She ran back. Back, towards the city where her friends were. Perhaps they were her friends or maybe it was just a word. But they called to her. And so she ran.
[Innkeeper Level 18!]
[Skill – Immunity: Alcohol obtained!]
[Skill – Quick Recovery obtained!]
Erin didn’t know that she’d slept. She raised her head and realized she was sitting down. Dawn had come, but she had only drifted off for a second.
The sky was still mostly dark. But light still illuminated the grasslands. Dancing shadows. Twisting flames.
The Antinium were burning the dead. All of them. They had created a huge pyre of bodies and set it alight. The terrible, suffocating smoke fanned away from the inn, but Erin’s eyes still burned. Or perhaps it was just her grief.
The bodies of the Workers were gone. Sometime when she hadn’t been watching, the Soldier had taken them away. Erin had asked one of the surviving Workers – Bird – where they had gone. He told her she didn’t want to know.
She was afraid to ask more. Even of Klbkch. He had barely left her side all night. Now he stood on the hill, staring down at a large shape several hundred meters away.
Erin got up and walked to his side. He turned his head slightly, but continued looking down. Erin stared at the red, elongated form of the creature that had lived in dead flesh and led an army of the dead. It was still surrounded by the Goblins that had felled it.
But something was different about Skinner’s body this morning. He seemed…diminished. Erin stared down as the Goblins milled around him, and then she realized what was going on.
“Are they…eating it?”
Her stomach roiled. But Klbkch was unmoved and so too were the Goblins. They tore into the red body of Skinner, tearing him apart, drinking the fluids and—
She couldn’t watch. Erin went back to her inn and threw up in the outhouse. It was still standing, at least. It needed repairs. Everything needed repairs.
She sat on the toilet Pawn and the other Antinium had built and rested her head in her hands. She was so tired, still. She would have given everything to sleep. But sleep was a luxury and she owed a debt of pain.
First things first. Her…level. Yes, she’d leveled up three times. Was that a lot? Probably. And she had new skills.
They were an [Innkeeper]’s skills. And they were worthless. Trash.
Yes. Erin glanced at the wood walls of the outhouse. Less than crap. That was how she felt about her levels and skills at the moment.
It felt wrong to level when her friends had died. It felt wrong to be stronger in exchange for killing things. But there was nothing Erin could do about it. She felt like vomiting, or punching a hole in the wall of the outhouse. She nearly did, but stopped herself.
Erin walked back out and stood next to Klbkch. After a while, she had the courage to ask him what she couldn’t last night.
He looked at her, and Erin wondered if he was going to lie. But after a second he spoke again.
She listened to the numbers. When they were just numbers, it didn’t seem so bad. But when she stared at the bodies, it was too terrible to be counted.
Twenty seven Goblins lay in the grass. Too many. Even in Skinner’s last moments, he had killed with terrible ease.
Of the thirty two Workers that had chosen to save her, four remained. Bird, Garry, Belgrade, and Anand. They lay in her inn, or sat propped up, wounds covered by some kind of sticky red substance. The Antinium had little in the way of medicine, but they were tough. They would heal.
Less than a hundred people had died around Erin’s inn. Too many, but in the city it had been worse, or so Klbkch told her.
“Over eighty guardsmen and nearly two hundred civilians perished before the Hive was mobilized.”
She hadn’t even known there were that many guardsmen in the city. But they’d had healing potions and armor and—it was just a number.
“How many Antinium? Your people…?”
“Sixty five Workers and forty seven Soldiers. Nearly half again as many are wounded, but the losses were quite minimal.”
“It was a small price to pay, and would have been smaller still had my predecessor not erred. Had we fought with the Watch, we would have pushed the undead back without taking nearly so many losses.”
“Why didn’t you, then?”
“Ksmvr believed the Queen had to be protected above all else. He withdrew all Soldiers into the Hive while she finished the Rite of Anastases.”
“What’s that? What Rite?”
“The process to revive me.”
Klbkch nodded calmly. He went on, listing the things he had to do on one hand.
“There is much that must be done. Reparations must be made to the city. The Antinium did not honor their promise. We must rebuild, put up barriers outside the Ruins.”
“And you’re going do to it? You’re the new Prognugator? Or does Ksmvr still have that job.”
“He does not.”
Klbkch shook his head as he watched a Soldier dragging a body towards the burning heap.
“Ksmvr was a fool. He nearly cost the Hive the city, our position here and status across the continent and…other assets. I will deal with him soon enough.”
For a while Erin and the Antinium watched the dead burn. She swayed on her feet. Klbkch watched in silence.
“Yes. Many things.”
“How did you come back?”
“It is called the Rite of Anastases. It is a…process which the Queen of the Antinium may undertake. It allows the dead to be reborn into a new body.”
Erin thought about that for a second.
“Okay. I understand. I think. Then…does that mean you can revive the others who died?”
“Others? Ah. You mean the individuals who were once Workers. No.”
“In truth, only a Prognugator would be considered…worthy of the effort and time required for such an act. Moreover, it is not something done lightly. There are consequences. I have lost ten levels in every class. A considerable setback, although my new body reduces the impact on my abilities quite significantly. And the time it took—my Queen labored for nearly three weeks without rest to restore my being.”
“That’s a lot of work.”
“There were other material costs as well. The Hive would not be able to support such an action more than once or twice. The others—”
“I get it.”
It nearly didn’t hurt. Nearly. But it was just another cut in a heart bleeding from a thousand places.
“They died well. I would not have expected mere—they rose above what they were. For that I honor them.”
For once, Klbkch didn’t seem to know how to reply. Erin looked at him. He was as he had been, but different.
“What’s with the new body? Upgrades?”
“The Prognugator role was never meant for specialized action. Moreover it was thought that the Worker form would allow a Prognugator to blend in to reduce the dangers of assassination during times of war. This new form will greatly improve my abilities.”
“Two arms are better than four?”
“Yes. I am swifter, more mobile, and possess several changes to my anatomy not incorporated into other Antinium. The older design of four arms was inefficient. This new body will serve me better.”
“Harder, better, faster, stronger, huh?”
“That is broadly correct, yes.”
Klbkch was watching her. Erin knew, even if he didn’t have pupils to follow her. He hadn’t really let her leave his sight since that night. She was so tired.
“Thanks for saving me. Really.”
“It was nothing.”
“It was something.”
She looked at him. Just the same as always. And then she looked at her inn. She looked at the broken wood, at the marks of violence, and at the place where a Worker named Knight had died. She looked at the dead and the Soldiers. She remembered a half-Elf, a Minotaur, a Drake obsessed with chess, and a bunch of smiling faces.
Klbkch saw Erin fold up and fall backwards. He tried to catch her, but she thumped back into the soft grass.
“Miss Solstice. Are you alright?”
Erin smiled emptily as Klbkch hovered over her. She raised one hand and let it fall.
“I’m just going to lie down for a while.”
She lay in the trampled grass as the Goblins feasted, listening to the dead burn.
On the night of the second day, Ryoka found the dead Gnolls. They lay where they had fallen, eight warriors holding spears and bows and in one case, a morning star. Each had been beheaded by a single slash.
She stared at the bodies for a long time. They were already rotting and the green glowing flies were crawling out of the bloody cuts. She could do nothing for them, but still Ryoka lingered for a while before running on.
She knew she was being followed, but every time she turned her head, she saw nothing.
Selys sat in the Adventurer’s Guild, listening to Zevara argue with the guildmaster. She stared dreamily at her bandaged wrist, and felt the healing cuts on her legs and torso burning and itching.
Even after a day, Liscor was silent. The streets were still busy, and the people still spoke. But it was a different place. Death and destruction had taken their toll, and people still mourned.
But they had survived. They had all come out stronger for their ordeals. Selys was now a [Warrior] and had gained several levels in her [Hunter] class. It was a wonderful thing, especially since she hadn’t leveled in a month.
But she was still tired. And this latest argument that she could hear from her desk bothered her.
“I want those humans responsible for unleashing the undead held accountable!”
That was Zevara, Captain of the Watch. Selys knew her if not in person, than by reputation. She was a good leader, and she had saved countless lives during the battle with the undead. Her voice was raw and she coughed every few words now.
Throwback. Old blood. Dragon’s child.
Selys thought the words, but didn’t say them out loud. Zevara had breathed fire to hold the undead back. She was a hero. But she was wrong in this.
“All the adventurers who went in are dead. Only a handful remain, and they’re in no condition to repay anyone for anything. They’ve suffered enough. Leave them alone.”
The guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild in Lsicor, an elderly Drake with dusky purple scales who was also Selys’s grandmother shot back when Zevara stopped to breathe. The Drake Captain coughed a few times and glared at the old Drake, but she was unmoved.
“They have nothing. Nothing will be gained from blaming them, either. The Council was glad enough when they volunteered to explore the Ruins. This is on their tails as much as ours.”
“The Council wants to hold someone responsible. And if it won’t be the adventurers, it will be this Guild. You choose which one.”
Selys winced, but her grandmother just sighed.
“Stubborn child. If you really wish to push this—Selys!”
Selys jumped and tried to shuffle some papers around. Her grandmother raised her voice.
“Take Zevara to the leader of the adventurers she wants to blame so badly. Let her make her case there.”
That clearly wasn’t what Zevara had been expecting. The taller Drake hesitated when Selys poked her head around the corner.
“Um. Hi. Follow me Watch Captain.”
She led Zevara down the corridor, into a part of the Guild reserved for injured adventurers. Like the rest of the building it was small, only large enough to treat one adventurer at a time. And it was filled to occupancy.
Selys pushed open the door carefully. Zevara’s breath caught as the door swung open to reveal the lone occupant.
A human sat in a white bed, staring emptily out one window. It was a bright, day with clear skies in Liscor. A bit chilly given it was winter, but winter had not yet arrived and Yvlon Byres took no notice of the temperature.
She paid no attention to anything at all, really.
Half of the skin on her face had been torn away. Her long blonde hair was ragged; her fair skin cut and marred. She stared empty-eyed though the window, sitting and looking at nothing.
Her armor had been torn to shreds when they’d cut her out of it. Even now Selys could remember the human woman screaming. But now she was silent. It was little better.
Yvlon didn’t move. She didn’t blink. Zevara called out a few times, but Yvlon was still. The Watch Captain hesitated.
“If you’re going to try and shake her, you might as well give up. She doesn’t respond.”
Zevara turned towards the elderly drake as Selys rearranged the pillow around Yvlon, trying not to touch the human female. She avoided the empty stare as well as Zevara and her grandmother whispered.
“She has no coin or anything else. Everything she owned was lost in the Ruins. Her comrades, her pride, her health—what more would you take from her, good Captain?”
Zevara glared down at the older Drake, lips tight, tail thrashing.
“Someone must pay.”
“Someone must. But I don’t believe she or any of the adventurers has enough coin to cover the costs.”
Zevara looked back at Yvlon. The adventurer sat quietly in bed, back straight, hands folded. Face scarred.
The Watch Captain shook her head. She had a million things to do. Relc was patrolling for any undead while the rest of the guardsmen rebuilt. She had to go through the roster of wounded and dead, focus on rebuilding the city, address the Antinium issue for the Council.
She turned her heel. It was pointless to waste her time here arguing with a Drake three times as old as she was. Zevara strode away and turned her head only once.
Yvlon stared into the blue sky, a few feet away and a thousand miles gone. Zevara stared into her empty eyes and left.
On the third day, Ryoka met a strange woman with a large eye and a curved sword who knew her name. She said nothing and ran on. The strange, smiling adventurer faded into the distance behind her and Ryoka wondered if she had killed the Gnolls.
She ran on, thinking of things to say and ways to apologize. She slept that night, anxiously. Waiting to return and make things right.
Toren sat on the roof of the inn, staring at nothing and everything at the same time. Below him Erin pounded away with a hammer, covering up broken windows with boards. She’d banned him from helping the second time he’d put a hole in a wall.
He hadn’t meant to. But on the other hand, he’d meant to. Some part of Toren knew that was the only way to earn a reprieve. And he wanted one. For the first time he wanted to stop and think.
The skeleton sat on the roof, staring out at the empty plains. From here he could see Liscor in the distance. The city seemed whole from here, and it was rebuilding quickly, according to Erin. But much like the area around the inn, marks of the battle still remained.
The battle. Toren still remembered Skinner, still remembered the countless enemies and only the pure joy of battle coupled with the need to keep Erin safe. It had been glorious, liberating.
And all too short.
It was a curious thing. He had leveled, and in doing so, he had become more. More…himself. He could think, act, feel on a level he had not previously.
That was what he was. It was…eight levels? Yes, a huge leap. But he had earned each one. And the part of Toren that thought and remembered wondered if it was because he had wounded the large flesh-stealing creature so badly. That, and the countless number of his brethren he had slain had done it.
He wondered how many levels the small Goblin had gained. How many levels her tribe had gained. It was meaningless, and yet it was not. Why should he care what level a Goblin was? Unless she was a threat it was meaningless.
But some part of Toren wondered. And it was that part which had awakened after the battle, as he had gained those levels. He had begun to think, and that was a mystery in itself. A welcome one to be sure, but vexing nonetheless.
Now he could ask why he obeyed. Now he could think of Erin as a person, not just as a master. Now he could wonder…
The red gemstone turned in his skeletal hands. Toren could sense the magic contained within. He had taken it from the creature of skin, plucked it away. It had powerful magic. It had fear; he understood that much. But how might he use it? Should he use it? Should he give it to Erin?
No. yes. Perhaps. It was not so simple anymore. Toren studied the gemstone. It was red, darker red than crimson. The red of dried blood and death. He had taken it from the corpse; he didn’t know where its twin had gone. But one was all he needed.
Needed…for what exactly? Toren wasn’t sure. But he was beginning to understand. Something was calling to him. He didn’t know what yet, but he would in time. If he had more levels he would understand more. And when he did, perhaps he would think more. Perhaps he would question more. And then when he had levelled enough—
“Hey Toren! Get your bony butt down here and help me lift this thing!”
A voice from below. His master’s. Or was it mistresses’? He had had a master, once. The mage called Pisces. But he was no longer a master. Was Erin a master? Or a mistress? Or was she neither? Another question.
He had so many. But not enough time to consider them, and Erin was beginning to yell again.
Toren got up without sighing. Skeletons didn’t sigh. But he looked at the red crimson eye in his hand. She would not want it. She would take it away. Therefore, he had thought about what to do.
Carefully, very carefully, he opened his mouth and placed the gem inside. It was quite simple. A bit of sticky tar used for repairing the inn’s roof and it could be stored in the hollow of his skull, where brains were normally kept. That way no one would see it.
It was the [Tactician] part of him that suggested it, and the rest of him agreed. Toren made sure the gemstone was firmly tucked away and stuck in place before he leapt from the rooftop. He was stronger now, that was clear. Strong enough to help Erin wrestle the planks of wood into place and hold them there while she hammered nails haphazardly into the wood.
Stronger, yes, and more aware. But what would that lead to? What would he become?
For the first time Toren asked these questions. And for the first time, he was curious to find out the answer.
A bit of crimson light flashed in the blue flames of his eyes. Only for a second.
The day rolled on, and many important things happened. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. They were important things, surely, for each person who experienced them thought of themselves as important.
In his hiding place in the plains, Pisces dragged away another body he had managed to save from the purging flames. It was an effort to bring them so far, but worth it. He propped the ghoul’s headless body against a wall and studied the dead Crypt Lord that occupied most of the dirt cave. He smiled gleefully, as a child about to unwrap a present might.
A human girl, a thief, crouched in an alleyway, debating where to steal next. She wouldn’t have cared if the undead had killed all the filthy lizards and furry halfbreeds in the city. She was starving, alone, and desperate.
Far north Magnolia spoke into the air. She was berating or perhaps arguing with someone invisible. The other speaker growled at her while she castigated him. Teriarch sulked while Magnolia studied a map of the northern continent, and then the world. She thought, tapping her lips with one finger and the ground with her foot.
Relc patrolled the city; Ksmvr knelt trembling before his wroth Queen. Garia ran her deliveries, wondering all the while where her friend had gone. And more. More people carried out their lives and shaped the world in ways small and large.
But one girl ran through the grass, tired, exhausted. She had run for four days, running back through the grass, north along seldom-used roads from the Blood Fields. She had left in anger and despair. And on the fourth day, she came back.
On the fourth day, Ryoka returned to Liscor. There she stopped and stared a while. She wandered into the city and smelled burnt flesh, walked past destroyed homes, and heard those mourning the dead. She dodged thrown rocks and rubbish hurled at her and the other humans and came to the Adventurer’s Guild.
She asked about her friends. She asked about Ceria and Calruz and Gerial and Sostrom. She listened, and felt the world drop away.
The Drake receptionist took her to a small room with a small bed. She opened the door and Ryoka sat next to Yvlon for a while. The other girl’s eyes were blank and she scratched at the scarred flesh on her face.
After a while, Ryoka stood up. Yvlon paid no notice. The girl walked out of the guild and out of the city. She walked towards the Ruins and saw the entrance had been blockaded. Twenty giant ant-men stood in front of a wall of dirt, barring entry.
She watched them, until it was too much to bear. Ryoka left the ruins and walked through the long grass outside of Liscor. She walked until she was lost among the grass, walking and walking without a purpose.
Ryoka never noticed the Goblin which rose out of the grass with his fellows, following her. She never noticed the large rock that moved towards her slowly. She walked on, staring at the sky.
She did not cry. She did not rage. She was empty. Emptiness became her.
Guilt and sadness was the air she breathed. Death walked next to her and whispered in her ear. Ryoka walked, and scarcely thought.
When it was all too much, Ryoka stopped. The Goblin drew a sharp knife from his side and the moving stone crept up on both Goblins and humans, unnoticed.
Ryoka took a deep breath. She stood in the plains and screamed. The Goblins covered their ears. The moving boulder jerked and began to retreat.
Large, leathery birds rose out of the grass in panic. They flew away as the Goblins ran away and the Rock Crab scuttled away. The sound pierced the air, travelled miles, and made travelers on the road look up at the sky.
Ryoka screamed until she could bear it no more. She punched at the ground wildly, tore at her own hair. She screamed and screamed until her body was unable to scream any more.
Then Ryoka stopped.
Her throat was raw and she coughed and tasted blood. Ryoka had to sip from one of the healing potions she’d bought before she could breathe without agony.
She walked on, despairing. Ryoka tripped over a rock and fell face-first onto the ground. She lay there a while. Empty.
After a while, her stomach growled. Ryoka ignored it.
She lay on the ground, cursing it. She cursed the blue sky and the citizens of Liscor and the adventurers. She cursed the undead, the monster that had killed her friends. She cursed the dead gods, the ones she had known, the world she now lived in and the one she had come from. She cursed all things, and especially herself.
After a while, her stomach growled again. This time Ryoka listened and sat up.
She scrubbed at her face with handfuls of grass and looked around. Evening. She was starving, and lost. But when she looked towards Liscor, she saw a building on a hill. When Ryoka drew closer, she saw it was an inn.
Like the city, it had been touched by death and battle. The inn was cracked in places, broken in others. The ground was churned in places; the soil upturned and grass trampled. An outhouse around back had been smashed in one part.
Everything had been hastily patched back up. Ryoka eyed the boards nailed clumsily together. They spoke of life, and she was starving.
She looked up at the sign above the inn.
The Wandering Inn. Like the rest of the building, the words were scratched in places, and green blood had dried on part of the sign.
Yet still the inn stood. It drew Ryoka towards it, although she couldn’t say why. Here was a place to rest. A place to eat, perhaps. Or just a place to wait until the pain went away.
It would do.
Ryoka put her hand on the door and hesitated. She stared at the half-ruined building. Then she turned away.
Not here. Not yet. Her heart still hurt too much for words, much less mundane company. Ryoka turned, ignoring her stomach. She was empty.
She walked down the slope, not knowing where she was going. Perhaps north. Perhaps nowhere. She just had to run. Run, and run.
Because there was nothing left to stop for anymore.
Ryoka took out her iPhone and turned it on. She began to walk, and then to jog. She made it ten steps before a sound distracted her.
Her phone began to ring. Ryoka stared at it. Slowly, she hit the glowing green button and raised her phone to her ear.
End of Volume 1