In antiquity, the Walled Cities south of the High Passes had been constructed as a network. Not alone. Well, antiquity was a relative term.
If you looked, you could clearly find a time when the High Passes weren’t so…high. When Harpies were an indigenous race. When there were more than six Walled Cities.
But that was before Rhir had been taken and lost and taken and lost and…and certainly before the Demons and the Blighted Kingdom.
Long ago, Fissival’s teleportation network had reached every Walled City. It was based on the idea of the cities being besieged, sometimes for years. But if Oteslia grew crops and Fissival managed the magical network and Pallass supplied them and so on and so forth—you’d have linked Walled Cities who could instantly reinforce and resupply each other.
To destroy one, you’d need to have a force capable of taking on multiple armies from each Walled City—or besiege all of them at once. And good luck with that.
But Fissival’s magical teleportation network did not last. To [Historians], [Students], or just the interested, the downfall wasn’t some great event. It was just Fissival quarreling with other cities, refusing to perform maintenance regularly when the political winds shifted—until the networks broke down beyond repair.
First in Pallass, then Zeres, Manus, Oteslia…until Salazsar and closer city-states were the only ones with access to the much more limited teleportation network, which had developed flaws and errors.
There was some kind of lesson in that. But it was still history. And Fissival still did teleport stuff around. Erin Solstice’s magical door was, in fact, of little interest to Drakes compared to Humans. They’d long held what was new to her.
So—the routine was standard. The [Cargomaster] and a single worker prepared the teleportation nexus. The magical inlays in the floor, maintained by Fissival’s [Mages], had to be perfectly clean. Anything in the way might suffer…entanglement.
Now, a message via magical lodestone; cheaper than [Messages]. A five minute wait—the two Drakes relaxed. There were empty crates waiting for the packaged goods to be loaded into; when teleported they were spared packaging if possible to reduce the mana cost.
“Bulk transfer one commencing, [Cargomaster].”
The younger Drake called out. The [Cargomaster] nodded. The [Laborers], [Porters], and so on weren’t needed. He had a cushy job, overseeing the teleportation so he didn’t hurry as he waved a claw.
“Transfer one. Produce. Let’s see—”
A flash. A hum, so deep that it ran through stone and the enclosed building. The younger Drake set his teeth against the sound, and his white-blue scaled body tensed. The [Cargomaster] was used to the sound, though, and barely noticed.
“Let’s see. Pumpkins? Bah. Hm. Looks like two thousand pounds alright. We’ll compare weights.”
He noted the shipment. Pumpkins. Well, people ate them and all kinds of produce that weren’t sourced locally got shipped here. These days bulk-goods were shipped via the network. Anything expensive or living didn’t get sent. Mainly because…of the leakage.
“We might have lost some pumpkins, [Cargomaster].”
The worker anxiously pointed to a pile. It was inconceivable that Fissival’s side would have stacked the goods carelessly. But the produce had slid over; only half of a pumpkin had appeared.
“Teleportation loss. Make a note of the location and amount.”
The [Cargomaster] sighed. But this was normal. He made another note.
“Why pumpkins? [Cargomaster]?”
“They’re going to Oteslia, Pallass, and Zeres. Some big project. Not food. But Salazsar’s willing to send it on its way.”
That was trade for you. Salazsar was further west so Fissival was expediting the shipment. The [Cargomaster] waved his claw.
“Okay, bring in those lazy scale-sacks and furbags and get this cleaned up.”
The helper went trotting and after some shouting, there came the laborers. They knew the job; they loaded the pumpkins into crates and had them rolling out of the teleportation room in short order on wheeled transports. The [Cargomaster] paid no attention to that.
More transfers were coming.
“Bulk transfer two. Ink…Ancestors!”
A break in a crate as it was teleported. The spell must have smashed the crate by giving it some kind of momentum. Black ink ran across the ground.
“Get the [Cleaners] in here!”
The [Cargomaster] cursed at his helper and the workers. What a setback! It was thirty minutes before the floor was cleaned.
However, if those two minor incidents were bad, the other four teleports went flawlessly. No dropped items, nothing cut in half or lost. The [Cargomaster] sighed with relief; some days were bad where you worked overtime for hours if something went wrong.
The teleport spell could overheat something until it was practically explosive, or impart physics to the things teleported in dangerous ways. Which was why he and his assistant waited for the teleport behind an enchanted glass barrier. At least they didn’t teleport animals anymore. He’d heard stories…from his superiors.
But now he was the boss. And there were perks to the job.
For instance, he now had half a pumpkin. Which er…wasn’t that great. And if he’d wanted to, he could have saved some of the ink. However, the real find came with the last shipment.
A flash. A hum. The assistant braced, but everything was fine. This was the smallest batch, but the most expensive. The [Cargomaster] stepped around the protective barrier and eyed the neat stacks of small, lacquered boxes. They had an odor about them, but not an unpleasant one. He nodded.
“Bulk transfer complete. Eighteen hundred boxes of puffers from Titem’s port city. Whoops—seventeen hundred. Must be a glitch in the system. Again.”
The Drake bent down and selected a line of boxes to put aside. His assistant looked excited and nervous.
“A hundred, [Cargomaster]?”
“With the way the teleportation grid’s been going, we’re lucky we didn’t lose the rest. Hurry up and put them over there, you idiot.”
The two Drakes grabbed at the boxes before they summoned the transporters. They were hurrying over to a little cache near the office when someone coughed.
The sound was loud and it didn’t come from them. There was a murmur—and two Drakes appeared. The [Cargomaster] and his assistant froze.
“And there you have it, Tasilt. Alrric was right on the money.”
The first Drake was tall, distinguished. He carried a sword, enchanted armor, and he turned to his companion. The other Drake was less sharp; a family man and drinker. Nevertheless, Tasilt also looked quite good. The two were Wall Lords. And the suddenly pale [Cargomaster] stared in horror as Tasilt cricked his back.
“Did we have to wait the entire time, Ilvriss? I’m stiff!”
“We had to see the entire thing. It’s a pity, really. [Cargomaster] Dukss?”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss! I can explain. I—”
The Drake extended a sword. The [Cargomaster] froze as the enchanted blade aimed at his chest. The Wall Lord smiled as Tasilt waved an axe at the trembling apprentice.
“You are under arrest for charges of theft and corruption, Cargomaster. Don’t resist.”
The Drake thought about running. He thought about prison, penal sentences—which meant forced mining. He would lose everything. So he thought about running. But he was pretty sure he’d be stabbed through the back before he got halfway down the corridor. So he raised his claws and surrendered.
He could have been a hero or done something unpredictable. But sometimes things just went by the books.
Later that day, Wall Lords Ilvriss and Tasilt were being feted as heroes of the hour for uncovering the corruption in the teleportation network. They gave modest speeches to the crowds, enjoyed the accolades of other Lords and Ladies of the Wall, accepted thanks from the Watch Commander, and were in general much the envy of their rivals and competitors.
“A neat little victory. But couldn’t you have shared it with me, Ilvriss?”
Wall Lord Brilm, more portly, jovial, was toasting Ilvriss in his tower. Ilvriss Gemscale, drinking a juice, took a gulp before replying.
“What makes you think it was a certain thing, Brilm? Tasilt and I just happened to be suspicious—”
“Don’t give me the same twaddle as in your speech, Ilvriss. You don’t ‘just’ get suspicious of our [Cargomaster]. You two had to have planned that.”
The other Drake raised his brows, looking at Ilvriss. The [Lord]’s lips quirked up.
“Well, I suppose I was tipped off. So I did Tasilt a favor. We took some invisibility potions for Tasilt—I have a ring—and waited. It wasn’t certain, but it was close.”
“How? Who told you? A conspirator? Come on, Ilvriss! I could use some popularity! Take me along next time, at least!”
The Wall Lord refused to answer, no matter how much Brilm pressed him. But it was true; this little scene had helped his already sterling reputation on multiple levels. And while he had taken credit for it, it was not his mind that had conceived of this scheme.
There was a Human saying that went ‘behind every great man is his wife’. Or something like that. There were variations, and in the Reinhart Family, it was more of a cautionary tale—better check if the wife has a poisoned dagger.
But it held true for Drakes, who had the same sentiments in large. However, Ilvriss wasn’t married. So the person behind him was a Gnoll. His name was Alrric. They weren’t married.
Look, at some point the analogy fell apart. The point was that what Ilvriss did was backed up by his second-in-command. Who saw it all and did more than people thought.
Alrric Kerrfa was a Gnoll. Also, an [Administrator]. A rare class for a Gnoll, and his position as a manager of a Wall Lord’s company in Salazsar meant he was only one of two Gnolls in the entire Walled City with that kind of power.
He was quite pleased with himself, the next day. Even then, Ilvriss’ arrest of the corrupt [Cargomaster] was the talk of the city. No one mentioned Alrric, but a few people in the know gave him credit.
“So, Alrric. I don’t suppose Wall Lord Ilvriss owes anything to you?”
The question came from a female Gnoll [Consultant]. She was strolling up the steps towards the tall, shining towers of Salazsar. From the ground floors. The poorer classes lived nearest to the bottom, the [Lords] and [Ladies] in their towers.
So the Gnolls were used to the climb and those of a certain rank tended to walk together and talk as they climbed. Alrric saw the other fellow Gnolls—mostly [Consultants], [Secretaries], or [Accountants] in bureaucratic classes like his—glancing at him. They were all well-dressed. Few as well as he was; the Gnoll was wearing a custom-tailored suit, his fur was a matte chestnut; oiling one’s fur was a bit too sycophantic and it made things sticky, but extremely well-combed.
Unlike Gnoll [Miners], these Gnolls were sharp. Also—ridiculed, but not to their faces. They were the image of City Gnolls, those who worked paw-in-claw with Drakes. Traitors? Pets? Again, no one said it to their faces.
“Well, Alrric? Don’t just grin, spit it out, yes?”
One of the [Secretaries] growled. He adjusted his clothing uncomfortably; dress codes for those in the employ of Drakes were more stifling than among other Gnolls. Alrric just smiled.
“Fissival’s magical teleportation network has issues. But not as many as were reported. I noticed the discrepancy and alerted Ilvriss. That’s all.”
The other Gnolls snorted or growled.
“And you didn’t alert anyone yourself? You could have taken credit, Alrric.”
“I doubt the city would be making such a big fuss if I did, Zeshi. No, let Ilvriss take the credit. I’ll enjoy his gratitude. Which isn’t just empty words.”
The [Administrator] rubbed two furry fingers together and the others nodded. It was a universal gesture. He saw the others glancing at him enviously, admiringly—or with a difference of opinion. Not everyone liked that sentiment. But they began breaking off.
“I wish I had your job, Alrric. You’ve got a Wall Lord, a rank second to none—don’t mind the whispers.”
Zeshi, the [Consultant], saw the others leaving for lower points on other towers, crossing the zig-zagging bridges. Even this was un-Gnoll-like. They were not a species used to heights from the times of their primitive ancestry, like Drakes or Humans. Only a few walked higher, where their careers had taken them.
“I’ve been lucky, Zeshi.”
The Gnoll [Administrator] was modest. Zeshi glanced at him again.
“More than that. I don’t know how you have the time to comb your fur and look like…”
“I can’t get my fur to lie down. How do you manage it? Some cream, an alchemical thing?”
“Not at all. My wife and daughter help me each morning. You’ve met them, haven’t you?”
“Yes. Ah, that would do it. Well, here is my stop. If you need a good [Consultant]—I don’t think Wall Lord Helliten wants me around much longer.”
“Send me a note if you can’t find work within the week.”
The two Gnolls exchanged a cordial farewell as most began walking towards their floors. The little promise made Zeshi relax noticeably. It was a common thing, among the Gnolls in higher employment. They looked out for each other. You had to.
Alone now, Alrric summited the last flight of stairs. It kept him in good shape. When he reached the office—he was alone.
Not alone, alone. The Drake [Secretary], a young man, Josial, greeted Alrric with everything in order. And there were other employees. Five more Drakes, two Gnolls. But in this place, Alrric was the boss. He didn’t fraternize. He ran a tight ship. Desk. Whatever.
There was just one thing, though, that Zeshi had gotten wrong. Alrric was the most important Gnoll in terms of the Wall Lord’s companies, only matched by his counterpart under Wall Lord Tasilt, another ‘progressive’. But he wasn’t all-powerful. He was…second-to-one.
Wall Lord Ilvriss was waiting for him. In his office; the Gnoll checked his reports before going to see him.
“Alrric, good morning.”
“Ilvriss. I noticed the trap went off well.”
The two greeted each other. Ilvriss gestured to a chair.
“Please, sit. Is there anything new in the company I haven’t picked up on?”
It was the little things that mattered. The way Ilvriss asked, rather than told. Alrric’s use of the Wall Lord’s name sans title. It had been a delicate, difficult dance of establishing mutual respect, oh, years ago. But seven years later, coming on eight, the two were used to each other.
However. Ilvriss had changed since coming back from Liscor. And the Gnoll found the new Drake sitting across from him at his desk—entirely different in many ways. Not unwelcome, however. No, not at all.
“Nothing to bring up at the moment, Ilvriss. I was thinking I’d call on one of your Skills for the new seam. Later this week?”
“Of course. Keep me appraised. I do have something for you, Alrric. Aside from my thanks over the teleportation scandal. Would you like instant remuneration for that, by the way? Or deferred?”
The Gnoll inclined his head. Drakes were refreshingly straightforward about that.
“I’ll take an increase to my pay at the end of the month. And a few of those cigars that would have been stolen wouldn’t go amiss.”
Ilvriss made a note.
“Done. How does…six boxes sound?”
“Fine by me.”
Another note. The two had no time to waste. Ilvriss’ company, the Gemscale family’s holdings in mining, gem processing, and more, employed thousands of Drakes and Gnolls and even a few other races in Salazsar. Ilvriss steepled his claws.
“I want you to begin recruitment for Operation Periss. Take the lists we drew up—begin making the offer. Can I rely on you? Do you need anything?”
The [Administrator] considered this. This was incidentally, not checking budgets or directing [Miners] to new places to search for gemstones, managing the refinement of said ores and gems dug up—his normal routine. This was something different. But Alrric did more than just make money for Ilvriss.
“I can do it. I’ll wait until they’re returning from their shifts. And I’ll advance the pay for those that sign up. Also—give me at least…yes…fourteen more cigar cases.”
“Done, and done. Josial!”
The Wall Lord rang a bell. The [Secretary] opened the door.
“Secure twenty cases of cigars for Alrric, on his desk in the hour. If you can’t get enough from the shipment, replace it from our stores.”
The Gnoll nodded. Neat as you please. The door closed; Ilvriss looked at the Gnoll.
“How many do you think you can recruit, Alrric?”
“I can only speculate. Let’s say thirty percent?”
“Hm. Try to make it forty.”
“Many have families, Ilvriss. It’s not easy to get them to sign up for more danger, even with gold.”
“Well, we shall make do. I need to consult with the [Weapon Master] and [Trainer] who are coming in today. I will be out of the office, Alrric. I leave it in your paws.”
And that was that. Alrric was used to being given command. And Ilvriss was a Wall Lord. He would pull all-nighters in the company’s headquarters at need, but Alrric knew Ilvriss was busy.
With Operation Periss. The Lords and Ladies of the Wall had voted to secretly create an elite fighting force to deal with the Antinium threat. Of course, it was top-secret, such that not even Manus or other Walled Cities knew.
Alrric knew because Ilvriss trusted him and needed him to help coordinate the affair. It was one of those things Alrric kept secret. He was good at keeping secrets. He had a few himself.
Back at his desk, Alrric checked himself in the mirror. He produced a fine comb, ran it over his arm, and got to work. He had one eye on the sky; he’d be going downstairs after the morning’s paperwork was done.
But halfway through his daily inspections of figures and sums—which he could do without an abacus or other calculating device—the Gnoll had a guest.
Josial entered, with a bag of holding containing the rich puffers that the nobility loved so much—straight from Baleros.
“Someone to see you, Alrric. Captain Shieldscale.”
“Let her in.”
The Drake with bright, teal scales entered the room and hesitated for a moment as the Gnoll sat at his desk.
She did not salute, despite being a [Soldier]. Nor did Alrric rise to greet her.
“Captain Shieldscale. How may I help you? More instructions from Ilvriss?”
The Gnoll saw the female Drake’s face change. She was new to Ilvriss’ employ, and a bit uncomfortable at how he addressed the Wall Lord. She was…a mystery. Ilvriss had bodyguards, aides—but never one he’d taken into his confidence and relied on as much as this Drake.
Except for Periss. But that had been a different matter. Alrric waited, surreptitiously investigating the female Drake. He was almost certain she wasn’t Ilvriss’ lover. He would smell it—and also, know.
Half the [Gossips] wanted to know if they were entangled, or if she was the Drake who’d kept Ilvriss in Liscor for so long. But Alrric had been more than aware of Periss and Ilvriss’ romantic affairs in secret. It had happened once in his office. He’d smelled it the next day and called for a [Cleaner].
No, Captain Shieldscale wasn’t a lover. But then what? She hesitated for a second.
“I’m carrying out Wall Lord Ilvriss’ duties, Adm—Alrric.”
“Administrator Alrric, Captain Shieldscale. And I am as well. What seems to be the matter? Ilvriss has asked me to help you in any way I deem fit.”
The Gnoll was rather satisfied by the way the Drake pursed her lips at that.
“I…I’m missing one of our people. Shriekblade. They were supposed to report to me this morning, but…they’re nowhere to be found.”
Alrric’s fur stood up a tiny bit at that. He stopped nettling the Drake and sat up.
“Ah yes. Shriekblade.”
One of two Named Adventurers currently resident in Salazsar. And of the two—the more dangerous one and more unpredictable, by far. The other, a Gnoll, was steady. Akral the Adamantium. Or was it Adamantine? He lead his heavily-armed Named Team as Salazsar’s top adventurers in charge of security on a lucrative retainer for the city itself.
But Shriekblade…Shriekblade was very different. Alrric thought for a second.
“I believe Shriekblade may have wandered off, Captain Shieldscale. I can attempt to locate them.”
The [Captain] reddened. She wasn’t used to people lacking military discipline. Alrric rang for Josial.
“We need to find Shriekblade. Ask Street Runners to bear word of her—a four-silver reward. Tell them to check around [Alchemists] or [Healers]. I assume you checked her quarters?”
“Check the prison as well. She may have been arrested.”
The Drake shifted nervously. Alrric let Josial hurry out. He gestured towards the door.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Captain Shieldscale? If Shriekblade is present, I’m sure she will be found soon.”
The Drake sat. After a moment, Alrric looked up from his paperwork.
“Outside, Captain? Thank you.”
As it happened, Shriekblade wasn’t found in the next hour. Captain Shieldscale went to search for the Named Adventurer herself. Alrric doubled the finder’s fee.
He went back to his paperwork. He was just about to head downstairs to meet with a [Chief Miner] when he noticed a smell in the air.
Blood. Alrric frowned. He sniffed himself. Then he looked up.
Shriekblade was holding onto the ceiling above his desk. The Gnoll leapt backwards with an oath and nearly hit the glass windows. The Drake stared down at him, like some gigantic, demented gecko.
“You were looking for me.”
She landed on his desk, as light as a cat. She stared at Alrric. The Gnoll looked for his bell.
“I was. Adventurer Shriekblade, Captain Shieldscale was looking for you—”
He reached for the bell. The female Drake twitched and he stopped.
Shriekblade, the Named Adventurer did not have a name. Or rather, she had a name. Tessa. It was just that she and everyone else preferred not to use it.
Her nickname was more appropriate anyways. Alrric had met Akral the Adamantium. He’d even shared drinks a few times, Gnoll-to-Gnoll. Akral was an adventurer through and through; his armor was powerful, and the maul he used—also adamantium—could crush a Gargoyle’s head with a single strike, but he had few quirks.
Shriekblade was all quirk. She had long, tight-clinging black silk or some other high-quality clothing. No armor. The cloth was probably enchanted, but it didn’t cover her gray-green scales perfectly. And everywhere her scales were exposed—there were scars.
Split scales, which didn’t regrow and showed scar tissue. Sword wounds, spell damage, monster injury—and cuts. Many self-inflicted.
The female Drake was younger than Alrric. A prodigy of an adventurer, they called her. She turned her head to stare at him.
“I am going to call for my secretary.”
The Gnoll slowly reached for the bell. He put his paw on it.
She screamed at him. The Gnoll nearly jumped through the enchanted glass panes. He saw Shriekblade collapse onto the desk, laughing.
For a second. Alrric rang the bell, glaring, and Josial opened the door.
“Please inform Captain Shieldscale that we’ve located Shriekblade, Josial.”
The door shut hurriedly. The Drake laughed—and then abruptly, disconcertingly, stopped. She sat on the desk, and stared at Alrric.
“Is something the matter, Adventurer Shriekblade? You are on retainer.”
The Gnoll adjusted his suit and produced his comb again, mainly to hide his nerves. Shriekblade was…unpredictable. He’d been against Ilvriss hiring her, but she was a good mercenary. If you wanted to kill something, Shriekblade would do it. Everything else though—no. She had a terrible record of failure and success.
And she had been imprisoned twice for murder. Both times had been counted as self-defense, but…Alrric felt his fur standing up despite the comb’s best efforts.
“I know. I was supposed to go. But I don’t feel good.”
The Drake sat there. She shuddered. It was a full-body motion. Alrric eyed her.
“…Your potions have worn off, Shriekblade?”
“I want to visit the Healer again. But I’m out of money.”
The Drake whispered. One second she was laughing, mocking his fear of her, the next, she looked tired. Drawn.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss has provided you with several high-quality calming tonics. I have some here.”
Just in case. Alrric slowly went to a cupboard and produced a vial. Shriekblade stared at it.
“It doesn’t help. Not enough. I want the Healer. She makes me feel better. For a month. Then it’s worse.”
She meant the Healer of Tenbault, one of the most expensive and powerful sources for healing in the world. Most Gold-rank adventurers, if they were lucky, could visit her once, and perhaps cure a terrible affliction. If they were luckier, even reattach a freshly-severed limb.
But Shriekblade had visited the Healer of Tenbault many times. It seemed whatever the Healer did didn’t stick, though. Alrric knew her record.
“Why don’t you have a calming tonic, Miss Tessa—”
He was offering the uncorked bottle to her. She looked up.
“No! It doesn’t help!”
She drew her weapon, a long dagger. She slashed at Alrric so fast he only reacted to the blur as she sheathed the blade. The tonic fell onto the carpet as the enchanted glass fell down.
Alrric backed away. Shriekblade was breathing hard. She stared wide-eyed at him and then clutched her head.
“I don’t feel right. When do I get paid?”
Shakily, Alrric took a step back. Then caught himself. He was an [Administrator]. He adjusted his clothes again, and spoke.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss cannot send you to the Healer constantly, Miss Tessa. The potions do work. You’ve tried them yourself. What is wrong?”
The young Drake—a girl compared to Alrric—sat there. She looked miserably around.
“I’m sorry. It’s all bad. Does Wall Lord Ilvriss have someone for me to kill yet?”
When she said that, Alrric’s concern for her turned to ice. Shriekblade asked it like she wanted to know if Ilvriss wanted his garden weeded. Killing people or monsters was all the same to her.
“Okay. Can I have a potion? I need one. I lost the others. No—I drank them.”
By the time Captain Shieldscale returned at a jog, Shriekblade was calm.
“Reporting for duty, Captain. Apologies for the absence. What do I do?”
She saluted, her face blank. She’d taken three tonics, despite Alrric trying to stop her. Now—she was completely without emotion. Captain Shieldscale hesitated, but motioned towards her.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss wants you to test the [Weapon Master] coming on his or her abilities.”
“Do I kill them?”
She marched out of the room, a flicker. Not a [Rogue], or [Assassin], as Alrric understood it. Just…a close-quarters combat specialist. She’d seen more combat than Captain Shieldscale, four times over, despite being younger.
When she was gone, he rang for a cleaner and took a moment. Then, the Gnoll got up from his desk.
“I’m going to meet with the [Chief Miner], Josial. Hold my appointments until I get back.”
The encounter with Shriekblade had not been fun. But it was the hazard of the job—even if a new and unwelcome one. And despite her madness, Alrric would have almost preferred her to…well…
Chief Miner Ikrr was an angry Gnoll. He strode about the smaller office thirty levels down where Alrric had met him. Better that than making the other Gnoll climb all that way.
Besides, he had a good complaint, even if it came out in the form of growling, swearing, and pacing.
“It’s every shift! Not just one! Not just once a day—my Gnolls come to me and tell me that both of them are on their backs! My teams. Not anyone else’s, Alrric!”
“And you’re certain?”
Alrric heard the snarl, but he glowered and Ikrr stopped pacing back and forth in front of the desk. Alrric adjusted his posture, although he didn’t reach for his comb.
“Chief Miner Ikrr, when you make an assertion about a fellow Chief Miner, it is a serious matter that I and Wall Lord Ilvriss take seriously. Do you have witnesses who would testify under truth spell?”
The other Gnoll folded his arms. He didn’t have combed fur. His was unkempt, dusty; he worked side-by-side with his [Miners] at need be. He barely suppressed the growl in his voice.
“Eyewitnesses from every shift who will testify, Administrator. The other two Mining Chiefs—Yesh and Nis—they’re on us hardest.”
“They overwork us. We get less breaks, they put us in the harder areas even if we’ve excavated better tunnels the day before—and they’re always calling my [Miners] furbags. Telling them to stop shedding. As if fur gets in the way of work!”
Alrric tapped a claw on the desk.
“And before you say anything, I have brought it up. They deny saying it to my face, but when I’m not around I hear them saying it, or muttering it and denying it. You have to do something! Fire them or get them off our shifts!”
The Gnoll slammed his paws on the desk. Alrric rose.
“Ikrr, calm yourself!”
He looked at the door, beyond which the other [Chief Miners] of their shifts or higher-rank employees were doing paperwork, relaxing, or preparing to go to work. The door was thick, but he was conscious of Gnoll hearing.
The other Gnoll sat, glaring. Alrric sat down as well.
“I can’t just fire them.”
Alrric held up a paw.
“If I did, they’d have half the Drakes working with them protesting. Chief Miners Yesh and Nisshail both have contracts that end this quarter. I promise you, they won’t be renewed.”
“That’s not good enough! Drag them in and ask them whether they said those things under truth spell!”
Ikrr growled. Alrric nearly growled back.
“Even if I did, Drakes shout the same at their underlings.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I know. But if I fire them now, the other Drake [Chief Miners] will call it favoritism by species.”
“As opposed to letting them kick us around? So you’re doing nothing, is that it?”
“You’re not listening to me—”
The [Chief Miner] was on his feet.
“I came to you as a fellow Gnoll! I should have known you City Gnolls don’t listen. You think I’m the only one? We’ve had enough—”
The [Administrator] thundered. Ikrr hesitated—but he slowly sat.
Every combed hair had gone up on Alrric’s body. It was going to take copious combing. He growled, but it had produced an effect. Ikrr waited as Alrric looked at him.
“I do not take sides, Chief Miner Ikrr. And before you say anything, yes. I know what it’s like working under Drakes like that. I also believe you. You think I’ve never had those kinds of shifts?”
“You’re not a [Miner]. You’re a City Gnoll. How are we supposed to believe you have our backs?”
Alrric slapped the desk.
“City Gnoll? As opposed to what? A Plains Gnoll? What difference does it make? Listen to me, you idiot. If you’d asked the older Gnolls, they would have told you.”
He jabbed a thumb at his chest.
“I worked in the mines since I was twelve, Ikrr, and I lied about my age to get in a crew. I went from there to my desk at the top of a tower. If the ‘crews’ have something to say about me, they can say it to my face and I’ll teach them a lesson about who’s a better miner and fighter.”
He waited, tense. Angry. Ikrr eyed him. But he didn’t take the bait. Instead, he just settled deeper into the chair.
“Spoken like a Drake, sir. A Gnoll would prove it without smacking us furbags around.”
That stung. Alrric’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m not about to fire two Drakes, no matter how credible the claims are, Ikrr. There are more Drakes than not who resent how many Gnolls are employed here. My job is to prevent fights and protests.”
“By stepping on us?”
“By being tactful. Listen. Those two won’t be fired. But their contracts will not be renewed. And in the meantime—they’ll be assigned to all-Drake crews. I’ll see to it their shifts don’t overlap with Gnoll crews.”
Ikrr’s fur settled down a bit. His ears also lifted and Alrric would have ventured a guess that his tail was doing the same. Alrric himself showed no visible signs; it was a trick he’d learned.
“That…could work. Yes. We’d be happy with that, Administrator.”
“Good. In that case, I’ll see to it. And both Chiefs Yesh and Nisshail will receive a private reprimand. I don’t want you or the crews rubbing it in. Drop it.”
A tighter nod. Time to bring in the sweetener. Alrric reached into his bag of holding and produced something.
“Now, this is for your crew, and all the crews who’ve lodged this joint complaint. [Earmarked Funds – Recompensation].”
He drew from something. The bag of holding was just for show. But if Alrric had reached for empty air, he still would have produced the fat, gold coins. They did not come from nowhere, of course. But they were his to play with.
Ikrr jerked at the small pile of gold. Alrric sat back.
“A monetary Skill. Haven’t you ever seen one? Take this gold and buy all the crews a night out in the city. A big one.”
It was a lot of gold. Ilvriss paid well, and a [Chief Miner] earned a lot, but Ikrr stared at the pile of gold coins. Alrric glanced at him.
“It’s project-dependent, Ikrr. Unable to be spent unless it’s used in certain ways. I generate it with enough profits by the company itself. I can’t increase your pay with it. A night on the town.”
“Of—of course, Administrator.”
Alrric nodded, smiling tightly. He had no doubt that Ikrr, well-meaning as he might be, would have been tempted to just spread around the wealth rather than use it on a night on the town, and kept a percentage himself.
“Tell the crews that the matter’s settled. Remember—not another word.”
“Thank you, Administrator.”
The Gnoll relaxed. And when he stood and Alrric grasped his paw, he looked more respectful. When he was gone, the money hidden in his belt pouch, Alrric sighed.
“What a mess. Those Drake idiots.”
Most of his job had been to listen to the Chief Miner vent his understandable fury. Alrric himself wouldn’t have hesitated to fire the two Drakes for his part, but it would breed resentment. So he waited a beat to calm down, and then opened the door to the smaller office.
“Get me Coordinator Calrida please.”
[Coordinator] was a rank below [Administrator]. In theory, Alrric could have left the entire job to Calrida, his subordinate. But he wanted his face and thus authority known at the ground level, rather than being the top-floor’s faceless orders. No one respected that.
Besides which—Calrida was a Drake. So Alrric called for her. Because she was a Drake.
Wall Lord Ilvriss was a Drake. But he’d hired Alrric, a Gnoll, to manage his company. A lot of Drakes didn’t like that. Of course, the Gnolls did which was why they worked hard for the company and preferred Ilvriss’ employment over more lucrative offers when the job market was bullish.
But Drakes didn’t like reporting to a Gnoll. Some, like Josial, didn’t mind, but there were a lot for whom Alrric was intolerable. And you couldn’t fire all of them and replace them with Gnolls.
…Well, Alrric had considered it, but Ilvriss would object. So he’d done what Ikrr wouldn’t have thought of, and what you needed to succeed in running a company like this. He’d compromised.
Calrida was the only Drake willing to work directly under Alrric. A female Drake willing to be his liaison to troublesome Drakes. Alrric outlined the situation.
“Ikrr’s taken care of. I want these two Chief Miners on alternate shifts, working with Drake teams.”
“That will take some doing, boss.”
“Then do it. I don’t care if it messes with their schedules. They’re not coming back.”
The Gnoll experienced a bit of vicarious joy at that; Ilvriss’ company was a good one. Calrida sighed.
“I’ll do it today. Any chance of something to sweeten their moods?”
“…I can walk behind the stables and dig something up.”
She sighed again. But Alrric paid her to deal with this kind of thing and paid her well, so she nodded and left. Alrric waited there a beat.
This wasn’t an uncommon job of his. But Ikrr had rankled him a bit with that jab about showing his background to the other Gnolls.
“I haven’t been in the shafts for a while. Hrr.”
The Gnoll drummed his fingers on the desk. He came to a quick decision. Tomorrow. Until then, he had to deal with hiring the [Miners]. He rose, and checked himself. Then his eyes narrowed. His pulse raced.
When had that happened? The Gnoll caught something in the hand-mirror he produced. Ikrr hadn’t noticed, nor Calrida. At least, they hadn’t shown it. Sweating, Alrric reached for a vial in his bag of holding. One quick application and—he waited a bit for it to dry. Then, satisfied, he left the office.
He had to be very careful. Slip ups like that could cost him…everything.
“Miners. Thank you for coming after a hard day of work.”
Later, Alrric addressed a crowd. Mostly split between Drakes and Gnolls—which was rare for a company in Salazar. In terms of gender, far more male than female—a 2-1 ratio. And age?
…Closer to thirties, with variations older or younger, but few as old as forty. Each one was tired, having come off a long mining shift. They had breaks of course, but they would trek into the mines that stretched into Salazsar’s mountain and exploit a seam, working on a shaft for hours in turns.
It was hot work. Dangerous work. Alrric knew from experience that cave-ins, magical gemstones with unpredictable effects, monster nests, as well as any number of other concerns plagued the crews of [Miners].
However, the rewards were valuable gems, ore, and any number of other materials from Salazsar’s mountain. It was unique in that it didn’t run out of goods for the [Miners] to find. Allegedly, some extremely high-level [Geomancer] had cast a spell which had concentrated the wealth of millennia into the mountain when the Walled City had been made. A grand ritual which would ensure prosperity for generations to come.
Well, another generation now stood in one of the ready-rooms for the mining crews. Usually it was reserved for an adventurer team, ready to go address a monster attack, or [Healers], or the various other classes that enabled mining.
Alrric had reserved it for 5th shift as they trudged back upwards, towards the main areas of the Walled City. He knew they were sweaty, tired, and wanted nothing more than to rest, not endure a lecture from ‘the bosses’. So the first thing he did was open a box.
“I’m aware I’m cutting into your time. Rest assured—this is marked as working hours. And this is a compliment. Take one, please.”
He went around the group of twenty or so and the [Miners] blinked. Expensive puffers, the very same that had nearly been purloined by the [Cargomaster], were sitting in the case Alrric was passing around.
He began handing out cigars from the glossy wood case. The [Miners] eyed the expensive puffers. Some lit up at once, with spell or borrowing fire from the candle on the desk for that very reason.
Alrric saw a few of them surreptitiously pocket theirs. He made no comment. That would be a nice bonus on a [Miner]’s salary if sold. Besides, the free cigar was meant to impress on them there was money here, and it did.
He walked back to the front of the room and clapped his paws together. The [Miners] looked at him, in his suit and combed fur. Alrric spoke briskly.
“I won’t waste your valuable time. You’ve been asked to report to me by your [Chief Miners] because all of you have a Skill or Skills that are deemed valuable.”
He nodded to them and saw them glance at each other. Skills and classes and levels were considered private, but Drake companies in Salazsar mandated that their employees inform them of Skills—they incentivized it for recordkeeping.
In this case, all twenty [Miners] had a Skill that Ilvriss had desired and Alrric had gone down the lists of every employee in his company—and the companies of other Wall Lords and Ladies who’d provided the records. Not all were as meticulous as his, but these were pulled from every shift.
[Enhanced Strength]. [Greater Toughness]. [Piercing Swing]. [Extreme Reaction: Dodge]. That one was a passive, very useful if a rock was about to fall on your head. [Cleaving Blow]. A room-clearer if you held a pick.
But they weren’t here to mine. Not if they took his offer. Alrric produced contracts.
“No one has to sign. You have a week to mull it over. But I’m authorized to pay gold up front. For one year’s service? Twenty gold. And that’s your signing bonus. You’ll make more than any [Miner], I promise you. And you’ll be geared up.”
“Administrator, why’re we being picked? I’ve never swung a sword or axe in my life!”
A female Gnoll raised her paw. Alrric smiled.
“Don’t worry—your training will be paid for. You’re receiving top-class instruction; you won’t be thrown into a battle without months of training. Make no mistake. It will be hard. But you’ll emerge from it with gold in your pockets, combat training and experience…”
“And if we die?”
That came from lower down. Alrric realized he’d missed a half-Dwarf Human who’d come late. Not all of Salazsar was two species. He handed a cigar out.
“If you die, Mister Dwarf, your family will be awarded your pension. Or next-of-kin. You are going to be seeing action.”
“Against whom? Other Drakes? Other cities?”
The [Miners] were thinking, inspecting the contracts which Alrric had drawn up himself. The Gnoll rested his paws on the desk.
“I can’t say. You’ll know more if you accept. Just think over my offer. Don’t rush. Think. You’re not being asked to be rank-and-file [Soldiers].”
“So we’re not front-fodder?”
A Gnoll asked bluntly and the other Gnolls in the rooms looked up. Alrric bared his teeth in reply.
“Never. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have asked you.”
The other Gnolls nodded, reassured by that. That was one of the reasons Ilvriss had asked Alrric to meet with them personally. They wouldn’t have trusted Drakes. Not with how other cities used their Gnoll [Soldiers].
In the end, eight signed on. Ilvriss’ 40%, right there. And another two told Alrric they needed to think it over.
He didn’t waste time. The eight who signed up were told to report to an area under the Gemscale family’s control. They owned entire levels of Salazsar. Alrric accompanied this group.
What he found was Wall Lord Ilvriss consulting with the Watch Commander, a [Weapon Master]—a half-Elf with several bruises—Shriekblade, Captain Shieldscale, four Wall Lords and Ladies, and a [Trainer]. To be precise, a [Field Trainer], who knew how to whip recruits into shape.
“—not going to be adopting shield-walls or pikes, Watch Commander. As I informed my peers, and you’re free to do the same, I want them armed with axes. Shields, yes. But this won’t be a formation-driven force. Ah, Alrric! There you are!”
The Wall Lord looked up. The previous recruits were already being drilled by the [Weapon Master] and [Trainer]. Alrric motioned the [Miners] towards the lines and walked over.
“I don’t get it, Ilvriss. Drake formations have stood the test of time!”
That comment came from Wall Lady Messele. She was younger, but taking an interest in this task-force. Ilvriss explained.
“It’s true that we haven’t needed to change our phalanx-tactics. A wall of Drakes with pikes or spears can fight Humans well, or battalions with military discipline in battle. But those are standard [Soldiers]. Captain Shieldscale?”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss is correct. Low-level [Soldiers] capitalize on their ability to fight as a unit, Wall Lady. However, these recruits are hand-picked for their existing Skills.”
“[Enhanced Strength]. [Greater Toughness]—there’s no uniformity in it.”
“Correct. So they’ll fight more individually. [Warriors], not [Soldiers]. We’ll provide enchanted arms, training—they’ll be shock troopers. Meant to take down hordes of enemies.”
Like the Antinium. Alrric shivered and saw the others doing the same. The half-Elf [Weapon Master] nodded.
“Antinium are thick. Their bodies are like thick, cheap armor. Swords and even spears don’t have enough force. Axes are the correct option, like if you were fighting undead. The Skills complement the fighters.”
He shot a glare at Shriekblade as she yawned openly. Alrric guessed from the half-Elf’s bruises that even the famed longevity of half-Elves hadn’t prepared him for a duel with a Named Adventurer. But Ilvriss seemed pleased.
“Elites, Messele. Elites. And remember—these will be the rank-and-file. This is the base upon which I want to form our task force.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to train up [Soldiers] with less levels? These…[Miners] will level slower.”
The Wall Lady looked at the [Miners], who were indeed decently high-level already. Level 15 at the lowest. Ilvriss and Wall Lord Tasilt shook their heads. Tasilt, the renegade who’d married a Gnoll looked pleased.
“It’s about combat theory, Messele. You want the most first-class of [Soldiers]? Sure, train them from childhood. But if you want fast, reliable fighters, take a bunch of [Farmers] and train them. A Level 5 [Warrior] with [Enhanced Strength] will take down a Level 15 [Soldier] in a single swing if you use him right.”
“Well—fine. But what about archers? I assume we want those. And [Mages]?”
The others laughed and Ilvriss stepped back as Tasilt explained.
“This is infantry, Messele! One step at a time!”
The Gnoll walked with Ilvriss a short ways. The Wall Lord nodded.
“Alrric, we’ve already got a good base. More than I expected.”
“Twenty gold is a lot for a [Miner]. We may come up with your two thousand soon, Ilvriss.”
“Well, let’s aim for four, then. Although that might be stretching how many we can gather.”
Alrric nodded. Even for Salazsar, finding that many [Miners] or individuals with the kinds of Skills and hiring them would be a challenge. But Ilvriss was willing to comb other cities. Ilvriss nodded to him. Alrric went back to recruiting.
Secret task forces to fight the Antinium. If he were one of the tribes, even those who came to the cities to work, like Chief Miner Ikrr, Alrric would have been secretly telling his Chieftain. Although the Gnolls had no reason to like the Antinium…
He sighed later, walking back down from his tower with the remaining cases of cigars. They’d make great gifts to his fellow Gnolls he walked with on his morning ascent. Yes…that was a funny thing.
Dealing with his fellow Gnolls was never fun for Alrric. He was a City Gnoll to them. A sellout, never mind that they were here to work as well. But how annoyed it made him when they said he didn’t understand what it was like to be a [Miner]! Well—Ilvriss had acceded to his request. Tomorrow.
The funny thing was that Ikrr was wrong. Alrric had only lied to Ikrr once.
He’d been a Plains Gnoll. And that mattered, so much.
And it didn’t at the same time. Alrric checked out after nine hours of work. His mind was taxed. He was tired. He was also seriously considering upgrading office security after the Shriekblade incident.
But therein lay one difference between him and Ilvriss. The Wall Lord was still bustling about, overseeing the new private army; the company headquarters even had overnight staffers just in case he needed assistance. Because Ilvriss’ job was his life: Wall Lord of Salazsar. Sworn protector, Son of the Walls, all that.
Alrric was different. He checked out and walked down the floors. Not all the way down; he stopped at a quite lovely district—mostly Drakes—and entered his home. Then he sighed, relaxed, and took off the stuffy suit.
He saw and heard a laughing Gnoll woman coming to meet him. His daughter had been working on something with her mother. A toga-like piece of clothing, hand-dyed for an upcoming party among Gnolls. They had some on their fur. She raced out and he caught her.
Alrric laughed too. A family Gnoll sat down for a dinner with his family. He listened to stories about education, the woes of itchy dye—and he considered himself a lucky Gnoll. He knew he was happier than his employer.
The next day, Alrric had a surplus of energy. He led the way up the stairs with the other Gnolls.
“How do you have this much energy, Alrric?”
“Homemade breakfasts, Zeshi. Have a cigar.”
He still had his favors to pass out. The other Gnolls sniffed at them; some didn’t even bother lighting up. They just liked the smell, so they’d chew on theirs all day. Or address their Drake counterparts with the expensive puffers in their mouths.
But Alrric was in a good mood for another reason. He’d scheduled a bit of…fun.
It happened at around 10 AM, if you were counting by someone else’s standards. For Alrric, the shadow-clock he preferred using over a fancy magic tool was close to midday. He stood up.
“Wall Lord? It’s time.”
Ilvriss was in his office. He rose, adjusting his clothing.
“Of course. Josial? Hold down the office. Summon all the [Chief Miners] and corporate ranks below them. We’re headed for the tunnels.”
The Drake [Secretary] bobbed a nervous nod. Alrric, Ilvriss, both strode down the stairs as he sent an urgent message via speaking stone.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss and Administrator Alrric are heading down!”
The Gnoll smiled. He was checking his suit; he’d taken extra care this morning to dress up. Ilvriss glanced sidelong at him.
“You’re determined to make an impression, aren’t you, Alrric?”
“I am indeed, Ilvriss. It’s a matter of respect. Among Gnolls and Drakes.”
“Hm. Well, I’ll stay out of the way.”
It was odd for Ilvriss to ever say that. But this wasn’t his field. The Wall Lord, who was an accomplished swordfighter, scholar, buisnessDrake, leader, and all those other things—wasn’t a [Miner].
And Alrric was. The lower floors got the news about the descent of the bosses and were in a flurry to turn out. Gnolls and Drakes began to follow the march downstairs. The other towers and companies noticed the movement and entered a flurry of their own.
There was energy here. Alrric lead the way with Ilvriss. The others knew what was coming and were getting their crews in order. Of course, this was a surprise inspection of the company’s capabilities as well as…
“Wall Lord descending! Get the crews ready! Adventurer teams on standby!”
By the time they reached the Gemscale family’s shafts with the new seam ready to be exploited, there were fresh mining crews lined up. Alrric had donned protective gear; the expensive stuff like helmets designed to stop your head from imploding no matter what was dropped on it. That was a nod to his status. But he carried a pick, shovel, and his bag of holding as he walked past the crews.
“Listen up, you stone-lizards and dust-dogs! You’ve had an easy week so far, but I want all your effort today! It’s time to mine.”
Alrric bellowed at the startled crews of [Miners]. It was the same pithy language as a [Chief Miner] would use. Ilvriss stood back. The Wall Lord waited for Alrric to take his place. Then he raised a hand. His eyes glinted.
“[Productivity Spike]! All crews, to work!”
The [Miners] straightened. Alrric felt the nervous energy rush through him. He strode forwards, and a flood of personnel followed.
[Productivity Spike]. A Skill for an economic-focused [Lord]. It was one of those beautiful corporate Skills, like Alrric’s own [Earmarked Funds], for instance. It relied on organization. It took the best day the company had and ensured another day of the same level of quality. On a poor company, it was a poor Skill. But this one?
“Clear the way! Administrator coming through!”
Alrric ignored the shouting. He took his place at the ‘front’ of the mine, which was all stone. He lifted the pick and swung it into the wall. He saw stone shear away as if his enchanted pickaxe were running through butter.
“Dead Gods, Administrator! What kind of pickaxe is that and when do we get one?”
A [Miner] stared as the Gnoll calmly inspected the detritus, decided it wasn’t useful, and took another swing. He glanced at her as he set to work.
“Same as the [Chief Miners] get. This is all Skill. Try to keep up.”
He heard laughter. And the Gnoll grinned too. But then he was in motion.
Mining wasn’t a one-man, or one-Gnoll task. Not at the level Salazsar operated at. [Miners], including Alrric, widened shafts, hunting down gems or ore with Skill, intuition, or just dogged determination. Other members of the crew scrambled to remove the useless debris. Anything good went into bags of holding to be processed. More set up supports, checked existing work.
In a year, this shaft would be excavated and [Builders] and [Architects] and [Masons] would move in, to turn this into part of the city. But here, in this moment, with sweat running down his fur and dust on his suit, Alrric and the other [Miners] were moving stone with their strength and determination alone.
And oh, the stone moved.
“Administrator! I think we just hit Ancestors-damned Adamantium!”
The roar came from up the tunnel. Alrric dropped the geode he was inspecting. The other [Miners] let up cheers or redoubled their work. The Gnoll bellowed up the shaft.
“You’d better be right, Chief Miner Yesh, or I’ll bury you down here! There’s a bounty on Adamantium!”
Every [Miner] knew that. The crew and especially the [Miner] who’d uncovered the vein would receive a prize the more valuable the ore. And Adamantium? That was rare, even in Salazsar.
Alrric strode up the tunnel and followed the excited Drake. Even Ikrr was there, with other [Miners], [Appraisers]—inspecting a deep red substance mixed with rock.
“We went right through it, Administrator. But we stopped to investigate and it didn’t match the other standard metals of that consistency and color. That’s when we thought it had to be…”
The Drakes and Gnolls were milling about. Alrric’s fur lifted as he knelt. One of the [Appraisers] was muttering about quality, but was too nervous to give an official proclamation.
But Alrric had mined for years, working up the ranks. He picked up a chunk and tapped it with his pick, sniffed it, even tasted the soft ore. He looked up.
“Chief Miner Yesh? Tell your crews they just earned drinks on the company’s coin all night. This is Adamantium.”
The tunnel exploded into wild, quiet cheering. Drakes and Gnolls, forgetting the enmity that divided each other, hugged each other or celebrated for a moment. Just for a moment; they were cautious about cave-ins. But they were [Miners] in the end. And this was the mother lode.
“Get more crews over here. I want them digging in this sector! And I want the ore moved to the front of the queue! If it’s Adamantium, I want it processed today!”
“We don’t have a buyer for Adamantium! Who can process it, Administrator?”
One of the corporate Drakes followed Alrric. The Gnoll shook his head.
“Leave that to the [Negotiators]. Pallass has a Dwarf, right? Let’s see how big this vein is! Get moving!”
They weren’t [Smiths]. Or even [Smelters] or [Gemcutters]. They were [Miners]. Their job ended at finding the treasure. Let someone else find out what to do with it.
That was the good moment. The bad one came two hours later, as the [Productivity Spike] was ending—it lasted four hours. Alrric heard the shout from less than sixty feet away.
“Back up! Back up! Call the adventurer teams in!”
Chief Miner Ikrr bellowed. The [Miners] broke off what they were doing and moved back. Not in a single rush; they had to see what it was. Alrric ran out of his area. He saw the huge, lumbering forms. A beam of light; a scream. He bellowed.
“Stone Starers! Move it!”
The [Miners] ran. The huge, eye-based stone monsters could be evaded. Something else—like Crelers or Rockmites needed different tactics.
But the angry Stone Starers, whose magical eyes were a product of the magical gemstones, advanced. Alrric saw one of the [Miners] trying to crawl away; the beam had gone through a leg.
“Get your emergency potion!”
The [Administrator] raised his pickaxe. When it came down, the midriff-high Stone Starer’s head imploded around the tip. Gray-blue blood gushed forth. The [Miner] fumbled for the quick-release potion, drank it. Alrric grabbed him.
He whirled. Something hit him. But his protective equipment flashed. One of his rings glowed and the Stone Starer’s beam barely singed his suit. Alrric snarled. Two-handed, he brought down the pick again and another died. But there were at least eighty, coming out of a nest—
The Gnoll backed up. More beams were crisscrossing the tunnel now, brighter than the safety-lanterns. He ran as they exploded chunks of the ceiling and walls, threatening a cave-in.
A shout from above. Alrric and the [Miner] ran. The others had metal barricades, like the ones adventurers used, ready to seal the shaft.
“Not yet! The Administrator’s below!”
“Watch out! They’re coming!”
The [Miners] were shouting. Alrric felt two more beams hit his back and his ring gave out. He howled as something singed him in the back but kept running. He saw the crews waiting, ready to seal the gap—
Someone screamed. The sound came from above and the [Miners] clapped their hands to their ears or earholes. A figure leapt past Alrric as he halted, for a moment feeling primal fear. But he recognized the blur.
Shriekblade. She ran past him at the Stone Starers. Even they backed up as the Named Adventurer ran at them.
No tactics. No thought to it. She didn’t gauge the situation. She just charged and the Drake planted her dagger hilt-deep in the first Stone Starer. She tore through it and slashed into another, a whirlwind of blades.
Alrric grabbed the [Miner], who’d paused to stare. Lights flashed behind them; Shriekblade kept screaming. Alrric made it past the barricades.
“Don’t close it! Adventurer Shriekblade needs backup! Where are the teams—”
A voice answered him. Wall Lord Ilvriss strode forwards with his enchanted sword, leading a team of Gold-ranks and privately-hired [Mercenaries]. They followed Shriekblade into the battle. Alrric saw one of the Gold-ranks staring down at the Named Adventurer and had a thought. He was more worried about Shriekblade than the monsters.
The [Miners] milled about, until their [Chief Miner] ordered them to move back, to clear the way for [Healers] or a retreat if necessary. Alrric walked among them; they were shaken, but not afraid.
This was what life in the shafts was like. He ignored their praise.
“Next time, run faster and I won’t have to cover for you lot.”
He growled, but smiled. One of the Gnolls looked at Alrric with new respect.
“We heard you knew the work, boss. But that was something to see, yes?”
“Hah. You think Stone Starers are bad? Once they can’t see you it’s fine. Try surviving a Creler nest. Well—lucky I’m corporate and I had a magic ring or you’d be getting another [Administrator].”
The Gnoll’s back hurt, but he’d taken a potion. One of the other Gnolls, Chief Ikrr, laughed.
“True. You shouldn’t be down here, Administrator! You’re showing your age!”
Alrric twisted. Ikrr reassured him.
“Just a bit of gray.”
Gray fur. Alrric’s features flickered. He hesitated, and then grinned.
“Oh. Well, perks of the job include fur dye. Tell anyone and I’ll have you working under Yesh.”
The others laughed at that. Alrric put his back to the wall and left as soon as possible. It meant cutting his shift short, but that was understandable. He’d made an impression.
Wall Lord Ilvriss was in a good mood after that fight. Shriekblade…wasn’t. Killing the monsters didn’t seem to have improved her temperament. She sat in a void of space, ignoring the blood and singe marks on her. Killing just was, for her. Like taking a bath.
Neither noticed how pale Alrric was under his fur. He went back to his office as Ilvriss, satisfied with the boost in productivity, congratulated the company and assigned bonuses as he deemed fit.
After he’d gotten back to his office, changed suits, and reapplied the fur dye, the nervous shakes stopped. Alrric got back to work. But—it had been close.
Things returned to a normal rhythm after that. Alrric did his work, which involved sourcing weapons for Ilvriss’ forces—he wanted all-enchanted weapons, a pain to find enough, even if you could afford it—and a buyer for the Adamantium.
Of course, negotiations would take far longer, but Wistram wanted it, Deríthal-Vel expressed an interest, and so did Roshal…Alrric politely moved their offer to the bottom of the pile. Unless they really outbid the others. For some reason, Pallass wasn’t jumping at having their Dwarf work the stuff.
Why was Esthelm making a bid? Alrric had actually had to look up the tiny city. Magnolia Reinhart and two Human [Lords] made a bid. House El—he shuffled them below Roshal.
When Alrric went home that day, he told his wife about the incident and received a scolding. His daughter criticized him too, which was…unpleasant.
“Don’t take risks, Alrric!”
“Yeah, Dad. Don’t be stupid.”
“I have to. The [Miners] don’t respect someone who can’t swing a pickaxe.”
“If Wall Lord Ilvriss doesn’t do it, why do you have to?”
“When did you start talking back so much, young lady?”
He frowned at her as he speared a slice of meat with thick gravy. His daughter sniffed. She was getting too big, too fast. He sighed and his wife nudged him. She was at the age where she should be apprenticing, or taking a corporate class. But he didn’t want her to go into mining…
Besides. She was special. In more ways than one. He wanted something else for her. In some ways, Alrric was a typical concerned father, looking out for his offspring. It was a surprisingly universal thing—although it manifested in different ways.
“The company is making excellent profits, Wall Lord Zail. Better since your son’s return.”
“It had better. My son’s placed trust in you.”
By ‘you’, he meant ‘your kind’, as in, ‘Gnolls’. And Wall Lord Zail’s glare made it clear that he felt Ilvriss had been overly generous.
Talk about concerned parents. The next day, Alrric was dealing with unexpected guests. It was another of his unusual duties. He sighed.
“Wall Lord Zail, how can I help you?”
“I…I wanted to inspect the company. It’s my family’s holdings.”
The Drake’s grip trembled on his cane. He’d snuck out of his quarters without his minders. Alrric was impressed he’d made it here. Of course, the Gnoll had already alerted the elderly Wall Lord’s minders. As always—Alrric couldn’t help but glance at the indentation on Wall Lord Zail’s head.
“I think your son would prefer your company, Wall Lord. Ah. I see he’s sent someone for you. Why don’t you check on the new task force?”
“Task force? What task force? Ilvriss didn’t say it was underway!”
Alrric winced as two Drakes came to escort Zail back. He immediately began ordering them to show him this new army in progress. But at least he was out of Alrric’s fur.
Something had happened recently. So big it completely overshadowed the Adamantium discovery, at least, for other people. The [Miners] were all abuzz over the discovery, and Alrric had already refused offers to sell the rights to the seam from three other companies. But to his displeasure, his wife had thought it small-potatoes.
“Alrric! I know it’s a big discovery, but did you see the riots on the scrying orb?”
“In Invrisil. We found Adamantium. Dear—”
“Don’t be a Drake, Alrric. Just look.”
He was still grumpy about that argument. So what about that stupid scrying orb everyone was obsessed with? Salazsar had gone through upheaval as well over the Golden Triangle incident; he’d had to issue pay in advance for several good [Miners] who’d spent unwisely. Alrric hadn’t; he didn’t trust that kind of thing.
But the fallout led to more visits. For one—Wall Lady Navine.
She was Ilvriss’ sister and his match in many ways—his opposite in many more. She strode into Alrric’s office.
“Administrator Alrric. I have to ask about the ring.”
“Wall Lady Navine. What ring?”
The female Drake gave Alrric a look that told him she didn’t buy his blank tone and expression for a second.
“You know what I’m talking about. You have Ilvriss’ confidence, Alrric. No games.”
Alrric sighed. He put his paws together as he sat at the desk. It was Ilvriss’ go-to and he knew Navine hated it.
“I’m employed by Ilvriss, Wall Lady. But that’s as far as it goes. What he does with his personal affairs is not my business.”
She glowered at him.
“In case you didn’t know, Administrator, one of our rings broadcast an emergency signal. It was Ilvriss’ ring, so all of his family were alerted. As well as the Holders of the Wall.”
She meant the heads of each family. Alrric sat up a bit. One of the rings had activated? They were the birthright of each Lord and Lady of the Walls.
Alrric didn’t know what the rings did. And he said so.
“I fail to see the importance, Wall Lady.”
“The importance is that we know where the ring activated! And if someone activated it, they were in danger, Alrric! Salazsar nearly sent a force out—but it turned out the ring had activated in Invrisil! Ilvriss’ ring!”
That was odd. Alrric wanted to know what it meant as much as Navine. Well—perhaps not as much as her. Her eyes were shining and her purple scales moved as she stalked back and forth.
“Who did Ilvriss give his ring to, Alrric? He had to have hinted to you.”
Alrric closed his mouth. He had a few hints, but Navine was not his boss. The Drake mused.
“It has to be a non-Drake. Or he wouldn’t hide it. A…a Gnoll? Or a Human?”
“One can’t believe Wall Lord Ilvriss would do such a thing, especially given his views.”
Ilvriss was—had been—staunchly pro-Drake. Navine frowned.
“And he had Periss! I can’t believe he would have gone to someone else so soon. Before he even came back here? But why else would that happen? I thought it was in Liscor, but Invrisil?”
“Wall Lady, I have work…”
“It can’t be a Human, right? I hear there’s a Drake in Invrisil. Some…[Actor]? That has to be it. Wait, Celum’s not far and they’re called the ‘Players of Celum’…”
Alrric itched to throw Navine out of his office, through the door or the window. She’d survive; she had enough protective gear. But she was a member of the family. He drummed his paws on the desk.
“Wall Lady. I’m not one to question Ilvriss’ decisions. But he must surely have his reasons. Say it was a…Human he gave his ring to. What then?”
She looked up sharply. The Drake blinked, and then grinned. Not without malice.
“If it was a Human? He should marry her. In fact, I should insist on it. Alrric, do you have any clues? I’d be willing to compensate you.”
Handsomely. The Gnoll thought about it for only a moment. But he didn’t have anything and loyalty was rewarded. He ushered Navine out. And then he told Josial to inform Ilvriss.
Before the Wall Lord arrived, another Wall Lord came in to talk about the issue.
Brilm was less respectful than Navine. But he was still a Wall Lord. He glared as Alrric addressed him by name.
“Can I help you, Brilm?”
It was ruder than Navine, but Alrric didn’t like the pompous Drake. Brilm adjusted his silk robes.
“I’m here on behalf of your master, Alrric.”
“Ilvriss isn’t my master, Brilm. He’s my employer.”
“Well, this is in both of your interests! Ilvriss is treading a fine line. Tell me—is it a Gnoll, or a Human or…or a Selphid he’s given the ring to?”
Why did they think he knew? The Gnoll sighed.
“I’m not married to Ilvriss.”
“Aha! But if not you, then who? Listen, Alrric. You don’t like me. I don’t like you. But Ilvriss is my friend. As a friend, I’m warning you: the other Children of the Walls are wondering what activated his rings. There are rumors.”
“I imagine so. What is the issue, Brilm?”
The Drake fussed with a box of powder. He sniffed at it and brightened. More Balerosian stuff. Alrric wished he wouldn’t sprinkle it on the carpet. The Drake was calmer after that.
“Marriage, that’s what. It worries people. Ilvriss is respected. Tasilt was always insane for marrying…”
He paused as Alrric looked at him. But Brilm wasn’t one to hold back on niceties.
“…A Gnoll. Ilvriss now? Old Zail would kill him and it would be terrible for his reputation. It might even start—nastiness.”
Infighting, assassinations, corporate espionage…Alrric had a headache just thinking about it. Brilm waved a claw.
“However—there’s an easy solution.”
Alrric was curious despite himself. He leaned forwards.
The Wall Lord took another sniff.
“A wife is a problem. Meatbag Humans aside, a Gnoll is still better than a Selphid. Or a Garuda? Actually, a Garuda would work…now a Centauress…that would be weird. But I don’t think—”
He muttered. Alrric rolled his eyes. ‘Acceptable’ wives? Drakes. Brilm caught himself.
“Anyways, the point is that it’s all fine if Ilvriss recontextualizes it. Alrric, suggest to him, politely, that if he took a…mistress…it would be a scandal, but perfectly acceptable.”
“That’s right. Don’t give me that look! He can be single his entire life and Navine can get married, although one wonders who she’ll marry. But a mistress isn’t threatening. If he’s keeping his…Dwarf mistress in Invrisil, well, better that she’s here than worrying the others abroad. Let him know that, alright?”
“I will make a note.”
The Wall Lord nodded, clearly relieved. He paused at the door on his way out. The Drake poked his head back in and Alrric looked at him.
“Say…has Ilvriss ever talked about female Minotaurs? Half-Elves?”
Alrric had a headache by the time Ilvriss arrived. The Wall Lord was not in a good mood.
“My mother nearly spat dragonbreath at me, Alrric. Please tell me you have good news.”
“I’ve been dealing with your father, your sister, Wall Lord Brilm, Wall Lord Tasilt…”
Ilvriss winced progressively more and more until Tasilt’s name came up.
“What was wrong with Tasilt?”
“Nothing. He just came by to speak. I asked how his wife was doing.”
Alrric had enjoyed that meeting. Tasilt was his favorite Wall Lord, bar none. Of course, he’d married a Gnoll. The ‘scandal’ that had nearly got him disowned. Ilvriss blinked.
“I had Tasilt over for dinner last week.”
“He mentioned that. His son—Feldir—caused a bit of a fuss, didn’t he?”
“Somewhat. He’s adolescent. Trying to live up to his father, I believe.”
Alrric paused delicately.
“It must be a challenge, since his father is a Drake and Feldir’s a Gnoll.”
It was a funny thing. All the Drakes who came into Alrric’s office were like that. Ilvriss blinked as if he hadn’t considered that was the root of Feldir’s rebelliousness.
“Salazsar has had…Gnoll Wall Lords before. It is rare, but intermarriage happens.”
“When was the last time, Ilvriss? And even if it has happened, Feldir surely must have hostility from his family. It would be easier if his sister were the inheritor.”
The Wall Lord mulled it over.
“Fair point, Alrric. Well, at least he’s not the only one under scrutiny. What do the others want from me?”
The [Administrator] raised one brow.
“Apart from knowing if you’re taking your Minotauress mistress as a wife?”
It was lucky Ilvriss hadn’t been eating or drinking anything because Alrric wasn’t in the mood to hire another [Cleaner]. The Drake spluttered.
Alrric told him. The Wall Lord sat back, massaging his temples.
“Only Brilm. Please tell me Navine wasn’t doing anything…rash, Alrric.”
“Aside from speculation, nothing. She seemed to like the idea of you marrying a Human.”
Ilvriss cursed. It was public knowledge that he and Navine were rivals in more ways than one. Ilvriss was the heir and controller of the family’s power and Navine was powerful, but Zail had definitely preferred his son for inheritance. Ilvriss’ mother was on Navine’s side, though.
They were a smaller group of pro-Human, pro-peace proponents profligate in Salazsar. And a while back, Ilvriss had been profoundly disgusted by them. Navine especially.
She was in favor of peace with Humans. A radical element at odds with all that was Drake and good. A year ago, Ilvriss had been at dagger-points with his sister. Today? Ilvriss just sighed.
“Did she…have any theories?”
“None she shared with me, Ilvriss. Aside from a Human bride. You should probably be wary of her sending someone to Invrisil to find this…person and bringing them to Salazsar.”
The Gnoll watched his employer carefully. Ilvriss reacted to the suggestion with a groan and surprisingly—a laugh. He sat down, chuckling and shaking his head at the very idea.
“I’m not marrying her! Or anyone! Ancestors, that would be the last thing I need! And her? I can’t even imagine—”
He hesitated. Then he folded his arms.
“Hmf. It’d almost be worth it to see her unleashed on those two.”
Her. So it definitely was a her, and…Human? Alrric thought that was interesting. But Ilvriss dismissed the idea at once.
“Between you and me, Alrric, I gave the…person the ring because I thought she needed it. If she activated it in Invrisil, I doubt it was much use. But I assume she lived. If it had been Pallass, though…or Liscor? Well, Liscor might be too remote for the full effect. Even so.”
Alrric didn’t know what the rings did, but he was aware they had powers beyond just sending an alarm.
“I assume it would cause an incident?”
“Possibly a massive one. Better than letting her die. And besides—it is Pallass. No great loss if she turns the city on its head. But she’s not a bride-to-be. Does no one recall that giving someone the ring is a mark of respect as well as nuptials? ”
The Wall Lord shook his head. He sat there, for a second. And Alrric saw him sigh.
“What a waste of energy and time, Alrric. We have more important things to do. More important foes…”
The Antinium. The Wall Lord had always hated them. But his time in Liscor seemed to have turned that hate into an obsession. He looked tired. Alrric paused.
“Navine won’t get help from me, Ilvriss.”
“Thank you. It doesn’t matter. Navine’s no match for sheer insanity.”
That curious statement wasn’t followed by an explanation. Ilvriss sat up after a moment. The [Administrator] knew he was being watched, but he pretended to be working.
“Out of curiosity, Alrric? Why have you stuck with my organization so long? I know Gnolls change jobs often if they dislike working with a particular company. I can’t imagine I was the easiest to work with.”
“Then or now?”
The Wall Lord laughed.
“Fair enough. But I was far more…critical a while back. As I recall, when I had the old [Administrator] fired for incompetence, Tasilt pointed me to you.”
Alrric remembered that too. He’d been working for another Wall Lord and been very unhappy at being the ‘incompetent Gnoll’. Ilvriss glanced at him.
“You recall that Navine bid for you? Not just to spite me; she needed a good second-in-command. And she nearly won the bid. Why did you go with me in the end? She was far more pro-Gnoll than I was at that time.”
The Gnoll smiled.
“Funny. You don’t know, Wall Lord?”
The Drake leaned forwards on his knees. Alrric put his papers aside.
“I recall the moment vividly. I was approached by the both of you. You two began bidding over my salary, incentives—but when it came down to it, you two were fairly matched in what you were willing to offer. In the end, there were two bids. And your sister, Wall Lady Navine, offered me 500 gold per year less than you. She believed her record and reputation for respect for Gnolls would bridge the gap.”
The Wall Lord’s eyes sharpened.
“I assume you didn’t think so.”
“I calculated that the difference in respect between you two—as a monetary figure—was five hundred gold, Wall Lord. Respect is a number, not an idea. One of you valued me higher, and that’s what I wanted. Not words.”
“Navine’s loss is my gain. Let her investigate. I suppose if Brilm and the others are distracted it’s fine. It’s just…”
He sat there, blankly, not finishing his sentence. Alrric was so concerned he stopped his paperwork.
“Have you had enough to eat, Ilvriss? You’re looking—wan.”
“I might have escaped my mother at breakfast. It’s not been an easy time of it, Alrric.”
The Wall Lord mumbled. The Gnoll waited.
“Do you have a moment, Alrric? I’ll make something to eat. I’d like to talk over something with you.”
Ilvriss, cook? It was rare, but the headquarters had a mess room. Josial was there, chatting with a female Gnoll. Both fled as Alrric and Ilvriss came in.
“I need dried corn kernels. I’m sure they have some. Feed for chickens or whatnot. But I asked them to put some here. To entertain Brilm. Here. I’ve seen it done. You put a pot, fill it with a bit of oil and…”
Alrric watched as Ilvriss covered the lid and let the magical rune glow. Soon, there was a pop. The Gnoll jumped.
“Where did you learn this, Wall Lord?”
“Liscor. It was entertaining. Alrric, I miss that city. I must confess. I’ve been thinking of returning some days.”
The Wall Lord sat there as he and Alrric talked. The Gnoll gave him an incredulous look.
“Why? Are you telling me Ilvriss, the Wall Lord of Salazsar, wants to go to Liscor?”
The Drake nodded.
“That’s right. Liscor lacks for…well, all kinds of amenities. It’s a disgusting place, especially after the rains and dangerous. But what it had, Alrric, was—this. As an analogy, I mean.”
He gestured towards the pot. Alrric eyed it.
“That. But I mean to say—things moved faster in Liscor, Alrric. And they still took months to play out. But I saw levels rising faster than anywhere but a battlefield. Bah, I misspeak; Liscor was a battlefield, numerous times!”
Ilvriss turned to the pot. He checked it—half a dozen popcorn kernels nearly hit him in the face. The Drake covered the lid as he dodged.
“Like that. I come back to Salazsar and everything feels slow. Complacent. Tradition maintains the order, Alrric. But we must change.”
“Who are you and what did you do with Ilvriss?”
The Wall Lord didn’t laugh as hard at that as Alrric expected. He gestured towards the pot.
“We need that. Pressure. And the kind of people who thrive under it. We need innovation. New leaders, be they Drake or Gnoll who can lead us forwards. Make things better, not traditional.”
The Gnoll’s ears perked up.
“I recall you saying that good education and breeding were what a proper leader needed, Wall Lord.”
The Drake made an expression as if the popcorn were the sourest of plums. He popped one of the fresh ones into his mouth and chewed as he took the pot off the burner.
“I recall that as well. Hm, it tastes done. Try some.”
Alrric took a puffy kernel gingerly and chewed it. He saw Ilvriss watching him.
“How about it?”
“Hm. Bland, but palatable.”
Alrric’s gaze flicked towards Ilvriss. The Wall Lord smiled.
“Don’t spare your true thoughts. It’s meant to be accompanied. With salt, butter…edible yeast for some reason.”
“I have no idea. It’s a Human tradition. Let’s spare the yeast for now.”
The two retired to Alrric’s office, eating the popcorn, now more edible. Alrric considered it was a great snack.
“This comes from Liscor?”
“As I said, Alrric. The city felt alive. I can’t just go back to running the company and growing the family fortune. I want this task force to succeed. We have a base of [Warriors]. Now, I want commanders. True elites. The kind that can stand toe-to-toe with even the King of Destruction’s Rustängmarder, for instance.”
Ilvriss named one of the most effective infantry forces in the world. Alrric frowned.
“I’m not a [Commander], Ilvriss. Can’t your Captain Shieldscale lead…?”
“She’s a [Captain]. Not even close, Alrric. I want genius. I met a young [Strategist] in Liscor. He was a [Tactician]—but he became a [Strategist]. I want about a hundred of him, in every class. Or failing that, one Zel Shivertail.”
The Gnoll was quiet as he thought.
“You can always hire [Mercenaries]. Baleros has many companies who’d travel here.”
“[Mercenaries] can always be rebought, Alrric. I want trustworthy Gnolls and Drakes.”
“True. Well then. You’ll have to poach them from other cities.”
“If I manage that, it means they can be bought. The best person to have is someone who can’t be bought. A hero from another city. But how do you get them?”
Ilvriss was struggling with the eternal woe of every commander, or corporate boss. How did you get the best? Alrric thought about it.
“There’s an aphorism among the corporate, Ilvriss: ‘If you have time, train ‘em. If you don’t, buy ‘em. But first, find them.’ I think you’re not seeing the problem for what it is. If you need people you can trust—you’re too narrow.”
The Wall Lord looked up sharply.
“Are there other groups I haven’t considered in my search, Alrric?”
“I can think of two. The first is Gnoll tribes. They might not be the most eager, but they will be loyal. Gnolls value that. Trust me.”
Ilvriss hesitated. But since this was the new Ilvriss, he didn’t dismiss that out of hand.
“…Are there good warriors among the Gnolls, Alrric?”
The [Administrator] shrugged.
“As many as Drakes. Have you heard about the Woven Bladegrass Tribe?”
“Didn’t they clash with several Drake cities?”
“Exactly. There are high-level Gnolls in every tribe. That doubles your search radius.”
“Hm. Well, I’ll consider it. But how do I get them?”
“Offer them what they want.”
The Gnoll realized he might be going too far. But Ilvriss waited.
“What do they want, Alrric?”
“Their own space. Give them permanent rights to land around Salazsar—or a floor—and you could get an entire tribe. The plains are large, but the tribes always fight over space. Too much Drake land.”
“Hm. And the Meeting of Tribes is coming up. You have…good points, Alrric. Incidentally, are you going to take a leave? I know we lose a lot of good Gnolls, like Chief Miner Ikrr…”
“Pass. I’m a City Gnoll.”
The lie was so casual these days. Ilvriss nodded distractedly and fiddled with a ring.
“Yes, yes. Well—what’s the second group I could draw from, Alrric?”
He glanced sharply at the Gnoll. The [Administrator] smiled.
The Wall Lord blinked.
“Rhir? Why in the—oh. Our detachments.”
“We send them there to fight Demons. They come back chewed on. But if you want combat-ready warriors and leaders—pull them from Rhir.”
“They’re always thought of as radicals. The ones who want to reinforce Rhir. Human-lovers. But that’s a foolish view. Dead gods, you’re right. That’s talent.”
Ilvriss stood up. He began to pace back and forth. Alrric felt pleased with himself. When Ilvriss stopped, he nodded. And his eyes were alight again.
“Thank you, Alrric. The Gnoll perspective is more useful.”
“You mean, the [Administrator]’s perspective, Wall Lord. Should I make inquiries?”
“No, I will. You’re overworked as it is. And in fact—I think I do have one piece of work for you that’s actually in your job description. I want to put some money into two new projects.”
Did he want to try smelting the Adamantium here? That was Alrric’s first thought. He leaned forwards, already ready to appraise and if necessary, veto the idea.
“Give me the summary.”
Ilvriss produced something and placed it on the desk. It was…a crystal. Fine quartz, yellowed, semi-translucent. Not the best, but not bad. Alrric blinked at it.
“Do you know what this is, Alrric?”
“One of the song-crystals? My daughter has one. She begged me to buy it for her.”
And it had been pricey. Alrric saw Ilvriss nod.
“I’m of a mind to invest in it, Alrric. This [Singer] uses crystals for her song recordings. I’m certain they come by way of Salazsar, as well as other mines.”
He wanted to invest in a Human? Alrric was so stunned he nearly didn’t reply at first.
“How, Wall Lord? Are you certain?”
“It’s good music. Also—Brilm put me onto it.”
Ilvriss tapped the crystal. He looked at Alrric.
“Offer her a complete discount. For a percentage of her sales profits. We can even manufacture by way of Fissival if we have the recordings. If she’s worried, have a signatory via Wistram confirm the deal magically. But make the offer, Alrric.”
The [Administrator]’s mind raced. It was a good idea. His daughter had told him how exciting and valuable the crystals were among her peers. His wife also wanted one—she wanted eight, actually. If they could get on the ground floor of this, not only could it be massively lucrative, he might not have to bankrupt himself. Points with his family also counted.
“I can back that without worry, Ilvriss. I’ll make an offer. But are you sure? Dealing with Terandria…”
“I’m already marrying a Minotauress. I think it’s fine, Alrric. I believe this is only the beginning of the Singer of Terandria’s career. So yes, I am investing in a Human enterprise. Brilm isn’t the only one who can do it. Or Tasilt, for that matter. Now, that’s project one. For project two…have you heard of Liscor’s development project?”
Alrric kept abreast of lots of news. He thought and his mind produced the information. [Quick Recollection]. And [Compartmentalized Knowledge]. A useful two Skills for anyone overburdened by knowledge.
“Ah, yes. They were working on expanding the city, weren’t they?”
“An ambitious project. I’ve kept an eye on it. But I’ve learned that to fund development—along with the money each Walled City is giving—the city is allowing its landowners to buy into the city.”
“Ah. To fund their project? Wise.”
Alrric saw Ilvriss nod. The Wall Lord drummed his claws on the desk and then looked at his second.
“Make them an offer. Eighty thousand gold pieces for my area of development. And if you obtain the land—start developing it.”
“Into what? Ilvriss! What do we need land in Liscor for?”
“I don’t know. A second headquarters? The High Passes can be mined! But do it. And spread the word.”
The Gnoll bit back his complaints. Ilvriss gave him a meaningful look. Alrric sat back.
“Enough to make Navine wonder if I’m going to make it my summer home for my Human wife.”
The two looked at each other. Then they started laughing. Alrric nodded.
“I can do that. I’ll develop it—at least it might be profitable as a residential district. Will there be anything else?”
Ilvriss was shaking his head. The spark was back in him and he was ready to work. He strode for the door, and then halted. A thought had occurred to him.
“Alrric. I had Tasilt over last week. I was meaning to do that. It occurs to me. I’ve never inquired after your family.”
The Gnoll’s jovial mood turned frozen. As it always did when someone brought it up. He shook his head cautiously.
“I—you sent a gift when my daughter received her first class. And we appreciate the birthday gifts, Wall Lord.”
“Yes. Well, that’s standard. You have one daughter, and a wife?”
“Yes. My daughter’s fifteen. Why?”
“Would you care to dine with me at my estates? Say, tonight?”
The Wall Lord caught Alrric’s expression.
“Just a thought. I’ve never made the invitation.”
No, and it was one of the reasons why he’d gone with Ilvriss over Navine. The Gnoll cursed. But there was nothing for it. He smiled.
“Of course. I—we would be delighted to.”
“Excellent. Please have Josial bear any particular favorite dishes to my estates. Tonight, then.”
And Ilvriss was gone. It was a good gesture. The kind of thing Alrric liked to see from Ilvriss. In all ways, this was an improvement. Except for the family-dinner. He began to sweat and checked his mirror.
This might be tricky.
The first thing Alrric did was send a City Runner to his wife telling her to get ready. Then he took care of Ilvriss’ other request. He sent a [Message] to Liscor, inquiring about Ilvriss’ offer, and reassured them that yes, he was serious.
Then, carefully, Alrric wrote a little message on a piece of paper, and walked out of his office. His [Secretary] had already carried off the request for dinner dishes to Ilvriss’ estates. Now, Alrric handed him the message.
“Sell this to whichever Wall Lord makes the highest bid, Josial. Keep whatever you get. It’s a big investment Ilvriss is making. Top secret. I objected strenuously, but you know how the Wall Lord is. Mention how confident he was and how frustrated I was.”
The Drake brightened. He liked the perks of his job. And loyalty was rewarded all the way down.
“Eighty thousand to invest in Liscor? Wow.”
The [Administrator] winked and gave Josial the rest of the day off. Josial got to play the spying secretary, much to his delight. Alrric was sure more than one Wall Lord and Lady would follow Ilvriss’ lead, which was what the Wall Lord wanted. But why Liscor? Well, he must just like the place.
Or he wanted it as a bulwark against the Antinium. And Alrric couldn’t fault him for that. The Gnoll went back to his desk. And he began to prepare for a very fraught dinner. He pulled out the vial of fur dye and reapplied it. But that was a mistake.
He should have talked to his daughter instead.
Wall Lord Ilvriss’ estates were as rich as rumored. Alrric had been there a few times, but it bore reminding: of all the Walled Cities, Salazsar was the richest by far. And so the Children of the Walls were among the richest individuals in the world.
And Drakes decided that if you had it, you didn’t just flaunt it, you rubbed other people’s faces in it. Compared to Alrric’s comfortable, somewhat plush home—well—those were actual artifacts on the walls.
“The rug’s from Chandrar. It’s hand-woven. Probably tens of thousands of threads. Stop picking at it, Sidinel!”
Alrric hissed at his daughter. He should have addressed her. How quickly they grew. His bright, loving daughter was in her rebellious phase. It felt like yesterday when she was still running about on all fours.
Now—her gaze was a bit too defiant as she sat at the table, chewing on a spicy cut of Giant Salamander steak. Alrric’s wife, Ximenes Kerrfa, was the most relaxed of the three. But she had less to hide. She was drinking the fine wine Ilvriss had provided. Ironically, she was doing it quite classily, but by instinct; Gnolls loved the smell of the bouquet and they could actually appreciate it.
“Relax, Alrric. Have some of the seafood. It’s so good. Pass the crab.”
He did so; his plate of couscous and almost raw beef of the Holden Cow—extremely expensive, delicious—was barely touched.
He was nervous. Sidinel was glowering.
“Is this plate porcelain?”
“Yes it is. Stop tapping it on the table, young lady.”
The young Gnoll opened her mouth to say something uppity when there was a sound. Wall Lord Ilvriss came striding back to the table, looking vaguely annoyed. But he smiled as he returned to his place around the intimate setting.
“Apologies, Alrric, Miss Kerrfa, Miss Sidinel. I was dealing with a problem among the staff. Adventurer Shriekblade.”
He glanced at Alrric. The Gnoll grimaced and rolled his eyes. Ximenes waved it off, laughing. Sidinel just looked at Ilvriss.
She didn’t like him. Alrric hadn’t been expecting that, but perhaps he should have. He’d complained about work enough and hadn’t he had to work overtime or deal with disasters? And Sidinel was…young.
“Wall Lord. You were telling us that my father’s ring should be upgraded to be more protective. Can’t you give him an artifact that covers all attacks? Or is that too expensive?”
Alrric tried to edge over to kick his daughter. At least she used his title. Ilvriss didn’t seem to take offense. He smiled, politely.
“As a matter of fact, Miss Sidinel—money isn’t the object. Accessibility is. Most rings are situational. I, for example, have one that protects me against physical harm if I twist it. Here.”
He showed them a large purple gemstone in his ring. Alrric eyed it.
“Violet Dusker. And it is quite powerful, Miss Sidinel. But specific. Even activated, it won’t protect me from magic in combat. Enchantments are difficult to make all-encompassing.”
Ilvriss corrected him. Sidinel looked at him. And to Alrric’s amazement, she tilted her head and nodded.
“I know. Physical enchantments are hardest because altering the spell to differentiate between any contact and harm is so situational. An arrow can be blocked by a simple spell, but that relies on calculating velocity and blocking anything over a certain speed. But then I could just slowly poke you with a dagger until you died. I know high-grade enchantments are hard, but what’s hard about making a ring that blocks everything?”
The Wall Lord blinked at Sidinel. Alrric swelled with pride even as he kicked his daughter and whispered ‘be polite!’.
“That’s very astute, Miss Sidinel. And you’re right. Full-protection enchantments do exist. But creating a ward that can block everything is so difficult and requires so much power that they’re simply rare, even as artifacts. You’re thinking of a Ring of Protection. We might have…one in our vaults, but even I don’t carry it for the danger of theft or loss.”
“So my father doesn’t warrant one? That’s all I wanted to know.”
Alrric’s wife spoke up before he did.
“Sidinel! I’m sorry, Ilvriss. She was worried over the Stone Starers incident.”
Ilvriss nodded, glancing at Sidinel with curiosity. He smiled apologetically at Ximenes.
“Alrric was courageous, Miss Ximenes. I assure you, we’ll upgrade his equipment.”
“I have an anti-cut ring, and an anti-spell ring. If it had been Crelers, I’d have run for it. Don’t worry, Ximenes. Ilvriss has me kitted out.”
Alrric assured his wife. The Gnoll woman nodded. And silence resumed.
But only for a moment. Ilvriss was a consummate host, and he filled the void at once.
“You’re quite knowledgeable about artifacts, Sidinel. May I ask where you were taught?”
The Gnoll teen glanced up as her parents imperceptibly froze.
“I like reading. I’m still in education.”
Salazsar offered more education via [Tutors] and [Teachers] than a lot of cities—to create the corporate bureaucracy. Sidinel was top of her class as Alrric explained. Ilvriss nodded with the polite respect of a non-parent. Then he made his first faux pas, completely by mistake.
“Sidinel is quite a striking name. It has more similarities to a Drake name than a Gnoll one.”
He must not have had many Gnoll guests. Alrric felt his smile growing pained.
“No. It isn’t. Ximenes was raised in Salazsar. A City Gnoll. We named Sidinel to match.”
Ilvriss twisted a ring on his claw.
“I see. How interesting.”
“It’s important that Sidinel’s name not be Gnollish, Wall Lord.”
Ximenes nodded to Sidinel, who’d folded her arms. Ilvriss looked blank.
“For her future, it is.”
The Gnoll woman met the Wall Lord’s eyes. His gaze flickered.
“I see. Ah—forgive me. I’ve been quite indiscreet. I beg your pardon.”
“At least you’re saying it. I should have a Drake-sounding name so I get hired if I become a [Secretary] or something.”
Sidinel cut up her steak. Alrric blew out his cheeks.
“I am so sorry, Ilvriss—”
“Not at all, Alrric. Tell me, Sidinel. You don’t seem to be interested in pursuing your father’s career. Or am I wrong?”
Ilvriss turned to Sidinel. She shot him a glance and Alrric closed his eyes. Sidinel was about to unload maximum snark, which was fine at their dinner table.
“I don’t see why. I’ll never rise to the top, so what’s the point?”
Ximenes hissed at her wayward daughter. Ilvriss just raised a brow.
“Sometime later, Sidinel, when you are older, you may find work in the same company your father manages. He would be your superior. Everyone’s superior. Drake, Gnoll…”
“Except yours, Wall Lord. My father will never be your boss. So what’s the point?”
This time Alrric was ready to ground his daughter for the rest of the month. Ilvriss just sat there.
“I suppose that’s true. Pardon me. I didn’t think of it that way. If not the corporations, then, Sidinel, what then?”
He was far too calm. Ilvriss of last year would have taken a lot of offence already. Either someone had scooped out his brains and replaced it with someone else, or he’d changed beyond recognition. Alrric tried to breathe as Sidinel, undeterred by the silent threats of punishment coming from both parents, went on.
“I don’t want to be an adventurer. Well—not yet. I don’t like mining or paperwork. Running’s not that fun. But I like studying magic. I thought I’d go to Fissival next year and study there.”
“As a [Scholar]?”
“Maybe. Or perhaps I’ll learn magic.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss blinked.
“To my knowledge, the idea of a Gnoll [Mage] has long since been declared…impossible. By Wistram. Although they did exist in antiquity.”
“Well, maybe I’ll be the first one in a long while, then.”
Blasé, Sidinel reached for the wine. She caught both of her parent’s eyes and realized she’d gone too far. She desisted.
“Sidinel has grand dreams, Ilvriss. And who knows? A [Wizard], perhaps? But I think we’ll keep working with her. Gnolls at her age are…temperamental.”
“Feldir was. Completely understandable, Alrric. She’s strikingly independent. That’s not a bad thing.”
Ilvriss murmured, once they had retired from the dinner table and were having cordial drinks. Sidinel was finding books in the Wall Lord’s bookshelves. Alrric sighed.
“She has authority issues.”
“Most Drakes and Gnolls do at her age. Don’t worry, I found it refreshing. Rebellion is a part of youth.”
Oh, if only you knew. Sidinel had more of a claim to his frustration than most. Alrric checked himself in the mirror.
“This was delightful, Ilvriss. But we should really be going. Sidinel, put that back.”
“Let her borrow it. It’s a magical tome, but enchanted with anti-theft spells. Who knows? Maybe she can become a [Mage]. I’ve seen far stranger things. And that would be interesting…”
Ilvriss was amused by the idea. Alrric slowly drew a furry finger across his neck as Sidinel waved the book and thanked him.
Well, Ilvriss didn’t think much more on that encounter. But the walk back down to their home was tense. When they were safely inside the soundproofed home, Alrric glared at Sidinel. Her ears were flat.
“You’re grounded, young lady. Don’t you dare lose that book. I’ll return it tomorrow.”
“Dad. But I could show it to—”
“Absolutely not! Why did you have to needle Ilvriss? He is my boss, Sidinel!”
“Now, now. At least it went well. He didn’t take offence. He was much calmer than I thought he’d be, Alrric.”
Ximenes reassured her husband. He glared, fur on edge.
“He’s changed. Sidinel—don’t you walk away from me!”
“I’ll hop, then.”
The Gnoll father was about to growl. He scrubbed at his itchy fur.
“Where’s the tonic?”
“Here. Sidinel, come back here—”
“I’m going to be a [Mage]!”
“You’re going to be ground beef if you don’t come back here and apologize, young woman!”
The family quarrel was interrupted by a knock at the door. Alrric, halfway through applying a tonic to his fur, froze. Ximenes looked up.
She turned to him. Alrric checked his fur. It was that glorious chestnut that his co-workers knew him by. But halfway down his fur, removed by the tonic, the dye had faded. And his fur was…
Sidinel looked at her father. She’d begun applying the tonic too.
“Into the bedrooms. Now. I’ll go to the door.”
Ximenes hadn’t needed the dye. She walked towards the door, opened it. Alrric and his daughter, behind a closed door, scrubbed at the dye-remover, but their fur was wet. The worst case was that it was Ilvriss, wanting to be sociable or get Alrric for something—
The Gnoll pulled the mining pick from his younger days off the wall. Sidinel stared at him, eyes wide. The Gnoll answered.
“Casklal is here to see you. The door’s closed.”
The Gnoll [Administrator] froze. Then, he relaxed. He walked out of the doorway, scowling.
“Casklal! I nearly split your head open!”
The other Gnoll was beautifully black of fur. He had a hat on, and his eyes had a curious ring of green around the brown irises. He always told people it was a birth defect.
“I knocked. And it’s urgent. Sorry to alarm you. Sidinel, how’s my favorite pupil doing?”
“Casklal! Guess what? I was at Wall Lord Ilvriss’ mansion and I got him to lend me a book—”
Sidinel shot from the doorway with eagerness. Casklal chuckled. He carried a walking staff, by the way. And he wore something close to a trench coat for Gnolls.
“A book? That’s a tome. You naughty imp!”
He was an old family friend. Alrric pursed his lips.
“Sidinel was careless.”
Casklal glanced up at him.
“Not enough to make Ilvriss catch on, but she’s in trouble.”
“Ah. I see. But a magical tome is something. I’ll scold Sidinel later. But I need you, Alrric.”
The Gnoll straightened. Sidinel deflated. Alrric glanced at his friend.
“There’s a gathering. Put your dye back on. We’re meeting in twenty minutes.”
“Alright. I’m coming.”
Ximenes watched, not exactly sanguine, but not more than her usual worry as the two Gnolls helped reapply Alrric’s dye. Then—they went out in concealing clothing, with two scent-potions destroying their distinctive odors. Alrric walked with Casklal. Of course, Sidinel had begged to come. But she was too young.
Alrric, Casklal, Sidinel. It was a heavy burden for his daughter and Alrric had hoped…but no. Ximenes was safe, but she had chosen to carry the secret. Sidinel though, she had been born with it.
Why? There was no answer. But the two Gnoll adults walked on. Casklal’s staff tapped the earth, and the Gnoll’s strange green-brown gaze swept the streets. He whispered a spell. Alrric walked, tense, disguised.
Two, plus Sidinel, safe at home. And two more waited in a secret place. Their fur was dark, or bright, or glossy or matte. It didn’t matter if it was chestnut or beige or blonde. The dye made it easy. The truth was that they all had a common secret. A shared danger.
They were Doombringers all.
There were four of them. They sat around a table. With no snacks or drinks. Snacks and drinks left odors. And these Gnolls didn’t want to leave any trace they’d been there.
Not that this wasn’t a semi-regular meeting. But they were disparate, the four. Some had friendships that were known, but all four being connected was too coincidental. If one was uncovered, the rest were safe.
So when they met like this, they sat with disguises on, scents gone. And they used different names.
“Coinpurse and Spellcaster are here at last. What took you?”
“Coinpurse had to get ready. Meeting with their boss.”
“Oh. Did you bring me any steak?”
“Shut up, Wanderer. Why did you call us? Or was it you, Shadows?”
A pause. Coinpurse—Alrric—looked between the other two Gnolls. One had a mask on and the other’s face was blurred. He coughed.
“Er…which one’s Wanderer?”
The one with the mask waved a paw. Coinpurse nodded.
“Okay. What’s up, Shadows?”
The other three turned to the one Gnoll with a female voice. She spoke behind her blurred features.
“News from my contacts. But before that—did you bring us any steak, Coinpurse?”
“Come on. We want good food. Throw us a bone.”
“I’ll cave in your skulls. I do have a new recipe. It’s corn-based. Dried corn. Good snack.”
“Really? You’ll have to invite me over.”
Spellcaster nudged Coinpurse. The other Gnoll growled.
“Can we please stay on focus?”
“Why is dried corn a good snack?”
“I’ll tell you later. Shadows, what’s up?”
The other three Gnolls were fairly relaxed, despite this being a secret meeting. They’d done this before. Shadows sighed.
“Fine. Remember Liscor? Apparently the person we hired—Bearclaw—is dead. Or on the run. It doesn’t matter. She attacked a Senior Guardsman in Liscor.”
Silence. Then Coinpurse cursed.
“I thought you said we could hire her!”
“I said she’d do her job. And she’s the only one we could get!”
“Well, what do we do? That poor child’s in Liscor. We’ve all seen the scrying orb.”
“I saw her again this morning. Nearly caught up in those riots.”
“Better than being in Liscor. Those stupid Humans. No one’s even thought to dye her fur? Or is she being protected some other way?”
Coinpurse was nodding. Wanderer shifted.
“The point is that Shadows lost her contact. I think one of us has to go get her. There’s no other safe way.”
“I’ve got a job.”
“So do I.”
Coinpurse and Shadows instantly raised their paws. Wanderer and Spellcaster eyed each other.
“I’m teaching S—the Child. Er, I mean, the other one. We’re going to have to come up with new nicknames.”
“How about Child A and Child B? They’re both brats.”
“How about you shut up, Shadows? We’ll think of that another day. I never liked hiring a criminal.”
“Thanks, Coinpurse. She would have done her job!”
Shadows and Coinpurse growled at each other. They were diametrically opposed, in philosophy and positions at the table. They were all—the same. But that didn’t mean they all got along. It was just—you had to stick together.
“Spellcaster is teaching Child. So—it leaves you, Wanderer. You’re the best choice, anyways.”
“I hate going through the Bloodfields. Even going around it is a pain.”
The Gnoll grumbled. Coinpurse tapped the table.
“Haven’t you heard? There’s a magic door. Pallass. You can skip all the way to Liscor from there.”
“Really? Salamander snacks, I’ll do it, then! Just give me some coin for the road. And maybe some gear.”
The other three Gnolls looked at Wanderer.
“You think there will be trouble?”
“I’m prepared for it. But—I only need a few artifacts. Coinpurse has set me up. Just temporary ones. Scrolls. Potions. Can you get me…two thousand gold, Coinpurse?”
The other Gnoll grumbled. But this was his role.
“I have the coin on me. Here.”
He smacked a bag of holding down. The others murmured. One raised a paw.
“Can I get a thousand gold, Coinpurse?”
“Shut up, Shadows.”
It wasn’t a large cabal, or conspiracy. And there were large ones that these white Gnolls were aware of. This was more just like—a group of four. Five, now. With a few more in other places. Friends. A community in hiding.
And for all their differences, once Wanderer had taken the coin, they grew serious. Shadows looked at Wanderer.
“We have to save that poor child. Wanderer, get her. If you need backup, get word to me from Pallass.”
It was a mission of mercy. By well-meaning people in hiding. And in that sense, it was just a little thing compared to a Wall Lord’s grand shadow-war. It wasn’t something that was supposed to change the fate of a continent.
But that was the role of a second-in-command. Alrric sat at the table as they discussed plans.
“You know, she didn’t look abused. That child—Mr—”
The others shushed him. The Gnoll went on after a moment.
“She could be happy.”
“She might be. Right up until some bastard kills her.”
Spellcaster folded his paws. His eyes flashed with magic and fury. Shadows nodded.
“Even if it’s all City Gnolls in Liscor—it’s not them she has to worry about, Al—Coinpurse. You remember. It’s the Tribes. The Meeting of Tribes is coming soon. Even Liscor will send some representatives. What do you think they’ll do? The Plain’s Eyes tribe would send a hunting group. And that’s just them.”
“…Yes they would.”
“Bring her here, Wanderer. She can be safe.”
That was all they said. The Gnolls stood up. One of them blew out the candle, and they left in silence. Splitting up.
That night, Alrric shared the details with Ximenes—hoping Sidinel was asleep. He had a restless night, but the next day he woke up and went to work.
Again. The Gnoll had secrets. He kept secrets. He did his job. Sometimes it was shooing off a drunk, depressed Named Adventurer off his desk. Or refusing to answer [Gossips] on whether Ilvriss was really engaged to a [Princess] of the House of Minos.
That was Alrric’s life. Three days later, he sat back at his desk and poked the scrying orb. After a moment, he grunted in satisfaction. The little image of the Drake waved excitedly at the audience.
“Good. They replaced those two idiots.”
Alrric turned the volume up. Then he went back to work.
After Chapter Thoughts: Short chapter! Well, it was two thousand words more than I planned. But that’s okay. It’s still short-er.
The poll for this month was themed ‘second-in-command’, if you didn’t know. And it was always going to be a story like this. Alrric won, so we advanced his plotline. I may or may not do the others at some point.
I hope you were satisfied with the consequences of your actions! For now, I’ll leave you with this art! Thanks for reading and see you next chapter! Do—do you think 18,000 words is too short? I know, it just flew by…
Thanks for reading!
Ceria Springwalker by PartyOfPotatoes!
Stitchworks by AuspiciousOctopi!