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I actually like to eat green apples more than red ones. Hi everyone, I'm pirateaba, author of Pirate Blog and writer of books! One book, so far. Anyways, all I do revolves around a strange girl with a sword: Pirate! Check out my daily blog or if you're so inclined, my writings about Pirate both as a fully-fledged novel or as free short stories! http://www.amazon.com/dp/B017WV4FRS https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/595416

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3.23 L

When Lyonette woke up in her bed and felt the winter daylight on her face, she smiled up at the ceiling, so widely she thought her lips would break.

She’d gained two classes. Two. And she’d leveled up!

Part of Lyon had been afraid that it was all a dream. But the voice in her head—it was undeniable.

She’d leveled. Lyonette hugged her pillow as she curled up. In doing so, she rolled over and nearly squashed the ball of fluff sleeping next to her.

“Oh no. Sorry, Mrsha!”

Lyonette heard a noise of protest from the still sleeping Mrsha. Tiny claws poked her as the young Gnoll reached out and stole the blanket back. Lyon smiled at the round, furry little creature and patted her on the head.

A mouth came up and nipped at Lyonette’s hand, making her yelp. Mrsha cracked one brown eye open and stared at the girl balefully. The message was clear: petting was only for happy, awake Gnolls.

For a while, Lyon lay in her bed. But soon the needs of the day got her up. She stood, dressed, and soon found herself paying a visit to the cold outhouse. It was well-crafted of course, and relatively warmer than the outside. But only just. Lyon sat on the toilet, shivering, but still smiling.

She’d leveled. She had. It wasn’t a dream. She now had both the [Carer] and [Tactician] class, from taking care of Mrsha and playing chess respectively.

Two new classes on top of her [Barmaid] class. As Lyon hurried back into the inn she marveled at the thought. How long had it been since she’d last leveled up in her ‘chosen’ class? Four years?

Yes. Four years.

Lyonette stood with the glass of water in her hand, watering the flowers as she stared out one frosted window at the snowy world. It was cold, lifeless, and beautiful. There was something terrifying about it as well, a sense that if you wandered out into that vast, unforgiving landscape you would die, in this place where civilization ended.

Of course, when Lyonette went to the window facing Liscor she saw a city full of people and beyond that, villages scattered across hilltops. It was only the southern window that was so bleak. But she liked that window. It showed her a world she’d never dreamed of in the palace where she’d grown up.

That place had been…Lyonette sighed as she went outside, bundled up, and tromped through the snow towards the stream, two buckets in hand.

She’d hated it. She’d hated not leveling, and she’d hated how boring everything had seemed. So she’d run off. To become an adventurer, or perhaps find a class meant for her. She hadn’t had any idea of what that meant—to the Lyon of now, the past her seemed so idiotic.

Staggering, Lyon walked back to the inn, the filled buckets of water straining her arms. It hurt, even walking this short distance with so much weight. But her arms were getting stronger. She was gaining muscle and more importantly—

She was leveling up in a class. A [Barmaid] class, true, something completely unbefitting her heritage. But a class nonetheless.

Part of Lyonette shivered with delight at how wrong it all was. She was a [Princess]! If her family knew how badly she was sullying her position by taking such a class—her mother even hated letting the princes take [Knight] and [Commander] classes.

It was a waste of her potential. But it wasn’t at the same time. Lyonette didn’t care about her duties right now. She just wanted to live here, in this inn, and finally realize her dream. Level. She had the [Carer] class and even a [Tactician] class! She wanted to level both up. She wanted to—

The girl had to put down one of the buckets to push the door open. When she did, she saw a familiar white, furry Gnoll cub running around the room anxiously. Mrsha ran in circles, hair standing on end, clearly in great distress.

“Mrsha!”

When the Gnoll saw Lyonette she cannonballed into the girl’s stomach, nearly making Lyon spill both buckets. She clung to Lyon, sniffing at her and hugging her tightly.

She’d thought Lyon was gone. Gone, just like Erin and Ryoka. That nearly made Lyon cry; she held Mrsha tightly.

“Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m not going to leave. I just went to get water, see?”

When she showed Mrsha the buckets, the Gnoll eagerly helped Lyonette bring them into the kitchen, although Mrsha had to push the heavy bucket across the wooden floor. Lyon let her do it; it was a cute sight and Mrsha wanted to help. And Lyonette understood wanting to help, wanting to be useful.

And in this inn, Lyonette was useful. No—it was more like she was essential if Erin wasn’t here. Without her working hard, the fire wouldn’t be fed, and there would be no water, no food. The flowers would die, and this little Gnoll would starve. That was what got Lyonette up even when it was bitingly cold and made her work and count coins. She was responsible for a life now, and that was precious to her.

Yes, she was needed here. Far more than she’d ever been back in her home, in her kingdom. Damn being a [Princess]. Lyonette thought that, and paused.

She only hated the class because she never leveled in it. But she knew…if only she could level. But she didn’t know how. It was too hard back at home. Too hard, because everything was too easy, and she was useless.

But what had Erin said one time?

“You’d be like a temporary innkeeper. This would be my castle, and I would be like a [Princess]…”

Mrsha looked up at Lyon in confusion, tail wagging frantically. The girl had to smile at the Gnoll as she patted her head.

“Let’s make breakfast, okay? I’m hungry and your stomach is rumbling And while we do—would you like to hear a story, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll nodded as she followed Lyon into the kitchen. There she watched greedily as Lyon cut thick slices of bacon and laid them gently in a pan to sizzle and pop. The girl had bought the precious and expensive meat for guests, mainly the Antinium, but today was a special day, wasn’t it?

Bacon sizzling, Lyonette found part of a loaf and sliced the slightly stale bread up. A bit of warming by the fire and some butter and more importantly, honey and it would be a treat. She still had three huge jars of honey, honeycomb, and even some royal jelly sitting in the inn after all.

Life was good. Lyon fried the bacon—she was getting better at making it crispy, not black—spilling a half-cooked slice on the floor. Not entirely by accident either—a certain Gnoll ramming into her legs had caused the mishap.

“Stop that, you!”

Lyonette scolded Mrsha as the Gnoll pounced on the greasy bacon slice. The young Gnoll looked up at her guiltily with her huge eyes and Lyon had to forgive her.

“Sit there and let me finish. I’ll tell you that story now. Did you know that there are types of classes in this world?”

The Gnoll sat on her butt, tail wagging as she chewed on the bacon and stared up at Lyon. She stared curiously at Lyon as the girl spoke, her eyes on the pan.

“Oh yes. Everyone knows there are classes, but when I was a girl—my family has many secrets. Many old secrets about the world and classes and levels. My father insisted I learn each one, as part of my tutoring. And do you know? I learned that some classes are better than others.”

The Gnoll scooted forwards, eyes wide, ears perked up. Lyonette laughed as she put a slice of crispy bacon on a plate.

“Yes, not all classes are equal. Of course, each one is important, but some are more important, see? Like classes that influence people. There are [Tacticians] and [Strategists] and classes that only [Soldiers] can take like [Sergeant] and [Commander] of course…but the best of all such classes is probably [General] or [Admiral].”

Mrsha just blinked at Lyon. How much did she understand? Lyonette didn’t know her age, but she thought Mrsha was young by any standard. Still, she continued.

“A [General] can have influence over a whole army. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people. Isn’t that amazing? She or he can even affect other armies with Skills that demoralize or frighten…but there are classes that can do the same outside of battle. [Lords] and [Ladies] have their own demesne, and [Farmers] control their plots of land. You see? Some classes have range.

Mrsha nodded and sneezed. Perhaps the nod was because of the sneeze? Lyon took it as a good sign.

“So what my mother told me was that the best classes can touch entire kingdoms. Like royal classes. [King], [Queen], [Princess]…a family of rulers can all make their nation strong.”

If they had high levels. Lyonette swallowed a lump in her throat.

“So these classes are some of the best. Because they are so rare, and only a few can have them. [Lords] for example are strong and have good Skills. But a [King] will have greater skills. There is no stronger class, in that sense. Well…”

The girl had to pause.

“…I suppose [Emperor] or [Empress] might be better. Because there can be only one, you see? A [King] can rule with a [Queen] and even [Princes] and [Princesses] all adding their Skills together. But an [Emperor] can rule over many nations, so only their Skills would affect the entire empire.”

Mrsha began scratching at her side, a clear indication that Lyon was losing her. The girl scowled; but the bacon was nearly done.

“Fine. You don’t like that? Then how about this? This is the secret my parents taught me. Royal classes, rare classes, and special classes—the kind that appear when two classes merge—they’re all better than normal ones. A [Lord] has almost the same Skills as a [General]. He can fight and lead, but he can also empower his estate. A [Blademaster] will have far, far better Skills than any [Warrior]—even a normal [Knight]! And you can get special classes by doing secret things. In fact, a [Princess] can even give someone a unique class.”

The Gnoll stared up at Lyonette, and then flopped over on her back. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and Lyonette sighed. It wasn’t important to Mrsha. It was special to Lyonette, but only because she needed it to be. Why would a Gnoll child care what a [Princess] could do?

Fine. Let’s eat!”

Bacon and honey-covered bread for breakfast was a sinfully delicious meal. Lyonette ate nearly as fast as Mrsha, although the smaller Gnoll had even less manners than she did. She greedily chewed down the fatty bacon, pausing only to lick her paws clean of grease and honey every now and then.

When breakfast was done, Lyonette found something for Mrsha to do. She’d realized the Gnoll needed a distraction, so she found some parchment and charcoal. The Gnoll sat on the ground, happily drawing while Lyon cleaned the tables and washed the dishes.

She wished she had some of her toys, the ones she’d had back in the palace. The Gnoll deserved some fun. Maybe she could buy something? She had a good amount of coin after Pawn had come by—a lot, in fact. When Olesm came, Lyonette could probably persuade him to go shopping, but would the Drake even know what a Gnoll liked? Perhaps…

Lyonette was scrubbing at a bit of solidified honey on the table when she saw movement. She looked up and realized it wasn’t Mrsha but something else. Cautiously Lyonette moved over and saw the thing move again. She was tempted to grab a frying pan before she investigated, but then memory nudged her and she realized what it had to be.

A white, wriggling larvae, big and fat and sitting in a pool of royal jelly stared blindly up at Lyon while she stared down in disgusted fascination.

The grub! She’d completely forgotten about it! Lyon had intended to give it to Pawn, but it had slipped her mind. Now the grub moved slowly in the white goo surrounding it.

It was still alive, and even fatter than it had been yesterday if her eyes didn’t deceive her. Lyon stared at it in horrified fascination. The grub was ugly as sin, and sightless to boot. Still, Lyonette had the crazy urge to poke at it like Mrsha had done.

Resisting that instinct, Lyon frowned as she considered the liquid in the bowl. It was lower than yesterday as well. Some had evaporated? Or—the larvae had eaten some. It was growing.

Well, that only meant Pawn would like it more when she gave it to him, right? Lyonette decided to make sure the grub survived. That meant adding more royal jelly—she’d heard that was best for bees to grow with.

There were several honeycombs in the jars that she’d cut from the hive. Lyonette could see pockets of the white, jelly-like substance, and tried to fish it out so she could refill the bowl with the larvae in it. To that end she had to reach into the jar full of honey with a clean hand, giggling and shuddering at the odd feeling of so much honey.

She decided to separate as much of the jelly from the honey as she could, in case she needed it later. So Lyonette found another jar and used a wooden spoon to transfer the jelly over. It was a messy and sticky maneuver, and it invariably attracted Mrsha. The Gnoll licked both the royal jelly and honey up as Lyonette tried to fend her off.

“Stop it, Mrsha! Mrsha! You’ve just had breakfast! You’re going to get so fat.

Which wouldn’t actually be a bad thing. The Gnoll was still thinner than she should be, which is why Lyonette let her lick her palms clean, giggling as the tiny rough tongue greedily lapped up the sticky honey.

The grub wriggled when Lyonette poured the royal jelly over it, but in the end it was nearly covered except for its head again. That done, she placed the bowl nearer to the fire. Not too near—but close enough that the grub wouldn’t freeze during the night.

That was how Lyon spent the first hour of her morning. After that, the door opened and Selys came by. The Drake wasn’t working today, and so she’d come—anxious and worried—to check on Mrsha. The Gnoll was happy to see her since the Drake wasn’t trying to take her away, and she definitely enjoyed the toys Selys had brought.

“I bought these for her. They’re very popular with Gnolls but Mrsha never wanted to play back at my apartment.”

So said Selys as she sat at a table, enjoying some honey and bread and a glass of honeyed water in the warm inn. Lyonette buzzed around the kitchen, making more honey water – she had the idea it would be very popular with the Antinium—and storing it in another jar for later. The inn was full of life, and guests! Not just Mrsha, but Selys had come to visit!

And—surprisingly—Olesm as well. The Drake came by every few days, less and less often since Lyon made him go shopping for her each time, but he arrived not long after Selys, tail wagging with excitement.

“Is Erin—oh.”

He always said that. But he didn’t look as disappointed today. Instead, he happily joined Selys at a table, eating some of her honeyed bread, oblivious to her annoyed look while he waved a sheaf of parchment about, unable to contain his excitement.

“You won’t believe what just happened. I was in the city and Hawk—you know, the Courier—came over with all these letters! One had just been sent, and when he got to Liscor to deliver them, the Runner’s Guild told him there were tons of undelivered letters all addressed to me!”

“Why didn’t the Runners deliver them?”

“Well—oh, thank you. Is…why is this water sweet?”

“It’s honey.”

Lyon explained as Olesm suspiciously tasted the water in the glass with a long tongue.

“Oh! It’s good! You should sell this! Can I have more bread? Selys has run out. Anyways, you won’t believe what happened! When I was sending all my letters out, I misspelled my name! So when I got the replies—they were all addressed to Oresm, not Olesm! I can’t believe no one at the Guild picked up on that mistake!”

Lyonette laughed, but Selys gave Olesm and exasperated look.

“Oresm? By all the Ancestors, how did you manage to misspell your own name when you sent all those letters?”

He hunched over, tail twitching defensively.

“I was excited! And I had good reason—do you know what I sent? Chess games!”

“You mean like the one Erin got? So what?”

Selys remained unimpressed. Olesm rolled his eyes, speaking faster as he tried to explain and convey his enthusiasm to an unreceptive audience.

“I didn’t just send chess puzzles. Don’t you get it? I sent the chess puzzle Erin made—the really hard one—as well as actual games she played! I managed to use the annotation system she taught me—with it you can go through her chess games step by step and see how it played out without needing to be there!”

“So what?”

“So you can recreate chess games across the world! And play them, too! I copied that game she played against all of the Antinium—and the games she played on the magical chessboard! They’re a goldmine for any [Tactician] or [Strategist], don’t you see? It’s been less than a month since I sent out the letters—open messages to major cities, just the nearest ones that I could afford—and I’ve gotten back so many replies!”

Excitedly, he showed the two young females the letters. Lyonette had to admit, the stationary collection did seem impressive. Selys didn’t understand the significance, but Lyonette could see the quality of the letters was high in some cases, and some had personal sigils or seals. In a political sense, Olesm had suddenly accrued quite a bit of attention.

“Okay, so some [Tacticians] are excited about chess. It’s a popular game. So what?”

“Would you stop saying that?”

“So. What?”

“So—people want me to send them more chess games! I’m talking with the head [Strategist] of one of the Walled Cities, see? He told me the chess puzzle I sent helped him level! And this—the letter that came by Courier actually sent back some money!”

Selys choked on her drink when Olesm showed her the gold coins.

What? People are sending you money for your stupid chess games?”

“Of course! Don’t you understand? This can help high-level [Strategists] level further! And if we can play chess by mail—I’m already planning on sending more of Erin’s games and more of the chess puzzles she taught me. I just…have to solve some of them.”

Olesm coughed, a bit embarrassed. Lyonette and Selys just stared at him.

“But when I do send them out, I’m not going to just stay on this continent. I’ll pay to have them delivered as a bulk shipment to every major city in the continent! In a few months…just think of the possibilities!”

It was all a bit over Selys’ head, and the female Drake argued with Olesm over the cost of what she called his ‘silly project’, but Lyonette just sat, staring at the pile of letters Olesm so lovingly clutched, heart pounding.

This was big news. If Olesm was right, he might well be able to form a network of his own between [Tacticians]. Lyonette had—grudgingly—been taught history and she knew that this was how organizations like the Adventurer’s Guild, Runner’s Guild, and so on had been created.

She smiled at Olesm. She was happy for him. The Drake smiled back, and then Lyonette told them her big news of the day.

“I’ve got two new classes. [Carer] and [Tactician].”

Gaining new classes in any society was usually cause for congratulations and celebration, depending on the class. It wasn’t as dramatic as when people celebrated hitting their tenth or twentieth level—or the huge parties when people managed to reach Level 30—but Olesm and Selys still made approving sounds.

Olesm was curious about Lyon’s [Tactician] class—he screamed when she told him about playing on the magical chessboard and told her to play him instead, but Selys was more curious about Lyon’s other class.

“[Carer]? Is that really a class?”

Lyonette nodded, stroking Mrsha’s head as the Gnoll played with a wicker ball, rolling it across the floor and leaping after it. It was one of the tolls Selys had brought and Lyonette was glad that it was too big for Mrsha to swallow.

“It is in my ki—my country. On Terandria. People get it for taking care of children, or the elderly.”

It wasn’t exactly a common class, but Lyonette knew some of the older [Lords] and [Ladies] employed people with such classes to help take care of them, just as the [Governess] who had looked after her had been an advanced form of that class.

“Don’t Drakes and Gnolls have a class like that?”

Selys and Olesm shook their heads, looking bemused. Selys scratched at a patch of dry scales on her wrist as she spoke.

“If they’re that old, I suppose we’d entrust them to a relative’s care. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting a class from it. Probably because Drakes don’t see it as a job.”

“And Gnolls always have a role in their tribes, no matter how old they get.”

So, Lyonette’s class wasn’t that useful in Liscor, especially since she was banned from the city. But the girl still welcomed it since it would help her deal with Mrsha, and it seemed to reassure Selys that Lyonette could look after her.

After they’d exchanged gossip and Lyonette had learned that Erin was doing well and Ryoka had gone north for some reason, the three adults sat in the inn while Mrsha played. They were all adults, although Lyonette was younger than Selys and Olesm, and even the oldest among them—Selys—wasn’t more than a few years into her twenties.

The two Drakes argued and sat as Lyonette made more food, bustled around the inn, and chatted with them. That was all she did. Just talked. It was all Lyonette wanted. She talked and played chess with Olesm and wondered whether Pawn would come by today.

She hoped he would.

 

—-

 

Pawn had no bacon to wake him up, nor any honey. Instead, he had a meeting with Klbkch as soon as he had eaten the horrible mush in the Soldier’s mess hall. Given the choice, Pawn would have gladly eaten a vat of the grey-green stuff rather than talk to Klbkch.

But surprisingly, today Klbkch had nothing to criticize Pawn for. Rather, the Revalantor went over yesterday’s patrol with Pawn, highlighting the encounters with monsters and giving Pawn…advice.

“Do not engage the Corusdeer herds if at all possible. They are formidable combatants if roused, and the Soldiers will suffer heavy losses if they fight. Likewise, the Rock Crabs should be engaged with caution if it becomes necessary.”

Pawn sat in a chair before Klbkch’s desk, nodding nervously as the other Antinium spoke with him. It was strange.

“Ah, Revalantor Kblkch.”

The other Antinium paused and looked at him. Pawn realized Klbkch’s new form was slightly taller than the Worker’s form, as well as being slimmer.

“Yes?”

“Does this mean that you expect me to patrol around Liscor at a later date? Or are these simply things I should keep in mind in general?”

“Ah.”

Klbkch had very few papers on his desk, but he extracted one now and slid it across the desk to Pawn. The Worker stared down at it in confusion.

“I cannot read this, Revalantor Klbkch.”

Pawn could only read a few words of the local Drake script—enough to get around by, but not to decipher the words on the parchment.

“Of course. My mistake. I will take steps to ensure you and the other Individuals learn both Drake and Gnoll writing. It is not difficult—Erin picked up the word system very quickly as it apparently closely resembles the Human one.”

Klbkch took the parchment back and tapped it with one finger.

“This is a report to Watch Captain Zevara, detailing the monsters you encountered. I submitted it last night after your patrol returned.”

“And did the Watch Captain deem our patrol worthwhile?”

“She did. Although her praise is not the important issue—while on patrol I overheard several citizens expressing relief that our Soldiers were fighting monsters. Apparently they were observed chasing the Corusdeer herd off.”

Pawn hadn’t noticed any observers. He worried that this was an error.

“Oh. Should we have avoided detection?”

Klbkch shook his head.

“No. And in this case, the [Shepherd] was on a distant hilltop. But forcing the Corusdeer herd to seek grazing areas further from Liscor is considered a public boon, especially to travelers on the northern road who fear angering a herd. Moreover, the Shield Spiders you have slain are considered a public nuisance, and so the Soldiers generated goodwill from that as well. It also helps that people are seeing the Soldiers in a non-hostile environment.”

All of this made sense to Pawn in an oblique way. He had intended none of this of course, but so long as Klbkch seemed pleased by the results, Pawn could relax.

“In short, it appears that your patrol has generated goodwill among the citizenry already. That alone is worth continuing your activities. Take twenty Soldiers with you today and this time retrieve trophies from the monsters you slay. I will increase your stipend of funds as well.”

If Pawn had the ability to do so, his eyes would have widened. He bowed his head.

“Thank you, Revalantor Klbkch. I shall…I shall put the money to good use.”

“Do so. I will expect you to update me if the Soldiers show any positive effects from these patrols. If not…at least they will improve Antinium relations with the city, which is desirable. You may take a second patrol out at your discretion.”

That was all. Pawn stood up to go, but when he got to the door, Klbkch stopped him.

“Pawn.”

“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“…Why the paint?”

The Worker considered the question, trying to figure out how to explain it to the one Antinium in the Hive who didn’t understand. Well, one of two if you counted the Queen.

“It is a way of naming the Soldiers without using words, Revalantor Klbkch.”

Klbkch sat up in his chair at once and signaled Pawn to sit back down.

“This is very intriguing. Can all Soldiers be ‘named’ and made Individual?”

“I would not attempt to do so with the Soldiers not under my command. They may become Aberration.”

“I see. But you believe the Soldiers under your command have all become Individual? Really?”

“I cannot say. They cannot speak after all. But I would guess that they are…closer to Individual than they were before by use of the paint.”

“I see.”

Klbkch considered this for a while. Pawn sat at attention until the Revalantor nodded.

“Continue. That is all. We will monitor the Soldiers and your attempts with them before expanding to a larger group. If you notice them leveling or using Skills—”

“I shall report it at once.”

“Good. You are dismissed.”

Pawn left Klbkch’s quarters, feeling elated and relieved at once, which naturally caused giddiness as well. For once he’d done something right! Not just right—something right.

He’d given the Soldiers identity. Pawn went to requisition the coin Klbkch had promised him. The Antinium had a room devoted specifically for funds. Pawn saw a few other Workers withdrawing exact amounts and recording the number on a piece of parchment—some had to pay for supplies or perform other exchanges with the citizens of Liscor.

Carefully, Pawn collected gold, silver, and bronze coins from the carefully organized stacks of coin. He stared at the gold coins, and then wondered idly what would happen if he took more. There were thousands, tens of thousands of gold coins in the Hive, the product of over ten years of hard work and little spending. And this was only one of the treasury rooms.

But who cared? The Antinium didn’t post guards on the room because there was no need for them to steal, and no [Thief] would ever make it this far into the hive. Then again, if other Antinium became Individual like Pawn, who knew?

That was a troubling thought. Pawn took no more gold than he was allotted. He carefully walked up towards the entrance of the Hive. It was still early yet; he didn’t’ want to patrol before he ran a few errands. After all, he could only take twenty Soldiers out of the Hive with him at a time. What about the rest, forced to wait and guard in the tunnels? That had to be boring, so Pawn decided to get them something to make the wait easier.

 

—-

 

“You want what?”

Krshia blinked at Pawn. This time her stall was deserted, and Pawn saw that the other customers shopping this early were going to the more prosperous [Shopkeepers]. Again he felt bad, but reassured himself because of the size of the order he was placing.

“Cheese. I would like enough to feed roughly two hundred and forty individuals. Enough for a small meal, at least.”

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] just stared at Pawn, jaw hanging open. Pawn wondered if he’d made a mistake. Was eating too much cheese a faux paws in Gnollish society?

Yes, cheese was what Pawn wanted. It was tasty and edible and it would go down well with the Soldiers, he felt. That was the only thing he could think of. Meat was too expensive and it spoiled quickly, and besides, it was hard to acquire in the winter. But cheese? Cheese was more plentiful.

And it tasted good.

Pawn stared anxiously at Krshia as the Gnoll struggled with shock.

“If there is an issue in delivery, I can arrange for direct pickups with Workers. And if there is a shortage…”

“No, no.”

Krshia smiled at Pawn, baring her teeth in a wide grin.

“I am simply surprised, yes? Even when my shop was booming, such orders were rare things. I thank you, Worker Pawn, for giving me such business.”

“You are the shopkeeper that Erin trusts. So I trust you.”

That was all it was to Pawn. There could be nothing simpler, nothing easier to understand. But Krshia lowered her head to him as if it meant something truly important.

“Hrr. I am grateful for that. Truly.”

Her shop. Every time Pawn saw it, he remembered what it had been. This time he decided to ask about it, since Krshia didn’t seem to have any customers waiting.

“How has your business been doing lately, Miss Krshia?”

She bared her teeth again, but this time not in a friendly way.

“You can see for yourself, can you not? Rebuilding what was lost is difficult, no? I will survive the winter, but it will be a year or more before I am able to open this shop with pride.”

That hurt too. It was an odd, uncomfortable feeling, hurting for people who were not Pawn himself. He hadn’t known it could happen before he’d met Erin. But this too was part of being alive.

“Is it truly so bad?”

Krshia shrugged, looking tired.

“Truly? It is not the worst. I will not starve and the others, the other Gnolls and even some Drakes have supported me. But it is bad to feel what is lost and know you have fallen, no? Because of one moment. Because of a thief.”

That last word was bitter, and Pawn immediately thought of Lyonette, laughing and serving them all with respect and pride. It was different from the Lyon that Krshia knew.

“I met the Human Lyonette yesterday. In Erin’s absence she has taken over the inn.”

Pawn didn’t know why he was telling Krshia this, especially because the Gnoll stiffened at Lyon’s name. But he felt compelled to, as if sharing the good Lyonette had done would offset some of the bad.

“She has acquired more bees and honey. She served me and a number of Soldiers the food. It was very tasty.”

“Is that so? Good for her. I have not had honey myself for many, many moons, yes? It is a valuable thing even when it is not so very cold.”

Krshia’s voice was hard, and he could see she was upset. Pawn thought. He thought quickly about how he could make things better for her, if only in his small way. He thought about Lyon and regret and honey. Then he had an idea.

“I will obtain your cheeses for you, within a few hours, yes? But first we must talk about prices and which cheeses you would like—where are you going?”

Pawn took a few steps away from Krshia’s store. She looked alarmed, but he reassured her.

“I am not reconsidering our deal, but I have a pressing matter to attend to. I shall return within the hour. Please excuse me.”

He could feel the Gnoll’s eyes on his back as he hurried off. Pawn left the city and walked swiftly up a hill to an inn. There he opened the door and talked.

 

—-

 

“Oh! Pawn! It’s so good to see you! Come in, would you like something to eat? Not staying?”

“Other Soldiers? Later today? Well of—of course! I’ve still got a lot of bees and here, try this honey water. I can get Olesm to buy more meat and make another soup.”

“Please, Olesm? Please? And I need butter and vegetables—I have a list here. Oh, and let me add…”

“Krshia? You’d like to…well of course. I—will you tell her that I—”

“…Thank you. But wait! Before you go, can I offer you this?”

“What do you mean, it looks fattening!?”

 

—-

 

Less than an hour later—less than half an hour later, really, Pawn walked back down the street towards Krshia’s stall. She stared at him. She stared at him, but especially at the huge jar of honey he held with all four hands, walking carefully so as not to drop it.

Other pedestrians stared at the Worker as well. The jar of golden liquid tended to attract stares, Pawn had noticed.

“I have brought you honey. It is yours to keep and use as you please.”

That was what Pawn said as he placed the jar on Krshia’s counter. The Gnoll just stared at him.

“How?”

“I talked with Lyonette. She agreed to give you this jar of honey.”

It was a simple thing. Most things in life were, but Pawn had observed that the way people reacted to simple things was—complex.

Such as now. At the mention of Lyonette’s name, Krshia began to look angry.

“Why did she give this honey to you? Because you paid? Or because it is meant to be an apology?”

“She certainly feels remorse. I believe her acceding to my request was done out of guilt and an interest in helping settle the debt between you two.”

Pawn replied calmly. He watched with interest as Krshia’s ears slowly flattened on her head.

“And what does she call this? Repayment? It is hardly worth my stall, no?”

Some people would have hesitated to tell an angry Gnoll anything. But Pawn only spoke the truth, so his tone was level as he immediately replied.

“I think it is something, rather than nothing. An apology—the beginning of one, at least.”

That made the Gnoll pause. Pawn waited, and then spoke carefully.

“Lyonette has one message she would like to pass on to you with the honey.”

“Yes?”

“‘I am very sorry.’”

That was all. But it changed things. Simple things, simple words, always did. That was what Pawn had told Lyonette, and why the apology she had given him was this. And what happened was that Krshia stopped growing angrier. She was still angry, but she let Pawn open the jar.

“Would you like to try some? It is sweet, and I am told there may be grubs within the honeycomb.”

The Gnoll sniffed at the honey, and then dipped a finger into the thick liquid. It came out glistening, and Pawn stared at the honey in envy. He liked honey. Maybe he should have gotten some to go with the cheese. He’d go back to ask Lyonette about it later. But this jar was Krshia’s.

“Hmf.”

She licked the honey off of her finger. Slowly, Krshia’s tail began to wag, although her face didn’t change.

“This is good. Sweet. Sweeter than honey from small bees, yes?”

“Mm. I believe so.”

The Gnoll nodded. She stared at Pawn.

“You are an odd Worker, Pawn of the Antinium. But…yes, I believe you and Klbkch are good for this city.”

“Thank you.”

Pawn nodded to Krshia. He felt happy for her words because she clearly meant them. Krshia nodded and smiled. When he left, it was with all the cheese in the marketplace and locations for Workers to pick up more. And Krshia was selling honey in the form of hand-sized jars. There was already a queue.

 

—-

 

Lyonette felt good after Pawn had left. She felt better when he came back with his Soldiers. She cooked and served food again, and that night when she was cleaning up, she couldn’t stop humming.

The jars she and Erin used were truly big. They were taller than her knees and very wide—Erin had paid in gold for them since they were made by expert [Glassblowers]. At the moment she had two jars of honey, one half-empty and one and a quarter jars of  dead bees. Even with the Soldiers’ appetite, Lyonette had still a lot left.

Well, she wouldn’t if she was actually feeding the Soldiers a full meal. Then she would have had to give them six or seven bees to fill them up, but two or three for a lunchtime snack was all Pawn had asked for.

And the honey? The honey had brought in more than a few guests—all Drakes—who’d come to drink a few glasses of honeyed water and fill their jars with the sweet honey and honeycomb. It wasn’t exactly filling tables at the inn, but it was more money.

And when Lyonette had sat down with Mrsha to eat a proper meal of shepherd’s pie—courtesy of Selys who taught Lyonette how to make it—they had one more unexpected guest.

Klbkch.

He came into the inn while the two were eating. Lyonette wanted to find him a table, but the Antinium declined.

“I shall not be here long. Rather, I would like to make a purchase.”

“Of the bees?”

Klbkch nodded. He pointed to one of the jars Lyonette kept against the kitchen wall.

“How much…for the entire jar?”

“The entire jar?”

Klbkch nodded, looking at Lyonette’s ecstatic and panicked expression.

“I believe my Queen will enjoy the bees. Will you sell them to me directly?”

That was actually something of a hard question for Lyonette. Should she sell the bees? If she did, she might not have enough for Pawn tomorrow, and he was bringing more Soldiers then as well.

But a whole jar? All of Lyonette’s instincts told her to say yes. After all she could always get more bees, even if she was afraid of taking too much honey from the Hive. She had more flowers—hopefully she could use less this time—and she had to do it sooner or later.

“Of course I’ll sell you—the entire jar, you said?”

“Yes. Will that be an issue?”

“No, no! But the bees—they’re raw. Would you like me to fry them up first? They taste really good when they’re drizzled in honey. Apparently.”

“Hm. We have a [Cook], but perhaps it will be instructive to show him how it is done. By all means, please prepare a third of the jar. I will partake of a few as well to ascertain quality.”

In the end, Lyonette finished eating with Mrsha and then went into the kitchen to cook while the Gnoll played hide and seek with Klbkch. Although that really just involved Klbkch pointing at her while the Gnoll roamed around the inn, trying to be stealthy.

Cut, fry, drizzle. Lyonette worked tirelessly to make the best bees possible, conscious of who would be eating them. The Queen. And also, Klbkch, whom Pawn told Lyon was actually very important in the Hive. Klbkch ate five while he was waiting.

“Thank you. These bees are quite delicious. I may return at a later date if you have more stored away.”

“I will. Thank you for buying them! Have a good night!”

That was how Lyonette spent the rest of her day. She went to bed exhausted, but remembered to put the bee larvae very close to the dying fire as she did. Pawn didn’t want it, and she’d neglected to offer one to Klbkch. It kept slipping her mind. And besides—Lyonette stared at the larvae, wriggling blind in the bowl.

…She might be getting attached to it.

That night, she leveled up in all three of her new classes again, although she got no new Skills. That would have been enough though, but Lyonette heard a new announcement after the list of level ups.

 

[Beast Tamer Class Obtained!]

[Beast Tamer Level 1!]

[Skill – Healthy Rearing obtained!]

 

—-

 

[Beast Tamer]? Her?

Lyonette couldn’t believe it. But when she woke up, she knew it had happened again.

A new class! Why?

Because she’d taken care of the bee? Because she’d made sure it was warm and fed? Because she’d done all that? Was that all it took?

She couldn’t be a [Beast Tamer]. Of all the classes, Lyonette felt least confident in that one. What purpose would it serve her? Was she going to raise a bee? As a pet? It was a useless class. Well, the [Tactician] class was also useless to her, strictly speaking.

And yet—Lyonette wanted the class. She wanted the [Tactician] class too. And the [Barmaid] class she’d leveled up in! She wanted to level! No matter what class, no matter how few levels!

She wanted them. And from what Lyonettte knew of classes, that was probably why she’d gotten them. Because while other people had no desire to devote their lives to raising animals or monsters and so didn’t get the class even if they owned pets, Lyonette was different.

She had been starved of classes, not leveled while growing up. And now that she was free, truly free—

She’d take all the classes. No matter how damning it might be to her one ‘true’ class. Even it it meant she’d never reach a high level. She never levelled in it anyways.

With that in mind, Lyonette added a new routine to her day. After she watered Erin’s flowers and stoked the fire and before she went to fetch more water, she checked on the bee. It wriggled in the royal jelly and she saw it was a bit larger again. Lyonette wondered whether it would actually grow up—this was no hive. But she could always get more royal jelly and she did have a Skill to help her, after all.

“I guess you’re going to need a name.”

So saying, Lyonette touched the bee gently. It squirmed and it was wet and slimy. Gross, in short. But it was alive, and it struggled to stay alive.

Just like her.

One last thing happened that morning. When Lyonette was trudging back to her inn, she saw a Gnoll pulling a sled up the hill. She froze in fear, but the Gnoll’s sled was loaded with goods.

Food. Lyonette saw meats, vegetables, and all the things she’d asked Olesm to bring, neatly bundled up on the sled. The Gnoll set it down in the snow outside the inn. She—the Gnoll was a she now that Lyonette was closer—turned and saw Lyon with the buckets in hand.

“Delivery.”

That was all she said. She must have been one of the Street Runners the shops hired. But Olesm had told Lyon that no one would deliver to the inn, to her. What had changed?

The Gnoll began walking down the hill. With a start, Lyonette realized she was going.

“Oh. T-thank you so…”

The Gnoll [Runner] made no reply. She just growled something and stomped back down the hill, dragging the sled behind her.

Lyon watched her go. Then she opened the door and had Mrsha help her drag everything inside. She didn’t say much, but she was smiling. And crying.

 

—-

 

“They are coming.”

That was all Klbkch said to Bird, Pawn, Belgrade, Garry, and Anand when he gathered them together for the first time in his small quarters. It was early morning, just after dawn, in fact. The Workers had been roused—in Pawn’s case from his sleep by the mental order—and told to come here.

Now Klbkch paced back and forth in front of them, clearly agitated. The other Workers said nothing, but they each felt slightly alarmed. None of them had ever seen the Revalantor like this.

“Pardon, Revalantor Klbkch, but who is coming?”

That came from Garry. Pawn hadn’t seen Garry in…so long! Klbkch had even ordered Garry to attend. That was unusual because Garry was specialized now in the [Cook] class—he played no part in commanding Soldiers and indeed, he stayed far away from any area of the Hive where monsters might attack.

“The other Hives. They have sent a delegation, and they will arrive sometime today.”

That was all Klbkch said, but it shocked all the other Workers to their core.

Another Hive? They knew—all the Workers and Soldiers knew in an oblique way that other Hives existed. But they had never seen or even heard of the other Hives until today. Liscor was far from their location, and the Antinium did not move between cities like other races.

“Why are they coming?”

“To see you. To greet my Queen and to see you. And appraise what value you have as Individuals.”

Klbkch never gave them detailed explanations. Pawn knew that was because he and the other Workers weren’t that important, but he wished the Antinium would trust them with more. He remembered Klbkch’s promise. If he made something out of the Soldiers, he would be told more.

“What should we do? What will the other Antinium ask of us?”

That came from Belgrade. He was probably the most worried, among the Workers, Pawn felt. Bird was usually calm, Garry was hard to ruffle, and Anand looked like he was actually enjoying this new development.

“Do not…worry.”

Klbkch said it as if he had to remember they could be worried.

“All you have to do is demonstrate your Skills. Questions will be asked—answer them to the best of your ability. It will not be difficult.”

He paused, looking the Workers over. Klbkch seemed to think, and then tapped the pommel of one of his swords slowly as he spoke.

“Some of the other Antinium may be…different. Unsettling. Odd, even. They are not Aberrations, rather they are created from a different template than we are. And the other Queens do not think as mine—our does. Remember that.”

Pawn worried. What did that mean? Did they have Individuals of their own? But surely Klbkch would have mentioned that. He went on, looking at each of the Workers in turn as he gave them orders.

“Belgrade, Anand, and Bird will showcase their talents. Bird’s archery skills have much merit, as do Belgrade and Anand. They have the most value as [Tacticians] and as leaders of Soldiers. Garry will prepare meals to demonstrate his talents. Pawn—”

He glanced at the Worker. Pawn stood straight, holding his breathe, apprehensive.

“You will answer any questions directed to you if the others realize you are Individual as well. Do not volunteer information about your [Acolyte] class unless I address it specifically. That goes for all of you. Make no mention of that class, and not of Pawn either unless it is clear the others know about you.”

It felt like someone—Ryoka perhaps—had kicked Pawn in the stomach. He stood still, wrestling with his emotions.

Of course. He wasn’t that useful and his Skills still weren’t quantifiable. And from what Klbkch had said, his class pertained to Gods and Gods—

It still hurt. Even as Klbkch dismissed them and the Workers walked away to speak in an empty corridor in privacy, Pawn felt it hurting in his chest.

He wanted to be noticed. He wanted to be useful. But here—Pawn forced himself to listen to the conversation. It was the first time in a while he and the other Workers could talk, so they were all asking Garry what he had been doing in his new job.

The Worker nodded, folding his four hands together. He seemed slightly bigger than Pawn last remembered him—was he gaining weight? He still wore a slightly stained apron around his front, a piece of apparel that intrigued the other Workers greatly.

“I have been preparing meals for the Queen. I take monster parts and other edible foodstuffs and create food for her rather than the…paste…we are usually fed.”

The other Workers exchanged a glance, and then nodded their heads.

“Ah.”

“I see.”

“This intrigues me.”

“Will you cook us such food?”

Garry nodded.

“If I am allowed. I believe Revalantor Klbkch wishes for me to cook for other members of the Hive, including himself. However, the Queen desires me to prepare food for her alone. I gather this is a source of contention between the two.”

That was fascinating. But Garry didn’t have details, so the other Workers quickly summarized what they had been doing. Belgrade and Anand had helped take down a Crypt Worm recently—Bird roamed the landscape, hunting animals with a bow and arrow. His life seemed exciting to Pawn, but the other Workers claimed he was actually the one with the most interest.

“I do not interact with any other species, Pawn. You are fortunate to talk with a Human on a daily basis.”

Anand and Belgrade nodded as Bird said this. Pawn couldn’t help staring at the feather hanging from a simple cord around Bird’s neck. It was a very red feather, and beautiful, too.

“I am envious. I have not been allowed to go to the surface.”

“Indeed. My duties keep me below at all times.”

“Does this Lyonette serve cooked birds?”

Pawn saw the keen interest in the other Worker’s eyes. He realized with a pang that they had never experienced what he had, and resolved to petition Klbkch to let them join him on a patrol. In the meantime, he could certainly bring some of what was above down below. He only regretted that the Soldiers had eaten all the cheese. If only he had his own quarters so he could store objects in them!

“The bees Lyon makes are very tasty. I shall bring you some, next time I go.”

“I believe Klbkch bought some for the Queen. I sampled one—the others have already been eaten. I shall attempt to replicate such treats for the rest of you and our guests.”

Just the thought of Garry’s cooking filled Pawn with hunger. He clicked his mandibles together  sadly though, reflecting on his role.

“I regret that I cannot bring any value to the Hive. And that you must lie about my abilities.”

To Pawn’s surprise, Garry shook his head. He placed one of his hands on Pawn’s shoulders.

“Do not worry. You have value. In fact, it is I who envy you. You may not be of apparent worth to these Antinium who come, but you are special, even among us. One day, I believe your talents will surpass us all.”

Belgrade, Anand, and Bird all nodded.

“Agreed.”

“Yes.”

“I will hunt birds to showcase my abilities.”

The other Workers looked at him. Bird shrugged.

“I like birds.”

 

—-

 

They were coming. At last, after all this time…the other Hives were coming. They were taking notice. Klbkch had to sit down after the other Workers had left. He tried to contain his excitement, but his hands shook slightly.

They were coming. And not just any lowly Workers or Soldiers, no. Klbkch knew this group had to include Prognugators, valuable members of each Hive, sent to observe and be their Queen’s eyes. They would observe him and he would see…see how much each Hive had changed since he had last travelled south.

All of that would have been dramatic enough, but Klbkch had participated in and suffered such gatherings before. The other Hives always sent spectators to witness another Hive’s achievement. But this time…

Klbkch tried to modulate his breathing. It was no good. His hand trembled as it touched his swords.

He had heard the report from the Listeners. They had heard the other Antinium approaching of course, and monitored them closely. But it was only this close to the city that some details had emerged, details which had shaken Klbkch down to his core.

It was about one of the Antinium who travelled with the others, one who stood out.. Klbkch looked at the report. He had written it down, circled the information after speaking with the Listeners. To be sure.

“An Antinium who casts magic?”

That was what the Listeners had heard. Explosions, thunderous sounds coming from her location. Spells, in short, unless the other Hives had managed to create a truly incredible variant in the few years since Klbkch had checked on them.

It had to be magic. And there was only one Antinium in the world who could cast spells. At least, only one Antinium among the living.

Klbkch sat in his chair. He held his silvery swords, stared blankly at a dirt wall. Only one Antinium, now. One that he had known since…since the day he had been created. So long ago.

The former Prognugator of the hive, the Revalantor named Klbkch, and the being who had once been one of the Centenium sat in the wooden chair. He stared back into the past.

And remembered.

 

—-

 

They came into the city as the sun was shining overhead. Not Antinium—a group of Drakes. They walked through the southern gates, talking with the guard, hoods covering any distinctive details like armor. Perhaps they would have entered quietly, but they were there to witness the monster attack.

It came out of the dungeon. The uncovered entrance to this new set of ruins was placed east of the city, at a good distance but close enough that the City Watch had posted a sizeable guard on the entrance.

Now this line of defense was under attack. The Drakes saw a band of Human adventurers fleeing the ruins, and behind them, shouts and screaming. Gnolls and Drakes, fought desperately, the [Mage] among them shooting arrows of light into an oncoming crowd of—

“Children?”

That was what one of the Drakes in the group, a female adjunct whispered in horror. But these were no children who came pouring out of the hole in the ground, screaming, teeth bared.

“Scalelings.”

Wall Lord Ilvriss spat the words as Zel saw the line of guardsmen brace for impact. Arrows took down the horrible apparitions—shaped like children of Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans to lower their victim’s defenses—running at the [Guardsmen]. They normally preyed on people at night, he knew, where their monstrous details—their bright yellow, pupil less eyes and unnaturally long limbs for children were harder to pick out.

But the team of adventurers wearing poor-quality armor had upset their nest, and so it fell to the [Guardsmen] to stop them from attacking the adventurers and travelers on the road. They shouted as they hit the first wave, the small Scalelings—or Children as they were known in Human lands—pushing back the [Guardsmen] with terrible strength and ferocity.

“They’re going to be overwhelmed.”

Ilvriss said this calmly, a hand on his sword as the guards at the gate of Liscor sounded the alarm. There were [Archers] on the walls of course, but the battle was too thick for all but the best to shoot into.

“Should we cut a path for them to retreat to the walls, do you think, Shivertail?”

“No. Allow me.”

So saying, Zel pointed at the [Guardsmen]. He spoke two words.

“[Shield Wall].”

The [Guardsmen] had been faltering, falling back. But as Zel said the words, their actions changed. They stood taller, and when the snarling Scalelings rammed into them, it was the monsters who fell back. Suddenly, each Drake and Gnoll was rooted in place and they forced the horrific creatures back one step at a time.

“Reinforcements.”

Ilvriss commented as more [Guardsmen]—[Guardspeople], really—rushed out the gate. For how quickly the engagement had started, their response was quite fast.

“And there’s the local [Tactician] I think. We can move on.”

“Mm. Yes.”

Zel nodded, seeing the battle was contained. He, Ilvriss, and the group the Wall Lord had brought with him walked further into the city.

“I’m not staying at the same inn as you, Shivertail.  You can find whatever run down hovel you want, but I’ll be staying at the Tailless Thief. It’s the best inn in the city and I know the owner.”

“Fine by me.”

Zel didn’t rise to the bait. He looked around the city, noting all the Human adventurers who were gathered at the gates, watching the fighting.

“Lots of adventurers around. You might not find a room.”

Ilvriss just scowled at him.

“The innkeeper will make room. I am a Lord of the Wall.”

“Good for you.”

Zel would be glad enough to leave Ilvriss to his own devices—at least for a day. His feet hurt. He walked on through the city. Time enough to find an inn for himself later. Right now he had to announce himself to the Council with Ilvriss. The wretched Drake demanded such formailities.

So Zel Shivertail entered Liscor. And his arrival was unnoticed by many pedestrians, but the [Guardsmen] certainly noticed and word instantly spread to the Watch Captain of the incident. And one other person in the city noticed as well.

Selys looked up from her desk in the Adventurer’s Guild, cutting off her conversation with a wet and unhappy Gnoll. She suddenly felt lighter, and more refreshed, as if someone had given her a hot mug of tea. She made a fist with one claw, and then looked out the window with a smile. Only one person always included her in his radius of command.

“Oh. Uncle Zel’s visiting the city!”

 

—-

 

Klbkch met the other Antinium outside of the city, in secret. He came alone, and nodded his head respectfully as the other Antinium stood, letting snow fall off of their bodies to greet him.

They were a little less than twenty in all. Klbkch noted each one as they introduced themselves. Four Hives had come. Four Hives had sent their best. The absence of the fifth troubled him, but—

“Prognugator Klbkch. I greet you as a fellow Prognugator. I am Tersk of the Armored Antinium.”

The first to make a move was a big Antinium with a form reminiscent of a Soldier. But he had only two arms instead of four, and his hands were proper ones. He was also wearing armor. Klbkch stared at the steel plate armor that covered his entire body and noted the specially-tailored metal plates that had been carefully crafted into a helmet. He nodded to the armored giant.

“I greet you Tersk. Although I am no longer a Prognugator but a Revalantor I will perform the duties of both while you are here. I see you have brought others of your hive.”

“Yes.”

The Prognugator said it simply. He indicated three other Antinium, all as tall as he was, all wearing armor. Klbkch noted that all of the Armored Antinium had weapons. A shield and mace in Tersk’s case—swords and a spear for the others.

“Allow me to extend my apologies for my error in your position.”

“The error is mine. I did not mention this detail to begin with.”

Klbkch and Tersk lowered their heads. That done, the Prognugator stepped back and another one came forwards.

“Revalantor Klbkch. I am Revalantor Pivr. I observe that your form has changed from the standard template assigned to this Hive. Has your Queen been creating variations of the Worker and Soldier form without authorization?”

This came from an Antinium smaller than Tersk, but no less striking. Jade-colored wings fanned outwards from the Antinium, and Klbkch saw not two but four sets of eyes on his head. Even his body was hunched, all the better for his two arms to use the twin daggers at his side. He also had poisonous spit Klbkch knew—the odor was unmistakable on the Antinium’s breath.

And he annoyed Klbkch. The Revalantor stared Pivr in the eyes, and spoke calmly.

“My form is unique to me, as befitting my status. I greet you, Pivr. Who have you brought to my Hive?”

Pivr turned, fanning his twin sets of wings out to show them off, Klbkch was sure.

“Six of my Queen’s warriors—five regular warriors and a heavy-combat variant have flown here to see what your Hive has wrought. We are the Flying Antinium. Witness us.”

Klbkch did see, and part of him was impressed. Five of the warriors did look like Pivr, but the last was a larger variant. Thick carapace plates obscured his body, giving him more the appearance of a walking tank. But he had wings as well, huge ones, and even a horn like a beetle with sharp prongs.

Yes, part of Klbkch was impressed. The other part was not. But he kept his words within and simply nodded to Pivr.

“I greet you.”

The other Revalantor hesitated, opening his mandibles as if he wanted to say something. But then Klbkch was walking forwards towards the last unique Antinium in the group. He felt like he was in a dream, but when he stopped in front of the slim, short Antinium with blue carapace who held a staff in one of her two hands, she was real.

So very real.

“Xrn.”

It was all Klbkch could say. The other Antinium—no Worker, no Soldier, but graceful and unique, her body different from any other—opened her mandibles to smile at him. Her eyes shone with a thousand colors, flickering with the mystery of magic. And her voice was soft, deep, commanding.

“Klbkch. It has been too long.”

“Yes. Far too long.”

It was all Klbkch could say, as if he had been transformed into one of the birds that spoke, a parrot. Xrn smiled again. Klbkch didn’t know what to say.

“How—how did you come here? I would have never thought the Grand Queen would allow…”

“I had to persuade her of course. But I thought it worthwhile to see you.”

Xrn said it simply. She nodded to the Soldiers and Workers behind her, and only now did Klbkch realize he was neglecting his duties.

“Pardon me. I greet you, Xrn, Prognugator of the Grand Hive. Who are the Antinium who come with you?”

“Two Hives. Mine, and that of the Quiet Antinium.”

She pointed, and Klbkch saw. There were two groups standing behind Xrn, eight Antinium in total. Two were still as shadows, hunched, almost invisible even in the snow. Their carapaces had changed to become whiter, more translucent, and their arms were more like scything blades. Their mandibles were likewise made to tear out an opponent’s throat and they were perhaps the slimmest of all Antinium save for Xrn.

“The assassin breed. Have they no leader?”

“Their Queen declined to send one. And with me—six of the Grand Queen’s soldiers, my escort.”

These Antinium were by far the most conventional, but even then…Klbkch saw two were classic Soldiers, but with carapaces so heavily reinforced that they stood two feet taller than a regular Soldier, to carry all the weight. They were taller even than the Armored Antinium, while the other four—

Klbkch inhaled sharply. Xrn nodded.

“They are like me.”

Indeed, the four Antinium closely resembled Klbkch’s current form. They were slim and had two hands, and at their sides they had blades. But not silver metal like his, but rather blades made of a dark substance, the same as those the scythes of the Silent Antinium were made of. These Antinium were also different from the rest in that they studied Klbkch with attentiveness. Intelligence.

“Natural blades. These are not Prognugators but Custodium—think of them as partial Prognugators.”

“Made in the same way?”

Xrn’s mandibles opened, and her tone was mocking.

“Yes. There are forty in the Hive.”

The number left Klbkch speechless. The sheer extravagance and waste it took to create—he would have asked Xrn more, but then Pivr interrupted.

“Revalantor Klbkch, are the introductions done? If so, I have a pressing announcement to inform you of.”

Klbkch and Xrn stared at him. They were all Prognugators and Revalantor, true, including  Tersk, but Xrn and Klbkch were different. Tersk clearly knew that and respectfully stayed quiet, but Pivr was clearly different.

Xrn was the first to speak. Her tone was sharp.

“I am talking with Klbkch. You will be silent, Pivr.”

“You have been given command of our group, yes. But my Queen—”

“Shut up.”

Xrn turned back to Klbkch and only now did he remember the…personality of his old companion. He had forgotten it, living for so long in his quiet Hive.

“We have much to discuss. After we greet your Queen, you and I must have time to talk.”

“You are not expected to return soon?”

“No. In fact, I told my Queen I would be a long time in returning.”

“You told the Grand Queen that?”

“Yes.”

That was Xrn. Klbkch shifted his glance to the Antinium and once again noted the absence of the fifth Hive.

“Wrymvr did not come? And his Queen sent no one?”

Xrn shrugged.

“You know him.”

“I do. I should not be surprised. In truth, I did not expect your presence either.”

“Yes, well—”

“I have an announcement.”

This time Klbkch had to restrain himself from stabbing Pivr. But the Revalantor had strode into the center of the Antinium. He spoke loudly, without glancing at Xrn whose look was…murderous.

“My instructions were to obey Prognugator Xrn until we reached the city of Liscor. However, here I and the Flying Antinium will carry out different orders. We will go into the city via the main gates.”

What?

Klbkch couldn’t believe his ears. Pivr nodded at him calmly.

“I was not informed of this.”

Xrn’s voice was foreboding, but Pivr didn’t seem intimidated.

“Your input was not required. My Queen has given her orders, and they will be obeyed.”

“You cannot enter the city. I forbid it.”

Klbkch had no idea how the [Guardsmen] would react upon seeing these Antinium. They would likely think the Second Antinium Wars were upon them again. Even in the best case—

But Pivr could not be argued with.

“These are my Queen’s orders. You, Xrn, have no authority over this. We will go into the city. We will not fight even if provoked, but we will maintain a show of force. You are allowed to follow us if you so desire. Indeed, Revalantor Klbkch’s presence would greatly be appreciated.”

With that, he and the other six Antinium began to march through the snow. They accelerated—then their wings opened and they flew.

Not into the air, but across the ground, skipping across the ground. It wasn’t true flight—but it was too fast to catch up to on foot. Klbkch didn’t waste time talking to Xrn. She couldn’t stop them. If she cast a spell the Flying Antinium would fight it, and if she bound them they would just wait to be free. They would fulfill their orders or die.

The Antinium flew towards the city, and soon Klbkch heard the shouting from the walls. He only prayed there wouldn’t be any fighting. So long as the [Guardsmen] kept their cool they would realize these were Antinium. And the citizens of Liscor had grown used to the Antinium. It could be okay. It might be okay.

Then he saw the two Drakes standing in the middle of the street. Pivr had stopped with his six Antinium, uncertain. Drakes and Gnolls and Humans were fleeing him, but these two Drakes—and the group of warriors standing behind them were not.

Klbkch could sense they were no ordinary warriors. Their presence alone had warned Pivr not to approach carelessly. Klbkch looked at them, about to call out, defuse whatever misunderstanding that might have occurred. And then he recognized one of them.

 

—-

 

Zel Shivertail had been prepared for the Antinium. He knew they were in the city so he had been prepared to grit his teeth if he saw one on the street. But the flying Antinium? They’d come out of nowhere, speeding down the street. Was it an attack? His pulse had been racing and he had had to hold Ilvris back, prevent him from unsheathing his sword and attacking.

But now another Antinium had come, one armed with two swords. Zel saw them, and his heart stopped in his chest.

Ilvriss froze by his side. His voice was the only sound in the street, the only sound Zel could hear over the hammering in his chest.

“Those swords. It can’t be—”

Another Antinium raced into the city, and behind her, more Antinium. Armored warriors—huge giants! The Drakes warriors behind Ilvriss grabbed at their weapons.

“Those are specialist Antinium! From the Hives in the south!”

“An attack!?”

“Guard the Wall Lord!”

“Hold—hold!”

Zel ground the words out, but he felt like he’d been stabbed. Illvriss had gone pale at the sight of the other Antinium who stood by the one with swords. His voice was a whisper now.

“Azure. The color of the sky.”

There was only one Antinium like that, Zel knew. But his eyes were still on the one with swords. There was only one Antinium like that one, as well.

“Klbkch the Slayer.”

His voice was thunder in his ears as he let go of Ilvriss. The Wall Lord had a death-grip on his sword as he stared at the Antinium holding the staff.

“The Small Queen. Xrn.”

 

—-

 

Across the street, Klbkch stood frozen. Memory surged around him at the sight of Zel Shivertail’s face. It had caught Xrn as well.

“Zel Shivertail. And a Lord of the Wall.”

The air had changed. Pivr glanced uncertainly at Klbkch and Xrn.

“Who are these Drakes?”

No one answered him. Klbkch’s hands were on his sword. He felt Xrn trembling next to him.

“We must not fight.”

He said it, but the words were distant in his head. He couldn’t retreat. Not here. Not now.

Someone took a step forwards. Was it him? The Drakes started to advance as well. Shivertail’s eyes were locked on Klbkch’s.

Memory flashed between the two.

 

—-

 

Zel Shivertail killed another Soldier, cutting apart his carapace with claws like razors. He turned, and saw the battlefield had disintegrated into chaos. Drakes and Antinium struggled everywhere, the Antinium fighting and killing anything moving.

Chaos. He turned and blocked a sword that came for his neck at the last moment. The Antinium who leapt backwards was slim, and covered in blood. Drake blood. He held his swords like a true blade master, watching Zel carefully.

“Zel Shivertail.”

“You must be Klbkch the Slayer.”

“Yes. I have come to kill you. If you die, the Antinium will triumph here.”

Zel pointed at the battlefield, where Antinium fought and died, killing mindlessly even as the Drakes organized and began to slaughter them.

“Is this how the Antinium do battle?”

“It is how we fight to survive, Drake. When we do battle, you will know the difference.”

Klbkch leapt forwards and then there were only his flashing blades. Zel snarled, slashing with his claws—

 

—-

 

“I’ll take the mage. You take the Slayer.”

“We are not…here to fight.”

Zel rasped the words out. His feet dragged themselves forwards though, and he couldn’t muster the effort to stop them. He and Ilvriss advanced down the street, ignoring the calls from the Drakes behind them to stop.

Ilvriss felt one of his guards grab at him and swung one fist. The Drake fell back, bleeding and the Lord of the Wall walked forwards as if in a trance. His sword was in his hand, and his eyes were on Xrn’s. They stared at each other, as they had done years ago on the battlefield.

 

—-

 

He stood with the [Mages] and [Strategists], coordinating the battle as the Drake and Human forces contained the Antinium with walls of steel and blasted them with magic.  Ilvriss stood patiently, knowing his chance for battle would not come. But then the earth exploded and he saw her standing amid the destruction.

The command tent burned as she drew a line of fire that burned the Human [Commander] to ash. Out of the billowing smoke, Soldiers charged into battle, fighting the unprepared [Mages] and support classes and their small retinue of guards.

“This battle is over. Flee, Drakes and Humans, or I will slay you all.”

That came from the Antinium who glowed with magic. She looked down at Ilvriss as he stood, shaking, blood running down his right leg, his long sword in hand.

“Name yourself! Who are you?”

He roared at her as he charged, cutting Soldiers down. The Antinium’s voice echoed as she stood on a rock, casting spells left and right, cutting down his allies, his friends.

“I am the last memory of my kind. Thunder which moves grass. I am a Queen without a Hive. Fire burning in the heart of ice. I am Xrn, and I will not die here.”

She raised her staff, and lightning split the sky. It broke the formations of Drakes, and a fireball fell among the [Mages] who hadn’t time to raise a shield spell. They burned, dying, and the Antinium with a staff raised hers high. The wind blew, and the Soldiers and Workers charged. Ilvriss fell back, fighting among the dying….

 

—-

 

He couldn’t stop. Zel walked onwards, and so did the Antinium. The streets were empty.

The air was screaming with tension.

He knew he should stop. They were at peace.

Peace? With the Antinium? Zel walked the battlefield and saw his foes only a few feet away. He could smell the dead around him, and feel blood running down his side. The air was hot. Hot? It was the middle of summer, and the Antinium—

Zel felt snow crunching under his feet. He knew he was in Liscor, knew the war was over. But the pounding pulse in his head wouldn’t die down. And the Antinium were right in front of him.

 

—-

 

Klbkch’s feet moved. His swords were in his hands.

“We must stop.”

Xrn said that, dreamily. But he could feel magic gathering around her. Klbkch said nothing.

He couldn’t stop.

“Fighting is prohibited.”

Klbkch’s head turned and Pivr quailed. He knew the other Antinium was right. But nothing could stop him. He was staring Zel Shivertail in the eye, and he knew it was time to finish things. The sword was cold in Klbkch’s hand. He took another step, another—

And then someone rushed in front of him, arms spread wide. Klbkch raised his sword to cut the person—the Antinium down—

“Pawn!”

The blade stopped. Pawn stood in front of Klbkch, arms spread wide, and twenty Soldiers stood at his back. Xrn had paused too, surprised by the other Antinium’s appearance.

“Revalantor Klbkch, I regret that we must bar your way.”

Klbkch opened his mandibles to protest, to tell Pawn to move before Zel Shivertail cut him down from behind—when he saw the shouting on the other end of the street.

“Guardsmen! Form a line!”

Watch Captain Zevara—Zevara was there, forming a living wall like Pawn had with Gnolls and Drakes. They blocked off Zel and the Wall Lord from advancing, facing grim, shields raised as if they expected a fight.

The Drake [General] was staring at Watch Captain Zevara as she shouted at them to back up. Klbkch heard another voice then as well, a familiar one.

“Hey, old man Zel! It’s me, Relc! How’s it going? And who’s this guy?”

A big Drake waved excitedly at the head of the tense group of [Guardsmen]. Relc was enough of a distraction by himself. Klbkch felt the madness—the memory holding him loosen. He turned.

“Xrn.”

“I know. Let’s get out of here.”

She turned. The Antinium—the Armored Antinium, Pivr and his band of idiots, and the silent assassins and Xrn’s honor guard ran through the streets. The City Watch and the Drake [General] let them go. And in a few moments…

There was peace.

For now.

 

—-

 

They had come close to war. Perhaps. Zel could only shudder at the thought as he walked out of Liscor’s gates. If they had fought—regardless of who had lived and died, what would have happened? Would it have been war right then? Would the Queen have done that?

If Ilvriss or he had died—Zel didn’t want to imagine it. His earholes still rang from Watch Captain Zevara’s shouting. It had been a miracle she’d gotten there in time.

He should have known better. Zel knew that. But he had seen Klbkch and memory—

He’d think on it later. It was late, after all the shouting and then the explanations and introductions had been done. Zel glanced at the sky and wanted nothing more than to find somewhere comfortable to sleep.

But all the inns were full, and he had no desire to stay under the same roof as Ilvriss. So Zel walked out of the city and towards a place he thought he remembered.

It was odd. The inn seemed closer than it should have been, and in the wrong place. But it was the only inn around, and so Zel knocked politely on the door and waited.

When it did open, he stared down in mild surprise at the girl who stared up at him with huge eyes. A young Gnoll cub appeared behind the girl and then darted away as Zel waited for her to speak.

“Um. Hello.”

“Good evening, Miss. Is the [Innkeeper] here by any chance?”

“Erin? No she’s…I’m sorry, please, come in!”

Zel entered, somewhat mystified. Erin? That was a female name, or so he thought. What had happened to the man? Had he retired?

Perhaps he’d gotten married and this was his daughter. Or just a [Barmaid]. Zel sat a table, smiling without showing his teeth as the girl brought him a drink.

“Here’s some water. Honey water, actually.”

Zel’s nonexistent eyebrows rose as he sipped at the sweet drink. It was quite nice, and pleasantly hot.

“So the [Innkeeper] is gone? Will she be back tonight, do you know?”

“No I—she’s been gone for a while now. I run the inn while she’s—away. My name is Lyon. Lyonette.”

Odder and odder. But Zel still needed a place to sleep.

“In that case, may I ask if your inn is full Miss Lyon? I’m looking for lodgings and all of the inns in the city are crowded.”

“A place to—?”

The girl’s eyes widened as if she was surprised he wanted to stay here. And judging from the way the inn was so empty at dinnertime, that was probably justified. But Zel liked the feel of the inn. It had glass windows, flowers, and a lovely fire.

“If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a room. I stayed here once before—I think it was here—a long time ago and I have fond memories of this place.”

“Oh. Well this inn was rebuilt…”

Zel blinked at Lyon. The girl blushed.

“I’m sorry. It’s a long story. But yes—we have plenty of rooms. If you’d like to stay here, I can offer you a very reasonable rate. But I’m afraid Erin—the [Innkeeper] is gone so I’m the only one who can serve you. I’ll do my best, but I’m not the best cook.”

“Well, as long as it’s edible I will be quite happy.”

Zel smiled reassuringly at Lyon, and she managed to smile back. He looked down as he felt a wet nose on his leg.

“And I see you’re not all by yourself. Who’s this?”

“Mrsha!”

The Human girl yelped and chased away the Gnoll. But she paused as Zel laughed, and smiled again.

“If you’re willing…then welcome. As I said, my name is Lyonette. This is Mrsha. Welcome…to the Wandering Inn.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.22 L

Sometimes it bothered him, the way others treated his kind. Pawn knew there was history behind the stares and frightened looks. And he understood that the Antinium looked…different, even from other species. But even so, it hurt a bit.

And Selys knew him! She was hardly a stranger to the Antinium. Was there really that much difference between Pawn and the Soldiers?

Standing in the inn, Pawn turned and looked up at the towering mass that was the Soldier standing nearest to him.

…Well, yes, actually. Despite Pawn’s alien appearance, he was still just a Worker, with hands and recognizable body parts. The Soldiers on the other hand looked like they were made only to kill, because they were.

Their hands were formless digits that were more suited to gouging their enemies and smashing skulls into the ground. Their carapaces were reinforced, made to act like armor. And their mandibles were quite a bit bigger, so as to give them another means of attacking.

They were frightening. But the Human girl who smiled at Pawn and the small, white Gnoll didn’t seem nearly as scared as Selys had been.

“I’ve got a ton of food for you! Just wait—I’ll cook up some right now!”

Lyonette was practically running around, trying to show Pawn her latest acquisition as Selys sat taking deep breaths and Mrsha ran about, sniffing at Soldiers and darting away when they stared at her. It was confusion, and Pawn wasn’t helping by trying to simultaneously apologize and explain.

“I am very sorry Miss Selys. I did not mean to cause alarm—”

Selys waved a claw at Pawn as she half-drank, half-choked on her glass of water. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the Soldiers.

“No—no I was—it wasn’t your—why are there Soldiers above ground? Ancestors, don’t tell me it’s war!?”

The Drake looked horrified. Pawn hastened to reassure her.

“Nothing of the kind. The Hive has merely sent out a patrol to…patrol the landscape. We will eliminate any monsters we encounter and attempt to improve the morale of the citizenry by our vigilance.”

“Improve? Our morale?”

Pawn nodded. That was the official line Klbkch had given him and Pawn thought it was a rather good one. Seeing Selys’ fish-eyed stare made him wonder how believable the explanation was, though.

“I see. I see. I’m uh, well, I’m glad for you. This is a promotion, isn’t it?”

“A promotion? Ah. Um. Yes, I believe it is.”

Pawn had never thought of his new job in those terms. But the idea seemed to be reassuring to Selys, so he went along with the idea. She stared at the Soldiers, still standing motionless in the inn, all waiting for Pawn’s next order.

“And they obey everything you do? Really?”

“That is their nature, sadly.”

Pawn wished it weren’t so. But the Soldiers really did seem to have little personality, or at least, the will to do what they wanted. Even less so than the Workers, to be honest.

A lot had happened since he’d visited the inn last night. After a rather…nerve-wracking conversation with Klbkch, Pawn had found his request to take Soldiers outside the Hive approved to his great surprise. He had also made a few attempts to inspire the Soldiers, to give them his perspective on life.

That hadn’t gone so well.

The first thing Pawn had given them was a chessboard. Even when he’d explained how it worked, the Soldiers had just stared at the pieces. When he’d asked one to play against him, the Soldier had begun moving the pieces, following the rules, but seemingly without any idea of how the game actually worked. Pawn had played five games and the Soldier hadn’t improved after the fifth game. In fact, he just moved the chess pieces forwards from left to right as Pawn slowly eliminated them from the board.

That was disheartening. But then Pawn had had the brilliant idea to give Soldiers names! Erin had done it for him. He’d sat with a Soldier—somewhat apprehensively as he knew what might occur—and given the Soldier a name.

Robert. But the newly named Soldier hadn’t even seemed to react to having a name. Pawn had noticed that happened when he and Klbkch had tested the Workers and some Soldiers as well. The Workers either became Aberration or Individual when given a name, but the Soldiers didn’t. They just acted like the name was, well…words.

It didn’t seem to matter to the Soldier that he had a name. Pawn had hoped it would spark something in him, some sense of ownership, but the Soldier had just obediently responded to the title just like he would if Pawn pointed at him and said, ‘you there’.

It was baffling to the Worker. How could the Soldiers not care about names? But then he’d realized—what use was a name if you couldn’t speak it yourself? The Soldiers had no voices, no speech. They couldn’t speak, and so what was a name for them? Just another word they would never say.

Pawn agonized. He’d given up in despair, realizing that he had made one smart decision. Within the Hive there was nothing to show the Soldiers. But outside—

Selys seemed like she was ready to go. She kept glancing towards the door, but she hadn’t moved, possibly because two Soldiers stood next to the entrance, as if they were guarding it.

Which they might actually be. Klbkch had told the Soldiers to protect Pawn, and Pawn had told them not to attack anyone. Which meant they only looked as if they were contemplating tearing Selys’ tail off and feeding it to her.

“Well, I’ve got to be going. I’m already late and there’s so many Humans to deal with in the Guild…shame I can’t stay and chat, Pawn.”

Selys stood up, tail twitching anxiously as she edged towards the door. She glanced at the ground and called out sharply.

“Mrsha, come on! Let’s go.”

The little Gnoll looked up in betrayed shock—Selys made a grab for her, but Mrsha dove under a table again. Lyonette paused and turned back to the Drake, looking anxious.

“You said she could stay!”

“I did. But now Pawn and his—friends have come, I’m sure it would be safer—”

Selys caught Pawn’s eye and looked away guiltily. He felt sad inside, and a bit angry.

“We will not be staying long, Miss Shivertail. I only wished to show the Soldiers this inn before we continued patrolling.”

“Oh. Well…”

“Mrsha will be fine here. And I can feed the Soldiers as well. I have more than just bacon and eggs.”

“Like cheese?”

“What?”

Lyonette looked confused. She hurried into the kitchen and came out with something on a plate.

“I just made this! It’s not as good as what Erin can do but—I found more bees!”

Pawn had been about to decline Lyonette’s offer for a meal. He didn’t want to impose, and he didn’t want to alarm Selys by having the Soldiers eat here. But all that changed when he heard Lyonette’s words.

“Did you say…bees?”

He’d had…one bee before. One bee. And like the acid flies, it wasn’t something Pawn forgot easily. He stared avidly at the thing on the plate. Lyonette had indeed just fried up the thing that Selys recoiled from and made even the Soldiers look twice.

A bee, legs curled, neatly sliced down the abdomen to let the insides fry on the pan. It now lay, wings folded, staring up at Pawn, making his intestines gurgle. It was steaming, and juicy with grease and honey. Pawn’s stomach sat up and begged for him to bite into the exposed innards that smelled…

Oh, heavenly.

Part of Pawn immediately wanted to eat the bee at once. But he stopped his hand as he remembered.

“Ah. Regrettably…I would love to sample this bee. But it would not be fair to the others, I feel.”

He was full of regret. But to his surprise, Lyonette just smiled.

“I have lots more.”

“Lots?”

Pawn looked at her hopefully. The [Barmaid] nodded.

“Two huge jars, in fact. Enough for you and all the Soldiers. You should have this one first. You are their leader, aren’t you? And then when you all come back from your patrol, I’ll have enough for everyone.”

Pawn hesitated. A meal had been in his hazy plan for the day with the Soldiers, but bees? He had a bag of coin, but he didn’t know if it would be enough. But bees…perhaps Lyonette would open a tab? He looked at the other Soldiers and came to a swift decision influenced not at all by the delicious bee in front of him.

“I am afraid we number twenty one in all. Would that put too much of a strain upon your inn?”

He didn’t want to overburden the Human girl. Lyonette did indeed seem shocked. She swayed on her feet a bit, and gulped slowly.

“Twenty? I can…yes, I can do that.”

“Very well then. We shall patrol and be back…in two hours? Roughly that time. Is that enough?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely! And Mrsha can stay with me—”

The Gnoll was still evading Selys’ every attempt to get near her. Frustrated, Selys threw up her hands.

“Fine, fine. I’ve got to go! I’m so late! Just keep an eye on her, okay Lyon?”

“I will. And I’ll have everything ready for you in two hours, Pawn.”

The Antinium nodded, and after Selys had left, led his Soldier back outside. There they joined the other Soldiers who’d been waiting like statues outside and nearly given Selys a heart attack.

“As you may have heard, we will be eating a lunch at this location later today.”

Pawn addressed the Soldiers who stood to attention, listening to his every word. He’d already gotten over a lot of the awkwardness of commanding them. They were the twenty least-injured Soldiers assigned to him, and they had obeyed his every order flawlessly since leaving the city.

He wondered if they were getting anything out of this experience. Well, they’d only left the secret tunnel just outside of Liscor and walked here so far. And this was a good place to start.

Pawn gestured awkwardly to the inn. The Soldiers stared at a wooden wall and then back at him, expressionless.

“That was an inn. People go there to sleep and eat delicious food.”

They stared at him. Pawn coughed, and nodded a few times. He stared around. What else could he show them? It was the middle of winter, and there wasn’t a lot of…

He pointed at the ground. The Soldiers stared down at the snow, ankle-deep around their thick legs.

“This is…snow. There’s grass underneath. Grass is green and can’t be eaten, but it is worth looking at.”

They stared at the snow. One Soldier lifted a foot experimentally and crushed some snow underfoot. Pawn considered this a victory. He coughed again.

“I ah, will find a place for us to patrol to. We can walk and I can tell you…stories, I suppose. Show you the landscape.”

If only there were flowers and animals! Pawn agonized, but he was determined to make this outing a success. Somehow. The Soldiers might not be too amazed just yet, but he’d show them. And if he failed, which was likely, there were always the bees. The delicious, crunchy…

Pawn licked honey off his fingers. Well, he was the leader after all, and Lyonette had already cooked it. Besides, the bee had been small. Barely a mouthful. A delicious…savory…

 

—-

 

The Soldiers stared at Pawn. He was thinking, and so they waited for him to give the next order. This is how they thought. Pawn was their commander. He had eaten something that was not mush, something that smelled good. That…intrigued them. Would they eat it later?

All of the Soldiers stood at attention, but they were not fully at attention mentally. In fact, all of the Soldiers were highly distracted by the scenery around them.

What was this strange place they had come to? None of them had ever left the Hive, ever gone to that mysterious place known as Above. Even when some Soldiers had been called by Klbkch to fight above, they had not been chosen.

But today, they had gone Above. They had emerged into the bright, bright world and found unending wonders waiting for them. They had seen…snow? Is that what Pawn had called it? And a Gnoll? Was that the fuzzy creature that stared up at them with huge eyes? And the fleshy thing? A Lyon?

While Pawn was thinking, some of the Soldiers looked past him. Up. Into the sky. They had never seen the sky before. Their sky was dirt and stone. But this sky—

Vast. Limitless. And so full of color. Some of the Soldiers felt weak at the knees, and not because something had bit their kneecaps off. They looked up and saw the sky.

The sky was blue. Deep blue, and the air was so cold. The Soldiers felt as though they would die if they stayed out here too long, and that was a fascinating thought. The Hive was never this cold. Chilly in some places, in deep tunnels, yes, but never freezing. And the sky.

It was so blue. It was a color they’d never seen, not once in their time in the Hive. Just the sight of it made each Soldier rejoice inside, and realize that there was something to rejoice. Just like when they’d heard the stories of a better place, when the Worker had come to them and offered them—

“Ah, we’ll go this way. It’s not so crowded.”

The Soldiers broke off from their dream-like thoughts and snapped fully back into the world. They had orders! Pawn pointed, down the hill towards a flat area of snow.

“We’ll look at trees. Trees are like grass, but harder. It turns into wood, like what this inn is made of.”

As one, the Soldiers stared back at the inn. That was from trees? They’d seen wood, but it grew out of the ground? Really?

“This way! I have so much to show you.”

Excitedly, Pawn set off down the hill. As one, the Soldiers followed him, some flanking the Worker to provide a shield with their bodies. They were going to see trees! What were trees?

Pawn was doing this to show them something. That was what he had said, and the Soldiers felt he had already delivered far past their expectations. They had only imagined another tunnel in the Hive, perhaps one bigger than the rest or with some unique feature like an interesting curve or mineral deposit in the walls. But this?

Trees. The Soldiers marched through the snow, cold and melting. They were going to see something new. Something they couldn’t even imagine. And they were grateful, of course. But the Soldiers could have happily stared at the sky and watched the clouds roll across that infinite void…

Forever.

This was Above. This was a place their fellow Soldiers had never seen, a place where other Soldiers had fought and died long ago, in older wars. The Soldiers drank in every detail, from the face of the Drake to the furry thing called a ‘Mrsha’ that stared at them and made them feel so odd.

They knew they would remember this day for the rest of their lives. And they were all the more determined. They would fight with all they had, against whatever grave foe lurked Above. It would be a fair price for this moment.

For, surely there was a foe in the snow. The Soldiers watched the ground warily, not trusting the pretty ground any more than they trusted Pawn’s assurances that they wouldn’t actually do any fighting today. Normally they fought in three dimensions, where attacks could come from the ground, overhead—monsters could come bursting out of the walls or even shatter your stone footing to drag you into dark pits. What strange new enemies would come in a place where there was no dirt ceiling above you?

Their answer came when something white and soft flew out of the sky and smacked Pawn in the head. He stumbled and yelped as the Soldiers turned as one.

Sneak attack! From where? At first they didn’t see, but then they spotted it. Some creature—many creatures of snow and wood! They stood, lumpy humanoids throwing snow mixed with ice and bits of rock at the Antinium.

Pawn wiped away some snow from his head.

“Oh. Snow Golems. That scared me. You see, these are creatures of ice and magic. They’re not dangerous unless you are a child, not unless they grow to be truly huge. I believe we can simply av—”

The Soldiers charged as one. They thundered across the snowy plains at the Snow Golems, eight of them, who all paused as they saw a black mass of behemoths running at them full tilt.

The icy brains of the Snow Golems weren’t capable of much thought, but even such creatures could sense trouble. The Snow Golems turned and began to flee, some plodding along with clumsy legs, others rolling across the snow. They were too slow.

The first Soldier caught up to a classic Snow Golem, three orbs of ice placed on top of each other and twig-like arms. It even had a carrot for a nose. The Golem turned and slashed at the Antinium. Its wooden arms broke on the Antinium’s carapace. Then a shovel-like fist smashed through its face and it was gone.

Another Soldier leapt into the air, thrown by two of his companions. He smashed into another Golem, crushing the huge head with a knee. The Golem fell and the Soldier began to dig into its collapsing body, snow flying everywhere.

Realizing escape was impossible, the other Golems turned and fought. Or rather, they turned and had about a second to regret throwing snow before the tide of Soldiers rolled over them.

 

—-

 

Standing in a state of shock about twenty meters away, Pawn watched the carnage unfold as his Soldiers tore the relatively harmless Snow Golems to pieces. They ripped the wooden arms off of Golems, pierced their snowy bodies with their fists, kicked Golems to bits and them trampled the remains.

It took less than a minute before the ground was covered with the…relatively ungory remains of the Snow Golems. Honestly, it just looked like a messed up patch of snow. The Soldiers marched back towards Pawn and he stared at them. They were covered in melted snow, and one of the Soldiers had a carrot in his hand. He offered it to Pawn.

“Oh. Thank you.”

Pawn took it, and then stared at the carrot. Why had the Soldier grabbed it? Then he remembered. Standard practice for the Antinium was to collect the remains of whatever they killed and turn it into food, much as the Goblins did. This being the only remotely edible thing the Snow Golems left behind…

“You can eat this, you know.”

The Soldier stared at Pawn blankly. The Worker handed it to him.

“Go on. It’s a bit cold, but it’s edible.”

And probably, far tastier than it would be when mushed with a thousand other bits of food for the gruel the Soldiers normally ate. Encouragingly, the Worker mimed eating it. The Soldier held the carrot up, seemed to hesitate, and then crunched into the carrot.

All of the Soldiers and Pawn watched as the expressionless Soldier ate the carrot. It took three bites, and when it was done, the Soldier stood at attention.

Pawn sighed. Well, what had he expected? He shook his head.

“I suppose…good job, everyone. Those Snow Golems…won’t be throwing snow at anyone else. Let us move on.”

The Soldiers followed him as the Worker marched on. Pawn stared at the bit of trampled ground as he passed and shook his head.

“Poor Snow Golems.”

For all they’d hit him with a snowball—filled with pebbles no less—he felt they hadn’t exactly deserved that.

 

—-

 

A carrot! What had it tasted like? Was it really edible, just like that? The other Soldiers were agog, but they couldn’t interview their companion as they marched. And even if they could—they didn’t talk or use sign language.

Rather, Soldiers could vaguely sense what the others were feeling or thinking. It was more of a skill used for coordination in battle, but what they sensed now was that the Soldier who ate the carrot felt extremely…good.

Good, yes. It was a crunchy food, and it didn’t mush and taste…like what they normally ate tasted like. And it was cold!

The Soldiers marched on, listening to Pawn’s explanations of how Snow Golems came to life. It made little sense to them, mainly because none of them wore or needed clothing, but they enjoyed listening nonetheless.

Then they found the Shield Spiders.

It was a collapsed pit, one of the many lairs the Shield Spiders made to lure in prey. But the snowfall had been heavy, and the fake ground had collapsed, spilling inwards to reveal the nest. Already Shield Spiders were laboring to remove snow and repair their trap, but the Antinium had come before they could finish their work.

Pawn stared down into the hole as the Soldiers tensed as one. Shield Spiders! They knew this enemy. They looked at Pawn for his orders, since they were not under direct attack. The Worker hesitated.

“Oh dear. This is a menace. And Klbkch did tell us to remove minor threats…ah, I believe we should attack?”

The Soldiers hesitated. That sounded like an order, but it wasn’t phrased like one. And the Shield Spiders had noticed the Antinium. Several large ones in the pit turned to face the Soldiers and began to crawl up the dirt sides, fangs bared for the attack.

“Ah. They have noticed us. I suppose we must do this then.”

Pawn sighed. He sounded almost regretful. The Soldiers were vibrating with nerves and readiness for battle.

“Be careful. Do not take risks. And um—very well, now is probably the time. Attack?”

The Soldiers exploded into motion, charging forwards around Pawn at the surprised spiders. They leapt into the pit, smashing down on the many Shield Spiders, big and small.

One Soldier landed and crushed a Shield Spider with his feet. Then he turned and grabbed another one. It bit at his arm, tearing into his thick carapace, but he ignored the spider’s fangs. The Soldier smashed the spider repeatedly into the ground. The Shield Spider had an exoskeleton like armor, but after the ninth crushing blow the bulbous abdomen split and goo poured forth.

The Soldier let the Shield Spider drop and turned. By this point, the other Shield Spiders were long dead, trampled, kicked, and punched into shapeless forms by the Antinium Soldiers. Not even the smallest baby or egg was left alive. When Pawn peered into the pit he only had a few words to say.

“Oh my. That is quite…efficient.”

Then he saw the wounded Soldier.

“You’re hurt! Come here, quickly—I’ll try to stop the bleeding with…something!”

The injured Soldier moved back, scrambling out of the pit despite his lacerated arm. The other Soldiers merely braced themselves, prepared for a second attack. They waited. They waited for the ground to erupt, for a hundred more Shield Spiders to come digging themselves out of the soil. They waited for an ambush—perhaps from the side, or other spider variants to come at them in a horde as so often happened in the tunnels of their Hive. They waited and waited, until they realized there was nothing to wait for.

Slowly, confused, the Soldiers lowered their arms. Pawn was busy fussing over the Soldier’s arm, pressing at the seeping green liquid, not bothering to look around for other threats. Surely he wouldn’t do that if there were no more threats? The Soldiers stared at him, and then around in confusion.

Was that it? Was that…it?

It was far too easy. Shield Spiders normally came in nests of at least fifty, or as many as three hundred! And where were the other breeds? These spiders had been tiny, barely hatchlings! Was this really all there was to fight?

Eventually, the Soldiers scrambled out of the pit and formed a protective circle around Pawn as he fussed over the wounded Soldier’s arm. He seemed so concerned over the Soldier’s injury, inspecting the broken chitin and green ichor seeping out of the wound. The Soldier in question didn’t react to the damage and the other Soldiers knew he was fully capable of fighting on. The cuts weren’t that deep, and as for the wound itself, what of it? It was just pain.

In the end, the bleeding did stop, and the Soldiers expected Pawn to lead them on. But he didn’t.

“I think we should go back. None of you were meant to be injured. At the very least, you should rest.”

What? Did he really think that would slow the Soldier down? But yes, Pawn led the incredulous Soldiers back towards the inn. There he talked with the Human named Lyon or perhaps Lyonette and after a while, had the Soldier rest in the inn, sitting by the fire with a bandaged arm.

That done, Pawn led the Soldiers on again. They marched through the snow, staring at trees, crowding around to see the flower he unearthed. And they were ready for fighting and did fight now and then. But it wasn’t like the Hive. It wasn’t like the brutal, deadly warfare underground. None of them had died, which would never have happened if they’d been stationed on the front lines in the Hive. And they hadn’t even been hurt—well, not actually hurt.

This was so easy. This was so…enjoyable. The sky was blue, and the snow blew at them, melting and wonderful. They looked and saw color and listened to stories.

And they began to feel something else. A word they had no name for. All they knew was that it was mysterious.

And good.

 

—-

 

The Soldier sat in the inn, watching Lyon work. She was a Human, an enemy at times but not now. She was rushing about, gingerly taking bees out of the large jar and bringing them into the kitchen where the wonderful smells were coming from. The Soldier longed to know what was inside, but he was trained far too well to actually stand up.

He’d been told to sit and rest here. In this chair. By the warm fire which was also so fascinating. Pawn had said that, and the Soldier would not move. No matter how distracting the small Gnoll was.

She had white fur. White fur. Fur. All of these things were new to the Soldier, and he couldn’t help but watch the way her nose wriggled as she sniffed at him. She was curious, as curious of him as he was of her. She’d dart forwards, snuffle at him, and then flee when he looked at her. When he wasn’t looking she’d sneak up again, and then flee when his head turned.

The Soldier was very conflicted about this. Pawn hadn’t said not to look at her, but was the Soldier making a mistake by interacting with the Gnoll? Perhaps he should just stare at the fire. It was amazing too. It flickered, full of bright colors and ever moving flames. He’d never seen anything like it. The sight hypnotized the Soldier, made him long to touch the flames despite the heat. He’d never dreamed such a thing could be possible. He knew fire of course, but this—this was gentle, magical. Hypnotizing—

Something poked the Soldier in the side. He whirled, fists clenched, and Mrsha bolted, her fur standing on end. It was just the Gnoll.

Mrsha!

The Lyon-Human came by, scolding the Gnoll who fled from her as well. The Soldier watched as she chased Mrsha about, the smaller Gnoll nimbly dashing beneath tables and chairs to get away.

“Don’t do that, understand? Don’t bother our guests!”

Mrsha made a whimpering sound that did something to the Soldier’s chest. Lyonette sighed.

“I need to find something for you to play with, don’t I? Um…”

She wandered away, but stopped by the Soldier. She gave him a wide smile that looked…nervous? Was that the word?

“I’m so sorry about that.”

The Soldier stared at Lyon blankly until she backed away. Was she apologizing? To him? Why?

The Soldier had heard of apologies. They’d been explained to him and the others by Pawn, along with countless other ideas when he’d told them stories of God and other things. But he’d never dreamed of hearing an apology while he lived. And to him, no less.

The Soldier was very glad the Shield Spider had bit his arm.

As Lyonette searched for things to amuse the small Mrsha-Gnoll, the white creature scooted across the floor on its butt, tail wagging as it stared up at the Soldier. He stared at her. She stared back. She had big, round eyes that were brown with gold strata mixed among the depths. There was something in her eyes, the Soldier felt. Something beyond mere flesh.

The Gnoll and Soldier stared at each other in silence, the Gnoll occasionally blinking. The Soldier stared into her eyes. Something. Something was in there. Something else. Something he’d never seen before.

Eventually the Gnoll got bored and scooted away to see what Lyon was doing. The Soldier went back to watching the fire. He felt enlightened.

Protect, Pawn had told him. Protect. The Soldier understood protecting, or at least, he’d thought he did.

He fought to protect the Hive. And his Queen. And Revalantor Klbkch and the Prognugator, if there was one. But he also knew that Liscor was part of the things he was ordered to protect, even if it was at the bottom of the list and a secondary objective in most cases.

But protecting the city meant protecting the people. And the Mrsha-Gnoll was part of people. So he would protect her. The Soldier thought about her eyes and the way her tail thumped on the floorboards and knew that this order was right. And he wanted to obey this order.

It was good. It was all good. And then the Lyon-Human came into the common room with buckets. She stared at them, scratching her head.

“I think…is this something Erin bought?”

She sounded uncertain. The Mrsha-Gnoll stared at the cans and poked one with a claw. Lyon-Human found something to lever open a lid, and then the Soldier in his chair saw what was in the cans.

Color.

 

—-

 

The Rock Crab was a giant of the plains. An apex-predator, despite the fact that Goblins occasionally made snacks of its kind. But it was nevertheless one of the more dangerous monsters around—at least, during off-seasons like Winter.

For who could match the fearsome Rock Crab, hiding until the moment it exploded from the snow with huge claws that could tear apart almost anything? Corusdeer were easy victims of Rock Crabs, as were sheep and goats and other animals.

True, the Rock Crab had learned to avoid disturbing the larger nests of Shield Spiders, and during the spring it usually hid from the predators that liked to eat it as a snack. And the crab would certainly have been easy prey for any Crelers if they came to this area. But sheep? Sheep were dead the instant the crab saw them.

Now the crab saw something strange as it hid, a snow-covered boulder conspicuously sitting in the middle of the snowy plains. It saw the Antinium, black, huge bodies, many of them, marching across the ground.

The Rock Crab considered this prey. It didn’t look too…appetizing, but looks could be deceiving. And the crab was hungry—it hadn’t found anything worth eating in a while. So it slowly raised off the ground and scuttled closer to the Antinium.

They spotted the crab almost instantly. But that was fine—the crab could run. It increased its speed, and then noticed something odd.

The bug-giants were getting closer. Rather quickly. In fact, they were running at the Rock Crab like a huge wall. Black bodies streamed towards the Rock Crab, and it was reminded of the horrible green Goblins, except that these Soldiers were a lot bigger.

A lot bigger.

The Rock Crab reversed direction. It turned and ran as the Soldiers charged.

 

—-

 

The Corusdeer herd was mighty. Rock Crabs were no threat when there were so many deer together. They could incinerate even the most dangerous enemy in seconds. But when they saw the wall of charging black bodies they ran. They outnumbered the strange things, true, but the Antinium smelled of blood and murder. And they looked like a wall, a wall of chitin and muscle and death.

The Corusdeer didn’t fight walls. They ran too.

 

—-

 

The Shield Spiders rejoiced when their pit trap collapsed inwards, drawing in food for the winter. Their rejoicing turned into dismay when they saw the huge black shapes of the Antinium and saw more leaping into the pit. But there was nowhere to run.

 

—-

 

The dino-birds flew up in a huge flurry of wings when the Soldiers got too near the nest. Pawn wasn’t surprised by this point; the Antinium were hardly stealthy, and all the other monsters and animals he’d encountered on his eventful patrol with the Soldiers ran the instant the Soldiers attacked. They could tell when bad news ran at them with several hundred pounds of killing force.

“Those are dino-birds, I believe. Erin calls them that although I suspect they have a different name.”

The Soldier stared up silently at the fleeing birds, and then down into the nest. Pawn saw the eggs at the same time the Soldiers did. He marveled at the size of the eggs, and their speckled patterns, nearly invisible in the nest made in the snow. The Soldier nearest them raised a foot to smash the egg to pieces.

“Don’t kill it!”

Pawn intervened as the Soldier prepared to destroy the nest. One of the Antinium’s other doctrines was to completely obliterate any species they found underground, an essential tactic when it came to dealing with dangers like Crelers.

But these eggs—Pawn tried to explain to the confused Soldier.

“They’re just eggs. I mean, the birds are…they’re sometimes a threat I suppose, but they’re not too dangerous and if they all died, wouldn’t that be bad?”

The other Soldiers just stared at him. Pawn sighed.

“They’re innocent. Don’t smash the eggs.”

The Soldiers stared at the eggs, but obediently left them unsmashed. Pawn led them away, and as they began marching away, they saw the dino-birds returning to the nest, calling out anxiously. The Soldier watched the birds for a second before returning their gazes to scanning the landscape for threats.

Pawn trudged ahead of them, tired, somewhat dispirited. It had been a long two-and-a-half hours. In that time, he’d somehow managed to have his Soldiers crush two Shield Spider nests and chase off both a Corusdeer herd and a Rock Crab. Which was all good of course, and part of their patrolling duties. It was just—

Was this really teaching the Soldiers anything? All it felt like Pawn was doing was having them fight different enemies.

But he brightened up when they got close to The Wandering Inn. The patrol might not have shown the Soldiers anything special, but this—

The instant he opened the door Lyonette ran towards him, wringing her hands.

“I am so sorry. Mrsha was playing with some paint—I don’t know how she found the paint cans—and then she got some on…”

Fearfully, Lyonette pointed. Pawn looked and saw—

Color. It was splashed into the dark brown carapace of the Soldier, paw prints in white. They covered his front, his back, even his head. They stood out against his dull monochrome body and made him—

“I tried to stop her! But Mrsha wouldn’t listen and she’s very sorry, aren’t you, Mrsha?”

Pawn glanced distractedly at the small Gnoll who had even whiter paws who was hiding behind a table. There were pawprints on the floor as well, he noticed. Quite a few of them.

“Will the paint wash off?”

“I don’t—I think it’s really hard. This is the same stuff Erin used for the sign and I’ve been scrubbing but you need oil and a lot of work and I didn’t want to bother the Soldier so—”

“I see.”

Pawn just stared at the Soldier marked by the paint, along with the other nineteen Soldiers standing in the inn. Lyonette was apologizing again, but Pawn took no notice of her.

The paw prints. They stood out. The Soldier was marked by them. No longer could he be—well, just a Soldier. Before he had only been noticeable because of his wounded arm, but that would have healed soon. Now…

Paint that couldn’t be erased. Something to mark him, something that needed no words to make itself apparent. Why, it was almost like a name. In fact, it was better than a name, especially for a Soldier…

Lyon backed away from Pawn, eyes wide. He realized he was quivering with emotion and tried to modulate his shaking tone.

“I am not…not angry. Actually, I am grateful. Do you have more paint?”

“Me? Um, yes. It’s Erin’s actually. She bought a lot of paint, and Mrsha got into it like I said. I can give you a washcloth and water if you need—”

“I would like to buy your paint. All of it.”

“All of it?”

Lyonette seemed stunned. Pawn reached for his belt pouch and pulled out a fistful of coins. He put it on the table and she gaped at him.

“I would also like to postpone lunch for a half an hour. And if Miss Mrsha would like to help…we are going to do some painting.”

The Human girl stared at Pawn. Then she stared at the silent, faceless, identical Soldiers, and at the one who stood out. The one who had an identity. Her eyes widened. Then she looked at Pawn and smiled. He was already smiling, in his own way.

“Can I help?”

 

—-

 

Paint. It was such a simple thing. Color, given form, something that could be added to almost every surface. It was just paint.

Just paint. Something the Antinium had no use for. Except that, as it turned out, it was the one thing the Antinium, the Soldiers, needed above all else.

Color. Identity. What could you give someone without a voice? A name? What good was a name if they couldn’t speak it?

But paint needed no words. All it needed was a brush, a paw, a hand. And it turned identical, faceless Soldiers into people.

They sat in the chairs around the table, eating the bees Lyonette had cooked for them. Two bees per Soldier, not nearly enough in truth for them to eat, but augmented by bowls of soup thick with butter and fat and insect parts and some actual meat. The Human girl and even the Gnoll had pronounced the soup practically undrinkable and indeed, only Mrsha had even tried it, but the Soldiers thought the soup was the greatest thing they had ever had in their lives.

Nearly as great as having an identity. Even as they ate, the Soldiers couldn’t help glancing at each other around the room. They had an identity now, an identity they had created themselves.

From paint.

It was on their bodies. Dabs of paint, splashes, some Soldiers nearly covered in the stuff, others with only a dab or two. But it was enough.

A Soldier with a handprint in blue on his chest sat across from the Soldier with white pawprints all over his body. They were two separate Soldiers who could not be mixed up with each other. They knew that. And they were happy.

Happy. Happy was a word they knew now, a word they had experienced. Happy was having paint on their bodies, making them people. Happy was seeing the small Gnoll scamper about, and nodding at the Human as she buzzed around the room, serving bees and filling glasses with water. Happiness was a warm fire, and a bee on their plates, gleaming with honey.

What food. What delicious food. The Soldiers had no words, no frame of reference to even understand what they were eating. They’d always eaten the same mush, the only difference and interesting change being how rotten the ingredients were, or whether some parts hadn’t been stomped and churned into complete paste. That was what they knew. But the bee?

Each Soldier ate slowly, gently tearing pieces off of their bee, trying to make each crunch of their mandibles last a lifetime. They didn’t speak. Of course they didn’t speak. But they thought it, and knew the others thought it too as they sat in the warm inn while the Gnoll scurried around and Pawn talked with the Human.

This was surely Heaven.

And when they left the inn, the twenty Soldiers, covered in color, they wanted to go back. And Pawn promised them they would, later, but the other Soldiers had to have a turn first. And the Soldiers knew this was true. The others, their brothers, had to know of this. They returned to the Hive, marching with their backs straighter than they’d even thought possible, heads held high.

And when they came back into the Hive? They changed it as well. The Soldiers marched down the tunnel behind Pawn, walking down the empty tunnel and into the main thoroughfare of the Hive where all the traffic flowed. When the twenty Soldiers first emerged into the tunnel, something happened that hadn’t occurred in all of the Hive’s history.

The Workers, scuttling to their destinations, the Soldiers, marking to the next battle, all of them—when they saw the Soldiers, covered in color—stopped.

They all stopped. For one brief second, Workers and Soldiers both stopped. Their heads turned and they stared at the twenty Soldiers, painted in hues that did not exist in the Hive. Then the Workers turned and began to move in sync once more, and the Soldiers double-timed it to their next battle. But all had seen, and all remembered. And when the Soldiers got back to the barracks…

Red shoulder guards, crimson like Human blood but unpainted everywhere else. That was one Soldier who sat surrounded by his fellows. Another Soldier had white antennae and slashes in the same color running down his body. One more sat with a circle drawn in every color of paint Lyon had found, a multicolored ring on his chest.

They were not Soldiers. Each one was a Soldier, but each one was different. Special.

Unique. And they always would be. Forever. And the Worker who commanded them, their savior, the one who had given them identity and a soul looked at the other Soldiers and felt his heart stir.

 

—-

 

Later that day, Pawn found himself in line at Krshia’s stall. The other customers—mainly Gnolls—gave him very odd looks, but his [Humble Presence] skill helped so none of them ran away or screamed.

Krshia blinked when she saw Pawn.

“I did not expect to see a Worker here, yes? But you are…Pawn. Is there anything I can do for you? The Antinium do not usually need to purchase things from the city, yes?”

“No. I mean, yes?”

Pawn wasn’t sure what to say. The Gnoll standing in front of him didn’t seem hostile, which made him feel good. But she did look—tired.

Tired, and poor, so much as that could be used to describe any person. But Pawn remembered her old stall, and her old array of goods. Krshia’s new stall was smaller, and she was clearly selling less. It made his heart hurt, but it hurt less when he told her what he wanted.

“Paint. As much paint as you have, in every color. Except brown or black. I will buy all of it from you.”

The Gnoll blinked.

“All? All is an odd word, Mister Pawn, yes? I have many friends whom I may sell goods on their behalf. How much paint do you need in buckets?”

“All. Everything I can afford.”

And Pawn put the bag full of gold coins on the table and Krshia’s mouth fell open. She blinked at him. He stared back.

“And paintbrushes. I only need around twenty of those.”

 

—-

 

That night, Soldiers went to sleep in their barracks. They were Soldiers, but each one was different. Each one was unique. Painted.

In a Hive full of thousands of Antinium, Soldiers and Workers alike, these Soldiers stood out. They sat in their cubicles, for once too excited to sleep.

They were all painted. They all had identities. The paint was dry on their chitin and true, some had already begun to flake off around their joints. But that was the thing about paint. It could always be reapplied. But the meaning lasted forever.

And word had spread, in the Soldier’s own silent way, about what the twenty who had gone above had seen and experienced. A new world, new people. And so as the Soldier slept, or rather, didn’t, they wondered.

Was this what it meant to be a Soldier? They thought they’d known what being a Soldier was. But for the first time, they realized there was more. More they didn’t understand. More they wanted to understand. And so they began to think. They thought of themselves as people rather than tools. They thought of themselves as individuals with identities rather than a mass. They thought of themselves as [Soldiers] rather than Soldiers.

And they began to level.

 

—-

 

That night, Lyon practically sang as she cleaned up the inn. The place was full of dirty dishes. She didn’t care. She’d been slicing and frying bees up all day, and there were insect parts all over her kitchen. She didn’t care. She was exhausted. She didn’t care. The floorboards were covered with paint. She didn’t—

Okay, she cared about that a bit. The paint Erin had bought was very, very difficult to get rid of no matter how hard Lyon scrubbed.

But she had done it. She’d earned money selling bees, and the inn had been crowded and full! Lyonette stared at the bag full of gleaming coins on one table and sighed happily.

She’d done it, hadn’t she? She’d really done it. And the best part about tonight, the best part was—

She wasn’t alone.

Mrsha happily jumped about the room, leaping from table to table like some horrible furry frog. Lyonette didn’t mind. She’d already cleared those tables of dishes, and truthfully, she felt much like Lyonette. Part of her wanted to leap about with the Gnoll, and maybe she would.

It was just how good Lyon felt. She felt younger again, freer. No—she felt more free and more happy than she’d ever felt back in the palace. She’d done something by herself, with her own hard work.

And she was no longer alone.

Mrsha would stay here tonight. It wasn’t as if Lyon didn’t have enough beds, and the small Gnoll didn’t seem adverse to sharing her bed. And Selys hadn’t objected to the idea after she’d seen how well Lyonette had done.

Okay, fine, Selys had objected a lot, even though Lyon had showed her all the coin she’d made. The Drake had been dead set on bringing Mrsha back into the city. She’d tried to chase Mrsha down and drag her out of the inn for the better part of twenty minutes before she’d collapsed in exhaustion.

So Mrsha  would stay. Selys had promised Lyonette that she would keep an eye on Mrsha again. And Lyon would. Mrsha was…

The Gnoll belonged here. Just like Lyon did, in a way. And both Gnoll and girl were happy. That was how Lyon ate a messy bunch of slightly burnt crepes slathered with honey next to Mrsha as the Gnoll lapped at a bowl of milk, and the two laughed as Lyon fed the fire and cleaned up.

It was a perfect night. Perfect, even though Lyon had to pick up bug wings and legs and toss them far into the snow. Her hands were grimy from cleaning and she was covered in sweat. But Lyonette was proud.

And Mrsha was jumping around a bit too much.

“Careful, Mrsha! Why don’t you calm down?”

The Gnoll barely listened to Lyon. Okay, maybe she’d had a bit too much honey. Lyon could only let the Gnoll tire herself out as she kept washing dishes and cleaning up. This really was a lot of work, even if you had a Skill, which Lyonette didn’t. How had Erin done it? She’d told Lyon that she used to take care of the inn before Toren had…been created. How?

Lyon just shook her head wearily as she went back into the common room for the last stack of dishes. She looked to see if Mrsha had finally stopped jumping, and then raised her voice in alarm.

Mrsha!

The Gnoll jumped guiltily as she pawed at a familiar chessboard sitting in a corner of the room. Lyonette ran over, good mood vanished by sudden panic.

“Mrsha! Don’t—oh no.”

The Gnoll leapt away as Lyon reached the chessboard. She looked down in dismay. The small Gnoll had scattered the ghostly pieces and tried to build a tower out of some of them. She fled as Lyonette anxiously reclaimed the board. In dismay, the girl stared down at the chess pieces.

“Oh no. Erin’s game!”

Of course Lyonette knew the chessboard was an extremely valuable magical artifact, if a relatively pointless one. And she knew Erin was an undisputed master of the game. And she knew…

That messing up Erin’s chessboard was a very bad idea. Not least because the [Innkeeper] would go ballistic, but because whomever was on the other side of the board would probably be upset too.

With that in mind, Lyonette frantically tried to rearrange the pieces. But she had no idea of how the game had even looked! So…she put the chess pieces back in their original places, ready for a new game.

She knew how to do that much, at least. Chess had just been spreading in her country when she’d run away, and she’d learned a lot from watching Erin play. Mrsha peeked up onto the table while Lyonette was resetting the board, insatiably curious and only slightly guilty.

“Stop that!”

Lyonette swatted away a curious paw as Mrsha reached for a knight. The Gnoll gave her a hurt look, and Lyon’s heart nearly broke.

“You little…okay, you can touch since it’s too late. But only touch! Don’t move the board, okay?”

Eagerly, Mrsha picked up the ghostly pieces and tried to gnaw on one. Lyon had to stop her again, but truth be told she couldn’t blame the Gnoll. The chess pieces were like frozen air, the purest expression of magic. And the game…

“See? This is how you play. Like this.”

Lyon showed Mrsha how the pieces moved. The Gnoll stared uncomprehendingly as Lyonette moved a pawn forwards and back, and the bishop diagonally. She sniffed at the board—

And jumped backwards off the table, hair on end as a piece on the other side of the board moved. Lyon yelped and nearly fell out of her chair. When she got back up, heart pounding, she saw a piece had moved.

Just a pawn. It had come out diagonally to counter the pawn she’d pushed forwards. The breath caught in Lyon’s chest in horror.

The other person. The unseen player, the one who’d sent Erin the chess board. They’d seen her moving the pieces. And they thought she was Erin.

And they wanted to play.

What should she do? Lyon panicked for a good minute before the choice was taken out of her hands. Having lost her fright, Mrsha peeked her head over the board and stared curiously at the two pieces on the board. Reaching the conclusion that this was some sort of game without actually understanding the nature of the game, she pushed another pawn forwards to see what would happen.

“Mrsha!”

Instantly, another piece moved, a knight. Lyon stared at it despairingly. But it was too late now. The other player clearly wanted to play. And Erin wasn’t here and Lyon was…curious. So she played.

Why? Because it might be ruder just to leave the other player hanging. And this way, they would surely realize that it wasn’t Erin on the other end. Sure enough, after Lyon had lost both a knight and bishop in quick succession (which she was sure wasn’t a good thing), she sensed the player on the other end pause.

Had they gotten angry and left? No. After a minute, the play resumed, but differently. The moved were no longer lightning-sharp and too hard for Lyonette to counter. Instead, the pieces marched across the board, giving her a challenge, but not one she couldn’t figure out. Mrsha stared at the chess pieces, first fascinated, then bored. To make her behave, Lyon gave her some firewood and some of the leftover paint. The Gnoll happily colored the log with a paw while Lyon played first one game, then two. Three.

After the third game, which she won somehow, Lyon saw the pieces on the board quickly rearrange themselves. She waited—the white side was on the other end of the board—but no movement came.

The mysterious chess player was done for the night. And so Lyon stood up from the bored, feeling a bit ashamed. Surely the player was disappointed she wasn’t Erin. But…

She felt good. Was this what Erin liked about chess? It was so odd, having to think in such a way. But Lyonette liked it, strangely. It was different and new. How could she have lived here for so long without trying the game once? How could she have been so…small?

The girl’s head lowered. So much done wrong. So many things that were her fault. But she couldn’t wallow in misery long. She felt a wet nose on her leg and saw Mrsha had finished with her log.

“So colorful! And you have paint all over your fur. Oh no. We’d better clean you up.”

The Gnoll wriggled and tried to get away, but Lyonette had her washing her fur with oil and lye soap in hot water soon enough. It took many trips to the stream in the cold of the night to get enough water, but Lyonette didn’t care.

Mrsha was her responsibility. So was the inn. So she cleaned up what she could, got as much paint off of Mrsha and the floor, and went to bed, exhausted.

But smiling.

 

[Barmaid Level 8!]

[Skill – Basic Cleaning obtained!]

 

[Carer Class Obtained!]

[Carer Level 2!]

[Skill – Calming Touch obtained!]

 

[Tactician Class Obtained!]

[Tactician Level 1!]

[Skill – Lesser Intuition obtained!]

 

—-

 

Across the world from where the [Princess] sat up in bed and shouted in surprise, making the small Gnoll sleeping next to her tumble away in fright, Niers Astoragon, the Titan, sat in front of his very small chessboard, a dark expression on his face.

He wasn’t smiling. Rather, he was staring hard at the pieces on the board.

“So. The mystery player is gone and someone else has found the board. Someone who knows chess but has barely played it, if at all.”

He mused to himself as he sat, staring at the board. He wasn’t in his command tent in the field now. No, rather he was sitting in the smallest room of the inn his company had hired for its officers on the way back to their personal lands.

It was the smallest room, true, and all of his students and lieutenants had objected. But to Niers, the smallest room in the inn was still a huge space. So he had told them to shut up and move his belongings inside. They obeyed. Even though he was small, the Titan in a bad mood was frightening to be around.

And Niers had been in a bad mood for over a week now. His students tiptoed around him and the soldiers under his command leapt to obey his orders or stayed far out of the way. Niers stood up and paced around the huge desk he’d put his belongings on.

There weren’t many. Niers passed by his arms, the magical items he carried into every battle, the artifacts any commander of Baleros carried, and stared at two things. The chessboard he’d sent across the world, and a letter that still smelled of lavender, edged with gold.

Two things, both tempting his loyalty. Niers closed his eyes. Magnolia didn’t interest him as much as the chessboard—although the woman still had a way of digging her words into his skin like barbs—but she was on the same continent as his missing opponent.

Maybe he could…?

“No.”

That was what Niers said. He sat back at the chessboard, staring at it darkly. He could play this new opponent of course. Maybe he, she, or it would eventually give the board back or find its true owner. Maybe.

But for now Niers couldn’t bear to play such games. He sat in front of the board, scowling darkly as the one candle he’d lit flickered in the dark room. He sat, staring at the chess pieces, the letter, and then at the window. He had a job. A duty. He was the second-in-command of one of the four Great Companies of Baleros. He couldn’t leave.

He told himself that. But his eyes always strayed back to the chessboard.

Waiting.

 

—-

 

On the same continent as Niers’ mysterious chess opponent and the famous Lady Magnolia, two hooded figures walked through blowing snow, keeping their cloaks wrapped tightly around them to protect them from the chill.

In theory, it was two people. In fact, the two travelers were followed by a rather large bevy of people, horses, and supplies that in theory were there to make their journey as pleasant and as safe as possible.

In truth, it just annoyed the Drake General walking in front to no end. He grunted irritably as his companion kicked up a small cloud of snow into his face.

“Did you need to bring all your attendants with you, Ilvriss? We could have been there by now if we didn’t have to wait for these stupid horses.”

The Drake walking in front of him cast a dark glance backwards.

“Be silent, Shivertail. Not everyone has a Skill to let them run. And unlike you, I’m a Lord of the Wall. My position demands—”

“Yes, yes, shut up. You didn’t have to come with me, you know.”

Zel Shivertail sighed and marched forwards. Ilvriss matched his pace, and the two Drakes walked forwards in the snow, silent, both of them disliking each other’s presence. Disliking, but tolerating the other out of respect as well. And after a moment, Ilvriss spoke.

“I did have to come.”

“I know.”

They walked on. After a few minutes, Ilvriss spoke.

“…Hard to see anything in this damn snow. We passed the Blood Fields a day ago. How much further now?”

“One more day, I think.”

“And you’re sure you can find this Human in Liscor?”

“No. But it’s a place to start, and as I’ve said, I have business in the Human lands.”

“Well, let’s keep on moving then.”

“Mm.”

They walked on, silent, marching through the snow. And they were not the only ones headed towards Liscor.

 

—-

 

They marched on a similar route, also north, but far from any road. It was out of necessity they did so; they did not want to be seen. Not for fear of being attacked, but rather of alerting those who would watch their every move.

Unfortunately, moving so far from the main road meant they were more likely to be attacked. The raiding force of Goblins had been a hundred strong. The last of them now gasped and died in the snow.

The group studied the dying Goblin dispassionately. He had worn tough metal armor, painted black, and even carried a slightly magical sword. None of it had done him or his friends any good.

“More delays.”

That was all one said. He fanned his wings. The Antinium spat and acid melted snow into steam.

Another nodded. She had no wings, and her carapace was royal blue. And she held a staff in her hands and her eyes glowed with magic. She whispered a spell, and the snowstorm around them stopped.

“We are close. Continue onwards.”

The band of Antinium turned and marched away from the scene of their latest encounter without a word. Antinium, not the faceless Soldiers or humble Workers, but warriors far different from those in Liscor. Warriors from four Hives, marching in the snow.

North. To Liscor.

 

—-

 

A woman made of bone walked through the snow, tireless, her eyes burning in the darkness. She was undead, a construct of death, a being of unimaginable power.

A dark shadow flowed at her side, something that moved without revealing its true form. The two moved through the snow, swift, silent.

They had been moving thusly for three days. And they had covered a lot of ground, it was true. But after the moon began to rise overhead the shadow seemed compelled to speak. She cleared her throat with a wet, squelching sound and spoke with a whisper that would have chilled the hearts of any living being that heard it.

But there were not living beings to hear, and the voice wasn’t quite so menacing as uncertain.

“Venitra. Are we lost?”

The woman, the armored knight made of bone, Venitra ignored the question. She and her companion, Ijvani, were on a mission to find the girl, the Courier, the Runner. They had been sent by their great master, Az’Kerash. Being lost was…not acceptable. It couldn’t be happening.

Many people were travelling to Liscor. It was just that some of them didn’t matter because they were roughly seventy miles off course and heading the wrong way.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.21 L

Pawn stared at the ranks of Soldiers under his command and realized that he’d made a mistake.

Somewhere.

He’d definitely made one a while back, when he’d brought the idea of Gods into the Hive of the Free Antinium in Liscor. That had been a mistake—or at least, telling the Soldiers had been.

Hadn’t it?

It had helped them. Pawn that thought it would save them, but it had only led to a terrible moment where they slaughtered each other to find a better place. He’d stopped that—

But at a terrible cost. Nearly an entire barracks’ worth of Soldiers had been injured, and hundreds had died. Still, many had been saved, and Pawn had realized what his true mission was that day. To make a Heaven for the Antinium. To make a place, a way that they would not die forgotten and alone.

And he had leveled up after that night, hadn’t he? He was now a Level 6 [Acolyte] with the Skill of [Humble Presence], which was surely a boon to the Hive. And Klbkch had given him command of the remaining Soldiers—

Perhaps that was the mistake. Revalantor Klbkch had made the mistake here, because Pawn was sure of one thing. He couldn’t lead the Soldiers.

He had no idea how.

Pawn stared down at the ranks of silent, immobile giants aligned into perfect ranks in front of him. The Soldiers stood patiently, waiting for his command. Perhaps they would wait there forever, even if he left.

Such thoughts were terrifying to Pawn. He was no leader. Except, in a very real sense, he was. Moreover, those under his command needed him. If nothing else, Pawn had to ensure they didn’t die of their injuries.

Yes, every Soldier standing at attention was technically walking—or rather, standing—wounded. Of course they didn’t show any signs of pain, despite some having cracked carapaces or missing limbs. One Soldier was missing his right eye, but he looked at Pawn as if nothing was wrong.

At least…they were here with him, rather than fighting as they would be normally. Even though the Soldiers here were injured, Pawn knew that they would still have normally been assigned to combat duty if it weren’t for him.

The most wounded Soldier could fight after only a few days of rest. Of course, they’d be missing limbs but that didn’t matter when they hurled themselves into combat. Pawn had requested the foul, stinging ooze to begin regenerating their body parts, but it was a precious commodity and so the Soldiers would be weeks or even months in regrowing their limbs.

And in the meantime, what did Pawn do? He stared at his Soldiers, and they stared back. He couldn’t send them to battle. He couldn’t.

And yet, they were his responsibility. He had to make something of them. That was what Klbkch had told him. This was a test—

And Pawn had no idea how to pass it. He was pretty sure on how to fail, but what could he do with the Soldiers? All he had done was give them false hope—

And get a lot of them killed.

Pawn shook his head and the Soldier seemed to straighten even more. It had been five minutes since he’d entered the mess hall and found the Soldiers waiting for him. He had to give them an order, he knew. They needed direction.

Hesitantly, the Worker cleared his throat.

“You will not be expected to fight today.”

The Soldiers just stared at him. Did they feel relieved? Disappointed? Confused? Pawn didn’t know. Their faces were as incomprehensible to him as all Antinium were to other species. But he knew they did have feelings.

“Um…just go about your daily routine. That is to say—”

Pawn paused. He had to be a leader. So he firmed his tone.

“Attend meal times as normal. However, since you are not assigned to any post, return to your barracks to rest in the meantime. I will…find something for you to do, and try to visit you and tell stories. Alright?”

The Soldiers didn’t respond. But they turned and immediately began filing out of the room, heading towards the barracks. Pawn watched them go, limp with relief.

At least they listened to him. But did they resent him for telling them about God and Heaven? Did they feel regret for their brothers that had died in the mass suicide attempt?

Surely they did. But Pawn couldn’t ask, because the Soldiers couldn’t speak. The Worker anxiously paced back and forth as the other Workers assigned to food serving duty watched him nervously. He was commanding Soldiers. Pawn knew they would fight the monsters that came out of the dungeon and patrol and guard—but was there anything else they did?

He’d never known. And now he had to ask. But who would be able to tell him?

Not other Workers. Klbkch perhaps—but Pawn didn’t feel comfortable asking the Revalantor questions like that. Who else might know?

The Queen? Pawn would have rather slapped Klbkch than ask his Queen anything. No. No, there were only two other beings in the Hive who might know.

Belgrade and Anand. They were [Tacticians]. They’d leveled up in that class and been assigned roles leading Soldiers. They would know.

Pawn found his two former chess companions after only half an hour of searching. It wasn’t as if Belgrade and Anand left signs pointing out their location in the Hive, but Pawn knew where they ate and slept. Happily, he found them doing neither and instead, playing chess in the special break room reserved for Individuals.

The two Workers sat at a chess table, watched by a small crowd of other Workers. They stood out. Perhaps it was the way they held themselves. With confidence and pride. Or maybe it was just that Pawn knew them so well. He sat next to them and they nodded at him, familiar and warm as the Antinium ever got.

“Pawn. It is good to see you here today.”

That came from Belgrade. He nodded precisely as he placed a knight in the attack position, threatening a pawn from Anand.

“Indeed. I was worried you were being punished by Klbkch.”

Anand ignored the attack on his pawns and instead countered Belgrade with an aggressive push from his queen on the left side, threatening a bishop. Belgrade paused. Pawn observed the playing with interest, his mind half on the game.

It was true that he, Belgrade, and Anand all looked the same. But they were all different from each other—vastly different in terms of personality. Belgrade was a stickler for tactics and the openings Erin had taught them. He played defensively, cautiously. Almost too much, but it was necessary against Anand’s aggressive tactics. In speech as well, they tended to reflect their traits. It was remarkable, Pawn reflected, that any Workers could be so…unique.

He nodded to the two as the game continued, both Workers moving their pieces quickly and only pausing for a few seconds even for the hardest decisions. They were clearly playing a lightning game, although there was no timer. Antinium had no need of such devices.

“I thank you for your concern. I am not being punished by Revalantor Klbkch, Anand. But I am in distress.”

“Indeed?”

“What’s the problem?”

“You may be aware that I have been assigned a command of Soldiers. I am unsure how to properly lead them, and what roles they may fulfill within the Hive. Thus, I have come to you.”

The Antinium also didn’t do much small talk. Belgrade and Anand paused for a moment. Then Belgrade tipped over his king.

“I cannot win this match. Another round?”

“Yes.”

The two reset the board, moving pieces with amazing synchronization. Pawn waited patiently. The game began with a classic King’s Gambit Accepted opening before Anand spoke.

“My experience with leading Soldiers occurs mainly in embattled tunnels and areas of the Hive in which conflict occurs. I direct their movements, reinforce them with Skills, and order retreats and designate targets as necessary.”

“That is my experience as well.”

Belgrade nodded. He placed a knight on the board delicately and stopped. Pawn had observed that Belgrade liked using knight pieces to open with.

“I have supervised Soldiers aiding in digging and construction at times. But Workers are more suited to those tasks. Patrolling, fighting, guarding, and scouting are the only roles I have seen them fulfill.”

Pawn felt his antennae droop. But he hadn’t really expected anything else.

“I see. And you have not ever seen them do anything for—for entertainment?”

Both of the other Workers paused and turned to Pawn. He knew they were surprised. If they had eyebrows, they would have been raising them.

“The Antinium have no entertainment.”

“Nor any other form of leisurely activity. This game of chess is as close as we have to it.”

“I know. It is just—I wish to give the Soldiers something more. You are aware of the details surrounding their injuries?”

“I am.”

“It was your fault, correct?”

Pawn nodded at Anand, acknowledging the truth.

“Yes. I regret my stupidity. And yet, I must now lead them. But I am no leader, no [Tactician] as you two are. You have continued to level. May I ask what level you are now?”

“Fifteen.”

Belgrade adjusted a piece on the crude board, meticulously centering it in the square before he moved it.

“Sixteen.”

Anand waited until the piece had moved to swiftly take it with a bishop. Belgrade made no audible response, but Pawn knew he was annoyed at making such a simple mistake.

“I am now a Level 6 [Acolyte].”

“Indeed? Congratulations are in order for such swift advancement.”

Belgrade and Anand turned. Both nodded at Pawn. He nodded back, feeling happy for their praise.

“It is just that I fail to see how my class can help the Soldiers. I barely know what to do with myself.”

“Perhaps Revalantor Klbkch sees something in you that cannot be defined by your class.”

Anand speculated as Belgrade attempted to regain lost ground. Pawn nodded slowly. He looked around at the other Workers.

They just stared at the board. He knew they were listening, but the other Workers—Individuals and Workers groomed to be Individuals—they had no spark. Not like Belgrade, Anand, and Bird. Those three Workers had what Pawn considered personality. The other Workers in the room were more like statues.

Soulless.

That was the word for it. It disturbed Pawn, although he couldn’t say why. Were the Soldiers like that? In a way, yes. Both they and the Workers kept their feelings, their true selves on the inside, if they even had a self at all. What could Pawn do for them, besides send them to die? What could he—?

“Pawn. Revalantor Klbkch approaches.”

Belgrade looked up and Pawn turned in his seat. The other Workers standing around the board scattered to make lots of room for the slim, unique Antinium as he marched quickly towards Pawn.

“Pawn.”

Just that one word made Pawn’s insides knot up. He hadn’t even known they could do that, but then, he’d seldom felt…trepidation before. But Klbkch scared him, and every time they met, Pawn couldn’t help but feel like he was doing everything wrong.

A feeling which was reinforced by Klbkch’s next words. The Revalantor stopped in front of him.

“Did you give your Soldiers orders this morning?”

Pawn cringed a bit. Was he not supposed to?

“Yes I did. Was anything—”

“They went back to their barracks and began to rest. They remained in the barracks when another shift came to rest, causing a delay.”

Oh no. Pawn’s insides twisted further, and he saw both Belgrade and Anand pause in playing chess. How could he have forgotten? The Antinium had no personal quarters—rather, they slept and worked and ate at allotted times, in shifts. When one shift slept, another one would work, and then the sleeping shift would switch with another one.

That was the most efficient use of resources and it meant places like the barracks could be used at all times. Pawn had—he’d ordered his Soldiers to take up the space meant for other exhausted Soldiers ending their shift!

The Antinium couldn’t blush, but Pawn lowered his head and antennae. He’d already messed up. And it was such a stupid mistake to make too!

“Forgive me, Revalantor Klbkch. I did not consider that when I gave my orders to the Soldiers. I am terribly—”

“I have taken care of it. Your Soldiers are being stationed in safe locations on protective detail. In the future do not make the same mistake.”

Klbkch’s voice was flat. He turned to go. Pawn looked at his back despairingly and called out.

“Revalantor Klbkch.”

The Antinium turned. He was graceful, deadly. He walked as if the two swords by his side were meant for him, and he never looked uncertain. How Pawn envied him.

“What is it, Pawn?”

“What should I do with the Soldiers under my command? Am I to lead them into battle?”

“No. You have only a single Skill in the [Tactician] class and you are too valuable to risk in battle. Moreover, the Soldiers are wounded. Your command over them is experimental.”

“Then—what purpose will we serve?”

Klbkch paused. He looked Pawn straight in the eye.

“I do not know. Surprise me. Or pray for an idea. That is your Skill, is it not?”

He turned and left. Belgrade and Anand stopped their game and watched him go. After a while, the other Workers walked back and resumed watching their game. Belgrade paused.

“I am unsure as to what you should do, Pawn. I regret that Erin is not here to aid you.”

“Indeed. I dislike Revalantor Klbkch’s requirements of you, and the Revalantor himself if it comes to that. Checkmate.”

Anand placed his queen in an excellent checkmate and Belgrade nodded. He looked at the other [Tactician].

“I am extremely upset, Anand. I demand a rematch.”

“I accept.”

Pawn left them to it. Well, he had his answer. He was supposed to do something with the Soldiers—only even Klbkch had no idea what. Wonderful.

That was how, terribly depressed, Pawn found himself walking through Liscor that evening. He was still free to leave the Hive, and so he walked among the Drakes and Gnolls, feeling the cold wind on his carapace.

No one paid any attention to him. Normally, they might, if only to look scared and walk away from him. But today Pawn was more invisible than anything else. Oh, people noticed him, but he was now simply another person in the crowd, rather than a Worker, an Antinium.

It was due to his new Skill. [Humble Presence]. It made him, well, ordinary unless Pawn did something that really stood out or he was by himself. It was perfect for someone like him. Klbkch had already told him it might have useful applications in battle—but Pawn didn’t want to fight.

But he commanded Soldiers. But he had no idea what to do with them.

And he’d already caused trouble. Pawn hung his head, but his feet kept moving. In times like this, he only had one place he wanted to be.

The Wandering Inn. Even if Erin wasn’t there, at least Pawn could rest there in peace for a while. And he was getting hungry. Pawn had begun to hate eating in the Hive, and he had money. So Pawn walked out of the city and up to the inn.

It was the only place where he really felt alive.

 

—-

 

She had a guest. Lyonette rubbed her eyes a few times when she saw the figure slowly walking up the hill towards the empty inn. But it was real. Someone was coming.

A guest!

She nearly cried in relief. It had been…so long.

Two days this time. Two days after Lyonette had worked so hard! She’d made food and learned to cook and even cleaned the inn. But it had been two days since Pawn had left, and no one had come by.

Not Olesm, not Relc to ask about Erin, not even the grumpy adventurer. No one. But now she had a guest! The same guest, in fact, as last time.

The Antinium. Pawn. Lyonette remembered being afraid of him, of hating the Antinium. But right now she could have kissed the Worker on his mandibles. He was coming to spend money! To eat!

The girl rushed around the kitchen, trying to figure out what to make. Food! She couldn’t serve him the rubbery noodles she’d been making herself for breakfast, lunch and dinner, could she?

No, the Antinium couldn’t even handle gluten.

No bread or pasta, then. Lyonette froze. Could she make a soup? But when she checked, she had barely half a bucket of water left! And then the Antinium was at the door and there was no time to fetch more!

Screaming internally, Lyonette opened the door.

“Good evening!”

The Antinium entered, nodding politely at her.

“Good evening to you, Miss Lyonette. Are you open today?”

“Open? Of course! We’re open every day! Every night! Let me get you a chair. Would you like to sit next to the fire? I can put more wood on—”

“Thank you.”

Seemingly bemused, the Worker watched Lyonette rush about, stoking the fire, getting him a glass of water. She hovered around him anxiously, trying not to wring her hands.

“Would you like something else to drink? Um—we don’t have anything, though. To eat?”

“Water is quite acceptable, thank you. I would indeed like food tonight. What is on the menu, may I ask?”

Lyonette froze. What  was on the menu? She didn’t even have a menu! Her mind went blank, but her mouth took over in this moment of crisis.

“W-would you like eggs and bacon?”

That was all she could think to make! Erin normally had all kinds of soups and meat dishes she could serve—but Lyonette didn’t know how to cook any of them!

Pawn seemed to think for a moment, and then nodded.

“Yes. I will have some, thank you.”

Lyonette smiled at him, dashed into the kitchen, and called herself ten kinds of stupid while she fried up a heaping plate for him. Eggs and bacon? She’d served that to him last time! He’d get bored of the food, surely! When she’d been living in the palace, Lyonette would have fired the [Chef] who made her the same meal twice in one week!

But the Antinium didn’t seem offended. Instead, he paused when Lyonette placed the big plate of eggs and bacon in front of him—nearly all of what she had left.

“This is quite a fine meal. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome!”

Lyonette nearly sagged in relief. She hovered around Pawn as he picked up a fork. He paused, looked at her.

“Would you like to sit?”

“Oh!”

She was bothering him! Lyonette sat instantly, trying to smile and not be obtrusive as Pawn ate. The silence was…

After a few minutes Pawn spoke.

“It seems the inn is rather empty. Have you been receiving much custom, Miss Lyonette?”

“Me? No I—”

Lyonette paused. How could she tell the Antinium about crying in the inn, counting the few copper and two silver coins left? Eating the same horrible mush she cooked up every day? How could she?

How could she not?

“It’s been…hard since Erin—Miss Solstice left. No one visits.”

“That is troublesome. I hope my business can help.”

“It will! I just wish there were a lot more people like—like you!”

“Thank you for the compliment.”

“You’re…welcome.”

More silence. Lyonette looked at Pawn, realizing this was the first time she’d ever been so close to one of the hateful Antinium, the terrors of Rhir. He looked so…normal for some reason.

“Um.”

“Yes?”

“How’s it going in the Hive? With the other Antinium, I mean?”

The Worker seemed to pause for a few seconds.

“It is…going well. There are some difficulties, but the Hive is well.”

“Good.”

“Yes.”

Lyonette sat with the Worker, refilling his glass, drinking some water herself. They didn’t talk much while he ate his way through the plate of greasy eggs and bacon. When he left, he paid her well. Lyonette stared at the bronze coins and smiled tremulously. Then she cried again.

 

—-

 

Pawn left The Wandering Inn in good spirits. The brief respite and dinner made for a world of difference. Suddenly, he felt happy again.

The inn. Sitting there and talking—well, it wasn’t the same, but the Human girl had been decent company and the food had been far better than the mush in the Hive.

A good night. A good evening. That was what it was. Pawn walked back down the hill, staring up at the clear night sky as he did. The air was cold around him, but he enjoyed the biting chill and the crisp crunching sound the snow made under his feet.

The stars. Oh, how the stars shone. Yellow and red some of them, but green and purple others, shining bright, shining faintly, some flickering behind the occasional cloud. And the two moons were beautiful as well.

A sky full of wonders, a landscape full of snow and silence. Warm belly, good conversation. Pawn felt alive again. This was what he’d missed.

How wonderful. How…Pawn stopped in the snow, struck by a sudden realization.

“This is what I must show them.”

Yes. This. This night was like everything Pawn had experienced since meeting Erin, a small capsule of pure happiness. Of course, the inn was different, and it had been Erin, not Lyonette running it. But it had been the experiences of the inn which had made Pawn who he was. Klbkch desired new Individuals, but just teaching them chess wasn’t enough. Chess was only the method. It had been Erin who truly mattered.

And if she was gone, then it fell to Pawn to show the Soldiers the same world she had shown him. Pawn walked back to his Hive, his steps suddenly full of purpose. He needed to take his Soldiers outside. Outside of their Hive where everything was the same.

He would talk to Revalantor Klbkch about the issue that very night. As Pawn walked, he clicked his mandibles together, savoring the flavor of his meal. Eggs and bacon. He’d had it last time, hadn’t he? Well, Pawn didn’t mind, although perhaps next time he would ask Lyonette if she had any good cheese she could add to the meal. He really liked scrambled eggs, but he liked omelettes filled with gooey cheese even more.

 

—-

 

He was never coming back. That was what Lyonette told herself again and again as she wallowed in despair in her dark, empty inn. The fire was dying down again.

“Idiot! You stupid idiot!”

Lyonette buried her head in her arms and cried. The Worker—Pawn was gone. He’d left coin, but he hadn’t said he’d return. Of course not! Who’d say that?

But would he come back in two more days? Or never? He hadn’t talked much—

Because she hadn’t been a good host! Lyonette remembered Erin being so friendly to the Antinium, but words had failed her when she’d tried to talk to him.

And he’d left so quickly. Had it been quick? It had felt like that to Lyonette, lonely as she was.

He hadn’t liked the food. That was surely it.

Slowly, as the last flames flickered and died in the dark inn, Lyonette raised her head. She stared at the small, circular discs of metal on the table.

Money. The only money she’d seen all week. Enough for a few more days of food, of life. And she still had flour and salt and…provisions enough for a few more days. But that was all.

Water? The stream still ran, and though the water was bitingly cold, it could be heated. With enough wood. Lyonette glanced anxiously to the dying embers, the only thing warming the cold room.

She had lots of firewood, actually. Erin had used Toren to gather a lot of wood from the boom bark, safely denuded of their bark of course.

But she couldn’t eat wood, and Lyonette was fairly certain that Pawn couldn’t either. And yet—feeding him eggs and bacon was an expensive proposition, even with how much he was willing to pay! Especially if he only came by once every few days.

She needed more customers. Lyonette knew that. But who would want to come here, to this empty inn without Erin Solstice? To…her.

No one. No one but an Antinium. Lyonette clutched at her head.

More guests. Drakes didn’t like Humans and Gnolls would probably try to kill her. But the Antinium—

They couldn’t eat bread. Or pasta. That was the huge flaw in Lyonette’s potential base of customers. How could she feed them with meat and eggs and other such expensive ingredients in the winter? A soup might work, but…any inn in the city could serve a better soup than she could, surely.

In her heart, Lyonette knew she was standing on a cliff. Starvation loomed over her head, dark, chittering. She had to do something. And she knew there was one thing she could do. She’d thought of it every night since Pawn had come the first time.

One desperate idea. That was all she had. She couldn’t make what the Antinium truly loved—and she barely had the coin to buy enough food for herself now! But there was a source of free, delicious ingredients for them, wasn’t there?

“The bees.”

Lyon whispered the word and shuddered uncontrollably. But it had been said. Now there was no going back.

Yes, there was one untapped source of food in this cold winter. One foodstuff that the Antinium would pay silver for.

The bees.

But they were a horror. Lyonette had seen them tear apart Toren when he angered them. She remembered the terrible, buzzing cloud of bees, some larger than her hand, enough to sting an entire village to death in minutes.

But she had no other choice. Lyonette sat in the dark in, her heart pounding. She stared at the door. Every night she’d had the same thought, and every night she’d been too afraid. For two nights now. Ever since Pawn.

But he’d come back. He would come back. And she was out of options.

Lyonette sat in the darkness. She wavered. She found a wheelbarrow and filled it with firewood and kindling. She made a torch and wavered by the door. She rushed to the outhouse to pee, and then throw up. Then she pushed the wheelbarrow out into the cold and dark, four huge jars balanced atop the wood, and Erin’s sharpest knife hung at her belt.

 

—-

 

“Watch Captain Zevara, may I have a moment of your time?”

If it had been anyone else, Watch Captain Zevara would have told them it was late and to bother her again the next day. If it had been Relc asking whether he could take the day off, she would have burnt his face-scales off.

But because it was Klbkch, Zevara just sighed and resigned herself to a late night.

“Come in, Klbkch. Is something the matter?”

Senior Guardsman Klbkch entered the room, nodding politely at Zevara. He was always polite, and efficient, something she admired about him even if he was an Ant.

“I regret taking up your time before you go off-duty. However, I am here to make an…unusual request. And I must inform you that I do not come here in my capacity as Senior Guardsman, but rather as Prognugator of my Hive.”

That made Zevara instantly sit up in her straight-backed wooden chair.

“Go on. Is there trouble in the Hive? An…Aberration?”

“Nothing so pressing.”

Gracefully, Klbkch took a seat in front of Zevara. She eyed him, and his new…form. It still unnerved her a bit that after nearly ten years, he could suddenly look so different. True, two arms and a slimmer body wasn’t exactly that different, but it was just…odd. Another reminder of who he really was, and why she had to treat him and any such conversations with care.

“Well, I am always willing to discuss your Hive. Is there something you need?”

Klbkch nodded.

“Yes. I would like to request that forty Soldiers be allowed access to the surface and area around Liscor.”

Zevara froze again. She kept none of her emotions on her face, though, and pretended to cough.

“That’s an…unusual request.”

“Indeed. I would not normally ask, but I believe the need is justified and according to our treaty, Soldiers may only leave the Hive in times of war, or—”

“At the request of the Watch Captain.”

Zevara nodded. She sat back in her chair, eyeing Klbkch cautiously.

“I see. And may I ask why you want to take your Soldiers out of the city? You’ve never requested something like this before, not in the six years I’ve served as Captain.”

“Times have changed. I believe it may be useful to my Hive to present my Soldiers with an…expanded view of the area around Liscor.”

That made no sense to Zevara, but few things the Antinium did made sense. She shrugged, trying to keep her tail still. She knew that Klbkch watched Drakes’ tails and could interpret their movements almost as well as a Drake.

“I don’t see any reason why I should refuse your request. Only—wouldn’t taking so many Soldiers out of the Hive be dangerous? Of the six hundred Soldiers permitted to your Hive, wouldn’t forty be quite a large number?”

“I believe we shall be able to compensate for their lack. In truth, our numbers are slightly below six hundred at the moment, but Liscor is a consummate ally, so I see no reason to worry.”

Klbkch’s face didn’t change. Neither did Zevara’s as she nodded at that barefaced lie.

“Well, reassuring as you find us, I’m afraid Liscor’s citizens might get a bit…nervous when they see Soldiers marching about. What would I tell them?”

“Perhaps that the Soldiers are patrolling to deal with any Goblin warbands in the area? I am cognizant that the citizens are restless due to the presence of the dungeon as well as rumors of the Goblin Lord. Seeing them patrolling might reassure the citizens of Liscor.”

That was a good answer, and even a helpful one for Zevarra. She nodded reluctantly.

“Well, I see no reason to object—only, I’d hate for them to start a panic if they marched down the street. But then, I’m sure you can be discreet and find…alternate ways out of the city that won’t panic anyone.”

Through the secret tunnels the Antinium have dug. That was what she meant, but both she and Klbkch knew he would never admit anything.

“They will not be seen within Liscor if at all possible. Soldiers can be very discreet.”

Zevara nearly snorted fire out her nose. She searched for another question to ask—or something else to bother Klbkch with, but she really couldn’t think of anything. Forty Soldiers killing monsters would be helpful, and it was hardly likely that they’d start a panic. Ten years ago when the Hive was first established, maybe. But now…

“Well—fine. I, Watch Captain Zevara grant you permission and request that twenty Soldiers aid in patrolling around the city. Twenty, for now. We’ll scale up the patrols if there’s not a panic.”

Klbkch inclined his head towards her.

“I am very grateful for your time, Watch Captain.”

“Yes, yes. Just make sure they don’t scare any travelers on the main road or run into any Human adventurers. Those idiots would probably pick a fight and that’s the last thing I want to explain to one of the Human cities.”

“I shall instruct them to remain far away from the northern road.”

“Good.”

“Well then, good night, Watch Captain.”

“Night, Klbkch.”

Zevara waited until Klbkch was gone, marching smartly down the stairs. Then she shook her head and reached for a desk drawer she seldom opened. She yanked the handle, cursed, found the small key she carried at all times, and unlocked it. A blank piece of parchment lay on it. Zevara sighed, and began to write down every detail of her encounter with Klkbch. A report. She’d have to make copies, send them to every Walled City—which of course meant a trip down to the Mage’s Guild at this time of night! Zevara groaned. She’d be getting to her bed past midnight, she knew.

As she began to write, Zevara muttered to herself.

“Take the Soldiers out? Why?”

But of course she never got any answers. Like all the reports she’d made on the Antinium’s movements, she only had questions. Questions…

Like whether or not the Antinium were really their enemies. At least, the ones in Liscor. And if they were—

What could be done about them? Only the scratching of her quill on parchment was Zevara’s reply.

 

—-

 

Lyonette was not in her bed. In fact, she was as far from it as she’d gone in the last month. She trudged through the snow, fighting to push the wheelbarrow through the snow and ice. She wished she still had Erin’s sled. But it was gone, with her.

Of course, the effort of pushing the wheelbarrow was only one of Lyonette’s concerns. The numbing cold, the intense darkness, and not least, the pants-wetting fear in her heart were high priorities too.

What was she doing? Every two seconds as Lyon pushed the wheelbarrow she looked around fearfully, expecting a monster to leap out at her. But she had no choice. It had to be tonight. She had to steal the honey tonight, or she’d lose all her confidence.

And night was the best time to rob the hive, or so Lyonette felt. Bees slept at night, didn’t they? Or at the very least, they’d be drowsy, and she needed every edge she could get.

It had been a long, uncertain journey across the plains. At first, Lyon hadn’t even known if she was going the right way. Everything looked so strange at night, under the snow. But her treacherous memory somehow managed to guide her exactly in the right direction for once.

To raid a bee’s nest. Even the thought made Lyonette feel weak with terror, but she had no choice. To survive, she had to do it. Steal bees right out of their nest.

Okay, maybe she couldn’t steal live bees, but surely she could get a few of the grubs? Lyonette remembered the one Klbkch had eaten and nearly threw up again.

Honey. That was the real key. Honey was precious, and she could serve it to the Antinium. They liked honey, and with a few bees—

She just had to raid the hive. Full of huge bees that could kill her in an instant. Lyon couldn’t get her mind off of the idea. Just one sting could—if they stung her in the eye would it reach her brain?

But—she had no choice. Lyonette took a painful breath of air. She was a [Princess]. She was a—

She was a girl. A [Barmaid]. Erin had left her inn to Lyon. Intentionally or not. And now it was up to Lyon to live or die. By herself. She no longer had any excuses. Either she died here, or she died in the cold and darkness.

Better here. Better with the flame of courage still in her chest. So Lyonette paused before the dark hole in the rock and took a deep breath. Sweat ran down her legs and back. She felt hot, even though the wind was blowing.

Bees. They were just bees, in the end.

And she—knew how to deal with bees.

It had just been a fancy. When she’d been young, her tutor had told her all kinds of things she’d willfully ignored. Lessons of algebra, governance, taxes, ruling, classes—all of this Lyonette had let pass her by without caring. But occasionally, in desperation her tutor would tell her stories to keep her interested. And Lyonette had remembered tiny bits.

One of those things she remembered was bees. When she’d heard how [Beekeepers] could harvest honey from the stinging creatures, she’d been incredulous. But a bit of smoke and thick clothing could do the trick better than magic could.

“Smoke.”

Lyonette stared at the firewood she’d hauled all this way. She carefully took the glass jars out and put them to one side of the cave’s entrance. Four jars. This time she’d take as much as she could. If she could.

Fire. The wood was wet from the snow and it was cold, but Lyonette kept striking the flint with steel. Mechanically. She made a small fire at the entrance of the cave, working despite the numbness in her arms.

How many times would she have given up a few months ago? Before this, she’d never—she’d never even made a fire. She would have had a servant make it, or at the very least used magic.

If she could have gone back in time, what would she have done differently? Everything. She’d never have come here, she wouldn’t have stolen—

But if she never came here, she would never have leveled, would she? And she would have been stuck—

The sparks flew from the flint. They landed among the wood kindling and caught. Lyonette held her breath and then desperately tried to shelter the flame.

Fire. Once it grew, Lyonette fed it more wood. More and more, until the fire was hot and bright and large. Then she added the secret ingredient.

Flaxen sacks, grass plucked from beneath the snow—anything green that would smoke. The smell was horrible, but Lyon ignored it and kept adding her fuel.

Smoke, dark and noxious, billowed up from the fire. Lyonette stared at it, eyes stinging, but filled with wild elation. Fear had disappeared. Courage—she fanned the flames and the ones in her heart.

Soon, the cave was choked with dark smoke, and Lyon knew it would become overwhelming in a few more minutes. Perfect. She stared anxiously at the dark interior. She hadn’t seen nor heard any bees, but they were further inside. First she had to build the fire. Then—

Thick clothing. Lyonette had many layers wrapped around her. It might stop one or two stingers, or slow them down. She had gloves, and the knife. It could cut into the hive, hopefully. She’d cut away as much honeycomb as she could and put it in the jars. If she was lucky, she’d even get some of the grubs the Antinium seemed to like so much. Then she’d run.

That was the plan. And it was a good plan, brave. It lasted in Lyonette’s head, shining and full of promise until Lyonette heard the buzzing.

At first, it was just a gentle noise on the verge of hearing. Then it became louder, and Lyonette realized the thrumming was getting closer. She looked up, screamed, and ran as first tens, then hundreds of bees streamed out of the cave towards the fire.

They’d come for the fire. That was all Lyonette could think as she sprinted out of the cave. By the fire’s light she saw countless flickering shapes, and then heard the bees hit the fire.

They were extinguishing it! Embers and burning wood flew everywhere as the bees scattered the smoking campfire Lyonette had worked so hard to build. They knew! They knew about smoke and they were unafraid of fire!

And then they came for her. Lyonette screamed as she ran into the deep snow outside the cave. She threw herself into the snow, digging herself as far down as she could, desperately trying to cover herself. All the while, she could hear the bees’ wings beating. Like a maelstrom, like thunder.

Lyonette dug, wiggling herself down, down, crying. She heard a buzzing thing hit the snow next to her head like a falling stone and cried out. But the bee hadn’t hit her! It had missed! Lyonette held as still as she could, tears running from her eyes. The bees couldn’t see her. But they knew she was there and they began stabbing into the snow.

The girl hid in the snow, sobbing, while the thunder buzzed all around her and she heard thumps as the bees landed in the snow, searching for her. Hot liquid ran from her eyes, and more ran down her pants. All Lyon could think was that she’d be dead in the next second, then the next ten seconds. Then in a minute…

After a while, after a long while when the thunder had ceased and all the sounds were gone, Lyonette finally sat up. She looked around and saw the snow was torn and thrown about, and extinguished remains were all that remained of the fire she’d built. And of the bees?

Nothing at all. They’d gone back into their hive.

Lyonette stared around at the shattered remains of her dreams. She stumbled, felt wetness on her lower body. She looked down. The snow had dampened her clothes, but that didn’t explain the stain around her crotch. She’d wet herself. She hadn’t done that in—at least no one was around to see.

In the end, Lyonette stumbled back to the inn. She left the firewood behind, the wheelbarrow, the glass jars—she didn’t have the heart to bring them back.

It was over. She’d had one chance, but it hadn’t even been a chance at all. These bees didn’t fear fire, and they were too smart to let the smoke fill their cave.

The girl stumbled back into the inn, still crying. She couldn’t do it. She’d thought—but she was not Erin.

And even Erin couldn’t have done that by herself. Lyonette clearly remembered the real key to stealing the bees’ honey. The horrible monster with glowing purple eyes who’d tormented her so. But for all she’d hated him, he’d been instrumental. And he wasn’t here.

The girl sank into a chair, wet, miserable, despairing. She buried her head in her hands, but now she was even out of tears. She was so tired. So tired—and so lonely.

She didn’t have the skeleton. Toren. She didn’t have Erin Solstice’s twisted, insane mind either. Right at this very moment, Lyonette wished both were back and this inn was how it used to be. She would have scrubbed the floors all by herself, hauled as many buckets of water as Erin needed, even watered the flowers and—

The flowers.

Lyon’s eyes widened with sudden memory. How could she had forgotten? She surged to her weary feet, ran to one of the windows.

She’d forgotten entirely. After all this time—Erin normally watered them. But could they be alive? Could she sell—

No!

She cried the word when she saw them. Flowers. Flowers yellow and bright as gold, a faerie’s payment. But wizened, wilted.

Dying.

The pots of flowers Erin had so lovingly grown were full of—Lyonette stared down at them, her heart breaking. She knew they could be made into a drink, even if she didn’t know how. The adventurer, Halrac, had paid in gold for it. If she had remembered, if she had cared about her duties from the start—

Now they were dead. Or close to it. Some still lived, and Lyonette immediately soaked the dry soil with water, but it would be long, too long before they recovered.

And of course, some were beyond help. Lyonette stared at one dead flower in despair. She picked it out and stared at it.

Another lost hope. Now her heart was well and truly broken. Lyonette stared at the fire in the inn. It was barely even embers now; the last flickers of light hidden at the center of the ash.

Fire had failed her. Angrily, Lyonette stalked over to the fireplace and tossed the dead flower into it. The faerie’s flower smoked and gave off an acrid smoke. Lyonette coughed, angrily waving the fumes away—

And woke up on her back. Lyonette blinked, stared at the dead fire, and then at the remains of the flower. She blinked—stared at the way the darkness had become lighter, at the dead fire, long extinguished, and then at the wilted flowers. Then she sat up.

Flowers. And bees.”

 

—-

 

It was just before dawn when the girl lit the second fire just inside the cave of the Ashfire Bees. This time her body was nearly completely numb and she was shaking from exhaustion. She’d brought another huge glass jar, and a handful of the most dead flowers she could gather. She prayed that was enough.

The kindling refused to light. The wood was so wet from its exposure to the elements—Lyon kept trying. She struck sparks until her fingers cramped, and then the fire lit.

She fed the fire. She added wood, feeding it, growing it frantically. How soon before the bees noticed the flame and heat? How soon before—

She heard the thrumming again, but this time she was ready. Lyonette cast the flowers into the fire and saw smoke go up. But it was only a glimpse because she was running out of the cave, diving into the snow again.

The bees came, a howling sound louder than anything. Lyonette waited for them to scatter the fire, but suddenly the beating noise lessened. She heard small impacts, as if something was falling to the ground and then—

Silence.

Lyon got up slowly. She stared at the cave, and then dared to approach, holding her breath. The last vestiges of smoke faded and she saw the bees.

There were hundreds of them. They lay on the ground in droves, legs folded, wings still extended, some of them.

Asleep.

Lyonette’s heart beat faster. She grabbed a jar. She grabbed the knife. She danced about with both, and then wondered how long the effects of the faerie flower smoke would last. Then she ran into the cave.

 

—-

 

Three jars of honey and honeycomb, cut from the hive. Two jars stuffed with bees, still alive but sleeping. Lyonette sat in the snow, far away from the cave, shaking so hard she couldn’t even stand.

She’d seen the bees waking up as she’d scooped them up into the big glass jars. But she’d done it. She’d cut into the hive, full of grubs and sleeping bees and taken as much as she could. Then she’d filled the jars, pushed them into the wheelbarrow, and fled.

And now—

Some of the bees were moving in the glass jars. There was no air inside, but they were still alive, somehow. Lyonette stared at a huge one that wiggled its feelers and moved its legs weakly. Lyonette smiled at it, lip trembling. She held the big jar up, gloating, mocking the bees.

“I did it! You stupid bees! I did—”

One of the bees inside the jar tried to fan its wings and escape. It smacked into the glass. Lyonette screamed, nearly dropped the jar, caught it at the last moment, and then put it carefully back on the wheelbarrow. She shuddered as the jars full of bees vibrated. She made sure the lids were secure, and then slowly made her way back to the inn.

She was exhausted. Lyonette felt as though her muscles would tear. Her bones…seemed to ache. And yet Lyonette held her head high. She smiled, even as she ascended the hill, pushing the wheelbarrow up to the door of the inn, legs ready to give out.

She felt so proud of herself, she could burst. Then Lyonette pushed the door to the inn open, and found a small bundle of white fur wrapped around a table leg. Mrsha blinked as Lyonette let light shine on her face, and then looked up hopefully. Her wagging tail slowed when she saw it was just Lyonette.

“Huh?”

The Human girl stared at the young Gnoll. The Gnoll stared back. Lyonette sat down, a jar of honey in her hands.

“What are you doing…? Why are you…?”

Mrsha just blinked at her. Lyonette blinked back. Then, tremulously, she smiled. Mrsha edged closer, wary.

“You’re so thin.

That was all Lyonette said as she sat on the inn’s floor, stroking Mrsha’s head. The Gnoll nuzzled her. She was indeed thin, and she looked—

Sad. Lyonette couldn’t read Gnoll’s faces, but she saw it in the way the Gnoll curled up next to her. Sad, and lonely.

Just like her.

“Would you like some honey? It’s fresh.”

The Gnoll’s tail wagged. And Lyonette opened the jar. And for the first time in a long, long while, as the sun rose and her weary body ached, Lyonette ate breakfast with someone else.

 

—-

 

Mrsha!

Selys burst through the door of the inn twenty minutes later. Lyonette looked up as she and Mrsha stared at a wriggling grub half-submerged in a bowl of white, gelatinous stuff. The Drake stared at the Gnoll, stared at Lyonette, and then at the grub.

“What’s happening? Mrsha?”

The Gnoll immediately hopped off the table and fled into the kitchen. Selys ran towards her, and stopped as Lyonette got up.

“Is something wrong? Miss…Selys?”

“Um—no, nothing’s wrong…Lyon.”

The Drake glanced distractedly at Lyon, not looking particularly happy to see the girl so early in the morning. She pointed at the kitchen.

“When did Mrsha get here? I’ve been looking for her all day—ever since I found out she’d run away!”

“Ran away?”

The Drake nodded distractedly.

“She’s been doing it all week. I normally find her but this time—is she okay?”

“I think so. She’s so thin—”

“She won’t eat! Mrsha, come out of there! Come on! I’ll feed you anything you want, just—”

The Drake went into the kitchen. Lyonette heard scuffling, then Mrsha bounded out and ran up the stairs. Selys went after her. A few seconds later, Lyon heard another shout and Mrsha bounded down the stairs. Selys came down after her, gasping. She had to lean against a table as Mrsha circled the chair Lyonette had been sitting at.

“You can’t stay here! You…give me a second…you’ve got to come back, okay? Be a good girl until Erin and Ryoka come back!”

But Mrsha refused. Lyonette knew the young Gnoll couldn’t speak, but she saw it in every line of her body, and especially in the way the Gnoll clung to one of the tables as Selys tried to drag her outside.

“Come on! Please?”

Mrsha yowled, a noise more bestial than anything else. Selys pulled and pulled…but five minutes later she sat at one of the tables as Lyonette served her eggs and toast drizzled in honey. Mrsha licked her plate—she’d eaten so much Lyon was afraid she’d throw up.

“I just don’t get it. She doesn’t eat anything I give her! Not even steak! Do you know how expensive that is—and where did you get all this honey?”

“I stole it from the bees.”

“The bees? You?”

Lyon just nodded. She hadn’t even had time to change her clothes. She knew she was filthy and wet and from the way Mrsha had sniffed at her, she knew she stank as well. But there was something keeping her upright, and—

“What’s with that?

Selys turned a bit pale as she pointed at the grub swimming in the liquid. Mrsha sniffed at it and Selys pushed an inquisitive paw away.

“Don’t touch it, Mrsha. It could be…well, it’s gross.”

“It’s a grub. A bee larvae. And that—I think it’s jelly.”

“Jelly?”

“Royal jelly. It’s this thing in hives that bees make. You can eat it, I think.”

“Really? Well why not take the grub out and—boil it first, maybe?”

“The jelly? Or the grub? I’m trying to keep it alive.”

Selys paused, mid-bite, a piece of toast in her claws.

“Why? Are you—are you going to eat it? Do Humans…?”

“No. I want to feed it to the Antinium.”

“To the—and you stole honey from those killer bees Erin mentioned?”

“Not just honey.”

Proudly, Lyonette pointed to a corner of the room. Selys looked and nearly jumped out of her scales.

Gah!

The dead bees pressed up against the glass walls of the jars, obscenely squished together. Selys stared at them as she slowly pushed her plate away. Mrsha just sniffed at the jars, tail wagging with curiosity.

“Mrsha, don’t. Those are—come with me.”

But the Gnoll refused to move. And as she ran from Selys and the Drake futilely chased her about, Lyonette had an idea.

“She can stay with me.”

“What?”

Selys looked up at Lyon, panting. She shook her head, glancing around the empty inn and then at Lyonette.

“Out of the question. Erin trusted Mrsha with me—and she’s far too young. And besides…”

Lyonette knew what Selys was saying. Besides, how could Mrsha be entrusted to her, Lyon’s care? But she just pointed to Mrsha.

“She likes it here, though. She likes honey. And—there are lots of beds. I could take care of her. I could, Selys.”

The Drake stared at the Human and Mrsha chased her tail. But when Selys grabbed for her, Mrsha just ran behind Lyonette. The girl stared down at the Gnoll, and the Gnoll stared back up.

It wasn’t as if Mrsha knew Lyonette that well. They’d—well, Lyonette remembered feeding the Gnoll scraps from her plate and scratching her behind the ears, but that wasn’t what made Mrsha want to stay with her over Selys.

It was the inn. It was that Lyonette was here, waiting. And so was Mrsha. And no matter how much Selys argued and tried to coax the Gnoll to come with her—

“I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got to go but—this isn’t over, Mrsha! If I have to I’ll get Krshia!”

The young Gnoll hid behind a chair as Selys pointed at her. She quivered, but she still refused to budge.

“You don’t want to have her come up here, do you? Do you? Come on Mrsha—”

“I’ll take good care of her while you’re gone. I promise. I can make food—”

“Just don’t let her go outside, okay?”

Selys looked ready to tear the spines on her head off. She stalked over to the door, angry, upset. She yanked the door open and blinked at Pawn. The Antinium’s hand paused, ready to knock. But that wasn’t what made all the blood drain out of Selys’ scales. She stared up at the massive Soldier, huge, imposing, staring down at her. Her mouth opened, she gaped—

And then fell backwards in a faint. No one caught her. Lyonette stared at Pawn. He stared at Selys. Mrsha hid behind the jar of bees.

“Oops. I was going to knock.”

He nodded to Lyonette as she helped him drag Selys inside. The Soldiers walked in behind Pawn, so many of them! They filled the room, standing perfectly still behind their leader.

For a few seconds, in that moment when Selys had yanked open the door, Lyonette had wanted to scream. But that instinct had fled the moment she had seen Pawn. She looked at the Soldiers as they stood in the inn. They looked—

Scary. There was no other word for it. But all Antinium looked like monsters, didn’t they? Until you got to know them.

Pawn sat at a table, clearly wavering over the unconscious Drake. He nodded several times to Lyon, and distractedly stared at Mrsha who was creeping closer to him.

“I do apologize. I didn’t mean to scare anyone. I just—I had hoped you were open for business.”

Open for business. The words made Lyon’s eyes open wide. She stared again at the Soldiers, but this time not as a stranger seeing something unfamiliar, but as a…a [Barmaid] sizing up a potential client.

And there was a lot of client, and a lot of them. How much could they eat? Lyon’s eyes traveled to the jar of bees. Her heart beat faster. So she stood up.

And smiled. She smiled at the Antinium, even at the huge Soldiers. Mrsha stared up at one of the silent behemoths, and he stared back. He was missing a hand on one of his four arms. But he was a customer, a guest. And…oh, how would Erin say it?

Lyonette gestured to her empty chairs. She pointed at the bees and remembered there was a special pan for frying them. She looked at the twenty Soldiers, at Pawn, and at the Gnoll poking the unconscious Drake. She smiled, because she wasn’t alone anymore. And she asked them one simple question.

“Would you like something to eat?”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.20 T

This is the story of a monster. She knew she was a monster. She’d eaten people. Her own kind, rotting, crawling with insects and maggots and decay.

She’d done it to survive. But the cost had been almost too much to bear. More than once, the young woman who’d once had a name wished she had died back then rather than take that first bite.

But she was alive. And she still longed to live, even now. But the monster in her—

It hungered. It always wanted out. There was a part of her soul that would devour the world if it could. It would eat and eat until there was nothing left to eat but itself.

That was what she feared. Walking any deeper down this road to hell would mean never coming back. Of that she was sure.

She was a monster. A horrible thing, a creature to be hunted and killed by heroes and adventurers. But that was the thing. The girl that looked like a monster had encountered real monsters. Goblins. And somehow, they were more like people than the Humans living in Esthelm.

Goblins. The most pathetic species, the cowardly, backstabbing creatures that ate their own dead. That was what the [Florist] had been told when she’d walked on two legs and known her name. But the thing that scuttled around on all fours with jagged claws and sharp teeth saw something different.

She saw people. People—warriors, proud and courageous. The Goblins who’d saved her once ran through the streets, armed, keeping the way clear while six of their number helped support and drag the massive Hobgoblin they carried between them.

His eyes were fluttering, and the massive Goblin was fading. Blood trailed from his stomach, spattering on the snow and dirty ground. He was cut deeply.

A Gold-rank adventurer had done that to him. The monster had seen it. He’d been killing monsters and he’d fought the Goblins. And she’d fought him, to let them get away.

Even now she didn’t know why she’d done it. She’d attacked her own people—a hero! But he’d been wrong. The Goblins were not monsters. They were heroes too.

They’d fought. With their backs against the wall, even against an adventurer—they’d fought. That was all the monster thought as she helped drag the half-conscious Hob back towards their camp.

They were monsters, yes. But even they—no, they weren’t nearly as pathetic as she was. And she had saved them. Or tried. She’d fought against a hero, an adventurer—

For them.

What had possessed her? Perhaps only a desire not to let these people die. To repay them for the kindness they’d shown her. Because they weren’t monsters.

Only she was a monster.

The Goblin warriors were shouting in panic as they ran through the streets. They were shouting at the Hob, trying to keep him awake. The massive Goblin was stumbling, barely lucid, but none of the Goblins dared slow down. They kept watching their backs, waiting at any moment for the man in silver armor to pursue them.

But he never came. And when the Goblins had gotten to their camp and the Hob collapsed on the ground, they immediately tore at his belt.

The monster squatted in a corner, fingers in her mouth, watching, not knowing what to do. One of the Goblins was undoing all the compartments in the belt, searching for something. What?

A healing potion! Of course! The red vial was tiny, but from the way it glittered in the light, the monster knew it was very powerful. She caught her breath as they poured the liquid into the Hob’s gaping stomach wound. And in an instant—

It closed! The thing had never seen any wound heal that fast, but the potion was the kind only the rich would use. The Hob groaned, but color flooded back into his green face. He sat up—

And clutched at his arm. The potion hadn’t mended his broken bones. The other Goblin warriors sighed in relief. One reached for the Hob’s arm, but he shoved the Goblin away. Wincing, the Hob felt at his injuries and then pointed. A Goblin fished around in their packs and came up with cloth and a metal bar they’d used to hold the cooking pot with.

The Hob began to create a splint with the materials. Other Goblins wanted to help, but he clearly wanted to do it by himself. He snapped at the other Goblins when they tried to approach.

The monster watched this, even more sure that she had been right and the adventurer wrong. These were not monsters to be killed, at least, these Goblins weren’t.

They cared for each other. Impulsively, the young woman reached out. She touched Grunter’s arm as he grunted in pain and annoyance, fumbling with the splint.

The Hob moved to push the creature away, but paused when he saw her. He hesitated, and then reluctantly let her take the splint. Slowly, slowly, trying to remember how the motions worked, the young woman tied the splint to his arm. The Hob gasped, but made a sound when she stopped.

Tighter. That was clearly what he said, what he meant. The monster-girl tied the knot, as the Hob gasped, but when it was done he stood and grunted at her.

Thanks. That was all it was, but it made the monster’s eyes fill with tears. The Hob paused and gently bent to wipe them away.

And then the monster was no monster, but a young woman who looked like one. The Redfang warriors crowded around her, slapping her back, gargling in approval at her. Looking at her—

As a person. It was all the young woman wanted. So she wept and for a second, forgot the hunger in her soul.

 

—-

 

This is the tale of a monster. This is the tale of a young woman with something dark in her soul. She felt it, even as she sat in the Goblin’s camp, listening to them laugh and slap each other with the sheer, giddy relief of being alive.

She was still a monster. She still wanted to eat, to tear the flesh off of her newfound friends and—

But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. And yet the thing knew it couldn’t stay. Eventually, she would become—

A Goblin pressed a bowl of reheated soup into her hands. He grinned at her as he scratched at his head. She stared at him. He looked familiar. He was the first Goblin who’d come for her. Her eyes went to his head, and she recoiled.

He had ticks! The Goblin looked vaguely apologetic as he scratched at one dark shape buried on his bald head. The girl grabbed at him, and much to his surprise, dragged him over to the fire the other Goblins were restarting. There she picked up a stick and to the other Goblins’ astonishment, lit one end until it was hot.

The head-scratching Goblin had no idea what she intended, and thus when he saw the hot stick heading for his head he immediately tried to pull away. But the monster-girl made soothing noises and he stopped. He was very tense in her arms as she poked at the ticks with her stick.

The flaming end made the Goblin yelp and try to pull away, but it didn’t seem to make the tick want to leave. Frowning, the young woman cast aside the tick and grabbed at the Goblin’s head.

Nails, then. She picked at the skin, her elongated nails digging into the flesh. The Goblin screeched and tried to get away then—but he paused when she pulled the first tick off of his head.

 

—-

 

Headscratcher and the other Goblins stared in horror at the huge tick, big and fat from living off his scalp as the Human girl pulled it out of his head. Immediately, the other Goblins crowded around Headscratcher’s head and recoiled as they saw how infested it was.

Beseechingly, Headscratcher put his head on the Human’s lap. She seemed stunned, but then obligingly dug her fingers into Headscratcher’s skin, gently, pulling bugs out. She flicked them into the fire. Once or twice, Headscratcher thought she was looking at them as if she was hungry but she never ate them.

Once it was over, the Goblin’s head was bleeding, but mercifully, no longer itching. He grinned at the Human and only got a strange look in reply. He thought she would have been happy, but when she looked at his face—

It almost looked like she was about to cry.

 

—-

 

The young woman sat in the snow next to the fire. She rubbed at the dirty ball in her hands. Soap. Lye soap, strongly scented, pilfered no doubt from some caravan the Goblins had raided.

But soap nonetheless. And they had cloth and oil. More things that made them civilized, made them people. Slowly, the girl abandoned the soap and dunked her hands into hot water. It made her hands burn, but it was necessary. She was filthy.

Yes, wasn’t that how it went? Clean hands and—and doing things. Small things. Not eating the dead. If she could do things like this, then—

The young woman stared at the Goblin curled up into a ball next to her. He was practically frozen with fright, and the other four Goblins holding him looked grim and determined. He hadn’t wanted her help, but they’d insisted.

Several tiny mites crawled out of the shivering Goblins’ ear even as the young woman watched. They made her…hungry, but she put away the thought. Infestation. Bugs. She’d seen it before, seen a [Healer] treat it. She could try the same, couldn’t she?

The Goblin whose ticks she’d pulled out—the head scratching Goblin—handed her a stick with a bit of cloth wrapped around the end. It was very thin, and the girl dipped lightly in a pot of oil sitting next to her. Her Goblin patient shuddered when he saw the stick, but the other Goblins held him down.

Gently, very gently, the young woman swabbed the Goblin’s ear with the cloth and oil. He gritted his teeth and growled inaudible words into her lap, but didn’t move. Bugs came out with the stick, stuck on the oil. The other Goblins made a face when the girl kept pulling out bugs. One of them slapped the Goblin on the ear as if it was his fault he’d let them in there.

Too many bugs. No matter how hard the girl tried, she kept getting more with each stick and she was sure there were probably eggs in there. So she changed tactics.

Hot water, poured in the Goblin’s pointed ear. He yelped and struggled, but his friends just laughed and held him down. The girl counted to ten and then let him sit up and drain his ear.

Tiny little bugs washed out with the water. The girl made a face and did it again, this time with soapy water. She made the Goblin keep the water in his ear for several minutes; long enough to drown whatever was in there.

When she let him sit up, the Goblin glared at her and stuck a finger in his ear. But when he only pulled out dead bugs, he brightened up. He grinned at her and waved a hand. She smiled back.

And cried.

It was something the other Goblins couldn’t understand. But the young woman felt—normal after helping the Goblin. His gratitude hurt her in ways no sword could ever do.

Of course, she couldn’t explain that. The other Goblins crowded around the former bug-eared Goblin. One smacked him on the back of the head. Another punched him. The young woman stopped them. Tried to explain.

There was a patch of dirt on the ground next to the fire. The young woman took a stick and drew in it. She drew a stick figure, and then small ones for the Goblins. They crowded around to look, and the one who scratched his head sat across from her, staring at the young woman’s face.

Her. Goblins. They nodded and pointed at each other, drawing an exaggeratedly fat Goblin for the Hob who lay resting against one wall. The girl nodded, face bleak, and they quieted. She pointed to the figure representing her in the dark.

Me.

She added fangs and horns to the little figure in the dirt.

Monster.

They stared at her. Their eyes found the way her teeth had changed, her jaw, her fingers and even arms, making her less…Human. More like an Eater, whatever that was. But then they shrugged at her.

So what? A Goblin patted the young woman’s hand and grinned at her. He pointed to himself and the others and drew little horns on all of the figures. They were all monsters.

The young woman’s eyes filled, but she didn’t weep. She pointed at the figure, and then drew other figures, other Humans. Far away from her. She drew a line between herself and the others.

Alone.

The other Goblins stopped smiling. They stared at her, and at the line separating her. They understood. None of them said a word. They just understood.

The young woman pointed to a body. She pointed to the dead flesh, mimed eating. The Goblins nodded. She drew a line down her face.

Sad.

A tear travelled down the grime, washing it away. The Goblins stared at her, and then at the bodies.

They understood.

And she understood. Somehow, in the ways they tried to tell her, in the motions of their arms. They felt it too.

Because of course Goblins ate their dead. Of course they did. To survive, they would eat anything. Everyone knew that. Eating their own kind and other people was what made Goblins monsters.

But who would have asked Goblins how they felt? Did anyone realize the Goblins wept to eat their own dead? Of course Goblins ate their own kind. They did it to survive. But every single Goblin drew a line down their cheeks.

They did, and they wept inside.

They were people too. People who wanted to live.

They were monsters with souls. And they—

They were no different from her. No worse than she’d been, and perhaps better. They weren’t monsters.

And perhaps she wasn’t either.

This is the story of a monster girl. She sat in the ruins of her home and wept. For everything she’d lost. For everything she’d become. She wept because she had done horrible things to survive, horrible things that had made her despair and want to die. But she had met monsters, and it turned out they were more Human than she was. And then they’d shown her their hearts and it had turned out she was no monster either.

The young woman wept, sobbing for all she’d lost. She was lost, alone. But then she felt the arms around her, and looked up into the face of Headscratcher. He squeezed her tight, eyes closed.

This is the story of a Goblin who hugged a monster. And the monster yearned to bite him, to eat—

But she forced the desires down in her chest. She buried the madness and found something else sprouting in the darkness of her heart. It bloomed, a faint sprout reaching towards the light, drinking in the moment of kindness.

A flower.

 

[Condition – Terrible Hunger Removed!]

 

The voice made her eyes go wide. The girl stood up, knocking the Goblin’s hands away. He let go instantly, afraid he’d gone too far. But the young woman stared up at the sky and saw only blue. A bit of blue hiding behind the dark clouds.

Sunlight. Far off, but still there, shining down. Redemption for a shattered soul. Thanks for a Goblin.

He was saying something. Trying to apologize. The young woman looked at him, and embraced him to his great surprise. The other Goblins gaped, but she hugged him, lifting him up into the air.

She still looked like a monster. Her teeth were still sharp, and she had lost the words. But she was no longer hungry. That was enough.

She hugged him, and wept. A monster, hugging a Goblin. But a monster with a soul. And a bit more Human in them than had been there a minute ago. So it whispered to the young woman, as she tried to remember her name, knowing she had one.

Salvation.

 

—-

 

The man wearing silver armor stood at the head of the battlements and stared down at the people. They looked up to him for hope, for redemption. For a chance to live again.

“The Goblins are coming.”

That was all he said to them, Esthelm’s remaining thousands. They held weapons in their hands, children, women, men, clinging to life with all they had. He had never been prouder, never been more honored to fight.

“They are coming! Their first assault failed. They’ll be coming in force, next. All of them.”

The dead lay in the streets, and what few he had saved had now joined the living. The Goblins had swept through the city, killing teams of them. But they were dead now, avenged. He had slain nearly a hundred himself, and the others—

Ylawes looked out past the barricade he stood on, out into the city. Zombies wandered the streets, by the hundreds. Thousands. And somewhere, hiding, striking whenever his back was turned, was the skeleton. It had killed Goblins and Humans alike. But it was one skeleton compared to the army about to march.

The Gold-rank adventurer turned to the people again. He pointed to the barricades—built with stone and wood and anything that could be scavenged, manned by anyone with a bow or weapon that could hold off the hordes.

“We have the high ground, and we’ve created chokepoints that we can hold.”

One main entry point with palisades. A killing field, or so he hoped. He would hold it until he died. And these people—Ylawes pointed at them, shouting.

“They will come. They will come and we will fight and die here. Do you understand? Here. To the last child. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide! Your city lives or dies on this day! People of Esthelm, reclaim your pride. Throw back the Goblins and retake your city!”

He raised his sword and they roared. They would have cheered anyone, but they cheered him. They called out for hope and raised their weapons against the darkness.

“Do you really think we can live, sir?”

“I told you to call me Ylawes.”

The man turned and looked the Bronze-rank adventurer in the eye. He was glad the young man had stayed, he and his two friends. And because he respected the man’s courage, he didn’t lie.

“The odds are slim. But it’s possible. We have the Goblins’ numbers. We may even outnumber them by a bit.”

“Counting women and children sir. And people who can barely fight—”

“That’s what the barricades and I will have to equalize. Other than that, we can only hope that the people of Esthelm fight with all the courage they have today. If we can kill a good number of them, our enemy may disperse. They might have armor and some training, but they’re still low-level Goblins. At least, most of them are. In truth, it’s the undead that concern me most.”

“So many…”

“Yes. I was too late.”

Ylawes said it simply. He stared down at the streets.

“The Goblins will control them with [Shamans] and [Mages] if they can. Use them to fight. If we have to battle both undead and Goblins, we stand no chance.”

“If that happens—then what will we do?”

“Hold out. For as long as possible. Aid may arrive soon.”

“Are you sure?”

The man looked at him, wanting to believe. So did Ylawes. He reached for a belt pouch and pulled something out.

“I sent for help last night.”

He showed the adventurer a scroll with glowing letters etched onto the parchment. A message. And—underneath it, a reply had been written in terse, neat script.

“Help is coming. But I don’t know if it will come here in an hour or in days.”

“We don’t have days.”

They didn’t even have an hour. And both adventurers knew that. Ylawes looked to the horizon, and raised his voice.

“To arms! The Goblins are coming!”

The dark mass at the edge of the city limits was moving. On the walls, the Humans saw a dark tide of bodies surging into the city, and then heard rhythmic impacts.

Drumbeats. Not just one or two, but countless numbers of them, thudding impacts that made the defenders shake in fear.

The drumbeats were like thunder. And as Ylawes watched, the first wave of the Goblin army began pouring into the city. Some rode Shield Spiders—others horses. And at the head of the army—

“Undead. The [Shamans] are controlling them.”

He gritted his teeth. Was this the end? But it was only a few undead—barely a hundred. If that was all they could control, then—

There was a chance. Ylawes shouted as he ran down the barricade, to the one opening in their defenses. He would cut them down again and again. Create a point for them to throw all their fury into until there was nothing left.

“Man the barricades. We hold them at the choke points—force them back!”

The people of Esthelm shouted, and the Goblin drums pounded. Now the Goblins screamed, and their voices ran throughout the city. They met the adventurer wearing silver and the clash was like thunder. Goblins poured up the barricades, fighting the people on the walls. Archers from both sides filled the skies—

And the undead moved. They focused on the conflict like lightning. Zombies, ghouls, advancing like the tide. Goblins turned and fought the dead—[Shamans] struggled to control them, trying, failing in the face of so many. And the man in silver fought on, sword and shield flashing in the light.

The last battle for Esthelm had begun.

 

—-

 

He saw the man wearing silver armor. He saw the Goblins, seemingly numberless as they poured towards the wooden barricades, screaming warcries. And Toren felt happy.

War. Death. The Humans met the Goblins with a roar, clashing swords. In moments the first bodies began to fall.

And oh, how Toren longed to be among the fighting, sword in hand! But he had to be patient. He looked around, at the dead who surrounded him.

They were his kind. Thoughtless, yes, but Toren felt a connection to them he hadn’t a few days ago. He and they weren’t so different after all. They lived to fight and kill—

And so did he. This was his purpose. Toren knew it. He could lead the dead. Why else would he have this Skill, this class, if not because he was meant to do it? There was a special joy to ordering the zombies about, to leading them to victory through superior tactics and planning.

It was addictive, giddying, intoxicating. Toren looked at the battlefield and saw how he could shape it. He called out to the zombies under his control, readying them to move into the fray.

This was what he was meant to do. At last, he’d found it. It was so wonderful to command. Had Erin felt like this when she ordered him? Had she—

Toren paused. The burning lights in his eyes dimmed for a second. No. Not her. He was separate now. She was…not his owner any longer. He was free. Would be free.

And he would level up. Toren looked back at the battlefield. The Goblins were trying to swarm up the barricades blocking the streets off as Humans threw them off the barricades and shot arrows and threw stones down at them. Now was the time.

The first group of zombies lurched towards the Goblins. They moved slowly—just another random assortment of the undead drawn to the conflict. The Goblins barely paid any attention to them. So long as they had a few warriors guard their flanks, there was no danger.

Toren grinned. At his silent command, the zombies began to run.

This is the story of a skeleton. He only knew how to kill, so he did just that. In a city filled with death, the skeleton killed with his hands at first, and then used others to kill more and more. He would kill everything if he could.

Because it was all he knew.

 

—-

 

“Hold the lines! Hold, damn you!

Ylawes screamed at the people struggling around him as he cut with his sword, bringing down Goblins as they came at him. How long had he been fighting? A few seconds? An hour? He couldn’t tell.

Goblins poured towards him, around the palisades, into the center of a whirlwind of steel he created. Parry, strike, block, strike—his shield was a weapon just as much as his sword. Normal Goblins couldn’t even get close as he cut through their weapons, but there were more who attacked even as their companions fell. And when a Hob came—

Ylawes stumbled back as a javelin crashed into his chest, breaking on his armor but denting it. His plate mail was not enchanted like his arms, and he coughed. A Goblin screamed as it swung a shortsword—

He beheaded it. Keep fighting. Don’t stop! The Goblins seemed endless, but the barricades were all still holding. Even as people fell and died, more rushed to take their place. They had the high ground. So long as they had that, even a child could knock a Goblin down with a well-placed blow—

Zombies!

Someone screamed the word. Ylawes turned, and saw fourteen zombies, sprinting at him. He reacted instantly.

[Shield of Valor]!

The zombie crashed into a wall of air as Ylawes brought his shield up and pushed. The zombies and every Goblin in a cone in front of him were sent flying backwards by his Skill. Panting, Ylawes lowered his shield and turned.

“Report!”

An [Archer], one of the few warriors among the citizens—called out to him as she snatched at more arrows. The Goblins were pulling back, but her hands never stopped working, firing into their shielded ranks.

“Zombies are coming from every direction! They’re attacking the barricades, but some are attacking the Goblins!”

“Show me!”

Ylawes leapt up onto a platform. The woman pointed and he saw she was right. Zombies were approaching from all sides, drawn by so many living bodies. And they were attacking Goblins! Some of the undead were even fighting those controlled by the [Shamans]. But something was very, very wrong.

“What’s happening?”

The [Archer] pointed as a group of zombies began running, just as the ones earlier had. They charged into a group of Goblins from behind, biting and tearing.

“Zombies can’t run!”

“Some can.”

Ylawes was grim as he surveyed the zombies. They’d caught an entire group of archers by surprise—was it chance or had something known that there was an opportunity to strike.

“They can?

The woman stared at Ylawes in horror. He nodded.

“Some can. But not like this. Only a few out of a hundred should and they don’t—group like that. This isn’t right.”

“Look! Another group!”

This time, Ylawes clearly saw what was happening. A group of zombies moving slowly towards the Goblins suddenly stiffened. In an instant, they’d changed from their slow pace into a sprint, and they changed course. Instead of hitting the group of Goblin warriors they’d been aiming towards, they ran towards a barricade and began pounding at a gap that had been exposed in the wooden structure.

“Why are they acting like that?”

There.

Ylawes pointed. At the center of a huge mass of zombies, a skeleton was standing, pointing and waving a sword about. The woman standing next to him paled.

“Dead gods. Is it leading them?”

“Yes.”

Ylawes saw it clearly. Wherever the skeleton pointed, a group of zombies would begin to run. They attacked vulnerable spots, hitting both Humans and Goblins alike. Always fourteen zombies. Each time the group of fourteen zombies had crashed into the Goblin flanks, another group would begin to move with that same focused intelligence.

“It’s coordinating the undead. It’s trying to overwhelm us! Watch the sides!”

Ylawes called out. He wanted to run up to see how the entire battlefield was going, but the brief window he’d created with his Skill was already up. He saw people struggling against the Goblin warriors again, and leapt back into the fray.

“Don’t falter!”

A Goblin riding a massive Shield Spider was coming straight at Ylawes, laughing as he hacked apart Humans with a halberd that cut through armor like it wasn’t there. The [Knight] roared a challenge, and the two met in a clash at the center of the battlefield. But the undead kept coming, and the barricades began to splinter under the ceaseless attacks…

 

—-

 

They sat on the rooftop of their hideout, watching the battle. Goblins. But not those Goblins. The Redfang warriors felt no attachment to the warriors of the Goblin Lord. In fact, they sneered at the other side’s tactics.

Sieging an entrenched group of Humans? What were they, idiots? They’d clearly counted on overwhelming the Humans in one push, but they’d underestimated the Gold-rank adventurer and the difficulty of overcoming the barricades. By himself, the warrior in silver armor had slain countless Goblins already and so long as he stood, the Goblins couldn’t advance past his position.

Too, the undead were complicating matters. Badarrow pointed and the Goblins saw the undead were attacking Goblins from behind, forcing them to split their forces. Something was moving the undead like a [Tactician], and it was making the attacking force’s job that much harder.

Still, all the Redfang Goblins could tell the battle was going one way. The zombies were getting diced by the Goblins for all the damage they inflicted. The same could not be said of the inexperienced Human defenders. Worn down by both sides, the barricades were failing. Once one collapsed—

All the Humans would die. The Redfang warriors weren’t sure how they felt about this. On one hand, Humans were usually their enemies. On the other hand, the Goblin Lords’ forces were definitely their enemy. And besides—

They glanced left, at the young woman sitting next to them. She crouched on the roof, staring down at the battle.

She was Human, wasn’t she? More and more Human, or so they felt. Headscratcher was sitting next to the Human and none of the Goblin warriors knew what to say. All they knew was they loved her. A tiny bit. For saving Grunter. For daring to hug a Goblin. For being like them.

A lot, actually. They loved her a lot, in the simple way they could. Because she didn’t look at them like monsters. They’d never known they wanted that until this moment.

And she was staring at the battlefield. Grunter nudged her and grunted. He pointed towards the gates, undefended. She could run. The Redfang warriors should have left long ago. But the Human girl just stared at the battlements.

The Goblins were pressing in. Too deep to be pushed back and there weren’t enough Humans on the side furthest from the adventurer. And there were too many undead. The Redfang warriors could see a familiar skeleton among the zombies and they wondered—

“Go.”

The word came from Headscratcher. It made the other Redfang warriors stiffen in shock, but he was pointing at the gates. He was urging the Human to go. To leave.

With them?

It was just a thought, a passing moment. The Human—the girl who was part monster—looked at Headscratcher, and hesitated. Then she shook her head slowly.

She pointed at the battlefield, at the Humans on the walls they had built. Faltering. Falling back. The monster pointed at them and touched her heart.

Some things didn’t need words. The Goblins understood. But then she pointed at them, and at the Goblins and undead. She touched Headscratcher’s sword, sheathed at his waist.

They stared at her. What did she mean? Grunter lowered his head as he understood, but the others didn’t get it. The young woman wearing a monster’s skin pointed again, at the backs of the undead, at the Goblins. She touched the sword and then her heart.

And they understood. She wanted them to help. To save…

Badarrow was the first to move. He shook his head and made a displeased noise. He stared at the battlefield as the other Goblins shuffled and looked down. The Redfang warriors looked at their feet, at the sky, at the battlefield, but none dared look at the monster who pleaded with them with her eyes.

Headscratcher looked away. He couldn’t meet the young woman’s eyes. He looked down.

How could they tell her? The Redfang warriors had no words to explain this. But it was easy enough that even the untrained monster girl could understand.

They were thirteen. Brave warriors, and good fighters, yes, but only thirteen. The army of the Goblin Lord was just that. An army. And the undead alone seemed limitless.

They were no heroes. And they weren’t willing to die. In the end, they were still Goblins. And only a fool would go down there.

But they couldn’t say it. Not to the girl who looked at them as if they were heroes. They couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in her eyes.

None of them dared look up. Grunter touched his broken arm and stared at the man in silver armor. He fought on, a lone patch of flashing light amidst the dark armor and shambling bodies.

They weren’t the same, in the end. A Goblin was still a Goblin.  Not an adventurer.

The monster stared at the Goblins silently. They didn’t see what was in her eyes, but they all saw her turn to look at the barricades. The Humans were being pressed back. The zombies were climbing as well, commanded by the skeleton no doubt. And with the Goblins attacking as well—

It would be over soon. Then they would have to leave. But what would the girl do? Could she survive like them? Could she come with them?

It was just a thought. But they saw it in Headscratcher’s eyes. He wanted that. But the girl was different. She looked back at her people, dying, fighting, and touched her heart. They could not know it, but the young woman could hear it beating, so loudly she thought it might burst. That was all. She just heard her heart beating in her chest. But she had nearly forgotten the sound. It reminded her of who she was.

It reminded her that she was Human.

The monster stood up. The Redfang warriors watched her silently. Slowly, she pointed towards the Humans and drew one line down her cheek. And touched her heart.

That was all. She bent, and Headscratcher looked up at her, full of—

She kissed him. Not on the lips, but gently on the cheek. He went still in shock and she smiled at him.

“Not a monster.”

Did she really whisper those words? Or was it only their imagination? Thirteen Goblins stared at her in silence. Then the monster—the young woman who wore a monster’s form—leapt. She flew through the air and landed on the ground, not even noticing the impact. She ran on all fours towards the battlefield, and it was a monster that crashed into the Goblins, tearing at them, biting, slashing as they cried out in horror and shock.

Headscratcher stood poleaxed in place, staring at her. But then he leapt from the rooftop, ignoring Grunter’s shout. He ran after her, chasing the young woman into the heart of the battlefield. And all twelve of the Redfang warriors were hot on his heels.

 

—-

 

This is the story of a war. It was hot and brutal and oh so quick, and the living seemed to become the dead in the blink of an eye. But it was fought in a desolate city in the heart of winter.

Cold skies, snow on the ground. But hot bodies.

And blood. Tearing flesh. The monster swept through the ranks of Goblins besieging a barricade that had been partially knocked down. They saw her and cried out. Monsters, fearing a monster.

Her claws with razors that cut steel. Her teeth ripped away flesh and bone. The Goblins wearing black armor tried to cut at her, but she was a blur, and their weapons barely cut her thick skin.

This is the story of a young woman who let the monster in her out. She tore and bit and forgot fear and killed. She walked deeper down the path to hell, but she had a lifeline, a fragile thread that she held onto. A memory of a Goblin that hugged her, and a group of monsters with the hearts of heroes.

This is the story of a band of Goblins. They stood at the edge of death’s gate, staring at the young woman who danced with the reaper, fearless, fighting for her people. Fighting to live. Fighting to be Human.

They hesitated. Their weapons were drawn, but they dared not plunge into the conflict. Because they were afraid. Because they wanted to live. They saw the other Goblins fall back in disarray and the Human rally as the monster attacked them. But it was not enough. There were many Goblins, and this was only a corner of the battle.

And the undead were everywhere. They kept coming, and they kept attacking, slowly encircling both Humans and Goblins alike. They were commanded by that awful intelligence, the gleeful, mocking skeleton dancing in their midst.

The Goblins stared at the skeleton, not a hundred paces away but surrounded by his minions. And they knew that if he was not stopped the Humans would die.

On the skeleton all things turned. And then Grunter pointed.

There. The Goblin commander, silver halberd on hand, pointing as he rode his Shield Spider. He’d clashed with the Gold-rank adventurer, broken the lines of Humans again and again. Without him, the Goblins would be leaderless.

Two leaders. Headscratcher saw both as he held his sword in one sweaty claw. If one or both fell, the Humans would be saved. She might be saved. If they fought—

But his feet didn’t move. Headscratcher stood where he was, ashamed. He shook. He was afraid to die. Because it would be certain death. And he was just a Goblin.

But the girl—she was a monster. She was a Human. She was something else. And she had seen the same thing the Goblins had. So she just ran. She leapt, and bore a Ghoul to the ground. Teeth gleamed and bit and the two creatures tore at each other.

Headscratcher shouted and ran forwards, sword raised as Badarrow tried to find a target among the blurring shapes. But then the Ghoul was down, a gaping hole in his throat and neck. The monster-girl ran on, at the mass of zombies shielding the skeleton.

And stumbled.

And fell.

Because of the arrow in her back.

Headscratcher screamed. He saw the shaft strike the young woman—not from the sides, but from above. A shot from high up on the barricades.

A Human had loosed the arrow. Perhaps he had mistaken the young woman for a Ghoul—or perhaps he had just seen what she’d looked like and shot. But the arrow had struck the young woman all the same.

She fell, and the zombies she’d been running towards surrounded her, biting. Tearing. Headscratcher ran into them, slashing wildly. Two zombies fell as he ran them through, shoving them aside. An arrow killed a third and then the other Redfang warriors were around him. They forced the zombies back as Headscratcher held the young woman in his arms.

He reached for the arrow and stopped. It was too deep, and the monster in his arms—

Was no monster. She was just a young woman, bleeding, torn.

Dying. She blinked up at the Goblin who held her, and wondered why she’d never imagined a Goblin could cry. Of course they could. It was such a simple thing, but it just proved her point.

They were people too.

She reached up and tried to brush the tear  from Headscratcher’s eyes. But she was too weak. Her arm flopped back and the young woman coughed. She blinked down at the blood in astonishment.

Around her, the other Goblins were tearing at their packs, searching their belts. But they had no potions. Just the one they’d used for Grunter. The Hobgoblin knelt next to the girl, staring at her.

She smiled at them. Weakly. Dying. But then her head rose, and she stared at the Humans. They were so very fragile, so alone.

She pointed. The Goblins looked. The young woman touched her heart, once. It was still beating, slowly. That was all. She touched her heart and drew a line in blood down her cheek.

Asking a question no words could ever say.

This is the story of a Goblin who held a dying Human in his arms. The other warriors stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shields raised, protecting her from the few arrows that flew towards them. They snarled at the Humans on the barricades, watching as the undead pushed them further and further back.

The Goblin held the Human in his arms, staring at death. It was all around him, and in the burning purple eyes of the skeleton surrounded by the undead. He stared at death, but he only had eyes for the Human.

She spoke to him, words that he and all the Goblins heard, even amidst the fighting. The Goblin listened, head bowed, until she choked on the blood and he carried her away from the fighting, protected by his friends.

He laid her in a quiet place, away from the battlefield. Next to a dying fire in a place where she would be safe. Then the Goblin turned back and stared at death. Beside him, twelve other Goblins stood quietly. They looked at each other. And heard their hearts beating.

This is the story of a band of fools. They charged, screaming, at an army of thousands. Goblins and undead both turned to stare at them, and the Humans on the walls stopped firing as they saw the band of thirteen Goblins, fighting for something they didn’t quite understand.

Headscratcher was first. He ran, cutting wildly, knocking other warriors aside, darting past zombies. He didn’t care that they cut at him, ignored the arrows that flew at him, the moments when he stared death in the face. He only had eyes for the skeleton, standing among the zombies.

He ran, and ten Goblins followed his back, fighting as one, struggling for every step. But two Goblins did not follow them. One was Badarrow, who stood with an arrow nocked, firing into the mill of bodies. The other was Grunter.

Grunter. The Hobgoblin turned and ran in another direction. Away? The other Redfang warriors faltered. But the Hob turned and stared at them for one moment. Then he spoke.

“Go.”

One word. And then he plunged away through the mass of bodies. He didn’t dodge like Headscratcher. Instead, Grunter charged through the ranks of undead and Goblin alike. Zombies were hurled away from him, screaming Goblin warriors trampled underfoot. Grunter held his axe in his left hand and roared as he ran.

He had only one target. The Goblin commander astride his Shield Spider. At first, the other Goblin didn’t see Grunter among the Goblins. But soon the Goblin noticed the change in the battlefield.

In a sea of swirling fighting where the lines of black-armored Goblins and zombies pushed each other back and forth, Grunter cut a straight line to the Goblin commander. He couldn’t be stopped! Spears broke against his skin, swords cut but were wrenched away from their owner’s grip. Grunter ran on, bleeding from two dozen wounds, but still ran.

“You! Challenge!”

The word was a roar from Grunter’s mouth. The Goblins and Humans stopped fighting as they stared at the Hob charging at the other Goblin. The Goblin commander sneered. He raised a hand; pointed.

Another Hob, just as large as Grunter, ran forwards, screaming, sword in hand as he tried to slow the Redfang warrior’s advance. Grunter roared and swung his axe. The crushing blade crashed down even as the other Hob tried to block. The axe sheared through the sword and crushed the other Goblin’s head. Grunter wrenched the blade free and the Hob’s body fell.

Silence. Grunter raised his axe, gleaming with blood and gore.

Redfang!

It was a word none of the Humans knew. But among the Goblins, it caused silence. Who didn’t know of that famous tribe, of the warrior who had walked among other races?

Garen Redfang and his tribe of warriors. Even in the south, his name was legend. Grunter shouted again, pointing his axe at the Goblin commander.

Now the other Goblin hissed, his eyes flashing blood-red. He pulled his spider around and faced Grunter. The other Goblins fell away as the two ran at each other, the Hob bleeding, one arm raised with the axe, the gleaming halberd held in the other Goblin’s hand.

“Redfang!”

Grunter screamed as he brought the axe down. The blow cleaved through the air, unstoppable. The Goblin commander threw himself off of his mount’s back, and the blow smashed the giant Shield Spider into the ground. It shrieked and died.

But it had taken Grunter’s axe. The Hob pulled at the blade, trying to wrench it free, but too slowly. The halberd came up and then the Hob was stumbling back. He stared at his stump of a hand and heard the Goblin commander laugh. The other Goblin advanced towards him, halberd raised.

The Hob was still for a second. Then his other hand moved. His broken arm grabbed the axe and lifted it. Jagged yellow bone broke through Grunter’s skin, but he only grunted. Then the axe was in the air.

The Goblin commander raised his halberd, snarling, but too slow. The axe fell through the sky, changing the confidence to fear in the Goblin’s eyes. Grunter screamed.

REDFANG!

The blow shook the earth. It broke his arm completely. Bone and flesh splintered as his hand twisted, dangling uselessly from his arm. Grunter sat down, staring at his useless arms as the other Goblins and Humans stared at what remained of the Goblin commander, the halberd lying broken on the ground.

The black-armored Goblins hesitated. But then they rushed at Grunter, screaming. He stood and knocked one down with his bloody stump. He kicked another hard enough to break the Goblin’s bones. Then he was falling, pierced by countless blades.

Grunter lay down on the ground and stared at his own blood. With a great effort he turned onto his back and stared at the grey sky. He grunted. And smiled once before the Goblins covered him.

 

—-

 

Badarrow saw Grunter fall. He screamed and shot the Goblin who’d killed him. But there were so many. And the Goblins saw him, saw the Goblin shooting at their friends.

Arrows flew towards Badarrow, hundreds of them. Like rain. He dove for cover behind a fat corpse, letting it absorb the deadly arrows. So many.

The Goblin commander was dead, and so the Goblins were faltering. But there were still others, weren’t they? Badarrow had seem them, two [Shamans] hiding behind the others, commanding a group of undead they’d managed to gain control of.

They had to die. For Grunter. For using the dead. Badarrow didn’t hesitate. He selected two arrows, his very best. The ones he knew would fly furthest, straightest. He stood from behind the corpse and drew the first arrow to his chest. He loosed it.

The arrow flew across the battlefield. It caught the first [Shaman] as he stood behind a group of zombies, pointing and laughing. He grasped the arrow as it sprouted from his chest and fell, gasping.

The other [Shaman] pointed and screamed. He turned to run, and the second arrow found his ear. Badarrow grinned, and laughed as he saw the other Goblins turning. This time there was nowhere to hide.

So many arrows. Like rain! They struck him, one finding his chest, another his leg, the last his shoulder. Badarrow stumbled and fell.

 

—-

 

Headscratcher did not see either of his friends fall. He ran on, sword drawn, screaming. The zombies were everywhere, as were the black-armored Goblins. He cut at them.

Too many enemies. Then a zombie came swinging at Headscratcher from the right, five more on the left. Headscratcher saw another Goblin run past him. Rocksoup took the blows meant for him. He gasped as the zombies tore his flesh away, cut one down. Two. The third took his sword and then he was fighting with his hands against the other two. They bore him down as he stared at Headscratcher, mouthing silently as his eyes lost their light.

Telling him to run.

The ten Goblins ran on, not pausing as they left their friend behind. Bitefly was next to fall. An arrow caught him in the eye and he dropped soundlessly, still snarling.

Headscratcher cut the head off of a Goblin and saw the skeleton. Only forty paces ahead now. It still hadn’t seem them. He ran towards it, but a group of howling Goblins charged from the right.

Orangepoo ran forwards. He said not a word, just grinned like he always did. Headscratcher saw him fall as he buried a spear in one of the Goblins’ legs and trip up the rest.

Eight now. The Goblin warriors ran on. Now the skeleton had seen them, and it pointed. Zombies and even a Ghoul came for them. Bitefly fell on the right, cursing and cutting at the Ghoul as it bore him to the ground and tore at him.

Seven. There was a wall of undead in front of them. Headscratcher and the Redfang warriors charged into them, screaming. The skeleton was right in front of them. And he had a sword.

Cut them down. Headscratcher took the leading zombie down with a leaping thrust. He fell with the body, struggling to pull his sword free. The other Redfang warriors took down their targets too. Where was the skeleton?

A flash of movement. Headscratcher saw Patchhelm turn and then the skeleton blurred into focus. The Goblin fell, headless. Headscratcher screamed and charged the skeleton.

So close. The skeleton fell back, fighting four of the Redfang warriors at once. But more zombies were coming, running at them. One seized Justrust from behind and snapped his neck.

Five. The five cut at the skeleton, making him dodge backwards. But he was all bones and he didn’t fear mere cuts. Headscracther took a cut that laid open his leg and he saw Rabbiteater choke as a zombie bit him all way down to the bone, making him drop the sword.

The skeleton laughed. He turned to run, mocking the Goblins who’d come to kill him. Headscratcher swung at him as the skeleton danced backwards, nimbly evading his sword thrust.

So close! But not enough. The skeleton’s purple flaming eyes glittered at Headscratcher. He stepped left, dodged a thrust, flicked his sword and parried a cut. He raised his own sword as Headscratcher stumbled, seized by a zombie on his left. The skeleton laughed—

And Shorthilt tackled him from behind. The skeleton stumbled, turned, tried to kick the Goblin off. But Shorthilt hung on, ignoring the foot that kicked his face and broke his nose. Bugear cut sideways, forcing the skeleton to block. Then the Goblin cut at the skeleton’s sword hand, deep, lodging his sword into the skeleton’s bones. Bugear strained to keep the skeleton’s arm in place as Headscratcher ran forwards. The skeleton turned towards him, eyes furious.

Yes. That was right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t honorable. But it was the way the Goblins fought. And Headscratcher’s sword cleaved the skeleton’s spine in two. The skeleton fell in two pieces, and the Redfang warriors broke apart his body with their weapons.

Around them, the undead—paused. They seemed to stare at nothing, and then they moved again. Still attacking. Still trying to kill the living.

But no longer intelligently. No longer moving with purpose. The Redfang warriors, the five survivors, stumbled away. Headscratcher abandoned his sword to pull Rabbiteater away, giving the Goblin his shoulder.

They ran. Goblins were still everywhere. And the undead too. But they’d done all they could. All they could.

And it was enough. Because as the Goblins launched a final, desperate attack on the Humans on the barricades, the Redfang warriors looked to the gates of the city. And there they saw the adventurers.

 

—-

 

“We barely made it by the looks of it.”

That was what the half-Elf said to the Dwarf as they stood at the rear of the Goblin army. Without their commander, the Goblins had neglected their rear. Now they rushed to overwhelm the Human defenders, stretched too thin on their crumbling fortifications.

“That’s true. But we did get here, and we even brought help.”

So said the Dwarf. He was short for a Human, naturally, but those Humans who saw him tended to think he was tall for a Dwarf. He was not, at least, not for a modern Dwarf. He was five foot two, and his muscles rippled as he raised the hammer at his side.

Behind him, a group of men and women, all Humans, stood with their weapons draw. Silver-rank adventurers, over twenty of them. The half-Elf nodded.

“Let’s go. I’ll begin—hit them from the sides and cut towards Ylawes, would you?”

“Aye. Leave it to me.”

The Dwarf grinned. He turned his voice and roared at the Silver-rank adventurers.

“Follow me!”

He lead the host of [Warriors], [Mages], [Archers], [Rogues], and more at the side of the Goblin host, smashing through their unguarded ranks with ease. Even the Hob who turned to fight was crushed by a blow from the Dwarf’s hammer.

Alone, the half-Elf faced the Goblins who’d become aware of her presence. She raised the staff at her side, the blue crystal embedded in it shining. Arrows flew towards her, but the [Mage] was undeterred. She pointed at the Goblins.

“[Windward], [Flashfire], [Lesser Twister], [Water Arrow], [Silent Sickle], [Muddy Ground]—”

The litany of spells blasted from her staff, countless spells blasting Goblins off their feet, showering others with rains of arrows made from water, cutting others to bits while the arrows that had flown at the half-Elf bounced off the shield of air she’d conjured.

The battlefield changed again. The Silver-rank adventurers and Gold-rank Dwarf cut towards the stunned Humans. The Bronze-rank adventurer with a sword clutched at Ylawes as the man stumbled, nearly collapsing amid the walls of bodies he’d slain.

“Who are they sir? Reinforcements? From which city?”

“Yes. From all the nearby cities. And the Dwarf and half-Elf. They’re my team. The Silver Swords.”

Disbelieving, the Humans on the barricades stared as the Goblins below them began to rout. Their leaders lost, attacked by so many powerful adventurers, they began to flee. The undead kept fighting, but they were fragmented.

The exhausted man in silver armor raised his head as he heard the cheering begin. He didn’t smile. The man next to him turned to him, face shining.

“You saved us! You did it! We did it! We beat the Goblins by ourselves.”

“No. I don’t think it was just that.”

Ylawes didn’t look at the confused man. His eyes found the group of Goblins, five now, injured, fleeing the battle. The adventurer sighed, and then sat down.

He was so tired.

 

—-

 

He was so angry. Toren strode away from the battlefield, knowing all was lost. He couldn’t change the outcome now. The zombies were no match for adventurers of that caliber. And he’d been so close too! Just a few more moments and he would have broken the line of Humans and been able to finish off the human in silver armor!

So close! But the Goblins had messed everything up!

Enraged, Toren slashed at the air with his sword, close to exploding with fury. How dare they. How dare they? They hadn’t even fought fair! They’d fought—well, like he fought!

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Toren stopped by the door of an abandoned building, trying to think rationally. He had to escape now. He still had life levels, his life. He could get some undead and go. Start somewhere else.

Doing what? The skeleton kicked at the wall and paused. Did he hear something? Cautiously, he poked his head inside the building. That was when he saw her.

A Human, lying on the ground. Toren hesitated. He…thought she was a Human. But didn’t he recognize her somewhere?

The monster girl. Yes. The flames in Toren’s eyes brightened in shock. But she was different. Was she wounded?

Yes. She was barely clinging to life. The skeleton walked over to her and saw the Human’s lips moving. She was whispering—something.

He didn’t care. The skeleton raised his sword and thrust it into the young woman’s side. He needed to kill something to feel better. He stabbed the Human with his sword, relishing the way she cried out weakly.

And then Toren heard the shout. He turned, but too late. The blow knocked him backwards. A Goblin had charged him from the side! The Goblin had no weapon and he struggle with Toren for his blade.

The skeleton tried to stab the Goblin, but he had been caught off-guard. His own sword impaled him through the rib cage. Toren staggered away, outraged, trying to drag the blade free. At last he got it out, splintering his bones in the process. He turned, sword in hand, and saw the Goblin.

He was holding the Human in his arms. She bled onto the ground, life oozing around his desperate claws. But she was…smiling. Smiling?

Toren paused.

He stared at the Goblin as he held the young woman in his arms, clutching at her bleeding chest, trying to hold the blood in. The skeleton saw a hand come up, and hold the Goblin’s face, and saw bloodless lips move. He saw the Goblin’s tears and felt something…odd in his chest.

What was this? What was he seeing? Goblin and Human? Why did that strike him as so odd? So—

Special? Was that the word? But the moment passed even as the skeleton watched. The Human’s hand dropped and her body relaxed. But her smile remained. And the Goblin holding her wept.

Toren looked away. He didn’t attack the weeping Goblin. Instead, he slowly walked into an alley as the other Goblin warriors ran to the two, crying out, making sounds of—

He didn’t understand. So he walked away, leaving the Goblins behind.

 

—-

 

This is the story of a monster. This is the story of monsters. For as Ylawes stood with his companions and the celebrating Humans, he heard a cry.

“Goblins!”

He turned, reaching exhausted for a sword, but called out when he saw the approaching Goblins. They’d been poised to run, but as Ylawes strode towards them they halted.

Arrows and spells were aimed at them but the Goblins just looked lost. Four were holding the body between them and the last just stared up at Ylawes as he approached. He halted when he saw the young woman’s body, the face he recognized.

“Is she…?”

The Goblin nodded. He stared up at Ylawes, and the adventurer looked down at the dead girl. Her face had been ravaged by famine, and dirt and filth had created a mask over her face. But she smiled. It was a simple expression, but it shone even in death, despite all she had endured.

Ylawes remembered seeing her before. He remembered a monster. But what he saw was a young woman, smiling upwards. Only that.

Slowly, the adventurer looked at the Goblins. They stared back at him. Silent.

“I saw your leader kill the Goblin commander.”

Silence.

“I saw your archer down the [Shamans]. Few Human [Archers] I know could do that.”

They just stared at him. Ylawes nodded at the Goblin in front.

“You slew the skeleton. Without that, we might have died before reinforcements could arrive.”

Slowly, the Goblins laid down the body of the Human girl on the ground. They ignored Ylawes completely. One of the Goblins with a bloody scalp slowly crossed the young woman’s arms over her chest. He hesitated, hand on hers. Then he turned away.

“May we never meet again.”

Ylawes called it at their backs. But the Goblins didn’t even acknowledge his presence. They just walked away.

 

—-

 

They found Grunter before they left. There wasn’t much of the Hob, but the Redfang warriors gathered around his corpse for a moment. Then they walked on.

They found Badarrow, laughing, shaking as he sat amid the arrows that had nearly killed him. Three arrows had found him, but the one meant for his chest had been horribly made. The glue had broken off and the arrowhead had barely penetrated his skin. He was still laughing about how he’d never hate another arrow when they found him.

Then Badarrow just bowed his head. He stood up and looked towards the body, but the other Humans were around her. The Redfang warriors slowly walked out of the city, avoiding the undead.

Silent.

This is a story of a band of Goblins, and how they left a city behind them as they walked out into the snow and darkness. They left behind their leader, over half their number and a Human girl in the city. And they left something as well. Perhaps it was a bit of their hearts.

This is the story of monsters. Of Goblins. But they had names.

Rabbiteater.

Bugear.

Numbtongue.

Shorthilt.

Badarrow.

Headscratcher.

This is their story. This is the story of how they found and left Esthelm, a city of the desperate, the dead, and those who struggled even in the darkness. This is their story. This is how it began.

 

—-

 

This is the story of a skeleton. He walked away from the city whose name he hadn’t even known, beaten. Defeated not just by swords and sorcery, but by something he didn’t even have a name for.

He walked away, not alone physically, but alone nevertheless. Thirteen zombies and a Ghoul walked with him, silent, unthinking. They were tools, that was all. And Toren realized that a tool was not enough. Killing was not enough.

He was alone, purposeless again. He had failed. Toren walked on, staring at the sky. And he began to realize there were still some things he didn’t understand in this world. So he left the city where the living had reclaimed their pride. He left the Goblins, the adventurer wearing silver armor, and the monster who had become a girl behind.

And the dead walked with him.

To Liscor.

Back home.

 


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3.19 T

Esthelm. City of the damned and dead. That was how it felt sometimes. Of course, there were thousands of people still living inside of it, but for many, their miserable, desperate existence was just a prelude to death and worse. Their home was in ruins, and their city was slowly filling with the undead. It was undeniable, now.

They came out of the sewers. They sat up in the cold snow. They dug themselves out of the frozen ground and from beneath the rubble.

They rose.

Not just one, not just two—hundreds. Hundreds. Zombies, yes, but ghouls as well. They came for the living, and without trained warriors, the refugees of Esthelm could not hope to defend themselves from such a horde.

If they could, they would have fled. Even the cold, merciless winter night was better than death and undeath. But they could not.

An army of Goblins camped outside the city. Already, a score of people had died as they’d tried to leave the city and been set on. The Goblins maintained a perimeter, laughing, shooting arrows at any Human they saw. And more were coming. Already the people could see Goblin warriors wearing black armor gathering into teams, preparing to sweep into the city.

Goblins outside, undead within. And disunity and chaos among them. The Humans despaired and some simply waited for death while others took what small satisfaction they could, giving into cruelty and lust before the end. After all, who would save them?

The answer came during the darkest hours of the night, when some huddled behind the flimsy walls they’d built and others went searching for victims. They heard a voice, and saw silver.

A man in plate armor. An adventurer with a sword and shield. No, no ordinary adventurer—a Gold-rank one! A [Knight].

He strode into one camp and raised his voice.

“Citizens of Esthelm! Hear my words!”

No one had called them that, or thought of them like that since the city had fallen. People, disbelieving, crept out to watch him and saw the men at his back. Men and women. And children. Hundreds, already close to a thousand.

“Esthelm has fallen. But you still remain! The undead rise and must be stopped. A Goblin army has come to kill whomever remains in this city. If you keep fighting among yourselves, you will die! But together we may yet live.”

That was all he said. But the people saw him bring his hundreds into the camp, and begin building. He had more rubble removed, had people with Skills—people who’d almost forgotten their Classes—begin to build.

He had them build a wall. Not around a small plot of land to hide in, as the others had done, but massive barricades, linking half-fallen buildings and sealing off entire streets. He was building fortifications, sealing off nearly a quarter of the city and setting guards, men and women with weapons and hope in their eyes to fend off the undead.

He was retaking their home. And so people came forwards, at first the desperate, but then everyone, abandoning the places they’d carved out, coming, some fearful, others ashamed, but coming nevertheless.

Coming home. And so the Humans built desperately, and gathered arms, and the Gold-rank adventurer walked among them, tirelessly coordinating them, giving them courage.

Ylawes Byres. He stared towards the edge of the city, where the Goblins were waiting. He’d chosen a spot as far away from them as possible. It would be war soon, he knew. A last war, a final war for this city. Whether it would mean death and ruin for a place already rotten and torn apart or a new spark of life for this place he did not know. He only knew he would make the Goblins pay in blood for every step they took.

However, this was not his story. Instead, the city’s fate belonged in no small part to another being. A skeleton, a creature of death, common and worthless among the endless undead. Yet this one was unlike any other skeleton in the world. He danced in the dying city, as the snow began to fall.

 

—-

 

A shadow shivered and twisted amidst the center of the city. A shadow with eyes that burned purple and bright even in the darkest night. Shapes moved and walked among the empty buildings, crawling, creeping, seeking out the light to snuff it out.

But the shadow danced on. Death and corruptions swirled through the streets, standing up, taking awful forms and biting, chewing. But the shadow danced, and it had a name.

Toren.

He whirled about in the street, arms spread wide. His was not some demonic summoning, nor the wild and sinister movements of ritual and sin. Instead, the skeleton ran about, twirling and doing handstands and waving his arms about, full of innocent mirth. He danced like a child, delighted, simple. He had a new toy! Not just one in fact. He had a world full of them!

He could control the undead! How wonderful was that?

Toren stopped whirling about and turned to look at some of the shadows around him. Six swaying corpses stared at him, barely noticeable as they stood in the shadows. They had been men and women, but now rot and decay had turned them into something else.

Zombies. Pathetic fodder any warrior could kill individually, only fearsome in vast numbers, and even then, only to the unprepared. But they were his. His.

He could control them. Toren knew it. He felt the certainty in his mind and saw it when he ordered the zombies to follow him. He walked down the street as they followed in his wake.

This changed everything. Toren had been about to die, and they had saved him. And now—

What should he do now?  Toren glanced at one of the zombies and it stopped. He slowly made it walk in front of him, and inspected the zombie carefully.

Yup. Dead. And a worm was crawling around in its exposed brain. Toren pulled it out and patted the zombie on its squishy head. His zombie.

Of course, he could always get a new one. But for now, Toren was curious. What could it do? He made the zombie walk back and forth in front of him, hit the zombie standing next to it, lie down…

Interesting. He couldn’t tell the zombie to do very specific things. For instance, Torren had tried to get the zombie to hop on one leg and it hadn’t moved. Because he was too low level? All he could get it to do was move and attack what he wanted.

That was too bad. But then again, it was still an excellent start. Toren rubbed his hands together, grinning.

Zombies. Just imagine what he could do with them! He’d no longer be alone in a fight—he wouldn’t even have to fight if he didn’t want to.

True, this didn’t mean he could suddenly challenge Griffon Hunt or even the Gold-rank adventurer who’d beaten him once. Toren knew that. Right now he could control six undead. And only zombies to boot. But if he leveled? What then?

The possibilities sent shivers down the skeleton’s spine. Where could he begin? How would he level up?

By leading his minions, obviously. Toren cast around, and then had another idea. He was still a bit low on mana. He could probably pull himself back together once if he was broken, but he didn’t want to risk anything.

So why not stop fighting himself and instead have some fun? His zombies might be mindless, but they could certainly help out Toren in their limited way. To start with for example…

A sword. Toren wanted one. His zombies lurched towards a camp of Humans he’d seen earlier that day. They were a group of men who’d hunkered down in an alleyway, putting up flimsy barricades and trash barriers to keep other people away.

The zombies came to the alleyway and paused. They turned into it, walking, stumbling forwards. Perched on a crumbling rooftop, Toren watched as one of the men on guard duty shouted out in alarm as he saw the zombies.

Within moments, the other men—who’d been sleeping in clumsy sleeping bags made of whatever fabric they could get their hands on around the smoldering fire—were on their feet. They grasped weapons in their hands, clubs, slings, and, Toren was pleased to note, an iron short sword held by a big man that looked like their leader.

The gang of men was clearly arguing as the zombies slowly broke down the wooden planks that had been nailed together to form an obstacle and then slowly came down the alley towards them. Half of them wanted to leave, but their leader pointed out the obvious. There were six zombies, and they were eight strong! Plus, the zombies were slow, clumsy—their slinger whirled a stone that took the eye out of one. The other men began throwing things, and the zombies stumbled and one fell, struggling to get up.

Stupid, foolish undead. They’d never get close enough at their meandering pace. The men laughed and shouted triumphantly as they began to batter the zombies with missiles. From his seat above, Toren laughed and gave his zombies one order.

The foremost zombie had been stumbling backwards, flesh torn and bones fractured from the stones that kept smashing into his skull. Bits of brain were already leaking from his open skull. The man throwing stones stood confidently ahead of the others, picking up rocks from a pile at his feet as he confidently loosed stones at the zombies. He was close to them, but so what? It wasn’t as if they could move—

The zombie took a step, and then charged down the alleyway. The man with the sling screamed in horror and turned to run. But too late—the zombie tackled him, and then he was tearing at the man as he tried to fight the creature off with his hands, biting at his throat—ripping away red flesh—

The gang of men had frozen in horror. Half of them ran forwards to help their friend, but then they decided he was dead and tried to run. Again, too late.

The other zombies ran at them, not sluggishly lurching as they’d done before, but sprinting, moving with inhuman speed that cared nothing for torn muscle or the broken ground. The men raised their weapons, but found they were of little use. Clubs that could break bones and spiked bats that could tear flesh did not scare those already dead.

The leader of the gang backed up. His sword at least could chop, but he was no [Swordsman], or even a [Warrior]. He hacked at the zombies killing the screaming men in his gang, hitting his comrades as often as the zombies. And when the zombies dropped the dead men to the ground, the man with the short sword found himself alone.

He turned to run. But the zombies were quick.

Sitting on the rooftop, Toren grinned as the zombies finished killing the leader. Only three were left; the man with the sword had gotten one, and two more had been killed in the fight. But so what? He knew there were countless zombies in the city.

And he’d come up with another excellent discovery for his trouble. The zombies had taken out the men so easily, and with just one order from him. A simple one, really. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it instantly.

Run. That was all he’d told them to do. Just…run. And so they’d ran.

Why didn’t zombies do it all the time? Toren realized that maybe some did—he hadn’t exactly even seen that many zombies before today. Just when Skinner had attacked Erin’s inn, really. And in the crypt.

Zombies were weak. True. They were slow and they rotted easily and they had no concept of dodging, blocking, or even retreating. But what if you could make them run? Then you had an entirely different kind of monster on your hands. Because yes, zombies were simple fighters, but they were still strong. And they didn’t fear injury.

Toren clattered his jaw excitedly. He could already sense that this little skirmish had helped him get closer to a level up. In a moment he’d go down and get his new sword. And then—

Well, he had zombies, didn’t he? And there were many more groups of thugs, just waiting for the day so they could begin marauding again. Perfect prey, in short. Could Toren wipe out an even bigger gang with six zombies? Could he do it without losing even one?

This was a challenge. A fun challenge. Toren leapt from his rooftop and landed in the snow, where his undead servants were waiting for him. He looked into their lifeless eyes, their empty sockets, and grinned. He smiled, and in his eyes, Esthelm burned.

 

—-

 

This is the story of a monster. This is the story of a girl. At least, she’d been a girl, a Human once.

Now she didn’t know what she was.

She had no name. Or rather, she’d forgotten it. It, like all her words, was gone. Only hunger remained. Hunger, and despair.

And fear. That was the real irony of it all, wasn’t it? That even now, even when she’d lost everything, her family, home, levels—even humanity—even now, she was afraid of dying.

She’d nearly died. The skeleton she’d encountered had tried to kill her. He’d pounded at her, trying to kill her. And she’d wept, because she would finally die and be free of the nightmare.

But she hadn’t wanted to die. She’d still wanted to live, even then. She’d nearly given up hope, though, resigned herself to death.

That’s when they’d saved her. The Goblins. They’d come and killed the skeleton. She’d thought they just wanted to kill and eat her themselves, or do worse, but they hadn’t. They’d looked at her and left.

So why had she followed them? The monster paused as she loped on all fours after them. The snow and stone were cold on her skin, but her new body could withstand far more than her old one. Even now, the beating the skeleton had given her was healing.

But the Goblins? Why pursue them? She didn’t know. But they were monsters. So maybe she deserved their company. And she had nothing else, so why not? Death would be a welcome thing if it came to that.

At any rate, the Goblins weren’t chasing her off. The girl in the monster saw the warriors glancing back at her as they marched through the empty streets now and then, but none of them tried to chase her off. Rather, it looked like they were chattering amongst themselves as they looked at her.

Could Goblins talk? Maybe in their own language. The monster didn’t know. But she was surprised by the idea. And when she saw the place the Goblins had chosen to camp for the night—

Her jaw dropped in surprise. The Goblins had set up in the center of a building that had been hollowed out by fire. But instead of squatting in the ashes and ruins like beasts, they’d cleared away the soot and snow, revealing bare stone. They’d taken bits of wood and covered the windows and doors, and even built a fire pit in the center of the building!

Now two of the Goblins sat around the fire pit, one piling kindling together and shaving bits of wood as the other struck sparks. A small fragment of wood caught, and the Goblins put their hands around the small flame, shielding it as it ate the kindling and grew.

Within a few minutes they had a fire. The monster sat on her haunches on the edge of the building, afraid to go in. But the warriors took no notice of her, and so she dared enter the camp. She stared around with wide eyes, drinking in…

Civilization. It was such an odd word, but that was what she saw. The warriors were making a fire. And what were they doing now? The Goblins were…putting their beds together! They had beds?

Yes, some of the Goblins had blankets in their possessions. Others had only the clothing they wore—one had a small stuffed pillow of all things, just large enough to cushion his head! They spread out their gear—weapons, bows and arrows—around them, forming small nests close to but not too near the fire. Places to sleep, places of their own.

They were so normal. The monster couldn’t believe her eyes. Were these really Goblins, the raiding, murderous monsters that adventurers hunted for bronze coins? Then she heard a voice grunting by her ear.

“Ur.”

The girl turned in fright. A Goblin was glaring at her. She turned to run, but he wasn’t raising his sword to attack. Instead, he was pointing.

What? The monster girl looked around wildly, and then realized.

She was in the way! She was blocking the doorway! The Goblin edged by her as she scrambled aside. She looked fearfully at him, but he just snorted at her and marched out the doorway. He came back in a few moments later with a pot he’d filled with fresh snow. He glanced at her as he walked back towards the fire, but did nothing else.

They didn’t care about her. They didn’t fear her or—or her face. The idea struck the creature dumb with shock. She watched, awed and amazed as the Goblin with the pot hung it over the fire. The snow began to melt in the pot, and she realized they were going to make dinner.

From what? The thing looked, and saw something lying in a corner of the room. Were those rags?

No. Bodies.

Suddenly, her heart froze in her chest. The monster stared as one of the Goblins approached the corpses of Humans and one Goblin, knife in hand. That was right. Goblins ate the dead, even their own.

They were monsters just like her.

Suddenly, the horror felt a pang in her stomach, and realized she was starving. Even if she forgot for a moment, she was always consumed by it. The unrelenting, unending emptiness in her stomach.

She stared at the corpses, salivating quietly. She longed to eat the frozen bodies—even if they were rotten and foul. She would eat her own kind, even though her soul revolted. She would eat the Goblins too, and her own flesh it if meant filling the hole inside of her.

The monster edged towards the pile of bodies. Food. The Goblins were looking at her now and then, but they wouldn’t stop her, would they? It was food. If they stopped her, she would bite them, tear at them. She had to eat. She was so hungry—

Her jaw opened. The thing reached for a body, and then saw something move towards her. Something big.

She turned, and saw the Hobgoblin stand up. He’d been sitting quietly amidst his fellows while they worked, helping to chop wood into smaller bits to feed the fire, but now he stood. He was clearly the leader of the group—even the former young woman knew that. She’d heard tales of Hobgoblins, feared even by Silver-rank adventurers for their strength and cunning in battle.

And now he was looking. At. Her.

The Hobgoblin grunted as he slowly walked over to the monster. She stared up at him, awed by his sheer size. He was massive, tall as a tall Human man, and far wider. But all that flesh wasn’t fat—it was muscle, rippling, tough, raw

She tore her eyes away from his body. Fearfully, the monster girl retreated a bit. What was he going to do? Was he going to—

The Hobgoblin pointed at the thing and it—she—froze, about to dart away, back into the darkness of the city. But he didn’t grab for her. Rather he opened his mouth and spoke.

“In.”

It was a word! An actual word! The young woman froze, eyes wide. Goblins could speak? He could—speak?

Yes, he could. The Hobgoblin concentrated, frowning mightily. He forced out more syllables, his voice thick with concentration.

“Inkreepr. You. You innkreeper?”

Innkeeper? The girl had no idea what he meant. He pointed at her and repeated the word.

“Innkeeper. You? Clss.”

Her class? He was asking…?

Slowly, wide-eyed, the horror shook her head. She’d never been an [Innkeeper], never even considered it. She had been—she’d used to raise flowers. Even the thought made her heart ache. Flowers? Who needed flowers in this broken place?

The Hobgoblin stared down at her, looking surprised and even a bit irritated. He moved—she flinched again, but he just turned and growled something at another Goblin warrior sitting by the now merry fire. The Goblin stared at the girl. He was a normal-sized Goblin warrior, much like the others. He scratched his head, and muttered a word in another language.

The other Goblins stared at him, the head scratcher. One reached out and punched him on the shoulder. He grunted, but didn’t punch back. Then they all just turned and stared at the monster-girl.

For a minute they stared, and then one of them shrugged. He pointed towards the fire and beckoned towards her.

“Urg?”

Almost disbelieving, she crept forwards. She expected them to grab her at any second, to tear her clothes off and—no, even they wouldn’t sink that low, would they? But she expected them to stab at her, or to chase her away?

But nothing happened. The Goblins just stared at her, and let her inch closer to the fire. One of them sniffed at her—the other one poked a finger into his ear and wiggled it about. Then they went about their business.

They didn’t fear her, and clearly they had no idea what to make of her. The girl stared at them, and then saw three Goblins go over to the corpses.

Flesh.

She was there in an instant. She wanted to bite, to tear at the frozen bodies, but the Goblins had other ideas. When she grabbed a leg one of them grabbed her. She froze in fright, but the Goblin just pulled her away, grunting disapprovingly.

He had a knife in his hand. He used it to cut at the body, removing flesh swiftly, cutting away the most palatable parts. The thing salivated. It reached for the food, wanting to eat it there and then—

But the Goblins stopped her. They shook their heads at her and pulled her back. Not understanding, confused, the young woman stopped. She watched as the Goblins took the meat they’d cut and brought it over to the pot.

It was a big pot. The Hob had carried it no doubt, and it was boiling with water. Even as the monster watched, the Goblins added meat to the pot. And then…they began to cook with it.

She couldn’t believe her eyes. What were they doing? Cooking meat? But it was—it had been part of Humans and even other Goblins. It was still flesh. It was still—but it was different. The Goblins cooked the meat like…well, meat. They seasoned it with ground up spices and even added some flour to the soup they were making. And a carrot? Yes, one of the Goblins pulled out a wizened carrot from his belt. Another had a handful of pepper. And then they turned the horrible, terrible thing they’d taken from corpses into something else. Something almost wonderful.

Soup. The smell made the girl’s mouth water. The memory made her eyes water. It was soup. She hadn’t eaten soup since…

One of the Goblins, the one who seemed to be in charge of stirring and sampling the concoction, decided the food was done. He grabbed a wooden bowl and began ladling the steaming soup into bowls, passing them to the other Goblins. The girl watched, remembering and drooling, until one of the Goblins passed a bowl to her.

At first, she recoiled from the heat and the sudden nearness of the Goblin. She stared into crimson eyes, looked at the clawed hand holding the bowl. What? He was giving it to her?

To her? But she hadn’t helped. And yet, the Goblin was offering it to her. The creature struggled with the act of kindness, but the starving thing in her greedily took the bowl. She wanted to say…to thank the Goblin, but she had no words.

And the Goblin had already taken his own bowl. Grinning with delight he set near the fire, making some remark to the other Goblins. So the monster stared at the bowl in her hands, warming her cold body.

Generosity from a Goblin. The bowl was warm and let off steam that dissipated in the cold air around her. The monster stared. Then she ate.

Slowly, clumsily, she lifted the bowl. Her hands felt unused to the motion, as if they’d forgotten how. But some things didn’t fade. Slowly, the young woman blew at the soup, licking at it tentatively until it was cool. Then she tilted the bowl up and tried to eat it as fast as she could, to satiate the thing in her stomach. She slurped the broth greedily, gulping down the chunks of meat and grinding the rest between her sharp teeth. Only when the girl had half-finished her bowl did she realize she was the only one eating this way.

The Goblin warriors were eating, yes, but they were eating…civilly. They didn’t immediately gulp down the soup like she did. They put it into bowls and ate efficiently, some even using knives to fish the meat out and pop it into their mouths. The monster stared at them, soup dripping down her dirty chest.

They ate like people. And she—

She was ashamed. But she was also hungry, so she finished the first bowl they gave her, then the second, the third.

After that, the beast in her had had enough. Which was good, because she’d eaten more than the Goblins had expected. They brewed a second batch of soup, eying her oddly but saying nothing.

They didn’t say much. Rather, each Goblin seemed to know what the others were thinking. That was how the monster-girl found herself sitting at the fire as the others sat around her. They didn’t say much, but that was because they were busy.

They were staring at her. Now that they’d eaten and taken care of the essentials, the Goblins studied the strange Human, the monster that had followed them to their camp. They eyed her from head to toe, unabashedly scrutinizing every part of her.

They didn’t seem to know what to make of her. She didn’t know what she was either, so she just stared back, part of her still afraid. The other part…

Curious.

What would they do? They hadn’t hurt her so far. Instead they’d been—she hadn’t seen other people—other Humans of her kind, that was, making soup in the city. But these Goblins had made fire, cleaned up the building, even offered food to a stranger.

They could speak! They had words! And she did not.

What were they? What was she? The monster felt anguish in her heart—

And then a stone fell into her lap.

She nearly shrieked in surprise, but it was just a pebble. One of the Goblins had thrown it. He immediately received a kick from the others, but now they were all staring at the monster, waiting to see what she would do.

The creature stared at the stone in her lap and picked it up awkwardly. She held it in her hands and stared at the Goblin who’d thrown it. He looked vaguely ashamed. What did he want from her? She didn’t know.

Slowly, hesitantly, she threw the stone back. And missed.

Her aim was terrible. Rather than hit the Goblin who’d thrown it, the pebble flew up and to the left. It struck the Hob sitting behind the Goblin, who’d been eating another bowl of soup

The pebble bounced right off of the Hobgoblin’s head. He blinked as it splashed in his bowl of soup, and slowly looked down. His chest had been splattered by the hot liquid.

The monster immediately wanted to run and hide, but she was paralyzed by shock. She stared fearfully at the Hobgoblin. So did the other Goblin warriors. They stared, and then one of them made a sound.

He hooted, and pointed at the Hobgoblin. He slapped the ground, and laughed! So did the other Goblins.

They laughed! In an instant, all of them were roaring with uncontrolled laughter, all, except for the Hob who was still processing his reduced bowl of soup. But the other Goblins were filled with mirth. They laughed like people, slapping their sides with mirth, hooting and pointing fingers at the Hobgoblin who picked the stone out with two fat fingers and hurled it over his shoulder.

He glared at the monster, who cringed, but with no real anger in him. Instead, the Hob reached out and flicked the head of the Goblin who’d thrown the stone at her, and then downed the remaining soup in his bowl in a single go. He sighed, chuckled ruefully, and then he laughed too.

Laughter. It was something that was Human or rather—reminded the young woman of Humans. But the Goblins and Humans laughed so much alike, even if the Goblin’s voices were higher and they had an odd cadence to their tones. But they still laughed, needing no words to tell her what they meant.

They laughed, at such a small accident with all the good cheer the young woman had ever seen. And—the girl thought—almost as if they were just relieved to have an excuse to laugh.

At last, the Goblins stopped laughing, but the mood remained. They sat around the fire, exchanging short, sometimes monosyllabic bursts of chatter, but clearly speaking to each other. The thing couldn’t understand, but it lay by the fire, somehow contented just to be.

It was so strange. She’d never felt this way. Not for…over a week. And few times in her previous life, to be honest. But here, among the Goblins she needed to do nothing. She just existed, and that was enough.

Goblins. The crimson eyes of the warriors sitting around her flashed in the darkness. But they weren’t heartless eyes. And their faces, however different they were from Human faces, were still capable of expressing emotion.

Soon, they began to go to sleep. They rolled into their blankets or just sat with a back against the wall and closed their eyes. Then the monster stirred.

She shouldn’t be here. That was what she felt. They were sleeping, but she—

She wasn’t safe here, was she? They’d given her food, but somehow, she still felt like an invader, or a monster living amongst people.

She should go. This had been—enough. This moment.

The monster crept away from the fire, heart aching. But she couldn’t stay. The fire was dying down and with it, the fear was coming back. The terror.

The city was full of darkness. Darkness and death. The dead were coming back. There was violence in the streets. Other people—

She had to hide. Find a tiny crevice to hide in while she slept.

That was what she thought. But the young woman paused as she crept towards the door and saw the Goblin standing watch.

He was sitting, actually. But he was sitting high up, on a broken ledge that allowed him to look out at the streets surrounding the building they’d barricaded themselves in. The Goblin had a bow in his hands and he narrowed his eyes at the monster-girl as she scrambled up to stare at him.

He didn’t smile at her, but neither did he kick her off and down onto the street. The thing looked at him, fearfully, but after a moment he just went back to studying the darkness. She looked as well and her eyes—able to see in the night like day—spotted shapes, moving in the distance.

Zombies.

She shuddered, and the Goblin on watch looked at her, almost amused. He nodded, and tapped the bow at his side. Then he pointed. The young woman turned, and saw a shape lurching down the snowy street towards them. Her heart twisted in her chest as she saw a zombie coming straight at them.

But the Goblin wasn’t afraid. He raised the bow at his side and grinned at her. He pointed, tapping his chest, and then put an arrow to the string with one swift movement. He drew the arrow to his chest, and sighted down the shaft.

Fft. The arrow streaked across the void, and thunked into the zombie’s forehead. The young woman stared, and the Goblin grinned. He pointed again. She looked, and saw another zombie, far off, not coming this way.

But it had been marked, and so the Goblin archer drew another arrow. He nocked, aimed, loosed in a single motion. The zombie staggered and fell.

Twice more the Goblin did this, pointing out targets to the monster girl and downing them. Each time he grinned at her, and tapped his own chest. His self-satisfaction was obvious, and he was unashamed of it. He was a master at his craft, an expert showing his skills off to her, like the [Hunters] or [Marksmen] who’d do the same with targets at fairs.

After the fourth zombie had fallen, the Goblin seemed done. He went back to studying the landscape. He looked at the monster, and nodded to the dim embers of the fire inquiringly. She hesitated, and then nodded back, awkwardly.

It was warm near the embers, so the creature crept closer. She lay down there—so close she could smell the smoke and feel the heat on her skin. The dim glow burned in her vision, and she closed her eyes, feeling sleep crawl over her slowly.

Could she stay here? Was this alright? She didn’t know. All the girl who’d become a monster knew was that she didn’t feel the need to hide anymore. Not here.

She slept, feeling safe for the first time in a long while.

 

—-

 

Badarrow saw the Human girl go to sleep at last by the fire. He saw her chest rise and fall rhythmically, and knew that now would be the time to shoot her, if any. He had an arrow in his hands, and he could put one through the back of her skull in a second if he wanted.

But—no. It would be a waste of an arrow. That was how Badarrow felt.

He didn’t waste arrows. Ever. When Badarrow shot at the enemy, whether it was zombies, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, or even other Goblins he never wasted an arrow. Even if he missed. Because that arrow was there to hurt the people who were trying to hurt them, and it would do just that, or at least make them cover their heads.

But killing the Human girl? No. She wasn’t an enemy, and she wasn’t a nuisance either. She was something else. But what?

Not a victim. Not something to attack. Garen Redfang was very clear on that one point. He had walked among Humans, and adopted some of their customs. In this at least, he was firm. No Goblin warrior of his would ever assault a female, or male for that matter. They had their own kind for such things, and it was only the worst of tribes that tolerated such actions among their own people. So why degrade themselves for other species?

It was a mark of pride among the Redfang Gobins that they were like their leader. Humans were for killing or ignoring. That was it. Nothing else.

So. No sex. No killing. Just a Human who ate their food and slept next to them as if they were Humans like her. Badarrow couldn’t understand it. But she was clearly more monster than Human, so maybe that was why.

The Goblin [Archer] yawned irritably. He glanced up at the moon, and decided it was time. Swiftly, he leapt down from his spot and walked over to another of the resting Goblins.

Headscratcher woke up after only a single poke. He knew it was his time to watch, so he didn’t scowl that hard at Badarrow. He took the bow the Goblin handed him, nodding at the implicit threat of what would happen if he damaged Badarrow’s weapon.

The Goblin warrior went to climb up to the watch point, but he paused as he passed the Human. He stopped, and looked down at her. He stared down at the Human girl, eying her altered features with interest. He reached down to touch at her dirty hair, which glowed in the firelight—

Badarrow kicked him. Headscratcher nearly tumbled into the firepit. He turned, fist raised, but Badarrow’s glare stopped him. One jerk of the annoyed Goblin’s head clearly said that Headscratcher should be keeping watch or they’d all be dead.

Reluctantly, Headscratcher went up to his post. He kept look out, killing any zombies that came near with precise shots from the bow. Then after about an hour had passed, he went to wake the next Goblin whose turn it was. The warriors had a system for every night, so that each Goblin took their own turn unless wounded.

Tonight was Badarrow, then Headscratcher. After that Rocksoup and then Rabbiteater, and then Bitefly, and then Grunter for the last watch. Like that, they passed the night away into morning.

Just before dawn, all the Goblins woke as one. They sat up and grabbed their gear. They armed themselves within minutes, and then prepared for battle.

The thirteen Goblin warriors sat around the sleeping monster-girl in silence, polishing their weapons, checking their armor for faults. They made as little sound as possible, and stood up and left her sleeping quietly next to the fire.

The Redfang warriors chose a good vantage point where they wouldn’t be seen, and watched the edge of the city, the gates where the other Goblin army had camped. They stood alert, but not tense, conserving their energy.

Waiting. They knew it would not be long.

 

—-

 

They came into the city in groups of twenty or more, sweeping through with the dawning sun at their backs, killing anything and everything they found. Goblin warriors in black armor, preparing the way.

A group of them came across a horde of zombies. They didn’t retreat; the zombies would pursue them and the last thing the warriors wanted was to run into another group of undead and become trapped.

So the Goblins found a snowy patch of land on higher ground, and let the zombies come to them. Many of the slow undead fell to arrows before they even reached the Goblins, and the others fell to the Goblins as they fought in tight formation. The Goblin warriors grinned as they slaughtered the undead. After all, they were just—

Zombies.

Eight zombies sat up in the snow behind the Goblins. They’d been lying still, motionless under the snow. Now they leapt to their feet and ran at the Goblins, taking the warriors by complete surprise. The Goblins cried out—turned to fight—

And a skeleton slipped out from the crowd of zombies and beheaded one of the Goblins. He turned and cut another one down even as the Goblins began fighting the eight zombies under his control. Another Goblin turned, axe raised, shouting as Toren charged him—

The skeleton’s eyes glowed purple. The Goblin froze up, and then raised his axe again. But too slow, too late. Toren’s hand blurred, and the Goblin stumbled back, throat cut.  Toren grinned as he leapt backwards, avoiding the other Goblin warriors’ attacks. The [Fear] enchantment didn’t work on Goblins—but it could make them hesitate.

Their formation broken, attacked from behind and harassed by the skeleton, the group of over twenty Goblins fell quickly to the zombie horde that encircled them, no longer held at bay. Toren happily walked among their bodies, checking for a better sword and a shield. He stayed clear of the rogue zombies, the mass of dead about sixty strong now, as it shambled its way down the street. The eight zombies Toren had control of waited patiently for him to finish as he triumphantly surveyed the dead Goblins.

It hadn’t been easy to get all the zombies in the right spots, but they’d been an excellent distraction. Toren couldn’t command a horde, but it was easy to herd them like cattle and let his personal band of undead capitalize on their attack. And the dividends of Toren’s hard work were immediately obvious.

 

[Leader Level 4!]

[Skill – Daring Charge obtained!]

 

The skeleton danced about with his new sword and shield. Another level! He’d been sending his zombies to attack Humans all night, but it was clear that attacking groups that could fight back was more rewarding. He immediately led his zombies off, searching for more Goblin groups. It looked like they were finally coming to attack, and that made Toren happy.

He’d finally get to kill a lot of things today.

 

—-

 

Another group of Goblins, twenty five warriors of the Goblin Lord, cornered the group of thirteen Redfang warriors an hour after dawn. Both sides were breathing heavily.

It had been a long chase. The Redfang warriors had caught the first group of Goblins by surprise, slaying over half with arrows before they’d known what was happening. But by chance, another group of warriors had heard the fighting and rushed to assist their comrades. The Redfang warriors had fled, bringing down more Goblins, but now their backs were against a wall.

“Traitors.”

The Goblin warrior with black armor and a longsword in his hand called out to the Redfang warriors. He stood with the black-armored warriors at his back.

“Goblin Lord is. Obey him. Come and not die.”

For a second, the thirteen Goblins paused in surprise. This was new. They were being invited to join the Goblin Lord’s forces? They looked at each other, uncertain, thinking.

Then Rocksoup, fished around in his nose for a booger, and flicked it at the other Goblin leader. The Goblin roared in outrage, but Rocksoup’s comrades, his friends, slapped him on the back and cheered.

The Redfang Goblins laughed. They faced down the other Goblins, backs straight, heads held high. They did not need to say anything. Any true Goblin would understand.

We are here. We are Goblins. We do not abandon our tribe.

No true Goblin would. What were these false Goblins, these fools who’d accept traitors into their tribe? Who could obey a Chieftain—even Goblin Lord like that?

Never. It could never be accepted. So the Goblins faced off, the Redfang warriors standing proud as the sun hit their backs.

It was thirteen against twenty-five. The black-armored Goblins were confident, but the Redfang warriors had no fear. Grunter waited until the thunder in his heart was right, and then roared.

As one, the Redfang warriors leapt forwards. They rushed forwards, shouting without fear as they ran towards their surprised enemy. For all his bulk, Grunter was first. He lowered his axe and shoulder-charged into a group of warriors, ignoring their weapons. He trusted his thick skin and armor to keep him safe.

A Goblin stabbed at him, but the shaft of his spear broke as Grunter rammed into him. The Hob trampled the Goblin, and seized another. He threw him, and then the one he’d stepped on as if they weighed nothing.

Grunter threw two Goblins into their fellows, turned, and chopped another Goblin down. He roared at the others, making them draw back in fear. They dared to challenge him? He was a Hob! He scythed left and right with his heavy weapon, daring anyone to come close.

Headscratcher was right behind Grunter. He leapt towards the warriors Grunter had downed and without a second’s thought, stabbed them as they struggled to get up. Behind him, Badarrow shot the other Goblin leader through the head at point-blank range, laughing in fury as he did.

The other Redfang warriors formed a spear, Grunter at their head. They charged at the other warriors, bringing the fight to them. Bugear jabbed with a spear, keeping three Goblins at bay at once. One ran forwards, slashing, but Rocksoup was there!

Rocksoup and the Goblin cut—but it was the other Goblin warrior who fell away. Too slow! The dagger in Rocksoup’s off-hand caught the Goblin in his unprotected throat and he fell, choking.

The Goblin Lord’s warriors fell back in disarray. They hadn’t expected such a difference in levels! But the Redfang warriors refused to give them any moment’s rest. They pressed on, howling with fury.

They were elites! They’d fought beside Garen Redfang in the hottest of battles! Other Goblin warriors couldn’t compare to their skill.

But—they were outnumbered. And not even their levels and skill in battle could bridge the gap in numbers so easily. The instant the other Goblin warriors lost the shock of first contact, they began to swarm the Redfang warriors, fighting two-to-one, or in Grunter’s case, six-to-one.

Still, the Redfang warriors refused to back down. They fought shoulder-to-shoulder, refusing to budge. If this was their last moment, they’d go down as free Goblins, not these pale imitations. Headscratcher had lost his blade-buried in a Goblin’s spine and was falling back when he saw something blur at the backs of the Goblin warriors besieging them. He heard screams, and then the press forcing the Redfang warriors disappeared.

A silver blade cut four Goblins to the ground in swift slashes that rent their armor. The Redfang warriors saw a Goblin in black armor turn—and then a shield crashed into his face. He fell, neck broken, and then they saw the man in silver armor.

“What’s this?”

Ylawes raised his shield as the black armor Goblins fled around him. The Redfang warriors were clearly different from the rest, and he narrowed his eyes at Grunter. The Redfang Goblins didn’t hesitate. The moment they saw who they were facing, they moved to attack.

The warriors spread out around Ylawes, half of them pulling out bows. Grunter, Rocksoup, Bugear and three more Goblins formed a circle around the adventurer, keeping a wide distance. They closed as one.

Ylawes didn’t let the Goblins take the initiative. The instant they moved to attack him, he charged left. Bugear raised his own shield and the sword that Ylawes brought down cracked it and flattened the Goblin. If it wasn’t for his own Skill, the Goblin would have been cut apart in a single blow.

The warrior in silver armor clearly hadn’t expected the Goblin to survive, but he turned and blocked Grunter’s powerful blow as the Hob charged him. The axe with all of Grunter’s weight behind it bounced off the shield, and the man instantly riposted, his blade cutting Grunter deep in the side.

The Hob howled and the other Goblins swarmed Ylawes. The man spun away, keeping all of them at bay. Arrows flew at his face—he blocked each one with his shield, spinning to knock them down.

The Redfang warriors paused then, in consternation and for the first time, fear. For his part, Ylawes eyed them with his own degree of shock.

“Hmf. You’re no ordinary Goblins, are you? Are all the monsters this far south so strange?”

The Redfang warriors made no reply. Instead, they just pulled back. Grunter kept one hand on his side, assessing his damage. They looked at each other, seeing the terrible truth in each others’ eyes.

This adventurer was Gold-rank. He had to be.

It was a death sentence for the Redfang warriors. They knew it. A group of Silver-rank adventurers they could handle, or run from. But a Gold-rank?

Badarrow snarled as he loosed arrow after arrow at Ylawes. The man blocked each shot, advancing quickly on the Goblins. The Redfang warriors spread out again, but this time they had only one goal in mind. Even if they died, even if they all died distracting the adventurer, they had to give Grunter an opening—

Headscratcher, Bugear, and Bitefly all attacked at once. They slashed at Ylawes, ducking back as he slashed at them, trying to distract him. Other Goblins attacked at the same time, and Ylawes was forced to knock aside their blades, force them back with his sword rather than attack. Grunter spotted an opening as the man turned to cut Headscratcher down. The small Goblin raised his sword bravely, and Grunter exploded towards Ylawes with a roar—

The man turned and lashed out with his shield, smashing into Grunter’s right arm. All of the Goblins heard the Hob’s bones break from the impact. Grunter staggered, but he still tried to bring his axe down—

“Courage. Even from Goblins.”

That was all Ylawes said as he ran Grunter through. The Hob’s eyes widened and he sat down as Ylawes pulled the blade out of his stomach. The Redfang warriors howled and attacked, but too slow. Ylawes raised his crimson blade from the final blow—

No!

Was it a word or a thought? She didn’t know. But the monster leapt, and her flight across the ten feet of ground caught Ylawes by surprise. Even so, the adventurer still turned fast enough. His shield smacked the young woman out of the air. She landed, stunned, and saw his sword point down at her.

But Ylawes didn’t finish the blow. He stopped at the last moment, and his eyes went wide as he saw her face. He seemed horrified; his face went pale.

“You. What are—?”

Grunter threw himself at the Gold-rank adventurer. Ylawes turned, and his shield came up, smashing into the Hob’s face and stopping his charge. But the impact still made the adventurer slide a bit in the snow.

The Hob stumbled, bleeding. Ylawes shoved him back, and then turned towards the thing crouching in the snow again. She slashed at him, forcing him to guard his body with his shield. Her claws could scratch even his plate armor.

“What’s wrong with you? Please, if you can—answer me!”

She only screamed, screamed at him without words to stop, to not kill these people. But he was too strong. He forced her away, hitting her in the stomach with his shield so hard she was stunned. And then he turned back to the Goblins.

They faced him, ready to die. But Ylawes’ eyes narrowed, and his head turned. Almost too late.

The blurring [Mirage Cut] opened up a deep slash across the silver armored man’s cheek. He turned, snarling, and Toren rolled away, clattering his teeth with frustration.

“You!”

Ylawes charged at the skeleton, but halted as an arrow flew at his face. He turned towards Badarrow as the Goblin reached for another arrow in his quiver.

That’s when the zombies charged out the alleyway. Eight of them ran at Ylawes, arms swinging wildly. He hacked through four in an instant, his limbs a blur of motion, but Toren was at his back. The skeleton cut at Ylawes as the Redfang warriors made his retreat, trying to strike the man’s face, cut at the joints in his armor—

Stop!

The Gold-rank adventurer bellowed at the Human, or at least the thing that had once been Human. He saw her turn to look back at him once, but then she was helping pull the Hob away.

He didn’t have time to chase her. Somehow, an entire horde of zombies had been attracted to his location, and they surrounded him now. Ylawes cut them asunder, his blade and shield moving ceaselessly, but there was always the skeleton, trying to cut at him, forcing the adventurer to fight with his back to the wall—

In the end, Toren leapt away as the last few zombies kept Ylawes in place. The Gold-rank adventurer cut the last corpse to the ground and one booted foot smashed a skull in. The man and skeleton stared at each other across the street full of corpses.

“What are you?”

Toren just grinned. Then he ran and disappeared down a street, leaving Ylawes behind in the snow. The adventurer turned to stare at the bodies of the fallen.

“First Goblins fighting Goblins. Then—a young woman? A monster? Something. And then that skeleton. What’s going on?”

No one answered him. But soon the adventurer turned and raced through the streets. He could hear screams everywhere, even at the walls he’d had guards posted at. The Goblins were trying to kill everyone they could before the main fist of their army attacked. He had to save them all.

But he could not do it alone. The adventurer halted and reached for his belt. He took out a scroll and stared at shimmering letters. Words. A reply.

Soon.

He tucked the scroll back into his belt pouch and ran on, sword and shield raised. To save the living. Or die defending them.

 

—-

 

The Goblin commander roared his fury as the [Scouts] brought back news. The kill teams he’d sent into the city were being routed! Slaughtered! By a Human with silver armor and the undead!

He rounded on the two cringing [Shamans] who’d been forced to carry their master’s burden. He pointed at the city, demanding they control the undead, to send them in. But the [Shamans] could not. They had not the strength, not a fraction of the head [Shaman] that had been sent to lead the army, and certainly not nearly as much as the Goblin Lord himself—

The commander of the Goblins had no time for excuses. He called out, and his mount, a vast Shield Spider, rose up. It bit one of the [Shamans], cutting off his shriek. The other one fled as the commander called his lieutenants. He pointed to the city, and gave crisp orders.

No more waiting! No more delays for reinforcements. The [Shamans] could collect their dead after he’d slaughtered everyone in the city. The adventurer and all the Humans would die.

The Goblin army prepared to march on Esthelm. And in its streets, a skeleton danced, bringing death and commanding it. And further away, a group of Goblins carrying a bleeding Hob. A monster ran with them, helping them carry the dying Goblin, watching as they slapped his face, trying to keep him awake.

People.

And as the sun rose, it rose on the undead, the army of Goblins, the desperate walls built by Humans. And a few people, caught in the madness.

This is their story.

 


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3.18 T

This is a story of a skeleton. His name was Toren, and it was the one thing he had never questioned about him. Erin had given him that name, and that at least he was grateful to her for.

But in the place he walked, no one would know his name. In fact, they wouldn’t even bother to ask whether he had one. The people in the city of Esthelm would probably just take one look at Toren and run, or try to kill him.

And if they were some kind of mentally-deficient human who wanted to make friends with an undead skeleton, Toren would kill them anyways. That was his plan, and he thought it was a good one.

The skeleton strolled in through the open gates of the city as dusk fell. He didn’t worry about anyone stopping him; there were no guards manning the shattered watch towers, or what remained of the walls. And yet, he knew there were people in the city.

Lots of them, in fact. Toren stared as he walked further into the city and saw what remained after the Goblins’ attack.

Broken buildings. Scorched ash. Piles of rubble and broken earth. Toren was no expert, but he was fairly certain this wasn’t how cities were supposed to look.

Then again, maybe this was how Humans built their cities? Who knew? Toren spotted several…buildings amidst the shattered landscape. He stared, intrigued, at flimsy ramshackle structures someone had built out of salvaged wood and metal.

Were those supposed to be houses? They looked so flimsy, Toren felt he could push them over if he tried. And as it turned out, he could do just that. The skeleton succeeded in knocking over a support beam to one of the structures, which sent the roof and walls tumbling in. He paused as he heard screams from inside the structure, and then realized the noise had attracted people.

People, or to be more accurate, the one species that seemed to live in this city.

Humans.

They rushed over to the building and Toren quickly ran away from the scene of the destruction. He saw men and women in dirty and torn clothing dashing towards the caved-in structure. Crouched behind a broken wall, Toren saw some of them trying to pull away the debris that had collapsed on the people inside.

The building’s inhabitants came out shaken, bloody, shocked. Toren saw with interest there were children—Human children—among them. He’d never seen a Human child before. After a few seconds of observation, Toren concluded they were nothing special. All they seemed to do was cry.

The skeleton saw the Humans—now a rather large group, perhaps thirty or more, exclaiming over the structure that had mysteriously fallen to bits. He saw a few of the Humans—mostly men—begin to point fingers at another man who was raising his hands and pointing frantically at the structure. One man—standing next to a woman holding a weeping child with a bloody shoulder in her arms—raised a fist. He punched the accused man, and then more people rushed to help him beat the poor fellow to death, or at least into something close to it.

It was all fascinating to Toren. He watched as the mob, having administered justice, began to try and figure out what to do next. It was cold, and snowflakes kept drifting down sporadically from the sky. The Humans had to find shelter soon, or at least blankets. There had been blankets in the building, so some tried to dig them out. But then another fight broke out over who should have the blankets, and then someone pulled out a dagger—

Confusion and chaos. This was only one small group, in a small part of the city. When Toren was done watching Humans attack each other, he found another group of Humans to see much of the same.

They certainly did like to fight, didn’t they? They formed into groups or tried to survive on their own, quarreling and sometimes even killing each other over things like blankets, food, weapons—all of which, it had to be said, seemed to be in very short supply.

Toren quite approved of the violence he witnessed as he made his way deeper into the city, keeping to the shadows. He hadn’t ever noticed Erin or Lyonette doing it, but Humans seemed to love hurting each other. Perhaps this was why he liked killing things?

The skeleton knew his bones—at least his skull—was Human. So he felt a certain kinship to the gangs of desperate men who banded together and savagely attacked anyone weaker than them to steal what they needed or wanted. It was so fascinating to Toren that he completely forgot to kill anything for a while as he observed the refugees of Esthelm in their natural habitat.

He’d never seen so many Humans before! Not ever! In truth, Toren had never been to anything like a crowded place before; the closest he’d come were busy nights when Erin’s inn had been packed. But this was different.

There were a lot of Humans. True, many of them seemed like they were crowded together in ramshackle structures, but it did seem like there was some kind of organization happening. The strongest Humans—those with weapons or some kind of fighting Skill lead the others. They made sure their people had more clothing, more to eat. And they took other things as well.

A man dragged a screaming woman away after one group of men had killed another group of men. Toren followed him as he took the woman away and for some reason, took off his clothes. And then he did strange things which made no sense to the skeleton, but which seemed to upset the young woman.

Toren cocked his head left and then right, trying to figure out what the point was. There was a lot of grunting and animal-like motion…was that it? They were just sort of bumping each other, much to the woman’s displeasure.

Maybe he wasn’t seeing the full picture. Carefully, the skeleton crawled across the ground. It was easy for him to make himself invisible in places where snow had fallen, but it meant he couldn’t see everything. He moved around and tried to get a good perspective from another angle.

Nope. No good. Frustrated, the skeleton stood up. He finally saw what the man was doing—about the same time as the man happened to glance up. He looked up and saw the skeleton staring at him. Toren stared down in interest as the man went white.

Well now, what was this? More fleshy bits. Toren had seen Erin naked a few times by accident, but he hadn’t been aware there were so many differences between male Humans and female ones. And how strange the fleshy bits were! He ignored the man’s horrified stare as he fixed his attention on a rather odd body part that was changing before his eyes. He had no idea things could shrink like that.

The man made a choking, horrified noise as the woman saw Toren. She screamed. He scrambled off her and grabbed for his weapon—a spiked club he’d carelessly tossed to the ground. Toren sneered at it silently. He let the man charge at him, naked, swinging his club without an inch of actual skill or forethought.

Humans.

Toren didn’t even bother with his sword. He wrenched the club out of the man’s hands as the Human struck at him, and then beat the man to the ground with it. The Human took quite a few blows to die, which Toren attributed to the shoddy craftsmanship of his club. He should have been ashamed.

When he was done, Toren tossed the bloody club on the ground. He stared at the woman, who hadn’t really stopped screaming since he’d seen her. It was getting annoying, so Toren used the [Fear] effect in his eyes.

That made her freeze, shivering, naked, and terrified as she sat on the ground, staring at him. She flinched as Toren raised the club, but he just tossed it on the dead man’s corpse. He could have beaten her to death with it as well, but she didn’t seem like she was a warrior, so why bother?

In his experience, there wasn’t actually much to be gained from slaughtering things that couldn’t fight back. He’d tried it with baby spiders, the odd reptilian birds that lived around Liscor, and even Corusdeer fawns. There was just no point to it. It was fun, obviously, but Toren had come here for a reason.

Yes, he was here to fight! The skeleton abandoned the Humans, and indeed, the populated parts of the city entirely. He walked further into the center of the city, peering around demolished buildings. Groups of Humans hitting each other with sticks and occasionally swords was all very well, but he’d come here for a real challenge. Where were the undead? Probably further in. And the Goblin army had to be coming soon. Toren would have a fight then, but in the meantime, he searched around for trouble. There had to be actual warriors around here, right?

Right?

 

—-

 

The Goblins ran through the city, no longer fleeing, but rather, searching for a place to hide.

Their pursuers had stopped at the edges of the city. But the Goblins kept moving, venturing deeper into the ruins of Esthelm. Now they knew where they were, they were convinced of several things.

Firstly, this city had been destroyed. That was obvious. But what was clear to them was that this city had been ransacked in an odd way. The buildings and indeed the city’s defenders had been put to sword and flame, yet the people had been spared. The instant the Goblins had entered the city they had spotted countless Humans, living in their camps on the outskirts of the city.

The Goblins had never seen anything like it. When they attacked a city or village, they killed all the inhabitants or forced them to flee. But this—taking the city but leaving the people to remain? Who would do such a thing?

It made them all think of Rags. Perhaps she had been here? They certainly saw evidence some Goblins had been here—an entire army’s worth of dead Goblins lay slaughtered across the city, their rotting remains covered partially by the snow.

But maybe it had all been the Goblin Lords’ forces? The Redfang Goblins didn’t know. But they did know they couldn’t stay in the open. Humans being in the city complicated things. Hiding from their own kind was one thing, but if there were this many Humans there, the Goblins had two enemies to fight.

Most of the Humans they passed had formed small groups—former [Shopkeepers] and [Butchers] and so on holding weapons they didn’t know how to use. But if they all attacked the Redfang Goblins at once, the warriors would be torn to bits no matter how superior their equipment and levels were.

So the Goblins warriors ran. The other Goblins following them would come sooner or later, they knew. So they had to find a place to hide.

But where?

The first to spot a likely area was Bugear. He called out as they ran, and pointed to a collapsed building, taller than most structures. It was terribly exposed, but the other Goblins understood what he meant and immediately surged towards it. They raced down broken streets, ignoring the Humans that cried out and fled from them. Lone Humans weren’t their concern.

The rubble was jagged and broken pieces of stone stood out, but the mound was easy to climb for the Goblins. In minutes they were all at the top, staring down at the dark city below them.

They weren’t hiding. Not yet. Rather, they were doing the sensible thing and taking the lay of the land, scoping out the city on their own terms. It was true they would be easily spotted, but who was looking for the Goblins right now? The Humans were disorganized and only a scant few of them had ranged weapons of any kind.

So the Redfang warriors held their position, staring down at Esthelm. Grunter ordered two Goblins – Leftstep and Rabbiteater – to watch for anyone trying to climb up and take them by surprise. Meanwhile, the other Goblins pointed down, their keen eyes catching individual Humans roaming the streets. And the Goblins exclaimed, their voices full of surprise.

What was this? What was this…city? What had happened here? Obviously the Humans had survived the battle, but what was this? They were forming groups, fighting over territory. See there? Headscratcher pointed out a group of men building a clumsy barricade to wall off a street. They were creating bases in the city! And already, some groups of Humans had created living spaces, communal campfires and places for the young and elderly to rest, guarded zealously by Humans who watched over their new home with improvised weapons.

It was startling, strange, unheard of. And to the Goblin warriors, deeply disturbing. Not because it was so unfamiliar—but because it was exactly like the life they knew. To them, it was like the Humans had formed Goblin tribes. They fought and warred over resources like Goblins did, only viciously, fighting over petty scraps that even the Goblin tribes wouldn’t have contested.

If too many tribes were in the same region, they would fight. But the weaker tribe would move away rather than continue to fight. But none of the Humans left the city. They warred over it instead, building a new place on the ashes of their homes. It was so surreal to them that the Goblin warriors had to stop and take it all in.

And the cruelty! Ah, Goblins knew Humans could be cruel. But when they saw the other Humans killing each other in the streets, chasing after women, hurting—the Goblins saw a bit of what they did, and felt uneasy. It was too much like what Goblins were supposed to do. Not Humans.

Of course, not all Humans had become raping, murderous monsters. But it had to be said that the ones who did this tended to stand out a lot more than the ones just trying to survive. The Goblins stood on their position for a few minutes, and after they were able to tear their eyes away from the Humans, they took in the rest of the city.

The places near the walls were the most populated. Only naturally—the destruction was actually less around the outskirts, since there weren’t as many buildings that could have been destroyed. But in the center, a great pile of broken walls and stone formed a maze, a labyrinth that ran into the earth in places where the underground sewers had collapsed and sent the ground tumbling downwards.

That was a good place to hide. But for how long? At Grunter’s insistence, the Goblins checked their supplies. They weren’t carrying much. Aside from their weapons and tools to start fires and hunt and prepare food with, they had barely enough for a scant meal between them. If they wanted to live in this city, they’d have to find food.

Well, there were dead bodies. Badarrow pointed out some fresh ones. And there were Humans as well as Goblins for variety. Grunter nodded, but his eyes were on a few pinpoints of light beyond the city walls. The other Goblins looked.

Campfires. And they could see small shapes, hundreds of them, gathered around the fires. Goblins. Not their people, but the enemy.

Why were they here? It didn’t matter. They’d boxed the Redfang Goblins into the city, and if they tried to run, they’d surely be cut down.

It was bad news. But the Goblins were Goblins, so they regarded their predicament as only another thing to survive. That was why they moved off the rubble and into the heart of the city without worrying or speaking. Shelter first, and then food. Worrying was pointless; a thing Chieftains did.

On their passage through the streets, the Goblins slowed. Now that they weren’t running, they let their most silent trackers—Badarrow and Numbtongue—go ahead. Numbtongue peered down an alley and shook his head. The Goblins swiftly passed by the entrance, avoiding the group of Humans at the other end.

Fighting was pointless. The Goblins knew how to fight, which meant they knew when not to fight. They avoided any groups of Humans, slowly working their way deeper and deeper through the streets.

That’s when they saw the Human and the child. He was calling out, searching for his family. The Goblins heard his voice and said nothing, although they all privately knew where the child’s parents likely were. Hadn’t they all gone through the same moments growing up, after a battle or when their tribe had been raided?

Grunter wanted to move on, but Headscratcher pointed. The Goblins, hidden as they crouched in a shadowy spot next to a building, saw a man approaching the child. He had no weapon, but there was murder in the way he walked.

Perhaps he was tired of hearing the child call out. Maybe he thought the child would attract too much attention here. He might have been angry, or filled with hate. Maybe he just wanted to kill something.

The boy ran when he saw the adult. But he was too slow. The man grabbed him. The Goblins watched, remembering. It was a familiar scene. Still, they didn’t move. They would have left, to let the scene play out, but Badarrow stood up. Silently, he put an arrow to his bow and loosed it.

Badarrow’s shot took the Human in the back, right where neck met shoulder. The man gasped, fell, nearly squashing the shocked boy who cried out. He was dead when he hit the ground.

None of the other Goblins said a word. But neither did they rebuke Badarrow. And neither did they look at the child. They just paused, and moved on.

The wandering child screamed as he saw the Goblins, but the warriors moved past him, grim and silent. They gave him no aid, but didn’t hurt him. He was Human. An enemy if he was older, prey if he had valuables they could take. What could they have done for him, anyways?

But the Redfang warriors exchanged glances even so, as they found likely spots to settle and scouted around for any fresh bodies and wood to use for dinner. They didn’t say it, but they all thought it.

There was something dark in this city. Of course, they’d seen things far more terrifying than this, and they’d faced times just as bleak. But it was what the Humans did that disturbed the Goblins. When things fell apart, they didn’t stick together like Goblins did—they tore each other apart. Hadn’t they all been part of the same tribe here? Why were they killing each other now?

No one had an answer. But Grunter, who’d been staring at the sky, grunted. The Goblins looked at him as they pulled the Human that Badarrow had shot back towards their new base. The boy was long gone.

Grunter pointed the direction they’d come, back towards the other Goblins. He spoke, the words coming slowly to him.

“The others will come. Here. To kill the Humans.”

The Redfang warriors nodded. That was likely. They could put two and two together—even if this city had been looted, the Humans were a resource. Food, and perhaps even warriors if the [Shamans] and [Mages] they’d seen could control so many.

But what did that have to do with them? Grunter pointed at the broken walls, the maze the Goblins found himself in. He touched the axe at his belt.

“Chaos. Confusion. Kill them.”

The Goblin warriors considered this. Then Bugear grinned and Rocksoup licked his lips. Now, that was a good idea! It was unlike Grunter to come up with it, but he was a Hob after all.

Kill their kind. Ambush them in the streets. Even if there was an army, it wasn’t impossible in this landscape. The city practically invited sneak attacks. And in the confusion and looting and killing, they could surely slip away from their pursuers.

After all, Goblins looked alike. And if they could get their hands on some armor—who’d notice a band of Goblins amidst all the fighting?

It was a good plan, and the Goblins wasted no more time thinking about it. They had a plan, and they would implement it as best they could. Now it was time to eat. They had one body—they could find more, and stuff themselves tonight.

That was one small benefit to be had from this city. There were a lot of bodies, and Humans didn’t eat dead Humans. So the Goblins would be fed, and warm too, if they could find enough wood. All they had to do was find a place to hide.

And wait.

 

—-

 

Toren was getting sick of all the useless Humans. He was tempted to just run at a band of looters and fight them, but he had the feeling he wouldn’t level if he did. He strode down the empty streets, growing increasingly more annoyed.

Where was the backbone in these Humans? It seemed like all they were doing was squabbling with each other, not doing important things! Perhaps that was why the Goblin army had come. They would easily kill the Humans.

Already the Goblin army outside the gates had been noticed. Toren saw many Humans abandon their camps and move into the city, afraid, fighting to get to a spot they considered safer. But that just meant they were fighting themselves again.

So stupid. Part of Toren missed the inn. Just a small part. He immediately quashed the thought when he had it, but wasn’t it true? At least in the inn he had things to do. Here he was looking and he still couldn’t find something worthwhile to kill. Whereas at the inn—

He could scrub the floors. And serve food. And that would level up his [Barmaid] class. It was…well, it wasn’t as if Toren liked the class. But he liked leveling up. And here he had nothing much to do.

Toren was just considering going for broke and slaughtering everything he could when he heard the fighting. He turned, and saw a group of five men and two women, cornering a family. A man slashed at the other men with a short sword while he tried to guard his wife and two daughters. But the other men had clubs and sticks, and even if they weren’t as sharp, there were a lot of them.

Perhaps it was the sword they were after. But Toren had a feeling the three females were also part of it. He was starting to figure out Human motivations, even if he didn’t quite get the details.

Well, here was a fight. Perhaps Toren should join in—kill them all. The skeleton lifted his blade, ready to charge. But then he heard a shout. He saw someone run down the street, someone tall. In armor? Toren stepped back into a shadow as the men turned. He caught a glimpse of silver, flashing in the darkness. And then he saw the adventurer.

A tall man, blonde, wearing plate armor and holding a shield and sword that gleamed, charged down the snowy, dirty street. He was followed by three other adventurers, a man and two women Toren recognized. The [Fighter], the spear wielder, and the annoying mage! But these three were clearly different from the man in silver armor. Their equipment was cheap, if effective. But this man’s armor gleamed.

And he moved faster than Toren would have guessed. In seconds he’d covered the distance between the thugs. He raised his sword as they turned, shouting in shock. Toren heard his voice, filled with outrage clearly across the street.

“You scum!

He ran one man through and lopped the hand off of the other before the group of men could even blink. He turned, slashing, making the other Humans cry out in pain. The two women in the band of thugs weren’t spared from his wrath either. Within moments the entire group had fled. The only people that remained were the family that had been set upon.

“Are you alright?”

Toren heard the words as he stealthily made his way closer to the man in armor. He was standing, reassuring the tearful family as the other three adventurers stood behind him awkwardly. They hadn’t even gotten there in time to help!

“Bless you, sir. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come—”

The father was speaking to the adventurer. And yes, Toren was sure he was an adventurer. He had pouches at his belt, and he reminded Toren a lot of the Horns of Hammerad and Griffon Hunt.

“It was my duty. But you shouldn’t be out so late. Why haven’t you fled the city?”

“Where would we go, sir? There are Goblins on the road. And—they came back!”

The woman clutched at the Knight, speaking desperately and pointing. Toren knew she had to be talking about the Goblin army.

“We couldn’t leave. Going to another city after the Goblins attacked? In the cold, with nothing to eat or wear? We couldn’t. And then—we stayed. We thought we’d survive, but there are gangs roaming the streets, sir. We barely got away when the people we were with were attacked last time. And now…”

“I understand.”

The man’s voice was firm, quiet. He looked at the adventurers following him.

“You three. We’ll need to escort these good people to a safe place.”

“What?”

The Bronze-rank adventurers exclaimed in dismay. The man with the sword—whom Toren was displeased to note had healed the injuries the skeleton had given him—spoke to the adventurer in silver armor.

“Sir, we can’t just involve ourselves here! We should be leaving for another city! Take the family with us maybe, but those Goblins chased us into the city! They’ll probably attack at any moment!”

The man in armor glared at the [Fighter], but the woman with the spear piped up as well, looking nervous.

“But we can’t leave! The Goblins have the road. And there’s the skeleton we saw! The strange one! If we leave, we might run into it!”

“Fools. The dead are rising! Of course there are skeletons wandering the roads!”

The warrior in armor snapped at the others. They stopped, looking confused.

“What do you mean? Why are the dead rising?”

He stared at them incredulously. Toren was giving them much the same look from his hiding spot, in a small place where the cobblestones had been torn up to create a small depression. The man in silver armor sighed and spoke through gritted teeth.

“Rookies. Haven’t you learned anything? Violence and anarchy in the street are but one of Esthelm’s woes. This place was the site of a major battle where thousands died, both Goblins and Humans. You’ve seen the bodies. Don’t you know what happens when they aren’t properly buried or cremated?”

“They rise.”

That came from the female [Mage]. She looked pale faced. The adventurer nodded.

“They rise. First zombies, then skeletons and even Ghouls if the slaughter is great enough. Given time, stronger undead will emerge as well. Crypt Lords…and far worse.”

A groan of pure terror came from the family the man had saved. The father fell to his knees, beseeching.

“Mister Adventurer, sir! Can you not save us? If the undead rise—what chance do my family and I have?”

“Calm yourself. The issue of the undead is precisely the reason I came here.”

The man in armor helped the father up, speaking reassuringly to the family.

“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I heard of what had befallen Esthelm too late, but I set out as soon as I realized the other local cities were doing nothing to address the issue. The fools in the Adventurer’s Guild were too afraid to venture out, even the Silver-ranked ones.”

Toren’s metaphorical ears perked up the instant he heard the adventurer mention his rank. Gold? Toren had seen Griffon Hunt and even the other team—the Halfseekers, but he’d never properly fought one before. The closest he’d come was fighting Halrac, and that had been completely one-sided.

But here…this adventurer was alone! Toren immediately wanted to challenge him, but he held off. Listen. Observe. He wriggled closer, moving slowly so as not to be seen. The Gold-rank adventurer was addressing everyone, his back turned to Toren.

“I came here to deal with the undead issue because no one else had the courage to make the journey. But instead I find a city’s worth of people here, as well as a Goblin army?”

The man in silver armor paused. He shook his head.

“This all feels too connected. If what I suspect is true, the Goblins may have spared the people of this city for this moment. So many bodies, and so much potential for death—are they trying to create an undead horde to attack other cities with?”

“An undead horde? Could the Goblins really do such a thing?”

“Normal armies do it as well, I’m afraid, Miss. I’d like to say I could drive off the Goblins myself, but there are hundreds out there and I’m no Named Adventurer. Still, I think there’s a way. If I can—”

He was so full of himself! So proud. So…why was Toren angry? But this seemed too easy. The skeleton was only a few feet away. He could use [Mirage Cut] and take the man down in seconds. Was this really a Gold-rank adventurer? How could one be so careless? But still, Toren would do it. He wanted the man’s silver armor, not to mention his sword and shield.

Closer. Closer…Toren rose slowly, and moved at a crouch. None of them were looking at him! They all had their eyes on the armored man! Toren’s hand was on his sword hilt. He didn’t even have a scabbard. He could run the man through—

One of the daughters who’d been staring in horror and hope at the Gold-rank adventurer sneezed in the cold. She looked down for something to cover her nose, saw Toren. She screamed.

Skeleton!

The Gold-rank adventurer turned. He saw Toren and his eyes widened. His sword rose, but too late. The skeleton leapt at him, and his body blurred. His sword flashed out, but that was a decoy.  Even if the adventurer parried it, he’d still take the man’s head. Who walked around in armor but didn’t wear a helmet?

Idiot. Toren’s sword scythed towards the man’s head at lightning speed. [Mirage C—

“[Shield Breaker]!”

The shield pushed forwards, almost glowing. It filled Toren’s vision, and then struck the skeleton like a house. The skeleton flew backwards, stumbling, nearly falling over. What happened? His Skill! How did—

The Gold-rank adventurer lowered his shield and stared at Toren, eyes narrowed.

“What manner of skeleton sneaks and hides? And uses a Skill?”

Toren readjusted his crooked head and grinned at the Gold-rank adventurer. He hadn’t known someone could interrupt a Skill! His eyes flashed purple, and the Humans behind the adventurer screamed.

“Dead gods! It’s back!”

Run!

The [Fear] effect made them all scatter at once. The man in armor called out, trying to slow them, but the others didn’t listen. They ran, leaving the adventurer behind.

Perfect. Toren charged at the man as he turned and shouted. The skeleton brought the blade down two-handed in a vertical slash that should have split the man’s head open. But the blade twisted in the air a foot away from the man’s head. It curved left and Toren missed completely, striking the man’s armored shoulder!

What was that? Magic? It had to be? Toren gaped and then a sword pierced his ribcage effortlessly.

“Hmf. A spell-like effect? You aren’t a normal undead monster, are you?”

The Gold-rank adventurer cut sideways, and Toren staggered as several ribs on his left side were torn away. But that was just a few bones! He cut again, but this time his sword bounced off the silvery shield, not even scratching the metal.

“A revenant? Or some kind of Goblin creation? Either way—begone.”

Now the man in silver armor charged forwards, his shield ramming into Toren. The skeleton tried to stand his ground, but he was thrown by the incredible force behind the adventurer’s shield. He hit the ground, rolled, trying to get up—

A sword lopped the top off of his head. Toren collapsed, his bones rolling on the ground. The Gold-rank adventurer stared down at him,  murmuring to himself.

“Nothing about this makes sense. A skeleton that can think? No—the Necromancer? But why would he use such an inferior creation?”

Inferior? If Toren could have said anything—or moved—he would have been indignant. But he lay on the ground, waiting for the adventurer to leave before he reassembled himself. He was clearly not as strong as that warrior, either in experience or strength.

“One more question to ask later. Damn. Where did the others run off to? Well before that—I should dispose of the remains.”

So saying, the adventurer reached towards his belt pouch. Immediately, Toren began to panic.

Dispose of him? What was that? He—that wasn’t fair! No one was supposed to care about Toren after a fight! That was his specialty. If the adventurer was going to destroy him—

From the ground, the skeleton could only stare helplessly as the man reached into his pouch. But before the Gold-rank adventurer could take whatever was in there out, the skeleton heard pounding footsteps. The man in silver armor turned—

And nearly caught a blow to the head from a club. At the last moment the piece of wood swerved, just as it had done with Toren. But the blow still knocked the off-guard adventurer  down.

“What the—?”

He rose, shield up, but another man struck him from behind. Toren gaped as he saw more men sward the Gold-rank adventurer, beating at him with clubs, kicking, trying to pin him down—

It was a gang! And they were trying to kill the adventurer! Toren had never been more grateful to petty Humans in his life. He heard the man shout, and then saw the press of bodies fly backwards. Several stumbled back, and the man in armor was on his feet, swinging his sword and shield to keep them at bay.

Cowards! Are you insane? I’ve come here to—”

He got no further. Stones, and even an arrow flew at his head. Men with slings aiming at his head! Again the missiles flew askew, but whatever magic was protecting the man’s head was clearly weakening. He snarled, deflected a stone aimed at his jaw—

And staggered, as a club smashed into his head from behind. Toren saw the man pull back and hit the adventurer in the same spot again, with all his might.

It was a powerful blow. But the man in silver armor didn’t fall. He stumbled forwards, but he refused to kneel or drop. Instead, his shield came up, hitting the man who’d struck him so hard he gasped and stumbled back.

“Fool.”

It was one word, but it was louder than the shouting of the gang as they tried to close in. A man ran at the knight—a sword came up even with the man’s head still bowed. It ran the man through.

Fools!

The gang stopped. The sword left the man’s chest and he collapsed, dead. The knight turned. A stone flew at his head and his shield snapped up. He deflected the stone back at the man who’d loosed it from his sling. The rock hit the man and there was a cry of pain.

Now the Gold-rank adventurer finally looked up. He raised his head slowly, the tendons in his neck straining. Blood ran and matted in his hair, but he turned and stared down the man who’d struck him. The sword shone bright and silver and crimson in his hands, but the adventurer didn’t raise his weapon.

“What are you doing, you idiot?

The thug he addressed stepped back, eyes wide. The man in silver armor turned towards him, and the man raised his club defensively. But one armored hand shot out and tore the weapon out of the other man’s grip.

“No—”

Flinching, the man raised his hands, prepared for death. But the adventurer just hurled the club to the ground. He stared at the other men who’d ambushed him. Fury burned in his voice as he shouted at them.

“Is this what you are? You—you, the men of Esthelm! I came here to this burned city to put your dead to rest. But what do I find? Men, preying on each other like vermin! Have you no shame? Where’s your pride? Where is your honor?”

He turned around to the stunned group, armor glinting as he stared each one of them in the eye. The Gold-rank adventurer didn’t even to seem to notice their arms—rather, it was as if he didn’t even care that he was outnumbered.

“There are women and children—people who suffer and need help! Your friends and family cry out in this city, but what do you do? The instant your walls fall you turn on them. Shame.”

The word touched the hearts of his listeners. It made them feel ashamed, and angry and guilty as well. Perhaps they would have rushed him, but the man in armor was too imposing. And his words struck at their hearts, the hearts they’d closed in despair.

The man wearing silver looked around in disgust. He lowered his sword—and to the astonishment of the other men, sheathed it. He walked towards several men. They raised their weapons, but he just stopped and glanced at them, still full of that barely restrained passion.

“Lower your weapons and follow me if you want to save this city, you fools.”

They hesitated. Two hands shot out and tore the makeshift weapons and poor swords from their grip. The Gold-ranked adventurer stared down at the other men and raised his voice.

“I am Ylawes Byres, a [Knight]. I am a Gold-rank adventurer and I can save this city. But I cannot do it alone. If you still believe in Esthelm—follow my back.”

He strode down the broken streets, not looking back. The men hesitated. Some lowered their weapons and turned to go. But the man who had struck Ylawes picked up his club. He hung it at his belt and ran after the adventurer.

More men followed him. They joined the Gold-rank adventurer, and he snapped at them as he’d never doubted they’d be there.

“Come on. There’s still time to do what’s right.”

The man’s footsteps faded away. The majority of the men followed him, while the others slipped away. After a few minutes, a pile of bones reassembled itself in the snow. Toren stood up, grabbed his sword, and stared in the direction the man named Ylawes had gone.

Now what was all that about?

 

—-

 

The monster waited, hungry. She was always hungry. Her story was one of despair and all-consuming desire. To eat. To feed.

She saw a thing crawl out of the sewers. A dead woman, corpse bloated and rotten. She told herself she didn’t want to eat it. But she did. Oh yes, she did.

The zombie shambled down the street. The monster who looked vaguely like a young Human woman followed her. The zombie moved quickly—stumbling, searching out food. It never noticed her.

And it found prey. A young man slept in the hollowed-out building that might have been his home. He would have been safe, hidden from most Humans. But not from a zombie. It found him as it wandered in, and fell upon him.

The monster heard the screams, and part of her told her to act. It wasn’t hard. She simply gave into her desires.

The zombie was biting and clawing at the young man on the ground. He was trying to fend her off, but he was barely awake, and weak with hunger. And the dead woman had far more strength than he did. She was biting at him—tearing at his flesh.

Just like she wanted to do. But the girl that was a monster focused on the zombie instead. Yes. Hungry. The gray, rotted flesh called to her.

For once she didn’t fight the urge. She wanted to eat. The monster girl walked behind the zombie and seized the dead woman. The undead turned, reaching out to kill, to steal life—

Did it hesitate? It stared into a gaping maw. The monster girl’s mouth. Her jaws opened wide—impossibly wide—and she felt her jaw dangling far lower than it should. But it just meant she could bite more.

She bit the zombie’s face. She tore away rotted flesh easily, teeth scissoring through skin like parchment. The zombie made a sound—tried to tear at her body. But the girl had a monster’s body now. An Eater’s form. Her skin was tough, and the sharp fingernails and bruising strength did little to her.

She bit again. Now she bit into bone, and something which oozed. Part of the former [Florist] wanted to scream. But the zombie was danger. To the boy—

She realized he was still there as she knelt on the ground, savaging the dead zombie’s form. The girl turned her head towards him. He was wide-eyed, pale with horror as he stared at her.

For a moment she wanted to say something. But though she opened her mouth, no words came out. And he—he looked into her eyes and saw only a horror. A monster.

“Get—get away!”

The young man she’d saved struck her in the face, in the chest, kicking her backwards. The girl looked at him, the monster salivated. She wanted to eat him.

But she couldn’t. That much she held onto. And now he was pulling out a dagger, holding it in his bleeding hands. Danger.

So she fled. She fled into the street, crying. She could still cry. She ran down an alleyway, and into a small open space. And then she saw it.

The skeleton. He was walking down the street, slashing at the air angrily with a sword. He was all bones—little to eat. She stopped when she saw him, feeling afraid for some reason. His purple eyes found her, and the girl inside the beast shuddered in panic. She turned to run—

But he stabbed her from behind.

 

—-

 

The Goblin warriors heard the girl scream. And they saw the skeleton stabbing at her, because they’d been following her for the last block.

It had just been a chance encounter. But as the Goblins had moved silently through the streets, searching for bodies that weren’t completely rotted, they’d come across a fortuitous find. A gang of four men had been pilfering a box with some spices inside. Naturally, the Goblins had fallen on them at once. An arrow to the back, two blades stabbing. Grunter just pushed one of the men’s heads into a wall, killing him.

They didn’t mind killing Humans. It was just that they didn’t do it needlessly. Food was a definite need, though. So the Goblins had been lugging their find back to the small base they’d set up in a ruined building when they’d seen the girl.

She’d stood out. Not because of her ragged clothing, or thin body—all the Humans more or less looked like that in the city. But she was clearly different from the other Humans.

Her face was different. No, not just her face, her very body. It was as if someone had taken a bit of monster, a bit of savage primal humanity and something darker, and put it into her body. And the way she moved! She moved around hunched, or on all fours, more like an animal or stalking thing than a Human.

It had stood out. Badarrow had pointed the girl out and the Goblins had watched her, as a potential threat more than anything else. But then they’d seen the girl find a body in the snow.

It was rotted, a Human’s body, some warrior who’d died in the battle for Esthelm. Even the other Goblins had turned their noses up at it—they preferred fresh dead meat, thank you. But the girl had dug it up—and then begun to eat it!

That had stopped the Redfang warriors in their tracks. For a moment they hadn’t believed what they were seeing. A Human? Eating a dead body?

Well, yes. Humans did that all the time. With animals, of course, as if that made a difference. But this young woman was eating another Human!

That wasn’t shocking to the Goblins, at least in a basic sense. They ate Humans all the time. It was just survival. But as far as they knew, other Humans never ate each other—or even other species, for that matter!

It made her stand out, and because they were curious, the Goblins had followed her a bit longer. They were adept at keeping to shadows, so they’d seen the zombie crawl out of the sewers and the way the girl had stalked it.

Yes, stalked it. They could tell the signs. And then they’d seen her rescue the young Human man, and run from him.

How strange. How curious! And—how disturbing.

Again, not the Human girl, or whatever strange thing she actually was. It was the zombie that made Grunter grunt in alarm and Headscratcher eye the sewers.

The undead. How could the Goblins have forgotten them? If they were rising—

It was bad news. Very bad. The Goblins had no desire to fight off a horde of zombies, much less the stronger undead that would rise with so many bodies around. They were about to retreat and reconsider their hiding spot—they’d need to create traps and barricades if the undead were about—when they heard the girl scream.

That was when they saw the skeleton. It had encountered the girl on the street, a skeleton with a sword. And when she’d turned to flee, the skeleton had stabbed her in the back!

It wasn’t a deep wound, but the Goblins saw the skeleton cutting at the girl’s legs, trying to cripple her. She was trying to flee, and perhaps she would succeed. She was quick—quicker than a normal Human. And her skin was tough enough that the skeleton’s slightly dulled blade couldn’t cut her that deep.

The Goblins watched, sitting in a rooftop that had remained after the fire. The girl slashed at the skeleton with her claws, snarling desperately. Badarrow nudged Rabbiteater and pointed. The Goblins looked and saw she had strangely long fingers and nails that were more like claws on the ends of them. And from the way they cut into the skeleton’s bone, they were clearly sharp as steel!

What was this strange Human? Was she some kind of…of half-breed? There were Goblins who’d been born of Humans of course, so the idea wasn’t new to the Goblins, but this?

The Goblins had never heard of a Human like this. Perhaps it was all some Skill? They knew some Drakes and Gnolls fought with their claws and could get Skills like this. But a Human?

And her jaw! Headscratcher blinked as the monster girl tried to take a bite out of the skeleton. He dodged back, and her gaping mouth caught only air. Even the Goblins thought that looked creepy, the way she could make her jaw open so wide.

The skeleton tried to stab her in the stomach, but the girl smacked his sword away. It was a lucky blow; she clearly hadn’t expected to be able to, but she was strong. Strong, fast, ravenous…

“Ghoul.”

That was what Grunter muttered. The others looked at him, and then nodded in agreement.

She was exactly like a Ghoul, one of the ravenous undead that fought in bursts of frenzied movement. And yet, she was more than a Ghoul. She was still alive, and she had a keen intelligence about her that Ghouls lacked. But for all that—

The skeleton was stronger. Not just stronger—he was fighting smart. When he lost his sword, the skeleton crouched and kicked out. The girl stumbled, and then the undead tackled her, knocking her to the ground. She cried out, trying to throw it off her, but the skeleton was on top of her. He punched her in the face, repeatedly, hammering his fist into her head as she cried out in pain and fear.

He was going to bash her brains out. The Goblins watched, some turning away now the fight was over. They wouldn’t interfere in a fight like this. It wasn’t like the Human boy—here were two killers, killing each other. It was just life.

They turned to go, but a faint sound stopped them. Sitting closest to the scene on his part of the roof, Headscratcher made a quizzical noise. They looked at him, and he scratched his head slowly, before pointing at the skeleton.

Skeleton. Yes, it was a skeleton. The Redfang warriors stared at Headscratcher blankly. Where was he going with this?

Slowly, the finger shifted to the girl.

Girl. Or rather, young woman.

They stared at her. A young Human woman. Something about the way they thought that bugged them.

A young Human woman? An [Innkeeper].

Everyone stared at Headscratcher. No. It couldn’t be it. But he pointed insistently at the skeleton. And the other Goblins stared at it, suddenly connecting the dots.

A skeleton. Hadn’t Garen Redfang mentioned something about a skeleton? Yes, he’d said it was pulling the [Innkeeper] on a sleigh!

It was highly unusual to see a skeleton here, even in this city where the dead were rising. Even if the dead rose—they’d be zombies and ghouls, not skeletons. They hadn’t nearly enough time to rot to that extent. So why was a skeleton here?

The Goblins stared at each other. Here was a Human girl. And a skeleton. And Esthelm had been a city full of inns, hadn’t it?

Then again, the skeleton was trying to beat the girl to death. Even as the Goblins watched, the skeleton drew a bloody fist back. He was pounding the girl’s head into the broken ground, drawing blood. She was making a whimpering sound, not even fighting back.

Something stirred in the Goblins’ chests. But they were still reluctant to act. So what if she died? Their job had to been to kill her, after all.

Headscratcher nodded, but then shook his head to this obvious conclusion. He pointed down at the girl and skeleton, raising a thumb.

Skeleton and girl. This might actually be the girl they’d come to kill. But—he shook his head—they wouldn’t kill her because they’d decided. He pointed to the skeleton. He would, though. And that was the problem.

The Goblins stared at Headscratcher, confused. The Goblin tried to explain his line of thought. Garen had ordered them to kill the girl, yes? And if she died, even if the skeleton killed her instead of them, he’d be happy, right?

But they’d decided not to obey Garen! He shouldn’t be obeyed! So—and here Headscratcher’s silent gesturing really got complex—if they were obeying Rags instead of Garen, wouldn’t that mean they would want to protect the [Innkeeper]? At the very least, letting her die was probably as bad as killing her themselves, and if Rags didn’t want that…

The Goblins stared at each other, brains aching with thought. Headscratcher just looked at them, looked at the girl.

They could hear her sobbing. It was a sound that bothered them. They’d heard Humans cry, but this—

Perhaps it was because she ate the dead. Like them. She was doing anything she could to survive. Like them. The skeleton was hitting her, gleefully.

Headscratcher stared at the other reluctant warriors. Then he made a decision. He stood up, unsheathed his sword. He leapt from the rooftop.

After a moment, twelve Goblins followed him.

 

—-

 

Toren saw the first Goblin land on the ground. He stopped punching the strange not-Human he’d found in surprise. The Goblin had a sword in his hand, and he was snarling at Toren.

A Goblin? Had they already begun to attack? Well then, why was Toren wasting time here? He jumped away from the young woman, letting her lie half-dead. He scrambled for his sword, lifting it with a grin.

One Goblin was no threat. He charged at the Goblin and locked blades, forcing the Goblin back a step. But to his surprise, the Goblin threw Toren backwards after a moment of struggle. He was strong! Stronger than a Goblin should be!

That made Toren angry. What was with strong warriors popping up all over the place? A Gold-rank adventures he  could respect, but a Goblin?

He was about to hack at the Goblin when another Goblin landed on the ground next to him. A Goblin with a bow. He drew and loosed an arrow at Toren’s skull in an instant. The skeleton dodged reflexively, and the arrow flew past him.

Two Goblins. Okay, they might be a bit stronger than usual, but—

Five more Goblins landed next to them. The flames in Torne’s eyes dimmed as he saw they all wore armor and moved to surround him.

Where were all these Goblins coming from? Struck by a thought, Toren looked up. He saw a huge, fat foot descending towards his face—

 

—-

 

Grunter smashed the skeleton into the ground, landing heavily and grunting in his trademark fashion as he did. He kicked the skull several feet away dismissively, and stared at the girl.

She was curled up into a small ball of misery and pain. She was still sobbing, not even realizing she’d been saved. There was only pain and her, waiting for death.

Too familiar. Grunter looked away and grunted. The sound made the girl look up.

She stared at the Goblins and made a choked, screaming sound when she saw them. She tried to get away, but her legs still weren’t working. But the Goblins didn’t attack her. They just stared at her, and then went into a huddle.

For the Redfang warriors, they were suddenly faced with a conundrum after saving the girl and killing the skeleton. Okay, they’d saved her, and if she was the [Innkeeper], they’d probably done a good thing that Rags would approve of, right?

Right. But what did they do next? All eyes turned to Headscratcher. He just scratched his head, unsure.

The Goblins stared at the girl. She was crouched warily on the ground, staring at them with huge eyes. They returned to their huddle.

They could probably just leave her, right? After all, what else could they do? She was safe—they’d done what was probably the right thing. Now it was time to go back and eat.

Undead in the city. Badarrow grunted as he retrieved his missed arrow. The girl stared at him as he passed—he eyed her. The Goblins turned to go. The girl stared at them. Her stare bothered the Goblins more than they could really say.

 

—-

 

Goblins? They’d saved her. Why?

The monster didn’t know. But the Goblins had saved her, and they weren’t going to attack her or—or do worse. She’d been afraid of that for a moment, but the Goblin with the bow had just walked past her without even looking right at her.

Now they seemed to be leaving. The Goblins slowly walked away.

Leaving her behind. Even Goblins didn’t want to associate with a monster.

Hot wetness blinded the horror for a second. She could still taste the rotting flesh in her mouth, still see the horror in the young man’s eyes. She was a monster. No—worse than that.

She looked at the backs of the retreating Goblin warriors. Goblins. They were monsters, too. They’d saved her. Because she was a monster like them?

The Goblins had destroyed Esthelm. They were horrible, pillaging, raping creatures who killed any Human they came across. They were true monsters.

But so was she.

And she was alone. And if they killed her—

Slowly, the girl got up. Her face burned and she had trouble breathing from where the skeleton had tried to crush her windpipe. She stared at the backs of monsters, short, green creatures that walked like men.

Monsters.

She followed them.

 

—-

 

When Toren reassembled this time he was ready to kill everything in the world. He got up and then ran around, hitting everything in sight.

Goblins! He’d been defeated by—by Goblins! And it hadn’t even been like last time! Last time he’d been outnumbered but this time—

One had landed on him! The indignity of it made Toren so angry he felt like he could have exploded. He was filled with all-consuming rage.

And fear. A bit of fear was in Toren as well. For the first time, he sensed danger.

Not because of the Goblins. Damn the Goblins! He could kill them if he had time to plan things out, he was sure. But Toren felt the mana in his body running dangerously low.

Erin supplied him with energy, of course. He knew that. Normally it was enough for everything he did, even though she wasn’t exactly a font of magic. But after so many repeated deaths and reassemblies, he realized he was on the verge of running out.

If he was scattered one more time, if his pieces were separated—Toren feared the animation spell that gave him life might end for good. He couldn’t let that happen.

He couldn’t…die.

No problem, then! Toren would just find somewhere to wait while he regained a bit more mana. An hour would be enough. All he had to do was get his sword and…and…

Toren looked for his sword. He’d dropped over there? Over here? He paused, and then did a slow circle.

No. It couldn’t be. It was impossible!

He’d lost his sword! Toren searched for it frantically in the snow, trying not to believe it was true. But it was.

His sword was gone.

Had one of the Goblins taken it? Or the monster-girl?

Maybe. All Toren knew was that he was suddenly defenseless. Of course, he could fight with his hands and feet, but that wasn’t the same as having a weapon. His Skills were designed for a weapon—without one, Toren did feel vulnerable.

And he couldn’t die.

The skeleton felt a chill in his bones. He stared around the open area, suddenly realizing how vulnerable he was. If one of the Goblins came back, or even the girl-thing—

He couldn’t risk it. The skeleton hesitated, then swiftly ran down an alley.

He had to find shelter. A hiding spot. Could he squeeze himself into a small space? What about a weapon? Could he take one from a Human? But what if they got lucky and killed him?

Toren had never been so afraid. He ran, pausing at every shadow, trying to find somewhere totally secluded. He spotted an opening in the ground—a dark entrance and dove towards it.

The sewers! Toren immediately recognized the foul, dark tunnels and relaxed. No one would come down here! Not even Goblins liked this much filth. He could rest here, wait a while. And then—

The skeleton had let his guard down too early. As he walked further into the sewers, his foot caught on a floating body. It moved, and then jerked to life.

A corpse, dead, eyes glowing with yellow light, sprang up. Toren jerked back, and then realized one of the dead had risen. Oh. Was that all? It had surprised him, but it was just a zombie. Toren backed away in case the undead started flailing about—

The dead body sprang at Toren, making a gurgling snarling sound. Toren jerked in shock, and the corpse bore him into the slime of the sewers.

Not a zombie! A Ghoul! More bodies were rising around Toren, actual zombies this time. But the ghoul had focused on Toren and identified him as a threat. It tore at the skeleton, trying to rip his bones away—

Trying to kill him.

Fear suddenly gripped Toren. He clenched his bony fists and began hammering at the Ghoul, trying to knock it off him, break its skull. But it was freshly dead and still relatively intact. And it had him on the ground! It was tearing away Toren’s ribs, one at a time!

So strong! It—Toren was going to die! It was stronger than Toren, and tougher too in this moment. He felt so weak.

He was going to die.

No! Toren plunged a finger into the Ghoul’s eye socket, piercing the rotted eyeball. But the Ghoul felt no pain and didn’t need eyes to see. Toren punched the corpse repeatedly, but nothing was working.

He was going to die! The Ghoul was going to kill him! It was impossible! Unacceptable! He couldn’t die like this!

Not like this! Toren raged silently as he tried to force the Ghoul off of him. Not like this! Not to a Ghoul! If he had time—a bit more time to regain mana!

Someone, anyone! Toren cried out. He needed help! He needed assistance! Anyone, the adventurer, the Humans with clubs, the monster girl, the Goblins—

The ghoul was reaching for his head, twisting it. It would all be over. Toren fought it, trying to hold the arms back. So weak. Someone. Please help.

Erin—

A hand dragged the Ghoul off of Toren. The skeleton saw the Ghoul jerk, turn—another hand smashed into the back of its head.

Erin?

For a second the skeleton thought—but when he stood up, he saw only zombies.

Zombies?

Yes, the undead corpses were surrounding the Ghoul! In disbelief, Toren saw the Ghoul fighting them, tearing at their faces, trying to bear them to the ground—but six zombies were all striking it, tearing it apart, eating its flesh—

The zombies had helped Toren. That was what the skeleton realized after the shock had worn off. He sat in the filth of the sewer as the zombies finished destroying the Ghoul, leaving the chewed limbs floating in the water.

How? And why? All Toren knew was that he’d cried out for help. He’d reached out—

And the zombies had answered. These, the lowliest of the undead had come to his aid. Why? Because he was a skeleton and they were like him? Because they hated ghouls?

No, that was silly. It was because—

Toren touched the flames in his skull. His eyes? Skinner had commanded the dead. Was it that? Something else? Some secret to his creation?

The skeleton didn’t know. But the zombies stopped, swaying in front of him. They were waiting for his command.

The skeleton stared at them in shock. And then he heard the voice, echoing in his head. He hadn’t heard it for a while, but now it came into his mind, sharp and clear, and oh so welcome.

 

[Leader Class Obtained!]

[Leader Level 1!]

[Skill – Command Lesser Undead obtained!]

 

For a few moment, Toren’s head was filled with clouds. He stood in the sewer, poleaxed by the revelation. But when he came back to himself, he just stared at the zombies.

Six zombies. Waiting for his command. And now Toren felt certain he could command them. In fact, if he wanted to…

Well now. Wasn’t this interesting?

 

—-

 

This is the story of a skeleton. He stood in the dark sewers of a city full of death, where a Human with silver armor tried to save the living and a monster followed a band of Goblin warriors. The skeleton had travelled far, had thrown off his shackles and come here.

He had been humbled. He had nearly died. But he had survived. He had survived and he would still survive, growing stronger. That was what he pledged to himself. He would survive.

And he was no longer alone.

 


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