, neutral ground.
Erin and Lyonette stood there, talking, while Drassi came in with more water, complaining about melting snow and Ishkr brought out plates. The Halfseekers and Goblins were staring at each other silently, but Lyonette could only devote half an eye to them—she was more worried about the Antinium. As far as she was concerned, the way the Antinium with yellow splatters was acting required an eye and a half. At least.
“He’s that guy who poured his food on the ground, right?”
Erin frowned at Yellow Splatters as the [Sergeant] sat at his table, looking around with all four arms folded across his chest. Purple Smile was waving at her and she waved back with a smile to him. Then she turned to Lyonette.
“Okay, serve him last and let the other Antinium begin eating first. If he does that again, I’ll talk to them. But I’m worried about the Halfseekers too. Jelaqua’s not looking happy.”
“Of course she’s not! But she probably won’t start a fight.”
“You sure? Right, just don’t serve her anything strong, okay? Feed her, don’t let her drink. A happy Selphid’s a fat Selphid. Or something.”
Lyonette smiled and hurried off. Erin circulated the tables, smiling at everyone and not getting many smiles in return. The Goblins were muttering to themselves, the Halfseekers looked like they were having an argument. Ceria and Ksmvr were helping get some mud off Yvlon and Pisces was complaining about his order to Erin. The Antinium were just—just sitting there, waiting for their food.
And then it happened. There was a yelp and Headscratcher sat up in his seat. Instantly, the room tensed. Erin turned, and saw Jelaqua and the Halfseekers half-risen from their chairs.
She shouted at them as Lyonette stared at Headscratcher. He was grimacing, raising one of his arms. It rose over the edge of the table and, hanging from it, her teeth still buried in his arm, was Mrsha.
Lyonette cried out in horror and rushed forwards. Headscratcher regarded the Gnoll, wincing as she growled and bit into his arm. She refused to let go, and the Goblin didn’t seemed inclined to make her let go. He had frozen with the other Goblins. Badarrow watched Lyonette tensely and moved back, eying the Halfseekers and Lyonette went over to Headscratcher and Mrsha.
“I am so sorry. Mrsha! Let go now, little miss! I mean it! Let go now or—”
Mrsha let go and dropped onto the table. She growled, her eyes flashing. Her mouth was red with blood. Lyonette froze. There was more than a bit of feral animal in the small Gnoll. Ishkr growled something at her and she snarled wordlessly at him. Erin turned back towards the table, concerned. Across the room Ceria whispered to her team.
“What’s wrong with Mrsha?”
The Gnoll was growling at the Goblins. Headscratcher leaned back, not so much afraid as wary. Lyonette seized Mrsha and waved desperately at Drassi and Ishkr.
“Keep serving! I’ll—Mrsha, you’re apologizing. Now!”
The Gnoll fought her, clawing at Lyonette, snapping. Lyonette could barely hold on, and Erin was hurrying over to her when the second thing happened. Ishkr went over to the Antinium, holding bowls of ground beef seasoned with hot pepper and a fried egg on top. He passed it to Purple Smile, and the Soldier passed it to a Worker. And Yellow Splatters lost his temper.
Yellow Splatters had seen Mrsha sneaking downstairs and underneath the Goblin’s table. The Gnoll was quite good at concealing herself despite her white fur. Perhaps only he had seen it; the other Antinium were too focused on the smells of cooking and the other people in the room were all glaring at each other.
He didn’t care, but when Mrsha bit the Goblin, Yellow Splatters appreciated her ferocity. The smell of blood and the sudden, sharp spike of tension and scent of fear—he felt like he was on the battlefield again.
That was good. But he stared at Purple Smile and hated the other Antinium for everything he was, everything he was not. Part of Yellow Spatters knew it didn’t make sense, but he didn’t care. He was just angry. Frustrated. He was in charge, but eight of his Painted Soldiers had still come here! And Pawn and Anand and Belgrade all liked Purple Smile. And why had Twin Stripes become Aberration?
Then the Gnoll with red-brown fur came over and handed a bowl of food to Purple Smile. He shouldn’t have done that. He should have served Yellow Splatters first, but the [Sergeant] was prepared to overlook that. What he wasn’t willing to forgive was when Purple Smile took the bowl and handed it to a Worker.
A Worker. Not a Soldier. Not one of the warriors who risked his life to fight day and night for the Hive, who gave their lives—Yellow Splatters’ four hands clenched into fists as the Worker hesitantly accepted the bowl. It looked up at Purple Smile, and the Soldier raised his mandibles and gestured for the Worker to begin eating.
That was it. That was the last straw! Yellow Splatters rose and flipped the table over. The Worker and other Soldiers flinched back as he charged around the table at Purple Smile. The other Soldier leapt to his feet, and then Yellow Splatters was punching at him, trying to bash the Antinium’s head in.
The Horns of Hammerad were on their feet. Ksmvr leapt to his feet and thrust Yvlon back as the adventurers reached for their weapons. Purple Smile and Yellow Splatters ignored the cries of alarm throughout the rest of the room. There was only the two Soldiers, face-to-face, mandibles nearly touching, each one throwing punches, blocking, dodging as they fought.
Yellow Splatters knew he had the advantage. He was bigger, stronger, thanks to his classes, and he had the [Touch Carapace] and [Power Strike] Skills. Only, he wouldn’t use [Power Strike]; he’d just beat Purple Smile within an inch of his life to prove to everyone who was right! He lashed out and Purple Smile dodged backwards, two hands raised protectively, the other two warding off punches.
“You two Antinium desist! I am Ksmvr, former Prognugator of the Hive and you are causing a public disturbance in—”
He was doing it again! Yellow Splatters clashed his mandibles together, throwing punches at Purple Smile. He was retreating! Running away! The Soldier was dancing backwards, refusing to let Yellow Splatters get a clear shot at him. All of Yellow Splatter’s blows were blocked or deflected. The other Soldier tried to express his fury as he charged forwards.
This wasn’t right! He should be undefeatable. Purple Smile shouldn’t be fighting equally with him! No one should listen to him! It was Yellow Splatters who had all the answers! Only his opinion mattered! He was right! He couldn’t be wrong! He was right! hE wAs RIghT!
Erin was pushing towards them, but two of the Goblins were thrusting her back. One had a sword in his hand and was rising, wary and tense. Another was fiddling with a bow. Across the room, the half-Giant was arguing with his companions, raising his staff. The Horns of Hammerad were similarly caught in indecision, tense, waiting for the stalemate between the two Soldiers to break. Every eye was on the Soldiers now, and Lyonette’s grip on Mrsha had loosened.
The Gnoll took the chance. She wriggled out of Lyonette’s grip, kicked off from the stunned young woman and leapt onto the table with the Goblins. They were all distracted. The Gnoll reached for the wand she’d hidden with a bit of string on her furry body. She tore it loose and ran towards Badarrow. She raised the tip of the long, thin, pointy magical wand, and then she thrust it into his ear.
Time slowed. Lyonette saw Mrsha thrusting with the wand, the hard, thin stiletto of wood. It was aimed right at Badarrow’s pointed ears, and it went into his earhole, towards his brain.
Only Badarrow’s warrior reflexes saved him. The Goblin twisted at the last moment and the wand was torn out of Mrsha’s grip. It flew across the room, and Badarrow clutched at his left ear. Blood trickled from it as the Goblins jerked and stared at Mrsha. She snarled, bared her teeth—
Erin’s voice was shocked. Lyonette didn’t wait for words. The horror of what Mrsha had done, tried to do, moved her body. She grabbed Mrsha. The Gnoll wriggled, hissing, biting in her grip—Lyonette flipped her over and began to spank her with all her might.
At first, the shock of what was happening froze Mrsha, but then she was wriggling, yowling in pain, trying to get away. Lyonette held her in place, spanking the Gnoll hard, tears in her eyes.
“You do not do that! Understand? How could you? You do not do that, Mrsha!”
The Gnoll was crying now, from the pain as much as Lyonette’s shouting. Lyonette kept going, trying to tell the Gnoll, remembering the tip of the wand going into Badarrow’s ear—she only stopped when someone grabbed her hand.
Headscratcher stopped Lyonette’s arm as it rose for another swat. The Goblin looked at Mrsha, and Lyonette saw the Gnoll’s face was streaked with tears. Mrsha leapt from the table and raced upstairs. Lyonette sank to the floor, sobbing.
Across the room, the fight between Purple Smile and Yellow Spatters had reached its conclusion. The [Sergeant] had cornered Purple Smile and was bashing through his guard. The other Soldier was blocking but his guard was failing. A few more blows and Yellow Splatters would be tearing his carapace off, beating him into piece—
The cold prick of metal jabbed into his side, painful, making his break off. Yellow Splatters turned and froze. A shortsword was at his neck—an arrow trained on his face. Ksmvr held both his shortbow and shortsword with his three hands. He shifted the arrow to Purple Smile.
“Hold still, both of you. This fight is over.”
The two Soldiers froze in place, staring at Ksmvr. The Antinium’s voice wobbled a bit, but steadied as he continued.
“I am a former Prognugator of the Hive. That gives me no authority.”
He paused. The Soldiers glanced at him and each other. Ksmvr pressed his sword further into Yellow Splatter’s side.
“No authority. At all. But I am led to understand that this sword gives me all the authority I need. Move and I will injure you non-lethally but in a very painful way.”
The two Soldiers didn’t move. The other Antinium were on their feet, staring at them. The Goblins were clustered around Badarrow. He looked expressionlessly around, one hand clamped to an ear leaking blood. The Halfseekers were staring, the Horns of Hammerad were ready to defend Ksmvr. Lyonette was crying, Drassi and Ishkr were uncertain.
And Erin knew what she had to do. She stepped towards Lyonette and Apista buzzed off the windowsill. She flew around, stinger protruding dangerously. Erin took a cautious step and Apista landed on her arm. Erin looked at the Ashfire Bee and lost her temper.