The Cave Goblins fled as the adventurers attacked. The tunnels and passages of the dungeon echoed with shouts and screams and the reverberations of battle. Fire lit up one passage and the Cave Goblins heard Raskghar scream. They ran as the Gold-rank adventurers pressed in, fighting the Raskghar as they poured out of their lair by the hundreds.
Some of the Goblins fought. They ran alongside their masters, bearing the crudest of weapons or fighting unarmed. They died with the rest as [Fireballs] blew them apart, or a shining comet made of light blasted forwards, eradicating everything in its path. At best, their loyalty was not rewarded; the Raskghar used the Goblins as shields, letting the adventurers cut them down while they skirmished with the Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and other species.
So most of the Goblins ran. They had been warned. And while their subservient relationship with the Raskghar might have made them fight in other times, it did not now. Because a rumor had begun running through the Cave Goblins in the dungeon. A rumor from others of a place where there was food and no pain. Safety, from the whims of the Raskghar and monsters alike.
Of course, even that wouldn’t have made the Cave Goblins leave normally. The Raskghar would just hunt them down. But there was something else. Talk of masters who were better than the Raskghar. A word, long forgotten, that made something in Cave Goblins pause.
Many ran. Some stayed. Others would return, finding their way to the Raskghar camp where it resettled. It wasn’t of concern to the Raskghar. Or the adventurers, so long as the Goblins weren’t in their way. They warred in the dungeon, fighting to reach the Gnolls held captive.
They failed again.
At first it was simple. Textbook. The adventurers moved forwards in stealth, following the painstaking route they’d been given. Traps had been clearly marked out, and the monsters they ran across were silenced by advanced teams like Griffon Hunt. They were aware the Raskghar camp had two entrances and had divided themselves into two groups. The first would strike hard while the other would use spells and traps to keep the Raskghar from retreating. It was at the crucial juncture when they were moving into place for the attack that they were sighted.
“Dragons damn it!”
One of the Gnolls cursed as the Gold-ranks in position for the frontal assault heard a Raskghar howl. It was pure panic and it had come from one of the tunnels adjacent to the one they were waiting in. They heard the thump of a spell and saw a fireball explode ahead of them.
“We said to let the other teams get in position. There’s been no signal!”
“Too late! Someone was spotted! Go, go, go! Get the prisoners! Stick to the plan!”
The Gold-ranks ran forwards, abandoning the concealment of spells and shadows. They charged towards the entrance of the Raskghar camp; a passage which would allow six Raskghar to enter abreast if they squeezed together. The Raskghar were already pouring out.
“Flamewardens! Blast them clear!”
The first volley of flames made half the adventurers near the doors duck back. Dozens of Raskghar burned and the ones behind fled or fell to the ground, screaming. But hundreds more were running forwards. And by this time they’d closed with the adventurers in front.
Halrac and his team were part of the group fighting at the front of the camp. So were the Silver Swords. The Halfseekers had joined the team circling the Raskghar camp. From her position at the back of the line with the [Mages], Revi could hear confused shouts. She aimed her wand, trying to find a target in the darkness, but the flashes of light and melee made her hesitate. Her summoned archers had no such problems—they shot unerringly at the Raskghar. But there were too many. And the adventurers were in the wrong position.
“Fall back! Use area of effect spells!”
“No, push forwards! Hit the Raskghar coming out of the camp!”
“There’s too many! We need a better angle! We—incoming!”
Revi felt the impact, but a [Mage] had thrown up a shield spell just in time. She saw the air in the dungeon move as a Raskghar with a staff sent a blast of pure air forwards. The impact sent both adventurers and Raskghar flying and knocked others to their knees. Revi shot bolts of her light from her wand, covering the stunned adventurers. And then she saw the Raskghar in armor.
She knew him. The Raskghar’s artifact deployed a barrier of magic which deflected every spell the adventurers sent at it. And behind him were Raskghar armed with other artifacts. An enchanted sword that spat bright energy every time it connected with something. A Raskghar armed with a shield with a mouth that bit, a blood-red dagger that constantly bled from the edge of the blade.
The Gold-ranks found themselves stalled. They tried to press forwards, but only a few had the armor to risk being surrounded by Raskghar on all sides. And even they had to fear the Raskghar with enchanted weapons. More than that, the Raskghar were holding the narrow choke point and the spells and arrows the [Mages] and [Archers] shot at them were being blocked.
And then she appeared. A Raskghar taller and bigger than the others. One who moved quicker, and with a clarity that the other Raskghar lacked, even during the full moon. She leapt forwards and bore a Gold-rank adventurer to the ground. Quick as a flash, she slashed his throat with a glowing yellow blade and leapt back as the adventurers tried to kill her. She disappeared behind her kin, who died as the adventurers roared in outrage. But her presence changed the Raskghar. They howled and surged forwards.
“Fall back! Draw them out!”
The adventurers moved backwards, holding the Raskghar back as their battle line crumpled. They weren’t losing—the Raskghar were dying by the dozens with every minute while only one adventurer had fallen—but they could not progress. And then Revi heard another howl. The Raskghar looked up and fled.
Not back towards the camp, but down the tunnels, away from the adventurers. In every direction. Some of the adventuring teams went to pursue, but their captains ordered them back. The Gold-ranks pressed into the Raskghar camp, hoping—
But it was too late. The Gnolls and Raskghar were gone. Out the back exit. And it was only minutes later that the second group of Gold-ranks appeared, battered and exhausted and said the obvious.
“We couldn’t stop them. We weren’t in position. Why the hell did you attack before we were ready?”
Jelaqua strode up to Keldrass, her armor still ablaze with magical fire. She looked ready to kill the bigger Drake. Keldrass coughed a bit of smoke and growled.
“We didn’t! One of our teams was seen. Did you see the Gnolls? Which way did they go?”
“There was no way of telling. We didn’t even catch a glimpse of the prisoners.”
Seborn appeared at Jelaqua’s back. His daggers were bloody and he shook his head.
“They got away.”
“We can chase them—”
“No. We failed.”
The other Gold-rank captains came over. Halrac was the one who uttered that harsh truth. The others looked at him. The former [Soldier]’s face was hard, cold. He gripped his bow with white knuckles.
“We’re too far in. We chase and die. This was our chance and we failed. Got it? We’re pulling out.”
No one argued. Halrac looked around.
A few Silver-rank teams had been allowed to join the group that would have cut the Raskghar off. Pisces appeared, his face white with emotion. He opened his mouth and Halrac cut him off.
“We’re leaving. Get the door ready. Otherwise monsters will be all over our position.”
Yvlon and Ksmvr looked shocked. Halrac turned and glared at them.
Pisces hesitated, but another team was already dragging the plank of wood out from their bag of holding. Typhenous motioned and Pisces produced a glowing white mana stone. He stepped over to the door, which was complete with a handle and placed it on the wood. Pisces opened the door and the adventurers moved forwards.
Pisces stood aside as the adventurers marched through in silence. Their heads hung low. The [Necromancer] looked around the Raskghar’s camp, at the scattered supplies, the embers of fires—all the petty things left behind. But the thing he had come to find, the person, wasn’t there. He stood in the darkness as the last of the adventurers ran through the door, listening to the sounds of many somethings approaching in the darkness. Monsters.
Pisces didn’t care. He beckoned and two Bone Horrors appeared. Their bodies of yellowed bone weren’t even bloodied by combat. He collapsed one into his bag of holding and then motioned. The other stayed behind, the armored bear-thing, a yellow flame burning in its eye socket. Pisces took one last look around and then walked through the doorway.
The door remained open a moment longer, exuding light and warmth in the cold dungeon. Then it closed, leaving the Bone Horror behind. It began smashing the door as it closed, breaking the wood, grinding the mana stone into glowing powder. And then it turned and opened its jaws. Monsters overwhelmed the Bone Horror as it fought. And then there was only silence.
The Raskghar camp lay abandoned. There were no Cave Goblins, no Raskghar, no adventurers. Just monsters who did not see each other as they returned to their lairs.
Erin Solstice sat in her inn, her leg jiggling. She was awake, despite the late hour. As if she could have slept. She kept her eyes on her magic door, to which was fixed a white mana stone. The light it shed was pure. Artificial. Or no—since it was magic, it was natural white light. It was still too bright at this time of night. But no force on earth would have made Erin remove the mana stone.
Her heart was pounding. Erin kept glancing at the door, and then at Lyonette and Apista who were sitting next to her, and then at the door every few seconds. She barely paid attention to Pawn and the group of Painted Soldiers sitting to her right. The Antinium were silent, watching the door with Erin. She was tensed, waiting for it to open. When it did, she nearly fell out of her chair and then leapt to her feet.
“Get back, Lyonette! What’s happening? Are you—”
The Antinium surged to their feet. The Soldiers readied themselves—and paused. The adventurers walked through the door slowly, without any of the sounds of combat Erin had been told to expect. She saw one of them—a Garuda with bright green feathers and a pink pattern running down her sides.
Bevussa looked up at Erin and shook her head as she walked forwards. She made way and Erin saw a group of five Drakes walk through the door. They were holding a body whose face was covered with a piece of bloodied cloth.
Lyonette was on her feet too. She started for the door, but Erin held her back. Both young women kept staring at the magical door, hoping, praying—but knowing the truth. No Gnolls came through the door. Or Ceria. The last person to walk through was Pisces. He closed the door behind him, plucked the white mana stone off and threw it to the floor. Then he stomped on it, shattering the glowing gemstone into dust.
No one commented on that. The adventurers looked at each other, not quite daring to look at Lyonette’s face. Erin felt like hers was a mask. She stared at the door.
“My Bone Horror broke it. Destroyed the connection. It was then destroyed. By monsters.”
Pisces’ voice rasped. He too looked like a stranger, haggard, distraught. Halrac nodded quietly.
“We couldn’t stay.”
“I know that. But we shouldn’t have come back like this. We had everything this time. Everything! Why did we fail? Who was seen?”
Jelaqua looked around. None of the adventurers answered. The Selphid cursed. Her body was still aflame. She brought her arms down on a table.
The wood splintered. Erin didn’t care. Jelaqua threw the pieces of the table aside and looked around. Her gaze was despairing.
“What do we do now?”
The Gold-ranks didn’t eat. Some drank enough for five meals, but no one wanted food. They talked, quietly, and then with growing passion. More than one tankard was broken, and more than one table as adventurers pounded on the wood. Jelaqua looked up as a Drake wearing lamellar armor walked over. He had a scratch on his arm, and he had carried a buckler and blade with a curved tip—a falchion during the battle.
“Miss Ivirith. I wanted to apologize. It was our team that messed up the ambush. We were getting in position when we ran across a group of Raskghar scouts. We didn’t get them all in time.”
Jelaqua looked up. The Selphid took in the Drake’s expression and connected him with the body that had been brought through.
“Your team’s…Reldiev Scalers, yeah?”
“I don’t think you need to apologize to me. You lost one of yours to that Raskghar bitch, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. We were trying to get inside the camp. Cassa went too far ahead of the others. I guess that’s two failures. I’m truly sorry about this.”
The Gold-rank Captain’s scales were pale around his face. Almost as pale as Jelaqua’s. The Selphid stood up.
“You don’t have to apologize. Come on. You need some air. Where’s…Cassa?”
The Drake looked around.
“I—in Liscor. We need to prepare her body. Remove the armor. Notify her kin. I should find my team.”
The Selphid laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Not just yet. In fact, you should bring them back here. Liscor’s [Healer] will take care of the body. You shouldn’t have to do that.”
“But I’m her Captain. And she—”
The Drake looked lost. Jelaqua looked around and met Seborn’s eyes. He nodded. Moore was sitting by his side, staring emptily at a table. Jelaqua put an arm around the Drake’s shoulder. He flinched, but the Selphid was gentle.
“Come on. We’ll go together. And then we’ll come back. Or go to your inn. Any inn or tavern, really. You need drinks in you. Forget about the dungeon. I was angry. Has your team ever lost someone before?”
“No—no, we’ve been lucky. Really lucky. I mean, we’ve had wounded, but never this.”
“And your team’s new?”
The Drake nodded.
“We just hit Gold-rank last year.”
“I get it. Come on. Let’s find your team. You need to be there for them. What’s your name, kid?”
“Come on, Xess—”
She left through the door to Liscor with the Drake. Her departure was noted. When Xess had left, one of the Drakes in Bevussa’s team, Zassil, sat up.
“If they hadn’t screwed up the ambush—”
Fast as a whip, Bevussa turned and slapped him across the back of the head. The captain of the Wings of Pallass hissed at Zassil, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to be the captain in public.
“Shut up! They just lost one of their own! Show some respect!”
“He is right, though. If we hadn’t been compromised, we could have trapped the Raskghar. Instead, we lost a Gold-rank and they’re gone. Not good. Our one chance of saving our kin is gone. That cannot be ignored, no.”
One of the Gnoll adventurers spoke up. No one could contradict him. But Dawil, sitting and drinking his sixth mug, looked up.
“That’s true. But supposing everything did go according to plan, I’m not sure it would’ve gone the way we planned. We knew there were lots of Raskghar, but the ones with artifacts changed things. Not to mention—did anyone see the special Raskghar? Or was it just me?”
“We saw her. The quick one? The one that got Cassa? She was different. And those Raskghar with artifacts. That’s a Gold-rank threat. If we’d had to cut them down—”
“It’s the ritual. The one Ceria told us about.”
Yvlon spoke up. She looked around at the others. One of the Drakes coughed.
“The ritual? The one that involves sacrificing—”
He paused and glanced at his Gnoll teammate.
“—How could that work?”
“I don’t know. But Ceria said the Raskghar performed a ritual.”
“With your weird message spell. To the [Necromancer].”
All eyes turned towards Pisces. Keldrass frowned at the young man. He was staring blankly at his cupped hands, leaning back in his chair.
“I don’t trust it. Why can’t she use [Message]?”
“She doesn’t know it.”
The [Necromancer] replied absently. Keldrass paused.
“She couldn’t give us detailed information on the camp. Or tell us any important information. We got the location of the camp from Goblins.”
“She’s a prisoner. Being watched. The spell is noticeable.”
“Still—what does the ritual do? Why sacrifice Gnolls?”
Pisces looked up at last.
“It makes them stronger. All other aspects are irrelevant. It makes the Raskghar stronger, which is why they desire the Gnolls. Is that simple enough for you, fool? You saw what that one did.”
The Drake flushed and clenched his fist, but he shut his mouth. Pisces looked around at the others. He opened his hands. A flaming butterfly flew upwards.
“She sent me a message.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell—”
“I was decoding it. Shut up. Sit down.”
Keldrass hesitated. Pisces ignored him. He spoke softly, but no one was making any sound.
“She’s still alive. But—she says we ruined everything. I don’t know what that means. She says the Raskghar escaped. That Calruz suspects treachery. Not in so many words. And she says—he ordered the Raskghar to perform the ritual with twenty more of the Gnoll captives.”
He looked up. The Gold-rank adventurers sat, frozen in their chairs. Pisces gazed around the room and found the figure holding a pitcher near the back. He met Lyonette’s eyes.
“Mrsha is safe. For now.”
But twenty more Gnolls were dead. No one spoke for a long minute. Then the other adventurers began to mutter disconsolately.
“Twenty? How many prisoners are left, then? Can we get to them in time?”
“Ancestors, I saw how quick that one moved. Cassa barely saw it leap at her. If we have to fight twenty more of them—”
“We’ve lost the camp, the Raskghar are on alert now, and we lost one of our own. How’re we supposed to beat them?”
“Wait for the full moons to disappear?”
“And risk everyone else being sacrificed?”
“If it’s that or try and fight them like that again, I say yes! There’s no point in risking our lives if we don’t have to.”
“So we let my people die, is that it?”
A Gnoll stood up, glaring at the Drake. The Drake stood too, more than a little drunk.
“I risked my life for your people! But I’m not going to kill myself or my team for nothing!”
“If that’s what your team wants to do, fine. But my team is going back down there tomorrow. We won’t stop, even if we’re going alone. We aren’t cowards.”
The Drake rumbled and his hand reached for the sword hilt at his side.
“I dare you to say that again, you—”
The voice was like a cold wind blowing. The adventurers felt a moment of pressure and turned. Erin stood in the center of the room, looking around. She gazed from face to face, angry and helpless at the same time.
“Stop fighting! Stop wasting energy blaming each other! The Raskghar got away. They killed more Gnolls. We’re running out of time. What are you going to do? What’s your plan now?”
The adventurers in her inn looked at Erin. They looked at each other. Some shook their heads. Other just looked away. No one had an answer for Erin. And that in itself was answer enough.
Twenty. Twenty Gnolls died in the dungeon. Upon an altar of stone that ran red with blood. The other Raskghar held them there, and the chosen Raskghar killed them with the same stone. Tore open their chests. Ate their hearts. And changed.
Vakk was the last. He fought the Raskghar, cursing them, and even managed to draw blood with his claws. But that only seemed to excite the bestial monsters. They dragged him over to the altar.
Mrsha didn’t watch. She hid her face in her side and covered her ears. But she still heard the scream. She would never forget Vakk’s last sounds or the ripping noises, the crack of his bones that came after as long as she lived. And when it was over, twenty one Raskghar stood together.
Calruz stood and nodded, his face triumphant. He stared at the dead Gnolls without any recognition in his eyes. And when he turned, the madness-scent hung from him like clothing. He inspected the twenty one Raskghar. They licked their bloody muzzles, sniffed the air. The other Raskghar looked at them as children did at adults, despite their similar forms. The twenty one awakened bowed to their Chieftain. But their eyes—their eyes glowed as they looked at the Gnolls.
The Minotaur didn’t notice. He was talking to himself, to his tribe, and to the half-conscious form at his feet. Ceria barely moved—he’d beaten her with his arm when she’d fought him.
“This was a triumph. My triumph! I was betrayed, but the adventurers could not defeat me. Not here. Not ever! And so I name you. Twenty one of my elites. You awakened Raskghar. You will all bear artifacts, become my vanguard.”
“Yes, Chieftain. We are honored, Chieftain.”
The female Raskghar spoke for the others. She was first of the twenty one, and they deferred to her. Calruz nodded. He glanced around.
The new Raskghar camp was the old one. The circular room with the partially caved-in roof. The Raskghar couldn’t move that far at night, not with the dungeon stirred up. It didn’t matter either way. The adventurers had not followed.
“A great victory. You—you have done well, Nokha. You will lead the awakened. Tomorrow. But I give you leave tonight. This is a celebration. Celebrate!”
The Minotaur turned. He roared and the Raskghar howled in triumph. They broke up, males and females, seeking each other. Some ate. Others forced the Cave Goblins to entertain them. The awakened Rasgkhar looked with interest at each other, but then they moved as one. Towards the Gnolls in cages.
There were still over forty captive Gnolls left. They shrank in their cages as the awakened Raskghar approached. Their eyes were—too bright. Mrsha backed up until she could feel the bars of her cage pressing into her back. Nokha, the female Raskghar, looked around. She had killed a Gold-rank adventurer. She had smiled as each of the Gnolls was sacrificed. Now she bent and looked at the remaining Gnolls. At Elirr. And at last, at Mrsha. She smiled.
“We are whole.”
The Gnolls shivered. Something about her words filled them with dread. Mrsha tried to hide as the Raskghar stared down at them. Then the awakened turned. They joined the others, growling, asserting their dominance. The lesser Raskghar—for that was what they were—gave way at once. The awakened chose from the lesser, males choosing females, females choosing males. They led them away and then the Raskghar paired up.
It was dark in the room. Blood and pain filled the air. The fires crackled. The Raskghar growled. And then they began to mate.
Urgent thrusting motions, low growls, moving shadows. Mrsha knew what was happening, at least in abstract. She’d grown up in a Gnoll camp after all, and privacy was limited when everyone could hear and smell what you were doing, even inside a tent. She didn’t look at first. Then she peeked. And then she was afraid.
The sounds were urgent. Primal. There weren’t just busy sounds. There were howls of pain and snarls too. The shadows danced. The Raskghar’s orgy filled the night as Mrsha hid in her cage. And she wished, oh how she wished that someone would save her. But no one came. So Mrsha covered her ears and wished Ryoka were here.
Ceria heard the Raskghar begin to mate. She saw them move into the shadows, but not out of sight. There was little privacy in this room, save for Calruz’s and her ‘private’ quarters. She felt the ground she was lying on. Her head spun. She felt sick.
Twenty. He had made her watch. When Ceria got up, she had a bloody cut on her cheek and her eye was already swelling.
“So. You see the price of treachery.”
Calruz’s voice made Ceria look up. The half-Elf stared up at her former captain. Former. She couldn’t see anything she recognized in him. Not now.
He hit her. Ceria felt the world go gray. Calruz pulled her up. Her head lolled.
“I warned you. I gave you my trust! And you led the adventurers here.”
His eyes were red. Mad. Ceria tried to make her tongue work.
“I swear, I didn’t. You know that I can’t cast [Message].”
A lie. She’d told Pisces what she could. But it was true in that she hadn’t brought the adventurers here. She would if she could. But she hadn’t. How had they done it? Ceria’s mind was hazy. They had to do it again. Soon. Before—
“You murdered them.”
“I made my Raskghar stronger. I was a fool to listen to you. One of them slew a Gold-rank adventurer. Twenty more of them will be enough to claim the city. Destroy my enemies! Yes. They have been far more loyal to me than you. And now—”
Calruz looked around. The mating frenzy of the Raskghar didn’t seem to disturb him. On the contrary, he seemed excited.
“Look. My tribe multiplies. This is mine. Mine! And you—you are mine too. Traitor or not. You will be mine. I will make you mine.”
He lifted Ceria up. The half-Elf didn’t know what he meant, until she saw Calruz’s private quarters, curtained off by a moldy sheet. And then she looked down. He was aroused.
The Minotaur didn’t seem to hear. He stared at Ceria.
“The Raskghar take long to breed. But the next generation of warriors will serve me. I have them training in their camps. Hidden away. But I have not created any heirs.”
“Put me down.”
“I am your Chieftain. This is your duty.”
Ceria couldn’t breathe. Calruz had her by the throat. She forced her hand to open as he walked with her suspended in the air. She forced her skeletal hand open, tried to freeze Calruz’s arm.
“Touch me and I will kill you.”
The Minotaur paused. He looked back at Ceria and his eyes were red. He didn’t have another arm to hit her with, so he brought Ceria close and head-butted her. She went limp.
“You do not order me! I give orders! I am your chieftain! Obey!”
He roared in her face. Ceria felt spit strike her face. She struggled as he opened his curtains. His ‘bed’ was just a pile of worn blankets. Stained. The Minotaur turned to her, lust in his eyes. Ceria raised her skeletal hand, aimed between his eyes. She had just enough strength for one last retort.
“Ryoka would be so proud.”
Calruz stopped. A bit of sanity flickered in his eyes. He stared at Ceria. She waited, her hand frozen with magic.
The Minotaur cursed. He lifted Ceria and threw her. She flew, striking the ground hard. Her wand bounced out of her belt, rolled into the darkness. Ceria felt a rock cut her through her robes. She lay on the ground as Calruz roared.
A female Raskghar came at his bidding. He disappeared with her behind the curtains and then Ceria heard loud grunting, a rhythmic sound. She dragged herself up.
Healing potion. She reached for it and treated the bruises at her throat, her eye and the cut on her head. Ceria looked around. The Raskghar moved in the darkness. She couldn’t make out the awakened from the other Raskghar. But it didn’t matter. Ceria looked at the Gnolls in their cages. There were less of them. They stared at her. Ceria looked away.
There was nothing she could say. Cave Goblins sat around fires, staring at their masters. They parted for Ceria as she staggered past them, watching her cautiously. Ceria paused at Mrsha’s cage. She stared down at the shackled Gnoll. No one was watching the cages. It would be easy to break the cage. It was flimsy. The Gnolls could do it if they weren’t shackled. But she had no way of removing the metal bindings. And even if they ran…
This time she couldn’t say anything to Mrsha. Ceria just leaned on the cage and covered her eyes.
“I’m so sorry.”
Then she turned and walked away, conscious of the little Gnoll’s eyes on her back. Ceria went to her private room, trying not to hear or see. Or remember. But she heard the scream. The last Gnoll had cursed her before he died. He had been right to.
Her bedding was worn cloth too. It was actually comfortable somehow—the Cave Goblins had created a nest for Ceria to sleep in. She had no right to it, but Ceria took it anyways.
Ceria lay down and wept as she heard the Raskghar celebrate around her. Her tears ran down her cheeks, salt and water. They dripped onto the ground and ran together, forming a tiny puddle of water. More ran from Ceria’s open water flask and into her hands. Tears and water mixed, freezing, molding a shape out of the air.
A dagger made of ice. She gave it the finest edge she could and made it sharp. Sharper than her broken dagger had been. Sharp enough to cut a Minotaur’s skin. Sharp enough to kill. It would have to be quick.
It was a terrible thing to think of. To kill your own teammate was the ultimate betrayal. But hard as Ceria tried, she couldn’t find any guilt or sadness in her heart. There wasn’t enough left of Calruz anymore. He was a monster. She told herself that as tears ran from her cheeks and froze. And she knew that she wouldn’t ever leave the dungeon. And neither would he.
It was all falling apart. Erin Solstice woke up the next day and knew that the Gold-rank adventurers had no plan. They had argued long into the night—those that hadn’t left early. But at the end of it, they had nothing solid to go on. Nothing beyond trying to find the Raskghar again.
There were just too many. And they were just too strong while the moons were full. In a day or two the moons would change and the Raskghar would be weak. But by that time, Erin was sure, all the Gnolls would be dead.
Mrsha would be dead.
She had slept in her kitchen. When Erin walked into her common room, she found Lyonette sitting at one of the dirty tables. Dishes were left where they’d been last night, broken on the ground or piled up. The [Barmaid] sat in her chair, Apista in her hands. The Ashfire Bee’s legs had been healed, but it clung to Lyonette’s arm. Even it seemed to know something was wrong.
The young woman didn’t look up at Erin’s voice. She stared ahead blankly. It was just past dawn. The adventurers had been in the inn until midnight. Lyonette might not have slept.
“Lyonette. You have to sleep.”
“They couldn’t do it. Mrsha was right there and they couldn’t save her.”
Erin stood next to Lyonette’s chair. She tried to say something in the Gold-rank adventurer’s defense. The Raskghar had been too strong. They’d been unlucky in being spotted too early. It had been dozens of adventurers versus hundreds or thousands of Raskghar. But those were all excuses. Nothing would bring the dead Gnolls back.
“I—I’m going to talk to the Goblins. They have to be able to help.”
Erin didn’t know. She looked at Lyonette.
She let the word hang in the air. Lyonette looked up, but Erin couldn’t give word to the feelings in her chest. She walked away and went to the door. She looked around, found the red mana stone, and stared at it dully.
It had been such a good plan. The Redfang Hobs had showed her the Cave Goblins that had known where the Raskghar camp was. She’d gotten the adventurers and made the Goblins write down a map so the adventurers could find the camp. They’d agreed to leave the Hobs behind—there was too much risk of unfriendly fire if the adventurers reacted to the Redfang Warriors.
They’d made preparations, calculated a plan of attack. They’d even had an exit strategy. Pisces and Typhenous had gotten their emergency door to work and Erin had set the door to their mana stone. They’d go in, fight their way to the prisoners and get Ceria and Calruz, and exit through the door. Pisces had claimed he could leave an undead to smash the doorway so monsters couldn’t follow. Plus, Erin could always change the door’s connection.
Last night it had seemed so possible. Now, in the light of day, Erin knew better. She opened the door and walked through.
Happy noises greeted her. The Cave Goblins looked up warily as Erin entered, then got back. To cooking. They had eight fires going in the cave, and it sounded like there were more going on in the dungeon too. Hundreds of Goblins sat around in the cave—they’d colonized the room right in front of the Shield Spider nest too, completely at home with the giant spider colony right next to them. And they were cooking.
Fish, mainly. They’d run out of Erin’s supplies as soon as the Cave Goblins had begun pouring out of the dungeon. So Headscratcher had taken Goblins back to the waters outside of Liscor and begun fishing at the edge. The Goblins had dug around for worms and grubs in the mud and after finding and eating a few, had created crude fishing rods. Some just threw the bait into the water and snagged fish with nets. Then they towed them back to the cave and began to cook them.
Erin stared at a fish that had been diced up and was now sizzling in one of the frying pans she’d given the Goblins. It had been deboned, but the guts of the fish and every other part—including the eyes—were in the pan, cooking away. And the Goblins sitting around the fire were chewing the fish bones, crunching them down with satisfaction. As Erin watched, the designated [Cook] reached into a bag and brought out a handful of salt. It sprinkled the salt over the frying fish to the Goblin’s apparent satisfaction. Then it began to divvy the fried fish up.
Every Cave Goblin got a portion. The little children greedily snatched at the fish and then dropped the hot pieces, crying out. The adults were barely more controlled. But they shared. They shared and smiled as they ate, monsters smiling to eat fish with salt. It was a heartwarming sight. But Erin’s heart hurt.
“Where’s Headscratcher? Where’s Numbtongue? The Hobs?”
The Cave Goblins looked up. As one, they pointed towards the entrance of the cave. Erin walked around the little Goblins. They looked up at her, some nervously, but most looking curious. Trusting, even. Erin saw a Cave Goblin wave at her. She stopped and saw it was Pebblesnatch, roasting a dead squirrel. Erin tried to smile and gave up.
The Redfangs were outside, sparring with a huge audience of Cave Goblins watching them. They looked up and stopped fighting at once. The five Hobs clustered around Erin, looking excited.
“We…win? Adventurers attack?”
Rabbiteater clumsily spoke. Erin stared at him and then shook her head. The Hobs’ smiles vanished. They looked at one another.
Headscratcher looked at Erin. She nodded.
“Very bad. The Raskghar got away. The adventurers…they lost one of their people. And the Raskghar sacrificed twenty more Gnolls.”
The Goblins looked surprised. Not shocked. They exchanged a glance and then formed a huddle. Erin watched as they urgently signed to each other and then all began smacking Numbtongue on the shoulders. For once, the Hob didn’t need encouragement. He knocked their hands away and looked at Erin.
“We’ll go back in. We will find Raskghar camp. Again.”
“You can do that?”
The Hobs looked at each other and then at the Cave Goblins. They nodded decisively.
“We can find. Again. Many Cave Goblins. They know many spots. All we have to do is find other Cave Goblins. We can find. Before tonight! Adventurers try again?”
Numbtongue looked expectantly at Erin. She stared at him, and then felt herself wake up a bit. That was right. They could try again. They had to.
She didn’t know what she’d expected from the Hobgoblins. But this is what she’d needed. Erin nodded.
“If you can find them—I’ll find the others. We have to try again. We have to. Can you locate their camp soon?”
“Will look. Will go now.”
Numbtongue pointed at the others. Headscratcher was already looking around, giving orders in the Goblin tongue. The Cave Goblins scattered. Erin stood a bit straighter.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Don’t get too near the camp. Please be careful. But find them. And I’ll get the Gold-rank adventurers to—to—”
She wavered. Erin’s face fell. To do what exactly? Try the same tactic again? They’d failed the first time. Even assuming they were willing to give it another shot, the Raskghar would be on alert. And now there were twenty one of the special ones. Could they do it?
What other choice did they have? Erin stared at the Hobs, who’d caught her uncertainty. Shorthilt nudged Numbtongue and made a few gestures. Numbtongue made a face and nodded.
“Old plan failed. Adventurers must have new plan. Do they have one?”
Numbtongue paused. Erin saw Badarrow grimace behind him and Rabbiteater scratch at one ear. Erin bowed her head. And yet—Mrsha. Ceria. She scrubbed at her face as the Hobs watched her. There had to be something they could do. There had to be.
Could Olesm help? The Gold-ranks hadn’t consulted him, but he was a [Strategist] now. Then again, Erin had never seen how good his strategies were. Could she get Zevara to send her Watch into the dungeon? What about Embria? Ilvriss? No, he’d refused.
There had to be something. But Erin didn’t know what. She wavered, and then looked up.
“Go find the camp. I’ll think of something.”
Numbtongue looked incredulous until Rabbiteater kicked him in the shins. The Hob turned, kicked Rabbiteater back, and then nodded uncertainly.
“We go now. You keep the door open. We’ll tell you as soon as we return.”
Erin nodded. Numbtongue’s grasp of English really was close to perfect. The Hob turned. Headscratcher had a group of sixteen Cave Goblins and was waiting. The Hobs filed into the cave. Erin watched them go.
“I’ll think of something. Who else can?”
The Gold-rank adventurers had given up. They had no idea what to do. But there was a chance. Erin walked back into the cave and back into her inn. One of the Cave Goblins peeking through the door jumped and ran when she walked past him. Erin absent-mindedly walked over to a table. Lyonette was still sitting in the same spot.
There was something on this table. A chess board. The ghostly pieces were set up in a game. Erin looked around for the other chess boards, but they must have been placed somewhere else to make room for all her guests. She looked at Lyonette and decided she didn’t care. She stared at the ghostly chess pieces.
She’d been playing a game with her mysterious opponent. She’d stopped ever since Mrsha had been kidnapped, but it had been her custom to spend at least thirty minutes each day playing a game. Now her opponent had been waiting days for her move. Erin stared at the board, which had been a thrilling back-and-forth game between the two. She swept the pieces from the board and began resetting them.
A black and white side stared at her, completely untouched. Erin stared at the pieces and then moved a pawn. She turned the board around and then, without waiting for her mysterious opponent to make a move—if he was even there—she played his side. Knight to F6. Alekhine Defense.
She didn’t know what she was doing. Erin was certain she shouldn’t be playing chess. But she had to think. She had to think. What could she do? What could they do? If they could find the Raskghar camp—but if the adventurers couldn’t win an all-out attack—her hands moved automatically, sending her pawn forwards, playing the black side against the white. There had to be something. Something that would work.
She had to think. The Cave Goblins staring through Erin’s portal door into her inn stared in awe at Erin’s magical chessboard. They began creeping forwards. Watching. Learning. And Erin played against despair. And thought.
Mrsha dreamed she was in her bed. Just for a moment. But it was a wonderful dream. She dreamed she was lying next to Lyonette, and Apista was lying on her little bed by the windowsill.
It was too early so Mrsha was all curled up, warm, lying next to Lyonette. But soon she’d smell cooking and know it was breakfast. And then she’d run down stairs and sit at the table and Erin would smile at her and tell her what breakfast was, and then Lyonette would come down and tell Mrsha how good she was for washing her paws and setting the table—if Mrsha remembered and—
And then reality seeped into the dream. Mrsha smelled dried urine and feces. She shifted and felt the hard stone beneath her, and her empty stomach. And she opened her eyes and knew she was in the dungeon. In the baddest of places.
Mrsha sat up and remembered where she was. She looked around and saw the Raskghar. They were eating ravenously, satisfied. The Cave Goblins ran about, bringing them food. They’d mated last night and now, content, they were in a good mood. Mrsha wished they would all die horribly. She wished the Frost Faeries would freeze them, or Zel would appear and slash them all to bits.
Not even the Goblins were as bad as the Raskghar. The Goblins were terrible monsters. But the Raskghar were worse. They were like Gnolls, so close that sometimes Mrsha thought she could smell or see something familiar in them. But they did the worst things. They killed Gnolls. Sacrificed them. And then became…
Whole. That was what the female Raskghar had said. And as hard as Mrsha wanted to believe that was a lie, she thought it was true. The awakened Raskghar looked complete. If the ordinary Raskghar were beasts who could think, the Raskghar who had performed the ritual were people wearing the skins of monsters. But not good people. Oh no, not at all.
And now there were twenty one of them. The Gnolls huddled together whenever one of the Raskghar who’d performed the blood ritual passed by. The awakened were each followed by a small cluster of lesser Raskghar. And Mrsha saw that they were standing taller. And she had a horrible feeling of what that meant, too.
Urksh used to say that his position as the tribe’s [Chieftain] was based on two things. Respect and ability. There might have been other Gnolls who were better than him at leading, but part of leading was being trusted. And Urksh had the tribe’s trust in him. But Calruz? The Minotaur?
He had the Raskghar’s fear. And he was strong. That made him their leader, and his ability to think. But when Mrsha looked at the awakened Raskghar, she knew they commanded more than just fear. And they could think. And—she looked at one of them as he glanced around, his gaze full of bright danger. She didn’t think he was afraid of Calruz anymore.
One of the Gnolls spoke the word quietly. Mrsha looked at them. Elirr and the other Gnolls from Liscor sat together. They were clearly starving, battered, hungry. But they stared at the Raskghar with as much hate as Mrsha.
One of the Raskghar noticed. The awakened Raskghar, a male with dark grey fur and white stripes, walked over to the cages. The Gnolls drew back as he bent down. He grinned at the Gnolls.
“Prey. You are prey.”
His voice was guttural and his words were awkward. But he spoke! The Gnolls recoiled. The Raskghar bared his teeth, clearly enjoying the reaction. He pointed at Elirr.
“You. Cannot save kin. We kill. We sacrifice. Then we take more. More. More awakened. You first. Then you. Or you.”
He pointed at the other Gnolls, at an older female Gnoll woman, and then at a Gnoll child. The Gnolls clung to each other. The Raskghar laughed. Then he jerked. Too late. The bit of brown struck him squarely in the nose and glance upwards, striking his left eye. He recoiled with a roar and swiped at what was clinging to his face.
Poo. Wet poo. Mrsha took aim with another handful. The Raskghar surrounding the awakened one leapt back, as she threw her poo at them. The one covered in it howled as he tried to scrape it off his face and then got it on his paws. Mrsha raced about her cage, looking for more ammunition, but she hadn’t eaten much so there was no more.
The Raskghar howled in fury, but not too loudly for fear of waking Calruz, who was still asleep. He clenched his paws as the other Raskghar sidled away from him. And then he heard laughter. Immediately his ears flattened. He turned on the Gnolls with rage. They were laughing. But not just them.
Some of the other Raskghar had seen what had happened. The ones who hadn’t witnessed it could still smell what had gone on. Several of the awakened laughed at the unfortunate poo-covered one. And even the lesser Raskghar couldn’t contain their amusement.
The awakened Raskghar didn’t flush as far as Mrsha could see with all the fur on his body, but he looked furious. He glared at Mrsha in her cage. The Gnoll cub raced around inside, sticking her bottom up at him. For once, Mrsha relished the cage’s bars despite the shackles. She could still throw things with her bound hands! And the Raskghar couldn’t kill her. Not until it was time for her to be sacrificed.
The Raskghar growled deeply in his throat. He took a step towards the cage and a warning bark made him turn. The female Raskghar stared at him and shook her head. The awakened clenched his paws, but he glanced at Calruz’s private quarters and hesitated. Mrsha could see him hesitating. Not yet. Reluctantly he turned away.
Mrsha grinned at his back. She saw the other Gnolls straighten a bit, enjoying this moment of victory. Mrsha smiled widely—and then saw the awakened turn. The Raskghar looked around, growled, and then loped over to something. He came back with a key.
The other Raskghar growled warningly at him. But the awakened Raskghar was too incensed to care. He opened the lock on Mrsha’s cage and reached inside. Mrsha tried to run, but she was too slow. He grabbed her, shackles and all, and then lifted her out. She struggled. The Raskghar growled. He lifted Mrsha up and casually, before any of the other Raskghar could stop him, smacked Mrsha into the ground.
The blow was savage. Mrsha’s head and body hit the ground as hard as the Raskghar could throw her. She felt something crack. Pain. She curled up and heard pounding feet. The female Raskghar and two of the awakened snarled and dragged the one who’d struck her away. He let them do it. The damage was done. Mrsha felt huge paws pick her up and shove her into the cage. It hurt. Her mind flickered on and off. It hurt. It hurt! It hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it—
The Gnolls were silent as the Raskghar turned, locking the cage again. Their moment of triumph was gone, replaced by more hate and fear. The Raskghar walked away. The one who’d been struck by poo grinned even after he’d been cuffed hard by the female. He turned, nearly stumbled on a stick lying on the floor, and kicked it back towards Mrsha’s cage with a growl before going to find water to wash himself with. Mrsha didn’t respond. She lay there. It hurt so bad. She just wanted it to stop. All the hurting. All the pain.
It was too much.
Ceria woke up late. She shouldn’t have gotten a good sleep, not with all that had happened, but her body had decided that her bed in the Raskghar’s camp was decidedly better than some of the sleeping spots she’d had while adventuring. So she got up after Calruz and all the Raskghar. Ceria stumbled out of her curtains and heard a familiar voice.
“Prepare the team. We strike at the nest of Children today. The awakened Raskghar will form the spear of the assault. I want to see how effective you are. Maintain a watch on the camp. I don’t trust the adventurers not to try to attack again. Double patrols!”
Calruz was standing at his impromptu war table, surrounded by the awakened Raskghar. They nodded deferentially to him. The Minotaur turned as Ceria walked towards him. The ice dagger was frozen to Ceria’s back. Literally frozen to her skin. The ice didn’t melt and Ceria knew no one would notice. She ignored the freezing sensation—she was used to worse from studying under Illphres and looked at Calruz.
“You’re attacking a nest?”
The Minotaur grinned at Ceria. He was satisfied from last night. His rage seemed like an afterthought, as did his fury over Ceria’s supposed treachery.
“Yes. I want to test the abilities of the awakened. You will come with me of course. Have you had breakfast?”
“Collect some, then.”
Ceria walked towards the stew pots. It might have been maggot-insect the Cave Goblins gave her in a bowl, or the chunks of meat could have been some other monster. Or Gnoll. Ceria decided not to eat when she thought of that, though she was ravenous. Instead, she went to the pile of dead adventurer’s belongings and fished around until she found some travel rations that were only a bit moldy. She ate that instead and washed it down with stale water.
A fitting final meal. Ceria stood up and looked around. Her eyes went to the Gnolls in their cages. She wondered if there were anything she could do for them. Probably not. The adventurers would have to do something. If they got there in time.
At least she could save Mrsha. Maybe. Ceria tried to figure out what to do. If she could end things with Calruz—the awakened Raskghar were tough, but none of them were mages. There was a chance. A slim one, but there was no other way. She couldn’t sleep in this camp another night.
The Gnolls were awake. They were staring at Ceria. She didn’t want to meet their eyes, but she felt she owed them something. An explanation. Another apology. But she couldn’t give anything away, not with the Raskghar able to hear everything she said. So Ceria just met their eyes, trying to convey her feelings.
Something was a bit odd. The Gnolls stared at Ceria and then looked as one to Mrsha’s cage. Then they looked back at her. That was clearly a sign. Ceria frowned. She got up and walked over to Mrsha’s cage. The little Gnoll was curled up inside. Ceria glanced at the Gnolls, but they were afraid to speak. She bent down and inspected Mrsha.
Nothing looked wrong. The Gnoll wasn’t moving, though. She was alive, but she was terribly thin. She hadn’t been eating, and no wonder. The other Gnolls must have been worried. Ceria straightened.
“I’ll try to get you rations. The adventurers have some.”
She turned, not seeing the frantic shaking of Erill’s head and the way the Raskghar looked up warily. Ceria was too distracted. She looked at Calruz. It would have to be quick. He was stronger than she was. Tougher and quicker than before, too. She had to get right up close to him, under his guard.
“Finished eating? Then we go. Come!”
Calruz was in a good mood. He downed the last of the meat he’d been eating and stood up. The awakened Raskghar and some of his better-equipped warriors strode out of the room. Ceria followed silently. The ice dagger was still attached to her back, radiating cold. The handle was simple, but the edge was keen. Illphres had taught her how to make ice that strong. But she’d always told Ceria that she expected more.
“Your ice is weak. You can make ice solid now, which is something. But you can’t shape it. You can’t design your structures.”
“Like you do, oh great and powerful master?”
“Exactly. Stop being sarcastic or I’ll freeze your nose off. I’ve shown you how I build my [Ice Walls]. It’s not just one solid mass of ice—that’s inefficient and it can break. I structure it, like an [Architect] would design a wall. But at a miniature level, far too small to see.”
“I can’t sense it.”
“Of course you can’t. You’re an amateur. But one day you will be able to. And then you’ll finally be competent enough to shape your spells rather than relying on set designs. Ice magic can create an infinite variety of shapes. Like my mask. It can be armor, a trap, a disguise…now, cast the spell again. And this time, try to put an edge on that dagger, will you? I’ll slice my bread with this and make you eat whatever I can’t cut.”
The memory made Ceria smile. Just for a moment. She walked with Calruz through the dungeon, passing traps, watching with disinterest as the Raskghar skirmished with a group of invisible monsters she didn’t bother to point out. The sense of smell of the awakened Raskghar was stronger, like everything else about them.
Three. She could at least get three. The female first. One good [Ice Spike] between the eyes—or in an eye—would do it. She raised her skeletal finger. Yes, she could dual-cast with her wand—
Her wand. Ceria felt at her belt. Where was it? A flash of panic ran through her. Her wand was missing! She remembered Calruz throwing her and cursed. She must have dropped it!
“Too late to go back for it now. I do this with one hand, I guess.”
Ceria gritted her teeth. The dagger was all that mattered. What came after—well, maybe she’d get lucky and the Raskghar would declare her their new chieftain like they’d done for Calruz. More likely…
Caught up in her thoughts, Ceria didn’t realize one of the Raskghar had fallen back until a finger tapped her on the shoulder. Absently, Ceria looked sideways and froze.
The female awakened Raskghar, the original one, was walking by her. She’d moved without a sound. Now she loomed over Ceria, a hunched, furry shape with bright eyes peering at her in the darkness. Ceria felt fear seize her. The Raskghar leaned forwards. Her breath was rancid as she spoke.
“What are you?”
Ceria fought the urge to step back. The Raskghar moved forwards even closer and sniffed. Ceria stepped back, suddenly sweating. Could she smell the ice dagger on Ceria? It was just ice, but maybe—
The Raskghar didn’t seem to notice Ceria’s concealed weapon. She sniffed again and then spoke a word.
“Half-Elf. Chieftain called you that. Half-Elf. What is Elf? Are there more like you above?”
Her eyes were too intelligent. Ceria gritted her teeth.
“That’s none of your business. You want to know what I am? Go ask Calruz.”
“Don’t want to ask him. I ask you. Tell me. You are Chieftain’s. Also Raskghar’s.”
The female leaned forwards, uttering a growl that ran down Ceria’s spine. She was very big and she showed Ceria her canines. She was trying to assert her dominance. Ceria gritted her teeth.
“Leave me alone.”
She raised her skeletal hand. Not to blast the Raskghar, but to freeze her nose off. The Raskghar caught Ceria’s hand in a flash. Her grip was like steel as Ceria fought. The half-Elf was afraid to try and freeze the female. The awakened Raskghar smiled at her.
“I will not hurt you. You are the Chieftain’s. His.”
She let go. Ceria yanked her hand back.
“Oh yeah? Do all the Raskghar mess with his…people? You seem pretty disloyal to him.”
The female Raskghar made a rumbling sound. Ceria thought it was a laugh. She raised her paws.
“Not disloyal. Only curious. We Raskghar need Chieftain Calruz. The Chieftain is smart. When the moons fall, the Raskghar need him. Who else can think then? Only Chieftain.”
She tilted her head, giving Ceria a toothy grin. Ceria stared at her. In that moment, the half-Elf realized something. Something important.
The Raskghar was lying. Intelligent she might be, but she hadn’t learned to control her expressions or body language yet. There was no need to in Raskghar society. But to Ceria’s eye, she could see the tells in the female Raskghar’s body. She was lying. But what had she said—
Ceria realized she was staring too long. She fumbled for a reply to conceal her realization.
“Oh yeah? Well…he needs me more. I’ll save the Gnolls, the rest of them. You won’t sacrifice any more of them!”
“Hrr. You can try.”
The female grinned at Ceria, clearly thinking little of the half-Elf’s threat. She ran ahead of Ceria, joining the Raskghar moving down the tunnel. Ceria stared at her back, and then swore a blue streak. She caught up to Calruz.
The Minotaur looked perfectly at ease as he strode forwards. Ceria glanced up at him and then nodded as casually as she could to the female loping ahead of them.
“That Raskghar. The first one to perform the…ritual. What’s her name? Do the Raskghar have names?”
“They do. They’re not complete monsters like Goblins. That one? She’s called Nokha. She’s…quite intelligent. For a Raskghar. And a competent warrior. She led the raid on Liscor, which is why I gave her the honor of being first.”
“I see. And you trust her?”
There was a moment of hesitation.
“Of course I do. Why?”
“Oh. No reason.”
Ceria dropped it at that. She saw Calruz glancing from her to Nokha. Soon, they reached the nest of Children.
“Springwalker, stay by my side. Nokha, take your awakened. Show me what you are capable of. We will support you if necessary.”
Nokha grinned. She lifted her enchanted blade and the other awakened raised their enchanted weapons. They moved forwards.
The battle was over quick. The nest of Children, the white-skinned doppelgangers that pretended to be children of other species, had been built into a room with numerous porous openings for them to nest in. At the Raskghar’s intrusion they came out, screaming, and swarmed the awakened.
They died in droves. Ceria watched the awakened tear through them with unmatched brutality. The Raskghar were strong and the awakened were easily the equivalent of a Level 35 [Warrior]. At least. With the enchanted weapons they bore, the Children were no match. By the time they were finished, the last of the Children were fleeing, and the Raskghar stood surrounded by blood and gore.
Calruz looked around approvingly. He kicked one of the white-skinned monsters that was trying to crawl away, its guts hanging from its bisected torso. He studied the nest.
“And so another nest of monsters falls. The Children will no longer trouble us. You awakened have done well. I will consider allowing other Raskghar to perform the ritual tonight.”
“Chieftain is kind. Chieftain is wise.”
Nokha bowed her head humbly. Calruz grunted in satisfaction.
“You may return to the camp first. Springwalker, with me. We’ll search for any treasure these monsters may have kept hidden. Warriors, guard the entrances.”
He beckoned. Ceria stepped into the bloody room. Now was the time. She saw Calruz walking past the dead Children, staring into the small tunnels that had been their homes. The ice dagger came loose from her back with a bit of her skin. The pain and cold chill of the hilt made Ceria feel awake. She hid the blade against her arm as she walked forwards.
“Efficient, these Raskghar. Aren’t they?”
“I am pleased. It was right to perform the ritual. A shame I don’t have more Gnolls. With enough, I could make an army capable of taking the city in a single raid. I haven’t committed all my forces, but I should. There are what, forty four Gnolls remaining? Enough for a strong force.”
“I bet. And what will you do when you run out? Raid Liscor for more Gnolls?”
The Minotaur paused as he bent down.
“Perhaps. The city is well-defended and no doubt on alert. It would be a mistake to try after the full moon wanes. Indeed, I will have to pull back into the dungeon, father away from the rift. Bide my time. But if the awakened hold onto even a shred of their intelligence or strength…”
“They’ll be useful. Yeah, I can see that.”
Ceria’s voice was too calm. She felt like she was discussing tactics with Calruz like in the old days. Humoring him, really. He and Gerial would love to get into this kind of debate over a drink. Ceria didn’t enjoy it, but Calruz loved pretending to be a [Tactician].
“You’ll see. The Raskghar will become even more effective under my command. I will lead the awakened into the city tomorrow and see how many infested we can cull. And next month…yes, perhaps next month we will make enough progress.”
The ice dagger was ready. Ceria stared at Calruz’s back. She had one chance. It had to be in the throat. She could imagine him surviving a stab to the liver and she couldn’t get through his ribs. But his throat—she had to break his healing potion too.
“I’ve forgiven you, you know.”
“For your betrayal. You might have been telling the truth. If not, I could understand.”
Calruz reached into the hole and pulled something out. He brushed at the dirt and other crusted substances and revealed a dented gold chalice. He grunted and fished further inside. Ceria edged around him. His head was too far in the hole.
“Kind of you.”
The Minotaur paused and drew his head halfway out. Ceria tensed—but he was looking at her.
“Don’t mistake me, Springwalker. I don’t think you truly follow me. I know you want to return. But when you’re here, I can’t help but feel reassured. I need you. To help me—think.”
Ceria frowned. This was new. She hid the blade as Calruz nodded. He stared at her. His eyes didn’t look as crazy as normal. In fact, they looked lucid. Ceria wished he were raging. That would make things easier.
“I know I’ve done…terrible things. By any standard. I’m aware of that, you know. I know sacrificing the Gnolls would earn me the headsman above. However, it feels like most days that it doesn’t matter. But I do know it’s wrong. Always.”
The half-Elf wanted to laugh. Now he acknowledged it? Too little, too late. She waited for him to turn his head.
“Then why do it?”
“I must. I must find the heart of the dungeon. There’s no other goal larger in this world.”
“Even if it means sacrificing innocent people? Killing your fellow adventurers?”
Calruz bowed his head.
“Even then. You don’t understand, Ceria. I’m doing this for our team. For the fallen. Gerial, Hunt—I’ll conquer this dungeon in their name. What comes afterwards doesn’t matter. Only the glory of victory matters. Only that.”
Ceria shook her head. She could see the Raskghar standing idly by the entrances to the Children’s nest. Blood ran around her feet. Calruz was covered in grime. He looked mad.
“Do you think you’ll really make them happy? Is this what they would have wanted? Really, Calruz? Are you that stupid?”
She expected Calruz to rage. And his brows did draw together. But again, the Minotaur surprised her. He looked down at the golden chalice he’d set on the ground. He reached down and touched it.
“Of course I’m not. I know this won’t bring them back. I can’t give them any of this wealth. But what else do I have, Ceria? What else can I honor them with? What else can I return from the dungeon with, but glory?”
He looked at her. Ceria shook her head. Tears were in her eyes as she tightened her grip on her dagger.
“Glory? Is that all, Calruz? We didn’t need glory. What about honor? Wasn’t that why we made our team? Wasn’t that why we fought?”
The Minotaur closed his eyes. Ceria hesitated. Her arm tensed—but she couldn’t do it. Calruz opened his eyes and Ceria shifted her posture.
“I don’t have any honor left. I know that. I lost my team. I fell in with monsters. There’s only glory for me. Wretched glory. But they will speak my name for decades for this if nothing else. The Minotaur who lost his team. The failure who became a traitor. But he conquered the dungeon of Liscor. But he did that.”
“Can’t you just leave? Can’t you just go?”
“Death before dishonor. The Horns do not run. I will not retreat. I will not lose. Not again.”
Calruz turned. Ceria blinked the tears out of her eyes.
“I see. That’s like you. I never could get you to change your mind.”
“True! I’d almost forgotten.”
Calruz threw back his head and laughed. Ceria lunged. Her dagger flashed towards Calruz’s throat. He looked back and flung his arm up. Ceria’s dagger went flying. The half-Elf raised her skeletal hand and the Minotaur caught it. He twisted Ceria’s arm and she knelt.
“The Raskghar can smell everything about you, Ceria. They smelled the dagger on your back and told me. I wish that you hadn’t betrayed me a second time. Nokha was right.”
He twisted Ceria’s arm more. She groaned and knew that if he pressed any harder her arm would snap. Calruz’s eyes were calm as he stood over her.
“I understand. But twice is too many times. Once is too many. I need you. And yet, what should I do with a traitor? Break your arm? Too lenient. Cut one off? Perhaps. But I want my teammates at full strength. Should I sacrifice the Gnoll? The white one? Mrsha?”
“No. No, Calruz. Please don’t.”
The Minotaur knelt. He looked at Ceria’s pained face.
“Give me one reason. One reason why I shouldn’t.”
“The Raskghar will betray you. They’re going to soon anyways.”
Ceria gasped around the pain shooting down her arm. She felt the pressure on her joints lessen a fraction. Calruz stared at her.
“Have you any proof of this?”
“The female—Nokha—talked to me. She was asking about half-Elves. But then she talked about you. She said you were essential because you could think when the moon wasn’t full. But she was lying. I saw it, Calruz.”
The Minotaur frowned.
“That’s hardly evidence. You could be making all this up.”
“I think so. You just tried to kill me.”
Calruz added pressure and Ceria bit back a scream. She could see the Raskghar glancing back and laughing at her. But they couldn’t hear, or so she prayed. She spoke as fast as she could.
“Wait! I’m sure she was lying. I just don’t know why. The awakened performed the ritual, right? Maybe—maybe the ritual does more than just give them strength and intelligence. Maybe it makes them smarter all the time.”
Yes, that was it! It was so obvious! Ceria knew she was right the moment she said it. And suddenly Calruz stopped twisting her arm. The Minotaur let go of Ceria and rocked back on his heels.
Ceria straightened slowly, wincing. She held still because Calruz was still very close to her. The ice dagger was melting on the floor. Even if she’d had it, Ceria wouldn’t have risked another attack. Calruz was fast.
“Why is it impossible? Did the Raskghar ever tell you what the ritual did? Or did they just say it would make them more powerful? I bet they kept bugging you to kidnap the Gnolls, though.”
“They did. They…were very insistent.”
“And why was that? So they could grow an inch or two and gain more muscle? No. No, they have one big weakness. And that’s that they can’t think. But what would the ritual do? Give them intelligence all the time. And if they have that, they don’t need you, do they?”
Calruz looked shaken. The Minotaur stood up and walked past Ceria. The blood was drying, but the smell was still overpowering.
“No. No. They wouldn’t dare. They would never—I am Chieftain! They need me. My expertise, my strategy—that’s irreplaceable even if they kept their intelligence.”
Ceria massaged her arm. She tried to inject as much sarcasm into her voice was possible.
“So? They’ve been watching you. It’s not like they can’t figure things out. They learned to speak in, what, a day? Think they can’t copy you? And who do you think they want as a ruler? A grumpy Minotaur with one arm or one of their own?”
Calruz glanced at his stump of an arm. Then his eyes hardened. He snorted angrily.
“This is all just conjecture. If they dared—if they tried to challenge me—I’ve killed challengers before. The Raskghar are no match for me.”
“Sure you have. But have you fought an awakened Raskghar? With enchanted weapons? I bet you could still win against one. But how about twenty one?”
The Minotaur’s face froze. Ceria bared her teeth. Her arm was a knot of pain, but Calruz’s face was worth it. She could see suspicion and paranoia taking over. Madness.
“They’re planning it. That was what Nokha kept demanding more rituals. Of course! If they keep their powers…and they’re armed. With my artifacts. How could I have been so blind?”
“You need to let go of the Gnolls. The Raskghar will perform as many rituals as they can. Get rid of the awakened. No, just run. Run from the tribe. Go to Liscor. They’ll protect you.”
Calruz was nodding, but he stopped when Ceria suggested running. He growled and shook his head.
“Run? Unacceptable! I won’t run from these usurpers. They want my position? I will kill them. And you will help me. If they are more intelligent, then I only have to wait two more nights to see. And if they do challenge me—I will make an example. Yes. There are twenty one at the moment. Too many. But if I…”
He broke off, thinking, his brows furrowed. Ceria straightened.
“I’ll help you. I don’t want the Gnolls to die. And if I help you, you’ll let them go.”
“I should trust you? After you betrayed me twice?”
Calruz glanced at Ceria with a sane, sardonic look in his eyes. She grimaced.
“No, but do you have a better option? Besides, if I kill you, the Gnolls will die. This way I have a chance to save them.”
“True. True…very well. I agree. I’ll spare the Gnolls if you help me defeat these awakened.”
Calruz nodded decisively. Ceria felt a surge of hope in her chest.
“No more Gnoll sacrifices?”
“No more sacrifices. For now.”
The Minotaur straightened. He glanced at the golden chalice and kicked it aside.
“I must return to my tribe. Follow me. You and I have much to discuss about. Where the Raskghar can’t hear us.”
He gestured and Ceria walked after him. The Minotaur called out an order and the Raskghar on duty straightened. They looked surprised, but after Calruz barked, they jogged ahead of him, leaving the two behind. Calruz and Ceria looked at each other warily. Then they began to walk.
She’d been about to kill him. Ceria still felt the cold of the dagger in her hand. But this—this would do. She was relieved, really. She walked behind Calruz as he led her back towards the camp. After a few minutes, the Minotaur looked back at her.
“That was truly an imbecilic plan, by the way. Attacking me with an ice dagger? I have [Thick Skin] now. And you were always pathetic with edged weapons of any kind.”
“I could have cut you with that dagger. One good thrust to the throat and you’d be dead without a healing potion.”
“Perhaps. And what was your plan afterwards? Kill all the awakened Raskghar and my entire tribe by yourself? And how would that save the Gnolls?”
“I—shut up. I was only thinking about you. I was going to improvise.”
“Hmf. This is why Gerial and I never included you in the strategy meetings, you know.”
“Look how disappointed I am.”
The Minotaur grinned and turned ahead. Ceria smiled, just for an instant. She was going mad too. But she couldn’t help but hope. Hope. It had slowed her thrust towards his throat. In the end she was soft. Illphres would have called that her real weakness.
She couldn’t do anything to stop Calruz. But maybe she could buy some time. And maybe, just maybe—Ceria concentrated. She had to focus hard to form the message with her arm aching, but she did it. Her fingers released another little messenger, this one shaped like a flickering firefly.
Raskghar ritual. May make smart all time. Challenge Calruz maybe. Dangerous. I help. Buy time to save Gnolls.
It fluttered upwards and then vanished. Ceria hoped Pisces would see it. They had another day, maybe two before the Raskghar would make their move. Maybe less time. But if they had to die, at least she’d die on Calruz’s side. She wouldn’t run. Not again. There was some comfort in that.
Pisces saw the bright firefly flicker up as he opened his eyes. He sat up and once and cupped his hand. The firefly flashed shapes and colors at him. The [Necromancer] forced his weary mind to decode the symbols and then threw back his sheets.
Dangerous. I help. Buy time. Ceria had to be insane! But it made sense. Pisces cursed as he realized he should have considered the ramifications of the Raskghar’s ritual from the start. He leapt out of his bed and made for the door, not bothering to dress. He slept in his robes since they couldn’t get dirty or wrinkled.
Pisces clattered downstairs. As usual, he was late. Yvlon and Ksmvr were already up, but they’d apparently decided not to wake him. They sat in absolute silence, their food practically untouched. Pisces didn’t even see the Halfseekers. The adventurers had given up, or resigned themselves. He felt a flash of anger but quelled it as he looked around.
“Where is Erin?”
“Through the door. She was playing chess in here, but she left.”
Yvlon pointed dully towards the open door. Pisces paused as he saw it was attuned to an unfamiliar place. And were those Goblins sitting around fires? Cooking fires?
The Goblin cave. Of course. He strode towards the door. Yvlon stood up, looking grey in the face.
“Pisces, what’s wrong? What are we going to do?”
Pisces gave Yvlon a strange look.
“Rescue Ceria, of course. I just received another message from her. The Raskghar are intending to revolt against Calruz. She will ally with him—prevent any more Gnolls from being sacrificed in the meantime. We have more time.”
“To do what?”
He didn’t know. But giving up was unacceptable, so Pisces hurried through the doorway. The Goblins looked up in alarm as he strode through. They sprang to their feet and some drew weapons.
Pisces…paused. Only now did he realize that the cave did in fact contain a lot of Goblins. Hundreds, in fact. And he had forgotten both his rapier and his bag of holding containing all his bones in his room this time. He held up his hands.
“I ah, come in peace. I just want to see the [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice?”
The Goblins stared at him. They did not look friendly. Nor, now that Pisces thought about it, did they look quite so weak. He could easily imagine taking on a hundred Cave Goblins. With preparation. And his rapier and Bone Horrors deployed. But in close quarters? Without weapons?
And then Pisces heard a voice to his great relief.
“Let him through!”
The Cave Goblins looked at each other and parted reluctantly. Pisces saw a familiar shape sitting on the ground, playing on a chess board. Erin didn’t look up as he approached. She had an audience. All the Goblins not eating and a good deal of them that were sat around her, watching as she played a game of chess against herself on the magical chessboard.
It was an impressive display. Pisces saw Erin’s hands moving rapidly and realized she was playing at a level beyond him, hard as that was to admit. He hurried to her side.
“Erin. Ceria contacted me. The Raskghar are intending to revolt. The ritual makes them too intelligent—they don’t need Calruz anymore. She will ally with him. We have time—I doubt he intends to create more Raskghar who could overthrow him. But they might rebel soon and if they succeed, both she and the Gnolls die.”
“Rebelling Raskghar? Got it.”
Erin glanced up from her chessboard at Pisces and then looked down. He stared at her.
She looked back up.
“We have to do something!”
“I agree. But without a plan to beat the Raskghar, we’re still stuck. Ceria’s still in trouble and so are the Gnolls. Do you have a plan for that?”
Pisces did not. But he had never let that stop him before. He sniffed and drew himself up to his full height, his mind racing for answers.
“We failed last time to defeat the Raskghar. But the plan was not wholly unsound. We must try again. If we could track the Raskghar—or the Goblins could find their camp—”
“They’re going to find it.”
“That’s what they said. They’ll report back before night if they succeed.”
Pisces wavered. He stared at Erin. Why was she still playing chess here?
“Then—that’s excellent news! We must inform the other adventurers!”
“They won’t go for it.”
“Why ever not?”
“They failed last time. And now there are more super-Raskghar. We need a new plan, Pisces. That’s why I’m thinking on it.”
“By playing chess. In a cave full of Goblins.”
“Yup. Helps me think. What are you doing?”
Pisces was thinking. His mind raced as he stared at Erin. The Goblins could find the Raskghar camp again. Well, that was incredible! If they could launch another attack—he tried to imagine the Gold-rank teams fighting another battle. That was the problem, wasn’t it?
“There must be a way to oust the Raskghar or defeat them without a frontal assault.”
“Relying on brute force was a mistake. We should have employed a better tactic.”
“Are you going to keep stating the obvious?”
“The Goblins know where the Raskghar camp is?”
“They can find it. And if they can find it, we need to figure out how to get the Gnolls. That’s why I’m here. And you’re distracting me.”
Erin stared at her chess board. Her brow furrowed. She was relentlessly assaulting the white side’s pieces with the black side’s pawns.
“The thing is I’m no [Strategist]. The thing is that chess isn’t like real life. I keep telling people that. I don’t know why it would help level up a [Strategist]. I think the system’s weird like that. Anyways…chess is all about assaulting enemy formations. Trouble is, you can’t ever win or get to the king in one move. You always have to make the enemy open up their formation. Best you can do is win in two moves. But the enemy has to give you that opening. What’s the opening for the Raskghar? Any ideas?”
Pisces had plenty. Most were idiotic. His mind raced as he took a seat next to Erin, nudging aside Cave Goblins. There had to be something. He had considered the problem before, appealed to his new master for help and been flatly rejected. He had tried his own tactics, but he didn’t have the power. Not yet. His Bone Horrors were too weak, and too inefficient. He had the bones of an Archmage but not a third of the mana supply needed to keep such a creation running. But this—
“We have Gold-rank adventurers. Surely they have a spell or a…a Skill that would aid us.”
“If they do, they haven’t used it. Flamewardens have fire breath. Wings of Pallass can fly. Seborn’s nearly invisible…none of this works against the Raskghar’s artifacts and numbers. Typhenous said he poisoned some, but if he did, they went off and died. And he can’t use the really bad stuff without killing Ceria and the Gnolls instead. I thought about trapping the Raskghar in.”
Erin gave Pisces a blank look.
“With walls. Duh. Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers made the wall in the dungeon there. Pretty strong. It can block all those Shield Spiders from coming out.”
She pointed vaguely at a hole in the wall of the cave. Pisces paused.
“Wait, this cave connects to that part of the dungeon? And the Shield Spider nest—with gargantuan spiders and hundreds of thousands of smaller ones—is right there?”
“Yup. Behind the wall. Actually, there’s a hole in it. The Goblins keep poking the Shield Spiders when they try to come out with sticks. Go look if you’re curious.”
Pisces’ jaw worked for a few moments in silence. Then he decided not to point out the obvious and moved on.
“So your plan would be…?”
“Wall the Raskghar in. Starve them out? If they can make a bunch of walls in secret, the Raskghar are stuck, right? Reinforce the walls with magic…trouble is, I bet they could smash through. And if they couldn’t, it’s a hostage game, right? They’ll eat or kill the Gnolls before giving up. So that’s a bad plan.”
“Perhaps. But the idea has merit.”
The [Necromancer]’s mind was working as hard as it could. He glanced at Erin’s door. It seemed imprudent to connect her inn to a cave filled with Goblins who might be hostile, and the nest of Shield Spiders. He stared at Erin, and then at the door. Then his brows slowly snapped together. In that moment Pisces knew he was a genius. First the Face-Eater Moths, now this? He’d never let Ceria live it down when they rescued her.
“I have it.”
Erin looked up sharply. So did the Cave Goblins. One of them, a Goblin toying with a few pebbles, looked at Pisces. He ignored the Goblins.
“The plan is simple. We need your door, Erin, and a team of adventurers. Multiple teams that will seal off the Raskghar in their lair as you envisioned. But the real plan needs to come from your inn. We will gather every [Mage] in Liscor—every mage in Pallass and Celum if we have to! And we’ll place one of your magic doors in the dungeon. The adventuring teams will carry it there.”
“And do what? Launch another assault? The Raskghar will see it coming, walls or not. They won’t escape, but they could just kill us. If they have time to mount a defense—we only have the adventurers and they’re outnumbered.”
Erin frowned, but Pisces shook his head. He was trembling with his own insight.
“No, there will be no fighting. Yes, an assault is too dangerous with our numbers, especially since the Raskghar will inevitably detect our assault before we can make it into their lair. However, if we were not fighting them—you see, once the adventuring teams have walled off every tunnel around the Raskghar’s camp, we will put the door’s entrance facing the Raskghar camp and submerge the other end of the door in the water.”
The Cave Goblins gasped. The [Innkeeper] looked around and her brows slowly rose.
“Hold on. You mean you want to go Noah’s Ark on them.”
Erin scratched her head.
“Biblical reference, never mind. You’re saying that you want to drown the Raskghar. Put the door in the water and pour through what, enough to drown them?”
“Flood their camp at least. I don’t intend to drown the Gnolls or Ceria, but the water would certainly inhibit them. And if we blocked off all the corridors—”
“They can’t get out. Okay, so they’re facing drowning. Then what?”
Pisces hadn’t gotten that far. He spoke as he thought.
“We do two things. If they are amenable to negotiation, we retrieve Ceria and the Gnolls. If not—we fight. But on our terms. We can arm the Gold-ranks with equipment that will allow them to outmatch the Raskghar. Ksmvr’s Ring of Waterbreathing. And we have a few experts at underwater combat like Seborn.”
“Yeah, but it’s still one against thousands.”
“Thousands who have no experience fighting underwater, I would imagine. And it is possible to use spells like [Chain Lighting] to devastating effect.”
Erin was nodding. But then she frowned.
“True, true. However, all of this puts the Gnolls and Ceria in a lot of danger.”
“It would still give us an advantage!”
Pisces flushed, not wanting to hear criticism. But Erin was staring at her chess board. She moved a bishop and then raised a few fingers, ticking them off.
“A few problems. One, I don’t know how much capacity my door has to transport all that water, every mage in Liscor or not. Water’s heavy and that’s a lot of volume to fill any camp. Two, I don’t know if the walls will hold. How strong can we make them? Three, the Raskghar might detect the Gold-rank teams that have to get into place anyways. Four, we’re risking Ceria and the Gnolls in a hostage situation.”
These were all good points. Pisces inhaled and tried to figure out what to say in response.
“It’s still better than our current plan, which is nonexistent.”
“It is. But it boils down to a fight and the problem is, Pisces, the problem always is that the Raskghar have numbers, position, and hostages. Even a water assault means they’re in position. And they can block those tunnels. Yvlon told me what happened. No. I’m sorry, but your idea won’t work. There are too many moving parts. But I agree we need a surprise attack. My door might help. If we can get one person close…there’s something to that.”
She broke off, frowning. Pisces scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“Someone under [Invisibility], perhaps?”
“No good. The Raskghar are used to fighting invisible monsters. They can’t see a lot of them due to something in the dungeon according to the Redfangs. Hold on…invisible monsters. But they can smell. Damn. So what…?”
Erin frowned and smacked her lips. She looked thirsty, so one of the Goblins wandered off and gave her a cup of water. Erin looked up.
“Oh, thanks Pebblesnatch.”
It didn’t surprise Pisces to learn that Erin knew the little Cave Goblin’s name. The Goblin beamed at Erin as the young woman reached for the cup. Then Erin paused.
“Pebblesnatch. Door. Invisible—wait, that part’s stupid. Surprise attack?”
She looked down.
“Chess. Gotta love formations. Hold on. I think I have an idea. Want to hear it?”
Pisces did. He listened as Erin described her idea. His jaw dropped.
“But that plan is terribly risky! If it went wrong—”
“What’ll happen? We get ambushed and die?”
“Well, it won’t. And it’ll work. The Cave Goblins think it will, right?”
Erin looked at her audience. They exchanged nervous looks. One shrugged, and a lot of them scratched their heads. Pisces was just as dubious.
“Your plan is just as risky as my plan! Erin, you cannot be serious. You’d trust the fates of Ceria and Mrsha—of everyone to—”
He leaned forwards, but Erin wasn’t having it. Her raised finger came up so quickly that it nearly went up Pisces’ nose. He jerked back. Erin stared at him. He had never seen her so serious, so focused.
“It will work, Pisces. It has to. Your plan’s got too many moving parts. It could work, but mine’s got only one moving part and it’s based on something I’m sure about.”
Erin looked around at the staring Goblins, and then back at Pisces.
“Trust. I might not be a [Strategist]. I’m definitely not a [Mage]. I can’t talk about whether this or that will work, but I do know one thing and that’s people. And chess. Two things. And this? I know I can make this work.”
Pisces opened his mouth to protest and Erin stared at him. Their entire history lay between the two of them. Pisces remembered how they’d met. He’d thought she was just a fool and he had been looking for a meal and some coin. He wondered how he’d come here, squatting in a cave, surrounded by Goblins, plotting to save his friend from the dungeon. And then he realized Erin was right.
“You are sure?”
“I am. Do you think it will work?”
Pisces thought. He ran the numbers in his head, tried to calculate the odds. He was no [Strategist], but no matter how he looked at it, the odds were good. If Erin’s plan worked. If it didn’t—Liscor might fall. Of a certainty, he and she and everyone they knew would be dead. But he didn’t say that.
“I think it will work. If you think—”
Erin stood up. Her eyes blazed. She ignored the chess board, which saw the chess pieces sliding around as her mysterious opponent tried to get her to keep playing the game. The Cave Goblins backed away from Erin and the board. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes blazed with confidence. It made Pisces’ heart leap in his chest.
“Find every Gold-rank you can. Stop them from entering the dungeon and get them back if you can manage it! I need to find Zevara. And Ilvriss. And Embria! And maybe Olesm and Venim if I have time. They’re optional.”
She strode out of the cave and into her inn. Pisces stared around at the Cave Goblins. They’d all heard the plan. Any one of them could destroy it. But somehow, some crazy part of him thought they wouldn’t. Not because they were Goblins or hated the Raskghar. But because of how they stared after Erin with the same look that was in Pisces’ eyes.
Trust. And then Pisces turned and ran after Erin. She had a plan. And despite himself, he had to admit.
It was a good one.
She couldn’t remember what Urksh said anymore. She couldn’t remember. It hurt too bad. Mrsha lay in her cage. Her body hurt. The Raskghar had broken something when he’d smacked her onto the floor. Or fractured something. Mrsha remembered Gnolls who’d fractured ribs during a bad hunting accident, and how they’d lain around, groaning, until the tribe could find a healing potion.
It hurt. It hurt so bad. But she wouldn’t cry. If she did, the Raskghar won. She wouldn’t let them see her cry.
Mrsha the Very Brave snuffled and tried not to cry. Ryoka wouldn’t cry. Urksh wouldn’t cry. Erin and Lyonette…probably would cry. But they would tell Mrsha it was okay. But she wouldn’t. Because she was brave. Oh, so brave.
It hurt very bad. Very, very bad. Mrsha curled up and tried not to move. She wished Ryoka were here. Then she wished she wasn’t. Because Ryoka would die. And Mrsha would soon die. And so would Erill and everyone else.
No one was coming to save them. No one could help them. The Raskghar would eat her heart. Mrsha knew this. She lay still as she heard the hunting party return. The awakened rejoiced. She could smell them.
Even though Mrsha was hurt, her nose worked perfectly. Better, since she was closing her eyes. She could smell the Raskghar, what they’d eaten, the monster they’d killed, which tunnels they went down, the wood in her cage, which Goblins had touched the hide, the Gnolls in their cages, the bugs crawling on the floor, Ceria—
Ceria? Mrsha’s head rose a bit. She could smell Ceria nearby. It was faint, but the half-Elf’s scent was there. Not just from where she’d been standing, either. She could smell something of Ceria’s. Only, she was still gone. Mrsha could smell that, too.
But what was smelling of Ceria? Mrsha turned her head. It hurt. She nearly curled up again, but curiosity got the better of her. She snuffled around and then found it. There. A little bit of Ceria. What was—
A little stick had rolled up against Mrsha cage. A little stick. A piece of wood, really. Relatively pointy on one end, and wider on the other end, with a handle worn smooth and wrapped with a bit of leather to grasp. A little stick that the Raskghar had paid no attention to and the Cave Goblins had overlooked. But Mrsha recognized it.
It was Ceria’s wand.
The half-Elf had dropped it when Calruz threw her. It had fallen to the ground and it must have been near Mrsha. The Raskghar had kicked it over and so it had rolled up against her cage. A wand. Mrsha’s eyes widened. She reached out and grabbed it.
A wand. And as Mrsha touched the little thing, she felt the magic in it. And she remembered something. She was Mrsha. A small Gnoll cub with white fur. Doombringer of Gnolls. Mrsha of the Stone Spears. Mrsha the Great and Powerful.
Mrsha the [Druid].
And she had a wand. Mrsha waved it and felt her arm and ribs scream at her. But she mastered the pain. Because she had a wand. She had left her wand—Pisces’ wand—in her room. But this? This was as good as his wand. And Mrsha knew she could cast a spell with it. The problem was—and here the Gnoll’s face fell—she only knew two spells.
[Grow Grass]. And [Wild Growth]. Of the spells Mrsha would have taken into the Raskghar camp, it wouldn’t have been those two. And unfortunately, she knew exactly what those spells did.
[Grow Grass]…grew grass. It could be thick or sparse and Mrsha had even managed to create blue grass, much to Lyonette’s befuddlement. But it was just grass. As for [Wild Growth], well, Mrsha could make her grass really tall…but that was about it. She’d tried using it on the faerie flowers and made one bloom in moments, but just that had exhausted Mrsha.
None of these spells were useful. But still, Mrsha held the wand. She had nothing else to cling to. Just the knowledge of her own magic. She knew a spell. And because she could, because it was the only thing she could do that was her choice, she cast it.
[Grow Grass]. Mrsha pointed at the floor of her cell and cast the spell. It was hard. The wooden bottom of the cell was old and dried and dead. But the spell worked. Slowly, a clump of glistening green sprouted up. Mrsha stared at it. It was the one bright flash of color in the dungeon. It was soft when she patted a trembling paw on it. It was…
Useless. But it made her feel better, so she grew more. Mrsha had no fear of being caught. The grass could disappear as soon as she willed it and last for hours if she wanted to. It had no purpose. But she wanted to grow it, even so. The Gnoll ran her wand across the bars of her cage, growing the grass. Then she shifted and felt a chafing. She looked down.
Her paws were still manacled together. Mrsha had nearly forgotten them, but now as she tried to manipulate her wand, she remembered them. The Watch had even made shackles in Mrsha’s size. With them on, she couldn’t move. She certainly couldn’t run. Mrsha scowled. She tried to manipulate her wand to point at the shackles. No good. In the end she stuck the wand in her mouth and pointed the tip at her shackles.
It was a childish fancy. If the shackles are on me, I’ll cover them with grass! Mrsha had no idea that the other Gnolls were staring at her. They’d smelled the grass and seen what she was doing. Their eyes were round and Mrsha poked her shackles. There was no good spot to put her wand’s tip, so Mrsha jammed it into the locking mechanism. Then she tried to grow grass.
It was hard. Ten times harder than dead wood. At least! But Mrsha was angry. She hated her shackles, hated the cell, hated the Raskghar. And she had time and determination. And she knew it could be done. The memory of the spell’s instructions burned in her mind.
Grass springs forth from soil and wood—even stone.
If it could sprout out of stone, why not metal? Metal was just a type of stone, right? It came from the earth. Mrsha gritted her teeth and pushed.
Grow, the earth calls. And remembers.
It wasn’t as if she was trying to make the shackles explode. It was just grass. Mrsha felt sweat roll down her fur. She was lightheaded. Hungry. But she fought. And she pushed magic into her wand and felt something give. A tuft of grass sprouted from the hole in the shackles where the key should be. Mrsha grinned. A bit of grass! Then she had an idea. She cast [Wild Growth]. How big could she make the grass?
That was an easy spell compared to making grass grow in the shackles. She saw the magic work instantly. The blades of grass grew, intertwining, and then stopped. Mrsha frowned. It was stuck in the shackles! She pushed more magic into her spell. Grow! Grow! She stubbornly fed the spell energy as the shackles resisted the growing grass. And then something gave. Mrsha saw the grass expand suddenly. And she heard a sound.
She heard the metal crack. Mrsha jerked in alarm and the shackles fell from her wrists.
She stared. The shackles were lying on the floor in two pieces. The grass had split the fatigued metal, tearing open a seam. Mrsha felt her arms rise. She stared at her paws and her free feet. She stood up slowly. She blinked—and realized she had an audience.
The Gnolls of Liscor stared at Mrsha, their mouths open as wide as could be. Erill gaped at Mrsha. At her wand. He pointed at it.
“[Mage]? But Gnolls cannot cast magic. We cannot learn it!”
No one had ever told Mrsha that. She looked at her wand, flabbergasted. But Erill’s surprise didn’t last long. He looked around wildly and then motioned at Mrsha.
“Sit, child, sit! The Raskghar will see!”
Alarmed, Mrsha sat. The other Gnolls looked at each other and then carefully faced away from Mrsha. Erill edged closer to her. He whispered so low only she could hear.
“Child, can you cast that spell again?”
Mrsha stared at Erill. She stared down at her shackles. Then she nodded very slowly. Erill raised his shackles. Mrsha aimed and the Gnoll flinched.
Really, all he had to worry about was having grass grow from an orifice. That wasn’t the real problem, anyways. The problem was that Mrsha had never cast a spell at range before. She tried it now.
It was hard. Oh, so hard! The wand was slippery with sweat and Mrsha was tired and hungry. But she kept trying. She knew what Erill wanted. But she couldn’t do it. She was about to give up when she heard a whisper.
“Do it. Please. Cast the spell.”
One of the Gnolls was whispering to her. Mrsha stared in shock at the Gnoll. It was the young female who’d hated Mrsha! But the Gnoll was wide-eyed and trembling now. She was afraid. And Mrsha was afraid.
“Please, child. If you have the strength…”
Erill trailed off. He stared at her.
“No Gnoll has cast magic in living memory. Not [Mage] magic. But you have it. Use your gift. Use it.”
“Yes. Use it.”
The whispers came from the others. Mrsha stared at them. They had hated her. Hated and feared her. Blamed her, even. But whatever feelings of anger she had, whatever reservations vanished as she saw a Raskghar pass by, scratching at his groin. There were more important enemies. She took a deep breath and pushed.
And grass sprang from the keyhole in Erill’s shackles. He jerked, but Mrsha aimed past him. At another Gnoll. She pushed. Erill leaned out of the way and the Gnoll shuffled forwards. More grass. More growing.
It was impossible to get all of the Gnolls free. They knew that and as soon as they realized how hard Mrsha was struggling, Erill told her to free one Gnoll in each cage. She grew grass in all of their locks and then cast [Wild Growth] almost as an afterthought. The shackles snapped, making several Raskghar look up. The Gnolls winced, but the Raskghar, after seeing the Gnolls were still in their cages, growled for silence and looked away.
But now the Gnolls were free. And though only one Gnoll in each cage was free, that meant a lot. They slowly straightened, flexing their arms, and then, at Erill’s urgent instructions, pretended to be shackled again. There were eight free and Mrsha was so tired she had to lie back against her cage.
“Rest, child. Rest! Perfom the spell again when you have strength!”
Erill urged her. Mrsha lay back and rested. Soon she had the energy to try again. It wasn’t as if [Grow Grass] was a taxing spell. The difficulty was convincing the metal to make grass. But the cost wasn’t high to Mrsha. Soon, the little cracking sound of Gnoll shackles breaking was background noise. Perhaps only the Cave Goblins noticed, because they glanced over now and then at the Gnolls, looking confused.
Twelve. Then nineteen. Then twenty three. At twenty seven, Mrsha fainted. She woke up hearing the Gnolls urgently calling her name. She sat up and realized she had a nosebleed. And that she was sprawled out. She hastily pretended to be shackled and heard Erill’s voice.
“We cannot make her do any more spells today. Later! Let her rest! We must find her food!”
“But if the Raskghar try to sacrifice more tonight—”
“We will see. But they may not! If they do—if not, we will do it tomorrow. Tomorrow! Let the child rest!”
Erill turned to the others. Mrsha lay back against her cell. She didn’t expect anything else, but then she heard a whisper.
“Magic. White one, thank you.”
“Thank you. Mrsha.”
Erill looked at Mrsha. He lowered his head, looking ashamed. That made Mrsha’s tail wag just a bit. She’d forgotten the pain. Forgotten her situation. She had done it! She was saving the Gnolls! Over half were freed. And that just left the cage doors. And the cages weren’t that strong. The Raskghar had built them out of wood and hide—not precious metal. They could escape! If they had time, an opening.
And then Calruz returned. The Minotaur stomped into the Raskghar camp, looking more bad-tempered than usual. He snapped at the Raskghar and sent them scampering. Then he stared at the awakened.
“I have decided not to perform any sacrifices tonight.”
The Raskghar stared at him. They looked at Ceria, who was standing behind Calruz. The Gnolls looked up hopefully. Nokha, the female who seemed to lead the Raskghar, growled questioningly.
“Chieftain, why? Awakened are strong. Serve you. Why stop ritual?”
“I will reward those I deem worthy. In my time. It is my decision.”
The Minotaur rounded on Nokha.
“My decision! Or do you question my orders?”
Mrsha, staring out of her cage, wondered if Nokha would. Her ears flattened and the other awakened tensed ever-so-slightly. But then Nokha bowed her head.
“No Chieftain, of course not.”
That was a lie. Mrsha smelled it. And she could see that the Minotaur knew it too. And the Raskghar knew that the Minotaur knew. They glanced at each other and Mrsha felt the unspoken danger in the air as the Raskghar glanced at Ceria. The Gnolls did too and grew very still. All of them were thinking the same thing as Mrsha. Let it not be today. If it was tomorrow, it didn’t matter. The Gnolls would run and they would be safe. If it was tomorrow—
“I want to see your awakened fight. If they perform well, I may, may perform the ritual. But we shall see. Prepare yourselves. We enter the city.”
“The city, Chieftain?”
Nokha clearly didn’t like that. She flicked her gaze to the others uncertainly.
“City is dangerous. City is—”
“These are my orders. Prepare!”
Calruz growled at the Raskghar. The awakened hesitated. One flicked his ear at Nokha. She was staring at Calruz and at Ceria, her eyes narrowed. She didn’t move right away.
“I said, prepare. Are you deaf? Or blind?”
The Minotaur’s eyes started to turn red. He raised his arm and the awakened and all the Raskghar in the room tensed. Mrsha saw Ceria’s eyes go wide. If he struck Nokha—
Goblins, Gnolls, and Raskghar held their breath as Calruz’s fist rose. Nokha was snarling, waiting for the blow to fall. Calruz raised his arm high, looking past Nokha, at the Raskghar behind her. His hand hovered near his head, a fist. Near the handle of his axe. He paused—
And then slowly, lowered his hand. Nokha looked up, surprised. Then she saw the look on Calruz’s face.
Fear. The Minotaur was not furious. The red in his eyes slowly faded. His arm lowered and he stared past Nokha. Past the Raskghar. At an entrance to the camp. At something poking out around the doorway. Slowly, all of the Raskghar turned. And they froze too.
A head stared into the Raskghar camp. A head. On a stick. A little Cave Goblin’s head stared blankly at the assembled Raskghar and Calruz. Mrsha, staring at it, felt her hair stand on end.
“What is that?”
Ceria’s whisper was completely audible throughout the camp. Calruz backed up slowly. He whispered.
The Raskghar backed up as one. Calruz turned. Ceria was opening her mouth. And her hand was raised. He grabbed her, covering her mouth with one arm and yanking her hand away.
The Minotaur’s voice was a bare whisper. The Raskghar looked at each other and then rushed. Not for the exits, but for the cages. The Gnoll cages. Mrsha saw them rush at her and nearly ran. The Gnolls froze as the Raskghar opened their cages. They looked at Elirr. He shook his head just once before the Raskghar were inside. They didn’t seize the Gnolls, though. Instead, to Mrsha’s bewilderment, the Raskghar immediately covered the Gnoll’s mouths!
To prevent them from making a sound. The Raskghar hadn’t noticed some of the Gnolls were free. They covered the Gnoll’s mouths and pressed their arms into their throats, practically choking the Gnolls so they couldn’t speak. The Raskghar stared at the entrance to the room. Mrsha held very, very still, but none of the Raskghar moved towards her. Why?
Cave Goblins stood together with the Raskghar. They stared at the head on the stick. It was just staring. Eyes blank, mouth a bit open. A Cave Goblins’ head. And then another head appeared. A Raskghar’s head, mounted on another stick. It stared ahead.
No one moved. That seemed to be what the Raskghar wanted. They froze, holding the Gnolls. Stiff as statues. Mrsha didn’t understand what they were afraid of, but she sensed the danger. If they moved, if they made sound, whatever was holding the sticks would come out. And it was terrible, she had no doubt.
A minute passed like that. Then five. A third head joined the other two, another Raskghar, and then a fourth. All the heads looked…fresh. Very fresh. None of the Raskghar or Goblins moved. Calruz held Ceria and they stared at the heads. Waiting for whatever was there to go away.
No one could speak. The Gnolls were being held silent, and the Cave Goblins and Raskghar held deathly still as the heads on the sticks rotated left and right in a grotesque parody of sight. Mrsha, silent, saw the Raskghar beginning to relax. Maybe this was a good sign? One of the awakened, Nokha herself, was holding Erill. She shifted as she relaxed. Her arm jostled Erill’s shackles. And they came apart.
For one second Mrsha thought Nokha wouldn’t notice. Erill scrambled to put the pieces together. The Raskghar shifted, looked down, and froze. She stared at the broken shackles. Then she stared at Erill. The old Gnoll’s eyes were wide. The other Raskghar looked disbelieving, and then they noticed that half the Gnoll’s shackles were undone too. They froze, and then changed their grips. Now the Gnolls were held tight, with no chance of escape.
Mrsha felt despair enter her. She stared helplessly at Erill, who was struggling now, to speak or move. He could do neither. Nokha was snarling, and her grip on Erill was tightening. He looked past her, at Mrsha, desperately. She saw the knowledge in his eyes. Death. Death and doom. They’d tried so hard, she’d tried so hard. But it was all for naught.
It wasn’t fair. Mrsha wanted to cry. She felt tears leaking from her eyes and swiped at them. She wanted to say something. Why was it not fair? But she had no voice. No voice. She stared at the heads on a stick. She wished the monster would come in and devour them all. Then the Raskghar would be dead. She looked at Erill. And then her eyes widened.
None of the Raskghar had bothered with Mrsha. Because they’d heard Ceria. Mrsha was mute. But that was a part truth. A lie. And as Erill stared despairingly at Mrsha, he realized the same thing. Mrsha sat up. She let the shackles fall. They clanged noisily and the Raskghar looked over. They growled in fury and one came towards the cage to stop Mrsha from making a noise. But the Raskghar was more concerned with keeping his eyes on the heads on sticks, which had turned towards the noise.
And Erill was looking at Mrsha. Just looking. She locked eyes with him. Mrsha heard a voice, from Vakk. She heard his cry.
“Let it be an end to all of us! Gnolls, the cursed Raskghar! Bring death, Doombringer! Use your power and destroy these ancient monsters!”
He had told Mrsha to end the Raskghar. As if she had the power to cause this. As if this was her fault. Well, Mrsha had no power. None that she could control. But she did have one thing. And this was right. Let there be an end. To the Raskghar, to their tribe, to all the misery and hate of it all. Mrsha saw Erill nod. So she sat back on her haunches. The Raskghar was fumbling with the lock, cursing quietly. Too late.
Mrsha looked around, at Ceria, at Calruz, at the Gnoll and Raskghar. She sat back. The small Gnoll drew in all the air in the world and held it, her lungs bursting for one second. Then she threw back her head and howled.
The sound was piercing, loud, pure. It was a howl of grief, of rage, of loss. It was a call to battle, of warning. It was the loudest sound in the world and it echoed in the room the Raskghar had called home. The heads on the stick had been retreating, pulling back. But as the howl pierced the silence of the dungeon, it woke monsters from their slumber, attracted the attention of what held the heads on a stick, and the ears of the Hobgoblins walking stealthily down a corridor.
And then the heads on a stick appeared. One by one. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. They popped out past the edge of the door frame and stared. The blank eyes of the dead Goblins and Raskghar looked at Mrsha. Straight at her. And then something came around the edge of the door.
The world went black. Mrsha found herself lying on the ground. She didn’t know what happened, but she couldn’t get up. She was paralyzed. From her angle on the floor she could see Raskghar slumped over, and Cave Goblins. And the Gnolls and Calruz and Ceria too. They all lay on the ground, eyes wide, staring, helpless.
And something walked into the room. It was tall, wide. A torso of brown without a head. Two staring dark sockets. Two huge clawed hands which each held four heads on a stick. And a bloody bag hanging from its arm. The thing had a hide of brown skin, but it looked—wrong. Parts of it looked lumpy, as if it had been bigger. But in places the hide had been burnt away, revealing yellow innards or bone. The thing looked damaged. But that just made it more terrible.
Snatcher entered the Raskghar camp, looking around. Holding the bag of heads. It stared at Mrsha. It walked forwards. The Raskghar lay helpless. The Gnolls lay helpless. Mrsha lay on the ground, her wand inches from her paw. She couldn’t move. Snatcher appeared by her cage. He moved incredibly fast, or she’d passed out for a moment. He bent down and looked at her, two hollow eye sockets. Mrsha bared her teeth. It was all she could do.
And then she heard a voice. It was higher-pitched than normal, desperate, but oh, it was glorious.
“Back away from Mrsha, Snatcher. And look this way.”
Snatcher turned. A piece of ice flew and shattered on its face. The thing didn’t recoil. It stood very still. Ceria, panting, aimed her skeletal hand again. Another [Ice Spike] shot across the room and shattered as it struck Facestealer’s front. Again, the monster didn’t respond. It seemed surprised. It shuffled forwards, and Ceria raised her hand.
She shot five [Ice Spikes] at once. The five pieces of ice shot at Facestealer. Four broke on his brown hide. The fifth struck the yellow flesh exposed by his missing skin. And drew blood. Snatcher had no head to turn, so he couldn’t look down at the black blood running from his side. But he clearly felt it. Mrsha felt her arms and paws move. She scrambled up. Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed.
The Gnolls were getting up. The Raskghar were trying to rise, but they were both equally weak. Mrsha grabbed Ceria’s wand and threw herself against the bars of the cage. Calruz was roaring. Cave Goblins and Raskghar were trying to surround Facestealer. It swung its arms and the Goblins and Raskghar collapsed, paralyzed again. Ceria staggered, but she didn’t fall. She raised her hand and shot another projectile of ice at Facestealer, striking its exposed parts.
And the Gnolls were on their feet. Erill kicked Nokha as he rammed past her. He was out of his cage! More Gnolls were running, trying to drag those with shackles still on with them. Others just ran. The Raskghar were concerned with Facestealer. Mrsha ran about her cage, trying to force the bars open. But she was too weak! She saw the Gnolls running—and then saw a shape run at her.
Erill smashed into her cage. He seized the wooden bars and tore them apart with desperate strength. He reached inside and Mrsha leapt up. The Gnoll grabbed her as Nokha and the other Raskghar rose. The awakened Raskghar pointed at the two.
“Fight off Snatcher! To me!”
Calruz roared as he tried to charge Facestealer with a body that only half-worked. Erill fled with Mrsha in his arms. Behind him, Nokha and several awakened Raskghar gave chase. Erill panted, his lungs heaving as he tried to run. He dashed out of one of the camp entrances, running down the corridor as fast as he could as the Raskghar pursued. Mrsha clung to him.
They would probably die. They would probably be captured. But for one glorious moment, oh for one second, they were free. Erill looked down at Mrsha. He smiled.
It was the same word. But somehow it meant something different when he said it. Mrsha smiled. And then she howled again. Home. She called for home and the Gnolls howled with her. They were going home.
One way or another.