When Erin woke up the next day, her eyes were tired and she was full of bleh.
Bleh being her word for her mood.
Tor paused and stared at her. Erin blinked at the walking skeleton with blue flames in its eyes and made weak shooing motions until it went away.
She didn’t feel like dealing with it. And by it she meant anything. And that included existing.
Erin stared down into a bowl of chewy oat-equivalents and wondered why the grains had an orange-gold rind. Maybe it was the dirt?
It tasted bleh. And while Erin had money, she couldn’t afford to put much sugar in her meals. She had to save for the future.
And that was bleh. The idea of how much money she needed, the logistics of her inn and the day-to-day work of maintaining it—it was all bleh, and it could go to bleh.
At least now she was able to automate most of the work – or rather, make Toren do all of it. The skeleton bustled around the inn, scrubbing at obstinate stains, hauling buckets of water in, and it had even managed to figure out how to put food on plates and carry them out.
It just didn’t have any idea of how carpentry or cooking worked. Erin had tried—but the skeleton didn’t quite get the idea of not stirring food with its bony arm or how beds were supposed to look.
It didn’t matter. With a little work, Erin had actually managed to transform the upstairs into a livable place. All of the mattresses had been rotted horribly and had to be disposed of, but some of the bed frames only needed a backboard replaced or a few boards changed.
Erin’s inn could now house quite a number of guests. It was just that Erin didn’t have anyone to put up there. And that included her. For the moment Erin was still sleeping in the little nest she’d made in the corner of her kitchen. She had blankets, pillows, and it was a pain to haul all that upstairs and get situated again.
There was always Pisces of course, but Erin really didn’t need a permanent squatter in her inn. Especially because his only payment came in the form of an occasional rambling lecture to Rags.
This time Toren offered her a cup of juice. Erin took it and drank. It helped, but even a fully belly wasn’t improving her mood.
Rags. Goblins and magic. Magic. Erin’s stomach gurbled at her, although that was probably just a reaction to the blue juice and the oatmeal.
She spent ten or twenty unhappy minutes in the newly made outhouse, testing the equipment as it were. Afterwards, Erin staggered outside giving thanks that an equivalent to toilet paper existed in this world. But it was just more proof that this day was going to be a bad one, in her opinion.
If there was a bright ray of light on the horizon, it was tonight. Tonight was chess night.
That was to say, every night was chess night usually. Pawn had been bringing groups of Workers over with surprising regularity, and Erin enjoyed playing the Antinium.
They never won of course. And even the best players – Pawn and one of the Workers – never even came close. But Erin loved chess in her bones, and more than that, she enjoyed seeing the Workers improve.
But that was later. For now, Erin had to go into the city. She needed pillows for her newly refurbished beds.
“Take care of the inn, okay?”
Tor nodded his head mechanically as Erin stomped out of the inn, her precious bag of coins tucked deep into her pockets. He raised the wet dustrag in his hands like a sword and attacked the dust.
If the skeleton had any thoughts on the day, it was simply that it was a shame he wasn’t killing anything. He understood in a vague way that he would not acquire the [Innkeeper] class because it did not in fact own an inn, but the [Barmaid] class was, he felt, was something of a misnomer.
At least he was Level 2.
As Erin walked through the main gates, the Gnoll guard smiled toothily at her.
“Good day to you, Erin Solstice.”
She had no idea what his name was. But the Gnoll seemed friendly enough. He looked bored, possibly because the only visitor he’d had was Erin.
Not many people used the road south. North was where the action was – where the main road took you to the northern cities and where all the adventurers, merchants, and general influx of humanity was coming from. By contrast, Erin’s side of the plains was a wasteland.
And that was a curious thing. Erin knew there was a road that passed by her inn down south, and she’d seen it. But it seemed a lot newer and ill-kept compared to the well-established northern route. It snaked around the city of Liscor, rather than starting at the gates.
Why? And why had there been an inn so close and yet so far from the city? Was there once a road there?
“Yeah, but it got destroyed ten years back. Ever since then no one’s lived south of the city. Besides you.”
For a few seconds Erin thought the voice had come out of some strange part of her mind. Then she whirled around.
The Drake leaned on his spear, grinning at her. Sort of grinning. Like the Gnoll, there were a lot of teeth.
“Um, hi. I haven’t seen you around. What’s up?”
“I was looking for you. You busy? Because you are now.”
“I was going to buy pillows—”
“Really? You might have trouble with that. Did you hear what happened last night?”
Curious, Erin followed Relc as the Drake walked speedily towards Market Street. It was disconcerting how quickly he could move despite giving the appearance of ambling along. It was definitely some sort of Skill.
Erin stopped as she turned the corner to Market Street.
Relc twirled his spear idly as Erin stared at the wreckage. And that was all it was.
Nearly half of Market Street had been destroyed. Burnt, in point of fact. To a crisp. A fire had swept through the close, confined wooden stalls. They were meant to be just temporary structures, easily deconstructed for the next shopkeeper to display his or her wares. But the problem was that wood burned easily, and so when a fire did break out…
Even the stones in the street had cracked from the heat. Erin didn’t know rocks could break from heating up, but the street had been shattered quite impressively.
“Normally someone would have raised the alarm and we’d have put out the fire quick. But it happened late last night, and by the time we got one of the mages out here it was too hot.”
Erin glanced at Relc, and the Drake shrugged.
“Low-level mages. And there’s not much call for water magic specialization around here. We had to let the fire burn out and clear the rest of the street before it spread.”
It was destruction. To starve the fire of flames, the Watch and firefighting teams had smashed and cleared the rest of the stalls, shoving the wood splinters out of the way.
It hurt Erin’s heart to see. And it hurt even more because the street wasn’t empty. She could see Drakes and Gnolls, shopkeepers staring forlornly at their abandoned goods. It hurt her heart, because she could see some of them were crying.
Scaly or furry they might be, but their tears looked the same.
Relc stared grimly at the burnt-out street. He spoke quietly to Erin.
“Everyone’s saying it’s a human that did it.”
Probably everyone was saying that, or at least everyone Relc talked to. Humans might have other opinions. But it probably was a human, at least in Erin’s mind. She couldn’t see Drakes being dumb enough to burn down part of their city by accident, and Gnolls were highly flammable. And the Antinium—
No. There were already Workers picking through the rubble, slowly and methodically clearing away the destroyed part of the street. They wouldn’t have set a fire.
“Why would a human do it, though?”
Relc glanced at Erin.
“Oh, it was the mystery thief. Someone caught them last night and they started a fire to get away.”
“How? With a match or…?”
“A what? They used fire magic. A spell.”
Oh. Obviously. Erin’s eyes were caught by an older Drake trying to salvage something from her shop. She spoke distantly.
“Isn’t there a way to track this thief down? Magic? Or…some kind of skill?”
Relc shook his head.
“This thief has some good magic—and not just the fire magic. A magical item, maybe. And high-level [Guardsmen] do get tracking skills, but almost all of the Watch here are former soldiers. We’ve got more levels in combat classes than our current class. We did have one [Guardsman] with high levels, but that was Klbkch. And he’s dead.”
The comment hit Erin in the gut, and for a second Relc looked guilty. But he didn’t apologize.
“We’re working on it. No one’s happy. Normally we’d have caught the thief, but there are so many of you damn Humans in the city—no offense.”
Erin took offense, but she let it drop. Relc wasn’t happy. He was staring at his damaged city with narrowed eyes and she didn’t have anything to say. Certainly nothing to defend the thief. So instead she changed the subject.
“I…haven’t seen you around the inn lately.”
Relc shrugged again, indifferently.
“Too many damn Goblins around. I’d clean them up, but apparently that’s not allowed.”
Erin glanced sideways at Relc. The Drake met her eyes and then went back to studying the street.
“They’re not all bad, you know.”
“You think the little freaks you’ve been feeding are good? I hear they’ve been fighting a war with the rest of their tribe—when they’re not scaring travelers and stealing their goods.”
For a moment Erin felt a lurch of panic and fear in her chest.
“You’re not—not going to have to hunt them down are you?”
“I don’t really care. So long as we don’t get orders, we’ll leave them alone if they stay clear of the city. Goblins are part of the wild. If you get rid of too many, the bigger monsters don’t have anything to snack on.”
“Oh. Um, t—”
“Don’t thank me. I just don’t feel like doing more than I have to for my job, that’s all.”
Silence. Erin stared at the ground. Relc’s eyes narrowed as he watched the Workers slowly sweeping down the street.
“They don’t even care Klb died.”
“Yeah. They um, don’t seem to care about death. It’s not their fault.”
“I know. They’re bugs. But Klbkch was special.”
“Not just because he was a guard, y’know? He was different. He had a name. I couldn’t believe it when he introduced himself. And he’s the only Antinium I’ve ever heard of with a level higher than 10. He was special.”
Erin was silent. She stared at the large Drake and saw his chest heaving with emotion. The Drake’s fist tightened on the shaft of his spear.
“But they don’t care. They talk about Klb as if he’s just gone off somewhere. As if his death never happened. Even the Queen didn’t put up much of a fuss.”
Erin thought about the massive Antinium soldiers marching into the barracks and taking her to meet the Queen.
“You think so?”
Relc eyed Erin darkly.
“You’re not dead, so I’d say she took it well. She kept talking about ‘time lost’ and ‘needless valuable resources expended’ when she talked with the Captain. But never about Klbkch.”
The Drake’s head bowed. He stabbed his spear into the paving stones and the stones cracked and shifted around the tip of his spear. He leaned on it, staring darkly down at the ground.
“No one cares.”
“I know. But you’re different.”
For a while the two stood still, awkwardly, alone rather than together. Erin’s heart hurt. But though the human thing to do would be to pat Relc on the back or say something meaningless, she knew he didn’t want anything from her.
He still hated her. Or if he didn’t hate her, he blamed her.
And she would say nothing against that.
At last Relc shifted his weight and pulled his spear out of the street. He looked down at Erin.
“By the way—and not that I care too much, but you should know—there’s a new Propugnator in the city.”
The word sounded familiar. Erin frowned.
“It was what Klbkch was. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s some important role in the Antinium hive. Sort of their version of a guardsman, I think.”
The idea of the Antinium needing any kind of policing sounded ridiculous to Erin. She couldn’t imagine them doing anything criminal, but then she remembered Klbkch herding the Workers like cattle. Maybe a Propugnator was like some sort of sheepdog, only with people.
“Okay. Is he going to be part of the Watch.”
Unexpectedly, Relc frowned.
“I hope not. Not if I have anything to say about it. I think this one will stay in the Hive.”
“Okay. Why are you telling me, then?”
“He looks—familiar. Just don’t freak out, okay?”
The Drake scratched at the spines on his head.
“Right. Well, I’ve got to go back to work. Oh—that’s right. I’m supposed to give you a warning.”
“Yeah. Apparently you got into a fight with a bunch of adventurers, right? Beat them up and stole their stuff?”
Oh. Erin felt like slapping herself. Of course.
“Um, yes. I did. But they were attacking—”
“The damn Goblins. Whatever. Don’t worry; I’m not going to arrest you. I’m just giving you a warning. I also hear you’ve got a pet skeleton.”
“Yes. His name’s Toren. Uh—”
“I don’t care. It sounds creepy, but whatever you Humans like is fine by me. Just keep him out of the city. I just needed to give you a warning.”
“Not to do it again?”
Relc looked surprised. Then he grinned.
“Oh, no. When we heard about three Human adventurers getting their tails kicked by an Innkeeper, some Workers and a few Goblins, we laughed our scales off. We don’t care about what happens to those Humans. Just keep the skeleton away and if that crazy necromancer tries raising any more bodies, stop him.”
“You’re not going to do anything? Really?”
“Maybe if we had time – but we don’t. The Watch is overwhelmed right now. Those damn adventurers keep disappearing into the ruins and we’ve had to patrol the area to catch all the things that come crawling out of there.”
Relc made a face and twirled his spear in one hand.
“Things? Like…what kind of things?”
“Squiggly things. Lots of white tentacles and flesh. Disgusting. We think there’s some kind of brood monster in there, but no one who goes in that far has come out to tell us what it is. And the rest of the cowards are just clearing the rooms one at a time.”
Relc sighed, muttered a bit about humans and adventurers in general, and glanced at the sky.
“I’ve got to get back there.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll see you around.”
The Drake raised one hand in farewell as he trotted off. Erin watched him go. Her eyes turned back to the ruined street.
Misery and devastation. It wasn’t hers, but she still felt for the people affected by the fire. A thief and the ruins.
None of these things were her problem. But they were her problem because she lived here. Not by choice, but Erin felt like the city was suffering. Suffering, and she wondered what it would take to heal.
At the very least, Erin wouldn’t get her pillows today. Not unless a certain Gnoll had any in stock.
“I am sorry Erin Solstice, but everything is chaos, yes? I was lucky not to lose my goods, but many have lost all. Pillows must wait. Come back another day, yes?”
Krshia barely had the time to spare as she talked seriously with a bunch of angry Gnoll and Drake shopkeepers. The merchants of Market Street were gathered together in some sort of conclave, and Krshia was one of the more influential – and vocal – shopkeepers in the crowd.
Erin left them to it, especially because she was getting a lot of casually hostile glances. It was completely understandable that the shopkeepers were angry, and there were other things she could do. Like talk with friends.
Selys had to shout above the clamor in the packed Adventurer’s Guild. She and the other three receptionist Drakes were trying to deal with multiple adventurers at once while the room was full of arguments, minor scuffles, spirited dialogue and not least, the clank of countless weapons and armor rubbing together.
The female Drake shook her head as Erin repeated her question.
“I can’t, Erin. We’re all working overtime as it is. All the adventurers coming through—excuse me, the Human with the red hair and face-thing?”
Several adventurers looked up, and the mustached adventurer stepped forwards, holding a bag of dripping somethings.
“Give that to Warsh, please. The Drake over there? The one with yellow scales? Thank you.”
Selys turned back to Erin and shook her head. The other girl nodded, tried not to touch the shouting adventurer covered in blood and…guts and made her way out of the building.
It was completely fine. Selys had a lot to do, after all, and the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor was never meant to deal with the huge influx of treasure seekers. It was too bad. But it was just—it was just—
“It’s just that I don’t know what I should be doing, you know?”
Erin complained as she moved a knight on the chess board and stole one of Pawn’s rooks. The Antinium made a sound of dismay but kept staring at the board as Erin chattered away.
“I get that Krshia and Selys are busy. And so is Relc although we barely talk and he hates my guts. But what should I do? I mean, obviously I’m running the inn, but I feel like there’s something else I should do. Something…useful besides cooking, eating, and paying for pillows.”
Carefully, Pawn moved one of his knights forward. Instantly Erin took it with a bishop, trading the pieces. It wasn’t a good exchange as bishops were technically worth about the same strategically as knights, but it did open up Pawn’s king for a lovely attack by Erin’s queen.
“I mean, what should I do? I need money, but it’s not as if this inn is hopping at the best of times. And I need several hundred gold pieces. That’d take years. The only way I might get that much money in one go is to become an adventurer, but I don’t really want to stab stuff or have my insides yanked out through my nose.”
Pawn desperately tried to search for a winning strategy in his invaded side of the chess board. He found one – the same strategy that would end up in a checkmate eight moves down. Erin had noticed that three moves ago.
Delicately, the Antinium moved a pawn forwards and spoke.
“I am not sure I have any advice to give you, Erin Solstice. I am not experienced in the ways of this world.”
“You probably know more than I do.”
“It may be so, but my knowledge extends mainly to my Hive. I was not I until very recently. Thus, my awareness is only now expanding.”
“I get it.”
Erin sighed, took one of Pawn’s pieces and waited for him to take her rook.
“I just wish I didn’t feel this way.”
“Which way is this?”
Pawn took her rook. Erin took his queen.
A faint groan escaped the Antinium Worker. He studied the board and then shook his head.
“I have lost.”
The other Workers nodded in agreement as they stared at the board. The pairs that were playing glanced up and stared silently at Pawn’s board before returning to their games.
“Good game. You want to play another round?”
Pawn nodded and the two players began rearranging the board. It was their fourth game, and they’d been playing long enough that the sun was already fading behind the mountaintops.
It was fun to play. But Erin had the same feeling she was trying to express to Pawn. It was fun to play, but she never lost. And thus, she had the definite sense she wasn’t growing as a player, or growing too slowly.
“I just wish I could do something important, that’s all. Something useful.”
“Was Erin important back in her world?”
“What? No. Not at all. I was just a girl who played chess. Heck, I wasn’t even in college yet. I was trying to save up money for that.”
“Then the Erin of now is surely an improvement as she is both an [Innkeeper] and one who teaches chess. I fail to understand the problem.”
“Well, yeah but—”
A few tables down, Rags snorted loudly. Erin looked over. The Goblin stared silently at her, and then reached over and poked the Worker’s king with one finger. It toppled over.
“Hey! That’s really rude!”
Rags made a face as Erin glared at her. But the Worker she’d been playing bowed its head towards Erin.
“This one had lost the game. This one apologizes for time wasted.”
“It’s not your fault. Even if the game’s nearly over, you’re the one who decides that. Knocking over someone else’s king is rude. Got it?”
The Worker bowed his head, but Rags just scowled. Erin amped up her death-glare and Rags reluctantly muttered something.
It was pretty much the only problem that reared its head when Erin had everyone playing chess. In the hierarchy of skill within the inn, Erin was the undisputed champion. After her came Pawn and Rags, with Pawn being the better player, but only just. Below them were various Workers who could play decent games, but Rags was never quite happy unless the little Goblin was playing Erin.
It was an issue of arrogance, and Erin remembered what it was like – being impatient at having to play mediocre players. But Rags was still a rank novice by Erin’s standards, and rudeness in chess was something she wouldn’t tolerate.
But still, Rags hadn’t played Erin yet. Reluctantly, Erin looked at Pawn.
“Sorry, but do you think—?”
The Antinium was already shifting from her table. His courteous nature never failed to surprise Erin. She sighed as Rags jumped off of her chair and marched over to her table.
“Okay, let’s play. But if you touch my king I’m going to chop you up, got it?”
The Goblin didn’t answer. She was already rearranging her pieces.
Sighing exasperatedly, Erin waved a hand.
“Tor! I’ll have some water.”
The skeleton who had been moving around the room with a huge bowl of acid flies turned and nodded. He disappeared into the kitchen and reemerged with a tall glass of water in his bony hand.
There were some benefits to having a skeleton waiter. Not least of which was that Erin could devote all of her time to playing chess. She sat back as Rags studied the board and waited for the first move.
The Goblin played unusual strategies all the time, which made her a delight to duel. By contrast, Pawn had the fundamental moves memorized and played solid games. It won him more games, but Erin had to admit she admired the Goblin’s daring in her aggressive tactics.
Rags’ fingers closed around a pawn and then the Goblin froze. Her pointed ears twitched and she stared at the door.
Erin looked up. A few seconds of silence passed and then she heard someone knocking politely on the door.
The door slowly swung open. Erin caught a glimpse of a familiar black body and four arms and smiled. Another Worker to play with. But then her thoughts hit a snag. Workers couldn’t leave the city without Pawn. They were—
The Antinium stepped fully into the inn and Erin froze. She was dreaming. Rags had stabbed her in the chest and Erin was dying on the table. She’d had a heart attack—or a stroke and this was the last thing she saw before she died. It had to be that. She had to be dreaming.
Because the Antinium who walked into the inn could not be who she thought he was.
On first glance he looked like any other Antinium. He had four arms, antennae, large multifaceted eyes, and the two curiously segmented legs all lined with brown-black exoskeleton. That was normal.
But this Antinium was different. He was built slimmer than the Workers, and his carapace might have been a shade darker. But more than that, he resembled someone Erin knew. In every small detail, in every part of his body from the way he stood to the two swords and two daggers at his side he looked exactly like—
The Antinium turned his head and Erin felt her heart stop for a moment. He bowed his head to her and approached.
“Good evening. Am I speaking to the [Innkeeper] known as Erin Solstice?”
His voice was exactly the same as Klbkch’s. Erin wrestled with words around a tongue that had stopped working.
“Yes—yes I—are you—?”
The Antinium nodded.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am not Klbkch. My name is Ksmvr of the Antinium of Liscor. I serve my Queen as Propugnator. I have come on business of the Hive.”
It wasn’t Klbkch. But it was. Erin was struck dumb for words. She was trying to come up with a response and not start crying at the same time while she digested his words.
Ksmvr paused, and then nodded.
“I understand my resemblance to my predecessor has caused issue. I apologize for any confusion.”
Erin wanted to say ‘it’s nothing’, but it would be a lie. She sat still, rigid in her seat as Rags stared hard at Ksmvr. All the other Workers were frozen in their seats. But Pawn—
Ksmvr looked around the room. His silent, studying gaze found each Worker as the other Antinium stared at the floor. Then he spotted Pawn. The Worker hesitated and half-rose from his seat.
Instantly, the air rang as Ksmvr’s blades shot out of their sheathes. The Antinium held all four arms on guard and pointed one of his daggers at Pawn.
“Remain still, Worker.”
Erin gaped. Pawn began trembling and the other Workers instantly began moving out of the way. Ksmvr advanced swords at the ready.
“Wait. What are you doing?”
Ksmvr’s head moved sideways a fraction as he spoke. But his blades never shifted an inch.
“I have come to ascertain the state of the Worker which refers to itself as ‘Pawn’. I will bring this Worker back into the city with me. I apologize for any inconvenience.”
He stood over Pawn and raised one sword just under the tip of the other Antinium’s chin.
“Stand. Make no sudden movements. You will be questioned.”
Meekly, Pawn did as he was instructed. Erin was staring, horrified. It seemed like—
“Wait, I don’t understand. Why are you taking him? Has he done something wrong?”
Ksmvr paused. He seemed reluctant to explain.
“…It is common knowledge that those Antinium who refer to themselves as individuals or have names are subject to fits of violence and unpredictability. More I cannot say, but my role is to judge such errant individuals and terminate them if necessary.”
The casual way he said it made Erin’s blood run cold. And now that she was thinking again, she saw Pawn was trembling as Ksmvr held his sword under his chin.
“Wait a second. Wait a second. I know Pawn. He hasn’t done anything wrong, and I’ve been playing chess with him every day for the last few weeks. Why are you taking him now?”
Again, Ksmvr paused before replying.
“The Hive within Liscor has been in—disarray. My appointment to this position was out of necessity. All shall be restored to order shortly. Until then, I carry out my roles.”
He looked at Pawn.
“We will return to the Hive. Any actions will be met with appropriate punishment. Is that clear?”
Pawn nodded. He slowly moved with Ksmvr’s blade poking into his back. The Propugnator would have pushed him out the door, but Erin was suddenly in the way.
“Please move aside, Erin Solstice.”
“You haven’t explained anything. Pawn did nothing wrong. He has a name, but I was the one who gave it to him. What do you mean you’ll terminate him? And—and why do you look like Klbkch? What’s a Propugnator?”
“I am on business of my Hive. I cannot answer your questions. Please move aside.”
Pawn spoke. His voice trembled with nerves as he spoke to Erin.
“Please, Miss Solstice. This is a matter of the Antinium. I knew it would come. Do not interfere—”
Ksmvr moved. His sword flashed and Pawn screeched, clutching a severed antennae.
“The Worker will remain silent.”
Quaking, Pawn clutched at his bleeding stump and shut up. Ksmvr prodded him forwards, blade tips sinking into the Worker’s exoskeleton, but now Erin was right in front of him.
“That’s enough. Pawn is my guest. I won’t let you take him.”
Ksmvr stared at Erin expressionlessly.
“Interfering with my duties is a crime.”
“You cut him for speaking. I’m not letting you anywhere near him unless you explain things. No—better yet I want to go with him.”
“That is unacceptable. Move aside.”
“I will not request twice. Be warned—”
“I said no. Didn’t you hear me?”
“I did. Very well.”
Erin didn’t see the Antinium’s hand move. But she felt something solid strike her so hard she saw stars and tasted blood. Erin stumbled away, and heard a furious clatter.
Toren rushed at Ksmvr, barehanded except for a spoon it had picked up from a table. Ksmvr turned his head calmly and two of his arms moved.
The hilt of his sword and dagger smashed into the skeleton, so hard that the undead construct paused. Ksmvr’s arm blurred again and suddenly Tor was headless.
With one leg, the Antinium kicked the skeleton across the room, scattering Toren’s bones. He turned calmly back to Pawn.
“Move. Walk slowly without deviation.”
Erin could only see stars. And her jaw was already swelling, but she still staggered towards Ksmvr. She stopped as two daggers pointed her way.
“Your interference has been noted. Your complaints will be heard by my Queen once she had completed her business. Regrettably, she is indisposed at the moment but you may request an audience at a later date.”
“I won’t—let you take Pawn. You don’t have to do this.”
Ksmvr paused, and then shook his head. He spoke without inflection.
“My position is temporary. But any possibility of a Worker becoming Abomination must be dealt with swiftly. Interfere, and I will be forced to consider you an enemy.”
He opened the door. Pawn meekly walked through it. Ksmvr paused, one hand on the door. He nodded at Erin as the girl stared at him, horrified.
“Good day to you. My apologies for the interruption.”
The door closed behind him with softly.
Erin stared at the door for a full minute, thoughts whirling, before she moved. She paused only long enough to make sure Toren was reassembling himself. Rags was squatting next to the skeleton, offering it bones and watching with interest as the skeleton pieced itself together one part at a time.
She had no time to wait for the skeleton. Erin ran into the kitchen and reemerged with a frying pan, the biggest one she had. She flung the door open, and made it two steps outside before the Workers grabbed her.
“Let—go of me!”
“Innkeeper Solstice must not interfere. Innkeeper Solstice must not.”
“Get off! I’m going to save Pawn! Let go!”
Erin struggled, but three Workers had her in grips like steel and the others were surrounding them. They spoke—a group speaking as one.
“The Propugnator must not be disturbed. The Propugnator will slay all who interfere. Innkeeper Solstice must not die. Innkeeper Solstice must not die.”
Erin struggled. The Workers didn’t want to hurt her. At last, she managed to wriggle out of their grips. She broke free of the mob and ran down the hill towards Liscor.
She made it several miles before the Workers caught up. They weren’t fast, but they didn’t tire. They held her.
“Innkeeper Solstice must not.”
She shouted it at the Worker who’d caught her. He flinched, but she was beyond caring.
“What is that Ksmvr guy doing? Why does he look exactly like Klkbch!”
The Worker hesitated, and then shook his head.
“It is forbidden to speak of Hive matters to outsiders. This one may not speak.”
Erin snapped. She took a deep breath, and shouted in the Worker’s face.
“I am your chess teacher! I am Innkeeper Solstice, and I order you to tell me!”
He hesitated. Erin grabbed him by his cool, smooth exoskeleton.
The Worker hesitated. He looked at the other Workers surrounding him and she saw them agree almost as one. It looked hesitantly back at Erin.
“This one—these ones believe the individual known as Pawn will be interrogated.”
“To determine if the individual known as Pawn is Aberration.”
“And if he is?”
“He will be executed.”
Erin’s blood went cold. She struggled, but the Worker held her.
“That’s crazy! Why? What did he do wrong?”
“Those who are Aberration kill. They are individual and reject the Hive. They destroy.”
“But Pawn isn’t violent!”
Erin stopped and stared at the Worker.
“He isn’t. You know it. I know it. He hasn’t done anything. So he’s not an Aberration, right?”
The Worker hesitated again and stared at his comrades.
“It may be so.”
“It is so!”
“No Worker who has become individual has ever not been Aberration.”
Erin stared at the Worker. He and the others shook their heads.
“Pawn is different, though. He is. So—that Ksmvr guy will let him go, right?”
“If the individual known as Pawn is not Aberration he may be allowed freedom within the Hive.”
Erin was no good at reading Worker’s expressions. But even she could tell that the Workers didn’t think this was very likely. She stared at them.
“I’m going to stop it.”
“It is too late. The Hive will be sealed while the individual known as Pawn is questioned. Innkeeper Solstice will not be able to enter.”
“It is impossible. Innkeeper Solstice must go back to her inn.”
“I’ve got to go. I must.”
“It is impossible.”
“I must go.”
“It is impossible.”
In the end, the Workers left. And they left Erin behind. She stood, holding the heavy frying pan in the middle of the plains and watched the Workers slowly trudge across the dark plains towards Liscor.
She wanted to run after them. But they’d convinced her—finally convinced her—that even if she followed them there would be nothing she could do. They would enter the hive, but apparently it would be sealed by the fearsome Antinium soldiers. And Ksmvr would be deep within the Hive, interrogating Pawn for signs of Aberration, whatever that meant.
Erin would never reach him. So she stayed, and felt like she was betraying Pawn. But she would never reach him. All Erin could do was pray.
Slowly, Erin walked back towards her inn. Her mind was full of confusion, fear, panic, a whirlwind of emotions. But those thoughts vanished from her head when she heard the shouting.
It came from her inn. Erin stared up the hill, and saw a group of dark shapes standing outside the inn. They were yelling something.
“More of them over there! Kill them!”
“Watch it! One of them knows magic!”
“Get it off! There’s a skeleton too! Toss me my sword!”
Erin ran. She charged up the hill as fast as she could. Her inn was lit from the inside, the lamps Tor had lit the only light besides the stars. In the glow from the windows she could see seven—maybe more people, striking out at Rags and her group of Goblins.
They’d been caught unawares, but the adventurers were already pulling out weapons. One of them—a massive Minotaur—pulled a humongous battle axe from his back and swung it with a roar of fury. Rags dodged the massive blade as it bit into the soil with a shrill cry of alarm. She swung her short sword, but a mage in robes pointed and the Goblin had to dive or be consumed by the flames that shot from the mage’s staff.
Erin didn’t even bother with words. As the adventurers charged she raised the frying pan and hurled it as hard as she could at the Minotaur. The pan flew straight at the massive bull-man’s head, courtesy of Erin’s [Unerring Throw] Skill.
The Minotaur blinked as the pan flew at him. His hand shot up, grabbed the cast-iron skillet by the handle and halted it in midair.
Erin froze. The Goblins took one look at the Minotaur holding the frying pan and ran. One of the adventurers raised a bow, but Erin ran forwards and kicked him in the stomach. He doubled over.
Suddenly, Erin was alone and surrounded by adventurers. They stared at her, confused. One of them – a girl with pointy ears – held up her hand and stopped the other adventurers from attacking. The Minotaur stared at Erin, curious.
He’d stopped the flying frying pan of justice with one hand. Erin gulped and thought fast. Her attack had failed although Rags and her friends were clear. So that left words.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
The adventurers stared incredulously at her.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I own this place! What are you doing attacking my guests?”
A guy with a long mustache gaped at Erin. He stared at the fleeing Goblins.
“They’re Goblins! And there’s a skeleton in there!”
He pointed at Toren, who was lying disassembled inside of Erin’s inn.
“They’re my guests. And that’s my skeleton you just beat up! This is my inn, and no one kills Goblins around here! Didn’t you read the sign? Does anyone read the damn sign?”
The adventurers, or rather, the Silver-rank adventuring group known as the Horns of Hammerad stared at each other in confusion. The night sky made everything nearly impossible to see by. Gerial stared at Erin, and then looked around.
“There’s a sign?”
Erin sat in her inn, staring at the group of men, women, and one Elf and Minotaur as they sat awkwardly across from her. All of them stared alternatively at her, and at Toren as the skeleton walked around the inn, cleaning up the Worker’s dishes and the chess sets.
They weren’t about to say anything else. So Erin spoke.
“Let me get this straight. You guys are an adventuring group, and you just happened to drop by.”
“That’s right. We knew there was an inn in the area, and we wondered if it was still open.”
That came from the Elf-girl, sitting closest to Erin. She was distractingly beautiful, with features that were literally nothing like anything Erin had seen in her world. She smiled politely at Erin and the girl had to prevent herself from gaping.
Erin looked at the Minotaur instead. He was also something she’d never seen, but she wasn’t as distracted by him. Rather, his bullish head and rippling muscles made her feel like she was talking to a cow that had decided to start working out and was walking around on two legs.
Which, when you got down to it, was pretty much a Minotaur.
“So you lot came here, saw the inn was full of Goblins, and decided to kill them all, right?”
The adventurers shifted in their seats. One of them shrugged.
The adventurers exchanged glances. One of them—a guy in armor with a flowing mustache shook his head.
“They’re Goblins. They’re monsters. We’re adventurers. I’m sorry Miss, but we were just doing our jobs.”
Erin knew that, but she didn’t have to like it. But they hadn’t killed any Goblins and she’d made them explain three times already. And they were staring at her, so she decided to change topics.
“Okay. So you’re adventurers from up north. You said you had a name…?”
“The Horns of Hammerad.”
That came from the Minotaur. He was still staring at Erin curiously, but without any threatening to rip her head off, which is what she sort of assumed was Minotaur behavior.
“And how did you know the inn was here?”
The man with the mustache cleared his throat awkwardly.
“We were ah, here before.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“I believe you were out at the time.”
Ceria smiled at Erin. She nodded to the skeleton.
“But I can prove we weren’t doing anything wrong. We were here to meet a certain necromancer at the time. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting you know him.”
Erin looked at Tor, and the skeleton looked inquiringly back at her. He was still wearing his sword belted to his bony waist, and the skeleton was eying the Horns of Hammerad as if it considered them to be a threat.
“I might know him. This uh, necromancer. Can you describe him?”
“He’s quite annoying.”
“Right, that’s Pisces. Okay, so you know him. And you’re here. And I guess you didn’t see the sign about not killing Goblins. Mistakes were made.”
Erin sighed and tried to relax. She looked at the group of adventurers again.
“So, what do the Horns of Hammerbad want with me?”
The Minotaur’s eye twitched, but the Elf spoke again. She might be their leader, or maybe it was mustache-guy.
“We’re looking for a place to stay.”
Erin looked blank. She pointed out the window.
“The city’s that way.”
“Yes, but every tavern, inn, and home is full to the rafters with adventurers. There’s nowhere to sleep—not even in a shed. So we came here.”
Erin still looked blank.
“This…is an inn, correct? Don’t you have rooms to rent?”
“What? Oh. Oh. Yeah, I’ve got them. Tons of them. All empty.”
Silence. The Horns of Hammerad exchanged a glance. Ceria coughed politely and smiled at Erin.
“Could we perhaps stay here? I promise you we won’t cause any trouble and we have plenty of coin.”
That had a hollow ring to it after the earlier incident. Erin thought it over, chewing at her lip.
“I don’t like people who attack Goblins. They’re my guests and you chased them off.”
This comment seemed to seriously annoy the Minotaur. He leaned forwards, snorting, but mustache-guy pushed him back in his chair. From his seat the Minotaur snapped at Erin.
“Those creatures are scum. They should be exterminated.”
Erin’s brows snapped together. The other Horns of Hammerad groaned and the Elf kicked backwards, hitting the Minotaur’s shin. All that happened was that she winced.
Mustache-guy smoothed his mustaches and looked concerned. He spoke to Erin, attempting a charming smile.
“I assure you, Mistress, um, Erin. This was all a mistake. If we’d seen the sign we wouldn’t have attacked.”
Erin eyed the adventurers. She still wasn’t happy, not least because they were in her way while she was still thinking about Pawn. She made up her mind rapidly.
“Look, you didn’t kill the Goblins. So I guess I’ll forget that. But if you stay here, you will either obey my rules or you can sleep outside. Got it?”
All of the Horns of Hammerad nodded at once. Only the Minotaur did not. Erin stared at him.
“How about you bull-guy?”
His eyebrow twitched and everyone else in the inn winced. The Minotaur stared at Erin hard, but she didn’t look away.
“Everyone else seems like they’ll be okay, but are you going to obey my rules or do I have to kick you out?”
The thought of her kicking the Minotaur out was ridiculous, but Erin was too angry to care. The Minotaur stared hard at her, blew out air exasperatedly, and finally nudged the Elf-girl aside as she silently kicked him under the table.
“Upon my honor, I promise. I will not attack any of your guests unless provoked.”
That seemed like it was all Erin was going to get. She nodded.
“Okay, then. In that case I have a few rooms upstairs. Enough for all of you. But I don’t have any pillows.”
The Horns of Hammerad smiled in relief. The Elf spoke to Erin.
“That’s fine. We can make do.”
Erin nodded and stood up. Her mind was blank. What were you supposed to say at times like this? Guests. She had guests. She picked a direction and put her mouth on autopilot.
“Your rooms are upstairs. Go ahead and pick whatever one you want. We might have to get two beds for cow-guy, but it should be fine.”
She pointed at the kitchen.
“Breakfast is in the morning. There’s no alcohol, but I’ve got plenty of food. There’s an outhouse outside—just be careful that you don’t walk into a monster. If you see a huge moving rock, shut the door and stay quiet. Don’t go into the kitchen if you want something to eat—there are jars of acid lying around. Don’t drink anything green in general. No killing Goblins, the skeleton works for me, and if you see an ant-guy with two swords and two daggers, hit him and make sure he doesn’t go anywhere. Got it?”
The Horns of Hammerad hesitated, and then nodded. Erin waited, and then shrugged.
“That’s about it. I’ll make some food if you want anything.”
She stomped out of the common room and into the kitchen. Bemused, the adventurers watched her go. For a few seconds they heard her talking to the skeleton, and then Erin walked back out. She pointed at the adventurers.
“One more thing. Do any of you play chess?”
Again, all of the adventurers had to exchange glances of confusion. At last, the mustached man looked back at Erin and raised one eyebrow.