Interlude – Krshia

Krshia Silverfang knew as she woke up that something was not right in Liscor. She could feel it, as if her city had a pulse around her. And it was her city. She had lived in it for ten years and made it her home. From wandering the plains as most Gnolls did in tribes, she had come to this place of stone and metal to be a City Gnoll, a term used sometimes with pity or disdain. Or confusion. But then again, the Gnolls of the city didn’t see it that way. And Krshia had not abandoned her tribe to come here.

Her city. Krshia frowned as she rolled out of her bed, tossing off the thin sheets that were barely necessary given the fur covering her body. Her sense of Liscor wasn’t just intuition. She could hear four times better than a Human or Drake and it was too quiet in the morning.

Normally there would be sound as people rose in the streets, even at the early hour. Conversation floating through Krshia’s windows, the sound of [Guardsmen] chattering on patrol, or at the very least, the sound of children who didn’t dread the mornings like grumpy adults. But today? Nothing.

No, barely something. Krshia heard footsteps and low voices. Someone was walking past her apartment. Krshia sniffed—it was a Drake, male, moving quickly. And she caught a whiff that told her a pair of Gnolls, father and son, were walking down the street somewhere else. People were up. But they were quiet. Nervous. She could smell that.

Krshia knew why. It was the news of the Goblin Lord. And the Humans. It felt like the Goblins had been on the tip of everyone’s tongues for months now, but the threat had fallen from everyone’s minds as the Goblins passed by Liscor and became a Human issue. Now?

He was coming. Krshia sat on her bed and shivered, her hair standing up. They were coming. The Humans were pushing the Goblins towards Liscor and the city would be under siege in a matter of days. Everyone knew it. Worse, something had happened during the night. Something bad.

Near midnight yesterday, Krshia had woken up. She’d heard an alarm was sound on Liscor’s walls, and listened carefully to what they told her. Four short blasts of a horn, a warning that told everyone that there was danger spotted. It had woken Krshia from her sleep obviously; you didn’t sleep through an alarm like that. Maybe some Drakes living in the center of the city could, but a Gnoll would have to be a particularly deep sleeper to miss that sound in the night.

Krshia rubbed her face as she recalled sitting with bow and arrows in her room, debating whether it was wise to go out and find what was going on. They hadn’t blown the urgent notes that warned of an attack. So she and the anxious citizens had waited until they heard an all-clear blown not an hour later. Then they’d gone to sleep.

“But what happened? Was it just a false alarm or something deeper? That is the question, yes?”

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] wearily shook her head. She’d have to find out. That was a first priority for the day. Well, that and eating. So she got up, resenting how her bones creaked and she felt tired. What had happened to the young female Gnoll who could roll out of bed after four hours and go hunting with her tribe?

“She rolled out of bed into a patch of nettles too many times.”

Grumbling, Krshia walked out of her bedroom and into the living room. She lived in a modest apartment, located in a nice, Gnoll-filled street. But hardly large enough for more than her and perhaps a guest. Krshia had no partner and so she had chosen this small place. It was a nice one despite having only four rooms. Bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen.

The living room was by far the largest as Krshia often had guests over. She had two couches, a nice sitting table, and various rugs, a few stools, a table with a few Gnollish decorations—pots, a tapestry on the wall, and an old hunting bow—and a pile of bandages sitting in a bucket. Krshia stopped when she saw them, as she did every time. She stared at the bandages and rubbed at her eyes.

“I should put them away.”

She should. They didn’t belong there. But Krshia didn’t. She looked at the bandages and sniffed. There was almost no trace of him in the room, but from the couch she caught the faintest scent. Nostalgia, bitter memory. Regret. Krshia caught the scent of her deceased nephew, Brunkr, for just a moment. Then it was gone. She stared at the bandages and shook her head.

“Nephew. Ah, what will I say to your mother when I see her again?”

The bandages didn’t respond. Krshia looked at them and then went into her small kitchen. And she knew the bandages and bucket would stay another day.

This is how Krshia the Gnoll started her day. She rattled a tea kettle and found it still had water in it. Like all citizens of Liscor not wealthy enough to magically procure their water, Krshia kept a small supply of water in her home for cooking, washing, and drinking and had to refill it at a well every day. Or, if it was the rainy season, stick a bucket out the window and wait for ten seconds.

But the rain had stopped. And it had stopped for good; Krshia couldn’t smell as much humidity in the air. Normally she would be relieved, but the entire reason the Humans were coming here was because the rain was stopping—

“No. Stop worrying, Krshia. You can worry later, but breakfast comes first.”

Krshia tapped her head firmly with one paw. She was no good without food in her. Or tea. She bent over her stove, adding charcoal and kindling. Krshia nearly went for her flint and steel when she recalled the little box of matches. Octavia’s match sparked to life in a moment and Krshia grinned as she stared at the little flame. She tossed it into her stove and it was soon burning merrily.

In minutes, the water was hot and Krshia poured herself a cup and found one of the reusable, dried up balls of herbs and spices that made the strong Gnoll tea she liked so much. She dipped it into her mug, watching the steam rise up and blinking a few times, still not quite awake.

Some days she wished she had something stronger than tea. Coffee had yet to be discovered in her world, if it even existed, but in their infrequent talks about Erin’s home, the young woman had told Krshia about the stuff. Somehow, knowing there was a drink that would magically wake Krshia up (without actually having any magic in it), was worse than living a life in ignorance of it.

“I must ask her about this coffee soon. She said it is grown from beans. Can we grow such beans in Liscor? Where might they be found? It would sell very well, I think. Better than alchemical goods.”

Stamina potions and wake-up tonics did work, but they exacted a different sort of toll on the body than caffeine. And it was a costly and foolish thing to become reliant on them. So Krshia sipped her tea and began to make breakfast. That was even quicker; she got out a jar filled with a thick pork paste made of rendered fat and pork, spices, milk, and onions. It was known as silkap, a traditional dish from Gnoll tribes.

It was a Gnollish favorite and Krshia’s go-to when she was in a hurry for breakfast. The mixture kept for a long time and it went well with most things. In this case, some sliced bread which Krshia warmed over the stove for a few seconds. The Gnoll smiled as she looked at the thick loaf of rye bread. It had risen well and it smelled delicious. The [Baker] she’d bought it from had several Skills that made his bread wonderful.

The only bread Krshia had seen that was as good was the stuff Erin had made—it seemed to rise like magic despite the young woman not having nearly as many Skills. And she hadn’t told Krshia how she’d done it. Yet.

“Lovely bread. Jeicle did good work. And he sold it to me cheap, yes? I should buy from him more often now that I can get better bread for less.”

Krshia thought of that as she found a knife to spread the pork paste with. Her new Skills. Her new class, come to that! She was now a [Royal Shopkeeper]. Her. Krshia. Thanks to Lyonette, she might have been the first Gnoll in history to have such a class. And it wasn’t just a title to be proud about either.

As a [Royal Shopkeeper], she now had access to new Skills that no one else in Liscor would have. For now, Krshia had only two of them: [Imperial Appraiser], a Skill which had replaced her [Quality Scent] Skill, and [Silvertouched Wares], which she had earned only a few days ago when she’d leveled up.

It was an incredible amount of levels and Skills to gain in such a short amount of time, especially at Krshia’s age. Krshia hadn’t leveled in her [Shopkeeper] class for over a year. Then her shop had exploded and she’d been practically destitute. After that…well, she’d struggled, and her levels had risen accordingly.

“New classes and starting over are keys to leveling, hrm? It is good, though I would prefer not to have lost all my coin and the spellbooks for a few levels.”

Still, Krshia had to admit that the new Skills made a huge difference. With her new ability to tell almost instantly what flaws or hidden traits most mundane objects had, she could buy only the best for her shop. But it was [Silvertouched Wares] that really made a difference. Krshia had wondered what the Skill did until she realized that every time she bought something, she seemed to get more than what she’d ordered, or better quality.

It was as if Krshia had a single silver coin’s worth more money to spend on buying…anything.

Thicker cuts of meat. Higher quality nails in bulk shipments. One less bruise on a piece of fruit, or a garlic bulb plumper than the rest. On every deal. The silver coin’s bonus was applied to every transaction Krshia handled, each time, without her having to activate the Skill.

One silver coin wasn’t a lot. But it added up with how much Krshia bought and sold each day. It probably wasn’t even one silver coin’s worth, honestly. Maybe it was only a few copper coins to make her goods that much better. But it was an advantage and in the duels of [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants], it was a powerful Skill. And unheard of!

A [Merchant] with [Expert Bartering] could leave you penniless…but it was still possible to just refuse to deal with them if you knew they had that Skill, or get something out of a deal if you had your wits about you. But this? This was unavoidable, a passive markup on everything Krshia made.

She loved it. Krshia hummed as she spread the thick pork paste on a piece of fresh bread and took a bite. Her mouth was filled with flavor, sharp and strong from the paste and a warm, chewy goodness from the bread. Knowing she’d gotten the bread for cheap just added an additional bit of zest to her meal.

That was how Krshia liked her breakfast. Rich, filling, and meaty. The Gnoll woman had three more big slices of bread, with as much silkap on it as she could fit onto each slice. She had two cups of water, and then she was done with breakfast and feeling a lot more ready for the day.

Gnolls didn’t believe in eating salads for breakfast. It was more than just a cultural thing. While Humans and half-Elves and…Centaurs all ate more plant-based diets, Gnolls and Drakes both ate a lot more meat than their Humans counterparts. They had to. Their ancestors had lived exclusively on meat diets and while both species had adapted over millennia to eat grains and fruits and so on, too much of that wasn’t good for them. They needed meat, hence the emphasis on herding and fishing around Liscor.

It was always a race to stock up Liscor’s food stores. In the spring when [Shepherds] had to pen up their flocks on the hilltops or go north or south and when [Farmers] were raising a new group of animals for slaughter, fishing provided Liscor’s needs. The [Fishers] would haul in prodigious amounts of lake food, a good portion of which would be stored and preserved via spell or salt to last Liscor for months. By then, herd animals would supplement the food needs of Liscor, but if a bad season hit at any time of the year, meat became a lot more expensive.

Krshia had lived through some bad years when all most Gnoll families could afford was a bit of meat to go with potatoes or grain. It wasn’t good for them, or for Drakes. She’d seen too many of her people get bloated and tired from grain or plant-only diets, but that was what happened when you lived in a city that could get cut off from the world like Liscor. It was a trading hub, but the rains dictated when the trading occurred and the goods that flowed from Humans to Drake lands weren’t usually bulk shipments of produce. Liscor could be rich in goods, but poor in foodstuffs.

Erin’s magic door would change all that. Now Liscor could import goods if it had to. Yes, the Merchant’s Guild didn’t like it and Liscor had agreed ‘not to’, as had Erin. But come the first hunger pangs from lack of meat and Krshia was sure things would change.

“Of course, we send soldiers through the door now, and that was what many worried about, wasn’t it? If her door becomes a tool of war, will Erin be seen as taking sides? How long until someone claims the door from her? Or will Liscor not give it back?”

Krshia frowned as she put on her clothes over her breast band and loincloth. She knew Pallassian soldiers had been marching into Liscor yesterday; she’d seen the yellow armor and it was the talk of the city. How many more would come through today? And what had the alarm in the night been about?

Another day, another crisis. Before Krshia went to her shop to set up, she had to know what had passed in the night. Yesterday had been tense. News of the attack on Liscor had spread like wildfire. At first the Watch had tried to contain the news, but too many [Guardsmen] had spoken of it and when the [Messaged] spells had begun flying across the continent…

Krshia left her apartment, leaving the door unlocked. She had no fear it would be burgled—she looked up to a neighboring apartment and nodded slightly. She saw a shape in the windows nod back. Her neighbor, an old Gnoll [Weaver] was watching her apartment, as were the other Gnolls in the area.

No [Thief] would get close to her apartment without being spotted and if they tried to break in, well, if the Watch didn’t get there in time they would be out of luck. Miss Zailky was old, but she could still point and shoot the crossbow she owned and her aim was better than Krshia’s.

Reassured her home and the magic book Ryoka had given her was safe, Krshia began her day by sniffing the air and trying to remember where she’d find her first informant. She had to know what had passed on the walls last night and she very much doubted Watch Captain Zevara would answer her if she strode in and demanded to know what had happened. The same with Olesm, Wall Lord Ilvriss or the new Wing Commander Embria. Krshia was an ordinary citizen to them, for all she was important among Liscor’s Gnolls. She wasn’t Erin.

But she did have access to information. Krshia headed towards the western gates, where she knew [Guardswomen] would be stationed. The gates were closed, obviously, to keep the water from flooding the city, but someone had to be stationed there regardless. Drakes loved their little rules. And as luck would have it, Krshia saw a furry head in a helmet. Perfect. If a Drake had been on duty she’d have to have gone to the other three gates, or find someone on patrol.

“Tkrn.”

The Gnoll on duty jumped guiltily. He’d been leaning on his spear and very obviously trying to take a nap. He whirled, ears flattening along his head and tail drooping, probably afraid a Senior Guardswoman or Zevara was about to chew him out. He saw it was Krshia and groaned.

“Oh, Aunt. I’m uh, on duty, so I cannot talk. If you want to chat, I’m sure I could talk later, after duty—”

“What happened last night, Tkrn? What were the horns about?”

Krshia did not beat about the bush. She folded her arms and stared at Tkrn. He was young and had grown up in Liscor. He whined unhappily as he shifted his grip on his spear.

“Aunt Krshia, Watch Captain Zevara threatened to suspend any [Guardsman] who talks, and she’s my superior—”

He yelped and flinched as Krshia grabbed one of his ears between her fingers.

“And I am your aunt, yes? Speak up! What happened, Tkrn? Tell me quickly, and with no exaggerations?”

The Gnoll winced and looked around, but eventually whispered quickly to Krshia.

“Someone stole the door in Erin’s inn in the middle of the night!”

What?

Krshia let go of Tkrn and recoiled in shock. Someone had taken the door? Tkrn went on hurriedly.

“It was recovered though! The Watch sent our pursuers and we thought they would be too late, even with Relc. But then we found the bodies. Humans, [Rogues] most like, were slaughtered on the road north. By Goblins. And the door was left behind! We have recovered it and put it in the inn again, but—Aunt, the thieves broke the connection to Pallass.”

“Explain.”

Tkrn glanced over Krshia’s shoulder and lowered his voice further so that only the Gnolls could hear.

“I do not know exactly how it works, but I heard Olesm talking to Zevara. They found a—a broken mana stone. It is this small thing that—”

“I know what it is. What did Olesm say?”

“He said—without the mana stone, Pallass cannot send reinforcements directly. They will march an army north, but it will most likely not get here before the Humans and Goblins.”

Tkrn’s ears went flat. Krshia felt a jolt of fear run through her heart. She looked at Tkrn. The Gnoll stared at her, his tail lowered in fear and then turned and pretended to be watching the gate. Krshia stepped away from him and tried to keep her own tail from doing the same.

They’d broken the door’s connection to Pallass? And someone—the Humans, no doubt—had tried to make off with the door itself! They’d failed, but without a link to Pallass—that was bad. Beyond bad, in fact.

“What will happen next, Aunt? Olesm and Zevara are at the inn, but they are worried. What will Liscor do now?”

Tkrn whispered with his back to Krshia. She didn’t know. She looked around, shaking her head.

“I—I will go to the inn and see what they say. But I must open my shop, first. People will be hungry and need goods as with every other day. But—I will not work for too long. I will go to the inn after an hour, and speak with Lyonette and get Mrsha. I have business with her. Then, I think, we must call a meeting.”

Tkrn looked over his shoulder at Krshia.

“Oh. The curs—”

“Not cursed!”

Krshia glared at Tkrn, forgetting her fear for a second. The Gnoll flinched.

“But Aunt, the others said—”

She slapped him on the back of the head. Tkrn yelped.

“Do you listen to what other people say instead of thinking all the time, Tkrn, you fool, you? I am telling you that she is not cursed, and not a bringer of doom or woe. She is a young child. Nothing more. If I hear you repeat such nonsense again—”

The Gnoll [Guardsman] yelped and tried to shield himself as Krshia harangued him for a minute, then watched as she turned and strode away. He shook his head and watched Krshia striding away. She looked unafraid, but Tkrn wasn’t reassured. He had smelled the fear on her just as he had on Olesm and Zevara. And yes, he had orders not to reveal what he’d seen, but he’d talked to Krshia, hadn’t he? He was sure news was already spreading throughout the city.

So was Krshia. She strode towards Market Street, her thoughts in a whirl. Cursed child. Raskghar. Liscor’s dungeon. Goblin Lord. And now the Human army. It was all so much to deal with. She got to the familiar street full of street vendors and her small stall. It was already set up, the goods packed and waiting to be put on display.

The hour was still early, so the night [Guardswoman], a Drake, was just finishing her shift and being replaced. Normally Market Street would be filled with [Shopkeepers] and [Vendors] setting up and customers already stopping by, but the place was practically deserted, of both shopkeepers and customers. People were hearing the word about what had happened and staying indoors.

Still, that didn’t mean she had to follow suit. Krshia opened her stall, sweeping it clean and then placing some goods on the counter, adjusting one of her displays, checking her sign, and waited. She did not have to wait long. The first customers who came down the street were habitual early risers, people desperate for one good or another, or busybodies. Krshia knew them all and called out to them.

“Miss Ossi, good morning! Care to shop? I will only be open for an hour this morning, so if you have any orders, place them now, yes? Mister Vallissil, do you need a healing potion for that cut on your arm? I have a new shipment from Celum! A Stitchworks classic!”

Hers was the only loud voice on the entire street. Drakes and Gnolls came over, checking out Krshia’s goods, greeting her warily, asking her about prices and the news. Especially the news. Krshia spoke as she exchanged goods for coin or wrote down orders to be fulfilled later.

“Miss Krshia, did you hear about what happened? I woke up with the horns, but I thought it was nothing. But I heard that something happened to the magic door. You know, the one in the crazy Human girl’s inn? The Wandering Inn?”

“I heard the same things. But the door is back, or so I hear.”

The Drake with a cut on his arm shivered as he paid for a weak healing potion.

“Not in one piece. It was damaged by Human saboteurs. The connection to Pallass is gone. All the soldiers are cut off and we’re alone.”

The other customers muttered uneasily. One of them, a Drake with a purse and speckled blue and yellow scales, looked nervous. She glanced over her shoulder as her tail lashed the ground.

“Maybe it’s time to go. My husband has been talking about it. We’ve lived here for sixteen years and the Antinium were one thing. You hardly notice them—well, up till now, and it was reassuring having them here sometimes. But this? Krshia, this is war.

“It may be. But leaving the city now is premature, yes?”

Krshia raised her eyebrows disbelievingly while her heart sank. The Drake shook her head.

“You think so? The Goblins and Humans are days away at best! I thought we could go through to Pallass if something went wrong or they’d send a huge army through the door, but now—if we’re going it has to be right when the waters fall.”

“You don’t mean leave, Miss Ossi. Not Liscor!”

Vallissil turned to the other Drake, looking stunned. The Drake woman turned her head away.

“I don’t want to abandon the city. But I’ve heard people saying that there’s no way Liscor will be able to hold out against two armies. And that was before the connection to Pallass vanished. I have a newborn daughter and a son. I…this isn’t like the Necromancer. The army’s not here—most of them—and they have trebuchets.”

“That’s just a rumor—”

“It’s a fact! My husband heard from his friend that our [Strategist] was talking about it.”

“Who? Olesm Swifttail? He’s young! He doesn’t know—”

The male Drake cut off as another Drake woman leaned around him.

“Does your family have any plans? How’ll you go south?”

Ossi hesitated.

“We don’t know. We’d have to hire a wagon and cross the Floodplains, but all that mud…”

“It would be safer in numbers. If a lot of us went—not saying we would, but if we were going, it would be tomorrow or the day after, right? The waters are lowering.”

“You can’t be serious! Liscor won’t fall—”

“In that case, why did Olesm call for help? Did you hear? He strode into Pallass and demanded reinforcements!”

“So they’re coming.”

“In time?”

“Leaving with my family would mean abandoning our business and home. But if it’s that or dying when the Goblins breach the walls—”

“Trebuchets—”

“That damn Human, Tyrion Veltras and his lot—”

Krshia listened to the babble of voices as she did business mechanically, then just leaned on her counter and listened to people talk. Her heart sank further. This was the first time she’d heard this kind of discussion. Leaving Liscor? The people were truly frightened to think of such a thing.

But no wonder. This situation was unprecedented in scale. Monsters were a fact of life. Undead attacks, the dungeon appearing…all that was something you lived with. But war? Enemy armies? When those threatened, that was when you did start counting your coins and looking to the gates. It wasn’t treachery and it wasn’t cowardice. It was just that people didn’t want to die.

“Honored Krshia.”

One of her customers, a Gnoll, muttered under his breath as the discussion became a hypothetical ‘what if’ about fleeing from Liscor and where they’d all go. Krshia glanced up and saw an older male Gnoll looking at her. He muttered under his breath as he inspected a set of writing quills.

“Honored Beilmark has requested us to call a meeting with all the representatives. She says the news is urgent.”

Krshia nodded. She leaned forwards and under the pretext of showing the Gnoll her quills, spoke quietly.

“Does she know anything more than this?”

“She knows numbers and details. The other representatives have agreed. Honored Elirr has volunteered his home for the meeting.”

“I will go.”

The Gnoll nodded. He would spread the word further and tell others.

“We will meet at Elirr’s shop then, at midday. It is time for it too; many families are discussing fleeing the city tomorrow when the waters lower. Just discussing, and not seriously, but if we must come to a decision…”

He glanced over his shoulder. The Drakes were standing and talking. They weren’t committed. They were finding every reason not to go. Wyvern attacks, having to pass through the Blood Fields which would be waking up, leaving everything behind…but they were talking about it. Krshia nodded.

“I will be there. But I go to The Wandering Inn now. To hear what may be heard. And to pick up the Mrsha child, yes?”

“Now?”

The Gnoll raised his eyebrows. Krshia shrugged.

“Her abilities must be seen and discussed. It is not as pressing as this attack, but I have not had the opportunity to find out what she knows until today. If Honored Elirr is willing, please send him to meet us. It will not take more than an hour, and he knows…”

She trailed off meaningfully. The Gnoll nodded.

“I will pass the word on. Also—how much for these quills? I need new ones.”

“Take them. I’m closing shop. Dear customers! Make any final purchase, because I am closing, and I do not know if I will reopen my shop today, yes?”

Krshia raised her voice. She closed six more hurried purchases and packed her coins away in her belt pouch before sweeping her goods back into their bins and locking them. Krshia took one more look around Market Street before she left. A few more [Shopkeepers] were open, but they were hardly doing business.

They were talking with their customers and looked as worried as anyone else. Krshia shook her head and hurried down the street. Not towards her apartment, but to the eastern gate. Up to the battlements, and, after speaking with a [Guardsman] on duty, down one of the ladders and onto a bridge leading eastern and north. To an inn on a hill.

No rain fell on Krshia as she walked across the bridge and stared down at the hills and valleys submerged in muddy water. The rains had stopped and the water level was lowering. It was almost six feet lower now, so the bridge to Erin’s inn was in fact, an actual bridge now rather than one that rested just above the waterline. Already Krshia could see mud and bits of grass dotting the hills where the water level had receded.

“Almost enough to walk on, yes? Almost. But slippery and foul-smelling. Not good for Gnolls.”

She shook her head, imagining getting that much mud out of her fur. In a day, perhaps less, the water level would be low enough for everyone to move about the Floodplains, albeit in the mud. The water would stay in the valleys for much longer, but in most places it would drain into the earth.

Krshia didn’t know why it was so quick, but she had heard rumors that the earth under Liscor was porous, and thus allowed great quantities of water to be sucked down the earth to…somewhere. Where did the water go? And did the Antinium have anything to do with how fast it drained?

It didn’t matter. Right now it was possible to move from hilltop to hilltop if you had to. Since Krshia did not have to and since she didn’t relish slipping by accident and falling into the water where large fish were still plentiful, she walked across the bridge to The Wandering Inn.

The inn was already crowded when Krshia arrived, and very few of the people inside were guests. A few adventuring teams were sitting at the table, but the inn was mainly occupied with the City Watch and Liscor’s soldiers. They were standing about, some eating, but most looking wary.

Or ashamed. Krshia caught a strong whiff of that from a [Captain] and his [Soldiers] who were being chewed out by Wing Commander Embria in one corner of the inn. But her attention went instantly to the magic door, or where it usually was.

It was there still. Only it looked like it had been moved slightly from where it had been. A group of Gnolls and Drakes stood in front of it with three [Mages], all from Liscor’s Mage’s guild, arguing with Pisces and Typhenous.

Watch Commander Zevara and Olesm were standing around the restored door, looking grim. Krshia took a seat at a table and listened. There were a lot of conversations to filter out, but she could hear interesting snippets from all sides.

“—thick-headed idiots! How did you not resist a [Sleep] spell? How did you miss the [Mage] who cast it? I should tie rocks to all of your tails and toss you into the lake for the Rock Crabs to eat! Give me one reason why I shouldn’t stab you all to death for failing to guard—”

Embria was managing to shout at her soldiers without actually raising her voice that loud.

“—won’t work. You think it’s simply as easy as restoring a mana stone? If you are able to cast [Restore], please, be my guest. Oh, and while we are on the subject, are you proficient in restoring unique magical signatures as well? Because if the magical coordinates are not perfectly aligned, I would not step through that doorway and expect to live. But by all means, inform me why there is a ‘chance’ of restoring this connection.”

Pisces sneered at the red-faced Drake [Mage] as he pointed to the magic door and a broken yellow mana stone whose shards were lying on the ground in front of the door. Typhenous was stroking his beard, muttering.

“I’m afraid I have to agree with Pisces, as objectionable as he may have phrased it. I simply cannot think of a way to restore the connection safely. Not without sending a Runner to form another link. Oh dear, and Hawk won’t reach Pallass in time, will he? But maybe—no, no—”

“This was a Human action. They came through Celum. But someone had to let them through and put the inn to sleep. Who?”

Krshia’s head turned. There. Zevara and Olesm were talking. The Watch Captain’s claws were balled into fists as she stared at the door. Olesm shifted from foot to foot, his blue scales ghostly pale.

“I don’t know, Watch Captain. It could have been someone hiding in this inn, or someone who crept around it at night—the spell was high-level because it got Relc and Embria’s soldiers. It could have been an infiltrator—”

“—or a traitor.”

“Or that. But there’s no way of knowing.”

Zevara ground her teeth together.

“Could it have been the Goblins? We found the dead Humans just outside that cave where they’re supposed to be lurking. And our patrol saw them watching us. If they caused this—”

“None of the Hobs knows magic, Zevara. And they didn’t steal the door. They stopped the thieves from getting away.”

“They could still have been collaborating—”

Olesm shook his head and his tone grew firmer.

“They let us have it. If they wanted to keep it, I think they could have hidden it quite easily. They’re not the criminals here, Watch Captain. I’ll stake my tail on it.”

The two Drakes stared at each other. Zevara slowly nodded. She turned to the door.

“They’re not going to be able to fix this, are they?”

“No. Pisces doesn’t think so and I’d agree with his assessment, rude though it may be.”

“Ancestors. What do we do now? Can Pallass get an army here past the Blood Fields in time?”

“They’ll try, and the other cities are sending soldiers too. But I think that they’ll get here too late. The siege will have started before any large force can arrive. If they have Skills, maybe—”

“Can we hold the walls with what we have?”

“Maybe. If the Antinium fight and they have as many Soldiers and Workers as we think they do—with Pallass’ reinforcements and Embria’s forces—maybe—maybe—”

Olesm looked nervous. He smelled of fear. Krshia’s heart began to beat faster. She looked at Olesm and Zevara as the Watch Captain turned away, grabbing at the spines on the back of her head until she realized people were watching her and lowered her claws. She raised her voice as Krshia turned back to her table, pretending to be waving for a drink.

“Fine! Wing Commander Embria, we don’t have a tactical advantage here anymore. This door…is now a liability. We’ll hire Hawk to get to Pallass if he can, but if he refuses—I want a guard on this door and no one goes through to Celum. Get that mana stone and destroy it. Or we’ll confiscate it.”

“What?”

The adventurers looked up. One of them, Krshia thought her name was Revi, stood up. The Gnoll saw the teams sitting together—the Horns of Hammerad, the Silver Swords, Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers, but she wasn’t as firm on the names as she’d like. The Stitch-Woman frowned and tugged at the strings sewn into her neck.

“Hold on, you can’t do that. We need to use that door.”

“Why?”

Zevara turned, impatient. Revi hesitated.

“Well…we want to use that door. To go to Celum.”

“For what? You can get whatever you need in Liscor. This is a crisis, Human—I mean, adventurers. There’s already been one sabotage attempt on Liscor from Celum. I don’t intend for there to be a second.”

“Yeah, but—”

Revi looked back at the other adventurers and hesitated. They exchanged a glance. Krshia saw Halrac gritting his teeth and glancing at Jelaqua and Ylawes, both of whom looked grim. Ceria was sitting back in her seat, staring up at the ceiling. At last, Jelaqua stood up. She gave the room a weak grin with her Drake body.

“Hey, I know this isn’t the best time and I don’t know how to say this…but we’re leaving.”

What?

Olesm nearly dropped the green mana stone he was holding. Zevara turned.

“You are joking.”

“We’re not.”

Halrac got to his feet, looking unhappy. So did Ylawes. The [Knight] rubbed at his chin and didn’t look directly at Olesm or Zevara. Ceria remained seated, but she refused to look at Olesm and Zevara as well.

“It’s not an easy decision. But we’re going to leave Liscor today.”

“Why?”

Olesm stared at Ceria. Jelaqua’s tail waved back and forth on the floorboards uneasily.

“Look, it’s not personal. We like Liscor and you lot. But this is serious. Two armies coming down on Liscor? We can’t be part of that fighting. We’re willing to kill monsters, but we don’t take sides in a war. Especially not a Human and Drake war.”

“This isn’t a war!”

Zevara snapped at Jelaqua. She pointed out the window at the city.

“Neither the Drakes nor the Humans have declared war formally! The Humans are driving a Goblin force towards Liscor. If they attack—”

“Then it’s war. Yeah, sorry, but we don’t want to be right after the fact. We know what’s happening. And so do you.”

The Selphid met Zevara’s gaze. The Watch Captain gritted her teeth. She looked at Olesm and Embria, clearly searching for help, but both Drakes looked uncertain. Zevara turned back to Jelaqua and snapped, but Krshia heard the quiver in her voice.

“Drake law demands that adventurers support a city in times of crisis. I could conscript you—”

“Not to fight against our people. And this isn’t a war, Watch Captain.”

Ylawes spoke up for the first time. He looked haunted as he turned and faced the room.

“It is not a just…I cannot understand the reasoning for it, but I have learned that my father, Yitton Byres, is marching with Tyrion Veltras. Our house has sent a large force with him. I cannot stay here. Nor can the other teams. We are going. I am sorry, but this is our decision.”

All eyes turned to Halrac. The [Veteran Scout] just nodded. He looked at Zevara.

“It’s a war. Sorry, but I won’t shoot soldiers.”

And that was that. Three Gold-rank teams stood in the inn. Krshia could see Olesm paling, visibly calculating what the loss of three teams would mean. Zevara just looked from face to face. She gazed at Ceria, but the half-Elf didn’t look up.

“And the Horns of Hammerad?”

“We need to talk to Erin. But uh, we’re not keen on staying either.”

Ceria mumbled into the table. Krshia saw one of the adventurers sitting around her move and saw Ksmvr staring at his captain. Zevara looked around. She seemed lost for a second. Then her brows snapped together.

“Fine. If that’s your decision, I can’t argue against it.”

The adventurers relaxed. Zevara gave them a smile that was all teeth and no goodwill and then turned. She to Olesm.

“Take the mana stone.”

“Wait, you can’t do that—”

Revi burst out. Zevara whirled.

“I can’t? Guardsmen! Soldiers! Escort Strategist Olesm back to the city and place the mana stone to Celum in our armory. Wing Commander Embria, place your best men on watch there. No one goes in or out of Celum by my order. We’re confiscating the mana stone for the security of Liscor. If you want to go north, you can walk. And you’d better walk fast before you run into the Goblin Lord’s army.”

She locked eyes with the Gold-rank captains. Jelaqua, Halrac, and Ylawes stared as Olesm grabbed the mana stone and backed towards the door. Krshia hunkered down in her seat. Was there going to be a fight?

There wasn’t. The tension in the inn grew more taut, but the adventurers weren’t willing to risk a fight. Olesm edged to the door, remembered there was a magic one behind him, and then fled through that. The Watch followed after him, as did Embria’s soldiers. Krshia slowly let out a breath. She saw the adventurers turn to each other as Zevara strode out the door.

Moth eggs!

Revi slammed her hands on the table. Halrac grunted and Ylawes sat back down slowly. Falene, the half-Elf who smelled of floral perfumes, looked around.

“Well. That went poorly. What should we do now?”

Jelaqua ran a claw down the back of her head.

“We’ll go on foot, then. Or…Gazer’s tits, I don’t know! Go south instead? It’s been years since we worked in Drake lands.”

“We can’t go south.”

Ylawes and Halrac looked up. Jelaqua eyed them.

“Why not? You’re adventurers, and it beats trying to outrun the Goblin Lord, right?”

Both Humans opened their mouths and didn’t know what to say. Jelaqua shook her head.

“Dead gods, we shouldn’t have brought it up! We should have just gone without telling them—do you think we can go north anyways? What if we hired that Hawk guy to carry another mana stone to Celum and just teleport there? Or if we sent one person on horseback—”

The adventurers turned to each other and began to argue loudly. Krshia sat back in her chair.

“Worse and worse.”

She shook her head. Now the adventurers were fleeing the city. It was as if they thought Liscor would fall for certain. But wasn’t there a chance? Wasn’t there a reason to stay? Maybe not for them, but surely—

“Krshia?”

A voice made Krshia sit up. She saw Lyonette hurrying over to her. The [Barmaid] was wiping her hands on a cloth. She smiled apologetically, but like Zevara’s smile, it was a facial expression rather than an indication of any happiness.

“Lyonette. Greetings.”

“Hello Krshia, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting, but we’re really busy. Erin was arrested and they haven’t let her out of jail yet. I’ve been managing everything myself and trying to cook—can I get you anything?”

Krshia looked around. Aside from Drassi, there were no other staff. Or guests. The adventurers were eating and drinking, but the news of the impending siege of Liscor had cleared Erin’s inn just as thoroughly as the Raskghar attacks had.

“I am fine Lyonette, and I did not mind waiting, yes? I only came here to see if Mrsha would like to join me for a day. As we spoke about last time, remember?”

Lyonette hesitated.

“Mrsha? Oh, yes. That would be—I have a mountain of dishes from all the soldiers and Ishkr’s not in. But an entire day?”

“Or a few hours. Mrsha should have lessons and it would be good to get her out of the inn, yes?”

Lyonette nodded uncertainly and looked over her shoulder. Krshia saw Mrsha was sitting on the ground. The Gnoll had been playing in a corner of the inn while the adults talked. She’d been playing with her ball and trying to get Apista to roll it back to little avail. She looked bored.

“It—it would help. Mrsha’s been cooped up and I can’t take her to Celum. But Liscor—”

“She would be safe as a house, in my house, yes? If we go out, she will only help me with my stall. She will not be alone, I promise.”

Krshia smoothly reassured Lyonette. The young woman bit her lip, but then one of the adventurers—Revi—called for more alcohol as their debate grew fiercer. That decided her.

“I need to go. Yes, please. And thank you! We’re going to have more guests, so if you could bring Mrsha back by dinner—if that’s not too much to ask? Mrsha, honey, would you like to go with Krshia?”

The Gnoll looked up at the sound of her name. She looked at Krshia, thought, and then nodded eagerly. The Gnoll smiled and stood up. Lyonette fussed over Mrsha as the Gnoll leapt over and Apista buzzed off to do more productive things—like fan her wings in front of the fire in the kitchen.

“You do exactly what Krshia says, Mrsha. And don’t go anywhere! I’ll see you tonight. You don’t have to go. Only if you’re sure. You’re sure?”

Mrsha nodded. She padded around Krshia, sniffing the old Gnoll. Krshia wondered when Mrsha would stop walking on all fours. But then, she was young. She bent and rubbed her face against Mrsha’s cheeks.

“I will be fine. Little Mrsha and I will go to my apartment first, I think. And then perhaps Elirr will join us. It will be productive, yes, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll nodded. Lyonette hesitated again. Then Revi shouted her name. The [Barmaid] turned, scowled, and bent to hug Mrsha.

“Okay. You have fun. I’ll see you soon! Yes, Revi, I see you! I’m coming!”

She hurried off. Mrsha and Krshia stood together for a second as Lyonette rushed over to the bar, and then the two exchanged knowing glances. Mrsha narrowed her eyes and Krshia nodded. She bent and whispered so only Mrsha could hear.

“It is time, child. You and I—and Elirr—have much to discuss.”

Mrsha nodded, somewhat warily. Krshia nodded and they walked for the door to Liscor. They all had much to discuss. The Gnolls of Liscor had to decide what they were going to do. But for now magic came first.

 

—-

 

Mrsha and Krshia walked through the streets of Liscor in silence. One, because Mrsha couldn’t talk and two, because what Krshia wanted to say was too important to risk being overheard. They made a beeline for Krshia’s apartment. The Gnoll woman was relieved to finally be alone with Mrsha at last, or rather, free of Lyonette.

Today was the first day she’d managed to convince Lyonette to allow Mrsha to go with her alone. The young [Barmaid] had refused to let Mrsha out of her sight since she had been rescued from the dungeon. No wonder, and it spoke to how much Lyonette cared, but it had made Krshia nearly tear her fur out in frustration.

“We will talk there. With snacks. There is much to discuss after the dungeon. Much…we did not get a chance to say. I know of most of it from Elirr, but I would see it myself.”

Krshia spoke quietly to Mrsha as they turned down a street. She saw the Gnoll cub look up apprehensively.

“You are not in trouble, Mrsha.”

That reassured Mrsha, but only slightly. She padded along as Krshia kept them to the right hand side of the street. Not that there was much foot traffic. People were talking to each other, and Krshia kept hearing the same snatches of conversation.

Siege. Pallass. Reinforcements. Magic door. Leaving. Humans. Goblins. The same words stood out time and time again. Krshia knew she should be focused on that, but the others had to gather. At midday they would discuss the issue. Until then—

Krshia sniffed the air at the same time as Mrsha. They turned their heads and saw a male Gnoll with dark fur and black stripes walking towards them. Elirr nodded and bared his teeth in a Gnoll’s smile.

“Krshia, Mrsha child. It is good to see you, yes?”

“Elirr. Thank you for coming.”

Krshia smiled and politely smelled Elirr as he did the same to her. Mrsha padded around Elirr and he bent to rub cheeks.

“I got your message. We are gathering soon, yes? To discuss the situation with Goblins.”

Krshia nodded. Her smile faded. She began to walk with Elirr as Mrsha walked ahead of them, sighing and listening to the adults talk.

“I opened my shop for a bit to get the pulse of the city. It is not good, no? Everyone knows about the door. And they fear the Goblins and Humans will take Liscor.”

“It is a reasonable fear, no? Two armies…and trebuchets. I have even heard of some talking of fleeing Liscor and moving south.”

“As have I. I do not think it is wise, though. To abandon everything…”

“But if the alternative is death—”

Mrsha looked back up at Elirr and Krshia in alarm. The two adults fell silent guiltily. Krshia cleared her throat.

“It is not set in stone. Beilmark called the meeting. She will know the odds. Let us wait until then, yes?”

Elirr nodded.

“Agreed. We should be focused on young Mrsha. It has been too long since we saw each other. And it is good to see you well, yes, Mrsha?”

He smiled down at Mrsha. She smiled up at them, but Krshia saw more than happiness run through the two Gnolls. They had both been prisoners of the Raskghar. What they had seen—Krshia had heard some of it from the survivors. But only some. Even the oldest Gnolls hadn’t been able to talk fully about the ritual.

So much for a child. Krshia bowed her head. Then they came to her apartment. Both Gnolls followed Mrsha as she bounded up the steps. The white Gnoll leapt into Krshia’s apartment and jumped onto a couch, happy to run about.

“Can I offer you tea?”

Elirr shook his head as he took a seat opposite Mrsha. Krshia nodded and went into the kitchen for some dried crackers and silkap, because it would have been completely rude not to offer something to eat. She set it on the table and Mrsha reached for a cracker at once.

“Ah, do not eat too much, Mrsha. There will be more snacks later.”

The little Gnoll gave Krshia a look that clearly said that later was not now, and why shouldn’t she eat as much as possible? But she reluctantly took only one cracker and spread the rich paste on top. She munched as Elirr and Krshia did the same. Politeness done, Elirr looked at Krshia.

“I thought you would have young Mrsha here at once given what we discovered. Why the delay?”

He spoke politely, but without the deference that Tkrn would have offered her. In terms of unofficial hierarchy, Elirr and Krshia were close to the same level. Krshia ducked her head by way of apology.

“I tried, but Lyonette, she was very stubborn and refused to let Mrsha out of her sight.”

Elirr nodded.

“Understandable. It is good Mrsha has a protector. Well then. Mrsha.”

The Gnoll guiltily froze in the process of reaching for a second cracker. Elirr and Krshia looked at her. Both adults hesitated. They didn’t really know how to begin.

“Mrsha, we wished to speak to you alone. Between Gnolls. About the dungeon. About what happened there.”

The Gnoll’s eyes went wide. Instantly she began to quiver. Krshia rushed to reassure her.

“We do not want to make you remember. It is what Elirr saw, about your magic, Mrsha. About the fact that you…can cast magic. Spells.”

Mrsha stopped trembling. She looked at Krshia and Elirr and then looked guilty. And, like a child, she tried to hide it.

“We know you can cast magic, Mrsha. With a wand.”

The Gnoll squirmed in her chair. Elirr shot an amused glance at Krshia.

“We saw, you, Mrsha. I did. You are not in trouble—”

“Hmf. Although you are in some if what I suspect is true.”

Krshia folded her arms. Elirr growled under his breath and kicked Krshia gently under the table. Mrsha pretended to be interested in her cracker.

“Mrsha. Can you do magic?”

Reluctantly, the Gnoll looked up. She nodded once. Krshia held her breath. Elirr just nodded.

“You learned it, didn’t you?”

Another nod. Mrsha shot a quick glance towards Krshia’s bedroom. Elirr grinned.

“From her book?”

Mrsha avoided looking directly at Krshia. She nodded very slowly. Krshia scowled. She opened her mouth but received another kick.

“Could you show us? If it is possible?”

The little Gnoll looked up at Elirr. He smiled reassuringly at her and Krshia tried to wipe the scowl off her face. She wanted to see. Mrsha hesitated, but then nodded her head. She leapt from the couch, and began to pluck at her side. Both Elirr and Krshia frowned until Mrsha undid a bit of string and pulled a wand out of her fur!

“Where was that?

Krshia was astonished. Mrsha had hidden a wand along her side! She’d tied it to her with a length of string, and her thick fur had completely camouflaged the wand! The Gnoll waved it proudly in the air. Krshia gaped and then frowned.

“Wait. That wand smells of Pisces. And I recall Erin telling me you often played with it. Is this wand you have taken, you little thief?”

Mrsha’s eyes went round and she shook her head slowly. Krshia folded her arms and again received a kick in her leg. This time she kicked Elirr back.

“If you are stealing—”

“Come, Krshia, let her show you first!”

Elirr growled, rubbing at his stomach where Krshia had kicked him. He waved a paw at Mrsha who looked expectantly at him. The Gnoll stared up at Krshia, then nodded. She pointed her wand at the floorboards in front of her.

“Wait, what is she doing to my fl—”

Too late. Mrsha jerked the wand up as if she was raising something and greenery burst from between the floorboards. Krshia leapt back with an exclamation and Elirr laughed with delight. Green grass, bright and vibrant, grew between the floorboards, rising upwards, until it formed a bed between the cracks. Krshia stared, dumbstruck at the grass which Mrsha leapt over. The Gnoll cub batted a stalk, then plucked it and held it up. Krshia slowly took the bit of grass and sniffed it.

Grass. It smelled odd. Magical. The scents of Mrsha and Krshia’s floor stuck to it, but no dirt, no earthy loam. It had been conjured out of nowhere.

“Magic.”

Elirr breathed the words, his eyes shining. Krshia just stared. Magic. A Gnoll had done magic, and it had not been the magic of [Shamans]. If it had been, she would have known. Mrsha had waved her wand and…conjured grass.

“That was your spell? You cast it and you alone? Not the wand?”

She didn’t think so, but she had to ask. Mrsha looked insulted and nodded her head vigorously. Krshia scratched her neck.

“You can grow…grass? And what else? Do you have another spell, Mrsha?”

To her great surprise, the Gnoll nodded. Mrsha pointed her wand at the grass and both Krshia and Elirr stepped back. They saw Mrsha frown in intense concentration, then wave her wand in a circle. And then—

The grass grew taller. It sprouted up an additional foot into the air and Krshia heard her floorboards creak as they were forced wider by the growing stalks. Mrsha proudly peeked through the huge stalks of grass at the two adults. She walked back and gestured with her paws.

Tada.

Elirr and Krshia waited for the grass to do anything else, but it just sat there. Krshia scratched her head.

“Anything else?”

Mrsha shook her head. She looked quite proud of herself, but after Krshia’s awe had faded, she had to question the scope of Mrsha’s powers. She turned to Elirr.

“She has magic. But she is growing grass with it. I thought you said this saved all the Gnolls in the dungeon, Elirr.”

The Gnoll chuckled. He bent and plucked one of the huge stems of grass, then waved it about. Mrsha leapt and caught it, breaking the grass. She jumped about, flattening the grass and waving her wand as Elirr turned to Krshia.

“It looks simple, but with it, she freed us from our shackles. With grass. I will not call it a simple magic. And for a child to cast spells, it is impressive, yes?”

“Yes…”

Krshia dragged the word out. She stared at the grass growing out of her floor and found she had to sit. It wasn’t impressive. It was just grass. She had seen Moore grow huge thorny vines out of the ground and seen him conjure an armor of thorns for battle. And yet, she found she was shaking as she reached for a cracker. It was just grass. But Mrsha had done it. A Gnoll had cast magic as [Mages] did.

“How?”

That was the question both Gnolls had. How and when had Mrsha learned to cast magic? They probably knew the how, but they wanted to be certain. Sure enough, Mrsha squirmed guiltily when Krshia brought out the huge magical tome Ryoka had given her. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] looked down sternly, noting how Mrsha didn’t seem surprised by the huge, rich magical tome that was as large as she was, and how she kept looking at it and then away, clearly plagued by a guilty conscience.

“Mrsha. When I was out on pressing business, did you sneak into my room and read this book?”

The Gnoll tried to look to Elirr for support, but this time the older Gnoll wouldn’t give it. She played with her wand as she looked to one side, then nodded once. Krshia scowled. Mrsha tensed up. Krshia’s arm shot forwards and Mrsha dove for under the couch, but the Gnoll had expected that. She came up with Mrsha, yelping and whining as Krshia held her by the ear and twisted.

“Krshia, do not be so harsh on her. She saved us, and did no harm.”

Elirr protested as Mrsha held very still, for fear of having her ear twisted. Krshia scowled.

“She knew better than to go among my possessions, Elirr! And if she had unlocked the trap sealing this box, she would be dead! Do not speak to me of harm! Mrsha, you knew you should not have touched this.”

The Gnoll nodded rapidly, squirming, trying to get free. Krshia had half a mind to twist her ear to make her remember, but Elirr had folded his arms and Mrsha had survived the Raskghar. So, reluctantly, Krshia let go and Mrsha jumped away to hide behind Elirr.

“There, there. You are not in trouble. Much. Krshia was concerned for your safety. You should not have touched the book. It was dangerous.”

The old Gnoll comforted Mrsha, who nodded and peeked out at Krshia. The female Gnoll grumbled as she sat back down, but she opened her paws and let Mrsha sniff at her to show she had forgiven the child.

“When I was a cub, my ears were not so good. Of course, I would have known better then to poke my nose into the places of adults, no?”

“Hah!”

Elirr grinned until he realized Krshia had been serious. He coughed and straightened. The two adults sat in silence for a second as Mrsha, much relieved now she had confessed, helped herself to another cracker.

“So. The book is real.”

Elirr looked at Krshia. She nodded. Her heart was racing.

“It seems so. We had assumed it was, but this confirms it. I had some doubts, but no longer.”

She saw Elirr frown, perplexed.

“You checked the authenticity of the artifact, though. Surely you knew it was a spellbook?”

“Of course we did. We used a scroll to produce magical resonance and this was the highest—the highest!—that we had ever seen. But without a [Mage] we could not tell all of what the book contained. We had to simply but trust what Ryoka said was true until it could be studied by a [Shaman].”

“Or a Gnoll [Mage]. A new class of students.”

Elirr bared his teeth in a grin and Krshia nodded. She stared down at the tome, the massive spellbook which, according to Ryoka, contained hundreds or possibly thousands of lower-Tier spells.

“It is our great gift to the tribes. A book which all many learn from, which we may train [Mages] of our own from. And now we know. We know Gnolls can learn from it! They can be [Mages].”

She sighed and heard the same sound from Elirr. Relief, exhilaration, hope, all bubbled through Krshia at once. Then she saw Elirr sit up.

“I wish that Ryoka Griffin were still here. We know this book is valuable beyond belief, but how much so? Is it a treasure worthy of a Walled City? Or a national treasure? Or…?”

He trailed off and looked helplessly at Krshia.

“Is it possible to appraise the book further? Beyond what a scroll can tell, I mean. If you showed it to one of the [Mages] staying at the inn Mrsha stays at—”

Instantly Krshia shook her head. She placed a paw over the cover of the spellbook.

“If I showed this to anyone, Pisces, Ceria, Falene…even one as good and gentle as Moore, I think they would steal it and run, yes? If it is half as valuable as Ryoka claimed they would all murder for it. And if a place like Wistram were to know if it—they would do all they could to retrieve such an artifact. You know the stories.”

“I do. And that is wise. Forgive me for the foolish suggestion.”

Elirr inclined his head. The two Gnolls stared at the book, and then looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was licking her lips.

“And yet, Elirr, by accident, a child has learned magic. A child. And not only did she save our people from the Raskghar, but she did what no Gnoll of the tribes has done for sixty years. Become a [Mage]. You are a [Mage], are you not, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll cub looked up. She hesitated, then nodded. Krshia exhaled. Elirr glanced down at Mrsha.

“In that case—why not let her read the book, Krshia?”

“What?”

Krshia frowned and Mrsha looked up quickly. Elirr nodded, stroking the hair running from his chin with his paw.

“It is hardly as if it would hurt her to read more. And she is gifted. Why not give her the chance to learn more spells? Or tell us what wonders this book contains?”

The [Shopkeeper] hesitated. But she saw Mrsha sitting up eagerly, and reluctantly nodded.

“Very well. But we watch her. I have opened this book before and it is a trial in some senses, Elirr. Not dangerous necessarily, but—Mrsha child, come here. If you are willing, let us open this book.”

Mrsha was willing. She leapt from her couch to Krshia’s side. The Gnoll woman gave her a reproving glance, but then let Mrsha open the tome. Elirr came over to see. All three Gnolls blinked as the book opened and magic, the very definition of magic, shimmered to life before their eyes.

A page blinked up at Krshia. Symbols seemed to slide together and merge, different colors, patterns reflecting in them, hidden meanings changing, offering multiple phrases each second. Krshia stared down at the spell—or at least, what she assumed to be a spell—for all of eight seconds. Then she got a headache.

“Dead gods!”

Elirr recoiled, rubbing at his eyes. Mrsha stared down at the page as both Krshia and Elirr had to look away. A pulsating pain ran from behind Krshia’s eyes.

“I warned you, didn’t I?”

“It strained my eyes! I feel a headache coming on—Krshia, do you have that tea?”

“Hold on.”

Krshia got up and shook her head. Careful not to stare at the book Mrsha was still bent over, she went and got her kettle. Her water was cold, but neither she nor Elirr cared. They drank a cup of tea and felt the world stabilize around them. Elirr growled.

“That hurt. It was like spinning around in circles for an hour or waking up after a hangover.”

“That is what happens when non-spellcasters look at spells and try to make sense of it. I think [Mages] go through this quite often when they learn.”

Krshia massaged her temples. Elirr nodded, then blinked down.

“But look! Mrsha is reading!”

It was true. Unlike the adults, Mrsha hadn’t looked up. She was tracing the symbols with one paw, as if she were just reading words, albeit extremely slowly. Krshia shook her head.

“Will wonders ever cease? Mrsha, child. Mrsha?”

She had to call Mrsha’s name several times before the Gnoll looked up, and when she did, it was reproachfully, as if Krshia had torn her away from something fascinating. Krshia cleared her throat as Elirr sat next to her, taking care not to look at the book.

“You can read this, yes?”

Mrsha nodded. She wagged her tail and smiled at the look on the adult’s faces. Krshia stared at the book and hastily averted her gaze.

“It is a wondrous thing, Mrsha. Truly, for all it was done in secret. You can read the magic book as a [Mage] would. And you understand the spell?”

Mrsha cocked her head and shook it slowly. Krshia noted her moment of hesitation though and rephrased the question.

“Ah, you cannot cast it. But you can guess at its effects, yes? What does that spell do?”

The white Gnoll frowned. She looked down at the book and for a minute she was lost, running her paw over the first few lines again. Then she looked up and nodded. She raised her arms, making sure both adults were looking at her, then flapped her arms and swung them from left to right as well. Krshia and Elirr stared.

“A…flying spell?”

“It lets you grow wings?”

“It…makes your arms floppy?”

Mrsha looked put out. She shook her head, then flapped her arms harder and swung them, making faint growling sounds. Then she looked at Krshia and Elirr expectantly, as if that said it all. The Gnoll adults exchanged a glance.

“I think it’s an air spell.”

“No, it clearly controls the body. Mrsha?”

The little Gnoll sighed through her nose and shook her head. She awkwardly propped the book up and pointed to a sliding letter, or what looked like a single letter. Krshia stared at it and felt the headache coming back.

“Put it down, Mrsha. Thank you. I do not understand. But then, I am no [Mage]. Nor do I wish to be. But—if you can read this spell, could you learn it?”

Mrsha frowned. Slowly, she nodded.

“Is it hard?”

Another nod.

“Difficult? Would it take you days? Weeks? Months?”

Nod, nod, nod, shrug. Elirr and Krshia exchanged a glance.

“But she could learn it. Her, a cub not even full-grown. Not even able to walk on two legs!”

Mrsha indignantly stood upright. Krshia ignored her. Her leg was shaking, making the cups on the sitting table rattle. She couldn’t help it.

“Mrsha, could you look through that spellbook for us? And find—a spell?”

Elirr glanced sharply at Krshia. The [Shopkeeper] sat forwards.

“Find a powerful spell. No—one that is both practical and powerful. It does not have to be for war. But find the best one for us. Can you do that?”

Mrsha nodded. She paged through the spellbook, pausing for a few minutes on each page. Elirr watched her and then offered a suggestion.

“Mrsha, look for a powerful spell that has to do with earth magic.”

Both Krshia and Mrsha looked up at Elirr, confused. The Gnoll explained.

“I hear that spellcasters learn some magics more easily. A thing of personality, yes? Like how Ceria Springwalker casts primarily ice magic. Mrsha may be attuned to the magic of nature.”

That made sense. Krshia nodded. If there was an element that belonged to Gnolls, it would be earth magic, surely. They were a tribal people.

“Earth magic then, let us know when you find one.”

It took Mrsha nearly sixteen minutes, in which time Elirr and Krshia got some hot tea and just sipped it, watching her. With Elirr and Krshia’s parameters, Mrsha moved swiftly from page after page until she came to one and triumphantly slapped her paw on it.

“This spell? Is it good?”

Mrsha frowned as she read the first line, very, very slowly. She looked up and gave Krshia a nod and shrug that said ‘yes, probably’. She didn’t know what it did and kept scratching her head, but her posture said quite clearly that this was a powerful spell of some kind.

“In that case, learn it. Or at least enough to tell us what it does.”

Krshia gently urged the little Gnoll. Mrsha nodded and, tail wagging, bent over the book. Krshia and Elirr watched her pour over the first letter of the book for five minutes and then realized it might take her a while. So they got up, snagged the crackers and silkap and went into the kitchen to talk quietly. They didn’t bother to keep their voices low; Mrsha was engrossed in the book and besides, it was now clear that she could hear them wherever she was, no matter how they whispered.

“Elirr. We have not had a chance to speak privately since you returned from the dungeon.”

The Gnoll smiled wearily. He leaned on the counter as Krshia offered him some dried sausage and cheese. He waved it away. He was older than Krshia, though she was a higher level than he. But he didn’t seem to hold that difference in age or levels against her, and Krshia respected him. He, like she would have been called Honored Krshia or Honored Elirr by the younger Gnolls, a sign of their rank in the community.

“We did not. And in truth, I have been avoiding joining others for dinner or the requests I have had to socialize, Krshia. I appreciate it, but I do not wish to recall what happened so strongly.”

Krshia laid a gentle paw on Elirr’s shoulder.

“We would not ask you to.”

“No, but you would ask questions with your eyes, even if your mouths were silent. It is not something I hold against you. I would be curious too. But what I have told you is all I can—the others and I try to forget. As does Mrsha, I think.”

“You still have bad dreams each night?”

Elirr nodded. He had bags under his eyes, though his fur hid it to all but other Gnolls.

“Nightmares. Jumping at shadows. What else could one expect? I have used the sleeping potions you obtained from that [Alchemist] you have deals with and they help. But daytime is sometimes little better than night. I…I do not know how Mrsha smiles so easily after what she saw. After what that bitch, Nokha, promised to do.”

He growled softly and Krshia hushed him before they disturbed Mrsha. Elirr was upset, because he’d used an insult Gnolls regarded as highly offensive. Comparing any Gnoll to a dog was far worse than using it on a Drake or Human. Saying something like that to a Dog-tribe Beastkin was even more inadvisable.

“It is done. The Raskghar are broken.”

Elirr nodded, and then turned to Krshia, his eyes blazing.

“But not dead. Not all. Krshia, they cannot be allowed to sacrifice Gnolls. I stared into their souls afterwards, and what I saw was terrible and ancient. We must bring word of this to the other tribes.”

“They know. But they have not acted. Their [Shamans] communicated with Olesm, and warned of the dangers of the Raskghar, but I think they knew as little as we.”

“Then what we should know must be pooled and more knowledge found. Because the awakened Raskghar scare me even in the daylight, Krshia. They must all be found and killed. And if more colonies hide in the earth…”

Elirr trailed off. Krshia nodded.

“The meeting of tribes approaches. They will hear your story, I promise.”

The other Gnoll calmed. He breathed more easily, and then looked out of the kitchen at Mrsha.

“We would have all died there, I think. All or most, sacrificed before you came if not for her. She allowed most to escape with her strength. After I called her Doombringer. If she had been a few years older, if we had trusted her from the start—perhaps she could have freed us all.”

“She is unique.”

Krshia nodded. The two Gnolls stared at Mrsha, her fur as white as snow. Cursed because of her fur.

“And she knows magic. Because of her fur, do you think? Is that the key?”

“No.”

It couldn’t be. Krshia spoke firmly.

“It is a coincidence, not a requirement to learn magic as [Mages] do. We know Gnolls can rise to the heights of magical power. In an aeon past, it was said that Gnolls were counted among the Archmages of Wistram. But so long and so old were they that no books record their names, and we have only legends to remember. Names. The Archmage Kishkeria, who created one of the grand spells of her era, [Seas of the Everflowing Grass]. With it she saved a continent, but we know not from what or how.

“Yes. But we do remember her.”

Elirr bowed his head. Both he and Krshia had grown up in the Silverfang tribe. They had grown up hearing their [Shaman] reciting names of past Gnoll heroes and their deeds, but many tales were incomplete. Old. Faded. Krshia sighed.

“We all know recent stories, like that of our greatest of Chieftains, Kerash, who died a century ago. But older stories? Each time an old [Shaman] or [Storyteller] dies in an accident or before passing on their memories to their apprentices, we lose more of the past. Our history should be written down now, not passed from mouth to mouth.”

She sensed Elirr’s amusement at her suggestion. He glanced sidelong at her.

“If you’d like to bring that up at the meeting of tribes, Honored Krshia, be my guest. But too many would decry it as replacing tradition.”

Krshia made a rude sound.

“Tradition? Hah! The old [Shamans] are too lazy to write things down and won’t admit that their stories are full of holes and they don’t know what is true and what was made up! But we need record, we need books! The Drakes are stubborn and rigid, but their records allow them to see the past. We remember fragments.”

“Yes. But our fragments are woven into our culture. There is some merit to that.”

It was Elirr’s turn to comfort Krshia. She sighed.

“Yes. It is good. But that is why we do not change, Elirr. And we must. We must.”

For a while the two stood in silence. Then Krshia looked to the living room.

“Let us check on Mrsha.”

The little Gnoll was still sitting over her book when Krshia and Elirr came back. She was still reading, but something had gone wrong in the time since they’d left her. Krshia watched as Mrsha’s head bent down, tilted from side to side, and then flicked up. Mrsha was distracted. The single-minded focus she’d had earlier was gone.

“Mrsha? Are you having trouble reading the spell?”

The Gnoll adamantly shook her little head. She scrubbed at her face with her paws, frowned at the book, and then rubbed at her head again. Mrsha was clearly trying to focus, but her eyes began to glaze over. She shook herself, stared at the page. This time she went cross-eyed.

Elirr tugged the spellbook towards him and focused on the spell. This time it took him less than two seconds to look away, swearing under his breath. He looked at Krshia with mild concern.

“I think it is too hard for her. Mrsha child, enough. Do not strain yourself.”

The Gnoll cub protested, but only feebly as he closed the book. She blinked a few times and then nearly fell over as if she was dizzy. Elirr was right. Whatever she’d been reading had stumped her. Krshia made Mrsha sit up and drink some hot tea, and soon the Gnoll was back to her normal self.

“We know enough. She can read the book. There are many spells, but many are beyond her. Whether that is because she is too inexperienced, too low-level, or too young it matters not. The book is genuine. We have our gift and it is a treasure beyond compare.”

“Hope.”

Elirr agreed simply. Both noticed Mrsha was staring at them in confusion, and Krshia decided to explain.

“Mrsha, what I am about to tell you is our history, recent. You know that the tribes have agreed no one is to deal with Wistram? Your Stone Spears tribe seldom traded near the oceans, but I imagine even Urksh was aware of the limitation.”

Mrsha nodded. It was a well-known fact. No Gnoll [Merchant] of [Trader] or caravan would do business with a [Mage] who claimed to represent Wistram. Those who came from Wistram were fine, but ones who directly worked for the academy? No. But she did not know why.

“The reason is simple. We hold a grudge against Wistram, a fierce one for matters of honor and pride. The story is simple. Once, we sent our best to Wistram, our pride, our most talented [Shaman] who would be the first of our [Mages]. Who would bridge the gap between our magics and rediscover the pride of Gnollish spellcraft.”

Krshia closed her eyes. She had just been born when the incident occurred, but she could still remember the outrage. Elirr nodded, his brows dark with anger.

“Forty years ago we went to Wistram and we were scorned and insulted beyond belief. Our representative did not last a year at Wistram before being expelled, as a failure, as proof that Gnolls were unsuited to become [Mages]. Ever since no Gnoll had traded with Wistram, and we hold them in contempt. And since then, no Gnoll has become a [Mage].”

Mrsha sat up, frowning angrily, catching it from the adults. Krshia nodded, but then sighed.

“That is what all adults know, Mrsha. But the truth is more complex. For you see, we went to Wistram in the hopes of understanding a strange phenomenon that has afflicted the tribes for…well, at least a few centuries. Even before our feud with Wistram, no Gnolls had become [Mages] in the tribes. All who tried became [Shamans] or…failed. And we do not know why.”

Elirr nodded. The issue had been discussed at each meeting of the tribes. Not always hotly, and many tribes did not consider it important, but the Silverfang tribe did, as did other tribes who looked to the future and saw the need for [Mages].

“So we have done without [Mages] for a long time. We are not without magic. Our [Shamans] can rival even great [Mages], but it is a different class and we know our lack weakens us. That is why we collected spellbooks for our gift to the tribes, in hopes of creating [Mages]. And then you came along. You, who can cast magic and read spellbooks. A [Mage].

He smiled down at Mrsha, who scratched at one ear, clearly uneasy about something. But neither adult really noticed. Krshia was too preoccupied with her thoughts. It was wonderful, really. But part of her, a small part, resented how easy it was for Mrsha to read the spellbook. Why did she have the knack? When Ryoka had first given Krshia the spellbook, she and others had spent weeks trying to read it and enduring blistering headaches to no avail. But Mrsha had taught herself.

It was…it made Krshia feel jealous. The instant she realized what she was feeling she stomped on the emotions. Her? Jealous of Mrsha? Why? She had never wanted to become a [Mage]. She had wanted to be a—

Well, maybe that was why. Krshia sighed. She looked down at Mrsha.

“Hope, child. You give us hope. If you can learn magic, maybe we can understand what makes it impossible for [Mages] to appear in our tribes or cities. Why is that? When did the last of the Gnoll [Mages] die? And why did we lose faith in our ability to cast magic?”

Mrsha stared up at Krshia, clearly without an answer. Elirr rumbled as he thought out loud.

“It is not as if it is impossible, Krshia. I have heard rumors of Gnolls who cast magic, who are not [Shamans].”

“So have I. But why are they so few? Because of our feud with Wistram? Because we are unsuited to magic as Wistram said? Because…”

Krshia broke off, shaking her head. It was a mystery, and one she had pledged to resolve. She patted Mrsha on the head as the young cub leaned against her, already tired from spellbooks and the grand fate of Gnolls and magic.

“Ah, Mrsha. Do not worry about it. Just know that you will be important later on. Have another cracker. As for now—Elirr, we must speak of Liscor. And that is a conversation that cannot be put off. It is time to go, I think.”

Elirr nodded. He got to his feet with a groan.

“Past time. We have an hour, but I could use time to set up and clear a space. And my animals need tending to. Will you come with us?”

“Of course. Mrsha, come. We will go to Elirr’s shop. The representatives will gather there. And we must hear what Beilmark has to say.”

 

—-

 

Elirr’s shop was filled with noise when the Gnoll opened his door and ushered Mrsha and Krshia in. That was because Elirr was a [Beast Trainer]. Not a [Beast Tamer], which was the base version of his class, or a [Beast Master], which belonged to those who formed steady bonds with a few chosen animals—or monsters. No, Elirr trained animals.

He ran a pet store. One of five in Liscor and arguably the best. Elirr trained dogs, cats, and birds, although only small pet birds that would live in cages. Just as well, because a certain Antinium [Hunter] would have put him out of business if he’d tried to rear hawks around the city. But mainly, Elirr made his business selling food for dogs, tending to their hurts, and providing all the toys and tools needed to raise animals.

Pet ownership was an interesting thing. A very small amount of people owned pets, mainly due to the costs, the dangers of a pet running afoul of a monster, and mainly, the challenges of keeping a pet in a city like Liscor. But there were Gnolls and Drakes who loved animals, and Humans too, since Elirr’s trained pets sometimes went north. In fact, his war hounds were more highly sought after than his regular house dogs, but Elirr trained few of them due to the difficulty.

He had only one war dog in the shop now, along with a plethora of cats, three smaller breeds of dogs, and a pair of twittering birds. And a crab. All of them greeted Elirr with various degrees of enthusiasm, save for the war dog, who barked.

He—it was a he—was a mastiff, a huge hound with clearly defined muscles. He barked at Mrsha and Krshia, who both regarded the dog with interest, Elirr sighed and whistled, which made the sounds in his shop quiet, except for the mastiff.

“Ah, this dog. It gives me a headache, no?”

Elirr sighed as Mrsha wandered up to the dog. It was leashed rather than in a cage, and Elirr’s shop was very wide as opposed to tall to give his animals more room. He explained to Krshia as he went about feeding his animals.

“It was because I was kidnapped when I just had him. He and some of the other animals starved for two days until someone realized they needed to be fed, and I had just acquired him. So he is wary of me. I have been trying to give him lessons, but he is afraid of strangers, especially furry ones. He smelled the death on the Raskghar when they came.”

“I see.”

Krshia looked sympathetically at the mastiff, who was watching Mrsha and growling. She was not a dog person, but the Silverfang tribe had owned dogs of their own for hunting. They were wonderfully good and she remembered racing them as a child. Had the Stone Spears owned dogs? Mrsha was regarding this one intently.

“A shame. My progress with all the animals has been set back, especially the cats. They are finicky if I do not feed them.”

Elirr groused as he fed his cats. They meowed loudly, and Krshia sniffed at them, making them scatter back to their homes. She didn’t mind cats, but Drakes loved the fussy creatures, probably because they shared many of their qualities.

“Do you need help setting up, Elirr?”

“If you could bring out some food and chairs—I will help you with the table.”

The Gnoll [Beast Trainer] looked grateful as Krshia nodded. He circulated his shop, tending to the animals while Krshia brought out refreshments for their guests. And all the while, Mrsha was looking at the mastiff. Krshia didn’t mind until she realized that Mrsha was moving towards the war dog, into the radius of his leash.

“Mrsha?”

She and Elirr looked up warily. The little Gnoll was approaching the growling dog, who was clearly nervous. Mrsha stopped in front of him and puffed herself up, standing on her two legs to stare down at the dog. He growled and Krshia tensed. She saw Elirr doing likewise.

She knew what Mrsha was doing, but that mastiff was bigger than she was and a lot stronger. But Mrsha turning her back or flinching would be the worst thing right now. The little Gnoll stared down at the war dog, refusing to turn aside. He retreated a bit and she advanced.

Slowly, slowly…she grabbed the dog’s bowl and he made a warning sound. But Mrsha faced him down and then walked over to a bag filled with food meant for him. She filled the bowl up a bit, and then came back. The dog warily moved forwards, but Mrsha held the bowl up. She reached her paw into it, picked some of the dried meat up, and began to eat it in front of him. The dog crouched, and then his tail lowered, his ears flattened, and he surrendered to her authority.

“She did it.”

Elirr breathed out as Mrsha handed the bowl to the dog and he began eating. He looked at Krshia, his brows raised. She was impressed despite herself.

“It was well done, Elirr? I thought so.”

He nodded, his eyebrows fully raised.

“As did I! I thought about bringing a cub here, but I was terrified of what might happen if he bit one. But that child is a natural tamer if I saw one. If she were older, I would expect her to gain her class tonight.”

He smiled at Mrsha, who padded back over, smug as could be. Her establishing dominance as the pack leader over the mastiff was impressive, even if she did have a bit of help on her side. Gnolls were naturally good at commanding dogs, with whom they shared a distant ancestry. But it was one thing for Elirr to force a dog to submit, and quite another for Mrsha to do it.

“You are bold, and reckless, perhaps. If you had gotten bit, what would I say to Lyonette?”

Krshia bent to tickle Mrsha and gently scold her. The Gnoll smiled, not at all deterred. For all she lived in the inn, she was a Plains Gnoll, pure and simple. Bold, a member of a tribe. As Krshia had been.

With that excitement out of the way, Elirr, Krshia, and Mrsha finished setting up and got all the animals to vacate the room and go upstairs—into Elirr’s home. It was just temporary, but they didn’t want the animals to distract from the meeting. And soon, as the sun reached the midway point overhead, Gnolls began appearing in the shop.

Everyone knew that the Drake cities of the south were ruled by Drakes. While it was true that in some cities, members of the ruling body like Pallassian [Senators] could be Gnolls, it was almost always Drakes who occupied the Watch Captain posts, filled Council seats, and so on. In some cities, the Lords and Ladies of the Wall ruled and they were obviously Drakes.

It was just how it was. The Drakes weren’t about to cede command of their cities to Gnolls, however many lived there. However, while their rules were often fair, Drakes and Gnolls were still two separate peoples with separate cultures and desires. Thus, City Gnolls had formed their own ruling bodies, unofficial and in secret, but one that dictated how Gnolls behaved in all Drake cities.

They got together and chose representatives who, in a miniature, secret council of their own, ruled Gnolls from the shadows. Or rather, from comfy armchairs and couches with snacks on the table because no one wanted to squat in an alley and debate for hours on end. It was a different system from how a tribe functioned.

There could be no [Chieftain], so instead a body of the oldest, wisest, most experienced or simply highest-level Gnolls would decide on issues that concerned Gnollkind. Sometimes they would just meet once every few months to agree that everything was good, grumble about arrogant Drakes and the foolishness of young Gnolls who had no respect for tradition, and eat food.

In those times it was more like a social get-together and potluck. But when something of concern happened—tensions between Drakes and Gnolls rose, or crime rose, or something like Liscor’s dungeon was found to be nearby—the Gnollish representatives discussed far more serious things.

One by one, they gathered. In a city as large as Liscor, one Gnoll could represent several thousand Gnolls. In a city like Pallass, each representative could represent ten thousand Gnolls who had chosen them from among their ranks. In this case, eleven Gnolls were present, all of whom were middle-aged or older, although Elirr was the oldest. They were not powerfully built [Warriors] or sharp-eyed [Archers]. Half of them had paunches and only one of them, Beilmark, was in prime condition, although Krshia liked to think she still had a good figure.

They were the [Butchers], the [Bakers], and the [Chandlers] of the city. The nature of the class didn’t matter as much as the depth of experience each Gnoll had. It was about respect. About leadership. It was something you earned, and weren’t given. Drakes couldn’t understand that, but it was second nature to Gnolls. As they came in, exchanging greetings with Elirr and Krshia and bending to smile and say hello to Mrsha, the Gnolls were friendly, conversational. They were equals here, not enemies squabbling for political gain.

However, there had to be a first even among equals, and Krshia Silverfang was that Gnoll. Not only had she led a large portion of the Silverfang tribe to Liscor ten years ago, which gave her authority over the others, she had the benefit of a relatively high level and her experience as both a plains and city Gnoll to speak with.

“Raekea Silversmith. How is your husband? Does his leg still pain him?”

Krshia greeted a Gnoll [Armorer] who was married to the best Drake [Blacksmith] in the city. The Gnoll grinned at her, her arms patterned with burns and the hair missing in patches. It was rare for a Gnoll to take up a metalworking class given the dangers to anyone with fur on their body, but such rare individuals were always respected for their sacrifice.

“Well, Krshia. He is well, although it pains him. But the ointment you gave us worked well. I only wish the Raskghar bastard who tried to kidnap me was back, so I could split his head open a second time. And is this the little brave Gnoll I have heard so much about? Hello, child.”

Krshia grinned as Raekea bent and scratched Mrsha’s ears. The Gnoll cub was staring up admiringly at her. Raekea believed in advertising her work, so she wore an armguard both she and her husband had worked on together, a classy piece of silver set with amethysts. It covered a large burn Raekea had received in her past.

“I see the others are mingling. Will you speak with me for a bit?”

The [Royal Shopkeeper] indicated the others, who were standing and talking while eating Elirr’s food. That was how the meeting went; until a decision had to be made, the representatives would just talk about business, the issues of the day, and news. They didn’t do formal meetings since that was too regimented for their tastes. It was in the small discussion that all the work got done, such as Krshia’s conversation with Raekea.

The [Armorer] nodded. She sat with Krshia on a pair of worn armchairs that smelled faintly of cat pee. Krshia chewed on a cold sausage with cheese—she’d brought it from home since Elirr hated cheese and didn’t have any in his home—and spoke candidly.

“The news sounds dire. First the attack is announced, and then, not a day afterwards, spies are sent to sabotage the connection to Pallass. We are cut off.”

“Yes. It was a shame. And it speaks to the danger we are in.”

Raekea nodded seriously. Below them, Mrsha sat on the ground and happily ate lunch. Krshia nodded.

“I see Beilmark is here. Did you hear what she had to say?”

The other Gnoll woman grimaced and flexed an arm.

“She thinks we can hold Liscor. She has spoken with Watch Captain Zevara and heard Olesm’s numbers. With the Antinium, with Pallass’ reinforcements few though they may be, with adventurers…we can hold long enough for a relief army to arrive.”

“And will it be enough to break the siege?”

“She claims it will. Whether that is so I wonder at, Krshia. I truly do. I am uneasy with this Goblin Lord and the machinations of Tyrion Veltras. I know others here and in the city wish to flee.”

“Abandon Liscor? Just like that?”

Raekea met Krshia’s eyes steadily.

“If it is that or death—yes. I have spoken with my husband. He is Liscor-born, but when he looks at our child…yes, Krshia. We would run to save him. But I am not ready yet.”

“I see.”

Krshia nodded and thanked Raekea. She stood up and found another Gnoll to talk to, and then another. She heard the same each time. They weren’t committed. Not yet. But if it looked like all was lost, if it was this or certain death…Beilmark and Elirr were the last two she spoke two.

“You must convince them to stay, Krshia. If Gnolls begin deserting Liscor, if Drakes begin fleeing, then the city is lost.”

Beilmark did not mince words. The Senior Guardswoman was one of the youngest Gnolls present, but she had earned her place here by her deeds. She gestured at the others.

“We can convince them to stay. If we do, fewer Drakes will run. And we need every paw and tail to defend Liscor.”

“And will we defend it with our lives? Will we spill our blood out as the Goblins and Humans overwhelm us, Beilmark?”

Krshia pressed the younger Gnoll, looking into her eyes. Beilmark shook her head, meeting Krshia’s gazes steadily.

“I would not kill my people, Krshia. I would run before that. But the danger to Liscor is more complex than just a game of numbers. Thanks to Olesm, reinforcements are on the way. They will arrive too late, but if we can hold—think on this. The Humans have trebuchets. But they cannot batter down our walls with one or two volleys. It will take time, and our fortifications are enchanted. Tough. We have to hold. The Goblins are not suicidal. Push them back, hold them, and a relief army will arrive.”

“It is a gamble.”

“Yes. But one I will take. But it cannot be done if Liscor is half-empty. We will have to support the defenders, take to the walls. If even a third of all Gnolls holds a bow—Olesm has more than one strategy. He has spoken of retreating into the dungeon. And there are the Antinium! Krshia, it can be done.”

The look in Beilmark’s eyes convinced Krshia that she was serious. But was she right? Finally, she spoke to Elirr. The Gnoll was quiet as they sipped tea and sat. Mrsha was curled up, napping.

“So. I think we are split. More in favor of leaving than staying perhaps, but split five to six. Do you agree?”

“I am.”

Elirr nodded. He was one of the ones who favored leaving more than staying. Krshia eyed him carefully. Then she came out with it.

“I am of the mind that unless all is lost, we must hold to Liscor as one. And you?”

The older Gnoll hesitated. He played with his cup, speaking slowly.

“I—I have lived through more than just the Antinium Wars, Krshia. I was young, but I remember conflicts that left hundreds of thousands dead and burned cities. Liscor did not fall in those days, but I remember the tribes going to war and so few returning in the ones that did. I am not saying we should run. But I am not confident enough to pledge all our lives if it means death.”

“So that means what?”

Elirr leaned forwards. He spoke so softly only the two of them could hear.

“It means convince me. Convince us. Beilmark will wish to stay regardless, but the others are afraid. If we are to fight and bleed for Liscor, tell us why.”

He looked at her. And Krshia saw he wanted to stay, but he was afraid of dying. It was a common fear. So she stood up and looked around.

The other Gnoll representatives were chatting, but they fell silent. They could sense Krshia had something to say. They gathered around her and Mrsha woke up. She sleepily crawled into Beilmark’s lap and the [Guardswoman] held her as Krshia spoke.

“So we have debated. So we have shared information. To those of you who may not have heard, young Mrsha was tested at my apartment earlier today. She knows magic. She can read the book. It is genuine and the Silverfang tribe will present it at the meeting of tribes.”

A sigh ran through the room and Mrsha looked up as everyone stared at her. Just for a second. Then Krshia spoke again.

“War threatens Liscor. The Humans do not call it that and the Drakes will not declare it, but when the Goblins assault Liscor, what is a word? It will come and this time they have brought siege weapons, to at last threaten the Drake cities. Perhaps even the Walled Cities in time. But it is war that will start here. Now our only decision is this: do we stay and fight and possibly die at Liscor, or flee southwards and abandon our homes that we might live?”

The others nodded. They waited for Krshia to speak. Everything else had been said, but she had the final voice. Krshia searched for the words, and they came to her, smoothly, from deep within. She spoke the same words she had years ago, to her sister on the day she had decided to leave for Liscor.

“Gnolls have existed since the first record of this world. Throughout thousands of years we have lived. Not just on Izril. Our people have waned and risen with each passing era. In the beginning, there were Dragons and they ruled us cruelly. We died for sport, as animals. But we survived. We survived the Sunset of Flame. We marched out of bestiality, survived the long darkness and kept our minds even as the Raskghar split from our people. We became more than animals and we challenged the Dragons and brought them down.”

Mrsha sat up as Krshia walked back and forth, speaking from memory. The way Krshia spoke, the way she gestured, was familiar to her. Krshia was speaking like a [Shaman], as if she was telling a story from the past. But she was also speaking to the Gnolls of Liscor, who sat and judged her words in silence, drinking and eating slowly.

“Our people rose. We were mighty during the Rain of Scales. We fought the Selphids during the Age of Theft and threw loose the shackles with the rest of the world. During the Twilight of Magic, our armies joined the others and overthrew the half-Elven dominion. Again and again, we were challenged. And each time we lived and prospered. Eras past, the Gnolls rose and fell and once we were considered a world power among powers. But now? No more.”

Krshia looked around. Her eyes were sorrowful and her voice grew deeper.

“In the past we roamed Izril, made our homes in every direction. But then the Humans came and we were forced south. Now the lands our tribes venture to have been cut in half. And with the Antinium, with Drake cities and their laws, the places we may walk go further still. And our tribes grow smaller. Our [Shamans] grow weaker. We reduce in strength. Are Gnolls not considered barbarians by other races, called as crude and uncivilized as Garuda?”

It was so. The Gnolls murmured agreement. Krshia nodded. She looked at Mrsha.

“We are in the age our [Shamans] and [Chieftains] have declared the Waning World. A time where the legendary heroes of our kind are memories, and where tradition may hold us back as the rest of the world advances. Since the last Antinium War, since the Humans came, Gnolls have retreated rather than pay the cost in blood. We have always moved rather than stand stubbornly and die as the Drakes and Humans did. But see what it has cost us?”

She looked around, as if Elirr’s shop was suddenly a cage.

“New lands. That is what we need. New lands to grow unimpeded. Not just the north. We must spread from continent to continent. But we cannot run. We cannot abandon what we have to do just that. We must grow and we must hold. If Liscor falls, the Humans will sweep south. If Liscor falls, we lose our homes. We have always moved from place to place, but the world is smaller now. We cannot abandon what we have. So I say to you this: we must stand here and fight.”

“And if we die, Krshia Silverfang? If the cost comes in the shattered bodies of your young, our families? Why not simply flee? We have the great gift meant for the tribes. Why stay and put it at risk?”

That came from a Gnoll with blonde fur who looked up at Krshia. The Gnoll woman met her eyes. She had not always been a [Shopkeeper]. Mrsha could feel it.

“We could run. And yes, we have a great treasure. It should not be lost. I propose we hide the book, put it in a bag of holding and hide it so that if Liscor falls, it may be recovered. We will tell the other tribes where it can be claimed. But I tell you this, Fashia Splitfur. There is more than just a single spellbook that defines the worth Liscor has to us.”

Krshia gestured at Elirr’s shop.

“My tribe, the Silverfang tribe, came here ten years back and labored all this time to build something. More than just a gift for the meeting of tribes. We founded a place here. Some of you have been here longer. You have families, homes, businesses. Will we throw it all away so easily?”

No one responded. Krshia looked at them.

“We fight. That is what I say. We fight, and hold onto our homes. If we run again, we will not stop running until the last Gnoll dies alone in the corner of the world. We fight. Who will stay with me?”

The Gnolls looked at each other. Beilmark stood up slowly. Then Elirr. Then Raekea. Slowly, the rest of the Gnolls got to their feet. Some hesitated, others were reluctant until they saw the others standing. But they did stand. They were in agreement. Krshia breathed out slowly.

“I didn’t want to give up my shop anyways.”

Raekea grinned around and the others chuckled. They stood more easily now, though Krshia could practically hear their hearts pounding. It was done. The Gnolls of Liscor would stay.

“So what next, Krshia?”

Elirr looked at Krshia. It was not the end of their discussion, for all that they had made a decision.

“If the Drakes begin to run, it will still be disastrous. Can anything be done about their fear? About the fear in the hearts of many Gnoll families as well?”

Krshia nodded. She did have a plan. It had come to her when she had looked at Mrsha and been jealous.

“We do what neither Drakes nor Humans can do. Drakes think they know unity and order? They form spear walls in battle and stand tail-to-tail. But only their soldiers, only in war. But Gnolls are one pack, one people. We are never alone. So let us run about this city of stone and prop it up. If the walls crack, we will hold them up. With more than just words.”

The other Gnolls blinked. Krshia took a deep breath.

“I propose a gathering of magic. I propose a spell.

The others immediately looked towards Mrsha. Beilmark, who had been all the way behind Krshia up till now, protested.

“A gathering is a serious thing, Krshia. If it fails it would shatter spirits. And the Drakes would notice. They may object. Besides, the most important issue is who will guide the spell? The child? Surely she is too young, and this is not something she would know.”

“I know. I will guide the spell. I was apprenticed to be a [Shaman], once. I can perform it.”

Krshia spoke simply. The other Gnolls blinked. Mrsha, sitting in Beilmark’s lap, looked at Krshia with wide eyes. The [Shopkeeper] smiled at Mrsha.

“You know magic, Mrsha child. But it is the magic of books and [Mages]. But today, I think, we will show you the magic of Gnolls.”

She turned and looked around the room. Then Krshia cupped her paws together. Elirr was the first to move. He stood up and walked slowly over to Krshia. He placed his paws in hers and smiled. The two said nothing, did nothing Mrsha could see. But then Elirr took his paws away. And then, shimmering in the midst of Krshia’s cupped grip was a speck of light.

 

—-

 

At first it was the tiniest of things. So small that Mrsha almost thought it was her imagination. But as Krshia went around, touching her hands to each of the other Gnolls in the room, the spark seemed to pass to each of them, so all eleven representatives held a tiny glowing…

What was it? Mrsha squinted, but Krshia shooed her away.

“Not yet, Mrsha. I do not know how [Mages] interact with such things.”

She closed her hands and the spark vanished. Mrsha thought it had gone out, but something told her the Gnoll had just hidden it away from sight. So had the others. Elirr bent, smiling, and Beilmark straightened her armor.

“I should get back on patrol. I’ll take those of us on duty. Elirr, I suppose you’ll have to leave your shop, yes?”

The Gnoll nodded.

“Too few will visit me. I will go down the residential streets and visit the families. Fashia will join me. But I think Raekea and Krshia may stay in their places.”

“Yes. I will open my stall. Send whomever wishes to argue to me.”

“Or me.”

Beilmark and Krshia nodded. The other Gnolls agreed, discussing things like where to meet and who would go where. It was confusing to Mrsha. They had a plan, but she didn’t understand it. They were going to stay in Liscor, to fight. And they had a plan to…reassure the people? The Gnolls all agreed it must be done. Then they did a curious thing, something Mrsha didn’t understand.

They went back to work.

At least, Krshia did. She marched Mrsha back to her stall and briskly opened up shop. Market street was still mostly empty, and people were nervously talking rather than buying. But Krshia just stood in her stall and began calling out to customers, Drakes and Humans alike.

“Hello, my stall is open! Miss Fauscale, I did not see you this morning. Are you still in need of things to write with?”

An elderly Drake jumped as Krshia waved to her, beaming. She trundled over.

“Oh, yes, I—I suppose I am in need. But what with this dreadful talk of Goblins and Human armies, I’m not sure I’m in the right mind to be buying anything.”

The Drake looked anxious, but Krshia just gave her a big smile.

“Ah, but if not now, then when? You told me you were in need of quills, yes? I have some cheap ones in stock. Come Mrsha, show Miss Fauscale the little quills.”

Gingerly, Mrsha reached up and offered the Drake a writing quill, dipped in ink and bit of parchment. The Drake blinked, but obligingly drew on the parchment.

“Oh! That is quite nice. These are Quillfish quills, aren’t they?”

Krshia nodded. The thin, sharp quills were the byproducts of Quillfish, the pesky fish that hunted and scared off predators by firing them. They were long and thin. Not as easy for the hand to grip as a formal feathered quill, but the little dip-quills from Quillfish were handy for carrying around and quite good for scribbling notes. She pointed all this out to Miss Fauscale as she wrote in a neat, clear script to show her and other customers on the street.

“Four coppers for a bunch of sixteen. Each one has been boiled, cleaned, and sharpened. They are good for writing, cleaning teeth, and poking silly children, yes?”

She mimed poking Mrsha, who was so alarmed that she nearly fell off her stool. Miss Fausclae stared at Mrsha and her lips quirked into a smile. Before she quite knew what she was doing, she had bought some quills and ink and was chatting to Krshia.

Just chatting. The Gnoll beckoned over more Drakes and Gnolls, calling the ones out by name. She shook hands with a Gnoll who wanted a new roll of cloth, persuaded a pair of Drake teens to stay and browse, though they bought nothing, and touched her paws to a Gnoll woman as she passed her a dried and salted fish to inspect.

Mrsha, sitting by Krshia’s side and helping her out, if only by being cute, was confused by all of this. She knew Krshia was doing something, but as far as she could see, the Gnoll was just calling out loudly to people and chatting them up. She spoke about the Goblins and Humans, reassuring people, telling them not to go, but only if they brought it up.

And yet, more and more Gnolls kept coming back, anxious and afraid. But they left with backs straight, smiling and talking about errands they had to run or things they’d just remembered they should do. How? Why?

Mrsha finally put the pieces together when Watch Captain Zevara walked down Market Street with a patrol of Drakes and Gnolls behind her. She was speaking to people, answering questions, trying to reassure them. She stopped by Krshia’s stall and looked perplexed at the gathering around the Gnoll. Only a few people were actively shopping, but the Gnoll had somehow created a huge radius of people who were just standing around and talking.

“What’s all this, then? Miss Krshia? What are you doing?”

The [Shopkeeper] gave Zevara a pleasant smile.

“Why me? Nothing, Watch Captain. I am simply open for business like usual. I think it is not good to worry, so I am getting about my day, yes? Are you on patrol? Could I interest you in a snack for your errands? Walnuts and honey, perhaps?”

Zevara blinked at her. The Drake looked around, bemused, and Mrsha, sitting behind the counter saw it at last. That was Krshia’s plan. She was going to work and doing ordinary things.

That was it. While Liscor’s people had been fretting and talking, Krshia was calling out to them like normal. She wasn’t pretending things weren’t bad, but she was doing what she had always done. And that reassured people. It brought normalcy back into their lives. It calmed them down.

And Zevara saw it too. The Watch Captain leaned on Krshia’s stall and lowered her voice.

“It seems you’re doing your civic duty, Miss Krshia. Or at least, I’d say that if calming people down was something we asked of our civilians. May I ask why you’re being so helpful? Not that I mind.”

Krshia grinned at Zevara.

“Let us say that it is a decision of Gnolls, Watch Captain. We will not flee the city. And few others will too, I think. When many hearts beat as one, fear has little place, yes?”

“True enough. But why?”

“It is our home.”

The Gnoll met Zevara’s eyes. The Watch Captain blinked. Then she smiled.

“True enough. Very well. I’ll take a pound of walnuts and those little cups of honey. Oi, you lazy lot! Get some snacks on me! And no one tell Relc about this!”

The City Watch cheered and laughed, as did the people around Krshia’s shop who heard. Mrsha thought Zevara was being very clever, and she smiled as Krshia began putting little baggies with honey together for the Drakes and Gnolls to eat from. But then Mrsha saw the curious thing again.

The Drakes took the bags of nuts and cups of honey as they came to them, but each of the Gnoll [Guardsmen] let Krshia put it into their hands. So that they touched at one point or another. They did it deliberately, and the looks in their eyes told Mrsha that they knew…something. They were doing something. And she imagined the spark in Krshia’s paws and wondered.

The day wore on. Krshia stayed in her stall as Mrsha grew bored. But then Elirr came by and Mrsha was allowed to walk with him. And she saw he was doing the same thing as Krshia. Not selling goods, but talking to people. And touching their hands.

Gnoll after Gnoll, families, single adults, teens. They came up to Elirr, or went to Krshia, and talked, exchanged greetings, and touched paws. Then they left. By the time Mrsha came back to Krshia, she saw the Gnoll shaking hands with a little Gnoll child. And Mrsha knew something was happening.

Krshia was collecting something. Mrsha felt it. Her fur tingled as she passed by Krshia. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] looked down at Mrsha as the Gnoll cub hopped up into the seat next to her. Mrsha stared accusingly at Krshia’s paws and then at the Gnoll. But Krshia just smiled.

“You are not the only one who knows a bit about magic, Mrsha. I suspect you have never seen this before, not even in your tribe. Have you?”

Mrsha shook her head. Krshia nodded.

“If your [Shaman] was good, you would not need to see it. But this is no tribe and we City Gnolls are not true [Shamans]. I am not. But we have our tricks. Now, see. It is nearly time.”

The sun was setting in the sky, but it seemed like more and more Gnolls were on the streets. And moving between them, at the center of the odd tingling pattern now present everywhere in Mrsha’s mind were the eleven representatives. Faisha, Elirr, Raekea…and leading them was Krshia. Each one of them held something. And as the sun began to set behind the High Passes, they stopped hiding it.

A glowing spark of light appeared in Elirr’s paws, startling the Drakes nearby. He walked towards Krshia, then stopped and looked to Raekea. She raised her paw and Mrsha saw she was holding another spark of light. They weren’t the same size, but they both shone brightly. She reached out and took the light from Elirr. And then the spark in her hands grew. The Drakes murmured and the Gnolls watched. Mrsha felt her fur standing on end. She could feel it.

Magic. The Gnolls passed it from paw to paw, a glowing ember of pale yellow light, growing brighter as it moved from person to person. One, two, three…each time the light seemed to grow, if not in size, then intensity. And it clearly became heavier. By the time it reached Beilmark, the strong Senior Guardswoman staggered, holding it. A dense, bright light almost like flame, almost like lightning in the center of her paw. She turned to Krshia, and the [Shopkeeper] began to sweat as she took it.

Heavy.

Krshia gasped. She nearly fell and staggered as she held the light in her paws. She looked up at the fading sky. Beilmark, Elirr, Raekea, and the others clustered around Krshia, not touching her, but urging her softly.

“Do it, Krshia.”

“Throw it.”

Krshia tried. But though the muscles in her arms strained, she couldn’t lift the ball. She groaned and her arm seemed to creak as it held the shining light in her paw. She gasped.

“Too heavy. I cannot. I cannot.”

“You must! You cannot drop it now!”

Elirr urged Krshia. This was a critical moment. Mrsha could sense it. The Gnolls were growing worried. A Drake [Guardswomen] watching looked uneasy. No wonder. The light was getting brighter, more intense. Changing from yellow to gold. But Krshia couldn’t lift it.

“I—can’t—”

Sweat dripped from her brows. She was struggling. It was so heavy! Mrsha pushed through the circle, staring at Krshia anxiously. It was just light, but Krshia’s bones seemed to be breaking under the weight of it! Why was it so heavy?

“Do not let it fall! Do not—”

Beilmark tried to raise Krshia’s arms. So did Raekea, but neither could lift Krshia’s hands! The other Gnolls tried to pull Krshia up, but they were just as helpless. Mrsha ran back and forth. If the light fell, she knew, it would go out. Krshia had to lift it! She raised her paws, desperately pushed at Krshia’s hands as if that would make a difference—

And the light rose. Krshia stared and the other Gnolls fell back. Mrsha nearly fell over in shock. Lifting Krshia’s arms had been as simple as…lifting Krshia’s arms! The light had no weight to it! But then Krshia’s arms shook with effort. She stared at Mrsha, and then spoke breathlessly.

“Mrsha, child. Can you…?”

She offered the light to Mrsha. The little white Gnoll hesitated, then took it. The light filled her paws and instantly she felt it surge through her. Magic. Mrsha’s eyes went wide and Krshia gasped as she lifted it up. Mrsha stared at the shining light. It wasn’t heavy at all.

It was so warm. It felt like she was amid her tribe as she held it, surrounded by the people she loved. Mrsha could feel the light surging through her, giving her strength. Determination. She wanted to swallow the precious light and let it burn through her forever.

But she didn’t, because she sensed the intention in this magic. It wasn’t hers. It was made up of so many small parts. It was feeling, emotion. She looked around.

It was them. The Gnolls of Liscor watched as Mrsha held the ball of light, as heavy as all of them combined. To her, as light as a feather. Krshia pointed up.

“Throw it, Mrsha. Throw it into the sky!”

Mrsha looked up. The sky was pale red and fiery. The sun was fading. She stood up and clumsily aimed overhead. And she threw the light up.

And the fading sun in the sky was replaced by another. Up the light flew, a small orb growing larger. Growing, shining with a thousand shades of gold and yellow and white. Up and up, until the light became a star above Liscor. A bright star that shone down, casting rays upon the startled citizens who looked up.

And the light was warm. It filled Mrsha with warmth, dispelled the fear and nervousness in her. Made her feel…confident. It flooded her, and she raised her arms up to the sky, smiling. And when she looked around, the people were smiling too.

“What was that?”

The Drake [Guardswoman] demanded, staring up at the sky and then at the Gnolls. Krshia answered calmly.

“A spell for courage. A spell for hope. [Everdawn’s Radiance].”

“Is it—you don’t have a permit to cast magic like that—what Tier spell is it?”

The Drake glanced up at the sky and at Krshia, trying not to smile and look stern. Krshia laughed.

“It is a Tier 1 spell, as [Mages] reckon such things. So low-level that even I, a former apprentice can cast it, yes?”

Tier 1? But that’s—”

“A [Shaman]’s spell. And I could not have done it without you. Thank you, Mrsha.”

Krshia knelt and looked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll cub looked up at her. Krshia shook her head.

“I do not know why it was so light for you. For me, untrained, it was as heavy as carrying every Gnoll on my back. But you? Ah, perhaps this is part of what we seek. Look at this, Mrsha. This is what we made. All of the Gnolls in the city. A scrap of courage, of bravery from each one. And it makes this.”

She pointed up at the growing star. Mrsha stared up at it in wonder. Krshia smiled at it.

“It is a weak spell as [Mages] reckon such things. No good in battle. No good when hearts are fearful from the Raskghar or grieving for the dead. But good when one knows a time of strife is coming. It pulls the strength from within and gives it form. And I think—it is enough.”

Enough. Mrsha looked up. The star hovered overhead. It blazed fiercely for one minute, then two. For eight minutes it shone and all who saw its light took something from it. It didn’t erase the fear of what was coming, or add a new source of courage for those who were worried about the future. But it reassured them. It reminded them of what mattered, of what was important. It was bright. And beautiful. And so for eight minutes, Mrsha sat and stared up and smiled.

 

—-

 

Across the city, people looked up. They stopped what they were doing, checking their supplies of coin, looking at maps, arguing, worrying about the Goblins and Humans, and stared at the strange light in the sky. It was reassuring. And as it shone down, they reconsidered their plans made in fear, in haste. They stopped rushing and thought long and hard about what they wanted and what would happen next.

Watch Captain Zevara stood on the battlements as the spell burst into life behind her. She swore, stared at it, and then watched it until it went out. When it was gone, she looked around and shouted an order.

“Someone get Beilmark!”

The Gnoll Senior Guardswoman came up the stairs a few minutes later. Zevara glared at her. Beilmark ducked her head, although she didn’t look the slightest bit abashed.

“Senior Guardswoman Beilmark.”

“Watch Captain?”

Zevara turned back to stare over the darkening landscape and spoke with her back turned to the Gnoll.

“Gnolls aren’t as troublesome as Drakes or Humans, Beilmark. Your people don’t stab each over family heirlooms and you police yourselves. With that said, I’ve heard tales of other cities and Watch Captains who clash every day with Gnolls in territorial disputes, racial crimes, and Gnoll politics. But that’s not been the case in Liscor.”

“Yes, Watch Captain.”

Beilmark looked straight ahead. Zevara nodded and went on.

“However, every time I think I know your people, they always surprise me. Every time I think I know magic, it surprises me. When I see that light, I can understand how Gnolls broke our Walled Cities so long ago.”

“Yes, Watch Captain?”

The Gnoll stared past Zevara, smiling slightly. Zevara smiled too. She turned around and looked at her city. And she knew that there wouldn’t be any mass exodus today. Maybe not tomorrow either. She looked at Beilmark, smiled and nodded.

“It was a nice spell. Do it again without telling me first and I’ll throw you off this wall. Dismissed.”

 

—-

 

Outside The Wandering Inn, the adventurers stared up at the sky as well. Jelaqua sighed as it went out and looked around.

“I guess we can stay for a few more days. I mean, we can always run south instead and there’s Mrsha and Erin and Lyonette to worry about. Plus, the door’s back.”

“I think…yes, I could wait. One more day at least. Until Yvlon decides where she’ll go.”

Ylawes spoke quietly. Halrac stared up at the place the light had been. He turned.

“Well, if you’re staying I’ll wait. It’s late anyways.”

The adventurers turned and looked back at the warm inn behind them. For a second they stared into the open door and remembered all that had happened there, for good or ill. Then they heard a voice from above.

“You call that magic?

Pisces stood on the destroyed third floor of the inn and bellowed at Liscor, looking outraged. He waved his arms furiously.

“It’s just a crude emotional spell! It even relies on a visual component to work! You call that real magic? You might as well eat a hot meal and take a warm bath for the same effect! This is why shamanic magic is—”

He yelped and flailed wildly as someone kicked him, nearly sending him toppling from the roof. Ceria appeared behind him, smiling.

“Shut up, Pisces.”

 

—-

 

Elirr, Krshia, and Mrsha sat in his shop as he began leading his animals downstairs. Mrsha helped fill bowls with food as Krshia wearily spoke. The [Shopkeeper]’s arms ached and she felt worn from holding that much collective magic for so long. If she’d been a true [Shaman], this would have been so much easier. But it was done. She looked at Mrsha and spoke quietly.

“The next few days will be serious. I think we must all do our part to fortify Liscor and make preparations in case…well, in case all comes to the worst. I will bring you with me when we bury the book, so you know where it will go. And if, no when this is resolved, you will come back every week at least and read from it, yes? If you wish.”

Mrsha looked up and nodded. She chewed on some of the cat’s food, which earned her a dirty look from a tabby. Krshia smiled. Time for Mrsha to go back to Lyonette for dinner.

“And perhaps I will teach you what I remember of how [Shamans] do magic too. Maybe practice it once more myself. It would never be useful for me, but it would be nice to shock that annoying goat, Lism, in the tail, yes?”

The little Gnoll grinned. Elirr nodded. He leaned over and chuckled as he filled up the huge mastiff’s bowl.

“Even dogs may learn, so Gnolls too must change, yes?”

The other two nodded. Elirr turned to the war hound, who was patiently waiting for food for once. The [Beast Trainer] gestured.

“Sit.”

The mastiff blinked up at him. And then the dog rolled over. Elirr sighed, Krshia snorted, and Mrsha laughed silently.

It was good enough.

 


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79 thoughts on “Interlude – Krshia

  1. Argh. This time I did NOT feel as good writing 20k+ words. And I didn’t intend to! I just wanted a nice, simple side story as per your votes. But I tried to do too much. I did it, well, all but an ending bit I cut because it would have been 1,000 or 2,000 more words, but I did it.

    No failed chapters for me. An overly wordy one? Perhaps. But I realized as I was writing that I sort of shot myself in both feet for this chapter. With a poisoned arrow. Because, you see, this side story was about Gnolls.

    And we know so little about Gnolls. And Krshia. And in the middle of giving exposition and getting the plot moving, I had to present a response to what had happened last chapter. And by the time I did all that…

    Well, we got one spell. Two if you count Mrsha’s growing grass moment. Does that fulfill my obligations? I’m going to say it does. And I’m way out of energy, so this is what you get. Frankly, I would have cut this chapter in half if I could this time, but there wasn’t enough in both halves to make that fair.

    So I’m done! See you in two days for another chapter and a return to the plot! Give me a healing potion for my hands and a stamina potion. Actually, just give me magic like the Gnolls do. I’d love that. Thanks for reading!

    • The thing about your side stories, I think, is that so often they’re not far enough to the side. Krshia and co are still right in the middle of the main plot right now, and you as the incredible writer you continually prove yourself to be cannot help.but do justice to every context and connection there is.

      You set out to write a side story showing current events for the gnolls of liscor and ended up dictating a fairly major event in the lead up to what I’m assuming will be called the Siege of Liscor or something like that. A serious consolidation of morale as well as a turning point in the development of Mrsha (who is looking more and more to become a major character as the story continues on).

      Not that I didn’t enjoy every second of it.

    • Three spells, Mrsha cast one to create grass and another to grow it.

      I have a feeling that if this interlude had hit before the trebuchets message was read then it would’ve been a shorter chapter. You’ve created such a vibrant and complex world which makes it a joy to read, but it means it is difficult to write a short side story in the main city because every piece of the city is interconnected and needs to be included.

      I’m still curious if anyone is gonna try and weaponize the monster nests in the dungeon. Oslem has already thought of utilizing the dungeon strategically though I’m guessing that’s more of a narrative choice to make hiding in the hive more palatable. The city is not connected to the dungeon so it can’t really be used as a fallback point. Heck now that numbtongue is alone and thinking about how to save his kin he might use the monsters to attack the humans and save the goblin lord’s army. Perhaps the cave goblins know of an entrance north of the city that is conveniently close to the nest of children.

      • “The city is not connected to the dungeon so it can’t really be used as a fallback point.”

        Through the ant hive, remember?

    • I enjoyed it. Even though it was interacting directly with the main plot line, it felt like a break from the hectic pace that has been consuming the past few chapters. A day in the life of the Knowles was a refreshing change up. Looking forward to the next primary chapter!

    • This was flipping fantastic. Loved it. Gnolls are great, the shamanistic magic was beautiful, really beautiful. A+ interlude.

    • I feel as if this entire problem is going to be solved by Erin convincing them to let the goblins in through the gate and leave through the back exit so they can’t be hearded towards liscor anymore. And the entire hype train of this 3 army fight is going to be a blue ball event with the Lord armies just retreating

    • Who says that this is not plot?
      A part of me hopes we don’t see anything from pieces x necromancer till its the time of making a decision.

  2. Leave a typo for Gnolls and magic! Magic typos. Would those be typos that keep reappearing even when you delete them? Scary thoughts.

    (Magical typo finders: CaptainLandlubber, CarpDM, cyan, GreatGreedyGuts, MrWiggles, Aoxz, YMeRegister, AgentFoG, Konno Yumi, The_Outrider)

    • Hi Pirateaba, always a pleasure to read a new chapter.

      There were a few things that confused me in this chapter however.

      First is that I thought Kerash died fighting against the Nekromancer only a decade ago rather than a century. As a minor inconsistency, before this chapter it seemed like no gnoll had ever been a mage rather than a shaman.

      I have a question about the races in this world though, as the gnoll armourer is shown to have a child with a drake. How does that work? Is it from either parents from a previous partner, or are is it a hybrid? The hybrid being the obviously more interesting option, are they similar to hybrids IRL (Mules, Ligers etc) or are they whatever species the mother is (A la Elder Scrolls)?

      Regards,

      ArdanKhael

    • It was a very good chapter, always nice to see a Ganki Dama, even if it’s used only as emotional support and not to attack XD

      Typos found:

      -We had to simply but trust what Ryoka said / delete the ‘but’

      -A book which all many learn from / all may learn from

      -Wistram were to know if it / know of it

      -“Do you agree?”
      “I am.”
      The reply should be “I do”.

    • and then turned. She to Olesm.
      and then turned to Olesm.

      Your people don’t stab each over family heirlooms
      Your people don’t stab each other over family heirlooms

    • “She’d heard an alarm was sound on Liscor’s walls, and listened carefully to what they told her.”
      they -> it (it refers back to alarm, they belongs to horn blasts that haven’t been mentioned yet.)

      “Krshia had lived through some bad years when all most Gnoll families could afford was a bit of meat to go with potatoes or grain.”
      most -> many/the majority of (Not a typo, but putting all before most is distracting/confusing)

      “I’m afraid I have to agree with Pisces, as objectionable as he may have phrased it.”
      objectionable -> objectionably (I don’t normally correct dialogue, but Ty is one of the characters that uses an educated voice.)

      “Krshia and Elirr watched her pour over the first letter of the book for five minutes and then realized it might take her a while.”
      pour -> pore DEFINITELY a magic typo, because it keeps coming back. 😛

      • “She’d heard an alarm was sound on Liscor’s walls, and listened carefully to what they told her.”
        was sound -> sound/was sounding

        Two typos in that one.

    • I realize my comment is pretty late in the game, but nonetheless, a continuity question.

      When Ryoka delivers the book, it is described as magic writing on one page – the spell, and an ancient non-magical writing on the other side, for theory and description of the spell.

      At the time Krsha ordered lenses of translation, which if aquired would presumably let her read the non-magical pages and therefore be able to index the spells in the book, even if she could not learn them.

      Just figured I would bring up the lenses, since they get no mention in this really fun update.


    • “You learned it, didn’t you?”

      Another nod. Mrsha shot a quick glance towards Krshia’s bedroom. Elirr grinned.

      “From her book?”

      Mrsha avoided looking directly at Krshia. She nodded very slowly. Krshia scowled. She opened her mouth but received another kick.

      ….

      “Mrsha. When I was out on pressing business, did you sneak into my room and read this book?”

      The Gnoll tried to look to Elirr for support, but this time the older Gnoll wouldn’t give it. She played with her wand as she looked to one side, then nodded once

      I thought it was strange that they would ask Mrsha again, and show more restraint the first time around. I guess the second questioning confirms that she’d done it behind Krshia’s back but wasn’t that a given or at least well implied by the first instance (i.e. how else would she have read the book)?

    • “She’d heard an alarm was {sound} on Liscor’s walls, and listened carefully to what they told her.”
      {sound} -> {sounded}

      “Humans, [Rogues] most {like}, were slaughtered on the road north.”
      {like} -> {likely}?

      “It was almost six feet lower now, so the bridge to Erin’s inn {was in fact,} an actual bridge now rather than one that rested just above the waterline.”
      {was in fact,} -> {was, in fact,} or {was in fact}

      “The Gnoll saw the teams sitting together—the Horns of Hammerad, the Silver Swords, Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers, but she wasn’t as firm on the names as she’d {like}.”
      {like} -> {liked}

      “Zevara gave them a smile that was all teeth and no goodwill and then {turned. She to Olesm.}”
      {turned. She to Olesm.} -> {she turned to Olesm.}

      “She would be safe as a {house}, in my house, yes?”
      {house} -> {mouse}?

      “She padded along as Krshia kept them to the {right hand} side of the street.”
      {right hand} -> {right-hand}, I think.

      “The two adults sat in silence for a second as Mrsha, much relieved {now} she had confessed, helped herself to another cracker.”
      {now} -? {now that}

      “She wagged her tail and smiled at the look on the {adult’s} faces.”
      I think it might be {adult’s} -> {adults’} since it’s referring to two specific adults rather than adults in general

      “Krshia and Elirr watched her {pour} over the first letter of the book for five minutes and then realized it might take her a while.”
      {pour} -> {pore}

      “He, like {she} would have been called Honored Krshia or Honored Elirr by the younger Gnolls, a sign of their rank in the community.”
      I think something’s off with this sentence but I can’t put my finger on what, if anything, is making this feel odd to read.

      “He barked at Mrsha and Krshia, who both regarded the dog with interest{,} Elirr sighed and whistled, which made the sounds in his shop quiet, except for the mastiff.”
      Should be a semicolon here since it’s linking two independent clauses.

      “And with the Antinium, with Drake cities and their laws, the places we may walk {go} further still. And our tribes grow smaller.”
      {go} -> {grow}?

      “And if, {no} when this is resolved, you will come back every week at least and read from it, yes?”
      {no} -> {no}?

  3. A [Merchant] with [Expert Bartering] could leave you penniless
    A [Merchant] with [Expert Bartering] could leave you copperless?

    • It just another hint about the nature of the world.

      I believe the language of this world is based on the English language from the start of the industrial revolution. They even use Latin phrases such as ‘persona non grata’ and biblical references such as ‘philistines’ (the philistines were essentially old testament barbarians). I say they, mostly just Pisces uses the obscure wording. The time period is important because it is when the Fairies fled earth and the language hasn’t changed over the millenia because it is the language used by classes and skills.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful Chapter!

    I can’t wait for the upcoming battle which I am sure will top every other climatic moment so far in Wondering Inn. That being said I the that the little spell that Mrsha was reading might be more than that. I would be thrilled if it was a Tier 8-9 or even an unheard of 10 spell.

    I am picturing a climatic moment where Liscor is about to fall and then Mrsha casts that spell
    and saves everyone or changes the tide of battle :).

    pirateaba

    If you read this ……THANK YOU!

    This is my favorite ongoing book series PERIOD. I am an avid reader who has read thousands of books and I consider The Wondering Inn to be my favorite thus far. When I first started reading years ago on Royal Road I wasn’t that drawn to it. Persevering through it has grown every character in my mind and each one has a special place with me now. The story is a must read for me and I have been a subscriber for some time now. I believe that you are a very talented writer and even more importantly STORY TELLER. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour novels and I consider you to be as good if not better than him. He considered himself a story teller someone who sat around a campfire and captured the attention and imagination of everyone listening. Reading your stories has me turning pages and smiling with gladness or frowning in sadness. I eagerly look forward to your works every Tuesday and Saturday.

    Thank you for blessing me with your stories. Keep up the great work!

    You are very talented and your hard work is going to pay many dividends in the future on top of what you are seeing now!

    Grenader24 🙂

    • I believe Teriarch said the spells in that spellbook only went up to 4th Tier since it was a book for beginners from an ancient civilization.

    • Note: The dragon said the tome only held spells up to tier 4.

      Besides which Mrsha suddenly getting a dues ex machina spell as a level 3? [Druid] just doesn’t match the system of this world and is too easy a conclusion to be considered good writing. I’m hoping it’s the goblins, either Rags or Numbtongue, who make the pivotal action which foils the arrogant [Lord]’s plan. Numbtongue using the dungeon to sic some monster hordes on the humans and/or Rags figuring out what the humans want the goblins to do and going off script by heading to the inn as a rally point or the dungeon as a fortress. Rags is still technically Numbtongue’s chieftain maybe she gets a memory of the dungeon and the inn.

      • Mrsha definitely won’t get an OP spell (at least from the book), but there is the fact her Class is on the higher end of classes. So there is a chance she could get something really good early on, like Laken did. Also the [Druid] class is known in the world, considering it doesn’t get a unique title, but may have been forgotten (similar to Pawn’s [Acolyte] class).

        As for Rags I don’t think she will get any memories from the Redfang Hobs. Mainly cause the memories focus on deceased Goblins, Rags didn’t really know the Hobs before she left, and she just got most of Tremborag’s tribe.

  5. it was almost always Gnolls who occupied the Watch Captain posts, filled Council seats, and so on. Pretty sure that should say Drakes not Gnolls.

    Forty years ago we went to Liscor and we were scorned and insulted beyond belief. Our representative did not last a year at Wistram before being expelled, as a failure, as proof that Gnolls were unsuited to become [Mages]. I think it should say Wistram instead of Liscor.

    Great chapter!

  6. Sometimes it is the small things that have the biggest impact and this chapter shows it. It was tied to the plot, but it did nothing big. It spoke of tales and how the gnolls lost their power or how they kept falling back until there were no places to run…

    Just a simple spell, a book and a child… No maker change to the war… But a tiny bit of hope to brighten a darkened day. Even as spells to it is nothing… And yet it was all that was need.

    That is what is so simple and so great about this chapter.

  7. Starting to wonder what effect growing up in a magically charged atmosphere like the Wandering Inn will do to Mrshia. Correct me if I’m wrong but Wistram doesn’t accept children as students do they?

    Cause going by laws of nature and all that, a creature or person absorbs pieces of the ambient magical energy, as evidenced by magical dungeons. Wouldn’t growing up and hitting that growth spurt of puberty have an effect on the growth of magic within a character?

    • Oh, good point. Way back in the first volume, Teriarch said to Ryoka, after he cured her accidental mana poisoning: “Was it intentional? If you were attempting to augment your body, I must tell you it was done poorly. A minuscule increase to your diet is the only way to properly acclimatize the human body to magic.”

    • Maybe that’s why Erin’s redfangs are so strong. Or why Antinium that eat at her inn start turning into individuals.

  8. > Gnolls were naturally good at commanding dogs, with whom they shared a distant ancestry.

    I really dislike this trope. Would you write “Humans were naturally good at commanding orangutans”?

  9. Thinking about it there is a lot of magic that essentially brainwashes people in this serial, making them do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

    Isn’t this all rather morally dubious? I’m surprised Erin hasn’t remarked on it yet as she has an extremely strong moral compass.

    • I mean, with her charisma-based class, Erin is one of those who has unnatural persuasion abilities… saved her more than once probably…

    • Its kinda iffy, a lot of real world actions can change how people think too, there are books upon books about how to make a speech that make people listen to what you say. Heck we maybe go around performing light mind control naturally with pheromone emitions.

      Stuff like skill that make you more charismatic is also a question on whether it just changes you into a more trustworthy appearance or whether it directly affect the minds of others, in this case the star they created could as well just be the physical manifestation of all the feelings the gnolls collected, and in that case is just viewing it and taking in those emotions really the different from the emotional manipulation of seeing a flower field, or a beautiful picture?

      In short magic makes stuff weird.

      • Its both actually as in that if I were to punch you in the face everyday wit zero repercussions than you would get used to me doing it and stop reacting, but the same goes with the two for flinching game. Its a really blurry line and class at higher levels can kind of play jump rope with it.

  10. I’m surprised the Gnoll council members aren’t showing the spell book to every trustworthy Gnoll in the city to see if they can learn the spells. Having more than just Mrsha being able to cast spells would really show the books worth. Not to mention the ability for maybe a few spellcasters on the defense, even if they can only cast one spell at the battle, imagine 100 new spellcasters leveling up during the siege. That’s what I think the Gnolls should be doing. But it isn’t my story and I am not them.

    Great chapter! Thanks!

    • ” When Ryoka had first given Krshia the spellbook, she and others had spent weeks trying to read it and enduring blistering headaches to no avail. But Mrsha had taught herself.”

      That’s a LOT of headaches, and remember Krshia had been trying to be a shaman, even with that potential.

  11. I was surprised to see Typhenous still hanging around the Inn. Eltistiman was stashed in the basement, which would have assuredly been searched by the guard and even if he were to have woken up and fled (I have no idea why he would flee) wouldn’t the guard at the very least use a truth spell on everyone there? Does Typhenous have a wait to beat truth spells/skills?

    Seems to me Typhenous is taking a huge risk in hanging around. All it takes if for a couple of folks to start complaining about itching bites from the mites and Pisces will figure out how the sleep spell was done.

  12. Typhenous in this chapter is Eltistiman in disguise. He’s a magician afterall. At the end of the previous chapter we see Ty walking away across the water. Makes no sense he would come back, and pretty sure El would tell someone once he escaped. I think he used an illusion to stick around.

    • If he did not come back his team who’d be in trouble with the law after all how could they no know there friend who’d do something like this. At the very least they would spend time (until the start of the war) in prison or get tossed out of Liscore. depending on if they are believed and can be trusted to fight once the city is under attack.

      I do not remember, but are you sure his team are staying at the inn? At least one of the original gold teams did not stay at the wandering inn. Might be he is a part of that team so he walked back to his inn. Again don’t remember but who’d be the simple explanation.

  13. Can’t wait for the Liscorians to wise up and ask Erin for her non-linear ideas. I can hear it now:

    Erin: “So Lord Tyrion is using the goblins as a pretext to invade? Well, then that’s easy!”
    Olesm: “Easy? What do you mean?”
    Erin: “Okay, so Tyrion needs a pretext to invade, right? So if there’s no pretext, there’s no invasion?”
    Olesm: “Yes…?”
    Erin: “And if there’s no goblin army, there’s no pretext?”
    Olesm: “I suppose, but we can’t make the goblin army disappear!”
    Erin: “Why not? There’s a huge whacking dungeon right underground that they can disappear into! And yes, that means that there’s a goblin army under the city, but Tyrion can’t use his trebuchets on underground targets, right? And then all we have to do is wait until the reinforcements get here!”
    Olesm: “…umm.”

    A good compromise is one that leaves everyone equally unhappy.

  14. The similarity between Gnoll and Goblin [Shaman] magic is really interesting. Except we’ve only seen Goblin magic used for violence, but this Gnoll spell was just really nice.

    I’m really glad that this “side story” came up now. It really added something to get the Gnolls’ perspective on the upcoming war.

  15. This was an amazing chapter Pirateaba, you probably got carried on your word count because each idea connected nicely into each other. In my own experience i once spent a whole night just making a draft for a story and later, after getting some sleep, editing it wasn’t even that hard or time consuming.

    Writing is this strange and wonderful thing where some rules doesn’t always applies, sometimes you can describe a scene with just a few words:

    “… he reached for the chair in front of him and threw it against the wall…”

    And you can add some more to give more context and convey feelings much better:

    “… he reached for the chair in front of him and threw it against the wall with all his strenght. All frustration choked inside his being was released in a single moment. The muscles in his arms were strained, not accostumed with such primal urges fueling his actions…”

    This is not a lecture, just a friendly reminder: It’s good to be watchful about your writing, but it’s important to be fair to yourself.

  16. Ive got to say, Pieces reaction made me laugh at loud so hard. His rant was basically exactly what i was thinking the entire time, which made it all the more funny.

  17. Oh hey, Ryoka finally got mentioned. She basically disappeared from the story after the end of the last book. It felt like the world forgot about her despite the massive events she was at the focus of.

    Are we ever going to see her again? She made friends with a dragon, was learning Fae magic, and was the first side character/deuteragonist and yet we haven’t seen hide nor hair in ages. Kind of feels like she got put on a bus.

  18. War of liscor’s race, i mean with every race trying to get settled within liscor, from goblin, antinium, gnoll, or human, this is strategically placed land that everyone hoped for, i really do hope in the end liscor could be the hub for every known race, maybe with antinium, goblin, or gnoll government.

  19. I visualised that scene where Gnoll representatives were giving Krshia, as if that was a scene of anime or cinema, and there was sound dimention there. With each time lights *added*, new tones were introduced into silence, rhythmic. I don’t know why, but when Krshia collected it all, it sounded tribal, with khomus instrument or something alike but a bit softer (sound of cosmic vibration) giving the s; also there was throat singing of “yaaaasng”). (*facepalm* I don’t know why I associate a vaguely-mongolian music with Gnolls moment ot awesomeness. Subcontiousness is a weird thing. But maybe because it feels like the most *cosmic* and *natural/tribal* to me?)

    Thank you for the chapter!

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