“I am individual. I am Antinium.”
That was the first whisper Erin heard out of Pawn. He sat, no longer bleeding in the inn as she wrapped a bandage around his severed stumps.
The healing potions the adventurers had used had stopped the bleeding, but there was no way to restore lost limbs. And his severed wounds were still exposed to the air. The Antinium didn’t have skin but exoskeleton. Lacking that, the healed areas were still vulnerable.
He whispered to Erin as she sat next to him. The half-elf named Ceria and the other adventurers hovered around her or watched from their tables, silent spectators. But all of Erin’s attention was on the Antinium in front of her.
“I was asked questions. I was tested. I passed.”
Erin looked at his broken body. Three arms had been cut away. And part of his foot—his carapace was cracked in multiple places and cut in others.
“Is he coming after you? Ksmvr?”
The name made Pawn freeze like a—a cockroach caught in the light. He began shaking so uncontrollably the two Workers had to hold him so Erin could finish wrapping the bandage.
“He—the Prognugator let me go. He let me go. I am individual. Not Aberration. He let me go.”
Pawn repeated the words several times, rocking back and forth. Erin stared at him. She didn’t know what to do.
She looked around. Ceria was staring at the Antinium.
“Who is this?”
“Pawn. This is Pawn. He’s a Worker.”
All four Workers said the word as one. Erin looked at them. They spoke in unison.
“The individual known as Pawn is no longer a Worker.”
“Then what is he?”
“Individual. Antinium. Not Aberration.”
Ceria looked at Erin.
“This has something to do with the Antinium in the city, right? Did they have a—a fight? I’ve heard of Prognugators. If this Ksmvr is after your friend—”
Pawn waved his one good arm wildly. Again, the other Workers had to retrain him.
“I am not Aberration. I am not. I am—”
He was incoherent, or as close to it as Erin had ever seen one of the Antinium. She stared at him. He was still shaking. And if he had the means, Erin was sure he would have wept. Instead all he could do was tremble.
It was curious. Erin felt as though in this moment, she should be full of—something. Rage perhaps, or grief. But instead there was nothing. Just a few thoughts.
Pawn was still babbling. He kept repeating his innocence as the other adventurers watched helplessly. Some of them looked disgusted, others actually sympathetic. And some were simply silent because it wasn’t the time to speak.
Erin had no time for them. Instead, she walked slowly over to a table. Olesm was paralyzed in his seat. He stared up at her, eyes wide. But Erin didn’t speak to him. Instead, she picked up what was in front of the Drake.
Ceria blinked as Erin carried it back. But Pawn’s eyes latched onto the simple wooden board as Erin put it on the table in front of him. Pawn looked up into her eyes and she felt the nothingness in her deepen.
Slowly, the two Workers propped Pawn up and he moved so he could access the board with his remaining arm. The Worker hesitated and then moved.
He shook like a leaf in the breeze. Pawn fumbled at the chess pieces with his single arm, clumsily trying to set them up and knocking them over. Trembling.
Erin stared at the Antinium and felt not a trace of fury in her. Not black fury, not burning rage nor wrath enough to power a thousand suns. Nothing.
Her hands were calm as she took Pawn’s pieces and set them up on the board. Carefully, she arranged his pieces and hers. He was white – she was black. He clumsily moved a pawn forwards and she replied.
Queen’s Gambit. Dutch Defense. Erin crushed Pawn in only a few moves. Ruthlessly. Without guilt or hesitation.
The Antinium wavered. She felt and saw him hesitate, and saw the other Workers around him staring. But then she reset the board and he moved again.
King’s Pawn Game. French Defense. Erin played exactly the opposite game Pawn expected to, staying defensive and picking off his pieces slowly. She won again, overwhelmingly.
Nothing. No feeling. Erin played in a void of calm, playing her best against a broken Pawn who could barely move his pieces. She reset the board and they played.
Again, and again. Glacial silence, forest silence. The silence of endless days on the open desert where the winds devoured all and the sand was the only thing that ever changed. The silence of the open ocean on a sunny day—vast and loud, engulfing all things and making the world a green-blue landscape.
The silence of eternity, played out in the soft clicking of chess pieces on the board.
Again, Pawn played and Erin won. She rotated the board and made the first move. She won again.
He was alone. Alone, and not half the player she was. But with every game something that had been cut away came back. Slowly, the Antinium’s trembling stopped.
He played. He lost. And Erin felt nothing. But each game was a small slice of eternity cut and drifting between the two, a moment of healing, a moment of concentration and silence. An immortal moment.
And when it was done, when the games had finished and the sun had fallen, and then night had turned back into day Erin stopped. She let Pawn gently push over his king. The Antinium no longer trembled, and she sat in a silent ring of Workers, Goblins, and even adventurers who sat watching the game. A single skeleton hovered with a platter of food in hand, watching with eyes that had seen forever in death and saw forever caught in a single game of chess.
And still, Erin felt nothing. Not a flicker of pain, anger, or sadness crossed her heart. The emotions were too big for her. But whatever was in her prompted her. Erin felt it move, like the way the tide changed. A vast, deep feeling.
She spoke as Pawn hung his head low, drowsy with sleep.
The single word brought the Antinium out of his half-sleep, shuddering. But he was strong enough to hear the name now, strong enough to listen and not weep. Erin met Pawn’s eyes and saw a person staring through insect’s multifaceted gaze.
She made no promises, spoke no untrue words. Erin reached out and held the cold insect Worker, hugging him gently. Then she stood up and said two words.
The door closed softly behind Erin. For a moment all the adventurers stared, still caught in a fragment of forever. Then the silence was broken by shock and cursing as half the adventurers in the inn rushed out after her.
Ceria was the first out of the inn. She was no warrior, but her heritage gave her grace and speed. And she wasn’t weighed down by armor.
The Half-elf ran into the rainy night, and found the other girl was already gone. The door opened and Yvlon and Cervial were outside right behind Ceria.
“Where did she go?”
“Towards the city, obviously. But she must be moving fast. I can’t even see her from here.”
“Well let’s get after her! If she’s trying to pick a fight—”
Ceria snapped the word, more as a general curse on the situation than an attack on Erin. She looked at Yvlon.
“I can go but that Antinium needs watching. And I’ve got no movement Skills. Can you—?”
“Of course. You stop Calruz.”
“Right. And if she gets there first, don’t fight the one called Ksmvr. Attacking him is the same as attacking the hive.”
Cervial nodded. He looked around, seeing through the dark night better than even Ceria could.
“Let’s go. I can’t see her. The girl must have some kind of running Skill.”
Without a word the two captains ran towards the city, moving like a blur. Ceria watched them go and then turned. She saw other adventurers standing just outside, caught in indecision.
“If you want to go, go. But only drag that innkeeper back. Fighting here would be a mistake. But it would be better if less people were out in the darkness. We don’t know what kind of monsters live here.”
At her words, most of the adventurers went back into the inn. Or tried to. They had to retreat as a large shape pushed his way through the crowd.
Calruz emerged from the inn, face dark with anger. None of the humans wanted to get in his way, but Ceria stood in front of the Minotaur’s path.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“After the innkeeper. Where else?”
“Yvlon and Cervial are already after her. You wouldn’t be able to catch her anyways.”
“Who says I’m going to catch her? The child needs a second for a proper death duel.”
“You will not go. If we cause a disturbance—”
“Honor is at stake. You will not stop me.”
Ceria felt a massive hand move her aside. She thought about the few spells she could use, and then abandoned the idea when she saw the look on Calruz’s face. She stared helplessly as the Minotaur strode off in the direction of the city.
“The other two might be able to stop him. If they get to the innkeeper in time.”
Gerial said it loudly behind Ceria. She had to raise her voice above the pounding rain. She was already soaked, but at least her enchanted robes weren’t getting soggy with water.
“I just hope she doesn’t actually try to fight that Antinium – or whoever he is. She’s no warrior.”
The two leading members of the Horns of Hammerad stared at each other. They both felt it. The hint of déjà-vu.
“If you want to go—”
“No. Calruz won’t listen to me anymore than you. And if he does pick a fight, better it’s only him. Besides—”
Gerial stared out into the rain, hand clenched.
“If I went out there I don’t think I could stop myself.”
Ceria followed his gaze. The night was dark and stormy. She spoke distantly.
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“It’s night. And—the timing of it.”
Ceria paused. Gerial stared at her. They trusted each other, and adventurers learned to listen to their feelings. Ceria hit on what her instincts were telling her and spoke.
“It feels like a trap.”
Ksmvr stood on a hilltop, waiting. He was not within the boundaries of Liscor. It was important that he was not.
Boundaries. Rules. Ksmvr understood them. They were important. Rules and order made up the Hive, and by such things could everything be understood.
Pacts had been made. The soldiers of the Hive were not permitted above-ground save for times of emergency—or war. And while the definition of emergency could allow for numerous occasions, bringing the soldiers above ground would bring about questions regardless. And the Queen was not to be disturbed.
But no such pacts had been established outside of the city. Therefore, four of the Soldier Antinium stood silently next to Ksmvr, silent giants waiting for his order. They were elite—perhaps not as strong individually as he was, but close. Together, they were more than enough to subdue a single [Innkeeper].
It might have been overkill to a human, but the Antinium took no chances. And Erin Solstice had established her worth. Initially Ksmvr had only known what his Queen had told him, and from that he had thought of her as insignificant. Worthless.
But—and here was the difficult part—Erin Solstice was important. She was valuable. Perhaps unique. His Queen had been wrong in her appraisal of Erin and that bothered Ksmvr greatly.
But the duty of a Prognugator was to protect and serve the hive. And Ksmvr would do just that. He waited for Erin Solstice in the certainty that she would come.
Her actions were a matter of record. More than that, the established thought processes of humans were well known to Ksmvr. She would come in fury and vengeance to be caught and the individual known as Pawn would be easily retrieved. Minor obstacles like the Goblins, adventurers and skeleton were of no object.
Ksmvr shifted in his position on the hilltop that afforded him a view of the area surrounding the city. He was not bored. He was incapable of being bored. But the time he had spent waiting bothered him.
The Soldiers behind Ksmvr did not move. They waited, alert for any threat. They did not get bored either.
But Relc was quite bored. The Drake yawned and all five Antinium turned. Ksmvr’s swords and daggers sprang from their sheaths and the Soldiers immediately raised their club-like hands.
Relc sat up in the grass, appearing out of the dark landscape as if by magic. It wasn’t magic of course. But mud and the Drake’s dark scales had made him practically invisible in the grass.
Ksmvr held up a hand and sent a mental order to the Soldiers. But neither he nor the other Antinium relaxed. He kept his swords pointed at the ground.
“Senior Guardsman Relc. Do you have business with me at this time? If so, I request it wait until tomorrow.”
Relc scratched at the back of his head. He looked at Ksmvr and glanced away.
“What? Oh, no, no. I don’t have business with you.”
Ksmvr waited, but Relc didn’t say anything else. More questioning was in order.
“May I inquire as to your purpose here?”
“Sure, inquire away.”
More silence. Ksmvr was aware that Relc was being deliberately obstinate and confrontational. A troubling complication.
“Why have you followed my group?”
Relc raised what would have been an eyebrow.
“I’m not following—”
“Please refrain from lying. There is no other reason for you to be out here at this time of night. Moreover, you are not currently on duty. Why are you here?”
The Soldier Antinium shifted slightly. Relc eyed them, unimpressed. He flicked his tongue out and shrugged.
“I’m just taking a walk. And uh, a nap. In the rain. Which I do quite often.”
Talking to people—or rather, interacting with those not of the Hive was difficult. And Ksmvr was unused to conversations with outsiders in the first place. Still, he persisted, keeping one eye on the dark landscape the entire time.
“Will you return to the city, then?”
“Maybe. In time. I’m just enjoying myself.”
“I see. And will you continue to remain here so long as we are here?”
“Oh, no. I’ll leave pretty soon. Just as soon as a certain stupid human girl gets back to her inn all safe and sound.”
Ksmvr interpreted that information and the Soldiers around him raised their hands. Relc waved at them with his tail.
“Stop that. I’m not here for a fight. And neither are you, since I’d win.”
It was an accurate statement, at least in that the chances of Relc’s victory were higher than Ksmvr’s. And a deeply complicating factor. Therefore Ksmvr attempted a higher degree of diplomacy than before.
“Your presence is unneeded. If Erin Solstice cooperates she will be unharmed.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think she will. Do you? And frankly, even if you plan to feed her with a golden spoon I don’t think I should let you take her.”
“Erin Solstice is not a citizen of Liscor. Your duty does not extend to—”
“Would you shut up?”
Relc said it pleasantly, but with an edge that made Ksmvr consider silence the most appropriate response. The Drake shook his head.
“You sound just like Klb back—well, back when I first met him. I don’t like that. So shut up and listen since I have to spell it out. Here’s what’s going to happen tonight. Erin Solstice is going to run into the city, probably with that stupid frying pan and not find you and a bunch of your big Antinium friends. She’s going to go back to her inn all safe and nice.”
“You are protecting her.”
“I like her. Well—I used to. Now I think she’s a bloody idiot Human like the others. But at least she makes good pasta. And—well, let’s call it a favor. Klbkch died protecting her. I just figured it would be a shame if all his effort went to waste.”
There was an inconsistency in Relc’s statements and Ksmvr leapt on it, sure of his success.
“Klbkch was a member of the Hive. By obstructing my work you obstruct the Hive.”
Strangely, Relc did not respond to this logical inconsistency like Ksmvr had predicted. He just shrugged.
“Yeah. But I don’t like you.”
Dealing with non-Antinium was so—so frustrating. Ksmvr felt an unexplored emotion within him. Troubling. But he persisted.
“I am Prognugator of the Free Antinium of Liscor. My authority—”
“I have four Soldiers with me.”
Relc yawned. He eyed the silent Antinium, whose hands were literal weapons. Their carapaces were equivalent to unenchanted plate armor, and they possessed numerous abilities inherent to the Antinium that other species did not have. Even so, Relc did not appear intimidated.
“I’ve heard that a newly grown soldier is the equivalent of a Level 15 [Warrior] for most species. Interesting. But if you think those guys frighten me, I’ll rip a few of their heads off for you. The Antinium never made it up to Liscor so you have no idea how strong I am.”
Ksmvr paused and tilted his head as he accessed the required memory.
“Relc Grasstongue, former sergeant of the 1st Wing of the Liscorian army. Currently Level 33 in the [Spearmaster] class, and Level 12 in the [Guardsman] class. Negligible levels in the [Archer] class as well as the [Carpenter] class. Possesses mainly combat skills as well as the rare skill [Triple Thrust].”
“…Damn bugs. Did Klbkch tell you that?”
At last. Dialogue. Ksmvr did not have the facial muscles—or face—to smile, but a part of him felt relieved. He attempted to continue the conversation.
“Klbkch estimated that if necessary, he would be able to hold you off for five minutes and inflict serious wounds before death. If given the order to terminate, he predicted a sneak attack had an even chance of killing you.”
The look Relc gave Ksmvr did not indicate a positive reaction to the conversation.
“I really don’t like you, you know.”
“Your regard for me matters little. My position is temporary.”
“Good for you, I guess. Why are you talking so much, anyways?”
“I am attempting to build the same level of camaraderie shared between you and former Prognugator Klbkch.”
Another pause, and this time Relc’s expression darkened.
“Well. I—no. I’m going to stand over here until Erin comes by.”
He began to walk off. Ksmvr called out after him.
“Sixteen more Soldiers are currently moving towards this location. You will not be able to stop them alone.”
Relc paused. Ksmvr couldn’t see—but the Drake looked like he was grinning.
“That’s sort of funny. I guess not all of you Antinium are alike, huh?”
“What leads you to that conclusion?”
“You don’t have [Dangersense]. You’d better pray you get it, or another skill like it soon.”
Relc nodded towards a distant hill. Ksmvr looked and mentally ordered the Soldiers leaving the Hive to hold position. Perhaps if he were Human he might never have seen the silent figure crouching and smiling down at the two warriors. But he was Antinium and he recognized Gazi on sight.
The Drake sat down on the hill casually, ignoring the other Antinium still watching him. He nodded towards Gazi’s distant figure.
“Now she could eat you and your cute little soldiers for breakfast. Me, she’d probably choke on the way down.”
Ksmvr was capable of free-thought, a mark of his position and importance to the Hive. He was a leader, meant to direct soldiers and deal with unexpected situations as they arose. Never mind that he had become Prognugator before his training period was over—he was trusted by the Queen. But—but—
But no matter how hard he thought, he couldn’t decide what to do. Erin Solstice was important. But with the presence of Gazi the Omniscient as well as Relc, suddenly the costs of capturing Erin Solstice became too high.
But she was important. But it was too costly. But she was important. But it was too costly. What should he do? His Queen had ordered him not to disturb her. But he knew the importance of individuals. His entire duty—the entire duty of the Antinium within Liscor revolved around the importance of this. But it was too dangerous.
What should he do? For the first time in his short life, Ksmvr had no idea what he should do.
It was a silent—well, stalemate wasn’t the word. From their position within a deep section of the grass the other watchers could see that the Antinium were in trouble. Even as they watched, their leader came to a decision. He spoke a few words to Relc and the Antinium surrounding him began marching back to the city.
That was good.
“There. It is well that we did not have to intervene, yes?”
Krshia spoke her comment quietly, but even with the pouring rain the other Gnolls lying in the grass heard her perfectly. Tkrn and six of the other Gnolls relaxed their hold on their bows. Tkrn nodded at Ksmvr as the Antinium swiftly descended the hill, flanked by his Soldiers.
“It might be best to slay the bug before he returns to the city, yes? It would not be too difficult to do, especially if he intends to hurt this Erin Solstice.”
Tkrn barely saw the paw that cuffed him on the head. Krshia glared at him between the long stalks of grass.
“He was not trying to kill her. Use your brain, you fool, you.”
The other Gnolls chuckled in amusement as Tkrn flattened his ears in embarrassment. As the most junior member of the Gnolls—and the most inexperienced, it was even more humiliating to make a mistake in front of their leader.
“But he had Soldiers.”
“Yes, to capture her. But he was waiting for Erin Solstice to arrive, yes? That is suspicious. Who waits for a challenge? Only Humans in their pride and Drakes do that, yes? We fight without needing large open spaces and people to watch. But the Antinium—they are even more different than we.”
She nodded at Ksmvr as the Antinium marched back across the flatlands. The Antinium was alert—constantly scanning the landscape. But despite the Antinium’s impressive dark vision, they were no hunters of the plains. Krshia and the other Gnolls were perfectly hidden in their cover.
“If he – Ksm – wanted Erin Solstice dead then dead she would be already. He would stab her before she saw him, yes? But he wanted her here, and had many soldiers with him.”
She shook her head.
“Someone else wants Erin Solstice. And excluding the foolish Drake, three different sides came for her tonight.”
“It seems you are right. This Erin Solstice, she is important.”
Another Gnoll made that comment and the others nodded. If they had doubted Krshia before—and if they had they were wise enough to never have said it in her presence—tonight changed that. She glared at them.
“I said it, did I not? But it is poor fortune that it is known. We must hurry.”
The other Gnolls nodded. One spoke.
“The other warriors will arrive soon. Within the week.”
Tkrn shifted. He eyed the hill where the silent figure of Gazi was still crouching and engaged in a staring contest with Relc.
“Should we leave, then? Or will Gazi do something?”
The other Gnolls muttered. They knew the odds of taking on a Named Adventurer. Krshia shook her head.
“I do not think so. She is crafty, and she is waiting. I do not think she would have intervened unless all others failed, including we.”
“But she is still here, yes.”
Krshia scowled up at Gazi. It was impossible—they were perfectly hidden, but the Gazer’s eye flicked away from Relc and towards them for the merest fraction of a second. Krshia muttered something as the other Gnolls growled.
“She likes to watch.”
“Well, she can’t do anything to us even if she knows we’re here.”
This time Tkrn received several admonitory paws to the back of the head. Krshia shook herself and sent water drops flying now that their cover had been broken.
“Maybe not. But it is an ill thing to be spotted. We will wait to make sure she does nothing. Just in case.”
The Gnolls sat up in the grass, relaxing. Relc still hadn’t spotted them but then, the Drake only relied on his Skills. And the problem with [Dangersense] is that it only told him when there was potential threat.
Still, they meant him no harm. They were on the same side, at least for the night. So the Gnolls waited. The Gazer sat patiently, and the Drake ripped up pieces of grass. The night was silent.
From their position in the grass, the Gnolls saw Relc shift and scratch irritably at his scales. He looked around and then voiced the question on everyone’s mind.
“Where is she?”
“We couldn’t find her.”
Ceria stared in disbelief at Yvlon and Cervial as the two adventurers returned, panting. They’d run all the way to Liscor and back in less than thirty minutes.
“We got to the gates, but the guard there said no one had come by.”
Both of the adventurers shrugged helplessly. Ceria chewed at her lip.
“Maybe she got lost?”
“I doubt it.”
“Then a monster—”
“We would have noticed that.”
“Then where is she?”
“I don’t know. Did you spot Calruz by any chance?”
Cerival smiled crookedly.
“Yeah. He tried to get into the city, but the guard told him the gates were closed. He’s stomping his way back now.”
Well, that was one problem solved. But the bigger problem remained. Where was Erin Solstice? Ceria stared around, but the night was still full of rain and seeing was impossible.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait. Come on inside—the skeleton is mad as hell but it’s staying put for some reason. I guess we should as well.”
Yvlong and Cervial trooped back into the inn. Ceria looked around one last time. It was so strange. She’d assumed—
Something dropped from the roof of the inn and landed right next to Ceria. The half-elf yelped, grabbed for her wand, and stopped.
Erin got up from the ground, wincing at the bad fall. She brushed mud off her shirt and paused as she saw Ceria.
Ceria clutched at her heart. It felt as if it had stopped.
“What are you—where were you?”
Erin blinked at her. She pointed up.
“I was on the roof.”
Ceria stared up. The roof.
Erin shrugged. She wiped at her face. It didn’t do much in the rain.
“I was crying. What did you think I was doing?”
Her eyes were red. Ceria could see that perfectly. She replied, lamely.
“We—we thought you were going after Ksmvr.”
“Why would I do that?”
Again, Ceria had to stop. She grappled with words.
“Well, after what he did to your friend—I’d say everyone in the inn would have joined you. Calruz especially.”
Erin snuffled again and wiped at her nose.
“That’s nice of you. I guess. You could all hold him down while I bashed his brains out with a frying pan, right?”
“We wouldn’t do that. Calruz—thought you were going to duel him.”
“And kill him?”
Erin looked at Ceria. It was an odd stare. Accusatory. Hurt. Ceria shifted, suddenly awkward.
“But what he did—”
Erin said it flatly.
“Pawn was innocent. He didn’t deserve that. When I saw what that bastard did—”
“Yeah. So we thought—”
Ceria trailed off lamely. Erin was still staring at her. As if it was the most obvious thing in the world, she shook her head.
“He hurt Pawn. But does that mean I should go out there and beat him to death? How? He’s a warrior and I’m—I’m an innkeeper. And I don’t murder people. I kill monsters and I’ve killed in self-defense. But I don’t murder people. Ever.”
It was too hard to meet the girl’s eyes. Ceria looked away. It felt like she was speaking to someone strange. Something—
She had no word for alien in her language. The closest words Ceria knew were outsider, strange, unnatural. Erin was staring at her, a hint of accusation in her stare. And it was hard to bear. There was something innocent in her gaze, something that Ceria had lost long ago when she first stared into a dead man’s eyes.
“I’m sorry. I just assumed—”
Erin shrugged. She paused, and stared around at the dark landscape. Ceria saw her lips move.
“Can I tell you something? Something sort of offensive?”
Erin stared at the ground and the wet grass. Her breath appeared in the cold air.
“You guys have a really shitty world. A really bad one.”
“I don’t like it. It’s so wonderful at times—so beautiful and full of magic. But then this happens. Every time. Well. Almost every time. I hate it.”
Ceria had nothing to say to that.
“For a moment I wanted to kill Ksmvr, too. But I would die if I tried that, right? He’s fast. Strong. A warrior. Maybe I could kill him. But then what?”
“He’d be dead.”
“And so would Pawn. Probably. That Queen would send her soldiers to rip off his head and mine.”
“I understand. You made the right choice.”
“Did I? It seems like all I can do at times like this is just accept what happened and move on.”
She shivered. Ceria was conscious of how cold it was. The enchantments on her robes made her feel warm even in the freezing rain but the human girl had sat up on the rooftop for—it had to be an hour at least.
“You should come inside. I’m sure Pawn will want to see you.”
She reached out for Erin. The girl’s skin was deathly cold. She muttered something.
Erin shook her head.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do to stop it. But I do know what to do.”
She walked past Ceria, into the inn. The half-elf followed, watching. There was something in the human girl’s eyes.
Pawn half-rose in his seat when he saw her. Anxiety was written all over his face, although only Erin could see it. She smiled at him and sneezed.
The other adventurers stared at Erin. She ignored them. They were not important. Instead, she sat down as Toren rushed towards her with a towel. She patted the cold water off her and felt a bit more alive when he gave her a steaming mug of boiled water.
Olesm had been playing Pawn. But the Drake instantly stood to give her his seat. Erin shook her head.
“Go on. Keep playing.”
The Drake blinked at her, and then awkwardly sat down. Erin sat next to Pawn. At first the Antinium looked at her, but she smiled. It was very quiet in the room. After a while, Olesm coughed and awkwardly moved a piece forward.
Pawn played. The two played. Erin looked at the Workers and got them a chess set. It was strange. The Workers sat and began playing. The adventurers sat awkwardly. After a while Erin had Toren bring out some leftovers.
And it was still silent. So when the feeling in Erin couldn’t be contained she opened her mouth.
And began to sing.
It caught Pawn off-guard. He froze as he held a knight in his hand and stared at Erin. So did everyone else. But the awkwardness—the fear she might have felt was nothing. So Erin sang.
She had never been good at singing. Or rather, she’d never been as good at singing as she had at playing chess. But when she was a kid, before she’d quit going to church, she’d been part of the choir. She’d sung in the school choir and once, just once, her teacher had encouraged her to study singing.
But she hadn’t. Erin had played chess and forgotten how to breathe properly, stopped singing every week. But the music had lingered, and she’d never really forgotten how.
“I don’t know why you hurt inside or what was said to make you cry…”
She didn’t know why she started with a Lady Gaga song. But that one she’d always loved because it made her feel better. And Greatest was probably her greatest song.
Erin had no piano. No voice synthesizer, no backup choir; she didn’t even have a microphone. But she didn’t need those things.
Her voice filled up the room, and it seemed to her audience that even though only one person was singing, they could hear something else. The same song Erin had heard first while sitting in her room playing chess.
Was it one person singing or two? They heard another voice. Strange drums—the sound of a piano—a voice singing with electronic sound in ways they could never have imagined.
Ceria listened, and heard another voice, and a kind of music she’d never heard of wherever she’d gone. She closed her eyes, and thought of a girl who knew colors that Ceria had never seen in her life.
Olesm was playing. Pawn kept moving pieces, but that was a backdrop to the music. Erin finished her song and silence beat down again. It was oppressive so she chose another song.
The adventurers had never heard a ukulele played before. But even though Erin wasn’t playing one, they heard it now. And in her voice—a man’s voice. Singing.
“Somewhere over the rainbow way up high…”
She’d always loved Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of that song more than the Judy Garland one. And she’d loved both with all her heart.
The song was lighter, happier in a way but in another way—not. Someone was crying. Erin kept singing, conjuring a piece of something the people in her inn had never heard before. A piece of immortal music.
Another immortal moment.
And then of course, she kept singing. Somewhere, Erin started singing Hallelujah and smiled as she remembered watching Shrek for the first time. The music poured out of her as Pawn played a game of chess, pausing to stare at her.
The other adventurers were silent. Ceria listened in silence. She was half Elf. Half of her had grown up knowing the fragments of forever—but the other half was still in awe.
But the humans listened to something that was not part of their world. They listened as Erin sang to their hearts.
“I have died everyday, waiting for you. Darling, don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years…”
Gerial wept into his mustache. The adventurers sat in silence. Yvlon closed her eyes and Cervial kept rubbing at his.
A moment of eternity. A song. A fragment of the past. A memory.
Immortality brought to life with every verse.
She taught them one song. Here I Am Lord, a song from church. It mattered. It was important. And when she sang it, Pawn looked up.
First Erin sang.
“I, the Lord of Sea and Sky. I have heard my people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save.”
Erin sang with Ceria, two soft voices singing as the half-elf joined in.
“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night.”
And then the others joined in. Men and women, singing a song for a god this world had never known. By the end of the third verse all the humans were singing. Calruz leaned against the doorway, frowning, closing his eyes and listening, silent. Pawn listened as Erin sang, leaning against him, warming him.
“I will hold Your people in my heart.”
He shuddered then. And then when she looked at him he did not cry. The Antinium do not weep. But she still saw the tears in his soul.
And the night passed to day and Erin sang on. Small songs, grand songs. And the magic was with her, fading with every note. Until she simply sang and the moment was no longer forever. But it was enough. When Erin finally closed her eyes the inn was silent.
And though the Antinium didn’t smile she did. For him. For the both of them.
Erin closed her eyes and slept.
[Innkeeper Level 15!]