(The author is on their monthly break! The story will be back on December 5th, or December 8th for Public readers!)
The Meeting of Tribes. Mrsha stopped playing teleport-tag in the inn and looked up. The other Gnolls looked up, ears perking.
Many were City Gnolls. Or—straddled the brink between City and Plains Gnoll. They might be of the Silverfang Tribe—or other tribes, but they worked in the cities now and called Pallass and Liscor their homes.
Some would say they’d been ‘lost’ to the Drake’s walls and permanent homes. The City Gnolls had different opinions. But still. Even those not born into a tribe had heard of the great gathering of their people.
First once every two hundred years. Then once a century. Then—once every twenty years, as it was decided the tribes must stay together. The reason the Meeting of Tribes, or ‘Gnollmoot’ as some nicknamed it—Erin—had become more frequent was tied to the decline in the power of Gnolls in general.
Once, they had been one of two main species in Izril. That was their golden era. Then had come the Drakes, and Harpies and Gnolls had found the might of Dragons too much to overcome. One species had been lost, abandoning their home and lost to the world except as Demons of Rhir.
The other had gone into hiding. They had eventually returned, and brought down the Walled Cities. Then had been a silver era, if you were going to categorize by metals. Gnolls versus Drakes, sometimes in harmony, other times in war, but two species once more.
Then—the Humans of Izril came from the north, millennia ago, and took the northern half of the continent. Gnolls fought Drakes. Gnolls fought Humans.
They had been forced into the Great Plains of the south. A fraction of a fraction. A dark time. One could say they had recovered from the worst of those wars.
But still—the Meeting of Tribes was every two decades, not every two centuries because the tribes could not afford to stay separate. Like their Drake counterparts, they had to stand together or die.
All this was background that Krshia had told Mrsha—that Urksh and the Stone Spear’s [Shaman] had told the children of the tribe. Their history. What Mrsha knew now was that the Meeting of Tribes was upon them. Most Gnolls would see three, or four Meeting of the Tribes in their lifetimes. It was a momentous event where fortunes could be made, great alliances forged, and tribes given power—or lose it.
She knew that the Silverfang Tribe had been preparing for their part in it for a decade. Krshia had come to Liscor for this reason. The Stone Spears had been doing the same, hence why they had been mining along the High Passes. Mrsha knew any Plains Gnoll with a key role in their tribe would be there.
And she knew also—that Krshia wanted her. But Mrsha had white fur. She was Doombringer, even if the City Gnolls accepted her with wariness—the Plains Gnolls would want her dead on sight alone.
All these things Erin and Lyonette had to know. They had discussed it. Made promises. But the Meeting of Tribes, so far off in the mind, was finally upon them. Erin looked at Mrsha, and Lyonette moved protectively towards her daughter. No. But Krshia stood there.
“It is time. May we speak?”
The [Princess] scooped Mrsha into her arms. She should be here for this. It was her future. She was set to refuse Krshia, but the Gnoll had known that. And there were favors. Decisions to be made.
The Meeting of Tribes awaited.
…But it was wrong to say that it was only now beginning. In truth, some tribes had been heading towards the meeting, making the long trek months ago. Krshia Silverfang was going with a small group, fast as she could, to catch up with Silverfangs from Liscor and the bulk of her tribe.
The door to Pallass meant she’d skip 400 miles past the Bloodfields—which had allowed her the luxury of waiting. Normally, she would have been gone three months prior, as one of the furthest Gnolls to travel to the Meeting of Tribes aside from those off-continent.
And the entire tribe that had adopted Inkar was moving. As their female Chieftain, Eska, explained, some tribes would send representatives.
“Not so for the Longstalker’s Fang tribe, no. We have too much to steal. [Raiders] might attack us for our herds if I left with too many, especially our [Shaman], Inkarr.”
Inkar nodded. She felt compelled to remind Eska.
“Inkar. Not Inkarr.”
Eska’s teeth flashed.
“But Inkarr is a Gnoll name! And you are part of our tribe, Inkar.”
She did her best. But the Gnolls really did treat her like one of their own. The young woman from Kazakhstan ducked her head. It was a high honor. But she had come to the Longstalker’s Fangs by chance—great magic as their [Shaman] believed—and they had welcomed her with generosity and warmth.
Inkar, the [Weaver]. Then—Inkar the [Cook]. Inkar the [Dyer]? Inkar the [Herder]. Hold on—
After she’d gained her sixth class, the mysterious voice in her head seemed to have given up. It had awarded her with a new class instead of just the [Inventor] class she’d gotten.
So, they called her by her class. [Worldly Traveller]. Inkar the Traveller, perhaps closest the voice had come to ‘jack of all trades’.
It suited the young woman. And indeed—it helped on the long march they’d made from the northeast towards the central, vast southern plains of Izril.
She was used to it. She had been able to adapt to the Longstalker’s way of life with amazing ease.
Despite the fact that they resembled giant, furry people and that there were Skills, levels, and magic in this world as well as monsters. The truth of it was—Inkar’s home had many parallels with the Gnolls.
Their mobile tents, for instance, that they set up? Yurts. Different in design, almost identical in conception. Inkar had grown up outside of the cities—she had family who had lived like the Gnolls.
She could ride a horse. She could speak English—which for some unknown reason was the common tongue.
She had hardly struggled to fit in. And indeed—Eska gave her an affectionate pat on the arm.
“You will be our tribe’s great news at the Meeting of Tribes, Inkar. If others of your kind are not found already. If any came to the tribes—they will be there.”
She meant, of course, other people from Earth like Inkar. The young woman had told the Chieftain most of how she’d arrived within the first month of stumbling out of the wilderness, half-starved, her dead smartphone cannibalized for the electrical charge she’d used to start fires to keep the predators at bay at night.
“Will there be danger? If your tribe is worried about raids—”
Eska laughed and pointed. Beyond her, herds of pink sheep plodded past some cows ambling in their own lane. Goats, a flock of very nasty chickens which were worse than guard dogs if you tried to attack them, and even some rabbits, were being shepherded by hundreds of Gnolls on the move. Some were on foot; most had horses, or other beasts of burden.
“When all the tribes gather? By nightfall, Inkarr, we will meet with the Greenpaw Tribe. They are poorer—and they will only send representatives, I think—but as we draw closer, more and more tribes will come together. Then, not even Drake armies will dare to challenge us. Or the Antinium.”
Inkar nodded, wondering yet again what the Antinium looked like. She had seen and met Drakes—surly scale-people descended of Dragons. Few Humans—six in total since coming here, all [Traders] or [Merchants]—but no Antinium.
She had seen the horrible mandibles, the hollowed head and skull-chitin that their [Shaman], Pulsg, used to tell stories of the Antinium Wars with. Piercing mandibles—and apparently four arms?
The Longstalker’s Fangs had fought in both wars and bore trophies to remember their foes by. But they were hardly a tribe of war, like the Woven Bladegrass tribe, which was on everyone’s tongues for their war with Drake cities. No, the Longstalker’s Fangs were a nomadic, herding tribe, hardly unique among the Gnoll tribe traditions. Gnolls—Plains Gnolls, those who kept to tradition—roamed southern Izril. They traded or fought with Drake cities, grew their numbers, and each one had a specialty.
For instance…Inkar stared as a group of blue sheep broke away from the procession. Multicolored sheep—that was the Longstalker’s pride. Each one with pre-dyed wool.
“Эй! Get back, you disobedient sheeps!”
The Gnolls laughed as they saw Inkar urge her horse forwards. The baahing blue sheep followed her; she normally took care of them anyways.
Tricky sheep. They weren’t even the worst ones. Not like the evil chickens, or magical rabbits—or the sheep who could zap predators. Or cows who could outrun horses.
Animals got weird when magic entered their diets. Gnolls called out to Inkar, jesting at her expense.
They liked her. And not just because there were similarities in cultures. Inkar had proven herself to be an asset rather than dead weight. She thought of them as similar to her people’s roots—and they were.
Yurts, herding animals…they even carried bows, not having discovered gunpowder. They had given her hospitality and shelter.
She, in turn, had told them of her world. Their [Shaman] and [Chieftain] had listened intently to stories of planes and a world connected by internet and harnessed lightning. Most of the tribe put it up to tall tales, or magic—hence her [Storyteller] class. But they had begun to believe—at least in part—when she started giving them things from her world.
Her main contributions at first, ironically, were things that were immediate and easy to translate, like beshbarmak, or pilaf—both of which Gnolls found new and very tasty! For instance, the horse meat with noodle dish from Kazakhstan that you ate hot, on wide, dough-noodles, was easily translatable with ingredients that the Longstalkers had. It was not wildly original. They had noodles. They ate meat.
There were overlaps, but there the divergence in cultures meant she had gained the [Cook] class after her first week of Gnolls wandering over and asking her to help make dinner.
Inkar, exasperated, left the blue sheep back in their line and rode back the way she’d come. She waved at the other [Herders], one of whom called out an apology for letting the sheep get loose. Inkar stretched—then realized that the [Weavers] were ushering her over.
They were friendly—a group of older Gnolls, younger ones, and a few dedicated experts who took the wool the Longstalkers harvested and turned it into thread, even bolts of cloth they sold for lots of coin. Their cloth would never lose its color, and the magical cloths were sold to distant nations across the sea by enterprising [Merchants].
The group welcomed her, tossing her hot, filled pockets of baked pastry they liked to eat on the march. Savory over sweet; and they loved their often-sour dipping sauces. Inkar ate as she rode. Not two months ago this very same group of mostly-female Gnolls had been trying to get her kicked out of the tribe. But they’d made amends.
Inkar had adjusted easily to the Gnoll tribe at first. Still. She might have come from a country with its roots in the very same lifestyle the Gnolls lived, but Inkar felt in her very bones that she had gone back in time, as well as to a land of furry-folk with swords and sorcery.
She knew what they lacked. It had become apparent the moment she’d stepped into their weaving tents and seen how they made the wool into cloth.
The Longstalker’s Fangs had a traditional loom, which they took apart and put together from bags of holding each time they stopped. Looms, in fact. Bags of holding, those miraculous storage containers, allowed them to work while maintaining a nomadic lifestyle. Food, supplies—it lightened their loads far more than on Earth.
…But the looms were low-tech. Inkar was no expert on loom-advancement through the ages. But she knew they were working far, far slower than a loom from her world. She’d described the ones that could work via electricity—or just a foot pedal—and spent fruitless hours trying to puzzle one out with scraps of parchment.
In the end, she had failed. Looms were incredibly hard! But spurred by that idea, the tribe had been far more open to the actual, concrete technology which they would bring to the Meeting of Tribes. They had listened, given her wood, metal, the help of their craftspeople to experiment.
And then she had succeeded.
Inkar had not made a loom. Looms were complex. She had no idea how to create…most modern electrical devices. Their [Blacksmith] and [Shaman] had taken one look at the inside of her smartphone and shaken their heads. Inkar had puzzled it over and come to a solution as she helped make thread.
Inkar the [Weaver]. But more than weaving took place in the tents. To make wool into clothing, you had to do a lot more than weave. For instance, it had to be carded, washed…
And spun. That was the breakthrough moment.
Gnolls were not without technology like Earth’s. They’d had spinning technology from the beginning. The spinning wheel that allowed people to take wool, or cotton, and turn it into the first bits of string in the long process of making cloth existed in both worlds from antiquity.
How could it not? Even with classes, without a spinning wheel you had to do that by hand. However, the difference between worlds became apparent there.
On Earth, Humans had kept working on the wheel, eventually making it an automated, powered device like the loom which allowed them to remove most of the manual labor in the device.
People in this world had invented the wheel and called it good. And it was not hard to see why, honestly.
“Gnolls who get the right Skills, like [Finer Thread], [Cleansed Materials], or even [Twofold Yield]—they take such jobs. It is about Skills, Inkarr.”
“Inkar. Do you do it by…paw? There are not spinners that move by themselves? With power?”
“Drakes do such things with magic, in their cities. Magic enchantments to spin the wheel forever or make the thread thin without needing to touch it. We could buy such a thing, but magic does not live forever. Besides—we do well enough without magic!”
The old [Spinner] had chuckled and produced a fine thread in a moment, running it across the wheel as another Gnoll apprentice worked it. By paw.
“I would not mind that, yes?”
The apprentice had ducked her head and grinned at Inkar, and that had lit a spark in her mind.
It had puzzled Inkar for a long time, asking herself what was missing from the tribe’s spinner. Spinning was a communal activity. One Gnoll moved the spinner, another helped twist, and the final one actually did the spinning while they talked.
That was…off. So, after much recollecting, aided by their [Shaman] who helped Inkar recollect memories in her dreams—the young woman had it!
She had invented…the foot treadle and flyer. It excited only Inkar, mostly female Gnolls, or those who understood what it meant.
It was just a foot-pedal you could use to automate the spinning wheel instead of having someone move it by hand. A flyer spun the thread automatically, rather than forcing someone to do it by paw. Was it revolutionary?
Yes and no. It was an improvement. A significant one, since it allowed one Gnoll to do the work of three. Magical enchantments already existed that could do all of that—but this allowed anyone to do the same with a bit of cunningly-wrought metal or wood. It had caused a stir.
And made her enemies. Inkar had, perhaps naively, not expected that. But progress meant that the weaving group felt Inkar was trying to do away with them, reduce their importance with the technology. She hadn’t, of course.
Now, every Gnoll was a spinner by themselves and some resented that. Or—had, until they saw how much that one bit of technology had improved their output. They could still gossip and talk, Inkar and their Chieftain had sensibly pointed out. Only now, they’d all be spinning thread by themselves instead of three or two to a spinner!
That was months ago. Now, the old [Spinner] pinched Inkar’s cheek affectionately. She had stayed by Inkar, refused to allow the dissent. Neither had Eska.
“The Meeting of Tribes comes, Inkar. We will show them our Human from Earth! But first—you must eat more!”
She worried about Inkar, whom she called ‘short and underfed’. Because Inkar was hardly the Gnoll standard, who averaged six feet in height and were considerably stronger and larger than most Humans, across both genders.
Inkar ducked her head.
“Did you spin well today, Honored Deskie?”
The Gnoll had grey fur and countless grandchildren. She growled an acknowledgement, producing a bolt of almost perfect blue fabric to show Inkar. The young woman made appropriate sounds of admiration. And it was admiration, it was wonderful fabric that needed no dyes!
“Good thread. New technology. Tribes willing—it may give our people some fame during this gathering. But I also hope it will give you what you seek, Inkarr, yes?”
News of home. How she’d gotten here—if others from Earth had come. Inkar nodded slowly. Deskie patted her on the arm.
“You will be fine. We will keep you safe, and the great [Shamans] and [Chieftains] will know something, I am sure. I am looking forwards to my sixth Meeting of the Tribes, myself.”
Sixth? Inkar stared. But then—this was Deskie. The [Magic Spinner]. The one who had made Inkar—
Oh yes, one more thing. The young woman turned and her dyed, exquisitely ornate clothing, a replica of traditional patterns from her home, glittered in the sunlight as Eska called out to her. Inkar rode, Deskie’s clothing light on her skin.
Magical clothing. Made from the Gnoll’s labors.
Clothing as strong as armor, as warm as an oven even during the freezing winter, and which had been inlaid with the most expensive product of the animals the tribe had: the angora wool of the Waisrabbit! Inkar and her horse blinked across a line of sheep, which turned their heads to stare at her.
The Waisrabbits, notoriously hard to breed and raise. Because the Waisrabbits…
Teleported. And unless you were kind, careful, and treated them well, an entire flock would vanish overnight. As it was, they produced precious little angora wool which carried their powers. But their meat, bones, and every part of them was a valuable cash product.
The herd of rabbits that had given Inkar the ability to hop a few feet regularly with her mount, the faithful Flura, promptly vanished and reappeared on the back of one of the rolling wagons of the Longstalkers. The Gnoll driving the wagon sighed, but let them peek over the side.
“Inkar! Good, come with me.”
The [Chieftain of Herds] waved Inkar forwards and they rode at a brisk trot. Inkar peered ahead.
“The other tribe? The Greenpaw Tribe?”
“Yes. They are different. Do not look down your nose at them—not that you would.”
The answer was obvious and Eska’s hesitation clear as the second tribe appeared over the hill they were descending, as the ground leveled out and became the Great Plains, so reminiscent of her homeland for their flat, enormous landscapes. But the Great Plains were many times larger than her entire homeland, Inkar had learned.
The Greenpaw Tribe was…an agricultural tribe. Also, poor. They did not go hand-in-hand, but poor harvest and a Creler infestation had ruined their fortunes. They farmed this area, and they had been subject to enough bad luck that other tribes called them cursed.
Eska did not. She greeted the senior [Chieftain] with a strong hug, and the grey-furred Orelighn looked curiously at Inkar.
“I greet you, Honored Eska and your tribe. Will you stay with ours and hunt and eat for a day?”
“We have a day to spare. And we would greatly enjoy the break, Honored Orelighn. Only—our Waisrabbits might infest your fields.”
The [Chieftain] sighed.
“It would not be the worst calamity to befall us of late. Better Waisrabbits than Crelers—one would be welcome since the other would not.”
“Creler eggs in their fields. Ate everything and tunneled up.”
One of the other Gnolls, the young [Stalker Hunter] who’d befriended Inkar, part of the escort for Eska, whispered. Eska’s ears twitched and she turned to glare at the younger Gnoll. The Chieftain of the Greenpaw Tribe sighed again.
“We have precious little to give the Meeting of Tribes. But perhaps—there is hope. That is why I asked for your Human, Eska. Inkar the Traveller, we have heard your name.”
“I have heard your name, Honored Orelighn.”
Inkar bowed in the saddle. The Gnoll smiled, pleased.
“This is good. While your tribe makes camp, Eska, I will show you what we found months ago. This way.”
He beckoned them off. Inkar saw the great migration of the first tribe halt. And they joined the Greenpaws, greeting old friends, howling at each other, insults, jests, and so on.
The herd of animals stopped well short of the Greenpaw’s lands. The vast fields the Gnolls tended looked hardly poor to Inkar—but food was not always worth much in a world of Skills.
The Greenpaws grew a variety of crops, and a lot of cash crops as well. Sage’s Grass, in a small plot carefully watched for signs of infestation, alchemical herbs—even a small orchard! They had tended this land for generations.
It was a good spot. Foothills and a lake gave the Greenpaws all the water they might need. Still, bad luck was bad luck and their tribe was less than half the size of the Longstalkers. Barely two hundred Gnolls, all told.
Neither tribe was huge. Big tribes could be over a hundred thousand Gnolls. Not in one place; they split up after certain points. But Inkar heard the names of the other large tribes as Eska and Orelighn talked.
“One hears the Silverfangs are waiting for the thousands they sent to Liscor. They have yet to declare they formally arrived—which upset the Plains Eye tribe who wanted to settle them.”
“Plains Gnolls becoming City Gnolls. And for what? Their great gift?”
Silverfangs, Plains Eye—if the Silverfangs were a larger tribe, and wealthier, numbering in the tens of thousands—the Plains Eye was one of the largest in all of Izril.
Not that size meant a tribe’s power. It was also reputation, individuals. Deeds.
“Who has arrived? Plains Eye, half of Silverfang?”
“Of note? Woven Bladegrass, still bearing spoils of their conquests. Gaarh Marsh is on the way with many tribes in their company. Weatherfur waits for their [Strategist].”
“Ah. The child on the news. Steelfur?”
“Already there, of course. The Wild Wastes tribe…I have not heard of them. Ekhtouch may be ahead of us. My group will go with yours—we may run into them.”
Both Chieftains rolled their eyes and grimaced. Inkar wanted to know why.
“Small. As small as ours, Inkar. But mighty. They are…difficult. But rich. No doubt they have grand gifts for the other tribes to put ours to shame. I almost hope they move faster than we.”
Eska’s ears flattened, perhaps due to some grudge. As Orelighn led them up the foothills, towards the lake, Inkar saw him turn with his walking staff to Eska.
“I hope, Eska, that our tribes can work together. I would be grateful. And my tribe has not forgotten your generosity before.”
It was careful wording. Politics among Gnolls already. Eska had told Inkar that the Meeting of Tribes was the most political event of their species. Now—Inkar saw Eska hesitate before ducking her head.
“…Of course, Orelighn. I will speak for the Greenpaw Tribe and we will combine our fortunes and dismays.”
He reached out and clasped her arm.
“You are generous. And we will not be the paw that drags you into muck, Eska. Come, come and see. I thought it strange and my [Shamans] did not know what omen it signaled. Now—I think it is of the same thing Inkarr is. Come. It was an ill day when we saw the tragedy.”
Inkar and Eska exchanged puzzled looks. There was nothing odd about the area they were climbing, towards the secluded lake. Gnolls apparently fished there for food, but Orelighn took them a bit west. Higher.
The lake was secluded in a small basin, the Greenpaw’s guarded lands. Now—he took them to the edge of that point. His voice grew solemn. Pained.
“It came down like the wrath of an [Archmage] in the night. Fire—it nearly burned down the entire forest. Our [Shamans] barely contained the flames.”
He led them past burned trees. The hair on Inkar’s arms stirred. She saw something, ahead of them. A valley of destruction. A flash of—
She stopped. A metallic flash. And then—the Chieftain led her forwards and Eska gasped.
“What is this? Inkar—do you see it? Ink—”
She looked back. The young woman had dismounted from her horse and fallen to her knees. Orelighn bowed his head.
Inkar stared without sound at the piece of the airplane which had crashed here. A broken, burned hull of metal.
Barely half of it. The rear half and part of a wing. Orelighn looked at her.
“…It fell two months ago. We found the bodies within. They did not suffer, I think. We have laid them to rest in our grounds. I will show you, if you wish it.”
The Chieftain saw Inkar’s drained face. He turned to Eska, who had dismounted as well.
“We have found many artifacts. Most—broken. We paid for scrolls of [Repair]. It is an ill thing to take from the dead—but.”
They were desperate. The [Chieftain]’s guilt was plain.
“Also—there were so few…”
“Few? Were there any—how—”
Inkar was on her feet, stumbling towards the wreck. Eska called out, but Orelighn stopped her.
“It is safe, but for the jagged metal. Inkar—”
The plane was burned. Seats destroyed. Plastic melted. Overhead bins ash. But—it was a passenger plane. A large one.
Inkar stared at the seats. Orelighn walked over, solemnly.
“That…is the strange thing, no? I see what this is. Some great vessel of transport. Odd—”
“It was meant to fly.”
Orelighn’s eyes widened at Eska’s words. She was staring around, color drained from behind her fur. She looked at Inkar, and now—she believed fully. The others would have to see this, the [Shaman] at least. The male Chieftain nodded slowly.
“I might believe it. You see—the materials are like nothing we have seen. The steel strong, for all it was destroyed. See—this?”
He touched something on the headrest. Inkar started. There were no…bodies. The Gnolls had buried them. But the broken headrest was mounted with something she knew.
One of those in-flight monitors. You could play games on them…this one was burned beyond salvation. It broke as she tried to pry it loose.
“We have some. More—that we removed. We could not repair them—but there are strange inner workings. More—among the possessions. And a strange thing. There were many…containers. Clothing. Strange things. Money—books. We have them all in our possession.”
“I must see them.”
The Gnoll nodded.
“There is much. Too many, I think, for the bodies we recovered. We buried four Humans.”
“Only four? For this great craft?”
Eska started. Orelighn nodded.
“That is the mystery. The possessions were enough—even the ones we recovered from the flames—for dozens more. And this is only part of this craft. Perhaps…perhaps the others were lost in the air? But…”
He looked at Inkar. She stood there. And the yawning chasm of uncertainly opened up again. From the mystery of her arrival in this world—she began to realize.
It was far larger than she’d thought. And if she had not been missed, one girl whose family and friends would look for her—
They would notice this. She touched the seat and looked around. Eska gravely met her eyes, then looked at Orelighn and nodded.
Oh yes. They had something to bring to the Meeting of Tribes after all.
More tribes were on the move. The great roads that connected Drake city to city were as populated as their Human counterpart’s. More so, in fact.
The great war with the Guild of Assassins and such hadn’t affected the Drakes of Izril. Indeed—it was something only talked about in certain parts of the society.
General Feesken did not care about Human drama, at least unless they were going to invade them. His army was marching to war.
War—against another Drake city. The damned city of Yoire. It was an ongoing conflict for, oh, the last hundred and twenty years.
This would be the conflict that ended it. He had forty thousand Drake soldiers under his command. Archers, riders, mages—all the standards of his city.
And to seal the deal this time—some ultra-heavy armored [Shock Troopers], a thousand strong, and an enchanted battering ram to break through Yoire’s gates.
They were going to win. So—why in the name of the Ancestor’s balls were they having to wait for a bunch of Gnolls to finish moving down the road?
“We’re an army! General Vollk! General Vollk! Why hasn’t your force given the order to move?”
The angry Feesken turned to an allied commander who’d volunteered fifteen thousand of his soldiers for the victorious battle. The older Vollk, a [General] of his city, lowered the spyglass.
“They’ll be past us in the hour, Feesken.”
“Our tactics revolve around attacking Yoire before they can call for aid! Tell the Gnolls to halt while we move forwards!”
The other [General] ignored Feesken’s fury.
“Our battle plans involve us getting to Yoire intact, Feesken. Not having to retreat and wiping out our forces before they get there. There are six tribes on the march towards their Meeting of the Tribes. They could wipe us out.”
That paused Feesken. He’d fought Gnoll tribes before. They caused trouble when they got near Drake cities. Some were lawful, others traders—others bandits.
“Six tribes? They might have numbers on us, but those are civilians.”
The other [General] snorted.
“You think so? I recognize two tribes among them. Tribe Inknight, Tribe Demas Metal—we bought some new armor from them.”
He gestured to the wave of Gnolls moving across the road. Not just the road; there was a seemingly never-ending stream of the nomads. Feesken hesitated.
“I haven’t heard of them.”
“New tribe. Brand new, as it goes. Their [Chieftain]’s clever. His [Blacksmiths] invented some new alloy based on a metal they dug up. Or old metal—I bet the Dwarves will say they invented it first.”
“Hah. What’s new? And—what in the name of Rhir’s Hells is that?”
His command staff, who’d been watching the procession, stirred. Vollk bared his teeth.
“That is the reason no one’s attacking them. Did I say two tribes? I meant, two lesser tribes. And the Gaarh Marsh tribe. That’s their protector.”
Feesken’s jaw dropped. He saw a massive…thing marching at the center of one of Izril’s most powerful tribes. And they had enough warriors to make the nervous Drake army shuffle back to give them room. In fact—his [Soldiers] were buying hot drinks from one of the tribes! Feesken wasn’t about to reprimand them or order the other tribes off the road.
Not with that colossus of earth marching past him, making the ground shake. It was like a Giant!
But it was no humanoid. Rather, it was far more rotund, a ‘face’ made of plant matter, still growing amid the muck and roots and…
“What is that? A Golem? A…Swamp Golem?”
“There’s no such thing as a Swamp Golem. That is the old world. The Gaarh Marsh tribe—I heard they had one, but I’ve never seen it. It’s no Golem either. Don’t call it names or it might throw something at us. Or turn the ground to muck.”
It was leaving a trail of…growth behind it. Not flowers, not beautiful. But the road itself was sprouting with life. Everything from weeds to flowers to basic grass…the ground even looked softer in its wake.
“You could probably farm that. It’s going to destroy the road, though.”
Vollk commented. Feesken saw the huge, alien head swing towards him. A different intelligence seemed to regard the Drake army.
“We…might want to back up.”
“Back—pull the ranks—”
The Earth Elemental stared at the Drake armies as they moved away from the procession of Gnolls. The Gaarh Marsh tribe marched on, fearlessly, as one of the same protectors of nature as the Treants of the sea moved onwards. They called it the Waning World, the era where magic and great deeds were fewer now, the Gnolls.
But some things remained.
New and old. If the Gaarh Marsh tribe was an exemplar of the old ways—even more than the Plains Eye tribe was, known for their [Shamans], then there were tribes on the cutting edge of things. Who embraced the new.
Silverfang was one of them. The Demas Metal tribe was certainly another. But being a ‘new’ tribe didn’t mean you weren’t traditional.
You could have a newly-founded…traditional tribe. Like the Steelfur Tribe, who were selling to Oteslia. Or their representatives were.
“Two tons of fur. If you don’t want to match our prices, we’ll make the trip to Zeres. Or Manus. Manus always buys.”
Their [Silvertongue Negotiator] threatened one of the [Merchants] as Venaz stopped for a look. The Minotaur was restless. But they were waiting for Yerranola to purge the worst toxins from her system. She’d stopped needing to be sedated, which was something. But the [Healer] had warned she might need pain tonics all her…
To distract himself, the Minotaur had gone for a walk. And he’d come across something unusual in the market.
“Feshi. What is he talking about? Fur?”
There was no sample on display. Feshi, who’d been anxiously preparing to go to the Meeting of Tribes herself, looked up sharply.
“That’s—the Steelfur Tribe. They must be selling their fur.”
Venaz blinked. Then he saw the chainmail the Gnolls guarding their [Negotiator] were wearing wasn’t chainmail at all. It was a steel-cloth! The same grey metal they had on their fur.
“I’ll buy it. I’ll buy it! But can I at least get a discount for working in bulk? The fur’s too heavy for my bags of holding!”
The [Arms Merchant] yelped after a moment of thought. Feshi whispered to Venaz as he drew forwards.
“It’s their Chieftain. He started his tribe himself. Iraz Steelfur, the Chieftain of the Steelfur Tribe. One of the most powerful Chieftains on the continent. A very big traditionalist—we’ll see him at the Meeting of Tribes.”
“You there! No touching! Wait—are you Weatherfur?”
One of the Gnolls guarding the shipment—in a vast Chest of Holding among many other containers—recognized Feshi. She called out a greeting.
“Hello. Weatherfur greets Steelfur! We’re kindred far from home. The Meeting of Tribes awaits.”
“We will see you there. Are you Feshi Weatherfur?”
The Gnoll [Strategist] blushed. But the name made the other Steelfur guards welcome her forwards.
“And this is the Minotaur—Venaz! The one with stubbornness worse than our Chieftain!”
They laughed. Venaz grunted. He was willing to take that if he got to see their armor.
“Did I hear you right? Your Chieftain makes your fur like steel? That’s not like most Skills.”
“It’s a Skill for a Chieftain among Chieftains. And it gives us money to sell it, as well as armor. Care to see, Minotaur Venaz?”
He did indeed. The Minotaur eyed the handful of steel fur and before Feshi could stop him, grabbed it.
The others blinked as the fur failed to dig into his flesh. They laughed.
“Strong hands! You’re not as easily pricked as the Drakes or Humans, eh? But it gets softer under water. Like fur, like steel. The best of both. You can make armor out of it. See?”
One of them removed a steelcloth vest and tossed it at Venaz. It was…heavy. Heavier than leather, but a bit lighter than actual chainmail. He whistled.
“Nice armor. Does it protect as well as steel?”
“It’s a bit weaker. But that’s the tradeoff. And we wear cloth made of our fur on top of our fur.”
“They’re one of the better tribes at fighting. And their fur sells for a lot.”
“So that’s where the steelcloth armor comes from. Damn. Do you sell smaller batches?”
“For a Weatherfur friend? Come to the Meeting of Tribes, Minotaur Venaz! And we’ll have far more to sell than just this!”
The Human [Merchant] looked up enviously. Outsiders were only permitted to the outer region of the Meeting of Tribes unless they had someone to vouch for them. The Meeting of Tribes would see trade as well as festivities and meetings. Venaz nodded to the other Steelfur [Guards]. Feshi sighed.
“I only hope our contribution is enough.”
“You mean, one of the Diamond Swords of Serept and yourself isn’t enough?”
Feshi looked at Venaz and touched the dagger at her side.
“It’s necromancy, Venaz. Some of the tribes won’t like it at all. And if the Plain’s Eye tribe objects…the Steelfur’s Chieftain is a traditionalist. We’ll see.”
Venaz nodded. They would. He was looking forwards to the Meeting of Tribes. It was an event he was glad they’d come to Izril for, even if it was still overshadowed by Yerranola’s sickness. And—there would be more than just powerful Tribes there.
“Every Gnoll of note.”
“Every Plains Gnoll of note, Venaz.”
Feshi corrected him. Venaz nodded.
“So—how many Named Adventurers does that make? How many of the highest-leveled individuals of your species? Who should I hope to see?”
“Up and comers? Perhaps—I’m really hoping to get an auto-graph from the Ruinstrider’s famous Adventurer. Do you know Lehra? Lehra Ruinstrider? Leader of the Named-rank Team?”
The Drake town was on the southwest of the continent. Shielded from the Antinium by Manus—and to the southeast lay the great Walled City of Zeres, the City of Storms.
However, this was a Drake town, and while it had walls, it was not the great bastion other cities were. It was supplied by a local river, as so many cities were, and it was notable for the delicacy of the pottery which—
The [Master Potter]’s wall exploded as a Gnoll went crashing through it. He looked up as the raw clay on his wheel was destroyed by a bit of masonry.
Lehra Ruinstrider got to her feet with a groan. The leader of the Named-rank team, the Stargazer’s Promise, looked around, and then ducked.
Magical bolts of light blew out the other side of the potter’s workspace. He stared as she ran.
“Sorry! Niila, stop shooting spells! You’re going to hit someone!”
“Surrender already, Lehra! Fissival’s Light—after her!”
The Gnoll scrambled out of the shop, hurling back a chunk of stone that nearly brained the angry [High Mage] in pursuit. The second adventurer’s team rushed past the potter.
One of the Drakes, the Captain of the Gold-ranked team, Fissival’s Light, turned to him.
“Bill it to Fissival, sir! We’re in pursuit of a Named-rank criminal—”
She ducked as Lehra hurled another stone and it bounced off the glowing shield around the Drake.
“I’m not a criminal! I found it, fair and square!”
“Fissival had a right to those ruins!”
“Dead gods, you’ve said the same thing for the last year! Let it go, Niila! I—ulp!”
One of the Drakes in Niila’s team tackled the Gnoll. Lehra went down, punching at the [Brawler] with his magic gloves. He was trying to pin her, stop her from using—
“Lehra! There you are!”
Someone cried out. The [Brawler], whose name was Frell, was picked up and hurled over a rooftop. All without the person doing more than looking at him.
“Suxhel! Where were you?”
The Gazer blinked one of her vast eyes as Lehra, her team’s captain and friend, scrambled back to her feet. Both turned as Niila and the other [Mages] opened fire again. Two spells were obliterated as the Gazer caught them with one of her eyes.
“Eating. Did you have to wander off?”
“I was admiring pottery! Niila’s after us! Let’s go—where are the others?”
The rest of Stargazer’s Promise, the Named-rank team who’d earned their status this year—the newest group to achieve the coveted title—skidded around the corner.
A Stitchman with a staff, a rare [Monk] from Pomle. And a female Dwarf from Terandria.
“Niila again? She doesn’t quit!”
“[Reflection Stave]. [Whirling Guard]. Lehra, we’ve got trouble. It’s not just Niila. You know who’s tracked us down. And he’s got—”
Lehra saw the Stitchman, Emper, blocking the magical spells in a blur of motion as his staff glowed.
“Oh no, not—”
“City Watch! Everyone is under arrest!”
The Watch Captain of the town, who still commanded a ‘City Watch’, skidded around the corner with all the [Guards] under his command. Niila hesitated and began to shout her credentials.
“I’m an agent of Fissival! That team is a wanted group in possession of an artifact stolen from the ruins!”
“Shove it up your tail, Niila! Lehra, we have to go! It’s h—”
This time it was the town’s wall that imploded inwards. The Watch Captain turned. Lehra groaned. She saw…a familiar figure standing behind the first giant Golem which had just punched through the walls.
“Lehra Ruinstrider. I have you cornered!”
The Drake bellowed. Niila instantly turned and began blasting at the Drake with her team. Lehra looked around.
“Oh no. He’s brought the battle Golems. Niila—”
The magical spells evaporated on a stronger barrier as the magical Golem returned fire. In this case—bound [Fireball] spells. Everyone went diving for cover as lesser Golems, temporary summoned monsters and the Drake’s constructs advanced into the city.
In the commotion—Lehra, the Gnoll, and Niila found themselves hunkering in the [Potter]’s ruined shop. The Drake [High Mage], a graduate from Fissival’s famed Mage Academy, snarled at her one-time friend and enemy.
She hesitated, but then poked out of cover and shouted.
The high-level spell tore apart a giant Shield Spider’s head and the monster dropped. Niila cursed.
“He’s using the monster collars again! Oh hells—”
She ducked back as lightning crawled through the air. The Drake was shouting, bellowing furiously as he looked for the Captain of the Named Team.
“Lehra Ruinstrider! The Forge of the Star Dragon will be mine! Give me the artifact or I will reduce this town to ash and rubble!”
He meant the artifact Lehra carried. The same one Niila was after. The angry [High Mage], far younger than the old Drake in his robes with his plethora of artifacts, poked her head out to shout at him.
“Lord Dragial, renegade [Astromancer] of Fissival! You are under arrest by order of the Walled City of Magic! My team is here to bring you to—Ancestors!”
A [Shatterbolt] spell vanished as it hit his glowing, black barrier produced by the amulet on his neck. He replied with a torrent of black bolts of flickering magic. They melted through the wall as Lehra grabbed Niila and hurled her to safety, leaving a dangerous magical ooze in their wake. She growled, her eyes, a mix of yellow and brown, a rarity among her kind, furious.
“This is all your fault, Niila! These people could be hurt because you gave our location away!”
The Drake with green-white speckled scales stared at Lehra. Both of them were young. Adventurers. Lehra had a blondish fur, now covered in dust. And she’d just saved her rival’s life, despite Niila chasing her across the continent for the last year. The Drake found her words and shot back.
“My fault! He’s after you! Give me the Blade and I’ll take it back to Fissival!”
“Hah! You can’t even use it! I—”
Thwoom. The spell blasted another part of the shop apart. The two Captains looked at each other. The rest of their teams had turned to confront the crazed Drake, who had been outcast from the Scholarium of Fissival for his crimes. Lehra gritted her teeth.
“This is no time to be arguing! I have to get to the Meeting of Tribes, but not with this kind of trouble on my back! Truce?”
They broke from cover. Dragial, the former Wall Lord of Fissival, hesitated. For all they were enemies—and Niila his student—
He missed her as she distracted him. They were working like a team!
Old friends. They had been on the same team. In his employ, a long time ago. And not long ago. Little more than two years. Two Silver-ranks, one a Gnoll whose tribe specialized in delving into old Ruins. The Ruinstrider Tribe, a minor, small tribe which was now an honored guest among the most famous at the Meeting of Tribes.
All because of the Named Adventurer she had become. But still—one with a bounty on her head from the City of Magic that no other Walled City had ratified. Someone who’d shot from Silver-rank to Named-rank in a year.
And who possessed a key to the fabled Forge of the Star Dragon, an artifact or perhaps treasury of power from the Ancestors of Drakes. Declared the property of Fissival, which Lord Dragial was obsessed with collecting. But it was hers.
Too late, the [Astromancer] realized he’d been tricked! He turned his staff away from Niila, but a fraction too slowly.
Lehra Ruinstrider raised her furry arm into the air. She wore only normal clothing; she hadn’t been prepared for a fight! Her friends, the Gazer, Dwarf, and Stitchman, forced back the monsters to buy her that precious moment.
The artifact was a single vambrace on her arm, a glittering jewel that was black as night with tiny glitters like the celestial bodies in the center. The metal was like silver—but even more advanced than mithril.
An alloy that had broken to nothing. An artifact from a bygone era. A relic-class weapon, or perhaps, so some believed, a clue to greater treasures still. Found from a ruin by the Gnoll—no.
It had chosen her. The [Astromancer] raised his staff, conjuring a Tier 5 spell, but it was too late. Lehra took a breath and shouted the activation phrase.
“In the name of the City of Stars!”
The Gauntlet, known as the Blade of Mershi, glowed. So did the Gnoll. Those watching shielded their eyes.
The [Master Potter] lowered his claws. And in the place where the Gnoll had been—
An armored figure blocked the lance of light coming from Lord Dragial’s staff. Her body was covered in the same starmetal armor. Smooth, segmented armor. And—the headpiece—the tailpiece—
Tailpiece? The Drakes stared at the Gnoll covered in a Drake’s armor. The segmented tail-armor flexed as the nimbus of light faded.
“…Is someone playing music?”
Niila looked around. A Drake felt at his side.
“Whoops. Song crystal. What is—”
“Stargazer’s Promise! To me!”
Lehra hurled a spear that had appeared with the armor. Her team joined her. An odd crew, who had been thrown together by chance, drawn into the conflict by the corrupt Wall Lord of Fissival for the Forge of the Star Dragon—which would throw all of Izril, perhaps the world into chaos if it fell in the wrong hands!
The glowing spear pierced the magical barrier protecting the giant battle golem. Lord Dragial cursed and threw spells at the Gnoll protected by the magical armor. It was the last relic of the Walled City of Stars, a long-lost Drake city. And the gauntlet—the relic of the legendary heroine, Mershi, had called to Lehra by chance that fateful day—
Much to the other’s displeasure.
“Why did it choose you?”
Lord Dragial howled as the Blade of Mershi, contained in the magical gauntlet, manifested a sword and shield.
“I don’t know! Stop bothering me! I have to get to the Meeting of Tribes and you’re not invited!”
The young [Magic Warrior] howled. Her team charged at the fallen Wall Lord as Niila’s team grudgingly backed them up—
It was the story of the continent. There were, of course, lesser stories. [Innkeepers] making spinach quiche and stuff. But the story of the Named-rank team was obviously the tale dominating Issrysil’s south.
You’d have to be…a Human or something to have missed it. And they were heading to the Meeting of Tribes. Just as soon as they beat the Wall Lord back. Again.
Inkar’s tribe received unwelcome…welcome visitors in the night. She was still shaken from the discovery of the crashed plane. She wasn’t ready to look through the possessions of the dead.
It was almost a relief to hear the sentries call out and spot, from afar, another tribe approaching. Many of the Gnolls in both the Greenpaw and Longstalker’s tribe looked up excitedly.
“The Ekhtouch tribe?”
Eska did not look happy. But she instantly ordered them to be given the largest welcome possible. She and the Greenpaw’s Chieftain rose, grumbling.
“What is wrong with them?”
Inkar whispered to her [Stalker] friend, Orreh. The Gnoll looked astonished.
“You—of course you don’t know. Ekhtouch is a powerful tribe. They have less than a thousand, though. Maybe…no, very few. But they are—impressive.”
How so? The answer came striding into camp. Inkar blinked. She saw fast-moving forms loping out of the darkness, illuminated by magical lights, carrying lanterns with flame, both magic and mundane—
Few horses. In fact, the Chieftain who howled a greeting from afar and sped towards Eska and Orelighn was on foot. And she clearly didn’t need a horse.
Inkar stared. Was this some kind of specialized [Runner] class? Or a [Traveller] like hers? But it was a Chieftain! And the rest of the tribe was moving just as fast.
Something else—Inkar stared as the Gnoll drew closer and she realized something.
This Gnoll stood head and shoulders above Eska. And the rest of the Gnolls were similarly tall.
They were giants! Their fur gleamed as they came closer. Each one looked like—
Paragons. Perfect in every respect, the product of both breeding, Skills…the Ekhtouch tribe was known for the superiority of their tribe members. They claimed to be the best at whatever they did, by virtue of heritage. They valued only the best craftsmanship. And their export, along with that skill, was generally marriages into other tribes.
Inkar saw in a moment why Eska and some Gnolls really disliked hanging out with the Ekhtouch tribe. ‘Superior’ was a good way of defining how they dealt with members outside their tribe.
That kind of mentality made Inkar extremely uncomfortable for reasons you needed a history of Earth to explain, but she waited through the introductions that involved a bit of sniffing and greetings between tribes. As all three began to mingle over food, she saw the Ekhtouch seemed reluctant to mingle outside of their tribe.
However, the new smells soon attracted them. The Longstalkers had all of the foods Inkar had shown them how to make on display. A bit of one-upmanship between tribes.
Although…as Inkar bit into her first bite, she decided the freshly-grown produce of the Greenpaw tribe made everything so much better. The Longstalkers had a very carnivorous diet, and Inkar, who wasn’t averse to meat, had craved more leaves in her life much to their amusement.
“Greetings, Longstalker Tribe. Would you allow us to share in your interesting meal?”
One of the Ekhtouch warriors, in his prime, eighteen, but taller than any Gnoll around Inkar, approached their sitting ground. Inkar’s friend, Orreh, instantly stood to greet him. He was extremely attractive, or so Orreh’s body language indicated to Inkar.
“Well met. I am Orreh, [Stalker Hunter] of the Longstalker’s Fang tribe. Whom among the Ekhtouch do we have the honor of meeting?”
The Gnoll nodded to her slightly. He had carmine-red fur, more vibrant than any other Gnoll’s fur in that spectrum Inkar had seen. He also carried a longbow that seemed smaller on his broad back, and a shortsword.
“I am Hunter Ekrinish of the Ekhtouch. The honor is mine, Stalker Orreh. That is to say…a [Peerless Hunter].”
Inkar stirred at the interesting addition to the otherwise standard class. Ekrinish straightened even more.
“Yes. It is a class I have won by my unmatched ability. So named because I have bested every other [Hunter] in a competition of skill that challenged me, yes?”
Orreh’s smile wavered a bit. She looked uncertain whether she should be impressed or dubious at the clear arrogance in the other Gnoll’s voice. Some of the male Gnolls not-quite-glared at the Ekhtouch representative. But with tact, Orreh gestured at the fire and food.
“Our Human friend, she has helped us make these dishes we share with three tribes tonight. We welcome you to our repast. Our tribe is open to yours. Hunter Ekrinish, would you care to share a drink if time allows tonight? A Glass Eye, perhaps?”
He brightened at that. A Glass Eye was one of the Gnollish drinks that were a staple of most Izrilian alcohols, along with the Drake’s potent Firebreath Whiskey. Named after the Plain’s Eye tribe, it was a transparent, deceptively strong drink. If you drank it like water, you’d be on your back before you knew what hit you.
Inkar preferred the Velrusk Claw, lower in alcohol content, purple, thick, savory. More like a mead except less sweet. Very nice to have with snacks.
However, even here the [Peerless Hunter] managed to spoil the mood. He shifted his bow to look at his Chieftain and nodded to Orreh and the others.
“That may be acceptable. However, my Chieftain must first allow us to mingle. Nor shall our exchanging of pleasantries lead to anything else.”
This time Orreh’s ears flattened noticeably. Inkar’s would have done the same if they were capable of it.
“I did not expect that…Hunter Ekrinish.”
He sniffed once, unabashed.
“In our experience, it is wise to be upfront about such things with other tribes. And this is the Human. How are you named?”
“Inkar the Traveller.”
This was a growl from around the fire. Ekrinish regarded Inkar intently. She expected more haughty superiority, but to her surprise, the Gnoll held out a paw to shake and his touch was quite gentle. He smiled widely at her—without teeth.
“An honor to meet you, Inkar. Tribes willing, shall we talk and dance among the gitar-songs tonight, Traveller Inkar? It would be a pleasure and I am sure my Chieftain would allow it.”
He was about to go on, but another Gnoll had spotted Inkar and made his way over. Indeed—there seemed to be an imbalance of how many Gnolls wanted to join Inkar’s eating circle as their Chieftain bade them mingle.
And it was not just curiosity or politeness. Inkar knew flirtation when she saw it—especially when they lined up to offer choice cuts of meat for the fire, or tried to sit directly across from her, where in the way of conversation, they’d be most spoken to.
…The prohibition on interbreeding between tribes to keep their bloodlines pure seemed to have really developed some odd preferences in the Ekhtouch Gnolls. Or the males, at least. At least it brightened Orreh and the others’ moods a bit.
Old Deskie, Eska, the [Shaman], and even Orelighn all nearly laughed themselves to sickness as they saw Inkar fleeing the small mob asking if she wanted to dance. She left the disappointed younger Gnolls behind and hurried over to the fire where they were gathered for sanctuary.
To her relief, the Ekhtouch’s Chieftain wasn’t there. Eska chuckled as Inkar sat down, peeved.
“Ekhtouch, Inkar. What, you do not care for so many Gnolls wagging their tails after you?”
“They do not seem…as sociable as the Greenpaw Tribe, Chieftain. Forgive me if I am offending anyone.”
“You are not.”
Orelighn and some of the veteran Gnolls chuckled approvingly. The Greenpaws were careful to be respectful, but the Ekhtouch clearly rubbed them the wrong way too. Eska just shrugged it off.
“Not all tribes think alike, Inkar. These day we are allies against the foes who could wipe us out. But in the old times—and now—we still argue and fight. The Meeting of Tribes will have some of that. Feuds settled or made. Challenges, arguments, differences of how we should move forwards as a species.”
“Surely the Meeting of Tribes will be peaceful, though.”
“Peace? The Meeting of Tribes is peaceful? Who told you that story, Traveller Inkar?”
Orelighn raised his brows in disbelief. And Inkar realized she’d assumed something wrongly about the Meeting of Tribes. Eska shook her head.
“We have begun wars after a poor Meeting of Tribes. Rarely, but it happens. Crime is outlawed, and the other tribes do prevent infighting, but challenges between Tribes are usual. Each one is a law unto themselves; the fact that more tribes may join in would prevent the fighting, but…”
She shook her head. Inkar was puzzled.
“Isn’t there one tribe who would keep order?”
Her question caused a bit of silence among the Gnolls. After a moment, Eska growled a reply.
“Several…appoint themselves that role, yes. But you mean one tribe to govern others? Oversee? Adjudicate? No. Plain’s Eye is a famous mediator, but it does not rule us.”
“Hrr. It is all self-imposed. For instance, one tribe will no doubt welcome us to the Great Plains. They have made it their role to guard the Great Plains and the Meeting of Tribes—but they chose to. Remember that, Traveller Inkar. The other tribes let them do it because they are powerful and it is not an enjoyable role, however necessary. But that is all.”
Orelighn put in. Then he hesitated.
“…Not that I would ever say as much in front of them. And in truth, they are simply so strong that not even mighty Ekhtouch would cause trouble when—”
The others were nodding, but Deskie growled a faint warning. Orelighn shut up as the tall Chieftain of the Ekhtouch approached.
“Greetings, Honored Orelighn, Honored Eska, Honored Deskie. May I join your fire?”
She named Deskie as the most famous Gnoll of the Longstalker’s tribe. Completely ignoring their [Shaman], who looked a bit put out. Orelighn rose with Eska.
“Our fire is yours, Honored Firrelle.”
The Chieftain sat gracefully. A giant like the others. Her fur was near gold; she had only a single birthmark of brown around her left thigh. Deskie nodded to Inkar as the young woman stared at it.
“May we offer you food, Chieftain Firrelle?”
“I have eaten already. Rather, I come to offer drink and conversation of note.”
It was tradition, signal phrasing. The other Gnolls brightened as she drew flasks of carefully-preserved liquid out and shared them around. She had brought enough for everyone.
“A Chandrarian wine we traded for.”
Deskie chuckled as she accepted it and poured a drink for herself and Inkar. But she was already moving back. The other Gnolls gave the Chieftains room to have a conversation of note.
In other words, politics between the tribes even before the Meeting of Tribes had begun. Inkar had a particular Skill so that even as she moved away with Deskie, who was asking if she found any of the Ekhtouch Gnolls interesting, she heard the three Chieftains talking.
[Gift of Friendship: Keener Hearing]. Inkar’s ears perked up. Firrelle was speaking, and only Gnoll children, those with Skills—or Inkar—would have heard her low voice.
“My ears are sharp, Chieftain Orelighn. Before this Meeting of Tribes—I have heard your tribe found strange metals.”
“Many new metals, Chieftain Firrelle. The Demas Metal tribe has created an alloy of their own. I have less to offer.”
“Even so. Would you consent to show…whatever it is you intend to gift to the Meeting of Tribes to my [Shamans] and [Smiths]? My craftspeople, no more than twenty. To learn from and examine? I would consider it an honor repaid in kind.”
“Perhaps. What is it you offer?”
Deskie was gazing at Inkar with a sharp look. She would no doubt want to know what they said; hence their closer position to the Chieftain’s fire despite being ‘away’. Firrelle murmured as she shared around the wine.
“For the honor of inspecting, perhaps…trading before the Meeting of Tribes? I am aware it is the Greenpaw’s gift. The marriage of six of my tribe might be arranged for such a preemptive honor.”
A murmur of surprise from the other two Chieftains. Inkar’s brows rose. She stopped listening and told Deskie.
“They must think the Greenpaws have some great treasure. Do they?”
The [Magic Spinner] looked at Inkar. The young woman could only nod. Oh yes. Depending on how you used it and if you knew what it was.
“I doubt either Chieftain will accept. Not to sully their gift. Still…Ekhtouch love to make such deals. They will want to increase their prestige as much as possible. They might marry as much as a quarter of their tribe into other tribes.”
“Against their will?”
Deskie flicked a bug off her knee.
“They would enjoy it. Since they are allowed to have children once they marry. Different tribes, Inkar. The Longstalkers and Greenpaws will not cause offense. But neither will we mingle overmuch.”
Inkar nodded. Words of wisdom from the Gnoll over a century old. She didn’t like the Ekhtouch, for all they treated her with unfailing courtesy. They insulted her adopted tribe and friends…it was a mark of their character, for Inkar. But she reserved full judgment for later.
She did do a double-take the next day when she saw Orreh and another of the Ekhtouch tribe were flirting. And emerged from the same tent. Not Ekrinish, but still.
Orreh declined to comment. But the male Gnoll was surrounded, sniffed, and then, apparently, let go because he hadn’t violated the tribe’s rules.
“Not everything makes babies, Inkar.”
The young woman stared at Orreh until the grinning [Stalker] vanished. She didn’t have to hear that. But Orreh was pleased with herself and that was fine.
The second day of marching began with the Ekhtouch tribe, and a small contingent from the Greenpaws. They’d carry the…artifacts into the Meeting of Tribes later; for now it was just Orelighn and some warriors who joined the procession.
The Greenpaws farmed the outskirts of the Great Plains. There was not far to go, now.
The Great Plains of Izril, the last fully Gnoll-controlled lands of the continent, did remind Inkar of home. They were flat.
Not barren. No, far from that. Rain fell across Izril with frequency, unlike dry Chandrar, so it was a grassy landscape that made you want to ride your horse—or drive a vehicle—into the distance at full-speed forever.
So nostalgic it hurt. Right up until everyone ducked and some of the Gnolls loosed bows into the air.
One of the giant apex-predators was flying high overhead. It swerved as arrows struck its scaly hide from hundreds upon hundreds of feet below. They liked to hide in clouds and dive at prey.
The Chieftains scolded the archers, who’d endangered everyone below with the arrows ricocheting downwards. But the Wyvern had clearly decided it wanted solo prey, not an army of Gnolls.
The fourth tribe found the three after only three hours of marching into the morning. Inkar, riding along with Deskie, looked up as she heard a howl break the air.
A shape ahead of them. Inkar stopped. She saw Gnolls look up. They were…cutting apart the dead Wyvern from earlier. Dozens of them, efficiently butchering the monster.
They howled as they saw the other tribe. Then abandoned their kill and streamed across the plains. Like the Ekhtouch Tribe, they moved fast. Unlike them, though, the other three tribes instantly halted.
Eska murmured. Chieftain Firrelle and her tribe murmured.
“Halt! We must greet them properly.”
Something like…apprehension ran through the other tribes. Gnolls were looking up, pointing. Asking—Inkar clearly heard.
Is that them? A famous tribe had arrived. One more famous than even Ekhtouch.
And…dangerous. Inkar felt that in a moment. She saw them loping along, some running on all fours. Fast. Their entire tribe was benefitting from some kind of Skill.
Then she saw what had downed the Wyvern. The [Chieftain] of their tribe was flying at them. Riding some huge…bird?
“What is that? A Griffin?”
“No. Baby Roc.”
Baby? Deskie’s voice made Inkar do a double-take. And it was not the [Chieftain] after all. Rather—it was one of the tribe’s leaders, sent with the hunting team.
They halted a hundred feet distant from the three tribes. Eska, Orelighn, Firrelle, and the [Shamans] stood with the best warriors in a small group. The Roc-rider did not dismount.
“Ekhtouch! Greenpaw! Longstalker’s Fangs! Our tribe greets you! Do you head for the Meeting of Tribes?”
“We do! It is an honor to meet the Great Plain’s guardians!”
Guardians? Deskie looked at Inkar as the Gnoll hopped off the Roc’s back. The giant bird, who was of a size with the Wyvern already, pecked at the ground as if searching for giant worms. Which there were.
“We greet you, Chieftains. I am [Relicbearer Skyhunter] Virreg.”
The Gnoll had a single weapon at his side. Every other Gnoll was staring at it. Inkar had to crane her head to see past them. Why were the Chieftains nodding to this [Warrior] in what looked like deference? [Relicbearer]?
“May I greet your tribes, Chieftains, with the words my Chieftain has ordered us speak to all tribes who come for this Meeting of Tribes?”
The warrior, Virreg, bowed to Eska, Orelighn, and Firrelle. They did not think long before nodding.
The Gnoll mounted the Roc again. The bird spread its wings and uttered a caw that made Inkar’s ears ring. The other Gnolls clapped their paws to their ears. But they looked up as the Gnoll raised his voice, the Gnolls of his tribe behind him.
“Gnolls of three tribes! It is an honor to meet your tribes! My warriors and I will escort you to the gathering and Meeting of Tribes. It is our Chieftain’s oath that no other power will disrupt the Meeting of Tribes! As we have protected this gathering for thousands of years, we will do so without fail!”
“They failed once a thousand years back. But they do a good job.”
Deskie whispered to Inkar. The Gnoll warrior continued.
“My Chieftain has words for all who gather this time! Listen and hear her words!”
Inkar expected a speech. But instead—one of the Gnolls standing behind Virreg raised a staff. And she heard a female Gnoll’s words booming through the air.
The Chieftain of this unknown tribe spoke.
“Gnolls of Izril. You come to the Meeting of Tribes once more. Proof of unity as a single species. Proof of our strength that the other species take lightly.”
Now here was politics. Inkar saw Eska’s gaze flicking uncertainly in the face of the speech she clearly had not expected. But she could do nothing but listen with the other Gnolls. The unknown Chieftain went on.
“They may ignore us. Deride the savages of Izril’s grasslands. Nomads without walls or land they build upon. But they forget—we have always been here. And though they tried to kill us. Drakes. Humans. They failed to. Our tribe is proof of our victories of old! So as you gather, Gnolls of Izril, look upon our history that claimed our land back even when our greatest foe flew the skies.”
On cue, the warriors and Virreg raised their weapons. Inkar saw a strange—pale blade rising. A spear? It glittered, etched—and every Gnoll stared up at it. Inkar thought it looked plain at first. But why…
Why did it catch the eye? Why did she stare at it and see the glitter of the runes, or perhaps words etched into the blade from afar? The spear’s haft…it was a pale, near-white material.
Then she heard the name of the tribe.
“Az’muzarre greets you, Gnolls of Izril. We are guardians of the Great Plains.”
Az—Inkar’s eyes widened. She thought, for a moment, they were referring to Az’kerash, a name she had heard before. But then she remembered.
Az’kerash was a name the Gnolls had given him. And the prefix before Kerash meant, ‘Slayer of Kerash’. So that meant…
Firrelle bellowed the answer as she raised her weapon in reply, lifting it high overhead. She seemed to approve of what had been said, so she howled at her tribe.
“Slayer of Muzarre! Before the Necromancer made the name one of infamy, remember it is just a word to Gnolls. As he is ‘Slayer of Kerash’, the greatest chieftain of his era—we remember the tribe that slew Muzarre the Dragon. Muzarre, the Tyrant of Jewels! The Dragonlord of Earth!”
Virreg lifted the spear higher. The spear—made of a Dragon’s tooth or perhaps bone, flashed in the light.
“Look upon your Ancestor, Drakes.”
That was the tribe of Az’muzarre. Smaller than many of the great tribes. Equal for history alone. And the weapons they still carried.
Eleven weapons, forged of a Dragon’s tooth or bone remained. The rest lost to time. Four suits of hide and pieces of armor. Dragon’s hide and bone.
This was the tribe that had gone to war, rallying the others when the Antinium tried to breach the heart of the Great Plains of Izril and pushed back the Black Tide. Guardians, officiators of this moment in time. They led the way, pointing towards smoke on the horizon. Not destruction, but countless campfires. A vast gathering that was visible even from far away.
The Meeting of Tribes. It was already vast—larger than many Drake cities. And countless more Tribes had yet to arrive.
So they gathered. And those were only a few among the many. Other tribes came from the coasts and sea, like the Saltfur tribe, whose people sometimes became [Pirates] or [Sailors]. A few had roamed abroad, or called back individuals like Feshi to the Meeting of Tribes.
Some were tribes turned to war, like the Woven Bladegrass tribe. Others, peaceful groups like Greenpaw.
Vast tribes like the Wild Wastes tribe, who produced [Barbarians] who fought with murderous rage. Tribes who had libraries of books like the Inknight tribe. Groups whose entire reputation was wrapped up in an individual, like the Ruinstrider Tribe.
Each one with a different agenda. For instance—word had spread among them of a danger that might come for the Meeting of Tribes. Or simply one left alive.
A furry finger pointed. The playback stopped. The [Shaman] of this tribe pointed. And the Chieftain growled.
He had been watching one of the broadcasts put on by Wistram News Network. From a Walled City, but it covered all kinds of events.
Like…a certain broadcast by the [Popstar] of Terandria. And shortly following that, an imitation of the performance by the Players of Celum.
That wasn’t important. Or rather—it was so distracting that most missed what had attracted these two Gnolls’ attention. The replay slowed on one of Wistram’s fancy scrying orbs they were selling almost at a loss, which could stop the projection, replay, spy…
The [Shaman] had fixed that. Now, he poked at the controls until it stopped on a frame in the entire event. The view panned across a guitarist encased in armor with a helmet on his head, shooting lightning from the strings. A singing Drake, a Human on the drums, across the crowd.
And there it was. A little Gnoll, caught mid-rave, waving her paws and dancing. Nothing odd about that.
But her fur was white. The Chieftain looked at the [Shaman].
“Yes, Chieftain. I thought you should see it. What would you like to do?”
“Send a group to kill it.”
The words were out of the Chieftain’s mouth and the [Shaman] nodding even before he had spoken. Of course. One could not allow such evil Gnolls to live. City Gnolls had surely ignored the warnings. But doom would fall upon them time and time again.
And the Plain’s Eye tribe knew their history.
Erin Solstice then, sat in the Garden of Sanctuary with Krshia, Lyonette, and Mrsha. Others were listening in of course. A Hobgoblin sat in a tree. Apista was buzzing around, collecting nectar for her honey.
“It’s dangerous, isn’t it? Especially for Mrsha?”
“That…may be so.”
“Then she isn’t going.”
Krshia looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] possessively held Mrsha tight.
“We’ve talked about this, Krshia. Doom—white Gnolls—are targeted by other tribes just for the color of their fur! Mrsha wouldn’t be safe!”
“My tribe would protect her. And I would place her under the protection of the Meeting of Tribes. Many would not like it. But powerful tribes would not see a child killed for the color of her fur.”
“But other tribes would want to.”
Krshia sipped from her teacup. She looked…prepared for this argument. She glanced at Mrsha as the Gnoll rooted around in the grass—she was checking for bugs. People might be infecting her perfect sanctuary with their stupid bug-eggs on their boots or something! But she was only doing that so she could pretend not to listen fully…
While listening fully. Mrsha dug at some grass as she listened.
“We need Mrsha, Erin, Lyonette. For two reasons. Because she has magic—”
“She’s not the only one. Take Ferkr! Everyone was talking about how Mrsha was the only Gnoll to become a [Mage]—well, Ferkr managed it! Sort of makes it less amazing, right?”
Erin pointed out. Krshia grumbled in the back of her throat.
“—That was unexpected. Unprecedented. It does take away from the discovery, but it just adds to the worth of what we will bring. Erin, Lyonette, we have done much for you two. I would ask you to think of that—”
“And I blew up your shop. But Ryoka brought the spellbook which exceeds the damage I did. Don’t play the debt-game, Krshia. Erin helped kill the Raskghar for you. She’s saved Liscor multiple times over!”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper]-[Councilwoman] nodded slowly.
“That is so. However—there is another reason for Mrsha to attend the Meeting of Tribes.”
“To prove she does not deserve to die. Nor her kind. I would like to put her before the other tribes and argue that Doombringers are not…Doombringers. That they should not be killed or exiled! And I would like you to come, Erin Solstice, to see if other tribes know of why you arrived.”
Erin’s eyes flickered. That conversation seemed like an age ago. When she was still searching for an Archmage to take her home.
“A lot’s changed, Krshia. I’m on Lyonette’s side here. I don’t want Mrsha in harm’s way.”
“As opposed to here?”
The Gnoll’s eyebrows rose politely. Erin shifted in her seat. Lyonette just glared.
“The [Garden of Sanctuary] is here. Not at the Meeting of Tribes.”
“I have several safeguards in mind. Before you bite me, Lyonette, hear me out. I do not propose you trust to Silverfang’s watchfulness alone. Firstly—I suggest this. When I leave for the Meeting of Tribes, I will leave here with Tkrn, some Gnolls of the Silverfang tribe…and no Mrsha.”
Erin blinked, caught off-guard by this. Krshia went on.
“She need not be there for the opening of the Meeting of Tribes. Just a few days out of the event. You will still have to make the journey, but not stay the entire time. And when she comes—it will be with Erin Solstice, whom I shall invite as a trusted friend of the tribe. Lyonette as well if she can come. And at least one team of adventurers. The Halfseekers, I think, would be excellent guardians, don’t you?”
“Erin! Don’t be swayed so easily!”
The [Princess] snapped. Krshia raised her paws.
“Even another tribe would be hard-pressed to get past a Gold-rank team as dedicated to Mrsha’s safety as the Halfseekers, Lyonette, yes? If that does not satisfy you—Silverfang will hire two teams. Griffon Hunt. The Horns. Another? Three teams? How many will satisfy? And that is not my only offer for Mrsha’s safety either.”
She looked mildly exasperated. The protective mother looked around for Mrsha.
“I have a plan I should have thought of months ago. Something perfect. Mrsha? Come here.”
The Gnoll somersaulted over to Krshia and stopped, dizzy. The Gnoll produced something from her belt pouch.
“It was a thought. I did not think it would work since…well, white fur was not her natural color. But what if…”
She uncorked the vial and Mrsha started sneezing. Erin felt the tang of a very strong dye in the air. She blinked.
“Wait a moment. Do you mean…?”
Mrsha stared at the brown vial. Then at Krshia. Then at the idea spreading across the other’s faces. She got the simple idea too.
She ran for it. They chased her, but Mrsha refused. No! She was Mrsha the White! Wielder of the Erin’s Fire! Guardian of the Inn—they would not—
Kevin had been telling her Lord of the Rings stories. But the Gnoll couldn’t escape the Garden with Erin blocking the door. And after a basin of water, a thrashing Gnoll who ruined everyone’s clothing—
A brown Gnoll emerged from the [Garden of Sanctuary] half an hour later. Little Ekirra, who’d been waiting for her, ran up, inhaled the still-strong fumes of dye, and began sneezing. Then he stared at Mrsha, who wore a shade of brown similar to her original colors.
“Mrsha? You’re brown!”
Yeah? And you’re smelly. Mrsha shot back. She was in a bad mood. The dye wouldn’t come off no matter how much she rolled about in the grass.
“You see? Precautions and precautions. It will wear off—especially with water and soap. But I will take every effort.”
“Why does she have to be there?”
Lyonette watched as Visma walked over, stroking at Mrsha’s fur as the Gnoll girl complained about the tyranny of adults. Krshia sighed.
“She must, Lyonette, because the tribes must see her. Many are too set in the old ways. They will never accept my word—a City Gnoll’s, they will say—that a Doombringer is not a bringer of calamity. Also…”
She lowered her voice.
“…I think it will protect Mrsha in the future.”
The [Princess]’ head snapped back around.
“No Tribe will allow Mrsha to live who follows the old ways. They will try again and again. Just because she is she. By bringing her to the Meeting of Tribes, I may force the tribes to agree. Otherwise, news of Mrsha shall surely spread. I fear it may have already.”
Lyonette’s eyes flickered uncertainly. She wasn’t convinced by many of Krshia’s arguments, most of which had their roots in her tribe’s prestige and power at the Meeting of Tribes. But that—that had an uncomfortable ring of truth to it.
“You don’t know if you’d succeed, though, Krshia. And if you fail—”
The Gnoll bared her teeth at Lyonette.
“I must succeed. Which is why Erin Solstice will be there. Call her…a weapon even the greatest tribes may not guard against, yes?”
Lyonette’s smile was unwilling, but it was there. Erin Solstice was a fine sneak attack weapon. Especially since the [Innkeeper] didn’t know what she’d do half the time.
“I still don’t like it.”
“I know you do not. But I have prepared more arguments. Mrsha’s safety is only the first thing I must convince you of. Let us sit, eat, drink more tea. And I will convince you fully. Or did you think I would trust this great event to a bit of dye and promises made? There are…other reasons.”
Something about the way she said that made Lyonette hesitate. She ducked back into the [Garden] as a half-dyed Erin stomped out, grumbling.
“Keep laughing, Numbtongue! I’ll dye you as well! I need a bath! Silveran, can you help me get the bathing area ready? And…soap. I need soap.”
Mrsha stuck out her tongue at Erin. The [Innkeeper] returned the gesture then noticed people were staring at her.
“Miss Solstice—the tournament!”
The others complained at their chess games. Erin had forgotten they were about that. And the final game awaited. She snapped her fingers.
“Darn. But I’m all dyed! Maybe…I can soak in the tub and play chess since it’s just the magical chessboard? By myself.”
“Maybe Miss Octavia has a dye-remover?”
The inn moved around the [Innkeeper]. Inside the garden, the [Princess] and Gnoll woman locked gazes. They appraised each other.
They were friends. But this was an issue neither could agree on. Lyonette was Mrsha’s mother. Krshia, despite everything, was still thinking of her tribe. And this was a project ten years in the making.
Ambition was something both understood. Still.
“If it was the choice between putting Mrsha in danger with a one in a ten thousand chance of her getting hurt and not doing it, I’d never do it, Krshia. Even if it made the Silverfang tribe the most powerful in all of Izril.”
Krshia blew out her cheeks.
“I will convince you, Lyonette. There are many reasons why she must come.”
“Name another one, then.”
“There are more of the Stone Spears tribes. Children, who may have white fur like Mrsha.”
Lyonette’s fingers slipped on her cup. She looked at Krshia, shocked.
“…They’re all dead. Ryoka—”
“Ryoka saw them die. And their tribe was wiped out. But I have heard that Zel Shivertail rescued some from the Goblin Lord’s army. They were given to the care of the cities he represented. Not Gnoll tribes. Especially if…they had white fur.”
“That doesn’t need Mrsha.”
“They are Doombringers. So is she. To overturn the tribes’ fear of them…”
“Enough. Fine. You’ve made your point. That doesn’t change my opinion at all.”
Lyonette lied, uncertain. Someone had to find those poor children. If they were in danger…
It was good Mrsha could not hear this. Krshia nodded gravely. They sat on the hilltop, making sure no door to the inn appeared and no playing little brown Gnoll or her friends could listen in.
In that, they were smart. But they’d forgotten about the Hobgoblin, who’d paused on his way out of the garden.
“I have more reasons. Things to prod you with, at least. They might not all have my desired effect. Still…there is another reason for Erin to come.”
“You can have Erin. Getting her out of the inn is your challenge, though.”
“Mm. Well, she might come. I have heard there is a Human one of the Tribes had found who is a stranger. And another speaks of a Human that fell out of the sky. Dead, attached to some strange seat made of materials they had never seen before.”
Lyonette’s eyes flickered. Airplane.
“Erin, Ryoka, Kevin, Rose—they can go. With teams of adventurers guarding them. Mrsha—”
“What if we introduced her to Chieftains of tribes I know would listen, first? And you would be there—we would have at least twenty, fifty tribes guaranteeing her protection before we brought it to all tribes in person.”
Exasperated, Krshia snapped her knee with a paw.
“She must be there, Lyonette! Gnolls are a literal people. To prove she is a child, not one carrying malice and ill-luck, they must see her! And they will, I am sure of it.”
She eyed Lyonette.
“You were more receptive to this before, Lyonette. You gave me assurances.”
“That was before…this is too sudden.”
Krshia snorted out her nose.
“The Meeting of Tribes has been underway. You have known I wanted to take Mrsha. You wish another reason? Fine…at the Meeting of Tribes, the Silverfang’s [Shaman] will certainly formally let you adopt Mrsha as your child.”
“She is my child!”
“I am aware. Peace. But this would make it official, especially in the eyes of all Gnoll tribes.”
“Why? Her family is dead! I took her in, cared for her—”
Lyonette was furious. But then she saw the flicker in Krshia’s gaze.
The Gnoll turned her head.
“Krshia Silverfang. What do you know? Mrsha’s family is dead. Her parents were…[Miners]? Hunters? The entire Stone Spears tribe was wiped out. I know all the adults died, even if the children…”
The Gnoll wasn’t meeting Lyonette’s gaze. But she’d let too much slip.
“…It was not easy to find out. But other Gnolls who knew the Stone Spears tribe told me that when Mrsha was born, her…parents disowned her when they found out she did not speak. They wanted to abandon her. For their unworthiness, Urksh, the Chieftain of the Stone Spears tribe, exiled both and took Mrsha into the tribe to raise. They were gone long before the Goblin Lord’s army.”
Lyonette looked around for Mrsha. But the door was closed. She relaxed. Again—without looking for the right listeners. Numbtongue crawled up the side of the hill. Reiss stared at him and sat, invisible, right next to them.
“That—is just another reason for Mrsha not to go, then. Too much danger. And the Raskghar. Yes! I know you’ll bring them, won’t you?”
“In my group. Which is not the one Mrsha will be part of.”
Lyonette was shaking her head.
“No. No. Not within a hundred miles of those things. Not even if you need her to convince the tribes. Do it with words! Do it without her! I’ll find another Gnoll [Shaman] if I want to do your ceremony. And I don’t need to! She is my daughter. And no rites will change that!”
She turned and faced Krshia defiantly. The Silverfang Gnoll exhaled slowly.
“Lyonette du Marquin. You claim her as your daughter. But, I think, you are not thinking of Mrsha’s future.”
“How dare you—”
“Someday, she will grow and want to know her kind. If she is a Doombringer forever—and I have never heard of any regaining their color—she will have to live in fear, hide her nature. The Meeting of Tribes will not come again for decades. I love Mrsha. I want to change our traditions for her.”
The two looked at each other. Lyonette’s arms were folded, Krshia’s brows were set. She sniffed the air—then set down her cup.
“If you will not listen, perhaps Mrsha herself should decide. With all these factors in play—does she have no will?”
“She’s a child. Don’t you dare tell her!”
“By the Silverfang tribe. I will not.”
“Doombringers. So that lies at the heart of the Gnoll’s fear of white fur, eh? Well, I’ve seen actual bad luck in my Gambler of Fates. She could use up our luck for a month. Cause calamity—or bring great fortune. If a Doombringer brings doom, where is all the good luck?”
Flos Reimarch’s questions had no answer. Not from the Gnoll [Chieftains] he was speaking to. The King of Destruction ran a hand through his hair, frustrated.
“The Meeting of Tribes. I hoped to make it to the last one! And here is another I’ll miss! The Gnoll people of Izril are not familiar to me. I had hoped to gain their aid as I took the battle to Izril. And here they are, gathered. Powerful tribes, eh?”
“Some could match a Walled City’s might, King of Destruction.”
One of the [Shamans] murmured. Flos snapped his fingers.
“Then one of you must return to Izril. Posthaste! Or—send word to your allies! If any would fight for material things like land, or a cause—tell them I would be their ally. A dangerous one, to be sure. But I will give…Medain…to the Gnolls. Yes, and the Claiven Earth once I conquer it. That is a [King]’s promise. Conditional on my victory!”
He laughed. The Gnolls stared at him, but had he not already given them Hellios’ land? Already, they were looking at a castle in progress to defend their home ere he fell. They might have to defend what they had been given.
But that was how it worked. And Chandrar was such a vast place. A tantalizing offer.
Similarly, Wall Lord Ilvriss was musing about land and Gnolls in the same way. He was going down a list of his holdings with his trusted second, Alrric.
“You’re a City Gnoll, Alrric. But do you think if I signed a contract forfeiting, say, Culondun Forest in perpetuity, it might turn some Gnoll’s heads?”
“If you had the entire forest? It might among some tribes, Wall Lord. But most distrust Drake contracts.”
Ilvriss had had the same thought Flos Reimarch did. After the disaster on Rhir with the Death of Magic…which was taking more reinforcements away from Izril to fight the Demons, damn it all, he had looked for more powerful allies among Izril.
And thought of Gnolls. The Wall Lord drummed his claws on the table. He had a list of the Tribes, each one with a unique type of warrior at their disposal. The question was—loyalty and motivation. Price was hardly an object.
“Would you consider going to the Meeting of Tribes as my representative, Alrric?”
The Gnoll [Administrator] jumped. He nearly dropped the papers. Ilvriss eyed the curious reaction.
“I—would not be welcome, Wall Lord.”
“Even as a representative of…? No, it’s a silly thought. You’re married. What am I thinking? My apologies.”
“Nothing of it, Wall Lord.”
Alrric exhaled slowly as Ilvriss went back to planning. He wondered where…the Wanderer was right now. Close, he hoped. As for the Meeting of Tribes?
Damn the Meeting of Tribes and Gnolls stroking each other’s tails and talking about their glory days. Alrric only hoped the Wall Lord didn’t reach out to the more radical tribes. If they accepted, it would make his life—and those of his people—a lot harder in Salazsar. The tribes were a shadow of their glorious past, but what race didn’t have their glory days long ago?
They were still dangerous.
Other groups planned for the Meeting of Tribes. Az’kerash. Wistram. Even the Walled Cities, among other forces, took note of this moment.
A lot could happen there. Niers Astoragon’s students would be present. Representatives hoping to use or coerce the favor of other tribes.
People to trade, learn, or just sell goods. Humble merchants.
Travellers from Earth.
Even warriors from distant Rhir, like the Gnoll who had taken his first step on his homeland and fought in the company of friends from every species on 5th Wall.
First Warrior Merish, followed by a hopping little Lizardman with a peg leg and a staff. Returning to his tribe and home.
Erin Solstice blankly sat for a moment, having finished getting the dye off her skin. In a moment she’d get back to the hotly-contested chess tournament, which was deciding the runners-up as the final game awaited.
Still. She had promised to go to Ryoka’s party—and still had no word on Ryoka Griffin other than that she was alive. She had not woken up.
After that? After that—Erin sighed. She looked around her inn. The steamy bath room aside—Snapjaw half-dozing in a hot-tub with a floating bowl of peanuts in the water over the controlled flames—her inn was a protective shell.
Like a hermit crab, the [Innkeeper] had crawled in here one day, blown up her inn, rebuilt it, blown it up—
But it was her home. She did not leave it. She had been in Celum, and that was an ordeal in itself that she had taken a long time to get back from. She went to other cities via her magic door…but a journey that far? Erin Solstice sighed.
“…I might as well get coffee while I’m at it.”
Snapjaw smacked her lips. Erin Solstice sat back and luxuriated in the heat for a moment. Wheels. Kevin made wheels.
It was just a thought. But it became a certainty. Uh oh. There was no taking it back.
“…I wonder if I can make a mini-inn on wheels or something?”
She was going to the Meeting of Tribes.
Author’s Note: For once, a short chapter! A…very short chapter! If 15,000 words has let you down, I deeply apologize.
But I’m out of energy. Super-out. This month of November has been insane. I can say that, right? Big chapters, big events…
One more month for the year! I’ll be back, don’t worry! Recharged! Ready to write! In the meantime, do vote on the side story coming back! I can’t promise I’ll be able to offer it again, especially with the end of Volume 7 so close. It should be up with the chapter. Thanks for reading, and see you next month!
I’m going to snooze. Hopefully not in a hot tub.
Today’s art will be Gresaria, by ArtsyNada, a great tribute to the [Harbormistress] of First Landing! Last, because it fits, Gnolls! Specifically Mrsha, in a…Santa costume by Brack, and a super-hungry and evil one by Plushie. Thanks so much!
Gresaria Wellfar by ArtsyNada!
Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg
Mrsha, CutleryYvlon, BreadFierre and more by Brack!
Hungry Mrsha, Evil Mrsha, and Cutlery…Yvlon…by Plushie!
Commission info: https://trello.com/b/VsAcpMBu/bobo-plushie-commissions-page