2.34

Because she woke up early, Erin decided to make gravy. Everyone else was still asleep, anyways.

Ryoka and Mrsha were upstairs, but Erin had had too much trouble trying to drag Klbkch and Selys up the narrow staircase, so she’d left them in the common room with a blanket and pillows instead.

It was easy to make gravy. Erin got a pot out and fished around in her cupboard for supplies. She got out some flour, and found some of the bacon fat she’d chilled thanks to some snow she’d packed into a cauldron. It was mostly melted, but it kept the food she put in nice and cold, if a bit wet.

By the time Ryoka stumbled downstairs with Mrsha in tow, they found Erin putting out gravy on the table in a huge bowl next to steaming biscuits and mashed potatoes. That coincided nicely with Selys and Klbkch waking up on the floor. Erin beamed at all of them as her guests rubbed their heads and moaned.

“Morning!”

Selys clutched at her forehead.

“How much did I drink last night?”

“Um…four mugs? No, wait…six? Eight?”

Erin had lost count. She’d kept serving everyone the faerie flower alcohol until they’d started to pass out. It had been a long, anxious night for her. Everyone would just take a drink, stare off into the distance for ten minutes, and then keep drinking. In the end, they’d all just gone to sleep—except for Halrac. He’d left for the city, staggering slightly. Erin had been worried, but he was a Gold-rank adventurer.

“Ancestors.”

Selys groaned and clutched at her head. She tried to stand up and sat back down hard.

“My mouth tastes like…dead gods, that was some awful ale, Erin.”

“Hey!”

Erin opened her mouth, and then closed it.

“Well…I’ll buy some better stuff next time, okay?”

“There shouldn’t be a next time.”

Ryoka lurched over to the table as Klbkch dragged himself upwards. Mrsha yelped and scurried away at the sight of the Antinium. He looked worse for wear. Even though his appearance was mostly unchanged—the Antinium not really having skin or clothing that could get rumpled—he looked…disheveled.

“Good morning, Klbkch!”

Erin smiled at Klbkch. He looked around at her, somewhat slowly.

“I have failed to return to my Hive. That has never happened before.”

“Oh no. Is that bad?”

Klbkch nodded slowly.

“I must…excuse me.”

He put a hand to his head and paused. He had no eyelids, but Erin sensed that he was concentrating. After a moment, he nodded.

“I have informed my Queen. She has recalled the search parties.”

“Search parties?”

Klbkch shook his head. He stared at the food on the table as Mrsha tried to grab a biscuit with her hand. Silently, Ryoka grabbed a plate and spooned potatoes and biscuits onto it, and slathered everything with the thick gravy. She put it on the table and handed Mrsha a spoon. Clumsily, the small Gnoll tried to inhale the entire thing.

“So. Um.”

Everyone looked at her. Erin smiled nervously.

“How was it last night? Was the faerie flower drink really that good?”

Erin didn’t really understand Halrac’s fascination with it. When she’d tried some, she just remembered happy moments, but that was all. And yet, between the four people in her inn (not counting Mrsha), they’d downed an entire keg’s worth of her ale.

Ryoka, Selys, and Klbkch exchanged a long look. As one, they shook their heads.

“That was a terrible drink.”

“Awful.”

“Please do not serve it again.”

Erin’s jaw dropped.

“What? Why?”

Selys was still rubbing at her forehead as she nibbled at a biscuit. She drank deeply from a glass of water and grimaced.

“At first, I thought it was wonderful. I was remembering having fun with my uncle when he used to visit. And I was so happy—but then the memory kept going and going, and I felt the need to keep drinking. Every time I woke up from the…dream, I just drank more and went back.”

“So? What’s the problem?”

“Remembering a bit is fine. But after a while—there’s such a thing as too much nostalgia, you know?”

“You can get lost in the memories.”

Ryoka nodded. She stared at her gravy, ignoring the smacking sounds Mrsha was making next to her.

“It’s like an addiction. You keep wanting to go back. Put another drink in front of me and I’ll keep drinking it, again and again.”

“To remember.”

Klbkch was silent. He hadn’t even put anything on his plate. Ryoka looked up at Erin.

“Dilute the drink. Maybe offer the full-strength version once in a while, but don’t keep serving it to us, damn it!”

Erin shrank under the strength of Ryoka’s glare.

“Oops. Sorry.”

The three diners turned back to their breakfast in silence. Mrsha ate happily, scarfing down the rich gravy until she had a round belly. She at least, had had no ill effects from last night, having only imbibed a few mouthfuls of the magical ale.

Erin scratched her head. She’d wondered about the drink, but then of course the faeries had come in and she’d given them several pints before chasing them out. She remembered them flying into walls and laughing before she’d managed to get them out the door.

“So…can I get you guys anything else?”

Klbkch shook his head. Selys put her head on the table and moaned softly. Ryoka was rubbing her eyes.

“I’m uh, oh! Lyonette!”

The possible princess walked down the stairs and paused when she saw Selys and Klbkch. She sniffed.

“I am awake. What is for breakfast?”

“Mashed potatoes and gravy. And biscuits!”

Ryoka eyed Lyonette silently as the other girl helped herself to food. Silently, Erin’s guests ate until Selys looked out the window.

“I’m really glad I don’t have work today.”

Klbkch nodded slowly.

“I believe I shall…abstain from my duties as well. It is necessary.”

“Oh, uh, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

Both Drake and Antinium stared silently at Erin. They looked melancholy. And so did Ryoka. She was just staring at her food.

It was like…it was like everyone had depression suddenly. Erin’s eyes darted around until she saw Mrsha was fidgeting on her chair.

“Hey Mrsha, what’s wrong?”

The Gnoll child was squirming, in a very familiar fashion. Erin realized what the problem was.

“We have a bathroom right outside. Come on, let me show you.”

She took Mrsha’s hand and the Gnoll eagerly leapt off her chair to follow Erin. They’d made it to the door when Erin felt a familiar sensation, that of someone approaching the inn. She stopped, and then the door opened.

The early morning sky was gray, but light still flooded into the inn. It flowed around the figure that entered, and despite the bright sky, the gaping sockets of Toren’s skull were still dark, illuminated only by the two burning purple flames that stared at Erin and Mrsha.

The skeleton was wearing the battered bronze armor he’d found, only it seemed even more battered and torn up than before. In his hands he held a notched sword and shield, and faint streaks of blood covered his blade.

“Toren! There you are! Where have you been!?”

Erin scolded the skeleton as he stood silently in the doorway. He stared at her, silent as always as Erin frowned at him. Then she felt a tugging at her hand. She looked down.

Mrsha was trying to pull away from Erin. All her fur was on end, and she was scrabbling at the floorboards as she tried to run.

“What’s wrong, Mrsha? Oh, is it Toren? You’ve never really met him, have you? Well, he’s really nice—”

Erin broke off. She sniffed. Something was smelling. That’s when she noticed the puddle around Mrsha. It seemed the skeleton’s arrival had affected Mrsha’s bladder control.

“Aw, Mrsha!

She let go, and the Gnoll scampered back towards Ryoka, whimpering in fright. Ryoka slapped her forehead as Erin stared at the puddle. She looked around and smiled sheepishly at Toren.

“Hey Toren. I’ve got a job for you.”

 

—-

 

Some days I just want to punch Erin. I’d probably get my ass kicked, but I’m still tempted*. It takes me nearly half an hour to calm Mrsha down after Toren appears, and even then, she won’t go anywhere near the skeleton.

 

*How strong is Erin, anyways? I know she has [Minotaur Punch] as a skill, but is there a set limit on how strong the Skill is? And if it depends on her hitting her target, that’s not too reliable in a battle. Plus, if she hits armor wouldn’t she break her hand?

 

Not that I blame her. Toren freaks me the hell out too, and I don’t understand how Erin’s so cavalier about having him around. She’s busy ordering him around even as I finally finish breakfast.

“Thanks for the food, Erin.”

“Oh, no problem! How did it taste?”

“Good. Was that roux you made?”

“What?”

“Roux.”

“No…it was gravy.”

“But—Erin, do you know what roux is?”

“…No.”

I rub at my face.

“Never mind. I guess your skill told you what to do, right?”

“Yup! I’ve got [Advanced Cooking] now. Isn’t it great?”

Erin puffs out her chest and looks proud. Selys looks impressed and Klbkch nods. I shrug.

“I guess. It’s an important skill, right?”

“For an [Innkeeper], it’s great! Most [Cooks] and [Innkeepers] in the city have [Basic Cooking], but [Advanced Cooking] is even rarer.”

Selys explains as she finishes her plate. I rub at my head. It still aches, but it looks like it’s time for me to get to work. Time to think, and plan. Selys is a native here, and she knows a lot of common-sense things. So I ask her the obvious questions.

“If that’s the case, there’s presumably an [Expert Cooking] skill, right? How many people would have that?”

“[Expert Cooking]? Well…no one in this city has it. You’d have to be a really high-level [Chef] to have that. I’ve heard some of the Walled Cities have people with that skill. They’re always hired by the nobility.”

So. You can rate skills by their rarity, which generally corresponds to a level. Makes sense. And I guess it’s still a parallel to our world.

“What level would you say that skill appears at?”

“Um…Level 40? Maybe Level 30, if you got lucky. There are better skills—or so I’ve heard, but it’s still rare.”

“Right. Because most people don’t usually get to Level 30?”

“That is correct.”

Klbkch nods as he delicately slurps up some gravy. I try not to look at him eat—I try to be open minded, but the Antinium creep me out in a way the Gnolls and Drakes don’t. Hell, even Selys is still sort of disturbing to me. I don’t know how Erin is so natural around all of them.

But here I am, sitting with Klbkch the Slayer and a Drake [Receptionist] of all people, talking as if I’ve known them for a long time. They’re so friendly.

“I still can’t believe you don’t know all this. Is it because you don’t have levels?”

Selys stares at me, and I tense slightly. She doesn’t know I’m from another world. But hell, I have to know how levels and classes work. I might not use them—and possibly can’t anymore—but not knowing how this world function is only inviting trouble. So Ryoka, lie your ass off.

“That’s right. I’ve never paid attention, I guess.”

“Erin was like that too, you know. Are you both from the same nation? You seemed to know each other.”

“Something like that.”

Klbkch nods.

“I am familiar with the country they originate from, Selys Shivertail. Their people have customs unlike ours.”

That makes me stare hard at Klbkch, even though Selys accepts his statement at face-value. He just covered for me, didn’t he? Erin did say Klbkch knew she was from another world. And now Erin’s coming over. I try to signal her with my eyes to play along, but she’s oblivious.

“Oh yeah, this is a lot like…uh, where we come from. I mean, there are some big differences, but there’s actually a lot of stuff in common, right Ryoka? Like, this is totally like Dungeons and Dr—”

“It’s sort of similar, but I wanted to be sure about all the details.”

I cut Erin off and glare at her. She returns my look blankly.

“What? I’m not a gamer, but you told me you understood something about the system, right? It’s like Diablo, you said.”

“Diablo?”

“Selys looks between us. I shake my head.

“It’s just…nothing. It’s a game from where we come from.”

“Oh, I see.”

I am going to kick Erin’s ass. As Selys and Erin start talking about Mrsha, I cover my face for a second. Then I look up and see Klbkch is staring at me.

Oh shit. Did he…how much did he get from that? Erin says he knows she’s from another world. What about me?

Kill Erin. But watch him. Klbkch the Slayer. I read the history of the Antinium Wars—damn it, I wish I’d read more than the first section now. They didn’t mention much about the Prognugators, but this guy was around thirty years ago. He dueled General Sserys—he’s dangerous.

But the Antinium in front of me is sitting in Erin’s inn, eating gravy. And he was killed by Goblins, or so Erin said. Weakening Prognugators. Hmm. And Erin’s involvement with the Antinium is also special. She can make unique Individuals, which could mean…

Gah. My head hurts already, and not just from the alcohol. I thought my life was complex, but Erin’s is ten times more convoluted. Not only is she involved with the Antinium, she’s attracted Lady Magnolia’s eyes, and she’s on the receiving end of a Gnoll debt so massive it can only be settled with death—unless one of us has fifty thousand gold pieces lying around.

Holy fuck. I close my eyes for a second. What should I do? What can I do? Normally I’d be running off to collect my payment from Teriarch, but—

No. I look over and see Mrsha, crowding around that Lyonette girl for some reason. She’s feeding Mrsha scraps from her plate and scratching her behind the ears.

Oh yeah, and Erin’s got a princess or some high-ranking noble’s daughter in her inn. God damn it.

I massage my temples. Selys looks at me sympathetically.

“Head still hurting? A healing potion will get rid of that. I know a shopkeeper who sells cheap ones.”

“No—thanks. I’m just really busy. There’s a lot of shi—a lot of stuff I need to deal with.”

“Like what? I’m free today, if you need some help, let me know. A friend of Erin’s is a friend of mine.”

Selys smiles at me. I hesitate.

“Nothing too important. I wouldn’t want to bother you.”

“As you like. I’m going to see if Erin wants to relax in the bath house. You’re welcome to join us.”

“…Thanks.”

Selys gets up to chat with Erin. I stay at the table, thinking. People move around me. Klbkch is still sitting—he’s not eating, but I suppose the Antinium have to sit to digest? I put him out of my mind and think.

I’ve really got to think, because there is a lot of crap for me to deal with at the moment. I won’t say that this is a terrible situation but—no, aside from moments where I’m actually in danger of being killed, this is probably one of the worst.

Fifty thousand gold pieces. Let’s just focus on that. Yesterday I made a claim to the Gnolls that I would pay Erin’s debts. There’s multiple reasons why I did that.

First, it’s pretty clear the Gnolls have power. Erin’s been helped by them in the past, and they might be an ally. If there are any groups she and I can trust, that is. But Krshia seems intelligent, and it’s better to have someone on our side than against us. Which leads me to the second point.

We need the Gnolls to cancel the debt, or else Erin and Lyonette are in danger, and so is Mrsha if she’s staying with them. Is this even a place for a young Gnoll? How can Erin raise her? I can’t…I can’t stay with her. But she needs a home. A family. If Krshia could—

Third point. Krshia might be able to mitigate the stigma associated with Mrsha’s fur, but not with her authority contested. The debt of Lyonette’s is sapping her influence as long as it remains unresolved. That Brunkr idiot seems to be trying to usurp her position, and he would be a danger if he took control. All in all, that means resolving the debt is really damn important.

The only question is…how? I have some ideas. I could give the Gnolls a technology—that was what I claimed, but now that I think of it…

Fuck. I am so screwed.

Let’s put this in perspective. I need to give the Gnolls a technology worth 50,000 gold pieces. At the same time, I can’t destabilize the world by giving them gunpowder.

No.

All flesh is grass.

No.

So what do I do? It seems simple, right? But what can I physically give the Gnolls besides weapons? The industrial revolution? What the hell would a nomadic society need that kind of infrastructure for? And they wouldn’t be able to make use of it, anyways.

No, think. It has to be something simpler. A practical technology or revolution. Think, Ryoka.

Hm. Trebuchets. But damn it, that’s a siege weapon—not something roaming tribes need! First off, wouldn’t trebuchets exist in this world? They were a medieval invention, and this world has renaissance-era technology at times.

For instance, they’ve got glass. Hmm. Lenses? But that technology is dependent on glass grinding to focus the lenses properly, and I don’t know how they’re made.

Damn. So telescopes are out. What else?

Radios…? Hah. Even if I had the ability to work with wires and metal to that extent, who needs radios when you have mage spells and the ability to howl? Long-distance communication isn’t a problem for them.

Bows. Gnolls use bows. I’ve seen them use composite bows and short bows so…fuck. They don’t have compound bows, though. But could I make one? Nope. I’d need industrial-era technology.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Okay…steel. But this world has steel. On the other hand, I never saw steel in the Gnoll tribes which means only a high-level [Blacksmith] can probably make it. It’s no revolutionary technology, though.

I wish I knew how to make Damascus steel. There’s the Bessemer Process of course, but that requires industrial era technology, again…

A printing press? This world still has handwritten books in many cases, but…

Two reasons why I can’t give the Gnolls that. No, three. One, I don’t know how to make a printing press. With screw-based technology, of course, adapting from the wine press…but hell, I’d need months to figure out the exact way to set one up. Second, the cost in resources and space isn’t practical for Gnolls again, and third…

You can’t copy magical spell books with a printing press. That’s obvious. I’ve seen spells, and if they exist on paper, it’s not just in the two-dimensional sense. My guess is that it would be impossible to copy one with any kind of printer, so that already makes one of the greatest revolutions of our world fairly useless to the Gnolls.

What they need is something immediately useful, but the more I think, the more I don’t have any good idea. None except for weapons, and I won’t give that to anyone.

“Fuck.”

I hold my head in my hands as I sit at the table. Then I hear someone clear his throat delicately.

“You appear to be in a state of distress. May I inquire as to your predicament?”

I look at him. Trust no one.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

Klbkch pauses.

“Does your issue relate to the Gnoll debt towards Lyonette du Marquin?”

What the hell? Klbkch is just staring at me. My heart rate picks up, but I keep my face straight.

“How do you know about that?”

“The Antinium know much of what occurs within Liscor.”

“…Were you listening to our conversation yesterday?”

The Antinium shakes his head.

“No, but there are a finite amount of topics which would necessitate such discussion. And the Gnoll’s issue with Erin and Lyonette is a pressing concern.”

“To you? Why the hell would the Antinium care about something like that?”

“Erin Solstice is…important to the Hive. And to me.”

What an odd thing for an Antinium to say. I stare at Klbkch.

“What do you want?”

His multifaceted eyes are fixed on mine.

“I wish to speak with you, Ryoka Griffin. I have desired to speak with you for some time. My observations of your behavior lead me to believe I can trust you.”

He’s been…waiting? To speak with me? And watching me? I’m naturally paranoid, but this makes every instinct I have scream out warning signals. I shrug, carefully.

“I’m free to talk. What…did you want to talk about?”

“I would like to speak candidly, Ryoka Griffin. You are wary of me; that is understandable. But I do not wish to cause you or Erin Solstice any harm. I would like to assist you, and I hope you will regard me as an ally, not a potential foe.”

I…fuck. This is coming out of left field. I thought I was in left field already, but this is catching me totally off guard. I scramble for a response. Test him.

“Are you trying to say we’re on the same side?”

Klbkch tilts his head slightly.

“Are there sides, Ryoka Griffin? The Antinium are not your enemy.”

“I disagree.”

“As do I. If the Antinium were your enemy, Ryoka Griffin, you would be dead. You do not matter to the Hive or my Queen. Erin Solstice is only a tool to be used. So long as that is the case, any interaction with either of you falls under my purview of responsibilities.”

I pause. Klbkch is speaking carefully, and if I read between the lines…

“You’re offering to help. Why?”

“Because Erin Solstice must survive. She must live to help the Antinium. And you are attempting to protect her because you both come from the same world.”

He knows. My heart stops dead in my chest for a second. He knows.

I glance around, but the inn is empty. Where has everyone gone? And why is it daytime all of a sudden?

Klbkch says nothing. He just looks at me. Watching. He’s seeing how I react.

Can I take him? He’s got two swords and classes. So…no. My right hand is still injured and I’ve got no weapons.

“I would prefer this discussion remain civil. Rest assured, I will not harm you or Erin. That is the last thing I desire.”

Fuck. But at least I might not die this instant. I try to keep my voice level as I reply. Focus. This is…the Antinium are as bad as Magnolia. If they know…

“Why bother with the niceties? Are you trying to get us on your side so we can help your Hive?”

Klbkch’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“So long as Erin lives, she will help my Hive. But to answer your question: my Queen is not aware that your and Erin come from another world, Ryoka Griffin. If she was, you would be captured and quickly interrogated.”

I feel a chill. But, wait a second. Klbkch is saying—he’s saying he’s lying to his Queen? For us? No. For Erin?

“Aren’t you supposed to be the right-hand of the Antinium Queens, or something? I thought Prognugators were loyal.”

“I am. But loyalty takes many shapes, and I have grown to question the direction the Antinium are taking. I believe leaving you alive is preferable to your deaths. No—I know this is the case.”

My god. Is this…is this Erin’s effect? She created individual Antinium, but affecting the allegiances of a Prognugator? Or is this something already occurring? I reach for a mug to take a drink. My hand is shaking. Klbkch nods, seeing my reaction.

“I have not informed Erin of this because of the dangers involved.”

“But you’re telling me? Why?”

“Because you can keep a secret. Let me be clear, Ryoka Griffin. Your status as a traveler between worlds is not important to me. If my Queen knew of this, she would interrogate you mercilessly. But I only care about Erin Solstice. She is the valuable one.”

“The Individual Antinium.”

“Just so.”

Klbkch nods.

“Erin Solstice must not die. She must live, and help my Queen change the Antinium from within.”

“But—you want to help us. Help her.”

“I will assist you to the best of my capabilities and inform you of the dangers of which you are not aware. I will reveal secrets of my Hive. I will use my command over Soldiers and Workers to defend this inn and your persons, if need be. I will even lie to my Queen for you.”

“Because Erin is important.”

“She is everything, Ryoka Griffin.”

“Why haven’t you told her this? Why haven’t you offered to tell her…all of this?”

For the first time Klbkch looks uncomfortable. He pauses and clicks his mandibles together delicately.

“I had considered that option to begin with, but it grew apparent that Erin Solstice cannot keep a secret. Anything I tell her will inevitably be repeated to all our costs. You are more discreet.”

So because Erin has a big mouth and doesn’t think he can’t trust her. But he trusts me?

Or does he? Is this all some ploy? I have to test him? Hah, as if I’ve got a choice. Here’s an Antinium Prognugator or—Revalantor or whatever the hell he is now, offering to tell me all about his Hive. I can’t turn my back on this.

Take a breath, Ryoka, and plunge in. I don’t know how far these murky waters go, but if this is the case—I look at Klbkch.

“Fine. Tell me what you know. About the Gnolls and their debt, for instance. You said you know something?”

He nods.

“The Gnolls in Liscor are led by Krshia Silverfang. Ostensibly, they arrived nearly a decade ago to facilitate trade, but their true purpose was to acquire information or objects of value to improve their tribe’s standing. The decennial gathering of Gnoll tribes involves bringing a gift to be shared with all Gnolls, and the Silverfang tribe hoped to gain something of true value to improve their standing and influence at this event.”

Holy fuck. I stare at Klbkch.

“You were planning this all along, weren’t you? You wanted to tell me this.”

He pauses.

“My goal is to keep Erin Solstice alive. It is only fitting that I inform you of all dangers to her, and the Gnoll situation has been studied closely by my Hive.”

“Okay, okay, go on.”

I listen with rapt attention as Klbkch continues.

“Under Krshia’s influence, the Gnolls began pooling their profits and purchasing magical tomes from every shop they could find. They gathered many spell books together—most containing Tier 1 to Tier 3 spells—in the hopes that they might offer them as a gift to the tribes.”

Gnolls learning magic? I’ve never heard of a Gnoll [Mage], just [Shamans]. But wait—didn’t Erin mention the Gnolls had a feud with Wistram?

“So the Gnolls wanted to train their own [Mages].”

“Correct. The spell books were hidden in Krshia Silverfang’s shop, to avoid detection, and, I suspect, to enable them to transfer them easily. A few weeks ago, Krshia Silverfang sent word to her tribe requesting warriors to transport the books out of the city. I believe they were also arriving to help guard Erin Solstice, whom the Gnolls had identified as potentially valuable. However, Gazi the Omniscient slew the first party sent.”

The Gnolls on the road. I remember.

“The next group sent arrived too late. Before the spell books could be transported, Lyonette du Marquin destroyed Krshia Silverfang’s shop using a powerful magical artifact which bypassed the normal magical protections on the books.”

“…Shit.”

That’s even worse than I thought. Klbkch nods.

“It is an unfortunate circumstance, but without any gifts for the Gnoll tribes, the Silverfang tribe will lose much of its standing.”

“And that’s why the debt is around fifty thousand gold coins, isn’t it?”

“A considerable sum was spent accumulating the spell books over the years. I believe the Gnolls were ignorant of the dangers a powerful spell could pose to such books. Most spell books are immune to conventional harm, but sufficiently powerful magic will destroy them.”

I close my eyes.

“Damn it.”

“I surmise that you have accepted the responsibility for this debt along with Erin Solstice. She is aware of the issue, if not the cost, but she will be unable to resolve it herself.”

“And I suppose the Antinium won’t help?”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“Erin Solstice is certainly important to the Hive, but my Queen would never authorize such an expenditure of resources for any individual. At the moment. She does not understand how important Erin is.”

“Which is extremely. You think different from your Queen. Are you rebelling against her?”

“No.”

The word comes out fast and flat. Klbkch stares at me and I’m suddenly aware that he’s armed and I’m not. Then he seems to relax, and I’m able to as well.

“I would never betray my Hive, or my Queen. But I believe she makes mistakes. One of them is not trusting others. My Hive, my Queen, we need allies if we are to change the Antinium.”

“Change the Antinium? How?”

Klbkch hesitates. He holds up one finger.

“Allow me to reconfirm that we are alone.”

I twist in my chair, but that’s an idiotic move. Klbkch is clearly doing something. He looks up after a minute and nods.

“The inn is vacated, and there is no one within two hundred meters of our location. I have reconfirmed that the [Assassins] and [Scouts] sent by Lady Magnolia are hidden several miles to the east of our position and possess no listening artifacts or spells. Selys Shivertail is with Mrsha in Liscor—”

Wait a second, what did he say?

“What? She’s with Mrsha? Where’s Erin?”

“She is exploring the wilderness with Toren and Lyonette. I believe she informed you of this.”

I…vaguely recall something like that? I was thinking about the Gnolls and remember Erin saying something. I should pay more attention to my surroundings.

…Was Klbkch sitting there the entire time? Watching me? Then another thought strikes me. I pause and stare hard at Klbkch.

“You…know where she is? Both Erin and Selys? At any given moment? Are you having them watched?”

I can’t believe Soldiers and Workers are that good at hiding. Unless…is the Hive that spread out underground? Klbkch shakes his head.

“There is no need for physical scouting. A specialized breed of Antinium developed within our Hive is able to listen to movements and sounds at extreme range. They are able to monitor individuals, if given instructions and time.”

‘There are more Antinium types than just Soldiers and Workers.’

“You have more than Soldiers and Workers?”

“They are known as Listeners. A few were allocated to our Hive. Their existence is not a secret; they were revealed during the Second Antinium War along with a few other types. However, only Soldiers and Workers are allowed within the Hive in Liscor.”

“Why is that?”

“Because my Queen stands lowest among the six Queens under the Grand Queen. Her work here is experimental, as are her ideals. And so she is restricted from utilizing the Hive’s full potential, denied certain resources and equipment.”

A power struggle between the Antinium? No way. But that means—

“Are the Queens competing with one another? Are you at odds? Do the Hives fight each other?”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“Competition is strictly based on achievement. The Queens and the Antinium have one goal, but viewpoints differ between Queens as to best achieve that goal.”

Like having multiple CEO’s working towards one end. I nod, slowly.

“And you want your Queen to succeed.”

“I believe in her mission.”

“Which is to create Individual Antinium capable of leveling which will make the Antinium stronger.”

And deadlier. They would overrun the continent. Klbkch simply nods.

“Astute. My faith in you was not misplaced.”

“But if Erin helps you, we all die. We make the Antinium stronger, and you’ll still kill us all in the end.”

Klbkch shakes his head.

“My Queen is alone in seeking to gather allies and forge relations. Yet even she is limited in…vision. She treats other species as pawns; I would have her see them as people.”

So the Queen in Liscor is more progressive than the other Queens, and her Prognugator is even more so. I think I understand.

“You think you can talk your Queen around. But either way, she has to have more influence.”

“Just so. And the proof of her labors rests in the Individual Antinium.”

“Which is why Erin Solstice is essential.”

“Correct.”

My pulse is racing. I have to calm myself and drink more water before I can speak.

“Okay. Okay, let’s say what you’ve said is all true. What happens when  your Queen proves herself? She gets special Antinium?”

“She will gain access to the…tools to create such Antinium if she desires.”

“So the other Hives have special Antinium already.”

The ones who killed General Sserys during the First Antinium Wars. Klbkch nods.

“Each Hive’s Queen has special dispensation to create their own unique type of Antinium. The Grand Queen is privy to every Hive’s secrets, but besides her, each Queen hoards her own unique type of Antinium and method for improving our species.”

Bombshells. That’s what this day is filled with.

“So what you’ve told me is that the Antinium aren’t united. Or rather, there’s a power struggle in the Hives and factions for how the Antinium should evolve.”

Klbkch glances at me.

“If any of the Queens—or other Prognugators—learn that knowledge has come from either you or I, we will both die.”

A moment of silence. I read the unspoken words.

“Does that mean you want me to tell someone? Lady Magnolia?”

“I would prefer my Queen to rise in status. She has worked long without permission to create her own types or deviate from the normal Soldiers and Workers.”

“Because she’s a renegade? Because she’s in disgrace?”

“Because she wants to create Individuals, yes.”

“What happens now that she’s succeeded? Or rather, Erin has? Does she need to prove this to the other Queens, somehow?”

Klbkch’s sits very still. He barely moves, even when speaking or gesturing. He’s an entirely different kind of person, more like a robot than a human being. Yes, a robot. One made from chitin rather than metal. A tin man, a bug man. With a heart.

“A delegation of Antinium will arrive shortly. They will assess whether or not Pawn and the other Individuals are truly Individual. Then the Queens will debate and the Grand Queen will decide what to do with the information.”

“And then?”

Klbkch shrugs.

“It will change everything. Or nothing. The Grand Queen will decide whether Individuals will make the Antinium stronger and move from there.”

“And why do the Antinium need to be strong? To conquer the continent?”

“If necessary.”

The cold-blooded response ties my tongue. Klbkch looks at me and shakes his head.

“The Grand Queen is more minded to pursue peace at the moment, at least until she is certain victory would not weaken the Antinium. Moreover, I believe I can convince my Queen to speak against such an action. This continent is not what the Antinium seek. We require strength to take back our home.”

“Your home? Someone chased you out?”

My god, the book—I need to read the second part. What he’s saying changes everything. Klbkch nods.

“It is why we fled Rhir. And why we continue to attempt to build our forces. We left because we were losing, Ryoka Griffin. And now that we are gone, the enemy will soon emerge above-ground again. This Blighted King is strong, but he is unprepared.”

“Unprepared for what?”

“We must be stronger. I must be stronger.”

Klbkch looks at me. I’m transfixed. For a second, he seems huge. Ancient. I’m like a bug—in his eyes.

“That is why you must help me. Why I know you and Erin must be protected. The Antinium must change. Or the Antinium will be wiped from the earth.”

“What. Happened?”

Klbkch pauses. He stares into his cup. And then he looks at me.

“The Antinium Wars? What Drakes and Humans and Gnolls fear so? They were setbacks. Dust. The true disaster occurred on the oceans when we lost our entire people. Even now, we are a fraction of what we were.”

I take a breath. Heart. I can hear my heart and his voice. Nothing else.

“If that’s the case, why did you run? What was so terrifying that you had to flee rather than fight?”

Klbkch pauses. He sits in Erin’s inn quietly, but his eyes reveal what he is. There’s something timeless there, something akin to Ceria’s gaze. Or Teriarch’s. Don’t look at Klbkch and see a bug. See him for what he is. A creature from centuries ago. An old hero of the Antinium, maybe. Something ancient. Only now do I realize how terrifying what’s he’s saying is.

The Antinium. Creatures numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Millions, even. Why did they ever run from Rhir? What could have caused them to flee?

Klbkch’s voice is the only thing in the world. Soft. Yet the words he speaks are so loud I can feel them shake my soul.

“We fled from a God, Ryoka Griffin. There is a God buried in Rhir. And it is trying to wake up.”

 

—-

 

It—it’s almost funny. I feel like puking, or screaming, or asking a thousand and one questions. But that issue with the Gnolls and the fifty thousand gold coins’ worth of debt? Not a problem right now.

“Again, I regret that I cannot assist directly with the issue of the Gnoll’s debt. But I agree that their aid would be invaluable to both you and Erin Solstice. The Gnolls possess a wide degree of skills and knowledge the Antinium have not, and they are steadfast allies to those who have assisted them.”

Klbkch and I sit in Erin’s inn and talk. Calmly. He’s calm. I—well, I’m still trying to calm down.

I had a…freak out after his revelation about the God. Just a little one*. But now we’re all calm. Klbkch is speaking about the future, and frankly, I’m inclined to listen to him.

 

*It was something. I may have become hysterical, for the first time in my life.

 

The Antinium. I had no idea—what he’s told me is hopeful, strangely enough. True, there are five other Queens who want to kill all other species, but there’s dissent among the Antinium. Hope for change and peace. But do I share that information? Do I help Klbkch overtly or just keep Erin safe?

“May I ask what you intend to do to settle the debt?”

I blink, and refocus on our conversation. I need to think. I can’t be useless, not now. Too much is at stake, although again, Gnoll debt? Small potatoes.

“I’m not sure yet. I’m weighing my options, but I don’t have that many things I can really offer the Gnolls at this moment.”

“From what you have said, there are many technologies available to you, but few or none that you are able to reproduce at the moment. My Hive could assist with the collection of resources, but the Antinium do not shape metal—at least, most Hives do not.”

“One does?”

“I believe so.”

There’s an information lockdown between Hives? Hm. That’s more rivalry than competition. Good to know.

“Yeah, there’s not much I can really make. Hell, I know all kinds of useful technologies and advancements in metallurgy, medicine, construction…but you need an existing framework to build all of it. Titanium, for instance is a metal harder than steel, but it’s impossible to smelt without…well, damn, I guess a Tier 6 spell might do it or something…”

“Impractical for the Gnolls, in short.”

“Yeah. And things like mathematics—well, it would change the world, but it’s not immediately useful.”

“Indeed.”

I sigh.

“Fuck. I think it has to be an artifact. A magical one. I’ll have to ask Lady Magnolia—or Teriarch.”

I told Klbkch a lot. Not everything, but quite a lot of what I’ve seen and done. And what I know. The Antinium nods.

“A dangerous choice. Both individuals are quite powerful and you may risk much by approaching either one. Despite Teriarch’s abilities, I would encourage you to view Magnolia Reinhart with the same amount of caution.”

Another surprise. No—I really shouldn’t be surprised, should I?

“You know him? Teriarch?”

“We know he is a Dragon. He incinerated two armies sent against him in the Second Antinium War. It was a mistake to attack him. I advised against it, but the Queens did not listen.”

Get the book. Read the book. Unless that’s the part of history that no one knows about. Yeah, I think people would know if a Dragon lived on the continent. Another secret to keep.

“If you are able to convince him to part with one of his treasures…yes. That would no doubt satisfy the Gnolls.”

“If. Any tips?”

“Do not attack him.”

“Thanks.”

I eye Klbkch. He sits calmly in his seat, watching me. If only I could read Antinium and tell what he’s thinking. Is he really that calm? He must be nervous. But his face is an insect’s face; impossible for me to read.

“I’m surprised you don’t want me to tell you how to create weapons from my world. Not that I would.”

“Despite the advantage it would bring, I fear it would work at cross purposes to my goal. A superior type of weaponry would only impel my Queen to abandon her current plan and use such arms to begin a third war. I would not wish such bloodshed to occur. I…do not wish to see the inhabitants of Liscor die.”

A tin man with a heart. Part of me actually wants to hug him. The other half wants to sit in a corner and gibber for an hour.

“So. What’s the plan?”

Klbkch tilts his head.

“I will provide you with information, resources, protection. You must assist Erin Solstice in your own way. And if you have a means to help my Hive—”

“Right. I get it.”

I stand up. I start to pace. I have to move.

“But there are so many questions I want to ask. All the things the Antinium know—”

“I will share what is necessary. But some secrets must remain so. If you are caught and tortured or charmed—”

“Right. Right.”

He’s no idiot. I eye Klbkch. No, he’s no idiot at all. He’s a Prognugator, one of the Antinium Generals. He’s probably smarter than I am. But then what can I ask?

“If you can’t give me something to give the Gnolls, all we can exchange is information.”

“Just so. I believe that is extremely valuable in itself.”

He’s not wrong there. I spread my hands.

“Is there anything you want to know about my world?”

“Many things intrigue me. But if I may—earlier today, Erin mentioned to you that our system of leveling is similar to your world?”

“Ah.”

I make a face. Erin and her big mouth. How can I even explain that to him?

“We…don’t level up in our world. Not at all. We can become better at things through practice, but we don’t level.”

“Not at all? Erin mentioned a game in conjunction with this fact. ‘Diablo’.”

It feels completely strange for an Antinium to start mentioning video games. I shake my head.

“That’s…it’s just a video game. A thing people play for fun, like chess. It’s not…”

I hesitate. Hold on, now.

“It has parallels to this world. Erin and I have both noticed it. The way this world operates with people leveling up—it has parallels to a game. But many things are different.”

“I see. But are the mechanics similar?”

“They are. I know the game—”

Hell, I lived Diablo III for a while. I was addicted until my damn parents made me quit.

“—But I couldn’t compare it to this world. I don’t know how the class system works or how leveling works.”

“It is considered a mystical element of our world as well. Most people understand the mechanics, but there is no consensus on the reason behind our leveling or advancement.”

Really? I frown.

“Can you explain some of the mechanics to me? From your perspective—a native’s perspective, that is.”

Klbkch nods. He taps a finger on his arm a few times, a dry, clicking noise. Then he speaks.

“Leveling is a means by which we grow stronger. As we take interest in certain activities, we gain classes. By pursuing these activities we gain more levels in a class. However, gaining levels grows exponentially more difficult as time goes on.”

I nod. That all squares with what I understand.

“Most people will end up around Level 20 in one class over the course of their life. Few individuals reach Level 30. A handful in each town; a few dozen in a city. Few will ever reach Level 40; those who do are considered famous in their own right. Those who pass Level 50 in their class are generally known throughout the world.”

Again, more information I know, but Klbkch saying it still useful.

“Is there anyone who’s ever hit a…maximum level? Level 100, for instance?”

Klbkch seems to frown. He has no eyebrows but—is it just my imagination? That’s the sense I get from him.

“I know of no individual with a level approaching one hundred. Legends speak of individuals with levels above eighty and ninety, but why would there be a limit of one hundred levels?”

“Because…”

I pause. Well, because it’s a round number? No; there’s a reason for it.

“Hold on. This is a concept from my world. Where I come from—video games usually have a level limit. Level 100 or 99 is usually that limit.”

“Video games? What are those?”

“Games from my world played for fun. Like chess.”

“Ah.”

Diablo III didn’t have that system. The level limit there was Level 70 with Paragon levels, but in this case it sounds like Level 100 would be the closest match. Klbkch shakes his head.

“That is odd, but intriguing. I have never known any individual with such a high level in any case. Most grow too old to continue leveling in time to pass Level 60 in any case.”

“Hold on. Old? What does age have to do with levels?”

I frown. Is leveling…age gated? That doesn’t sound quite right.

“Age is a known factor in leveling. Those who grow older level far more slowly, independently of their actual class level.”

“That doesn’t sound like any game I’ve played. Are you sure that’s what happens?”

Klbkch nods.

“I am one example of this occurrence. I have…declined in ability much over the many years I have been alive. I have lost levels, which is an occurrence that only occurs among the Antinium.”

“You lost your levels? Because you died, right?”

“Correct. During the First and Second Antinium Wars—and even before that—I have experienced death many times. I am able to be resurrected thanks to my Queen, but each time I lose ten levels from my classes.”

That sounds exactly like a video game. Resurrecting and losing levels? I scratch at the table with a fingernail.

“And you’re saying you’ve having a tougher time regaining your levels because you’re…older?”

Klbkch nods again. He seems to hesitate, and then he speaks.

“This is secret information. At the moment, I am a Level 21 [Swordslayer], a Level 18 [Commander], a Level 11 [Diplomat], and a Level 14 [Assassin]. However, at my peak I was a Level 44 [Swordslayer], and a Level 26 [Assassin].”

My jaw drops. If you add up the levels, Klbkch is saying he once had seventy levels altogether! Isn’t that on par with a legendary hero? No—a Named Adventurer is only around Level 40. He was stronger than that? Wait a second, if you add up the levels he has now…

“That’s…incredible.”

Klbkch nods. It’s not arrogance.

“My abilities were quite useful. However, you will note that my current self is far weaker than I was. Recently, I have struggled to regain even the levels I have lost, and I find it increasingly difficult to level up my [Swordslayer] class.”

“Right, but you still have over sixty levels total, don’t you?”

“Correct. But that is only cumulatively. As I have said, I am leveling slower due to my advanced age. I am quite old, and it is an established fact that older individuals gain levels slowly.”

Wait, but what Klbkch is saying doesn’t make sense to me. I tap the table as I speak.

“What about your cumulative levels? I mean, you were Level 70 in total, and now you’re Level 64 in total. Wouldn’t that explain the slower growth you’re experiencing?”

Klbkch pauses. Again, I get the impression he’s frowning at me.

“Why would cumulative levels affect my growth?”

“Because you’re nearing the level cap of one hundred. If it exists in this world. Look, in a video game leveling up requires more experience the higher level you are, right? Just like this world. But that cost is based on your total number of levels, not just a single class’s level.”

Do they really not know this in this world? Does that explain lower levels? Gods, it might. The Antinium stares at me across the table skeptically.

“That conclusion requires a number of suppositions that cannot be substantiated. I am not sure your belief that there is a maximum level in this world is correct. Moreover, why would each class count towards this total?”

“Why does age count towards leveling?”

I shoot an answer back at Klbkch. Okay, it’s a cheap debate trick, but I feel like I’m on to something.

“The problem I’m hearing with your world is that everyone assumes you slow down in leveling due to age. But what if that was just because older people have a lot of other classes?”

The Antinium is silent for a long moment.

“Most individuals do not level past Level 20 to begin with. Few attain a cumulative level past fifty, even with other classes.”

“Because it gets harder to level up! And people think it’s age, but—okay, let’s say you’re a Level 20 [Butcher], but you have ten other levels in…I don’t know, [Dancer]. That means that the system would treat you as a Level 30 person when it comes to leveling up, slowing your growth. And that also means that adventurers, generals…everyone is stunting their growth and maximum level by taking on needless classes!”

I point at Klbkch. My heart is racing with excitement.

“You aren’t leveling up because you have needless classes. You were stronger when you were younger because you only had two classes, and you focused on one more than the other. Think, Klbkch. Can you name any other individuals who only had a few classes?”

He’s silent for a long time. Then Klbkch looks up.

“The first Grand Queen. She…she was Level 79. She was a [Supreme Matriarch] – a special class gained from advancing in the [Queen] class for centuries. She…she was extraordinary among my people because she continued to level even in her later years.”

“My god.”

I have so many questions. But I have to continue.

“Okay. Then—damn, we need more information. Do you know if your Grand Queen had stopped leveling? Or was she continuing to gain levels? Did she have any other classes?”

Klbkch pauses. He lowers his head, as if he’s in…pain? As if the memory hurts him.

“She was focused. She only truly desired one class, and never took any other. She was so dedicated to leading us that…yes; she had only one other class, although I barely recall it.”

“That’s why she got to such a high level. The exponential difficulty of leveling was working against her of course, but she would never have gotten to that level if she didn’t focus on one class.”

I think I’m smiling. I don’t have levels—I might not ever have them anymore—but we’ve figured out something huge. This information—could I give it to the Gnolls? Hold on, it’s not that useful unless you have people who can actually get to a high level, but…no, it’s still frickin’ big.

All at once Klbkch stands up. I flinch, but he’s not looking at me. He stares out a window.

“I…we must confirm this. This information—if it is true, it changes much. That it was not discovered—”

“I guess if most people never level up as much, it wouldn’t be an issue. And someone who’s high-level might not realize they’re nearing their level cap. Plus, it might be a softcap.”

“Softcap?”

“It’s another idea from my world’s games. It means that there’s no hard stop when you get to a certain point, like Level 100, but afterwards continuing becomes impractical. So let’s say there’s a softcap on Level 100. It means that after that point you can continue leveling, but advancement will be even slower.”

Klbkch begins to walk back and forth, like I was doing. I watch him move—he’s got to be agitated.

“That adds credence to your statement. In advanced years, leveling is often cause for celebration.”

“Is there any way we can corroborate this information? Prove it, somehow?”

“My situation is unique to my nature, and I do not have access to information about other Prognugators and Queens.”

“Why not ask a local, then? You said Selys was in Liscor?”

Klbkch nods.

“She is in the park with Mrsha.”

“The park? Well, can we talk to her?”

“Let us go at once.”

 

—-

 

When Klbkch opens the door for me, I blink at the snowy landscape. The snow is knee deep outside.

“What the hell happened out here?”

The Antinium walks out with me, striding through the snow as I shut the door to Erin’s inn.

“I believe the effects of alcohol on the Frost Faeries led them to increase the amount of snow that fell overnight.”

“Goddamn it, Erin.”

“I would appreciate it if you did not use that expression.”

I hesitate, and look at Klbkch.

“Oh, right.”

Gods are real. When I think of that—it makes the revelation of leveling seem pale in comparison. I still can’t believe no one in this world realizes there’s a level cap. But if most people never level that high up, and the few who do just think they’re ceasing to level due to age…

“What can you tell me about the God?”

“Very little. I only know what my people know. And I would prefer not to speak of it in any case.”

“Why?”

Klbkch looks at me.

“Because even speaking of Gods gives them power.”

American Gods. Neil Gaiman. Or—alternatively, Small Gods, Terry Pratchett. My mind races. I—I close my mouth and walk with Klbkch in the snow, thinking.

It’s only a few minutes before we reach Liscor’s gates, despite the heavy snow. The guards recognize Klbkch in sight and call out to him. He waves. We walk on. Klbkch leads me down the streets of Liscor, and I look around at the bustling city.

You’d never imagine it was just attacked a few weeks ago. While this place isn’t New York, it’s hardly a small town either. The city feels…well, it feels big. Populated. Liscor is bigger than Celum or Esthelm, despite being enclosed on all four sides by those massive walls*.

 

*Talk about fortifications. Apparently, all Drake cities have these gigantic walls, although Liscor’s are second only to the famous Walled Cities. If the gates hadn’t been left open during undead attack, I can’t imagine even a hundred thousand of them would have been able to break into Liscor. Not without siege weapons. Undead siege weapons…? A giant?

 

It’s either because he’s an Antinium or because he’s a Senior Guardsman—probably both—but Klbkch and I walk in a circle of space even on the most crowded of streets. Surprisingly, not all the looks he gets are unfriendly, either. Some Drakes and Gnolls nod to the Antinium, and Klbkch exchanges greetings with several people he knows by name. It’s actually me that gets more dirty looks.

The Antinium turns down another street.

“Where are we going?”

“To a playground, I believe. In the park. Selys has taken Mrsha there.”

Sure enough, the street widens and then I find myself staring at the oddest of sights. In the center of the city is…a park. A big one, at least, for an enclosed city like that. And there’s a playground occupying a part of it as well.

“What the hell?”

It’s a playground. And those are…trees. And grass, growing right next to the cobblestones that line the circular perimeter of the park. That’s normal. Yeah, parks, trees in a city with walls. I can see that.

But the playground catches my eye. Because it is not like a Human playground. Human playgrounds aren’t this cool.

It’s a…jungle gym. AT least, that was what it was. But some mad architect took one look at the plans and decided to make a playground for children that would give any anxious parent a heart attack.

Long tunnels of smooth, polished wood connect towers that spiral upwards like a miniature castle. Monkey bars are set twenty feet in the air, above a floor that you have to climb up a long rope just to get to. Even as I watch, a Gnoll cub slides down a slide that curves downwards over thirty feet, dropping the kid down towards the ground in a long, spiraling journey.

The towering construction of wood and stone goes up four stories high. It has separate rooms with glass windows for children to occupy and play in—walls with grips that any climbing gym in my world would envy—even a huge rope bridge which sways and wobbles high over my head.

I know my mouth is gaping. I stare at the giant tower and I want to climb it. But while the child in me dreams of swinging and jumping around high up there, the practical part of me wonders what the hell happens if someone falls? There are so many ways to topple off—that damn rope bridge has huge gaps in it! A fall from that high ends up in death no matter how soft the grass is.

And then, just as I’m imagining that scenario—a kid slips. I see a Drake child overbalance and tumble off the side. I open my mouth to shout and I dash forwards, but I’ll be too slow, I know it.

But then—the young Drake’s body pauses as he falls through the air. I watch in incredulity as the air around the kid seems to freeze, and he slows down to a crawl. He softly lands on the ground and laughs.

I stare, and then hear laughter. Some Drakes are laughing at me, not the kid. I guess the look on my face must be hilarious.

“Please do not be alarmed. The magical spells on this playing area are cast by a Wistram mage and checked upon each year.”

Klbkch walks over to me and I stare at him. He nods at the playground and the Drakes and Gnolls walking around and enjoying this natural retreat in the center of their city.

“It is an expensive construction, but one the city council devoted funds to over as a matter of public benefit. I am told the Walled Cities have similar constructions with an even greater degree of magical enchantments.”

“Why the hell do you need something like this?

I point at the playground. One of the Drake parents gives me a dirty look, and I watch my mouth.

“Due to the unique geography of this landscape, the residents require a place to relax and enjoy themselves when confined to the city during the spring months.”

“Right, I read about that. But…huh. It’s just like my world. We have parks in our cities as well. If not so…close to other buildings.”

“Indeed? That is interesting. Ah, there is Selys.”

Klbkch points to a familiar Drake and a bundle of white fur. Mrsha is swinging on some bars way too high for me to feel comfortable about, laughing with a bunch of other Gnoll kids. Two groups of parents are watching their offspring play with Mrsha without any worries—I see the Gnoll parents eying her fur, but they make no comment.

“Ryoka! Klbkch?”

Selys greets the two of us with some surprise.

“Did you come to check up on Mrsha? I told you I’d take her out for the day. Unless…Erin’s done with her exploration?”

“No, not yet. Actually Selys, we wanted to talk to you.”

“To me?”

Selys looks at me, surprised. I nod.

“Can we sit somewhere?”

“Oh, of course. There are some benches over there. Mrsha? We’re going over there?”

High above us, Mrsha lets go of one of the bars and waves a paw. She looks so happy up there, just like one of the kids, immersed in the adventure of a life time. Like any other Gnoll cub—except for the fur.

I leave her behind and sit with Selys and Klbkch. It’s a cold day, but at least there’s a bit of sun coming through the clouds at the moment. Funny, it seems warmer in this park. Must be all the kids running about or…an enchantment over the entire place? Maybe it’s just my imagination.

“So, what can I help you with?”

Klbkch looks at me. I guess he wants me to explain. All of this makes sense to me, but to a native of this world, this must be like finding out the earth is round, or…or that the planets revolve around the sun.

Hell, I didn’t know I was going be pulling a Galileo today.

Slowly, I explain my theory about leveling to Selys. She stares at me with increasing incredulity until she guffaws as I get to the part about cumulative leveling.

“What? Are you serious, Ryoka? Levels don’t work like that! Everyone knows you level slower as you age—it’s because we’re running out of energy, not some weird limit!”

She waves a claw at me, still chuckling. I frown at her.

“How do you know? What makes you so sure?”

“I know because—well, look, just because people don’t level when they’re older doesn’t mean there’s some limit!”

Selys frowns as she tries to explain. She frowns, and then brightens.

“Take old Peslas, for example. He’s an [Innkeeper], like Erin. Have you heard of him?”

A bit of memory flares inside my head.

“He’s the one who runs another inn, isn’t he? The one the Gold-rank adventurers are staying at?”

“That’s right. Well, he’s above Level 30 in the [Innkeeper] class, so his inn is one of the best in the city. But he hasn’t stopped leveling because he can’t! He’s old, and he just doesn’t want to work harder.”

“What do you mean?”

Selys rolls her eyes and wraps her tail around one leg of the bench.

“Not everyone wants to work their tail off until they can get to a higher level, Ryoka. Some people decide they’re at a good level and stop. For instance, Peslas has a nice inn and lots of guests, but he doesn’t work that hard. And he’s old. So he levels once every couple of years. He leveled up six years ago and threw a huge party. My grandmother and I were invited to it.”

“But he could be leveling slower because of his total level as well, not just because he’s taking it easy and he’s old.”

“Yeah, but…well, he doesn’t have that many levels in other classes.”

Selys looks uncertain. I shake my head.

“But every level counts, Selys, don’t you see? Someone who has only one class that she levels like Erin will level up fast. She told me she only has a few levels in [Singer] and [Warrior], but how many do you have? How many does Peslas have?”

Now the [Receptionist] frowns to herself. She mutters as Klbkch and I watch Mrsha running around with another Gnoll kid.

“Well, I know he was bragging—he talks a lot about his classes—I know he said he was a [Warrior] when he was younger. He got to Level 16 while serving in the army, so there’s that. And he has levels in [Cook] and [Bartender] because he used to do that before he became an [Innkeeper]…but he doesn’t have many in each. Just a few levels.”

“Does he have any other classes?”

“Oh! I remember! He’s got a few levels in [Singer] and [Dancer] too! He was so happy about that—he got a good Skill that helps him sing…”

Selys’ face turns pale. I nod, and Klbkch nods too.

“One or two levels here and there. In this world, it’s not that much. In fact, people like to level, don’t they?”

“It’s so useful. And we get Skills even if it’s one or two levels.”

Selys mumbles the words. I nod.

“But that slows you down. It takes away from the maximum level you can achieve. It hurts you, but no one realizes it because everyone thinks it’s due to age.”

“And few people have the desire to reach higher levels in any case. So the issue is never noticed. In any case, why would anyone assume there is an artificial limit?”

Only someone from another world would assume that, and only because older video games like Pokemon had hardcoded limits to their system that prevented them from going past Level 100. Why would a system in this world have that kind of limit? It would only make sense if someone created the system…

Klbkch looks at me. I nod. My heart is racing.

Selys shakes her head repeatedly, as if dazed.

“This is huge. This is…do you know what this means if this is true?

“It will affect all in small ways, and affect few in huge ways.”

Klbkch said the words softly as Mrsha nipped at the Drake’s tail and elicited a shout from the Drake and her parents. I consider what he’s saying.

For many, I guess this information wouldn’t be too useful. Not if they don’t have the ambition to level up faster. But maybe it would allow everyone to reach Level 30, rather than waste their early levels on usless classes. It would lead to specialization—but most importantly, it would allow the people who reach the high levels in their classes to become even stronger.

“This information could change the world.”

I look at Klbkch. He looks at me.

“Fifty thousand gold pieces?”

“Perhaps.”

“What are you talking about?”

Selys looks between us. She’s trembling. Her world must be shaking. I feel sort of bad for her, but this information helps her as well.

Klbkch nods. And then he nods again.

“What Ryoka Griffin describes is exactly what I am experiencing. I had feared it was due to my age—or that I was becoming weaker—but I have ceased to level in my main class because I have too many other classes. It may be age, but Ryoka’s theory is equally sound, perhaps more so given…certain factors. I believe she is correct.”

Dead gods.

Selys breathes the words like a prayer, only no one prays in this world because the gods are dead. Except there is one.

Klbkch nods one last time. He’s like a creepy bobblehead.

“I must confirm this. There is information in my Hive which I am able to sort through. Data on warriors, people in positions of note, unusual classes, and so forth. I will review several hundred individuals and see if the results match your conclusions, Ryoka Griffin. If it is correct, this secret you have uncovered will be valuable beyond belief.”

I nod. My heart is pounding. Information that could change the world. Klbkch glances at Selys.

“This knowledge must not spread until it is certain, and even then, should be kept quiet. For now. Are we in agreement?”

Selys nods vigorously.

“Lips sealed. Completely.”

But then her face falls.

“Ah! But I’ve got so many classes! I thought—everyone gets a few levels in one or two classes but no one cares about that! No one—does that mean I’ll never reach a high level?”

Her face is stricken. Klbkch nods slowly.

“It will be…difficult for me as well. If I am unable to reach the same heights, it would be best for me to rectify the situation.”

I eye Klbkch. He’s the only one who can lose levels, but if he’s suggesting what I think he is, that’s insane.

“For now, just don’t level up if you don’t want to. You can refuse to level up or take a class.”

Selys shakes her head distractedly.

“I never understood why that was possible. I thought you’d have to be crazy to turn down a level or not gain a new class.”

I nod. It’s not a conclusion anyone would make if they didn’t understand games. Is it a trap for the people in this world? Or just an oversight? Does anyone know this secret? Some people must, but they would hide it because it’s so valuable, wouldn’t they?

“I think—yeah, I think if my suspicions are true, it’s for this exact reason that you can refuse to level up.”

A system based on a game, except no one knows the rules. My spine tingles. Gods. One is still alive.

We don’t say much after that. Selys and Klbkch just stare at each other and she mutters about classes while he…goes through his Hive’s information. I’m not sure how he does it. Is it stored in some location, or are the Antinium all carrying bits of the data?

For now, I don’t ask. But after half an hour Klbkch looks towards one of the walls.

“Something is happening.”

People—Drakes and Gnolls, and even some of the Humans—are pointing and walking in one direction. I stare at Selys and Klbkch.

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. Do you want to see?”

Klbkch and I look at each other. We’re thinking the same thing without saying  it out loud. If there’s a crowd and something going on which attracts attention, there’s probably one person—one girl at the heart of it.

People are clustering around the southern gate, and I hear people exclaiming and laugh. Klbkch, Selys, and I make our way through the crowd, Selys holding Mrsha so the small Gnoll doesn’t get lost. We get close to the southern walls—close enough to hear the laughter and exclamations—but the people are packed so densely around the gates that there’s no way through.

“Up there.”

Klbkch points towards the battlements. The citizenry aren’t allowed up there, but his position as a Senior Guardsman gets us up there. And that’s when we see it.

“Oh my god.”

At first, it’s just an odd shape moving around in the snow. You can see from a long distance on the battlements, and that’s how I see Erin. And Toren. And then, when you look closer, you see it.

The [Guardsmen] on the wall are laughing so hard they can barely stand up straight. I stare down at Erin and Toren as they…traverse the snow. Yup. Just when I think she can’t get any stranger, Erin does something like this.

I look at Selys. She’s covering her mouth as she tries not to guffaw. Klbkch is just staring. I think he’s in shock.

Someone has to say it. I stare down at Erin and shake my head.

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

 


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120 thoughts on “2.34

  1. A lesson in humility. Today I got my butt kicked by a chapter. And this is a good thing to happen.

    I got too proud. I took writing too lightly. For the first time in over a year, I had to rewrite a chapter, so I’ve stayed up until now finishing it, and I’m publishing it early because I’ll probably be asleep much later than usual.

    The first draft of this…had errors. And that’s a big problem, because as you know by now, this chapter was IMPORTANT. It might even beat Magnolia’s chapter in terms of earth-shattering stuff. But is it good? I’ve just finished it, so I don’t know. But I hope — no, I know it’s better than it was.

    So there’s that. Let me know if my explanations made sense, if anything seems too off…all of that good stuff. I know I worry a lot, but that’s just because I am 68% committed to making the story as best it can be! 14% of me just wants to sleep, and 18% lives for video games.

    That is all. Thanks for reading, and never become arrogant! You never know which chapter will be your downfall.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/WanderingInn/

    • pirate, what does this this symbol even mean ” * “?
      You use it sometimes for a thought, but very rarely.(*How strong is Erin, anyways? I…)
      Is it to emphasize a patricular thought?

      • Look closely. Everytime there is a paragraph starting with an * (asterik) in the paragraph right before it, there is one as well. Ryoka is commenting her own thought process. The first asterik shows you on which part of the following rant, she refers to.

      • It’s an astrick, generally used to create a sidenote to the normal flow of the conversation or trail of thought.
        It’s only used for Ryoka because of the way she thinks and anylisis everything.

          • When I read it in another chapter I thought it to be an author note, as a question regarding the definition of a word was asked.
            I even posted the answer in the typo section of a previous chapter.
            (feel silly now)

      • I an anotation. It means that further down there will be an explanation or something expanding the idea. Go read terry pratchet he uses them to ludicrous levels.

    • “Selys looks between us. I shake my head.

      Just an extra random quotation mark floating around.

      How did the frost faries pay for the booze?

    • They didn’t mention much about the Prognugators, but this guy was around thirty years ago

      First of all, does Ryoka refer to his level?
      Second, I think that a comma should come after “thirty”, otherwise it reads as thirty years ago(the time),
      not “thirty(pause) YEARS ago”

    • Ryoka explains TWICE what video games are, though VERY flawed if I might add.

      It feels completely strange for an Antinium to start mentioning video games. I shake my head.

      “That’s…it’s just a video game. A thing people play for fun, like chess. It’s not…”
      ————————————————–
      Hold on. This is a concept from my world. Where I come from—video games usually have a level limit. Level 100 or 99 is usually that limit.”

      “Video games? What are those?”

      “Games from my world played for fun. Like chess.”

    • “Klbkch said the words softly as Mrsha nipped at the Drake’s tail and elicited a shout from the Drake and her parents.”

      This makes it sound like Mrsha is nipping at Selys, and somehow Selys’ parents are there to shout…

      Should be, I think, “nipped at [a] Drake’s tail”

    • People are clustering around the southern gate, and I hear people exclaiming and laugh. >> laughing (else it seems that hearing exclamations cracks Ryoka up)

    • For an [Innkeeper], it’s great! Most [Cooks] and [Innkeepers] in the city have [Basic Cooking], but [Advanced Cooking] is even rarer.

      The ‘even’ doesn’t fit in there since it implies that [Basic Cooking] is already rare, what obviously is not the case.

      Great Story btw

  2. Ryoka is kinda pissing me off in this chapter. She has an idea about leveling, with zero evidence to back it up, yet she acts like it is the gospel truth . Everyone who disagrees is simple wrong. End of story

    • Ryona is basically Batman although a bit bloodthirsty while Erin is Superman. I can go on with the other characters but I digress.

      So picture Erin doing her usual shtick and Ryona has to save her by giving the b̶a̶t̶ ̶g̶l̶a̶r̶e to prevent any more silly decisions that might cost Erin’s sweet, optimistic, and innocent life. I hope that helps with your point of view for her and improves her “Attractive” personality, because it works wonders for me.

    • I don’t quite agree here. Everyone is incredulous when she presents it… They only change their mind when they start looking at examples in their own lives.

      • They change their minds while she is actively debating the point. Based upon the information presented it would be fair to argue that the current idea of, ‘the older you are the less levels you get for the same actions,’ is incorrect. However, going from that to the idea of, “There is a level cap of 100,” is absurd. She is not arguing in good faith because she needs something to give to the gnolls that isn’t gun powder.

        Honestly the recipe for the potions of stink and smoke might be enough given that there accidental use fundamentally changed the outcome of a battle.

        (Note: I am only angry at the character Ryoka, not the story itself)

        • I definitely agree she’s jumped to conclusions and decided she’s right too early.

          It’s more likely leveling has diminishing returns based on your total level.

          I’d love to see pises reaction to this discovery, what with him both studying the topic and having so many classes.

          • isnt the dimishing returns her argument of the soft-cap? which is also the reason Klbkch agrees, because he was also quite sceptical of the level cap.

            • That’s the way i also understood it. The 100 cap is more like an example and she only belives that it gets exponentially harder to level as your max level increases.

              • But she’s saying there is a soft cap of 100. She has no clue if there’s a soft cap. Diminishing returns does not necessarily= soft cap.

                It looks more like soft cap is 80 if there is one

      • That’s because they never considered the fact there was a level cap at all. I mean, Ryoka only knows this because she is from another world.

        • THe point is that Ryoka doesn’t KNOW that there is a level cap, but ASSUMES there to be one, and suddenly makes an assumption into a FACT.

          • Whether or not there is a level cap is not what she is arguing and, in fact, irrelevant to her argument. She is arguing that cumulative levels effect how difficult it is to level up, while the commonly held belief is that age effects difficultly.

            If someone reaches level 20 in a class, then goes to do something else for 10 levels before returning to the first class they would find getting from level 20 to 21 much harder than expected based on difficulty of getting from 19 to 20. They believe this is because of age. Ryoka is arguing that it is, in fact, because they are effectively trying to get from level 30 to 31 not level 20 to 21. The experience curve is steeper at 30 to 31 so that makes it harder to level. It doesn’t matter if there is a level cap or not, the experience curve will still be steeper to go from level 30 to 31 vs. 20 to 21. That is her point.

          • There is no way to prove a level cap.
            There is no evidence pointing towards a level cap.
            The absence of evidence always is evidence of absence.

            Tho there is a non zero chance for a level cap. But until that point it is reached suggesting that a person couldn’t reach level 101.

            Saying that there is a level cap of 100 implies that no matter what you do you can’t go over. Saying that there’s a softcap, suggest that special conditions must be met. A trial.
            Saying that there is no level limit implies that it will be just exponentially more challenging. Someone might get to 1000.

            The levels are closely tied to a persons perception of what happens, yes? Now imagine with public knowledge where everyone believed that 100 was the cap. hah~hah~hah

                • because the whole point of ‘discovery’ is that you find new evidence that you didn’t notice before – your sentence “The absence of evidence always is evidence of absence” is basically saying that if you can’t see any evidence, there is none. Which, as I said, is false – science got to where it is today, for example, because of people searching evidence where there was previously thought to be none.

                  Furthermore, you can’t say that there is a level cap with a lack of evidence, but you also can’t state with certainty that there *isn’t* one – all you can say is that a cap hasn’t been found yet, if one exists.

    • It makes too much sense. The leveling system was fabricated, they’ve got “gods” that could have set it up, the faerie comments on it during Mrsha’s rescue (though she does not hear it)…

      The old age thing could be a factor, but why do people even level at all?
      Combined with the skill cancel feature and all the evidence, it’s pretty damning.

      • Though, yes, there may not be a cap, but there really is something causing an exponential difficulty curve per total levels. However, it isn’t impossible that this does cause a “soft cap” since it does keep getting more difficult. It could well be tuned to happen at level 100, though. So she is right on one and may be right on the other.

    • Me too, but they were both good. Lots of cool stuff to gnaw on. I’d rather they try to ally the Antinium than fight them though, especially after THAT revelation.

    • Faeries can cancel a level up in progress- I don’t think we can say with confidence that they can remove levels already accepted based on the info we’ve seen.

      • I certainly hope there is some way to respec, I think some people will need the edge for the future.

  3. I’m not really a snow person, but is it obvious to those living in colder climes what Erin did / what Ryoka saw?

      • On the contrary, I think it’s probably exactly riding him like a tabagin. Or ski, or a snowboard. Something wacky that can only be explained if you were there.

        • Odds are she is cross country skiing (strapping a set of skis to your feet that are specifically designed to allow you to travel across flat snow with minimal effort). Considering it was said she was exploring, and how she often just used stuff from our world here, cross country skiing makes the most sense.
          It also looks really funny, so if you didn’t know what she was doing it wouldn’t make sense.

        • I figured it was snowshoes, but skis would work too. We’ll just have to wait and see unless someone from the future (i.e. a donator) wants to come give a spoiler. 😉

          Also, it’s toboggan, not tabagin.

  4. Great chapter! I had this feeling I had towards the end of the Dune books, this tension that comes from a lurking, unknown danger layered obove (below) all others, from which the stronges force in the world is … fleeing. It may be an infinite regress though, one danger following another 😉
    And I very much like the debt solution regarding the elegant levelling revelation (I was very curious how it’ll get resolved in a no-nonsense tech-transfer way). It has just the right amount of suspense of disbelief to make it believable that the natives have missed it, in general, and at the same time it satisfies the readers suspicion, who in general knows about RPG mechanics, that it is just so.

  5. “I stare down at Erin and Toren as they…traverse the snow.”

    I too like to laugh at people walking through snow! But seriously I don’t understand what’s happening here.

  6. So the question becomes, can she hand this over to the gnoll’s WITHOUT it becoming common knowledge for a few years (or longer? Let their young ones change course) allowing them to gain an advantage over the other races?

    • Well, whether or not it becomes common knowledge isn’t particularly important for Ryoka. She just needs something that makes the tribe look good at the next meeting. The Silverfang tribe itself probably doesn’t care as much either as long as their standing among all of the tribes remains the same or better. Heck the Gnolls might even share the knowledge with their allies in order to increase their standing in the world.

  7. pirateaba, I noticed that almost everytime you speak about a past event it, weirdly, happened around 10 years ago.
    Flos went into slumber 10 years ago,
    Az’kerash unleashed his legion of the undead 10 years ago,
    the goblin king started his attack 10 years ago,
    and now, Krishia and part of her tribe came to Liscor, who would have guessed, 10 years ago!!!

    • I’d assume all the events are connected if this was real life. Also if this was a story.

      So… make of that what you will.

      • Well, Az’kerash’s attack might be the cause of goblin kings actions, intending to take advantage of the situation, as many would be focused on the goblin armies.
        I don’T see how that has anything to do with Floss. Why would he be tired of his easy conquest, when there is war all over Izril. Or the otherwa around, why would the goblins and Az’kerash start a war when Flos suddenly decides that it’S time to go to bed.
        Also, why would the Silverfang tribe decide to send part of their tribe on an expedition during times of war, when they need all the man they can get. And iff it happened BEFORE the war started, thne I don’t see how that expedition weas the catalyse for the war.

        • Why would he be tired of his easy conquest? Because it was easy. He could see that in another 5-10 years he’d have conquered the world and then what? So he just gave up. It’s like running a race against little kids. Of course you can win, your legs are like twice the length. What’s the point of winning when there’s not really any competition?

    • One more thing, The 1st Antinium War happened shortly before the goblin wars. It is not known how long exactly, but the way it was phrased in the side story I would assume that it were only a few months, or at best a couple of years.
      So, the 1st Antinium War could perhaps be added to the list.

    • This sort of significance is typically used in books, and hints at some big events going down behind the scenes. That’s probably it exactly, given some of what is going on.

      Good catch!

      Don’t forget the Sealed Evil In A Can always takes 1000 years to break out. This could just be the same on a smaller time scale too, but there may also be a 1K countdown going on too we don’t know about yet.

  8. Well, that escalated quickly.

    A world of levels, where no one knows the rules.
    Hmm

    To find out the rules they’d need a god or another immortal who remembered the rules to tell them.

    To discover the rules themselves, they’d have to perform the scientific method (not invented yet) and test those without levels (children or people like Ryoka) to both focus on a single Class and others to focus on multi Class.
    Even then, results would vary as the system only rewards those who face adversity.
    Add in a soft level cap, and to those born into such a system I could totally see them thinking it’s an age issue and not a ‘too many classes’ issue.

    Ryoka has discovered something both subtle and profound.
    Being able to refuse a class or levels is all the proof she really needs.

    If people could drop a class or level voluntarily, this issue would have been discovered earlier.

    And now Ryoka has an advantage over others in the world!
    Unlike everyone else, she can pick one class and level it.
    All because she was a stubborn idiot.

    And since Prognugators can die and revive to clear off useless classes to lvl 1, Ryoka has strengthened the hives enough to earn 50k gold. 🙂
    Just need 1 fool dedicated enough to prove it.
    That useless ant that went adventuring with Ceria would make a good experimental test subject hehe
    .
    .
    .
    There is of course more to it.
    The Frost Fairies have stated there is a price to joining the leveling system.

    My guess is that the people can’t leave the planet or they drop dead.
    That would mean only Ryoka can currently return to Earth alive, and Erin is stuck in the gods’ playground, forever.

    Now!
    A dead god wasn’t actually dead, but just sleeping.
    Another easy mistake for mortals to make.
    Maybe Pawn’s new god can do something about it.
    Anything which can make 1 million ants flee (and mostly drown) across the ocean cause it scratchet its butt and yawned must be bad news.

    Listener ants that can track individuals?
    Yikes!

    And of course Small Gods is far superior to American Gods.
    “The Eagle is my friend” ;P
    *Later, having a god pester their lone follower to go to the doctor is hilarious*

    There is almost too much to process is this chapter.
    Selys Shivertail?
    Is she related to General Zel Shivertail?

    I want a magic jungle gym!
    Liscor floods bad in the Spring?
    The hell is Erin doing?

    A+ chapter

    • I agree, except for one point. Ryoka can’t level anymore. She states herself that after the fairies canceld her level up she no longer heard the voice.

    • Klb said that talking about the God makes it stronger. I just wonder wether you have to talk about this particular one or gods in general. In that case a peacher is going to be trouble. On the other hand it could also be that there are more than one God in this world still alive…

    • Wasn’t there a thing where Antinium can’t be revived at all under a certain level?
      Of course this could also be because they are useless to the queen once most of their levels are gone too, but I thought the ritual had a hard limit.

    • “My guess is that the people can’t leave the planet or they drop dead. That would mean only Ryoka can currently return to Earth alive, and Erin is stuck in the gods’ playground, forever.”

      No, the real truth is that you can leave any time. But since skills are part of that world, you cannot take them with you. Ever read Flowers for Algernon? Perhaps the saddest story I’ve ever read. That’s exactly what would happen to anyone who tried to leave this world.

      Look how happy Erin is to have her levels. She can make a huge stack of crepes in only 20 minutes. How could she ever be satisfied going back to a life of making crepes only 1-3 at a time (depending on size and whether you use a pan/griddle) and having to spend half an hour to an hour to make enough to feed a few people?

      Consider Olesm. If he left, would he be able to play chess at all anymore?

      After being able to literally run like the wind, how could a City Runner ever be satisfied with plodding along like Usain Bolt (and probably not even able to match his speed)?

      When you die, and go on to the next life, you take all of your skills, but you take none of your Skills.

  9. Ryoka is a little too shortsighted when considering what she could safely give the Gnolls.

    Sure, a lot of the simple technologies are superfluos because they already have magical solutions in that world… but mages are still rare and expensive.
    Which means a non-magical solution would be much cheaper and more accessible.

    For example, thermos jars/bottles are relatively easy to make with the current technology and would be beneficial especially to nomadic tribes consisting of hunters/gathers.
    What about balloons or zeppelins? Easy to make again. Useful for scouting but not for warfare.

    Even just pieces of knowledge could be valuable. The aerodynamics of a wing are not worth much in general, but might be priceless for someone researching flight.

    I wouldn’t underestimate the impact of advanced math, the basic physic laws or common chemical reactions. Sure, it would take some time for results to show… and the Gnolls need something now… but if you give them just one example of what you could do with that knowledge, then it would automatically become valuable. For example, the first cameras were based on a simple chemical reaction. As far as I can tell, photography hasn’t been invented in that world yet or is again a rare and expensive spell.

    There’s also biological and medical knowledge, like the existence of micro-organisms like bacteria.

    Not to mention that just describing a process or machine can jump start development in that direction, even if Ryoka herself is unable to build it.

    I think my quibble here is that Ryoka is looking for one big thing instead of considering several smaller ones. I can think of at least a dozen inventions/processes/facts that couldn’t be applied to warfare directly and that would improve the life of everyone.

    If Ryoka had more time and a sponsor (like Magnolia), she could open up a company and introduce all kinds of toys (like yo-yos) and (board&card) games. Hell, she could write down all the stories from our world and just sell the books. Or simply continue to re-create recipes of our food.
    All those ideas are unknown in that world, which makes them valuable. It might be a little dishonest since those ideas belong to someone else, but this is a matter of survival.

    The revelation of a theoretical maximum level is big news and it will change how people level up, but I don’t see it as immediately useful either. Longterm it’s going to change a lot and it will lead to specialization and perhaps even to the creation of new classes (for example, if you’re only a guardsman, you might not be worth much in a fight, so either you need a better class or you have to get a second, fighter related, class.).

    Taking Ryoka’s game theory further… many games with a max level don’t stop there. Either the level cap is raised or there are other ways to gain new Skills. Or a second level system opens up (master/champion levels, prestige classes etc). We have already seen that people can learn spells independent of their level and the same is true for Skills.

    When you come down to it, then the levels itself have little impact. It’s the Skills that change things. Levels don’t give you more health or mana, they don’t increase your resistances or movement speed. As far as I can tell, they change nothing.
    I believe a lvl20 warrior with two or three excellent Skills would be more than a match for a lvl30 warrior with four common Skills.

    So the more valuable knowledge here isn’t that a level cap exists and thus multiclassing slows your progression, no… it would be that you can create your own Classes and Skills, depending on your wishes and expectations. Oh, and you can gain those Skills even without leveling.

    • In the clown chapters they mention that higher levels does turn into higher physical strength.
      “He’s a Level 14 [Thief] with several skills that let him set traps, move around stealthily, and so on, but the levels have also made him stronger. We actually tested it; despite him not having any skills, he’s a bit stronger than another guy who’s as fit as he is. But he’s faster too; a lot faster. It seems there’s some passive benefit to leveling”
      So yeah, leveling helps a bit.

      • Ah yes, you’re correct. Well, still doesn’t change all that much. It’s the Skills that win the battle 9 out of 10 times.

        • I am not sure I would dismiss high levels in a single class as not being that important. At the higher levels, the passive boosts probably get really powerful. Named Adventurers are always mentioned as having a really high level class, not lots of different classes at low level. Kib has probably as many skills as he did when he was young, but he is weaker anyway since his highest level is a lot lower. It sounds like this is because his levels are more diluted across several classes instead of all just in two high level classes (swordslayer/ Assassin). The passives of a level 44 swordslayer must be amazing.

          Also, most of the best skills are not gotten until you get really high level in a single class so if you have a ton of level 1 skills that is probably weaker.

    • “What about balloons or zeppelins? Easy to make again. Useful for scouting but not for warfare.”

      You think zeppelins are not useful for warfare? They were used to DROP BOMBS in WWI. And easy to make? Sure they just need to develop of method to produce a lighter than air gas, preferably not hydrogen. Of course, if helium was easy to make the Germans wouldn’t have been using hydrogen in in the Hindenburg. Additionally, they need to store the gas, which require considerable advances in both metallurgy and precision engineering. Then they have to build a air tight vessel to contain the gas, which is probably the easiest step. Finally, they would have to invent the internal combustion engine and propellers to move the vessel. All of this from a group that Ryoka considers too nomadic for simple improvements in steel making to be useful.

      • A basic zeppelin would work with hydrogen and the propellers could be moved by the crew, no motor needed. It’s only a little more difficult than a hot air balloon.
        Yes, zeppelins were used in WW1… but they underperformed and were easy targets. There’s a reason why no one used them again for battle.

        I’m sure that most engineering problems could be solved with magic if necessary.

        • “A basic zeppelin would work with hydrogen”

          Producing and storing hydrogen is more difficult than you seem to think. A gas can and will diffuse through a solid. Think of the shrink wrapped meats in the grocery store, given enough time, oxygen will diffuse through the plastic and discolor the meat. Hydrogen, being the smallest element, has a relatively high diffusion rate. Even the modern space program has difficulty with storing hydrogen.

          Hydrogen also requires some industrial infrastructure to manufacture. It is normally made from hydrocarbons, requiring a petrochemical industry and, obviously, petrochemicals. We don’t know if this world even has crude oil. It could have been terraformed, or created from whole cloth, by the dead gods as their playground. Even if that is not the case, there is still no evidence one way or the other that there were dinosaurs to die and become oil.

          Another method for producing hydrogen is electrolysis, which, as the name implies, requires electricity. It is also more costly, in our society, and more dangerous. Electrolysis produces hydrogen and oxygen relatively near each other in the perfect stoichiometric ratio for combustion. Not to mention the pure oxygen is produces is also dangerous in and of itself, just ask Apollo 1.

          “and the propellers could be moved by the crew, no motor needed.”

          The muscle power required to move the first Zeppelin at its measly 13.4 mph is the equivalent to lifting 16,500 pounds 1 foot in 1 second (30 hp). Every second. For the duration of the flight. This would require approximately 300 skillless humans, compared to the crew of two the real one had.
          By the beginning of WWI, with zeppelins that could reach speeds of 53 mph, that figure rose to 346,500 pounds. This would require an extraordinary level of strength and stamina, the equivalent to ~700,000 Olympic trained athletes.

          “Yes, zeppelins were used in WW1… but they underperformed and were easy targets.”

          Yeah, they were easy targets… for other aircraft. This argument falls flat when the other side doesn’t have aircraft. Unless some kind of magical AAA is used, if spells can even reach that far.

          “I’m sure that most engineering problems could be solved with magic if necessary.”

          Your forgetting the whole reason Krshia had the spell books in the first place is because the Gnolls don’t have mages.

      • Helium can’t be made at all, really. It’s an elemental byproduct of radioactive decay and is produced so darn slowly (and normally floats off) that it is a rare and nonrenewable resource.

  10. I am now very concerned about Pawn and his newfound faith. I wonder how the Antinium delegation will respond given the enemy the seek to fight.

  11. Guys, does anyone remember Pawn? How he became an [Acolyte] and said that there was one God still alive?
    And how Klbkch said that just talking about a God gives them power?
    …this is scary

    • I think Pawn spawned a new god, that is how I read it. So there are actually two gods. Crusades anyone?

      • Ya, there should be 2 gods now, Pawn’s god and the mystery one waking up.

        Pisces talked about gods back in 1.34, and it is hair raising.
        Faith can warp reality! ^_^

        [—- Erin opened her mouth and then silently closed it to digest what she’d just heard. Pisces went on, oblivious.

        “But you are correct. Once upon a time, miracles matched magic in its capacity to warp the world. It was said a [Cleric] in their earliest levels could do what an [Archmage] could not.”

        He paused, and closed his eyes. Pisces seemed to recite something from memory.

        “‘By faith and faith alone do they warp the bounds of reality. Their desire and belief creates Gods and bridges the gap between impossibility and truth. Though blade and spell may take their lives, their inviolate will shall move this world.’”

        He shook his head.

        “So much for that. The gods are dead. So too are the ancient ways of faith and miracle.”

        Erin didn’t know why, but she felt a bit of a pang in her heart as she heard that. As if something had been lost before she’d even discovered it. She raised her hand again.

        “So there aren’t any miracles anymore? I thought there were a few [Clerics] in Liscor. What about them?”

        “Ah, well. [Clerics] are now simply [Healers] who are able to cast spells. The definition of the class has changed, and accordingly, so have the skills and spells learnt. It was quite a fascinating phenomenon, actually. I studied it in a course back in Wistram—”

        Pisces shook his head.—-]

        Priests were also mentioned back in the very first Interlude of Chapter 1.
        I’m not sure if they are just mages who specialize in healing like Clerics, or are actually worshipers of something.

        [—-Some of the summoned humans cry out in fear. Others try to run in their panic, but find their legs won’t cooperate with them. A few stare around the room, noting the magic runes by their feet, the robed priests and mages clustered together, and the watching aristocracy. They observe in silence.

        The leading priest raised his arms and fell upon his knees. He raised his tear-stained face to the heavens as he cried out.

        “The [Great Heroes of Prophecy] are here! We are saved!”

        The priests around him join in his prayer. Meanwhile the nobility murmur and regard the summoned with calculating eyes.—]

        A lot seems to revolve around The Blighted King, Othius the Fourth. (from 1.00C)
        His continent of Rhir has the mutants. (Demons)
        His continent summoned all the humans from Earth. (And are going to do it again)
        His continent has the buried god that is waking up which caused the Antinium to flee. (After fighting both the Blighted King and the Demon King)

        .
        .
        .

        My prediction is that the world will get very lucky, and it is the God of Picnic Baskets waking up.
        They will take revenge against the Antinium for eating the Sacred Sugar Cube and the mothbears for munching on the Divine Checkerboard Tablecloth.
        Then they’ll go back to sleep.

        • Regarding the priests, lot of the first 10 or so chapters have little inaccuracies. There is mention of other antinium as part of the watch, but we later see that Klb was the only one. Klb and Relc say there is no way to check a class with Pisces, but some classes/items are seen to have the ability.

          Mostly small things that stem from the nature of a web serial.

    • There is NO WAY Pawn prays to the sleeping god in Rhir. Klbkch told Ryoka clearly NOT to use expressions such as “Goddamn it”, as it gives them power.
      So why would Pawn be doing something which would give this god even more power. This god is an enemy of the Antinium and they seek pwoer in order to kill him to regain their home.

  12. Where is Erin from? I ask because her choice of breakfast seems odd to me. I’ve never heard of mash potatoes for breakfast, nor plain (white?) gravy. Where I live, it is always sausage and gravy biscuits, and potatoes are either hash browns, potato pancakes, or country fried potatoes (diced potatoes and onions in bacon grease in a cast iron pan, covered and cooked until soft, then uncovered and fried until the onions are caramelized and the potatoes are crisp)
    I’m curious where mash potatoes and plain gravy are a staple of breakfast?

    • Michigan is a land of snow. And like the snow, their food is white. And tasteless. The only way they know to spice things is up is to let their food start to rot and thus acquire some taste, which is why they like cheese and lutefisk. 😉

      What Erin made is actually a bechamel sauce, it’s one of the 5 “mother sauces” which together are one of the cornerstones of basically all Western cooking. You’re used to a beef velouté sauce.

  13. It’s no different than saying it’s magic. It’s no description at all. Saying video games are games broadens the definition, making it more general. The more general something is the less it predicts or describes.
    Tho One starts from the general, like newtons laws and narrows it down to tiny things like quantum science. One way. Video games are defined by what they are not.

    Asking what a video game is and answering that it’s a game, it’s such an erin thing to do. To generalize rather than describe.
    Than again, the ants have odd mind magic. Where they told what video games are, it’s possible they could create ping pong for their queen. Ants tasked to perform actions in response to previous input. It’s like coding. With their hive mind telepathy it could create… who knows what. The hardware of a brain, designed by the queen. The ant’s are like biological computers with undeveloped minds. Does them being designed by a queen make them artificial? Would it be possible for the queen to create humans, if she knew how they worked? The queens are able to engineer genetics to create the ants that best fit the needed tasks.

    A more accurate way, likely still inaccurate, of putting would be simulated environments with special rules and winning conditions. Created trough code and programming. Maths that describe how things are suppose to do and work. Rules on rules.

    I wonder if the prognugators view is that to help someone else is to raise the quality of life of the community. By raising the standard of the community he’s helping the hive in turn. So from his point going to war or hindering the growth of sentience would go against his directives. Making everyone better individuals gives most benefit to the hive and the queen. So he’d be doing harm to the hive by not following this directive. It’s in the best interest for all, the prognugator, Queen, Erin, that they are kept in the dark.

  14. Bombshells, that was a really huge bombshell in this chapter. Well, at least the author could understand that this is a really important chapter. At least shocking enough (for me at least). Totally didn’t expect the motivations, reason and information about the Antiniums to be revealed like that.

  15. This, this revelation can come down to one competiting hard truth again. Quality vs Quantity.

    Is it better to focus on one class to reach a hundred level or focus on getting a hundred classes instead?

    I mean Sely said that a person can gain a skill the moment they gained a class but it is known that for every class, normally they would only gain skills at around every five levels.

    So this comes down to a question of a matter about efficiency, is skills more useful than levels itself?
    It seems it is easier to just gain new classes instead of more levels given that new classes keep popping out of nowhere.
    Would that mean that reaching the cumulative level hundred this way is much easier than the typical power leveling?

    • I’d expect it turns out to be like most games. Either strategy is valid. Gain all your levels in a single class and be really good at one thing, or gain a few levels in a score of classes that complement each other well. Either one could be very powerful. It’s side-trips into irrelevant classes with abilities you won’t actually use that you need to be wary of.

      • It’s usually always better to get all your levels in a single class. Sure, you can get some amazing support skills when branching out, but when your buddy is focused enough to hack the Pentagon, and your other buddy can charm succubuses, and your other buddy can cast pumped up meteor storms and summon genies, what are you supposed to do with your three levels of [Clown]?

        I mean, some classes are amazing for a one level dip. For instance, I had a character with an Int 20, and a Cha 8 who started with one level of Bard. I put one skill point in every knowledge skill do I could at least roll on possibly knowing anythingl, maxed out most cha-based skills, use magic device, bought a bunch of languages, and then went solely Wizard from then on (until 10th level or so when I went for a real prestige class). This also gave the ability to use wands of cure light wounds, and a whole bunch of other nifty things. It made me a better archangel eventually. But generally, it’s better to single class.

        Even in games like something from White Wolf, it’s still usually better to single class, because that’s what most people do and challenges are based on the average group power level.

  16. I was going to comment about how could nobody realize this in all this time. Then I remembered that in the early 20th century, when we had cars, towns thought tuberculosis was caused by vampires and would do bizarre stuff to the corpses to keep them from rising and continuing killing. We generally believe whatever is most convenient and offers us the illusion of control, and/or absolves us of responsibility/makes another culpable.

  17. Erin convinced Pawn to believe in God so I guess +1 believer to buried god as he’s the only known god still alive.

  18. Oh shit, pretty sure I know why the Antinium wanna commit mass genocide now.
    All of the people believe the gods are dead, if one rises (Or they simply become aware of it) they will regain their faith, faith is probably what gives the god strength. So basically…even if in a stupid, self-preserving way, the Antinium were trying to save the whole goddamn world.

    If there are no other people around to believe in gods, the sleeping one can’t wake up.

    Anywho, this was a great chapter. Very cool revelation, more so than the Magnolia one.

    • I Like this theory… I had assumed it was so they could amas resources and recharge after the sea crossing.

    • I think the goblin king had a similar idea. He referenced killing the playthings in one of the memories and the fairies called those who leveled the playthings of the gods.

    • The Antimium wanted to kill all the humans/gnolls/drakes, rape the land for resources, breed like rabbits, and then with a ginormous continent-wide army that had literally been preparing for battle for decades, go kill a god. The humans/drakes/gnolls were thought to just be obstacles.

      But they were inventive and beat the Antinium back, so maybe they can be more than meat shields against a god.

  19. Found this story a couple of days ago, it’s great a minor complaint though is with the email notification for new chapter, it’s a bit weird getting a notification of a locked chapter being put up instead of the former chapter being unlocked

  20. pirate, can you say if the Antinium lose 10 levels in EACH class, or 10 in total, after being reborn.
    To me it sounds sometimes like the one thing, while at another point as though it’s the latter one.

    • It’s pretty clearly the latter (10 lvl total). Otherwise Klb would have lost 40 level and regained most of them faster than erin levels. That makes no sense at all. So it has to be 10 level in total. The real question is how it’s decided which class loses it’s level.

  21. Whoa. This was AWESOME! Really good, really long chapter with lots of information. I suspected some, but this, this is epic. I have to admit that the level cap is a surprise, and even more so since we already were given hints that the level system was artificial.

    I also liked the parts involving the horrible booze and the drunk fairy snowdrift.

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