(The Wandering Inn’s audiobook is available for preorder here! It comes out September 10th!)
Tell of it to those who would marvel at tragedy; their fates. Those who would understand mercy and rage and the redemption of sin. Of honor, of family, and all things which are worthy—tell their story.
Not of the [Innkeeper], who had by now created an inn whose fame spread for hundreds of miles, who had come from another world and endured death and seized triumph by kindness and friendship. And yes, whose inn yet endured despite destruction and the threat of war.
For to understand her, to understand the [Princess] far from home, or the last child of the Stone Spears tribe, the fate of the Minotaur who had betrayed both his team and honor in madness and the darkness of below, think only of their story:
That of two rats who crawl across the ground. The two rats as fair as snow and as grey as slate, the pair alone. Let dead gods and fallen nations lie. For on a day when the wind blew cool and the smell of spring lay fragrant upon the earth, in an inn, known to some as The Wandering Inn, the two rats began their story.
They had been born and lived in the darkness. And it was the darkness they called home. Dark, but not absolute. By the sounds above they and the cracks of light in the ceiling of their world they lived, in fear, in debauchery, in plenty—for there was always food—and sometimes, yes, in competition with other rats. But the pair were brother and sister and perhaps it was that which kept them from gnawing on each other as prey.
So sing of the rats. And do not weep for tales untold, of the Necromancer who plotted and made monsters out of flesh and bone and the ichor of legends. Nor weep for the fate of a [King], or a land imperiled by darkness, Rhir, the cursed, blighted lands. Such tales would be told, and yet, it was two rats who deserved the songs of muses this day.
For they were rats! And the passing of [Kings] meant nothing to them. Yet, would they call their fates any less than a Human [Emperor], a sovereign Selphid ruler of old? No! They were rats, and their quest to find something to nibble on matched that of a Dragon’s fate.
They scurried across the floor, sniffing. They searched for food, although food was to be had in plenty. But a rat, in the way [Philosophers] and [Sages] are never content with the limits of their knowledge, continually searched for more food.
Perhaps it was a longer plan, an understanding of the tenuous game of life and death that was the fate of all animals and people that drove them to this; a planning against the future that was the basis of conscious thought. Maybe they were just tired of eating grains. Either way, they searched.
One was white. The other grey. They bumped into each other and squeaked quietly. One, the white, twitched his whiskers at his sister, the grey. She vaguely moved to one side. They sniffed at each other. Then they went back to the bag.
The fount of life sprang forth there. And accordingly, the numbers of the rats had multiplied once, and then again and again! With each generation swelling, and so they endured. The chosen rats of the dark place, who were surely blessed above all other rodents. They swarmed the bag, nibbling at the coarse exterior, fighting for the fat grains that spilled forth. The two rats joined the conflagration and ate. And then they were full, and so wandered off to rest.
This was the tale of two rats. They dozed, full to bursting of food. In time, perhaps they would seek a mate; they were young, even for rats. Perhaps they might consummate their lineage with incest in full tradition of Grecian tragedy. Or maybe they would seek mates further flung; the People of the Grain Sack were descended of only a few rats, so it was all frankly somewhat incestuous.
But such was fate. Either way, the two rats slept, growing fatter. When they woke, they might excrete, or eat again. Or—search once more for another tantalizing morsel in the darkness. That was their existence.
…And that was about it.
Enough of rats! In her inn, a young Gnoll with white fur awoke. She yawned, stretched, and smiled. Her name was Mrsha and she was very happy with herself. She woke from her nap and rolled over. On her back, she stared up at her paws.
She’d done it. She’d leveled up again. She was the best, most clever Gnoll child in the world. For who could match her? The Gnoll sat up, and remembered.
Level 4 [Druid]. That was right. She was level four. And she was only…Mrsha had to count. Six. Or was it seven? Plains Gnolls didn’t generally count birthdays by exact dates, only by the passing of years in the winter. By that standard, Mrsha had already become seven, but she decided she was still six. Because Erin had promised she’d have a party on her birthday. With cake.
The thought of cake made Mrsha’s tail wag. But since it was already wagging, that only amplified the motion. Because she’d done more than just level! Or rather, there had been a reason for her to reach Level 4.
She’d learned a spell. A whole new spell. It had been very hard work and Mrsha had learned it just this morning. It hadn’t been from the special spellbook Krshia let her read when she visited the [Shopkeeper]’s house. Oh no. It had been from her special teacher.
Mrsha looked around for him. Normally he was easy to spot, but Moore must have moved while she took a little nap in the sun of one window. Mrsha got up and sniffed. Where was he?
In the outhouse. Of course. Mrsha’s nose was as sensitive as they came. Her ears too. She was a Plains Gnoll after all, and she could track a rabbit through the grass with her eyes closed. Moore, by contrast, was easy. She raced over to the door, hearing heavy footsteps outside. When the door opened, there he was.
“Oh, hello, Mrsha. Did you have a good nap?”
The half-Giant blinked down at Mrsha as he came in from outside. His hands were still wet from washing in the trough Erin had installed with complementary (and mandatory) soap outside. Mrsha waved excitedly up at him and then did something new. She put her paws over her mouth and then spread them wide, with a huge smile.
It was a special word. A sign, a language Mrsha was developing on her own that her special people knew. Erin, Lyonette, Numbtongue, and Moore, among a handful of others. The gesture Mrsha had used was a special hello for when she was happy. It meant ‘I love you, hello!’
And Moore knew it. The half-Giant’s face lit up. He bent, his huge expression beaming with the pleasure of Mrsha’s compliment. And she smiled too, because Moore was one of her special people. He was big, strong, nice—he always gave her bits of his food—and he had saved her from the Raskghar. He could be scary. But he would never be to her.
“Thank you for the lovely greeting, Mrsha. But what’s made you so happy? Your nap? If only everyone could do that. Seborn, for instance.”
The half-Giant chuckled. He blinked as someone coughed behind him.
“Oh, pardon me.”
Moore and Mrsha realized he was still standing in the door to the inn. Embarrassed, Moore shuffled to one side and a Drake walked past him, sighing. Moore flushed and carefully motioned Mrsha to walk back inside. She stared with narrowed eyes at the Drake and then sighed. Silently.
She followed Moore back towards his table which she’d been napping on. And as she did, she navigated around a pair of Dullahans standing and discussing politics, a Garuda (not Bevussa), heading for the outhouses, tables full of guests, Ishkr making the rounds with a platter full of drinks, and a spilled puddle of ale.
The inn was still full. And since it was her inn, or rather, she thought of it as her inn, her place, Mrsha was a bit aggrieved by it all. It had been fun the last few days, but now it was almost claustrophobic.
Guests from Liscor and Pallass circulated the tables, talking, chatting, watching a play in the background—all while the staff tended to them, exchanging alcohol and food for money. Which was all very well and good, but it got in Mrsha’s way. And the noise had been really hard to get to sleep in. Mrsha had had to come up with her own solution to that. Which was…
“Now what’s this?”
Moore exclaimed on reaching the table. He stared at a patch of magical grass, blooming from the wood. Mrsha leapt up, put her head back in the soft grass, and felt some of the ambient noise die out. She’d conjured it herself. With her magic. Because yes, Mrsha was a [Mage]. Or [Druid], rather. She was magical.
“Well, that’s something. But Mrsha, you shouldn’t do that to Erin’s tables.”
The half-Giant gently scolded Mrsha. She exhaled through her nose dismissively. It was just magical grass! It would disappear soon. And it was soft and made a nice pillow. She looked up at Moore and the half-Giant couldn’t find it in his heart to lecture her. He sat down in one of the extra-large chairs Erin had bought just for people like him (and Maughin), and sighed.
“Ah. I’m getting a bit spoiled, staying here. Not that I mind, you understand? I think we deserve it after the dungeon and it’s hardly expensive staying here! But Seborn wants to get on the road and Jelaqua’s um, involved with Maughin. But it will be hard going back to the road, or sleeping in a barn after this.”
He sighed, and Mrsha looked up at him sadly. She didn’t want him to go. He’d left once and that had been dreadfully sad. The half-Giant avoided her gaze.
“I have to, Mrsha. In time. Not today of course. And I promise I’ll be back. Now er, what had you so excited?”
He looked at her. Mrsha looked up, now excited. That was right! Her new spell and her level! She had to tell Moore. Only—she paused. This would be tricky.
This was what Mrsha did. She waved for Moore’s attention, then solemnly put her paw on her chest. Then she raised one paw while the other pointed a furry finger at her head. And she pointed with two paws to the side—one flat, the other sideways as if gesturing to something—and ended it with one finger, moving in a circle from the bottom to top and ending with a flick. Moore stared at her blankly.
The entire message was: I-level-because-spell. Each series of gestures had their meaning, and Mrsha had worked very hard to make her own words! Unfortunately…Moore hadn’t been around when she’d labored over them with Erin and Lyonette gently helping and encouraging. His forehead wrinkled.
“I…something…something…something? I’m sorry, Mrsha. Can you explain to me?”
Mrsha sighed again. But she patiently reenacted each part. The worst was ‘because’, the two paws pointing like an explanation. Moore couldn’t get that. Or the first part.
“You’re pointing at your head. You think? You…raising something. You want to raise something? You want me to lift something up. No?”
He looked apologetic as Mrsha lost patience and switched to the last bit. The finger swishing was shorthand for ‘spell’. But Moore eventually got it when Mrsha pulled out her wand and performed the same motion.
“Oh! You learnt the spell! Yes, you did. You’re very smart, Mrsha. A genius!”
He beamed and patted Mrsha gently on the head, his hand very, very light. Mrsha sighed a last time. Close enough. She nodded and Moore beamed.
“Can you show me again? Just like I taught you. Focus…”
Mrsha ignored the rest because she’d already learned the spell. It was so much easier than trying to learn from Krshia’s spellbook. Maybe it was because Moore was a [Green Mage] himself, but she’d copied his spell after only two days of teaching! And without getting nosebleeds or headaches that made Krshia ban Mrsha from reading from the book. Now Mrsha concentrated, remembering what Moore had shown her. She raised her paw—
And a huge thorn sprouted from the pad on her paw. Moore applauded and Mrsha beamed, sweating with success.
“Well done, Mrsha! [Thorn Hand]! Or rather, [Thorn Paw] for you! That’s exactly right. Can you grow another?”
Mrsha did after a moment of concentration. Now two pointy thorns protruded from her paw, one from her palm, the other from the back of her paw. It was ungainly and a bit heavy; she poked a thorn into the table experimentally. The wood of the table gave as the thorn gouged a bit into it. Moore nodded as Mrsha touched the thorn and found it wasn’t sharp—to her.
“That’s right. You made the thorns like I showed you, so they won’t cut you. That’s an important lesson for [Green Mages]. And [Druids]. That’s why I taught you it first.”
He winked conspiratorially as he whispered Mrsha’s class. She beamed up at him. It was important! The thorn was just dull and hard, but when she waved her paw—Moore leaned back hurriedly.
“Careful, Mrsha! I told you, you must be very careful with that. You can cut someone badly with those thorns. Remember your promise?”
He looked as stern as he ever did with her. Mrsha nodded solemnly. The half-Giant nodded slowly. Then his face turned a bit despondent. He reached for his mug of fresh cow’s milk and drank what would be the equivalent of an entire cup for Mrsha in a single gulp.
“I don’t know if it’s wise, to teach you a combat spell. But this is the kind of reality we face. And you’ve seen worse. But promise me you’ll be careful.”
Mrsha nodded again. Moore exhaled and smiled. He wiped at his mouth.
“I know you will be. And remember, that spell is a gateway to grander spells. It’s technically Tier 0, but much harder than [Grow Grass]. In time, you can cast [Thorny Fist], or even [Armor of Thorns]. [Barrier of Thorns]. [Thorn Spray]…you’ve seen me use those spells, right?”
The little Gnoll nodded eagerly, her eyes shining. She’d seen the Halfseekers covered by the [Armor of Thorns] spell. Moore saw her signal for a story; opening her paws like a book and smiled.
“A story? Oh, about the spells? You want to know how they’re used? Well, you saw my [Mass Armor of Thorns] spell, didn’t you? Jelaqua and Seborn and I get covered by them. They don’t restrict movement much if I use them, and they cut anything we run into. It’s good extra armor; we used to use it fighting Ogres one time and—”
“Moore! Hey, Moore! Get over here!”
The half-Giant cut off as a voice interrupted him. He looked up and Mrsha saw a pale hand waving. There sat Jelaqua, who changed bodies like other people changed clothes. A Human woman today, waving from her seat next to a Dullahan as large as Moore. A Drowned Man sat at the table, his arms folded, looking characteristically grumpy.
Moore hesitated and broke off from his tale. He glanced at Mrsha and sighed.
“Coming, Jelaqua! Sorry, Mrsha. She wants me to talk with Maughin. I’ll tell you the story later, alright? Why don’t you come with me?”
He beckoned, smiling. Mrsha hesitated and peered at Jelaqua and Maughin. Her eyes narrowed. They were sitting next to each other and Jelaqua was leaning down to smile at the Dullahan’s head resting on the table. They smelled of sex and looked like any young Gnoll couple back in the Stone Spears tribe.
Mrsha was, after all, a Gnoll, and not many things were secret when you lived in a small tribe with ears better than most dogs. Moreover, she had the same vibe from Jelaqua and Maughin. They were going to be like young Gnoll couples. The kind that no one liked in a tribe, who had to use the furthest-away tents because they were so noisy at night. And who constantly looked at each other and never played with Mrsha. She turned up her head and Moore sighed.
“No? I’d like it.”
Even then. Mrsha turned her head and waved her paws, shooing Moore away. He got up with a groan.
“I don’t blame you. Coming, Jelaqua! Don’t throw things! Stupid lovesick couples…”
He took on a bit of Seborn’s grumpiness as he came over. Leaving Mrsha by herself. A bit put out, despite having made what she considered the wise decision, Mrsha grumpily yanked up her magical grass and watched it begin to dissipate. She looked around the crowded inn.
Normally, she’d enjoy such a sight. But sometimes, yes, sometimes, Mrsha liked the quiet of the inn. Because that meant Drassi had time to play with her, or Ishkr would let her help in the kitchen. She could roam from table to table in the huge [Grand Theatre], play tag with Apista. And it also meant Erin and Lyonette had time for her.
Numbtongue too. He was nice. Even if the other Goblin, the one named Pyrite was in him too. But Numbtongue, like Mrsha, didn’t like the crowded inn so he was in Celum with Octavia. Mrsha would have gone with them, but she was banned from the [Alchemist]’s shop. As if she’d knock over potions by accident! Mrsha just wanted to learn alchemy. But no…
Grumpily, Mrsha crawled off the table and slunk to the floor. It was immediately occupied by a pair of Dullahans. They stared at her as they removed their heads. She stared up at them and walked on all fours.
This was no good. No, not at all. This inn was too crowded! And as she thought that, Mrsha glanced up and saw the sun shining through some of the windows. Look at that. It was a lovely spring day and Mrsha could smell the outdoors each time someone went outside. She glanced at the bright skies and came to an immediate decision.
It was time to go outside. Yes! Of course! Why hadn’t she thought of that? It was far too nice to stay indoors any longer. And Mrsha, no, Mrsha the Adventurer knew exactly what she could do outside.
Memory stirred. And Mrsha, Mrsha the Brave, recalled another time when she’d gone outdoors. There had been trials then. Trials and tribulations when she got back and was punished. But it had been an adventure. The best kind. She had been a hero. She had gone out with her trusty companion, Apista, and defeated Crelers. With her allies.
The wind blew. Inside, Mrsha jumped up onto another empty table and stared out the window. Her blood began to boil—metaphorically—as she recalled those glory days.
Once, Crelers had threatened the land guarded by Mrsha the Wise and Magnificent. They had made an incursion into a cave. Laid waste to the lands. Killed the inhabitants and thrown the realm into peril while evil Poo Slimes had terrorized innocent Healing Slimes. Against those odds, who could triumph?
Mrsha. But it had not been just Mrsha. A brave alliance, a desperate fellowship had been formed. Mrsha, Apista, the Healing Slime, and the doughty Fortress Beavers of the cave had teamed up with the ambivalently evil Shield Spiders of the pits to drive the Crelers back. What had become of them? Mrsha stared out a window, ignoring a Garuda asking if she could move.
How had the truce between Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders fared? Had the brave and glorious defenders kept their ancient, desperate alliance, or fallen into treachery and decay over the past…months of peace? Yes, perhaps they had. For the memories of spiders and beavers were short. The Guardians of the Cave as they were surely known may have forsaken their charge, passed into complacency and forgotten the lessons of old.
But Mrsha the Great and Terrible had been there. Mrsha the White, with her wand of magic. And if evil threatened, surely it was up to her to rally the species. Slime, beaver, and spider. So Mrsha turned. Excited, filled with the call to adventure, she leapt off the table where the Garuda was sitting, staring at her.
The Gnoll cub padded towards the door. As she did, she waved to Apista. Her sworn companion and defender! The Ashfire Bee flapped one wing.
She didn’t move. She was hepped up on Faerie Flowers. Mrsha glared. Reluctantly, Apista abandoned the flower boxes and flew over and landed on Mrsha’s head.
That was better. Mrsha the Tamer of Bees reached for her wand and proudly removed it from the secret holster on her side. She waved it over her head and thought about her new spell. Yes, it was time for an adventure! She was not the [Mage] she used to be, but a powerful [Druid]. One ready to face an even greater threat! Like Rock Crabs?
…Okay, not Rock Crabs. Mrsha the Prudent walked unsteadily towards the door on two feet as a Drake opened it, adjusting his trousers. Then she gave up and put the wand in her mouth and bounded forwards. The sun-filled Floodplains called to her. It was time for the second adventure of Mrsha the Brave and Glorio—
“Oh no you don’t, young Miss!”
A pair of clawed hands snatched Mrsha. Alarmed, she twisted and saw a foe! Drassi! Drassi the Talkative! The [Barmaid] and [Gossip] frowned at Mrsha, looking uncharacteristically strict.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Mrsha squirmed, trying to wriggle free. She couldn’t be held here! Adventures called! She went limp, but Drassi, growling, managed to secure Mrsha. She swatted at Apista as the bee lazily flew around her head.
“Mrsha! Don’t be uncooperative! You know you’re not allowed outside without a minder. Remember the Raskghar? The Creler eggs? No way.”
Flee! Mrsha pushed at the hands. Drassi nearly lost her, but she was too strong! And then she turned and Mrsha heard her call out.
“Excuse me, Lyonette!”
Uh oh. Mrsha went still. She looked up innocently as a fair, red-headed girl turned. Lyonette spotted Drassi holding Mrsha back from the open doorway and made a beeline towards them. Mrsha gave the [Princess] her most loving smile. Lyonette frowned and looked at Drassi.
“What’s Mrsha done this time?”
“She tried to leave the inn. Unsupervised. I don’t want to put her down or she’ll bolt for it.”
Both Drake and Human turned a severe eye towards Mrsha. The Gnoll cub immediately changed plans. She looked up as Drassi let her down and sat. She turned her back towards the invitingly open door and looked up innocently. Lyonette folded her arms.
“I see. Well, it seems like someone’s in need of some lessons. I had them planned for this evening, but I can take a break. Drassi, let Erin know I’m taking over.”
“I can’t. She’s in Liscor with Krshia! The debates are still happening, remember?”
“Of course. Well—Drassi, take over and give me a short break. I’m going to have a word with Mrsha here.”
So saying, Lyonette carried Mrsha upstairs. The Gnoll child wriggled until she was in Lyonette’s room. Then the [Princess] put her down and put her hands on her hips. Mrsha sighed as she looked up.
“I know you want to go out, Mrsha. But you promised to stay here. Don’t you recall?”
Mrsha avoided Lyonette’s gaze. Well, yes, she did recall that promise in a vague sense. But she’d made that ages ago! And today was so nice…she would’ve just gone a little bit away. A mile at most. Maybe two.
The [Princess] sighed, seeing Mrsha turn her head somewhat sulkily.
“Mrsha, the inn’s been busy. I’m sorry about that, but we’ve been making lots of money. And we’ll put it to good use! You’ve seen my designs for the new inn, right? And the Antinium at work?”
The Gnoll nodded reluctantly. Lyonette nodded.
“Well then, it won’t be forever. I’m sure it’ll die down soon; we’re already getting less crowds over on Pallass’ side. Can you be a good girl and wait? Inside? Without causing as much trouble as Erin?”
Mrsha considered it. She could. But…she was bored! She signaled that to Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned.
“I…am…oh Mrsha, I know you’re bored. And I promise, we’ll have some fun tonight! We can even skip the lessons today. Alright? Why don’t you sit with…Moore? Or watch a play?”
But she’d seen all of them. Mrsha grumpily folded her arms and looked at her paws. She felt like she was back at the Stone Spears tribe. Only, there, there’d been other Gnolls. And Urksh always had something useful for her to do. Here, Mrsha wasn’t allowed to roam. Or even go to the city! She pointed that out—by pointing out Lyonette’s window. The [Princess] nodded.
“I know, you can’t go to the city either. Because of the crowds and Krshia being busy. But in a few days, this election nonsense will be over! And then—”
She frowned as Mrsha swiveled the entire way around to stare at the wall. A few days? That was forever. Lyonette sighed, raked at her sweaty hair with her hands, and groaned as she heard something crash downstairs.
“Mrsha, I’m so sorry. But you can sit with anyone inside—or if you promise, you can go outside and only watch Ceria being boiled.”
Mrsha sniffed disparagingly. Listening to Ceria scream insults as her team boiled her in her tub was only interesting for the first twenty minutes. Lyonette didn’t understand. Mrsha had to run about! She didn’t get it because she was old. Because she had red hair. Because she was a [Princess]. Because she was Human?
But of course, Mrsha couldn’t convey any of that yet. All she could do was look fed up and fold her arms. Which she did. Lyonette sighed.
“Okay, okay. How about this? You stay inside and if you don’t cause any trouble, we’ll go into Liscor tomorrow and buy you a new toy. How about it? And tomorrow I’ll ask Erin to manage the inn and we can go for a walk in Celum. Or even outside the city!”
Mrsha perked up. That did sound nice! She nodded and Lyonette stuck out her hand and extended a pinkie.
Mrsha lacked the length of her fingers and a Human’s dexterity, but she managed to do the pinkie promise that Erin had taught the two in the end. She looked up at Lyonette, still a bit woebegone and the [Princess] had to hug her.
“I know, sweetie. But I’ll hire more staff. And—and like I said, this inn’s going to change! I’ll make sure of that. And I promise you, you’ll get to go outside! I just need to get some things from Zevara. If I had my family’s cloak, I’d be happier with letting you roam close to the inn. Just be good today, alright? Someday soon…”
She paused, her voice trailing off. Lyonette stared at Mrsha, and then turned to look out the window.
She didn’t complete the sentence. Lyonette only blinked when Mrsha jumped into her lap. She yelped and scolded Mrsha, but gently. And Mrsha occupied her so Lyonette wouldn’t be lost in thought again. Or say that word.
Someday. The word scared Mrsha more than any dreams of Raskghar or monsters or even Goblin Lords. Because it lay ahead. Because one of the great secrets Mrsha had been told was that Lyonette was a [Princess]. A true [Princess] of a kingdom far, far away. And she did not belong in this inn.
Someday, she would leave. Just like Ryoka. Even though Lyonette was better than a mother. But she was a [Princess]. Mrsha didn’t want to think of that. So she let Lyonette scoop her up and hug her tight.
“You are my sweetest little Mrsha. Yes, you are. And I’ll never let you go. Now, be good and find something to do, okay? If you want, I’ll get you something nice to eat. Like a little salad?”
Those were just leaves. Mrsha wrinkled her nose. Lyonette let her down, chuckling, and Mrsha reluctantly went downstairs. She had promised, so she kept her word, even though she cast three longing glances at the door. Lyonette was keeping an eye on her though, even as she supervised an accident involving a bunch of broken tankards at the bar.
Eventually she stopped watching and Mrsha wandered around the room. Moore was there. And Jelaqua and Seborn and the big Dullahan named Maughin. So were some Gnolls that Mrsha knew. Among them was Raekea the [Armorer], taking a break from arguing in Liscor.
Mrsha wished Xif were here; maybe she could sell him more fur! Or—or he could show her how to make a potion. She was just debating going over to Seborn and seeing if she could steal a dagger from the sheathe at his side when she heard it.
A tiny squeak, amid all the noise. Mrsha’s eyes went round. And then she smiled in delight.
The light shone down, breaking up the world of the People of the Grain Sack. It was a harsh light, unfamiliar in the darkness. And the people fled, fearing the noise and light from above. But the two rats, white and grey, were yet new to the world. And in their incaution, they wandered closer to that bright place, and the tantalizing smells from above.
It sealed their doom. For no sooner did they scurry forwards, brother and sister, then a harbinger of the end fell from above. Down she came, leaping down the cliffs of wood. And the two froze and then fled.
Alas. They had paused too long. Moved too slowly. In a single bound she was on them and they turned, squeaking in alarm. For pity. For salvation. But the People of the Grain Sack, the rats were cowardly and hid. And the two were lifted up, up. And caught, in a paw almost as large as they were. They wriggled, trying to break free, but a vise stronger than steel surrounded them, carried them away, through the air.
Oh what cruel fate! What tyranny! The rats wriggled and squeaked, expecting their demise at the paws of the white-furred titan, the giant monster. They bared their teeth in defiance, before their descent into hell—
Mrsha plonked the rats on the ground and happily pinned one with a foot as she inspected the other, holding it up by the tail. They squeaked and wriggled and she grinned. Look what she’d found! She glanced about and saw more scurrying. But since she only had two paws, Mrsha decided these two were enough.
They were lovely rats. Young, but fat and very active! Her eyes lit up as she shook them and saw them try to scamper away despite being pressed down. Now this was entertainment! She loosened her grip and one of the rats, the grey, shot away. Mrsha leapt after her and nearly dropped the other.
Whoops! They were quick! And Mrsha was well aware that if they ran, they’d probably disappear. She considered the problem and then her eyes lit up as she remembered something from her old tribe. It didn’t hurt to remember them as much. And this was something she’d used to…Mrsha bent over her captured prizes and they writhed and protested as she grabbed their tails.
It was a small knot. But it was all that was needed. As soon as the titan let go, the two rats felt and saw what had happened. Where one’s tail ended, the other began. A knot captured the two. And yet, in that same instant, the constraining paws let go! They could flee!
But hubris and the mortal tale of self-interest was the truer captor. The two rats fled—in opposite directions. And they both felt the sting, the pulling pain and stopped. They were trapped by their own tails. Trapped by each other! They turned, snarling. How quickly did the bonds of siblings fall away? And the giant scooped them up.
What savage playacting at godhood. What contempt for mortal foibles! The two rats looked up and realized they were bound. Captive. They raced about, intertwined, two separate things made into one dysfunctional whole. And the giant smiled.
This was really fun. Mrsha watched as the two rats tried to escape and kept pulling at each other. She prodded one and it recoiled, bumping into the grey rat. They tried to scurry off in tandem; Mrsha snagged the linked tails. They weren’t nearly as fast, tied together! She put them down on the steps and watched one trying to pull the other down.
Fun, fun, fun! She had new pets! Mrsha wanted to show everyone. Moore and Lyonette and Drassi and—she looked up and scampered with the two rats in her paws. She looked around the crowded inn when she returned to the light and kicked the trapdoor shut. The rats were still in her paws; they were quivering. Mrsha gazed done at one and realized it had pooed in her paws! Annoyed, she wiped her paw on the rat and looked about.
Now, Lyonette wasn’t here…probably in the kitchens and Drassi was busy. Moore was over there, but there was where Jelaqua was. And Maughin. Mrsha frowned impatiently. She wanted to show someone else! Who—
And then Mrsha saw her. Sitting at a table with a Drake. She hurried over and tugged at a furry leg. Raekea, the best [Armorer] in Liscor, looked down and blinked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll hesitated, but Raekea’s smile lit up her face.
“Little Mrsha, yes? Hello! And what’s that you have?”
Mrsha brightened. Some Gnolls were still scared of her. In both Liscor and Pallass; you could smell it. Even the nice Rufelt had been a bit uneasy. Xif hadn’t been, and Krshia and Elirr and a lot of the others weren’t, but some still looked at her white fur and whispered the word. Doombringer. Mrsha didn’t like that. She hated it and it made her feel awful.
But Raekea just smiled and she smelled only of coal and smoke and iron. She and the Drake sitting next to her looked down as Mrsha jumped onto a chair and placed her prize on the table. The Drake paused, stared at the two rats tied together, scampering about on the table and dropped his fork with an exclamation. Raekea just chuckled.
“Hah! Two rats! Now where did you find those? Wait—you’ve tied them together by the tails?”
“Eurgh! Are there rats in this inn?”
The Drake looked horrified. He was eating a steak and hurriedly pulled his plate back as the grey rat dragged her brother towards it. He was trying to make a flying leap off the table. Raekea wasn’t bothered at all. She looked at Mrsha’s hesitant face and slapped the Drake on the shoulder casually.
“Beclist, hush! They’re just rats. Tiny ones! They couldn’t hurt you even if they bit through your scales.”
“Why are they tied together?”
“Hmm. Because it’s funny to watch them try to run about? I used to do the same thing when I was a cub, Mrsha. Did you only find two? When I came to Liscor, when I was young, I would get as many as I could and tie them all together! They call them rat kings. Did you ever do that?”
She looked at Mrsha as the Gnoll shook her head, delighted. She hadn’t! But then, she’d only found a few rats in the wilderness and they were a lot faster and harder to catch. Raekea laughed.
“Ah, well, it is easy in cities, yes?”
“Rats. Can they not be on the table?”
The Drake groaned. He was fairly slim, although his arms had lots of muscle. Raekea gave him a reproving look.
“Don’t be rude. Little Mrsha is showing us her prize! It’s what Gnoll children do. You should say how good it was of her to catch them! I was a Plains Gnoll, you know. Don’t be stifling.”
The Drake opened his mouth, saw the glint in Raekea’s eye, and heaved a big sigh. He eyed the rats and Mrsha, who was looking at him expectantly.
“Er, good job, Miss Mrsha. Nice rats. Now…Raeky, treasure of my hoard, I’m eating. I don’t want to have to look at those rats, fond recollections or not.”
He looked at Raekea and she rolled her eyes, but fondly. He was Raekea’s husband, and so she winked at Mrsha and the Gnoll took them off the table. The rats quivered in her lap as she grinned up at the big Gnoll.
“There. Nasty rats are gone.”
“They’re still there. I know they are. I’m almost off my lunch.”
Beclist grumbled. He speared a bit of cut steak and Raekea plucked a morsel off his plate. He sighed as she took another and offered it to Mrsha, who joyfully accepted it. He balked when the third piece went to the two rats.
“Oh come on, Raekea! That’s my lunch! I came here to support you, not feed rats!”
The [Armorer] snorted and flicked her husband’s neck spines with one paw affectionately.
“You came here because I told you they sold steaks at any hour, made well, yes? Don’t lie. And if it bothers you so, I can take little Mrsha into the city. Honored Krshia wanted me to anyways. This inn’s too crowded for a Gnoll child. She should run free for a bit, right?”
She winked at Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded rapidly. Someone understood! She wagged her tail as the two rats squeaked. Raekea smiled at Mrsha again.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to Krshia about this. I know she lets little Mrsha come to her apartment, but we should let her visit more of us. Would you like that, Mrsha? You are a Gnoll, after all. And it is not good to be apart from your true people. Ishkr and the others are fine, but you are also a Plains Gnoll, born and true. Some of us in Liscor are such, and you should be with us more often.”
She held out a paw and Mrsha, beaming, took it. Both [Armorer] and [Druid]’s tails wagged, because it was true. They were both Plains Gnolls. Raekea saw Mrsha nod excitedly and she stood up.
“Well then, why not now? I’ll head to Liscor with Mrsha, husband dearest. To spare you from fear of rats. Better hide them too, Mrsha. Or else Miss Lyonette might kick up a fuss! Humans and Drakes are weird about rodents. But they don’t mind rabbits.”
She laughed and Mrsha laughed silently too. She ran to get her belt pouch, overjoyed. She’d get to go to Liscor! Raekea bent down and kissed her husband on the cheek. He smiled at her, but then called out as they left his table.
“It’s not just me being picky about rats, Raeky! It’s you Gnolls being weird! It’s not—”
He looked around for confirmation. Unfortunately, he met the eyes of the red Garuda who was enjoying a hamburger at the next table. She shrugged.
“Hey, I like rats, Mister. Don’t know what your problem is.”
The Drake [Blacksmith] sighed. And Mrsha, after some debate, held Raekea’s hand as she hid the two squirming rats in her special belt pouch. And Lyonette sighed, but nodded.
“You can go, Mrsha. But don’t make trouble for Miss Raekea!”
She turned to the female Gnoll.
“I do appreciate it. I’d take Mrsha myself, but…”
Lyonette indicated the busy inn. Raekea bared her teeth in the big Gnoll grin. Drakes did it too; only Humans got nervous when they saw all those teeth. She nodded as Mrsha held her paw.
“Of course. Mrsha will be fine, I promise. And we will be among our own kind. I will let her play in the park.”
Our own kind. How long had it been since she’d been accepted by other Gnolls? Not since her fur turned white. Mrsha’s heart leapt and she smiled proudly at Raekea. The [Armorer] winked as Lyonette nodded distractedly.
“Sounds great! I’ve got to run. Tell Erin I need her help if she’s not busy! If she’s causing a scene, don’t tell her I said that!”
And in the city, Mrsha walked with Raekea, carefully holding her squirming belt pouch with one paw, Raekea’s paw with the other. She walked on two legs as the older Gnoll gently led her through crowded streets. And Raekea chatted to her, as only a Gnoll could.
“It will be a grand thing for you, Mrsha child. This Meeting of the Tribes. Not only will you come, you will be the honored guest of the Silverfang Tribe. Ours. I think I will go, if I can. Krshia will of course; and some others from the city. But you will be with us. You must!”
Mrsha looked up anxiously. Among so many other Gnolls? Raekea just smiled and squeezed gently. Her paws were rougher from swinging a hammer, but her smile was very kind.
“Of course. You know magic.”
She whispered the word so quietly not even other Gnolls walking down the street could have heard. And the [Armorer]’s eyes shone.
“It is a thing we thought Gnolls were cursed by. But not only you, but I hear this Ferkr of Pallass has gained it. Two [Mages]! Perhaps—perhaps it may take away from the worth of our gift. But the spellbook speaks for itself. And we have more to offer. Things we learned from your Miss Erin, and, hopefully, the worth of Krshia Silverfang being part of Liscor’s Council! That would be hugely valuable in itself.”
Mrsha nodded seriously. But her heart still fluttered at the idea. In Liscor, people had feared her as one with white fur, the sole survivor of a tribe, marked as a Doombringer, a cursed one. And those were City Gnolls. Those who lived in tribes, the Plains Gnolls, would be even…but Raekea was holding Mrsha’s hand tightly and reassuring her.
“It will be fine. Perhaps Krshia might even ask our Chieftain, her sister, to name you as one of our tribe. Not to forget the Stone Spears of course. But what she plans is to show the others that white fur is not cursed! The Raskghar prove that. You saved our people. Come to that, we will bring some of the dead bodies. Proof of our hated foes. That too is great worth. Although it is not something to be proud of.”
She shuddered and Mrsha did too. She had been there. Raekea paused and bent to nuzzle Mrsha with her furry cheeks. It was such a Gnollish thing to do—Mrsha couldn’t remember when that had happened last. With Urksh? She clung to Raekea and the [Armorer] whispered.
“I’m sorry. I should not have brought that up, no. You still have nightmares? Elirr tells me he does. But they are defeated. And if they should return—no—we will erase them, from this dungeon and wherever they hide. The Pride of Kelia, they have sworn to Krshia to hunt down the Raskghar, yes? The adventurers will find the last of them in the dungeon and destroy them.”
That made Mrsha feel better. But she did still dream of the Raskghar. Of Nokha, and the ritual. And yes, sometimes she woke up in fear, thrashing, until Lyonette held her. It was almost as comforting to see Raekea’s face. Because they spoke as Gnoll to Gnoll. Raekea paused, then pointed at Mrsha’s belt pouch.
“Your little rats might be suffocating. Take them out, yes? No one will mind.”
Mrsha did just that. The two rats came out, blinking in the daylight. She poked one and it squeaked. The look on its face and the timing made both Gnolls giggle, Mrsha silently.
Air! The sweet rush of it filled the rat’s lungs. And daylight! A foreign land lay before them, one made of light and giants! Had they reached some land of titans? The two tried to flee, but their captor held them tight.
What irony! That they should find a land beyond which they had ever dreamt of, with sights and places unimaginable to go! And yet they were captive. Prisoner. Above them, the largest titan chuckled as the small one tossed the rats up and down.
“Now, let us find the one we seek. For we may be Plains Gnolls, but we do battle as City Gnolls here, Mrsha. And with words we must take a place on the Council. It is power, and respect and yes, benefit to the city that drives us. Not vanity alone.”
And the white Gnoll nodded, and the two walked until the drifting people of the city of Liscor became thick as flies, and then a living, breathing mass. A crowd, listening in a place where four streets met. And in that place, two sides argued, one Gnoll and one Drake.
So spoke the Drake, with fury and ire.
“The Antinium cannot be trusted! Don’t you see the lies in the web they weave? The insects would take your city and drown you in with gold and pretty gestures. Let us build a city alone!”
And more than one person in the crowd listened, and was troubled by his words because they made sense. Not long past were the Antinium Wars. But standing opposite her, a Gnoll replied in words no less eloquent.
“So you say alone, Lism. But who can be alone? We are Gnolls and Drakes. And here has come Pallass, flooding to our city to acknowledge it! Not because of any one Drake or Gnoll. But because of a Human! The very ones you rail against. Antinium held our walls. Antinium died for us. But it is all species I say Liscor should accept! And I say you would drive all but Drakes out!”
And those words stuck in the Drake’s throat and he choked and the crowd murmured. But thus went the debates. And as Raekea paused with Mrsha on the edge of the crowd, she whispered to Mrsha.
“It seems to be deadlocked. No, in our favor. It is your [Innkeeper] who tilts the scales. And a truer friend to Gnolls we have yet to find.”
So she pointed and Mrsha saw Erin Solstice, standing in the front. And Lism ignored her and as his nephew, Olesm, for whom Mrsha saw as both good and evil, whispered to him, he replied. Or at least, tried.
“You are deflecting from the point with each statement, Krshia Silverfang. It’s not about other cities or even Humans—”
“That’s me! Hi, Lism! Remember me?”
“—Humans, as I was saying—it’s about one thing alone. Antinium. And I say again: have Klbkch, Klbkch the Slayer, swear that the Antinium offer Liscor no threat. I’m all for other species—”
“Except me! Do you remember how we met? You ripped me off! I paid a gold coin for a basket!”
And at that point Lism closed his eyes and gnashed his teeth, and Mrsha and Raekea both laughed in delight, for Erin was being Erin and had a [Loud Voice]. The Drake went on, huffily, but losing momentum with each word.
“And if you think the Antinium won’t turn on the city when it suits them—”
“Do you remember trying to rip me off after that? By making Olesm play chess with me? Hi, Olesm!”
“Shut up! This is not about you, Human! So be quiet while we debate the real threat!”
Perhaps the spittle that flew struck even eight rows of people standing closest; it sprayed those in front. But it did not stop the [Innkeeper], who replied to the outraged Drake without missing a beat.
“You say it’s all about Antinium. But all you’re doing is painting them in a bad light. There are bad ones and good ones. So maybe Klbkch won’t swear he ever thought of doing Liscor wrong. But can you tell me Liscor has no plans to destroy the Antinium Hive? Seems to me you’re a hypocrite, Lism. And a really bad guy.”
On his stage, the Drake spluttered and some of the crowd laughed. The white Gnoll laughed in silence, the [Armorer] with her voice. But the [Strategist] who stood at his Uncle’s side only sighed. And Olesm Swifttail stepped up, and in a quiet voice delivered his counterstroke. Whispered words that made Lism’s eyes light up and announced as loud as could be.
“Miss Erin, it seems to me you have affection for the Antinium you call friends. But they are a handful, a few, a fraction of a larger whole. And the Grand Queen is no Human’s ally, nor Drake nor Gnoll’s. Can you call Antinium anything but slaves who will obey when she points them to war? Can you claim they will not obey her when she speaks?”
The crowd swung, back and forth. But Erin spoke again, and Krshia next, and they swung closer towards her than the Drake’s side. Because the crazed Human [Innkeeper] stood there with Pallass’ [Senators] and Gnolls and that was plain to see. So the Drake, in desperation, promised more and more. And offered less and less.
“I’ll build the walls twice as high!”
And the Gnoll laughed and shook her head.
“With what budget? Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.”
“In that case, I’ll call for even more companies from Liscor! Bring our army back!”
“To do what? Guard our sheep? Where were they months gone past? They sent a hundred when we needed all and more!”
The Drake ground his teeth. And Mrsha, restless in the crowd, looked up at Raekea and tugged on her hand because she was sure Erin would win and wanted to run and play. And turning, with the two rats in hand, she heard the Drake’s last desperate pitch.
“In that case, I’ll execute the damned Minotaur as soon as I’m elected! No—I’ll have him drawn and quartered! Vote Lism for a justice and a horrible death! Vote Lism and I’ll see justice to every Gnoll who was wronged by him!”
And the rats gasped with the Gnoll as she squeezed them tight. And turning, Mrsha looked up. And her eyes were round with memory and fright.
The word came from Krshia. Quietly. And Mrsha looked up at her and remembered.
A bloodstained altar. Gnolls being dragged by Raskghar. A bloody rock. A Minotaur, eyes red with madness. A half-Elf pleading.
And the thought of him filled her with true fear. Because his was another face of her nightmares. Raekea turned too, and Lism, sensing the break in the deadlock, leapt onto it.
“Of course! He’s been sitting in our prisons for months! Too long! What’s the hold up? What’s the delay? Let’s execute him already! I think I speak for all of us that it’s overdue; vote for me and I’ll execute him by drawing and quartering! No, by fire!”
He looked around, raising his claws, and there were shouts of agreement from the crowd. Just shouts. But no one looked ready to object. Krshia just sneered.
“Paltry promises, Lism. That…Minotaur will face justice for his crimes. It’s not a matter of how, but when.”
“You think so, Silverfang? Then why isn’t he already dead? He should have been strung up the moment we got him! Along with any Raskghar—if we’d taken those beasts alive! I’ve heard he’s being kept because our Watch Captain needs proof he wasn’t enchanted or some nonsense. Phsaw!”
Lism spat. Someone in the crowd shouted in disgust. He paused.
“Sorry about that. Anyways, I say, let there be justice—now! No waiting! Only a monster could do what that Minotaur did. Not only was his team one of the ones that released the undead from the crypts, he sent the Raskghar to attack our citizens. So I say—let’s kill him and make it something that would give even those beasts nightmares! Kill that Minotaur! Kill that Minotaur!”
His supporters took up the chant. On stage, Krshia folded her arms, looking annoyed. And in the crowd, Mrsha saw Raekea bare her teeth.
“There’s something I could agree with. What’s taking Watch Captain Zevara so long? Shut up that Drake, Krshia.”
The [Shopkeeper] clearly intended to. Mrsha saw her waving for silence. She also saw Erin waving her arms in the crowd and making her way to the platform. Krshia didn’t see as she snapped at Lism.
“You’re quick to change your tune, Lism! I thought this was ‘about the Antinium’. You’re just throwing anything you can out in hopes you can distract from the real argument! But if you like, I’ll personally guarantee that if I take office, I’ll have that Minotaur executed as he should be. Are you satisfied with—”
She broke off, frowning. Mrsha heard the voice, quieter, but distinctly. Erin. She was shouting up at Krshia on her platform. And Mrsha saw Erin’s wide eyes and the look on her face. Krshia bent. And her expression told Mrsha many things.
“What’s that, Silverfang? Lost your tongue?”
Krshia didn’t reply. She’d turned off her magical enhancement to her voice. But Mrsha and Raekea—all of the Gnolls in the crowd could hear what Erin and Krshia were saying. Mrsha paused. Raekea stared.
“Let him live? What on earth is your Human saying? Mrsha—”
She looked down. The white Gnoll was trembling, holding onto her rats. And Krshia was snapping at Erin. But the [Innkeeper] was raising her arms, making an ‘x’. And the look on her face was set. Krshia straightened and stared blankly for a second.
Lism was crowing. Because Olesm had seen the back-and-forth. And he’d stepped forwards to whisper in his uncle’s ear. Because he could see it. No—Mrsha could see it. The rats could see it.
A flaw. There stood Erin. And on her face was written one thing. And all of the things she’d brought—the Pallassian [Senators], the door to the Walled City itself, her support of Krshia—it all teetered. And the Gnoll stared down at Erin.
“I must discuss this. Excuse me, everyone. I will not be long.”
She muttered with her enchanted voice and then turned it off and leapt from the stage. Lism and his four cohorts crowed in exultation and the crowd murmured. The Gnolls especially. Mrsha just stared as Krshia grabbed Erin and the two began to argue fiercely as Selys hurried over.
It couldn’t be. But Mrsha knew Erin. She knew Ceria. Sometimes, the half-Elf came back, smelling of him. But it could not be.
“Let him live? Was that what she said?”
Raekea’s growl of fury made even some other Gnolls shrink back. The [Armorer]’s arms tensed and Mrsha saw heads turning to Lism. He certainly wasn’t about to give Krshia a break. On stage, he began shouting, free from interruption.
“You heard it, folks! Honorable Krshia would let that Minotaur remain in jail, free as a damned bird for killing our citizens! No—worse! Have you heard what he did? Would any of you let that monster walk free another second? I say, let’s kill him, but make the execution fit the crime! Get some oil, boil it, and boil him, one inch at a time for a day!”
“That’s right! Justice for Liscor’s Gnolls!”
One of the Drakes standing besides Lism howled, and it was Gnolls and Drakes who shouted with him. And not one Gnoll in the crowd would argue against that. Mrsha was trembling. She stared at Erin.
No. But yes. Erin was shaking her head. Krshia was tearing at her fur. Selys looked conflicted. And Watch Captain Zevara—every head turned towards her as she climbed onto Krshia’s vacated stage.
“Shopkeeper Lism! What did you just say you’d do to my prisoner?”
She bellowed straight into a speaking gem she’d snatched from Elirr. The crowd winced because Zevara barely needed the gem to begin with. Lism hesitated, but, like him or hate him, he didn’t back down even with the Watch Captain shouting at him.
“Watch Captain Zevara, I admire your restraint! But this is a matter of public decency! Of justice! That Minotaur—”
“Shopkeeper Lism! I don’t recall seeing your face in my damn mirror this morning!”
Zevara’s bellow cut Lism off. She was actually better than Krshia at rendering the Drake speechless. Zevara went on, her scales flushed darker as she shouted.
“For your information, the Silver-rank Adventurer known as Calruz has not been held to justice for one simple reason: we are not certain he was in control of himself when he committed the crimes he was imprisoned for!”
A murmur ran through the crowd, but a discontented one. Lism frowned and shouted back.
“Even so, Watch Captain. That doesn’t excuse any of what he did. That Minotaur is a criminal!”
Again, Mrsha felt a leap in her chest. She agreed with the nasty Drake! But Watch Captain Zevara just glared at Lism.
“This is not a matter for the election. Nor is it a matter for the Council to decide. I am Watch Captain, and unless you’d like to relieve me of my post, the fate of Calruz the Minotaur is my jurisdiction!”
She threw the speaking stone at Elirr and stormed off the stage. But she’d gotten no further than ten steps when Lism spoke.
“Well then, people of Liscor. That was our Watch Captain and a finer arm of the law we couldn’t ask for. But there’s law and there’s justice, and I think her tail is tied by the former. Therefore, if I’m elected, my first action as a member of Liscor’s Council would be to order the Minotaur’s execution. What say you, Krshia Silverfang?”
Zevara whirled, her eyes flashing with fury. But Lism, on stage, gave her a look as solid as stone. And she hesitated. So did Krshia. The Gnoll looked up, looked at Erin with fury and—Mrsha saw with disbelief—disgust, and turned away. Lism nodded slowly. And victory lit up his gaze.
“There you have it. It’s not just about Antinium. It’s not just about other races. It’s about justice. Vote for Team Lism, and we’ll make sure that Minotaur dies screaming!”
The roar that followed his words was the loudest yet. The crowd had heard every facet of the debates. The back and forth. But that was argument over minutiae. The rights of Goblins. The presence of Antinium. This was a calling for blood. And the Gnolls who shouted had forgotten who they were cheering for.
The Minotaur. Mrsha felt her insides trembling with fear. But hate was breaking the frozen flow. Hatred, beating with fear in her veins. She looked up as the rats froze, trembling. And Raekea’s teeth were bared. Then the [Armorer] caught herself.
“This isn’t good. What is Krshia thinking? Say she’ll kill the Minotaur too! Unless—is it really Erin Solstice? She’d protect him?”
She looked disbelieving, shaking her head. But Mrsha remembered. Ceria, the Horns of Hammerad, were a guest of Erin’s inn. And Calruz had been one too. And if Erin had a flaw, it was that she loved people. She was too nice.
But not him. Never him. Mrsha let go of Raekea as dark thoughts overwhelmed her. She was in the cage! The Raskghar were there, snarling, in the darkness. Face Stealer was there. Calruz reached for her as Nohkha laughed. Mrsha trembled, holding the rats as they squirmed. And Lism was shouting words. Words she wanted to hear.
“Can I have any suggestions? We don’t have a [Headsman], but we can always find a dull axe! Boiling by oil! Burning at a stake? Drawing and quartering, a classic! What about death by exposure? Long, but I hear it’s agonizing towards the end!”
“Toss him to the Shield Spiders!”
One of the Drake candidates was shouting encouragement. He turned, caught up in the moment as he raised his arms. Lism glared, taken out of the spotlight as the Drake went on.
“No—let’s do more than that! I say, let’s chop him up piece by piece and make sure he remembers it! Or find a few zombies and let them gnaw on him! Or—I’ve got it! Let’s eat him!”
The crowd, which had been roaring their approval, fell silent. Lism stared at the Drake standing next to him. The Drake lowered his arms.
“Uh—okay, maybe that was going a bit too far.”
“What kind of lame-brained—get off the stage you idiot! Sorry about that, folks. Ahem. But spread the word! This is about justice! And I, Lism, guarantee—”
Mrsha could hear no more. She backed away from the crowd, shaking. She didn’t know which was worse. Erin, clearly pleading with Krshia, or the fact that Lism was saying what she wanted to hear. She wanted Calruz, the Minotaur, dead. Him and all the Raskghar. He’d killed them. He’d sacrificed them and the Raskghar had laughed and laughed and—
“Out of the way! Guards! Keep this crowd under control! If Shopkeeper Lism tries to incite a riot, arrest him! I want a doubled guard on the prison! I’m going to yank that idiot’s tail off—”
A voice snapped and Mrsha saw the crowd parting. Watch Captain Zevara strode past her, her scales pale with fury. A few [Guards] trailed after her, Drakes and Gnolls both. The rest stayed in the crowd. And even they looked like they’d taken Lism’s side. Mrsha heard one of them, a Gnoll, growling at her companion, a Drake.
“The Captain’s out of her mind.”
“Shut up. Don’t let her hear that.”
“But why are we keeping that thing alive in the cells? We have to empty his cage, feed him—I agree with Lism! And I never thought I’d say that.”
The Drake sighed. He looked no happier, although his Gnoll companion looked far more furious. Of course she did. It had been Gnolls the Raskghar attacked. He answered after a pause.
“You heard her. It’s about figuring out whether he was enchanted.”
“And if he was? You think he was ‘magically’ mind controlled and did all that? I wouldn’t believe that if you got an [Archmage] here to say it! No matter what, he deserves to—”
“You’re not arguing with me! Stop snapping! Just don’t let Watch Captain Zevara hear you say that! You know what she’s like about rules. She’s principled.”
“I heard she goes and talks with him. She thinks he’s innocent! Her and that half-Elf.”
“Stop. Snapping. At. Me!”
The Drake and Gnoll glared at each other. At last, the Gnoll [Guardswoman] subsided. The Drake nodded.
“I know it’s personal, Merka. But—hells, at least this way if Shopkeeper Lism wins, you get your justice. The Council could probably force Captain Z to execute the Minotaur.”
“Don’t call her ‘Captain Z’. What are you, Relc?”
The Gnoll growled, but she was mollified a bit. She cast around and nodded.
“And if he doesn’t win? If Krshia wins and that Human makes her keep the Minotaur alive?”
The Drake sighed.
“Well, I guess he stays alive. Does it look fun being cooped up in that cell? Come on, let’s patrol a few streets over so we don’t have to listen to this. I’ll buy you a snack so calm down, okay?”
The two [Guardswomen] walked out of the crowd. Mrsha, listening, saw the other [Guards] on the street talking as well. One of them she recognized. It was Tkrn. He was standing with a group of five Gnolls and a Drake. And all of them looked even angrier.
With Lism shouting in the background and the angry discussions in the crowd—all of which had the same content as the one between the two [Guardswomen]—it was hard for even Mrsha’s ears to pick out any one phrase. But the Gnolls and Drake were talking. And she heard…
“…exactly. If Honored Krshia wins…”
“…matter…we’ll make sure that Minotaur suffers…”
“…that Minotaur what he deserves…”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
The last came from the tallest Gnoll, who had a pale stripe across one ear and down to his chin across his tan fur. He gestured, and the [Guardsmen] and two [Guardswomen] followed him in the same direction as Zevara. Mrsha stared. And then she saw Tkrn’s face. The bared teeth. And she, curious, trembling with pain and fear and smelling their intentions, followed.
Raekea didn’t notice. The [Armorer] was pushing her way towards Krshia, trying to weigh in on the debate between Erin and Krshia. The [Innkeeper] was shouting in Krshia’s face.
“No! No, no, no! Ceria says—”
“This is justice!”
Krshia shouted back. The [Shopkeeper]’s eyes were wide with fury, her paws clenched. Erin glared back.
“And if you’re wrong? What if you’re wrong? Ceria says it wasn’t the same Calruz she knew and I believe her! If there’s a chance, it’s murder!”
“He’s been tested for magic!”
“What if it’s not magic?”
“You mean, what if it’s him? Erin! Lism could win on this issue alone! Would you really destroy all we’ve worked for? For this?”
Raekea pushed her way forwards, past Elirr. Erin took a deep breath. She looked at the Pallassian [Senators], at Krshia, at Selys and around. And she slowly nodded.
“You want my help, Krshia? Let Zevara decide if Calruz dies. Let there be law. Not him being tortured to death! Let’s talk to her. Otherwise, you can go try and beat Lism by saying you’ll do the most horrible things to Calruz. And when you do, I’ll walk back to my inn and slam the door to Pallass. And if you think—”
She cut off as Raekea thrust an arm out and grabbed her. Selys’ eyes went round in alarm and Krshia turned.
“How dare you! That Minotaur killed my people! He sacrificed them and worked with the Raskghar!”
The [Armorer] howled. Erin glared.
“I know. I haven’t forgiven him—”
“Forgiven? He can’t be forgiven! He can only be killed! How dare you argue otherwise? In front of the Mrsha child no less—”
Raekea’s furious paw pointed down at her side. Erin blinked and stared. So did the other Gnolls. Elirr, Krshia, Selys—they all stared at the blank bit of street. Raekea paused. She looked down. Then behind her. Then amid the milling crowd.
“Mrsha? Mrsha? Where did you—”
She stared at Erin. Let go of her. Then Raekea panicked.
There he sat. There he stood. As time passed, he knew the cell of his world. And a small world it was. The magical field that held him pulsed. And the cell was small. Large enough for him to pace in, even exercise.
Small for a world. Smaller still with months. So small it wore him into pieces. Until death was welcome. And if death could erase dishonor, he would have taken it.
So he waited. And when the Drake stormed into the prison, he looked up. And she told him of his doom.
“They will kill you. Slowly, by the masses. And they will do it if Lism wins.”
And the Minotaur smiled without rancor. Without fear. And he spoke with thought, forethought, afterthought, with the measure of a prisoner, for whom time had different meaning.
“Well and so. It would be fair.”
The Watch Captain paced in front of the cell. Smoke hung in the air, her fiery passion.
“The City Watch and the law aren’t tools for politicians to use. Nor are lives of prisoners. And if Erin has her way and I mine, this will never be so.”
“And if I am guilty? If the [Mages] find nothing wrong with me?”
“Then I will consider your crime. But I am the law. And I judge. And I do not see the monster you would die as.”
The words were fire. And they warmed even the Minotaur’s heart. But he put one palm on the magical wall of his cell. His one arm, straining against ensorcelled air. And he longed to see the sky.
“I would rather die. Let them have their vengeance.”
“Never. Not so long as I remain.”
The Drake bared her teeth. And the Minotaur bowed his head.
“But a prisoner I stay. And I would rather die than sit here another day.”
And to that there was nothing she could say.
At last, Zevara stopped pacing. She leaned against the wall of the cell. Calruz waited. His eyes were fixed on her. He stood, as still as a statue. And when she looked at him, Zevara saw a Minotaur.
Just a Minotaur. Haunted by what he had done. But she did not see the monster who had led the Raskghar. She had seen him, when Erin had brought the battle to the Raskghar far below. And she remembered a monster.
That was not the person who pleaded for death. And though Calruz’ words chilled Zevara, she could not answer his request.
“This goes beyond what you want, Calruz. This is a matter of a threat to Liscor. If something in that dungeon got you, I want to know what it was. If it wasn’t your fault—you deserve to clear your name.”
Was it a lie at this point, or the truth? Zevara was afraid, very afraid, that she was letting her feeling cloud her judgment. Because she liked the Minotaur in the cell, damn it! He understood what it was like to be her. When he spoke of honor, she understood. What honor was to him, was law to her.
But Calruz just shook his head.
“No one has suffered my fate. No one. No magic was found on me.”
“But you didn’t see some of the monsters in the dungeon. There was something in the water.”
“A spell. It doesn’t matter. The adventurers are still clearing the dungeon. Have any of them gone mad?”
Zevara didn’t answer. She turned away.
“I’m not debating this with you, Calruz. I just wanted you to know what was happening.”
She turned to go, rather than face arguing with the Minotaur. Calruz spoke as Zevara was leaving.
“Why do you fight so hard for me? I don’t deserve it, either way.”
Zevara hesitated. She walked back to the cell, the magical barrier. She had no fear of it breaking despite Calruz leaning on it. It had been made to hold Gold-rank prisoners. He could strike it even with a magical weapon as hard as he liked and she doubted it would break. Although she wouldn’t risk that. She hesitated—and then reached through the barrier.
The cell could be configured, so Calruz could pass through the waste bucket or receive food. If he tried to grab her on the other hand, she wouldn’t budge. He started at her touch.
“Maybe you are guilty. Maybe you’re innocent. I cannot tell. But I know this: letting Lism lead a mob to rip you apart is not how the law works, Calruz. And I will be certain before you die.”
He breathed in and out.
“Then I will abide. My confinement is no more than I deserve. Rather, I suppose it’s a fitting punishment until my fate. But Watch Captain Zevara. Remember what I have done. No excuse will change that. Even if I was truly ensorcelled.”
And that was true too. Zevara nodded and stepped back.
“I know. But I just can’t put an honorable person to death. If I did, I think I’d lose my class.”
That made Calruz smile bitterly.
“I see. So we’re both bound by our honor. I cannot be sure it was me that was the monster, entirely sure, so I am not allowed to seek my death. And you cannot give it for the same reason. It’s harder than I thought when I was younger.”
And there was nothing Zevara could say to that. She moved back. She knew she had to return. To tell Krshia—something.
“I’ll check back on you. And I’m doubling the guard on the prison in case Lism stirs up trouble. No—when he does.”
The Minotaur watched as Zevara strode away. Then hurry back. He looked expectantly at her. Zevara snapped.
“What kind of Skills does a [Prisoner] get? It had better not be lock picking Skills or…”
“Nothing like that. The first Skill I gained was called [Peaceful Rest]. It helps with the stone floor. And then [Efficient Metabolism].”
“What in the name of the Ancestors is a metabolism?”
“I don’t know. But I get hungry less.”
Zevara considered it. Then she stalked off. Calruz watched her go. He whispered.
“And then I gained [Recall Guilt]. And I remembered half. But the rest was a dream. So maybe you are right. But half of it is enough. Too heavy by far.”
He leaned on the cell’s wall. And Watch Captain Zevara did not hear the last. She strode out of the prison, snapping at the [Guards] on duty.
“Keep an eye on the cells.”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
They watched her go. And if their eyes lingered on her back and tail, she didn’t notice. The Drake left the prison, hurrying back down the streets. She didn’t notice the other Gnolls and two Drakes filing into the prison after she’d left. And they were so busy keeping an eye on her, they never noticed the little Gnoll creeping after her.
“Hey. What was she doing in there?”
“Same as always. Talking with him.”
“I didn’t listen. Look, you want to do this, I’m staying out.”
It was six. Five Gnolls, one Drake. Tkrn among them. He stood as they conferred with the four [Guards] on duty. Mrsha watched Tkrn shift as the Gnoll with the stripe conferred with the [Guards].
One of them folded his arms. He was a Drake and looked…uncomfortable. Mrsha didn’t know what they were discussing, but of the four [Guards] on duty, two were ‘in’, one wasn’t, and the last, another Gnoll, was undecided. She looked from the Gnolls to the Drake and her expression firmed.
“I’m in too. Tkrn?”
“I don’t know. If Watch Captain Zevara finds out, it’ll be our tails—”
Tkrn fidgeted nervously. Mrsha could smell his anxiety. Her paws held her rats as they squirmed in her belt pouch. She could smell the prison. It stank. But she could also smell him in there. And she hated and feared that smell.
Hate was all she smelled from the Gnoll with the stripe. Hate and fury. It reeked from all of them. Mrsha wanted to scrub her nose. But she held still, listening. The Gnoll with the stripe was glaring at Tkrn and the Drake who wasn’t ‘in’.
“If she finds out, it’s because one of us let on. You don’t like it? You keep watch. Or leave. Take a walk; we can cover for you. Lassil. Are you going to turn on us?”
He stared at the Drake. He glared back.
“No. But I’m not sticking around for this either. Nothing’s coming from me. But I don’t want to hear anything.”
He stalked out of the prison. The others watched him go silently. The Gnoll with the stripe nodded. He pointed at Tkrn.
“You staying or leaving?”
“Then keep watch. You smell Zevara coming or anyone else, signal us! Now move; we don’t have all day before the Watch Captain checks on us. Or one of the Senior Guardsmen. Especially Klbkch.”
The others nodded. Tkrn took up his post outside the prison. And the rest went in. Mrsha couldn’t hear or see what they were doing. But she had to know. So she crept forwards. Tkrn was muttering to himself, under his breath. He seemed conflicted. He barely smelled Mrsha until she was right up on him. Then he jumped.
He stared down at her. The little Gnoll looked wide-eyed up at him. Tkrn stared. Then he looked at the prison.
“How did you get—did you hear—go away. Go back to Krshia. Or the inn! Shoo!”
He motioned her back with the butt of his spear. But Mrsha was close now. The door to the prison was iron, but she could hear sounds coming from within; it wasn’t fully closed. The sounds of voices. And something hitting something else. She narrowed her eyes. Tkrn hesitated.
Too late. Mrsha jumped forwards on all fours. She raced through the door, pushing it open. Tkrn cursed and grabbed, but he was cumbersome in his armor. Mrsha ran into the prison. Rows of silent cells, mostly empty greeted her. Two prisoners stared out. A Gnoll and a Drake. The Gnoll was baring his teeth. The Drake listening in silence.
And at the far end was his cell. And him. Mrsha stopped as the Drake and Gnolls turned. She saw one of them lower the butt of the spear, whirl.
“Tkrn! I told you—”
The Gnoll snarled. Then he saw Mrsha and stopped. He took a step back with two of the Gnolls.
“It’s just Mrsha! She slipped by me—”
Tkrn raced after Masha, panting. He caught her, but one of the Drakes made an agonized sound.
“You idiot, Tkrn! Just a kid? She’s seen us!”
And Mrsha did see. She saw a Minotaur, pulling himself upright. His broad nose was bloody. And his fur dislodged. And he was being struck.
By the spears. A pair of [Guards] held them. They were jabbing them into the cell, using the blunt ends. There wasn’t much Calruz could have done to stop them if he’d tried. But he hadn’t. He’d been standing still. Now they lowered the spears. Tkrn turned pale.
“I’ll take her out. Mrsha, you can’t tell anyone. You didn’t see this. Understand?”
He tried to pull Mrsha back. But one of the Gnolls, the one with the stripe, holding the spear, stopped her. He looked down.
“Wait. She was there.”
The others looked at Mrsha. She stared at the Gnoll [Guardsman]. And then at the Minotaur. She shrank back. But the Gnoll just raised his spear and jabbed it into the cell. Reflexively, Calruz twisted, but the spear struck him in the chest. He barely moved. Just grunted. But Mrsha knew it had to hurt.
The Gnoll turned to her, his teeth bared. He gestured. Mrsha saw the Drake turn. She was panting. Her eyes were locked on Calruz’s. And she smelled of hate.
“We’re punishing him. We should have done it long ago. Only, the Watch Captain keeps visiting. But we’ve had enough. Lism is right. Election or not, we’ll make sure this thing doesn’t sit happily in here, eating and shitting while we clean up after him. He’ll pay. My brother was one of the ones the Raskghar sacrificed. Everyone here knows someone who was taken. And you were there.”
The Gnoll looked down at Mrsha. Tkrn was frozen. And the worried Drake looked at him.
“Ulkel! Don’t tell her—”
“Shut up, Paiss. She gets it. She was there. You think I’m right, don’t you?”
The Gnoll squatted down. Mrsha backed up. But then she turned her head. Calruz stood in his cell. He stared at her, his blue eyes calm. Unwavering. And she recognized him at the same time he recognized her.
His eyes widened. She shook. The memories hit Mrsha. The smell. The fear. She bared her teeth and little thorns grew from her paws. The Gnoll nodded. He held the spear out.
“Here. You want to try?”
It was too large, too heavy for her. Mrsha hesitated and grabbed at it. She tried to lift it. The prison was silent. Her arms shook; she stumbled. She was too weak to lift it and stand on two feet.
“Ulkel. She’s a kid.”
“So? If she can’t do it, she knows what we’re doing. And she won’t tell. Right?”
The Gnoll looked at Mrsha. She met his eyes and then she looked at Calruz. Hate. Hate, hate, hate—she bared her teeth and shook her head. The Gnoll nodded.
“Anyone got a dagger?”
At that, Calruz stirred. He broke off from staring at Mrsha. He looked up. And his voice was low. It was familiar.
“Keep the child out of this. She does not need to see my face ag—”
He grunted and his head snapped back as the butt of the spear struck him. The Drake lowered it and spat.
“Shut up. Tkrn, take the kid out of here. And shut the damned door you idiot!”
“Come on, Mrsha.”
Tkrn muttered as he bent down and grabbed Mrsha. She didn’t protest as he pulled her out. But neither did she take her eyes off the far end of the prison. The Drakes and Gnolls were taking turns striking with the spears. And Mrsha wanted to see it. She trembled. She hated the Minotaur in the cell.
The last thing she heard was the Gnoll pulling a potion from his belt. He was talking to the Drake.
“Make sure to splash the healing potion on him afterwards. And mark me, Minotaur, you’re going to earn every drop.”
Then the door closed. Mrsha felt two paws put her on the ground. Tkrn waved a paw in her face. She looked up at last. And he stared down at her. His eyes were bigger. Worried.
“Mrsha. About that. It was—we’re just—it’s Captain Zevara.”
She didn’t respond. Tkrn went on, clearing his throat.
“She’s a good Watch Captain. One of the best. But she doesn’t understand. She’s not one of us. Don’t tell her. Don’t tell Krshia. Or anyone else. This is—justice.”
He hunched over his spear. And she smelled his fury too. Tkrn held her gaze. Mrsha nodded slowly. He relaxed.
“We’ll make him pay. For you and Honored Elirr and everyone else. Don’t tell. Now go, before someone comes looking.”
Mrsha went. Slowly. Gazing back at the prison. She kept remembering the sight. And part of her was afraid. Still afraid, even with the Minotaur in the cell. The rest of her wished she’d been strong enough to lift the spear, that Ulkel had given her a dagger. She shivered with hate.
That was how Raekea found her with Erin. They scolded her, worried, and Mrsha was whisked back to the inn in disgrace. She didn’t care. She had seen a monster. And she had seen him being punished.
It still wasn’t enough. But it was a start.
This was still the tale of two rats tied up in Erin’s inn. They found themselves there, freed from the captivity of a place darker and smaller than any they had known. A place where they couldn’t breathe, where they were captive.
And even in the light, in the air, a captive they remained. Tethered by their tails. By hope, perhaps. For one might have gnawed off their tail and saved the other. But neither brother nor sister had the will. The daring. They hoped, and so they remained, wandering around on the floor, pulling one, then the other.
Captives of the child. And she stared at them. And all the fun was gone.
She had been scolded, and reprimanded. Brought back in disgrace. But that was not what consumed her heart. It was memory and agony. It was vengeance.
Vengeance. The paw came down and the grey rat skittered away, fearful of the wrath that would have laid low mountains. She tugged and her brother squeaked and scrabbled over to bite her. Oh, how they turned. While above them, the child pondered.
In her head, Mrsha saw the Minotaur in his cell. Alive. Whole. While the dead Gnolls, her kin, lay in the darkness. On the altar. The [Guards] did what was right. What Mrsha would have done.
They jabbed him, struck him again and again.
Part of her wished she’d held the spear. Part of her wished they’d used the other ends. Mrsha’s paw landed with fury and grief and a rat squeaked. The sound was funny, and it almost made Mrsha smile. She paused and did it again.
A hammer fell. The blow crushed the grey rat to the floor. She wailed, but such agony she made only came out in air, in a sound. And above him the child laughed. Her brother scurried away, faithless, afraid. And the sister felt her breath explode as the paw shook her.
Oh, tragedy. Oh wrath. What had they done to deserve this? The two longed for the darkness. For their kin, the People of the Grain Sack. The paw, the dreaded thing, lifted them up and they beheld two brown eyes.
Tyrant! Fiend! At last they realized this was not some impartial architect, but a thing! No rat. The not-Rat, was giant, but mortal still! It could be felled! So they set to, with tooth and fang, striking a blow against their captor. Though they might fall, it was worth it to fight back against the instrument of their fate—
Mrsha stared at the wriggling, squeaking rats as she held them up by their connected tails. They rotated, lashing out with their tiny claws. She giggled, forgetting about the Minotaur for a moment. Then she heard an exclamation.
“Mrsha! What is that?”
It was a horrified female voice. Guiltily, Mrsha tried to hide the rats behind her back. But too late. Lyonette stared at the wriggling rats in horror.
Her exclamation made a number of the inn’s patrons look around. Lyonette hesitated, and then bent over.
“Throw them out at once! Wait—what have you done to—Mrsha!”
She looked horrified, mainly by the knot in the tails. Mrsha looked up, suddenly afraid. She didn’t want to be scolded! She looked around, and then raced over to a group of Gnolls. Raekea looked up from her furious discussion with a group of Gnolls who were all set on arguing with Erin. The [Innkeeper] herself was talking with Rufelt and Lasica at the bar.
“Mrsha, come back here right now, young Miss!”
Lyonette stormed after her as Mrsha hid behind Raekea. The [Armorer] looked up.
“What’s going on?”
“She has two—”
Lyonette hesitated and lowered her voice.
“Two rats in her paws! It’s filthy! I don’t know where she got them—Mrsha, give me—no put them outside! And why are their tails in a knot?”
Raekea looked down at Mrsha, who was peering around her legs wide-eyed. She laughed, and patted Mrsha reassuringly on the head. Emboldened, Mrsha crept out and held the rats up. Lyonette recoiled. But Raekea just snorted and some of the Gnolls did too.
“Miss Lyonette, they’re just rats. And the tails are a common thing. Have you not heard of rat kings?”
“I’ve heard of rats. And I know [Kings]. What’s this about a rat king?”
“Ah, it’s a childhood thing! Do Drakes and Humans not…? Well, when I was a child…”
Lyonette listened to Raekea fondly reminisce about doing what Mrsha had done in disbelief. One of the other Gnolls smiled fondly as well.
“Ah, that brings me back! I used to do the exact same.”
“I kept them and fed them to my dog.”
“Bah! The trick was to find as many as you could. What was your record? I got sixteen, but then—”
The Gnolls happily broke out into a debate. They laughed and patted Mrsha’s head, flicking their paws and sending the two rats scurrying across the table, bumping into each other. Lyonette shook her head at last.
“That maybe so, but in this inn, those rats don’t belong. They’re filthy and they could bite. Mrsha, remember Erin’s lesson about hygiene? Throw them out at once!”
She pointed. Mrsha looked up, her mouth and eyes widen in silent protest. But she wanted to keep them! They were funny and they didn’t fly off like Apista. She patted a rat to demonstrate and it went squeak!
The Gnolls laughed heartily, enjoying the distraction. Raekea turned to Lyonette, smiling.
“Miss Lyonette, rats aren’t nearly as filthy as you might think. If these haven’t been living in a sewer, why not let little Mrsha keep them? She’s a Plains Gnoll and I’m sure she did this in her tribe. Come to that, she deserves to run about! That’s probably why she got them to begin with.”
Mrsha nodded rapidly behind Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and put her foot down in both senses of the word.
“Not in my inn. And Mrsha’s my responsibility, thank you, Miss Raekea. I’ll decide what she can and can’t do.”
The Gnoll [Armorer] frowned. She glanced at Mrsha. The Gnoll sulkily held the rats to her chest. They were trying to bite and scratch her fur. The older Gnoll turned back to the Human young woman.
“Miss Lyonette. I understand you take care of Mrsha. But she is a Gnoll. There are some things she should do differently. We are her people; we understand. Let her keep the rats. She’ll tire of them, but she should be free to do things as we did. She is a Gnoll.”
She emphasized the word again and the Gnolls around her nodded. Lyonette hesitated. She glanced at Mrsha and bit her lip.
And that was it. Into that gap, all the Gnolls spoke at once, stories about when they were young, things Mrsha should be allowed to do. Raekea winked at Mrsha and the little Gnoll beamed at her. She clutched the rats and hurried off. Lyonette nearly followed her, but the Gnolls held her back, arguing, cajoling.
In another corner of the inn, Mrsha lowered the rats when she felt a tug at her fur. The grey rat was biting a tuft of her fur. Mrsha, amused, pulled at it, but the rat refused to let go. She frowned as the other rat dangled and pulled.
Ow! The rat had her hair and was chewing at it. Mrsha fumbled with her paws, trying to remove the tiny mouth. As she pulled, the grey rat suddenly let go. She twisted and before Mrsha could catch hold of her, bit Mrsha on the paw.
It hurt! Mrsha dropped the pair of rats with a silent cry. It drew the attention of few people, but one [Innkeeper] broke off from her conversation with Rufelt and Lasica and looked up blankly for a second. In her corner, Mrsha felt at the small bite and saw it had drawn blood!
Just a little. But it hurt. And Mrsha was suddenly furious. Bad rats! She raised a paw and smacked the grey rat. It tried to pull its brother away. She smacked it again. Bad things deserved punishment! Like the Minotaur. She smacked the rat, and then the other one as he tried to bite her paw.
This was discipline! She swatted at them, hearing them squeak. Again and again—
Until the [Innkeeper] called her name.
So fell the blows. From above. Light taps from a child. The rats squeaked with each impact. And it was a cute sound, the noise to amuse. To make Gnolls laugh. And in their story, it was just a cute sound, a little rat’s bite.
But in their story, the rats screamed. Far from home, desperate, they writhed. Their tails were agony. And they screamed as the blows crushed them to the ground, pounding their organs, grinding their bones. They cried out, but they had no language. No words for mercy. There was only now. And now was pain.
No one cared. The Gnolls saw only toys. Lyonette only pests. And the rats were rats, tied, screaming. Until the girl known as Erin Solstice came. And she looked down and saw what Mrsha held. So paused Erin, and her expression was caught betwixt horror and confusion.
“Mrsha! What are you doing? What have you done?”
Of course, the Gnoll had no words to explain. But she had signs and a voice without. But neither she used. For she was wroth. And her fury came out in a look. The reproach in the child’s eyes that said more than any words. And Erin bent.
“Oh, you heard. I have my reasons, Mrsha. And they are good and right. Even if I am conflicted. Can you understand?”
The child did not want to understand. She swatted a rat and it screamed in a voice that was comical. But Erin looked down and heard it. She caught the paw before it fell again.
“What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Can’t you see they suffer? They hurt?”
And Mrsha looked up blankly. For rats were rats. Why did they have feelings? Erin squatted down, staring at the rats. At the tails. And she shook her head, greatly disturbed.
“But this is wrong, Mrsha, don’t you see? These rats don’t deserve such a fate. Set them free! And untie them first! Animals deserve kindness, the same as people. You should know this.”
Her words stung and bit. And the Gnoll child hated to hear them. She would speak for rats, but not her kind. She would save even a Minotaur. For she was too kind. So she defiantly put a paw on a rat.
The young woman’s voice was sharp as her knife. Mrsha paused, for she had not heard a tone like that. But she looked up and down and the rats squirmed. They were hers, Raekea had said. So that was that. She lifted the rats up by the tails. It was a simple thing. But she had not considered what it would feel if someone were to do that to her or a Drake.
The two squirmed. And all they knew was pain. The Gnoll who held them yanked defiantly again and the [Innkeeper] heard the rats scream. Erin’s eyes widened and she reached. But back Mrsha scampered.
And Mrsha lifted the rats triumphantly, in hubris, in vengeance misplaced. And they screamed, a pitiful sound. And Mrsha dared Erin. She hated her. She hated the Minotaur. She raised the rats high, squeezing hard because she wanted to hurt him. She wanted to hurt them.
And stopped. Because Erin was staring right at her. And the inn shook.
The [Actors] on stage paused. On the bar, Rufelt’s drinks shook in their tumblers. The guests of the inn looked up. And the weight that pressed down was smothering. The air was hot.
“Put. Them. Down.”
Erin’s voice ran through the inn. It was thunder. It was a shout. Mrsha froze. And her arms lowered. She put the rats down and they clung to each other, shaking. But no more than Mrsha. Erin stared at the little Gnoll. And her face—Mrsha shook.
One second the pressure was crushing, the next, gone. Erin blinked. She reached out.
The Gnoll fled. She raced upstairs and slammed the door to her room, then pushed a chair in front of the door, under the knob. Then she fled under the bed, crying. Afraid. Because she knew Erin was coming. She heard nothing as she hid in a corner, quivering. Nothing from outside. Mrsha heard someone rattle the knob.
“Mrsha? Mrsha, open the door.”
It was Lyonette’s voice. Mrsha didn’t move. She knew she was in trouble. Big trouble. But she was too afraid to open the door. She hid, curling up and trembling. The door knob turned and rattled and someone pushed. But the door remained closed.
A minute passed. Then two. Mrsha hid. She’d stay here forever. Even if she got hungry. She’d stay and stay and maybe if she stayed here long enough, Erin wouldn’t be so mad. She stared at the door, trembling.
And then—Erin climbed through the window. She looked around and spotted Mrsha. The Gnoll went still with fear. And then she tried to run for it.
“Stop right there.”
The voice was quiet. Mrsha halted. She couldn’t help it. She turned, shaking, as Erin walked over towards her. She could read nothing on the young woman’s face. Erin paused, standing in front of Mrsha. And her eyes were very terrible. Disappointed. And sad.
Mrsha trembled, expecting a blow. Krshia would spank her. Lyonette had once, too. Erin reached down and Mrsha flinched. The young woman paused.
“I would never spank you, Mrsha. I could never.”
Then what? Mrsha looked up. She was already crying. And she saw that Erin was angry. Angry as she ever saw. Angry and disappointed and sad. The [Innkeeper] spoke softly as she sat down cross legged.
“That was a bad thing you did, Mrsha. You hurt the rats. Why’d you do it?”
She waited. But Mrsha just looked away. She was crying. And it was frustrating because she didn’t feel bad! They were just rats! But there was Calruz and—and Erin wasn’t going to kill him. And somehow the [Innkeeper] sensed it all. She moved to look at Mrsha and the Gnoll turned around again, shaking and sniffing and crying.
“Mrsha. Rats feel pain. They hurt. When you smack them, they hurt. I know they’re pests. And I know what Gnolls do. Raekea told me. And I understand that you didn’t mean any harm. But if I’d seen it earlier, I’d have told you to stop. I’m not angry about that. I’m sad that you started hitting them.”
Mrsha defiantly looked at Erin. So what? They were rats. She was still crying. She wished she wasn’t. But she was sad. Sad and mad. She pointed furiously at Erin, signaling. Erin didn’t understand until Mrsha made a pair of cow horns.
“Oh. Calruz. Mrsha—”
The Gnoll spat. She bared her teeth. Erin waited as Mrsha’s mouth opened and closed. She waited. Then she spoke, as Mrsha was panting, shouting without a voice.
“I know. I haven’t forgiven him either.”
Mrsha paused. Erin stood up. She sat on the bed. She looked at Mrsha, and her eyes were sad. And bleak. And she smelled of anger.
“I haven’t forgiven him. I know he took you. I know he took Elirr and he killed the others. I know. I remember. I haven’t visited. I haven’t forgiven him. But he might be innocent. It might not be his fault. That’s what Ceria says. But she could be wrong.”
“And if she is, he’ll die. But it will be quick. That’s how the law works here. Back home, we’d keep him in prison until he died. Multiple life sentences perhaps. But that’s home. I don’t know which is meaner. But that’s Calruz. Those rats are different. And the same.”
They were not. Mrsha rubbed at her wet eyes. She shook her head. Erin looked down at her.
“Mrsha—listen to me—”
Mrsha just shook her head. She didn’t want to hear. She went to a corner and sat in it, still crying. And Erin sighed. She looked at the little Gnoll, curled up. And she stood up and approached Mrsha. She paused there. Then she bent.
And she hugged Mrsha. She grasped the Gnoll child softly and lifted her up. Mrsha tensed. But all Erin did was hug her, softly.
She hugged Mrsha. And that hurt more than any spanking Krshia had ever given her. And when Mrsha looked up and saw the tears in Erin’s eyes, it was all the worse.
“I know you’re sad. And mad. Listen to me. I’m sad too. The rats are one thing. Calruz the other. But listen, Mrsha. One is like the others. Because both are weak. I know Calruz did horrible things. But he’s in a cage. And the rats are small. They can’t do anything. If you hurt them, if you tie their tails together, that’s bad. I know you didn’t know. But I’m telling you. It’s not okay.”
Mrsha pushed at Erin’s chest weakly. She didn’t want to hear it. Erin went on, holding her.
“You’re a good girl. I know that. And I know it’s different for Gnolls. I know that in this world, you don’t see animals like that. But listen. What would you say if you heard a dog make that sound? Can a dog feel? Can a dog cry?”
Mrsha buried her head in Erin’s shirt. She knew a dog could yelp and cry. But rats were different. Erin held her.
“What’s the difference between a dog and a rat? Between you and me? They hurt, Mrsha. They hurt. A Goblin hurts. I hurt. It wasn’t good to do that. Okay?”
But they were rats. And he was a Minotaur. But Mrsha couldn’t say either. She clung to Erin’s shirt, wiping her eyes and nose on it. And Erin hugged Mrsha. And she looked so sad. She was crying too. And it hurt Mrsha like a knife. Sometimes she shone too brightly and with such goodness that it hurt.
When she came below, a dozen Gnolls were ready to argue Mrsha’s case. They were mad at Erin for shouting, and Lyonette was angry too. But Erin met them all with Mrsha in her arms. And she said the same thing.
“A rat feels pain. And to hurt it is a shame.”
The Gnolls scoffed and laughed or disputed the case. But they fell silent when Elirr the [Beast Trainer] showed his face. The Gnoll listened and looked at the little rats lying on the ground. They squeaked in terror and fled when he reached down.
The others laughed. But the Gnoll lifted the two and they looked up in fear and pain. And when he opened his eyes and stared about, there was anger plain. He spoke like this to the others as he gently held the rats. And they looked up and felt his connection with them. As he gently untied them and fed them a snack.
“Who says rats have no feelings? Who laughs? I have seen children throw a rat. And they laugh when it goes splat. But I’ll tell you this for a fact. Rats are animals and they’re all the same. They have wills and feelings, if not thought like us. Yet the largest dog is still a pet. And be it dog or cat or rat, they deserve respect and dignity. Until you learn that, you and all the others are banned from my shop, Mrsha who is dear to me.”
He looked sternly at the child who clung to the [Innkeeper] and cried. But it was the [Princess] who took her and glared into the [Beast Trainer]’s eyes.
“She had no idea. Don’t you dare lecture her! She did not know. And they’re just rats. I’d kill them and go.”
She pointed at the rats and Erin argued and Elirr snapped and the Gnolls snapped back. And below, on the table, the two looked up, grey rat and white. They waggled their tails and then took flight.
“After them! Don’t let them get away! They’re going to the—basement?”
And just like that, a rat dove through a crack. And when the trapdoor opened and they descended below, the Humans and Gnolls recoiled. For the People of the Grain Sack were caught in the light. And the [Innkeeper] and guests saw nearly a hundred rats, having a snack. From a bunch of stored foodstuffs, perfectly preserved.
So Erin stood in the basement, with a hammer and Lyonette with a bag. They looked at each other, one queasy, one pale. But both could agree: the rats had to die.
“Er. Okay, they’re rats. And they’re a pest. So…let’s smack them with a hammer?”
“By ourselves? Didn’t you say rats deserved our respect?”
The [Princess] was horrified and amused by turns. The Gnoll cub stared around and folded her arms. And Erin threw up her hands.
“I said that! But a pest’s a pest! Now help me kill this stupid nest! They’re eating my stuff! What I said applies. They’re alive. So…kill them quickly so it doesn’t hurt?”
So saying she tried to raise the hammer and chase a rat. But when it came to splatting one, she couldn’t. So the hammer went to Lyonette, who looked queasy and upset. And Erin turned and looked snide.
“I thought you were on the ‘squish the rats’ side?”
“Well, yes, but it’s one thing to hammer them flat! Why do I have to do it myself?”
“Because they’re just pests. And if they didn’t feel a thing, why do you feel bad? Because it’s gross? Or because you think that when they scream, they scream?”
The two began to quarrel as Mrsha sat on the ground and sobbed. Lyonette glared and pointed at the rats.
“And if rats could speak, would you save them from the world? If rats could weep, would you say they were like Goblins?”
She had no answer to that. And so the [Princess] threw down her hammer and a rat went splat. The two stared at it and they heard a rat scream. It wailed and shrieked and they both turned green. And there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, none of which Mrsha took part in. Until a Hobgoblin came down the basement steps. He stared at the two young women crying over the dead corpse of a rat and the bloody hammer. Numbtongue paused. Then he pointed and asked.
“Are you making rat soup?”
The Hobgoblin listened as Erin told him rats could feel pain. And Lyonette and the Gnolls disputed that they should feel shame. In the end, Numbtongue pointed at the rat. It was screaming and the Goblin snapped its neck with one foot. He looked up and at Elirr.
“It feels pain, just like you or me. But it is not like you or me.”
He looked at Erin and Lyonette and Mrsha too. And she asked him if a Goblin was like a rat. The Hobgoblin paused and stared down at the ground. He shrugged.
“Rats are not Human or Goblin or anything but rats. When one talks, I’ll think about it. But I know this: when you kill something, you kill it fast. And here’s a plague.”
He pointed. And all say that was true. The People of the Grain Sack poked their heads out of every space and Erin shuddered. She looked at the hammer and then at Lyonette. Then she poked her head out of the basement and shouted.
“Ishkr! My favorite employee!”
And the Gnoll with prescience instantly looked up and shook his head. Drassi hid, but Ishkr just spoke with a common-Gnoll’s wisdom.
“No. Miss Erin, you have money. Use that, and not us. For if we scramble and swear and run about, the rats will escape and we will all be upset. But now, in Liscor, the city, there are plenty of ways. [Exterminators], and [Hunters], and do you know what else? Honored Elirr trains the best ratters, both dogs and cats.”
And all eyes turned to Elirr, and the old [Beast Tamer] sighed. But they were pests. And so he went and called for his dogs as Erin picked up the white rat and grey rat that Mrsha held in her paws. She stared at them and Numbtongue lifted the hammer. But Erin protested, and so the two were saved.
From tragedy to grief. The two shuddered at the blood. And the People of the Grain Sack saw their kindred being taken upstairs, into the light, by the titans. And they did not protest and instead hid, thinking themselves safe. Until they heard the barking, and meows, and the click of ivory on wood.
And then the People of the Grain Sack knew the last age had come and they took to flight. But down poured a multitude of beasts, led by a Gnoll who spoke of peace. And he meant every word. To kill a rat was one thing. To torture it, sheer cruelty. The People of the Grain Sack screamed and fled either way.
And lo, there was great lamentation and terror. Beasts of fang and tooth, made larger or smarter by a [Beast Trainer]’s craft fell upon the basement, pouncing, biting, and tearing. The People of the Grain Sack fled into every cranny and hole. To no avail.
Not one of four generations survived. They died in the basement and Erin poked her head in and decided it needed a wash. Poor Ishkr got that job. For overtime pay and triple the hour. He sighed and got to work as the ratters washed and gleefully filled their bellies.
The Goblin watched it all. Did he think of his kindred in that moment? Or of the death of Goblins played out a hundred ways in a hundred times? Did he see kinship between the rats and he, as they fled from the predators that toyed and killed indiscriminately?
No. They were rats. But privately, the Hobgoblin thought it would have been kinder to use a hammer and make them go splat, rather than use a bunch of dogs and cats.
So ended a people. In terror and fear. And the last of the rats quivered in Mrsha’s paws. The Gnoll looked down and felt them shake. And it was an echo of her. It made her fear Erin was right.
It couldn’t be. But it was. The [Druid] looked up and saw Elirr’s face. The Gnoll didn’t look bothered by the death of all the rats in the basement. He’d been angrier when he saw the two rats tied together. Now he just looked miffed as a cat tried to crawl up one leg. He shooed it off.
“You stupid cats! That hurts! Climb somewhere else!”
Half the cats licking their bloody paws looked up. And all of them decided to flip their tails up and show their butts to the [Beast Tamer]. He glared.
“I hate training cats.”
But that was a lie, wasn’t it? One of the ones adults told. Mrsha looked up at Elirr. And he looked down at her. She sniveled. Her nose was still running. And he bent down. Lyonette was giving him a death’s glare. The Gnoll ignored it as he looked at the Gnoll cub.
“Oh, little Mrsha. I know I was harsh. But I mean it. You can feel them, can’t you? You know they hurt. It’s unkind. But Plains Gnolls are often unkind. That’s how we have to be. We kill Corusdeer or cows or even, yes, cats! You hear that you fleabags?”
He shouted at the cats and they scattered, yowling as Ishkr glumly mopped up the bloody basement and rat corpses. Elirr looked back at Mrsha.
“The difference is that if we have any decency, we do it quick. Have you ever seen a [Hunter], letting an animal bleed out? Or stabbing an animal and letting it die slow? Those are monsters.”
Mrsha shivered. She could picture that. She tearfully looked down at the rats. Did that make her one? Elirr shook his head.
“No. No. You didn’t know. But remember it, child. I do. And perhaps other Gnolls should too.”
He looked up sternly and Erin nodded. Raekea and some of the Gnolls from Liscor glared back. One threw up his paws.
“They’re rats, Elirr. Dead gods! Rats! All of you are making a big fuss over rats when it was the Minotaur who—”
He paused. Elirr looked up slowly and his eyes glinted.
“Yes. Tell me all about what the Minotaur did. I haven’t heard that one. And surely, I do not know good from evil, yes? Tell me, Kelc. Tell me all about the Minotaur.”
The Gnoll fell silent. Elirr straightened, rubbing his back. One of his huge war dogs trotted over and dropped a rat at his feet. The Gnoll blinked down at it and bent to rub the dog’s ears. In her paws, Mrsha saw the rats wriggling in agitation, squeaking, no, screaming in their language.
And Mrsha, the [Druid], wondered what it was like for them. To see their entire family, their tribe, slaughtered in front of them. If they were Gnolls…
The world swam. The little Gnoll looked at the rats as they shrieked. If they were Gnolls—the white one was biting at her. And she looked down and saw a little Gnoll biting at a Runner. On a field of falling snow.
Mrsha dropped the rats. Elirr looked down and snatched the dog’s collar before it could grab them. Numbtongue bent and snatched the rats up casually before they could escape.
Erin was scolding. But she stopped when she saw Mrsha’s face. The little Gnoll put her hands on her stomach and threw up. Then she began crying again.
That night, the Minotaur looked up. He saw the [Guards]. And more than just them. Gnolls and Drakes. More Gnolls than Drakes, but both of either.
They did not hold the blunt end of spears this time. This time, they carried pokers. The kind you’d use to tend to a fireplace. Long blades. And coals. The Minotaur looked up.
“Are you afraid, monster?”
The Gnoll with the pale stripe across his face held up a glowing poker. One of the Drakes was a [Mage]. Calruz looked at it. Then he closed his eyes. When he opened them. He addressed the crowd.
“Remember your honor. Do what you will with me. But remember your honor.”
They hissed and growled at that. They would have roared, but they were not supposed to be here. So instead their hatred made them quiet. And when the first burning poker came through the cell’s walls, Calruz stared at it. He did not move.
And he tried. He tried, with a [Warrior]’s discipline, with all his strength, to make no sound. His flesh burnt. But when it began to turn black he groaned. And that only encouraged them. They crowded around his cell, faces twisted, egging each other on. Shouting. Forgetting to be quiet.
And the Minotaur held still. Until he couldn’t help himself and retreated. But they hounded him, attaching the pokers to long poles, hurling spells.
He began to bellow in agony. Then scream. And the little Gnoll covered her ears as she listened outside the dungeon. She looked up at Tkrn, and the Gnoll’s face was pale. She waited for him to call it ‘justice’. But he couldn’t.
And so Mrsha fled, for there was no justice there. Only bad deeds and hate.
Mrsha did not sleep that night. Even after she snuck back into Lyonette’s room where the exhausted [Princess] was passed out. She could not shake the memory of the Minotaur’s screams out of her head. And when she looked at the little cage and the two rats she began shaking.
It was not right. Perhaps some part of her had known that. Or maybe it was Erin telling her. But it was not right. If she could go back, Mrsha would have used her [Thorn Paw] spell and cut Calruz apart. If she were in the dungeon. If the Raskghar were there.
But now? She looked into the cave and the two rats fled from her, squeaking. Crying. And Mrsha felt like they were Calruz. What had Erin said? It wasn’t right. Because they could cry. Because they could scream.
But who could she tell? Krshia? Elirr? Lyonette? Erin? Mrsha thought about each one as she sat in front of the cage. Which ones would get the Gnolls and Drakes in trouble most? Least? Because there was something else at stake.
They were her people. Raekea had said it. Mrsha was a Gnoll. She had called Mrsha as one of her own. The Silverfang Tribe might take her in. But would she if she told? If she—Mrsha stared down at the two rats. Their tails were still bent, even though Erin had given them a drop of healing potion each.
Somewhere, out there, a Minotaur was screaming. And it had been bad when they started. It would be worse before the night ended. Mrsha shook in place. She looked at Lyonette, sleeping in her bed. Some part of her was still in the prison. And it knew the Gnolls and Drakes hadn’t come there to stop. They hadn’t brought healing potions. And they were going to do a bad thing. Trembling, Mrsha bent over the cage.
Watch Captain Zevara sat in her office, too furious to work, but too annoyed to stop. She was trying to go over inventory for the City Watch, calculating her budget. But she was still furious over the day’s deliberations. She’d argued with Krshia until she was coughing smoke. And the Gnoll had barely, barely agreed not to call for Calruz’s death.
It made sense. But Zevara was still furious. Lism had whipped up a mob. Zevara had half a mind to check on the Minotaur, but she’d already done that and doubled the guard. The prison had been silent when she’d walked past it this evening. No people loitering about outside.
So the Drake sat. She stared at her quill, until the ink was dried. Then she dipped it again. And stared. She was staring at the place to initial the document, knowing she hadn’t actually read it when she heard the scuffling and the shout from downstairs.
“Hey! What’re you—”
Zevara looked up. She heard light padding and reached for her sword reflexively. Then something rattled the doorknob. Pulled rather than pushed; Zevara heard pounding boots, coming up the stairs. She inhaled as whoever was behind the door pushed at last—
And a little Gnoll tumbled into the room. Zevara paused as the fire in her lungs built. She stared at Mrsha as the white Gnoll got up. Zevara’s head swiveled—she turned, grabbed the window, and exhaled. A plume of fire lit up the sky as she spat it out of the window. Then she whirled as the [Guardswoman] on desk duty burst into the office.
“I’m sorry, Watch Captain. I couldn’t stop—”
“It’s fine. But what the hell—”
Zevara began to snap and caught herself. She stared down at the white Gnoll and began to grow alarmed. The little Gnoll was panting, and her eyes were wide. She’d run here. Zevara’s mind instantly ran to her worst fears.
“Something’s happened at the inn. Sound the alarm! Get Relc, Klbkch, put every [Guardsman] on the walls and get me a squad—”
She paused. The Gnoll cub was shaking her head rapidly. Part of the alarm faded. Zevara stared, and the [Guardswoman] hesitated.
“Is there a problem at the inn? Err—Mrsha, isn’t it?”
Zevara looked down, trying to remember the little Gnoll’s name. Her fur was beautifully white. She shook her head rapidly. But her wide eyes told Zevara something was wrong. But she didn’t say what it was. Instead, she began making a bunch of strange signs with her paws.
“What? What? What’s the problem? Come out with it already!”
The Watch Captain snapped as she tried to make sense of the signs. The [Guardswoman] stared too, but she knew a bit more than her Captain.
“It’s uh, I think she’s mute, Watch Captain.”
“She is? Damn. I forgot—okay. What’s the problem. Is it the inn?”
Zevara stared at Mrsha. The Gnoll shook her head. She pointed; Zevara saw her bridge her arms like a wall. Then two arms up? Poking? A contorted face? Two paws over her head? The Gnoll kept doing that symbol.
“I have no idea what you mean. Someone’s hurt? Where? Who? Damn it—can you write? Here—”
“She’s only a child, Watch Captain.”
“I know that! Go stand watch and tell someone to check the inn for fire or monsters or something!”
Zevara snapped at the [Guardswoman]. She stared. Mrsha was running about, frantic. She kept making the same symbol. Two paws, curved over her ears. Zevara frowned. There was something familiar about—
Horns. The Drake’s eyes widened. She looked at Mrsha’s desperate expression. And her mind leapt to the worst conclusion, the right one, at once.
“Calruz? What’s happening?”
She watched the pantomime. Then she charged past Mrsha, leapt down the stairs and shouted the alarm.
At some point, he’d stopped feeling pain. He could still see it. Still feel the prodding. And then the retort, the snap of an arrow. They’d progressed from burning. He was only glad the child hadn’t been here to see it.
He laughed as they killed him. Bit by bit. Slowly. It only made them angrier. More vicious. He would have stopped it if he could. Ended it himself. But he wasn’t sure. What was worse, far worse, was seeing the look in their eyes.
It reminded him of the Raskghar. A vicious glee. No—on some it was just pure hatred. He deserved that. But some hadn’t come for vengeance. Or if they had, it had turned too vicarious. Too…he saw them aiming, arguing.
“Too far! Enough!”
A Gnoll [Guardsman] and some of them were arguing with the Gnoll with the stripe. They were split as they pointed to Calruz. He was lying down by now. They’d healed him four times, but—he could have told them that a healing potion couldn’t heal forever. Eventually the body broke first.
The Gnoll was shouting. He had a spear and Calruz knew it was meant for him. The Gnoll had never intended to leave him alive. The instant he’d walked into the prison, Calruz had been sure today would be his last. He was only glad the child wasn’t there.
This was how he died. Without honor. Not in battle, or surrounded by friends or family. In a dark cell. It was fitting. But bitter. The Minotaur waited as the Gnolls fought. Then the spear was raised. He sat up; a Minotaur should die on his feet, but they’d stopped working. He saw the [Guardsman] raise the spear—and then turn.
Sound was gone. But Calruz saw him react. Turn, snarling. Then—a flash of white. A little Gnoll cub tackled him, and a thorn protruding from her paw stabbed into his leg. He howled—then flames ripped down the prison. The white Gnoll child fled and the Drakes and Gnolls fled, some rolling to extinguish the flames.
Calruz sighed as he saw the Drake stalk forwards, full of honor as Gnoll whirled to face her, snarling. Because he knew he wouldn’t die yet.
She saluted them as she walked. Flames coated her every word. Fire of justice. Fire of rage. They drew back. But the Gnoll stayed. Blood ran from the wound and coated his fur. But he spat fury back.
“Leave us be, Watch Captain! Leave us to justice! Leave me to vengeance! Turn away!”
The little Gnoll saw the Drake pause. And her sword extended, glowing with heat as she shook her head.
“Drop your spear, Guardsman Ulkel. For assaulting a prisoner, I am placing you and everyone present under arrest. Come quietly or I will use force. You have one warning.”
“You love that monster more than your people.”
The Drake shook her head.
“I love the law most of all. So drop your weapon.”
He never would. And the Drakes and Gnolls in the prison were split. Mrsha quivered as Zevara turned to guard her. A Gnoll moved and she turned. But it was Tkrn. He saluted her with his spear as he moved to guard Mrsha. And they held a moment.
Traitor. [Guardsman]. Regret and shame and honor, grasped at the last moment. So stood child and Gnoll and Watch Captain. And she nodded and spun as Ulkel lunged.
No poet would sing of that battle. Brief and short and filled with dishonor. Nor would anyone call it bravery as Mrsha hid behind Tkrn. But perhaps they might spare a word for the Watch Captain.
In the moments before the rest of the Watch arrived, before Lyonette found Mrsha with Erin and the city descended to witness, the Watch Captain fought. She parried a spear thrust, put herself between the Minotaur’s cell and a score. And she slashed and dodged and wove. Faster, more agile than any.
A dozen blades came at her, half-hearted, aimed past her. Each one was knocked down. She even cut an arrow, breathing flame to set the [Archer] alight. She whirled and kicked the Gnoll’s legs out from under him. And her sword aimed at his throat.
“[Lawbreaker’s Enemy]. You aren’t [Guards] any longer. Throw down your weapons before I cut you down.”
A dozen blades fell. Gnolls and Drakes wept. And as he lay on the ground, Ulkel’s voice rasped fury. He stared at Zevara. At Calruz. And at the Gnoll cub hiding behind Tkrn. And he said only one word.
A curse. A condemnation. Her nature. And the child wept. As the prison filled, as they were led away, the Gnolls looked at her. Traitor to their own. Doombringer. Only the Watch Captain paused. She walked through the Minotaur’s cell as he gasped, the potion healing what could be healed. And she looked at Mrsha.
“Don’t listen to them…kid. They brought this on themselves. No justice was done here. But the law is merciful. But there will be law. So long as I remain.”
The irony was she’d forgotten Mrsha’s name. But it didn’t matter for soon it was shouted and whispered and said in reproach and regret. Gnolls ran into the prison. Krshia and Elirr and Raekea and more. And Lyonette and Erin followed, breathless. And the Horns and all but a Hob who stared at a ring of [Guards] who’d arrested him five steps into the city and glared.
“Watch Captain! This is not fair! These Gnolls and Drakes acted out of passion’s sake! For justice, out of respect of their grief, I ask you give them a light sentence! Relief!”
The Gnolls cried for justice and stared at the Minotaur in hate. They argued, with voices like thunder and snarls like lightning, coming, going. And Mrsha crouched and her eyes filled with tears. Betrayal.
“Mrsha should have come to us. We could have handled it. This was a tragedy that could have been avoided.”
So said Raekea. Until Lyonette snapped. She shouted, louder than the quarreling voices.
“She did what was right! What was just! What I taught her to do!”
“She is a Gnoll! She is one of us!”
The Gnoll and Human glared at each other. [Armorer] and [Princess]. And Lyonette shouted as she swept up Mrsha in her arms. And it was a hug like no other, warm and fierce.
“She is not yours! How dare you claim her? Where were you when she first came here, when she was lost and afraid? When you judged her by her fur?”
And the Gnolls had no answer. But they looked at Zevara and Gnolls and Drakes who would fill the very same cells. And the [Princess] did not care. She held Mrsha to her and turned.
“Don’t you dare call her yours. Or Plains Gnoll. Or think you can tell me what she is. Because she is mine! My child and I am her mother! Mine! My daughter!”
She held Mrsha. And the child held her. And the prison was silent. But the [Princess] didn’t care. And the little Gnoll looked up. Of course she knew it was true. Silently, in her heart, it had always been so. But sometimes it needed to be said now and then. And that night, the [Princess] said it again and again.
“My daughter, no matter what comes to pass. My daughter, no Gnoll’s child but mine. Mine, no matter your past.”
And that was enough. Enough to make a bittersweet end of it all. In triumph, in tragedy, the Gnoll held her mother.
This was the end of it. As Lyonette carried away Mrsha, who clung to her as if she’d never let go, she glared daggers at Raekea and the other Gnolls. And they watched her. Until she’d left, bearing away the Gnoll who was brave. Who was brave enough to do what was right.
Erin stood and looked down at the Minotaur. He was healing. But the marks of—torture—remained. You couldn’t paint over that with fancy words. Burnt skin. Holes in him, poked by spears and blade. She felt sick.
The young woman looked at the Gnolls. And they were full of hate. At Watch Captain Zevara, her face grim, speaking smoke. At Tkrn, who’d surrendered his spear to Relc.
“Disaster. Disastrous. This could all have been avoided. Look at it! Honest Drakes and Gnolls. And imprisonment? Stripped of their duties for doing what they saw as right? How can we call this justice?”
That came from a Drake, sighing and clucking over the entire mess. As if it weren’t his fault. Erin whirled and Lism looked away. And it was Olesm’s face she met. Disappointed. Haunted. But not ashamed, per se. And Erin ground her teeth together. But it was Watch Captain Zevara who paused and looked his way.
“Shopkeeper Lism. One more word and I will arrest you for this entire ordeal. This was caused by your provocation. Your words.”
Lism opened his mouth to protest. Zevara spat smoke.
He eyed her and closed his mouth. Raekea spat. She still hadn’t had enough. From fury at Mrsha not telling Krshia first to hatred over Calruz, she smoldered with it.
“That doesn’t change what he’s done. Krshia! Are you really going to support keeping him alive?”
“I think I must. Although I see no goodness and rather much foolishness in it.”
The [Shopkeeper] glared at Erin. And Erin glared back. She glared at her friend, who was right and also wrong. If. If there was a chance—
But it was the same argument. The same old dance. And into that conversation, into the silence, stepped a Minotaur. He stood up in his cell. And his fur was burnt away. His blood still fresh.
“I won’t deny my guilt. Kill me and be done with it all. It seems I bring dishonor to everyone I meet.”
The Gnolls jerked and Lism turned a disbelieving head. Calruz looked around. And his gaze passed from Gnoll to Drake. From hatred to disgust. And then to Erin. And she shuddered. Because she had not visited him either. She could not. Calruz only nodded at her.
He stood then, proudly, the Minotaur in a cage, facing Gnolls, Drakes, a half-Elf, and a few Humans.
“I will not run from my crimes. I say, execute me and don’t look back. I understand this election is about my guilt. So. Let me say that I will embrace that fate. Do as you will.”
He spread his arm. And all of them, Gnolls, Drakes, Erin, and Zevara, all looked at him. Because they had not expected this. Calruz went on, his eyes burning
“But let me die as a Minotaur dies. Give me a weapon. Any weapon! And give me an honorable death. I will cut my way through the heart of the city in the dungeon, or die fighting one of those Rock Crabs. Or—”
He paused. Ceria was there of course, standing near the back. As soon as she’d heard Calruz’s name, in fact. He looked at her and bowed.
“It would be an honor to die fighting a friend willing to look me in the eye.”
She couldn’t. Not then and there. Yvlon could, and her gaze was stony. Pisces’ almost sympathetic. Ksmvr was scratching his antennae. The Gnolls growled. Elirr, who had been on Mrsha’s side, had no love for Calruz. He nearly howled as he turned on Calruz, snarling.
“You speak of honor? You? The thing I met leading the Raskghar had none. How dare you demand the way you die now?”
Calruz faced him. And Elirr’s fury washed over the Minotaur’s calm face. His voice. And that quieted Elirr. No—it quieted everyone who was present, Erin included. Because she had been there, the day they’d fought the Raskghar. And the Minotaur of now was not the savage, wild war chief of the Raskghar of then. Calruz dipped his head.
“I do not demand it, sir. I only ask for it. I am aware it is not my right. But I will say this: the Gnolls and Drakes that sought to kill me this night abandoned their honor. For vengeance, they did it. But if there is one thing I have learned, it is that there is no excuse for anything less than honor. I ask for it now. Not for my sake, but yours.”
His gaze swept the crowd. Lism spat on the ground.
“Then tell me, Minotaur. Do you claim that you didn’t commit those crimes? Lead the Raskghar? Slaughter innocent Gnolls and attack your own team? Because if you’re innocent, why not plead for your life? If you’re guilty, you could do us all a favor and bash your head in against a wall.”
Calruz paused. He replied slowly.
“I remember. And I do not. But I know enough. Sir Drake, I only know how I wish to die. If the city wills it, bring the [Executioner]. Bring a noose. Or simply fill a pit with me inside. Feed me to Shield Spiders. If that would give you peace, do it. Otherwise, let us both remember honor. I forgot mine down there. I will never forget it again.”
He paused. And Lism opened his mouth, closed it. Glaring. Because Calruz’s words were an echo of his own. Only, the Minotaur said them with an unwavering gaze.
“It doesn’t matter. If magic doesn’t find him guilty, how long do we keep him here? A month? A year? Ten years? How long is enough?”
Raekea snapped at Zevara. And the Watch Captain glared. Erin stepped into that. She turned on the [Armorer].
“Until we’re certain, Raekea. Or is it okay to kill someone if there’s even a sliver of doubt they might be innocent?”
“Even if we know he’s committed the crimes?”
“If someone cast a spell on you, or used a Skill, would it be your fault?”
Ceria snapped back. Raekea inhaled and Zevara bellowed.
She looked around the prison. The Watch Captain shook her head.
“It’s late. I’ve heard this debate a thousand times. And I am not certain Calruz is guilty. Until that moment comes, magic or not, public opinion or not, Council or not, I will decide what to do with him. And in this cell he stays. Is that clear?”
She pointed at Lism and Krshia. Both glared in unison. And Calruz only sighed.
“I meant what I said. It would be easier for all to die, Watch Captain.”
He put one hand on the cell. And Erin looked at him. He stared back and shook his head.
“You’d like me to live? After all I’ve done?”
“That’s right. I guess. Hi, Calruz. Long time no see.”
She shoved her hands into her pockets. The Minotaur blinked at her. Then he shook his head.
“How can I make amends, Erin Solstice? For that depravity? For that horror? If I were to hunt down every Raskghar in existence, single-handily open the dungeon, donate a fortune and a half to those who I murdered—it would not be enough.”
Somewhere behind them, Relc sniggered as he pushed Tkrn into a cell.
“Single-handedly. Good one.”
Klbkch elbowed him hard. No one else laughed. Erin looked at Calruz. What a mess. What a day. Mrsha, the rats, people torturing Calruz—she looked at Krshia and Lism and shook her head.
“You’re right, Calruz. It isn’t enough. And it won’t be enough, no matter what you do. You—you nearly killed Mrsha. And you killed good people. I haven’t forgiven you.”
“In that case—”
Erin closed her eyes. She waited, listening to the beating of her own heart. Then she opened her eyes and looked around. At the Gnolls. At her friends. At Lism, and Olesm and the others.
“Do you know what I’m going to tell Mrsha when I get back? I’m going to tell her she did a really good job. Really. I don’t care what you say. Any of you. She saw bad things happening to Calruz. And she stopped it. Because a Minotaur is like…a bunch of rats with their tails tied together.”
Calruz stared. His lips moved silently. Zevara, Lism, Olesm—all looked at Erin strangely. The Gnolls growled. They got it. Erin went on.
“He might be evil. He might be innocent. But hurting him because he can’t fight back in a cell is wrong. Sometimes you kill Raskghar. But you don’t torture them or you are the Raskghar. And you know what? Yeah, maybe Mrsha could have gone to Krshia sooner. But guess who didn’t? Tkrn! Ulkel! All the others! And it was the hardest for Mrsha to do. But she did it.”
She glared at Raekea. The Gnoll glared back.
“Do you know what being good is? It’s not doing something you’re supposed to do because it’s easy. It’s doing something you have to do because it’s right. So you know what, Calruz?”
She turned on the Minotaur. He waited. Erin pointed at him, breathing hard.
“There’s no way you’d ever repay your debts, Calruz. Not in life. Or in death. But I think that if you ran away, if you let yourself be killed without trying your whole life to repay people for what you’ve done, that would be the most cowardly thing you ever did. And I think that if people line up to watch you die horribly—that makes them no better than the Raskghar and their sacrifice.”
And that was Erin Solstice. Love her, hate her, as the Minotaur’s eyes widened and he straightened with anger and shame, as the Gnolls turned to stare at her, wide-eyed with fury, you had to admit it. Erin knew people.
This was how the tale ended. The important tale, that was. It was with a half-Elf. A day later. The Minotaur still felt his healed wounds. And he still bore the marks. But neither one talked about it.
“Well, the election’s today.”
Calruz looked up. He was staring at a basket and a book and a strange, symmetrical bar and round thing lying on the ground. It was made of metal and heavy when he picked it up. Ceria had pushed them through. The half-Elf shrugged self-consciously.
“I thought it was later. Or rather, I had the impression it was an ongoing issue.”
“Nope. It was only a week, remember? I guess this was the last big day.”
“And so my fate is part of the election.”
The Minotaur carefully inspected the basket. It was…moving. Ceria smiled, her face pale.
“Maybe. You know, Lism dropped the line about executing you horribly. But he’s shouting about all the rest. So’s Krshia. She told Erin in private that she’d let you live if she was elected.”
“Hm. What’s this object for, Ceria? And the book?”
“Oh. I bought it in the market. It wasn’t much. I think it’s battle tactics or something.”
“The Conquests of Tulm the Mithril, a History, Hrm. It must be new. I haven’t read about him. I know the name of course. You got it from Pallass, of course.”
The Minotaur picked up the book and opened it awkwardly with his one arm. Ceria smiled faintly.
“I did. I can’t believe I didn’t think to bring them before. Uh—Krshia said—”
“I heard you. What made her change her mind? I cannot imagine the Gnolls would want me to live. Isn’t she taking a risk?”
“Well, yes. She’s betting on Erin’s support. Wild, isn’t it? But I think something else convinced the Gnolls to pass on demanding your execution as part of her winning.”
Calruz looked up from the book and put it down next to his cot. He eyed the basket again.
“Really? Which is?”
“You saying how much you’d rather die than stay in the cell. Uh—the Gnolls thought it would be better to let you live in that case. Some of them, anyways. Fancy that?”
The half-Elf smiled. Calruz stared at her. Then he guffawed.
“That’s what they said?”
He laughed until his still-healing lungs wheezed and he sat down. He shook his head as Ceria stared at him.
“Alright. What’s this heavy thing?”
“It’s a weight. Something you lift to build muscle. There’s also a bar with weights—Erin said you need two hands for that, though. She asked me to bring it here.”
“Why? I’m…grateful. It’s an interesting idea. But why?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t want to come, but she said it was cruel to leave you without anything to do. And apparently uh, the weights fit a prison? That’s Erin’s logic. Don’t ask me to explain it.”
“Very well. And what’s this?”
At last the Minotaur shifted his attention to the basket. He opened the lid and recoiled. Ceria grinned at his expression.
“That’s a…problem from the inn. Lyonette decided they weren’t allowed there and we had no idea what to do. If we threw them out, they’d probably come back to the inn. So it was Mrsha—”
“The Gnoll child?”
Calruz looked up, and an expression of pain crossed his face. Ceria nodded, losing her smile.
“Yeah. Her. She wanted to give it to you.”
The Minotaur stared down at the two little rats, moving around the padded basket. One nibbled at a bit of cheese. The other looked up and inspected him warily. What new fate was this? What hell of tortures, what odyssey of strange lands?
Nothing, for once. The Minotaur spoke a bit more with the half-Elf, casually. Awaiting his fate if it came to pass. Then he looked down. And the rats stared up at him and he stared back. They flinched at he reached down. But the hand that had caused so much grief, the hand which had lost and then grabbed for honor, the hand scarred and worn and gentle, reached down.
And the rats nibbled at it, then climbed up it as it didn’t move. Calruz lifted them up. One white, one grey. And the lonely Minotaur breathed out. He stared at his companions and nodded. With a slow, careful touch, he stroked each’s head with a finger and pointed at the white one first.
“You shall be Haldagaz, Vanquisher of Foes. And you will be Rhata, Trident-Guardian of the Harbor of Hammerad.”
And that was all. The Minotaur lay back. And he smiled.
Erin Solstice lay back too. As she waited for the results of her election, she lay on the floor of Bird’s tower. It was empty. And in the distance, Liscor voted. And below, a little Gnoll followed her mother around. And that was a good thing.
But the rest wasn’t. Erin thought of rats.
“That was Mrsha growing up.”
She thought of Calruz.
“If Lism wins, what do I do?”
And then she thought of Mrsha, running to Zevara. Instead of running to her. And risking her neck. No—learning a spell from Moore. Erin frowned up at the sky.
“How many times is it so far? She just…gets into trouble. What can we do? Get Numbtongue to guard her every hour of the day? Lock her in the inn?”
The sky didn’t answer. A Razorbeak flew overhead, cementing Erin’s point. She stared at the giant bird. And she thought of Goblins.
“Someday it’ll happen again. There’ll be Rags. Or another Headscratcher. Or…they’ll die. The Raskghar might return.”
The sky made no response. Erin rolled over. She poked her inn.
“You know, I’m close. I can feel it. I’ve had a full inn every day. And this is my inn. So…this is my problem. I want a better door, alright? So it can teleport whenever! But Mrsha—keeping her safe’s more important. Her and everyone else.”
There was no response. Erin frowned. She tried again, speaking, really speaking. To the inn? Herself?
“Hey. Inn. On my next level up, I want you to do something to protect them, alright? Mrsha. Goblins. Me too, I guess. Give me the power to save them from anything bad. Can you do that?”
No response. Erin drowsily stared up at the sky.
“Yeah. Next time…”
She yawned. Closed her eyes as Liscor decided its fate. And Erin’s head lolled back. And she closed her eyes—
[Magical Innkeeper Level 39!]
“…And? And? And?”
Erin sat up. She yawned, glared around blearily, and then smacked the floorboards.
“Level 40, then. But it had better be good. Time to grind some exp!”
She made to get up and lay back on the floor. And Erin stared up at the blue sky. And in a place with no sky and little light, a pair of rats crawled around their new home. And they were as happy as could be.