“Um, what? What are you?” the young woman replied in a trembling voice, staring at Joy in confusion and what looked a little like fear, in Joy’s opinion. While she wasn’t chained up, the way her clothing was tattered and her body was smudged with dirt reminded Joy of the prisoners she’d helped rescue after the fight with the manticore.
The woman was human, and her light brown hair looked like it had been in a braid which reached the middle of her back at one point, though it was mostly unraveled and tangled at this point. She had light blue eyes, a young face, and a blue and white dress that looked like she’d wandered through a few patches of thorns.
“I’m an apis.” Joy said, keeping her tone cheerful as she glanced behind her, toward the cave entrance. It was a little difficult holding herself steady, with how Rain and Boom were holding her up, but she managed. “Are you a good person or bad person?”
“An… oh, I’ve heard of apis! I’ve never seen one before, though.” The woman replied, her eyes widening as she gripped the biscuit she’d been nibbling a little harder. “I’m a good person, though! They, they kidnapped me! My guards are probably dead, and they’ve just—”
“Shh! We can’t let them hear us!” Joy interrupted as the woman’s voice began rising. “Do you want to be rescued?”
“Yes!” the woman said almost instantly, desperation in her voice, even as she tried to keep it down.
“Okay! Just be quiet, we’ll get you out.” Joy assured her, then looked down and said. “You heard her?”
“Yep!” Smiles said, examining the wood from her perch on the wall suspiciously. “You’d better get out of the way. The wood is rotten, and I don’t want to cut you.”
Joy nodded and started lowering her head, then paused and told the woman. “Stay there! We’ll cut a hole that you’ll fit through.”
“O-okay.” The woman replied, her head jerking in a nod of sorts.
The other two lowered her, and as they did, Flitter asked. “What should we do? Should we get rid of them? They sound mean.”
“No.” Joy said, shaking her head and explaining. “They can get through the forest, so they have to be dangerous, and we don’t know how dangerous. We’re low-level, so the best thing is to rescue her, and let the attendants decide what to do. We can cut a hole, and take her back. Then we’re also making people in the city happy, which will make them less likely to help the other hives if they decide to fight us. It’ll be good for the hive.”
“Okay!” the others chorused softly, as Smiles began cutting into the wood again.
Fragments of dark wood fell, and Joy wrinkled her nose at the smell. It was old, but relatively thick, so it took some time. Flitter used her spear to clear some of the larger chunks, and Boom watched regretfully.
“It’d be easier to just blast it.” The mage said, sounding a little crestfallen.
“Yes, but then it’d be loud. We want to be back to the hive, or most of the way there, before they notice us.” Joy reminded her gently, but grinned. There was a reason she’d named the apis Boom, after all.
“Yeah, I know. I just wish I could blow it up.” The apis replied wistfully.
Joy giggled, but stayed quiet and out of the way as the other two widened the hole. It wasn’t as easy, since they’d performed the initial cut through a thin spot, but they did the work. She could smell the excitement and curiosity wafting off the others, which amused her, but excited her all the same. Experiencing new things was incredibly fun, after all, and this reminded her of Brianna, Cora, and Stella’s reactions to her own excitement.
It took a few minutes for the hole to widen enough that Joy thought the woman could fit through it, and when she thought it was large enough, she nodded to them. “Alright, that should be enough! Give me a hand again?”
Rain and Boom nodded, and hefted Joy upward as the other two got out of the way. Joy poked her head through the hole and gestured for the human to come over. “Come on! We’ll catch you when you jump down, and we’ll leave.”
“A-alright.” The woman replied timidly, standing up and moving over to the hold, just as the others lowered Joy. She looked hesitant, Joy thought, but that was probably because she was scared.
The woman hesitated for several more seconds, then sat to put her legs through the hole, and tried to lower herself through carefully. As she did, Joy saw some of the wood around the edge sag, and she opened her mouth to warn her, but it was too late.
With a cracking sound, the edge of the hole gave way beneath the woman and collapsed, spilling her downward. Smiles, Boom, and Joy all jumped forward to catch her, but most important to Joy was the shriek the woman let out as she fell.
“Oof!” Joy said, catching the woman’s midsection, as she turned out to feel much heavier when falling, though that faded after an instant.
“What was that?” a voice from somewhere above them asked, and Joy felt a surge of worry rush through her, looking at Flitter.
“Run?” Flitter asked.
“Run.” Joy agreed, and almost as one, they started running out of the cave, Flitter in the lead, and the rest of them still carrying the human.
“Wait, you can put me do—” the woman began, but Joy interrupted.
“Running!” Joy said shortly. Then she started giggling again, something which the rest of her friends joined, even as the human flailed a little in confusion.
“I want to make certain I understand what happened.” The queen said slowly, staring at Joy in bemusement. “You went out hunting wasps for training, but found a kidnapped human noble, stole her from the bandits, and brought her back here. Then, when they followed you to take her back, you told them that since they stole her, you could steal her back.”
“Yes! And they only backed off when the guards showed up.” Joy agreed, smiling brightly.
The queen paused, smelling Joy’s pheromones for a few seconds, then asked. “Why?”
Joy blinked, tilting her head, then replied. “They stole Ivy. Her name is Ivaline, but I shortened it to Ivy. They were acting like spiders, so I had to rescue her. Plus, she’s a noble! If we help her, that means she can talk to the local humans and convince them to be nice to us!”
“I believe that would require taking her back to the humans as well.” The queen replied. “We don’t know exactly where they are, either.”
“Of course not! But we need to find out.” Joy said, smiling even more broadly. “Boom, Flitter, Rain, Smiles, and I were going to be going out once we’re grown up anyway, so… can she stay here until then? We’ll be full-grown in only five days!”
The queen studied Joy for a moment, and she couldn’t help wondering why it felt like the youngling was more in charge of things and decisive than she was. Part of the queen didn’t like it, and yet at the same time, she was happy that someone other than her was making important decisions and dealing with problems. So she made her decision.
“Yes, she can. If you need help finding food for her, speak to the attendants.” The queen replied at last.
“Yay! Thank you!” Joy exclaimed, and hugged the queen abruptly, her head barely reaching halfway up her sternum.
The queen couldn’t help a smile, and gently hugged the fragile young apis back as she spoke. “You are welcome. Just try not to let her cause trouble.”
“Okay!” Joy chirped, letting go, and she dashed out of the room a moment later.
The queen watched her go, then shook her head and turned back to her own work. A queen’s job was never done… but perhaps Joy would make her job a little easier.
“…so, the big thing is to get you comfortable here until we can take you home, Ivy.” Joy said earnestly, looking at the human as she asked. “Are you okay with that?”
“I… think so? There’s no way I could get there myself, so I don’t have much choice.” Ivaline said, looking around the room they were in. “Though… thank you for rescuing me. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth saying again. I’m just confused.”
“Don’t worry about that!” Smiles replied cheerfully. “We’re confused most of the time! It’s Joy that knows what she’s doing.”
Ivaline blinked, looking at the others as they nodded, then looked at Joy in confusion as she asked. “Um… why? How would you know what you’re doing, and not them?”
“Oh, that’s a long story!” Joy replied, grinning more as she asked. “Have you heard of Astonia?”
“Ah… yes? It’s about four hundred miles north of my home, if I remember right.” Ivaline replied, blinking in confusion. “If you don’t know which nations are around here, though, how would you know about it?”
“That’s part of the story! It’s pretty much night, so I suppose I can explain properly. Sit down!” Joy said, plopping onto the floor.
As she began explaining about her previous life, Joy couldn’t help looking forward to the future. Soon she’d leave this hive and be on her way to find Brianna, Cora, and Stella. She couldn’t wait to see them again.